Jecca Layton was coming to Edilean for the entire summer!
Dr. Tristan Aldredge put down the phone with his cousin Kim. At last something good was happening in his life! In the last weeks he’d begun to think that he was on a downward spiral that was never going to end.
His arm itched, and he did his best to use the coat hanger wire to scratch it under the cast. So much for medical school, he thought. All those years of training and what did he use for the incessant itching but a coat hanger?
As always, he tried not to think of what had happened to him a few weeks before. He’d been on his way to the airport when he realized he’d left his cell phone at home. Since he was the only doctor in a small town, he couldn’t risk being out of touch. He drove back home and came upon a robbery in progress. Before he knew what was happening, he’d been hit in the back of the head with a golf club and kicked down a hillside. So now his arm was in a cast, his father had come out of retirement to take over Tris’s practice, and Tristan had been told to “rest.” To do nothing. Let his arm heal.
This pronouncement had made him waver between suicide and murder. How was he supposed to do nothing? He couldn’t help but think how many times he’d told his patients just what his doctor had said to him. Over the years, Tris had put on his most sober face and told patient after patient to find something he/she could do with one arm or leg. To Tris, it had seemed like a temporary thing, so why so much complaining? But when he was told the same thing, he’d said that was impossible.
“I have patients. An entire town depends on me,” he’d said to his doctor.
“And you’re the only one who can handle it?” the man replied with one eyebrow raised. He had no understanding of Tris’s predicament and certainly no sympathy. Tris thought about running his chair over the man’s stethoscope—while it was in his ears.
His father had been worse. He’d come up from Sarasota where he’d been living in retirement and started complaining the second he entered Tris’s office—the office that used to belong to him. His father saw everything that Tris had changed and told his son that it should have been left the way it was. When Tris protested, his father told him to go home and rest.
“Doing what?!” Tris had muttered as he left.
He’d thought about getting out of Edilean for a while, but that hadn’t appealed to him. He liked being home, and besides, he had plants to take care of. And patients to see on the side, ones that his father wouldn’t know about.
Still, the prospect of the summer was bleak, and he dreaded it.
But then, Kim called to ask how he was doing. He’d refrained from telling her the truth, but he did manage to give a few sighs and she rewarded him with some sympathy. She’d then told him the wonderful news that her friend Jecca Layton was coming to Edilean to spend the entire summer painting. For the first time since he’d awakened to find himself down the side of a hill on his own property, knowing full well that his arm had been broken in the fall, Tristan began to perk up. But then, Jecca’s name always put life in him. He’d met her years before on her first visit to Edilean. She’d been a teenager then and Tris was a young doctor working under the rule of his father.
Kim’s parents had put on a party and invited a lot of the cousins to meet Jecca. There had been a house full of people, all of them having known each other a lifetime, so they were busy catching up with one another’s lives. Tris was the only one who noticed when Jecca escaped out the back door. He started to get her a margarita, but then remembered that she was Kim’s age—just nineteen. He got her a glass of lemonade instead and took it out to her.
“Thirsty?” he asked as he handed her the glass.
“Sure,” she said as she took it, but she barely glanced at him.
That she didn’t do a double take at his looks made Tristan blink a few times. All his life people had responded to the look of him. He’d never had trouble getting girls, as they came to him without his having to do anything. But this girl kept looking at the moonlight across the lawn and didn’t seem interested in Tristan’s extraordinary good looks. Until that moment she’d only been “Kim’s friend from college,” but that night Tris looked at her in her own right. She was tall, with a slim body that curved in all the right places. She had on jeans and a shirt that clung to her perfect shape, not outrageously so, but discreetly, and he liked that. She looked classy, elegant even. Her face was very pretty, with short dark hair that framed her face. She had green eyes that reminded him of the petals of butterfly orchids, and her little nose turned up in a way that made him want to kiss the tip of it. Her lips were perfectly formed, but right now there was a sadness about them that almost made him frown. More than anything, he wanted to take that sadness away.
“Are we too much for you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said honestly. “Kim has so many relatives that I—” Cutting herself off, she glanced at him. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound negative. It was nice of her family to give me this party, but it’s a lot to meet so many people at once. I apologize but I don’t remember your name.”
“Ah, yes, the writer.”
“No.” He was smiling at her, teasing.
“I shudder at the thought.” He set his drink down and leaned his elbows back on the low brick wall that ran along the patio.
“You’re not one of those . . .” She waved her hand. “Something to do with cars.”
“A Frazier? No, I’m an Aldredge.”
Jecca turned to look at him, her pretty face slightly frowning, then she smiled, and when she did, Tris’s heart seemed to leap into his throat. Damn! But she was pretty. The moonlight played on her skin in a way that made it look like alabaster. “You’re a doctor. Like Reede.”
Tristan gave her his best smile, the one that had made many a woman look as though she were going to melt. But Jecca didn’t. She just looked at him in question. “Yes, I’m a doctor. I work here in Edilean.”
She tilted her head as she looked up at him. “Do you like being a doctor or did you do it because that’s what Aldredges do?”
Tristan wasn’t used to pretty women standing in the moonlight and asking him about his innermost thoughts. He wouldn’t be surprised to be shown a mole they were worried about, or for a woman to step closer in invitation, but someone asking about his life was a first. “I—”
“If you say you want to help people, it doesn’t count,” she said.
He’d wanted to take the seriousness from her, but he was the one to laugh. That was exactly what he’d been about to say. He took a moment to consider her question. “Would it make sense to say that I don’t think I had a choice? From the time I can first remember, I’ve wanted to heal things, make them better. Kids used to bring me wounded animals and I bandaged them.”
“Isn’t your father a doctor too? Did he help you?”
“No,” Tris said, smiling. “He was too busy with real people. But he understood. He said he’d done the same thing when he was a kid. My mother helped me. She got my dad’s old textbooks out of the attic, and together we learned how to make splints and sew up wounds. I think she probably asked my dad what to do, but it was nice for Mom and me to do it together.”
“I like that story,” Jecca said as she looked out over the lawn. “My mother died when I was very young and I don’t remember her. But my dad has always been there. He’s a great guy, and he’s taught me a lot.”
“You sound like you miss him,” Tris said softly. He couldn’t help himself as he stepped nearer to her. He’d never before felt so close to a woman he wasn’t related to. He wanted to take her hand and lead her into the dark, sit down somewhere, and talk the night away. “Do you—?” he began but cut off when the sliding door into the house opened.
“There you are!” Kim said to Jecca. “Everyone is looking for you.” She looked from Tris to Jecca in speculation, as though wondering if anything had been going on.
Jecca took a step forward, then glanced back at Tristan. “It was nice to meet you. I hope I don’t need to go to your office,” she said, then followed Kim inside.
That had been the last time Tristan had seen Jecca. He’d wanted to invite her and Kim to his house, but a patient had had a blood clot in her leg and had to be airlifted to Richmond. Tris had gone with her and when he got home, Jecca had returned to New Jersey. He knew without being told that in her memory he’d been relegated to “one of Kim’s cousins.”
He told himself it was all right, as Jecca was just nineteen and by comparison at twenty-seven, Tris was an old man. He’d had to content himself with trying to finagle information out of Kim. He’d always acted as though it meant nothing to him, but he asked Kim about her often. “How’s your friend . . . What was her name? That’s right. Jecca. How’s she doing now? You two have any new boyfriends? Anything serious going on with either of you?” He’d posed all his questions in an avuncular tone, and Kim had never seemed to see what he was actually asking.
She said Tris was a good friend for even remembering her college roommate, and an even better guy for listening to her babble on and on about whatever they were doing in school. Kim told him how Jecca’s father nearly drove her insane because he kept such rigid control over her, and how Jecca was doing with her painting, and all about any boyfriend that Jecca might have. Kim talked about their other roommate, Sophie, and about her own life, and she never seemed to notice that Tristan always maneuvered the conversation back to Jecca.
Every time Jecca had returned to Edilean to visit Kim, Tris had tried to see her. But every time something had come up, some emergency that as a doctor, he couldn’t overlook. On one visit, he’d been in France on a rare vacation. That he’d been there with another woman hadn’t been important to him.
One time when Tris was in New York he’d stopped by the art gallery where Jecca was working, but she’d been in New Jersey at the time. Once when he was at a conference in New York, he rented a car and drove up to see Layton Hardware, but Jecca wasn’t there. He’d had a glimpse of her father, who seemed to be as wide as he was tall and all muscle, but there wasn’t anything Tris could think of to say to him. That he was pursuing a girl he’d met when she was just nineteen? Joe Layton didn’t look like a man who would greet those words with a smile. Tristan had left with a new toolbox and driven back to Edilean.
But now it seemed that Jecca was coming to spend the entire summer in Edilean. At long, long last, he was going to have a chance to spend time with her. The age difference was no longer a hindrance, so now maybe they could at last get to know each other.
“Hey! I know,” Kim said on the phone. “You and I can go out with Jecca and Reede. Sort of an odd double date.”
Reede? Tristan thought. What did he have to do with Jecca? But then he thought that Kim was probably just planning to fix Jecca up on a date. “Jecca is coming to Edilean?” he managed to say. “How did you arrange that?”
“I pointed out that it was either me and Edilean, or her dad and New Jersey. She agreed instantly.”
Tris didn’t laugh. “So what’s this about Reede? He hasn’t been home in what? Two years now.”
“Oh dear, I think I’ve revealed something I’m not supposed to. I think you better ask your dad.”
“Kimberly!” Tristan said sternly, sounding as old as he could manage. “What is going on?”
Kim was not intimidated by him. “Didn’t your mom tell you that she and your dad had reservations on some cruise?”
“I don’t remember. A lot has happened to me in the last few weeks. I can’t keep it all straight.”
“I know, and we’re all trying to help you.” Kim didn’t waste time on more sympathy. “Your mom swears she isn’t going to give up that cruise. She told my mom it took her half a year to talk your father into it, and if he doesn’t go on this one, she’ll never get him on a ship.”
“Kim? What does this have to do with Reede and Jecca?”
“I’m getting to that, just hold on. Your dad is going on the cruise and Reede is coming back to Edilean to take over your practice until you get well.”
Tristan tried to control his impatience. “That’s great of him. He needs to settle down. Maybe he’ll stay here.”
“You think everyone in the world should live in Edilean, Virginia.”
“Only the good people.” He took a breath. “What does this have to do with your friend Jecca?”
“You remember the first time Jecca visited me? I think you met her, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” He would never tell anyone how much he’d done because of that meeting.
“It’s a long story, but Reede and Jecca had a thing that time, and she’s kept up with him over the years. I think that when they see each other again . . . Well, I’m hoping they’ll hit it off. I’m going to do my best to get them together.”
“What do you mean ‘a thing’?”
“It’s too long to go into now,” Kim said, “and I need to go. I have wedding rings to file and polish. But keep your fingers crossed that I can get Reede and Jecca together. I think they’d make a great couple, don’t you?”
“Reede wants to travel the world. He’ll never settle down.”
“You just said—You really are in a bad mood, aren’t you? Maybe we won’t ask you out with Reede and Jecca and me, after all.” She waited for him to reply, but when he said nothing, she sighed. “How about if I come over this afternoon and tell you all about my latest jewelry designs?”
I’d rather hear about Jecca, he thought, but didn’t say. He’d get her to tell him everything when she got there. “Sure, I’d love to have the company.”
“Go tend your orchids,” Kim said as she said good-bye, then hung up.
Tristan stood by the phone for quite some time, just staring at it. He was elated that Jecca was going to spend the summer in Edilean, but what was this about her and Reede? Kim had never mentioned a word about it.
He went into his bedroom, flipped on the light switch, and went to the mirror. Reaching behind it, he took out a photo. It was old and a bit faded and there was an extra hand in the picture from the blonde who was lounging on top of the big rock. But the age and condition of the photo reminded him of how long he had been intrigued by Miss Jecca Layton.
Tristan unfolded the photo and looked at the two young women. The blonde was certainly pretty, and she was built like a 1950s pinup, large on top and bottom, with a tiny waist in the middle. Her face was pink-and-white pretty, with china blue eyes and full lips. But Tris had never been attracted to that girl and he folded the picture back.
He stretched out on his bed, held the photo aloft, and looked at Jecca. Kim had sent him the photo, along with lots of others, not long after he’d met Jecca. He’d kept this one to remind himself of his brief moments with her. Yeah, sure, she looked great in a bikini, long and sleek, but it was more than that. She had a body that looked like she could do sporty things, like ride a bike along the trails of the preserve. Or drive a four-wheeler up to the cabin of his cousin Roan, and go fishing.
For all that he liked her body, he was fascinated by her face. She had a look of humor in her eyes that he’d always liked. She looked like someone who could laugh even when the going got rough.
And if Tris needed anything in his life it was laughter!
He loved being a doctor and helping people and he knew that he’d saved some lives. But when tests came back and showed that a person he cared about had Stage IV cancer, he didn’t like his job so much.
In the last years he’d wanted to go home, not to an empty house, but to someone he could talk to. Someone who would understand and listen.
But for all the women he’d dated, he hadn’t found a woman like that. There were a lot of them who made it crystal clear that they’d like to marry him, but he’d always felt that they wanted who he was rather than him. They seemed to think more about being a doctor’s wife than they did about Tristan himself.
A few years ago he’d almost believed one of them. They’d dated for a year and the sex had been good. He’d met her at a party, she was from Virginia Beach and had a degree in business and sold pharmaceuticals. She was smart and interesting. After they’d spent several months together he’d thought that he might ask her to marry him. But then he’d accidentally heard her on the phone talking to her girlfriend about the size of the ring Tris was probably going to give her. “I’m sure he can afford at least three carats,” she’d said. “Let me tell you, I can’t wait to get my hands on this ratty old house of his. Even if we just use it for vacation, I still can’t stand the place.”
Tris had stepped forward and let her see him. He’d listened to her excuses and apologies, but she’d seen that it was no use. She left that night, and he hadn’t seen her since.
There’d been no one serious since then. In fact, in the last two years he’d been dating less and less.
He was well aware that the town was now saying that he’d never marry, that he was a confirmed bachelor. And part of him had begun to believe that.
But in the last few years, one by one, his cousins who were near his age had married, and they already had children. There was no one left to go out to have a beer with. All the men were so newly married that they still wanted to be home with their wives and babies. Or at least that was the excuse Tris made for them. That they’d chosen well in their mates was something he didn’t want to think about.
Tris would make jokes about how peaceful his own house was, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
He looked at the picture of Jecca again. A few years ago, his sister Addy got angry when he told her he’d broken up with a young woman she’d liked.
“You know what your problem is, Tristan?” she’d said, her hands on her hips. He was having breakfast at her house and his niece Nell was beside him.
“I take it you’re going to tell me.” He didn’t look up from his newspaper.
“You’ve never had to make an effort to get a girl. Do you even know the meaning of the word effort?”
He thought her statement was absurd. He looked over the paper at her. “Are you referring to the woman I took on a hot-air balloon ride? Or the one I flew to New York for a three-day weekend? Or—”
Addy waved her head. “Yes, I know. You’re Mr. Charm personified. Women take one look at that overly pretty face of yours and you delight in driving them crazy by reinforcing their dreams about you.”
Tristan put down the newspaper and looked at Nell. “Do you have any idea what your mother is talking about?”
At the time, Nell was only six, but she’d always been a little adult. Solemnly, she nodded. “My teacher says you’re the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, and she asked me to give her your cell phone number.”
“See!” Addy said. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Tris was still looking at his niece. “Do you mean the teacher with the red hair or the one with the long dark hair?”
“Dark,” Nell said, biting into her toast.
“Oh,” Tris said and picked up the newspaper again. “Smile at her but don’t give her my number. If the redhead asks, give it to her.”
“Nellonia!” Addy said. “Don’t you dare give your uncle’s number to anyone. And you, Tristan, if you don’t stop playing around, you’re going to end up as some fifty-year-old bachelor living with a bunch of cats. Don’t you want a family of your own?”
He put the paper down again, but this time he was serious. “I’m open to suggestions, so please tell me how I find a woman who can see past her own dreams of marrying a doctor. That woman you liked so much? She didn’t want to live in Edilean. She strongly suggested that I move to New York City and take up plastic surgery so I could make some real money.”
“Oh,” Addy said as she sat down at the end of the table. “She didn’t tell me that part.”
Tristan drank his orange juice and told Nell to do the same. “Addy,” he said, “I’m more than willing to solve this problem. But I can’t seem to change me. Contrary to what people seem to believe about me, I like smart women, ones I can actually carry on a conversation with. But every woman like that I’ve dated tells me to leave this one-horse town and start making a lot of money.”
“I didn’t know any of this,” Addy said. Her head came up. “All of which makes what I said more true. You need to find a woman who doesn’t think that you are the answer to all her problems. Find a woman who doesn’t want you, then go after her.”
“But if she doesn’t want me, why would I pursue her?” he asked in bewilderment.
“Look at me,” Addy said. “When I met Jake, he was the last person I wanted. A car mechanic who wanted to be a soldier? Never! But now look at us.”
Tristan looked at his beautiful niece and thought how much he envied his sister. She and her husband were as happy a couple as he’d ever seen. “I’m willing,” he said, “but how do I find her?”
“Wear a mask,” Nell said, and when the two adults looked at her, she said, “Wear a very ugly mask, Uncle Tris.”
Addy and Tris laughed so hard at what she’d said that the tension broke.
A few weeks later Tris met another woman he liked. He thought he’d made an effort with her, but maybe his sister was right because he’d never felt he was struggling to win her. The breakup came when he found out that she wasn’t taking her birth control pills.
Tris looked back at the photo. Through everything, Jecca had stayed in the back of his mind. Maybe their few moments together on Kim’s parents’ patio had meant nothing to Jecca, but it had meant a great deal to Tris. She hadn’t been impressed by his occupation, hadn’t been swept away by his looks. She had seen through him, into him, had asked about him as a man. It occurred to Tristan that it wouldn’t have made any difference to Jecca if he’d been disfigured.
Addy said that Tris never made an effort to win a woman, and that’s all he’d done with Jecca. But he’d failed. Every attempt to meet her again had fallen through.
So what the hell was this about Reede Aldredge? What did he have to do with Jecca? And why had Kim kept whatever had happened—the “thing”—a secret all these years?
With disgust, Tris looked at his arm in the cast. How was he to win a woman’s affections with this albatross around him? Reede went around the world saving people in spectacular ways. How could Tris compete with that? He knew from experience that incapacitated men tended to bring out the nurse in women. But Tris didn’t want a nurse, he wanted—
He wanted to meet Jecca as a man, with all his faculties in good working order.
He’d lied to Kim when he said he didn’t remember about the cruise his parents were planning. His father had bellyached about it enough. Tris had loved the idea. If his father left, that meant Tris could return to his own practice, even if his arm was still in a cast. But Tris hadn’t heard that his mother—he was sure she’d done it—had contacted Reede and got him to agree to return.
Tris picked up his cell phone and touched the calendar to check the dates. He had little time between when his father left and Reede arrived. But cast or no, he was going to meet Jecca on the day she arrived.
And this time he’d make sure she remembered him!
© 2012 Deveraux, Inc.