Dr. Elaine Watson never loses. Period. So she won't miss out on a chance to restore the Bluebird Bed-and-Breakfast. The owner's son, Dean Collins, seems just as determined as she is. A famous photojournalist, he hasn't been home in years, so why does he want to turn the Bluebird, a charming old B and B, into a fishing camp?
With just a few weeks to create the winning plan, Elaine has no choice but to spend time with the guy. She's drawn to the handsome, wounded man, but being with Dean would mean giving up the future she's been dreaming of And Dr. Elaine Watson never gives up.
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"Looks like you've been getting plenty of sun, Mr. Collins," Elaine Watson murmured as she looked over his vitals. "That might be good for your blood pressure but not your skin." She glanced over her glasses to see Robert Collins roll his eyes over a sunburned nose.
"I'm old, Doc. I'll risk a little burn to feel the sun on my face."
"Skin cancer is no joke," Elaine answered and realized what a bossy know-itall she sounded like. But she'd seen countless families suffer through the disease, and she didn't want to watch Robert Collins do the same. He was her favorite patient.
Then she remembered that he'd lost his wife to cancer and realized what a waste of breath lecturing him was. He'd already lived through the worst. No one could forget that.
"Just try some sunscreen while you're out on Spring Lake, okay? For my sake." He nodded once, and she decided to believe he was agreeing with her instead of moving the conversation along.
"Any new complaints? You've lost another ten pounds, so whatever you're doing is working." Elaine flipped through his chart. When he'd arrived at the after-hours emergency care center two years ago, he'd been in bad shape with chest pains and blood pressure through the roof. His improvement was thanks to an angioplasty and medication to control his blood pressure combined with a desire to make a change.
"Fit as a fiddle, Doc. In fact, I'm about to take more of your advice. I'm going to get a new hobby. Bet you never thought you'd see the day." Noting the gleam in his eyes, Elaine braced herself. A teasing Robert Collins was a charming, dangerous thing.
When they'd first met, getting him to talk about anything had felt like an accomplishment. Over time, this strong, silent type had thawed.
Elaine set his chart down. "Hit me with it. I can't wait to hear what piece of life-saving advice has trickled in."
"I'm going to travel." He stuck out his chin as if she'd pin a star to his chest if they handed out medals for good ideas. "Gonna get one of those high-class travel trailers and see some purple mountains and gold waves of grain and white, sandy beaches."
"Really?" Elaine tilted her head as she considered the suggestion. "By yourself?"
Robert frowned. "If I have to. You don't think I can?" It was an insult he would never stand for. Even after all they'd been through, he had a hard time believing he was no longer bulletproof.
She studied his clear eyes, shining with intelligence and a little bit of annoyance, thought about his vitals and then nodded. "Sure. You can. Do you want to?"
He snorted. "What difference does it make? I'm out there all by myself every day. Gets old after a while. A change of scenery would be a nice thing."
Too much alone time was something Elaine understood. Sometimes being by herself was wonderful. At the end of every day, she needed some silence to catch her breath. Other times, it was lonely. Lately, a restless dissatisfaction had intruded on her quiet. But nothing would tempt her away from Robert's spot on the lake if she was lucky enough to own it.
"You mean the prettiest view of Spring Lake and the mountains around Tall Pines isn't enough?" Elaine tapped her pen. "I'm not sure I can imagine anything better than sitting on the porch of the Bluebird Bed-and-Breakfast."
"You haven't been out to the inn for years, Doc. Been more than a decade since Martha died and the place " He stared at his folded hands. "It's not what it used to be. Until recently, I couldn't stand the thought of changing anything."
Elaine patted his shoulder. This was the biggest challenge of treating her patients: knowing what to say or do when absolutely nothing she said or did would ease the pain. Some hurts only time would heal. No doubt losing his wife would make it difficult to enjoy the view from the wraparound porch of the Bluebird Bed-and-Breakfast. Maybe Elaine couldn't imagine anything better than a rocking chair and the calm of Spring Lake after a hard day, but she didn't have his memories, either.
A single rocking chair might not be as satisfying as she tried to convince herself it could be.
"I should have hit the road years ago. Might have been easier to deal with losing her." His choked voice said clearly that nothing in the world would make losing his wife any easier. Elaine hated to hear that pain even as she wondered if she'd ever find someone who'd miss her that much when she was gone.
"Mr. Collins, you're on the right track. The best part is that if your trip isn't what you dream of, you can always come home to Tall Pines. This place will still be here, Spring Lake will still have some of the best fishing in the state and we've got plenty of mountains, too." The fact that Tall Pines changed slowly was one of its finest features. Life moved quickly. People came and went, most of them before she was ready to say goodbye, so a place like this was ideal.
She tried an encouraging smile that must have worked, because the sadness on his face drained away.
"What are you going to do with the Bluebird? I spent some great summers there, so if you're thinking of selling, I'd love to make an offer."
At that moment, anyone checking Elaine's pulse would definitely be concerned. She'd been working and saving forever without any notion what she was hoping for.
Now she knew. This inn was meant to be hers.
The frown that wrinkled his brow was unusual. No matter how sad he might be, Robert Collins always smiled. The day he'd walked into the emergency clinic with chest pains, he'd led with a joke and done his best to keep the mood light while the nurses scurried around him.
"Well, now, here's the problem." He sighed. "You remember Dean, right?"
"Sure. Vaguely." Dean Collins was a few years older than she was. He'd been around the Bluebird Bed-and-Breakfast the summers she'd visited, but neither one of them had taken much notice of the other. To her, he'd always seemed so wild and mysterious. "And I've seen some of his work." She was going to leave it at that. A son who would let his father recover from heart surgery alone didn't rate very high in her book even if he'd won awards for his photography. No matter how she struggled to manage her mother's wild mood swings, she'd never desert her.
"Well, he's in town. Showed up out of the blue last week, moved into his old bedroom like he hadn't been gone and announced he wants to reopen the inn." He shook his head. "Just like that. I was surprised, to say the least."
She was, too. The ache of disappointment that settled in her chest was silly. She hadn't even had a chance to buy the Bluebird, much less actually lose one.
Don't be so emotional, Elaine. He's been planning to leave it to his son, of course. That's what families do. There's no need to take it personally.
She forced a smile. "Well, that's good, then. You won't have to worry about the Bluebird while you're seeing America the beautiful." And she'd keep on working, saving her money for who knows what, and ignore the strange dissatisfaction that was getting harder to shake even with double emergency shifts and crazy office days.
Robert Collins moved his head back and forth as if he wasn't quite as convinced. "Except he's proven more than once that this is not where he wants to be. He's gotten tight-lipped with all this travel, so I haven't managed to figure out where the change of heart is coming from, but I'm afraid to trust it."
A discreet tap on the door by Nina, Elaine's dedicated nurse, signaled the end of their appointment. Patients were waiting in the other exam rooms, and the lobby was a madhouse. Resigned that the day had to march on, Elaine stood up and said, "Maybe he'll stay until you're ready to see Spring Lake again."
Robert Collins slid off the exam table. "Here's the thing. It's a tough decision, but it's the right time. Someone else can take the Bluebird and make it special again. Martha would want that, and she'd want me to get off my hindquarters and do something with all this time. Running an inn well, I think maybe it's a talent a person's born with. Martha had that giftit ran in her blood. Without her, the business just stopped. The place lost its magic, and eventually guests stopped coming. That suited me fine for a while. Now, I'm not sure Dean's the right choice, but I don't know if I can let it go to someone else." Robert blinked slowly. "I understand that letting it fall down around my ears is the worst option. Martha'd hate to see her inn looking like it does."
Elaine squeezed his arm. "Let Dean take a shot. What's the worst that could happen?"
Nothing felt comfortable about this whole situation, but it seemed like the right thing to say. She wanted the Bluebird. She should make him an offer. But he wanted the best for his son and for the Bluebird. She would encourage him, even if it went against her nature.
"You surprise me, Doc. Figured a take-no-prisoners winner would seize any weakness." He raised an eyebrow. "Better not let Wanda Blankenship see that soft underbelly when the Fourth of July half marathon comes around. She'll knock you out of the top spot."
Oh, no. She would not. Elaine had placed first in the women's division every year since she'd moved here. Wanda Blankenship, owner of the town gym, would eat her dust again this year.
Some of her warrior's spirit must have shown on her face because Robert laughed as though it was the funniest thing in the world to put a target on Wanda Blankenship's back. Good thing he wasn't racing.
"You have to do what you believe is right, Mr. Collins. I'm doing my best not to launch into a hard sell, mainly because I like you so much." Elaine rested her hand on the doorknob. "You know how I feel. I spent some lovely afternoons on the front porch drinking tea with my mother. I'd love to have that view of Spring Lake as my own."
Robert nodded slowly. "Well, how about." He stared off into space for a second and then nodded again. "Come out for a visit. Meet Dean. We'll talk about your plans and then see " He shrugged. "Maybe selling to you is the best thing for me and Dean. Maybe he needs somewhere to catch his breath before he hits the road again. I don't want a run-down building holding him back any more than I want to be the one keeping the Bluebird from being restored. Once he sees I've got a buyer, he might see the benefit of coming up with a new plan."
"He could hit the road with you. You could see the country together." Elaine couldn't help it. She should encourage this plan. Robert Collins might be one of her favorite people, but his son was fair game. She could outmaneuver him without the slightest guilt.
"Right." Robert rubbed his forehead. "We don't usually see eye to eye. Once his mother died, Tall Pines lost all hold on him, and now I have a hard time imagining my rolling stone settling in one spot, even on Spring Lake." Then he smiled. "Not your worry, Doc. Come out this weekend. See how far you'd have to go to restore the building and then we can talk about whether it's something you're still interested in."
Elaine felt a flutter of hope. The Bluebird was a dream she could go after. Once she'd decided to pursue something, she rarely lost. She liked her odds all of a sudden. "Fine. I'd love to visit."
"Maybe you and Dean will hit it off. Only a matter of time until you two meet anyway. Kid's always had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which leads to stitches, splints and casts, if you know what I mean. Broke his arm when he was sixteen by falling off the roof. The girl he was trying to impress was more horrified than anything else."
Confused at the thought of anyone being foolhardy enough to climb the roof of the two-story farmhouse, Elaine opened the door and nearly shut it again at the mixture of ringing phones, arguing television pundits and the screams of an anxious child in the waiting room.
The Bluebird Bed-and-Breakfast was set in a peaceful spot overlooking Spring Lake. What she wouldn't give to spend her evenings there, catching her breath after long days of noise like this.
"Before you go, make an appointment for your six-month follow-up. Don't miss it."
She shook her finger at him. "This road trip has to come second to your health, right?"
He grumbled but the gleam in his eye was back. "And I won't forget the sunscreen."
Elaine smiled and waved goodbye. She could hear him talking with Wendy, her office manager, as she wrote her notes in his file and then asked Nina to call in refills on his medications.
"Here's the file for the next patient, Miss Hailey Dawson, age nine," Nina said as she slid over the folder. "Room two. Sneezing, cough, low fever. Looks like a cold to me"
A loud commotion followed by the unmistakable sounds of someone vomiting in the waiting room interrupted whatever Nina was about to add to her diagnosis. Elaine had to take a deep, calming breath.
"No worries, boss. I'll take care of it." Nina patted her hand, picked up the trash can and hurried around the desk. "Oh, and your mother's already called three times this morning. The messages are on your desk." Nina paused and met her gaze.
Elaine smiled. "No problem, Nina. I did warn you. The third divorce is almost final. Expect it to go on like this until there's a new man."
Nina saluted and disappeared into the waiting room.
For half a second, she considered checking the messages. Just because it had never been an emergency before didn't mean today was the same. Except Nina would have correctly assessed the situation just as she'd diagnosed the next patient.
Her mother could wait. Work could not.
Elaine scooped up the file and quickly entered the next exam room.
"Hailey, it's been a while since we've seen you. How's the rabbit?" Elaine shook hands with Hailey's mother, whose name she could not remember.
"He's good. Fat!" Hailey said with a delighted sparkle in her eyes just before she sneezed.
"She's got a terrible sneeze, coughs all night and I'm afraid her temperature's up," her mother said. "It's probably a cold, but I wanted to make sure."
Elaine nodded as she listened to Hailey's lungs, checked her temperature and took a look at her throat and ears. "Well, it looks to me like she's the latest to catch the cold tearing through town. Something for the cough and congestion will ease the symptoms." Elaine made some notes then ripped off the top page of her notepad and handed it to Hailey's mother. "These over-the-counter meds should help."
"So no shot?" Hailey asked and then clapped her hands. "Yes!"
"I can tell you're disappointed. I could round up a shot for you," Elaine said. She might not have kids, but she liked them. They didn't usually return the favor, at least not while she was wearing a stethoscope around her neck.
"No, thank you," Hailey said and rolled her eyes. She straightened the bow in her curls and then carefully folded the pleats in her skirt. Hailey had a unique style. This was a girl who loved color. All of them. And all at once.