Coming July 28, 2020
Dr. Nora Walsh has just been dumped in spectacular fashion, making it the perfect time for a major life change. She figures taking over the medical practice in tiny Matchmaker Bay for a couple of years will help her get over her broken heart, and then she can head back to the big city. But when the first man she sees looks like a superhero god, she wonders if maybe there’s something to small-town living after all.
Jake Ramsey also has a broken heart—one he never expects to heal. He doesn’t need people anyway and is content hiding out in his secluded cottage on the beach. But after helping Nora with a medical emergency, he finds himself opening up to the witty, warmhearted doctor. Soon the local matchmakers are working overtime to pair them off, and Jake begins to wonder if his campaign to get Nora to stay is for the town or because he can’t bear the thought of her leaving.
The first time Nora Walsh saw Jake Ramsey, he was getting his hair braided.
He was sitting in one of the chairs at Curl Up and Dye reading a copy of Field & Stream while a stylist did some kind of elaborate Maria von Trapp cross-scalp braiding thing to his long brown hair. The image was almost comical: this giant, beefy man sitting on a chair that looked like piece of dollhouse furniture compared to him. It was like Jason Momoa’s paler twin had shown up to play beauty parlor.
“Can I help you, hon?”
Nora transferred her attention from Aquaman to the older woman behind the reception desk. “Yes. Hi. I don’t have an appointment, but I was hoping to get my roots touched up. Or to make an appointment for later, if you can’t take me now.”
“Come on in.” The woman led her to the salon’s unoccupied chair—there were only two in the small space. “Carol Junior can take you after she’s finished with Jake.”
“Almost done.” The younger woman was a carbon copy of the older one, minus the wrinkles. “I’m just playing around.” She grabbed a hair elastic from her workstation, tied off the braid, and stood back to assess. “Well, that’s not going to win any awards.”
The man lowered his magazine, leaned forward to examine himself in the mirror, and shrugged. “Looks fine to me.”
The stylist patted him on the shoulder. “You’re such a good sport, Jake. Take that out, and we’ll get you washed.” She turned to Nora and gave a little shriek. “Oh my God! I love your hair.”
Nora had a pixie cut. A very short, very platinum pixie cut. She’d wondered if it would stand out in Moonflower Bay, and it did. Pretty much all the women she’d seen so far—though admittedly, she’d only been in town a day—had long hair. She was afraid she would come off like the city girl who thought she was all that. But it wasn’t like she sported piercings or tattoos or anything. She just had really, really short hair.
Unlike the big dude next to her, who had started raking his fingers through his hair to undo his braid. She wondered why he bothered getting it done in the first place if he was just going to take it out.
He transferred his attention from his reflection to Nora, and as their eyes met in the mirror, there was a record scratch in Nora’s brain. It was like there was the normal, unremarkable, white-noise soundtrack of life unspooling as it always did, and then it just stopped.
She wondered if he felt it, too, because he blinked a few times and paused in undoing his hair.
His eyes were green. A green so intense that, together with his long, dark hair, it brought to mind something not quite human. If he had told her that he was part wolf, she might have believed him.
Or maybe he was Aquaman? Some kind of sea god or something? They were on a Great Lake.
She examined the rest of his features, trying to decide if they were mortal or otherwise. His jaw was clean shaven, despite the thick, lustrous hair on his head. His lips were full and pale pink. A stark-white scar ran over his upper lip on one side, so deep it pulled the lip up a little.
The stylist laughed, and the record in Nora’s brain started playing again. The man returned to dismantling his hairdo, and Nora willed her suddenly hot cheeks to chill out.
“Look at you two! We’ve got a long-haired boy and a short-haired girl.” Nora was about to fire back—she was primed for these small-town folks not to approve of her—when the woman added, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Standing between the chairs, she put her hands on her hips and examined both of her customers in the mirror. “Because you both have totally amazing hair.”
Nora didn’t know what to say. Maybe this town wasn’t going to be as small-minded as she’d feared?
The stylist wiped her hands on a towel before sticking one out in front of Nora. “Carol Dyson Junior. Folks call me CJ, though, to differentiate me from my mom.” She hitched a thumb toward the front of the salon, where the older woman had retreated to the reception desk. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.”
“Nora Walsh. I just moved to town.”
CJ’s mom—that would be Carol Senior, Nora reasoned—suddenly reappeared. “Oh! You’re the new doctor!”
“I am.” Word sure got around. Four weeks ago, she had been a physician in the emergency department at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, a job she walked to from a twentieth-floor apartment a few blocks away. Today, she was the doctor in the small Lake Huron town of Moonflower Bay and was renting a house twice as big as her old apartment at a fraction of what she used to pay.
Also: four weeks ago, she’d had a boyfriend named Rufus. Now she was single.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” the older woman said. “It’s been a real pain having to drive to Grand View or farther to see a doctor since Doc Baker retired.” She leaned in. “Did you buy the practice from Ed?”
Nora had not bought the practice from Dr. Edward Baker. She’d responded to a classified ad in Ontario Medical Review, just out of curiosity, once she’d started toying with the idea of a total life reset. Before she could even blink, Dr. Baker had responded with a more-than-fair price to buy him out. But there was total life reset, and there was total insanity.
She hadn’t quite crossed over into insanity yet.
So she had counterproposed that she lease the practice for two years, Dr. Baker had agreed, and here she was. New town, new specialty, new life. And, most importantly, the government offered medical school loan forgiveness to people who did time in places with doctor shortages. Worst-case scenario, she spent some time professionally unfulfilled, treating ear infections and writing referrals for joint replacements, but she’d make some money and be back in Toronto in a couple years, ready for the Walsh Sisters’ Real Estate Adventure.
Moonflower Bay was a palate cleanser, basically. Once cleansed, she could go back to Toronto with a mended heart, a clear head, and a little bit of cash.
She could go back to Toronto a woman in control of her own destiny.
“Dr. Baker and I worked out a rental agreement for two years,” she said to both Carols.
“Why only two years?” Carol Senior asked.
“My sister and I are planning to buy a house together, but the Toronto housing market is through the roof.”
“So I hear. What a world we live in when a doctor can’t afford a house.”
“Not even close. These days, I think you have to be a Russian oligarch to afford a house in central Toronto.” She explained about the loan forgiveness program. “So my sister and I are both going to save aggressively and start shopping in two years. In the meantime, I’m going to try my hand at small-town doctoring.” Wait. Had that sounded patronizing? I’m just gracing you with my sophisticated, big-city presence for a couple years?
Neither seemed offended. Carol Junior pointed at Aquaman. “This here is Jake Ramsey.”
“I like your hair, Jake Ramsey.” Now that it was down, it came past his shoulders. It was the kind of hair women coveted. Nora might even grow hers, if it was guaranteed to end up looking like that. A mixture of naturally thin hair and long shifts at the hospital had always meant short, low-maintenance hair for Nora, but it was even shorter than usual these days, because she and her sister had shaved their heads a couple months ago in solidarity with their grandma, who’d lost hers while in treatment for breast cancer.
Jake made a sort of noncommittal grunt. So maybe he wasn’t part wolf so much as part pig? Aquapig? She smiled. That sounded like it could be a spinoff of the British show about the pig family that her youngest nephew was obsessed with.
Carol Senior excused herself, saying she needed to make a phone call, and CJ ran a brush through Jake’s hair. “I’m trying to learn more about updos and braids. There never used to be that much demand for them, but Moonflower Bay has gotten popular with tourists in recent years. I’m finding myself doing more weddings.” She patted Jake on the shoulder. “Jake is nice enough to let me practice on him in exchange for a weekly wash and the odd trim.”
He shrugged. “They do some kind of thing to it that gets the tangles out.”
“Deep condition.” CJ chuckled as she fastened a smock around Nora’s neck and handed her a magazine. “Let me just wash Jake’s hair real quick and get the conditioner in, and I’ll start on you. Sound good?”
Nora nodded, suddenly not trusting herself to speak. Because the view in the mirror was all wrong. She had been going to the same salon in Toronto for years. Sitting in the same stylist’s chair. Because her hair was so short, she’d logged a lot of hours in that particular chair, looking at that particular view. It had been nothing special—the busy, big-city salon had featured two rows of chairs parallel to each other, deep inside the space, so all she’d ever seen in the mirror was other people’s cuts and colors in progress. Here she could see a slice of Main Street though the large plate-glass window at the front of the salon. The graceful, historic redbrick buildings contrasted sharply with the deep-blue sky.
This view was, objectively, nicer. But it was different.
She was ambushed by the notion that this was it. This was the view from the salon chair for the next two years.
She had actually done it. She was here. It was day one of the life reset.
The past month had been filled with logistics: quitting her job, doing the banking stuff required to get out from under shared bills, disentangling herself from the man she’d thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with.
There hadn’t been time to stop and think. To feel.
But now that she was here, she realized how totally alone she was. Not just boyfriendless but colleagueless. Friendless. One hundred percent on her own.
But that was okay, she reminded herself. That was the point. She had let herself grow way too dependent on—and deferential to—Rufus. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost herself.
She was jarred from her maudlin thoughts when the door opened and two women came rushing in.
“That was fast,” Carol Senior said.
Both the women were older, and in a flurry of introductions, she learned that they were Pearl Brunetta, who owned a bakery, and Eiko Anzai, the editor of the town newspaper. Pearl, who had blue hair—and not old-lady blue but screaming electric blue—wanted to know when Nora was going to open the clinic. Eiko wanted to know if she’d do an interview with the paper.
They peppered her with questions about her plans until CJ elbowed her way in. “Ladies. Don’t overwhelm her. She just got here. And I gotta do her hair now, so skedaddle.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Pearl said. “You come by my shop for some pie real soon, Dr. Walsh. On the house.”
“And you let me know about that interview, okay, hon?” Eiko said.
Nora agreed to both demands and smiled as she listened to them bicker on their way out.
“You shouldn’t call her hon,” Pearl admonished.
“I call everyone hon.”
“Yeah, but she’s a doctor. You should be showing respect. We want her to stay, Eiko!”
“Okay, I’ll start calling her Dr. Hon.”
CJ winked at Nora in the mirror. “All right, Dr. Hon, let’s get started.”
As Jake sat under one of the dryers with his conditioner-slathered, plastic-wrapped hair piled on his head, he listened to the women talking about the new doctor’s hair. It was, apparently, a “pixie cut.”
That seemed appropriate given that Dr. Nora Walsh could pass for a pixie herself. She was short, but not just that—she was small all over. She had small features—a wee, slightly upturned nose, a bow mouth, and small hands. Her grayish-blue eyes and almost-white hair added a kind of cool, supernatural icing on what otherwise would have been cuteness.
She was really something.
“You getting settled in okay?” CJ asked.
“Yeah. I traveled light, so . . . yeah.”
It sounded like there was a story there.
“Where are you living, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m renting a house in Southbank Pines. I wanted to get something closer to downtown so I could walk to work, but to be honest with you, this whole move was kind of a last-minute thing, so I took what I could get on short notice.”
“Oh, that must be Harold Burgess’s place.” CJ met Jake’s eyes in the mirror.
“Yes. Harold is my landlord. I haven’t met him in person, though.”
Harold Burgess owned a few buildings in town, and they were, to put it frankly, shitholes. But maybe his own house would be okay. After twenty years of wintering in Florida, he’d recently moved there full-time.
CJ and Dr. Walsh started conferring over the hair-color plan. Dr. Walsh rattled off some kind of code, and soon CJ was shaping little squares of tinfoil around chunks of her hair. He chuckled to himself. He had plastic wrap; she had tinfoil.
After working in silence for a few minutes, CJ asked, “Your place seem okay?”
The doctor’s brow furrowed slightly. “Should it not?”
“No, no!” CJ said—a touch too quickly, probably, because the furrow deepened.
“It’s a bit musty, but I put that down to it being closed up for so long—I gather it’s been empty for six months. Anyway, I’m sure it will be fine. I just need to get some furniture in there. And dishes. And everything.” She laughed in a way that struck Jake as false.
“You didn’t come with anything?”
Dr. Walsh huffed a sigh that seemed partly self-deprecating. “Nope.”
“Why, if you don’t mind my asking?” If you don’t mind my asking? was kind of CJ’s signature phrase.
Dr. Walsh paused for a long moment before answering. “Have you ever looked around and suddenly thought, ‘What am I doing? What is all this crap? This is not how I thought my life was going to turn out’?”
CJ paused with one of the foil doodads in her hand, her head tilted. Jake could pretty much guarantee that CJ had never asked herself those questions. When you were Carol Dyson Junior and you loved doing hair, which CJ legitimately did, and your mom, Carol Dyson Senior, owned the town salon, life unfolded pretty much according to plan, he suspected.
CJ laid a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “Honestly, Dr. Hon, I can’t say I know what that’s like.”
Jake did, though. Did he ever.