|Welcome to Paradise.|
Ben Rogers stared at the glossy white sign posted in front of a row of tall Colorado conifers.
He shook his head and chuckled.
At least he still had a sense of humor. That was pretty much all he'd taken with him from Denver, besides his leather medical bag and whatever fit in his Land Rover. His future lay beyond the welcome sign that boasted a population of seventeen hundred.
Ben guided his vehicle around an enormous pothole and straight into the heart of the small mountain town. Paradise, Colorado, was nestled in the San Luis Valley, with the Sangre De Cristo Mountains to the north and the San Juan Mountains to the west. At eight thousand feet, the elevation of Paradise was even higher than Denver's fifty-two eighty.
The mountains provided a picturesque backdrop for the shops that lined the main thoroughfare and the sidewalks dotted with wrought-iron benches and masses of bright summer flowers that overflowed sidewalk pots.
Carolyn would have loved Paradise.
Ben winced, then rubbed a hand across his face. Six months had passed since he'd lost her, but he continued to see the world through his little sister's eyes.
His stomach growled, offering a distraction. After a four-hour drive he was starving. A glance at the clock on the dash confirmed there was just enough time to grab something to eat before he retrieved the key to his rental cabin and headed to an appointment with his new boss, the medical director of the Paradise Community Hospital. He pulled into an open parking spot along the curb and glanced around.
Would it be The Prospector restaurant, or Patti Jo's Cafe and Bakery? Ben stepped out of the Land Rover and inhaled.
The tantalizing aromas of butter, cinnamon and vanilla lured him to a quaint shop with etched-glass windows.
Oh, yeah. Patti Jo's won, hands down.
Tinkling bells sounded as he opened the bright crimson door. Before him, customers patiently stood in line at the single cash register, most perusing the glass cases filled with pastries as they waited. Ben scanned the small room, noting that every single bistro table and red leather booth was occupied.
Waiting wasn't his strong suit. Maybe he'd try the restaurant instead.
He turned to leave just as an elderly man seated at a table to his far left began to cough. Mere moments later, the man stood and clutched his throat before he stumbled back from the table. The coughing stopped, and his face took on a blue tinge.
Without thinking, adrenaline surging, Ben pushed forward through the customers.
But not soon enough.
The man crumpled, striking his head on the table edge as he spiraled down to the floor. Ben reached him and automatically slid his fingers along the victim's neck.
Pulse still strong. Thank You, God. He placed his ear to the man's chest. Air movement negligent.
Tilting the man's head, Ben searched his mouth for an obstruction. None evident. Yet something had occluded his airway.
"Everyone step back." Ben turned to a waitress and nodded toward the silver-haired woman who hovered close. "Can you help her to a chair?"
He made purposeful eye contact with the cashier, a young girl whose face was pale, her eyes rounded.
"What's your name?" Ben asked, while quickly positioning himself behind the barely conscious man.
The girl's frantic glances darted back and forth from the man on the floor and then to him again.
"Susan, look at me," he commanded. "I need you to call 9-1-1. Right now. Okay?"
She nodded and pulled a cell phone from her smock pocket.
Arms around the fallen man's waist, Ben gave a practiced abdominal thrust. Once. Twice. Three times. The air pressure action caused something to dislodge and shoot from the man's mouth into the air. A sharp sucking inhalation filled the now-silent room before the man coughed, and then began normal respirations.
"That's it," he encouraged. "Just breathe. I've got you.
A collective sound of relief fluttered through the small crowd.
Ben's own breathing slowed now that the crisis was over. For a moment he simply rested on his haunches, stunned with the realization that he'd just responded to an emergency like his old self. There'd been zero time for second thoughts, self-doubting or the crippling panic attacks.
He swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
Thank You, Lord. Thank You.
Easing the elderly man away from him, Ben began a quick inspection of his head, parting the gray hairs where blood oozed from a scalp wound.
"I've got gauze for that laceration."
Ben turned, his gaze slamming into the clear green eyes of a petite dark-haired woman, about his age. She reached a latex-gloved hand forward and applied pressure to the victim's head.
"Thanks," Ben murmured, grateful for the assist.
After a minute, the woman lifted the corner of the now blood-saturated gauze.
He peered at the site. "Not too bad."
"Nothing a couple sutures won't fix," she said.
Surprised, Ben glanced over his shoulder and gave a nod of agreement at her words. Her confident demeanor said she obviously had a medical background.
Before he could consider that further, the siren of an emergency vehicle echoed. The sound became louder and louder until two paramedics burst through the door of the shop.
As they strode toward him, Ben carefully rose to transfer the care of the victim for a complete evaluation.
"Choking incident. Resolved with Heimlich." Ben addressed the uniformed medics. "Minor scalp laceration, approximately one-eighth centimeter, secondary to head trauma."
He turned away, relieved that everyone's attention was on the victim, which allowed him to slip to the front door.
As he turned away, the elderly woman who'd been with the fallen man grabbed Ben's arm.
"Thank you, son," she said. "You saved my husband's life." Her soft eyes overflowed with emotion as they met his.
"You're welcome, ma'am."
Head bowed, Ben collected himself. He'd doubted himself for so long; the simple thank you touched a place inside that desperately needed affirmation. Maybe God could still use him.
When he looked up, his eyes met the familiar gaze of the woman who'd assisted him. She pulled hand sanitizer from a first-aid kit that now sat on the cafe table and squeezed some liquid into her palm before handing the bottle to him.
"Here you go, Doc."
"Thanks. How'd you know I'm a doctor?"
"Would you believe it takes one to know one?" Amusement skittered across her face.
"Really?" Ben smiled. As he cleaned his hands, he noted with interest her red-plaid Western shirt, well-worn and snug jeans and scuffed cowboy boots. A doctor, huh?
"I'm Sara Elliott. Dr. Sara Elliott."
"Ben Rogers. Nice to meet you."
He couldn't resist a further assessment, from the sprinkling of light freckles that dusted her small nose to the teasing smile that touched her lips and reached her eyes. There was something about the pint-sized beauty that sharpened his senses.
"Nice job with Orvis."
"Orvis Carter. His daughter-in-law owns this cafe."
Ben nodded as he digested the information. When his gaze met Sara's and held for a long moment, he was surprised at the connection between them. Or had he imagined it?
Flustered, Sara Elliott pushed a thick, dark braid over her shoulder and shoved a few loose tendrils of hair back from her face. No, she seemed as taken off guard as he was.
The slight tilting of her head revealed a long, thin scar running from her temple to her ear, parallel with her hairline. It was obvious from the silvery shade and flattened texture that it was years old.
Ben looked away, then slid his phone from his pocket, grimacing when he saw the time. "I hate to Heimlich and run, but I've got to be somewhere."
He pushed open the door of the shop and moved the conversation past the still-lingering crowd and the paramedics who were finishing up, out to the sidewalk.
"No problem." She followed him outside. "I'm sure we'll meet again. Paradise is a small town."
"Do you live here?"
"I grew up in Paradise." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and leaned closer, her voice conspiratorial. "But the truth is, I'm here about a job."
"Oh?" Ben froze, his mind calculating. How many medical positions could there be in a community this size? He'd done his homework. Paradise Hospital itself only had four physicians on staff, and there were a handful of family-practice physicians scattered throughout the valley.
Though he didn't want to ask, he had to. "What position, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Clinical Director of the Community Outreach Clinic."
This time his brows shot up. If Sara took the response as confusion, she was right.
"It's a new program," she explained. "They're trying to reach the outlying, underserved rural population and seasonal workers and their families." Excitement lit her eyes as she spoke. "There's also a plan for a clinic team to assist during severe weather emergencies that can hit the valley and the foothills."
Ben nodded. Oh, he was well versed in the goals, the budget and the vision for the new clinic, all right. Yeah, Sara's enthusiasm was well placed. The entire project stirred a professional anticipation and energy he hadn't felt in a very long time.
"I've been waiting years for this clinic to become a reality," she said.
The earnestness in her voice brought his own doubts tumbling out. Hadn't the Lord led him to Paradise and this job?
Ben met her gaze head-on. "Um, Sara. There's something you ought to know."
She cocked her head in question. "What's that?"
"I'm in Paradise interviewing for the same position."
Sara opened her mouth then closed it. Not really?
She looked at Ben. His chocolate-brown eyes were unwavering, and the expression on his face said he was very serious.
That didn't make sense. The director position had been all but given to her.
She glanced at the tall, lean man in front of her again, scrutinizing his reserved expression, doing her best to ignore his appeal in the expensive black polo shirt and crisp tan chinos.
"Awkward," Ben murmured. He ran a hand through his well-kept dark hair and shook his head.
"I'll say." His discomfort only matched her own. "So, you're meeting with the medical director today?" she asked.
"A Dr. Rhoades? Yeah." Once again he glanced at his phone. "I've really got to get going. Been on the road for hours. I need a quick shower and change of clothes."
"Where are you staying?"
"I've rented a place."
Sara blinked. "Already?"
He shrugged. "Obviously there was some miscommunication."
"You've quit your job, as well?"
"No, I've been on a sabbatical."
Was that a flash of pain she saw in his eyes before he looked away? There was obviously a story to be told. One he wasn't going to share with a stranger.
"And you?" he asked. "You said you grew up here."
"I did, but I live in Boulder. I've been back for several weeks now. My father had a cardiac incident."
Ben furrowed his brows. "I'm sorry to hear that.
"What he is is stubborn." Sara shook her head. "My reason for moving back to Paradise."
He took a step toward the curb. "That's admirable."
"Hardly, but let's not even go there." Sara waved a hand in the air. "Besides, you have to get going."
His eyes widened a fraction, but she ignored the question on his face.
"What time is your appointment?" she asked.
"Two." He pulled car keys from his pocket.
"I'm meeting with him at three."
"I see. Well, ah, good luck, then."
"Thanks. You, too."
Ben seemed to hesitate, glancing down at the sidewalk, then up before he spoke again. "Sara."
The pleasant sound of her name on his lips surprised her. "Yes?" she asked as their gazes connected.
"No matter how it turns out, it was nice to have met you."
She paused at the words, her response a breathless, "Thank you."
With a crooked smile, he turned away.
Sara followed his easy gait as he walked down the street.
Oh, no, no. This was not good.
She shook her head. They'd just met, and not only had Ben Rogers disturbed her plans for the future, but he was disturbing her peace of mind, as well.
She pulled her cell from her back pocket and punched speed dial. "Is Dr. Rhoades available? This is Sara Elliott calling."
A long minute later she heard a familiar voice.
"Sara, what can I do for you?"
"Uncle Henry, what's going on?" She tucked the phone beneath her ear and shoulder while she unlocked her ancient Jeep and yanked open the recalcitrant door on the driver's side.
"You'll have to be more specific, my dear."
She slid into the vehicle. "I just met Ben Rogers. Dr. Ben Rogers."
Henry Rhoades's voice perked up. "Ah, yes, and what did you think?"
"Think? We'll he's a little stuffy, but I'm willing to overlook that since he just saved Orvis Carter's life at Patti Jo's."
"Orvis? At the cafe, you say? Most commendable."
"Yes. It certainly is." Sara put the key into the ignition and hit the window button, allowing the summer breeze to cool her skin. "The thing is, Uncle Henry, Ben Rogers says he's here about the clinic director job."
The line was quiet before her uncle cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I'll sort it all out."
"Sort it out? Uncle Henry, you never even told me there was another candidate." She released a frustrated breath. "Be straight with me. Is my father involved in this?"
"Your father has made a substantial donation to the clinic building project, if that's what you mean."
"I mean, did my father make you offer me the position?" She paused, confused. "And how did my father get involved in funding the clinic?"
"You know, Sara, the entire situation is rather complicated."
She groaned and leaned back against the headrest.
"Oh, Uncle Henry."
"Now, Sara, you're getting all worked up for nothing. The fact is, the clinic was in dire need of funds for the final phase, and I went to your father for assistance."
"And he said yes? But that doesn't make sense. He's always been adamantly against me becoming a physician, always blaming Mom's medical career for the accident. Why would he agree to have anything to do with the clinic project?"
"He didn't. At first."
Sara released a soft gasp. "Until his heart attack." Again the silence stretched before her uncle finally spoke.
"Try to understand, Sara. The last two years since you've been gone have been very difficult for your father. He's paid penance for his sins. I believe he's willing to do anything to keep his daughter in Paradise."
"What you mean is, he tried to buy me a husband and that didn't work, so now he's buying me a career."
"Don't jump to conclusions. Things are not exactly what you think."
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