book 1 of the Mistletoe Matchmakers of Clearwater County series
Taylor Dean tugged the waistband of her pants back up over her hips at the same time she juggled the vase of yellow and white roses into her other arm. The low carb diet was making a difference but she was seriously considering going back to her old clothes for a potato chip – or bag of chips – or anything that looked like a chip.
The elevator dinged as Taylor reached the third floor of the small hospital. Sliding open, the doors revealed a bustling hallway with occupied hospital beds lining the walls, nurses calling out to each other, doctors running left and right, and the visitors’ waiting room overflowing with patients in wheelchairs. The general chaos of the small-town hospital was disorienting.
Taylor stepped cautiously from the elevator, looking around. A nurse checked a chart feet from the elevator entrance. She seemed unaffected by the people running all over the place.
“Um, excuse me. I’m looking for my father? David Dean?” Everyone in town knew who the Deans were. Mistletoe, Montana wasn’t a large city by any means, but the small town was big enough to not know everyone’s names and still recognize faces.
“Mr. Dean is in a private room on the far end. You’ll need to check with his nurse for any updates.” She glanced up, her red-rimmed eyes indicative of the long hours and stress piled on her, regardless of the seemingly calm demeanor she maintained.
Glancing around at the chaos surrounding them, Taylor studied the woman, tilting her head forward and lowering her voice. “What’s going on? This doesn’t seem normal.”
The nurse huffed, flipping the paper on the clipboard over and checking something on a list. “This is so far from normal. We’re closest to the mines that collapsed north of here. We had to move everyone from orthopedic and the cardiac to this floor while they make room for the other survivors on the first and second floor. The fourth floor was reserved for neurology and pediatrics. I signed here for small town calm, not… this.” She lowered her glasses from where she’d rested them on her forehead back to her nose and nodded down the hall. “You should be fine. Just make your way that direction. Excuse me.” She disappeared into the moving crowd.
Taking a deep breath, Taylor walked down the hallway, nervous to bump anyone who might be sick or injured. Cardiac must have meant like heart attacks or something. Orthopedics was bone work and they needed more work than what they were currently getting.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry. Excuse me. Oh, I’m so sorry.” Taylor wended her way around wheelchairs, beds, and the occasional patient shuffling down the hall with an IV pole gripped tightly in their hands.
The last door on the right had a paper folded in half, marked with her last name, Dean. She readjusted her clothes yet again at the doorway and then knocked on the half-open door. “Dad? It’s Taylor. Are you decent?” She chuckled at her joke and then furrowed her brow at the curtain pulled across the doorway. It was a private room, but Dad didn’t need to have the curtains closed since he was at the end of the hall across from a janitorial closet.
She pulled the curtain back and came up short at the sight of her father missing from the room and a dark blonde woman sitting in a hospital bed against the far window. She hugged a heart-shaped pillow in her arms and stared out at the scenery.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were…” Taylor blinked rapidly and then caught her breath as the other woman turned slowly to face the door.
Elizabeth Wilson. The woman was Elizabeth Wilson and Taylor had just walked into the hospital room like she had every right to be there.
She hadn’t had any right to be anywhere near the head of the Wilson family since Elizabeth’s son, Roman, had stood Taylor up at the altar. That was a betrayal a woman just didn’t get over – even after eighteen years.
Her dad couldn’t be in there. The room was mislabeled and Taylor was going to talk to someone about that. Before she could duck out of the room, her cheeks flushed with embarrassed heat, the sound of her father’s deep voice reached her from the bathroom.
“I don’t think I need that blasted IV anymore, Silvia. Don’t you think it’s time for me to go home?” His exasperation was clear, even to the two women staring uncomfortably around the hospital room, any where but each other.
“Mr. Dean, now come on. You know you have another day or so in here. Why do you need to give me problems?” Sylvia’s soothing voice gave Taylor pause. Sylvia must be the physical therapist or the nurse, someone who had no problem telling David Dean what to do.
Motioning toward the door, Taylor pressed her lips into a forced smile as she turned back to meet the gaze of her ex-mother-in-law-to-be. “Well, I’m not sure if this is the wrong room, or what’s going on?” She left it as an indirect question.
She wasn’t going to outright ask, but she had every right to question why there was a woman in her father’s room when it was clear Mrs. Wilson was there as a patient as well in her tightly tied hospital gown and her own IV laden arm.
“I’m not in here for more than an hour or two. They gave me the option to wait in the hall or in the visitors’ room and your father was testing out his new hip with his therapist. He saw me out there and he offered me a place to hole up until my son can take me home.” She smiled tightly at Taylor as if she sensed the mention of a son had Taylor on hyperalert.
Motioning lamely at the hallway, Taylor blinked and murmured, “I’m going to see if I can find some water for these. I’ll be right back. Please let my dad know.” Her jaw was clenched tight as she spoke through her teeth.
She ducked out before Mrs. Wilson could say anything more.
Ducking across the hall to the janitorial closet, Taylor raised a silent prayer that the door wasn’t locked. Turning the door lever and pushing the door inward, Taylor let the panel close behind her once she stepped to the side and leaned her shoulders against the wall.
Right then was not the time for the Wilson matriarch to show up in Taylor’s life.
Everyone in Mistletoe knew what had happened almost eighteen years ago. Wasn’t that why Mistletoe, Montana was divided in a double decades old feud that was just barely kept civil between the two main families?
Taylor took a deep breath, leaning forward to rest the vase of roses on the counter by the utility sink. She set the bag of treats she’d brought for her father on the ground at her feet and pulled her phone from the leather purse swinging from her shoulder.
Lily would be at work, covering for their father while he was out of commission for his hip replacement surgery. All six daughters were stepping up in one way or another to give him time off from the matchmaking industry.
Taylor swiped the screen, pulling Lily’s number up and pressing call. The phone rang, rang, and then rang again before her soft-spoken sister answered. “Taylor, how’s Dad?”
“He’s not great.” Taylor rushed on at her sister’s audible gasp. “No, I mean, there must be something wrong with him. He welcomed Elizabeth Wilson into his room. Sounds like there was some kind of a mine problem up north. There’s no room for the patients and Dad offered his room for a holding spot until her son comes.” Taylor fell quiet and then murmured in a hushed whisper, “Her son, Lily.”
“Okay, don’t freak out. She has six sons, Taylor. This isn’t that big of a deal. Roman hasn’t been in Mistletoe in a long time. I doubt he came back for a simple heart procedure.” Lily tried reassuring Taylor, but the situation wasn’t something anyone could just recover from. Roman had ripped Taylor’s heart out and he’d done it in front of the whole town.
She might never recover from that. Honestly, though, it hadn’t been a blatant problem for years. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in Mistletoe.
But… just in case…
“What do I do?” Taylor wasn’t actually asking Lily what to do. She was more or less asking the universe for an answer, a sign. With her free hand, she rubbed the back of her neck. “What if it is him? What if he’s finally coming back… and I’m single? Lily, this can’t be my life, right now. It’s ridiculous I’ve matched as many people as I have and I can’t find anyone for me, you know?” Of course, Lily knew. She listened to Taylor vent about her relationship problems or lack of relationships on a daily basis.
Combined with her stress about the possibility of Roman being back in town and things were just not designed for a vent-free afternoon.
“Look, you’re one of the best matchmakers, Tay, but you can’t work on yourself. Why not ask Dad and… dare I say, Mrs. Wilson for help? If she really did have a heart attack like they’re saying down at Selma’s Salon, she won’t be able to do the Christmas Carnival either. Maybe this is all of our chances at showing what we can do.” There was a long pause and she added softly, “Plus, I honestly think if Roman was coming home, it wouldn’t be right before the Carnival. He hasn’t had time to get here from Europe, if his brothers called about his mom. They just found out yesterday, themselves.”
Taylor took a deep breath and nodded; fully aware Lily couldn’t see her reply. She swallowed again, working to make her mouth less dry. “You’re right. This is a good opportunity to prove we’re not just the kids and the help. We can do this. Do you really think I should ask them both to match me?” Wasn’t that what Lily was suggesting? Could Taylor do that? Could she try to bridge the awkward strain between the Deans and Wilsons after all those years and ask for help with matching her?
Well, honestly, what did Taylor have to lose? She’d dated the various men who came through Mistletoe and no one had seemed compatible. She’d never put any of them through a matchmaking interview. Yes, she knew physical attraction wasn’t everything, but when she’d burned just looking at a man, it was hard to accept less than that from a potential match.
Most of the guys she’d dated were good looking, but lacked whatever it was that made her gut clench and her heart shiver.
She wanted everything when she fell in love. Part of her worried the whispers were true, that there really was only one person out there for everyone.
But that couldn’t be the case. She couldn’t have loved the only person meant for her only to be abandoned on what was supposed to be their wedding day. Taylor refused to believe it. She deserved more than that from life in the most famous place of finding love.
Lily continued, breaking through Taylor’s thoughts. “Now, get in there and make sure Dad isn’t giving away any of his tips. I’d hate for him to give away the competition before it even begins.” Lily hung up the phone as Taylor stared into the dim interior of the closet that was more like a supply space.
Was going in and asking them to help her out the right thing to do? Why did it feel like she was selling out by asking Mrs. Wilson for help at the same time she asked her dad? Why would Mrs. Wilson help Taylor when there was nothing but hard feelings between them?
Sinking to a half-squat against the wall, Taylor rested her head in her hands. Lily was right. Roman wasn’t likely to come back all that way for a mild heart attack that had just happened. He hadn’t come back for anything else in all that time. Even his father’s death had been ignored by the oldest boy of the family.
Reassured by those thoughts, Taylor nodded, slapping her knee as if to encourage herself to snap out of it. There was nothing to be worried about. She could ignore the other Wilson boys just as easily as she could ignore the elephant in the room when she went back into her father’s suite.
The elephant wasn’t her ex-mother-in-law-to-be. No, unfortunately, the entire Wilson family was blessed with good looks and great metabolism. One more thing for Taylor to hold against them.
What exactly was she supposed to say to Mrs. Wilson when she went back in there? Using the wall to push herself up, Taylor wiped her suddenly damp hands on her jeans. Okay, she’d left to get water. She needed to get water and get back in there.
Grabbing the vase, she turned on the water in the sink until there was a slow trickle coming from the faucet. Tilting the flowers to the side, Taylor gathered another two cups of water in the glass vase and then set the now full flower vase on the counter beside the sink.
Running her hands under the cool water for a moment, Taylor hoped she was calmer on the outside than she was on the inside. Everything felt like a tsunami ripping over her. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but Lily had a point.
If Taylor couldn’t match herself with someone, then maybe she needed to go to people who were even more experts than she was on matters of the heart.
All of the Dean and Wilson kids seemed to be cursed, though, in romance. Maybe that had been a hazard of the vocation. Where their parents had been lucky enough to find love, the next generation had been more wrapped up in their jobs and finding other people happiness, than themselves.
All Taylor had to do was ask for help. But what if she couldn’t? What if asking Dad was hard enough, but add Mrs. Wilson to the mix and things had reached an all new level of impossible that she wasn’t sure she could overcome?
Because if Mrs. Wilson knew that Taylor needed help finding someone, then she would be able to tell Roman that Taylor was a failure. Roman had gotten married and everything over in Europe. He’d moved on from the broken scene he’d left behind in Mistletoe. Right? That was the worst-case scenario Taylor kept imagining. She’d never heard one way or the other since it seemed to be an unspoken rule not to talk about Roman Wilson to her or around her.
She couldn’t help feeling gratitude for that point.
How in the holly did Taylor’s pride recover enough to ask for help from the man’s mother? He’d broken her and Taylor wasn’t sure she wanted to forget.
Because if she forgot, then maybe she was admitting that she’d deserved it. Or maybe she was admitting something much worse.
That they weren’t a good match from the beginning.
Before she could study that possibility too closely, her watch beeped three consecutive beeps. Less than a second later, the alarm on her phone buzzed and chimed in her pocket. She pulled out the cell and glanced at the smart screen.
Crud. She didn’t have much time left. She was supposed to be halfway through her visit, getting the information she needed on when to pick Dad up and then back to the shop to check on getting things ready for the competition which started in just a couple of days.
Already she was behind.
She flicked the water from her fingers and grabbed the flower vase, her purse, and the bag of treats on the floor. All she had to do was get back in there and make her proposition.
What could possibly go wrong?