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Along Came a Cowboy
A Romantic Showdown in Small-Town Arkansas
By Christine Lynxwiler
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Christine Lynxwiler
All rights reserved.
Babies complicate life, but the human race can't survive without them. Maybe I should write that on the dry erase board out in the waiting room—Dr. Rachel Donovan's Profound Thought for the Day.
Ever notice how some months are all about weddings? When you turn on the TV or pick up a magazine, everything is white tulle and old lace. Then there are what I think of as baby months. Unlike June and December for weddings, baby months can pop up anytime.
And here in Shady Grove, Arkansas—just in time for summer, when the irises are pushing up from the ground, the new leaves are green on the trees, and the crepe myrtles are starting to bloom—we're smack dab in the middle of a baby month.
I finger the latest birth announcement on my desk. One of my patients just had her fifth child. You'd think, at this point, she'd be sending out SOS messages instead of announcements, but the pink card proudly proclaims the arrival of her newest bundle of joy.
The front door chime signals the arrival of our first patient, so I send up a silent prayer for the baby. Then my eyes fall on the family picture on my desk.
Lord, please be with Tammy, too, in her pregnancy.
My thirty-eight-year-old sister was so thrilled when she called a couple of months ago to tell me she was pregnant and so scared yesterday when the doctor put her on temporary bed rest.
While I'm on the baby thread, I mention my friend Lark who is desperate to adopt. I say amen, steadfastly ignoring my own out-of-whack biological clock.
My receptionist, Norma, sidles into my office like a spy in an old movie, softly shuts the door and turns to face me, her brown eyes wide. "Whoever warned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys," she whispers, "never saw the man in our waiting room."
"What?" I absently flip through the small pile of files on my desk. Not long ago I remodeled my entire clinic—repainted the walls with calming blues and browns, added new chiropractic tables and new waiting room chairs, and even got solid oak office furniture with nifty little cubbies. For about a week I could find things.
And did she just say the word babies? What did I tell you? It's one of those months. "Do you know where Mrs. Faulkner's file is? I thought it was here, but I can't find it."
Norma raises her eyebrows. "You saw her after hours Tuesday night, didn't you? I think it's on my desk waiting for charges."
Now I remember. "No charge," I say automatically.
She puts her hands on her hips. "C'mon, Doc, you can't fall for every sob story you hear."
I grin. "We make it, don't we? If I can't help out a sixty-two-year-old woman who lifts and bathes and cares for her grown son around the clock, then I'd just as soon not be in practice."
She shrugs. "You're the one who has to worry about paying your bills. I get my paycheck regardless." Her round face lights up and she motions to me. "Now come look."
Norma's always slightly out of sync with reality, but today is shaping up to be odd even for her.
"At the man in the waiting room," she clarifies, as if I'm a little slow. "You have to see him."
"I usually do see everyone who's in the waiting room, don't I? Eventually?"
She blows out her breath and folds her arms. "It'll only take a second."
"Who is it?"
She shakes her head, her short brunette curls springing with the movement. "I'm not telling. You'll have to see for yourself."
I sigh. I know I'm the boss, but once Norma has something in her head, it's easier just to go along with her. She turns to lead the way out to her desk where a large window overlooks the main waiting room. I promise she's tiptoeing.
"Hey, Nancy Drew," I say quietly.
She jumps and spins around. "What?" she hisses.
I grin. "Let's try not to be so obvious."
She presses her back against the wall and motions for me to go ahead of her. I saunter to her desk. Right on top is the file I was looking for. At least this wasn't a wasted trip. I retrieve it while I give the waiting room a cursory glance. The cowboy chooses that moment to look up, of course. A slow grin spreads across his face.
I fumble with the file and almost drop it.
I don't believe it. Alma Westwood could give the-little-engine-that-could lessons in persistence. I return his grin with a quick professional smile and—holding the file high enough that he can see I had a valid reason for being there—walk back to my office.
Norma is right on my heels. She closes the door. "So? What did I tell you? That's Alma Westwood's son. The rodeo star."
"I know who he is." I toss the file on my desk and plop down in my chair to look at it.
"You know him?"
I shake my head. "We were friends when we were kids, but I don't know him really. I've just seen his picture in the paper like everyone else." And since he moved back a few months ago, I've seen him around town enough to know that women fall all over themselves when he walks by. Definitely not my type. Which is one reason I've avoided him.
"Oh yeah. His hat was shading his face in that picture." Her brows draw together. "Which is a cryin' shame."
I look up at her cherub face. "Hey, remember old What's His Name? The handsome guy you're happily married to?" I grin.
She shrugs. "Doesn't mean I'm blind. Besides, you aren't married."
Thanks for the reminder.
"So when Alma signed in, she said she brought her son to see her new X-rays."
"How nice." Not that I'm falling for her flimsy excuse. Alma is just one in a long line of Mama Matchmakers. My patients with unmarried sons seem to take my singlehood as a personal affront. Ever since Rodeo Jack moved back to run his family ranch next door to my parents, Alma has upped her efforts to make me her daughter-in-law, or at least reintroduce me to him.
Don't ask me why Jack needs his mama to fix him up with someone in the first place. Norma is not exaggerating. He was passably cute back when we were kids, and he's one of those men who gets better-looking with age. If he's lost any teeth or broken his nose riding in the rodeo, he's covered it well. Not only is he a real cowboy, but he could play one on TV. Last week at the diner, I was two tables away from him when he smiled at the waitress. For a moment I was jealous that the smile wasn't for me. But only for a moment.
Then common sense kicked in. Me and Jack Westwood? Not likely. Which is just as well, because on a less personal note ... a chiropractor and a rodeo star? What a combination. I'd spend the rest of my life trying to fix the mess he makes of his body. Besides, I can't imagine myself with someone whose belt buckle is bigger than his IQ. And even though he seemed smart when we were in school, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who'll willingly climb on a bucking bull over and over is a few calves short of a herd.
Still, it's my job to educate patients and their families about their health. I turn back to Norma. "After you put them in a room, pull Alma's X-rays for me, okay?"
Norma starts to leave then smacks her forehead with the palm of her hand. "Oh, I almost forgot. Lark Murray is on line one."
I glance at the phone. Sure enough, line one is blinking. "Thanks."
Never mind that we let Lark sit and wait while we sneaked a peek at Alma's cowboy son. Norma marches to her own drummer, and I run along behind her trying to stay in step.
I reach toward the phone, and for a split second, I consider having Norma take a message. Lark is one of my three closest friends. I'm a few years younger than the rest and came late to the Pinky Promise Sisterhood group they formed in childhood. But ever since the night they found me crying in the bowling alley bathroom, the Pinkies have been family to me. We share our deepest secrets and craziest dreams and—now that we all live in Shady Grove, Arkansas, again—regular face-to-face gabfests.
And any other day of the year, I'm happy to hear from any of them. But this particular anniversary day is always filled with awkward conversations. They never know what to say, and neither do I.
I snatch the handset up before I give in to my cowardice. I'll just make it short and sweet. "Hey, girl."
"Rach, I'm so glad I caught you. I was afraid you'd already started with patients."
"No. Sorry you had to wait." Here it comes. The gentle "You okay today?" Or the "Just called to say hi and wish you a good day for no particular reason."
"I can't take this anymore." Her voice is trembling.
Okay, I wasn't expecting that. "What?"
"The waiting. Why do they make us go through an inspection worthy of a Spanish Inquisition if they're not going to give us a baby?"
I release a breath I didn't know I was holding and sink back onto my chair. Lark is focused on one thing and one thing only these days, so thankfully this call isn't about me. "They're going to give you a baby. They'd be crazy not to. These things just take time."
"You sound like the caseworker." She sighs. "I called her last night even though Craig didn't think I should."
"Lark, honey, I know it's hard to wait now that you've finally decided to adopt. But you're going to have to. God has—" My throat constricts, but I push the words out. "God has the perfect baby for you."
"It doesn't feel like it." She must be upset, because that's definitely a bit of a whine, something she never does.
"Has He ever let you down?"
"No. But maybe I was right before. Maybe it's just not His will for me to be a mom."
I thought we'd settled all that a few months ago when she showed up on my doorstep late one night with a suitcase because her husband wanted to adopt. Still, I can totally relate to old insecurities sneaking back in when you least expect them. "You're going to have to think about something else for a while, Lark. Are you helping Allie today?"
"I'm supposed to. I was thinking about seeing if she can make it without me though."
"How are y'all coming along?" Our Pinky friend Allie Richards recently won the Shady Grove Pre-Centennial Beautiful Town Landscaping Contest and consequently landed the town landscaping maintenance contract for the year. She has some real employees now, but during the contest her crew consisted of Allie's brother, Adam, Lark, me, and our other Pinky, Victoria Worthington. So we all have a vested emotional interest in TLC Landscaping.
Lark sighs. "We're swamped trying to get everything in perfect shape before the centennial celebration really gets going. I guess I really should work today. I know Allie needs me."
Good girl. "You know what your granny always said—a busy mind doesn't have time to worry."
"You're right. I'm going to have to trust God to handle this and go get ready for work. Thanks for talking me down off the ledge."
"See you tonight, Rach."
"I'll be there." When the connection is broken, I close my eyes.
Lord, please give me strength to face today.
I open my eyes and push to my feet. Time to cowgirl up.
* * *
As soon as I walk into the adjusting room, Alma stands. "Dr. Donovan, I'm sure you remember my son, Jack."
Jack holds his cowboy hat in his left hand and offers me the right. I promise I expect him to say, "Ma'am," and duck his head. "Dr. Donovan," he drawls, and from the boy who used to pull my braids, the title sounds a little mocking. "Nice to see you again." As we shake hands, he flashes that heartbeat-accelerating smile again.
"You, too." His hands are nice. Slightly calloused. Working hands, but not so tough that they're like leather.
I look up into his puzzled brown eyes and then back down at his hand, which I'm still holding. Behind him, his mother beams as if she has personally discovered the cure for every terminal illness known to humankind. I jerk my hand away. Should I tell him that I always notice hands, since my own hands are what I use most in my profession? Or would he think that was a pickup line? I'm sure he's heard some doozies.
Better to ignore it. I slap the X-rays up on the view box then focus my attention on Alma as I point out the key spots we're working on.
When I finish, Jack crosses the room in two steps and points to the X-ray. "This increased whiteness is arthritis, right?"
My eyebrows draw together. "You've had experience with X-rays?"
He shrugs and gives me a rueful grin. "Occupational hazard."
Of course. "In any case, you're right. It is arthritis, but no more than normal for someone your mother's age."
"Thankfully, Dr. Donovan keeps me going. Otherwise I'd be like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz," Alma pipes up from her chair in the corner.
"To hear Mom tell it, you're the Wizard of Oz," Jack mutters, still standing beside me. He turns to Alma. "Your X-rays are normal?"
Her eyes open wide. "Yes."
She blinks at him. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"I thought you'd be pleased to know your old mom was going to be getting around without a walker for a few more years." Alma's voice is soft and sweet.
He frowns. "You know I am. But since Dr. Donovan has apparently already explained these X-rays to you, you could have told me that on the ph—" He stops, apparently realizing that I'm like a reluctant spectator at a tennis game, watching their verbal volleying.
"But this way you can see for yourself," Alma says with a satisfied smile.
He opens his mouth then closes it and nods.
Game, set, match to Alma.
I turn back to her. "Any questions?"
She smiles. "Not a one. Thank you so much for taking the time to go over this with us."
"I'm always glad to help you understand your health better."
"I'm going to go freshen up before we head home," Alma says. And just like that, she's gone, leaving me with her son. No doubt the whole point.
"Jack," I say in what I hope is a coolly professional voice, "thank you for coming by."
He nods. "I'm sorry we wasted your time. I don't know why I'm surprised this was a setup. Our mothers have been singing your praises ever since I got back in town."
"Our mothers?" My mother and I barely speak, and I'm certain she's never sung my praises a day in my life. At least not since I was a teenager.
"They make you sound like Mother Teresa and the Alberts all rolled into one."
I raise a brow. "The Alberts?"
"Einstein and Schweitzer."
I can't keep from laughing. "Now that's an appealing combination. And don't forget the Wizard of Oz."
"They're probably not far off, actually. It's just that—" He runs his hands around the brim of the hat he's still holding. "Thanks for being a good sport." He grins. "And at least now when we see each other at the diner, we can say hello."
A hot blush spreads across my face. The curse of being a redhead. I blush easily and at the oddest times. It's not like he knows I was admiring him the other day while I was waiting for my food. At least, I sure hope not. "True." I open the door and step back for him to go through.
"I guess I'd better go. I'll just wait for Mom out here," he says dryly and saunters down the hall.
"Not a moment too soon," I mutter under my breath and retreat to my office for a few minutes. The last thing I need is a blast from the past. Especially in the form of a rugged, sweet-smiling cowboy.CHAPTER 2
I'm mulling over the things Jack said, particularly the part about my mother, when Norma sticks her head in the door. "Problem."
"The mayor's fifteen minutes early. And Mrs. Tillman walked in a minute after him, but she's on time and her appointment is before his. If I take her back to a room first, he'll be mad, but if I take him back first, that's cheating, I guess?" Her tone goes up on the last two words.
I take a deep breath and smile. I'm actually glad to have normal office things to think about. Too many of my thoughts the last few minutes have been in a Western motif. "Tell Ron that Mrs. Tillman's appointment is first and we'll be with him in just a few minutes."
"But he's the mayor."
"In this office, he's a patient. And he's no more or no less important than anyone else."
She nods. Like she's never heard me say that before.
When I finally get to him, our esteemed mayor is perched on the long padded bench in the waiting cubicle, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf.
"Good morning, Ron." I motion him into the adjusting room.
He grunts as he hobbles past me. "Easy for you to say."
Beneath his crusty exterior is another equally crusty interior. If life in Shady Grove were a sitcom, there'd be a heart of gold buried somewhere in the mix. But this is real life, and with our mayor, I'm not so sure.
Excerpted from Along Came a Cowboy by Christine Lynxwiler. Copyright © 2008 Christine Lynxwiler. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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