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Please note that this book is published by Amazon Publishing, and as such, will be available only on Amazon platforms. If you read on other platforms, you can download a FREE Kindle app to any device to read this book, or grab it in paperback or audio formats. This was a great opportunity for me, and I hope my readers on other platforms will check out this fun new book!

First impressions can be truly deceiving… Is it possible the brash doctor might be worth a second look?

Carmen
Babysitting a handsome, arrogant neurosurgeon isn’t how I imagined my first day at Miami-Dade General Hospital. After the tragic loss of my husband, I’ve focused on starting my dream career. Dr. Jason Northup isn’t going to mess up my plans, even if he makes my lady parts stand up and say hello. He checks every box on my cliché list. However, my heart—and other parts—don’t seem to care about clichés…

Jason
I have more important things to do than bail out an attractive new colleague, but I need her. Carmen is my only hope in convincing the Miami-Dade board to overlook my tarnished reputation—and she makes me feel optimistic again. Romantic entanglements are the last thing I need, but Carmen isn’t an entanglement. She’s a beautiful breath of fresh South Florida air. My feelings for her are quickly becoming the best kind of scandal.

From Marie: South Florida has played an important role in my life, and I’ve always wanted to set a book there. My dad attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in the 1950s when it was located in Miami (it’s now a university and has since moved to Daytona Beach). He fell in love with South Florida and would’ve stayed there permanently, except he was the only child of a widowed mother at home in Rhode Island. So luckily for me (and my brother), he moved back home to RI where he met my mother and went to work as an aviation mechanic, eventually owning his own FAA-certified aviation repair station.

But every chance he got, he returned to South Florida. As a child, I swam in the pool at the Fontainebleau and spent time in Key Biscayne and Fort Lauderdale, where my parents wintered after they retired. My dad loved it there so much, and so did we. During the writing of this book, I made two trips to Miami and loved every minute of bringing Carmen and Jason’s story to life in a place that has meant so much to me and my family.

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How Much I Feel

Miami Nights Series, Book 1

Chapter 1

Carmen

It took only one day for my dream job to turn into a nightmare. Actually, that’s being generous. In reality, it took one fifteen-minute meeting with the hospital president to throw years of studying, planning and dreaming straight out the window into the blistering South Florida sunshine.

Nowhere in the elaborate job description I was given at my interview to be Miami-Dade General Hospital’s assistant director of public relations did the word babysitter appear. Let’s face it, if I’d known what they really wanted me to do, I wouldn’t be wilting in the scorching early-morning heat waiting for Dr. Jason Northrup to arrive for his first day.

“Anything he wants or needs, get it for him,” Mr. Augustino instructed. “Just keep him away from the executive offices.”

“But today’s my first day, too. Wouldn’t it be better to have someone who knows the facility meet and escort him?”

“I want you to do it,” he said, leaving no room for further argument.

“Should I bring him up here to speak with you?”

“I’m with the board of directors all day. Don’t bring him anywhere near the conference room.”

Something stinks to high heaven about this whole thing. Why isn’t the hospital rolling out the red carpet to welcome Dr. Northrup? Mr. Augustino referred to Northrup as a world-class, board-certified pediatric neurosurgeon. If he doesn’t warrant the red carpet, who does? Most puzzling of all is why Mr. Augustino would let the newest person on his staff handle such an important task and not want to be there himself.

My boss’s late directive gave me no time to research my first “assignment,” which has me unprepared and out of sorts as I wait for him. Mr. Augustino gave me a photo of a sinfully handsome man with dirty-blond hair, golden-brown eyes and the perfect amount of scruff on his chiseled jaw. I can only imagine Northrup’s type: privileged, pampered and pardoned for his sins. Now it’s my job to kiss up to him and make him feel “welcome.”

After years of waitressing and taking care of actual children to put myself through college and graduate school, being told to babysit him infuriates me. All the carefully cultivated marketing and publicity plans I put together in anticipation of wowing the bosses on my first day are still stashed inside the leather-bound portfolio I clutch to my chest, useless in light of the task I’ve been given for the day as I roast in dense late-June humidity.

One thing I’ll say for Miami-Dade General Hospital is the grounds are gorgeous, with lush landscaping, colorful flower beds and grass kept green in the summer heat thanks to artfully hidden sprinklers.

Naturally, the good doctor is late, which gives me far too much time to consider my limited options as I try not to completely wilt in heat that makes my armpits feel swampy and has my ruthlessly straightened hair starting to curl. I could go to HR and tell them the position isn’t a good fit after all. With less than a day on the job, it won’t show up on my permanent record, especially since I only just completed the paperwork needed to enroll in the hospital’s payroll system and health insurance program. I could still put a stop to it.

But then I recall how proud my parents and grandmothers were when I landed my first big job following years of school. After moving back home when Tony died, I’m finally on my own again in a new apartment I recently rented near the hospital in Kendall. And there’s the wardrobe of power suits I purchased on credit so I could present a professional appearance at work. Paying for all of that is dependent upon my new cushy salary, which will be lost if I quit.

Quitting isn’t an option.

Not when I haven’t even given the job a chance. Besides, I’m not a quitter. My beloved Abuela would be so disappointed. She and my equally beloved Nona were happier about me landing this job than I was. Not to mention my top goal has always been to make Tony proud of me. I’m convinced he’s close to me, and I want him to see me surviving and thriving, not walking away from a challenge the first time it gets tough. I can’t disappoint everyone in my life by walking away from this opportunity. I’ve restored a bit of steel to my spine by the time the roar of a sports car draws my attention to the hospital’s long driveway.

I watch in disbelief as a sleek black convertible Porsche growls its way up the half-circle drive with Northrup at the wheel and a bottle blonde in a sexy red dress riding shotgun.

“What a cliché,” I mutter as he brings the low-slung black car to a halt two feet from where I stand ready to “welcome” him.

He alights from the car with catlike grace, tall, muscular and even handsomer than his photo—of course. As he comes toward me, he flashes a cocky smile, and damn if every cell in my body doesn’t stand up and sing “Hallelujah” in a loud chorus of tightening nipples and dampening panties, which infuriates me.

I don’t want any part of me reacting to any part of him, but I’d have to be dead not to notice this man. And while I might’ve been mostly numb for the last five years, Dr. Northrup is living proof that I’m still very much a living, breathing woman who recognizes a hot man when she sees one.

He props Wayfarer sunglasses on hair that’s messy from the convertible. On him, messy is sexy. His golden eyes sparkle, his smile is straight out of a toothpaste commercial and his body . . . Wow. He must’ve spent as many hours in the gym as he logged in medical school.

I realize I’m staring but can’t seem to bring myself to blink. Have I ever seen a more perfectly beautiful man in my entire life? The thought makes me feel disrespectful to the memory of the only man I’ve ever loved and snaps me out of the stupor I slipped into at the sight of Northrup.

I clear my throat and clutch the portfolio more tightly to my chest, desperate to hide any evidence of my ridiculous reaction to him. “Dr. Northrup?”

“That’d be me. And you are?”

“Carmen.” I extend a hand that I pray isn’t sweaty. “Carmen Giordino, assistant director of public relations. Welcome to Miami-Dade General Hospital.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Giordino.” Somehow he makes the act of taking my hand, squeezing it lightly and releasing it into an erotic sex act that once again steals the breath from my lungs and the starch from my spine.

I hate him for making me react to him the way every other woman with a pulse has probably responded to him since puberty. I hate him even more when I discover he’s pressed a fifty-dollar bill into my hand. I’m about to ask him what it’s for when he fills in the blanks for me.

“Do me a favor, and please take Betty to the cafeteria, buy her some breakfast and send her off in a cab,” he says in a low tone that only I can hear.

“But—”

“Did someone ask you to meet me and see to my needs?”

The way he says the word needs has me imagining him sweaty, naked and at my disposal, which infuriates me. I’m not sure who I’m more pissed with—him or myself. I feel my face go hot, and when I open my mouth to respond to his outrageous request, nothing comes out.

“What I need is for you to take care of her.” He gives me an imploring look, and it’s all I can do not to swoon. “Okay?”

It’s insulting enough to be asked to babysit a neurosurgeon, but being asked to babysit his bimbo one-night stand is another story altogether. “I’m sorry, but I’m not willing—”

Ignoring me, he turns and gestures for “Betty” to join us on the curb. “Come on over and meet Carmen Giordino. She’ll help you find the cafeteria and a ride to the airport.” He kisses the blonde’s cheek. “It was good to meet you, but I’ve got to get to work now.”

“Thank you so much for everything, Jason,” Betty says with her worshipful gaze fixed on his perfect face.

Northrup flashes his version of a sincere smile. “My pleasure.”

I roll my eyes, imagining what “everything” included in this case. The pang of jealousy that nips at me only serves to further annoy me. What do I care if she got to take a spin with him?

He tosses his car keys to me, and I have the immediate choice of either catching them or letting them hit me in the head. I grab them a second before they would’ve hit me. “Can you find the staff lot and get Priscilla settled for me?” Winking, he adds, “Thanks. I owe you one.” Glancing at Betty, he flashes that brilliant grin. “Or maybe two.”

“But where’re you going?”

“To check out my new digs. I’ll catch up to you after a while.”

“I’m supposed to—” I stop myself when I realize I’m talking to his back. So now I’m babysitting a bottle blonde and a Porsche 911? This day just gets better and better. I’ve never been prouder of the years I spent sweating my way through college and graduate school than I am in this moment.

My low growl has Betty stepping back from me, tottering on sky-high heels. “I’m not really all that hungry.” Her nervous titter bugs the crap out of me.

I release my tight grip on the leather portfolio and let my arms drop to my sides, feeling utterly defeated an hour into my new “dream job.”

Betty’s eyes go wide, her red lips forming an O.

“What?” I look down to see what Betty is so focused on and notice that the veneer on my “leather” portfolio has baked onto the front of my very expensive and still-not-paid-for navy power suit. I let out a shriek of frustration.

“I’m sure it’ll come off at the dry cleaner.” Betty’s kind smile makes me feel bad about the nasty thoughts I’ve had toward an innocent bystander to my career implosion.

Deciding I have nothing to lose by making Betty my ally, I glance at the other woman, who towers over me thanks to those four-inch heels. “Could I ask you how you came to meet . . . him?”

“It was the oddest coincidence.”

Aren’t they all?

“I was at the luggage thingy in the airport waiting for my bags that never came and my now ex-boyfriend who never showed up to get me.” Betty swipes at a tear. “Then the airline couldn’t book me on a flight home until this morning. I used all my money and maxed out my credit card flying here to see the jerk who stood me up. No luggage, no money, no jerk. Jason saw me crying and asked if he could help. Thank God for him, or I would’ve had to sleep in the airport. He even took me out for a nice dinner and bought me a bottle of my favorite wine.”

“And what did he get in return for all this hospitality?” The question is out of my mouth before I can stop it. Horrified, I’m about to apologize for my rudeness when she continues.

“Nothing.” Betty doesn’t seem insulted by my question, which she absolutely should be. “He did me a favor and asked for nothing in return. He even slept on the sofa so I could have the bed. Then the alarm on his phone didn’t go off. He was running late for his first day and was all stressed out. Do you know what time it is? My flight to Philly is at ten thirty. I’d like to see if they found my bag before then.”

I check my phone, see that it’s almost nine and eye the Porsche. “Get in.” I wonder if it’s possible to be fired on my first day. I’m about to find out as I slide into the scorching leather driver’s seat and kick off my heels so I can drive this thing. The car starts with a growl that vibrates through my body, reminding me of the tingling reaction I had to its owner. His car smells the way I imagine he does—citrus and spice and hot man.

I’m thankful to Tony for teaching me to drive a stick in high school. That skill is about to come in handy.

If my palms were sweaty before, they’re downright wet now as I navigate onto the busy interstate in a car that costs more than I’ll make in ten years. Dr. Northrup told me to park it, not drive it nine miles each way to the airport. What if I crash it or hit something? The thought makes me sick to my stomach, as does pondering what the humid breeze is doing to hair I spent an hour straightening earlier.

It occurs to me in a sickening moment of dread that I never got the chance to tell his royal highness to steer clear of the executive suite. He won’t go there, will he? Oh God, please let him be more interested in operating rooms and laboratories than conference rooms.

Mr. Augustino instructed me to babysit Jason Northrup. In turn, he asked me to babysit Betty. So in reality, I’m just following orders by driving Betty to the airport, right? This has to fall somewhere under “other duties as assigned,” doesn’t it?

In the highly unlikely event that Betty ever returns to South Florida and encounters a medical crisis, she’ll remember the fine treatment provided by the staff of Miami-Dade General. There. I’ve done my part for public relations today.

“This is really nice of you,” Betty says as we take the airport exit.

“No problem at all.” I pull up to the curb at the departures level a few minutes later and release a sigh of relief that I didn’t hit anything on the way.

Oh my God!

My purse, wallet, driver’s license and cell phone are stashed in the top drawer of my desk back at the office. So on the return trip, I can also worry about being arrested for driving a “borrowed” car without a license. Fabulous!

The cop directing traffic at the drop-off area picks that moment to blow his whistle, which startles me and causes my foot to slip off the clutch. The car lurches forward and stalls. I miss hitting the car in front of me by less than an inch. It’s official—before this day is out, I’m going to suffer a nervous breakdown. Hopefully I’ll be back at the hospital when that happens.

Betty leans forward, stretching her neck to view the distance between the two cars. “That was a close one.”

“No kidding.”

“I’ll get out of your hair so you can get along back to work.”

“It was nice to meet you. I’m sorry you had such a lousy trip.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” Betty says with a shrug. “I found out there’re still nice people in the world willing to help a stranger in need.”

First impressions, I’m finding, are often misleading. “Take this.” I hand the fifty from Northrup to Betty. “He gave me this for your breakfast and cab fare.”

Betty eyes the money with uncertainty. “I wouldn’t feel right taking his money after all he did to help me.”

“Look at his car. I bet you need it more than he does. Take it. Get yourself home, and then you can write to him at the hospital and pay him back.”

Betty brightens at that idea. “I’ll do that. Thanks again, Carmen.”

“My pleasure.” I watch Betty scurry into the terminal, as well as anyone can “scurry” on four-inch heels. Her jerk of a boyfriend missed out on a gem, that’s for sure.

I return my focus to the task at hand, which is getting Dr. Jason Northrup’s Porsche back to the hospital without a scratch or dent and without getting myself arrested.

Chapter 2

Carmen

The metal door slides shut with a loud clank that makes me jump out of my skin. Looking through the bars, I begin to laugh hysterically. This was not how I pictured the first day of my professional life unfolding. It wasn’t even my fault. The car in front of me swerved, startling me into swerving, too. Of course, the cop behind us only saw me swerve and pulled me over.

When I couldn’t produce my driver’s license or proof that I had permission to drive the car, the officer said he didn’t have any choice but to take me in and impound the Porsche until I can produce my license and prove I didn’t steal it.

At the thought of my parents finding out I’m in jail, I choke on my laughter while my hands tremble uncontrollably. I’ve never even been to detention, let alone jail. How can this be happening?

They let me call my office at the hospital—you know, where I started my dream job today—to leave a message for Dr. Northrup. I asked him to call the station to confirm I didn’t steal his Porsche. That was a tricky proposition—having the admin in the executive offices track down the new neurosurgeon, whom I’m supposed to be babysitting, because I need him to confirm I didn’t steal his car.

I’m wondering how that sentence will look on my first performance appraisal.

If or when he makes that call and gets me out of lockup, then I’ll retrieve the car he calls Priscilla from wherever they towed it. God, what if they damaged it? Will he expect me to pay for the repairs? How much will it cost to get the car back?

And what if he says I did steal his car, since he didn’t exactly give me permission to drive it off the hospital campus? When it settles in that I’m probably going to be here awhile, I turn away from the bars to examine the tiny cell. At least it seems somewhat clean. The second I notice the toilet sitting against the back wall, I feel the urgent need to use it. But the thought of going where anyone can see me is unimaginable, so I’m determined to hold it until I have some privacy.

I lower myself gingerly to the narrow bunk. What if no one comes for me? What if Northrup reports the car stolen? What if I have no choice but to call my parents to bail me out? The thought of them coming to get me here has my stomach surging with nausea.

I have no idea how long I’m there. Judging by the discomfort coming from my overtaxed bladder, it has to be more than an hour.

The tingling sensation that dances over my skin is the first indication that Jason Northrup has materialized outside my cell. I have my own cell. Awesome.

“Fancy meeting you here.” He flashes the sexy grin that made my heart race and my panties go damp earlier.

I’m in the biggest fight with my heart and my panties.

I jump to my feet, which I immediately regret thanks to the aforementioned bladder situation. “I didn’t steal your car.”

“Then how’d it end up getting impounded on I-95?”

“I gave Betty a ride to the airport. You told me to take care of her. She said her flight was at ten thirty. If I’d called a cab or Uber, she would’ve missed the flight.”

His eyes drop to my chest, and just like that my nipples react.

Now I’m in a fight with them, too.

He returns his golden-eyed gaze to my face. “What happened to your jacket?”

Okay, so he was looking at the stain the portfolio left and not at my breasts. Try telling my breasts that. “Industrial accident.”

His eyebrows come together in a stern expression that’s just as sexy as all his other expressions. “And why are you dancing around like you’ve got ants in your pants?”

“Because.” I can’t believe I’m going to have to say these words to him, of all people. “I have to pee, if you must know.”

He glances at the toilet in the cell and then at me.

“Not happening. Tell me you brought my purse so I can get out of here.”

He points to the purse tucked under his arm, which I hadn’t noticed.

A guard materializes and unlocks the cell door.

I’m so anxious to get out of there that I bolt forward and tilt awkwardly on my heel.

Northrup reaches out to stop me from falling, and for a brief, terrifying moment, I nearly lose control of my bladder.

“Please find me a bathroom with a door.”

He takes me by the elbow and steers me through the corridors to a restroom in the lobby.

I have to go so badly I don’t take the time to contemplate the wisdom of allowing him to touch me, but my body has plenty to say about it. Tingling, goose bumps, pebbling, moistening. And all he did was place his hand on my elbow. This is not good—and it’s so, so bizarre. I’ve never in my life reacted to anyone the way I do to him, and that makes me doubly mad. My late, beloved husband deserves far more respect than what he’s been getting from me since Jason Northrup showed up.

In the restroom, I manage to tear my hose in the urgent quest for relief. Afterward, at the sink, I catch only a brief glance of myself in the mirror, but it’s enough to see wild, frizzy dark hair thanks to a convertible and the South Florida humidity.

Resting my hands on the sink, I take a moment to gather myself, to summon the fortitude to resist the ridiculous attraction to Dr. Jason Northrup, who is so not my type it’s not even funny, and prepare to face my new coworkers after a brief stint in jail. Hell of a way to start a new job.

My reaction to him has me rattled. It’s been years since I’ve experienced anything resembling desire. I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like.

Tony has been gone so long sometimes it feels like we happened in a dream. The memories of him and the time we had together are fading with the passage of time, as much as I wish that wasn’t the case. I’m terrified of forgetting him, and my reaction to Dr. Northrup makes me feel disloyal to the man who loved me with his whole heart.

I can’t be attracted to Jason Northrup. Not like that. He’s a professional colleague, and thus off-limits.

Besides, any guy who looks like him, drives a car like his and carries the title of “brain surgeon” has to be the romance equivalent of poison ivy. It would serve me well to remember that and keep my focus on repairing the damage I’ve done to my fledgling career in one calamitous morning.

I do what I can with my hair, which is basically nothing, and leave the room with a brisk, determined stride—barreling straight into the unyielding chest of Dr. Jason Northrup. Damn, of course he smells as good as his car. Better, if I’m being honest. Releasing a choppy sigh, I take comfort in the knowledge that this day has to end at some point.

“Feel better?” That teasing grin sends shivers down my spine—and probably the spine of every red-blooded woman in the universe.

I step back from him, forcing him to drop the hold he has on my arms. “Much better. Am I allowed to leave?”

“You have to pay the ticket and sign some stuff.”

“I’m getting a ticket?” My driving record is impeccable—or it was until now.

“’Fraid so. Driving without a license.”

“But I have a license. I just didn’t have it with me.”

“And therein lies the problem.” Nodding to the window where a stone-faced cop waits for me, Northrup withdraws my purse from under his arm and hands it to me.

“How did you, um, get here?”

“Took an Uber.”

“And your car?”

“Impound lot. We’ll go there next.”

I do some fast mental math and figure that after the recent apartment deposit and wardrobe spending spree, I have about four hundred dollars available on my credit card. Beyond that, I’m in deep trouble. “How much will it cost to get it out?”

“No idea. I guess we’ll find out.”

Swallowing hard, I step up to the window, hoping Northrup isn’t zeroing in on the tear in my hose. Almost as if I gave him the idea, I can feel the heat of his gaze on me and wonder if he is having the same puzzling reaction to me. Then I decide I do not want to know the answer to that question.

“Sign here,” the cop says gruffly.

My signature is as wobbly as the rest of me after my hour in jail.

“That’s three hundred twenty dollars.”

I gasp. “For driving without a license?”

“And swerving out of your lane.”

“But I swerved to avoid hitting another car that swerved into my lane!”

The cop looks up at me, his mouth falling open. “Carmen?”

My eyes dart to his name badge. Paulson. Oh dear God. He was Tony’s sergeant during his first year on the job.

“What the heck are you doing here? Hey, you guys, it’s D’Alessandro’s wife, Carmen.”

A couple of other officers I don’t recognize come over to the window to say hello, each of them asking me how I am and what I’m doing here.

Before I can respond to the barrage of questions, Paulson rips up the paperwork. “You should’ve said something. You’re free to go, sweetheart.”

“Oh, um, thank you.” The gesture and the reason for it bring tears to my eyes that I can’t deal with right now. I force myself to hold it together, to not let the grief overtake me. Not when I have too many other things to contend with, such as the doctor standing behind me who turns me on just by breathing.

“Your friend, Dr. Northrup, assured us it was all a big misunderstanding.”

“Did he, now?”

“I did,” Jason says from behind me. “She had permission to use my car.”

“I can’t do anything for you at the impound lot, though,” the sergeant says. “That’s out of my hands.”

“Not to worry,” Jason tells the kind sergeant. “We’ll take care of it. Come on, Carmen. Let’s get going.”

“It’s real good to see you, Carmen. I think about you and . . . Well, I think of you often. I hope you’re doing all right.”

“Thank you. I’m doing okay. Today being a notable exception.”

“Glad to hear it.” The sergeant gives me a sympathetic smile. “Don’t be a stranger, you hear?”

“Well, I hope I don’t see you again in this capacity.”

Paulson laughs. “If you ever get arrested again, tell us who you are. We take care of our own.”

“Good to know.” I was so freaked out by being arrested, it never occurred to me to tell them who I am. Tony and I weren’t married long enough for me to get around to changing my name, which was why the intake officers didn’t recognize me. That and the fact they were probably in high school when Tony died. “Thanks again.”

“No problem. Impound lot is two blocks that way.” He points to the left.

“We’ll find it.”

Once again, Jason takes hold of my elbow to guide me out of the police station.

I tell myself to shake him off, to tell him off, to let him know I’m perfectly capable of walking without his assistance. But the minute I step out of the frigidly air-conditioned station into the warm sunshine, I begin to tremble again as the reality of my time in jail sinks in.

“You’re fine.”

I latch on to his soothing tone despite my resolve to keep my distance from the temptation he represents. As he runs a comforting hand over my back, I tell myself it’s of no consequence to me that he immediately tuned in to my distress and said just what I needed to hear.

“It’s over. No big deal.”

“Sure. No big deal. And when my mother calls tonight to see how my first day went, should I mention my stint in jail?”

“You might want to leave that part out. You could tell her you went joyriding in a Porsche on company time. That’s exciting.”

I scowl up at him and find him looking down at me with a warm, friendly expression and the potent grin that makes me want to climb all over him. Our eyes meet and hold as a zing of awareness passes between us like an electrical current, confirming he feels it, too. Doubly fabulous and all the more reason to keep my distance.

Over my body’s strenuous objections, I move away from him. “I can walk on my own.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Thank you, I will.”

“Someday you’ll laugh about all this, you know.”

“I highly doubt it. Giordinos don’t get arrested. They don’t get handcuffed and fingerprinted and photographed. They don’t get searched and tossed in a cell.”

“They searched you?”

I can’t bear to relive the humiliation of it. “Yes.”

Strip-searched?”

“Just about. They made me remove my outer garments to ensure I wasn’t concealing any weapons.” Single most humiliating moment of my life.

“Huh.”

“What does that mean? Huh?

“I’m getting a visual of you in sensible white cotton underwear, and it’s rather . . . appealing.”

I whirl on him, prepared to punch him or at least smack the smug grin off his face, but his grin isn’t smug. It’s not smug at all. It’s rather tortured, and when I venture a glance below the belt of his black dress pants, smug isn’t at all the word that comes to mind. Impressive is more like it. Very, very impressive and very, very aroused. Over the thought of me in my underwear. Oh God.

“I do not wear sensible white cotton underwear,” I spit at him, furious at myself for letting my eyes venture down there. For reasons I’ll ponder later when I’m far, far away from him, it’s important he know that my underwear is neither white nor cotton.

“All the more interesting.” He runs a finger over my cheek, the caress sending a torrent of heat and light and energy to every corner of my body.

Stunned and totally unnerved by my reaction to him, I take a step back. “I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing—”

He drops his hand. “No game. The last thing I need right now is any kind of romantic entanglements.”

“Good. We have that in common. So don’t touch me again.”

“I apologize.”

We walk the two blocks in uneasy silence that he breaks right before we reach the gates to the impound lot. “What was that about back there? Why did he tear up your ticket?”

“I . . . um . . . I used to know someone with the department.” The most important someone in my life, someone I loved and lost in the worst way imaginable. A shudder of agony goes through me, transporting me right back to the darkest days of my life. Grief is funny that way. It can come at you out of nowhere, smacking you in the face with memories so painful they can still take your breath away five years later.

“Are you all right?”

I nod, because that’s all I can do.

Inside, we learn they want six hundred bucks for the car. Before I can process that number, Jason hands over a black American Express card.

“I’ll pay you back.”

Somehow.

I should’ve called an Uber for Betty. My carefully calculated budget has no room for even incremental payments on a six-hundred-dollar debt. I’ll have to pick up some extra shifts at the restaurant to settle my debt with him as soon as possible. So much for thinking my waitressing career was over now that I have a big new job.

“Don’t worry about it. I need to get back to the hospital, so can we please expedite this transaction?”

“Fine,” I say through gritted teeth as he reminds me that my disaster is affecting his first day of work, too. I step back to give him room to sign the credit card slip. Sneaking a glance, I find his signature remarkably legible for a doctor and then berate myself for caring.

After one of the workers delivers the Porsche to the parking lot outside the office, Jason takes a long measuring walk around it, checking every inch for damage.

I twist my hands together and say two Hail Marys while I await the verdict. “Is it . . . Did they . . .”

“She seems fine.”

They probably hear my sigh of relief all the way up in Broward County.

Jason opens the passenger door and gestures for me to get in.

I let out a yelp when my ass connects with sizzling leather seats.

“Watch out, the seat might be hot.”

“Gee, thanks for the warning.”

Needing to do something with my restless hands, I reach for the seat belt and have it secured by the time he slides into the driver’s seat. Here I am sitting in the world’s sexiest car next to what could very well be the world’s sexiest man with a rat’s nest on my head, a seat burn on my bum, holes in my hose and a vinyl smear on the front of my pricey suit. This could happen only to me.

“I really will pay you back as soon as possible.” If I have to waitress every night for weeks, I will pay back every dime he’s spent to get me out of this mess.

“You can pay me back in trade.”

Chapter 3

Carmen

I stare at him, my mouth hanging open in shock.

“Close your mouth, and get your mind out of the gutter.” His chuckle is sexy and galling. “As appealing as your idea might be, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I feel my face go hot and not from the bright sun beaming down on us. “You don’t know what I was thinking!”

“Oh, please. Like your every thought doesn’t show on your face.”

“It does not!”

“Does too.”

“I never knew neurosurgeons could be so immature.”

That draws another laugh from him. “Our childlike brilliance makes us so charming and lovable.”

I roll my eyes. “Whatever.” I’m surprised there’s room left for me in the small car with all the space his overblown ego requires. Good thing the top is still down.

“What I meant was I need your help.”

You need my help? With what, exactly?” I can’t wait to hear this.

“My reputation has taken a rather serious hit, and I need to fix it—fast.”

I’m intrigued by the agony I hear in his voice. I know what agony feels like, and despite my best intention to stay removed from him, I find myself shifting in the seat so I can better see him. And, oh my . . . He’s put on the Wayfarer sunglasses, has one hand casually looped over the wheel of the powerful car, and the sleeve of his starched dress shirt is rolled up to reveal the golden hair and an expensive watch on his forearm. Yum.

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“When we get back to the office, do a search for my name. The whole thing is out there for the world—and the board at Miami-Dade General—to see.”

I gasp. “You met with the board?”

He releases a short laugh. “If you want to call it that.”

“Oh God.” Is it possible to get thrown in jail and fired in the same day? I fear I’m about to find out. My stomach takes a sickening dive. Giordinos don’t get fired, and they sure as hell don’t get arrested. When I think about the huge party my family held at the restaurant to celebrate my new job . . . I just can’t go back and tell them it all went to shit on the first day.

“What?”

“Mr. Augustino requested that I, um, keep you clear of the board meeting.”

His hand tightens on the wheel. “Great,” he mutters. “You might’ve mentioned that to me.”

“As if you gave me the opportunity!” Remembering him tossing me his keys and his gal pal has me scowling. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“Because I want you to see what I’m up against before you hear my side of it.”

“Are we talking personal or professional?”

“Personal. Extremely personal.”

There’s something about the way he says that . . . I don’t want to be interested. I do not want to know what personal matter has left his reputation in tatters. Yeah, sure. I want to know all right. I want to know so badly I have to resist the urge to ask to borrow his phone so I can start searching right away.

My mind spins with scenarios and possibilities, none of them pleasant. I’m almost afraid of what I might learn about him. For some odd reason, I don’t want to read anything that will force me to dislike him forever. I much prefer the kind, thoughtful man Betty described to the arrogant, entitled jerk I expected him to be.

“Just remember,” he says, glancing at me, “you can’t believe everything you read. There’s always another side to the story.”

His words send a nervous flutter through my abdomen.

We arrive at the hospital, locate the staff lot and secure him a parking pass rather efficiently in light of how the rest of my day has gone. When we’re parked in his assigned space, he stops me from getting out of the car. “It was wrong of me to ask you to take care of Betty, but I want to thank you for your help.”

“Even if it cost you more than six hundred dollars and got your car impounded?”

“You’ll pay me back, and the car is fine.”

“It might take me a while to pay you back, especially if I get fired.”

“Why would you get fired?”

“Hello? I failed to do the only thing my boss asked me to do and ended up in jail on my first day of work. If he doesn’t fire me, it’ll be a flipping miracle.”

“He doesn’t know about the jail thing,” Jason assures me. “Mona promised me she wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Mona?”

“The executive assistant who took your call from, um, jail. When she tracked me down and told me what’d happened, I asked for her discretion.”

“And I’m sure she was more than happy to give you anything you requested.” I can’t help the disgust that drips from every word I say to him. Guys like him can get any female they encounter to march to their orders just by looking at them with their bedroom eyes.

“She assured me she wouldn’t tell anyone, which I figured would be important to you.” His shrug makes me feel small for questioning his methods. How does he manage to infuriate me and endear himself to me in the same second? He’s giving me whiplash. “And by the way, I like your hair all curly like that.”

I reach up to smooth the ratty disaster area. “Now you’re just making fun of me.” I get out of the car and slam the door, setting out for the nearest entrance, aware of the warm breeze rushing over the hole in my hose.

Jason catches up to me. “I’m not making fun of you. I like your hair curly. Why is that a felony offense?”

“Because it’s not curly. It’s frizzy. It looks horrible! I spent an hour straightening it this morning for nothing.”

“Doesn’t look frizzy to me. It looks curly. And sexy.”

“You should probably have your eyes checked before you go digging around in anyone’s brain if you think my hair looks good right now.”

He cracks up, and of course laughter is a very nice look on him. “First of all, I don’t ‘dig around’ in people’s brains, and second of all, I think it looks nice like that, better than it did when it was all straight and severe looking earlier.”

“You need to stop talking.”

“And you need to learn to take a compliment.”

If we weren’t about to enter the hospital, I might’ve screamed in frustration or compounded my troubles by assaulting the hospital’s new neurosurgeon. He drives me freaking bonkers—in more ways than one. In the lobby, we wait for the elevator. I push the number five and wait for him to choose his floor. When he doesn’t, I look over at him. “Where’re you going?”

“To meet with Mr. Augustino to find out what the board decided to do about me.”

“Do about you? What does that mean?”

He leans against the back wall of the elevator in a relaxed pose that’s in sharp contrast to the tension that has his jaw pulsing and his lips flat. “Apparently, there was some considerable debate about whether they’re going to extend privileges for me to practice here.”

“Aren’t you supposedly some sort of world-class pediatric neurosurgeon?”

“Supposedly.”

“So why would they deny you privileges?”

“Do that search. You’ll find it highly illuminating.”

In the executive suite, the woman I assume is Mona greets us with a sympathetic look for me and a lustful gaze at Jason. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “I haven’t told anyone.”

“Thank you for that.” It occurs to me that I owe Jason a debt of gratitude for anticipating the need to keep a lid on what happened to me. Without his quick thinking, the news of my stint in jail would be ripping through the corridors, and I’d be a laughingstock on my first day.

“Did that happen in jail?” Mona asks, pointing to the smear on my suit jacket.

I almost forgot about that. Funny how that disaster pales in comparison to the others that followed.

“It was an industrial accident,” Jason offers in a grave tone.

“Oh.” Mona’s eyes go wide with dismay as she tries to figure out what kind of industrial accident I encountered. I figure she’s in her early fifties and single, judging from the lack of a ring on her left hand. She has a sweet round face and an unfortunately choppy haircut. To Jason, she says, “Mr. Augustino is available whenever you’re ready.”

“Well,” he replies with the charming smile that makes my insides go batty and my panties damp, “here goes nothing. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Mona says, clearly enthralled.

“Yes.” I clear the lust from my throat. “Good luck.”

He leaves us with a deceptively jaunty wave and heads for the hospital president’s spacious office on the far side of the suite.

“He’s dreamy, isn’t he?” Mona watches him until he’s out of sight.

Since the last thing I want to talk about is Jason Northrup’s dreaminess, I turn the focus toward work. “Is Taryn around?” She’s my other boss, the director of public relations.

“You haven’t heard? She had her baby early. She’ll be out for the next six weeks.” Mona lowers her voice. “I don’t think she’s coming back, but you didn’t hear that from me.”

This day goes from bad to worse, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. I break into a fit of nervous laughter that I struggle to contain. I’m going to be either laughing hysterically or sobbing any second. The chance to work for Taryn was one of the things I was most excited about. She seriously impressed me with her savviness during my interviews. I was looking forward to learning a lot from her.

“She left instructions in your office and a thumb drive with some other documents she thought you’d find useful. She must’ve had a premonition that she was going early. Let me know if I can help with anything.”

“Thank you.”

I step into my office and sink into the desk chair. I’m hungry, thirsty, miserably sweaty and disheveled beyond repair. But before I attend to any of those pressing concerns, I fire up my computer and open the browser to type Jason’s name into the search engine.

A quick scan of the headlines that pop instantly onto the screen shocks me to the core. “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

 

Jason

After a grueling thirty minutes with Augustino, I return to Carmen’s office, trying to prepare myself for her disappointment and disillusionment. I sensed her attraction to me even though I could tell she didn’t want to be attracted. Interestingly, I had the same reaction to her—instant attraction at the worst possible time.

Arriving this morning to find her waiting for me outside the hospital, so prim and pretty and put together, reawakened something that’s lain dormant in the long weeks since “the disaster.” The urge to muss her up, to unbutton that sexy power suit and run my hands over her extravagant curves the suit tried—and failed—to hide, took me by surprise. I wasn’t lying when I told her I like her hair curly and loose, as if she just rolled out of bed.

The thought of her naked in a bed catches the attention of the libido I feared was lost forever—until images of her in white cotton underwear assailed me earlier.

Forcing myself to put a damper on the salacious thoughts—for now anyway—I stand in the doorway to her office, arms propped on the doorjamb over my head, watching her dark eyes dart across the screen as she reads about what a scum-sucking slimeball I am. What she won’t find anywhere in the vast coverage of what happened in New York is mention of how I was victimized by a woman with an agenda.

She’s so absorbed in her reading she doesn’t notice me there until I decide she’s probably seen enough to get the gist. “Quite a story, huh?”

Jolting in surprise, she looks up at me, and in that brief instant of eye contact I see all the things I feared as well as a healthy dose of revulsion that makes me sadder than I’ve been since it first happened.

I drop into a chair, exhausted after weeks of sleepless nights tinged with heartache and serious fear over what’s to become of my once-promising career. “Too bad most of it isn’t true.”

“What part isn’t true? The fact that she was married to the chairman of the hospital’s board, or the part where you slept with her for months before he caught the two of you together?”

I expected the indictment, but for some reason it hurts more than usual coming from her. “The part where she didn’t tell me she was married and used me to get rid of a husband she’d grown tired of.” I watch Carmen’s expressive face as she processes the information, but unlike earlier when her every thought and emotion were on full display, now she’s closed off, guarded.

“You’re saying she set you up.”

I nod. “And I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Her husband demanded my immediate resignation, but the board balked because of all the research money and grants tied to my work. So they voted to ship me off to their sister facility in sunny Florida. Turns out, though, sunny Florida isn’t so sure it wants me, either. And in case you didn’t know, it’s damn tough to practice neurosurgery without hospital privileges.”

“What did Mr. Augustino say?”

“He jumped at the chance to hire me when offered the opportunity. Unfortunately, he wasn’t told about the scandal, only that I was looking for a transfer. So his neck is on the line now that I’m here, bringing all that crap with me. The board is apparently unhappy with him—and me—to have been put in this position and wants two weeks to thoroughly review the situation before they decide.”

“What’re you supposed to do in the meantime?”

“Cool my heels, play tourist, repair my reputation. You know, the usual stuff people do on vacations.”

“Why don’t you just quit and go somewhere else? Surely you’d have no trouble finding a position elsewhere. I read your CV, too.”

She’s referring to my curriculum vitae, which boasts an impressive list of accomplishments and cutting-edge surgical achievements, for all the good that does me now. “Because I have years of work tied up in research and grants that’ll be lost if I leave. The only way I can continue my work is to stay within the East Coast Health Partners system. This was the only pediatric neurosurgical opening available in a state where I’m already licensed. East Coast requires us to be licensed in multiple states so we can be called in to consult on cases where needed. I’ve actually worked at Miami-Dade once before, when I was brought in to assist with a surgery.”

Carmen rolls her lip between her teeth. “Why didn’t you go public with how she set you up? You could’ve saved yourself a lot of grief if you’d told your side of it.”

“Two reasons. One, it’s damned hard to refute the fact that her husband caught us naked together in their Hamptons house.”

Carmen winces at that.

“And two, she has teenage children who don’t deserve to be dragged any further through the mud. It’s not their fault their mother is a calculating bitch who was cast as the victim in the media that savaged the handsome, douchebag neurosurgeon. To hear them tell it, I seduced the unsuspecting wife and mother. She never said anything to discount those assertions.” Even all these weeks later, it’s still hard to reconcile the calculating bitch with the warm, giving woman I thought I was in love with.

“Her children matter more to you than repairing the damage to your reputation?”

This is where it gets sticky. “My father had a rather ambitious extracurricular track record.” My dull, flat tone is the same one I’ve used anytime this subject has arisen over the last twenty years. “I remember far too well how it felt to learn he was cheating on my mother and to have the whole town talking about it. I can’t be responsible for doing that to innocent kids who can’t help what their mother is.”

Is that admiration I see coming from her? And why does it matter so much to me? “Will you help me, Carmen?”

“You need a team of crisis communication experts, not someone right out of school with hardly any experience—”

“I want someone who needs a big win as much as I do. We’ve got two weeks to prove to the board that letting me join their staff won’t be a mistake. Can I count on you?” I don’t mention that her morning exploits cost me more than six hundred dollars—not that I care in the least about the money—but she owes me a favor. “Carmen?”

She makes me wait a long time before she replies. “I want the full story before I agree to anything.”

“Fine.” I stand to leave. “I’ll tell you the whole sordid tale tonight over dinner.”

“Wait. I never said anything about—”

“Please?” I give her my best imploring look.

After a long pause, she writes something on a piece of paper and hands it to me.

Her address.

I’m weak with relief. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Pick you up at seven thirty?”

“That’s fine.”

 

Right at seven thirty, I park on the street outside her building and walk up two flights of stairs to Carmen’s apartment. I feel guilty about the way I insisted she see me tonight. The fact is, I don’t know what else to do. I need someone who knows the local area and can help me figure out a plan to ingratiate myself with the hospital board so they’ll take a chance on me.

If they don’t, my career and years of research will be in serious jeopardy.

I can’t let that happen. I’m so close to a critical breakthrough that’ll have a major impact on the treatment of pediatric brain tumors. It’s important work that I’ve devoted tremendous time and resources toward, and I can’t let one conniving woman ruin all that progress.

As I knock on the door, I refuse to give her that in addition to what Ginger has already taken from me, namely my reputation as well as my faith in humanity and womankind.

The door opens, and once again, I’m struck speechless by the sight of Carmen Giordino. She’s wearing a black wrap dress that accentuates the curvy figure that makes me want to drool. Her dark hair is down around her shoulders, and I’m delighted she’s left it curly rather than straightening it into submission.

When I say the last freaking thing I need is another romantic entanglement with someone associated with my work, I mean that with every fiber of my being, and yet . . . I’m incredibly attracted to this woman.

“Come in. I’m almost ready.” She gestures to the kitchen. “I opened a bottle of wine if you want some. Glasses are over the dishwasher. I just need another minute.”

I can’t imagine what she still needs to do to improve on perfection, but I know better than to ask. I wander into the kitchen, pour half a glass of red wine and wander around her small but stylishly furnished apartment. My gaze is drawn to an array of framed photos on the wall. One is of Carmen with a handsome dark-haired man in a police uniform. Next to it is their wedding picture.

I suddenly remember what happened earlier at the police station while recalling my earlier observation that she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. I realize with a sinking feeling that she must be the widow of a police officer. Before I can begin to process this new information, she returns, bringing a scent with her that makes me want to get closer to her.

She notices I’m looking at her photos.

I feel like I should say something. “Handsome guy.”

“Yes, he was.”

“What happened?”

“He was shot and killed on the job when he walked in on a robbery in progress at a convenience store.” The words sound well practiced, as if she’s said them a thousand times before.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” She takes a sip of her wine. “We’d been together since our freshman year of high school and married almost a year.”

I ache for her. “What was his name?”

“Antonio, but we called him Tony.”

“You were a beautiful couple.”

She smiles even though her dark eyes are sad. “We were happy together.”

“How long ago did you lose him?”

“Five years. He was in his second year on the job.”

“You must’ve been very young at the time.”

“I was twenty-four.”

“Oh damn. I really am so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago.”

Something about the way she says those words indicates that even though five years have passed, the loss is still fresh for her in many ways.

“Where should we go for dinner?” she asks.

“You’re the local expert. You tell me.”

“What do you like?”

You. I like you. The words pop into my brain, an involuntary reaction to an innocuous question and the sort of thought I have no business having toward my new colleague. “I’ll eat anything.”

She thinks about that for a second. “I know where we should go.”

I follow her out of the apartment, changed by the information I learned inside her home. While I can’t and won’t deny I was instantly attracted to her, I need to respect what she’s been through, dial back the attraction and focus on getting my life sorted.

If I keep my mind where it belongs—on fixing the disaster my promising career has become—then I won’t do anything stupid like allow myself to fall for the beautiful young woman who may hold the key to my redemption.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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