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Friends Without Benefits

By´╝ÜPenny Reid

Chapter 1


I recognized him instantly even though the last time I had seen him in person he was seventeen, naked, and asleep. I was sixteen, haphazardly dressed, and sneaking out his window.

Niccolò (aka Nico) Manganiello.

Nico.

Freaking Nico Manganiello.

Rooted in place—one hand holding the informed consent forms and patient brochures, the other hand clutching my chest—I could only gape in abject horror. Paired with the horror was also wonder and, much to my infinite frustration, feminine appreciation.

I was entirely unprepared.

Everything about this Tuesday had been perfectly normal until this moment. I arrived to work at 4:30 a.m. for my shift. I argued in the locker room with my nemesis, Dr. Megalomaniac Meg. I planted a lotion-exploding, unopened gag box of latex gloves in Dr. Ken Miles’s ER clinic room for my annual April Fool’s day joke. I worked through the backlog of charting I’d left the day before. And, finally, was paged to the fourth floor clinical research unit to discuss a research study with a family.

Freaking Niccolò freaking Manganiello.

He was shorter than I expected, but taller than I remembered. He looked different in person than he did on TV, older. On his show he always towered over his guests, but looking at him now I guessed his height at about six foot or six foot one.

His hair wasn’t brown anymore; it had matured into raven black. His face was more angular, strong, as were his shoulders. But, even from this distance, I knew his eyes were the same jade green.

Nico was standing in profile, his muscled arms crossed over his chest; he leaned against the arm of the couch and spoke in hushed tones to an older woman. I instantly recognized the woman as his mother, Rose; she was sitting on the beige sofa and a little girl—who I did not recognize—was on her lap. The child was clutching a blue blanket.

Blood rushed to and pounded between my ears, ushering away my ability to hear and replacing it with a steadily increasing rhythm that seemed to chant: oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

The spike in adrenaline diminished just enough to allow me to recognize that my mouth was agape in dismay, my eyes were widened in stunned disbelief, and no one had yet realized that I’d entered the room.

I gulped mostly air, closed my mouth, and turned; I hoped that I could exit unseen and find Megalomaniac Meg. She would be delighted to administer the study informed consent if I told her a hot celebrity was in the room.

I managed two steps before Rose’s voice called out to my retreating back, “Oh, nurse—can you help us? We’re waiting for Dr. Finney.”

I stopped, my shoulders bunched. Before I could nod or grunt then run off in a mad dash, I spotted a very stern looking Dr. Botstein—my research mentor and somewhat of a stodgeball—rounding the corner of the fourth floor clinical research unit.

My eyes flickered to the object in his fist. He was holding a box of latex gloves and he was covered in white lotion.

I groaned.

It was the most epic fail, no win situation in the history of forever.

My choices were obvious yet odious.

I could step into the hall, meet Dr. Botstein’s comprehensive berating in full, plain view of everyone. And, by everyone, I really meant Nico Manganiello.

Or I could step back into the encounter room, confront the most monumental mistake of my life, then leave to take the Botstein reprimand on the chin at some point later. Botstein wouldn’t interrupt my administration of the consent; as impatient as he was, he would likely get tired of waiting and leave.

Usually the confrontation with Dr. Botstein wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But the thought of Nico observing it. . . and I was sixteen again.

It was times like these I wished for invisibility superpowers or a diagnosis of insanity.

Dr. Botstein’s weighty scowl-stare was the deciding factor. My gaze dropped to the linoleum at my feet and I took a reflexive step backward into the room.

“Nurse?” Rose’s voice sounded behind me.

“Uh–” I tucked a long, loose strand of hair behind my ear and reached for the door; I closed it as though that were my intention all along. “Let me just shut this door.”

I didn’t glance up as it swung closed. I was certain Dr. Botstein’s dark expression remained the same or else increased in severity and menace. But I had no time to dwell on his level of enragement. I would feel his wrath later.

The full weight of my decision, to close myself in a clinic room with Nico, landed like an anvil in the pit of my stomach. I gathered a deep, steadying breath; held it in my lungs for a brief moment. I tried to still my shaking hands by tightening them into fists.

He is just a guy. Just a guy you slept with once. Just the guy who took your virginity. Just the guy who tops your list of people you never want to see again.

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