Harper’s curse was lost to the wind as she whipped her foot out of an icy puddle and gave it an aggressive shake. Nothing screamed “perfect start to a Monday” like drenched scrub pants and freezing rain pelting down from every angle.
A dull, December gray hovered over Philadelphia, making coffee the city’s last source of warmth and happiness. Chugging down the final drops of her own lukewarm cup, Harper wondered why she left bed before April.
With the empty thermos tucked back into her bag and soaking bangs poking her in the eyes, she ducked her face to the wind and trudged the final, miserable blocks to Callowhill University’s School of Dental Medicine.
She swiped her ID badge against the security reader and rushed into the school’s warm lobby, her face instantly starting to thaw. Mild chaos already swamped the check-in desks, while soaked patients waited in stiff pleather chairs for their names to be called, looking the standard degree of annoyed and apprehensive that was an occupational hazard for dentists.
Harper absorbed the early morning energy as she ripped off her gloves with her teeth and shoved them into her coat pockets. She went to work on her wet mess of bobbed black hair—scrunching and finger-combing in vain against the knots already starting to form.
A group of residents strode through the swinging doors of the Oral Surgery and Trauma Clinic next to where she stood. Her fingers stalled halfway through a rat’s nest of tangles to observe them like a wild-life documentary. Right on cue, anxiety made its regularly scheduled morning appearance and beat a tiny hammer against her chest.
That would be her someday soon.
While most dental students focused on drilling and filling their way to retirement, Harper dreamed of facial reconstructions and corrective jaw surgeries, each day orbiting around the singular purpose of becoming an oral surgeon.
But with residency match day a little more than a month away, Harper was stuck in a unique version of a worry-ridden hell. Having spent the past four years working her ass off for flawless grades, incredible hand skills, and publishable research, there was nothing more she could do than idly wait while random program directors and admissions departments determined her future. All her dedication and drive reduced to test scores, her GPA, and a trite personal statement.
The stress had her averaging a solid three hours of sleep a night, the rest of the time spent staring at her ceiling while what-ifs and worst cases swirled through her brain and down her throat, settling sickeningly in her stomach as worry cuddled close to her chest.
Before her mind spiraled into a total panic, a tap on the shoulder broke her trance. She turned and was assaulted by the blinding smile of her best friend, Thu.
“Caught ya lusting again,” Thu said with a wink.
Harper rolled her eyes. “Hardly. Less than a month ago I had to stage an intervention to get you to stop cyberstalking UCLA’s provost for admission news.”
Having matched into UC’s orthodontics residency in late November, two months earlier than surgery, Thu hadn’t missed an opportunity to torment Harper on her unknown future.
“You were like a feral animal when I made a grab for your phone,” Harper added. She still had rug burns from Thu tackling her to get it back.
“What’s some mild manhandling between friends,” Thu said with a wink. She pulled back her hood, raven hair tumbling down in immaculate fishtail braids and makeup so perfectly applied that somewhere a YouTube beauty vlogger shed a single tear at its glory.
“Wow. Isn’t it a little early on a Monday to be the physical embodiment of perfection? I mean, you actually have the nerve to show up to school looking like it’s not pouring rain and seasonal depression isn’t in full swing?”
“Aww, I love it when you sweet-talk me.” Thu linked her arm through Harper’s, leading her toward the morning’s histopathology lecture.
“How’d the date go last night?” Harper asked as they weaved through the school. Thu had been excited at the prospect of a free meal with a quarter-way decent-looking guy, holding out hope that he had a great, compensatory personality. A free meal was a free meal, and Thu would never pass up a chance at love or food.
“Oh, you mean with the only guy on Tinder who hasn’t sent me an unsolicited dick pic?”
Harper nodded, trying to look sympathetic through her grin. While random dude nudes plagued the majority of women on Tinder, Thu attracted unwanted cock shots at an alarming rate.
“To start”—Thu shot Harper a sidelong glance that told her to buckle up for a wild ride—“he kept calling me ‘thuh.’ I get it, my name isn’t phonetic—whatever—I’m used to it. But, when I tried to make it easy on him and told him to pronounce it ‘two’ like the number, I shit you not, he stared at me for a solid minute before laughing and saying he liked funny girls.”
“Then, he took me to a shitty Chinese restaurant because he thought I’d ‘enjoy ordering in my native tongue,’ and ‘it would make me feel more at home,’” Thu said, using dramatic air quotes for emphasis.
“I swear. I first tried to explain that Vietnam is not China, but that seemed too advanced a geographical concept. Then I told him it didn’t even matter because I’m second-gen from Jersey, but this also must be a hard idea to grasp.”
“Who wouldn’t be confused?”
Thu shot Harper a look before continuing. “I suffered through mind-numbing conversation about his intramural Frisbee team, and the time he grew out his back hair for a year because he lost a bet. I didn’t even throw up. Aren’t you proud of me?”
“Was it the Frisbee or the back hair that made you want to vomit?”
“Frisbee. And when he drove me home, he asked me if, as a dental student, I had an automatic oral fixation.”
Harper slapped a hand over her mouth as she tried to stifle a laugh. “Shut the fuck up. What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Sadly, no. But if I did, you and Freud could suck my dick,’ then went inside and sewed my vagina shut.”
Harper cackled so hard, tears pricked at her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny. I shouldn’t laugh.” She choked on the words and tried fanning her face to gain some composure as they descended the few flights of stairs to the basement lecture halls.
“No, you shouldn’t. Because it gets worse.”
“Thu, it’s impossible for that to get any worse.”
Thu shook her head in defeat. “To put a cherry on top of the world’s most microaggressive first date, he sent me a full-frontal an hour later and asked me if Chinese girls liked sausage.”
“What! Let me see.”
Thu scrolled through her phone and handed it to Harper.
“Huh. Awful lighting,” Harper said, squinting at the world’s most unimpressive dick pic with a mixture of horror and delight. “What did you say back?”
Thu let out a long sigh as she took back her phone. “I told him the truth, that it looked like a crunchy Cheeto with the powder licked off. Harper, have you ever had the overwhelming urge to rip out your reproductive tract and use the fallopian tubes to choke the stupidity out of men? Because that’s where I’m at.”
Thu’s disdain made Harper laugh even harder.
“I’m glad you think my misery is so funny,” Thu snapped, working to suppress a smile.
Harper was about to ask if this gem could be The One, when her foot slid through a puddle on the linoleum floor, and the world fell from beneath her.
Adrenaline prickled through every corner of Harper’s body as she fell down the final flight of stairs. She clawed for the railing, grasping at nothing but air. Her breath slammed into a knot in her throat as her butt and back rebounded against the last few steps.
The last thing she saw before squeezing her eyes shut and smacking onto the tile floor was a long pair of legs crumpling as she crashed into them.
Her head rocked back, hitting the ground with a muffled thud, as something landed on her chest, knocking any remaining air from her lungs.
She lay still for a moment, not trusting the world to stop spinning, as she did a quick mental scan for injuries. She realized she was mostly fine, besides a throbbing head and bruised ass. Her biggest concern was trying to breathe as a heaviness weighed down her sternum and her heart pounded against it.
Never one to miss an opportunity for minor hysterics, Thu shrieked through Harper’s fog as she rushed down the stairs, adding to Harper’s already pounding headache. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, Harper!!”
But, as Thu’s voice hovered directly above Harper, it morphed from a dramatic shriek to a mischievous drawl. “Wow. Oh my God, Harper.”
Harper squinted her eyes open to look up at her friend, who was staring with a shocked grin at Harper’s chest.
Harper looked cross-eyed down her body in confusion. Short waves of chocolate brown hair fanned across her chest. Her eyes traced over a golden profile, down the graceful slope of a strong nose, to a cheek pressed firmly against her breastbone. A tan powder dusted the face and clung to long, dark eyelashes.
Head still spinning, she reached out, dusting the powder off the lovely nose. With a startling flash, the eyes shot open, and the head moved slightly to look up at her. The intense and uncomfortable feeling of falling swamped her all over again as forest-green eyes rimmed with honey locked onto hers.
“Are you okay?”
It took Harper a minute to realize where the voice was coming from. It wasn’t the words or the movement of the finely formed mouth that made her aware of it—not even the rumbling of the question reverberating against her chest—but the tip of a tongue darting out, wetting a delicious pair of lips and removing the coating of powder, that made Harper return to her senses … and fully acknowledge that a random man’s face was pressed extremely close to her boobs.
With that, Harper came back to earth, and her torso shot up from the floor. The man let out a soft groan as his head jolted from her chest and landed awkwardly in her lap. She scrambled to sit up on her knees as he disentangled himself from her. At the same time, Thu crouched down, pretending to drape a comforting arm across Harper’s shoulders as she whispered, “Holy shit, he’s hot.”
Harper whipped her head to look at her friend, eliciting another wave of throbbing pain through her skull. Massaging her temple with one hand, she pushed Thu away with the other.
“Are you okay?” the man repeated, looking at her with genuine concern. Seeing him head-on made Harper feel like her heart was throwing confetti around her chest.
Okay. Wow. He’s absolutely gorgeous. Cool.
She squeezed her eyes shut and took a steadying breath. No one actually looked that good; she must be hallucinating.
But, opening her eyes, it was confirmed with a red alert of embarrassment that no, she wasn’t seeing things, and yes, the man she’d body-slammed was, in fact, as good-looking as he’d first appeared.
His hair had that perfectly mussed look that begged her fingers to run themselves through it. His jaw and cheekbones could cut glass, and the tiniest hint of stubble dusted his skin. Where she expected to see an equally chiseled nose was one that was a touch big, the tip forming an adorable, rounded bulb. It was a nose that could easily look goofy on a softer face, but it worked to ease the sharpness of his other features just enough to create an endearing and approachable quality.
Harper continued to stare at him, now unable to look away. She must have really hurt her head.
“I … I fell down the stairs,” she explained, surveying the scene around her. Thu let out a snort that she disguised as a distressed sob.
The stranger cocked a lopsided grin at Harper, a small dimple peeking out of one cheek. The urge to touch him struck her again.
“I saw. It was hard to miss if I’m being honest,” he said with the slightest hint of teasing. “But seriously, are you all right?”
Harper opened her mouth but wasn’t sure of the right words to explain that she’d never felt this disoriented in her entire life, dazed and tongue-tied by his face, of all things.
He studied her carefully, and her cheeks flushed to the point of discomfort. Harper pushed herself to standing and dusted off the weird powder from her scrubs. Glancing around for its source, her stomach dropped as she realized what she’d done. Not two feet away, a shattered stone model of a patient’s dentition littered the ground.
One of the trickiest parts of dentistry was taking a good impression of a patient’s upper and lower teeth. A dentist had to work quickly to mix alginate powder to the perfect rubbery consistency, then jam it into the patient’s open mouth and mold it around their teeth, often causing them to gag and dry heave in the process—throw up was not a rarity in the whole ordeal.
It was pure torture for everyone involved, and a task that often took many tries for students to master before they had a workable mold, much to the dismay of the patient. The mold would then be taken to the wet lab for setting into stone, which was a bitch of a process itself. All in all, models were an absolute pain in the ass to make and something you guarded with your life if done well.
Harper’s eyes widened in horror, and her gaze snapped to the man she’d crashed into. He was similarly dusting himself off, as he looked with absolute misery at the massacre of his project. She realized with an even stronger pang of guilt that, based on the graduation year embroidered above the breast pocket of his scrubs, he was a first-year student. She’d destroyed something that took even seasoned seniors countless tries to get right, let alone someone newly learning the technique.
“I’m so sorry!” she blurted out, scurrying over to the fragments to see if anything was salvageable. Thu moved with her, picking up the pieces farther down the hall.
“I slipped and—and everything is soaking wet, and—and—rain! So much rain! Oh my God, I can’t believe I broke this. I feel—I mean—I’m so sorry. I—” She turned to look at him, lost for words on how to remedy this.
“It’s okay. Don’t … worry about it,” he said, dragging a hand down his face and squeezing his chin as he continued to stare at the mess with a pained expression. After a moment, he composed his features and offered her a sad half smile.
“I really am so sorry,” she repeated, her fingers practically itching to reach out and touch him. He was so damn pretty, her breathing hitched a bit.
“Accidents happen. Please, don’t worry about it.” He bent to scoop up the pieces, his scrub top pulled taut across his broad shoulders as he gingerly collected the fragments. Guilt drowned Harper’s stomach. Guilt and something that felt a tiny bit like lust.
“At least let me help you fix it,” she blurted out, surprised at how urgently she wanted him to say yes. He looked over his shoulder at her and lifted an eyebrow.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to. Please. It’s the least I can do.”
“Harper’s a lab goddess. She’ll help you make a new one in no time,” Thu quipped, moving back to Harper’s side and handing over the pieces she’d collected.
He stood, and Harper was forced to take a step back and tilt her head to meet his gaze. At five foot two (and a half) she stood about eye level with his nipples. It wasn’t an awful view. His lopsided grin and dimple were back as he gave her an appraising glance.
“Okay, lab goddess, you’ve got a deal. But it’s due tomorrow, so I understand if you’re too busy.”
“That’s fine,” she mumbled, wanting to melt into the floor at her new nickname.
“I’m Dan, by the way,” he said, reaching out a hand to shake hers. She returned the gesture, and Dan’s touch plucked at the already frayed threads of her composure, causing her pulse to flutter and her skin to prickle as his long fingers wrapped around hers.
This was all very … weird. While she had a handful of failed dates and unimpressive hookups under her belt, Harper usually observed guys with detached objectivity. She wasn’t blind and could appreciate that, yeah, some guys were cute, some were funny, some were even undeniably hot. But a man had never triggered anything inside her that made them worth her time or energy.
But something in the way Dan looked at her had her heart acting like quite the little drama queen.
It was probably that shameless fucking dimple.
Harper’s eyes flicked to the embroidered name over his breast pocket that came standard on all school-issued scrubs. Daniel Craige.
“Do you have a license to drill?” she blurted out.
Dan’s eyebrows lifted, and he blinked at her, making Harper cringe so hard, she almost snapped a neck muscle.
“Sorry, license for what?”
Harper cleared her throat. “To drill. Like, um, with a handpiece. Or like … license to kill … you know, Daniel Craig … James Bond…” She flapped her hand toward his chest, letting out a nervous giggle that ended with a mortifying snort.
At this point, Harper was confident she was concussed. Or hallucinating. Anything for this not to be real life.
Dan looked down to his chest, then back to Harper. A funny smile quirked his lips, and he opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally finding words.
“I don’t,” he said slowly, fully grinning now. “But whatever helps you remember me.” Then the bastard actually winked at her.
If any more blood rushed to Harper’s face, she was fairly certain she’d suffer from a subdural hematoma. And hopefully die.
“So, tonight?” he asked after a moment.
“The model? Want to work on it tonight? I can meet you in the lab at five, after classes.”
“Oh, um, yeah. Right. Perfect.” She noticed she was still holding his hand and dropped it like he’d burned her. He let out a soft laugh.
“It was nice to meet you, Harper.” He stared at her for another beat before moving down the hall, tossing the stone pieces into the trash as he went.
Harper watched him retreat, then flushed again when he glanced back over his shoulder and caught her staring. At his butt.
“I remember the first time I ever talked to a boy,” Thu said at Harper’s shoulder. Harper whipped her gaze to her.
“No, I mean it’s cool that I got to see what was clearly your first interaction with a man. Ever. Very smooth, Harps. I had no idea you were such a James Bond junkie.” Thu didn’t even try to hide her smug smile as she walked past Harper and to the auditorium.
Copyright © 2022 by Madison Eddings