Claire drove through the crowded streets of the trendy neighborhood Dash had suggested for their date. It’d been fun hitting up a club like the old days, seeing what experimental band was playing or just dancing and moving her body to let off steam.
And that kiss had been … unexpected. Even though she’d been the one to initiate it, she still didn’t know what to make of their chemistry. Or lack thereof? Or maybe that’s how it was supposed to feel when you started dating your longtime friend-slash-widowed husband of your deceased bestie?
Dash had seemed surprised as well, though not displeased.
As she made several turns back to her own neighborhood, she thought back to what Neil had said. How he’d questioned her hesitation and once again pushed her to make the choices that could lead to her own happiness. But something had been odd. And the ambivalence she now felt after actually following through on his advice confused her even more. She couldn’t put her finger on it.
She shrugged it off. It probably boiled down to frustration at not finding an alternative to help their patient.
She smiled to think of Neil, how much he’d helped her in the past few months. How inadvertently she’d come to rely on him for support and levity, a chance to be herself in front of someone who knew all the ugly angles to her and still saw her value. God, she was such a mess before he’d stepped in. And look at her now. Embarking on a new relationship. Feeling more grounded at work. In therapy and working on letting go of some of her guilt and shame over her mother's death.
So why did things still feel off, as if something was missing? She felt selfish even thinking it.
What she really needed to do was get her mind off her personal life. Despite Shaun’s crankiness, the case today had really invigorated her. She still felt awful to not have found a solution to get the outcome her patient wanted. The answer was right there on the edge of her consciousness, but Neil had insisted that time had run out on their brainstorming. She frowned. She’d been so sure that she and Shaun could have come up with something that would work.
Working the formulas and research in her head again, Claire went on mental auto-pilot as she drove through the quiet streets. Maybe she'd missed something. It'd be hard to get any rest until she'd broken down the pieces one more time.
Another turn and she found herself by the hospital. So lost in thought, she’d driven there instead of toward her apartment. But maybe the detour was meant to be. She could go grab her notes, and if something came to her in the night or first thing in the morning, she could take it to Melendez.
Because of the late hour, she found a parking spot close to the entrance. It wasn’t unusual for her to be at the hospital in the later hours of the night if something had happened with a patient, but it seemed particularly empty tonight. Looking up, it seemed strange to see many of the lights in the hospital dim, having switched over to nighttime power-save mode.
Claire took the back entrance since it was closer to where she parked. She stopped first to check in on Finn who the nurse said had been stable all evening, all things considered. Then she made her way to the residents’ lounge. She didn’t see anyone on her way there, which added to the eerie feeling, her boots the only sound as she strolled through the dim halls. As she turned the corner for the last leg, she noticed the intense darkness leading into the corridor and wondered why the automatic lights weren’t on. Even at this hour, the auxiliary ones would still be dimly illuminating the way, maybe a few office lamps brightening the path. But the only visual that awaited her was the inky blackness.
Then she remembered that maintenance had been doing some electrical work throughout the next few weeks and were cutting power to certain sections during the off hours. They’d even shut down the elevator at the other end of the hallway to re-route traffic to this part of the wing. She’d vaguely listened as Melendez warned that they’d need to use the side-table lamps if they were going to be in the lounge after hours.
Looking toward the end of the hallway, she saw that all of the lights in the lounge and in Melendez’s office were off. Slowly making her way towards her destination, she hoped she didn’t trip over anything getting to her notes.
Claire pushed in the door and immediately noticed that the notepad she’d left on the coffee table had been moved. Thankfully, the city vista from outside and a full moon threw some light into the room. Sweeping her eyes across the area trying to find the closest lamp, she landed on a series of dim lumps on the couch and covered a hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle.
The usually pristine and unflappable Dr. Neil Melendez lay sprawled across the couch, her notepad resting against his torso and balls of crumpled up paper wedged in the cushions by his head and feet. His face relaxed in slumber, the same could not be said of the suit he wore. His shirt looked rumpled and distressed, one pants leg had ridden up above the ankle to show the stretch of his dark sock.
Another urge to laugh rose to the surface, and she fought the impulse yet again.
His tablet sat on the coffee table, and Claire quietly picked it up and flipped through his notes, taking a seat in the chair next to him. It seemed he’d taken her ideas seriously after all. She saw numerous notes and modifications to her original idea, the charts incomplete but coming together. It looked like he’d used her research for a modified solution. Instead of the side, it looked like he’d adopted a posterior transdural approach to reach the C1 juncture in Finn’s spine.
He’s going in from the back. Of course!
From what she could gather, he’d reached the stage of figuring out how to nudge the spinal cord out of the way to drill off the bone fragment they were trying to get to. Her brain kicked into action, and she started making notes of her own, flipping through the parameters for the surgical protocols they’d need and the list of risks – along with how they could mitigate them. Paralysis and stroke risk were both serious, but this procedure significantly reduced the stroke risk to almost non-existent and the paralysis was well within the range of monitoring during surgery to ensure they weren’t inflicting nerve damage. Finn had asked for ‘outside the box,’ and this fit the bill.
As her mind raced, she put aside thoughts of Dash or grief, Shaun’s problems, or Neil’s approval. She simply wanted to solve this problem that had been haunting her all day.
Looking up after spending a good amount of time building on Neil’s work, she noticed the time and winced over how late it had gotten. A glance towards the couch showed Neil still sleeping like the dead. Everyone knew what a deep sleeper he could be. When he took breaks in the on-call room, he had to keep his phone in his pocket so the vibration and sound of a page would wake him if he was needed. He hadn’t moved a muscle since she’d arrived, even breaths causing a rise and fall that threatened to dislodge the notepad balanced on his stomach but never did. His legs remained splayed out across the couch, and his head rested against a stray pillow.
On the one hand, maybe she should let him sleep. On the other, she really wanted to share what she’d come up with. If they could work out all the kinks, they’d be able to present it to Finn in the morning. Even Shaun wouldn’t be able to find criticism in their approach.
Claire moved to the coffee table, scooting over the journals and empty coffee mug that sat in the way. She took some time to simply look at him. The faint lines around his eyes that deepened when he laughed, the now messy hair that made her smile to think of its disarray. Drifting her eyes down, she noticed the way his button-down shirt stretched across his chest at a strained angle, revealing its definition and more of his tattoo than one would normally see. Leaning in, she could just make out the lines and shading of the deer head she knew to be there.
His long fingers held the notebook loosely against his torso, those talented hands now relaxed in sleep yet strong in their grip. She’d felt them against hers so many times in the OR as they worked next to each other. Recently she’d experienced those hands in ways she would never have predicted. They’d rested on her shoulder in comfort for what felt like hours as she’d cried in a stairwell. Those hands had held her chastely as they danced at the makeshift prom he’d let her plan for their patient. They’d helped her find a good grip on a bowling ball, not that it made much of a difference in getting a better score or curbing his laughter at every gutter ball she’d rolled. They’d become so open and free to tease each other like that when it was just the two of them.
She felt her lips turn in a gentle smile thinking of him, how much she valued him in her life. And here he was, lying on a couch in his suit at one in the morning to follow-up on an idea he’d known meant a lot to her.
Luck. Gratitude. Whatever the expression, she took a moment to appreciate it. To appreciate Neil.
Taking a deep breath, she leaned in from where she sat on the coffee table. “Neil?” she called out. He twitched but otherwise didn’t acknowledge her. “Neil!” she said more loudly, aiming for his ear.
That sound finally stirred his slumber, causing him to turn his head towards the disruption. She noticed a small smile at his lips and wondered if she was interrupting some wonderful dream. She speculated on what that would look like for him: was he overseeing some masterful surgery? At the gym? Surrounded by beautiful model-esque women that seemed to be his type? She made a mental note to tease him about it on one of their runs.
“Neil!” she said, trying again. This time, she reached for his wrist, jostling him while trying not to startle him too much. Instead of jerking away, his fingers slipped from the notepad to her hand, running those fingers she’d been thinking about a moment ago onto hers. The slide of the roughened tips of his fingers sent a jolt through her.
“Claire?” he called out. Her eyes jerked from where his hand still moved along hers to his face. She’d thought he’d awakened and was questioning why she sat across from him. But his eyes remained closed as a smile bloomed even larger across his lips.
At first she chuckled in amusement at his sleepy response. She loved having fodder by which to tease her friend, and making fun of what a sleepyhead he could be seemed as good a joke as any.
But that appreciation only lasted a moment before another emotion came charging in, this one warm and pulsing and unexpected. An emotion that she recognized immediately as desire. It burned in the pit of her stomach as the sound of her name on his lips echoed in her ear. His fingers still moved to grip her hand as he continued to grin at whatever thoughts or memories were running through his mind.
He couldn’t be…
Now that she’d let her mind go there even a little, she thought back to the moments they’d had together the last few months. The comfort with each other, the casual teasing and earnest trust, the honest disclosure of their feelings – not just about her life, but his too. She recalled that moment of hesitation when he’d asked her to go out for a celebratory drink last week. Both had felt a pull then, even if she’d later dismissed it. They way he’d looked at her earlier today as they talked about flowers and romantics and waiting for the right time to take that next step with someone in her life? There’d been something she’d described to herself as off, but now it started to fall into place.
All those moments of warmth at his attention that she’d pushed down came flooding back. Each of those times, she’d chalked it up to gratitude and friendly affection. Even now, she fought the urge to twine her fingers with his as he softly caressed her hand.
She shook her head. He’d just been being a friend. He’d been the one to push her towards dating Dash. But what if…
And almost immediately, the shame set in before she could let those feelings spread, the embarrassment of those thoughts directed at her friend who’d been nothing but kind to her and didn’t deserve her misplaced emotions and projection about the men in her life. Her loneliness and trauma couldn’t be solved with sex and lustful attraction, isn’t that what therapy had been teaching her?
Her breathing sped up. She snatched her hand from Neil’s noticing his smile disappear and a furrow of displeasure at his brow.
This time, he did jerk awake, sitting up and looking around in confusion. He shook his head and then his gaze settled steadily on her.
“What’s going on?” He sat up, fully dislodging the notepad, which would have slid to the floor if she hadn’t caught it and placed it on the table next to her. “What time is it?” he asked looking at his watch.
Claire looked down at the tablet in her lap trying to distract herself and get her breathing under control. She didn’t want to be weird or do anything to indicate her previous train of thought or make him uncomfortable. The thought of losing him as a friend sent waves of despair through her.
“It’s about one in the morning,” Claire replied. Neil took in his surroundings as he shook the last of the slumber from his eyes as he reached over and clicked on the lamp. Claire blinked, getting used to the new low but vibrant light source. “I came back to get my notes to see if inspiration would strike in the middle of the night.” She couldn’t help grinning at him. “Seems like I’m not the only one with that idea.”
Neil finally focused his attention on her. Seeing her amusement, he also laughed. “I was on my way out and got curious about what you’d been researching. I guess it got my wheels turning too.”
Claire’s traitorous heart sped up again at hearing that, amazed that she could spark something in him as he does for her as her friend and colleague. She needed to turn away from these thoughts right now.
“Well, I’m glad.” She waved the tablet in front of him. “I tried to pick up where you left off and I think it can work!” Neil took the tablet from her. “Don’t worry, I saved your last version before I added to it.
He murmured a dismissal of her concern about saving his work and focused intently on the data in front of him. He flipped from screen to screen, eyes flickering back and forth. The seconds stretched to minutes and Claire couldn’t seem to get a read on his reaction. She began to fidget with nerves.
Finally, he looked up at her, a small smile forming. “This can work,” he repeated back to her. Claire matched his smile in relief, launching into a stream of questions as they kicked the details back and forth between them. When they wound down, they decided to leave some of the fine points for the morning after they’d gotten some rest.
Neil dug at something behind his back and pulled out a balled up piece of paper, tossing it in the air before adding it to the pile in the corner of the couch. “I shouldn’t be surprised you’d come back here after I told you to go home. I should know by now when you’ve got your claws into a problem that you’re not going to let go. Or a patient you can’t let go,” he said with good humor.
Claire laughed. “I’ll have you know that I did leave and tried to take my mind off of it.”
That explains the outfit,” he said, giving her a once-over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dressed so casually. Not even at the hospital picnic. I mean, are those jeans you’re wearing, Dr. Browne?” he asked sounding incredulous.
“Shut up! You’re one to talk. Even in the middle of the night you look like you walked off a photo shoot. And I wear jeans all the time. Just not to work. That’s Park’s look anyway.”
Neil peeked over her shoulder to the jacket draped across the chair she’d been sitting in. “And is that a leather jacket? What in the world were you doing? At a motorcycle rally?”
“That’s exactly where I went after work,” she said, nudging his knee where it rested next to hers. “No, I went to this punk show at a club across town. I hadn’t been to one of those in ages, probably not since college.” She chuckled to herself, recalling the memory of it. “It was actually fun, even though Dash and I agreed that maybe we’re a little rusty for those kinds of things now.”
The mood in the room seemed to shift at her mention of Dash. Not in a bad way, but that comfortable familiarity took a step back as she watched Neil’s eyes flicker down and away before returning his gaze to her.
“But did you give him a hard time about the flowers?” he asked. He meant it to be funny, but she knew well him, and there’s something about the way he said it that didn’t land as it should; a humor that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That is unless he converted you into a sappy, flower-loving romantic. You seemed to enjoy the gesture.”
“I enjoyed the joke,” she clarified. “He promised not to do it again.” This time it’s Claire whose gaze wavers. She wondered if she should reveal everything that had happened tonight. After all, he’d been the one to plant ideas in her head about Dash from the beginning, not just tonight. “But we did finally kiss,” she said. “I mean, I kissed him. You know, after what you said.”
“Oh,” Neil responded, a neutral tone and expression she didn’t quite know what to make of. “And…?” he asked.
Claire looked away, chuckling nervously. “I don’t know. I mean, how are those things supposed to go?”
“So, it was bad?” he asked carefully, genuinely confused.
“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” She sighed. “I don’t know what I should have been expecting.” She laughed again, uncomfortable but truly caring about what he thought. So far, she didn’t seem to be doing this whole ‘dating a friend’ thing very well.
Neil was quiet for a few moments, thinking. “What happened after you kissed?” He seemed a little awkward asking, but she knew he wanted to be helpful.
Claire sighed. “Nothing. He went to his car and drove away and I came here.”
“So, you didn’t talk about it or anything?”
“No, we just kind of kissed for a few seconds and then we left.”
Neil mused a few moments more. “Well, give it time. This is new for the both of you.”
“I guess,” Claire conceded. “I just thought …”
“What?” Neil probed, clearly curious.
Claire waved him off. “No, it’s silly.”
“I’m sure it’s not. Tell me. I promise I won’t laugh.” She believed him.
She weighed how candid she should be. But Neil seemed willing to steer her in the right direction, especially when it came to encouraging her through this thing with Dash.
“I just thought it’d be more, I don’t know, momentous. It was okay. And not every kiss needs to be some kind of Hallmark movie moment. Argh! I feel like such an amateur at this kind of thing,” she groused.
“That’s probably not ever going to go away. You were listening when I told you about that disastrous date I went on last month.”
Claire giggled. “That was pretty bad.” He’d detailed the experience on one of their runs. One of his friends had set him up with a co-worker, and needless to say, they hadn’t been very compatible. Neil had spent a good part of the night keeping the woman’s tongue out of his ear. It made her laugh every time he brought it up.
“The point is, there will be things you’ll have to get used to, things that’ll be new. Trust yourself and what you’re feeling, not what you’re supposed to be feeling or what people might say about it. The most important thing is he’s the right guy and you feel comfortable with him.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Neil,” she said, not entirely convinced she could trust herself, but believing that she could get through this because Neil thought so. “You’re full of sage advice today, so maybe I’ll figure things out.”
“You will,” he assured her. He had a soft, unreadable expression on his face again. She wanted to ask him about it, but wasn’t sure how, not when she’d been having such inappropriate thoughts a few minutes ago. Before she could inquire, though, he pointed back to the tablet. “In the meantime, at least we’ve done one thing right today.”
Claire groaned. “I know this hasn’t been the most fun case to work on.”
“If you mean Murphy, it’s certainly been a challenge, but he’s not the first sullen, heart-broken resident I’ve had to deal with. Or have you forgotten your ex?”
She laughed at that. “Jared wasn’t that bad. If anything, I was the cranky one.”
“Yeah, I meant you,” he joked.”
Claire glared at him, but broke into a smile at his teasing. “Still, what Shaun said to you? About only going along with my idea because you wanted to be nice to me? That was insulting to both of us. After the last few weeks, I realize that even though it shouldn’t, our friendship can put you in an uncomfortable situation. But I want you to know that I really appreciate you being my friend.”
“And I told you it’s worth it,” he replied. She can sense his sincerity in the way he meets her gaze.
“I think so too.” She let the moment linger, then sighed, weary. “I guess, I wasn’t expecting that kind of thing from Shaun.”
“Well, he’s hurting. And it’s hard to be at our best when we’re going through that.”
“Yeah. You’re right. I know his autism means that he sees the world differently, but we’d both had these complicated losses in our lives at the same time. Except I didn’t have a Glassman or a Leah or a Carly.” A bitterness lingered in her dry chuckle. “I was so messed up that it’s my nemesis that’s the one keeping me from falling off the edge. I appreciate it now, but at the time, it made me feel so much worse. That I was so pathetic that this person who didn’t even like me and a string of men I didn’t even know were the best I could do. And both Morgan and I knew it felt weird. It’s like the Coyote suddenly calling a truce and offering the Roadrunner a ride across the desert or something.”
Neil laughed. “So, are you the Roadrunner or the Coyote in this scenario?” Claire nudged his knee again and threw a balled-up piece of paper at his head. Neil easily blocked it and flicked it back at her.
When their laughter died down, Claire shifted to sit cross-legged on the table. “I was so mad when she admitted she’d made that complaint about us. She knew how hard things had been for me and that you were helping me through it. But she threw that bomb anyway. I still don’t even fully understand why.”
“At least Morgan’s mostly given it a rest. And she apologized.”
“After we guilt-tripped her. But, yeah, she does feel bad.”
“People are complicated, Claire,” Neil replied. He leaned back deeper into the couch. “Circumstances are complicated too, and sometimes not in the ways we can always predict until they happen. Just look at our patient; all of this we’re going through right now. We could have done the cerebellar surgery this afternoon and no one would have questioned that treatment plan. Yet here we are sitting up all night trying to invent a nearly impossible option because he wanted something better and convinced us to want it too. Even now being so excited about what we’ve come up with, we still have to weigh the consequences of what could happen if we go through with this and whether it’s worth it.
"On a different day, Shaun would be excited about a case like this. He’d be sitting right here with us trying to figure it out. Under different circumstances, maybe you and Morgan would be best friends if you didn’t have all this competitive energy hanging over your heads.” Claire seemed skeptical about that last part. Neil grinned at her before turning more serious.
“Maybe yesterday or tomorrow, you’d have felt that spark with Dash. The one that tells you everything’s going to be alright. But the truth is, we spend most of our time simply dealing with the hand we’re dealt today. And we have to put aside what might have been, what should have happened, what we believe deep down will finally be that thing that satisfies us. What hurts isn’t the person, but the circumstances that say we can’t have this thing we want because it’s too hard or complicated or it may end up hurting us. And we can’t stop the urge to want that thing anyway.”
She watched all the emotions playing over Neil’s face one by one, the genuine pain and resignation, the acceptance. She thought back on the things he’d shared with her during their one-on-one time together, even going back to that awkward but sweet moment years ago when he’d revealed how badly he’d wanted to be a father. Neil had worked through so many hardships to be sitting here coaching her through life today.
Listening to him now, though, despite what he’d insisted when they’d talked about it, maybe he wasn’t over Dr. Lim. Because his words right now sounded a lot like the longing for a lover; one you think is beyond arm’s reach. Something sprung loose in her chest.
“I didn’t realize, Neil. It’s just that you and Dr. Lim seemed to be—”
“Audrey?” he asked, seeming confused. Claire shrunk back, afraid she’d overstepped a boundary. But Neil relaxed, tried smiling at her, though it appeared as more of a wince. He shook his head, not responding to his own question or hers. “At the end of the day, the best we can do is to try and be happy. Help the people around us be happy too. Sometimes that part’s even more important."
Claire returned his smile, a genuine reflection of support. He looked weary and didn’t seem to want to say more than what he’d just revealed, so she didn’t push.
“Is this you telling me to be patient?” she asked, humor in her voice.
Neil turned his head back toward her. Sat up straight again. “This is me saying that no matter what happens in the morning or how cranky Murphy is, today is a win.” He waved the tablet at her. “We are total medical geniuses, so this case has still been a little bit fun.”
“We are pretty badass right now.”
“Maybe we can publish an article on it. We’ll see how it goes. But you did something good today for Finn.” He paused. “Your commitment to your patients?” He smiled a little and looked away, reminiscing. “It reminds me of why I got into medicine. Being around you makes me a better surgeon.” Neil returned his attention to her, his intensity holding their connection. “… a better person,” he continued. He smiled again, and this time his sincerity is crystal clear.
Claire felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. Only a little while ago, she’d chastised herself for romanticizing her relationship with her friend, her boss. She’d pushed down the shame of errant feelings complicating one of the only good things in her life right now. Yet the look he’s giving her right now, is igniting all of those emotions once more, transforming new meaning into everything he’d shared in the past few minutes.
The bitterness over consequences and complicated relationships.
The longing for someone close to him.
The acceptance of what he can’t have, no matter how much he wants it.
And the warning that there’s nothing either of them can do about it, because he cares about someone else’s happiness more than his own.
Despite the urge to go running from this like she’s always run from her complicated relationships with men, she remained in front of him, transfixed at the vision of a different future she gleaned from just the glisten in his eyes.
She’s the first to look away, terrified yet alight with what he’d just shared. “Thanks, I’m flattered,” she stuttered out, afraid to say too much, but worried that it’s not enough after what he’d revealed.
Neil took it in stride, seeming more resigned than embarrassed by his words. “We should get out of here. It’s late and the morning will be here before we know it. We still have some work to do then on Finn’s surgical protocol.”
“Right.” Claire uncurls herself from where she sat on the table, planting her feet on the floor. But she didn’t get up. Neil’s coat lay across the side table. She noticed it as he slipped the tablet into his briefcase on the ground also resting against it. He swept the area with his eyes, presumably looking for her stuff and then glancing at her in a silent question.
“I only have my phone on me. I’m good to go.” Neil nodded and leaned over to turn off the lamp.
Neither expected the plunge into such stark darkness after the lamp clicked off, the only light coming from the juncture way at the end of the hallway and the illumination from outside.
“Oh!” Claire yelps, surprised and a little unsure of her bearings. On instinct, she grabbed the first thing to give her purchase which happened to be Neil’s knee. At the same time, he’d also attempted to find his bearings as he stood and ended up leaning into the table where Claire currently sat.
Claire pulled her hand away as if she’d dipped it into molten lava and tried to stand. As she rose, she felt the warmth of his body nearly meeting hers.
“Sorry, I’m just trying to—”
“No, I should have—”
They both blindly reached out as their eyes adjusted to the darkness, Neil’s hand landed on her waist as hers met his upper arm. Claire knew she didn't imagine an intake of breath at the contact of her hand against him. She inadvertently gripped him a bit tighter.
They should step away, but the moment of an innocent, accidental collision had passed and they’re still holding onto each other. Claire felt her heart speeding up, her senses registering every movement of his hand on her body and her hand on his. When she dared to look up, it’s not into his rich brown eyes, but rather closed lids, pinched at the corners and an expression on his face that showed he’s straining to reign himself in.
When he reopened them to stare into her face, she gasped at what she saw. That’s when she knew for sure.
In the dimness, only the moon spilling any decent brightness into the room, she could just make out the dilation of his pupils as they adjusted to the darkness. She saw his curiosity, his desire. His stillness spoke to his restraint but also his need. She wondered if the vibration she felt in her fingers came from her trembling or his.
The darkness served as a blanket, a cocoon. It transported them to a place where they couldn’t hide from all they’d revealed tonight or even these past months of growing closer. She saw and accepted a man who finally made her feel something and he admitted to his longing for a woman who made him feel everything. If anyone had been around, the darkness would have hidden them from both prying eyes and the casual observance. Standing here so close together, though? Holding each other like this? It was a risk. Yet, this danger, it excited her.
And for the second time tonight, Claire reached for the man in front of her, testing if she was ready to be truly happy with someone she cared about at her side. She raised her hand to his chest, feeling his heart racing beneath her fingers. She didn't want to be the first one who pulled away this time.
He clenched his eyes closed again, his logic, his sense of propriety warring with his body’s response to her. He still held her at the waist. He hadn’t moved away, but neither had he moved toward her. Lifting his arm, Claire waited for him to remove himself from her embrace, pull her hand at his chest aside or brush off her fingers along his arm. Instead he bypassed her grip on him and cradled her face in his palm, still fighting himself.
Claire, felt dizzy, tense with anticipation, with fear, with attraction. She fixed her gaze on him, steadied herself by holding onto the realness of the man so steady and solid in front of her. Her fingers brushed against the bare skin at his collar. She felt him shudder.
And then she repeated his words from earlier back to him in a strangled whisper.
“What are you waiting for?”
Caressing her cheek with his thumb, Neil closed the distance between them and captured her lips in his.
The contrast is what Claire would remember. In her chest, spreading to her stomach and through her limbs into her toes was a fire ignited. A heat that left no doubt to her being a passionate woman with needs to satisfy and a man in her arms more than willing to do so. This kind of lustful burn felt almost out of control, something unleashed that could never ever be restrained now that it’d tasted freedom.
And this somehow seemed exactly what her heart expected from kissing her boss-slash-good friend-slash-her every fantasy coming true in one hot lips-to-tongue connection.
Even with all that heat stirring inside her, against her lips, their kiss remained languid, deep and sensual. Neil had brought his other hand up to frame her face, tracing her hairline, along her ear, down her neck to hold her against him. He’d pull away as if the sensation was too much for him too. But he’d return immediately for another taste of her, each interlude of sweeping tongues or tangling of lips longer than the last.
Claire was afraid to make a noise, lest it’d break their spell and he’d pull away from her. half an hour minutes ago, she’d had no clue that she’d wanted this, and now she couldn’t imagine it ending. Yes, this was complicated and messy and, god, was it risky. Yet nothing made more sense in her life right now than to have this man in her arms, each devouring the other like their last meal.
Neil’s hands remained still against her cheeks, a gentle cupping of her face as their kisses slowed. As they caught their breath, Claire caught that strangled look again, knowing how this must be torturing him. He’s a good man. An ethical man. To be standing in a darkened room making out with his resident who’d insisted he be her friend and mentor was something that no doubt could not be reconciled yet in his mind.
Suddenly, she felt selfish. She hadn’t meant for this to happen. And she didn’t want him to think she was using him like she’d used so many men before.
“Neil, I’m sor—”
“Don’t,” he said, cutting off her apology. He put his fingers to her lips to stop the flow of words. He continued to hold onto her. Refused to let her go. And when he reopened his eyes, she saw that conflict, that restraint. But she also saw the lust and affection, the satisfaction and overwhelming urge to kiss her again.
Nowhere did she see regret.
She smiled up at him and he grinned back down at her.
“I think a kiss like that is more like how it’s supposed to go,” she said, barely audible. He’d heard her, though, and chuckled.
“One hopes,” he said, his amusement and contentment still evident in his voice.
“Yeah?” Claire asked shyly.
Neil sighed, and Claire thought maybe she said the wrong thing.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I won’t deny that. Not to you.”
They stood there in the darkness and silence, both reluctant to be the first to pull away. Finally, after stalling as much as they could, Neil murmured, “We should probably go. For real this time.”
Claire placed a chaste kiss softy against his lips, not attempting to deepen it. There’s a finality to it, an acknowledgment. When she pulled back, Neil’s lips followed for the briefest of seconds, savoring the feel and taste of her. With reluctance, he released her and stepped away, reaching for his coat and briefcase, easy to spot now that their eyes had adjusted to the dark.
There are no decisions being made tonight. Tomorrow they’ll wake up, do this surgery and maybe everything will go back to being the same. Or maybe nothing will ever be the same between them again. It didn’t need to matter right now.
They walked out together, casual, like it was any other night. They wave to the night security guard and Neil escorted her to her car before continuing to his own down the row.
And they do wake up the next day and, after a few fireworks – this time involving another meltdown from Shaun, a baseball bat, and their patient’s Porsche – they do their surgery brilliantly, even Shaun is impressed. After another bombshell revelation from Morgan about her medical condition and decision to pursue an experimental surgery to extend her surgical career, Claire felt as if her and Neil’s stolen moments the night were the most normal things in the world.
Claire walked into Neil's office to give him the latest report on Finn before heading home.
“Crazy day, huh?” Neil said as she opened the door, stuffing a few files into his briefcase before grabbing his coat and circling his desk.
“Yeah. Finn’s exam was normal. But I’m not sure it was worth the risk.”
“We did a good thing today. Mostly because of you.” Neil set his items down on the chair and leaned against the back of it.
“That’s kind of you to say but—”
“No ‘buts’. Don’t let Shaun get in your head. Nothing is a sure thing in our line of work. We do our best, push when we think it’ll be in the best interest of the patient. You know that more than anyone,” he said, eyes flashing with humor.
Claire rolled her eyes. “How are you doing? I’m sure the news about Morgan has gotta be a shock.”
Neil tensed. “That’s one way to put it. Andrews is furious. Glassman’s not happy about it either. Audrey is trying to be supportive.”
“But I asked about you,” Claire said, prodding, a grin pulling at her mouth.
Her humor, also amused Neil. “I’m not thrilled that she put patients in danger by keeping that information from everyone. Or that Glassman allowed it. I’m even less thrilled that her favoritism complaint was likely meant as leverage to draw attention away from herself.”
Claire nodded, having also thought of that.
Then Neil shrugged. “Who knows what any of us would do in that situation?” That response surprised her. She figured Neil would be as angry as Andrews.
But after last night, nothing seemed cut and dry. Sometimes decisions weren’t really decisions at all if your heart and desires are strong enough.
They both stood there, silent but not uncomfortable, wondering if they should bring up the previous night.
“We should work this out,” Neil said finally.
Claire laughed nervously. “Yeah.” She sighed. “Not tonight, though,” she added. Neil returned a questioning look. “I have plans tonight. Breaking up with Dash.”
The first flash of emotion, the one that Neil couldn’t suppress quickly enough, was delight. It eased something in Claire’s chest that she’d been carrying around all day. Yet what followed could only be described as worry. After he’d gotten that out of his system, he reverted back to a neutral expression.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” he said.
“No. But it’ll be okay. That kiss yesterday went both ways. And honestly I don’t think he was feeling it either.” Neil laughed along with her, easing the tension some. “And then I’ll go unburden myself with my therapist. I think we’re going to have a lot to discuss tonight.”
Neil grinned. “No doubt.” He searched her face for something, and she wondered what he was thinking. Although things weren’t exactly awkward, she had no idea of his thoughts on where they’d go from here. “I’ve got that conference the rest of the week so maybe we could talk on Thursday? Over dinner?”
He tried to make it sound casual, kind of like when he’d asked her to join him for a celebratory drink a couple weeks ago.
“Thursday, I can’t. I told Glassman I’d take an evening shift at the clinic. Friday?”
Neil shook his head. “Glassman and I have that charity event at the Bold Statement Brewery. One of my former patients owns it.”
“Oh, ok. Well, I'm working a double shift over the weekend so maybe—”
“You know what?” he interrupted. “Let’s do Friday. Glassman will be there, and I went to the opening.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I don’t want to wait. And this is important. I was going to cut out of here early, but I can stick around until your shift is over and we can meet somewhere. Maybe that Thai place you’re always talking about?”
Claire chuckled at the suggestion. “You mean the hipster one you wouldn’t be caught dead at?”
“That’s the one,” he confirmed grinning at her.
“Done. I don’t want to give you any time to go back on that decision.”
Grabbing his coat and briefcase Neil gestured for her to precede him out of his office. “Now let’s get out of here. They’ll be turning the lights off soon and who knows what kind of trouble that might cause tonight.”
Claire’s head whipped toward him as he stepped up to walk beside her. Was he teasing her? Sure enough, although his expression remained neutral, the amusement flashed in his eyes as he glanced down at her.
“Surely, only the best kind of trouble,” Claire teased back.
“We’ll just have to see,” Neil responded, and as if on cue, the lights dimmed behind them as they strolled down the hallway and into the evening that awaited.