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She was there again.
Charlie heard the music first, and knew at once who was playing it. Today she’d chosen her violin, making it sing a sweet, lilting melody that lost itself in the sounds of New York traffic and then surged clear and high once more.
She was amazing, truly. Sometimes she played flamenco guitar, and sometimes she sang, and then the next time he saw her she would have brought the violin as she had done today. She was so good at all of it, infusing her playing and singing with such powerful emotion, sometimes in English, sometimes in other languages he couldn’t always name, that he thought she must have music written into her soul.
He’d never spoken to her, didn’t know her name. He’d first noticed her in, probably, mid-January, right after the end of the first big cold snap. She always stood in the shelter of the building, protected by two angled sections of wall and an overhang of portico, and she wore warm clothing, including fingerless gloves if she needed them, but still, he thought she must be cold sometimes.
He didn’t know where she came from, Europe or the Caribbean, or if she even spoke much English, or anything about her. But when she stood on the sidewalk out front of the hospital and let loose with her instrument or her voice as he was passing by, she made his whole day. His stress eased. He felt less tight and tired. He glimpsed another world.
He’d been dropping money into her instrument case or her hat for weeks, and they’d begun to smile at each other, but that was the full extent of their relationship—the clink of coins, the movement of face muscles, over in seconds. It was an exotic kind of smile, smoky and clever and more than a little haunting, and her mouth was lush and beautiful.
The cleverness and the beauty both made him want more.
He’d be crazy to go after it, and yet he had to fight to hold himself back.
Crossing the lobby, he saw her in her usual position. Her molasses-dark hair came loose and thick down to her shoulders, showing several inches of length beneath a mink-brown velvet cap, strands of it caught by the icy eddies of February wind. She wore a dark red coat and a pair of coffee-colored boots that hugged her calves and lengthened her legs like a catwalk model, and her body dipped and swayed with the movement of her bow as if she were dancing.
Charlie stepped aside from his journey through the revolving door and stood beside the big glass windows, wanting to make the moment of musical escape last longer, even though he really, seriously, did not have time for it.
He was a final year resident in orthopedic surgery. No one in his position went looking for complications—of any kind. No new hobbies. No new friendships, or restaurants, or video games.
Hell, buying new underwear felt like more of a commitment than he could manage this year. He shouldn’t have started the throwing coins and smiling with this gorgeous street musician. He should have done as most of his colleagues did and hurried past her with no eye contact and no acknowledgement that she was even there.
It was four in the afternoon and he hadn’t eaten since six this morning. He didn’t have time to be standing here listening. He needed to grab something quick and carb-filled before heading back for patient rounds, three case conferences, and as many hours on his major research project as he could manage before he started falling asleep at his desk.
Midnight, if he could do it, but he probably wouldn’t last that long.
He really did not have a second more to spare for music, or for dark hair riffling in the wind.
And apparently the street musician didn’t have time for it, either. While Charlie gave himself up to the soulful melody, she reached the end of the piece and let the last note die away with one long and intensely sweet pull of her bow, and then instead of starting something new, she took the violin from beneath the clean curve of her chin, leaned quickly down to her instrument case, scooped the heap of coins and notes into a chunky purse of tooled brown leather, and packed the violin away.
Charlie felt a sense of lost magic that was way out of proportion.
It was over.
She’d stopped for the day. She was leaving, and in a hurry. He thought he saw her shivering a little, and knew a very male protective need to get her into the warm. His stomach burned acid with hunger, his eyeballs and spine ached, and it took him too long to get moving, through the revolving door he should have passed through minutes ago on the same hurried stride with which he’d crossed the lobby. His coat flapped unfastened, and he’d forgotten his hat and gloves.
Charlie Barnett, get a grip.
* * *
Out on the sidewalk, Ramona’s violin case swung a little as she checked the time on her phone. Nearly four o’clock. She picked up her pace some more, knowing she risked being late for her class at four-thirty. Putting the phone back in her purse, she lost her grip on one of the strappy leather handles and the purse gaped open. Her own fault. She always crammed it too full. Snacks from the store so she didn’t have to spend money on take-out, spare gloves, lip balm, throat lozenges…
And dancing shoes.
As the purse sagged, one of them fell out and hit the concrete with a solid flamenco thunk. A man nearly tripped on it and let out a curse but didn’t stop long enough to hear Ramona’s apology. She turned back to pick up the shoe before anyone else tripped but someone got there before her.
She called him Hot Doc in her head, because it sounded very American—she was trying to sound American—and because it fit him. He was tall and beautifully made, with broad shoulders and clean bone structure, strong legs and packs of muscle in all the right places. He had thick hair, eyes she could dream about, and a mouth that caught her gaze every time he went past.
She noticed him almost every day now, when she played outside the hospital. He always seemed to be in a hurry. Sometimes he was on his own, sometimes with a colleague. She knew he was a doctor because when he hadn’t bothered to zip his jacket she could glimpse blue scrubs underneath, and because when he was with someone, she would hear snatches of doctor talk, full of technical terms and medical shorthand, usually about broken bones.
But even though he was always in a hurry, he’d begun to stop long enough to drop coins into her guitar case or her hat, and for the last couple of weeks they’d been smiling at each other. He had an amazing smile. It blazed onto his face with a zap of energy, and turned his blue eyes into flashes of brilliant warmth.
She liked him, which was stupid, because she didn’t even know him.
Now he’d picked up her shoe.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome.” He held the shoe out to her, and they both looked down at it during the moment when it transferred from his hand to hers. It was just a flamenco shoe, the kind she’d had since she was six years old, squat and black, with a T-shaped strap and a squarish, tapered heel.
It was just a shoe, but the act of passing it brought them close enough for her to feel the aura he gave off. Nothing she could name or describe, just a feeling that shook her with its sense of intuition and chemistry. She was too slow to pull away, and she wasn’t surprised when he stayed close as well.
He was about to hit on her, she realized, and a part of her wanted him to, which the other parts of her thought was appalling. He looked up again, into her face, smiled his super-smile and drawled, “So, guitar, violin, singing, and dancing. Is there anything you can’t do?”
I am not doing this, she decided fiercely. I am just not. So she shrugged in a kind of apology that wasn’t really an apology, and said very deliberately, “Well, I can’t read…”
She knew she’d shocked him. That was the whole point. She could see him grappling with her statement, wondering if she’d grown up on the streets and never been to school, some kind of gypsy urchin who totally didn’t belong in his world.
That she didn’t belong in his world was the message she wanted to deliver, even if her reasons for not belonging might be different to the impression she’d just given him.
“You’re not American,” he said.
“So what are you saying? That you never went to school? They have schools in Spain.”
“Of course I went to school.”
She sighed. She was supposed to be pushing him away, and instead he’d turned this into a conversation. Her own fault. She should have just smiled and disappeared into the crowd, instead of trying to shock him. “I’m dyslexic, that’s all.”
“So then you can read, really. Dyslexia doesn’t mean you can’t read.”
“It means I struggle quite hard to read, which means I probably have nothing in common with–” Someone like you, who must have read ten thousand books and papers and case studies to be where you are, a Hot Doc in a big American hospital. “–most of the people you know,” she finished.
He went very quiet, suddenly. “That why you said it, huh? Because you think we have nothing in common.”
“Which is an issue because you thought I was giving you a line.”
“I still am.” Heat crackled between them. Honest, blatant heat. He leaned a little closer, and spoke for her ears only, while he studied her face. “Is that a problem? I love the way you play. I listen to you every day when I go past. I’d like to know more about the person who gives me the great music, who lifts my day when I’m tired and stressed and hungry. Tell me your name.”
“Ramona,” said her mouth, before her brain went into gear.
Turn and leave now, Ramona, don’t let this go any further.
But she liked it. Why did she like it? She didn’t want to. But there was something about the way he kept it so simple and direct, something about the fact that it was her music he focused on, instead of her looks.
She felt as if she’d known him a thousand years, and so the fact that it was all simple and direct made a strange kind of sense. There was no need for circling around the edge of things, when you’d known someone that long.
“No, your whole name,” he insisted. “Please?”
She rattled it off like gunfire, deliberately going too fast for him and exaggerating the Spanish intonation. “Ramona Antonella Salvatierra del Moncadillo Garrido-Lopez.” Once again, she felt provocative and stubborn and shocking.
“Well, I did ask,” he drawled.
“You did.” They smiled at each other again. “Tell me yours.”
“Charles Zachary Barnett. Charlie.”
Why did I do that? Why did I ask?
Knowing his name seemed to deepen the sense of connection far more than it should. He wouldn’t need to be Hot Doc any more, when she saw him and thought about him. He’d be Dr. Barnett, or even worse, Charlie.
Suddenly, it was a name she could imagine herself saying breathily in bed.
There was no room in her life for this. “Thank you for the shoe,” she said, very, very politely, and turned to go.
“Wait,” Charlie said. “Wait!” Ramona turned back, lifting the corners of her lips politely, and fighting hard inside. “Do you have time for coffee?” he asked.
“No, I’m so sorry, I don’t.”
“Yeah, neither do I, but–”
“So that’s settled,” she said. She hunched her shoulders a little tighter, wanting to push him away. They were both starting to feel the cold, standing here.
“I’ll make time, if you will,” he argued.
“I really can’t. I have a class.”
“Learning or teaching?”
She looked at him, and drawled, “Fencing.” She made a parrying movement, as if holding a sword. It might be easier for her to fight him off if she had a sword.
“Which you need because…?”
She shrugged again. “The usual reason. I’m trying to be an actress.”
“Not a musician.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“You sound pretty good to me.”
“For a street musician, maybe, and playing in restaurants. Not for concerts. I’m too much of a… what’s the expression? A jack of all trades.”
“Yeah?” He let out a laugh. She gave him a questioning look and he explained, “Sorry, it’s the right expression, but it fits you about as well as a pair of 5XL chinos.”
“Those might be a little large,” she agreed.
“Skip your class,” he said, in the same direct way that he’d said almost everything else in this crazy conversation, and she hugged her arms around herself—an awkward movement, with the violin in one hand and the big, gaping purse over her shoulder—because she really did not want to let him through all her careful armor.
“I’m sorry,” she said with finality, and this time he seemed to accept her answer.
She turned and began walking, wanting to turn to see if he was still watching her. She had a feeling he probably was. But if she turned and their eyes met again…
She had the definite feeling that they weren’t done with this yet.
End of Excerpt