A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Divorce Court
The Groom Came Back
Romantic Times – 4 stars
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Welcome home, husband!
Typical. It takes Dr. Jack Mitchell eight years to pull himself away from his terribly important career abroad and come home for a divorce. And then he doesn’t even know who she is! Sure Callie Summers—excuse me, Mitchell—was a gawky schoolgirl when Jack rescued her from a nasty family situation. But that’s no excuse for the man not to recognize his own wife. And now the gorgeous neurosurgeon thinks he’s going to hightail it out of Tennessee with his final decree in hand. Uh-uh. Callie isn’t letting him off quite so easily. Not when Callie, to her utter dismay, is finding him so irresistible.
Callie Summers recognized her husband the moment he walked in the door of Fresher Flowers. He, however, clearly had no idea who she was.
Her smile of welcome faded in the face of Jack Mitchell’s utter lack of recognition. Could eight years, ten thousand dollars of orthodontic treatments and a great haircut make that much difference?
Jack ducked a hanging basket of trailing clematis and stepped around the center display of post-Arbor Day markdowns. As he neared Callie, his glance skimmed her sky-blue tank—she’d grown breasts since she’d last seen him, too—and swooped down her short blue-and-white skirt to her ankles, then back up to her face. There was nothing as blatant as admiration in his gray-green eyes—more a keen, appreciative observation.
You didn’t get to be a top neurosurgeon without developing powers of observation, Callie supposed. Even if his memory was somewhat deficient.
“Hi,” he said. “I hear you’re the best florist in Parkvale.” Had his smile been that sexy eight years ago?
Of course not. At seventeen, she’d viewed Jack’s twenty-six years as a source of comfort, of protection. Besides, those hadn’t been happy days.
“Good morn—uh, afternoon.” Callie’s attempt at formality to mark this one-sided reunion stuttered as she struggled to remember if it was past twelve yet; she closed at twelve-thirty on Saturdays. She finished arranging stems of gerbera—orange and crimson and pink—in a galvanized steel bucket set on an iron stand. Then she stepped forward, brushing her hands against her skirt, in case Jack had actually recognized her and planned to shake her hand or…something. “I do like to think I do a great job for my clients—not that Alice at Darling Buds isn’t very talented,” she added hastily.
She totally lacked the killer instinct she needed for Fresher Flowers to flourish on the scale her loan officer demanded.
Jack’s smile turned confiding. “I’m in a hurry. I need—” he glanced around in the blankly searching manner common to most men who walked into Callie’s store “—some flowers.”
She might be short on killer instinct, but her sense of mischief was in full working order. “Are they for your wife?”
He recoiled. “I’m not—”
She saw in his frown the sudden uncomfortable realization that here in Parkvale, Tennessee, he was indeed married.
He folded his arms and looked down at her—she’d forgotten how tall he was—his mouth now a wry twist. “They’re for my mother. Brenda Mitchell—do you know her?”
“I know her well. She’s wonderful.” She let a trace of what she felt for Brenda into her voice. But although Jack picked up on it—his dark eyebrows lifted a fraction—there was still no flash of recognition. Nor did he endorse her comment about his mother.
So much for Brenda’s insistence that Jack missed his family. That he wanted to come home from his prestigious job at Oxford University Hospital in England, that he would have come home sooner, if only there wasn’t always another life to save.
Callie had suspected for a long time that Jack had simply outgrown his family. Only she knew that, if he had his way, this visit would sever one of the last of his ties.
She held his gaze and smiled warmly, giving him one more chance to click. “How much would you like to spend on your mom?”
“Since you know her, how about you make up something she’d like without worrying about the price?” He glanced at his watch—platinum, not steel, she guessed—then out the window, checking on the black Jaguar parked in the street.
“How generous of you.” A little nip, not strong enough to qualify as bite, made it into the words.
Now those expressive eyebrows drew together. “Excuse me?”
You can’t make up for eight years of absence with a hundred dollar bunch of flowers. “Brenda likes irises,” she said, with a fierceness that was at first on Brenda’s behalf, because Brenda wouldn’t dream of criticizing her darling son, and for Callie herself. “And delphiniums.”
He blinked at her vehemence and said, “Irises and delphiniums it is, then,” in a calm tone she could imagine him using with a patient while he waited for the men in white coats.
If she’d told him Brenda liked carnations and pansies he wouldn’t have known any better.
The answer to the question that had plagued Callie for weeks—how will I feel when I see Jack?—hit her with the force of a hurricane.
She was furious.
By the time Jack climbed back into the Jaguar, the best rental car available from the airport in Memphis, nearly all the stores on Bicentennial Square had closed. This place was dead on the weekends, and only marginally breathing during the week. He glanced at his watch as he pulled out into the light Saturday lunchtime traffic, and wondered what time it was in Oxford and whether he could call this afternoon to check up on his patients. Wondered what time the Marquette County courthouse opened on Monday.
How soon he could get a divorce.
Maybe he should, as the cute-but-moody florist had suggested, have bought flowers for her. His wife. Callista Jane Summers, according to the youthful scrawl on the marriage license application. But a bunch of yellow roses wouldn’t suffice to thank her.
He stopped at one of Parkvale’s even dozen sets of traffic lights then headed out of the square on tree-lined Main Street.
The elms, planted the year Jack was born, had grown taller in his absence. Yet the town itself had shrunk. It had always been too small, now it was Lilliputian. He’d no sooner started on Main Street than it was time to hang a left into Forsyth, and only seconds later, he was turning right into Stables Lane.
The narrow dead-end lane wasn’t much longer than a stone’s throw. A couple of cars were parked with two wheels on the sidewalk to allow passage down the lane. Jack parked pulled into his parents’ driveway, behind his father’s Ford Ranger pick-up.
He left everything in the Jaguar except the flowers, wrapped in layers of lilac and green paper. The florist had told him what they were, but apart from the irises he’d forgotten. She’d done a good job, that girl in the sexy blue tank. Jack had been surprised to learn from the guy at the gas station that Parkvale now boasted four florists. Eight years ago, he’d bought a corsage for his…bride…at the town’s sole flower shop, conveniently situated across the road from the hospital.
He gripped the flowers tighter, and steeled himself as he headed up the walk. For the overdue reunion with his parents. For the inevitable encounter with Callista Jane Summers.
Dealing with Callie would be the easy part, he reminded himself. She was a good kid, she was fully aware of the favor he’d done her, and although her emails had come irritatingly close to nagging about the need for him to come home, she wanted the same thing as he did where their marriage was concerned.
Whereas his parents…it had been easier to stay away than let them get their hopes up about him coming back and “settling down.”
What was the bet that within half an hour he’d be fending off suggestions that he switch from neurosurgery to dermatology or geriatrics or something equally unlikely, and apply for a job in Parkvale?
His mother must have heard the car, because she showed up in the doorway, hopping from one foot to another like a kid of ten. “Jack!” Her delighted squeal gave him an unexpected lift. He took the porch steps in two strides, and grabbed her for a hug.
“You’re so tall, I can’t believe it.” Brenda squeezed him with the strength of a woman who’d had years of kneading her own bread dough.
“Cut it out, Mom. I’m no taller than I was when we caught up in New York last year.”
“I forgot then, too,” she said, unashamed.
“Maybe you’re getting shorter.” That earned him a swat on the back as he stepped over the threshold. He turned to hand her the flowers, which hadn’t suffered from being squashed in that hug.
“Jack, they’re gorgeous.” Brenda sniffed deeply at the bouquet, then sent him a sly smile. “I’ll bet I know where you got these.”
“The best florist in town,” he said easily.
His mom beamed. “Isn’t she just?”
Something about that beam, which smacked of personal pride, rang alarm bells in Jack’s head.
Then his mom said, “Everyone’s here to see you, sweetie, I put on a light lunch,” and he forgot about the florist.
“Everyone” meant a bunch of Mitchell relatives, and a “light lunch” meant a table groaning with buffet dishes, doubtless including his mother’s signature dish, Parkvale Curried Chicken Salad. He’d kind of missed Parkvale Curried Chicken Salad, which bore no resemblance to any dish from India and had only a passing acquaintance with curry powder.
Brenda shepherded him into the living room of the Victorian house. High-ceilinged, deep-windowed, it at least was still the size he remembered. “He’s here,” she announced.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Nancy occupied the window seat. Their daughter Sarah held hands on the couch with a dark-haired man—Jack vaguely recalled news of an engagement, plans for a June wedding. The two guys over by the bookcase must be Mark and Jason, Sarah’s older brothers. They’d both bulked up in eight years and Mark—or was it Jason?—had a serious facial hair thing going.
“Son, it’s great to see you.” Jack’s father Dan caught him in an easy hug. Dan must have closed the hardware store early—he usually liked to put in a full day on Saturday.
“I mean in the flesh,” Dan joked, “not just on TV.”
“Good to see you too, Dad.” Jack shook his hand.
Dan put a possessive arm around Brenda, who leaned into him with the loving look that Jack forever associated with his parents.
Situation normal. It didn’t take a medical degree to see everything was as it had always been. Whatever point Callie had been trying to make in her emails, she was wrong.
Jack moved around the room, greeting his relatives, being introduced to the fiancé, accepting congratulations for the TV documentary that had recently aired on his pioneering surgical techniques. He’d completed his circuit, said his fourth, “No, I’m not back for good” and accepted a beer, when through the picture window, he saw a white Honda coupe pull up across the end of his parents’ driveway, blocking his car in.
Jack tugged at the collar of his shirt, then chided himself for his reaction. He could leave town any time he liked—it was crazy to feel as if his escape route had been cut off.
A woman got out of the car. Huh, the florist. Jack patted his back pocket. Nope, he hadn’t left his wallet in the store.
She walked up the path, her stride purposeful, her hips swinging. From this distance, he got perspective on her figure, which really was great.
“Uh, Mom…” He gestured toward the window.
“There she is,” Brenda said, pleased.
The florist hadn’t been kidding when she said she knew his mom well. So well that she walked in the front door without knocking or waiting to be admitted. Everyone in the room greeted her with familiarity, a ragged succession of heys and hellos.
“Sweetie, you did a wonderful job with these flowers.” It took Jack a second to realize that his mom was talking to the woman, not him. Her use of the family endearment “sweetie” niggled, no matter that in his younger years he’d derided it.
“I was looking at some old photos the other day,” Brenda said to Jack, “and I couldn’t believe how Callie has changed. I’m amazed you recognized her.”
Who would have guessed Jack had a degree from Harvard Medical School and postgraduate qualifications from Oxford University, when it took him at least five long seconds to realize what should have been glaringly obvious the moment he’d stepped into that damned shop?
The woman standing six feet away from him, lips curved in a smile but blue eyes sparking with an emotion that was far from friendly, was Callie. Callista Jane Summers. The woman he’d married.
“Actually, Brenda, he didn’t recognize me,” she said. “And I’m afraid I was naughty, I didn’t tell him.”
Jack knew from that flash in her eyes there’d been more than mischief behind her omission. What the heck was going on?