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So this is Forever.
The thought echoed like a not altogether quiet mantra in Dr. Daniel Davenport's head. He stood on a ridge, staring down at the South Texas town with the somewhat ironically prophetic name of Forever.
It sounded like a prison sentence.
Dan had pulled his newly purchased navy blue Mercedes sedana car he now realized was woefully out of step with the surrounding terrainover to the side of the road for one last moment by himself. A last moment in which he still hadn't put on the mantle of commitment, making himself one with the town that eagerly awaited his arrival.
Well, technically, they weren't awaiting his arrival, he thought wryly. They were waiting for Warren's. But that wasn't about to happen. He would have given his own life to make Warren appear, but the man was now in a place where his presence could not be won by bartering and promising everlasting servitude. He knew that for a fact because he'd tried. Tried praying and pleading, promising to do whatever was needed of him if only Warren could be spared. But Warren was gone.
Gone because, at the last moment, he'd managed to prevail upon his younger brother, managed to physically drag him away from packing up all his belongings in preparation for his journey to Forever. Instead, he'd gotten Warren to agree to go out for a night of celebration.
After all, they had both just finally graduated. Graduated everything: medical school, internships, residencies. Everything. They had done it, taken all the necessary steps that finally, finally brought them to this new threshold shimmering before them. They had jumped all the hurdles, completed all the tasks and marched proudly into the winners' circle where they were both decorated with the well-earned and still, even in this day and age, enviable title of Doctor.
He and Warren had made the journey together despite the fact that he, Daniel, was a year older. It had taken him a year to figure out what he wanted to do with himself after he'd graduated from college, so he'd started medical school late, making it into those rarified waters by the skin of his teeth.
Dan sighed, shaking his head. It was all a blur now, but he'd been a carefree devil in that last lifetime. Brilliant but frivolous. So much so that of all the schools he'd applied to, he'd only gotten back one positive response. All the schools that Warren had applied to had come back with positive responses.
Everyone wanted Warren.
And why not? Warren was everything a future doctor should be. Smart, kind, dedicated. Selfless.
Warren was everything that he hadn't been, Dan thought now with a sharp pang.
But he intended to be. He owed it to Warren to do the best job he could. Which was why his own plans, that of accepting NYU Hospital's lucrative offer to be one of their in-house radiologists, had been placed on hold for the next nine months. Possibly longer, although hopefully not. Only until the town found a doctor to take Warren's place.
Dan owed that much to Warren and this was one debt he intended to honor. Because, if not for him, Warren would be here right now, most likely staring down at the town that had happily greeted the news of his intentions of opening a practice here. No, Warren would be driving into the heart of this pint-size town, ready to roll up his sleeves and begin working right then and there.
And Forever would have been lucky to have him.
Warren was going to be the first doctor the town had had in decades. Currently, from what he'd managed to find out, if anyone became sick enough to need a doctor, he or she would have to drive to the next town, some fifty miles away.
He drew a deep breath as he continued to take in the surrounding terrain. It was one hell of a change from New York City. He was accustomed to having his choice of hospitals, to enjoying the company of an endless stream of physicians in all fields of expertise. Forever promised none of that. As far as he had determined, there was only one hospital in the region, and it was located in a place called Pine Ridge.
Which was why his brother had chosen Forever, Dan thought.
That was Warren. He never thought of himself or what he would miss out on by setting up a general practice in such an out-of-the-way place. All he ever thought about was how he could help. His brother had gone into medicine not for the money, not for the prestige but for the singular reason that he wanted to help his fellow human being, especially the ones who couldn't afford to help themselves.
And he'd been gone for almost a month.
"You're already probably a saint by now, making St. Peter feel humble just to be next to you," Dan murmured under his breath to the brother whose presence he could swear he still sometimes felt.
It was the middle of July and getting beyond hot, but he was in no hurry to drive into the town. He knew places like this existed, but he'd never been able to actually picture one. Hell, if he hadn't downloaded the latest maps onto his GPS, he doubted his ability to find the place. The whole area looked like an afterthought.
Maybe that's what they should have named it, Dan thought. Afterthought instead of Forever. "You lost, mister?"
The softly spoken question nearly caused Dan to jump out of his skin. When he swung around, not knowing who or what to expect, his heart raced.
He found himself looking at an olive complexioned young man with the blackest hair he'd ever seen. It was peeking out from beneath an actual Stetson. The solemn-faced man wore a tan uniform with a sidearm strapped to his hip.
All in all the man looked as if he might have stepped out of the Old Westhad it not been for the fact that the uniform looked clean and pressed. Instead of a horse, a Jeep stood parked in the background.
Dan thought of his own new car. A Jeep would have been a far more practical vehicle. But there had been a hundred details to see to, not to mention Warren's funeral service, so he'd let the ball drop in this one instance.
Dan found irony curving his mouth in response to the man's question about whether or not he was lost. He laughed shortly. "More than you can begin to guess, Sheriff."
"It's deputy," the young man corrected him. "Deputy Joe Lone Wolf. And if you tell me where you're headed, I can get you pointed in the right direction."
The right direction.
"That's a matter of opinion," Dan murmured more to himself than to the man standing beside him. "I'm due in Forever," he told the man who seemed to have the ability to move more silently than a shadow, "which I'm assuming is that collection of buildings just below us." He nodded toward the town.
"It is," Deputy Joe Lone Wolf verified. "Who is it in Forever who's expecting you?" he asked politely.
Dan took a deep breath and with it, he bid his former life goodbye and placed the life that would have been his present one on temporary hold. This was a promise he was determined to keep if he was ever to have a prayer of redemption.
Maybe, with luck, he wouldn't have to remain here for the entire nine months. Maybe someone else with Warren's noble mindset would come along and be dedicated to a place that looked as if it had barely scratched the surface of the twentieth century, much less the twenty-first.
Either a doctor like that, or one who would ultimately wash out in the real world. If the latter came along, the physician would be more than happy to practice in a place like Foreverone that couldn't afford to be choosy.
"My guess is most likely everybody," Dan said, answering the deputy's question about who was waiting to see him.
Joe frowned for a moment, as if far from pleased at the riddle the stranger had tossed at him. And then the light seemed to dawn on him. His somber face took on a whole different expression, softening as it did so. "You must be the new doc."
The term new doc would suggest that there was an old doc somewhere in this dusty, neglected place, Dan thought. He figured it was too much to hope for, but he asked anyway, "I was told that there were no doctors in Forever."
"There aren't," Joe confirmed. "According to Miss Joan, there was one in Forever once, but he died a long time ago."
Probably out of boredom, Dan thought, slanting another look at the place he was going to have to call home for the next three-quarters of a year. He kept the observation to himself.
Out loud, he asked, "Miss Joan?"
Joe nodded. "She runs the local diner. Miss Joan's been around here as long as anyone can remember. There's nothing worth knowing that Miss Joan doesn't know."
A town gossip, Dan thought. He knew the type. Someone to stay clear of.
As braced as he'd ever be, Dan extended his hand out and nodded at the man he guessed was going to be his guide into the heart of this Lilliputian-size village. "I'm Dr. Daniel Davenport."
"Daniel?" Joe echoed with a slight note of confusion. "They told me your first name was Warren."
"Warren's my brother." He realized he'd used the present tense, making the relationship an active, ongoing one. He hadn't gotten used to putting Warren into the past just yet. He knew he really didn't want to.
"Changed his mind and decided that he didn't want to practice in a small town after all, huh?" Joe guessed, nodding his head. "Can't say I don't understand," he went on before Dan could begin to explain the reason he was standing here instead of Warren. "Well, let's get you down there," Joe said, gesturing toward the town. "Got a lot of folks waiting on you."
Dan looked at the deputy in surprise. Was the man telling him that he had patients lining up already? This was clearly going to be his penance. Not that he didn't deserve it, Dan silently added. He deserved anything that was thrown at him.
"Exactly what do you mean by 'waiting on you'?" he asked.
In response, the deputy merely smiled. "You'll see," was all he said by way of an explanation.
It was going to be a long nine months, Dan thought as he got into his car and prepared to follow the deputy into Forever.
Tina Blayne couldn't remember ever seeing the diner this crowded before. There was barely any room in which to maneuver. Maybe she shouldn't have deliberately left coming to Miss Joan's diner for last. But then, that was the way she usually worked her way through the day.
Since she had gotten what she gratefully felt was a second chance here in this wonderful, tiny dot-on-the-map town less than a year ago, Tina had applied herself to the business of rebuilding her life and making something of herself so that she was able to provide for her eleven-month-old son, Bobby.
To that end, she'd taken those last three missing credits that allowed her to finally get her undergraduate degree. From there she'd begun work on her accounting degree, taking online classes whenever she could. She had a ways to go yet, but the point was that she was getting there and it felt as if everyone in Forevernot just her older sister, Olivia, and her brother-in-law, Rick, who also just happened to be the sheriff in Foreverwas supporting her, cheering her on, pitching in when she needed help.
Why else would so many of the store owners suddenly turn to her to "help" them with their books? She knew that Miss Joan was behind that. The woman was certainly as sharp as they came and she could easily handle her own books, but Miss Joan had handed that off to her. Granted that the woman had her hands full, running the diner that was Forever's only decent place to eat, not to mention that it was also the last diner available for a good fifty miles to any traveler driving along the highway.
The latter fact was how she and Don, her son's father, had happened upon Forever, because they'd needed to stop for a meal. They'd also left Foreverand Bobbyin their rearview mirror the same day. She hadn't had much of a choice in that. It was during this sudden road trip that she'd realized Don was really, certifiably crazy. And that, depending on his whim, he'd destroy all three of them.
She'd been too in love with Don in the beginning to see that. But she was well aware of it that day. And she'd turned out to be right. Don had tried to kill them both by driving his car into a tree.
Luckily, he'd only succeeded halfway. Don had died, she hadn't. And, after an emotionally rocky start, she finally began to live when she came out of her coma. That was all thanks to Oliviaand the caring, nurturing people of Forever.
As far as Tina was concerned, Forever was a perfect name for the place because she intended to stay here Forever, just like her older sister had. Moreover, this was the perfect place to raise her sona place where everyone knew him and kept an eye out for him, just the way they kept an eye out for all the other children who lived here.
It didn't get any better than this, Tina thought. She supposed, in some people's opinion, it could be improved upon by introducing a little romance into her life, but she definitely didn't have time for that. Nor the inclination, either. Falling in love with the wrong man had almost ruined her life and had very nearly killed her.
As far as she was concerned, let the others, like Olivia and Mona, Rick's sister, have their romances. She'd had enough of so-called "romance" to last her a lifetime. Maybe two.
Walking through the diner, she hurried to the back before the tempting aroma of apple pie got to her and she stopped to have a piece. Nobody made apple pies like Miss Joan.
"Hey, wait up," Miss Joan called out just before she managed to reach the rear of the diner and the small, cluttered room that Miss Joan referred to as her "official" office.
Stopping, Tina turned around and glanced toward the owner of the diner. Miss Joan beckoned for her to come over, which she did.
"Where are you going?" Miss Joan asked.
Puzzled, Tina answered, "Your office. To do the books. The way I always do every Wednesday. Why?" She looked around again and spotted her sister and Rick at the far end of the diner. "Is something wrong?"
Rather than answer her question, Miss Joan responded with one of her own. "Did you forget?"