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"I need you to pretend to be madly in love with me."
Startled by the request, Dr. Blake Di Angelo tapped his thumbs against the sleek surface of his mahogany desk, thinking that perhaps the petite blonde pacing across his Knoxville medical office had already gone mad.
"You'll have to repeat that, Darby." He leaned against his leather chair's backrest, eyeing her with more than a little curiosity. "Because I don't think I heard you right."
His business partner paused long enough to bestow a glance on the bluest eyes that side of the Mississippi. Eyes that were usually sparkling with laughter. Not today. Today, her fingers clenched around a card of some sort, Dr. Darby Phillips' eyes were clouded with displeasure.
"You owe me." Her expression dared him to deny her claim. "Last weekend of the month. You're going with me to Alabama and you're going to pretend to be goo-goo-gaga, head-over-heels in love with me the entire time."
His brow arching at her determined expression, Blake grinned. God, she was bossy. He liked it. Had always liked Darby's assertiveness and self-assurance. From the time he'd met her four years ago, she'd been driven to be the best at everything she did.
"Why am I going to do this?" He couldn't resist teasing. Mostly because he knew how to push her buttons to have her going from zero to through the roof.
She started pacing again. "Because you owe me, and I'm collecting."
Blake's eyes traveled over her curvy little frame encased in a no-nonsense navy business suit, exposing shapely legs beneath her skirt hem. The shirt was tucked into a waist that his hands would probably fit around. Her breasts—well, he knew better than to let his thoughts go there. He valued their business relationship too much to acknowledge her as the desirable woman she so obviously was.
"And because of this." She tossed the embossed card onto his desk and shuddered. "Which I'd completely forgotten about."
She turned those big baby-blues on him again, stared with such beseeching that his insides shifted off axis enough to make his world wobble, to make him want to take her into his arms and promise he'd fix whatever had her so upset.
"How could I have forgotten that was this year? This month?" Panic brewing in the blue depths, her gaze bored into him. "I really don't need the headache of looking for a date who'll no doubt get the wrong idea by an invitation to something so personal. But I do need a man for that weekend." Taking a deep breath, she lifted her shoulders and took on the expression of a seasoned soldier, readying for battle. "Tag, you're it."
Blake picked up the card and studied the fancy maroon and gold embossing more closely. Armadillo Lake Ten-Year High School Reunion. "Don't they usually give folks more notice than two weeks for these kinds of things?"
Darby muttered something under her breath. "Usually."
"You could go without a date."
"Oh, no." Stray pale blonde tendrils loosened from her upswept hair danced at her almost violent headshake. "I'd rather not go than go dateless."
"Then don't go. Problem solved. No one says you have to go to your high school reunion."
Although he had meant to, he hadn't gone to his. Darby had been sick with the flu and he'd covered for her at the hospital instead. No big deal, since he'd moved so often he'd never gotten particularly attached to any of the numerous private prep schools he'd attended.
She let out an exasperated sound. "It's not that simple. Besides, you owe—"
"Yes, I know," he conceded. "I owe you for bailing me out last month, when it was my turn to be on call and I wanted to go out of town." A weekend that had ended in disaster when his then girlfriend had got wedding bells on her brain. He liked his life as it was and had no intention of marrying. For one reason or another, marriages didn't seem to work in his family. Besides, he was enjoying bachelorhood too much for that.
"So you have to go to your reunion." He dropped the invitation back onto his desk. "Why the 'in love' stuff?"
"Mandy Coulson." Darby's agitation tripled. Quadrupled.
Blake's curiosity grew accordingly. Even when under intense pressure, Darby rarely lost her cool. God, he'd loved to watch her work when they'd been in residency—still did. Calm, cool, in control. Today she was hot under the collar, sweating like any normal person, and not because of his teasing. No, although Blake had thought he knew better than anyone how to get a rise out of his pretty little partner, apparently this Mandy person and a high school reunion had him beat.
He didn't see what the big deal was, but he was intrigued as to why Darby did.
"And Mandy is…?" He stretched his hand out in question. "Who?"
"Every shy kid's worst nightmare." The words hissed from Darby's pursed lips like air escaping a rapidly deflating balloon.
Interesting. He had a hard time imagining the confident young woman he knew as shy. Ever.
This trip might prove to be educational.
He tossed the invitation on his desk and waggled his eyebrows mischievously. "Okay, darling, I'll be your boy toy."
Boy toy? As if. Darby rolled her eyes before meeting her partner's black-as-sin gaze. As attractive as she found Blake, the man went through women as if he were competing for a world record. That didn't mean she wasn't crazy about him—just that she knew better than to feed his oversized ego.
"Keep that up and you'll leave me no choice but to call Rodney," she threatened, knowing Blake had never liked her recent attempt at dating. "If I pander to his ego a little—" a lot "—and tell him how rotten you are—" Rodney had been jealous of the "Italian Stallion", Rodney's label for Blake, not Darby's "—he's sure to go with me."
Although they'd only gone out for a couple of months, he was still calling her, trying to convince her they could make things work if only she'd have sex with him. Yeah, right. Not during this lifetime.
There was only one man she wanted to sleep with, and he had no clue that was how she felt.
"The hell you say," Blake growled. "He was the most suspicious man I've ever met—dropping by here all hours of the night." His strong jaw clenched, emphasizing the slight cleft in his chin. "What did he expect? To catch me with my pants down?"
For the first time since she'd stormed into his office her lips twitched. "Actually, that is what he expected."
And then some. She hadn't been able to convince Rodney that Blake was nothing more than her business partner. Maybe because from the time they'd met she'd hoped Blake would see her for more than her brain and medical skills. After four years of his treating her much as one of her brothers did, she'd decided she didn't register on Blake's female radar. Just as well. None of the women he was interested in ever lasted long. Blake's love-life consisted of a revolving door and multiple women. She wanted him forever, not just for a few weekends.
So she'd waited, hoped, become more and more frustrated.
"He thought you were getting lucky." Since Rodney hadn't been getting lucky, he'd automatically assumed Blake, being the only other man in her life, must be. Men.
Blake waggled his brows again. "Well, you can't blame the guy for thinking I'd get lucky. I am irresistible."
"And so modest, too." She snorted at his mock-innocent expression. "Luck has nothing to do with how you get women."
His lips twitched. "Enlighten me. How do I get women?"
Any way he wanted them.
"With that jet-black hair and those dark-as-midnight eyes you don't have to get women, they get you." The laughter in those black eyes had her feet wanting to shift—or run for the closest exit. How had the conversation even taken this turn? Her face grew hot and her skin clammy.
"At least, women try to get you," she rushed on, hoping he didn't notice how uncomfortable talking about his love-life made her. "You're oblivious to most, yet they keep chasing you. So, like I said, you don't have to get women, they get you."
"And, like I said—" he rocked back in his chair and blatantly eyed her with amusement "—I'm irresistible."
Dimples cut into his cheeks, making her think perhaps he was right. Certainly she'd always wanted him. Then again, with so little experience when it came to men, how could she be expected not to fall for someone so skilled in the ways of the opposite sex?
Because if Blake's love-life was arevolving door, Darby's was a vault that had rusted shut long ago from lack of use.
"For example," he continued, "I was recently propositioned to spend the weekend with a beautiful woman." His black eyes twinkled. "I even get to pretend to be in love with her. How much luckier can a guy get?"
Picking up a spongy ball—a stress-reliever advertising a pharmaceutical firm—she tossed it at him. "I wouldn't count on getting lucky that particular weekend if I were you. You're not that irresistible."
At least not that she'd ever admit. But if she thought there was the slightest chance Blake could love her, she'd throw caution to the wind and make him notice she was a woman the weekend of the reunion.
He caught the stress ball with ease. "Come to think of it, my luck's never been that good. Just look at the last female who found me." He cringed with revulsion and gave an exaggerated shudder.
Darby bit back a smile.
So the foolish physical therapist he'd been dating on and off for a few months had thought Blake was taking her out of town to pop the question. Instead, the Yankees had been in Atlanta, and a friend had given him Braves tickets. Blake's proposal had consisted of, "Do you want mustard or ketchup on your hot dog?" When the game had ended, with no highlighted proposal on the scoreboard, Kristi had issued an ultimatum she'd regretted the moment Blake had waved goodbye.
He interrupted her thoughts. "But you have to admit I am better than Rodney."
True, but Rodney had been an okay boyfriend—a good start to her late-in-life attempt to develop dating skills. Well, an okay boyfriend except for his jealousy of Blake and how he'dpushed for sex. After Blake had dumped Kristi in Atlanta, Rodney's possessiveness had suffocated Darby. He would view going to her high school reunion as moving their relationship into another realm. A realm where she didn't want to go, as she had no intention of having sex with him. Ever.
Blake was right. He was the better choice in so many ways.
No one from her past would expect to see her with a man like Blake. With him at her side she could pretend she wasn't still the geeky girl who'd left Armadillo Lake with big dreams and stars in her eyes.
She picked up the invitation to return to Armadillo Lake, Alabama. Her hometown.
She had to go.
Had to prove Mandy Coulson wrong. Prove her entire class wrong. Prove to herself that she really was the confident young woman she looked at in the mirror each morning. She was, wasn't she?
Her hand clenched around the invitation Mandy had no doubt delayed in sending.
She'd go home with her head held high, with a gorgeous hunk attending to her every whim, and she'd show them all how wrong they were.
Or pretend to, at any rate.
And if along the way Blake discovered she was a girl behind her lab coat and high IQ—well, that would be icing on the cake, now, wouldn't it?
Blake stepped into Darby's office during the week of the reunion. "Can I get your opinion on Mr. Hill's leg?"
It was late Tuesday evening and Darby had already finished with her last patient for the day. She glanced up from the computer screen where she researched an unusual plethora of symptoms a patient had come in with that morning.
"Nathan Hill, from Strawberry Plains?"
"That's the one." He skimmed his fingers over the model of the heart on top of her bookshelf. It was a running joke that he had heart envy. Every time he came into her office he touched the plastic heart. Someday she'd give the darn thing to him.
"I just examined him," Blake continued, "but since you were the last one to see the ulcer on his lower extremity, I wanted your opinion on whether you think it's improved."
"Sure thing." She bookmarked her page on the web and followed him into the exam room.
"Hi, Mr. Hill." She washed her hands and slid on a pair of disposable gloves. "Dr. Di Angelo has asked me to take a look at the place on your leg since I'd checked you a week or so ago." She smiled at the thin gentleman, patted his wrinkled hand. "How do you think it looks? Better? Worse? Or about the same?"
"Better," the seventy-year-old said. Unfortunately, Mr. Hill would say his leg was doing better even if his toes were black. Very simply, the man wouldn't complain. He'd just smile his toothless smile and tell her how he was doing just fine.
Squatting to examine his leg, Darby winced at the oozing ulcer that encompassed a good portion of his shin.
"Have you been taking the antibiotics I prescribed?" she asked, concerned that he'd gotten worse rather than better. "The culture I did on the area says the one prescribed should clear the infection, but obviously the medicine isn't working."
"I got the prescription filled." He scratched his mostly bald head with a thickened yellow nail that curved over the tip of his arthritic finger. "Only took a few. Figured I'd wait and see if I really needed them."
What was he waiting for? His foot to fall off? For the bacteria to build resistance to the antibiotics since he'd taken just enough to tease the infection?
Darby shook her head. "I stressed the importance of taking the antibiotics because they are vital to this area healing." She looked to where Blake stood. He'd entered the room with her, had been ready to assist if she needed anything, but was confident enough to stand back and let her do her job. She liked that about Blake. He trusted her, found her competent. Turning her gaze back to her patient, she gave him her most serious look. "I'd like to admit you to the hospital, give IV antibiotics for a few days, and keep a close eye on your leg."
Not liking Darby's assessment, Mr. Hill turned to Blake for another opinion. "Doc?"
"Admitting you to the hospital is what I was thinking, too, but you kept insisting you were better. Since I hadn't seen the way the area originally looked, I gave you the benefit of doubt." Blake raised a brow at Mr. Hill, who had the grace to blush. "Obviously you over-exaggerated."
Darby removed her gloves and tossed them into the appropriate disposal bin. She wrapped her arm around the older man and gave him a hug. "Obviously."