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Maddie Carter forgot to breathe. Her hand, swallowed by the doctor's larger one, rioted in unexpected reaction.
Dr. J. C. Mueller smiled and she gaped, unable to think of anything coherent to say as he turned to her mother, Lillian.
"So, Mrs. Carter, I understand your G.P. recommended you meet with me." He winked. "Of course, I am the only neurologist in Rosewood."
Maddie stumbled on her way to the extra chair in the examining room, righting herself quickly, hoping he hadn't noticed.
How had she forgotten this man? True, he'd been three years ahead of her in high school, then he'd gone to Baylor, while she'd attended the University of Texas, but still She couldn't stop staring. Tall, broadshouldered, with a shock of thick dark hair, mesmerizing brown eyes and a cleft in his chin that begged to be touched.
J.C. flipped through the thick pile of pages in her mother's chart, detailing the history of strokes that had brought on early onset dementia. He put down the folder, picking up Lillian's hand, placing two fingers over her upturned wrist.
Maddie couldn't still her heartbeat, instantly remembering the strength of his long fingers, the touch that tickled even her toes.
"Mrs. Carter, your vital signs are excellent."
Pleased, Lillian smiled. "Thank you, young man."
"I'd like to run a few tests, nothing invasive."
"Have I met you before?" Lillian questioned, puzzled.
"I grew up here in Rosewood," J.C. responded patiently. His wide smile was easy, kind. And his goldflecked brown eyes sparkled.
Maddie's own pulse increased. Good thing he wasn't recording hers.
"How about you, Mrs. Carter? Are you from Rosewood originally?"
Maddie recognized the pattern to the handsome doctor's questions. He wanted to see if her mother could remember and verbalize her recollections. Lillian's worsening symptoms had prompted their G.P.'s referral to a specialist.
"My mother was born here," Lillian mused, her pale blue eyes reflective. "My father came from the Panhandle, near Amarillo. But he took one look at her and knew he wanted to stay." Smiling, she looked up at the doctor. "Love will do that, you know."
"Yes, ma'am," J.C. agreed, stretching out his long legs.
Immediately, Maddie wondered if he was married, engaged. Surely some smart woman had snagged him long ago.
"So you raised your family here," J.C. continued. Lillian's shortterm memory was nearly nonexistent, but she remembered quite a bit from the past.
"My Maddie, yes."
J.C. glanced in Maddie's direction to include her in the conversation. "Just one child?"
"One perfect daughter," Lillian declared proudly.
Maddie felt her cheeks warming and shrugged an embarrassed apology to the doctor.
He grinned. "And why mess with perfection?"
"That's how we always felt," Lillian agreed with a vigorous nod as she turned to stare at her daughter. J.C. mimicked her action.
Maddie immediately wished she'd remembered to wear lipstick. And what had she been thinking when she'd chosen this rumpled blouse and skirt? That her mother had let the bath water run unchecked until it overflowed. And Maddie had been zooming on full speed to get the mess cleaned up so that they could get ready for the appointment. Their small home had only one bathroom and Lillian could have easily slipped on the tile floor.
Selfconsciously, Maddie smoothed her full cotton skirt, remembering she hadn't done a thing with her hair. In fact, she'd pulled it back in a messy ponytail. Just add the braces she'd once worn and she would look as geeky as she had in high school. Trying not to flush more, Maddie smiled feebly beneath their inspection.
"Maddie should have her own tea shop," Lillian continued.
Maddie squirmed. "Just an old dream."
"Nothing of the kind," Lillian declared. "She should set up right on Main Street, smack dab in the middle of town."
"Let me know when you're ready," J.C. gazed at Maddie. "I happen to have a building well, actually it belongs to my young niece. And it desperately needs a tenant. Be a great place for a tea shop." Turning back to Lillian, he extended his hand. "Mrs. Carter, I've enjoyed our visit and I'm looking forward to seeing you more often."
"I should think you'd rather visit with my beautiful daughter," Lillian guilelessly replied.
Lord, a hole, please. Underneath this chair, just big enough for me to disappear.
"I'll see you both on your next visit," J.C. replied without missing a beat.
Rumpled, crumpled and thoroughly embarrassed, Maddie rose, ready to end their consultation.
But the doctor wasn't. This time he spoke directly to her. "My nurse will set up the tests." He held out a paper. "Just give this to her." He scribbled on a second sheet of paper. "And I want to adjust your mother's medications."
"Thank " Maddie cleared the embarrassing croaking in her voice. "Thank you."
She sincerely doubted that, but smiled. "Mom, should we go home? Have that cup of tea?"
"Maddie makes the best tea in the world," Lillian announced, this time her voice not as strong. She weakened quickly these days.
J.C. opened the exam room door, allowing them to precede him. Maddie wasn't sure how she knew, but she was almost certain that J.C. continued watching as they left. She had a wild impulse to look back, to see. But there wasn't any point. Her social life had ended when her mother's dementia had begun. And mooning over a handsome doctor would only make her long for what wasn't in her destiny.
"I have a yen for some tea. What do you think?"
That she needed to put longings out of her head. This was her reality. "Sounds good."
Lillian patted her hand, having completely forgotten Maddie's words only minutes before. J.C. wouldn't be part of her own future, but Maddie was fiercely glad he was in her mother's. At the rate she was deteriorating, otherwise, Lillian might lose her grip on even the distant past.
Chilled by the possibility, Maddie gently squeezed her mother's delicate fingers. They were the last remaining members of their family. It didn't bear thinking how dreadful it would be should that tiny number be halved.
J.C. stared after his departing patient. Well, her daughter, actually. Not that he'd forgotten a detail about Lillian.
Or Maddie. Refreshing. The one word summed her up completely. From the sprinkle of freckles on her smooth skin to the strawberryblond wisps of hair that escaped from her bouncy ponytail. His gut reaction to her had come out of nowhere. That door had been closed since his exwife's betrayal. Now with everything else in his life
The intercom in his office buzzed. "Dr. M?"
"I'm here, Didi."
"School's on the phone."
He sighed. His nineyearold niece, Chrissy, wasn't adjusting well after the deaths of her parents. It had been a blow out of the blue. His sister, Fran, and brotherinlaw, Jay, had been asleep when carbon monoxide had leaked out of the furnace. Chrissy, their only child, had been at a friend's pajama party for the night.
"Dr. M?" Didi called again.
"Yeah, I'll get it." Reluctantly he picked up the phone. "Doctor Mueller?"
J.C. readily recognized the principal's voice. They'd spoken often since the tragedy. "Yes, David?"
"You need to pick up Chrissy."
Frowning, he checked his watch. It was only eleven in the morning. "Now?"
"There's been another. incident."
Chrissy, once a model child and student, had been acting out. "Surely she doesn't need to come home this early in the day."
"Afraid so, J.C." The principal dropped the formalities.
"She started a fight with two other girls. One is in tears, the other had to go home because we couldn't calm her down. J.C., you're going to have to figure out how to get Chrissy back under control."
J.C. rubbed his forehead, feeling the onset of now nearconstant pain. He'd easily diagnosed himself. Stressinduced migraines. Losing his only sibling had been a devastating blow. He and his older sister had always been close. She'd been the one always looking out for him, the one who had comforted him when they'd lost first their father, then not long afterward their mother. And she'd kept him propped up during his divorce. Without her.
Fran had been his pillar. Illogically, he wanted to speak to her, so she could tell him how to deal with Chrissy.
Opening the day's schedule on his laptop, J.C. saw that he could steal an hour by switching one consultation. After asking Didi to make the arrangements, he drove quickly to the nearby school.
Chrissy sat in one of the chairs in the office, her arms crossed, her expression mute. But her posture and body spoke for her. Sulky. From the top of her head to the tips of her crossed feet.
She didn't meet his gaze while he talked with the secretary and checked Chrissy out of school. But once in the hallway, her footsteps dragged.
J.C. couldn't be mad. Under her rebellious expression was a hurt little girl overwhelmed by pain and loss. He placed one hand on her shoulder as they walked sidebyside, both silent as they approached the car.
Chrissy pulled off her backpack and flung it on the floor. Along with the clicking of seat belts being fastened in place, they were the only sounds until he turned the key in the ignition. J.C. drove out of the school parking lot before he spoke. "You'll have to spend the afternoon at the office."
Chrissy stared out the window. "I'm old enough to stay by myself."
Thinking how vulnerable she was, he kept his tone light. "I'm not sure I'm old enough to stay on my own. At any rate, you'll have more space to spread out your books in Mrs. Cook's office."
J.C. glanced over at his niece. She still stared out the window. The only time she reacted positively was when they passed Wagner Hill House, the building on Main Street that had contained her father's business. It had sat undisturbed since Jay's death.
Thinking it might help Chrissy, J.C. decided to drive by his sister's house. Although he kept putting it off, he needed to sort through the house, make it livable again. Maybe Chrissy would settle down if she could live in her home again. He didn't mind giving up his tiny apartment; it was just a place to sleep really.
Turning on Magnolia Avenue, he saw Chrissy straighten up.
Pleased she was finally showing interest in something, he pulled into the driveway.
As soon as he turned off the vehicle, Chrissy began shrieking.
"No! I won't go in! No! No!" Sobs erupted and tears flooded her cheeks. "You can't make me!"
Horrified, J.C. tried to calm her. "What is it, Chrissy?"
"The house killed them!" She blurted out between staggered sobs.
Her distress was so intense J.C. didn't try to reason with her. Instead, he quickly backed out of the driveway, then sped from the neighborhood. Once past the familiar streets, he pulled into a space in front of the park. Unhooking his own seat belt and then Chrissy's, he gently guided her from the car to a bench beneath a large oak.
Still shaking from the remaining gulps of tears, she allowed him to drape an arm over her shoulders. When she was tiny, he would have popped her in his lap, pulled a dozen silly faces and made her giggle. He felt completely illequipped to comfort her now.
Patting her arm, he waited until the last of her hiccupping gulps trailed to an end. "I'm sorry, Chrissy. I wouldn't have gone to the house if I'd known it would upset you." He paused. "I was hoping it would make you feel better."
She shook her head so hard that her light brown hair flew unchecked from side to side. "I never, ever want to go there again."
"After some time"
"Never!" she exclaimed. Her lips wobbled and a few new tears mixed with the wash of others on her cheeks.
J.C. patted her knee. "I thought you might like to live there again, get out of my scruffy apartment."
"No!" she cried again, burying her face against his shoulder. "I can't!"
J.C. imagined he could hear the child's heart actually breaking. "Then you won't." He would have the contents packed for storage, then rent out the house in case she changed her mind later. "And if it starts bothering you, we won't go by the print building, either."
Chrissy pulled back a bit so she could look at him. "It's not the same."
"Daddy's work didn't hurt them. It was the house." Logic wasn't a factor. Just the raw feelings of a wounded child. "Okay, then."
"We could move in there," she suggested hopefully. "To Daddy's work."
The first floor of the building had been occupied by the business. And there were two apartments above it. Jay's parents had lived in one until they passed away.
"No one's lived in those apartments for a while," he explained. More important, they wouldn't have any immediate neighbors. Even though his bachelor apartment was small, at least in his complex, Chrissy was surrounded by people. He didn't like the idea of her being alone in a big building on Main Street when he had to make night calls at the hospital. A few proprietors lived above their businesses, but not in the building next to them. And the Wagner Hill House was on a corner next to a side street that bisected Main, so there wasn't a second adjoining neighbor.
"We could fix up the apartment," Chrissy beseeched, kicking her feet back, dragging them through the grass. "And live on top of Daddy's print shop." The apartment was above the business on the second floor, but he knew what she meant.
Blair, a nurse who worked at the hospital, lived in his apartment complex and so far J.C. had asked her to listen for Chrissy when he had to leave her. But it wasn't a comfortable situation. He worried the entire time he was away. What if Chrissy woke up and was scared? What if there was a fire? The possibilities were endless. But he couldn't hire livein help to share their small space. As it was, he was camping out on the sofa so Chrissy could have the only bedroom.
And babysitters weren't pleased to be phoned in the middle of the night. The few who had reluctantly responded once didn't respond again. Not that J.C. blamed them. Who wanted to get up at two or three in the morning to babysit, not knowing if they would have to stay an hour or the rest of the night? What they really needed was sort of a combination housekeeper and nanny who lived in. But Chrissy had run off every single one he had hired, resenting anyone she thought was trying to take her mother's place.