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Jacob Wolff had seen more than his share of naked women. He knew the female body inside and out. After all, he was a doctor.
But when Ariel Dane set foot in his office, fully clothed, he reacted like a man, not a physician.
Jacob retreated behind his pewter-colored metal desk and motioned for her to sit. "Make yourself comfortable, Ms. Dane."
She might as well have been deaf for all the notice she afforded his pleasantries. With quick, nervous steps, she approached the broad picture window and stared out at the forest, her hands clasped behind her back.
Jacob took the opportunity to study her. She was thin, too thin. But that was no doubt the influence of Hollywood. Ariel Dane was a star. And seeing her in the flesh for the first time, he understood why. She was exquisite. Ethereal.
Her pale blond hair often flowed across the pillow of a leading man. Today it was confined in a simple ponytail. The severe style lent emphasis to her finely-drawn features, and drew attention to the delicate curve of the nape of her neck.
Jacob shifted restlessly, leaning back in his chair. The silence didn't bother him. She would speak when she was ready. What disturbed him was the way his sex stirred and his breathing quickened. He had not been with a woman in years. But that meant nothing. He'd learned to subdue his sexuality at will. Rarely did he allow his body to best him. Now, in the presence of a woman whose image had no doubt fueled a million male fantasies, he found that he was human after all.
Her silence outlasted his curiosity. "How did you know to contact me, Ms. Dane?"
She half turned, finally deigning to answer, her expression pensive. "You know Jeremy Vargas, don't you? The actor?"
"Slightly. My new sister-in-law, Olivia, is a close friend of his."
She nodded, returning her gaze to the lush jungle of hardwood trees, rhododendron and laurel. "He saw me at a party recently and told me I looked like sh"
She stopped short. He saw her shoulders tense.
Turning to face him, she winced. "Sorry. Let's just say that Jeremy was not particularly flattering in his assessment of my current attractiveness. He told me I should come to see you. Insisted on giving me your contact information."
"There are doctors in Hollywood."
She lifted her chin, her expression hunted. "Jeremy says that because of what your family has endured from the press over the years, you're unfailingly discreet. Was he wrong? I'm well aware that a copy of my medical records would fetch a handy sum from the paparazzi. I have nowhere else to turn. No one else I can trust completely."
"I don't need your money, Ms. Dane. And my family and I have no great fondness for the gutter press. So yes, your secrets are safe with me."
"Thank you." A tiny, hiccupped sob escaped her throat.
"You don't know what that means to me." She wrapped her arms around her waist. The pale-pink silk shirtdress she wore halted just above her knees and displayed a pair of slim, spectacular legs. The thin fabric outlined pert, though small, breasts. If she wore a bra, it was flimsy, because he could see the outline of her nipples.
His throat dried, and he cursed inwardly. Get a grip, Jacob.
"I have to tell you, Ms. Dane, that I don't have much experience with eating disorders. But I could refer you to a private facility."
Shock flashed across her face. "I must look worse than I thought."
Her voice didn't match her fragile appearance. It was low and husky and made a man think about sex. Which was, perhaps, part of the reason her career had skyrocketed. After a string of well-paid childhood gigs, she'd landed her first "adult" starring role at seventeen.
"You are incredibly lovely," he said, his tone deliberately devoid of emotion. "But clearly, you are ill. It's my job to notice things like that."
She cocked her head, staring at him with an intensity that made him sweat beneath his crisp white dress shirt. Humor seasoned her words. "I love milkshakes, greasy fries and pizza. My metabolism runs at full tilt. And I hate to throw up. I don't have an eating disorder." A tiny, but recognizable, grin lifted the corners of her unadorned mouth. " Show me a plate of junk food, and I'll prove it to you."
Relief flooded his stomach. Anorexia and bulimia were damned serious. And not really his area of expertise.
But then another, even less palatable thought occurred to him. Was she addicted to recreational drugs? Her reputation was no secret, even for a man who lived in self-imposed exile. Party girl. Serial dater. Shallow princess.
He wasn't an idiot. He knew that the media loved to exaggerate both the good and the bad. So he would give her the benefit of the doubt. "Speaking of food," he said. "Would you like something? I can provide light fare here, or a quick call up the hill will net us something fancy."
"I'm fine." Now she prowled, picking up a book here, a photo there. She stopped, holding a framed image that was one of his favorites. "Who's this?"
"My brothers and I. When we were teenagers. Dad let us do a rafting trip on the Colorado. As far as I know, it was our only true vacation."
"Why?" she asked, frowning. "Is he super frugal?"
"It wasn't a question of money. Our mother and our aunt were kidnapped and killed when we were young. My father lived in fear that his children would be targets."
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, huge periwinkle eyes filled with distress. "I've heard bits and pieces about your family's struggles, of course, but meeting you makes it seem more real."
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago. Most people know the story. How old are you?"
Good lord. She hadn't even been born when the Wolffs suffered their very public tragedy.
Her eyes narrowed. "I sent you all that info in my email. Every bit of your incredibly thorough seven-page form."
"My fault entirely. I wasn't expecting you so soon." The message had only come through on his computer the evening before. "I'll read it over later." He was rarely inclined to get personal with a patient. But for some reason, he wanted to reassure her. "We have more in common than you might think, Ms. Dane. My family has been the target of the paparazzi for years, ever since my mother and aunt were murdered. The perpetrators were never caught, so occasionally the story surfaces again."
"I'm sorry," she said, her tone formal. "And I know I should have waited for you to contact me about an appointment. But I don't have much time."
His stomach pitched in irrational fear. "You already have a diagnosis?"
She nodded, pacing the length of the room. As she moved, he scanned her body for evidence of a terminal illness. Though she could stand to gain twenty pounds, her color was good, and he could see no immediate sign that cancer had ravaged her body.
Thinking about it made his gut clench with terror. He fought back the memories and inhaled a sharp breath. "Are you dealing with addiction or something worse?" The words came out bluntly and sounded more judgmental than he had intended.
She froze, halfway between his desk and the door. Approaching him slowly, she sank into the chair he had offered and frowned. "My God, you don't pull any punches, do you?"
With only inches separating them, he was close enough to detect hints of lavender and gray in her clear irises. In a black-and-white film, she could have been a younger Ingrid Bergman. Her beauty was timeless, classic. Unfortunately, most movie directors chose to turn her into a sexed-up nymphet for their summer blockbusters.
Jacob kept his pose casual, though his emotions were anything but at the moment. "I can't help you if I don't know the truth."
Her hands were graceful, long fingers bare, the nails French-manicured. She wore no jewelry there, not even a watch. The only adornment she had allowed herself was a modest pair of diamond stud earrings that caught the light when she moved her head.
Her gaze skittered away as if disconcerted by his visual examination. She sighed, her hands resting on the arms of the chair. "I've been told that you see only high-profile patients whose utmost need is privacy."
"So you understand why I need your help."
"I understand the need for discretion. I've yet to hear your actual reason for coming to me."
Without waiting for an answer, she rose to her feet and paced again. "Why did you become a doctor?" she asked, her back toward him.
Jacob swallowed, fighting the urge to draw her back to the chair so he could inhale her scent. "When my mother was killed, I remember crying and asking my father why the doctors didn't do something. At the time, I didn't really understand that she had died instantly of a gunshot wound. Dad told me no one could have saved her."
Ariel faced him, eyes shadowed with concern. "But you didn't buy that?"
Jacob shrugged. "I was a little kid. I decided then and there that I would become a doctor so other families wouldn't have to deal with the heartache that was tearing us apart."
"Surely you realize that your healing skills are valuable."
"Doctors are not gods, despite what some of my colleagues might believe. We run the numbers, make our best guesses, and pray."
"Why do you do it, then, if you're so dubious of your worth?"
"I know what it's like to have no private life, to have the whole world speculating, sometimes even lying, about those I love. So when I can help people who can't go anywhere else for medical care, I provide a service. When I'm not seeing patients, my passion is leukemia research. I have the time and the money to make a difference there."
"Why leukemia specifically?"
"When I was six or seven, my best friend, other than my cousins and siblings, was the son of a man who was in charge of the stables and all our animals. The boy's name was Eddie. He was diagnosed with leukemia, and despite the fact that my father and uncle brought in the very best doctors and paid for every available treatment, Eddie died at the age of eight. I already knew, even then, that I wanted to be a doctor. Later in life, the memory of losing Eddie fine-tuned my medical training."
"That's very admirable."
He shrugged. "I love my work. But it's not glamorous." He stopped and grinned. "At least not until today."
Ariel ignored his compliment. "And what about the poor and not so famous?"
"If you're talking about medical care in general, I can assure you that the Wolff family invests heavily in Doctors Without Borders. My brother Kieran and I have built several clinics on our own both here and abroad. You needn't feel guilty that accessing my services makes you some kind of prima donna."
The tiny grin reappeared. "Too late for that. I'm a spoiled, promiscuous bitch, didn't you know?"
Beneath the flip words he heard pain. "Does it bother you? The constant scrutiny?"
Small white teeth worried her lower lip. "It shouldn't by now. God knows I've had years to get used to it."
"But it stings."
Her gaze locked with his; her long-lashed eyes filled with tears. "Understatement, Doc."
She visibly shook off her distress, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand.
He offered her a box of tissues. "Sit down, Miss Dane.
"Call me Ariel." She sank into the chair once again, kicked off her flat silver sandals, and tucked her feet beneath her.
Jacob tried not to notice the way her skirt rode up her toned, shapely thighs. "It's a pretty name. And not very common."
She leaned forward, one elbow on the desk, head resting on her hand. "The Little Mermaid was my mom's favorite movie when I was born."
"But you're blonde. The real Ariel was a redhead." Even as he said it, he scoffed at himself. Hair color in Hollywood changed with the tide and the seasons.
"Didn't matter. And yes," she said, seeming to read his thoughts. "I am a natural blonde, not that anyone cares. I've never dyed my hair for a part. Though I have worn wigs."
"Why draw the line there? I thought most actresses would do anything for a plum role."
"I always heard that blondes have more fun. I guess I'm still waiting to see if that's true."
He heard the self-derisive note in her voice. The wry cynicism made her appear far older than her years.
"Don't you enjoy what you do?"
"There's no such thing as a perfect job, Dr. Wolff. I'm surprised you don't know that."
"You've got me there." He inched back in his chair, her closeness making him re-evaluate his Hippocratic Oath. Becoming this woman's medical provider was not a realistic option. Not when he was already wondering if those soft pink lips tasted as good as they looked. "Are you ready to tell me why you've come to Wolff Mountain?" he asked, growing impatient and itchy to be done with this awkward though tantalizing interview.
"Tell me about this place," she demanded, clearly stalling. "I caught a glimpse of the main house through the trees. It looks like a castle."
"We call it that on occasion," he admitted. "But growing up, it was just home."
"Pretty amazing home. Acres and acres of wilderness. Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Private drive a million miles long. Not bad at all."
"It was a prison growing up." He stopped short, nearly biting his tongue with the force of his about-face. Patients were patients. Not confidantes. "I think we need to get back to you, Ms. Dane." She shot him a warning glance, and he backpedaled. "Ariel. And you might as well call me Jacob."
"What if I prefer Dr. Wolff?"
He scowled, confused and aroused and frustrated with himself. "I thought that movie industry professionals preferred informality."
"I'd rather maintain a bit of distance with a man who might see me naked."
Naked? He gulped. "I think you've made a trip for nothing, Ariel. I can't help you."
She sat up, eyes narrowing. "I haven't told you what's wrong with me yet."
"Are you going to?" He sounded gruff, even to his own ears. "Why are you angry?"
"I'm not angry," he corrected with pedantic exactitude. "I'm busy. I was in the midst of a project when you arrived."
"Most men make time for me."
He didn't doubt it for an instant. "I thought you wanted a doctor, not a man."
"Maybe I want both."