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"WANNA PLAY DOCTOR?"
Bryan Booker looked up from his computer and froze. Now that the latest agency temp had his attention, the woman gave him a smile impossible to misinterpret and sashayed over to his desk. She perched on the edge, fingering the stapler with suggestive strokes while she gave him another come–get–me glance.
"I thought maybe I'd stay and keep you company this evening. I'm sure we could…get some things done." She leaned closer, until her top gaped and he got an in–your–face view down the V–necked smock to her Victoria's Secret bra.
He swallowed a sigh. The fact he knew what brand of underwear she wore by sight alone was certainly indication that he knew too much about women's lingerie—and not enough about hiring employees. "Tricia—"
"You're not looking up porn sites, are you?" Her tone chided, but her salacious expression stated all too clearly she wished he were.
Bryan forced a tired smile. "Just e–mailing my parents. They're touring Europe for their fortieth anniversary."
"How romantic." Tricia leaned over even more and began to caress his arm. "Bryan, I was wondering…would you like to have dinner with me? I know you said we had to keep it all business during office hours, and I understand because of what a stick–in–the–mud Janice is, but she's not here, we're officially closed—" she almost purred the words "—and I bought something special today at lunch that I would love to show you."
Frowning, Bryan carefully plucked her hand from his arm and got to his feet. In response, Tricia lowered the leg she had crossed, leaving him plenty of room to step between if he so chose, but instead he grasped her wrist and tugged her off the desk.
After the invitation she'd just tossed out, she probably thought he was about to lead her upstairs to his apartment. He turned down the hall toward the reception area and waiting room, stopping in his tracks once he spotted the mess Tricia had neglected to clean up. A desk was under there somewhere.
"You didn't get the filing done?" he asked needlessly, pained at the sight of all the work he'd have to sort through before reopening his doors on Monday. he'd wanted to spend the weekend with his granddad, maybe take him out for a drive in the convertible since the weather was supposed to be mild. That wouldn't be happening now.
"No, not exactly. Between the patients and phones, and those horribly written notes you expect me to transcribe, I didn't have time. But…how about you let me make it up to you another way?" Her palms found his shoulders and she pressed her ample breasts against his chest. "I promise you'll like what I have in mind."
"You took a two–hour lunch." The results of which were contained in a pink Victoria's Secret bag sitting beside her purse. The knowledge that the nearest store was an hour away brought to mind his hellish afternoon of trying to keep up with patients, files and phones instead of the sensual pleasures advertised so prettily.
"You missed me?" Her smile widened, and seconds later she held a handful of gauzy fluff. "It wasn't easy making a decision in such a rush," she murmured before holding it up in front of her. She bit her lower lip before sliding him a coy glance. "Come on, Bryan, say something. Do you like it?"
He frowned again. "Tricia, I meant what I said about keeping relationships professional in this office."
Tricia's otherwise pretty features pinched into a series of lines and grooves. "That wasn't just for Janice's benefit?"
"No. You left me high and dry while you shopped, and you didn't return when you were supposed to, knowing Janice wasn't here to pitch in and cover for you."
His full–time R.N. had become a grandmother as of two o'clock that morning. A preacher's wife, Janice had been married nearly as long as he'd been alive, but she was feisty and fun, and he didn't have to worry about her coming on to him—or flashing him her lingerie. Janice's timing sucked, though, because she'd requested two full weeks of vacation to help her daughter get back on her feet after giving birth. Vacation that had begun this morning.
"I'm sorry about today, Bryan. Really." She wet her lips.
Firming his hold on Tricia's elbow, he grabbed her belongings from atop the mess and headed for the door. "Tricia, I appreciate the, uh, effort, but I don't think you're quite right for the job as my office manager."
"I'll call Sierra and let her know I won't be needing your services any longer, but thank you for your time and hard work this week."
She placed a hand on his chest and dug in her heels, stopping their progress. "But, Bryan, I can make you feel soooo much better about your breakup with Holly."
She was attractive, no doubt about it, but he wasn't interested. Because he needed help with filing? Bryan bit back the curses on the tip of his tongue and escorted her the last two steps. "For the record, there was no breakup. Holly and I never dated exclusively." He shoved the items he held at Tricia before opening the door and gently but firmly pressing a hand between her shoulder blades to urge her outside.
Tricia blinked as if she'd only just realized her surroundings. On her face disappointment warred with fury, and her pink–coated lips peeled back in a grimace. "You mean…that's it?"
"'Fraid so. Take care of yourself and be careful driving home."
Her mouth dropped open, and her chest rose and lowered rapidly in agitation. "You're firing me and turning me down?"
He couldn't quite believe it himself. Bryan eyed the negligee in her hand, but not a single flicker of desire stirred within him. "Don't take it personally."
Tricia stood for a moment, huffing and puffing and visibly shocked that he'd said no to her considerable charms. Her mouth snapped closed, opened again and then she released an outraged shriek that rivaled any child who didn't want a needle before she stalked off toward her car. Bryan watched her go. How had life come down to scenes such as these?
He shook his head and was about to return to his computer when he noticed his neighbor standing on her porch not fifteen feet away. She snickered behind the hand covering her mouth.
That was the problem with his practice. Located between two occupied homes, his patients didn't have any privacy.
And neither did he. "Glad I could add a little amusement to your day, Ellen."
Tricia left the lot, tires squealing, and the act incited another round of laughter from the Taylorsville social worker, this one louder than the first since she no longer made an effort to disguise her amusement. Tears trickled from Ellen's eyes, and she nearly dropped the box she held clutched to her front in her bid to wipe them away.
Reluctant, Bryan jogged down the wheelchair ramp and over to her porch to take it from her. "Where to?"
"There." She waved a hand to where her car was parked, trunk open. "Oh, my. Bryan, I needed that so badly."
With a smile on her face and eyes sparking, Ellen looked to be around his age of thirty–two rather than the six or eight years his senior he knew her to be. "Bad day?"
She waved a hand in front of her as if she wanted to shoo away the question. "Nothing that time and patience won't solve," she murmured mysteriously. "But right now I've got some errands to run before heading over to the toy drive and barbecue at the police station. You'll be there, won't you?"
Her tone suggested he'd better put in an appearance. "I've got a ton of work to do, but maybe I'll drop by later."
Her brows rose in surprise. "You're working on a Friday night? Again? What happened to Crystal? Or Lisa? Or—" her tone lowered a notch "—Holly?"
"You know Holly and I never dated exclusively," he repeated for what had to be the thousandth time. He promised himself there and then that he'd be more discreet in his hookups.
"So she was another one hoping to change your wayward ways?"
Bryan lowered the box into the trunk. "All I can say is that you women have a vengeful streak." "Looked to me like she was more than willing to comfort you this weekend," she murmured, gesturing to where Tricia's car had been parked.
He glanced at the blackened tire marks left behind. "My office is a disaster, and all Holly's sister will send me from the temp agency are marriage–minded women too afraid to break a nail unless there's a chance it might involve rough sex."
Ellen chuckled at his complaint, her expression telling him she didn't sympathize much. "I take it you haven't had any luck coming up with a fund–raiser then?"
He closed the trunk with a scowl. "When have I had time? Besides, people will gladly donate toys and food, but when it comes to cold, hard cash, they still look at me like the new guy just waiting to take their money and run. It's been three years and I'm still the outsider. I'm beginning to think the clinic will never happen."
Ellen clucked her tongue, the sound motherly. "Think positive—you'll come up with something. And I'll give some thought to your office manager dilemma. In the meantime, go lock up and come to the station for dinner. The work will still be there tomorrow."
"That's the problem." He glared at his office door and wondered how he'd be prepared for Monday morning the way things were now. If anything, Tricia had made more of a mess.
"No," Ellen corrected, "the problem is you pick the wrong women—something you've done as long as I've known you. If you want to change the way people see you, then you need to figure out why you're keeping yourself from finding happiness."
"They won't donate because they think I'm not happy?"
He tilted his head in pretended interest. "Ellen, that's farfetched even for you."
"Fine, make fun, but the next time you find yourself in the mood, pick a woman, not a girl, who makes your blood heat just thinking about her."
"Makes my blood heat. What have you been reading?" The woman gave him a good–natured swat. "You're not listening to a word I say, are you? Be that way, but if you ask me, you've brought this on yourself."
Bryan held up his hands in surrender, walking backward until he felt the asphalt end and the grass begin. Three steps more and he grabbed the door of his practice. "I didn't ask. Besides," he added with a teasing grin, "if you'd agree to date a younger man, I wouldn't have a problem." He yanked open the door but didn't make it far. Ellen's laughter stopped him again, and even though he told himself to keep going, his body refused to obey his brain. "What?" he demanded darkly.
Ellen shook her head at him, a patiently tolerant expression on her face. "Bryan, Bryan…oh, I feel for you. The moment you decide you've found the perfect woman, she's going to treat you exactly the way you've treated all those women whose hearts you've broken. You wait and see."
MELISSA YORK DROVE around the back of the house she shared
with her father and parked, her thoughts a chaotic mess filled with snatches of conversation listing all the reasons she wouldn't be hired by the companies supposedly looking for employees.
Groaning, she opened the car door and the August heat practically melted her in the five seconds it took to grab the bag of groceries from the backseat and hurry inside. After her checkup with her oncologist in Baxter, she'd spent the day making cold calls to the few businesses at which she hadn't already left her résumé, then driven back to Taylorsville to do the same. Now she kicked off her heels, inordinately glad to be home.
Heaven knows she wasn't in the mood to cook, but since she was now well enough to help out, she figured healthy meals and a clean house would go a long way to repay her dad for the way he'd cared for her during the worst moments of her life.
Organic chicken awaited in the fridge. Maybe a salad? Lots of veggies, anyway. Cancer supposedly hated vegetables. But loved her. She wrinkled her nose, relishing the memory of good, old–fashioned, high–fat junk food, and set the bag of fruit and vegetables on the counter before reaching into the refrigerator for the chicken she'd left marinating overnight. In her haste she managed to drop the hard plastic container on her unprotected toes. "Ow! Oh, shoot!"
She hopped on one foot and held the other with her hand, rubbing hard and squeezing. Frustrated tears blurred her vision. Nothing had gone right today! Grabbing hold of the countertop for balance, she wriggled her brightly painted toes and glared at the Rubbermaid container on the floor. At least the lid had stayed on. She picked it up and slammed the large rectangle on the counter.
"Must've been some day," a voice murmured from behind her. "Anything you need to tell me?"
She started at the sound of her father's voice. So much for having dinner ready on time. She noticed her dad's hair was messed up. "Why are you home so early? Are you sick?"
Ruddy color filled his face. "Hello to you, too. No, I'm fine. I, uh, decided to come and get some paperwork done before a meeting." "Oh."
Remembering what he'd asked, she shook her head. "You know I would've called you if anything showed up. I'm fine."
"Doesn't look like it. Bad day?" he asked, holding out his hand to keep the door between the living room and kitchen from swinging back and forth the way it normally did.
She nodded and washed her hands in the sink before moving back to take off the container lid. "You could say that."
Heavily callused hands settled on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "It can't be all that bad."
"No?" She reached up and smoothed his mussed hair, noting his cheeks got a little red again. "I think I'm wearing a big scarlet C on my forehead. I put applications in all over Taylorsville and Baxter, but suddenly the job market has disappeared." She shook her head in annoyance. "All they see is a walking cancer ad."
He pulled her hand away and held it, kissing her knuckles. "You'll find something, give it time. But why are you fixing dinner? Did you forget about the barbecue?"
The barbecue? She had forgotten. But only because she hadn't been asked to get involved. "Yeah, I…I guess I did. What was I supposed to bring?"
Her dad chuckled. "Just yourself. Everything's done. Came together smooth as silk. Ellen—remember me introducing you a while back at the station?—she's done a great job. She's, uh, in the living room now. We were going over some last–minute details when you got home."
For an event that would take place someplace else? Melissa eyed her father again. Was that lipstick on his mouth?
He let go of her hand and rubbed the spot, making it redder.
Just an itch. She shook her head at her imaginings, no doubt the aftereffects of paranoia brought on by being stared at like a leper during her job hunt. If she didn't find a job soon, she'd climb the walls. A house could only be so clean.
"Hal?" Ellen called from the other room. "I think I'll head over to the station now."
Melissa wondered why the woman didn't come into the kitchen to say her goodbyes. The brief meeting a few months back had left her with the impression of a well put–together woman with a warm smile, but little else.
"I won't be long! Tell Nathan to get the grill fired up before the mayor gets there and complains about the smoke."
"You need to go," she murmured. "I'm sorry for interrupting your meeting."
Her dad lifted his hand and smoothed it gently over her tooshort hair. Barely an inch and a half long because it was taking forever to grow, she'd recently had the fuzzy ends trimmed and the overall style looked very Peter Panish. Not exactly a style most women would pick, but better than no hair at all.
"You vent anytime. Better out than in, you know that. Besides, taking your frustration out on a plastic container is a lot better than taking it out on a person like some people do."
Smiling at the truth of his statement, Melissa wrapped her arms around him and gave him a big hug. "I know," she said, resting her head against his chest with a sigh. The steady beat of his heart soothed her frazzled nerves; the scent of him calmed. Her dad was the one person who'd never let her down.
"You sure you're okay?"
She nodded again. "Yeah. But thanks for listening. I don't know what I'd do without you."
He squeezed her tight. "You'd do fine, Mel. You'd do just fine."