The first thing that hit me was the smell. Covering my nose, I tried not to gag on the pungent scent of cattle and dust. I climbed from the taxi as the driver tugged my suitcase from the trunk.
He scanned my silk suit and tie, and smirked. “Sure you don’t just want me to take you back to the airport?”
Lifting my chin, I stuffed money into his grimy hands. “Maxwell Thornton doesn’t run from a challenge.” My statement was a ridiculous lie. The only reason I stood in this smelly hellhole of a town was because I was running, fleeing something too horrible to contemplate: I was a murderer.
I picked up my suitcase and stepped away from the car. When my shoe landed in something suspiciously squishy, I winced, afraid to look down.
The driver grimaced. “Oops.”
I lifted my foot and stepped aside, finding hard ground this time. I scraped my shoe back and forth and pretended I didn’t want to scream with frustration. How could this be my life? I’d spent the last decade as an esteemed surgeon in Los Angeles, and now I stood on a dung-riddled dirt road as the sole GP in this grimy little town of Rainy Dale, Texas. Life had seemed so promising only two months ago. Now I felt as if I’d been exiled to Siberia. Or the hellishly hot equivalent.
Turning, I faced the little white house that would serve as my office and home. It was in better shape than I’d assumed—no peeling paint or broken windows. The garden was green with yellow esperanza and blackfoot daisy growing along the front of the yard. I liked that it seemed private. My nearest neighbor was about 200 feet down the road toward the town that sprawled along the big lake.
The driver spoke as he opened his car door. “Well, I’m gonna take off now, Doc. You just give me a call if you change your mind about staying.”
I glanced toward him, stuffing down the urge to beg him to take me back to civilization. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He snorted. “Suit yourself.” He climbed into his vehicle, and the engine roared to life. I watched him slowly bump down the lane away from the town.
Moving down the cobblestone path, I strode determinedly up the steps to the front porch. As I reached for the knob, the door opened abruptly. A young girl of about twenty with freckles and purple-framed glasses stood there with her eyes wide.
“Oh, you’re already here!” She ran a hand over her tousled auburn hair. “I didn’t expect you till evening.”
“Who are you?” I asked, wondering why a strange girl was in my home.
She gave a tense laugh. “I’m Girdy. I’m your receptionist. Remember we spoke on the phone?”
I eyed her up and down, and then I frowned. “You don’t look old enough to be a receptionist.”
Another uptight laugh left her lips. “I am. Plus, I’ll have you know, I’m a certified phlebotomist, sir.”
“Hmmm.” I lifted one brow.
Her cheeks seemed pinker than when I’d first arrived. “Why don’t you come in out of the heat?” She stepped aside and avoided my gaze. “It tends to make people a tad grumpy.”
I entered the building, relieved to discover an unmistakable chill that could only come from central air-conditioning. At least this place wasn’t so barbaric they didn’t have that one small comfort. I glanced around the wide area, taking note of a staircase, a desk in the corner, and chairs lined along the wall on either side of the waiting area.
“That’s my desk.” Girdy moved into the room and pointed to a door at the far end of the room. “Your office and examination room is there.”
I widened my eyes. “There’s only one examination room?”
“Yep.” She grimaced. “Sorry. Do you usually have more than one?”
I thought about my beautiful state-of-the-art clinic back in LA with a sinking heart. “Yes.”
“Oh, well…” She tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear. “We just have the one.” A phone on the desk rang, and she jumped, pressing her hand to her chest. “Sorry.” She went to answer it.
There was a knock on the doorjamb behind me. When I turned, a middle-aged man with a shiny bald head and thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows stood there. “Are you the new doctor?” He looked hopeful as he stepped into the waiting area.
I gave a curt nod. “I am.”
“I’m Ned Tinkerson.” He held out his arm showing an angry red rash from his wrist to his elbow. “Would you mind terribly taking a look at this, Doc?”
It took a lot not to recoil. “No. I literally just arrived.”
“Oh, well…” Ned frowned. “But it would only take a minute.”
Girdy spoke from behind me. “Doc, Mrs. Lowe has a fever, and she was hoping maybe she could pop over and you could check her temperature?”
“Pop over?” I scowled. “Absolutely not. What’s wrong with you people? I haven't even set my bag down and you’re already trying to book appointments?”
“But—” Ned began.
“How did you even know I’d arrived?” I inched toward my office, feeling sweaty and uneasy.
“We’re neighbors. I live just down the road and saw your taxi.” Ned laughed. “I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask if you’d take a look-see.”
Pop over. Look-see. Didn’t these people understand protocol?
“I’m not set up to see patients yet.”
“Dr. Pine—your predecessor—left over three months ago. We haven’t had a doctor that whole time. If we wanted to see someone, we had to travel all the way into Dallas.” Ned sighed. “Come on. What would it hurt to take a peek?” He scratched his arm. “It’s awfully uncomfortable.”
“Doc, what should I tell Mrs. Lowe?”
“Tell her to make an appointment in three days when I’m ready for business.” I took a few more steps toward my private office.
Another knock on the doorjamb set my teeth on edge. I glanced over to find an elderly woman wearing a large hat with sunflowers. “Hello,” she called out in a sing-songy voice. “Is there a doctor in the house?” She giggled as if she found herself hilarious, and she held out her hand. “I’m Penelope Granger, mayor of Rainy Dale.”
I shook her hand.
“I was here first,” Ned grumbled, eying her impatiently. “Mayor or no mayor.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t need much time. Just a renewal of my um… medicine.” She pulled her hat off and fanned herself. “It’s hot as Hades today.”
Two more people entered the small clinic, and I avoided making eye contact. Had someone sent up a plane that had skywritten the message “The new doctor has arrived”? Why were all these people descending on me?
The phone rang again, and I clenched my jaw. I didn’t like crowds, and I didn’t like being pushed into things. “Look, you all need to go away. I don’t open until Thursday.”
Apparently not hearing me, Girdy spoke with her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “Doc, Patricia Bones would like to bring her son in. He has a cough.”
I faced her, my shoulders stiff. “Please don’t call me Doc. I prefer Dr. Thornton. And no. I won’t see Patricia Bones, or anybody.” I raked a shaky hand through my hair. The small room felt even tinier with all these people staring at me expectantly. “I open for business at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday. Unless it’s an emergency, go away.”
“Go away?” Penelope widened her eyes. “What do you mean?”
I hitched my suitcase higher. “I mean go home. Make an appointment and then go.” I headed toward my office, feeling their eyes burning into my back.
“But you’re a doctor.” Ned’s voice was outraged.
I stopped and faced them. “Yes. During business hours. If you want a beer but the bar is closed, it’s not like the owner opens the bar for you just because you show up.”
“But we’re not talking about a bar. You’re a doctor. You deal in life or death.” Penelope’s eyes were cool and her mouth a hard line.
“Are any of you dying?” I raised one brow.
“Well…” Ned sputtered. “I might be.”
I rolled my eyes. “Go to the pharmacy and buy an intensive healing cream for eczema or something. That should give you some relief.”
The phone rang again and Girdy lifted the receiver, but when she met my stern gaze she hung up.
“Good girl.” I turned back toward my office and opened the door. The musty smell of stale air hit me. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it. I’d hoped to have a few days to acclimatize myself to this town, but the way they’d all come at me, I felt a little like the last donut at a police station.
Glancing around the stuffy, dark room I noticed an EKG machine and a sphygmomanometer, aka blood pressure monitor. White cupboards and a sink were across from the examination table, and several pairs of stethoscopes hung from a hook on the wall. I moved to the storage area and rummaged through some drawers, checking over consumable supplies and making a mental note of things we’d need. Making lists and organizing always calmed me.
There was a soft knock on the door, and I closed my eyes, feeling irritable. “What is it?”
The door opened slowly and Girdy poked her head in. “They’ve all gone.”
Relief washed through me. “Good.”
“I’m sorry about that.” She grimaced. “Dr. Pine pretty much let people come and go as they pleased.”
“That’s no way to run an efficient office.”
“I know.” She shrugged. “But people liked him.”
“I’m not interested in making friends. I’m here to keep the people of this town healthy.” I crossed my arms.
She bit her lower lip. “Is there some reason you couldn’t maybe do both?”
I snorted. “Why would I?”
She stepped in and closed the door. “You were a surgeon before, right?”
“Yes.” I sighed.
“So, you mostly dealt with people who weren’t awake.”
I frowned. “I consulted with patients too.”
“But mostly, you just operated?”
“Where are you going with this?”
She moved closer, her voice soft. “You might need to tweak your bedside manner a little bit if you’re going to last in Rainy Dale.”
“I can’t even believe I’m stuck here,” I snapped. The moment the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. I’d been lucky this opportunity had come up for me. I’d needed to get away from the city and had jumped at the chance to take this position.
She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t want to be here?”
My face felt hot. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” I turned my back on her. “I apologize. My comment was rude, and I don’t even mean it.”
She came around so she could see my face. Her expression was irritated, but it gradually softened. “Maybe this town isn’t what you’re used to. But there are some wonderful folks here. You might even enjoy it a little if you let yourself relax and get to know people.”
I walked across the room and sat in the chair behind the desk. “I don’t see that happening.”
“I don’t really do people very well.” I held her gaze firmly. It was best she knew what I was like now, that way she could decide if she wanted to work for me or not. I wasn’t ever going to be a warm and fuzzy employer. If that was what she needed, she should move on.
She followed me and sat in the chair that would usually be for the patients. “I know why you’re here.”
I glanced up sharply. “Pardon?”
“I um… I know what happened. I know what the catalyst was that made you decide to hide away in Rainy Dale.”
Heat returned to my cheeks. “What are you talking about?”
“I know about the little mishap that made you quit doing surgery.” She shrugged.
“What do you think you know?” I asked softly.
She rolled her eyes and leaned toward me. “Lydia Pine was the receptionist before. She was Dr. Pine’s wife. She knew all about you, and she thought it would be useful for me to know too.”
“Why?” I sounded horrified to my own ears.
Her laugh was gruff. “I guess because I was going to work for you.”
I exhaled impatiently. “That’s nonsense.”
“So long as I do my job properly while I’m here, you shouldn’t need to know anything personal about me.” I chuffed. “And I shouldn’t need to know about you either.”
She smirked. “The difference is you’re not interested in my life. The rest of us are nosy about yours.”
Pulling my brows tight, I said, “Why in the world would you or anyone in this town care about me?”
She stood. “Plain old curiosity. You’re the new kid in town. Things can get a little dull around here.”
I sat back in my chair, feeling frustrated. “My business is my own.”
Moving to the door, she said, “You keep telling yourself that. But you’re in for a rude awakening. Small towns don’t operate like the big city.”
An uneasy feeling came over me, and I stood quickly. “You’re not going to tell anyone else what you know, are you?”
She hovered near the door. “Do yourself a favor, Doc, and don’t try to hide things. It won’t work.”
“I don’t want to be the fodder for town gossip.”
“It doesn’t matter. People will still talk about you. It’s just how it is.”
“Not if you don’t tell them.”
She gave a bark of a laugh. “If Lydia Pine told me your little secret, you can bet your life she told other people too. She was a huge gossip.”
“I thought you said she only told you because you were going to work for me.” I squinted.
I sucked in a steadying breath. “Look, what happened was a terrible tragedy.”
“Yes. And, personally, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Sometimes people die on the operating table. It’s a sad fact. I had an uncle who died during a hernia operation. That surgeon still practices just like he always did.”
“Good for him,” I whispered.
“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”
“Even so…” I murmured.
I closed my eyes as unwelcome anxiety washed over me in waves. Memories of that horrible moment always hovered on the edge of my mind, grim recollections that flooded back at the slightest nudge: the alarm of the heart monitor, noisy suckers, a sinister silence as I snapped orders, frantically trying to stop the tsunami of blood. An adrenaline syringe ran as swabs soaked with blood were packed around the veins that refused to be tied off. Panic set in as sutures sliced through the veins like swiss cheese. An undiscovered tumor had weakened the vein walls, and they’d disintegrated as I fought to stop the bleeding. The sheer helplessness of that moment still made me nauseous. No amount of training had been able to stop the relentless hemorrhaging. The failure. The death.
“Are you all right, Dr. Thornton?” Girdy’s hesitant voice caught my attention.
I straightened and swallowed against the bile that threatened to rise. “Of course.” My voice wobbled.
Pull yourself together you fucking, pathetic fool.
I met her gentle gaze as she said, “No one will judge you. Bad things happen.”
“Not to me.”
Her frown was skeptical. “You’d never lost a patient before that day?”
I shook my head.
“Not in a decade of surgeries?” Her eyes widened.
“You don’t get to be the top of your field by murdering your patients, Girdy.”
She scowled. “It wasn’t murder.”
I raked a hand through my hair. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Why? Because I’m from a small town?”
I shook my head. “No. Because you’re willing to forgive.”
She exhaled, and her frustration was obvious. “It hasn’t been very long. Perhaps in time you’ll figure out how to forgive too.”
“Not likely.” I moved back to the desk, needing space from her kindness. It felt awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t want it or deserve it. “I’ll need you to call our pharmaceutical rep and order some things.”
She shifted as if annoyed. “That’s it for the heart-to-heart?”
I met her gaze. “We’ll need sterile gloves, paper exam gowns, and tongue depressors.”
“I’m a good listener. You don’t know that about me, but I am.”
“Be sure to order syringes and hydrogen peroxide too while you’re at it.” I shifted some papers around on the desk.
“I can see you’re going to be a tough case.”
“Girdy, don’t make me your project.”
There was a knock on the examining room door, and I gave her an impatient glance. “Didn’t you lock the front door?”
She shook her head. “No. Why would I?”
“People could be robbing us blind even as we speak.” I moved toward her.
“It’s an awfully polite thief to knock before they come in.” She laughed as she opened the door.
All I saw at first was a black Stetson and broad shoulders. But as the man entered the room farther, I noticed he was tall and lean with a square jaw and sharp gaze. A gold badge glimmered on his dark blue shirt, and blond hair poked out beneath his hat.
“Sheriff. What are you doing here?” Girdy squeaked, a big smile on her face.
As his brown eyes met mine, I was surprised by the punch of attraction that rippled through me. I wasn’t the kind of guy who got rattled easily by a good-looking man, but I couldn’t deny the sight of him made my pulse spike.
“I wanted to come meet the new doctor.” His voice was husky. Confident.
“You and half the town.” She laughed.
He moved into the room, and as he neared, I caught a whiff of bergamot and lemongrass from his cologne. It was a nice change from the smell of livestock that seemed to permeate this town. He held out his hand, and I hesitated.
“I don’t bite, Doc.” A little smile hovered on his full lips.
Feeling annoyed at my swoony behavior, I took his hand. His grip was firm and warm against mine. “Dr. Maxwell Thornton. Nice to meet you.” Was he here for a checkup like the rest of the town? For some reason, the thought of that wasn’t nearly as annoying as it had been earlier with the rest of my patients.
“Sheriff Royce Callum. Most folks just call me Royce.”
I let go of his hand, but my fingers still tingled.
“How are you settling in?” He put his hands on his narrow hips and glanced around the area. His gaze dropped to my solitary suitcase next to the desk. “Rest of your stuff coming later?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He frowned. “You travel pretty light for a city boy.”
Narrowing my gaze, I said, “Is that against the law?”
“Nah.” He pushed his hat up, and I could see his face clearer. He was gorgeous, his skin tanned and firm, with long dark lashes and teeth as white as I’d ever seen. “But maybe you pack light so you can make a quick getaway.”
His challenging tone did weird things to my gut. “No.”
“Any skeletons in your closet you want to tell me about?”
He smiled and little dimples appeared. “You say anything other than no?”
Girdy sniggered. “You two could take this show on the road.”
My face warmed, and I crossed my arms.
Royce pursed his lips. “Well, like I said, I just came by to introduce myself.”
“Okay.” I nodded.
Girdy gave me a tolerant look. “I’m sure he means nice to meet you, Sheriff.”
I grimaced. “Yeah. Thanks for dropping by.”
He leaned closer. “Welcome to Rainy Dale, Maxwell.” The sound of my name rolled nicely off his tongue, and I shivered unexpectedly. He seemed to notice the effect he had on me because he smiled and winked. “Just let me know if you need anybody to show you around town.”
“No.” I winced. “I mean, I don’t… need that.” Certainly not from someone as disturbing as him. I had no desire to get to know anybody in town. I just wanted to focus on building my new practice. I wanted things to go back to normal. I wanted to feel in control again. I wanted to know everything that was going to happen before it happened. Like the old days.
Royce tipped his hat. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
He smiled. “Good luck to you, Doc.”
I chuffed as I turned my back on him. “Luck.”
“You don’t believe in luck?” He sounded amused.
“Not really.” I shot him a sardonic look over my shoulder. “Let’s be honest, Sheriff. Would a doctor of my caliber be in Rainy Dale if luck existed?”
“Abso-damn-lutely.” He grinned as he started to leave. “Only this time, the luck is on Rainy Dale’s side.”
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