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It felt like a betrayal.
You're being irrational, Erica Benford told herself as her running shoes smacked a steady rhythm along the earthen track. So what if all Dr. T talked about during surgery this morning were thoseshe shuddered before mentally finishing the sentencethose babies?
People often assumed that Erica had chosen to work as a surgical nurse assisting one of the nation's leading fertility specialists because she loved babies. Well, she did, more or less, as long as they belonged to other women. And didn't intrude on the intelligent conversations that enlivened her hours in the operating room, conversations about everything from politics and scientific developments to the latest additions to the hospital staff.
Shrugging off her annoyance, she glanced past the civic center and nearby bluffs to the blue water shimmering far below in late-afternoon sunlight. The Pacific Ocean lapped serenely toward shore, while beyond a stretch of luxury homes, she glimpsed the welcoming curve of Safe Harbor, the marina from which this Southern California town took its name.
Less than a year after moving here, Erica still wasn't used to jogging outdoors on a February afternoon. Although she enjoyed the change from Boston's harsh winters, the weather hadn't figured into her decision to relocate. She'd leaped at the chance to escape the wreckage of a painful divorce and join Dr. Tas most people called Dr. Owen Tartikoffwho'd been hired to launch a major new fertility program at Safe Harbor Medical Center.
People referred to him as her "hospital husband," but Erica had never felt romantic about the perfectionist surgeon, whom she'd assisted in surgery for the past five years. She'd been worried at first when he fell in love with Bailey, one of the office nurses, but fortunately, his love life hadn't intruded on the O.R. Well, there had been some discussion when it turned out that Bailey was pregnant with twins, and everyone including Erica had happily attended the couple's wedding, but she'd assumed things would soon get back to normal.
She hadn't counted on the effect those babies would have on him. Did he have to yammer about them all during surgery today? What a strong grip the little boy had and how smart the little girl was, and on and on.
They were month-old infants, for Pete's sake. Tiny lumps with cute faces. Tiny lumps that required frequent feeding and diaper changes, as she recalled from the involuntary babysitting she'd done for her younger cousins long ago. All these years, she and Dr. T had shared the joke that, despite their profession, they took no interest in becoming parents. Her closest colleague, he'd understood her better than anyone.
No wonder she felt betrayed. It made her lungs ache just thinking about this morning's gooey account of precious baby Julie and oh-so-adorable Richard.
Don't forget to breathe, Erica reminded herself, and sucked in a couple lungfuls of the crisp air as she rounded the far end of the track. That was when she noticed the man.
How long had this muscular fellow been pounding along behind her? There'd been a couple of high-school-age runners going through their paces when she'd arrived at the park a short while ago. When had they left?
The newcomer caught her look and responded with a slight nod. Erica ignored him. She just wished her gaze hadn't lingered a fraction of second longer than necessary, taking in the blue eyes, the thick, wavy hair that went from shades of dark brown to blond. Also, the fact that he limped and was pushing on in spite of it.
Okay, she'd also cataloged the way his shorts hugged his hips, and the appealing stretch of a Viva Arizona! T-shirt across his broad chest. Very nice build. And not too tall, either. At five foot two, Erica liked tall men, but not so tall they stumbled over her while dancing.
Oh, right. As if she was interested in picking up guys on the track, when she avoided gyms because she exercised for her health and peace of mind, not to troll for dates.
This guy apparently didn't register her scowl. He paced alongsidehow irksome that he caught up easily, despite his limpand matched his stride to hers.
In Boston, Erica would have greeted him with a classic "Beat it!" Or a simple, elegant "Get lost, buster." In California, however, she'd learned that opening remarks like that were considered rude. You had to wait until the guy said something obnoxious before you sent him packing.
"So which type of dumbbell are you escaping?" the man asked with a sideways grin.
She hadn't heard that line before. "Excuse me?"
"Sharp clothes, and you're in great shape, which means you're serious about exercising." His eyes swept her knowingly. "You'd enjoy the equipment at health clubs, so you must be avoiding them for a reason."
"Because I hate pickup artists." She ignored his slight wince. If his leg hurt, why didn't he knock off running? Or maybe he was reacting to her put-down.
Good. Leave me alone. Still, despite her bad mood, it was flattering to have an attractive man show an interest in her, considering the cutting remarks her husband had made when he'd dumped her. On top of that, after thirty years of enjoying male attention for her blond hair and trim figure, Erica didn't enjoy getting lost among Southern California's abundance of beauties.
Her response failed to dissuade her new jogging companion. "I'm not sure which I dislike most about gyms," he went on conversationally. "The camping queens who spread their water bottles, towels and backpacks all over the floor or the ones who yammer inanely on their cell phones."
"As if women were the problem!" Erica could give him a long list of men's failings, but started with "What about the weight lifters who grunt and make other disgusting noises? They're enough to make you swear off exercise."
"That's only one." His jaw twitched.
"One problem with guys. Compared to two for women."
Although she disliked talking while jogging, she couldn't let that remark pass. "No, it isn't. Pickup artists, remember?"
"You're saying women don't pick up men at health clubs?" He flexed his shoulders. Most likely that was a masculine move to emphasize their bulk, which she had to admit was rather impressive.
"Women might flirt, but they don't leer," she retorted.
"Besides, you can't tell me you don't belong to a health club. I can see you lift weights."
"You noticed? I'm honored." Big grin, as if he'd scored points. "I exercise at home."
"And in public parks."
"That, too." The man edged close enough for Erica to feel his body heat and inhale the appealing tang of aftershave lotion mixed with sweat.
She decided to try a different tack to put him off. "How'd you hurt your leg? Drop a dumbbell on it?"
He neither broke stride nor changed expression. "Somebody shot me."
Probably a woman you ran into on a track. It seemed churlish to say that, so she asked, "Why, exactly?"
"In the line of duty."
On this stretch, they faced the police department, which occupied a two-story stucco building in the civic center. Well, that explained a lot. "You're a cop?"
"Detective," he said. "My name's Lock, short for Sherlock. Guess I didn't have much choice about my profession."
"Your parents named you after Sherlock Holmes?" Erica wasn't sure whether or not to believe a word he said. In her experience men lied about almost anything, including their names, to impress women.
"Less a tribute to his detective skills than to his drug use, I suspect."
"You never met my parents. Lucky you." A note of bitterness crept into his voice, and he eased away.
Erica felt an unwilling flash of sympathy. If you could believe him, the guy had overcome a troubled background, dedicated himself to serving the public and been shot for his efforts. "Were you badly injured?"
"I gained some interesting metallic parts that add to the fun of going through airport security," Lock said. "By the way, it's customary when a man tells you his name to respond with yours."
"Is that what you teach women about personal security, Officer?"
He ducked his head. "Touche."
That was a sweet response. Why was she being so prickly with him, anyway? "Erica," she said.
"It suits you. Starts and ends with a soft vowel but that hard C adds bite," he said. "Speaking of bites, you hungry?"
They'd just met and he was asking her to dinner? Still, must be near five, and growing dark. "What did you have in mind?"
"I'm a good cook."
Now that was nervy, expecting her to accompany him home. "I'm sure we could find someplace near here to eat. Not that Safe Harbor has the world's best supply of restaurants."
"Oh, you discovered that already?"
Something about his question troubled her. "What do you mean, 'already'?"
Lock took a moment to answer. Not a very long moment, but up till now he'd had a rapid-fire response to everything. "You're not from around here."
"What makes you say that?"
True, she did tend to use broad A sounds and swallow the letter R, but tired of being teased by coworkers about pahking her cah in Hahvahdyahd, she'd been working on her Boston pronunciation. Anyway, that wasn't the point. Some people lived in a place for years without losing their old accent. "Have you been spying on me, Detective?"
Maybe she was paranoid, but after her ex-husband's cheating and lying, she tended to think the worst of guys. In the weeks since she'd started jogging here, she hadn't noticed Lock before, but the police department was right next door. He might have seen her walk to her sedan, then scoped out her license plate. Also, the windshield still bore a parking sticker from her old hospital back East, right next to the new one. That was all she needed, another manipulative male.
Again, Lock paused for a second too long. "I'm not a stalker. Look, I'm sorry if we got off on the wrong foot "
Erica halted in middle of the track. "As far as I'm concerned, Detective, you have two wrong feet. Frankly, I find you a little creepy."
His head jerked as if she'd slapped him. "I'm nothing like that. Which you'd realize if you got to know me better."
"I'll have to take your word for that, because I have no intention of dining with you. Tonight or any other night."
Without giving him a chance to reply, she cut away from the track. It galled Erica to see the flash of hurt in his eyes. As her feet carried her toward the parking lot, she had to force herself not to glance back.
But she knew her weakness for men who combined a rough exterior with an air of vulnerability. She'd learned the hard way that you could never tame a guy like that. You just ended up being played for a fool.
Still, as she slid behind the wheel, she allowed herself one final peek toward the track. There was no sign of Detective Sherlock.
Erica put the car in gear and headed toward her apartment a few blocks away. She'd be back, though. No man was going to drive her away from her favorite park. If he bothered her again, she'd report him for harassment.
Well, maybe, said a traitorous voice inside.