A PERFECT HOMECOMING
Sometimes you can go home again.
The only reason Dr. Ashleigh Wilson is back in her hometown is to help her pregnant sister--and maybe repair their relationship. She's certainly not here to see her ex-husband, Dr. Kyle Jennings, or mend any fences with him. Too bad he doesn't accept that. Worse, the more time they're together, the more the old attraction flares. Even if she still has feelings for him, Ashleigh is not staying. Because that would mean facing the past and all she left behind. Kyle, however, seems convinced they have another shot at happiness. And after a few persuasive kisses, Ashleigh begins to wonder if he's right...
Ashleigh Wilson switched the phone from one ear to the other and stopped Aunt Viv in midsentence. “Tell me what’s going on with Paula. Is the baby okay?” Her pulse accelerated in anticipation of news about her pregnant sister.
“The baby is fine, at least for now,” Aunt Viv said. “Paula’s blood pressure is high and she just needs to follow doctor’s orders.”
“What has her doctor suggested?” Getting specifics could take some work. She needed to get Aunt Viv to focus and stop haphazardly jumping from one subject to another.
“Her doctor wants her on bed rest, but that’s easier said than done with two boys to take care of.”
“Well, she has no choice.” Even though she hadn’t practiced in over two years, Ashleigh’s physician-educated brain reviewed the possible outcomes if Paula’s condition worsened. Preeclampsia, preterm labor…a multitude of possibilities. High blood pressure could mean a lot of things. How high was high? Slightly high or very high? “Do you know her actual blood pressure numbers?”
“Paula didn’t say.” Aunt Viv hesitated a few seconds before adding, “Maybe you should call her and find out.”
Ashleigh swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” How would she begin a conversation with the sister she hadn’t spoken to in almost two years?
Her heart ached for the emotional turmoil her sister must be going through. Pregnancy complications came with unwarranted guilt. Ashleigh knew that firsthand and it took all her willpower to keep her own memories at bay.
“Where’s Scott in all this?” Ashleigh asked. “Can’t he take leave to care for Ryan and Mark?” Surely Paula’s naval officer husband could handle this. Their boys were seven and nine, not quite old enough to fend for themselves but not helpless, either.
“He’s in some ocean somewhere in his submarine,” her aunt said.
Ashleigh remembered now. Her brother-in-law left about a month ago. Aunt Viv kept her informed about goings-on in their southern Virginia hometown of Grand Oaks, but that didn’t mean she retained it all.
“And I’m still recovering from my knee-replacement surgery or I’d be at Paula’s right now,” her aunt said. “My physical therapist would throw a fit if I overdid it.”
“Is Mom still in Maryland with Grandma?” Ashleigh headed down the hall to her bedroom. She opened the empty suitcase she’d unpacked barely an hour ago after a business trip to Philly.
“Last I heard,” Aunt Viv said. “Your mom was real excited about the Alzheimer’s facility she found up there.” Her aunt sniffled. Grandma hadn’t recognized anyone for at least six months.
“Now that Grandma’s having other health issues, I’m sure Mom won’t want to leave until they’re resolved.” Ashleigh opened drawers, pulled out clothes and stuffed them in her suitcase.
Without being asked, Aunt Viv reported on other family members, beginning with Scott’s twin sisters. “Janie is expecting in a few weeks, so she can’t travel from Texas, and Belle is in Germany for her job.”
There were five siblings total on Scott’s side. In addition to his twin sisters who were otherwise occupied, his older sister had a special-needs child who required constant supervision, so she was out, too.
“Kyle is always around to help.” Aunt Viv spoke cautiously, as if afraid the mere mention of Scott’s brother might upset Ashleigh.
A loud bang sounded. She’d unintentionally slammed a drawer shut.
“What was that?” Aunt Viv asked. “Are you okay?”
“It was nothing. I’m fine.”
She took a deep breath, blocking the painful memories the man’s name elicited.
“Is he still working extra shifts in the emergency room?” Ashleigh reached for the throw pillow on her bedroom chair and collapsed into the seat cushions. She hugged the pillow tightly, as if the inanimate object could take away her deep-seated pain.
“Sure is.” Aunt Viv confirmed that he had little time to spare. “The hospital’s lucky to have such a dedicated doctor.”
Ashleigh swallowed a comeback.
“Would Paula accept hired help?” Ashleigh finally asked, already knowing the answer. “I’d be happy to arrange and pay for it.”
Silence. “I already offered. She doesn’t want a stranger in her house. She claims she can get by on her own.”
That was Paula, always stubborn and never wanting help.
“That’s ridiculous!” Ashleigh’s heart rate soared as her own blood pressure rose. “How can she be so nonchalant about her pregnancy?”
Probably because, unlike Ashleigh, Paula had experienced two near-perfect pregnancies and didn’t have a clue what high risk felt like.
She tossed the pillow aside, stood up and headed to the bathroom to gather her toiletries.
“Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought,” Aunt Viv said. “Her doctor is probably taking precautions.”
Her aunt was successfully baiting her. “That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t follow her doctor’s orders.”
“You need to come home, Ashleigh. Make sure Paula does what she’s told.”
Tears threatened and speaking was difficult. “I’m already packed.” Ashleigh zipped her suitcase and wheeled it to the living room.
“Really?” Aunt Viv didn’t sound too surprised. Wasn’t that why she’d called Ashleigh? “That’s wonderful. I’m sure Paula will appreciate it.”
Ashleigh doubted that, but she didn’t care how Paula felt about it. The only thing that mattered was making sure her sister didn’t do anything stupid to threaten the precious life she carried.
Even if it meant Ashleigh would have to face everyone and everything she had left behind, including Kyle, the ex-husband she’d once loved with every cell of her being.
Fifteen minutes after hanging up with Aunt Viv, Ashleigh was ready to go. How much gas was in her car? She hadn’t paid attention after returning home from the airport. Could she make it out of town before filling up? The drive to Grand Oaks would take about two hours.
Two hours until she came face-to-face with her past.
Maybe she could see about hiring someone to help her sister once she got to town. Paula likely wouldn’t want Ashleigh around very long. Their last blowup had been a big one.
She took a final look around her apartment. Lights off, her single plant watered, thermostat set. She’d lived alone for the past two years—no pets, not even a goldfish—because she traveled so much for her job. And because she preferred it that way.
Ashleigh scooped up the pile of unopened mail from the kitchen counter and dumped it into her laptop bag, which also held her work folders. She needed to consider ways to placate both her clients and her boss without taking an actual leave of absence.
She locked her apartment door behind her, thumped her suitcase down the two flights of stairs to the building’s entrance and loaded her car.
Ashleigh’s cell phone slid out of her purse and lay staring up at her from the passenger seat. Should she call Paula to let her know she was coming? She tossed the phone back into her purse.
She wouldn’t give her sister the opportunity to tell her not to come. Ashleigh would never forgive herself if something went horribly wrong with Paula’s pregnancy.
Ashleigh shuddered at the thought and turned up the volume on the country music radio station, hoping to blast her own painful memories out of her head.
The April afternoon was overcast and traffic heading south on I-95 was heavy but moved at a steady pace to the I-85 exit. Before she knew it, she’d left the interstates for the country roads she knew so well.
The closer she got to Grand Oaks, the more frequently her painful memories came to the forefront of her mind. Though she and Paula had said such ugly things to each other the last time they’d spoken, Ashleigh dreaded seeing her ex-husband more. Avoiding him would be difficult enough in a town of three thousand, but he would almost definitely be a frequent visitor at Paula’s. Could she endure the inevitable mental and physical tolls?
She consciously relaxed her death grip on the steering wheel.
Aunt Viv had said Paula was renting the Dormans’ old house instead of staying in base housing in Norfolk, in order to be closer to family while Scott was at sea. Two blocks from her destination, Ashleigh was again tempted to call her sister. Maybe a phone conversation would make it easier for Paula to accept Ashleigh’s help rather than just barging her way into her sister’s life.
Ashleigh pushed the idea aside again. Paula had thought nothing of interfering in Ashleigh’s life when she’d had marital problems. Just let Paula try to stop her.
This time it was Ashleigh’s turn to butt into her sister’s life.
Paula lay on her left side, obeying her doctor’s order of bed rest, when there was a rap on the front door of her modest Cape Cod rental home.
The door squeaked as it opened and she heard the voice she’d been dreading. “Paula?” Ashleigh had made record time.
Aunt Vivian had called earlier to say Ashleigh was coming, but Paula hadn’t expected her sister to arrive until early evening or later. Paula hadn’t wanted her to come at all.
She had several friends in town who’d already stepped up with food and offers of help with errands and watching the boys. She could manage without her sister, but Aunt Viv refused to tell Ashleigh not to come. Why hadn’t Paula contacted Ashleigh herself?
“Paula?” Her older sister shouted this time.
Paula took a deep, bracing breath. “In here,” she called from her first-floor bedroom.
With each approaching footpad, Paula’s pulse quickened and her anxiety grew. The last time she and Ashleigh had spoken—correction, screamed at each other—had been right before Ashleigh left Grand Oaks for good more than two years ago.
Her sister stopped at the bedroom doorway, dressed in impeccably fitted jeans and a loose top cinched at her narrow waist. Her thick, blond hair was caught in a casual knot at the back of her head.
In other words, perfect as usual.
“How are you feeling?” The strap of Ashleigh’s purse slipped from her shoulder to her elbow and her medical bag hung from her left hand. No “hello” or “hey there.” Ashleigh spoke as if Paula were her patient rather than her only sibling.
“I’m fine.” Paula wasn’t about to list the multiple annoyances she experienced because of her pregnancy. She and Ashleigh might not see eye to eye on certain things, but complaining about her swollen feet, lack of energy and backaches, as well as this stupid bed rest thing, would just be mean.
Paula soothed her baby bump, imagining what her independent doctor sister was thinking.
Something in the neighborhood of How could one person be so needy?
Ashleigh had always been the perfect one. Voted head cheerleader, always made straight A’s, dated and eventually married the star quarterback, went to a great college and then entered medical school. She’d even survived multiple miscarriages and a divorce, only to snap right back to her perfect life.
Then there was Paula, the little sister who’d struggled with acne in high school and could barely do a proper cartwheel. Forget perform a respectable cheer. Instead of finishing college, she’d married Scott when she got pregnant with Mark. Now her husband was deployed and she could barely take care of her family because this surprise third pregnancy had her bedridden in torn pajama pants tied under her expanding belly and an old T-shirt of Scott’s.
She blinked to clear the moisture building in her eyes. She hadn’t even taken a shower today.
“Aunt Vivian called me.” Ashleigh’s words were clipped.
“I know.” Paula wasn’t about to act as if nothing had happened between them. “She called me, too.”
“She said you’re confined to bed because of high blood pressure?”
Paula wished Ashleigh would stop acting like her doctor, but how to phrase it without sounding petulant? Then they’d fight, her blood pressure would rise even higher, and once again she would be at fault.
She inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly before replying. “My doctor is worried about preeclampsia.”
“Rosy Bausch is your doctor?” Ashleigh asked.
“How far along are you?”
She didn’t have to think about it. “Thirty-two weeks.” Her doctor had mentioned it several times at her appointment yesterday afternoon.
“Any blurred vision or headaches?”
“Good.” Ashleigh set her purse down and opened her medical bag. “Have you been checking your blood pressure?”
Could their conversation be any cooler? “Dr. Bausch wants me to come in to her office weekly.”
“Was your urine protein elevated?”
“No, but she’s going to check that weekly, too.” Paula nearly addressed her sister as Dr. Wilson but caught herself in time. Ashleigh didn’t seem in the mood to appreciate Paula’s sarcasm. “You didn’t have to come,” Paula began.
“Of course I did,” Ashleigh shot back. “You’re my sister.” She paused and leveled her gaze at Paula. “No matter what.” Ashleigh’s lip quivered, her vulnerability finally evident.
So Ashleigh wasn’t as unaffected as she let on.
Paula’s eyes welled up and she swallowed thickly, determined not to cry, even on hormone overload. They should talk—
The front door slammed and the house filled with her seven-year-old’s wails.
“Ryan?” Fear for her child had Paula straightening into a sitting position. She cleared her throat when her voice broke. “I’m in my bedroom. Are you okay?”
Ryan cried harder.
“Paula, stay there.” Ashleigh moved in Ryan’s direction.
“There’s something wrong with him.” Paula spoke through gritted teeth while swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
Ashleigh narrowed her eyes at Paula. “If you don’t lay back down right now, I’m going to call an ambulance and have you admitted to the hospital.”
“It won’t be ridiculous if you go into premature labor,” Ashleigh spit. “Trust me, it’s not an experience you ever want to have.”
Ryan limped into the bedroom, right past Ashleigh. He headed directly to the side of the bed in front of Paula, who hadn’t lain back down but hadn’t rushed to Ryan’s side either. His forehead was scraped and his jeans were torn at the knee, but more significantly, he cradled his left forearm with his right hand.
Except for being two years older and crying, Ryan looked the same to Ashleigh as he had the last time she’d seen him. Spittin’ image of his dad, as well as his Uncle Kyle.
The lump in her throat kept her from speaking.
“I fell off my bike, Mommy,” he sobbed.
“Tell me where you hurt.” Paula looked about to burst into tears herself.
Ashleigh’s medical training kicked into high gear. She moved in closer and knelt next to Ryan.
“Hi, Ryan.” Ashleigh kept her voice calm. “You might not remember me, but I’m your aunt Ashleigh.”
“Mommy has pictures of you.” Ryan hiccupped, his deep blue eyes reminiscent of his uncle’s.
“How are you feeling?” Ashleigh moved some hair back from his scraped forehead to look closer and felt around the rest of his skull.
“My arm really hurts.” Ryan’s face scrunched as if in pain.
“I’ll bet it does.” Ashleigh spoke gently, her attention now on his arm as she carefully probed the limb. Possibly a simple fracture, but an X-ray would tell for sure. “Do you hurt anywhere else, Ry? Like your neck or back? Your legs, belly?”
Ryan shook his head.
“Do you remember if you fell asleep after you fell?”
“No. I was awake. Only babies take naps.”
“Good.” Ashleigh grinned, then caught Paula’s eye while gathering supplies from her medical bag. “Do you have a scarf or maybe a receiving blanket I can use to immobilize his arm until I can get an X-ray?”
Paula pointed to her dresser. “In the middle drawer are scarves.”
“Hop up here on the bed next to Mommy,” Ashleigh told Ryan. While she cleaned and bandaged Ryan’s head and scraped knee, she spoke to Paula. “I’m going to take him into the hospital for an X-ray.” So much for avoiding her emergency room doctor ex-husband.
“Kyle’s not at the hospital today,” Paula said, as if reading her mind. “He mentioned at dinner last night that he took today off to do some painting.”
Ashleigh stiffened. Kyle had been able to maintain a relationship with both their nephews and her sister, but Ashleigh hadn’t even seen a picture of the boys in two years.
She consciously relaxed her neck and shoulders. She shouldn’t be surprised at Kyle’s involvement. He was probably a big help while Scott was deployed.
Retrieving a scarf from the drawer, she wove it under Ryan’s injured arm and tied it behind his neck. “Is Rich Miller still in the building down the street from my old office?”
“As far as I know,” Paula said. “We’ve never needed an orthopedist before.”
“Rich is the best, especially for kids.” Ashleigh said. “Are you okay with him if he’s needed?”
“Yes,” Paula agreed.
Ashleigh didn’t want to scare Ryan by mentioning his arm could be broken. The orthopedist would take over Ryan’s care if the X-ray showed a break.
She turned to her nephew and effortlessly took on her pediatrician persona. “Ryan, you and I are going to go get a special picture taken of your arm so we can see what’s going on inside.”
Ryan’s eyes widened. “Can I see the picture?”
Ashleigh couldn’t contain her smile. “Of course. Now why don’t you use the bathroom while I make sure your mom has everything she needs. Can you manage without using your hurt arm?”
He bobbed his head rapidly, hopped off the bed and skipped out of the room—definitely not the same sobbing child from a few minutes ago.
Ashleigh turned her attention to Paula. “Does he normally play outside by himself?”
Paula’s eyes grew wide at Ashleigh’s not-so-subtle implication. “He went bike riding with his friends, not that it’s any of your business.”
“He’s still my nephew and I’m concerned about his welfare.”
“You haven’t seen him in two years,” Paula whispered angrily.
“That was your choice,” Ashleigh reminded her.
Paula glared at her. “You left town.”
There was so much Ashleigh could say in response, but now was not the time.
“I want to take your blood pressure before I go.” Ashleigh pulled her blood pressure cuff from her bag and attached it to Paula’s arm. Having an injured child was bound to raise anyone’s blood pressure. “Where’s Mark?”
“Playing at a friend’s house.” Paula stiffened, her words curt. “The mother is supposed to bring him back around six.”
They were silent as Ashleigh listened to Paula’s rapidly pumping blood with her stethoscope.
“Not bad, but higher than it should be,” she told Paula as she removed the cuff. “Just close your eyes and take some deep breaths. I’ve got everything else covered.”
Ashleigh silently packed up her medical bag, afraid to say anything that would inflame Paula and raise her blood pressure.
Like why couldn’t you have been loyal to me when my marriage was falling apart, instead of taking Kyle’s side?
Ashleigh had never driven a minivan, but Ryan was too young to ride in the front seat of her two-seater sports car, so she’d taken Paula’s vehicle. One more reminder that Paula had been blessed with a growing family while Ashleigh had been denied a single offspring.
The mile drive to the hospital provided an abundance of memories. From the quaint shop where she and Kyle had shared a bowl of bubble gum ice cream on their first date in high school, to the tiny apartment they lived in before they bought the historic home that still housed Ashleigh’s pediatric practice.
The office where she no longer worked.
Knowing that Kyle wouldn’t be at the hospital was a relief. Though it only prolonged the inevitable no more than a day or two.
She’d deal with Kyle and her myriad of emotions when the time came.
Meanwhile, Ryan kept up a constant dialogue during the short drive, forcing Ashleigh’s mind away from the memories that haunted her.
“And my friend, Jarrod, can do a wheelie,” Ryan was telling her.
“Wow! That’s impressive. Is he the same age as you?”
“He’s a year older and doesn’t have training wheels anymore.”
“Were you trying to do a wheelie when you fell?” Ashleigh’s suspicion was confirmed by Ryan’s sheepish nod reflected in the rearview mirror.
Rekindling her relationship with her nephew wasn’t the time to lecture him on his foolishness. She’d leave that to his mother.
“Here we are,” she told Ryan after she maneuvered the minivan into a parking space in the hospital visitor lot. Back in the days when she had privileges here, she’d been able to park in the staff lot, which was closer to the entrance.
Once again, she shoved away those memories and walked Ryan across the parking lot and through the automatic doors leading to the emergency entrance. The sound of a siren got louder as an ambulance pulled up to the hospital.
“Dr. Wilson.” The middle-aged receptionist, Kathy something, gave her anything but a warm welcome.
Another convert to the Kyle camp.
The woman’s flowery perfume battled with the hospital’s unforgettable smell. But the nasty combination of illness, medications and antiseptic made her nostalgic nonetheless.
“How are you, Kathy?” Ashleigh realized how much she’d missed this place, no matter what kind of reception she received. Would this punch in the gut happen every time she ran into someone she once knew?
After exchanging cool pleasantries, Kathy’s attention turned to Ryan. “Oh, dear! Let me put this poor boy into the system.”
She returned to her computer and took down his information, including the insurance info Paula had sent along. She ushered them right back into a curtained area. “Dr. Phillips should be in to see Ryan shortly,” she said before leaving them alone.
Not more than two minutes went by before the curtain was pulled back, but it wasn’t Dr. Phillips. Ashleigh’s heart leaped into her throat.
Her ex-husband looked even better than she remembered. His thick, dark hair was matted, a product of his longtime habit of moving his protective eyewear to his head when not in use. He had a healthy tan and the corners of his deep blue eyes crinkled ever so slightly. Rather than make him look older, they made him more attractive. Even when those gorgeous eyes barely glanced at her before landing on Ryan.
She blanched at Kyle’s insolence. Not that she blamed him. She’d been out of his life long enough for him to go on without her.
He did his customary tug at the neck of the T-shirt he wore under his blue scrubs and cleared his throat. Kyle was the only man she’d ever known who looked hot in scrubs.
“Hey, buddy.” Kyle bypassed Ashleigh and spoke directly to his nephew, who sat cross-legged on the gurney. “What happened?” He gently removed the scarf from the boy’s arm and handed it to Ashleigh without taking his eyes from Ryan.
As their nephew related the tale, Ashleigh took a mental inventory of Kyle, searching for battle scars, perhaps, that matched her own. She saw none.
Hers weren’t visible on the outside, either.