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By Mary Kay McComas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Mary Kay McComas
All rights reserved.
They were watching her. She could feel them staring at her. She didn't care, she'd been stared at before, lots of times. Clamorous hordes of people had jostled one another just to catch a glimpse of her. Still, this was no ordinary gathering, and she wasn't at her very best these days.
Why had she come, she wondered. At the time it had seemed imperative; now she wasn't so sure. And why would she come in February? Lord, it was cold here. How could she have forgotten the dreary gray winter skies, the bare, lifeless trees, the bitter wind. Maybe a moribund place like this suited her state of mind.
Elephants had a special dying place, so did salmon and whales, she remembered. She was weak and tired. Her vision was blurred and her bones ached. Maybe she'd come home to die ...
He stood among the townspeople and watched her walk slowly across the street from the drugstore toward the flashy little red sports car that could only have belonged to her.
Tall, too thin and pale, she held her head self-consciously high. Her long dark hair whipped about her face in the harsh winds, but she didn't move to restrain it. It was as if she didn't realize how cold and windy it was. All she wore was a bulky knit sweater and a pair of well-worn jeans that hugged her long, slim legs closely. The black leather boots she wore were probably very fashionable somewhere else, he decided, but they were totally inadequate here.
He watched as she stumbled on the slick asphalt once, then again, before she was close enough to get a grip on her car and hold herself up. She raised her face to the wind, then got into the car. His eyes narrowed as he saw her head back fall back on the headrest. His heart counted the seconds until she would start the car and drive back to the motel. Then his pulse rate quickened, telling him something was wrong.
Esther gulped the frigid air. She closed her eyes against the dimness that was consuming her. Was this what dying felt like, she wondered. Her thoughts, memories, and emotions raced as reality began to slip away from her.
"Ms. Brite," a stern voice called out from the darkness. "Esther. Esther, wake up," a man shouted, and she felt a stinging force on her cheek. "Dammit, Esther, don't do this. Esther!"
The man who owned the deep, gruff voice was rude and mean. How dare he shake her as if she were a cheap rag doll. Didn't he know who she was?
"Dammit, Esther, wake up." His tone was fierce.
"Get your damned hands off me," she muttered, too weak even to open her eyes.
"When you wake up, I'll let go," he said, patting her face sharply and repeatedly.
Esther swore at him, wanted to punch him, but couldn't.
"Thatta girl. Show a little spunk," he said in an encouraging tone.
She groaned. "Spunk. Hell."
"Are you on drugs?" he asked firmly.
Esther swore at him again.
"Good. Have you been sick long? You're burning with fever," he told her, sounding angry and disapproving.
"Fever?" She only had tried to think of the word, but she'd said it aloud.
"That's right, fancy pants," he said in a calmer but not much nicer tone as he started to scoop her up and out of the car.
"No. Don't. Leave me alone," she protested, not sure of what was happening, desperately trying to become fully alert and protect herself.
About the time her eyes finally opened, she was being placed quickly and yet rather gently into the passenger's side of her car. The door slammed closed and a big, dark-haired man got in beside her on the driver's side.
"Keys," he ordered, holding out a large hand with long slim fingers and turning dark, intense brown eyes on her.
"Who the hell are you?" she asked.
His eyes, so deep and consuming, were like two endless vacuums pulling at her disjointed senses.
"My name is Dr. Daniel Jacobey," he told her clearly. "You're ill. You need help."
"Doc Evans isn't dead, is he?" she asked, trying to recall the event, making an exerted effort to resist the lure of the man's eyes.
"Retired," he stated, wiggling his fingers at her impatiently.
"Oh" was her only comment as she patted various parts of her body, then slipped her fingers into the pocket of her sweater to retrieve the car keys. She flipped them into the doctor's hand and leaned back into the seat with a tired sigh, closing her eyes fatalistically. Whatever happened now would happen. Lethargy was setting in again, and she'd depleted enough of her energy by asking who the man was. She'd have to trust him.
She must have begun dreaming soon after that, as people and faces floated in and out of her consciousness like shadows from the past ... except the doctor was in them too.
His hands were cool and gentle. He spoke softly to her and touched her cheek with great tenderness. Addy Markham came to chide her, but she'd always spoken harshly without meaning to. It was just her way. She was older now, which seemed odd. Esther could hear her mother's voice from far away but never saw her face. She even dreamed that the townspeople were gathering to shoot her in the head for biting Tommy Belldon. She had to leave town. She had to get away before they all found out the truth about her. Esther ran. She ran hard. Hands grabbed her, held her. They were cool and gentle and soothing. They were nice hands and she gave herself up to them, feeling safe and content.
Esther heard the question but hoped if she ignored it, whoever wanted to know would go away.
"People say you're a genius, but if you ask me, you're pretty stupid. No genius would let herself get this sick."
It was that idiot doctor again.
"Who asked you?" Esther mumbled into her pillow.
"No one," Dan replied. "But if someone had, that's what I'd tell them."
Esther opened one eye and glared at him. "What is your name again?"
"Am I still in Bellewood?"
"That figures. Your bedside manner and Bellewood were made for each other. It's probably the only town in the world that'd take you and be happy to have you," she said sarcastically. Besides, she added to herself, what kind of doctor would wear soft worn blue jeans and thick flannel shirts during office hours? She was very careful, however, not to admit to herself how virile and rugged he looked in them.
"Now, don't you go bad-mouthin' Doctor Dan, Esther Brite. Ya owe him your life, and that ain't no way to pay him back." Addy Markham spoke sharply from the doorway, then entered the room with a tray of food.
Esther's face was a grimace of misery as she tried to lift her head off the pillow and focus her eyes on Addy. The action required too much effort, and she let her face fall into the pillow and groaned defeatedly. Not only was she as weak as a kitten, but she appeared to be at the mercy of the charming Dr. Delightful and Addy Markham.
"Addy's right," the doctor agreed, throwing back the sheets that covered Esther. He helped her sit up in bed, saying, "And I always demand full restitution for my services."
"Do you take out-of-town checks?" Esther quipped as she allowed him to prop pillows behind her.
"No. And I don't accept American Express either," he was anticipating her.
She slid Dan a glance, her exotic, almond-shaped green eyes suspicious. "That leaves barter, Doctor. Are you planning on taking your payment out in trade?" she asked, not threatened or afraid, merely curious.
His eyes warmed with amusement, and for a brief moment Esther took a keen and special liking to the doctor. Without the cool manner, he was very appealing.
"Yes," he replied, a cunning half smile on his lips. "I'll trade my skills and the saving of your life for a little cooperation."
Esther's brows rose, her eyes unflinchingly clear as she met his gaze.
"You're rundown, malnourished, and you nearly died of pneumonia. Your payment is to get yourself well and strong." His expression was serious again. "I want you to cooperate with Addy. Eat when she tells you, rest when she says to. Take your pills and stay in bed."
Esther was thoughtful as she took in her surroundings for the first time. Her response to his conditions faded as she noticed there was something familiar about the room. She knew she wasn't at Addy's house. The shape and size of the room and the view from the window were very familiar, but the cracking plaster walls she remembered had been covered with cedar paneling, and ... a rug covered the floor, wall to wall.
"This is my house," she said in amazement, feeling dazed and weak again. Maybe she was still dreaming.
"No. It's my house," the doctor said, following her gaze around the room, trying to see things from her perspective, aware that she must have left many memories in this room. Was she seeing paneling or peeling plaster?
"My mother's house," she said. "My old room. So long ago ..."
Her memories and emotions were abruptly disturbed by Addy firmly placing the tray on her lap.
"Doctor Dan did a fine job fixin' it up. Next to the Big House, it's probably the nicest in town now, so don't you go spoiling it for him." Addy scolded as she handed a spoon to Esther and removed the cloth covering the tray to reveal a bowl of dark broth, another of red gelatin, and a cup of sweet-smelling tea.
Esther ran a hand through her long, tangled hair and glanced from Addy to the doctor.
"I wouldn't want to spoil it for him. It looks great," she said, feeling ill-at-ease for the first time in a long time. "Mama always wanted to fix it up nice," she told the doctor, then looked to Addy. "I don't know why she ..." Esther trailed off, dropping her gaze regretfully.
"Ms. Brite will probably have a hard time eating for a while. Would you help her, Addy? I have patients to see. Call me if you need me," the doctor said brusquely. He hadn't reached the door before Esther began to cough, and Addy hastily retrieved the tray.
It was a hard cough, causing Esther to wheeze and gasp for air, nearly choking her as she bent over to get her breath back.
"Relax and try to breathe deeply," he said. Esther tried but only succeeded in initiating a whole new episode of coughing.
Dan held her upper arm and placed a comforting hand on her back while she fought to breathe. Oddly, her body seemed conditioned to the touch of his hands. She sensed he could be trusted to care for her, to protect her. Even as she gasped for air, she didn't doubt she was safe.
"Those are bronchospasms. You'll have them until your lungs clear up. The medication will help," he told her as she began to relax once again.
Esther thought he was a little cold. Doc Evans had been a much more compassionate man. She wished he were there instead of this hard, matter-of-fact man with his perceptive hands and alluring eyes.
"Eat up. I'll be back later," he said.
The two women watched him exit, their opinions of him on opposite ends of the spectrum.
"Good man," commented Addy.
Esther shrugged. "It's hard to tell from what I've seen."
"Well, he sat up with you for three nights until your fever broke and you fought your way back to life. I coulda done it, but he said he wanted to. He said nights were usually the worst, and he wanted to be close in case somethin' happened," Addy said, then reiterated, "He's a good man."
"I'll take your word for it," Esther said, too tired to fight but still wanting to talk to Addy.
"I've been here three days?" she asked feebly.
"Can't say where you were in your head," the old woman said, "but your body's been here that long. He coulda kept you at his little clinic, but he took you into his home. He offered to pay me for carin' for ya, but I told him I cared for ya when you was little, I cared for your ma after that, and I could do for you again without gettin' paid for it."
A slow smile of remembrance came to Esther's lips as she looked at Addy Markham, really seeing her for the first time in many years.
As a young woman, Addy had owned the local brothel in the one-horse, one-whore town of Bellewood. Later, she'd taken on three, sometimes four assistants. Esther's mother had been among them for a short time, before Laura had gotten a better job in the offices at Belldon Mines.
Given her mother's tainted history and the fact that she'd borne a bastard child, Esther realized that one of the few people in town who'd had a friendly word for Laura Brite was her old employer, Addy Markham.
Addy Markham was gruff, straightforward, and to-the-point. There was a certain grace about Addy's tall, thin stature. She'd dressed simply but expensively in tailored clothes.
She'd worn her dark hair long and wound into a tight knot at the top of her head, and yet she was always careful to allow a few soft, curling tendrils to escape. She never was the picture-book image of a madam.
Not much about the woman had changed over the years except that her hair was completely gray and she looked a little tired to Esther who'd known her as a younger woman. She'd aged well, however, Esther admitted as she took in the woman's smooth skin. Her face was carefully made up to enhance her blue eyes, thin straight nose, and lips that had seduced more than their fair share of men.
"Thanks, Addy," Esther said quietly, meaning it as much for now as for times in the past.
"You look well."
"A lot you care," she said, replacing the tray in Esther's lap, then sitting on the bed, picking up the spoon. "I ain't heard from ya since your mama died. I only heard then because you wanted to make sure she was buried properly."
Esther couldn't speak. There was nothing to say. Seventeen years ago she'd left Bellewood, her mother, and Addy Markham behind her to make a new life for herself. Addy knew why she'd left and how she'd felt at the time. She knew and she understood. There was nothing more for either one to say. So why did Esther feel guilty all of a sudden?
Addy had always known how to reach her if necessary, and Esther had always remembered Addy at Christmas and on her birthday. Of course, she hadn't been informed until months later that Addy had had her gallbladder removed in an emergency operation. She was completely recovered by the time Esther found out. Esther might have come back to Bellewood if Addy had asked or had needed her, but she'd never given any indication that she desired to see her. Come to think of it, Addy had never asked for anything from Esther—not an autographed album, not a loan, not even the time of day. She'd simply been there. Good ol' Addy, Esther thought.
Esther had to admit that she could have made more of an effort to keep in touch with Addy over the years. Addy probably would have appreciated it more than her own mother had, and she'd owed it to Addy who had been the only friend she'd known in those early years. She had been more of a mother to Esther than Laura Brite had ever been.
Addy fed Esther the broth and gelatin silently for a while, and then spoke as if the conversation hadn't lapsed.
"He was real good to her too," she commented. "He'd listen to her ramble on the way she did toward the end."
"The doctor?" Esther clarified, knowing Addy was thinking of Laura.
Addy nodded. "He came here about five years ago, just before your mama died. I think maybe he had some problems of his own when he came, but we were glad to have him once we got to know him. He was some sort of highfalutin' doctor from D.C.; he came as a favor to Doc Evans, who's a friend of his uncle's. It was only supposed to be temporary-like, till they could find a replacement, but he's been here ever since," she reported to Esther, indicating the man was due his proper respect. "Anyway," she continued, offering Esther some tea, "your mama took a shine to him when she was in her right mind, and he was real kind to her. He even went to her funeral, and he hadn't known her long."
"Is that why he's being so rough on me? Because he, a virtual stranger, went to her funeral, and her own daughter didn't show up?" Esther asked.
"I don't think so," Addy said, considering, as she rose and took the tray away. "I don't know why he's testy with you, but it don't matter anyway. You ain't goin' to be here forever." She paused briefly, then bluntly asked, "Why did you come back here, Esther?"
"I don't know," she said, shaking her head limply. "It may have been fever-induced, but I remember thinking there was an answer here for me. A solution to a lot of things I've been thinking about lately."
Excerpted from Obsession by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1988 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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