A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Road Less Traveled,” Lauren Alania
(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.
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“My conversation with Alice was okay—enlightening. The team is in the last year of a three-year contract with Lakeside Dental, which is owned by Royce’s friend, Dr. Charles Evenson. Alice cautioned me that even if I landed the job, there isn’t enough business as the team dentist to stand on my own. I would still need to maintain my position at a full-time practice. At least that’s what everyone who has held the position did.”
“Any interest in Lakeside Dental?” Jason asks.
I shake my head. “No. I met Dr. Evenson at the Southwest Dental Conference one year. He was a speaker, and I introduced myself afterward. I didn’t get a good vibe. I’m not going there. I have a new motto—trust my gut, and with him, it says run the other way.”
He nods. “Well, if by chance, you find yourself in a position to take over those responsibilities, that job could be beneficial in other ways.”
“What do you mean?” I wonder.
“Let’s come back to those in a bit, okay?” Jason suggests.
I shrug, sipping from my coffee mug. “Sure.”
His eyes scan the papers on his desk before landing back on me. “First, I have a little update. To my surprise, there is no surveillance footage of your resignation at Whispering Oaks.”
“Really?” I’m shocked.
“My guy has been over the footage numerous times, and there is not a single thing putting you there a week ago—from the time of your arrival at the gate to your departure.”
“Wow. Is that good or bad?” I wonder.
Jason shakes his head. “If we can’t find it, Sam can’t either. I don’t believe he got to it before we did. So, I would say that missing video evidence is good news since it would not put you in a good light.”
“How did that happen?”
He raises his chin in question. “I thought you might have an idea.”
I think for a moment who could possibly intervene on my behalf. “Mary? Or someone she knows in security? I know she isn’t a fan of Sam’s.”
“That’s a strong possibility. Maybe Sam has ruffled a few feathers over there too without your influence,” Jason speculates. “I have a strong suspicion Sam isn’t as well liked as he thinks he is at Whispering Oaks. Regardless, there are still witnesses, and I doubt you would want to put them in the position to testify against you.”
An uneasy feeling settles into my stomach at the thought. I hadn’t considered the possibility of Sam using Edward or James against me, but I believe he would do it in a heartbeat.
“You’re right. I wouldn’t want to do that.”
“I also had Sam tailed for the past week, because . . . I was curious to see what he would do.”
“Am I paying for that?” I grin.
Jason chuckles. “You know the answer to that question.”
“Of course, I am. Did you find out anything we didn’t know?”
“Not really. His golf cart and car are being repaired with him driving another vehicle from the dealership. He led us to his golf pro Tuesday night and spent a few mornings at the office. Sam purchased a new set of clubs and went to a driving range nearby to try them out.” Jason lowers his voice. “My guy says Sam is a horrible golfer.”
I can’t contain my snort. “No surprise there. I’m sure their customization is only a matter of time. Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
Jason chuckles. “Sam also took his wife out to dinner and spent his weekend at his kids’ soccer games. It all looks as if it’s business as usual in Sam Uley’s world.”
“I believe your conversation with his wife this morning was more efficient.” Jason smirks.
“And undoubtedly cheaper.” I nod. “Well, he’s not at that damn country club. So that’s something. I’ve made a little progress.”
“Our definitions of progress are quite different, Bella.”
I huff. “He’s had a week of . . . inconvenience. I’m hoping to make a greater impact on his bottom line than that.”
“And I believe you will,” Jason reassures. “Remember, Sam doesn’t know your little video of secrets exists or the insight it has given us. He believes the only things to handle are your departure and his absence from playing at Whispering Oaks. Emily probably doesn’t manage or ever see their finances. So, she wouldn’t question the purchase of new golf clubs or any of the repairs.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Okay, I want to talk about something you know that concerns me greatly—his patient list you . . . acquired. It holds the contact information of over nine thousand patients. We wouldn’t know the size of it had you not downloaded the entire list. So, I’ll give you a small kudos in that regard.”
I smile at having Rose’s assistance and loyalty. “Thanks. I think.”
His head bobs slightly. “A closer examination of those contacts also gives us a little more insight into who was the last to treat each patient and how long ago that was. You can confirm my hunch, but I suspect Sam has not actively marketed the list since Paul joined the practice—probably to save on marketing expenses.”
“Right. There was a mailer to announce my arrival, then he did the same with Paul a year later,” I recall. “I think that’s it.”
“I thought so.” Jason blows out an even breath before sipping from his own coffee mug. “We’re going to walk a fine line here, Bella, because legally, patient lists are considered trade secrets and protected by law. So, if you wish to go down this path, we’re going to focus only on the patients we know you saw regularly.” He glances at some written notes on a large notepad, then looks back up at me.
“People discontinue regular appointments for a variety of reasons—financial changes with their insurance, relocation outside of the local area, or dissatisfaction with the services provided are a few. It can be anything really.” He picks up a chart from beside the notepad and turns it toward me.
“After looking through the list and the schedule, my guess is that once a patient of Sam’s or Paul’s had you treat them, they made future appointments with you. Because this appointment calendar—well, it’s all you, Bella.”
“What can I say? I’ve got it,” I respond confidently with a little wiggle of my eyebrows, then take another sip from my coffee.
His smile is back in full-force. “Yes, you do. So, we’re going to be cautious with the language we use to reach out to patients going forward. We will be informing them of your new location using a professional courtesy letter without any active soliciting. That’s where you will get in trouble. You and I both know if someone asks at Sam’s office about your eventual whereabouts, no one there will offer that information freely.”
I chuckle sadly. “Isn’t that the truth?”
“Now, I have a few thoughts that could completely change your approach for your meeting tomorrow. While I’m not happy you have copies of the patient list or appointment calendar, it is proving quite helpful in painting a bigger picture of what we don’t know.”
“What are you saying?” I wonder.
“No one wants to go into a business with a thief, and I believe that’s exactly what you did. When I look at the older records on the patient list, I can’t prove it yet, but with a little time—”
I gasp. “You think Sam stole his original list?”
Jason smirks. “Let’s just say, I don’t believe he can prove he paid for it or built it himself. He was sloppy and didn’t cover his tracks. There are other dentists listed, and I’m in the process of tracking them down, if it’s possible.”
“Bella, listen to me. If you choose not to use his list at all, I believe the number of patients who would actively seek you out—the number will blow you away. While I know that’s not the direction you want to go, it’s the cleanest way to walk away from Sam and not give him any opportunity to cash in on your future earnings.”
I groan, knowing what he’s really saying, and it breaks my heart. I’m losing six years of work. “You want me to start over, don’t you?”
“Yes.” He smiles sadly. “That’s what I strongly recommend you do.”
“Fuck.” I let my head fall backward, staring up at the ceiling for a moment.
“I understand it isn’t what you want to hear, but I’m here to give it to you straight. The reality is you won’t win a lawsuit if Sam comes after you for the use of his patient list, even if I can prove it wasn’t his to begin with. I’m sorry, Bella. You’ll lose.”
“That absolutely sucks.” It’s a blow to my plan I never anticipated. “Where do I go from here?”
“With that in mind, let’s focus on tomorrow,” Jason suggests.
“What’s the point if I don’t have a patient list to bring to the table?” I shrug, drain the last of my coffee, and set my empty mug on the edge of his desk. “Maybe I should cancel. She is or was my best shot.”
“Do I need to remind you that you said the two of you hit it off previously? I have no doubt the same rapport will be there.” He grins. “You only need to let me know when I should make the final additions to the paperwork.”
I chuckle. “That sounds uncharacteristically optimistic coming from you.”
“I’m learning never to underestimate you, Bella.” Jason smiles warmly.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’ll take anything I can get at this point.”
“Okay, let’s go over what we know about her first.” He flips through the pages on his desk. “Our best estimate is that she is seeing a thousand patients in a year. While it’s a good number since she started with nothing three years ago, it’s not enough for a full-time dental practice to sustain itself, which is why she was interviewing with Sam. Not the greatest judgment there, but you fell into the Sam trap too.”
I start laughing instantly.
His brow furrows with confusion. “What? What did I miss?”
“You said Sam trap, like sand trap. You know . . . it’s a golf thing. I feel like I’m stuck in a Sam trap. Oh, God.” I smack my forehead, then shake my head. “Now, I’m making golf jokes. This is a bad sign.”
Jason chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that one, and it’s not a bad sign, but a good joke. The fact that you can find any humor in dealing with Sam at this point is admirable. You were probably part of the draw to Sam’s practice after you interviewed her.”
I consider that for a moment and nod. “Possibly.”
His eyes return to reading from the stack of documents on his desk. “She employs one hygienist and one administrative staff member. We can estimate her yearly production levels at around seven hundred thousand dollars. Overall, it’s a small practice that just hasn’t taken off yet. The magic number to support a full-time dental practice is a minimum of sixteen hundred active patients. Our projections put her at achieving that in another two years—if she can last that long.
He flips to a new page. “Now, your numbers. You alone have been seeing on average twenty-three hundred patients and account for one point six million dollars of Sam’s business per year for the past six years.”
“Eight percent,” I add bitterly. “I was only making eight percent of that while Sam took the other ninety-two.”
Jason nods. “To his argument, Sam does have payroll and other fixed operating costs that you don’t, but this is why when you were hired, a contract would have been in your best interest. We could have negotiated the numbers and forced him to make a decision about whether the future of his practice included you as a partner or owner.”
I release a heavy sigh. “I wish I would have known I was going nowhere quickly. That was a mistake. I was so eager to get started and finally make money after being in school for years.”
“He took advantage of your financial position back then, and we’re going to fix that this time. I promise, Bella. We’ll get you back on track for where you should be financially,” Jason reassures, then returns to his notes. “Not surprisingly, Paul’s numbers fell off after he was hired. He averages almost fifteen hundred patients and accounts for one million dollars.”
“And he takes home twenty percent of that.” I huff, becoming more pissed at the disparity between us I confirmed months ago.
“Correct. Paul’s numbers reflect a little less than what Sam was doing prior to your hiring when he was on his own,” Jason explains, then continues. “Over this past year, Sam saw around five hundred patients, which contributed approximately three hundred thousand dollars to the practice. We know his take home pay is greater than yours and Paul’s combined.”
“Of course it is. Pay yourself first, right?” I ask, but don’t wait for an answer. “He’s definitely doing that.”
“It’s true and that strategy has allowed him to find greater financial success, but unfortunately at a cost to you.” Jason returns to the numbers for the practice. “Between the three of you, that’s forty-three hundred active patients in the practice at a production level of nearly three million dollars per year.” He taps the paper in his hand.
“Adding you to his practice, more than doubled the numbers. You grew this business in six years from a little over a million-dollar practice to a three million dollar practice. Bella, that’s significant.”
“And I’m not benefiting at all.”
“That’s not exactly true. You have been, but not in the ways that you probably hoped originally. Now, I know you’re feeling discouraged about what you bring to the table tomorrow, but I’ll tell you—you’re bringing the biggest wave of potential I have ever seen. You’ve been a key contributor to a successful dental practice for the past six years. We just went through the numbers.”
For a moment, I think through everything he’s said about the growth in Sam’s practice since officially joining. “I did that, didn’t I?”
“You did.” He nods. “Let me reiterate. Please seriously consider not using the patient list in any way. You are talented, full of potential, and don’t need it.”
“You know it’s the right thing to do, Bella. Most importantly, we both know you’re not Sam.”
“Damn it.” I know he’s right.
His eyes soften when they meet mine. “I’m trying to find you a clean exit.”
I smile. “I know and appreciate that.”
Jason leans back in his chair. “I have a question for you. Why did you stay with Sam for six years? I mean, that’s a long time when your gut must have been telling you to leave.”
“I don’t know.”
“Think about it,” he prompts.
“Well, everything was great those first couple of years. I had a few issues with Paul after he joined the practice, but I thought with my seniority and the growth we were experiencing, I could outlast him. I believed I needed to be open-minded and trust Sam’s judgment. Unfortunately, with time, I realized Paul was there to take over Sam’s workload, because I saw Sam less and less. I began to question if Sam was really making decisions about what was best for the practice or him personally. I still hoped that Sam would see me as the obvious choice to take over his practice, and one day it would be a seamless transition, but I was wrong—about a lot of things. He never saw me as his successor. As they grew closer, I found myself on the outside looking in, but I still hoped Sam wouldn’t want to lose me. I didn’t want to give up on that possibility because if I did, then everything I invested into Sam’s practice was wasted, and I had failed, which was a reality I didn’t want to accept. So, I stayed until . . . I couldn’t.” I shrug and sag against the chair. “I guess, Paul won.”
Jason takes a moment to consider my reasoning before his eyes meet mine full of sincerity. “One of the smartest decisions Sam made was hiring you. And one of the smartest decisions you made was to leave. You haven’t failed by any means—I want to assure you of that. Most people today are looking for the door at the first sign of trouble, but you didn’t. You stayed until it was no longer possible—that’s grit and tenacity, showing the strength of your character. You bent, but didn’t break, Bella. You’re here still fighting.”
“That’s something, I suppose.”
“It’s everything, Bella—the core of who you are. With that in mind, my advice is to treat this meeting tomorrow the way you wish Sam had started with you. It’s a clean slate and an opportunity to build the business partnership you wish you had six years ago. I’m confident, in a year, we will be discussing how you plan to diversify your services and expand the practice. Say the word and we’ll amend the contracts, readjusting the ownership percentages. I know your intention from our previous conversation is to give her majority ownership, but I still recommend against that. If we need to negotiate percentages, it would be better for you that we start with a majority of the business, giving us room to move,” he pleads.
“Jason, she has the building. Everything is set up. It’s all in place and functional—not to mention the logistics on the business side of the practice. That’s worth more than you realize. I can’t see patients without it, and this is my quickest path to getting back to work. No monthslong delays. I hit the ground running.”
“And she can’t stay in business without your potential,” he adds. “While she has experienced gains, the number of patients you treated in the same amount of time is vastly different by comparison. You also have two administrative staff members and three hygienists willing to move with you. If she accepts your proposals, you’re going to need them to keep up with the surge of patients that will follow your arrival.
“We know you want and need flexibility, but even if you rearrange your schedule, I don’t see your numbers dipping. Most likely the opposite will happen. You typically see ten patients per day. I don’t think fifteen is out of the realm of possibilities once you’re settled.” Jason watches me for a moment, giving me a chance to consider his words. “I also have another suggestion, if tomorrow proceeds as I anticipate it will. I believe it’s time to consider renaming the practice. It’s something you can discuss together.”
“Ugh. I’m horrible at that. Should we use our names?” I wonder.
He shakes his head. “You have been extremely successful without using yours. Maybe think of something more general that would lend itself to rebranding. That way as the practice accommodates future changes or possible expansions, you wouldn’t need to worry about the name.”
I smile. “The joys of ownership, right?”
“This is what you wanted,” Jason reminds me, and pauses. “I have a final suggestion that comes back to your hockey team.”
My smile widens, because it’s not my hockey team, but I know what he’s saying. “Okay.”
“There is one contact you mentioned knowing previously who isn’t on your patient list—yet, but I believe he would prove extremely helpful in this new venture. And he isn’t one of Sam’s either. So, you’re in the clear.”
I think for a moment, shaking my head slightly at the thought, but share it anyway. “Edward?”
“Close. But I’m thinking of . . . Roy King. He should be one of the first on your appointment calendar. Call him. He could be the key toward tapping into a new wave of patients while it takes a little time for your previous patients to find you. And I know they will.
“When you’re at her office tomorrow, think about creating an environment Roy would expect to see, because if he feels comfortable, so will his network. Maybe tap into your contacts and find someone with marketing experience who can assist with your rebranding, then plan on renovating before a soft reopening of the practice under a new name. Financially, you can shoulder those improvements. When you look around, check out the bones, and how those or other features can be upgraded to a more luxurious environment. You had no control at Sam’s practice in regards to any decisions about the office space or aesthetic. I want you to think beyond Sam and his practice. Go where he hasn’t.” He smiles then takes a drink of his coffee.
“This is where becoming the team dentist gives you the opportunity to reach a new audience that has never heard of you. By establishing brand recognition through sponsorships associated with the team, you will get your new practice name out there side-by-side as the official dentist of a major sports team. Do things like advertising on the rink wall or in the program everyone gets upon entry to a game. Maybe you become a contributor for the health segment for one of our local television stations advocating proactive dental health to get you in front of an even bigger audience. I’m not a marketing expert, by any means, but the opportunities are right there to build and grow your new patient list in ways you’ve never considered. And I believe that starts with catering to a potential patient, like Roy.”
“I don’t know.” The thought of reaching out to Roy reminds me of Alice’s position in using him to make her transition into running their organization easier, and I wonder how much I could lean on him to help with mine. Roy would probably welcome the idea, but a huge part of me would rather reach out to Alice’s network than Roy’s. “My typical patients aren’t the Roy Kings of the world. They are far from it.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Jason pushes away from his desk, walking around it, and leans against the front edge. “Tell me, Bella, who doesn’t want to be treated like a millionaire when they walk through the door of your new practice?”
He has an excellent point, but my mind focuses on those last words. My new practice. Not mine exactly, but close. A partnership that I’ve wanted for a while. Probably longer than I realize. It’s exciting to be on the edge of something new and better than I have ever had. This fight with Sam isn’t over by any means, but I need to be more savvy in how I rebuild my professional life.
“I never considered many of your suggestions, but you’re right. I do have the contacts—that aren’t Sam’s. I hope I don’t scare her off with so many ideas,” I worry.
“I don’t see that happening. You are someone who goes above and beyond in everything you do. This adventure will be no different.” Jason gives me a confident smile. “You’ve got this Bella.”
“I’ve got this,” I repeat with a slightly nervous laugh, but feeling better by the minute at what I have to offer this new partnership.
He crosses his arms over his chest. “I would wish you good luck, but I know you don’t need it. Yes, there is risk, but there’s also huge reward potential. This is a smart business decision for both of you.”
“Maybe wish me good luck anyway,” I encourage.
Jason chuckles. “Okay. Good luck. Let me know how it goes.”
“Thanks for taking this time to meet with me this morning.” I stand, give him a brief hug, then walk toward the door ready to depart, but pause when a thought suddenly occurs to me. “Can I ask you one more thing?”
“Uh . . . yes, of course.” Jason nods. “Ask me anything.”
“If you were Sam’s lawyer, how would you be advising him to proceed?”
“Excellent question. That’s easy. Don’t press charges—those would only invite interest in areas he doesn’t want. Make the repairs necessary. Send the bill and wait for another mistake. A bigger one. Because you naïvely will make it. Maybe a few strongly worded letters, if you haven’t paid for his damages. Sue as a last resort for not only the damages, but also a majority, if not all, of your future earnings, when you choose to use the patient list.” His focus shifts for a moment thinking about something before returning to me. “This is a chess game, Bella. He’s moving pieces without engaging and waiting for you not to think multiple steps ahead. Did you ever consider that maybe he let you have access to his patient list, knowing it could be his quickest path to retirement? You take it and attempt to build a practice with it or use it at another, and he’s got you, while Paul and Jared treat the patients you don’t. Sam still wins.”
There’s no way I’m letting Sam win. Not this time.
“And if I refuse to pay for the damages?”
“Then he will sue and unfortunately for you, he will win that case. I would advise you to pay that bill when we get it.”
“I don’t want to give Sam one more cent, considering what he’s been taking from me for years, but that may not be realistic.”
“We’ll go over any bill he sends closely. I promise. On a brighter note, I believe we have options based on what we already know, and what I suspect we’ll find through discovery by suing him for gender discrimination, if you wish to pursue that option. It will take me a little time to build your case, but I have no problem doing so on your behalf. We’ll gather evidence and witnesses that will hold him responsible for the past six years. And Bella, in my opinion, you have an excellent shot at winning that case.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I do, especially knowing your lawyer,” he shares confidently with another smirk. “Always remember, the queen is the most powerful piece on a chess board for a reason—mobility. She can adapt and maneuver in ways no other piece can, including the king.”
I nod, realizing there’s no getting around being held responsible for my destruction last week. While it felt good at the time, I understand closing this chapter is the best way to move on from Sam and his practice. I still want to hold him accountable, but is it in my best interest to drag anything out longer than necessary?
With a budding new hope for tomorrow, I need to focus on my future and build the practice Sam wishes he had. I can only hope that one day justice finds him in every way, and I’ll be there to see it happen when it does.
My eyes lock with Jason’s once more. “Chess, huh?”
He thumbs toward himself. “A proud Texas State Champion right here and president of my high school chess club—all four years.”
“I’m impressed. Why didn’t we ever play?” I ask teasingly.
My question puts an easy smile on his face. “I don’t know, perhaps to protect my childhood memories and preserve my ego. I’m positive you are a worthy opponent.”
“Excellent reasons.” I chuckle, resting my hand on the handle to his office door. “Well, hopefully, I’ll be calling soon with good news.”
Jason nods and lowers his voice slightly. “I’m looking forward to it, Bella.”
“I’ve got this.”
His grin widens and he winks. “You do.”
After opening the door of Jason’s office, I find Deidre busy typing on the computer at her desk. She pauses for a moment, looking up at me.
She waves toward the nearby beverage station. “Can I fix another coffee for you to take with you?”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful, but I can do it.” I grab one of the paper travel cups, filling it with coffee. “Thank you so much for fitting me into Jason’s schedule when I called.”
“It’s no problem at all. He’s always happy to accommodate you,” she says, pushing away from her desk and stands. “Enjoy the rest of your day, Dr. Swan.”
I nod. “You too, Deidre.”
She steps into Jason’s office, and I’m adding cream and sugar when I hear his voice again. When I realize he’s talking to Deidre about me, I step a little closer to the door, not missing a word, but remain out of view.
“Dee, remind me again why I ever let her go?”
“I believe you claimed it was the age difference—sixteen years, right?”
“Yes . . . it was something like that.”
Jason never told me how old he was. At one point he shared he was in his forties, but it wasn’t an issue for me, and I didn’t give it a second thought. Maybe it was for him when he is on the high end of his age bracket.
“I don’t remember her being so warm and open. Or maybe it was me who was the problem. She is such an incredibly beautiful young woman with a brilliant mind and a passionate heart. I think . . . oh, hell, Dee. I know I made a huge mistake.”
I gasp at his words and barely hear the creaking of his desk chair over the pounding in my ears as my heart rate accelerates at what he’s sharing with her.
“I’ve never been a fan of going to the dentist, but maybe it’s time for Dr. Swan to become mine.”
“When she joins a new practice, I’ll make you an appointment,” Deidre promises with a chuckle. “You better start flossing.”
“Knowing her, that will be before the end of the week. I’m doomed.” I smile when he joins her laughter, then pauses for a moment, but when he speaks again, his wistful tone is tinged with a touch of regret. “I’ll take her chastising me about my gum care any day. I hope the hockey player appreciates every moment with her, because I didn’t, and now, I have no one to blame but myself.”