Authors: Tina Beckett
Have you ever done something to protect a loved one? Something that hurt so deeply you thought you might never recover, but you did it anyway? Not everyone has had to make sacrifices like that, but I think most of us are willing to if it means the security and happiness of that other person.
This is the position that James Rothsberg found himself in when he unexpectedly fell for Mila Brightman. Only once he dropped the axe on their relationship he never expected to see her again. Years later Mila is back in town, and the two are forced to work together for the benefit of their community. And in doing so they find old feelings resurfacing at the worst of times.
Thank you for joining James and Mila as they struggle to get past old hurts and uncover secrets they thought long buried. And maybeâjust maybeâthey'll rediscover love along the way. I hope you enjoy reading their story as much as I loved writing it! Enjoy!
Three-time Golden Heart
learned to pack her suitcases almost before she learned to read. Born to a military family, she has lived in the United States, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Brazil. In addition to travelling, Tina loves to cuddle with her pug, Alex, spend time with her family, and hit the trails on her horse. Learn more about Tina from her website, or âfriend' her on Facebook.
To my husband and childrenâ¦always!
Six years ago
benefits to returning to civilization, texting being one of them.
Without it, she doubted she would survive this party.
No. Not party. “Charity event,” as these A-listers liked to call their swanky affairs.
Mila Brightman's thumbs glided over the keys with remembered ease.
I will let u know.
C'mon, Mila. He's gorgeous and newly single.
Perfect. Just what she needed. A
date to go with the charity event. She grinned at her own witticism. Okay, so her mental play on words hadn't been all that funny. But, then again, neither was this party.
He's ur bro. You have to say that. Does he even know u r trying to set him up on a date?
Not yet. But it'll be fine. And he is cute. Promise.
She hadn't even told him yet. Mila rolled her eyes, thumbs already responding.
That's what u said about the last guy.
She'd let her new friend Freya Rothsberg talk her into going on a different blind date a week ago. That particular man had been good-looking all right, but their date had stalled when he'd road-raged his way down Hollywood Boulevard. She'd ended up hopping out of the car at a stoplight and hailing a cab to take her home.
This is different. PROMISE.
Uh-oh. Her friend had used the word
twice in a row. This time in caps. Never a good sign. Freya was on the other side of the room, waiting for her supposedly gorgeous brother to arrive. Time to head her off at the pass. Maybe she could use humor to soften the blow.
With my luck ur bro is probably short and squatty. A real toad.
The screen stayed blank for almost a minute, and Mila wondered if she'd offended her friend. Then it lit up.
A toad? Really?
A smiley face followed the words. Whew! Not offended.
Yep. T.O.A.D. Warts and all.
Another long pause. Maybe the Wi-Fi reception in the hotel ballroom was glitching or something.
Why don't you look up and see?
Something about those words caused a shiver to ripple across her midsection. Swallowing, she glanced over the top of her screen.
Freya stood right in front of her. Eyes wide. Mouthing something. “I'm sorry.”
In that instant, Mila realized her friend was no longer holding a cell phone. Neither was she alone. And the person standing beside her was neither short nor squatty.
Oh. My. God.
Her thumbs pretend-typed the words as they sprinted through her head.
The man in the tuxedo was tall. Very tall. And gorgeous?
Yes. Oh, yes. He was also holding something up, turning the object to face her.
A phoneâwith all Mila's text messages surrounded by a bold blue bubble. The air left her lungs, and she struggled to breathe.
He'd read what she'd written. And suddenly the banter didn't seem quite so innocent. Or funny.
Before she could apologize, one side of the man's mouth tilted up, the movement carving out several craggy lines in his face. If she were a swooner she'd have keeled over by now.
“You know what they say about kissing toads. One of them might just turn out to be a prince.”
Her brain fought to process anything other than that low sexy tone. Although she could have sworn the word “kiss” had been in there somewhere. At least, she hoped it had.
She gulped, her eyes straying back to his mouth just as the other side tipped to form a smile that scorched across her senses. If she moved she feared she'd crumple into a pile of ash.
As if reading her thoughts, he passed the phone back to Freya, his gaze never leaving Mila's face. “Shall we test that theory?”
Before she knew what was happening, he'd swept her out onto the dance floor and off her feet. And when his kiss came a few hours later, just as the party was winding down, it was indeed magical. Only there was no need for any kind of transformation. Because James Evan Rothsberg already looked like a prince. A prince whose kiss was every bit as deadly as his smile.
Right then and there Mila knew, without a doubt, her world would never be the same.
No matter how many different ringtones James triedâand it seemed like he'd tried them allâhe still hated receiving text messages. The flat sound of his current tone was no different. His pulse sped up and his throat went dry, even though he knew it wasn't from Mila.
Losing the fun, sexy messages they'd used to exchange had been one of the hardest adjustments he'd had to make after calling off the wedding, and his no-texting rule was his way of trying to deal with that.
He shook himself from his stupor. Six years had changed nothing. No matter how right he'd been to break off their engagement, he couldn't blot out the image of the horror in his ex-fiancÃ©e's gorgeous hazel eyes when she'd realized it was over.
So were the intimate texts. All texts, in fact, since everyone around him was aware that he preferred actual phone calls to typed messages.
Besides, Mila had taken off to parts unknown soon after he'd skipped out on her, going back to Brazil, where she'd been doing relief work among indigenous people.
He'd had a damned good reason for leaving her at the altar: a panicked phone call from a former girlfriend telling him she was pregnant. And an unexpected betrayal by his father.
It didn't matter now that the whole thing had been a setup. That deception had turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Mila had been saved from being dragged into the reality that was his family, with its arguments and its never-ending scandals. His famous parents had been the darlings of the paparazzi for that very reasonâeven after their divorce years ago.
Mila might not have seen it at the time, but surely in the years since then she'd come to realize the narrow escape she'd had.
He'd never tried to contact her, even after he'd discovered what Cindy had done.
The phone sent him a reminder buzz.
He forced himself to look down at the screen as he exited his car along with the damned photographer the clinic had made him bring along to this meeting. The text was from Freya. The no-text rule had become a running joke with her. She would text him just because she knew how much he hated it. To try to provoke him to answer. It never worked. He always responded with a phone call. Or not at all.
It would seem she was still at it. And under the circumstances it was in extremely poor taste.
We saw you pull up. Waiting just inside.
We. That could only mean one thing. Freya wasn't alone inside that tiny building. Although he'd known she wouldn't be.
Hell. He'd hoped to have a moment or two to get his thoughts together, although he'd had plenty of time to prepare for this photo shoot. Over two months to plan his words down to the final punctuation mark.
Had he done that? No. He had not. Even during the twenty-minute drive out of the more secluded Hollywood Hills and into the city of Los Angeles itself he'd done no advance planning.
Morgan, the photographer the PR department had contracted, had been more than happy to keep up a steady stream of conversation. She might have been fishing, but James didn't care. He was no longer biting. He was fresh out of yet another superficial relationship, which the paparazzi had followed with glee. He was definitely not ready to test the waters again. Especially not with this meeting with Mila hanging over his head.
He'd avoided thinking about that particular woman. He'd decided that if he kept his head in the sand long enough, this whole damned situation could have just dissolved into nothing.
And he knew exactly who'd be on the other side of the door once he walked through it.
The woman who'd almost become his wife.
The woman who'd barely escaped that particular fate.
Thank God she had.
He didn't bother to respond to his sister's text. They both knew he was here, so there was no point. How, exactly, his sister had talked him into this arrangement he had no idea. The Hollywood Hills Clinic had been gliding along just fine without another addition to their efficient little family.
Except this was Freya. And Mila. Two women he'd always had trouble saying no to.
Sucking down a resigned breath and dragging a hand through his hair, he waited for Morgan and then he headed up the walk, stopping short when he spied a ragged square of cardboard taped to the outside of one of the clinic's windows. He was so used to the pristine opulence of his own medical center that the squat building huddled on the corner of a busy street seemed as foreign as the relief work Mila had once done. But the sign painted at the top of the clinic was bright and cheery, a bevy of colorful handprints forming an imaginary sidewalk that led to an artist's rendition of the buildingâonly whoever'd painted it had had quite an imagination because although the edifice was the same shape, the painted version was a welcoming place. And there were no cardboard patches in sight.
The photographer raised her camera, aiming it right at the broken window. James wrapped his fingers around the woman's, stopping her short. “No. Not that.”
Morgan frowned at him but lowered the camera. “So you only want the positive stuff?”
His eyes were still on the brown square in the window as they reached the front entrance. “That's what we're here for.”
Bright Hope Clinic. The painted lettering on the glass door matched the colors of the handprints on the sign. And the glass doors were spotlessly clean. His glance went back to the cardboard patch.
A sliver of unease worked its way through his gut. Not about Mila's safety. Of course not. About the soundness of his decision to allow a branch of this clinic to open inside his own. Freya's doing. Not his. But his damned board of directors had put him in charge of overseeing the opening of the facility. Which was why he was here, pricey photographer in tow.
The woman took a few shots of the sign and the door, dutifully avoiding the window. “We can go inside anytime you want.”
Before he could even reach for the door, however, it was flung open and Freya stood there. “Come on, James, what's taking you so long?”
“What happened to the window?” He nodded toward the offending cardboard, not sure he even wanted to know the answer.
Although he couldn't see Mila, she was just inside the dark entrance of the clinic. The growing pressure in his chest told him that. Schooling the rest of his body to mimic the bland mask he wore on his face, he made no move to go inside.
“Oh...um...” Freya glanced behind her. “It's nothing. Probably just a stray baseball.”
James turned his attention to the busy street behind him. Cars clogged the asphalt as they waited for the light to change and allow them to head on their way. Baseball? He didn't think so. Not on this road. He lowered his voice, to avoid Morgan hearing him. “Tell me you weren't here when it happened.” His sister was seven months pregnant and did not need any stress at this point.
“No, it was sometime last week.” She waved off his concern, a frown appearing between her brows.
Biting back his next words, knowing his sister wouldn't welcome any brotherly advice, he sighed, hoping she'd catch his drift.
“It's perfectly safe, James.”
Safe? With Mila somewhere inside? He didn't think so.
But he was here. And the sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could be on his way. The space they'd set aside in The Hollywood Hills Clinic was on the other side of the building from where his office was, so it wasn't like he'd see her every day. And he was pretty sure she would split her time between this facility and the new one.
With that bracing thought, he motioned the photographer and Freya inside and then followed them.
The interior of the clinic was as cheerful as the sign. Bright colors were splashed on every available surface, as if a painter had opened his cans and tossed the contents onto the walls and countertops.
“Wow,” Morgan said, already snapping shots of the interior.
Wow was right. The place was so very...Mila that it made him smile.
His gaze came back, zeroing in on her at last with a swallow.
Her hair was much longer than it had been when they'd been together. Back then, it had been cropped into short waves above her ears, allowing the delicate bones of her face to shine forth. Not that they didn't still. But unlike the easy-care locks of days past, the new Mila appeared cool and polished, the curls tamed into long sleek strands that ended just below her shoulder blades.
He swallowed again and extended his hand in a fake formality that would make the PR department proud. “Mila, nice to see you again. Thank you for letting the clinic do some publicity shots.”
Right on cue, the camera clicked multiple times, reminding him of how often he'd been caught unaware on the streets of LA. During his parents' ugly divorce, he'd barely been able to go anywhere without some member of the paparazzi lying in wait, hoping to get him at the worst possible moment. He tensed, before forcing himself to relax his muscles.
He didn't ask how Mila was doing, and for a split second he thought she'd refuse his greeting. Maybe it would have been better if he'd kept his hands in his pockets, but then she reached forward and curled her fingers around his.
Big mistake. The contact scattered images through his head that were every bit as vivid as the paint on the walls. Memories of Mila's head nestled deep in his pillow as she'd slept, of making love into the early hours. Laughter. Late-night texts. And finally the tears.
As if plagued by the same thoughts, Mila snatched her hand free and turned away. “Nice to see you as well. And it's fine about the publicity. You're used to it by now. Besides, I'm sure your clinic wants to show off its newest investment. So how about a quick tour? I didn't schedule any patients this morning, but you should be able to seeâ”
He touched her arm to slow the torrent of words. It worked. She swung around, but he noticed she took a step back, the distance just enough that he couldn't touch her again.
“The window. What happened?”
Freya broke in. “James, it's fine. Don't go all protective big brother on us.”
Not very likely. The last thing he felt toward Mila was brotherly affection. But he did feel a niggle of worry.
He narrowed his eyes on his sister. “I think we have a right to know the risks involved in taking on this little venture.”
He glanced toward Morgan, but she was ignoring them, still exploring the waiting room, where brightly colored plastic chairs perched on top of acid-stained concrete that had been polished until it gleamed.
venture?” If Mila's voice had been cool before, it had now dropped to well below freezing. “Afraid you might lose some of your high-dollar clients if they spot a pair of humble flip-flops cruising down the fancy halls of your clinic?”
His jaw tightened. Not at her words but at the disdain in her tone. And the fact that she had hit a nerve. The board had discussed at length how to handle their newest addition.
The voting members had made a motion to add a separate entrance so that Bright Hope could be accessed directly from the parking lot, instead of its patients coming in through the huge double doors at the front of the clinic. The decision stuck in his craw because putting in another door made it seem a little too much like a service entrance for comfort.
He'd gone along with it only because if he hadn't, the vote to allow the opening of the clinic might not have gone throughâand Freya had her heart set on it. It had only passed by a slim margin as it was. And the financially challenged kids of LA did need access to what The Hollywood Hills Clinic could offer.
Telling Mila any of that, however, would not make her feel any better. If he knew her, she had only agreed to Freya's idea because his sister had insisted.
Which meant Bright Hope was not doing as well financially as she had made it seem.
“Let's just say we'd rather not have a gang war break out in one of our hallways.”
Mila's eyes flitted sideways away from his.
Damn. He'd been joking about the gang war. Had that broken window been caused by a hail of bullets? “Do you have security?”
“Yes. There are cameras, and a security guard is here during business hours.”
But only during those hours. Did Mila come here when there was no one else around? The question tickled the back of his throat, but he ignored it. He didn't want Morgan going back to the board with any tales that weren't true. He took another tack instead.
“Did the police catch whoever broke your window?”
“Not yet, but I've turned the surveillance video over to them. Hopefully they'll find the culprits.”
Culprits, plural. “Do you keep drugs on the premises?”
She threw him a stormy glare that he recognized all too well. “Of course not. Nothing stronger than over-the-counter pain medication. There's a pharmacy around the corner, if we need something stronger.”
That was smart. “Was anything taken?”
“They didn't try to gain entry.”
Strange. Maybe she was right. Maybe it had just been a stray ball from a kid.
And from her curt answer, that was all he was going to get out of her. “Well, then, let's take that tour, so Morgan can shoot some pictures, and I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing.”
have a name.” His ex-fiancÃ©e leaned closer with an amused smile, one brow raised.
What was that supposed to mean?
Oh, hell. He'd seen the women shake hands but he'd forgotten to introduce them. Bad manners on his part, but he didn't exactly think straight when Mila was around.
Well, even if she thought there was something going on between him and the photographer, who cared? She'd been dating Tyler, that brawny firefighter, until recently, hadn't she?