“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he murmured, looking down to their hands. “All those years ago. I never apologized.”
Okay, that was a time she did not want to revisit because from the moment he’d left, she’d been seeking happiness, only able to grasp on to meager scraps of it. But she couldn’t fully blame him. She was in charge of her own life and had made it what it was—falling into a marriage with a man who should’ve remained her friend and nothing more.
“Life happens, Eli.” She laced her fingers with his, wanting another layer of connection. “We had different goals in life. Doesn’t mean we didn’t care for each other. Besides, we were young. We might have made a mistake staying together. You would’ve probably resented being stuck here and wondered what life outside Stonerock would’ve been like.”
He squeezed her hand back. “I’ve never known a woman like you, Nora.”
She laughed, easing the intensity of the moment. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
A wide smile spread across his handsome, stubbled face. “Definitely a compliment.”
Silence surrounded them and for the first time it wasn’t strained or awkward.
“I’m really glad you’re back, Eli.”
He was so quick to answer, but she knew he had a life, the one he’d worked so hard for, waiting on him. Good for him for making his life everything he’d ever wanted.
“You’re here now,” she told him. “That’s all that matters.”
She didn’t want any tension while he was here. First of all, she loved his family too much to have that weighing heavily on them, and second, she couldn’t afford the emotional battle.
Even though they were different people than they once were, they could still be friends.
He’d faced the wrath of his father when he’d sneaked out of the house at age fifteen, he’d served alongside men who’d died in front of him and he’d managed to move on after a broken heart.
But nothing scared the hell out of Dr. Eli St. John more than that waiting room full of patients. Patients who remembered the teen he used to be and had no real clue as to the man he’d truly become.
Oh, he wasn’t worried about contracting some virus or cold. No, he was terrified the do-gooders of the town would peer down their nose at him and judge him for his past sins.
Eli glanced at his watch and sighed. His father’s nurse, Sarah, would start filling the rooms any minute and Eli would just have to suck it up and get this first day out of the way.
At least Sarah was young, new and professional. When he’d walked through the office earlier to speak to Lulu, she’d been filing her nails and the phone had been ringing. It had rung four times before she slammed down her file and answered.
For some reason the townsfolk liked Lulu—with her odd, sometimes rude behavior—and expected her to be sitting behind that desk when they came in. She never changed…ever. And she still sported a low-cut top with her goods on display.
Perhaps that’s why she’d always been so well received.
Regardless, Eli’s father swore she was the most organized person he’d ever worked with and he’d hired her straight out of high school. Lulu was just shy of forty, a few years older than Eli, so she wasn’t going anywhere.
Dr. St. John—the original—was home resting and recovering and depending on Eli to keep the practice afloat. Eli had no intention of letting the man down, no matter what he thought of how his dad ran the office.
Eli moved from his father’s small office and went down the narrow hallway, eyeing the closed exam room door. Pulling the chart from the tray, he glanced at the name first…then did a double take.
Perfect. Simply perfect.
Maddie Mays. Or, as he and his brothers called her, “Mad” Maddie. The woman had to be a day older than God himself and she put the fear in every kid who had the unfortunate idea of cutting through her property to the park. More than once Mad Maddie had wielded a rolling pin in one hand and ball bat in the other. There was no doubt the woman would’ve used both weapons if anyone stepped on her precious prize-winning flowers. Those women in the Flower Garden Club were vicious and Mad Maddie was their president. Don’t mess with a woman’s rhododendrons.