Choices Of The Heart–excerpt

Choices Of The Heart
Prologue

Jillian Blake watched in horror when the big screen television in her brother, Justin Coleman’s, Irish pub left a scheduled program to announce a fiery plane crash outside of London that had presumably killed all aboard, including forty-three Americans.

“Oh my God.” Scrambling up from her table, her eight-month-old son, Jaxon, in her arms, Jillian raced over to Justin. “Turn it up. Turn it up,” she repeated, her voice rising in panic as she grabbed Justin’s arm, making him spill the beer he’d just filled for a customer. “Did they give the flight number? Stan was flying into London this evening.”
Justin blanched as he slid the beer down the bar before giving Jillian his full attention. “Do you have his flight number?”
“He texted it to me,” Jillian said, feeling lightheaded. Jaxon began crying, and she did her best to soothe him as paralyzing fear invaded her body.
Justin took the baby from her. She opened her purse to get her phone, both desperate and terrified to see Stan’s text. Grabbing her phone, she tried to tap on Stan’s text, but her fingers were so shaky she kept missing.

Justin balanced Jaxon on his hip and took her phone, tapped the icon. “Flight 2536 is Stan’s.”
Jillian squeezed her eyes shut. “Please let him be safe,” she whispered. Stan could not be gone. Not now when they were doing so well. When they had finally worked things out following a rough patch after Jaxon was born.” She covered her mouth with her fingertips and squeezed her eyes shut, trying her best to stop her fingers from shaking, but to no avail. Blood roared through her ears, making it hard to hear.
“Deep breaths, Jillian.” Justin wrapped his free arm around her as they waited for more details, and she welcomed his strength.
Her heart squeezed as she remembered telling Stan goodbye early this morning. He’d held her close for a long time, told her he loved her and would see her in a couple of days.

As Justin’s flight number ran across the top of the television screen, Jillian’s vision blurred, then total darkness engulfed her.

Chapter One
Two Years Later

Jillian lifted Jaxon and carried him to the car. She was glad the new pediatrician, who had replaced her old one when he’d retired, had been able to work Jaxon in at the end of her day. She was certain her son had an ear infection. Goodness knows she’d become a pro when it came to ear infections. Jaxon was probably looking at getting tubes, and the thought scared her. It might be a simple surgery, but there were always risks, and if anything ever happened to Jaxon, she wasn’t sure she would be able to put herself back together. After losing Stan, Jaxon had become the center of her world. She knew she’d become a bit overprotective, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.
After buckling her son in his car seat, she scooted into the Suburban—Stan’s car that she swore still held a teensy bit of his scent— and fastened her seat belt. The day was slightly nippy and winter would be here soon, but autumn was one of her favorite seasons, and Jaxon loved the cooler weather. Oh, how Jillian wished Stan was here to see all of Jaxon’s firsts. Play with his son and do all the special daddy things with him. Hold her at night when her fatigue and fears sometimes got the better of her.
Jaxson started to cry. She glanced in her rearview mirror. “We’ll be there soon, honey. Drink some juice,” she suggested, glad she’d set a bottle of apple juice in his car seat holder.

If she still lived in Nashville, they could get to his pediatrician in a matter of minutes, but she’d sold the huge house she and Stan had bought after they’d gotten married, and bought her dad’s new wife’s much smaller house in Crystal Springs. The friendly town of Crystal Springs was just what she’d needed to help her heal. In addition to her wonderful neighbors, she also lived close to the dude ranch, where her dad and Dottie stayed at least half the time. Thank goodness her sister, Claire, was close by, too. She and Sam came by to visit often and let the kids play. Their son, Tyler, was only five months younger than Jaxon, and they played well together. Jillian was eternally grateful most of her family lived close by. They’d been a lifeline to her since Stan’s death. And her dad and brothers were wonderful father-figures for Jaxon.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled up to Dr. Hendrix’s office and parked. Scooting out of the Suburban, she rounded it and lifted Jaxon out of his car seat. “My goodness you’re getting to be a big boy,” she said, nuzzling his neck. Slinging his diaper bag over her shoulder, she entered the doctor’s office and stopped in her tracks at the sight of a huge dog lying on the floor in front of a man and his young daughter.

The dog lifted its head and thumped its tail on the shiny tile floor, and Jaxon scrambled to get down, but she held on tight, not sure about such a big dog. And what in the world was it doing here?

“He’s harmless,” the man who sat with the dog said.

“He’s huge,” Jillian responded. And a dog had no business in a pediatrician’s office, she thought, admitting to herself the dog was beautiful.

“Want to pet him?” the brown-haired girl, who looked to be about four asked, wrapping an arm around the dog’s neck, or at least partially around its neck.

“He loves kids,” the man said with a grin that almost had her forgetting how strange it was to see a dog in the doctor’s office.
“Do you bring him to your pediatrician’s office often?”

The man’s grin widened. “Every time I come. Nicole loves Buster as much as I do. Well, almost as much.”

“Nicole?”

“Dr. Hendrix. My ex. I’m dropping my daughter off for the weekend.”

“Oh. That explains why you can bring a dog here, I guess.”

The man ruffled the fur around Buster’s neck and the dog pushed up to a sitting position, eager for more. Goodness, that really was a huge dog, but she did love his coloring, black and brown with a white chest and white blaze up the center of his face. “What kind of dog is he?” she asked.
“Bernese Mountain dog. My daughter and I rescued him, didn’t we Lexi?” The girls head bobbed up and down. “Buster has been so good for Lexi, that I ended up training him as a therapy dog.” The man held out a hand. “Cade Hendrix. This is my daughter, Lexi.”
Jillian took his offered hand. “I’m Jillian and this is Jaxon,” she said, only too aware of the warmth of this man’s hand and the friendliness in his dark eyes.
She smiled, not only at the man, but at the sudden realization that she wasn’t totally dead when it came to the opposite sex. This guy was charming and had a grin that could melt even the most frozen of hearts.

She turned around to sign in at the desk, barely able to balance Jaxon and the overloaded diaper bag as she started to sign her name.
“Here, let me help.” Cade slipped the diaper bag off her shoulder. “Are there bricks in here or did I just forget how much junk you have to cart around for a toddler?”

“You forgot,” she said, taking a seat and motioning for the bag.

“What’s wrong with your son?” Cade asked, handing her the diaper bag.

“I’m pretty sure an ear infection. He tends to get them. A lot,” she added.

“Ear tubes. Lexi had to get them. Piece of cake,” he added, tousling the little girl’s hair.

Lexi danced out of her dad’s reach and motioned to Jaxon. “Want to pet my dog? He’ll make you feel better.”

The girl’s father nodded his agreement, and Jillian let Jaxon slide off her lap and go to the dog, who greeted him eagerly.

Cade leaned over, planted his arms on his jean-clad legs, and smiled at Jaxon. “Buster likes little kids. You qualify as one of his favorite kind of people.”

Jillian couldn’t hold in her smile as she joined her son by the dog. “Does he like grown-ups, too?”

“Almost always.” She stepped back and the man grinned. “No worries for you. He has great taste.”

Oh yeah. This guy’s too charming for his own good, Jillian thought, surprised at how much she’d enjoyed his casual teasing.

The door to the waiting room opened and a nurse called for Jaxon, then grinned at Cade. “This is doctor’s last patient. You can leave Lexi here with me if you want, Dr. Hendrix. I’ll watch her.”

“We’re good. You ever gonna quit calling me doctor?”

“Sorry. It’s the nurse in me,” she responded with a flirty grin.

Jillian watched the exchange. Looked like Cade-the-doctor was just a friendly kinda guy, so she could quit wondering if he might possibly be flirting with her. To be truthful, it was a relief to know he wasn’t. No way was she ready be chummy with a man. Just the thought of having a date, gave her hives.
She took Jaxon’s hand. “Tell the dog bye-bye,” she instructed her son, praying he wouldn’t throw one of his royal two-year-old fits.
Jaxon tried to pull free. When she picked him up, he started screaming like she was about to murder him. She felt her cheeks grow hot.

“Makes me yearn for the good ole days,” Cade said, lifting the diaper bag and hanging it over her shoulder.

Jillian chuckled and her humiliation eased. “I can spot a lie a mile away,” she quipped as she carried her kicking and screaming son out of the room toward the privacy—thank you God—of an exam room.
***
“I’m camping out with the guys this weekend, Nicole. It’s our annual fishing gig. It’ll be late Sunday afternoon, maybe evening, before I pick Lexi up if that works for you.” Cade gave his daughter a big bear hug. There was something about dropping his daughter off for the weekend that always tore at his heart. No way did Lexi deserves this, but no way could things ever work with Nicole.

“That’s fine,” Nicole said. “We’ll be there whenever you come. I’ll try to have her bathed and ready for bed.”

Cade nodded, glad he and Nicole got along so well. It was the least they could do for their daughter. Thank goodness, he was finally beginning to accept that none of this mess was either Nicole’s or his fault. It simply was what is was. After five years of marriage, Nicole had finally admitted to him that she preferred women. He could still remember only too clearly the jolt that had zipped through him at her shocking words. Words that momentarily wiped out all thought except a few choice cuss words and the worry that maybe he’d somehow pushed Nicole in this new direction. His therapist had assured him that wasn’t the case, but there were still times when the thought stalked him.

“See you Sunday, Pumpkin,” he said, giving Lexi one last hug. “Come on Buster. We have packing to do.”

“Wait,” Lexi hollered, racing after him. “I forgot to hug Buster.”

Cade waited patiently as Lexi wrapped her arms around Buster’s neck and buried her face in his soft, thick coat. Almost as quickly as the hug began, Lexi was done and skipped back to her mom.

Heading outside, Cade allowed Buster to water every bush on the premises. “It’s just you and me this weekend, Buster,” he said as the dog continued to mark every bush. After what seemed like an eternity, the dog finally had an empty bladder.

The door to the clinic opened and out stepped the woman he’d met earlier carrying her toddler. Must be his lucky day, he thought. He might have sworn off women for the foreseeable future, but he could still appreciate a real beauty when he saw one. Her shoulder-length dark hair swung softly as she walked. He couldn’t help but notice her big dark eyes were filled with weariness. He told himself he didn’t want to know why.

“Was it an ear infection?” he found himself asking.

The woman—Jillian if he remembered right—nodded. “We’re off to get his prescription filled. She referred us to a specialist.”

“It’ll be okay,” Cade said. “Really.” She nodded and pursed her lips, and he wished he could console her. “He’ll be in and out of surgery before you and your husband can grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable.”

“Thanks. You’re kind to say that. My sister will probably go with us to the hospital. Or one of my brothers. Thank goodness for family, right?”

“Absolutely. Sorry his dad’s not around to be with you. Divorce can be a bitch.”

She drew her brows together and shifted her gaze away from him. “I’m not divorced,” she said after a pause. He arched his brows and waited, somehow knowing she had more to say. “I lost my husband to a plane crash a few years ago.”

Oh hell. Now he really wanted to be nice to this lady. “That’s rough. I’m real sorry, Jillian. Did I remember your name right?”

“Yes. I can’t seem to remember anything these days,” she offered.

Feeling bad for this mother and the boy who would never know his dad, he reached out and stroked a hand over the toddler’s light brown hair. The thought of Lexi losing him made his stomach clench. “I’m glad you have family close by,” he said as he dropped his hand.

“Thanks,” she answered. “They’re the best.”

“Doggie,” Jaxon said, pointing at Buster. “Pet doggie.”

“It’s okay if he pets him again,” Cade assured her. “Buster loves the attention.”

Jillian set the toddler down and he headed straight to Buster, his short legs churning as fast as they could. Stopping, he patted the dog’s shoulder, a big grin on his face.
“I should maybe get him a dog,” Jillian said. “It’d probably be good for us both. Do you recommend this breed? My brother has a pony that Jaxon loves to sit on. Logan is married to the equine therapist at the Crystal Springs dude ranch and insisted on getting Jaxon a pony.”

“Seriously? My buddy, Hank, is part owner out there. Great guy. I was all for it when he decided to buy some horses and build that program.”

Jillian’s face brightened. “Hank and Ashley are the best. My dad married Ashley’s mom a couple of years ago.”

“I’ve heard about them. Hank thinks the world of Dottie.” Cade couldn’t believe he and Jillian had this in common.

“So how do you know Hank?” she asked.

“Vet school. We got even better acquainted when he used my office for surgeries while he was setting up a practice at the dude ranch. “Hank’s a great guy. Matter of fact, he’s going with me and a few others on a fishing trip this weekend.”

Jillian’s eyes widened. “Now there’s a big bunch of trouble waiting to happen.”

Cade laughed out loud, and it felt good. Before he could censor himself, he pulled out his wallet and gave Jillian his card. “Holler at me when or if you decide to get a dog. I’ll be glad to give my professional opinion. I’m a huge believer in pets being great healers. Buster has been a life saver for Lexi.”

“I could tell she adores him.” Jillian leaned down and petted Buster, who sat quietly beside Cade, as Jaxon continued to bury his face in the dog’s neck and pat him endlessly. Jillian smiled at her son. “Jaxon obviously loves your dog.”

“Buster’s pretty lovable. I should rent him out,” he added, thinking this lady was easy to visit with.

“Be sure and provide food when you send him for a stay.” Jillian’s eyes twinkled, and he couldn’t hold in a grin.

“Seriously, holler sometime and Lexi and I will bring Buster for a visit.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Jillian said shaking her head.

“Sure, you could. It would be fun and good for your boy.”

She seemed to ponder his words, then nodded slowly. “You have a point. I might surprise you—and myself—and take you up on that generous offer sometime. As long as Hank gives you the okay,” she tacked on.

“I look forward to it.” Picking up the toddler, Cade gave him a quick hug, then handed him to his mom. “Nice to meet you, Jillian. Hope your boy feels better real soon.”
With that, he led Buster to the truck, loaded him in the back seat, and started out of the parking lot, taking one last look in his rear-view mirror at the beautiful woman and her son before he turned onto the road and headed home to pack for his much-anticipated fishing outing with the guys.