Grey’s Anatomy meets Monday Night Football.
Heat and heart clash in this rollercoaster of a love story.
I’m Noah Spencer, famous football player, all-around good guy . . . and widower.
When my wife died, I knew that part of my life—the part where I could love or be loved—was over. But then I met Alison, and suddenly, I find myself beginning to believe in hope again.
Still, I know the kind of pain love can bring. I know what it feels like when my heart shatters.
Do I have the guts to risk it all again?
I’m Alison Wakely, physician, perpetual loner . . . and possible bad-luck charm.
Long ago, I resigned myself that true love and happily ever after aren’t in the cards for me. But then I met Noah, and he tempts me to trust in happiness again.
When everything begins to unravel, though, I realize I should have known better. I’m fated to be alone.
But fate has a way of surprising us now and then.
The second trilogy in the best-selling Diagnosis: Love world is made up of two SHAMELESS CLIFFIES before the finale. You’ve been warned. The books release a week apart, so your angst doesn’t have to last long–and the happily ever after in book three is worth the journey.
The voice behind me as I stood under the portico at the hotel was hesitant but oddly familiar. I turned around to see a drop-dead gorgeous total babe approaching me from the direction of the lobby.
“Uh . . . Alison?” I croaked like a boy going through adolescence. “Hey. Um, wow. You look . . .” I gave a little cough to try to get my voice back under control. “Amazing.”
Her cheeks flushed a very pretty pink. “Thank you. You don’t look bad yourself. Actually, if I’m going for brutal honesty, you look a hell of a lot better than you did the last time I saw you.”
I grimaced. “Not hard to do. I was pretty wrecked that day.”
“Yeah, I know.” She glanced around us. “So you’re staying here, too?”
“There wasn’t a lot of choice. Emma said all of the out of town guests who weren’t being put up by people in Harper Spring were coming to this hotel. It was nice of them to spring for the shuttle.”
“Nice, yes. A good idea, absolutely.” Alison tilted her head. “Think about all the celebrating that’s going to happen tonight. Poor Anna and Jimmy might end up with a house full of unexpected guests who aren’t sober enough to drive back to the hotel if they didn’t have the shuttle option.”
“Good point,” I allowed. “It works for me, too. I haven’t been cleared for driving yet.”
“How did you get here from Tampa, then?” she inquired.
“Car service,” I admitted. “It was the easiest way to go.”
She fiddled with the clasp on her sparkly little purse. “I would have been happy to give you a ride, you know.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to make a suggestive reply to her remark, but I reined myself in. After all, Alison and I might have bonded during my time of pain and need, but she didn’t know me all that well. I didn’t want to scare her off.
“I appreciate the thought, but I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, the shuttle lumbered to a stop in front of us. The hotel doors slid open and a group of people came out, all of them chattering as they headed for the bus.
“Guess we’re not the only ones planning to get there early,” I observed. “We better get on board, or we might not get a seat.” I bent my arm and offered it to Alison. “Shall we?”
She grinned at me, and something frozen and nearly dead in my heart began to melt.
We found two seats together in the front of the vehicle. I stepped aside to allow Alison the inside seat.
“I don’t mind the aisle,” she said, hesitating.
I shook my head. “I need to keep my leg straight. It helps with the stiffness.”
“Ah. Okay.” She slipped around me and took her seat, watching as I settled myself down next to her.
“At the risk of bringing up a painful topic . . . how is your knee?” She glanced at me. “I felt bad leaving you that day in the hospital, but I figured between your doctor arriving and things calming down in the ER, I’d only be in the way.” She tugged the hem of her short, sparkly dress down over her knee. “I did check on you before I left that day, though. They told me you were already in surgery.”
“Yeah, I don’t remember much after you left. Emma and Deacon arrived a few minutes later, I think, but I barely saw them before I was wheeled into the OR. And there’s no need to feel bad about leaving. I was out of it for quite a while.”
Alison nodded. “And now? I’m sure you’re sick of answering the question, but how’s recovery going?”
I hesitated. “It’s . . . slow. Dr. Taleb determined that I’d torn both my ACL and my MCL. He thought he’d be able to fix them during the initial surgery, but the damage was worse than he expected. Several tendons were, uh, ruptured. So we’re playing a sort of waiting game. I’m doing therapy, working just as much as they’ll let me, resting it when they tell me to.”
“Are you out for the season?” she asked quietly. “Or do you know that yet?”
“No one’s saying. The team doctor says it’s too early to make that determination. If it were a few games later in the year, I’d definitely be done.”
“But since it’s not, maybe you’ll still have a chance.” She offered me an encouraging smile.
“Maybe.” I didn’t want to be a downer, but I wasn’t optimistic about this season. I was still clinging to hope that I’d be able to start next year.
“Are you scared?” She looked me straight in the eye as she asked the question, and I found I couldn’t be anything but honest with her.
“Shitless.” I rubbed my palm on my thigh. “And I’m sick to death of thinking about it. It’s like this huge looming presence next to me, day and night. At first, all of my teammates came by the house to see me. I had a constant stream of visitors. But they didn’t know what to say. They just served up the same old crap, promising that I’ll be back on the field in no time. But I can’t stand their pity. It’s almost the worst part of the whole thing.”
Alison studied me silently. “I’ve been through a lifetime of crappy, Noah. I know what it is to feel alone, to know that no one else can really understand. I can’t say anything to change it, but I can promise, I don’t pity you. If you need someone who’ll listen to you rant and rave, I’d be a good ear. A decent shoulder if you ever need one to cry on.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Not that big, strong men like you ever cry.”
“You’d be surprised.” I stretched out one hand to take Alison’s, curling my fingers around hers. “Thank you, Alison. And . . . I need to thank you, too, for sitting with me that day. A lot of what happened is kind of hazy for me, but I do remember how kind and compassionate you were. You hung with me when you didn’t have to, and I’m really grateful.” I huffed out a half-laugh. “And this is something I should have said sooner. I should have gotten your number from Emma and called. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“Oh, Noah. I didn’t expect you to call me. It’s not like I did anything extraordinary. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was glad to do what I could.” She shrugged.
“Still.” I tightened my hold on her hand. “It meant a lot to me.” I waited a beat. “And having finally done the right thing, now I’m going to ask you for another favor.”
Alison lifted one finely arched eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?”
“I think we talked that day in the hospital about how neither of us was planning to bring a date—against Emma’s, uh, persuasion.” I favored her with what I hoped was my most winsome smile. “But I really don’t want to go through tonight by myself. I don’t want to answer the endless questions about my knee, say the same old shit over and over.”
“I can understand that.” She nodded.
“So how about it? Would you be my wedding buddy?”
A slow smile spread over her face, and twin spots of pink deepened on her cheek bones. “Seriously?”
“If you really wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t mind.” Alison leaned a little closer to me. “You’d be doing me a favor, too. I hate this kind of thing.”
My face must have reflected my surprise, because she hurried to explain. “That sounded so much worse out loud than it did in my head. I don’t hate weddings, per se. And I’m so happy for Emma and Deacon. But any big family event like this is tough on me. I feel like I don’t belong. I don’t know what to say or how to act . . . and it’s worse if I’m by myself. So . . . yeah. Let’s call this a mutual favor to help each other, okay?”
Something Alison had said while she’d been sitting at my bedside suddenly emerged from my memory. She’d talked about being abandoned by her mother when she was born and not knowing who her father was. We hadn’t talked any more about it because she’d made a remark about her father being Hugh Hefner, and then . . . I couldn’t remember where our conversation had gone after that.
But now I wondered about it. About her. If she’d never known her mother or her father . . . well, she must have been adopted, right? That wouldn’t explain why family events would make her uncomfortable, unless she’d felt as though she didn’t belong.
I realized she was watching me, waiting for me to respond. I held her hand a little tighter and said, “Absolutely. There’s nothing I’d like more.”
* * *
“And now, by the power vested in me by the state of Florida and by God Almighty, I now pronounce you man and wife.” The minister beamed down at Emma and Deacon. “Deacon, son, you may kiss your bride.”
There was spontaneous applause among all of us witnessing the marriage, followed by a outburst of awwwws as Deacon framed Emma’s glowing face with his hands and bent his head to kiss her.
Next to me, Alison sighed, and I smiled. I got the sense that the good doctor liked people to think that she was impervious to things like romance and sentiment, but the expression on her face as our friends had made their vows gave lie to that idea.
This was the first wedding I’d attended since Ang had died. I’d had a few invitations from teammates and cousins since her death, but I’d made an excuse for every single one. I’d known all along, though, that I couldn’t miss Emma’s big day. She was too good a friend for me to hurt her that way. In addition to our close friendship, she and Deacon had also stuck by me after my injury, researching doctors, treatments, and therapies that they felt might benefit me. I owed them both more than I could ever repay.
But I’d known being here wasn’t going to be easy. Having Alison by my side, even if it was just through our coincidental arrival, helped more than I’d expected.
The music began again, and Emma and Deacon walked back up the aisle, happiness emanating from their faces. Behind them, the matron of honor, Emma’s friend Jenny, followed escorted by Deacon’s grandfather, Jimmy, who had served as his best man. Jenny’s husband Nico was sitting in front of Alison and me, and he turned to wink at me as the guests began to stand up.
“Well, they finally did it.” He grinned. “There were times when I was sure they’d kill each other before they got to this happy ending, but I’m glad I was wrong.”
Alison laughed. “I’ll never forget my last day at St. Agnes. Deacon asked me to update him on a patient, and Emma was there, too. They got into a fight, and I wasn’t sure if they were going to start throwing punches or if Deacon was going to throw Emma onto the couch in his office. Talk about sparks.”
I sighed. This was exactly why Emma had ended her relationship with me. We never had those kinds of spats. Was that wrong? I couldn’t remember Angela and I battling that way, either. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I just wasn’t capable of that kind of passion. That was depressing as hell. Sure, I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but it was a downer to think that I might not ever experience something that others found so attractive.
“I’m going to go find my wife.” Nico sketched a wave toward Alison and me. “See you over there, yeah?”
“Definitely.” I braced my hands on either side of the chair and lumbered to my feet, hating the fact that I couldn’t just stand like other people. I moved like an eighty-year-old man these days. Come to think of it, Deacon’s grandfather was spryer than I was.
Alison didn’t say anything as I grunted, finding my balance again. I appreciated that. So many people wanted to fuss over me, wanted to give me a hand with something or another. I didn’t like feeling that I needed help.
“So.” I cleared my throat. “I guess we’re supposed to move over to where they have the tables set up, huh?”
“As far as I know. Looks like the caterers are guiding people that way. Emma told me that they’re doing a cocktail hour for the guests while the photographer takes more pictures of the wedding party.”
“Cocktails sound good about now,” I observed, offering Alison my arm again. “Shall we head over there, then? If you don’t mind me moving slow, that is. My leg always gives me more issues after I’ve been sitting for a while.”
“Take your time.” She slipped her hand around my elbow. “There’s no need to rush. I trust that the bar isn’t going to run out of booze.”
“Let’s hope not,” I chuckled. “Because I know I’m going to enjoy myself tonight. I usually don’t drink during the season, but since it seems unlikely I’m going to be back on the field in the near future, there’s no reason for me not to have a good time.”
“I agree. And I’m off for this entire weekend, with another doctor covering my service, so I’m free to get a little tipsy, too.”
I inclined my head her way. “Dr. Wakely, I believe we’ve just made a plan for this evening. Would you like to begin having fun with a Tropical Orgasm?”
Alison’s eyes went wide. “Um, what? Excuse me?”
Laughing, I bent my head to speak close to her ear. “One of the little-known facts about me is that I’m an expert in dirty drinks. My brothers and I went through this phase in college where we competed to see who could find and consume the most cocktails that had really sexy names. One of my favorites was Tropical Orgasm. Trust me . . . you won’t be the same after you’ve had one.” I paused for effect. “But two is even better.”
Color flamed on Alison’s face, but I saw the piqued interest in her eyes. “I’ve never been a woman who’s shy about asking for orgasms—tropical or otherwise.” She arched one eyebrow.
“Is that so?” I murmured.
“It is.” She tossed a coquettish smile my way. “Lead the way.”
* * *
“You look beautiful.”
As soon as the words escaped my lips, I wanted to call them back. Not because they weren’t true—they were; Alison Wakely, whom I’d never particularly noticed before in the way a man notices an attractive woman, was undeniably gorgeous tonight. No, the reason I wished I could take back what I’d said was that Ang had taught me never to tell a woman she looked beautiful. It was far better to say she was beautiful.
Remembering that, of course, brought Angela back to the forefront of my mind, where she’d been lingering all day anyway. It would have been impossible to be at any wedding and not be thinking of her, but I knew how tickled she would’ve been to see Emma and Deacon finally tie the knot. I wondered if somehow, somewhere, she was aware. I liked to believe she was.
I’d had a lot of time to think since taking that rotten hit on the football field. I wasn’t sure what had changed for me; maybe it was the idea that football, the one element of my life that had remained steadfast since I was a kid, was now in danger of deserting me, too. Maybe it was a brush with my own mortality, the very real fact that life didn’t last forever, that do-overs were rare, and that my time for finding happiness might be limited.
Whatever it was, sitting here tonight in the near-dark, with sparkling fairy lights all around us, I found myself thinking of possibilities more than I had since Emma had broken up with me. Maybe even more than since Angela had died. It was possible that my shift in perception had to do with the romance of the evening or the multiple sexually named drinks Alison and I had both consumed, but I had a strong feeling that it had more to do with the woman who was sitting close beside me, her arm touching mine.
The woman I’d just possibly offended by saying she looked beautiful.
But come to think of it, she didn’t seem upset. She actually smiled a little brighter, and I got the sense she’d liked hearing it. So maybe this was one tiny instance of Angela not being a hundred percent right.
I wasn’t saying it just to be nice, either. Alison looked . . . I tried to think of the most precise way to phrase it. She looked special. Her black hair, which I’d only ever seen her wear pulled up in a tight knot at the back of her head, hung down over her shoulders in fat curls. Her eyes were huge and luminous, and if I wasn’t wrong, they actually looked almost purple.
But the appeal didn’t stop at her face. No, her body was part of the show, too. She was tall—though not as tall as me, of course—with long legs that were on full display beneath her short sparkly dress. She was slightly on the thin side, but not gangly—I guessed that slender would be the right way to describe her.
And when she leaned to the side to murmur something in my ear, the neckline of her dress gaped just enough to let me know two essential facts: one, she wasn’t wearing a bra. And two, she didn’t have an overabundance of boobage, but it was enough to make a man happy.
I hadn’t noticed any of this before. Sure, we’d hung out pretty regularly when all of us were helping Emma build her cabin. There was almost always a bunch of us tackling whatever project Emma had come up with, but when I thought back, I realized that Alison had always sort of faded into the background when we were all together.
My memories of her were so vague that when I’d first seen her in the hospital back when I’d gotten hurt, it had taken me more than a few seconds to place her. Of course, I could chalk some of that up to the fact that I’d been in the most excruciating pain of my entire life (which was saying something, considering that I’d been playing football since I was six). And I’d also been despondent, worried about what this injury was going to mean to my career.
Tonight, though, all of that was different. I mean, yeah, I was still worried about my career, given the fact that my knee was still fucked up. I was still in a fair amount of discomfort on a regular basis, and the team doctors were being cagey about what came next.
Somehow, none of that mattered right now. I was also sitting next to a sexy, gorgeous woman who was funny, smart and sort of sweet. I was enjoying myself. For the first time in a very, very long time, I found myself wanting to spend more time with a woman. And maybe more than just time . . . I realized that I wanted to know Alison. I remembered our game of two lies and a truth, and I recalled her honesty, how she’d described almost jumping off a bridge. It had been that stark truthfulness that had prompted me to lay my own truth on the table, too. For two people who’d only been passing acquaintances at best, we’d opened up quite a bit that afternoon.
But now, I wanted even more. I wanted to ask her questions and listen to her answers. I wanted to find out what her skin felt like when I ran my fingers down her spine. I wanted to know if her eyes went cloudy with pleasure when someone—and in this case, that someone was me—drove her out of her ever-fuckin’ mind. All of these feelings were new, and part of me deep inside was panicking at the idea of what I wanted to come next . . . but I found that tonight, it was easy to ignore that small, anxious voice. It would be all too easy and wonderful to simply slide my arms around her and kiss her into oblivion.
I caught my breath. Kiss her? Did I really want to do that? Having a one-night fling fueled by wedding emotions was one thing. Having that fling with someone who was also a friend of the bride might be a risky move.
On the other hand, though, Alison hadn’t given me any indication that she was looking for a long-term commitment. As a matter of fact, she’d told me that Emma’s constant attempts to fix her up and marry her off were driving her nuts. It was possible that she’d be on the same page as me. Maybe we could pull off a friendly night of passion and still walk away friendly, with no one the wiser.
Before any of that could happen, though, I had to stop staring and actually say something beyond those last words I’d blurted out.
You look beautiful.
“Thank you,” Alison was replying even as my mind was rushing to catch up. “I’m not usually . . .” She swept one hand down her front, and her cheeks went rosy. It was enticing. “I don’t usually fuss. But I was so excited about this wedding.” She shook her head a little. “You probably think it’s silly.”
“No, I don’t. I feel the same way. This . . . watching Emma and Deacon say I do, it was special. It’s a day worth fussing for.”
Her smile stretched wider. “Thank you for saying that.”
We’d been together since later afternoon, catching up, talking about the ceremony, the music, the food. But it had taken me this long to say what had been playing in my head since the moment I’d first laid eyes on her today.
“Alison . . . you are beautiful.” I repeated the phrase with that slight, important difference. It seemed essential, given what she had just said. “Not just tonight, because you fussed. You just are.”
She stared at me, and a tic jumped in her cheek as she ran her tongue over her lips. “Noah . . .” she murmured. “How’s your knee feeling?”
I frowned. That question came out of the blue. We’d talked about my knee, my surgery, my prognosis, in excruciating detail earlier. I was a little nonplussed that she’d asked again.
“Uh, well . . .”
“I mean . . .” Her face went even redder. “How is it now? Are you possibly up to a slow dance?” Her gaze dipped down. “You probably don’t remember it, but you asked me to save you a dance that day at the hospital.”
“Did I?” I had no memory of that.
“It was when I was leaving. I think you were already feeling the effects of the pain medication, so I won’t hold you to it if you’ve changed your mind. Or if you don’t feel like your leg can take it.”
“Ohhhh.” I considered. “Yeah. No, I don’t want to change my mind. I think I can manage a slow dance, provided you’re not disappointed that I don’t spin or dip you.”
“I promise, Noah. I won’t be disappointed in you. I don’t think I ever could be.”
Pleasure burned inside me at her words. There was something undeniably sensual about a woman who believed in me, whose touch and expression showed me that she felt safe to open herself up to me. And as we made our way to the dance floor and I took her in my arms, I felt as though something inside me that was rusty with disuse was grinding back to life.
Alison looped her arms around my neck, clasping her hands at the back of my head. I drew her closer to me, my fingers digging into her hips. We swayed slowly to the music, our movements causing our bodies to brush against one another. I thought I hadn’t been so turned on by a dance since I’d been in junior high at my first formal.
“I like this song.” Her breath tickled my neck. “Country music usually isn’t my jam, but sometimes the words are just perfect.”
“Whoa, there.” I leaned back and pretended to glare down at her. “Darlin’, country is the only real music there is. It’s all about real life, real people, real problems . . .”
She tilted her head. “Objectifying women, embracing a false narrative about this country’s past, glorifying gas-guzzling, environment-destroying vehicles—yeah, that’s what I want to blare when I’m driving down the backroads, letting off steam.”
I smirked. “Well, when you look at it that way . . .”
Alison laughed, her fingers moving in intoxicating designs on the skin just below my hairline. “I’m not actually that militant about country music. I’ve been known to sing along with Dolly and Tanya and Wynonna now and then. Hell, I’ve even been known to enjoy some Brad Paisley now and again.”
“Those are the good ones,” I admitted. “I’m not crazy about the acts that celebrate the ugly side or the singers who scream about someone prying guns out of their cold, dead hands. But where I grew up in Wisconsin, we had these fairgrounds near us. All the up and coming acts passed through and played, and sometimes the shows were free—or at least cheap.” I smiled a little, remembering. “I have two brothers and three sisters. My mom didn’t work, and my dad almost killed himself to make ends meet and keep us in food and clothes.” My thumbs drew circles on her hips. “Don’t get me wrong—we were happy, and we didn’t lack for anything we needed. We had a nice house, and my parents never told us that we didn’t have enough. My brothers and I played football and my sisters danced, played soccer and softball—no one said that it would cost us too much money to do it. But there wasn’t extra for things like concerts, you know? So from May through August, there’d be these cheap concerts. Mom would pack up snacks and we’d sit on the grass and listen to the bands. I loved those nights.”
Alison’s eyes drifted closed. “It sounds so wonderful. You’re lucky to have those memories.”
“I know.” I eased her a little closer, linking my hands just above her tempting ass. “I loved the way I grew up. I wouldn’t change a thing, and I know there aren’t many people who can say that.” I paused a beat, not sure if I should ask the question that was on the tip of my tongue. “Alison, that day at the hospital, you told me that you didn’t know your biological parents. But . . . you were adopted, right? I mean, a healthy, newborn baby—there must’ve been lots of families who wanted you.”
Her eyes remained shut, and she lowered her forehead to my shoulder for a moment. We swayed in silence until she lifted her face to me again.
“I went into foster care, and the woman who took me from the hospital planned to keep me. She started the process of adopting me—even named me after her own late mother. I took both my names from her. Or that’s what’s in my records.”
Her shoulder rose and fell. “She was a widow—her husband had died young—and I guess that meant it took longer for her to be approved. And before she was, she met someone and decided to get married. But the guy she fell for—he didn’t want to adopt kids. Or at least, he didn’t want to adopt me.”
“What the hell was the matter with him?” Irrational anger at a man I’d never known surged within me. “Why would he get involved with a woman who had a baby if he didn’t want to be a dad?”
Alison shook her head slightly. “I have no idea. Believe me, I’ve spent way too many hours in the middle of the night agonizing over this. Why did he propose to her when he knew she was in the middle of the adoption process? Why did she choose to say yes to him? Did she think he’d change his mind? I have no idea. I don’t remember her at all. My earliest memories are from living in a group home when I was four.”
“Christ.” I didn’t even know what to say. I felt almost guilty for the nearly idyllic life I’d known. “Alison, I just—God, I’m—”
“If you say you’re sorry, I’ll kick you in your bad knee.” The words were harsh, but she said them with patient humor. “I swear, I will. I don’t want your sympathy.”
“You don’t have it.” I slid one hand up her back to press her head against my chest. “I don’t pity you, Alison. I don’t feel sorry for you. But I’m damned pissed off on behalf of infant you and two-year-old you. And I’d really like to give all those people a piece of my mind.”
“Yeah, that was something I dealt with in the psych ward after I didn’t jump off the Golden Gate. And in all the years since. I had a lot of anger built up at a lot of people. It took hours of therapy to finally accept that the mad was only hurting me. You know how they say living well is the best revenge? Well, being successful and well-adjusted is my form of revenge, if you want to call it that. Maybe freedom would be a better word.”
I bent my head to gaze steadily into her eyes. “You are, without a doubt, the bravest and strongest woman I’ve ever met.”
She blinked slowly. “That’s . . . thank you, Noah. I have trouble believing that’s true, given what I’ve heard about Angela, but I appreciate you saying it.”
I waited for the typical lurch of my heart at her mention of Ang, but it didn’t come. Instead, I found myself considering what Alison had just said.
“Angela was brave, yes. In the face of her illness, I think she found out just how strong she could be—and so did I. I won’t deny that I was awed by how well she rolled with the punches. At the same time, though, let’s remember that Angela never lacked for love or support. She was raised by two devoted parents who told her every day that she was their shining star. She had a sister who idolized her. And she had me, too. Being able to face a serious diagnosis was hard, but she didn’t do it on her own. Not like you had to do.”
Alison didn’t respond right away. Instead, she pressed herself against me again, her arms twining tighter around my neck. After a few moments, I felt rather than heard her whispered words.
“Thank you . . . for seeing that. Thank you for seeing me.”
I wrapped my arms around her slender body, holding her close, and we swayed to the gentle rhythm of the music.
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