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Sweet Salvation by Maddie Taylor – Sample

Sweet Salvation by Maddie Taylor

Prologue

The dark blue awning provided little relief to the two dozen mourners sweltering on the fabric-draped folding chairs beneath it. The midday sun relentlessly inched the thermometer upward toward triple digits, expected for summertime in Atlanta, but highly unusual in the second week of May. Paper rustled softly as the women, who were literally wilting in the mid-day swelter, used their programs as makeshift fans, waving them uselessly trying to create enough breeze to cool their sweat-dampened skin. The men had long since stripped out of their suit coats and loosened their ties. Damp rings appeared on their dress shirts, the material clinging to the perspiration on their backs. The oppressive heat cast a pall over the gathering, perfectly expressing the mood of the group.

An early heat wave was the least of Stacy Altman’s problems, for her world had changed irrevocably. Her emotions had been on a perpetual roller coaster ride for three days. Ever since a man, after consuming enough beer to inebriate four adult men, decided to get behind the wheel of his Mercedes. Of course, he had walked away, unscathed, after running his car into the side of another. His new fully loaded Merc, and the fact he crashed head on, had deployed the airbags, which was what saved his life according to the officer at the scene. James and Sarah Altman had not been so lucky.

As she stared at the identical rose-draped caskets, the doctor’s words ricocheted endlessly in Stacy’s exhausted brain. The side impact collision, what he called T-boning, had killed her father instantly. Even though he’d been buckled up, the high rate of speed from the oncoming car was lethal, the impact of two tons of metal plowing into his side door was deadly, and even if he had air bags in his well-preserved twenty-year-old truck, they wouldn’t have saved him. He was ‘dead on scene,’ so the police report said. Her mother, also buckled in, had survived the initial impact, but the vehicle had rolled at least twice and by the time EMS had extracted her from the mangled cab, her blood loss had been too severe and she had not survived transport. Stacy, who had arrived at the emergency room within an hour of the crash, overheard the awful term, DOA. Her mom had been dead on arrival.

The dull drone of the minister’s voice was background noise in her brain that screamed the horrible words repeatedly—dead on arrival. She hadn’t been able to shake it for three long days. A tear spilled over and clung to her lashes. At the same time, a drop of perspiration trickled from her hairline by her temple. She blinked and as the tear rolled slowly down her cheek, the bead of sweat kept pace. Not a good look—blubbering and sweating, her makeup most likely melting off her face—but why should she care? What she cared about most in her life was sealed inside the cheap bargain coffins and in a few minutes would be lowered into the ground, lost to her forever.

A drip fell from her chin and landed on the back of one clenched hand. She stared at it, uncaring. A tissue was pressed into her hand and she looked up. Her friend Kristie was staring at her with concern.

“The minister is done, Stacy. It’s time to stand.”

Robotically, she responded; Kristie taking one arm and Lana the other, supporting her through this horrendous ordeal. These two friends, both sorority sisters, were all she had left. Her mother was an only child, as was her father, her grandparents long passed. This left Stacy with no one: no aunts, no uncles, no cousins twice removed. Except for these two wonderful young women, she was alone. It wasn’t fair; she had graduated ten days ago and her life was supposed to be starting now, a new beginning. She was going to get a job, get married one day and have babies. She and her husband were to take the kids to Nana and Papaw’s every Sunday for a traditional home-cooked dinner. The kids would adore their nana, who would dote on them, baking cookies each week, and for Christmas, her special black walnut fudge. Papaw would take them fishing at the little spot he’d located on the outskirts of the city, just as he’d done with his little Rosebud.

That thought hit her hard. The stunning realization that she’d never hear his gravelly voice call her Rosebud again was almost too much to bear. Her children would never know their Papaw Jim’s kind, gentle soul or their Nana Sarah’s bright sunny disposition. She felt anger stir on the behalf of her unborn children. It was so unfair.

A sob escaped, the first since the graveside service had begun. She felt Lana’s arm encircle her shoulders, squeezing her tight.

“Just a few more minutes, sweetie, then we can leave,” came the soft words of reassurance. It was almost over.

Stacy reached up and grabbed Lana’s hand as the preacher approached. He stood before her, this near stranger who’d been her parents’ minister. They’d met a few times, but in passing. He didn’t know her at all. He offered pithy words of comfort, trite platitudes about no more suffering, and their job on earth was done, and being in a better place. These were just words to her, providing no ease to her pain, no glimmer of hope, no sense of comfort or safety. Would she ever feel safe again?

She could only nod at his expression of concern when he asked if she was going to be all right. Kristie spoke up and reassured him that they would be with her. She’d be at the sorority house, surrounded by her sisters constantly for the next two weeks, at least until the new semester started. Dread rolled through her as she stood silent and stiff. More change was coming.

* * *

“Are you sure you’re ready for this, Stace? It’s a big move.”

“No, but what choice do I have?” she asked, distracted by the million and one things she had to do between now and when she left for Michigan tomorrow.

One monumental task was to finish moving out of her room at the sorority house. Lana was helping her pack and there were already half a dozen boxes stacked in the hallway. Stacy had procrastinated. Now, at the last minute, she was rushing around like a mad woman trying to get it all done. Kristie’s boyfriend was bringing his truck first thing in the morning, and between the five of them—Kristie and Matt, Lana and her husband Jason, and herself—they were moving everything into her parents’ basement for storage in the morning.

She’d been to the house a few times since the funeral, but never alone. The memories and emotions were too overwhelming. She certainly couldn’t live there alone, but also couldn’t bring herself to sell it just yet. With Kristie’s help, she’d found a realtor who would manage the property and rent it for her while she made a decision about what to do. In the meantime, the rent would pay the mortgage.

While Lana began packing another box of clothes, Stacy was hanging her navy blue interview suit—her only suit—in her garment bag. She carefully buttoned her taupe blouse so it would stay on the hanger, and then draped the one-button jacket on top. She wished she hadn’t cut off the clear plastic strips that helped it stay on the hanger. With her luck, it would be wadded up in the bottom of the bag by the time she got to Detroit. She needed to make a good impression, which meant looking neat and professional. Maybe she should bring a steamer.

She crossed to the walk-in closet and reached for her ‘Travel Butler.’ Spotting her matching taupe purse—one of only two purses she had to her name—she grabbed it too. If she ever found a job, she was going to have to do a major wardrobe overhaul. She couldn’t wear the same suit every day.

“You could stay with me for the rest of the summer.”

“What?” Lana was hard to follow sometimes. She jumped from one subject to another or picked up the thread of an old one ten or fifteen minutes after the topic had changed. Sometimes it made her head spin. Stacy had learned to go with the flow because Lana was one of her best friends and she loved her for all her quirkiness.

“Instead of going to Detroit, you could stay with me. Give Atlanta’s job market another chance and get your bearings before you start job hunting out of state.” Lana’s worried expression spoke volumes. Although she’d move out a while back when she and Jason got married, she’d still acted as the mother hen for their sorority, coming by daily to check on ‘her girls,’ especially Stacy. Now, with all of them graduated and going their separate ways, she was concerned her littlest, move vulnerable chick wasn’t ready to head out on her own.

“Lana, you’re moving to Birmingham in six weeks. After that, you won’t be here to hold my hand anymore. I have to learn to stand on my own two feet. That means finding a job and finding one now. Besides, I can’t sleep on your pull-out couch all summer. You and Jason have been great, but you’re newlyweds and need your space. I couldn’t impose.”

“You’d be in the spare room so it’s no imposition. Besides, Jas doesn’t mind.”

“You’d tell me if it was causing a problem, right?”

“No.”

“Lana!”

“I’m not going to tell my best friend that she isn’t welcome in my home, so forget it. Now, about this trip…”

Stacy rolled her eyes at her persistence. She was in Mama Lana mode this morning.

“I worry about you, especially driving that twenty-year-old Jeep cross-country all by your lonesome. What if you get a flat or that heap of yours breaks down?”

“Miss Scarlett is not a heap. Dad rebuilt her engine back in April. He also replaced the shocks, brakes, gave her new tires and a brand spanking new paint job.” Stacy’s eyes got misty as she remembered him tinkering in the garage every spare minute getting the Jeep road ready. He’d presented the keys to her as a graduation present. Unable to afford getting her a new one, her sweet daddy had done the next best thing. He’d restored one and had it running like a top. “You don’t have to worry about me. Dad taught me to change a flat when I was fourteen. I was changing the oil in our cars when I was sixteen. He told me I needed to know how to maintain a car before I started to drive one. I might look like a Barbie doll but I’m not one.”

“Hey, that could be a thing. Instead of Malibu Barbie, there could be Mechanic Barbie with cute little pink coveralls and in miniature, like you.”

Stacy wrinkled her nose at that. Lana probably didn’t know how condescending that sounded. She didn’t make it better when she added, “As soon as those Yankees get a look at you, they’re going to scoop you up and keep you.”

Being five foot two, blond and blue-eyed, she’d heard it all before. Adjectives like cute, adorable, and sweet rubbed her the wrong way. She’d been on ten interviews in the past two months and got the same vibe from each one. They took one look at her baby face, smiled politely at her thin resume, and sent her on her way. She was sure it was tossed in file thirteen before the door shut behind her because she hadn’t gotten a call back on any of them. She didn’t know why Michigan would be any different, but they were paying her travel expenses, so she thought, why not?

“It’s a good job, if I can get it. You and Jason will be starting your new lives in Alabama. Kristie and Matt will be far away in Boston. I might as well look beyond Atlanta. Find something new and interesting. See more of the world beyond Georgia where I’ve spent my entire life. Lord knows there isn’t anything keeping me here after you and Kristie are gone.”

“Yeah, but it’s Michigan!” She shuddered with revulsion, or maybe it was from cold because the way she scornfully said Michigan made it sound like some remote and uninhabited place, like Siberia, not a state within the continental U.S. “Isn’t it always freezing up there and snowing all the time?”

Stacy grinned. “It’s not the north pole. It’s June there too, and last I checked about eighty degrees.”

“Well, how do I know? I’m a communications major.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Yeah… I just don’t want you to move so far away.” Lana looked at her, eyes wet with tears. “If you need money—”

“It’s covered, Lana, they gave me a travel stipend, remember? Besides, I’ve taken enough from you as it is. It’s time for me to cut the apron strings.”

“I still don’t know why you won’t just fly.”

“Plane tickets are expensive. Even with gas through the roof, I can come out ahead if I drive. I’ll have a little left over for living expenses if I don’t get the job and clothes if I do.”

“You better call me when you get there. What will it take, like thirty hours?”

Shaking her head, Stacy rolled her eyes and let out a heavy sigh. “It’s Michigan, Lana, not California. It’s fourteen, maybe fifteen hours and I promise to call Mama Lana the minute I get to the motel.”

Lana smiled ruefully; although she hated the nickname, she came by it honestly. A worrywart and a nurturer, Lana just couldn’t help mothering.

“I’ll probably be back here on Friday begging you to let me sleep on your pull-out couch anyway. So be careful what you ask for.”

They worked in companionable silence for a long while until Lana came out of the walk-in and asked out of nowhere, “You named your Jeep Miss Scarlett?”

Stacy looked up at her, thrown. Then she laughed, not just a giggle, but a full rolling belly laugh. She was going to miss her dear friend, convoluted conversations and all. As she tried to piece the threads of their conversation back together, she noticed Lana was looking at her with a big goofy smile, her eyes brimming with tears. “What?”

“You laughed.”

Stacy frowned, more perplexed than ever. “And that made you cry because…”

“Graduation.”

Shaking her head at the weepy young woman before her, Stacy smiled and urged softly. “What about graduation? Come on, Lana, work with me here.”

“I haven’t heard you laugh since graduation, before the funeral.” Lana, who was almost six feet tall in her espadrilles and towered over petite Stacy, pulled her close, engulfing her in a great big motherly hug. “It’s a beautiful sound that I haven’t heard in a while. I’ve missed it. Your daddy would have been upset with you if you’d lost it.”

“Oh, Lana.” Tears pouring from her eyes, Stacy cried as she hugged her friend back. “I couldn’t have made it through these awful weeks without you and Kristie. You were my lifelines, and no matter where I end up, how near or far, if you need me I’m there. I’ll always love you.”

* * *

The sun was almost gone from the Wednesday evening sky as Jared Baker stepped out of the clinic’s back door. Heading to the gym before home, he’d already changed into shorts and a T-shirt, maize and blue, the big M proudly declaring his collegial allegiance. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten his sneakers in his truck. Wearing only his socks, he painstakingly avoided any loose gravel or debris on the ground, as he carefully picked his way across the near-empty back lot on his way to his truck. He sat on his tailgate tying them on when he heard another car drive up. It was a Jeep actually, and he immediately noticed the driver was not a typical Jeep owner. As it pulled into a space across the lot, he noticed the Georgia plates right off and dismissively returned to lacing his shoes. Finding one badly knotted, he cursed mildly and bent his head closer in the fading light.

“Excuse me?”

A quick glance up found a set of bright red-tipped toes, one of which was sporting a silver toe-ring, in a pair of white flip-flops. His interest piqued, he did a double take, this time his eyes slowly following the tanned toned legs up to white jeans shorts that barely reached to mid-thigh. Above deliciously curvy hips was a swath of bare belly and if he wasn’t mistaken, something shimmered at her navel—a piercing, maybe? His cock twitched at the thought. The dark purple ribbed tank she wore was short and fit snugly, showing off a narrow waist. It also cupped her full rounded breasts. She was petite; he guessed barely over five feet. For such a small woman, she had wonderfully full breasts which were in perfect proportion to the rest of her smokin’ hot body.

Realizing he was staring, his eyes jerked to her face. Startling sapphire blue eyes stared at him from a pixie-like face, which was tanned and stunningly beautiful. She had full pink lips and long silky lashes. Thick golden blond hair was pulled back from her face in a high ponytail that fell straight and long down her back.

She was gorgeous. However, with her pint size and youthful features, he’d suspect she was still in high school if it wasn’t for the exceptional tits. Again he jerked his gaze up when he realized his eyes had dipped again to her chest. Damn! He was like a horny uncouth teenager. Keeping his eyes to her face, he was pleased to see she wore little makeup and other than the flash at her belly, no jewelry. As he studied her, gaping like a sex-starved fool, she gave him a little smile, tipped her head to the side as if returning his appraisal and popped the gum she was chewing. Good God, what if she wasn’t eighteen and here he’d been drooling over her?

“I need some directions. Could you tell me which building is 2320? None of them are labeled.”

Holy shit! How did such a soft, sultry voice coming out of such a tiny creature? It was smooth as silk and laced with a sexy southern drawl that made his cock instantly hard and upright. He remembered her plates—Georgia—which made her a sexy southern peach. That got him thinking in a whole other direction. Damn!

Clearing his throat, he tried to collect himself to speak intelligently. “You’re parked behind 2320. The main entrance is on the other side, along Brookside Drive.”

She whirled an about-face, her ponytail swirling around her shoulders, as she looked at the building in question, then back at the paper in her hand. At this distance, her movements sent a whisper of mouthwatering strawberry into the air. She hadn’t doused herself in fragrance as some women tended to do. This was soft, subtle, just a hint that tickled his nose, sending his libido into overdrive.

Damn it, man, get it together. It had been a long, dry spell, but he had more control than this.

“Hm, Brookside Drive isn’t even on this map.” Turning back to him, she shrugged. “Well, thanks a bunch. I have a really important appointment in the morning and just wanted to scope things out so I know exactly where I’m going.” Tilting her head to the side, she flashed him a bright smile. Her small hand came to rest on his forearm, where she gave it a small squeeze before stepping away. “Thanks again, sugar. I’ll let you go.”

She whipped around and walked away as his phone rang. His first glimpse of her ass staggered him. An ass man of the first order, he loved curvy and Miss Georgia filled out her little white shorts as if they had been made to order, hugging every contour that made up her glorious backside. Her hips rolled seductively as she moved across the lot. Once again, his phone rang. As he dug the annoyingly persistent noise box out of his suddenly tight nylon shorts, his eyes tracked her back to the red Jeep as she climbed in. With one bare shapely leg still out the door, she leaned over to grasp the door handle and paused briefly, her head angled sideways as she cast him a long, thoughtful look and flashed a brief smile. Then she was gone, driving out of his life, seemingly forever.

Adjusting his painful erection to a less binding position did little good when his thoughts were filled with ripe round tits, a full rounded ass, juicy strawberries and peaches. He wondered how perverse was fate to have created the most perfect walking wet dream, only to plant her on the earth over eight hundred miles away—might as well be fucking Timbuktu. He swore again softly, as his phone rang yet again, no longer to be ignored.

Thumbing the screen, he barked at the unlucky caller on the other end. “Dr. Trent is on call, so this better be good.”

“Hello?” Jared asked.

“Rough day at the office, sweetheart?”

“Fuck you, Trent.”

The laughing voice on the other end belonged to his partner, Marcus Trent, and was annoyingly energetic considering Marc had already performed three surgeries that day.

“You want to meet for dinner? I’ve got two more consults but I’m starved.”

“I was just heading for the gym.”

“You gotta eat.”

“Yes, Mom,” he said with a long, drawn-out sigh. “It will have to be casual, though. I’ve already changed.”

“How about the deli on Telegraph and Square Lake?”

“I’ll be there in ten.”

“Everything okay, bud? You sound distracted.”

“I saw the most unbelievable woman just now.”

“Hot damn, did you get her number?”

“Yeah, but it was printed on Georgia plates.”

“Shit luck, bud. You can tell me all about it over dinner. Trent out.”

What a goofball, Jared thought, shaking his head as he thumbed off the phone and slammed the tailgate shut. At least he didn’t say ‘peace out’ anymore. His best friend since grade school, Marc was like a brother to him. They’d grown up together, gone through the trauma of puberty and high school together and played football; Jared’s tight end to Marc’s middle linebacker. After graduation, they headed off to Ann Arbor where they were roommates, chose the same major, and pledged at the same fraternity.

Afterward, it was off to New York and Columbia where they attended medical school and completed their residencies. Except for the year they’d done their orthopedic surgical fellowships on opposite ends of the country, they’d been inseparable. Now, they were back home in West Bloomfield Hills and living out their dream of a thriving private practice together. Life was good, he thought as an image of sapphire blue eyes and a belly ring flashed in his mind, but it could definitely be better.

* * *

Watching the traffic flowing briskly on busy Telegraph Rd., Marc didn’t notice the waitress refilling his coffee cup.

“Ready to order, hon?”

He looked up in surprise. Lillian’s peeling and battered nametag had seen better days, and by the look of the bearer, so had she. To tell the truth, the poor woman looked dead on her feet, the same way he felt after a twelve-hour day in surgery. They had that in common, the only difference about $500,000 per year. He smiled kindly at her, taking in her frazzled appearance, the hair that had long since slipped from the bun that had most likely been neat and together when she started her day and the stained and wrinkled uniform which had been clean and neatly pressed at one time, he was sure. Judging her to be in her early fifties, he could see she still had a nice figure and her thick auburn hair was sprinkled with only a few grays. Her sky blue eyes, probably clear and bright in her youth, were dull and sad. He could tell that she had once been stunning, but that life hadn’t been easy for her. He wondered what she was like when she wasn’t bogged down with the stress of serving a diner full of demanding customers.

“Long day?” Marc asked sympathetically.

“Pulling a double, but that’s par for the course around here. The tips are good and with the hospital right around the corner, we get a lot of handsome young doctors like you, so who’s complaining.”

Marc smiled graciously at the compliment.

“My daughter just hired on at St. Joe’s. She’s a registered nurse. You might know her.”

“Yeah? Is she as pretty as her mother? If so, I’ll need her name and number stat.”

Lillian blushed, smiling at the unexpected compliment. Smiling was something he knew instinctively she didn’t do often enough.

“Oh, you are a charmer. Her name is Jessica and she’s a redhead, a little shorter than I am and much more, uh… well, voluptuous is a good word for Jessie. She just started in surgery about a week ago.” Lillian eyed his name embroidered on his lab coat, which covered his scrubs. “She’s having dinner at the counter.”

His eyes followed the direction of her pencil as she pointed, but he didn’t see a redhead, only a large man on a corner stool, a hot blonde in killer white shorts, and a long line of interested men on stools watching as the blonde paid for her to-go order.

“I’ll tell her to watch out for Dr. Trent. You’re not married, are you?”

“Married?” Jared laughed as he slid into the opposite side of the booth. “No woman would put up with this putz.”

“Butt out, I’m getting fixed up.” Marc winked outrageously at the older woman who was staring at Jared contemplatively.

“You’re a doctor too, aren’t you? I’ve seen you here for lunch before wearing scrubs.”

“Guilty as charged. I’m the better, handsomer, more talented doctor. Who are you fixing him up with?”

“Her pretty, curvy, redheaded daughter,” Marc growled mockingly, “so once again, butt out, butthead.”

Lillian laughed, giving Jared a once-over. “Two handsome charmers… Jessie’s going to have to be on her toes. I’ll tell her to be on the lookout for both of you.”

As the bells on the diner door jangled, another customer called for Lillian’s attention and she held up a finger asking for patience. “The natives are getting restless. I had better get a move on. So what can I get you?”

A minute later, she was off with their order.

“So tell me about the Georgia peach.”

“I’ll see her long blond ponytail and painted-on white shorts in my dreams tonight. I think she had a belly ring, too.”

“Hm… Did she drive a red Jeep, by any chance?”

Jared stared at him in shock. “How did you know?”

“You just missed her, bud, but the eight gawking guys at the counter didn’t. Nine if you count me.”

“You are shittin’ me.”

“Nope, small world, huh?

“It doesn’t matter and there’s no point in dreaming. I’m sure I’ll never see her again, which is exactly my shitty luck with women.”

Jared had been through so many bad dates and hookups that he had pretty much taken himself off the market to concentrate on work, instead. An occasional date here and there, but if Marc’s memory was accurate, it had been well over a year since he’d had anything serious.

“Have you seen any new redheaded nurses at St. Joe’s?”

“Nope, but a pretty curvy redhead sounds to be right up my alley about now.”

“Bullshit. You like tall with a great ass, Jare. I know your type after seeing you in action all these years.”

“First, I was joking. Second, I didn’t know I had a particular type. And third, I’ve come to the conclusion recently, today as a matter of fact, that like they say, good things come in small packages.”

“If you use that line on women, no wonder you haven’t had a second date in a while. The words ‘small package’ is not something I’d figure they’d want to hear.”

Jared snorted and shook his head. “Good thing you have a day job, because as a comedian, your material sucks.”

Marc laughed. Jared was what women called the strong, silent type. Some women fell for that hard. He was a great guy, but more serious than Marc who was usually joking, laughing, and flirting. Marc loved the ladies, but he found that working sixteen-hour days between the OR and the clinic, severely limited his dating options. Cruising for chicks at the usual places was difficult enough, but when you had little time or energy, it became next to impossible.

With his options narrowed, he’d begun doing what he’d been warned not to do. That’s right; he’d dipped his pen in the company ink. At least that was the nicest euphemism he knew for dating co-workers and associates. There was a reason companies had a no-fraternization policy, Marc had only recently found out.

Over the course of the past year, there had been a nurse and another doctor. His latest fling with a cute nurse’s aide named Amanda had ended a few weeks ago. She had been on the rebound from her old boyfriend when Marc asked her out. She’d been open about it at the time, and although both had reservations, they’d gone out. After a few enjoyable dates, Amanda had ended it. Once her ex-boyfriend, Joe or was it John? Whichever… Once he’d found out she was moving on and had upgraded to a surgeon, he’d come crawling back. Amanda wanted that as well, because—big surprise—Joe or John was the father of her three-year-old daughter. She’d told Marc all of this over a friendly lunch in the hospital cafeteria, ending their brief fling without drama or incident, or so they thought—big mistake. By the next day, the gossip mill was churning out a rumor so highly steeped in bullshit that even reality TV wouldn’t have bought it. Something about a broken-hearted Amanda, begging him to change his mind, which had deteriorated into a shouting match. None of which had even remotely happened.

Marc had seen firsthand that the high-velocity hospital grapevine, although grossly inaccurate, was terrifyingly efficient, and gossip, especially dating and break-up gossip, spread like wildfire. Jared had warned him from the first. He could still hear him saying, ‘Don’t foul your own nest, man. Nothing good can come of it.’ To Marc, this had translated to the more vulgar but much more widely known, ‘don’t shit where you eat.’ Had he listened? No.

Jared’s father, who was also a surgeon on staff at the hospital, had run into him in the hallway after the Amanda incident and warned him. “Don’t get your honey where you get your money, son. I thought Jared would have warned you about that by now.” Of course he had, numerous times, but apparently, most everyone else took this to heart except him.

He had decided, after Amanda, that Jared and the old adages were right; no more dating anyone who worked at or was associated with St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital. He was through.

A movement at the counter caught Marc’s eye and brought him back to the present. The large man at the counter was heading out, which meant Marc now had a clear view of the entire counter. At the far end sat a stunning redhead deep in conversation with their waitress, Lillian. This had to be the daughter. From what he could see of her—that wasn’t blocked by the counter—her mother hadn’t lied, except she was stunning, not merely pretty. He noticed right off that she talked with her hands. Her rounder parts bounced deliciously as she gestured, intent on making a point while she spoke animatedly with her mother. He couldn’t pull his eyes away. They dipped, taking in her spectacular behind when she stood abruptly. Leaning across the counter for a quick hug made her shirt ride up and the small of her back was displayed. Marc’s eyes widened next when she straightened and a band of smooth white belly was exposed below her tee. She was magnificent and those tits—double D in his expert opinion—made his mouth water. His dick stirred and awakened.

“What are you gawking at?” Jared asked, turning in his seat. His soft whistle told him he’d identified the gawkee. They both watched, catching no more than a glimpse of her walking away, but oh hell, what a glimpse it was. As she walked toward the door, the swing in her hips drew Marc’s avid gaze to her exceptional ass. Moving quickly, her short skirt flared and twitched provocatively. In seconds she was gone, exiting by the side door, but her memory lingered for Marc.

“Poor bastard,” Jared murmured in sympathy.

“Yeah, that’s the sad story of our lives, bud, beautiful women walking away.”

“At least yours doesn’t live 800 fucking miles away.”

* * *

Gray scrubs with a small band of pink at the v-neckline, ugh! Who had picked out this awful color combination? Jessica Swanson looked at herself as she tucked her mass of red hair under the blue scrub cap. Next came her shoe protectors—these were yellow. Oh well, surgical nursing had never promised to be fashionable.

She walked into the scrub room and began her thorough five-minute scrub. While she was scrubbing with the brush under and around her nails, Josie, the nurse who had been training her, walked in. Jessie, although always thorough, became a bit more diligent because Josie was also the clinical leader for the OR and her immediate supervisor.

“Are you ready for your solo, Jess?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

“I assigned you to Dr. Trent this morning. He’s very patient. You should be fine. The total hip replacement is routine and you should be out in a little over an hour. After that, you have two scopes with Dr. Baker. All in all, it’s an easy day.”

“I hope so. Can I hope for an uneventful one too?” Finished, Jessie stepped off the foot pedal that operated the flow of water and headed for the swinging door, one of the few things not automated at this top-ranked hospital.

“We pray for uneventful every day around here. Break a leg.”

Jess laughed as she pressed her butt against the door and backed into OR-4 where she’d been assigned. “Don’t you mean, fix a leg? Mr. Archer already took care of the breaking part before coming in.”

Josie laughed as if she’d never heard that old joke before. Jessie, who appreciated her effort, shook her head and chuckled as she was greeted by one of the surgical techs who tied her mask in place. Once gowned, she immediately walked over and began setting up the instruments as Josie had shown her. About twenty minutes later, the patient arrived. Mr. Archer was a charming 70-year-old whom she’d met in the pre-op area. He was here for an elective procedure, which if successful, would relieve the constant pain from his degenerating hip. After a few weeks of rehab and barring post-op complications, he would be more mobile than before with an improved quality of life. He was rolled in and transferred to the table by the technicians. She approached him, smiling with her eyes, eager to put him at ease.

“Are you ready to go bionic, Mr. Archer?”

“Oh, Jessie, it’s nice to see a familiar—” He paused as his nervous eyes swept over her mask and scrub cap. “I was going to say face, but I can only see your eyes, and yours are some of the bluest I’ve ever seen.”

“Such a flatterer, but I thank you. Just relax now while we finish up with the preparations.” Her eyes flicked to the nurse anesthetist who was getting ready near the head of the table. After a few seconds more, she was ready and nodded an okay. “Looks like Sherry is ready to make you sleepy as soon as the tardy Dr. Trent arrives.”

Looking down into his face, she saw the anxiety stamped in the tight lines around his mouth. She wanted to reach out and squeeze his shoulder in reassurance, but she couldn’t break the sterile field. She clenched her hands into tight fists in self-restraint. “Don’t worry, Mr. Archer. Dr. Trent has an excellent reputation and before you know it you’ll be kicking his ass on the links again at Forest Hills.”

Her patient laughed as she’d hoped, as did the other OR staff, then a new voice came from behind her. “Have you been dissing my handicap, Arthur? I’m crushed. In front of my new scrub nurse too.”

Jessie assumed it was Dr. Trent, but she didn’t turn to confirm it since he was standing too close. If she turned around and brushed against him, she could contaminate them both and they’d have to re-scrub. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful impression to make on her first day? She stood still, keeping her eyes on the older man’s face as his gaze lifted well over her head. Dr. Trent must be tall. Her curiosity was killing her, but she waited. In due time, they’d meet officially.

“Jessie says I’ll be kicking your ass again, Marc. I trust her, so you had better be saving your pennies for tournament time in September.”

The deep genuine laugh that rumbled behind her sent a frisson of electricity up her spine. What a voice, she thought, and that laugh was as warm and luxurious as a bubble bath that you’d want to soak in for hours. She tensed. Where had that come from? Sheesh, pay attention, woman, you’re working.

“You’re on, my friend,” said the deep voice, “shall we get started?”

Sherry scooted forward on her stool and slipped the mask onto Arthur’s face, asking him to count backward from one hundred. By the count of ninety-three, he was out. Dr. Trent had moved away and she was free to take her position down the table, directly across from him. As the scrub nurse, she was his primary assistant. He stepped close to the table and she looked up, her gaze eye level with his chest. Her eyes tracked upward. He was tall. Correction, he was very tall. He stood several inches over six feet, and the table was elevated to accommodate his height, making it necessary for five-foot-four–inch Jessie to stand on a riser. During training, Jessie had learned this special setup was required by Drs. Trent and Baker; now she knew why.

She looked up at him and stopped breathing. He had the most beautiful brown eyes she’d ever seen. It sounded trite and overused, even in her own mind, but it was true. The primary chocolate combined with a sprinkling of gold in the iris to make the warm golden brown color. They were entrancing.

A throat cleared at her side and she turned, thankful for the distraction. It was Sherry. “He’s ready. We can proceed with the surgical pause.”

It was all professional after that. They went through the required pause to identify the right patient, right site, and so on, and then Dr. Trent began. Jessie kept her eyes on her patient and the tools needed to repair his worn-out hip. She responded without hesitation to all of Dr. Trent’s orders for instruments, or irrigation, and swabbing with the sponges. Before she knew it, he was stapling the long incision closed.

“You do beautiful work, Doctor.”

“Why thank you, blue eyes,” he murmured, amusement evident although he didn’t look up from his task.

Jessie glanced up at him, frowning. He shouldn’t call her that; the others would get the wrong impression. “My name is Jessie, sir. I’d much rather—”

Finished, the doctor stood up straight and set the stapler back on the tray. They were done except for a dressing. “I’d happily call you by name, but you didn’t share it with me at any point in the past ninety minutes. If I’d said nurse, at least four others would have answered, so I figured I’d improvise.”

Their eyes met. His twinkling, hers narrowed in concern. Was he flirting or just being friendly? Either way, she had a reputation to maintain.

“I’m sorry. I was concentrating. This was my first solo and I was anxious to do everything perfectly.”

“You did wonderfully, as if you’ve been doing this for years. How much experience do you have?”

“Just under two years, but I took the peri-operative training course and I’m certified.”

She stepped off the riser and moved around the table next to him, gathering up the instruments in order to begin the counts and clean up with the circulating nurse. Looking up, she realized just how much the riser helped, because she now felt like she was standing in a hole. Their eyes connected and held for a moment. A frown furrowed his brow suddenly and she saw the mask move as he swallowed.

“Well, you did great and I look forward to working with you again.”

His tone had changed, turning strictly professional, still friendly but no hint of flirtation. That was a good thing, right? Then, without another word, he was gone.

Jessie finished up and took a short break before her next procedure with Dr. Baker in forty minutes. When she returned a few minutes later, she headed for the documentation room to do a little charting, but the sound of hushed voices made her pause. She’d worked in hospitals long enough to know whispered voices were usually toxic.

“Twenty bucks says she’s next.”

“You’re on. I was in there. She was chatting him up, smiling at him with those big baby blues, but he shut her down.” That was Sherry, the CRNA. She recognized the slight rasp in her voice.

“I’m in. She is exactly his type. He goes for the cute ones, with big boobs and a round boo-tay. She’s got all that goin’ on.” This came from Allen, the surgical tech. Jessie didn’t recognize the other woman’s voice, it sounded garbled as if she were eating, but even if she didn’t know her, it hurt all the same. Dang, it was that blue eyes comment. She knew that would be trouble as soon as he’d spoken. She’d like to smack Dr. Trent.

She turned to leave, deciding to chart later, and saw another tall young doctor walking into the suite. This must be Dr. Baker. Deciding to be proactive this time, she walked up to him and assertively stuck out her hand and introduced herself. Soon she found herself in conversation with another handsome surgeon who welcomed her with an easy friendly manner and a devastating smile. From the way she had to tilt her head to talk to him, she knew he was as tall as Dr. Trent was. She could see the ripple of muscles across his broad chest as the blue scrub top (a much better color than the nurse’s gray) stretched tautly. His exposed arms in the short sleeves left no question that he was ripped.

He asked about her background and experience, and although he was courteous and professional, it reminded Jessie of a job interview. She really didn’t mind; curiosity about the people you work with and rely on was natural.

Tight quarters made it necessary to stand closely, more so than two strangers ordinarily would. His shoulder propped against the wall made it look casual, too casual she thought for people who’d just met. That was how Sherry, Allen, and Josie found them. Jess was surprised to see the unidentified gossiping woman was Josie. Sherry and Allen wore identical smirks on their faces, while Josie’s face darkened with a frown. She could just imagine what they were thinking, that she was a flirt, or a slut, and that their bet was safe. Did she have to be a complete bitch or a mute to avoid this crap? Dammit! This was not starting well.

Excusing herself, Jessie went to the locker room for a quick pit stop before scrubbing again. As she sat in the stall, she wiped her sweaty palms on her pants, and took deep breaths to slow her rapid breathing. She had to keep these men at a distance. She had her ten-year plan for the future all laid out. Getting her degree, her nursing license and a good job were in the done column. Now came working and saving so that in a few years, she could return to school for her master’s degree. Nowhere in her plan did it state ‘get a man,’ no matter how sexy that man’s golden brown eyes were. A man had been her mother’s downfall, and her grandmother before her. Jessie was determined to break that cycle of self-destruction. It ended with her, here and now, and she felt that financial independence was the key.

* * *

Jared and Marc walked into the medical arts building behind their clinic. Part of Saint Joe’s, it housed a few primary care practitioners offices but mostly conference rooms, computer labs for staff training, and on the third floor was the Physician’s Practice Management Group, the arm of their clinic that did all of the billing and finances, including accounting and credentialing. It was also the location of their practice manager’s office. Today was their monthly board meeting and they were running a few minutes late. Lunch, or dinner on the rare occasion it was held in the evening, was always served first, so there was a time buffer built in before the business portion started, but neither of the partners ever wanted to be late.

Thursday was Jared’s office day and he’d been distracted all morning. It was his chance to catch up on paperwork and his charts, but he hadn’t been nearly as productive as he’d hoped. Instead of feeling refreshed after a night free from on-call duty, he’d slept fitfully, tossing and turning constantly. His dreams haunted by images of a sexy, blue-eyed blonde.

“Damn!” Jared stopped just shy of the elevator.

“What?” Marc was pressing the button impatiently and frowning up at the numbers indicating both elevators were on the third floor, their destination.

“I forgot my briefcase. I had a proposal I wanted to give to Marcy. She was going to run some numbers for me. You go on. I’m gonna run back and get it.” He whirled to rush back along the path he’d just traveled. Too late, he heard Marc call out a warning at the exact moment he slammed hard into someone behind him.

The small body was no match for his 242-pound frame and the woman went flying. She landed on her butt and slid across the floor. Papers fluttered and floated around her as her briefcase, which had been knocked out of her hands in the collision, landed with a thud a few feet away. Finally, she came to a stop, but not before the momentum flung her head backward and it connected with a thump, like a watermelon, upon the hard tile floor.

Appalled by his clumsiness, Jared immediately rushed to her side. Smooth tanned thighs below a bunched-up navy suit drew his gaze. His eyes flicked up to her face but all he saw was a wealth of honey blond curls obscuring her face. A red-tipped hand shakily came up and brushed her hair back from her face.

“Georgia?”

Appearing confused, she looked up at him blankly. She didn’t seem to recognize him. Had she hit her head that hard? Maybe she was concussed. He called to her again. “Are you all right, miss?”

Shaking her head as if clearing out the cobwebs, she tilted her head and asked, “Wolverine, right?”

“Pardon?” Her comment was random, and he began to worry she might be concussed.

“In the parking lot, last night, you were in your U of M running gear. They’re the Wolverines, right?

He nodded, relieved that she wasn’t hallucinating or delirious. Maybe they could rule out a subarachnoid hemorrhage after all. He was also pleased she’d taken such detailed notice of him during their brief encounter.

“I’m sorry for not watching where I was going. Does your head hurt? You hit the floor hard.”

“My head’s okay, I think. You just knocked the breath of out of me and scrambled my brains a bit. Did you happen to play football for your alma mater?”

“No, just in high school.”

“Too bad, they could have used you as a blocker.”

He smiled, once again charmed by her southern accent. “Do you think you can stand?”

She nodded. As she moved, her hand suddenly flew to the hem of her skirt, frantically pulling it down as if realizing for the first time she’d been sitting with her skirt almost to her hips.

He watched as a becoming blush tinted her cheeks. Offering her a hand, he pulled her up easily. The hand returning to her head concerned him.

“Are you dizzy?”

“A little, I think it was from getting up too fast. You’re very strong, sugar.” She used the endearment easily, automatically as if unaware, as she looked around for something. “One of my shoes is missing.”

“Here you go, Stacy.” Marc’s long arm extended between them holding a high-heeled taupe pump.

As if unaware of his presence until now, she looked at Marc in surprise. “How did you know my name?”

He held up her resume. “I gathered up all your papers, Stacy Altman of Atlanta, Georgia.”

Jared watched her gaze flick over to Marc. The smile she gave him caused a pang of jealousy to flare within him. He tamped it down. How insane was it to be jealous over a woman he’d seen twice?

Still concerned, he continued his assessment. “Now that you’re standing, any dizziness, pain, blurred vision? Maybe we should get a CT to check.” He pulled a penlight from his inside pocket and shined it in her eyes, checking her pupils.

“That’s not necessary. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” She plucked her shoe from Marc’s hand with a grateful smile. The she used Jared’s arm to steady herself as she put it back on her foot. Accepting the stack of papers Marc held out to her, she slid them into the briefcase.

“Did you find everything okay?”

“Pardon?” She tilted her head in question.

Jared found the beguiling gesture cute and sexy at the same time and grinned as he explained. “Your really important meeting, did you find it all right?”

“Sure did, sugar. In fact, I found it and rocked it, so now I’m homeward bound. I’m surprised you remembered.”

“Heading back to Georgia?”

“You remembered that too, I’m impressed.”

She had no idea her southern drawl was as obvious as the sweet uptilted nose on her face.

“Well, Wolverine, I’m sorry I can’t say it’s been exactly nice running into you again. Don’t sweat it, really. I’m fine.” With a smile for him and a wave to Marc, she turned and headed out the front doors.

Marc let out a low whistle as they both watched her move. She didn’t just walk; she swayed seductively. Her tight skirt hugged her hips and her full rounded ass was like a siren’s call, tempting a man’s eyes.

“Damn!” Marc murmured in awe.

“I told you. When I saw her last night, it was shorts and a tight tank top. Just as hot, but different. The suit makes her look older. Last night, she looked barely legal, if that. I was ready to turn myself in to the sex offender’s list.”

“Good thing she’s from out of state or I’d give you a run for your money.”

“What about Jessie, the new scrub nurse, I thought you were into her?”

“Nope, I’ve sworn off hospital romance for good. No matter how blue her eyes are, or that her hair is the most unusual red, with copper and gold mixed in. I’ll just have to learn to ignore that sweet ass and her killer tits.” The elevator dinged open as he said that. Fortunately, there wasn’t a board member on the other side to hear.

As they entered, Jared laughed. “You’re toast, bud.”

“I know.” Marc groaned and fell forward, banging his head against the elevator wall after the doors slid shut. “What about you? Your fantasy lives in freakin’ Georgia.”

“That just means my wet dream won’t be under my direction in the OR calling me ‘sir’ every day. I take back the toast, you’re screwed.”

“No, bud, I’m fucked.” Jared’s chuckle accompanied Marc’s slow head banging, as it thumped once, twice and then again, in defeat.

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