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An expert in her field, but new in her position at Camp Lejeune, Elena Castillo is shocked to discover her first patient is the man she fell in love with fourteen years ago and got her heart broken when war tore them apart after 9/11. Gunnery Sergeant Cameron is going to be the most challenging patient she has ever worked with in more ways than one. The Marine Corps has been his whole life, and he is a long way from being reconciled to either 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?
Philip Cameron is the oldest in a family of five - so of course, he's confident, a strong leader and a bit of a perfectionist. He excels at being in charge, but he's a good team player too, and he loves the Corps and his job. Except that now his world has been turned upside down. He's been seriously injured, he's no longer leading his men, he's no longer in control, there's a lot of gray in a world that used to be black and white. Then he discovers the therapist who is tasked with getting him back to where he wants to be is the woman he lost his heart to fourteen years ago. What is he supposed to do now?
Philip spread his damaged fingers, then tried to make a fist, but there was no strength in it. Elena uncurled his fingers again and examined 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 toward his palm and not let her straighten them. One at a time, she applied pressure to each fingertip. “What were you doing, wrestling with a—? 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 she could notice the dampness 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.
“You couldn’t know,” he said 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 everyone keeps telling me,” he muttered. The corner of his mouth tipped up in an effort of a smile. “So, what’s the prognosis?” He spread his fingers again.
His eyes had lost the glimmer of tears, and his tough guy façade was back in place.
Just as well. She couldn’t let herself care again. Keeping a healthy distance between them emotionally was the only way she’d get through the next few months.
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