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Callie Summers recognized her husband the moment he walked in the door of Fresher Flowers. He, however, clearly had no idea who she was.
Her smile of welcome faded in the face of Jack Mitchell's utter lack of recognition. Could eight years, ten thousand dollars' worth of orthodontic treatments and a great haircut make that much difference?
Jack ducked a hanging basket of trailing clematis and stepped around the center display of post-Arbor Day markdowns. As he neared Callie, his glance skimmed her sky-blue tankshe'd grown breasts since she'd last seen him, tooand swooped down her short blue-and-white skirt to her ankles, then back up to her face. There was nothing as blatant as admiration in his gray-green eyesmore a keen observation.
You didn't get to be a top neurosurgeon without developing powers of observation, Callie supposed. Even if his memory was somewhat deficient.
"Hi," he said. "I hear you're the best florist in Parkvale." Had his smile been that sexy eight years ago?
Of course not. At seventeen, she'd viewed Jack's twenty-six years as a source of comfort, of protection. Besides, those hadn't been happy days.
"Good mornuhafternoon." Callie's attempt at formality to mark this one-sided reunion fizzled as she struggled to remember if it was past twelve yet; she closed at twelve-thirty on Saturdays. She finished arranging stems of gerberaorange and crimson and pinkin a galvanized steel bucket set on an iron stand. Then she stepped forward, brushing her hands against her skirt, in case Jack had actually recognized her and planned to shake her hand or something. "I like to think I do a great job for my clientsnot that Alice at Darling Buds isn't very talented," she added hastily.
She totally lacked the killer instinct she needed for Fresher Flowers to flourish on the scale her loan officer demanded.
Jack's smile turned confiding. "I'm in a hurry. I need" he glanced around in the blankly searching manner common to most men who walked into Callie's store "some flowers."
She might be short on killer instinct, but her sense of mischief was in full working order. "Are they for your wife?"
He recoiled. "I'm not"
She saw in his frown the sudden uncomfortable realization that here in Parkvale, Tennessee, he was indeed married. Even if no one else knew about it.
He folded his arms and looked down at her she'd forgotten how tall he washis mouth a wry twist. "They're for my mother, Brenda Mitchell. Do you know her?"
"I know her well. She's wonderful." Callie let a trace of what she felt for Brenda into her voice. But although Jack picked up on ithis dark eyebrows lifted a fractionthere was still no flash of recognition. Nor did he endorse her comment about his mother.
So much for Brenda's insistence that Jack missed his family. That he wanted to come home from his prestigious job at Oxford University Hospital in England. That he would have come home sooner, if only there wasn't always another life to save.
Callie had suspected for a long time that Jack had simply outgrown his family. Only she knew that, if he had his way, this visit would sever one of the last of his ties.
She held his gaze and smiled warmly, giving him one more chance to click. "How much would you like to spend on your mom?"
"Since you know her, how about you make up something she'd like, without worrying about the price?" He glanced at his watchplatinum not steel, she guessedthen out the window, checking on the black Jaguar parked in the street.
"How generous of you." A little nip, not strong enough to qualify as a bite.
Now those expressive eyebrows drew together. "Excuse me?"
You can't make up for eight years of absence with a hundred-dollar bunch of flowers. "Brenda likes irises," she said, with a fierceness that was at first on Brenda's behalf, because she wouldn't dream of criticizing her darling son, and then for Callie herself. "And delphiniums."
He blinked. "Irises and delphiniums it is, then," he said in a calm tone she could imagine him using with a patient while he waited for the men in white coats.
If she'd told him Brenda liked carnations and pansies he wouldn't have known any better.
The answer to the question that had plagued Callie for weekshow will I feel when I see Jack?hit her with the force of a hurricane.
She was furious.
By the time Jack climbed back into the Jaguar, the best rental car available from the airport in Memphis, nearly all the stores on Bicentennial Square had closed. This place was dead on the weekends, and only marginally breathing during the week. He glanced at his watch as he pulled out into the light Saturday traffic, and wondered what time it was in Oxford and whether he could call this afternoon to check up on his patients. Wondered what time the Marquette County courthouse opened on Monday.
How soon he could get a divorce.
Maybe he should, as the cute but moody florist had suggested, have bought flowers for her. His wife. Callista Jane Summers, according to the youthful scrawl on the marriage license application. But a bunch of yellow roses wouldn't suffice to thank her.
He stopped at one of Parkvale's dozen sets of traffic lights, then headed out of the square on tree-lined Main Street.
The elms, planted the year Jack was born, had grown taller in his absence. Yet the town itself had shrunk. It had always been too small, and now was Lilliputian. He'd no sooner started down Main when it was time to hang a left on Forsyth, and only seconds later, he was turning right into Stables Lane.
The narrow, dead-end avenue wasn't much longer than a stone's throw. A couple of cars were parked with two wheels on the sidewalk to allow passage. Jack pulled into his parents' driveway, behind his father's Ford Ranger pickup.
He left everything in the car except the flowers, wrapped in layers of lilac and green paper. The florist had told him what they were, but apart from the irises he'd forgotten. She'd done a nice job, that girl in the sexy blue tank. Jack had been surprised to learn from the guy at the gas station that Parkvale now boasted four florists. Eight years ago, he'd bought a corsage for his bride at the town's sole flower shop, conveniently situated across the road from the hospital.
He gripped the flowers tighter, and steeled himself as he headed up the walk. For the overdue reunion with his parents. For the inevitable encounter with Callista Jane Summers.
Dealing with Callie would be the easy part, he reminded himself. She was a good kid, and fully aware of the favor he'd done her. And although her e-mails had come irritatingly close to nagging about the need for him to come home, she wanted the same thing as he did where their marriage was concerned.
Whereas his parents It had been easier to stay away than get their hopes up about him coming back and "settling down."
What was the bet that within half an hour he'd be fending off suggestions that he switch from neurosur-gery to dermatology or geriatrics or something equally unlikely, and apply for a job in Parkvale?
His mother must have heard the car, because she showed up in the doorway, hopping from one foot to another like a kid of ten. "Jack!" Her delighted squeal gave him an unexpected lift. He took the porch steps in two strides, and grabbed her for a hug.
"You're so tall, I can't believe it." Brenda squeezed him with the strength of a woman who'd had years of kneading her own bread dough.
"Cut it out, Mom. I'm no taller than I was when we caught up in New York last year."
"I forgot then, too," she said, unashamed.
"Maybe you're getting shorter." That earned him a swat on the back as he stepped over the threshold. He turned to hand her the flowers, which hadn't suffered from being squashed in that hug.
"Jack, they're gorgeous." Brenda sniffed deeply at the bouquet, then sent him a sly smile. "I'll bet I know where you got these."
"The best florist in town," he said easily.
His mom beamed. "Isn't she just?"
Something about that beam, which smacked of personal pride, rang alarm bells in Jack's head.
Then his mom said, "Everyone's here to see you, sweetie. I put on a light lunch," and he forgot about the florist.
"Everyone" meant a bunch of Mitchell relatives, and a "light lunch" meant a groaning buffet table, doubtless including his mother's signature dish, Parkvale Curried Chicken Salad. He'd kind of missed Parkvale Curried Chicken Salad, which bore no resemblance to anything from India and had only a passing acquaintance with curry powder.
Brenda shepherded him into the living room of the Victorian house. High-ceilinged, deep-windowed, it at least was still the size he remembered. "He's here," she announced.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Nancy occupied the window seat. Their daughter, Sarah, held hands on the couch with a dark-haired man, and Jack vaguely recalled news of an engagement, plans for a June wedding. The two guys over by the bookcase must be Mark and Jason, Sarah's older brothers. They'd both bulked up in eight years and Markor was it Jason?had a serious facial hair thing going.
"Son, it's great to see you." Jack's father caught him in an easy hug. He must have closed the hardware store early, since Dan usually liked to put in a full day on Saturday. "I mean in the flesh," Dan joked, "not just on TV."
"Good to see you, too, Dad." Jack shook his hand.
Dan put a possessive arm around Brenda, who leaned into him with the loving look that Jack forever associated with his parents.
Situation normal. It didn't take a medical degree to see everything was as it had always been. Whatever point Callie had been trying to make in her e-mails, she was wrong.
Jack moved around the room, greeting his relatives, being introduced to the fiancé, accepting congratulations for the TV documentary that had recently aired on his pioneering surgical techniques. He'd completed his circuit, said his fourth "No, I'm not back for good" and accepted a beer, when through the picture window, he saw a white Honda coupe pull up across the end of his parents' driveway, blocking his car in.
Jack tugged at the collar of his shirt. He reminded himself he could leave town anytime he liked; it was crazy to feel as if his escape route had been cut off.
A woman got out of the car. Huh, the florist. Jack patted his back pocket. Nope, he hadn't left his wallet in the store.
She walked up the path, her stride purposeful, her hips swinging. From this distance, he got perspective on her figure, which really was great.
"Uh, Mom " He gestured toward the window.
"There she is," Brenda said, pleased.
The florist hadn't been kidding when she said she knew his mom well. So well that she walked in the front door without knocking or waiting to be admitted. Everyone in the room greeted her with familiarity, a ragged succession of heys and hellos.
"Sweetie, you did a wonderful job with these flowers." It took Jack a second to realize that his mom was talking to the woman, not him. Her use of the family endearment "sweetie" niggled, no matter that in his younger years he'd derided it.
"I was looking at some old photos the other day," Brenda said to Jack, "and I couldn't believe how Callie has changed. I'm amazed you recognized her."
Who would have guessed Jack had a degree from Harvard Medical School and postgraduate qualifications from Oxford University, when it took him five long seconds to realize what should have been glaringly obvious the moment he'd stepped into that damn shop?
The woman standing six feet away from him, lips curved in a smile but blue eyes sparking with an emotion that was far from friendly, was Callie. Callista Jane Summers. The woman he'd married.
"Actually, Brenda, he didn't recognize me," she said. "And I'm afraid I was naughty. I didn't tell him."
Jack knew from that flash in her eyes there'd been more than mischief behind her omission. What the heck was going on?
Brenda laughed, delighted. "That's just gorgeous. Jack, did you really have no idea?"
Without taking his eyes off Callie, he said to his mom, "You never told me she's a florist. I thought she renovates houses."
"I buy houses and do them up in my spare time so I can sell them again." Callie met his gaze full on. She didn't need to tell him that, dammit; she'd been using his money to fund her little DIY venture. "But I trained as a florist, and I've had my own store nearly a year."
"Now that you know who she is" Brenda patted his arm "you can greet her properly."
His head snapped around. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Callie's do the same. Surely Mom didn't mean
"Give her a kiss," Brenda urged, just as she used to make him kiss his sister, Lucy, on her birthday.
He looked at Callie, saw in her eyes the acknowledgment that any refusal would cause more trouble than either of them needed. He moved toward her, just as she took a halting step in his direction.
She offered him her right cheek. He brushed it with his lips, and though the contact lasted only a fraction of a second, it was long enough to feel the contrast between the satiny smoothness of her skin and the dry hardness of his lips. Long enough to pick up the scent of jasmine and roses and something else uniquely floral. She's a florist, so of course she smells like a garden.
She pulled away fast, leaving Jack feeling as if his lips were stranded on a street corner. Brenda murmured her approval.
Callie clasped her hands behind her back so she wouldn't rub her cheek where Jack had kissed it. Her brain faltered and she found herself saying, "So, how long are you in town?"
She knew, of course. She was the one who'd told him he needed to be resident in the county for thirty days before they could file for a no-fault divorce. The quizzical furrow in his brow confirmed that not only did he distrust her thanks to her "joke," he now doubted her mental capacity.
"He's here for a month," Brenda said happily. "Such a treat for us that he was able to convince the hospital to let him go that long."
"Lucky us," Callie said.
"I can't wait to reintroduce him around town," his mother said. "I'm thinking a walk in the park on Monday, the school board meeting on Tuesday"
"Just leave him some time to come by the store," Dan interrupted.