Unforgettable Valentine

“Mom’s not coming,” she told him. “I’m here, though.”

His mouth went flat. “Does she know this is Deloris’s second visit to the ER in the past few months?”

The news made Josie suck in a startled breath.

“She must realize her mother is in her seventies,” he barreled ahead. “Does she know Deloris is at that diner all hours of the day and night? That she’s working herself to death? Something’s got to be done.”

“I-I didn’t know,” she stammered. “Alex, I talk to Grams at least twice a month. She never said a word.”

“Of course, she didn’t. The woman is stubborn as a mule.”

The description fit Grams to a T. It fit her mother, too. Josie had always put it down to apples and trees and all that.

“Pain in her jaw,” Josie murmured. “Sounds like a heart attack.”

Alex sighed. “It does. But they wouldn’t tell me anything. A doctor came out once, and twice a nurse came, looking for a family member. Deloris has been back there for five hours, Josie.”

“I got here as fast as I could,” she told him. “I was just getting off work in Rockville when Mom called me. I drove home. Dropped my cat off at my neighbor’s with a bag of food. Threw some clothes into an overnight case. The traffic around DC was horrendous. Route 50 was clear, though. It’s a wonder I didn’t get pulled over. I was driving crazy fast. The girl at the desk told me someone would be coming out. Soon. In a minute or two.”

The instant she realized she was babbling, she clamped her mouth shut.

Silence had barely settled around them when he said, “Last fall, Deloris had a minor heart attack.”

Josie stopped chewing her lip long enough to mutter, “Why didn’t she tell me?”

“She was in the hospital for a couple of days. I tried my darnedest to make her take some time off to recuperate, but she was back in the diner a few days later. I don’t think she was ready.”

The sigh issuing from Josie was tight with guilt. “I wish she’d have told me.”

“She’s the most hardheaded woman I have ever met.”

Josie only nodded in response. “How bad was she? When you called the ambulance, I mean? Was she conscious?”

“Oh, she was not only conscious, she was cussing a blue streak. Thank goodness the last customer had already left.”

The tension in his face eased and Josie watched a grin quirk one corner of his mouth. Her gaze lingered on his lips a moment longer than it should have. As if there were suddenly too little oxygen in the air, she experienced an odd wooziness.

“She really didn’t want me calling for help.” He actually chuckled. “She kept insisting she was fine. I thought she was going to smack me. She was furious. I’m sure she’ll fire me before this is over with, but that’s all right. She’s where she needs to be.” He heaved a sigh and combed his fingers through his dark hair. “She can’t fire me tonight. That’s all that matters for now. I’ll worry about tomorrow later.”

Josie inhaled deeply and widened her eyes, scrambling to recover her equilibrium. Alex glanced toward the front desk and then at his watch, seemingly unaware of her unsteadiness. Thank heavens.

Then his eyes met hers and he was quiet for the length of two heartbeats. He tilted his head to one side.

“Are you okay?”

He reached for her, his palms sliding over her shoulders.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Really. Just worried. And tired.”

“You had a long drive. And of course, you’re worried. You look like you need to sit.” He guided her to the chair he’d vacated.

She was close enough to feel the warmth of him, to smell the slightly smoky scent that clung to his clothing from cooking in the diner. A comfortable, homey aroma.

He squatted in front of her, reaching across her to the table where his jacket and apron lay.

“Here,” he said, tucking a small, plastic bottle into her hand. “An orderly came by earlier, passing these out. I haven’t opened it. Take a drink of water. It’ll make you feel better.”

Just to have something to do, Josie twisted off the cap and lifted the bottle to her lips. The water was room temperature, but it tasted good. She realized she hadn’t had anything to drink or eat since lunch time.

“Thank you.” She lifted her chin and looked into his face only to find him studying her intently.

His shoulders sagged a fraction and the tension in his face eased. The smallest of smiles played across his mouth.

“You look good, Josie.”

He’d spoken so softly she wasn’t certain she’d heard him correctly.

“You’re just as beautiful as ever.”

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