Sneak Peek at Tempting Doctor Forever
Here's a sneaky peek at the first three chapters of Tempting Doctor Forever...
THE FRONT DOOR slammed, and light footsteps squeaked on the oak entry floor.
“Yeah. I’m home.” His son’s tone was flat, disinterested.
“How’d it go?”
Then a thud, which must have been Mateo’s backpack hitting the floor. Dr. Ethan Cordero winced as the noise reverberated through the walls and the floor. Mat must have homework from every class. Poor kid. First day of school and no mercy.
Ethan dropped the final moving box on a stack of beige cardboard book boxes in the corner of the home office in their temporary rental. He lined up the edges in a straight line so they’d take up less visual space until he had an opportunity to unpack and shelve them.
He waited for his son’s ball-capped head to pop through the French doors. But nothing. Footsteps padded down the hall and faded. No doubt his hungry fourteen-year-old was rummaging in the refrigerator.
For the thousandth time, he wished parenting was easier. He needed more answers. More solutions. But a teenage son was a thick wall of bricked-off emotions.
Not that he blamed Mateo. Mat hadn’t wanted to leave Los Angeles and move to a small town in Oregon. Even if his Pipo lived in Barrett Ridge. Even if his father had grown up there. Even his maternal grandparents had abandoned him and moved to Florida.
Ethan frowned. Felicia’s parents hadn’t yet recovered from the loss of their daughter. Mateo certainly missed his mother. Poor messed-up Felicia. A sting of guilt brushed Ethan’s awareness. God, he was about the only one who didn’t miss his wife.
Damn. That sounded terrible even within the safety of his own mind. It wasn’t true either. He missed the carefree, joyful Felicia. Before they’d graduated from college. Before she’d gotten bitter. Before she’d cheated on their marriage vows. Before she’d indulged in drunken and pill-laced rampages.
Ethan shut his eyes and focused on his breathing. Yes. He missed Felicia. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt. Right? Two years since the car crash. It was a lifetime ago. It was yesterday.
Ethan straightened his shoulders and aimed toward the kitchen. Mateo ignored him as he shoved the refrigerator door shut and opened cupboards one by one. Click. Click. Thud. Slam.
“Granola bars are in the pantry. Fresh fruit is in the grocery sack by the stove.” Ethan pointed to first one then the other. Both behind Mateo.
Mateo grumbled something that might have been a thank-you as he dug out two granola bars. Ethan pushed away from the doorframe and snagged a white-spreckled red apple.
“Tell me about school.” Ethan decided a command might work better than a question or gentle probe for information. Had he been this uncommunicative with his parents when he’d been a ninth grader? Hardly. But then his life had been straightforward. His parents loved him, and their home was happy and laid back. He hadn’t just moved a thousand miles in the middle of a completely new terrain. He hadn’t seen his own mother die on the side of a road. Yeah. He could cut Mat some slack.
“It was school. No big deal.” Mateo cocked his head and a cascade of chin-length hair cloaked his dark eyes. “I can handle it.” Mateo bit into the granola bar, pivoted and ducked out the kitchen slider to the backyard. He slid into a low, bright red Adirondack chair with his nose buried in his smartphone. He sank into his gray hoodie and hunched against the cooling air of a sunny, January day.
That went well. Ethan rolled his eyes heavenward and checked his phone for any missed messages from the medical center. All was clear on that front. He wasn’t due there until first thing in the morning.
His fingers twitched. He already missed work even though it had only been five days since he’d left University Neurosurgery in Los Angeles. He’d been sure that a move away from the sprawling metropolis of the City of Angels was a sound decision, but an unwonted and unusual pang of doubt festered in his gut.
A fresh start was for the best. No daily reminders of the life he’d shared with Felicia. None of the petty bullies hounding Mateo in school. No awkward silences from friends and acquaintances who had no idea how to handle a family blasted by tragedy.
The return to his hometown was sensible and practical. His father was close by to help be a family for Mateo, and the hospital in nearby Alton had a shining, newly funded wing that was in search of a skilled neurosurgeon. It fit like a glove.
The only one suffering at the moment was Mateo. No one wanted to start at a new school in the middle of the year. Friendships had been made. Alliances had been built. Even in a small town, Ethan was convinced that they’d eye a newcomer with a pack mentality. Assess and attack.
Tightness grabbed his chest. Every fiber of his being cried out to protect his son from harm and hurt. He wobbled on the precarious parenting tightrope. Too much hovering prevented Mateo from winning his own battles and building self-confidence. Worry gnawed at Ethan. How fragile Mat looked with his thin shoulders hunched and a wisp of his black hair dancing against a breeze.
He had to be strong for both of them. Barrett Ridge was the fresh start they each craved. Ethan tossed the apple core in the garbage and tackled a box of unwrapped dishes and glasses. Only three more boxes and the kitchen would be good to go.
Sunlight glinted through the top edge of the sliding door, and Ethan squinted into it. He folded the last empty kitchen box on top of the other two, ready to carry out to the garage.
A streak of gold zoomed across the yard, followed by a dark-headed blur. And then back again. Ethan shielded his eyes against the brilliant glare. Mateo sprinted past with a goofy grin as a glossy golden retriever chased him.
“What the hell?”
The pair zipped by one more time, and Ethan had to laugh. He stepped out to the patio with his hands planted on his hips. The dog veered off course and loped straight for Ethan, skidding to a halt, inches from Ethan’s ebony suede lace-ups. He held his ground.
“Dad, isn’t he awesome?”
The pup wriggled, panted with a sideways lolling tongue, and waited as if Ethan’s approbation was vital.
“Very handsome.” Ethan extended his hand, and the dog shook paws obediently. “How did he get in the backyard?”
“I don’t know, but he wants to be my friend. Did you see him shake for you? He’s smart.”
Ethan bent to examine the canine’s collar, but Mateo whistled, and the pup bounded off.
“Does he have a name tag?”
“Copper.” Mateo didn’t bother looking up as he tossed a stick for the eager dog.
Ethan scanned the yard. “Did you let him in through the side gate?”
“Nope. I never even heard him. He just appeared at my feet and started rolling around in the dirt. I like him.”
“He is somebody’s pet. We’d better figure out how to get him home.”
“Not yet. Please, Dad?” Mateo shot him a half smile, bent, and rubbed Copper’s scruff.
The vulnerability in Mateo’s gaze crumpled up Ethan’s heart. Crap. He smelled puppy breath and pooper scoopers in his future. Maybe his father’s pack at the ranch would be enough to content Mateo.
“Matty, I don’t think—”
A raspy, metallic screech echoed. The back corner fence panel shuddered, and a lone board flipped up at right angles. A blonde head popped into sight.
“Copper? Copper?” With a twist, a woman’s shoulders shimmied into view. “You naughty mutt. Are you over here?” Her voice was a half-hiss and half-whispered shout, and all laughing irritation.
The guilty party dashed over and promptly lavished a slurping lick across her cheek. She groaned.
“Hey, is Copper your dog?” Mateo called out as his smile faded.
She muttered under her breath and shied away from Copper’s exuberant greetings. “Sort of.” She grinned. “Miserable pooch.”
Ethan liked the sound. It was carefree and breezy, and a tad self-deprecating. Her golden hair danced in a gust of wind and tangled on a splinter.
“You’re welcome to use the gate to retrieve your jailbreaker.” Ethan stepped down from the patio.
Her mouth froze in an O of surprise. She squinted, and then her shock morphed to distress. She pressed her lips together, and Ethan assumed she swallowed an obscenity. He smirked. He couldn’t resist.
She jerked backward, and the fence wobbled. She didn’t budge, but her V-neck sweater strained against her body. Another inch and he’d have a lovely view of the generous swells in that pink lacy bra she was sporting. He eyed his son, but Mateo seemed oblivious to the free show.
“Are you okay?” Mateo approached. “Is that you, Missus Barrett?”
She scrunched her nose and attempted to pull back, but her sweater snagged. “I’m stuck.” She cast a fleeting glance Ethan’s direction but ducked her head and refused to make eye contact.
A glimmer of recognition danced in his brain. He remembered a young woman with golden hair who rarely met his gaze. That had been Austin Barrett’s little sister.
“Sam? Samantha Barrett? You’re Austin’s youngest sister, right?”
A faint whimper issued from between her lips, and she smiled up at him with a comically creased forehead. Her eyes glinted with a cross between hope and dismay. She was resignation and embarrassment all rolled into one adorable package.
“I’M AFRAID IT’S true.” Sam tried to laugh, but it sounded strangled even to her own ears.
One more wiggle and Sam was convinced that she was going to burst out of her bra. In front of her newest student, and Ethan Cordero. Her brother’s best friend from high school and her old, secret crush. Why did it have to be Ethan of all people?
“Do you live next door, Missus Barrett?” Mateo approached her cautiously and stooped to pet Copper the miscreant pup.
“I guess we are neighbors, Mateo.” Sam sighed. There was no escaping the fact that she was stuck in the fence. She studied Copper for a moment and rued the day that she’d agreed to take care of the dog while Adam and Ginger Novak went on a yearlong, globe-circling cruise.
“She’s my fourth-period teacher.”
“Language arts,” Sam added.
“That explains, doesn’t it? What can we do to help you? You look wedged in.” Ethan gazed down at her with those liquid brown eyes of his. Her heart melted into a puddle. Really? After all these years, he still set the butterflies to flapping in her belly?
“There’s a splinter gouging into my arm. I’m afraid to move.” Her knees sank into a quagmire of bark and chill mud.
“You should have come to the front door and knocked.” Ethan’s voice held a critical note as if she was in the habit of breaking into neighbors’ backyards at random moments.
“I didn’t even know Copper was here.” Sam smiled to take away any edge in her voice. “I noticed the loose fence board and peeked. I poked my head through and thought I saw him. I pushed through to get a better look, and here I am.”
“Stuck,” Mateo added with a tone of finality. “Can we pull her out from the other side, or push her from here?” Mateo looked to Ethan for guidance.
Sam noted the similarities between what she assumed was father and son. Mateo had his father’s dark, lustrous eyes, lopsided smile, and a matching shock of thick, black hair. But where Ethan’s shoulders were broad and tightly muscled, ninth grader Mateo was slender and almost hollow-chested as he waited for a growth spurt.
Beyond their hair and eye color, the two Cordero’s looked little alike. No wonder she hadn’t made the connection in school today.
“Can you see the splinter gouging me?” Sam craned her neck around. “If you get that, I think I can slip back.”
Ethan kneeled and ran his fingers along the boards squishing her tight. An enticing scent of citrus and sandalwood wafted past her nose, and she closed her eyes for a picosecond to savor it. It wasn’t the same scent that she’d burrowed into when he rescued her after the bonfire, but it was all man. All sex and deliciousness.
“Does Copper always get into this much trouble?”
“So far he’s been a good dog. He’s actually your landlord’s pet.”
“They couldn’t take him on a yearlong cruise, so Nana volunteered to keep him.”
“Nana? Your grandmother, right?”
“Yes. But I live with her. For a bit.” Ethan cocked his head, and Sam flushed. “I’m saving on rent and building up a nest egg for my own home.”
“Good plan.” The playful smile now lurking on Ethan’s lips caused those butterflies in her belly to take flight. In an instant, she was a teenybopper, staring at her brother’s best friend with the eyes of puppy love. So much for being a grown woman of twenty-six with a good career as an English teacher.
Ethan pushed against the boards, and his chest was disturbingly close to her face. “Try to scoot out now. I’ve made a little more room.”
Sam didn’t want to move. Truly, she was in paradise. She edged back, but a needle of wood scratched the tender flesh on the back of her arm. “It’s no good. You’re going to have to tear down the fence.”
Ethan laughed. “I don’t think my renter’s insurance will cover that. You’ll have to get comfy. We’ll plant some shrubs to guard you from the rain.”
“That way you won’t see me scowling at you.”
“We’ll bring you a burger when we barbecue,” Mateo added.
“You always have Copper to keep you company,” Ethan added helpfully.
Copper barked and nudged at the stick in Mateo’s hand, and the boy tossed it across the yard. “That’s cold comfort, especially since he’s already lost interest in me.”
“Do you need rescuing again?” Ethan asked. He folded his arms, and his expression was carefully neutral. “You have a knack for finding trouble.”
Ouch. Where was a convenient bolt of lightning to zap her into oblivion? She’d rather hoped that Ethan Cordero had forgotten about the day he’d saved her from a pack of jerks after a moonlit bonfire that summer night between junior and senior year in high school when Ethan had come home for his mother’s funeral.
He’d been her knight in shining armor even if he was a married man with a kid and a newly minted doctor’s license. He’d decked the two guys and carried her to safety. It had sealed the deal for her. Her vague crush on her brother’s best friend had morphed into hero-worship.
Another unruly and unwonted flush crept up her neck. Seriously. She wished she could slither off and disappear. She prayed her infatuation didn’t show in her eyes.
“Would you believe that this is my first mayday? Maybe I only get into trouble when you’re around.” Crap. That didn’t come out right. So much for not reminding him of his last round of heroism.
“You make a charming damsel in distress. You have since you were seven years old and I plucked your kitten from the street drain. I’m happy to help a family friend.”
Sam winced. He’d put too much emphasis on the word friend. That knocked any wind out her sails. She was still the little sister of his old high school buddy. Her glance flickered to his left hand. No ring. But that wasn’t unusual for a doctor. Indeed, a surgeon. Sam struggled to remember how long ago Ethan’s wife had been killed in a car crash. She pressed her lips together and cursed her foolish thoughts. Ethan was probably still grieving for his wife.
“I should be able to get myself out of this. Copper made it through. If I can’t back up, maybe I can wiggle all the way to this side.” Sam strained forward, but with every inch she gained, her sweater pulled lower and lower.
“I’m not complaining, but I think you’d better stop unless you want to give Mateo an eyeful.” Ethan lifted his eyebrow with a playful leer.
“Fabulous.” Sam caught the glint of attraction in his expression, and her mood lightened, at least a little.
“Hold on. Don’t go anywhere.”
“Ha. Very funny.”
Within a minute, Ethan returned, holding a hammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other. “I guess it’s a good thing that I unpacked my toolbox as soon as the movers left.”
“Aren’t you a Boy Scout?”
“He’s always prepared,” Mateo chimed in. He shot his father a prideful glance before he flushed and turned back to Copper.
Ethan went still. A tenderness slid over his features as he studied his son. Sam had the impression that it was a rare moment of father and son harmony. Was Ethan already in the middle of teenage angst and crisis?
“Sam!” a female voice called from behind her. “Sam? What are you doing spying on the new neighbor?” It was her grandmother. Great. She needed more witnesses for her humiliation.
“Copper wasn’t in the backyard, Nana, so I went looking for his escape route. I noticed the fence board was cockeyed.”
Ethan’s face mirrored the question that must surely be on hers. “Copper is Ginger’s dog. You know, Ginger Novak’s golden retriever.”
“Oh. Well, then of course he’d be over there. Why wouldn’t he be?”
“He’s supposed to be staying at your house.” Was Nana making a joke? Sam wished she could see the older woman’s expression.
“I can’t imagine why,” Nana said with a confused and irritable note in her voice.
“Don’t you remember that the Novak’s left on vacation, and we’re taking care of Copper.”
“That’s right. What a funny thing to forget.”
“Nana, are you okay?”
“I’m dandy. Why do you ask?” Sam couldn’t see her grandmother, but she was confident that the silver-haired woman had planted her hands on her hips. “Now, explain why I’m talking to your backside.”
ETHAN CHOKED ON a laugh, and Sam rolled her eyes.
“I guessed that Copper snuck through the loose board in the fence, so I was going to call him back. Through the hole. I stuck my head through, but I couldn’t see too much, so I inched forward, but my knee slipped, and I jammed forward.”
“That makes sense.” Ethan twirled the hammer. “It’s rescue time, fair damsel.”
“I’m never going to live this down if you tell anyone.”
“I’ve already told Austin, and he’s texted everyone in your family. Aren’t there seven of you?”
“Shut up. I don’t like you.”
“Who are you talking to, Samantha? I hear someone.”
“It’s our new neighbors.”
“You sound very friendly.”
“It’s Austin’s old buddy, Ethan Cordero.” Sam paused, chewed her lip. “And his son, Mateo. Who’s also a new student of mine.”
“Hello, Mrs. Barrett. Long time no see.”
“Well, you can only hear me, Ethan, but welcome back to Barrett Ridge.”
“Thank you. We’re glad to be back. Now, I’m going to make some noise as I pry some of these boards loose so Sam can extricate herself.”
“Do you need my help?” Nana asked. “I have a hammer somewhere in the tool shed. I think.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”
“That’s lovely. I’ll go check on my crocheting.” Nana hummed an off-key tune and added, “I’m missing one baby blanket.” Her footsteps faded away.
Sam winced, and Ethan’s brow furrowed. “Don’t ask.” Sam lowered her voice to a whisper. “She’s started to drift a bit lately. It’s not too bad.”
Sam sagged, and mud oozed through her pant leg. Her kneecaps were thoroughly popsicled. The sun was warm for a winter day, but the ground was barely above freezing.
Poor Nana. She was having an increasing number of forgetful episodes recently. How long had it been going on? It was a good thing that she’d moved in at the beginning of the school year. What started as Nana doing her a favor and letting her live virtually rent-free, was quickly turning into a necessity.
“I’m sorry.” Ethan’s expression was sympathetic, understanding.
“Thanks. That’s life I guess.” Sam caught herself frowning and purposefully turned it into an easy smile. “I can’t believe you haven’t freed me yet. Get on with it. My humiliation won’t be complete until I’m standing before you covered in mud and bark.” There. That was a perfectly friendly and comfortable attitude to take. She was not suffering from teenage infatuation.
Ethan studied her for an instant, and then he was all business.
“Can I help, Dad?”
“Why don’t you hold the board high up here.” Ethan pointed to a spot about two feet above Sam’s head. “You steady it so it won’t crash back onto Sam.”
A few whacks and screeching nails later, two boards lay on the sparse winter grass, and Sam crawled back to her side of the fence. Kneeling back on her heels, she massaged the throb in her bicep. She surveyed a gaping snag in her knit sweater and the thick mud stain on her slacks. As bad as it was, she decided there was more damage to her morale than to her clothing.
All par for the course, she supposed. Fate seemed to have a warped sense of humor when it came to her and Ethan. If she wasn’t the awkward kid or foolish teenager, she was a snoopy, klutzy neighbor woman. The hero hat still fit Ethan to a tee, but she seemed to wear the damsel in distress tiara whenever he was near.
The two Cordero’s waited in silence. Sam slapped on a perky grin, and within moments, it settled into her soul. She rose and dusted her palms together as moss and dirt flew in all directions.
“See? Good as new.” Sam pointed to her filthy and torn clothing. “No harm, no foul.”
Ethan’s gaze scanned her from top to toes and back up again. Sam refused to blush again, but she stood a bit straighter and prayed her padded bra would cover any evidence of the tingling awareness in her body.
“Missus Barrett?” Mateo sidled a step closer. “If Copper used to live here, isn’t this his home? He can stay if he wants.” Mateo smiled hopefully.
“That’s kind of you. I know he’s more comfortable over here since this was his home, but Nana and I are responsible for him. You’re welcome to play with him and take him on walks if you want. I’m sure he’d love that.”
Mateo glanced at Ethan for reassurance.
“Are you sure? We don’t want to impose.”
“Dogs need kids to play with. Grown-ups are boring.”
“Can I take him for a walk now?”
“How about tomorrow?” Ethan said. “You’ve got boxes to unpack in your room, and we still need to put the fence back together.”
Mateo’s shoulders dropped, but he gave in with good grace. Sam picked up on an underlying, low tension between the two. Copper settled on his haunches next to Mateo and leaned against the teen.
“Would you guys like to come over for some supper tonight? A little bit of welcome to the neighborhood and a lot of thank you for fixing the fence.” Mateo bobbed his head with an ear to ear grin, but Ethan frowned. “Of course, all of you are welcome.” Was there a smooth way to ask if there were any other family members? A daughter. A new wife. A girlfriend.
“It’s just us. Mom died two years ago.” Mateo’s tone was matter-of-fact, but his face was a mask.
“I’m so sorry. That must be hard.” Sam wanted to pinch herself. That was about the lamest expression of sympathy ever.
“We don’t want to be any trouble,” Ethan said. “We’ll come over another time.” His tone was reserved and almost formal. “I’ve already got the Danny’s Pizza on speed dial, so we’re set for food tonight.”
Sam could take a hint. “Copper! Come here, boy.” She whistled, and the retriever bounded through the gap in the fence and parked himself at her side. She rubbed a silky ear. “I’ll keep him in the house while you finish the repairs. He’s done making a nuisance of himself.”
“Don’t worry. Let him play with Mat,” Ethan said. “I’ll make sure Copper ends up on your side of the fence.”
“No. We’ve been enough trouble already. It’s almost his dinner time anyway.”
Mateo squinted from one adult to the other and crossed his arms over his chest. The lost expression in his eyes tugged at her heart.
“If you’re not busy after school tomorrow,” Sam said, “I know Copper would love to have you take him for a walk.”
“That would be great.” Mateo’s expression perked up.
It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest that Mateo wanted his own dog, but she cut off the words before they spilled out. She knew better than to step in the middle of parent-child relations. It was practically Teacher 101 in college.
With a quick wave to Mateo, Sam marched back to the house with the sounds of Mateo and Ethan discussing the merits of screws or nails to resecure the fencing. She let herself in through the kitchen door, and Copper dashed to his water dish.
Why did Ethan still get to her? That teenage girl with a crush was long gone, and Ethan had the marks of a man with plenty of emotional baggage. Understandable, of course. He’d lost his wife not so long ago. No doubt he was still heartbroken.
That seemed a reasonable explanation for his sudden chilliness. And the clear fact that she was simply the younger sister of an old high school buddy.
Sam dumped kibble into Copper’s food bowl and pulled out greens and other salad makings from the refrigerator crisper. Through the kitchen sink window, she spotted the last board as it wobbled into place. A thwack-thwack-thwack echoed.
Ethan was back on his side of the fence, and she was on hers.
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