The accusation is tossed my way before the door closes behind me. The clock on the wall—the one depicting a dalmatian with big, googly eyes and a stethoscope around its neck—proves I technically have one minute to spare.
“Actually, I’m one minute early,” I say, pointing at Dr. Dog.
My grandfather’s assistant, the one who used to stash Pixy Stix for me in her desk when I’d come to visit every summer, doesn’t look convinced. But if I remember one thing about Dottie Haynes, it’s that she’s a sucker for a smile.
I lower my chin and give her my best cheek-splitting grin. Slowly but surely, it works. The irritation on her face melts away, and a dose of humor takes its place.
“That smile isn’t going to get you very far around here, handsome.” Her words come out with a laugh.
“Was I being handsome?” I point at myself. “I hate when that happens. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” she teases, coming around the corner of the reception desk. “I can see sorry written all over you.”
“All over my handsome face, you mean?”
She swats my shoulder before pulling me into a tight hug. She smells of licorice and vanilla—warm and subtly spicy. It’s oddly comforting.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say as we pull apart. “I promise to try to be as un-handsome as I can while I’m here.”
She makes a face as if to say, “You do that.” A pair of glasses slips down her nose as she moves to the other side of the counter. “Handsome or not, I’m glad you’re here. I can use an extra set of hands.” She holds up a finger before lifting a phone from behind her. “Honey Creek Animal Clinic. This is Dottie.”
I glance around the waiting area. Pictures of smiling kids wearing shirts emblazoned with the clinic’s logo are tacked proudly to the walls. Chairs that my gram reupholstered before she passed away line the room.
It’s as simple a place as I remember it to be—void of sundry items for sale, and with no advertisements clinging to open spaces on the windows. As a matter of fact, the only hint that this is a business is an oversize sign behind the counter, which makes it clear that there’s a surcharge for farm calls—a whopping ten dollars.
No wonder Pap is still working at his age. You’d have to at these prices.
Dottie places the phone back on the counter.
“Easy flight?” she asks as she makes a quick note on the pad of paper in front of her.
“I sat on the tarmac in Phoenix for over an hour last night. Got in pretty late, so I grabbed a room in Nashville and came over this morning.”
“Which is why you are late.”
I grin. “I am not late. And I would’ve been even earlier had some antiquated tractor not gone two point six miles per hour for ten miles.” The back of my neck tenses again at the thought of that reflective triangle taunting me. “How is that even legal?”
“Blue hat or red hat?”
She laughs. “Did the farmer have a blue hat or a red one?”
I scratch the top of my head. “Blue. I think. Why?”
“That was Bruce. He’s the second-largest landowner in Honey County. There isn’t a soul that’s gonna say a word to him about farming, even if it’s a minor inconvenience. His farms keep a lot of this county going.”
I ponder this. “What if it was a red hat?”
“Well, that would’ve been Bob. Bruce’s brother. The largest landowner in Honey County.”
“I need to get some land if it gets you the run of the place,” I joke.
Dottie plops her pen on top of the paper in front of her. “So where are you staying while you’re here?”
I sigh. “Good question. Pap offered for me to stay at his house, but I don’t think I want to sleep on a sofa. I was going to get a room in Nashville, but Bruce and Barry—”
“Whoever they are, they have me reconsidering.” I move around the counter and fix myself a cup of coffee. When I look up, Dottie is watching me with a twinkle in her eye. “What?”
“It’s just that I haven’t seen you in, what? Ten years? You being an adult throws me off a little. I still remember you running around here in that Phoenix Suns hat, trying to get someone to take you fishing.”
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