Don’t look, just keep walking.
Dr. Eli St. John walked up the freshly dusted, snow-covered sidewalk toward his parents’ bungalow and refused to even glance over to their neighbor’s house.
Since he’d be calling Stonerock, Tennessee, home again for the next few months, he’d no doubt see that neighbor more often than he’d like. But on his first day back, he preferred to ease into being home, ease into knowing she was now within reaching distance. Not that he would do anything about it.
He was such a coward.
An uncomfortable weight settled in his chest at the thought of seeing his one-time love, the woman he’d never forgotten, the woman who’d married his best friend.
Eli wiped the snow off the bottom of his boots on a Santa Claus welcome mat, and before he could reach for the handle, the door swung wide open, causing an evergreen Christmas wreath to bounce in protest.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I knew we could count on you.”
Eli sank into his mother’s familiar embrace. Before he could step over the threshold of the front door, his mother, Bev, was there to greet him with a smile and love. Just like she’d done each time he’d come home from a tour of duty.
Now, the times he had sneaked in after curfew as a teen were a different story. But that hell-raiser had grown up, leaving the proverbial good times behind.
Leaving Nora Parker behind. Now that he was going to be home for a good bit of time, dodging the one woman who still owned a small portion of his heart would be nearly impossible. Not only was she his parents’ neighbor, she was a recent widow, and his parents loved her like she was the daughter they never had.
Turning his attention back to the reason for his homecoming, Eli eased back from his mother’s embrace and met her gaze.
“What’s this?” she asked, brushing her fingertip along his most recent scar.
Refusing to get into the reasons behind the scar, he shrugged. “Army injury.”
He wasn’t lying, technically. There was no way he would ever come clean about the ugly reminder of how he’d spent his last encounter with his best friend.
The last time he’d seen Todd alive, they’d gotten into a drunken fistfight. Out of character for both of them, but Eli would do it again in a heartbeat, given the reasons behind the unleashed rage.
His mother hugged him again. “I’m so proud of you for serving, but selfishly I’m glad you’re done for good.”
Bev pulled back and Eli stepped into the foyer.
Nodding, she started forward toward the living room. “He’s okay. You of all people know doctors make the worst patients.”
Eli laughed, thankful that he was home, but worried what he’d encounter when he saw his father. The man had always been so robust, so full of life and busy caring for others. But his father had failed a stress test earlier in the week and a heart cath showed he had some major blockage.
Eli had been a medic in the army the past several years, but since he got out six months ago, he’d been an ER doctor in Atlanta, and he’d seen his fair share of massive heart attacks. Chest pain was nothing to mess around with. Since his father hadn’t been having pain, they scheduled the surgery for tomorrow, for which Eli was thankful. The drive on his way up from Georgia had given him enough time to prepare himself.
And enough time to work on scenarios and reactions to seeing Nora. Why did he care? Shouldn’t time and distance have severed any ties he had to her? They were different people now and whatever feelings they’d had in the past were left there when he chose to walk away from her.
Hardest decision of his life, to leave her and go fight for his country.
The scar on his face proved he’d never fully gotten over her, even though they’d both moved on.
They’d each made their choices, and there was no going back.
Eli tried to slide those thoughts from his mind as he followed his mother toward the living room. He was here for his father first and foremost…not to rehash or run from emotions he’d felt years ago. He had his own life now, one he loved and was eager to get back to once his father was cleared to return to work.
Eli had seen countless patients laid up, recovering or even dying, but when your father was the one being treated, the whole scenario changed. Eli wasn’t a fan of being back home for a long period of time, but there was no way he’d leave his father or his father’s patients in a bind.