Patricia Rice

California Girl

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Free spirit Alys Seagraves and her elderly, eccentric friend Mame are about to embark upon an epic road trip across historic Route 66 when Mame suffers a medical setback that throws a wrench into their plans. Never the willing patient, Mame sneaks out of the hospital, determined to carry out her dangerous task while reliving memories along the famous highway. Now Alys has to trail the spunky senior westward and bring her back to reality—while dealing with Mame’s uptight nephew, Elliot Ross.

This edition published by
A Writers Work http://www.awriterswork.com/

© 2002 – Patricia Rice
Online edition copyright 2010
Originally published 2002 by Ivy Books, The Ballantine Publishing Group

Cover copyright: Mandala 2010

Chapter One

“It’s my life and I’ll live it my way!”

At this clearly recognizable battle cry from behind the hospital room door, Alys Seagraves almost cracked up. Blown away in relief, she slid down the wall of the corridor and tried not to laugh—or she might end up crying.

Mame was alive and kicking. Not only kicking, but butchering Frank Sinatra songs.

Alys had spent these last few hours terrified that her best friend may have died, like everyone else in her small universe.

Assuming a lotus position on the corridor floor, she sought her center as she’d learned to do in Mame’s School of Alternative Life Lessons. Palms turned up and resting on her knees, she took a deep breath.

Deliberately wiping out negativity, she concentrated on the here and now, seeking the good times as Mame had taught her to do. Head up, eyes closed, Alys focused on the long-ago morning when her six-year-old self complained about writing the “ys” in Alys instead of the easier “Alice.”

Her conservative, gray-haired mother got a faraway look in her eyes and smiled. “I thought if I could have a beautiful miracle like you at forty, we should celebrate with a special name, one all your own.”

It wasn’t until later that Alys realized what a break in tradition that bit of whimsy was for her conventional parents. She treasured that memory.

She loved them for trying to give her the freedom they’d never experienced in their hardworking lives.

“Life can’t be vacuum-packed and preserved like meat in a freezer!”

Mame’s familiar voice bellowed from the hospital room across the corridor. “Don’t put that thing on me.”

Groaning at Mame’s cockeyed argument, Alys leaned her head against the concrete-block wall.

If the hospital personnel and visitors scurrying past her thought it odd to see a twenty-seven-year-old woman assume the lotus position in a hospital corridor, they offered no indication of it. Alys was rather proud that she’d made it this far into the bowels of her personal hell.

Love is the power that heals. She repeated her mantra, seeking her energy balance. She would think positive thoughts and look to the bright, gleaming future. Mame would not die. Not like her father. And mother.

And Fred. Orphaned and widowed within two years.

Angrily fighting back tears, she scooted up the wall, using the cold concrete as a brace for her backbone. Shoving away, she marched the few feet into Mame’s room.

“Thank goodness, there you are!” Disregarding the nurse attempting to take her pulse, Mame cranked the head of her bed into a sitting position at sight of Alys. “Get me out of here. I have entirely too much to do to lie about any longer while these people poke and prod me.”

Mame’s naturally thin build gave her lined face an almost ascetic appearance of skin and sharp bones, but the vivid red of her hair bespoke her vibrancy. She’d had her roots touched up for the trip.

“What did the doctor say?” Alys hoped her voice wasn’t as hoarse as it sounded to her as she tried to ignore the dripping IV and clicking heart monitors.

Suppressing her fear fed the bubbling panic. In her head, the room diminished to throbbing tubes, blinking lights, and the pounding thrum of heartbeats. Her breath caught in her lungs.

“Sit down,” Mame ordered. “You’re turning whiter than I am.”

The nurse chuckled and dropped Mame’s bony wrist to note her chart. “The doctor said she had a myocardial infarction, and he wants to run more tests. Are you family?”

“They’ve called Elliot,” Mame said with disapproval, not giving Alys time to reply, much less to run away or even sit down. “We’ll have to make a break for it before he gets here. Sign me out.”

“Unless you’re family, you can’t do that.” The nurse pulled the curtains across the window, shutting out the sunshine. “You shouldn’t even be in here. Mrs. Emerson needs her rest.”

“I have all eternity to rest,” Mame protested.

“Mame, it’s all right.” Why didn’t Mame want to see her famous nephew? Alys thought Doc Nice might be very handy to have around in a hospital. He’d always seemed immensely intelligent and amusing on the radio. “You scared the bejeebers out of me back there,” she said to change the subject.

“Miss, you really need to leave.” The nurse hung up the chart and cranked the bed down.

“I won’t rest unless she stays,” Mame announced, not with the querulousness of age but the imperiousness of a queen. “Does she look capable of smuggling me out?”

The five-ten, two-hundred-pound nurse looked at Alys in her childish smocked dress with the skirt falling at mid-thigh and snorted. “She doesn’t look big enough to be out of school.” The nurse flipped off the overhead light, immersing them in darkness before padding out and closing the door.

Alys wrinkled her nose and sank to the tile floor, resting her head against her knees. If she could just find her center, she might stay without freaking out. Maybe.

“How’s Beulah? I didn’t wreck her, did I?” Mame whispered eagerly, snapping on the bed light.

Alys sought her friend’s expression in the pale glow of the lamp. Mame was fine. Mame had to be fine.

Alys’s rusted-out Nissan was not fine. It had been totaled when Mame passed out at the wheel of her Cadillac—Beulah—crashing it into the Nissan’s rear end, thereby transforming her rusty little car into an accordion against the garage wall.

“Beulah just has a dented bumper,” she replied reassuringly. “I drove her over here.”

“Then help me out of here. We’ll need to be gone before Elliot arrives.” Mame fiddled with the wires hooking her to the monitor, in an apparent attempt to remove them.

“Mame! You’ve had a heart attack.” At least, that’s what she guessed an infarction was. “You can’t just get up and walk out.” Although she certainly sympathized with Mame’s determination to escape. How could anyone get well in the chilly dark with machines beeping off heartbeats as if they were minutes on a parking meter?

“I know how much you hate being here.” Mame frowned when the monitor apparently didn’t detach as easily as she’d expected. “There is no reason to keep me here except doctors are afraid of being sued.”

“My dislike of hospitals is irrational,” Alys protested halfheartedly.

“Doctors did everything they could for Fred. It’s unfortunate that cures for cancer haven’t developed beyond the witch doctor stage, but that doesn’t apply to you. You should listen to them.”

“They nuked Fred and stuffed him with pills until he wanted to die, which made his last years hell for both of you,” Mame said vehemently, examining the IV attachment. “I refuse to die like that. When I’m ready to go, I want to go with a big bang.”

Alys bit back a semi-hysterical giggle. “You almost did. The neighbors thought they’d been bombed. Beulah packs a wallop.”

Mame beamed. “There, see, you can smile. Now get up off that floor and unchain me.”

Alys took another deep breath and stubbornly maintained her yoga position.

***

Undeterred by her young friend’s refusal to comply with orders, Mame noted with delight that Alys had finally shed her depressing blacks. Mame wasn’t certain she understood Alys’s choice of coming-out

clothes, but she heartily approved the thought behind them. The pink cotton dress printed with tiny blue hearts and flowers belonged on a child, but the scooped neckline revealed womanly cleavage, and the elasticized smocking showed off the slender waistline of youth. Alys still looked like a teenager untouched by life.

Other than the creamy skin of a child, Alys possessed not one remarkable feature. She was of average height and weight, with sleek, mink- colored hair—currently cut with wisps that stuck out at stray angles— unremarkable gray eyes, and even features. But Mame had watched the men at the school swivel to follow Alys’s progress through the halls. Even in dull black, her attire had emphasized her womanly attributes.

Mame liked to think she was responsible for Alys’s transformation, but she knew she’d only coaxed out what had been lost for a while. She suspected that provocative baby-doll dress had come from Alys’s college wardrobe.

At the sound of a familiar determined stride down the hall, Mame sighed in exasperation. She should have known Elliot would run from the ends of the earth to be here.

He would insist on a battery of tests, forcing her to stay in here for days. She couldn’t stay. She was on a mission, but Elliot would never understand that. She loved her brilliant nephew, but his focused lifestyle limited his options—and hers.

Mame glanced down at Alys, who had apparently entered a meditative trance, and the germ of an idea blossomed.

She’d been on her way over to Alys’s to explain about the student who needed their help. It wouldn’t have required a great deal of change to their travel plans, but she didn’t dare tell her now with Elliot about to walk in.

Mame fully intended to help Dulce save her niece, but Elliot would never approve of the risk. She thought Alys might.

She began to smile as her idea flowered into full bloom.

Maybe her fainting spell was for the best if it brought her nephew home. She knew Elliot’s habits well. He would need someone to pull him out of orbit once he realized she had escaped.

Alys was strong enough to ground him.

Looking at Alys’s cap of dark hair and ripe figure, she chuckled. Alys would definitely divert her nephew.

Mame cranked the bed back up and tucked her hair behind her ears.

Undisturbed, Alys remained on the floor, the fabric of her full skirt falling short of her bare knees. Hearing Elliot open the door to the darkened room, Mame recognized the elements of a perfect distraction, and pure mischief replaced the last vestige of her apprehension. Watching Elliot and Alys together could rival a good Doris Day movie.

She snapped off the bed light, and Alys disappeared in a pool of darkness.

***

A pair of size thirteen polished wingtips emerged from the darkness to connect with Alys’s hip, and a soft leather computer bag just missed her head. She leaned over to dodge the blow, while their owner stumbled in the opposite direction, grabbed Mame’s IV, and did a wicked samba with the pole until it rolled into the bed.

Mame snapped the bed light on.

Gazing up a long trousered leg as the visitor righted himself, Alys saw the difficulty of balancing all that masculine length against a spindly aluminum pole. From her position on the floor, she thought surely his head brushed the ceiling.

Or maybe that was just the effect of the intruder’s badly rumpled curls. If his barber had meant to style that hair, he’d failed badly. Or else the wearer hadn’t combed it in days.

“Elliot!” Mame called cheerfully. “You really didn’t have to come. I’m fine. I was just asking Alys to drive me home.”

“Which is why she’s staging a sit-down strike in the middle of the floor?” he asked, eyeing her with dubious interest.

It wasn’t as if he were bulky, Alys decided, studying him in the dim light from the bed as he dropped his bag behind a chair. If this was Mame’s nephew, she’d always wondered what the man behind the voice looked like. Magazine photos couldn’t begin to do justice to his air of confidence.

Like Mame, her nephew possessed a lean elegance, but unlike Mame, his height seemed to go on forever. Of course, it might help if she stood up. She hadn’t decided if she was capable of it yet.

Despite the dryness of his words, the newcomer’s rich voice conveyed reassurance. He’d carried in a breath of fresh fall air that drove out the smell of hospital disinfectant, creating a safety zone around him that let her breathe freely for the first time since Mame’s accident.

In the light of the bed lamp, his dark, compassionate eyes could hypnotize. She had to concentrate on the subtle hook at the end of his narrow nose and his long Jeff Goldblum face with the curl hanging in the middle of his forehead to keep from falling under the spell of his gaze.

“Alys, this is my nephew Elliot, the one the radio calls Doc Nice. Elliot, this is Alys Seagraves. Turn on the light and then find a nurse to check me out. I want to get dressed.”

“Miss Seagraves.” The heartthrob nodded acknowledgment of Mame’s introduction before picking up his aunt’s wrist to test her pulse.

Alys hesitated, brushing her bangs out of her face to study the situation. For some inexplicable reason, Mame hadn’t wanted her famous nephew here. Should she stay for Mame’s sake? Did the nephew exude positive or negative energy? With those eyes, how could she doubt he exuded anything but kindness?

“I’m perfectly well, Elliot,” Mame said. “I have too much to do to lie here trussed up like a helpless babe. It was simply a little spell.” Mame attempted to jerk her arm away, but Elliot held her firmly.

“You crashed your car,” he retorted. “It was not a little spell. You had a heart attack.”

“A spell,” she insisted. “And Beulah only has a little dent in her bumper. It’s Alys’s car that’s wrecked.”

“Mame, you have a personal and genetic history of congestive heart failure. We have to run tests to check for damage and adjust your medication to prevent further impairment and relieve the fluids. You know that.”

Alys eased to her feet and backed toward the door. Her heart still beat irregularly and her palms were sweating. Mame seemed to be in better hands than hers. Her nephew was a doctor who wrote books all about diet and exercise and had a radio show more reknowned than Dr. Laura’s. She supposed he specialized in nutrition and not heart medicine, but surely he knew what was best for Mame. She could flee the confines of the hospital in all good conscience.

“Alys, you can’t leave,” Mame shouted. “She’s having a panic attack, Elliot. Calm her!”

“Mame won’t ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ anytime soon,” Elliot said with dry reassurance. “And I don’t bite. Your leaving is raising her pulse rate. Stay.”

Alys blinked, feeling as if a warm, rich blanket had been thrown over her, shutting out the deathly cold of the air-conditioning. He had the most amazing voice. It resonated deep down inside of her. No wonder he had a radio show.

He could quote Shakespeare. When was the last time anyone quoted Shakespeare to her? And he’d done it without a script in front of him.

“I know you hate being in here, hon,” Mame interrupted Alys’s stunned reverie, “but we need to make plans. Elliot, Alys and I have our trip all worked out, and there’s no time to waste.”

“Aunt Mame, you’ve just had a heart attack. You’re not going anywhere.” Elliot picked up Mame’s chart and fished his reading glasses out of his pocket. “Thank you for looking after my aunt, Miss Seagraves. I’m sorry about your travel plans, but you’ll have to go on without her.”

“Mrs.,” she corrected, watching him with fascination. He must be giving off positive energy. Her panic was lessening without her having to concentrate on lotus blossoms. She’d much rather concentrate on Doc Nice.

Ever since she’d met Mame, she’d heard all about her wonderful nephew, seen his pictures, heard the stories Mame loved to tell about his dedication and hard work. She’d even listened to his radio show. His reputation was well deserved, because on the air he was funny. And understanding. He didn’t talk politics or personal accountability, but listened to his callers, thus earning him the appellation of Doc Nice.

She didn’t see that side of him now. He behaved like every impersonal scary doctor she’d ever known.

He perched his black-rimmed reading glasses on the end of his nose and scanned the chart, angling it under the bed lamp. “The stress of planning this trip was evidently too much for you, Mame. We have to find the extent of the damage.” He glanced at Alys. “Tell her that her life is more important than gallivanting about the countryside.”

“Maybe to Mame, life is gallivanting about the countryside.” Alys didn’t know where those rebellious words had come from, but Mame looked at her with approval, so she stuck to them.

Elliot set his mouth in a stern reprimand that had probably sent interns fleeing. “Life is about responsibility, and mine is to see to my aunt’s health. Her heart muscles are weak. She needs rest and medication.”

“Stuff it, Elliot. You sound just like your late, lamented father.” Same sat up higher to peer around him. “Alys, take Beulah and go on without me. This is something you really must do, and I will be miserable if I think I’m the one preventing it.”

“Mame, I can’t go without you,” Alys protested her friend’s generosity, although the gleam in Mame’s eye caused her to hesitate. She recognized Mame’s mischief when she saw it, but couldn’t imagine what she was up to. “Maybe we can do it next year. I can cancel the reservations.”

“Nonsense. I have a copy of the itinerary. I’ll catch up with you. I wouldn’t miss this vacation for the world.” Sitting almost straight up, as if she weren’t attached to half a dozen tubes and wires, Mame waved her thin hand in dismissal.

“Miss Seagraves, please go on without my aunt,” Elliot said patiently. “I doubt she’ll be able to join you, but there is no reason you shouldn’t go. I’ll see to Mame. She’ll be fine, although that Cadillac has to be a hundred years old,” he warned. “I recommend renting a car.”

“Beulah has only sixty thousand on her,” Mame protested. “You have the keys, Alys. Go. Enjoy.”

Gulping, trying to read Mame’s expression, Alys nodded. “I’ll think about it. Mame has my number, Dr. . .?” Alys stammered, backing toward the door. She knew his name; she just couldn’t seem to grasp anything except “Doc Nice” at the moment.

“Roth, Elliot Roth,” he finished for her. “I’ll call you if there’s any change. You have a cell phone, don’t you?”

“I’ll find you!” Mame called cheerfully.

Watching the fey creature edging toward the door, Elliot recalled reading to his younger brothers from books containing pictures of fairies poised for flight. With her overlong bangs curving into short, dark hair that framed her pointed chin and wide eyes, Alys Seagraves only needed a mushroom to perch on. He had the ridiculous urge to capture her in the palm of his hand and tell her not to go. “You’ll need a cell phone if you’re driving, Miss Seagraves.”

“Mrs.,” she murmured. “I’ll think about it.”

She fled. Probably on butterfly wings, Elliot decided.

“Pretty, isn’t she?” Mame asked with all the innocence of a child with her hand in the cookie jar.

“Married,” Elliot replied, feeling inexplicably depressed at the thought.

It wasn’t as if he had time for a life, much less a wife, so he didn’t know why it mattered. He hadn’t noticed the ring on her finger until her insistence on “Mrs.” had forced him to look.

“Widowed,” Mame countered with triumph. “Husband died of cancer over a year ago. She’s been grieving too long. She needs this vacation.”

Widowed? She didn’t look older than Eric, and his youngest brother was still in grad school.

“She has a thing about doctors and medicines,” Mame continued, waving away his offer of a water glass. “Doesn’t believe in them,” she finished gleefully, watching his reaction.

Elliot refused to fall for his aunt’s incessant meddling. “Watching the suffering of someone you love can be traumatic,” he said with the dispassion he’d learned to use in med school. “That’s no reason for you to agree with her fears, or to encourage them.”

“I’m not ill, Elliot,” Mame warned. Her long, thin face resembled his in many ways, but hers could go from laughter to sternness in a blink of an eye, while he’d trained his to composure. “I bet I feel better than you do. Heartburn plaguing you again?”

“Plaguing” was too mild a word. The burning pain had started with the phone call informing him of Mame’s hospitalization, and her argument now raised the flames to furnace proportions. If he’d been alone, he would have doubled over and groaned. He had regular checkups, so he suspected it was just good old-fashioned stress trying to give birth to an ulcer.

A good chug of Mylanta would relieve him, but he’d hastily ended his book tour to fly home to St. Louis and broken speed records driving over from the airport rather than hunt down a bottle. “If you’d just behave, I’d be fine,” he gently chided. “Now lie down and rest. I want to talk to your doctor.”

“Ask the nurse for some Pepto-Bismol,” Mame urged as he lowered the bed. “You ought to carry a bottle.”

“In my back pocket,” he agreed without cracking a smile.

She slapped at him the way she always did when he was being smart- mouthed, never hurting but merely warning him that she understood his sarcasm.

“I love you, Elliot, but you’re a pain in the ass sometimes.”

“I love you, too, and you’re a pain all the time,” he said with a smile. He didn’t know where he would be without his aunt. He owed her so much, he couldn’t hope to repay her in a thousand lifetimes. Taking care of her was the least he could do.

She studied him with a stern look that always meant a lecture. “I’ve had a full life to show for my years. What do you have to show for yours?”

“Three books and a radio program?” he asked teasingly, attempting to defuse the gloom Mame’s topic cast. They’d had this argument before, mostly when he told her that his research might save people from dying, and that’s why he didn’t have time to come to dinner. Or for a visit.

“Which shows how very little you know about life,” she complained pertly. “If you would quit running away from it, you might find an existence beyond the material.”

Stubbornly, Elliot refused to discuss life philosophies. “Close your eyes and rest, Mame, and I’ll be right back.”

“No, you won’t,” she said with more pride than irritation. “They’ll all want to talk with Doc Nice. Go, enjoy, relax a little. You’re too thin. Eat. Have some nice warm milk.”

Laughing silently at the idea of his rattlebrained aunt telling her health- conscious nephew how to eat, Elliot tucked her in and headed for the nurses’ station.

He wasn’t running away from anything. Quite the contrary. He fought death every minute of the day. He jogged regularly, followed his own diet advice, and was far healthier than most thirty-five-year old men.

His father had died at thirty-five. Of a heart attack. While driving with his entire family in the car.

The pain in Elliot’s chest burned hotter.

California Girl
By Patricia Rice

Author’s Note

All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not inspired by any person known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.

This edition published by
A Writers Work http://www.awriterswork.com/

© 2002 – Patricia Rice
Online edition copyright 2010
Originally published 2002 by Ivy Books, The Ballantine Publishing Group Cover copyright: Mandala 2010

Acknowledgments

I am immensely grateful to my brainstorming buddies who not only understand when I demand hot air balloons but willingly go along for the ride. Without you guys, I’d be up in the air without a way down.

As always, I bow before the expertise of Connie Rinehold. If there are gaping holes in this book, I put them there despite Connie’s warnings.

And for the first time, I thank Renee Halverson for her excellent perception just when I thought I was so mired in the mud I might never crawl out.

Bless Pati Nagle for providing crucial Santa Fe details after I had to bypass the town because of a snowstorm!

For those readers who may be interested in learning more about diseases of the heart, I recommend beginning with the American Heart Association at www.americanheart.org

The resources of the National Historic Route 66 Federation (www.national66.org) have been invaluable in researching this book. The highway may be gone in places, but thanks to them, it’s not forgotten.

I have strayed from the beaten path occasionally and created places where I needed them, but if I name a building, place, or thing, it’s still there, or was last time I checked.

Chapter One

“It’s my life and I’ll live it my way!”

At this clearly recognizable battle cry from behind the hospital room door, Alys Seagraves almost cracked up. Blown away in relief, she slid down the wall of the corridor and tried not to laugh—or she might end up crying.

Mame was alive and kicking. Not only kicking, but butchering Frank Sinatra songs.

Alys had spent these last few hours terrified that her best friend may have died, like everyone else in her small universe.

Assuming a lotus position on the corridor floor, she sought her center as she’d learned to do in Mame’s School of Alternative Life Lessons. Palms turned up and resting on her knees, she took a deep breath.

Deliberately wiping out negativity, she concentrated on the here and now, seeking the good times as Mame had taught her to do. Head up, eyes closed, Alys focused on the long-ago morning when her six-year-old self complained about writing the “ys” in Alys instead of the easier “Alice.”

Her conservative, gray-haired mother got a faraway look in her eyes and smiled. “I thought if I could have a beautiful miracle like you at forty, we should celebrate with a special name, one all your own.”

It wasn’t until later that Alys realized what a break in tradition that bit of whimsy was for her conventional parents. She treasured that memory.

She loved them for trying to give her the freedom they’d never experienced in their hardworking lives.

“Life can’t be vacuum-packed and preserved like meat in a freezer!”

Mame’s familiar voice bellowed from the hospital room across the corridor. “Don’t put that thing on me.”

Groaning at Mame’s cockeyed argument, Alys leaned her head against the concrete-block wall.

If the hospital personnel and visitors scurrying past her thought it odd to see a twenty-seven-year-old woman assume the lotus position in a hospital corridor, they offered no indication of it. Alys was rather proud that she’d made it this far into the bowels of her personal hell.

Love is the power that heals. She repeated her mantra, seeking her energy balance. She would think positive thoughts and look to the bright, gleaming future. Mame would not die. Not like her father. And mother.

And Fred. Orphaned and widowed within two years.

Angrily fighting back tears, she scooted up the wall, using the cold concrete as a brace for her backbone. Shoving away, she marched the few feet into Mame’s room.

“Thank goodness, there you are!” Disregarding the nurse attempting to take her pulse, Mame cranked the head of her bed into a sitting position at sight of Alys. “Get me out of here. I have entirely too much to do to lie about any longer while these people poke and prod me.”

Mame’s naturally thin build gave her lined face an almost ascetic appearance of skin and sharp bones, but the vivid red of her hair bespoke her vibrancy. She’d had her roots touched up for the trip.

“What did the doctor say?” Alys hoped her voice wasn’t as hoarse as it sounded to her as she tried to ignore the dripping IV and clicking heart monitors.

Suppressing her fear fed the bubbling panic. In her head, the room diminished to throbbing tubes, blinking lights, and the pounding thrum of heartbeats. Her breath caught in her lungs.

“Sit down,” Mame ordered. “You’re turning whiter than I am.”

The nurse chuckled and dropped Mame’s bony wrist to note her chart. “The doctor said she had a myocardial infarction, and he wants to run more tests. Are you family?”

“They’ve called Elliot,” Mame said with disapproval, not giving Alys time to reply, much less to run away or even sit down. “We’ll have to make a break for it before he gets here. Sign me out.”

“Unless you’re family, you can’t do that.” The nurse pulled the curtains across the window, shutting out the sunshine. “You shouldn’t even be in here. Mrs. Emerson needs her rest.”

“I have all eternity to rest,” Mame protested.

“Mame, it’s all right.” Why didn’t Mame want to see her famous nephew? Alys thought Doc Nice might be very handy to have around in a hospital. He’d always seemed immensely intelligent and amusing on the radio. “You scared the bejeebers out of me back there,” she said to change the subject.

“Miss, you really need to leave.” The nurse hung up the chart and cranked the bed down.

“I won’t rest unless she stays,” Mame announced, not with the querulousness of age but the imperiousness of a queen. “Does she look capable of smuggling me out?”

The five-ten, two-hundred-pound nurse looked at Alys in her childish smocked dress with the skirt falling at mid-thigh and snorted. “She doesn’t look big enough to be out of school.” The nurse flipped off the overhead light, immersing them in darkness before padding out and closing the door.

Alys wrinkled her nose and sank to the tile floor, resting her head against her knees. If she could just find her center, she might stay without freaking out. Maybe.

“How’s Beulah? I didn’t wreck her, did I?” Mame whispered eagerly, snapping on the bed light.

Alys sought her friend’s expression in the pale glow of the lamp. Mame was fine. Mame had to be fine.

Alys’s rusted-out Nissan was not fine. It had been totaled when Mame passed out at the wheel of her Cadillac—Beulah—crashing it into the Nissan’s rear end, thereby transforming her rusty little car into an accordion against the garage wall.

“Beulah just has a dented bumper,” she replied reassuringly. “I drove her over here.”

“Then help me out of here. We’ll need to be gone before Elliot arrives.” Mame fiddled with the wires hooking her to the monitor, in an apparent attempt to remove them.

“Mame! You’ve had a heart attack.” At least, that’s what she guessed an infarction was. “You can’t just get up and walk out.” Although she certainly sympathized with Mame’s determination to escape. How could anyone get well in the chilly dark with machines beeping off heartbeats as if they were minutes on a parking meter?

“I know how much you hate being here.” Mame frowned when the monitor apparently didn’t detach as easily as she’d expected. “There is no reason to keep me here except doctors are afraid of being sued.”

“My dislike of hospitals is irrational,” Alys protested halfheartedly.

“Doctors did everything they could for Fred. It’s unfortunate that cures for cancer haven’t developed beyond the witch doctor stage, but that doesn’t apply to you. You should listen to them.”

“They nuked Fred and stuffed him with pills until he wanted to die, which made his last years hell for both of you,” Mame said vehemently, examining the IV attachment. “I refuse to die like that. When I’m ready to go, I want to go with a big bang.”

Alys bit back a semi-hysterical giggle. “You almost did. The neighbors thought they’d been bombed. Beulah packs a wallop.”

Mame beamed. “There, see, you can smile. Now get up off that floor and unchain me.”

Alys took another deep breath and stubbornly maintained her yoga position.

***

Undeterred by her young friend’s refusal to comply with orders, Mame noted with delight that Alys had finally shed her depressing blacks. Mame wasn’t certain she understood Alys’s choice of coming-out

clothes, but she heartily approved the thought behind them. The pink cotton dress printed with tiny blue hearts and flowers belonged on a child, but the scooped neckline revealed womanly cleavage, and the elasticized smocking showed off the slender waistline of youth. Alys still looked like a teenager untouched by life.

Other than the creamy skin of a child, Alys possessed not one remarkable feature. She was of average height and weight, with sleek, mink- colored hair—currently cut with wisps that stuck out at stray angles— unremarkable gray eyes, and even features. But Mame had watched the men at the school swivel to follow Alys’s progress through the halls. Even in dull black, her attire had emphasized her womanly attributes.

Mame liked to think she was responsible for Alys’s transformation, but she knew she’d only coaxed out what had been lost for a while. She suspected that provocative baby-doll dress had come from Alys’s college wardrobe.

At the sound of a familiar determined stride down the hall, Mame sighed in exasperation. She should have known Elliot would run from the ends of the earth to be here.

He would insist on a battery of tests, forcing her to stay in here for days. She couldn’t stay. She was on a mission, but Elliot would never understand that. She loved her brilliant nephew, but his focused lifestyle limited his options—and hers.

Mame glanced down at Alys, who had apparently entered a meditative trance, and the germ of an idea blossomed.

She’d been on her way over to Alys’s to explain about the student who needed their help. It wouldn’t have required a great deal of change to their travel plans, but she didn’t dare tell her now with Elliot about to walk in.

Mame fully intended to help Dulce save her niece, but Elliot would never approve of the risk. She thought Alys might.

She began to smile as her idea flowered into full bloom.

Maybe her fainting spell was for the best if it brought her nephew home. She knew Elliot’s habits well. He would need someone to pull him out of orbit once he realized she had escaped.

Alys was strong enough to ground him.

Looking at Alys’s cap of dark hair and ripe figure, she chuckled. Alys would definitely divert her nephew.

Mame cranked the bed back up and tucked her hair behind her ears.

Undisturbed, Alys remained on the floor, the fabric of her full skirt falling short of her bare knees. Hearing Elliot open the door to the darkened room, Mame recognized the elements of a perfect distraction, and pure mischief replaced the last vestige of her apprehension. Watching Elliot and Alys together could rival a good Doris Day movie.

She snapped off the bed light, and Alys disappeared in a pool of darkness.

***

A pair of size thirteen polished wingtips emerged from the darkness to connect with Alys’s hip, and a soft leather computer bag just missed her head. She leaned over to dodge the blow, while their owner stumbled in the opposite direction, grabbed Mame’s IV, and did a wicked samba with the pole until it rolled into the bed.

Mame snapped the bed light on.

Gazing up a long trousered leg as the visitor righted himself, Alys saw the difficulty of balancing all that masculine length against a spindly aluminum pole. From her position on the floor, she thought surely his head brushed the ceiling.

Or maybe that was just the effect of the intruder’s badly rumpled curls. If his barber had meant to style that hair, he’d failed badly. Or else the wearer hadn’t combed it in days.

“Elliot!” Mame called cheerfully. “You really didn’t have to come. I’m fine. I was just asking Alys to drive me home.”

“Which is why she’s staging a sit-down strike in the middle of the floor?” he asked, eyeing her with dubious interest.

It wasn’t as if he were bulky, Alys decided, studying him in the dim light from the bed as he dropped his bag behind a chair. If this was Mame’s nephew, she’d always wondered what the man behind the voice looked like. Magazine photos couldn’t begin to do justice to his air of confidence.

Like Mame, her nephew possessed a lean elegance, but unlike Mame, his height seemed to go on forever. Of course, it might help if she stood up. She hadn’t decided if she was capable of it yet.

Despite the dryness of his words, the newcomer’s rich voice conveyed reassurance. He’d carried in a breath of fresh fall air that drove out the smell of hospital disinfectant, creating a safety zone around him that let her breathe freely for the first time since Mame’s accident.

In the light of the bed lamp, his dark, compassionate eyes could hypnotize. She had to concentrate on the subtle hook at the end of his narrow nose and his long Jeff Goldblum face with the curl hanging in the middle of his forehead to keep from falling under the spell of his gaze.

“Alys, this is my nephew Elliot, the one the radio calls Doc Nice. Elliot, this is Alys Seagraves. Turn on the light and then find a nurse to check me out. I want to get dressed.”

“Miss Seagraves.” The heartthrob nodded acknowledgment of Mame’s introduction before picking up his aunt’s wrist to test her pulse.

Alys hesitated, brushing her bangs out of her face to study the situation. For some inexplicable reason, Mame hadn’t wanted her famous nephew here. Should she stay for Mame’s sake? Did the nephew exude positive or negative energy? With those eyes, how could she doubt he exuded anything but kindness?

“I’m perfectly well, Elliot,” Mame said. “I have too much to do to lie here trussed up like a helpless babe. It was simply a little spell.” Mame attempted to jerk her arm away, but Elliot held her firmly.

“You crashed your car,” he retorted. “It was not a little spell. You had a heart attack.”

“A spell,” she insisted. “And Beulah only has a little dent in her bumper. It’s Alys’s car that’s wrecked.”

“Mame, you have a personal and genetic history of congestive heart failure. We have to run tests to check for damage and adjust your medication to prevent further impairment and relieve the fluids. You know that.”

Alys eased to her feet and backed toward the door. Her heart still beat irregularly and her palms were sweating. Mame seemed to be in better hands than hers. Her nephew was a doctor who wrote books all about diet and exercise and had a radio show more reknowned than Dr. Laura’s. She supposed he specialized in nutrition and not heart medicine, but surely he knew what was best for Mame. She could flee the confines of the hospital in all good conscience.

“Alys, you can’t leave,” Mame shouted. “She’s having a panic attack, Elliot. Calm her!”

“Mame won’t ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ anytime soon,” Elliot said with dry reassurance. “And I don’t bite. Your leaving is raising her pulse rate. Stay.”

Alys blinked, feeling as if a warm, rich blanket had been thrown over her, shutting out the deathly cold of the air-conditioning. He had the most amazing voice. It resonated deep down inside of her. No wonder he had a radio show.

He could quote Shakespeare. When was the last time anyone quoted Shakespeare to her? And he’d done it without a script in front of him.

“I know you hate being in here, hon,” Mame interrupted Alys’s stunned reverie, “but we need to make plans. Elliot, Alys and I have our trip all worked out, and there’s no time to waste.”

“Aunt Mame, you’ve just had a heart attack. You’re not going anywhere.” Elliot picked up Mame’s chart and fished his reading glasses out of his pocket. “Thank you for looking after my aunt, Miss Seagraves. I’m sorry about your travel plans, but you’ll have to go on without her.”

“Mrs.,” she corrected, watching him with fascination. He must be giving off positive energy. Her panic was lessening without her having to concentrate on lotus blossoms. She’d much rather concentrate on Doc Nice.

Ever since she’d met Mame, she’d heard all about her wonderful nephew, seen his pictures, heard the stories Mame loved to tell about his dedication and hard work. She’d even listened to his radio show. His reputation was well deserved, because on the air he was funny. And understanding. He didn’t talk politics or personal accountability, but listened to his callers, thus earning him the appellation of Doc Nice.

She didn’t see that side of him now. He behaved like every impersonal scary doctor she’d ever known.

He perched his black-rimmed reading glasses on the end of his nose and scanned the chart, angling it under the bed lamp. “The stress of planning this trip was evidently too much for you, Mame. We have to find the extent of the damage.” He glanced at Alys. “Tell her that her life is more important than gallivanting about the countryside.”

“Maybe to Mame, life is gallivanting about the countryside.” Alys didn’t know where those rebellious words had come from, but Mame looked at her with approval, so she stuck to them.

Elliot set his mouth in a stern reprimand that had probably sent interns fleeing. “Life is about responsibility, and mine is to see to my aunt’s health. Her heart muscles are weak. She needs rest and medication.”

“Stuff it, Elliot. You sound just like your late, lamented father.” Same sat up higher to peer around him. “Alys, take Beulah and go on without me. This is something you really must do, and I will be miserable if I think I’m the one preventing it.”

“Mame, I can’t go without you,” Alys protested her friend’s generosity, although the gleam in Mame’s eye caused her to hesitate. She recognized Mame’s mischief when she saw it, but couldn’t imagine what she was up to. “Maybe we can do it next year. I can cancel the reservations.”

“Nonsense. I have a copy of the itinerary. I’ll catch up with you. I wouldn’t miss this vacation for the world.” Sitting almost straight up, as if she weren’t attached to half a dozen tubes and wires, Mame waved her thin hand in dismissal.

“Miss Seagraves, please go on without my aunt,” Elliot said patiently. “I doubt she’ll be able to join you, but there is no reason you shouldn’t go. I’ll see to Mame. She’ll be fine, although that Cadillac has to be a hundred years old,” he warned. “I recommend renting a car.”

“Beulah has only sixty thousand on her,” Mame protested. “You have the keys, Alys. Go. Enjoy.”

Gulping, trying to read Mame’s expression, Alys nodded. “I’ll think about it. Mame has my number, Dr. . .?” Alys stammered, backing toward the door. She knew his name; she just couldn’t seem to grasp anything except “Doc Nice” at the moment.

“Roth, Elliot Roth,” he finished for her. “I’ll call you if there’s any change. You have a cell phone, don’t you?”

“I’ll find you!” Mame called cheerfully.

Watching the fey creature edging toward the door, Elliot recalled reading to his younger brothers from books containing pictures of fairies poised for flight. With her overlong bangs curving into short, dark hair that framed her pointed chin and wide eyes, Alys Seagraves only needed a mushroom to perch on. He had the ridiculous urge to capture her in the palm of his hand and tell her not to go. “You’ll need a cell phone if you’re driving, Miss Seagraves.”

“Mrs.,” she murmured. “I’ll think about it.”

She fled. Probably on butterfly wings, Elliot decided.

“Pretty, isn’t she?” Mame asked with all the innocence of a child with her hand in the cookie jar.

“Married,” Elliot replied, feeling inexplicably depressed at the thought.

It wasn’t as if he had time for a life, much less a wife, so he didn’t know why it mattered. He hadn’t noticed the ring on her finger until her insistence on “Mrs.” had forced him to look.

“Widowed,” Mame countered with triumph. “Husband died of cancer over a year ago. She’s been grieving too long. She needs this vacation.”

Widowed? She didn’t look older than Eric, and his youngest brother was still in grad school.

“She has a thing about doctors and medicines,” Mame continued, waving away his offer of a water glass. “Doesn’t believe in them,” she finished gleefully, watching his reaction.

Elliot refused to fall for his aunt’s incessant meddling. “Watching the suffering of someone you love can be traumatic,” he said with the dispassion he’d learned to use in med school. “That’s no reason for you to agree with her fears, or to encourage them.”

“I’m not ill, Elliot,” Mame warned. Her long, thin face resembled his in many ways, but hers could go from laughter to sternness in a blink of an eye, while he’d trained his to composure. “I bet I feel better than you do. Heartburn plaguing you again?”

“Plaguing” was too mild a word. The burning pain had started with the phone call informing him of Mame’s hospitalization, and her argument now raised the flames to furnace proportions. If he’d been alone, he would have doubled over and groaned. He had regular checkups, so he suspected it was just good old-fashioned stress trying to give birth to an ulcer.

A good chug of Mylanta would relieve him, but he’d hastily ended his book tour to fly home to St. Louis and broken speed records driving over from the airport rather than hunt down a bottle. “If you’d just behave, I’d be fine,” he gently chided. “Now lie down and rest. I want to talk to your doctor.”

“Ask the nurse for some Pepto-Bismol,” Mame urged as he lowered the bed. “You ought to carry a bottle.”

“In my back pocket,” he agreed without cracking a smile.

She slapped at him the way she always did when he was being smart- mouthed, never hurting but merely warning him that she understood his sarcasm.

“I love you, Elliot, but you’re a pain in the ass sometimes.”

“I love you, too, and you’re a pain all the time,” he said with a smile. He didn’t know where he would be without his aunt. He owed her so much, he couldn’t hope to repay her in a thousand lifetimes. Taking care of her was the least he could do.

She studied him with a stern look that always meant a lecture. “I’ve had a full life to show for my years. What do you have to show for yours?”

“Three books and a radio program?” he asked teasingly, attempting to defuse the gloom Mame’s topic cast. They’d had this argument before, mostly when he told her that his research might save people from dying, and that’s why he didn’t have time to come to dinner. Or for a visit.

“Which shows how very little you know about life,” she complained pertly. “If you would quit running away from it, you might find an existence beyond the material.”

Stubbornly, Elliot refused to discuss life philosophies. “Close your eyes and rest, Mame, and I’ll be right back.”

“No, you won’t,” she said with more pride than irritation. “They’ll all want to talk with Doc Nice. Go, enjoy, relax a little. You’re too thin. Eat. Have some nice warm milk.”

Laughing silently at the idea of his rattlebrained aunt telling her health- conscious nephew how to eat, Elliot tucked her in and headed for the nurses’ station.

He wasn’t running away from anything. Quite the contrary. He fought death every minute of the day. He jogged regularly, followed his own diet advice, and was far healthier than most thirty-five-year old men.

His father had died at thirty-five. Of a heart attack. While driving with his entire family in the car.

The pain in Elliot’s chest burned hotter.