Dr. Mary Chance loved her life. Except on the days when she didn’t.
Today was proving less than enjoyable. This morning her general practice, located on the second floor of the building housing The Second Chance Grill, had been jam-packed with patients. Kids pulled from school for summer camp physicals, patients from a nursing home suffering a nasty stomach virus, a woman covered in poison ivy after planting her vegetable garden—there hadn’t been a break. Bongo drums were having a go at her temples and her feet were on fire. And an afternoon of more patients awaited her.
She’d made the short drive home for a 10-minute lunch in relative peace. Which wasn’t in the cards.
She hated playing the role of truant officer. Restraining her temper, she stopped in the kitchen doorway to glare at her stepdaughter’s back.
“Blossom, why aren’t you in school?”
Whirling around, the mischievous preteen sent a slice of bread slathered with peanut butter spinning like a Frisbee. Instantly her golden retriever was airborne. Sweetcakes nabbed the bread before it whirled past.
Leaning against the doorjamb, Mary crossed her arms. Last year she’d married Blossom’s father, Anthony Perini, and her parenting skills weren’t yet up to snuff. Even so, she did her best to transmit disapproval.
“We’ve been over this a thousand times. You’re not allowed to sneak out of school during lunch period. I can’t spend half my life getting an earful from the principal. I’m a doctor. I’m busy.”
Blossom ran her fingers through the corkscrew curls tumbling from her head. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Don’t you have patients?”
“Stop changing the subject. I’m waiting.”
“Uh . . .”
She snapped up her wrist. “Don’t keep me in suspense. I now have nine minutes to dine and get back to the office. I don’t have the time for this.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. Really.”
The endearment filled Mary’s heart with an emotion as gooey as the peanut butter on Sweetcakes’ snout. Was there anything as sweet as the mother-daughter bond they’d already forged? Still, she’d never prove her mettle if she didn’t keep Blossom on the straight and narrow.
“Stop snowing me,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to leave the school. It just happened.”
“Nothing just happens.”
“You don’t understand. I went to the cafeteria like I promised. I got one whiff, and ran for the exit.”
“Let me guess. The cafeteria manager is on another binge of Mashed Potato Medley?” The woman was on a roll with nutritious if unpalatable dishes.
“It was the worst. Mashed potatoes with fatty pieces of meat. And there were peas mixed into the glop. Peas. Kids were taking off from the cafeteria like it was the end of the world. A seventh grader tried to hide in his locker. The gym teacher pulled him out.”
“He’s not my problem. You are. We had a deal—no more leaving school at lunchtime.” She sniffed the air much like Sweetcakes hunting for a tasty morsel. “Where’s Snoops?” The girls were inseparable.
“Not a clue. Haven’t seen her all day.”
“Okay, okay. I give up. My compadre is heading for the hills. She saw your car coming down the street.”
Mary stalked to the kitchen window. Sure enough, Snoops was hobbling across the backyard with her purple-framed glasses bobbing on her nose. It would’ve been the perfect escape if she weren’t on crutches and her leg in a cast.
Earlier this spring, Birdie’s mother Wish Kaminsky had descended upon Liberty. She’d driven Snoops’ bicycle off the road during a malicious crime spree. Snoops was healing nicely, and would soon be out of the cast.
Mary retreated from the window. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Go and fetch her. I can’t have a kid with a broken leg fleeing across my backyard. What if she breaks her other leg?”
Blossom darted into the yard, and Mary went to the refrigerator. She made a salad and poured a glass of iced tea. Sweetcakes ran circles around her. Shooing the dog away, she approached the table. A card was tucked beneath the napkin holder.
Valentine’s Day was months past. Not that it mattered to her husband—in late February Anthony had cleared out the drugstore’s sale rack. He was sweetly intent on extending the honeymoon phase of their marriage indefinitely. Love cards, tiny boxes of chocolate tucked beneath her pillow, bunches of daisies slipped into her car—every romantic gesture deepened her love for him.
She traced the hearts embossed on the card’s thick paper. Marriage was everything she’d hoped for. Anthony showered her with affection. He supported her work as Liberty’s only local doctor. And from the start, Blossom, whose mother had taken off when she was a toddler, had welcomed Mary into her life. Sure, they quarreled about skipping school and clothes flung around the house. The arguments were refreshingly typical—Blossom was nearly a teenager, and determined to chart her own course. Their bond, newly-formed, withstood each disagreement and came out stronger.
The squeak of the screen door announced the girls. They shuffled into the kitchen. Snoops’ black bean eyes took in everything but Mary’s disapproving stare. The more confident Blossom stomped to the counter to fix PB&Js. She handed one to her friend.
Mary made quick work of her salad. “You have exactly five minutes to eat.” After they’d seated themselves at the table, she added, “This is the last time you’re ducking out at lunchtime. Give me your word.”
“Why should I?” Defiance sparked in Blossom’s eyes. “You can’t expect me to swear a blood oath if you never keep up your end of the bargain.”
“Enough with the melodrama. Who said anything about a blood oath? All I want is a promise.”
“Fine. I’ll keep my promise if you’ll keep yours. No offense, Mom. When it comes to important stuff, you don’t keep your end of the bargain.”
The comment was made lightly, but Mary detected a note of injury underneath.
Had she done something to hurt Blossom’s feelings? Adolescents were thin-skinned. They took offense at the most innocuous remarks. Yesterday at breakfast Anthony made the mistake of asking his daughter if she was tired—her eyes were puffy—and Blossom reacted as if he’d called her ugly. They’d finished breakfast in a silence as frigid as the Arctic.
Needing to get to the bottom of it, she scooted her chair close. “What have I done to break a promise?” She draped her arm across the back of Blossom’s chair. “Whatever it is, let’s discuss it. Just because I’m angry you skipped Mashed Potato Medley doesn’t mean I’m not here if you need me. What’s going on?”
Snoops cleared her throat. “Blossom won’t spill. She’s pretty upset. For the record, I’m not peeved. It’s cool you’re a doctor. You should do what you want.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. What exactly am I doing?”
Snoops tore her sandwich into sloppy chunks. “You know what I mean. You’re everyone’s favorite doctor.”
“Not much of a contest. I’m the only doctor in Liberty.”
“Finney, at The Second Chance Grill? She tells everyone how you helped her bunions. And Mrs. Percible is getting better, mostly because you bug her about using her inhaler.”
In April Ethel Lynn Percible had suffered smoke inhalation and serious burns during her house fire. Just released from the hospital, she was healing better than expected.
“We can all agree it’s great Mrs. Percible is on the mend. She’s still weak, but she’s making good progress.” Mary paused to run her palm across Blossom’s silky curls. When the proffered affection was ignored, she asked Snoops, “What does any of this have to do with promises?”
“Blossom thinks you broke a promise to your family.”
“I did? How?” Beneath the table, Sweetcakes nudged between her thighs in search of another snack. Leaning down, she went nose-to-nose. “Have I broken any promises you’re aware of? Bark once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no.’”
Sweetcakes lathered her cheek with licks. Mary laughed, which was enough to make Blossom toss down her sandwich. “Stop joking around,” she snapped. “Snoops is trying to tell you something important.”
“Why don’t you tell me? You’re the one who’s upset.”
“Fine. I will.”
She drew her delicate frame upright in the chair, making her even more adorable. Blossom wasn’t a big kid. What she lacked in size, she made up for in sass. “No one’s saying it’s not great how you help everyone in Liberty. The town needs a doctor. You do a good job.”
Here it comes. “I’m glad you approve,” she replied. Her stepdaughter’s accusatory tone knotted her stomach but she kept her expression placid. “I do work hard. If I didn’t have a practice here, elderly patients would have trouble finding wellness care. They’d put it off, or endure long drives to Jeffordsville Hospital to see a doctor. It’s no different for the working families I serve. They lead busy lives. They’d put off physicals and other services they consider nonessential if there wasn’t a doctor in town.”
“Sure, but it doesn’t change our deal. I should’ve made you sign a contract or something.”
“Sweetie, what are you talking about?”
The kitchen phone rang, making Mary jump. She left the girls stewing at the table. She’d barely lifted the receiver when Meade said, “Why aren’t you answering your cell?”
“Too busy.” Blossom was slouched low in her chair. Mount Vesuvius, with lava churning inside. “Meade, this isn’t a good time. Can we talk later?”
Soft laughter then, “How much time do you have left? I’m guessing forty-five seconds.”
“Actually I’m three minutes off schedule.”
“You need a vacation.”
Or an interpreter. If Blossom thought Mary had broken a pact of some sort, maybe she also needed a contract attorney. “Meade, can I call you later? In another ten minutes, I’m late for my afternoon appointment.”
“Wait. Can you fit in another appointment this afternoon? I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. I can leave work early to bring her in.”
Mary snatched her iced tea from the table and glugged it down. Seeking privacy, she looped the phone’s cord across the counter, allowing her to slip beside the refrigerator. Hidden from Blossom’s icy stare, she asked, “I can fit you in at the end of the day. Say, five-fifteen?”
“Who’s the patient?”
“A young woman—she’s pregnant. I doubt she’s received prenatal care. I can’t even tell you how far along. Four or five months, I think.”
Worry over Blossom receded beneath Mary’s concern for her new patient. “I’d like more details but don’t have the time.” She wasn’t an obstetrician. Thinking quickly, she decided to contact Jeffordsville Hospital between patients this afternoon. An expectant mother would require a referral. “Do me a favor, will you? Come in a few minutes early to fill out paperwork. I’ll review it before I see her.”
Hanging up, she knew better than to check her watch. Plus she still needed to discuss whatever was bothering Blossom.
The talk would have to wait. Beneath the busy doctor’s nose, the girls had vanished.
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