She drove to work with the smile still on her face. She’d parked and was just getting out of the car when her phone vibrated. Odd, because she’d have sworn she’d set it to ring. Pulling it out of her pocket, she didn’t even attempt to see the screen in the bright morning sun before she answered with a simple “Hello?”
There was a long beat of silence and then, “Who the hell are you and where the hell is Ty?”
Mallory blinked at the very sexy, snooty female voice sounding damn proprietary, then said, “Who is this?”
“I asked first. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Just put him on the phone. Now.”
Oh hell no, Mallory thought, feeling a proprietariness of her own, even though on some level she’d known that Ty had to have other women in his life. It made perfect sense, but that didn’t mean she liked how it felt.
“Fine, have it your way,” the woman snapped. “Tell him Frances called. Make sure you tell him that it’s important, do you understand?”
“How did you get this number?”
“Cookie, you don’t want to go there. Now listen to me. I don’t care how good you suck him, I’ve known him longer, I know him better, and I’m the only one of us who will know him by this time next week. Give him the damn message.”
Mallory stared at the phone, realizing that it wasn’t her phone at all. It was an iPhone just like hers, but the background was of only the date and a clock, not the picture of the beach she’d taken last week.
She had Ty’s phone.
Mallory tried calling her phone but it went directly to voicemail, signaling that Ty had either turned it off or she’d run out of battery. She chewed on the situation for a minute, then punched out Amy’s number. “It’s me,” she said. “I’m using someone else’s phone. Life is getting nuts.”
“Nuts is all relative on the Bad Girl scale.”
“Is that right?” Mallory asked. “So where on that scale would you put getting yelled at by the ex of the guy I’m sleeping with?”
Dead silence. Then, “So the bad girl shoes worked?”
Mallory blew out a breath. “Yes. Now concentrate.” She told Amy all about the call. “And really,” she said. “I have no one but myself to blame. I wanted this one-time thing. I mean I wanted the second time too, and the third, but now—”
“Now you’re in this, and you’re worried that maybe you’re in it alone.”
Mallory’s throat tightened. “Yeah. I mean three times. To me that’s…”
“I know.” Suddenly Amy wasn’t sounding amused. “It’s a relationship.”
“And I’m pretty sure Ty’s allergic to relationships.”
Amy paused again. “Mallory, are you sure you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew?”
Mallory choked out a laugh. “Now? You think to ask me this now? You started this. You egged me on with the list of Mr. Wrongs! Hell, yes, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew!”
“Okay,” Amy soothed. “We can fix this. You’ll just downgrade to a less Mr. Wrong. Someone easier to drag around by his twig and berries, you know?”
Yeah, but she didn’t want just anyone’s twigs and berries. “Look, I’m at work. We’ll have to obsess over this later. Have cake waiting. I’m going to need it.”
“Will do, babe.”
Mallory clicked off and went into the hospital.
Five minutes into her shift, Jane called her into her office. “Two things,” her boss said cryptically, giving nothing away. “First up.” She laid a piece of paper on her desk, facing Mallory. It was a receipt for a sizeable amount.
“Anonymous donation,” Jane said. “For HSC.”
“My God.” Mallory sank to a spare chair. “Am I looking at all those zeroes correctly?”
“Yes,” Jane said. “And they’re all very pretty.”
Mallory’s eyes jerked up to Jane’s. “Did you just make a joke?”
“Tell anyone, and I’ll skin you.” Jane let out a rare smile but it was fleeting. “Nicely done.”
“How do you know I had anything to do with this?” Mallory asked, still astonished.
Jane gave an impressive eye roll. “Mallory, without you, there would be no HSC. Even with you, it’s barely there, and it’s on tentative footing. Someone you know or talked to donated this money.”
Mallory absorbed that a moment. “Someone I know? I don’t know anyone with a spare 10K.”
“You’re not talking about Ty,” Mallory said, but Jane’s eyes said that’s exactly who she was talking about. “He already donated money for the Vets’ program,” Mallory protested. “Besides, he doesn’t have this kind of money. But truthfully, she had no idea what Ty had or didn’t have. Ten thousand dollars…“Why would he—”
“Don’t ask me that,” Jane said quietly. “Because honestly, Mallory? I don’t want to know why he’d give you so much money for a Health Services Clinic in a town he has no ties to, a place he apparently plans on leaving very soon.”
“Not me,” Mallory said. “He didn’t give the money to me. He gave it to HSC. If it was even him.”
“Hmm,” was all Jane said to this. She paused. “I really don’t like to delve into my employees’ private lives, but…”
Oh boy. “But…?”
“But since yours is being discussed over the water cooler, it’s unavoidable. You’re dating a man who no one knows anything about.”
Well, technically, there was little “dating” involved. She was flat out boinking him. “No disrespect, Jane, but I really don’t see how this affects my job.”
“Whether he was the anonymous donor or not, he’s been seen socializing with known drug addicts. And he yelled at two aides in the cafeteria.”
Mallory’s temper was usually non-existent but it flared to life at Jane’s cavalier description of Ryan. “That’s not quite how either of those two events went down,” she said as evenly as she could. “Ty’s involved in the Vets’ program. He and Ryan connected because of their military backgrounds, and Ty’s been helping him, giving him rides and bringing him food.” Which she only knew because Lucille had told her, and thinking about it still melted her heart. She also knew about the hospital cafeteria incident, thanks to Lucille. “As for the radiation techs, they were just downright rude, so—”
“My point,” Jane said, “is that you’re not just an employee now. You’re running the HSC. You’re in a position that requires a certain public persona, and you have no one to blame but yourself for that one. You chose this, Mallory, so you have to understand that certain aspects of your life are now up for scrutiny. You have a moral and financial obligation to live up to that scrutiny.”
Mallory was having a hard time swallowing this. “Are you saying I can’t have a private life?”
“I’m saying that private life can’t conflict with your public life. You can’t date a man who might need the services HSC provides, wrong as that sounds. You just can’t.”
The words rang through Mallory’s head for the next few hours as she dealt with her patients. She had a vomiter—oh joy—a teenager who’d let her new tattoo get infected, and an eight-months-pregnant woman who ate a jar of pickles and put herself into labor with gas pains.
Alyssa was little to no help. She was far too busy flirting with that cute new resident doctor, hoping to score a date for her night off. All of Alyssa’s patients kept hailing Mallory down, until finally she physically yanked Alyssa away from the new resident and reminded her that she had actual work to do.
Mallory pretty much ran ragged until there was finally a lull. She used the rare quiet time to sit at the nurses’ station and catch up on charting.
She looked up to find one of her patients, Jodi Larson, standing there beaming from ear to ear. Jodi was ten years old, a leukemia patient, and one of Mallory’s all-time favorite people. She’d been in for her six-month check, and given the smile also on Jodi’s mom’s face behind her, the news had been good.
“Officially in remission,” Jodi said proudly.
Jodi’s mom’s eyes were shining brilliantly as she nodded affirmation of the good news. Thrilled, Mallory hugged them both tight, and Jodi presented her with a plate of cookies. “Chocolate chip and walnut. I baked them just for you.”
They hugged again, then Mallory got paged and had to go. It turned out the page was from her own mother.
“Mallory,” Ella whispered, dragging her daughter into a far, quiet corner. “People are talking about how you were seen driving home at 3:20 in the morning. Why do I have a daughter coming home that late? Nothing good happens that late, Mallory. Nothing.”
Oh, for the love of God. “Actually, it was only 2:30, so your source is dyslexic.” And pretty damn annoying, but Mallory didn’t bother to say so. Her mother had a point and she was winding up for it.
“You were with that man,” Ella said.
Uh huh, and there it was. Mallory’s left eye began to twitch. “That man has a name.”
“A real name.”
Her mother’s lips tightened. “Yes, I believe The Facebook is calling him Mysterious Cute Guy.”
Mallory put a finger to her twitching eye. “Okay, for the last time, it’s not The Facebook, it’s just Facebook.”
“Honey, please. It’s time you came to your senses. You’re going to end up as wild and crazy as Joe and Tammy, and that’s not who you are.”
“Mom, Joe is only twenty-four. He’s not ready to settle down, so a little wild and crazy is okay. And Tammy is settled down in her own wild and crazy way. Maybe it’s not what you wanted for her but she’s adjusted and happy. What’s wrong with being like them?”