Книга - A Home for the Hot-Shot Doc


A Home for the Hot-Shot Doc
Dianne Drake

Dr Justin Bergeron has returned to the Deep South, but this former bad boy’s attempts to introduce modern medicine are met with fierce resistance. His only ally…? Bewitchingly beautiful nurse Mellette! After losing her husband, Mellette is reluctant to let sinfully delicious Justin in – despite seeing that this playboy has a heart that might very well steal hers…Deep South Docs! Swapping the Big City…for the Bayou!


Swapping the Big City … for the Bayou!

When two delectable doctors arrive in America’s Deep South, looking for a fresh start, they soon find themselves falling for the charm of Bayou life—as well as for the attractions of the beautiful women they’re working with!

But big-city surgeons with their bright ideas aren’t always welcome in the Bayou. Especially when they’re super-hot, heart-stopping distractions for the dedicated Deep South nurses. These women have enough complications as it is, without falling for the new docs in town …!

Dear Reader (#ue2b0dd8a-f09a-54b5-bfe2-1dbd2c78f28c)

When I went to Louisiana for the first time a few years ago—specifically New Orleans, and all the deep, dark backwoods of the bayou surrounding it—I knew I wanted to set a book there. It’s a beautiful place, and there’s nothing else quite like it in the United States. In fact, descriptions don’t do it justice … but I’ve tried in this duet titled Deep South Docs.

Both stories, A HOME FOR THE HOT-SHOT DOC and THE DOCTOR’S CONFESSION, centre around the Doucet family and their daughters, all of whom work in the medical field in some capacity. In this duet you’ll meet Mellette, who has to overcome one of life’s greatest tragedies in order to find true love again. And you’ll also meet Magnolia, who just can’t seem to find time for love in her life.

Both meet men who try to capture their hearts, but it’s not an easy thing to do as the Doucet family is filled with eight mighty strong women and one man who sits at the head of it and who’s the biggest softie in the world. But, as both Justin Bergeron and Alain Lalonde discover, the fight is worth the effort … most of the time. At other times Mellette and Maggie are almost too much to handle.

When I was taking a boat ride through the swamps in the Louisiana bayou, perhaps the thing that fascinated me most were these little communities of people who live out there in the swamp, almost totally cut off from society. I could see the shacks almost everywhere. In fact we even took a detour by our tour guide’s shack and saw a whole lot of alligators lounging in his front yard. He said that as long as he didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother him. Well, I don’t know about that, but it certainly made for an interesting trip. So did the alligators that would swim right up to the boat.

I hope you enjoy your trip to the Louisiana bayous. It’s fascinating. And after this trip to the bayous I’m going to hang around to write a few more books based in that part of the world, so look for Sabine and Delphine’s stories coming next.

I like to hear form my readers, so please feel free to contact me at diannedrake@earthlink.net, or visit my website at www.dianne-drake.com (http://www.dianne-drake.com), from which you can link to either my Facebook page or my Twitter page.

As always, wishing you health & happiness


Now that her children have left home, DIANNE DRAKE is finally finding the time to do some of the things she adores—gardening, cooking, reading, shopping for antiques. Her absolute passion in life, however, is adopting abandoned and abused animals. Right now Dianne and her husband Joel have a little menagerie of three dogs and two cats, but that’s always subject to change. A former symphony orchestra member, Dianne now attends the symphony as a spectator several times a month and, when time permits, takes in an occasional football, basketball or hockey game.

A Home for the

Hot-Shot Doc

Dianne Drake

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)

Table of Contents

Cover (#u18a95caf-408d-5721-98f5-9f5004281ebd)

Dear Reader

About the Author (#ubaf8193f-189f-50f2-b33b-c79c883576e3)

Title Page (#u94dbf845-406a-5e8c-976b-a1018b9527ff)










Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER ONE (#ue2b0dd8a-f09a-54b5-bfe2-1dbd2c78f28c)

NIGHTS LIKE THIS made him glad he was home again, if only for a little while. The far-off sound of bullfrogs bloating up and erupting with a courtly call to a lady love; the peculiar rhythm of the barred owl, who called to his own love from high atop the cypress trees; the warm breeze blowing in over the water and carrying with it the unique, earthy scent of the swamp … This all meant home to Dr. Justin Aloysius Bergeron. Home, but with that came so many mixed, even conflicting feelings.

With a mug full of sassafras tea and its bitter, soothing flavor, and a plate of his own homemade beignets made from his grandmother’s recipe, Justin was ready to settle in on the porch swing for the evening and simply relax after a long day of doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing took a lot of effort for someone who was used to being active, all that sitting around and thinking. Down here, where life was slower, it wore him out more than a day on his feet in the O.R. did. Those were physically exhausting days, but here his exhaustion was emotional and far heavier. It dragged him down to a place where a good night’s sleep didn’t bring about any kind of recovery.

At a month shy of thirty-six, Justin was at the top of his game back in Chicago. He was well respected as a general surgeon with a career pointed in the direction of chief of services, or so he hoped. Equally well respected as a medical mystery writer with a couple of prestigious awards under his belt and talk of a movie in the works. It took a lot of effort, cranking out all that career, which was why all this nothingness seemed so strange to him.

He wasn’t used to it, wasn’t used to being lazy. But lazy was exactly what he was being, and it was turning him dull and lethargic, which, for the moment, suited him just fine. Because until he figured out his next move, nothing was truly all he wanted to concentrate on. He wrote in the early, early morning, as was his habit, but then there was nothing to occupy his time or to occupy his mind for the rest of the day. He was trying not to think outside the pages he’d managed to bang out. He was succeeding, intermittently.

For sure, life was simpler here in the Louisiana bayou than it was back in Chicago, his home for the past decade. He hadn’t appreciated that singular simple fact when he’d lived here before. In fact, from the time he had been a teenager, all he’d ever wanted had been to get away from the simplicity. Go to the city. Any city. Seek out excitement and anything else that didn’t resemble the upbringing he was accustomed to—an upbringing with a down-home flavor that could only be found in the bayou. Or the backcountry. Or godforsaken nowhere. Or, as this area had been named by its early settlers, Big Swamp.

And he’d done all that. Molded himself into what he’d wanted to be, and set off to become it. Self-made man, he’d called himself in the early days, even though now he knew better. Nobody with the kind of love and support he’d had was self-made, and just thinking about how he used to brag about his self-sufficiency caused him to cringe now. Even so, he was successful. Wealthy. Some considered him a player, although he wasn’t sure he liked that description since he really didn’t have time to play. But it bolstered the image. Playboy. Sports car. Condo on the lakeshore. Medical practice in the high-end Magnificent Mile. Everything about him shooting to the top.

But Justin was also part of Big Swamp—something he was just now beginning to admit. Big Swamp, where his grandmother had done her level best to raise a wayward young boy who hadn’t wanted to be raised, hadn’t wanted to follow the rules, hadn’t wanted anything to do with an old-fashioned set of values that had done his grandmother well for her eighty-nine years on earth. Yes, that was all him, too. The part of him he didn’t talk about, or admit to. The part of him he wouldn’t deny but certainly wouldn’t confirm, either. It had been part of his embarrassment back then, part of his pride now.

No, none of this had been good enough for the young Justin. In a way it wasn’t even enough for the Justin who existed now; he certainly hadn’t made himself right with it. Hence the emotional exhaustion. But at least Justin felt more remorse for his attitude than he’d expected he ever would. And now that Grandma Eula was gone, his regrets weighed him down. Especially on an unsullied night like this, the kind of night she would have loved, where Big Swamp was at peace with itself. And yet Justin was not.

He missed Bonne-Maman Eula, as she’d been called by the people who loved her. More than that, he lamented … so much. And his grief felt so heavy against his heart, at times almost stopping it from beating. He’d owed her better, had always thought there was more time to do better for her. He’d always intended to.

“Now it’s too late,” he said to Napoleon, his grandmother’s big, lazy, orange-striped tomcat. A fourth-, maybe fifth-generation Napoleon, actually. There’d always been a big, orange-striped tomcat living here for as long as Justin could remember, and his name had always been Napoleon. This Napoleon seemed especially mellow, he thought. More mellow than the earlier ones, and it made Justin wonder what the cat knew that he did not.

“I’ve been thinking lately that she’d want you to stay on here,” Amos Picou said as he stepped up onto the wooden porch and took his customary seat on the well-worn wicker chair next to Justin’s porch swing. The same chair he’d been sitting in for every one of the twenty-five years he’d come visiting.

It had been Eula’s favorite chair—her chair of honor, she’d called it, because of its high, fan-shaped back. She’d loved that chair as it had reminded her of a throne, and she had spent many of her evenings sitting in it. Said it made her feel like royalty because she sat so high and mighty, which was why she’d always offered to let her guests sit in it, because in her house guests had always been treated like royalty.

In a way, Eula Bergeron had been royalty in that part of Big Swamp. There’d been no one more trusted or respected. With the way she’d been held in such high esteem in her community, there was no other way to describe it. Justin’s grandmother had been treasured, and that was something he hadn’t seen so much back in his childhood as he’d been too busy seeing other things—dreams, or delusions, of a better life mostly. Life away from here, somewhere, anywhere other than Big Swamp. Something other than what his grandmother had given him.

He hadn’t appreciated her enough, and that had played on his mind more than he probably even recognized. Those sleepless nights, guilt trips, wanting to make it up to her when he could, feeling like hell after it was too late.

Now that he was back for a little while to tie up loose ends, he was reminded of all the respect for his grandmother everywhere he looked. “Not sure what I’m going to do, Amos,” Justin said, his voice betraying his lackluster mood. “Can’t stay here, but I don’t want to walk away from the people who depended on my grandmother and leave them with nothing.”

“Folks in these parts need them a good doctor now that your Bonne-Maman Eula has left us. They’d be mighty grateful if you stayed on to look after them. I think Eula would have approved of that, getting you back home where you belong.”

“Except I don’t belong here now.” Justin exhaled an exasperated breath. “Too many years, too much separation … Besides, she knew how I felt about coming home for good. Knew I didn’t want any part of it, that short visits to see her were the best I could do.”

“She knew that, boy. Knew you loved what you were doing, where you were doing it. All she wanted was for you to be happy.”

“And I was … am. But …” He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know how to explain it.

“Torn between your worlds.”

“Did she ever tell you I asked her to come live with me in Chicago?”

“She had a good laugh over that. Appreciated the gesture, laughed at the idea of living in such a city. I lived there for a while once upon a time. Can’t say that I hated it, but it sure didn’t fit me. And it sure wouldn’t have fit Eula, either.”

“I wanted to buy her a condo in New Orleans.”

“Which kept her closer to home, which would have probably been even worse for her, so close and yet so far away from it.” He shook his head. “Eula was a single-minded woman and it was a mind you weren’t going to change. Not for any reason outside of you needing someone to take care of you.”

“Maybe I should have lied.”

“Or left it the way she wanted.”

“The way she wanted it …” He pulled a crumpled letter from his pocket. “‘You’d be a good doctor here, Justin. Promise me you’ll think about it.’ Well, I’ve been thinking. That’s all I’ve been doing and I don’t understand how she could have asked that of me. She knew better.”

“I supposed she did, but do you?”

“I can’t stay here and dispense herbs. That’s all there is to it.”

“Dispense herbs, get the folks in the area used to traditional medicine. Sounds to me that’s exactly what she wanted from you.”

“But I can’t do it! She’d asked me before, I’d told her no. Then she’d told me I’d know when it was time to come home. But I can’t just come home. Home is Chicago now. In a penthouse overlooking the lakeshore, senior member of a general surgery practice. That’s home.”

“You’re sounding awfully defensive about it, boy.”

“Because I am defensive about it. I’ve worked hard at setting up the life I want, and I’m not about to change that to come back here.”

“Ah, but you could compromise, couldn’t you? You, know … practice what you want most of the time, slip in a little bit of what they want every now and again? Make everybody happy.”

Yes, right. Make everybody happy but him. “You are persistent, old man. Gotta give you credit for that.” In spite of the man’s almost daily nagging, Justin liked him. Always had. Amos Picou was ageless, with his unflawed black skin that showed no wrinkles, no age. Like Napoleon, Amos had come around for as long as Justin could remember, bringing his grandmother gator steaks, crawfish and whatever other food he managed to scrounge in Big Swamp. He’d always gone herb hunting with Eula, too, claiming Big Swamp was no place for a woman alone. Unrequited love, Justin suspected. Although he’d never asked and Amos had never told.

Rumor had it, though, that Amos had a little herb patch of his own, something he grew, cured and smoked. Perhaps that was the secret to his longevity and youth.

“That’s the only way you get what you want, son. If you want it bad enough, you go after it and don’t give up till it’s dead, or till you’re dead. That’s what my granddaddy always taught me.” He grinned. “Compromise is good for the soul, too. It’ll make you feel like you’re in a giving spirit, yet you have the good feeling that comes along with a victory of getting what you want. Best of both worlds, I always say.”

“But when you say you want me to compromise, you mean give up everything I’ve worked hard to get, just so I can come here and dispense swamp morning glory to cure centipede bites to a bunch of people who hate me? Because that’s not me, Amos.” He shook his head vigorously. “I have a great respect for my grandmother’s herbal cures, but for me life here is tough. Too tough. I don’t fit in and I never have. That’s what I ran away from when I was a kid, and I’m sure as hell not planning on coming back to it. That’s why I hired that nurse to come in and help my grandmother—to keep me away from the medicine here. So maybe she’s the one you should be trying to convince to take over, since all I’ve heard for the past year is glowing reports.”

His grandmother had called Mellette Chaisson a godsend. He’d called her the compromise he’d needed to assuage his guilty feeling at not being the one to help his grandmother. The worst of it was, a traveling nurse who spent two days a week here assuaged a lot of his guilt. Just not all of it.

“That nurse was a real blessing for your grandmother, especially getting on toward the end. But she’s not the solution here now, and you know that.”

Yes, he did know that, which was why he was passing his days and nights only writing. Writing was where he could escape, a different world. A place with no guilt. “What I know is that I’m doing the best I can for the people here. I support that nurse coming in, and I’ll continue to do that. Even up her presence here if that’s what needs to happen.”

“But what about the other days of the week, Justin? If we get sick, if somebody gets hurt, do we just wait until she comes back? Put our aches and pains on hold until her next day on duty?”

“You take a twenty-five-mile trip to the nearest hospital. This area of the bayou may be remote, but it’s not entirely cut off from civilization.”

Amos laughed out loud over that. “Whose universe are you living in, boy? Because you know the people here aren’t makin’ that trip. They keep to themselves, don’t step foot in the big city unless it’s absolutely necessary, go over to Grandmaison only when it’s necessary, and they never, ever, look for medical help outside Big Swamp. That’s just the way things are around here.”

“Then that’s their problem, because help’s available.”

“And it was your grandmother’s problem, because she doctored these people every day of her life.”

“She gave them herbs, Amos. The rest of it was …” He wanted to say hysteria, or emotional dependence, but that would be downplaying what his grandmother had done for the isolated people in Big Swamp, and he sure didn’t want to do that. “I’m not my grandmother. I don’t have her knowledge of herbs. Can’t be what anybody here wants.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“Same difference. Anyway …” He shrugged. “Let me think on it some more, try to figure out what’s best.”

“You know what’s best, boy. Seems to me you’re spending all your time trying to figure your way around it. And it’s not like we expect you to be here all the time. Keep that nurse coming in two days, then use some of that city money you make and fly down here for two days yourself. Or maybe transfer your fine medical skills to one of the hospital establishments in New Orleans to make it easier on you. That would work. Would suit us just fine, too.”

Amos pulled out one of his homemade cigarettes, tamped down the end of it, then stuck it in his mouth and lit it up. “But here you sit, all bound up with some heavy confusion,” he said, letting the first long draw settle into his lungs.

“Here I sit because I’m tying up my grandmother’s affairs,” Justin said defensively.

A deep, rumbling laugh started from what seemed like the pit of Amos’s belly and burbled its way out. “Tying up her affairs, my ass,” he said, offering Justin a hit of his cigarette.

Justin refused.

“You’re here because you got yourself caught someplace between heaven and hell, and you don’t know which way to turn. Part of you is pulling to go one way but part of you is holding back for some reason you probably don’t even understand yet.” Amos took another draw of his cigarette, and chuckled. “You’re confused, boy. Just plain confused.”

“Not denying it,” Justin said, taking another sip of tea. “I’m confused, and I feel guilty as hell that I didn’t know she was sick. Guilty that I didn’t come back to see her as much as I would have if I’d known. I mean, I loved my grandmother, but …”

“But you didn’t make her life easy.”

“Not when I was a boy.” He’d tried harder when he was a man, though.

“And now that you’re a man you’re paying for something she’d long ago forgot. She didn’t hold it against you, boy. In fact, she was proud of what you made of yourself. Bragged on it all the time.”

“And didn’t tell me she was sick.”

“Because you would have stuck her in some fancy hospital where she didn’t want to go.”

“If she’d gone she might not have …” He bit his tongue to hold back the bitterness. It didn’t matter. Choices had been made; he hadn’t been included. “Anyway, I’m trying to figure it out. I’ll be talking to the nurse, and I’ll see if she can give you another day. But that’s the best I can do.”

“The best you can do is admit you’re still one of us, and give us that day yourself. Would have been Eula’s wish.”

“Damn it, Amos! I can’t just commute from Chicago one day a week, and I’m not going to transfer to a New Orleans hospital to be closer. Also, I’m not one of you, which is the biggest problem. I never was. Not even when I was a kid, and you know that.”

“That’s right, city boy. You come from spoiled uppity folks who never would step foot in Big Swamp for fear something might bite them, or dirty their pretty little leather shoes.” He kicked his foot up, showing up a well-worn, holey sneaker that had seen better days a decade ago. “I do have me a fine pair of alligator boots I save for special occasions, but that’s not good enough for the Bergerons who left these parts.”

“Would that be me?” Justin asked, knowing in some ways it was. He’d been from the city, raised there until he was five, then dumped on a grandmother he’d never met when his parents had died in a plane crash.

“If you want it to be, boy. Only if you want it to be.”

The problem was, while his formative years had been spent in Big Swamp, he’d turned uppity, as it was called in these parts. But only after walking a long, hard road to get there. “Never mine, mon cher,” his grandmother had said to him on many occasions. “You’ve still got the good in you.” The good. Whatever that was.

After the way he’d behaved he wasn’t sure the good she’d seen was still there. If it ever had been.

His grandmother had loved him dearly, though. Taken him in without question when asked, raised him the best way she’d known how. And loved him. Dear God, that woman had possessed such a capacity for love. Along with the same generous capacity for forgiveness and understanding. “What I want …” Justin paused. Listened to the same barred owl he’d been listening to earlier, then sighed. “Don’t have a clue.” Not a clue, except that he couldn’t stay here.

“Sure you do, boy. It’s just going to take some strong medicine to cure you—something that’s stronger than anything you can prescribe.” Amos took another draw on his cigarette, then stood up. “Got me a couple dozen fresh eggs and a loaf of Miss Minnie’s bread, made fresh this afternoon. Caught me a whole mess of crawfish today, too. So I’m fixing up a fine scramble for breakfast in the morning. Bring some peppers and onions and I’ll see you around six.”

“Nine,” Justin countered. “And no chicory in the coffee.”

“Seven-thirty, city boy. And it’s not coffee if it doesn’t have chicory. So don’t be late, or I’ll be startin’ without you.” He smacked his lips. “Havin’ those crawfish all for myself.”

Okay, so part of Big Swamp was in his blood. He loved crawfish and wasn’t ashamed to admit it. He missed the way his grandmother had fixed them. “Fine, seven-thirty. But not a minute earlier. And go easy on the hot sauce, old man,” Justin said as Amos ambled off the porch. “Don’t want to burn my tongue off.”

Amos’s only reply was another one of his belly laughs.

Rather than dragging a reluctant child up the sidewalk, Mellette gave in and picked up the protesting three-year-old Leonie and carried her the length of the pavement. Passing by the red azaleas and pink bougainvillea, walking under a drape of lavender wisteria, which she’d dearly loved since she was a child, she struggled the squiggling bundle up the steps of the white plantation mansion, on past the massive columns supporting the front porch overhang, and straight to the mahogany doors. “I’ll be home before you’re in bed,” she said as she fought to grab hold of the doorknob.

“Why can’t I come with you?” Leonie whined.

“Because I don’t have time to watch you.” And there were alligators, and the swamp, and all manner of other outdoor things that weren’t safe for a three-year-old who lived to escape her mother’s watchful eye. “Mommy has patients to see all day.” And Mommy was beginning to wear down from the daily grind of her work, which meant she wasn’t as alert as she needed to be. Not alert enough, anyway, to take care of a day’s worth of patients as well as look after a rambunctious toddler who, every day, in every way, was growing to be more and more like her daddy. Something that warmed Mellette’s heart, and broke it at the same time.

“I told you we’d take care of those bills,” Zenobia Doucet said sharply as she took Leonie from Mellette. “You’re killing yourself, working so hard. And your daughter needs you. Just look at her—she’s wild. And you … You’re a mess. Doucet women should look better, Mellette. And if you weren’t working out there in the bayou …”

Instinctively, she pushed her short hair back from her face. “But I am working in the bayou. And I’m hoping that job is still there for me now that Eula’s gone.” She worked there to help pay off medical bills left over from Landry’s illness. They were her responsibility, and she took her responsibilities seriously. “One more year, and I’ll be free and clear. Then I won’t have to moonlight.” One more year and she’d be so ready to move on.

“Darling, you lost your house, they took away your car … you and my granddaughter live in a one-room apartment. You need better than that, and your father and I—”

“And we’re making it work, Mother,” she interrupted, brushing a kiss on her mother’s cheek.

“But you don’t have to be so proud about it. We’re family, and family’s supposed to help.”

Sometimes it was still hard to believe that Landry was gone, because everything in her life revolved around him. But he was, had been for over two years now. A short bout with a devastating cancer, and she’d been widowed with a baby. Left with insurmountable debt she wouldn’t let her family take over for her. Landry had been a proud man and she’d loved that about him. She had her own pride, too. And sure, a bailout from her family would have been easy. Move in, take money. But it wasn’t right. She and Landry had agreed on that before his death. Although now Mellette was sure Landry hadn’t known the extent of debt left to her. But that was okay. It was their agreement, something she had to do to honor his memory. And, yes, she was prideful, because she wanted to be an example for her daughter. Wanted not only to teach her strength but show her strength.

So she worked two jobs, raised a daughter and made one concession on child care, not just because her family doing it for free was helpful—which it was. But if she couldn’t spend much time with her daughter these days, she at least wanted her daughter in the arms of people who loved and cherished her. Mellette’s father, a retired anesthesiologist, spent his days with Leonie. Her mother, an active physician and chief of staff at New Hope Medical Center, spent evenings with Leonie when that was necessary. Her six sisters—all medical in one capacity or another—took turns when they could. And it worked beautifully.

They were an eminently qualified family to care for one little girl. And a family who loved Leonie with a passion. So Mellette had no qualms about leaving her daughter with them, except that she was missing out, and that hurt. Because her mother was correct. Leonie needed more of her. “I love you and Daddy for wanting to help me but, like I’ve told you, it’s working out.”

“But it breaks my heart, seeing how hard you’re working. Seeing how it’s dragging you down like it is.”

“What I need most is to know that Leonie’s in good hands. She’s my biggest concern, and it makes me feel a lot better knowing you all have her when I can’t.”

“Your father and I would never refuse her, and you know that. And if you ever change your mind …”

“I know,” Mellette said, glancing at her watch. One hour until her first patient arrived, and she still had to take that hellish boat ride in. Sure, she could drive in, but it took twice as long and that extra time the boat afforded her was time she spent with Leonie. “Look, I’m running behind. Got patients to see, and I’m barely going to beat them to the door. I’ll be back tonight, but it’s going to be a late day because I need to get some things straight with Justin. So go ahead and keep Leonie for the night, and I promised her I’d be back to tuck her in. Although I’m not sure she’ll be awake when I get here. And if you don’t mind, I’ll probably crash here tonight, as well.”

“Or you could just move home,” Zenobia said again. “Lord knows, we have plenty of room.”

Yes, they did have the room. But Mellette needed her private time with Leonie, and their tiny apartment suited them for now.

Mellette gave her mother another kiss on the cheek. “Tell Daddy I love him, and that maybe I’ll see him later tonight.” She gave her daughter a kiss. “And you, young lady, need to be good for your grandmother. Promise?”

Leonie gave her mother a sullen look and didn’t answer. Which made Mellette’s load even heavier to bear. But there was nothing she could do right now. One more year, though, and things would be different. Just one more year …

Mellette Chaisson. Justin really didn’t know much about her. He’d hired her from the registry, had liked her credentials. Had liked her voice over the phone during the interviews. Liked what he’d seen of her bedside manner, as well. But when she was here he pretty much stayed away because the people trusted her with their problems. Whereas they were wary around him. So he didn’t want to shake up that dynamic, which meant that the days she was here, he wasn’t. From what he’d seen in passing, though, he did like her. Especially the way she threw herself into her work.

Except she always looked tired. “They’re lining up today,” he told her, as she rushed through the kitchen and quickly stowed a couple of bottles of water and a sandwich in the fridge.

“There’s a flu virus going around. Ever since we had that malaria come though, people get nervous with the least little sniffle.”

“People overreact.”

She arched her back, bared her claws at that insensitive remark. “Four people in the community died of malaria, Doctor. If that causes the rest of them to overreact, then I suppose they have a right to. And you know what? While you may pay my salary, you’re really not entitled to an opinion since you don’t get involved in anything other than putting a signature on a check.”

Okay, so maybe liking her was too strong. He admired her dedication to her work. Didn’t know a thing about her, though. Not a single thing. Except she wore a wedding ring. Had a fiery temper. And she was a good nurse. Of course, his grandmother had liked her, too, and that said a lot. “So what you’re telling me is that your employer isn’t allowed to express an opinion about his employee’s work.”

“Yes,” she said, quite sternly. “And, technically, I was not your employee. I worked for your grandmother, who worked for the community.”

He couldn’t help but smile. “Then that makes me … what?”

“Right now, a nuisance. Go to work, see a few of those couple dozen people out there who want to be seen, and I could be persuaded to change my mind about that. Otherwise get out of my way.”

Mellette slammed through the kitchen door, hurried down the hall and into the area Eula had set aside for her clinic. The people waiting there were orderly and polite, no one pushing and shoving to be seen first. But there were so many of them, she was beginning to wonder if she’d be able to make good on that promise to tuck her daughter in tonight, because if she wasn’t out of here by dusk, she wasn’t going.

Travelling during the daylight was one thing, and she’d gotten used to that. But Big Swamp at night was a whole different story, and not one she particularly wanted to face. Call her a coward, call her chicken … she’d answer to it all because she was a city girl. Hadn’t even known these isolated pocket communities existed in Big Swamp until a year ago when she’d seen the ad for a part-time nurse. And she’d spent her entire life living so close to here.

Talk about an isolated existence! Raised with all the advantages, she was almost embarrassed to admit where she’d lacked. Landry had made up for that in a lot of ways, not being from that proverbial silver-spoon family, like she was. But all this … Areas where an entire community of people existed, totally out of step with society, living a good life independently. Nothing was taken for granted here. And every kind gesture was appreciated.

“I don’t work here,” Justin said, following her into the clinic, which had actually been his grandmother’s parlor. Now it was a plain room with several wooden chairs and a curtain to separate the waiting area from the person being seen. There was nothing medicinal here. No equipment, no real medicines. Of course, Eula Bergeron hadn’t practiced medicine. She’d been a self-taught herbalist. Someone who’d known which swamp herbs cured what.

“But you could, since you’re not doing anything else.”

“The people don’t trust me.”

“Probably because you’ve given them good reason not to.”

“You’re actually right about that. So what’s the point of wasting my time?”

“What’s the point of even being here if you’re not going to make yourself useful?” she snapped. “Look, we need to talk. Today. Later.”

“You’re right. I was thinking about asking you to put in another day every week.”

“Another day?” Mellette sputtered. “And just where would I get that?”

Justin shrugged. “I assumed …”

She stepped around him, and gestured her first patient to the area behind the cabinet. “Don’t assume anything about me, Doctor. And while you’re at it, don’t presume, either. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have patients who need medical care. If you’re not willing to provide it, get out!”

She pointed to the front door without another word. But what was there to say? Justin Bergeron was an annoyance. If she hadn’t heard Eula mention him so much this past year, she would have never guessed this man and the veritable saint Eula had talked about so lovingly were one and the same. But they were, and she wondered about the discrepancy. Wondered a whole lot.

CHAPTER TWO (#ue2b0dd8a-f09a-54b5-bfe2-1dbd2c78f28c)

IT WAS HARD watching her work, and doing nothing himself. She had such a look of determination, though. Brown eyes narrowed to her task. Biting down in concentration on her lower lip. He did have to admit Mellette was a looker. Tall, with legs that went on forever. Nice athletic form with well-defined feminine muscles. Smooth, dark skin, boyish-cut black hair with just a hint of natural curl, and all of it thrown into her work while he stood on the sidelines, casually observing.

But that was the way his days went since people around here would hardly even speak to him outside a stiff hello or an unfriendly nod accompanied by a muffled grunt. So what the hell made him think they’d accept him as a doctor? Someone to trust, someone to confide in. Someone to take care of them the way his grandmother had.

Clovis Fonseca, for example. He was waiting in line to have Mellette see him—Justin wasn’t sure why—and if it weren’t for the fact that Justin had stolen his canoe some twenty-five years ago, then gone and torn a hole in the bottom of it by racking it up on a cypress stump, Clovis might have been inclined to let Justin take a look at him. But Clovis held a grudge, and Justin had seen it every time he’d looked in the man’s eyes since he’d come home. There was no way Clovis would ever consent to a physical exam from Justin, probably just as Clovis would probably never even greet him with anything other than a snarly sort of a snort.

And Ambrosine Trahan. He felt really bad about her because she’d loved him when they’d been kids, but he’d blatantly asked out her younger sister, Emmy Lou, the prettier of the two girls. It hadn’t been so much that he’d wanted to go out with Emmy Lou, because he hadn’t. She hadn’t been his type, either. But he’d simply been trying to rebuff Ambrosine because back in the day he hadn’t gone out with girls who hadn’t been pretty. In fact, he’d been known to be intentionally cruel to them. So she was waiting in line today, a beautiful woman now, by all estimations, probably hanging on to horrible memories of the way he’d treated her, and he seriously doubted she’d want to claim him as her doctor. And rightfully so. He was so embarrassed just remembering the way he’d treated her.

The problem was, the line of waiting patients was full of bad experiences left over from his ill-mannered youth, and he didn’t trust any of them to trust him. And who could blame them? He’d been a repeat offender on all fronts. After he’d taken Clovis’s boat, he’d had pretty much the same experience with Rex Rimbaut’s pickup truck. Taken it, banged it up. Then there had been that time he’d flaunted a date with Ambrosine’s cousin, Ida, in front of both Ambrosine and Emmy Lou. Ida had been pretty. He’d done the same with their other cousin, Marie Rosella, as well, who had been even prettier.

So nothing gave Justin reason to believe that any one of those people waiting to be seen by Mellette would believe that he’d turned over that new leaf. Especially when each and every one of them assumed he’d neglected his grandmother at the end of her life. It was something that overshadowed everything else. And no one knew the real story, that she’d purposely not told him she was failing for fear that he’d want to do something drastic, like move her to the big city, rather than let her die where she wanted to.

No, history wouldn’t repeat itself on his account. But as far as the people here were concerned, twenty-five years ago was the same as yesterday, and time wasn’t healing the bad thoughts they had of him. He was Justin Bergeron, bad boy. Poor Eula’s pitiful excuse for a grandson.

And poor Eula’s pitiful grandson wasn’t welcome to touch them, not for any reason. They’d just as soon go without medical help as accept his.

Which made Justin feel like hell, seeing how hard Mellette was working while all he was doing was standing around, twiddling his thumbs and wallowing in his just desserts.

“Anything I could do where they wouldn’t see me?” he finally asked her, as she rushed into the kitchen to grab a drink of water. Looking frazzled. But sexy frazzled.

“Right. Like you really want to work,” she said, not even trying to hide her contempt for him.

“I’m not saying I want to work. But I am saying I would, if I could.” It was either that or go back to his writing, and today, like yesterday and the day before that, he wasn’t in that frame of mind. In spite of an upcoming deadline, there were too many distractions. Too many things to think about. Too many humiliating memories floating around in his mind, pushing out the intelligible words that might have gone down on paper.

“Then just do it, Doctor. The only way these people are ever going to get over their grudges against you is to see you do something worthwhile. Otherwise, in their eyes, you’re still a bad boy who gave his grandma more grief than she needed.” She tossed him a devious smile. “And a bad doctor who lets me work my fingers to the bone while he’s standing around, making an ass of himself, doing nothing to help. So take your pick … ass or bad boy.”

“Do I get a third choice?”

“Two’s the limit around here. So what’s it going to be?” She took a swig out of the water bottle, then recapped it. “Because two people off my list and onto yours might make the difference between me making it home to tuck my daughter into bed tonight or being stuck here all night, since I don’t negotiate Big Swamp alone after dark.”

So she had a wedding ring and a daughter. Interesting information—not that he wanted to be involved with her in any way other than professionally. But he did enjoy these brief glimpses into her life and wondered what else he might see if he paid attention. “Okay, let me see what I can do.” With that, Justin went to the waiting area, then continued on through and opened the front door so the people standing around on the porch and in the yard could hear his announcement.

“For what it’s worth, I’m a fully qualified medical doctor. I’m sure my grandmother mentioned that to all of you at one point. I know there are a few … several of you who probably don’t want me seeing you on a professional basis, and I do understand why. But if there are any of you who’d let me examine you, I’d be glad to do so. And the fewer people Mrs. Chaisson has to see, the sooner she’ll get home to her … family. So I’ll be in the kitchen. If you’re not still holding a grudge against me, I’ll be glad to see you. Actually, I’ll be glad to see you even if you are still holding a grudge. Either way …” He shrugged, then stepped back inside and immediately looked at Mellette, who was standing near the room divider, smiling.

“Seriously?” she said. “That’s how you tell people you’re open for business? It sounded more like a challenge than an invitation. You know, come stand in my line, if you dare.”

“Best I can do. If the folks here want to see me, now they know they can. And if they don’t, I’ll be in the kitchen, cooking up a pot of gumbo.” Fixing gumbo, practicing medicine, all in the same room. What had he been thinking?

“But that’s not what Eula had me taking,” Miss Willie Bascomb scolded. “And you should know better than to give me the wrong thing, young man. Do you think I’m too old to see what you’re trying to do to me, switching off my medicine the way you are? It’s shameful. Just shameful!” She was a gray-haired lady with sharp eyes and an even sharper tongue.

“But it’s a simple anti-inflammatory for your arthritis,” Justin said. “The prescription’s easily filled at any pharmacy, and I can write you a script for ninety days so you won’t have to go to town for it very often.” Her knuckles were enlarged, fingers slightly bent into an outward curve. Nothing about Miss Willie had changed since he’d been a kid, and her condition seemed stable for the most part, but he didn’t want to prescribe an herbal potion when the market was full of great prescription drugs that could prevent further joint damage.

“But I don’t want me no prescription, Justin Aloysius. What your grandma gave me has worked well for as long as I can remember. Cures the aches, and that’s all I need.” She held up her crippled hands. “They haven’t gotten any worse in all this time, and it’s just plain foolish, wanting me to change my medicine when things are going well. Eula wouldn’t have allowed that.” She wagged a scolding forefinger at him. “And shame on you for trying.”

The only problem was Eula wasn’t here, and he couldn’t duplicate her herbal cures, which for Miss Willie’s condition was sassafras combined with prickly ash, cayenne and camphor, made into what his grandmother had called her rheumatism liniment. So in practical terms he was wasting his time with this patient because she wasn’t about to budge, just as he wasn’t. “Then I think we have a problem, because I can’t give you what my grandmother used to make. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I don’t know how to make it.”

“Because you were off gallivanting in the big city when you should have been staying home, studying real medicine, young man!” Miss Willie sniffed indignantly. “I wanted to give you a chance for Eula’s sake. She talked so highly of you, said you were the best doctor there is. But she was wrong, and it would have killed her to see just how sorry you are.”

Talk about a bitter pill to swallow. “All I can do is recommend what my kind of medicine considers standard. It’s up to you whether or not you want to take it.”

“What I want to take is my leave, young man!” With that, Miss Willie slid off the kitchen stool, gathered up her patent-leather purse, which she stuffed into the crook of her arm, and her floral print scarf, which she didn’t bother putting on her head, and headed for the kitchen door. “You tell Mellette I want my usual. She’ll know how to fix it for me.”

Then she was gone. Miss Willie and all her one hundred pounds of acrimonious fire stormed out the back door, but not before she’d looked in the pot of gumbo and snorted again. “I don’t smell filé in there,” she said. “To make a good gumbo you’ve got to use filé powder, or do you have some fancy prescription for that, too?”

“Seems like sassafras is going to be your downfall today,” Mellette said, walking into the kitchen through the front door at the same time the back door slammed shut. She was referring to filé, a thickening powder made from dried sassafras leaves.

“She always was a tough old lady,” Justin replied, on his way to the kitchen cabinet to look for filé. “Who wants what she wants.”

“She swears by the liniment. Don’t think she’s going to change her mind about that, and at her age I guess that’s her right.”

“But I can’t give her the damned liniment.” He turned to look at her. “And as a registered nurse, I’m surprised you would.”

“When you hired me to come to Big Swamp to help your grandmother, what did you expect me to do? Dispense pills these people don’t want to take? That’s not what Eula wanted, not what she would have tolerated from me. So she taught me her ways and for the most part it works out.”

“So I’m paying you to practice my grandmother’s version of medicine? Because that’s not what I wanted.”

“What you wanted was to have me help her, which was what I did. On her terms, though. Not yours.”

“If I’d wanted someone to dispense more of what my grandmother dispensed, that’s who I would have hired. But I wanted a registered nurse, someone from the traditional side of medicine. Someone to take care of the people here the way traditional medicine dictates.”

“Then I expect you’ve been paying me under false pretenses because I’ve been taking care of these people just the way your grandmother did and, so far, nobody’s complaining.”

“You’re still doing that even now that she’s gone?”

“Especially now that she’s gone. They’re scared to death they’re going to have to give up the folk medicine they’ve trusted for decades, and I suppose if you have your way, that’s what’s going to happen. Which just adds to the list of reasons why they don’t like you.”

He pulled a tin marked filé from the cabinet and measured out a scant spoonful for the gumbo.

“Twice that much,” she prompted him.

“You’re a chef, as well?”

“I know how your grandmother fixed gumbo, and I’m assuming you’re trying to copy that since it’s probably the best gumbo I’ve had anywhere.”

He shook his head, not sure if he should be angry or frustrated. Or both. “So tell me, how am I supposed to treat Miss Willie when she won’t take a traditional anti-inflammatory?”

“You give her what she wants, then if you insist on one of the regular drugs, maybe you can prescribe it after she’s come to trust you.”

“Which will be when hell freezes over,” he snapped.

“Probably. But she’s reasonable. All the people here are reasonable, which is why, when malaria hit, they took quinine—”

“Quinine?” he interrupted. “Isn’t that pretty oldschool treatment for malaria?”

“Been around for hundreds of years, but it’s cheap, and it works. And it’s what I was able to get the pharmaceutical companies to donate to me.”


She nodded. “That’s the way it works here, Justin. For the most part we get donated drugs, prescriptions that have gone over the expiration date but are still good, partial prescriptions that haven’t all been taken. And quinine worked just fine for us. But I used it along with Eula’s prescribed water and orange juice fast, along with warm-water cleanses. It all worked together, and who’s to say which was more effective—the natural remedy or the quinine, which is actually a natural remedy itself.”

“So what you’re telling me is that patience with the people here will be a virtue.”

“My husband always said patience is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity. But he was the most patient man to ever grace the earth.” She smiled fondly. “Which was good, because I’m not and I needed that counterbalance.”

“Then I say your husband deserves an award, because there aren’t too many patient people around.”

“He did deserve an award,” she said. “For a lot more than his patience. Landry was a good man. Maybe the best man I’ll ever know.”

She was speaking of him in the past tense, but Justin hated to ask, because if she was widowed, that was something he should have read on her application for working with his grandmother. Truth was, he’d hardly read past her name and credentials, he had been so impatient to hire someone. “And you’re not …” He glanced down at her wedding ring.

“Not moving on, like most people think I should. But I don’t have to. Landry can’t be replaced, and I don’t particularly want to.”

“How long?” he asked.

“A little over two years. Leonie was just a baby when he was diagnosed, and he didn’t get to stay with us very long after that. It was a pervasive pancreatic cancer. Took him almost before he knew he was sick. And you know what? If I’d known your grandmother then, I’d have been happy to give her herbal treatments a try, because I was desperate for anything. To try anything that might save him.”

“I’m so sorry,” Justin said.

“So am I, every day of my life. But thank you for the sentiment.”

“You’re raising your daughter by yourself?”

“Yes, but I have a supportive family—mother, father, six sisters. They’re so much help to me, and they love Leonie. You might have heard of my mother, actually. Zenobia.”

Justin blinked hard. “Seriously? Dr. Doucet is your mother? I’ve heard her lecture. She’s … extraordinary.”

“I think so. As a mother, anyway. As a doctor, I know she has her reputation, but I don’t pay much attention to that. So now, about Miss Willie …” Mellette pulled a small jar out of the pocket of her tan cargo pants and handed it to him. “I’d suggest you take this to her and try to make amends. I’m with you on getting her an anti-inflammatory prescription since I’ve been noting some gradual changes in her physicality, but in the year I’ve worked here she’s refused every time I’ve mentioned it. Maybe if you can get on her good side …”

He laughed out loud. “Do you really think that’s going to happen?”

“No. But I don’t believe in giving up.”

He tucked the jar of liniment into his pocket, then went back to the stove to stir the gumbo. “I’m serious about wanting you to add an extra day to your schedule here.”

“And I’m serious about not having the time. I work full time in emergency at New Hope, and between that and this, there’s no more time to give you. As it is, you’re getting my two days off from the hospital every week.”

“What about working here full time?” he asked, not sure where that had come from. Certainly, he could afford her. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“You don’t mean that.”

“Actually, I might.”

“You’d have to match, maybe even exceed my entire salary from the hospital, depending on how many hours you’d want me to work here, plus make up the difference for what you’re paying me when I’m here. And you’d have to cover my benefits—insurance, retirement plan, paid holiday. I’m a pretty well-paid specialist, Doctor, and I really don’t think I’m the solution for whatever you’re trying to accomplish.”

“What I’m trying to accomplish is to offer this community more medical care than they currently have. My grandmother loved these people, and taking care of them is what she would have wanted me to do.”

“Then stay and take care of them.”

“Not a chance.”

She smiled. “Eula said you were too good for the likes of Big Swamp. Although I think she secretly believed you’d come back to it someday.”

“I’m not too good for Big Swamp. I might have thought that at one time, but I grew up. But I do have a life that doesn’t include mosquitoes, muskrats and alligators, and it’s a life I enjoy.”

“I have a life I enjoy, too, and if I don’t get back to my patients, I’m not going to get home to that life tonight.” Mellette headed for the door, then spun around to face him before she went back to the room full of waiting patients. “Your grandma was proud of the work you do, Justin. My grandson, the real doctor, is what she always used to say. For what it’s worth, I don’t think she ever resented the fact that you chose the city over her.”

In the city … Yes, that was where he belonged. But lately he wasn’t sure why. In fact, the only thing he was sure of at the moment was that hiring Mellette had been one of the best things he’d done in a long, long time. Now all he had to do was convince her to take over here full time. Maybe then his guilty feelings would be assuaged. Or some of them.

The day went surprisingly fast, and while the patients weren’t flocking to Justin, the handful he did manage to see turned out to be a big help to her. So now Mellette could get out of Big Swamp before dark and make it back to Leonie before bedtime, for which she was eternally grateful. “You going to work again tomorrow?” she asked him, as she dipped a spoon into the gumbo that had been simmering for the better part of the day.

“If you want to call it working. I saw four people, and got rejected by four people.”

“But they gave you a chance, and that’s almost as good as them letting you treat them. Good gumbo, by the way. I think you inherited Eula’s cooking talents.”

“That was one of the things I always took for granted, I think. She had an amazing way in the kitchen that I didn’t appreciate until I was away from here, living on fast food and whatever else I could scrounge cheaply.”

“Well, if you should ever decide to give up medicine, I can definitely see you in a restaurant kitchen.”

“I’d invite you to stay, except I know you want to get back to your daughter.”

“And I might have taken you up on the offer, but you’re right. I need some time with her—don’t get enough of it.” Heading toward the door, she paused before she stepped outside. “Did you ever take that liniment to Miss Willie?” she asked. “Because if you didn’t, I’m betting now would be a good time. And I think she’d appreciate the gumbo, too. She doesn’t do much cooking for herself these days, and a nice, hearty meal would do her some good.”

“As much good as it would do me, getting into her good graces?”

“Every little bit helps,” she quipped. “Oh, and I think she probably likes her gumbo over rice.”

“Can you point me in the direction of her house?” he asked. “I might have known once, but it’s been a long time since I’ve gone tromping through this backcountry, and I don’t particularly like the idea of getting lost out there this time of day.”

“I can do you better than pointing. I’m going to go right by her place. I can give you a lift, and that should be good enough to show you how to get yourself back before the sun goes down.”

It didn’t take a minute for Justin to ladle out enough gumbo for several meals into one bowl, and scoop up an ample amount of rice into another. “Who would have ever guessed I’d be making house calls and carrying in food,” he said, shutting the kitchen door behind him, then following Mellette down to the boat dock where her skiff was moored.

It was a small boat but big enough to seat four comfortably. Not fast, but high enough to sit her above the reach of alligators and other water creatures that might get curious. Not that an alligator had ever come near enough to threaten her. But she was a city girl after all. And even though her city sat on the edge of Big Swamp, that didn’t mean she had swamp experience. In fact, she’d surprised herself taking this part-time job where she had to boat in and out for easiest access, dodging stumps and roots. There’d been any number of part-time opportunities available at New Hope, or in other private enterprises, but something about the call of the wild had intrigued her.

Maybe it had been Landry’s influence. He’d loved Big Swamp. Had spent part of his childhood in a community not too far from here. Being here made her feel closer to him.

“Who’d have ever thought you’d get me out on the bayou in a boat, all by myself, just to get to work?” she countered, as she took her seat and started the engine. “But never say never, right?”

“Being a Doucet, I guess this really wouldn’t be normal for you, would it?” he said, setting down the bowls of food in the bottom of the boat.

“Being a Doucet, nothing’s normal. We’re an … I guess the best way you can put it is an unusual family. Seven girls … My poor daddy. I know he wanted a son, but he turned out to be quite prodigious in the daughter department. And at times I think it simply overwhelmed him. Then he held out such high hopes for a grandson when I was pregnant, and got another girl.”

“Whom he loves, I’m sure,” Justin said, sitting back as the thrum of the boat’s engine settled into a gentle cadence while they wound their way through Big Swamp trees.

“He adores her. In fact, Daddy’s retired now—he was an anesthesiologist—and he’s the one who watches Leonie most of the time. Spoils her rotten. But I do hope that someday one of my sisters gives him a grandson.”

“Leonie’s his only grandchild?”

“So far. I’m the only one who’s married. My sisters Sabine and Delphine, twins, are dedicated doctors, and Magnolia’s a legal medical investigator. Then there are Ghislaine, Lisette and Acadia, all of them in various stages of their medical education or careers.” She smiled. “We’re close in age. My mother didn’t want to interrupt her medical career for too long, so she popped us all out pretty quickly, about a year apart. And so far I’m the only one to take the marriage plunge. But it’s Daddy’s biggest fear that the rest of them will fall in love at the same time and he’ll have to spring for six weddings in rapid succession.”

“I can’t even imagine having that many brothers or sisters,” he said.

“Eula never really told me much about your family situation.”

“There wasn’t much to tell. I was an only child. Didn’t come from Big Swamp, although my father did, obviously, as Eula was his mother. But my grandfather took my dad out of here when he left my grandmother to seek fame and fortune or whatever it is he wanted to do, and never looked back. He pretty much poisoned my dad to Big Swamp, and the people who lived here. Including my grandmother. Anyway, my parents raised me in New Orleans, then after they were killed—plane crash—I ended up with my grandmother in the place where my dad had refused to go.”

“And you forever hated it here?”

“That’s what she told you?”

“Not in so many words, but it makes sense. You left here when you were a kid, hardly ever came back to see her. Probably under your father’s influence in some remote way. It only stands to reason that you didn’t want to be here, given the history. Still don’t, I suppose.” She steered around a clump of low-hanging moss, then slowed down as a meandering nutria swam by the boat, not at all concerned about being disturbed. It was his domain, she supposed, and he was simply asserting his place in it.

“Still don’t on a permanent basis, but I’ve been back plenty of times to visit my grandmother,” he said, but without much conviction in his voice. “Look, earlier when you said we need to talk … you’re right. I really do want to sit down and talk to you about what I’m going to do here to take care of these people.”

“Why do you care?” she asked as she veered to the left and puttered her way up a shallow inlet.

“Because my grandmother cared.”

“Then that leads me to the obvious question.”

“Let me save you the trouble of asking. The reason I didn’t move back here, not even to New Orleans, to be closer is … complicated, and I’m not even sure I can explain it to myself, let alone someone else. It’s just the way things were with me. I ended up in Chicago, liked it and stayed. And, yes, I did have opportunities here. Could have gone to New Hope, actually. But coming back here, being so close …” He shrugged. “I like my practice, like Chicago. Like the life I have there.”

“And you were afraid that coming back to Big Swamp, even for visits, would overwhelm you with all kinds of guilty feelings.”

She slowed the boat alongside a rickety old dock, then pointed to a shanty about two hundred feet off the water. It was wooden, painted red, with blue shutters. All the paint chipped and faded. In the yard lay three good-size alligators, looking lazy and not particularly interested in the meddlers coming around to bother them.

“Or I was afraid that coming back to Big Swamp would overwhelm me with all kinds of responsibilities I can’t handle. Which is turning out to be the case.”

“Look, I’m not working tomorrow evening. If you can get to town, come by the house for dinner, around seven. Not sure you’ll want to travel these parts at night to get home, so you’re invited to stay. It’ll be at my parents’ house, by the way. I don’t live with them, but I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to extend their hospitality. That is, if you make it through the gators tonight.”

“And just how am I supposed to do that?”

“Very carefully,” she said, handing him one of his bowls of food. “They have short legs, so I think you’ll be able to outrun them.” She laughed. “But they do have that one fast burst of energy at the start, so if you don’t make it to dinner tomorrow night, I’ll know what happened.”

CHAPTER THREE (#ue2b0dd8a-f09a-54b5-bfe2-1dbd2c78f28c)

AS THE DAY dragged on, Justin found himself more and more anxious to go to town and have dinner with Mellette and her family. It was a kind invitation, and the idea of being around real medical people again excited him because the longer he was away from his practice the more he missed it. The most appealing part of the evening, though, was the prospect of getting to know Mellette. Even though she’d made it perfectly clear she wasn’t ready to move on from her husband.

All that was fine with him, as there was no time in his life for a relationship outside a professional one. He had too much ambition wrapped up in his fast rise to where he was, and that was important to him. Maybe the most important thing. Not that he had anything in mind for Mellette other than trying to convince her to work in Big Swamp full time. Because he didn’t. She was his means to an end—he hoped. The person who could put things right for a lot of people. Himself included.

And he’d done some predawn soul-searching on just how to accomplish what he needed. Tried coming up with an incentive that would work for everyone involved, but especially for Mellette, because he wanted to make this offer something that would benefit her in ways that mattered. So by the time dawn began to awaken the bayou, and all the otters and raccoons outside were taking their first morning stretches, he was fairly certain he’d hit upon the perfect plan.

Although he wasn’t convinced enough to be smug about it, since he was fully aware that what he was about to offer Mellette could well fly in the face of her close-knit family and cause some blaring divisions there. Big life changes had a way of making that happen—something he knew from firsthand experience.

Still, he was keeping his fingers crossed that this plan would work out; the more he thought about it, the more he knew Mellette was his only strong answer. And a strong answer was the only thing that could work, owing to all the obstacles Big Swamp presented.

“I’m working on the book,” Justin told his literary agent in a just-after-dawn phone call. “But I’m pretty busy here, taking care of all my grandmother’s unfinished business.” Well, that wasn’t exactly as true as it should have been, as he hadn’t even begun to tie up loose ends. But he was working on a plan to open a clinic, and it was his intention to get all the personal matters tied up in the next couple of weeks so he wasn’t exactly lying. Just jumping the gun on his to-do list.

“You’re not going to blow your deadline, are you, Justin? Because if you are, I need to get it squared away with your editor.”

Deadlines, editor … Yes, he kept himself almost as busy writing as he did being a doctor these days. Truth was, he enjoyed his growing passion for being a medical mystery novelist. It had happened quite by accident, when he’d been asked to step in at the last minute to consult on the medical aspect of a movie being filmed in Chicago. A couple more movie and television gigs had come from that, along with the idea of writing a novel.

And while Justin hadn’t been an overnight bestselling author, his career was promising enough to get him his first two-book contract for starters. Now he was on his second two-book contract, and there were faint whispers of turning his second book into a movie. It was a long shot, but exciting.

He liked writing. Didn’t want to stop doing it. But he didn’t know how it was going to fit into his long-term plans, because his medical practice really did take up more time than he’d ever thought it would. So that was his career crisis. How could he manage all aspects of it? Or how could he separate out the aspects he wanted to prioritize?

What he could figure out, though, was that he was staying in Big Swamp much longer than he’d expected to—it was at least giving him more time to write, to edit, to work up to that next deadline, even though he’d been brain-dead the past few days, putting off the decisions he’d have to make eventually. Putting off life in general. Also, there was something about the surroundings here that was conducive to his story setting, so much eerie nature that was a real kick to his creative mystery-writing process.

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Dr Justin Bergeron has returned to the Deep South, but this former bad boy’s attempts to introduce modern medicine are met with fierce resistance. His only ally…? Bewitchingly beautiful nurse Mellette! After losing her husband, Mellette is reluctant to let sinfully delicious Justin in – despite seeing that this playboy has a heart that might very well steal hers…Deep South Docs! Swapping the Big City…for the Bayou!

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