"Change of plans, carrot top."
Suitcase in tow, Lauren Bates smiled at Grandpa Lem's voice coming through her cell phone. "What, you're picking me up in your tractor?" She exited Refuge Airport. Southern Illinois welcomed her with breezy warmth and a bouquet of bright June colors she wasn't accustomed to in Texas.
Lem chuckled. "Ought to since you haven't come to see me in five years."
Guilt whooshed in like planes on runways nearby. "I know, Grandpa. I'm sorry. What's this plan change?"
"Accompany me to the ribbon-cutting of a new trauma center Doc Wellington founded at Eagle Point? Starts in half an hour."
Anxiety knotted her gut. Not only was she weary hearing about Dr. Wellington, a medical facility was the last place she wanted to be. She sighed. "For you, Grandpa, I'll endure it."
"Good. We're in a blue Dodge Ram. See you in a few."
"We?" She maneuvered past people cluttering the sidewalk.
"Yes. Dr. Wellington's helping me pick you up."
"Why would you need help?" Lauren canvassed curbside cars and spotted a spiffy blue truck near the front.
"I don't drive on streets anymore. Only fields."
Alarm slowed her steps. "Why not?"
"In case you forgot, I'm nearing a hundred."
She almost pointed out he was only turning seventy, but swift remembrance of her reason for this spur-of-the-moment trip halted her. Anticipation spiked as Lem exited the truck.
"Look who's here!" Grinning and hunched, he seemed older and slower than she remembered. Lauren rushed him with a hug. His bear strength was gone. Tears welling, she squeezed thin ribs.
She'd come because of his sudden uncharacteristic fear over turning seventy. Terror struck her now, too, but according to that Dr. Wellington he always spoke of, Lem was healthy. Still, she'd had to come see for herself. She should've come sooner.
"I'll take your bags," a deep voice said behind her. Strong hands reached around and deftly lifted Lauren's purse and colossal suitcase from between her and Grandpa.
Lauren turned. Grandpa leaned aside. Up stepped the most gorgeous creature ever.
Lauren gulped then remembered her manners. The tall man looked less like a doctor and more like a landscaper, with his deep tan and fit build. Intense and chiseled, yet polished like an airbrushed movie star. And he was her age. Not Grandpa's.
The doctor's easy smile tilted her world. His eyes were a stunning mixture of mostly silver with hints of blue. She gawked like a junior high geek facing the football captain.
"Mitch, this is my granddaughter," Lem said.
"Lauren, pleased to finally meet you."
Ooh, his voice! Pleasant. Deep. And, wow. He knew her name? She blinked. He blinked. Her gaze inched to the hot pink handbag draped over his manly shoulder. She tried not to laugh at the sharp contrast of megamuscles toting a tiny pink purse.
As though the striking doctor with the black hair cut in a military buzz and epic eyes suddenly caught on about the purse—and also diagnosed this weirdness between them as attraction—he lowered her handbag. He offered a sheepish grin and a masculine hand. When she settled hers into the strength of his, the warmth flowing from it enveloped her entire being.
No dead-fish handshake here. His was firm. Confident. Alabaster teeth gleamed from a mouth framed by a strong jaw. His grin gave way to a shy laugh.
She knew the feeling. She'd been bamboozled by attraction, too. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Wellington." She rescued his endangered ego by retrieving her purse from his fingers.
"It's Mitch." He tilted his head, openly assessing her. His hearty smile expanded and he seemed in no hurry to look away.
She cleared her throat and searched for something else exciting to stare at. Unfortunately, sidewalk cracks weren't near as interesting to behold as the dashing doctor.
Observing them, Grandpa chuckled as if having a private party with himself. Mitch moved first. He placed her suitcase behind the seat then assisted her in so she sat in the middle of the truck's seat. His grip was as sturdy, warm and steady as his fond gaze.
Mitch approached Lem. "Up you go, Gramps."
Lauren's irritation overrode Mitch's appeal, as he helped Grandpa in, then approached the driver's side. His shoulders were broad enough to require a rather pleasant pivot to enter the vehicle and, once inside, for her to move closer to Grandpa.
Not that she noticed.
"Where to?" Mitch asked Lem.
"Since Lauren's flight was delayed, she's coming to the ribbon-cutting so you're not late to your own party," Lem said.
Mitch laughed. The sound both grated and soothed. Grated because of the closeness he obviously shared with her grandpa, which stirred a surprise pot of jealousy. Soothing because Mitch's Grand Canyon voice could make a typhoon swoon.
At a red light, Mitch caught her stare. The corner of his mouth slid into a colossal smile.
"I expected you to be older," Lauren explained. "Grandpa talks about you nonstop."
"Likewise," Mitch said. "I feel like I know you."
Yikes! What all did he know? The failure she'd been?
"So, Lauren, how long will you be in town?" Mitch asked.
"Three months!" Lem announced. "I couldn't be happier." He beamed. Mitch did, too, which meant he obviously cared about Lem. How close were they? Drizzles of dread seeped into her stomach.
"How'd you manage to get so much time off?" Mitch asked.
"I'm between jobs right now. I'm opening a specialty shop in Houston with a friend this fall. We started the business from scratch in her home a year ago. Our client list and workload grew to the point where we needed more space."
"What's the specialty?" Mitch kept a keen eye on traffic.
"Sewing. We're leasing an historic building in town after receiving permission from local government and the Historical Society to open it. It'll be called Ye Olde Time Seamstress Shoppe. We're restoring the building's nineteenth-century period decor. Took a lot of wrangling and red tape but it's in the renovation stage now, so this was a perfect opportunity to finally visit Grandpa."
"She's getting over a much-needed breakup," Lem inserted.
Lauren smirked. "Grandpa's not letting me live it down."
Lem harrumphed. "Told you from the start he was no good."
Lauren noticed that Mitch navigated the roads with extra care. "You're a very safe driver," she commented. "I like that."
"A welcome change from her ex who regularly drove ninety. I know because she called me, often upset," Lem announced.