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Time flew backward at warp speed for Bill Wellington when the name Lindsay Jones popped up on his cell phone.
Warm summer evenings studying on the front porch swing. Working together on projects.
Holding hands around The Forever Tree.
But then he hurtled back to the present as he realized there could be only one reason why she would call.
He snapped opened his cell phone. "Lindsay, is Granny okay?"
"She's fine. Sorry to scare you."
He had programmed Lindsay's number into his phone when Granny hired her as a caregiver, so he'd assumed the worst. Relief nearly brought him to his knees. He waited for Lindsay to say more, but she remained silent. "Lindsay?"
"I'm sorry. I" She sighed. "Your granny did take a fall, so I wanted to let you know. She has a mild concussion, and they're going to X-ray her wrist. But the doctor said she'll be fine."
Tension raced across his shoulders and ran up the back of his neck. "How did it happen?"
"She fell off the back porch early this morning while taking out the trash."
Poor Granny. "She's at the hospital now?"
"Yes. They'll probably keep her overnight for observation."
"I'll head down there as soon as I can get a flight."
"Oh, you don't need to do that. I'll stay with her. And Granny Bea didn't even want me to bother you."
She thought he'd be bothered? "No, I want to come check on her. Other than Drake, she's the only family I have."
She sighed again. "Do you need a ride from the airport?"
With all the sighs, it made him wonder what she thought of him. Or did she even think of him at all anymore? "No, thanks. I'll rent a car."
He closed his phone and clutched it in his palm. Lindsay Jones. Smart, beautiful, kind, funny. Since he'd avoided all the high school reunions, he hadn't seen her in nearly fifteen years.
A thrill at seeing her surged through him, then immediately plummeted. He hated the thought of heading home to Magnolia, Georgia, for more than a quick weekend. It would mean facing the townspeople he had escaped right after graduation.
It would mean facing Lindsay, as well. The woman he'd been crazy about from the age of ten, with whom he'd fallen in love in high school.
The woman he'd held hands with around The Forever Tree. And had thought he was destined to marry.
Lindsay knew it was all her fault. She was doubting her abilities as a caregiver.
Granny Bea, her eighty-three-year-old employer, had suffered a concussion and a broken wrist. All because Lindsay had tried to do one more favor for her brother. Had tried to squeeze in one last errand.
Now Granny Bea lay in the hospital, her face contorted in pain. Probably wishing she'd never fired the previous certified caregiver.
And worse, Lindsay'd had to call him .
Shame on me for thinking the call is worse. What's worse is Granny Bea's injury.
Lindsay tiptoed into the room. "Granny Bea?"
"Oh, Lindsay, dear, I hate that I went and messed up our workday. I guess I scared you to death."
"It's all my fault for being late."
"Oh, pish-posh. I was too lazy to go down the steps and leaned too far off the porch."
"How do you feel?"
"I've felt better." She gave a weak laugh. "My wrist hurts worse than anything."
Lindsay steeled herself to tell Granny Bea the good news. "Well, I have a surprise that will perk you up. Bill's coming to check on you."
Bill Wellington, a brilliant physics professor and researcher. Lindsay's former friend.
Granny Bea looked distressed. "Oh, Lindsay. He'll miss his classes."
"I had to let him know."
She pressed a palm to her forehead. "You're right, of course. It'll be wonderful to see him. Thank you, dear."
"Just doing my job." She smiled at Granny Bea as she adjusted the blanket.
Lindsay's best friend Donna Rae rushed into the hospital room. "Are you okay, Bea?"
"Oh, hi, Donna Rae. How'd you get word about my silly fall so fast?"
"Gertie down in the E.R. called Vinny's mom. And she called me. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. I wish you all would quit fussing over me."
Lindsay caught her friend's attention, then nodded toward the hallway. "We'll be back in a minute, Granny Bea."
Once outside the room, Lindsay said, "I contacted Bill. He'll be here ASAP."
Donna Rae's face lit up. "So God's at work."
"Oh, never mind." With an impish grin, Donna Rae rubbed her hands together. "Maybe something good will come of the accident. Bill will come to town, and you two will finally be together."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"The Forever Tree."
Lindsay groaned. The Forever Tree was a huge, old pecan tree that stood proudly in the park downtown. Donna Rae believed in the town legend that a couple that held hands around the tree would be together forever. Well, just because Donna Rae and her husband were blissfully happy didn' t mean it worked. After all, Lindsay held Bill's hands around it, and look how that turned out. "Forget the stupid legend. I'm worried about seeing Bill."
"When was the last time you two talked to each other?"
"We haven't. Not since he deserted me."
Donna Rae rolled her eyes. "He didn't desert you. He went off to college."
"And never once called. Never answered my letter. Never visited."
"And you haven't even talked since Bea hired you?"
"There's never been the need. Until now."
"Well, I'm excited. You're destined to be together."
Lindsay leaned back and thunked her head against the wall. Her friend was way off base. "We were never more than friends, but the thought of seeing him again scares me."
Donna Rae gave a deep, throaty laugh.
"Don't laugh at me. I'm nervous. And just you watch. I'll end up with a migraine before it's all over."
"It'll be fine. I'm sure he'll be glad to see you again."
Yeah, right. He'd missed her friendship so much that he'd ignored her for the last fifteen years. They'd been the best of friends. Or so she thought. But two days after graduation, he'd left town. Just disappeared without so much as a goodbye.
Apparently their friendship meant nothing to him. And that still hurt. She would have to steel herself for his arrival.
That evening, Lindsay watched Granny Bea try to grip a fork and scoop a bite of green beans into her mouth with her right wrist enclosed in a spanking-new cast. The cast was brilliant white except for Lindsay's and Donna Rae's signatures scrawled in a circular pattern around the wrist area like a pair of bracelets.
A couple of the beans fell down the front of Granny Bea's hospital gown.
"Here, I'll help you," Lindsay said.
"I might as well learn to do it on my own. I'll have the thing for weeks."
"I can help today. You're sore and tired."
Granny Bea harrumphed, but leaned back against her pillow, relenting. "I hate being laid up. What about the community center?"
"Mr. Kennedy and the others covered for us today. You'll be able to go back to work in a couple of days, looking like one of the kids." She smiled at the woman she took care of who was also her friend and coworker. "I know you'll impress Dylan."
"Yes. I'll have to tell him I fell out of a tree or something a bit exciting."
"Mr. Kennedy will sure want to fuss over you."
"Oh, don't even mention his name or you'll get my ire up."
"He's been crazy about you for two years. You should see him mope when you're not at the center."
Granny Bea shook her casted arm. "That man is too young for me. If he hovers, I'll bop him in the head with this thing."
"Granny Bea has a boyfriend," Lindsay sang.
"I may have to test it out on your head first."
Lindsay laughed, then scooped up a bite of beans, held it out to Granny Bea, and watched as she ate it.
A man cleared his throat in the doorway, then rapped on the door. "Granny?"
She'd know that voice anywhere. Had she really thought she could prepare for this moment?
She was afraid to turn around. Afraid of the hurt that might still show on her face even after so many years.
"Bill, honey, you're here!" Granny Bea called. "Come in."
Lindsay pasted a half-smile on her face, then swiveled around to see him.
Oh, my. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. She absolutely could not believe this was Bill Wellington. Tall, skinny, nerdy, bookworm Bill had been transformed during his years away.
Tall. Yes, he was still tall. But that's where the similarities ended. He had filled out. And had turned into an attractive man. How could that have happened?
He hurried to his granny's side, then hugged her. "How are you feeling?" He was so careful, so concerned, that it gave Lindsay's heartstrings a big, ol' yank.
"I'm fine, son."
He looked up from Granny Bea and smiled in Lindsay's direction. "Hi, Lindsay."
After several seconds of staring at this near stranger, she realized she hadn't acknowledged his greeting. "Oh, hi. Good to see you again. Wow. You're all grown-up." Way to go, Lindsay. Stating the obvious.
"Yes, fifteen years have a way of doing that. But you look exactly the same. I would have recognized you anywhere."
And she couldn't have picked him out of a police lineup if her life depended on it. His dark brown, shaggy hair was now short and layered and looked as if it had lightened in the sun. His gaunt, pale face was now tanned, angular, masculine. And his beanpole body was now muscle-bound.
"Broken wrist, huh?" He touched Granny Bea's cast. Then he craned his neck, trying to read the signatures. Once he completed reading the circle of permanent marker, he smiled at Lindsay.
Her traitorous heart galloped underneath her rib cage. Stop it! I will not let my heart race over this man. This supposed friend.
"Lindsay, I appreciate you bringing her to the hospital. I'm sure you're worn out. I'll stay with her tonight."
She bristled. He'd marched in and was going to try to take over Granny Bea's care.
He's her grandson. He has every right to.
Still, it made her mad that he lived his life way up there in Boston and barely ever spent time with his granny.
"I can stay," she said. "I imagine you're tired from traveling."
"I dozed a little on the flight. Go on home. I'll call you if she needs anything."
"He's right, dear. You've been here all day."
What could she do? "Okay. I'll come back tomorrow morning with some fresh clothes for her."
"Thanks." He started to hold out a hand, as if he were going to shake her hand, but then the gesture ended up as a little wave. A somewhat dorky wave, more like the Bill she remembered.
She was comforted by the fact that he was still Bill. Yet that little wave reminded her of the friend she'd lost.
Bill wasn't sure he'd be able to catch his breath until Lindsay was gone. He had to get a grip or she might think she needed to rush him down to the E.R.
Her eyes were still as violet-blue, her hair as deep red, thick and smooth as it had been when she was eighteen.
He was a complete sap. A thirty-three-year-old acting like a lovesick teenager.
He walked to the other side of Granny's bed, putting distance between him and Lindsay. She's only a woman like any other. Nothing special. Just happens to have been blessed with gorgeous eyes and hair. And just happens to be the girl I fell in love with ages ago.
"Well, Granny Bea, I'll see you bright and early." Lindsay kissed Granny's head. "Make Bill take good care of you."
"Thanks for everything, dear. Get some rest, and we'll see you tomorrow."
Lindsay smiled fondly at Granny, which didn't help his composure a bit. She stepped toward the door. "Good night." She made brief eye contact with Bill, but then turned and left.
"So you fell off the porch while taking out the trash?" he asked.
She huffed. "Yes. Silly on my part."
"I thought you hired Lindsay to help with that."
"I did. But she was running late this morninghad to get the boys at the last minute."
"Her nephews. Her brother Gregory is divorced and has sole custody. Lindsay's like a mother to his boys and keeps them a good bit. She was about to take them to day care this morning, then she and I were going to go to work."
"At the community center. They hired her as director, and I'm working as her assistant."
"You mean you're volunteering?"
"At first I was. Now I'm hired." She grinned, and looked so proud. "My first job outside the homeat age eighty-three."
His granny working? But her home was her life. She'd always been there for him and his brother Drake after his parents died, moving them in with hercooking, cleaning, helping with homework, chauffeuring them to lessons and Drake to sports practices.
"Why would you get a job now? You don' t need the money."
"That's a silly question. I love it! It gives me a reason to get out of bed each day."
Had Granny been depressed? Had she been lonely? "You won't be able to work with that cast."
"Oh, I don't think this'll stop me."
"Well, I want to talk with the doctor tomorrow. There's always the concussion to consider."
She waved away his concerns. "You should go to the house for the night, son. Don't try to sleep here."
He looked around the room and spotted a chair. "I bet that folds out into a recliner. I'll be fine here."
She smiled at him, and her lower lip quivered. "I'm so happy to see you, baby. It's nice to have you home. Even if I had to break my arm to get you here." She patted his cheek. "I'm teasing."
It was the truth, though. He'd been away for too long. And whenever he did visit, it was a brief thirty-six-hour stay. He usually flew in on a Friday night, spent Saturday at Granny's, maybe took her out to eat in Athens, then flew out early Sunday morning. He tried to avoid the townspeople. He had never fit in here.
Maybe he should hang around for a couple of days. To make sure she would be okay with her right arm out of commission. But if she could fall off her own porch doing something as simple as carrying out the trash, he suspected she might be getting too feeble to live alone. "I'm glad to be home. I'd like to stay until I make sure you're okay on your own."
"Oh, good. We'll break out of this joint tomorrow and have a nice time together. You, me and Lindsay."
Lindsay? Why would she say that? Sure, they worked together some. But Granny wouldn't need her while he was there.
A nurse stuck her head in the door as she knocked. "Mrs. Wellington, how about getting up before my shift's over? I imagine you're ready to go to sleep for a little while." She looked at Bill. "And if you're staying, we'll get your chair fixed up with a blanket and pillow."