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"Excuse me? Is this where I sign in for my appointment with Dr. Sternberg?"
Renae Sanchez picked up a stack of clipboards for the sign-in counter of the optometrists' office where she worked as office manager. Pasting a professional smile on her face, she turned to greet the man who'd spoken from the other side of the open reception window.
The clipboards hit the floor with a crash that made several people in the waiting room jump in their seats. Embarrassed, Renae gave them an apologetic look before gathering the scattered clipboards and attempting to collect her composure. Only then did she approach the counterand the man from her past who waited there.
Except for the slight hint of gray at the temples of his conservatively cut, coffee-colored hair, Evan Daugherty looked much the same as he had the last time she had seen him almost seven years ago, as a pallbearer at her late husband's funeral.
In his early thirties, Evan's face was slightly more tanned now from years of working outdoors, and the little squint lines that had developed at the corners of his dark eyes only added to the appeal of his ruggedly attractive features. He'd had tears in those dark brown eyes the last time she'd seen him. He smiled nowthough his smile froze when she faced him fully.
She had identified him at first glance, but it seemed to have taken him a heartbeat longer to make the connection. Had she changed so much in the past seven years? She had been twenty-three, six months pregnant with twins and in a haze of shock and grief when they last parted. Seeing him now sent those long-banked feelings flooding through her againin addition to other complex reactions to Evan himself.
Working especially hard to ignore the latter emotions, she kept her expression carefully schooled when she set the clipboards on the counter. "Hello, Evan."
Tactfully, he merely glanced at the clipboards, declining to comment on her clumsy response to the sight of him. "Renae. This is a surprise."
"For me, too," she agreed. "I didn't see your name on the appointment list."
She wasn't usually the one who checked in clients, but as her luck would have it, Lisa was at lunch and Cathy was busy with a phone call.
"You're looking well." Though Evan spoke easily, Renae sensed that he felt as awkward as she did about this unexpected reunion.
Or was she merely projecting? Was she the only one suddenly remembering a forbidden kiss on a tumultuous night that had sporadically haunted her dreamsand sometimes her unguarded waking momentsfor almost a decade?
All too aware that they were being idly watched by the waiting clients whose attention had been drawn by the crashing clipboards, she kept her tone as politely professional as she could, considering the turmoil inside her. "What can I do for you, Evan?"
"Oh. Right. I have an appointment with Dr. Sternberg. I just need to give you my insurance information."
He offered her an insurance card and she was pleasedand somewhat surprisedto note that her hand was steady as she took it from him and handed him a clipboard in return. "I'll make a copy of this for your file. If you'll have a seat and fill out this new-patient form, Dr. Sternberg will be with you shortly."
He hesitated before turning away, looking as though he found their brief, strictly business exchange unsatisfying. "How are the twins?"
"They're well, thank you. Growing like weeds." She almost winced at hearing the overused cliche from her own lips, but it was the best she could do just then.
"Excuse me, Renae, you have a call on line three."
She turned gratefully in response to the welcome interruption. "Thank you, Cathy. Will you make a copy of Mr. Daugherty's insurance information, please?"
With a coolly civil nod to Evan, Renae took the phone call. She handled the business issue swiftly, then murmured an excuse to Cathy and escaped to the employees' restroom. Once there, she would have splashed cold water on her face, but she didn't want to wash off the makeup she'd barely had time to apply earlier after dressing hastily for work in a simple lavender sweater and gray pants. Instead, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, trying to collect her thoughts.
Barely fifteen minutes ago, she had asked aloud, "Could anything else go wrong today?" Having Evan Daugherty walk into her place of business out of the blue must be her punishment for tempting fate.
This October Tuesday morning had been hectic from the moment her alarm blasted her out of bed at 6:00 a.m. The twins dashed around the house frantically searching for shoes and backpacks, complaining about the healthy lunches she packed for them, suddenly remembering they were supposed to take a favorite stuffed animal because Tuesday was "animal kingdom day" in first grade. That led to lengthy debates about the toys to choose, which necessitated sharp words from Renae to keep them from being late, which, in turn, caused Renae's live-in mother-in-law, Lucy, to give Renae wounded looks for snapping at her precious grandchildren.
Lucy knew better than to openly challenge Renae's authority.
By the time the twins were safely delivered to school and Renae arrived at work, the usual chaos there was almost a welcome relief.
As the office manager for two young optometrists, Renae performed many duties along with the two office workers she supervised, Cathy and Lisa. She answered phones, handled insurance claims, kept records for the accountant, checked in patients and scheduled appointments when necessaryanything she had to do to keep the office running with the efficiency she took such pride in. Two optometry assistants worked with Ann Boshears and Gary Sternberg, the married couple who'd moved to North Little Rock, Arkansas, a year earlier to set up their practice. They had hired Renae after she'd seen their ad in the newspapera nice promotion from the clerical position she'd held before in another medical office.
Renae had worked well from the start with Ann and Gary, and liked all her coworkers to varying degrees. As much as she loved her children and her mother-in-law, it was nice having a life away from home. She needed this outside interaction with other people, needed to feel that she was a competent, intelligent, self-sufficient woman in addition to being a mom and a daughter.
Yet all it had taken was an unexpected encounter with Evan Daugherty to undo her hard-earned progress and send her spinning back into the emotional mess she'd been when he had first met her almost ten years ago. Angry with herself, she drew a deep, bracing breath and opened her eyes, glaring at her reflection in the mirror. She thought she'd done a decent job of hiding her reactions from Evan and any onlookers, not counting that one paralyzed moment when the clipboards had tumbled to the floor. Now it was time to pull herself together and get back to work.
It had probably been inevitable that she would run into Evan again sometime. After all, they lived in adjacent cities in Central Arkansas, and worked in the same metropolitan area surrounding the capital city of Little Rock. Because he'd stayed in touch once a year through Christmas cards with formal little notes written inside, she knew he'd moved back to the area three years ago after a stint in the army. A few months later, he had started a landscape design business with Tate Price, an old friend who had also known her late husband, Jason.
Probably the only reason their paths hadn't crossed before now was because they had both avoided chance encounters as much as possible. It had been stressful enough hearing from him through the mail a few times lately in regard to the scholarship he and Tate had recently established in her husband's memory.
Feeling her responsibilities calling her, she squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and left the restroom, glad to see that Evan was no longer in the waiting room. He must be in with Dr. Sternberg. She hoped Lisa would get back from lunch so Renae could leave before he came out again. As cowardly as it made her feel, she would just as soon avoid another awkwardly public exchange with him today.
No such luck. Renae hadn't yet had a chance to escape when Evan reappeared just as she delivered a file to Cathy, putting them both at the payment window at the same time.
"I'm just leaving for lunch. Cathy will take your payment," she said, nodding pleasantly to him when he looked at her as though expecting her to say something. "It was good to see you again, Evan."
Cordial and poised. Exactly the tone she'd hoped to achieve, she applauded herself.
"Good to see you, too, Renae." He glanced at her coworkers before saying tentatively, "Actually, I've been wanting to contact you about the scholarship program. Maybe we could have a bite together and discuss it?"
Sitting near enough to overhear, Cathy cleared her throat noisily and gave Renae a look that made it clear she thought she should accept Evan's offer. No surpriseCathy was always trying to fix her up with someone, and she would no doubt view Evan as an attractive, charming and intriguing possibility. Which, of course, he would be, had it not been for the convoluted history between them.
"I'm sorry, Evan, I have an appointment," she lied without compunction, unable to face the thought of sitting across a little table from him without more preparation. But because she was interested in hearing about the scholarship progress, she scribbled her number and handed it to him. "Call any evening after work and I'd be happy to discuss the scholarship with you."
She could handle talking with Evan on the phone, she assured herself. Maybe the painful emotions wouldn't assail her so forcefully if she weren't looking at him while they talked. Maybe she would be less likely to embarrass herself with her awkward reactions to him, the way she had today.
If he was disappointed that she'd declined his lunch invitation, it didn't show on his face when he folded the paper and tucked it into the pocket of the navy twill shirt he wore with neatly pressed khakis. "I'll be in contact."
She nodded, ignored Cathy's frown of disapproval and turned to make a determinedly dignifiedif still hastyescape.
She drove several blocks away, pulled into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant and buried her face in her hands, only then letting the memories overwhelm her.