BLOG TOUR – GUEST POST – The Doctor’s Date by Heidi Cullinan – #Excerpt #GuestPost

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🌟 Please join me in welcoming author Heidi Cullinan to Stories That Make You Smile! Heidi is here today celebrating the recent release of the second book in her popular Copper Point series, The Doctor’s Date. She’s generously brought along a nice long excerpt, and was kind enough to come chat with us about Changes in a Small Town. Pull up a chair and enjoy! 🌟

The Doctor’s Date by Heidi Cullinan

The hospital’s least eligible bachelor and its aloof administrator hate each other… so why are they pretending to date?

Series: Copper Point: Medical Series (book #2)
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artist: Kanaxa
Release Date: June 18, 2019
Length: Long Novel / 100,257 words / 310 pages
Pairing / Genre(s): M/M Contemporary Romance

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Series Blurb

Copper Point may be known as a small northern Wisconsin town famous for not wanting to change, but things are certainly shaking up at St. Ann’s Medical Center, the city’s quirky, county-run hospital. Secret romances, fake relationships, second chances at love, scandalous liaisons in an elevator—all while longstanding and shockingly deep corruption are exposed. St. Ann’s young new leadership and upstanding team of doctors will lead the way to truth, and to love. 

Book Blurb

The hospital’s least eligible bachelor and its aloof administrator hate each other… so why are they pretending to date?

Dr. Owen Gagnon and HR director Erin Andreas are infamous for their hospital hallway shouting matches. So imagine the town’s surprise when Erin bids an obscene amount of money to win Owen in the hospital bachelor auction—and Owen ups the ante by insisting Erin move in with him.

Copper Point may not know what’s going on, but neither do Erin and Owen. Erin intends his gesture to let Owen know he’s interested. Owen, on the other hand, suspects ulterior motives—that Erin wants a fake relationship as a refuge from his overbearing father.

With Erin suddenly heading a messy internal investigation, Owen wants to step up and be the hero Erin’s never had. Too bad Erin would rather spend his energy trying to rescue Owen from the shadows of a past he doesn’t talk about.

This relationship may be fake, but the feelings aren’t. Still, what Erin and Owen have won’t last unless they put their respective demons to rest. To do that, they’ll have to do more than work together—they’ll have to trust they can heal each other’s hearts.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

When Owen Gagnon’s friend Simon came by his house and asked him to be part of the hospital bachelor auction Valentine’s Day fundraiser, he simply snorted and resumed arguing on an online political board.

Unfortunately Simon wasn’t easily deterred. “Come on. We’re short so many volunteers, and it’s for a good cause. We need this cardiac unit.”

Owen continued to type. “Then you and loverboy sign up.”

“Hong-Wei and I can’t. They want unmarried men.”

“You and Jack aren’t married yet.” Owen waggled his eyebrows. “Get on the stage, and I’ll bid for you.”

Simon swatted him. “They don’t want married or engaged men. Jared’s already said yes. I need one more volunteer and I’ll have met my quota for the committee.”

“This is sexist as hell, only asking men. Why can’t they do a gender-neutral auction?”

With a sigh, Simon sat beside him. “I know, but I’ve about sprained my back trying to yank the rudder on this ship so we stay away from insensitive areas. You wouldn’t believe some of the racist, sexist, homophobic things these people wanted to do for a fundraiser.”

“I would absolutely believe it.” Owen ran a finger down Simon’s nose. “Which is why I’m steering clear.”

Please, Owen. I didn’t ask you to be part of the entertainment committee like I did Hong-Wei. I just need you to stand on stage for ten minutes while people bid on a date with you for charity.”

Owen closed the laptop. “First of all, Jack loves performing, so it’s no hardship. I assume your fiancé is playing with his damn quartet?”

You could be in the quartet too. Ram keeps saying he’d make it a quintet if you came in as the other violin. He can play cello and double bass too.” Simon bit his lip. “I don’t know the whole story on why you don’t want to play anymore, but it has been a long time—”

Owen held up a hand, unwilling to let Simon see how the simple mention of the violin made him queasy. “I’m not joining Ram’s strings club, and I won’t be auctioned off for a date. Don’t start a sob story about the cardiac unit either. No one is going to bid on me if you put me on the block.”

Simon’s blush said this hiccup had occurred to him. “It’s not only for dates. People can ask for favors or things. Plus I have a plan.”

Oh hell. “Absolutely not. I’m not standing on stage so you and Jack can pity bid on me or so some nurse’s aide can get revenge.”

“Owen—”

Rising, Owen went for the door, grabbing his coat on the way. “I’m going to work.”

“But we don’t have surgery until ten today.”

“I’m going to sit in the lounge and glare at people until your hubby needs me.”

This was exactly what Owen ended up doing. The house he shared with Jared—which he used to share with Simon and Jared, before Simon went and fell and love—was only a mile from St. Ann’s Medical Center, and three-quarters of a mile from the condo where Jack and Simon lived. It had snowed again the night before, bringing the on-the-ground total to a foot and a half. Damn lake effect snow anyway. The temperature was in the midtwenties, which for the end of January in northern Wisconsin was practically balmy. He considered walking, but since half the sidewalks were undoubtedly still not cleared, he drove.

He met Simon’s fiancé, Dr. Wu—Hong-Wei to Simon, Jack to everyone else—in the parking lot. Jack was huddled into his hat and scarf and shivering. “Owen, how are you not freezing?”

“Because this isn’t cold.”

Jack, born in Taiwan and living in Houston until last year, grunted as he hustled to the door. He held it for Owen, which was nice of him.

It was also suspicious.

Owen cast a side glance at him. “You’re here early for Monday. Since you didn’t have call this weekend, you don’t have any patients to see in rounds.”

“Need to go over a few files before surgery.”

Something fishy was definitely going on, and Owen was sure Jack was here because Simon had sent him to fulfill the mission he’d failed on. “I’m killing some time before surgery, so I guess I’ll see you later.”

Jack waved as they parted ways, Owen heading for the elevator, Jack the clinic entrance.

In the lounge, Owen surveyed the paper over coffee, reading the minutes of the most recent hospital board meeting, scanning an editorial that questioned where the funding had gone for the proposed cardiac program. Two of the visiting specialists were in the room with him, the speech therapist and the podiatrist. They were having a pleasant chat near the soda machine, but after a glare from Owen, they changed it to a hushed conversation. Two family medicine doctors entered, guffawing about something; then one of them shushed the other. “Gagnon’s here.”

Owen smiled behind his paper. He enjoyed his reputation as the resident pariah. It allowed him to live his life in peace.

The door opened again, and this time Jack entered. Owen groaned and slid deeper behind his paper.

Jack waved at the other doctors and returned their polite greetings before settling beside Owen. “Don’t mind me.” He tugged at the edge of the local news section. “Anything good?”

“The usual nonsense. Someone is up in arms about the cardiac unit, convinced the fundraiser won’t bring in enough money because there’s some kind of backroom conspiracy. Someone wrote a letter to the editor about the mine ruining the environment, and someone else wrote how we need more jobs. Then there’s one complaining about whoever is kicking over his garbage cans.”

Jack looked bemused. “I’ll never get over small towns.”

Owen pretended to read the paper a little longer, then folded it. “I’m tired of waiting. Ask me to take part in the auction so I can tell you no.”

Jack stared back implacably. “I wasn’t going to ask because I knew you’d say no.”

“Seriously, you can stand down. Obviously I’m not going to participate, but I’ll help Si find someone to fill his quota.”

Jack shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’m looking.”

“You don’t need to. I can do it, I said.”

Jack glanced around the room at the other doctors, who regarded Owen with unease and Jack with respect bordering on awe. “I think it’ll be better if you leave it to me.”

Oh, now Owen was going to find Simon’s last person for sure.

He left the lounge and wandered the halls, ignoring the way the nursing staff scuttled away from him. That was nothing new. He scanned every man he encountered, doctors and nurses both, for potential bachelor auction candidates. He was immediately hampered, though, by several factors. Jack was right, his pariah status did him no favors. Also, he had no idea who was already roped into the thing or who was working the night of the fundraiser and therefore was out of commission.

The thought of Jack’s knowing smirk sent Owen grumbling to the third floor and the administration offices, where he tried the most obvious and therefore clearly stupid get, the hospital CEO, Nick Beckert.

Beckert was in his office, and he happily waved Owen inside. He grinned sadly when Owen asked if he could pin him down for the auction. “I was the first one they put on the list, I hate to tell you. But why are you asking me? I didn’t think you were on the recruiting committee.”

“I’m not. I was recruited, and I’m trying to find a replacement.”

Nick lifted his eyebrows and whistled low. “Good luck. From what I hear, everyone else has either been called up, is on shift, or is ineligible.”

Good grief. “How is that possible? Also, why is this limited only to men, by the way?”

“Because the planning committee is short on imagination and big on words like traditional values. If I’d known you were this invested, I would’ve put you on the team.”

Owen held up his hands. “I’m fine helping find the last victim, thanks. There’s got to be at least one single male who isn’t on shift. I need to know who’s already signed up and who isn’t eligible.”

“You’ll need to talk to Erin.”

“Speaking of Andreas, how come he’s not on the list?”

“Ineligible.”

“On what grounds?” Owen sat up straighter. “His father didn’t finally coerce him into an engagement, did he?”

“No. But he’s recused as a committee member.”

Owen eased back, annoyed at his heart for kicking up a notch at the idea of Erin engaged. “That’s ridiculous. Why can’t committee members be on the auction block?”

“I did tell you this was an interesting group. The only rudders we had were Erin and Simon, and Erin wasn’t supposed to participate, simply ensure the evening ran smoothly.” Nick grimaced. “Between you and me, it’s just as well he couldn’t be asked to be auctioned off. His father would have arranged for something uncomfortable.”

True. After all they owed Erin for, Owen would have ended up bidding on him to get him out of his father’s clutches, which would’ve made Erin furious.

Actually, now Owen was mad he couldn’t do this.

Owen sighed. “This whole Valentine’s Day fundraiser is ridiculous. Why aren’t they doing a tired old dinner on a random weekend in March the way they usually do?”

“Because someone stood up in front of the board and declared we were going to do things differently. And now we’re doing things differently. All of the things. Incredibly differently.” Nick pushed his glasses higher on his nose. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mountain of work to finish before the board meeting.”

Owen wanted to sit and argue with Nick longer, but he knew he’d get nowhere. The hospital CEO was cautious, though Owen understood why. He’d been brought on after the former president embezzled money from the hospital, but his predecessor had been chummy with the present hospital board, so they resented Nick at every turn. Additionally, his family had moved to Copper Point when he was young, and his father had joined and left the board in a scandal in the nineties. Though Nick had done everything he could to prove himself, plenty of people in town still saw him as a member of an enemy camp. Nick couldn’t help Owen. He had enough work to do helping himself.

Owen could feel the writing on the wall about this stupid fundraiser. He was annoyed, and he wanted to argue. He wanted to snarl at someone without having to worry about being polite. If he was called a demon or a dragon or a devil or a monster or an ogre, he wanted it to be done with a glint in his accuser’s eye, not a tinge of fear.

In short, he wanted to spar, and he knew exactly who he needed to see.

Simply pushing his way into Erin Andreas’s office, taking in the ridiculously neat room, gave Owen a satisfying rush of annoyance. Nick’s office was tidy, but it had a reasonable amount of lived-in clutter: overflowing inboxes, forgotten coffee cups, unopened mail in piles on filing cabinets, yesterday’s blazer folded in a casual heap over the arm of a chair. Not Erin’s workspace. It looked as if someone had gone across the bookshelves with a ruler and made sure the books and binders lined up, not a single one of them sticking out farther than the other, the decorative knickknacks on top drab and soulless, yanked from some design catalog—but perfectly arranged. There were three plants in the window spaced evenly across, neatly trimmed, not a dead leaf among them. The desk was clear of everything but Erin’s ubiquitous laptop and a wire pencil holder—containing only crisply sharpened pencils—a pencil sharpener devoid of shavings, a desk lamp tilted at a ninety-degree angle, and of course his inbox. The papers and files inside of it were stacked in such incredible alignment they looked like a single unit.

In the middle of the scene was the man himself, Erin Andreas, human resources director. He’d arrived almost two years ago to work at St. Ann’s, but in the mindset of Copper Point, he was still new, especially since the previous HR director had held the position for twenty-five years. Erin wore the same prim heather gray suit he always did, with the same pristine white shirt. Only the tie changed, and not much. Today it was dark gray, almost black. It didn’t suit him at all, though it did match the desk. The suit choked Erin’s petite frame and made most of his body blend into his desk chair, giving the illusion he’d been strapped into it by invisible threads.

The only thing about the man that didn’t fit the corporate image was his hair, which was curly and too long, resting in unruly ringlets around his ears and brushing his collar. The ringlets shone in the fluorescent overhead lighting, and as always Owen had the juvenile urge to tug at one and make it bounce. He managed to refrain, but his gaze trailed them, and he knew a whisper of delight as one caught the edge of Erin’s collar and another boinged against his eyebrows as he lifted his head.

A kick hit Owen in his belly as his opponent’s eyes ignited with fire. Finally.

Erin pursed his lips. “Is there any hope you will ever learn to knock?”

Owen shut the door and plunked with deliberate heaviness in the chair opposite Erin’s desk, knocking it out of its careful alignment. He purred inwardly as Erin’s annoyance ticked up a notch.

He kept his pleasure from his face as he laced his fingers over his chest. “What’s going to change if I rap my knuckles on the door?”

“I’ll tell you to go away because I’m busy.”

“Precisely why I don’t knock.”

The curls boinged again as Erin leaned over the top of his computer. “Did you have some purpose in coming here today, or is this playground-bully routine your way of telling me our resident anesthesiologist needs more work assigned to him?”

Oh yes, this was precisely what Owen had come for. Narrowing his eyes, he gave Erin a thin, menacing smile. “I have a bone to pick with you about this ridiculous auction.”

Flinching, Erin lowered his eyes to his computer screen. “I don’t have any authority over that. I’m only on the committee.”

Owen hesitated, thrown off his game. Okay, what in the hell was that about? This was decidedly not in the script. Thinking he must have stepped in something without realizing it, Owen softened. “I get the concert, the overpriced dinner, the usual crap. Where in God’s name did this auction come from, though, and why is every single male roped into it whether they want to be part of it or not? I’m the last person you want up there. I’m either going to be laughed into the wings or bought up by a cabal of nurses with a grudge.”

This was Erin’s cue to tell Owen to stay out of committee business unless he wanted to sign up and do the work, to remind him everyone in the hospital had to volunteer, to point out he could do this duty since he hadn’t signed up to do anything else. Any of those responses would have been fine and given Owen an excuse to snarl in response again. He was ready for them.

Instead Erin… paled. When he spoke, he didn’t sound irritated half as much as he sounded nervous. “I don’t have time to entertain your pointless questions right now, Dr. Gagnon. If you don’t mind, I want to finish preparing for the meeting. I’m certain you have somewhere else to be.”

Owen was so stunned he had no idea how to respond, could only gape at Erin, who in turn stared at his laptop screen, face flushed.

No acrid rejoinder. No demands Owen leave his office with a heat that said, in fact, he wanted him to stay and keep shouting until they nearly burned down the hospital. Nothing at all.

This was… weird.

There was no denying Erin had been off his game for some time, a little more frazzled around the edges, slightly more inward than normal. It was easy to pinpoint ground zero for his transformation: he’d been the person who’d stood up in front of the hospital board, after all. Except he hadn’t stood. He’d sat defiantly in the middle of the hospital cafeteria, waiting for his father—the hospital board president—to gut him after Erin sent a particularly nuclear staff memo.

This reaction was different, though. Was it about the committee? Owen frowned at Erin, disquiet settling in his gut. Everyone in the hospital rejoiced at the freedom Erin’s reversal of the policy had granted them. How much of the cost had come on Erin’s shoulders?

Had everyone ignored that and left him to face dragons alone? Had Owen done that too?

Well, now he felt like an ass.

Erin glanced up from the computer, saw Owen regarding him with concern, and immediately swapped his hollow expression with an icy glare. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

The disdain was such a relief Owen had to suppress a fist pump. He wanted to ask Erin what was wrong, but he was smart enough not to make a direct line of questioning. “What’s your meeting about?”

Internally he winced—well, that wasn’t a direct question, but it was a ridiculous angle to take. The delivery was too bald, almost politely inquisitive. Now Erin regarded him warily, as if he were a snake about to strike. “My office is not a social lounge. If you don’t have business with me, please leave.”

Nice save. Owen leaned forward so his elbows rested on his knees. Think of another topic. Another topic, anything, anything…. “This Valentine’s Day auction is a mess. There’s got to be time to kill it.”

What the fuck was with him? Totally the wrong tone, completely the wrong approach, and the dead worst thing to bring up.

Maybe it would be okay. Maybe he’d pissed Erin off with this out-and-out begging. Maybe he’d fix Owen with an icy smile and tell him off as he’d never been told off. Then everything would be normal again.

Erin shrank into his chair, color draining from his face as he lowered his gaze, his voice going quiet. “The auction is nonnegotiable.”

An ill wind blew over Owen’s neck, and he forgot all about fighting, all about delicately dancing around the topic. “Erin, what is going on with you?”

Erin iced over and aimed a long, slender finger at the door. “Leave.”

“Why are you closing up like this every time I bring up the auction? Why are you barely fighting with me?”

Why do you look so… lost?

Erin said nothing, and Owen angsted in a conflicted private storm, at a loss over what to do. He’d sparred with Erin since he’d come to St. Ann’s, and they’d never been anything close to friends, but it wasn’t as if he didn’t care about the man as a human being. Particularly since that stunt with the memo, Owen had begun to rethink his stance on Erin Andreas entirely, because clearly this man whom he’d thought of as aligned with the old guard on the board had been an ally all along. For some time now, Owen had wanted to know what other secrets this man was hiding, but it was difficult when their entire relationship was built on arguments.

Looking at Erin now, feeling the fractures in him, Owen had never been more motivated to craft a bridge toward a new understanding between them. What could be the problem? Maybe if he nudged him in the right direction, Erin would loosen up and tell him what was going on.

It wasn’t hard to guess what the problem likely was, the more he thought about it.

“Your father.” Owen hesitated, trying to figure out what to add, then decided that was enough to get started.

Erin didn’t loosen up. “At whatever point you’d like to leave, please do so.”

Owen was so frustrated. “I just want to help. Let me help. You don’t want help?”

He didn’t know if it was an improvement or not, but Erin wasn’t frozen or hollow-looking anymore. He was coldly furious. “Why would I want your help?”

Yikes. Also, ouch. Owen rubbed his cheek. “Harsh.”

Erin gathered a pile of papers and shuffled them, banging the bottoms with excessive force against the desk. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“That is the biggest line of bull I’ve ever heard. You’re completely wooden, you can barely maintain eye contact with me, and you get weird every time I bring up the auction. Usually you can argue with me until we’re both blue in the face, but you can’t keep up more than a few lines of banter today. Something is wrong.” He pursed his lips. “It’s got to be your father.”

For a moment Owen had him. Erin had softened—and looked at him—when Owen pointed out he couldn’t maintain eye contact, and just before the end, he seemed almost ready to, if not confess the problem, at least admit there was one.

The second Owen said your father, though, he lost him. His cool, dead mask sliding back into place, Erin averted his gaze again. “Leave, or I’ll tell the entertainment committee you’ve volunteered for a violin solo.”

Owen drew back as if he’d been slapped.

Rising, he pushed Erin’s desk light into the most obscene angle possible and exited the office without a word. If he was going to play that kind of dirty pool, he could damn well save himself.

~ ~ ~

Erin didn’t look away from his computer screen, acutely aware of the place Owen had occupied, of his scent lingering in the room. Owen’s shocked expression echoed too, burned on Erin’s mind.

He hadn’t meant to make him that upset.

After fixing the lamp, Erin resumed his mindless moving of the cursor across the screen, not reading the report open in front of him. Goddamn Owen, finding the one topic Erin didn’t want to talk about. He didn’t know why he should be surprised, as this was the man’s specialty.

Something was off about him, though. What was all that about, saying he wanted to help? Erin’s cheeks pinked in memory. Had that been some advanced level of teasing?

Had it been flirting?

Closing his eyes, Erin shook the nonsense out of his head. Don’t be ridiculous.

He didn’t know what to make of Owen so doggedly bringing up the auction and Erin’s father.

A knock on the door startled him. The door was open, but Nicolas Beckert always knocked. “Hey.” Nick’s expression changed to concern. “You okay? I saw Gagnon go by looking ready to murder someone.”

Erin smoothed his fingertips across his desktop. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

What a lie.

Nick came into Erin’s office fully, though he didn’t sit, only lingered at the doorway. “Everything is set for the auction?”

Good God, everyone wanted to talk about it. Well, Erin didn’t mind half as much with Nick. “More or less. We have most of the bachelors lined up, as well as the pre-event entertainment, and the decorating committee is doing well. The food and venue came in under budget. Tickets are selling.”

“And how is your dad feeling about it?”

Of course Nick went right for the jugular. “He hates it and tells me every day how it’s going to be a disaster because we didn’t do the usual event.”

“Do you point out we revamped it so it was more accessible to the whole town, not only the elites, and that this vision fits in line with the rest of the hospital’s goals?”

Erin stared at his hands. “I… tried.”

Pursing his lips, Nick folded his arms over his chest.

Erin’s gaze flitted past Nick, landing on the ceiling. “He has concerns that the higher-end donors won’t make contributions since it’s a lower-class event.”

“Which is why there’s a private reception at the Andreas mansion first, and we have a VIP section reserved for them here.”

“Yes, but he doesn’t think this will be enough.” Erin held up his hands as Nick glowered again. “I know. I don’t think he’s being fair. I want to try our way. I’m nervous, though. Because if we don’t bring in enough money and we can’t pay for the cardiac unit, I don’t know how I’ll live with this.”

For several seconds Nick didn’t say anything. The sunlight from the window caught the hospital CEO just right as he leaned against the wall, making his dark skin gleam and highlighting his broad shoulders. Nick had always been handsome, kind, and competent. He’d been standoffish when they were young, but they’d shared the trenches in college and in the years that followed as they fought their respective battles. Now they worked well together and respected each other. They had trust. Which was vital these days, with everything they were going through.

If only it would be enough to get them through this without losing their jobs.

“I’ll have Wendy make sure we put as much effort as possible in promotion, reaching beyond Copper Point to the neighboring communities we serve,” Nick said at last. “And if somehow we don’t meet our goal, we’ll make up the difference with smaller events after. Because I think it’s worth doing this type of outreach for more than the money. The auction isn’t my favorite type of event, but I’m willing to play along and rake leaves as community service to promote the hospital. I want as many of our doctors, nurses, and other staff members doing the same. If I had my way, everyone would participate, but the sad truth is there are serious safety issues with women getting auctioned. Men potentially as well, but this feels like the more manageable route. In the future, perhaps we can find a fundraiser that meets all our needs.”

Erin didn’t know how to respond to such a speech, so he simply nodded. He withdrew a hand from the desktop, though, and as it rested on his thigh, it curled into a frustrated, helpless fist.

Pushing off the wall, Nick adjusted his suit. “The board meeting will start soon. I’ll go in early and do the glad-handing. You seem like you could use a few minutes. Want me to bring you a cup of coffee?”

Erin held up a hand. “Thank you, I’m fine. I’ll be along as soon as I finish this.”

Nick nodded in acknowledgment. “As you wish. Thanks for all your help.”

Alone, Erin replayed what Nick had said about the fundraiser and why they’d done it the way they had, all things Erin completely agreed with. The trouble was that his father didn’t, and he continued to make his displeasure plain, in addition to his expectation that Erin would fix it.

I just want to help. Let me help. You don’t want help?

Every standoff with Owen felt like a siege, and if Erin lost the battle, the torch Erin had carried since adolescence would be exposed. This particular exchange felt dangerous in new, more terrifying ways. Normally Owen simply insulted Erin and exchanged barbs. He’d never offered to assist.

What if Erin had said, Yes, I’d love your help? What would Owen have done?

Stop it. Pursing his lips, Erin dragged himself out of his ridiculous thoughts and back to the meeting notes on the screen in front of him. He only had a few things to finish and he could join Nick in the boardroom—

“I see from the flyers posted all over the hospital you haven’t done as I told you and changed the arrangement of the event.”

The cool, crisp tones of John Jean Andreas’s voice cut across the room and made Erin startle in his seat. “Father.” He rose, closing the laptop, trying to adopt a proper posture. “I didn’t realize you were stopping by before the meeting. It’s good to see you.”

His father closed the door as he entered the room, glancing around with his lips pressed thin in his ever-present expression of disappointment. He ran his fingers along the edge of a bookshelf, rubbed them together as if to dispel dust, then adjusted a figurine. “I thought I’d stressed to you the importance of St. Ann’s image at these functions, but I clearly didn’t put enough effort into my explanation.”

There had been so much effort in it that Erin hadn’t been able to eat dinner last night or breakfast this morning. He willed his hair to catch the beads of sweat forming on his brow. “I’m sorry, Father. As I said, it isn’t entirely up to me what happens at—”

“And as I said to you, as someone who will one day lead St. Ann’s into its future, it’s your job to make sure every single breath taken at this hospital follows the vision of the Andreas family. We may not own the buildings any longer, but this is still our legacy. It’s our duty to protect it.”

What was he supposed to say to his father when he was like this? “Nick runs the hospital, and I’m happy to serve under—”

“The only reason that man is CEO and not you is because you refused to take the job. It’s your duty to take responsibility and groom yourself so you can take his place when the time comes.”

Erin nearly fell out of his chair. “Take Nick’s place? Dad, what are you—?”

“These are desperate times.” Erin’s father loomed over his desk, glowering, his face in shadow, eyes wide with a determination that made Erin’s insides squirm. “Every member of the board is reaching an age of retirement, and we’re all looking to groom our replacements. They’re considering their sons, their younger business partners. I can’t have you dragging your feet as my heir.”

No, the room wasn’t spinning, but Erin had to grip the edge of the desk to maintain his equilibrium nonetheless. Erin was supposed to take over his father’s position on the board as his heir?

A faint flicker of something like hope bloomed inside Erin. He sees me as someone worthy to succeed him?

His father huffed and stared out the window. “It’s enough of a shame that you helped out that woman in our way. I don’t know what other wild ideas you have cooked up, but I’m here to tell you that you’ll toe the line from now on.”

Ah, so no, he didn’t see Erin as worthy at all, simply his only option. That was more familiar. And by that woman, his father meant Rebecca. Now everything made sense.

Rebecca Lambert-Diaz had been elected to the board last fall in the shakeout after Erin’s memo, and according to Erin’s father had been causing nothing but trouble. Erin liked Rebecca, however. He’d known of her since he’d joined the staff two years ago, seeing her at official functions as the wife of St. Ann’s resident OB/GYN, Dr. Kathryn Lambert-Diaz, but now he was getting to know her on her own merits, and she had plenty. She brought new life and vibrancy to a board whose members had stood for ridiculously long numbers of terms. She was also the single woman of color on an otherwise all-white and all-male board in a town whose diversity rate was higher than its neighbors because of Bayview University. Rebecca asked good questions, pushed buttons Erin had worried were too rusty and unused to work, and best of all, frequently sided with Nick in his efforts for change. She managed to bully the majority into letting him try things out, something that had never happened before. She had the good-old-boys club, if not running scared, adequately ruffled.

The fact that Erin was too stupefied to reply didn’t seem to bother his father, who simply continued with his monologue. “It’s probably too late for you to get the event altered at this point—I count this as a failure of yours, so you understand—but there’s plenty of battle ahead. If by some miracle you manage to meet the target funds for the cardiac unit, I’ll walk you step by step through how I want future doctors recruited.” His lip curled. “I don’t want any more ideas about diversity. We have more than adequately filled those slots.”

Horrified, Erin opened his mouth to object, but all he could do was squeak.

His father, paying no attention to him, gestured vaguely into the air, looking pleased with himself. “The cardiologist will be a man. A white Midwestern man from a good college. I suppose he could be from the South, so long as he isn’t brash. The East Coast could be all right, but none of those liberals. We need to reestablish our core Copper Point values. What’s more important than the heart of the hospital?”

Erin pressed his hands to his cheeks. This wasn’t happening. This seriously wasn’t happening. Where did he start with his objections? The white supremacy? The sexism? The complete lack of understanding of how desperate they were when they courted doctors to come to a remote area and often relied on recommendations from physicians already present, which as he’d pointed out with his classic racism was a uniquely diverse group?

Who was he kidding? How was he going to get his father to listen to anything he said when he’d never managed to do anything more than meekly obey him his entire life?

Except for the time I posted that memo.

John Jean continued his lecture. “This will all work out. In the meeting today, I expect you to make it clear you back us if that woman steps out of line again. Oh, and I’m going to talk to Christian West and see if his youngest daughter would be open to dating you. She’s shyer than you are, so I think you could handle her. I’ll have Christian set up a meeting at the country club.”

This, finally, jolted Erin out of his frozen state. “I—I can’t—I don’t want to date—”

“I’d better head down and see what trouble the boys are stirring up.” John Jean adjusted the lapels of his suit and nodded at his son. “Don’t be late to the meeting. It doesn’t give a good impression.”

His father exited his office. Erin stared at the closed door for several seconds, then lowered his forehead to the top of his closed computer.

Unfortunately, between Owen, Nick, and his father’s interruptions, Erin didn’t have time to dwell on anything. Righting himself and opening his laptop, he hastily finished the meeting notes, fired them off to Nick’s assistant, then organized the files he needed to take to the meeting and headed down the hall.

He didn’t make it four feet before a bright voice called out his name. “Erin!”

Turning around, he saw a young woman with long dark hair, a bright expression, and a smile hiding knives. As was her habit, she wore a deep-red coat that matched her lipstick. Rebecca always wore red to the courtroom, Erin had heard, fueling the rumor the color represented the blood of her enemies. She wore the color to every board meeting as well.

Rebecca waved a breezy hello at the elderly white men casting cold stares at her as they shuffled into the meeting room, then gave Erin a much warmer greeting. “It’s so good to see you. How have you been?”

“I’m well, thank you.” Resisting the urge to glance around and make sure his father wasn’t watching, Erin inclined his head politely. “How is your wife?”

“Getting ready to admit a soon-to-be mother as we speak, so she’s happy as a clam.” Rebecca swept her hair away from her face as she shrugged out of her coat and draped it over her arm. “I wish I’d been able to get in with enough time to grab a latte from the gift shop. I want to catch up with you after and treat you as thanks for helping Kathryn get coverage last weekend. Plus I’m going to drown you in photos from our getaway. We had so much fun. It’s been ages since I saw her smiling like that, and it’s all because of you.”

Erin blushed. “It’s nothing, really. Just doing my job.”

Rebecca wagged a finger at him. “But nobody does their job as diligently as you. Kathryn has always said so, and now I’ve seen you in action, so I can attest to this truth myself.” She winked. “You know, to hell with it. They can’t start the meeting without us. Let’s go get some coffee now.”

Before he could so much as draw breath for protest, she dragged him off, binder, laptop, and all, hauling him away at a breathless clip. She bypassed the elevators entirely and led him to the stairwell.

“This way is faster,” she said as she pushed through the door.

As soon as they were alone on the stairway, she let go, stopping to face Erin. Her demeanor relaxed significantly, and she favored him with a patient, kind smile. “So, I am going to get you a coffee, but mostly I wanted to pull you aside and talk with you.”

Erin closed his hand over a cold air return pipe. If anyone else tried to talk to him today, he was jumping into the bay.

Sensing his mental overload, Rebecca held up her hands and gentled her tone even further. “I’m not trying to put you on the spot or pressure you. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. You’re in a real box with your father and the rest of the board, but I know in your heart you side with Nick and want to move his agenda. All I wanted to do, in addition to sincerely thanking you for helping Kathryn, was tell you not to worry. I understand having to play the middle to get to the place you want to go in the long run. I’m not going to take any offense. That’s all, really. Just wanted to make sure we were clear.”

Play the middle. Erin’s cheeks burned. How was he supposed to tell her she’d seriously overestimated his political maneuvering abilities? Sorry, I’m not playing a deep game, I’m actually this inept?

She winked. “Anyway, I’m going to run down and get you a coffee now. I’ll probably be late, which will give them something to bitch about. I do like making people happy. What’s your poison today, Erin?”

Vodka, neat. He pressed his hand to the side of his aching head. “Maybe an herbal tea.”

“One herbal tea coming up.” She patted his arm. “Get your game face on and go in there. Don’t let the patriarchy get you down.”

He waited until she disappeared, then shut his eyes, clutched his computer and binder to his chest, and slid down the wall.

He didn’t want to go to this meeting. He didn’t really want to go home either, because there was probably something going on in the front of the house. He didn’t know where he’d like to escape to, but he craved it desperately. Somewhere safe and warm and free of people who thought they knew who he was, who insisted he do or be things he wasn’t, that he couldn’t embody. Rebecca thought he was someone he wasn’t, his father demanded he be his surrogate, and Nick failed to understand Erin couldn’t be as amazing as he was.

Owen didn’t ask me to be anything I wasn’t. In fact, he asked if I wanted help.

Erin shut his eyes tight and buried his face in his things. He had to stop thinking about that. Owen hadn’t meant that the way Erin kept insisting on taking it. Owen had come to complain, to fight with him as he always had.

How could Owen help? It wasn’t like he could storm the boardroom and take on Erin’s father.

At the same time, it had been Owen who’d helped Erin indirectly before, when he’d written the memo. Everyone assumed he’d done it to keep St. Ann’s from losing its surgeon. That had been a convenient smokescreen, yes, but the truth was he’d rescinded the policy forcing the surgeon and his fiancé to leave because their friend the anesthesiologist had threatened to follow.

What, you plan to tell him that? Confess your bravest moment hung on such desperate foolishness? On unrequited love? A childhood crush a grown man can’t shake? Oh yes, tell him, so he can laugh in your face.

“What are you doing here?”

Startled, Erin lifted his head. There was Owen, as if he’d been summoned.

When Erin gaped at him, Owen put his hands on his hips and glowered. “I thought you had a board meeting. Did they move it to the stairwell? What the hell is going on?”

Erin couldn’t do this anymore. He couldn’t argue. Couldn’t speak. Could only stare up at Owen, even as part of him banged on the inside of his head, a prisoner desperate to escape.

Please—please, help me!

Crouching, Owen held the back of his hand to Erin’s forehead, then pressed two fingers to his neck to find a pulse. “No fever. Heart rate slightly elevated, but nothing significant. Skin somewhat pale, and you seem like a plant that could use a little more watering.” He lifted a bag from the floor beside him and shook it in front of Erin’s face. “It’s got a sandwich, an apple, and a large bottle of water in it. I know you have to get to your meeting, but I’m going to text Nick, and if he doesn’t give me a report of you eating at least half of this and drinking this entirebottle of water, I’m going to spoon-feed you personally after my afternoon surgery. Is this clear?”

Eyes wide, Erin nodded.

With a grunt of satisfaction, Owen gripped Erin’s elbow and hoisted him upright, though somehow during this process he also stole the binder and computer from Erin’s arms. He continued to talk as he led Erin out of the stairwell and down the hallway. He also didn’t let go of Erin.

“I’ll join your auction and won’t complain about it, so if that’s what you’re worried about, stop. Don’t even joke about me playing an instrument, but if there’s anything else you need me to do, sign me up and I’ll help. You only have to ask me. Or tell me what I’m doing. This one time, I won’t put up a fuss. In return, though, you’re going to eat and drink water regularly, and sleep, and if you won’t talk to me about your problems, find someone you can. All right?”

They were at the door to the meeting room now, and Owen passed Erin his binder and computer, but he loomed over him, all but backing Erin against the wall. This is like the high school romantic drama I never got to have, down to the cute boy carrying my books for me.

Just when Erin was about to chide himself for his thoughts, Owen reached up and tugged lightly on a curl beside Erin’s face.

Erin forgot to breathe.

Owen righted himself, rubbing the back of his neck. “You—had something in your hair. Anyway. Remember what I said about eating. And about being stressed. And sleeping. And asking me for help,” he called over his shoulder as he hurried down the hall.

Still in a daze, Erin entered the meeting room. He could see his father trying to get his attention, but he ignored this, quietly sliding into his place beside Nick. He opened the bag Owen had given him and saw his favorite deli sandwich inside, along with his favorite type of apple. There was yogurt too, also the brand he preferred, but it had a sticky note on it that read dessert, only eat if you finish everything else.

Erin couldn’t help a smile.

Beside him, Nick laughed. “About time. I think that’s the first smile I’ve seen on you all day. Maybe all week.”

Erin ran his finger over Owen’s note, glad he wasn’t having his pulse read now because it had to be racing as the decision, as wicked and wild as the memo impulse, formed in his mind.

If there’s anything else you need me to do, sign me up and I’ll help. You only have to ask me.

No, Owen wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Erin would take it from here.

Because he was going to bid on Owen Gagnon’s bachelor auction. And he was going to win.

☆ Guest Post ☆

Change in a Small Town

Thanks for having me today. I’m here to talk about my new book The Doctor’s Date, available in ebook, trade paper, and mass market from Dreamspinner Press. It’s book two in the Copper Point: Medical series, and it’s the story of Erin Andreas, no-nonsense hospital administrator, and Dr. Owen Andreas, the cantankerous anesthesiologist.

Though it was partially a theme in book one of this series, The Doctor’s Date brings to the forefront a struggle between one vision for the town of Copper Point and another. Frequently stories of small towns focusing on creating a cozy space for the lead characters to fall in love; I like to do that too, but as a lifelong resident of small towns and small cities, I know nothing ever goes that smoothly in real life. Since my characters were all dealing with hospital politics—which inevitably leads to local government politics—I knew I’d have to face this struggle.

I can’t tell you how many times and ways I’ve seen this play out over my life, from arguments over what belongs in the library to whether or not an area should be gentrified. I’m sure you have too. I’ve also shaken my head at people bemoaning the lack of the local stores present when they grew up (while they shop online or out of town) and then being angry at “too many ethnic” restaurants and general stores in the spaces the stores from 1970 used to be.

One of the big challenges I knew would be in store for Copper Point would be the hospital brain drain. Even in my centrally located Iowa town, I’m waiting a year to get in to see my gynecologist. When I was in an acute situation and my GP wanted me to see a neurologist, for an emergency appointment I waited six months. It’s far, far worse in remote places like Copper Point, because there simply aren’t enough medical personnel to meet the needs. They have to be grateful for getting anyone to answer their calls for hires at all, and they’re already lucky because several doctors, our heroes included, chose to come back. However, especially as in this book they have the winds of change at their backs, they’re not interested in toeing the line of what a hospital and the doctors inside it should look like.

I wanted to include in the story a picture of that transition from old guard to new, to help make my fictional small town truly an idealized place where people would want to live. Not just a certain type of people, of race, background, or orientation, but everyone, full stop.

I hope you enjoy your trip to Copper Point!

Meet the Author

Author of over thirty novels, Midwest-native Heidi Cullinan writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. Heidi is a two-time RITA® finalist and her books have been recommended by Library Journal, USA Today, RT Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading novels and manga, playing with her cats, and watching too much anime. Find out more at heidicullinan.com.

Praise for Heidi Cullinan

Heartwarming and achingly beautiful —USA Today

Emotionally heartwrenching…with self-deprecating humor. — Romantic Times

Cullinan balances … love-conquers-all romance in a context full of real contemporary challenges. — Publisher’s Weekly

I fell in love with the sheer beauty of the writing. — Dear Author

Cullinan reached inside and pulled out ALL the feelings: fear, guilt, sadness, anticipation, happiness, love, lust, bitterness, loneliness, togetherness, and coming of age. — The Book Pushers

Also by Heidi Cullinan

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