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       Jacked, p.18

           Tina Reber
 

  She grimaced. “I hope you’re being honest with me. I don’t want to tempt you with bad food choices.”

  My lust-filled images were swept over with a tinge of annoyance. “Erin, I need you to get this in your head right now. I don’t lie—ever. I’ll always be straight up with you. Always. I may choose to keep things to myself, but omission is not lying.”

  Her eyes locked onto mine, searching, I supposed. “No man has ever said that to me,” she said in a tiny voice.

  That’s because she’s probably dated assholes. “Just so you know I expect it in return. I find that you’re telling me a bunch of shit, it won’t end well. We clear on that?”

  “Crystal,” she said with a nod. “And might I add—very refreshing.”

  I liked feeling her relaxing. Her hand eased into mine and most of the recent tension evaporated, allowing me to relish the fact that I was holding her hand again. Don’t know exactly what was happening or how, but damn if I didn’t feel that invisible tether winding its way through my hand, up my arm, making my pecs tingle.

  I was far from a novice when it came to doing this dance with women, often feigning the interest to get the most out of it, but Erin Novak was tossing me way off my game, making me aware of everything.

  “Why are you smiling?” She smiled back.

  “You.” I said it before I’d completely fleshed the reasons out in a rational explanation in my head.

  “Me?”

  “Yeah, you. I thought you were going to run into the kitchen and stop Kip from pouring gravy. I think it’s cute you’re all concerned about my cholesterol.” If she was this concerned about me being tempted by fried food, I was willing to bet she’d be okay with my other issues. Well, at least I hoped she would be.

  She was tickling the inside of my palm with her fingertip, and hell if I didn’t feel that in other places again.

  “I’m glad I amuse you,” she said teasingly.

  “You do.”

  “I can’t help it,” she admitted to the tabletop. “I’m a worrier. Always have been. Sometimes I can’t sleep, knowing that I have people’s lives at stake with my decisions. I try to be sensitive to the person I’m treating, but sometimes when it’s crunch time and seconds count, I have to just detach and view them as nothing more than live human anatomy models and figure out why they’re broken or else I drive myself mad. Oh God, I’m rambling.”

  “I like when you ramble.”

  She measured me, feeling me out. “Seriously?”

  I nodded and took a sip of my Coke.

  “I’m usually the poster child for controlled composure,” she admitted.

  I crossed my arms, resting them on the table. “Sounds like we have that in common.”

  Erin’s head tilted. “You too?”

  Totally, sweetheart. You have no idea. “Your mistakes could cost a life. Mine could cost the lives of innocent civilians, my team members, and myself. I take my job just as seriously.”

  She blew out a relieving breath. “It’s like we have to be on our game twenty-four/seven. Sometimes it’s utterly exhausting. Not too many people understand that.”

  “Well, if it’s any consolation, I do. Very much.”

  Her glowing grin fell. “I’m sorry you had to experience that firsthand.”

  I was starting to think this woman was going to kill me with compassion. Wrap that around the notion of her fucking me to death and I couldn’t think of a better way to go.

  Even thinking about that day Tom took a bullet brought ugly pain back up in me.

  “Something tells me there’s more to it than that, but I won’t ask.”

  Huge understatement. The fact that she was reading me so easily was also very unsettling. It was like she was tapped right into my thoughts, picking through the shit pile with effortless ease. I’d been out with plenty of girls in my time and none of them, not a single one of them, ever looked at me as if I were so transparent.

  I could tell she wanted me to tear another patch off my inner festering wounds but I wasn’t going to give it up. Not yet, anyway. I had to remind myself that Doctor Erin Novak’s healing ways would have to endure some additional testing. We barely knew each other. But looking in those gorgeous sea-blue eyes and seeing my reflection bouncing back at me told me what I wasn’t quite ready to face. I was a goner.

  All through dinner I had to fight the urge to kiss her. The way she laughed at my lame recollections of the trouble my brothers and I had gotten into when we were kids, hanging on to every one of my words and giving me words of her own back, sharing those memories of skinned knees and adding gray hairs to our parents… It was all so easy and effortless that I felt like I’d known her a hell of a lot longer than a couple of days.

  And when she talked about her sister, Kate, glowing with pride at her accomplishments in veterinary medicine, made me want to dial up one of my brothers and tell them to get their heads out of their asses and take the girl out because she, too, sounded amazing.

  I’d never had a French fries with gravy sword fight before, but heck if she didn’t make that one of the highlights of my month as well. Everything was just so… effortless. I didn’t feel like I had to be on guard or measuring my words or pretending to be something I wasn’t. I was just—me. Free and able to breathe again.

  Even after three years, Nikki never got me. She tried to understand what made me tick, but so many times I knew with every fiber of my soul that the girl and I were on two very different pages most of the time. I’d try to explain and she’d only hear what she wanted to hear and then we’d argue.

  But Erin was Nikki’s polar opposite. She was funny and bubbly, teasing and playful, and just so down to earth that I found myself thoroughly at ease enjoying her company. I had gone into this worrying that she’d turn out to be somewhat of a snob; after all, she did go to several expensive colleges and was a trauma doctor for Christ’s sake. I figured she’d be a bit more straight-laced and uppity, even when she let her guard down.

  Instead, she was quite the opposite. For as obviously smart as she was, she was a bit insecure and unsure of herself around me, which was cute as hell. I liked it. I liked that a whole hell of a lot.

  That meant she wouldn’t treat me as if she were better than me, which was something—though I’d never admit it out loud—that passed through my mind while I helped her devour a plate of gravy fries and hot wings. Little by little I felt her wiggling her way into me.

  I TIGHTENED THE last bolt holding her new license plate on the back of her car and gave it a tug, making sure it was on tight, and breathed out in relief that it was done. Now she could drive back and forth to the hospital without either one of us worrying about her being pulled over again. I put my tools back in my toolbox and locked them up in my truck, feeling satisfied. The anal part of me checked one more time to make sure the plate was securely fastened and that I had placed the new registration card in her center console. Things were golden when I saw it folded up with her insurance card.

  I let myself in through her front door after knocking to announce my entry and found her in her kitchen, making what looked like a sandwich. I felt my breath stutter at the sight of her, that golden hair that was caressing a bit of cleavage that was peeking out from the white top she’d been wearing during our dinner, the way she was softly humming a song playing in her head. The entire package looked soft to the touch and completely consuming.

  Her eyes lit up and, for a moment, I wondered if that was because of me. I felt something I thought was dead stir inside me. She smiled and then tilted her head my way. “All finished?”

  “Yeah, you’re all set.”

  Those lips that looked like pink candy curled up again. “Thank you,” she sighed out, gazing at me as if I were some sort of hero.

  I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that felt great, too.

  In that moment I became acutely aware that there was a huge difference between a woman hanging on me making me feel wanted and one that was glowing with pure
appreciation by a simple act of kindness, making me feel needed.

  This wasn’t my first rodeo and I’d had plenty of experience knowing that womanly appreciation eventually turned into expectations, but it was always a red flag when a woman started right off with entitled demands. The woman standing in front of me didn’t expect anything. Hell, she had fought my intentions to put her new license plate on up until the moment I got my toolbox out of my truck.

  And damn if that didn’t make me more interested in her.

  I noticed her kitchen sink had a slow drip, and my pushing down and jiggling the handle didn’t stop it. The outdoor light above her garage door was burned out, too—those were just a few of the things a man should be taking care of for her. I added them to my mental list of future good excuses, because I sure as hell wanted to see her again.

  I WATCHED AS Adam glanced at his bandaged hand, flexing his fingers and picking at the wrapping.

  “You got it dirty, didn’t you?”

  He nodded sheepishly, giving me a glimpse of how adorable he must have been as a mischievous child. “Tried not to, but I had to fight with one of the bolts.”

  “Come on,” I motioned toward his hand, “let’s go take a look at my handiwork.”

  Adam followed me down the hallway and up the steps, where I ushered him into my bathroom. “We going to play doctor?”

  I grinned. “Yes, but not the X-rated version.”

  “Bummer,” he grumbled under his breath.

  I pointed to the closed toilet. “Okay, Detective Trent, have a seat.”

  Adam rested his elbow on the sink counter, offering his hand for inspection. I sifted through my medical kit, finding my thermometer. I saw his apprehensive, questioning look while I wiped it with an alcohol swab.

  “Open.”

  “I thought we were just checking stitches, Doc.”

  “We are. I also want to check your temperature too, so open up.”

  He frowned at me. “Fine, but I’m not bending over for this.”

  What a big baby. “That’s a shame.” I smiled. “A low grade fever usually accompanies infection, so I’m checking it to make sure you’re okay with a thorough exam. Now open.”

  I snapped on a pair of gloves, knowing he didn’t have any allergies to latex.

  The thermometer tipped up in his pinched lips and one gorgeous brown eye scrunched, leaving no doubt as to what he was thinking.

  “You, officer, have a dirty mind.”

  “You’re the one putting rubber gloves on, Doc.”

  I pushed the edge of the thermometer back into his mouth. “Hush.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” He snickered.

  I removed the damp, dirty gauze from his hand, hoping I wouldn’t see signs of infection.

  Ah, relief. “Sutures still look good.” I cleaned them and put some antibiotic cream on a sterile cotton swab, noting with shear exultation how his large hand dwarfed mine.

  A man’s hand… Proximal phalanges that articulate with the metacarpals… how would it feel squeezing my breast? Distal phalanges pinching, rolling my nipples between them, gliding down my body, touching me where I ache. Dipping and playing in the wetness that’s gathering from just these thoughts?

  “Still looks swollen, though,” Adam mumbled, cutting right through my internal fantasies. Just as men get erections, I felt swollen myself.

  I pulled the thermometer out of his mouth when the digital sensor beeped. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have sworn he was eying me over with the same lascivious thoughts.

  “What’s the prognosis, Doc?”

  Even the rumble of his deep voice set my body on high alert. “Your temp is normal. You’re going to live.”

  I wished I could know what he was thinking. The way he regarded me with that speculative stare told me he was mulling a lot of things over in his mind as well, but what kind of things was still a mystery. Would he stick around long enough to make this a never-ending treasure hunt or would it be the cliff notes version of my sad, pathetic love life?

  I wrapped the first pass of gauze around his hand, speculating that a man like him probably wasn’t ready to settle down. The mischievous look in his eyes said it all. This cop was probably looking for a hit and run and I was far from bulletproof.

  Though he’d been a complete gentleman so far, and had taken me out twice, so maybe… Wait… Did an omelet at a diner constitute an official date? Didn’t matter; I wanted him and I was pretty sure he knew it. I was fumbling just trying to wrap the bandage on him.

  Even if that other cop was just trying to be an asshole at the diner, there must have been some truth to his accusations of Adam being a player.

  Sharp jaw, killer eyes and smile, biceps that screamed “you should see the rest of my body if you think this looks impressive” with that perfectly cropped bed-head hair; yeah, all signs pointed to trouble followed by that soul-squashing heartbreak.

  While he looked amused, I fell apart inside.

  This was typical. So freaking typical. My attraction to every wrong guy—starting with losing my virginity three weeks into my first semester of college to that idiot Dean whatshisname, stuck with me over the years like crap on my shoe.

  I tacked on the last piece of tape, securing the end of the protective wrap, wishing I could bind my heart with the same. Would he play me for a fool? Distract me from my fellowship goal with meaningless sex while my feelings get tangled up? “There. Good as new.” I gave him my trusty doctor’s grin. It was a failsafe. “Try to keep it clean and dry at work.”

  “You’re overthinking it,” he muttered, sounding somewhat disappointed.

  “I’m what? You need to keep the sutures dry and clean and—”

  “No.” Adam shook his chin slightly. “Whatever’s rolling around in that pretty little head of yours that has your eyes looking sad. That’s what I’m talking about. Not this.” He held up my gauze-wrapped handiwork.

  Could he read my mind? Oh hell no. “I’m not sure what you mean.” I closed my med kit. “It’s getting late. I have to be at work soon and traffic is going to be heavy and—”

  Adam stood up abruptly, getting right into my space and staring me down. “You know what I’m talking about. Don’t overthink it. I’m an open book, Erin. You’ve got questions, I got answers. It’s best if that works both ways.”

  I fumbled with a comeback, feeling cornered and dumbfounded. Were my female insecurities that transparent?

  He drifted his fingertips down the side of my jaw and, for a moment, I thought he was going to try and kiss me. God, I wanted him to so badly. That would shut down my internal musings.

  That feeling of being let down washed over me when he stepped out of my bathroom.

  I thought he’d be making a beeline for my front door; instead he lingered, scanning over my spattering of pictures, even picking up the one of me when I graduated from medical school.

  “Johns Hopkins?” Adam questioned.

  I nodded, stepping to his side. “That’s my younger sister Kate in the blue dress.”

  “I see some resemblance. You’ve got the same eyes. How old is she again?” He handed the picture frame to me.

  “Twenty-six.”

  “She’s Jason’s age.”

  I wiped a wisp of dust off the frame, staring at her smiling face. “She graduates from veterinary school in a few months. She’s down at the University of Maryland. God, I miss her. But I’m sure I’ll see her for the funerals.”

  “Funerals?”

  I put the picture frame back on the shelf, straightening it. “My aunt and uncle were in a car crash a few days ago. The triple fatality on the Schuylkill that happened the night that you pulled me over?”

  Adam’s shocked gaze whipped over at me.

  “My Uncle Cal is still in ICU but he’s deteriorating and my aunt… my Aunt Karen was killed at the scene.”

  He eyed me over with something resembling abject horror, his face turning pallid. “You mean to tell me that the vics were rel
ated to you?”

  I nodded. “We’re all very close. This house is one of their rental units. They are, um, were like second parents to Kate and me.”

  Adam rubbed his forehead before covering his eyes, shielding them from me while his lips rambled a few silent curse words.

  When he finally looked at me, his face was pained. “I am so sorry, Erin. Oh, God. I had no idea.”

  He was touching me, running his hands over my arms, feeling me as if I might be broken somehow. “You okay?”

  I actually wanted to eke out a sob but refrained. Death was a fact of life, no matter how hard I tried to intervene. All we were capable of doing as doctors was delaying the inevitable. “I’m dealing. My parents are taking it hard, though. Really hard.” I picked up the picture of them huddled around the slot machines from one of their trips to Las Vegas, smiling at the big “Win a Honda” sign over their heads.

  Adam held out his hand for it. “Is that them?”

  Just looking at the picture hurt. So many wonderful memories cut short. “Yeah. This is my mom and dad and that’s Uncle Cal and Aunt Karen. The four amigos. She died at the scene.”

  A tear escaped the corner of my eye.

  Adam seemed to take this information harder than I would have expected. His grip tightened on the frame and the oddest look came over him. “I don’t even know what to say, Erin. I’m sorry you and your family are going through this. So much senseless violence in the world. So much I wish I could change.” His hand shook a bit as he set the frame back down, adjusting it with the tip of his finger as if to put it back exactly where it once was. “…I had no control over it,” he muttered, “God… have no control over any of it. The Manley brothers…”

  I thought about all of the people who fought for their lives when they came through those ER doors, wishing I could fix them all, too, work some sort of miracle so that no one would have to experience loss or grief. “Sometimes I think our fate is just out of our control. No rhyme or reason to it. Bad people live; good people die. Innocent children fight diseases or suffer from the… the malicious mistreatment at the hands of their parents while drug addicts and gang bangers get to live on. It’s crazy and it makes no sense.”

 
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