Braden Prescott’s suitfelt stiff and scratchy, a far cry from the loose scrubs he’d worn for the last two years with Doctors Without Borders. He pulled at the knot on his tie as he waited for the press conference to begin, announcing him as head team general doctor for the Miami Thunder. Beside him was his cousin and team owner, Ian Dare.
“Nervous?” Ian asked, an understanding look on his face.
“More like uncomfortable.” And stressed but Braden wasn’t about to admit as much. Instead he rolled his shoulders in a futile effort to unwind and believe this new phase would work out.
“Excuse me. I need to talk to someone before the press conference starts.” Ian placed a hand on Braden’s shoulder before walking away, leaving him to ponder his sudden life change.
It was ironic that he’d accepted this position considering sports medicine had never been on his list of career choices. And for good reason. He’d steered clear of anything that reminded him of the father who’d raised him, because Jesse Prescott had belittled him for his brain, wanting only sons capable of smashing into other men on a football field.
Four of his siblings had ended up in sports in one way or another, and Braden was proud of all they’d accomplished, but it had never been his calling. However, now that he was back in town, he needed a job as much as Ian needed a general practitioner physician he could trust. The last man who’d held the job had betrayed his oath and the people he was supposed to care for.
From the wings, Braden glanced out into the audience of reporters in the front seats and team members filing into the chairs in the back. He caught sight of Hudson Northfield, his best friend, whose idea it had been to join Doctors Without Borders. He’d returned to the States with Braden and come to Florida instead of heading home to New York, where his high-pressured family resided. At Braden’s recommendation, Ian had hired Hudson as a team physician, meaning he’d be staying in Florida and not moving home.
But Braden wasn’t looking for Hudson when he scanned the crowd. He was searching for a certain blonde-haired, blue-eyed siren he’d left behind. He and Willow James, now head of the Athletic Training Department for the Thunder, had been a couple before Hudson had approached him about joining Doctors Without Border, or MSF as it was known, Médicins Sans Frontières.
He’d been the odd man out at home, the only Prescott brother who hadn’t been into sports, and the opportunity to travel and help people in need, while carving out his own niche in life, had been too much of a lure to turn down. At the time, he’d thought Willow, with whom he’d been in an exclusive but not overly serious relationship, would accept the notion that he’d be gone for two years. That they’d see one another when possible. He’d been wrong.
She’d listened, nodded, told him to have a nice life, and walked out, stunning him with how easily she’d dismissed him. Although looking back and knowing her foster care background, he should have dug deeper into her reaction. Instead he’d left despite knowing he’d hurt her with his sudden pronouncement, not taking into consideration the fact that she probably felt abandoned and had thrown up her walls. And though he didn’t regret the time he’d spent abroad, he knew he’d done irreparable damage to their relationship.
When Ian had offered him the job, he’d done his research on who he’d be working with, already knowing she’d been with the Thunder when he left. And maybe he’d scanned her social media. A little. The glimpses being the equivalent of a punch in the gut as he realized how much he’d given up when he’d left.
He hadn’t realized the depth of his feelings for her until he’d been gone. Hadn’t thought he’d miss her as much as he had. And considering her silence in response to his early texts and the calls she’d let go unanswered, she hadn’t forgiven him for his last-minute decision to leave.
As the head of the Thunder’s Athletic Training Department, she’d be answering to him as lead team physician, something he doubted would make her happy. But they were both adults and professionals. They’d make things work.
And if he had his way, he’d win back her trust.
* * *
Willow James walkeddown the hall of the Miami Thunder Football Stadium, headed to the area reserved for press conferences. Ian Dare would be announcing the new head physician. Normally the information would be revealed via press release to the public and in a private team meeting, but given the fact that the former doctor, Peter Jonas, was currently doing time in prison for defrauding the IRS, taking a bribe to pay gambling debts, and injecting the Thunder’s star quarterback with banned substances in return for money to pay off his loans, the team needed to make a statement.
As she turned a corner toward the press room, she passed life-size photographs of the Thunder’s star players, a tribute that followed them from the old stadium. Because this one was new, the smell of paint still permeated the air around her.
She’d been around the organization for a while, had done two summers and a full-year internship with the team prior to working as one of the trainers for years before being promoted to lead last month. She knew how fortunate she was to have found a place for herself with the Thunder. There were many trainers like her with a stellar academic record, but it had been her relationship with Dr. Peter Jonas, her one-time foster father, that had given her an in. Having known him for years, she’d never suspected he was capable of such betrayal.
His wife, Bella, was destroyed, and since the Jonases were the last of five foster homes Willow had been in, and by then she’d been near to adulthood, she had an ongoing relationship with them, unlike the other families who’d taken her in and easily let her go. She kept in close touch with Bella and spoke to her often. If there was anyone in her life Willow trusted, it was Bella Jonas, and she’d look out for her any way she had to.
Peter was another person who’d let her down. Life taught her that it was in her best interest to keep people at a distance, and every time she broke that rule, she’d been hurt in the end.
Given Damon Prescott’s status, the news about Doc had spread fast, hitting the team hard. Ian had withheld the name of the new doctor until announcement time, and she’d find out along with everyone else in a few minutes.
She stepped into the room, the crowd of reporters buzzing with anticipation over the upcoming news. Scanning the seats in the back, she walked toward the closest person to her in the Athletic Training Department, Steffy Hughes, a petite brunette who was a few years younger than Willow’s thirty-one. But they’d been friends for almost two years, shared drinks after work, attended exercise classes together, and bonded over their love of sports. As the only two women in the training department, they’d gravitated toward each other, and Willow had let Steffy in more than she did most people.
“Glad I’m not late. I was doing paperwork and lost track of time,” Willow said as she slid in beside her friend.
Steffy shook her head. “Not at all. Any ideas who they’re bringing on?”
“Not a clue. I haven’t heard of any shake-ups at other teams, so they’re not grabbing anyone we’d know of that way. I just know that Mr. Dare wants to make a statement that we’re starting fresh and with someone who has no possibility of being corrupted in any way. He hated the scandal that hit us.”
“Didn’t we all,” Steffy said. “Everyone has been tiptoeing around here. I’m ready for a change in atmosphere. I know Doc’s second in charge has been holding down the fort, but everyone knows he’s looking to move west with his family. We’re mid-season and need a qualified doctor in charge.”
“Amen,” Willow said, just as Ian Dare strode into the room and stood at the podium.
An imposing man in a black suit with a white shirt, top button opened, Ian was also extremely good-looking. He exuded power by virtue of his attitude and backed up his controlling demeanor with a solid work ethic, so everyone respected him. With his dark brown hair and very familiar indigo eyes, every time she saw Ian, she was reminded of the man she wanted to forget.
The man she’d dubbed he who shall not be named. The well-known words fit the guy who’d easily dumped her and taken off for parts unknown. Ironically, hewas also related to Ian, information that had come to light after he’d left for a stint with Doctors Without Borders. A decision he’d made seemingly out of nowhere.
Not that they’d been looking toward the future, but she’d had strong feelings for him that had been growing by the day. She’d let herself start to fall for him despite knowing better, and she’d thought she knew what his plans were and had foolishly let herself believe they’d included her. Just another time in her life she’d been let down and left behind. Something she would not let happen again.
“Welcome and thank you for joining me here today along with Coach Carson.” Ian gestured to the man beside him who ran the team before going into a long speech about the integrity of the Miami Thunder organization and everyone who worked for and was associated with them.
She’d zoned out for a few minutes when clapping around her alerted her to the fact that she’d missed something important.
Shaking her head, she looked up and watched in shock as hestrode onto the stage. Dr. Braden Prescott. The man who’d walked out on her two years ago and apparently the new head physician for the Miami Thunder.
Her heart pounded so hard in her chest she heard the sound in her ears. He looked scrumptious in his dark suit and the short scruff of beard he hadn’t had last time she saw him. As if no time had passed, her traitorous body responded to his presence.
“Oh my God, he’s hot,” Steffy said, waving her hand in front of her face at the same time Willow spoke. “Oh, shit, that’s my ex.”
“What?” Steffy asked too loudly, then lowered her voice. “You were with that gorgeous guy?” Steffy had been hired not long after Braden left, and Willow had already locked up her feelings and closed them in a box in her mind, never to be opened again.
Willow nodded. “We were together for a year, but I haven’t seen him in two.”
“Well, you’ll be working with him now. Oh no! What will Cole think?” Steffy asked of the doctor on staff Willow was currently dating.
Her stomach twisted at the thought. She and Cole Walsh had just started going out. She was keeping things casual, and he respected her need to go slow. She hadn’t slept with anyone since Braden because she hadn’t met any man who made her want to allow him that close. She thought Cole had potential. Now she had Braden to contend with, although given how easily he’d taken off, she doubted he’d be interested in her now. And she wasn’t into second chances after being left.
“Your life suddenly got complicated,” Steffy muttered.
No shit, she thought.
“Can you handle it?” her friend asked.
“Doesn’t look like I have a choice.” Willow glanced at the podium once more and realized Braden was staring directly at her.
As he stood next to his cousin, the family resemblance was clear. Dark hair, strong jaw, full lips… She even remembered how good he smelled, the scent of his woodsy cologne, and the feel of his body against hers. She closed her eyes and wondered how in the fresh hell this had happened. The man she’d spent two years trying to forget would now be permanently in her orbit?
She grabbed her phone and whispered, “I’m going to get ready for my next patient.” It was a lie. She didn’t have anyone on schedule, and Steffy probably knew it.
But she needed to get out of this room full of people and hole up in her office, where she could catch her breath and shore up her defenses against Braden Prescott, MD.
* * *
Braden watched Willowstand up and walk out the side door of the press room, and his sole goal was to get through this conference and find her. He’d noted the shock in her expression upon seeing him and kicked himself for not warning her ahead of time. Not that she’d have taken his call, but he could have texted or left a message.
She looked beautiful, her blonde hair tied in a ponytail, her face lightly made up. He couldn’t see what she wore besides the black long-sleeve workout top that clung to her curves. If he had any doubt about his feelings, if he’d wondered whether time was making him long for someone and seeing her would shake him out of his stupor, he now knew.
He wanted her back.
Forcing himself to focus, he answered questions about his background. Discussed how he’d finished college early, fast-tracked med school and his residency, worked at a clinic downtown, then done his stint with MSF. He was also board-certified in sports medicine, something he’d done because of his brothers’ career choices. He wanted to be available if needed. Now he was home and ready for the opportunity to head the team.
Had family strings been pulled in his hiring? Ian had answered that question. Probably but Ian was adamant that Braden was trustworthy and that mattered when his team had been shattered by Dr. Jonas’s betrayal. He’d ended questions there.
Braden strode off the stage, determined to see Willow, only to be waylaid by team members wanting to welcome him, and he had to take time for the introductions and conversations with the people he’d be working with in the upcoming days and weeks. They needed to get to know and trust him with their bodies and injuries, and he wouldn’t shirk those responsibilities in favor of his love life.
“Good job!” a familiar voice said with warmth and excitement.
“Brianne!” He turned to face his twin with a grin, extremely happy to see her.
Being away from his family had been difficult. Being separated from his twin sister had been twice as hard. He and Bri had a bond no one but them could really understand. Since he’d been home, she’d been busy with clients and planning their brother Jaxon’s wedding, while he’d been organizing his new life, renting an apartment, and conducting meetings with Ian about this job.
“I couldn’t miss my brother’s big introduction.” She pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m so glad you’re back, and I know you’re going to kick ass at this position.”
She stepped back and tucked her dark hair behind one ear. “Okay, why do you look stressed? Is this too much for you?” She gestured around the room still full of people.
He shook his head. “I’m fine. There’s just someone I need to see, and I haven’t had a second to slip out of here.”
He inclined his head. “Willow.”
Bri had known Willow from the year that she and Braden had been involved. She was a publicist at their brother Austin’s firm, Dare Nation, and many of her clients were Thunder players, so she kept up with staffing and roster changes. She’d know that Willow was now head of the Athletic Training Department. The two women had gotten along well, but Willow tended to keep people at a distance, and Bri had respected her boundaries. Braden had just begun to break through her outer shell to the soft woman beneath when the MSF opportunity had come up.
“You’re distracted. Come. I’ll walk with you to the training area, then I’ll go bother some of my clients about their lack of social media presence.”
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to be them.”
Bri was the best at what she did, because before she took on a client, she laid out exactly what she both needed and expected of them. Once they agreed, she rode them hard to get the optimal result, but that could make her a pain in the ass, which was what they paid her to be.
She nudged Braden in the ribs. “They love me.”
He rolled his eyes just as Hudson walked up and joined them. “Good job,” he said, slapping Braden on the back.
“I was just telling him that,” Bri said.
Hudson smiled at Bri. “You look beautiful today. The royal blue in your shirt brings out your eyes.”
“Is that your way of flirting?” Bri asked, sounding almost coy.
Braden narrowed his gaze. “I think it was a compliment. I’m not so sure he’d make a play in front of your brother. Your twin.”
That earned him another nudge in his ribs. “I don’t need you protecting me like I’m five years old.”
Hudson laughed. “You two bicker like siblings. I’m complimenting a beautiful woman. Although if I wanted to date her, I’d think you’d approve of your best friend asking your sister out?” Hudson threw the volley back and smiled at them both. “See you later,” he said, and before Braden could reply, he strode off, shaking his head.
“You made me look like I can’t handle myself. Like a child. Don’t do that,” Bri said, obviously annoyed with him.
He held up both hands. “I’m sorry. Hudson’s a good guy. It was just instinct to protect you.”
“Well, as I tell my four brothers, I don’t need protection!”
“I’ll always look out for you,” Braden said, being deliberately stubborn because it was true.
She let out an exasperated noise. “How about we go find Willow and put your love life front and center?” she asked, clearly still worked up over his interference.
“Sounds like a plan,” he muttered.
They headed out of the room, and although Ian had given him a tour of the stadium during off hours, he was glad to have Bri by his side directing him. Even if she was still annoyed with him.
After passing through the Hall of Fame, which included Austin, who had retired as a wide receiver, he thought maybe one day Damon, the current quarterback, would also hang on these hallowed walls.
Bri stopped at a point where they could go straight or right. “Since I doubt you want to face her for the first time with your sister holding your hand, I’ll leave you here. Down that hall and the room on the right. Her name’s on the door.”
“Come on, Bri. Don’t be mad at me.” He used his most cajoling voice.
She frowned but he could tell it was forced. “I’m not mad. You’re just annoying.”
“But you love me.” He kissed her cheek. “Talk to you soon.”
He turned and headed down the hall, scanning the doors with name plaques on each. He realized from his previous tour that Willow’s office probably connected on another side to the gym area where the trainers worked with the athletes.
Drawing a deep breath, he knocked on her door.
* * *
Willow returned toher office and tried to immerse herself in the information on her computer about current players and their injuries but kept spacing out. She found it hard to focus when all she could see was Braden standing on the stage, looking so good in his suit and new scruff of beard. She hated how her body still responded to a mere look at him.
She clicked on the mouse of her computer when a knock sounded on her door, no doubt Steffy coming by to gossip about her blurting out her past relationship with the team’s new doctor.
“Come in!” she called out. She closed out the page she was looking at and glanced up as her door opened and Braden walked inside, shutting the door behind him. Her stomach flipped at the sight of him, and she rose to her feet.
“Willow, it’s really good to see you.” He stepped toward her, his arms out, clearly intending to hug her. Being in his embrace and inhaling his sexy scent was the last thing she could handle, and she held out a hand to stop him from coming any closer.
He stopped, respecting her boundaries, and she let out a sigh of relief. “How are you, Braden?”
“I’m good. Settling in. How have you been?” he asked, those violet eyes staring into hers.
“Also good. Enjoying my promotion, which reminds me. Congratulations on your new position.” She folded her arms across her chest in an effort to keep a barrier between them.
“Thank you. I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone and traveling with the team.”
God, she hadn’t let herself think about the fact that they’d be on away trips together, as well.
“You look great,” he said, his gaze taking her in, and though she wore a pair of black leggings and a Thunder fitted shirt, she felt naked beneath his stare.
“Thanks.” She didn’t want things to get personal nor did she desire a conversation about when he had returned or how his time with MSF had been. “So what can I do for you?”
“First, I wanted to say hello. Second, we’ll be working together, and I thought we should clear the air.”
She inclined her head. “Don’t worry. My entire staff will keep you up-to-date on every player.” She turned away from him and stepped toward her desk, away from the scent of his cologne that would now linger in her personal space.
He groaned and ran a hand through his hair, messing it in ways she’d seen when they’d finished a round in bed. Clearing her throat, she sat down in her chair, hoping he’d take it as a dismissal.
“Willow, look. I’m sorry about how things ended between us and I’d like to talk.” He strode closer to her desk.
“There’s nothing to discuss unless it’s about the team.” She answered before he could settle himself on the corner as he’d clearly been about to do. “We’re colleagues and I’ll be professional. I’ll talk to you when I need to, and nothing will fall through the cracks, but I want to be clear. There is nothing personal between us. Not anymore.” Resting her hands on her lap, she curled them into fists, her nails digging into her skin.
This conversation was costing her. Her pulse was racing and her stomach churning. She resented the fact that this man could still have a hold over her in any way.
“That’s where you’re wrong.” He grasped the arm of her chair and spun her to face him, then braced his hands behind her shoulders.
His face was close to hers, his lips so near if she moved at all she’d be kissing him.
“I can see the emotion you’re holding back,” he said in a deep voice. “We have unresolved issues, and you can be sure we’ll be discussing them. In the meantime, how about a tour of the place?”
She narrowed her gaze. “Didn’t Ian walk you through the stadium when he was trying to sway you to take this job?”
“I have a bad sense of direction. I need another one.” He stood up straight, and she could breathe now that they weren’t face-to-face. He was still too close for comfort, she thought, as she rolled her eyes at his blatant lie. They both knew he had an excellent sense of direction.
“I would also like you to run me through the daily schedule and fill me in on anything I need to know from your perspective so I can hit the ground running. I know the team is home this weekend, but we have an away game the weekend after. Anything you can clarify for me will be great.”
“Fine.” She couldn’t say no to his request, so she cleared her throat and waited for him to get the message and step out of her personal space.
Once he did, she held back the sigh of relief and pushed herself to her feet. “I’ll show you around, and then we can go over the players who are possibly on the IRL. Injured Reserve List, in case you don’t know.”
“I did grow up in a sports-centered house. I’m aware of the terms. Just let me leave my jacket here. I can’t stand how stuffy I feel.” He shrugged off the jacket and, to her surprise, tugged at his tie next.
“What are you doing?”
“Relaxing now that the press conference is over.” He pulled at his tie, loosening it, then undoing it completely, and to her frustration, undid two buttons on his shirt, revealing the sprinkling of dark chest hair she used to lay her hand on after always amazing sex.
Shit, shit, shit. She had to stop thinking of the past.
He laid the jacket over the arm of her chair and added his tie on top.
“Ready?” she asked, trying not to show how much he affected her.
“Sure am.” He grinned as if he could absolutely read her mind and winked.
She shivered and hoped he didn’t notice her hardening nipples. The damned man. “Then let’s go.”
He gestured to the door. “Ladies first.”
He always had been a gentleman. She stepped ahead of him, feeling the burn of his stare on her back as she walked out of the room.