Authors: Tracy Brogan
Other Titles by Tracy Brogan
Crazy Little Thing
(A Bell Harbor Novel)
Hold on My Heart
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2014 Tracy Brogan
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Cover design by Laura Klynstra
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013917677
To my real Gabby and my real Hillery, my
s were even invented.
BIRTHDAY PARTIES ARE A LOT
like pelvic exams—a little uncomfortable, a little awkward, a little too personal, but an unavoidable yearly nuisance—like a Pap smear, only with presents. So I should have known I couldn’t tiptoe past this day with both my secret, and my
There I was, just minding my own business, looking for a cup of coffee in the Bell Harbor Plastic Surgery Center staff lounge, when suddenly I was surrounded. They pounced, silently and with no warning. The air around me morphed into a shimmering tsunami of pink and purple metallic confetti, and throaty laughter filled my ears. Warm bodies surged forward, pressing me into the corner of the room. More sparkles flew, clinging to my face and hair like sparkly shrapnel.
They were on to me, and there was no escape.
I was a victim of the Birthday Ninja Glitter-Bomb Squad.
Because today was no ordinary day. It was, in fact, my birthday. A birthday I wasn’t happy about. A birthday I wanted to ignore. A birthday that punted me from the eighteen-to-thirty-four bracket into the thirty-five-to-death category. Now I was trapped inside the birthday ninjas’ rainbow-bright web. Resistance was futile.
“Happy birthday, Evelyn!”
“Happy birthday, Dr. Rhoades!”
Another cloud of confetti descended, and someone plunked a tarnished rhinestone tiara on my head, which assuredly clashed against my red hair. Quasi-benevolent good wishes blended with giggles and old-age jibes as the lounge filled with my six physician partners and members of our office staff, two dozen in all. Delle, our rotund, middle-aged receptionist, bustled forward importantly and placed a candle-laden cake on the table in the center of the room. She smiled wide, triumphant.
They all did. The whole herd of them beamed at me and shifted on their feet, expectation glowing in their shining eyes. They looked jubilant, the way people do when they want you to be overcome with delight . . . which I was not.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate their efforts. I’m not a complete birthday Scrooge . . . except when it comes to my
birthday. I’m just not a big-celebration, look-at-me kind of woman. Having all that attention directed my way for something no more notable than aging seems silly. It’s like getting the green participation ribbon for field day. I hadn’t worked to earn this. I was being rewarded simply for showing up.
“Well, did we surprise you?” Delle demanded. She nudged thick glasses against the bridge of her nose with a pudgy thumb. She had different frames for each day of the week. These were teal. It must be Tuesday.
For a split second I hoped the open flames of all those candles might set off the smoke alarms, forcing us to vacate the building. But no such luck. Snagged in that moment, I had no choice but to take one for the team. I plastered on my fake happy birthday face.
“Gosh, you guys. Yes. Wow. You really did surprise me. I had no idea anyone even knew it was my birthday.” My surprise
genuine, but I also did a pretty commendable job at sounding pleased. Score one for me.
“Dr. Pullman told us. You should thank her.” Delle pointed at the tall brunette with the two-hundred-dollar haircut and ridiculously impractical high-heeled shoes.
I swung my gaze toward Hilary Pullman, the one person in town who knew unequivocally I didn’t want a fuss made today. She was my professional colleague, my most trusted confidante, and until ten seconds ago, my closest friend. We’d met during our plastic surgery residency and bonded over the trials and tribulations of being a woman in medicine. Nothing quite cements a friendship like sharing a post-call toothbrush before morning rounds.
Hilary had grown up in Bell Harbor, and our friendship was half the reason I’d chosen to practice here. But friend or not, she knew I hated birthday parties in my honor. I squinted at her and tried to look fierce, but she was a foot taller than me in those damn heels. I was at a distinct disadvantage.
She returned a guileless smile and shrugged in her typical
fashion. She stepped away from the cluster of birthday revelers. The hem of her fitted black pencil skirt barely cleared the bottom of her white lab coat. Some might say that skirt was too short. And they’d be right. But in all honesty, if I had legs like hers, I’d wear skirts like that too. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and so I couldn’t. I was five two. Nothing was short on me except for me.
Hilary picked up a spatula from the table with her graceful fingers and handed it to me, handle first.
“Happy birthday, Evie. I know this isn’t as sharp as what you’re used to, but here you go. Don’t stab me with it.” She winked playfully.
I took the spatula and tried to glare at her without letting the others see, but she was entirely immune to my annoyance. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice. She just didn’t care. Hilary thought her role in our friendship was to taunt me, and cajole me out of my comfort zone. Somewhere along the line, she’d decided it was her job to loosen me up. But I didn’t need loosening up. I liked myself just the way I was. Most of the time.
Delle wheezed and clasped her hands in front of her massive double-Ds. “Well, make a wish, Dr. Rhoades. Blow out the candles.”
I smiled at her and then the others, trying so valiantly to make it seem legit that it almost felt as if it were. Their intentions were good, after all. Maybe this birthday wouldn’t be so bad. Thirty-five wasn’t
old. At least there were no doomsday banners or balloons declaring me over the hill. No dead-flower bouquets or black decorations. Just confetti and a tiara. I could handle this.
I cleared my throat and took a breath. “Thank you, everyone. This is really very sweet. These past few months here in Bell Harbor have been wonderful, and you’ve all made me feel right at home. I can’t think of anything else I need to wish for.”
“How about a husband?” Delle called out, giggling again, and nodding at the others, perspiration gleaming against her dark forehead.
Oh, she was hilarious, wasn’t she? Heckling me on my own birthday?
That was one disadvantage of moving to such a small, close-knit community—the complete lack of privacy. Being the newest doctor in town had made me as fascinating an object of curiosity to the good people of Bell Harbor as a meteorite striking the cross of the St. Aloysius Church of the Immaculate Conception. Everyone in town seemed to know I lived alone in a tiny apartment, wanted to buy a house on the lakeshore, and that I was perpetually single. That last fact weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s except mine, that is. I still had plenty of time to find a husband.
Assuming I even wanted one.
Which I didn’t.
Most of the time.
I also didn’t want this room full of people speculating about my love life, or current lack thereof. My private life was, well . . . private. If only they’d let me keep it that way.
I offered up a fake-sounding “heh heh heh” and turned toward the cake. I stared at the candles, pretending to ponder my upcoming wish with the proper amount of reverence. Having lived most of my life entrenched in a scientific, evidence-based philosophy, however, nothing about making a wish and blowing out a flame was any part of my reality. Birthday wishes did not come true, any more than wishes made on puffy dandelions blown into the breeze or pennies tossed into a fountain. Wishes were nothing more than unrealized goals.
Still, the image of me in a gauzy white dress floating down the aisle toward a faceless, tuxedo-clad groom burst into my imagination, like a rainbow brightening a dismal sky after the storm. There were bright pink roses and lavender chiffon–clad bridesmaids. Strains of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” hummed silently in my ears. My heart palpitated illogically, as if this vision were something to strive for. It wasn’t, of course. Not for me. Not right now. I had my career. It was enough.
Most of the time.
I twitched, erasing my mental Etch A Sketch, and blew out the candles without making any wish at all. Everyone clapped and undulated forward en masse, synchronized like a school of tuna. Tuna who wanted cake. I was surrounded once again.
“Let me help you.” Gabby, our office manager, stepped forward. She tucked a lock of blonde, pink-tipped hair behind her multipierced ear, her turquoise-and-orange skirt swishing around her ankles as she moved. She was twenty-eight but had the kind of youthful, flawless skin my patients paid thousands of dollars to recapture. She was also Hilary’s little sister, which by association sort of made her like my little sister too.
“Here are the plates,” she said, handing me a stack.
They were decorated with kittens wearing tiaras just like mine, as if I were turning five instead of thirty-five. Either these were left over from some child’s birthday or someone was teasing me. I didn’t want to know which.
“Who wants a corner piece with lots of frosting?” I called out instead, relieved to have something to do with my hands.
Let’s get this party started—and finished—so I can get back to my charting and wrap up the day’s paperwork. I have other places to be.
I made short work of cutting the pieces. Being a plastic surgeon has some benefits. Gabby and Hilary passed out the plates then returned to my side to get pieces for themselves. I took a bite of my own, knowing I was obligated. Knowing it meant an extra forty-five minutes of cardio to work it off. Knowing the lard would clog up my arteries like old motor oil. But damn, it tasted good. Sticky and sweet and defiant.
Gabby stuffed a big red frosting rose into her mouth.
she said around it, her teeth coated in crimson. She looked like a vampire. “That’s Portuguese for happy birthday.”
“When did you start speaking Portuguese?” Hilary asked, taking a nibble of the minuscule piece she’d taken for herself.
Her sister shrugged, noncommittal. “A while. I’ve been teaching myself. Gorgeous language. Gorgeous men.”
Hilary nodded. “Uh-huh. Speaking of gorgeous men, Evie, it wouldn’t hurt you, you know.” Her dark brown gaze turned back to me.
I looked up from my cake. “Learning to speak Portuguese?”
“No,” she whispered. “Wishing for a husband. You know, and getting a little something-something on your birthday.” She made a subtle bobbing motion with her hips as if her meaning wasn’t clear.
Gabby giggled and I choked on my cake. I reached for my coffee cup, but it was empty. I swallowed as best as I could and whispered indignantly, “What makes you think I’m not?”
“Because you would have told me.”
She’s right. I would have.
“And because your mother called about dinner tonight,” Gabby added. “I talked to her fifteen minutes ago.”
“You talked to my mother?”
Gabby nodded, the pink tips of her hair sliding over her shoulders. “Yeah, and she said, ‘
Vamos ser tarde. Podemos encontrá-lo no restaurant
Curiosity spiked, along with my glucose levels. “My Portuguese is a little rusty, Gab. What does that actually mean?”
“It means your parents will meet you at the restaurant because they’re running late.” She scooped up another frosting rose.
“She also said she couldn’t stand the thought of you spending another birthday alone,” Hilary added, picking up a single crumb with her fork.
“She did not say that!” My voice scraped inside my throat, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone was listening. Fortunately, their cake held them spellbound. I lowered my voice to a conscientiously modulated whisper. “My mother would never say something like that. Not if someone held a scalpel to her jugular.” I didn’t bother adding that my mother was even less sentimental than I was about stuff like this and knew I’d spent more than one birthday solidly, contentedly alone.
Hilary arched a cosmetically perfected brow. “All right. You caught me. She didn’t say that. But, Evie, you’ve been here almost four months, and I haven’t heard you mention going on even one date. It’s time you got out and met some new people.”
“Yes, men kind of people,” Gabby said. “My boyfriend, Mike, knows lots of single guys you could go out with. Well . . .
is a strong word. But he must know at least a couple. And a couple is all you need for a pretty fun party, right?”
The sisters shared a laugh, and I pondered her level of seriousness. “I don’t think I want to know what kind of parties you have.”
Hilary set down her plate. “Well, Steve and I have boring married-couple parties, but even those are better than spending your birthday alone. Honestly, Ev, you need to make more of an effort. Stop being so picky.”
I stood tall. Well, as tall as I was able, and prepared to defend myself.
“I’m not too picky. I just haven’t had time. I’m always working.”
“You’re always working because you don’t have anything else to do.” Her admonishment was gentle but familiar. I’d heard it before.
“It was all well and good to play the busy card during residency,” Hilary added, “but you’re an attending now. You have regular office hours. And no more excuses.”