BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY by Cathie Linz
Broke and skinny beat out broke and chunky every time. Leena Riley was convinced of it. She should know. She was a size sixteen, plus-size model in a swizzle-stick, size-zero world.
How ironic that now she was down on her luck, she was forced to return to her down-on-its-luck hometown of Rock Creek, Pennsylvania. Leena hadn't been back since she'd left for the big city of Chicago at eighteen and honestly hadn't missed the place one bit.
Things had changed...a little. The Tivoli theater was open again. The nail salon and comic book store were new additions. And there was a new vet in town. Looking for a receptionist. Leena pulled the Help Wanted sign out of the window as she strolled into the animal clinic.
She needed this job. It was this or work the graveyard shift at Gas4Less. Rock Creek wasn't exactly a hotbed of financial opportunities.
But the vet's office appeared to be a hotbed of total mayhem. Leena ducked as a parrot dive-bombed her while a beagle howled in the corner accompanied by a yowling cat in a carrier. Another cat, the biggest one Leena had ever seen, hissed from atop a metal file cabinet while a pair of wiry terriers yelped at the pissed-off mega-feline from down below.
The situation called for drastic measures. No problemo. Her sister Sue Ellen was the Queen of Drastic Measures so Leena instantly knew what had to be done. Putting two fingers in her mouth, Leena let out an ear-piercing whistle that made cabs on Chicago's Mag Mile squeal to a stop beside her.
The room instantly fell silent. Realizing that would only last a second or two, Leena spoke quickly. Her dad had done a stint in the Marine Corps and had never lost his drill sergeant voice. She mimicked him as she barked out orders. "Okay, terriers and owners outside. Beagle and owner in there." She pointed to an empty exam room. "Parrot, come here." She held out her hand and -- miracle of miracles -- the bird obediently flew onto it with a flurry of feathers. "Cats, as you were."
A tattoo-covered older biker dude in a leather vest and jeans moved forward. "Thanks for catching that old buzzard!"
"This your parrot?" Leena asked.
"It's a friend's. Mrs. Trimble asked me to bring the stubborn buzzard to see the doc here for a check up. She'd have my ass if he flew out the door or something."
"Why isn't he in a cage?"
The senior citizen biker dude shifted awkwardly from one booted foot the other while guiltily pointing to the cage. "I...uh...have a hard time seeing creatures jailed."
Leena calmly opened the cage door and carefully set the parrot inside. "Keep the cover over the cage if you have trouble looking at him."
"You're good with animals."
"I've worked with a few in my time." One grabby photographer at a lingerie photo shoot several months ago certainly came to mind.
The senior biker held out his beefy hand. "The name's Jerry."
"Leena Riley." Yeah, right. Leena. Another joke since she hadn't been lean a day in her life. In school they'd mocked her by chanting that she should have been named Lotsa Riley.
Of course, it hadn't helped that she'd grown up in the poorest mobile home in the Regency Trailer Park. Sure, it was supposed to be ritzier than the Broken Creek Trailer Park, but that really wasn't saying much.
The two trailer parks had a rivalry going similar to the rivalry between Rock Creek and Serenity Falls. Leena had read somewhere that Serenity Falls had recently been listed as one of the best small towns in America. Which made Rock Creek the ugly stepsister yet again.
Not that her own older sister Sue Ellen saw things that way. Of course, Sue Ellen saw things no one else did, like the face of Jesus in the fur of a llama.
Leena loved her older sister, but she didn't understand her. Few people did. Which was why Sue Ellen earned the nickname Our Lady of the Outlandish.
Baby sister Emma was the one with the brains and fancy job title in the family. Leena was the one with the big dreams, very few of which had actually come true. Not that she'd told her sisters that. No, her reports to them had been filled with plenty of optimism and major exaggerations.
Which made her homecoming all the more humiliating.
Leena was still reeling from the bigger-they-are-the-harder- they-fall jokes that had been thrown her way when her modeling agency had fired her. The Image Plus Modeling Agency in Chicago was no Wilhemina.
"And you're no Kate Dillon," her agent Irene had shot back at her before showing her the door.
Okay, so Kate was one of the leading plus-sized models. And okay, so Leena's assignments weren't photo shoots for French Vogue or even Lane Bryant. That didn't mean she was a total failure.
What about that layout for the Sears spring sales flyer last year? That had gone well, once the photographer and make-up artist had recovered from hurling after eating bad sushi they'd had catered in.
Before she could think of her other professional accomplishments, Leena was almost knocked down by a nun on the run who flew into the waiting room and rushed up to a family hidden from view by a large fiscus.
Leena heard someone say, "Is he dead?"
Great. Her first day on the job and someone has to bite the dust on her watch. Not a good omen. Should she call 911?
"You called me here to give last rites," the nun, whom Leena now recognized as Sister Mary, said.
"Yes," a little girl replied.
"To a hamster?"
"Not just any hamster," the little girl explained. "To Harry the hamster."
"I can't give last rites to a hamster," Sister Mary said.
"What's going on out here?"
Leena stared at the hunk in the white lab coat who'd just drawled that question. She knew this guy. She recognized the wicked twinkle in his blue eyes. Cole Flannigan.
She thought he'd be bartending in some tropical hotspot by now, his Hawaiian shirt hanging open to reveal his muscular chest. At least his chest had been muscular the last time she'd seen it. Of course that had been almost a decade ago.
Still, he didn't look like he'd gained a beer belly yet. In fact, his worn jeans made him look lean and extremely bedable. By a lean and equally bedable babe. Not by her, broke and chunky Leena Riley.
Had her career really taken off the way she'd told her sisters it had, why then things would have been different. Then she'd have had the confidence to stroll right up to Cole and kiss him silly, had she wanted to.
Her lack of confidence had to do with her empty bank account, not her body image.
Well, okay, maybe it did have something to do with her body image. I mean, she wasn't a saint...or a nun.
"You want to know what's going on here?" Sister Mary repeated. "I was just telling your patients that I can't give last rites to a hamster."
"What about a special prayer?" the little girl asked.
"I told you that Harry is just fine," Cole reminded the family. "You didn't have to call in Sister Mary."
"Well, since I'm here, I'll might as well say a prayer." Sister Mary spoke bent down and spoke quietly to the little girl and Harry the Hamster. So quietly that Leena couldn't hear what she said but it made the kid feel better, judging by the shy smile she gave the nun.
"Your next patient is in exam room one," Leena efficiently announced.
"Really?" Cole pinned her with a stare. "And you are?"
"Your new receptionist."
Cole raised an eyebrow. "You're applying for the job?"
"No, you're hiring me," Leena stated confidently.
"Why is that?"
"Because you need me," Leena told him. "I'm here to rescue you from utter chaos."
"Sounds good to me," Sister Mary declared. "It's not like you've had people knocking down your door demanding to work here, Cole."
"No, she's the first," Cole agreed. He studied Leena for a moment. "Have we met before?"
Leena hesitated, unsure how to answer that question. She'd beaten him up once when she was in the sixth grade and he'd hung out with a bunch of younger kids who'd called her fat. Now probably wasn't the best time to admit that fact, however.
Too late. "Wait a second." Cole snapped his fingers. "Aren't you Sue Ellen's sister Leena?"
Right. Like that's how she wanted to be known for the rest of her life. As Sue-Ellen's sister.
That was one of the reasons she'd left. Because she was sick and tired of always being referred to as Sue Ellen's sister. Or Sue Ellen's fat sister. Or Sue Ellen's chubb-o sister. "I'm Leena Riley."
"I thought you were in Chicago doing modeling or something like that."
He made it sound like she was doing pole dancing on Rush Street. "That's right. I was."
"And now you want the job as my receptionist? Why?"
"Do you really care?" Leena retorted as another bunch of patients and animals entered the already over-crowded waiting room and the phone started to ring. Chaos was threatening to return.
"No. You're hired. For the day. We'll talk about the future after that."
Oh yeah. How the mighty had fallen. All the way from cover model on the Sears spring layout to small-town vet receptionist. Not exactly a lateral career move by any stretch of the imagination.
But it would do in a crunch. And she was definitely in a crunch.
Leena Riley, rising star reverting back to Leena the Loser.
No, she refused to think like that. She couldn't afford to go down that road. It led nowhere.
Of course, some might think that Rock Creek qualified as nowhere.
But at least she had a job. For today. And that's all she could handle for the moment. Today. Tomorrow would have to take a number.
After getting their names, Leena pulled the files on the patients waiting in the waiting room and then went outside to check on the two terriers and owners she'd banished out there. Luckily the spring weather was warm enough that they weren't shivering in their boots, had they been wearing any. Leena was wearing a lovely pair of Italian leather Prada boots she'd gotten at a sample sale.
They looked good at a photo shoot, and went great with her jeans and crisp white wrap shirt, but were perhaps not the best choice for a vet's office. Not when one of the banished terriers decided to squat and pee on Leena's leather-encased right foot.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," the owner, a harried looking woman in her forties, declared. "Oscar gets a nervous bladder whenever we come to the vet."
The other terrier started gnawing on Leena's left boot.
Suddenly the job at the graveyard shift of Gas4Less was looking a lot more appealing....
* * *
Cole finished with his last patient, a Siamese male named Si who needed his shots updated, and headed out toward the empty waiting room.
He was surprised to find Leena still there. He'd have thought she'd taken off screaming when the Great Dane with anxiety issues had come in two hours ago. Or the depressed boa constrictor.
Instead, there she was. Standing behind the U-shaped desk of receptionist area, looking totally out of place. But looking good. Her dark blonde hair brushed her shoulders in what was no doubt an expensive cut. Ditto for her perfect manicure.
She'd always had a bossy streak, which was no doubt how she'd gotten that Great Dane to behave. It hadn't made him behave when they'd been kids. He was ashamed to recall how he'd made fun of her weight and how she'd flattened him with a lucky sucker punch. He'd been two years younger than her -- a cocky fourth grader.
"You still pack a mean right hook?" Cole asked as he handed her the file on his last patient.
"If necessary, yes." She stared him down, which gave him a good look at her gorgeous blue eyes. "I hope my actions that day taught you a valuable lesson."
"That if you say something cruel, it will come back to bite you in the ass."
"I suppose I should be thankful you didn't do that and only punched me."
"Yes, you should. I was suspended from school for a week because of you."
"And yet here you are, begging me for a job."
"Wrong. Here I am, saving you from trouble yet again."
"That's why you came back to Rock Creek from Chicago? To save me?"
"Do you need saving?"
"Do you?" Cole countered.
Leena shrugged. "I gave up looking for a knight in shining armor to save me ages ago. These days, I save myself."
"And you also save overworked vets."
"Even though you have no experience working in a vet's office."
"I have experience booking appointments." As a model she'd usually been on the other end of the booking arrangements, dealing with bookers to arrange for photo shoots. But how hard could this side of things be? Her organizational skills were very good. Everyone said so.
Even in kindergarten she'd organized the other kids cubbies. And in their mobile home, at age eight Leena had moved all the contents of the kitchen cabinets into a more efficient arrangement.
By the time Leena was a teenager, she'd perfected time management so that she knew exactly how long to study for a test to get a B or a C.
Emma was the A-student in the family. So Leena hadn't wasted her time on academic matters. Instead, after reading an article in a magazine about plus-size models, she'd focused on learning everything she could about the modeling industry. She'd gone to model shows and model talent searches at shopping malls all over the state.
And when she'd graduated from Rock Creek High, she'd packed her bags and headed to Chicago with her portfolio under her arm -- consisting of several headshots and one full-length shot.
She could still remember her excitement at driving her used Toyota down Chicago's famous Lake Shore Drive, seeing all those tall buildings lining Lake Michigan. Someday, she'd promised herself, she'd live in one of those pricey condos along the Gold Coast.
Instead she'd ended up sharing a small apartment with two other girls on the outskirts of the Ukrainian Village area of Chicago.
"So you have experience booking appointments," Cole was saying, which made her wandering attention snap back to him. The man was hard to ignore. His light brown hair had a bit of a wave to it and was totally rumpled, giving him that I-just-got-out-of-bed look that worked very well for him. She wondered if he slept in the nude.
She probably should be paying attention to his questions instead of imagining him starkers. She'd known him when they'd been kids. Surely that should make her immune to his charming ways, right? Come on, she'd beat the guy up once.
So why were her hormones humming like queen bees zipping around a hive?
She should know better than to judge a person by their looks.
But then Cole's charm went beyond his looks. It was also generated by the way he talked, that sexy drawl he'd mastered when his voice had deepened during adolescence.
"Hello?" He waved his big hands in front of her face. "Anyone home in there?"
"Sorry." Leena blinked. "I was...uh...thinking about...uh...something else."
"Your Prada boots?"
"How did you know they were Prada?"
"One of my patients told me. The terrier owner."
"Ah, Oscar...the terrier with the nervous bladder."
"You've got a good memory."
"I never forget a bitch named Oscar who ruined my Pradas."
"They named her Oscar before they realized the dog was a she not a he. And then they refused to rename her."
"Which is probably why the dog has a nervous bladder. Gender identification issues."
His laughter caught her by surprise.
"A sense of humor is a requirement for this job," he said.
"So have I passed the audition?"
"I still can't figure out why you'd want to work for me when you're a model. Something happen in Chicago?"
Leena shrugged. "Lots of things happen in Chicago."
"And you don't plan on telling me about them? You don't think as your prospective employer, that I've got a right to know?"
Leena was prevented from answering by the dramatic arrival of her sister Sue Ellen, who burst onto the scene as she always did, with maximum effect.
"It's true! You're really here! You've come back home!" Sue Ellen engulfed her in a mighty python hold that squeezed the air out of Leena's lungs. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming? We could have set up a special welcome celebration. A parade or something. And what on earth are you doing over here at the vet's office? Did you get a pet while you were in Chicago? Is it one of those designer dogs? Don't tell me, let me guess. Is it a schnoodle? A labradoodle? A Yorkipoo? Is it sick? Is that why you're here?"
"I don't have a dog."
"Some exotic pet then? A lynx maybe?"
"I don't have any pets."
Sue Ellen frowned and released her. "Then why are you in the vet's office? Unless you came to see him?" She jabbed her thumb in Cole's direction. "I thought you didn't like him. Didn't you beat him up once?"
Leena tried not to squirm. "That was a long time ago."
"And you came here to apologize?" Sue Ellen beamed proudly. "Isn't that just like you. Even though you're a big star now, you still remember the little people you beat up along the way."
"Hey, watch who you're calling little," Cole protested.
"Well, of course you're taller now, Cole," Sue Ellen said. "Leena probably couldn't take you down with just one punch like she did then."
"It was a sucker punch," Cole growled.
Sue Ellen patted his arm. "Yeah, that's what Luke claimed that time Julia hit him before they were married."
"Who are they?" Leena asked, trying to follow her sister's line of thought, which was never an easy task.
"My friend Skye's sister and brother-in-law. I can't wait to introduce them all to my famous sister," Sue Ellen said, before admitting, "I never bragged about you before because Skye and her family are a little weird about make-up and stuff. But now that you're here, they can see for themselves how great you are." Sue Ellen paused to take a much needed breath. "But I still don't know what you're doing in the vet's office."
"She's here about a job," Cole replied.
Sue Ellen frowned. "What kind of job could a super model do for you? She knows Imman, you know."
Which wasn't a lie....exactly. Leena knew of Imman. Who didn't? The famous super model was married to rock star David Bowie. She possessed a tall graceful elegance that Leena could never even aspire to.
But Leena had aspired to the world of plus-size modeling and thought she'd made her mark.
"Then maybe Imman should give her a job," Cole retorted.
"Don't be silly." Sue Ellen smacked Cole's arm. "My sister doesn't need a job. She's one of the most successful models in Chicago. Tell him, Leena."
Leena sighed and wished she could sink through the floor. But years of posing in front of a camera had given her the ability to mask her inner emotions. "I'm having a temporary reversal of fortune," she said. "Which requires my returning home for a short period of time."
"How short?" Cole demanded suspiciously. "I don't want to hire you as my receptionist only to have you take off a few days later."
"What do you mean reversal of fortune?" Sue Ellen demanded. "Do you have a gambling problem?"
"No, of course not." Leena answered her sister's question first because it was the easiest. "I don't gamble."
"You taking off to Chicago was a gamble."
Okay, so Sue Ellen had her there. Apparently her question wasn't as easy as Leena first thought. Which left Cole's question. "I wouldn't leave without giving two weeks notice."
"So you'd work two days and then give two weeks notice?" he countered.
"I anticipate being here through the summer." The words actually made Leena feel ill saying them. But the bottom line was that unfortunately, it would take her that long to get her act together financially to climb out of debt enough to start over.
She'd used her organizational skills to come up with a timeline that charted out the least amount of time she'd have to spend in Rock Creek. And given the salary this position was offering, proudly displayed on that Help Wanted sign she'd seen, it would take her a couple of months to regain control of her life.
The job paid well for Rock Creek, which surprised her at first. Apparently she wasn't the only one a little desperate. The vet seemed to have trouble getting the position filled. Not that she planned on asking why no one in town wanted to work for him.
"So are you accepting my offer to help you?" she asked Cole.
"How are you going to help him?" Sue Ellen demanded.
"By working as my receptionist," Cole replied.
"No way! Stop right there. No way is my sister working in a crummy vet's office. Not that you're a crummy vet," Sue Ellen hastily assured Cole. "I didn't mean that. I just meant that your office is crummy. Not that it's dirty, although it smells like dog urine in here."
"That's from my boots." Leena looked down at her ruined foot wear. "Oscar peed on one of them earlier. I tried to clean it off..."
Sue Ellen glared at Cole. "You allowed a dog to pee on my sister? Do you have any idea who you're dealing with here? She's famous! She is not someone to be peed upon!"
Cole shrugged, his mouth curved as if he were holding back a smile. If he laughed at her, Leena would have to punch him again. Instead he drawled, "I can't guarantee it won't happen again."
"Then she is not working here," Sue Ellen stated firmly. "Come on, Leena, let's go."
Leena recognized Sue Ellen's bossy big sister mode. Sue Ellen was seven years older than Leena and she took her job as the elder sibling very seriously.
But Leena had no intention of being bossed around. Not unless it was by someone who was signing her paycheck.
Cole, curse his twisted soul, just stood there, arms crossed across his chest, a stupid grin on his face. She could read his mind. Whatcha gonna do now, big girl?
Okay, maybe the "big girl" bit at the end was her own interpretation, but the challenging look in his admittedly sexy blue eyes was definitely being broadcast to her loud and clear.
"I'll be back in the morning," she told him firmly before heading for the door.
"The office opens at nine," he called after her, "but staff should show up at eight-thirty."
"No problem." Right. Talk about a huge lie. Leena had tons of problems. Boatloads of them. But at least she had a job. Now she just needed to find somewhere to stay.
"You're staying with me, right?" Sue Ellen said. "You know that Mom and Dad gave me their trailer. I haven't had a lot of time to redecorate it yet because I've been getting my real estate license. I'm sure I'm going to pass that test this next time around. Anyway, you can stay in your old bedroom."
Just kill me now. Leena reached through the open window of her blue Sebring for a paper bag from her front seat and started breathing into it.
"What are you doing?" Sue Ellen demanded.
Leena just shook her head and held up her finger in the universal sign of wait a minute, I'll be right with you. Right after she had a nervous breakdown.
"She's hyperventilating," Cole said as he joined them in the parking lot.
"You're a doctor, do something to help her!" Sue Ellen shoved him toward Leena, almost knocking her down in the process.
The second Cole put his hands on her waist to steady her, Leena instantly wished she was thinner. Or richer. Or both.
She lowered her hands, and the paper bag, to remove his fingers from her body before he measured her further.
The rustling crush of the bag mimicked her rustling heartbeat.
His hands left her waist, but only to move to her shoulders in order to pull her even closer.
"What are you do--mmmbbb!"
His lips covered hers, muffling the rest of her words and answering her question. He was kissing her. Gently, softly, seductively, but this was a kiss alright. No mistaking that.
He didn't try to tongue-down right there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of her sister. No, he was just tempting her, exploring infinite possibilities before releasing her.
Just breathe, Leena told herself, inhaling a ragged gulp of air.
Grinning, Cole gently lifted the paper bag back to her mouth.
Leena batted it away and glared at him. If the man was amusing himself at her expense, he'd live to regret it, regardless of how awesome a kisser he was.
"Do you always kiss your employees?" Leena demanded.
Cole's grin widened. "You're not officially an employee until you fill out the paperwork tomorrow."
"You were kissing my sister?" Sue Ellen stared at him in disbelief.
"Just practicing a little mouth-to-mouth recesitation, ma'am."
"Well, go practice it on someone else." Leena lifted her chin to give him her best haughty Queen of the Universe look. "I don't need you rescuing me."
"Yeah, so you said earlier. You've come to rescue me, right? You know, I think I could get used to that idea." One final devastatingly sexy grin and then he was gone, sauntering around the corner of the building and out of sight -- but not out of Leena's mind.
Which left her with the sinking feeling she'd just jumped out of the frying pan smack dab into the fire.