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       Jacked, p.25

           Tina Reber
 

  She leaned back over her bowl. “I love mom soup.”

  “It cures whatever ails you. Well, that’s what we were raised to believe.”

  And just like that, my favorite doctor curled into herself a bit more. It was tiny but noticeable. Over at my stove, I filled my bowl back up to the top. She was still in her protective ball when I sat back down.

  “You’re killing my ego, you know.”

  She glanced over at me. “I am?”

  I stirred my noodles around with my spoon. “Yep. Usually a woman isn’t so sad after kissing me. I fear I’m losing my touch.”

  At least she smiled.

  “You’re not losing your touch. Trust me.”

  “Well, that’s a relief.” I took another bite of my sandwich. “You want to talk about it?”

  She looked back over at me. “Talk about what?”

  “Whatever it is that’s weighing heavy on your mind.”

  “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

  I set my spoon down and turned to face her. Something was telling me I was still partly to blame here somehow. I’d spent my entire life conquering things that tried to break me. A few situations got close to wrecking me for good, but I had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing that I couldn’t overcome.

  Guilt, however, was laying its heavy hand on my shoulder, weaving its malevolence up into my thoughts. The fact that I went from avoiding Erin, to accusing her of being a drunk, to making out with her in my kitchen, wasn’t lost on me. Last thing I wanted to do was mess with her head. Time to own up to my mistakes and take the heat.

  “Start by talking.”

  I noticed her hand trembled slightly when she scratched her eyebrow. She probably feels like wrung-out garbage being hung-over.

  “I lost a pediatric patient yesterday. It’s… it’s hitting me hard.”

  My body jerked, ready to console her. Misty blue eyes hesitantly glanced over at me and just like that I was rendered helpless, feeling powerless to fix whatever was causing her such grief. Maybe that’s why I found myself over at her house so many times this past week, unable to ring her damn door, but repairing everything else I could get my hands on beyond the rift I’d made between us.

  “She was only four years old. Four. Her entire life was in front of her.”

  Oh shit. My hand landed softly on the curve of her shoulder. None of the words of comfort that flashed through my mind seemed appropriate or fitting.

  She dipped her face down. “She had long blonde hair, and curls… I tried not to look at her face while we worked on her. I just couldn’t. That was someone’s baby. Someone’s daughter. I lost her before we could get her into the O.R.”

  I rubbed her back while feeling her pain. It was all too familiar for me.

  “I’ve worked on injured kids before, too many to count, but I never had one die on me.” She drifted her eyes over to me. “Losing a geriatric patient is one thing. It’s still ha… hard, but I just try to tell myself that they’ve lived their life, that they’ve loved and lost and made their mark on the world. But babies? Babies aren’t supposed to die, not like that. I can’t shake the fact that I let her down.”

  Words my counselor once told me came to mind. “You can’t blame yourself, Doc. I know you want to because it’s easy to do, but deep down inside you know it’s not your fault.”

  Erin shook her head in disagreement. “I was upset and unfocused and had no business working another severe trauma. I didn’t have my head in the game and that’s all on me.”

  I held my breath for a moment, recalling the days when I had to rip my own wounds apart. “Circumstances aren’t always within our control, Erin.”

  “I know. It… it’s just been a lot to process for one day.”

  I could only imagine how many of those cases were causing the massive trauma to her soul. No wonder she sought solace in a bottle. There were only so many ways to purge your system of the ugly crap and I was all too familiar with her chosen outlet. Seeing how torn up she was about losing a child caused a twin echo to burn into my chest. The lump in my throat suddenly became hard to swallow.

  “I’m sure you did everything you could.” I wanted to take her hand in mine. “A very wise man once told me that sometimes it’s not within our power to stop bad things from happening.”

  I heard the words come out of my mouth; if only I could keep remembering that myself.

  Erin pushed her soup bowl away. “I should get going. I need to make some calls and get back to the hospital.”

  Shit, she was running again. “Thought you had the next two days off?”

  “I do but there are some things I need to do.”

  I snagged her wrist before she could walk away. “Hold up. I get being a workaholic; been one myself on occasion. I also get that you’re upset and feel the need to fix something. But what I know for a fact is you have to take time for you every now and then or else the job eats you alive. Look at me, babe.” I turned her to face me. “What’s so important that you have to go in on your day off?”

  This defeated woman in my hands was not the self-assured go-getter I’d seen in her personality before and it was killing me to see her this way.

  “You wouldn’t understand.”

  I held her firm. “Try me.”

  She sighed, trying to hide that her lip was quivering. “I lost my fellowship yesterday, Adam. I need to see if I can fix it before it’s too late.” Her eyes were filling with unshed tears, which instantly brought back that burn in my throat. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

  Her voice was barely audible, barely above a whisper. Well, she was partially right; I didn’t understand what that meant but sure as hell could tell that it was hurting her beyond a level I was comfortable with. At least I could do something about that. What, though, I had no clue beyond helping her search for what she’d lost. “Was it because you lost the little girl?”

  She shook her head no.

  “Then sit. Explain it to me.”

  She wiped her face with her fingertips. “It means that everything I’ve worked for since I was a teenager was stolen out from under me by a thieving bastard who doesn’t deserve it.”

  I tore a paper towel off the roll and handed it to her, stiffening at hearing the words “stolen” and “thieving bastard.” “I may not fully understand what you mean by fellowship, but I have plenty of guns and tons of bullets and a lot of experience hunting down thieving bastards.”

  That at least generated a partial laugh, which was what I was aiming for.

  Erin dabbed her eyes. “If only it were that easy.” She exhaled hard. “I’d probably have to resuscitate him before I go to jail. Might as well take out his evil girlfriend while I’m at it.”

  “Now you’re thinking like a predator.” I pulled out her chair so she’d sit and calm down. At least she was talking, which kept me from thinking about taking out whoever stole from her. “Come on, Doc. Sit. Tell me; what did this thieving bastard do exactly?”

  She slid back onto the chair. “The hospital only gives out so many fellowships a year when you finish your residency. I thought the toxicology fellow was mine, but apparently I assumed too much. I don’t know. Maybe I can find another program at another hospital. That would mean I’d have to leave University, though. That’s going to suck.” Her fingers landed in her hair, tugging on the long strands. “Guess I don’t have much of a choice now, do I?”

  I hated seeing the vitality sucked out of her like this. I wanted to go find this thieving bastard who stole her happiness and punch him in the head a few times just for a warm-up. “That’s a shitty thing for your boss to drop on you on the same day you went through a family loss, Erin. Nothing like kicking you when you’re down. Maybe you would be better off working somewhere else.”

  She finger-combed her hair back. I tried not to think about how sexy that was but it was difficult. She was chewing on her lip too, which also did nothing to aid my concentration.

 
He wasn’t the one who told me. The thieving bastard’s girlfriend delivered the news. She even went so far as to ask me to be nice about it. God, I wanted to punch her. Sorry, I’m… it’s just talk. I’ve never hit anyone in my life but man I wanted to hit her.”

  Several images of me helping to make that scenario possible flashed through my mind. I’d reflect on how her hurt made me hurt too, but later. The bitter bite of resentment in her words was unmistakable; so was the hot flare of my own jealousy that flashed up the sides of my neck.

  “Thieving bastard’s girlfriend? I take it you and this dude have history?”

  Erin’s lips twisted while her guarded expression gave her away. Last thing I wanted to worry about was someone I was gonna be dating hooking up in some dark hospital room with a readily available supply of empty beds.

  “It’s in the past, correct?”

  She nodded once. “Yeah, it is. Been over a while.”

  That was a relief, but still my fingers itched to lock him away for something and make it permanent. “You still work with this guy?”

  Erin shrugged. “Not all the time. But yeah, I do. We both started out as interns together.”

  I felt the muscle in my jaw twitch. “Invest a lot of time in him?”

  Her hair shook. “About a year. He was never serious about it. I thought that wanting the same things out of life would be a good foundation until I found out he wanted the exact same things. Then it turned it into a competition. Guess I know who won in the end.”

  Yeah, apparently this asshole gutted her along the way, too. “You still in love with this guy?”

  “No. I pretty much despise him. At the time when we were together, I think I was in love with the idea of love. You know what I mean? Does that constitute love? I don’t know.”

  I had no idea, either.

  “What about you and the girl who left her box of tampons behind?”

  Wait. When did this become about me? Dredging up my past was not something I was keen on doing. “Her name is Nikki. It didn’t work out.”

  “Oh. Were you together long?”

  Fuck.

  “A while.”

  The edges of Erin’s mouth curled down. “Sounds like you were in love with her.”

  Actually she drove me crazy. My cell dinged; a number I didn’t have programmed had sent me a text.

  What the? Jesus, I don’t need this. I deleted it and tossed my phone aside.

  Erin sat up. I could see the thoughts ricocheting around her head, ready to pinball her out of my kitchen when I didn’t answer. “What time is it?”

  I glanced at my microwave. “Eleven thirty.”

  She slipped off her chair. “I need to talk to Doctor Wilson.”

  Somewhere in my living room, a cell began to ring. I watched her fish her phone out of her purse, finding relief after hearing her say hello to her mother.

  Erin’s body was silhouetted by the sun streaming in through my front window, giving her a golden glow. Her hair was mostly dry now, with each strand taking on a slight curl. The back of the T-shirt she was wearing was bunched up around the waistline of my gray baggy sweats and tied into a knot, amplifying a mouthwatering, heart-shaped ass hidden in the fabric. Even the floppy white socks she was wearing were mine.

  Watching the way she chewed on her thumbnail as she held the cell to her ear, the way her body swayed while she gave her mom words of comfort mesmerized me. I didn’t know things could feel this strongly with someone. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about her that was like the center of gravity, pulling me in. I felt weak and vulnerable and tough and virile all at the same time. In all the time I was with Nikki I never felt this attracted to her like I did with the woman in my presence right now.

  Instead of centering on herself and her own problems, Erin was calm and confident, making plans to handle things that had to do with upcoming funerals, taking that burden off her grieving mother and adding more onto her own plate. Never once did she complain about her own problems or even mention what she was dealing with. Man, she’s selfless.

  My chest swelled with pride. At the same time, I wanted to wrap her in my arms and give her my strength too, knowing that after what she’d shared with me, she needed it. She probably never burdened anyone with her problems.

  My body moved before I completed that thought, first checking if she’d shy away from me. When she didn’t budge, I pulled her back into my chest, letting her say her “okay, moms” while I held her.

  Despite her convincing telephone act with her mother, she was on the verge of a breakdown.

  I could see it; sense it.

  Sure enough, as soon as she ended her call, she turned in my arms and tangled her hands into the back of my shirt. It started with sniffles before it turned into a full-blown cry.

  I held her tightly and gave her every bit of strength I had.

  I MANAGED TO move her into my kitchen without letting go of her and tore another paper towel off the roll. “Sorry, it’s all I have.”

  Erin dabbed her eyes and wiped her face. “Thanks. I’m sorry I fell apart like that. It’s not… I never… And I got your shirt all wet.”

  I’d be willing to collect all of her tears—just as long as I wasn’t the reason she was crying. “Not worried about the shirt. You okay?”

  She nodded but didn’t look convincing. Her eyes were puffy and rimmed in red. She wiped her nose. “Funeral is Friday at ten o’clock. My cousins had my Aunt Karen cremated. It’s what she wanted. Oh God. I have to order flowers and help them find a hall to have a luncheon afterward. They are going to have a memorial service Thursday night. My mom wants me to come up there and help her bake, too.”

  “Where is there?”

  “Plymouth Meeting.”

  My inner navigation clicked in, mapping out the logistics. That was a thirty-five minute drive north. The natural detective in me questioned the bigger picture. “Wait, why were your aunt and uncle driving the Schuylkill Expressway that night?”

  She tried to mask her bruise with her hand again while she talked with me but I stopped her, pulling her hand into mine. “They were visiting my cousin Nate in Cherry Hill.”

  East. Just below Philly in New Jersey. The Schuylkill would have been the most direct route.

  Fuck.

  I tried to banish visions of the chase from that night—the lights, the glare on the wet roads, the adrenaline that coursed through our veins tracking that stolen Nissan. It would do me no good to rehash it now. “I’m all about family, but you can’t do it all, Erin.”

  She was exasperated. “I’m the one who gets things done, Adam. It’s expected.”

  Yeah, we’d see about her being so accessible to everyone once I had a say about it. “What about your sister?”

  Erin’s hair swayed again. “Kate’s got her own challenges. It’s always fallen on my shoulders.”

  I could relate to that. I was forever cleaning up after Kyle’s and Jason’s antics. “So what are you going to do?”

  Her bottom lip puffed out. “I hate to bake.”

  I grabbed my cell and scrolled through my calendar. Suits from the network wanted me to come to the main office for a meeting with the bigwig but that wasn’t until the following week. “What time is the service Thursday?”

  “Why?”

  I looked up. “Why? Because I want to know what time to pick you up, that’s why.”

  Her head started shaking again. “You don’t have to do that.”

  I’d need to take Friday off, too. Could they make it any more difficult to type on these damn phones? How did I end up in next year? Back. God damn it. Not June. These buttons aren’t made for men’s fingers. She said Thursday. “What time, Doc?”

  “Adam, you don’t have to go. It’s family and everyone will be upset and—”

  “What time, Erin? It’s not up for debate.”

  She looked stunned. “You really want to take me?”

  God, how many men have fucked with this woman
s head? “I don’t say things I don’t mean. Going to take you to the funeral, too.”

  “There’s a church service before the burial.”

  I shrugged. Been in plenty of churches before.

  “A Catholic church,” she added.

  Was she really that set on me not going, trying to dissuade me? “Just so you know, all four of the Trent brothers were altar boys at one time or another. And no, we weren’t sexually assaulted or anything like that. Well, maybe Kyle was. Would explain a few things. I’ll have to ask him next time I see him.”

  It felt great to see her smile again.

  I took her by her hands and pulled her up off the counter chair. “I’m driving you, so no arguments.”

  Those big blue eyes gazed up at me, capturing my complete attention. “My mother expects me to stay overnight.”

  I slipped my hand over her cheek. “So I’ll sleep on the couch or something. It’s not that far of a drive, either. We’ll figure it out as we go, okay?”

  Erin nodded. “Okay.”

  I leaned down to kiss her again, wanting to wipe the worry from her mind. I knew she was hurting but I couldn’t stop myself. “What time, Doc?” I asked, probing her for answers.

  “Six,” she whispered. “Starts at six.”

  Her answer made me smile. She made me work for it. The sadness making her eyes still heavy, however, was instantly sobering. “How about we go relax and watch a movie?”

  I seized her moment of hesitance. “Come with me.”

  “What about the dishes?” She pointed.

  “Leave them.” I didn’t let go of her hand as I led her down the stairwell, the old steps creaking under both our weight.

  I’d been working on renovating the basement for the last few years. The walls were framed and dry walled and I’d used some of the money from the show to buy a huge sectional sofa and a large flat screen television. I had hoped she wouldn’t notice the steel eye-hook bolted to the exposed ceiling joist in the middle of the room, so I pulled her down to sit next to me as quickly as I could. Though it hadn’t been used in well over a year, it was still something I wasn’t ready to openly discuss. I debated taking it down. The last thing I wanted was for her to fear me, especially since I was finally taking a chance with someone.

 
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