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Pregnant...and widowed. It wasn't quite how Nora Parker had planned to be ringing in the holidays this year. Though she was excited to meet her new baby, the last thing she'd expected was the return of Dr. Eli St. John—the man who'd broken her heart years ago. Now he was back, filling in at his father's practice. He definitely wouldn't be staying in town. And she definitely shouldn't be looking forward to seeing him again!
Eli had left his small town for bigger adventures, assuming Nora would always be waiting. Now she was his best friend's widow, expecting a baby Eli wished was theirs. With the holidays approaching and his time in town dwindling, did he dare make one last effort to claim the Christmas gift he should have accepted years ago?
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USA TODAY Bestselling Author Jules Bennett has penned more than 50 novels during her short career. She's married to her high school sweetheart, has two active girls, and is a former salon owner. Jules can be found on Twitter, Facebook (Fan Page), and her website julesbennett.com. She holds contests via these three outlets with each release and loves to hear from readers!Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Don't look, just keep walking.
Dr. Eli St. John walked up the freshly dusted, snow-covered sidewalk toward his parents' bungalow and refused to even glance over to their neighbor's house.
Since he'd be calling Stonerock, Tennessee, home again for the next few months, he'd no doubt see that neighbor more often than he'd like. But on his first day back, he preferred to ease into being home, ease into knowing she was now within reaching distance. Not that he would do anything about it.
He was such a coward.
An uncomfortable weight settled in his chest at the thought of seeing his one-time love, the woman he'd never forgotten, the woman who'd married his best friend.
Eli wiped the snow off the bottom of his boots on a Santa Claus welcome mat, and before he could reach for the handle, the door swung wide open, causing an evergreen Christmas wreath to bounce in protest.
"I'm so glad you're here. I knew we could count on you."
Eli sank into his mother's familiar embrace. Before he could step over the threshold of the front door, his mother, Bev, was there to greet him with a smile and love. Just like she'd done each time he'd come home from a tour of duty.
Now, the times he had sneaked in after curfew as a teen were a different story. But that hell-raiser had grown up, leaving the proverbial good times behind.
Leaving Nora Parker behind. Now that he was going to be home for a good bit of time, dodging the one woman who still owned a small portion of his heart would be nearly impossible. Not only was she his parents' neighbor, she was a recent widow, and his parents loved her like she was the daughter they never had.
Turning his attention back to the reason for his homecoming, Eli eased back from his mother's embrace and met her gaze.
"What's this?" she asked, brushing her fingertip along his most recent scar.
Refusing to get into the reasons behind the scar, he shrugged. "Army injury."
He wasn't lying, technically. There was no way he would ever come clean about the ugly reminder of how he'd spent his last encounter with his best friend.
The last time he'd seen Todd alive, they'd gotten into a drunken fistfight. Out of character for both of them, but Eli would do it again in a heartbeat, given the reasons behind the unleashed rage.
His mother hugged him again. "I'm so proud of you for serving, but selfishly I'm glad you're done for good."
Bev pulled back and Eli stepped into the foyer.
Nodding, she started forward toward the living room. "He's okay. You of all people know doctors make the worst patients."
Eli laughed, thankful that he was home, but worried what he'd encounter when he saw his father. The man had always been so robust, so full of life and busy caring for others. But his father had failed a stress test earlier in the week and a heart cath showed he had some major blockage.
Eli had been a medic in the army the past several years, but since he got out six months ago, he'd been an ER doctor in Atlanta, and he'd seen his fair share of massive heart attacks. Chest pain was nothing to mess around with. Since his father hadn't been having pain, they scheduled the surgery for tomorrow, for which Eli was thankful. The drive on his way up from Georgia had given him enough time to prepare himself.
And enough time to work on scenarios and reactions to seeing Nora. Why did he care? Shouldn't time and distance have severed any ties he had to her? They were different people now and whatever feelings they'd had in the past were left there when he chose to walk away from her.
Hardest decision of his life, to leave her and go fight for his country.
The scar on his face proved he'd never fully gotten over her, even though they'd both moved on.
They'd each made their choices, and there was no going back.
Eli tried to slide those thoughts from his mind as he followed his mother toward the living room. He was here for his father first and foremost...not to rehash or run from emotions he'd felt years ago. He had his own life now, one he loved and was eager to get back to once his father was cleared to return to work.
Eli had seen countless patients laid up, recovering or even dying, but when your father was the one being treated, the whole scenario changed. Eli wasn't a fan of being back home for a long period of time, but there was no way he'd leave his father or his father's patients in a bind.
Fortunately, Eli had handled seventeen years in the military and in medical school so coming home to a disgruntled father, who was waiting on quadruple bypass surgery instead of practicing medicine himself, was nothing Eli couldn't handle.
Eli moved through the old bungalow-style home, leaving his suitcase in the foyer. As much as he loved coming home for visits, he'd never done so with the intention of staying longer than a few days. And in those visits home, he'd managed to avoid Nora for the most part. He'd seen her and even exchanged the requisite pleasantries, but other than that, he'd kept his distance.
Now he'd be home—at a minimum—for the rest of the winter and into the spring.
Nothing like being thirty-five years old and living with Mommy and Daddy again. Of course he'd do anything for his parents, including give up his bachelor lifestyle. Family had always come first, no matter what. At least he was going to be staying in the apartment above the garage. That was still somewhat private.
Eli stepped into the living room where his father was reclined in the old, plush chair that should've been retired to a garbage dump about five years ago. The man was a doctor; he could afford new furniture, for heaven's sake.
Familiar ornaments adorned the full artificial tree that occupied the corner of the space. His mother still hung all of their stockings along the edge of the mantel even though Eli and his brothers had each moved out right after they graduated. The worn-in comfort of the home, especially now at Christmas, helped ease his nerves in dealing with the inevitable reunion with Nora. He wasn't so worried about the old feelings creeping up; he was more worried about how he could look her in the eye when he knew a truth she could never uncover.
Eli glanced from the television to his father. Remote in one hand, Dr. Mac St. John gave the television the one-fingered salute with the other.
Suppressing a chuckle, Eli stepped closer, but he knew what he'd find on the TV—sports. His father had always been a sports fanatic, namely football. Apparently this game was not to his liking. Or, more to the point, the refs' decisions weren't to his liking.
"Still disagreeing with their calls?" Eli asked.
His dad turned to face him and in one swift motion Mac had the footrest down and was on his feet. "Well, there's one of my boys."
Mac wrapped his arms around Eli's shoulders and gave him a manly slap on the back. Eli returned his father's embrace, welcoming the comforting touch. At one time Eli and his brothers feared the wrath of their father, but Eli now understood that the anger from his dad had only stemmed from fear and love. Eli didn't even want to think about what he and his brothers had put their parents through.
His mother had once said that raising teenagers wasn't for wimps. At the rate Eli was going with his career really taking root, he didn't have time to date, let alone find a wife and have children. Besides, he'd settled pretty well into his bachelor status. Working in Atlanta with a promotion on the horizon was the main component in his life, other than his parents and brothers.
"Let me look at you." His father eased back down into his chair, resting his hands on his knees. "You look good, son. Real good. You don't know how much this means to me that you're willing to fill in."
Eli didn't want to think about the patients at his dad's office. More than likely they were the same judgmental people who lived here when he was a havoc-wreaking teen. He and his brothers hadn't exactly been the town's golden boys.
Apparently stealing street signs, racing down Main Street in dual-exhaust trucks and spray painting old buildings was frowned upon. Not that anyone could prove the St. John boys had anything to do with such shenanigans. Eli and his brothers were way too sneaky and smart to get caught.
On a sigh, Eli shook away the memories. People in small towns never forgot the person you used to be. Even worse, they never let you forget it, either. Yeah, he'd be well received as the new hometown doctor.
Eventually they'd see he had changed, but whether they did or didn't, he was heading back to Atlanta in—hopefully—three months. Eli was already anxious to get back.
The head of the trauma unit was going to retire in a couple of months. An old army buddy had given Eli the heads-up that the position was coming available. Eli had actually only worked in the ER for a few months, but since he was already an internal doctor, he had a leg up on any outsiders vying for the position.
He couldn't worry about that right now, but he was hopeful that he would hear something soon.
"What time is your surgery scheduled in the morning?" Eli asked, taking a seat next to his mother on the old floral sofa that belonged in the same Dump-ster as the recliner.
"They're doing it at seven," she told him. "But they're going to admit him this evening. We wanted to wait until you came before we left."
Eli glanced to his watch, then over to his dad. "Are you ready to go or do we need to finish this game you're cursing under your breath about?"
His father pointed the remote at the TV, shutting it off. "I guess we can go. Let it be known that I am not happy about having my independence taken away."
Eli laughed. "Noted. Let it also be known we're glad you're having surgery so you'll be around for a few more years."
The doorbell chimed through the house and Eli held up his hand. "I'll get it. You two go get whatever you need to take to the hospital."
He figured his parents were already very well prepared to go. He also knew as the hometown doctor his father was popular and figured whoever was at the door was here to send Mac off. Eli thought it best to intercept the visitor and usher his parents on out the door before throngs of people came by.
Eli neglected to glance out the sidelights before he jerked the door open to the one woman who could make his knees weak and his gut clench.
All that rehearsing in the car did absolutely no good when he was rendered speechless.
Nora Parker, the epitome of hometown girl, stood on his parents' porch looking all bright and fresh even as the blistery cold winds swirled about. She'd wrapped herself in a cheerful red coat and multi-striped hat and matching scarf.
The girl who had won over the hearts of his parents when his youngest brother, Drake, had befriended her in junior high and brought her home after school still had a place in their lives. Shortly thereafter she'd stolen his heart and just a few years later they'd turned their backs on each other, him to pursue his dreams, her to make a life in the only place she wanted to call home.
Now, here she was, no doubt checking in on his father. Their inevitable time together was about to begin whether he was mentally prepared for it or not.
"Eli." With eyes wide, she pasted on a radiant smile. "I knew you were coming home, but I didn't expect to see you here tonight. I didn't miss Mac and Bev, did I?"
Eli forced himself to snap out of this stupefied state and stop staring like some lustful teen. Good grief, he hadn't even invited her in from the biting cold.
"You didn't miss them. Come on in." He gestured, opening the door wider. "It's freezing out there."
Her sweet, floral perfume slid right under his nose as she passed through. Eli closed the door, turning to offer to take her coat, but, like an idiot, he became mesmerized as she started talking.
For pity's sake, he acted like he'd never seen a female before. This wasn't just any female. This was the one girl who'd stolen his not-so-innocent heart at the age of sixteen. This was the girl who had finally settled down four years ago with his best friend.
This was the girl who had no idea about the deceit behind her own marriage and the lies behind her late husband. Eli couldn't tell her, though. He'd never purposely hurt Nora again. Once was enough to leave him scarred. Literally.
"So," she said, looking around. "They're still here?"
Oh, right. While he was fighting the urge to travel down that lane of not-so-pleasant memories, she'd been waiting for a response.
"We were just getting ready to go," he supplied. "Come on into the living room. Do you need me to take your coat?"
"Oh, no. I can't stay long."
He followed her, clutching his fists the whole way. Those instant lustful feelings that had slammed into him at the sight of her standing on his parents' porch had better just go away. How disrespectful could he be? A giant gap of years lived between them, proving nothing from the past was the same.
Eli, Nora and her late husband, Todd, had gone to the same school, grown up in this same small town. Not only that, Eli had served alongside Todd in the army up until six months earlier when Eli had gotten out for good, but Todd had reenlisted...and only a few months ago he'd been killed in action.
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Book Description Harlequin Special Edition. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0373658524 . Seller Inventory # Z0373658524ZN
Book Description Harlequin Special Edition, 2014. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0373658524
Book Description Harlequin, 2014. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110373658524
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