“Thanks,” Larissa murmured, feeling sick to her stomach. She didn’t say anything as Gabe started up the car and drove away. She knew it would only be a matter of time until Annie was hurt again.
The only question remaining was whether or not she’d survive the next attack.
Gabe glanced over at Larissa, who’d been unusually quiet during the ride back to his place. “How about some steaks on the grill?” he offered.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise, and he mentally braced himself for rejection. “Actually,” she said slowly, “that sounds wonderful.”
Despite his intent to keep Larissa in the friendship category, he was thrilled that they’d be spending the evening together. He assumed that Larissa didn’t want to be alone, and he couldn’t blame her, especially since he knew she was as depressed as he was about Annie’s situation.
But he was glad all the same.
“I hope you don’t mind if I stop at a grocery store,” he said. “I need to pick up something to go along with the steaks.”
“Sounds good. I’d be happy to pay for salad fixings,” she offered.
“I’ll pay for the salads,” he said firmly as he executed a U-turn in the road to head back toward town. A few minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the local grocery store.
He helped her out of the car, once again distracted by her vanilla scent. He quickly pulled her crutches out of the back seat and handed them to her. “Ready?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said, swinging into a crutch walk like a pro.
He grabbed a basket and followed her to the produce section. “Oooh, the tomatoes look delicious,” she gushed.
He grimaced. “If you like tomatoes.”
Her jaw dropped in mock horror. “You don’t like tomatoes? How is that possible? Everyone likes tomatoes!”
“I don’t,” he said with a wry grin. “But help yourself. Do you like cucumbers?”
“Of course, what’s not to like?”
“What about salad dressing?” he asked when they’d filled the basket with veggies. “I have ranch dressing at home, but if you want something else, that’s fine.”
“I love ranch dressing, so I’m good.”
Ridiculous to be pleased that they had some tastes in common. They made their way over to the checkout lines, and he I ignored the surprised glances in his direction as he paid for the groceries. It was a little late now to be worried about the gossip mill, considering he’d already attended church with Larissa.
After the way Rebecca had ruined his reputation at Madison, he’d tried to avoid attracting attention here in Crystal Lake. He hadn’t been seen with a woman before now.
But there was no denying that he’d been living a lonely existence. And what was the harm of picking up veggies for dinner with Larissa? He didn’t care what people said about him outside the hospital. As long as his reputation within the Emergency Department remained untarnished, he was fine.
The drive back to his house didn’t take long. Once inside, Larissa took over the kitchen. “I’ll make the salads,” she said, running the veggies under water to clean them. “You can grill the steaks.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he teased as he pulled the steaks out of the fridge, where he’d been marinating them all afternoon. The fact that he’d planned on having dinner with Larissa all along made him pause for a moment.
Was he really considering breaking his cardinal rule against dating co-workers?
No, he wasn’t. He couldn’t afford to do anything that might jeopardize his career. They were friends, that’s all. And friends could certainly share dinner on occasion. Not a big deal.
He glanced up from the grill when Larissa came out through the patio doors, his breath catching in his throat at the pretty sight she made with her flowery skirt, her pink top and the soft smile that tugged at her mouth as she dropped into one of the deck chairs. “Salads are ready whenever you are,” she announced. “And don’t worry, nary a tomato to be found in yours. Mine, of course, is loaded with them.”
His response was strangled in his throat, and he had to pull himself together with an effort. “Sounds great,” he finally managed. “And how do you like your steak?” he asked, trying to find his balance even as his thoughts raced. How had this suddenly turned into a date?