Once I had moved all my clothes in and Eleanor had stocked the pantry, that rambling old house felt like home, especially after I cleaned the house and moved some plants in. The town made me very welcome and when I went for my morning run before breakfast, I was constantly waving back to people along the whole route.
The county newspaper carried the announcement that I was practicing in Indian Mask and one evening while I was watering the azaleas, I noticed someone had changed the sign in front of the house and my name, freshly painted, stood out. I smiled to myself when I saw it. It felt good and I laughed softly when I realised it had taken them four weeks to change it.
I didn’t have to cook much as the people kept inviting me to their homes for dinner. At first I was reluctant to go as I enjoyed cooking, but cooking for one is no fun. I soon found myself looking forward to each occasion where I ate with a different family.
There were times when I wrestled with what I was doing and why, when I knew I wanted to change back to a male. I do, don’t I?
I argued to myself that the community needed me and it was only for three months, in fact I had less than two months to go. I rationalized that I was building an employment history that would enable me to acquire a position at a hospital after the three months. There were times when I even believed it.
The truth was, I loved being a part of the small community and I enjoyed connecting with the people, people who were becoming increasingly important to me. It also helped that I was important to them and it was the first time in my life that I was significant, truly significant, to anyone on a personal level.
Brenda guessed exactly that and asked me if Indian Mask felt like it was becoming home to me.
‘I guess it is,’ I said slowly into the telephone.
‘I can’t wait to see it,’ she said and we made plans for her to visit. I called her often and I missed her, so I was excited that she was finally coming down after so long.
I developed a routine. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would drive into the country to visit those patients that couldn’t get into town. They were so grateful to see me that I was embarrassed, and they pressed eggs, butter, preserves, vegetables and fruit on me as I left.
When I returned, I would pile the produce on the kitchen table and tell Eleanor to take what she needed or distribute to any needy folk. She would shake her head as she went through the haul. ‘Doc Johnson never got this much stuff,’ Eleanor said with a smile.
‘They all think I’m skinny,’ I muttered, pouring some of Eleanor’s lemonade into a tumbler.
‘Well, you could use a few more pounds,’ she said with a sly wink, ducking out the door as I threatened her with a tomato.
One Tuesday, I was driving down by the river when the car swerved and bumped along, telling me I had a flat. Dejectedly, I stared at the rear flat wheel. How, I thought miserably, am I going to be able to lift the spare down from the back? For the first time in a while, I wished I had my old male strength back.
I heard the sound of a car approaching and looked up. Suddenly I felt very vulnerable and wondered if I should get into the car and lock the doors when, with relief, I recognized the pick-up as it pulled up.
‘Hi there, Jacquie,’ Scott called and I smiled at him. You’re glad to see him, I told myself, because he can change the wheel, nothing more. Then why did I keep smiling at him? ‘Got a problem?’
I nervously brushed my hair back with my fingers and wondered what I looked like. I wore jeans and comfortable clothes when I was visiting the farms and knew I didn’t look that attractive. Do you care, I asked myself, why would you care what you look like?
‘Flat,’ I said, ‘I can change it but I can’t lift the spare down.’
He climbed out of the pick-up and smiled down at me. ‘I’ll have a look.’ Scott poked at the flat with a dusty boot and squatted down to look at it, then removed a battered tool case from his car. ‘Won’t take a minute,’ he said with a smile.
I watched the muscles in his arms bulge as he effortlessly pulled the spare down and rolled it around. As he worked, I found myself watching with intensity that I found disturbing. Get a hold on yourself, girl, I told myself and cleared my throat.
‘Thanks for this, Scott.’
‘No problem,’ he said, tightening the wheel nuts and then putting the flat wheel into the back of my wagon. ‘All done.’
He wiped his hands and seemed to be nervous so I smiled, waiting. ‘My place is just up the road if you want to wash up or something,’ he said, picking his tools up.
‘Could I use your phone?’ I said, ‘I have to call Eleanor.’ It was a weak excuse, but the coverage for cellular phones wasn’t great around there, and for some reason I wanted to see where he lived.
He suddenly smiled. ‘Okay, just follow me.’
As I drove behind him, I wondered what I was doing. Eleanor didn’t expect me back; I should have just thanked him and driven back into town.
The house was down a dirt road, chickens in the side yard and azaleas in the front. To one side was a large shed with big double doors that were open and I could see a half built boat inside.
Lou came running out, a big smile on her face. ‘Jacquie!’ she cried, and I bent down to hug her.
‘How’s tough Lou?’ I asked and she grinned.
Scott seemed a little nervous as he led the way into the big house. ‘It’s not cleaned up, ’ he apologized. ‘It’s a little messy.’
‘That’s okay,’ I smiled and walked in.
‘The phone’s over there,’ he said, pointing at the kitchen. I nodded and dialed the number, noticing the sink had dirty dishes in it.
‘Hi Eleanor. I had a flat.’
‘Yep, Scott came by and fixed it for me.’
‘Did he?’ I thought I detected something in her voice. ‘Where are you?’
‘At his house, so I could use the phone,’ I added quickly.
‘Of course… say,’ Eleanor said and I sensed she was smiling, ‘did you know they were coming in on Friday to get the plaster off? You could do it now, save them the trip.’
‘You’re right, I will. See you tomorrow.’
‘Sure. Enjoy yourself,’ and I did hear her laugh softly as she hung up.
I turned around to see them both looking at me. ‘I didn’t know you were coming in on Friday? I could take the plaster off now, if you want?’
“Yippee!’ Lou screamed and I laughed.
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’
‘Would you like a coffee or water or something?’ Scott asked.
‘Water would be great.’
The screen door slammed and an older man who I guessed was Scott’s father, walked in and stopped when he saw me.
‘Dad,’ Scott said quickly, ‘this is the new doctor.’
He grinned and walked over, offering his hand. ‘Ben Carson,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’
‘Jacquie Rhodes. All good, I hope?’
‘Yep, all good.’
He appraised me with his eyes and I felt awkward so I said to Lou, ‘Let’s get that plaster off.’
‘Come into my room, Jacquie,’ she said, taking my hand and I followed her in, my medical bag in the other hand. As a country doctor, I carried everything I could, ready for any emergency and fully stocked so people wouldn’t have to travel into town.
After I took the plaster off and we cleaned up. Lou showed me her drawings, her schoolwork and some photographs. When we walked back out, Scott had a pitcher of water and tumblers on the table. I noticed the dirty dishes had gone from the sink and I wondered if he had shoved them in a cupboard somewhere.
‘Look, Daddy,’ Lou said, proudly showing off her arm. The telephone rang and Lou ran to it. It was one of her friends and she sat on the floor talking and I smiled.
‘I said it was a little messy,’ Scott apologized again, pouring water into the tumblers.
‘It feels like a real home,’ I said. ‘It’s nice.’
He smiled gratefully and my stomach turned over once or twice. What’s going on?
I sipped the water and thought desperately for something to say. ‘I saw a boat when I drove in, is that where you build them?’
‘Yep, would you like to see?’
‘I’d love to.’
Ben was working on the boat when we walked in. The sweet smell of the wood claimed my nostrils and I shut my eyes as I inhaled, savoring it.
When I opened my eyes, they were both looking at me, concerned. ‘Sorry,’ I laughed self-consciously. ‘I just love the smell.’
Ben laughed. ‘I think we get used to it and forget. It’s a sweet smell.’
I ran my fingers down the smooth hull, feeling its shape and the texture. ‘This is beautiful,’ I said softly, ‘a work of art.’
They both looked at each other and then smiled back at me. ‘You know boats?’ Scott asked.
‘Heavens, no,’ I laughed. ‘It just looks fantastic.’
They proudly showed me over the boat and then Scott and I walked down the levee banks to the river, past the boat ramp and stood under the magnolia tree, watching the water.
‘This is very beautiful,’ I said, trying to fill the silence.
‘I like it, it’s home, I guess.’
‘Have you always lived here?’
‘I’m the fourth generation,’ he said. ‘We’ve always been here.’
‘You must be attached to this place, you’re fortunate.’
He smiled shyly at me, scratched his head, and just nodded. I almost shook my head in frustration; a conversation with him was like pulling teeth.
Back in the house, I looked around at the comfortable room, the newspapers on the floor next to the easy chair, and I wondered if Ben had been reading it and dropped it when he fell asleep. The house was very masculine and I could see a thin film of dust on the coffee table, television and pictures. They probably didn’t clean much, probably didn’t even see the dust.
‘Well,’ I said, looking around as Ben suddenly appeared at the door, ‘I’d better get…’
‘Would you like to stay for supper?’ Scott asked quickly, the words coming in a rush, and I was surprised to see his face was bright red.
‘Please, Jacquie?’ Lou begged and I smiled.
‘Well,’ I smiled, ‘okay but…’ and they looked at me, ‘I’ll cook. To pay you back for fixing my wheel,’ I added quickly.
‘Okay,’ Scott said quickly and I felt that both Scott and Ben were relieved at that. ‘Uh…we’ll go work on the boat,’ Scott said, hovering at the door.
‘Okay, I’ll call you when it’s ready.’
‘Okay,’ they said, looking at each other, and quickly vanishing back to the boat shed.
‘Can I help?’ Lou asked as I started inspecting the kitchen.
‘Have you done your homework?’ I asked without thinking.
‘Almost. I’ll do it later, I promise. Let me help.’
She seemed so eager and I smiled. ‘Okay, let’s wash our hands and start. You’ll have to show me where everything is.’
They had plenty of fresh eggs and I sent Lou out to my car for the tomatoes and peppers Mrs Henderson had given me that afternoon and we made a big omelette with a salad.
Lou ran out to tell them it was almost ready and I watched Scott and Ben through the kitchen window as they hurried to wash up.
They came in, hair wet and slicked back, all washed and shining, staring at the set table with the tablecloth. The kitchen was also shining as I found the dirty plates shoved into a cupboard next to the stove and Lou and I had washed them, joking and talking as we did.
Scott and Ben were open mouthed and I smiled. ‘It’s just an omelette,’ I said, ‘nothing special.’
‘It smells great,’ Ben said, grabbing two beers from the freezer.
‘Would you like a drink, Jacquie?’ Scott asked as his father gave him a beer. ‘There’s some white wine.’
‘That sounds lovely,’ I said, tossing the salad and he rushed to open the bottle and placed a wineglass on the table.
‘Can I have some, Jacquie? Please?’ Lou pleaded. ‘This is a party, isn’t it?’
I mixed the dressing. ‘Just that much,’ I showed her the portion with my finger and thumb, ‘and put water in the rest of the glass.’ She squealed and ran off and I suddenly realised what I had done. I looked up at Scott. ‘Scott,’ I said quickly, ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said…’
He was grinning. ‘That’s okay, Jacquie,’ he said and I wondered why my name sounded so good all of a sudden when he said it. ‘You’re the doctor.’
I laughed. ‘Guess I am. Okay, supper’s ready.’
I put the omelette and the bowl of salad on the table and they stared at it. ‘Is anything wrong?’ I asked worried. ‘Oh my God, are you allergic to eggs?’
They laughed. ‘No,’ Ben said with a huge grin, ‘we haven’t seen anything like this in a while, that’s all. It looks great.’
Relieved I sat down and then said, ‘Music, we have to have music.’
Lou jumped up and put a disc in the player and soon soft country music was dancing on the magnolia laden breeze that sneaked in.
‘This is delicious,’ Scott murmured, mouth full and I smiled proudly.
We ate in silence and it drove me crazy so I asked Lou, ‘How was school?’
Off she went, talking about the teachers and her friends, the ride on the bus and everything in her day. I got involved, asking her all sorts of things, until I realised that Scott and Ben were watching us.
I looked up. ‘Sorry,’ Scott smiled, ‘we’re not used to having female company. It’s nice.’
I smiled, flushing. ‘It’s nice to be here.’
‘I’m female, Dad,’ Lou pointed out and I laughed.
‘Yes, you are.’
‘It’s two against two now,’ she said, wagging her finger at them and we all laughed.
Ben insisted on washing up and he dragged Lou to help, making it easier, I suspected, for Scott to talk to me.
We stood on the back porch watching the distant shape of the river cling to the land, the air heavy with the perfume of jasmine and magnolias. There were wind chimes hanging from the porch and I guessed that Scott’s mother or ex-wife had hung them.
‘Thank you,’ he said quietly. ‘Tonight has been special.’
I was surprised that he was saying so much. ‘Oh, that’s okay…’
“Jacquie,’ he said, almost as if he didn’t hear what I said, ‘I’m not much with words, especially with women. I get tongue tied and I make a mess of it but I wanted to say… wanted to thank you…’
‘Scott,’ I said softly and he turned his face to me, his bright blue eyes wide and that cute half smile of his where the upper lip turned up a little, ‘I had a great time. It’s been ages since I cooked and you guys are an easy audience,’ I said with a laugh. ‘I could have served anything and you would have loved it. I had a really great time,’ I added and my heart started pounding. He’s going to kiss you, my mind screamed, look out, a guy is going to kiss you!
He didn’t, he smiled shyly and nodded. ‘It’s been fun for both of us then, that’s good.’ And I was vaguely disappointed.
I kissed Lou goodbye and was surprised when Ben hugged me. ‘Thanks, Jacquie,’ he murmured. ‘It’s been good to have a female influence around here again. I wish Sonia had been alive to see this. You would have liked her.’
‘I’m sure I would have,’ I said.
‘She was like you. Always insisted on music while we ate and we always had to sit down for supper. Thank you, it took me back.’
Scott walked me to my car. ‘Thanks again,’ I said, ‘for fixing the flat.’
‘Thank you for tonight, it was great.’ He shuffled in the dirt and then smiled. ‘I’ll see you around?’
‘Sure,’ I said, inwardly fuming. What does he mean, see me around! I drove off angry and then, remembering the night, their eyes when I placed the meal down, the fun with Lou and the tender goodbye from Ben, I had happy tears in my eyes as I drove down the main street of Indian Mask.
Brenda listened intently when I called her. ‘How do you feel about him?’
‘I don’t know,’ I wailed. ‘I’m confused.’
‘He sounds cute to me,’ she said and I knew she was smiling, ‘especially the way you describe his eyes.’
‘How’s everything?’ Eleanor asked a few weeks later as she poured coffee for me when I came back from the shower after my run.
‘Oh, I’m just peachy keen.’
I looked up; I knew her pretty well by now and could sense something. ‘What’s up?’
She put the pan down and looked down. ‘Carl told me he passed blood. It’s been happening for a while and the fool’s just told me.’
I immediately stood and hugged her. ‘Get him in to see me,’ I said.
‘Do you think I haven’t tried?’ she said stridently and I saw the tears forming.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said softly, ‘of course you’ve tried. Where is he?’
Eleanor looked at me puzzled. ‘Down at the store, working?’
‘Time I went to the store.’
She looked at me with hope. ‘Jacquie…’
‘I’m going, Eleanor, and you can’t stop me.’
Tears were in her eyes when she hugged me. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered in my ear.
‘Hi, Doc,’ Carl said as he came forward, an anxious smile on his face.
‘Carl, if you won’t come to the doctor, I’ll have to come to you.’
His smile began to fade, conscious of everyone looking. ‘Now, look, Doc…’
‘No,’ I snapped, ‘you look! Eleanor is worried sick and so are you, if you would admit it! I’m going to examine you and you are going to let me. It’s here in the store, or at the surgery. What do you say?’
There were smiles on the faces of the people watching and Carl reluctantly nodded. ‘At the surgery.’
‘Good,’ I said sweetly, offering my arm, ‘then you’ll walk with me now?’
‘Guess I’ll walk with you, Doc,’ he said grumpily and I started him down the street. I know it was unorthodox and I could be penalised for my approach but aren’t people more important than rules?
It was chronic haemorrhoids and, although painful, it was a huge relief for both Carl and Eleanor. Everyone, according to Eleanor, was talking about how I went down to the store and fronted him. Some were saying it was like a gunfight and I laughed at that. The women began to threaten their menfolk that if they wouldn’t go for a check up, they would ask me to come down to their work. Suddenly, I had a lot of male patients.
It was Friday, and I walked out to the waiting room to call in my last patient, Mrs Jacobson, when I saw Scott leaning against the wall, looking like he was waiting to fight a wild tiger.
‘Oh, hi, Jacquie,’ he said, shuffling, and I noticed Mrs Jacobson was grinning.
‘Do you want to go in, Mrs Jacobson?’ I asked pointedly but she just grinned.
‘I’ll wait here until you’re ready, Doctor.’
I glanced at Scott. ‘I’ll see you now, Mrs Jacobson. Will you wait?’ I asked Scott and he nodded, wiping his forehead.
Mrs Jacobson didn’t like it, but she followed me in. All the time I listened to her, I wondered what Scott was doing out there and if he would still be there when I came out.
Finally, I finished and showed her out. Scott was still there, sweating and smiling weakly.
‘Scott? Is everything okay?’ I asked, worried and Eleanor walked passed with a wink and then disappeared out the back.
‘Jacquie,’ he mumbled, ‘I’m not much good at this…’
‘Scott,’ I said firmly, really concerned now, ‘will you just say it? I’m really worried.’ Was it Lou, I worried, was she okay?
He took a deep breath and then said, ‘Jacquie, the country club has a dance the last Saturday night of the month, it’s tomorrow, and I was thinking, I was hoping, we could go or something, I know I should’ve asked you sooner but, I don’t know, I couldn’t…’ he finished lamely and his words struck right through me.
He’s asking you for a date! I looked up at him, saw him clearly, those bright blue eyes, that strange half grin he makes when he’s nervous, and those strong hands – oh! Those strong hands!
‘That sounds nice,’ I said with a smile. His face caved into huge relief.
‘Really? You want to come?’
‘Yes,’ I said, surprised at myself. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘Will I pick you up?’
‘Yes,’ I said suddenly, wondering where it came from. ‘Yes, what time?’
‘I’ll be ready.’
His face broke into an incredible smile, and I wanted to laugh with him, to enjoy the moment, but didn’t think it was appropriate.
‘See you then,’ he said and I laughed when I saw him punch the air before he climbed into his pick-up.
‘You’ll have fun, Jacquie, it’s just a date.’
‘I suppose so,’ I said doubtfully.
‘What are you going to wear?’ Eleanor asked the next morning.
‘It’s all over town.’ She explained patiently. “He took ages to pluck up his courage, apparently Ben drove him in to make him ask you. I think it’s nice that he’s so nervous.’
‘So do I,’ I said softly and Eleanor grinned.
‘I know. So, what are you going to wear?’
‘I have no idea. Will you help me?’
‘I thought you would never ask,’ she said with glee and I laughed.
‘Answering the door?’
‘Will you wait here until I tell you?’ Eleanor shook her head. ‘Honestly, I don’t know what they teach girls up North.’
I heard her open the door, talk to Scott and show him into the sitting room.
Eleanor came up the stairs, smiled as she held me at arm’s length. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘he’s waiting downstairs like nervous cat.’
‘Like me,’ I admitted.
Eleanor looked at me keenly. ‘You’ve never done this, have you?’ I dumbly shook my head. ‘I guess with all the hard work at medical school you never had the opportunity.’ She smiled and hugged me. ‘Just enjoy yourself, he’s a nice guy and he thinks the world of you.’
‘He does?’ I asked softly.
‘Oh yes,’ she smiled. ‘And you can tell that, can’t you?’
I nodded and hugged her. ‘Thanks Eleanor, thanks for everything.’
‘No,’ she said softly, squeezing me tightly against her, ‘thank you. We are so glad you were lost that day you drove into Indian Mask, believe me.’
I walked into the sitting room and Scott’s jaw dropped. ‘Wow,’ he managed to say.
‘Hello,’ I said sweetly, ‘sorry to keep you waiting.’
‘It was worth it,’ he said, flushing, and I looked at him.
‘Such a charming man.’ I murmured, taking his arm as we walked to the car.
Everyone turned to look at us as we walked into the country club. Ron rushed over spouting some vague rubbish and I smiled, looking around, conscious of the fact I was on a guy’s arm, and I liked it.
Scott led me to a table and we sat down while he nervously looked over the menu. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve been here,’ he said. ‘I think the steaks are good.’
Lisa, the waitress, was smiling when she arrived at the table and I had the feeling that everyone was talking about us. ‘Good evening Jacquie, Scott,’ Lisa said. ‘I can recommend the fish of the day and the steaks.’
‘The fish sounds wonderful,’ I said, handing her the menu and Scott ordered a steak.
‘Drinks?’ Lisa asked and Scott looked at me.
‘Could I have a glass of white wine?’
‘Of course, Scott, what about you?’
‘Beer thanks, Lisa.’
She smiled again and left. Scott looked around, fingers drumming nervously on the tablecloth. Every now and again, he would try to loosen his collar or fiddled with his tie, a tie that looked so old it was probably coming back into fashion.
Lisa brought the drinks and Scott almost dived on his. I looked around the restaurant and out the window that overlooked the golf course. ‘This is nice,’ I said, trying to start conversation. He nodded and sipped his beer so I sipped the wine. ‘That’s nice,’ I said putting the glass down and he nodded again. I smiled but I was seething with frustration. ‘How’s Lou?’
I waited but he didn’t say anything else. ‘And Ben’s okay?’ He nodded and that was it. Running out of patience, I leaned forward, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Scott, I’m not dangerous, I’m just a woman and not an alligator, I don’t bite! I’m as nervous as you as I don’t date that much. Please, can we forget about this date junk and just have a good time? For starters, can we have a conversation? It’s a little strange having a conversation with myself.’
Scott stared at me open mouthed and then smiled, a gentle easy smile that I watched form on the edges of his mouth and then invade his lips. ‘Okay.’ I raised an eyebrow and he quickly added, ‘I’d like that.’
‘Good,’ I smiled, sipping my wine, ‘why don’t you tell me about that boat you’re building?’
And away he went, and the more he spoke, the more he relaxed, and soon we were laughing as he described how the first boat he ever built sank like a stone.
‘How old were you?’
‘Fourteen. Dad laughed and laughed.’
‘He’s a nice man, I like him.’
Scott smiled at me. ‘He likes you. He made me ask you out.’
‘I’m glad he did,’ I said softly.
‘So am I.’
Lisa returned with the food and we continued to talk. The band started playing as Lisa cleared the table and couples began to move onto the floor to dance.
‘Would you like to dance?’ Scott asked.
I grimaced. ‘I’m not very good,’ I admitted. Not very good? I silently screamed.
‘That’s okay,’ he said with a laugh, ‘I’m terrible.’
‘Okay, I’m up for it if you are.’
He took my hand and led me to the dance floor. The other couples dancing past smiled warmly at us as we slowly began to dance. Scott’s arms around me felt nice and I smelled his cologne, a musky masculine smell.
‘You’re doing great,’ he said softly, his lips brushing my hair as he spoke.
‘Thanks,’ I murmured, ‘you make it easy for me.’ Do you realise, my pesky silent voice asked, that you’re in high heels and dancing with a man? And you like it?
We returned to the table after a few dances and more people smiled at us as Scott led me through the tables from the dance floor. Some couples came up to our table, made polite conversation and the women always complimented me on the dress.
‘Very pretty,’ Rhoda Simpson said, looking at Scott, ‘don’t you think so, Scott?’
‘I think she’s beautiful,’ he said, obviously without thinking and then turned bright red.
Rhoda giggled and dragged her husband back onto the dance floor.
Scott insisted on walking me to my door and I wondered how many people were peeking from behind their curtains, watching us. I smiled at the thought and realised I didn’t care. ‘I had a wonderful time.’
‘You did?’ He said it with such relief that I laughed.
‘Yes, truly, and you can take that awful tie off now.’
He grinned and quickly removed it, stuffing it in his back pocket. ‘It’s the only one I’ve got.’
‘I would never have guessed,’ I said, raising an eyebrow, and he laughed again.
‘I like you, Jacquie,’ he said suddenly, ‘I know you’re a doctor and all, and I just build boats…’
‘But such beautiful boats,’ I smiled up at him. Look out, he’s going to kiss you!
‘But could we… I don’t know… do something some other time… I mean…’
‘Yes,’ I whispered, ‘I would love that.’ Hurry up, kiss me!
‘Call me.’ His face hesitantly moved closer, his eyes blinked uncertainly, and for a moment I thought he was going to pull away so I slipped my arm on his shoulder and moved in, eyes closed.
He took the hint and kissed me. His lips were so warm and tender and that first kiss simply took my breath away.
Scott whistled softly as he held me, bright blue eyes staring down at me. ‘Wow,’ he murmured.
‘You can say that again,’ I said shakily.
‘Wow,’ he repeated, grinning and I laughed as I fumbled for my key.
‘I suppose I’m the only doctor so…’
‘No,’ she said with a smile, ‘they really like you. Eleanor dotes on you.’
‘She is very nice.’
‘So, when do I meet Scott?’ Brenda asked with a teasing tone.
‘I don’t know,’ I said flushing. I had told her that he had kissed me and after she had quizzed me, I admitted I had been a more than willing accomplice.
We sat on a bench in the park, watching some children dancing around the bandstand and a young boy playing catch with his father. ‘This is a beautiful town,’ Brenda said. ‘I can see why you like it.’
I nodded dumbly. ‘Yes,’ I whispered.
Brenda looked closely at me. ‘It’s a bit of a shock, isn’t it?’
‘Realizing you actually enjoy being a woman.’ I was startled and she smiled. ‘I knew you were pretending back at the complex, Jacquie,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t ask me how but I just knew. You were very good, but something wasn’t just right.’
‘Oh,’ I said in a small voice. ‘Why didn’t you stop me from leaving?’
She shrugged. ‘I hoped you would find yourself and I didn’t like the idea of Buchanan holding you prisoner. Now,’ she said smiling at me, ‘I can see the difference. You and the old Jacquie are like chalk and cheese. Surely you see that?’ I nodded. ‘And you like it, right?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered, ‘I like it.’
‘Good,’ Brenda said and hugged me. ‘Come on,’ she said pulling me to my feet. ‘Show me where we can get a coffee, Doc.’
I managed to laugh and we walked arm and arm to the diner. ‘Alice,’ I said with a smile, ‘this is Brenda, we’ve been best friends since I was born.’
Brenda smiled at me and then turned to Alice. ‘Please to meet you, Alice, Jacquie tells me you have great coffee.’
We were chatting over coffee when the door opened and Scott and Ben walked in. He saw me and grinned that grin. I smiled back and Brenda looked over, saw him, and smiled at me. ‘Is that him?’ she whispered.
‘Yes,’ I said happily. ‘He’s coming over.’ They both came over and stood by the table. ‘Scott, Ben, this is my friend Brenda Peters. Brenda, Scott and Ben Carson.’
‘Nice to meet you, Brenda,’ Ben said with a smile. ‘We heard Jacquie had a friend staying. Do you like the town?’
‘I love it,’ Brenda said.
‘Do you want to join us?’ I asked and Scott sat down quickly and Ben grinned.
‘Don’t mind if we do.’ They ordered coffee and donuts and we chatted casually. I was conscious of Scott looking at me and I flushed when I remembered his kiss.
‘When are you leaving, Brenda?’ Ben asked. Thank God someone was talking!
‘Are you a doctor as well?’ Brenda nodded and I was glad she didn’t go into details. ‘Did you two meet in med school?’
‘Something like that,’ Brenda said, smiling into her coffee cup.
‘Well, you come back and next time we’ll take you out on the river.’
‘It’s a deal,’ Brenda grinned.
Brenda and I walked slowly back to the surgery. ‘He’s very cute,’ Brenda said at last. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say you two were head over heels with each other.’
‘What! Don’t be stupid!’
‘I could be wrong,’ Brenda said with that annoying smile she gets when she thinks she’s right. ‘Lucky Ben and I were there, otherwise you two would have just sat there staring into each other’s eyes.’
I stopped and shakily put a hand to my forehead. My stomach was churning and I felt my eyes begin to fill. ‘Brenda,’ I whisper, ‘what’s wrong with me? What’s going on?’
She was immediately concerned and hugged me. ‘Nothing’s wrong with you, Jacquie,’ she murmured, ‘it’s alright, I hope it’s perfect for you. I think you’re falling in love. You’ve never been in love, have you?’ Dumbly, I shook my head.’ Well, you’re in for the ride of your life,’ Brenda smiled.
We walked slowly towards the surgery and I took a deep breath to steady myself and smiled weakly. ‘I hope I don’t fall off,’ I murmured and Brenda giggled.
Susan Munroe’s little boy cut his leg in a bicycle accident and she brought him. ‘Is it serious, Jacquie?’ Susan asked anxiously. She was eight months pregnant and was moving awkwardly.
‘I’m sure it looks worse than it is. How did you do this, Tommy?’ I asked as I began to clean the wound.
‘I wasn’t looking where I was going, I guess,’ he mumbled.
‘Watching pretty girls, more like it,’ I said with a wink at Susan.
Tommy blushed. ‘Girls? No way!’
‘Sure,’ I said, smiling at Susan. ‘This is fine, should be right as rain in no time at all.’
She sighed with relief. ‘Thank heaven. Thanks, Jacquie.’
‘How are you feeling?’
Susan rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, you know, I just wish she’d get here.’
‘My first baby in Indian Mask,’ I smiled
Brenda and Eleanor were seated at the kitchen table when I walked in and I could tell they had been talking about me. ‘I feel my ears burning,’ I said as I poured some coffee.
‘Eleanor was just telling me about Scott,’ Brenda said, smiling.
Eleanor got up and bustled over to the sink. ‘Don’t look at me like that, Jacquie,’ she said. ‘Brenda mentioned she met Ben and Scott, so I gave her some details, that’s all.’
‘Is that right?’ I looked suspiciously at Brenda, who smiled innocently.
The next morning we loaded Brenda’s bags into her car. ‘Brenda,’ I began after Eleanor had said goodbye and walked back inside, ‘I was pretending back at the complex, but I was fooling myself most of all.’
‘I know, Jacquie, but it doesn’t matter.’
‘I wasn’t pretending about being your friend,’ I said and hugged her. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
‘Of course and, Jacquie,’ she said seriously, ‘you’re not a patient to me, you’re my friend, okay?’
I nodded and we embraced for the final time. ‘Come back, please,’ I said, ‘when you get a chance.’
‘I’ll come back for the wedding,’ she said cheekily, and I couldn’t help but grin and waved goodbye.
Scott did call, and he asked if I’d like to go for a drive in the country on Saturday.
‘I’d love to, I’ll make a picnic.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Lou and I swim in a fresh stream we know, so bring your swimsuit.’
The only swimsuit I had was a dark blue one-piece I had used to swim laps in the complex pool. I was self conscious in it then, and I wondered how I would get the nerve to wear it in front of Scott.
I borrowed a cane picnic basket from Eleanor and worked Friday night to make a picnic of cold chicken, salads, breads and fruit. I even baked a pie. Eleanor supplied a few bottles of her homemade lemonade and I put them into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.
After trying on several different outfits, I decided on a white cotton sleeveless shirt and a denim skirt over my swimsuit with comfortable sandals. I tossed a straw hat in the car and loaded the basket. My calls were redirected to the county hospital, so I was free for the day.
As I drove out to Scott’s house, I tried to reconcile the feelings I had with my life and what I had thought was my goal. It was unspoken, even to myself, but I didn’t want to leave Indian Mask and I certainly did not wish to be a man again. Again! That word reverberated within me, as I had extreme difficulty remembering what it was like to be a man.
‘Hi, Jacquie,’ Ben said as he walked over to my car.
‘How are you, Ben?’
‘Fit and dangerous,’ he winked and I laughed. ‘I’m heading off to talk to some potential customers, try to sell some boats, enjoy the day.’
‘You’re not coming with us?’
He stopped, smiled slowly, and I saw where Scott’s smile came from. ‘No, but thanks for asking, Jacquie.’ He winked. ‘If I’m not there, Scott might just have to talk, hey?’
I grinned. ‘You think?’
‘I hope so,’ he said seriously and I watched him drive away, wondering, until Lou ran out.
‘Hi, Jacquie, Dad’s coming.’
‘Good,’ I smiled. Scott walked out, that slow sensual walk that I found fascinating and of which, I knew, he had no idea of the impact. Dressed in an open necked shirt, tight faded jeans and sneakers, he looked so rugged I wanted to squeeze him tight, just feel him.
‘Hi,’ I said and he stopped, his eyes traveling up and down me and I felt good, smiled a little more and moved a little bit.
‘Hi there,’ he murmured, eyes roaming over me still, taking me in.
‘Lou,’ I said brightly, ‘help me with the picnic.’
We brought the picnic basket over to Scott’s pick-up. ‘How much food is in that?’
‘You’ll have to wait,’ I said with a wink and we clambered into the pick-up, Lou between us as we drove.
Lou put the radio on and soon Lou and I were singing along with an old Dolly Parton song, Scott watching us with a half-smile.
‘What?’ I said to him when the song ended.
He smiled and shook his head, one arm resting on the doorframe. ‘Nothing. I guess I’m just enjoying it, that’s all.’
The stream was high up and ice cold but crystal clear, river rocks piled high and lazy birds circling high above us.
‘I’m going in,’ shouted Lou, tearing her shorts and tee shirt off, running into the clear water in her swimsuit. ‘Come on, Jacquie!’
I glanced at Scott and shrugged, pulling my top off and stepping out of my skirt. I waved at Lou, splashing in the water but I could feel his eyes on me. God help me, I posed a little while I pretended to watch Lou, let him look a little, and then smiled shyly at him before running into the stream.
Scott was pulling his clothes off in a hurry as Lou and I splashed each other, giggling like mad, and he arrived panting and smiling in swim shorts. I looked him up and down, smiling, and he smiled back.
Lou and I dived in, the water cold and sharp and I came up shaking my hair as Scott’s arms encircled me. His skin was so hot against mine and I moved against him. Suddenly, I felt his hardness and instead of being appalled, I smiled, pleased with myself.
We swam and played games for an hour or so and then walked out of the water. I held Lou’s hand in one hand and Scott’s in the other.
‘Let’s eat,’ I announced and Lou clapped her hands. Soon we had the blanket spread, the plates and the food arranged, and were settled back comfortably.
‘This is great,’ Scott murmured, chewing on a chicken leg, and I smiled.
‘Apple pie?’ I asked Lou and she nodded, eyes wide.
Later, we were leaning back, comfortable and full, and a little tired. Maybe relaxed was a better description. Lou had finally given up swimming and was lying on the blanket, her head in my lap and her feet across her father’s legs.
I didn’t know it was possible to experience happiness like this.
‘Is she asleep?’ Scott asked softly and I looked down, my fingers in Lou’s hair.
‘I think so.’
‘She just wears herself out.’
‘All that energy has to go sooner or later. She’s a great kid, Scott, but I guess you know that.’
‘She likes you a lot.’ I opened my mouth but he surprised me and kept talking. ‘I like you a lot,’ he said simply and he took my hand, just swallowed mine in his big fist and squeezed gently.
‘That’s good,’ I murmured, falling into those blue eyes, ‘because I like you.’ He leaned over and kissed me, and it was just like the kiss goodnight, it sent shivers of hot vibrations through me. I sighed and rested my head on his shoulder. Life couldn’t be better than this.
I found Ron in the diner drinking coffee with Sheriff Hopkins and sat down at their table. They both greeted me and I cut straight to the chase. ‘Have you found a doctor, Ron?’
He glanced at John and suddenly seemed nervous. ‘We’ve been looking, Jacquie, honestly.’
‘We have,’ John chimed in. ‘We even interviewed a guy last month but he didn’t measure up.’
‘Measure up to what?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘To you,’ John said sheepishly. ‘We’ve been comparing them to you.’
‘Oh,’ I said, blushing. ‘I see.’
‘Could you see your way clear to stay another month?’ Ron asked anxiously and I shook my head.
‘No,’ I said slowly, ‘I don’t think a month’s possible.’
‘Oh,’ John said regretfully, ‘we understand. It’s been great having you here and we’re going to miss you…’
‘More like twelve months,’ I said and they gaped at me in surprise and I laughed. ‘You win, Ron, you got me to love this town.’
‘Just the town?’ John shrewdly asked but I ignored him.
‘Let’s make a proper contract if you’ll have me.’
‘Have you?’ Ron said grinning widely, ‘you’re kidding, right?’
I told Eleanor and she danced me around the reception area, hugging and kissing me. ‘Ron wants to keep it a secret until the council approves it,’ I warned.
‘A secret,’ she said scornfully, ‘in this town?’
I hurried out to the car and was surprised to see Eleanor right behind me. ‘You might need help,’ she said defensively and I shrugged. I should have suspected something right there and then but I was too focused on getting to the gym, wondering how many were hurt, and if Lou one of them?
I pulled up, flung open the car door and ran up the steps to the big double doors of the gymnasium, Eleanor panting behind me.
Pushing the doors open, the gym exploded into light and I saw it was filled with grinning people who chanted ‘Surprise! Surprise!’
I looked around and saw the big banner, draped over the stage. ‘Welcome, Doctor Jacquie’. Ron stepped forward, smiling. ‘Sorry to fool you, Jacquie,’ he said as everyone grew quiet, ‘but we wanted to celebrate your decision to stay with us, and to officially welcome you.’
‘Oh,’ I said, looking around and recognizing mostly everyone. Even the children were there, hanging from the seats at the far end of the gym. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I murmured just as I saw Scott and Lou standing by one of the side doors.
I knew tears were trickling down my face, and Eleanor smiled and hugged me, followed by Rhoda, Alice and a host of others.
A cake was cut, drinks passed around and Ron ceremoniously presented me with the contract.
Scott and Lou came up to me. ‘Congratulations,’ he said with his slow smile.
‘I’m afraid you have to put up with me for another year,’ I said brightly, wiping my eyes with a tissue.
‘I’m glad,’ Lou said happily.
‘So am I,’ Scott said and I looked up at him and smiled. Then, in front of everyone, he put his arms around me and kissed me.
There were murmurs in the crowd and I heard Lou say delightedly, ‘Yahoo!’
But I didn’t care. I was too busy kissing him back.
‘Scott, I don’t really want to go to the country club.’ Even though I was dressed, I was still trying to get out of another function. We seemed to be going to so many lately now that Scott was Mayor. Of course, I supported him but I was seven months pregnant and this pregnancy was not as easy as the others. All I wanted to do was collapse on the sofa and read.
Scott smiled and gently kissed me. ‘We have to, honey, you know we do. Lou’s gone on ahead and Dad’s taking the boys. We’ll just make an appearance and then go, okay?’
‘We’ll go home when you want to, okay?’
I waddled out to the car, slid in, and Scott backed the car down the drive. We lived in town in a large rambling house that I loved. The boat business had suddenly exploded and the old house by the river was now the office for the boatyard, which now employed thirty-five people.
Ben had retired and we insisted he live with us. It was great having him around, and good for Sam and Matt as he was always there when they came home from school.
‘There’s a lot of cars here,’ I said as we drove into the country club parking lot. ‘What’s this function again, honey?’
‘Council business,’ Scott said, ‘I told you.’ He opened the door for me and took my arm. ‘Before we go inside,’ he said with a smile, ‘I want you to know I love you.’
‘I love you, sweetie,’ I said, and we kissed.
The country club was quiet and I wondered where the people from all those cars were. Scott steered me into the restaurant and suddenly the room was alive with people, jumping and calling out, ‘Surprise! Surprise!’
‘Oh, no,’ I groaned, burying my face in Scott’s shoulder, ‘not again!’
He gently turned me around and I saw the banner. ‘Congratulations Doctor Jacquie, Ten Years in Indian Mask’
I waggled my finger at him. ‘You horrible man,’ I said and he grinned. ‘You could have told me.’
‘I’m the Mayor, honey, I had to keep it a secret.’
Scott led me to a long table and I was surprised to see Brenda and her husband Bob seated at it, along with Ben, Lou and my two sons, Sam and Matt with Eleanor and Carl. ‘Congratulations,’ Brenda said, kissing my cheek as she embraced me. ‘Who’d have thought, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ I said wryly, ‘who would have?’
Scott helped me into my chair and then he walked over to the microphone. Ben leaned over with a wink. ‘Remember the good old days, Jacquie, when Scott wouldn’t say anything? Now we can’t shut him up.’ Sam and Matt giggled at that and I had to smile.
Lou leaned over and held my hand. ‘You okay, Mom?’ I nodded and rummaged in my bag for tissues. I had a feeling I was going to need them.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Scott began, ‘I’m not going to talk for long…’
‘That’d be a change!’ John Hopkins called out and everyone laughed.
‘That’ll be enough out of you, John Hopkins, or I’m going to have to get the new sheriff to lock you up.’ Everyone laughed and John grinned. He had been retired for three years and the replacement, as everyone knew, was his son-in-law. ‘Seriously, folks, we’re here to celebrate Jacquie’s ten years of unswerving dedication to our community.’ I flinched at ‘unswerving’ but everyone applauded. ‘And we’re going to get everyone to reminisce, so I’ll hand over to our MC for tonight, Louise Carson.’
Lou winked and took a radio microphone from one of the staff and stood in the center of the room. ‘I remember when I first met Mom. I was lying in a smashed car with a broken arm and bleeding all over the place. I was eight and very scared when suddenly this calm face appeared and began to put things right. For a minute, I thought I had died and she was an angel.’ I groaned at that and buried my head in my hands while people laughed.
‘Let’s get some more memories. Eleanor,’ Lou said, holding the portable microphone to Eleanor, ‘do you remember when you first met Doctor Carson?’
‘I sure do. This feisty young woman came in with you and your dad after the accident and told me she was a doctor.’
‘You didn’t believe her, did you?’
‘No, she didn’t look old enough but she soon proved she was a doctor and a good one. She’s also a dear friend to me and I think she’s wonderful.’
I tried to smile back at Eleanor but the tears began to roll down my cheeks as Lou moved around the audience, getting comments. Scott sat beside me and hugged me. ‘I’ll get you for this,’ I muttered.
‘Promise?’ He smiled and I poked him in the ribs.
‘Ron,’ Lou said, ‘you convinced Mom to stay?’
‘Me? No, I think she fell in love…’ he paused and there were a few giggles, ‘with the town!’ Everyone laughed. ‘And she’s done everything she can to increase the population of Indian Mask.’ Everyone roared at that and I smiled to myself. Little do they know, I thought, patting my stomach.
‘Do you remember an incident, Susan?’ Lou asked, moving on.
‘Tommy had an asthma attack late at night. I was on my own and I called Jacquie. She arrived in less than ten minutes, still in her nightdress and slippers, just an old overcoat and slippers on, and she was pregnant with Sam at the time. Jacquie was so calm and she stayed with us for hours until everything was under control. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when her car pulled up. Thanks, Jacquie.’
It went on. Rhoda, Jim, Carl, even Ben had a little something to say. ‘I couldn’t imagine Indian Mask without her,’ he said simply and sat down to wild applause.
Lou took the microphone back and I was surprised to see her eyes were filling. ‘I’m lucky because I’ve lived with her for so long and learned so much. I tried to think of her qualities that I could list but I decided on just one. She loves. That’s it,’ she smiled through her tears. ‘She loves her family, she loves you people and she never asks for anything in return, she just gives and gives. Thanks, Mom, from all of us. Now it’s your turn.’
I managed to stand and Lou grinned. ‘Be careful of my little sister, Mom.’
I took the microphone and she kissed my cheek. ‘I love you, Mom.’ She meant to say it quietly but the microphone picked it up.
‘I love you, honey,’ I said and everyone was smiling. ‘Well,’ I said looking around at my friends and family, ‘I really don’t know what to say. You have given me so much, I feel I’m the luckiest woman in the world.’ Brenda grinned at me and I smiled at her.
‘I have news for you, Louise,’ I said and Lou groaned and rolled her eyes.
‘I know I’m in trouble when she calls me Louise!’ Everyone laughed.
‘It’s not your little sister in here,’ I said, smiling as I patted my belly, ‘it’s your little sisters!’
Lou exclaimed excitedly, ‘Twins? I don’t believe it!’
‘Neither do I,’ groaned Scott.
‘See what I mean? She’s a one woman population explosion.’ Ron called out and the laughter continued.
I looked around the room. Everyone was getting older, myself included, but life was wonderful.
‘Thank you,’ I said quietly, ‘thank you for everything.’ I handed the microphone back and everyone stood to applaud.
I leaned down to softly kiss Scott. ‘I’m ready to go home now,’ I murmured.
He smiled. ‘You have to wait for the cake.’
‘Okay,’ I said softly, ‘I love you.’
That grin of his that I loved so much crept up and ambushed his face. ‘I love you,’ he said simply. ‘Everyone loves you.’