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The prospect of six months in rural Appalachia pinched like a noose around Imogen Donally's neck. Three monthsfour, topswas how long she liked to stay anywhere. Six months may as well be six years.
Amanda was the only person she'd even consider such a request from, and then only because she hadn't seen her in a couple of years and Amanda's need was great. Her pregnancy had started smoothly, but a week ago there had been an incident and now Imogen's best friendher only long-standing friendwas on bed rest for her entire third trimester. Single motherhood was hard enough without those kinds of complications. She needed help. In that perspective, six months wasn't so long, right? Less time than gestation
She took a deep breath and engaged all-terrain on her four-wheel drive, eyeing the deeply trenched gravel drive supposedly leading to the forested mountain home of Dr. Wyatt Beechum, Amanda's cousin and bossowner of a modern medical oddity: his family practice was housed on a bus.
This looked like the right place. Unless the hand-painted numbers nailed to a tree meant something other than the street address. Amanda's directions were written in her usual wandering fashion: mentioning every landmark along the way. Mile markers on the road. The number of bridges she'd cross. And Imogen's personal favoriteindications of where things used to be. As if Imogen had any clue where things used to be around there. She wasn't even sure she could find things where they were currently located.
And yet, when asked for the insights into Wyatt that Imogen needed to plan her approach with him, the usually talkative Amanda had been tight-lipped. Recently returned home for his father's funeral after years and years away. Lost his mother and brother when he was young. The traveling clinic was in danger of losing funding. Sad stuff, but not very telling. None of it especially helpful. So it came down to charm and playing it by ear. Her plan was simple: find the doctor; charm the doctor; and get him to let her cover Amanda's maternity leave.
He needed a nurse to help keep his two-person traveling practice going, so he should be happy to agree. Easy-peasy. Just as soon as she drove up this creepy, dirty, graveled incline into a dense forest.
She reached for her phone. No signal. No double-checking the location with Amanda.
This dark forest drive was probably quite normal for the area. Every new place required a certain amount of adjustment. She just needed to acclimatize. Nothing scary waited at the other end. No crazy hillbillies with too much moonshine and chainsaws awaited her. Just a man. A normal man. A doctor, she hoped. She could handle one measly doctor. No problem.
She got a run at the incline. Better she stalk him here than at work. The car bounced up the path, now and then hitting potholes large enough to jar the fragile glass mementos packed in the back. Not hard enough to break them. They were okay. Not that any sane person should be so attached to cheap trinkets.
Six months from now, she'd get back on the road and life would return to normal. Any time she stopped moving too long, someone expected her to stay forever. Imogen couldn't do forever. Besides, that wasn't going to happen this time. She and Amanda had lived together all through college, and they had both survived parting. If only the world had more Amandas.
Dr. Earp, as she'd come to think of him, should be glad she was willing to head down to Banjoland to help out. Excellent nurses available on twelve hours' notice were hard to come by.
A shiny black pickup sat in front of an old blue school bus with curtained windows. Someone lived here, or was here at least. Beyond it, she could see the beginning stages of a cabin. It was only a few logs high, but connected to a beautiful riverstone chimney.
Praying the rise in elevation had given her a signal, she reached for her cellphone again. She'd even take one stupid bar. Was it too much to ask for enough connection to send a text? Apparently.
She killed the engine, checked her hair to make sure she looked fairly presentable, and climbed out. Behind the cabin, lying parallel to one another up the slope, were several long straight trees. As she rounded the bus, a man came into view, looking all sorts of rugged and manly. Black hair, disheveled and longer than the white-collar type she had been expecting. Worn blue jeans. Work boots. White T-shirt. Handsome. And tall. Very tall. With safety goggles.
Which was when she noticed the chainsaw.
The man jerked the cord to send the blade whirling and angled it into one of the logs. Wood chips flew everywhere as he made a series of shallow cuts, and Imogen went unnoticed. Must be the safety goggles obstructing his vision.
Not emotionally ready to approach a big mountain man with a chainsaw, Imogen occupied herself by checking her presentability again in the dusty bus windowswhich seemed more important now that she'd seen this broad-shouldered man with a chainsaw. Streaks of pink in her pale blonde hair stood out like beacons. Out of place. Oh, well, maybe it'd make her exotic. And after the hot contractor told her where she could find Wyatt, he could take her out for drinks and help her pass the next six months.
And maybe he could also explain to her why she could see a bed and old console television between the gaps in the bus curtains.
The outrageously loud buzzing quit, drawing Imogen's attention back to the rugged outdoors-man. "Hello?"
No answer. Instead, he took his shirt off, balled it up and used the wad of material to brush from his corded bronze arms the tree shrapnel he'd created with the chainsaw.
Probably not Wyatt. That tall, broad-shouldered man with the back of a chiseled god could not be him. The only doctors she'd seen with their shirts off had been pasty and usually somewhat pigeon-chested. The profession didn't naturally lend itself to buffness. Probably why she always ended up with the rough-and-tumble lot. They looked good, and were rarely given to the deep, soul-baring conversations you started building forever on. Imogen knew that road. Dead end. Full of potholes. Kind of like the road on which she'd just driven up the mountain.
She started up the incline, which got his attention. Their eyes met through the scratched plastic protecting his eyes. That probably should've made the experience less exhilarating, but Imogen found herself smiling like an idiot and resisting the urge to toss her hair and add extra wiggle to her walk. "I'm looking for Dr. Wyatt something. You're not Wyatt, are you?"
He extracted earplugs and stuffed them into his back pocket. "What do you want?"
Well, that was a crappy greeting. But that's okay. With those shoulders, Tall, Dark and Cranky could work for her. "I'm looking for Wyatt Bee-chum B. E. E. C. H . Actually, I don't know how it's spelled."
He dropped the now still chainsaw to his side, letting it dangle as he impatiently spelled "Beau-champ" for her then repeated, "What do you want?" Hot contractor had bad people skills.
And might not be the contractor.
"I don't think that's right. That's all French and whatever. This is like the tree, maybe? Beechum."
"That's how it's said around here," Likely Wyatt muttered. "Guess no one saw fit to modify the spelling."
"Oh. Well, I'm Imogen, a friend of Amanda's." She stuck out one hand and approached, ready to shake and be friendly.
"I know. My cousin is a picture hoarder. Has you in several on her walls." He looked at her hand, but didn't shake it. Which was better than being chainsawed at leastwhich might be the only way she'd feel less welcome. She could only pray his bedside manner was better.
"I'm going to assume you're Wyatt and not another cousin lurking about." On the plus side, working with him would give her plenty of time to convince him to show her the sights. And anything else he wanted. He was taciturn enough that he didn't seem inclined to long talks about his hopes, dreams, and future two point five children. She could just pretend he was mute as long as his shirt was off.
"I told her this morning you should've called before wasting the gas."
"Okay." Her nose wrinkled and she paused, needing a mental kick to get her back on the reason for her visit. "You filled the position already?"
"No, but you can't help me."
"I'm a good nurse." She started with business, seeking common ground.
"Amanda said as much. But you can't be her replacement."
"Her temporary replacement." Imogen corrected that first, still smiling, though now with effort. "If you know I'm a good nurse, and your usual nurse recommended me, why do you say I can't help you?"
He pulled off the goggles and laid them on the log he'd just notched. "No offense, but Amanda has the respect of the people we care for, and no matter how good you are at your job they won't trust you and won't be as open as we need them to be to get the best care."
"Seems a little last century to me. You're afraid I can't take care of people because they speak with a different accent than I do?" She smiled, trying to cajole him. "I can do the accent if that's seriously your hang-up."
"Don't try to do the accent." He leveled a stern look at her, as if he could stare the words into her with those dark eyes. "You're an outsider. You'll never be someone they'll identify with. I can't use you."
To buy time to think, Imogen walked the short distance to inspect the cabin walls. "You're local. Can't they just talk to you as a trustworthy insider, and I'll follow your lead?"
"I've been gone a while. They're not sure what to think of me yet."
She tried a different tactic. "That's not the bus, is it?" That ancient wreck wouldn't inspire anyone to come and get healthy in it.
He didn't say anything, just gave her another wilting look, then went about maneuvering the first log of the line.
"Good." This really wasn't working out the way she'd pictured, and she dearly wished he'd put his shirt back on. She never had trouble making friends. Everyone had some kind of common ground, the trouble was finding it. "Do you need help with that?"
"No." He grunted the word more than spoke it, but, then, he was obviously exerting himself, wrestling a log to the cabin walls. The muscles across his shoulders and down his back bunched, momentarily wiping her mind of anything clever to say. "I don't need anyone's help with the cabin." He didn't stop working to talk, though he may have been slowed down by it.
"Go visit Amanda, your trip doesn't need to be wasted."
"Later." She walked up the embankment as he continued with his logs. Once she stopped the lusty staring, some cognitive function returned. "Do you think you could put your shirt back on? Wouldn't want you to lose a nipple in a tragic logrolling accident." She failed to suppress her natural cheekiness. Impulse control: sometimes she had it, sometimes she didn't.
He smiled up at herhis first smile since she'd arrivedand immediately lost his balance, nearly falling. It took skill to regain his footing and keep the log from getting away from him.
Okay, she was cute. He didn't want to like this pink-haired woman. Couldn't afford to like her. Liking her would make him more likely to grant her request, and he needed to make all practice-based decisions with a clear head. He'd had his fill of do-gooder city doctors as a kid when Josh had been sick, and he'd sooner close the practice than have it turn into a professional pit stop for condescending outsiders. No matter how cute.
"I've been doing fine without the running commentary so far." He'd also been doing fine without shapely tanned legs drawing his eye away from his work. Doing better, really. He changed position so she stood between him and the old blue bus. He never liked looking that direction, and the change made it easier to pay attention to what he was doing rather than to her legs.
"Okay." Up until now, she'd been mostly good-humored about his refusal, but her continued presence said she wasn't the type to go down without a fight. Strange that she and Amanda were such good friendsthey couldn't have been more different.
"I can see you want to get back to work," Imogen said to his back, "so I feel obligated to point out that you can get rid of me very simply. Say you'll let me work the next few months, and I'll leave you to play with your big-boy building logs in whatever state of dress you like."
She didn't talk like a nurse. They were usually a little more cautious and obliging than this one. She really didn't like being told no. That was tough. "Find a job in Piketon if you're sticking around." He got the log close to the cabin then used rope to muscle it into position.
"They don't need me in Piketon. Like it or not, you do." She moved into his line of sight again and propped her hands on her hips, looking more confident and at home on his mountain than she had any right to. "You can't run your practice by yourself, and Amanda's made it clear how uncertain its future is. Funding in jeopardy and all that business. She wants her job back when she's able, and that means there needs to be a job for her to go back to."
The cuteness was starting to wear off.
Wyatt dropped the rope and looked at her, keeping the bus at his back. Winter would be here before he knew it, and the cabin needed to be roofed before then or he might be staying in the blasted bus. That couldn't happen, and wouldn't if she'd go away. "Kicking up a fuss won't win me over. Glad you came to help Amanda out, but you aren't working for me."
He briefly considered paying her to leave, anything to make her stop looking at the bus. Damn, that thing needed to be gone.