"I thought you'd be there by now."
Caleb frowned as he talked to his brother through the car phone speaker. Traffic was light, but the old rural highway rolled with and around the mountains, meaning he needed to concentrate, "Priscilla called and told me Anne was being released from the hospital. So, I'm heading toward Klairsville. I feel like I'm on a wild goose chase."
"How is she?"
"Priscilla says fine, but . . . I got a little more out of her this time. When Anne hit the ground, she rolled down a rocky embankment. They had to air lift her out."
"They've released her from the hospital."
"They release people from the hospital to go die peacefully at home."
"Caleb." Andrew's voice was sharp, direct. "You're letting the quiet ride get to you. Anne's fine."
Caleb took a deep breath and resisted the urge to close his eyes. Instead he focused on the two lane road that was taking him to Anne. "You're right. Sorry."
"I usually am," Andrew returned. "Care to tell me why I just overnighted a brand new cappuccino maker and six pounds of Orlando's Premium dark chocolate cappuccino mix to Anne's house?"
"It's a peace gift. Anytime Anne's mother came to visit Anne, she wanted to go by Orlando's. Got the same thing every time."
"Hasn't she visited since you started dating?"
"Not since things became serious. Probably for the same reason I was not invited this weekend," he took another deep breath and recognized that part of his panic was more anger—anger he was going to have to control and deal with in the next few days, if he was invited to stay that long. If he wasn't, he thought, he'd find a hotel near by and settle in anyway.
"Caleb?" Andrew ventured when the line grew quiet. "I'll be praying."
Sitting alone in her kitchen, Susan Belmont frowned over her grocery list. This weekend was supposed to be a special weekend for her husband. Family was coming over, people had dropped by to wish them well. Now, she wanted it to be a memorable weekend for her oldest child as well. Seeing her in that hospital bed, pale and bruised, had reminded Susan of her priorities.
She didn't want to think about that man who'd gotten his filthy clutches on her precious Anne. He'd probably wined and dined her with all that high society vileness, with money and sophistication. This man was already manipulating Anne into staying in the city. She'd stopped talking about coming home after her residency. She'd started talking more of that man.
He couldn't know her value. Anne had always had the gift for healing people. She was patient, sharp, a quick thinker and fascinated by all the reasoning and value in medical science. At an early age she'd been out with her father, helping with the birth of stock. She'd worked for the doctor's office in town before she even had a legal work permit, and she'd come home for those first two years of summer vacation until . . . .
Until Jacob died.
Susan could understand that Anne was having a hard time facing Jake's death. She hadn't been home the night he died. She rarely came back now.
People were depending on Anne to come back. They had such high hopes for Anne to return to their small town to be their doctor when Dr. Julipe retired.
So Susan's priorities were being straightened out. Her first priority was to get Anne home.
"Getting a list ready for me to take to the grocery store?"
Susan looked up as her husband walked into the kitchen and forced a smile, "We'll have Anne's favorite things. Pot roast, that chicken spaghetti casserole she loves. I thought I start out tonight with my grandmother's chicken soup."
"She'll like that."
"Eric's bringing Anne home."
Dan Belmont nodded as he tried not to check out the window one more time. The only reason they'd left the hospital when they did was because the doctor had announced that Anne could be released and Susan wanted to get things ready. They shouldn't be much further behind. He would be more comfortable at the hospital, with Anne.
"We'll see that Anne has suitable time with Eric," Susan watched her husband, "you'll entertain that man of hers?"
"She'll get better."
"We'll invite her friends over tomorrow. Not to overdue of course, but to keep her company. She has so many people up here that she rarely gets to see. So many good friends. And of course, her cousins will be coming in. She hasn't spent time with them in years. Not quality time."
At the sound of an engine, smoothly purring, Dan looked out the window again, knowing that it wasn't Eric's he was hearing. He watched as the polished pickup truck rolled down their dirt drive.
The man inside was not the polished, skinny city boy he'd imagined.
"No . . . it's Anne's Caleb. Priscilla must have called and told him to come here first."
Caleb parked his truck and looked up for the first time at Anne's childhood home. It was two stories, brick and wood painted off-white. Shrubs lined the front porch, where a swing Anne had told him about was hung. There was a flower garden of her mother's to the side and several automobiles he knew her father worked on in his spare time.
The man who appeared on the front porch was Anne's father. Even if Caleb hadn't of seen pictures of him, he would have known the man just by the eyes. Anne had his eyes. That rich green.
"Good trip?" the man asked as Caleb approached.
Dan smiled slightly and reached out his hand and Caleb stepped up on the porch. "Understood."
The hand that met his was calloused, a worker's hand. Dan hadn't expected that. Of course, the way Anne described him you would think he was superhuman. The man owned the construction company—a company big enough to tare down their small community and rebuild it in a matter of days.
His eyes were tired, weary, and expectant.
This, Dan thought, this man couldn't wait to see Anne, to make sure she was all right. This was Anne's love, the man who would take his daughter away from him all over again. Her love for the hospital had done it the first time, the city the second and now . . . Dan wanted to not like the person who was after his oldest. He'd already dealt with the madrid of emotions he'd felt when Priscilla bright home her William, but this was Anne.
And this man, Caleb, was out of his mind with need to see her.
"Come inside," Dan invited, "they shouldn't be long in coming."
"You've seen her?" Caleb asked.
"Mmm. She's fine. A little shaken, more then a little bruised, and a couple of stitches, but nothing rest and time won't heal," Dan answered, opening the porch door.
Anne's mother stood at the sink, her back to the room. She had water running, soaps building up, clean dishes in the drain.
"Susan," Dan petitioned softly, "come meet Anne's Caleb."
She took a deep breath and turned. Her smile was thin, forced. Her eyes, already having watched her daughter's trials that morning, were tired, but sharp, focused, assessing, and unhappy, angry.
"It was good of you to come," she said, forcing the words out, "I made reservations for you at the Inn in town. They're expecting you."
"Nonsense," Dan spoke evenly. "He'll stay in Jacob's—in the guest room."
"I had planned—we have company coming in—"
"Not for tonight."
"Eric lives in town," Dan returned, taking a deep, measured breath as he looked at Caleb, then toward his wife with a quiet, cautious look of warning.
"I—Caleb," she took a long, steadying breath, fighting for composure. "It's good to have you here. Anne will be delighted," but it was obvious, Caleb thought, that her mother was far from happy. Her eyes, her voice, even the ridged stance spoke against a warm greeting.
"You came through town? Saw where Anne grew up?"
"Yes mam—" what little he could remember of it, at least. Anne had told him about her town, about growing up and the little spots she'd wanted to show him, but he'd been slightly preoccupied on his first drive through.
"Then you know where the grocery store is. That's such a relief. Would you be a gentleman and run there for me. I have a few things I would like to get for Anne—"
"I'll go to the store," Dan said, picking up the list from the table. He turned to Caleb, wishing his wife would have done the same. He wondered if she felt the shame that he did at her actions, at Caleb's reception, "Make yourself at home. There are soft drinks, milk, juice, and whatever else in the fridge, help yourself. Jacob's room is the last one on the right, upstairs. They should be back anytime now."
Caleb settled on the front porch, escaping the confines of the kitchen, and held Anne's ring in his fingers turning it around so that the diamond sparkled liked the tears in Anne's eyes when she'd handed it back to them. He hadn't moved yet to unload his things. He wanted to talk to Anne first, make sure she didn't prefer that he stay in town. It might help, Caleb thought as Anne's mother stepped out on the porch, letting the screen door slam behind him, and be easier on everyone if he stayed elsewhere.
But he wasn't quite sure easy was what needed to be done.
Susan Belmont started a sweeping pattern on the front porch, her strokes as hard and deliberate as her frown. He remembered a time, on what should have been a lazy Sunday afternoon, when he and Anne had fought over something . . . his schedule, he remembered with a slow shake of his head. She'd been angry that he was planning a long business trip, or rather, there had been anger covering the hurt that he hadn't prepared her for it. He'd just dropped it on her, without thought, without care.
"But I didn't think you had anything out of town until right before Easter," she mumbled, a frown appearing between her browns, as she pushed up from the couch and headed into the kitchen, her steps hurried, almost robotic.
"It's nothing much, just a quarterly meeting with some investors. It shouldn't take but a few days," he stood to follow, surprised when she yanked a broom out of the closet and started to sweep.
"Nothing much," she muttered, wacking the cabinet with the straw of the broom, "just up and leave and it's nothing much."
"I go out of town all the time," he reached for her, battled back surprise and hurt when she jerked away from him. "What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me?" she turned, clutching the broom against her. She wasn't looking at him—wouldn't he realized. There was something swirling in her eyes, anger, pain, confusion—he wasn't sure what. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
"Anne—" he moved toward her again when she started sweeping.
"We were making plans, Caleb, plans over the past few days, and you announce a trip—" she turned away, swept harder. Her breath came in single, audible hitch, "I'm sorry."
Caleb recognized the tone, a tight controlled, I-don't-want-to-cry sound. He'd heard it only once, after a horrid day at the hospital when she lost a patient, and it scared him. When he reached for her this time, she turned into him, weeping against him.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled again. "I'm sorry Caleb—I just felt and I didn't know— I didn't want to care about someone like this. It feels like it's too soon, so very soon. Please don't leave."
"No, not the trip," she shook her head and tried to push away, then settled with a sigh against him as he held on. "Things are so crazy for both of us and it's so new between us. Don't go away for good."
"I'm not planning on it," he whispered, dipping his head to kiss her lips as she looked up at him, "I'm staying right here."
He thought of it now because her mother swept the porch with the same frustrated strokes as her daughter did when she was angry . . . Or scared, he realized, wondering if there was a connection in Susan between anger and fear as there was with Anne.
Slipping Anne's ring carefully away into his pocket, he settled on the front steps, wringing his hands, wanting to speak to her mother, thinking it was probably best to keep his mouth shut.
The car that turned on the drive, lifted his heart.
He was there, suddenly, holding her, steadying her. "Anne," Caleb murmured as he looked her over, his eyes so very serious and concerned as he looked her up and down, assessing her bruises. He didn't know that anyone could have prepared him to see her like this, bruises on each appendage, white gauze covering the stitches on her forehead, elbow and thumb, looking pale, withdrawn and glassy-eyed.
It was Anne that reached out with both hands to capture his face. It was Anne that kissed him, gently, lingering, seeking the comfort that they both needed.
"I fell," her voice cracked hoarsely as he leaned back, sought her eyes.
Caleb smiled and drew her close, holding her gently. She was more beautiful then ever in the orange and yellow strappy sundress—more Priscilla's style then her own. She was more his then she had ever been before, "I know. You must have had some flight time in there too."
"Not the flight . . . but the landing—that hurts . . ."
It lifted his heart a bit to hear her humor, even as she burrowed into him. As her presence seeped into his shaky system, he prayed for her healing, thanking God for her safety.
"The doctor forced some pain medication into her as we were leaving," Priscilla said as she climbed out of the backseat. She thought that Caleb's reaction was all that and more that she'd expected of him, promised Anne back at the hospital: the deep love, the tender way he held her with his strong arms, and the way he kissed her, for comfort and for passion that was already between them. "It's just starting to take affect."
He looked down at Anne as she rested her head on his shoulder, her eyes closed. "Can you walk, baby?"
He started to lead her inside, feeling her slowly loosing the battle with the medication. He swung her into his arms, cradling her as she snuggled into his shoulder, "Don't start . . . protectiveness thing."
"With you? I've never been able to do it before. You gave me quite a scare, Ms. Belmont."
He'd seen her, he thought, tired. He'd picked her up himself on a few occasions and tucked her into bed when she was dead on her feet. He'd held onto her when she needed comfort.
But he had never seen her weak.
"Eric," Anne's mother called from the porch, "take her to her room. Priscilla, I need your help in the kitchen."
Caleb stepped up, past Anne's mother and through the screen door that Priscilla hurried to open for them.
"First room on the right."
Caleb sat on the edge of Anne's bed where he had placed her only moments before. She wearily opened her eyes to look at him again.
"Go to sleep," he whispered. He ran his thumb along her cheek. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I love you, Caleb Daines," she mumbled as her eye lids slid shut.
The words squeezed his heart as he leaned forward to kiss her gently, resting his forehead against hers instead of pulling completely away. Her ran his hand down her arm, lightly touching the gauze at her elbow, "I love you Ms. Belmont."
"The future Dr. Daines," she argued sleepily.
"Yeah, I think I'm in love with her too."
He straightened as she slipped into sleep and sat for sometime watching her. He should have been with her, he thought, remembering the sudden need he'd felt from himself and from her when she'd reached for him, kissed him. The look in her eyes was more then relief, more like hunger satisfied. He would have been with her if her mother wouldn't have put such a barrier up between them.
Caleb prayed in the quiet moments, feeling helpless in the swirl of circumstance. What did he need to do, need to be, for Anne's mother to accept him? Was it possible to please her? Where did the anger and hatred heaped upon him and his relationship with Anne come from?
The answers did not come in the quiet, but a peace settled over Caleb, rubbing against the anger he was struggling with. "I'm working on it," he mumbled in prayer. Instead he concentrated on Anne. The moment seemed precious, sitting there, watching the woman he loved sleep peacefully after such a traumatic experience for both of them. It wasn't often that he had such liberty. It wasn't often that his heart was coming off of a wild ride of uncertainty and fear.
It was only moments later that h realized he was not alone. As he stood and turned toward the door, he saw the man he recognized from Anne's high school pictures--Eric Johanneson—Anne's ex-fiancé, the love Anne's mother was so determined for her oldest daughter to have.
They faced off for a moment, the air thick with pride and testosterone. Caleb thought he was man enough to recognize the innate need to establish his claim of Anne and fought back his verbal inclination.
"Well," Priscilla said from the doorway, looking first to Caleb, then Eric, then her sister. "She finally gave up her battle against the medication. It's amazing what the power of the right person can have on a patient."
Smiling, she moved closer into the room and faced Caleb, "I'm glad you could make it. You've met Eric?"
"We haven't been formally introduced," Caleb said, reaching out a hand. Eric took it, his chin up.
"Eric's a friend of the family's," Priscilla introduced, "and Eric, Anne said she already told you about Caleb, but in any case, he's hers. He'd be mine if I wasn't already taken and him not quite so smitten by my sister."
Caleb smiled as Priscilla looked at him with a cheeky grin, "Now, if both you boys would excuse me, I think my sister might be more comfortable in something more like pajamas."
Eric glanced first at Priscilla, then at Anne, before nodding and heading out the door. Caleb shortly followed.
"Smitten?" he asked as he passed Priscilla, lifting an eyebrow.
"Something like that," she said and laughed heartily as he rolled his eyes. Oh, it felt good to laugh, she realized. So very good.