1. Welcome Home
One of my bags landed on the living room floor with a thud.
“Are you sure this is the last one?” my dad asked, wiping the sweat off his forehead. “No more bags full of bricks? Sorry, books?”
“Ha-ha. Funny. It wasn’t so much work, considering you haven’t seen me in almost a year.”
“No, it wasn’t. I was just kidding.” Dad’s gaze turned soft. “Welcome home, Pumpkin.”
Laughing at how I rolled my eyes, he squeezed me in a bear hug.
The eye roll was well-deserved. Pumpkin? Seriously? He’d better not call me that in front of other people, especially not boys.
Not that I’d be in boys’ company, anyway. At least, not without some kind of divine intervention.
Why? I was nineteen, my only boyfriends were the book ones, and my dad still called me Pumpkin. Should I go on?
After leaving my luggage on the floor, Dad and I went to the adjacent kitchen.
“Are you hungry?”
My gaze traveled to where he was rummaging in the fridge. I hoped he had something edible there. After the long, boring flight from Paris, I could use some calories.
“Damn, this is past its pull date. Diarrhea isn’t pretty, no. Not worth the risk. Maybe some cheese... Ava, didn’t you say you brought some cheese?”
Some things never changed. Our permanently empty fridge was one of them.
“It’s buried under my clothes in one of the suitcases. You could’ve bought groceries.” I pouted.
Dad chuckled. “Don’t you dare play cute. I’ve missed you enough to cave in and order whatever you want, although who am I fooling? I already have. Takeaway it is. Chinese?”
“Yay!” I clapped and plopped down on a chair while he called the restaurant.
Truth was, I couldn’t blame Dad for the lack of welcome dinner. I was lucky to have him at home. With the sudden decrease in temperatures and icy roads, he was swamped. Being a trauma surgeon in winter sucked.
Well, it sucked in general, not only when the thermometer marked below zero.
Dad loved his job and was excellent at it, but sometimes it was hard on him, especially when he lost a patient on the operating table and had to face their grief-stricken family.
Dad had always been my hero, but he wasn’t God.
“Daydreaming about boys?”
I snapped out of my thoughts and grinned. “Lucky for your peace, no.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Dad said, sitting next to me at our kitchen table. “It’s only natural to fall in love, Pumpkin. You’re no longer a baby, as much as it pains me.”
“Ugh, Dad. As if it were easy.”
“Are you telling me those French guys didn’t meet your expectations?”
“There weren’t butterflies, okay? Why are we even talking about it? Wait... Any girlfriends you forgot to mention? You want me to date so you wouldn’t feel guilty, right?”
My dad’s laughter filled the room. “None that I’m aware of. And yeah, you’re right. Don’t date, Pumpkin. Don’t date ever. This way, I won’t have to kick any asses or punch any douchebags and risk injuring my operating hand.”
The doorbell saved my dad from witnessing yet another of my eye rolls.
In a few minutes, he was back with our food, peeking into the bag. “Dim sum, spring rolls, egg rolls, sweet and sour chicken... Did I forget anything?”
My stomach grumbled at the delicious aroma spreading in the air.
“No, you’ve got it all.” I smiled.
Just as we got ready to indulge in our trademark takeaway dinner, the shrill beep coming from the biggest buzzkill known to man — Dad’s pager — broke the quiet. His eyebrows bunched up when he took the gadget out of his pocket and glanced at it.
“You didn’t tell me you were on call,” I mumbled, failing to mask my disappointment.
“I’m not technically on call, Ava. I told them to page me only if it was absolutely necessary.” Dad continued frowning at the screen. “Looks like it’s a knife wound. I’m sorry, Pumpkin. You’ll have to eat alone.”
“No way!” I jumped to my feet and shoved the food back into the paper bag. “I’m going with you, and we’ll eat this at the hospital when you’re done saving lives.”
My dad chuckled. “Sounds like a plan. Lead the way, Miss Morris.”
“Wait! Harper’s gift. She’ll be there, right?”
Dad sighed. “Ava, it can wait.”
“No! Get your coat; I’ll be quick.”
I darted to the biggest bag and unzipped it. I’d put the books for Harper on top of some things of mine. Luckily, my journal was there, too. I was reluctant to die of boredom while Dad was busy.
“On the count of three…”
Chuckling at the game we’d been playing since I was a kid, I pressed the things I’d taken under my arm and dashed to the hallway where Dad was waiting for me.
Harris Memorial Hospital was my second home. I spent countless hours waiting for my dad in his office when nobody could babysit me, reading to pass the time.
As we stepped into the ER, I scanned the familiar surroundings.
Nothing seemed to have changed in the nearly two years I’d spent away.
“Doctor Morris.” A woman I hadn’t seen before approached us. “The patient’s fiance insisted on calling you. He said his last name’s Kennedy.”
Dad frowned. “Aiden Kennedy?”
“Thank you, Nora. Let’s go.”
“Text me when you’re free,” I said to his back.
He halted and turned around, throwing an apologetic glance in my direction. “I’m sorry, Ava. It’s someone I know. Wait for me in Harper’s office if I don’t call you in half an hour. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said, smiling. “Good luck.”
Dad nodded and left. I wasted no time going to see one of my favorite people. If I were lucky, she’d still be there, working on her latest research.
Biting back a grin, I knocked on the door.
“Doctor Lincoln,” I called, faking a male voice.
Rushed footsteps reached my ears, and the door opened wide.
Harper hugged me, nearly squishing the food I was holding.
“You didn’t miss me, am I right?”
Harper’s infectious laughter echoed in the empty hallway. “Are you kidding me? I was going crazy without our chats.”
“We did talk.”
“It wasn’t the same.” Harper smiled. “By the way, you look stunning.”
I huffed and extended the package with books for my friend to take. “These are for you, and please, don’t lie to me, Doctor Lincoln. My hair’s a mess. I’ve been wearing the same hoodie for twelve hours straight, and my feet most definitely smell.”
“And you haven’t eaten. Poor thing.” Harper shook her head, looking at the bag in my hands. “I’d stay with you, but I…“
The pause made me squint at the dark-haired girl. “Have a date? Tell me you have a date. Is he real? Is he alive? Have you checked the pulse? He’s not a book one, right?”
Harper giggled, shrugging. “I’ve only seen him in pictures. He might be bald and have a beer belly if he lied. If he didn’t, the guy’s...cute.”
“Could be worse.”
“So, he’s ugly.”
“Not ugly. He looked okay in photos. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best. Oh, and thanks for the books. I’ll call you first thing in the morning, and we’ll talk about all of it,” Harper said, grabbing her coat from the hanger. “I’m sorry I have to go, Ava.”
“Hey, I understand. We’re talking about a date. It’s a huge deal.”
Harper sighed. “Yeah. Especially when you’re thirty-three and single.”
“Change that mindset, Doctor Lincoln. You’re too pretty to be so negative.”
Harper pressed a kiss to my cheek. “I love you. And you don’t smell. I have a hairbrush in my desk drawer and some chewing gum if you need a confidence boost.”
“Good luck with Mister Cute.”
“May the gods of the single and smart hear you.”
My friend left, and I was alone once again. After putting the paper bag on the desk, I took Harper’s suggestion and brushed my hair.
Spending time in an empty office was as appealing as enduring another long flight. I grabbed the journal and locked the door, calling the elevator after a moment of hesitation.
The waiting area outside the ER was oddly deserted, except for a woman and a guy.
The woman was typing something on her phone with her lips set in a tight line.
The guy stood next to the vending machine with his back to me.
Bored, I sat on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs and opened my journal. The corners of my mouth lifted slightly when I caught sight of the daily challenge — Do something daring.
The journal was Harper’s gift to me when I finished high school. I treasured it and was afraid to spoil it with my handwriting. It was in France where I changed my mind.
Inspired by the new culture, I filled the blank pages with my observations and dreams. Harper always asked me if I did what the page said. Trying a new dish or watching a movie in another language was easy enough. Being bold was a different story. Just thinking about how awkward I’d feel made me blush.
I did it ten times more when the guy got his coffee in a styrofoam cup, and I saw his face.
I must’ve said it out loud because the woman glanced at me before refocusing on typing.
He was everything I read about in books but had never seen in real life, flesh and blood. Tall, with lean, defined muscles and a face so breathtaking an artist could paint it daily without an ounce of boredom. And then, his eyes of the greenest green, beautiful and piercing.
I suppressed a giggle when the real-life version of my ideal book boyfriend grimaced at the contents of his cup. His reaction was to be expected. I knew from experience the coffee from that machine was disgusting.
The guy gulped it down, regardless, and rested his forehead against the cold wall, sighing so deeply I heard it from across the room.
His posture and actions screamed vulnerability. Was he the fiance of the girl my dad had to see? There was no way a guy so handsome could be single, and it meant only one thing — I could be as bold as I wanted and he wouldn’t care.
I jumped off the chair and hurried to a different room. Stopping by the vending machine, I pressed some buttons and got a cup of steaming coffee a moment later.
When I made it back, the guy was alone, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, looking at his feet.
Exhaling a shaky breath, I clutched the cup and crossed the distance between the guy and me.
His head snapped up, and he gave me a look full of something akin to annoyance.
“This is for you,” I said, handing him the drink. “It’s much better than what you were drinking before. I got it from another machine, the green one. The green and...big one, you know? No, of course, you don’t. Anyway, enjoy. It’s good. Must be, if nothing changed.”
He wrapped his fingers around the cup and stared at me, and I couldn’t believe how stupid I must’ve looked to him.
I snatched the journal from the chair and darted out of there.
Idiot, idiot, idiot.
Could I have been more awkward?
Slowing at the end of the long hallway, I took a deep, calming breath.
The light tap on my shoulder made me jump in surprise.
The coffee guy was behind me, smiling as if he wanted to show me he could be even more handsome, and I could look even more stupid.
“Thank you for the coffee. I’m sorry for being slow; my friend’s girl was assaulted, and he went to speak to the doctor. I’m a bit overwhelmed, I guess.”
The guy reached into his pocket and pulled out a phone. After fumbling with it for a couple of seconds, he gave it to me.
“Type it in.”
“Your number. I want to return the favor, just not here.”
On autopilot, I entered the familiar digits.
“Is Doctor Morris the one treating your friend’s girl?”
“I heard he’s an excellent doctor. She’s in good hands,” I said, giving the guy his phone. “It was nice to meet you. Hope everything goes well.”
A gentle touch of calloused fingertips on my wrist stopped me from leaving.
“Wait. You didn’t type your name.”
A whisper left my dry mouth. “Ava.”
The impossibly green eyes bored into mine.