She took the narrow, winding curves faster than she should, but Vivian Chandler was running late for work. Given the recent rain, she knew it was a gamble hugging the slick pavement so quickly, but she had an urgent appointment she needed to prepare for. “Yes, I’m here, sorry,” Vivian responded to her cousin on the phone, talking into her car’s dash. “What did Caleb say when you sent him his final alimony check last week?”
“You know, the usual, that I owe him more,” Desiree’s voice was garbled over the speakers, but her disdain for her ex was evident. Vivian took another curve, slower this time to avoid a fallen tree.
She took a deep breath, pushed her stray black strands of loosened hair back behind her ear, and replied, “You don’t owe him anything. He decided to cheat on you. It still baffles me how the judge ordered you to pay him alimony. At least those three years are behind you now. Good riddance. You don’t need him, Des.”
“But it’s time I won’t get back.” Vivian could hear the uncharacteristic sadness in her cousin’s voice.
“It’s time to move forward.” Vivian could hear Desiree huffing and puffing. “You’re running? In this weather?”
"Unless it’s pouring rain, I run. Not running, throws me off. Besides, it’s beautifully crisp out here.”
Vivian was approaching the parking structure attached to her office building. “Listen, Des, I’m going to lose the signal here in a bit. We still on for dinner Saturday?”
Vivian waited for a response, but all she had was silence. “Des?” It wasn’t uncommon for her to lose the Bluetooth signal during or even just after a rainstorm, but something felt off with this broken connection. “Des? Are you there?”
As Vivian pulled into her assigned parking spot, she hung up and rushed upstairs to her corner office. She texted her cousin, hoping for a response as she booted up her computer. She asked her assistant to get Des on the line. As CEO, she oversaw several high-priority accounts and aspects of the coaching business she worked at. Vivian was, however, willing to postpone her appointment with their image consultant for their advertising if she needed to.
“Ms. Chandler, there’s no answer with your cousin,” her assistant informed her, causing her concern to grow.
“Try again in a few minutes, Lilly. I’ll prepare for my meeting in the meantime. I still have an hour to do a quick review of Mr. Wyatt’s updated proposal.” It wasn’t like Des to not text a reply. Vivian took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. She kept telling herself Desiree was okay, and there was no need to panic. She breathed a short-lived sigh of relief when she had a text alert. Her brows furrowed when she saw it was from the man she was supposed to meet with today. He needed to reschedule as something beyond his control came up. It wasn’t from Des.
She texted an instant reply informing him her office will be in touch to reschedule. It was a relief, really. With Des not responding, Vivian knew she’d not give the meeting with her friend and business associate, Mr. Wyatt, the full benefit of her attention. After the long relationship their companies had, she owed him that much.
Vivian started pacing in front of her window, ignoring the city skyline completely, trying to figure out what to do. Leave the office? Call the police to check the trail? Sit and wait for a reply? Just as she’d reach her conclusion to leave and check, first Desiree’s condo, then the trail, her assistant poked her head in. “Still no answer Ms. Chandler.” Damn.
“Lilly, start calling hospitals. I’m heading out to look for her.” Vivian’s decision was made. Her cousin was the closest family she had in San Francisco. Everyone else was still in Los Angeles. Des just had to be okay.
An expletive left her mouth before she could stop the very unladylike word erupting from her. Desiree fell flat on her knees and hands, tearing her running pants, as she tripped over something on the ground. Correction, someone. Her ankle stung and she knew instantly she needed medical attention if the swelling and throbbing were any indications of her plight.
“Are you okay, miss?”
Desiree looked up, peeved, and stared directly at the man responsible for her ankle. When was the last time she saw a man so handsome? No matter. She looked him straight in his hazel eyes and replied, “I need to go to the hospital. I’m fairly certain my ankle is sprained. What were you doing on the ground?” She didn’t even bother to hide her irritation.
“I was tying my shoe. My lace snagged on a bush back there. Why the hell are you coming so fast around the corner?” Genuine concern warmed his words, but it didn’t do much to appease Des’s mood. She wasn’t mobile and she was still two miles out from her car.
She balled her fists and released the tension building. She slowly let go of a calming breath. He was still kneeling, eye-level to her on the cold, still-wet ground. “I fell over you and I’m pretty sure I kicked your back on my way down. Are you okay?” She’s a woman dedicated to a healthy body and mind. It was in her nature to be concerned about the well-being of others.
Without missing a beat, he replied, “I’m fine. Can you walk? I’m Ethan, by the way.”
“Desiree.” She gave a tentative push on her ankle and felt the shooting pain immediately. She released a painful yelp. “No. Can you help me up?”
Ethan offered both hands to pull her to her one good foot. Only then did they notice her bloody knees and raw palms. He winced as she struggled to stand. “Desiree, I’m sorry. I’ll help you back to your car.”
She tested her foot and grimaced some more. She patted her jacket pocket taking inventory, noting she had her driver's license and keys. She pulled out her phone. Another expletive crossed her mind, but she didn’t voice it. “My phone is busted, but other than that, I have everything on me.” When she fell, her phone must’ve caught a rock under her. Ethan was giving her a once-over. He took out his phone and texted someone. “Can I borrow your…” She needed to contact Vivian, but she didn’t have a single phone number memorized. “Never mind.” When she gets home, she’ll pull out her email contacts and call her then, assuming Vivian is not already organizing a search party for her.
He shook his head and asserted, “I’m carrying you down. This is not the time to argue.”
“Excuse me?” She just met this man, and clearly, he had the advantage if he wanted to do anything she didn’t approve of, but carry her? Was he serious?
“It’s obvious you’re badly hurt and we’re still a couple of miles from the parking lot. You’ve got to weigh what? One hundred ten pounds?” It was one hundred fifteen, but she felt no need to correct him. She adjusted her haphazard, sweaty ponytail and gave in.
He gave her a piggyback ride as they headed back down the trail together. They made small talk as they descended the hillside, stopping every now and then to let Ethan rest. No, she wasn’t that heavy, but she was dead weight on an uneven, slippery trail. Compound that with the fact he’d already run a few miles and was already headed back to his car to get ready for a meeting. During their time together, she was trying to deny the instant attraction to him. His hazel eyes were so clear and alert, belonging to a man who missed no detail. He only rested when she insisted, claiming he could carry her all day. The aroma of his woodsy cologne, with a hint of citrus, filled her senses. She couldn’t help but wonder who he texted earlier about his delay. His wife? A girlfriend? His boss?
Both were physically exhausted and delayed from anything planned for the day, he set her down one last time a few yards from the parking lot. “Des, I’m taking you to the hospital. Since I’m the only one who knows you’re hurt, we’ll arrange to get your car later. Do you need anything else?”
Desiree knew it was the best idea. By now, she trusted him. If he was going to cause her any harm, the rain-drenched hills would’ve been the place to do it. She couldn’t walk and had no means of communication with the outside world. She was dirty, bloody, and her ankle was throbbing. “No, I have what I need.” He carried her in front of him forcing her arms to encircle his neck for support. She didn’t stop herself from leaning into him. She could swear he let out a longer exhale than was necessary for their journey to his passenger seat. He carefully put her down next to the open door, allowing her whatever dignity she could muster to get herself inside. “Ethan, thank you for helping me come back down the hillside. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done, especially since I don’t have a working phone anymore.”
“Happy to help. Now, let’s get you some medical attention.” They drove the few minutes to the hospital, keeping up their small talk. He stayed with her until she was admitted, leaving him to pace in the waiting room. When she was taken back to get x-rayed and settled in an exam room, only then did she fully realize the danger she could have been in.
She’d only ever been concerned with cougars or smaller critters. Never had it crossed her mind that she’d encounter another person on the trail. Never had it crossed her mind she’d come to rely on that total stranger for her own safety. Never did it occur to her once she tripped over him that she’d be so attracted to him. Those eyes drew her in. She wanted to keep holding him those last few yards to his car.
Desiree never thought she’d want to date again after her ex cheated on her with his secretary and his secretary’s roommate. When she wrote out that last alimony check, she felt free and relieved she’d have no further association with him. She was still confused about why she had to pay him when he was the one who stepped out of the marriage. At least Vivian saw it the same way. Yes, she made more money, but he was in the wrong. She shook her head as if shaking it would rid her of the frustration he’d caused her.
Vivian had given her a great job at Coaches as a personal trainer. She loved helping her clients reach their personal goals, received glowing reviews, and loved the mission of the company. Once she got home, she’d have to let her clients know her impaired situation and either push them to do their best from the sidelines or assign them to someone else while she healed. She leaned back on the hospital bed, adjusted the pink gown she was in, and reflected on her current predicament.
Ethan couldn’t believe his luck. When Desiree tripped over him, he was on instant alert. Her petite frame hid her inner strength. She was strong and obviously hated that she needed his help. He didn’t even hesitate to postpone his meeting to review a contract…a contract his business needed. It was the right thing to do to take Desiree to the ER. Ethan knew he needed to get home, shower, and answer several emails he undoubtedly had waiting for him. But, at this moment, he was all she had. He didn’t want to leave her alone.
He tried to convince himself it was because nobody knew where she was and she had no way of contacting anyone or getting home. But the reality was, Ethan wanted her to need him. With her shoulder-length brown ponytail revealing her lightly-freckled face, her trim, toned figure, and those green eyes, he felt an instant connection to her. The strong attraction brought his body to life. Sure, she was mad at first, but he quickly learned it was her defense mechanism to protect herself. She filled him in on her ex and although Ethan had never been married himself, he too had been cheated on in the past. He was always optimistic, however, that eventually, he’d find the right woman for his happily-ever-after.
“Mr. Wyatt? Ethan?” Ethan turned around, his hands pushing through his brown hair, to find Vivian Chandler gawking at him. “Are you okay? What are you doing here? When you canceled our meeting, I didn’t know you needed to go to the hospital!”
“Ms. Chandler, I’m fine.” He motioned for her to sit in the waiting room. “What brings you here? Are you okay?”
He could tell she was distracted by the way her eyes kept darting past him. She was always so focused on her work and missed nothing on his contracts for Coaches. He’d been the image consultant for them since they opened and owed a lot to Vivian for giving him a chance when he opened his own company. “Call me Vivian, please. I was on the phone with my cousin when the line went dead. I haven’t been able to reach her. Between my assistant and myself, we tracked her down here.”
“Is there anything I can do to help? I have some time on my hands since I postponed our meeting.” Vivian had been good to him and he considered her a friend.
She stood up, and said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get a status report on Des. Wait here,” and she headed for the front desk.
Des? As in Desiree? Vivian was related to Desiree? When Vivian came back she seemed more relaxed. “She’s here and is being seen by the doctor. Apparently, she tripped on the trail and some man brought her in. I’ve told her for years to not run up there, that it wasn’t safe.” She released a relieved sigh.
Ethan cleared his throat. “Actually, I brought her in. I was tying my shoes and she tripped over me.” Vivian just stared at him for a moment then threw her arms out around him.
“Thank you for taking care of her. She’s all I have.” Ethan felt a tear run down her face, shocking him that this strong, independent, cut-throat businesswoman had a vulnerable side. “You have no idea how much she needs that right now.”
Ethan felt himself smile and returned her grateful hug. “Actually, I’m still here waiting for her. She needs a ride and I was going to find out who I can contact to get her car back to her.”
Vivian pulled back from him. “I guess my work is done.”
“What do you mean?”
Vivian smiled and adjusted her purse over her shoulder. “Saturday, I invited you to dinner. It was to set you up with her.”
“That’s right! You did say you wanted me to meet someone. It was Des?” Ethan’s delight surged to learn Vivian thought so highly of him to be a good match for her cousin. He respected her and felt it quite the character endorsement.
The nurse interrupted their conversation to call Vivian back to see Des. After ten minutes, she returned with a grin on her face. “Des would like to see you. And, Ethan? You’re off the hook for dinner on Saturday. As for our meeting, I’ll call next week.” She gave him a wink and left. When Ethan entered Des’s room, she was already outfitted with a compression bandage on her ankle. Her knees and palms were cleaned up with a few abrasions, but nothing too serious. Her smile revealed her happiness to see him.
“Hey Des, how’re you feeling?” He felt like a teenager trying to talk to a girl he had a crush on. Ridiculous given she spent so much time on his back coming down the trail.
“Better, thanks. I have a mild painkiller going through my system now. So, I take it Vivian placed me into your care?” She had the loveliest smile. Desiree has also fixed her ponytail. With her hair pulled back neater and all cleaned up, he saw her perfectly groomed brows, a small hint of a dimple on her right cheek, and right at that moment, he wanted to kiss her. “I guess Vivian trusts you with me.”
He cleared his wayward thoughts to reply with, “Looks like I’m your ride. She’s going to help with your car later tonight once we get you settled at your place. Whenever you’re ready, I’m here for you.” He hoped she could read between the lines. Ethan wasn’t sure what Vivian had told her.
“I guess you were supposed to be my date Saturday. Vivian didn’t tell me she was trying to match me up with anyone. She says you’re an eternal optimist and honest to a fault.” She looked him up and down with the same appraisal he’d given her on the trail. “I think she needs to expand her business into matchmaking. She’s on to something there.”
Ethan closed the gap between them and placed a gentle, tender kiss on her welcoming lips, while her bandaged palms held his face. “I just may need to suggest that when I meet with her next week.” He slowly pulled back, taking in his rapidly beating heart, and her gasp of surprise. No mistake, she’d leaned into the kiss,. “Let’s get you out of here Des. Whatever you need, I’ll take care of it.” He was promising her more than just getting her home. Ethan was promising whatever she needed from him, wanted from him. He just might have found his happily-ever-after with Desiree.
“Ethan, take me home.”