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One Good Man

By:Alison Kent

One Good Man - Alison Kent

GRUDGINGLY ACCEPTING her repetitive routine as a sure sign of impending spinsterhood, Jamie Danby still began every day the same way—with a two-mile run, a shower and clothes change, then a large cup of coffee, a banana-bran muffin and the front page of the Reeves County News.

The paper and the breakfast she picked up each morning on her way to work. When weather permitted, she walked.It was only six blocks from her two-bedroom cottage to the Cantu Corner Store—Dolores Cantu baked the muffins herself and saved the plumpest of the batch for Jamie—and only another ten to Weldon Pediatrics, the small West Texas practice where Jamie had worked as office manager for six years.

Because she walked, she usually finished her coffee before she arrived. Her mother knew this, being as familiar with Jamie’s daily routine as with her own.

On those days, Dr. Kate, as she was fondly referred to by the county’s residents, would bring Jamie a refill, picking it up with her own breakfast—an egg, potato, cheese and chorizo burrito, loaded and folded by Dolores’s husband, Juan—before making the drive five miles north to the Danby Veterinary Clinic.

This morning, Jamie was still outside the pediatrics office, a boxy building of brown siding with rock beds of succulents hugging the front, fitting her key into the door, when her mother’s black Suburban pulled into the lot that would soon be teeming with bilingual mothers and children.

Jamie turned briefly, squinting against the sun as she watched Kate swing the SUV in a semicircle, the big vehicle’s tires grinding on the gravel and creating a cloud of dust thick enough to gag a horse. Jamie’s mother had always been more focused on her destination than the journey of getting there, and it showed in the way she drove.

Once the clinic’s door was unlocked, Jamie dropped her keys into the bulky hobo bag hanging from her shoulder, and walked to where her mother waited. She took the coffee Kate handed her, removed the top from her empty cup, and settled the new one into the old.

After a quick sip, she smiled and said, “Where would I be without you to look after me?”

The corner of Kate’s mouth, her lips smooth and free of added color, quirked to one side. “Married with children?”

It was an ongoing joke between overprotective mother and a daughter who had been through hell and only by a miracle survived. Though could Jamie really call it surviving?

Ten years later she was still in hiding, existing not as her own woman, but as a creation of the horrific crime she’d witnessed when she’d been just nineteen years old.

Not having kids or a husband was, in her case, for the best. Should her memories of what she’d seen return, she didn’t know if she’d be fit to live with, or if the remembered trauma would send her over the edge.

No, the future Jamie saw for herself was one spent alone. And, really—she was okay with it. Independence. Doing her own thing. A woman, an island unto herself. Seriously. How bad could spinsterhood be?

Another sip, and she thought back to what her mother had said. “I’m too spoiled for marriage and children. I like getting my own way all the time.”

Kate shook her head, and reached for her own coffee where it steamed from the holder built into the Suburban’s center console. “I’ll cop to being a hovering nuisance, but the spoiling is your own doing. I was always too busy working and worrying to waste time seeing to your every whim.”

Jamie nearly choked, but managed to swallow and come up laughing. “Are you kidding me? Where do you think I learned the art? You were the best teacher a girl could have.” She raised her cardboard cup as proof. “You still are.”

“Humph.” Kate shook her head, fought a smile with a frown. “It would only be spoiling if I were stopping at the Cantus’ just for you. But since I’m stopping for my own breakfast, it’s not.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Jamie said, lifting a hand to wave at Roni and Honoria, two of her coworkers who carpooled to Weldon from Alpine, and had just arrived in Honoria’s sedan. “And I’ll keep enjoying being single and an only child.”

Kate arched a brow, studying her daughter’s face as if the right angle might show her something new. “Sounds to me like you learned more from me than spoiling. You learned the art of self-deception as well.”

Jamie tilted her cup against her mother’s in a toast. They were two of a kind, gracefully accepting what life had served them. And though both would rather things had turned out differently, neither would give up the bond they now shared to make it so. “You have a busy day ahead of you?”

Kate nodded, pushing up the brim of the Danby Veterinary ball cap that covered the short wedge of her silvered brown hair. “The Barneses are bringing in their litter of shepherd pups. Two spays and six neuters.”

“Which means you’d better get going.”

“Which means I’d better get going. Besides—” Kate angled her chin in the direction of the clinic “—it looks like your staff has something on their mind.”

Jamie followed the direction of her mother’s gaze. Just inside the plate-glass entrance, Roni and Honoria stood facing each other, gesturing dramatically in Jamie’s direction. She couldn’t imagine what had them so animated this early. The day’s first patient had yet to arrive.

She backed away from her mother’s Suburban and hefted her bag more securely over her shoulder. “I’d better see what’s going on. And you’ve got a dozen testicles calling your name. Thanks for the refill.”

As her mother pulled out of the parking lot, leaving with a full-arm wave, Jamie headed for the front door. She opened it to the sound of scurrying feet squeaking on the tiled floor as Honoria disappeared down the hallway toward the examination rooms.

Roni had obviously been in a similar hurry to take her seat at the front desk. Her headset was on crooked, and as Jamie came closer, she saw an insurance file open in front of the other woman. A tall blonde Laurel to Honoria’s short dark Hardy, Roni stared at her computer monitor, doing her comical best to pretend she was hard at work.

Jamie blew the other woman’s cover by reaching across the reception counter and turning the file right side up. “Might as well spill it now before the two of you explode. With Dr. Griñon here only half a day, I won’t have time to clean up the mess if you do.”

“Why are his half days the busiest of the week? And why don’t we get to leave at noon, too?” Roni asked, forcing a light laugh as she situated the folder to her liking. She refused to meet Jamie’s gaze. “I swear, Wednesdays should be relaxing, but they can really suck.”

They could, but Jamie knew when Roni was grabbing for a distraction. The spots of color high on her cheeks told the tale. “You’re changing the subject.”

“Am I?” The color brightened. “I thought I was commenting on what you just said. You know, making conversation?”

“I’m not going away, so you might as well fess up.” Jamie set her bag and her breakfast on the counter that rose in front of the desk, and her gaze on Roni, snapped open the single-section newspaper.

No sooner had she smoothed it out than Roni grabbed it, hiding it beneath the desk in her lap, ignoring the “gimme” motion Jamie made with her hand. “Honoria said she wanted to talk to you first thing.”

“What about?” And more importantly, how much of Jamie’s paper was salvageable, and how much was smeared on Roni’s pink scrub pants?

“I don’t know, I mean, I don’t remember.” Flustered, Roni stood and leaned across the counter to call out, “Honoria! Jamie’s here!”

As if Roni’s partner in crime wasn’t already aware. Jamie sighed. “This better not be some early surprise birthday-party thing…” Surely her mother would still be outside if it was, ready to come in and sing and blow noisemakers with the other two.

Roni met Jamie’s gaze, frowning for a moment before her brown doe eyes went wide. “If there’s a surprise party, I don’t know anything about it, and this isn’t it. Honoria! Get your butt out here now!”

Jamie sighed. Dear Roni, giving it away without admitting to a thing. Jamie’s birthday wasn’t for another two weeks, but she knew no one was going to let the momentous occasion of her turning thirty come and go quietly. That’s how it was for old maids.

Honoria emerged from the file room, the morning’s patient charts clutched to her ample chest. Ample was Jamie’s word. Honoria considered herself short and dumpy and copy-paper plain—but then she’d never seen herself light up like the desert sky when her husband, Vicente, swept her away from the clinic for a private lunch.

Right now, the only thing bright about her were her eyes as her gaze bore into Roni’s, broadcasting her disbelief that the blonde couldn’t handle things on her own. Obviously, the two hadn’t had time to get their story straight.

Whatever they were up to, it would have to wait. Jamie was hungry. “I’m going to the break room to eat my breakfast and read whatever part of the paper I can. Come get me when you’ve figured out how to tell me whatever it is you don’t want me to know.”