Nicholas Darling hefted a head of iceberg lettuce in the palm of his right hand, then plopped it unceremoniously into his shopping basket. Next came tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, baby carrots. By the time he left the produce aisle of the grocery store the bottom of his cart was loaded with vegetables and looked as colorful as the Christmas decorations hanging in the grocery store.
“Jingle Bell Rock” blaring over the loudspeaker did nothing to smooth out his bunched brows. With a resigned sigh he stared at the jumble and wished his younger brother, Ronald, had wanted to eat out instead of staying in. Small towns like Jubilee, Texas, might not have much to offer in the way of restaurants, but at least Nicholas wouldn’t have had to struggle with preparing a huge meal. Ronald ate like a bear right out of hibernation.
“Stop frowning, Nick,” Ronald said, dropping several red and golden apples in a plastic bag into the cart. “How hard can this be?”
Nicholas lifted a dark brow and stared at his brother. Twenty-four years old, self-assured, and unflappable. “Then you can cook.”
Ronald grinned and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I’m your guest.”
“An uninvited guest,” Nicholas reminded him.
Ronald didn’t appear the least disturbed by the comment. “You know you’re glad to see me. Especially since you won’t be home for Thanksgiving next week. Let’s go check out the meat department.” Whistling, he strolled off.
A reluctant smile tugged the corner of Nicholas’s beautifully shaped mouth. Ronald had been sure of himself since he started talking. In this case he was right. Nicholas was glad to see him. This would be the first Thanksgiving he wouldn’t spend with his family. He’d been delighted when Ronald called and said his business meeting had wrapped up earlier than anticipated and he was driving from Austin, an hour away, to spend the night with him.
Nicholas hadn’t seen his brother or their parents since he’d left Philadelphia four months ago to take a position as administrator of Memorial Hospital in Jubilee. His employer at his old job had given Nicholas a going-away party only after their considerable efforts failed to get Nicholas to stay.
Nicholas thrived on challenges, and the Middleton General Hospital in Philadelphia ran beautifully after being under his direction for four years. He planned the same thing for Memorial Hospital here in Jubilee. In a year the red ink would have turned to black.
From twenty feet away Ronald held up a package of red meat in one hand and one of fish in the other. Twisted strands of silver and gold garland hung from the counter behind him. “Which?”
Considering Nicholas’s plan to eat the rest of his leftover lasagna tonight, both looked appealing. The problem was, he realized, he burned water. He was working his way through a family-sized frozen lasagna dinner because of it. Ronald cooked worse. Their mother had refused to let any of the men in her family near her spotless kitchen.
In Philadelphia it had not been unusual for them to go by their parents’ house to eat dinner. Both lived nearby. And if the brothers didn’t have time to sit down, their mother would put it in microwavable dishes. What Nicholas wouldn’t give for some of her cooking right now.
“Toss them both in and we’ll decide later.”
The meat plopped on top of the vegetables. “D.J. loves to cook.”
Nicholas sighed and refrained from glancing at his watch. Ronald didn’t appear capable of going over ten minutes without mentioning his latest girlfriend. “Unfortunately, she isn’t here.”
Ronald’s long-suffering sigh matched his brother’s. “Don’t remind me. If she hadn’t been out of town on a business trip, I would have flown home tonight.”
“It’s nice to know how I rank,” Nicholas said dryly, picking up a pound of sausage for breakfast, then a pound of bacon for good measure.
Unrepentant, Ronald grinned. “She adores me and has certain other appeals you can’t match.”
“So you keep repeating.”
“Nick, she’s gorgeous. I think I’m in love this time.”
“Uh-huh,” Nicholas replied, giving his brother’s statement all the attention he thought it deserved. Ronald fell in and out of love regularly. For someone who worked with concrete data—Ronald was a systems analyst—he was as fanciful as they came. Nicholas was more pragmatic and less emotional.
Old-fashioned, lasting love like their parents had was rare these days. Nicholas didn’t even plan on trying to look. Too many of his friends and associates were divorced or going through a divorce, and it was seldom amicable. As a kid he might have wished for a wife and family, but no more. He had better things to do with his time. Stopping the cart in the dairy aisle, draped this time with red and blue garland, he placed a gallon of milk in the small basket near the handle.
“Mom and Dad like her.”
“Uh-huh.” Nothing unusual there. His parents liked all the young women Ronald brought over. They were fun-loving, energetic, and intelligent, just like Ronald. Nicholas picked up a can of country-style biscuits and sighed. He’d burned the last biscuits he’d tried to bake. He hadn’t heard the timer in the shower. His hand flexed on the can. His mother’s biscuits were light and fluffy. He could almost smell them, taste them.
“I’m going over to D.J.’s house tomorrow night for dinner. We’re having veal.”
The vision burst. Nicholas’s breakfast had been toast and stale coffee. Lunch was a dry tuna sandwich from one of the vending machines in the hospital. He’d had back-to-back meetings or inspections and hadn’t had time to go to the cafeteria. Veal. His mouth watered. “Too bad she’s not here to cook for us. I wish she was your wife.”
“Don’t worry, young man; you’ll be married soon.”
Nicholas jerked around at the soft-spoken Southern voice and saw an elderly black woman smiling serenely up at him. Small and fragile, she barely came to the middle of his chest. “I beg your pardon?”
Reaching over, she patted his arm with her small white-gloved hand as if to reassure him. “I said you’ll be married soon. Your wish has been granted.”
Having worked in hospitals for the past twelve years, since he was twenty-one, Nicholas remained calm. Unfortunately, the elderly often suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s. He looked around to see if there might be someone with her and only saw two other women nearby. Both looked vaguely familiar, probably people from the hospital. They were openly watching the interaction, but neither moved toward him and the woman. His attention switched back to the woman, who appeared to be patiently waiting for something.
She wore a yellow straw hat with a little bouquet of flowers on the brim. The dress she wore had flowers on it, too. Her arm was hooked through an empty blue plastic shopping basket. Unobtrusively he tried to see if she was wearing a hearing aid, but he couldn’t detect one. He shot a glance at the watchful women and said, “Thank you.” There was no reason to embarrass the elderly woman by telling her she’d made a mistake.
“You’re welcome. You’ll be engaged by Christmas.” Smiling at him again, she walked away, disappearing down the next aisle.
Laughing, Ronald slapped Nicholas on the back. “You don’t even have to ask. I’ll be happy to be your best man.”
Nick lifted a heavy brow. “Very funny. Let’s go to the bakery and get a chess pie for dessert.”
Still chuckling, Ronald fell into step beside Nicholas. Neither noticed the excited chatter of Nicholas’s coworkers as they hurried to check out.
Nicholas pushed open the double glass doors of Memorial Hospital at a quarter to nine the next morning. He felt as if he could conquer the world. After the overcooked steak and undercooked fish last night, he and Ronald had decided against trying to prepare another meal. Instead they’d gotten up early and gone out to breakfast and stuffed themselves. Afterward Ronald had left in his rental car for the airport in Austin. His last comment had been a teasing remark that he was going to start looking for a tuxedo because he wanted to look good as Nicholas’s best man.
“Hello, Mr. Darling.”
“Morning, Mr. Darling.”
“Good morning,” Nicholas returned to the two smiling nurses who had greeted him, then hastened his steps to catch the elevator.
“Morning, Mr. Darling,” an attractive woman in a stylish red suit said as he got on. “You didn’t have to rush. I would have held the door for you.”
“Thank you,” Nicholas said, stepping aside to make room for three other passengers, all women.
“I don’t think we’ve had a chance to meet,” another woman in a white uniform said, extending her hand. “My name is Gwen Stradford. I’m the charge nurse on the west wing of the med-surg floor from seven till three.”
No sooner had the woman finished speaking than all the other women on the elevator introduced themselves. Puzzled, Nicholas shook their hands, almost glad when the door opened on the second floor and he could get out. Wishes for a good day followed him down the hall, but he also heard the distinct sounds of giggles. Shaking his head, he kept walking.
“Morning, Mr. Darling.”
“Good morning,” Nicholas replied to a tall woman in green scrubs who looked at him as if he were the last piece of birthday cake and she intended to have it. His pace quickened. He didn’t relax completely until he opened the outer door to his secretary’s office.
“Good morning, Mr. Darling.” Michelle Rhodes, his secretary, glanced up at him from digging in the file cabinet.
“Morning.” Continuing to his connecting office, Nicholas covertly watched her pull out a file and flip through it. She hadn’t acted any differently toward him. With each decisive step across the room, the uneasiness he’d felt faded more and more.
In his office he saw the stack of files he’d left on his desk when Ronald arrived unexpected Monday afternoon. Loosening his tie, Nicholas promptly forgot about the women and set to work.
By eleven he’d made a decent dent in the records for the last quarter. Stretching, he tightened the tie he’d loosened earlier and then pulled on the navy blue double-breasted jacket to his suit. He was meeting with the head of radiology in five minutes. She wanted a new MRI machine. They cost upward of a million and a half dollars, but if it would help with early detection or diagnosis he’d certainly see if there was a way for the hospital’s overtaxed budget to obtain one.
He was barely in the hallway before it started again.
“Hello, Mr. Darling. Have you eaten lunch yet?”
“We’re going out; do want us to get you anything?”
“It’ll be our treat.”
“They have fantastic stuffed baked potatoes.”
Nicholas looked from one smiling woman to the other. They worked in the administrative offices on his floor. Until now they’d been cordial, but not overly so. Now they were acting as if he and they were old friends. Something wasn’t right. “Hello. Thanks for the offer, but I’ll pick up a bite later.”
“If you change your mind, I’m two doors down from your office. I’m Carolyn Johnson.”
“Thank you,” Nicholas said, and hurried away. He stopped and turned when he heard what sounded suspiciously like giggling again. Yet when he turned, the women were simply staring innocently at him. Rubbing the back of his neck, he continued to the elevator. Perhaps he was working too hard.
Nicholas kept the thought until he stepped off the elevator on the ground floor where radiology was located. Every step he made, women were saying hello, introducing themselves. It was so bad, he was late for his meeting with Dr. Bradford and two of her staff members. Nicholas relaxed on seeing they were men. Thirty minutes later, when he was the first to leave her office, he paused briefly, hand on the doorknob. Then, feeling foolish, he opened the door and strode down the hall.
He made it ten feet before it began again. Women were everywhere. He couldn’t seem to get away from them. Any men he saw just shook their heads as if they felt sorry for him.
Opening the door to Michelle’s office, he strode across the room to her desk and planted both hands on top. “What is going on? Why is there a woman smiling at me everywhere I go?”
Her hands left the computer keyboard and she swirled in her chair toward him, tucking her long braided hair behind her ear. “Don’t you know?”
“If I knew I wouldn’t be asking,” he said tightly. He sighed and made an effort to relax. This wasn’t her fault. Michelle was hard-working and ran his office efficiently. And, as his predecessor had informed Nicholas, she was privy to all the latest gossip in the hospital. Until now, he hadn’t availed himself of that particular talent of hers. “Please, tell me.”
She sighed dreamily. “You’ve been granted a wish.”
“A wish.” Nicholas straightened, a strange foreboding sweeping through him.
“Yes,” she said. “Mrs. Augusta granted you your wish to be married. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Nicholas’s jaw dropped. “Mrs. Augusta . . . ? You mean that little old lady in the grocery store who was hard of hearing? She got it all wrong. I did not wish to be married.”
“You didn’t?” Michelle’s large eyes rounded in uncertainty.
“I most definitely did not,” Nicholas said, beginning to pace in front of her desk. “I was teasing Ronald, and that woman . . . Mrs. Augusta or whoever she is . . . well, she simply misunderstood what I said. You know how elderly people get things mixed up.”
Michelle shook her head. “Despite being up in age, Mrs. Augusta is still as sharp as they come.”
Nicholas spun and pinned his secretary with his fierce gaze. “If you mean an elderly black lady wearing gloves and a hat in a grocery store at five in the afternoon, I think the way she dresses says otherwise.”
“She always dresses that way. She’s a real Southern lady,” Michelle said as if that explained everything.
“She’s a kook.” Nicholas started pacing again. “Spouting off about my wish being granted and that I’d be married soon. I should have walked away from her instead of thanking her.”
“Oh, Mr. Darling.”
Nicholas spun around and saw the distress in Michelle’s face. “What?”
“You thanked her.”
“I was being polite.”
Michelle shook her head again. “In thanking her you accepted the gift of your wish being granted. I told you, Mrs. Augusta is a real lady. She wouldn’t bestow a gift on someone who didn’t want it.”
Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Look, I don’t know how you know her and why you believe any of this nonsense, but the simple truth is, I did not wish for a wife.”
Michelle brightened. “That’s what makes Mrs. Augusta so unique and magical. She has this uncanny ability to grant unspoken wishes. Did you ever wish for a wife?”
Nicholas opened his mouth to emphatically tell his secretary that he hadn’t, then recalled his wish as a young boy, a wish he had thought about only moments before Mrs. Augusta had appeared. He scoffed at the absurdity of it all. “Maybe when I was a kid and believed in fairy tales and happily ever after,” he admitted reluctantly, then quickly added, “but after watching so many marriages go bust, I’ve come to realize that lasting happiness seldom happens in marriages these days.”
“Simon and I are very happy and we plan to remain that way,” Michelle told him, her face glowing.
Not wanting to point out that a year was hardly enough time to test a marriage, Nicholas said, “I’m glad you and Simon are the exception.” He took a calming breath. “I can’t believe I’m getting worked up about this. By tomorrow, it will all be forgotten.” He waited for his secretary to confirm his words, and when she didn’t he plopped down in the chair in front of her desk. “Drop the other shoe.”
She twisted uneasily in her seat. “Mrs. Augusta’s predictions and wishes have always come true. Since she’s a Christian lady and the wishes are welcome, people usually want her to grant them a wish.”
“No one can grant wishes,” Nicholas scoffed.
“Five years ago, after church, Mary Kennedy wished that she wouldn’t die an old maid. She wished that she’d find a good man to marry and have a big family to love. Mrs. Augusta heard and right there in front of everybody granted her wish. Before a year had passed, Mary was married and had a baby girl.”
Nicholas waved a dismissive hand. “Sheer coincidence.”
“Before Mary dated John, her husband, she’d been on one date. They now have five children and are as happy as can be. There have been several others whose wishes were granted, including the mayor’s unspoken wish for his son to stop drinking and settle down with a loving, Christian woman.”
Nicholas continued to look dubious.
“And if that’s not enough, Mrs. Augusta saved the lives of hundreds of schoolchildren when she called the sheriff’s department to tell them to evacuate the elementary school. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The tornado hit less than two minutes after the last kid got out. The building was flattened. Me and my sister and three cousins were at school that day.” Michelle folded her arms. “At the beginning of the school year, the principal, Yolanda Thompson, had wished that all the school children have a safe year. You’ll never convince me Mrs. Augusta made a mistake.”
Seeing the surety on Michelle’s face, Nicholas realized what he was up against. Augusta had had one lucky guess, albeit a miraculous one, and the townspeople took her word as gospel. The rest of her “wishes” were all coincidental. “This time she’s made a mistake.”
“Mrs. Augusta never makes mistakes.” Michelle turned to her computer. “If I were you, Mr. Darling, I’d accept the wish and start thinking about who you planned to invite to the wedding.”
“This is ridiculous.”
The door behind them opened and three women surged in. Nicholas barely kept from grinding his teeth. Just what he needed. More women!
“Mr. Darling, I just had to tell you the good news,” Delores McKinnie, the hospital’s director of human resources, said, her smile growing as she crossed the room. “You won’t believe how many tickets we’ve sold.” She glanced between the two women on either side of her. “Eula and Rachel just gave me the good news.”
“We’re on our way to post the tabulations of the most wished for items on the bulletin board of the cafeteria,” Eula said.
“We thought you’d like to be the first to know,” Rachel added, staring at him with undisguised interest. “I bought twenty tickets myself.”
Delores hugged the notebook to her chest. “It looks like this year will be the biggest in the ten-year history of the wish list. You’re new to this, but half the money raised goes to one lucky winner to make their wish come true and the other half goes to charity. Since news started circulating this morning, sales have tripled for the wish list for Christmas, and we have you to thank for it.”
Nicholas went very still. She couldn’t possibly mean what he thought she meant. She just couldn’t.
“I wanted to tell you personally,” Delores said, grinning. “You’re at the top of the wish list.”