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The muttered words came from lips stiff with cold. Snow covered the trees, bushes, and sidewalks, reflecting the feelings of the young woman who hurried toward the large, brick building that loomed ahead of her. A feeling of coldness permeated her, spreading its numbness to her fingers and toes.
"Oops!" Her foot hit an icy spot. She regained her balance and pulled her striped stocking cap farther down over her ears. "I'll be late again," she moaned. Five A.M.! she thought. What an ungodly hour!
The cars that passed beneath the streetlights were eerie, shrouded in fog, as were the forms that hurried toward the building, their breath suspended in the cold northern air.
Passing through the entrance of St. John's Hospital, Beth nodded to several acquaintances who were coming off duty and heading home to warmth and companionship. Their exclamations at the raw bitterness of the winter weather were soon lost to her. She walked briskly down the highly polished corridor to the nurses' lounge, where she shed her coat and hung it in her locker. She adjusted the starched white cap on her thick, dark hair and ran down the hall to the elevator.
The sixth-floor bell sounded as the elevator slid to a silent halt. The doors opened to a busy scene of nurses, doctors,orderlies, and other medical personnel.
"Oh, damn!" Beth murmured nervously as she hurried to the nurses' station. Her eyes were intent on the stiff back of her supervisor, who stood checking a chart with a young nurse. She was late again!
"Did he find you?" A clear voice came from beyond the still backs and bent heads.
Beth turned to find her friend Jill smiling at her. "Find who?" she asked.
"You. A man was just here looking for you. I told him you came on duty about ten minutes ago and probably went up to check on young Joshua in room six thirty-five. He went in that direction. You've obviously missed him." Jill came from behind the desk. "You'd remember him if-" She broke off suddenly, flipped open the metal chartboard in her hand, and began to explain the doctor's instructions for a new patient.
"And what is your excuse this morning, nurse?" An authoritative voice came from behind.
Before Beth could conjure up an answer, the Dragon, as the supervisor was called by the staff, was paged over the intercom. Both nurses sighed with relief when the elevator doors closed behind her.
"It only postpones my chewing out." Beth sighed.
"Yeah. She won't forget. But I want to tell you about this guy who's looking for you. He's tall ... rugged, and all man! He looks just like the cowboy in the cigarette ads, I swear he does. I can just see him riding the range, roping a cow, doggin' a steer, or whatever they do. Oh, glory! There he is!"
Beth felt her cheeks grow warm. Her eyes encountered lively gray-green eyes. She could feel him appraising her from the top of her nurse's cap to the tips of her white shoes. He continued his inspection while his long strides covered the diminishing space between them. His large, muscular frame was covered by a shearling coat, unbuttoned, and a rich, bottle-green sweater. A brown Stetson was pulled low over his wide forehead and rested above straight dark brows-dark as the thick, bushy mustache that accented his strong, frowning mouth. His intense gaze held hers, making her aware of his sheer, powerful masculinity in a way that sent a shiver of panic through her.
"I've looked all over this damn hospital for you, Beth." His voice was deep, husky, and held more than a hint of annoyance.
Beth's blue eyes remained fixed on him. "I just came on duty." "I need coffee. Where's the cafeteria?" He moved to take her arm, but she stepped back.
"Follow the sign, you can't miss it," she said carefully, staring up at his stern face. "I'm on duty. I can't leave the floor." "When do you get a break?"
"About nine. But I don't always take one."
"And you won't this morning."
"I'm neither rapist nor mugger, Elizabeth."
"What do you want, Thomas? Why are you here? Has something happened to Sarah? Has she had an ... accident?" Her head began to spin. That's why he's here! My sister had an accident!
"No, she hasn't. I'm sorry if I scared you. I've been driving all night and I'm tired and hungry. I need to talk to you." His voice grew louder with his impatience.
"That's a relief, but lower your voice." Beth glanced at Jill, who stood gaping at him with a dreamy look on her face. Beth had to admit he was something to gape at, but Jill, who stood frozen in admiration, was making a fool of herself.
Beth's gaze came back to Thomas Clary. He hadn't changed one bit during the last three years. He was still as confident, still as arrogant, still as overpowering, as he had been when he came to attend the wedding of her sister and his brother. She had been nineteen then, and helpless with adoration. Now she was twenty-two, and far more capable of assessing a man.
"How've you been, Beth?"
"Fine." She didn't look at him. What the hell did he care? He'd gone away without a word. He'd kissed her, squired her around her hometown for a week-had made her fall in love with him. She'd waited, thinking he'd call. It had taken a year for her to get over him. Now here he was ... in living color!
His eyes assessed her critically, moving over her short, shiny brown hair, to the big blue eyes with their dark lashes. His eyes narrowed as he gazed at her mouth, and her lips trembled at the image that came swiftly to mind-Thomas taking possession of her mouth, kissing her as she had never been kissed, making the kisses she shared later with other men seem almost ... boring. His gaze traveled to the firm breasts rounding out the white uniform, and he smiled a secret smile while she burned with resentment. Slowly, coolly, he let his eyes roam over her from the narrow waist, down over slim hips and long legs to the tips of her white shoes, and back to her eyes, now sparking with indignation.
"You're thinner, and ... more beautiful."
She did her best to return his gaze coolly. What she really wanted was to tell him to get the hell out and never come back. Instead, she said, "You'll have to excuse me. I've got my rounds to make."
His brows came together in a scowl of displeasure, and a pleased flutter punctuated her already rapid heartbeat.
"Just a minute." His massive body shifted to block her path. "I've driven nine hundred miles in the last two days and I'm dead tired. I'll go take a nap and be at your place at six o'clock. You be there." He turned abruptly on his heel and walked away.
"Wow! You've been holding out on me," Jill accused, after he was gone.
Beth was in a perplexed state of shock. Thomas Clary, here. Three years ago she would have given anything to see him come striding down the corridor toward her. But now she wanted no attachments. He'd broken her heart once. It had been like the end of the world for her, as if she had walked off a cliff or into an airplane propeller. She had almost failed to pass her exams because of him. She had wanted to scream, tear her hair out, or lie down and die. She had done none of those things. She did the only thing possible for her to do-put him out of her mind and wrapped herself in her work.
Now she wished desperately that he hadn't come. He had said Sarah was all right. So what does he want with me? she wondered, her thoughts swirling in confusion. She tried without success to force the image of his dark face and green eyes from her mind.
Jill was still babbling about the "cowboy," and Beth was lost in thought when the Dragon reappeared, causing both women to flee to their respective duties.
The busy activities of the day helped Beth keep the evening confrontation with Thomas from her mind. Three babies were born during her shift, one premature. The infant needed the expert care that Beth was qualified to give, so her day was spent in the busy routine of helping to save, then monitor the tiny bundle of life which the parents had so eagerly awaited.
When the shifts changed, Beth stayed on to discuss the needs of the fragile premie with the oncoming nurse. By the time she headed home, she was drained and longed for a good soak in a hot tub.
The weather had worsened during the day. Blowing snow was whirling through the streets, stalling traffic, and Beth was thankful her small apartment was only a few blocks away. She hurried along, even jaywalking in her haste to get to her apartment. Home, she thought. It's not much, but it's mine. One large cozy room with a tiny kitchen, a small bedroom, and a minute bath was the place she called home.
Beth reached the large old Victorian house, and in her haste to get in out of the cold she almost collided with her neighbor Mrs. Maxwell on the porch.
"I'm sorry. I didn't see you," she exclaimed, steadying the elderly lady.
"I'm all right, dear. I just stepped out to check the weather and get the paper." The tiny woman smiled up at Beth.
"Be careful. The porch is slippery. You don't want a broken leg." "I should say not. It would cut down on my dancing."
"You're incredible!" Beth smiled.
"You're only as old as you think you are, my dear. And while you're still young, you'd better get you a man before all the good ones are taken."
"Trying to get rid of me, huh?"
"You'd have a lot more fun," Mrs. Maxwell confided with a giggle.
Beth laughed and stomped the snow from her shoes. Inside she climbed the curved staircase to the second floor and unlocked her door. Two apartments shared the floor and hers was the smaller one, but it had a small fireplace in the living room, and she loved the high ceilings and long windows. She had often reflected on what an elegant home it must have been in the early years, before it was converted into apartments.
Keeping her thoughts carefully away from the coming meeting with Thomas, she put the teakettle on to boil, turned on the stereo and listened to the classical strains of a concerto. She made a cup of tea and carried it with her to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later she was relaxing in a steamy, hot bath. Just what I need to loosen the kinks in my back and neck, she mused, and sank deeper in the clawfooted tub, until the water reached her chin. With her eyes closed, she allowed her mind to dwell on the early morning meeting that had shaken her to the core.
Thomas had come all the way from Wyoming to see her. What could he possibly want to talk to her about? It was urgent, she realized, otherwise he wouldn't have come directly to the hospital after driving all night. It had to be something to do with Sarah.
Beth and her sister had not been close while growing up. That was due partly to the thirteen-year difference in their ages and partly to the fact that they were half sisters. Sarah was ten years old when her mother died. It had been a horrendous blow to the sensitive young girl. Her father had tried to bridge the gap, but Sarah's adolescence and hurt all contrived to push him further from her. She returned to her boarding school after the funeral, a grieving, unhappy little girl. Two years later her father remarried and Beth was the result of that marriage. Sarah's stepmother tried with love and understanding to break through the tough barrier that surrounded the young girl, and eventually she succeeded. By the time Sarah was ready to go out on her own, she and her stepmother had developed a warm, loving relationship.
After Sarah was graduated from college, she took a teaching job at an American military base in Europe, then transferred to other bases around the world. She met Steven Clary, an American service man, and when he was discharged they came to Minnesota to be married. At that time Beth was nineteen, in her second year of nurse's training, and ripe to fall desperately in love with the man who came out from Wyoming to be his brother's best man.
A year later both her parents died in a freak accident caused by a faulty furnace. Beth sent a telegram to Sarah, who came immediately. They made funeral arrangements, grieved together, and took comfort in knowing that they were sisters and had each other.
Beth was jarred from her thoughts by a loud knocking on her door. Mrs. Maxwell, she muttered silently. You're a darling, but sometimes a pest. She got out of the tub, wrapped a huge towel around her, and went to the door, fully expecting to have a bowl of chicken soup or something equally nourishing thrust into her hands.
"Interesting." Tom's gray-green eyes traveled from her startled face down to her wet, bare shoulders, then down to her breasts, barely concealed by the clinging towel. "May I come in?" he asked, then walked into the room, leaving her holding the door.
"It's only five o'clock! I didn't expect you so soon," Beth protested.
"No? I'd have sworn you did." Amusement played over his face as his eyes toured her figure. Beth's cheeks flamed.
"Make yourself at home," she invited sarcastically as he removed his coat. With as much dignity as possible, she stalked across the room.
"I'll be glad to help-"
She slammed the door on his words, and fumed. Damn him for coming early! She quickly toweled herself dry and pulled a pair of snug jeans up over her long slim legs. She was annoyed with herself for not thinking that he might show up before the appointed time. After slipping on a light blue turtleneck and a bulky navy sweater, she ran a brush through her hair. She was glad for once that it curled on its own. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she applied a touch of lipstick.
The young woman who looked back at her had short, dark hair cut in a wedge that showed the tips of her ears then tapered to the nape of her neck. She had deep blue eyes set far apart and fringed with dark lashes; a small, straight nose that even in the middle of winter was covered with freckles; high cheekbones, her best feature, she thought; and a soft, luscious mouth that she thought was too wide. I'm as common looking as an old shoe, she thought as she looked at herself. Oh, what I'd give for a little more sophistication.
Tom was sprawled on the couch. His eyes swept over her and he grinned. "I prefer the towel."
Beth, usually ready with a comeback, could think of nothing to say. She felt a telltale warmth invade her cheeks again. Damn him!
"What do you want to talk about?" she asked crossly.
"I'll tell you over dinner." He got to his feet, slung on his coat, then plucked hers from the rack beside the door.
She folded her arms across her breasts and waited, her eyes looking unflinchingly into his. "Is this your way of inviting me to dinner?"
"Should I have sent an engraved invitation?" He grinned cockily.
"Did it ever occur to you that I may already have a dinner date?" Her chin lifted and there was rebellion in every line of her body. He gazed at her defiant face with such intensity that she almost cringed. He knows! she thought. He knows that I was desperately in love with him!
"No. Now stop hedging and c'mon. You know you're going, I know you're going, so let's go."
"You haven't changed a bit," she flared. "You're still as conceited as ever." Her voice lashed him with bitter, unguarded words.
"Yeah?" His smile said he was proud of it. "You've changed. You didn't use to be so shrewish. I remembered you as being a real sweet little girl."
There was amusement in his voice. She wanted to retort that she was no longer the young, gullible, little girl she'd been three years ago. It had taken her a long time to erase his image from her subconscious. Night after night she had dreamed of him, despising herself for her inability to control her mind. But she had conquered her obsession for him, and now here he was, bulldozing his way back into her life. She wanted to put up further resistance, but what was the use? Clinging tightly to her dignity, she slipped her arms into the sleeves of the down coat he was holding for her.
"Button up. It's freezing out there."
Beth pulled the hood of her parka up over her head and put on her mittens. Then, holding fast to her resentment, she stalked ahead of him out the door.
It was dark outside now, and the temperature had dropped. An icy gust of air met them at the door. Tom took her arm and propelled her toward a four-wheel-drive vehicle parked across the street. Once inside he quickly started the engine and turned on the heat.
"It'll take a minute to warm up. God! It's cold here," he grumbled.
Excerpted from Loveseekers by Dorothy Garlock Copyright © 2007 by Dorothy Garlock. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 11, 2009
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