arla 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
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, Carson Blackwell.”
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
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 knew the truth 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.
She withdrew 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 regards to the Royal Oaks Foundation, which provides a monthly stipend to the Lafayette Falls 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.
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 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 LaLas. Marla reached for her phone and read Kayla's text.
I'm having an awesome time!
Kayla was at a medical conference in Miami.
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.
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. She referred the flashlight guy to the gastroenterology clinic. 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 and tin 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 Lafayette Falls Wellness Center. 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.
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.” She sighed.
“That much?” Marla had never delved into the clinic finances. When she moved back to Lafayette Falls and replaced Dr. Hughes as the clinic physician, Nolana had already been the business manager for ten years, and she did an excellent job.
“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.