The accusation is tossed my way before the door closes behind me. The clock on the wall—the one depicting a dalmatian with big, googly eyes and a stethoscope around its neck—proves I technically have one minute to spare.
“Actually, I’m one minute early,” I say, pointing at Dr. Dog.
My grandfather’s assistant, the one who used to stash Pixy Stix for me in her desk when I’d come to visit every summer, doesn’t look convinced. But if I remember one thing about Dottie Haynes, it’s that she’s a sucker for a smile.
I lower my chin and give her my best cheek-splitting grin. Slowly but surely, it works. The irritation on her face melts away, and a dose of humor takes its place.
“That smile isn’t going to get you very far around here, handsome.” Her words come out with a laugh.
“Was I being handsome?” I point at myself. “I hate when that happens. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” she teases, coming around the corner of the reception desk. “I can see sorry written all over you.”
“All over my handsome face, you mean?”
She swats my shoulder before pulling me into a tight hug. She smells of licorice and vanilla—warm and subtly spicy. It’s oddly comforting.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say as we pull apart. “I promise to try to be as un-handsome as I can while I’m here.”
She makes a face as if to say, “You do that.” A pair of glasses slips down her nose as she moves to the other side of the counter. “Handsome or not, I’m glad you’re here. I can use an extra set of hands.” She holds up a finger before lifting a phone from behind her. “Honey Creek Animal Clinic. This is Dottie.”
I glance around the waiting area. Pictures of smiling kids wearing shirts emblazoned with the clinic’s logo are tacked proudly to the walls. Chairs that my gram reupholstered before she passed away line the room.
It’s as simple a place as I remember it to be—void of sundry items for sale, and with no advertisements clinging to open spaces on the windows. As a matter of fact, the only hint that this is a business is an oversize sign behind the counter, which makes it clear that there’s a surcharge for farm calls—a whopping ten dollars.
No wonder Pap is still working at his age. You’d have to at these prices.
Dottie places the phone back on the counter.
“Easy flight?” she asks as she makes a quick note on the pad of paper in front of her.
“I sat on the tarmac in Phoenix for over an hour last night. Got in pretty late, so I grabbed a room in Nashville and came over this morning.”
“Which is why you are late.”
I grin. “I am not late. And I would’ve been even earlier had some antiquated tractor not gone two point six miles per hour for ten miles.” The back of my neck tenses again at the thought of that reflective triangle taunting me. “How is that even legal?”
“Blue hat or red hat?”
She laughs. “Did the farmer have a blue hat or a red one?”
I scratch the top of my head. “Blue. I think. Why?”
“That was Bruce. He’s the second-largest landowner in Honey County. There isn’t a soul that’s gonna say a word to him about farming, even if it’s a minor inconvenience. His farms keep a lot of this county going.”
I ponder this. “What if it was a red hat?”
“Well, that would’ve been Bob. Bruce’s brother. The largest landowner in Honey County.”
“I need to get some land if it gets you the run of the place,” I joke.
Dottie plops her pen on top of the paper in front of her. “So where are you staying while you’re here?”
I sigh. “Good question. Pap offered for me to stay at his house, but I don’t think I want to sleep on a sofa. I was going to get a room in Nashville, but Bruce and Barry—”
“Whoever they are, they have me reconsidering.” I move around the counter and fix myself a cup of coffee. When I look up, Dottie is watching me with a twinkle in her eye. “What?”
“It’s just that I haven’t seen you in, what? Ten years? You being an adult throws me off a little. I still remember you running around here in that Phoenix Suns hat, trying to get someone to take you fishing.”
“Has it been that long?” I ask, although I know it’s true.
The last summer I came to Honey Creek was the year I graduated high school. It’s a year I won’t—can’t—forget. For so many reasons. It was one of the worst years of my life.
“It has,” she says.
Shaking off the memories, I blow out a breath. “Never would’ve guessed it by looking at you. You just get younger, Dot.”
Lines form around the corners of her mouth as she grins. “I was gonna tell you to stop trying to charm me, but I kind of like it.”
I chuckle before taking a sip of my coffee. Dottie watches me with a distinct fondness as she passes a mug with the words Lookin’ Like a Quack, complete with a duck contorted into the letter k, back and forth between her hands. A long black braid that’s peppered with silvery strands is slung over one of her narrow shoulders.
“So what are we doing today?” I ask.
“Well, we have a few patients on the schedule. It’s the first of the month, so we’ll have lots of walk-ins too.” She glances down at a paper. “What do you want to go by? Dr. McKenzie? Your first name like your pap does? What are we calling you these days?”
“I’m kind of partial to ‘handsome,’ if you don’t mind.”
She snorts. “Well, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say your grandfather won’t take to everyone calling you that quite as well as you have.”
“Probably true. Let’s just go with Holden. Dr. Holden, if you want to match Pap and his ‘Dr. Fred’ thing. Whatever. I’m easy.”
“Great,” Dottie says, seemingly satisfied at my decision. “Now that’s settled, let me give you a quick rundown on some of the patients you’ll see today.”
I take another look around the waiting area. A double-decker, blue birdcage sits in the corner. It, too, is empty.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine,” I say. “Animals are animals no matter where you are. That’s the beauty of them.”
“Maybe they are. But people are not.” She smiles smugly and pulls a small white bottle out from beneath the counter. She sets it on top. The contents clatter around inside the plastic. “Grady will be in around a quarter till nine. He’ll be with Fancy, his Chihuahua. There will be a story about the dog, probably that he has allergies because Bob’s harvesting soybeans out by his house. Inspect the dog, ask Grady about his garden, and then give him these pills for the pooch. In that order.”
My brows furrow as I take in her animated features. Surely she knows that none of that makes any damn sense.
“But what if the dog doesn’t need the pills?” I ask.
“They’re just vitamins.”
“Okay.” My brain spins, trying to link all this information together in a coherent fashion. “So why do I have to ask him about his garden?”
“What? You don’t like gardens?”
She presses her lips together as if she’s enjoying watching me try to grasp the information she’s tossed my way.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “Gardens are fine, I guess. I just don’t understand why I have to care about Grady’s garden.”
“You’re overcomplicating this. Just ask about the garden and then hand him these,” she says, shaking the bottle. “Then go on with your day.”
I set my cup down a little harder than necessary. “But why? What does growing carrots have to do with if his dog is sick or has allergies or . . . whatever?”
She laughs. “What will it hurt for you to ask him about his garden?”
“It won’t hurt anything. But what it will do, mark my words, is make him think I care. And I do not care about his garden. Or Bruce’s soybeans—”
I narrow my eyes. “Whoever’s whatever. The point is that I don’t care. I don’t even like humans, Dottie. That’s why I’m a vet.”
Her braid falls off her shoulder as her entire body vibrates with laughter. “You do too. If ya didn’t, you wouldn’t be a vet, and you sure as heck wouldn’t be Fred Harrison’s grandson.”
My features stay smooth. The only movement is my eyelashes as I try to ward off whatever craziness Dottie is infected with in case it’s contagious.
She rolls her eyes and leans against the counter. “Grady’s wife died a couple of years ago. He gets lonely. Your grandpa plays along.”
“So, Pap’s a therapist now? This should be fun.”
“What are you talking about? He gives good advice.”
I look at her, stone-faced. “When I was seven or eight, I hated math. Couldn’t get it. Pap called and I was whining about a homework paper, and he told me to just multiply everything by zero and it would be zero. How could the teacher argue with me getting the right answer?”
“Needless to say, I thought I was big shit. Ended up getting my first F and after-school detention for being, for a lack of a better word, a smart-ass. Then Dad grounded me for a week because I listened to his father-in-law and not to him.”
She raises her coffee mug in an attempt to hide her smile. It doesn’t work. The tips of her raised lips give her away.
I sigh. “So what else do I need to know? We’re clearly operating on a level I wasn’t aware of.”
“Let’s see.” She takes a quick sip of her coffee and then sets her mug down. “It’s Monday, so Birdie Jones will be in to pay her tab. She runs a small farm and kennel. Your grandpa goes by there and checks on the animals every week. Birdie will come in and pay today. If you’re up here when she comes in, just stick it in the fridge.”
I blink. Twice. “We put money in the fridge?”
“No, but we put the pies there.”
I’m not sure what my face does, but Dottie laughs again.
“We take payment in pie?” I ask.
“And cobbler. Sometimes cake, but not often, which I’m happy about. Don’t tell Birdie I told you, but she needs a bit of Crisco in her buttercream. It’s just a little blah. And that’s why she lost the blue ribbon three years ago at the Honey Creek Bake-Off, but I’m not telling her that.”
I rub a hand down my face.
“Taking payment in pie is . . . It’s ludicrous,” I say because I don’t know what else to say.
“It’s delicious. Especially the gooseberry . . .” Her voice trails off.
My brain short-circuits, and I wonder how I ended up here.
Only a month ago I was on the precipice of having everything I’d always wanted. My career was taking off. I was being considered by one of the most prestigious clinics in the world, thanks to my solid track record and work ethic. I was engaged to a girl I’d started dating in college. Everything was lining up.
And now, here I am. Unemployed. Single. And hoping that the universe smiles on me and I can salvage what’s left of my life. Somehow.
I remind myself that not all is lost. I still have a shot at Montgomery Farms. I think.
I follow Dottie’s gaze to the doorway.
“Well, Sophie Bates,” she says. “What brings you by this morning?”
The fog in my head clears as I watch the woman walking toward me.
“Well, if it isn’t Holden McKenzie,” she says, twisting her gingerbread-colored hair into a messy knot on top of her head.
I lean against the counter and take her in. The apples of her cheeks host a constellation of freckles, and her chin is punctuated by a tiny mole a little to the left of center. She’s exactly like I remember her . . . only all grown up.
She sets her sights on me. The corners of her lips curl toward her golden-brown eyes. There, embedded in the veneer of innocence, is the unmistakable glimmer of mischief that has always been her trademark.
“I heard there was trouble in town,” she says with a wink. “Had to come and see it with my own eyes.”
“What? Are all the mirrors in your house broken?”
She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. “Fair enough. How have ya been, anyway? It’s like you forgot we all existed over here.”
“Eh. Been better. Been worse. You?”
We exchange a grin like you only can with someone you’ve connected to on an organic level before the world makes you jaded and changes you. I haven’t felt this in a long time.
Seeing her brings back memories of long, carefree days in the sun. Hours lying along the banks of Pine Creek and listening to music. I’m struck with things I thought I’d forgotten, about nights watching movies cast onto the side of the library and wondering what she would do if I ever kissed her.
I never found out.
And now I kind of regret that.
“Did you ever get my gold chain out of Pine Creek?” I ask.
Her brows shoot to the ceiling, too, as she remembers one of the last afternoons we spent together and how I ended up losing more than my chain in the waters of the creek.
At the same time, we both start to laugh.
“You jumped in there willingly,” she says.
“No. You dared me.”
“That hardly makes anything my fault.” She shakes a finger my way as she comes to a stop on the other side of the counter. Her laugh fades, but she’s left with an easy smile. “But for your information, we did find it a few years later, buried in a sandbar. You didn’t come back, so we pawned it.”
“Well, that was nice of you.”
“Bought us a couple of bottles of strawberry wine.” She looks up at Dottie and sobers her face. “That we were too young to have. I know.”
Dottie holds her hands up, shaking her head.
Sophie laughs and leans against the counter. She props her chin on her hand. Her eyes shine.
Sophie was my best friend every summer. As we grew up, so did the chemistry between us. Summer was never quite long enough for the spark to ignite, but I’ve always wondered what things would’ve looked like if I didn’t live fifteen hundred miles away. I’ve thought about her through the years. Anytime Pap mentioned her, I’d dig a little to see what the girl who’d held my fascination for a large chunk of my life was up to.
“What are you doing in here today, anyway? Just coming by because you missed me so much?” I tease.
I cock a brow and steel myself against the coy, and adorable, look on her face and thank God I’m now immune to this woman’s magical powers. I think.
“Actually, I need an antibiotic, Dr. McKenzie.” She flutters her long dark eyelashes my way.
“For . . .”
“Strep? Okay. Where is your pet?” I ask.
“Babar is at home. Why?”
Dottie coughs. I glance at her to see her lifting the neckline of her shirt to cover her mouth.
“Well,” I say, flipping my attention back to Sophie, “I generally need to see the patient before I can prescribe a medicine.”
“Not around here. Dr. Fred just gives me antibiotics and sends me on my way. I mean, there’s really no reason to see the same dog repeatedly for the same thing, is there?”
I struggle not to smile.
She narrows her eyes. “You mean that you won’t just write me a prescription?”
A laugh topples from my mouth before I can stop it. It triggers a sparkle in her eyes, a fire that switches my laugh to an extended chuckle.
She can’t be serious.
“You know I’m an animal doctor and not a human doctor, right?” I ask.
“Yes. What’s your point?”
“That . . . Are you kidding me?”
Her lips twist into a coy smile. “Are you considering it? Think about the next time I get sick. You could be my savior. You’d be a hero.”
“No,” I say adamantly. “I don’t care how much you beg. I will not break the law for you.”
“Easy, Doc. I was joking. But I saw that flicker in your eyes. You were thinking about it,” she teases.
“I was not. Not even for you and that pretty little smile you have going on.”
She leans back and nods appreciatively. “Ah. Well, thanks. I’ll leave on that high note.”
“You do that,” I say with a laugh.
“Tell Dr. Fred this guy needs a lot of training, Dottie.” She jabs her thumb over her shoulder as she heads for the door. “Like a lot of training.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” Dottie tosses me a wink. “See ya later, Sophie.”
Sophie presses her back against the door. She pauses and looks at me. The warmth in her eyes, the familiarity, washes over me like a drink of bourbon. It’s comfortable and unpretentious and a feeling I totally forgot existed.
“I’m leaving now. Nice to see you, Holden. Hope I don’t need those antibiotics anytime soon.”
I grin. “I’ll say nice words at your funeral and forgo all that pawning-my-possessions stuff.”
She fires a playful glare my way before giving Dottie a little wave. With a pop of her hip, the door flies open, and she’s gone as quickly as she appeared.
I look over my shoulder to see Dottie smiling at me.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothin’.” She tries to smooth her features to hide her grin. “Now, do you have any questions before we open for the day?”
“Nope. I just hope it ends a lot calmer than it’s started. I feel like I’ve been exposed to more bullshit today than I have in my entire life combined.”
She laughs. “Oh, handsome. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.