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The man who emerged from the pickup truck was better looking than Sally hoped for. Several inches over six feet tall, he made a striking presence in a beige polo shirt, khaki slacks and Roper boots. Wide shoulders didn't hurt the tall-dark-and-handsome look one bit. Black, neatly trimmed hair glistened like Texas crude oil in the mild, early March sunshine. Her gaze was drawn to his eyes--amazing, mirror-bright blue, of the heavy-lidded, bedroom variety. With lashes that swept out like summertime awnings. Gazing into those eyes struck a long-dormant cord and she experienced a twinge of desire. Fine timing, she admonished inwardly. To him you look like the Goodyear Blimp!
Leave it to Sam to recruit the best looking orderly at the hospital. She'd worried about what pitiful specimen of mankind would agree to her ploy and actually show up. She was agreeably shocked by this guy. Of course, considering Sam's renowned bedside manner, her doctor-brother could talk a duck into an oven if he put his mind to it.She hadn't realized she'd smiled at that thought until the man smiled back. The pleasant expression was a slight, one-sided job. Even so, with those great, male lips, that lopsided grin did more to her than most full-fledged grins. She actually tingled with appreciation. Stop it, ninny, she scolded herself mentally. Don't get giddy and feminine. Time's wasting! He's doing you a favor, now get on with it!
Her boldly handsome orderly rounded the truck and held out a hand. "Hi, Sam sent me to..."
"I know." She grabbed his outstretched fingers and tugged him up the wooden steps. "Follow my lead." She hauled him through the door. Oh--and you're a doctor. Her whisper held an urgent, life-or-death edge.
Just before entering the parlor, she remembered the ring. "Darn!" Skidding to a halt, she fished around in her smock pocket, grabbed it and shove it on his finger. By some miracle, it fit. "That was close." She cast him a quick, conspiratorial look.
His eyes had narrowed slightly and he stared at her curiously. She made a sheepish face. "It's more traditional." She grasped the hand she'd slipped the wedding band on and slung it over her shoulder. "Now, please, smile!" she commanded under her breath. "We're deliriously happy!"
She skimmed an arm about his waist. This whole farce with her grandparents was traumatic, and awkward in the extreme, but it didn't diminish her ability to detect how solid he felt, how nice he smelled. Determinedly, she drew him into the parlor, a homey disorder of overstuffed and slightly frayed furniture in a kaleidoscope of bright patterns. Until she witnessed the undisguised repulsion in her grandparents' eyes the place had never seemed shabby or garish. Now, she looked around, unnerved.
She felt a tightening in her belly and knew it wasn't her baby daughter kicking, but regret and hostility. How dare they make her feel inferior without even a word! That was why they were here, wasn't it--to look down their Boston blue-blooded noses on their inadequate and tainted granddaughter?
With a quick shake of her head, she stuffed her anger and got herself on track. "Honey, I want you to meet my grandparents. Abigail and Hubert Vanderkellen, from Boston." She slanted the best grin she could manage toward her fake-devoted-husband, not quite able to look him in those gorgeous blue eyes. "Remember? I told you they'd drop by for a quick visit before leaving on their cruise, later today?"
The orderly glanced at her when she spoke. His inspection shifted to the older couple, sitting stiffly on the red and yellow floral sofa. Several heartbeats went by as he stared at them. Sally wondered what was going through his mind. He almost looked like he was seeing a ghost. Weird.
A second later he returned his gaze to her face, his brows knitting. She experienced a rush of panic and pinched him above his belt. Those stunning eyes sharpened. She didn't blame him for being annoyed by the nip of her fingers, but hadn't Sam explained this was important? She wouldn't lie about being married if it weren't absolutely necessary.
She faked a giggle and focused on her grandparents. "My...sweetie is a wonderful doctor, but he's a little forgetful." She glanced back at the tall man beside her. She smiled, but shot a desperate plea with her eyes, begging him to get into the script and now. "Grandmother and grandfather, I'd like you to officially meet my husband--Doctor Thomas...Step."
Step? She flinched. That name came out of nowhere. How lame! Couldn't she have thought of something more substantial? Even if she stuck to the ridiculous staircase theme, at least Banister? She tried to squelch her annoyance. It was simply bad luck she'd been looking at the stairs in the mirror over the fireplace. What difference did it make what name she made up, anyway? In an hour her grandparents would be gone.
"How do you do?" Abigail Vanderkellen said, her hands remaining clasped in her lap. "I suppose I can understand why neither Sam nor Sally told us of her marriage." She flicked a reproving glance at her granddaughter. "There has been a bit of a strain in our relationship."
A bit? Sally scoffed behind her forced smile. Like the sinking of the Titanic was a bit of bad luck!
Abigail Vanderkellen shifted to present her stern look at the orderly. "Of course, you know all about that. Tom, is it?"
He cleared his throat, and Sally had a bad feeling. She shot him a terrified glance, but too late. She only caught the snap of his eyes as he looked away. She would have given anything to know what he was thinking.
He lifted his hand from her shoulder, and Sally could only watch helplessly as he walked around the rough-hewn pine coffee table. Her heart leapt up to lodge in her throat, cutting off her ability to breath. Actually no? What did he think he was he doing?
"I can say with all honesty she's told me nothing about your relationship." He extended a hand toward Abigail. "And my friends call me Noah." He continued to hold his position until the older woman unclenched her fists and belatedly accepted his hand. After their brief contact, he turned to Hubert. "Thomas Noah Step," he said, shaking the older man's hand.
Sally's heart hammered so deafeningly in her ears, she wasn't sure she heard right. Thomas Noah Step? Then--then he was going along, after all. Thank goodness!
Hubert gave Noah a look. "You look somewhat familiar, young man."
"I can't say I'm surprised. I have one of those faces." The orderly said, wearing an odd, half-grin. "Had we ever met, Mr. Vanderkellen, I'm sure I would remember you." His gaze shifted to Mrs. Vanderkellen. "Both."
Harboring enough misgiving to choke a horse, Sally watched her fake husband retrace his steps. This guy may have agreed to be a part of her scheme, but he didn't follow orders well. What was that unnecessary insistence on being 'Noah'? Why couldn't he have gone with Tom and saved her a near heart-attack?
To her astonishment, he replaced his arm across her shoulder, even giving her an affectionate squeeze. "I'd forgotten you two were dropping by." He turned to Sally. "Darling, how long did you say they'd be here? "
He glanced at his watch. "Ah."
Ah? What did that mean? Didn't Sam give this guy any of the details? Why the frown at his watch? Did he have a train to catch? From looking at him, it was more likely a hot date.
"Is there a problem, Dr. Step?" Hubert asked.
Noah faced the older man and smiled. "Noah. And no. No problem." He looked down at Sally. "Why don't you sit, sweetheart?" He aimed her toward an overstuffed chair and ottoman, liberally splashed with daffodils. "Elevate your feet. You know how your ankles swell when you stand."
Reflexively she checked her ankles. They weren't swollen. They'd never been swollen a day in her pregnancy. She gave him a look that wasn't totally loving. "My ankles are fine...honey."
He grinned, this time the act involved his whole mouth and some dazzling teeth. She sat down heavily, more out of a mysterious weakness in the knees than an excess of water on her ankles. She had to give this My-Friends-Call-Me-Noah credit. He had a way with smiling.
She watched him in a state of agitated awe as he moved to take a seat on the sofa with her priggish grandparents. Don't say anything that'll blow it for me! she silently threw out, hoping he was better at telepathy than blind obedience. He was acting like the lord of the manor!
"So..." Noah extended an arm along the back of the couch, looking relaxed and in charge. "You're Sally's grandparents. On her mother's side?"
Both Hubert and Abigail shifted in unison and stared, looking shocked. "Well, of course!" Abigail said, affront edging her tone. "Surely you knew that!"
"Not necessarily." He turned on that whopping big, sexy grin again. "Look at her. Does it look like we did much talking?"
Sally could not believe that lewd remark. Her cheeks sizzled and maintaining her smile became the hardest work she'd ever done. Her baby kicked and she placed her hands over her belly. Apparently she wasn't the only female in the room affected by his smile.
From the book HER HIRED HUSBAND, by Renee Roszel
Published by Harlequin books S.A. Copyright © 2001 by Renee Roszel
Publication Date (USA), December 2001, ISBN # 0-373-21726-9
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