Pulling this off would take a Christmas miracle.
Marnie Faraday bit her lip as she scanned her to-do list for the umpteenth time. The pre-Christmas, happy-retirement, surprise party she was planning for Dr. Carrington was less than twenty-four hours away, and Alice Bosley had just called to say her oven had conked out and she wouldn’t be able to bring the cookies she’d promised.
Marnie counted the items already designated with an M—signifying she was responsible for them—and tried to figure out if she could squeeze in enough time to bake and decorate three dozen Santa cookies. But she already had a brisket slow-roasting in her only oven, so unless she stayed up all night, the cookies weren’t happening. Maybe Suzanne, the medical office receptionist, could help. Suzanne was already bringing meatballs in a slow cooker, but perhaps she could enlist the help of her teenage daughter and a couple of friends.
As soon as Suzanne got off the phone with someone wanting an appointment the following week, Marnie started to ask about the cookies. But her question turned into a short squeak when Dr. Carrington suddenly appeared beside her at the reception desk. He might be in his seventies, but he still had the stealth of a panther when it suited him. She quickly slid the list of party chores under a patient file and crossed her fingers he hadn’t seen it.
Along with everyone else in the tiny coastal town of Boulder Bay, Oregon, Marnie loved Henry Carrington. He’d been the only G.P. in town since before she was born. Two years ago, she’d come home from Portland, battered by grief and with a three-year old in tow, and he’d quickly found a place for her in his practice when his long-time nurse retired.
Now it was his turn to slow down and take life a little easier, and she was happy for him. He and his wife had given so much to the community. They deserved more time for each other and for their children and grandchildren. But Marnie was also sad and a little anxious. Once again, her life was about to undergo a major upheaval. The doctor had announced to the staff that he’d agreed to sell the practice to a new physician at the end of the year. He’d promised no one would lose their job but refused to give any details about their new boss.
Peering over the half-glasses perched on the end of his nose, Dr. Carrington scanned the empty waiting room. “Do we have any more patients today?”
Suzanne shot a quick glance at Marnie then checked her big appointment book. “Elaine Kellogg called and asked if she could bring Joe in around four-thirty for a quick check. Apparently, he got hit in the head with a basketball during gym class, and she wants to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion.”
The doctor nodded. “You can’t be too careful.” He straightened, blue eyes twinkling. “With any luck, we can set Elaine’s mind at rest and have them out of here before five o’clock. I don’t want to keep you ladies late tonight. After all, tomorrow’s a big day.” He turned and headed back to his office with a chuckle.
Shoot. He knows.
Marnie and Suzanne exchanged glances. Suzanne shook her head with a wry smile. “We should have known there was no way to keep him in the dark. That man knows everything.”
Marnie sighed. It was true. After decades of attending to the residents’ various complaints, the good doctor literally had his fingers on the pulse of Boulder Bay. She had hoped to surprise him just this once, but it couldn’t be helped. At least she could put on the best non-surprise retirement party the town had ever seen.
Fortunately, Joe Kellogg’s bump turned out to be nothing more than a spectacular bruise. Since Suzanne had agreed to provide the missing three dozen decorated cookies, Marnie was out of the office well before five and on her way to pick up her daughter at her sister’s house before heading home.
Poppy, however, was in no hurry to leave. “I can’t go yet, Mommy,” she whined as Marnie stuffed her into her coat and slid the zipper up to her chin. “Cora and I aren’t done with our puzzle.”
Cora was the six-year-old daughter of Marnie’s sister Livy, and Poppy’s “almost-favorite person in the whole world.” The fact that Cora was a sophisticated first grader only added to her allure. Poppy was still in half-day kindergarten.
Marnie bit back an impatient response. “You’ll see Cora tomorrow, and you can both come to the big party at the office in the afternoon.”
Poppy furrowed her brows and poked out her lower lip. “A party in a doctor’s office? That doesn’t sound very fun. Can Harriet come?” Harriet, her stuffed bunny, never left her side.
Marnie took Poppy’s hand. “Of course, Harriet can come. You’ll love the party. Everyone in town is coming, and there will be oodles and oodles of Christmas cookies.” She glanced at Livy for back-up.
“Oodles and oodles,” Livy confirmed with a solemn nod.
“O-kay, I guess.” Poppy clutched Harriet under one arm and allowed herself to be led out the door and boosted into her car seat.
Ten minutes later, they pulled up in front of the weathered shingle cottage they’d called home for the past two years. When she’d returned to Boulder Bay, Marnie had still been reeling from the shock of Tom’s death—barely able to think straight, much less make a major decision like buying a house—but the cozy little house on the bluff overlooking the Pacific had whispered to her wounded spirit, promising shelter from life’s storms. She couldn’t pass it up.
The minute she opened the door, the mouth-watering aroma of slow-roasting brisket filled her senses. It would be an exercise in self-control to save it for the party tomorrow.
Her daughter tugged on her hand. “I’m hungry, Mommy.”
“Me, too. Let’s get busy and fix some dinner.”
Poppy climbed up on one of the stools at the breakfast bar and nibbled a carrot stick, occasionally offering a bite to Harriet, while Marnie whipped up a quick pot of boxed macaroni and cheese and boiled a handful of broccoli flowerets. “I like Aunt Livy’s house. It’s too quiet here.”
Marnie pressed her lips together in frustration. Livy had a husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat. Her house was a whirlwind of cheerful, barely controlled chaos, especially before the holidays. “We’ve talked about this before. I know you want a puppy, but you and I are both gone all day. There would be no one to take care of it.”
“I do want a puppy, but that’s not it. I miss Daddy.” Poppy’s voice was small and sad.
Marnie rounded the counter and wrapped her daughter in her arms. “Me, too, Pops.” Blinking back tears, she kissed the top of the child’s head. “Me, too.”
Tom had been in the final year of his surgery residency when he was diagnosed with a brutally aggressive form of leukemia. Before they really had a chance to come to grips with the diagnosis, he was gone. Two years had passed, and she’d worked hard to build a new life for herself and Poppy, but the pain in her daughter’s voice was like a knife to the heart.
She swallowed hard, pressed one more kiss on Poppy’s hair, and gave her a quick squeeze. “Let’s eat. If you do a good job, there’s ice cream for dessert.”
Poppy rewarded her with a watery smile.
The next afternoon, the last patient left the office at three forty-five. Marnie, Suzanne, and the other two members of the staff raced around clearing space and setting up tables for the party. As she poured another pot of coffee into the big urn in the break room, Dr. Carrington strolled by, humming a silly Christmas song under his breath. Marnie shook her head. Whatever had made her think she could keep the party secret?
Current and former patients—basically everyone in Boulder Bay—began pouring in around four o’clock. Livy arrived with her gang—including Poppy—in tow, and the jazz trio from the high school started playing at four-thirty. Dr. and Mrs. Carrington mingled, chatting with their guests until five, when the doctor stepped in front of the big Happy Retirement sign Marnie and Poppy had made and rapped on a glass beaker from the small lab in back with a pair of bandage scissors.
“If I may everyone’s attention…”
The crowd quieted to an undertone of murmurs.
Dr. Carrington beamed at the group of friends and neighbors who had gathered to thank him for his years of service and wish him well. “I can’t thank you enough for coming. You’ll never know how much your friendship has meant to me and Gloria over the years.” He cast a smile at his plump, petite wife. “We’re not leaving, so we’ll still see you around town…just not in the middle of the night any more, thank goodness.”
Laughter filled the room.
“Now, I have a most important announcement to make. I know you’ve all been anxious to meet your new doctor.” He paused until the murmurs of assent died down. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce someone you all know, a fine young physician…Dr. Bryce Archer!”
After an initial group intake of breath, the room erupted in cheers as a tall, handsome, dark-haired man stepped in from the hallway and shook Dr. Carrington’s hand.
Marnie stared, oblivious to the noise. Her jaw sagged, and the empty paper cup in her hand slid noiselessly to the floor.
Bryce Archer. Her brain refused to accept the news. The new town doctor, and her new boss, was Bryce Archer.