The waiter poured sparkling water into my crystal glass as I admired the original artwork on the wall. My best friend, Tracy, always chose the best places to eat in New York.

I spotted her then and watched her walk across the restaurant, headed toward me. I wondered at the sadness that seemed to be a part of her now, ever since she’d returned from her visit to Holly Well Springs a few weeks ago. She hadn’t told me exactly what had happened, but I’d decided to leave it alone for now until she was ready to share.

She walked confidently, wearing one of the latest designer outfits that made her light up the room. As always, she looked like she just stepped off a runway. I wasn’t much for shopping myself, but I’d gone with her a couple of times just to relax, and the way she could throw an outfit together was nothing short of impressive. She had certainly chosen the right career for her beauty and talent.

I smiled back at her and noticed that the smile, once again, did not reach her eyes. 

She sat across from me. “Sophie, how’s my favorite doctor?”

“A doctor on leave, remember?” I asked. “But your favorite first responder is holding up as well as can be expected.”

“Have you heard back from Evan, my baby brother?” asked Tracy.

“Yes, I leave in the morning for your happy hometown,” I said.

There was a slight hint of sarcasm in my voice as I played along with the way I knew Tracy felt about the town. I would judge for myself once I’d seen it.  

Tracy laughed. “It is the happiest place on earth, if you love Christmas in your face every day of every year. Since you’re only going to be there for a month, you can stick it out. Remember the reason you’re taking this break is to give yourself some time to put the surgery behind you once and for all.”

“That, my friend, is easier said than done.” I shuddered at the memory.

“Sophie, you’re one of the most gifted up-and-coming surgeons New York has,” she said.

I tried to smile, but thoughts of the surgery’s outcome flooded my mind.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault that Kenny died during the surgery. His injuries were beyond repair. You know this. Walking out of the hospital to work on an ambulance service is not going to fulfill you. You have too much talent for that. Please, think about this some more before you leave tomorrow.”

“I appreciate all you’re saying, but I just need some time away to think about everything,” I said.

The waiter showed up, and we both ordered salads and pasta entrees.  

When the waiter left, I said, “I really appreciate you talking to Evan about hiring me for the month of July. He told me I’d be busy, and that they could sure use the help. It sounds like the perfect thing to take my mind off everything that’s happened lately here in New York. I guess they get lots of people visiting in July.”

“That is an understatement for sure,” she said with a laugh. “People flock to Holly Well Springs during July. Every hotel, Airbnb, and even the state park sites are full, with a waiting list. It’s like Christmas on steroids.”

“So, if it’s so great, my friend, why are you here and not there?” I asked.

“I really don’t have a reason to be there anymore,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that my proposal to Ben came a little too late. He met someone, and it looks like the ‘forever’ kind of love.” 

The sadness descended on her again, and I sympathized with her. Relationships were so much trouble. With my medical career, I didn’t have time for things like that.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I knew things didn’t work out like you had hoped, but I was waiting till you wanted to talk about it before I asked.”

She shook her head. “It’s all good. Ben’s heart is planted in that tree farm my grandparents started, for some reason. I’ll never understand why he wants to spend his days out in the sun getting dirty. I guess that’s a guy thing. At least, that’s all he was into before Katrina showed up.”

I nodded. I felt bad that my friend was sad, but with everything she’d told me about Ben, they were complete opposites. I doubted it would have worked out for them even if he hadn’t fallen for someone named Katrina.

“I am happy for him, really,” she continued. “He deserves to be happy. He’s one of the good guys.”

The waiter showed up with our food, and it looked delicious. Kenny was still on my mind, and that usually made my appetite all but disappear. But I knew I had to keep up my strength for the job I was headed to in Holly Well Springs, so I finished off my salad quickly.

“Do you think you’ll go back anytime soon?” I asked. “After all, it is your hometown. I hope that all this didn’t ruin it for you.”

I moved over to my pasta while she still pushed around her salad greens.

She nodded. “I’ll have to in a few months. My older brother, Brodie, is getting married in December, so I will be going home for the wedding.”

“A December wedding should be beautiful,” I said.

“It will be a huge deal,” Tracy said. “The town is celebrating fifty years as the ‘Christmas Town,’ and I’m glad Brodie and Hannah will be adding to the celebration. They really do make the ideal couple.”

Tracy flashed me a smile that looked genuine at the thought of her brother’s happiness.

“I’m looking forward to meeting them,” I said.

We paused for a moment while we both finished up our meals, which I did first since I’d had a head start.

As I folded up my napkin, I said, “Thanks again for setting me up with Evan and the police force there in Holly Well Springs. Maybe, by getting to the patient first, I can prevent things like what happened to Kenny.”

“My grandpa always said, ‘when it’s your time, it’s just your time,’” Tracy said.

A twinge of pain in my heart made me sad as I thought of Kenny. “I don’t believe that. If that were true, what would we need surgeons for?”

She gave me a soft smile. “The world will always need you.”

“If I ever become a surgeon again,” I said.

“You will.”

She looked at me with such certainty that I almost believed it for a moment, but then reality hit me again, and I knew I could never do that again after losing Kenny.

“You’re going to love staying with Kris and Christine,” she said.

I was thankful for the change of subject and tried to brush thoughts of the surgery out of my mind.

“They have this huge house that seems as old as time, but inside it’s like Santa’s workshop,” she continued. “I remember going there as a kid. Brodie and Evan were best friends with Kris’s grandsons. Well, until they moved away. I’m not sure if they kept in contact with each other, but we were always going over there when we were kids. Jackson and I had a pretend wedding ceremony when we were six.”

Tracy laughed, and I had to laugh with her as she explained the mock wedding under the reindeer arch. It sounded so adorable. She must have had so much fun growing up in such a unique little town. With my career taking up so much of my time so far, I hadn’t thought much about having a family in the future, though it was a pleasant thought. Raising kids in a small town seemed like a much better option than New York. Everyone would know each other in a town like Holly Well Springs, and somehow that just seemed like the less stressful way to be a parent.

I shook my head. I’d need to have a relationship first before ever thinking thoughts like that, and that was certainly not going to happen anytime soon.

“Does Kris’s family live there now?” I asked.

“No, they have never moved back,” she said. “He has three grandsons. Jesse is the oldest, like Brodie. James is around Evan’s age, and Jackson and I are the same age. I heard Jackson went into law, like his father. I’m not sure about James and Jesse.”

The waiter brought the checks, and I took out my credit card. Tracy and I always paid for our own meals unless it was a special occasion. Then one of us would cover the whole check. After the surgery with Kenny, I hadn’t had anything to celebrate in a long time.

I had to stop thinking about the surgery, so I tried asking about the town again. “So, does Kris Kringle of Holly Well Springs live up to his name?”

I had to laugh at the thought of an old man who was always dressed like Santa. The kids who went there on vacation must have loved that.

Tracy smiled, eyes and all, as she said, “Absolutely. I want to hear immediately how you feel after meeting him and Christine.”

I tilted my head slightly, not sure what she’d meant by that. I guessed the man really looked like Santa enough to even have some adults confused. I thought the whole idea of a town that had Christmas all year long was certainly charming, but I couldn’t imagine it would make me feel any different than any other small town. Besides, I was going to be very busy handling crowd control. It would probably feel just like New York with all the visitors there.

“I researched Holly Well Springs, but I didn’t find much except the spirit of the town,” I said. “Do they even have a hospital? I’m only asking because the ambulance must go somewhere after picking up someone.”

Tracy laughed. “Don’t let the small Christmas town fool you. They have a state-of-the-art hospital. It’s small, but it’s well-equipped for its size. For major surgeries that can wait, they send them on to the big city hospital. They do have the capability to do any surgery though, if needed. Sometimes people just feel better having major surgery done in a large hospital.”

“Well, that sounds interesting, and I can’t wait to see it,” I said.

I was thankful that they had a good hospital. The few times I’d volunteered in small cities while I was doing my internships, I’d seen firsthand the shortcomings some small towns had when it came to medical facilities.

“This has been really fun,” I said. “I’m glad we had dinner before I headed off to explore your hometown.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m going to miss you around here. Who’s going to keep me company while you’re gone?”

I chuckled. “You have friends everywhere,” I said. “I think you could arrange an entourage at any restaurant or boutique in New York.”

She shrugged. “Maybe, but I’ll still miss hanging out with you while you’re gone.”

“It’s only for a month,” I said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

The waiter came back with our credit cards and we both signed our receipts. I was sure to leave a good tip, even though my budget wasn’t quite what it had been as a surgeon. I knew how hard people worked in the restaurant industry, and the food and service had been great.

We stepped outside and I turned to her. “Well, I’d better be getting home. I have an early flight. I’ll only have two days to learn their system before July first. Thank you again for helping me get away.”

Tracy laughed again. “Don’t thank me yet. Wait about a week, then let me know if thanks are still in order.”

I laughed as we hugged on the sidewalk.

Just as I walked away, I heard Tracy whisper, “Good luck, my friend. You’re going to need it.”

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