My Sweetest Sasha: Cole's StorySneak Peek

Fair winds and following seas          Unknown

Chapter One

 

Cole Harrington strolled through the glass doors leading to the Chair of Surgery’s office with a vanilla spice latte in hand—a peace offering of sorts. Why anyone would ruin a cup of good coffee with sickening sweet syrup was beyond him, but to each their own drink.

“Good morning,” he said, handing Kim Langevin her favorite hot beverage.

She held the cup close and inhaled the spicy scent, letting the aroma of sweet vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom waft up her nose from the tiny opening in the lid. “What’s the occasion?”

“I’m guessing your boss has been cranky. Figured you were taking the brunt of his bad mood.”

“Cranky’s what a two-year-old is after missing a nap.” She tipped her head in the direction of Tom’s office. “He’s been a bear. You might want to add a shot of bourbon to this,” she said raising the cup, “and bring it in to him.” Then she placed the coffee well out of Cole’s reach in case he decided to take her up on the idea.

“It’s going to take a lot more than a spiked latte to get me out of trouble this time.”

“He’s waiting for you,” she said turning her attention back to the computer.

Cole started toward the office knowing he was about to get an earful. Not the first time, wouldn’t be the last. Tom had taken a lot of heat for him through the years, but he hadn’t suffered silently. Cole heard about every transgression—every last one. In excruciating detail.

Kim took a sip of the latte and closed her eyes letting a blissful smile spread slowly over her delicate features. “Mmmm. Thanks, Dr. Harrington,” she called after him. “It’s exactly the way I like it.”

The door was wide open, but Cole knocked anyway.

Tom Hagel had been Chair of Surgery at Boston General for more than twenty years. A prestigious job with lots of headaches—lots. Surgeons were the bad boys of the hospital, and trauma surgeons, like Cole, were the baddest of all. Their work was unpredictable and demanding, requiring specialized training and nerves of steel. They were the doctors who cared for accident and fire victims, gunshot wounds, stabbings—a whole array of the unpleasant and unexpected. To say it was a highly stressful job was like saying walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope was an ambitious undertaking.

Not everyone was enamored with the trauma surgeons, but most agreed they were a necessary evil. At best, they were mavericks, strutting the halls with an abundance of confidence, like peacocks displaying their grand plumage—the males particularly showy. At worst, they were arrogant prima donnas with out-of-control egos, and keeping them in line was more challenging than herding cats.

It wasn’t unusual to see one walking into the hospital at five in the morning sporting a cowboy hat and boots, as though Boston was the Wild West. And while Cole didn’t own a Stetson or a pair of Luccheses, he was the undisputed king of the cowboys—never met a rule that couldn’t be bent or broken if a frontier needed conquering or a damsel was in distress. Most people would proudly follow him into battle, but others, although far fewer in number, would prefer to shoot him in the back.

“Come in.”

“Morning. You wanted to see me?”

Even with a head of grey, thinning hair and a face etched with lines, Tom was still a badass himself, though age and experience had worn smooth most of the rough edges.

Cole sat across the desk from his boss, bracing himself for the inevitable tirade, but not especially concerned with the consequences. Much like a child who’d grown accustomed to being called to the principal’s office, he knew it would be unpleasant, but then it would be over.

“I’m not getting any younger, here. When I hired you, I envisioned you taking over the department one day. You were a rising star with gifted hands, not just a technician, but a diagnostician with good instincts. A born leader … the whole damn package.”

Tom lifted his hands to his face and closed his eyes, massaging his temples like a man trying to ward off a massive headache. “But for all the good you’ve done the department and your patients, you’ve been nothing but a huge pain in my ass.”

Pushing out of his chair, Tom stood at a wall of windows, gazing out across the Boston skyline. “This could have been your view. I thought when I appointed you Chief of Trauma the extra responsibility would make you think twice before doing something stupid. It’s slowed you down, but you’re still a problem. My problem,” he added almost as an afterthought.

“I’m flattered you considered me for the job, but I could’ve saved you the trouble. I’m not cut out to be chair. Too much politics, and I’m a terrible politician. It’s why I steered clear of the family business.”

Tom chewed on the edge of his thumb, staring out over the sleepy city just beginning to come to life.

“If this is about what happened in the operating room yesterday …” He waited for a signal from Tom before continuing, but got nothing. After about thirty seconds of silence, he’d had enough. More than enough. He wanted to spit it out, take his lumps, and get on with his day.

“It was hot, oppressive. Everyone who stepped foot in the room complained. It’d been like that all week. The environment was unsafe for staff, and put patients at risk. Facilities checked it out a bunch of times, but couldn’t replace the system without authorization from the highest level. The suits dragged their feet. It’s a bunch of bullshit, and you know it. They’re always trying to save a few pennies at our expense.”

“I don’t disagree with you. It’s how you handled the situation that gives me heartburn.”

“Maybe it wasn’t the best way to take care of the problem, but it got their attention. I hear it’s much more comfortable in there today—fit for humans.”

Tom rested his foot on the window ledge. “I ought to fire your ass so I wouldn’t have to hear one more complaint about you … but I don’t know a better doctor. And I talked to Sue,” he added quietly.

Sue Miller ran the operating rooms, all of them, the whole kit and caboodle. She had for years. Some surgeons foolishly believed they were in charge down there, but anyone with any sense knew it was her territory. All hers. If she liked you, your surgery days went smoothly, if you were a jackass, not so much. She paid careful attention to every detail, how doctors treated patients, the staff, and their colleagues. She knew everyone who stepped foot into the vicinity of the OR, and everything that happened there. Fortunately for Cole, she adored him like the son she’d never had.

“She told me Tori fainted in the middle of a procedure, prompting your outburst.”

Cole leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbow on Tom’s desk. “Leave Tori out of this. She had nothing to do with it, and I don’t want her name mentioned. She’s not responsible in any way. This is on me. All. On. Me.” He emphasized each word in a tone most people wouldn’t dare use with Tom.

“A big pain in the ass, but always a stand-up guy,” Tom muttered, mostly to himself.

“I’m willing to pay for some portion of the damage, but the system was already down when I busted the thermostat. They can dock my pay if it makes them feel better.”

Tom shook his head. “I guess I should just be grateful some poor unsuspecting housekeeper, didn’t walk into the janitor’s closet to find a resident on her knees with your dick in her mouth. Again.”

Cole cringed at the sleazy portrayal of what had been a particularly enjoyable respite with a very talented resident. At least until the housekeeper caught them in the act and fled down the hall screaming. If she’d had come in ten minutes sooner, he’d have been the one on his knees, and that would really have freaked her out. By the time he’d found her to apologize, she was with her supervisor and a security officer, telling her story while making the sign of the cross over and over, as if asking God’s forgiveness for what she’d witnessed.

“Come on, that was years ago. I was a resident then, too. I’ve never touched anyone I supervise.”

“Didn’t stop you from touching people supervising you.”

Diana. Dead or alive, it seemed she’d always remain a part of hospital lore. He was through discussing his sex life, not that there was much to talk about these days anyway. “So what happens now?”

Tom handed him a card. “Now you talk to Risk Management.”

“Oh, God,” Cole threw his head back and groaned. “Risk Management? Please don’t force me to listen to another lecture from that twit Chet. Let me guess, they think I need an anger management course?”

“Not this time. We’re well beyond an anger management course, here. This time you get an executive coach for forty-five days. Correct ongoing problems as they occur.”

Cole felt the blood drain from his face. “What?”

“The coach will submit a report at the end of the forty-five-day period, and the powers that be will weigh the pros and cons of your continued employment here.”

“You’re kidding.”

Tom planted both hands on his desk and leaned forward, his face inches away from Cole’s. “Do I look like I’m fucking kidding?”

“There’s no way I’m allowing some risk management dweeb to follow me around.”

Tom sat down and turned his attention to the stack of papers in front of him, ignoring Cole’s last comment, like a parent dealing with a petulant teenager. “Every minute you’re in the hospital. Patients may be asked to sign a release … the details are still being ironed out. Their patient contact will be limited, since patient care’s never been your problem.”

“Never,” agreed Cole. His patients took precedence over everything in his life except his family. He’d learned the hard way to put them first.

“What about patient privacy?”

“The hospital has a responsibility to investigate behavior compromising staff or patient safety. HIPAA provides appropriate mechanisms.”

“This is a damn witch-hunt.”

“There’s nothing I can do this time. It’s out of my hands. But your future here depends on your full cooperation.”

Cole chewed on his bottom lip, seething.

Tom looked up from his papers. “I don’t want to lose you.” His voice was softer, more empathic now. “You’re the best surgeon on staff. The best in a city crawling with them. I’d trust you to operate on my grandchildren… The hospital doesn’t want to lose you, either. You generate a lot of revenue, and money is king around here.

“Somewhere along the line, you’ve pissed off someone with the power to do this. Maybe it’s someone who doesn’t like surgeons, maybe it’s someone whose wife you screwed. Doesn’t much matter. These are the ground rules, and there’s no getting around them.”

He’d never screwed anyone’s wife, but there was no question he’d pissed off plenty of people over the years. Mostly people who shirked their responsibilities.

“Risk Management is expecting you at eight. Your morning activities have been cancelled, and your identification card’s been deactivated until you meet with them.”

“My patients?”

“Rescheduled. And your staff’s been told to take the morning off.”

“Sons of bitches,” Cole said under his breath. He stood up and shoved the card Tom gave him into his back pocket. “I’ll let you know what I decide.” And he stormed out of the office without another word.

 

* * *

 

Alexa Petersen knocked on her boss’s door promptly at seven. He’d emailed last night asking her to come in early. Well, it hadn’t actually been a request, more like one short terse sentence demanding her presence, with no explanation. She’d slept very little, tossing and turning, going over every minute of the last few weeks, wondering if she’d made some error, a mistake big enough to get her fired.

She’d been at the hospital for less than a month, with one week spent in training. She couldn’t recall any misstep, but her probationary status allowed them to terminate her at will. It was hardly her dream job, but it paid well, and God knows, she needed the money.

“Come in,” called Chet Toomey, a smarmy man in his early forties. He was the kind of man who always looked at your breasts when he should have been looking at your face. He didn’t steal little glances when he thought you weren’t looking like most guys—no, he leered shamelessly.

“Take a seat.”

Her stomach churned as she sat down, preparing herself for the worst.

“I like your work ethic, and I’ve been impressed by your thorough analysis of complex issues. An important project has come up, and I’ve decided to give it to you.” He zeroed in on her breasts while talking, but Alexa was so relieved to still have a job that his lewd stare didn’t faze her.

She listened to Chet spew what would politely be referred to as male cow poop. She hadn’t been on the job long enough to do a thorough analysis of anything. Beware of flattery, it can lead you down a perilous path. One of the many warnings her mother had imparted before wrapping Alexa in a warm embrace and putting her on the bus to Boston. Not that Chet was a man you’d follow down any path, or anywhere else for that matter. Not if you had a smidgeon of common sense.

“Cole Harrington is a trauma surgeon with the hospital. He’s had a lot of problems here. Thinks he can do whatever he wants and get away with it because he’s from a powerful family. Yesterday, when the temperature in the operating room wasn’t to his liking, he willfully destroyed the thermostat. The system had to be replaced at great expense to the hospital. He’s finished, but we need to create a paper trail demonstrating an attempt to remediate his behavior before we can get rid of him.”

Chet was talking fast, and seemed almost giddy at the prospect of trashing this doctor. She half expected him to rub his hands together like the dastardly Snidely Whiplash concocting some evil plot.

“That’s where you come in.”

That’s what I was afraid of.

“You’ve only been with us for a short time. Not long enough to form any opinions regarding personnel. You can be impartial. Your social work background gives you the skills to identify and remediate problem behavior, and your legal training allows you to investigate and provide the necessary analysis and recommendation for demotion or termination. You’re perfect for the job. Absolutely perfect.”

Lucky me.

“I wouldn’t beat myself up too much over remediation, though, because he’s a hopeless cause. I know you’ll do an impeccable job collecting the evidence necessary to do the right thing by the hospital and our patients.”

“What exactly do you need me to do?”

“You’ll be Harrington’s executive coach. I need you to shadow him from the moment he walks through the doors until he leaves. He’s a surgeon, so his days are long, and he spends some nights here. You don’t have a husband or kids, right?”

She shook her head, wondering if he’d ask a man these same questions. Of course not, because no man would still be sitting here listening to this. No woman would be either, unless she was new to the job and desperate for the paycheck, like her.

“Then it shouldn’t be problem. You’re a salaried employee, so we can’t pay you overtime, but keep track of the extra hours, and we’ll make sure you get comp time.”

“I don’t have any experience as an executive coach.”

“We think you’re perfect for the job—didn’t I already say that?”

She took a long, controlled breath through her nose, filling her lungs completely, and then exhaled slowly, hoping to release the mounting tension. “How long will I be working on the project?”

“Forty-five days. I can’t justify the expense for longer. We normally use an outside firm for this type of intensive coaching, but I don’t want to lose control of the process. Harrington’s a slippery character, can’t leave him any wiggle room.”

“I need to shadow him the entire time he’s in the building?”

“That’s right.”

“What happens overnight?”

He sat back and snorted, a vulgar laugh slithering from his thin, pale lips, sending goose bumps up and down her arms. “Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to share a room with him. We’ll provide suitable sleeping arrangements for you. But we’re talking about short naps, if anything. Much of his outrageous behavior occurs late at night when the hospital’s quiet. You’ll need to use your judgment.”

Social justice, that’s what had taken her to social work school and later to law school. But life hadn’t panned out quite the way she imagined, so she’d traded her dreams for a fat paycheck. Not forever—they were just on hold for a few years until she could put her family back on track. But never once during the hours she’d spent soul-searching, agonizing over how to save the farm, did she imagine her career would reach this low. Babysit a naughty surgeon and write a detailed report about his behavior. God help me.

“Take this,” Chet said handing her a pager. “It’s programmed to go off every time his does. And brace yourself, because I’m sure he’ll hit on you, or use his charm to butter you up. You’ll need to keep your eye on the ball.”

He shoved a file in her direction. “This will get you up to speed on some of his shenanigans. Don’t let him push you around.”

“When do I begin?”

“Now. We’re still working out some minor details, but he’s coming in at eight to meet with you.”

Chet stood, smirking. “Alexa, I envision a bright future for you here. Think of this assignment as a test, a measure of your fitness for the job. I’m counting on you to do the right thing by the hospital—nothing less. Close the door on your way out.”

Every time she left Chet’s office, she was gripped by a sudden urge to shower. Today was no different.

Alexa glanced at her watch and hurried down the hall. She needed to read the file, plus tie up a few loose ends, before embarking on the assignment of a lifetime.

She stopped short in front of her office, her stomach displaying exceptional gymnastic skills as reality began to sink in. Chet wasn’t looking for an impartial assessment. He’d used those words, but what he really wanted was ammunition to get rid of Harrington. In a word, he wanted a hatchet job. And he wanted her to provide it, lock, stock, and barrel.

It didn’t sit well with her, seemed inherently unfair, and reeked of potential ethics violations. But if he was a bad doctor who endangered the lives of patients, and a menace to the hospital, maybe she could find a way to write the report while still keeping her conscience clear and her hands clean. Not to mention save her job. She thought about Chet’s not-so-thinly veiled threat, and then about Owen, her seven-year-old brother, and steeled her spine.

Getting rid of a bad doctor was the right thing to do—for everyone. Wasn’t it?

 

* * *

 

After leaving Tom, Cole headed to his office, but his card wouldn’t unlock the door to the suite. He pounded mercilessly on the solid mahogany, knowing no one would answer, but the senseless beating provided an outlet for the anger and frustration boiling inside him. The door could take the punishment.

Locking him out of the trauma center, his trauma center, was a blatant attempt to harass and embarrass him. Not to mention create havoc with his practice. It was a personal attack, one that not only threatened him, but also his patients and staff.

When his fists had enough, he tore down the stairs to the locker room in the operating suite, where he changed into athletic shorts and a T-shirt. After lacing up his running shoes, he stormed out of the hospital, barreling over everything in his way, eventually ending up at the Charles River where he ran for miles along its bank, miserable and alone, searching for answers.

Leaving the hospital would be hard. Could he find another job? Sure, probably before the day was over. But Boston General was a special place. Many of the people there were the best in their fields. Complicated cases from all over the world came in every day. They trained young doctors, and others who would go on to be leaders in the profession. He liked that, liked having a hand in shaping the future of medicine.

But probably more than anything else, he took great comfort in the familiarity of the place, of its people. Hardworking, compassionate people you could count on every day to do their jobs well. People who he’d worked so closely with for such a long time, their sorrows had become his sorrows, their triumphs his triumphs. People who were like a second family to him.

It’s where he’d gone to lose himself, to heal, after his mom and dad were killed in the crash. Digging out bullets from a gangbanger’s chest, painstakingly removing shards of glass from a young woman’s face, telling parents their sixteen-year-old-son bled out on the operating table—those horrors had distracted him from his own. They’d been his salvation. The daily challenges had consumed him, forced him to deal with his pain in small, manageable chunks. He’d grown up there, matured in ways he never would’ve imagined.

It was home, and they were his people. He wasn’t going anywhere. Cole never shied away from a fight, and he wasn’t about to start now. Not with so much at stake.

He ran until nearly keeling over from a sharp pain on his right side. Leaning against a lamppost for support, he caught his breath and waited for the cramp to subside before heading back to the hospital for a much-needed shower.

 

Back in the bowels of the hospital, he stepped into the shower and lathered himself with the unscented soap from the dispenser. Closing his eyes, he let the sudsy water stream down his face, cooling his overheated skin and washing away the remnants of sweat and anger. With a towel slung low on his hips, he reached in the locker for his scrubs and watched the card he’d tucked away earlier tumble from the pocket and float to the floor.

He finished dressing before bothering to retrieve the black and white rectangle from the sterile tile: Alexa Petersen MSW, JD. The name wasn’t familiar. A social worker and a lawyer—opposite ends of the human spectrum—an angel and a devil all wrapped up in one.

Social workers were the good girls of the hospital. Most of them were female, anyway. And he’d thoroughly enjoyed corrupting more than one over the years.

They were invaluable, often underappreciated members of the team, helping patients, families, and staff cope with the harsh realities of sickness and disease. Reframing hopelessness for those carrying the burdens of life and death.

He contemplated the card, running his thumb across the raised print—a lawyer. He’d enjoyed a few of those, too, but they were nowhere near as nice as the social workers, he thought, sliding the card back into his pocket.

 

* * *

 

Cole arrived at Risk Management shortly before noon, figuring he’d at least assess the situation before creating a battle plan. “Hey, Marcia. How’s your dad?” he asked the receptionist at the front desk.

“So much better. He lit a candle for you in church last Sunday. He’s grateful for everything you did for him. We all are.”

“Divine intervention. I could use some of that today.”

“So what brings you here, sir?” she asked coyly, as if she didn’t already know. It was nearly impossible to keep anything a secret in the hospital, especially from someone like Marcia, who’d been here forever and had ears everywhere.

“I’m meeting with Alexa Petersen.”

Marcia scrolled down the computer screen and then gave him a sharp look. “Four hours ago. Get lost on your way here?”

Cole loved feisty women. He’d grown up surrounded by them, women who never hesitated to knock him down a peg or two when necessary.

“Don’t give me that movie star smile, Cole Harrington. I’m nearly sixty-five years old. Doesn’t work on me.” She shook her head. “I’ll let her know you finally made it.”

“Don’t. Please. I’m hoping to convince her to see me now.”

She leaned across the desk, pointing a pale blue fingernail with a miniature beach scene painted on it. “Down the hall. At the very end on the left.”

“Thanks, Marcia.”

“Behave yourself. She’s from the Midwest. Too nice for her own good.”

“I can be nice too,” he said with a wink. “A nice midwestern girl,” he muttered to himself while he strode down the hall, almost forgetting why he was there.

Alexa Petersen, last office on the left, just like Marcia instructed. Hmmm, a temporary nameplate, she’s a new employee. He paused and listened at the door before knocking. Maybe with a little cajoling, she’d see him if she didn’t have another appointment. No voices, but there was music … soft, soothing music coming from behind the closed door.

He tapped lightly. Getting no response, he tried the knob and quietly opened the door. After a long intake of air, he stood perfectly still, captivated by an image his wildest imagination couldn’t have concocted: A blonde, standing on her head in the far corner of the room, with a dark skirt bunched at her waist and a scrap of blue lace peeking up at him through sheer stockings, barely concealing the treasure beneath. One step closer and he’d be able to see if she’d been born with that golden mane, or if it had come from a squeeze bottle.

Eyes closed, she still hadn’t noticed him standing there admiring her long legs and flat stomach. Is that a stud in her navel? Oh, God … focus, focus, focus.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked when his synapses began to fire again, allowing him to string together meaningful words into sentences. The moment he spoke, the serenity of the room evaporated, leaving him with a small pang of regret.

Her eyes shot open and she fell out of the headstand with a graceless thud. Like a startled kitten, she remained on the floor staring up at him with bright blue eyes the size of saucers. “What about knocking?” she finally managed in a low, breathless voice.

Cole studied her while fighting back a grin. He’d played sports his whole life, but he’d never had a coach who looked like her. Maybe this arrangement wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Two

 

“I did knock.” Cole held out a hand to help her up, but she ignored it. “You were so Zenned out you didn’t hear me.” He picked up a photo of a young boy from her desk, wondering if it was her son. “Slacking off on company time?”

“I … I … I’m allowed to take a break for lunch,” she stammered, justifying her behavior like a child caught sneaking cookies right before dinner.

He watched while she smoothed her skirt and grabbed the navy jacket hanging neatly over the back of the chair. A white sleeveless top hugged her body, highlighting curves—luscious curves, with taut nipples pushing through the layers of fabric shielding her well-rounded breasts. His mouth went dry at the thought of those perfect-sized globes with their hard little nubs pressing eagerly against his palms.

With one quick tug, the blonde pulled off the bright green headband that secured her glorious hair away from her pretty face, leaving the golden mass to tumble unfettered over her shoulders. Standing on her head had tousled it, and he imagined her hair looked exactly like this when she got out of bed. Her face and neck were flushed from being upside down, or maybe from being caught upside down.

She eyed him nervously, through long fringe that swept across her forehead, almost grazing her dark lashes. Her eyes were nearly identical in color to the lace panties… His dick twitched, and he cursed himself for indulging in the fantasy.

Neither of them spoke while she covered herself with the drab, shapeless jacket. Too late. He’d already been treated to what lay underneath, and he was having a hell of a time cramming the image into a to-be-enjoyed-later mental file.

Alexa buttoned the jacket and sat behind her desk, regaining some measure of composure. “Do we have an appointment?”

He leaned toward her and stuck out his hand. “Cole Harrington.”

She grasped the large hand firmly and looked him straight in the eye without flinching, even while his eyes bored into hers, desperate to discover the character of the woman chosen to torment him.

“Alexa Petersen,” she said, her voice now more controlled. “Our meeting was at eight.”

He took a seat without being invited. “Sorry. I needed to think the situation through, decide if I was going to meet with you.”

“They would’ve summarily dismissed you if you hadn’t shown up today.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

* * *

 

Hmmm, the height of arrogance. Maybe Chet was right about him.

Cole Harrington had an air about him, a self-confidence that flowed like water from an open spigot. He was the kind of man who walked in and commanded the room. The kind who didn’t bother taking prisoners, and it was unnerving to be with him in such a tight space.

He sat there, cool as a cucumber, expecting she’d meet with him on his terms. Didn’t matter that he was four hours late, as though his time was more valuable than hers.

No, coaching him wouldn’t be easy. She could already see that. There was nothing easy about this man. Not the brown wavy hair tickling the back of his neck, framing an almost perfect sun-kissed face. It was the color of the chestnuts her family roasted in the big fireplace on Christmas night.

Certainly his body wasn’t easy. His broad shoulders made him seem rugged and powerful. And when he lowered himself into the chair, the outline of a large thigh muscle strained against the thin cotton fabric of his scrubs, causing a small ripple low in her belly. He leaned back, making himself comfortable, crossing his arms across a massive chest, leaving an exposed forearm within her reach. She knew if she lifted her hand to touch, it would be hard—rock hard. She’d bet her last dollar on it.

But it was the smoldering blue eyes that were the least easy thing about him. They latched onto hers, luring her with their warmth, all the while threatening to devour her. He radiated energy so intense it challenged her sensible nature, rocking her world. She’d never encountered anyone with this kind of presence, and her heart thumped wildly in response.

 

* * *

 

Cole could see he intimidated her, and he’d barely said a word. For all her fancy degrees, she was an amateur. That’s why she’d been selected for the job. They needed a puppet, someone who’d let them pull the strings while they huddled in the background, invisible, obscured by the darkness.

“So Alex, tell me what this is about.”

“Alexa,” she corrected softly, but firmly.

“Alexa,” he repeated, holding her gaze until she looked away.

He lifted his eyebrows when she didn’t respond to his initial question. “Why am I here?”

“I’m your coach. I’ve been instructed to shadow you and remediate any undesirable behavior as necessary.”

“Undesirable behavior? You mean, like, if I don’t wash my hands after using the bathroom?”

“I won’t be following you into the men’s room. I’ll leave the matters of hygiene to you and your conscience.” She swallowed hard, and brushed the hair out of her eyes and behind her ear with a quick sweep of her hand.

“Who instructed you to harass me?”

She refused to take the bait. “Chet Toomey’s my supervisor.”

“How long is this little charade going to last?”

“Forty-five days. It’s not a game, Dr. Harrington.”

“Cole.” He stared intently, making her squirm. “What exactly does it involve?”

“I’m required to be at your side from the moment you walk into the hospital until you walk out the door.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

He wasn’t going to push her around. She sat up taller in her chair. “I don’t think there’s a choice.”

“Patient privacy?”

“We’re in compliance. And I’ll ask patients to sign a release if it becomes necessary.”

“Like hell you will. I have never, never, done anything that wasn’t in the best interest of my patients.”

“It seems that's a matter of opinion,” she said gently.

“No, it’s a matter of fact,” he barked. “Now, I need you to activate my card so I can do my job. And you can do yours. That is, of course, if you’ve finished with your yoga session.”

By the time he left, her hands were shaking and her left eye twitched. None of it lost on Cole.

“Oh, one more thing,” he poked his head back into the office. “Love the color of your panties, they’re almost a perfect match to your eyes.” And he disappeared down the hall.

Ugh!” She leaned over and buried her head in her arms, resting on the desk for a couple of minutes, trying to reclaim some semblance of peace.

 

* * *

 

Alexa gathered her belongings, stuffed the laptop into her bag, and headed over to the surgical wing of the hospital. She arrived at the trauma center and easily found her way to Cole Harrington’s office. If only the rest of the day could go this smoothly.

But the first roadblock appeared mere seconds after she arrived, when she introduced herself to Sherrie, Dr. Harrington’s overprotective assistant, who offered a frosty welcome and ordered her to sit in the waiting room.

“I have permission to access the back offices. Dr. Harrington is expecting me.”

After several minutes of semi-polite negotiating, Sherrie slammed her foot down hard. “This is a doctor’s office. We do serious business here. It’s my job to prioritize, and your business isn’t high on the list of pressing matters. You’ll need to wait until someone’s free to escort you back.”

“It’s very busy here. I can find my own way back,” she offered politely.

“It’s nice of you to be so helpful, but we can’t let just anyone have run of the office.”

Seeing no viable alternative, she sat in the waiting room while Sherrie continued to eye her suspiciously, as though if left unattended she might abscond with the pain medication.

While biding her time, she contemplated the ways in which to convince Sherrie to let her into the back offices where she could observe Dr. Harrington. But she dismissed one idea after another: too harsh, too pushy, too milquetoast, too nice. The struggle exemplified her own internal struggle, one she’d wrestled with her entire life. Who was she, and, how should she behave in order to fit in? Was she the girl her family and teachers saw as sassy and rude, poking her nose in places where it didn’t belong? Or was she the overly polite, deferential woman her peers and law professors saw?

“Maybe you’d be happier on the east coast. Have you thought about New York? Everyone’s pushy there, and it’s almost expected that you’ll discuss topics that are off limits here. It’s ingrained in the culture,” her high school guidance counselor suggested when it was time to look for colleges.

“You want to be a social worker, really? Maybe you should think about the law,” or “What made you want to practice law, you seem better suited to social work?”

“Stay out of the shark tank,” her law advisor warned, “think about a career in administrative law where there’s very little conflict.”

If she’d been merely an observer and it hadn’t been her life caught in the push and pull, she’d have been amused, because social work and law had so much in common. They both provided an avenue for seeking social justice, and it was acceptable in both fields to ask probing, almost nosy, questions.

She wondered how someone like Cole Harrington had learned to be so comfortable in his own skin. Was it a genetic trait, or a learned behavior? Either way, it had skipped over her family, because no one seemed all that comfortable with who they were … but she meant to change that for Owen. Her little brother’s life would be different. She’d make sure of it.

 

* * *

 

After about twenty minutes wasted stewing, she approached Sherrie again. “I know you’re busy, but I have a job to do, too. If you won’t allow me in the back, I’ll leave, but Dr. Harrington’s card will be deactivated again.” She spoke in a carefully modulated voice with a tone that meant business.

Sherrie hedged, but Alexa didn’t budge.

“Okay. I’ll take you back, but you need to stay out of the way. Like I said before, this is serious work we’re doing here.”

“Thank you. Should I leave the patient consent forms with you, or do I give them to someone else?”

Sherrie thumbed through the forms, wrinkling her nose. “You think he’s going to let you in a room … with his patients?”

“I don’t think he has a choice.”

Sherrie rolled her eyes, not bothering to conceal her amusement, and shook her head. “Good luck with that, honey.”

She showed Alexa to a small room, where she waited for nearly three hours, watching patients escorted back and forth by medical assistants, staff scurrying about, and Cole Harrington moving easily through the hall like he owned the place, laughing and chatting easily with patients and staff. Everyone, including Cole, ignored her.

She hadn’t eaten lunch, but she’d refilled her water bottle a few times and now needed to find a bathroom.

She poked her head into the lab. “Excuse me. Would you please tell me where the staff restrooms are?”

The lab tech didn’t bother to look away from the computer screen. “Around the corner, last door on the right.”

Another friendly, welcoming person, Alexa thought, heading around the corner. There was only one door, but it wasn’t marked. She shrugged, and knocked tentatively. When no one answered, she turned the knob and carefully pushed the door open. Not a bathroom, but an exam room—fortunately unoccupied.

She shut the door, and turned to find Cole Harrington scowling at her, like she’d defaced the Holy Grail. He grabbed her elbow and ushered her down the hall so quickly her feet barely skimmed the floor. When they reached his personal office, he released her and closed the door firmly behind him.

“What do you think you’re doing, entering patient areas without permission? What if a patient had been undressing or undergoing a procedure in that room?”

“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean to go into an exam room. I was trying to find a bathroom. That’s all.”

 

* * *

 

Cole studied her. She looked different from when he’d first met her. For one thing, she’d brushed her hair. It was sleek and glossy, prim and proper, fitting for a professional in conservative clothing. But he preferred it tousled and approachable, the way it’d been in her office. It suited her better, particularly in his fantasies involving lace panties and a bejeweled navel.

Her eyes were no longer bright blue. They were washed out, weary, defeated. He filled his cheeks with air and blew it out with a loud whoosh, running a hand over his stubble.

She was going to be a thorn in his side for the next six weeks. He could make her life a living hell for a month and a half without much effort. But where was the joy in that? This debacle wasn’t her doing. He’d reminded himself of this over and over all afternoon. That prick Chet had put them all in this position.

She fidgeted, waiting for him to continue to berate her, but she didn’t run away with her tail between her legs or dissolve into a puddle of tears. Had to respect that. Fucking Chet.

Cole stuck his hand in his lab coat pocket and toyed with a lone paper clip. He’d make the best of it—play their little game. It would be easier on his staff and patients if he didn’t fight her every step of the way. It would be easier on him, too. He just hoped when the lovely rose blossomed, her thorns weren’t vicious or poisonous.

“Look, I know this pretty much sucks for you, too, but we need to come to some understanding that won’t compromise patients. There’s a bathroom through there.” He pointed to a door in the far corner of the room. “You can wait in here until I’m done seeing patients. Leave the door open, and you’ll be able to hear if I do something particularly undesirable you can write about.” He shook his head and walked out.