Home > Mulberry Hollow (Riverbend #2)

Mulberry Hollow (Riverbend #2)
Author: Denise Hunter

 


Chapter 1

 


Two glaring realizations flashed through Wes Garrett’s mind as he blinked against the morning sunlight: he was alone in the camping shelter, and he was soaked to the skin. A few other insights struck—his head throbbed, his muscles ached, and despite the July heat, chills racked his body.

He groaned and rolled over, pushing off the sleeping bag. He labored to draw a full breath. He should just go back to sleep. Why was this happening now, with only a couple of weeks of his two-month hike remaining?

He thought of Lillian, awaiting him in Albany, New York. Thought of his best friend Landon and their plan to complete the Appalachian Trail after their return to the US. Thought of Landon’s last moments before he died in the Colombian dirt—in Wes’s place.

So could he lie here in the shelter and give in to the oblivion of sleep? No. He would push through for his friend. He’d overcome much worse than this.

Resolved, he sat up, the floorboards of the raised shelter creaking beneath him. His head spun from the motion, and he blinked against the salty sting of sweat in his eyes, recalling the coughing man he’d slept next to a few nights ago. Thanks a lot, buddy.

The sunlight glinted through the trees in the clearing. Had to be going on ten at least. He hadn’t once slept past six on the trail. The three hikers he’d shared the shelter with were long gone, the only evidence of their existence a ghostly curl of smoke rising from the firepit.

He was on his own.

He swallowed against a dry, sore throat and reached for his water. He had to get moving. He’d feel better once he had some food and coffee in his system. He’d make it at least as far as the next town, then reassess. Thoughts of a shower, a real mattress, and a home-cooked meal pushed him to his feet.

But twenty minutes later all his optimism faded and grim reality settled in. Getting dressed and fed had bled him of his energy, and Riverbend Gap was still fourteen rigorous miles away.

* * *

Avery Robinson had spent her entire adulthood dreading her thirtieth birthday—and it had finally arrived. She winced as her family, gathered around the picnic table, belted out the “Happy Birthday” song. Terrific family, stellar people, but singers they were not.

Avery’s stepmom, Lisa, blonde hair pulled back from her pretty face, set the cake (really, a brownie) in front of Avery. Thirty candles flickered in the July breeze, lighting up the night like a bonfire.

Her oldest stepbrother, Gavin, hit a note well out of his range, making her snort. Her other stepbrother, Cooper, gave him an aggrieved look. Cooper was the only reason the song was half recognizable. His fiancée, Katie—also Avery’s best friend since college—leaned forward, her long, honey-colored hair swinging over her shoulder as the song (thank God) came to a close.

“Gosh, guys.” Avery grimaced. “Thanks a lot.”

Dad’s eyes crinkled in that Kiefer Sutherland way. “Make a wish, sweetheart.”

“She’ll probably waste it on a doctor for the clinic,” Cooper said.

“Wish for a man,” Katie blurted. “But be specific. Good sense of humor. Good looks, gainfully employed . . .”

“Willing to put up with a workaholic,” Cooper added.

“Who has a mountain of books on her nightstand.”

Lisa gave her sons a mock scowl. “All right, boys, be nice. It’s her birthday.”

“The only man I want is one who holds a medical degree and who’s willing to live in a tiny mountain town. And accepts carriage-house accommodations as partial salary,” Avery added offhandedly.

“Have you seen your carriage house?” Cooper raised an eyebrow.

“Have you seen this town?” Gavin added.

“Hey . . . ,” the rest of the family chorused.

“Anyone would be lucky to live here, doctor or no,” Lisa said.

Gavin pushed his black hair off his forehead, exposing bright-blue eyes. “Which is why she’s had so many responses to her ads.”

“Hmm, let’s see . . .” Cooper squinted his brown eyes. “Six-figure salary and fancy penthouse or shoebox with faulty plumbing.”

“The plumbing works just fine, thank you very much.”

“Honey,” Dad said, “if having another doc will reduce your hours, you go ahead and wish for one.”

“Absolutely.” Lisa rubbed her shoulder. “You’re wearing yourself out, and you really don’t need that.”

It was as close as anyone had come to mentioning the significance of her thirtieth birthday. Avery stared at her blazing brownie-cake, giving her wish further consideration while the family weighed in on Avery’s workload. She didn’t really believe in wishes, but as Gavin had so kindly reminded them, her ads—and numerous prayers—didn’t seem to be working.

She’d planned to wait until next year to hire another doctor for her clinic, until she’d had time and money to renovate the carriage house. But the long hours were getting to her—and then there was that fateful night back in April.

Her gaze drifted to her dad, sitting catty-corner to her and fully engaged in the conversation. His color was good tonight, and he seemed in high spirits. They’d come so close to losing him—and it was all her fault. That helpless panic she’d experienced as a child had rushed back, making her chest hollow and achy. Only this time she was an adult, a doctor. She should’ve been here for him.

“All right, everybody, the candles are melting.” Lisa’s words jolted Avery from the terrible memory. “Make a wish, sweetheart.”

Avery dredged up a smile as she eyed the candles. It was her birthday wish, and daggonit, she did need another doctor. Her family was correct about one thing: she couldn’t continue at her current pace. She drew in a lungful of oxygen and blew out all thirty candles in one long breath.

 

Gravel popped under the Jeep tires as Avery backed from her parents’ long drive. The smile she’d forced all evening had melted away the second she slipped from the house. Her dad had wilted as the evening wore on. He tried to hide it, but there was no fooling Avery.

The two stents had seemed to do the trick, and his cardiologist was optimistic the problem had been resolved (she’d all but harassed the man for details on several occasions). But hearts and their arteries could be tricky.

She drew in a deep breath and released it, counting to ten. He would be fine. She would never again leave him—or the rest of the community—vulnerable by leaving town. Not until she had another doctor in place. Maybe she’d win one of those grants she was applying for so she could actually offer a living wage.

Minutes later she drove through town, deserted since they rolled up the sidewalk by eight o’clock. She passed the church and headed toward the campground, which Gavin managed, and finally entered the heavily wooded side of town known as Mulberry Hollow. The road curved and twisted alongside the river, and the full moon cast a ghostly glow over the treetops. On the other side of the river, the Appalachian Mountains rose to rounded peaks, silhouetted against the evening sky.

To some, this town was a place from which to escape. Goodness knew most of her schoolmates had felt that way. But to Avery, Riverbend, nestled in its guardian mountains, was a safe haven from the rest of the world. She’d known she wanted to grow old here even before she’d realized she wanted to be a doctor. The people were friendly and quick to lend a hand. And the Robinson roots were deep here—five generations deep. She came from farmers and entrepreneurs, all devoted to this small mountain town. She was proud to carry on the family legacy.

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