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.”