First Chapter Friday: Intensive Care

If Grey’s Anatomy makes your heart flutter, this series is for you.

When every day is a battle between life and death, can two warring hearts find healing in each other?


I don’t know who I am anymore.

I thought I’d found a man who was right for me, someone with whom I could build a life . . . but all the reasons we should work don’t mean much when I realize that I can’t love him the way he deserves. 

And then there’s the other guy in my life—the one who broke my heart and ran away. The one I can’t stop wanting and needing. The one who makes me feel so alive each time we’re together.

When it comes to my patients, I’m an eternal optimist. Maybe that’s why I’m determined to try for happily ever after again.

As long as there’s life, there’s hope. And hope is all I have.


I don’t know what to do.

I thought I’d lost the woman who haunts me, body and soul. I was sure that she was in love with someone else. I was prepared for the pain, again. I was braced for the hurt. But I was wrong.

I have one last chance with her. If I screw it up this time, I’ll lose her forever, and if that happens, I know I’ll also lose my only hope for happiness.

I never give up on a patient. And I’m not giving up on us.

Read the first chapter here!


“Deacon! Just the man I was hoping to see.” 

I turned in mid-stride, my professional smile already in place as I extended my hand. “Raul! Great to see you. What brings you to my neck of the woods?” 

Raul Zamora gripped my hand and shook it firmly. “I had a check-up downstairs, and I thought as long as I was at the hospital, I’d come over and say hello. Maybe see how things are going on our shiny new wing.” 

Checking up on me, I thought, but my expression didn’t change. It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to piss off the vice president of the board of directors. The hospital’s governing team had been supportive of my project from the beginning of my tenure here, but I was well aware that I’d tested the board’s tolerance when I’d abruptly left the country for a year. I was doing everything that I could to make up for that. 

“Of course.” I regarded Mr. Zamora carefully. “I hope everything’s okay with you.” 

“Oh, yes, yes.” He waved his hand. “Just my annual tune-up. Check the ticker, the blood, scold me about my weight and cholesterol . . . you know the drill.”

“I do.” I chuckled. “We doctors are so annoying, wanting to make sure our patients stay healthy.” I thumped Raul on the shoulder as we began to walk. “What would you like to see first?” 

“How about those new projects that were funded by Noah Spencer’s donations?” Raul poked me in the ribs with his elbow. “I know that money came to us under some tragic circumstances, with his wife having died, but it’s pretty damn cool to have a big football player donating to us, right? We’re already talking about the party we’re planning to throw when the new rooms are ready.” 

I did my best to keep my expression pleasant and bland. I wasn’t really in the mood to exchange enthusiastic stories about Noah Spencer, but since he’d donated money to our wing, I at least had to feign gratitude, even though I wasn’t so fond of him these days. 

“The new transplant suite is in progress—actually, it’s nearly finished. I can definitely show you that. Work on the music therapy room isn’t underway yet, because Emma is part of that project, and she’s on vacation right now.” 

“That’s right.” Raul nodded. “We talked about her time off at the last meeting. Not that there was any objection—this is the first extended break Dr. Carson has had since she started with us. Have you heard anything from her? I hope she’s enjoying her visit with her family.” 

“I have not.” My face was beginning to hurt from holding onto this smile. “I gave her strict instructions before she left not to check in. I agree with you that she needs this vacation. And God knows that she held down the fort for me long enough. I owe her this.” 

“Very true.” Raul’s agreement was just slightly too emphatic for my taste. “We all certainly appreciated that.” 

I swallowed back the snarky rebuttal that was on the tip of my tongue. “The new suite is right over here. Let me give you a tour.” 

* * *

The board vice president lingered on the floor longer than I expected. I didn’t mind schmoozing now and then; playing the politics game was a necessary if irritating part of medicine. But I wasn’t known for my patience on the best day. I was ready to get on with my day, working with patients and catching up with my team. 

By the time Raul finished gushing over our new transplant suite and how incredible it was that Noah Spencer had been the one to fund it, and I’d seen him to the elevator, it was mid-afternoon. On the way back to my office, I passed by the nurses’ station in time to overhear Jenny Ward, one of our nurse practitioners, talking to Stephanie, a nurse who worked on the floor. 

“She didn’t go into much detail. She just said that things between Noah and her are a little . . .” Jenny wiggled her hand back and forth. “You know. Uncertain.” 

“How the hell did that happen? Those two were like peanut butter and jelly for over a year. They went almost everywhere together. They hung out on weekends. He helped build that cabin for her. And then they start dating, and suddenly things are uncertain?” Stephanie mimicked Jenny’s tone. 

“I guess things just happen like that sometimes. You know, maybe friendship isn’t always supposed to grow into something else. It’s possible they only work as friends, not as lovers.” Jenny spotted me over Stephanie’s shoulder. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch. “Oh, hey, Deacon. Geez, I thought Mr. Zamora was never going to leave.” 

“You and me both.” I rolled my eyes. “So . . . anything going on that I should be aware of?” I was referring to our patients, of course, but to say that I wasn’t curious about what Jenny had been saying would be an outright lie. The last I’d heard, Emma and Noah were together. I had even wondered at first if he’d gone up to Virginia with her, but my grandmother had mentioned that he was at training camp already. 

“She’s up there by herself, getting some much-needed and well-deserved rest.” Gram had fastened me with one of her signature piercing glares. “Don’t you bother her with anything from the hospital, do you hear? Poor Emma’s exhausted. She needs to spend time with her mama and daddy. I don’t want you using some patient as an excuse to call her or text her.” 

I’d briefly considered arguing with my grandmother, insisting that I’d never do that, but it wasn’t worth the tongue-lashing I’d get in response, so I’d only nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I hear.” 

Still, I wouldn’t have minded if Jenny had decided to fill me in on anything that might be new with our naturopath. But she only shook her head.

“Nope, I don’t think so. Oh, actually, we just got a call from the ER. They’re sending up Elaine Dulinkski. She’s running a fever and complaining of shortness of breath. Cardiac cleared her, but Dr. Anderson seems to think she doesn’t need to go directly to ICU. She said she thought we could probably handle it here.” Jenny frowned at the computer screen and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. “We thought we’d put her in one of the isolation rooms, though, just in case.” 

“Good plan. Let me know when she’s settled in her room, and I’ll swing by to see what’s going on. Meanwhile, I think I’ll call Dr. Anderson and get her report.” 

I headed for my office, my mind focused on the patient. Elaine Dulinksky was not the most pleasant of women. She was stubborn and tended toward a snappish short-temper. She found a reason to complain about even the most comfortable accommodations. She had never warmed up to Emma and what Mrs. Dulinkski called her woo woo new agey crap, which meant that I bore the lion’s share of her care when she was on the floor. 

But on the other hand, she’d been battling an aggressive form of breast cancer for four years, so maybe she had cause to be a little unpleasant. I hoped that this fever was only a quickly passing viral situation, something we could monitor while addressing her symptoms. Too often, though, our cancer patients developed life-threatening infections. If this one was already ahead of us . . .

I growled under my breath. Being pessimistic wasn’t going to do anything to help Mrs. Dulinkski. Emma had taught me that. It seemed that no matter how much I tried to avoid being sucked into her less-traditional methods, she was rubbing off on me. That idea made me even grumpier, particularly as I remembered how she used to tease me about being the brooding, somber vibe in our wing. 

The fact was that as much as I hated to admit it, I missed Emma’s presence at the hospital. For all of our heated arguments and disagreements, I valued her input and her incessant research into new ways to help our patients. She kept me on my toes; she made me a better doctor.

Not that I’d ever tell her that, of course. Not in a hundred years. She’d never let me hear the end of it. 

I sank down into my office chair and rubbed my forehead. It would take a while for Mrs. Dulinkski to be moved up to her room—that was just the way the red-tape and bureaucracy worked. Once she was settled, it would take us some time to figure out just what was going on with her and how to treat the issue. 

All of this meant that I was probably in for a late night. Sighing, I picked up the phone and swiped the screen to my contracts, tapping one near the top of the list. And when my grandmother answered, I felt a little bit of my tension ease. 

“Hey, Gram. How’re you doing?” 

“I’m all right, honey. I’m just working on that genealogy project. My cousin from New York sent me some old papers and photos, and we’re going to video chat a little later to try and figure out who is who.” I heard the sound of papers rustling in the background. “How’re things with you?” 

“Eh, not bad, but I think I’m going to miss dinner tonight. One of my patients was just admitted with junky lungs and a temp. I have a feeling it’s going to be a late one. I’m sorry for the late notice.” 

“Oh, don’t be silly, Deacon. If I’m not used to a doctor’s unpredictable hours by now, I should be. I’ll make you up a plate, and you can pick it up tomorrow. Or I can drop it off if that’s easier.” She paused a moment. “I’m sorry about your patient. Not anyone I know, is it?” 

One side of my mouth quirked upward. HIPPA laws were challenging at best, but in a small town, they could be downright difficult. Gram tried to remember that I couldn’t violate patient confidentiality, but her stance was that it never hurt to ask.

In this case, however, I could respond honestly. “No, you don’t know her. She’s from Lakeland. I hope whatever is going on, we caught it in time, but you know how it is. Cancer is a tricky bitch.” 

“True.” Gram never dinged me for language when it came to work. Heck, she didn’t give me trouble about swearing most of the time. But she understood that fighting this disease was frustrating even as beating it could be exhilarating. “Well, do what you can, sweetie. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Remember, you’re not God. You might be a gifted doctor, but at the end of the day, you’re a man.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Gram.” Nothing like a pep talk from the president of my fan club to give me a boost. “I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if I can make it out to the farm. Give Pop my love.” 

“I will, son. Good luck tonight. Talk to you later.”

Ending the call, I tackled some paperwork and other administrative tasks before Jenny alerted me that Mrs. Dulinkski was in her room. I finished what I was doing before I stood up and began to make my way to the suite.

Time to go fight a new battle.


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First Chapter Friday: Internal Fixation

If Grey’s Anatomy makes your heart flutter . . . this trilogy is for you.
When every day is a battle between life and death, can two warring hearts find healing in each other??


Since I moved to Florida to work on the oncology wing at St. Agnes, my life has been tumultuous. The near-constant tension between Dr. Deacon Girard and me, a relationship that took an unexpected nosedive, and losing a favorite patient might have made me second-guess my decision to move to Harper Springs . . . if it wasn’t for my friends. They’re my ride or dies, my constant support, and my happy place.

When one friendship begins to grow into something more, well, maybe it’s time to move on and forget about Deacon.

If only I can . . .


I haven’t run away from a damn thing since I was a kid, but I’ll admit that’s exactly what I did after things got too intense between Emma and me. I took off for Eastern Europe, telling myself that I was there for kids who needed my brand of medical expertise. But the truth was that I had to get away from Emma . . . because what I feel for her scares the hell out of me.

I’ve been down this path before, and I know the kind of pain love brings with it. I don’t need to do this again. So even after I return to St. Agnes Hospital, I try to forget what was between us. I ignore my own heart.

For as long as I can . . .

Read the first chapter here!


“UGH! Where the hell are you?” 

The fact that the man in question didn’t answer me wasn’t his fault, since he wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity of my voice. That was part of the problem; I didn’t know where he was, and he wasn’t picking up his phone. He’d promised to be here at my little home on wheels fifteen minutes ago, and I was impatient. 

I peered out my window, frowning. My most recently cultivated garden plots were just a few feet away, and there were promising rows of happy green plants lined up in each of them. I’d decided to leave the trailer here as a resting place for when I was out working in my fields and as a reminder of how far I’d come in a little over a year. Maybe someday, I’d gut the trailer and remodel it as a guest home, but for now, I had my hands full with my new cabin, the plants I was cultivating—and my full-time job as a naturopath at St. Agnes Memorial Hospital.

Building the cabin while trying to help run the oncology wing at St. Agnes hadn’t been easy. Luckily, I’d had lots of help from my friends, both at the hospital and out here on my land. I couldn’t imagine how I would have made it happen without them. 

And speaking of those friends . . . they were probably wondering where I was. I pulled out my phone for the umpteenth time, about to click the redial button, when I heard the familiar sound of a pickup truck bumping over the dirt road, heading for my trailer. 

Happy anticipation bubbled up inside of me, and today, I didn’t even try to tamp it down. Grabbing my sunglasses, I burst out of the door and stood on the edge of my small porch, bouncing on my toes as I waited for the truck to come to a halt. 

“Happy moving day!” Noah’s grin was wide as he swung down from the driver’s seat. His easy grace and lithe movements always impressed me; he was such a big guy, all solid muscle and incredible strength. He’d told me once that part of his training included ballet and yoga, because the position he played on the football field required agility. I could totally see that. 

Circling the back of the truck, he stopped just in front of me and pulled me into a bear hug. I let myself relax against his comforting warmth. Over the past months, I’d come to accept that Noah Spencer was a tactile guy. He expressed himself through touch—whether that was a hello hug, an arm slung around the back of my chair when we ate or watched a movie, or the way he kept one hand on my back whenever we walked through a crowd. It didn’t mean anything, other than that he was a naturally handsy dude, and that was his way.

At least, this was what I told myself. Repeatedly.

“You’re late.” I pushed back from his embrace and shot him a stern glare. 

His answering wince was so adorably guilty—like a little boy caught coming in tardy to class—that I couldn’t help giggling. 

“I know.” He stepped away from me slightly, keeping his hands on my shoulders. “Sorry about that. The traffic driving in from Tampa was a killer this morning. Plus, I had to stop to pick up a few last-minute . . . necessities.” 

I cocked my head. “Noah. What did you do?” 

He feigned innocence. “Nothing. C’mon, let’s get your stuff loaded up.” He squinted at the totes and boxes I had stacked neatly to the side of my porch. “Is that it?” 

“How much did you really expect?” I threw up my hands. “Look at where I live. I promise, I haven’t been holding out on you all these months, hiding a secret basement or an attic. What you see is what you get.” 

He grinned, his gaze raking me up and down. “What I see is pretty damn special.” 

And there it was. I managed to convince myself that Noah’s touches were just how he was. I pretended that there wasn’t anything the least bit odd about his attention, our daily phone calls and running text thread, or how often he drove over here from the west coast of Florida. But every now and then, Noah said something that took me aback and shook all those notions I held onto so firmly. When it happened, my natural reaction was to ignore him. But it was getting harder and harder to do that. 

Incidentally, on the topic of harder and harder . . . Noah bent over and lifted up one entire pile of boxes, picking them up like they were a stack of pillows, and slid them into the bed of his truck. I swore he didn’t even break a sweat. But as I watched his muscle ripple and shift under his jeans and T-shirt . . . I might have been sweating just a little. 

Shaking myself from my stupor, I jumped up onto the back of the truck to help him distribute and secure the boxes, fitting them together like pieces of an enormous puzzle. The drive from here to the cabin wasn’t long, but it was over rough terrain, and I didn’t want to lose anything. 

“So—remind me who’s coming today?” Noah offered his hand to help me leap down to the ground and then slammed the lift gate on the truck. 

Pursing my lips, I cast my eyes upward and counted off on my fingers. “As far as I know, Jenny and Nico, Darcy, Alison . . . oh, and Anna and Jimmy.” 

He nodded. “Good crowd. Many hands making light work and all that.” 

“Uh-huh. And they’re probably wondering where we are, so let’s hit the road.” I curled my fingers around the handle of the passenger side door. I’d left my car over at the cabin last night—Nico and Jenny had dropped me off at the trailer after we’d finished a few last-minute touches—which was why I’d been waiting for Noah’s arrival. 

He paused, hooking his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans. “Don’t you want to take a moment to say good-bye to this place? You know, relive the memories, thank it for sheltering you during your first year in Florida—that kind of thing?” 

I rolled my eyes. “We had our long good-bye last night, during which time I said things like, ‘Thank God my cabin has air conditioning!’ and ‘I’m sure not going to miss this composting toilet!’” I pressed my lips together. “Now that I’m moving out, I can appreciate that this wasn’t a terrible place to stay for the short-term, but not all of my memories here are exactly sunshine and rainbows.” 

A shadow passed over Noah’s face, and I could’ve bitten off my tongue. Both of us knew that many of those memories had to do with Angela and with Deacon. Angela had never been to my trailer, but I’d told her about it often enough—and this was where I’d come home during the days when she was in the hospital, as we’d treated her cancer. I’d done research into her type of leukemia at the small table or out on my porch. In my bed here, I’d wept many tears after we lost her. Like it or not, the memory of the woman who was my friend and Noah’s late wife was part of this place. 

Noah and I never shied away from talking about Ang. We both missed her, and that was what had drawn us together at first—a desire to be with another person who remembered and loved Angela. 

But we rarely mentioned Deacon’s name. In those first few months, when for me, the pain was still too new and raw, Noah had avoided talking about Deacon to spare my feelings. And then, as time went by, there was simply less reason to bring him up. The longer he was gone, the less real he seemed. Maybe that was all for the best. I’d been angry and devastated by turns after he’d taken off—or more accurately, after he’d run away. Despite the letter he’d written to me and left on my desk, the one where he claimed he was going away in order to return a better man, I held onto more than a touch of bitterness. 

I wasn’t sure Noah knew the full extent of my relationship with Deacon, and I was perfectly okay with that. He didn’t ask, I didn’t tell, and we got along fine without exploring those feelings. Still, perceptive as he was, I was sure he had a sense that some of the unhappy memories that I’d just referenced were connected with Deacon. 

“Okay, no sloppy farewells, then. Let’s hit the road.” He opened my door for me, his finger squeezing mine gently as he helped me up into the truck. I buckled my seatbelt and rolled down my window while I waited for him to come around to his side and get behind the wheel. 

We rode in companionable silence on the familiar route to the cabin. It was one of the things I loved about my friendship with Noah; we didn’t need to fill our time together with meaningless chatter and small talk. He stretched his arm over the back of the bench seat, his fingers absently rubbing over my hair now and then. His window was down, too, and he had the radio set to his favorite country music station. 

We had a running joke about his taste in music. While I didn’t mind some country, it had never been my favorite genre. I liked to tease Noah that all of the singers and songs sounded the same. 

“Okay, so this one. Is he . . . um, Willie Nelson?” I pretended not to recognize the voice on the radio. 

Noah shot me a reproachful look. “Seriously, Em. C’mon. This doesn’t sound anything like Willie.”

I laughed. “I know. He doesn’t have the same whiney twang. This one is Brad Paisley.” I sighed, grinning. “I remember him because he’s super cute, and he’s married to Kimberly Williams.” 

“I don’t know about the super cute part—” Noah imitated my intonation. “But he sings a damn good song. I’ve been listening to him since I was in high school.” One side of his mouth tipped up. “Ang loved his song about waiting on a woman.”

“I think I know that one.” I turned to gaze out the window. “He sings some really deep ballads, but I like his lighter ones, too. This one about the I in beer is good.” 

“Reminds me that I picked up a six-pack of that purple stuff you like. I figured we could christen the new place the right way.” 

I shifted uncomfortably on the seat. Christening the house could have a connotation that I wasn’t sure I could handle yet. Instead of thinking about that, I chose the understanding I preferred. 

“Perfect. Drinking Purple Haze at the end of a long moving day is a great idea.” 

Noah grunted in agreement, and then seconds later, he turned the truck onto the gravel driveway that led up to my cabin. I’d operated the grader we’d used to create this driveway myself. It was a huge source of pride and satisfaction that I’d poured so much of myself into this home.

“Oh, my God! Look. Everyone’s there already—and oh, Noah, there’re flowers in front of my porch! They’re all planted and everything.” 

“Huh. Wonder how that happened.” His pretended ignorance didn’t fool me, and I turned in my seat to face him. 

“Did you do that?” 

His arm pressed closer into my back as he shrugged. “Might have been part of it. But it was mostly Anna’s idea, so she gets the credit.” 

“They’re beautiful.” As soon as Noah came to a stop, I opened the door and jumped out of the truck to get a better look. 

“Surprise!” Standing on the porch with the rest of my friends, Jenny clapped her hands. “What do you think?” 

“I love it. It’s exactly my vision for this place.” I knelt down to sniff at a blossom. “When did you do this?” 

Leaning on the rail, Anna Girard chuckled. “We all got here early this morning. Noah hauled over the plants I’d ordered from the nursery, and we brought the ones I’ve propagated from my own cuttings—from the ones you especially liked at the farm.” 

“How did you know?” I marveled, touching a soft leaf. 

“Child, I pay attention when you talk.” Anna rolled her eyes. “And I’m not so ancient that I can’t keep track of what I hear.” 

“You’re not ancient at all.” I wrapped my arms around my middle, mostly to hold in my excitement. Noah had parked the truck in my driveway, and now he strolled over to join us. 

“Nice work, y’all,” he drawled. “Good to see that you didn’t slack off after I left.” 

Nico snorted. “You didn’t leave us that much to do. You were standing right here, pointing out to us what needed to go where. And if it wasn’t you, it was one of the women.” 

I beamed up at my friends. “Well, I appreciate all of you being here, particularly you, Nico, since it’s your day off. I know you don’t get many of those.” 

He winked at me. “Happy to help, Emma.”

“And he did more than plant flowers,” Jenny put in. “There just might be some food in your fridge and freezer that was prepared for you by the chef whom The Tampa Times called ‘fresh and exciting—making food fun again’!” She slid her hand into the crook of her boyfriend’s elbow and hugged his arm, her pride evident. 

My eyes widened. “No way—thank you so much, Nico. I’m going to eat like a queen.” For a moment, I simply let my gaze wander over my friends. When I’d arrived in Harper Springs almost eighteen months ago, I never would have dreamed that I’d have this tribe around me. I’d met Noah—my patient’s husband—and Jenny and Darcy—both nurse practitioners—on my very first day at the hospital. Nico, Jenny’s boyfriend, I’d gotten to know after he’d returned to Florida to declare his love for Jenny. 

Anna and Jimmy Girard were the grandparents of my ex . . . whatever it was that Deacon had been to me. He’d introduced me to Anna and Jimmy as his girlfriend, but we hadn’t had enough time together for me to get used to that idea. And then before I could, he’d taken off for Slovenia. 

And Alison was the newest member of our group. She was the doctor who’d taken over for Deacon after he had officially extended his leave of absence. 

“So, are we going to stand around here soaking up the ambience, or are we going to move boxes?” Jimmy rubbed his hands. “We have a full truckload of the stuff you’ve been storing in our barn, Emma. Just need to hear from you where you want it all to go.” 

“What are we waiting for?” I flipped over my hands. “Let’s get started!” 

* * *

When I’d taken the job as the staff naturopath at St. Agnes Memorial Hospital in Harper Springs, Florida, I had decided that this small town, surrounded by plentiful farmland, was the perfect place to realize my dream of living on my own property and raising my own food. In the three weeks between signing the contract and driving south, I’d contacted a real estate agent, purchased several acres of land, and then gone online to arrange to buy a mobile home to live in until I could build my own house. 

That hadn’t been my finest hour, since the infamous Bobby Lucas had sold me a dilapidated, filthy box on wheels that didn’t have a real bathroom or air conditioning. Well, to be fair, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had had air conditioning, since city-dweller me had neglected to realize that an undeveloped piece of land wouldn’t have electric, water or sewage hookups. Suffice it to say that the past eighteen months had not been the most comfortable or easiest for me. 

But little by little, I’d managed not only to survive the ordeal but to find the perfect spot for my cabin and build it. Oh, I’d had lots of professional help—I’d hired out the more arduous labor, like pouring the foundation and raising the outer walls, but all of the interior work and laying out the yard had been accomplished by this woman . . . with more than a little help from her friends. 

I’d buried myself in the beginning stages of the work in the weeks after Deacon had left, needing the distraction not only from my heartache over his absence but also from the grief over Angela Spencer’s death. Jenny had been the only one to help me at first. She and I had walked my land for hours at a time, talking about nothing but the perfect place to situate my home. Then later, as he’d had time, Nico had joined us, helping me to find dependable contractors and giving me advice on layout. 

A couple of weeks after we’d staked out the perimeter of what would eventually be the cabin, Noah Spencer had called me. I’d seen him at Angela’s funeral, ten days after she’d died, where I’d learned that apparently, Deacon had reached out to Noah before he’d left the country, apologizing for missing Angela’s service and explaining that he was going away. 

That day, I’d reminded Noah that I was still around, willing to support him in anything he needed. Privately, though, I’d doubted that I’d hear from him. The news about Angela’s illness and subsequent death had hit the media, and there had been an outpouring of grief for her loss and love for Noah in the wake of the revelation. I figured between his team, his family and his fans, Noah wouldn’t require anyone else. 

But I’d been wrong. Noah had called to check in, and when I’d filled him in on my plans to build the cabin, he’d told me that he was going crazy sitting around his house. Even though it was still the tail end of the football season, it was clear Tampa wasn’t going to make it to post-season play. Noah had said that he needed a distraction, and he’d asked if he could come see the progress. That had led to him meeting Nico and the two of them joining forces to offer what they called the manly view on everything I was trying to do. And then somehow, Noah was just . . . there, more often than he wasn’t. He’d still had to fulfill his football-related commitments, so he hadn’t had that much free time, but I’d had a hunch that he was spending all of his non-football moments with me. 

And if that had made me slightly uneasy in those days, I’d pushed the feelings aside, because I’d always liked Noah, and having him around was fun. I also told myself that I was helping him—giving him something to focus on besides his sorrow over losing his wife. I was a distraction. At least, that was how I justified our near-constant togetherness to myself. 

About three months into the project, I’d been at the hardware store, haggling with the owner over a box of slightly damaged kitchen cabinet hardware that I wanted him to sell me for a discount. I’d heard a familiar voice behind me. 

“Frank Simmons, you stop driving up the price on this poor woman. Give her the deal.” 

The owner had scowled over my shoulder. “Anna Girard, you mind your own. I’m with a customer.” 

“I know you are, and that customer happens to be a friend of mine. Just because she has a Yankee accent doesn’t mean you should try to take advantage of her.” 

Muttering under his breath, Frank had stomped off—hopefully, I’d thought, to tell his clerk to adjust the price for me. With no little bit of trepidation, I turned around to face Deacon’s grandmother. 

“Anna.” I wasn’t sure what the protocol was here. Did I hug her, or did I offer to shake her hand?

That decision was taken out of my hands a few seconds later, as Anna had opened her arms and pulled me close for a hug. “Emma. It’s so good to see you, sweetheart.” Stepping back, she’d stared into my eyes, frowning. “You okay?” 

“Um.” I didn’t know how to answer that. “I’m doing all right. How about you?” 

“Well, I’ll be honest. I’m right pissed with that grandson of mine, and if you are, too, don’t try to spare my feelings.” She shook her head. “We got a phone call from the airport in Orlando. Off to Slovenia, he says, because that group needs him, and he needs ‘space’.” Anna snorted. “Space, my ass. He was in panic mode, and so he turned tail and ran away. Plus, he had his feelings and his pride both hurt when that poor young woman died.” 

“Losing Angela was hard,” I admitted. “It was tough on all of us. I’m sure it brought back some difficult memories for Deacon.” 

“I know you’re right, but that’s no excuse for ignoring his responsibilities and running away. That wing—that’s his baby. He fought for it to be built, he worked himself to the bone to make it happen—and then he leaves it? And this time, not just for a few weeks. He’s been gone nearly four months, and from what I hear, he doesn’t have any plans to come home soon.” Anna shook her head. “Left Jimmy in the lurch, too, since he’d promised his help on the farm this past fall. He offered to pay for another man to take his spot, but of course, my husband refused. Deacon doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not the help that mattered, it was the idea of his grandson working with him.” 

I’d tried to tamp down my own mad. I’d thought a bunch of terrible things about Deacon Girard since the day I’d found his letter on my desk. In my head, I’d called him a selfish, irresponsible, thoughtless, arrogant prick. But hearing his grandmother go off on him made me feel just the slightest bit bad for all that anger. 

“I’m really sorry, Anna.” I laid my hand on her arm. “I don’t really know why Deacon did what he did. He left me a letter that kind of rambled on about his fiancée—”

“He told you about Laurel?” One of Anna’s eyebrows arched. “And he hadn’t mentioned her before that?” 

“No. Well, no specifics,” I amended. “He’d said something about being in a serious relationship in med school and at the start of his residency, but he didn’t tell me they were engaged. And he definitely didn’t share why they’d broken up.” 

“Hmmm. Doesn’t surprise me. Laurel hurt his pride, and for a while, he might have thought that he was in love with her. But the rest of us saw the situation—and the woman—for what it was.” 

“He said as much in the letter.” I thought about the pages that were still folded up in my desk at the hospital. Part of me had wanted to rip it up. Burn it. Forget every word. But I hadn’t. Not yet, anyway. 

“Well, that’s one thing, I guess.” Anna pressed her lips together. “Listen, Emma. I’ve come close to driving out to your trailer more times than I can count in the past four months. I don’t know why I didn’t, exactly . . . I supposed I just talked myself out of it. But it’s the silliest thing in the world, isn’t it?” She squeezed my hand. “I know we just met a couple of times, but I took a shine to you. Not just because you were my grandson’s girlfriend, but because you’re smart and funny and a pleasure to be around.” 

I couldn’t reply over the lump in my throat, so I merely nodded.

“Also, we’re neighbors. I don’t like to be at odds with my neighbors. I like to be friendly.” She tapped one finger on the box of kitchen hardware that was on the shelf next to us. “So tell me why you’re in here buying hardware. Everything all right at that old trailer Bobby sold you?” 

Before I knew it, I’d spilled out all the details of the cabin, my plans and its construction. By the time I’d run out of things to say, Anna’s eyes were sparkling. 

“I want to come and see what you’ve done! And more than that—Jimmy and I want to help you out, too.” 

My mouth dropped open. “Oh, but . . . I mean, please don’t feel that you have to do anything. Because of Deacon. You don’t need to try to make up for what he did. Or didn’t do.” 

“As if I would,” Anna snapped back at me, but there was warmth and humor in her tone. “This has nothing to do with my grandson, Emma. This is about being friends and good neighbors. Now, tell me exactly where you’re building your dream home, and then tell me the next time you’re planning a workday. We’ll be there with bells on.” 

She wasn’t kidding—they were. Jimmy was a little quieter than his wife about his support, but it was stalwart, just the same. When Darcy—who had joined our happy band by that time—shared with us that the Monroe family was auctioning off the contents of their late parents’ house and suggested they might have furniture and appliances I could use, it was Deacon’s grandfather who had insisted that I store anything I bought in his barn. 

And that was why Nico and Noah were currently lifting a long wooden table from the back of Jimmy’s old box truck—the one he usually used to haul produce to market. Behind them, Jimmy carried an antique rocking chair. 

“Where does this go, Emma?” he called as he maneuvered it up the porch steps. 

“The bedroom, please.” I stepped aside to let him pass. Alison rose from the corner where she had just finished cleaning up the last bits of sawdust from around the baseboards in the living room. 

“This is shaping up to be a very cozy home.” She reached back to rub her own back and then glanced at her watch. “I’d love to stay and help for the rest of the day, Em, but I need to get back over to the hospital.” She glanced around the room. “With our naturopath and both NPs here working on the house, someone’s got to keep the fires burning at St. Agnes.” 

I slipped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a side hug. “I completely understand. I appreciate you giving me any of your time today, Alison. And I don’t want to get on Mira’s bad side. It hasn’t been that long that she and I have been allies. Of sorts, anyway.” 

Alison laughed. “Well, I have both you and Mira to thank for my job here, so I’m kind of invested in not pissing off either of you.” She set down her rag and removed the latex gloves she was wearing. “You’re off the rest of the week, right? So I guess I’ll see you on Monday.” 

“Oh, I might pop in here and there, whenever I can, if things are settled in this place.” I looked around. “And judging by what I see, I think everything’s going to be picture-perfect before I know it. Noah said something about many hands making light work. You know, he might be onto something.” 

“Smart guy.” Alison nodded. “You’ve built yourself a pretty amazing clan, Emma.” 

“Yes, I have.” I grinned. “I never would have expected to have this particular group of people around me, but I’m very grateful.” 

“You should be.” She wiped her hands on her denim-covered thighs. “Okay, I’m out of here. See you later.” 

“Thanks for your help, Alison!” I called after her. Anna, who was setting up my kitchen cabinets, paused in her labor. 

“I like her.” She nodded her head toward the door that had just closed behind the doctor. “I met her a little while back, but we never really got a chance to chat until today. Tell me again how she came to be down in Florida?”

I grimaced. “I’m glad she’s in Harper Springs, but the circumstances that made her available to be here weren’t the best.” 

Six months ago, Mira had asked me to come to her office before I left for the day. Even though the head nurse and I had come to a meeting of the minds, as it were, and could now work together with civility, I still got that sense of being called to the principal’s office whenever she wanted to see me. 

Mira’s face had been grim that day. “I just heard from Deacon.” Her jaw set. “He copied me on a letter to the board, extending his temporary leave of absence and requesting that the board hire a full-time doctor to take his place, until such a time as he wants to return.” She heaved a long breath. “And before you ask it, no, he didn’t specify a time period for that return.” 

“Okay.” I’d dropped into the chair across the desk from her. “Shit. I mean . . . well, maybe this is a good thing. We’ve been limping along with all of us working extra hours and relying on help from the doctors who have privileges here. If Deacon isn’t planning to come back any time soon, then finding someone we can depend on would be the best idea.” 

“Agreed.” Mira nodded. “But the tricky part is that whoever takes the position won’t have it permanently, unless and until Deacon relinquishes the job. Or until the board gets sick of his shenanigans and tells him to get his fanny back here or else.” 

“Is that likely?” I couldn’t imagine many boards of directors tolerating behavior like Deacon’s for long. 

Mira hesitated. “They won’t kick him to the curb yet, but they won’t let this go on indefinitely, either. Deacon’s built up a ton of goodwill with the hospital, the board and the community. People are inclined to give him a pass, particularly because he’s not out on a pleasure cruise—he’s doing good work. Important work.” She quirked an eyebrow at me. “But you and I both know that what happens in this hospital is also important.” 

“No argument there.” 

“My question to you, then, is if you have any recommendations for doctors who might be interested in a short-term position at an oncology wing in the middle of Florida.” Mira shuffled papers on her desk. “I’d like your input on who we interview and ultimately hire since you’ll be working closely with that person.” 

I worried the corner of my lip between my teeth. “There is someone . . . I knew her at the medical center where I worked in Philadelphia. She was a good doctor. She’s solid and has great rapport with the patients.” 

“Perfect, but would she be open to considering something like this?” Mira tapped her desk. 

“Normally, I’d say no, but she’s had a rough couple of months. Her fiancé was killed in an accident this summer. She’s kind of at loose ends now—she might be open to a change of scenery.” 

As I related all of this to Anna, her eyes filled with sympathy. “Oh, that poor thing. To lose someone she loved so young.” 

“I know.” I sighed. “I wish better circumstances had brought her down here, but I’m definitely glad she said yes.” I reached for a dishtowel from the box Anna was emptying, and folding it, laid it in the drawer. “Don’t worry, though. Alison understands that when Deacon comes home, she’ll need to find another place to work. I just hope she can take this time to heal and start to think about what comes next for her.” 

Anna snorted. “If he didn’t have a job when he came back, it would serve him right.” She set down the next jar with a little more force than necessary. It would be accurate to say that Anna was still a bit put out with her grandson. 

Jenny, who had just wandered over to us, caught my eye and mimed horror. Despite all of us at the hospital being less than happy with our head doc’s abrupt vanishing act, none of us wanted him to stay away. The truth was that as gruff and intense as Deacon could be, he unified our team in a way no one else could. 

Now, that being said, my own feelings toward him were decidedly mixed. My heart was still bruised not only by his rapid departure but also by what had happened a few nights before that. I didn’t want to waste any thoughts there, though. When Deacon Girard sailed back into town—if in fact he did—I’d be professional. I’d work with him, but that was the end of it. I was over him. 

Or I would be. Soon.

Read the rest of the story here!


Apple Books




First Chapter Friday: Informed Consent

If Grey’s Anatomy makes your heart flutter . . . this trilogy is for you.


My new life in Harper Springs, working at St. Agnes Hospital, would be almost perfect if it wasn’t for Dr. Deacon Girard. He’s arrogant, intense, and unfortunately, hot as hell. He frustrates me, and he drives me crazy.
Maybe he’d finally listen to me if I kissed him.


When I hired Emma Carson, I didn’t know she was so stubborn–or so sexy. She fights passionately for our patients, but I think her favorite habit is arguing with me. She makes me nuts.
Maybe she’d shut up if I kissed her.

Read the first chapter here:

“Just who in the blazes do you think you are?”

The voice that rang out behind me shook with fury. Anxiety threatened to close my throat, but I kept walking anyway. 

“Stop!” She was much closer behind me than I’d thought, but still, my step stuttered only slightly. 

“I said, stop walking.” She grasped my upper arm, not so much to hurt me as to get my attention. A large part of me wanted to shake her off and keep running away, but the wiser portion of my mind—and years of training—prevailed. I drew myself up and turned to face her. 

“I’m sorry—Mrs. Hoskins, was it? Did you need something?” I pasted on what I thought might have passed for a pleasant smile. “I didn’t hear you.” 

We both knew I was lying, but she was too fired up to call me on that. 

“Yes, I do need something. I need you to not go into our patients’ room and change their care plan—to tinker with what Dr. Girard has carefully and thoughtfully put in place for their treatment. You have no right.” 

I sucked in a long breath. “On the contrary. I have every right. I was hired to do exactly what I’ve been doing all morning—meeting patients and talking about ways we can make their path toward healing better and more comfortable.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “If you’d like to discuss the role of the naturopathic doctor in oncology, I’d be happy to sit down with you—but not right now. I still have to see several other patients on the floor before lunch, and then I’m going down to meet with the dietician and nutritionist, so we can discuss how we can supplement the current meals to meet the unique needs in this wing.” 

I’d been involved in medicine in one way or another for a decade, but I’d never actually seen a human face go purple with rage—until that moment. 

Ms. Carson—” she began, but I interrupted. 

“Dr. Carson. Please.” 

“Whatever you want to call yourself. You were not hired to undo all the effort that the rest of us have put into this hospital, especially the hard work done to make this new wing a reality.” She glared at me. 

“No, I was hired to enhance it. I was asked to come on board so that my expertise—” I was subtle in my emphasis of that word, but she picked up on it. I could tell. “—could complement the work of the other professionals here. I took this job with the understanding that what I have to offer would be appreciated. I wanted to be part of a team that operates smoothly—together. I don’t know why that’s so difficult for you to understand.” 

“You were not our first choice, you know.” The head nurse spit out the words. They stung, but they didn’t surprise. I’d only been at St. Agnes Memorial Hospital for a few hours, but already, I could tell that this oncology wing was their pride and joy. I’d met a few nurses and techs who had enthused about the committee who had raised the funds, made the plans, and put them into action. Above all, I’d heard one name over and over again: Dr. Deacon Girard. 

It hadn’t taken a brain surgeon to realize that the team working here had been carefully assembled. Since the first call I’d had about the position had come only about four weeks ago, I’d had a hunch that either the idea of adding a naturopath had been a last-minute decision, possibly forced on Dr. Girard and his devoted crew by a board of directors, or that they’d had someone else in mind before me. Mira Hoskins had just confirmed my assumption. 

“If that’s supposed to make me dissolve into tears of disappointment and hurt, you’ll be waiting a long time,” I snapped back. “I don’t care who your first choice was. I don’t care if I was your one-hundredth choice. The point is that I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. I was hired by this hospital’s board of directors. Now if you or your precious Dr. Girard have a problem with that, you can take it up with them. But until such a time as I’m informed that they’ve ended my employment, I’m doing my damn job—and that’s improving the lives of my patients. Whether or not you agree with my methods does not concern me at all.” 

If Mrs. Hoskins was a cartoon character, steam would’ve been coming out of her ears. “Dr. Girard—” she began. Once again, I broke in. This woman was going to hate me anyway. I didn’t need to make nice.

“Where is old Dr. Girard, anyway?” I cocked my head. “Lots of people are talking about him, but all I get are some vague answers about him being out of the country. Why isn’t he here?”

She squared her shoulders. “Dr. Girard is out of the country. He was called away at the last minute to work with an organization that battles childhood hunger. He helps the group by offering medical treatment for conditions caused by or complicated by lack of proper nourishment. Nothing else but the most pressing emergency would’ve made him leave this hospital right now, I can assure you.” 

I had to admit that as excuses went, that one wasn’t bad. It didn’t let Madam Sore Ass off the hook, though. “Fine. Well, when he comes back, he and I can have a conversation about how this wing will operate. But for the moment, I’m doing my own thing. You have two choices: you can apologize right now for the way you just spoke to me, and we’ll let bygones be bygones. One thing you’ll learn about me is that I have a quick temper, but it burns out fast, and I don’t hold grudges. We’ll work together, and life will be better for us both.”

Mrs. Hoskins said nothing, but one of her eyebrows rose. 

“You might think that your second option is to keep this up, to fight me on everything I try to do, shoot daggers at me every time I try to get something done, and slow me down. But you’d be wrong. It isn’t. Your other choice is to get the hell out of my way so I can do my job.”

Her eyes flashed, and her mouth opened. I held up one hand. “You know what? Don’t answer me right away. Take some time and think about it. I’m going to introduce myself to the next patient on my list, go downstairs for my meeting . . . and then I’m going to take the rest of the afternoon off, because I still need to get settled in my new home. I’ll be in bright and early tomorrow morning. We’ll talk then.” 

Pushing off the wall, I walked away with what I hoped looked like swagger, and I didn’t look back before I turned to go into the room on my right. 

“Who the hell are you?” The man who sat in the chair alongside the bed was thin and bald. He wore a black T-shirt and hospital issue pajama pants. A hep-locked IV was in the back of his arm, and he stared at me with a mix of interest and distrust. 

“Mr. Crew?” I took one step forward, careful not to invade his space. Patients had to feel an ownership of their hospital room; there was so much else that was out of their control that anything we could do to give them a modicum of independence and sense of self was integral to their survival. 

“I’m Donnie Crew.” He inclined his head. “You here to poke at me, or ask me touchy-feely stuff?” 

I laughed. “Neither. I’m here to talk, but I’m not from psych. Promise.” I held up my hand as though I was making a vow. “My name’s Emma Carson. I’m a naturopathic doctor, and I wanted to introduce myself and see if we could chat about your treatment plan, how you’re feeling now, and if there’s anything I can do to make your cancer journey a little easier.” 

Mr. Crew frowned. “What’s a  . . . what was that you said? Naturo . . .”

“Naturopath.” I ventured further into the room and leaned against the back of another chair. “I’m a doctor, but my medical school training was somewhat different than what traditional doctors receive. My focus is on using methods that are closer to nature. I try to find what might work with your body to make it stronger and to heal faster.”

For a long minute, Mr. Crew was silent, and then he nodded. “Okay, then. Have a seat. Let’s chat.” 

* * *

An hour later, I left Mr. Crew’s room, feeling somewhat better than I had when I’d gone in. He wasn’t an easy man, that was for sure, but on the other hand, he’d been fighting multiple myeloma for almost four years. He’d been in remission for two years; now, the stem cell transplant that had given him a few years of relative health had to be repeated. He was in the hospital for a clinical drug therapy prior to the next stem cell harvest. 

The man had been through excruciating pain, crippling illness and fatigue. I couldn’t blame him for being tired of more doctors, more questions and more options. Still, he’d opened up enough to listen to me for a while and had seemed amenable to further discussion, once I’d had the time to review his file more thoroughly.

Back in the hallway, I wasn’t unaware of the eyes that followed me with interest as I wandered toward the staff lounge. The head nurse and I hadn’t been exactly circumspect in our disagreement, and if this hospital was like the others in my experience, the gossip web had already spread the word about us. I was making quite a reputation for myself, and it was barely noon on my first day in town.

I’d made a big deal to Mrs. Hoskins about having a meeting with the dietician, but the fact was that I hadn’t actually set up anything there yet. I’d just needed to make it sound like I had a plan for integrating myself into their system. I definitely was going to meet with them soon, but right now, I was too rattled, too tired and too disgruntled to do anyone else any good. Pushing open the door, I sighed with relief when I saw the lounge seemed to be empty.

Sinking into a chair, I dropped my head into my hands, taking a deep breath and exhaling long.

“Hey. That was some run-in you had with Mira the Dragon.” 

I glanced up, surprised to see a woman who was probably just a little younger than me. She was wearing cheerful pink scrubs with some kind of design I couldn’t make out. Her curly brown hair was pulled up into a ponytail, and her eyes were sympathetic as she smiled at me. 

“Ah.” I cleared my throat. “Well . . . I guess that maybe I might have been a little too quick to push my own agenda. But she just came at me.” I lifted a shoulder. 

“Hey, no judgement here. I’m on Mira’s good side most of the time, but she can be a real battle-axe.” Extending a hand, she added, “I’m Jenny Ward, by the way. I’m a nurse practitioner on this floor. And you’re the naturopath we’ve been waiting for, huh?” 

“Emma Carson.” I took her hand and squeezed it. “Nice to meet you, Jenny.” 

She took a seat across the small round table from me. “Where did you come from? I take it you’re not local.” 

I snorted. “Not hardly. I grew up outside Philadelphia, but I’ve lived in the city for the past five years or so. How about you?” 

“Virginia.” She sighed. “I’ve been here a couple of months now.” 

“Do you like it?” 

Jenny shrugged. “Most of the time, yes. It’s a small town in the middle of lots of country, in case you haven’t noticed. Just about everyone knows everyone else, and if you didn’t grow up with them, you’re an outsider. But the people who work here have been friendly to me for the most part. We have a book club if you’re interested. The last couple of times, we’ve met at my house, but it’s supposed to circulate meeting spots. Let me know, and I can hook you up.” 

“I appreciate that.” I rubbed my forehead. “My head is kind of spinning right now.”

“First day blues.” Jenny winced empathetically. “I get it. I got here a few weeks before we opened, but even so, that first day was . . . weird.” Something flitted across her expression and was gone before I could figure out what it was. “Listen, as one non-Floridian to another, if you need any help getting settled, figuring out your way around . . . you know, like where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee or buy chocolate or find shelf liner for your new place, give me a call.” Reaching into the pocket of her scrubs jacket, she tore a piece of paper from a pad and scribbled down her number. “I’m available day or night. My . . .ah . . . roommate is out of town right now, so don’t worry about calling whenever you want.” 

“Thank you so much.” I picked up the slip of paper Jenny slid across the table. “And I might take you up on it. I’ve had a hell of a day, and it’s only just lunch time.” 

The door to the lounge opened, and a woman poked her head in. “Jenny, Mrs. Jackson wanted to talk with you about the change in her meds, if you have a minute?” 

“Definitely.” Jenny stood up, pausing for just a moment as she glanced at me. “Don’t hesitate to use that number. Everyone needs a friend—especially when you’re in a new place.”

I nodded. “Thanks. I promise, I will.”

She left, and I was alone again. The silence was nice, I decided. Since it was just about lunch time, I expected the lounge would be filling up as people on this floor came to eat or just to take a break. I wasn’t in the mood to meet anyone else—not right now. I’d introduced myself to a few nurses when I’d reported to work this morning, but I hadn’t had any kind of official welcome from the staff. Unless, of course, I counted the take-down and ticking off by the head nurse. Which I didn’t. 

Outside the window, the sun was shining, and suddenly, I needed to be out there. One of the only drawbacks to my job was that most of the time, it kept me inside. If I had my way, medicine would be practiced in the open air, under the sun, sitting in green grass . . . maybe with baby goats bounding around. 

In the absence of that, I could go sit out in the small courtyard I’d spied on my way in this morning. It wasn’t happy meadows and baby goats, but it was something. 

* * *

The humidity wasn’t bad today, but it was still muggier than I would’ve liked. Still, the sun was warm, and there was the slightest breeze keeping me from sweating through my cute little short-sleeved top and pencil skirt.

I closed my eyes, lifting my face to the warmth, letting the soft air mend the hurt and upset from this morning. Intentionally relaxing my shoulders, I began the deep-breathing exercises that I knew would help bring me back to center.

“Is this a private class, or can anyone join?”

I jerked up, my eyes flying open. In front of me, nearly blocking the sun, a man was looking down at me. In my surprise, as I squinted at him, I had the fleeting thought that he looked like a god, huge and backlit and impossibly attractive. 

“Um, what?” Ever the mistress of a snappy comeback, I blinked, trying to take him in.

He pointed to me and then waved around the general area. “I figured this had to be a yoga class, right? You were doing that deep-breathing stuff that we do at the end of every session.”

“Oh.” I gave a half-laugh. “I was just taking a moment. I’ve had a hell of a morning, and—” I bit off the words. I was oversharing, and I was going to sound pathetic. “And then here I am, sitting by myself. Clearly, none of my yoga students showed up for this session.” Going along with the joke seemed like the best way to recover. 

“Maybe they’re just running late.” His mouth twisted into a grin. “Would it be okay if I sat down, or are these benches saved?” 

“By all means.” I spread my hands. “At least until my students show up. Then you’ll have to scram.” 

“Got it.” He sank down at the end of my bench, and the whole thing creaked and shifted under me. I was willing to lay money that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on this guy’s drool-worthy bod; he was just big. Huge, in fact, with shoulders I knew I’d never be able to stretch my arms around and a chest that I could use as a lounge chair. 

My staring might have been just a little obvious, because he quirked an eyebrow at me. “What?” 

“Oh, sorry.” I gave my head a little shake. “You just . . . I mean this in the best way possible, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as large as you are. Please tell me that’s natural and that those muscles don’t come from steroids or some kind of weird enhancement.” 

Just when I thought this dude couldn’t possibly get any cuter, he blushed. I was afraid I might slither off the bench into a molten pool of want. 

“I don’t do anything that could be considered the least bit unnatural.” He slid me a sideways glance. “I wouldn’t do it anyway, but in my line of work, I could lose everything if I had anything like steroids in my system.” 

I frowned. “So you’re . . . in some kind of professional sports? God, tell me it’s football and not something like pro wrestling.” 

He chuckled. “You got something against wrestling?” 

“I’ve never actually watched it,” I confessed. “But I’ve seen the ads, and it looks horrible, all the body-slamming and yelling.” I shuddered. “Not my thing.”

“I guess I’m in luck then, because I’m not a wrestler. I do play football.” He rolled one shoulder and settled into the corner of the bench. “I’m Noah.”

I bent one leg and tucked my foot beneath me, facing him more fully. Meeting this man was the most promising thing that had happened to me all day. Hell, all week. Maybe all month. 

“Nice to meet you, Noah. I’m Emma.” I held out a hand, and after a moment, he took it, his finger closing gently around mine. I was charmed by how careful he was. 

“Emma.” He nodded. “Well, Emma, what made this morning so hellish?” 

“Oh.” I waved my hand. “Nothing. I was just being dramatic. I’m fine.” 

“Uh-huh.” Noah grinned. “I have three sisters. I know women. Fine never means fine.” He turned his wrist and looked down at his watch. “I happen to have fifteen minutes to kill. I’d rather not go into the hospital until I have to. I’ve got a great listening ear, and as you might have noticed, my shoulders are broad.” He winked. “Lay it on me, Emma.” 

I hesitated, staring into the light blue eyes that looked back at me with humor and compassion. It was the compassion that cracked me. 

“Today’s my first day at a new job.” I twisted the ring on my finger. “I’ve been working at a medical center in Philadelphia, but I wasn’t able to really do the work I wanted there. So when this opportunity popped up, I was so excited to get to be part of shaping this brand-new oncology wing. I couldn’t wait to get here.” 

“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “You’re a doctor?” 

“Yeah—uh, a naturopathic doctor. I practice medicine, but with a focus on natural processes and remedies. When I talked to the board of directors here, they said they wanted a balanced approach to treating cancer. They were excited about what I was bringing to the table.” 

“That’s great.” Noah smiled. 

“It was. So I quit my job in Philadelphia, gave up my apartment, bought land down here and arranged for a temporary home there, packed my car and drove south. I planned it out so I’d arrive here the day before yesterday, plenty of time to get settled in my new place and be all set to start the job today.” 

“I’m guessing that didn’t work out.” He shook his head. “You know what they say about the best-laid plans.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed. “I was in Georgia, right on schedule, when my navigation app told me that there was road work ahead and offered an alternate route. I took it, but somewhere along the way, I missed a turn or an exit or something, and the next thing I knew, I was on this back road in the middle of nowhere. And that’s where my car decided to stop running.” 

“Oh, shit.” Noah winced. “And you were by yourself?” 

“Well, yeah.” I rolled my eyes. “Who else was going to be with me? Anyway, I called the roadside emergency service people, and they sent a guy out to tow my car to his garage. This dude—his name was Boomer, and I’m not making that up—he takes me and my car to this small town, and he tells me he can fix it, but it’s going to take a day to get the part he needs. I was stuck in this little backwater town—it was called Burton—cooling my heels for a day.” 

“Which means you got here late for your first day,” Noah guessed. 

“Oh, no. I was on time.” I unfolded my leg and stretched it out—my foot was asleep. “But in order to be on time, I had to drive all night. I got here just after sunrise this morning. I stopped at a convenience store to wash up and change my clothes.” I let my head drop back against the bench. “I haven’t even been out to see the place where I’m living. I bought it sight unseen from a company that handles modular homes.”

“Brave.” Noah’s tone indicated he might really mean crazy. 

“I was tired, I was numb, but I was still stoked about the job. I showed up at human resources, but the rep wasn’t in, so they told me to just go ahead and get started, because apparently, Dr. Girard, who’s some kind of medical legend around here, is off fighting childhood hunger across the globe, and they needed help on the wing. No problem. I love jumping right into the deep end. I did exactly what I was hired to do, and the next thing I knew, the head nurse was chasing me down the hall, yelling at me because I did my frickin’ job!” I finished, my voice reaching a decibel that was downright scary. 

For a long moment, Noah simply regarded me, his expression thoughtful. “See what I was saying? You didn’t really mean you were fine, did you?” 

I couldn’t help laughing. “You got me. I’m totally not fine. And now I feel even worse, because I just dumped my recent life’s story on a stranger.” 

“Hey, don’t sweat it. I offered. You didn’t dump on me.” He leaned forward. “It sounds to me like you need to take the rest of the day off. You should tell the folks here what you just told me. You need to go see your new home, unpack a little and get a good night’s sleep. Then come back fresh tomorrow and start over again.” He paused. “The people on the oncology ward are a decent bunch. You might’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, but I have a feeling that if you explain everything, they’ll give you another chance. Even old Ironsides Hoskins.” 

I loved that image. “I was thinking of her more like a dragon.” 

Noah grinned. “She’s very protective of this hospital, and she can be a little brusque, but she’s not bad once you get to know her.” 

“Are you from around here?” I cocked my head, feeling the blood drain from my face as a thought occurred to me. “Oh, dear Lord, please tell me you’re not Mrs. Hoskins’ son. Or brother. Or that you’re related to the saintly Dr. Girard or something.” 

“Nah.” He shook his head. “No relation. I’m not from this area originally—I grew up in Wisconsin—but I’ve lived in the Tampa area for the last couple of years. And I’ve gotten to know Dr. Girard pretty well.” He was silent for a beat before he drew in a breath. “My wife is one of his patients. She’s on the oncology wing.” 

“Oh.” A kaleidoscope of feelings flickered before me. Disappointment that he was married, because Noah was not only painfully hot, he also seemed to be genuinely nice—funny, kind and intelligent, too. Sympathy, because I figured Noah couldn’t be more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and cancer in a young person was particularly brutal. Guilt because I’d just said some things about the doctor treating his sick wife and the hospital where she was a patient. 

“I’m so sorry, Noah.” I reached out to touch the back of his hand. “I had no idea.” Something began to dawn on me. “Your wife—is she Angela?” Most of the patients were middle-aged or older, but Angela Spencer was just twenty-seven. I remembered that from her records. 

“Yeah,” Noah confirmed. “That’s my girl.” The smile that lit up his face told me everything I wanted to know about their marriage. It was wonder and love and amazement and pain . . . all in a single expression. 

“I met her this morning.” I was about to say that it had been my changes to Angela’s treatment plan that had triggered the head nurse’s ire, but I decided that might undermine his confidence in his wife’s care team. “She’s a lovely woman. You’re both very lucky.”

“Don’t I know it.” Noah sat up, stretching his arm across the back of the bench. The wingspan on this guy was insane. “We’ve been going out since high school. I always say I snapped her up before some other guy realized that she’s perfect. We went to college together, and we got married right after graduation.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “I was drafted by Houston, so we lived there for a couple of years before I was traded to Tampa.” His lips pressed together. “We decided to start a family once we were settled here. Ang went for tests, you know, because we wanted to make sure we were doing everything right. And her blood work came back . . . wonky.” 

“That sucks.” Sometimes, the simplest expression of sympathy was all I could offer. More than anyone, I understood that cancer didn’t differentiate between loved ones and strangers, or the young and the old. Disease was the great equalizer. 

“Yeah. So instead of picking out baby names and buying cribs and shit, we’re talking about chemo meds and how she’s going to look with a bald head.” Noah rubbed his huge hand over his face. “I wanted to do the solidarity thing, you know? Shave my head, too, so she knew we were in this together. But she wouldn’t let me. Angela doesn’t want anyone on the team or in the press to know that she’s sick.” 

Understanding dawned. “That’s why you’re here and not at some big medical center.” 

“Well, that’s part of it,” Noah conceded. “We were referred to Dr. Girard as soon as Ang was diagnosed, and she had her initial treatments closer to home. But when he told us about this wing he was opening in his hometown hospital, and how it was going to be state of the art care in a quieter setting, it just seemed like the perfect place, you know?” 

“I get that.” I nodded. “And from everything I’ve read before and seen today, I think this is an incredible facility. Please don’t let my whining just now make you think anything different. That’s my deal, not a reflection on St. Agnes.”

“I know. Trust me, if I didn’t think my girl was getting the best care here, we’d be gone. I’m letting Ang have her way for now, because I’m still kind of new with this team, and she thinks I shouldn’t be defined as the guy whose wife has leukemia. But if I got even a hint that there was a better place for her, I’d have her there in a heartbeat. Angela’s recovery is the only thing that matters. This career, this team, money, fame—none of it means jack if she’s not okay.” 

“Of course.” Noah’s hand was near my shoulder, and I reached back to pat it. “I promise that I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you two get the life you deserve. Someday, you’ll look back on this time as nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of your lives together.” 

“I always thought I was so aware and appreciative of what we had, but all this has been a wake-up call about how much I take for granted.” An alarm beeped, and Noah looked at his watch again. “Okay, that’s my cue to leave. Angela doesn’t want me to hang out at the hospital all the time. She still does some telecommuting for her own work, and I’m not allowed to show up until she’s finished for the day.” 

I rose to my feet along with him, more conscious than ever that he dwarfed me by comparison. “Thanks for letting me vent to you.”

“Hey, any time. It was good to meet you, Emma. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” With a last crooked smile, he was off, moving with the sort of grace that seemed incompatible with his size. 

After Noah left, the peace of the courtyard felt somehow . . . lacking, as though he’d taken with him all of the restful energy. I hesitated for a few more moments before making a decision. Hitching my handbag onto my shoulder, I headed for the parking lot.

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First Chapter Friday: Pretend You’re Mine

I’ve had the mother of all crushes on my brother’s best friend since I was a preteen.
Who can blame me? Nico is the perfect guy: he’s kind, funny, smart . . . he’s a talented chef, and he looks like a Greek god.
When he helped me get this job, I was excited that we were actually going to live in the same town again. But then he moved to Chicago, sub-letting me his house, which is awesome for my budget but sad for my body. And my heart.
The fact that Nico’s on my mind is the only excuse I have for why I used his name when I needed a pretend boyfriend in order to keep my new job. But now that I’ve done it, it’s no big deal, right? I mean, he’s in Chicago, and I’m in Florida. He’ll never have to know . . .
Until the unexpected happens, and Nico’s back home. Suddenly, I have a lot of explaining to do.
Although I convince Nico to play along, each day it gets harder to make believe something that feels so real. How long can I keep pretending . . . before the truth comes out?

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“I will never be able to thank you enough for this. Not as long as I live.” 

I turn in a small circle, my arms wrapped about myself, taking in all the details of the room where I’m standing. It’s all shades of tan and brown, a complete study in understated elegance, and I am one hundred percent in love. I can’t wait to lay on the extra-wide couch and watch Grey’s Anatomy with a big glass of wine. Or a beer. I’m not that picky.

“Jen, you’re making this a bigger deal than it is. You’re helping me out, too, you know. I mean, I’m moving to Chicago, and I still have a year left on this lease. I’m just happy that someone I trust can sub-let from me.” 

Nico stands across the room from me, leaning against the doorjamb, his back to the screened patio and pool. The late afternoon sunlight casts a glow on him, gleaming on his silky black hair and burnished skin. With his impossibly wide shoulders and the broad chest that tapered to narrow hips, he looks like a god who’s popped down from Olympus to toy with us mere mortals. 

Or maybe that’s just me. 

Clearing my throat, I glance away from him before I do something wacky, like fall at his feet and beg him to kiss me. Or something. 

This isn’t anything new. I’ve been coming up with ingenious ways to hide my feelings for Nico Angelos since I was nine years old and saw him take off his shirt for the first time. I was too young to really get it then, but I was precocious enough to know that if I blurted out what was on my heart—that I wanted to worship the shadow he cast on the ground for all of eternity—I’d never hear the end of teasing from my brother Kyle, who happened to be Nico’s best friend and the reason the object of my obsession was always over at our house. 

He’s talking again now, and with no small amount of difficulty, I wrench my attention to his words and away from the way his hands look as they rest on his crossed arms. 

“ . . . and the cool thing is, just about everything is taken care of here. The landlord has a company to clean the pool once a week, plus it’s got one of those perpetual motion vacuums, too. There’s a lawn service—they show up every Monday—and the sprinklers are on a timer. You don’t even have to touch it.” He pushes off the wall and heads down the hallway toward the garage, motioning over his shoulder for me to follow. “I want to show you the panel for the security system, too. It’s not hard, but you have to remember to turn it off when you come home, or the cops will show up—and if it’s not a real emergency, you could get the bill for the unnecessary call.” 

I wrinkle my nose. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about setting an alarm system way out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like this is New York. I bet people don’t even lock their doors.” 

Nico casts me a serious look as he stops next to the door that leads to the garage and points to a small electrical panel with buttons on it. “You’d be wrong. You need to set the alarm every single time you leave the house. Yeah, Harper Springs isn’t exactly the big city, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t crime, and it doesn’t mean you can ignore your own safety.” 

He punches four buttons. “That’s the code for when you leave, to set the alarm. It’s four, three, five, nine.” Touching my arm, he adds, “Don’t move, okay? As soon as the alarm is armed, the motion sensor is working, too.” 

I stand still as a statue, insanely aware of Nico’s fingers still warm against the skin of my bare arm. He keys in another code, reading off the numbers to me again. “That’s what you enter when you come inside. It disarms the alarm.” 

“Got it.” I breathe, all too aware that my voice makes me sound like a porn star who’s just been instructed on her next move. 

“Now, if you’re in for the night, or the rest of the day or whatever, set the alarm again, but then hit this button. It turns off the motion detector, so you don’t have to worry about walking around the house.” 

“Nico.” I tilt my head and allow myself to look into his eyes because even though it’s still dangerous for me, it’s also perfectly natural to give attention to the person I’m addressing. Right? “I really don’t think I need to set the alarm every time I’m here. You do know I’ve lived alone before, right? I’m twenty-five years old. I’m not a baby.” 

His lips curve into a smile that nearly stops my heart, and he reaches down to brush my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Jenny, you’ll always be my baby.” With a cough, he adds, “My baby sister. Or just like it. I’ve known you since you were still in diapers.” 

I cringe. “Thanks for that visual.” 

Nico goes on as if he hasn’t heard me. “Humor me, please. Promise me—” Stepping back, he shakes his fingers in my face, those dark eyes serious. “Promise me that you’ll use the security system. Not just now and then—all the time.” 

I give in, of course, because I really don’t have a choice. I can’t imagine ever telling Nico no about anything. 

“Okay, okay. I promise.” I roll my eyes because even though I’m giving him his way, old habits die hard and I don’t want him thinking I’m that easy. 

“Good.” He taps the tip of my nose with the same finger he just shook at me. “I know you might not understand it, but I feel responsible for you. I’m the one who helped you get this job. I’m the reason you’re down here in the middle of nowhere, as you put it.”

“Hey, that’s just one more reason for me to be grateful,” I counter. “Getting in on the ground floor of the new oncology wing of this hospital—that’s the kind of position I’ve been dreaming about. I never would’ve even gotten the interview if it wasn’t for you.”

Nico shrugs. “I didn’t do that much—just asked a friend to give you a recommendation. You nailed the interview—and you’ve been working hard for a while now, so you have a great resume.” He grins. “I remember the first time you told me what you were going to do—what you wanted to be. I’d never really even heard of a nurse practitioner, but you knew all about it. You laid it out and educated me. I think you were maybe. . . fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.” I nod. “It was right after Grampy went into remission. Watching him fight lung cancer, and being at the hospital when he was getting his treatments, really made an impression on me. That was when I met Brooke—she was one of the NPs on the floor, remember? I knew right then that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”

“And here you are.” Nico smiles at me again, and my soul lights up. I’m amazed that he can’t see it. “I think you’re going to do all right here, Jen. Harper Springs isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, but from what I’ve seen, the people are decent.” 

“Do you know your neighbors?” When we were outside looking at the pool a few minutes ago, I’d seen the backs of two other houses. Neither are close by—each property in this area includes a lot of land—but still, they’re close enough to walk over if I needed to borrow a cup of sugar or something. 

“Nah.” Nico shakes his head. “The place where I worked is about forty minutes away, close to the coast, so I spent most of my time there. I never even saw them to wave. Weird, I know, but I was gone early and didn’t come home until late.” 

“That’s a long commute,” I comment. Nico is a chef. He’s got crazy talent, but right out of college, he had a terrible experience working at a restaurant, so after that, he took a job with a hospitality company, designing menus for their hotels, resorts and cruise ships. He’s spent two years nursing his wounded pride down here in the sticks of Florida, but now he’s moving to Chicago to work with a friend of his on a brand-new restaurant venture. I’m excited for him and glad he’s finally getting back to where he should be—in a kitchen, making hundreds of people happy every night—but I’m also super disappointed that he’s moving a thousand miles away from me, just when we were going to live in the same zip code again for the first time since he’d graduated high school.

Still, his move is what made this gorgeous, sprawling house mine for now. Nico’s been renting it from a guy who doesn’t really care if he makes any money on it or not, and he’s cool with me taking over the lease. And of course, Nico didn’t require a security deposit or first and last months’ rent from me. 

“Yeah, housing is crazy around here,” he says in response to my comment about his commute. “Because it’s mostly small towns and rural country, there aren’t apartment complexes or condos—and very few houses for rent. I was lucky to meet the dude who owns this one. Otherwise, I probably would’ve had to live somewhere even further.” 

“And your luck is my luck.” I wander further down the hallway to peek at the huge master bedroom that is now all mine. “I would’ve had to look for a roommate, I guess.” 

“Probably.” Nico glances at his phone and grimaces. “I hate to drop all this info on you and then run, but I need to get on the road. I want to make Atlanta before midnight.” 

He’s driving up to Chicago so that he doesn’t have to ship his car. I swallow back a sigh of disappointment that he can’t stay longer and put on a happy face. 

“Oh, don’t worry about me.” I keep my tone breezy. “I’ve got this. I’m just waiting for you to hit the road so I can really explore.” 

“Yeah? What’re you going to do first?” His eyes hold a teasing gleam. 

“Hmmm.” I pretend to consider it. “As soon as your car is out of the driveway, I’ll run into the bedroom and throw myself across the bed. Bounce on it a little, because, you know, why not? Then I’ll rip off all my clothes and dive into the pool.” I give him a saucy wink. “Skinny dipping’s my favorite.” 

Do I imagine it, or is there a flare of . . . something in the depth of Nico’s eyes when I say that? I decide it’s probably just wishful thinking. He’s never looked at me as anything but his buddy Kyle’s kid sister—and that’s not likely to change any time soon. 

With that firmly in mind, I turn and throw my arms around him, giving him a tight bear-hug that is entirely appropriate for an honorary little sister to give her surrogate big brother. If my lady parts sing when my boobs press into that incredibly muscled chest, or if my heart gives a happy little sigh when his hands rub my lower back . . . well, no one needs to know but me and my lonely, yearning body. 

“Safe driving,” I tell him when I pull away, which is much sooner than I want to end the embrace. “Text me when you hit Atlanta. Eat a peach for me.” 

“You got it, Jenny.” He touches my face briefly. “Remember what I said about the alarm. Be safe.”

“Promise.” I hold up my hand as though I’m taking a pledge. 

“Enjoy your skinny dipping.” With a move so deft I don’t even see it coming, he reaches around and smacks my ass, making me shriek in surprise. I’m still giggling—and Nico’s still chuckling—when he shuts the front door behind him. 

I listen for the sound of his car backing out of the drive, and I watch out the front window until he disappears around the curve in the road. 

Once he’s gone, the house is eerily quiet. I don’t jump on the bed or swim naked as I’d teased Nico; instead, I indulge my hurting, neglected heart and curl up on that giant sofa for a good, long cry.

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First Chapter Friday: Fifty Frogs

When Vivian left town for a three-month residency, she had no idea that she’d come back to find her life turned upside down.

The casual boyfriend who’d seemed ready to commit? Changed his mind.

The job she’d loved so much? Gone.

The parents she’d assumed would be there for emotional support? Off on the adventure of their lives.

When she realizes that she’s essentially homeless, jobless and boyfriend-less, Vivian knows something has to change. She needs to take charge.

Inspired by her aunt’s idea that a girl has to kiss at least fifty frogs to find her prince, Vivian comes up with a plan: she’s going to go on a series of first dates only, and each one must end in a kiss. She’ll chronicle each date–the good, the bad and the downright unbelievable–and turn the stories into an in-depth magazine series about the realities of dating in the twenty-first century.

While none of the frogs she meets–and kisses–make her heart leap, there’s a guy closer to home who definitely does . . . and despite the fact that Charlie always seems to catch Vivian at her most awkward and embarrassing moments, she can’t help wondering if it’s time to ditch the plan . . . and kiss just one more frog.

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“Still five pounds overweight.”

A collective groan rose from the line of people behind me. I ignored them all, even as I felt my face going just a little bit redder. 

“Okay, then.” I unzipped the rolling suitcase, dug into it, and pulled out a handful of clothes along with a random shoe. I tried to stuff them into my carry-on backpack, but it was already too full. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to close the bag as it was. 

Still . . . with a frown, I bit my bottom lip and tucked what I’d just removed into the crook of my arm. I’d figure out what to do with it later. “Try it now, please.” 

“Lady . . .” The airline baggage check attendant sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s not five pounds’ worth of stuff you just took out.” 

Fine.” With a barely-contained snarl, I replaced the shoe in the suitcase and pulled out more clothes instead. I didn’t stop until the better part of my wardrobe was in my arms. “Please check it now.”

The attendant shrugged and lifted the suitcase back onto the scale. All of us—the employee, the people who’d been waiting not-so-patiently in the ever-growing baggage check line and me, of course—held our collective breath as the numbers blinked, finally settling at an ugly fifty-three. 

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath. 

“Look, just pay the damn fee already, okay, princess?” The man who was next in line behind me had a heavy New York accent. His meaty forearms were covered with tattoos, and he wore a Yankees cap. His baseball fandom alone was enough to make me dislike him. What he did next sealed the deal. “Here.” He reached into the back pocket of his sagging jeans and retrieved a wallet. “What’s the fee? I’ll pay it. Anything to get us moving again here.”

“I can pay my own fee, thank you very much.” I gathered as much dignity as I could, considering I was draped in a mismatched ensemble of clothes. “But I’m not going to do it. The airlines already charge us a ton of money to ride on the plane in a seat that’s barely big enough for a toddler, let alone a regular-sized adult. They let us bring on one flipping piece of luggage. Hell if I’m going to give them more money just because my bag weighs slightly more than the average suitcase. It’s the principle of the matter.”

“Your principles are going to make us all miss our flights!” This time, the complaint came from the woman standing four people back. “Just pay the damn fee.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d hoped my little speech about the injustice of airlines would have the effect of rallying everyone around my cause until the airline employee just gave in and let me check my bag as it was. But no. They were not standing with me in solidarity against the industry. Instead, they all looked almost ready to lynch me if I didn’t give in and pay up. 

The check-in attendant cocked his head, looking at me with some measure of sympathy. “It’s the shoes, you know? It’s not the clothes. Not really. And you can’t carry your shoes all loose onto the airplane. I’m sorry, miss. I think you’re going to have to pay the fee.”

“Nope.” I dumped all the clothes I’d been holding onto the floor and began unpacking the backpack, too, adding the clothes there to my pile. Once it was empty, I transferred the shoes from the main suitcase to the carry-on. When they were all out, I was able to add back some of the clothes, watching the numbers on the scale carefully each time I did. When it hit fifty, I stopped, zipping up the suitcase with a triumphant smile. 

“Okay, great.” The attendant picked up the bag and tossed it onto a conveyer belt behind him. “Now what are you going to do with all those clothes? You can’t leave them here.” 

“I have a plan.” Bending down, I scooped everything into my arms and held the bundle against me before I picked up the stuffed backpack. “Thank you so much for your help. And thanks to all of you for your patience.” I raised my voice and turned my head to cast a quelling stare at the line of people. 

“Honey, they won’t let you just carry those on, you know.” The lady who had been so helpful earlier threw a little more advice my way. 

I ignored her and marched off, praying that none of those people whom I’d just delayed were on my flight to Florida. I was beginning to sweat under the weight of all the clothes I was carrying, but I managed to get to the nearest women’s room, which, thank God, didn’t have a line but did have a small bench. It was probably there for nursing mothers, I figured, but today, it was going to be a good place for me to organize what I’d liberated from my suitcase. 

Once I’d dumped all everything onto the bench, I began to organize it into piles, thanking heaven that I hadn’t packed that many pairs of jeans. Instead, when I’d been choosing outfits to wear during my three-month writing residency on Amerails, I’d gone for leggings, anticipating that they’d be more comfortable on the long train rides. I’d been right about that . . . and now, these leggings were my new best friends. 

I was already wearing one pair under a loose trapeze dress. Choosing the tightest pairs first, slowly I tugged each one onto my legs. At first, it wasn’t too difficult, but each subsequent pair felt that much tighter, until by the last one, when I was barely able to get the elastic waistband to the top of my thighs. 

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” I muttered to myself. But there wasn’t any time to sit and mope; I still had seven shirts to pull over my head. 

By the time the bench was devoid of extra clothes, I resembled something out of an old-time freak show. Or maybe one of those sumo wrestler suits people wore on sitcoms or reality shows for extreme sports. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best look.

My legs could barely move, and I couldn’t hold my arms down to my sides. I’d tied a denim jacket around my waist—it barely reached around my new bulk—and the sleeves of a cardigan sweater were around my neck. My face was beet red and damp with sweat. Limp strands of my brown hair clung to my forehead and neck. 

“But none of that matters,” I told puffy, sweaty me in the mirror. “I might look like a lunatic, but it’s okay because I have my principles. And an extra twenty-five dollars that didn’t go to the airlines.” I snorted, shaking my head. “Yeah. I’m totally the winner here.”

Rolling my eyes at myself, I picked up my stuffed backpack and began lumbering to the gate. Of course, because this was me, the line for security reached to the border of New Jersey. With a sigh, I took my place at the end of the queue, behind a woman with two small girls holding her hands. Dropping my backpack at my feet, I smiled at the child who’d turned to stare at me.

“Mommy.” She tugged her mom’s purse, her gaze never leaving me. “Mommy, why does that lady look so weird? What’s wrong with her?” 

“Kelsey, shhhhh.” The mother, who looked cool, calm, and completely put together in her cropped cotton pants and sleeveless blouse, patted her daughter’s head and glanced over her shoulder at me. Her eyes went wide. 

“Hi.” I tried out my best wide smile. “I know, I look crazy, don’t I? I’m not, I promise. Although I guess even if I were, I might tell you that I’m not . . . but I’m not. I just had too many clothes for my suitcase, and the airline was going to charge me more, and I couldn’t fit them into my carry-on. So . . .” I gestured down my body. “I beat them at their own game. I wasn’t going to pay some stupid fee just because an airline bigwig came up with an arbitrary number for how much my suitcase should weigh.” 

The woman’s back stiffened a little. “It’s not arbitrary. The airlines study these things—and the fees are in place to help protect the baggage handlers so that they don’t get hurt lifting bags that weigh too much.” 

“Huh.” I huffed out a breath. “Because of course, the baggage handlers get the extra money we pay for heavy bags. Yeah, that’s how it works.” Sarcasm dripped from my words. “It goes to the owners and the board of directors, not to the people who do the real work.”

The other little girl turned around, looked me up and down with one raised eyebrow, and piped up to share her two cents. “My daddy works for the airline.” 

Her mother drew both girls a little closer. “Sloan, that’s enough. Stay with me, girls.” She whipped a cell phone from her pocket, her thumb flying over the screen. I hoped she wasn’t alerting her husband who worked for the airline to send security to drag me out of the airport. This day just got better and better. 

I made it through security, which was a miracle in itself. Thanks to some deity who was finally giving me a freaking break, I didn’t set off any alarms as I walked through the sensor. I shuddered to think of what a pat-down would’ve meant under these circumstances. They probably would’ve made me take off the clothes, and God only knew how I would’ve gotten them back on.

At the gate, I fell into a chair with a loud exhale, relieved to be sitting for a little while. Digging my cell phone from the outer pocket of my backpack, I scrolled through, looking for the right name. 

Vivian: Well, I’m finally at the gate. Wait’ll you hear the story I have to tell you. 

I hit send and sat, phone in my hand, watching the screen as I waited for Jeremy’s response. It didn’t come right away, and I frowned and then shook my head. It wasn’t like he was sitting around expecting to hear from me. I’d only let him know a few days ago that I was on my way home because the date had been kind of fluid for a while. His response had been vaguely positive, but that was men for you, right? 

I flipped back through our conversation until I got to the day I’d left Florida, three months ago. It didn’t take long to get there. Jeremy’s messages to me in the beginning of my residency had been longer and more involved, filled with talk about our future and plans for what we might do when I returned home. I waited for a feeling of giddy anticipation to fill me, that sense of excitement that I was returning to the arms of the man I loved. Instead, though, I only felt an anemic flare of . . . something. It wasn’t joy or pleasure . . . but it wasn’t unhappiness, either. I didn’t think it was.

That was okay because this was what grown-up commitment felt like. I’d spent three months talking myself into this. Closing my eyes and leaning back as far as the clothes would allow, I remembered the night before I’d left.

Jeremy and I had been seeing each other casually for about a year. We’d met through friends at a birthday party, and about a week later, Jeremy had called to invite me out for coffee. That had been pleasant enough, and neither of us was too weird, so for our next date, we’d moved on to dinner, and then a few days later, to a movie. 

After that, we’d just fallen into the habit of each other. Our friends had assumed we were together, and there hadn’t been any reason not to be. I’d introduced Jeremy to my parents, who lived in the same town I did, and when his mother had flown down for a visit, I’d met her, too. It had all been very calm and easy. Jeremy and I never fought about anything. We never disagreed. If I wanted to do something that didn’t interest him, I simply went by myself, and he did the same. We saw each other a few times a week and chatted occasionally on the phone to confirm plans.

My best friend Teddi, who shared my apartment, said that Jeremy and I had the most mature relationship she’d ever seen. “You never argue. I never hear either of you even raise your voices. I don’t know how you do it. Shane and I fight about everything.”

I’d smiled but stayed silent. I knew all too well how much Teddi and her boyfriend Shane argued because the walls in our place were thin, and I spent a lot of time at home. I had a front-row seat to their disagreements and to their makeup sex, which tended to be loud and tumultuous. In contrast, Jeremy and I were less . . . physical. The compatibility we had didn’t exactly lend itself to passion. In fact, when I let myself think about it, the distinct lack of intimacy made me wonder exactly why Jeremy and I were together at all. 

At first, I’d been impressed that he didn’t pressure me. We’d gone on six dates before he’d tried to hold my hand, and another four before he’d attempted a kiss goodnight. If we’d been sixteen, that would’ve been sweet and honorable. At twenty-six, it gave me pause . . . when I examined it too closely, which I tended not to do often. 

There were so many wonderful things about my boyfriend that focusing on the aspects that weren’t awesome seemed petty, especially when my single girlfriends bemoaned their dateless states. 

“You’re so lucky you have Jeremy. You never need to worry about what you’re going to do on Saturday nights or special occasions. You’ve got a built-in plus one for every wedding invitation.”

That was all true. And Jeremy did clean up well, although maybe that was the wrong figure of speech to use, because I never saw him get dirty—and I don’t only mean that in terms of sex . . . even if that was true, too. He wasn’t the type to want to go hiking or camping or, God forbid, to the beach. He wouldn’t even go running with me outside, preferring to get his exercise in an air-conditioned gym.

In light of that aversion to outside activities, I’d asked him why he’d moved down to Florida from New England. He’d looked faintly surprised and puzzled as he answered.

“Because the job down here was the best one offered to me. It had the best salary and benefits package and the most promising opportunity to advance in the company.”

“Uh-huh.” I’d nodded. “But did you ever think hey, Florida! Sunshine, beaches and year-round summer? I want to get me some of that?

Jeremy had frowned. “No. The place didn’t mean much to me. If the job had been in Montana or Oklahoma or Maine, I would’ve given it the same consideration that I did with it being in Florida.”

Being a Florida native, I couldn’t really speak to what I myself might’ve done under a similar circumstance. I’d been born here in central Florida, gone to the college where my dad was a professor, and after graduation, I had taken the one and only job I’d been offered. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Jeremy’s logical, practical approach to decisions like this revealed some kind of lacking in his sense of adventure. We were young, after all; weren’t these the years when we were meant to be impulsive and carefree?

But aside from these few concerning differences in philosophy, I didn’t have anything to complain about with Jeremy. He was steady, tolerant, and understanding, and if we had a distinct lack of the same heat I saw between other couples, well, maybe that was just because he was so mature for his age. 

When I’d been notified that I’d won one of the coveted writing residencies on Amerails, discussing it with Jeremy hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d been giddy with excitement when I’d told him that I’d been selected to spend three whole months riding trains around the US, writing blog posts about changing family travel in the twenty-first century and how the train could be part of that shift. 

Because Jeremy was nothing if not polite and supportive, he’d taken me to dinner to celebrate. Over the next two weeks, as I’d run around preparing to leave, I hadn’t seen too much of him. But we’d agreed to spend the evening before my flight together at his townhouse. It had been a lovely night, with perfect Florida spring weather. Jeremy had ordered out from my favorite Italian restaurant, poured me a glass of my favorite red wine, and just before dessert, he’d dropped a bombshell.

“Vivian, I’m so happy about this chance you’re getting, to pursue something you’ve always wanted to do. And I think it comes at the perfect time for the two of us.” 

The ravioli I’d just enjoyed suddenly felt like lead in my stomach. Holy shit, was he breaking up with me?

“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” Jeremy went on, studying his hands where they were folded on the table. “Not just over the past few weeks, but actually, for a while before. I’ve weighed pros and cons, upsides and downs, and ultimately, I came to a decision.”

I held my breath, waiting for the blow. 

“I think you should move in with me.” 

If Jeremy had told me he’d decided to sprout wings and fly around the world, I would’ve been less surprised. I stared at him, my mouth open, for the space of several heartbeats. 

“Well?” He smiled and reached across the table to touch my hand. “What do you think? It seems to me the timing couldn’t be more perfect. You told me that Teddi has been talking about living with Shane. If you move here, she could have your apartment. While you’re away, I can put everything into motion so that when you come home, we can have the movers lined up.” 

“Jeremy.” I found my voice. “Um . . . I know it will sound trite if I say this is so unexpected, but it really is. I had no idea you were even considering this.” 

He shrugged. “We’ve been seeing each other for a year, Vivian. This is the next logical step. It makes sense.” 

The nausea that had come on when he’d first begun to speak hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, now it was much worse. Jeremy sounded as though he were proposing a merger, not something romantic and exciting. 

“Right.” I nodded. “The thing is, Jeremy, I haven’t been on the same wavelength as you, I guess. This is coming out of left field. So I can’t give you an answer tonight. Would you let me take this time while I’m away to think about everything? When I get home, we can see if you feel the same way—”

“Oh, I will.” He looked faintly amused that I’d suggest otherwise. “I told you, I thought this through. My decision is made.” He patted the back of my fingers. “But you take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you come home. You’re worth the three-month wait, Vivian.” 

It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out something sarcastic, but I knew he was being earnest. This was what passed for sweet nothings in my boyfriend’s head. 

For the first three or four weeks that I was away, Jeremy texted me regularly—and I responded. We didn’t talk on the phone, because it was virtually impossible for me to have any kind of real privacy on the train, and the cell phone signal was usually iffy at best. 

I did think about what he’d said, though. At first, my gut response was to say no. His suggestion had made me realize that I’d never considered a long-term future with Jeremy. I’d been fine with things between us as they were, but I had never pictured myself marrying him or settling down for the rest of our lives. Maybe this was the perfect time to make a break that was long overdue, even if it meant I’d be single again. I realized that impending singleness was more upsetting to me than the idea of not having Jeremy in my life. That was telling. 

But as the weeks slipped by, I began to change my mind. I watched families on the train, and I thought that maybe I did want that sooner rather than later. And there was no question that Jeremy was an excellent candidate for responsibility and commitment. He’d be a very good father, not to mention a steady, reliable husband. I began to hear a voice in my head that remarked, “You could do worse.” 

Now a voice not in my head but over the loudspeaker interrupted my ruminations, announcing that the flight was beginning to board. When my section was called, I rolled onto my feet, clumsily slinging my backpack over one very padded shoulder, and joined the line. 

By the time that I got into the plane, seats were limited, and I could tell by the expressions on several faces that I was the last person they wanted sitting in their row. I guessed I couldn’t blame them; aside from how nuts I looked in my multi-layers, I was probably not smelling as fresh as the proverbial daisy. 

I finally found an empty aisle seat in the back, next to an older lady who beamed at me as I stuffed my bag into the overhead compartment and settled myself alongside her. We exchanged small-talk pleasantries until after takeoff. When the pilot announced that we were at cruising altitude, the woman turned to me with a smile. 

“You said you live in Florida. What do you do for a living?”

I perked up. “I’m a writer. A journalist, actually. I work for a local weekly journal, writing about the leisure opportunities in our community. I had a three-month residency on Amerails, traveling on the train all around the country, and I’m going home now that it’s over.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun. What an adventure to have while you’re still young and . . . unattached?” She took a sip of her complimentary ginger ale. “Do you have a special someone in your life?” She eyed my left hand meaningfully.

“Well . . .” I paused. “I think I do. Actually, I’ve been dating this guy for a year, and right before I left for this residency, he asked me to move in with him. I was shocked, because I never considered us that serious. But now I’m thinking I’d be crazy to turn him down.” 

“Oh.” She folded her hands, her face softening. “Are you just completely in love with him?” 

“Um.” I fiddled with the corner of my napkin on the tray. “He’s really a great guy. He’s got an amazing job at a bank, and he’s smart about money and all that. He’s courteous, he dresses well, and he takes care of himself. He treats me with a lot of kindness and respect.” 

“Hmmm.” She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.” 

I threw up my hands. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t be in love with a man like that? So yeah, I guess I am. I think I’m going to do it, too. My roommate’s boyfriend moved into our apartment while I was gone, and they just boxed up my stuff and stored it at my parents’ house, along with my car.” I nodded decisively. “I’m going to go to my mom and dad’s garage, put all my crap into my car, and move it to Jeremy’s townhouse. That’s the grown-up thing to do.”

“Are you sure about that?” She looked dubious, this stranger on the airplane who was dissecting my life at thirty-nine thousand feet above the earth.

“Yes. No. I think so.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a good reason to say no.”

“That might not be the best reason to say yes,” she observed. “Okay, tell me this. Is he madly in love with you?”

I hesitated again. “Ummm . . . he likes me. He finds my company enjoyable, I think.”

Judgy woman made a sound in her throat. It sounded very skeptical. “Is he anxious for you to be back with him in Florida? Has he been calling you? Texting you?”

I picked up my phone, reminded that Jeremy had never responded to my last message. “That’s just not who he is, you know? He’s not the lovey-dovey type. He’s not physically demonstrative.” 

“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips. “And how are things in the sack?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me? I don’t think that’s any of your business.” 

She lifted a shoulder. “None of this is when you get down to it, but you brought it up. Or maybe I did, but it doesn’t matter. We’re both in deep now. And let me tell you something, sweetie. If this man doesn’t blow off the top of your head when you’re in bed together now, it’s not going to get any better. Trust me. My first husband and I had amazing chemistry. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Now, we were young and stupid, and we ended up getting divorced over something trivial, but the sex never stopped being fantastic.” She sighed. “My second husband was the steady, dependable type, but he couldn’t get me off to save his life.” 

My face, which had already been flushed, thanks to the layers of clothes, went even hotter. “Ummm . . .”

“And then one day, I got smart. I left the dud, went back to husband number one, and told him that if we agreed to have sex every time we wanted to argue, we’d be fine.” She grinned and elbowed me. “That’s been forty-two years and counting.” 

“That’s, uh . . . nice.” I shifted a little. “But I’ve never met anyone like that. Before Jeremy, I never really had any steady boyfriends, just guys I dated a little, here and there. So maybe I’m not the type to get the top of my head blown off.” 

“Honey, we’re all that type. You just haven’t met the right one yet. From what you’re not saying, I assume this Jeremy doesn’t get the job done?” 

“Oh, he never leaves me unsatisfied. I mean, he hasn’t in the three times we’ve, um, done it.” I swallowed and stared straight ahead at the seat in front of me. Nothing like admitting to a seventy-something woman that she had a hotter sex life than I did. 

Three times?” Her eyes went wide. “In a year? Holy cannoli, honey. You need to call this one. Code blue. Run in the opposite direction.” 

I sighed. “But what if I never meet anyone else? What if he’s my one shot?” 

“In that unlikely event, you’d still be better off alone than with a man who you can only tolerate. Trust me, sweetie.” She craned her head back, taking me in. “And look at you. You’re pretty. I mean, under the undeniable crazy of wearing all your clothes at once, which I’ve shown remarkable restraint in not asking about, you’re probably a very nice-looking girl. Do you have a cute little shape?” 

I covered my face with my hands. “I don’t know. I guess. Maybe. I’m not fat when I don’t have eight layers on me. I could have a little more in the boob department, but I think I’ve got a decent ass.” Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes. “And why the hell am I talking to you about this?” 

“Well, why not?” She laughed. “We’re stuck together for three hours in a tin can careening over the earth. We could stick to boring small-talk, which is a waste of time and energy, or we could get to know each other a little better, and maybe part as friends. I take this flight every two or three months when I visit my sister in Winter Haven. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to know this way. We’re all friends on Facebook.” 

“That’s wonderful.” And it really was. I hoped that in fifty years, I was full of life and making new friends. “I’ve got a couple of people like that in my life. Only we didn’t meet on airplanes.”

“Doesn’t matter how it happens, but it’s always good to have a support system. A man in your life is a wonderful benefit, but a girl still needs her posse, right?” She reached over and patted my leg. I couldn’t feel it through all the leggings, but it was a nice gesture. “Now, I hope when we land, you’ll think long and hard before you make any decision about your future with this young man. Life’s too short to waste it with the wrong person, darling. Take it from me.” 

I nodded. “I’ll definitely take everything you said under consideration. But it’s not easy out there, you know? I dated in college and afterward. It was never serious, just guys I knew through friends or met in classes. But the idea of being back out there, trying to date, makes me feel slightly nauseated.” 

“That could just be all the layers you’re wearing, hon.” She snickered. “I do understand. But trust me. Someday, you’ll look back and regret it if you don’t at least take some time to consider what you could be getting yourself into. Don’t settle for less than the man you absolutely can’t live without.” She drained the plastic cup in front of her and set it on my tray before flipping her own back into position. “Now I’m going to take a little rest. My sister has tickets for us tonight to the all-male revue, and I want to make sure I’m wide awake for that.”

She leaned back then and closed her eyes. I would’ve done the same, but the seven shirts I was wearing made it tough for me to rest my head against the seat. Instead, I laced my fingers together on my lap and considered my seat neighbor’s advice. 

I’d thought I’d made up my mind. Now . . . I wasn’t sure about anything. Hearing myself talk about Jeremy reminded me why my gut reaction had been to tell him no. I tried to picture a future with him, getting married, having children, and growing old together. It made me feel claustrophobic, as though I was going to jump out of my own skin. 

But was I willing to give up a sure thing if the alternative was being alone?

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