The minute he stepped through the doorway, Bryce’s gaze landed on Marnie and stuck. He hadn’t seen her in more than ten years, but she still had the power to make him forget everyone else in the room. Her silky auburn hair was pinned up in some kind of twisty thing instead of loose across her shoulders as he remembered, and a few faint lines fanned out from the corners of her emerald eyes, but he had never seen a more beautiful woman.
A beautiful woman who was staring at him as if he’d sprouted horns.
As soon as he could slip away from the throng of well-wishers waiting to shake his hand and welcome him back to Boulder Bay, he went in search of Marnie. He found her alone in the break room refilling a tray of cookies.
“Marnie, I know this must be a shock to you,” he began.
She glanced up with a tight smile. “You have no idea.”
“I told Henry not to keep the announcement secret, but he insisted everyone would be thrilled. You don’t look thrilled.”
“It’s just a surprise, is all.” She picked up the tray and turned toward the door.
“I’d hoped you’d be happy. After all, we’re old friends.”
Old friends who were once so much more.
“It’s nice to see you again, after so many years, Bryce. Now, if you’ll let me pass, I need to get these cookies out to the food table.”
He ran one hand through his hair and released a frustrated sigh. “We’re going to be working together, seeing each other every day. I don’t want this to be weird.”
She raised one brow, and a tiny smile tickled her lips. “I’ll promise not to be weird if you will.”
His heart jumped, and he grinned and stepped aside.
Bryce spent the weekend moving into his new apartment and picking apart his decision to leave his job in the Emergency Room of a gritty urban hospital to return to tiny Boulder Bay. He definitely wouldn’t miss Detroit, but what would it be like to work in a small family practice clinic with people who had known him only as Bryce Archer, all-state star linebacker? He’d headed off to the University of Michigan on a scholarship and stayed for medical school, with only brief trips home. Now he was back to stay. He hoped.
The official transition date was January first, but Dr. Carrington had invited him to work alongside him for the last two weeks of December to get used to the staff and patients. Bryce enjoyed seeing old high school friends, several of whom brought their children in with assorted coughs, bumps, and bruises. He didn’t even mind the members of his mother’s book club who made appointments for “check-ups,” when he knew all they really wanted was to check him out.
He just wished Marnie would relax around him.
She was always pleasant but seemed to make a point of being needed elsewhere whenever he was with a patient. Not that he minded working with Shirley, the other nurse, but she’d been at the clinic as long as he could remember, and it was hard to maintain a professional relationship with the woman who had given you booster shots when you were ten.
At around one-fifteen on the Friday of his first week with the practice, Bryce was in his office between patients, stuffing down a ham sandwich and struggling to enter his notes from the morning’s appointments into the unfamiliar computer record system.
He was ready to stick a pen in his eye when a soft knock sounded, and his door opened. Marnie stuck her head in. “Dr. Carrington said you might need some help.”
He tossed the pen into his empty coffee cup in frustration. “I’d hoped it wasn’t that obvious.”
She huffed out a breath. “It took him almost six months to master the new system. I’m sure he just wants to shorten your suffering.” She walked around behind him and leaned over his shoulder. “Let me take a look at what you’re trying to do.”
He tried to pay attention to her staccato instructions and swift mouse clicks, but the light, spicy scent of her hair and the soft pressure of her breasts against his back drove every other thought from his mind.
After ten minutes of torture, he covered her hand with his to still its frenetic movement. “Let’s save the rest for another time. My head is spinning.” Which was true.
She withdrew her hand abruptly and straightened. “Okay. Another time.”
As she turned to leave, he caught her wrist. “You don’t have to leave just because my brain has reached its limit of techno-speak. Have you had lunch yet? I’d be happy to share.” He waved the untouched half of his sandwich as if it were filet mignon.
Marnie hesitated, glanced at her watch then longingly back at the sandwich. “I accept, but only because I’m starving.” She took the sandwich and plopped down in the chair across from him. “We’ll have to make this quick. The next patient is due in fifteen minutes.”
They munched in silence for a couple of minutes, then Bryce cleared his throat. “I am sorry, you know.”
She swallowed and met his gaze with a frown. “Sorry? About what?”
“About the way things ended between us.”
Her mouth tightened. “Things didn’t ‘end between us.’ You went off to school and disappeared from my life.”
He winced at the sharp edge in her tone. “Between football and my pre-med studies, I got so busy I could barely keep up. I let my personal life slip away.”
“You let me slip away. I thought we were in love. I thought we had plans.”
Her accusation stung. “Marnie, be fair. We were just kids. We had no idea what we were up against. Long distance relationships are hard. I’m sorry I didn’t make more of an effort. I’m sorry I stopped calling. I’m sorry I didn’t handle it like a man.”
She sighed, and her small, rueful smile melted his budding kernel of resentment. “You’re right. I’m not being fair. I guess I’d saved those words up for ten years and had to let them out. At any rate, life worked out for both of us. You’re a doctor now, and I…have Poppy.”
The hint of sadness in her voice gave him a twinge. “I’m also sorry about your husband—Tom, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Thank you.” She blinked a couple of times then gripped the arms of her chair and pushed it back, rising to her feet. “I have to go now. Thanks for the sandwich.”
And she was gone.
Bryce followed her with his gaze, certain he could have handled the conversation better, but not sure how.
A couple of hours later, he pulled the chart of his next patient from the clip on the outside of the exam room door and gave it a quick glance as his hand turned the knob.
He frowned, wondering why Marnie hadn’t mentioned her daughter had an appointment that afternoon during their brief lunch. But then, they hadn’t had much time for conversation. Chart in hand, he opened the door with what he hoped was a warm, friendly smile. Children were always apprehensive coming to the doctor’s office, and sick children even more so.
A small girl with bright red hair sat on the exam table hugging a slightly shabby and obviously well-loved stuffed rabbit. Marnie’s sister Livy sat in the chair beside her.
Bryce nodded at Livy then turned his attention to the child. “Hi, Poppy. I’m Dr. Archer. How are you today?”
“I have an earache.” Poppy’s voice was small and soft.
“We’ll have to see what we can do about that.” He carefully inserted a lighted otoscope into her right ear and whistled his best imitation of a bird call.
Poppy tried to turn her head. “What’s that?”
“I’m not sure, but I think you might have a bird’s nest in here.”
She giggled. “That’s silly. Besides, it’s the other ear that hurts.”
Satisfied her right ear was healthy, he checked the left. The eardrum was mildly inflamed, and he could see fluid behind it. As he was removing the otoscope, the door opened and Marnie stepped in.
She hurried to Poppy’s side, slipped an arm around her narrow shoulders, and gave her a little squeeze. “How are you feeling, sweetie? Aunt Livy called me and said you have an earache.”
Marnie sent Bryce a questioning glance.
He slipped the otoscope into his pocket. “At this point, she just has a mild inflammation. I’d hold off on antibiotics for now and stick with a mild pain reliever unless the discomfort gets worse. I think she’ll be fine.”
Marnie nodded then gave her daughter another squeeze.
Bryce pulled a cherry-flavored lollipop from the stash he kept in another pocket. “Poppy, do you think your bunny would like a sucker?”
The little girl gave him a don’t-be-ridiculous look. “Harriet doesn’t eat candy. It makes her fur sticky.”
“How about you?”
“Oh, I eat candy—when Mommy lets me.” She glanced at Marnie, who nodded. Poppy accepted the treat. “Thank you.” She pursed her lips, tilted her head, and gave him a long, appraising glance. Then she smiled. “You’re nice. Harriet thinks so, too. She wonders if you could be Mommy’s friend. Mommy’s sad a lot, and Harriet thinks she needs a new friend for Christmas.”
Bryce raise his brows. “Your bunny thinks Mommy needs a new friend for Christmas?”
Poppy gave a solemn nod.Bryce raised his gaze to Marnie. Her face was the color of Poppy’s sucker. Biting back a smile, he turned a serious face to the little girl. “Thank you, Poppy. I’d like to be your Mommy’s friend.”