Authors: Tracy March
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #enemies to lovers, #entangled publishing, #Series, #doctor, #Contemporary, #suddenly smitten, #bakery, #bliss, #wedding, #small-town, #tracy march, #Holiday, #sweet
“Sorry I wasn’t invited,” Cyn said with a sly smile.
“No, you’re not.”
“I see enough of her. You keep her company for a change.”
Cyn worked part-time for the Queen to make money. She worked part-time at Sweet Bee’s to stay sane.
“It was nice of her to invite me…” Paige finished making her espresso and inhaled the bittersweet aroma of instant energy. “I think.”
“She means well,” Cyn said. “She just can’t stand not to be the center of attention in Maple Creek. You gave her some competition there for a little while.” She grabbed a sponge and wiped a dusting of flour from one of the stainless steel tabletops. “I’m thinking she wants to reestablish herself as the Queen before you get any ideas of a coup.”
Paige took a sip of her too-hot espresso and winced. “Busted—I’ve been secretly planning a revolt. I mean, what right-minded girl wouldn’t want to be crowned Queen of Maple Creek, Maryland? I had visions of riding in the back of Mayor Warren’s El Camino in the Christmas parade, sitting in a recliner, wearing a cubic zirconium tiara and a sash that says ‘I rule.’”
“Nice.” Cyn nodded. “Had you planned to throw candy?”
Paige shook her head. “Tums. You gotta play to your audience.”
The oven timer pinged. Cyn picked up a hot pad and took out the muffins. “Just assure her that she’s still the alpha female in town, and everything will be okay.”
Paige respected Mrs. Hawthorne—as quirky as she was—and valued her as a customer. As long as Paige’s business didn’t become the Queen’s business, everything would work out fine.
“You wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.” Cyn pressed her sheer-glossed lips together tightly.
“Who’d know that better than you?”
“For sure.” Cyn nodded ruefully. “I didn’t see any notes from Dr. Hartley this morning.”
Paige recalled her conversation with Dr. Anderson and clenched her teeth. She normally posted any special instructions she got from Dr. Hartley in a special place on the bulletin board for Cyn to see when she came in on Tuesday and Friday mornings. “And you won’t be seeing any for a month.”
Cyn’s blue eyes widened. “Why not?”
Paige told her about Dr. Anderson’s visit last night, deciding not to mention that he was super-sexy and surprisingly single. “He’s definitely Mr. Play-by-the-Rules.” Paige popped one of the piping hot loaves out of the pan, sliced it, and took a bite. “On second thought,” she said through a mouthful, “dude seems wound up way too tight to play at all. As if anyone’s going to come to Maple Creek and check which doctor’s name is listed on the HIPAA forms.”
“Jeez. He needs to lighten up.” Cyn pulled some flattened bakery boxes from the shelf and started folding them into shape. “The hardheaded doctor should be happy his temporary patients aren’t pigging out on the wrong stuff that they randomly picked out at the grocery store.”
“That’s what I said. They could be gorging on Twinkies.”
Cyn swiftly tugged at the strings of her apron. They fell loosely at her sides as she whipped it off and tossed it on the tabletop. “I’m going over there right now to set his stubborn ass straight.”
Paige stepped in front of her. “Oh no you’re not.” Even though Cyn was measurably taller than Paige, who’d been told more than once that she was the size of a Polly Pocket doll, Cyn backed down. No matter how many times Cyn had gotten herself into trouble by acting before thinking, Paige constantly had to remind her not to do it again.
Cyn narrowed her eyes and exhaled loudly. “He’s just causing trouble that we can’t afford.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” Paige sounded more depressed than she meant to.
“Those old guys get set in their ways, and there’s no reasoning with them.” Cyn grabbed her apron and put it back on. “The old girls, too,” she said, no doubt referring to the Queen.
“But Dr. Anderson’s not old. He’s Dr. Hartley’s nephew.” Paige took another bite of the bread, savoring the perfect balance of lemon and almond flavors. “He’s a few years older than us, max.”
And ever since he showed up here last night, I can’t get him out of my freakin’ mind.
She’d been hoping that Liza’s fiancé Cole would introduce her to one of his buff baseball buddies, but it was off-season now and they’d scattered everywhere. Now the only guy she could think about was the cowboy hipster doctor who’d kept her awake all night…and not for the reasons she would’ve liked. How crazy was she, wondering what it would be like to kiss a guy who was set to do real damage to her business?
Cyn’s lip turned up in a slow grin. “He’s hot, isn’t he?”
Paige shook her head quickly. “What makes you say that?”
“I might’ve seen you blush a total of three times in my life. Now it’s been four.”
Paige couldn’t deny the heat rising in her face. “It’s not because he’s hot. It’s because I’m pissed. There’s nothing I’d like more than to outsmart Dr. Know-It-All Anderson.”
Lane stood gaping at the sheer size of the carved-cherry front doors of Hawthorne Manor. He held a wrapped bouquet of winter flowers—all red, purple, and white. It was as if he’d stepped out of quaint Maple Creek and onto the grounds of a European mansion, complete with formal gardens, outbuildings, stables, and a cobblestone circular driveway with a huge fountain in the center. He’d seen and visited some awesome homes—even grew up in one—but this place was remarkable even in the context of those.
After Lane had accepted the offer to see his uncle’s patients for a month, Uncle Pete had kept his briefing to mostly business—except he’d forgotten to mention the Special Recipe deal with Paige. But one thing he had told Lane about the social workings of the town was that Mrs. Fairleigh Hawthorne practically ran Maple Creek, even though she’d never held public office. If Lane could keep her happy, everything else would fall into place. If he couldn’t, everything would fall apart. Since he was aiming to keep a low profile while he decided where he’d set up his next practice, he’d no doubt heed his uncle’s advice.
He had barely unpacked a thing before Mrs. Hawthorne’s invitation to dinner had arrived in a fancy envelope that looked more like something that held the name of an Oscar winner. Curious about the storied Mrs. Hawthorne, Lane had accepted. He’d rather know what he was facing up front than ignore her and pay later. According to his uncle, that wouldn’t have been the wisest move. Evidently that strategy had been tried before and only resulted in trouble.
The last thing Lane needed was more trouble—he’d already had plenty of that in Austin. And a healthy dose of it last night in the form of Paige Ellerbee and her “magic.” She might look like a hip Disney princess with her long blond hair and those dazzling golden-brown eyes, but there was no way he would fall under her spell and risk coming under suspicion again. What she and his uncle were doing was technically legit, but he couldn’t afford to get into technicalities. Another brush with the law and his medical career would be over.
One of the massive front doors swung open and a butler appeared in the doorway.
A butler in Maple Creek?
The guy was kind of short and nearly bald, with a jolly-looking face and wire-rimmed glasses. His suit strained over his round belly. Lane couldn’t help but think that boded well for dinner—the food must be tasty and plentiful here at Hawthorne Manor—but things weren’t looking so good for the butler’s health.
“Welcome to Hawthorne Manor,” he said in a smooth baritone voice, gesturing for Lane to step inside. “I’m Henry.”
“I’m Lane Anderson.” He nodded politely and went in.
“Cocktails will be served in the parlor.” Henry led him though the expansive foyer where stylish oriental rugs covered the slate floor beneath an arched ceiling three stories high. They passed a ballroom-sized living room on one side and a library on the other. Farther down the hall, they entered a cozier room that was still as big as a country church, with more oriental rugs, several seating areas, and a huge fireplace with a larger-than-life portrait of a stately older woman hanging over the mantel.
Lane shifted his gaze to the back corner of the room and saw the real-life version of the woman in question in conversation with Mayor Warren, whom Lane had seen as a patient earlier in the day. They’d had a semi-awkward yet congenial appointment with only a brief mention of the drama at the barbershop yesterday and no mention of magic. He’d learned that Mayor Warren was his neighbor across the street and, having seen Carrie helping him move into the house, he’d likely been the source of the rumor that Lane was married. The mere thought of another romance had Lane shuddering, considering how bitterly his engagement to Stephanie had ended.
“Madam,” Henry said, the one word echoing in the room above the classical music that played in the background.
Mrs. Hawthorne tipped up her chin in acknowledgment, her sharp gaze appraising Lane. Instinctively he straightened his spine and buttoned his sports jacket. Mrs. Hawthorne was a large woman, tall and solid in the sort of way that gave her a commanding presence. She wore a caramel-colored skirt and jacket with an ivory blouse—all of which looked expensive and perfectly tailored. Most remarkable was her jewelry, noticeable even from this distance. The diamonds in her earrings and necklace were at least the size of nickels, and brilliant enough to blind someone if they caught the light just right. Even though she gave Lane a welcoming smile, he could see why she might intimidate people.
“Dr. Lane Anderson,” Henry announced.
With the mayor close behind her, Mrs. Hawthorne stepped toward him, her low-heeled shoes sensible yet stylish.
Smart not to risk a fall at her age.
Lane wished he could turn off his doctor’s mind sometimes, but he was trained to think that way. “It’s a pleasure,” she said. She held her drink in one hand—
—and shook his hand more firmly than he would’ve expected with the other. Her steady, blue-eyed gaze met his. “It’s lovely to finally meet the good young doctor I’ve heard so much about.”
Lane’s stomach clenched. He wasn’t sure if he should read anything into her words, but he couldn’t help being paranoid. What had Mrs. Hawthorne heard about him and from whom? He’d been told she was a shrewd woman with countless connections that reached way beyond Maple Creek.
All the way to Austin?
Lane swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am.” He flashed what he hoped was a disarming smile and she seemed charmed…for a second.
“I lucked into a dinner invitation, too.” Mayor Warren shook Lane’s hand. “No finer dining anywhere in the state of Maryland.”
“Your drink,” Henry said from behind Lane.
Lane turned to see Henry holding a glass of whatever Mrs. Hawthorne and Mayor Warren were drinking. Considering that the Hawthorne family owned several exclusive Caribbean resorts that most people could only dream of affording, their staff probably knew how to mix a mean cocktail. Lane gladly took the glass. Henry nodded and toddled off.
Mrs. Hawthorne gave Mayor Warren a sidelong glance and lifted her drink. “Welcome to Maple Creek, Dr. Anderson. Here’s to health, happiness, and happily ever afters.” They all toasted, Mayor Warren with a twinkle in his eyes, Mrs. Hawthorne with a sly grin, and Lane with the uneasy feeling that he might be on some hidden-camera reality TV show.
He took a long, eager swallow of the cocktail, which turned out to be the best mojito he’d ever tasted. “Thank you,” he said to Mrs. Hawthorne. “And please call me Lane.”
“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Lane said. He wished he could’ve told them he was happy to be in Maple Creek, but he couldn’t say that with much sincerity. He had the idea that Mrs. Hawthorne didn’t miss much, and she’d easily sniff out a little white lie like that. “It’s nice to have some time to decide where I want to practice. That’s the next step for me after Uncle Pete gets back from Europe.”
Mayor Warren nodded. “That’s a big decision.”
“For sure,” Lane said just as the doorbell chimed.
Henry hurried past in the hallway. Soon the latch on the huge front doors clanged, and there was chatter in the foyer. Several women’s voices were muffled by space and distance. Lane would swear he’d heard a couple of them before, but he couldn’t quite place them. Before he had time to even guess who the voices belonged to, Henry led three women into the parlor. Lane was stunned to see Sylvia Sutherland and her daughter, Liza. Sylvia and her husband, John, had been lifelong friends of Lane’s parents. The families had vacationed together several times when Lane was little.
Lane hadn’t seen Sylvia or Liza since his sports medicine rotation during his residency at Johns Hopkins, but they were the kind of people who made him feel comfortable right away, no matter how much time had passed. The last woman to come in was Paige Ellerbee.
Lane swallowed hard as he tried to make sense of the last guest. He struggled to keep the shock off his face because, for some reason, Mrs. Hawthorne’s gaze never left him.
Paige seemed as surprised to see him as he was her, and she didn’t hesitate to show it. Her large eyes widened, then narrowed beneath her lowered eyebrows. She’d looked a little tired but still hot when he’d seen her at the bakery last night, but now she was 100 percent smokin’ in clingy black slacks that showed off her shapely legs and stilettos custom-made for impure thoughts. A few of them crossed his mind as his eyes made his way up to her glimmering silver sleeveless top that draped at the neckline. He risked a fleeting glimpse at her cleavage and inhaled sharply. His gaze traveled to her face—her glossy-pink bow-tie lips, her perfectly upturned nose, those incredible eyes. She wore her silky blond hair in a sleek chignon and managed to make the pink stripe at the front look sophisticated. Whether he’d admit it or not, his blood pressure told him he was no longer thinking Disney, he was channeling
“Dr. Sylvia Sutherland, Miss Liza Sutherland, and Miss Paige Ellerbee,” Henry announced, as if everyone didn’t already know one another.
Mrs. Hawthorne gave her empty glass to Henry and held out her hands, palms up. “Lovely to have you ladies here!” She paused for a moment, then said, “You all know Mayor Warren.” She clutched Lane’s upper arm with a firm grip. “Dr. Anderson, I understand you know Sylvia and Liza.”
Liza looked dramatic and demure in a simple black dress, her long red hair framing her face. “Congratulations again on your engagement.” He’d followed the story of her proposal from Cole Collins, the Silver Slugger first baseman for the Washington Nationals. They’d exchanged texts at the time, and he’d been truly happy for her despite the fact that he’d still been hurting from his breakup with Stephanie. Her diamond engagement ring sparkled like fireworks.
“Thanks” She shyly tucked her hair behind her ear.
Sylvia stepped toward him and held out her arms for a hug. “I’m so happy to see you! You’re still my favorite resident ever.”
Lane hugged her, remembering how motherly she had been to him and all of the residents who were little better than zombies by the time they’d worked with her. “You look lovely as ever.” And it was true. She had the same ash-blond bob, she was still in shape and impeccably dressed—in a dark red wrap dress tonight—and she still made you wish she were your mom, even though Lane adored his mom, too.
“I always respected your judgment,” she teased.
Mrs. Hawthorne chuckled. “I understand you’ve met Paige.”
“That’s correct.” Paige nodded, looking as if she was struggling to shape her lips into something resembling a smile. He had a wisp of a thought about kissing them, then quickly wondered exactly how much liquor was in his mojito.
Lane worked to keep his expression neutral and nodded at Paige.
Mrs. Hawthorne looked expectantly from one of them to the other and back, which made Lane take a quick slug of his drink, yet Paige seemed unaffected. She leveled her gaze on him—her long, dark lashes framing her golden-brown eyes—and he started to get why people associated her with magic.
What the hell had Fairleigh Hawthorne been thinking? Paige was okay with the woman being the Queen and all that. Her highness had even gained more favor with Paige today when Paige had found out that Liza and her mom had also been invited to dinner. They’d lived in Maple Creek a long time ago, and had been part of the pie war and the World Series saga that followed, even though the Orioles had lost. As co-owners of the team, the Sutherlands could still be proud, and Liza had ended up happily engaged, so there’d still been a lot to celebrate.
Since places like Hawthorne Manor were so totally out of her atmosphere, Paige figured she’d be way more relaxed there with people she knew well. On second thought, maybe being relaxed wasn’t such a good idea after all. There was no telling what might come out of her mouth. She’d given herself fair warning. But no amount of warning had prepared her to sit across the mile-long dining room table from the not-so-nice but oh-so-swoony Dr. Anderson.
The man plain confused her. Most of the time, she had a pretty firm opinion about someone—one way or the other. He’d been unreasonable and, in her mind, unable to see the big picture when it came to the well-being of her customers and Dr. Hartley’s patients. Normally that would be enough to put him on her not-worth-my-time, avoid-whenever-possible list, which happened to be very short. He had annoyed her that much. But she couldn’t keep her mind—or her gaze—off him. So she officially registered her opinion as…mixed. She also refused to keep thinking of him as Dr. Anderson. He seemed to be Lane to everyone else, so he’d be Lane to her, too.
And Sylvia and Liza know him?
Small freakin’ world, for sure. Paige had a vague recollection of Liza talking about the Andersons, but she couldn’t recall ever hearing anything about Lane in particular. But since they were friends and all, maybe Liza and Sylvia could school him on loosening up a little. He’d definitely skipped class the day that was on the syllabus. Paige had liked the hipster cowboy look he had going when he’d stopped in at Sweet Bee’s, but she had to admit he could rock a sports jacket and oxford shirt, too. The whole button-down thing seemed more appropriate for him anyway, considering.
The Queen could seat about thirty people at her immense dining room table. It seemed awkward to have only six people eat there, but Mrs. Hawthorne had the genius idea to buy a burl-wood table that was gracefully curved at the ends, allowing them to sit in an intimate semi-circle.
The arrangement had Paige seated last on one side and Lane on the other. She couldn’t look straight ahead without staring him in the face. With every glance, her mind took off to all kinds of forbidden places. She imagined the feel of his sexy stubble beneath her fingers, the touch of his lips on hers.
How desperate are you?
She needed to focus on her pork chop, or on Mayor Warren, who sat next to her, or even on the conversation, which she’d lost track of right about the time she’d envisioned her fingers combing thorough Lane’s tousled curls. That had been before the five o’clock shadow thoughts and definitely before she’d imagined the kiss. But her fingers in his hair could work just as well during and after the kiss, too…