Cottage by the sea, p.6
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       Cottage by the Sea, p.6

           Debbie Macomber
 

  “I’m pregnant!” Rebecca exclaimed. “I’ve been feeling ill every morning for two weeks. Morning sickness,” she announced proudly. “I skipped my period, too. That means I’m pregnant, right?”

  “The urine test will confirm a pregnancy,” Annie said, enjoying the excitement that she saw in the young woman.

  “Lucas and I have been trying for four years to have a baby and it’s been one disappointment after another. Lucas has good health insurance from his work, but it doesn’t cover infertility treatments, and we can’t afford them out of pocket. My husband is going to be a wonderful father.” Her eyes glowed with pride and love.

  Annie handed Rebecca a small plastic jar to collect her urine.

  The joy and excitement drained from Rebecca’s eyes as she reluctantly took hold of the plastic cup. “I’ve taken three of those drugstore pregnancy tests already,” she admitted softly, “and they all say negative, but that can’t be right. I mean, not with me skipping my period and the sickness every morning. They’re all false readings, right?”

  “We’ll find out and put your mind at rest.”

  “Shouldn’t you take blood instead?” she asked, as if having her blood drawn would change the outcome.

  “No, the urine test is ninety-nine percent accurate.”

  “Oh.” Rebecca slid off the table. “Then don’t bother, because I know I’m pregnant. Those tests are all wrong.”

  “Rebecca,” Annie said gently, “let’s do the test.”

  “No,” she insisted, her eyes snapping with defiance. “They’re wrong; those tests mean nothing to me. I’m pregnant. I know I am. I can feel this baby growing inside of me. It’s different this time.” She flattened her hand against her stomach. “Our baby is right here,” she declared. “He can feel my love and I’m not going to let you or any of those worthless drugstore strips tell me otherwise.”

  Annie sympathized with the young woman.

  “I can see that this visit was a waste of time and money. I took time off work for this, you know.” Grabbing her sweater and purse, Rebecca flew out the door of the examination room.

  Annie’s heart ached for her. She keenly felt Rebecca’s desperation for a baby. Her need to give her husband a child was so strong that she’d mentally convinced herself and her body that she was pregnant.

  Rebecca stomped out of the clinic, startling those in the waiting area. The door slammed in her wake.

  Candi approached Annie. “Poor Becca,” she whispered. “She’s been in before.”

  “Who’s next?” Annie asked, doing her best not to let the young woman’s disappointment upset her.

  “The man in room three is in for a cut. He’s going to need stitches. Julia has everything ready for you.”

  Before she entered the room, Julia, the nurse, handed Annie the file. Annie flipped it open and read it as she entered the room. Looking up, her smile froze in place when she recognized the man who sat waiting.

  Keaton.

  CHAPTER 7

  Keaton didn’t know who was more surprised, him or Annie.

  She stood inside the small exam room where the nurse had placed him, and simply stared at him. Keaton was equally shocked. He’d heard the scuttlebutt around town that a new physician assistant had recently been hired, but he had no idea it was Annie.

  Not that a lot of people talked to him, or would have even told him, other than Preston and Mellie, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He wasn’t much of a talker, never had been, and probably never would be. Before Keaton was comfortable enough to carry on a conversation with someone, he liked to observe that person and get to know them on his terms. Then, and only then, was he willing to engage in conversation. Folks around town accepted him, and for that he was grateful. They knew he was the one who painted the murals and they seemed to appreciate his efforts to add color and texture to their small beach town.

  His lack of connection with others had never bothered him; he didn’t much care what people thought. He’d stuck to his business and left others to tend to their own. He had a nodding acquaintance with most everyone in town.

  It would help if he could be more comfortable with speaking. For as long as he remembered, words had been nothing but trouble. If he spoke as a kid, it often resulted in his father’s hand on the back of his head. It’d been drilled into him from a young age to keep his thoughts to himself, and that tendency had followed him into his teen years and adulthood. Silence suited him. He was a large man, and intimidating. At six-eight, he towered over most everyone. He’d grown accustomed to his size as a big-boned, muscular man.

  Annie stood in the examination room, her eyes rounded with surprise, and she, too, seemed to have lost the ability to speak.

  “Keaton,” she whispered, doing her best to hide her reaction.

  He acknowledged her with a sharp nod.

  Glancing down at the chart, her gaze bounced back to his. “It says here your first name is Seth. Seth Keaton.”

  He held her look.

  “But you go by Keaton?”

  His thoughts ran together in his head. “Yeah.” It frustrated him that he couldn’t tell her what he wanted to, that he’d been named after his father, who had never loved him or wanted him. It seemed inappropriate to carry the name of the man who detested his very existence.

  “All right, Keaton, let me look at that cut.” She sat on the rolling stool and carefully removed the bandage he’d wrapped around his hand. Thankfully, it was his left one, as he was right-handed. He had several projects scheduled and he’d hate to get behind because of the injury.

  Her touch was soft and gentle as she tentatively explored the wound. It hurt like hell, but he didn’t let her see his pain. Her eyes lifted to his and she frowned. “This is a defensive wound.”

  He didn’t disagree.

  “Keaton, were you in a knife fight?”

  Again, he didn’t respond.

  “Okay…so you don’t want to tell me.”

  He grinned, grateful she wasn’t going to ply him with more questions.

  She frowned slightly, concerned. “This is a nasty cut; you’re going to need stitches.”

  He figured as much; he wouldn’t have wasted time coming to the clinic if he thought a butterfly bandage would suffice.

  “I’m happy to see you,” she commented, as she carefully cleaned the wound. Reaching for the needle, she proceeded to numb the area. Her touch was confident and caring. The feel of her skin against his, even in a professional way, caused him to be even more aware of her. He held his breath tight inside his chest. He resisted reaching out with his free hand and taking hold of hers, intertwining their fingers. Yearning for her touch—anyone’s touch, for that matter—was foreign to him, and he found it unsettling. Unusual. He’d never experienced this sort of attraction to anyone before and it flustered him.

  He accepted that she hadn’t remembered him from their teen years. No reason she should, he supposed. He wasn’t offended or surprised, simply grateful that she was back, and this time for longer than a few days.

  She looked up, expecting him to talk. This happened on occasion—someone would make a comment and his mind would take off on a different course, and he couldn’t remember what he was going to say.

  The last thing he’d heard her say, he recalled, was that she was happy to see him.

  Him? He arched his brows in question.

  Her smile broadened as she held his gaze. “I never realized how much a person can communicate without words. You’re looking shocked because I’m happy to see you.”

  “Yes.” He yearned to say more but faltered, unable to find words.

  “When I returned to the cottage I found the lawn had been mowed and several repairs made. I might not be much of a detective, but I suspect you’re the one responsible. Thank you, Keaton.”

  With all she had to
do setting up the cottage, he didn’t want Annie to deal with the yardwork. The other repairs he’d made were minor and had taken him only the better part of a day. It was important to him that she feel welcome. It was his way of telling her how much it meant to him that she’d returned to Oceanside. Heaven knew she wouldn’t get any warm fuzzies from Mellie.

  Mellie didn’t hide the fact that she was curious as to why Keaton had insisted she rent the cottage to Annie. He had no intention of explaining it, either. Mellie didn’t need to know that Keaton had tender feelings for this woman. He’d never forgotten her beauty from that summer all those years ago. He wasn’t one for premonitions or even for hunches. All he could say was that deep down in a part of him that he couldn’t explain, he believed Annie Marlow needed to be in Oceanside. It was where she was meant to be. Furthermore, it was important that she live in that cottage.

  Mellie’s problem was that she didn’t want anyone, man or woman, close. He didn’t know what had happened to her in the years after she’d run away. All he knew was that she’d returned a changed woman, crippled by her fears, hiding inside the house she’d inherited from her grandparents. To the best of his knowledge, from the moment Mellie showed up back in town, she’d holed up and never once set foot outside. In all the years they’d been in school together, Mellie hadn’t said more than a handful of words to Keaton. Once she was back, she reached out to him. He guessed she figured he would be safe, seeing how rarely he spoke. She’d hired him to run errands on her behalf, to take care of things she couldn’t from inside the confines of those four walls. In the beginning, Keaton figured, it was his size that had prompted her to hire him—that she’d been looking for protection. But as far as he knew, no one had ever come looking for her. He’d assumed that after a few months, Mellie would feel secure enough to leave the house, but she never did, and he had never asked. Whatever it was that kept her locked behind those doors was her business and not his.

  Keaton was lost in his thoughts until he felt a sting. He looked down and realized that while he’d been mulling over Mellie and the cottage, Annie had been busy stitching his hand. By the time he noticed, she was nearly finished. Seemed she’d been chatting, too, and he’d completely tuned her out, lost in his thoughts. He was guilty of that far too often. He should have paid attention, uncertain now what he’d missed.

  “You didn’t hear me, did you?” she asked, looking up at him.

  He shook his head. “Sorry.”

  “That’s all right. It wasn’t anything important. I mentioned how much I was enjoying living in the cottage and that I’d spoken briefly to Mellie. She didn’t take kindly to my call.”

  “Don’t take offense.”

  “I didn’t.”

  He silently wished her luck and had to smile, knowing Mellie wouldn’t make it easy.

  Once she’d finished with the bandage, Annie glanced up, her eyes connecting with his, and immediately Keaton felt it again—that connection, that peculiar fluttering deep inside his chest. The same sensation he’d experienced years earlier when he’d first caught sight of Annie on the beach. He felt a longing, a need to know her, to protect her, and to be with her. These feelings were completely alien to him, and he wasn’t sure what to do with them. Part of him wanted to leave until he could understand what it was about this woman that affected him this way. And yet at the same time he found it impossible to pull away from her. Being around her was like getting trapped ankle-deep in wet sand, finding it impossible to move in any direction.

  “Are you in trouble?” she asked, her words gentle as she held his injured hand in her own.

  Keaton grinned. Trouble? Him?

  “That didn’t come out the way I meant it. Is someone trying to hurt you?”

  “No,” he said with a shrug. Explaining the circumstances of how he’d been cut would only lead to more questions, and they were ones he’d rather not answer or explain, especially to Annie.

  Now that she’d finished tending to his wound, she rattled off a list of care instructions. He listened while intently staring at her, lost in her beauty. It demanded every bit of mental strength he possessed not to lean forward and wrap her hair around her ear. He’d always loved her auburn color, and regretted that it wasn’t long enough for the braid she once had.

  “I’ll need to see you in a week to remove those stitches. Candi will make you an appointment.”

  If it were anyone else, he would’ve taken out those stitches on his own. He didn’t need Annie to do it, but because it was her, he’d return for the opportunity to see her again.

  CHAPTER 8

  The lights in the cottage were on when Keaton walked past on his way to see Mellie. Lennon paused as they neared Annie’s place, and Keaton smiled. His dog wanted to visit. He whistled, and Lennon reluctantly followed him, although he stopped once and looked back over his shoulder toward the cottage.

  “Another time,” he whispered to his dog.

  Lennon took him at his word and bounded ahead to the main house.

  Keaton didn’t bother to knock. Mellie had given him keys, and he let himself in. From the day she’d returned, Mellie’d had the house locked up tighter than an armory. In addition to the deadbolt, she had three other locks. The windows were sealed shut. Houdini couldn’t have broken into this house with all the safeguards Mellie had put in place. The woman was beyond paranoid.

  “That better be you, Keaton.” She looked up expectantly and he could tell she was hoping it was Preston, not him. Heaven forbid that she’d admit it. Not to Keaton, and certainly not to Preston. His best friend, Preston, was in love with Mellie, and was completely tongue-tied around her. He sometimes accompanied Keaton, especially when he brought her an injured animal. Preston managed the local animal shelter and worked to find good homes for mistreated and abused dogs and cats.

  She was in the kitchen, where she was most often, sitting at the dinette, surrounded by stacks of miscellaneous boxes of papers and magazines, which she had stored all over the house. Mellie had managed to accumulate mountains of what most people would consider garbage. He doubted she’d discarded a single newspaper in the five years since she’d moved back to town.

  “I suppose you’re here to check on the dog.”

  Preston had heard a rumor about an abused dog being kept in the woods. With no time to search himself, he’d asked Keaton to investigate. It’d taken him two weeks to locate the dog. The cabin was in an obscure location, ten miles outside of town. Sure enough, Keaton found a badly mistreated brown Labrador chained to a tree without food or water. The owner was a deadbeat who lived in the area. Keaton didn’t know the man, and didn’t care to. It didn’t take much for him to realize the pitiful dog had been nearly starved to death, so thin his ribs showed through. By the time Keaton found him, the dog was too weak to stand.

  Anger filled him that anyone would mistreat an animal this way. Keaton held his temper and brought the dog a small amount of food and a bowl of water, feeding him out of his hand. While the dog eagerly lapped up the water, Keaton removed the chain. It was tight around the Lab’s neck, leaving open sores. It sickened him to imagine the abuse this poor dog had suffered.

  That was when the cabin door flew open and the owner came barreling outside, shouting obscenities, claiming Keaton was trespassing on his property. The man was drunk and belligerent, too far gone to recognize that Keaton was easily double his size. When he saw that Keaton had removed the chain around the dog’s neck, he’d swung wildly at Keaton. Avoiding the man’s feeble attempts to hit him was a simple matter. With one fist to the man’s stomach, the drunk fell to the ground, cursing and throwing out empty threats about gutting Keaton. Ignoring him, Keaton bundled up the dog and carried it to his truck, laying the half-dead animal down in the bed on a blanket he kept there.

  To Keaton’s surprise, the man recovered enough to chase after him.

  “You can’t take my do
g.”

  Keaton had laughed.

  “That dog is my property.”

  Ignoring the fool, Keaton had walked around the vehicle to the driver’s side when the dog’s owner suddenly lunged at him with a knife. Thankfully, he’d caught the reflection of the weapon in his side mirror and turned around in time to avoid a more serious injury, but the knife caught him on the side of his hand, slicing through the meaty part. Because he was so enraged, Keaton hadn’t felt any pain until later. He’d reacted on instinct, disarming the homeowner and taking the man down.

  In Keaton’s mind, cruelty to a helpless animal shouldn’t go unpunished. He dragged the man to the very tree where he’d chained the poor dog and wrapped the chain around him, securing him to the tree. That wouldn’t be the only penalty the drunkard would pay. Keaton knew that Preston would contact the authorities and see to it that this monster was prosecuted. That, however, would take time.

  After delivering the half-dead Labrador to Mellie that day, he’d fed him a mixture of milk and bread. Mellie fussed over Keaton about the cut, insisting on looking at it and wrapping it in a dressing. That hadn’t stopped the bleeding, and she’d demanded he head over to the clinic as soon as it opened in the morning. Mellie could be stubborn and bossy, which made it even more difficult for Preston to express his feelings to her. If Keaton didn’t follow through and get to the clinic, she would likely go into a rant. And if there was anything he wanted to avoid it was one of Mellie’s rants.

  “I gave the dog a bath,” Mellie said, beginning to update Keaton on the dog’s progress after his trip to the clinic. “Poor thing had fleas and has a severe infection in both ears. I’ve put him on antibiotics and vitamins. I fed him again, and he ate a little more this time. How could anyone treat an animal like this? I hope this bastard pays for what he’s done.”

  Keaton grinned. He hadn’t returned to check on the drunk and sincerely hoped that the man had spent a miserable night out in the cold. One thing was clear, he’d have sobered up by now.

 
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