Two hours of pep talks, a dozen whispered mantras and five sets of calming breaths failed to settle Carrie Graham's acute case of nerves. Get a grip, she told herself. She was going to see Tony -- childhood defender -- teenage ego booster -- the one person who'd always listened. Besides, she'd already eliminated every other candidate for the position.
Who are you kidding?
From the moment she'd been presented with her current dilemma, he was the only possibility. All she had to do was convince him... But could she? Sure Tony listened, but he didn't talk about his problems or his feelings.
The fading light of dusk made her slow the car in order to read the street signs. She'd planned to leave the apartment at noon but the short nap after her night shift had stretched until late afternoon.
She made the final turn into Fourth Street in the small West Virginia town established in the days when coal mining had dominated the area. She shook her head. Rundown houses and boarded storefronts were the norm along the town's main street. Why was Tony practicing medicine in this end-of-the -road place?
She hadn't seen him for years, not since several months after his marriage -- an event that had shaken her life. His wife hadn't understood the friendship or Tony's and Carrie's mutual interest in medical mysteries. With a flash of anger, Carrie recalled the night that woman had stormed into the hospital cafeteria and spewed jealous accusations.
Carrie's hands tightened on the steering wheel. She'd been embarrassed, hurt and angry -- enough that she'd walked away from her best friend.
She'd heard rumors that Tony's wife had taken off for greener pastures. At least that's what the hometown gossips had said. Not that Carrie believed in gossip, especially after the news of her inheritance had brought the tongue- waggers out in force.
She slowed the car to a crawl. Waves of panic lashed against her momentary calm. The place in her head where she'd filed his address was empty. She braked. The paper with the directions fluttered from the dashboard. She bent and grabbed them.
One glance was enough to retrieve the forgotten data. She eased off the brake and cruised the street. Half the houses had missing numbers. What now? Then at the foot of the dead end street, she saw the ones she'd memorized displayed in shiny brass on a massive gray house that looked like the setting for a Gothic novel.
A broad lawn fronted the house. The tailored grass stood in contrast to the tangles on either side.
"This is the place." She gulped a breath.
After parking at the curb, she slowly released a held breath. She strode up the walk and onto the wide porch. Muffled shouts and noises came from inside the house. She rang the bell. What sounded like a slammed door nearly sent her back to the car. Who was staging a major temper tantrum? She thought Tony lived alone.
She rang the bell again, this time holding for several peals. The door opened and she forgot why she'd come. She forgot to breathe. Her eyes widened and her heart pounded in a staccato rhythm until she thought her ribs would crack.
He was more than she remembered.
Are you sure you want to be here?
"Tony." His name escaped on a sigh. She felt like a teenager come face to face with the latest movie hero. This was the man she planned to ask --
She changed her mind. Time to retreat. The plan wouldn't work, not with the things he made her feel and what he made her want.
"Carrie...Oh lord, it's been ages. What are you doing here? You look terrific."
She did? He must be blind. Even her coworkers had made comments about the deep smudges beneath her eyes. Most days, she felt as though she was suffering from terminal exhaustion.
"Come in." He took her hand.
Exhaustion vanished. He'd always made her feet great, but this instant tonic-effect startled her. Coming to see him had grown corners she couldn't see around.
"I can't believe you're here." He drew her inside. "What brings you to town?"
She wanted to tell him, but the words caught in her throat. "Would you believe I was in the neighborhood?
Tony laughed. "No."