Read an Excerpt
What a beautiful little village! Dr Gabrielle Evans breathed a sigh of relief, shutting off her car in the parking spot marked Guests, in front of the quaint White Elk Lodge. She'd lived in large cities too many years. Indoctrinated herself to fast pace and convenience. Nothing about the village called White Elk seemed fast, or convenient and, right now, that suited her just fine. She was tired and, physically, she needed this stop. Surprisingly, it seemed right for her emotionally, too. Even if only for a night. Maybe two, if the bed was comfortable, the food good, a fire in the fireplace inviting, because she did have just the slightest backache, she was hungry, and the mood to settle in and be cozy was dropping down over her like a soft blanket. So much so she could picture herself sitting in front of a great stone fireplace, feet up, dozing off from pure contentment.
Nesting. Which was to be expected in her condition.
Besides, hadn't she seen a little boutique on Main Street, one with the name Handmade for Baby? That was all the excuse she needed for a short holiday here. That, and her swollen ankles. Pregnant-swollen was what she called it when her patients had the same problem. Pregnant-swollen ankles, pregnant-swollen belly. Not to worry, she would say. It's a temporary condition.
Well, temporary condition or not, she felt like stopping. Something about White Elk appealed to her sense of esthetics. It was a homey little town, its narrow streets lined with pine trees and old-fashioned streetlamps, and white picket fences surrounded the cottage homes she'd seen from her car on the way in. Cottage homes…she'd always wanted to live in a cottage. All in all, everything she'd seen so far in this Alpine-styled village was the antithesis of her steel-and-chrome condo back in Chicago, where she lived in the middle of a mixed residential and industrial area, overlooking a frantic, elevated railway on one side and the bumper-to-bumper Chicago interstate system on the other. Her wake-up call in the morning was the honking of agitated motorists trying to inch their way through impossible traffic and her lullaby at night was the clacking of the old train over the el rails.
And here in White Elk… no traffic. Just a few lazy drivers on the street, none who seemed agitated, none who seemed in a hurry. That, alone, could have been an enticement to stay over, if everything else she could see around her hadn't already drawn her in. Besides, the drive back to the airport was still another ninety miles, and her reservation home to Chicago wasn't until tomorrow. Meaning she was going to stay in a hotel room for the night somewhere. So, why not here? "And it's not like I've got anything to hurry back to," she said aloud, a habit she'd developed since she'd learned she was pregnant. Talking to her unborn baby… it's what she urged her patients to do, and in this case, she took her own advice. Chattered away to him all the time. "Anyway, what's the hurry getting back? It's not like I have a job waiting for me any more. Right now, I'm here, and here seems very nice. You should see it, Bryce. People smile. Perfect strangers wave."
Yes, a night or two here was exactly what the pregnant doctor needed, which was why she prescribed it for herself.
Gabby pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number posted under the wooden, hand-carved Welcome sign nailed to a lodgepole. It was a lazy thing to do, but all of a sudden she felt like being a little lazy. After the day she'd had, she deserved some laziness and a nice cup of hot chocolate on top of that! "Hello," she said, when the woman who called herself Laura Stewart answered the phone. "I was wondering if you have a room available for one night." She glanced across the street and discovered the little shop White Elk Confectionary, specializing in chocolate. Fate? "Maybe two nights," she added, because she really did want that chocolate. Sure, it was almost spring—technically spring had sprung a few days ago, but there was still snow on the ground here, in patchy spots, so in Gabby's mind she was allowed her craving for hot chocolate. "One person," she added. Well, almost two.
According to Laura, there were plenty of rooms available, so Gabby crawled out of her rental car, stretched her aching back, decided not to look down in the inevitable lost cause of locating her puffy ankles, which she couldn't see now anyway, and forced herself not to waddle when she walked inside, although several friends back home had recently commented on her waddling.
"That didn't take long," the friendly-looking strawberry blonde at the desk said as Gabby dropped her overnight bag on the floor and her purse on the desk.
"I was just outside. Called from the parking lot. These days, if I can find a way to be lazy, I do it." She smiled. "Actually, I look for ways to be lazy and the more pregnant I get, the lazier I want to be."
"Don't blame you. Been in your condition three times myself, and if ever there's a time to be pampered…"
If there was someone there to pamper you, Gabby thought, her eyes going immediately to Laura's ring finger. A simple gold band there said it all. She had someone to pamper her, where Gabby did not. But that was fine because, normally, she didn't need pampering. In fact, she prided herself on her independence.
"Is this your first?" Laura continued.
Instinctively, Gabby laid her hand on her belly. Yes, her first. Unexpected. Very welcomed. "Yes, it is," she said, not really sure she wanted to go any further. People reacted differently to her situation and it wasn't a matter of feeling awkward in her very pregnant, very unmarried condition so much as it was that she didn't want to make people feel awkward around her. She was a medical doctor, she knew how these kinds of things happened, and in a moment of weakness, well, it had happened to her. No excuses, no apologies. "And I saw a lovely little baby shop down the street. I thought I might go take a look after I'm rested. I haven't really started baby shopping yet."
"You haven't?" Laura seemed genuinely surprised. "I think I was out buying baby bootees about ten minutes after the test strip confirmed my pregnancy… with my first. With my second it took about an hour, and with my third about a day." She glanced down at Gabby's belly. "I'm surprised you could hold off this long."
It wasn't so much that she was holding off as it was she was scared to make plans. "Oh, I've figured that I'd probably do a big binge shop when the time comes. You know, go crazy, buy everything in the store. But I haven't had time." And she'd had patients who'd put all their hopes and dreams into a miracle baby, like hers, only to be heartbroken. Even though she had only two months to go, she wasn't ready to invest herself in so many hopes. "Who knows, maybe Handmade for Baby will be the lucky recipient of all my saved-up baby-shopping urges once I'm rested."
Laura laughed. "Janice Laughlin will love you forever. She's the owner. Anyway, speaking of getting rested, I think we should get you to your room. The ski season's over now, except for a few brave souls who hang around hoping for late snow. So, you can have your choice of rooms—one here in the lodge—something small, a large suite. Or you can have a cabin all to yourself."
"You have cabins?" That sounded like the coziness she wanted. "With a fireplace?"
"With a fireplace."
A cabin with a fireplace in a ski-resort community, baby shopping, hot chocolate… Suddenly, Gabby was looking forward to her next couple of days. It was like this was exactly the place she was meant to be. Yes, nesting. Her patients talked about it all the time—finding the place you wanted to be, settling in, dwelling on your pregnancy. Now, for the first time, she believed she understood what that meant, and if this was, indeed, nesting, it agreed with her because she wasn't feeling so bleak, so alone, like she had too many times these past months. "A cabin… Yes, I'd love a cabin with a fireplace."
"It's a little bit of a hike to get up there," Laura warned. "Not steep, but not so convenient to the parking lot as the lodge is."
"In spite of the obvious, I'm in good shape. Just a little tired right now because I've been on the road for a while, and I really hate traveling. Generally, though, I'm active and a nice walk back and forth will do me some good." Especially now that she didn't get all the exercise she had when she'd worked every day.
"Good. But I still don't want you lifting anything heavy, so I'll have my daughter carry your bags up to the cabin when she gets home from school in a couple of hours…"
Gabby shook her head. "Not necessary. All I have is an overnighter, and I can carry it myself. I didn't expect to be staying so I didn't bring much with me." Actually, she wasn't sure what she had expected when she'd set out on this trip. A quick announcement to Gavin Thierry, letting him know he was about to become a father, then a quick retreat? Certainly she hadn't expected much from him. After all, there'd been no lasting relationship. But to find out what she had… "Thanks, anyway, for offering."
Laura spun around the register for Gabby to sign, then handed her the cabin key when the paperwork was completed. "We have a dining room here, but if you'd like…" she took a look at the name on the register "...Gabrielle, I can have someone bring dinner to your cabin later on."
"Call me Gabby." Her father had been the only one ever to call her Gabrielle, and hearing someone else call her by that name now hurt. "And I appreciate the offer, but I'd rather come down to the dining room, if it's all the same to you. I think getting out, keeping myself active, is a good idea." As an obstetrician, it's what she prescribed for her patients. Then scolded them when they didn't take her advice.
"Well, if you need anything, call the main switch. Oh, and so you'll know, we do have a small hospital in the village, not that I think anything will happen. But to be on the safe side in case, well… you know… there's the White Elk Hospital, and it's pretty nice. Very good in general services for adults and, believe it or not, well known for its pediatric practices. And what we lack in big-town medical services we make up for in some very nice, very competent doctors and nurses."
Glowing praise that intrigued her, and she caught herself wondering what it would be like working in a small town like White Elk. And raising her son here. "Well, I'm not due yet, so let's hope I won't be needing any medical care while I'm here."
Wasn't this what she wanted? A fresh start, someplace other than a large, impersonal city like Chicago? That's what she'd told herself when she'd sold her share of the medical practice to her partners and, just last week, had started the process of putting her condo on the market with the expectation of finding someplace else to start her new life. She was looking for something different, something she wasn't quite able to define. That's what she kept telling herself, anyway. What it was or where it would be were still great big questions, but she trusted that she would know it when she saw it.
Could it be White Elk? The feel was right, it was definitely different from what she'd had, but it was also so small. Moving here from Chicago would be a huge culture shock and with all the other drastic changes going on in her life now, she wasn't sure she should even think about one like this. White Elk had nice shops and a bed in a cozy cabin for a night but, generally, she liked a few more amenities around her, and a few more luxuries. This was a place where you spent a nice holiday, but to settle here?
Crazy thoughts. Pregnancy thoughts—a combination of hormones, flailing emotions over the news of her baby's father's death, and a whole lot of uncertainty. That's what it had to be. Her thinking was a little skew these days as she had someone else to consider now, and her decisions didn't affect only her. Besides, she needed to work, needed to settle somewhere the red carpet was out for an obstetrician, and what were the odds of that happening here?
"To get to your cabin, go out behind the lodge, take the first trail to the left, and I've got you in the first one you'll come to. It's got the best view of the Three Sisters."
"Our three mountain peaks. They overlook the valley and, according to Indian legend, take care of the people who live here. Of course, we have busy ski resorts on each of the peaks now, which is what has made White Elk thrive." She smiled. "Tourists. We love them to pieces here."
"With so many tourists I'd say the Three Sisters are doing what they're supposed to." Watching and protecting… the very same things she did for this baby she'd be delivering in a while. The same things she wished she had someone to do for her, which simply wasn't in her future.
The hike to the cabin was pleasant, the air cool and brisk, but not as cold as it could have been for the last week of March. Along the trail, little purple and yellow crocuses poked their heads out of the remnants of the last snow, giving Gabby the hope that the full burst of spring was just around the corner. By the time that happened, she'd be a mother, settled in wherever she was supposed to be. "A mother," she said, simply to remind herself. Sometimes she still couldn't believe it. This little boy inside her was a dream coming true in a way she'd have never expected in a million years. Of course, now that she knew of Gavin's death, she was a little sad. They hadn't been romantically involved. Outside of what she'd seen of him as a doctor, she hadn't even known him well enough to tell her son what kind of person his father had been other than smart, kind, considerate. Bryce did deserve to know, but what could she say? Your mother was feeling very lonely, and very vulnerable when she met a pleasant, handsome man at a medical symposium, spent a night with him and conceived you as a result.
Unfortunately, that's all there was to the story. It had taken her weeks to find Gavin, and weeks to get up the courage to come tell him what had happened that one night they'd spent together. But by then it had been too late. Meaning there was nothing to add to the story and Bryce would never know his father. Gavin had no family in Spotswood, where'd she'd just visited. None that she could find. And no one there who could tell her about his family either. Sad for her son, sad for her.
Gabby stopped for a moment, and thought about picking a few of the flowers for her cabin, but decided to leave them as they were, a tiny bit of inspiration fighting against the elements. "You know we're going to be fine," she said to her unborn baby. "It's just a little tough right now. I wanted you to know about him and I'm sorry I didn't find him sooner. But we'll work it out, just you and me, and I promise that if there's any information available about him…" Information, but no father.
It wasn't like she was afraid of raising a baby as a single mother, because she wasn't. In fact, from the instant she'd discovered she was pregnant, she'd been shocked, excited, scared, in awe after a lifetime being told, and believing, it wouldn't ever happen to her, that she could not get pregnant. She'd been injured in a riding accident years ago. Too much scar tissue, the doctors had said soon after. Too little hope. When she'd been fifteen, that hadn't really had much of an impact on her. When she'd turned thirty, it had. But she'd lived with it, accepted it.
Then, after all those years of believing, as the patient, and even as a doctor, that nothing could happen, she'd had the recurring feeling that maybe, just maybe she might be pregnant. Missed period one month and she'd convinced herself it was stress, that her job was demanding. Missed period the second month and she'd gone to the local pharmacy for a home pregnancy kit, then had sat it on the bathroom countertop and stared at it for three days before she'd opened it. After that she'd waited another two days before she'd actually gotten around to using it. Then, when that test strip had gone from pink to blue, she'd run, not walked, but run to the corner pharmacy, bought another kit, done another test. Then gone back to that same pharmacy one more time, one more kit.
A kindly pharmacist who'd seen her grabbing yet another test kit off the shelf had suggested she go see an obstetrician, and offered to make a referral if she needed one. But she was an obstetrician, and a very pregnant one, she was coming to realize. Also a very overwhelmed one. "Right now, your only problem is that your mother's very tired. But I'm on my way to fix that situation immediately."
Bryce Evans. Her miracle baby. She couldn't wait for his arrival into the world. Nothing other than that really mattered. And she was so happy…
"Thanks for making a house call. We're not busy right now, but with David out of town, it's like I'm doing the work of a dozen different people and there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done that needs to be."
Dr Neil Ranard handed the bottle of pink bubble-gum-tasting liquid over to Laura. They called it bubble-gum tasting, and he'd successfully convinced a number of his young patients that was the case, but to him it tasted like… medicine. Nasty, nasty medicine. "Just give her the dose listed on the label and she'll be fine. There's a sore throat bug going around the elementary school and Emily is one of the many. Also I'll want to check her again in a couple of days, but she'll be ready to come to the clinic by then." Yes, he still made house calls. In a small town, that was possible, and he really liked getting back to personal medicine. Two years away had taught him so many things, but the biggest lesson learnt was that everything he needed was here. He was a small-town doctor, and that's exactly what he wanted to be.
"Can you stay for dinner, Neil? I have only a handful of paying guests checked in right now, and I'm making enough food for an army. Can't get out of the habit of cooking for a lodge full of people when the season shuts down, I guess."