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Eager to leave Montana for good, Mark Engle sped down the empty highway, toward the Billings airport. The flight to L.A. left at seven, and he was still a good four-hour drive away.
He should've left Steer Bluff earlier, but his mom had treated him to lunch. Mark hated that she spent her hard-earned money on his send-off meal. At least she had a means of getting around nowthe old but reliable car that had taken him through med school, a three-year internship/residency at Sheridan County Hospital and a two-year stint there as a family-practice doctor.
Overhead, the dark clouds suddenly opened up. Furious rain bounced off the road and pummeled Mark's rented sedan. Given that this was May in Montana, it was no big surprise. The pavement was slick now, and he slowed down and turned the wipers to high speed.
On either side of him, the celery-green prairie grass and spring flowers bowed under the onslaught. No doubt, the steep drainage ditches lining the road would soon fill with churning water.
A Josh Ritter song started on the iPod and Mark sang along, vaguely noting the white sedan advancing toward him. He thought about his new life in L.A. One week from today, he would start his dream job at Archer Clinic, a private facility for the wealthy that paid a hefty salary and a few years down the road offered the chance to buy a stake in the business. Provided the other partners approved.
He was in hock up to his ears, but at last he could pay down his massive student loans and start a savings account so that when the time came he'd have the funds to buy into the clinic. Meantime, he'd work extra hard to convince the existing partners of his value. He also intended to purchase his first-ever brand-new car, and date lots of gorgeous femaleswomen who understood the importance of putting your career firs
Without warning, the white sedan veered into his lane. Mark gripped the wheel and swerved to the side of the road. Mere inches from the ditch, his car screeched and skidded to a stop.
The other car didn't fare so well. With a sickening bam! it slammed headfirst down the incline.
Mark jumped from his car. Heedless of the rain, he jogged toward the sedan. The front end was rammed against the far side of the ditch, and the back end hovered a few inches off the ground. The air bag had deployed, pinning an elderly woman in place. She was unconscious.
Swearing, he slipped and slid his way down to her. Cold, murky water, already ankle-high, seeped rapidly into his sneakers and soaked the bottoms of his jeans.
Mark checked her pulse. To his relief he found one, though it was weak. He lifted one of her eyelids. Peered at her. "Can you hear me?"
The woman groaned.
"Hang on." He pulled his cell phone from his hip pocket and called 911. "This is Dr. Mark Engle. I'm on the highway, south of" He broke off to squint at an exit sign a few yards away. "Saddlers Prairie. An elderly female just crashed into a drainage ditch. Unconscious, but coming to now. Pulse thready. Send an ambulance, stat."
"Our closest hospital, Flagg Memorial, is twenty-five miles west of where you are," the dispatcher said. "It'll be a few minutes."
"What about EMTs from the fire department?"
"They're out on another call."
"Great, just great," Mark muttered, and hung up.
The woman's eyes were open now. A faded blue, and unfocused. "What is this thing in my face?" she asked, feebly pushing at the air bag.
"Don't moveyou might have a broken neck. You crashed into the ditch and your air bag deployed."
"Take it off me."
"Do. Not. Move," Mark repeated. "The medics will deflate it when they arrive." He hunkered down to eye level. "What's your name?"
"Is there someone I can call?"
"Dr. Tom." She recited the number.
"Is he a family member?" Mark asked.
"With a name like that? Of course not. He's my doctor."
"Is there any family?"
"I don't.. I think so. Where am I, and who are you?"
"My name is Dr. Mark Engle. You ran off the highway, near the Saddlers Prairie exit."
"At least I'm close to home." Florence Jones closed her eyes.
"Stay with me," Mark said.
"Oh, I'm here, all right. I'm going to take a nap now."
Not wanting her to do that, Mark said, "Please keep your eyes open while I contact Dr. Tom."
He dialed the number the woman had provided, which connected, thank God.
"Saddlers Prairie Medical Clinic. This is Stacy," a crisp, female voice said.
Mark pictured a youngish woman with a take-charge expression and dark hair pulled severely back from her face. "Dr. Mark Engle hereI need to speak with Dr. Tom " Not knowing the man's last name, he let his voice trail off.
"Dr. Sackett is with a patient. Can he call you back?"
Sackett. Mark mentally stowed the name in his memory. "Would you let him know that one of his patients, a Miss"
"Mrs.," the elderly woman corrected.
"Mrs. Florence Jones has been in a car accident. She just came to, and we're waiting for the ambulance."
"Why didn't you say so?" The woman's tone stopped just short of a scold. "Hold on."
Moments later, Tom Sackett picked up. "I've treated Florence for decades," he told Mark. "She may have had a stroke. Tell her I'll get hold of her son and daughter, and they'll meet her at the hospital."
Before long, sirens filled the air. Flashing bright lights, the ambulance sped down the highway, followed by a sheriff's car.
By the time the EMTs loaded Florence Jones into the ambulance and Sheriff Gabe Bennett finished questioning Mark, the tow truck had arrived and the rain had stopped.
Mark was soaked and cold clear through. He'd also missed any chance of catching his flight to L.A. He trudged to his car to pull fresh clothing from his suitcase and changed quickly with the trunk up. He was zipping the fly of his dry jeans and about to toe into a pair of loafers, when his cell phone rang.
"This is Tom Sackett," the doctor said. "Thanks for taking care of Florence. Heard you missed your plane."
Mark wasn't surprised that the doctor knew about his flight. In small towns, news spread quickly. "There's another flight tomorrow afternoon. I'll fly out then," he said.
An afternoon flight would give him plenty of time to make the trip to Billings in the morning.
"You missed that plane because you were helping my patient. The least I can do is treat you to dinner. Why don't you stop by my clinic. I'll show you around and we'll leave from there."
Mark had zero interest in touring the man's clinic, but as he was stuck in Montana for one more night, he saw no reason why he shouldn't take Tom up on his offer. The country doctor might know of a decent place to bunk for the night.
"Why not?" he said. "Tell me how to find you, and I'll be right over."
"Stacy, the gray sedan just pulled into the parking lot!" Dr. Engle had arrived.
"Thanks, Mrs. Card." Stacy Andrews dashed from the kitchen in the back to the reception desk mere seconds before Dr. Engle exited his car.
They'd been expecting him since Dr. Tom's announcement that he'd invited the man to tour the clinic and then have dinner. He was just passing through, but you never knew .
An opportunity like this rarely came along, and Stacy meant to take full advantage of it.
She'd spent the past thirty minutes tidying up. Her desk, which she always kept neat and clean, was even more orderly than usual. In cheery welcome, she'd transferred the bouquet of flowers she'd brought in this morning from the window-sill to her desk.
Though it was after five and Mrs. Card was waiting for her mother, Dr. Tom's last patient of the day, Stacy had started a fresh pot of coffeethe gourmet blend she saved for special occasions. She'd left the kitchen door open, and the mouthwatering aroma filled the waiting room.
She'd also returned the magazines that had migrated to chairs and side tables to the wall rack, and selected a soothing, classical-guitar CD for background music. Even Mrs. Card had gotten into the act, combing her gray-streaked hair and applying lipstick.
Through the large glass window fronting the reception area, Stacy watched the doctor start up the walk. He looked about her age, somewhere in his early thirties. Tall and well built, with a long, graceful stride. His jeans fit him well, and his pressed oxford shirt showcased broad shoulders. She noted his short, dark hair and strong nose, and a squarish jaw and generous mouth. All of which added up to a handsome man.
Not that Stacy cared. He could've stood five feet tall with the face of a donkey. The important thing was to convince the doctor that this clinic was worth his consideration.
As the front door opened, she pasted a welcoming smile on her face and started her spiel. "Welcome to Saddlers Prairie Clinic, Dr. Engle. I'm Stacy Andrews, Dr. Tom's receptionist and office manager. He's finishing up with a patient, but should be out soon."
"Please, call me Mark. You're the woman who answered the phone earlier."
Intelligent eyes the color of dark chocolate studied her, and she had the feeling that this man missed nothing. Which was unnerving, if only because of her ulterior motives. His looks set her on edge, as well.
Forget merely handsome. Dr. Mark Engle was drop-dead gorgeous.
For the first time since her ex-fiance, Vince, had broken her heart, Stacy felt the stirrings of attraction.
"You look different than you sound," he said.
"Is that good or bad?" she asked, checking her hair, which was straight and fine textured and always getting in her eyes.
His mouth twitched, as if he knew he'd flustered her. Women probably swooned around him all the time.
Not Stacy. A man's looks had nothing to do with his characterhadn't she learned that lesson in spades? Compressing her lips, she gestured at the empty waiting-room chairs. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
Mrs. Card patted the nubby seat of the chair next to hers. "I'm Debra Card, and I'm waiting for my mother." She lowered her voice. "Hashimoto's disease. Do you know anything about it?"
The doctor nodded. "I've treated a number of patients with the condition. It's a fairly common thyroid problem, and with regular blood tests, easily treatable."
"That's exactly what Dr. Tom says." Mrs. Card beamed. "You're as smart as you are handsome. I can tell you're a wonderful doctor."
Mark blushed, charming Stacy. Boy, was she easy. Mentally rolling her eyes, she cleared her throat. "May I get you a cup of coffee, Mark?"
When she returned with a fragrant, steaming mug, Mrs. Card was talking his ear off.
"expected you to be a soggy mess from standing in the pouring rain all that time," she said. "Yet here you are, as dry and smartly dressed as if you'd been inside all afternoon. How lucky that you had a change of clothes in your car."
A hint of a smile played at Mark's mouth. "Did you hear about that from the sheriff or one of the medics?"
When Mrs. Card raised her eyebrows, Mark full-out smiled. "I grew up in a town just like this one, and I know that news travels faster than fire in dry brush."
Unabashed, the woman chuckled. "You're absolutely right. Sheriff Bennett told his wife, Louisa. Then she phoned"
Dr. Tom's door opened with a loud click, silencing Mrs. Card. The clump of a cane announced the patient's slow return to the waiting room. Dr. Tom followed behind her.
"We're all finished," he told Mrs. Card. "Your mother should get her blood checked again in six months. Put that in the appointment book, Stacy." He turned to Mark. "Dr. Engle? I'm Tom Sackett, aka Dr. Tom. This is Mrs. Givens. Welcome to the Saddlers Prairie Clinic."
Mark stood and shook the older woman's hand, then Dr. Tom's.
Clearly struck by the man's good looks, Mrs. Givens simpered. Then she squinted at him through her trifocals. "You'll do quite well."
"Excuse me?" Mark asked.
"Aren't you here to interview for Dr. Tom's job?"
Mark frowned. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm looking for someone to take over my practice," Dr. Tom explained. "So I can retire."
Stacy hoped he found his replacement soon. Nearly seventy-five and exhausted from years of long hours and minimal time off, the good doctor deserved to relax and enjoy the rest of his "golden years."
Was Mark at all interested? Behind her back, she crossed her fingers and, along with Mrs. Givens, Mrs. Card and Dr. Tom, openly regarded him.
Their hopeful expressions didn't seem to faze him. "Good luck finding someone," he said.
His upper lip actually curled, letting Stacy know exactly what he thought about the Saddlers Prairie practicethat the little clinic was beneath him.
And he wasn't alone. Dr. Tom had been searching for a replacement since before he'd hired Stacy nine months ago. So far, there were no candidates in sight. Practicing smalltown medicine didn't seem to interest most doctors.
"I just accepted a job at Archer Clinic in L.A.," Mark said. "I'll be the first family-practice physician Archer has ever had, and they've promised me the opportunity to become a partner." He all but salivated. "I was on my way to the Billings Airport to fly out when Mrs. Jones had her accident."
Having lived in L.A. before relocating to Saddlers Prairie, Stacy knew about the Archer Clinic, a state-of-the-art medical facility on Rodeo Drive that catered to the rich and famous. Looks-wise, Mark would certainly fit in with the clientele, and a partnership would probably make him almost as wealthy as his patients.
Saddlers Prairie Clinic couldn't hope to compete with that. Her heart sank.
But it wasn't just that Saddlers Prairie was a small town. She'd bet a week's salary that Mark Engle was one of thosea smart, handsome male who valued money and prestige above most everything else. Just like Vince. She'd wasted seven years of her life hoping he'd put her first. Never again.
Suddenly she couldn't wait to leave the office and get away from Dr. Mark Engle. There was plenty to do before the day ended. Stop at Spenser's and pick up the yarn for Megan Dawson's baby blanket, putter in the garden and play with Smooth Talker. She'd learned the hard way that when she neglected her pet, he made life unpleasant as only a parrot could, scolding and swearing like a sailor. She also wanted to finish this month's selection before the book-club meeting on Saturday.