A Marriage-- Inconvenient shows if a past love can be reclaimed.
Two hours of pep talks, a dozen whispered mantras and five sets of calming breaths failed to settle Carrie Graham’s acute case of nerves. Get a grip, she told herself. She was going to see Tony -- childhood defender -- teenage ego booster -- the one person who’d always listened. Besides, she’d already eliminated every other candidate for the position.
Who are you kidding?
From the moment she’d been presented with her current dilemma, he was the only possibility. All she had to do was convince him… But could she? Sure Tony listened, but he didn’t talk about his problems or his feelings.
The fading light of dusk made her slow the car in order to read the street signs. She’d planned to leave the apartment at noon but the short nap after her night shift had stretched until late afternoon.
She made the final turn into Fourth Street in the small West Virginia town established in the days when coal mining had dominated the area. She shook her head. Rundown houses and boarded storefronts were the norm along the town’s main street. Why was Tony practicing medicine in this end-of-the -road place?
She hadn’t seen him for years, not since several months after his marriage -- an event that had shaken her life. His wife hadn’t understood the friendship or Tony’s and Carrie’s mutual interest in medical mysteries. With a flash of anger, Carrie recalled the night that woman had stormed into the hospital cafeteria and spewed jealous accusations.
Carrie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. She’d been embarrassed, hurt and angry -- enough that she’d walked away from her best friend.
She’d heard rumors that Tony’s wife had taken off for greener pastures. At least that’s what the hometown gossips had said. Not that Carrie believed in gossip, especially after the news of her inheritance had brought the tongue- waggers out in force.
She slowed the car to a crawl. Waves of panic lashed against her momentary calm. The place in her head where she’d filed his address was empty. She braked. The paper with the directions fluttered from the dashboard. She bent and grabbed them.
One glance was enough to retrieve the forgotten data. She eased off the brake and cruised the street. Half the houses had missing numbers. What now? Then at the foot of the dead end street, she saw the ones she’d memorized displayed in shiny brass on a massive gray house that looked like the setting for a Gothic novel.
A broad lawn fronted the house. The tailored grass stood in contrast to the tangles on either side.
“This is the place.” She gulped a breath.
After parking at the curb, she slowly released a held breath. She strode up the walk and onto the wide porch. Muffled shouts and noises came from inside the house. She rang the bell. What sounded like a slammed door nearly sent her back to the car. Who was staging a major temper tantrum? She thought Tony lived alone.
She rang the bell again, this time holding for several peals. The door opened and she forgot why she’d come. She forgot to breathe. Her eyes widened and her heart pounded in a staccato rhythm until she thought her ribs would crack.
He was more than she remembered.
Are you sure you want to be here?
“Tony.” His name escaped on a sigh. She felt like a teenager come face to face with the latest movie hero. This was the man she planned to ask --
She changed her mind. Time to retreat. The plan wouldn’t work, not with the things he made her feel and what he made her want.
“Carrie...Oh lord, it’s been ages. What are you doing here? You look terrific.”
She did? He must be blind. Even her coworkers had made comments about the deep smudges beneath her eyes. Most days, she felt as though she was suffering from terminal exhaustion.
“Come in.” He took her hand.
Exhaustion vanished. He’d always made her feet great, but this instant tonic-effect startled her. Coming to see him had grown corners she couldn’t see around.
“I can’t believe you’re here.” He drew her inside. “What brings you to town?”
She wanted to tell him, but the words caught in her throat. “Would you believe I was in the neighborhood?
Tony laughed. “No.”
She inhaled and the spicy scent of him invaded her space. “I came...” She couldn’t finish the sentence. He’d been her hero, her prince, her fantasy lover. In the flesh,
he relegated those images to black and white.
“I bet you came to apply for the nursing position at the clinic.” He steered her down a hall that needed paint
into a large living room. “Did you get lost on the way there? Unfortunately, I’m not the one you need to see.”
She shook her head. “Another job is the last thing I need. I already have two.”
She shrugged. “Necessity.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a long story.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“What’s wrong? Sounds like you need a shoulder.”
The entire body, she thought. “You could say...It’s like this...I have a problem that needs a solution...It’s sort of...” Her throat closed. Maybe she should leave. Go home. Forget the plan. Find a new one. Except, he was her first, last and only choice.
“Be glad to listen.” He patted her hand. “Are you saying in all these years, you haven’t found anyone else to listen?
I haven’t looked, she thought. There couldn’t be a replacement for Tony. She couldn’t tell him that. “I thought...Maybe you can help.”
“Be glad to try. Go ahead.”
A crash resounded. Carrie jumped. “I think you’re the one with the problem.”
“You could say that.” Tony rolled his eyes upward. “My son’s protesting his punishment for his latest series of pranks. He’s grounded with no TV and no phone.”
“What did he do?” She sat on one end of a shabby brown couch.
“Do you really want to know?”
She nodded. Hearing about Tony’s problems could give her time to gather her courage.
He slumped beside her. “He glued the sitter’s clothes together. She left in a huff.”
“Don’t blame her.” Carrie frowned. “I thought your son lived with his mother.”
“He did until July. She’s remarried…to one of the Brinkers. She and her new husband are on a world cruise honeymoon. They didn’t take Chad.”
His blue eyes were bleak. Was his pain for his son or himself? How badly had his failed marriage hurt him? “Are you all right with the idea?”
He shrugged. “I’ve mixed feelings.”
His expression showed hurt and anger, not ones she’d consider mixed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s great having Chad here, but he’s angry about the divorce, about living here, about his mother’s new
husband. Wasn’t a great summer. Even with him in school, there are problems.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“Don’t know how.” He winked. “I’m not without experience in dealing with angry kids. “Remember --”
“Yes and don’t even mention the first time we met.”
“Or my black eye? Lord, it’s great to see you again. Why don’t you tell me why you came all this way?”
She ran her tongue over dry lips. She searched for an answer and couldn’t find one he’d believe. If she asked him, he’d think she was crazy.
Good grief, my thoughts are scrambled. He was too -- too -- male.
And your feelings for him haven’t changed.
The demand in his voice made her feel like a child facing an adult. “It’s...” What sounded like glass shattering brought her to her feet.
Saved, she thought. “Don’t you think you’d better see what he’s doing before he trashes the house?”
He raked his ebony curls with his fingers. “You’re right.” He headed to the door. “Promise you’ll stay ‘til I settle him. Then we’ll talk.”
“I’ll be here.”
She sank against the cushions. Maybe he’d need the entire evening to deal with his son. This visit was an act of desperation. After all, it had been years. Maybe he’d changed.
She looked around the sparsely furnished living room. Most of the pieces looked like refugees from second-hand stores. What had gone wrong for him? He’d been on the fast track. He’d entered practice with one of the largest medical groups in Pittsburgh. From some of her classmates, she’d heard how wonderful her was, what a caring doctor he’d become, and how loyal he’d been to his wife and child. Had the end of his marriage caused him to turn his back on success? She hadn’t heard and she hadn’t asked until two months ago. Her jobs had been in hospitals where he hadn’t been on staff.
The sound of a throat being cleared made her jump. A woman with streaks of gray in her brown hair stood in the doorway. Who? Carrie wondered. Hadn’t Tony said the sitter had quit?
“Dr. Flynn wondered if you’d like something to drink?”
Carrie covered a yawn with her hand. “Coffee if you have some made. I’m Carrie Graham, an old friend of Tony’s.”
“Hazel Smithton, housekeeper and reluctant sitter for a spell. Be right back.”
A short time later, Carrie sipped the strongest coffee she’d ever tasted. Two iced cinnamon rolls helped her swallow the bitter brew.
The hollow feeling in her stomach vanished, but the matching sensation in her chest expanded. She closed her eyes and planned explanations for the question she’d come to ask. No matter how she phrased her reasons, the words sounded like a desperate plea. Over the years, she’d learned begging never worked. Would this time be any different?
After pausing on the stairs to listen to Hazel’s ultimatum about hiring a sitter, Tony climbed to the second floor. His thoughts churned with a dozen conflicting emotions. Carrie was the last person he’d expected to find on his doorstep. When the bell had rung, he’s braced himself for another confrontation with an irate parent who had come to complain about Chad’s unruly behavior. Instead, he’d found a friend.
His day had been filled with unexpected incidents that had set him on edge. A clinic patient had died and Chad had acted up in school and at home. The third sitter in as many months had quit and taken a large chunk of his bank account.
Carrie’s arrival, while not a disaster, had pushed his thoughts to what could have been. She was the girl he’d watched grow into the woman he should have married. The one he’d never told how he felt and the one he couldn’t tell now. He’d chosen to marry Marilyn and the reason for that ill-fated marriage was throwing yet another temper tantrum.
He groaned. He’d tried to make the marriage work. He’d tried to give his wife the things she’d demanded, tried and failed. At least he hadn’t been the one to walk out the way his father had.
Chad was testing his patience and his love. Tony frowned. He knew the reason for the constant outbursts and pranks, but they abraded. When would his son understand that no matter what he did, he was loved?
Tony reached the door of his son’s room and ducked to avoid the sneaker that sailed through the air and smacked against the wall. He and Chad collided. Tony pulled his son into a tight embrace.
“That’s enough,” Tony said.
“I didn’t do anything.” The scowl on Chad’s face reflected the anger in his blue eyes.
Tony released his son and closed the door. He fought to keep his anger and disappointment from erupting in a roar. “You didn’t attack the sitter’s clothes with glue? You didn’t talk your buddies into cutting school and heading to that tumble-down, abandoned house? What else didn’t you do?”
Chad looked up and Tony faced a younger version of himself, a version filled with the same anger Tony had felt years ago. He wanted to say that anger got you nowhere, but he couldn’t find the words.
“You don’t understand.” Tears filled the seven year old’s eyes.
“Then let’s talk about the glue. Why did you do it?”
Chad slumped on the bed. “She didn’t care about me. Just you.”
“I heard her talking to her girlfriend. Said you kissed her and was going to marry her. You can’t get married again.”
Tony groaned. “That’s what he got for hiring a college student. The next sitter would be someone Hazel’s age. “I never kissed her. And as for marriage, that’s not in my plans right now.”
Hope flashed in Chad’s eyes. “Good. You can marry Mom again. Then I won’t have to leave.”
Tony sat on the bed and put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “I can’t do that. She’s married to Brian and on her honeymoon.”
Chad thrust out his lower lip. “She’s playing a game.
I heard her. She said you’d be sorry when you heard she was getting married again. She said you’d come back.”
“I’m not. I hope she’s happy.”
“I hate her.”
“No, you don’t. You’re angry and hurt, but tantrums won’t change what had happened.”
“It’s not fair.”
Though he understood his son’s feelings, he couldn’t change what had happened. He’d been older when his dad had left, but he’d felt the same sense of abandonment.
“If she didn’t get married to him, would you marry her again?”
Tony’s shoulders slumped. Even if Marilyn hadn’t found another man, he wouldn’t have walked that street again. He had to find a way past his son’s stubborn insistence that life had to be his way.
“We’ll talk tomorrow. You need to hit the bed. You have school.”
“That’s not fair either. Why do I have to go to school when you’re off?”
A groan rumbled through Tony’s chest. “No more dawdling. To sleep, and tomorrow after school you need to clean this mess. I’ve got to go. I have company.”
“An old friend.”
“No more sitters.”
Tony shook his head. “I can’t promise that. Someone has to be here in case I get called to the clinic at night. I can’t leave you alone and Hazel can’t stay every night. What if Ben needs her?”
“You left Mom at night. She was mad and she cried a lot.”
Tony gulped a breath. He wouldn’t criticize his ex-wife. She hadn’t understood the demands of his residency or that when he’d joined the medical group, he’d be the low man and subject to frequent night calls. He hadn’t been free to party the way she wanted. Until he’d discovered how often she had left Chad with sitters, he’d felt guilty about leaving her alone. He still felt guilty about what those years and the divorce had done to his son.
“I know your mom felt lonely and I’m sorry she cried.”
“I’m not coming down to meet your company.”
“That’s right. You’re going to sleep.”
Chad crawled beneath the covers. “Night, Dad.”
Though Tony wished for an apology, he could wait. He hugged his son. “Love you. See you in the morning. Good dreams.”
In time, Chad would realize temper tantrums wouldn’t soothe the pain her felt. Four months wasn’t long enough to
change his view of how to behave.
Downstairs, Tony paused in the living room doorway and studied Carrie. She was curled on a corner of the couch with the armrest as a pillow. A tangle of dark auburn curls framed her face. He smiled. Even in sleep, she looked like a sprite.
She also looked desirable. He shook his head. This was Carrie -- his buddy. Thank heavens she’d never known how he had felt. That would have multiplied his guilt tenfold when Marilyn had announced her pregnancy.
He couldn’t tell Carrie how he’d once loved and wanted to marry her. He wasn’t even sure they could be friends. His ex-wife had taught him there was no place in his life for love. His hands clenched and he pushed aside Marilyn’s ugly accusations.
The moment he entered the room, Carrie struggled to sit up. “I’m all right. I wasn’t sleeping. Who needs...I’ll be right there.”
“Whoa,” he said. “You’re not at the hospital. Are you always this beat?”
She blinked and then smiled. “Comes from working two jobs. Three thirteen hour shifts at WPH and three at Children’s. Nights.”
“So you said. Explain.”
“Mom needs special care. She’s in a wheelchair and has
a full-time aide.”
Carrie would do anything for her only parent, he thought. Mrs. Graham had worked two jobs to see Carrie had the same things as her friends.
“Sorry to hear that. She was always so active.”
Tears glistened in Carrie’s green eyes. “She hates being an invalid.”
He sat beside her. “So what can I do to help?”
She looked everywhere but at him. Her heart beat double time. Could she say what she’d come to ask?
When his fingers brushed her shoulder, warmth and comfort seeped into her pores. She resisted the urge to snuggle and turned so she could see his face. Frown lines wrinkled his forehead. His blue eyes held questions and an illusive quality. That hidden emotion puzzled her. She had to keep this matter uncomplicated by desire and unrealistic expectations.
“Is your son all right?”
“For the moment. I’m sure in time he’ll adjust.”
“Won’t he go back to his mother?”
“She relinquished custody. Her new husband has a problem with raising another man’s son.”
“How unfeeling. Does Chad know?”
“Marilyn said she told him he’d be staying here, but I don’t think he believed her. He doesn’t even accept her
His gaze captured hers and she saw pain that raised in her a wish to soothe. That wasn’t why she’d come, but if he agreed to her proposition, she’d find a way to help him and his son.
“I’m glad you came,” he said. “It’s been too long since we’ve talked.”
“I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed you until I opened the door and saw you. Remember those nights when we hashed cases and treatments?”
How could she forget? “Sure do.” Did he still have the same enthusiasm for solving medical problems? Hers had vanished. Work had become duty and routine. “Why did you leave the city?”
“I thought...It doesn’t matter.”
Why not, she wondered. Had he closed down after the divorce the way he had the night Marilyn had accused them of things that hadn’t happened. She remembered what he’d said after Marilyn had stormed away.
“I’m married,” he had said. “Sure we’ve been friends for years, but Marilyn and the baby come first.”
“I understand.” She had smiled and with her head held high, had walked away. At least she’d never told him she loved him.
Tears blurred her vision. She forced the harsh memories away. “Did you come here to hide?”
“Hardly. I left a lucrative and hectic practice to hold my marriage together. I thought Marilyn would appreciate the sacrifice of money for more time with each other.”
“And you’re angry that she didn’t?”
“Not particularly.” He looked away.
“So why did you stay?”
“For the challenge. People her need me.” He cleared his throat. “Ready to tell me why you came?”
She took a deep breath. Her throat felt tight. “I need a husband. Will you marry me?”
“What?” His eyes focused on her abdomen. He’d kill the jerk. What lowlife would leave the woman who carried his child to bear the burden alone? “Who is he? And don’t make excuses for his behavior.”
Her cheeks flamed. “That’s not why I need a husband.”
The surge of adrenaline ebbed. Tony felt as though he’d run ten miles. “If you’re not pregnant, why do you need a husband?”
“I --” She started to rise.
He pulled her back. “You’re not laying this on me and bolting. Give.”
“So I can provide Mom with the things she needs and
only work one job.”
“You’re not making sense. Does it look like I’ll be much help financially?” He waited for an answer and prayed he could endure one of her convoluted explanations.
“I don’t need your money. Just your name. You see, my grandfather died and left me a lot of money.”
“Didn’t he die before you were born?”
“Mom’s dad did. This was my father’s dad. Just because he didn’t acknowledge me doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.”
“Am I missing something here? Why do you need to be married?”
“The money can’t be used without the approval of the husband I don’t have. Archaic, right?” What she failed to mention were the nights when her grandfather had been her patient and the conversations they’d had about her life and her love for Tony Flynn.
He paused. He wanted to help her, but marriage? Especially one with a built-in failure factor? Could he risk ruining the tenuous bond he had with his son for the woman who’d been his best friend. “Carrie...I...”
“Just until the money’s released and I have a trust set up for Mom. Then I’ll split. Please. You’ll hardly see me.”
“As in you’ll be working two jobs?”
She nodded. “I don’t even have to live here. I have an apartment in the city.”
“How would we see if the marriage will work?” He groaned. Why had he said that? Had he gone crazy? The last thing he needed was another marriage and another woman to disappoint.
“Why would you want to stay married?” she asked.
“I don’t believe in divorce.”
“But you are.”
She had him there. Not only was he divorced, but Marilyn had had the marriage annulled. “When do you need to know? I can’t make this kind of decision on the spot.”
“Tomorrow so we can get the license and have the wedding on Sunday.”
“Why the rush?”
“Because I’ve run out of time.” She stared at her hands.
“And you waited until today?”
“This hasn’t been the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
The answer to her question wasn’t any easier for him. How would Chad react. “I’ll let you know.”
She rose. “I’ll leave my number. Call me early and please say yes.”
“Do you work tonight?”
“I’m off. Why?”
“Stay here. You’re beat and it’s a hell of a drive back. I’d worry about you having an accident.”
“One thing this house has is plenty of bedrooms. I’ll lend you a tee shirt. Oh, if I get called out, would you mind if I wake you?”
“Good. I’ll send Hazel home. She worries about leaving her husband alone at night. He has emphysema.”
Carrie brushed his cheek with a feathery kiss. He clenched his hands to keep from grabbing her. She’d offered him what he’d wanted years ago and what he’d carelessly messed up.
Marriage -- Carrie -- Chad!
Oh lord, what would he say to his son?