Marla wished the letter on her desk would vanish. That, somehow, it would sprout little legs and go running all the way back to
California. But she was not going to be that lucky. Today, her luck had run out.
She shifted in the old executive desk chair that squeaked every time she moved. Her desk was a vintage monstrosity made of dark cherry wood. Built in the sixties and made to last forever. Unlike her luck.
A variety of modern items covered the desk. Her new smartphone and touchscreen tablet. The latest editions of Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary and Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. Her red stethoscope and a solid brass desk nameplate engraved with her name.
Marla E. Grant, MD
The idealistic country girl who had made her family proud. Of course, that wasn’t engraved on the nameplate, although she often thought it should be.
Beside her nameplate, a lovely philodendron grew in a ceramic pot. Philodendron was the kind of plant you couldn’t kill. She could save people, but not plants.
A funny figurine of a frazzled female physician, given to Marla by her staff, stood next to a wire basket that held a variety of notes and reports. Near the basket was a stack of mail in disarray. Most of the mail was the typical stuff from pharmaceutical companies, consulting physicians, and medical associations. She had not been expecting anything out of the ordinary as she thumbed through the envelopes.
Then she had gotten the shock of her life.
She leaned forward and contemplated the striking envelope on her desk. It haunted her in the way that only an unresolved past can haunt you. Especially a past of well-kept secrets. What did this envelope conceal? She managed to touch it. Barely.
The stationery was exceptional. Expensive, of course. Buff linen paper. The return address featured raised letters in a bold font, black outlined with gold. No surprise there.
She stared at those two words and tried not to tremble as she thought of a pair of tall, ornate gates that led to an imposing mansion and a world so different from hers. Those gates only opened for a select few in Carson Blackwell’s elite circles.
Lifting her gaze from the envelope to the wall, she looked at the photographs of her little girl. Sophie. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, Sophie smiled back at her. There were pictures of Sophie as a baby, a toddler, and the most recent was a picture of Sophie and Marla together, taken on Sophie’s fifth birthday.
Plus, there was one old portrait of Marla with her former husband, Dr. Ben Archer, and one-year-old Sophie. The family that never was.
Marla closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, the letter was still there. It wasn’t going to disappear on its own.
It’s not going to open by itself either.
Put on your big girl panties and do it.
No, No. Just stick it in the shredder and hope for the best.
She picked up the letter opener. Her heart palpitated in sheer terror as she slid the opener under the flap of the envelope. With the envelope open, she peeped inside to see one folded sheet of stationery.
After six years, what could he possibly have to say?
She pictured him, standing beside a black truck in the drive of Royal Oaks, an old estate belonging to his grandmother. She recalled the date. June twenty-eighth. The day they had said goodbye had been a warm, blustery day in
Tennessee. A summer storm was heading toward the rolling hills near Nashville.
The wind made a mess of
Carson’s unruly dark hair. His dark blue eyes were hidden by a pair of mirrored lens aviators, and his alpha-male physique tested the seams of his polo shirt.
“If I’m ever back in town, I’ll look you up,” he promised as their casual affair came to an inevitable end. For three weeks, they had been together and finally, the time had come for them to go their separate ways. She hadn’t realized it would be so difficult.
“Sure.” She forced a smile of goodwill. After all, they weren’t parting in anger, or in love for that matter. And it was unlikely that she would ever see him again.
“I had a great time,” she confessed boldly. She’d loved every minute of their brief, steamy affair. Talk about a summer break to remember. She grinned.
He gave her cheek a stroke. “You’ll make a great doctor.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “You certainly know all there is to know about male anatomy.”
“Yours, at least.” She laughed. Then she hopped up on her toes and gave him a quick kiss. “Goodbye,
She stepped away from him. Now was the time to face what was ahead. A grueling three-year residency. There would be no more time for long summer nights, tangled sheets, and sighs against swollen lips. She walked toward her small, sturdy hatchback. Before she opened the driver’s door, she looked up and met his gaze.
“Goodbye,” he called.
At that moment, she’d had an odd sensation in her chest that her life was never going to be the same. Then she laughed at her silliness. A summer fling with a guy just passing through was not something that changed your life. For her, completing her residency would be the life changer.
She had watched
Carson drive off into the sunset.
Never to be seen or heard from again until now.
She gave Sophie’s pictures a quick glance. Her daughter looked so much like
Carson. She had his blue eyes, his wavy hair, his smile, and sometimes, his arrogance. Fate could play dirty tricks even when you didn’t deserve it.
Maybe somehow he had found out about he had a daughter. Marla had been living on the outskirts of that nightmare ever since Sophie was born.
Carson had the kind of wealth that made it possible for him to have whatever he wanted. If he wanted custody of Sophie, he could make that happen. She was sure of it.
For a moment, she fanned herself with the envelope. It’s not possible.
No one the truth knew except her. Everyone else thought Sophie was Ben Archer’s daughter. Not even Ben knew who Sophie’s biological father was.
Dear, sweet Ben had never asked. He had simply accepted Sophie as his child even though he knew she wasn’t, and Marla had kept the truth buried so deep in her heart that it would have taken the best surgeon in the world to excise it.
Carson’s letter and unfolded it slowly. The way you’d open a death warrant. The paper trembled in her hands.
A high-quality laser printer had produced a perfect, professional copy. Bold and easy to read.
Dear Dr. Grant:
I am writing in regard to the Royal Oaks Foundation, which provides a monthly stipend to the
Community Clinic. Samuel Clayton, who has been director of the foundation since my grandmother’s death, has retired. Due to his retirement, I am assuming control of the foundation. Lafayette Falls
This letter shall serve as a sixty-day notice of the discontinuation of grant money from the Royal Oaks Foundation to the clinic, effective September first.
This notification should give you ample time to find other benefactors. If I can be of any assistance, please feel free to contact my office.
Short and to-the-point. That was his style. She slumped in the chair as the breath she’d been holding rushed out as if it had been pent up for decades. Sweet relief poured through her soul. She smiled at Sophie’s picture.
We’re safe, angel. He doesn’t know. He will never know.
She tucked the letter back in the envelope. All that stressing and sweating for nothing. She rubbed her chest as her tense heart muscles finally relaxed.
It was all about money.
The Lafayette Falls Community Clinic provided general medical care to the public, offering reduced rates to the non-insured and low-income patients, and free wellness services. Grants, sponsors, and government assistance subsidized the nonprofit clinic. Without the grant, the clinic finances would need to be adjusted, and that was Nolana’s job. Nolana Sullivan was the clinic’s manager, and she kept up with all the money matters.
At the door of her office, Marla roped her stethoscope around her neck and called to her nurse, “Christy, is Mr. Taylor’s X-ray ready?”
Christy Price, one of the clinic nurses, walked in the office. Christy, an ex-cheerleader, could still do a cartwheel at age thirty. “His X-ray is on the viewer. Also, I have a seven-year-old in Room One with a spider bite.” Christy grinned. “And you won’t believe what’s behind door number two.”
Marla eyed Christy. “It’s not Mrs. Hauckdale again with the alien inside her?”
“No.” Christy’s smile broadened. “You know, she had that alien baby. She named it Scotty and they beamed it up.”
Marla shook her head and Christy said, “She posted its picture on Facebook.”
“No way.” Marla laughed.
“For real. You need to get on Facebook.”
“Don’t have time. “I’ll go look at the X-ray. Run this letter upstairs to Nolana.” She handed the envelope to Christy.
As Marla was looking at the X-ray, her smartphone started playing “Material Girl,” which meant she had a text from her best friend and partner-in-crime, Dr. Kayla Vance, an ob-gyn specialist. Cardiologist Brett Harris, a.k.a. Hot Rod, had nicknamed them the Two La-Las. Marla reached for her phone and read Kayla’s text.
I’m having an awesome time!
Kayla was at a medical conference in
Who is he?
You know me too well. A rep for Ellerdine Pharmaceuticals. You should see how he fills out a suit! I’m hoping it’s not padded, you know! LOL!!! I’ll let you know if I get lucky.
Marla grinned. Go for it.
She added a smiley face with horns.
The rest of the afternoon proceeded uneventfully. Marla saw eighteen patients with various complaints and injuries. When she left the last patient, she decided she and Sophie would go to Barney’s for pizza tonight. She was too tired to contemplate making dinner.
As she was completing her patient notes on the computer at the nurses’ station, Nolana appeared. Nolana was an attractive woman with chocolate-colored skin and golden-brown eyes who liked wearing colorful silk scarves with her business suits. She was one of those people born with a great smile, but at the moment, she wasn’t smiling.
Nolana’s somber expression troubled Marla.
“We need to talk,” Nolana spoke quietly. “Now.”
Marla followed her upstairs. The clinic was located in an old building that had once been a retail business, and Nolana’s office still had the original hardwood flooring as well as the ceiling tiles. Vibrant African tapestries flourished on grayish-green walls, and a bouquet of fresh roses from Nolana’s garden gave the room an appealing fragrance compared to the medicinal scent of the clinic.
Nolana had a straightforward approach when it came to business. She motioned to the armchair in front of her desk and said, “Without the money from the Royal Oaks Foundation, we’re in trouble. We’ll have to make major cuts.”
Marla took a seat. “Such as?”
“For starters, cutting back clinic hours.”
At the present, the clinic was open five days a week. Marla worked in the clinic three days a week. Besides her work at the clinic, she was the medical director at the
. She headed up a fitness program for policewomen. Plus she occasionally worked an emergency room shift on the weekends and made hospital rounds for her aging mentor, Dr. Adam Hughes. Lafayette Falls Wellness Center
When she first started working at the community clinic, some of her peers scoffed at her idealism. They called her a starry-eyed and said she would never make a living. True, she didn’t drive a Mercedes and live in a huge house, but she and her little girl had everything they needed.
“How many hours will we need to cut back?” she asked.
Nolana settled in her desk chair. “We can go from five days a week to three. We can be open the days you are here seeing patients.”
Marla shook her head as she considered that. Elderly patients often stopped by to let Christy monitor their blood pressure and vital signs, plus answer questions about their medications. Young mothers brought babies for immunizations and childcare education. The clinic provided medical counseling for all ages as well as free medications and supplies. Cutting back to three days a week would limit services.
“The clinic needs to be open every day. What about the staff?”
“When we cut the hours, we’ll have to cut the staff as well,” Nolana answered.
“We don’t have a choice. The grant from Miss Eva’s foundation pays half of our expenses.”
“That much?” Marla had never delved into the clinic finances. When she moved back to
and replaced Dr. Hughes as the clinic physician, Nolana had already been the business manager for ten years, and she did an excellent job. Lafayette Falls
“You know Miss Eva loved this community,” Nolana said. “She was very generous to the less fortunate.”
Yes, Eva Richardson, who was
Carson’s grandmother, had been a gracious lady known for her wealth and benevolence. The granddaughter of a New York railroad baron, Eva Carson had married Dr. Benjamin Richardson in the forties and moved to the old antebellum estate, Royal Oaks, which had been Dr. Richardson’s birthplace. She had made the West Tennessee town of Lafayette Falls her home, and she’d become the city’s most beloved philanthropist.
There was a school, an avenue, and a park named after her.
Marla tried to remain positive. “Maybe we can get more money from the city and the county.”
“Those tightwads? No way. Not until election year,” Nolana replied. “Then we might get lucky, but that’s next year. We can try for another federal or state grant, but the process will take months, and there’s no guarantee we’ll get any money.”
“How about private donations?”
“We can do that. I can probably get some money from Mike’s firm.” Nolana’s husband worked at the largest investment company in town. “I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of private foundations. You could talk to the medical staff, but I don’t think we’re going to find another donor this year who can match the Royal Oaks Foundation.”
“I’ll meet with Doctor Sheldon,” Marla said. Sheldon was the chief of staff, and he would know if the hospital had any funds available. “How much money are we talking about?”
“Two hundred thousand.”
“You’re kidding,” Marla gasped.
“I wish.” Nolana opened one of the desk drawers. “I need chocolate. How about you?”
“I really need a drink,” Marla responded, “but chocolate is good.”
Nolana dug a plastic container out of her desk drawer. It was filled with Nolana’s favorite treat. Fancy dark chocolate truffles wrapped in silver foil. She offered the truffles to Marla.
“Thank you.” Marla took one. She munched on the truffle and looked at
Carson’s letter that lay on Nolana’s desk.
She thought back to the first time she’d seen him. He had been standing beside one of the white columns at Royal Oaks. Dressed in a white shirt and dark slacks, he had an arrogant stance and a killer smile. Royal Oaks’s very own Rhett Butler. It had been a throw-me-down-and-take-me-moment.
She sighed. “I wonder why he’s going to do away with Miss Eva’s foundation. He’s rich. He inherited his father’s fortune, which is worth millions.”
“Actually, Blackwell Enterprises is worth one point two billion now,” Nolana said and Marla’s jaw dropped. “I Googled it.”
“Can I have another truffle?”
Nolana pushed the container toward Marla. “Help yourself.”
As Marla stuck the truffle in her mouth, Nolana tapped her fingers on
Carson’s letter. “I don’t understand why he’d pull the funding on the clinic. With the kind of money he has, he can easily afford the donation and write it off as a tax deduction.”
The truffle melted in Marla’s mouth. A tiny moment of pleasure on a bleak day.
Nolana went on, “You would think he’d want to keep his grandmother’s legacy intact.”
“That probably doesn’t matter to him now. She’s been dead several years, and he’s never had any connection to this community.”
Nolana toyed with the letter. “Then he doesn’t know anything about the clinic as far as who we are and what we do.” She gave the letter a reflective gaze. “If he did, he might reconsider and fund the clinic. Maybe I should call him.”
Marla squirmed in the chair. “I don’t know. I doubt if that’d change things.”
“We have to try,” Nolana insisted. “I tell you what. I’ll call him and invite him to come here.”
“No!” Marla gasped, and Nolana glanced up, surprised. Quickly, Marla gathered her wits. “I’m sure he’s far too busy to come here. Small town. Nothing going on. That’s not his style.”
Nolana leaned back in the chair. “You know him?”
Marla nodded. Try not to dig your grave any deeper. “I met him once. Back when Miss Eva was still alive. There was a fundraiser at Royal Oaks. He was visiting her.”
“Yeah.” Marla gave her fingernails a quick glance. “I think he was rather bored.”
She had often thought that boredom was what had driven Carson Blackwell to flirt with a nobody like her. A plain country girl with a lofty IQ that had made it possible for her to become the first doctor in her family. A girl who had no money or pedigree.
“Why don’t you call him?” Nolana suggested. “Tell him about the clinic. Maybe you can persuade him to come here.”
Marla froze for a moment. “I doubt he even remembers who I am.”
Nolana stared at
Carson’s letter for a moment. “Surely, he still remembers you. He addressed the letter to you.”
He addressed the letter to you.
Those words echoed through her mind, increasing the weight on her shoulders. She had created this mess years ago when he strode up to her and said hello.
You had me at hello. She’d told him that a few hours later. Just before she started opening the buttons of his white shirt. Worst Mistake Ever.
Marla pushed to her feet. She walked over to the window in Nolana’s office. Across the street, an old home had been converted into a uniform shop. Some of the original lawn endured, whispering of days gone by. Roses and hydrangeas bloomed alongside the house, and beautiful white flowers covered the limbs of a towering magnolia tree. Maybe a hundred years ago, the house had been home to a happy family.
He addressed the letter to you. How had he known she worked at the clinic? Well, she was officially the medical director, and her name was on all the clinic documents. It would make sense that he would send her the letter.
“Let me see the letter,” Marla said and Nolana handed her
Marla studied it for a moment. It was completely impersonal. No indication that he remembered her or had any desire to see her again. There was no mention of shower sex or a backseat quickie. One of which had resulted in Sophie. She sighed.
“We have to do something,” Nolana said quietly.
Marla looked up. “Call Blackwell Enterprises and see if you can set up an appointment for me.”
“You want to go there?”
It was the last godforsaken place on earth she wanted to go, but she certainly didn’t want
Carson coming to , which might lead to him finding out about Sophie. If he ever saw Sophie, he would know the truth. She couldn’t risk that. Lafayette Falls
“I think that’s best I go there. I seriously doubt Carson Blackwell has any interest in making a trip here to see this clinic. I can explain the service we provide to the community and how important it is. You gather up all the financial data I’ll need. It shouldn’t take more a half-hour of his time. Or maybe he has a business manager who handles such things.”
Never hurts to look at the bright side.
Nolana beamed. “That sounds like a plan. I’ll get everything set up. When do you want to go?”
The longer she put it off, the worse it would become. “Soon. I’ll need to make the necessary arrangements. See if you can make an appointment for next Thursday.”
Nolana picked up her telephone, and Marla turned back to the window. Life could be so random. She had gotten up this morning and slipped into her routine effortlessly. Just like most accident victims did before life threw them a curve ball.
I never saw it coming.
She listened as Nolana spoke to one person and then another. You had to go through the peons to get to the top. Finally, it sounded as if Nolana had been routed to the right person.
“Of course,” Nolana said. “Thursday is good for Doctor Grant if Mr. Blackwell has an appointment open. Yes, I can hold.”
Marla rocked her body. She actually wanted to wail, but she managed to keep her mouth shut. She had to stay in control.
“That will work,” Nolana smiled. “If something comes up and we need to reschedule, just give me a call.” Nolana provided her contact information. She hung up the phone and told Marla when she’d be facing the firing squad. “Two o’clock. Thursday.”
Marla nodded. She needed to dig through some of her medical textbooks and see if there was a way to prevent sweating bullets. She wiped her forehead with her fingers.
“Doc?” Nolana asked, “Are you okay?”
No, she was not okay. She was not okay with seeing an old lover. One who had claimed to be a struggling architect and omitted telling her about his business empire. She was not okay with the memory of his ritzy estate where only a select few were welcome. A place surrounded by an eight-foot wall, wrought-iron gates, and a security guard. The day she had been turned away at those gates, she had promised herself they would never separate her from her baby.
That was a promise she intended to maintain at any cost.
“I’m good.” She reassured Nolana with a nod. What choice did she have? She’d always been able to suck it up and do what was necessary to survive. She looked at his formidable signature on the letter. “I got this.”
It was all about being foolhardy.