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Gift From The Heart
By Irene Hannon
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Irene Hannon
All right reserved.
Hope Creek, North Carolina
Dr. Adam Wright wearily reached for the stack of messages on his desk and glanced at the clock, then to the early November darkness outside his window. He was already late picking up Nicole, and he knew he'd hear about it. Neither his wife nor his daughter had ever had much patience with the demands of his family practice. And things had gone from bad to worse with Nicole since she'd come to live with him a year ago. Toss awakening hormones into the mix, and it was a recipe for disaster. Which just about described his relationship with his eleven-year-old daughter, he thought with a sigh.
Adam rapidly scanned the messages. Janice had taken care of all but the most urgent in her usual efficient manner, he noted gratefully. Those that remained were from patients who really did need to speak with him. Except for the last one.
Adam frowned at the unfamiliar name and the out-of-state area code. The message was from a woman named Clare Randall and contained just one word — Personal. His frown deepened. Janice usually intercepted sales-people, so he assumed this Clare Randall had convinced Janice that she had a legitimate reason for wanting to speak with him. But the message wasn't marked urgent, so it could wait until tomorrow, he decided. The other calls he'd return from home, after he picked up Nicole.
It would help pass the long evening ahead, in which he assumed his daughter would once again give him the silent treatment for his latest transgression of tardiness.
Nicole was out the door of Mrs. Scott's house even before Adam's car came to a stop. The older woman appeared a moment later, and even from a distance Adam could see her frown. Not a good sign. He summoned up a smile and waved to his temporary babysitter, then steeled himself for the coming encounter with his daughter. His stomach clenched, and he forced himself to take a deep breath as she climbed into the car and slammed the door.
"Did you thank Mrs. Scott?" he asked.
Nicole didn't look at him, and when she spoke her voice was surly — and accusatory. "Why should I? You pay her to watch me. And you're late. Again."
A muscle clenched in his jaw even as he told himself to cut his daughter some slack. She'd lost her mother just over a year ago, been forced to live with a father she'd never quite connected with, then been uprooted from her home and friends in St. Louis and plopped down in this small North Carolina town. At the time, Adam had thought the move back to his home state was for the best. He didn't like the crowd of friends Nicole hung out with, nor the fact that she often seemed to be eleven going on thirty. Day by day he'd felt his authority slipping away as his daughter spun out of control. So when he'd heard of the need for a doctor in Hope Creek, it had seemed like the answer to his prayers. He'd hoped that the wholesome atmosphere of small-town living would straighten Nicole out and help them bond.
Unfortunately, things hadn't worked out that way. If anything, Nicole resented him more than ever, and the gulf between them had widened. She had also become a master at evading questions and putting him on the defensive, he realized. But the ploy wasn't going to work tonight.
"The issue isn't whether or not I pay Mrs. Scott. The issue is politeness," he said firmly.
She ignored his comment. "So why were you late?"
He wasn't going to be sidetracked. He'd already been through half a dozen sitters. He was grateful that Mrs. Scott from church had taken pity on him and offered to watch Nicole until he found someone on a more permanent basis. But he hadn't had any luck on that score yet. So he couldn't afford to alienate his Good Samaritan.
"Did you thank Mrs. Scott?" he repeated more firmly.
Her jaw settled into a stubborn line, and she glared at him defiantly. "Yes."
He knew she was lying. And she knew he knew it. She was calling his bluff. And he couldn't back down. "That's good. I think I'll just go have a word with Mrs. Scott myself," he said evenly as he reached for the door handle. He was halfway out of the car before she spoke.
"Okay, so I didn't thank her," Nicole said sullenly.
Adam paused, then settled back in the car. "There's still time. She hasn't gone in yet."
Nicole gave him a venomous look, then rolled down her window. "Thanks," she called unenthusiastically. The woman acknowledged the comment with a wave, then closed the door. Nicole rolled her window back up, folded her arms across her chest and stared straight ahead.
Adam stifled a sigh. Nicole's response had hardly been gracious. But at least she had complied with his instruction. He supposed that was something.
"So why were you late again?" Nicole asked as they made the short drive to the house Adam had purchased the year before.
"A couple of last-minute emergencies came up." Adam had done his best to maintain a more moderate workload than he had in St. Louis, but he still rarely got out of the office before five-thirty or six. "Do you want to stop and pick up dinner at the Bluebird? It's meat loaf night." The Bluebird Café"s offerings had become a staple of their diet, and meat loaf was one of Nicole's favorites. Adam's culinary skills were marginal at best, and while he could manage breakfast and lunch, dinner stretched his abilities to the limit. So they frequented the Bluebird or resorted to microwave dinners. Only rarely did he indulge Nicole's preference for fast food.
He cast a sideways glance in her direction. She was sitting as far away from him as the seat belt would allow, hugging her books to her chest, her posture stiff and un-yielding. As distant and unreachable as the stars that were beginning to appear in the night sky. Just like Elaine had been by the time their marriage fell apart four years ago. Now, as then, he felt isolated. And utterly alone. He didn't blame Elaine for his feelings. Or Nicole. His loneliness was a consequence of his own failings. Of his inability to connect emotionally to the people he loved. That was the legacy his own father had left him.
Adam made a quick stop at the Bluebird, and a few minutes later pulled into the detached garage next to his two-story frame house, ending the silent ride home. Ni-cole got out of the car immediately, leaving him alone in the dark. The savory aroma of their meal filled the car, but even though he'd skipped lunch, he had no appetite. Because he knew what was ahead.
Excerpted from Gift From The Heart by Irene Hannon Copyright © 2005 by Irene Hannon. Excerpted by permission.
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