Feeling as if she was walking on air, Jessica Swanson rushed down the stairs toward the gym where her first practice would take place. She couldn’t believe she’d made it. Her months of hard work, the hours of tumbling to perfect her back handspring, the miles of running to lose those stubborn last five pounds and the ass kissing of the senior members of the squad had all paid off. When she saw her name on the selection list, she had been ecstatic. Although she felt sorry for her friend Rachel who’d been cut, her sympathy didn’t deflate her own happiness one bit. She had wanted this so badly.
Giddily, she hopped off the last step and turned down the main corridor. She hadn’t taken more than two steps before her body jerked and her books went flying through the air. Off balance, she lurched forward, arms whirling to keep from falling. When the world righted, she glanced around, stunned. She looked from her purse, which was swinging by a strap from the handrail—the obvious culprit in this fiasco—to the mess on the floor. Textbooks lay open with bindings strained and pages bent, several tubes of lipstick still rolled slowly across the slick floor, papers sailed through the air, landing everywhere, and much to her mortification, two of her tampons touched down smack dab in the middle of the hall floor. Finally, to her utter humiliation, on the edge of the chaos was a pair of sneakers. As her eyes tracked upward, she groaned as she saw that the sneakers were attached to the legs and tight Levi’s of none other than Brandon Joseph. Please, God, take me now!
Suddenly breathless, Jessie stared up into the long-lashed, green-eyed gaze of the cutest boy in school. A wealth of silky brown hair framed his gorgeous face, which was merely the beginning of all that was Brandon. Student body president and star running back for the Stephenson Spartans, Brandon was also the most popular boy in school and had been Jessie’s crush since eighth grade. She had no idea he knew she was alive, let alone knew her name. As she stared dumbly up at him, he scanned the floor and then bent to start scooping up her belongings.
“Let me help you with all this.”
The thought of him picking up her tampons snapped her out of her daze and she dove to the floor reaching for them. Ignoring his soft chuckle, Jessie snatched up the two plastic-wrapped tubes, along with her hairbrush and lipstick, and stuffed them into the pocket of her jeans. Her face heated to scorching as she scooped up her books and papers. As she gathered a pile of loose papers and her physics textbook, a large masculine hand appeared in front of her face, her handbag dangling by the strap from one long finger. She almost laughed aloud. What was it about men and purses that made them act as if they had cooties or something?
Her eyes flew up to his face, realizing that she hadn’t said a word to him yet.
“Are you all right, Jessie? Can you say something?”
“I, um—” She stammered, trying to put together some sort of intelligent response. Great, you sound like a moron, speak in real words, maybe a phrase or two, a complete sentence might really impress him.
“Uh, what would you like me to say?” Oh, yeah, real smooth, Swanson.
“I don’t know, how about ‘Hey, Bran,’ or ‘Great game last night, Bran,’ or ‘Kiss my ass, Bran’… something.”
She wanted to flirt or say something witty, but that sexy dimple appeared in his cheek and distracted her. Wow! No wonder every girl in school drooled over him.
He handed her a stack of books and a tube of lipstick. “Passionate Pink, I like that.”
She gazed at it blankly. Her brain froze, but her heart urged her to say something. You’re blowing it, dummy!
“I don’t think pink is your color.” Where had that tease come from? Some part of her brain must still be functioning. She held up the other lipstick tube, adding, “You seem more like a Peach Bellini kind of guy to me.”
He appeared puzzled for a moment before he tossed his head back and laughed.
“Thanks for helping me, Bran. I was rushing and the rail reached out and grabbed my purse.” She glanced at her watch and frowned. “Speaking of rushing, I’ve got to go. I’m late for practice.”
“Yeah, congrats on making the cheerleading squad, by the way, that’s a big deal for a sophomore.”
Jessie flushed with pleasure. It was true; she was the lone sophomore on the squad. It wasn’t a big deal; it was a huge honkin’ deal. Some of the upperclassmen were pissed that she’d taken a senior or junior girl’s spot, but she’d earned it and totally nailed her tryout. Overnight, her social status had risen. People she barely knew were coming up to her with congratulations and now popular kids like Brandon Joseph were talking to her.
“Thanks, Bran. I’m sorry. I’ve really got to go.”
“I get it, what if we finish our conversation this weekend? We could get something to eat and go to the movies—there are a few comedies out I haven’t seen.”
“I’d like that,” she said hesitantly, with a small smile. What was going on? She’d never had this much good fortune. At least not in the past few years since her family life had fallen apart. Maybe her luck was turning.
“Great.” He wrote his number on the outside of one of her folders. “Call me when you get home tonight and you can give me your address.”
Nodding, Jessie felt her stomach clench as he walked away and then took the stairs two at a time. She stared after him for a moment. Her address… Oh, God! He couldn’t come to her place—no way! She’d simply die!
“Jessie! Are you coming?”
She looked up and saw one of the co-captains waving at her. She’d have to worry about Bran and this weekend later. With her purse, a stack of loose papers, and textbooks in her arms, she hurried to the gym for her first practice.
Sitting on her bed in her room, Jessie pored over the papers the faculty sponsor had given her as she left. Expecting to find a practice schedule and permission slip, she had been stunned to find an extensive uniform and equipment list for the varsity squad. Her eyes watered as she scanned over the prices.
2-Uniforms including liner/briefs/sports bra $400
Skills and choreography camp $250
Practice/Camp wear $100
Tote bag $50
Competition registration fee $75
Holy crap! The total was over $1000 and that didn’t include basketball season expenses. She had no idea it was going to be so much. She had $250 of babysitting money saved; that was all. She couldn’t ask her mom. As it was, she was working two jobs, double and extra shifts when possible just to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads in the dump of a trailer they called home. Living paycheck to paycheck, it seemed something was always coming up or breaking down. Only last week her mom had to put the car in the shop for a fuel pump or something like that. Whatever it was, it had been costly and wiped out what little savings she had.
Jessie’s hands shook and her stomach churned as tears rolled down her face. It wasn’t fair. Ever since her dad up and left them a few years back, her life had turned to crap. Her mother had been devastated and had walked around like a zombie for months, going through the motions in order to put food on the table for her daughter.
Three years later, she was still in a funk, although who could blame her. She had tried to salvage their floundering diner, but it had been impossible by herself, even with Jessie helping when she could after school and on weekends. Filing bankruptcy and selling the business that was drowning in debt had been her only option and had left her with nothing. Now her mom worked two waitressing jobs, leaving one around three o’clock each afternoon and arriving at the other by four. When possible, Jessie would meet her for supper, not only to catch up on school, Jessie’s friends, and what was happening in her life, but because she got an employee discount. For all her hard work, Lillian Swanson had nothing to show for it, except more debt.
The door slamming caught her attention. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was 4:30 and her mom was home on a rare evening off.
“Jessie! C’mon, baby, I brought dinner.”
Wiping her tears, she took in her weepy appearance in the mirror. No way would she be able to hide her bloodshot, swollen eyes from her mother. Even though she knew it would do little good, Jessie stopped by the bathroom and splashed cool water on her face. After blowing her nose, she took a steadying breath and headed for the kitchen.
“There you are, sweetie. Tips were great today so I brought home Chinese, shrimp lo mein and sweet and sour chicken, your favorites.” Her mother’s smile faded when she caught sight of her tear-stained face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing important,” Jessie sniffled as she went to get plates.
Her mother stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Come on now, you don’t cry, so when you do it is always something important. Tell me about it.”
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I know how badly you wanted to make it.”
Jessie observed her mother closely. She was only thirty-five and had a head full of gray hair. She also had dark circles under her eyes from working from the ass crack of dawn to past midnight most nights. She couldn’t ask her to pull another shift to buy pom-poms or work another double for a cheerleading uniform. Tears of disappointment welled up.
“Sweetheart, don’t cry. There’s always next year. You said making it as a sophomore was a long shot.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “That almost never happens.” Her voice broke and she sobbed into her mother’s shoulder.
The following day, she gave up her position on the squad. Too embarrassed to admit she couldn’t afford it, she made up some lame excuse about it being too much of a time commitment and not being able to keep up with her studies.
From there, things got worse. She went back to being a nobody, her one claim to fame that had set her apart from the other two thousand kids in her high school now gone.
Brandon Joseph showed his true colors and cancelled their date. She hadn’t really been surprised. Not that day or two weeks later when she saw him making out with a girl in the main hallway, his tongue down her throat as he plastered her up against his locker. He proceeded to grope her right there in front of everyone and Jessie wondered how far they would have gone if one of the teachers hadn’t come along and separated them. When they were peeled apart, Jessie saw that it was Rachel. Not only had she taken her place on the squad, she’d become her replacement with Brandon as well, proving the rumors true that he only went out with cheerleaders.
Rachel had no time for her after that since she didn’t run with the ‘in crowd.’ Not surprisingly, she now spent all of her time with her new friends who lived in the more affluent neighborhoods and drove fancy cars. Rachel had always been a climber, although it hurt that she had abandoned Jessie after years of close friendship. It worked out for the best, Jessie told herself, because Rachel fit in where Jessie never would have.
Walking away from something she wanted so badly was a difficult decision; even so, she’d made the sacrifice for her and her mom. She’d learned that altruistic lesson from her mother, who did that for her every day.
Her father was a different story entirely. When Jessie was little, he’d seemed so tall, strong, and protective, standing head and shoulders above other men. He was her hero, so special in her eyes that he could do no wrong. She’d thought that he loved her and her mother more than anything, that he would make any sacrifice for them out of that love. Now she wondered if he had ever really loved them.
When he left them, she had been thirteen, and at that tender age she hadn’t been able to face the harsh reality that the image she had of her father had been horribly skewed. Seeing him through a little girl’s eyes as her beloved daddy, she dreamed only of the day he’d come back. Having forgiven him for so many disappointments over the years, long before he ever left, at the time, she would have forgiven him for this one too. Her love had been unconditional—despite the fact that he had never come to her softball games after promising when she was eight never to miss a single one. She’d accepted his excuse that he had to work, not seeing the pattern that had begun to emerge.
He had continued to let her down time and again. He’d missed open houses to meet her teachers, art shows, talent shows—like when she was ten and stood before a packed auditorium audience and sang ‘The Sign’ by Ace of Base with Rachel, when they were still tight, or the science fair in sixth grade when her mud-spewing volcano had won second prize. Yet, with a girl’s wide-eyed innocence, she’d lived for the times he was there and loved him all the same.
With his absence, each passing milestone added pain and resentment. Days had turned to weeks, then to months and to years. She blamed him for letting three birthdays pass without a word, tasted bitter disappointment when she needed him to teach her to drive and for not being there for her now for something that meant so much to her. The pedestal where she had placed her beloved father had cracked when her sweet sixteen came and went unrecognized. With each passing week and month without a word from him, it continued to crumble until one day the pedestal shattered into oblivion. Like Humpty Dumpty, it was beyond repair, never to be put back together again.
If he hadn’t left them destitute, things would be different. She would still be living in a decent house, in a nice neighborhood, instead of a tenement on wheels in a crowded trailer park. If he hadn’t run out on them, leaving her mother without a penny to their name, she would still have the diner and wouldn’t be working herself into an early grave. If he hadn’t abandoned them like a coward and left them flat broke, Jessie wouldn’t have to scrimp and save just to shop at thrift stores and consignment shops buying other girls’ castoffs.
She decided right then that her future would be different. She had the grades to get a scholarship. She would get a job that paid a good wage and be independent. Never would she rely solely on a man as her mother had, just to have the jerk pull the rug out from under her feet. Her mother often said, the only person a woman could rely on in life was herself, and Jessie had finally come to grips with how true that really was.
Twelve years later…
“Ready to order, hon?”
Marc glanced up in surprise. Lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed the waitress refilling his coffee cup. Lillian’s peeling and battered nametag had seen better days, and by the look of the bearer, so had she. The poor woman was dead on her feet, the same way he was after a twelve-hour day in surgery. They had that in common, the only difference, about one million dollars per year. He smiled kindly at her, taking in her frazzled appearance.
“Long day, Lillian?” Marc asked sympathetically.
“Pulling a double, which is par for the course around here. The tips are good and with the hospital right around the corner, we get a lot of good-looking young doctors like you, so who’s complaining. It’s Lily, by the way, I’ve been asking for a new nametag for years, but…” She shrugged. “Do you work at St. Joe’s?”
Marc smiled and answered politely, “I’m on the surgical staff there, yes.”
“Oh! My daughter recently got a job there. You might know her. She’s a registered nurse.”
“Yeah? Is she as pretty as her mother? If so, I’ll need her name and number to go, please.”
The waitress smiled at the unexpected compliment, which Marc knew instinctively she didn’t do very often.
“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. She started in surgery about a week ago.” Lily eyed the name embroidered on his lab coat, which covered his scrubs. “Dr. Trent, is it? She’s having dinner at the counter.”
His eyes followed the direction of her pencil as she pointed. He didn’t see a redhead, only a very rotund man, a hot blonde in killer white shorts, and a long line of interested men on stools gawking as the blonde paid for her to-go order.
“I’ll tell her to keep her eyes out for you. You’re not married, are you?”
“Married?” Jared Baker laughed as he slid into the opposite side of the booth. “No woman would put up with this putz.”
Like him, his best friend since grade school was a surgeon on staff at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, or St. Joe’s as the locals called it. Jared had also become his partner in the rehabilitation and sports medicine clinic they had opened a few years back.
“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. Dr. Baker, at your service. I’m the better looking, more talented partner. Who are you fixing him up with?”
“Her pretty, curvy, redheaded daughter,” Marc growled mockingly, “so, once again, butt out, butthead.”
Lily laughed, giving Jared a once-over. “Two fine-looking charmers; my baby girl is 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 door jangled, announcing another customer, one of Lily’s tables called for her attention. She held up a finger asking for patience. “The natives are getting restless. I had better get a move on. The hot roast beef sandwich is on special today and I can recommend it. So what can I get you two?”
A minute later, she was off with their order for two specials.
Jessie was taking the last bite of her cheeseburger when her mother walked up. Heaving a tired sigh, she stuck her pencil behind her ear and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the old-fashioned lunch counter in front of her. Jessie thought she looked more exhausted than usual. Her cheeks were flushed and the bun that she wore low at the back of her head was slipping, a few tendrils of her thick, graying auburn hair having sprung free. Her uniform, the standard pink with the built-in pinafore type apron was graced with a large coffee stain near the pocket, an occupational hazard for a waitress.
“Order up, Lily,” the line cook yelled through the window. Jessie smiled in sympathy as her mom wearily stood up straight, while holding her lower back.
“Want a slice of pie, baby girl?”
“No. My rear end needs pie like Kim Kardashian needs butt implants.”
Her mother laughed tiredly and Jessie was impressed she’d gotten her pop-culture joke. “I’m gonna run. I’ve got my first on-call shift tonight and have to be at the hospital by six for a procedure.”
“Oh? Maybe you’ll get to scrub in with Dr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome in A5.”
Jessie, who worked her way through undergrad by waiting tables at the Telegraph Diner, knew A5 was a booth by the front windows. As she scanned the area, she couldn’t see A5 due to the very portly gentleman seated at the counter. She shrugged. “I’m not interested in Dr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome or Dr. Short and Pudgy for that matter. The only thing I’m interested in is getting a few hours of studying in for the big test I have on Friday.”
“It’s probably for the best. He seems like the kind of doctor who has a favorite nurse on every floor and a few stashed in each supply closet or on-call room.”
“You watch too much TV, mom. That kind of stuff doesn’t really go on in hospitals, and Dr. McDreamy is simply a myth.”
“Whatever you say, baby girl, just steer clear of an Italian Don Juan with yummy brown eyes and perfect teeth by the name of Dr. Trent.”
The name was familiar from the surgical board, except Jessie, who had only been there a week, hadn’t had the pleasure. “There’s also a Dr. Baker who’s easy on the eyes; however, I’m not interested in a hospital fling or romance of any kind. I don’t have time.”
“He’s over there too.”
Curious, Jessie’s eyes flicked that way. A second later, she shook her head. “No. It’s not a good time for love and never at work.”
“If you ask me, there is never a good time for love. It’s way overrated.” After all this time, her eyes still looked wounded. “Never mind that, could I interest you in dinner on Sunday? I’m off.”
“Me too, so it’s a date. I’ve got a study group at two o’clock, is five okay?”
“You got it, sweets.”
A bell rang impatiently several times. “Pick up, Lillian.” This time the cook’s tone held more than a thread of irritation.
“Love you, mom.” Jessie leaned across and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek, then hopped from her stool. She saw a flash of blue scrubs to her left as she walked out the door and congratulated herself for resisting the urge to look. Men did not fit into her five-year plan, maybe not in her ten-year plan either, if at all.
While they scarfed down their meals before heading back to the hospital for evening surgery, Jared, who was on call, fielded several calls from the post-op floor and the ER. As he gave pre-op orders on an elderly woman with a fractured hip, Marc considered his friend. Jared was what women called the strong, silent type. He was a great guy, fun to be with, and a very talented surgeon, but had a more serious personality.
Marc, on the other hand, was more outgoing, enjoying a night out with the guys at a sports bar, or charming and flirting with the ladies at a local club. He could be serious, of course, and prided himself in the care he gave his patients; he’d just rather have fun while doing it. He found, however, that working sixteen-hour days between the OR and the clinic severely limited his social schedule. Recently, he’d decided that at thirty-five, cruising for chicks at bars, which were generally meat markets, had lost its appeal.
With his options narrowed, he’d begun doing exactly what he’d been warned not to do. He’d started dating within the hospital. Over the course of the past year, he’d dated a few nurses and one of the other physicians, luckily outside of the surgical department. He’d also dated a very lovely nurse’s assistant. He’d also quickly learned why most companies had a no-fraternization policy.
None of the brief liaisons had worked out. The only thing he’d accomplished was to make himself the star of the hospital grapevine. Rumors flew at high velocity. If he smiled at a nurse or God forbid spoke to one, the grossly inaccurate and terrifyingly efficient gossip mill had them dating and broken up before the day ended.
If he had to listen to Jared say ‘I told you so’ one more time, he’d be sick. Jared’s father, who was also a physician and on staff at the hospital, had taken him aside one day for a word of caution. “Don’t get your honey where you get your money, son. I thought Jared would have warned you about that by now.” Marc had simply gritted his teeth and thanked him for his advice.
When his last relationship ended cordially, the rumor mill had it ending in a knockdown drag-out fight in the middle of the cafeteria. That had been the final straw for him. He’d taken all the sage advice to heart and vowed not to date anyone who worked at or was associated with St. Joe’s or the clinic. He was through, finished, caput… case closed.
Jared was busy scribbling some notes on a napkin when movement at the counter caught Marc’s eye. With the large man gone, he now had a clear view of the entire lunch counter. His eyes immediately zoned in on the stunning redhead at the far end who was deep in conversation with their waitress, Lily. This had to be the daughter. What had she said her name was? He frowned, unable to recall.
Mom had been wrong about her. She wasn’t merely pretty; she was a knockout, at least what he could see of her from behind the tall counter. She was talking animatedly with her hands, which made her round breasts bounce delightfully with every gesture. He couldn’t pull his eyes away.
“What are you gawking at?” Jared asked, turning in his seat.
As soon as he did, the redhead stood and gave them a spectacular view of a narrow waist and nicely rounded hips. When she leaned across the counter to give her mother a quick hug, her shirt rode up, exposing the small of her back. Marc’s eyes widened next when she straightened and her top didn’t fall back into place. His avid gaze dipped to the area of smooth fair skin exposed below her tee. She was magnificent and those tits—a D cup in his expert opinion—made his mouth water and his dick stir.
Jared’s appreciative soft whistle told him he’d seen her as well. For some reason that made him want to smack his friend, especially when he stared right along with him as she walked toward the door. Marc shifted uncomfortably as he took in the short skirt that flared out at mid-thigh and twitched as her phenomenal ass moved beneath it.
“God, I love a woman in a skirt,” he murmured, only half to himself.
“You’d love a woman in a shroud,” Jared returned with a laugh. “That’s the daughter, I’m guessing.”
“Yeah, what did she say her name was?”
As the door closed behind a stellar pair of legs in four-inch heels, Jared looked his way.
“Poor bastard,” Jared answered in sympathy, “so much for your vow not to date in house. You’re screwed, pal. She’s exactly your type.”
“No, not this time, I’ve finally wised up. I’m not going down that road again, even for a sizzling hot redhead.” He met Jared’s gaze as he added, “This is a sad commentary on our lives, bud; beautiful women always walking away.”