MISCHIEF AND MISTLETOE IN CHRISTMAS TOWN
CHRISTMAS TOWN ROMANCE SERIES (BOOK 4)
Emily Draper accelerated up the winding state highway toward Bedford Falls, bursting with news she could hardly wait to share in person with Amanda, her housemate and lifelong pal. News this big required more than a call or a quick text. Keeping her focus on the road didn't stop her from enjoying the magnificent views autumn painted in the Sierra Nevadas. She passed a stand of quaking aspen that glowed golden against the deep green of the Douglas fir and the blue green spruce and sighed at its beauty. Emily loved the mountains in every season, but autumn's glory inspired awe.
She took the Bedford Falls exit and passed under the community banner proclaiming “Welcome to Christmas Town.”
Another turn took her to the homes built during the town's Gold Rush beginnings. She rounded the corner and pulled in next to Amanda's new Volvo, purchased after her friend signed with a prestigious modeling agency. Emily hoped that meant she'd find her friend at home, but the car's presence didn't guarantee Amanda's. In the months since her roommate had begun dating the town doctor, Marco Fuentes had swallowed up much of her spare time, and the couple usually went out in his car.
Emily bounded up the front steps and across the porch, popped through the front door, and called, “Amanda? You home?”
Jingling filled the silence as a pair of half-grown cats tumbled around the corner, the bells on their collars signaling their approach. “Ah, thanks, guys. I'm glad to see you too.” The little calico reached her first, and Emily lifted her to her chest. “Come here, Mischief, you sweet girl.” Mischief meowed and curled, purring, over Emily’s heart. The ginger tomcat at her feet let out a mournful yowl. Emily chuckled. “I haven't forgotten you, Cheeto.” Holding Mischief with one hand, she leaned to stroke Cheeto's long back.
She set the calico on the ground. “You know, Mischief, you're going to have to start growing faster or your brother will soon be twice your size.” Mischief meowed in protest. Emily laughed as she refilled the cats’ food bowls and the pair set to crunching. Suddenly hungry, Emily began prepping her own dinner.
Moments later, the front door squealed, and Emily heard Amanda ask, “Em, you here?”
“Yes!” Emily wiped her hands on her apron and stepped into the front room. “And I have news!”
“Great!” Amanda answered, catching Emily’s excitement. “Tell me.”
“I’ve got a pot boiling. Come into the kitchen while we talk.”
“Are you cooking? I don't think I'll be eating here.” Amanda hung her jacket on the rack behind the door and joined Emily in the kitchen. “Okay, spill. What news?”
“For starters…The clinical trial has officially ended.”
Amanda's forehead wrinkled with concern. “But doesn't that mean you won't get your treatment anymore?”
“That's where the great news comes in.” Emily palmed an onion to calm her excited nerves. “The FDA put Dr. Schlink's new medicine on a fast track. As of yesterday, they've approved the medicine and the protocol. I'll be able to get my treatments on a regular basis, and so will all other patients with my same condition.”
“That's marvelous!” Squealing with glee, Amanda threw her arms around her friend, and Emily eagerly hugged back.
“Can you believe it?” Emily stepped back and began to peel away the onion’s crinkly skin. “Best news ever.”
“What did your parents say?” Amanda asked. “I’m guessing you stopped to tell them on your way through Destiny?”
“You bet I did, and they’re thrilled. Mom wants a big party to celebrate. I told her I’ll get back to her.”
“Great! I’m all in with the party plan.” Amanda reached for a carrot. “Here, let me help you peel while you tell the whole story.”
As she and Amanda prepared a dinner of roasted root vegetables and green salad, Emily poured out the details of the medicine’s success. For as long as Emily could remember, she'd been smaller and weaker than others her age, what the adults around her called sickly. Her mystery illness hadn't been diagnosed until her middle teens—a rare form of anemia finally discovered by physicians at Stanford University.
A year ago, her mother had found a clinical trial for a new medical approach with Dr. Hans Schlink, also out of Stanford. Schlink had wanted Emily to move to Palo Alto, some four hours away, and Emily had been paralyzed with indecision. But Marco, who had just started dating Amanda, knew Schlink well. Marco had arranged for Emily to receive her weekly treatments at the hospital in the county seat, where his brother Carl was an emergency room physician. County Hospital administrators desired the prestige of being included in Dr. Schlink’s trial and approved Carl’s role in the plan.
Marco’s intervention had been a blessing. Emily had never felt as healthy or as strong as she had in the ten months since the trials began. She'd even gained to a normal weight for the first time in her life, only one of the wonderful results.
“I know you’re heading out with Marco,” Emily asked, “but do you have time for some tea?”
“You bet!” Amanda sniffed the air. “Especially if you still have some of the deliciousness I’m smelling in here. You must have been baking.”
“Yep. Trying out another new recipe.” While the veggies roasted, Emily brought out the pot of lemon-ginger she'd been steeping and set it on the table with a pair of arrowroot-flour scones.
Amanda took a big bite. “Em, these are delicious, some of your best.”
“You can thank the medication for my new cooking skills.” One of the downsides to the new treatment was that Emily had become lactose intolerant and sensitive to gluten, but even that cloud had a silver lining. She had learned to bake using alternative ingredients. Then she'd been surprised to learn how many others shared the same sensitivities. Altogether, this last year had been one of the most exciting and progressive in her life. And there had been one additional perk, the one that gave Emily a new, special glow.
Amanda must have noticed. With one eyebrow raised, she asked, “Does this mean you’ll keep driving down the hill every week to get your treatments from Marco’s brother?”
Emily couldn't contain her giddiness. “That’s the rest of the good news. Since Marco hired Dr. Chase to back him up at the town clinic, I can get my treatments here. I’ll no longer be the patient of either Dr. Fuentes—Marco or his brother Carl. Just Dr. Chase.”
“Aha! So that means…” Amanda waggled her brows. “…you and Carl Fuentes can start seeing each other socially.”
“Well, yeah.” Emily's face warmed. “That is, if he wants to.”
Amanda's surprised response almost resulted in spit tea. “Are you serious? That man is crazy for you! How many unofficial double dates have we had when Marco and I went out and I just happened to bring my roomie while he just happened to bring his brother? Those weren't exactly accidental, you know, even if we tried to make them look that way.”
Emily's face warmed still further. “That's true, but I always wondered if Carl might be checking up on his patient, y'know?”
Amanda set her teacup down. Hard. “I don't believe you!”
“Please, look at it from my point of view. I've spent most of my life being treated like glass.” Emily's voice rose as she mimicked her parents and her teachers. “'Are you okay, Emily?' 'Oh Em, you don't have to run laps with the other kids; just sit this one out.' 'How are you feeling, Emily? You don't really want to take swim lessons, do you?' That's what I've heard all my life! Is it all that crazy if I misunderstand what a doctor's intentions might be?”
Amanda backed down. “You're right, and I'm sorry.” Then, eyes twinkling, she added, “But you know I’d love it if we married brothers.”
Emily’s face flushed hot. “What are you even saying?” Her old mantel clock began to chime the hour.
Amanda stood. “I didn't realize how late it's getting. Marco is picking me up in a few minutes, and I need to get dressed.”
“What are you two planning this evening?”
“Marco wants to try a night ski.”
Emily picked up their plates and the teapot. “I didn’t know the resort was open yet.”
“It isn’t,” Amanda answered. “Not to the public. But employees and their guests are trying out the new runs the resort owners just added, along with the bright lights and the new snow machines. Marco says it will be fun.”
Amanda made a face. “I don’t know about that, but I’m looking forward to the dinner he promised me at Top-o’-the-Tram.”
“Have fun, sweetie, and tell Marco I said hi.”
“I will!” Amanda disappeared into her room. Minutes later, she ran out again in response to Marco's knock. “See you!” she called to Emily as they left.
Alone for the evening on a Friday—again, Emily might have felt entitled to a good sulk, but her good news kept her mood high. The buzzer on her oven timer trilled, and she pulled the roast vegetables from the oven. As she sat down to eat, she considered. She’d love to have someone in her life who looked at her the way Marco looked at Amanda, someone gentle who cared for her. But dating could not be her first priority.
For the first time in forever, she had the energy to do things for herself, and the will to hope and think ahead. She now had the gift of time, something she had never thought possible. While she admitted to a crush on Dr. Carl Fuentes, she now had an entire future to plan.
Of course, it would be nice if the attractive physician could fit into that future. He wasn’t overly tall, but taller than Emily, and he had the physique of an athlete with a muscular build and slim waist. He was also blessed with the startling good looks of a leading man: black hair, near-black eyes, olive complexion. Add gentleness, kindness, and a caring profession, and Carl Fuentes had just about every wonderful trait Emily had ever imagined. When he touched her—even in the impersonal ways her treatments required—she trembled deliciously. Yes, if only…
In the meantime, she had plans to make.
Emily tidied the kitchen, putting the last of the apricot-almond scones into a tightly sealed bag in the freezer. Baking had become her new obsession, and she thrilled at the responses from other people. She’d even begun to consider a career change. The time had come to investigate all possibilities.
Mischief meowed and rubbed against her ankle. Emily grinned, pleased to realize she wasn't alone after all. She only wished the company of Mischief and Cheeto felt like enough.
Dr. Carlo Fuentes—Carl to his friends—left his shift at County Hospital weary but oddly exhilarated. The Emergency Department always stayed busy on Friday evenings, but this had been one for the books. He'd seen nonstop traumas of the usual sorts and a few that had him baffled. Who were the fashion villains that encouraged pregnant women to wear stilettos? Thank goodness both mother and baby had come through their fall without lasting injury, though Mama would not look fashionable hobbling on crutches.
His favorite case today, as with every Friday, occupied more of his thoughts each time he saw her. Over months of weekly treatments, he'd watched Emily Draper change from a fragile, too-thin medical enigma into a delicate beauty, blooming with health. Her pallid complexion now blossomed with a sweet brush of strawberries-and-cream. Her dark brown eyes, once sunken with illness, now gleamed, and her dark, once-limp hair glistened in the light, thick and shining. She was still petite, but she no longer bore the appearance of a malnourished street urchin. She now wore the sweetly rounded shape of an attractive, beautiful woman.
Carl was self-aware enough to admit his interests had changed over time. He’d been impressed by Emily’s attitude, her humor, her willingness to keep trying despite serious chronic illness, her unfailing kindness toward other patients and everyone on staff. Today, when he delivered the good news that ended her clinical trial, he'd been moved by sadness as she’d darted out the door, even though the news held a happy sequel for him—if he wanted it. The sadness came from realizing he had no excuse to see her again. That didn’t keep him from wishing for a different kind of connection and wondering if it might be possible.
Would Emily be interested in dating him? He hoped so, but he couldn't know for sure until he asked, and he hesitated to do that. If he asked too soon, with the doctor-patient relationship still so recent, would that compromise his professional ethics? County Hospital was nearly fifty miles from her home in Bedford Falls, but people talked, and he was already under scrutiny.
Though hospital administrators had approved his involvement in the clinical trial, his immediate supervisor had begun questioning his commitment to emergency medicine, especially since the Stanford offer had come. Carl had been invited to consider moving to Palo Alto to take a full-time position leading a new Stanford study. Though he loved emergency medicine and was good at it, the Stanford offer both flattered and fascinated him. He couldn’t afford to raise suspicions about ethics now.
If he needed to wait to ask Emily out, how long did it take to be ethically acceptable? Technically speaking, he hadn't even been Em’s physician. Her doctor of record was Hans Schlink. His people had created the new treatment protocol, done the initial testing and qualifying of each patient, and overseen every case. Carl's role had been simply to administer the once-weekly treatments and update Emily’s medical records, helping her avoid regular trips to Palo Alto, another three hours away. From an ethics point of view, did that make a difference?
And what would Emily think? Would she consider it unprofessional if he approached her now? Maybe her only interest had been in the medical trial, and she wouldn't want to see him socially. Through his brother Marco's girlfriend, Amanda, he knew Emily wasn't involved with anyone else, but that didn't mean she'd be interested in dating him. Even if she did want to see him now, would she feel the same way if or when he took the job at Stanford?
He checked the time, nearing midnight, but he knew of a late-night drive-through and he stopped to pick up a light dinner. Maybe tomorrow he'd make a phone call or visit, asking an older friend and mentor's advice. He could always count on Javier—Dr. Lopez—for an honest opinion. But what if he didn't like what his mentor had to say?
Carl scrubbed his hand through his hair, forced a smile while he paid for his chicken salad, and turned his car toward home. He'd do better if he waited to be more rested before making important decisions. Of course, that assumed that he'd be able to sleep with the lovely image of Emily in the forefront of his memory, teasing his thoughts, and Hans Schlink’s offer simmering on the back burner.
Sighing in frustration, he pulled into his single-car garage and carried his salad to his studio apartment where he flipped on the TV for company. “Maybe I should get a pet,” he mumbled, and sat down to eat his dinner. Alone. Again.