The Doctor's Orders
Once upon a time Nicolas Beckert was the boy who stole kisses from Jared Kumpel beneath the bleachers, but now Jared’s a pediatrician and Nick is the hospital CEO who won’t glance his way. Everything changes, however, when they’re stranded alone in a hospital elevator. Ten years of cold shoulders melt away in five hours of close contact, and old passions rekindle into hot flames.
Once out of the elevator, Jared has no intention of letting Nick get away. It’s clear he’s desperate for someone to give him space to let go of the reins, and Jared is happy to oblige. But Jared wants Nick as a lover in a full, open relationship, which is a step further than Nick is willing to go. They’ve traded kisses under the bleachers for liaisons in the boardroom… and it looks like the same arguments that drove them apart in high school might do the same thing now.
Jared’s determined not to let that happen this time around. He won’t order Nick from his shell—he’ll listen to what his friend says he needs to feel safe. Maybe this time he can prescribe his lover a happy ever after.
THE BRIDE and groom glowed as they reveled in their special day. They were good people, and Nick looked forward to watching them make their family together. Except though he celebrated their union and their happiness, it pained him too. With every tinkle of laughter the couple inspired, each beaming smile they shared, the yearning inside Nick grew, until eventually he excused himself from the table and flitted around the reception once more.
When the time came for him to bid people goodbye and get ready for the country club party, he was almost relieved. As he stopped by his family to let them know he was leaving, his grandmother put her hand on his arm. “There’s a bag on the table in the kitchen, a small gift for the Ryans. Give it to them, will you, when you see them this afternoon? And be sure to say hello to Cynthia. Tell her to stop by the house the next time she’s through.”
“Of course.” With a squeeze of her shoulder, Nick went on his way.
He found the gift—locally roasted coffee and a loaf of Grandma Emerson’s famous banana bread tastefully tucked inside tissue paper in an elegant bright blue gift bag—where she’d said it would be. It smelled wonderful, and he lingered to savor the mingling scents. Then, setting his keys beside the package so he wouldn’t forget it, he hurried upstairs to shower.
Shutting his eyes under the spray, Nick saw the smiling faces of the bride and groom once again in his mind’s eye. So happy. So celebrated. So protected. Everything laid out before them, the community ensuring their path stayed clear.
What would that be like, he wondered?
Adjusting the plain silk bow tie over the tips of his shirt collar, he stared at his reflection. He felt much stiffer in his tuxedo than he had in the tan suit and gray-striped tie he’d worn to the wedding. He tried out a few expressions in the mirror, searching for one that allowed him to remain guarded but still seem dignified.
He grabbed the gift bag along with his keys, and to boost himself on the way to the country club, he blasted The Weeknd on his stereo. He sang along, winding down the long, scenic road leading to the country club on the top of the hill overlooking the most beautiful and expansive part of the bay.
Pulling up to the gates, he clicked off the radio, put his work face on, and presented his member card to the guard.
The party was in full swing as he handed his keys to the valet and entered the crush. The women were in elegant dresses, the men all in tuxedos or suits—excepting Rebecca Lambert-Diaz. She and Kathryn had already arrived, no longer dressed in airy outdoor wedding clothes, but while Kathryn wore a simple black evening gown, Rebecca had donned a smart black pantsuit with glittering rhinestones on the collar and cuffs. They seemed a bit more at ease at this party than the one they had left, laughing and mingling with the guests.
Nick took his place in the crowd as well, moving from group to group, smiling and shaking hands, ensuring people felt welcomed. His reception here was markedly different than it had been at church. Here they were wary of him, the young upstart who had changed so much about the tidy lives of Copper Point.
As far as they were concerned, he’d broken all their rules. Nick had been hired to be a pawn. Oh, no one had ever come out and said as much, but he’d understood things with one glance. A hospital CEO, at his age? He didn’t have the experience. His suspicions had been confirmed as soon as he’d come through the door. No real power, no backing. Even so, experience was experience, and it was nice to stay close to home. He’d told himself he could put up with it for a while, until it was time to upgrade.
Except part of him hadn’t been able to shake the idea that he could dig under the rotten surface of the institution and dismantle the system that had broken his father’s spirit and nearly ruined their family. A few years on the hospital board had been enough to catch the attention of the power players at the hospital in a way that dogged him even after he’d been voted out. They worked behind the scenes to ruin his business and nearly cost him his home—and ultimately, through his failing health, had cost him his life.
Nick hadn’t really thought he’d be able to avenge his father, had only dreamed of it. But with the help of Erin and the others, he’d done just that. Now there was a new board, a new balance of power, and a new day at St. Ann’s. For many of the people in this room, though? Oh, Nick was still that man. It didn’t matter that the board members who’d embezzled a scandalous amount of money were all in jail and that Nick had helped put them there. These people still didn’t like him. They didn’t like how he’d gone out of his way to make the new hospital board reflect the diverse population of Copper Point. There was a lot of rumbling from this set about “the way things used to be,” their gazes turned toward the past with longing.
Well, Nick thought as he sipped a glass of champagne he’d collected from a passing tray, if they’d rather have the crooks than progress, then screw ’em.
Jeremiah Ryan beamed when he saw Nick, waving him over. Cynthia waved too, her expression welcoming and warm, reminiscent of the faces he’d left at the wedding reception. It also carried the whiff of something more, something hopeful.
Nick smiled back, ready to make his way to this important donor, this friend of the family, this man who understood his difficult position better than anyone, this woman he admired and considered an important friend. But before he reached them, he bumped into another guest, and as soon as he saw who it was, his carefully constructed image fell apart.
“Sorry.” The man, fair-haired and tall, but not as tall as Nick, held up his hands and stepped aside. As their gazes met, the man’s smile fell away. “Oh. It’s you.”
Yes. It’s me.
They both had their masks down as they regarded one another. Nick was conscious of the heavy beating of his heart, of the ache and longing he always felt when he stood this close to Dr. Jared Kumpel. He looked devastating in his tuxedo, crisp and neat, dark-blond hair gleaming in contrast to the dark fabric, his light skin glowing in the dim light.
He was beautiful in a way that stole Nick’s breath and short-circuited his brain. This man had stirred him ever since he could remember, since the moment Nick had been, at last, able to understand why he felt so different than everyone else around him.
Jared spoke first, his voice thin and forced. “How was the wedding?”
It took Nick a second to register what Jared had said, to remember he shouldn’t simply stare at the seductive curve of the man’s upper lip. “G-good. It was good.”
He cleared his throat. “Hot.”
“Yes, it’s a muggy day out, isn’t it?” The conversation, such as it was, broke off and dangled.
Nick tugged at the cuffs of his shirt and glanced away. “I should….”
“Of course.” Jared’s voice was flat, dead, as if he couldn’t wait to get away. “I’m sorry to keep you.”
And just like that, they parted, Jared wafting over to the bar, Nick resuming his trajectory toward the Ryans, plastering on the expression he’d practiced in the mirror as the leaden weight settled all the more deeply onto his heart.