As I Am

by

Mel Teshco

Molly is no stranger to being sick having been regularly in and out of hospitals since the age of 5. She knows her limits and capabilities better than anyone, until she meets a handsome stranger whose compassion and understanding might just have her questioning her entire perspective.

Insightful, eye-opening, and bold, As I Am explores the story of a woman who must question everything she thought about being independent and fearless.

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Molly Sursock winced as she stepped carefully off the sidewalk, following the thick stream of businessmen and women. Not to mention tourists, moms with strollers, and various city workers as they crossed the busy city street.

Sydney’s lunchtime foot traffic, horrendous as always.

The congestion of cars was even worse. The impatience of the drivers drumming their fingers on their steering wheels was palpable as she tried to keep up to the flow of people. But the “do not walk” sign flashed warning before she was even halfway across the road.

Most of the pedestrians had already stepped onto the sidewalk ahead and were blending into the crowd. Everyone was going about their day, minding their own business and ignorant to anyone else, just the way Molly liked it.

With her sensible shoes, comfortable trousers that hid her swollen knees and wasted calf muscles, along with a button-up blouse that made it easier to undress, she was glad people didn’t give her too much notice.

Still, her eyes burned with tears. Not with self-pity, but sheer frustration. Her damn medications were already wearing off, which meant another week and a half of unbearable pain and crippling weakness.

Crippling. The lump in her throat thickened. How apt.

The pedestrian light stopped blinking. Shit. She had to hurry before the traffic accelerated through the soon-to-be green light. But pushing herself put way too much stress on her joints. She knew that even before one of her knees abruptly buckled with a flash of white-hot pain.

The asphalt rose to meet her as she fell with a sharp cry. Hurt exploded through her body, an agony only someone who’d suffered from the childhood disease of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis would understand.

Tears leeched out of her eyes as somewhere along the rows of cars, a horn sounded. But she couldn’t stand. Definitely couldn’t walk. Her bad knee throbbed, and felt as if it was on fire. There was no way she’d be putting any weight on it. That was not to mention her right elbow and shoulder that had cushioned her fall.

Another car horn sounded, strident and loud. A car door opened and clunked shut, even as she tried to make her legs cooperate. Fat chance. As she struggled, a man’s voice washed over her, soothing and mellow.

“Let me help you.”

Such simple words, yet relief left her almost dizzy. She looked up, but even through the haze of her tears and hurting, she recognized a suited god when she saw one.

Dark hair, a chiseled jaw, and a nose that was slightly crooked, along with dark eyes that seemed to see right through her. Her stare skittered away from his, only to note his tall, lean body, which she felt certain would be muscular and hard.

A jagged sigh left her lips. He was nothing short of perfection and she was a whole body’s worth of dysfunction.

He crouched and scooped her effortlessly into his arms, cradling her carefully against him before he strode in the direction she’d been headed.

“We need to get you off this road,” he murmured, his voice impossibly even sexier than the rest of him.

Another horn sounded, followed by a chorus of beeps that communicated this time it wasn’t from impatience. The drivers were now interested spectators, watching the drama unfold.

But in the safety of this stranger’s arms, she cared less now about everyone else. She looked up at him, absently aware of his ridiculously long lashes, the shadow of his bristles, the dimple in one cheek and gleam of white teeth as he smiled reassurance.

She cleared her throat, the pain of her fall dulling to almost a background noise. “Thank you.”

This man was better than any drug.

As he carried her to the sidewalk, the cars, motorbikes, taxis and buses roared past, the backdraft whipping pieces of her dark ponytail into her eyes.

He stopped in front of a little café, then turned and stepped inside. The outside noises muted, the warm interior surely the reason heat crept up her neck and into her face?

“What about your car?” she asked breathlessly.

“My car is fine,” he said smoothly, placing her carefully onto a seat at a small round table and taking the other seat opposite. “I have a driver.”

His own driver? Wow. She couldn’t imagine such a luxury.

His head cocked to the side, his brilliant gaze assessing. “More importantly, are you okay?”

Once the adrenaline wore off and the pain kicked in full throttle, she’d be anything but okay. She wasn’t about to tell him that; she’d lived most of her life with the insidious disease that left her as fragile as spun glass and like someone not whole.

Someone broken.

She’d gotten adept at pretending she was fine; that, of course, she could work full-time and be independent.

She pushed strands of her hair behind one of her ears and nodded. “I am now.”

His eyes looked deeper into hers. “You’re really not though, are you?”

The heat that had crept up her face was surely blazing across her cheeks like a red flag, waving in the wind and announcing—I’m a cripple. Weak. Useless.

She rarely gave into her own pity, but right then, with this strong, vital, and all too virile man staring right through her façade, she wanted only to surrender to the suppressed feelings she hid from everyone. Wanted to collapse into a blubbering mess and admit defeat.

Her chin lifted. Her hands clasped together on her lap. Out of sight. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

He leaned over the tiny table and brushed a hand from her shoulder down to her arm. She reflexively lifted her hand and he took gentle hold, his fingers closing around her palm. She was so shocked she did little more than stare wide-eyed as he elevated her hand to inspect her swollen knuckles and finger joints, her permanently bent fingers.

He brushed a thumb over the inflamed knots. “I had a half-sister with juvenile arthritis.”

She swallowed, the back of her eyes burning. “Had?” she croaked.

He nodded, but even in his shadowed stare she saw hardness within that echoed his pain. “Tess was fifteen when she decided one day she couldn’t face the pain anymore.”

Molly couldn’t suppress her gasp. But she shouldn’t be surprised. God only knew she understood, it was so damn hard every single day not to feel like a victim, not to wonder what she’d done wrong to have to live with a pain that all too often kept her awake at night. A disease that impacted her on so many levels.

Though her wrist had little flexibility, she managed to flip her hand over and give his fingers a squeeze in return. “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded, a little of the grimness that pinched his lips fading away. “Yeah, so am I. It’s just my brother and menow.”

Little wonder he’d come to her rescue when she’d fallen. Her pronounced, stiff-legged gait would have been a vivid reminder of the cherished half-sister who’d left him behind.

“She was just like you, keeping all her pain on the inside when she should’ve been sharing the burden, at least emotionally.”

Molly bit into her bottom lip. This man carried around a whole world of guilt. He’d also worked her out in minutes, while some of her closest friends had only the vaguest concept of the way she lived her life.

“You’ve had this condition for some time?” he asked.

She nodded. “Twenty years. I was diagnosed when I was five. It got into my fingers first.” They’d swollen up like sausages. “And then into my knees.” She shrugged, but one shoulder reminded her of the fact she’d fallen heavily and would pay the price for some time to come. “It’s basically in all my joints now except my spine and hips.”

His eyes softened, not with pity, but with genuine understanding. “It’s a cruel disease.”

She nodded, for a moment lost in thought. Lost in the bittersweet memories of being an only child of older parents who’d tried their best to look after her even when she’d been at her most debilitated.

“Can I get you anything?” A waitress stood impatiently near their table, an order pad opened and a pen hovering expectantly in her hand. Her presence broke the odd tension between Molly and her savior as surely as a pin pricking a bubble.

He caught her hand again in his, gently entwining his fingers through hers like a lover might. His stare didn’t stray from Molly as he answered, “I’ll have a black coffee, no sugar.” His thumb began its soothing stroking once more as he waited for Molly to add in her request.

She cleared her throat, trying not to make too much out of their locked hands. He was a compassionate man who understood her like very few could. And she was a dried husk soaking up his kindness.

Besides, she had practical stuff she needed to think through. She probably had enough change in her purse for a drink, if she could drag the damn thing out of her pocket. “I’ll have a flat white.”

The waitress nodded and walked away with their orders, before he said huskily, “Let me introduce myself.” His smile did all sorts of weird things to her already out of balance equilibrium. “My name is Brock. Brock Owens.”

“Molly Sursock.”

“So, Molly, what are you doing here in the city?”

“I work here.”

If he was surprised, he didn’t show it, and for that she was absurdly glad. She didn’t like being labeled as something other than “normal.” She certainly didn’t like it when someone found out about her condition and put her in the “cannot work” box. She needed the mental stimulation, needed something to take her mind off the daily grind of pain. But more than anything, she simply needed to pay her bills.

“What about you?” she asked.

“I work here too. In advertising.”

She smiled, but refused to feel diminished because of her work. “I wash dishes and prep food at a local restaurant.”

The truth was the relentless pain of her childhood, along with the countless visits to specialists and hospitals, had taken away any interest in her education. Now she had little choice but to take whatever jobs she could and prove to her employer she was worth every cent she was paid.

Guess her fall today had proven otherwise.

She sighed. “I was on my way there for my lunch shift.”

“Do you need to ring them and let them know you won’t be in?”

She shook her head, feeling a bit silly. It was easier leaving her cell phone at home. It was too big for her pocket and too awkward to carry in her weak grip. And lugging even a light handbag on her shoulder was out of the question for any length of time.

He must have guessed her predicament when he suggested, “Or you can use mine?”

She released a slow breath. She’d be Miss Unpopular of the highest order, but she couldn’t not ring. Even before her fall she’d been behind schedule. “I’d appreciate that. I’ll let the owner know I’ll be late.”

His eyes narrowed, his stare considering. “Late? You can’t even walk. You’re in no condition to work.”

She tugged her hand free. She’d been dependent for half her life. But with the latest drugs now on the market in the fight against arthritis, she was determined to keep her independence at all cost. “I’m well used to working through pain. But thank you all the same.”

The waitress brought them their coffees before Brock wordlessly handed Molly his phone. She turned away to make the call while he sipped from his cup, and yet his attention on her was all-consuming as she rang her boss and owner of the restaurant.

Lara answered on the fifth ring, her voice frazzled and a little sharp. “Lara’s Kitchen, how may I help?”

Molly took a deep breath. “Lara, hi. It’s me, Molly.”

“Molly! Where are you? Denzel is frantic with orders between trying to do some prep.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I fell on my way to work.”

Lara’s concern was clearly negated by the frantic rush that was lunch hour. “You’re okay now though, right?”

“Of course.” Lara didn’t want the truth, and Molly had gotten rather good at telling people what they wanted to hear. “See you soon.”

Brock took back his phone with a raised brow. She’d forgotten how to react to someone who actually seemed to care for her well-being. But she managed to ignore him as she sipped her hot drink. She appreciated a decent coffee and rarely spent her money on anything frivolous. But she’d have to drink it fast. She needed to get back to Lara’s.

“If you insist on going to work, please allow me to drive you.”

She wanted to resist, didn’t want to accept even more help from a stranger. She had her pride. Except the restaurant was four blocks away. Not far unless one had to hobble the whole way. “I’d like that.” Her cup clinked as she placed it back onto its saucer. “I can’t thank you enough for all your kindness. I’m just sorry I can’t repay you somehow.”

His eyes gleamed. “No need to apologize. Not when I know you can repay me.”

She frowned. She hadn’t expected that from him. “Oh?”

He smiled. “Come out to dinner with me tonight.”

Her mouth dropped open. She’d definitely not expected that from him. Men like him weren’t interested in women like her. Even if she’d been born without arthritis she doubted some hotshot advertising genius would be interested in her. He had a driver and she washed dishes.

She didn’t want or need his pity. “I’m sorry, no. I can’t accept.”

“Please,” he said gently, as though afraid she’d turn tail and run. Not that she could anyway. “I’ll have my driver pick you up.”

She blew out a disbelieving breath. She couldn’t imagine not having to walk and abuse her aching joints everywhere she went. But it didn’t mean she’d simply give in.

She’d bet very few people said no to him. “You don’t need to do that. Your sister—”

“Has nothing to do with me asking you out.”

Wow. Just wow. Yes, she was pretty enough, but she was also bright enough to know her sometimes mountain-tall insecurities weighed her down even more than her disability. Without fail, men would look past her in a room to view the woman gaily tossing back her hair.

She gulped down some more of her coffee, ignoring the scalding burn travelling down her throat before she asked, “What do you want from me?” She didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know he could have his pick of beautiful women. “I’m nobody of interest with nothing special to show for myself.”

He shook his head. “Is that really what you think? Christ, Molly, you’re the most beautiful, courageous woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”

End of Excerpt