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Tempted in the Tropics
A Suddenly Smitten Novel
By Tracy March, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Tracy March
All rights reserved.
Sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free — Paige Ellerbee separated coconut-pumpkin muffins by the half dozen, packed them into bright pink-and-yellow-striped bakery boxes, and quickly labeled them with Sweet Bee's stickers before she forgot which kind was inside. Some of her regular customers would show up for their muffins the second she switched on the Open sign, and that should happen in exactly ten minutes. The regulars got cranky if she opened late. The regulars liked routine.
Paige grinned slyly. Maybe she'd flip the switch early. The mostly older, mostly lovable folks in small-town Maple Creek, Maryland, could use a little excitement.
But before any switch-flipping happened, she had a morning ritual to fulfill. She hummed off-key as she put a couple of warm, sugar-free muffins in a bag, grabbed two large to-go cups of coffee, and dashed out the back door of the bakery into the bitterly cold January air. In five steps she'd reached her dad's barbershop, where the rear door was already unlocked for her. She ducked in, shivering despite her short time outside, and made her way from the stockroom to the front of the old-fashioned shop that had been a central part of her life for as long as she could remember. One of her favorite pictures was of herself as a toddler, sitting happily in the hulking, black-leather barber chair, her dad teasingly dabbing foamy white shaving cream on her nose with a fluffy brush.
"Here comes Trouble," her dad said brightly as usual. He'd lovingly given her the nickname before she was even born. He and Paige's mom had tried for years to have children. They'd pretty much given up ... then Paige had come along when they were both nearly forty. He'd always joked that a baby who waited that long to show up was sure to cause trouble for her parents. And Paige hadn't disappointed.
"Trouble's got your breakfast," she teased. She put the coffees on the countertop, hugged her dad tightly, and kissed his freshly shaven cheek.
"Mornin', little lady," said Ed Warren, the old man who sat in the waiting area. His eyes twinkled as he tipped his gray flannel newsboy cap. He was usually the first of the roosters to show up for the daily hen party at Ellerbee's Barber Shop.
"Mornin', Mayor Warren." Paige handed him a cup of coffee.
He gave her an appreciative and winsome look. She was one of the few people who still called him by his former title — even though he'd been out of office since she was ten. Seventeen years later, most people had reverted to calling him Ed.
Paige remembered when he'd come to Maple Creek Elementary at the beginning of every school year. Several kids had been randomly selected to sit with him at lunchtime, even though none of them wanted to because he made them eat their vegetables. For Paige, it had been fifth grade and carrots. She'd refused to eat them, and she and the mayor had a staring contest that ended with her chewing a mouthful and pretending to vomit. He'd retired not long after that.
Now Paige looked forward to seeing Mayor Warren several times a week and was happy to bake for him — even carrot cake. After fifty-nine years of marriage, his wife had suddenly passed away last year, and he was still learning his way around the kitchen. So far he'd mastered the toaster, but it was still hit or miss with the microwave.
Paige's dad joined Mayor Warren in the waiting area. As soon as he sat down, Paige opened the bakery bag, the paper crinkling, and waved it beneath her dad's nose.
He tipped his head back and sniffed deliberately. "Hmm ... coconut-pumpkin?"
"Right again," Paige said, amazed that he never guessed wrong. He had an uncanny scent memory of his late wife's recipes. Before her mom had died from lung cancer two years ago, she'd been known as the best baker in Maple Creek. In Sweet Bee's, Paige proudly displayed all the blue ribbons her mom had won in the town bake-offs. She'd kept her recipes top secret, sharing them only with Paige and claiming they were the best because there was magic in them — "If you believe," she'd said with a gentle, knowing smile.
Paige and her dad had always believed. Now the people of Maple Creek did, too.
She handed one muffin to her dad and the other to Mayor Warren, who anxiously stared out the window.
"What's wrong, Ed?" her dad asked.
Mayor Warren took the lid off his coffee, blew into it, and cautiously took a swallow. "I got a reminder about my appointment with the new doctor tomorrow morning."
Paige furrowed her brow, hoping it was nothing serious.
Mayor Warren waved his weathered hand. "Just a checkup ..."
"Piece of cake," Paige said, then waited for a second for them to get the joke.
Her dad chuckled. "That's my girl."
"Believe me," Paige said, "a once-in-a-lifetime vacation like Dr. Hartley is taking could make me forget all about baking for a while." Dr. Pete Hartley — who was close to retirement himself, and whose practice was next door to Sweet Bee's — was the only family practice doctor in Maple Creek.
"He's talked about it for years," Mayor Warren said, "but I never thought he'd actually go."
"A month in Europe." Paige imagined all the incredible men she'd meet in France ... Italy ... Spain. She sighed. "That would be a dream."
"But Pete's always been my doctor," the mayor said.
"I'm sure Dr. Anderson will be fine while Dr. Hartley's gone," Paige said. Surely Dr. Hartley had picked someone like himself to take care of his patients for the next month — right?
"I'm not sure I trust a young whippersnapper like Dr. Anderson. He's Pete's nephew, probably just a kid." The mayor took a small bite of his muffin and chewed deliberately.
For some reason Paige had imagined that a Dr. Hartley clone would show up, not someone young. And single?
"I'm sure he'll do just fine." Paige's dad stirred a packet full of powdered creamer into his coffee. He sure knew how to ruin a good cup of joe, but she'd given up trying to convince him to try something better. She liked chunky peanut butter on cold, leftover pizza. He'd never been able to talk her out of that, either, so maybe they were even.
"The young doctor and his wife are renting the house across the street," Mayor Warren said. "Moved in yesterday."
Not single. Oh, well. Paige wouldn't have expected him to be attractive anyway. The only hot young doctors she'd ever seen were on TV.
"Did you meet them?" she asked, a little excited that two people under age fifty had moved to Maple Creek, even if it was temporarily. But her excitement quickly fizzled. The Andersons could be card-carrying members of AARP and Mayor Warren would think they were young.
The mayor shrugged. "I figured I'd just wait till tomorrow morning." He glanced out the window again and something caught his eye. "There he is now."
Paige leaned closer to the window to get a better view, and that's exactly what she got. One look at the new doctor and her stomach flipped like a pineapple upside-down cake. Tall and lean, with a tousle of brown curls, Dr. Anderson strode casually up the sidewalk, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, and a worn leather bomber jacket.
As he talked on his phone, an easy smile lit his angular face, and Paige would swear she saw twin dimples, but she couldn't be sure from this distance. What she could be sure of was that a TV set somewhere was missing an extremely hot doctor. A hot, married doctor.
Paige glanced at her watch. "I need to head back next door. You got a full day of appointments today?" she asked her dad hopefully. If only the men in Maple Creek had more hair, or if what little they had left grew faster. There was no way the barbershop could stay open if business didn't pick up for her dad.
He smiled and nodded. "About the same. Probably get some walk-ins, too."
"Until then —" Grinning, she wagged her finger at him and the mayor. "You guys go easy on the gossip, okay?"
She headed into the storeroom and was nearly to the back door when the bell on the front door chimed. "Mornin'," a man said with a rich, sexy drawl that stopped Paige in her tracks and drew her back into the shadows just beyond the main area of the shop. The new doctor stood up front with her dad and the mayor. "I'm Lane Anderson — the guy filling in for Dr. Hartley." He tipped his head in the direction of the doctor's office.
Mayor Warren chewed cautiously as Paige's dad set his coffee on the table next to his half-eaten muffin and stood. "I'm Tom Ellerbee." He shook the doctor's hand. "Pleasure to meet you."
The pleasure was all Paige's. Married or not, the hot doctor was the tastiest eye candy she'd seen in way too long.
"My uncle says you give a mean haircut, but I'm just lookin' for a trim," Dr. Anderson said. "How about noon tomorrow?"
Paige's dad was nearly six feet, but he still had to look up at the doctor. "That'll work."
Dr. Anderson nodded and turned his attention to what was left of the muffin in Mayor Warren's hand. "Those muffins smell delicious."
"Sweet Bee's muffins are the best you've ever tasted," Mayor Warren said, and Paige grinned proudly even though they couldn't see her. "And they keep us healthy, too."
Dr. Anderson looked at him skeptically.
Mayor Warren stood, his spine straighter than usual. "There's magic in them."
Paige's dad nodded. "You'll see."
Dr. Anderson glanced cautiously from one of them to the other as if he wondered what planet he'd landed on. "I'm sure there are lots of things keeping you two gentlemen healthy — diet; medications, maybe; exercise; even good genes. But I haven't seen a lot of documented clinical evidence about the health benefits of magic muffins." He shook his head and smiled, seeming to find some humor in what he'd said.
Paige's stomach clenched as her dad and the mayor stared flatly at Dr. Anderson. How dare he waltz in and question the benefits of her recipes or the magic people believed was in them? She stepped out of the shadows and into the main area of the shop, hands on her hips, her chin tipped up stubbornly.
All three men turned to her, wide-eyed.
Leveling a sharp gaze at Dr. Anderson, she said, "If that's the case, doctor, then it seems to me you'd be wise not to comment on things you know nothing about." Paige shot him her nastiest stink-eye, turned on her heel, and left.
* * *
Lane dropped a fat stack of patient charts onto his uncle's desk and sank into the worn-leather swivel chair. The dark wood paneling made the office feel smaller than it was, along with the clutter of books and mementos on the wall-to-wall bookshelves. Some of the framed photos were actually black-and-white and warped, and not in an artsy kind of way.
"Welcome to Maple Creek," Lane said flippantly to himself.
For about the fifteenth time today, he thought about the so-called welcome he'd gotten that morning from the super-hot, super-pissed-off blonde at the barbershop.
You'd be wise not to comment on things you know nothing about.
She had no idea what he knew and what he didn't, and her sassy remark had been a hell of a way to introduce herself. The chick never even said hello. Still, he could see her as if she were standing right in front of him, with her straight little nose in the air, her hands gripping her slender hips. She'd caught him totally off guard with her snippy attitude, the bright pink streak in her hair — pink hair! — and eyes that dared him not to get lost in them, even while she called him out. After she'd left the barbershop, he'd found out that she was Paige, the daughter of the barber, and the owner of the bakery next door.
Great. The last thing he needed right now was a neighbor like her.
After getting settled, he'd seen eight patients, a glacial pace of work compared to his practice in Austin, Texas. There, he'd seen at least thirty patients a day. Their charts had long ago been converted to electronic medical records, meaning no thick files filled with illegible handwriting and waxy old faxes. His office had been sleek and modern, with competent nurses and efficient office staff. When he and his partner, Dr. Stephanie Danner, had earned the Top Docs of Austin award last year — unprecedented for two young physicians in a start-up practice — he knew he'd officially "made it," just as he'd envisioned, and just as his parents had expected. The "official" feeling had barely sunk in before things had fallen apart.
He shook his head, knowing no good could come from dwelling on that now. Worlds away from his practice in Austin, he propped his chin in his hand and opened Betty Jordan's chart, the first patient he'd seen that day. As if to reinforce what he'd heard at the barber shop, the elderly but spry Mrs. Jordan had come in clutching a Sweet Bee's box of muffins with a "sugar-free" sticker and stripes so bright they made Lane's eyes cross. At least the sticker hadn't said "magic," because that would've been really disturbing.
The magic muffin thing had started to make a little more sense, considering the ones Mrs. Jordan had with her were sugar-free. Even so, Lane had wondered if the quirky old woman had been put up to bringing the muffins in. He also considered that she might be trying to fool him into thinking she was compliant with the low-sugar diet she'd been prescribed, actually sticking to it to the point of carrying around appropriate food. But when the nurse had checked Mrs. Jordan's blood, her sugar levels had been good, and she seemed pretty healthy for an eighty-year-old. Ditto for the other five seniors he'd seen.
Lane flipped through Mrs. Jordan's chart and saw that she'd had trouble keeping her blood-sugar levels under control — even with medication — until about a year ago when things evened out and stayed that way.
"I eat one of these muffins for breakfast every day," Mrs. Jordan had said, her blue eyes glimmering. "There's magic in them."
Lane hadn't argued with her, but he had wondered how many people in Maple Creek had been brainwashed with the magic BS he'd heard at the barbershop this morning. Despite Mrs. Jordan's ridiculous belief, Lane gave props to his uncle for helping her improve and for convincing her to take her medicine and eat the right foods. If half of Lane's patients would take his advice and live it, he'd consider himself a success. As it was, most people wanted a pill to fix whatever ailed them, and lifestyle changes simply weren't going to happen. Even so, prescribing a pill for everything wasn't Lane's philosophy and never would be. Too bad he hadn't realized that his partner hadn't felt the same way.
He'd found out too late that Stephanie had prescribed pain pills for nearly every patient who wanted them. When one of her patients had died from an overdose, it had definitely caught his attention. But they treated a lot of people and, sadly, tragedies happened. Several months later, another one of her patients had died the same way, and the victim's family wanted answers. The rest had been a whirlwind for Lane. The Office of the Inspector General and the state's Drug Enforcement Agency had gotten involved, Stephanie's medical license was suspended, and their practice was investigated as a possible pill mill. He'd been forced to close the office, and his reputation had suffered by association. Not only because he had practiced with Stephanie.
But also because he'd been engaged to her.
Lane pinched his eyes closed. How could she have been so careless with her patients? How could she have been so careless with him? He combed his fingers through his too-long hair, thinking it was way past time for a haircut. Back in Austin, he'd worn it short — nearly buzzed — but he'd let it grow out since his practice was shut down, having it trimmed only once or twice. Even so, he was canceling his appointment. No need to make things more awkward by going back into Ellerbee's Barber Shop — or anywhere near Paige.
He blinked open his eyes.
Alice, the lone nurse in the office, stood in the doorway looking concerned. Lane guessed her to be about the same age as his mom. The way she wore her wavy, graying hair pulled up in a big bun made her look older, but her kind expression was what Lane focused on. He could certainly use an ally, especially one with an easygoing manner like Alice's. A flurry of swirling snow patterned her bright-blue scrubs, and she still had a stethoscope slung around her neck even though their last patient left a while ago. "Is everything all right?"
Excerpted from Tempted in the Tropics by Tracy March, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Tracy March. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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