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By Jan Meredith, Heather Howland, Tahra Seplowin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jan Meredith
All rights reserved.
Scooting her chair closer to the table, Beth Roberts bit back a grin and watched their server wind her way through the early morning diners. Connie was looking at her as though she'd turned down an all-night sextravaganza with Hugh Jackman.
"Okay, back up a minute." Connie waved her hands as if clearing a chalkboard. The clatter of cutlery against plates and conversation from neighboring diners did little to drown the disbelief in her voice. "You're driving up to Lexington to help your son do a wedding shoot, but Drew has made last-minute plans to tour the University of Kentucky and hang out with his friends the whole weekend."
"So ... you have a suite at the Hilton, compliments of the parents of the groom, for the entire weekend and you plan on spending it ... alone?" Pushing her coffee to the side so their server could set her breakfast on the table, Connie shook her head. "There's something definitely wrong with this scenario."
"Yeah?" With a smile of thanks for the server, Beth unwrapped her silverware from the napkin. "And that would be ...?"
"The part where you go back to the Hilton alone."
Beth added a dollop of cream to her coffee and chased it with her spoon. She loved joining Connie for their weekly breakfast get-togethers at Cracker Barrel. Not only was she one of Beth's top nurses at Ridgemount ER, she was also her dearest friend. There were no secrets between them. Theirs was a nothing-is-sacred, no-holds-barred friendship that had persevered since grade school.
When Beth became pregnant in her senior year of high school, Connie had stood as maid of honor at her wedding with Jamie. Three years later, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan, Connie had wept with her at the airport, and then held her hand when he returned a changed man, withdrawn and bitter. When Jamie's anger eventually focused on Beth, turning abusive and claiming the life of their unborn child and later that night his own life as well, Connie was at her side when she'd laid them both to rest.
"You're missing the point of the trip." Beth drizzled maple syrup over her pancakes and sliced off a wedge with her fork. "This isn't about me. It's about Drew." He had been so excited about his first paid freelance job, Beth had thought she'd have to peel him off the ceiling when, after shooting his teacher's wedding, her maid of honor contacted him to do hers as well.
Connie gestured with her spoon. "I'm not missing anything. Drew's a great kid and one hell of a photographer. I totally agree that this is a kick-ass opportunity for him, but there's no reason this trip can't be about you, too."
Beth studied the bowl of opaque goo beside Connie's plate. "How can anyone consider a dish called grits appetizing?"
"How can you call yourself southern and not like grits?" she countered.
"Just because I'm from Kentucky doesn't mean I have to ... don't push that stuff over here. Stop it!"
Laughing, Connie shoveled a spoonful of grits into her mouth and swallowed. "Yum. Now, back to staying at the hotel by yourself ..."
Beth sighed. The girl never gave up. "I'm perfectly fine with spending the weekend alone," she said. "I'm going to enjoy a nice, relaxing evening sipping wine and soaking in the Jacuzzi until I'm limp as a noodle while Jace Everett croons Bad Things to me on my iPod. Then I have the staffing schedule to work on, resumes and applications to review for potential new hires ..."
Connie snorted. "Well, that just sounds like tons of fun. I know that's how I'd want to spend my weekend out of town."
Sadly, having actually said it aloud, Beth had to agree. When Drew had told her of his plans to hang with the guys and check out the campus, the prospect of a weekend of peace and quiet with room service a phone call away had sounded like a dream come true. Now, the more she thought about it, the less appealing it became.
After Jamie's death, Beth had centered her existence on Drew and her job, determined to gather the shattered remnants of her life and move forward. Entering into another relationship with a man hadn't factored into the plan. Now Drew was developing his own social life and making plans for college. In another year he would move out, and for the first time in her thirty-three years, Beth would be truly alone. Her heart hurt a little at the thought. Pre-empty-nest syndrome setting in? Maybe, but over the past few months she had come to understand the quote, you don't have to be alone to be lonely. Lately she had been feeling a little ... antsy. Kind of ... restless.
Okay, just admit it. You miss sex.
There. She'd said it. Well, not out loud, but even the self-acknowledgment was liberating.
She missed sex. Everything about it — the rush of discovering mutual attraction, flirting, the push-pull dance of will-we-or-won't-we, the brush of bodies as boundaries are tested and established, then carefully breached.
And kissing. Oh, God, she loved the feel of a man's mouth against her lips, on her skin. She and Jamie had shared a healthy, vigorous sex life. Until he returned home from the Army. Then everything had changed.
Sharing the revelation with Connie, however, was out of the question. Her friend was just waiting, ready to pounce at the opportunity to reintroduce Beth to the dating scene. She would get to it, but in her own way, and in her own sweet time.
Connie, her sleek brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that would inevitably end up off-center before the end of her shift, drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Your plan has potential, but is sadly flawed, my friend. It lacks imagination and has no spark, no sex. Now, if it were my plan, I would hook up with one of the groomsmen ..."
Beth's jaw dropped. It didn't take a GPS to see where Connie was going with this. "Please tell me you're not suggesting that I ... have a one night stand with a stranger."
"I'm not suggesting anything of the sort. Did I not say, if it were my plan?"
Beth sat back in her chair and held up a hand for peace. Once Connie bit into a subject, she hung onto it like a bull terrier. "Then by all means, please continue."
"Thank you," Connie gave Beth a queenly nod. "Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? Oh, yeah ... I would hook up with one of the groomsmen and take him back to the Hilton where he'd do bad things to me in the Jacuzzi until he was limp as a noodle. And forget sipping wine." Warming to the subject, Connie closed her eyes as if visualizing the scene. "I would lick it out of his belly button — a perfect innie." She made a little circle with her index finger.
Connie painted a vividly appealing picture, and Beth had no problem taking the scene a bit further. That fine line of silken hair just below his navel would tempt her. She would follow it with her tongue, straight down to his ...
Beth jolted back to reality as a nearby toddler banged on a highchair and made his or her wishes known. While her friend's sexy scenario held a definite appeal, Beth felt obligated and just ornery enough to inject a little reality into fantasy.
"Eeewww!" Connie opened one aggrieved eye and aimed it at Beth. "There is no belly button lint on this man. And let's ditch the noodle part, too, because there is nothing limp in this fantasy, either. I would lick the wine off his big ... throbbing ..." she waggled her brows, "clock."
"Connie!" The witch. She'd known exactly what Beth had been thinking. She glanced around to see if any of the neighboring diners had heard her remark.
"Pfft." Connie cocked her thumb toward the wooden partition separating the dining areas. From the other side, the toddler continued to wail and bang a spoon on the highchair tray. "No one can hear me over that. Besides, the kid said it first."
The conversation paused when their server stopped at their table, topped off their coffee, and handed out their checks before moving on to the next table.
"Sounds like you've got this weekend all worked out." Beth slid a tip for the server under the salt shaker. "Why don't you go in my place, and I'll pull your shifts in the ER?"
"No way. I'm not into cockblocking."
A startled laugh escaped Beth's throat. "I'm not sure a girl can even get cockblocked. Isn't that a guy thing?"
"Semantics." Connie shrugged. "The point is, there could and should be one involved. If only we could see into the future." Squinting her eyes, she pressed her fingers to her temples and said, "I predict that you, Beth Roberts, will meet a tall, ripped, and totally lick-o-licious stranger who will fulfill your deepest desires ... from across a crowded room." She grinned. "And wouldn't that be impressive?"
Shaking her head at her friend's outrageousness, Beth blotted her mouth with her napkin and pushed back from the table. "Okay, that's it. You have definitely been watching more than your share of romantic — and I use that term loosely — movies, and as delightfully entertaining as this meal has been, I have a meeting with the architect this morning to go over the blueprints for the ER expansion and need to get a move on." Beth made her way through the maze of tables and out to the cash register, Connie trailing along behind her. "Lick-o-licious," she muttered, handing her debit card to the cashier. "That isn't even a real word."
"Sure it is." Connie stopped to admire the five-pound Hershey's chocolate bar on display. "I can even use it in a sentence: That candy bar looks absolutely lick-o-licious."
"I stand corrected." Beth hooked her arm through Connie's and led her out to the sun-washed parking lot. "Tell you what. If I see anything this weekend even remotely resembling lick-o-licious, I'll buy you that candy bar."
"Deal. And if you can snag one of Drew's cameras, photographs would be appreciated as well." Connie unlocked her car door and studied Beth over the top. "If a person were to think about having a weekend fling to work out a few kinks — and please feel free to interpret that in any way you choose — this would be her golden opportunity. An out-of-town weekend, a hotel suite all to herself, unleashing the inner vixen and playing out her fantasies with a hot guy she can walk away from the next morning ..." She flicked her hand toward Beth's car. "You know I'd give my ex-husband's balls for a car like that, but I'm just saying it might be nice to get your hands on some muscle that doesn't come with four tires, a three-hundred and fifty horse power engine, and a four-speed transmission sometime before menopause hits and your vagina stops working."
"Yeah, if a person were so inclined," Laughing, Beth opened the door of her 1969 Chevelle SS, tossed her purse onto the passenger seat, and slid behind the wheel. While Connie's comment struck a tender nerve, their friendship was too old, too solid for Beth to take offense at the nudge to get on with her personal life. "But you know what? I control the power behind this muscle, every cubic inch of it." She clicked her seatbelt in place and grinned at Connie through the window. "And my vagina is just fine, thank you."
Beth backed her car out of the parking spot and waved at Connie as she drove away, aware that her friend's concerned frown followed her as she pulled out of the parking lot. At the traffic light, she reached for her iPod, plugged it into the auxiliary jack in the stereo, scrolled down the playlist, and chose her favorite song. The car's interior filled with the slow, sexy throb of Jace Everett's, Damned If I Do. His low, gritty voice wrapped her in a sensual cocoon as he crooned of being damned for wanting his lover. A deep yearning coiled in Beth's chest. How would it feel to have a man want you so badly that he'd walk the streets thinking of you, crying into the night, I want you? Loneliness welled up and caught her heart in a vice.
As the song played on, Beth tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music and stared out the windshield at the car in front of her. Could she lower her defenses long enough to indulge just once? Shrug off her insecurities and enjoy a man's company, his touch, his body pressing into hers as he professed his need for her, for just one night?
The driver behind her blasted his horn, startling her out of her blue funk. She shot the car into gear, eased off the clutch, and turned into the early morning traffic. Thoughts of romance and one-night stands faded with the last notes of the song, and Beth channeled her thoughts to the day ahead, while a little voice taunted, what if ...?
There's a code in the bride's chamber: what's said there, stays there.
While the hairdresser worked on the bride's hair, her entourage lounged in the sitting area of the spacious bedroom suite, sipping champagne and gossiping. The hot topic of the moment was one Dr. Gabriel North. Although she wasn't actively listening to the conversation, a snippet here and a comment there managed to catch her ear as she moved about the room assisting Drew while he took pre-wedding shots. They certainly seemed to know quite a bit about the good doctor.
"... gave up a thriving practice as a pulmonologist after his wife died. Works in the ER now ..."
"... blamed himself for Rita's death."
"What is a pulmonary embolus, anyway?"
"... no social life to speak of, except for his family and friends ..."
"Isn't he one of the groomsmen?"
"... so handsome, and did you see that gorgeous hair?" A collective sigh trailed this comment.
The hairdresser grinned at Beth as she wove a string of antique pearls through the bride's upsweep. "I have to agree with them because between you and me, from the way the doc fills out his tux" — she made the oooo face — "I'm betting that gorgeous head of hair and cleft chin comes along with a rocking hot body. One I wouldn't mind getting my hands on as well."
Unsure of how to respond — she was feeling a touch of sympathy as well as a smidgen of curiosity about the doctor herself — Beth simply smiled and handed the hairdresser another pin.
After a final shot that captured the sister of the bride tenderly fingering the pearls in the bride's hair, Drew motioned for Beth to follow him out of the room. As Beth headed to the door, one of the bridesmaids stood and smoothed out the skirt of her silver, curve-hugging gown.
"Well, the female population of Lexington is being sorely deprived of a prime example of the male species, and I think it's high time someone set Gabe on the return path to the land of the living." She made her way across the room, checked the fit of her gown in a trio of cheval mirrors, and then pouted at her reflection. "And if I wasn't madly in love with my main man, I'd be tempted to hand him the map myself."
Murmurs of agreement floated around the room, which incited another discussion on the best way to bring Dr. North to the dark side.
The redhead's comments reminded Beth of Connie's parting remarks at Cracker Barrel suggesting that she get on with her own personal life. Friends. What would we do without them?
"Mom?" Drew's gentle prod turned Beth's focus back to the present and with one last glance around the room to ensure no equipment was left behind, she followed him out of the suite.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of activity. More often than not, Beth had to jog to keep up with Drew as he dashed from one place to another in order to capture a unique shot. Her toes throbbed, a testament that a great-looking pair of shoes did not guarantee long-lasting comfort no matter the advertising on the box.
Now, with the wedding over and the reception in full swing, Beth's current mission was to locate the bride and her maids and usher them to the next area for photos while Drew finished a long line of family shots. Several times now Beth had observed yet another wedding guest approach him, chat for a moment, and then take his business card. Her pride in him overrode the ache in her feet each time she watched him smile and shake hands with a prospective client.
Excerpted from Playing Doctor by Jan Meredith, Heather Howland, Tahra Seplowin. Copyright © 2013 Jan Meredith. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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