Chapter One

Beam me up, Scottie.

Ava Winthrop twisted like a pretzel to squint at the clock on the wall behind her. Five minutes to eight and
only two minutes later than the last time she’d checked. Still enough time to sneak out,
scurry down the hall to her office and act like this appointment was a figment of everyone’s

She swiveled back around, avoiding the distorted reflection of her image in the paper towel

Stop being a wuss. You made a decision, now stick to it. Your so-called career hangs in the balance.

A tap on the door echoed through the examining room and Lindsay Lowell, twenty-something and
dressed in a starched white uniform hemmed to within an inch of propriety, swept in with a broad
smile. “Morning, Ava. Excited about the big day?”

Not exactly the word Ava would have used. Terrified, maybe. Nauseated, definitely. She forced her
lips to turn up. “Has Steve arrived yet?” The question came out squeaky and breathless, not calm
and confident like she’d intended.

Lindsay slid her a sideways glance, then shook her head and reached for Ava’s wrist. The motion
sent a whiff of Glow--or whatever teenybopper perfume she was wearing today--slithering up Ava’s
nostrils. “The doc’s running late, but he’ll be here.”

Oh, Ava didn’t doubt it for a moment. More reliable than Old Faithful, that Steve. For the nurse’s
benefit, she suppressed the shudder threatening to shake her from head to toe. Couldn’t Steve be
unreliable just this once?

Silence stretched as Lindsay took her pulse then recorded the results on a clipboard. “Relax, Ava.
You’re heart’s beating faster than a newborn puppy’s.”

Fear will do that to you.

Lindsay poked an old-fashioned thermometer under Ava’s tongue, effectively cutting off
conversation. Not that Ava was in the mood for shooting the breeze with someone half her age
about the pros and cons of tampering with Mother Nature.

In the hallway, an outburst of laughter cut through the dead air and Ava caught Lindsay sending a
fierce glance toward the door. The reaction struck Ava as odd.

Unless...oh, no. Ava whipped the thermometer from her mouth. “You didn’t.”

Innocent blue eyes fringed with criminally long lashes stared at her then dropped. “Didn’t what?”

Sporting events, elections, beauty pageants—-you name it-- the gambling addict never missed an
opportunity to form an office pool. “You’re betting on whether I’ll lose my nerve.”

Lindsay snorted, an undignified sound for a girl who professed to be classy. “Now, don’t get upset,

Heat flooded Ava’s cheeks. Upset? If the nurse had thought Ava’s heart rate too high before, she
should check it now.

“Everyone knows you’re scared of the knife.”

The blunt words stung, but she lifted her chin, proud there was only one. “I’m not afraid.”

“No? Well, good for you then.” She moved closer and lifted Ava’s bangs away from her forehead,
peering closely. Ava could have sworn the girl was counting pores. “You won’t be sorry, I can tell
you that much. A gal can never start too early.”

Easy for Lindsay to say. She hadn’t just turned thirty-nine. “About that betting pool--”

“Oh, Ava. Lighten up. No one takes it seriously.”

Except me, she mouthed to an empty room as Lindsay exited.

Alone, Ava let her eyes flutter closed. A week ago, the choice had seemed so obvious. How could
the world look so different this morning?

In hindsight, pinpointing Dr. Steve Rowan’s campaign kickoff was easy. It had been on her thirty-
ninth birthday which, for understandable reasons, hadn’t been a banner day to begin with. He’d
interrupted her monthly status report on the satellite clinic with unabashed abruptness. “Time to
start re-capturing your youth, Ava. When should we schedule you?”

She’d stuck out her tongue but the hair on the back of her neck had snapped to attention.

Next, he’d started dropping cute comments like: “Better keep an eye on Lindsay. I think she’s got
designs on moving into management. Possibly into your job.”

As if Ava hadn’t noticed. But Steve’s protégé, with the body of a pubescent teen and the brains to
match, hadn’t appeared to be much of a threat.

What a fool she’d been.

Her head jerked forward as, speak of the devil, Steve strode through the door, his face artificially
tan against a blinding white lab coat. In his late forties, and as vain as they got, he’d nipped and
tucked himself into legendary status as Palm Springs’s most eligible bachelor. His contrived beauty
made Ava shudder.

Steve clapped his hands together and smiled with teeth that cost more than Ava’s car. “Gotta full
schedule today. Ready to rock and roll?”

Not when the bugs in her stomach preferred the jitterbug. She swallowed as the examining room
seemed to shrink and the humidity shot up a notch. Must be a glitch in the air conditioner. Outside,
the Palm Springs morning already promised a scorcher. "I'm in no rush. In fact, we could put it off
to...say...the next millennium."

Pulling her file from the wall, he chuckled. “You have to admit the timing is brilliant. You’ll be all set to
open the clinic in June.”

Which, in the end, was what this was all about, Ava suddenly realized. New office, new equipment,
new furniture.

New Ava.

It made perfect sense to Steve. And when he’d offered a cash bonus, it had started making sense to
her. Especially with the never-ending financial abyss she faced each month. But now, she had a
sudden urge to gag.

“Ava? Are you having second thoughts?”

Second? How about third? Fourth? Billionth?

Before she could answer, a buzzer sounded and Steve picked up the phone, clearly annoyed.
“What is it, Serena? I’m in with Ava.” He listened for a moment then sighed. “Okay, I’ll take it in my
office.” He hung up the receiver and patted her hand. “Be back in a minute. In the meantime, I’ll
send Lindsay to get you prepped so we can get started.”

She could only nod.

“Relax, Ava. There’s no reason to be nervous.”

As soon as the door closed, Ava let out the breath she’d been holding then promptly inhaled again.
And again.

Suddenly she was sucking at air like a fish out of water while flashes of gold and silver popped in
and out of her peripheral vision.

This wasn’t nerves. This was a freakin’ panic attack. A bona fide put-your-head-between-your-
knees-before-your-body-hits-the-floor panic attack.

She scrunched her eyes shut and concentrated on measured breaths.

In...Out...In...Out. Good.

In...Out...In...Out. Better.

Inoutinoutinoutinout. Ack!  

Gasping, she leapt to her feet, then froze with her hand on the doorknob. In the hallway, she heard
familiar voices--co-workers and colleagues. Probably adjusting their bets.

The hell with them.

She darted across the room, tore the vertical blinds aside, and shoved the window open. With
clumsy fingers, she pried the screen off and pitched it into the hedge below. Taking a deep breath,
she launched herself over the foliage and landed in a heap on the concrete sidewalk. Momentarily
stunned, she did a quick inventory of her movable parts then scrambled to her feet. Not a bad
maneuver for a broad pushing forty.

Steve’s voice bellowed from three feet away, his harried face framed by the window. “Ava! What on

Still out of breath, she edged backward toward her car and freedom. “I’m sorry, Steve. I just can’t do
it. Not right now. Maybe not ever.”

He appeared poised to follow her right through the window, which was crazy since he would never
muss his hair or stain his lab coat. “But you said you were ready.”

“I’ll call you in a couple of days. I need time to think.”

With that, she teetered the last few yards on Jell-O legs and tumbled into the car. Afraid Steve might
follow, she fumbled the key into the ignition, got the car started, and screeched out of the parking lot
like Seabiscuit down the backstretch.

A few miles later, figuring full-tilt was not the safest way to drive, she pulled into a convenience store
parking lot, turned off the engine and rested her forehead against the steering wheel. When at last
her breathing returned to normal, she raised her head and angled a peek at herself in the rear view
mirror. Familiar thirty-nine-year-old eyes bracketed by tiny lines stared back.

Winthrop eyes.

“You may be a little worn around the edges,” she whispered to her reflection. “But I’m not ready to
mess with you yet.”

Steve and his satellite clinic be damned. She wasn’t having a face-lift. At least, not today.
Randy Jeanne. . . Romance With Attitude