Authors: Julie Lessman
Vaulting to his feet, he bludgeoned a tight-fisted finger in her direction. “Look, Tess, if you came over here to peddle your sanctimonious mumbo-jumbo, I don’t want to hear it. I’m fine just the way I am.”
She pinned him with a level gaze. “Sure you are, Ben. That’s why you’re known as the Terror of the fifth floor at Memorial, Dr. Snark to your nurses, and Dr. Doom to every kid on the street. The girl scouts won’t darken your door, you haven’t spoken to your neighbors on either side for almost eight years, and your daughter is a virtual stranger.” Her lips thinned into a tight smile as she arched her brows. “Other than that, sounds ‘fine’ to me.”
He slammed his chair out of the way as he stalked to the back door. “Leave the package or not, I don’t care.”
Tess’s body tensed in the chair, her voice firm. “Lacey’s back, Ben—for good. You care about that?”
He froze on the threshold, fist knotted on the knob. Hard muscles flinched in a broad back as stiff as the frame of the door beneath his white-knuckled hand.
Seconds ticked by like the lethal pulse of a bomb, every one echoing her own heartbeat as it thudded hollow in her chest. And then, the angry bluster seemed to slowly seep from his body like a balloon with a slow bleed of air, massive shoulders shrinking into surrender with the drop of his head. Her heart squeezed at how difficult this was for him. “Please talk to me, Ben,” she whispered, her voice a low ache. “Don’t close me out again.”
Still framed in the door, he gouged his temples with forefinger and thumb, all fight appearing to leak out along with the air-conditioning from his house. With a cumbersome sigh that slumped his shoulders, he closed the slider and made his way back to his chair, sinking into the slatted seat with eyes closed as he rested his head against the back. “When?”
“Over the weekend. She’s staying with Karen’s mother and her cousins.”
Generous lips normally full in repose now pinched in a downward curve as he kneaded his temple with the ball of his hand. “How did you find out?”
“Jack ran into her at the BP on Saturday, then she dropped Davey off from his first baseball practice that evening.”
Mouth cemented into a hard line, he peered up beneath dark lashes the same color as thick ebony hair edged with silver “How is she?”
“Nervous.” Tess studied him with gentle eyes. “She told Jack she was back to make amends.”
He grunted, the sound bringing a trace of a smile to her lips as she reflected on the hard-nosed surgeon who had a knack for making people nervous with his testy manner. A belligerence Tess suspected was more to keep people away rather than a nasty personality or out-in-out meanness. She’d seen the real Ben too many times in the past, before his wife had cut out his heart. A serious man with strength of character and a dry wit.
a wall of steel around his emotions that would make the impassable hedge look like air.
One side of his mouth crooked. “Nervous, huh? Yeah, well, I tend to bring that out in people apparently. It’s a gift.”
A smile twitched on her lips as Beau made an appearance with a half-chewed Atlanta Braves baseball cap, sliding into a comfortable spot next to Ben. “Only if you’re an ostrich, turtle, or a mole looking to shut everybody out. Now me? I’d rather be at peace with the world, you know?” She wriggled a cookie from the container, then extended it across the fire pit with a wriggle of brows. “More nice surprises that way, like monster cookies from a really nice neighbor.”
He stared at the cookies proffered, then at her before he finally took one, the barest trace of a smile on his face. “I’ve actually dreamed of these.”
“Well then, see? Dreams come true when one is at peace with the world and nice to their neighbors.”
That formidable jaw chewed slowly, deliberately, while those hazel eyes nailed her to the chair. “You at peace with the world, Tess?” he asked quietly.
She broke eye contact to scrub Beau on the head, his question catching her off-guard because she knew what he was asking. Had she forgiven Adam? The very question she asked herself almost every single day of her life when she prayed for the father of her children. The popular seminary student with the Dennis Quaid smile who had wooed her relentlessly until she said, “Yes.” The same man who swore to love her till death do us part. Only it wasn’t death that had ended their marriage. It was adultery with her neighbor and friend.
A death all the same.
She forced a casual tone, avoiding his stare. “Not for a long time I wasn’t, but I think so now, at least with Adam, although it’s been far more difficult for Jack and Cat, both with their father and …” She glanced up to meet his gaze. “Your daughter.”
His jaw shifted as he looked away, a grinding motion she’d always noticed whenever they’d played board games. He’d been a fierce competitor back then, Mr. Do-or-Die, no matter how much they’d tried to laugh and tease him out of it. A fighter to the bitter end, bent on winning.
Just like now.
Tess fortified with a deep draw of air as she slipped her feet to the ground and leaned forward, arms crossed on her knees. “It’s time for the bitterness to end, Ben,” she whispered, her solemn tone coaxing his gaze to hers. “Between our children, between our families, and between you and me.”
For the first time in almost eight years she saw a glimmer of the gentleness she knew Ben Carmichael possessed, despite all the stories to the contrary. “I don’t have a beef with you, Tess,” he said softly.
She hiked a brow. “You could have fooled me.”
Eyes in a squint, he stared aimlessly into the backyard. “It wasn’t you,” he whispered, grief threading his tone. His Adam’s apple ducked hard in his throat. “I just couldn’t see you without seeing … Adam and …”
“I understand, Ben, but unto everything there is a season—a time to weep and a time to laugh, and don’t you think both of us are due a little laughter after the heartbreak we’ve endured?”
He peered up at her with a ghost of a smile. “You don’t seem to have any problem—I hear laughter over there all the time.”
Her smile took a swerve toward dry. “Yes, well, I’d rather be laughing
you rather than
you, Dr. Doom, if you don’t mind.”
Her response prompted a trace of a twinkle in his eyes before it faded once again. “Your faith certainly doesn’t seem any worse for the wear.”
“Actually it’s stronger,” she said slowly, struck for the very first time just how much more she depended on it than ever before. “When I was a pastor’s wife, I thought my faith was strong, but I had no idea how weak it really was. It was almost as if I was going through the motions for Adam and our church back then. More of a long-distance relationship with God than intimate and personal like I have now.” A sense of awe floated over her like a summer breeze kissed by the scent of the sea—calming her, uplifting her, buoying her with hope. She tilted her head, a faint smile of wonder skimming her lips at the revelation that suddenly flooded her soul.
“God is my husband now,” she said quietly, reverently, “and more faithful than any lover could ever hope to be. True testimony to the fact He causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him.” She glanced up, unable to thwart the tears that stung in her eyes. “Even divorce due to adultery.”
Ben sat back with a stiff fold of his arms, his smile hard. “Yeah, well, I’m afraid it had the opposite effect on me. I have as much use for God now as I do your ex-husband.”
“Doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Tess said with a slow nod. “Jack’s the same way, both about his father and God. Flat-out refused to join the others when Adam flew them out to Colorado three times a year before he went overseas, or even to speak to him on the phone.” She couldn’t help a devious smile. “Although I may not be able to coerce him into making amends with his father, trust me, I still have my ways of getting his butt into a church pew every now and then.”
A semblance of a grin slipped across his face. “Come now, blackmail, Mrs. O’Bryen? Hard to believe of a pastor’s ex-wife who’s now tight with God.”
Her chin rose in defense, in total contrast to the tease in her eyes. “Good news, Dr. Carmichael—perfection is not a requirement for being ‘tight with God,’ so you’re good to go.”
“No, thanks—been there, done that.” He glanced at his watch and stood with a gruff clear of his throat. “Well, Beau and I have a fishing date, so I need to head out, but thanks for the cookies, Tess, and the package.”
“Sure.” She stretched her arms high in the air, hoping to unkink both her muscles and her disappointment over his obvious escape. “Keep the Tupperware—I’ll pick it up next time.”
He paused, assessing her through a half-lidded gaze. “Next time,” he said, his tone as flat as the press of his lips. “There’s no need for a ‘next time,’ Tess. We’ve talked, we’ve cleared the air, we’re good.”
She squared her shoulders, her will engaging as taut as a finely tuned bow. “No, Ben, ‘good’ is an amiable friendship like we used to have.” She plucked the package up and tossed it at him. “You know—humorous banter when moles invade my yard, then move to yours? Meaningful chats with cookies and coffee over the best grass seed to buy? Pleasant camaraderie when one needs advice, help, or maybe just a shoulder to cry on?” Picking up the cookies, she strolled around the fire pit to plop them on top of the package he held, giving him a firm jut of her chin tempered by a stubborn smile. “Honest-to-goodness friendship, Dr. Carmichael, guaranteed to help cure what ails you. Like an apple a day to keep the grouch away.” She snatched a cookie from beneath the lid, then whirled to make a beeline for the gate. “You should try it sometime.”
“Apparently I’m slated to whether I want to or not,” he said in a gruff voice, the bite of his words dangerously close to a growl. “Look, Tess, I want to be left alone, all right? And it’s an apple a day keeps the
away, which is exactly what I prefer to do.”
She spun around, cheeks chunky with cookie as she swallowed, totally ignoring the warning muscle that flickered in his cheek. “Sorry, Doc, doesn’t work with annoying neighbors.” She waved the remains of her cookie in the air before disappearing around the house, her cheerful voice trailing after her. “Bon appétit!”
She backtracked to pop her head around the corner. “Yes, Ben?”
He had that grinding thing going on, so much so she wondered how the poor man had any teeth left. His eyes narrowed to slits of amber, dark brows digging low. “Why is this so all-fire important to you?”
She paused, studying the man who needed a friend more than anyone she’d met in a long, long time. A veritable gem buried beneath a trash heap of bitterness and blame. She could still see glimpses of the good and caring guy he used to be, and her heart ached over the damage that had been done to them both. Her exhale was shaky and tenuous, like their path back to friendship was likely to be. But she stared him down nonetheless, never surer that this was exactly what God had called her to do. Her solemn words carried the weight of her prayers, her voice lowering to help cushion the sober truth. “Because my family and I need peace and closure, Ben, and so do you and yours.” As if to underscore the importance of her goal, words from her morning devotional drifted through her mind. A gentle reminder that souls were at stake if she just walked away and never looked back, just like Ben wanted her to do.
For the Lord disciplines those He loves.
With a scrunch of her nose, she tilted her head, lips curling into a full-fledged grin. “But if you must know, Dr.
, the real reason I’m doing this is as foreboding as the nasty look on your face.” She nodded to the blue of the sky, unblemished by any clouds of concern—like her faith at the moment. “Somebody up there’ll kick my butt if I don’t.”
“Yeah? And how do you know I won’t kick your butt if you do?” Ben muttered under his breath, staring long after Tess disappeared around the house. He blasted out a noisy sigh and headed for the door, bobbling both package and cookies with a scowl. The last thing he needed—or wanted—was to open up communication with his next-door neighbor. His hedges and gates were there for a reason—to keep people, peddlers, and neighbors out of his life.
out of his heart. Not to mention memories too painful to remember.
He whistled, and Beau came running with ears flopping and that goofy doggy grin that always helped disarm Ben’s sour moods. “Good boy,” he said with a genuine smile, closing the door behind Beau before setting the package and cookies down on the polished stone and teak sofa table his decorator picked out. Squatting, he swallowed his best friend in a fierce hug, crooning his praises as he scratched the animal’s neck.
Dogs were so easy to trust. Loyal and true, Beau loved him no matter what, be it foul mood or temper, and most importantly, he would never leave him or run away, never abandon him like everyone else.
His wife and his daughter.
Head buried against Beau’s, Ben clung to his animal, the dog’s warm tongue lathering his face. God help him, he had no desire to let another human being get too close ever again.
God help him?
Ruffling Beau’s shiny coat, Ben paused mid-scrub, lips taking a hard slant. Not likely given that God hadn’t been there for him before, even after Tess and Adam had badgered him into going back to church on a regular basis. He couldn’t deny there were times when belief in God had felt almost good, almost possible to believe there was a heavenly Father who loved him. But that fairy-tale had been neatly lanced when his best friend and pastor had slept with his wife, destroying any further faith in God.
Or any human being He’d created.
Except maybe my kids.
He issued a silent grunt. The ones who
blood related, and the only “family” he cared to have. Exhaling a weary sigh, he rose and made his way to the kitchen, fingers feathering Beau’s head as the lab trotted by his side. His mind reflected on the special children whose lives he saved every year. Special because like him, they had no family who cared. Orphaned, abused, or lost in the foster care shuffle, they were his chance to redeem himself as a father without all the messy and painful involvement that had plagued him all of his life. Kids like Juan Diaz, one of his favorites who brought a smile to Ben’s face every time he saw the boy for follow-up. All of seven years old, the kid was bright, witty, and a real pistol, claiming he wanted to grow up to be just like Ben. A second grunt made it past Ben’s lips.
No you don’t bud
. His mouth twisted as he dug a Milk-bone biscuit out of the pantry.
You’ll end up a crabby old hermit like me …
“Old” he wasn’t so crazy about, but “crabby” and “hermit” suited Ben just fine, keeping his emotional commitment to a level he could handle. Safe. Casual. Social when necessary. And focused on the people who mattered the most—the kids that needed him. Of course his partners thought he was crazy for doing so many pro bono surgeries a year, but in a way, the Children’s Miracle Network had been his salvation. His chance to give back, to bring a smile to some little kid’s face. And to save lives—lots and lots of lives. He exhaled. Along with a boatload of guilt.
“I think somebody needs a treat,” he said with a warmth he reserved for Beau, his drill-sergeant secretary Martha, a few select friends, and his pro bono family. “Sit …”
Beau jumped up and down, front paws jiggling in excitement as he shimmied into a perfect pose, back straight and head high. “Good boy.” Carefully balancing the Milk-Bone biscuit on the animal’s nose, Ben waited several seconds, a smile squirming over both the dog’s life-and-death intensity and a quivering strand of drool. “Release!”
With a flawless flip in the air, Beau locked enormous jaws on the bone and crunched it to oblivion before nuzzling his nose into Ben’s hand, obviously looking for more.
“Okay, okay, you’re darn lucky I love you, you know that?” With a grin and an affectionate tousle of Beau’s ears, Ben awarded him two additional Milk-bones before they both traipsed into what most people referred to as “the family room”—a misnomer if ever there was. His smile went south. He hadn’t had a “family” since the day his father died when Ben was only five. The one parent he’d adored, stolen away by a fatal car accident on one of many business trips, plunging his mother into a depression so debilitating, she barely knew Ben was alive.
The depression finally lifted when she married his stepfather two years later, a sanctimonious physician and taskmaster who shoved religion down Ben’s throat but didn’t live it himself. Before long, the man put a stranglehold on Ben’s mother and him, intent on controlling and bullying them both. Looking back, Ben could almost understand why his mother took her own life, living under the thumb of a pious dictator whom neither of them could ever please. But the scar of abandonment left on her son cut deep, festering through his teens and into his so-called marriage. An all-too-familiar ache throbbed as his thoughts strayed to Karen, and for the thousandth time he wished it had been different. Wished he’d tried harder in their marriage, wished he hadn’t shut her and Lacey out. But his heart was apparently toxic to anyone who even got close, proving once and for all he had no business opening up to anyone ever again. Tears burned the back of his lids, but he fought them off with a hard clamp of his mouth, wondering why, after all of these years, it still mattered at all.
Forcing his thoughts to the present, he rifled through the mail he’d tossed on his teak serpentine side table, sifting through envelopes for things that
matter. Like The Children’s Heart Foundation or The Coastal Pet Rescue—people and things that gave him a place to channel his love. Causes and surgeries that restored a child’s life, a family’s hope, and his own confidence that he was a man who possessed a heart, even if he never let anyone in.
Stacking the envelopes in a neat pile, he set them aside and sank into his bomber-jacket leather recliner—an overstuffed lounger his decorator had indelicately referred to as a “monstrosity.” He flipped the footrest up and snatched the TV remote to turn on the 60-inch LED, grateful to be able to relax after a day of back-to-back surgeries. His den—he refused to call it a family room—was comfortable despite high-ticket teak furniture and flooring that lent a sophisticated, almost stark ambiance. A white leather sectional his decorator said he just had to have spanned the length of an ultra-modern room that was as different from Karen’s taste as he could possibly get. Wall-to-wall windows overlooked a manicured back lawn with a smattering of powerful oaks that created a sanctuary surrounded by the tallest, thickest hedges money could buy, utterly and completely private. His lips compressed as he flicked through the channels.
Or used to be.
Settling on an NCIS rerun he’d seen a half dozen times, his mind roamed to Tess O’Bryen, the next-door neighbor he’d worked so hard to avoid. Against his will, the pinch of his mouth softened the slightest bit, almost giving way to a smile. As much as he hated to admit it, Tess had always been one of his favorite people. Warm, funny, a little bit ditzy, but always able to lighten a mood whenever the four of them got together, even when Karen and he were fighting. A great gal, really, with only a few flaming flaws.
Too pushy, too perky, and Adam’s ex-wife.
A constant reminder of all Ben had lost and all he had failed.
Not the least of which was Lacey.
Jaw steeling, he squinted hard at the TV. Nope, best to nip it in the bud right now and avoid the woman like the plague. His gaze flicked to the Tupperware container of cookies that taunted on the table by the door, and a colorful word hissed from his lips. With a hard jerk of the footrest lever, his feet hit the floor and he jumped up to retrieve the container, ticked off when he started salivating like Beau with his bone. Returning to his chair, he plopped back down and took out a cookie, mouth watering worse than Pavlov’s stupid dog. Against his will, a groan of pleasure rumbled in his throat at first bite, a deadly reminder of just what a great cook Tess had always been.
how bribery with sweets had always been her favorite way to handle Adam and the kids. Ben shook his head, cookie ecstasy warring with annoyance over exactly what the woman was trying to do.
Monster cookies … to tame the monster, no doubt.
Polishing off his fifth one, he snapped the lid back on and tossed them on the table with a grunt, determined to return the others when the woman wasn’t home. Because whether Tess O’Bryen liked it or not, this was one monster with a nasty bite and a penchant for chewing. Aiming the remote, he jacked the volume up with a hard grind of his jaw.
And he sure wasn’t talking cookies …