by Kit Wilkinson
“Wait a minute, miss. That’s mine.” Wasn’t that his coffee? Justin Winters stood wide-eyed as a tall blonde slipped away from the pick-up counter with a steaming cup of fresh coffee. He double-checked the number on his ticket. Thirty-two. Yep, that was his coffee. And he wanted it. Badly. The strong aroma of fresh Colombian had tantalized his senses long enough. “Hel-lo-o. Excuse me, ma’am. That’s my order.”
Oblivious to his calls, she continued off with the coffee in her hands. Justin hurried after her, ducking his head a few times to avoid the fancy light fixtures that hung too low for anyone over six-two, meaning they hit him right in the nose. He tapped her shoulder. She turned. Long, golden curls flipped and bounced over the collar of her jacket then settled around her soft face. And, oh, what a face!
Justin froze, forgetting all about the cup of coffee he’d wanted so desperately. In fact, the beautiful woman could keep the coffee. Coffee was nothing. Not when compared to peachy lips stretching into a sweet smile, a perfect dimple on the left cheek and a brilliant set of clear, azure eyes. Those things had coffee beat hands down.
She pulled a pair of earbuds away from her head and shoved them into an oversize shoulder bag. She glanced up at him, blue eyes gleaming. “Sorry. Did I forget something?”
No. But he had. He’d forgotten how to speak. The Afghan war zone hadn’t provided a lot of views like the one in front of him and it had rendered him senseless, turning him into a gawking, gaping Neanderthal. Mouth open, arms dangling, the whole bit.
“Did you need something?” she asked.
“I did.” Justin jerked a smile over his face, stretched his torso long and tall, and reached up to rub a hand through his buzz cut. Instead of his hair, his fingers whacked one of the light fixtures, sending it into orbit around his head. So much for a good first impression. Smooth move, Winters.
He steadied the light. The woman’s crystal blue eyes opened wide with amusement. Justin cleared his throat, hoping to swallow down his own embarrassment. He’d never been too suave around the women, but this was a rather rough start even for him. He had stopped her for a reason, right? His eyes made a quick scan of the surroundings.
“Coffee,” he said, as if locating a set of misplaced keys. “You—you took my coffee.”
Her smile grew wider and Justin thought he might go weak in the knees. ”
Oh, dear,” she said. “I guess my music was too loud. I heard the wrong number. Sorry. Here.”
She handed him the drink and flowed gracefully back to the counter, the loose fabric of her dress and jacket billowing behind her. A soft, clean scent way more tantalizing than ground coffee beans swirled around him as she moved away, and then again as she crossed back in front of him with a different cup in her hands. Justin drank in all of her—her classic bone structure, her peachy colored cheeks and her perky nose. She was a beauty with a face he’d never forget. It was also one he’d never seen before, which, in a town as small as Glendale, Tennessee, could only mean one thing— she was new. ”
Glad you caught me,” she said, glancing over her shoulder as she passed back by him still standing there like a statue cemented to the floor. “I don’t even drink coffee. Herbal tea.”
She floated away again. This time to the fixings table where she dumped two or three packets of raw sugar into her cup and proceeded to stir rapidly with a wooden stick.
Justin followed her to the table as if a string were attached between them. He poured a generous portion of half and half into his coffee, even though he preferred it black, and struggled to put a thought together.
He was as nervous as if he was waiting for his final test into the 101st Army Airborne. Even his palms were sweating, and it wasn’t because of the hot coffee in his hands. And why? He certainly wasn’t in the market for romance. Far from it. He was already married to his work. And that’s the way he liked it. So why was he reacting so strongly to this woman?
He hardly knew, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He grabbed a napkin from the counter and wiped his moist hands, pretending something sticky had spread on his fingers. She looked up at him again and smiled. His heart pounded against his ribs.
“Glendale Emergency Medical Team.” She squinted to read the crest on his shirt as she leaned across the counter to throw away her tea bags. “You’re a paramedic? That must be interesting work. How long have you done that?”
“W-well—” His voice cracked. He paused and swallowed hard. “Actually, it’s my first day on the team here in Glendale. I just came home from active duty.” He decided to leave out the part that he’d been sent home to recover from Post Traumatic Stress.
“What branch of service?”
“Really? Like a Ranger or Delta Force?”
He blushed a little. “More like the 101st Airborne.”
“Wow. So you’re a pilot and a medic?”
“Sort of?” She lifted an eyebrow, grinning at his vague answers, but seemed uninterested in pushing her questions. He was glad. He wasn’t in the mood for explaining that he was neither of those things but still more than qualified to wear the medic uniform.
“Hmm. That’s interesting,” she continued. “Never heard of that but it sure makes being a sixth-grade teacher sound really boring.”
“No way. A middle-school teacher? Now that is a dangerous job.”
She smiled and took a sip of tea. “Sometimes it can be.”
Justin gulped his coffee, forgetting both that it was hot and that it had cream in it. He could only imagine the face he’d made. She didn’t seem to notice. ”
So you’re from Glendale?”
“Born and bred.” He nodded. “But you’re not?”
“Nope. Atlanta. Been here a few months. But I just got a job today. So, who knows, maybe I’ll stay.”
“Congratulations.” So she was new to town. And now that he thought about it, people only moved to Glendale for two reasons—either to attend the university or to marry someone who already lived here. Suddenly, he felt silly. She was married. Of course. She had to be. He glanced down at her ring finger. Not that he cared or anything. He didn’t. He was home to heal his mind. Not to date. But he could be curious, right? No harm in that?
Her left hand hugged the cup of tea. No rings. It was bare.
Justin smiled wider. “It’s not easy to find work these days. That’s great.”
“I know. I was very fortunate. Although it is temporary and certainly not as exciting as being a medic and a pilot.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how exciting being a medic in Glendale is going to be. In fact, I’m on duty right now and you see that I’m here at the coffee shop. I don’t think we get many calls.” He paused and took a sip of coffee, bracing himself for the unwelcomed taste of cream. “So you must be either teaching at Glendale or Lakeview. Those were the only two middle schools in the county when I was growing up, and I don’t think that’s changed.”
“Lakeview. I’ll be filling in for Mrs. Fox while she’s on maternity leave.”
“Then you’ll meet my little sister. She’s a teacher there, too.” Justin lifted a brow, thinking that might be convenient. “Her name is Katie Winters. Look her up when you start.”
She nodded sweetly, her golden waves following the soft motion of her head. A little blush rose to her cheeks.
Man. She sure was pretty. Justin wanted to ask her her name and find out a little more about her. He wanted to keep talking to her, and not just because she was beautiful. Although she was beautiful. There was something else there, too. Some feeling she’d awakened inside him. Feelings long buried through years of living in a combat zone and focusing single-mindedly on his work. If only he had time in his life to explore such feelings now. But he did not.
Justin was home for one thing and one thing only. To heal his mind so that he could get back to the army and do his job. He was the one flight surgeon for a very large airborne division. The pilots needed him and his expertise. They did not need a doctor with his head in a fog over women or traumatic combat experiences. But Justin had a feeling this wasn’t just any woman. This was the kind of woman who made him think of family and relationships and all those things he’d put on hold to pursue his work in the medical field.
Becky Rhodes Kirkpatrick took a step back from the tall, dark and extremely hunky medic. The conversation had become a little awkward. The man was probably harmless enough, but she had definitely caught him glancing at her ring finger. Next, he’d be telling her his name and asking her out for coffee…. ”I’m Justin,” he said, before she’d completely turned away. “Justin Winters.”
Becky pressed her lips together in hesitation. Should she tell him the truth? Tell him she was a widow and that she was five months pregnant?
Ha. No. Talk about awkward.
Anyway, it was refreshing to meet someone who didn’t already know who she was and her whole tragic story. In the past few weeks, sympathies had grown tiresome. As had the look of shock on people’s faces when she told them she was expecting. And yet, somehow this innocent conversation had started to feel a bit untruthful. Being tall and naturally thin, she hardly looked pregnant. On the other hand, saying “I’m a pregnant widow” didn’t exactly flow into the conversation.
“I’m Becky,” she answered.
He gave her hand a firm but gentle shake. “Nice to meet you, Becky.”
She caught the flecks of gold sparkling in his chocolate eyes. They glowed with intensity and interest. Yeah. Too much interest. Becky lowered her head. Good grief. Was she blushing? Ugh. Now he would think she was flirting. And she could not possibly be flirting. The heat in her cheeks was probably another influx of pregnancy hormones. In any case, it was time to go. And quickly. “Nice to meet you, too. I’ll be sure to look your sister up when I start teaching next week.”
The paramedic nodded and waved a hand through the air as Becky walked out of the shop. She smiled. In fact, she was smiling so hard her jaw ached. And it felt good. It had been far too long. Tommy would not have been pleased with all her crying and mourning and depression. He would have reminded her that God was in control and that she was in His will. He would have wanted her to get out and enjoy herself and get on with life. He would have wanted her to smile. Like she was doing now.
And Glendale was such a beautiful town. She’d had no idea. Tommy had called his hometown—a sprawling little establishment centered around a large lake on the Tennessee plateau—a country paradise, a place where it was easy to see the hand of the Lord everywhere you looked. Becky couldn’t have agreed more. She took in a deep breath, wondering what Tommy would have thought about her encounter with the medic. Would he mind that she’d enjoyed a conversation with another man? No. She let out a bittersweet giggle. He would have put his arm around her and said he’d picked the prettiest girl in the South and everyone else would just have to deal with it. How she missed his arms around her shoulders, how she hated being alone, how she feared she would always be alone…
Becky walked on to her car. A flood of images and sounds from the past filled her mind.
Please. Promise me…
Sometimes she could still hear Tommy’s voice, so weak from the cancer and the first and only chemo treatment, which had killed him within a few hours. Becky shook her head and climbed into her car. Her smile faded, replaced with the emotionless front she’d learned to display in place of tears when she thought of how alone she was now that Tommy was gone.
At times, she wanted to shut out the thoughts and memories of Tommy. At other times, like at this moment, it bothered her that the true timbre of his voice had begun to fade from her mind…the particular gray of his eyes, his unique swagger as he crossed a room, the way his hair flopped over his forehead in one big curl. She didn’t want to forget these things. The two of them had had such little time together. Still, it didn’t seem right she could forget everything so quickly. And yet, the image of him had already begun to lose color in her mind. Maybe if she’d paid more attention. Noted the exact curve of his nose and the placement of the freckles on his cheeks. But she’d never thought of the possibility of waking up to a world where there was no Tommy. Even though she’d done it for nearly five months now.
Stay with her. Tell my mother about Christ. I’m not going to get the chance…
It hadn’t been the only reason Becky had moved in with her mother-in-law, but Tommy’s words had been a driving force. Of course, she would have promised him anything as he lay there dying of leukemia.
And so, the last five months had been a blur. She’d made decisions without really thinking—she’d sold their home and Tommy’s car; found another family to take in their dog; quit her teaching job. All because of her promise.
A promise she’d never dreamed would be so difficult to honor. Living with Aggie should have been like living with family, but it wasn’t. The stern, disapproving woman was nothing like the mother Becky had lost years ago. And giving up the home and the life she and Tommy had shared just made those happy memories seem even further away. Perhaps Tommy hadn’t thought about the hardships his request would cause. And it didn’t matter, Becky was determined to keep her word. No matter how difficult. No matter how tired she felt. And boy, did she feel tired at that moment.
Perhaps she’d overdone things that morning—getting the job after taking a long walk around the lake. Becky started her car. As the engine revved, so did the pain in her head. Her vision blurred and a strange lifting sensation took her by surprise.
She grabbed hold of her belly as the intense pain traveled from her right side to the left, squeezing the air from her lungs and causing her to bend at the waist. Nausea waved over her, leaving her exhausted and lifeless. She hoped nothing was wrong. That she was just tired. But was it ever good to have pain during a pregnancy? She closed her eyes tight, not allowing her mind to go there. She couldn’t bear another loss. That very thought filled her with such a crippling fear that she often, strangely, found herself unwilling to think of the dear, precious life inside her. Still, as soon as she got home, she would call the doctor and schedule a checkup.
Slowly, the cramp released and she recovered her breath. She drove out of the coffee-shop parking lot and headed for home. Well, not home exactly. It was Greyfield. Aggie’s home. Tommy’s home. Not her home.