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“Usually we’re wearing gloves,” I say, suddenly sounding like I’m high out of my mind.
I stare down at my hand. “In the operating room, when you hand me instruments, we’re wearing gloves. That’s why…”
This feels so intimate.
I swallow the words and release her hand.
“I think I should just go home. This night has been a total disaster.”
I regret letting go of her as she starts to walk away.
I’m screwing this up, but there’s no clear path forward. Do I let her go? Ask her to stay? We work together and she came with my brother and no part of this night makes any sense.
“What if my brother was right?” I say suddenly. “What if his experiment worked?”
She turns and her eyes collide with mine. I watch as the meaning of my questions sink in and HOLY SHIT what have I done? Why did I say that?!
“There you are!” Cooper’s voice booms behind her. His timing is impeccable as he approaches us and drops his hands onto Bailey’s shoulders. She flinches, but he doesn’t notice. “C’mon, they want everyone to head into the ballroom. Dinner is starting!”
Oh yes, just what I was hoping for: a five-course meal following the weirdest conversation of my life. I’m not hungry. My stomach has been replaced by a knot of tension, and yet here I sit at a banquet table with Cooper and his entire family. Short of feigning a sudden illness, there no way to escape sitting here for another hour or so. I keep trying to catch the waiter’s attention so I can somehow signal for him to poison my food, or at the very least deliver me a drink with a heavy pour. Unfortunately, he just thinks I’m flirting—he passes me his number when he delivers the next course.
Dr. Russell is sitting across from me, brooding Mr. Darcy style and drawing the attention of every female in attendance who isn’t related to him by blood. Even then, I think a few of his cousins would go there. Now, the waitress filling his water is focused so intently on his hair that she doesn’t realize his cup runneth over. What is it about jet black, slightly rumpled, grip-it-while-he’s-kissing-you-senseless hair that turns brains to goop?
She shakes herself out of her stupor just before the water starts to pool onto the table.
The banquet table is long, but not nearly wide enough. If I’m not careful, our knees will brush ever so slightly. It’s happened twice now and the sensation of his smooth suit pants caressing my leg is nothing short of erotic. I find the only way to stifle a moan is by filling my mouth with bread. Consequently, the knot in my stomach has been replaced with a massive ciabatta loaf.
The other female guests aren’t the only ones making googly eyes at Dr. Russell. Considering I’m sitting right across from him, I’ve had no choice but to peer at him from beneath my lashes and collect data like I’m a scientist and he’s some newfound species of hunk. Here are my thoughts:
1) His eyes are the clearest blue, like that White Walker general in Game of Thrones. Fitting comparison considering they also share a similar personality.
2) The fact that he’s taken off his jacket and hung it on the chair behind him is fine, but did he really need to roll the sleeves of his shirt up as well? We don’t all need to be subjected to that level of forearm porn while eating dinner, tyvm.
3) He’s a really terrible dinner companion. I think he’s said three words to the people around him. I know this because I have one ear trained directly on him. If he so much as swallows, I notice.
4) He will not meet my eye no matter how hard I try. I think he regrets what he told me earlier.
I can’t decide if I want him to regret what he told me earlier.
That’s a door I’ve never considered opening before tonight.
“So Bailey, how long have you been a surgical assistant?”
The question comes from Mrs. Russell, who happens to be seated to my left. Oh yes, I’m surrounded by Russells on all sides. This would be a nightmare if Mrs. Russell wasn’t one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. To continue the Game of Thrones comparisons, she would be Samwell Tarly: kind, helpful, and always down for a snack. She’s helping me finish off the bread basket.
“A few years now. I really like it even though it’s not what I initially thought I’d be doing.”
“Oh, really? Was medicine not always the end goal?”
“No, it was. I just thought I’d end up in a different role. I started out taking pre-med courses in college, but life got in the way a bit.” Her brows crinkle with pity and I quickly add, “I really like what I do now though.”
“Cooper tells me you take care of your younger sister? Is that what forced you to reroute?”
Reroute—what a nice euphemism for the chaos of that time in my life.
“Yes, but truly, it’s better this way. I love having Josie live with me.”
I’m expecting her to ask why my parents aren’t in the picture, and I dread having to tell the truth. The tale is bleak: slick ice on a dark road. My parents were driving home from a holiday party when my father lost control of the vehicle. I flinch at the memory of their mangled car.
Fortunately, Mrs. Russell steers the conversation in a different direction.
“How old were you when you became your sister’s guardian?”
“Goodness.” She shakes her head in pity. “You’ve had to grow up so fast.”
I shrug. “Maybe, but it taught me a lot. I don’t resent having to take care of her.”
Her hand hits my forearm and her eyes meet mine, and I’m embarrassed that I’m suddenly getting choked up. It’s that kindness in her eyes making me feel like she’s found the chink in my armor, the ooey-gooey center of my Tootsie Roll Pop I try so hard to hide.
“I didn’t know you take care of your sister,” Dr. Russell says from across the table, his deep voice cutting through the chatter around us.
I still, keeping my gaze pinned on Mrs. Russell. I didn’t know he was listening. With all the conversations taking place around us, it would have been hard for him to hear me clearly.
Unfortunately, when I finally work up the courage to glance over, those White Walker-blue eyes are studying me intently. There’s no doubt he’s heard every word. Dread fills my stomach. I want to go back to a few minutes ago when he was ignoring me, because the way he’s looking at me now, it’s like he’s also seeing my vulnerable spot. What a dangerous development. He already wields so much power, and I’ve just hand-delivered him even more.
Cooper laughs loudly on my right and the sound jars me out of the moment. I’m thankful at least he is carrying on like he’s at a wedding while the rest of us go deep into a therapy session. I don’t need any more of an audience listening to my familial woes.
“I wish you had told me,” Dr. Russell says, his dark brows crinkled in concern.
I clear my throat, trying to ease the tension there. “You’ve never asked about my life outside of the hospital.”
He looks stricken by my comment, and I instantly regret the way it sounded. His mother is still listening, after all. I don’t really think it’s appropriate to chastise him in front of her.
“And,” I clarify, “it’s not something I talk about all that often.”
After that, dinner lasts for another unbearable hour. I sit in silence, Dr. Russell nurses a few drinks, and Mrs. Russell carries the conversation for all of us. I practically leap out of my chair when they clear away the last plate, bumping into the waiter who gave me his number.
“Hey, uh…I’m not sure if you came with anyone tonight…”
Oh dear GOD.
I sidestep around him and run for the bathroom, and even though I want to cut in front of the bride’s grandma and a tiny flower girl hopping back and forth from leg to leg, I don’t. I lean against the wall and wait my turn so I can lock myself in a stall and linger for as long as I damn well please.