Authors: Jill Blake
Without a Net
Table of Contents
Eva had forty minutes to handle the most urgent messages, finish shopping, unload the groceries, and race to school to pick up her son.
was why she nearly ran the man down.
Of course, it didn’t help that the shopping cart had a wobbly wheel and
a mind of its own, veering left when she steered right. It wouldn’t have mattered had the aisle remained empty. Or if she’d been better at multi-tasking. The last six months had taught her a lot, but not how to manage a renegade shopping cart while catching up with emails on her iPhone.
She glanced up in time to see
the man stagger back, straight into a display of organic, gluten-free quinoa flakes. Boxes went flying.
froze. “Are you okay?”
glanced around at the mess and then turned a pair of startling green eyes her way. “There’s a law against that, you know.”
“No texting while
“I wasn’t—” she broke off as he grinned.
She experienced a sense of déjà vu. She’d seen him before, she was sure of it, but couldn’t remember where. “I’m sorry. Are you hurt?”
“Nah,” he said, setting his basket on the floor.
“Been through worse.”
That was when she noticed the cane
, and the stiff way he held his leg as he bent to pick up a box. She dropped the phone in her bag and skirted around the cart to help with the clean-up. “I really am sorry.”
“Is your leg okay?” She glanced at the twin furrows between his brows, the light sheen of sweat on his forehead. It was a balmy sixty-eight outside, a little warmer than average for Santa Monica in mid-May. But inside, the air-conditioning kept the temperature much cooler, enough to raise goose-flesh along her bare arms. If he was sweating, he was probably in a lot more pain than he was letting on.
It’s fine,” he said, leaning awkwardly on the cane as he reached for another box. “Another month or two of rehab, I’ll be good as new.”
Wait,” she said. “I’ll hand them up, you stack them.”
Their fingers brushed as he accepted the boxes, and sh
e felt a frisson of awareness. It was so unexpected that she fumbled and one of the boxes fell again.
she murmured. And then to cover up her confusion, she said, “What happened to your leg, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Tibial plateau fracture. I was skiing, and that tree—I swear, it came out of nowhere.”
winced. “Trees can be tricky that way.”
e laughed, a warm, mellow sound that set off a fluttery sensation in her belly. “Next time, I’ll try to give the trees a miss.”
eyed his injured leg, noting the faint pink scars around the knee, just visible beneath the long cargo shorts. Despite the loose clothing, it was clear he had an athlete’s body. Strong, tanned calves sprinkled lightly with blondish hair, a narrow waist and lean hips, broad shoulders and well-defined biceps that flexed beneath the white T-shirt as he stacked the boxes she handed him. Bum knee aside, he looked like a poster boy for outdoor sports: disheveled sun-streaked hair, square jaw bristling with three-day scruff, white smile framed by wind-chapped lips, and a cocky attitude that radiated casual disregard for personal danger.
He must be a glutton for punishment, she decided, forcing herself to look away.
She wasn’t a skier herself, and couldn’t understand why anyone would take to the slopes again after what sounded like a pretty serious injury. Perhaps it was some testosterone-driven need to prove himself greater than his fears. Or maybe it was all about chasing that same thrill that men seemed to get from speed in all its forms: fast cars, motorcycles, speedboats. Or it could simply be that the man didn’t have the good sense to know when to call it quits.
again, who was she to judge? She’d played it safe all her life, and where had it gotten her? Up to her eyeballs in trouble. Widowed, a single mother to her eight-year-old son, barely able to eke out a living after years of sitting on the sidelines of the job market, and facing a legal battle to hang onto what little money there was left.
ed the last of the boxes into the cardboard display case and offered her a hand up. When she hesitated, he quirked a brow that was a shade or two darker than his hair. “I’m stronger than I look.”
There it was again, that electric sensation when their hands touched.
She let go the moment she regained her feet, and stepped back. “Sorry again. I hope you feel better soon.”
I will, Eva. Thank you.”
frowned. “Have we met?”
Your son’s in second grade, isn’t he? Ms. Brenner’s class?”
A spurt of alarm shot through her.
She edged closer to the purse she’d left in her cart, and fumbled for the iPhone. You never knew who would turn out to be a child predator these days.
He shifted, leaning more heavily on the cane.
“My nephew, Connor, is in the same class.”
Well, that explained it. Her heart rate calmed a bit. No wonder the man looked familiar. She studied him more carefully, noting the resemblance that she’d missed before. Connor’s mom, Nina, was tall and blond as well, though her eyes were more hazel than green, and nowhere near as mesmerizing.
The name’s Max,” he offered, when she remained silent. “Actually, it’s George Maxwell Palmer III. But everyone calls me Max.”
It was starting to come back to her. The older brother Nina mentioned, usually with exasperation over his bad boy antics. The infamous uncle whom Connor had unwittingly introduced to his kindergarten teacher, Ms. Kelly. The poor woman couldn’t stop crying for weeks after the man dumped her. Ms. Schroeder, the art teacher, was next. And after her, Ms. Jacobson, who taught first grade. Rumor had it that Ms. Jacobson asked to be transferred after Max called it quits. Good thing the school year had just begun, and the teacher who replaced her was male and married.
When it came to sex, Max was the ultimate hit and run artist.
Just her luck—the first man to spark her libido since long before her husband’s death was the last man she’d actually consider dating.
Not that he was asking.
She glanced at her watch.
“Oh, would you look at the time! I’ve got to go. Lovely chatting with you, Max.”
“We should do it again sometime.”
She blinked. He wasn’t coming on to her, was he?
coffee, or dinner?”
Good Lord, he was!
The entire encounter seemed surreal. She shook her head. “Thanks, but I don’t think so.”
We both have to eat.”
“I need to pick up my son,” she said, as if bringing Ben into the conversation would ward off any further advances.
She made a wide arc around him, both hands firmly on the shopping cart. “Good luck with…everything.”
ed toward the checkout lane, not bothering with the last few items on her list. She could always get cereal and yogurt tomorrow, when she wasn’t rushing to get to school, and wasn’t likely to run into Max again.
watched Eva rush off. In a town where micro-minis were making a comeback, her conservative knee-length skirt should have looked dowdy. But maybe there was something to be said for less revealing fashions. Max was hard pressed to imagine anything sexier than the way the material skimmed over Eva’s lush backside, splitting at the bottom to play peek-a-boo with a pair of flawless legs that seemed even longer in her four-inch heels.
Too bad she’d turned him down flat.
If not for a healthy ego, he might have felt insulted. The woman clearly wanted nothing to do with him. Which was odd, given his usual effect on the opposite sex.
He picked up his discarded shopping basket and slowly made his way down the aisle.
When you came right down to it, she wasn’t even his type.
For one thing, she didn’t fit his “half-plus-seven” rule—half his age, plus seven years—which at this point would put his ideal partner at twenty-five. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it did tend to narrow the field to women who were single and loving it, and whose biological clocks weren’t triggering alarm bells. If that made him a male chauvinist pig, like his sister claimed, fine. Better than risking messy entanglements.
And he didn’t go for women with kids.
He simply couldn’t picture himself as a father. With his adrenaline junkie approach to life, the last thing he needed was the added responsibility of a family. If his parents’ example had taught him anything, it was that. Both had been trust-fund babies who should never have had children of their own, given that they neither knew nor cared to learn the first thing about parenting. They’d simply abandoned Max and Nina to the care of a series of nannies and housekeepers, and continued to jet around the world from one adventure to the next. Spelunking off Santo Domingo, trekking to Everest Base Camp, kayaking down the Zambezi River, paragliding in Lima. What finally put an end to their peripatetic lifestyle was a storm off Key West that brought down the twin-engine Cessna piloted by Max’s father.
Max had been
sixteen at the time. Standing at his parent’s graveside, he’d vowed not to perpetuate their mistakes. While he couldn’t deny his fascination with dangerous sports, he could certainly control whether or not he had kids. For him, the choice was a no-brainer.
But somehow none of that mattered when he looked at Eva.
He’d noticed her long before today. How could he not, when their worlds intersected repeatedly over the years? At his nephew’s birthday parties, where he’d been recruited to help contain the chaos of a couple dozen preschoolers fueled by too much sugar, Max found himself admiring the smooth curve of her cheek, the mischievous sparkle in her eyes, the boundless enthusiasm with which she corralled and redirected the children around her. At school, on the few occasions he’d helped Nina out by dropping off or picking up his nephew, he found himself scanning the playground for a glimpse of Eva and her son.
Of course she’d been married then, and that was another thing that put her off-limits.
Some boundaries even he didn’t cross.
Not that her husband had been much in evidence. In fact,
Max had only seen them together twice. Once, at a nearby café. And then again about a year and a half ago, when the man had been brought into the emergency room. It was a busy night, thanks to a multi-car pileup on the 405. Max was in the midst of stabilizing a patient with multiple fractures before handing him off to the orthopedic team, so it was the other ER doc working that shift who treated Eva’s husband. Max saw her in passing, a brief impression of pale face and pinched lips, her hands clasped together in a white-knuckled grip. Then the privacy curtain pulled closed, separating the cubicle from the rest of the ER. He heard about the case later, at Tumor Board. Glioblastoma multiforme, presenting with new-onset seizure.
After that, Eva seemed to disappear for a while.
He’d catch sight of her now and again, but today was the first time she’d actually been close enough to talk with, to touch.
He could still feel the delicate tremor that went through her fingers when he’d helped her up from the floor.
The accompanying surge of lust he experienced from that single point of contact caught him by surprise. Even now, he couldn’t figure it out. What was it about her that made him want to pursue her, despite how different she was from his usual fare? Was it the fact that she’d shot him down that perversely fed his interest? Or was it simply the fact that after all this time, she was finally available?
Max hadn’t gone to her husband’s funeral, but his sister and brother-in-law had, leaving Connor behind in Max’s care.
That was around Thanksgiving, a few months before Max’s skiing accident.
six months enough time for a woman to get over the death of her husband? Probably not, though she’d had a year to prepare for the likelihood. The diagnosis of glioblastoma wasn’t an automatic death sentence, but the prognosis was certainly grim. Eva had to have known that.
The question was, was she ready to move on?
He could have sworn there was an answering spark of interest in her eyes, a physical awareness that she’d quickly masked as she stood up and backed away.
Max dumped his purchases onto the express lane conveyer belt, cursing beneath his breath when the cane got in his way.
He should have left it in the car. Problem was his knee and ankle hurt like a sonofabitch. A shopping cart might have been easier to use, but it reminded him too much of the front-wheeled walker that he’d finally managed to get rid of seven weeks after surgery. Plus he didn’t need much in the way of groceries. Nina had taken over stocking his fridge after the accident, and still stopped by regularly with whatever new recipe she was trying out that day.
At some point, he’d have to tell her he was perfectly capable of making his own meals.
But it was nice having someone fuss over him, without having to worry about hidden motives.
That cute little nurse—what was her name?—whom he’d dated for a while, had come by shortly after he was discharged home, offering to help him out in whatever way he wanted.
He’d turned her down. Nothing like having your leg in a clunky metal-hinged brace to dampen the libido. Besides, even doped up on pain meds and barely able to balance on crutches, he was too smart to fall into the trap of believing all that cooing and coddling came without strings.
His sister at least had his best interests at heart.
Even if she did spend much of her time swinging between disapproval and resignation over his lifestyle choices. She didn’t understand, given their childhood and what had happened to their parents, how Max could be so cavalier about his safety. Trying to explain was pointless. Mere words couldn’t convey the allure of an adrenaline rush so powerful, a sense of euphoria so potent, that he felt driven to seek it out again and again. He imagined this was what heroin or crack addicts felt in chasing their high. Drugs didn’t tempt him, but extreme sports were another matter. Surfing, skiing, ice climbing, white-water rafting. Hemingway had it right. Pitting man against nature: wasn’t that the ultimate experience? The problem was that eventually, nature—or just plain bad luck—was bound to trip you up.
When Max found himself flying through the air, and later lying on his back
in the snow, his leg twisted at an awkward angle beneath him, wondering if the ski patrol would ever find him, he’d realized that this might be the end. In a momentary flash of insight, he recognized that for a thirty-six year old man who’d had all the advantages of wealth and a good education, he didn’t have much to show for it.
Oh, sure, he had a career that he was good at and enjoyed.
But he knew that if he died, the hospital would waste no time finding another ER doctor to fill his place. And there’d be plenty of applicants. Why not? It was a plum job with good hours, excellent pay, generous benefits, and located in one of the most beautiful places on earth. His colleagues might miss him for a while, but ultimately he was expendable.
As for family, there was only his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.
They’d mourn him, but he imagined that his absence wouldn’t leave too big a hole in their lives. They had each other, after all, and while he was good for the occasional baby-sitter stand-in, he wasn’t really part of their nuclear family.
Which left….His ice hockey teammates? His surfing buddies?
His cleaning lady?
No intimate connections with anyone.
And no tangible legacy, nothing worthwhile to remind people that Max Palmer had once existed.
was driven home even more during those early post-op days, when he was completely non-weight bearing, hobbling around on crutches until carpal tunnel symptoms forced him to use a walker. Aside from his sister, there wasn’t a single person whom he could rely on for help. And at the end of the day, his sister had her own life and problems to deal with.
Was that what this was all about?
This sudden urgency to pursue a woman who was the embodiment of everything he’d deliberately avoided in the past? Having faced almost certain death and survived, was he looking for something deeper and more permanent to give his life meaning?
He thought about it all the way home, and as he put away the groceries, and later as he ate his solitary dinner.
Finally, tired of repeatedly circling the same mental terrain, he put aside his regrets, booted up his laptop, propped his leg up on an ottoman, and forced himself to concentrate.