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By Jill Shalvis
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Jill Shalvis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHot and bothered, and not in the good way, Dr. Emma Sinclair switched the sign on her father's medical clinic from CLOSED to OPEN. It was eight a.m. sharp, and out of habit, she braced herself to be bombarded.
Not that that was going to happen, not here in Mayberry, USA.
Excuse her- Wishful, California. Nothing so simple as Mayberry. Not with the coyotes and bears she knew roamed around the property on a daily basis. She heard the coyotes in the early mornings, their eerie howls making the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up. Even more disconcerting, she'd caught sight of them watching her from the woods lining the property, their hungry eyes making her miss the streets of New York, where the worst predators were grumpy, demanding, homeless people.
She hadn't actually seen a bear yet, but everyone who came through her door had a bear story, so she figured with her karma, it was only a matter of time. Not in a hurry for that, she booted up the computer behind the front desk, remembering with a fond sigh the hustling, bustling rush of her Manhattan ER, where she literally ran her entire shift; bagging and defibbing, resuscitating, whatever came her way, with sometimes little more than caffeine in her system.
Yeah, she'd had it all in NewYork, a promising career with a fantastic sublet near Central Park, a great shift in one of the best ERs in the country ... it didn't get better than that.
But it certainly got worse.
A world away from her world, Emma was now on the other side of the country, deep in the California Sierras, pining for Starbucks and Thai take-out. Pining for crowds, traffic, and late trains, that's how homesick she was. She missed having a myriad of take-out menus taped to her empty refrigerator, her next meal a simple phone call away.
No one delivered in Wishful. Worse, there was no fast food period, no drive-thrus, nothing unless she wanted to drive the thirty plus miles to South Shore, Lake Tahoe-which meant that she, a professional water burner, was in danger of starving to death.
She missed so much about New York, but what she missed most of all was her mom, who after being invincible and raising Emma on her own while working her fingers to the bone as an RN, had done the unthinkable.
She'd died of one of the few things that Emma hadn't been able to fix-cancer.
Throat tightening, Emma moved through the front room of the old Victorian-turned-clinic, a place that had been decorated in the eighties with country chic and hadn't changed much except for the equipment, and some of that was questionable. She opened the country blue, duck-lined curtains, letting in the mid-June sun. She wondered what the day would bring. The usual bee sting? Or maybe for kicks and giggles, a stomach flu.
The problem was people in Wishful saw her as Doc's little girl. They acted as if she was just the key keeper, someone to drop some gossip with, or maybe to talk about her father-her least favorite thing to talk about.
God, what she wouldn't give for a stroke or cardiac infarction, something she could really sink her teeth into
When the front door opened, the silly ceramic cow chime above it jangled, and in came a man, supporting another. Wishful wasn't that big, and after being here for two months, Emma had met quite a few of the locals, including the Wilder brothers. TJ Wilder, tall and big and broad, assisted his equally tall and big and broad brother Stone, who was covered in mud and blood, dripping both all over her floor.
He was limping and grimacing in pain-at least until he saw her, at which point he swiped his face of all expression, going testosterone stoic. "Hey," he murmured. "What's up, Doc?"
Ah, finally. Finally something more than a nosy neighbor bringing a casserole and gossip while the real cases went all the way to South Shore. Finally something more than poison oak, something right up her alley, and she moved in to help support Stone, pulling his arm over her shoulder, grabbing his hand to steady him. He had big hands, tough and scarred, much like the man himself even before whatever had happened to him today. "First room," she directed TJ, bypassing the front desk, turning toward the hallway which held two examination rooms. "What happened?"
TJ opened his mouth, but Stone beat him to it. "Just need a few Band-Aids."
"Really." Without her and TJ's support, he'd have slid to the floor. But she was well used to stubborn patients, the majority of which were always of the male persuasion. She figured it had something to do with carrying a penis around all the time. "So you can walk on your own then?"
Stone managed to arch a brow in her direction, though only one because the other was slashed through, and bleeding down his lean jaw. "Why would I do that, when having you hold me is much more fun?" He gave her more of his weight, which she estimated at approximately one hundred and ninety pounds of solid muscle. "You're softer than old Doc Sinclair," he murmured.
True, though her father was plenty soft. In fact, it was his soft heart that had landed Emma in this situation in the first place, and she wasn't referring to the mild heart attack he'd suffered two months ago-the one that had brought her here to run his business while he recovered.
Nope, she was talking about his inability to concentrate and focus on the things that mattered, such as billing people for services rendered, a problem that had him shockingly near bankruptcy. In the time she'd been in Wishful, she'd discovered he'd not billed more often than he had billed, a mistake she wouldn't be making. Ever. "Well, you're stuck with me at the moment, soft or otherwise."
"That's okay." Stone looked at her. "He always says you're a better doctor than him."
"Whoa. He said that?"
"Yeah, which means you must be really good."
Oddly touched that her father would say such a thing about her, much less anything at all, she didn't respond. She and her father didn't know each other well. Other than the matching MDs, they had nothing in common. Her dad liked the slow, laid-back style of doctoring in a small town, while she preferred the busier, more interesting, fast-paced ER life. Oil and water ... "What happened to you, Stone? Did someone do this to you?"
"No." His voice was low and hoarse, as if it hurt just to talk. "I'm okay."
Wasn't that just a Wilder for you. Tall, built and sexy, and so completely full of shit. Out of the three brothers, she liked Cam and TJ best, mostly because they spent most of their time out of town.
But Stone ... well, he was charming and charismatic as hell, but he was also as wild as his name implied-her least favorite quality in a man, tough or otherwise. And Stone was as tough and impenetrable as they came, the kind of man who could be dropped anywhere on the planet and get on just fine. An admirable characteristic, sure, but she preferred a quiet, more sophisticated guy, preferably another doctor, who understood her world.
Not that it mattered. He was a patient not a prospective lover, and she directed him to an examination table. Not that she could "examine" much with all the mud. "We need to get those dirty things off," she told TJ, and left him to it while she pulled a gown from a drawer.
Stone lay back willingly enough when TJ pushed him down to a prone position. "Just the Band-Aids is all ... Tell you what, you give me a box, and in return I'll take you on an outdoor adventure. Name it. Anything you want."
The Wilder brothers ran an outdoor adventure/expedition company, which as far as Emma could tell meant that they got paid to be ski and mountain bike bums, playing all day long in the great outdoors.
She skied, but that was about it for the great outdoors for her. "I don't think so," she said, pulling out a tray.
"Ah, come on, the fresh air's good for you." He sounded as if he could barely talk. "How about a rock climb, or getting on a mountain bike?"
She understood the appeal of the area, she really did. It was just that in her world, which she was chomping at the bit to get back to, she didn't have time for such things. "Let's focus on your injuries."
He let loose a slow, bad boy smile, weakened by pain, but still potently sexy. "I'll be fine."
Everything Stone did was slow and sexy. Slow and sexy, slow and easy, and so laid-back she'd often thought he needed to be checked for a pulse.
But not by her. The Wilders were gorgeous, and gorgeously dangerous to female hearts across the land, so yeah, he affected her, but she was a big girl and could resist. There'd be no giving into any smiles, charming or otherwise, thank you very much. Moving to the sink, she began to wash up, no dallying for her.
She had enough going on here trying to keep the clinic up and running and her father on the path of rehabilitation as required by his medical condition-not an easy feat given that the man apparently thought he was still twenty-one instead of sixty-one, hiking and fishing daily at his remote cabin.
After seeing him only a handful of times in all her life, Emma had seen him more in the past two months than she'd ever planned on. But he still hadn't bounced back, and that worried her. She wanted him well and thriving.
And back at work, so she could go home, and back to her work.
Unfortunately, she didn't seem any closer to that than she'd been two months ago. Out of necessity, she'd taken on the additional pressure of handling his books, which were in bad shape, with invoices and reports tossed haphazardly in files in some random system that made absolutely no sense. Apparently her father accepted cash, credit cards, and if she was looking at things correctly, casseroles. Casseroles. He had a freezer full of them, and twice this week alone, someone had brought her new ones instead of money when they'd needed services rendered.
Her father had laughed at her concern, saying a single man enjoyed a home cooked meal once in awhile.
Well, he could eat one every day for a month and still have leftovers.
So could she, for that matter. Yeah, she probably wouldn't starve to death, though she couldn't vouch for the condition of her arteries after all the heavy cuisine.
She dried her hands, grabbed some sterile water and the antiseptic, and headed toward her patient, who was clearly hurting big-time. Stone was lying on the examination table, eyes and mouth strained in spite of his attempt at a relaxed air.
With sympathy, she started with the gash through his left eyebrow, squirting the water over it, gently washing the blood free of the wound, probing, until he hissed out a pained breath.
She was being easy. It was her job to be easy. "This is going to have to be stitched."
"No, thanks." Stone spoke lightly enough, but his words came through his teeth now, as if he was barely holding it together. "Seriously, just point me in the direction of those Band-Aids."
"Seriously?" she mocked lightly. "Band-Aids aren't going to do it." She stepped in and blocked him from attempting to get up when TJ might have let him. Her hands were on his shoulders, which were tense and strained belying his easy-going nature. "We need to sterilize, scrape, x-ray, and then assess, Stone. No way around it."
"That was a mouthful." He flashed another one of those potent Wilder smiles. "How about we just slow down, relax, maybe take a deep breath. I'm just a little scrapped up, that's all."
"You need stitches," TJ told him. "And you know it." Inside his pocket, his cell phone began to vibrate. He pulled it out, took one look at the ID and shot Stone an annoyed glance. "You forwarded all the office calls to my cell."
"It was your turn."
"No, it's your turn. It's always your turn."
"Exactly," Stone said. "Take the call, it might be important. Maybe it's a client, his pockets flush with cash coming our way. Or maybe it's just another woman dumping your sorry ass." Gritting his teeth, he lay back, looking pale and clammy. "Yeah, that might be fun. Put it on speaker."
"It can wait," TJ insisted. "I need to make sure you behave for the pretty doctor."
"Just get the damn phone. I'll behave."
TJ looked at Emma. He'd been clearly antagonizing his brother in order to distract Stone. Sweet. Level-headed. Yeah, TJ was definitely her favorite Wilder. "I've got him. It's fine."
TJ looked doubtful. "He's a handful."
"I mastered in handfuls."
TJ laughed appreciatively, and Stone sighed. "I'm right here."
Emma hadn't stopped examining Stone during this exchange. She'd found no other head injuries, which was good. He did have a nasty bruise along his jaw, the first of many she suspected, but nothing life threatening. "He's not in any immediate danger," she assured TJ, then slanted a look at Stone when he muttered something beneath his breath about the damned Band-Aids. "Unless I sew his mouth shut."
TJ nodded in amused sympathy, and with worry still in his eyes left the room to answer his phone.
"I thought he'd never leave."
Emma ignored him and went to work on his shirt, which was a short-sleeved performance jersey. Staring at the hem, she lifted it up over a set of defined abs.
Here he was void of mud but not blood. He'd obviously tumbled along either asphalt or dirt, because he was covered in road rash. It had to hurt like hell.
He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and she raised her gaze to his. California surfer meets angel, she thought. It was the killer combo of that easygoing air and gorgeousness. Maybe also that light brown hair, streaked gold by the sun, wind-tousled and wild and inviting enough that a woman would want to run her fingers through it. Maybe it was his strong, lean, unshaved jaw. Or maybe it was his fathomless green eyes that made a person-or in this case, one grumpy doctor-feel as if he could see her soul.
And the way he looked at her.
Yeah. It was most definitely that, and she knew right then and there-as if she hadn't already known-that he was trouble.
Crazy, big, bad trouble.
"No need to fuss," he told her. "I heal fast."
She could believe that. His body was in prime shape, sinewy and hard. Given what he did for a living-play basically-she knew that body wasn't gym-made but the real deal, born of actual outdoor activity. She got to his ribs and he winced. "Did you fall?"
"Falling is a way of life for a guy like me."
"A guy like you?"
He sucked in a hard breath as she probed her way over his torso. "Yeah. A mountain bum."
He was long and lean, not an extra ounce of fat on him, so she had no trouble accessing the ribs. Unfortunately, she had to use her fingers, and as she did, his flat, ridged belly rose and fell with his agitated breathing. "Stone?"
He opened his eyes.
"Tell me what happened," she said, looking at his pupils, which were the same size and reactive.
She'd been born here, but raised in New York by a tough-as-nails woman who'd taken no bullshit. As a result, Emma had either heard or seen it all, and nothing surprised her. Nothing. "I think I can handle it."
He let out another hard breath when she pressed on his ribs. "It's all a little fuzzy."
She frowned and eyed the bump on his head again. "Fuzzy? Are you dizzy? Spots?"
She checked his pupils again. "You can't remember what happened?"
"Well ..." He smiled faintly. "There were these three crazy women."
Her eyes flew to his in time to see his mouth quirk slightly. "Three women," she repeated.
She narrowed her eyes. "And?"
"They jumped me at Moody's."
The single bar and grill in town, where the only nightlife for thirty miles happened. Emma once again took in the road rash all over him. "Bar fight, my ass."
He laughed, then sucked in a harsh breath. "Oh, Jesus. Laughing isn't good. Laughing is bad."
"So save your breath." His jersey was snug, fitted for outdoor activity such as mountain biking or hiking. She wasn't going to be able to pull it off him without causing him considerable pain, and besides it was already torn and destroyed, so she grabbed her scissors.
And cut it up the center of his chest, spreading it wide, revealing more road rash, bleeding sullenly and clogged with dirt wherever his shirt had torn.
Excerpted from Instant Gratification by Jill Shalvis Copyright © 2009 by Jill Shalvis. Excerpted by permission.
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