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It had been a long two years, but Wade Harrison was grateful for every second of that time. He was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. He knew, too, that he wouldn't have survived if not for the death of a stranger and his generous gift. He owed his life not only to his team of doctors, nurses and therapists, but also to a man named James Donald McCormick, who'd had the guts to sign an organ donor card.
Wade wasn't supposed to know the name of the man whose heart now beat inside his chest, but money and tenacity could find out just about anything, and Wade had plenty of both and wasn't ashamed to use either. The least he could do was make certain McCormick's family was getting along all right.
Funny, he thought as he stood on Main Street in Tribute, Texas, and looked up at the neon sign that read Dixie's Diner. He hadn't been this nervous when he'd chaired his first board meeting, yet here he stood, palms sweaty and stomach jumpy. To give himself a minute, he plunked coins into the machine just outside the café door for a copy of the local paper.
Stupid, really, this unusual case of nerves. He slapped the Tribute Banner against his leg. No one needed to know who he was or why he was here. He had every intention of remaining anonymous. Hang around town long enough to find out how McCormick's boys were doing — two of them, he'd learned — then head home. A day or two at most.
With a calming breath he pushed open the door to Dixie's Diner and stepped inside. A small bell over the door dinged, announcing his entrance.
The smell of frying meat dominated the air. The decor was 1950's highway-gas-station chic, with old Burma Shave, service station and U.S. 66 signs covering the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Booths lined the front and one side wall, chrome-legged tables and chairs filled the open floor, and a counter with chrome bar stools separated the dining area from the work area and kitchen.
Business appeared to be light, but it was only 11:30 a.m. The lunch crowd, if there was such a thing in this small Texas town, could fill the place up soon. Currently fewer than a dozen customers sat scattered throughout the dining room, two here, three there and one old man in faded overalls at the counter.
Wade didn't think he'd ever actually seen a person in bib overalls before. He supposed that made him a city boy, and he silently acknowledged that the name fit.
The woman who exploded from the kitchen through the swinging doors drove all thoughts of city versus country out of Wade's mind. She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, although she was beautiful. Her shoulder-length hair, dark blond with lighter streaks, was mussed, and her makeup was long gone. She wore a dishtowel around her waist as an apron, and a red plastic name tag over her breast that read Dixie. And her eyes were blue enough to drown in.
No, it wasn't her looks or her clothes that struck him dumb. It was the warm, soft feeling in his chest, the feeling of...familiarity. Which was crazy, since he'd never seen her before.
From his research — and that name tag — he knew this was Dixie McCormick, the ex-wife of his donor, mother of his donor's sons.
Wade was convinced it was McCormick's sons he had felt so anxious about when he'd awakened from the transplant surgery two years ago. Cellular memory, they called it. The medical community still debated whether or not such a thing existed, but a sizable number of transplant patients knew the feeling of waking up from surgery and wanting or knowing or feeling something that could come from nowhere else but the organ donor.
Hug my two best boys for me.
Those words had burst inside Wade's head and tumbled from his mouth the instant they had removed the breathing tube from his throat a day after his surgery, before he had been aware of what he was saying.
Now the mother of those two boys noticed him and came to an abrupt halt. "Hello."
It took him a moment, but he finally unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. This should be simple enough. He was used to addressing directors' meetings, shareholders' meetings, stingy bankers, politicians. He was good at speaking with people. He opened his mouth and out came, "Hi."
He made a helpless gesture with his folded newspaper.
The woman's eyes widened. She placed her pitcher of iced tea on the counter. "Oh. The paper. You're here about one of the jobs."
Wade looked down at the paper in his hand. "The jobs."
"Thank God." She rushed toward him and extended a hand. "I'm Dixie McCormick." Hers was not the hand of a pampered society princess. It was too strong, too rough and work worn.
He didn't want to let go. There was a connection there, beyond the obvious of hand to hand. Something deeper, more elemental. He might have blamed it on cellular memory, but something told him he'd be wrong. "Wade," he finally managed. "Harrison."
"Wade Harrison." She pulled her hand free and smiled broadly. "You'll have to pardon me for saying so, but you don't exactly look like you need a job."
Wade glanced down at his clothes. He hadn't wanted to stand out, so he'd worn his faded jeans and running shoes, but he hadn't wanted to look sloppy, either, so he'd topped them with a white dress shirt tucked in at the waist.
"I have a T-shirt with a hole in it," he offered,
"but..." Think Texas. "I use it to wash my truck. And clean my gun."
"In that case," she said, laughing, "I'm glad you didn't wear it. But you can't wash dishes or grill burgers and steaks in a white dress shirt. And pardon me again, but you don't look much like a dishwasher or a short-order cook. Where are you from?"
Wade shrugged. "Here and there." It wasn't a lie. Sure, he had an apartment in Manhattan, but there was the condo in Aspen, the beach house on Maui, and the family compound on Martha's Vineyard. "New York, most recently."
"A traveling man, huh? And you want to work here." She made it into a statement rather than a question. A statement she didn't seem to believe.
When he had walked through the door a few minutes earlier, it hadn't occurred to Wade to use the excuse of needing a job to hang around and check on McCormick's sons, yet here was the man's ex-wife, offering him employment. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
"Why not?" he asked her. "A man has to eat." She looked him up and down again, then shook her head. "Let me see your hands."
"Yes. Palms up."
Wade tucked the newspaper beneath his arm and held his hands out, palms up, suddenly grateful for time spent on the tennis court.
She grasped his hands and ran her thumbs over the slight calluses along the pads of the fingers of his right hand. "Well, I guess you've done some work before."
He just shrugged. "I've worked." Not manually, not for many years, but he'd worked his butt off in more than one boardroom. He thought it ironic that playing tennis, which he did to relax, would turn out to be more important in getting him a job than having been CEO of the nation's largest media conglomerate. The latter had not put calluses on his hands.
"Were you interested in night cooking or daytime dishwashing?"
While he could cook — he was a bachelor and didn't like to starve — he doubted his repertoire matched the diner's menu. Also, the woman before him was the key to the boys he was looking for, and she obviously worked days. Sticking as close to her as possible seemed his best bet.
"Daytime dishwashing," he told her. He only had to do it long enough to get a handle on McCormick's boys. A few days at most.
She stared at him for a minute, doubt furrowing her brow. Then finally, when he was about ready to squirm like the only kid in class who hadn't finished his homework, she gave a nod and took him by the arm.
"All right, I'll give you a try." She led him behind the counter, through the swinging doors and into the kitchen. "Not that I think you've ever washed a dish in your life," she muttered just loud enough for him to hear. Then, louder, "Pops, help is here. This is Wade. Wade, Pops. He'll show you around."
Pops was a wiry, gray-headed old man with more wrinkles on his face than anyone had a right to. He stood maybe five-five on legs so bowed he looked as if he might still be straddling a horse. No telling how tall he'd be if those legs were straight. The toes of his boots were worn and pointed. He smiled and flashed a mouthful of blindingly white teeth.
"Howdy," the old man offered, his eyes narrowed to slits. "You don't look much like you need a job."
"Pops," Dixie said in a scolding tone. "Be nice or wash the dishes yourself."
Pops flashed his teeth again. "This is me being nice."
"Good boy," she told him. "Whatever happened to respecting your elders?" Pops muttered. "That's what I wanna know."
Dixie showed Wade around the kitchen and explained what he was expected to do.
The kitchen was narrow and ran the length of the establishment. A stainless-steel-lover's dream. Oven, stove top, grill on one side, several sinks and countertops and a prep area on the other. Refrigerators, freezers, dry goods, canned goods, condiments, all on the far end, near a door to the back alley.
"And for every table you bus," she told him, "I'll give you a share — a very small share, but a share — of my tips."
Wade nodded. It could be a lot of work when business was rushed, but nothing he couldn't handle. "Bus, scrape, wash, stack, take out the trash. Anything else?"