Dr. Leigh Culver loves practicing medicine in Timberlake, Colorado, after her stressful life in Chicago. The only drawback is she misses her aunt Helen, the woman who raised her.
When Helen visits Leigh, she is surprised to find her niece still needs her, especially when it comes to sorting out her love life. But the biggest surprise comes when Leigh takes Helen out to Sullivan’s Crossing and Helen finds herself falling for the place and one special person. Helen and Leigh will each have to decide if they can open themselves up to love neither expected to find and seize the opportunity to live their best lives.
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On the first really warm, dry day in early March, Dr. Leigh Culver left her clinic at lunchtime and drove out to Sullivan's Crossing. As she walked into the store at the campground, the owner, Sully, peeked around the corner from the kitchen. "Hi," Leigh said. "Have you had lunch yet?"
"Just about to," Sully replied.
"Let me take you to lunch," she said. "What's your pleasure?"
"My usual — turkey on whole wheat. In fact, I just made it."
"Aw, I'd like to treat you."
"Appreciate the sentiment, Doc, but it's my store. I can't let you buy me a sandwich that's already bought and paid for. In fact, I'll make another one real quick if that sounds good to you." He started pulling out his supplies. "What are you doing out here, middle of the day?"
"I wanted to sit outside for a little while," she said. "It's gorgeous. There are no sidewalk cafés in town and I don't have any patio furniture yet. Can we sit on the porch?"
"I hosed it down this morning," he said. "It's probably dried off by now. Got a little spring fever, do you?"
"It seemed like a long winter, didn't it? And I haven't seen this place in spring. People around here talk about spring a lot."
Sully handed her a plate and picked up his own. "Grab yourself a drink, girl. Yeah, this place livens up in spring. The wildflowers come out and the wildlife shows off their young'uns. Winter was probably long for you because everyone had the flu."
"Including me," she said. "I'm looking forward to the spring babies. I got here last summer in plenty of time for the fall foliage and rutting season. There was a lot of noise." She took a bite of her sandwich. "Yum, this is outstanding, thank you."
"Hmph. Outstanding would be a hamburger," he groused. "I'm almost up to burger day. I get one a month."
She laughed. "Is that what your doctor recommends?"
"Let me put it this way — it's not on the diet the nutritionist gave me but the doctor said one a month probably wouldn't kill me. He said probably. I think it's a lot of bullshit. I mean, I get that it ain't heart healthy to slather butter on my steak every day, but if this diet's so goddamn healthy, why ain't I lost a pound in two years?"
"Maybe you're the right weight. You've lost a couple of pounds since the heart attack," she said. She had, after all, seen his chart. When Leigh was considering moving to the small-town clinic, she visited Timberlake to check out the surroundings. It was small, pleasant, clean and quiet. The clinic was a good urgent care facility and she had credentials in both family medicine and emergency medicine — she was made to order. It was owned and operated by a hospital chain out of Denver so they could afford her. And she was ready for a slower life in a scenic place.
When she first arrived, someone — she couldn't remember who — suggested she go out to Sully's to look around. People from town liked to go out there to swim; firefighters and paramedics as well as Rangers and search and rescue teams liked to hike and rock climb around there, then grab a cold beer at the general store. Sully, she learned, always had people around. Long-distance hikers came off the Continental Divide Trail right at the Crossing. It was a good place to camp, collect mail, restock supplies from socks to water purification kits. That's when she first got to know Sully.
She had looked around in June and moved to Timberlake the next month. She might have missed the spring explosion of wildflowers but she was in awe of the changing leaves in fall and heard the elk bugle, grunt and squeak in the woods. It took her about five minutes to fall in love.
"What have you done?" her aunt Helen had said when she visited the town and saw the clinic.
She and her aunt lived in a suburb of Chicago and Leigh's move was a very big step. She was looking for a change. She'd been working very long hours in a busy urban emergency room and saw patients in a small family practice, as well. She needed a slower pace. Aunt Helen wasn't a small-town kind of woman, though she was getting sick of Midwestern winters.
They were the only family either of them had. Leaving Helen had been so hard. Leigh had grown up, gone to college and medical school and had done her residency in Chicago. Although Helen traveled quite a bit, leaving Leigh on her own for weeks or more at a time, Leigh was married to the hospital and had still lived in the house she grew up in. But Leigh was thirty-four years old and still living with her aunt, the aunt who had been like a mother to her. She thought it was, in a way, disgraceful. She was a bit embarrassed by what must appear as her dependence. She'd decided it was time to be an adult and move on.
She shook herself out of her memories. "Such a gorgeous day," she said to Sully. "Nobody camping yet?"
"It'll start up pretty soon," he said. "Spring break brings the first bunch, but until the weather is predictably warm and dry, it ain't so busy. This is when I do my spring-cleaning around the grounds, getting ready for summer. What do you hear from Chicago?"
"They're having a snowstorm. My aunt says she hopes it's the last one."
Sully grunted. "If we'd have a snowstorm, I wouldn't have to clean out the gutters or paint the picnic tables."
"You ever get a snowstorm this late in the year? Because I thought that was a Midwestern trick."
"It's happened a time or two. Not lately. How is your aunt? Why hasn't anyone met her yet?"
"She made a couple of very quick trips last fall. I wasn't very good about introducing her around. Besides patients, I didn't really know a lot of people yet. She's planning to come here this spring, once she finishes her book, and this time she'll stay awhile." Leigh laughed and took another bite of her sandwich. "That won't cause her to leave the laptop at home. She's always working on something."
"She always been a writer?" he asked.
"No. When I was growing up she was a teacher. Then she was a teacher and a writer. Then she was a retired teacher and full-time writer. But after I finished med school, she grew wings. She's been traveling. She's always loved to travel but the last few years it's been more frequent. Sometimes she takes me with her. She's had some wonderful trips and cruises. Seems like she's been almost everywhere by now."
"Egypt?" Sully asked.
"Yep. China, Morocco, Italy, many other places. And the last few winters she's gone someplace warm for at least a couple of months. She always works, though. A lot."
"Hmph. What kind of books?"
Leigh grinned. "Mysteries. Want me to get you one? You have any aspirations to write the tales of Sullivan's Crossing?"
"Girl, I have trouble writing my own name."
"I'll get you one of her books. It's okay if it's not your thing."
"She been married?"
"No, never married. But that could be a matter of family complications. My mother wasn't married when I was born and the only person she had to help her was her big sister, Helen. Then my mother died — I was only four. That left poor Aunt Helen with a child to raise alone. A working woman with a child. Where was she going to find a guy with all that going on?"
Sully was quiet for a moment. "That's a good woman, loses her sister and takes on her niece. A good woman. You must miss her a lot."
"Sure. But ..." She stopped there. They had been together for thirty-four years but they ran in different circles. "We never spent all our time together. There were plenty of separations with my education and her travel. We shared a house but we're independent. Aunt Helen has friends all over the world. And writers are always going to some conference or other, where she has a million friends."
But, of course, she missed Helen madly. She asked herself daily if this wasn't the stupidest thing she'd ever done. Was she trying to prove she could take care of herself?
"Well, I suppose the waiting room is filling up with people."
"Is it busy every day?" he asked, picking up their plates.
"Manageable," she said. "Some days you'd think I'm giving away pizza. Thanks for lunch, Sully. It was a nice break."
"You come on out here any time you like. You're good company. You make turkey on whole wheat a lot more interesting."
"I want you to do something for me," she said. "You tell me when you're ready for that hamburger. I want to take you to lunch."
"That's a promise! You don't need to mention it to Maggie."
"We have laws that prevent talking about patients," she informed him, "even if she is your daughter and a doctor."
"That applies to lunch?" he said. "That's good news! Then I'll have a beer with my hamburger, in that case."
"Hey, boss," Eleanor said when Leigh walked in. "We have a few appointments this afternoon and then the usual walk-ins. Did you have a nice lunch?"
"Excellent," she said. "Spring is coming fast! There are buds on trees and green shoots poking out of the ground."
"Rain in the forecast," said Gretchen.
Leigh had two assistants, both RNs. Eleanor was about fifty years old, maternal and sweet-natured, while Gretchen was about thirty, impatient and sometimes cranky. They were both perfectly efficient. Both of them were excellent nurses. They'd known each other for a long time but Leigh got the impression they weren't friends outside of work. Frankly, Leigh wondered if anyone was Gretchen's friend.
"I'm ready when you are," she said to the nurses, going back to her office.
There weren't a lot of patients waiting, but with the number of appointments, the afternoon would be steady. Some people in town used the urgent care clinic as their primary doctor, which was fine if they didn't need a specialist. Leigh referred those appropriately. Leigh thought about the one time she'd treated Sully. He had an upper respiratory infection with a lingering cough. She ordered an X-ray, gave him some meds and told him to call his regular doctor. "Don't need any more doctors," he said. "I'll let you know if this doesn't work." Apparently it worked.
It was a good little clinic. There was another doctor who filled in two to three times a week for a few hours or a shift; he was semiretired. Bill Dodd. They kept pretty odd hours, staying open two nights a week and Saturdays. Outside clinic hours, patients had to drive to a nearby town to another urgent care. The clinic was there primarily for the locals. Emergencies were deployed to area hospitals, sometimes via ambulance.
Leigh hung her jacket on the hook behind her desk and replaced it with a white lab coat. She had worn business attire under her lab coat until she'd been puked on, bled on and pooped on a few times. She was a quick learner. Now she wore scrubs and tennis shoes like her nurses.
Not only was their attire pretty casual, the office was friendly and open. A few of the firefighters from across the street were known to drop in just to visit. If they could get past Gretchen, who was a tad rigid. Leigh thought it was nice to have this open, welcoming atmosphere when possible, when the place wasn't overflowing with kids with hacking coughs. "It wasn't like this when Doc Hawkins ran the place," her friend Connie Boyle said. "You always got the impression he was secretly glad for the company, but he couldn't smile. His face would crack." Leigh thought that described half the old men in town, but she was learning that underneath that rugged demeanor there were some sweethearts. Like Sully. He could come off as impatient or crabby, but really, she wanted to squeeze him in a big hug every time she saw him.
She saw a one-year-old who appeared to have croup; he was barking like a seal. Then there was a bad cold, a referral to the gastroenterologist for possible gallbladder issues and she splinted and wrapped a possible broken ankle before sending the patient off to the orthopedic surgeon.
Just as they were getting ready to close the clinic there was some excitement. Rob Shandon, the owner of the pub down the street, brought in his seventeen-year-old son, Finn. Finn was as tall as Rob, and Rob was a bit over six feet. Finn's hand was wrapped in a bloody towel and his face was white as a sheet; Rob seemed to be supporting him with a hand under his arm. "Bad cut," Eleanor announced, steering them past Leigh and into the treatment room.
The towel was soaking up lots of blood and it looked like the patient might go down.
"On the table and lie down, please. Nice, deep breaths. You're going to be okay. Close your eyes a moment. Dad, can you tell me what happened?" she asked while snapping on a pair of gloves.
"Not totally sure," Rob said. "Something about a broken glass ..."
Finn was recovering. "It broke in the dishwasher, I guess. I was emptying it and ran my hand right across a sharp edge. My palm. And the blood poured out. You should see the kitchen floor."
"Well, you wrapped it in a towel and have probably almost stopped the bleeding by now. I want you to stay flat, eyes closed, deep breaths. If you're not crazy about blood, looking is not a good idea. Me? Doesn't bother me a bit. And I'm going to have to unwrap this and examine the wound. Eleanor, can you set up a suture tray, please? Some lidocaine and extra gauze. Thanks." She positioned herself between the injury and Finn's line of vision. She pulled back the towel slowly and a fresh swell of blood came out of a long, mean-looking gash across the palm of his hand. "Good news — you're getting out of dishes for a while. Bad news — you're getting stitches. Plenty of them."
"I'll numb it, no worries."
"I have practice," he mumbled. "Baseball ..."
"I don't think that's going to work out for you," she said. "This is a bad cut. Let's do this, okay?"
"I'm staying, if that's all right," Rob said.
"Sure," she said. "Just stay out of my work space." Leigh picked up the prepared syringe and injected Finn's palm around the gash. "Only the first prick of the needle hurts," she explained. She dabbed the cut with gauze. "It's not as deep as it looks. I don't think you've cut anything that's going to impact movement. If I had even a question about that, I'd send you to a hand surgeon. It's superficial. Still serious, but ..."
Eleanor provided drapes, covering Finn, lying the hand on an absorbent pad that was on top of a flat, hard, polyurethane tray that was placed on his belly.
"Are you comfortable with the hand on this tray?"
"Okay," he said.
Leigh tapped his palm with a hemostat. "Feel that?"
"Nope," he said.
"Good. Then can I trust you not to move if we let your hand rest right here?"
"I won't move. Is it still gushing?"
"Just some minor bleeding and I'm going to stop that quickly," she said. Eleanor turned the Mayo stand so it hovered over Finn's body and was within Leigh's easy reach. Leigh cleaned the gash, applied antiseptic, picked up the needle with a hemostat and began to stitch. She dabbed away blood, tossing used gauze four-by-fours back on the Mayo stand, making a nice pile. "You really did a number on this hand," she said. "You must have hit that broken glass hard."
"I was hurrying," Finn said. "I wanted to get everything done so I could get to practice."
"Yeah, that backfired," she said. "Safety first, Finn."
She dropped the bloody towel on the floor, stacked up more bloody gauze squares, applied a few more stitches. Then there was a sound behind her — a low, deep groan and a swoosh. Rob, his face roughly the color of toothpaste, leaned against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. "Rob," she said. "I want you to stay right where you are, sitting on the floor, until I finish here. It won't be long."
"Ugh," he said.
"You going to be sick?" she asked.
He was shaking his head but, fast as lightning, Eleanor passed a basin to him. "Stay down," the nurse instructed. "Don't try to stand up yet. That never works out."
"I'll be done in a couple of minutes," Leigh said. Then she chuckled softly. "The bigger they are ..."
"Did my dad faint?" Finn asked.
"Of course not," Leigh said. "He's just taking a load off." She snipped the thread and dabbed at the wound. "Dang, kid. Fourteen stitches. It's going to swell and hurt. I'm going to give you an antibiotic to fight off any infection and some pain pills. Eleanor is going to bandage your hand. Don't get it wet. Do not take the bandage off. If you think the bandage has to come off, come in and see me. If I'm not here and you think that bandage has to come off for some reason, do not touch it. Call my cell. No matter what time it is. Now tell me, what is the most important thing to remember about the bandage?"
"Don't take it off?" he asked.
"You're a genius," she said. "You come back in three days and we'll look at it together, then wrap it up again. I want you to keep it elevated, so Eleanor will give you a sling."
Excerpted from "The Best of Us"
Copyright © 2018 Robyn Carr.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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