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Her high cheekbones are doused with even more color and then she shifts quickly to get out of my way. “Oh god, sorry. Clearly, I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“What’s in there?” I ask, motioning to the Tupperware. “It smells good.”
“This? Oh, well…” She holds it up, pauses, and then looks back at me as she shrugs. “It’s a bribe.”
I finish unlocking the door then stand back and arch a brow in her direction. “A bribe?”
She chews on the corner of her bottom lip to keep from smiling. “Yes. Banana bread. Patricia said it was your favorite, so I made some for you on my day off.”
She should have been texting with Cooper, but instead, she was baking for me.
“Are you trying to make up for Monday?” I ask, no hint of humor in my tone.
I open my door and step inside, leaving it ajar so she can follow me in if she wants to. She does.
“Yes. Exactly.” She looks down at the container as if considering something and then glances back up, her gaze meeting mine. “I’m sorry for being late. There’s really no excuse, but you should know I’ve never been late before and I don’t intend on being late ever again. I figure an apology isn’t good enough, though, so my plan is to ply you with sweets.”
Then, for emphasis, she cracks the lid.
Damn, that smells good. Inside-of-a-bakery good. Grandma’s-kitchen good.
My stomach growls.
It occurs to me how different this exchange is from my previous encounters with surgical assistants. When Kirt stepped into my office, his knees shook. He avoided eye contact and hovered near the door as if to ensure a quick getaway. By contrast, Bailey seems confident—so confident, in fact, that she’s looking around the space, perusing it leisurely. She smiles at something and I follow her gaze to the toy basketball sitting by my couch. I forgot to put it back in my desk the other night.
I start to rummage through a few files for no other reason than to have an excuse to look away from her. She’s not in her scrubs yet. Her jeans are cute. Her puffer jacket is pink. Her hair is golden blonde, angelic.
Cooper was right: she’s not my usual type.
The fact that I have to remind myself of that annoys me.
“The bribe is unnecessary,” I declare suddenly, wanting to make things perfectly clear to her. Her brows furrow and I continue, “For you to work for me, for us to be a good team, I don’t need to like you. You don’t have to bake for me. Just show up on time and do a good job. How about that?”
“But I want you to like me,” she says, sounding baffled at the idea that she has to explain herself.
I shrug like it’s not a big deal. “If it helps, I don’t really like anyone who works here save for Patricia, and I think that’s actually just mutual respect.”
“So for you, it’s better to respect someone than to like them?”
I look up to see her head tilted to the side. She’s studying me with furrowed brows. This wisp of a girl is putting me under a microscope in my own office and I don’t like it.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The edge of her mouth softens and then tilts up into an alluring smile. “So, there’s no hope for us? As friends?”
She’s teasing me and right here, in this moment, there’s a hopeful feeling blooming in my chest. My cold dead heart might not be completely out of commission after all.
Then, I do the only logical thing: I shove that feeling aside.
“No. There’s no hope.”
Not as friends, and not as anything more, though I feel stupid even having to clarify that to myself. I would never even consider Bailey attractive if Cooper hadn’t shifted her into the category for me. These errant thoughts are his fault.
She nods, and I’m surprised to see she doesn’t look upset. In fact, she looks relieved. She snaps the lid back on the Tupperware. “Then I’ll just take this bread to the break room. No point in it going to waste. See you in surgery!”
Then she saunters out.
She leaves my office and takes my damn banana bread with her.
What a colossal waste of my time. I cringe thinking of how carefully I measured out those ingredients yesterday. I hovered near our ancient stove, face inches from the glass, sweat beading down my forehead from how much heat that sucker was putting off, just to ensure the loaf didn’t burn.
Baking was my way of trying to gain control of the situation. I’d already memorized the procedural steps for today’s surgery and I was still a ball of anxiety. As proof: my alarm clock went off at 5:15 AM this morning. Then, my ancient clock radio started blaring pop music, and seconds later, my sister’s fist started pounding against my door.
“HEY! Did you set my alarm?! The sun isn’t even up, you psycho. Let me sleep! I’m an adolescent! My brain is still growing!”
I had no choice. I needed to be sure I didn’t oversleep again so I took every necessary precaution, including waking up my sister. My clothes were already laid out on the floor as if I’d been raptured right out of them the night before. My shoes were untied and ready to go. My toothbrush was pre-loaded. I was outside, shivering at my bus stop fifteen minutes after waking up.
I was going to make a stellar second impression, and I was confident of this right up until I arrived outside of Dr. Russell’s office and found it empty. The hallway was quiet. I grew nervous. I stared down at my Tupperware, wondering if maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. What if he’s allergic to nuts?
Oh right, I didn’t use any nuts.
I was seconds away from bolting when I heard his deep, unwelcoming voice down the hall.
“Are you waiting for me?”
I glanced up and nearly swallowed my tongue. My gut clenched as I blinked a comical number of times, trying to comprehend how a robot could be so beautiful. He was wearing a navy suit that set off his dark, thick hair. His camel coat was tossed over his forearm. His hard jaw was locked tight as he assessed me suspiciously upon his approach.
I suddenly felt silly and adolescent standing there waiting for him. I cursed my outfit, wishing I’d already changed into my scrubs. My tennis shoes were scuffed. His brown oxfords looked as if they’d been shined mere seconds before. My jacket had been purchased at a thrift store. His looked bespoke.
He kept walking until he was standing right in front of me, and my neck craned back and back some more until that blue gaze knocked the air right out of my lungs. Oof.
I haven’t been around many men like Dr. Russell in my life. Standing close to him in a quiet hallway was thrilling in the same way a death-defying rollercoaster is thrilling…maybe one that hasn’t been inspected in a while, made of rickety wood and squeaky iron bars. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t survive the ride, but something made me want to step right up anyway.
He was studying me, too, and I wish I could have known what was going on in that microprocessor of his.
“Are you waiting for something?” I asked.
“You’re blocking my door. I can’t unlock it.”
Mortification drenched me from head to toe. I wanted to toss the bread at him and sprint down the hall. I forced myself to try to save face as I followed him into his office, but that was a stupid idea. Oh, you’re already feeling nervous? Step into the lion’s den. The first thing I noticed was that the room smelled like him. I hadn’t realized he had a distinct scent until that moment—crisp and woodsy. I had a weird, sudden urge to rub myself across his leather couch in the hopes that it’d linger on me after I left.
Scent aside, his office was a total mess, which I found oddly charming. There were no old food containers lying around, no trash overflowing the bin. Rather, it was messy in the way a well-loved kitchen is messy. Medical devices strewn about. Files stacked on his desk. His bookshelves were stuffed to the brim with medical texts, the overflow piled on the floor nearby. If I had a photographic memory, I would have memorized every spine.
At least I had fun encroaching on his space because the rest of the experience sucked mucho. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best showing (I told him I was trying to bribe him!) and then he made matters worse by turning down said bribe on all fronts. No bread, no friendship, no nothing. Apparently, my banana bread wasn’t as tempting as I’d hoped it’d be. I really thought Dr. Russell would go for it. What sane gluten-eating American turns down homemade baked goods?