When Andrew Bateman rolls into town in the midst of a snow storm, his first thought is that the place is hardly big enough for a dog crate, let alone the vet practice he's looking for. Next thing he knows, his life is flashing in front of him—a depressingly short flash—as he skids right into the side of the local bar.
Things start looking up when the vision he wakes to is not the Angel of Death, but a doctor. Well, actually a vet. Make that a vet tech, wearing red mittens. Who invites him home, where every inch is covered in holiday sparkles, cookies to be decorated, and an odd assortment of stray dogs, cats and puppies. . .
There's nothing merrier than a white Christmas in Kentucky!
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By SARAH TITLE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Sarah Title
All rights reserved.
Andrew Bateman hated snow.
He was batting a thousand on this trip, really. He hated snow, he hated driving, and he hated selling people stuff they probably didn't need. He especially hated sales. But if his cousin hadn't given him this job, he'd be living with his mother. Once a man passes thirty, he doesn't like the idea of moving back in with his mother.
That was another thing he hated. Being thirty-one. Thirty was not so bad. Thirty-one seemed like: no turning back now, buddy. And what was he doing with his life? He was Midwest Regional Sales Rep for Bateman Veterinary Supply, and kind of sucking at that. He'd made about three sales in Indiana. Now he was just hoping for the next appointment to go well so he could go back to his dinky apartment above his cousin's garage and watch everyone sing Christmas songs and drink eggnog and get fat.
He looked quickly at his Smartphone. No reception. Dammit. His cousin had warned him about two things: one, that in Kentucky horse country, veterinary supplies were big money, and if they wanted to break into the market, they'd have to start small; and two, don't get lost on any dirt roads. It was late, and he was beginning to feel lost as soon as he pulled off the Interstate. He thought he would just be able to find a place to stay, then call on ... whoever it was early in the morning, then start the long drive back.
But when he pulled off the interstate, there were no hotels. No restaurants, not even street lights. He was beginning to think his cousin was playing one of his practical jokes, the kind that made Ed laugh and made Andrew end up with his pants around his ankles or stone-drunk in a biker bar. Kentucky wasn't even in the Midwest. He tapped his GPS, and it sputtered a direction at him. It had only worked sporadically since he'd crossed the border. Maybe he was imagining that. Southern Indiana was pretty hilly; surely he'd had reception problems there, too. All he knew was that the satellite wouldn't pick up the signal unless he tapped it. He was used to electronic equipment behaving when he asked it to, but he was having no luck now. He would have just turned it off and followed signs to—what was the town called?—Hollow Bend, said the nice lady on the GPS, but there were no signs. Only darkness, and hills, and snow.
Billie Monroe loved snow.
She loved that feeling of putting on her snow boots and zipping her coat up to her chin and seeing her breath as she walked everywhere because it was too dangerous to drive. Besides, it hardly ever snowed in Hollow Bend, at least not enough to stick, and never this early in the winter. She was going to enjoy it.
She tried her best to skip as she approached the entrance to the Cold Spot, Hollow Bend's answer to a hipster hangout. Of course, there were no hipsters in Hollow Bend, so the Cold Spot adjusted accordingly. Everyone was happier with a honky-tonk anyway.
Her best friend, Katie Carson, was standing outside, shivering without her coat and talking to Trevor Blank, who was smoking a cigarette. And shivering. Billie rolled her eyes. These two were doing their dance again. She had gone out with Trevor once or twice—every girl in town had—but found him a little ... dumb. That's not very nice, she thought. But man, it was true. All those beautiful farm muscles and she still couldn't. It was hard to get too excited over a guy who thought Shakespeare was a fancy mixed drink.
Billie called out and Katie nodded in greeting, keeping her hands under her arms. But her face lit up in a big smile.
"Nice hat, Monroe," she said.
"You don't like it?" Billie said, fingering the red pom-pom bouncing on her head. "You're just jealous because Miss Libby made a hat for me and not for you."
"Oh, she made me a hat," said Katie, smiling. "I just conveniently lost it in the woods. In eighth grade."
"I like it," offered Trevor with a shrug. So cute, thought Billie. So cute and so, so dumb.
"Thank you, Trevor."
He smiled at her. Not happening, thought Billie. You better stake your claim on Katie while Chase isn't around.
"Where's my brother?" Katie asked, stomping from one foot to the other. "I thought you said he was coming."
"Ugh, he's staying home," said Billie. "Today is the two-month anniversary of his coming back to work with my dad," she told Trevor, "but he said we celebrated enough on the one-month anniversary."
"And he wanted to get home to his pregnant wife?"
"He told you?" Billie asked. Mal had been really sick shortly after she and Keith got back from their honeymoon, but she was still walking around with moony eyes. Keith was much worse, twice as moony as Mal, and every time she passed him, he would put his hands over her belly. For a man who barely spoke, Keith Carson was terrible at keeping secrets.
"No. We all figured it out when they came over for dinner last week. He wouldn't let Mal lift anything, and the green bean casserole made her throw up. Miss Libby hasn't stopped crying since."
"Yeah, when he came into the office last week, Keith couldn't stop smiling, even when he had to pull half a dish towel and a wristwatch out of the Coopers' dachshund."
"Well, I guess we're drinking alone," said Katie, opening the door.
"I'll keep you ladies company," said Trevor, following her inside.
Billie shook her head. She should be annoyed that her impromptu celebration was turning into another third-wheel night, but she couldn't muster it up. She'd been a good girl all autumn, and wanted to cut loose. Besides, she had a lot to celebrate. Thanks to Keith, her father was finally getting ready to retire, Christmas was a few days away, and the night was young. She was about to get drunk with her best friend and a very handsome, if dumb, guy, and it was snowing—really snowing. That never happened in December. Nothing was going to ruin her night.
Until a car skidded on the street in front of her and crashed into the side of the bar.
One minute Andrew was shaking the GPS (surely this was not the town his cousin had booked his sales call in—it hardly seemed big enough for a dog crate let alone a vet practice), and the next his life was flashing before his eyes as he felt the back wheels lose traction and spin out. It was a short flash, and not particularly inspiring. There was the plastic fire helmet, the Big Wheels, his first Mohawk, his mom making him grow out his first Mohawk, his first girlfriend, his first girlfriend dumping him, graduation, cubicle, cubicle, cubicle, pink slip. The car finally skidded to a stop with the help of a very sturdy-looking brick building with no windows. The first thought Andrew registered, as his glasses flew off and his head snapped in slow-motion toward the air bag, was that he hoped the equipment samples in the trunk were OK or his cousin was going to kill him.
He let his head hit the air bag. What was the point in resisting?
Then everything came into sharp focus: his engine steaming, his shoulder burning under the locked seat belt, his head throbbing. Everything felt broken. If he died because of a sales call in Kentucky, he was going to kill his cousin.
A teenager with huge anime eyes was pounding on his window. Oh, please, he thought, don't let me die here. Not until I get to kill my cousin. He focused on her face, every part of his body taking forever to respond to his command to MOVE.
She seemed to be shouting at him. He looked at her lips, and was startled that they were very pretty. No, he thought. He was not falling into this trap. If he went with her, he'd be dead and then he wouldn't be able to kill his cousin. But even through the foggy window and his haze of pain, he could see they were nice lips. He wondered if she would let him kiss her?
"O K, O K," he read on her lips. Whoa, he thought. Kentucky was a nice place to die.
His body still wasn't responding to the command to roll down the window and kiss this big-eyed teenager (he had to be dead), but he saw her body jerk and suddenly his door was wrenched open and cold air hit his throbbing face.
"Are you OK?" she shouted.
He looked at her. Maybe not a teenager.
Hopefully not the Angel of Death.
"I'm a doctor!"
Definitely not a teenager. The pom-pom hat wasn't helping. Was he dreaming? Did people still wear pom-pom hats? Maybe he was dead. And in hell.
"Sir? Sir, can you hear me?"
God, she was loud. "Yes, I'm fine," he managed. Ugh.
"No offense, buddy, but you don't look fine."
"And you're a doctor?" He hoped his tone was infused with a sense of flirtatious dubiousness, but he wasn't even sure if he'd spoken aloud.
She seemed to flush under her cap.
"Well, I'm a vet."
"OK, technically a vet tech. But I know first aid! And judging by that gash on your head, you need a little first aid."
He started to raise his hand to his head. It was throbbing, he realized.
"No, don't touch it," she said, grabbing his hand in hers. She was wearing red mittens. What kind of doctor wore red mittens? Not a doctor, he remembered. A vet. A vet tech.
Good thing he was already dead, or he was definitely going to die.
"Head wounds always look worse than they really are."
"Head wounds?" That meant blood. He really hated blood.
"Not that a head wound can't be serious, of course. But I'm saying, they just bleed a lot. Here—" She pulled a wad of tissues out of her pocket and pressed them to his head. "I don't want to move you until we figure out if anything else hurts. Because if you have, like, a spine injury and I try to move you, you could end up paralyzed."
He widened his eyes. At least he wouldn't have to worry about bleeding to death, since all of his blood had left his head. Black dots swam in front of his eyes. Paralyzed! Dead people can't be paralyzed.
"Not that you're paralyzed! I'm sure you're fine! Gah, what am I saying?"
Andrew wiggled his toes. "I don't think I'm paralyzed."
"Yet," she said, looking down at his feet, which he was trying to swing out of the car.
"Listen, lady. I'm fine. My head is killing me and I probably have whiplash." No way he was dead, not the way everything was hurting at once. Probably just dying.
"You could have a concussion! If left untreated—"
"Sorry. I just don't want—"
"Lady, if you want to help, get this seat belt off of me and let me get out of the car so I can throw up on the sidewalk."
She leaned over him, that stupid pom-pom brushing his chin. She smelled really good, like cinnamon and vanilla. She kept talking as she gently guided the seat belt from around his waist, pulling it away from his sore chest. He had no idea what she was saying, but it sounded like music, like soft cinnamon music, the siren call tempting sailors to smash their cars on her rocky buildings. She pulled off her mittens with her teeth and softly rested her hands on the sides of his neck. They were warm—good mittens—and he felt that warmth spread all over as she stared into his eyes, squinting slightly. Should he kiss her? He felt a little nauseous, but he should probably kiss her now. When else would he get a chance to kiss the Angel of Death? Then there were red lights flashing and she pulled away, taking those warm hands and her warm eyes and her beautiful lips, and in her place was a craggy face with days of stubble, then a mask covering his mouth, then air, then blackness.
The next morning, Andrew tried to weigh his experience so far in Kentucky, just to see how far he was coming out behind. That would help him determine how painful his cousin's murder would be, and how much energy he would have to spend covering it up. He felt like, overall, he was one hundred percent losing, which meant he could kill his cousin in cold blood, maybe with an ice pick, and then he would turn himself in to face justice since life couldn't get any worse.
But the more he thought about it, the more he thought maybe he would have to revise that plan.
They'd let him stay the night in the hospital. He checked out fine, a very mild concussion and minor whiplash, but when he asked about a local hotel, the night nurse looked at him sympathetically.
"You're not from here, are you?"
No, he was just asking for a hotel for his health. He shook his head. There was no need to be rude. She had a sweet smile, although her lips were nowhere near as nice as the Angel of Death's.
"Well, there are a few places about thirty miles up on the Interstate, but I understand your car is ... not drivable?"
He wasn't sure how she would have known that, although maybe it was just because he had come in from a car accident.
"Bud was in earlier, asking about you. He's the one towed your car. Of course, you were in the ambulance when that happened."
"He'll take good care of the car, don't you worry. He said he thought it could be fixed. That's good news. That corner of the Cold Spot has totaled more than a few vehicles in its time."
Andrew figured she was talking about the bar he'd rammed into. He hadn't been going very fast when he skidded, but still. His engine was smoking. That couldn't be good.
"But sweetheart, Bud ain't gonna fix that car tonight. If you've got no place to stay, I'll have someone fix you up one of these beds."
"Oh, no, I couldn't—" She wanted him to stay in the hospital overnight? As a guest? Would his health insurance even cover that?
"It'll be just between us," she said, winking. "We're pretty slow tonight, knock wood, and even if you had a car, I wouldn't drive in all this snow."
He looked out the big plate glass windows. There was maybe an inch of snow on the sidewalks and even less on the roads, where cars had melted it to a gray slush.
But he had nowhere else to go for the night, and he needed to make that sales call in the morning if he wanted to be able to face anyone at Christmas dinner. Ugh, Christmas dinner. Ed would love it if he could poke at Andrew's failure in front of the rest of the family. Actually, he thought, maybe his car wouldn't be ready. One more point in the plus column.
So he stayed the night at the hospital, took an awkward sponge bath in the morning, and one of the night orderlies dropped him off at Bud's on his way home.
Andrew's car was fixable, said Bud, but it would take a little while. In the meantime, Bud let him borrow "the loaner," a rust-orange BMW that was at least as old as Andrew was. Andrew pulled his suitcase and sales files and samples out of the trunk of the car and loaded the BMW. He unplugged the GPS and plugged it into the BMW's cigarette lighter. Bud gave him a look and asked him where he wanted to go, then gave him directions and sent him off with a pat on the roof.
So Andrew tallied. His cousin's car wasn't totaled, which was a plus, although at this point, anything that made life easier for Ed wasn't really a priority. He also had to include the people he'd met in the plus column—at the hospital, Bud. He had met the Angel of Death and she'd found him wanting, so that was another plus. Of course, she hadn't wanted to kiss him, so that was a minus. And he still had a job working for his meatball cousin selling veterinary equipment. So, in the experience column, he was coming out positive. It was just the life column that sucked.
Andrew found the vet clinic easily enough on what seemed to be the main street in town. He looked up at the street signs. Main Street. Of course. The clinic was housed in a red brick storefront building, the big picture window in front covered in paper. As he drove by, he saw that they were all crayon drawings saying things like "THANK YOU DR MONROE" and "TURNIP LOVES YOU" with pictures of dogs and cats and hamsters. Cute. But there was no way these people were going to have money to buy anything major from him.
As he drove around the building, he saw that it was bigger than it looked out front. There were probably a few exam rooms inside, and it was possible they had special operating facilities. According to Ed, this was one of the only vets in the county, so the clinic must also serve as the vet hospital. He parked, pulled out his spec sheets, and went inside.
Excerpted from KENTUCKY CHRISTMAS by SARAH TITLE. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Title. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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