I stuffed my phone back underneath my pillow, groaning in frustration.
Typical drama queen, Maddy. No way I can go back to sleep now.
I rolled out of bed and dragged myself over to my bathroom. The ancient lights flickered to life, giving me a wonderfully awful view of myself in the mirror.
I looked like crap.
My blue eyes looked like they were ready for a trip around the world with the number of bags they were carrying underneath them, and my dark-lavender hair stuck out at odd angles.
Nothing a little makeup and some vicious hair brushing can’t fix.
Sure, a nurse with purple hair wasn’t the most conventional thing, but Aaron didn’t mind. The patients loved the vibrant color.
I washed my face and got ready for work, going through the motions on autopilot.
Another day another dollar—OW!
I hopped up and down on one foot, wincing in pain as I bent down to pick up the thing I’d stubbed my toe on.
It was one of my favorite books: the cover worn and cracked and swollen from the countless dog-eared pages.
The Stranger Beside Me.
Ted Bundy’s trying to kill me from beyond the grave.
I placed the book on my shelf, slotting Ted Bundy back into his spot in between Jack the Ripper and Pedro Lopez.
Maybe Maddy was right about a psychopath patient being right up my alley…
They were kind of a hobby of mine…
Some might have called it an obsession.
I foraged for food in my kitchen, popping a cold toaster strudel in my mouth.
Maddy’s warning was still fresh in my mind.
Just look at what happened to Roxanne…
I grabbed my keys, heading out the door of my tiny apartment, feeling a bit on edge.
Just who exactly is this high-profile patient?
I waited outside of Dr. Shaw’s office, nervous butterflies flitting around in my stomach. Usually, the idea of receiving a promotion would’ve excited me.
But things get a little more complicated when you work in a psych ward for the criminally insane.
Especially since Roxanne is apparently taking a mysterious leave of absence.
And I’m her replacement…
“Come on in, Riley,” Dr. Shaw called.
I walked forward, following the tantalizing smell of home-baked cookies into his office.
Dr. Aaron Shaw sat behind his desk, a bright smile on his face and a plate of chocolate-chip cookies before him.
“Would you like one? They’re my grandma’s specialty.”
I eyed them dubiously.
So we’re resorting to outright bribery, are we?
I grabbed two and shoved one in my mouth, the sweet, gooey chocolate melting on my tongue.
Aaron watched me chew with that glowing smile of his, looking much younger than he should, being in his late thirties.
You aren’t that much younger, Riley…
I shook my head, trying to focus on the situation at hand.
Twenty-nine is still young, I thought. ~I’m the picture of youth.~
“So,” I began after I’d eaten my second cookie. “A promotion…?”
“That’s right,” he said. “You’ll get an extra bonus at the end of each month, overtime, and all of your allowances will be covered.”
My mouth hung open in shock. I could hardly believe it. The extra money would definitely go a long way.
Especially considering my situation back home…
But nothing this good ever came for free.
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
Aaron laughed. “Come on, Riley. You don’t have to be so suspicious.”
I picked up another still-warm chocolate chip cookie. I raised an eyebrow.
Aaron held his hands up in an alright, you caught me gesture. He was always one of the more laid-back doctors. He’d looked out for me, and I considered him as more of a friend than a boss.
The smile disappeared from his face, and he leaned forward, all business. “Your workload will significantly decrease. You’ll only be taking care of one patient. But he’s got a bit of a…reputation.”
I felt a chill go down my spine.
“And that patient is…?”
I frowned, trying to remember where I’d heard that name before. He was probably one of the more infamous patients we had here at the hospital.
“And what happened to Roxanne? I’m replacing her, right?” I remembered the bright, energetic nurse. She’d just stopped coming to work one day.
“She’s taken a leave of absence for personal reasons,” Aaron said vaguely.
Something about this didn’t sit right with me.
Maddy’s warnings flashed into my mind.
But strangely…they only made me want it even more. It felt like a challenge.
Besides, I’d be lying if I said I’m not curious…
“Alright,” I said, my words ringing with an ominous finality. “I’ll do it.”
“Great.” Aaron clapped his hands together. “Dr. Bennet will brief you on Jackson’s profile.”
“My new assistant. Fresh out of med school.”
“Ah, so your new errand boy?”
Aaron laughed. “You said it, not me.”
I got up, stealing one last cookie for the road. I was halfway out the door when Aaron called out to me.
“Riley,” he said, a serious expression on his face.
During my search for Dr. Bennet’s office, I spied a security guard that was falling asleep at his post. I tiptoed my way up to him, arms up and ready to pounce.
“AHH!” I yelled, shaking his shoulders.
“AGHH!” he yelled back, eyes flying wide open.
He glared at me, annoyed.
“You’re going to give me a bad name, Ken,” I teased. “I was able to get you a job here, but not even the fact that I’m your sister will keep you from getting fired.”
“I wasn’t sleeping, just resting my eyes.” Ken slapped his face a few times.
I squeezed his shoulders sympathetically. It was no small task, going to veterinary school and moonlighting as a security guard.
“I took the promotion that Aaron offered me, so maybe you could take fewer shifts,” I said.
Ken just shook his head. “Nah. I can’t let you do all the heavy lifting.” He stared hard at me, a frown on his face. “Are you sure about this? I heard the psych wing is tough work.”
“We need the money,” I said simply.
“I could always take more shifts—”
“No way.” I looked at the heavy bags underneath my brother’s eyes, his sallow skin. He looked downright haggard. “You’d end up being a patient here instead of a security guard.”
“You underestimate my power,” he murmured in what was likely a cheesy impersonation of some sci-fi character.
“Don’t try it,” I replied automatically, rolling my eyes. I slapped him on the shoulder.
Ever since Mom and Dad had died, we’d only had each other.
I could still remember that night when I’d answered the door to find a police officer on the other side, the flash of red and blue lights behind him. A car accident, he’d told me.
Since then, we’d bounced from one cheap apartment to another, barely staying afloat and plagued with debt.
But we’d manage. We always did.
“Don’t fall asleep again!” I called to him as I walked away.
“Tell the whole hospital, why don’t you?” he retorted.
I turned the corner, a smile on my face.
Now to find one Dr. Bennet…
After a few minutes of wandering, I finally found his office. I knocked once and opened the door. “Dr. Bennet?” I called.
The man inside turned to face me; he was in the middle of rifling through a few files.
I stopped, blinking a few times.
“Call me Paul.” He smiled, showing off a row of perfectly white teeth. “And you are?”
It took me a second to find my voice. “Riley Frazier,” I said. “I’m replacing Nurse Roxanne?”
“Ah, so you’re Jackson’s new nurse,” he said. “Have a seat. I’ll pull up your new contract.”
I sat across from him, trying—and failing—not to check him out.
Even sitting down, I could tell he was tall. Easily over six feet. He had wavy raven black hair and a jawline that could cut through glass.
Even through his doctor’s coat I could see his well-defined muscles.
I was suddenly self-conscious. I tried to smooth out my scrubs and brush my hair behind my ears.
If Aaron had told me his new medical resident was a supermodel I could’ve made sure I was presentable at least.
“Ah, here we are.” Paul slid the papers over to me. “Read it carefully. You don’t want to sign something you aren’t ready for.”
Is that supposed to be a joke?
I scanned the contract. It was the usual stuff—nothing out of the ordinary. I penned my signature with confidence. I’d already made my decision before I’d even stepped in the room.
Besides, if I get to work with Dr. Bennet all the time, I’m certainly not going to complain…
He got up and handed me a set of keys.
“You’ll find Jackson’s room down the hall and to your right,” he said. “Room 606.”
“You won’t be joining me?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.
Paul looked down at me and smiled, my heart skipping a beat.
“As much as I’d love to, I have other things to take care of. Don’t worry. We’ll have more time to get to know each other.”
“How’s coffee tomorrow sound?” I asked boldly. It was the twenty-first century. Totally natural for women to ask men out.
“Your treat?” he asked, grinning.
I grabbed a sticky note off of his desk and scribbled my number down. I held it out for him, but instead of taking the note he grabbed my wrist and pulled me closer.
I gasped as he held me against his chest, his strong arms encircling my waist.
My heart kicked into overdrive, my nostrils filled with his manly scent.
Woodsmoke and pine…
“Is that some violet I see in your hair?” he asked.
“I—It’s a dark lavender, yeah,” I stammered.
He leaned in so I could feel his breath against my ear. A shiver of pleasure ran down my spine.
I shouldn’t be letting him do this…
He’s technically my BOSS.
“It reminds me of the cotton candy I used to have at carnivals,” he murmured. “It was delicious.”
I squeezed my thighs together as a wave of lust rushed through me. His large, strong hands roamed down my waist, toward my ass…
Holy shit, are we actually going to—
But then he was pulling away, the heat of his body against mine gone.
“Well, duty calls,” Paul teased. He turned, walking swiftly out the door. “Be on your guard with Jackson. He’s quite the handful.”
I shook myself out of my stupor, biting my lip. I got the feeling that I might enjoy my new position more than I thought…
I found my voice, responding to Paul’s comment far too late.
“I’ll be able to handle him,” I said to myself.
At least, I hope I can…
Who would’ve thought that a number could be so intimidating.
My heart jackhammered in my chest as I slid the key into the lock.
Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and walked inside.
I found Jackson restrained to his bed with leather straps and a Hannibal Lector-style mask covering his mouth. He thrashed against his restraints when he saw me enter, his eyes wide and desperate.
He tried screaming something at me, but the mask obscured his words.
“Calm down, Jackson,” I said with practiced calm. “My name is Riley, and I’ll be your new nurse.”
He ignored me, straining against the leather. If this continued, he was going to hurt himself. Spittle leaked out from the corners of his mask, and I was overcome with pity.
Maybe this is what everyone is talking about when they say Jackson is a handful…
“You have to calm down, Jackson,” I said sternly. “If you do, I’ll remove your mask so you can talk without trying to scream. Okay?”
Jackson narrowed his eyes and went still, nodding slowly. He had dirty blond hair and freckles scattered across his face.
I approached him and carefully undid his mouthpiece; he began screaming as soon as it was off.
“GET ME OUT OF THESE RESTRAINTS!” he yelled. “I’M NOT JACKSON WOLFE!”
I stumbled backward. The psychosis was worse than I’d thought.
“Listen to me,” he fumed. “My name is Dr. Paul Bennet. You said your name was Riley? You’re supposed to be my new assistant.”
“What are you talking about?” My head spun. “I just spoke with Dr. Bennet…”
“YOU SAW HIM? AND YOU LET HIM GO?” he exploded with rage. “Check the patient file, you fool. That should’ve been the first thing you did when you walked in.”
“Well, I was going to, but you started yelling bloody murder—”
“NOW!” Jackson-not-Jackson demanded.
I grabbed the file on the door, flipping it open. There was a photo of Jackson Wolfe. He had wavy raven hair and a jawline that could cut through glass…
The blood drained from my face.
That wasn’t Dr. Bennet I was speaking too…
That was Jackson Wolfe.
And I’d just made a date with him before watching as he strolled away and out of the hospital.