JUST SURRENDER…
Harlequin Blaze
May 2011
ISBN: 0373796153


available at

Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Straitlaced surgeon Tyler Malone hops into a cab at JFK... and goes on the ride of his life. Punky, funky, fly-by-night cabbie Edie Higgins takes him on an all-night New York City adventure involving a flat tire, a strip club and diner food. Oh, and a mind-blowing early-morning romp in a notoriously naughty hotel.

So when Edie offers to become newly single Tyler's love sensei, he thinks, why not? Especially since she's a very hands-on teacher.

They couldn't be more different, but they're about to learn the same lesson: to just surrender. Everything.

coming soon

coming soon


 
   

Chapter One

Edie Higgins black-polished nails drummed happily as she sat behind the wheel of Barnaby’s cab. The midnight rain flowed down the windshield in rivers, her Mickey Mouse watch said one-seven-am, but at JFK airport, the night was still bustling with life. The May air was warm, but not too warm, which was a good thing, because Edie had quickly discovered that the AC in Barnaby’s cab had gone out since the last time she’d driven it. Not that the brakes were in great condition either, but it so happened that Edie had a lead-foot -- which worked just as well for stopping as speeding up.

Curious, she scanned the soggy travelers that were waiting in the long, taxi line. Since she had been a kid, she had always adored the drama of airports. The heart-squeezing hugs of families coming home, the long, wet kisses of reunited lovers, and the misty-eyed wave from a forlorn six-year-old who didn’t understand why Mom was going away. That was life, that was the connections people craved. That was what made Edie sigh.

So far, she had yet to sigh. The thunderstorm put a huge damper on almost everything but her mood. However, just like relationships, springs storms were fleeting -- never wearing out their welcome before they disappeared into the clouds.

By her own rudimentary calculations, late Thursday nights should be the piece d’resistance: tourist night. A boredom-breaking extravaganza in which she could drive dewy-eyed couples to the getaway destinations. Or whisk away families that were intentionally headed for the over-priced tourist trap that was the Great White Way.

Hey, whatever made them happy. And that was the part she liked most. Watching people as they bubbled with anticipation, their faces glowing from that champagne-like awareness. The knowledge that good things were about to pop.

Now that made her sigh.

She looked down at her phone and checked her voice mail, just in case he had called.

"You have no messages," the voice answered, and Edie stuffed her phone in her bag. No reason to think about missing phone calls, about people who didn't need her, when there were thousand of people who were desperate to get out of the rain, which was exactly the reason she was here.

Slowly she inched the cab forward, the water-soaked attendant shoving passengers into yellow cabs like Thursday night’s garbage. Beneath the flickering security lights, Edie perused the cab-line, counting heads to discover her prize. The gnarly attendant, not onboard with the whole ‘customer service’ concept, ripped open the back door. Edie shot a look over her shoulder, anticipating what exciting adventure the passenger-lottery had shelled out tonight.

And was it canoodling lovers, or shrieking families? No, instead, it was Mr. Overly-Practical, Non-Champagne-Popper Trenchcoat who wouldn’t know adventure unless he looked it up in the dictionary. He wore a dark suit, striped tie secured in a perfect Windsor knot -- which she knew only because her dad -- the esteemed Dr. Jordan Higgins -- loved the Windsor knot. It was crisp, professional, and reeked of glory.

Just. Like. Dr. Jordan Higgins

As with so many things that the “esteemed Dr. Jordan Higgins” (trademarked 1971, Cornell Medical School) loved, Edie despised the Windsor knot.

Not to be overly-critical, but okay, she hated the striped ties, too. An oxygen-stifling invention, similar to women’s hose, meant to entrap humanity in a constricting uniform of sameness. Taking a sneak peak in the rear-view mirror, she noted the man’s impeccable reflection that defied rain-muss or travel-wrinkles… or any semblance of life.

Great. She’d given up free drinks with Anita to drive the cab, and yes, Barnaby could always twist her arm (not hard because of the must-be-recessive sucker-gene), but still….

At least his hair was mussed, she thought as he settled his briefcase neatly in the seat. The rain had darkened it to nearly black with one woebegone strand hanging damply into his eyes. Impatiently he pushed at it, restoring it back to its well-groomed position.

It was a pity because he was so much more appealing when he was mussed. But hey, not everyone could identify and exploit their intrinsic advantages like Edie could. Not that she would say a word. Trenchcoats never took criticism well, so she pulled onto the Belt Parkway, aka Pothole Crater of America, and eased into the slow-moving traffic. “Where to, mister?”

“The Belvedere Hotel,” he answered, which startled her only because the Belevedere was more than a little naughty, completely not a ties-place -- unless they were the kinky silk and satin kind. Edie looked at her passenger with new, more appreciative eyes. Kink?

“Seriously?”

“Just drive,” he instructed, his voice crisply impersonal, accustomed to being obeyed. Edie, never a lapdog, tapped her fingers on the wheel.

“Meeting somebody at the hotel?” she tried again.

Cooly he met her eyes in the mirror, then glanced at the ID tag on the visor. “You don’t look like Barnaby.”

“The magic of medical science. Two years of hormones, a few surgeries, and voila, Barbara.”

“Not likely,” he muttered, choosing to spoil her fun with his nay-saying logic and truth. When she looked back in the mirror, the stubborn lock of hair had fallen back in his eyes. Edie smiled, broad and perhaps slightly superior. Sometimes there was a God, and sometimes She had a sense of humor.

“Barnaby’s my ex,” she admitted.

“Your ex lets you drive his cab? That has to be illegal.”

Edie shrugged, because to her, the law was another constricting set of mandates, much like the Windsor knot. “His Uncle Marty is some hoo-haw at the Taxi & Limousine Commission. I don’t think they’re actually related; it’s an implied relationship, informal and forged through extensive bribes. Barnaby gets away with more than most.”

“What’s your real job?”

“Real job?” Edie scoffed. “What is that, really? Some greed-inspired drudgery that people consider socially acceptable. Eight-hours of vomitous detail, mind-eroding minutia, and arguments over possibly purloined office supplies. No thank you. However, in the interest of full disclosure and because I don’t want to get Uncle Marty in trouble, I don’t drive the cab very often. Mainly when Barnaby sets up a date with Sasha, which sometimes falls on Thursdays when he’s supposed to have class --- not that he'll be at school, because he dropped out last semester.”

“Why all the secrecy?” he asked, and immediately Edie knew that he had never had an overbearing, interfering family. Not that she had one either. But she’d always longed for one -- something big with lots of loud brothers and sisters, like the ones on reality shows.

As she cruised through the toll booths, she decided to let him in on the ins and outs of the American Family Dynamic. “They keep the relationship in the closet because Barnaby’s family doesn’t approve. She’s from Oklahoma, and his parents are really tight-assed about the whole situation, because they really have this weird Oklahoma thing, so sometimes he calls me up, and I drive the cab. Usually on Thursday, which I like because it’s a good night for a people person like myself.”

With a sharp veer to the left, she shot in front of a cabbie who hadn’t learned the ropes, and then swore as the traffic ground to a full-stop. Tonight the Belt was packed with cars, red brake lights glowing eerily through the rain. Somewhere up ahead, there was the unfulfilled promise of road construction.

It followed -- like potholes after snow -- that when there was rain, there would be no crews to work the job. Which left only the Department of Transportation-mandated lane closures. There was a screwy logic to New York, you just had to embrace it. Mr. Trenchcoat wasn’t the embraceable type.

Seeing an opening two lanes over, she sped up before slamming on the brakes, and then tried not to smile when Mr. Trenchcoat hit his head. At least the almost-redeeming hair was back in his eyes.

Edie believed there was a certain responsibility in playing the part of a New York cabbie. There were expected rude behaviors and bad-driving norms. Frankly, it was all fiction (well, not all), but Edie chose to give people their money’s worth.

“You don’t care that your ex is seeing someone new?” he asked, completely calm.

“We didn’t click,” she explained as she creatively maneuvered the traffic, but not once did he blink, swear, or wipe sweat from his brow. Damnit.

After jamming down on the horn at one excruciatingly slow Jersey driver, she grinned and then cursed the entire Garden state to various transportation woes including rate hikes, speeding ticket quotas, and exploding water mains (possibly glowing green).

A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that her passenger was ignoring her driving, which disappointed her and made her wonder if she was losing her touch. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

“I tried to make it work,” Edie continued, dodging to hit every road-crater that she could. “The sex was pretty good, but Barnaby never knew what to talk about, no imagination, not a romantic bone in his --frankly, a little on the skinny-side -- bod. I gotta tell you, it got boring fast. Never a good sign in a relationship. Besides, a woman can tell. Within five minutes I know if a guy is the one.”

“Five minutes? That long?” she heard the disbelief in his voice, but she had been confronted by doubters before, and Edie loved to argue. There were universal truths in the world, especially when it came to romance, and the more men that were educated in said-truths, the better for women-kind everywhere.

“Oh, sure, pretend you don’t do the same thing. Science has proven that people know pretty much instantly. I prefer not to waste my time. Life’s too short to ignore what’s in front of your nose. Or what’s not.” Much of what she said was complete bullshit, but the last part was truth.

“And what are these signs that a person is supposed to be looking for?”

He was mocking her, making fun of what he thought was foolish, silly, and possibly naive. She hated that her shoulders immediately tensed, but she had been branded the fool before – by people whose opinion mattered -- and it didn’t bother her. Much.

“You can think whatever you want, but as for me, I’m looking for lightning. Thunder. AC/DC playing in my head. The world has to tilt and shift -- and I have to forget how to breathe.”

“That’s not love, that’s stress cardiomyopathy.”

She knew that man-tone, that Sahara-dry voice, dismissing anything that couldn’t be proven through the scientific method. As if love could be proven or disproven. It simply was. “Wiseass, aren’t you?”

Obviously accustomed to the insult, he chose to ignore it. “How often have you experienced these symptoms?”

“Never.”

“You’re setting yourself up for failure,” he pronounced, a blow to Hallmark, romance, and the entire speed-dating industry.

“Life is full of failures. If you don’t fail, you’ve failed to truly live. I’ll take my chances.”

It should have made her happy that he didn’t argue back, but it didn’t. Dr. Jordan Higgins never argued, either. No matter how outrageous, no matter how controversial. Only the idiotic cranks seemed to rate with her father. And all that usually rated was a supercilious eyebrow-raise. Edie cranked up the radio, but the volume wasn’t working, and it wasn’t loud enough to drown out the silence, so Edie flipped it off.

Eventually she broke down and turned to classic dinner-party conversation. “You’re Cancer, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not the last time I checked.”

“Your sign. Cancer. Reticent, inflexible, deep-thinker.”

“Gemini.”

Dazzling wit? Impulsive? “No way.”

“Yes, way,” he insisted.

Unable to reconcile this astrological anomaly, she abandoned personal conversation until they hit the BQE. As they zoomed along, she pointed out the various tourist sites flying by, but her 'Welcome to New York' spiel was interrupted by a beep.

Mr. Trenchcoat had a text message.

Politely she stopped talking, easily imagining the words on his phone. For his sake, she hoped it was something sexy, possibly visual, suggestive, earthy, but not tacky. Subtle went a long way in seduction. Edie considered herself something of an expert at the art of love.

After a second he swore, euphemistically alluding to the carnal arts, but not in the sexy way. He sounded pissed.

When she glanced up in the mirror, she noticed the way the brows furrowed into the broad forehead. The hair was back in his eyes, refusing to cooperate as well.

The dude was screwed.

“Something wrong?” she asked, trying to sound innocent rather than nosy.

“Nothing.”

Ha. If that was nothing, then she was a rocket scientist. Not that she couldn’t be if she wanted. Edie had aced two courses in astrophysics at NYU, but had changed majors after a heated discussion with the prof on the viability of red giant stars, white dwarf stars, and the anti-feminist fairy-tale ideology that perpetuates the idea that one woman should be subjected to the sexual demands of seven, professionally-challenged dwarfs with a severe Napoleon complex. There were some, with more pedantic thought patterns, who thought it was a giant leap in logic to go from stars to anti-feminist literary tropes, including her professor, whom she affectionately called Professor Moriarity. He was not amused, much like her well-knotted passenger who was currently staring blindly out the window. She felt a quiver of sympathy which caused her to frown, because Windsor knots and trenchcoats did not deserve sympathy. Of course, they usually didn’t swear, either.

“Something interrupted your plans?” she tried again.

“The only plans I have are sleep.”

Edie laughed, and then exited toward the Whitestone Bridge. “At the Belvedere? Not that your accommodations are any of my business, but I’m dying to know, so if you want to volunteer the details, I’m a very captive audience.”

He looked away from the window, and met her eyes in the mirror. Perfectly arched brows furrowed with momentary alarm. About time. “What’s with the Belvedere? Is there a problem?”

“You’ve never stayed there?”

“No. My brother is going to stay there next month, so I thought I would try it.”

Edie snickered under her breath.

“Dammit.”

Poor guy, losing it left and right. Edie didn’t want to be nice. First of all, because it would ruin the whole snarling cabbie mystique, but also because trenchcoats and suits and Windsor-knot arrogance were not what she considered positive traits. And so, yes, for the second time that night, the sucker-gene kicked in. Carefully she picked her words, doing her best not to scare him. “It’s not too bad. More adventurous than your typical accommodations. Kind of a couples thing. I knew you didn’t look the type, but you know, still waters run deep. And I’ve been wrong before. Once.”

He snickered back. She heard it, which made her feel better because laughter, even scoffing laughter, counted for something.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m sacked. Give me a shot of scotch, clean sheets, a decent surface and I’m out anyway.” He ended up with a careless shrug, this from a man who didn’t do careless at all.

Edie squinted through the windshield, the rain pelting down on the roof, the wipers squeaking up-tempo. “What are you here for? Business? Pleasure?” she asked, merging to the right to escape the upcoming traffic.

“I was meeting someone.” When he answered, his voice was flat, missing both thunder and lightning. In fact, Edie would bet copious amounts of cash that he didn’t even know who AC/DC was.

“And thus the Belvedere,” she surmised. A romantic getaway for the romantically-challenged. Apparently his brother had gotten the brains in the family. “You should thank your brother when you get back home.”

“Not a chance in hell.”

This time, she heard the glossed-over dip in his voice, the Southern drawl so disdained by every self-respecting New Yawker. “Where’s home?”

“Houston.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s a good city.”

“It’s not New York,” she corrected.

“Have you ever been to Houston?”

“Once. I had an ex who was a bull-rider. Leon ‘The BallBreaker’ Braker. I completely bought into the image until I went to the Houston Livestock show. The bull threw him off in two-point-seven seconds, and that was it. I broke up with him the next week. Faker.”

“That’s very cold of you.”

“Nah. I fixed him up with this chick I met in the hotel bar. She was a chiropractor. They’re married now.”

He resumed the blind stare out the window, which she knew was blind, because they were currently easing up on Brooklyn instead of Manhattan, and he hadn’t said a word. He was either directionally-challenged or emotionally numb. She was betting on the later, which made her try even harder to cheer him up.

“This weather's hell. Where’s the girlfriend? Flight delayed?”

Instead of cooperating, he stayed silent, choosing not to spill his most private thoughts to a complete stranger.

Since he left her mind to its own creative devices Edie assessed his situation. Girlfriend wasn’t showing and he was crushed. Windsor knots never took rejection well, although he didn’t seem as heartbroken as she thought he should be. She wondered if he liked quiet redheads, because Patience needed to meet a guy who didn’t yell. Somebody who knew how to keep his emotions in check, and Mr. Trenchcoat was nothing if not repressed.

“She’s not showing, is she? Tough beans, but hey, the Belvedere’s great for getting to know people. I’ll bet you’ll meet someone new tonight, a leggy blond, or maybe twins.”

He chose to ignore her attempts to perk him up, which annoyed her, because she was going out of her way to be nice, and why didn’t he appreciate it? Most of all, Edie didn’t do silence well. Never had.

Furiously she changed lanes into on-coming traffic, just to make sure he was still alive. Mr. End-Of-The-World-As-We-Know-It didn’t say a word. Ignoring the cards behind her, Edie slammed on the brakes and finally erupted.

“Oh, come on. We’ve got another thirty-fifty-ninety minutes. People bond in long car rides, and I don’t like talking to myself. Let’s try something easy. Like… how long you two been together?”

“Do we have to talk?” he asked, as the cars behind them started to honk.

“Yes. I’m trying to give you the full New York cabbie experience, so couldn’t you be a little cooperative? It’s an easy question, a few words at most. Just something to keep me going here.”

She heard the deep indrawn breath, a slow glacial defrosting sound. “Three years. Or maybe five?”

“You don’t know?” she blurted out, not bothering to hide the horror.

“Not exactly. Can we drive now?”

Whoa, boy. No wonder he was getting the cold shoulder. Forget fixing him up with Patience. She deserved better. Gingerly, Edie got the cab moving again. “I can see the problem.”

“And I’m sure you have advice.”

“No way, buddy. You dug that hole all by yourself. A grave is a dark, damp place late at night.”

“If you sleep well, you never know. I always sleep well.”

She glanced in the mirror, noted the cock-sure confidence in his eyes, his face, even the rigid posture – all while enduring what should be a death-defying motor vehicle experience. A humiliating moment in Edie’s bright cab-driving career, which was getting dimmer by the minute.

“I bet you used meds for sleep,” she muttered, because she didn’t like being a failure at anything. It was a trait inherited from her father -- one of the very few that she admitted.

“No meds. You have to be smart about your life. Control stress, eat healthy, exercise.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“It’s your funeral,” he answered in that supremely unsettled voice.

“Yeah, but I’m not sleeping alone tonight,” she shot back, perhaps a petty taunt, but it wasn’t like his ego couldn’t take it.

Barnaby?” He sounded disturbed. Disapproving.

Delicious.

“Nah,” she answered smoothly. “I’ll go out trolling after I drop you off. Premeditation takes all the spontaneity out of it. It’s like walking around with a lightning rod over your head and pretending to be shocked when the storm hits. What fun is that?

And he completely bought it. “You’re going to go hook up with some stranger?”

“Oh, sure,” she gushed, finally discovering which buttons to push. “It’s a lot more exciting that way.”

“It’s unsafe.”

“Not if you’re smart.”

“What if he’s a criminal?”

He sounded genuinely concerned, which was sweet, but unnecessary since Edie didn’t believe in one-night stands. Sex was part of the biological symbiosis that wove through the earth. You had to follow the strands of karmic DNA that were laid out in front of you, and picking up strange men in clubs was forging a connection that didn’t exist.

When she glanced in the mirror, she noticed the worried frown, and she probably should have eased up on the man. But not yet. He wasn’t staring out the window anymore, which was definite progress. “You can tell a killer by the eyes. They’re cold and flat, missing the soul.”

“By that definition, I’m a serial killer.”

She looked again, saw the impassive stare, and smiled. “No you’re not. I can read your eyes.”

“Right,” he shot back, his quiet voice dripping with blaring sarcasm. Cocky, but clueless. Typical. “What do my eyes say?” he asked, possibly because of her dismissing snort.

“You really want to know?”

“No,” he answered, not responding well to teasing.

“Oh, come on. You know you want it.”

And once again, he sighed. Life was getting better and better. “Go ahead.”

She considered fibbing, but Mr. Trenchcoat needed something to perk him up. “You’re cold and flat, but you still possess the soul. However, you belong in the Hilton, not the Belvedere.”

“Flattering.”

“Yet true,” she shot back, daring him to deny it.

“Are we there yet?” he asked, apparently not fond of the whole self-analysis thing. Not like she’d ever met a man who was.

Her watch said it was nearly three in the morning. The downpours had eased to a hair-frizzing drizzle, the traffic had eased to a tolerable crawl, and the lights of East Flatbush were beautiful under the full moon. “A few more miles.”

“Why is Manhattan that way?” he finally asked, his hand pointing to the west. “Shouldn’t we be headed in that direction?”

“I thought you’d like to see more of the outer boroughs. Most people don’t appreciate the architectural diversity of the city. It’s very picturesque.”

“I’m not going to pay extra because you got lost.”

Lost? Edie? Ha. “Flat rate from the airport to the city. It’s the rules.”

“And now you turn law-abiding?”

“You’re just fun to joke with, and you look like you needed cheering up.”

“It’s late. I’m tired. I want to get to the hotel.”

“Are you always this crabby when you’re tired?”

“No.”

“Don’t you want to see Underground New York, the part that tourists always overlook?”

“No.”

“At some point, you’ll have to get out and see the sights. You can’t let rejection get you down. She’s not worth it.”

“She’s not getting me down.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, believe what you want. Tonight, when you’re alone in that mirrored ceiling bed, you’ll be staring at yourself with those empty eyes. And before I know it, you’ll be the front page on the Times, having jumped naked from the Brooklyn Bridge.”

“A mirrored-ceiling bed?” he repeated, picking out the least inflammatory bit of her sentence. It said so much about his sexual psyche.

“Of course. You should check out the theater.”

“What theater?”

“At the hotel. It’s live. The guests can reserve a time-slot, and uh-hem -- perform for whoever wants to watch. You have to make reservations in advance, though. I heard the seats fill up fast.”

“Please no.”

Edie grinned at him in the mirror. “I’m kidding.”

“I thought so,” he told her, so obviously a lie.

“I’m kidding about the reservations. It’s first-come, first-serve.”

“I don’t believe you,” he answered stiffly, but she noticed him pulling at the knot at his throat.

Certainly, some of the Belvedere tales were urban legend, and then some were nothing but Page Six gossip, but Edie firmly believed that where there was smoke, there was usually an arsonist with a can of kerosene and a match that didn’t want to light. Frankly, a viewing room sounded fun -- as long as the man was sexy, and the woman didn’t have leg hair. Edie would never be caught in hose, but she always shaved. A woman needed some standards.

“Suit yourself.”

“Can you just take me to the hotel?” he asked, impatience finally starting to show. Sadly Edie realized that her joy-ride, such as it was, was over. She’d have to go back to the apartment. Have to listen to her upstairs neighbor and his girlfriend getting hot and sweaty between the sheets. She’d have to stare at bad TV, and listen to the clock-ticking dark. All of which she hated with a passion.

So okay, perhaps when she took the u-turn in the middle of Nostrand Avenue, it was a little reckless. The car rocked over the curb and Edie jerked at the wheel, pulling tight to the left. At last all four tires were firmly back on the earth. Perhaps a little too firmly, because that was when she heard the noise.

Ka-lunk. Ka-lunk. Ka-lunk.

For a split second, panic stuck in her throat, until she met his eyes in the mirror. Unmoved, and completely in control. Bastard. Quickly she cleared the anxiety away, and when she spoke, it sounded almost calm. “What was that?”

His lips curled at the corners, and the cool, emotionless eyes gleamed like the devil. “A flat.”

Oh, hell.

Chapter Two

It was the night from hell. If it hadn’t been for the raw nerves in the cabbie’s expression, he would have been furious, but he’d seen that panic before. In his line of work, he saw the fear of death everyday, and the instinct to take control was second nature to Dr. Tyler Hart.

“Does Barnaby have a spare?” he asked patiently, using his clinical voice.

At his question, she turned to face him, and he could see the shakes receding. Her color was better and the quiver in her eyes was gone. “I don’t know.”

His mind ran through the steps, making a mental checklist of tools and procedure, and he was happy for the diversion. Changing flats, performing a quadruple bypass -- these were the things that he was prepared for. A kiss-off from Cynthia? Not in this lifetime. And Tyler hated being unprepared. “We’ll check the trunk.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, already falling into blind obedience, which peopled tended to do at the sound of his clinical voice. Was it uncertainty, or a sheep-like personality that suddenly made her so agreeable? Considering the magenta streaks in the short blond hair, he was betting on the uncertainty.

However, no time for uncertainty now. The rain pounded on the roof, but regrettably his trenchcoat would have to go. Tyler wasn't about to sacrifice his best coat to axle grease and the New York grime, probably infected with toxins and biological agents that the EPA had banned decades ago. Tyler took a deep breath, rolled up his sleeves, and headed for the great outdoors.

The great outdoors was no thrill ride. Water showered his head, and he bit back a curse. Tyler didn’t believe in using disrespectful words. It indicated a lack of control, as well as a juvenile vocabulary. Neither of which were necessary, because he thrived on bad circumstances. He had pulled off aortal coarctations that were nothing short of miraculous. In the big scheme of things, rain was nothing.

Except a damned inconvenience.

As he waded toward the trunk in his favorite pair of shark-skin boots, a thousand swearwords floated in his brain, itching to break free. They looked to be stuck in the hardest part of Brooklyn, somewhere along Flatbush Avenue. Not the best neighborhood in the world, and probably not the best place to buy a tire. Hopefully, Barnaby believed in appropriate preparations, he thought, reaching for the trunk lid, but the cabbie was faster. Tyler smiled with relief when he spotted the jack, the lug-wrench and the tread-less doughnut. Not great, but it’d do.

“Thank God,” she whispered in an awed voice, for the first time not quite so cavalier. About time, too. (None too soon? Instead of none too late. I’ve never heard ‘none too late’

It was no surprise when she started to unwedge the tire from the trunk, in fact, he had expected it, but he stopped her with a polite tap on the arm. “I can do this.”

“I should do it,” she insisted, tugging uselessly on the tire. “I flew over that curb like a bat out of a cannon. And it’s my personal dogma that when you do bad, you need to immediately make right, or something worse will come down the pipe.”

Something worse? What was she expecting? Famine, pestilence, frogs?

Patiently he met her eyes, watching the rain stream down her face, waiting for wisdom to dawn. Tyler believed that at some point, a person needed to abandon frou-frou principles and do what had to be done. The stubborn line in her jaw didn’t bode well for misplaced-principle-abandonment, but her eyes were getting a little smarter. Eventually, she nodded.

“At least let me help,” she suggested -- almost sensibly. “If you’re going to get soaked and be miserable, I should do it, too.”

His gaze raked over her, impersonal, clinical, having nothing to do with her t-shirt that was transparently soaked. Yes, Cynthia had blown off their relationship in a text message – in a text message – a fact that really grated, because it seemed rude. Not that he was hurt, or disappointed, and he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t hurt or disappointed, but a text message? Perhaps that was why his macular muscles kept straying to her chest., because Tyler wasn’t a big fan of carnal philandering. He never had the time nor the inclination, however the sight of jutting nipples was torpedoing his normally restrained inclinations. “Not necessary. Wait in the cab,” he instructed.

“Please,” she asked, and it was a testament to the power of the sexual dynamic that he stood there, foolishly dripping in the rain, his gaze locked to her face, which was – unfortunately -- nearly as tasty as the twin nipples that he didn't want to want.

Her blonde-hair was cut short, which he wasn’t normally a big fan of, but it worked for her in that, ‘I’m too sexy for a boy” look. His eyes tracked down her chest, then tracked back to the trunk. Quickly he blinked away the sticky cobwebs and concentrated on the task at hand. The flat. “Do you have a flashlight? Maybe Barnaby has one in the glove box?”

He didn’t need the light, but he didn’t want her breasts hovering over him while he worked. The rain, the text message, the punctured tire – everything was starting to flat-line his brain.

“I don’t think Barnaby's that well stocked,” she argued, shoving her hands in her jean pockets, which only drew the shirt tighter.

Tyler heard a loud pop in his ears. Something had backfired. Either a car or his normally restrained inclinations.

Desperately he scanned the street, wiping the rain from his eyes.

There were no cars. He was damned.

“Can you look? Please?” he pleaded, needing to have her and her tightly packed body out of his sights.

Happily she disappeared, but then returned in a too-short-two seconds – with a flashlight. Of course. Trying to help, she directed the light beam in the direction of the rear wheel. “I found one in my bag. It was a giveaway at this Hudson River Wildlife and Fisheries Symposium. It was a few months back so I’d forgotten.”

“Lucky me,” he murmured, setting the jack under the axle, and starting to twist off the lug nuts. Twisting tight. Painfully hard. Until he felt something give. Principles. Dogma. Iron-like restraint.

“I’m Edie,” she told him, because apparently now was the perfect time for introductions.

Edie. A cute, perky name. With cute perky breasts. And gamin brown eyes that sparkled in the rain. Sparkled. Tyler gave the nut another vicious twist, waiting for it to set him free.

“What’s your name?” she asked. Her conversation wasn’t what he was used to. Tyler liked clinical, coldly impersonal, eight-syllable words that didn’t involve sex, emotion, or god-forbid, rejection.

Instead of replying, he pulled even tighter.

“Don’t be mad. You know rain is very good for the planet. It’s cleansing and nourishing, feeding the parched earth.”

“Not in New York,” he said, wiping at his face, feeling the grime cling to his skin. Dirt was unsanitary, a breeding ground for flesh-eating bacteria and flesh-licking sex. Quietly he groaned.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, finally feeling the guilt that he believed she should have felt several thousand hours ago.

Fully intending to give her a well-deserved lecture, Tyler glanced up, but she looked so… needy. God, he hated needy. “I’m Tyler.”

“Tyler. Pleased to meet you. You got that?” she asked, just after he finished with the nuts, and was prying off the hubcap.

“Yeah. Doing great,” he answered, flinching when a city bus cruised by, splashing him in the face.

Carefully he wiped the mud away, not happy when he saw her expression. If she were a nice person, she wouldn’t be laughing at him, she would be grateful. Deeply grateful.

“Is there a problem?” he asked, polite, thoughtful, trying to set an example and hopefully wipe the smirk from her face. Although on the plus side, it did keep him from staring at her nipples.

“Nope. No problem,” she answered. Her arms crossed over chest, and her breasts stared him down with infectious intent.

“Good," Tyler agreed. "No problems here. None.” But there was a painful problem growing in his pants, and he wondered if this two-month interventional cardiology fellowship in New York was really a great idea. Of course it was a great idea. Working with Dr. Abe Keating, competing for the ACT/Keating Endowment Award. The cardiology fellowship was a chance to showcase his talents, and most of all, give him a shot at Keating’s endowment, a chance to work side by side with the surgeon for another three years, doing the research that would change the way cardio-vascular surgery was done forever.

Spurred on by the drenching rain, the occasional honking car which didn't want to stop, and his barely restrained sexual frustration, Tyler changed the tire in record time. He twisted hard on the wrench, tightening the nuts on the doughnut, feeling his nuts tighten with

Each. Miserable. Twist.

Just as he was putting the flat in the trunk, a cop car slid to a halt beside them. The officer rolled down the window, not bothering to get out, because apparently New York cops were too smart to change tires in soaking rain.

“Need any help?” asked the officer, his eyes straying to Edie’s chest.

“All done, officer,” Edie answered agreeably, possibly with a new-found respect for the law. Probably because she was driving without a hack license.

“You need any help, miss?” the cop asked the criminal cabbie, because apparently the dripping, greasy-handed cardio-thoracic surgeon now looked the part of the perp. Tyler scowled and then stepped in front of her chest. “She doesn’t need anything,” he told the officer, because the last thing he needed was for her to get thrown in jail. If that happened, then he'd never get to the hotel. He'd never get sex… Sleep. Sleep was what he desperately needed.

The cop, sensing there was no criminal activity afoot, drove away, and Tyler and Edie climbed back in the cab. This time when she drove, Edie took the corners as slow as a grandmother, humming happily.

Tyler examined his mud-splattered shirt, pulling it free from his pants, ready to burn the damn thing. He looked up into the rear-view mirror and met her eyes. “Why are you smiling?”

“You look good in dirt," she told him, and he noticed the dimple on the right cheek, which was completely free of both dirt or guilt.

“You’re not helping.”

“I’m trying to cheer you up." She sounded sincere and completely comfortable. Not painfully aroused. Not wondering what he looked liked naked.

“Get me to my hotel," he growled, too tired for his clinical voice. "That'll cheer me up.”

“Why don’t you like me?”

“Because you feed on people’s pain.”

“I do not," she insisted.

“Then why are you so intrigued by the fact that I got dumped?” It stung. Yes. Stung. Tyler wasn't used to pain. He cured pain. He prescribed meds for pain. He analyzed pain, and monitored pain, but goddamnit, he did not feel it. It wasn’t even Cynthia so much as the idea that he wasn’t good enough. It was a pain he’d stopped felling a long time ago. Or so he thought.

“Aha, I knew I was right," Edie chirped, pouring salt into the wound. "Not that I'm happy you got dumped. Satisfied, yes? I mean, I do like to be right. Especially on matters of reading people. Don’t you like adventures?”

Adventures were the nation’s number one cause of death..

He blamed Cynthia for his foul mood. She had dragged him into this gutter of embarrassing juvenile behavior. Edie had merely pummeled him until he had no choice but to regress. Such asinine justifications cheered him up.

Almost as much as the cheery idea of dirty, bacteria-infected, saliva-swapping sex. Tyler smiled to himself. "Sorry," he apologized politely.

“Why don’t you let me buy you a drink?” she asked, apparently not sensing the darker trend to his thoughts.

“Why?” he asked, stalling for time, because his first answer that leaped to his brain was 'yes.'

“I owe you. You’re doing a nice thing, and you didn’t say a word when I tooled all over the tri-state region. Tonight you've changed a flat, your girlfriend of some indeterminate amount of time dumped you, all of which happened when you should be getting well laid at the hotel. If there’s anybody in the world that needs a drink, it’s you. Maybe a shot of tequila, or ouzo. I know this Greek bar...”

“I don’t want to go to a Greek bar,” he told her, shifting uncomfortably, finding an exposed spring in the seat, feeling it cut into his thigh. Probably severing the femoral artery, thereby letting him bleed out a quick and painless death. Then Cynthia would feel bad. Because she had dumped him in a text message.

“How about an American bar?” Edie suggested, as if all his immediate pains could be solved with alcohol. A bar was a recipe for disaster, but since Tyler had apparently not severed his femoral artery and was going to live, alcohol now seemed almost plausible.

“If I let you buy me a drink, one drink -- will you drive me back to the hotel?” There was a roughness in his voice that worried him. And now he was creating justifications of extraordinary mental dexterity designed solely to further his own penile agenda. Although to be fair, he didn’t want to have a penile agenda. He wanted to get to the hotel, take a shower, climb into bed. He could visualize it all. Unfortunately, his visuals also included Edie. And she was naked. And limber.

“I’ll drive you straight back to the hotel. I swear,” she promised, but Tyler knew when disaster lurked around the corner, when a surgery was doomed before it started. He didn’t like to think these were premonitions, because that implied his subconscious was guiding his decision -- or worse, his penis.

Tonight Cynthia had dumped him. Texas’ #4 cardio-thoracic surgeon with a net worth of over four million, who had saved her father’s life, not once, but three times, not that anyone was counting. If there was a woman in the world who owed him her undying gratitude, it was Cynthia.

So what if he wanted to be a jackass? If he wanted to have a drink? If he wanted to have limber sex with a woman who felt some deep-seated desire to make him feel better? By God, he should. If he wanted to do something wild, spontaneous, and hair-raising, then by God, he had a premeditated right to go for it.

It was because of such elaborate rationalizations that his father had called him Shit-For-Brains Sophocles, but Tyler always shrugged it off. Although now he did wonder if Sophocles ever created meaningless justifications in pursuit of limber sex. Probably not. Probably Sophocles never had shit for brains. Only Tyler.

“One drink. An American bar,” he agreed, resigned to his decision.

“A friend of mine works in a strip club.”

He smiled at her, mud-splattered and grimy with an agenda that was just as black.

******

The club was like an underground cavern with rotating lights, an abundance of surgically enhanced body parts, and a low heavy rhythm that could have aroused a dead eunuch. Identifying all the cheap marketing tactics designed to titillate him did not erase the fact that the place was getting to him.

Or maybe it was her.

Edie Higgins.

A woman with a four-hour repertoire of dirty jokes, and a body that had never been under a scalpel. The body in question had sultry curves and a rosebud tattoo that rode high on her left breast -- regrettably a little too high. Yes, his conscience was feeling shallow and debauched, but in his own defense, beneath all that non-packaged packaging was a curiously appealing joie de vivre.

The club's whiskey was watered-down and overpriced, but it didn’t matter. He didn't touch his glass, but he could feel himself getting loose. Her smile was infectious -- in the manner of avian flu or staphylococcus, he added as an afterthought. Dr. Tyler Hart was flying wild and free, coming down with a bad case of dick-brain.

Edie slipped an orange slice into her mouth, the juice dribbling down one side of her lip. She had a luscious mouth. Not collagen-full, not schoolmarm thin. Juicy, he thought with a stupid grin, his mind wondering what her mouth tasted like. He was allergic to citrus, but was anaphylactic shock so bad? He hadn’t been tested in years, and people outgrew allergies, so theoretically, he had probably outgrown his citrus allergy. Tyler leaned closer, taking a deep whiff of orange and Edie, which promptly sent him into the first throes of sexual dysphoria.

“What was her name?” she asked, and he had to blink twice in order to focus on the words. Words.

Slowly his mind formed a suitable answer. “Cynthia.” At the name, some of the sexual dysphoria evaporated.

“Cynthia,” she repeated in a snotty voice and then giggled. She had an annoying giggle that made him want to smile, or maybe it was the way her eyes watched his face, as if he were the most fascinating man on his planet. His med school roommate, Ryan, had called him an alcoholic lightweight. Because of that, Tyler usually was careful about over-drinking. Tyler lifted his full glass and then took a careful sip.

“Was Cynthia blonde?”

“You’re blonde,” he pointed out, but then worried that he had a type. What if he was fatally attracted to toxic blondes? Quickly he slammed the last of his whiskey. When confronted with the possibility of his own human foibles, honestly, he’d rather be drunk.

“I’m not a natural blonde.”

“Neither was Cynthia,” he volunteered in an unceasingly unchilvarious fashion.

Edie giggled again. This time, Tyler smiled back.

“I could buy you a lapdance,” she offered, so guilelessly sympathetic it should have touched his heart.

You could give me a lapdance, he thought, and decided he wouldn’t drink any more. Someone needed to stay in charge. God forbid that it was her.

“Do you know why she dumped you?”

“She didn’t dump me,” he protested, although why he was lying he didn’t know. Cynthia had dumped him. Rejected him. Humiliated him. And if he were smarter, he’d be milking this for all the sympathy points that he could get. As a specialist in coronary bypass, Tyler understood how easily the heart could be manipulated.

He lowered his head, the very picture of dejection. ”You’re right.”

At his words, Edie put a comforting arm around his shoulders, and Tyler shamelessly moved in closer, drawn to her warmth, her generous nature, the feel of her warm and generous breasts brushing against him. Unsurprisingly, some of the sting of rejection disappeared. Unsurprisingly as well, the size of his cock grew in inverse proportion to the regressing sting.

Fascinating.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and once again he heard the tenderness in her voice. He was a virtual stranger, and an unchivalarous stranger at that. Before meeting Edie, he had thought that New Yorkers were hard-hearted and cynical, unmoved by the pathos of human suffering --

-- except for this one.

He met her eyes. “Thank you,” he told her, feeling sincere, grateful, and painfully aroused.

“Do you want to meet Paradise?”

“I’d love to,” he agreed, his mind already transported to a lurid Paradise where there was no dirt, no naked, gyrating dancers – unless it was Edie. He'd let her dance. As long as she was naked. Paradise sounded perfect.

However, instead of taking his hand, and leading him away from this hell, she stood, and waved her hand, gesturing wildly to one of the dancers.

Enlightenment shouldn't hurt so much.

“Is that Paradise?” he guessed, as the buxom redhead bounced and buoyed her way towards him. Painful enlightenment rolling in his gut.

“What do you think?” asked Edie, looking extraordinarily pleased with herself as she started on the introductions.

“Tyler, meet Paradise, aka Anita.”

Anita, held out her hand, and politely Tyler shook it, not wanting to stare at what had to be 42 Double D, but somehow he knew that laws of nature and gravity had both been violated in the altering of her breasts.

“You have to be nice to Ty. I put him through holy-hell tonight. Girlfriend dumped him, then I had a flat, which he changed in the rain by the way, and didn’t even complain. Not once. He let me drive into Brooklyn, and didn’t bitch about it, even though I knew he knew we weren't in Manhattan. And he’s a visiting Gemini from Houston.”

Her words were a heroic tribute to a man who was swimming upstream in a tide of lascivious spawn, and whose very life now depended on getting Edie Higgins out of her pants. Not wanting to disappoint her, Tyler adopted the humble aspect of a man who could do no wrong.

“You poor man,” Anita cooed, as Edie wandered off to buy him another drink because by God, he had earned it.

The dancer moved in closer, eyelashes aflutter, and began stroking his arm. Thank God it was only his arm.

Tyler tried to focus on her face, rather than her bare breasts, and happily noted the absence of forehead wrinkles that indicated either skin injections or a curious lack of stress in her life. Quickly he scanned the room, noted the glistening skin, the sultry dips and shakes, and knew it had to be Botox. If he spent every night in this place, he'd be ready for Botox, too.

“How do you know Edie?” he asked, finding a square of ceiling tile to concentrate on.

“We met in at NYU.”

“You’re a student?” he asked, proudly not jumping when a dancer gyrated dangerously close to his ass.

“Economics.”

“Of course,” he answered absently, searching out Edie at the bar.

“She’s a peach."

“I noticed.”

“You like her?” she asked, looking at him with naked curiosity.

Tyler protested quickly. Apparently too quickly, because Anita smiled with naked sympathy. “It’s okay. You don’t have to feel bad. All the guys love Edie.”

“Really?” he asked, watching across the room, where Edie was leaning against the long, silver bar.

Loving Edie was bad. She was too chipper, too needy, had a well-shaped nose for trouble… and a great ass, he thought, leering at her skin-tight jeans that showcased every line and every forbidden crevice.

Every. Single. One.

Hastily he swallowed air.

“See the bartender?” Anita pointed toward the large, hulking creature with a chain tattooed on his neck, and Tyler dragged his bleary eyes away from Edie.

“I see him.”

“They had a thing a few years ago, but she dumped him.”

“Who’d she fix him up with?”

Anita laughed, chucking him on the arm. “You’re brighter than most.”

“Of course. So, who was the next victim?” he asked, even though he already knew. Anita was watching the chain-painted bruiser with sappy eyes. After only a few hours in the city, Tyler was now convinced that the stereotyped condition of the New York heart was flat-out wrong.

“The next victim was me,” she sighed, confirming his hypothesis.

Saps. All of them.

A happy patron walked past, curving a hand over Anita's naked thigh and Anita only smiled. The bartender didn't blink. Tyler shook his head, surprised “That’s very uh, open of both of you that he doesn't get jealous.”

“I’m putting him through acting school. It eases the pain.”

“Yes, I could see that,” he answered, but his eyes went back to the bar, drawn to Edie once again. In a naked sea of female perfection, the bartender was ogling the one female who was completely clothed. And Dr. Tyler Hart completely understood.

As if she sensed his momentary weakness, Edie turned, met his eyes, and smiled from across the room.

“She’s not into relationships,” warned Anita.

“Me, neither,” answered Tyler, and Tyler watched as Edie came toward him four shot glasses. Just then the music increased, a gravel-throated singer moaning about the Highway to Hell.

And tonight Dr. Tyler Hart was riding her for all he was worth.

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