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Excerpt: Clutch Player

Excerpt: Clutch Player

Book 9: Clover Park Series

Jared Reynolds barreled toward danger his whole life. Today was no exception. He floored the accelerator in his Ford pickup truck, speeding toward his stepbrother Vince’s house on a Saturday at eight a.m. after a text that said simply: Clutch player, you’re up. Emergency.His brothers nicknamed him clutch player because he was the guy who came through in a difficult situation. He lived for this shit. His adrenaline was pumping through his veins, and he made the ten-minute drive across town in five minutes flat.

He jiggled the knob. Locked. He leaned on the doorbell, hoping it was nothing wrong with his sister-in-law Sophia, who was newly pregnant. He had a medical supply bag with him just in case because he was the doctor in the family. He was an orthopedic surgeon, but he could do an emergency patch before transport to the hospital. The thought of something happening to the baby had him pounding on the door.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Finally, Vince Marino, his older stepbrother by five years, a bulky-with-muscles construction worker with a booming voice that took shit from no one, opened the door, took one look at him and said, “Do you have a peppermint candy?”

Jared burst past him and into the living room, where he looked around wildly for the emergency. “Where is she? Upstairs?” He was already halfway up the stairs when Vince called him back.

“She’s in the bathroom off the kitchen.”

He turned and raced back to the small bathroom, stopping short at the closed door. “Sophia, it’s Jared. Can I come in?”

He heard the distinct sound of retching.

“No!” Sophia hollered.

He turned to Vince, who was pacing in the small galley kitchen. “Is she hurt? Is there blood?”

Vince stopped pacing and gave him a pained look. “No, just a lot of barf.”

The pieces clicked into place as Jared realized what he had here was nothing more than a nervous first-time father. It wasn’t that Vince didn’t understand pregnancy—he’d taken a crash course in it as soon as he was asked to be a godfather last year—it was just that it was happening to Sophia. Vince’s big heart couldn’t take watching her suffer. Jared’s adrenaline slowed, making him tired and wondering what the hell he was doing here at eight a.m. on a Saturday. It was supposed to be his day off.

“Geez, Vince, I was in full-throttle mode. Don’t text me it’s an emergency when it’s not.”

Vince shoved both hands in his brown hair, making his dark brown eyes appear even larger and filled with alarm. “She’s gonna starve little Vince!”

“She’s seven weeks, right?” Jared asked in his confident doctor tone.


“Perfectly normal. The baby’s getting what it needs and Sophia’s fine.”

“She’s not fine!” Vince barked. “It’s like The Exorcistin there!”

Sophia emerged from the bathroom in pink pajamas, her olive skin blanched, her long dark brown hair up in a messy ponytail. “Thanks, Vince, it’s always nice to be compared to someone possessed. Hi, Jared.” He raised a hand in greeting, and she turned to Vince. “I told you I’m fine. You didn’t need to call Jared. Just go.”

“I’m not leaving you like this,” Vince said. “Jared’ll do it.”

“Do what?” Jared asked.

Sophia headed for the nearby living room, and Vince trailed after her, stopping abruptly when Sophia whirled. She pointed to her forehead and then to Vince in some kind of silent communication before walking away. Vince retreated to the kitchen, where Jared stood, leaning against the counter.

“What’s with the hand signals?” Jared asked.

“Hell if I know,” Vince said. “It’s like PMS on steroids around here.”

Jared gave him a sympatheticwomen, what can you dolook while working hard to tone down his glad it’s not mevibe. Vince turned and started digging around in a cabinet while Jared waited impatiently for Vince to explain what he needed him to do. Since he was up early on his day off, he could work more on the deck he was building off the back of his house. He loved working with tools whether they were on a house, a car, or a human body.

He cocked his head at the strange sight in front of him. It appeared Vince was making tea. He watched Vince fill the teakettle, set it on the stove over a huge roaring flame, and take out tea bags.

“Ginger tea,” Vince said as if that explained all of his surprising domestic skill.

“Ah, Vince?”

Vince looked over his shoulder briefly before taking a delicate teacup with pink flowers out of the cabinet along with a matching saucer. “What?”

Jared valiantly bit back every dainty princess remark that immediately came to mind, purely out of self-preservation. “What do you need me to do?”

Vince finished arranging everything he apparently needed for tea, including a small set of tongs and a tiny spoon. Jared pressed his lips tightly together. It was right on the tip of his tongue, Princess Vince, one lump or two?Except Vince might take that literally and give him two lumps. To the head.

But then Vince turned, and what he said next was no laughing matter. “You’re going to be Captain Cuddle.”

Jared put his hands up. “No.”

Captain Cuddle was a porcupine from their mom’s well-known picture-book series, The Huddle-Cuddles. He’d run into Vince on a Captain Cuddle visit to the pediatric hematology-oncology ward of Eastman Hospital (where Jared worked) one Saturday a few years back. Curious, he’d insisted on tagging along, and Vince let him after Jared swore never to breathe a word about it. He’d watched as Vince donned a red T-shirt with a felt C on the front, red eye mask, blue cape, and worst of all, a gray knit cap with gray yarn that stuck up all over his head for quills. It was his superhero version of the porcupine from the book. Vince had been playing the part ever since his friend’s son, Jaden, was diagnosed with cancer (and had continued even after Jaden’s death because the kids loved Captain Cuddle). And while Jared respected what Vince did, he had a rep to protect at the hospital. No nurse would hook up with him if they saw him in that getup. And nurses were his main source of hookups, given that he spent nearly all of his time at work.

Vince advanced on him. “Yes. I can’t let the kids down and neither can you.”

Jared shook his head vigorously. “I don’t know the first thing about kids. I don’t know what to say or—”

“Just be friendly,” Vince barked. “Read the freaking picture books. Easy.”

“Ask Angel.” His stepbrother Angel was a school social worker. He worked with kids all the time. Jared knew his strengths—intricate surgeries that gave his patients use of their hand again, fixing up his house, making the ladies smile with satisfaction. Not only that, he lived up to his nickname, clutch player, because just like in baseball—bottom of the last inning, two outs—he’d hit the winning run. It was about performing under pressure, coming through when you were needed most. Like last year when everyone in his family was freaking out about his stepdad Vinny’s cancer diagnosis, Jared had come through, despitehis worry. He made sure Vinny had the best doctors, had personally reviewed every test and treatment option, and made sure he had the best home healthcare. He couldn’t take full credit for Vinny’s recovery, it was partly his stepdad’s strength, partly good medicine, but he knew he’d been the advocate his stepdad needed. Now Vinny was cancer-free. Life-or-death situations called for a clutch player. Notlife or porcupine.

Vince grunted. “Angel’s tutoring on Saturday mornings. It’s good money. You know he’s saving for a house.”

Jared felt a pang of guilt. He and Angel were both thirty, but Jared had been able to buy his house at twenty-four when he’d inherited a large sum of money from his biological father. Angel had been scrimping and saving for years on a social worker’s salary. He tried to think of another brother who could fill in. There had to be at least one of his five brothers who could relate to kids.

“What about Gabe?” Jared asked. His oldest brother, Gabe, had a ten-month-old son, Miles. That automatically made him the better choice.

Vince jabbed him in the chest. “No one else is finding out about this gig. You’re the only one who knows. You think I want to open myself up to that kind of ridicule at Sunday dinner?”

Before Jared could suggest Vince continue doing it himself, Sophia raced by, hand over her mouth, and rushed into the bathroom. The sounds of retching were unmistakable.

Vince raised a brow. “See? I’m the daddy and my job starts now. Wait here.” He stalked out of the room.

Jared considered escape, but he knew Vince would hunt him down. He only lived ten minutes away in the same town of Eastman. Vince returned with a large duffel bag that Jared assumed held the costume and a stack of Huddle-Cuddle books.

Jared made one last-ditch effort. “I’m really not the right guy for this job.” He was too cool to be a porcupine.

Vince set the books on the counter and shoved the bag into Jared’s hands. “What’re you so afraid of? You jump out of airplanes on a regular basis. These are sick kids stuck in bed.”

“Skydiving is nothing like being a por—”

“Just do it,” Vince snarled, all in his face.

Jared stared into those fierce dark brown eyes and considered again how to pass the buck.

“You don’t have to baby me,” Sophia announced as she returned to the kitchen.

Jared gestured to Sophia. “She said it. You don’t have to baby her.”

The teakettle whistled, which got Vince out of his face as he turned to tend to the tea. A few moments later, the scent of ginger filled the tiny kitchen.

“This’ll help with the nausea,” Vince told Sophia.

She raced back to the bathroom.

Vince raised a brow at Jared. “See?”

“Perfectly healthy,” Jared pronounced.

Vince narrowed his eyes into slits of older-brother menace, a classic intimidation move that really worked.

Sophia returned a moment later. “False alarm. Vince, please, he obviously doesn’t want to do it. Not everyone can do what you do. Stop babying me and do what you do best. Make those kids’ day.”

“Smart woman,” Jared chimed in.

“I’m not babying you!” Vince boomed. “I’m babying the baby. Someone has to make sure little Vince doesn’t starve!”

Sophia bit her lip, her eyes shiny with unshed tears that promised a lot of flowers, chocolate, and maybe jewelry would soon be in order.

“Now go sit down and sip your ginger tea!” Vince barked, not seeming to notice the shiny eyes. He turned to Jared. “Go! Ask for the nurse Emily Maguire. She’ll show you what to do.”

Sophia spoke in a quavery voice. “I told you I dreamed it’s going to be a girl. Are you still going to love a girl?”

“Course I will,” Vince replied. “I’ll treat her just the same.” He jabbed a finger in the air and smiled. “She’ll be the first female quarterback in the NFL!”

Sophia wailed and ran out of the room. Jared winced.

Vince turned to him, his brows scrunched together like they had to confer on this confusing situation. “Now what’d I say?”

Jared picked up the duffel bag and stack of books from the counter. Vince had his hands full at home, that was for sure. “Fine, I’ll do it. One time.”

~ ~ ~

Emily Maguire stood outside of her patient’s room, blinking back tears. Ten-year-old Chris Messina had just returned with his third recurrence of cancer. The doctors were not optimistic. She swallowed over the lump in her throat. As a pediatric oncology nurse, she knew not all of her patients would survive, yet she couldn’t help getting attached. She’d lost Jaden two years ago shortly after he went into the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). She’d been away at her sister’s wedding when he’d landed in PICU and hadn’t taken any time off since then. Her patients needed her too much for that.

Chris’s dad, Tony, had just left to get some of Chris’s things from home, and she’d promised to call immediately if he took a turn for the worse. She gave herself a few moments of silent grieving for Chris’s poor prognosis before taking a deep breath and heading to the nurses’ station to get the goody bag ready for Vince’s Captain Cuddle visit. She had to be strong for her patients’ sake. Captain Cuddle was the bright spot in the children’s week, which made it the bright spot in hers too. She added some pumpkin squishy balls and Halloween finger puppets to the bag since tomorrow was Halloween. A deep, unfamiliar voice rumbled behind her.

“Where can I find Emily Maguire?”

She turned and immediately became suspicious. Who was this imposter? He was dressed in the Captain Cuddle outfit she’d made, but this man wasn’t as tall as Vince or as bulky, and he had light brown hair sticking out of the bottom of the cap, fair skin, and green eyes. Vince was a dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian man. “I’m Emily. Where’s Vince?”

The man stepped closer and spoke near her ear, his breath hot against her skin, bringing a jolt of awareness to her long-dormant libido. “He asked me to step in today.”

She met his gorgeous green eyes through the red eye mask and her throat went dry. She reminded herself to think of the children, not the fact that she was way overdue to get back on the horse, so to speak, and no horses had given her the slightest giddyup in her…pulse in a very long time. She swallowed and worked on sounding authoritative. “I still don’t know who you are. You could be a thief or—”

“Gimme a break! You think any self-respecting thief would show up in this outfit?” He lowered his voice and looked around. A few other nurses looked over curiously. “Can we just get this over with?”

“Not until I know who you are. I may have to call security.” She grabbed the phone on the nearby desk. His hand closed over hers, warm and strong. She ignored the electric sensation traveling up her arm at his touch. The sudden hot flash and thrumming pulse were a little harder to ignore. Geez, it had been way too long if Captain Cuddle was turning her on. The man was dressed like a porcupine, for crying out loud!

He pushed the mask up to his forehead. “I’m Jared Reynolds. I work orthopedics upstairs. Vince is my stepbrother.”

She slid her hand out of his grip. “Oh…I’ve heard of you, Dr. Reynolds.” He had quite a reputation among the nurses. Now that she knew who he was, she cooled considerably. She was done with players.

“Call me Jared.” He winked. “So…what’d you hear?”

She pursed her lips. They called him “Dr. One-And-Done.” Everyone knew he hooked up with someone once, never to be heard from again. Still the female nurses flocked to him because the other thing they said was that it was worth it. Hmph. If they could see him now, looking boastful while wearing a gray knit cap with “quills” sticking up all over the place, they wouldn’t be flocking to him. He looked absurd. She worked hard to remember that absurdity as she took in his broad shoulders tapering into a trim waist and muscular legs encased in faded jeans. She forced her gaze back to his eyes that held a glint of amusement as if he knew she’d been checking him out. His rep and cockiness reminded her she needed a man like this like she needed a hole in her heart. Been there, done that, still recovering, thank you very much.

He flashed a smile that made dimples appear in his stubbled cheeks. “Is it my surgical skills or…something else?”

She felt herself flush. “Something else,” she replied primly, and when he smiled even wider, she added, “Nothing good.”

He raised a brow. “Really? I’ve never had any complaints.”

That wasn’t surprising. He didn’t stick around long enough to hear any. She pushed that uncharitable thought down. The important thing was the kids. Then a thought occurred to her. “Is Vince okay?”

She’d had the privilege of working with Vince Marino for the past two years as his alter ego, Captain Cuddle, and he was fabulous. So generous, so big-hearted, so sweet.

Dr. Reynolds, err, Jared, pushed his eye mask back down in place and set his mouth in a flat line. “Vince is fine. He’s acting like an overprotective nut because of Sophia’s morning sickness. I told him it was perfectly normal.”

“Aww, he’s so sweet. He’s going to make a great dad.”

Jared huffed. “Yeah, sweet. Alright, where do I start?”

She eyed him. “Do you have any experience with kids?”

“Sure, I have a nephew, Miles.”

She frowned. “He’s just a baby. Vince talks about his godson all the time. It’s different with older kids.” She handed him the goody bag. “Okay, start with Chris’s room. He’s the sickest on the ward. You want to go to the kids likely to fall asleep early first. Speak to them in a cheerful tone, read a story, and offer them a prize from the goody bag. Think you can handle all that?”

“I’m on it,” he said, striding forward. He stopped abruptly. “Which room is Chris’s?”


He nodded and headed over. She followed behind him quietly and leaned near the door to hear how his first visit went.

“Hey,” Jared said. “What do you think of the Sox’s chances?” His tone wasn’t cheerful like she’d instructed, but more casual like he was chatting with someone in the elevator.

She closed her eyes and stifled a groan. But then she heard Chris’s soft voice answer, “The season is over.”

“Well, we shouldn’t give up hope yet,” Jared replied firmly. “There’s always next year.”

Her throat tightened, wondering if Chris would make it to next year, while at the same time appreciating Jared’s underlying message, Hang on, kid.

Chris spoke up. “Hey! You have green eyes. Captain Cuddle has brown eyes.”

“I’m his stepbrother Captain Huddle. He asked me to visit today because he had to take care of Mrs. Cuddle. She wasn’t feeling very well.”

“Oh,” Chris said softly. “But there’s a C on your shirt! Huddle starts with an H.”

“The C stands for captain. I’m gonna read you The Huddle-Cuddle School Smashup. This one was always my favorite because of the playground brawl.”

“Was it bloody?” Chris asked eagerly.

“Oh yeah,” Jared enthused.

“Cool!” Chris exclaimed.

She shook her head with a smile. That wasn’t true, she knew, but it seemed Jared was quick to pick up on kids’ cues to what they were secretly hoping for. Maybe he would do okay as a onetime stand-in for Vince.

~ ~ ~

Jared finished his three-hour shift as what he’d now renamed himself, Captain Huddle, and leaned against the high half wall of the nurses’ station, completely exhausted. Even sick in bed, kids were a lot of work. They always wanted more stories, had an endless supply of questions, and took forever to pick prizes. He’d resorted to giving each kid a handful of prizes before moving on. And he had to admit it was damn difficult to see kids looking so sick and not be able to help them. He was a doctor who couldn’t heal—the absolute worst. His own patients were mostly healthy adults with joint problems or injuries. It took a special kind of person to work day in, day out with terminally ill kids. He had to give Vince some credit too for volunteering to do this every Saturday for the past two years.

He spotted Emily walking down the hallway and followed her, taking a moment to appreciate the rear view as her hips swayed and her long, glossy brown hair swung a little back and forth when she walked. Even in plain blue scrubs he could tell she had a killer bod. He was kind of an expert at the what’s-hiding-under-those-scrubs game. Her face was beautiful when she wasn’t scowling at him—kind of a heart shape with smooth skin and a hint of pink to her cheeks, a cute upturned nose, and sweet pink lips. This was definitely a nurse he wanted to get to know better. He hadn’t missed the chemistry between them that made her flush pink, or the fact that she’d checked him out, though she tried to hide her interest with some snappy comebacks.

“Hey, Emily,” he called.

She turned, and for a moment it looked like she was going to smile at him, but just as quickly it passed and she regarded him seriously. “What?”

He pushed the eye mask to the top of his head and caught up to her. “Here,” he said, handing her the empty goody bag. “The rugrats took every last prize.”

Her brown eyes widened. “That was supposed to last for two weeks!”

He shrugged. “They took forever to decide, so I let them have a bunch of crap.”

She scowled. “They each get one thing. I can’t ask Vince to give me more and more money each time.”

“Vince pays for it?”

“Yeah. The goody bag was his idea. I do the shopping and he pays.”

He dug out his wallet and pulled out several twenties. “Here, sorry.”

She pushed back the money. “No, I’m sorry. You didn’t know. I’ve got it.” She rubbed her forehead. “It’s been a rough morning.” She did look a little worn down, and now that he’d toured the ward, he could see how it could take a toll.

“Hey, you need a break? I could take you out to dinner.”

Her lips twitched. “No, thank you, Captain Cuddle.”

He yanked off the quill cap and eye mask. He’d nearly forgotten he was wearing it. Heat crept up his neck. Dammit. He never blushed. Still, he tried again, wanting to lift the heavy burden of her job from her shoulders, wanting to see her smile. “Drinks?”

“I’m afraid your reputation precedes you, so no,” she replied, all sassy.

He grinned. “But that should make you say yes. I can be a lot of fun.” He knew the nurses must speak highly of him because, after he’d scored his first few happy hookups, word got out and women chased himdown when they wanted a good time. He always used protection, though, to ensure it was safe fun for everyone. Anyway, lately that had been getting kind of old. Seeing his older brothers settled down and insanely happy had made him start to think, with the right woman, it might be…kinda nice.

Or not. It could go the other way too—a total disaster—as he well knew.

She stared at his chest and then his bicep before yanking her gaze back to his eyes. “I’m not in the market for fun.” Though he could tell she was considering it. “Tell Vince I said hi.” She turned and walked away.

He deflated. It was the first time he’d gotten a noin so long he almost didn’t know what to do with himself. “Hey, Emily,” he called.

She turned. “What?”

“What kind of person doesn’t like fun?”

She raised a hand above her head and pointed to herself before waving him off. She stepped into a patient’s room.

“Your loss,” he mumbled to himself before heading to the bathroom to change out of the costume. He didn’t want to ruin the superhero illusion for the kids if they caught him transforming back to a regular guy again. He immediately felt better dressed like himself and headed out the door. He drove straight to Vince’s house. At least that humiliating Captain Huddle experience was over. He’d put the whole thing behind him and pretend it never happened.

As soon as Vince opened the door, Jared handed over the costume bag.

Vince stepped back, out of reach, and the bag hit the floor. “Nope. Until we get to the second trimester, it’s all you. She’s gonna starve little Vince if I don’t keep an eye on her.”

“It’s Isabella!” Sophia hollered from somewhere inside.

Vince jerked a thumb behind him. “You see what I’m dealing with here.” He rolled his eyes and then hollered over his shoulder. “We don’t know that until the twenty-week ultrasound!” He turned back to Jared. “I know more than her on account of my godfather preparation.” He hollered over his shoulder again. “Read the book, Soph! Then you can speak to me with knowledge.” He added under his breath, “Not ignorance.”

Jared ground his teeth. “How long are we talking?”

Vince shrugged. “Best-case scenario? Six, seven more weeks.”

“Seven more weeks!”

“What’s the big deal? The kids scare you off so fast?” He tossed the costume bag, and Jared caught it in the chest with one hand. “Don’t be a wuss. You’re a fucking doctor.”

Jared squared his shoulders. “I know I’m a fucking doctor. Dressing like a porcupine isn’t in the job description.”

“Well, it should be.” Vince glanced over his shoulder and then turned back to him. “I’m gonna get her some saltines and ginger ale. You got this, okay? You’re my clutch player.”

The nickname that normally felt like a compliment felt like a damn straitjacket now. It wasn’t just the humiliating costume. It was the helpless feeling of not being able to fix the kids. He alwaysfixed his patients.

“Vince, the kids—”

Vince shut the door in his face.

“Like you better,” Jared grumbled to the door. Dammit. He turned back to his truck, mumbling about aggravating brothers and no-fun brunettes with sexy bods the whole way home.

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