At thirty-five, Erin Sanders has resigned herself to a single, childless lifestyle. Then dynamic Tanner walks into her office and proposes that she pretend to date him in order to assess the mental well-being of Tessa, his orphaned niece.
Erin falls hard and fast for the man. As an added bonus, she and the delightful Tessa come to adore each other. But like all things too good to be true, she discovers her perfect stud may be a perfectly deceptive dud.
Twenty-nine was no longer Erin Saunders’ age. Nor was it the measurement of her waist. Thankfully, it wasn’t her IQ either. She’d never thought much about birthdays before, but this one was getting to her. In a few days she’d be thirty-five.
Not that she considered thirty-five old or anything, but in her mind it was the demarcation point where the really went out of a woman’s life. Thirty-five was too old to have really long hair or wear really short shorts. Too old to stay up really late or get up really early without feeling it, and too jaded to have anything ever feel really brand new again.
Can you say manic? Maudlin? She shook off the disturbing thoughts and gazed at the clutter on her desk. With a rare free morning, she hoped to use the time to set her files in order and take care of bills. She had a part time secretary==or rather, personal assistant as the position was now referred==but the girl didn’t know a debit from a credit, and her filing skills were abhorrent. In total disregard of the usual sequence of the English alphabet, the only letter her assistant Jeanine seemed to know was U. As in, “U didn’t tell me you wanted me to do that,” or “U didn’t show me how.”
Erin had hired Jeanine because she was the stepdaughter of a friend. She kept her around because she needed someone to answer the phone while she talked to her therapy patients. Jeanine’s lack of office skills weren’t a huge issue. Erin actually liked methodical organization tasks, they gave her a chance to organize her chaotic thoughts, and with thoughts as chaotic as they had been since she’d moved back in with her ailing father, it was down time she sorely needed.
She wondered how she could juggle finances to get a bit more help in the house. Life would be a lot smoother if she didn’t have to deal with the ulcers on her father’s feet every morning or inject him with the insulin shot he could no longer handle on his own thanks to the paralysis from his recent stroke.
The worries distracted her enough that the shrill peel of the phone on the corner of her desk made her jump. She debated letting the machine pick up. Officially, the office was closed for lunch this time every day. Unofficially, she wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone having mentally stepped out of her role of therapist when she’d realized the morning was free of appointments.
By the third ring she was grating her teeth, unaccustomed to the phone interfering with the quiet of her office. Completely out of patience with the intrusion, she picked up on the sixth ring and made a mental note to fix the machine so it caught the calls sooner. Her, “Niagara West Family Counseling,” sounded brief and almost automated.
“Erin? Great to hear your voice. It’s been a long time.”
She smiled, immediately picturing the boyishly handsome face of Ted Barns, who’d been her mentor in college. “Ted, how are you? I’m glad you called.”“Hold that thought.” He chuckled ruefully. “I wish I could say this was strictly a social call, but I need a favor, Erin.”
After the many, many favors he’d done during her more difficult than average final year, she couldn’t believe he’d sound so hesitant. “You know I’d do just about anything for you, Ted.”
“I appreciate that, but this is a bit of an odd situation.”The first hint of unease tickled her nape.
After eight years of college level mentoring and a decade in private therapy practice, for Ted Barns to call something odd it had to be pretty damn strange indeed.
“Odd in what way?”
“A friend of mine==a guy I haven’t seen since high school, actually==called asking about you.”
Surprised, Erin rocked forward in her chair. “About me? Why?”
Ted’s voice sounded rushed as he continued to speak.
“Truthfully, he had a few really bizarre questions about your looks, your personal life. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell him much beyond my opinion of your professional credentials, but it sounds to me like the guy’s in sort of a bind, Erin. I’ll let him explain the details. If you say you’re willing to speak to him, that is. But he’s pretty adamant that you’re the gal who can help.”
A bit of a bind? Her mind automatically leapt to a bully who’d abused his wife and wanted anger management counseling to reduce a jail sentence. Or worse, a child predator who was shopping for a psychological excuse for his aberrant behavior. She rubbed at the beginnings of a headache throbbing at her temple.
“You know I avoid the court stuff, Ted. Many offenders do benefit from therapy, but I’m just not comfortable with the risks involved and it isn’t something I have any experience with.”
He sighed. “I’d never ask you to do something you were uncomfortable with. Well, not that uncomfortable, anyway. I assure you, Tanner isn’t dangerous.”
She resisted the urge to ask why Ted didn’t help his old friend out himself. For him to contact her, she felt sure he had a valid reason. “Can you give me a few more details?”
“Without going into all the particulars, which as I said, I think would be best coming from him, it’s important to the guy that he deal with a female therapist.”
“And I’m one of dozens listed in the Niagara phone directory.”
She closed her eyes, the pounding at her temple growing stronger. “You’re really not clearing this up at all, Ted.”
“You’re right. I’m doing a piss poor job of explaining. Look, quite honestly, I don’t know why he sought you out specifically. He’s a good guy I’ve known almost all my life. I know he’s been up against a lot family-wise for a number of years now. When he asked for my help, I said I’d see what I could do, but if you’re really opposed to taking the referral, I’ll tell him to look elsewhere.”
Starting office hours later in the day because of the care her father required in the morning had filled her schedule, but it was by no means overflowing. Outside of home and business, she had precious little to do with her time. Could she really refuse her old mentor the one and only favor he’d ever asked?
“You said the name is Tanner?”
“Tanner, that’s right.”
She heard the smile in Ted’s voice when he spoke and smiled herself. “Do you think he’d be opposed to evening appointments if that’s all I could schedule in?”
“I think he’s eager enough to speak to you that he’d take whatever you offered. Does this mean I can give him the green light to call?”
More curious than concerned now, Erin said, “Sure. I’ll fit him in. But only because it’s for you, Ted.”He laughed and before hanging up promised they’d get together someday soon and he’d buy her a drink to say thanks.Erin barely had time to stir a teaspoon of sugar into the cup of tea she’d made before the phone squawked again. She settled behind her desk and reached for the receiver.
“Niagara West Family Counseling.”
“Erin Saunders, please.”
The voice sounded far away, perhaps it was long distance or the caller used a speakerphone. He was abrupt, but his tone was well modulated and polite. Not harried enough to be a stressed and desperate patient, not hyper-friendly enough to be a phone solicitor.
“Tanner. My name is Tanner.”
She rolled her eyes, and silently cursed her old mentor. When Ted said his friend needed help, she hadn’t expected he’d be desperate enough to wait in the wings and call the second she agreed.
“This is Erin Sanders. Ted Barns mentioned you’d be calling. What can I do for you, Mr. Tanner?”
“It’s just Tanner.”
“Okay, Tanner. Would you like to set an appointment for some counseling?”
“Not right away, no. I plan to get to know you over the phone first.”
She’d known by the apologetic tone in Ted’s voice that his friend wouldn’t be an easy task, but she’d had no idea the man would be this difficult right out of the starting gate. His deep voice hinted at humor and invited conversation, but she didn’t care for his arrogant assumption that he got to make the plans.
“That’s not generally how I do things.”
“So think outside the box, or in this case outside of the standard sad mug telling you his life’s woes while stretched out on your shrink’s sofa.”
“I don’t have a shrink’s sofa.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Ted tells me you’re professional through and through. I bet you have big comfortable armchairs. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say leather. A dark, no nonsense shade like brown or burgundy.”
Studiously ignoring the enticing depth of his voice, she glanced across her desk to the matched set of fashionably overstuffed leather armchairs.
“Café au lait.” She was rewarded with a small chuckle that sent a shiver tingling through her.
“I was close. You’re all set up there like a cozy little den in somebody’s house, aren’t you? I bet there’s nothing cold or clinical, nothing frilly or feminine either.”
Erin’s patience dwindled with the unusual conversation and her heart pounded in a strange, erratic rhythm. Why had she neglected her social life so long? Sure, she’d agreed to do a favor for an old friend, but it hadn’t involved changing her entire office procedure. Had things really deteriorated to a point where she was desperate enough to remain on the line with a stranger and his very strange demands just because his voice tweaked her?
“Perhaps you’d like to make that appointment and you can appease your curiosity about my office.”
“Nice try. I’d rather stick to the phone for now, if you don’t mind.”
“And if I do mind?”
“Then make an exception, just this once. Life as you know it isn’t going to end if you compromise a little, if things aren’t always done precisely the way you like.”
God, it was virtually the same thing her father frequently accused her of. Was she really so set in her ways, so pig-headed and obstinate a outsider picked up on it a few minutes into a phone conversation? Erin sighed, and wished she could say something to relieve this man of his premature opinion. Nothing came to mind and she shoved her conciliatory thoughts away and stubbornly decided to try one more time to make him see how much more sense an office visit made.
“If work or family makes scheduling difficult for you, I’m willing to accommodate you as best I can. I prefer to meet in person as I find it inappropriate to get into personal issues with a complete stranger over the phone.”
“Everything makes my schedule difficult right now, including my location.”
“If you’re not in near proximity to my office, perhaps it would be better to look for a therapist somewhere closer.”
Her curiosity was still piqued, but she was beginning to feel unnerved by the unusual request. If Ted’s friend suffered agoraphobia, a disorder that caused a patient extreme anxiety when they left the comfort and familiarity of their own home, why hadn’t he just said so? And why, for that matter would anyone think a female therapist was better equipped to deal with the situation?The startling depth of his voice yanked her from her mental wanderings.
“I promise not to get too personal until we’re a little more familiar with one another.”
Erin mentally listed all the reasons it wasn’t a good idea to conduct a therapist-patient relationship this way. The importance of being able to judge body language and facial expressions were the big ones. Except his voice was so expressive she felt as though she could see him. He’d be a big guy. She wasn’t fond of overly large men. She found they tended to be loud and swaggering, made superior by their superior height. Big guy often spelled big ego. Conversely the same could be said for short men. What they lacked in height, they often made up for in ego or attitude. She knew as a therapist she shouldn’t make those sort of sweeping generalizations, but she wasn’t merely her work, but a woman too, and had certainly dated enough men to earn her own categorizing system.
“I don’t know.”
She wondered why she hadn’t voiced the resounding, NO, coursing through her. Clearly this was a strong willed individual, accustomed to getting his own way. She didn’t want to agree, but the truth was she didn’t want to turn him down either. Life had taken on a monotone sameness lately. She sensed whatever problem plaguing Mr. Tanner would be interesting enough to stir her routine. Besides, she couldn’t let Ted down without at least giving it the old college try.
“What’s to know?” The voice had softened to a purr. “Erin, May I call you Erin? And you call me, Tanner. All my friends do, and I want us to be friends. I’m not asking you to do anything unethical. If you look in your little counselor’s handbook, I’m sure it doesn’t say anywhere we can’t do this thing over the telephone.”
Little counselor’s handbook? There he was making fun of the very services he was seeking. It irked her, but she couldn’t help smiling.
“No, I don’t suppose it says anything like that.”
“Take pity on me, Erin. I’m willing to pay you to chat with me for crying out loud.”
Her smile only spread further. “You don’t strike me as the sort of man who’d have to hire female companionship.”
Was she actually flirting with him? He chuckled appreciatively, but when he spoke again, his tone had turned serious.
“Finding the right female companionship is harder than you might think. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pay in advance for four forty-minute phone calls, my dime. If you’re still uncomfortable after the first conversation, you keep the money and I’ll go elsewhere. If things progress after four chats, we’ll meet in person. How’s that?”
She steeled herself to retain her professional demeanor. “Just one question, Tanner.”
“Are you physically impaired or disfigured in some way? Is that why you want me to know you before we meet face to face?” This time the contained chuckle was a booming belly laugh. Erin wrenched the phone away from his outburst and smiled.
“You won’t find me on the cover of the next G.Q. magazine or anything, but I can assure you I’m not living in a bell-tower like Quasimodo. I’m a little under six three, brown and blue, clean shaven, but a bit lacking in style, or so I’ve been told. No distinguishing features aside from a scar on my upper right thigh from a water skiing accident when I was seventeen. See? We’re getting to know each other already. I knew this would work. Now your turn.”
She wanted to laugh at his outrageous forwardness. Why was she suddenly struggling to visualize a water skiing scar on a long and probably darkly haired thigh? Tanner didn’t sound loud or swaggering, like the big man she’d known he would be. Instead he sounded humble and amusing. But she still wasn’t going to play his game.
“It’s inappropriate for me to give you a physical description of myself over the telephone.”
“Why? Are you impaired or disfigured in some way?”
Touché! Now she was giggling. Actually giggling like a foolish, flirtatious little schoolgirl.
“How about if I guess? Will you tell me if I’m right?”
“Is how I look important to you, Mr. Tanner?”
“Just Tanner. Mr. Tanner was my father. Not important, but I’m curious. You’re blond aren’t you?”
“Mmm, more like light brown.”
He’d slid the question in so casually she’d answered him without thinking.
“I bet you’re small and petite. Sort of delicate looking.”
“Wrong again. I’m not tall, but I’ve certainly never been considered delicate. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Not at all. I’m not into fragile, needy women.”
The way he said it, his voice deep and teasing, only made her want to ask exactly what sort of women he was into. Before she could mentally rally and say anything to steer the conversation onto a more professional track, he spoke again.
“Ted tells me you’re very business like and scholarly, but I’ll bet you’re quite pretty.”
Now the guy was just giving her the creeps. If he didn’t even want to come to the office and meet her face to face, what difference did her looks make?
“This conversation is over, Mr. Tanner.”
“I apologize that was… what’s that word you keep using? Oh yeah, inappropriate. Definitely inappropriate of me. It’s just your words are so charmingly contained and well chosen, and your voice is deep and sort of husky like a barroom singer. It’s a neat contrast and I found it sexy, but I was out of line to say so. I assure you I’m not some psycho stalker.”
Again it was almost as though he’d read her mind.
“Erin? I’m sorry. Tell me you’re not mad at me.”
“Anger implies a relationship of sorts, Mr. Tanner, familiarity. Why would I be mad at someone I don’t even know?”
An impatient sigh carried so clearly through the phone line she could almost feel his warm breath in her ear.
“Because, Miz Sanders, I spoke before I thought and I’ve made you uncomfortable, which was the farthest thing from my intention. Can we still be friends?”
His tone was wheedling, like a spoiled child begging for a treat he knew he didn’t deserve.
You owe me big time, Ted!
“If you consider paying someone to talk to you a friendship, I suppose we can.”
The reply slipped out, contrary to the thoughts ricocheting around in her mind. She felt curiosity about Tanner’s undisclosed concerns, but she also had an undeniable urge to hear more of the voice currently reverberating in her ear and causing the hair on her arms to stand up as though it had been electrically charged.
“Then you’ll do this? That’s just terrific!”
He sounded relieved, also pleased and enthusiastic enough to make her smile again. By the time they signed off, after agreeing on a suitable time for him to make his first call, her heart was racing with a weird sort of anticipation.
But in the recesses of her contained and sensible brain the little voice whispered, “What the hell have you agreed to, and why?”
Purchase THE TROUBLE WITH TESSA-
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