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More Than a Convenient Bride

By:Michelle Celmer

More Than a Convenient Bride
Michelle Celmer

       One

Julie Kingston stood and waited in the crowd, her heart overflowing  with pride as her best friend and colleague, Lucas Wakefield, prepared  to cut the ribbon marking the opening of the new, state-of-the-art  Wakefield Clinic. It seemed as though the entire town of Royal, Texas,  had shown up to mark the occasion.

The town's original free clinic once stood directly in the path of the  F5 tornado that had ripped through Royal last October. In the blink of  an eye, all that had remained of the structure was the concrete  foundation. Patients from all over the surrounding counties had lost an  important lifeline in the community.

Lucas, who had been a regular volunteer there despite his duties as  chief of surgery at Royal Memorial Hospital, hadn't hesitated to donate  the money to rebuild, using some of the proceeds from the sales and  licensing of surgical equipment he'd invented several years ago.

Humble as he was for a multimillionaire, he'd intended to keep his  identity as the donor a secret, but someone leaked the truth, and the  news spread through Royal like wildfire. The town council had  immediately wanted to rename the clinic in his honor. But of course Luc  had protested when he'd heard about plans for the Lucas Wakefield  Clinic.

"This clinic doesn't belong to me," he'd told Julie when she'd tried to  convince him that he was being ridiculous. "It belongs to the people."

"This is a huge deal," she'd argued time and again. "You donated millions of dollars."

He gave her his usual, what's-your-point shrug, as if he truly didn't  understand the scope of his own good will. For a man of his wealth and  breeding he lived a fairly simple life. "It was the right thing to do."

And that was Luc in a nutshell. He always did the right thing,  constantly putting the well-being of others first. But finally, after  much debate, and a whole lot of coercing from his mother, Elizabeth,  Julie and his colleagues in the Texas Cattleman's Club, he relented,  allowing the use of his last name only.

Julie smiled and shook her head as she thought back on it. Lucas was  the most philanthropic, humble man she had ever known. And at times, the  most stubborn, as well.

Luc looked out over the crowd, and when his eyes snagged on hers she  flashed him a reassuring smile. Despite his dynamic presence, and easy  way with his patients and coworkers, he despised being the center of  attention.

To his left stood Stella Daniels, the town's acting mayor. To his  right, Stella's new husband, Aaron Nichols, whose company R&N  Builders rebuilt the clinic. In the six months since the storm, the  town's recovery had been slow but steady, and now it seemed as if every  week a new business would reopen or a family would move back into their  home.

"I'm so proud," Elizabeth Wakefield said, dabbing away a tear with the  corner of a handkerchief. Julie knelt beside the wheelchair Elizabeth  had been forced to use since a botched surgery a decade ago left her  paralyzed from the waist down. In the months since Julie came to Royal  last October, Elizabeth had contracted a multitude of infections that  led to numerous hospital stays, and she now required permanent,  round-the-clock care from a registered nurse. Though she was a beautiful  and proud woman, she looked every one of her sixty-eight years, and a  recent hospital stay for viral pneumonia had left her weak and  vulnerable. Originally Luc forbade her from attending the ribbon  cutting, but she insisted she be there. After much debate, he eventually  caved, and it was more than clear to Julie where he inherited his  stubborn streak.

"You have every reason to be proud," Julie said, patting Elizabeth's frail arm. "You've raised your son to be an amazing man."

"I wish his father could be here. From the day Luc was born he insisted  that his son was destined for great things. It still breaks my heart  that he didn't live to see how right he was."

Julie took her trembling hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "He knows."

The mayor completed her brief speech and handed Luc a pair of  gold-plated scissors. With a quick swish of the blades the ribbon  drifted to the freshly laid grass, and a round of applause erupted from  the crowd. Luc's club brothers crowded around him to congratulate him  and shake his hand, but Julie hung back, still clutching his mother's  hand. Elizabeth looked proud but tired. The simplest of activities  exhausted her.

"We should get you home," her nurse, Theresa, said.

Too sleepy to argue, Elizabeth nodded.

"Shall I call Luc over?" Julie asked. "So you can say goodbye?"                       
       
           



       

"Oh no, don't bother him. I'll see him at home later tonight."

Julie kissed her papery cheek and said goodbye, then joined her friends Beth Andrews and Megan Maguire several feet away.

"She doesn't look so good," Beth said as Theresa wheeled Luc's mother  toward the parking lot to the van Luc had custom-built for her. When it  came to taking care of his mother, he spared no expense.

A stab of sadness pierced Julie's heart. In the six months since she'd  moved to Royal, Julie had come to consider Elizabeth a dear friend. She  was the closest thing Julie had had to a mother since her own mother  died giving birth to her sister, Jennifer. Her father waited to remarry  until after she and her sister had left home, and though he dated, he'd  never brought a woman home to meet his daughters. He traveled  extensively, so they were raised by nannies and the other house staff.  Homeschooled by tutors.

And when he was home? Well, she didn't like to think about that.

"I don't suppose you'll have any free time to volunteer this week,"  Megan said. "Just an hour or two? Someone left a cardboard box of  three-week-old puppies on the doorstep. They need to be bottle-fed every  hour or so and I'm ridiculously understaffed this week." Manager of the  local animal shelter, she was known for taking in strays. Animals and  humans alike. She had certainly gone out of her way to make Julie feel  welcome when she arrived in Royal. Her significant other, as well as  Beth's, were members of the Cattleman's Club with Luc.

It was shaping up to be a very busy week, but Julie could always make  time to help a friend. And sadly, this would probably be the last time.  "Of course," Julie said. "Just let me know when you need me."

Megan sighed with relief. "You're a lifesaver!"

They stood chatting for several minutes, before Julie heard a familiar voice say, "Good afternoon, ladies."

She turned as Luc joined them, smiling brightly to hide the deep  feeling of sadness that seemed to radiate from the center of her bones.  She could tell by the way he tugged at his tie that he was already  irritable. No sense in making him feel even worse.

"It's a wonderful thing you've done," Megan told him, and Beth nodded in agreement.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, pouring on the Texas charm. Though he was  her boss, and they had never been more than friends-best friends, but  just friends-that drawl sometimes gave her a warm feeling inside her  bones.

"Can I give you a lift home?" he asked Julie. Her apartment was within  walking distance from the clinic, and it was a sunny and pleasant day  for a stroll, but she suspected he was looking for any excuse to leave.

"If you wouldn't mind," she said, playing along, noticing a look pass  between Megan and Beth, as if they knew Luc was eager to escape.

"Good to see you ladies," he said, nodding cordially, that hint of  Texas twang boosting his charm somewhere into the stratosphere.

Julie followed him to his car, his stride so much longer than hers she practically had to run to keep up.

"What's your rush," she said, though she already knew the answer.

"Damn," Luc muttered, pulling at his tie as if it were a noose. "Why does everyone have to make such a big deal about it?"

Seriously? "Because it is a big deal, doofus. You're a hero."

"It's not as if I built it with my own two hands," he said, using his  key fob to unlock his Mercedes. "I just wrote out a check."

"A ridiculously enormous check," she reminded him as he opened the door  for her. He'd also remained involved through the design stage and the  construction process, to be sure that everything was built to his exact  specifications. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, this was, in many  ways, his clinic.

As they drove through town, sadness and regret leaked from every pore.  In the six months she'd been here, Royal had become her haven. The US  felt like more of a home to her now than her native South Africa, and  now she had to leave. She had no idea where she would go, or what she  would do, and she had little time to figure it out.

Silence filled the car, and as they pulled into the gated community  where she was currently staying, Luc said, "You're awfully quiet. Would  you like to talk about it?"

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