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"Are you getting a cold, dear?"
Stifling a sneeze, Marci Clay continued to wash the china plates by hand as Edith Shaw, her new sister-in-law's Lighthouse Lane neighbor, bustled in from The Devon Rose's dining room with another tray of glasses. It had taken them all afternoon and into the early evening to put the tearoom back in order after yesterday afternoon's wedding reception.
"I hope not."
"You've been working too hard since you've been here." Edith tut-tutted as she slid the tray onto the stainless-steel food-prep station in the middle of the kitchen. "It was a very generous gesture, offering to manage the tearoom while Heather and J.C. are on their honeymoon. But that's a lot to take on with very little preparation."
In hindsight, Marci had to admit Edith was right. Given her meager cash reserves, however, it had been the best wedding gift she'd been able to offer. Volunteering to keep Heather's tearoom running during their absence had allowed her brother and his bride to take a longer honeymoon—a gift they'd assured her was priceless. And with her just-earned diploma in hand and no job yet lined up, she had the time.
She'd also assumed her years of waitressing experience would be a sufficient background for the duties at The Devon Rose. But during her indoctrination last week under Heather's tutelage, she'd quickly realized that the world of high tea and Ronnie's Diner were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The only thing that had kept her from panicking was Edith's willingness to help—plus the invaluable support of Heather's capable assistant, Julie Watson. Knowing she could count on those two women to back her up,Marci had convinced herself she could pull this off.
What she hadn't counted on was getting a cold.
"Having a few second thoughts?"
At Edith's question, Marci regarded the older woman. Her short contemporary hairstyle might feature silvery gray locks, but she radiated youthful energy, and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm—and insight.
"Maybe." Marci shoved a springy curl out of her eye with the back of her wet hand. "I've done a lot of waitressing, and I'm a decent cook, but this is a really high-class operation. I feel a little out of my league among all this linen and fine china and sterling silver."
"Join the club." Edith chuckled and planted her hands on her ample hips. "I'm more of a chilidog-and-French-fry gal myself. And I'm sure Emily Post or Miss Manners would have a field day critiquing my table etiquette. But if I can get the hang of this tea thing, you can, too."
"I appreciate the encouragement." The words came out scratchy as Marci continued to work her way through the pile of plates.
"Goodness!" Edith gave a sympathetic shake of her head. "I hate to say it, but that sounds like the beginning of a cold to me."
"I think I'm just tired." She'd been working extra hours at Ronnie's to build up her anemic savings account, had stayed up late and consumed far too much caffeine studying for finals and finishing term papers, then had rushed off to Nan-tucket to learn the ropes at The Devon Rose and participate in all the wedding festivities.
The walk home in the rain last night from the restaurant hadn't helped, either. She should never have indulged in that pity party—nor let regrets about her own bad choices overshadow her joy in J.C.'s well-deserved happiness.
"I'll tell you what." Edith surveyed the kitchen. "We've got most of the mess cleaned up. The tearoom's closed tomorrow and Tuesday, so there's nothing urgent that needs to be done today. Why don't you turn in and let me finish up? It's better to throw off a cold early than to run yourself down and end up sicker."
That was true, Marci conceded. Besides, she was feeling more lethargic by the minute.
"If you're sure you don't mind, I think I will."
"Of course I don't mind." Edith shooed her away from the dishwasher and pushed up the sleeves of her I ♥ Nantucket sweatshirt. "Heather's been like a daughter to me, and with her married to J.C. now, that makes you family. And families help each other out."
Not all families, Marci amended in silence as she thanked Edith and headed upstairs. Hers hadn't been anything like that. Except for J.C, who'd stuck by his brother and sister even through the dark times, despite their efforts to push him away.
Now, thanks to him, she and Nathan had gotten their acts together. But they both had a lot to make up for on the one-for-all, all-for-one front. That's why she was determined to follow through on her commitment to keep The Devon Rose running during J.C. and Heather's absence.
Crawling into bed, Marci pulled the covers up to her chin, closed her eyes and hoped that whatever bug was trying to establish a toehold would give up and retreat.
"Thanks for stopping by, Christopher. Sorry to interrupt your holiday weekend."
Christopher frowned as he followed Edith to the front door of her house. What holiday?
Then it dawned on him. This was Memorial Day, a time of fun—and rest—for most people. For him, it was just another workday.
"No problem, Edith. I needed to come into town anyway to visit a few patients in the hospital. And I'm on duty in the E.R. later."
"Don't you ever take a day off?"
He smiled. "Now and then."
Shaking her head, she stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. "You know what they say about all work and no play."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"You do that. Anyway, I hated to call you, but Kate worries so much about Maddie that I get paranoid over even the slightest sniffle when I'm babysitting the girls."
After his numerous visits to Kate's small cottage, which was tucked between Edith's house and The Devon Rose, Christopher was well aware of the charter-fishing captain's worries about her daughter. "It's better to err on the side of caution with asthma. I'm glad it was a false alarm." Shifting his black medical bag from one hand to the other, he checked his watch. "I'd better be off if I want to get to the E.R. on time."
To his surprise, Edith didn't budge. "I hate to delay you any further, but I'm a little concerned about Heather's new sister-in-law."
"Heather Anderson? From The Devon Rose?" He saw the tearoom owner regularly at church, though they weren't well acquainted.
"She got married this weekend, didn't she?"
"Yes. A small, intimate wedding. Very romantic."
"What's the problem with her sister-in-law?"
"I hope nothing. She's supposed to manage the tearoom while Heather and J.C. are in Europe on their honeymoon, but yesterday she seemed to be getting sick. If she's still feeling under the weather, would you mind popping in before you head to the hospital? I could rustle up a loaf of pumpkin bread for you to sweeten the deal."
Christopher grinned. "Sold."
Her eyes twinkling, Edith waved him to a chair. "Give me one minute while I ring her."
The minute stretched to five, and when Edith returned with a plastic-wrapped loaf of pumpkin bread in hand, her face was etched with concern.
"She sounds terrible. But she said asking you to stop by is too much of an imposition and not to bother."
"As you pointed out, I'm here anyway. It's no bother." Christopher picked up his bag from the chair in Edith's foyer.
"I couldn't convince her of that. But between you and me, I suspect her reluctance is more related to finances than inconvenience. According to J.C, she's been pinching pennies to put herself through school. Plus, she may not have much, if any, insurance."
"I'm running a special today. Buy one house call, get one free." He winked at Edith. "At least that will be my story when I show up at her door. What's her name?"
"Marci Clay." Edith twisted the knob and stepped aside to allow him to pass. "She's a very nice person. Pretty, too. I'm surprised she's not married."
An odd nuance in Edith's inflection put Christopher on alert, but when he paused on the porch and turned, her expression was guileless. Must have been his imagination.
"Call me if you have any more concerns about Maddie."
"I'll do that. But at the moment, I'm more worried about Marci."
"I'll check her out."
A tiny smile tugged at the corners of Edith's mouth as she handed him the pumpkin bread. "Sounds like a plan. Enjoy the treat."
She closed the door with a soft click—but not before he caught a suspicious gleam in her eyes. And that was not his imagination.
But it didn't matter.
Because no matter how nice or how pretty Marci Clay was, he wasn't interested.
Maybe someday he'd test the waters of romance again. Maybe. But during his two years living on Nantucket, he'd steered clear of all eligible women. And he didn't intend to change course anytime in the near future.
No matter what Edith might be planning.
As the doorbell chimed for the third time, Marci groaned and rolled over.
She wanted to shout out that order, but her throat hurt too much to talk, let alone yell. It felt as if someone had taken sandpaper to it. Besides, whoever was at the door probably wouldn't hear her from her second-floor bedroom even if she could holler at full volume.
She'd fallen back asleep immediately after Edith's phone call, so she had no clue how much time had elapsed. But based on the angle of the sun slanting through the sheer curtains, it was still early.
Too early for visitors.
Except this one didn't seem to realize that, she concluded wearily as the bell chimed again. Nor did her persistent caller appear to have any intention of going away.
With a resigned sigh, she swung her legs to the floor and snagged the ratty velour bathrobe that had wrapped her in its fleecy warmth and comforted her through many a cold, lonely Chicago evening. Shrugging into it, she shuffled down the hall on unsteady legs and took the stairs one at a time, clinging to the banister.
Whoever had parked a finger against the doorbell was going to get an earful, she resolved, gritting her teeth.
Flipping the deadbolt, she tugged on the door and opened her mouth, prepared to give her visitor a piece of her mind.
But the words died in her throat as she came face-to-face with a tall, thirtyish man holding a black bag.
It was the preppy guy from the restaurant. The one who'd given her the blatant perusal.
She shut her mouth and stared.
He stared back.
When the silence lengthened, he cleared his throat. "Marci Clay?"
She gave a tiny nod.
"I'm Christopher Morgan. Edith called about me stopping by to…uh…check you out." His face grew ruddy, and his Adam's apple bobbed. "She said you weren't feeling well."
The guy who'd ogled her legs was the doctor Edith had offered to send over? A shiver rippled through Marci, and she edged back.
"I'm okay." She tightened her grip on the door and started to ease it closed. No way did she want this jerk anywhere near her.
"You don't look okay."
Given how she felt, she figured that was the understatement of the century.
"I asked Edith to tell you not to bother." The words scraped painfully against her raw throat.
"And I told her this was your lucky day. Two house calls for the price of one." The ghost of a grin tugged at his lips. "You can't pass up a bargain like that."
She gave him a suspicious look. "No one does house calls anymore. Especially for free."
"I do. On occasion." He examined her flushed face. "What's your temperature?"
She lifted one shoulder. "I haven't looked for a thermometer yet."
"I could save you the trouble. I have a disposable one in my bag."
Marci studied the thin blue stripes on his white dress shirt as she debated her next move. She wasn't keen about getting up close and personal with this guy, but if she wanted to fulfill her obligations at The Devon Rose she needed medical attention. And in light of her shaky finances and bare-bones health insurance, free sounded awfully good.
"Look… about Saturday night. I'm sorry I stared."
Surprised he'd broached that subject—and taken aback by the apologetic tone in his baritone voice—she lifted her chin. And noticed several things she'd missed on Saturday. Eyes as blue as the Nantucket sea on a sunny day. Shoulders that looked broad enough to carry the heaviest of loads. A firm chin that conveyed strength and resolve. Light brown hair sprinkled with the merest hint of silver at the temples. And fine lines radiating from the corners of his eyes that spoke of caring and compassion.
Her attitude toward him softened a fraction.
"I want you to know I'm not generally that rude." His gaze held hers, steady and sincere. "My mother raised me to treat women with respect, and I didn't do that Saturday night. Please forgive me."
Was this guy for real? Marci scrutinized him for any sign of deceit, any indication that this was a standard line. And she'd heard plenty of those in her life. But unless this guy was a world-class actor, he meant what he'd said. He truly was sorry. And he hadn't been too proud or arrogant or conceited to admit his mistake.
In other words, he was a gentleman.
Not a species she'd often run across in her world.
The question was, how did one deal with a man like this? She was far more used to tossing sassy comebacks at guys who flirted with her at Ronnie's, where she often spent as much of her shift deflecting advances as she did taking orders and delivering food, than she was to accepting apologies from gentlemen.
"No, it's not. So why not let me make amends? I can check out your temperature, get a little history, maybe figure out what's wrong. Edith tells me you're planning to manage The Devon Rose for the next couple of weeks, and it's obvious you're in no shape to do that right now. Helping get you back on your feet is the least I can do after my faux pas on Saturday."
Interesting how he'd positioned his assistance as a favor to him, Marci mused, leaning against the edge of the door as a sudden weariness swept over her. His offer sounded good, but there had to be a catch. There always was.
The man's eyes narrowed, and instead of waiting for her to respond, he stepped in. Literally. Taking her arm in a firm but gentle grip, he edged her back into the spacious foyer, shut the door with his shoulder and led her to a straight chair beside the steps.