All of the fun, none of the heartache…as long as they stick to the agreement.
The proposition is simple: if ER nurse Claire Harper and her roommate, firefighter Graham Scott, are still single by the time they’re forty, they’ll take the proverbial plunge together…as friends with benefits. Maybe it’s the wine, but in the moment, Claire figures the pact is a safe-enough deal, considering she hasn’t had much luck in love and he’s in no rush to settle down. Like, at all. Besides, there’s no way she could ever really fall for Graham and his thrill-seeking ways. Not after what happened to her father…
Just as things begin to heat up way before the proposed deadline, Graham’s injured in a serious rock-climbing accident — and he needs Claire’s help to heal. She’ll do whatever it takes to nurse him back to health…even if it means moving into Graham’s bed and putting up with his little dog who hates her. But with this no-strings arrangement taking a complicated turn, keeping ‘for now’ from turning into ‘forever’ isn’t as easy as they’d planned.
Claire Harper was holding a penis when the commotion started.
Nothing to get excited about—the appendage belonged to an eighty-six-year-old man and she was a nurse inserting a much-needed catheter so the poor guy could pee.
Still, not where one wanted to be when all hell broke loose.
A loud screech and a crash sounded just outside the pulled curtain.
Then, all went quiet.
As Claire struggled to remain focused on her task, because at this point she couldn’t just stop, her mind scrolled through possible scenarios. Some stemmed from real-life experience after six years as a critical care and emergency room nurse, while others came from decades of watching Grey’s Anatomy and ER reruns.
The funny thing was, some of the wildest ones weren’t from the TV shows.
Was it someone with a gun? A bomb?
A heinous injury? It was an emergency room, sure—but even the most seasoned workers could experience a brief moment of shock depending on what they encountered.
Maybe it was simply something unexpected—like the time a drunk guy in a clown suit stumbled through the doors, bypassing the check-in desk and getting halfway to the med room, where narcotics were stored, before security took him down.
She heard nothing but silence for several seconds. Relative silence, rather—an emergency room was never completely quiet. Pumps beeped, swiped badges clicked open secure access doors, and the phone rang with incessant regularity. But if something happened that was truly an emergency, Ruthie would have been shouting directions to every person in her path by now.
What was going on?
Her patient’s eyes had widened a little, and Claire finished up and covered him with a sheet. “All done. I’ll be right back.”
She slowly peeked out toward the central nursing station. Several people in scrubs congregated near one of the curtained areas opposite her, but she didn’t see a crash cart and the code alert wasn’t flashing.
Fairly certain it was safe to come out, she crossed the linoleum and stopped next to Ruthie, the charge nurse.
“What’s going on?” Claire whispered.
Ruthie’s eyes were glassy and she covered her mouth with her hand, sniffling. She didn’t reply, as if she hadn’t even realized Claire had spoken.
Claire went up on her tip-toes to get a better look. A woman wearing a hospital gown lay on the bed, crying, but on closer inspection, they weren’t tears of pain or sadness.
Not entirely, at least.
A man knelt on one knee beside her, reaching forward to hold one of her hands in both of his. The moment was so tender, Claire barely harbored a passing thought about how nasty the hospital floor must be.
The man spoke quietly, his voice thick and raspy. The woman kept shaking her head in disbelief, her hand visibly trembling in his.
The woman had several lacerations across her face and arms, and the guy didn’t look so great, either. By the looks of it, they’d been brought to the ER from a car accident.
Dr. Hansen, one of the surgeons, gingerly stepped forward, put his hand on the man’s back and leaned forward to speak to him. The man nodded and straightened his back a little, as if realizing he needed to hurry.
“Is she okay?” This time Claire nudged Ruthie with her elbow.
“They’re about to take her back for surgery. They came in from an MVA, and were in the pods beside each other. When the guy got word she was about to be taken away he leaped up and lunged to her side. Tore his IV out and everything. Nearly took out the admissions rep and knocked a cart over.”
“Are they in a relationship?”
“Don’t know.” Ruthie sighed wistfully. “With the way they look at each other, I’m guessing so.”
Their conversation halted when the woman nodded her head, the tears coming in earnest, and the man stood, leaning over to kiss her.
The crowd clapped and whistled, and within minutes the surgery team wheeled her away. The man stood in the middle of the vacated room, palm cupping the back of his neck, a mixture of love and worry on his face. He stumbled backward and fell into a chair, burying his face in his hands. Ted, the nurse covering that side and likely the one taking care of both the man and his new fiancée, approached him.
“Wow,” Claire breathed, following Ruthie back to the nursing station as everyone dispersed. “What a story that’s gonna be, huh?”
“Right? Proposal in the ER after a near-death experience.”
“Was the accident that bad?”
“I don’t think so. But it sounds more dramatic that way.”
“True.” Claire sat beside Ruthie. “I was inserting a catheter when I heard her shriek.”
“Don’t worry.” Claire held up her hands, fingers splayed. “Steady as a rock.”
“Believe me, I know. If I ever need stitches I won’t let anyone else near me with a needle.”
“I’m not allowed to do that, yet.” Wouldn’t stop her, of course, but technically it wasn’t in the scope of practice for a nurse to suture. She’d learned the skill during her recent training to become a nurse practitioner—and had even passed the licensing exam, hell to the yes—but had to wait on the slow-as-molasses hospital credentialing office to finish up all the paperwork before making the transition.
“It would be under the table, obviously. Or, I could just hold off on obtaining open wounds until you’re official. How much longer?”
“Are you asking because you want me on speed dial for cleaning you up or because you’ll need to fill my nursing shifts?”
“The NP from ortho said it took two months to get his through.” Claire had only found out she’d passed her exam last week, so it might be a while.
“I won’t hold my breath, then.”
One of the medical assistants called for Ruthie, and she leaped to her feet.
Claire roused the computer screen and while she waited for the program to load, sneaked a glance behind her at the man who had just proposed. Still in the chair, his expression remained a little dazed, but something in his eyes seemed…exhilarated. Happy, even—an emotion not so common in the emergency room.
She could only assume it was a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision, but even in the few moments she’d watched, the connection between the two had been palpable. Thick with emotion and a slight sense of urgency.
Turning back to the screen, she frowned. When had she ever felt such desperation? She’d never even told a man she loved him, let alone felt that burn in her heart that if she didn’t do it right that second—make sure he knew just how lost she was over him—that she’d break through any barrier to get it done.
And at thirty-one and single as the day she was born, she was starting to lose hope she ever would.
“I need a drink.”
Claire made the announcement the second she walked into the condo she shared with two roommates. Her standard shift was 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and by the time she’d passed off to the incoming nurse and driven home, daylight was fading. Her stomach growled, making a fair argument that dinner was more important than alcohol.
Noted and ignored.
Graham regarded her over the back of the couch with a raised eyebrow. He wore his standard lounging uniform of gray joggers and a T-shirt, legs extending the length of the couch and one tanned, muscled arm draped along the back. His expression was curious but not surprised. Ever since she’d moved from ICU to the ER, she’d come home frazzled and in search of alcohol on a semiregular basis. Taking classes for the NP program on the side hadn’t helped matters, either.
Down the hall, Reagan’s head popped out of her room. “I’m in.”
Graham stood and stretched his arms above his head. “I’ll see what we’ve got while you change.”
Claire didn’t slow in the trajectory to her room, but as she went her eyes dipped briefly to the ridged abs he’d revealed. Her and Graham’s relationship was purely platonic—always had been—but she could appreciate her roommate was damn fine.
“You two are the best roommates a girl could ask for,” she called over her shoulder before kicking the door shut. She made quick work of her scrubs and slipped into yoga pants and a gray Broncos sweatshirt she’d commandeered from an old boyfriend.
In fact, she had an entire drawer full of men’s clothing she’d collected over the last decade of failed relationships. T-shirts, sweatshirts, a ball cap. All but one had broken up with her, and she’d figured they didn’t deserve their shit back.
They were just clothes, after all.
Tiny nails click-clacked against the aged hardwood floor in the hallway. Claire opened her bedroom door and looked down.
The six-pound Yorkshire terrier, aka Graham’s beloved pet, sat in the doorway and stared, her beady brown eyes calculating.
Most people adored Gertrude. On the rare occasion Claire accompanied Graham when he took her on a walk or tucked her under his jacket while roaming the aisles at Target, everyone who passed cooed and raved in ridiculous, high-pitched voices about how cute she was.
And when Graham was around, Gertrude did indeed act the perfect pet. Tiny, cute, and cuddly…and with a face like that, she had to be sweet and affectionate, right?
Less than twenty-four hours after Graham had moved into the condo with Claire and Reagan—which, at first, seemed like the perfect solution to fill the vacant roommate spot—Gertrude had made her true personality known.
She was a possessive, high maintenance, domineering little bitch.
The first time Claire had touched Graham in Gertrude’s presence—a friendly but well-deserved slug to the shoulder after he’d said something sarcastic—Gertrude had gone batshit. As if Graham, over six feet and as athletic as they came, needed a miniature, maniac dog to defend him.
Somehow, with time, Reagan had gotten past the little terror’s defenses. But not Claire.
Gertrude hated her, and the feeling was mutual.
Keeping one eye on the dog, Claire pulled her hair back into a ponytail and secured it with a band from around her wrist. She took one step closer to the threshold and put her hands on her hips, tipping her chin up a notch as if performing a stare-down ritual with an opponent in a boxing ring.
“I see what you’re doing, G.”
Gertrude didn’t even blink. The nameplate on her bright pink collar reflected the light from the hallway. An attempt to blind Claire before she went in for the attack, probably.
“I’m not afraid of you.” Claire scooted to the side and went around the dog, who rumbled a growl as she passed. “If you so much as touch another pillow with your teeth, I’m evicting Graham.”
“Are you threatening the dog again?” Reagan asked as Claire entered the kitchen. Graham must have already gone to the porch, where they usually congregated.
“Indirectly.” They made their way to the front door. “Do you see the way she looks at me?”
“You’re not so nice to her, you know.”
“She started it.”
Claire opened the door and followed Reagan outside. Graham was in the rocking chair, leaving them to take the porch swing he’d finally installed after several weeks of Claire’s whining.
Could she have done it herself? Yes.
Was it easier to badger Graham into doing it for her? Also yes.
She wasn’t a helpless woman by any means, but it was still nice to have a man around every now and again.
The trio had been roommates for almost a year now. Claire had lived in the condo with her best friend, Mia, for several years, and a little over a year ago they’d decided to add a third person to share a piece of the exorbitant Denver rent. They met Reagan, a grad student looking for a place to live, and it had worked out great for the first month.
Then Mia had up and gotten married and moved out, sending Claire and Reagan into a search for a replacement. Even though Claire had been friends with Graham for years, she hadn’t considered asking a guy to move in until he brought up needing a new place. Sure, she’d had a few drinks when she agreed to the arrangement, but it had actually turned out well.
Other than a constant battle over the thermostat and his hellion terrier, he was a damn good roommate.
Case in point—he handed over the bottle of wine he’d brought outside along with two sticks of string cheese.
“I heard your stomach growling when you passed me,” he said quietly. “And I’m not sure how bad your day was.”
Read: I don’t know how much you’ll drink tonight.
Graham popped the cap off a beer as Reagan took the wine bottle and poured two healthy glasses. She handed one to Claire. “Okay. I’m armed and read to listen. What happened at work?”
Claire took a deep breath and a long sip of wine before she spoke. “I witnessed a marriage proposal.”
Graham sucked in a breath. “Shit, are you okay?”
She glared at him. “Shut up.”
“I’m serious.” He looked it, too. “That’s traumatic.”
Reagan leaned down to set the wine bottle on the porch, keeping her glass in her hand. “A proposal in the emergency room? Was it an employee or something?”
“No. Two patients. They’d just come in from an accident and were pretty beat-up. She was about to go to surgery and he did this like…incredible, spur-of-the-moment, emotional proposal. Like he thought she might not come out of it and he didn’t want to waste another second without telling her how he felt.”
Reagan’s eyes went wide. “If this story ends with you telling me she died, I swear—”
Reagan exhaled, a palm to her heart. “Good. Then what happened?”
Graham took a deep pull from his beer, apparently too shaken over the prospect of anything related to marriage or engagements to comment.
Reagan regarded Claire over her glass and twisted her lips to the side. “I mean, I’m always down for wine on the porch and it’s perfect weather tonight. But that really warranted all this?”
Claire sighed. “You don’t get it. You’re still young.”
“I’m twenty-five,” she defended.
Claire (thirty-one) glared, and Graham (thirty-six) made a choking noise.
“You’re a baby,” Claire said. “I’m thirty-one, single, and without prospects. Everywhere I turn, people are getting engaged or married. It just… I don’t know. Reminded me I’m not even close to that.”
“Good thing we have a pact,” Graham said.
“What?” Claire said, at the same time Reagan asked, “Pact?”
He blinked, as if unsure whether Claire was joking. “The whole ‘backup’ thing. Remember? We marry each other if we’re still single at forty?”
Claire laughed. “We’re not really doing that.”
He straightened. “What?”
She squinted at him. “Are you being serious? I’m not actually marrying you.”
“I’m completely serious,” he said. “I’ve been banking on our deal. Made plans and everything.”
“I’m planning to avoid serious relationships until I’m forty and we get married.”
A mocking laugh bubbled up. “You’ve been avoiding serious relationships your entire life.”
“How is that relevant?”
Reagan waved her arm in the air. “Will someone tell me what’s going on here?”
Claire dragged her eyes from Graham’s face—which harbored a mixture of surprise and his signature playfulness—and cast Reagan an impatient glance. “Last year we were out with friends and I proposed we act as each other’s backups and all marry each other if we were still single at forty. I got stuck with Graham.”
He leaned forward and cleared his throat. “You mean you picked me.”
Claire continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “I only brought it up in hopes Mia and Noah would get their heads out of their asses and realize how badly they wanted each other. And it worked. They were married a few weeks later. In keeping up with the ruse, though, at the time I ended up with Graham as my backup.” She used air quotes as she said “backup,” because it hadn’t been real.
At least, not in her mind. Had Graham actually believed it all this time?
Graham crossed one ankle over the opposite knee. “You say ‘ended up with,’ I say ‘will be blessed with.’”
“There’s no way you actually want to marry me.”
“I’d marry the hell out of you. Have you seen you?”
Claire snorted at the same time Reagan said, “Aww.”
Useless flattery would get him nowhere. “It’s not happening, Graham.”
He pursed his lips and frowned as he looked at her for a long moment. He seemed to be gauging how serious she was, then dropped his shoulders in surrender. “Fine.”
“Why do you even want to hold up the pact, anyway? You don’t want to get married.”
“This is different. We both know it’s just a convenience thing, no pressure for more. I’m not opposed to a guaranteed date for work functions, the tax benefits, splitting chores with someone. I hang the porch swings, you wash the cars. Seems like a win-win.”
Those things did sound nice, but that wasn’t all she wanted out of a marriage.
Before Claire could say as much, Reagan spoke again, her voice strangely thoughtful. “You know, it’s not such a bad idea.”
Claire shot her the side-eye. “What isn’t?”
“You and Graham. You’ve been friends for years. And you’re actually really similar, now that I think about it.”
Intrigue settled across Graham’s features as he sat back, apparently intent on spurring on the ridiculous conversation. “How so?”
“You’re both fun, of course,” Reagan said. “But more than that, you’re outgoing and opinionated. Hardworking and strong-willed. You both have jobs where you help people, but are also stressful and that have weird hours. I would actually think you’re pretty compatible. You’d understand each other, at the very least.”
“Opinionated, strong-willed, stressful job, and weird hours? You just listed all the things men end up leaving me for,” Claire muttered into her glass.
“The men you date are fools,” Graham said. “Those are my favorite things about you.”
Her eyes flew to his face. “Really?”
“Absolutely. I mean, I don’t like that your job stresses you out, but I admire what you do.”
She smiled, feeling a little better. “Well. Thank you.”
“Now will you marry me?”
Reagan nudged her ribs. “He’s nice to look at.”
They had a point. He was ridiculously attractive. Tall and muscular without being oversize. Thick, wavy dark hair that he kept just a smidge too long, a look that somehow came off dashing and playful. His kind, dark eyes were the type that spoke of trustworthiness but held a spark of endearing mischief. But most of all, it was his smile that made him stand out. When he smiled—really smiled—it was almost as if she could feel warmth blooming deep inside her. He was impossible to look away from in those moments, like trying to tear her gaze from a shooting star bursting across the sky.
But physical attraction was only one point of consideration when it came to husband potential. Among many others, another important element was the man’s interest and willingness to commit.
It was probably a cheap shot, but she didn’t see another way out of this. “Have you ever been in a serious relationship, Graham?”
He glanced at her and crossed one ankle over the opposite knee. “You know the answer to that.”
“You’re the one insisting we go down this road, and Reagan doesn’t know you like I do. Answer the question.”
“And why not?”
“Because I’m not the marrying kind. Their words, not mine. But they’re not wrong, and I’ve always been on the same page so it doesn’t bother me.” His voice was light but the spark in his eyes dimmed a fraction. “But I don’t know, I thought you and I got along pretty well. Didn’t think you’d choose being completely alone over hanging out with me when we’re old.”
He looked away and directed his gaze to the street, and Claire was struck by a slow swirl of discomfort in her belly. She’d wanted to prove he wasn’t the marrying kind and had always assumed he was the one who bowed out of relationships when things got too serious. She hadn’t meant to imply he was inherently lacking—as a friend, roommate, or as someone’s future spouse.
Reagan kept silent, staring into her wineglass.
Shifting in the swing, Claire scrambled to find something to ease the sudden discomfort. Marriage was a big deal to her, and she couldn’t imagine going about it so casually.
“Maybe we could have some other arrangement,” she blurted out, and immediately wanted to slap her hand over her mouth.
Graham’s head snapped around. “What?”
Shit. She knew better than to word-vomit into awkward silences, which never failed to land her in some kind of trouble.
She darted wide eyes in Reagan’s direction, but her roommate offered no help. Reagan simply looked back at her with big eyes and a raised eyebrow that said, Where are you going with this?
Valid question. Where was she going with this?
Obviously, the unfiltered version of herself had meant sex. And, strangely, her buttoned-up counterpart wasn’t completely appalled by the idea, either.
“Tell us,” Graham drawled, the glimpse of insecurity from seconds ago nowhere to be found. Maybe she’d imagined it. “What kind of arrangement, Claire?”
Claire scrunched her nose and rubbed the back of her neck. No need to be embarrassed. You’re a grown woman, and he’s an attractive man. “Well, I was just thinking…pact or not, you’re not the marrying type. And I could give several reasons why you’re not right for me. But I’d be open to discussing the benefits of, um…”
“Sex?” Graham supplied.
Reagan’s voice floated over Claire’s shoulder. “Should I leave?”
“No,” Graham said at once. “I think I need a witness for this.”
Reagan stayed put and Graham cocked a brow at Claire in expectation.
“Yes. Um, sex.” Claire wanted to keep her voice strong in the hopes of hiding her awkwardness, but it just came out loud and high-pitched. “If we’re forty and still single…I’d be okay with hooking up every once in a while. You know, to scratch the itch. By that point I doubt I’ll be as successful picking up men at the bar.”
“I would argue because you’ll still be smoking hot at forty, but I benefit from that assumption. So I won’t.”
“You’re up for it, then?” At Graham’s smirk, she pursed her lips, the familiar competitive discord between them putting her on more steady ground. “Pun not intended.”
Graham’s eyes were shining. “Sure. Why wait, though?” He set his bottle down, clapped once, and stood. “Reagan, if you’ll excuse us—”
“Sit down,” Claire ordered. “The terms of the pact still stand. Forty.”
He pouted and sat. “When I turn forty, or when you do?”
He was only four years away from the target age. But if she still hadn’t found the love of her life when she’d reached thirty-five…she’d probably be down for the occasional night with Graham. “You.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched, and he just looked at her for a second. Reagan’s gaze burned into the back of her neck.
“Reagan, are you getting this?” He extended his right hand. “Is a handshake good, or should we put it in writing?”
Claire rolled her eyes and reached forward to grip his strong hand in hers. When she went to withdraw, he tightened his grip.
“Reagan! Photo evidence,” he shouted even though they were all right there, then added, “please.”
Phone in hand, Reagan stood, put her glass on the porch railing, and positioned herself to aim the camera at Graham and Claire’s clasped hands.
“I’ll take a few,” she said, looking at the screen and dropping her arm when she’d taken satisfactory shots. “Wow. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.”
Claire released Graham’s hand. “Don’t be so sure it will. I could meet my future husband tomorrow, which would void the agreement.”
“Or you’ll never meet him,” Graham said. “Maybe we’ll grow old together. Come to think of it, this is way better than the original idea. Fuck buddies for life.”
Claire groaned. “Oh, no.” What had she done? “Can I take it back?”
Graham and Reagan spoke simultaneously.