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Medical emergencies were few and far between in Serendipity, Texas. Delia Rae Ivers wasn't sure she'd ever readjust to the sleepy pace of the town where she'd been born. She hadn't so much as visited for years, and now suddenly she was living and working here. After a busy emergency room setting at the Baltimore hospital she'd interned at, being a small-town doctor was going to take some getting used to.
She leaned back in the leather chair behind her desk and stretched wearily. She was a doctor, not an accountant, and squinting at numbers for hours as she examined the small medical clinic's financials and then entered them into her computer was not her idea of fun.
"Riley, buddy, are you finished counting the gauze rolls?" she called to her son. They'd arrived in town only five days ago, and Riley hadn't yet met any kids his age, so Delia had given him small tasks to do around the clinic to keep him busy and out from underneath his grandparents' feet.
"I'm done, Mom." Riley peeked his head around the corner of the back office door and a lock of shaggy black hair flopped over his forehead. No matter how he tried to comb it, his thatch of hair stubbornly spiked hopelessly in every direction.
"And the boxes of gloves? Did you get those, too?"
"Yeah, I did."
Delia's gaze dropped to the toy car her son was clasping in his left hand. Clearly he was getting bored counting medical inventory, and she couldn't blame him. It wasn't exactly the most exciting job in the world, especially for a nine-year-old boy. Gentle waves of love lapped in her heart. Riley was her world, and had been from the moment he was born.
"I have another project for you," she informed him, pinching back the smile that would give her away.
Riley groaned. "Oh, Mom."
"I think you'll like this." She let her smile emerge. "You know that little alcoveroomin the back corner of the waiting room? The one that's set up for kids to play in?"
Riley nodded. His eyes glinted with interest, but she could tell his concentration was still focused on the car in his hand.
"I bought a video game system and a small television to hook up in there so the older kids have something to do while they wait."
She chuckled. Now she knew she had her son's full attention.
"I need to get it hooked up. Think you can do that for me?"
At age nine, Riley was heads-and-tails above Delia in the electronics department. When it came to video games and televisions, and even computers, he already knew more than she ever would. She had no doubt that he'd have the system up and running in no time. As she'd said, it was for the kids; but most especially, it was for Riley. She knew there'd be times he would be stuck at the clinic waiting for his mom to finish work. Now he'd have something to keep him occupied.
"The TV and the video system are already in the room, so whenever you're ready
" Her sentence drifted to a halt as Riley sprinted from the room. Delia smiled.
Poor Riley hadn't wanted to move, especially two weeks before Christmas and Delia couldn't say that she blamed him. This wouldn't have been her first choice, eitheror any choice, for that matter. But her mother, with her worsening multiple sclerosis, needed the kind of care only a nursing facility could give heror a live-in doctor.
Delia had the right training. Could she do any less for the family she loved?
She'd soon discovered she was needed in other ways, too. Her email had been overflowing since she'd announced her return. Friends were quick to remind her that old Doc Severns had retired a few months back, and the entire town was without a practicing M.D. Serendipity's clinic had been closed. Now that Delia had moved back, she intended to take over the practice. Not only would she be able to help her own mother, but she could also make a real difference in the communityto the friends and neighbors she'd grown up with and still cared about.
She sighed and brushed her long, straight black hair back with her fingers. Even with all of the dynamic changes in her life, it wasn't so much the future that weighed so heavily on her mind.
It was the past.
Zach Bowden, to be precise.
Serendipity's own James Dean in faded jeans and a white T-shirt, with dreamy poet eyes and bad boy ways. Trouble with a capital T. The man she'd left behind but had never forgotten. The only man who'd ever completely captured her heart.
And her worst nightmare.
Zach was the reason Delia had left town so suddenly all those years ago, and he was the reason she'd never returned to Serendipity, not even to visit. Even with all the time that had passed, he was the reason she was having such a hard time concentrating on the books. She couldn't get him out of her mind.
Serendipity was a very small town. Sooner or later the two of them would cross paths, and when they did, Delia had no doubt that her life would go into a tailspin.
So, for that matter, would Zach's, when he found out the truth about why she'd stayed away.
Her decision to move home had everything to do with her son, who had recently started asking tough questions about his father, painful questions Delia had been unable to answer. It was her deepest fear that Riley would be the one most injured by the choices she'd madeand was making now.
A persistent knot throbbed behind her left eye. She rubbed her temple to relieve the pounding pain. Between accounting and Zach, it would be almost impossible for her to avoid a headache, both literally and figuratively.
No matter how she felt, she had to press on. The only way to look to the future here in Serendipity was to settle the past. Do the right thingwhatever that was. For Delia, the lines between right and wrong had been cloudy and gray for years.
She tried to turn her mind back to the present, but she found it difficult to concentrate. Math had never been her strong suit. She retrieved the pencil she'd tucked behind her ear and wiggled the computer mouse so the screen would come back to life. The software she was using was supposed to help, but instead it managed to confuse her all the more.
She could do this, she reminded herself.
Financials were part and parcel of operating a smalltown clinic. For now, she needed to conquer the numbers on her own. Although, later, she planned to hire a receptionist to take up much of the slack.
A steady, persistent knock startled Delia and she jerked up in surprise. No one should be here yet. The sign in the window still said that the clinic was closed for business, and she wasn't expecting any deliveries this afternoon; but whoever was rapping on the rear door was certainly insistent.
Still a little hazy from the mental strain of bookkeeping and the emotional strain of moving home to Serendipity, she went to see who it was. An ambulance had backed up within feet of the clinic doors, the lights still flashing. She realized that she must have been completely lost in her thoughts, for she hadn't heard a siren, although she supposed it was possible they hadn't used one.
Nonetheless, her mind instantly shifted into doctor mode. Adrenaline pumped through her and erased all the fogginess from her brain. She didn't give a thought to the fact that she was not officially open for business. Someone needed help. That's what she was here for.
Her focus was completely on the patient as the EMT who'd been driving moved around to the back of the ambulance and swung the doors open. She recognized the first paramedic, Ben Atwood, and she knew the man strapped to the gurneyDrew "Spence" Spencer, the fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school in town. He was attached to an IV and his face was bunched up in pain as he cradled his left arm to his chest.
She held open the door and gestured them inside as the second EMT exited the ambulance and moved to the other side of the gurney to help guide it in.
"You know Drew Spencer."
Delia's breath caught as she flashed her gaze to the paramedic who was speaking to her.
Her heart slammed to a halt and then lurched back into action. Zach's voice had deepened some, but even after all these years, she recognized his distinctive honey-rich drawl immediately.
How could it be that Zach was an emergency medical technician? Not only that, but an unpaid volunteer, as the tri-county fire department couldn't afford a fulltime staff.
She was so surprised that a proverbial feather could have knocked her over. Zach had never cared for anyone but himselfhe'd proven that more times than she cared to count.
She felt as if she were participating in a strobe-lit, slow-motion theater scene as she turned to lock eyes with her old flame. Surely the distance, the time, would make some sort of difference in her feelings for him, or at least mute them in some way.
Back then she'd been young. Irrational. Naive.
And totally in love.
She knew better now.
But the moment her gaze met the dreamy chocolate depths of his eyes, she realized nothing had changed. It was as if the years between them hadn't passed at all, if her heart had anything to say about it.
One corner of his lips twitched upward in a lady-killer smile that had sent more than one young woman's heart aflutter. He took a deep breath and exhaled and Delia realized she was breathing right in synch with him.
He was still incredibly good-looking in that rough-edged, bad boy way of his. Her gaze slid over him, remembering every detail of his lean, muscular six-foot frame.
His wind ruffled, shaggy brown hair was cut only marginally shorter than it had been when he was younger. The straight nose and strong jaw were the samealthough his skin was more weathered and there were stress lines on his face. A haunted, pained expression had replaced the jaunty, carefree attitude he'd carried as a youth.
Without giving it a second thought, she took a couple of steps toward him.
"Zach," she murmured.
He reacted as if she'd pushed him, jerking his shoulder away and stepping hastily backward out of her reach. A muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw as he broke his gaze away from her.
She experienced a stab of something suspiciously like rejection, but that only lasted for a second before panic set in.
Zach was here. And Riley was in the next room.
Her heart beat frantically as she considered her options, not that she had any. She could hardly bolt out of the room to go get Riley and then run away and hope Zach didn't see them.
She didn't know whenor even ifshe was going to tell Zach he had a son; but definitely not this soon. Not in these circumstances. She could only hope Riley was too caught up in setting up the video system to bother checking out what was happening in the exam room.
Mindfully, and with all the willpower she possessed, she calmed her nerves and turned her attention to her patient, where it belonged.
Zach's introduction of Spence had been a little off-script for what one would expect in a big hospital. But this was Serendipity, which was an extremely close-knit community. Everyone literally did know everyone. She'd gone to school with Spence, although he'd been several grades above her.
"He has second-degree burns on his left hand and forearm," Zach continued crisply as he hung the IV bag on a hook on the wall and then helped his partner transfer Spence to the examining table. "His vitals are stable and we gave him morphine for the pain. Under normal circumstances we would have taken him to the nearest hospital, but I thought we should get his wound looked at as soon as possible, and now that you're here in town
well, I hope you don't mind that we brought him here to the clinic."
"No, no, I don't mind at all. I'm happy you thought of me." Actually, she had all kinds of conflicting emotions about the idea that Zach had thought of her, but again she willfully tucked her feelings into the back of her heart to scrutinize later.
"My father went and called 9-1-1 after I asked him not to," Spence explained in a raspy tone. "I really didn't need an ambulance."
"Sure you did," Ben disagreed affably. He and Zach supported Spence as he transferred himself from the gurney to the examining table.
"You're just too stubborn to admit it," Zach added with a chuckle.
Even though Delia didn't say so aloud, she agreed with Zach and Ben. She was glad old Frank Spencer had responded with an emergency call. Spence might not have thought he needed attention, but burns were nothing to play with.
"You've got this?" Ben asked Zach.
Zach's lips flattened into a straight line, but after a moment he gave Ben a clipped nod.
Ben looked from Zach to Delia and back, his expression unconvinced. Everyone in this town knew Zach and Delia's history together. Ben was no doubt wondering if leaving them alone together was the best idea.
"We're fine," Delia assured him.
Ben tapped his clipboard and nodded, and then turned for the door. "I'll get to the paperwork, then."
"So what have we got here?" she asked her patient. Wrapping a blood pressure cuff around Spence's right arm, she leaned over the grimacing man and carefully drew back the blanket that covered his left hand.