She thought she had all the answers.
Brilliant Neurologist Cynthia Haywood is a rising star at Baltimore’s most prestigious hospital just one step away from the coveted department chair. Everything she thought she wanted was within reach.
A family tragedy forces her to rush off to her sister’s home in Eastport Rhode Island, where she is thrust into a perplexing small-town world and the added responsibility of caring for her eight-year-old niece. But that's not her biggest challenge - it's him, Simon. He's the problem.
The dreamy next-door neighbor with the adorable puppies becomes an immediate distraction. She should be focused on her family. She should be concerned with returning to her medical career back in Baltimore.
Yet, she feels the pull of the kind neighbor who whispers words she never knew she needed to hear and has her heart racing. He's the calm she never knew she needed.
She knows she should keep her distance. She knows she didn’t rush to Rhode Island for a love connection. She knows a lot of things - but one kiss from Simon jeopardizes everything she ever thought she knew.
Will the attraction be enough for her to jeopardize her big-city dreams? She doesn't know.
Release date: March 16, 2023
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“Leave me alone. I don’t need anything,” I bark toward the door, where a soft knock attempts to distract me. Good luck with that.
The knock returns, this time harder. I huff out a frustrated breath and stare at the comfortable rabbit hole I’ve burrowed myself into. Two medical journals and a stack of reference books form a wall around my laptop and notepad, nearly every inch of my standard-issue hospital desk covered.
When I don’t reply, a deep chuckle seeps through the door, mocking me. The doorknob twists and I regret not locking the office door. I bite my lip to prevent the harsh words I want to scream at whoever thought it was wise to disturb a doctor deep in medical research. The white mane of slicked-back hair poking its head into my office puts me on my heels—Dr. Hoskins, head of neurology, and my boss.
“Dr. Haywood,” he announces my name with a hint of humor and resignation. “So, when you said to give you ten minutes to stop in your office to grab your bag, what you meant to tell me was to go ahead without you for you’ve more important things to do.” Dr. Hoskins shakes his head like a parent scolding their child. He’s familiar with my obsessive behavior. An overriding need to squeeze every minute into improving myself. Not just on the hospital floor, but in the realm of medical research. It shouldn’t surprise him. He’s the one who ignited this passion in me by pulling me onto that first research project under him four years ago. Dr. Hoskins is one of the most renowned neurological researchers and key opinion leaders on the East Coast.
“ABL,” I whisper and close the laptop without an ounce of regret for keeping him waiting.
“Always be learning,” he returns. The mantra I adopted in medical school so long ago. The mantra that has served me so well in my career. A career I’ve worked long and hard on. “Let’s get a move on, Dr. Haywood. It wouldn’t be good manners to arrive late to the awards dinner. I’ve been reminding everyone for weeks about the incredible year we’ve had. Something tells me it might be our night.”
He reminds me of the reason for this interruption. Our hospital, Baltimore Medical Center, is hosting the annual Association of Neurology and Neurosurgery Recognition Award ceremony. It’s a pretty big deal in our field.
I push back from my desk and realize I’m still wearing my hospital-issued white lab coat and comfortable flats I use for work. “I just need two minutes to touch up my makeup and change my shoes,” I say, knowing the chance of him waiting for me is slim. He’s a hospital mover and shaker and doesn’t wait for many people to do anything. But I’ve worked hard to make myself indispensable to him. In four short years of working under him, I’m the youngest assistant chair in the hospital. A thirty-four-year-old, female African-American assistant chair at that. The announcement shocked only the half of the hospital who hadn’t worked with me. I put in the work, and, like Dr. Hoskins, I make sure others are aware of it.
“If you say two, that means ten. Fool me once…” He doesn’t have to finish the well-known mantra. He’s nobody’s fool. “I’ll see you up there.” He offers a half wave and is out the door before I can rise from my seat. I whip off the lab coat and prepare to shift modes.
The chance to be recognized by my peers from other hospitals is all the motivation I need to leave behind my research. My excited hands whip out the makeup case I keep in the office. If left to me, I’d move into this office. I run on adrenaline and chaos, and this hospital has turned me into a junkie.
My feet practically skip when I arrive each morning at the crack of dawn for rounds. Every day is different. Every day is filled with new challenges. New lessons to learn.
Between patients, I network with the nursing staff, the most important cog in the behemoth operations of a hospital in a major metropolitan city like Baltimore. The afternoons are always a blur of procedures, surgeries, and consultations. Intense focus time, which drains other doctors but only energizes me.
Then my favorite part of the day, research. The endless rabbit hole with no bottom. Even with hundreds of years of study, there are new discoveries being made every day. A published paper blazing a new trail is the stuff of legacies. The ultimate high. One I’ve been chasing for the past four years.
I kick off my flats and slip into my hospital-approved two-inch pumps. I do one final once over and verify I have the right layer of polish for a hospital-sponsored event. In my first year under Dr. Hoskins, he explained the importance of such events for building and sustaining your doctor’s brand. It was a new concept to me, however, the more he spoke, the more it made sense.
A doctor’s reputation goes beyond the four walls of the hospital. And with it come opportunities everywhere. If you know the right person, or even better if they know you.
It’s the reason I scoop up my iPad on my way out the door. I’ve done my research on all the attendees of the event tonight. The top doctors, heads of administration, and key donors are all in one room. An opportunity I can’t believe every doctor in this hospital doesn’t clamor to attend. The awards dinner is a fundraiser for the children’s wing and is being held in the executive conference center on the thirtieth floor. It means I need to take the elevator down from the neurology floor to the lobby and switch to the private elevator.
I push into a crowded elevator and ignore the buzz of whispers around me. The familiar giddy, laugh-filled whispers of doctors at the end of their shifts, racing home to their second jobs that of spouse/partner to homes filled with commitments and the energy suck known as kids. I’d rather be in surgery.
My second shift comprises sipping champagne with the movers and shakers. The ones who can place a thumb on the scale of my career and change its entire trajectory. That’s why I ignore the comments around me and focus on studying the RSVP list on my iPad.
The elevator dings as we reach the lobby, and the long arm of Dr. Stevens rests against the door, and he waves for me to exit. Dr. Stevens works in pediatrics and has been with Baltimore Medical Center for only two years. He’s pulled me into two consults in the last six months, neither of which required my area of expertise.
“Dr. Haywood.” He nods at me, the corner of his dark eyes crinkle into a Duchenne smile, and I brace for what comes next. “A few of us are stopping at Molly’s for a quick nightcap before heading home. Care to join us?”
I turn at the sound of a snicker, followed by a not-too-quiet hush from one of the other doctors. Dr. Stevens shoots them a sharp look, but his smirk gives away his intent. I step out of the elevator as he releases the door.
“Thanks for the offer, but I have other plans,” is the standard reply I give to most of my colleagues who have offices below the tenth floor. My focus is always up, moving forward, moving fast, and going alone.
His head shakes with acceptance. “Figured as much.” I expect him to walk away, but he continues to stare at me as if I’m a puzzle.
“Cynthia?” he says my name with a hesitancy of a man I’ve corrected a dozen times. It’s after hours, so I don’t admonish him to call me by the professional name that I’ve worked hard to earn. He blinks as if dismissing what he wants to say, and instead mutters, “You’ve just cost me the first round.” He glances over his shoulder at the cluster of doctors waiting for him.
I press my iPad to my chest without an ounce of guilt. “And why would you do something like that if you already knew what my answer would be? It’s always the same response, Dr. Stevens.”
He breaks eye contact, his gaze lowering. “Do we ever truly know? I’ve found out it’s better to leave all options open. It may surprise you where it leads.”
“Or you may waste a lot of time. A time that could be better spent working toward something that matters.” I glance over his shoulder at the doctors who appear to be losing patience. “We’re doctors. We’re in the business of knowing. Have a good evening, Dr. Stevens.”
He lifts his hands, palms up, and shouts to the ceiling, “First round’s on me.” He shoots me a wink before turning to the scrum of doctors.
“They always were,” one doctor says as I twist toward the executive elevator bank. The sound of their laughter echoes off the high lobby ceilings as I pull out my phone.
I swipe and make a quick call. “Hey Cal, it’s Cynthia. Who’s at the bar tonight?” Cal is the owner of Molly’s. “Good, can you let her know that Dr. Stevens is coming with a crew from the hospital? Put their first two rounds on my account.”
I treated Cal’s mom six months ago at the hospital. We met during one of his visits, and he gave me his card. We’ve remained connected ever since. “Make sure she doesn’t mention my name. Tell them it’s on the house.” Dr. Stevens is happily married, and his offers are his way of trying to get me to socialize with the other doctors. I’m well aware of my reputation: heads down, no-nonsense, user-focused professional. I’ve cultivated it myself.
I appreciate the offers, but my attention is elsewhere. “I don’t care what reason you give, tell them it’s because it’s the third Thursday of the month or that you watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and remembered how awesome doctors are. Make up a reason and make sure they all get out at a decent hour in good shape.”
Cal’s laugh fills my ear just as the elevator arrives. I disconnect and swipe at the iPad. The ride up will take less than a minute, but when you’re a young doctor on the rise, every second counts—ABL.
“The halls are abuzz with your spectacular save this afternoon.” I lift my flute of champagne to my boss and pump him up. He’s in his element. Black tie, surrounded by the hospital elite, and sipping expensive drinks. Dr. Hoskins is sixty-three, white, probably twenty pounds over the weight he should carry, but no longer cares.
He chuckles, a deep authentic laugh typically not found at events like this. It’s one of the reasons why I like him so much. He’s at the top of his field and has a confident arrogance only experience teaches. It took me three years to navigate my career to work with him, and the last four with him have been everything I could have hoped for.
“Dr. Haywood, you give an old man far too much credit. If I recall correctly, you were the one to suggest I pivot my approach”—he presses a finger to his lips—” but I’d never admit that to anyone but you. It’ll only be a matter of time before you’re chairperson. Let a poor, old man enjoy a few more victory laps before I pull into the pit stop one last time.” His eyes crinkle with the joy of knowing the legacy he’s built will be left to expert hands. Isn’t that all we want? To prepare the next generation and have time to sit back and enjoy it.
“They’re playing your song,” I joke and jut my chin at the string quartet in the room’s corner. Bach’s Concerto for two violins in D minor streams through the air, Dr. Hoskins’ favorite piece. He has the tune filtered into the operating room when he performs the close after every successful procedure.
Over drinks in his office one night, he explained the appeal. Two solo violinists jousting back and forth. In the second movement, they play as one. A true, beautiful symphony of melodies and unison. And then in the last movement, the pace quickens. One violin chases the other, but the first one is always one step ahead until the surprising finale.
He chuckles. “I see you’ve been paying attention. Again.” He smacks his hands in silent applause in their direction before tapping me on the shoulder and pointing to the movement at the podium. “Looks like they’re about to start. I’ll meet you at the table.”
He’s gone before I can respond. I barely take a breath before I sense another body approach. “You must hate these events?” The voice brings a smile to my face. Olivia DeGarden, a wealthy socialite who had been a donor to the hospital even before she was a patient of mine.
Olivia is nearly fifty but suffered from a neuromuscular disorder several months ago. The condition caused muscle cramps, stiffness, and muscle weakness throughout her body. She feared the worse, but all it took was a rather straightforward procedure and a tweak of her diet and exercise routines. To this day, Olivia claims I saved her life. I’ve lost count of the number of coffees she’s pulled me away for whenever she stops at the hospital.
She’s plowed me with a half-dozen dinner invites at her sparkling home in Guilford, which I’ve yet to accept. Nor the open invitation to any of her four second homes. One in whichever direction she travels is how she joked about it one day.
My arms cross as my drink dangles from the ends of my fingertips. “Actually, it’s the opposite.”
“Hmmph,” she scoffs in disbelief, “said no doctor ever.” She laughs at her own joke, and I don’t dive in any further.
Most doctors hate these network/schmooze-type events. They would much rather spend every single minute with patients, barely reserving enough strength to crawl home, pull the covers over their heads, and then repeat the same routine the next day. I get it. That’s where my head was until I started my residency.
While the other residents studied medical journals and techniques, I studied the older doctors. The ones who had conquered the system and thrived. Those who rose through the ranks all had similar make-ups. They formed relationships with the heads of departments, they spoke often publicly about what they wanted in their career, and they made sure everyone around them knew about it.
That’s how I’ve maneuvered my way to work under Dr. Hoskins. Three years of lobbying, positioning, and building relationships with the key members of the staff, including the nurses.
I raise my hand for every volunteer event sponsored by a senior member of the administration, booked coffee catchups with the charge nurse from every department, and read the footnotes which listed hospital donors and sponsors. Networking is just another form of research. My happy place.
“I know you’re off the clock, and normally I wouldn’t ask…” Olivia quirks a brow and waits for my reaction.
“Is everything all right?” When you’re a doctor, you’re never truly off the clock.
She sneaks a glance over her shoulder to make sure no one can hear us before hunching her shoulders, lowering her chin, and whispering, “Should I still be worried about falling?” Her eyes fill with concern. “Darin still joins me every morning at six a.m. for my three-mile walk. It’s been three months since the procedure, and I know he’s a busy man, so I asked him. After some hemming and hawing, he said doctor’s orders—yours. He said you swore him to secrecy and everything because he didn’t want to worry me. But I’m glad to know even after all these years he can’t keep a secret from me. He said you mentioned something about I shouldn’t go on long walks without him. Should I be concerned? Am I still at risk?”
My brow furrows, and I fight the instinct to respond immediately. Before I can speak, I need one more piece of information.
“I’m not complaining because God knows before the operation the man was barely home.”
There it is. Now I know.
“Why are you smiling? Cynthia, am I in the clear?”
I press my shoulder to hers and give her a playful nudge. “Do you remember I sat with you in the recovery room for two hours after the operation?”
She nods. “Yeah. Darin had flooded that room with flowers but couldn’t find the time to visit for two days. How could I forget?”
“Falling was never a danger for you, Olivia. I remember sitting there with my medical journals, and you telling me about how you and Darin did everything together when you first got together decades ago. How over time, that’s changed. If you can have any wish other than good health, it would be to get that time back with your husband.” I recall the heartbreaking look in her eyes every time she spoke of her marriage. The years eroded away the closeness they once shared.
She nods and puts the pieces together. “So… you?” She must read the sparkle in my eye, raising her hand to her mouth. “You never told me.”
I nod. “And how are things at home?”
Her smile knocks years off her face; the sparkle of a much younger version of her stares at me. “It’s like our early years all over again. Three miles is a lot of time. We get to talk about everything.” Her eyes glaze over with joy. “Initially, it was about the kids, the house, his work, my condition. But after that first month, he really opened up. We’ve talked about important things. Things we hadn’t discussed since our early dating days decades ago.”
“My work here is done.” I pat my palms together in front of me like a card dealer leaving for a break at the casino. Her eyes fill with a happiness that was missing that first day I visited her in the hospital room to prep her for surgery. “But just between us gals,” l bend to match her, “daily walks are just part of the recovery.”
I recall Dr. Hoskins’ words to me: we can fix the physical but for complete healing, some of your patients will need more. Be creative and leverage everything at your disposal. People can be tools just like a scalpel. Nothing is off-limits.
“I’m proud of you.”
She nods and gives me a wink. “I’ll keep it our little secret. Darin and I are headed to our summer house in St. John’s next week. When are you going to join us?”
I snicker in her direction. “Single ole me… crash with the newlyweds. I wouldn’t dare disturb the magic.” We share hugs before Olivia disappears in the bodies rushing to their tables, and I do the same.
Each table seats eight, two from each department. Half the table doctors and administrators and half donors and corporate sponsors. I exchange business cards and greetings with our guests and nod toward the heads of neurology from Annapolis and Columbia; two nearby hospitals in nice neighborhoods but are a tenth the size of Baltimore Medical Center. Size matters. Call me a big city snob, but with it comes perks such as a fully funded research budget that supplies grants earmarked for neurological research.
I cheer as the chief of the Mayo Clinic wraps up their award for long and distinguished service to the community. He passes the award to his assistant chair, who passes it to each of the charge nurses from each shift. Each person has their moment in the spotlight, lifting the trophy high for the cameras and cheers. It’s a nice touch. They’re the only hospital to have included their nurses, something Dr. Hoskins shot down when I suggested it last month.
Dr. Hoskins taps my knee and juts his chin toward the stage as the emcee presents the next category. He’s guessed the winner of every category, which means someone’s leaked the list to him. If he’s tapping my leg, it must mean we’re up next. He begins to chuckle and rise even as the emcee continues to read off the nominees.
“And the winner is… the Neurology Team from Baltimore Medical Center.”
A screech escapes my lips because we’ve worked so hard to be the best neurology group in the region. I push back my chair and begin to rise. Dr. Hoskins’ heavy hands land on my shoulder. He leans down, lips next to my ear so that I can hear him over the applause. “I got this. Let an old man take the spotlight by himself. Your time will come.”
My smile transforms into plastic, afraid to show my true feeling, knowing everyone in the room is looking at us. I merely nod as Dr. Hoskins waves to the crowd and rushes to the stage.
My heart pounds heavy in my chest, the blood racing to my ears so loud I can barely make out what’s being said from the podium. Only the pull on my arm by the CEO of one of the medical supply vendors catches my attention.
He points to my handbag. “Your phone.”
My hearing clears, and I hear the distinct chant of Megan the Stallion, my sister’s ringtone. “I’m sorry.” I dig in my bag and press end. The wave of shock from Dr. Hoskins’ actions overpowering the embarrassment of not setting the phone to vibrate.
I attempt to take in Dr. Hoskins’ acceptance speech, knowing there’ll be a quiz later. But all I can make out is his use of the word I. Eight times in thirty seconds. That must be some record at an awards ceremony.
I jump when the sound of Megan the Stallion returns. My tablemates shoot me nasty looks, but I no longer care. My sister Sherry knows what I do for a living. If I don’t answer my phone, it’s for a reason. She knows the routine: leave a message, and I get back to her when I can. It’s not like her to call back-to-back unless there’s an emergency. I scoop the phone out of my bag, push back from my chair, and make my way toward the exit. “Hey sis, what’s up?” I say, ignoring the raised brows from colleagues, questioning how I could take a call at this moment.
I hear a breath catch, but no voice. Background noises flood through, the sound of movement, people shouting. It sounds like she’s outside somewhere. “Did you say, sister?” A strange voice comes across the line, and I feel the hairs on my neck shoot up.
I’m not easily rattled. I can slice a precise incision two millimeters long in the middle of a crowded operating room with an audience, sixteen machines beeping, and a patient’s life hanging in the balance, but when it comes to my family, I lose all restraint. “Who is this? And where is Sherry?” I hear the nervous quiver in my voice and sense what’s to come.
“Uhhhh, my name is Theresa. You don’t know me.” The stranger pauses, which only feeds my anxiety. My second question is still unanswered. I ease further down the hall, away from the clamor of the catering staff. “You are listed as the ICE contact in Sherry’s phone.”
A chill runs through my veins at the mention of my sister’s name. The red-hot fear that follows instantly thaws it. I.C.E—in case of emergency. “Where is Sherry?” I shout into the phone.
The sound of sirens fills my ears. For a moment, I think they might be from my hospital’s ER, but then I remember I’m thirty floors up. The sirens are coming from the other end of the phone.
“Where is my sister?” I shout again, my mind already racing to the worst conclusion.
“I’m sorry. There’s been an accident. A terrible, terrible accident.”
My knees give out, and I slide to the cold floor. “Sherry?” I whisper.
The voice cracks across the line, the weeps of a stranger telling me the truth she’s too afraid to put into words. “You need to hurry.”
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