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Small towns always look best from my rearview mirror," Elizabeth Rogers said. She tugged on her coat and turned to look at her cousin.
"Beth, you aren't even giving Paradise a chance," Ben Rogers returned.
"Sure I am. I had lunch and a tour of the hospital and clinic with the medical director. Did I mention how much I like your new clinic?" Beth paused. "But I'm not really interested in the position."
"Uh-huh. I'm thinking you can't see anything but New York City."
"I won't deny that I'm excited about New York." Beth reached out to touch Ben's arm. "But you know I'm glad you found happiness with Sara here in Paradise, right?" She smiled. "This place is perfect for youjust not for me. I guess I'm a city girl at heart."
"Not always. Remember when we lived in that little town near the Four Corners?"
"That wasn't a town. It was a gas station and half a grocery story. It reminded me of the truck stop where my mother dumped me."
Ben winced. "Ah, Beth. I'm sorry." He ran a hand through his hair. "I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
She raised a palm. "No worries. I was very grateful that your parents took me in, but I've never quite forgiven them for moving us there."
"Rural medicine. You know that's their life."
"Is it okay to admit I'm relieved those days are over?"
"Not for me," he said. "God and Paradise changed that."
"You made a choice, Ben. And I'm trying to do the same. I don't want to ever be in a position where I have to choose between two evils again."
Ben shook his head.
He didn't get it. Beth sighed. No one did. Time to change the subject.
"I really love this house." She shoved her mittens and wool scarf into her soft leather, oversize tote and then looked around the guest room of the quaint Craftsman bungalow.
"Thank you," he replied.
"Too bad it's not somewhere else."
Ben chuckled. "Do you have everything?" he asked.
Beth walked around the large four-poster bed. "Aha! Cell phone charger. I would have been very unhappy if I'd left this behind." After unplugging the cord, she straightened, her gaze moving to the window. "It's really snowing now. We'd better go."
"Your flight isn't until two." He glanced at his watch. "The airport is less than forty-five minutes away. That puts you there more than three hours early."
"And that's fine with me."
"Okay. Okay. Let's tell Sara we're leaving. I think she's with the babies."
He picked up Beth's suitcase and she followed him down the stairwell to the first floor. His wife, Sara, stood in the living room between two baby swings. She was talking to a tall man in a black ski jacket with a black Stetson on his head, while simultaneously rocking identical babies in their swings.
"Dan. What are you doing here?" Ben called.
"Hey, Doc." The cowboy grinned, his glance moving to Beth.
"Dan Gallagher, this is my cousin, Dr. Elizabeth Rogers."
The cowboy removed his hat and nodded politely before putting the hat back on. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."
Beth shot him a distracted smile, her gaze pulled to the window, where enormous snowflakes obliterated the view. She needed to leave. Now.
Sara turned to Ben. "Dan brought the twins' antibiotics. The pharmacy is closing early due to the forecast."
"Much appreciated," Ben said. "This is their second ear infection in six months and none of us are happy about it."
As they chatted, Beth chewed her lip. She wasn't going to panic. Relax. Just relax. She repeated the mantra.
"Maybe we'd better get going, Ben," she suggested in her calmest voice.
"Ma'am, I don't think you're going anywhere for a while."
Beth inhaled and avoided looking at Dan Gallagher, as though she could erase what he'd just said by ignoring it. "I have to go," she finally stated.
"Weather report has recently upgraded the storm. Conditions are ripe for this to be the worst one of the season. The roads are closing as fast as that snow is moving in."
"But it's the end of March," Beth quickly countered. "It'll be April in a couple of days."
"Welcome to Colorado," Dan said.
"Ben?" she pleaded.
"Beth, I know. I get it. But I can't control Mother Nature. If this storm is coming in as fast as Dan says it is, then there won't be any airplanes going anywhere."
"I've got to be in New York by Monday." She tamped down a bubble of panic, searching for a rational thought. "Surely things will clear up by morning?"
"That could happen," Sara commented. She reached out to pat Beth's arm. "Sometimes our mountain storms hit quickly and then leave."
Dan gave a shake of his head, indicating he doubted that was going to be the case today. "I'm making a delivery in Gunbarrel," he said. "I'd be happy to take you that far. You can reevaluate the situation tomorrow. They've got a small hotel with an airport shuttle. At least you'd be halfway to the airport."
Beth brightened at the suggestion. "Yes, that would be great. Thank you."
"I thought you were on call tonight," Ben said, looking at Dan.
"On call?" Beth asked.
"Dan's a key member of our Paradise Clinic Snowmobile Rescue Team," Ben said.
Dan shrugged at the words. "I traded shifts. My brother is out of town for a prosthesis fitting and left me in charge of the ranch."
"What are you doing in town then?" Ben asked.
"With this weather we were short staffed at the pharmacy as well, so I came in for a bit."
"You left the cows alone?" Ben said the words with a laugh.
"Oh, you know. The whole family pitches in. My mother can handle things in a pinch." He nodded. "How is Joe doing?"
"One step forward and two steps back."
"We're praying," Sara said.
"Thanks." Dan's gaze met Beth's. "Well, we'd better get moving."
She turned and hugged first Ben and then Sara. "Thank you for a lovely visit." Beth patted baby Carolyn and her twin, Amanda, on their soft heads and smiled wistfully at them. A pang of longing filled her as she allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to be married and happy like her cousin. To have a child.
"They are so beautiful," she murmured.
"Give them five minutes. They both just ate and forgot they have ear infections in progress. You won't want to be here tonight when they remember again," Sara said.
"I'll be back. As soon as my schedule permits," Beth said.
Dan Gallagher's hand covered hers as they reached for the suitcase at the same time. She froze, embarrassed.
"I've got it," he said. Following her, he carried the bag into the small anteroom and then closed the door behind them before staring out the front door at the blizzard, which had risen out of nowhere in less than an hour's time.
A big silver pickup truck was parked in front of the house. The tarp that covered a snowmobile in the flatbed strained against its ties, while the edges of the blue fabric flapped furiously.
"That's quite a wind," Beth said. She wrapped her wool scarf around her neck.
Dan nodded as he pulled on a pair of dark leather gloves and picked up her suitcase again. "Ready?" he asked.
When he opened the door a gust of wind rushed past and slammed into her, bringing stinging flakes along as well.
Heads down, they dashed through the nearly ankle-deep snow to the curb. Yanking open the passenger door, Dan carefully helped her up and into the vehicle. Chivalry was still alive in Paradise, Beth mused.
He adjusted his Stetson against the snow before he slid the suitcase into the backseat and then came around the truck to the driver's side and got in. The man was well over six feet tall and the space inside the cab seemed to noticeably shrink as he settled in his seat. For the first time Beth really looked at him.
Beneath the brim of the Stetson his black hair was trimmed short, and the shadow of a beard accented his square jaw. When he turned slightly and his gaze met hers, Beth found herself staring into calm, slate-colored eyes. She turned away, embarrassed to be caught.
She cleared her throat. "I, ah, I really appreciate this." She brushed the snow off her hair and reached for her seat belt.
"Not a problem." He pulled on his own seat belt.
"What would you be doing if I wasn't tagging along?"
"I was heading home. This is just another day for me. Winter in Paradise means that some days getting home requires a bit more patience than other days."
"Where is it you live?" she asked.
"Outside of Paradise."
"And where is Gunbarrel?"
"A little bit farther down the road," Dan said.
"You're sure we can get there?"
"Ma'am, I'm only sure of a few things in life. But I can tell you thisif I can't get through then no one can."
The CB radio crackled as the truck roared like a wakening lion. A moment later the massive windshield wipers began to slowly shovel the snow away in large wedges. The big blades moved with a thumping rhythm.
You won't make it. You won't make it. They chanted the words over and over again.
Biting her lower lip, Beth ignored the mocking and focused on trying to see the road ahead. She had to make it to New York. She'd spent too many years working her way out of her circumstances to once again be at the mercy of something she couldn't control.
* * *
"What's in New York?" Dan finally asked. They'd driven in companionable silence for several miles, and though the driving was slow, they were well past the outskirts of town.
"I have a locum tenens position that starts on Monday," Beth answered.
"Locum tenens? You're a temp doctor?" He couldn't help the surprise in his voice.
Dan cocked his head and shot her a glance. "If you don't mind my asking, why would you want to be a temp doc instead of having your own practice?"
"I like traveling. New cities. New adventures."
"Ah, you're one of those." His gaze again left the road for a moment and met her cool blue eyes.
"Excuse me?" Annoyance laced her voice as she pushed strands of toffee-brown hair away from her face and stared at him.
"I just mean you're a wanderer."
"A wanderer?" She paused briefly, considering his words. "You're implying I'm lost?"
Dan held back a chuckle, recalling the Tolkien quote, "Not all who wander are lost." Another glance at Dr. Elizabeth Rogers told him she wouldn't be amused by the reference.
"No, ma'am," he finally returned.
As if reading his mind, she exhaled sharply, obviously more than a little defensive. "You know, there's nothing wrong with"
Her voice trailed off when the vehicle suddenly lurched forward.
From habit Dan reached out an arm to protect his passenger.
When the truck jerked to the left he gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands, struggling to maintain control.
Something didn't feel right with the steering. Too much play. He'd noticed the same thing earlier in the week, but had dismissed it as his imagination. Now he chastised himself for not taking the truck in to be checked.
"You okay?" he asked as the vehicle slowed.
She nodded. "That was scary."
"Yeah. Sorry, patch of ice."
"The temperatures are dropping already?"
"There's a sheet of ice on the roads from that snow-rain mix that was coming down first," Dan said.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I've put you at risk."
"Naw. I told you I'd be out on the roads anyway, to get home." Dan turned up the defroster, hoping to clear the clouded window. "But it might be a good idea to call ahead to the Gunbarrel Hotel and let them know you're coming."
Beth pulled off her gloves and dug a cell phone out of her tote. "No reception."
"Once we get to the other side of that hill you should get something."
"What hill?" She narrowed her eyes as she peered through the windshield. "All I can see are pine trees and those tall poles."
"Snow poles. But trust me, we're almost past the hill. I've pretty much got this road memorized. I spend a lot of time back and forth, making deliveries."
"Deliveries?" Beth asked as she put the phone away.
"I'm a pharmacist."
"A pharmacist who makes deliveries?"
"Why not?" Dan smiled, amused at her reaction. "Fact is, sometimes it's the only way I can get things to my patients."
She glanced out the back window toward the flatbed. "And you're on a snowmobile rescue team?"
He nodded. "Yeah. So I know this area inside and out."
"What do you do as a volunteer?"
"Whatever Dr. Rogers tells me to do." He grinned. "Ben is your boss?"
"Dr. Sara and Dr. Ben are. Ben manages the unit and Sara is his backup. There are six of us and each member has their own area of expertise. I'm an AIFLP."
Beth stared blankly at him.
"Advanced interfacility life support paramedic."
"You're a critical care paramedic?" she asked.
"The state of Colorado doesn't have critical care paramedics
jet. Approval is tied up in government red tape."
"I'm still impressed. That's quite a specialty out in the field."
Dan shrugged. "I guess so, but I'm basically in it for the perks."
"Occasionally they let me ride in the helicopter."
A smile parted her lips and her blue eyes sparkled, transforming her reserved expression. Dan was caught off guard when dimples appeared. Apparently Dr. Rogers's good humor had been restored.
He made a mental note not to annoy her again. They were in for a long day and he didn't need to be at odds with his passenger in the confining space of the truck cab. Besides, he liked it when she smiled. Elizabeth Rogers was easy on the eyes.
"Have we passed your place?" she asked.
"No, at the snail's pace we're going, it'll be a bit. I'm off the beaten path to the east. Small ranch at the base of the mountains."
"You're a rancher, as well?" she asked.
"Not me. My brother. He runs about two hundred head of cattle."
They rounded a bend in the road and Dan nodded toward the phone in her lap. "Why don't you check for signal strength again?"
Beth picked up her phone. "Yes. Got it."
"Great. Use my phone." He pulled a cell from his jacket pocket. "I have the sheriff's office on speed dial. Dispatch can connect you to the Gunbarrel Hotel."
She shook her head. "It's a recording."
"What's it say?"
"Call 9-1-1 if it's an emergency. Due to a heavy volume of calls, unable to
" Beth released a breath. "What now?"
"When is your flight?" he asked.
"It's not until two, but it's the last Alamosa-to-Denver flight until Monday. Then I still have to connect to New York." Turning to the window, she hid her expression.
"You think they're going to hold a blizzard against you?"
"I think it's likely I won't get the position. They need a physician now, not later."
"If you don't mind my asking, what's so important about a temp position?"
She looked at him. "This particular medical group auditions all candidates for their practice by allowing them to work as a locum tenens first. It's the only way you get in."
"I take it the competition is stiff."
"There were over one hundred applicants. In the end, only two of us were chosen. If either of us is a good match for their team we'll be offered a permanent job."
"What's the catch?"
"You could get a job anywhere. Why this practice? What makes it so special?"
"It's been my dream for as long as I can remember."