Third Time's a Charm
Third Time’s a Charm
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Meri Terrence, a savvy business woman and hotel owner, is not only on a mission to buy a charming bed and breakfast in Midway, Utah, she’s hoping to catch the heart of a real cowboy, as well. When she finds herself face to face with the cowboy of her dreams, her new life in the Swiss inspired town of Midway is all she could have ever hoped for. But can she pull off playing a cowgirl to catch her cowboy?

Cal is determined to purchase the bed and breakfast that Meri has outsmarted him in buying. Sparks fly between the two while they dual behind the scenes in a serious case of mistaken identity. As they both learn the ways of country life, they are thrown into a fun and flirty comedy of errors.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

Meri’s heels clicked against the naturally distressed caramel wood flooring. She’d rented the historic town hall for the day to host meetings that would facilitate the acquisition of the bed and breakfast. Her long stride took her to the exit door in a matter of seconds. She wasn’t one to gloat over others. She wanted to celebrate away from the ill-prepared attorneys who were currently licking their fresh wounds in the conference room.

Emory Fairbanks had sent his property attorneys to undermine her acquisition in the hopes of purchasing it himself. He had severely underestimated her. She grinned. Her time on the college debate team, not to mention the past ten years of hotel ownership, had led her to victory today. She’d heard that Emory was as handsome as he was cunning and shrewd in business. She’d wanted to meet the supposed hunk. Since he’d sent his legal henchmen to deal with her, she didn’t get to see for herself. It was better this way; it was easier to fight against a man with no face than one she was attracted to.

With unwavering eyes of determination, she’d successfully masked her unfamiliarity with not only the local city ordinances and building codes, but state and federal regulations as well. Owning hotels on Costa Rica’s western coast hadn’t educated her on the laws and regulations in the States. According to her sister-in-law Tori, who lived in the neighboring Park City, Meri had a better chance at winning the lottery than laying stock in procuring the desired property.

Tori was convinced that once Meri admitted her intent to demolish the existing bed and breakfast to accommodate for new construction, she’d be chased away. Midway, a quaint mountain village at the base of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, was in a constant struggle to preserve its small-town feel. Once the wealthy had discovered the charm of Midway, money had unapologetically woken the sleepy hamlet.

As Meri stepped out onto the front steps of the town hall, the dry summer air brought with it the scent of freshly baked pastries. She took in a deep breath, enjoying the delicious aroma as she surveyed her surroundings. The street was lined with mature maple trees, their green windmill seeds clumped together in bunches, bringing back memories of when she would toss the seeds up in the air in handfuls and peer up at the sky as they twirled around her to the ground.

An instant rejuvenation pulsed through her: a therapeutic revival that only comes from reliving your childhood.

She stopped at the curb, allowing a powder-blue vintage Ford to make its way down the street at a leisurely pace. She contemplated the speed limit, determining how long it would take her hotel guests to drive through town. Google Maps could help with that, but she’d need to talk to the city planners about the amount of parking stalls on the street. They’d have to ramp up the parking for her plans to succeed.

A horse neighed somewhere in the distance, causing Meri to pause and reflect on happy memories from her childhood, memories that seemed to pop up with every step in this quiet town, like that first day of kindergarten. Meri had begged her mother not to force her to go outside that day, but she was glad her mother had fought her on that one, because it had resulted in an empowering experience. Her mother’s long fingers had wrapped around Meri’s hand as they walked up the steep road. As Meri trudged grudgingly up the hill, her mother had described every sound and every scent in the air, then entertained Meri with an impromptu story of pirates pillaging their town of San Francisco, only to be driven out by cowboys on their mighty horses, galloping up and down the narrow streets.

Because of that one kindergarten morning, Meri had learned to drink in her surroundings to the point that it was now second nature to her. With that acute mental awareness, she could now travel to any country in the world or participate in any type of gathering, get a sense for the people and their expectations, then acclimate to her surroundings. But she didn’t need to acclimate here in Midway; it was like she’d come home. It was all the places she’d ever known and loved wrapped into one: the friendly grocer who knows your name, the horses in the pasture, and the sound of seagulls above your head, even though Midway was two thousand miles from the sea.

Meri squinted through the bright sunlight as she surveyed the grandiose clock set in the bell tower of the town hall. It played the melodic chime of a folk tune set to bells. Ten o’clock, on the dot. Warm chills flowed down her spine. This could be the end of her many years of traveling the world in search of the perfect community. Midway. She could grow old here. Find fulfillment here.

Considering she was in her late twenties, when careers were just taking off for most people, Meri found herself in a unique position of contemplating the notion of retirement, or partial retirement. The inn would require a few years of dedication.

She’d been a successful business owner since her late teens. Her father had been a tech giant who’d cashed out his fortune. Luckily for Meri, he’d invested in his children’s dreams when they were still battling acne.

Meri’s success had brought her fulfillment and purpose, until now. With her brother’s recent marriage and move to Park City, Meri could now see what she was missing. There was finally something out there worth coveting: a home and family, a daughter to walk to kindergarten, and a cowboy to love. She planned to find that missing something, or someone, here in Midway.

Meri admired the town hall—built in the Tudor Revival style. The steeply pitched roof and scribed wooden pendants complemented the local limestone façade. She’d fallen in love with the Swiss-inspired mountain village during her last visit. Building ordinances were strict in regards to the external façade of the buildings, but she’d have no problem building a hotel to match the Swiss style. The labor and construction costs would be higher than in Costa Rica, but she could offset the increased costs with suites priced for her prospective wealthy clientele.

As she crossed the street, a BMW convertible with California plates slowed as it passed. She ignored the inquisitive eyes of the driver, who peered out of his vehicle to stare at her. She wasn’t interested in a California city slicker. She’d dated too many of those. She wanted a cowboy, and her mind was set on a western cowboy.

The sweet scent in the air brought her back to the present, causing her mouth to water. She craved a chocolate-laced croissant, sure to be at the local French bakery. Now, if they had authentic macaron cookies, she’d be in heaven.

In Costa Rica, she’d attempted to perfect the French cookie, more for herself than for her guests, but she was never able to master the crunch of the baked cookie just before it transformed into a chewy, buttery delicacy. The humidity of the costal air turned everything limp. Where Tori, Meri’s sister-in-law in Park City, sealed her food away to retain its moisture, Meri had grown accustomed to protecting her food from the dampening humidity.

A bell jingled, announcing her entrance to the bakery. It was ten degrees warmer inside the almond-aired bakery. She removed her lavender-infused lace scarf and ran a finger along the glass case, deciding between a croissant and a chocolate éclair.

A petite woman with tightly curled black hair and deep blue eyes popped up from behind the counter, causing Meri to jump. “May I help you?” the woman asked in a soft French accent that made the words dance on her tongue momentarily before floating off her lips.

French was such a seductive language. Meri had learned Spanish at a young age while doing humanitarian work with her family in Guatemala, but she always had a desire to learn French. It was one more thing to add to her bucket list.

Meri nodded. “They all look amazing.” Chocolate éclair or a croissant? Of all the decisions in her day, choosing what or where to eat proved the most difficult. “Could I have a chocolate éclair and a croissant, please?”

“Absolutely,” the woman said with a bright smile. “Could I interest you in a cup of coffee or a macaron?”

Meri’s heart skipped. “You have macarons? I don’t see any in your case.”

“We don’t sell our macarons to just anyone. We provide them to the local hotels for their guests, but you appear to be a woman of … elevated taste.”

“Are they authentic?”

The small woman puffed out her disgust from the side of her mouth as she hurried to the kitchen. Meri contemplated if she’d offended the French woman.

The woman returned with a light purple macaron with emerald filling in her gloved hand. She offered it to Meri with a raised brow and a devilish smile. “You tell me.”

Meri bit down, mesmerized by the crunch she had never been able to master. The cookie converted into a chewy delight of almonds and culinary lavender. The creamy pistachio filling melted the moment it touched her lips. She held the nutty flavors on her tongue momentarily before taking another bite. The texture resembled the crisp edge of a warm brownie. She sighed as she swallowed the last of the delicate cookie, then kissed her fingers as if she were Italian. “Bravo!”

The cheeky French woman smiled.

Meri leaned against the counter. “Are you willing to provide to an additional hotel?”

“Are you buying for a hotel in Salt Lake?”

“I’m in the process of acquiring a local bed and breakfast here in town, and I’d love to include your macarons as part of our welcoming package.”

The woman nodded. “Anyone can make fudge. But the macaron … this requires skill.”

The fudge comment confused Meri, but she agreed with a nod. “I’ve tried my hand at making them, but they’ve never turned out. I also love how you use a buttercream filling instead of a sweet jelly. It lessens the sugary taste.”

“Yes. In my village, south of Paris, we make the cookies less sweet. I have a blushed rose macaron. It pairs well with sparkling rose wine, perhaps a Veuve du Vernay Brut Rosé. It is from Bordeaux, France. Would you care to sample them on a picnic with your boyfriend?”

“Sounds lovely. I don’t drink and I don’t have a boyfriend, but I’d love to explore your wine expertise for my guests. And I’m fully impressed with your macarons.”

The petite woman threw a hand up in the air. “How do you not drink French wine? And no boyfriend?” she said with disgust. “You could never be French.”

Meri laughed at the woman’s spunk. “I’m Meri.”

“Elise.”

Meri bit her bottom lip. “Having a boyfriend would be nice. Tell me about the local cowboys.”

Elise did the little puff thing again out the side of her mouth. “With your beauty, you could have any cowboy you wanted, but you don’t fit with a cowboy. You are too … how do you say?” She looked Meri in the eyes. “Not cowgirl. You want a cowboy? You must become a cowgirl.”

Becoming a cowgirl could be fun. “Okay. Where do I start?”

Elise walked to the front glass doors and pointed to the street. “Drive for two miles down this road to the next town, and you’ll reach a big barn store. Buy your clothing there—not at the Trading Post. At the Trading Post, they try to clothe unsuspecting city dwellers in outrageous country bumpkin outfits.”

Meri made an internal note. “No Trading Post. Got it.”

“One more thing. Learn to ride a horse.”

“I happen to be an excellent rider,” Meri said with pride. She tapped fingertips to her lips in thought and continued, “I’ll have to remember how to ride on firm ground. My recent experience has been beach riding. That’ll be one change.”

Elise rolled her eyes as she walked back behind the counter. “Do not change for a man.” She pounded her fist on the glass counter. “Become the man you want!”

Meri wrinkled her forehead in confusion. “You may have misunderstood me. I’d rather not become a man.”

“No.” Elise laughed. “Become like the person you want to be with.”

“Okay. That I can do.”

Elise sauntered to the back of the store and returned with a box. She lifted the lid to demonstrate pink macarons, an éclair, and a flaky croissant. “Pink macarons to secure a cowboy boyfriend. If you really want to learn how to make the French macaron, I’ll teach you someday.”

Meri smiled at having made her first friend in town. “Elise, I’m delighted to have met you.” She leaned over the counter, pressed her cheek to Elise’s, and kissed the air.

“Country girls do not kiss French women,” Elise said curtly seconds before her lips opened into a toothy smile. “Come back soon.”

“Next time you see me, I’ll be an authentic country cowgirl.”

Elise waved a hand in the air, showing her disapproval. “Fudge is sweet, but a macaron will never be fudge,” she said resolutely.

Meri pointed at Elise as she left the bakery. “And I’ll bring you some fudge.”

A few minutes later, Meri found herself wandering the aisles of the country western store Elise had told her to shop at. It was packed with an assortment of western wear and farmers’ supplies. Meri had never been in a farmer’s store before, having spent her childhood in San Francisco and then Costa Rica.

She walked the aisles with wide eyes and curious fingers. She touched everything in sight. She entered the equine section and wondered what it would be like to lasso an animal as she ran her hands along the waxed ropes in varying colors. The scent of fresh sawdust in the air tickled her nose, causing her to sneeze.

As she made her way through the hunting area, she tried on a slick camouflage hunting jacket that was five times her size. Something about the jacket made her feel tough. She picked up a compound bow and wondered if she could bring herself to shoot a deer if she were starving. Next to the hunting and shooting section was the sporting and camping gear.

She stopped in her tracks when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a red ice auger. Zee and Paxton would go crazy in here. She ran her hand down the cold corkscrew steel blade. She’d run out of good ideas for Christmas gifts. She could see Zee’s and Paxton’s surprised faces, opening the gigantic box to find the ice auger. She stifled a laugh as she attempted to balance the thirty-pound auger over her shoulder.

“Ma’am?”

Meri turned her head to see a middle-aged, balding gentleman in front of her with a store smock on and a name tag that read Joe. His head slowly tilted to one side, and he donned that same quizzical look she’d envisioned her brother, Zee, to have on Christmas morning when he opened his gift.

“Yes?” she responded nonchalantly, knowing full well she looked ridiculous wearing the oversized camouflage jacket as she carried a bow in one hand and balanced an ice auger over her opposite shoulder.

“Can I help you carry that?” His brows furrowed. “Or help you find something?”

Meri smiled her gratitude. “Yes, thank you. Could you please take this to the front counter?” She carefully off-loaded the auger into his arm. “I’m still deciding on the jacket and the bow.”

After returning the jacket and bow to their places, Meri stopped at a ten-foot-high crystal-clear glass case displaying silver belt buckles. A few polished buckles were engraved with CSF. It was odd for them to carry only one set of initials. Must be an acronym. Cowboys Sweat Fire? Cowboys Sing in French? Judging by the music piping through the store, F did not stand for French. Meri expected to hear the stereotypical wife leaving her husband, or a man drinking away all of life’s sorrows. To her surprise, it was more risqué than a popular romance novel. He took her upstairs to do what? Meri had no idea country songs could be so … descriptive.

“This song would put Annie to shame,” Meri muttered as she rubbed the deep grooves in the metal belt buckle.

Meri missed Annie, the romance author who’d recently married Meri’s cousin, Paxton. Meri adored Annie, but Annie should have warned her not to read her romance novels if she didn’t have someone to be sweet on afterward.

Meri wandered through rows of neatly stacked crates displaying an assortment of cowboy boots. Every few minutes, she’d pick one up, slip off her dress shoe, and slide her foot into the pointy boot. She picked up an ornate pair of gold-and-teal ones, slipped them on, then continued looking. Meri found a pair of soft chocolate leather boots. She brought one to her nose, loving the scent the tanning process left on the natural material.

“Can I help you find the right size?”

Meri spun to face a teenage girl with a bright smile and curly red hair, the bangs teased slightly. The young girl’s remaining untamed curls puffed out to the sides of her head like a Raggedy Ann doll. The girl stood like a female wrestling pro, ready to pound down her opponent, but her eyes were warm and friendly.

“I like these,” Meri said with a smile as she twisted her ankles, “but I’m not sure how they should fit.”

“They look great on you. The teal ribbon accent against the gold background matches your eyes. Did you feel the pop?”

“I’m confused,” Meri confessed. “Should my ankle pop? Because these slipped on fluidly, and I have quite a bit of room.” Meri pulled her bare right foot out of the boot.

The attendant sighed but handled Meri’s ignorance with kindness. “You’ll want to try them on with socks. We have some you can use,” she said sweetly, pointing to an open cardboard box with an assortment of used socks.

Meri imagined fungal-infected toes wiggling inside the multicolored wool socks and physically recoiled. But what other option did she have? She picked out a neatly folded pair of gray socks that appeared the least likely to have been contaminated with infectious sweat.

“The pop you’re looking for is when your heel displaces the air in the boot and you can hear a popping sound,” the young girl explained.

Pushing her now-socked foot into the boot, Meri strained to hear the elusive pop. A whoosh of air flowed from the boot, causing an audible pop as her heel hit the hard inner sole.

The salesgirl pushed her finger down into the tip of the boot. “How do they feel?”

“A tad tight around the sides of my feet, but the length works.”

“What I would suggest is applying a solution that is half water, half alcohol to the leather. Then wear your boots for a few hours,” the girl instructed. “They will eventually mold to your feet and be super comfortable. I’ve heard these boots are extra comfy because of the gel insoles.”

“Boots have gel insoles?”

“These do,” the girl said, giggling. “We aren’t that backwards here.”

Meri’s confidence was sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance. She hadn’t intended to sound demeaning. “I apologize. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not familiar with this type of … wear.”

“Really? I couldn’t tell,” the young girl joked.

“What else can you not tell about me?”

The young girl took a step back and eyed Meri. “You belong on a runway in London, not in a small country town like this one. Are you headed to Park City tonight?”

Meri wrinkled her lips. “Park City is wonderful, but I’m here to stay. I want to belong in a small country town like this one. Can you help me finish shopping for the perfect jeans to complement these boots, and maybe a trendy cowgirl hat and a few tops? I need help fitting in around here.”

“Not sure that’s gonna do it.” She rested her gaze on Meri’s head. “I’ll call my sister. She’s a hairdresser down the street. Have you ever thought about getting a perm?”

Perm was not a word Meri allowed in her vocabulary, but the salesgirl had a point; the only time Meri’s hair was ever manageable was when she came to the arid state of Utah. With the moisture sucked out of her hair, she normally sleeked her thick black mane down and finished her style with a light spray of shiny therapeutic argon oil. It reminded Meri of Cleopatra, minus the short bangs. “Maybe we start with a wash and deep condition. My hair might calm with just a little moisture and curling product.”

“It’s a start,” the girl said with a shrug of her shoulders. “I’ll show you our jeans first. What are you, like, six feet tall?”

Meri laughed. “Five ten.”

“Good. You won’t need to alter these jeans, then. They’re expensive, one-fifty or so. They come to us in a super long length. The hem is meant to hang low enough to get frayed even with boots on.”

“The style is to have the bottoms frayed?” Meri asked.

The girl nodded.

At least they were long. That was good news. As they walked back by the display case, it reminded her of the engraved belt buckle. “What does CSF stand for?”

“Confederate States Forever. We don’t sell many of those here, but our sister stores in the South do. I think that’s why we have them.”

Meri brought her arms up in front of her chest and mimicked holding a shotgun. She imitated the sound of racking the slide of a shotgun.

The girl smiled brightly.

“Very well,” Meri said with amusement, “make me a western country girl. The kind these local cowboys are crazy about.”

“With those striking turquoise eyes of yours, and with how I’m gonna cowgirl you up … these cowboys ain’t gonna know what hit ’em.”

Chapter 2

The cool, slick screen of Cal’s smartphone had a delayed response to his touch. Instead of instantly scrolling down his social media feed, the face of his brother, grabbing hold of Sarah’s waist on the white sandy beaches of Sanibel Island, Florida, remained in his view for several annoying seconds. He clenched his jaw. Social media was the biggest lie of the century.

Cal’s brother, Roger, and his wife, Sarah, were in perpetual emotional torment. They were entering the final stages of a divorce, but that wasn’t the life Roger wished others to see. His extracurricular activities with female business associates had worn Sarah down. She was a sweetheart. In high school, Cal had hoped Sarah would be his sweetheart, but she’d picked his elder brother instead. Roger was the one most likely to succeed. Roger was the good son who never disobeyed their parents or the rules of their church—at least, not when anyone could see. And Roger had inherited his mother’s bank account and assets when she died. Cal had to rely on his own grit for success. The sting from his mother’s indifference to him resurfaced. He put his phone down, deciding to give social media a break.

He took another bite of his eggs Benedict, noting it wasn’t as citrusy as normal. Sitting on the bright blue vinyl corner booth of the little eclectic breakfast spot in Sugarhouse, he’d positioned himself with a view of the entire restaurant. When seated facing an interior wall, Cal’s anxiety spiked. He defended and explained his phobia as a protective, precautionary defense mechanism. If a danger presented itself, then he’d be ready to take action.

On his drive east from Salt Lake City, he’d often stop in Sugarhouse for breakfast. It was the last place to get a meal before reaching Park City. His travels today would take him about thirty minutes past Park City to Midway. There he would claim his new, quieter life—literally. City life had damaged his hearing.

Six years ago, when he’d first purchased the hotel, he couldn’t get enough of the high-intensity lifestyle. He walked to a high-spirited bar, bustling restaurant, or ethnic gathering every evening. But in recent months, drug deals targeting the homeless were becoming more rampant in the area, thus creating higher crime rates, more vagrancy, and less hotel guests. Thankfully, Cal had a sale in the works. Turned out that business property in downtown Salt Lake City had increased in value. The hotel was worth three times what he’d paid for it less than a decade prior.

Cal needed a change of pace—doctor’s orders—and he was about to get it.

His plan was to reinvest somewhere he’d be able to work in a more relaxed atmosphere. He wouldn’t go out the same way his dad had two years ago, by a massive heart attack. It must’ve been a horrifying and painful few minutes. After his father’s passing, Cal’s doctor had advised him to work on stress-relieving practices as well as eliminating stressors in his life. But how could he? He’d inherited his dad’s determination, work ethic, and business sense.

Unfortunately, he’d also inherited the old man’s high blood pressure and appetite. Although overeating was more of a problem for his father than for himself, Cal ate like the French Impressionist artists. Food and drink ought to be celebrated and savored to the point of immortalization, as the French artists so captivatingly and effectively brushed onto their naked canvases.

Cal’s phone vibrated in his hand. Time to celebrate. His attorney called to discuss the acquisition.

“How much did it cost me?” Cal wasn’t one for small talk, especially over the phone.

“Ah …” his attorney began.

“Yes?” Cal grew impatient.

“Unforeseeable circumstances prevented us from securing the property,” the attorney said in a shaky voice.

“What!” Cal shouted. Suddenly, all eyes in the diner turned in his direction. He wasn’t normally that inconsiderate. He found it rude when other people spoke on the phone inside a public building.

He stood and walked outside to the empty patio seating area. A light drizzle cooled his face and whipped across his bare arms, producing instant goose bumps.

His attorney whimpered. “We were blindsided, Mr. Fairbanks, by this shark of a businesswoman. The seller was impressed with her knowledge and experience, or so he’d said.”

Blood pumped through Cal’s veins with increased pressure. His heart thrust itself into overdrive to compensate for the blood rushing through the pulsating muscle. “Or so he’d … said?” Cal questioned in anger. “Was this an inside deal? Please tell me I wasn’t played in a bidding war.”

“I think we were all played this morning, but not by the seller. That woman walked in like she owned the entire mountain.” The attorney paused. “She entranced every man in the room.”

“Every man?” Cal shot back, his voice breaking.

His attorneys were nerds. And when nerds encountered beautiful women, they all became bumbling idiots, no matter their formal training.

“My apologies, Mr. Fairbanks.”

He couldn’t stay upset with his attorney; he was a decent guy. “Don’t apologize. Let’s think this through. Now that you’re away from this enchantress, I expect you’ll think clearer. I need you to find a way to stop that sale.” Cal walked back through the diner, dropped twice the cash he owed down on his table, and grabbed his jacket. “Can I count on you to get a few viable options in my hands by the end of the week?”

“Hey, have you ever thought of Wyoming? In Cobble Creek there is a great bed and breakfast. The Country Quilt Inn, I believe. You could make the owner an offer.”

“Wyoming?” Cal asked in disbelief. He didn’t want to move to the Arctic. “End of the week.”

“On it,” his attorney chirped in a rapid, squirrelly voice.

“Good.” Cal ended the conversation and tucked his phone into his leather jacket pocket. A ride up the canyon on his Harley should alleviate the piercing pain in his shoulder.

He focused on slowing his breathing, as Doc had taught him, but it wasn’t working. Cal’s respirations were quick and unsteady.

Was this really happening to him? Had the bad news induced a heart attack?

He needed Doc. He feverishly pulled the phone from his pocket and tapped the app to alert Doc that he was in distress and on his way. Although Cal had admitted to Doc that it was highly irrational, he simply couldn’t trust emergency services, not after what had happened to his father. Dispatch had sent the emergency services to the incorrect address. When they finally did arrive, thirty minutes after his father had called 911, there was nothing they could do for him.

Cal had contracted with a local web development company to code an app that would send an emergency message to his doctor. The moment he initiated the application, Doc’s phone, along with Doc’s assistant’s, received an alert with Cal’s GPS location. The app would then allow them to begin tracking his phone. If he didn’t remain en route to their office, the emergency services would then be contacted with his status and location.

As Cal mounted his bike, a text came in. Have you taken your aspirin?

“Text Doc.” Cal utilized his phone’s voice activation. “Yes, period.” Cal had pulled the tube of aspirins from his pocket the moment he initiated the app, and he swallowed the pasty pills within seconds.

Fifteen minutes later, Cal walked in through the front door of the medical building. When he reached Doc’s office, Shirin, Doc’s assistant, pushed back from her desk and stood. “This way,” she said, motioning with her eyes and face to an open examining room. She led him down the brightly lit cinderblock hallway. The office was old, built in the mid–nineteen fifties. Its facelifts were evident in the modern examining rooms, but the hallways retained their antique feel with crisply painted cinderblock walls and low ceilings.

Shirin cleared her throat. “Could you remove your shirt and sit on the bed for me, please?”

“Just my shirt?” he questioned innocently as he sat down.

“Yes, just your shirt,” she said, blushing. “I need to see if you require a shave.”

How was it possible that people who worked in a doctor’s office could still blush? At least Cal would exit this life knowing he could still make a woman blush. It had been so long since he’d tried. Workaholic.

He sat up on the examining table. “Shave?”

“For the ECG probes to adhere properly.”

Cal slipped off his shirt and followed Shirin’s eyes to his bare chest. She was an international student who’d received a degree in medical assisting in Iran, but when the universities banned medical fields of study from women—and limiting how many women would be accepted—Shirin came to the US to continue her academic studies. Education. It was the only way to make a difference, she’d said.

“You look fine.” She looked down as she cinched his arm with an elastic band for a blood draw. “You don’t need a shave.”

“How are your classes going?”

“Good. I finished my undergrad in nursing and have applied for the PhD nursing program at the U.”

“Seriously?” Cal questioned with praise. “Good for you.”

“I have my interview later on today. That’s why I’m dressed like this.” She released the band, causing his blood to quickly flow into the vial attached to his arm. “What do you think?”

He suddenly became light-headed. “I’m thinking I need to stop looking at the blood spewing from my arm.”

Her body jiggled as she laughed. “No. What do you think about what I’m wearing to my interview?”

Cal hadn’t even noticed that she wasn’t in her normal scrubs. Her large, almond-shaped brown eyes sparkled as he nodded with a smile. Her eyes were similar to his mother’s. Was that why he had never looked at Shirin for longer than a second? To avoid the acute pain of his mother’s passing every time he thought of her?

At sixteen years old, he’d been devastated at his mother’s passing. The only good that came of it was that his physically abusive father completely refrained from any contact with him and his brother after that. His brother Roger was old enough to become Cal’s legal guardian, so Cal became completely independent at the age of sixteen. He had access to living expenses, but all emotional support was gone. Doc came around every now and then to check in on him. He’d been the one to tell Cal that his father had died.

“Will it work?” Shirin prodded.

Cal was confused. “Work?”

“My outfit. For the interview?”

“Oh. Sorry. I was thinking about my mom.”

“Your mom?” Her smile dropped. “The ECG technician will be in shortly,” Shirin huffed as she made her way out of the room.

“It looks great,” he called out, although he couldn’t remember how she was dressed. Did heart attacks cause sudden memory loss? And where was Doc?

A heavyset man a few years younger than Cal, maybe mid-twenties, lumbered into the room. “Good morning. My name’s Ron, and I’ll be assisting Dr. Webb,” the tech said as he began sticking the probes to Cal’s chest.

“Am I going to be put into a hypothermic state? You know, where the heart attack patient’s body is cooled way down to avoid brain damage.”

The tech smirked. “The cooling you’re talking about would be if you had gone into cardiac arrest and your heart had stopped pumping blood to your brain. Your body would only be cooled by two to seven degrees. So let’s not jump to any conclusions yet. Dr. Webb ordered a complete examination, but what you’re experiencing could be nothing. No need to be alarmed. Do you have any calming exercises you can do while we wait for the results?”

Could be nothing? Why wasn’t this guy taking Cal’s condition seriously? “How long before we know?”

“The test will run for about twenty minutes,” the tech said, completing the probe application and turning to enter data into the computer. “I need you to remain as still as possible. We need twenty minutes of uninterrupted data.”

Cal pulled his earphones from his pocket. He’d been listening to a science fiction audiobook earlier that morning to remain calm during heavy traffic. Cal moved his thumb over his phone, and the battle of the worlds resumed.

An hour later, after the Earth space fleet was close to near destruction, Doc entered the room, and Cal pulled the earbuds out.

“How’s my favorite patient?” Doc questioned in an upbeat tone while pulling his reading glasses from his head and placing them onto the counter. “You can remove those probes now. Patients tend to prefer their own hands to our yanking.”

Cal sat up and eyed the laptop Doc held in his hand as he removed the probes. “Patience is not a virtue I’ve been blessed with.”

“Good thing you’ve got me on speed dial, then,” Doc said in a way that made Cal understand Doc had been generous with Cal’s care. “You know, the only reason why I allow this is because your mother was just about the sweetest woman to walk this land.”

“The real question is, am I going to be visiting with my mother anytime soon?”

“No,” Doc said with little emotion.

Cal sighed out his relief. “Okay. Give it to me straight. How bad is my heart damaged?”

“Zero.”

“Zero? How can that be? Didn’t I have a heart attack?”

“The results from the ECG conclude your heart has not suffered any damage. The lab results second that. No cardiac enzymes were detected in your blood. You did have an attack, but what you had was a panic attack, not a heart attack.”

“Not possible. I felt like I was going to die. My heart was pumping out of control. I had shortness of breath.”

“You were hyperventilating,” the doctor said calmly.

“What about the pain in my chest and arm?”

“During a panic attack, people often feel as if they’re dying.”

Cal couldn’t accept that he’d just had a panic attack. “What about the indigestion or the near fainting?”

“Aspirin, and looking at your own blood when it was being drawn.” Doc paused. “Do you want to know what is really going to kill you?”

Cal raised an eyebrow.

“Come to the window with me. It’s something difficult for me to understand.”

Cal stood and walked to the window as Doc put an arm around his shoulder.

“See that motorcycle down there? That is your ticket out of here.” Doc walked a slow circle around the room. “I hope you’re an organ donor, because your heart is in perfect condition. Let someone else benefit from your stupidity.”

Cal wanted to take the conversation in another direction. “I can’t tell you what a huge relief it is that my heart is in good shape, Doc.”

“Is it?” Doc’s voice rose in anger. “I have to ask myself, why would one of my Boy Scouts feel the need to own a death machine?”

“Security.”

“Explain. Your father was the risk-taker, not you. You were always more like your mother, sensitive and cautious.”

He’d have to convince Doc that the motorcycle was a necessity. “That antique Harley was built just after WWII. It doesn’t have any fancy electronics, meaning it will be one of the only things running after an EMP.”

Doc shook his head as he sat on a metal stool. “An electromagnetic pulse—a disturbance that could wipe out all electrical equipment and send us back to the Dark Ages,” Doc commented. He scratched his chin as if it still held a full beard. Doc had shaved his face, along with his head, when he’d started going bald—around the time Cal’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. “I understand. But could you possibly refrain from riding on main roads and highways, perhaps sticking to a neighborhood ride once a week to keep it running?”

“I’m not an alarmist. I’m a realist and, like you said, moderately cautious. I drive a sports car, but it’s nice to know my motorcycle is waiting for me in my garage if I need it.”

“Good. Next concern: I know how you feel about statin drugs to control your blood pressure. How do you feel about anti-anxiety medication?”

Cal wanted nothing to do with drugs. Drugs, prescribed drugs, had led one friend to an opioid addiction and another to suicide. “Not doing it.”

“Can I send you home with a more homeopathic prescription, then?”

“Shoot.”

Doc pulled out a yellow pad from the drawer and began writing. “Take some time off to relax and travel.”

“I’m working on that as we speak.”

Doc arched his brow in disbelief. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’m selling my place downtown and buying a bed and breakfast in Midway. At least I was, until a little sneak put her claws into the deal, attempting to buy it out from under me.” Cal fumed.

Doc threw his hands in the air. “I give up. I’m at One and you’re forcing me to withdraw. You’re hopeless, absolutely and irrevocably …”

“Hopeless? No.” Cal shook his head in disagreement. “In all sincerity, my plan is to purchase a small place where people can come to relax in a low-stress environment.”

Doc rubbed his forehead. “And are you feeling relaxed right now, Cal, when you think about … what did you call her, the little sneak?”

Cal lay back on the examining bed and looked up at the ceiling. “You have a point.”

“Thank you. Can I give you the rest of the prescription?”

“Can I put my shirt back on first? I wouldn’t want Shirin to be preoccupied with all of this manliness during her interview.”

“Which brings me to my next point. Two: Find a girl to be in a real relationship with.”

“Doctor’s orders?” Cal teased.

“Yes,” Doc said in all seriousness. “Didn’t you see the effect Shirin had on you when you were chatting with her? Calmed you right down.”

“You want me to date Shirin?” Cal couldn’t hide his surprise.

“No! Please leave my staff be. However, finding the right companion will be the most serious and impactful decision you’ll ever make, but also the most important and quite possibly …” Doc rested his hand on Cal’s shoulder. “Life-saving.”

“Whoa.” A greater heaviness than Doc’s arm weighed down Cal’s shoulders. “Now you’re talking marriage? I thought you said I should be in a relationship. What does a relationship have to do with marriage?”

“You’re proving my point. I know about your kind of relationships, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. Take it from someone who didn’t choose wisely the first time. And I think we can include someone close to you in there as well.”

Doc was right. What if Cal’s mother had chosen better? If his parents had had a longer courtship? If she hadn’t married so young? There were too many ifs. It was dangerous to think of the past in terms of ifs.

“Anything else, Doc?”

“Three,” he said, scribbling on his notepad, “I’m writing down a book I’d like you to buy. It’s on eating clean.”

“Don’t tell me no meat. Meat was made for man, and man for meat.”

“Have a sirloin fillet once a week. It’s relatively lean. Splurge. But yes, you need to limit your meat intake but not completely restrict it. Meat is rich in B vitamins.”

Cal ran the palm of his hand hard against his jeans as he contemplated a life without meat. Didn’t seem like much of a life.

Doc continued, “Let me repeat. Three: Eat more veggies, legumes, nuts, and fruit, and an occasional whole grain. Oatmeal is great to keep your cholesterol in check. Don’t think of it as restricting your diet. Think of it as enhancing your diet.”

“Anything else? Because I am not looking forward to this.”

“Okay, maybe one or two more restrictions. No more alcohol, caffeine, or candy—eliminating those should help curb your anxiety.”

“Candy I can do without. But no more energy drinks or wine? Now you sound like my mom.”

“Look up the recommendations of other physicians online if you don’t believe me.” His eyes bored down into Cal without the least bit of restraint. “Try this for a month.” Doc ripped off the piece of paper from the pad and handed it to Cal. “Then we’ll do another full physical and see how you’re faring.”

“No increased exercise?”

“Oh yes,” Doc said with animation, grabbing the paper back out of Cal’s hand. “Let’s say continued exercise.” Doc scribbled Five. “You still swimming?”

Cal nodded.

“Good. It’s high intensity with low impact. Can I commit you to doing these five things for a month?”

Cal could handle anything for a month. He extended his hand out to Doc.

Doc shook Cal’s hand with a firm grip. “I’m holding you to that promise.”