“Snow. So much horrible, terrible, awful snow.” Doctor Olivia Burton scowled in disgust at the mounds of snow lining the road as she turned off the highway through the mountains and headed toward her hometown of Pinehill, Oregon.
When she’d left two and a half weeks ago, there hadn’t been much snow on the ground, a fact that greatly pleased her. After spending fourteen days on a Caribbean cruise with her best friend from college where Olivia soaked up every bit of sunshine she could, it felt like she drove into an arctic landscape as she neared Pinehill.
It wasn’t like the snow was unexpected. Pinehill was a short drive from Mount Hood where skiing was the activity of choice in the winter months.
Still, so many days of beautiful ocean water, amazing beaches, warmth, and sun had left her ill-prepared to return to temperatures hovering barely above zero and what appeared to be at least three feet of snow.
“Maybe I should head south for the winter and become a snowbird,” she muttered as she slowed her SUV at the city limit sign.
Since it was midweek, the town wasn’t packed with tourists. From April through Valentine’s Day, nearly every weekend their small town overflowed with tourists who flocked there for a variety of festivals and events. In the winter, nearby skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling drew in more guests, while the summer months offered fishing, rafting, boating, and waterskiing to entice visitors to the area.
Not that Olivia would complain about the infusion of tourism dollars that kept Pinehill thriving, but it was nice to be able to drive through town without crazy tourists darting between moving vehicles, or clenching the wheel as she anticipated a clueless driver pulling out in front of her.
When Olivia had left Pinehill at eighteen, she’d never planned to return. She’d moved to California where she’d remained all through college, her residency, and then working in a practice with a dozen other doctors. Then, a year and a half ago, Doctor Howard, who’d run the clinic in Pinehill for what seemed like forever, called Olivia out of the blue to announce his plans to retire. He’d asked if she’d like to take over his practice.
Her first inclination was an emphatic “no way!” but rather than blurt out her thoughts, she told him she’d think about it. The more she thought, the more something drew her to the idea of moving back to the town that had once been her home. So, she’d called Doctor Howard and told him she’d take over at the start of the new year.
She’d spent Christmas last year driving to Pinehill and moving into the house she’d inherited from her grandfather. Her parents hadn’t wanted it. They’d sold their home in Pinehill and moved to Virginia not long after Olivia had left town.
Now, after a year of being back in Pinehill, Olivia found herself still struggling to adjust to small-town life and cold winter weather. Her years in California had thinned her blood, or so her nosy neighbor, Tony Mendive, had taken great delight in informing her every time he saw her shivering in the cold.
The crusty old geezer had owned the barbershop in town long before Olivia was born. He and his cronies liked to drink coffee, a thick liquid that more closely resembled brined sludge, while gossiping about everything that happened in town, as seen from the barbershop windows.
Olivia refused to think of how often she’d been part of their speculation. She’d probably die of embarrassment or be utterly appalled if she ever became privy to that information, which was one reason she kept her distance from the barbershop, even if it was just around the corner from the coffee shop. She generally walked three blocks out of her way just to avoid appearing in view of Tony’s windows.
“Are you really scared of an old man and his buddies who obviously lost all sense of taste years ago based on the coffee they drink?” she questioned, then glanced around to make sure no one spied her talking to herself.
The jingle of sleigh bells signaled the approach of one of the Sleigh Bell Tours sleighs. Olivia smiled and waved at Bowen Jensen as he gave a tour to a young family of five. Bo was a rancher who owned and operated the sleigh tour business during the winter months, as had several generations of his family before him.
Her thoughts flashed back to her junior year of high school when she’d first realized she was in love with Bo. He was shy and sweet, and made her feel like she was the most important person in the world. When she felt like her life was falling apart around her, Bo had been the one constant, steady person she could count on. Then she’d left him behind when she knew it was time to get away from Pinehill.
At least Bo didn’t harbor any ill feelings toward her for packing up and leaving without giving him a proper goodbye. He and Juniper, his wife of almost a year, had been good friends to Olivia since her return. Bo waved and tipped his ever-present cowboy hat to her as he guided the sleigh past her car, heading in the opposite direction.
Olivia drove a few more blocks, turned onto a side street, and then parked at the medical clinic. A doctor who worked in a neighboring town had filled in for her while she took her much-needed two-week vacation over the Christmas holiday. She’d timed her return to make sure anyone who’d been ringing in the New Year would be long gone before she came back to Pinehill.
The mostly quiet streets confirmed her assumption the tourist business would be light the next few days until people came back for the weekend activities.
Olivia grabbed a gift bag off the back seat, slid her purse strap over her shoulder, wrapped a scarf around her neck and over her face, then hopped out of her vehicle into the cold.
“Brr, brr, brr,” she chanted as she picked her way across the parking lot in a pair of fashionable high-heeled boots she would normally never wear in Pinehill, but she’d bought them on her trip and had nowhere to pack them in her luggage. If she managed to make it home without breaking her neck, she’d count it as a victory.
The clinic’s door still held a big evergreen wreath with a fluffy red bow. Olivia smiled as she glanced at the cheery decoration, and opened the door, rushing inside with a draft of nippy air.
“Good afternoon. Do you have an appointment?” a familiar voice asked as Olivia unwound her scarf.
Before she could reply, the office nurse screeched in excitement. “It’s you!” Stacy Milleson ran around the receptionist desk and gave Olivia a tight hug. “Welcome back!”
Olivia grinned at the upbeat woman who’d become her friend in the last year. Stacy had moved to town a few years ago, after a bad divorce. Olivia had known the first day they’d met that they’d become friends.
“Oh! Look at you. Look at that gorgeous tan!” Stacy gushed, stepping back and giving Olivia a studying glance. “You look amazing.”
“Thank you, Stace. I brought you something.” Olivia handed the gift bag to her friend.
Stacy whipped out the layers of tissue paper and dug out jars of pineapple and guava jelly, a rum cake packed in a fancy bakery box, and the small box shaped like a clamshell that held a freshwater pearl bracelet.
“Oh, I love it all, but especially the bracelet. Thank you.” Stacy hugged Olivia a second time, then fastened the bracelet on her wrist, holding it up to catch the light. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” Olivia removed her coat, then looked around the empty room. “Where’s Madge? Don’t tell me you drove off our receptionist while I was gone. Is Doctor Patterson here today?”
“Madge’s husband had a doctor’s appointment in Portland this morning, and she didn’t want him to go alone. As for Doctor Patterson, he was here this morning, but he had his own patients to see this afternoon.” Stacy followed Olivia down the hall to her office.
Olivia pushed open the door, hung her coat and scarf on the coat rack, and set her purse on a chair in front of her desk. She looked around and turned back to Stacy. “I’m glad to see my desk isn’t piled a foot deep with files and mail.”
“I’ve sorted the mail, took care of what I could, and Doctor Patterson handled the rest. He left the files of regular patients on your desk for review. If you ever go on vacation again, he was fantastic to work with.” Stacy shrugged. “Too bad he’s happily married. He’d be a fabulous catch.”
Olivia rolled her eyes. Stacy had tried to set her up on so many dates, she’d finally lost count. Typically, Olivia had an excuse at the ready to wiggle out of going, but a few times, Stacy had tenaciously prevailed. Olivia had suffered through numerous miserable evenings with guys who clearly had no interest in dating her.
Perhaps one of her new year goals should be to successfully thwart all of Stacy’s ridiculous matchmaking efforts on her behalf. If anyone needed to meet a nice guy, it was Stacy. She deserved to love and be loved as much as anyone, even if she claimed her ex-husband had cured her from the desire to date for the rest of her life.
“So, how was the cruise?” Stacy asked, drawing Olivia’s thoughts back to the present. “Meet any cute guys?”
Of course, Stacy would get right to what she saw as the heart of the matter before Olivia could even take a seat at her desk.
“The cruise was great, until it wasn’t.” Olivia turned on her computer and glanced at the small pile of mail in the center of the desk as she sank into her office chair. She reached down and adjusted the height lever.
“What does that mean?” Stacy asked, appearing confused as she moved Olivia’s purse over one chair and then plopped onto the seat.
“It means Della and I were stuck in a cabin between two of the nosiest busybodies on the whole ship. They were unbelievably obnoxious, sticking their nose into our business until I wanted to push them overboard.”
Stacy giggled. “Now that I would have paid money to see. I’m sorry they bugged you, Olivia.”
“They didn’t just bug me and Della. They were horrible and relentless. It got to the point Della and I had to employ evasive maneuvers that would have made the military proud just to get from our cabin to breakfast every day without facing their version of the Spanish Inquisition.” Olivia took her letter opener from the desk drawer and began opening the mail that Stacy had left there. “That was bad enough, but they kept trying to set us up with the cheesiest, tackiest guys on the ship. One of them walked around with his shirt unbuttoned to his hairy navel while wearing a thick gold chain around his beefy neck that matched his gold front tooth. We later found out he was a nephew to one of the busybodies.”
Stacy burst out in laughter. Only at Olivia’s admonishing glare did she attempt to curtail her mirth. “I really am sorry it put a damper on your fun.”
“Well, the real damper came when a nasty stomach virus swept through the ship and more than half of the people on board got sick. Of course, I ended up helping take care of people, and then I got sick. To thank me for my assistance, I was quarantined to the cabin with Della when we reached the two ports I really wanted to visit.” Olivia sighed. “The weather was great. Our cabin was nice. The food was delicious, at least when I was able to eat it. But I have no desire to go on another cruise. Ever. It’s like being trapped in a tiny town with no place to escape and all the gossiping tongues watching your every move. I hated it.”
Stacy gave her an I-told-you-so glance as she sat back in the chair. “I warned you not to mess with Santa Claus. Going on a Caribbean cruise during the holidays is not my idea of a holly jolly Christmas. Next time you want to run away from the holidays, at least go somewhere Santa-approved.”
Olivia couldn’t help the snort that rolled out of her. “Like where? Here? Maybe Faraday where I can pet Lolly the camel during the living nativity performance. No, thanks. If I’m going to use my precious vacation time, it will be somewhere warm and sunny and Santa can just deal with it.”
“I can already see the coal filling your Christmas stocking, my friend.” Stacy stood and shook her head at Olivia before she walked to the doorway. She glanced back with a smile. “I’m really glad you’re back, Liv. Thank you for the wonderful gifts.”
“You’re welcome, Stace. If anyone comes in, just let me know.”
“Only you, Doctor Workaholic, would come in to catch up when you haven’t even been to your house. Why don’t you go home, unpack, and rest? You’ll likely be busy tomorrow. I can make appointments if anyone happens to pop in this afternoon.”
Olivia shook her head and continued slitting open her mail. “I don’t plan to stay long. I just want to take care of the mail and reply to emails, then I’ll head home. Promise.”
“That promise won’t hold water, and you know it. Once people see your vehicle parked outside, a stampede will begin.”
Olivia grinned at Stacy. “I’ll be out of here before anyone discovers I’m back in town.”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the bell at the front desk rang.
For the next three hours, Olivia raced from one patient to the next. How could so many people need assistance when all had been calm and quiet when she’d arrived? She set the arm of a skier who’d broken it in a fall. She tended to a cut on a teenager’s cheek where an ice ball thrown by the guilty friend who accompanied him had left a deep cut that required four stitches.
“Girls like a scar or two, you know,” she told the boy after giving him instructions for keeping the wound clean and making an appointment for him to come back in ten days to ensure it had healed well. She walked them to the door. “Just try to be more careful and no more snowballs made of ice.”
“Yes, ma’am,” both teens agreed as they left.
Olivia didn’t even make it back to the receptionist desk before another patient hurried in with a screaming toddler.
By the time five rolled around, Olivia felt dead on her feet. All she wanted was to go home, take a hot bath, and curl up in her big, comfy bed.
“I’m leaving before anyone else comes in,” she said to Stacy as she walked past the receptionist’s desk where the nurse was shutting down the computer and tidying the stack of files. Olivia had one arm in her coat and her scarf dragging behind her when the door was yanked open. A man rushed inside with a panicked look on his face and a choking dog in his arms.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Olivia muttered in disbelief.