The One Real Thing Page 2

The door behind me banged open again and BRF Guy strode in with two steaming mugs in his hands.

As soon as he put one into mine, goose bumps rose up my arm at the delicious rush of heat against my chilled skin. “Thank you.”

He nodded and slipped into the seat across from me. I studied him as he braced an ankle over his knee and sipped at his coffee. He was casual, completely relaxed, despite the fact that his clothes were wet. And like me he was wearing jeans. Wet denim felt nasty against bare skin—a man-made chafe monster.

“Do you work here?” I said after a really long few minutes of silence passed between us.

He didn’t seem bothered by the silence. In fact, he seemed completely at ease in the company of a stranger.

He nodded.

“You’re a bartender here?”

“I own the place.”

I looked around at the bar. It was traditional décor with dark walnut everywhere—the long bar, the tables and chairs, even the floor. The lights of three large brass chandeliers broke up the darkness, while wall-mounted green library lamps along the back wall gave the booths there a cozy, almost romantic vibe. There was a small stage near the front door and just across from the booths were three stairs that led up onto a raised dais where two pool tables sat. Two huge flat-screen televisions, one above the bar and one above the pool tables, made me think it was part sports bar.

There was a large jukebox, beside the stage, that was currently silent.

“Nice place.”

BRF Guy nodded.

“What’s the bar called?”

“Cooper’s.”

“Are you Cooper?”

His eyes smiled. “Are you a detective?”

“A doctor, actually.”

I was pretty sure I saw a flicker of interest. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Smart lady.”

“I’d hope so.” I grinned.

Laughter danced in his eyes as he raised his mug for another sip.

Weirdly, I found myself settling into a comfortable silence with him. We sipped at our hot drinks as a lovely easiness fell between us. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that kind of calm contentedness with anyone, let alone a stranger.

A little slice of peace.

Finally, as I came to the end of my cocoa, BRF Guy / possibly Cooper spoke. “You’re not from Hartwell.”

“No, I’m not.”

“What brings you to Hart’s Boardwalk, Doc?”

I realized then how much I liked the sound of his voice. It was deep with a little huskiness in it.

I thought about his question before responding. What had brought me there was complicated.

“At the moment the rain brought me here,” I said coyly. “I’m kind of glad it did.”

He put his mug down on the table and stared at me for a long beat. I returned his perusal, my cheeks warming under the heat of his regard. Suddenly he reached across the table, offering me his hand. “Cooper Lawson.”

I smiled and placed my small hand in his. “Jessica Huntington.”

“Nice to meet you, Doc.”

TWO

Jessica

Two Weeks Earlier

Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility

Wilmington, Delaware

“You know, if you go running into any more doors I’m giving you a vision test,” I said dryly as I applied antiseptic to Mary Jo’s cut lip.

She glowered at me but didn’t respond, which was unusual. If only she’d use that kind of restraint with the other inmates she might stop running into so many “doors.”

I dropped my cotton swab and took off my latex gloves. “Nothing more I can do here. You can sit in the ward for a half hour with ice on your eye. It should take some of the swelling down.” I strode over to the small freezer in my clinic and took out an ice pack.

When I turned back to Mary Jo she was squinting at me with her good eye.

“How come you don’t talk to us like we’re trash? That older bitch speaks to us like we’re trash.”

I ignored her reference to my colleague, Dr. Whitaker, who worked part-time at the prison infirmary. She didn’t peer down her nose at just the inmates; she considered everyone beneath her. And despite the fact that I was the primary physician and worked the most hours, she still consistently tried to tell me how to do my job. “Maybe because I don’t think you’re trash,” I said, slapping the ice pack into Mary Jo’s hand. I guided her hand over her eye.

“How come?”

I heard the suspicion in her voice.

Working as a prison doctor for the last two years had taught me a few things. One of those things was that most of the female inmates were suspicious of absolutely everyone and their motives.

“How come I don’t think you’re trash?”

“Yeah.”

I turned away to put the cotton swabs I’d used in the medical trash. The answer to that question was like the deepest root of a solid twenty-one-year-old tree—buried too far down to unearth it now without toppling the entire tree. “Mistakes don’t make you trash.” I pasted a bright smile on my face as I turned back to her. “You’re good to go.” I knocked on the glass pane of my door and the guard on duty, Pamela, nodded and strode over. She opened the door. “Doc?”

“Let Mary Jo sit in the ward for about a half hour with this ice on her eye, and then she’s good to go.”

“Sure thing. Come on, Mary Jo.” Pamela ushered her out.

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