The One in My Heart
When Evangeline Canterbury meets the gorgeous, intriguing doctor next door, all she wants from him is a bit of distraction, to help her get over a few rough days.
Her one-night stand, however, has other plans: He needs an accomplished and presentable girlfriend to bring before his parents—and for six months of her time, he is willing and prepared to spend an obscene amount of money.
Nothing but trouble can come of such an arrangement. But can Eva stop herself? Or will she fall headlong in love with a man who will leave her when their contract expires with a smile, a check, and hardly a backward glance?
The Story about the Story
The cover is new and so is the title, but this is a story Sherry has been working on since spring of 2007, right after she turned in the first draft for DELICIOUS, almost a year before PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, her debut book, hit the shelves in March of 2008. The genesis of the idea could be traced directly to a contest put on by blogger Dionne Galace—Sherry vaguely remembers that participants were asked to write a couple hundred words about a first meeting between future lovers. There were maybe a dozen entries and frankly at least half of them were more exciting than what Sherry submitted: a woman weeping in the rain in the middle of the night and a man stopping by and asking if she would like some tiramisu. But the set-up intrigued Sherry, and she kept coming back to it, every time after she turned in a draft for a historical.
Why tiramisu? Probably because she was very hungry that year, writing her foodie historical romance. And around the time she started fleshing out the story, she attended a day-long financial statement analysis seminar and the gentleman who taught the seminar was from New York City, which gave her the idea of a setting in the Big Apple and the surrounding areas. (In the first iteration of the book, the heroine was a hot-shot financial analyst.)
Sherry loved this book. She luuuurrved it. The historicals she wrote in those years kicked her ass but good—so it was always with relief and anticipation that she returned to her little contemporary. Every line was a thrill and each chapter a fist pump. Imagine her dismay when her agent read it and hated it! How could anyone not love her perfect pride-and-joy?
That was in November of 2009. Early the next year, she would be struck by the one sentence that would beget her young adult fantasy. THE BURNING SKY and THE FITZHUGH TRILOGY took up just about all her time for the next two years. But at some point after that she began to revisit the contemporary. Her agent’s complaint had been that the story had no plot and no conflict. Sherry had come to reluctantly agree that it was true both aspects were lacking. But as was often the case with first drafts, the actual ingredients of the story were already there, obscured by the verbiage and ignored altogether.
She began to fiddle with the beginning, and to build the story back up around the newly discovered conflict. It is still the greatest pleasure to write. Sometimes she toys with the idea of never publishing the story, to let it always be her private playground. And then she comes to her senses. :-)
By the way, the book has always been in first person, and Sherry is beyond content to experience the hero solely from the heroine’s POV.
THE LAST THING I EXPECTED on that miserable August evening was a one-night stand. I expected even less that my accidental lover would swoop back into my life, metaphoric guns blazing. Though what really did me in was our subsequent fake relationship, which turned everything upside down even before the nude scandal erupted.
But it all began, for me at least, on the back lanes of Cos Cob, Connecticut.
A shower fell steadily. My hair was plastered to my skull, dripping water down my neck. My stomach had given up sending polite signals of hunger and was moodily folding in on itself. It must be nearly midnight. Had I eaten anything today? Had I eaten anything at all since I found Zelda four days ago in the grips of a major manic upswing?
A gust blew. I shivered, the chill of my drenched clothes sinking deep beneath my skin. But I kept walking. The lane wound between houses on heavily wooded lots, some hidden behind impenetrable tall hedges, others set apart by low stone walls. Was I tired enough yet? How much farther did I need to go, before I could sink into a dreamless sleep?
The bright headlights of an oncoming car startled me. I hurried to the edge of the narrow lane, my tired toes digging into waterlogged and slippery flip-flops.
As it passed, the low-slung, sporty model slowed to a crawl. Probably someone who lived in the area, coming back from a Friday-night party and wondering why a woman was out by herself in this weather, at this time of the night.
Come on. Keep moving. I didn’t want any neighborly concern.
The car stopped, aerodynamic curves gleaming faintly, windows completely dark. It reversed a good fifteen, twenty feet. Now it faced me again, its headlights flooding the rain-slicked asphalt between us.
Alarm jolted me. What if I wasn’t about to deal with neighborly concern? What if…I yanked out my phone, swiped to unlock the screen, and tapped 911.
The driver-side door opened and out came a large umbrella, followed by a man. Instinctively I stepped back—directly into the bulk of a low stone wall. My pulse hammered.
The man straightened, closed the car door, and didn’t move for a few seconds, as if he too had second thoughts about the situation. Or was he merely figuring out the best way to overpower me?
He started toward me. I groped blindly for a weapon, my fingers closing around a loose rock from the top of the wall.
Stop. Stop right now.
He stopped six feet away. His face was in shadows, but against the flood of light from the car he seemed the size of a linebacker. “Evangeline, right?” he asked, his voice low yet clear against the percussion of rain on his umbrella.
I blinked, caught between hope and even greater suspicion. “Yes?”
“I’m Bennett. I took care of Collette Woolworth’s dog for you this week.”
“Oh,” I said, my death grip around the rock unclenching a little.
I was in the neighborhood for the summer because Collette, Zelda’s good friend, was overseas on a work assignment, and needed someone to keep an eye on Biscuit, her rat terrier. When Zelda’s mania swung into high gear and I didn’t want to leave her alone, I’d called a list of emergency contacts Collette had left me. Everyone was out of town except Bennett, who had sounded harried, but had agreed to look after Biscuit.
“Thanks for helping me out,” I added.
“You are welcome,” he answered.
I said nothing else. Had I met him in broad daylight, my gratitude might have been more effusive—in fact, I meant to get him a nice thank-you present. But it was the middle of the night, we were on a deserted lane, and a man who was nice to a dog could still commit a crime of opportunity.
After a moment he turned to look at his car, as if longing for its safety. As if he, rather than me, were the exposed and vulnerable one here.
As he did so, the headlights illuminated enough of his features for recognition to kick me in the chest. His name had meant nothing when I called, but I’d come across him a few times when I was out walking Biscuit. He was usually on a bicycle, though I’d also seen him running, fast and with a beautiful gait.
Once he stopped his bike, pushed his aviators up, and asked me the time. His demeanor was courteous, but not interested. In fact, he seemed wary, as if he suspected that the clock on my phone might be fifteen minutes off.
Yet I’d vibrated afterward, unable to stop thinking of his deep-set green eyes.
But just because I found a man attractive didn’t mean I should trust him.
He looked back at me, his face once again in shadows. “People keep telling me this neighborhood is really safe. But it’s late. Is there someone I can call for you?”
The last thing I wanted was to alert anyone that I was wandering about the middle of the night, drowning in rain. “Thanks, but I’m okay.”
“What if I gave you the key to my car? You can drive yourself home.”
My eyes widened. I glanced at the sleek vehicle, a Tesla Roadster. “You’re willing to let a stranger drive your car? Aren’t you breaking some sacred man commandment?”
“I’ll risk it.”
He lobbed the key my way. I somehow managed to catch it between my wrists, while still holding on to both phone and rock. “But I’ll get your car all wet!”
“It’s an old car. It’ll survive,” he answered from over his shoulder, already walking away.
And kept walking away, with no backward glances for me or the fate of his car. I stared at him, and then down at the car key. He wasn’t kidding—he’d really left me his car.
And I thought I was pretty deranged for stumbling about in the dark, even after it started to rain.
Not knowing what else to do, I got into the Roadster, wincing in apology as my soaked clothes squelched against the leather seat. Thank goodness I hadn’t actually dialed 911, or I’d have to shamefacedly explain that not only hadn’t the man assaulted me, but that I was now in possession of his vehicle.
I slowed as I approached Bennett, who was headed in the same direction as me. It wouldn’t feel quite right to drive past him in his car, but I still hesitated, the adrenaline from my earlier scare not completely dissipated yet. What if he was running a long con? What if he meant to gain my trust and then pounce on me?
Shaking my head at my cynicism—nobody ran this kind of long con on a random stranger—I stopped a bit past him and lowered the window two inches on the passenger side. “Hey, people keep telling me this neighborhood is really safe. But it’s late. Can I drop you off at home?”
He braced a hand on the top of the car and leaned down. “No. Grandma told me I’m too pretty to get into cars with strangers.”
My lips twitched. “Grandma was lying through her teeth. You’re just average.”
“What? But I had plans for becoming a Park Avenue trophy husband.”
I felt a smile spreading across my face, a lovely sensation. “Forget about sleeping your way to the top. You’ll have to get to Park Avenue by exploiting the masses like everyone else—or not at all. Now get in the car before I give it back to you.”
He shook his head, collapsed his umbrella, and got in. “When did it become so hard to be a Good Samaritan? You give up your ride to a woman in need and she calls you ugly.”
“That’ll teach you to give your ride to women in need. I could have fenced the car overnight.”
He pulled on the seat belt. “You’ll make me cry into my tiramisu.”
I slowly eased my foot down on the accelerator—the engine was much more powerful than I’d expected. “Don’t tell me you actually have tiramisu at home.”
I had eaten earlier, now that I thought about it, but an apple and two scrambled eggs were not enough for an entire day. A huge serving of something sweet and dense would send me into a food stupor, and a food stupor might be exactly what I needed for a full night’s sleep, which I hadn’t had since the beginning of Zelda’s episode.
“I never lie about food,” said Bennett.
Then what do you lie about? “Lucky you.”
“At least I can stuff my face on the night I find out I’m not pretty. You know, take it like a man.”
I smiled again—there was something rather irresistible about him.
He gave me directions, and we arrived at a center-hall colonial with a circular driveway in front. As the Roadster came to a stop, he picked up a messenger bag from the floor of the car and looked inside.
“So what do you do to pass time while you’re waiting to become a Park Avenue trophy husband?” I heard myself ask.
He mock-glared at me, his cheekbones remarkable in the exterior lights of the house that had come on when we pulled up. “You mean what do I do when I’m waiting to never become a Park Avenue trophy husband?”
“Don’t let some hater step on your dream. But yeah, that.”
He shook his head a little, smiling. “I’m a surgeon.”
I looked him up and down. I’d have pegged him as a lawyer, one of those young, assertive, high-powered breed. Or a restaurateur, the shrewd kind who rehabbed derelict spaces into hole-in-the-wall eateries that had lines going around the block. I could even, in a pinch, imagine him as a Silicon Alley executive with a million frequent-flier miles accumulated from trips to San Jose and Austin.
But I wouldn’t have guessed him to be a doctor, let alone the kind who worked with scalpels. “So, you’re tired of cutting people open?”
“Sick of it—blood and guts every day. But someday my princess will come, and she’ll carry me away from all this drudgery.”
I couldn’t help it—I laughed aloud. He laughed too, though more quietly.
In the wake of our mirth, a small silence fell. He closed the flap of the messenger bag and I was suddenly speaking again. “I’ve seen you around a few times.”
He glanced at me. “Last time I saw you, you wore a shirt that said, ‘To err is human; to really screw things up requires a computer programmer.’”
“Nerd humor.” The shirt had been given to me by my friend Carolyn, who was in corporate IT security.
“Do you know your age in binary?”
I’d minored in computer science, so I did happen to know it. “One hundred thousand.”
“I have been known to like an older woman,” he replied, deadpan.
I chortled, feeling…elated, almost.
“That’s thirty-two, right?” he asked.
“I’ll be thirty-two in a few months.”
So I really was an older woman here. Hmm.
He leaned back an inch. “I’ll see you around, Evangeline. Thanks for the ride.”
He already had his fingers on the door handle, but I wasn’t ready to let him go—since he appeared, I hadn’t freaked out about Zelda at all. “Umm…It was really nice of me to give you a ride. Do you think you can share some of your tiramisu with me?”
He considered. “That depends.”
I was already smiling again from his mock-pompous tone. “On what?”
“On whether you are a secret princess.”
“Of course I am.”
“How would I know that?”
“There’s a picture of me online in a diamond tiara and a ball gown.” Which was not a lie. “I’m the real deal.”
Something flickered in his eyes before he gave me a look to let me know he was reserving judgment. “Okay, then. You can come and have some tiramisu.”
A thrill leaped through me. We got out of the car. Bennett dealt with the house’s security system. I, waiting behind him, happened to glance down at myself—and barely managed to suppress a yelp.
Wherever my wet white T-shirt clung to my skin, I was practically naked. The flesh-tone cotton bra I wore underneath didn’t appear to have turned as transparent, but it was thin, and Bennett would have to be blind not to see the outline of my cold-hardened nipples.
Hastily I crossed my arms over my chest. Without turning around, he asked, “Do you want me to find you a bathrobe or something like that to wear?”
My other choice would be to go back to Collette’s house. But the closer I came to tiramisu, the more reluctant I was to give it up. “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
He showed me bathroom to the left of the front door. I ducked inside, nearly squealing again at my reflection. Then I covered my mouth and tried not to giggle. What a mess I was tonight.
But tiramisu was going to make everything better.
I stripped off my clothes, glad to be rid of their sodden weight. Bennett delivered a fluffy white towel and a blue lightweight bathrobe. When I came out of the bathroom, he was waiting for me.
“I can put your clothes in the dryer,” he told me.
He was back a moment later to lead me down the central passage toward the back. The house was an Architectural Digest editor’s dream come true. But I didn’t give a second glance to the console table that would make an Antiques Roadshow appraiser jump for joy, or the paintings on the walls that were probably American Impressionist originals, by artists who had once thrived right here in Cos Cob.
Instead I took in the man in front of me, the soft-looking olive-green Henley shirt, the jeans that hung just right on his hips, the sexy gait, his strides long and easy, his footsteps almost silent on the gleaming wood floor. My adrenaline-soaked perception had lied to me earlier: He wasn’t at all built like a linebacker, but along far more lithe and sinewy lines—kind of like his car, actually.
His kitchen was high ceilinged, with exposed beams and three exposed brick walls. Neat stacks of bowls and plates sat on open shelves. He took two plates and two spoons and placed them on the central island, shifting aside a bowl of red Bartlett pears and a vase of yellow daisies.
Now he pulled open a refrigerated drawer set beneath the counter of the island and took out a dish of—no kidding—honest-to-goodness tiramisu, with a thick dusting of cocoa powder and generous sprinkles of chocolate shavings.
I sucked in a breath.
“You look like an ER patient, the kind who comes in jonesing for a fix,” he said.
I sat down on a bar stool opposite him. “Well, prescribe me my drug of choice, Doctor.”
He handed me a heaping serving. The tiramisu was fresh and not too sweet, with just enough espresso and dark chocolate to cut the decadence of mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. I devoured it.
“Where’d you get this? It’s so good.”
“My housekeeper made it,” he said, watching me.
Something in his gaze made my heart thump. Had I thought he wasn’t interested in me? That indifference was nowhere to be seen now.
“So…what kind of surgeon are you?”
A kettle trilled. He poured hot water into a mug and pushed it toward me, along with a box of assorted teabags. “Cardiothoracic. But I’m still doing my fellowship.”
“What’s that?” I asked, gratefully wrapping my still-cold fingers around the mug.
“Extra training after residency.”
“To take your God complex to the next level?”
He chortled softly. “Nah, I was born with a full-fledged God complex. In fact, I’ll have you all fixed up by the time you leave, princess.”
That made me grin. I couldn’t believe it—from pure misery to this lightness of heart in mere minutes. I felt like…a princess, one who found herself under an unexpected enchantment.
Bennett studied me a moment, the corners of his lips lifting. My heart thudded again.
Black hair, great angles, and those mesmerizing eyes—he was drop-dead gorgeous.
“What do you do,” he asked, “when you are not wearing a diamond tiara and a ball gown?”
“I’m an assistant professor of materials science.”
“That’s a mash-up of physics, chemistry, and engineering, right?”
He whistled. “Beauty and brains—I’m not sure I can handle the two together.”
“At this point it’s mostly just beauty. My brain was confiscated in grad school and never given back.”
He laughed. He had a great laugh.
Our eyes met. He didn’t look away. I somehow couldn’t.
It was late. We were alone. And I was already naked beneath the soft, warm robe that smelled faintly of sunshine and freshly mowed grass.
All this had been true since I stepped into his kitchen. But the possibilities that had only lurked in the depths of my subconscious mind now broke surface and created huge ripples.
I looked away, finished the last bite of my tiramisu, and asked, “Were you at the hospital when I called about Biscuit?”
He rolled up his sleeves. “Uh-hmm.”
His forearms were lean and strong—and since when did I pay attention to a man’s forearms? “Is your hospital in Greenwich?”
“It’s in the city,” he answered, giving his dishes a quick but expert wash.
Manhattan, he meant, thirty miles away. I was surprised. “Do you commute every day?”
“Usually I only come up on weekends, when I’m not on call.”
“I hope you didn’t have to come all this way for Biscuit.”
It was fifty minutes by train—one way. Taking care of Biscuit had been a lot of trouble for him.
I remembered my T-shirt. To err is human was printed on the front. To know the rest, he would have had to turn around and watch me from behind.
He reached for a pear from the bowl on the island. “I did.”
My gaze was riveted to his hand, the loose yet secure hold he had on the pear.
“You didn’t ask your housekeeper to do it?”
“She was out most of the week. Just came back this afternoon.”
I looked down at the smudges on my plate—all that remained of my dessert. A hot thrill had zigzagged through me when I’d thought that he’d made the trips because he’d wanted to. But now it seemed he’d done it only because he had to…
“That’s really nice of you,” I said, trying not to sound as deflated as I felt. “I hope it didn’t interfere with your schedule.”
He bit into the pear. “I traded an overnight shift with a colleague.”
His shirt stretched with the movement, revealing a braided cord around his neck, which dipped with the weight of an unseen pendant. It shocked me how badly I wanted to know the shape and material of that pendant. “When do you have to take that overnight shift?”
Tomorrow was Saturday. I turned my spoon over. “Did I ruin your weekend?”
“Effectively. I was going to sleep for thirty hours straight. Now I’ll have to work for thirty hours straight.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. I can’t let a dog starve. Besides, I didn’t help entirely out of altruism—Biscuit was going to be my introduction to this really beautiful woman.”
I licked the back of my teeth. Finally, an expression of unambiguous interest on his part. But what exactly was the nature of this interest? “Well, introductions are done.”
“So they are,” he said softly.
Our gazes held again. The fridge hummed. Rain pounded on the skylight. My breath echoed in my head, all erratic agitation.
“Would you like some more?” He broke the silence, pointing at the tiramisu dish with the half-eaten pear in his hand.
“No, thank you. It was delicious, though.”
He took my spoon and plate to the sink. I stared at his back. The shirt was a perfect fit across his shoulders, hinting at the lean, graceful build underneath.
“If I understand you correctly, you are the stereotypical workaholic, looking for some no-strings-attached sex.”
Shit. Did I say that?
Or should I instead be surprised that it had taken me this long to get to this point, I who had invited myself to his house after midnight on the flimsiest of excuses?
It was never tiramisu that I wanted, was it?
He turned around and considered me. The flare of heat on my skin—as if someone had aimed a blowtorch at my throat and cheeks. “I wouldn’t say no-strings-attached literally—sometimes it’s fun to be tied up in bed. But yes, a metric ton of sex is right near the top of my Christmas wish list.”
He bit into the pear again. The sight of his teeth sinking into the firm flesh of the fruit caused a jolt of lust in me such as I hadn’t felt in years, perhaps ever.
Everything about our encounter was out of the ordinary. I couldn’t tell whether I wasn’t quite myself—or whether I was more myself than I’d ever been anywhere, with anyone.
The rain let up all of a sudden, its steady drumming softening to a pitter-patter on the roof. The fridge, too, fell quiet. But my heart continued to rattle my rib cage, its fast, hard slams thunderous in my ears.
He lowered his gaze for a moment, then looked back at me from underneath his eyelashes. “Is silence consent?”
I wanted him to come closer. I wanted him to touch me. I wanted him to take whatever sorcery he was working with and enfold me securely inside.
My hand settled around my throat. My skin was hot, my pulse a rapid staccato. “Not to a metric ton of sex. Maybe once, tonight. I’m saving myself for marriage.”
“So am I, but you can lead me astray anytime.”
It was the sexiest thing anyone had said to me in a while, so much so that I had to clear my throat before I could speak again. “You’re sure you want to do this? I mean, I was wandering around in the rain. Next thing you know I could be boiling your bunny.”
“I’ll send my bunny into protective custody first thing tomorrow morning.” He put away the remainder of the tiramisu without taking his eyes off me. “Don’t underestimate the desperation of a chronically underlaid man.”
The intent in his gaze…I bit a corner of my lower lip. “Then we’d better get to it. You’ll need to sleep soon so you don’t kill patients tomorrow.”
Did he swallow? The very handsome column of his neck moved in a way that made my heart beat even faster. “In that case, would you mind standing against that wall?”
I glanced in the direction he gestured. Unlike the other walls in the kitchen, this one didn’t have exposed bricks, but was smoothly plastered. I hopped off the stool on wobbly knees and set my shoulder blades against the wall. “Like this?”
His gaze pinned me in place. I didn’t feel as if I were leading anyone astray. Quite the opposite—I felt as if I were a girl from a convent school, secretly meeting a boy from a motorcycle gang.
He rounded the island and came up to me. Dipping his head close to my still-wet hair, he said softly, “So this is what rain smells like on a woman.”
Copyright © 2015 by Sherry Thomas. All rights reserved.