Upon waking in the hospital the next morning, her wits finally back in alignment, Harper thought there might never be reason to smile again. She had an acute and aching fear that she was going to lose the soup kitchen and become homeless once more. That month’s already late payment was gone, and if the bank didn’t give her an extension, she didn’t know how she would keep the place open. The stuck-up bastards had become less lenient in recent years, refusing to give her an extra day or two to put the money together.
It had been a shit day, but the cherry on top of the sundae came when Flynn told her the building had been tossed by vandals. Nobody in the neighborhood would have done that to her joint while she was there, but if the building was abandoned and unlocked, all bets were off. The one who robbed her, she didn’t know him. She had a good memory for voices, inflections, and intonations, and the man from last night was definitely a stranger to her.
Flynn told her he’d been able to drive the delinquents off, chiding them for messing with a spot they visited frequently for a good meal. He hadn’t said, but Harper felt in his heavy gaze that he’d recognized most of them. There was no reason for her to smile.
But watching Dr. Theo Backstrom fuss and fiddle as he moved around her room, checking her vitals and playing with the machines to ensure her comfort, persuaded her to give in to happiness a little. He was handsome, more handsome than any successful and intellectual doctor had any right to be. It was almost unfair. An intelligent, accomplished, good-looking man who cared was the keenest of weapons to use against any man or woman. His skin was a deep chocolate. His large dark eyes were a lovely almond shape, tilting up slightly at the edges. He had silky black hair cut in a short, practical style, but it now seemed to be growing past the appropriate length, suggesting he wasn’t frenzied over his appearance. The curious, reckless side of herself, the one she’d repressed in order to get herself off the streets, beckoned her to reach forward and run her fingers through the strands. She tested her body’s mobility when he wasn’t looking, her hand rising involuntarily with a desire to touch. She quickly folded her hands up into her lap when he turned back.
“You need a haircut,” she said, keeping her tone low. Earlier she’d found raising her voice above certain decibels resulted in flashes of pain. She didn’t want to repeat that mistake.
He smiled down at her, his eyes crinkling and his straight white teeth gleaming. “Not a fan of the shaggy look?”
“You could be shaggy, bald, or have leaves growing out of your head, and you’d still be attractive.” She cursed herself. What kind of person flirted with their doctor? Weren’t there laws about that somewhere? “Don’t listen to me. My brain is not cooperating.”
“Are you in pain?”
“No more than what seems normal.” She didn’t want the good-looking doctor to think she wasn’t improving. As much as Harper enjoyed his company, she needed to get back to the kitchen and formulate a plan to raise enough money for this month’s mortgage payment. Maybe she could do a citywide fundraising event. “I’m actually feeling a little better than earlier.”
“Then you can’t blame your injury for making you say I’m attractive.” His grin was crafted by the devil, gorgeous and playful, sinful.
“Touché.” She watched as he noted something on the chart hanging at the end of her bed. His fingers were long and slender, and what she could see beneath his doctor coat and fitted button-down shirt was toned, not overly muscled. She liked that. She appreciated strength and a well-toned body, but she never needed a man bulging with muscles to satisfy her.
What the hell was she thinking about? Satisfy her? Her brain must have been more swollen than she thought.
“What’s wrong?” He hurried over to her side and looked into her eyes, not in a sexy way but as a professional doctor, not someone out of a porn.
“You groaned. Are you sure you’re not in any pain?”
“What are you?” she asked out of the blue, attempting to keep him from probing her embarrassing thoughts.
“Homo sapiens, bipedal male.” He didn’t miss a beat.
She snorted and was pleasantly surprised it didn’t cause any pain. “I mean your nationality. Sorry if it’s rude or prying. I tend to ignore whether I’m rude or not.”
“I’ll try not to hold that against you.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “My mother’s family is Indonesian, and my father is from South Africa.” He said South Africa with a delightful accent, perfectly mimicking the tone of a native South African. Again, he made her smile when her thoughts were heavy. This doctor healed more than her swollen head.
“How did they meet?” She attempted to sit on her own, but the doctor was there, pushing up her pillows and ensuring she moved slowly. She nodded in gratitude, relieved when there was no nausea or dizziness accompanying the motion. They grinned together at the small triumph, her lack of pain bringing as much joy to him as it did her.
He cleared his throat before answering her question, looking away after their exchange. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one feeling a sudden attraction. Surely as the person of authority in this situation, he was feeling the impropriety more keenly than she was.
“University. They were both studying to be historians.” He smiled to himself, but Harper could see there was sadness accompanying whatever memory his story conjured. “Their focus was on different time periods, but they made it work anyway.”
“What made you become a doctor? They didn’t want you to follow in their footsteps?”
He leaned forward slightly, a gleam in his eye. “They couldn’t have forced me to become a historian if they’d tied me down with medieval shackles and tortured me like a victim from the Spanish Inquisition.”
He was close. She could skim her lips against his if she could only sit up a bit further. His gaze moved down to her mouth, and he swallowed, focusing all his attention on her, as though he were performing complex surgery. Without warning, he pulled away, and the speed of it nearly gave her whiplash. She continued their conversation, though, not wanting the severed tension to interrupt their previous line of discussion.
“Think history is boring?” she asked, hoping he was considering what would happen if he ignored the negative stigma associated with doctor-patient relationships.
“It’s not that it’s boring, I’m simply not a fan of focusing on the past.”
“You have to know where you’re from to get where you’re going.”
He sighed, an echo of a dramatic teenager. “My mother said that all the time, and I’ll tell you what I told her…over and over again. If you keep all your focus on the past, you’ll never see what’s right in front of you.” He sounded as though he spoke from experience.
“You’re right,” she conceded, wanting to focus on what was right in front of her. “History is boring.”
“Boring!” a loud voice from the doorway yelled. A small boy with short, wavy golden hair and caramel-colored skin ran into the hospital room. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. When he reached the bed, he placed his hands on the edge of the mattress and stood on his tiptoes to get a good look at Harper. “Hit your head?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Is your head made of stone?”
“Grandpa always says Daddy’s head is made of stone, that he has a hard head. Maybe you have a hard head.”
Harper was charmed by the small creature but worried that perhaps he’d run away from his parents to go exploring.
“I think you may be right about Harper’s head, and it’s a good thing too. Speaking of your daddy, where is he?” Theo asked, ruffling the boy’s delightfully kinky hair.
“Sorry. His grandfather couldn’t watch him today, but I still wanted to stop by and check on you,” Flynn said, running in after the small child.
The charge of delight and attraction in the room amplified. Breathing became a struggle, and she was thankful the little boy and Flynn were currently holding Theo’s attention. In fact, the good doctor looked as confounded as she felt by Flynn’s sudden appearance. There was something between the three of them, and it wasn’t brought on by her messed-up brain, she was sure of it.
“You were here all night.” Harper’s bruised brain finally registered what he had said. “Is he…?”
“Mine?” Flynn crouched behind the boy and tickled his ribs. “Yes, though I firmly believe he is part monkey.”
“Daddy!” The little boy giggled at his father’s outrageous claim.
Not for the first time since meeting him, Harper checked Flynn’s left ring finger for any sign he was taken. The finger was bare, and there wasn’t a tan line or indentation from a former ring. She glanced up to find he’d caught her looking. She was too inquisitive about his marital state to feel any proper shame for snooping.
“His mom is out of the picture, has never been in the picture beyond giving birth to him, actually.” Flynn shrugged, smiling down at the small boy who currently was tugging on Dr. Backstrom’s pant leg.
“Yes?” the doctor asked, leaving the bed to kneel in front of the kid.
“What’s yer name?”
“Theo. What’s yours?” Dr. Theo reached his hand out for the small boy to shake. The kid took Theo’s index finger and shook it enthusiastically, looking up at his dad for approval.
“Very good. Now introduce yourself. He asked what your name was.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Ben.” Dr. Theo looked bewildered by the small rambunctious Ben, but at the same time, Harper could see the boy leaning in and giving himself over to the doctor’s care. There was something achingly powerful in Theo’s bearing, a force of nature that compelled her to trust him; she couldn’t blame the little boy for grinning up at the doctor as he was.
“Dr. Backstrom?” A male nurse popped into the room, a sour look on his face. “A word, please?”
In an instant that felt something like a black hole sucking the life out of the room, the warmth retreated from Theo Backstrom’s face and he donned a mask. Harper couldn’t reconcile the cold man who stood to greet the nurse with the happy man from a moment ago. He nodded at them to excuse himself, as though they were strangers, as if he hadn’t spent the last day diligently watching over her when a nurse could have done it all.
Harper glanced at Flynn to see if he’d noticed the dramatic change. He faced the doorway, but she could still see his profile. His eyebrows turned down, and his mouth had thinned to a slim line of dissatisfaction. It seemed she wasn’t the only one taken aback by Dr. Backstrom’s abrupt shift in character. Perhaps he was like this with all his patients, and the warmth she’d felt was part and parcel with the job. A wave of nausea crested in her stomach, and Harper knew it had nothing to do with her concussion. She glanced over at Flynn again, the unease within increasing. She’d been content with living a solitary life for a long time, dedicating herself to serving others. How could that have changed this rapidly? Her concussion must have been worse than she thought.
With a sigh, Flynn turned back to Harper and collapsed into the chair he’d occupied through the night. He’d gone above and beyond for her, and she barely knew a damn thing about him. How could he have never mentioned he had a son?
Harper reached her hand, palm up, toward Flynn, and he clasped it without hesitation. She put aside her pride and looked him straight in the eye. “Thank you, Flynn. You saved my life.”
Flynn pulled his hand back to tip an imaginary hat. “All in a day’s work, ma’am.”
Ben pulled his father’s bag open and began to riffle through it, a fierce look of concentration on his chubby-cheeked face. Once he found what he was looking for, he grinned in triumph.
“You have a son,” she said as Ben played with a yellow toy airplane, his imagination turning the small room into an endless horizon of a cloud-filled sky. “What else don’t I know about you?” Harper tried not to sound annoyed that he hadn’t told her about Ben previously. It wasn’t her business.
“As I only volunteer at the kitchen every other Saturday, and you are usually so busy you can barely say hello, there is a lot you don’t know. The mystery isn’t one-sided. I may work for you, but I don’t know a lot about you either.” He paused, taking a second to lick his lips. The small motion made her stomach flip again. “I’d like to know you.”
“You don’t work for me,” she said, focusing on anything but the way he made her body react. “You work for—”
“The community—yes, I remember the spiel you gave me when I first came to volunteer.”
“It’s not a spiel; it’s the truth.” She didn’t know him well enough to tell whether he was joking or not. “We’re there to serve.”
Flynn leaned forward to rest his hand on what she knew was a massive bruise on her face. The bastard had got her good. “And look what they gave you in return,” he said quietly.
“It’s not his fault—”
“Was it his fault to steal from you and hurt you? Yes, Harper, I think it was.”
“You sound like all the corporate bastards who don’t understand. The people in downtrodden communities, the circumstances of their birth and the life they grow up in give them no choice but to become what they are. They have no opportunities for betterment, and their fates are decided by those on the outside because of where they live.”
Flynn moved rapidly from the chair to the bed, cradling her face in between his large palms. Where Theo was lean, Flynn was muscular. Not overwhelmingly, but thick and sturdy, someone she thought she could lean on.
“What are you doing?” she asked when he sat there, holding her and not talking.
“Keeping your brain from moving this way and that. You need to rest, not argue. Although I hear that’s hard for you to do.” He trailed his hands down to her neck, tripping his thumb along a scratch under her chin. “Don’t compare me to those blockheads, Harper. I know what life growing up in a rough neighborhood can do to you, what it can turn a person into. But you still have the choice. There’s always a choice.”