Brody Simmons has loved Catherine Jones his entire life. They were engaged right out of high school and planned to immerse themselves in the mission field together until an accident changed the course of their lives. Both went their separate ways--Catherine to medical school and Brody to the unbridled coast of the Florida Keys.
A decade later, Brody's come home to Willow Lake to launch an outdoor adventure business. Mistakes of the past gnaw at him until he's called to bring wayward kids back to the fold through nature-themed expeditions. It's a perfect fit, as Brody's right at home with a fishing rod in his hands and a boat beneath his feet. Instilling confidence in the teens he works with eases the pain of the past and helps him to forget the only woman he's ever loved--Catherine.
What Brody didn't bargain for was to find Catherine in a mission field of her own--walking the tile of a neatly-organized pediatric office in Willow Lake. When an adventure goes awry Brody is forced to call on Catherine's medical expertise. Feelings rekindle, but can the two forgive and overcome mistakes of the past to find a second chance at love?
“Have you seen him?”
Catherine Jones turned to find Josie Parker—scratch that, Josie Donovan—skittering down the hall, heedless of the Do Not Enter sign at the back exit of the clinic. The heels of her strappy sandals clipped along the tile and a sleek black bob framed eyes deep blue as sapphires. Cherry-red lipstick accentuated the rounded oh of her mouth. Always smiling…that was Josie—especially since her recent marriage to Mason Donovan. She remained Catherine’s best friend in the entire world and she knew the building’s layout like the back of her hand.
“Him? What are you talking about?” As Catherine rounded the intake counter to add a few files to a stack piled high on the desk, she caught a glimpse of herself in glass-paned cabinet doors and groaned. Unlike Josie, who always appeared as if she’d just spent hours in a glamour studio, Catherine’s chestnut hair looked more like the tussled makings of a robin’s nest. Strands of the silky mass that had escaped her ponytail clung to her neck and her almond-shaped chocolate-caramel eyes were shadowy as the mottled sky preceding a summer thunderstorm. And, while Josie’s citrusy perfume merely added an air of mystique to her appeal, Catherine knew the only aroma she currently exuded was a nose-biting mixture of antiseptic and hand sanitizer. The day had been a roller coaster of adventure, and she was more than ready to head to the quiet of her house nestled into the foothills of the Smokies. “Please don’t tell me someone else has come in. I thought I locked the front doors, and the staff has already left for the night. I just patched up the last patient and sent him home with his mother.”
“I’m not talking about a patient.” Josie took Catherine by the shoulders and spun her ‘round, before motioning toward the highway. Spotlights illuminated a billboard along Highway 15, bathing it in a brilliant glow as the sun dipped along the horizon. Evening had made its entrance once again, and Catherine wondered how she’d lost another full day of warm late-spring sunshine. She was anxious to shed her soiled lab coat and drink in some fresh air, but Josie squeezed her shoulder. “He’s not in here. Look over there.”
“What are you talking about?” Catherine stooped to arrange dog-eared magazines that lay scattered across the coffee table.
Toys from a corner play bin littered the floor. Each would need to be collected and disinfected before new patients arrived in the morning. Lisa, from reception, usually took care of that, but she’d left early to attend a funeral and would be out the following day, as well. So, Catherine supposed the task fell to her.
Not that she minded; she’d worked hard to get back to Willow Lake after nearly a decade of medical training. She’d built the practice from the ground up and took pride in knowing that every detail was tended to perfectly. Each child that came through the door was a testament to her expertise and dedication as a medical professional. And today she’d called on every ounce of that expertise and a boatload of dedication to attend to an array of summer colds, a trio of broken arms, and one toddler who, in the throw of a tantrum, thought it was a good idea to shove a small piece of candy up his nose. “No one’s there. All I see is shadows.”
“Move closer to the window.” Josie nudged Catherine toward the clinic’s entranceway. Tiny handprints smudged the display glass. She frowned, adding the task of wiping them away to her mental list. “The view’s better there.”
“I don’t…” Suddenly Catherine’s vision cued, and all she could do was gape, mouth dropping wide. One hand tugged at the collar of her lab coat and the stethoscope slipped from her neck to clatter to the floor. She pressed a hand to her chest, gasping painfully as her heart launched into a gallop. “It can’t be. It isn’t.”
“Oh, yes it is.” Josie nodded, emphasizing the fact. “Brody’s come home. What are you gonna do now?”
Brody dumped fishing tackle onto the desk of his office and began to sort through it. He tucked what was useful into slots along the length of a yellow plastic tackle box and tossed the rest into the oversized trash bin. An interview for the Willow Lake Gazette had wiped out a good chunk of the afternoon, and now he hurried to catch up with tasks that needed his attention before morning—and the city’s inspection. He’d been able to work out most of the details for his outdoor adventure business long-distance. But this last leg had required hands-on attention, and it was time to pay the piper.
He had a lot riding on the city’s yea or nay to this venture—his future in Willow Lake depended on it. He’d already paid for a year’s worth of advertising and signed his life away with the mortgage company to snag prime acreage along a pristine length of Willow Lake. It was more than generous of Ali and Ryder to sell a portion of the vast land that Willow Inn sat on in order for him to pursue this dream. But if the venture didn’t pan out…
Brody sighed and put a quick stop to that line of thinking. He’d given this a lot of thought, so there was no point travelling down that road. He felt God had led him back here, but he had yet to understand why.
And the pile of mangled lures scattered over his battered wooden desk top didn’t help much. Where had Ryder found these pieces of junk, anyway?
“Hey.” As if he’d heard his name, Ryder loped into the office. His jeans and T-shirt, splattered with dirt from his latest landscaping project, had seen better days. Yet, his smile was genuine. Brody supposed marriage to the right woman did that to a man, and Ali certainly fit the bill for Ryder. “I see you’re enjoying the treasure I stumbled upon down at Murphy’s Pawn Shop.”
“Well, that explains things.” Brody grimaced as he continued to sort through the tangle. “Hope you didn’t pay more than a few dollars for this mess.”
“I didn’t.” Ryder tossed several spindles of fishing line alongside the pile of lures. “I found this down at the inn’s boat house, along with half-a-dozen poles and some decent life vests. I figured you could use them, as well.”
“Thanks. I’ll take a look-see.”
“I noticed your billboard on the way home this afternoon. Hard to miss it, since your likeness is plastered about forty feet tall.” Ryder laughed. “Pretty classy…not.”
“It’s meant to be an attention-getter and what better place to advertise than Highway 15, the main thoroughfare heading into Willow Lake? People need to know who I am.”
“Oh, trust me—they’ll know.” Ryder eased a hip onto the corner of the desk and reached for a lure. “Highway 15 also happens to be the best location for a pediatric clinic.”
“I suppose.” Brody tossed another broken lure into the trash can. Although he knew where this line of conversation was headed, he couldn’t help biting. “What’s your point?”
Ryder’s gaze rose to meet his, his gray eyes full of questions. As he spoke, he untangled the lure and slipped it into an empty slot. “When do you plan to see her?”
“Her?” Brody turned to the shelf behind his desk, where a coffeemaker sputtered with fresh brew. The aroma was almost palatable, and he felt his internal engine rev. Day or night, he didn’t care. Coffee kept him humming. He filled a foam cup, shoved it into Ryder’s hands and then poured a second for himself. By Brody’s way of thinking, an office wasn’t an office without a decent cup of java to share. “Her who?”
“You know who I mean.” Ryder dumped powdered creamer into the coffee and stirred with his index finger before drawing a few gulps. “Catherine.”
The simple mention of her name was like high-octane caffeine to Brody’s system. He swallowed hard and slipped into his desk chair, rocking back on two legs to hoist his feet up and onto the edge of the cluttered desk. “I suppose I’ll see her when I see her.” He leveled his gaze to meet Ryder’s, and held his voice steady in an attempt to disguise the twisting in his gut. He knew he’d run into Catherine eventually, no denying it. A modest town like Willow Lake left little room for secrets. He just hadn’t considered the what-happens-next part. “No hurry there. But these lures, that was another matter. The city’s on its way, and I have half-a-dozen kids coming for a fishing expedition next week. If I can’t do better than this, those kids are going to be awfully disappointed sitting on the dock with no hope of dinner.”
“You’ll find a way.” Ryder tossed back another gulp of coffee. “You always have.”
“Yep, that’s me—resourceful.”
“Well, that’s at least one thing you and Catherine always did have in common—your ability to get the job done. Her pediatric clinic is growing like gangbusters. Everyone in town trusts her with their kids, including Ali and me. I wouldn’t take Rory to anyone else for his check-ups or when he’s sick—or takes a tumble from the playground swing.”
“He did that?”
“This afternoon. But he’s fine. It scared Ali more than it hurt Rory.”
“Catherine patched him up?”
“She did. And Ali would skin me alive if I even suggested going to anyone else.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. You should call Catherine…soon.”
“With all those kids to take care of, I’m sure she’s too busy for idle conversation. In case you haven’t noticed, I am, too.”
“Are you, Brody Simmons…scared of a woman?”
“No! I mean, no.” Yet his pulse pounded as if it would burst right through his arteries. “Especially not Cate. I’m just covered up here.”
“Life is about more than work, you know.”
“Tell that to the city inspector.” Brody diverted his gaze as he plucked two decent lures from the pile, bringing the total to five, and hoped for at least a couple more. Beyond his office window, the sun lowered over the woods surrounding this sheltered cove of Willow Lake and a slight breeze blew, causing leaves to skitter. He imagined, in the winter when those same leaves littered the ground, that he’d have a picture-perfect view of the water and perhaps even a glimpse of the bluffs where he and Catherine used to spend hours together. There, in a warm mist of rain just days following their graduation, he’d asked her to marry him. He still remembered the breathy sound of her voice as she agreed, and the warm touch of her hand as he slipped a diamond on her finger. Her chocolate-kiss eyes had shimmered with delight. He’d spent an entire year saving for the ring similar to one she’d pointed out to him in a magazine because, after an entire childhood together, he’d known beyond even the slightest shadow of doubt that they were meant to share their lives and their futures. Time had changed that, though—at least for her. Brody swept the memory to the back of his mind as he continued to address Ryder. “You want to test the fishing waters after the inspector leaves tomorrow? Mason’s coming by to finish some work on the pier, and I’ve got a few new poles I’d like to give a test run.”
“Wish I could.” Ryder stood and dipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Ali needs me at the inn. We have a full house this weekend, and Rory’s not only walking, but running now. He’s into everything, and we can’t take our eyes off him for a second. It doesn’t make for a good combination, so I probably won’t be able to get away until all the guests hit the road.”
“I suppose not. Good luck with that.”
“But you remember about tonight, right?”
“Ali’s birthday celebration at seven-thirty. She wanted a little get-together so I’m grilling steaks on the deck of the inn.”
“Oh, right.” Brody had heard the story of how Ali nearly lost her life while giving birth to Rory. Her blood pressure had spiked, leading to serious complications. No wonder this birthday was cause to celebrate. “I’ll be there.”
“Good.” Ryder nodded. “Ali will be happy to see you again. We all will.”
“Of course. You’re the last, Brody. Everyone’s come home now.”