7 pm PST.
7 pm PST.
7 pm PST.
Elena Castillo, an expert in her field, but new at Camp Lejeune, is shocked when the man she loved and lost fourteen years ago shows up on her first day. Gunnery Sergeant Cameron will be the most challenging patient she has ever worked with. The Marine Corps is his whole life, and he’s far from being reconciled to the debilitating injury or the possibility of a medical discharge and life as a civilian. He’s also the only wounded warrior she ever made the mistake of losing her heart to. Success as a physical therapist means sending him out into the world prepared to triumph without her, but is she strong enough to set Philip free even if it breaks her heart all over again?
He was bigger than Elena remembered. He seemed to fill the whole room.
The casual greeting she’d practiced stuck in her throat at the stunned look of confusion in Philip Cameron’s shockingly blue eyes. An hour hadn’t been nearly long enough. A week maybe. Or a month. Or forever.
Her heart fluttered like a trapped bird as she took in the narrow bands of ribbons on his chest and the silver strands threaded through the blond hair at his temples. A wave of vertigo washed over her, and she grabbed the back of the nearest chair to steady herself.
How can I do this? What choice do I have?
Sharp creases bracketed his generous mouth, and the spray of lines at the corners of his eyes were etched deep. This was her Philip. And yet, he was not. The vertigo intensified as memories of the last time she’d seen him flashed through her mind. He’d brushed tears from her face and promised to stay in touch. Then he’d kissed her like he really meant it. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t kept his word. He hadn’t loved her after all. Those three weeks that had changed her life forever had meant nothing to him.
She stiffened her shoulders and held the door open. Her knees went weak as he closed the distance separating them, but she couldn’t let him see the effect he had on her. Not now. Not after everything that happened between them that long ago summer or in the years since. Especially not now that he was her patient.
If only she could find some excuse and get him reassigned to someone else. But she was the CHT and bailing on her first assignment without a good explanation wouldn’t look good on her six-month job evaluation. Rob Cullen seemed like an easy enough guy to work for, but she didn’t know him well enough to tell him about her youthful infatuation with her big brother’s best friend. She was the one with the expertise Philip Cameron would need to recover fully, if that was even possible. She’d just have to suck it up and deal with it.
“This way, Sergeant.” Elena gestured with the clipboard. She was relieved that her voice came out sounding so calm and professional.
Philip glanced down at her with that baffled look still haunting his eyes. “Philip,” he corrected. “It’s been a long time. How have you been, Elena?”
Elena lifted her chin. “I’ve been fine, Sergeant Cameron. Now please, come this way.”
“I thought you got your degree and settled on the west coast.” His voice followed her through the maze of equipment in the big therapy and exercise room.
Arriving at an alcove with two chairs separated by a narrow desk, she dropped the clipboard holding Philip’s orders and the doctor’s assessment on the desk and settled into one of the chairs.
Philip had been checking up on her? Her heart stuttered. Or maybe he’d only been paying attention to Tide’s Way gossip. How much did he know about the last fourteen years of her life?
He took the chair across from her. “I heard you got married.”
She hesitated. She was his therapist. He was her patient. He had no need to know anything about her life. But it wasn’t like her current situation was a secret. And Tide’s Way was a small town. It was surprising he didn’t already know.
“I’m divorced. I just moved back East a couple weeks ago.”
His eyebrows drew together in a frown. “I’m sorry. Are you living in Tide’s Way?”
She shook her head. “We’re renting a condo just outside the main gate.” With trembling fingers, she began thumbing through the thick wad of papers on the clipboard as if she hadn’t already read them through three times. She had to get a grip.
“We?” Philip’s perceptive blue gaze sharpened.
Elena took a deep breath. Her heart insisted on doing strange things and there was no ignoring the fact that his physical closeness still melted her insides even after all this time.
“My daughter and I.”
A slight smile lifted the corners of his generous mouth and a dimple punctuated his lean cheek easing the harsh brackets that had aged his face. “Is she as pretty as her mom?”
Elena had the most insane urge to throw herself into his arms and tell him everything. But the time for that was long past. Way, way long past.
“Prettier,” she replied. “Now, let’s see that arm, Sergeant.”
The dimple disappeared. “Call me Gunny, if Philip isn’t good enough.” He removed his arm from the sling and rested it on the desk.
Elena swallowed again, squared her shoulders and lifted Philip’s damaged hand to begin her examination.
“You wanted to become a physical therapist so you could help people like your momma. How did you end up fixing broken soldiers?” Philip asked, trying to ignore the way his heart raced when Elena took his hand in hers.
That’s how things had gotten started between them the first time. Her holding his hand, offering sympathy, and then so much more. And she’d broken his heart before she was done. He wanted to yank his hand back and demand another therapist. But he was a Marine, and Marines did what they were told. He’d been ordered to report to the Lejeune PT department and work to get his hand rehabbed so he could get back to his unit.
“This isn’t where I pictured you ending up.”
She glanced into his face briefly, then went back to examining his hand.
“I interned at one of the Balboa clinics. One of the best hand-wrist guys in the country is out there and I trained under him. He liked my work and got me into graduate school. One thing led to another, I guess you could say.”
“The doctor from Walter-Reed was happy to get me assigned close to home because he said Lejeune had just acquired one of the best hand PT specialists. He didn’t mention your name though, so seeing you caught me a little by surprise.” Caught him a lot by surprise. Running into someone you thought you’d gotten over years ago would have been surprise enough. But discovering that particular someone was going to be his therapist set off serious alarms.
“I am one of the best.” She stated matter-of-factly. “Can you make a fist?”
He spread his damaged fingers, then tried to make a fist, but there was no strength in it. Elena uncurled his fingers again and began examining them, one at a time.
“How did you manage to get so busted up?”
“I lost the fight.” Like he’d lost her. Through no fault of his own. Ah, Elena, how did it happen? I thought we had something special going. Something worth waiting for?
Elena frowned at his answer. “The fight? This doesn’t look much like the kind of damage bombs and bullets, or even fist fights leave behind.” She glanced at the battered hand crisscrossed with the scars of multiple surgeries, then back to his face.
He shook his head and pressed his lips together. “It was a fight with an overturned MRAP. It was sinking in the muck, and it outweighed me.”
She slid her fingertips along the length of each battered digit, then asked him to curl his fingers up towards his palm and not let her straighten them. One at a time, she applied pressure to each fingertip. “What were you doing, wrestling with an MRAP? What is an MRAP, anyway?”
“Trying to save my guys.” He winced. “It’s a Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicle. They’ve got armor plating underneath to protect them from mines, but they’re top heavy and they tip over easy.”
“Sorry,” she apologized.
He wasn’t sure if she was saying she was sorry he’d lost the fight, or was apologizing for the pain she was causing now.
She increased the pressure and the pain. “And did you? Save your guys, I mean?”
Regret lanced through him with an agony that rivaled what she was doing to his hand. “Most of them.”
Her eyes met his and widened as understanding hit. “But not all.” It was a statement, not a question.
He shook his head briefly and closed his eyes before Elena could notice the tears that still came so swiftly and unavoidably whenever he remembered struggling to free the young corporal, getting his hand and shoulder crushed in the effort, and then not finding a pulse.
“I’m so sorry, Philip. I didn’t know.” None of the pages in his file had included that detail. Only that he’d been awarded a medal for heroism under fire. That he’d saved the lives of four Marines while sustaining wounds of his own. Wounds beyond just this crushed hand.
“How could you know?” he asked in a soft southern drawl laced with regret and sorrow. Without lifting his head, he glanced up at her, his eyebrows raised. His eyes suspiciously damp.
She’d been so wrapped up in her own feelings, she hadn’t once thought beyond the injustice of having to work with the man who had turned his back on her years ago, to what he might be going through now. That look, filled with pain, regret and loss cut straight to her heart.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said, trying to banish her own callousness.
“That’s what they keep telling me,” he muttered. The corner of his mouth tipped up in an effort of a smile. “So, what’s the prognosis?”
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