A/N: Reposted.

Chapter 1

"Dr. Tsuruga will see you now."

Kyoko nodded at the nurse, then turned to her eight-year-old daughter, who hopped off the bench happily.

"Let's go, Mummy!" Maria cried, jumping excitedly, ponytail jumping. "We can see Dr. Tsuruga again!"

Kyoko laughed, rising from the bench as well and adjusting her handbag. Dressed in a simple tee and jeans, she felt comfortable and relaxed. She took her daughter's hand, and then guided her to the open door the nurse was holding for them. "Don't keep jumping like that. You might fall down, darling."

She entered the consultation room, Maria scampering eagerly next to her. The nurse shut the door softly.

The tall, young doctor sat by his desk, a small smile playing around his perfect lips.

Kyoko always wondered what on earth blessed her the opportunity of having such a gorgeous male creature treat Maria. She had, after all, never in her life seen a man as attractive as Dr. Tsuruga Ren.

The high, exquisitely carved cheekbones. The sculpted lips, curved in a small, wry smile. The straight, aristocratic nose. The dark, obsidian eyes, gleaming beneath a heavy row of long, sooty lashes (completely wasted on a man! God, if she had lashes like that, she'd never wear mascara again), casting exotic shadows across his smooth, golden skin. His slightly overlong dark hair, slicked back in glossy waves on his head. The man looked expensive.

Just like the rest of the doctors in the hospital, he donned a white overcoat, and a stethoscope was curled around his slender neck. Kyoko knew that, other than a pediatrician, he was also a thoracic surgeon. The fact that he specialized in two different areas of medicine always fascinated her; why would a surgeon bother himself with simple consultation every now and then when he belonged to the operating theater? She understood that the pediatric side of his job was patient consultation when he was not busy operating on other patients who were both adults and children.

"Dr. Tsuruga!" Maria shrieked delightfully, throwing herself straight into his arms. "Mummy and I are here for the follow-up from last month!"

"Maria!" Kyoko scolded, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Get off the doctor at once!"

Dr. Tsuruga gently lowered the little girl back down onto her feet, and chuckled fondly, large hand patting her curls. His deep, rich voice reverberated lushly in the air. "I am very happy to see Maria too."

Maria beamed in pleasure.

"I am so sorry," Kyoko apologized fervently to him. "You know how she is. She simply adores you."

Her breath caught in her throat as dark, piercing eyes flickered upwards and met hers intently.

"Ah," Tsuruga murmured. "Is that so?"

Kyoko could understand why Maria liked Ren so much; there was something very compelling and magnetizing about the man. She personally liked him as well. However, unlike Maria, Kyoko was also unsettled by him. He treated Maria kindly and gently, as any dedicated doctor would, but when he regarded Kyoko, it was rather different. Oh, the kindness and gentleness were still there, but—and she wasn't sure if it was just her imagination—there was a smothering quality in his onyx eyes as he gazed at her that made her feel cornered and flustered. It reminded her of the way a predator watched its prey.

Kyoko always told herself that she was thinking too much. She was being oversensitive is all. His powerful presence intimidated her, as it should, since he was a man of high status and great authority, and that was it. To him, she was probably just the single mother of his patient—the absence of a ring on her finger was glaring—and someone he needed to put with whenever Maria came in for consultation. Maria wouldn't feel intimidated by Dr. Tsuruga; she was too young to grasp the gap in status between herself and him.

"How are you doing, Maria?" he inquired softly, turning from Kyoko and smiling at the girl.

"My eczema is a lot better!" she proclaimed proudly. "See?" She sat down on a chair opposite him, then stretched out her arms, letting him see the skin where the junction above her elbow was. It was slightly red, and the skin was rough and mildly scarred. "It's a lot better than before, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," Dr. Tsuruga remarked gently, fluidly sliding on a single latex glove over his adroit fingers, before lifting his gloved hand to elevate both her arms so that he could carefully examine them. "That is a marked improvement from before, Maria. I am very proud of you."

It was a great improvement, Kyoko thought. Before seeing Dr. Tsuruga, Maria's arms had been bleeding and swollen due to her persistently scratching her skin. Kyoko had been worried sick; she didn't quite grasp what eczema was, since she never suffered from it herself. The doctor had diagnosed Maria's condition, then prescribed Kyoko a bottle of moisturizing cream that would help cease the itch when applied on the inflamed area. The cream was miraculous. Maria stopped clawing at her wounds, and her torn skin had slowly healed over the span of a month, mending the scratches into puckered scars. It hurt Kyoko, though, seeing the initially soft skin of her daughter's arms roughen like that.

"Mummy applies the cream for me every night!" Maria said happily. "It doesn't itch anymore!"

Dr. Tsuruga tilted his dark head. "That is good to hear, Maria," he said evenly. "However, it would make me even happier to learn that Maria is growing to become an independent young woman."

"Independent?" Maria echoed curiously.

"You mentioned that your mother applies it for you every night," Tsuruga said gently, removing his latex glove with a sharp snap, and then tossing it into the bin. "But Maria is a big girl now, am I right?"

Maria puffed up proudly. "Yes, I am!"

"So you have to be more considerate towards your mother, and try to be more independent," he continued softly, resting a long-fingered hand on her thick brown curls. "Would you like to try applying the cream yourself?"

Maria contemplated the question seriously, then nodded determinedly. She stuck out her lip, troubled. "I don't know how to, though."

Kyoko put her arm around her daughter's little shoulders. She's so adorable!

"It's all right, sweetie," she soothed. "You don't trouble Mummy at all when I apply it for you. Mummy loves doing it for you."

"Rather," Tsuruga's unruffled baritone voice intervened, "If Maria wishes to learn, we should let her."

For the first time since she knew Dr. Tsuruga, Kyoko felt a light streak of resentment towards him. Maria was only eight, so what was wrong with Kyoko applying it for her? Besides, Kyoko didn't see why Maria should have to suffer any more than she already had. Being the product of divorced parents was tough, and Kyoko wanted Maria to feel sheltered and loved even though her father was gone. She wanted Maria to know that, on the other hand, Kyoko, her mother, would always protect and take care of her. So what was wrong with applying some silly cream for Maria every night? It was just a small act of love from mother to child. It was far too early to speak of independence.

"I agree with Dr. Tsuruga!" Maria piped up eagerly, casting a look of pure worship at the man. "Maria wants to learn! I want to be more independent!"

"Now, sweetie," Kyoko chided. "You're still very young. There's no need to worry yourself with these things for now."

She stiffened as she felt amused dark eyes resting on her.

"Then when, Mogami-san," Dr. Tsuruga questioned calmly, "would be a good time to start worrying?"

Kyoko's stomach churned defensively. Was he challenging her? How dare he—what right did he have to tell her how to mother her child?

"When Maria is of the appropriate age," she answered stiffly.

"And what age is that?" Tsuruga Ren drawled, undeterred. "Twenty? Thirty? Sixty?"

God, she wanted to throttle him. He was crossing the line now, and she was pissed. Who did this know-it-all doctor think he was? He was supposed to take care of Maria's eczema, and that was as far as his duties extended to. He had no right to challenge her methods of mothering her child. He had no idea how fragmented a family Maria came from, and why Kyoko was thus so protective of her. Or maybe he did, since he could clearly see the lack of a ring on Kyoko's finger, and that a father never appeared in earlier medical appointments. If so, couldn't he be more understanding that Maria didn't have a paternal figure, and therefore needed more care from the only parent she had left? Why talk about independence now?

"Don't be ridiculous," Kyoko snapped. "Dr. Tsuruga, I think you're going a little overboard."

To her fury, he ignored her, and instead asked Maria for the bottle of moisturizing cream. The little girl nodded vigorously, then reached into Kyoko's handbag for the bottle, to which her mother brushed her hands softly aside and tugged out the bottle herself.

Her teeth gritted, Kyoko placed the bottle with more force than was necessary on his desk. Deciding to ignore everything he said earlier, she said, briskly, "I would be grateful, Dr. Tsuruga, if you could prescribe another bottle for her. The first bottle is beginning to run low on cream."

"Yes, of course," he answered graciously, keeping his words brief as well. She tensed when he turned away to face Maria, picking the bottle up.

Kyoko fumed silently as the doctor began to instruct Maria how to unscrew the cap of the bottle, and then on how to apply the cream by herself. Maria was excited to learn, and after confirming to the doctor that she had washed her hands a few minutes prior to the consultation, she followed his instructions enthusiastically, letting smidges of the white cream drip onto her fingers from the open bottle and then smearing it onto her wounded arm.

"Remember, you must always wash your hands before you apply the cream," Tsuruga Ren informed her tranquilly. "You do not want an infection, do you?"

Maria shook her head vigorously. "No, Dr. Tsuruga!"

He smiled approvingly. "Well done."

She flushed happily.

"All right, then," Kyoko said hastily, keeping the bottle and screwing it shut. She slid it back into her handbag. "We ought to get going now."

Maria looked crestfallen. "Already?"

"Yes," Kyoko said firmly. "We have intruded enough of Dr. Tsuruga's time."

"Not at all," the doctor murmured, typing away on the keyboard, no doubt working on the prescription form. His spidery, long fingers caught her attention, and she couldn't help but stare at the nimbleness of his movements.

A few quiet minutes passed. Kyoko hastily tore her mesmerized gaze away from his long, graceful fingers (what was wrong with her? The doctor was proving to be nothing but trouble, and she was admiring him?!), and looked up, only to flinch when she found he was watching her as well, smoky obsidian eyes boring into her hazel ones.

His elegant hands had stilled over the keyboard. Was he…done with the prescription form?

As she froze like a deer in headlights, his dark eyes lowered, dipping boldly over the swell of her breasts under the tee and further down to the curves of her small body. His open scrutiny made her tremble. He wasn't even trying to hide it!

"Mummy, do you want a consultation, too?" Maria asked, oblivious to the tension in the consultation room. "If you're feeling sick, you can talk to Dr. Tsuruga!"

"Sweetie," Kyoko reprimanded, "Don't be silly. Mummy is perfectly fine."

"Are you?"

The unexpected rejoinder sent her gaping as she stared at Tsuruga Ren's unreadable mien. The printer churned, the prescription form rolling out.

"Well, of course, I am," Kyoko said testily. "Besides, I am here for Maria, not for me—"

"You have lost some weight from the last time I saw you," Dr. Tsuruga observed bluntly, onyx eyes gleaming brightly.

Kyoko blinked in surprise. He had noticed…but how could he? This was strange. The man treated vast numbers of patients each day, and the last time he'd seen her—with Maria—was a month ago. How could he remember how she looked like when he had seen a month's worth of patients (probably hundreds of other different people) since then? Unless he had a photographic memory, which she wouldn't put it past him. She didn't realise that her weight loss was so apparent in her appearance, however. While she hadn't been fat before—far from it—she had shed a few kilos throughout the past month. She went from slim to slimmer.

She had been unable to sleep lately. Kyoko wasn't sure why. There was nothing wrong in her life; she had beautiful, wonderful Maria, the centre of her universe, who was doing well in school, and Kyoko herself was working in an average but financially satisfying job. All was well. All was secure. She was content. Yet when she lay in bed each night, something hollow and cold welled up in her chest, rendering her sleepless. She felt empty.

She felt lonely.

It was ridiculous. She had friends. Her colleagues at the office were fun and enjoyable to work with. She had her daughter, who constantly sent her heart alit with joy. She was not alone. The people—few but stable as they were—in her life made her happy.

Why on earth did she feel alone then?

"Mummy, you were groaning in pain last night!" Maria said suddenly. "I heard you!"

Kyoko's eyes widened, puzzled. "What are you talking about, sweetie? Weren't you asleep?"

"I woke up in the middle of the night," Maria replied guilelessly. "I heard you moaning in your bed last night, Mummy! I tried to go into your room, but the door was locked! You don't usually lock it. Were you sick, Mummy? You were moaning really loudly!"

And then it suddenly struck Kyoko what Maria was talking about; the exact memory of what transpired last night when she was alone in bed, and the outline of a certain vibrator accompanying it, flooded back to her head. The blow of Maria's words sent her reeling with mortification and horror. The urge to find a hole to bury herself in intensified exponentially, and it took every bit of her willpower not to run right out of the room.

Oh my God. Don't look at Tsuruga Ren. Don't look at him.

Aware that her cheeks were burning, Kyoko grabbed her daughter's small hand.

"Let's go, sweetie," she said rapidly, making sure that she avoided so much as a glimpse of Tsuruga Ren.

"But, Mummy!" Maria urged concernedly. The poor, sweet, innocent girl. "Do you want to consult Dr. Tsuruga about your pain last night? Maybe he can help you with it."


Yet, despite her embarrassed humiliation, the possible images of such a beautiful man like Tsuruga Ren helping her with her issue last night—his muscled body entwined with her smaller one in bed—swam uncontrollably into her mind, making her slightly dizzy with the sudden liquid heat trickling into her loins.

Oh, God. She was fantasizing about him. In front of him.

She needed to leave. Now.

Practically dragging a confused Maria with her, Kyoko headed to the door.

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

She faltered at the sound of the deep, velvety baritone murmur, halting her in her tracks.

He definitely knew. Any adult with half a brain could figure out the truth behind what Maria had been talking about, let alone an erudite creature like him.

"Y-yes?" Kyoko asked, her throat dry. She turned her head reluctantly in his direction.

Don't look at him. Don't look at him.

She looked.

Shockingly, there was no trace of laughter or amusement in his expression, as she had thought there would be. Instead, his already dark irises had completely blackened with a brewing emotion she couldn't decipher, so that she could barely tell his pupils and irises apart. She felt a surge of hot arousal rush through her nether region—beneath the confining denim of her jeans—at the unmistakably predatory way his sculpted lips curved upwards.

The conflicting urge to flee and stay at the same time caused her belly to clench.

"Your prescription form, Mogami-san," he enunciated smoothly, sliding the paper across his desk.

Maria, still oblivious to the simmering sexual tension looming in the air, hopped over and picked the paper up, her curly ponytail bouncing. "Thank you, Dr. Tsuruga!"

Kyoko spun back to the door, and turned the doorknob, fingers white and shaky.

"Oh, and Maria," Tsuruga added silkily. "Can you do a favour for me?"

"Yes, Dr. Tsuruga! Of course!" Maria sounded flattered and eager to please.

"Inform your mother, Maria, that she can, if she wishes, consult me about her…ailment last night."

Oh, fuck. Kyoko opened the door, stepping out of the room hurriedly.

Not before she heard his last words, of course.


"I like Dr. Tsuruga," Maria sang cheerily, biting into her bowl of beans, tofu, beef, and rice.

Kyoko groaned again, rubbing her temples, her elbows propped on the table.

The pair was seated in the hospital cafeteria, having their lunch. As it was a few hours past lunch time, the crowd had tapered off. Surrounding them were a few other patients—some of them wheel-bound—having their meals, while others included medical personnel like nurses and a few clinic assistants. Kyoko figured that their late work shifts were why they had to eat lunch at a later time than was the norm. It wasn't easy, she thought, working in the hospital. Their life was consumed by their long, seemingly never ending working hours. They were so busy catering to others that they had little time to cater to themselves.

Was it the same for Tsuruga Ren too?

She shook her head, banishing him from her mind. The truth was, Kyoko was rather ashamed of herself for possessing such unchaste thoughts about her daughter's doctor. She was a modest, young mother—and proper mothers did not go around getting all hot and bothered just because they came across an attractive man! Especially not an attractive man who was their child's doctor, god forbid!

Mothers had to focus on their children. That was it. Whatever fairy tale that was supposed to come for her was gone. She was past that age already; goodness, she was already in her mid-thirties. Young women who had yet to have children readied themselves for romance, and as for her, it was too late. She already had her daughter. A child signified the end—and romance was the means to said end. That opportunity of a romance had come and gone in the form of her divorced ex-husband. For the rest of her life, she would have to live without her fairy tale now that she had achieved her end.

What would a far younger, virile man like Tsuruga Ren—in his mid-twenties—see in her, a divorced mother with faint stretch marks over her belly? Not that he could see them, but still.

"I wish Dr. Tsuruga could be my new dad since I rarely see Daddy anymore," Maria said sadly.

"Maria!" Kyoko slammed her hand on the table. "Don't talk nonsense!"

Maria winced and jumped in her chair. The other occupants of the cafeteria glanced at them briefly, startled by the noise. Seeing nothing of interest, they went back to their food, gossiping about whatever topics they had been pursuing earlier.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Kyoko said contritely. She instantly regretted her momentary loss of composure. "Will you forgive Mummy?"

Maria nodded timidly. "I'm not angry. I'm just...I don't know. You seem to be scared of Dr. Tsuruga, and I don't know why. He's so nice."

Kyoko hated to admit it, but Maria was right. She was scared of the doctor, and even more so when it came to the forbidden desires gathering in her abdomen every time she thought of him.

"Sweetie." Kyoko rested her hand on Maria's. "Listen. I know you like Dr. Tsuruga, but you can't just go around labelling people as your father. These things are…delicate."

Maria nodded again, large eyes pools of melancholy.

"But it's okay, right?" Kyoko said softly. "Even if Daddy isn't around anymore, you're okay with just having me, right?"

"Of course, Mummy," Maria said at once, looking solemn and slightly aggrieved. "You're more than enough. I don't care about Daddy! I won't ever forgive him! I just like Dr. Tsuruga, that's all."

Kyoko sighed. "You're going to see a lot of people you like, Maria. But you can't always cling to them."

"Why not?" Maria's innocent eyes stared at her.

Kyoko pressed her lips tightly. "Sweetie, just because you feel this way doesn't mean they do too. Think about Daddy. You want to cling to him too, don't you? But he left."

Maria lowered her face, her cherubic features crestfallen. "Dr. Tsuruga won't stop treating me and leave, right?"

"No, sweetie, he won't," Kyoko consoled her. "I didn't mean it that way. He will continue to treat you, because that's his job. But don't bother him with other things aside from your health, okay?"

"If he can't be my dad, I want him to at least be my friend," Maria replied morosely, nose twitching stubbornly.

Kyoko sighed exasperatedly. "Honestly. That's enough, Maria."

"But he's amazing, Mummy!"

"He's all you ever talk about these days. What's so great about him, really?"

Maria brightened. "He's so pretty, Mummy! Have you seen his eyelashes? They're so long!" She pointed at her own brown eyes, as if to emphasize her point. "And he's big and tall and super kind! Doesn't Mummy like it too?"

Kyoko flushed, her pale skin coloring. "No. I don't. I think he's pretty annoying and a huge know-it-all."

Maria's mouth opened in outrage. "Mummy! How can you say that? Dr. Tsuruga has been nothing but nice to us!"

"I don't like him."

"But he's so nice to you! He offered to treat you just now! In fact, I think you should go consult him! He said you could go find him alone, right?"

Kyoko's flush intensified; she probably resembled a tomato from how much she was blushing. It was thank goodness that Maria didn't understand the double entendre—the sinful suggestion—in Tsuruga Ren's parting words. "I would rather face the demons from hell than see that big-headed jerk alone."

"And I," a deep voice spoke amusedly behind her, "am quite hurt."

Kyoko turned as rigid as stone.

"Dr. Tsuruga!" Maria shrieked in glee. Clearly all of Kyoko's warnings just a few minutes before had disappeared off her mind the moment she saw Tsuruga Ren.

Kyoko's head jerked as she took in the sight of the surgeon. Dressed in his usual white doctor's overcoat, she realised she could see the black turtleneck sweater and long, skin-tight pants he wore underneath. His stethoscope was tucked neatly within the massive breast pocket of his overcoat. He truly was an incredible masculine specimen; his tall, panther-like presence seemed to fill the cafeteria just by his standing there alone. All the women sitting around—especially the nurses—recognised him, their faces lit up with female appreciation. It wasn't just Maria who looked as if they were about to have a seizure from an overdose of ecstasy upon seeing him.

Nodding warmly and smiling at the other females as they simpered his name, he lowered himself gracefully onto a vacant chair beside Kyoko, putting down a tray of food on the table as he did so. She could see a few plates resting on the tray.

"I hope you don't mind if I sit here," he said courteously.

"Not at all!" Maria shouted jubilantly, ignoring the angry stare that her mother sent her way. "We don't mind at all!"

"Why even ask, when you already sat down?" Kyoko muttered under her breath.

"Ah," Ren countered serenely, "but I never asked."

She winced in embarrassment. He had heard her!

"We were just talking about you, Dr. Tsuruga!" Maria chattered, still ignoring Kyoko's deadly stare. "Mummy doesn't like you very much! I'm trying to make her like you, Dr. Tsuruga!"

Oh, god. Give me a hole to crawl into now. Please.

The surgeon laughed huskily. "How unfortunate," he commented simply but amusedly.

"Maria, stop talking nonsense," Kyoko barked, brushing aside a stray lock of copper hair from her reddened face. "I don't dislike Dr. Tsuruga. I'm very grateful for what he has done to take care of you."

"But you just said you didn't like—"

"Maria!" Kyoko repeated forcefully, her pale cheeks on fire. "Enough."

Maria sulked, but kept silent.

Kyoko jumped in her chair when a large hand descended and the back of his dexterous fingers gently skimmed her fiery cheeks. His soft, fleeting touch was gone before she could so much as draw away, however, and the heat in her fine features only went up.

"Dr. Tsuruga," she hissed, pulse racing madly, "What are you doing?"

To her indignation, he ignored her, and addressed Maria instead.

"I think your mother is very pretty when she is worked up," he noted casually. "Don't you agree, Maria?"

"I think Mummy is pretty all the time!" Maria beamed.

Ren flashed white, ivory teeth. "Hmm. I agree. Now we know where Maria gets her prettiness from, don't we?"

Maria turned pink, and she appeared extremely flattered and pleased.

"Maria, stop wasting time, and quickly eat," Kyoko said, fisting her trembling hands on her lap. "We need to go soon."

Tsuruga said nothing, but picked up a plate of food—chicken and rice—from his tray and placed it before her.

She stared bemusedly. "What…?"

"I noticed you didn't eat anything," he said quietly. "The problem with you, Mogami-san, is that your life revolves too much around your daughter, and too little around yourself."

She gave him a withering look. "That's not true."

Ignoring her (again!), his obsidian eyes flickered towards the little girl opposite them. "Maria. Did you notice that your mother hasn't been eating?"

"Mummy doesn't eat often," she answered gravely, poking her tofu in her bowl. Kyoko shot her a level stare, warning her to stop, but it was like her daughter had been replaced with a complete rebel. "She always buys meals for Maria, but doesn't eat any herself. She skips meals a lot. She says grown-ups like her don't need nutrition like I do."

Kyoko stilled uncomfortably as his midnight eyes, hooded by thick lashes, narrowed into disapproving slits and shrewdly observed her. It was like he could read her thoughts just from watching her features. She felt exposed and vulnerable.

"Your mother is wrong, Maria," he said coolly. "Grown-ups and children all need nutrition. If your mother doesn't eat, then it's a problem. In fact, she's misbehaving by skipping her meals. It is a very naughty thing to do."

Maria said earnestly, "Then Mummy ought to be punished!"

"Yes," Dr. Tsuruga murmured, scorching dark eyes still surveying her face with an intensity that both thrilled and scared her. "How do you say I should punish your mother, Maria?"

Maria thought hard. "The naughty kids in my class all get spanked when they're punished!"

"Yes," Tsuruga answered quietly. She stiffened as he curled his large hand over the taut outline of her tiny, fisted hand on her lap. His hand, slender and graceful, was so big that it completely enveloped her own. "I think I ought to turn her over my knee and spank her, shouldn't I?"

A pool of molten heat began to simmer in her womb. She swallowed.

"But punishment is awful," Maria said sadly, digging her spoon at her rice. "I don't want Mummy to get hurt!"

"Oh, I wouldn't know," Dr. Tsuruga uttered nonchalantly, deep voice smooth and silky. His fingers dug firmly—though not painfully—into the gaps between her own little ones, his powerful strength forcing her to unfurl the fist she was making under the table, so that his calloused fingers slipped in and entwined with hers. Maria, sitting opposite, remained oblivious to the tug of war beneath the table. "I think your mother might enjoy it."

That was enough.

Kyoko's back jolted upwards against the back of her chair, struggling to keep her pounding heart at bay. "Let's go, Maria."

Her daughter appeared dismayed. "But I haven't finished—"

"I said let's go." Her voice was as cold as steel.

He released her hand, smiling coyly. It shocked her that she was a mere victim against his wicked strength—she had been unable to fight back, not even for a second. The problem was that she didn't seem to want to; the absence of his alluring contact made her feel empty all over again.

Kyoko could feel a tiny scrap of what felt like paper in her palm. He had placed it inside her fist under the table. Without looking at it, she dropped it into her handbag, then picked up Maria's protesting hand, and stalked out of the cafeteria, ignoring the stares she had attracted all around her.

She could hear his masculine laughter ringing in her ears the whole time.

It took her several hours to resist looking at the paper after she got home. When she did, her pulse thundering erratically, she was not disappointed.

No words, just a string of numbers.

His phone number.