| Loveseekers |
By Dorothy Garlock
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“BURR . . . I MUST have holes in my head to live here!”
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.
Beth huddled far down inside her coat, wishing fervently that she had one as warm as his. She was shivering, almost uncontrollably, from nerves and the cold. It was impossible to keep her teeth from chattering.
“You sound like a typewriter.” He laughed and gave her a sideways glance.
“It’s not funny, dammit!”
“You’ll be warm in a minute.”
This is crazy, she thought. Why did I come out with him? What in the world does he want to talk about? He could have said what he had to say in my nice warm apartment. They drove in silence, while Beth’s mind churned with curiosity.
“I understand the Depot is a good place to eat.” His statement broke the silence and hung in the cold air between them.
“I wouldn’t know. I never eat there.” The Depot was the classiest restaurant in town. That kind of dining wasn’t covered in her budget. She was sure of one thing—she wasn’t dressed for a place like that. Her mind was still working feverishly as they parked in front of the old building that housed the finest eating establishment Rochester, Minnesota, had to offer.
“I’m not sure about this.” Her blue eyes sought his.
“I’m not dressed for this place.”
The firm lips twitched under the dark mustache. “Don’t worry. You look fine. You just might be the best-looking woman here if you took that frown off your face.”
He laughed at the look of exasperation that followed the frown, and got out of the car. With great reluctance she opened the door and stepped out onto the snowpacked drive. The wind buffeted her as she walked beside the tall man who held her arm in a powerful grip. They passed through the double doors of the restaurant and into the warmth of the elegant interior.
They were met by a hostess dressed in a long velvet skirt and silk blouse. She glanced briefly at Beth as Tom helped her out of her parka, then dismissed her and gave her attention to him. Beth felt terribly conspicuous in her jeans and sweater, but managed to appear nonchalant as she followed the hostess, very conscious of Tom close behind her. They were ushered to a quiet table, partially secluded from the view of the other diners.
One glance at the menu told Beth she was definitely out of her league. There were no prices on the menu! Fighting not to let herself be intimidated by this place or this man, she armed herself with her pride. She glanced at the menu, and gave Tom her preferences with cold formality.
Once their order was taken by the waiter, who seemed to materialize as if by magic, Tom settled back in his chair, indifferent to his surroundings. His eyes settled on Beth. She looked everywhere but at him, causing a slight smile to twitch at his lips.
“You’re going to have to look at me sometime, you know.”
“Sarah, my mother, and you are the only people who have ever called me Thomas.”
His softly spoken words caught her by surprise, causing her to look straight into his eyes. Once captured, she couldn’t look away. He continued to study her, his eyes traveling over her flushed cheeks, flashing blue eyes, and the tip of her tongue, which darted out to moisten her suddenly dry lips.
Beth despised herself for blushing. It was a curse that at her age color could flood her face at the most inopportune times. She forced herself to return the stare in exactly the same way he was eyeing her. He was a handsome man—rugged and very masculine. He’s a man’s man, she thought. A man another man could depend on. He’s a woman’s man too.
Deciding that the best defense was a good offense, she attacked. “Okay. You’ve played your little game long enough. You’ve got me dangling in suspense so out with it.”
“I want you to come back to Wyoming with me.”
It took several seconds for Beth to grasp what he’d said. “Go . . . with you to Wyoming? You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I am.” He wasn’t smiling.
“But . . . but—”
He raised his hand to silence her as the waiter approached with their dinner. He watched the expressions flitting across her face, and it occurred to him that, although she wasn’t what would be considered a beautiful woman, she certainly was the most alive woman he’d met in a long while. Where was the naive child he’d known three years ago? After the wedding he’d kicked himself all the way back to Wyoming for staying a week instead of the three days he’d planned. They had danced, swam, gone to the races, laughed at each other’s bad jokes. To him, it had been a pleasant interlude. He’d not realized until the very last day that Sarah’s little sister might have a crush on him.
“First we’re going to eat our dinner,” he said when they were alone again. “Mainly because I’m starved, and also because you’ll be more rational with a full stomach.”
“You’ve lost a few bricks!” The words were dumb, juvenile, and she was instantly ashamed of them. But dammit, his presence was disturbing. She thought that at the age of twenty-two she had a reasonable amount of poise and confidence. She had worked for a year in the emergency room at the hospital and had seen the ugly side of life—atrocities she’d not even imagined. She’d been proud of the way she handled herself, but her self-confidence was nothing compared to what he carried around.
The meal was delicious—cooked to perfection and served beautifully. Beth ate, but hardly tasted what she was eating. Her mind and her stomach were not at all compatible. Go to Wyoming? What for? Sarah was all right—he’d said so. She waited for him to finish eating, furious that he could eat such a large meal as if nothing momentous had happened. He finally finished and the after-dinner wine was poured. She could contain her curiosity no longer.
“Will you please say what you’ve come to say,” she demanded.
“As I told you before, I want to take you back home with me.”
“I’m not deaf! You said that thirty minutes ago. Why?”
The large masculine hand lifted the fragile wineglass, swirling its contents before lifting it to smiling lips. “Because I want you to.”
A flash of anger engulfed her. He’s playing with me and enjoying every minute of it! She ground her teeth in mute rage, grabbed her bag and got to her feet.
Tom reached out and grasped her wrist. “I’m sorry, Beth. Sit down. Somehow, I can’t resist teasing you. You rise to the bait so beautifully.”
She resumed her seat but remained poised for flight. He took his hand from her arm, but the warmth of his touch remained, sending danger signals up to her flustered brain, telling her that if she made one move, his hand would snake out again faster than a whiplash.
“Sarah has multiple sclerosis.”
“Oh! Oh, my God! Why didn’t you tell me at—”
“Don’t worry. They think the disease has been arrested.”
“Arrested? Arrested?” she blurted angrily. “For how long?”
He ignored her outburst and spoke calmly. “Sarah’s been staying with me ever since she found out about the illness. Up until now she’s been able to manage on her own, with the help of my housekeeper. But she needs someone with knowledge of the disease. She needs her sister, the nurse.”
“Why didn’t she tell me?”
“She didn’t want to upset your life.”
“But she’s my sister!” She looked away from him, her face pale.
Beth’s medically-trained mind clicked into gear. “How long has she known?”
“A year? Then it must have been discovered right after Steven was killed.”
“It was. She didn’t let me get in touch with you then, because you were about to take your Minnesota board, and she thought it was more important for you to get your nursing license than to come to Wyoming to be with her.”
Beth groaned, remembering. Sarah had called her shortly after Steven’s accident to tell her when the funeral would be. Beth hadn’t especially liked her sister’s husband, but she’d wanted to go out to be with Sarah. But Sarah had refused, saying she was fine, there were lots of friends who were helping out. And she’d insisted it was more important for Beth to get her nursing license. She’d said very little about Steven’s accident—she seemed reluctant to talk about it, and Beth had never pressed her for details—and never mentioned her illness.
“Why didn’t you bring her here to the Mayo Clinic?” Beth demanded, needing to lash out at someone, wanting an excuse to be angry.
“I tried, but she wouldn’t come. She’s had the best medical care available. What she needs now is companionship, someone close to her.”
“She’s had you. Or are you too busy to give her your time?” She knew she was being unreasonable. She could tell by the look in his eyes that he thought so too. But his eyes also told her that he understood the hurt that was making her irrational.
“She doesn’t know I’ve come for you. I’m sure she wouldn’t want to interfere with your life.”
“It’ll take me a while to make arrangements to leave.”
“I’m starting back the day after tomorrow. That’s enough time.”
“I can’t leave that soon. I’ll have to give notice at the hospital. I can’t just pull out and leave on a moment’s notice. I’ll come out in a few weeks.”
The waiter came with the bill. Tom paid him, and the waiter acknowledged the generous tip.
The cold air, when they left the restaurant, revived Beth’s senses somewhat. She was still in a numbed state over the news of Sarah’s illness. The drive back to her apartment seemed to take only seconds, and they didn’t speak until he parked the Blazer in front of the old Victorian house. Leaving the motor running, he switched off the lights and turned to her. Despite her inner turmoil, she was terribly conscious of him. To her extreme discomfort, he sat studying her. The light from the streetlight shone on his face, and when she looked at him, his eyes held hers relentlessly.
“This afternoon I took the liberty of speaking to your supervisor. She agreed to give you a leave of absence due to the family emergency. . . .” He paused while she drew an angry breath. “Starting tomorrow.”
“You had no right to do that! I can take care of my own business, thank you! I’m not a child.”
He gave a low whistle. “No, siree. You certainly are not a child, now.”
She could see the flash of white teeth, and knew he was laughing at her. Her Irish temper flashed out of control.
“You’re arrogant and hateful and . . . belong in the loony bin!” Too furious to go on, she opened the door to escape his hateful presence.
His low laugh only increased her anger. “You’re just a bundle of cheer. I can see that we’ll have a great time on the way home.”
“Forget the we stuff, mister! When you leave, it will be without me!” She slammed the door with all her might, and ran up the walk to the safety of her home.
Excerpted from Loveseekers , by Dorothy Garlock . Compilation Copyright (c) 2007 by Dorothy Garlock . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top