The Baby Jackpot
Author:Jacqueline Diamond

Chapter Three



Stacy used to consider Laird Maclaine kind of cute. That impression was rapidly eroding. She didn’t like being squeezed, and the fumes from the guy’s breath were enough to make her tipsy.

Short of kicking him in the shins and giving him a hard shove, though, she didn’t see how she could escape the rest of this slow dance. But if he tried to hang on for another, she vowed to take decisive action.

Coming to the Suncrest Saloon had seemed like a good idea. Ned was going to be here, and several other nurses had expressed interest in joining him. Then she’d spotted Cole at his table. While she’d debated whether to approach them, Laird had intercepted her.

The tipsy psychologist angled Stacy backward and down, dipping her in a show-offy move that nearly knocked her off her feet. How corny! It also pulled her blouse alarmingly low, revealing the lacy edges of her bra.

“That does it,” she snapped when he hauled her upright, staggering a bit in the process. “We’re done.”

“We’re just getting the hang of it,” he said as the ballad segued into the more upbeat Elvis classic “Suspicious Minds.” “We can’t sit this one out.”

“There is no we!” she shouted, and yanked free of his grasp.

She hadn’t counted on him releasing her without warning. Propelled by her own momentum, she stumbled backward with nothing to grab on to, no way to stop her fall. Laird just stood there, gaping like an idiot.

For a suspended instant, the thought This is a really stupid way to break my neck blew through Stacy’s mind. And then she collided with some hapless soul and they both went down in a tangle, while other dancers scurried out of the way.

She lay there stunned, trying to catch her breath. The man who had broken her fall was stretched beneath her. She could swear she felt his heart pounding through his shirt, although that might have been vibrations from the music.

“Are you all right?” Cautiously, Stacy sat up, straightening her blouse and feeling guilty as well as embarrassed. Even now, from this angle, she couldn’t get a good look at the man she’d knocked to the ground.

To add to the humiliation, the deejay stopped the music. “Everyone okay out there?” he asked from his raised booth.

“I’m performing an internal diagnostic,” responded a familiar voice from below Stacy.

She turned in alarm. Surely, she couldn’t have collided with her own doctor. The surgeon she and the other O.R. staff protected against any potential harm to his hands or wrists, not to mention the rest of him. But there, unmistakably, lay Cole Rattigan, collapsed on the floor of a nightclub with his open-collared shirt askew and a puzzled expression furrowing his brow.

“Oh, my gosh!” Horrified, Stacy rose to her knees. “I can’t believe I bowled you over. Are your hands okay?”

He started to laugh, and then groaned. “Never mind the rest of me?”

“I meant... Oh, forget it. Somebody call an ambulance!”

Cole waved away the suggestion. “That would be overkill.” Thankfully, he didn’t seem upset that she’d created a spectacle in front of all these people, not to mention almost crushed him.

“Need help?” Laird reached down—to Cole, not to Stacy.

Cole regarded the outstretched hand as if it dripped with slime. “I suggest you assist the lady.”

“Oh. Right.”

Despite the fact that she had no desire to touch Laird ever again, Stacy let him pull her to her feet, while a bystander aided Cole. As they limped off the floor, the music resumed.

“No more dancing for me,” Cole told Laird, who followed him. “I need to pay my tab.”

“I’ll get it.” Laird clapped him on the shoulder. “Have a nice night,” he said before wandering off.

“Moron,” Stacy muttered.

“Don’t let me spoil your birthday.” Cole took a step and winced. “I think I might’ve sprained my knee.”

“Oh, no!” Stacy took his arm, inhaling his scent. The antiseptic from earlier had been replaced by coconut. “You should stop by the hospital.”

Cole hobbled beside her toward the exit. “Don’t you know doctors never get checkups?” he said.

“Why? Because they’re magically protected by the health fairy?” she quipped as they leaned their combined weight against the heavy door and spilled out into the night.

“Because we’re royal pains in the neck who think we’re God,” he said grinning.

In the cool spring air, his body cast a heat shadow over Stacy. She resisted the temptation to snuggle closer to him. “Where did you park?”

He indicated a rack with two bicycles chained to it. “I think I’ll call a cab.”

“Don’t be silly.” Driving him home was the least she could do. “My car has a large trunk.”

“I hate to put you out.”

“No trouble.” Stacy meant that. He couldn’t live very far away, since he’d ridden his bike. “Stay here.”

“Not going anywhere.” Propped against the building, Cole halted her with a light touch on the arm. “I’m serious about not wrecking your celebration.”

His hand remained there, connecting them. Stacy wished she’d been able to dance with him. A slow, intimate number.... Stop it.

“You aren’t. And I can pick you up in the morning if you have surgery.” He often scheduled operations on Saturdays.

“I wouldn’t have gone drinking if I had.” In the moonlight, his eyes held hers.

“Surely you didn’t drink that much.” To her, he seemed only a little more relaxed than usual.

“Two and a quarter drinks. I’m sure I’ll metabolize them within a few hours,” Cole agreed. “However, most people don’t realize that your blood alcohol concentration continues to rise for a while after your initial intake.”

“Initial intake, huh?” His formal phrasing, which fit naturally into hospital conversations, rang oddly in the tavern parking lot. It was endearing.

“A moderate level of alcohol can be detected in your system for about eight hours. Sometimes longer,” Cole continued earnestly. “I wouldn’t take chances with my patients.”

“You don’t drink very often, do you?” she asked.

“Only on my favorite nurse’s birthday.”

“But you weren’t with me,” she pointed out.

“I can still celebrate the fact that you were born.” His thumb traced her cheekbone.

It’s not him talking. It’s the alcohol.

Stacy drew away reluctantly. “I’ll get my car.”

Cole nodded, his coffee-colored eyes mysterious in the moonlight. “I await your return.”

Someone had to take care of this guy, Stacy mused as she went to her vehicle. It might as well be her.

A sporty coupe and a boxy hybrid flanked her aged sedan. The semidarkness hid its chipped paint. Her parents had bought the car back when they had two daughters and their school friends to haul around.

Driving to the front of the tavern, she collected Cole and his bike, which he angled skillfully into the trunk.

Easing into the passenger seat, he flinched when he bent his knee. Guilt surged through Stacy. “That looks painful,” she said from behind the wheel.

“I’ll be able to stand just fine by Monday.” He stretched out, taking advantage of the ample leg room.

“If not, I could hold you up while you operate.” What had made her say that?

“That’s an enticing prospect.”

Following his directions, Stacy piloted them across the boulevard and along nearly deserted residential streets. Except for a few nightspots, Safe Harbor wasn’t much of a party town. “What’s Minneapolis like at night?”

“It’s known for its performing arts,” he responded. “The Guthrie Theater, dance, puppetry, a major arts festival.”

“Do you have family there?” She had heard about a possible ex-girlfriend or fiancée through the hospital grapevine.

“Not anymore. My mother died two years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Stacy couldn’t imagine what she would do if she lost her mother. “You must miss her.”

“I do. But we weren’t especially close,” he explained. “She was a general surgeon, worked long hours by choice. She loved operating on new body parts, parts she’d never removed, replaced or repaired before.” He paused. “I shouldn’t be talking like this.”

“It’s fine,” Stacy told him. She understood his mother’s fascination with surgery—and felt she understood him a little better, too. “Are you warm enough? I could turn on the heater.”

“That’s not necessary.”

Or you could scoot a little closer.

She nearly smacked herself in the forehead for thinking that. From then on, she kept a firm grip on the wheel and her eyes on the road. Still, she could feel him watching her.

Stacy turned into the driveway of a modest ranch-style home. She was thinking it was a nice place for a bachelor, until he told her to pull up in front of a freestanding double garage topped by a small apartment.

“You live up there?” Stacy studied the staircase dubiously.

“It’s cozy,” he said.

“What about your knee?”

He followed her gaze. “There’s a handrail.”

If only I’d been more careful.

“Maybe your landlord will let you sleep on his couch,” Stacy suggested.

“My landlady is notoriously nosy.” Cole released an exasperated breath. “I suspect she’s poked around my place once or twice while I wasn’t home. If it wasn’t so much trouble, I’d move. In the meantime, I’d rather not involve her.”

Stacy would have offered up her couch, except that she lived on the second floor, too. And, come to think of it, Reggie was sleeping over tonight. “I’ll help you,” she offered.

“Good plan.”

They tucked the bike into the garage through a side door. Glancing toward the house, Stacy saw a light on in what might be a bedroom, but no one came to check on them.

Together, they faced the challenge of the stairs, ascending in a series of steps and hops. Cole stood six inches taller than Stacy and had the tightly muscled build of a cyclist, which served him well as he balanced between her and the rail. Once, his knee nearly buckled and they swayed perilously. Stacy tightened her arm around his lean hips and firm butt.

Never mind that.

When they reached the top, they were both breathing hard. He keyed open the lock and they performed a dancelike maneuver to let the door swing out. “It’s built wrong,” Cole said. “It should open inward.”

“That’s odd,” Stacy said as she slipped inside. She pictured her own door. Yep, it opened inward.

“My landlady had her brother-in-law install it on the cheap.” Cole flicked on the weak overhead fixture. “I suspect they built the whole unit without the proper permits.”

The small living room, flanked by a kitchenette, must have come furnished. Stacy felt certain he hadn’t shipped the sagging, oversized sofa, dented coffee table and mismatched chairs cross-country.

The room also sported a big screen TV, a gaming system and a shiny laptop.

Guy toys.

Cole switched on a crystal table lamp and killed the overhead light. In the golden glow, the room transformed into a cozy lair.

“Better,” she said. “That’s a beautiful lamp.”

“I picked it up at a shop called A Memorable Décor. One of the employees there suggested it.” Cole limped to the refrigerator and peered inside. “I can offer you a range of reduced-sugar juices, which sound terribly boring even as I speak the words, or a late-night snack of cottage cheese, yogurt or leftover German potato salad that was tasty when I had it for dinner several nights ago.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”

“Good. That gives me an excuse to suggest ice cream.” The small freezer section opened to reveal several tubs.

“Cole...”

“You’re right.” Without giving her time to finish, he closed the fridge. His mouth curving regretfully, he studied Stacy. “I can feel my alcohol level rising, and no doubt so is yours. Common sense dictates that you should leave. I just have one favor to ask.”

“Name it.”

“Wrap my knee before you go?”

“Of course.” She should have thought of that. “Do you have a bag of frozen vegetables?”

He blinked. “I thought you weren’t hungry.”

“To use as an ice pack.”

Cole grinned. “No, but I have ice. And plastic bags.”

“I’ll get one ready.”

By the time she’d filled and sealed the bag, he was back, carrying a stretch bandage. He’d changed into short, blue striped pajamas. Under the circumstances, they seemed practical.

He lay on the couch, one knee raised atop a small cushion. As Stacy wrapped the bandage, being careful to maintain the tension, she appreciated his willingness to let her do her job. Whereas some doctors would have tried to direct every move, Cole simply observed her in silence.

What exactly was he observing?

Keenly aware of the quick rise and fall of his chest and of the way his eyes remained fixed on her, Stacy hoped her blouse wasn’t gaping again.

“You have a light touch,” he murmured.

“It comes with being a nurse,” she replied.

“You’re more considerate than most,” Cole said. “I’ve noticed that about you. You can be sharp with Rod, not that he doesn’t deserve it, and even a little prickly with me, but you’re always kind to the patients.”

“I’m prickly with you?” Stacy hadn’t been aware of that.

“We all feel stressed at times.”

The hormones she’d had to take as part of the egg donation process had affected her moods. “I don’t ever want to take it out on my coworkers.”

“You don’t.” He winced as she laid the plastic bag over his bandaged knee. “That’s cold.” He shook his head. “Of course it’s cold. It’s ice.”

Stacy chuckled. “You’re a good patient. Most doctors hate being treated. They react like bears being poked with a sharp stick.”

“We’re a snarly lot.” He shifted upward, propping himself against the cushions at the far end of the sofa. His hair was mussed again, Stacy noticed, and had to stop herself from smoothing it into place.

Instead, she rattled off the standard warnings about injuries. “Avoid anything that might increase the swelling. No hot showers, hot tubs or alcoholic beverages, as if I needed to remind you. And keep the knee elevated as much as possible.”

“Maybe I’ll sleep out here,” he said.

“Good idea.” She adjusted the cushion beneath his knee and lifted a comforter from the back of the sofa. “Did your mother crochet this?”

“My mother wielded a scalpel like an artist, but I doubt she had any idea what to do with a crochet hook,” Cole said. “It was a gift from one of her nurses. Nurses often took pity on me as a child.”

“They still do,” Stacy pointed out as she draped the comforter over him.

“A familiar behavioral pattern—but different in this case.” Without pausing to explain what he meant, he continued, “Would you care to watch a movie with me? I have a DVD in the player.”

“I should be going.” She was curious, though. “What movie is it?”

“Notting Hill.”

She loved the romantic comedy with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“Mine, too.”

“You’re kidding.” She wouldn’t have pictured him enjoying anything so sentimental.

“The best romantic comedies provide real insight into male-female relationships,” Cole said. “I also like action movies with crumbling temples and toppling statues of gods.” He picked up the remote.

Her cue to leave...or stay. “We never ate our ice cream,” Stacy said.

“And it’s your birthday.”

“Hang on.”

Ice cream and Hugh Grant went together nicely. After they finished eating, unable to tear herself away, Stacy curled up beside Cole under the comforter. The movie was longer than she’d remembered, and she was getting sleepy.

Oh, well, where was the harm? she mused as she drifted off. She might be lying with her back pressed to Cole’s chest, her bottom nestled against his groin and his arms around her, but nothing had happened.

Not yet, anyway.