Running into Amber Neville after twenty years wasn’t on Dr. Jackson Parker’s list of things to do. Amber had been head girl to his head boy, and from what he remembers, she was British, stuck up and bossy...But the red-haired beauty she’s grown into leaves him stunned.
Newly returned from a job in Canada, Amber remembers Jackson as a brash and rude American--not at all the even-tempered, handsome doctor he's turned out to be. But she can’t get involved, not with the massive burden she bears--a burden that has to remain hidden at all costs.
As secrets are revealed, Amber’s life is thrown into danger. As the flowers fade, so does her chance of survival.
But Jackson has other plans. After all, doctors are meant to save lives, no matter the cost.
Dr. Jackson Parker pulled his collar tightly around his neck and wished he’d worn his hoodie. Bonfire night was one British custom he’d never understood. It might only be the beginning of November, but it was cold. His breath hung in the chill night air that filled the barn.
Not even the mug of soup in his hand and the thick gloves he wore could thaw out his numb fingers. Cupping both of his hands around the disposable container, he took a deep breath, the rich tomato scent hitting the back of his throat. He followed it up with several long swallows. Not as good as the soup his mother used to make, but not bad. He glanced at David Painter. “Is it cold enough for ya?”
His friend grunted. “It’s a tad chilly, yeah.”
“See, typical Brit who understates everything. We don’t get weather like this in Texas. The average November temperature is between sixty-seven and seventy-nine. And that’s Fahrenheit. None of this Celsius junk.”
David smirked over the cup in his gloved hands. “And here I was thinking you were raised here and would, therefore, be used to the weather and our ways.”
Jackson let out a huff of disdain. “I was partly raised over here. We moved where Dad’s job went. You’re a cop. You need to remember these things a little better. Is Eden not with you tonight?”
“She’s not feeling too great. She said she’d keep Marc in the warm instead of finding a babysitter.” David frowned. “Actually, she’s been sick on and off for a week or so now, and keeps trying to downplay it. You know how women are.”
“Nope, not a clue. But if she’s still sick on Monday have her come and see me. It’s probably nothing, but I’d rather check her over and find nothing wrong, than have her laid up like she was in March.”
A hand dropped on Jackson’s shoulder. Adam West had joined them. “Are things really that slow at work that you have to drum up trade?”
“Not at all, but I gotta keep busy somehow. I didn’t think you were coming. When I saw Sam yesterday, she said you were buried in this huge case at the Crown Court and didn’t even have time to breathe. By the way, you need to see me as soon as possible. Breathing is kinda essential to staying alive.”
Adam chuckled. “My feet don’t touch the ground these days, but Sam wanted to come. And as she’s been able to do so little recently, I didn’t like to say no.”
Jackson glanced over at Adam’s wife. Sam was bundled up against the cold, leaning against a huge hay bale talking animatedly to Jude Travis, who was flashing around her new engagement ring.
Jackson shook his head. “I’m beginning to reconsider my church membership,” he said wryly. “Being a part of this congregation is dangerous.”
David and Adam exchanged a long look.
“How so?” Adam asked.
“Have you any idea how many people got engaged or married this year?”
David laughed. “Don’t knock love until you’ve tried it.”
Jackson waved his cup at them. “Hey, you two are case in point.”
“I never got unmarried,” Adam protested.
“OK, so what about David here? He was engaged for, what, six weeks?”
“Six months,” David corrected. “And married life is—”
Jackson cut him off. “I’m making a strategic exit if you two start to discuss the joys of married life.” He headed over to the trash can, dropped his empty cup into it, and walked away. He mingled for a while, making small talk, not entirely sure why he’d come.
Aaron Field, the farmer who owned the land, waved to him from the hay bale where he and his wife perched.
Jackson headed over to them. “Hey, how’s the arm, Meggie?”
“Sore. I’ll be glad to get the cast off.”
“I bet. Just don’t go jumping off any more hay bales tonight because I’m off duty.”
Color filled Meggie’s cheeks, and she glanced at Aaron. “Or get pushed off them.”
Aaron grinned. “Hey, in my defense you did say ‘push me,’ so I was merely doing as I was told.”
Jackson chuckled. “I thought it was the woman who obeyed.” He winked and waited for retaliation. Then, the sight of a woman on the other side of the barn drew his attention. She looked kinda familiar. “Who’s that?”
Aaron followed his gaze. “I don’t know her name. She’s only just started coming to church. Moved here from Canada so I heard.”
At that moment the woman turned and Jackson stood rigid.
He hadn’t seen her since he’d left the school they’d both attended during his father’s stint at the UK embassy. She’d been head girl to his head boy in their last year. She was stuck up, bossy, and a pain in the butt.
But, wow. Sweater, jeans, knee-length leather boots, heels far too high for a farm, and a leather jacket that came to her waist. Her red hair was pulled back in a high ponytail that still reached past her shoulders. The eyes he knew to be green were dark and dimmed in this light.
“Breathe, Jackson, before you die on the spot.” Aaron sounded amused.
Jackson sucked in a deep breath, unable to pull his gaze away.
Aaron shook his head. “Do you two know each other?”
“We used to, a very long time ago. It’s been…” He paused. “It must be at least twenty years, if not more. Not since school.”
“Then go and say hello.”
“No.” Jackson shook his head as their gazes met, and her eyes widened in recognition. A very un-Christian phrase that he hadn’t used since his conversion ran through Jackson’s mind and almost spilled from his lips before he reigned it in. Obviously, she hadn’t forgotten him either.
Amber Neville stood rooted to the spot. Of all the people she’d met since she fled Canada and arrived in Headley Cross, Jackson Parker was the last person she expected. She’d picked a town she’d never lived in, only to discover an amazing church family that welcomed her. Along with a cousin who’d asked her to stay for as long as she needed somewhere to live.
Maybe it wasn’t Jackson. After twenty years, she couldn’t be sure. She nudged Niamh Harkin, her cousin’s wife. “Who’s that over there? Long dark blondish hair, green coat, staring at us?”
“That, my dear, is Jackson Parker, doctor, church member, upstanding pillar of the community.” Niamh grinned. “And, apparently, he’s unable to take his eyes off you either.”
Amber froze. The only American kid in the entire school, Jackson was brash, rude, arrogant, self-centered, and had a penchant for getting his own way. She’d wanted Simon Payne to get the headship along with her. Then she could have spent time with him and maybe he’d have liked her.
Instead, she got Jackson, the one kid in her year who seemed impervious to her, whereas everyone else just plain didn’t like her. Which didn’t make being head girl any easier.
However, she had to admit he’d changed over the years. The spots had gone, and so had the dark hair. His longish locks were now fairer than she remembered, with a lean muscular frame peeping through his open, full length coat.
Niamh nudged her. “Are you OK? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I guess I have.” Amber swallowed, trying to regain her composure. “We were at school together. From what I remember, his father was working over here, doing something in the American Embassy. I never did find out what. He left soon after our final exams.” She tore her gaze away and took a step to the side.
From the way the man stared, he recognized her too, and that could only lead to problems in the future.
Maybe she should move, again. Start over someplace else. But her ankle had other ideas as she made a misstep on the uneven straw surface, and it twisted beneath her, sending her to the ground in an undignified heap. Clucking in embarrassment, Amber tried to get up, but found herself unable to do so.
Niamh dropped to her side, and called over her shoulder. “Jackson?”
“Don’t,” Amber hissed, grabbing her ankle as pain speared her. “This is embarrassing enough as it is. Just give me a second and I’ll be right as rain.”
“Too late, he’s coming over.”
“I’m off duty, Niamh.” The slow Texan drawl hadn’t changed over the years. It grated as much as it ever had.
“And if there was a fire, Jared would just stand and watch it burn.”
Jackson grinned. “Of course he would. That is why we’re here tonight, right, to watch the bonfire burn?”
Niamh chuckled. “Jackson, this is Amber. Amber, Jackson. I’ll leave you in his capable hands.”
Niamh had obviously mistaken her horror for interest. Amber looked up at Jackson. His hands were the last place she wanted to be left. Now or ever.