Excerpt: Jennifer's Garden
Book One: The Gables Series
Jennifer Hamilton glanced at her mother again, sweeping her pencil across crisp white paper as she outlined the seated figure before her. “Gosh, it feels good to have a pencil in my hand again,” she said, her fingers never stopping as she sketched in a horizon line, her point of reference to denote distance and space. “It’s been years since I last picked up pad and paper.” Yet it felt so natural, so second-hand.
Beatrice Hamilton smiled. “Med school has a way of doing that to a schedule.”
Jennifer sighed. “And residency, private practice…” She laughed. “Sometimes it feels like I have time for nothing else!”
Her mother smiled. “Wait until you add a husband and children to the mix. Talk about no time, my goodness!”
The mention of Aurelio warmed Jennifer’s mood a degree. A gust of wind lifted the hair from her neck, its cool air a welcome break from the late afternoon heat. Casting another glance toward the Coral Gables Mediterranean-style building, Jennifer framed-in the main structure, arced a few lines to represent windows and doorways, emphasizing the contrast between the dark brown of their casings against the vanilla-colored stucco, then lightly smudged the lead for a shadow effect. A few waves across the top and she had the beginnings of the barrel-tiled rooftop.
Though she hadn’t drawn in years, her ease of motion felt as though she’d never missed a beat, drawing every day of her life. And the release. Drawing opened her spirit, unleashed her imagination. It gave her a sense of freedom, of inhibition.
Next she focused on the trees. With a few choppy strokes, she depicted the natural fall of oversized palm fronds swaying heavy in the wind, their bowed trunks lazy yet strong—strong enough to endure the hurricanes that whipped through this city every year! But living in South Florida, one became accustomed to such thrill.
“Time management,” she declared, feathering in the wispy tips. “I’ll just have to make sure I’m on top of my time management skills.”
“You will be, darling. If anyone can juggle career and family, I know it will be you.”
Jennifer stopped. She peered at her mom. “You’ve always been my biggest fan, haven’t you…”
Jennifer smiled. No question, no doubt. Only love. Which made her mother’s impending passing all the more difficult. Thrusting her pencil back into motion, Jennifer didn’t want to dwell in thought. She wanted to continue, to enjoy their time together and this catharsis of sketching. It reminded her of days gone by, time lost in the sand wriggled beneath her toes. Hours and minutes felt the same, afternoons drifted into the ocean as she drew—what she saw, what she felt.
What she wanted.
Scrutinizing the emerging scene, Jennifer was pleased with her progress. Ready to trace the delicate features of her mother’s face, she settled in for a closer look. Age had nothing on her mother. Blue eyes shone bright and her skin glowed, flushed with healthy tones of pink. Hers was a beauty that persisted in graceful defiance. Why, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear she was the picture of health.
Both women turned.
Jennifer stiffened as Dr. Roberts drew near.
Fully gray, balding in the middle, his mouth was set in a stern line. “They told me I’d find you out here.” Placing folded hands behind his back, he glanced at the pad in Jennifer’s hand with disapproval. “If you can spare a moment, I came to discuss your mother’s medications.”
Jennifer rose from the stone bench. Lowering pad and pencil against her body, she replied, “Yes?”
“We need to increase dosages.”
“According to the nurses, she’s been experiencing more severe pain. At this stage, I suggest an increase to encourage rest.”
Jennifer hardened her gaze. Put her to sleep, you mean.
“It’s not unexpected at this stage.”
“It’s not what she wants.”
“The nurses are with her twenty-four hours a day.” He pulled his arms forward and crossed them over his chest. A wiry man, he barely put a dent in the starched white lab coat he wore. “I think they know best.”
“My mother knows full well the ramifications of her meds.”
“Under the circumstances—“
From her wheelchair, Beatrice cleared her throat. “I’m right here.”
Jennifer discarded pad and pencil and went to her mother’s side. “Mom, is it true? The pain’s getting worse?”
She gazed at Jennifer before responding to the doctor. “I’m fine, Al. I told the nurse it was nothing to worry about.”
“Your bones are decaying, Beatrice. They are vulnerable to serious breakage.”
“My bones are working fine,” she raised her hands, turning them back and forth for inspection, “as you can see. It was an isolated incident.”
Dr. Roberts frowned and dipped his head forward. “Your condition is serious, Beatrice. Breaking your bones can lead to complications. You of all people should know the risks.”
“What are you talking about?” Jennifer blurted between them. “What incident?”
He turned and addressed her forthright. “Your mother injured her wrist while getting into her bed last night.”
Jennifer gripped the padded armrest of her wheelchair. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to upset you.” She patted Jennifer’s hand. “I told you, I’m fine.” Then to the doctor she said, “As to medication, my current prescription is adequate.”
Adequate? Jennifer stood. She didn’t like the sound of that. And she didn’t like her mother keeping things from her.
“It’s my body and my choice.”
Dr. Roberts shook his head in resignation.
“You heard her, doctor,” Jennifer defended, though part of her wanted to discuss the options, the alternatives. The thought of her mother in pain didn’t sit well at all.
Wielding his full focus on Jennifer, he asked, “Is this what you want? Are you okay with what you’re doing?” He eyed her pad on the bench with naked contempt. “What you’re asking her to do isn’t helping.”
It took every speck of control she had not to reach out and slap him. He had no right to speak to her this way. “You heard her,” Jennifer said. “She understands the clinical repercussions. Despite what you or I may advise, she’s made her choice.”
He scowled. “Somewhat under duress, don’t you think?”
Jennifer didn’t appreciate the insinuation, or the nasty smirk forming on his lips. “She’s made her decision and I intend to respect it. As her physician, I suggest you do the same.”
He stepped back, clearly displeased with her response. But both of them knew his hands were tied. Dr. Roberts would not override the wishes of a physician patient. “Of course. But I have a Hippocratic duty to uphold.”
“You’ve said your peace.” She breathed in deep and slow and added, “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’d like to get back to enjoying our visit.”
His glare mocked her, but he said nothing. When he glanced at her mother, his expression softened. “Are you sure?”
“This is the best medicine for me, Al. Being outside in the fresh air, feeling the wind on my face, hearing the sounds of life… I’ll be all right, really I will.”
“I want you to be comfortable.”
“I am.” She angled her head and added, “With my daughter by my side, I’m better than ever.”
Dr. Roberts grunted beneath his breath. “Very well,” he replied, his voice tight and controlled. Without another glance toward Jennifer, he retreated back along the manicured path he came.
Once he was out of earshot, Jennifer withdrew her hands and linked them across her chest. “I do not care for that man.”
“Don’t let him get to you, Jenny. He means well.”
She stared after him. “His attitude is horrendous.”
“He’s very good at what he does.”
“His beside manner sure leaves a lot to be desired.”
“Not everyone can be adored by their patients like you.”
Jennifer turned to her mother and was met with a wink. Ergh. She flung her arms open and went to her mother’s chair. Stooping to a crouch she heaved a sigh. “I don’t like it. Any of it.”
“It’s life, darling.” Beatrice held the younger in her gaze, and reaching over, brushed Jennifer’s hair to one side.
The small gesture reminded her of when she was a girl. When she came home from school, exasperated by some kid, some teacher…her mom consoled her. She always had the answers.
“Things are what they are. No sense in fighting.”
“He thinks I’m pushing you. That it’s my fault you’re…” She couldn’t finish the thought.
“We don’t have to wait. Aurelio and I can get married tomorrow. Here, at Fairhaven.”
Annoyance flickered in her mother’s eyes and she waved the suggestion away. “I’ll have no such thing. You’ll be married in fine Hamilton tradition. Like your father and I.”
Jennifer closed her eyes. Guilt simmered deep inside. But at what cost to you?
As though sensing her thoughts, Beatrice replied, “Don’t worry about Dr. Roberts.” She ran her hand lightly over Jennifer’s head, gliding down her cheek and then cupped her chin. “It’s his job to worry.”
Jennifer opened her eyes and stared out across the grounds. Beyond the canopy of oaks, the sun shimmered gold, casting the nursing home in luminescent tones of peach and rose. Quiet, gentle exterior lighting glowed in and around the landscape. Opulent, welcoming, it seemed more like a private estate than a medical facility specializing in end-of-life care.
“I’m fine, really. But more importantly, I want to be there when you and Aurelio take your vows. I want to be a part of this monumental step in your life. You promised.”
Looking into her mother’s eyes, there was no room for argument. She would be held to her promise. Even if it killed her.
Jennifer slowed her black BMW for the entrance to the historical mansion and eased down the long and winding drive. Located off Old Cutler Road, Michael Kingsley’s home had been renovated and restored to its original grandeur and grand it was, with its oak-lined driveway, salmon-colored azaleas in full bloom ringing their base. Exposed stone walls and coral-formed arches, weathered to a soft patina of gray. Elaborately molded ironwork trimmed balconies along the second-floor, while more of the same outlined the grounds.
“We’re here for an appearance, for Michael’s sake.”
Jennifer managed a small smile. An appearance. She knew this was the last place Samantha Rawlings wanted to be. Fiery brunette, hotshot attorney—party was her middle name, not social commitment. Yet here she was, willing to drive halfway across town for a quick shot of pleasantries. Because her friend needed her.
Jennifer nodded and slowed the car beneath the porte-cochere, careful to avoid the formally clad young men waiting to get their doors. Above them, a magnificent lantern hung from the rounded ceiling, inlaid with shells and mosaics, an eclectic mix of all things Old Miami, and bathed the area with light.
Jennifer took a deep breath and released, suppressing a fresh rush of nerves as she glanced through the open front doors. “For Michael’s sake.”
Michael’s daughter was getting married. Springtime seemed to be that time of year when brides surged to the forefront of attention and like any proud father would, he was hosting an engagement party. Any other time she would be delighted to be in attendance, but under the circumstances, it only proved a sad reminder.
“Try to enjoy yourself,” Sam said, patting Jennifer’s thigh. “You could use the diversion.”
Diversion. Wary reluctance pulled at her. Like Sam, this was the last place she wanted to be, but obligations were obligations and she wouldn’t shirk a single one. “I will.”
Jennifer placed the car in park. While Sam slid out the passenger side, she caught her reflection in the rearview mirror. Determined blue eyes reinforced: We’re in, we’re out. Michael was a good friend and it wasn’t every day your daughter became engaged. Not every day the family stood witness. A sliver of grief pinpricked her heart. No, not every day. Time didn’t wait on anything, or anyone. She closed her eyes. Even when you begged. Pleaded. Time offered no reprieve.
“Jen?” Sam ducked her head into the car. “You coming?”
“Yes.” Of course she was coming. Shaking her head, she scolded herself. Stop. Stop this nonsense right now. This isn’t about you. This is about Michael and his daughter. It’s a happy day.
Tears pushed at the back of her eyes as a young man waited by her door, the one he held open. Embarrassed she hadn’t noticed him there, Jennifer shook her head once more, quick and sharp. Enough. In one smooth motion, she rose from the car and snapped the lens of her mind closed. Tonight was about new beginnings, rejoicing in the future. Two young people were beginning their lives as one. Could there be a happier day?
Circling around the car she caught up with Sam.
Sam froze mid-stride. Lanterns of concern swam in her dark brown eyes. “You sure you’re okay ‘cause you don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine,” she replied, swallowing hard against the tender swell in her throat. Maybe if she said it enough times, it would be true. Maybe if she focused on others, she would forget about herself. Maybe Sam was right. Tonight, she could use the distraction.
Diversion. Shut the lid on her life and focus on Michael’s. “Really, I’m fine.” She tried to back it up with a smile, but abandoned the effort.
“We can leave right now.” Sam glanced sideways and back, her feisty auburn waves swinging in sync. “Ditch the scene before anyone’s the wiser. Tell them you were called to the hospital.”
“Nonsense,” she said, waving the notion off as entirely unacceptable. “We’re not going anywhere.” With a brief fuss to her hair, Jennifer started toward the door—before second thoughts sent her running.
Sam nodded. “Good girl.” Linking an arm through Jennifer’s, she reassured with a squeeze. “Don’t worry. You’ll get through it.”
“Of course I will.”
Jennifer heaved a sigh. It’s what I do.
In the expansive foyer, they were greeted by an enormous arrangement of bird of paradise, anthurium, ginger, and a spray of delicate purple blossoms. Perched on a pedestal of mahogany and centered beneath a glimmering chandelier, it was exotic and vibrant and though predominantly Hawaiian by nature, felt completely Miami tropical.
“That is some kind of gorgeous,” Sam murmured.
Jennifer nodded dully. Everything in Michael’s home was gorgeous. From the baby-smooth leather furniture to the glossy wood and polished stone floors, he’d spent a veritable fortune to make sure of it.
Several guests mingled in the main living area and to their left, a few huddled near the wide doorway into the kitchen. Arched and trimmed in intricately carved heavy dark wood, it was a superb piece of craftsmanship. But Jennifer’s attention was drawn outside. Through floor to ceiling windows amidst a tangle of palm and ferns, she could see the main party gathered by the pool, the area lit by a flicker of torches.
Sam stopped in place. Glancing across the keystone flooring, from artwork to furniture, she let out a soft whistle. “That patio is unbelievable. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were smack in the middle of wild jungle.” She flipped her gaze to Jennifer. “I may be no fan of the mosquito fest it presents, but I have to admit,” she hitched a thumb toward the back, “that’s enticing out there.”
Jennifer willed the soft clink of glasses, the easy rhythm of light conversation to work magic on her mood. “Yes. Michael and Laurencia have done a spectacular job.”
As the two meandered toward the patio, Sam pointed to a colorful painting of a cottage prominently displayed on the dining room wall. It was a watercolor of a house trimmed in shutters of yellow, bordered by pink hibiscus, its small porch leading to a secluded stretch of sandy shoreline. Nothing else existed in the painting but blue sky and blue water. “Now that scene makes me want to toss the legal pads and head for the islands!”
Buoyed by the sight of it, she smiled. “It does, doesn’t it? Aurelio gave that piece to Michael…as a housewarming gift.”
“I’m surprised it appealed to him.”
Jennifer tensed. Sam didn’t care for Aurelio and changing her mind was a game of fools. A game she no longer cared to play. As Sam turned away and headed outdoors, Jennifer cast a glance toward the painting. She had been with Aurelio when he selected the piece and both agreed it was perfect for Michael. Both had been right.
Jennifer joined Sam outside and the warm evening air coated her skin in an instant. The woodsy, spicy scent of ginger filled her senses, the fragrance made richer by the nearby saltwater clinging to the air. The combination helped cleanse her thoughts of negativity. An associate from the office caught her eye and she waved. He returned the gesture with a smile.
As she and Sam glided between bodies, a light Spanish tune swirled around them, mixing with the din of conversation. Jennifer recognized this particular piece as Flamenco; her preferred selection of music.
Sam neared the edge of the pool. Almost black in color, it appeared more lagoon than pool, and dotted with small lights. It blended seamlessly into the natural stone waterfall cascading down the center, overflow splashing into basins on either side.
“Damn,” Sam murmured. “I feel like I’m stepping into another world.” Her gaze trailed off down a hidden pathway which disappeared behind a burgeoning mass of philodendron. “The house may be an architect’s dream, but this…this rainforest is the real jewel.” She turned to face Jennifer. “I sure as hell hope you got your referral for landscaping from Michael, because this man knows what he’s doing.”
“I did indeed,” she replied, heartened by Sam’s approval. “As well as from a few other physicians at the hospital. He’s scheduled to come by the house tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, well…” She pivoted on her heel. “Perfect. Now let’s get a drink.”
Trailing her to the nearest makeshift Tiki bar, Sam’s voice picked up as she slowed. “Ah… I think we’ve found the popular man this evening.”
Doling out drinks and a smile, the bartender’s movements were fluid and swift as he served the guests clustered around him. Medium-build, average features, Jennifer thought his tanned skin seemed all the darker against his white cotton Guayabera button-down.
But it was his hair that garnered the most attention. Swatches of sandy blonde thrust upward and sideways—every which way, in fact. “Sam, there are all of three bars and a group upwards of a hundred people. I daresay all the men have their hands full.”
“God, don’t I wish—but this one… This one’s setting fire to my loin as we speak!”
Jennifer sighed. “Don’t you ever tire?”
“No and if I do,” she quipped, “they make drugs for that.”
She shook her head, but duly followed as Sam jaunted off to capture the latest target of her lust. Well-skilled in the art of flirtation with her fiery bronze eyes and wavy auburn curls, black fitted dress cut high above the knee on her long bare legs, Sam was an eyeful herself at nearly six foot, let alone hand-full. Jennifer had no doubt she’d add this man to her list of conquests before all was said and done.
“I’ll have a gin martini straight up, three olives,” she ordered, then added with a smile too large to be innocent, “and make it dirty.”
“You got it.”
Jennifer wondered if Sam really enjoyed her drink as such, or was she simply after shock appeal. Probably the latter she mused, and plugged herself into the spirit of fun as best she could. “Oh, and by the way Sam, those little blue pills you’re counting on… Don’t. They’re for men only.”
Jennifer took satisfaction at the bump in the man’s eyes.
Two could play at this game.
Sam gave her a gotcha smile. “Good thing I know a few tricks.”
He grinned and winked. “I’ll bet you do,” he said to Sam, but his gaze landed on Jennifer.
“You are so delicious.”
Despite being well-accustomed to Sam’s take-no-prisoner approach to flirting, the comment caught Jennifer off guard.
But not him. “You’re pretty sweet yourself,” he passed back to Sam, though his gaze remained uncomfortably on her.
“Not really,” she replied with a throaty chuckle, “but I am downright tasty.”
Jennifer was amazed. Not only by their salacious banter, but the fact the man poured her martini without missing a beat, skewered three plump olives, slid them in, pinched a napkin from its cradle and handed off the finished product—all with a smile.
“As,” he said, extending the oversized triangular-shaped glass to her, “is this.”
A warm, friendly, unaffected smile.
Sam retrieved the drink. “Damn, you’re good.”
“That’s what they pay me for.” He turned to Jennifer. “What’s your pleasure?”
“I’ll take a white wine spritzer, please.” She preferred red, but tonight was warm; ice-drinks preferable.
“You got it.”
Avoiding his gaze, she ran her hands down the backside of her navy skirt, smoothing material that needed no smoothing. Her white button-down suddenly felt too warm. She wished she had worn a dress like Sam, but coming straight from the hospital, she had no time to change into more suitable attire.
Sam sipped her drink in silence while behind the bar strong, lean arms covered by a sparse layer of sun-bleached hair went to work on the spritzer. Jennifer’s gaze drifted to his chest, noting the top button of his shirt was open, exposing another mass of hair. This section was thicker and darker, more a golden brown than the rest.
“Tasty, isn’t it?”
Feeling the blaze of Sam’s grin, Jennifer swung her head around, the skin of her cheeks flushed hot, like a school girl getting caught looking at dirty magazines. Her throat went dry and she scowled at Sam, daring her to push.
“Here you go.” Splashing in some soda, the man dropped a wedge of lime in and with equal proficiency handed her the glass.
She cleared her throat and managed a proper, “Thank you.” Taking the drink, she stepped away from the bar.
“You’re welcome.” Sable soft eyes closed in. “If there’s anything else I can get for you two ladies, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“We won’t,” Sam assured.
Moving out of hearing range, Jennifer snapped, “How do you do it?”
“How do you come-on to complete strangers?”
Sam smirked. “It’s a natural gift.”
“I’m serious.” Her brow furrowed. “Don’t you ever want more?”
“Of course I do. What do you think I was trying for? I’m not interested in stopping at that delightful smile of his—no ma’am. I want more, much more!”
“Stop. You know what I mean.” She glanced around for onlookers. “You’re thirty-seven-years-old, Sam. You’re not getting any younger and despite those ‘tricks’ you think you have in store, there’s a lot you’re missing out on.”
She took a long swallow of the ice-cold martini. “Like you and Aurelio?”
“Yes. Like me and Aurelio.” With a reflexive glance toward the bartender Jennifer continued, her aggravation heating. “We’re getting ready to begin one of the most rewarding chapters of our lives and you should take a page from our storybook for yourself.”
Sam shifted weight to her back heel and cocked her head. “What are you proposing, Jen? That I find myself a wonderful man who can take care of me, add me to his collection of trophies on a shelf and put my libido out to pasture?”
“I’m suggesting you find someone to settle down with, someone to love until you’re old and gray, and maybe…” she added, though knew it would receive protest, “someone with whom to have children.”
“Now I know you’ve gone mad.” She eyed the glass in Jennifer’s hand. “I think that gorgeous man spiked your drink.”
Sensitive to prying eyes, Jennifer lowered her voice. “You may change your mind one day.”
“About kids? I think not.” She gave a cursory whip to her head. “I’m a little too fond of my freedom and sanity, thank you very much.”
“Children do not denote insanity, Sam.”
“For some. I know women you’d swear their brains leaked out with their breast milk—a feat that would end my legal career in about the same time it takes a shark to rip through its prey.” She gave an exaggerated shudder. “No thank you. I’ve better uses of my time.” Then she turned the spotlight on Jennifer. “And you?”
“You’ve settled for a man who fits your bill of sale, rather than a man who sets fire to your heart.”
“I have not.” Self-conscious of onlookers she whispered, “I love Aurelio and he loves me.”
“You may love who he is, but I’m not convinced you love him, you know, the for-better-or-worse kind of love. I think he fits your image of what a good husband’s supposed to look like—which has nothing to do with what actually makes a good husband.” She paused. “And I think you’ve settled.”
“And I think you’re crazy. This,” she scoffed, “from the woman who’s most extensive experience in the mating department comes from a twelve month cohabitation.”
“Jeremy and I were sharing some space. I wasn’t interviewing him for a position as my husband.”
“I’m not interviewing anyone.” Jennifer smiled at a couple of women glancing their way, then forced a sip from her wine.
“That’s exactly what you’ve been doing. You have an ideal mate in your head—successful, well-educated, good-looking—and you compare each guy you meet to your concoction of perfect.”
Patience frayed, yet Sam continued, her tone ever-so-polite while dark eyes held sharp and steady. “But no one is perfect, so you make a list of the prospective suitor’s pros and cons, then decide if enough of them fall onto the appropriate side of the T-bar before rendering your final decision.”
“I do not.”
“Yes you do.” She paused again. “Most women do. Forget the fact you’re an accomplished physician in your own right, you’re still out looking for that knight-in-shining-armor fellow to sweep you off your feet and take care of you. You know, big strong man meets small helpless female. Every damn fairy-tale I ever read, the woman looked up to the man.” She tipped up her chin and declared, “Subliminal sabotage, if you ask me.”
“You’re reaching, counselor.”
“I don’t think so.” Sam relaxed into a grin and posed the challenge. “You would no sooner accept a date from the sinfully handsome bartender that plied you with wine than you would a ride home from a stranger.”
“I am not dating a bartender.”
Sam raised her brow and glass in unison. “I rest my case.”
“By the looks of him…” She glanced back in his direction. “He probably spends more time at the beach than he does working.” A little rugged for her taste, he wasn’t bad looking. “How does someone like that support himself?”
“Hey,” Sam knocked back. “I hear bartenders make pretty good money. Unlike you and me, he doesn’t need to slug through long hours to manage the big bucks.”
“Be serious, Sam. Dating a bartender is like asking me to give up filet mignon for hamburger.”
“There’s nothing like an all-American juicy hamburger in my book,” she pumped with a smirk, laughter swamping her eyes. “It’s one of my favorite meals!”
“I prefer steak.”
“You might be surprised.” Sam pulled the sword of olives from their gin bath. “Me, I’d take him solely for his looks.” Plucking one off the end with her teeth she chewed, her eyes dancing in delight.
Jennifer’s gaze hardened. “I don’t date men simply because they look good. I want a man with whom I can stand shoulder to shoulder, see eye to eye. A man I can respect.” She stole another peek at the happy-go-lucky fellow dispensing drinks to a couple of guests. Animated, he conversed with them like they were old friends, knew each other from way back.
She turned a shoulder. “I’m a doctor, for heaven’s sake. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. My life has direction, purpose. I’d last two seconds with a man like that, at most.”
“It would probably prove to be the hottest two seconds of your adult life!”
“Would you stop.” Jennifer admonished. She scanned the immediate vicinity, certain someone had overheard. “You’re supposed to be helping me tonight, not antagonizing.”
Like a flash of steel, Sam cut the humor. Grizzly turned doe as she reached across the divide, her tone rendered tender. “Look. I’m not trying to embarrass you. I’m simply trying to point out that beneath the surface of your calm exterior exists a mountain of passion, churning like a volcano, dormant in a sea of control.”
“What exactly do you have against Aurelio, Sam? What has the man done that you dislike him so?”
“He is a wonderful man,” Jennifer defended. “He’s kind and loving, intelligent and yes, he’s successful—very—for which there’s not a thing to be ashamed.”
Sam drew a sip of gin and regarded her pal with a weighty stare. “You got me there…”
“Then what,” she demanded. “What is wrong with him?”
“Hey, is everything all right?” Michael’s physician assistant appeared by her side. She narrowed her gaze. “You seem upset.”
Her pulse jumped. How long had she been standing there? “No, no, I’m fine.”
The woman rubbed a hand up and down Jennifer’s arm, as though she knew better. “It’s okay. I understand.” She flicked a glance toward Sam and said, “I just wanted to say hello and see how you were coming along.”
Jennifer stepped back, uncomfortable with the close contact. “I appreciate that. Things are well.” She gestured toward Sam. “This is my friend Sam. Sam Rawlings. Sam, this is Carly Tucker. Michael’s P.A.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Sam replied.
“I hope I didn’t interrupt anything…” She returned her full attention to Jennifer. “But I didn’t want to miss you.”
“No, you’re fine. You didn’t interrupt anything.”
Sam raised a brow at the lie as she sipped from her drink.
“We were merely catching up.”
“Well, good.” She lingered, creating an awkward silence. “Okay, so maybe we can talk later?” She nodded, encouraging Jennifer to agree.
“That would be nice.” Carly was familiar with her situation. It was kind of her to make an effort.
She smiled. “I’ll go on and let you two get back to your discussion.”
While it was the last thing Jennifer wanted, Carly excused herself before she could stop her.
“So where were we?”
“Nowhere. Forget I asked.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Aurelio.”
“Except he doesn’t crack lightning through your heart.”
“Or break waves across your soul. He’s not ocean vast or mountain high.” She sighed. “There’s no intensity to him Jen, no depth.” She paused, a hint of pity entering her eyes. “I’m sorry, but Aurelio is duck-pond still.”
“I don’t need waves, Sam. I’m not like you.” She hated the falter in her voice, the desperation, but she needed to be heard. Sam needed to understand. “You thrive on the highs and lows, but not me. I get enough turmoil on the job, I don’t want it at home, too. My home is my sanctuary, my peace. I need calm waters, not raging.”
“C’mon on, Jen. Storms aren’t necessarily a bad thing.” She leaned closer, but didn’t touch her. No predictable wrap of her arm around the shoulders, no hand to her back. “They’re Mother Nature’s rumbling—a growling need, gathering dark and intense along the horizon.” She motioned to the sky above them, licks of a nearby torch jumping in the reflection of her dark eyes. “She sways and rocks, giving herself to the passionate throes and then explodes, high above the landscape in a spectacular light show, releasing herself in a thunderous downpour, bathing the earth with her riches.”
Indignation refueled as she grasped hold of Sam’s underlying meaning. “Remind me to take my umbrella next time they forecast rain.”
Undaunted, Sam said, “I’m talking about tossing the agenda, Jen. Feel your way through life, like you used to. Embrace the highs and lows instead of ‘allotting’ for them.” Sam inched closer, checking for nearby eyes with ears and lowered her voice. “Let go. Let yourself be courted by desire, not success. Toss the schedule into the trash, leave the pen and paper on the desk and follow temptation. Give in.”
“You’re in the wrong courtroom.”
“Marriage isn’t about sex, it’s about love.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Are they?”
“Yes,” she said, though Sam clearly disagreed. “They are.” Jennifer gave a slight shake to her hair. “You don’t have a case here.”
“I think I do.”
“You don’t. And whether you like it or not, Aurelio and I will be married.”
“It’s too soon.”
She tightened her grip on the glass in hand. “Are you forgetting about my mother?”
With quiet determination, Sam replied, “No.”
“Then why would you ask me to wait? You’re not making any sense!”
Sam slid her eyes to the turn of heads to their right.
Heat flushed into Jennifer’s cheeks. “You know what’s at stake. You know how much this means.”
“I know marriage is for life. Your mother will understand.”
Her heart steeled. Famous last words. “I need to find Michael.”
“Give it some consideration, Jen.” Sam’s eyes deepened, steeped in concern. “It’s the least you can do.”
“I’ll catch up with you in a little while.” Without waiting for a response, she left Sam to fend for herself. She would be fine. She always was and tonight would bear no different. Most likely she’d end up with a phone number and a promise and for Sam, it was enough.
But it wasn’t enough for her. She needed more than a good time and she didn’t need to consider anything. Hadn’t she learned enough about need?
If the experience with Tony taught her anything, it was that need disappointed. It worked you up like an addiction then dropped you like a withdrawal. Worse than a patient trying to kick the habit of smoking, need for another human being acted like heroine. When you had it, life was great. When you didn’t…
You wished you were dead.
Winding her way through guests, she continued to stew over the exchange. There’s nothing wrong with Aurelio. A decent, hardworking man, intelligent and sophisticated, loving and kind… He was perfectly suited for her, and she him. Unlike Sam, freewheeling love had never been her style. Except that once. But she had learned her lesson. Whether shame had been her teacher or plain good sense, was immaterial. She had moved on. She and Aurelio wanted the same things from life, shared the same outlook and now it was time for marriage.
The marriage her mother wanted to witness.
The stab to her heart was quick and severe. How could Sam ask her to walk away? How could she be so insensitive?
At a sudden loss of direction, Jennifer stopped. She looked around, gained her bearing, and searched for any sight of Michael. Laurencia. Anyone related to the family.
But she saw no one. Met by a sea of faces, a blur of happy and content, Jennifer hurried into the house.
Where misery followed. Beatrice Hamilton wanted her daughter married and in a lovely garden surrounded by family and friends, much like she and Jennifer’s father had done. It was the one thought that gave her mother peace. The one thing she could look forward to other than pain and nausea.
Surely she could give her that much?
“What—” She whirled around. “Michael,” she responded in a rush of breath. The man of the hour.
Dressed more casually than she expected in a floral button-down and dark slacks, inky brown hair curling at his collar, his temples touched by gray, Michael Kingsley’s gaze was charged with concern. “You okay?”
“Yes.” She worked to calm the thud in her chest. “Fine.” It would not do to have him sense her distress. She was his guest, not some spectacle of emotional unraveling. Struggling to even her voice she said, “You startled me is all.”
His smile was instantaneous. “I apologize. Hey, thanks for coming. Laurencia’s been asking about you all evening.”
“I’m sorry I’m late.”
“No, no, you’re fine. She just wanted to ask about your mother.” His change in tone was swift. “How is she?”
“Fine. No change.”
As a physician, Michael understood the deeper significance. “Do you need anything? Anything at all?”
I need my mother back to full health she thought grimly, but knowing that was a dream, she shook her head. “No, but thank you. You and Laurencia have been wonderful.”
“We love you like a sister, Jennifer. You know that.”
She nodded. Before she had moved on to her fellowship in cardiology, Michael had been instrumental in her internal medicine training. As a resident under his tutelage, the two discovered they shared a soft spot for children. It’s all it took. They’d been friends ever since. “You’ve done more than enough already.”
“Dr. Roberts towing the line?”
She poked the lime in her drink with the tiny red straw. “He’s doing what he feels is best.”
“He’s old school, Jennifer. You have pain, you treat it.”
Unless the patient refuses. She faced him head on. “Yes, well, at least he listens to my mother.”
“Anyone with any sense listens to your mother.”
She laughed softly. “True.”
“She’s in good hands. If she needs something, she’ll get it.”
“I know.” In no small part, because of this man. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, I’m just the messenger!”
Manager more like it, but he wouldn’t accept any more. He was too humble.
Both turned toward the direction of the woman’s voice.
Laurencia Kingsley waved. Encircled by several elegantly dressed women in a kitchen large enough to service a restaurant, she shone in her pantsuit of lustrous gold hues and beaded trim, which set off her brown skin beautifully.
Mother-of-the-bride was radiant. From joy, Jennifer mused.
A conspiratorial gleam lit up Michael’s eyes. “You obviously haven’t made the rounds, yet.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well then, you’d better get to it.” Michael laughed. “She’s invited two hundred of our closest friends tonight, and this is only the first engagement party. She has three more scheduled later this month!”
Jennifer held her best smile in place while the energy drained from her limbs. “Does she now…”
“Trust me. You’d be wise to move along. I learned early on, you don’t want to keep the mother-of-the-bride waiting for anything.”
“No,” she cast a reluctant glance toward Laurencia. “I most certainly don’t.”
Nearly three hours later, Jennifer returned to the area where she left Sam only to find no sign of her. She groaned inwardly. She was ready to leave and leave now. Turning about, she searched the crowd. We should have set a meeting place and time for departure.
At this point, there’s no telling where she might be.
Jennifer continued to scan faces, and felt more conspicuous with each second that passed. She wanted to go home. She was tired. Drained. And thirsty.
Water. She needed water. Turning, she headed for the nearest bar but suddenly remembered the focal point of Sam’s lecture; the bartender extraordinaire. Before she could switch course, the man had secured her in his sights.
Her pulse skipped. All-American juicy hamburger.
I’d take him solely for his looks.
Well not me, her thoughts hammered in revolt. I have everything I want in Aurelio, despite what Sam thinks. Anxious to avoid reminder of her friend’s inflammatory commentary, she considered her options. She could fake a wave and head in the opposite direction. She skimmed her gaze past him and he waved.
And stared. Thoughts of escape evaporated. To walk away now would only pique his curiosity. She exhaled a heavy sigh. Whatever. The man was oblivious to their callous use of his person in their discussion. It had no bearing on the moment, so long as she permitted none.
Calming the momentary skitter in her chest with a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders with an indiscernible shake and walked over to his bar.
“What can I do you for?”
“Another white wine spritzer?”
“No, thank you. I’d like a glass of water, please.”
“With bubbles or without?”
“Coming right up.”
Jennifer noted that he smiled the entire time it took him to grasp a tumbler, fill it with ice, twist open a bottle of spring water and dump its entire contents into the awaiting glass. Pulling a white napkin from the top of the pile, he slid it under the glass and handed the ensemble over the bar counter.
“Here you go.”
“So, your friend told me you’re an associate of Michael’s.”
“Yes.” Uninterested in idle conversation, she glanced around.
He waited. With a smile.
The darned thing never seemed to leave him! And with no excuse for a hasty departure, she was unable to ignore him. “We’re not exactly associates. We do work together, but he’s one of my referring physicians.”
“So you’re not an internist?” he asked, wiping down the counter in front of him.
“No. I’m a cardiologist.”
His eyes came alive with interest as though it was a significant fact, but he let the subject of specialties drop. “Mike’s a great guy.”
Jennifer thought it a bit presumptive of him to speak of his employer in such familiar terms. “Yes. Dr. Kingsley is a wonderful person and one of the most respected in his field.”
He chuckled. “That he is.”
Ready to move on from the conversation, she scanned the area, surprised the party remained in full swing. She checked the slim gold watch on her wrist. Wasn’t it time to wind things down? And where was Sam?
Edging away from the bar, she made way as another guest placed an order for a mojito. Once again, the man went to work with an ease and fluidity that amazed her. She sipped from her drink. Watching him, she imagined he could serve drinks in his sleep it came so natural.
Working on the second cocktail, her thoughts fell back to Sam. He wasn’t bad looking really, though she couldn’t imagine what he and a date discussed over dinner. Bartending? The beach? By the looks of his tan, it was obvious he spent a lot of time outdoors. Boating? Fishing? That’s what men did in their spare time, wasn’t it? Volleyball in the sand?
Then golden hair seemed to leap out from his chest, ensnaring her attention. Before she could help herself, her vision rolled right over his collarbone, up along his neck to his well-shaven jaw line where she found herself wondering if his brown skin would feel as soft as it appeared. Inching further up, she bumped into his gaze.
He was staring at her expectantly. Knowingly.
“I should have known I’d find you here…”
Jennifer’s pulse skipped—at least three beats—and she swallowed hard. Hot with embarrassment, she sliced her gaze to the floor. What was she doing?
Sam waltzed up, an empty martini glass in hand. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Yes, well,” she said, her pulse slowing to a pound. “I doubt that very much but I am ready to go.”
Had she really been checking out the bartender? Jennifer deposited her gaze into the glass of water. It must be the wine. Talk of Tony. She had one too many and it was affecting her behavior. Had to be.
Save for one minor detail.
She’d only had one.
“Oh, pooh.” Sam slapped her empty martini glass on top of the bar. “Just when things were starting to pick up for me.” She turned to the bartender and said, “Thanks for the drinks Jax, but it’s time for Cinderella to return to her castle.”
“Any slippers I should be looking for?” He responded to Sam, but again his eyes hovered about Jennifer—as though she had encouraged his attention. She glanced away.
“Not tonight. My Princess Charming here is driving me home and she’s a stickler for loose ends. Broken crystal really gets under her skin if you know what I mean,” Sam whispered loudly, followed by a wink.
“Egads,” Sam pulled back in mock alarm. “It appears I might be spending some time in the dungeon this evening!”
“Better you than me, Sam,” he replied with pronounced relief, but the merry grin on his face belied any concern.
Refusing to play along—and wondering why her friend was on a first-name basis with the bartender—Jennifer set her water glass on the bar. “Let’s go Cinderella. Your pumpkin is about to burst.” She seized Sam by the elbow and steered her toward the door, a slew of mixed emotions colliding in her chest