The Best Medicine

Read the Excerpt

Birthday parties are a lot like pelvic exams—uncomfortable, awkward, and a little too personal, but an unavoidable yearly nuisance—like a pap smear, only with presents. So I should have known I couldn’t tiptoe past this day with both my secret, and my dignity, intact.

There I was, just minding my own business, looking for a cup of coffee in the Bell Harbor Plastic Surgery Center staff lounge, when suddenly I was surrounded. They pounced, silently and with no warning. The air around me morphed into a shimmering tsunami of pink and purple metallic confetti, and throaty laughter filled my ears. Warm bodies surged forward, pressing me into the corner of the room. More sparkles flew, clinging to my face and hair like sparkly shrapnel.

They were onto me, and there was no escape.

I was a victim of the Birthday Ninja Glitter-Bomb Squad.

Because today was no ordinary day. It was, in fact, my birthday. A birthday I wasn’t happy about. A birthday I wanted to ignore. A birthday that punted me from the eighteen-to-thirty-four bracket into the thirty-five-to-death category. Now I was trapped inside the birthday ninjas’ rainbow-bright web. Resistance was futile.

“Surprise!”

“Happy birthday, Evelyn!”

“Happy birthday, Dr. Rhoades!”

Another cloud of confetti descended, and someone plunked a tarnished rhinestone tiara on my head, which assuredly clashed against my red hair. Quasi-benevolent good wishes blended with giggles and old-age jibes as the lounge filled with my six physician partners and members of our office staff, two dozen in all. Delle, our rotund, middle-aged receptionist, bustled forward importantly and placed a candle-laden cake on the table in the center of the room. She smiled wide, triumphant.

They all did. The whole herd of them beamed at me and shifted on their feet, expectation glowing in their shining eyes. They looked jubilant, the way people do when they want you to be overcome with delight . . . which I was not.

It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate their efforts. I’m not a complete birthday Scrooge . . . except when it comes to my own birthday. I’m just not a big-celebration, look-at-me kind of woman. Having all that attention directed my way for something no more notable than aging seems silly. It’s like getting the green participation ribbon for field day. I hadn’t worked to earn this. I was being rewarded simply for showing up.

“Well, did we surprise you?” Delle demanded. She nudged thick glasses against the bridge of her nose with a pudgy thumb. She had different frames for each day of the week. These were teal. It must be Tuesday.

For a split second I hoped the open flames of all those candles might set off the smoke alarms, forcing us to vacate the building. But no such luck. Snagged in that moment, I had no choice but to take one for the team. I plastered on my fake happy birthday face.

“Gosh, you guys. Yes. Wow. You really did surprise me. I had no idea anyone even knew it was my birthday.” My surprise was genuine, but I also did a pretty commendable job at sounding pleased. Score one for me.

“Dr. Pullman told us. You should thank her.” Delle pointed at the tall brunette with the two-hundred-dollar haircut and ridiculously impractical high-heeled shoes.

I swung my gaze toward Hilary Pullman, the one person in town who knew unequivocally I didn’t want a fuss made today. She was my professional colleague, my most trusted confidante, and until ten seconds ago, my closest friend. We’d met during our plastic surgery residency and bonded over the trials and tribulations of being a woman in medicine. Nothing quite cements a friendship like sharing a post-call toothbrush before morning rounds.

Hilary had grown up in Bell Harbor, and our friendship was half the reason I’d chosen to practice here. But friend or not, she knew I hated birthday parties in my honor. I squinted at her and tried to look fierce, but she was a foot taller than me in those damn heels. I was at a distinct disadvantage.

She returned a guileless smile and shrugged in her typical sorry-but-not-really fashion. She stepped away from the cluster of birthday revelers. The hem of her fitted black pencil skirt barely cleared the bottom of her white lab coat. Some might say that skirt was too short. And they’d be right. But in all honestly, if I had legs like hers, I’d wear skirts like that too. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and so I couldn’t. I was five two. Nothing was short on me except for me.

Hilary picked up a spatula from the table with her graceful fingers and handed it to me, handle first.

“Happy birthday, Evie. I know this isn’t as sharp as what you’re used to, but here you go. Don’t stab me with it.” She winked playfully.

I took the spatula and tried to glare at her without letting the others see, but she was entirely immune to my annoyance. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice. She just didn’t care. Hilary thought her role in our friendship was to taunt me, and cajole me out of my comfort zone. Somewhere along the line, she’d decided it was her job to loosen me up. But I didn’t need loosening up. I liked myself just the way I was. Most of the time.

Delle wheezed and clasped her hands in front of her massive double-Ds. “Well, make a wish, Dr. Rhoades. Blow out the candle.”

I smiled at her and then the others, trying so valiantly to make it seem legit that it almost felt as if it were. Their intentions were good, after all. Maybe this birthday wouldn’t be so bad. Thirty-five wasn’t that old. At least there were no doomsday banners or balloons declaring me over the hill. No dead flower bouquets or black decorations. Just confetti and a tiara. I could handle this.

I cleared my throat and took a breath. “Thank you, everyone. This is really very sweet. These past few months here in Bell Harbor have been wonderful, and you’ve all made me feel right at home. I can’t think of anything else I need to wish for.”

“How about a husband?” Delle called out, giggling again, and nodding at the others, perspiration gleaming against her dark forehead.

Oh, she was hilarious, wasn’t she? Heckling me on my own birthday?

That was one disadvantage of moving to such a small, close-knit community—the complete lack of privacy. Being the newest doctor in town had made me as fascinating an object of curiosity to the good people of Bell Harbor as a meteorite striking the cross of the St. Aloysius Church of the Immaculate Conception. Everyone in town seemed to know I lived alone in a tiny apartment, wanted to buy a house on the lakeshore, and that I was perpetually single. That last fact weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s except mine, that is. I still had plenty of time to find a husband.

Assuming I even wanted one.

Which I didn’t.

Most of the time.