“Stripping is work.
“I’m not a hooker and I don’t strip bare. I’ve only done it a few times. I needed that money.” She swallowed. When was the last time she’d had something to eat or drink?
She was suddenly so tired, so sick of fighting to eke out an existence. Still, she pressed on. “You wouldn’t know what it’s like to be poor, would you? You wouldn’t know how hard it is to make sure your child doesn’t suffer. You wouldn’t know—” She suddenly saw two Dr. Quinton Searles. How could that be?
Both Quintons spoke. “Beth, you don’t look so good. You’re pale and—”
“I’m fine,” Beth said. She was always fine. She couldn’t afford not to be.
And then, as if fate mocked her, the world went black.
As a parent of young children, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the emergency room. My oldest daughter once got into my purse and ate my cold medicine thinking it was candy, and my youngest daughter once fell and bit completely through her lower lip. These motherhood experiences of mine provided the backdrop for Beth Johnson and Quinton Searle’s love story.
Quinton first appeared as a minor character in my July 2002 Harlequin American Romance release, Catching the Corporate Playboy. The minute I wrote him I knew he needed his own book. I decided he’d be perfect for Beth, a woman who’s been through some pretty rough times in her life but is determined to survive. While she doesn’t need a prince in a doctor’s coat to rescue her, her life is a lot more enjoyable and fun once he does. Of course, Beth’s daughter, Carly, has a few ideas of her own about the man she wants to be her next daddy.
I hope you enjoy reading Quinton and Beth’s tale as much as I did writing it.
All the best and as always, enjoy the romance.
To Julie Picraux, romance reader extraordinaire; Eutana Howard, Susan Benedict, Alexandra Gantner and Joyce Adams Counts. I am honored that I can call all of you my friends.
And to Kenny Chesney, whose music and dedication to it are inspirations.
Books by Michele Dunaway
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
848—A LITTLE OFFICE ROMANCE
900—TAMING THE TABLOID HEIRESS
921—THE SIMPLY SCANDALOUS PRINCESS
931—CATCHING THE CORPORATE PLAYBOY
963—SWEEPING THE BRIDE AWAY
988—THE PLAYBOY’S PROTÉGÉE
1008—ABOUT LAST NIGHT…
1044—UNWRAPPING MR. WRIGHT
He wasn’t supposed to be there. It wasn’t his night; in fact, this week he wasn’t supposed to deal with any emergencies unless they occurred during normal office hours.
But because of a wedding or something like that, there’d been a shortage of pediatricians to staff the pediatric emergency floor. So when his partner Bart had asked, Quinton had agreed to take Bart’s shift. Even though it was a Friday night, Quinton had had nothing better to do.
Which, when he stopped to think about it, was pathetic. He, Dr. Quinton Searle, pediatric specialist, should have something to do. At thirty-five, he should have some woman to date, some place to be.
But the truth was that he didn’t, which is why, when the call came through, he was in the wrong place at the right time. He turned to Elaine, who at fifty-something had seen it all. He liked working with her; she was a model of efficiency, the most reliable nurse in any crisis. “What have I got?” he asked.
“Four-year-old child. Poison Control just called. The kid ate the mother’s cold medicine. Thought it was green candy.”
He frowned as he contemplated the situation. “How many?”
Elaine checked her notes. “The mother thinks it was only two tablets, but she isn’t sure. The container is empty.”
Great. Quinton hated variables. “Is she here yet?”
Elaine shook her head. “Any minute. Downstairs knows to buzz me immediately so we can bring the kid right up.”
Quinton nodded. Downstairs was slang for the main emergency room. As part of the Chicago Presbyterian Hospital’s patient care plan, a separate emergency floor had been set up especially for children. Children were triaged in the main ER, then sent to the pediatric ER. Even admittance paperwork could be done on this floor. He shoved his hand into the pocket of his white doctor’s coat. “Let me know the minute you get the buzz.”
“Will do,” Elaine replied. “I’m going to check on the patient in room twelve. The pediatric plastic surgeon should have been here twenty minutes ago.”
“Good idea,” Quinton said. When he had phoned earlier, the surgeon had assured Quinton that he’d be there in ten minutes. Already half an hour had passed.
Which was not good. The three-year-old boy waiting for the surgeon had fallen completely through the skin below his lower lip. Fifteen minutes ago the parents had given up keeping the numbing cream on the injury. That, of course, meant the cream would have worn off somewhat by the time the surgeon finally arrived.
Quinton frowned. Besides coping with variables, he hated waiting on specialists. He could have stitched up the injury himself, but probably not without leaving a worse scar than the plastic surgeon would. So, since Quinton knew the kid needed both internal and external stitches, he and the family were both waiting. Not an ideal situation at all, and now his time would be further divided when the drug overdose arrived.
He could use some caffeine. Having a few spare moments, he went to the staff lounge and filled a white foam cup with hot coffee. Someone had made a fresh pot, and the aroma wafted toward his nose as he sipped. The bitter black balm failed to soothe his soul. He contemplated the real reason he’d chosen to work this weekend.
Bart and responsibilities as a member of the hospital staff aside, work had gotten him out of a family function relating to his sister’s upcoming wedding. Not that he didn’t love his parents or his only sibling, but he didn’t necessarily want to see them, or hear the question they always asked: when was he moving home for good?
Trouble was, he didn’t want to return to St. Louis. The staff lounge window overlooked parts of Chicago, a city he’d called home since attending medical school at Northwestern University, and Quinton paused a moment to study the darkened cityscape. Chicago vibrated with life, and the city had a way of neutralizing differences. In St. Louis, life was all about where you went to high school and what country club you joined after college.
In Chicago, no one in his current social circle cared. In Chicago, he wasn’t Fred Searle’s son, groomed since birth to take over his aging father’s still-thriving medical practice. His parents had it all planned: Quinton was to marry the right girl, join the right club and have his kids attend the right schools. He’d assume his rightful place in St. Louis society.
But St. Louis society stifled; it didn’t foster growth as did Chicago’s eclectic mix. In his opinion, St. Louis had no real diversity, except for perhaps racially mixed University City, a town that Quinton’s family saw as too liberal and certainly not a fitting place for their grown son.
In Chicago, he was free from all that. Free from the mistakes he’d made, the people he’d inadvertently hurt in his crueler high school days. In his new hometown he could disappear into anonymity, or he could join what he wanted. There wasn’t one museum to visit but several. And the best part of Chicago was the magnificent Lake Michigan lakeshore, that expanse of blue water that never failed to calm him. He was a Cancer, a crab; he needed water. His apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows that gave him a view of the lake from two sides. When looking out over the lake toward Indiana, Quinton almost felt as if he could fly. Better yet, during the summer he could pull his boat out of its mooring and disappear into the endless blue.
But June was still five months away.
He tossed the empty cup into the trash can, the brew having somehow disappeared during his reverie. He didn’t remember drinking the coffee.
The lounge door shot inward, and Elaine poked her head through. “They’re downstairs,” she announced. “Jena is getting them now.”
CARLY JOHNSON wanted to cry. She hated hospitals. Hated them the way she hated lima beans.
Her daddy had died in a hospital.
“Shh.” Her mommy leaned over and held her tight while carrying her through the double doors.
Carly felt somewhat safer. She had a good mommy; that she knew. Mommy’s arms were always soft, always open. Mommy really wasn’t angry with her for getting into her purse. No, Carly thought as the bright lights assaulted her face, her mommy was more worried than anything.
Carly could always tell when her mommy worried because her blond eyebrows would pucker together and her blue eyes would darken. She’d overheard her aunt Ida saying something to her mommy about working too hard for her twenty-six years. Carly knew her mommy had to be old because she herself could only count to twenty without tripping over some numbers. Her head spun a little as she blinked back the light and tried to focus on what the nurse was saying. She wore a coat covered with teddy bears. Carly liked teddy bears.
“How many did she take?”
“I think only two, but I’m not sure.”
Carly frowned at her mommy’s answer. Her mommy didn’t sound quite right.
“Well, let’s get her right upstairs. We have a room already waiting for her. We’ll photocopy your insurance card up there.”
With that Carly felt her mommy’s arms tighten. Life hadn’t been too easy with Daddy gone. Her mommy worked long hours at Luie’s, baking all sorts of things. Carly got a lot of leftover cookies, but because money was tight, she really didn’t have lots of toys and extras. Not like Sarah, their new neighbor in the third-floor condo. Sarah had everything: toys, cookies and candy.
That was why Carly had eaten the pretty green pills when she’d found them in Mommy’s purse. She’d actually been after lipstick for a dress-up game, but it seemed so long since she’d had any candy. The last time had been Christmas; and Easter, when mommy always gave her a big chocolate bunny, was nowhere in sight.
“Mommy?” Carly asked suddenly. Being four, she could ask big girl questions.
Mommy appeared close to tears. Carly wished Mommy didn’t have to worry so much.
“Mommy? Am I going to heaven like Daddy?”
FIFTY DOLLARS. Beth Johnson knew her medical insurance’s emergency room co-pay by heart, and unfortunately, while she had the heart to pay for her daughter’s treatment, Beth didn’t have fifty dollars. Every bit of her meager resources from her twelve-dollar-an-hour job was allocated to bills, food and more bills. But for her daughter’s sake—for Carly certainly didn’t need to see how worried her mother was—Beth had to keep a reassuring smile plastered on her face. Just once, though, Beth wished someone would reassure her—tell her that everything would be okay and that in twelve days they’d have somewhere besides a homeless shelter to live.
“Here we are,” the nurse said as the elevator doors opened. “You’ll be in room three, Carly. We call it the Butterfly Room because it has pictures of butterflies painted on the walls.”
“Really?” Carly asked. She wiggled her way out of Beth’s arms.
“Really,” the nurse said. She pointed to a doorway. “Here, come see for yourself.”
Beth watched as Carly bounded into the room. Anyone looking at her daughter wouldn’t think she’d done anything wrong. In fact, Beth hadn’t thought so, either, until she’d seen the thin, telltale green circle around Carly’s mouth. Carly had denied everything, but a quick check of her tongue had confirmed Beth’s worst fears—that Carly had eaten the green cold medicine. The push-through plastic had been empty, and for the life of her, Beth couldn’t remember how many pills had been left.
At least the pediatric ER rooms weren’t like those downstairs. Beth had seen enough of those cold, sterile rooms to last her a lifetime. Here, at least, the rooms had colorful murals on the walls. Carly was currently counting green butterflies and the nurse had put a Disney princess movie in before she’d left.
“Hello, Carly, I’m Nurse Elaine.” A new nurse stepped into the room. Unlike her younger counterpart’s, Elaine’s scrubs were bright pink. “Let me take a look at you. Can you put this thermometer under your tongue for me?” Elaine held out a wand attached to a spiral cord, which was then connected to a rectangular device the nurse held in her other hand. Carly opened her mouth. “See, I knew you could.You are such a big girl.”
The thermometer beeped and Elaine withdrew it. “No fever. That’s a great sign.”
Relief filled Beth.
“Now, Carly, your doctor is named Dr. Searle. It’s like girl only with an S.”
“Searle,” Carly said dutifully.
“Very good,” Elaine said. “He’s going to be right in. You enjoy your movie. I like this one.”
“Me, too,” Carly said. She began to clap and sing as the characters performed a musical number.
Elaine stepped toward Beth. “Have you recalled how many she took?”
Beth shook her head. “No.”
“Well, Dr. Searle will be in shortly. We have an injury requiring stitching and he’s consulting with the plastic surgeon. If your daughter’s condition changes in any way, push this call button.”
“Okay.” Beth focused her attention first on the call button and, after Elaine left, to the movie. Not even two minutes went by before she noticed a movement outside the doorway.
And when Carly’s doctor stepped in, Beth decided that it really was one of the worst days of her life.
Dr. Quinton Searle—for that was what was stitched on his white coat—was gazing right through her, his concentration on her child.
“Hi, Carly,” Dr. Searle said. “Hi, Carly’s mom.”
“Hi, Dr. Searle!” Carly said.
“Did you read my name?” He pointed to the blue stitching above his heart.
“No! Elaine taught it to me.”
“You’re smart and honest,” he said. He went over to her. “I like smart and honest. You’re pretty, too.”
Carly giggled and her cheeks reddened. Even she wasn’t immune to Dr. Searle’s charm.
“So you ate some green medicine.”
“It was a bad thing to do,” Carly said with a solemn nod.
“Very bad,” Dr. Searle agreed.
Carly blinked once at his serious tone. “Am I going to die?”
His hand stilled from taking a tongue depressor out of a clear plastic dispenser and he frowned slightly. “No. Of course not. Why would you think that?”
“Because my daddy died in a hospital. He had cancer.”
He shook his head. “Of course not. You won’t die. You swallowed some medicine that you shouldn’t have, but your mommy brought you in here and I’m going to make you as good as new. To do that, though, I have to do some tests. Can you stick out your tongue for me?”
Beth remained standing as the doctor performed a series of tests. Carly’s response to him pained her. She’d known that her four-year-old daughter missed her father, but she hadn’t realized until now how much Carly missed simple male attention.
Beth missed it, too, but she was all grown up and understood that the world wasn’t fair.
“Well, Carly, I think I have a solution to your problem. I’ll definitely be able to fix you all up,” said Quinton.
Carly gave him a hopeful smile. “Really?”
“Really,” Dr. Quinton Searle said returning Carly’s grin.
Then his expression grew serious. “But it won’t be pleasant. In fact, you’ll need to drink something that tastes pretty bad.”
“I can do it!” Carly’s blond pigtail bobbed as she nodded.
“I bet you will. I’ll have Elaine get the special drink. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” Carly watched as he left. Her blue eyes remained wide as she turned to her mother. “He’s as handsome as Prince Eric, don’t you think, Mommy? They have the same dark hair.”
“I think Princess Ariel is a very lucky lady,” Beth said, sidestepping the question. She didn’t have to look too long at Dr. Quinton Searle to see he fit “tall, dark and handsome” to a tee. She estimated his height at six foot three, and under the white coat she could tell he had broad shoulders that tapered to a slim waist. Even Randy at his peak hadn’t been so physically fit.
“Princess Ariel is lucky,” Carly agreed.
Beth reached out and brushed her daughter’s bangs away from her forehead. “You’re lucky, too, if all you have to do is drink some special liquid.”
Carly nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I love you,” Beth said.
“Me, too! Oh, look, here’s where Prince Eric saves Ariel from the Sea Witch!”
Beth smiled slightly, glad that Carly’s attention was diverted. Too bad there weren’t real princes who came in to save princesses. Not that Beth thought of herself as a princess. Princesses didn’t have dull dishwater-blond hair, tired blue eyes, and five extra pounds on their hips. And her prince had died before fully saving her, if he had ever been going to save her at all.
She had to get over her melancholy. She couldn’t fault Randy for her daily struggle; she could only fault herself. She’d been the one to insist they get married when she discovered she was pregnant. Would their marriage have survived had he lived? She didn’t know, and worrying about it now was pointless.
“Here’s your special drink.” Elaine was back with a big white foam cup. A colorful straw extended past the plastic lid.
Carly clapped her hands. “The straw bends!” Carly said. “We never get bendy straws at our house.”
“Well, this one does, and you may bend it,” Elaine said.
“Is my drink chocolate?”
“No, but it is dark,” Elaine answered. “And I’m going to stay here while you drink all of it.” She handed Carly the cup. “Carly, Dr. Searle needs to see your mommy for a moment. She’s going to meet him in a room down the hall.”
“Okay,” Carly said. She took a drink and grimaced.
Beth realized that her daughter was putting on a brave front when Carly said, “This isn’t too bad.”
“Well, there’s a lot of it to drink,” Elaine said.
“I can do it!” Carly said. She took another pull on the straw.
Elaine turned her attention back to Beth. “The small lounge, three doors down on the left.”
“Thank you. Carly, I’ll be right back.”
Carly, her mouth full of drink, just nodded.
When Beth arrived at the small lounge, Dr. Searle wasn’t present. She studied the beige, nondescript room. Here the touches done for children vanished; in their place was the austere environment so characteristic of hospitals.
She faced him. “Yes.”
As the doctor stepped into the room, Beth’s hand automatically touched her hair. Not that she should worry about how she appeared. But suddenly she knew exactly how pathetic she must appear—how horribly inadequate as a mother, how totally unfeminine. Over a year had passed since she’d had a professional haircut, and her long hair was held back from her face with a plain black headband. She hated disarray, which was literally her life of late.
And this man was a physician, with years of college, whereas she’d had none. Worse, he was one of those attractive, self-assured men who exuded presence. She braced herself. Even though she probably had nothing to fear, her gut tightened anyway.
“I wanted to speak with you about Carly’s treatment where she couldn’t overhear us.”
“Can I get you some coffee or something? Water?”
He poured himself a cup, and for a moment Beth was tempted. But coffee was a luxury, and it was better to avoid what she couldn’t have again. “Water, please,” she said.
He set down his cup and poured her some water. He held the cup out for her, and their fingers connected as he transferred it to her hand. A gorgeous-man’s touch. Beth shivered slightly. His eyes narrowed and she could now see how gray they were.
“Cold?” he asked.
“Just worried,” Beth said.
“Don’t be. Carly is currently drinking what amounts, in layman’s terms, to liquid charcoal. The charcoal will act as a sponge and absorb the medicine. From there it will travel quickly through her system and be expelled as fecal matter.”
She must have frowned, for he said, “It’ll hit her hard and she’ll have several loose bowel movements. After she’s had the first, we’ll release her. Unless you notice any behavior—such as sluggishness or hyperactivity—that is out of the ordinary, we won’t need to see her again. However, you should consult with her pediatrician tomorrow morning, as well, just in case he wants you to follow up with a visit.”
“That’s it.” He turned to leave.
An odd panic consumed Beth. Maybe his impersonal demeanor had gotten to her, or maybe it was just her overwhelming guilt—that she should have put her purse out of reach, that somehow she should have been more careful, more vigilant. She had to make him understand.
“I didn’t leave my purse out. I didn’t even know she had it, or that she was into it.”
He gave her an accepting smile, as if he heard such excuses all the time. If Beth wanted sympathy, she didn’t get it. Empathy came, instead.
“She’s a child. Children do things like this. She’ll probably be stronger for it after learning from her mistake. You can remind her of it when she’s a teenager.”
Beth followed him from the room. He quickly outdistanced her and she soon learned why. From down the hall she could hear Carly complaining, “I don’t want to drink any more. It’s yucky. I’m full.”
The doctor stepped inside her daughter’s room. “I hear you’re full.”
His voice rumbled over Beth and she heard the easy manner with which he handled Carly.
“Uh-huh. I’m full,” Carly repeated.
As Beth reached the doorway, Quinton took the cup from Elaine’s hand. He lifted the lid and checked the amount. He shook his head. “Carly, Carly. And you told me you’d drink it all.”
His voice was teasing, and pain filled Beth. With his sickness, Randy had been unable to reach Carly on her level. Yet Dr. Searle succeeded with masterful ease. Why couldn’t Beth have found a man like that?
“It’s yucky,” Carly said. “My belly hurts.”
He peered into the cup again. “How about a deal? You drink half of what’s left and I’ll throw the rest away.”
“Half?” Carly’s face had the hopefulness and skepticism of a child debating whether to eat liver.
“Half.” Dr. Searle took a pen from his pocket and drew a black line around the outside of the cup. “Right here. A few good sips should do it. In fact, I’ll wait. Do you think you can give me three good sips?”
Carly had brightened. “Yes.” She reached for the cup, and he held it as she sucked on the straw.
“One.” He counted. Carly stopped for a break. Quinton shook the cup. “Two more.”
Carly took another deep drag on the straw, and Beth’s heart wrenched as her daughter’s face scrunched up.
“That was great,” he said. “One more, Carly. You can do it.”
Carly must have caught some of his enthusiasm, for she said, “I can do it,” and went back for one more long pull on the straw. She made a face as she swallowed.
He didn’t even check the container, he simply handed it to Elaine, who removed it from the room. “All done! Way to go.”
“Yay!” Carly clapped her hands. But then she dropped them to her sides and winced. “My tummy hurts.”
“It’s going to hurt,” Dr. Searle said. “The special drink is taking all the green medicine out of your body. Pretty soon you’re going to have to poop.”
“Oh.” Carly stared at him as if she’d never heard the word poop before.
Beth suppressed a smile. In Carly’s world, doctors didn’t use that word. Dr. Searle had said it with a straight face.
“And then the bad medicine will go right down the toilet and you can go home,” he added.
“Hooray!” Carly said, then her face looked pained again. “My tummy hurts.”
“It’s going to hurt as the medicine works. Then you’ll be all better. Listen—I have to check on my other patients. You watch your movie and tell your mommy when you have to go to the bathroom.”
He looked at Beth for a moment and she felt herself flush under his brief appraisal.
“Press the call button when she needs the bathroom.”
“Okay,” Beth said.
His white coat snapped as he left the room.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Carly said.
Since the retaining rails were not raised, Beth sat down on the bed next to her daughter. She gathered Carly into her arms. “It’s okay,” she told her simply. “I love you, and I forgive you. I’m just happy you’re going to be okay.”
“I’ll never leave you. Not like Daddy,” Carly said. She looked close to tears. “It hurts, Mommy.”
“I know.” Beth wished she could speed up the process. She stroked Carly’s hair. “You’ll never take medicine again without asking, will you?”
“No,” Carly said. Under Beth’s soothing ministrations, her daughter shook her head.
“I love you.” Beth said as she drew Carly even closer. “I never want to lose you.”
“You won’t. I promise,” Carly told her.
Beth leaned her daughter onto her back and kissed her forehead. “Good.”
QUINTON STARED at the touching scene through the glass wall of Carly’s room. Since no one had bothered to draw the privacy curtain, he had a perfect view.
“Carly freely admitted taking the medicine,” Elaine said.
Quinton nodded. Whereas Beth Johnson was guilty of being irresponsible with her purse, she wasn’t guilty of any type of child abuse. During his residency, he’d seen it all, including the mother who’d deliberately overmedicated her child, causing massive ulcers in her daughter’s stomach lining that had eventually started to bleed. The child hadn’t even been two.
No, Beth Johnson had made a mistake, and she was a far cry from a Division of Family Services case. He could sum up a person’s character in a heartbeat, and he knew without a doubt that she was devoted to her child. She’d confirmed it in the conference room with her passionate plea for his understanding. He frowned, remembering. He hadn’t liked his reaction to her.
He stared at the ink pen he held, which was emblazoned with some drug manufacturer’s logo. Maybe tonight he was simply caving in from all the family pressure he was under. Perhaps he was still a tad burnt out from the holidays. He watched as Beth helped her daughter sit up. Beth Johnson was a natural nurturer. It was as if she’d never lost that proverbial glow from pregnancy that he saw on women’s faces when they interviewed for their unborn child’s future pediatrician. But Beth Johnson was somehow different, somehow more. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Suddenly, the call button flashed and Elaine was on a run. Within moments, all three women had rushed to the bathroom.
Quinton sighed. That meant one thing: soon he’d be signing Carly’s release papers and she and her hauntingly attractive mother would disappear into the night. They would fade into the faceless masses he treated when in the pediatric ER.
He turned and went to check on a new patient.
“Come on, Quinton. Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy. At least stay for the stripper.”
Quinton lowered the half-empty bottle of beer. He really wanted to go home. Bachelor parties weren’t exactly his thing, and worse, they reminded him, that, unlike most of the men in the room, he wasn’t married. Not that Quinton was in a hurry to settle down and get married. That was what his family wanted him to do. But Quinton wanted the whole fantasy of love ever after, and was prepared to spend his life alone if he didn’t find it. A man didn’t marry because he was afraid of being alone. A man married because he’d found his perfect mate for life.
Unlike Bill, age forty-five. His bachelor party was for his second marriage. The first Mrs. Webber now enjoyed a house and a new BMW courtesy of her wealthy ex. The bride-to-be was twenty years younger than Bill. No, that type of relationship wasn’t for Quinton.
He wanted a woman who loved him for him. He wanted the whole heart and soul, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, death-do-us-part thing. He wanted the fairy tale. Hell, he wanted what, in reality, probably didn’t exist.
Quinton twisted the bottle in his hand. Maybe he shouldn’t have been a doctor, especially one with ER duty. Doctors experienced too much negative reality. Jaded, Quinton knew the fairy tale was fake.
Unlike Carly Johnson. At four years of age, she had confused him for a prince. He was no prince. Quinton shook his head. Eight days had passed since Carly left the ER, and her small face still haunted him. She’d been pale but undeniably brave after her body had begun to purge itself of the liquid charcoal.
She’d even hugged him as she left, her small arms finding and tugging at the heartstrings he kept safely hidden. At that moment he’d looked into Beth Johnson’s blue eyes and seen tears. Not tears of happiness, but of something else he hadn’t been able to catch before she’d lowered her lashes and hidden the emotions. Images of Beth had haunted him, too, and that had never happened before. They remained as fresh as on the day they met—
“She’s here,” Larry said, interrupting Quinton’s thoughts. “At least stay for this. Bill won’t understand if you walk out early.”
“Fine.” Quinton tossed the empty bottle into a trash can. He could use the time to sober up a bit. Although he’d only had two beers, he rarely imbibed any alcohol, and he could definitely feel its effects. Besides, even though he disliked strip shows, maybe the tawdriness of it would help dispel his memories of the Johnsons. Quinton followed Larry into the family room and both men took a seat on the sofa.
“Everyone here?” Mike, one of the senior doctors in the practice, glanced around the room. “Great. Well, Bill, this little show’s just for you, to give you a hint what you’re giving up by being dumb enough to tie the knot again!”
Hooting and hollering followed as a woman entered the room. The large-brimmed hat she wore shadowed her face, and a tan trench coat covered her body. She set a boom box down, pressed a button and the music began. Catcalls resounded as she rotated her hips sensually. At the same time, she began to peel off her gloves, then tossed one of them over the head of the guy nearest to her. He responded with a loud whistle.
Quinton reached forward and, from the dish on the coffee table, grabbed a handful of peanuts. He should have left. He just hated these displays, they always embarrassed him. His highly moralistic mother had ingrained in him a sense of gentlemanly dignity and appreciation of a lady. Thus, he’d never been able to understand how a woman could sell her body to make money.
Deciding to take a clinical approach to the stripper, Quinton leaned back against the sofa and studied her as he had those pornographic films years ago during a six-hour-straight pornographic films desensitization exercise in med school.
Her hat still hid part of her face, but the trench coat had been loosened to reveal her black lace outfit underneath. She did a maneuver in which she dropped to sit without a chair, and Bill grinned widely. The beer Quinton had had suddenly tasted old and pasty in his mouth. She stood up, flashed the crowd by opening and closing her trench coat, then simply opened the coat and let slip off her shoulders.
The words to the song were something about leaving the hat on but she tilted it up and away from her face. Once she turned around Quinton would be able to see her. But she arched her back and pivoted.
The trench coat fell to her feet and all the men except for Quinton hollered. Instead, he swallowed. Despite his clinical aloofness, the body underneath the black lace outfit appealed to him. The woman didn’t have a perfect body, but her warm full curves made his fingers itch to touch them. She unhooked a garter belt and Quinton felt himself strain against his jeans. She straightened, and with a flick of her wrist, she finally sent the hat flying. Dark blond hair tumbled from beneath the hat and spread over her shoulders. Then she turned.
And Quinton froze.
Those lips. That nose. Those blue eyes. They’d stayed with him for the past two weeks.
He was on his feet in a second, next to her in maybe one more. She began to loosen a strap. “Stop,” he said. He placed a hand on her arm.
For her to register that he wasn’t just some drunk frisking a feel took a moment. Beth swatted Quinton’s hand away. “What are you doing?” She kept her voice low, so only he could hear.
“I’m getting you out of here.” He couldn’t believe the force behind his words. To hell with the boos from his friends and acquaintances. They were married or about to be. They didn’t need a peep show, especially of her. Hell, most of them wouldn’t remember her face five minutes after she left.
What kind of a mother was she, anyway? He could still picture Carly’s innocent eyes.
“Cut it out, Quinton. Whatcha doing?” someone called.
He really didn’t know, nor did he answer, but like a possessed man, he circled Beth’s wrist with his fingers and dragged her toward the kitchen.
“Let go of me,” Beth said as she wrenched herself away. “I don’t appreciate what you think you’re doing. I have to finish my job—”
At that moment she recognized him. “Oh.”
“‘Oh’ is right. Your job’s finished.”
“Quinton?” Larry poked his head around the cabinets. “Is everything okay?”
“Move on to the porno flicks or something. She won’t be finishing. And bring me her stuff, will ya?”
“What do I tell Bill?”
“Make something up.”
“You can’t do this,” Beth said.
“I just did,” Quinton said, as Larry returned with Beth’s things. “You had me so fooled.” He shook his head savagely as he tossed her trench coat at her. “Let’s go.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me…”
She must have seen the look in his eyes, for she headed toward the door. After telling Larry to make his excuses, that he’d explain later, he was right on her heels.
“Where’s your car?” he demanded as they exited the building, his gaze roving the street.
“I took the L,” she said.
“Then get in mine,” he said. One hand still on her arm, with his free hand he fumbled for the remote and unlocked his Mercedes. When he reached for the door handle, she pulled away.
“Stop this. I’m not going anywhere with you. You’ve screwed everything up! Don’t you get it? I had a job to do and—”
“Job’s over. I’m taking you home. You won’t go back inside.” He glared at her, and she glared right back.
She must have believed him, though, for she said, “I can get home by myself. I don’t even remember your name.”
“I’m Quinton Searle. You can call me Quinton.” His jaw set in a stubborn line. “And I’m taking you home.”
Her chin came up as she held her ground. “I can take care of myself. You are not my keeper. I got here, didn’t I?”
More possessiveness swept over him, even surprising him. “That’s irrelevant. I’ll drive you. In that getup at this time of the night you won’t even make it to the L station without being accosted.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Her ice-blue eyes blazed, and Quinton felt something inside him stir.
Damn, but she did things to him. Exactly what he wasn’t certain, but he’d never yanked a woman out of a party before, much less a stripper. “I’m not attacking you. I’m saving you.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, but to his relief she complied and got in the car.
His respite from her verbal attack lasted mere seconds.
“You do realize that you just cost me five hundred dollars.”
Quinton gripped the leather steering wheel tighter. Was that all her display was worth? His boat slip at Belmont Harbor cost more. Her chest heaved and the coat parted slightly. Quinton forced himself to keep his eyes on the road.
“You shouldn’t be stripping. You have a child. You have a moral example to set.”
“Oh thank you for that lecture, Mr. Moral Majority. How dare you accuse me of being a bad parent!”
He hadn’t thought so in the ER. There, her love and tenderness for her child had impressed him. Seeing this side to her tarnished that earlier image and he lashed out.
“In two weeks I’ve observed two examples of your unfit parenting! Your little girl gets into your purse and eats medicine, and then I find you at a bachelor party shucking your clothes. That’s pretty cut-and-dried to me, lady.”
“You’re a jerk and I’d never be your lady! Hell, I wouldn’t even want to be your sister.”
“That’s good. My sister’s a lawyer and getting married to a banker in four weeks. I doubt Shelby’s ever taken off her clothes before multiple men in her life.”
“‘Ye who are sinless toss the first stone,’” Beth said.
“I will,” Quinton replied, then snapped, “Where do you live?”
She rattled off an address. His eyebrows rose and he glanced at her. “You must do well. Pretty high-end, isn’t it?”
Bitterness etched her features. “So high-end they’re converting to condos and tossing out all the trash like me. And thanks to your interference tonight, I won’t have the money to afford a security deposit for something else.”
“Maybe you should get a real job.”
“Maybe you should mind your own business.”
He should. He shouldn’t care, but the objectivity he had cultivated his whole life had fled. “I did once already. I could have hotlined your daughter’s drug ingestion. Gotten Social Services on your tail. Hell, if I’d known you stripped for a living I would have.”
“I don’t strip for a living. I have a job!”
“You have a real job?” Even he heard how sharp he sounded, but he couldn’t contain himself. “So tell me about your real job. Convince me why I shouldn’t call Social Services anyway.”
“You double-standard…uh! You think you’re so high and mighty being a doctor and all, and there you were at a bachelor party! How many drinks did you have? Maybe I should flag down a cop. Have you tested for DWI.”
“You do that.” The effects of alcohol had fled and Quinton knew he was well below the legal limit. He never even would have considered driving otherwise. To his satisfaction, she settled against the leather seat with a thump. “Didn’t think so.”
“I realized it would mean more time in your undesired presence.” Her voice, although lowered in volume, still had an edge to it.
Despite himself, he grinned. “Touché.”
He parked the car by the curb outside her apartment building, right next to a sign announcing that the building was ninety-percent sold. She hadn’t been lying about it being converted to condos, pricey ones at that.
“I’ll walk you up so that no one sees you. Your neighbors don’t know of your occupation, do they?”
Beth’s blue eyes flashed as she held her temper in check. “For the last time, I am not a stripper. This was a one-time job that a friend arranged. I would have received five hundred plus any tips or bonuses.” Defeat filled her voice. “You’ve messed everything up.”
She stormed ahead of him, and he noted that the outer door wasn’t locked. Not a very secure building. He followed her up to the second floor, and when she began to open her apartment door, the neighboring one opened. An elderly lady stuck her head out.
“Hi, Beth. You’re home early.”
“Yes,” Beth said. She kept her back to Quinton as she spoke to the woman.
“Well, Carly’s fast asleep. Why don’t you just leave her until morning? Oh. That annoying Mr. Anderson came by tonight and dropped an official-looking letter under your door.”
“Great.” Beth threw her hands up into the air. “I asked him for more time, at least until the end of the month. Obviously not.”
The neighbor looked sympathetic. “I told you that I’d store your stuff for you and that you can stay with me for a while. I told you I’d help you out any way I can.”
“No. That’s really sweet of you, but I can’t. Really.”
“How about we talk about this tomorrow, when I get Carly?” Beth glanced at Quinton, and the elderly lady’s eyes radiated understanding.
“Okay, dear.” The woman closed her door.
As Beth opened her front door, Quinton glimpsed an envelope on the floor. As she stooped to grab it, impulse made him lean forward and snatch it first.
“Give me that!”
He held it up out of her reach. “I will when you tell me what’s in it. The papers your neighbor mentioned?”
“Of course you would be the type to listen to other people’s conversations. Yes, as a matter of fact, they’re my eviction papers. Now, you’ve done more than enough tonight. Hand me that and go away. Please.”
She held out her hand and Quinton reluctantly placed the envelope in her outstretched fingers. She pressed it to her chest as if afraid he might change his mind.
“How long do you have?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she snapped.
She shifted her weight to the other foot. “By noon Tuesday.”
Could a landlord do that? “That’s only three more days.”
“Impressive. You can do math and yes, this is my final notice. He’s been extending when I have to leave. I guess he just got tired of helping me this time.” Beth tapped her foot impatiently. “Now that your curiosity is satisfied, just go.”
As she stepped inside the apartment, Quinton had a raw need to make everything better somehow. He shook his head vigorously. She was not his charity case. She’d been stripping at a bachelor party, for goodness’ sake!
“Good night,” she said.
And with that, she shut the door firmly in his face.
Quinton stared at the closed door. Was she peering through the peephole to see if he was still there? He turned and walked away. Once, as his foot hit the step before the lower landing, he paused and thought about going back up. But what he would say or do when he banged on her door? Apologize? For what? Interfering? No, the best thing for him to do was to walk out of Beth’s life and regain his detached professionalism and leave her an aberration of his past.
“ARE YOU SURE you don’t have anything?” Beth demanded.
The woman behind the desk smiled sympathetically. “Not for a mother and a small child. Try the Adams Center down the street. Being the start of winter, we’re full, but I’ve placed you on the waiting list. You’re number three.”
Beth stood and began the five-block walk back toward Luie’s Deli. Number three on the waiting list wasn’t good enough; she needed to be number one. And she’d already tried other shelters, but because Chicago had just had its first real cold snap, everything was full. Some new year she was having. Tomorrow Mr. Anderson would change the locks and anything left in the apartment would be tossed out with the garbage.
One month’s rent was enough to avoid going to the shelter, and she had that saved. But without the security deposit, she’d had to pass on the apartment she’d found. Damn that interfering Dr. Quinton Searle!
“Hey, Beth.” Nancy, Beth’s boss, glanced up as Beth returned to the deli. “Laney just called. She’s caught in construction traffic around Midway and can’t make it back in time. I need you to deliver this for me.”
“Sure.” Beth didn’t even shed her trench coat. She simply picked up the box of food. The aroma of the garlic bread drifted up to her nostrils. Although she’d just been on her lunch break, she hadn’t eaten. “Where to?”
“The doctors’ medical building. Right by the hospital. Lunch for the office staff or something. The address and suite number are on the order. Take the car. When you get back you can start on the pies.”
“Okay.” Beth accepted the keys Nancy handed her. The pies that Beth was to bake for tomorrow’s event could wait an hour. Serving hot food was much more important.
She found the medical building easily; it was across from the hospital where she’d had the misfortune of meeting the seemingly illustrious Dr. Quinton Searle. Any pediatrician could have prescribed liquid charcoal, why had fate insisted she meet him?
Beth double-parked the car, left the flashers on and entered the building. Chicago Pediatrics had its offices on the seventh floor, and the box seemed to grow in weight as the elevator kept stopping to load and unload passengers at every floor. Finally, she stepped out of the elevator to find a solid mahogany door surrounded by beveled glass windows on each side marking the entrance to suite 712. She pushed open the door and walked up to the reception window. When she tapped, the glass slid back.
“Delivery from Luie’s Deli.”
The immaculate young brunette behind the desk brightened. “Great. Bring it in, will you?”
The large box containing many bags of food was now a lead weight.
The brunette pointed. “At the end of the hall and to the right you’ll find the staff kitchen. The food is paid for, isn’t it?”
Beth juggled the box so that she could check the ticket. “Yes.”
“Great. Then just set it on the counter. There’s an exit door to the left of the kitchen. You can go out that way.”
“Thanks.” On her trek down the long corridor she passed a few open rooms and noted others remained closed, the charts in plastic boxes and the colored metal flaps above the doors indicating patient status. The door to the last office she was about to pass was partially open.
“Libby will be right in to administer the shot. Be sure to call if there’s any reaction. I’ll see you for the six-month checkup.”
Beth froze. No. It couldn’t be. But walking out of the patient room was none other than Dr. Quinton Searle.
For a moment Beth looked furtively around, wishing that she could just dart into a patient room and hide for a few minutes. A nurse appeared and Quinton turned away from Beth before he saw her. Beth shifted her heavy box, mumbled an “Excuse me” and passed behind Quinton’s backside.
Within seconds she’d located the kitchen and deposited the box. She took a moment to stretch her tired arms.
With a deep breath she made for the hallway, but suddenly a large white object filled the doorway.
“I THOUGHT THAT was your voice.” Quinton stared at Beth. He felt his brow furrow. Had she become thinner since he’d last seen her? “What are you doing here?” Mentally he kicked himself. That had sounded dumb, which her answer “—Delivering food—” confirmed. She drew her chin up defiantly. He ignored it. “Your real job is delivering food?”
“Gee, I come in here with a box of food. What would you think? No strip show opportunities here. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get back. The car’s double-parked.”
“Is the food paid for?” He was reaching under his coat for his wallet.
She tried to inch by him and stopped. “It’s paid for. I have to go.”
“Don’t we need to tip you?”
“Not unless you’re giving me the five hundred dollars you cost me Saturday night.” Beth marched forward, this time more determined to get through. “Now, I must leave. As I’ll already be homeless tomorrow because of your meddling, the last thing I need to do is lose my job on top of everything else. Besides delivering food I bake pies and cakes, and I’m way behind schedule. So please…” She gestured toward the door.
Quinton stepped aside and let her pass. A moment later she was gone, once again having walked out of his life.
The office manager approached. “Who was that?”
“Your food’s here.”
His office manager cocked her head. “Oh. She’s not the usual delivery girl.”
So Beth didn’t deliver food? Maybe she did bake. And had she said she’d be homeless tomorrow? A gnawing began in Quinton’s stomach as he remembered the eviction papers.
“Tell me, where did you order from?”
“Luie’s Deli. Canal Street.”
“Great,” Quinton said. He started for the exit. He had a break between patients and if he hurried he could catch her and—
“Yes?” He turned back around. A receptionist stood there.
“Your mother’s on line three. Says it’s urgent.”
“Thank you,” Quinton said. His errand would have to be delayed. Mrs. Quinton Frederick Searle III—or Babs, to her friends—always indicated urgency whenever she called. Being a doctor’s wife herself, she was a pro at working the system.
Quinton knew that the only urgency his mother had was to see him wed.
In his office he picked up the phone. “Mom,” he said by way of greeting.
“Quinton! I was worried you were too busy.”
“I’m on my lunch break.”
“I’m not keeping you from eating, am I?”
Not unless she got long-winded. “No, I have a few minutes.”
The requisite sigh. “Oh, good. You do remember Shelby and I will be there this weekend, don’t you?”
“Super. We have some shopping to do. Unfortunately, Susannah won’t be able to make it. You have asked her to wedding, haven’t you?”
Susannah Joelle Phelps was his family’s handpicked wife candidate for him. Twelve years younger than he was, Susie was twenty-three and in the throes of seeing all her best friends marrying. “No, I haven’t.”
“Quinton, please tell me you’re not being rude to Susie. She’s been waiting for you forever, and you’re getting old son, old.”
“I’m thirty-five, Mother, not dead. And don’t worry, I’ve sent my tux measurements already.”
“You better have. The wedding is Valentine’s Day weekend. Don’t even tell me that you didn’t schedule off the week between your father’s and my anniversary and your sister’s wedding.”
Quinton kept silent.
“You must be here, Quinton. There are family activities all week and you know your father really wants to talk to you. It’s past time to return home. He’s waited long enough, and, well, I’ve waited long enough. Once your sister is married the next thing on my agenda is organizing your wedding. I just want you happy. Susie and St. Louis would make a good combination.”
“I’m happy here, Mother. And no, with Bill on his honeymoon I can’t get away that week. I’ve already got people covering for me two weekends in a row.”
“Stop hiding away from your family responsibilities. You have obligations. You are a Searle. Have I not raised you right?”
Uh-oh. Here came the lecture. “Mom, my nurse just told me I have ten calls to return. We’ll talk soon.”
“You need to be in the week before the wedding.”
“I doubt that will happen.”
“We’ll talk this weekend. With my heart condition you know I can’t take this kind of stress.” Babs Searle definitely knew how to work the system. She’d always been over the top, a one-woman steamroller. But his father had asked Quinton to go easy on Babs because of her heart condition. And Quinton, although he had no desire to take over his father’s practice, did love and respect his father.
Thus, the words were out of his mouth before he could even think to stop them. “By the way, I’m bringing a date to the wedding.”
“What?” Silence fell as both Quinton and his mother contemplated what he’d just said. “Did I hear you correctly?” his mother finally asked.
Well, in for a penny…” Yes,” Quinton said. “A date. But don’t get your hopes up.”
“So you aren’t serious?”
“Mom, I’m never going to be serious about Susie, either. Stop stringing the poor girl along. Just because all her friends are getting married doesn’t mean she’ll be an old maid. You and her mother can matchmake somewhere else.”
“Humph.” His mother exhaled. “I’m not sure I—”
“Got to go, Mom,” and with that Quinton hung up before she could get in another word.
He looked up to see Larry standing in the doorway.
“You have a date for your sister’s wedding?”
“No,” Quinton admitted. “But I have to do something or she’ll book the chapel and have the bride waiting the minute Shelby’s on her honeymoon.”
Larry grinned. “I still think I have my old black book somewhere if you want.”
“No, thanks,” Quinton said. An idea started forming in his head. He’d cost Beth Johnson five hundred dollars. Well, he had a way for her to earn it back and not have to shuck her clothes in the process. As she was the most inappropriate woman for his parents’ social circle he’d ever met, she’d be perfect for the job. He gave Larry a grin. “Believe me, I’ve got someone in mind who will get my mother off my back and not hassle me for a commitment afterward.”
“Those are the best kind,” Larry said.
WHEN QUINTON REACHED Luie’s that evening at six, the woman behind the counter told him that Beth had gone for the day. Quinton purchased a slice of chocolate cream pie anyway, and ate it before returning to his car. The pie had been sinful, and Quinton resolved to do sixty push-ups, ten more than usual, when he got home that night.
The drive from Luie’s to Beth’s building took approximately twenty minutes in traffic—walking the short distance would have been quicker. Again, someone had left the door unlocked, saving him from having to be buzzed in. He took the steps two at a time to her floor.
Nervousness suddenly filled him as he inhaled a deep breath and knocked.
“It’s open, Ida,” he heard Beth call.
Quinton turned the knob and entered.
The sparseness of the place instantly appalled him. She really was moving; she hadn’t been lying or exaggerating when she’d said she was being evicted. Boxes of stuff lined the walls, and faded rectangles of paint showed where pictures had once hung.
The apartment was tiny, probably one of the smaller units in the building. However the main room faced east, giving him a view of the Loop off in the distance.
“Ida, I’ve got most of everything—” Beth wiped her hands on her jeans as she came into the room. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open when she saw him. She froze. “What are you doing here?”
“Auntie Ida?” Running at full speed, Carly almost knocked Beth over.
Carly managed to dodge her mother, and before Quinton could move forward to steady Beth, Carly had tossed her arms around his legs and had given him a huge hug. “Dr. Searle!”
“Are you all right?” Quinton asked Beth as she steadied herself.
“What are you doing here?” she repeated.
“Checking up on me!” Carly blurted. She hadn’t released her hold on his legs and her baby blue eyes gazed lovingly at Quinton. “I haven’t taken any more medicine, and we’re moving.”
“I can see that. Your mommy told me about it.”
“And I was serious,” she said.
“I know that now,” Quinton said. “Will an apology help?” Her expression told him no. “Where are you going?”
“A special place,” Carly interrupted. “It’s a surprise.”
Quinton reached down and gently detached Carly’s arms from his legs. “I bet it is a surprise. Are you all packed?”
“Almost. Everything is going into boxes except for some of my clothes. And my blankie. Those go in a suitcase.”
Quinton straightened and looked at Beth. She was staring at her child, and the pain in her eyes seared his heart. He’d caused this. She hadn’t been lying. He understood, what Carly didn’t—that her mother had no place to stay.
“What number are you?”
“Three at one place, six at another. But…” Beth pointed at Carly.
“I understand.” Little ears did not need to hear. “Is there someplace we can talk?”
“Here I am.” At that moment Ida appeared, and Beth was never so grateful to see her. “You’ve made some good progress. The movers will arrive at seven and I’ll supervise while you’re at work. You’ll be all gone by Mr. Anderson’s deadline.” Ida paused as she saw Quinton.
Beth wanted to groan at the speculation she saw in her elderly neighbor’s eyes.
“This is Dr. Searle,” Beth offered.
“He saved me from dying at the hospital,” Carly added.
“Well, I…” Quinton began.
“We met the other night but weren’t formally introduced. I’m Ida Caruthers.” She extended her hand and Quinton shook it. “It’s nice to meet you. Are you here to help Beth pack?”
“He’s here—he’s…” Beth found herself oddly relieved when Quinton simply took charge and said, “Ida, would you mind giving us a few moments alone?”
“Certainly. Come on, Carly. I have some ice cream in my freezer and I can’t eat it all.”
“Do you have sprinkles?” Carly asked.
“Oh, I’ll have to see what I can muster up. I may not have sprinkles, but I bet I have chocolate sauce.”
“Yum,” Carly said.
Moments later Beth found herself alone with Quinton.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be.” She was too tired for anger, too tired for anything but bittersweet regret. “I fought the good fight, but no one wins against fate.”
“Maybe you can.”
“No, I can’t. As of noon tomorrow I have to be out of here. I broke down and used the last of my money for movers and a storage facility. How I’ll ever scrape up enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent on a new apartment I don’t know.”
He’d caused this, and his conscience demanded he fix it. “Let me help.”
Sure he could. He could solve any problem he set his mind to, except perhaps with his family. “Let me pay your security deposit for a new apartment. I’ll even pay the first month’s rent. You can pay me back whenever.”
“I don’t take charity.”
“It’s not charity. Consider it a loan. A favor. In fact, you can repay me with one.”
Beth shook her head. “I won’t take loans. Not from individuals. They end up being charity. And I dislike favors. They have to be repaid at too high a cost.”
“Yet you’d strip to earn the money.”
“Stripping was work. Not politically correct, but honest. I’m not a hooker and I don’t strip bare. I’ve only done it a few times—a long time ago. It’s quick money. I needed that money. But I waited too long—I didn’t think Mr. Anderson would really evict me, not after the past few years I’ve had.” She swallowed.
She was so tired, so sick of fighting to eke out an existence. Still, she pressed on. “You wouldn’t know what it’s like to be poor, would you? You wouldn’t know how hard it is to put food on the table, to make sure your child doesn’t suffer. You wouldn’t know…” She suddenly saw two of Quinton.
Both Quinton’s spoke. “Beth, you don’t look good. You’re pale and…”
“I’m fine,” Beth said. “I’m just fine.” She was always fine. She couldn’t afford not to be.
And then, as if fate mocked her, the world went black.
When she awoke, it was to gentle light and a pillow underneath her head. Where was she? Panic filled her and Beth forced herself to try to sit. Pain filled her head.
“Relax.” Quinton’s voice. “You need to rest.”
Beth closed her eyes and let herself sink back into the softness. Then she remembered.
“Carly.” Beth’s frantic voice came out a mere whisper.
“She’s fine. Ida’s got her.” Quinton’s voice was reassuring. “Just rest,” he said again. “Carly’s fine. Right now she’s probably watching Mulan.”
She kept her eyes closed. “Why are you still here?”
“Because you passed out in my arms. When’s the last time you had something to eat?”
“I don’t remember. Maybe lunch?”
“Which was hours ago.”
Beth’s eyelids snapped open, the light was too intense. She closed her eyes, waited a moment and tried again. Although this time her eyes adjusted better, she still winced. She then struggled to sit up.
“Not so fast,” Quinton said. “Let me help you.”
She felt his arms around her as he moved her to a sitting position.
One arm around her, he said, “Now that you’re up, drink this.” With his other hand, he brought a cup to her lips.
Parched, Beth allowed herself a long drink of the grape-flavored liquid. It tasted familiar. “What is it?”
“Sports drink. Full of electrolytes. I drink it after I work out. I had a bottle in my car. In my medical opinion, your body is dehydrated, hungry and plain fatigued. You need rest and hydration.”
Beth struggled to free herself from his arm. “I’m fine. I have a lot to do, and you need to go.”
A firm but gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her from rising.
“You’re not fine. You collapsed and lost consciousness.”
“I—” Beth began.
“No excuses, no protests. I’m a doctor, and if you want a second opinion regarding your physical condition I’d be happy to take you to the ER. Northwestern is right around the corner and I have some good friends there who would be happy to check you out, maybe even give you an IV.”
Quinton removed his arm and Beth let the soft pillow claim her head. No more ER visits—ever. Besides, she certainly didn’t have the money for another fifty dollars’ co-pay. “That’s okay. I’m not that bad off.”
“See, I knew you were a wise woman,” Quinton said. “Now, you’re going to stay right here and drink the rest of this. You’ve let yourself get run-down. If you were twenty years younger, I’d insist you go to a hospital.”
“Really, I’m fine.”
“You have to rehydrate. Let me help you.” He cradled her head and supported it while Beth took another swallow of the milk.
“And then I’m getting off my couch.”
“No, you’re not,” Quinton said easily.
Beth sipped the grape-flavored sports drink until the cup was empty. Then he lowered her back to the pillow.
Beth gazed up at him. “I have to finish packing.”
Quinton ignored her. “Now that you’re done this, I’m going to get you some more. We’ll talk about your activities after that.”
Despite herself, Beth cracked a small smile. “Yes, Doctor.”
The smile Quinton gave her in return before he stood could have melted even the hardest of hearts. Beth found her own fluttering.
“That’s my girl,” he said.
I wish! Beth’s hand shook as she adjusted the ratty old blanket he’d covered her with. Had she really just thought that? She stared at the flat brown doors of her apartment. Then she glanced at the clock.
Panic overtook her. She had things to pack! Stuff to move! She couldn’t relax for another moment.
“I told you to remain lying down.” Quinton’s voice cut through the room.
Beth paused, her left foot halfway to the floor. “I have to pack the rest of my things. I have to be out by noon tomorrow and—”
“It’ll all to be taken care of. I’ve hired packers.”
Disbelief filled her as she stared at him. Was he serious? His gray eyes indicated that he was. But how? Quinton set a tray down and ran a finger under the collar of his long-sleeved polo shirt. “As I keep saying, you need to rest.”
She had to concentrate on her priorities, her symptoms and Quinton’s good looks notwithstanding. “My stuff. I have to pack my stuff.”
He shrugged. “No, you don’t. I said I took care of it. I called in a favor.” He saw her expression and smiled. “Yeah, a favor. A friend of mine owns a moving service. Everything for storage goes at first light tomorrow, and he’s got a two-man crew coming to box your personal things at the same time.”
“But I have no place to go!”
“Trust me.” Quinton opened another bottle of the drink that he’d brought up from his car. “Carly deserves a mother who’s well.”
Anger returned, and Beth winced as her head throbbed harder. “I am not one of your patients! You can’t order me about. I’m not drinking anything until you tell me exactly what’s happening. I can’t afford this.”
“Stop stressing yourself out. It’s not good for you. I can afford it.”
“But I can’t. I told you before—I’m not taking your charity or your favors!” Beth sat up completely, the blanket slipping to her waist. She glanced down in a panic.
“Don’t worry,” Quinton said. “You’re decent. Besides, I saw it all the other night.”
Beth shot him a dirty look. “If I drink this stuff, will you tell me what you want and then leave?”
“I want to help you.” He handed her the bottle of sports drink.
“What’s in it for you?”
Quinton frowned. “Am I that transparent?”
“Men always want something,” Beth said.
“That doesn’t say much for my gender. And I guess, in a way, I do want something. But it’s not what you’re expecting. At least, I hope not. What I think is that I have a solution to your problem, and in turn, you can be the solution to mine.”
“Wait. You’re telling me that you have a problem you want me to solve. That’s what you want? A solution to a problem?”
“What, you find it hard to believe that I have a problem? That’s a bit low, don’t you think?”
“I don’t mean for it to be. It just appears that you have everything going for you.” Beth thought for a moment. It was true that everyone had problems. There were health problems, relationship problems and money problems. Then there was… “You’re not on drugs, are you?”
Quinton’s head snapped backward and disbelief caused his eyes to narrow. “No! What gave you that idea?”
Beth waved a hand. “I was trying to figure out what type of problem you have. You’ve obviously got money, you appear to be in great health and with your good looks you can’t be lacking a girlfriend.”
“You find me attractive?” A teasing note entered Quinton’s voice, as he tried to lighten what was fast becoming an awkward moment.
Beth’s heart jumped, but outwardly she remained calm. “No. I said you were good-looking. That doesn’t mean I’m attracted to you. Anyway, if you don’t have those problems, maybe you’re like one of those guys in the soaps who’s the closet drug user.”
“Uh, no,” Quinton said. “Not even close, and I’m a bit offended that you thought that of me. Now, drink.”
“I’m sorry I keep offending you. I’m not trying to.” Beth took a drink. “Okay, so then what is it?”
“My parents want me to return to St. Louis to live.”
The drink almost fell from Beth’s hand, but she caught it before it spilled. “That’s all?”
This time Quinton really appeared offended. “That’s all you have to say?”
“Oh, come on. You’re not dying. You’re not being evicted. You’re not on drugs. Your parents just want you to move to St. Louis, where I assume they live and you grew up. So you say no. No big deal. How hard is it to say no? You’re a big boy.”
“Yes, I am. But unfortunately, simply saying no to what you’ve been groomed to do since birth is a little awkward. It is a big deal. While my problem may not seem big to you, it is to me.”
Beth set down the sports bottle. He was correct and she was being totally insensitive. She normally wasn’t like this. Maybe she was feeling the stress of everything, but that was no excuse for her behavior. She’d simply dismissed his problem. The very least she could do was to hear him out. After all, he had rescued her when she fainted.
“I’m sorry. I usually don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve also been very kind to me. It’s the least I can do. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Quinton took a deep breath. “I’ve been raised since birth to take over my father’s pediatrics practice, marry, join the country club and live in a nice part of town. While I love pediatric medicine, I don’t love the girl my parents want me to marry and I have no desire to live in either Ladue or Town and Country. And then there’s my mother. She’s as upper crust as they come and my father is very patriarchal. I’m the eldest child, and besides passing my name to my son, I’m to carry on the family traditions, just like he did. It’s my birthright and my responsibility.”
“So, you have to make them understand that times change. You’ve chosen a different path.”
“It’s not that easy,” Quinton said. “They can’t accept thirty-five, single and happy in Chicago. They see bachelorhood as some sort of failure—not as a lifestyle choice. They’ve even arranged for a date to my sister’s wedding which is four weekends from now, on February twelfth.”
“An arranged date? They still do those things?”
“My mother’s idea. It will be an arranged marriage if she has her way. Shelby’s wedding is almost here, and afterward my mother will have an emotional let-down and nothing to do. She’ll turn to me. Actually, she’s already started.” Quinton took a deep breath. “So I told my mother I was bringing a date. Which is why I came over here tonight.”
“I don’t see how I can help you with any of this. I don’t have any experience in this area. I’m not from a wealthy family. My parents are divorced and live on opposite coasts. I hardly see them. We’re not what you call close. I don’t understand these family matters.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Quinton suddenly seemed impatient. “Let me just be blunt. Here’s my idea. I want you to be my date in exchange for a place to live.”
“I want you to pretend to be madly in love with me and go to the wedding with me.”
He stared at her and she stared back. He opened his mouth to offer her five hundred dollars, but another idea popped into his head. Beth Johnson needed more than five hundred. She needed time to get well and get back on her feet. She needed a chance. He’d screwed things up for her—she was right about that—and he had to make amends.
“Move in with me for a month or so,” he continued. “Just long enough to let you and Carly get back on your feet. You’ll have your own two rooms. With my hours I’m never home, and no one will think anything of me picking up some extra ER shifts to give you privacy. Plus, the weekend of February fifth, I’ll be in St. Louis for my parents’ anniversary. The weekend after that is the weekend I want you to go with me to my sister’s wedding in St. Louis and pretend to be my date.”
“You’re crazy.” Beth gazed at him to make sure she’d actually heard what she thought she had. His expression indicated he was serious. “You’re asking me to live with you and pretend to be in love with you at a wedding? This is insane.”
Quinton nodded. “Probably, but it’ll work. It’s less messy than finding a wife and it’ll keep my family off my back. It’ll provide you a place to live and some time to save up your security deposit. We each get what we want. And don’t think you can’t do it—I know you can. You’re a beautiful woman. All we have to do is get you gussied up and my family should be satisfied that I’m happy. You just keep insisting that you could never leave Chicago. Hopefully, they’ll relent and give up asking me to leave once you’re in the picture. Afterward you’ll dump me and I’ll remain heartbroken for at least a year.”
He’d said she was beautiful, and she’d liked it. She mentally shook her herself. “But wouldn’t they want you to change cities after your breakup so you could leave the memories behind? They’ll probably also start really throwing women at you, to help you get over me.”
He frowned. “Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I’ll tell my parents that we have a chance of working things out. That might buy me some more time until I can figure out what to do. Maybe you should be my fiancée and not just my date.”
Quinton’s fiancée. The idea sounded so seductive. Beth fought the devil whispering over her shoulder. “I don’t know why this is necessary. You could simply say no.”
He stood up and paced. “I’ve done that more than a dozen times, but to no avail. My family won’t accept my choices. Besides, my mother has a heart condition. As a doctor, I know it’s not as serious as she maintains, but it’s real. My dad asked me not to upset her. Believe me, I’d rather tell my mother the truth but I promised. If lying about our relationship means adding a few extra years to her life, I will. Despite her flaws, she’s my mother.”
Beth knew all too well about extra years. Randy hadn’t had any. But then, Quinton’s family could afford top medical treatment. Randy couldn’t.
“Castles in the air collapse,” Beth warned.
“I realize all the pitfalls,” Quinton said. “I understand honesty is the best policy and all that. I made my intentions about my career clear to my family from the start. But what do you do when the other party refuses to listen, refuses to consider your wishes? What do you do then?”
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