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ABBY CAHILL breathed in the crisp, pine-scented air, then stepped inside Blackberry Hill Memorial Hospital to start a new chapter in her life.
The retiring director of nursing, Grace Fisher-Edwards, met her inside the door with a broad smile. "I was afraid the tourist traffic would slow you down, but you're right on time." She ushered Abby down the hall to her office. "June can be a real bear around here."
Abby laughed. "On par with five o'clock rush hour in Detroit, except the scenery is much, much prettier."
"If you can see past the vehicles, that is." Grace snorted as she settled behind her cluttered desk and shifted a stack of files to one side. "During the summer, our population triples."
"And I think every last one of those tourists is on Main right now." Grinning, Abby searched through her shoulder bag for her notebook and a pen. "I sure wish I could've come a few days earlier, but our nursing students' graduation was on Saturday and then I still had to pack."
"You must be exhausted."
"No...though I do look forward to settling into my new place." Abby sat back in her chair and uncapped her pen.
Grace's eyes filled with concern. "I gather you haven't stopped by the Hawthorne Apartments."
"Not yet." Abby flipped open the notebook, her pen poised over its pristine surface. "Meeting with you was my biggest priority, believe me."
"The manager tried to call you yesterday. He even called the hospital, hoping Erin or I would know how to reach you."
Abby stilled. "My home phone was disconnected yesterday morning, and I have a new cell. But there shouldn't be a problem — I've signed a lease."
"There was a fire over the weekend."
"Oh, my," Abby said faintly. "Was anyone hurt?"
"No, but half your building was gutted, leaving seven families homeless...and now you, I guess." Grace pushed a piece of paper across the desk. "I've done some checking, but there aren't many apartments in this area. I'm afraid those displaced renters have already taken what little there was."
"I'm glad I left most of my things in storage for the summer." Abby considered the situation for a moment. "Maybe I can find a cabin to rent. Or even a motel, until the apartment building's livable."
"I'm not sure it ever will be." Grace worried her lower lip. "We've heard rumors for years about the owner wanting to raze the entire complex so he can put up fancy condos."
Dread settled in the pit of Abby's stomach. "What are my options?"
"Even vacation lodging is hard to come by during the tourist season. Most places are reserved months ahead. But I did find a few possibilities." Grace's dubious expression didn't bode well. "And you're sure welcome to stay with Warren and me. We leave on our wedding trip in the morning, but you could stay on through tomorrow night."
"You two just got married — what? — this past weekend. I'd hate to move in on you." The pink tinging Grace's cheeks made Abby smile. "Especially with you getting ready to leave."
"I wish I could offer you more, but my house has been sold and the contractors start on Warren's place Thursday morning. Once they tear up the plumbing and old wiring, I'm afraid it won't be habitable until they finish in July."
"Please, don't even give it a thought. I'm only here for a few months, so I can make do with just about anything."
She scanned Grace's list. A motel along the lake with weekly rates. Several small resorts with cabins. A furnished house for rent.
But the bigger issue was her new job and the fact that Grace — the person best suited to groom her temporary successor — was leaving town tomorrow.
"I'd rather spend as much time as I can with you. I can figure out my housing problems later."
"Are you sure?" Grace sounded doubtful. "With your background, you should have no difficulty taking over. Erin tells me you were a top student when you two were in training together. And your article in the Journal of Hospital Nursing last year was amazing."
"Psychology of Patient Care in the Low Income Setting" represented three years of research and had taken her at least sixteen drafts. Reprints were now required reading in several nursing programs across the United States and would be included in a college textbook released next spring.
But that article — and the others she'd written — provided no more practical knowledge on running a nursing department than Wuthering Heights.
"As you know, it's been a while since I worked in a hospital." Abby managed a light laugh. "I may have been teaching nursing for years, but I'm going to need every bit of advice you can offer."
"And I'll be glad to give it. But first, I really think you'd better take a few hours to look for a place to stay." Grace glanced at her watch. "Come back at, say, four o'clock?"
"But my orientation — "
"Don't worry. I'll still be here when you get back and we can stay as late as we need to." Tapping the files on her desk, Grace gave her a grandmotherly smile. "Last month, we revised the facility-wide policy and procedure manuals, and they'll explain every last detail of running this place. Coupled with the files I've pulled together for you, you'll have everything you need to know."
Updated policy and procedure manuals. Complete files. The words were a balm to Abby's left-brained soul. She felt the tension in her shoulders ease. "Sounds like this should be a smooth transition, then. Thanks."
"Everyone is looking forward to having you here." The hint of admiration in Grace's voice was unmistakable. "And though you'll only be here for a short while, I know you'll be a great asset."
Three months, to be precise, until the new permanent director of nursing arrived. Surely she could handle a small, quiet hospital like this one for three months, and the experience would be perfect research for her next article.
Abby smiled. "I can't tell you how much I've looked forward to enjoying the slower pace up here."
"Slower pace?" Grace repeated, a faint, enigmatic smile on her lips. "I think we'll have a lot to discuss before this day is over."
AFTER TWO HOURS of fruitless searching, Abby realized just how right Grace had been about this busy resort town.
It had all seemed so simple while she was packing. After the graduation ceremony, a formal tea at her mother's Rosewood Lakes estate and a quiet farewell gathering at her father's country club, she'd savored every moment of the beautiful drive north to the quaint Wisconsin town of Blackberry Hill.
She hadn't been prepared for the bumper-to-propeller traffic during the final two hours of the trip or the crowds attending the Blackberry Hill Arts Festival. Not to mention there wasn't a single place to stay within fifty miles.
Every possibility on Grace's list was filled, along with three others she'd found in the local newspaper.
Scooping her hair away from her damp forehead, she tugged at the collar of her limp cotton blouse and knocked on the door of her last resort: an old house with a sagging front porch at the end of Bailey Street.
A minute later the door swung open to reveal a bony and bent eighty-something man with a scowl on his face.
"I'm not buying anything," he snapped.
"I'm here about the room," she said as he started to close the door. "Please — is it still available?"
The man in front of her was as charming as his advertisement.
She'd seen the scrawled note tacked to the bulletin board of the grocery store downtown, hidden beneath a flyer advertising Lawn Care — Good Rates.
Efficiency available by the month. Private entrance. No smoking. No drinking. No guests of the opposite sex. No pets. No noise. One month rent deposit. Hubert L. Bickham, 234 Bailey Street.
Hubert L. Bickham's scowl deepened as he studied her from head to foot with narrowed eyes. "I don't allow any hanky-panky. No trouble." He jerked a thumb toward the side of the house, where she'd seen exterior stairs leading to the second floor of the small one-and-a-half-story house. "Those stairs go right past my bedroom, and any noise wakes me up. So no tromping up them stairs at all hours, missy."
Despite the heat, the frustration and her need to get back to the hospital, Abby had to struggle to keep a straight face.
No one had ever accused her of leading a wild life. And right now, with her hair curly as Medusa's in the humidity, this old guy imagined she could find someone to get wild with.
She held up her hand in a Scout salute. "I swear." He chewed at his lower lip. "You got the deposit?"
"Ain't a big town, if you're lookin' for work. You got a job?"
"Blackberry Hill Memorial Hospital. I'm the new director of nursing. The interim director, I should say," Abby added carefully.
He appeared mollified at that. "Grace's job."
"Exactly. Last month I leased one of the Hawthorne Apartments near the hospital but — "
"Fire, first floor." He folded his arms across his thin chest and gave her a long, skeptical look. "They checked you out before letting you sign?"
"They did," Abby assured him. "Credit check, work history. Everything."
He thought for a while, searching her face. "I suppose you can have the room, long as you understand the rules and pay on time."
Suppressing the impulse to kiss his whiskery cheek, she quickly read the contract and signed her name, then wrote a check for two months' rent. "You won't regret this. I promise."
He appeared to regret it within minutes — glaring at her from his front window as she lugged her suitcase and several boxes up the sidewalk and around to the stairs. He thumped on his ceiling with — she suspected — a broom handle when one of the boxes slipped from her grasp and hit the floor.
Her new landlord appeared to have a major personality disorder. The apartment was cramped and dark. Yet she wouldn't inconvenience Grace and she'd just bought herself time to find a better place. How hard could that be?