“What time do you get to work in the morning?” Braden asked Willow as she gave him a tour of the facility, doing his best to keep his gaze off her sweet behind as he followed her around.
Instead he’d listened carefully to the information she gave him and focused when she introduced him to people he hadn’t yet met. Ian planned a team gathering for later in the day where Braden would get to know everyone better.
“This way to the gym,” she said, turning a corner as she answered. “I’m in the office by four forty-five a.m. and in the gym by five thirty to start treatments. I go through therapeutic modalities, like ultrasound, joint mobilization techniques, soft tissue massage, stretching, exercise, and the like.”
He nodded, knowing the hours he’d have to be here during the season. “Tough schedule,” he said.
“You get used to it.”
They entered the state-of-the-art workout room, where athletes were on various pieces of equipment, other trainers stretching and working with the players.
Not only did he take mental notes for himself during this tour, he watched Willow deal with the people on her training team, the other physicians, and the players, admiring the mix of professional and joking relationships she had.
Seeing her in her work environment was a revelation. He’d only known her one-on-one or interacting with friends as a couple. On a personal level, she was often reticent to give out much information about herself, but here was different. It was obvious the guys respected her, trusted her judgment, and genuinely liked her as a person, causing Braden’s admiration for her to grow.
He was well aware of the wall she’d put up between them, and he took her warning that they were over seriously. But he interpreted her reactions differently than her words. Hearing the stiffness in her voice and seeing the way she wouldn’t relax and talk to him told him there were still feelings that ran deep. If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t be holding in so much hurt. As much as he hated knowing he’d caused that pain, he hoped to work their way through it.
Call him an optimist but he wasn’t giving up. He now had time and space to repair their relationship.
“Hey, it’s my brother!” Damon’s voice rang out in the room.
Braden turned in time to see his sibling stride away from the weights he’d been lifting and walk over to him.
Damon slapped him on the back. “Welcome to the team.” He glanced from Braden to Willow and back again, his curiosity obviously piqued.
Braden held his breath, hoping his brother wouldn’t say something that would make her uncomfortable in front of the guys. Something about their past relationship.
“Has Willow been showing you the ropes?” Damon asked, and Braden released a long whoosh of air.
“He’s going to have to catch up quickly. We’re on the clock. Game in six days,” she said in her proficient voice.
The one she’d been using with him for the last half hour as opposed to her sultry voice, the one he heard in his dreams. “I can handle it,” he assured her.
“It’s not like he was in a cushy place before this,” Damon said. “I think he’ll do all right.” He grinned. “Gotta get back to work. Evie said to invite you for dinner one night soon.”
“Name the night and I’ll be there.” He wanted to get to know his brother’s wife and become closer to all of their significant others.
Damon strode off and Braden turned to Willow. “What’s next?”
“Tour’s over,” she said. “But I’m always around if you have questions about the players or the schedule.”
Holding back his groan because he wasn’t ready to end his time with her, he merely nodded. “I appreciate you showing me around. I know you’re busy.”
“It’s fine. We’re a team here. Ready to head back? Your jacket’s in my office,” she said, obviously eager to get rid of him.
He wasn’t about to let her get away that easily. “Sure.” He walked to the entrance of the gym and pushed the door open for her, following her out. His plan was to invite her to dinner so they could catch up and, he hoped, dig deeper than the surface conversation she’d allowed today.
They stepped back into her office, and once again he was in close quarters with Willow, surrounded by the delicious scent of coconut, his favorite smell since she’d always favored that in shower gel and shampoo. All he had to do was inhale and his cock stood at attention, which gave him a reason to shrug his jacket back on and cover the evidence of his arousal.
Had he been with other women in the last two years? Yes. Did he remember faces or names? No. And he’d always thought of Willow and wished it was her he was with.
“So I was wondering,” he began, intending to ask her if they could get together, as a knock sounded on the open door.
Not ready to share her yet, Braden turned to see who needed her attention. A man he didn’t recognize stood in the doorway. A blond-haired, brown-eyed, well-groomed guy wearing khakis and a short-sleeve Polo shirt.
“Am I interrupting?” the man asked.
Willow blinked, a flush on her cheeks. “No, of course not. Braden Prescott, this is Cole Walsh, one of the team physicians. You’ll be working together.”
Stepping forward, Braden extended his arm and they shook hands.
“My new boss.” The man took Braden in, obviously sizing him up, and Braden did the same.
“Good to meet you and looking forward to working with you,” Cole said at last.
“Same here. I’ll be announcing an official meeting in the morning, after I’ve been introduced to everyone this afternoon,” Braden said.
“Great.” Cole smiled and turned to Willow. “Are you ready for lunch? I know we don’t have much time, but I made a reservation at your favorite place.” His expression as he turned to her was of a man smitten.
That flush in her cheeks deepened as she looked at Braden beneath lowered lashes before glancing at Cole. “Sounds perfect. We’re finished here, right, Braden?” Without waiting for a reply, she opened a drawer in her desk and picked up her handbag.
Shit. She was with another man, one he’d be working with. That was a hiccup he hadn’t anticipated, and jealousy rose fast and furious inside him.
“Have fun,” he said as she walked past him without meeting his gaze.
Son of a bitch. Now what?
* * *
“So I gavehim a tour and we went back to my office and Cole interrupted and he and I went to lunch.” Willow took a sip of the wine she’d poured for both herself and Steffy, who’d stopped by on her way home after work.
When Steffy was hired, she’d also been looking for an apartment, and there had been one available in Willow’s building, so she’d mentioned the rental. Steffy had liked the area and the unit and rented it immediately. After they’d become friends, she’d often stop by Willow’s for a drink and a chat and vice versa.
“Hmm.” Steffy settled into the plush sofa in Willow’s living room.
She shrugged. “Just hmm. And how was lunch with Cole?”
Willow glanced at her friend over the rim of her glass, taking another sip before answering. “I don’t know. I was distracted.”
“By a certain hot doctor? And not the one you went to lunch with?” Her friend gave her a knowing look.
“Maybe.” Willow blushed at the admission, hating that Braden had the ability to get to her on any level. “But only because I was in shock that he showed up again and I’ll be working with him, not because I still have feelings for the man.”
“Of course not.” Steffy walked into the kitchen, which was a pass-through from the family room, and poured herself more wine.
“You sound like you don’t believe me,” Willow muttered, knowing her friend was right but unwilling to admit it.
“Oh, that’s because I don’t. I saw the look on your face during that press conference, and it wasn’t just shock. You were drooling.” Returning from the kitchen, she settled onto the other end of the couch, tucking a leg beneath her.
Willow rolled her eyes. “I was not drooling.” Salivating was more like it, and she hated herself for still being attracted to Braden, never mind letting him ruin her lunch with a perfectly nice man.
“Does Cole know your history with Braden?” Steffy raised an eyebrow in question, and Willow’s grip on her wineglass tightened.
She shook her head. “No. I really want to keep my past out of the workplace. Cole and I don’t make a public display, and there’s no whispers about us. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Which I understand. But that has nothing to do with telling the man you’re dating that the new doctor is your ex.”
She placed her drink on a coaster on the table and groaned. “It’s not an exclusive relationship. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to mention it and have that kind of mess between the three of us at work.”
Steffy narrowed her gaze. “So it’s not serious. And you couldn’t focus on him at lunch. You’re not sleeping with him! How long have you two been dating?” she asked.
“Casually for three months.”
“Well, if you haven’t slept with him before now, I can guarantee you won’t now that Dr. Hottie is back.”
She frowned at her friend, but again, Willow wasn’t about to admit Steffy had a point. Willow had been holding off taking that next step with him, and Steffy was right. Now she’d been reminded of what she was missing and why she hadn’t gone further with Cole.
None of that meant she was interested in rekindling things with Braden, who she could not trust.
* * *
The first weekpassed quickly, with Braden getting to know the players and the staff. He discovered he enjoyed the hectic pace of the season, keeping up with each man on the team and their chronic issues and those things that put them on the Injured Reserve List. He actually liked the job more than he’d thought he would, coming off humanitarian work.
Seeing Willow every day was a bonus, even if she treated him to her cool, professional persona that didn’t give him any way to break through her reserve. He didn’t think anyone noticed that they weren’t actually speaking to one another. Only Hudson had caught on quickly, but he knew their history. It was only a matter of time before Willow’s stiffness around him became obvious to others.
Today was Tuesday and the weekend on the road was fast approaching. He planned to travel with the team and be there on the sidelines. He didn’t believe in passing the buck, and though he had other general practitioners who could go, he wanted to show he had the chops for the job, not just Ian’s approval.
Dr. Daniel Barrett, head orthopedic surgeon for the team, had two orthopedists and one surgeon traveling with them, and Braden had tapped another GP to go with them. He hadn’t chosen Cole Walsh. He’d like to say he wasn’t biased against the man or that he didn’t want an open road to Willow, but that would be bullshit and he was man enough to admit it. By the same token, he wasn’t taking Hudson, either, because two new doctors who didn’t know the ropes wouldn’t be smart. He understood he needed to learn on the job and watch the people who’d been around longer than him for protocol. But once and if an injury occurred, his instincts would kick in, and he’d know exactly what to do.
Today was the day the coaches put together game plans, and the rookies had been in the gym working out while injured players were being seen by trainers. Braden spent the day examining various guys, eager to get to know them, and by seven p.m., he was exhausted and ready to get out of here.
But he wasn’t headed straight to the parking lot. He had a pit stop to make first. He’d taken note of what time Willow called it a day, and tonight he was leaving around the same time and hoped to intercept her before she left.
With a little luck, this time there wouldn’t be any interruptions. A certain doctor was working with a particularly tricky patient, and that should keep the man busy, because Braden had a plan.
He headed directly to Willow’s office around the corner from his and stopped in the open doorway, catching Willow mid-stretch. Wearing the type of clothing she favored, fitted black leggings and a body-hugging top, she touched her toes, and her sweet, pert ass teased him.
He couldn’t contain a groan as his cock responded to her position.
She jerked her body up and swayed from the sudden movement. He reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close to steady her. The warm scent went straight to his already hard groin.
“Thank you but I’m fine now,” she said, quickly stepping away. “I didn’t realize my office door was open.”
He cleared his throat and hoped the desire she’d triggered didn’t show on his face. He also prayed she didn’t glance down, because the effect she had on him would be glaringly evident.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, gathering up her bag and things to take home for the night.
He met her gaze, her blue eyes narrowed warily. “I came to convince you to have dinner with me. I want to talk and clear the air.” And hopefully put the past behind them.
She shook her head. “Not only is it not a good idea but it’s unnecessary. We’re making do just fine.”
“I disagree. You’re not speaking to me unless it’s about a patient, you’re not relaxed around me like you are around everyone else, and we’re both traveling to Denver this weekend. So we’re going for dinner.”
She hesitated, then seemed to come to some sort of conclusion and nodded. “Fine. But somewhere close to my place and I want to be home early. I have to wake up at four thirty.”
He’d take that as a win. “Fine by me. Do you still live in the same apartment?”
“And is your favorite Mexican place still around the corner?”
He caught the widening of her eyes. “Yes, I remembered,” he said in a gruffer voice than usual. There were many things he recalled about Willow that would surprise her. But there was time to get into that. “Are you ready?”
She nodded, but from her stiff demeanor, it was clear she didn’t want to join him for dinner. He was serious when he said it would be good for the team. They needed to work together without resentment getting between them.
“Let’s go and I’ll follow you there.” He wished he could get her alone in his car just to have her near, but he knew she drove to work. They were stuck with two vehicles.
She stepped past him and walked out of the room. Once he joined her, she locked her office, and they headed to the parking lot in silence.
He had questions about her life, but he was saving them for the restaurant, where nobody they knew would disturb them.
* * *
Willow slid intoa booth at El Toro and placed her purse between her outer thigh and the wall. Before she could process his intention, Braden slipped in next to her, the warmth of his big body pressing against hers.
“What are you doing? Go sit across from me,” she said, inching away because everything about him was so powerful and overwhelming.
He slung one arm behind her and turned her way. “This is my seat, remember? We’d share our guac and chips sitting side by side.”
“That was the past.”
“And this is the present.”
Before she could reply, a waitress stopped at their table. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Willow was going to need one to get through this meal. “A margarita, please.”
“Whatever beer you have on tap,” Braden said. “And can you please bring guacamole and chips when you get a chance?”
“Of course.” The brunette smiled at them. “I’ll be back to take the rest of your order,” she said and stopped at another table.
Left alone again, Braden turned back to her. “So how am I doing at work?”
Willow blinked in surprise. “You want my assessment?”
He nodded. “I value your opinion and you’ve been around the team for years. So let me have it.”
She bit down on her lower lip and, for the first time since his arrival, allowed herself to really think about Braden and his first week with the team. He’d blended in seamlessly, the other doctors and therapists deferring to his expertise when necessary. By the same token, he had no problem handing off a player to another doctor if the injury fell under their specialty. He listened and learned the procedure and protocol and asked when he wasn’t sure instead of charging in and giving orders.
Even Cole had mentioned to her how much he liked the team’s new head doctor. Of course, he wouldn’t feel the same way if he knew she had history with Braden, but that was irrelevant to Braden’s question.
So as much as she wanted to tell him he’d done a shitty job, she couldn’t. “You seem to be fitting in well, actually. No criticism from me.”
“I’m glad you think so. Your opinion means a lot to me.” His grin was so hot, gave him such a sexy look, she’d be shocked if it hadn’t incinerated her panties, and she squirmed in her seat.
“Here are your drinks.” Their server returned and placed Willow’s glass down, then Braden’s bottle on the table in front of him. “Can I take your orders?”
“We haven’t had a chance to look at the menu.” He glanced at Willow. “Has it changed?”
“No. I’ll have the pulled pork soft tacos. Thank you,” she said to the server.
“An enchilada for me, thanks.” He ordered his usual choice from when they used to come here as a couple.
Their server picked up the unopened menus and walked away.
Not wanting to sit in uncomfortable silence, Willow decided to start their conversation. “So … how has the adjustment been from being abroad to being home?”
He shrugged. “Not bad. I’m renting an apartment in the same building as Hudson. I treated myself to a new bed, and I have to say it’s been great to be comfortable again. Cots in tents were hard on my back.”
“Are you glad you went?” As soon as the question was out, she wished she could take it back. She didn’t want him to know she wondered if he had any regrets.
He met her gaze, his expression somber. “I’m grateful for the experience,” he said, obviously speaking with care. “I wish I’d handled certain things differently. Like us.”
“It’s in the past,” she said, wishing she didn’t have to keep repeating the refrain.
“Except you’re still hurt and angry.” He lifted a hand and dropped it again.
She knew from their history what he’d intended. He’d liked to play with her hair, and she’d enjoyed it, too. He’d curl a strand around his finger and tug lightly. The sensation would start in her scalp, but she’d inevitably feel the pull between her thighs. She was glad he’d cut off the impulse. She didn’t want to make a scene.
“I washurt,” she admitted. “And I was angry. But I’m fine now. We can work together without an issue.”
“I’ll take your word for it, then.”
“Here’s your guacamole and chips,” the waitress said, returning to place their appetizers on the table.
“Thank you,” they both said at the same time.
“I’m starving.” Having rushed through a yogurt for lunch and barely having time for half a protein bar later in the afternoon, she needed food.
She reached out and picked up a chip, dipped it in the creamy avocado mix, and took a bite, the salty flavor exploding on her tongue. “Mmm. So good,” she moaned at the taste.
His gaze locked on hers. “Do not make that sound around me unless you’re prepared for what happens next.”
She widened her eyes, shocked at both his gruff tone and the words he’d spoken. Until now he’d been careful around her. Tiptoeing and trying to respect her feelings if not giving her her space. Before she could even process the boundary he’d crossed, he asked, “So what’s the story with you and Cole Walsh? Is it serious?” And he crossed another one.
“That’s none of your business,” she said, refusing to discuss her relationships with him.
“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Sounding pleased, he picked up a chip, dipped it, and took a bite, leaving her to grind her teeth in frustration because he’d boxed her into a corner.
If she agreed, he’d up his game and come on stronger. Not that she had any idea what it was he wanted from her, but he was obviously still interested. If she disagreed with him, she’d send out all the wrong signals that might get back to Cole, and she didn’t want him to get the incorrect idea about their relationship. She enjoyed her time with Cole, but it wasn’t serious.
“You’re frustrating,” she muttered, scooping up guac with another chip, then following it with her first sip of her drink.
He winked and lifted his beer.
Ignoring the flutter in her stomach, she concentrated on the food in front of her instead of the man beside her.
The waitress served their meals, and Braden behaved for the rest of dinner. They talked about various topics, and to her relief, they both veered away from anything too personal.
Instead he caught her up on his family’s weddings and engagements.
Jaxon, his baseball-playing brother had ended up in a marriage of convenience with his sister’s best friend, Macy. They’d both had strong reasons to marry and ended up falling in love. Damon married the private investigator who had cleared him of the steroid use accusation and discovered Doc’s complicity, something she’d heard about at work. And Austin had found a baby on his doorstep and called his assistant, Quinn, in to help. The baby had been his, the mother signed over her rights, not without a lot of drama, and he and Quinn were due to marry on Valentine’s Day.
“So all your brothers are married or getting married,” she mused aloud.
He nodded. “Just Bri and I are left.” He shook his head. “Maybe it’s a twin thing and it’ll happen around the same time.”
She did her best not to react to his offhanded comment. The fact that she’d once, almost, let herself dream about a lifetime with him only for him to drop the Doctors Without Borders bomb on her without warning was, as she’d said, in the past. If his future held a wedding with someone else, so be it, she thought, ignoring the cramping in her stomach at the notion.
* * *
Braden considered thisdinner the equivalent of a touchdown. It wasn’t a Super Bowl win, but it was another step toward his ultimate goal. He might not be the sports guy in the family, but he could use analogies with the best of them. Just knowing Willow wasn’t serious with another man gave him breathing room.
The server put the check on the table, and at Willow’s hand movement, he shot her a narrow-eyed warning. Though she frowned, she allowed him to grab the check and pay.
He walked her out to her car and paused before she opened the door. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked of their time together.
“No. It was actually … nice.” She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth before releasing it, and he stifled a groan, wishing he could taste her mouth.
But he’d already resigned himself to a slow and steady pursuit and drew a deep breath to calm himself down. He’d fucked things up, and now he had to go at her pace. It was a road worth traveling. One she didn’t even realize they were on.
So as much as he wanted to pull her into a long, deep kiss, he’d play it slow. “I’ll see you at work tomorrow?”
She nodded. “Bright and early.”
Unable to let her leave without a meaningful moment between them, he reached out, winding a lock of hair around his finger, tugging on the strand before releasing it.
Her eyes flew to his and glazed over in a look he remembered well. One that told him the desire he was feeling wasn’t one-sided.
Taking advantage, he slid his hand around the back of her neck, pulled her close, and kissed her cheek. “Night, Willow,” he whispered into her ear, then stepped back.
Her body trembled and she glanced down, immediately fumbling inside her bag for her keys. Satisfied with her reaction, he waited for her to unlock her car and slide into the driver’s seat.
“Thanks for dinner, Braden. Good night,” she said, her voice huskier than he’d heard it since his return.
He closed the door, hearing the click of the lock, and he waited until she pulled out before walking to his vehicle.
She might try and go back to professional Willow tomorrow, but he had the satisfaction of knowing he’d broken through her reserve.