Graced – Jade Kerrion
Connor Bradley doesn’t have time for distractions, not while juggling single parenthood and his clinic on five hours of sleep a night. He most certainly doesn’t have time for Noelle, the high school flirt, who is prettier and more irresistible than he remembers. When Noelle’s father’s heart attack derails Connor’s plans for his first Christmas without his wife, Noelle wants to save the day for his adorable children, but can she also find her way into Connor’s guarded heart?
Ten dead in as many days.
It had reached the scale of an epidemic.
Thirty-year-old Dr. Conner Bradley braced himself for accusations of brutish ignorance and downright incompetence as he pushed on the door to enter the store.
The elderly gentleman behind the counter looked up with a smile. “Connor!” Moments later, his smile slipped, and the kindly blue eyes lost their friendly twinkle. “Another one?”
“Are you eating them for breakfast?”
“I don’t know what’s going on.” Connor held up a plastic container. “I brought a water sample, just in case.”
Huffing, old Mr. Langford tested the chemicals in the aquarium water. He frowned. “It’s perfectly balanced. Your filter and air pump working fine?”
“The tank looks great, but every morning, there’s a goldfish floating belly up in the tank.”
“And that’s the only goldfish, right?”
“We have only that one fish in that tank. I have a smaller tank in my bedroom closet with the backup goldfish, and that one does fine until he’s transferred to the big tank. The next morning, he’s gone too.”
Mr. Langford snorted, the sound edged with humor. “I’d say your tank is cursed, but that would be impossible. How hard is it to keep a goldfish alive for more than twenty-four hours?”
Connor dragged his fingers through his dark hair and scowled. “I’ve been asking myself the same question. Medical school was easier than this.”
“Good thing you’re a better doctor than you are a goldfish owner.”
“One would hope. Anyway, I need another backup goldfish. Better make it two to save me a trip out here tomorrow.”
Mr. Langford shuffled to the goldfish tank. Squinting at the flurry of bright orange fins and tails, he selected two that looked relatively alike and scooped them up with a net, before depositing them into Connor’s plastic container. “Has Grace caught on yet that you’re swapping out the dead goldfish with a live one every morning before she wakes up?”
Connor shook his head. “No. Thank God, the goldfish all look alike.”
Mr. Langford’s lips tugged into a half-smile. “You might want to think about telling her. She’s six; she ought to learn how to handle things like this.”
Like death. Tension stiffened Connor’s shoulders, and a muscle twitched in his smooth cheek. “Not yet. It’s too soon.”
The line furrowing Mr. Langford’s brow gave him a concerned look. “What are you doing this year for Christmas?”
“We’ll be in Orlando, visiting my parents and staying through the New Year. I’ll take the kids to Disney World for a few days. It seemed…smarter to get away from home this year.”
“You can’t outrun memories of Millie forever,” Langford said gently.
“No, but I can put it off for a year, maybe two, until Grace and Hope are older and I can explain to them how their mother died.” His voice cracked slightly. “Christmas will always be rough.”
“And how is Hope doing?”
“On track for a one-year-old. She alternates walking and crawling, but hasn’t started speaking yet.”
“I expect she will soon.”
Connor nodded. “What about you? Any Christmas plans?”
Mr. Langford rubbed at his lower jaw and neck. “Nothing special. We’ll be in town; just a quiet family Christmas.”
“Is Noelle coming back this year?” Connor asked, referring to the Langford’s youngest daughter, Noelle, who had entered high school as a freshman the year he’d graduated.
“No. She’s still in love with the bright lights of Los Angeles. You’d think that after eight years, she’d have come to her senses.”
Connor heard wistfulness in Mr. Langford’s voice. “The cities offer a great deal,” he conceded. “I had fun living in Boston for a while.”
“Yet you didn’t stay there.”
“The eight years for college and medical school were too long. Millie and I couldn’t wait to come back to Havre de Grace.” He shrugged. “We were just different, I guess. Homebodies.” He glanced at the two fish in the plastic container. “I should get them home and into the backup tank.”
“Do you have an automatic feeder for when you’re away?”
Connor nodded. “I do, and we’re not leaving for another two days. Our flight to Orlando leaves on Christmas eve.”
“Sounds good.” Mr. Langford grinned, displaying white teeth. “You mind those two fish you have there. I’m not selling you another one before Christmas.”
Connor chuckled. “Gotcha.” He turned to leave, but at Mr. Langford’s sharp inhalation of breath, he glanced over his shoulder. The older man sagged against the counter. Connor rushed back to him. “What’s happening?”
Mr. Langford pressed a fist against his abdomen. “Just heartburn.” His breath came in short pants, as if he could not get enough air into his lungs. “Feeling woozy. I’ll be okay if I just sit for a bit.” He sank with relief into the chair Connor brought to him and mopped the beads of sweat off his forehead.
Connor’s eyes narrowed. “Any discomfort in your chest?”
Mr. Langford shook his head.
“Any discomfort anywhere else? I saw you massage your neck and jaw just now.”
The old man blinked, as if assessing his aches for the first time. He rolled his shoulders slowly. “Just a slight pain along my back and arms.”
“One or both?”
Mr. Langford nodded. “Breakfast probably didn’t agree with me. Damn eggs.”
“Do you have any aspirin here?”
“Cabinet over there.” The old man indicated with a jerk of his chin.
Connor retrieved the bottle of aspirin and handed Mr. Langford a single tablet. “Don’t swallow it whole; chew it.”
Bewildered, the old man began chewing on the tablet as Connor tugged his smartphone out of his pocket and dialed 911. “This is Connor Bradley. Send an ambulance to Langford’s pet store right away.”
Mr. Langford clutched Connor’s arm. His hands trembled. “What’s going on?”
“I’m your doctor; I know your medical history. You’ve never had heartburn in your entire life.” Connor kept his voice calm. “Your symptoms…I think you may have just had a heart attack.”
Jade Kerrion writes her award-winning science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary novels at 3:00 a.m. when her husband and three sons are asleep. She aspires to make her readers as sleep-deprived as she is. Her alphabetical Life Shocks Romances series anchors around unlikely romances you will root for and happy endings you can believe in.
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