Authors: Alexis Morgan
t had been a long day and Jana’s feet hurt, but the buzzer signaled that someone needed her. Patient hours at the free clinic had ended forty-five minutes ago, but folks in the area knew that she often stuck around after the doors were locked. This time, though, she already had her coat on and keys in hand. Another two minutes and she would have been gone.
She peeked through the blinds. It wasn’t in her to turn away someone in need, but she wasn’t going to open the door blindly, especially with the rest of the staff gone. If she had any doubts about the real intent of the person, she’d call 911 and ask for a police cruiser to stop by.
But one look had her swiftly unlocking the door. Dripping blood made a pretty strong case for someone who needed medical help. Dan, who owned the bar down the block, entered with another man whose hand was encased in a bar towel soaked through with blood. It wasn’t the first time one of Dan’s customers had needed emergency care. He did his best to run a quiet neighborhood bar, but he still drew a pretty rough crowd at times.
“Take him into the first room on the left while I put my things away.”
Jana stripped off her coat and set her purse and keys on the counter before joining the two men in the small examination room. When she walked in, Dan stood up. “Sorry to desert you, Jana, but I’d rather not leave the bar unattended. Considering how badly my friend here was bleeding, there wasn’t time to shoo everyone out and close up, especially if we wanted to catch you before you left. This is Emmett Sloan, my new bartender, and I’ll vouch for his good behavior.”
She studied her patient briefly before nodding. “Good enough for me. Just be sure to throw the lock on your way out.”
Dan stopped in front of Emmett. “Call me if you can’t finish your shift. The bar will pick up the tab for Jana’s services, and if you need a prescription filled or anything else, bring me the receipts.”
“Okay, boss, but I really hate to cause all this fuss. It’s just a minor cut.”
Dan pointed toward the bloody towel on Emmett’s hand. “That’s not minor.” He shot a disgusted look toward Jana. “Save me from noble fools. I wanted to call the paramedics, but he wouldn’t let me. I almost had to knock him out and drag him down here.”
Considering the size difference between the two men, she would have liked to have seen that. Dan was a tough nut, but he was five foot nine and probably weighed a hundred and sixty pounds, tops. The bartender topped six feet by half a dozen inches and probably had a good eighty pounds over his boss, all of it muscle.
“I’ll send him back to you soon, Dan.” Then she smiled at her patient. “Sorry to meet you under these circumstances, Mr. Sloan, but I’ll take good care of you.”
He winced as he settled onto a chair in the corner. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice, especially since you were on your way home.”
“Not a problem. I don’t have anywhere I need to be tonight. Sorry to make you move again, but let’s get you up on the table and lying down.” Jana gave him a quick grin, cutting off his immediate protest. “I know you’d rather sit in the chair while I stitch you up. But on the off chance that you get dizzy from the blood loss, it’ll be easier on both of us if I don’t have to try to scrape a guy your size up off the floor.”
He didn’t look any happier, but at least he didn’t argue. As soon as she had him situated, she picked up a blank chart and started asking the minimum number of questions she needed answered before she could safely render treatment. Unlike a lot of her patients, he had both an address and a job. He was also older than she expected. He looked as if he might be around twenty-five but he was more than ten years older than that. Talk about good genes.
“One last question, Mr. Sloan, and then we can get you all fixed up. Any allergies to medications or to latex?”
Emmett frowned before he answered. “No problems with latex that I know of, but don’t bother with any painkillers, Doc. They don’t work right for me.”
She looked up from her notes. “What do you mean? What kind of symptoms do you get from them?”
He shrugged. “Nothing bad, but evidently I metabolize them different than most folks. You might as well shoot me up with distilled water as give me lidocaine, for all the effect it has.”
Jana considered their options. “I can suture the wound if you think you can stay still, even though it’s going to hurt like heck. Otherwise, I’ll drive you to the nearest emergency room. They’re better equipped to handle injuries when the patient has unusual reactions to medications.”
“No hospitals. They give me the creeps.” He put his other arm behind his head to prop it up. “I can take the pain, Doc. I’ve done it before.”
“All right; I’ll try to make it quick. And to be clear, I’m a nurse practitioner, not a doctor. I report to the doctor who’s in charge of the clinic, but I do most of the heavy lifting. And we don’t go for much formality around here. How about you call me Jana, and I’ll call you Emmett?”
She got out a sterilized tray that contained everything she’d need, disinfected her hands, then put on gloves and peeled back the towel. She winced as she wiped away some of the blood to get a better look. The cut on the palm of his hand was jagged and long. It didn’t appear to be deep enough to have caused any muscle or nerve damage, though.
She disinfected his hand, wiped away the sluggish flow of blood, and started closing the wound. As she worked, she was conscious of his dark gray eyes following her every move. Normally she didn’t like being stared at, but maybe it helped him ignore the pain. For sure, she gave Emmett full points for his stoicism. He barely flinched whenever the needle pierced his skin.
“Two more and we’ll be done.”
A few moments later, Jana tied off the last stitch. She cleaned the area around the wound one last time and watched to see if the bleeding had finally stopped. Satisfied with the results, she bandaged the wound.
“That should do it, Emmett. You were lucky.” She set her tray aside. “How did this happen?”
He held up his hand as if to check out her work. “It was no big deal. A couple of bottles got knocked over behind the bar. When I went to catch one of them, it hit the edge of the counter and broke just as I grabbed it. I don’t know which hurt worse—the glass cutting into my hand, or the cheap whiskey hitting the open wound.”
His grin brought one of her own. “At least the alcohol will have killed off any germs that you might have picked up.”
“There is that.”
She gave his good hand a tug to help him sit up. “Sit there for a minute to make sure you don’t feel dizzy.”
While keeping an eye on him, she added a prescription for an antibiotic to his chart notes. “I’m going to call in a prescription for a week’s worth of an antibiotic to the all-night pharmacy two blocks south of here. It should be ready when you get off work.”
There was no delicate way to say this next part. Either he’d take offense or he wouldn’t, but it needed to be said. “I ordered the generic version, so it shouldn’t be too expensive. But if you don’t have the money to pay for the prescription, tell the pharmacist to charge it to my account. Since Dan said he’d reimburse you for the cost, one of you can pay me back when you get the chance.”
He just said, “Not a problem. I’ve got the cash.”
“Good. Be sure to take all of it as prescribed. You don’t want to risk an infection.” She handed him a plastic bag containing a few packs of sterile gauze, a roll of surgical tape, and a handful of adhesive strips. “As long as you’re feeling all right, you can head back to work. Keep the wound clean and dry. Change the bandage tomorrow, and watch for signs of infection—redness, swelling, increased pain. Otherwise, come back in a week so I can take the stitches out for you. We take appointments during the day, but we operate on a walk-in basis for the last couple of hours of the day.”
When he stood up, Jana had to retreat a couple of steps to give him enough room to move. She’d known he was a big man, but wow. Though she was five nine, this guy made her feel petite—something that didn’t happen very often. With those stony gray eyes and buzzed haircut, there was a definite edge to him. She also hadn’t missed the prison tats peeking out from the rolled-up cuffs of his flannel shirt. Ordinarily she would’ve been nervous being alone with a man like him, yet she wasn’t. Maybe it was because he’d remained so calm the entire time. Besides, Dan wouldn’t have left her alone with Emmett if he’d thought he posed any kind of threat to her.
In truth, if she had to put a name to what she was feeling right now, it would have to be something between intrigued and attracted. She wrote the odd reaction off to tiredness.
Jana followed Emmett out of the examination room. When he reached the front door of the clinic, he stopped. “I’ll wait until you’re ready to leave, and walk you to your car.”
Okay, now she was nervous. How did he know she’d driven to work instead of taking the bus? Before she could ask, he nodded toward the counter where she’d tossed her coat, purse, and car keys. Oh, right.
“That’s okay. My car is down in the lot just past Dan’s bar. I’ll be fine. I walk it all the time.”
He clearly didn’t like leaving her alone, but at least he didn’t argue.
Once he was gone, she put the examination room back to rights and went through the rest of the small clinic one last time to make sure everything was locked up tight. Afterward, she gathered up her things and headed out into the night. She’d only gone a few steps when she spotted Emmett standing nearby in the shadow of a building.
When he realized he’d been caught, he left the alley and headed straight for her, stopping a few feet away. “Look, Jana, I’m not stalking you. Just making sure you reach your car safely. I know you’re used to walking to your car alone, but it’s a lot later than usual because you stayed to stitch me up.”
There was no missing the real concern in his voice. “Fine, Emmett, but just this once. I’ve been working at the clinic for a long time now and never had any problems. The people around here know me.”
He fell into step beside her, shortening his stride to match hers. He seemed content to walk in silence, but she gave in to the urge to make conversation. “I haven’t seen you around before. How long have you been working for Dan?”
“About a month.” He glanced down at her. “Before that I was in prison. I just got out after fifteen years.”
The ex-con label had long ago lost its ability to shock her. A fair number of her regular patients had spent time in prison, or at least a stretch or two in jail. “Well, you landed in the right place. Dan’s a good guy.”
“Seems like it.”
Emmett stopped under the dim light of a store window. “You didn’t ask why I was in prison, Jana. Seems like something you might want to know about a guy who’s walking with you down a dark street at night.” He sounded genuinely puzzled by her lack of curiosity.
Many people doubtless rejected him because of his size and his record, and she reached out to touch his arm, to let him know that neither of those things mattered. “If you were any danger to me, Dan would never have left me alone with you. Even with the bar open, he would’ve stayed until we were done. He’s done it before, when a couple of his customers got rowdy.”
Emmett clearly wasn’t happy with her assessment of the situation. “Dan has only known me a short time. Neither of you knows what I’m capable of.”
Did he want her to be afraid of him? That made no sense. “Okay, Emmett, you seem to want me to ask, so I will. Why were you in prison?”
He stared past her, his eyes lost somewhere in the past. “When I was young and stupid, I waded into a fight where members of a gang were beating up on another teenager. While I was peeling the others off the kid, he and the gang leader got into it but good. The gang leader ended up hitting his head on the corner of a brick building and went down, knocked out cold. He never woke up. The teenager ran off before the police got there, and the gang was out for blood. They pointed at me and told the cops that I’d started the fight and deliberately killed their friend. With no witnesses to the contrary, the conviction was pretty much a slam dunk. Because I was twenty-two and the dead kid was underage, I got twenty-five years.”
“So you’re out on parole?”
He finally looked back down at her. “No, actually, I was exonerated when the kid I was trying to help finally came forward and told the truth about what happened. Seems he found religion or something. The DA and the police weren’t very easy to convince; they didn’t like finding out that they’d convicted the wrong guy. Luckily for me, the public defender appointed to me years ago had kept in touch and went to bat for me.”
Stories like Emmett’s rarely had such happy endings. “I’m sorry he waited so long, but I’m glad your name’s been cleared. Good for you!”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Yeah. It’s good, all right, though I’m still trying to get used to being on the outside. A lot has changed since I went away.”
As he spoke, he scanned the area around them. She wondered if he’d always been that cautious, or if it was leftover from his time in prison. He seemed unusually calm about having lost fifteen years of his life for a crime he hadn’t committed, but maybe he was simply good at hiding his emotions.
“Well, that’s my car, so this is where we part. Thank you again for walking with me, Emmett. See you in a week. Sooner if you have any problems.” She smiled up at him. “We’ll probably cross paths occasionally since this is a pretty close-knit neighborhood. Hopefully the next time won’t involve blood and stitches.”
His laugh was a deep rumble. “Yeah. Thanks again for everything, Jana.”
He waited until she pulled out of the parking lot. She waved one last time and headed uptown toward her house. Before she turned the corner, she glanced up at her review mirror for one last look. He had reached Dan’s bar, but had stopped to watch until she was out of sight.
What an interesting man. One she’d be seeing again. For some reason, that thought had her smiling all the way home.
mmett wiped down the counter and checked the time. Five more minutes before his boss would relieve him for his break. So far, Dan had turned out to be easy to work for. All he asked was for his employees to show up on time and give him a fair day’s work for the money. The handful of people who worked at the bar all seemed nice enough, but Emmett had no desire to see them outside of the job.
It was easier to go it solo than to worry about having to hide his secrets from the people around him. If no one got close, they couldn’t learn what kind of freak he really was. Looking back, he’d always been pretty much of a loner, and fifteen years of being forced to live locked up with some of the most violent scum around only made him more so. For now, he was happy to spend his off hours on his own. He treated Dan’s customers with courtesy but made no effort to get to know anything else about them other than their favorite brand of beer and how they liked their burgers.
Dan stepped out of his small office and headed right for him. Emmett finished the order he’d been filling when Dan arrived. “These are for the table over there in the corner.”
“Got it. See you in a few minutes.”
If Dan had noticed that Emmett timed his breaks to correspond to when Jana usually walked to her car, he hadn’t said anything. Maybe he was smart enough to know it wasn’t any of his business. Emmett grabbed his jacket before heading out into the darkness. Filling his lungs with fresh air never got old, and his vision quickly adjusted to the darkness. Doctors had never been able to give him an explanation as to why his eyes were so sensitive to light. Their only advice was to wear good sunglasses. They found his strange ability to heal even more puzzling.
To keep Jana from discovering how fast he healed, Emmett had taken out his own stitches two days after he’d been injured instead of returning to the clinic. Now, just shy of a week later, even the scar was barely visible. If Jana came looking for him, he planned to lie and say his regular doctor had taken care of it.
He ducked into his usual hiding spot in the alley two buildings up from the bar, which afforded him a view of Jana’s entire route from the clinic to her car. He was tall enough to peek over a huge Dumpster, making it unlikely that she’d spot him as she walked past. Leaning against the wall, he settled in to wait. It didn’t take long before he heard the familiar sound of her footsteps.
He thought Jana was naïve for thinking this area was safe for a woman alone, but he wasn’t going to be the one to burst her bubble. Same as always, she came striding down the block, her chocolate-brown hair brushing her shoulders and those long legs of hers drawing his gaze the same as they had every night. This time she was carrying two big boxes and looking blissfully unaware of any potential danger that could be lurking in the area. However, when Jana drew even with the alley, she turned to look straight at him. Rats, busted.
After a quick glance up and down the block, she set the boxes down on the sidewalk and headed right for him. Instead of ripping into him, she put her hands on her hips and gave him a narrowed-eyed look softened with the barest hint of a smile. “Emmett Sloan, I’d like to remind you that I’m a big girl and capable of taking care of myself. However, if you’re going to insist on making sure I get to my car safely, you might as well make yourself useful and carry those boxes for me. There are four more just like them back by the clinic door.”
He held up his hands in surrender and left his hiding spot behind. “Yes, ma’am.”
Back on the other side of the street, he picked up the boxes and let her lead the way. After he stashed them in the back of her car, the two of them headed back toward the clinic. As they walked, she asked, “How’s your hand?”
He stuck it out palm side up. At least he’d been smart enough to keep a bandage on it as camouflage. “No problems, no pain.”
“That’s good. And you’re taking your antibiotic?”
Rather than admit he hadn’t bothered, he asked a question of his own. “Do you often do follow-up care out on the street?”
“Sometimes. You might find it hard to believe, but some of my patients don’t always follow my advice. When that happens, I hunt them down.”
Emmett hoped she was kidding, but one look at her face made it clear that she was dead serious. “Tell me you don’t go prowling these streets by yourself, not at night anyway.”
She gave him an impish smile. “I could tell you that, but I try not to lie to my friends.”
He didn’t know which shocked him more: that she’d risk her own safety like that or that she might consider him a friend. They’d only spent a few minutes in each other’s company although there was something about this particular woman that really appealed to him. Granted, it had been a decade and a half since he’d had a physical relationship with anyone other than his own right hand, but it was more than that.
Hell, he didn’t even know all that much about her except for the few tidbits he’d picked up eavesdropping on people talking in the bar. Jana had been working at the clinic for four years, and he’d yet to hear anything negative about either her or the services she provided. On the other hand, a couple of people had expressed concern about how long the clinic could afford to keep the doors open unless they found a new source of funding. Emmett bet Jana hated having that worry hanging over her head all the time.
They reached the clinic door and picked up the last four boxes. She protested when he insisted on taking three himself, which left her with only one to carry. They weren’t all that heavy, especially for him, but he couldn’t resist teasing her a bit. “If I had to guess, I’d think you filled these things with rocks.”
She nodded. “Right on the first guess. I find a good knock on the head gets the attention of even my most stubborn patients. Say, for instance, this one guy who still hasn’t answered my question about taking his antibiotics.”
Should he lie or let her find out that he wasn’t exactly normal? In the end, the answer was easy. He waited until after they’d reached her car and shoved the boxes inside. “No, I didn’t bother with the antibiotics for the simple reason I never need them. Not only does my body burn through pain meds, I heal way faster than other people do.”
To make his point, he moved directly under a nearby streetlight and yanked the bandage off. It was hard not to shove his hand in his pocket out of sight, but he finally held it out for her inspection. She stared down at his nearly unblemished palm for the longest time before raising her dark eyes back up to meet his. “If I hadn’t stitched it up myself, I would think you’d never tangled with that broken bottle at all. That’s—”
When she hesitated, he filled in the blank for her. “Freakish, bizarre, weird.”
She smacked him on the arm. “Emmett! Stop that. I wasn’t going to say any of those awful things.”
“Why should you be any different? It’s what I’ve heard my whole life.” He curled his hand into a fist as the memories came flooding back. “Hell, it’s part of the reason I was convicted in the first place. Even my own lawyer had a hard time believing that those punks I fought got in their fair share of good punches and kicks. By the next day, they were still bruised up and hurting while I looked as if I hadn’t even been touched. If some reporter hadn’t snapped a couple of pictures at the time, I would have been totally screwed.”
She reached out to cradle his fist with both of her hands, her touch gentle and warm. “Let me look again. Please.”
He slowly unclenched his fingers, his breath catching in his throat as she traced the faint line of the scar with her fingertip. “It’s not sore or anything?”
“It was tender for a couple of days, but that’s all.”
Finally, she entwined her fingers with his. “I always carry a few extra bandages in my purse. Do you want one to cover it up again before you go back to work?”
He hadn’t thought that far ahead. Dan would notice for sure since he’d banned Emmett from washing any dishes until Jana gave him a clean bill of health. “It might be a good idea. I’ll tell Dan that you said I could go back to regular duties on Monday.”
“Let me know if you need a signed release or anything. Meanwhile, I think I’ll head on over to the bar with you. I’ve had a hankering for one of Dan’s double cheeseburgers and a big pile of sweet potato fries all week.”
They crossed the street together, but Emmett stopped short of going in the bar. “I’ll wait a couple of minutes before I come in. That way people won’t think we were together.”
She immediately hooked her arm through his. “And why would I care about that? Now, let’s go in before Dan has my head for keeping you out here so long.”
Emmett let her tug him through the door. As he walked behind the bar to resume his duties, he watched Jana greet several people in the bar before perching herself on one of the stools at the bar right in front of Dan.
His boss wiped the counter in front of her. “The usual, Jana?”
She sighed dramatically. “I try to stay away, Dan, but I can hear your evil burgers calling my name every night as I walk to my car. Even knowing they’re bad for my arteries, sometimes I just can’t resist. It’s a weakness.”
Dan laughed. “And I tell you every time you complain about my cooking that you could order a single burger wrapped in lettuce with no cheese and have a salad instead of the fries.”
Jana looked horrified. “And destroy the perfection of the thing?”
“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t offer you the healthier side of my cuisine.” As he spoke, he popped the cap on a local microbrew and set it front of her. “This is on the house. It’s a new one I just started stocking, and I’d like your opinion.”
Emmett watched as she took a long drink before setting the bottle back down on the bar. She made the simple act of drinking a beer appear almost sensuous. As if sensing his attention, she glanced in his direction and smiled. “Hey, boss man. One more thing. If Emmett was late getting back from his break, blame it on me. When we ran into each other outside, I conned him into carrying some heavy boxes from the clinic to my car for me.”
Dan’s gaze bounced from Jana to Emmett and back again. “No problem. It’s about time you let someone give you a helping hand. We all know you work too hard. Now I’ll go fix that burger for you.”
Emmett waited until his boss was back in the kitchen before approaching Jana himself. “You didn’t have to cover for me. If he had problems with me being gone a few extra minutes, I would have handled it.”
“I would have done the same for anyone, Emmett. Don’t sweat it.”
Before he could respond, Meg, the waitress on duty, brought him a stack of orders to fill. While he made a couple of frou-frou drinks and stuck some of those stupid umbrellas in them, Jana left her spot at the bar to talk with a few people in the place. Most seemed glad to see her, but a few ducked their heads and looked guilty. If he had to guess, they were more of her patients who hadn’t checked in lately. Even they ended up chatting with her. Okay, so maybe she was right, and he was overreacting. He hadn’t known her well enough to realize she treated everyone with the same warmth and friendliness, so she wasn’t singling him out for special attention.
He should be relieved. Instead, it pissed him off. He looked away from her and drew a couple of draft beers for some regulars who’d come in and sat at their usual spot at the far end of the bar. When he finished delivering the drinks, Dan had returned with Jana’s order. In fact, he was carrying two baskets filled with huge burgers and piled high with fries. He shoved one at Emmett. “Take your dinner break.”
What the hell? “I just got back from break. My dinner isn’t for another hour.”
“I know what the schedule says, but Meg needs to cut out early tonight for some event at her kid’s school. We’ll have to cover her tables after she leaves.”
Emmett glanced toward the waitress in the back corner of the bar. It had to be hard to work evenings when she had kids at home, although he’d never heard her complain about it. He fixed himself a soft drink and took his basket to the back corner of the bar where he usually sat. Most nights people him left alone to eat his meal in peace, but evidently this wasn’t most nights. No sooner had he settled in than a shadow fell across his table.
“Mind some company? I hate to eat alone.”
Emmett normally preferred it himself, but he pushed the opposite chair out from the table with his foot. “Have a seat.”
Jana sat down and reached for the bottle of ketchup and poured a lake of it over her fries. Then she added a couple of good shakes of hot sauce over the top for good measure. Emmett snickered. “Like some fries with your ketchup and hot sauce soup there, lady?”
She gave him a superior look as she fished a fry from the pile and nibbled on it. “I find that I like a fifty-fifty mix of fries and ketchup. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.”
He eyed the disgusting sight with suspicion. “Sorry, I think I’ll pass.”
For the next few minutes the two of them concentrated on their food. Dan’s cooking wasn’t anything fancy, but he made a mean burger. On some nights, Emmett devoured two of the huge double cheeseburgers but figured Jana wouldn’t be able to finish even one. He would have lost that bet, though. She actually beat him to the finish line and was licking the last of the ketchup off her fingers when he swallowed the last bite of his sandwich.
“God, that was good.” Jana leaned back in her chair looking pretty damn pleased with life. Then her eyes zeroed in on his basket as he set it aside. “Hey, you’re not going to let those last few fries go to waste, are you?”
Emmett shoved the basket across to her side of the table. “Knock yourself out.”
She started to reach for one but pulled her hand back. “No, I shouldn’t make a pig of myself, especially when it’s only the first time we’ve shared a meal. I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression.”
He suspected she was only teasing, but that left one question unanswered. If this was only their first meal, was she assuming there would be others? Interesting, but there was only one way to find out. He checked the time and saw that his dinner break was about over. It was time to man up and make his move even though the words he wanted to say were jumbled up in his throat in a huge knot. Finally, he forced them out, his normally deep voice sounding like five miles of gravel road as he spoke.