Ainsley returned to the clinic after receiving a text from Zaire to pick her up there instead of at the small house she kept for her visits to New York. He knew she was up to something. When she felt uncertain, she changed things up to ensure she was standing on solid ground. He’d seen her do it a million times as a new doctor during their residency. An insufferable attending physician looking to make an example of her for daring to be confident in her skills would try to back her into a corner and berate her in front of her fellow residents. She’d seemingly take it but somehow always turn the tables to show that she was right.
Her ability to stand up for herself and persevere no matter what the circumstances was one of the many reasons he’d fallen in love with her. But that same stubborn spirit was making her run from him.
His phone rang and he smiled when he saw his mother’s number on the screen.
“So, did you fix things with my future daughter-in-law yet?”
He chuckled at his mother’s ability to get straight to the point. “Not yet.”
“I don’t know what you did, but you’d better fix this. You love her and she loves you. Whatever you did to give her pause about saying yes, take care of it. You don’t want to lose a woman like Zaire. Remember what I always say.”
“If your partner doesn’t add to your value, the math ain’t right.”
His mother had repeated that to him every time he brought a new girlfriend into the fold.
“And Zaire quintuples your worth, son.”
He chuckled again, feigning hurt as he spoke. “I’m the one who’s actually your child. Aren’t you supposed to stand up for me unconditionally?”
“I do,” she replied as she gently laughed. “And I am. Zaire is the very best and I want nothing but the best for you.”
“I know you do, Mom. But I can’t force her to marry me. You know as well as I do Zaire has a mind of her own. It’s one of the things I love about her.”
“I know, and I love that about her too. How else would she keep that ego of yours in check if she couldn’t hold her own?”
“Again,” he uttered, “you’re my mom, not hers.”
“Okay, okay. You can’t force her. But you can talk to her. At the very least, find out why she’s doing such an about-face. Just don’t walk away without trying to work it out.”
“I promise, I’ll do my best.”
“Then I’m not worried,” his mother said, her voice full of confidence. “Because my son’s best always gets the job done.”
“Now, see,” he quipped, “there’s the mother I know and love. I’m about to meet Zaire for dinner tonight. I’ll call you back if anything changes.”
Ainsley ended the call and stepped out of his rental Range Rover. He took a moment to look at the clinic building that was more like a storefront than a medical facility. The window was overlaid with security bars and the front door had keypad access to gain entry.
Although he’d accompanied Zaire to visit with her mother before, yesterday had been the first time he’d stepped on the clinic’s property. During that daytime visit, he hadn’t noticed how industrial the building seemed. But tonight, he was definitely aware of the stark differences between his hospital in San Francisco and this clinic.
It wasn’t the posh setup of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center with its state-of-the-art equipment or hotel-style patient accommodations. Looking through the window from where he stood just outside the door, he saw the rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting area and the reception desk encased by hard plastic dividers separating the staff from patients.
He’d never once wondered about his safety at the hospital in San Francisco. The idea that Zaire and her mom did made him realize just how sheltered he’d been most of his professional life. Just standing here waiting to be let into the clinic, he could already see just how much he’d taken for granted.
He rang the bell. Within seconds, he heard the buzzer and pulled the door open. By the time he made his way inside, Zaire was coming through the door from the private area in the back to meet him in the waiting room.
She’d changed out of the work clothes from this morning. Always fashionable no matter what she wore, she’d exchanged the superhero scrubs for a mini sweater dress that caressed her curves, paired with black knee-high boots with three-inch heels.
The sight of her made him want to sweep her up into his arms. But the serious look on her face stopped him.
“Thanks for meeting me here. Today was brutal, and I still have some things I need to take care of. Would you mind us ordering in instead of going out?”
He watched her carefully, trying to see if she was sincere, or if this was a tactic to get him to throw up his hands and leave. Figuring the truth lay somewhere in the middle, he offered her an easy smile.
“As long as we get to spend time together and we talk about us, it doesn’t really matter where we go.”
She gave him a strained smile in return and walked back the way she came, gesturing for him to follow her. “Good, because I already ordered.”
He knew that was a power move on her part. A way to keep things under her control. He didn’t care. All he needed was time alone with her to work on them. The rest didn’t matter.
She turned a corner and entered a cramped staff room that housed a small sofa, a table, a mini fridge and sink. There were Chinese take-out containers strewn across the table. She washed her hands in the tiny sink and took a seat. He went to wash his hands too, and when he was done, she patted the empty cushion next to her, beckoning him to sit down.
“Looks like I’ll finally get to taste this superior Brooklyn Chinese food you’re always talking about.” He sat down, grabbing a plate and some plastic utensils.
“You have not lived until you’ve had soy sauce chicken. Nothing in California compares.”
They filled up their plates, eating in silence for the first few moments until he couldn’t take it any longer.
“So, you gonna tell me what’s going on?”
She didn’t look up from her food, just continued staring intently at her plate as she pushed her fork carefully through her pork fried rice.
“Ainsley, is your ego really that big that you can’t imagine a woman turning your marriage proposal down?”
“Stop trying to bait me into an argument by insulting my pride. This isn’t about my ego, Zaire, and you know it. We were happy. Then all of a sudden you up and leave. What’s going on?”
She laid her fork down carefully on her plate and grabbed a paper napkin to wipe her mouth and hands.
“Look around, Ainsley, and tell me what you see.”
“Four walls covered with the usual industrial white paint medical facilities are known for?”
She let out an exasperated breath as she turned to him. “You know damn well the only places with industrial white paint at UCSF Medical Center are the ORs. That place looks like Martha Stewart herself came in with her magic wand.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose, and he felt the tense set of her body next to him.
“This is a clinic for the poor and uninsured. We count ourselves lucky if a patient actually has Medicare or Medicaid. We don’t have an abundance of resources and niceties like UCSF. There’s no concierge medicine practiced here.”
He looked at her and narrowed his gaze. “I’m not exactly sure what you’re trying to say, Zaire. Pretty or not, you know damn well we provide quality medical care. It’s not all about the packaging.”
“I wasn’t implying that UCSF doesn’t provide quality care. What I am saying is the world you come from is very different from mine. It wasn’t until you started talking about building your family’s legacy when you proposed that I realized marrying you would mean pouring everything into the thing that defines your family, while completely ignoring mine.”
He took a breath, preparing to speak, but she held up her hand, interrupting him. “This clinic can’t compete with UCSF. But even so, that doesn’t mean the work we do here isn’t as important. I want to do more than spend a few weeks working here when I come home to visit my mom.”
“I have never asked you to be ashamed of this clinic. I’ve asked you several times over the years if I could come along and spend time here with you and your mom. I even went as far as getting my medical license in New York to make it a reality. You always turned me down. So if anyone is ashamed of this clinic, it’s you and not me. Having and liking nice things is not the same as being a snob, Zaire. Don’t ever paint me with that superficial brush again.”
He could see the muscles of her jaw tighten as her eyes narrowed into slits.
“Ainsley, you’re a pampered prince who’s used to having everything he’s ever wanted handed to him. I’m not saying you didn’t work hard for all you’ve accomplished, but don’t act like the path and the vehicle weren’t already waiting for you.”
He was pissed now. He stood up, hoping to find somewhere to pace, but the square footage was limited. He planted his hands on his hips and looked down at her. “This is bullshit and you know it. My upbringing doesn’t have anything to do with why you turned down my proposal. Good try, though. I almost fell for it.”
She huffed, standing up and crossing her arms. “The hell it doesn’t,” she spat. “When you went on and on about us building the best and brightest branch of your family’s legacy, I realized as much as I wanted to help you do that, I needed to do that for this clinic, the legacy I’ve all but left behind. I’d love to marry you, Ainsley, but this is where I’m needed, where I belong. And you with your posh background would never give up all you have to be here with me. Even if you would, I wouldn’t let you.”
Her eyes softened, and instantly he understood what the real problem was. “This isn’t about me, Zaire. This is about your fear that I’ll reject you because of your background. You’re leaving just in case I reject you. Well, news flash, I don’t give a damn where you came from, where we live or work. All I care about is spending the rest of my life with you. So if you want to set up shop here in East New York, I will too. Because the only thing that matters to me is you.”
Zaire swallowed the lump in her throat. Of all the things she expected him to say, this wasn’t it.
Well, what are you gonna do now?
She closed her eyes to regroup. Confident she could still get her point across, she looked at him while a devious smirk spread across her lips.
“You say that,” she began. “But we both know the moment you can’t walk to your large, private office and sip your fancy coffee you’ll be on the first plane back to the West Coast.”
“Try me.” His eyes were hard with determination and she realized she’d have to break him to get him to see the truth.
So be it.
“Bet.” She confidently flung the word at him. “I’ll entertain the idea of us getting back together and marrying under two conditions. First, you spend a week working here in the clinic to see how the other half lives. Second, you help me plan the community Kwanzaa party my mother throws every year.”
Her smile grew, because she knew he’d never give up practicing in the lap of luxury to slum with her. She kept her gaze leveled at him until she saw the slight tick in his jaw and the almost undetectable waver in his stare. To the untrained eye, he was the picture of calm. To her, she could tell he was terrified.
“You think you know me so well.”
She did, which was why she was so confident she’d won the game they were playing until she saw a spark of mischief and competition in his eyes.
“You’re on. Challenge accepted.”
Well damn, he did.
She definitely wasn’t expecting that. She’d tried to call his bluff and he hadn’t backed down. Now what was she supposed to do?
“Fine,” she said, fighting to keep the nervous vibrations out of her voice. “We open at eight in the morning. Come in at six thirty so I can give you a quick orientation.”
“See you then, Dr. Paige.”
He headed toward the door with a smug look painted on his face. “I hope you’re ready to hold up your end of the bargain, Zaire. Because I’m not letting you go.”
And as he walked through the door, she dropped back onto the sofa cushion, wondering what the hell had happened. Blowing out an exasperated breath, she spoke to the empty room.
“You done stepped in it now, Zaire.”
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