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Jacob Graham patted her arm affectionately, his smile sympathetic. "I'm afraid so. There's no chance of error. Have a seat in the waiting room while I write a couple of prescriptions for you." She dressed, walked back to the gray carpeted little room and sat in one of the red leather chairs. Not a chance, he'd said. She'd gone to Elizabeth Cityforty miles north of her Caution Point, North Carolina, hometownfor the examination, because the old doctor had been her family's physician for more than forty years; she trusted Jacob Graham. Her gaze captured the man who sat across from her beneath a painting of the perfect family gamboling in pristine snow. She wanted to turn her back to it. Engrossed in the Carolina Times, the man seemed oblivious to her presence. Would he also get bad news?
Dr. Graham appeared, saw the man and greeted him with a smile. "I see you've finished it ahead of time. My grandson is going to be one happy boy." He opened the violin case, examined the instrument and exclaimed, his weathered white face wreathed in smiles, "It's beautiful, just like new."
"It's as good as new, too," the stranger said. "Ought to last Jason until he's ready for a Stradivarius." She shrugged off the tremor of excitement that shot through her when she heard the husky, sonorous voice.
Dr. Graham rubbed the wood gently, as though respectful of its value. "Now, tell me how things are going with you these days. Any better?"
"Nothing new; not a thing." She reflected on the weariness apparent in the man's voice and vowed not to let her circumstances whip her. She hated gloom, and she wasn't going to let it cloud her life. Anxious to leave, she cleared her throat, and the doctor turned toward her.
"Are these my prescriptions?" she asked him as she stood preparing to leave, and pointed to the two sheets of paper that he held.
"Yes, sure." The doctor looked from her to the tall, dark man beside him, rubbed his chin as though in deep thought and glanced back at her. "Have you two met?" Before she could respond, the big man shook his head more vigorously than she thought necessary. "You two ought to talk," Jacob Graham declared.
"Why is that?" the man inquired with an exaggerated note of skepticism and without so much as a glance her way. Not that she cared, she told herself.
Her doctor seemed to like his idea better the more he thought of it. "I've known both of you for years." He looked at her. "And you I've known all your life. If the two of you were prepared to act sensibly, you could solve each other's problems." He shook his almost snow-white head. "But sensibleness seems to be too much to expect of you young people these days." He handed her the prescriptions and patted her on the back. The other man nodded, but seemed preoccupied and hardly glanced in her direction as she left them.
"Just a second," Jacob Graham called after her. She waited until he reached the door where she stood. "Lorrianne's having one of her barbecue brunches Sunday, and I know she'd love to have you come."
Amanda diverted her gaze from the piercing blue eyes. "I don't want her to know about this yet. I have to get used to it myself. You understand, Dr. Graham?"
He removed the pencil from behind his ear and made a note on his writing pad. "How will she know if you don't tell her? I don't give my wife an account of everything that goes on in this office. You come on over. The garden's at its peak this time of year, and you know how she loves to show it off. Noon, Sunday. Don't forget, now."
Though anxiety boiled inside of her, she raised her head and squared her shoulders with an air of calm and walked out into the April morning, chilled by theAtlantic Ocean's still wintry breeze.
Amanda plaited her long, thick and wooly hair in a single braid, twisted it into a knot, surveyed the result and made a face at herself in the mirror. She couldn't bring herself to cut her hair, though she spent a good fifteen minutes every morning braiding it and wrapping the single braid around her head or making two French twists at the back of her head. It would be easier to manage if she straightened it but, as a teenager, she had decided to leave it as nature had ordained. She finished dressing, got into her car and drove to Elizabeth City, giving herself plenty of time to arrive before other guests; joining a crowd of cocktail-sipping strangers was not anything she relished on that particular day. Her concerns were too serious for light chatter. But in spite of her efforts, she arrived to find at least a dozen people milling around, chatting and drinking coffee. No cocktails. She had forgotten Lorrianne's rule about not serving alcohol before six o'clock. Lorrianne claimed that Americans spent too much money and wasted too much energy on alcohol. Not that any of it mattered to her; a glass of wine was as much as she ever drank.
Her hostess introduced her to the other guests, but she couldn't muster any interest in the things that concerned themmostly local gossip and politicsand after a few polite exchanges she focused her attention on the garden. Lorrianne Graham had created a magnificent retreat for a troubled spirit, Amanda decided, as she strolled among the profusion of red, white and pink peonies, pansies, hyacinths, and flowering dogwood and fruit trees. What a pity the tulips had no perfume, she thought, gazing at their array of colors and the many shapes of their petals. Flowers from several fruit trees floated to the ground, leaving behind their tiny green treasures.
She leaned against a wrought-iron bench and inhaled deeply, enjoying the fresh spring air and the fragrant hyacinths. But her weight toppled the three-legged bench and, to her amazement, she lay sprawled across a patch of purple and yellow pansies. Her cheeks burned in embarrassment as she looked around, hoping that she'd escaped notice.
"Here, let me give you a hand." She had to quell the impulse to ask him to leave her to her own devices, summoned her dignity and smiled politely. Of all people: the man she'd seen that previous Thursday in the doctor's office.
"Give me your hand," he persisted. She raised her left hand, because her right one lay trapped beneath her side. "You're lucky you missed that raspberry bush," he said, friendlier than she thought necessary. She accepted his assistance with as much dignity as she could muster, thanked him and hoped he'd leave her and join the other guests. She couldn't think of a way to dismiss him without appearing rude and ungrateful. So she strove to be her normally gentle, courteous self and to make conversation, but her personal problems bore so heavily on her that she couldn't summon the will to friendliness. I'm in bad shape, she conceded, if I can't focus well enough to carry on an impersonal conversation with such a man as this one.
"Your head is almost covered with pink and white petals," he told her, evidently oblivious to her discomfort.That voice. Could he hear the melodies in his speech? Of course, she immediately concluded; enough women must have told him about it. She forced herself to turn slowly toward him, gaining time to restore her equilibrium.
"Oh? Flowers in my hair?" She hated that he disconcerted her to such an extent that she lost her poise.
"Yeah," he answered, no doubt unperturbed by her aloofness. "Lots of them." He picked off a few and showed them to her. She backed away, sensitive to the feel of his fingers on her scalp, and resisted the urge to remove her dark glasses. Remove them and get an unobstructed look at eyes she remembered as being the color of dark brown honey and at a flawless almond complexion. She breathed deeply in relief when a beautiful, sepia woman with a mannequin's build and carriage claimed his attention and took him away. All I need right now is to lose my head over a guy like that one, she told herself, amused that the possibility existed.
She didn't tolerate the medicine well and went back to her doctor two weeks later for a new prescription.
"Nothing has changed," Jacob Graham told her when she asked again whether he was certain of the diagnosis. "Only time will change this; you know that, so you might as well start right now to adjust to it. It won't be easy, but I'm confident you'll manage."
"Don't worry; I'll be fine. Give my love to Lorrianne." She doubted that anything could have depressed her more than his declaration that he knew she'd manage. How was she supposed to do that?
An hour and a half later, she slid into a booth at Caution's Coffee Bean. She had heard it said that, if you went to the popular eatery often enough, you would eventually see most of the town's fourteen thousand inhabitants. She barely remembered driving from Elizabeth City to Caution Point, North Carolina, or even parking her car. The waiter brought her usual breakfast of coffee and a plain doughnut and would no doubt have paused for their morning chat, had she not been preoccupied.
She sipped the coffee slowly, without tasting it. In two weeks, just two short weeks, she had tumbled from a state of euphoria to one of despair. She almost wished she hadn't gotten that promotion; a department head might get away with it, but never a school principal. It couldn't be happening to her. But it was and, somehow, she had to find an acceptable solution.
"It's ridiculous," she heard a man in the adjoining booth say. "How can they charge like that? It must be illegal."
"They can, and it's legal," his companion replied in a deep, resonant, almost soothing voice, a familiar voice. "One hundred thousand dollars for my child's future. A hundred thousand and she'll be able to walk like other children. She's had fourteen months of operations, tubes and needles. Fourteen months in intensive care, and now this. Those doctors charge as much as ten times what the insurance pays. I've sold my car, mortgaged my home and my business and borrowed on every credit card I have. And now because the insurance company will pay only thirty thousand of it, I have a little more than a week to come up with seventy thousand dollars, or Amy will never walk again." Amanda couldn't help listening to the two men.
"And the bank turned you down flat yesterday afternoon?"
"Yeah. Wouldn't you? I'm a poor risk right now. A year ago, I could call my shots, but now I can't even take care of my child's needs. I told the bank officers that I have a strong damage suit in this case, but all that got me was sympathy."
"Have you tried Helena? Maybe she'd be willing to help. After all, that British polo player she married is rolling in money."
"I wrote her about the accident the day after it happened, and I got a note about six weeks later saying that she hoped everything was all right. Not that I expected more; Helena doesn't have the maternal instincts of a flea. She hasn't written since and doesn't know what her four-year-old daughter's condition is." Amanda empathized with the man; compared to his problem, hers seemed slight. If she could solve her problem with seventy thousand dollars, she would stop worrying. As heir to the wealth of her parents, grandparents and great-auntderived from their interests in one of the regions most prosperous fish and seafood canning businesses, money was the least of her problems. She wanted to peer around the coat tree to get a look at him, but she wouldn't know which one was Amy's father. Surely that voice couldn't belong to the man she first saw in her doctor's office and then at Lorrianne's barbecue brunch. But how could two men have that same voice? She sipped some water. Great-Aunt Meredith had always said that sipping water slowly was very calming. The men continued to search for a way to pay for Amy's surgery.
"Can't you pay the doctors on installment?"
"They want it upfront," she heard him say. "Every dime of it. But look, Jack, you'd better go. You'll be late for work, and you've sacrificed enough for me."
She looked up as "Jack" passed her on his way out, then focussed on the man who remained. Good Lord! He was the same one she'd seen in Dr. Graham's office and at his home. She regarded Amy's father, a handsome, clean-cut man whom she thought any woman should be proud to have for a husband. Dr. Graham had said that they could solve each other's problem. Her gaze held him, seemingly deep in thought, as he stared into his coffee cup. Perhaps
No. She pushed back the absurd idea, paid for her breakfast and left.
Amanda drove home thinking that spring recess would soon be over and she hadn't done any of the things she'd planned. Instead, she had been struggling with the most difficult problem she'd ever faced. She didn't put her car in the garage as she usually did, but left it in front of the house. She had lived alone in the comfortable, two-story home with its spacious grounds since her aunt Meredith's death and, though she loved the house with its memories, ghosts and treasures, there were times when she had to struggle with the loneliness. The telephone rang just as she closed the front door.
"Amanda, can you come to my office tomorrow morning?"
"Why, yes. Is there a problem, Dr. Graham?"
"Maybe a solution. I have an opening at eleven o'clock. Would that suit you?" She agreed and hung up. A solution. Solution to what? Well, she'd find out when she got there.
When she walked into Jacob Graham's office, Amanda supposed that his cheerful greeting was meant to put her at ease but, instead, his smile alarmed her.
"What is it?" He wasn't wearing his white coat, and he didn't indicate that he wanted her to go to the examining room. "Is something wrong, Dr. Graham?"
"Amanda, I want to talk with you as an old family friend. Caution Point is a small place, and you've just been made principal of the junior high. Small-town people are conservative; you know that. I saw you talking with my friend, Marcus Hickson, in the garden the day Lorrianne had that brunch. Both of you have a difficult problem that you could easily solve together. Marcus is a fine man by any measure, or I wouldn't say this."