Sophia sat at her desk, studying the dental images that had just been emailed to her. Another complicated case that required her expertise. She smiled as she leaned closer to get a better look at the case of xerostomia. A shiver of excitement raced up her back.
Was it normal to get a thrill from sticking your hands in someone’s mouth?
Should she seek out help?
But there was something so comforting about the security of her job. If there was a problem in front of her, she could, and would, figure out a way to fix it. That certainty brought her more joy than anything else.
“Soph, your three o’clock is ready.” Kari, her dental hygienist and best friend, popped her head through Sophia’s open doorway.
Sophia nodded and slid her desk chair back. “He’s all cleaned and ready to go?”
Kari wiggled her eyebrows, making Sophia sigh. It was the same look Kari got every time a hot guy came into the practice.
“What is it now?” Sophia asked, hesitating to grab her glasses and slip them over her head.
Kari shrugged. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that he is hot. Like, scorching sun hot.” She leaned against the doorframe and fanned herself with her hand.
Sophia rolled her eyes. “You’re married, Kar,” she said, motioning to the giant rock on Kari’s left hand.
“Tony and I have an understanding. Besides, he knows I would never cheat. I just look at the merchandise.”
Sophia chuckled as she passed by Kari and made her way out into the hall. “He’s a very understanding guy.” She gave Kari a pointed look.
“He’s perfect. The one for me.”
Sophia swallowed, a lump forming in her throat. Sure, she played it off like she didn’t care that she had literally no one in her life. Her mom and brother had died the year after she graduated. And her dad? He was the one person she refused to think about.
“Well, most of us aren’t as lucky as you,” Sophia said, smiling at Kari as she made her way down the hall to where the row of treatment rooms faced the windows that lined the far wall After passing by a few rooms occupied by other patients, Sophia got to her chair.
She grabbed the chart from the counter and flipped it open. She liked to take a moment to learn a little about her patients before walking in. It gave her time to prepare.
“Good Mor—” she started to say, stopping when she read the patient’s name. Noah Elliot. Her heart sank. No. It had to be someone different. It couldn’t be the same Noah Elliot that had broken her heart in high school.
That Noah Elliot had left. And this being the small town of Rockport, Massachusetts, there was no way he’d return. At least, that’s what he’d said to her after their senior prom.
He was leaving this town and never coming back. There was nothing for him here but bad memories of a painful past.
She swallowed as she composed herself and stepped closer to whichever Noah Elliot was in her chair.
It’s not the same Noah. It’s not, she chanted in her mind.
She held her breath as she approached the chair. From where she stood, she could see the man’s dark brown—almost black—hair. It was styled in a tousled, unkempt sort of way. She could see his well-shined dress shoes and creased suit pants.
This wasn’t Noah. The Noah she knew was an outdoors, rough-it kind of guy. Relief flooded her chest as she smiled and introduced herself. “Good afternoon. I’m Sophia, and I’ll be checking out your teeth today.”
The man turned around, and her heart sank. Noah’s familiar bright blue eyes greeted her. It was Noah. Her Noah—the Noah who broke her heart. What was he doing here?
She was sure she looked like an idiot. Standing there with her mouth hanging open as she tried to figure out what to say. She was in shock. Or maybe she was having a brain embolism.
“Why?” The words tumbled out before she could stop herself.
Noah raised an eyebrow as his ridiculous, smooth smile spread across his lips. Why had he only gotten more good looking? It wasn’t fair.
“Hey, Soph,” he said as he straightened. An unsure expression passed over his face as his gaze roamed over her.
Good. Let him be uncomfortable. He was the one who’d broken her heart. He was the one who deserved to feel awkward.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, folding her arms and staring at him. She hoped he’d sense her anger and leave. But he didn’t. He just traded in his uneasy expression for a confident smile.
“Wow. Is this how you treat all your patients?” he asked, settling back in his chair. “I was just hoping to get my teeth checked.” He tipped his head back and stared up at the ceiling.
Sophia narrowed her eyes. He clearly wasn’t leaving. She was going to have to stick her hands in his mouth. She was going to have to sit inches away from him.
“Why, Noah? Out of all the dentists you could have seen, why me?” Heat raced to her cheeks when she realized she was being a bit presumptuous.
Maybe he was visiting someone and got a cracked tooth. Maybe he’d just called in and asked Jan, the front receptionist, to schedule him with whoever was available. Maybe he was just as surprised to see her as she was to see him.
Taking a calming breath, Sophia walked over and grabbed a set of gloves from the box on the wall.
“I guess I wanted to see you,” he said.
Her stomach dropped to the floor. So, this visit had been intentional.
“What? Why? You said you never wanted to come back here. Don’t they have good dentists in New York, or wherever you’ve been staying these past ten years?”
Ten years? Had it really been that long? She studied the floor as she slipped her gloves on. Tears were beginning to prick at the back of her lids. Why was she getting so emotional? She’d resigned herself to the fact that everyone she’d ever cared about had left. And she was fine with it. Why, all of sudden, was she breaking down now?
Clearing her throat, she slipped on her glasses, secretly hoping they would mask her emotions.
She tried to ignore the fact that he still hadn’t answered her. Instead, she sat down on her stool and pressed her foot on the button to lower the back of Noah’s chair. Within seconds, he was lying flat and staring up at her.
She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to get through this.
“I was a kid, Soph,” he finally said.
Despite her better judgement, Sophia met his gaze. It was intense, like he really wanted her to know that he hadn’t meant to hurt her. That he hadn’t meant to insinuate that staying with her was his worst-case scenario, because that night, it had felt that way.
Sure, they had only been kids. But, at that time in her life, it was the last thing she needed. Her mother and brother lived here. They were her only family. There was no way she could ever leave. It hurt her more than anything to find out that staying in this town was the last thing Noah had wanted to do.
A storm of frustration and pain brewed in her stomach. She didn’t need to be dwelling on this. Noah was her patient now. That was it. He wasn’t her ex. He wasn’t the man she’d loved. He was here to get his teeth cleaned, and that was it.
“Open,” she said, grabbing the excavator and waving toward his mouth.
He hesitated as he studied her. She could tell he wasn’t satisfied with her response, but she didn’t care. This was a path she couldn’t go down again. Getting him checked out and back on his way was the best thing she could do. She needed to protect her sanity.
He sighed and laid his head back, parting his lips.
Sophia began scrapping his teeth, pressing into spots to make sure the enamel was strong. The silence between them was palpable. She could cut the tension with a knife.
But she feared what she would say if she spoke, so she kept quiet. That was smarter than trying to talk. She had been alone when her family fell apart. She could have really used a friend—but Noah had already left.
And showng up like this wasn’t fair. At least her father knew enough to stay away. Apparently, Noah didn’t get the message.
When she was finished with the exam, she set the tools down on the tray next to her and pressed her foot on the pedal to lift him up again. Once he was sitting up, his eyes no longer studying her, she felt as if she could breathe.
Now, she just needed to get him out of here, and her life could return to normal.
“Well, everything looks great. Not sure why you made this impromptu trip to the dentist. You clearly go regularly.” She pulled off her gloves and threw them into the trash. “I guess we’ll see you in six months, but I doubt you’ll stay around long enough.”
She winced at the bite to her tone. Wow. She really needed to get a grip on her feelings, or Noah would see just how much he’d hurt her.
He straightened, pulling the blue bib from his neck. He crumpled it up and sent it sailing into the trashcan that sat in the corner. When he swung his legs around, he glanced over at her.
“So, that’s it, huh? No ‘I missed you.’ No ‘good to see you’?” He brought his gaze up to meet hers.
Sophia hated that her heart picked up speed—and that her breathing had grown shallow from the depth of his gaze. She may have forced herself to get over him, but her body had not.
She sighed and stood, taking a few steps away from him. “What do you want from me, Noah?” She crossed her arms. It was the only way she could protect herself from whatever he was about to say.
A look passed over his face as he kept his gaze on her. His eyebrows furrowed as if he were trying to figure out just what to say. Then he sighed. “I guess I just wanted to come see you. See what you’ve been up to.” He stood and closed the distance between them.
She could feel his warmth wash over her, and the smell of his cologne filled her senses. Her resolve to hate him for the rest of existence was slowly wavering. Warning bells sounded in her mind, telling her to get away.
But, there was nowhere for her to go. There was a counter and cupboards behind her, blocking her retreat. And ducking down and running from the cubicle would tell him that his sexy, hovering stance had an effect on her. And showing that card was the last thing she wanted to do.
So, she gathered her wits about her and tipped her face up to meet his gaze. Even though it turned her knees to Jell-O. “Well, I’m a dentist. The rest of my life isn’t that glamorous.”
And she tried to keep it that way. After she’d run her father off, she’d made a point to enjoy her simple, non-complicated life.
He reached out his hand as if he wanted to touch her, but he hesitated. He sucked in his breath, but no words followed. After what felt like a thousand seconds, he dropped his hand and shoved both hands into his front pockets.
“It was good to see you, Soph,” he said, glancing up and smiling at her.
She wanted to say “you too” but couldn’t get the words out. She wanted to hate him. Hating the people who hurt her was the only way to keep herself sane, to keep herself safe.
“Good bye, Noah,” she said, sidestepping him and waving toward the lobby door. “I hope you have a good life.”
Noah glanced over at the door and then back to her. He hesitated but then nodded. “Got it,” he said.
Sophia was grateful that he wasn’t going to push her to explain herself.
Noah walked passed her and disappeared into the lobby. Once the door shut behind him, she leaned against the wall and let out the breath she’d been holding.
She needed a moment alone. She hurried down the hall to the last door on the left and ducked into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
At the sink, she flipped on the faucet and watched as the water rushed into the drain.
She was going to stay here until she cooled down. Here, she was safe. Here, no one could hurt her. And right now, her fragile, stitched-together heart was in danger of hemorrhaging.