Boutique Collection—Next Door Series from Turquoise Morning Press
©2014 Cheryl Norman
eBook ASIN: B00NUR38Z4
Heat level: mild
Lance George cruised into town in a fog of black insects and misgivings. He’d had good reason to leave home years ago. Was returning a mistake? He’d debated during the entire three–hour drive from Tallahassee and still questioned his decision. But he was here now. The moving company had his packed belongings ready to deliver. Inhaling a breath for courage, he slowed at the Welcome to Drake Springs sign.
Searching familiar landmarks, he recognized the Hurricane Lantern, a rustic restaurant located on Highway 471. To his left stood the stately Wilson home, vacant and for sale. Five blocks past the city limits sign, Highway 471 became Main Street. He passed the First Foster Bank and Boyd’s Diner, both still in business. A left turn here would take him to the high school, but he’d skip that detour down bad–memory lane.
The stoplight at Main Street turned red and he applied his brakes. A flash of purple grabbed his attention. Was that—? No, it couldn’t be. What were the odds he’d return to Drake Springs and immediately see the girl of his adolescent dreams? In the flesh—and what beautiful flesh—Iris Porter stepped into the crosswalk walking a bicycle to the opposite side of Main Street. It may have been nine years since he’d seen her, but with her blond curls sticking out the edges of a bicycle helmet, she looked as adorable as ever.
She turned her head and met his gaze but kept walking. She wouldn’t recognize him, and even if she did, why would she acknowledge him? She had deemed herself too good for him. He’d been a bookworm. A nerd. His limited circle of friends didn’t include babes and jocks. No reason to hope her opinion had changed.
She continued toward the courthouse. She hadn’t lost that subtle but alluring sway of hip that drew the attention of every male student standing in the halls at Foster County High—especially him. Instead of mounting her bicycle and riding, she chain–locked it to an oak tree.
“What’s your story, dear Iris?” He eased forward with the morning traffic while keeping her purple shorts and T–shirt in his peripheral vision. She still had her cheerleader’s legs and slender shape. If anything, she was thinner now. She disappeared inside the Foster County Courthouse. “Doing a title search? Paying your taxes? Filing for divorce?”
Iris’s rejection in high school had driven him to succeed and improve himself, so maybe he should thank her for stomping all over his heart. He continued his drive through town, leaving behind Iris Porter and all conjecture about her.
When he reached Ortega Street, he turned left and pulled into the parking lot of his destination. A business property that once housed Hodges Animal Clinic faced Main. Behind sat a modular home included with the business property. The lot looked weedy, abandoned, and neglected. No wonder it had such an attractive price tag. The realtor must have taken the online photos in winter, before the spring foliage filled in the blackjack oaks. Now shade cast most of the lot in darkness, forming a thick barrier against the hot Florida sun.
A middle–aged, heavyset woman stood in the gravel parking lot. He parked his Transit Connect beside her late model Buick. He’d recently purchased the economical business van in preparation for his new practice. It was small enough to serve as his personal vehicle, too. Unlike his mother, Lance did his research and made practical choices. Impulse buying got people in trouble.
“Doctor George?” The woman approached him with outstretched hand even before he’d fully exited his van. “I’m Barbara Sinclair.”
“Thank you for meeting me.” He shook her delicate manicured hand.
Everything about the woman looked professional, from her perfectly groomed, chestnut hair to her business attire. A few years and a few pounds ago, she was probably a real babe.
“I feel as if we’ve already met, from your e–mails. I believe this property will suit your needs.”
“It looks less cheerful than in the online photos.”
She winced. “Weeds grow quickly in Florida. The reduced price should more than make up for the little TLC the place needs.”
“Right.” He’d reserve judgment until he inspected the buildings. He locked his van, an action that earned him a bemused smile from Ms. Sinclair. She probably thought it overkill for a small town like Drake Springs, but she refrained from commenting. “Could you show me the office first? If it doesn’t suit, there’s no need to tour the house.”
“Exactly my thought. Follow me.”
He fell in step beside her. “What happened to Otis Gibbons? I thought he was the listing agent.”
“You know Otis?”
“I’m originally from Drake Springs, hence my interest in opening a practice here.”
She opened the door, stepped aside, and motioned him in. The faint odor of antiseptic mingled with the woman’s cologne as she moved past him. She’d been a bit generous with her atomizer. “Otis sold me the business when he was elected county commissioner. He didn’t want any question of conflict of interest.”
“Right.” He shut the door against a swarm of love bugs. Those inescapable black insects that frustrated Floridians every May and September seemed especially thick this spring.
“It may be a bit warm. I turned up the air conditioning about thirty minutes ago when I opened the building.”
“The air conditioner is fairly new. Four years old, I’d say.”
The office was a converted Florida Cracker style house, with porches and a breezeway. The reception area was in the former living room. A pass–through with added counter separated the public area from the office. A few animal carriers sat along one wall of the former dining room. “How many exam rooms?”
“Three. The hall gives access both from the reception area and the operating room. There’s also a bathroom.”
“Hmm.” The equipment was gone, probably sold by Doctor Hodges’s estate after her death. Stainless steel tables, gleaming as if recently polished, dominated each examination room. “How long did you say this had been vacant?”
“About three years, but Otis has kept the power connected. He also hired a cleaning service to make regular visits.”
Too bad Otis hadn’t arranged for lawn service as well. “That’s been costly for Otis.”
“Frankly, he expected the property to sell quickly. It’s an attractive location, and Drake Springs is growing. But even Florida wasn’t immune to an economic recession.”
She led him around to the operating room, at one time the house’s kitchen. A door led back to the dining room/office, where the receptionist’s desk and file cabinets now stood. The rear of the house had a utility room, still equipped with a clothes washer and dryer. One wall held stacked cages. A breezeway led to fenced pens outside. He would have preferred more kennel room, but this could work.
“Well, Doctor George, what do you think?” She closed the back door and walked down the steps. “Want to see the residence?”
“Yes, I do.” He followed her past the fenced pens to the back door of the doublewide mobile home. “Where do people take their animals for medical care since this clinic closed?”
“Right now they’re driving twenty–five or thirty miles, to Lake City or up to Georgia. Trust me, this town will welcome you with open arms.”
He was counting on it. He’d saved a tidy sum of money and had qualified for a loan, but he needed equipment, supplies, and utility deposits. He wanted to make this property work, because it’s all he could afford.
The blue painted metal roofing on the home matched the roofing on the clinic. He’d guess the modular home to be less than ten years old, although the roof made it look newer.
“Is the roof new?”
“About four years old.” She unlocked the back door of the residence and led him inside. “Doc Hodges made several improvements before opening her practice.”
Not a fan of modular housing, he examined each room with skepticism. The floor plan was surprisingly open and pleasant, with vaulted ceilings and plenty of windows. A large great room separated two bedrooms and a bath from the owner’s suite and kitchen. The walls were painted or paneled, rather than the patterned wallboard he’d seen on older mobile homes. “Doctor Hodges lived here?”
“Yes. It was convenient, especially for emergencies with animals staying overnight.” She opened the blinds, revealing two windows overlooking the front porch and the front yard’s large crepe myrtle tree, just beginning to bloom. “Her mother sold all the furniture but not the appliances. Of course, if you prefer to live elsewhere, you could rent it out.”
He gave a noncommittal murmur, but he’d be nuts to live anywhere else. Living near the clinic made economic sense. He wouldn’t spend more than he needed to. The bedrooms were roomy enough, especially the owner’s suite with its own bathroom and walk–in closet.
“Cable and high–speed internet are available here, too.”
“Good.” He didn’t need television, but internet was vital to his business. “Immediate possession?” The sooner, the better, because he had no home. His mother had lost their house years ago, and Pops had no room to spare.
“Yes. Considering the amount of your down payment, you’ll have no trouble qualifying for the loan assumption. As soon as we can schedule the closing, you can hang out your open–for–business sign.”
“Well.” He chuckled. “It’s not that simple. I need equipment, for starters. And staff. You know any experienced veterinarian assistants?”
She led him into the kitchen. The appliances looked new. Doctor Hodges hadn’t been one to cook as far as he could tell. But Doc George enjoyed cooking. And he could make the most of this spacious, well–appointed kitchen.
“I know of one. She worked for Doc Hodges but lost her job, of course, when her boss died. She might welcome the opportunity to interview with you.”
“Thanks. First, let’s write the contract.” He followed her outside to the long front porch, additional construction to the original modular home, probably one of Doc Hodges’s improvements. It faced Ortega, a residential street with tidy, modest homes and mature shade trees. Empty except for a wooden swing, the porch could be a cozy retreat at the end of the day, assuming he wasn’t too busy to stop and relax.
Ms. Sinclair removed a ballpoint pen and business card from her purse. She wrote on the blank side of the card. “Here’s the name of the vet assistant when you get ready to hire your staff. You can probably find her at Miller’s IGA Market on Desoto, where she’s been working part time.”
He stuffed the card in his shirt pocket. “Thanks.”
They walked around to the front of the business via the sidewalk, which returned them to the gravel parking lot. “Let me get my brief case and I’ll meet you inside.”
Jittery with nerves, he went inside the building and paced the reception area. This was it. He was about to gamble—no, not gamble—invest his savings into his own practice. He’d have to start out conservatively, at least until he knew how many patients he’d have. One experienced assistant would be a good idea. He could hire more staff as his practice grew. He fished the business card from his pocket and flipped it over to read the name. His hand trembled. The card flew from his fingers.
He stooped to pick it up and read the name again. And smiled.