Книга - Healing Her Boss’s Heart


Healing Her Boss's Heart
Dianne Drake

Daring to love again…When handsome surgeon Jack Hanson returns home, he’s not looking for love. His guilt over his wife’s death means he’s never going to risk his heart again! But feisty new employee Carrie Kellem can’t help but intrigue him…Carrie’s tough childhood has made her independent; she doesn’t need anyone! Until she meets Jack… And suddenly Carrie wishes she wasn’t alone. Can she help Jack to let go of the past, and see that he has a future with her?Sinclair Hospital Surgeons

Daring to love again...

When handsome surgeon Jack Hanson returns home, he’s not looking for love. His guilt over his wife’s death means he’s never going to risk his heart again! But feisty new employee Carrie Kellem can’t help but intrigue him...

Carrie’s tough childhood has made her independent; she doesn’t need anyone! Until she meets Jack... And suddenly Carrie wishes she wasn’t alone. Can she help Jack to let go of the past and see that he has a future with her?

Carrie responded to his kiss and kissed him back every bit as hard as he kissed her.

She twined her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, wanting to feel more of him. Every inch of him. Pressed to her. Instantly igniting her in ways she’d never been ignited before. In ways that totally shocked her.

She’d never felt need like this. Or desire. Or the pure, raw pounding of want. She hadn’t known it existed. And she didn’t know what to do with it other than what she was doing. Kissing him back. Enjoying the sensation of his hands skimming her body...her back, her hips. Enjoying the sensation of the arousal she could feel pressing against her pelvis.

She would have taken more. Much more. Everything. His kisses, his passion, his body. And she would have returned the same. But all too soon he broke away from it, stepped back and simply stared at her.

“I suppose I should apologize for that,” Jack said finally. “It wasn’t appropriate.”

Dear Reader (#u80b7b85f-6421-54ac-b185-4dec7d63a38f),

Welcome back to Marrell, Montana. It’s a wide-open place where dreams come true. At least for Carrie Kellem and Jack Hanson.

When I think of Montana so many possibilities come to mind. The beautiful landscape, the friendly people and the Native American heritage. I’ve brought some of that heritage to this story—though not from my own background. It’s a rich history of an amazing people who have endured, and still endure, many hardships to maintain their identity. The tribe I chose was Salish. Mine is Cherokee.

In Healing Her Boss’s Heart, trying to find their identity is what Carrie and Jack are doing. They’re struggling with it—both realising that until they find it they can’t be together. Jack suffers guilt from his past life, while Carrie fights to overcome the disadvantages of hers. Yet they love each other. And in that love they find a way to create a new identity—one that belongs to the two of them together.

I have an old Indian bow on my wall, made by my great-grandfather. It’s not a decoration—it was used for what bows were used for in those days. As a girl, I used that bow for target practice, never realising the significance of it. Now I do, and it’s so much more than just a bow. It’s my heritage. My past. It’s part of what made me who I am.

We all have those things. And my advice is: embrace them. It’s amazing what you’ll discover. It’s amazing what Carrie and Jack discover when they finally embrace their pasts and use that discovery as the beginning of their future.

As always, wishing you health and happiness!


Starting with non-fiction, DIANNE DRAKE penned hundreds of articles and seven books under the name JJ Despain. In 2001 she began her romance-writing career with The Doctor Dilemma. In 2005 Dianne’s first Medical Romance, Nurse in Recovery, was published, and with more than 20 novels to her credit she has enjoyed writing ever since.

Books by Dianne Drake

Mills & Boon Medical Romance

Deep South Docs A Home for the Hot-Shot Doc A Doctor’s Confession

Doctor, Mummy...Wife?

The Nurse and the Single Dad

Saved by Doctor Dreamy

Visit the Author Profile page at millsandboon.co.uk (http://millsandboon.co.uk) for more titles.

Healing Her Boss’s Heart

Dianne Drake

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)

To Bella. A cherished companion dog.

Praise for Dianne Drake

‘This is a classic romance...a lovely story which I heartily recommend.’

—Harlequin Junkie on The Nurse and the Single Dad


Cover (#u361106fe-672d-5f2b-bc85-8cbe91d88a7d)

Back Cover Text (#ucad1c264-58dc-568a-b1ec-4e9046c09af7)

Introduction (#ufec1c5a8-0ffb-5dbb-a80b-8040ebd91ef0)

Dear Reader (#uf8844b2a-a7a9-5a92-a08f-8208f7aa9b44)

Title Page (#u024b5141-0d8c-516b-9cb6-ff14788991e9)

About the Author (#u4b3c7ed0-f1b0-5b3a-abae-d3c490f093a6)

Dedication (#u9cb3c46e-f36e-50b0-b387-2c397d16c544)

Praise (#u8ef00a84-82bc-5d22-97ed-f0057aa4a6ed)

Chapter One (#uadbc74af-32e8-5e78-8d51-a3feae2b3f1d)

Chapter Two (#ua3b04d99-b078-5c61-be31-c5a20e1e1daf)

Chapter Three (#u7e3b9611-518b-5895-8d8e-c8baf38b996f)

Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)

Extract (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter One (#u80b7b85f-6421-54ac-b185-4dec7d63a38f)

“YOU’RE FROM CHICAGO. Why would you choose us?” Dr. Jack Hanson stared at the blonde beauty sitting across the desk from him. She had a good physique to her. Well muscled. Looked strong. Tall. All of it suited for his program. And if facial expressions gave anything away, hers did. It screamed determination. This was one no-nonsense woman and, while he wasn’t interested in the woman part, he was certainly intrigued by the no-nonsense.

In fact, in his own personal notes, when he’d been asked to do the recruiting for his class, the first qualification he’d listed had been no-nonsense. That, in his opinion, was a God-given trait. The rest of it could be trained into the candidates.

“The timing worked out. As I stated in my cover letter, I was asked to take a leave of absence, which may well turn into a permanent leave, and since I wasn’t doing anything else, this seemed like the place for me to be. An opportunity to learn something new, maybe refocus my efforts in a new direction. That’s what I do in my life, Doctor. I look for ways to move forward.”

“This mandatory absence...” He folded his arms across his chest, trying to look formidable when what he was really feeling was nervous. Even before he’d started his questions, he’d discovered that she had the power to do that. He didn’t know why, especially since women, in general, had no real effect on him anymore. But Carrie Kellem had marched into his broom-closet-sized office ten minutes ago, extended her hand across the desk to him, and something about the confidence in her smile had thrown him way off. So much so, he wasn’t fully back yet. “You didn’t explain it in full. Why not?”

“Because it’s not a problem for you to worry about. My superiors think I’m too intense, too involved. Too headstrong. Because I’ve jumped the scene a couple more times than they’re comfortable with, and they want me to step back and think about the error of my ways.” She smiled. “Which isn’t an error since I saved lives, and that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Explain jumping the scene.”

“It means I go in before I’m ordered to.”

“And you don’t consider jumping the scene an error or an insubordinate move? Especially since you’ve said you’ve done it more than once? Because mountain and wilderness rescue is often slow. Painstakingly so. Sometimes it takes you hours to advance only by inches. And if you jump a scene that’s not properly set for the rescue, people could get hurt. Or killed. Including you. So, do you have the patience for the slow procedures, and are you willing to obey orders you might not agree with? Because those are two things I need in the students I’ll be admitting to the training program. In other words, I want starters, not jump-starters. Can that be you?”

She leaned forward, to the edge of her chair. “I’m a SWAT officer, Dr. Hanson. Specifically trained and certified as a tactical paramedic, as well. It’s my job to get in and take care of anybody who’s been injured during a crime in progress, or directly afterward, and if that means jumping the scene and going in before anybody else does...” She shrugged. “I’m not impatient. At least, I try not to be. Sometimes I guess I am, though, because when you see someone who needs you right that moment...” She paused, swallowed hard.

“The people who depend on me to rescue them deserve the best I can give them, and that’s what they get. My best. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m supposed to be doing if I’m sidelined for any reason. People could die because of that, and I don’t want to be the one...responsible. When someone needs help, Doctor, that’s the only thing that crosses my mind.”

“Above your own safety?”

“I never even think of my own safety.” She relaxed back into her chair, folded her hands in her lap, and awaited the next question.

He did like her skill level and her confidence, but it worried him that she might be too impulsive at times, which could lead to recklessness. Of course, learning to respond properly was part of his training course, so he might be able to impress on her how important it was—especially when you could be hanging off the side of a mountain—to keep everything under control and follow orders.

“But my background check on you shows that you’ve disobeyed orders at least three times in the past three months. In my program, and ultimately in my rescue operations, I don’t tolerate that. And the people who depend on me to get them rescued deserve the best I can give them. So, on my team, if you can’t, or won’t, follow orders, you’re gone. Simple as that. One screwup and you’re out. Can you deal with that?”

“I can,” she said, her voice as full of determination as ever, even though a little flicker of doubt wavered in her eyes.

He liked seeing that. It meant she was thinking about it—thinking about her responses, her need to take control even when it wasn’t hers to have. That was good. More than that, encouraging, as she was shaping up to be the kind of rescuer he wanted. Someone with her kind of passion to help others. Someone who would do what she had to do to get the job done. Still, he did have his reservations, as Carrie seemed like she could be quite a handful, as well. Was that something he could deal with? Or even wanted to deal with?

For himself, not personally. But this wasn’t personal. It was for the good of the team, and for the good of the team he could deal with Carrie. After all, how headstrong could she be? He glanced over at her, saw the obstinate, almost challenging look on her face, and chided himself for continuing with this interview. Because of that look... That one look told him exactly what he was going to get with her.

Yet, underneath it, did he see something vulnerable? Maybe the way she bit her lower lip. Or tried too hard to put on a swelled-up front that wasn’t really her? Because she was clasping her folded hands a little too tightly. Holding herself too rigidly. Looking across at him too anxiously. He hoped that was what he was seeing, and not what he wanted to see, since that little shaving of exposure was what he was counting on.

Bottom line—he wanted her. Liked her background on her initial application. Liked her in his follow-up phone call a few weeks ago. Liked her even more now that she was here. Even with her obvious drawbacks, he saw Carrie Kellem as someone with the potential to lead her own team somewhere in the future. That’s what he needed. A strong leader. Not a bunch of rescuers who could get up and down the side of a mountain without any effort, but who had the drive to put everything on the line for each and every situation.

And Carrie...he was positive she’d put it on the line. He had no doubts about that whatsoever.

“Also, I disobeyed orders four times, to be exact. You need to know the truth about me. I’m a lot of things, but I don’t hide the truth. I disobeyed because I’m a trained police officer as well as a paramedic, and my job is—or was, if that turns out to be the case—taking care of people injured on a crime scene, including innocent bystanders and other cops, and sometimes I don’t think it’s best to wait until it’s secured to go in. I can’t help anybody if I’m being sidelined outside the crime scene until it’s declared safe or secured. So I’ve disobeyed orders and gone in when I didn’t have a direct order to do so.”

Carrie shoved her hand through her short-cropped, almost white-blond hair and let out a frustrated breath. “If I’m entering a scene, it’s because someone is bleeding, or screaming. They’re in agony and their life is slipping away from them. My job is to save and rescue them any way I can.” She looked over at him and suddenly her eyes went soft. “When someone needs help, they shouldn’t have to wait for it. Because sometimes it comes too late. I couldn’t live with myself if I was the one who could help them, but didn’t, and they...”

She shook her head, shook herself out of the emotion and back into the moment. “My training, both as a special weapons and tactics police officer, as well as a tactical paramedic, qualifies me to do things that most people aren’t able to do. But I must be let loose to do them. So sometimes I push the boundaries, but if a life is saved in the balance, that makes it worth the hassle I cause because I jumped in too fast.”

“So you’re not a team player?”

“On the contrary. I’m a great team player, but sometimes the team has to change.”

“Meaning you’re not always willing to follow orders?”

“I follow orders, Doctor. I can’t tell you how many field rescues I’ve done, and I’ve only been reprimanded four times.”

“Because you knew better than your supervisor.” Yes, she was a challenge. But was she worth the challenge? Because despite her obvious problem, her supervisor had given her a strong recommendation. Full of passion. Perfect scores in her skill tests. Dedicated.

He was seeing all that. But he was also seeing the cautions. She disobeys orders. She argues.

“I’m not saying I knew better. I just saw things differently. His job was to secure the area and protect his officers, as well as innocent bystanders, on the scene. My job was to rescue injured people. We had different things to do, that’s all. Basically, he thought cop first, then everything else. I though paramedic first, then cop, then everything else. Sometimes you must make hard choices if a life is hanging in the balance. And I’m that balance, Doctor. For the person who’s dying in the middle of a crime scene I’m the only balance, and if I’m willing to take the risk, I should be the one to make the hard choice.”

Well, she was right about that. He’d spent years doing makeshift rescues in the mountains with untrained volunteers, and if that had taught him anything, it was that life was full of hard choices. He’d had to make too many of them over time. “The hard choice, until they fire you.”

“I haven’t been fired. They’re simply...” A broad smile spread across her face. “Who am I kidding? They’re not going to have me back. You know it, I know it and, most of all, they know it. This temporary suspension is their way of easing me out the door, keeping me on full benefits until I find a new position.”

“But you don’t seem that upset about it.”

“Life moves on. You either move with it or you get left behind. I’ve had a lot of experience with that, and the lesson I’ve learned is that I won’t get left behind. Never again.”

Even with all his qualms, he liked her hang-tough attitude. She wasn’t a quitter. “So, can you yank a deadweight body out?”

“Of course I can.” She flexed a very well-defined bicep muscle at him. “Part of doing what I do is the training and discipline it takes every day to stay in shape. I could yank your deadweight body out of any situation with no problem.” She grinned. “Want me to show you?”

Jack chuckled. “I think I’ll pass on that but, tell me, can you put in more than your fair share of backbreaking hours? Because that’s part of this. Sometimes putting aside personal life and plans. Sometimes staying out in the field until you think you can’t take another step, but you know you can’t quit. Can you do this? Can you accept that it may consume parts or all of your life at times?” The way it had his, until Evangeline and Alice...

“Yep,” she said, her smile growing wider. “That’s what I’m in it for—to do the work. Not the personal glory. I like being useful. Growing up, I never was. Never had a personal goal either, except putting myself in a position where I could make a difference.”

She was so...engaging, so buoyant it was almost catching. Damn. The last thing he wanted was to be caught up by anybody’s cheerfulness, but she was catching him, nevertheless. Evangeline had been so laid-back. Good, dedicated, compassionate but never up front with her feelings. Part of her Salish background. But here was Carrie, and she was a ticking time bomb of enthusiasm, ready to explode. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, because it intrigued him. The women in his life were mostly from the reservation or surrounding areas—mostly like Evangeline. And while he himself wasn’t a Native American, he’d practically grown up in their ways. Normal society ways mixed in with the traditional.

Ways that were not at all like Carrie’s. Admittedly, Carrie’s ways intrigued him. Maybe even made him a little bit nervous, because accepting Carrie would be a lot like playing with fire. And as he knew from the native ways he’d spent most of his life learning, fire was unpredictable. But it could be tamed. Yes, Carrie was fire. A basic element. And maybe fire was exactly what he needed right now...in his professional life, of course. Not in his personal. He didn’t allow himself one of those anymore. “So why not be a regular paramedic and keep yourself out of the line of fire, if saving lives is all you want?”

“Somebody’s got to do what I do, so why not me? Besides, I like advancing myself. Thought about being a doctor or a nurse—didn’t have the time or resources to pursue any of that. But being a paramedic always intrigued me because when it’s on, it’s so fast-paced you must rely on your instincts, and I’ve always had good instincts. So when I found out there were specialties in the field...” She shrugged. “What can I say? I wanted to advance. That’s who I am.”

“If I accept you into my program, and you do well with it, can I count on you to stay here? Because while your need might be advancement, my need is to train qualified rescuers who will take care of the basic needs in the area.”

“My life is pretty open. No one to keep me anywhere. No one place that’s calling me to settle down. So I’m open to almost anything. If you think I’m good enough, and I think I’m good enough—and that’s a big thing because I have to feel good enough—then there’s no reason I can’t stay. I don’t have any ties anywhere, Doctor. So I can be tied to Marrell, Montana, as well as anywhere else.”

“Well, the needs in Marrell are growing. Sinclair Hospital, the town, the population. We’re attracting all kinds of outsiders who either want to build a weekend cabin or retire here. Meaning we’re getting a lot of people moving in who are not used to the terrain. People who have this notion that the wild, outdoor life is for them. And they’re the ones we’re pulling down off mountains and ledges and out of trees. Which is why I need the best.”

“You think that’s me?”

“I don’t think anything yet. But you’ve made it to the third step of the interview process, which means I see some potential. Whether you turn yourself into the best is entirely up to you. And being the best comes with a job offer.”

“But if I don’t like the training, or decide I don’t want to pursue mountain and wilderness rescue, or if I simply don’t like Marrell? Then what?”

“Then you don’t stay. The rescuers I want are the ones who want to be here.”

“Fair enough.” She adjusted her body in the chair. Straightened her back, stretched her shoulders and frowned. “Do you like it here, Dr. Hanson? Like it enough to stay? Because I heard your job here is only temporary.”

“I was raised near here, came back to practice after medical school, and I’m back again. So, yes, I like it. As far as being temporary goes, no. My mom married the doctor who owned the hospital, and they are semiretired. As in they’ll pop back in to work when they feel the need or when we need them.”

“Do you run the hospital?” she asked him.

“No, Drs. Leanne and Caleb Carsten do. But I’m the assistant chief, probably by default, since Leanne has cut back on her schedule because she’s raising one child and pregnant with another, and Caleb is still on part-time status, as far as practicing goes. He was injured in Afghanistan, then injured again later, so he’s in serious rehab still, which limits his doctoring abilities right now. As a result, he spends most of his time in admin work and for the next couple of weeks he’s taking a break from that, rehab, because he and Leanne are in Boston, helping their son through a piano competition. He’s a prodigy.”

“Which leaves...”

Jack smiled. “Me, and a handful of part-timers who come in to cover various medical services.”


“It is, but it’s good to be back.” Well, parts of it were good. The rest of it...he’d just have to figure it out as he went. “And my mom was smart about how she persuaded me to come back. She knew the one thing that would keep me here would be the prospect of starting a real mountain and wilderness rescue program. It’s been my passion since I was a kid and began climbing mountains So she and Henry Sinclair dangled the carrot, and I bit.”

“Even though you’re a surgeon?”

“Best of both worlds. Here, I’ll get to do both as hospital services continue to expand.”

“Sounds to me like you’re happy.”

If only... But Carrie didn’t need to know about that gap in him, about that one thing that wouldn’t let happiness in. It was his price to pay. His burden to carry. Alone. He’d been doing it for five years now, and while it didn’t get any easier over time, he’d figured out how to make it work in his life. “Anyway, tell me, why should I accept you onto my program. What do you bring that no one else will?”

“What I bring is me, and I’m pretty straightforward. I study hard, I work hard, and I’ll be up for anything you want me to do.”

“Until the next thing comes along?”

“Don’t you, personally, always hope for the next thing?”

For a moment, he studied the challenge in her eyes. She was an arguer, a staunch defender of the way she chose to live her life, and that was another thing he liked about her. Carrie Kellem was the one who defined herself. And he wanted that—wanted her. More now than he had twenty minutes ago when she’d gone into his office announcing that she was ready to start her training—even before he’d interviewed her. “What I personally hope for is this best thing—my training program. Anything beyond that is on my back burner.”

“So you don’t look ahead?”

Or behind. Too much pain in the past. Why go back to relive it when he couldn’t change it? And why look forward when, sometimes, he wasn’t even sure he could make it through the current day? “What I look ahead to is in two weeks, when Caleb and Leanne are back and I’ll have more time to get this program going, when I’ll have seven qualified candidates sitting in my classroom, giving me their undivided attention. Other than that?” He shrugged.

“That’s too bad, because there’s always room to grow, Doctor. Always things you can look ahead to.”

Something he’d believed once. Then had let go of.

“Now, am I accepted? You know both my strengths and weaknesses...even though I might not personally call them weaknesses. I’m sure you’ve talked with my former supervisors, so you know both the good and bad about me. And you also know whether you want me. So...do you?”

He did. Even though he was still wavering, Carrie had what he needed in his program. Admittedly, he wouldn’t mind a little more. Maybe the edge of a friendship? Only the edge, though, because that’s as far as he ever went. Except with his best friend, Palloton.

But...damn, this was tough because he wanted Carrie Kellem. With a lot of reservations. She was going to be a challenge. Maybe a problem. Still, her determination... It always went back to that. Her determination. He needed that most of all, and he’d never seen it so well defined in a person. Carrie embodied it, though, and that was a huge part of being a rescue specialist. Because it was a hard, isolating job, and without a huge amount of internal grit it would take a person down real fast. “I’m still thinking,” he said, even though, deep down, he knew Carrie was going to make a difference to him that he wasn’t sure he wanted made.

* * *

“Look, I’ve exhausted my options in Chicago. At least, the options I want to pursue. And so far I love everything I’ve seen here. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had in my life, and the idea of waking up every morning and looking out one window and seeing wild prairie lands, then looking out another window and seeing mountains—it intrigues me, Doctor, because all I’ve ever known is Chicago, and buildings and street noises. And the opportunity to do my work in that wilderness or on those mountains...

“All I can be is honest. Right now, this is what I want to do. It’s not my last chance, or my last resort. It’s my choice. You have something I want, and I may, at some point in the future, have something you want. So accept me, or don’t. It’s as simple as that.”

It wasn’t like her to beg. But she was almost begging for this. Or coming as close to begging as she ever had. Because something about Marrell, Montana, felt right. It felt like she needed to be here. Gut instinct perhaps? Because if there was one thing she’d learned to do at an early age, it was to trust her gut. Sometimes it was the only thing that had saved her.

He chuckled. “You drive a hard bargain, Carrie.”

Her eyes crinkled into a warm smile. The smile of victory. “I know. That’s what makes me so irresistible.”

“Well, irresistible isn’t what I’m looking for. It’s strength of mind and character, and the willingness to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life.”

“A few months back I had a hostage who was down, bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds inside a bank that was being held up. Three gunmen in total. They didn’t want him to die because they didn’t want to face murder charges, so I got to him pretty easily. They let me in. Met me with a gun in my back. Told me to fix him, then get him out of there. And here’s this nearly three-hundred-pound man who didn’t want to go because he was afraid if I jostled him, he’d bleed to death.

“So, I’ve got a gun at my back and this belligerent man resisting everything I was trying to do. My only hope was to sneak in a sedative and wait until it took him down enough that I could drag him out into the street.

“Trust me, he wasn’t easy. I ended up with a broken nose, a sprained wrist and more bruises than I could count. But today he’s alive and well and embellishing his story on his radio sports talk show every chance he gets. He was the hardest work I’ve ever had. So if you’ve got something harder, bring it on. I’m ready for it.”

“Well, try doing that dangling on the end of a rope extended out over a six-thousand-foot drop, then we’ll talk.”

She laughed. “OK, so you’ve got me beat. But let me just say this. The reason you should let me into your program is that, so far, my life has been all about getting myself to a place that’s more of a challenge than the last place I was. I take the risks. I meet the challenges. But I also get the results. If you give me this opportunity—and you know you want to—you stand a fair chance of getting exactly what you want out of this program.” This time when she smiled at him she wrinkled her nose. She hadn’t meant to because it came so close to...flirting. And she didn’t flirt. Never flirted. Never wanted to find herself in the position of having to deal with the results. Yet she’d just wrinkled her nose...

“Which would be...?”

“Me,” she said. “And all my experience.”

“You, the person who doesn’t follow orders. So, tell me. How am I going to deal with that? Because there’s no room for it in my program.”

“Sounds like you’ve just accepted me.”

“Maybe I have.”

“In that case, all I can say is I’ll try to do better. I want this. I don’t want to go over the top and ruin my chances. So I’ll do everything I can to make sure I don’t.”

“Won’t that be fighting the natural woman? Because I see what you’re made of, and I’m not sure you can fight it.”

“Then accept me provisionally, or put me on probation. I want this. I want to be in a place where I’m needed. Where I can make a difference. And I can do that here—for you.”

“Not for me, Carrie. For the people who’ll need you. But you’re tempting me. I’m concerned, though, that we’ve got all kinds of experience here you’ve never had. Mountains, rivers, wilderness, wildlife...” He shrugged. “Since you’ve always been a city girl, you won’t be afraid to take it on, will you?”

“Nothing’s ever scared me.” Not since the night they’d taken her away from her mother and thrown her in a foster home for her own benefit. Her mom had been a drunk. A drug addict. And Carrie remembered lying on the cot in the large room full of other scared kids, listening to so many of them cry. She’d cried, too, that night. She’d become one of the many. But she’d been old enough to realize that she couldn’t be just one of the many if she wanted to survive. She couldn’t be scared. Couldn’t cry. And after that night she hadn’t allowed anything to scare her. She shook her head, clenched her jaw. “No, it doesn’t scare me.”

“You do realize you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to join the police force here. At least, not in the same capacity as in Chicago.”

“That’s fine. I want to be a paramedic first anyway. I only went through police training so I could specialize as a tactical paramedic, and it was required of me. Of course, if becoming the town sheriff or anything comes with a horse and a cowboy hat...”

“Nope. He drives a mountain-worthy SUV and, as far as I know, the only hat I’ve ever seen him in is a bright orange stocking cap he wears when he’s out in the woods.”

“Well, I don’t look good in orange, so I may have to find some other kind of work here to help me support myself. Maybe something part-time in your emergency department. If there’s an opening.”

“Well, like I already said, I do have some concerns. I’ll be honest about that. But if you can keep your over-exuberance under control, you’re in. The term is eight weeks for the initial part of the training, at least forty hours a week, with continuing education follow-ups until you’re certified. You’ll be on call for any and all emergencies during your training. The assignments will be my choice, not yours. So, do you want this?”

“I let my apartment go back in Chicago, sold my furniture to get me out here and get me set up so, yes, I want this. Now, can my dog get some training on this course along with me?”

“You have a dog?”

“Big one, with a good tracking sense. Smart. Trains easily. I’ve always thought she’d be great in the field.”

Jack dropped his head back against the chair and let out a long sigh. “You’re going to insist on the dog, aren’t you?”

“Well, maybe not insist so much as try to persuade. There can be advantages.”

He stared straight at her. “You never quit, do you?”

She smiled, feeling as happy about this new opportunity as she’d ever felt about anything. “Never.”

Jack’s response was to groan. Simply groan, then shut his eyes.

Chapter Two (#u80b7b85f-6421-54ac-b185-4dec7d63a38f)

CARRIE HANDED A dog treat to Bella, her large, black Labrador-mutt mix, and climbed into the pickup truck next to her, nudging Bella back over to the passenger’s side. “We’re in,” she said to her companion. Bella and Carrie had been together for a year now, resulting from an unintentional meeting. Bella had gotten caught up in some gunfire—an innocent passerby—and had taken a bullet to her hindquarter. Nothing serious—just a flesh wound. But she’d needed patching, and Carrie happened to be the one on the scene who could do that. Only problem was, after she’d dropped Bella off at the closest veterinarian’s office for better care, the bill had come to her since Bella was a stray. So, because she’d paid for the dog’s care, she’d kept the dog. Best thing she’d ever done. “He seems nice enough. Not very personable, but we’re not here to make friends, are we?” she asked her friend, as she eased her truck forward and started off down Marrell’s main street toward the one-room garage apartment she was renting.

By the time she reached her temporary home. Carrie was more than ready to go inside, kick back and spend the evening reading a medical journal. Maybe open a can of soup and heat it up over a single burner hot plate and snuggle in. She hadn’t expected to live in the lap of luxury, coming to Montana, but she’d hoped for something better than this. One room, a foldout sofa that converted to a bed, a tiny kitchen table for two with a wobbly leg, a chair. But it was warm, and given that it was almost October, and she’d already been caught up in light snow flurries, that warmth was a bonus. That, plus the fact that there was a little stretch of open land across the road where she could walk Bella without having to go too far.

“There’s no place to go,” she said, adjusting her cell phone to speaker so she could get comfortable talking to her former roomie, Hannah Clarkson. Hannah was a nurse practitioner who managed a small satellite clinic for one of Chicago’s leading hospitals. “I knew I’d be getting into some pretty remote areas, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so...isolated.”

“Have you made any friends?” Hannah asked.

“I don’t want to make any friends. I’m here to work hard, get through the program and figure out what’s next. The doctor in charge is already offering me a job here—well, almost—so who knows. If things work out...”

“Is he sexy?”

Leave it to Hannah to cut to the bottom line. “To you, maybe. He’s tall, well built. Rugged. But I’m not looking for sexy.” Dredging up a quick mental recall of Dr. Jack Hanson, she decided he was, indeed, sexy. Nice muscles. Strong. She especially liked the three-day growth of stubble on his face. His longish dark brown hair. His charcoal eyes. OK, maybe she’d been too long without a man in her life since just picturing him gave her a little tingle. But having a man, or not having one, had never been her focus. And she wasn’t about to make that any kind of a focus now.

“You’re not looking, period. Remember that firefighter...what was his name?”

“Um...I don’t remember.” Actually, she did. And he’d been a hunk and a half. And caught up in one of those complicated situations halfway between married and divorced. In her life, there was never room for anything complicated so she’d moved on. But that was going on to two years ago now, and she’d never had a date since. Even then, their dates hadn’t really been dates. More like chance encounters. A few minutes here, a few there. Nothing special.

“Liar,” her friend accused. “He was great.”

“He was thinking about going back to his wife.”

“OK, maybe he was a bad choice. But how will you ever know a good choice if you don’t allow yourself to look?”

“I’ll look. Just not right now.”

“Well, all I’m saying is keep your options open. You owe yourself a little fun. And a future outside your job.”

A future outside her job? The words rattled around in her brain long after she’d quit talking to Hannah. And, they scared her, because she was good at her job. Felt safe in it. But outside it...what had she ever had that was worth anything? Had there ever been anything in life that had made her feel safe? No, there hadn’t.

Well, Hannah may have been right about some things, but changing herself was easier said than done. Her life had always been about survival, and when you lived only to survive, everything else took a back seat. Quite honestly, she didn’t know any other way to live. Mentally and emotionally—sure, there was more to it, and she envied the people she could see having that kind of life. But for Carrie survival mode always took over. In and out of foster homes from the age of five until she was sixteen. Then bumped out to the street, living on her own, by her wits. Eating out of trash bins, avoiding the bad people, the bad influences. Always wanting more. Always knowing that if she could find the way, she could have it. Always fighting to get ahead and never giving up. That’s who she was because she didn’t know how to be anything else.

Glumly, Carrie set aside her soup and put Bella on her lead, then walked over to the field and simply stood there as Bella sniffed around, then pulled her in different directions, investigating all her options. For her dog, it was an easy thing. Find it then follow it. But for her, that had always hurt. Too many times over her growing-up years she’d thought she’d found it, only to be turned away. She’d had to become hard to survive. She’d had to become disengaged to keep from getting hurt. Problem was she didn’t know how to engage now. At thirty-three she didn’t have a clue.

“Too many years alone,” she said to Bella, as they headed back to the apartment a little while later. “Sort of like the way you were when I found you. Alone, wounded.” Except Bella’s wounds had healed. Carrie’s, on the other hand, had not. They were too deep. Too ingrained in who she was. “Part and parcel,” she said, leading Bella up the stairs. “That which has to be accepted as part of something else.” Or, in other words, as part of her.

Once inside, Carrie debated returning to her reading or stretching out on the lumpy sofa bed. The bed won, so she stripped down to her undies, climbed in, pulled the blanket up over her and shut her eyes, even though she wasn’t the least bit tired or sleepy. But sleeping beat staying awake, thinking about her place in life. Something she was prone to doing too often.

And ten seconds later thoughts of Jack Hanson flashed across her mind. She tingled a little, unwilling recollections skittering across her mind. His body—the muscles. His eyes—so intense. And the smile that didn’t come easily, but when it did was so...warm. Inviting. She rubbed her arms against the goose bumps coming to life. All over an image in her head. Men didn’t affect her that way. She didn’t let them. But the more she thought about Jack, and the more she tingled, the more her goose bumps marched up and down.

Sighing, she turned on her side, hoping a new position would bring on different thoughts. But it didn’t work as Jack was still playing with her. She didn’t really know anything about him. He was gruff, which she didn’t mind. Very direct, which attracted her. And dedicated. Maybe that was his best quality. She liked dedication. Liked someone with a purpose, a destination, and it seemed that Jack had both.

He wasn’t married, she finally decided, after turning over to her other side, realizing she was fighting a losing battle. Jack would leave her mind in his own good time, and there wasn’t much she could do to control it. No, not married...at least, he didn’t wear a wedding band. No trace of one either. And there was nothing else about him to indicate he was.

His appearance was a little unkempt, in a rugged way. Didn’t have a wife’s finishing touch. Or what she thought should be a wife’s touch. What she’d do if she were a wife. But was he involved? Did he get involved or was he a player? “No,” she said, still trying to force the thought of him from her head as she climbed out of bed, headed to the sink for a drink of water, and was interrupted partway across the room with the “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” jingle of her cell phone.

“Kellem here,” she said, when her caller ID failed to note who was on the other end.

“Jack Hanson.” Simple response. No embellishments.

“What can I do for you, Dr. Hanson?” she asked, not sure what to make of a call coming in at nearly eleven o’clock.

“We have a medical situation. You mentioned that you might want to take a part-time job as a paramedic. So, if that’s the case, you’re hired.”

“A case? As in?”

“Priscilla Anderson, one of our senior residents, is having a heart episode—not sure if it’s an attack or what—and she can’t get to us, so we need to get to her. I’m in my truck, I’ve got your address, and I’m two minutes away. Be ready. It’s going to be a hike, so be ready for that, too. Oh, and that garage you’re living above...there’s a better apartment over Millie’s Diner. A little more room, not as run-down. Probably safer.”

“And more expensive. This place is fine. Easy on the budget.”

“Suit yourself. But if you change your mind...” With that, he clicked off, leaving Carrie standing there, practically naked, staring at the phone, like that was going to give her more information. Which, of course, it didn’t. So, three minutes later, she ran down the outside steps of her apartment and straight to the pickup truck parked in front of it. With Bella at her heels.

“You’re not bringing that dog, are you?” Jack grumbled, instead of greeting her with a “Hello” or “Glad you could make it.” Or even doing the polite thing by opening the truck door for her.

“She won’t get in the way.”

“She’ll stay in the truck,” he said, as he gunned the engine, and the tires spun briefly on the icy road before they caught traction and the three of them were on their way.

“She’s had obedience training, and she carries my supplies. Assuming you’ve brought supplies for me to carry.”

“I have.” Jack glanced over at the dog, who’d managed to find her spot between Carrie and him. “And you expect her to carry them in that red pack she’s wearing?”

“Frees me up to take in additional equipment, if needed. Or, when I was working SWAT, carry a gun.”

“They let you take her in?”

“Nobody ever stopped me. Although I never put her in harm’s way. If there was gunfire, she stayed in the car.” She glanced over at Jack, saw the grim set of his face, and scooted back in her seat but didn’t relax. “So, why me tonight?”

“You were free.”

“You’ve got other students in town who could do just as well.”

“But, as I said, we’ve got some hiking to do, and you seemed like the one to do it.”

“Do you always make house calls?” she asked him.

“When I have to. In areas like this, you do whatever it takes. Tonight it’s going to take a half-mile hike up a steep trail, because the road that winds up to Priscilla’s place is iced over and not safe to drive.”

“So, how do we know it’s a heart episode?”

“That’s what she said when she phoned me. And she only calls for help if she thinks it’s serious, so I have no reason to doubt she got it wrong. Symptoms fit. She has a history of mild heart disease. Asthma, too.” He elbowed Bella back toward Carrie. “Look, I’m not happy that you’re bringing the dog, but since she’s here there’s nothing I can do about it. So, please, keep her off my lap and don’t let her lean on me. Or drool on me.”

“You don’t like dogs?”

“One thing you’ll discover about me the further into training you get is that I’m not always the most tolerant person. Fair warning. I’m good at what I do, but sometimes I’m not the nicest person to be around.”

“Any particular reason for that?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I try to keep myself focused on my work, and I’m not good with distractions. Like dogs. Personally, I like them well enough. Just not with me on a house call.”

And that was the last thing he said until he brought the truck to a stop on a winding, narrow road and hopped out. “Your supplies are behind the seat. Put them in the doggie bag, if that’s what you want to do. And stay as close to me as you can, because you don’t know the area, the path is going to be slick, and I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Guess we’d better hurry,” she said, slinging her bag of supplies over her shoulder, then scrambling along after him, trying to stay close enough that she could benefit from the flashlight he shone on the trail ahead of him.

While she didn’t know much about mountain rescue yet, she did know that the last thing she needed was to be out on a mountain trail, in the cold, after dark, lost and alone. Not that he would care. Or even notice. Because, from her little corner of the world, it seemed that Jack Hanson wasn’t the type of person who got himself caught up in anything other than his work, the same way she didn’t. Which made him a perfect match for her—medically speaking.

She liked that. In fact, she got excited about it as, outside her training, she’d never worked with anyone before. Always alone on the job. With backup, of course. But the medical duty had been up to her, and there had been no one there beside her to help.

Now that Jack was practically her first partner, it felt nice. Gave her a different kind of confidence, as if, because of him, she could do more. Do better. Even the thought of watching his hands work—gentle hands, she assumed—gave her a little jolt. Competent hands. The hands of a skilled lover... No—She wasn’t going there. That was way too far. Mind on the job, Carrie, she warned herself. She had to keep her mind only on the medical and not on the other potential non-medical skills of Jack’s hands.

“What do we do when we get there? How do we get her out, since we can barely get in?” she asked, hoping he didn’t notice the smidgen of wobbliness in her voice.

“I’ve got a couple of volunteers coming in behind us, about an hour out, if we’re lucky, and they’ll help us get her back to the truck. After that...” He paused, turned to shine the light on her face. “She’s my grandmother. I’ve got an airlift on standby if she’s too bad to keep at Sinclair. Which makes her one of the lucky ones, because I can afford to do it. But there are hundreds of people living out here who don’t get that benefit. Which is why we need to get in to them better than we’re able to do now. Give them a quicker response, an earlier intervention.”

“Your grandmother lives out here alone?” That surprised her, as she’d never known anyone who lived so remotely. Even in her worst days, living in alley doorways, she’d been surrounded by civilization. But to live so far out... It wasn’t exactly an unappealing idea. A scary one, but one she might have to get used to if Jack hired her after the program was finished.

“Always has. She homesteaded the area with my grandfather, and stayed on after he died. Won’t leave. Stubborn, like you are.”

“But she gets to Marrell occasionally?”

“When she wants, which isn’t very often. She lives life on her own terms, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Like Jack? she wondered. Because he, too, seemed like he lived life on his own terms. “So, what’s the plan after we get there?” she asked, fighting hard to keep up with him as he turned back to the trail and doubled his pace. He was strong. Had huge hiking skills, the likes of which she’d never seen before. And, for the first time, she got a good sense of what he wanted out of his program. Saw the vital necessity of it.

“We’re going to stabilize her for transport. That’s all we’re equipped for right now. Get an IV going, get her on oxygen, give her cardiac meds if she needs them, and kick the wall and curse because we can’t do more.” He slowed just slightly. Not enough to make much of a difference, but enough so it gave Carrie a chance to almost catch up to him. But before she did completely, he started off again as fast and furiously as before. “And feed her cats. She’s got a bunch of them, and she’s more worried about them than she is about herself. Hope your dog is OK with cats.”

“Her name is Bella and, yes, she’s fine with cats.”

On hearing her name, Bella bounded in front of Carrie on the trail, leaving Carrie the last in line, feeling like a real slacker. Even though she prided herself on being physically fit, she had nothing on Jack Hanson, and it was easy to see that she was going to have to do better. Back in Chicago, she’d been proud of being the fittest one on her team. Here, in Marrell, she wondered if she even amounted to average.

“Well, she stays outside once we get there. I don’t want her getting in the way,” he said as he veered off the main path to the left, and totally disappeared in the dark for a moment.

“Dr. Hanson?” Carrie called out, not so much from being afraid of the dark, or being lost in it, but from the uncertainty of which way to go.

He spun around and flashed the light directly in her eyes. “Name’s Jack. Nobody’s very formal in Marrell.”

“And when we’re in class?” she asked, finally catching all the way up to him.

“Sir will be fine,” he said, taking hold of her arm and leading her off the path entirely.

Despite herself, she laughed. “You don’t have an inflated opinion of yourself, do you?” Up ahead, beyond a dense thicket of early-winter undergrowth, she could see the glowing lights from the cabin she assumed to be their destination. The house didn’t appear large, but it seemed...cozy. Something she’d always wanted for herself at some point in her life. Far, far down the line, if ever, she supposed.

“Of course I don’t,” he said, his voice full of a humor that was impossible to see in the dark. But was there, nonetheless. “But in my case, if I did, my opinion would be justified.”

Carrie laughed again, as they finally made it out of the trees and picked up speed across a lawn that was littered with snow-dusted gnomes and elves and flamingos she assumed to be pink. “You don’t bring your crown on house calls, do you?”

“My crown is always implied,” he said, as he stepped up onto the front porch, its wooden planks swathed in a dim yellow light. “As you’ll soon come to realize.” Then he opened the door. “Priscilla,” he called out, to which six or seven cats responded with a variety of meows.

She liked his sarcastic humor. It was...sexy, in an offbeat way. Kept her on her toes, made her think. She liked the way his niceness slipped in when he was trying so hard to keep it out, too. Trying so hard to be a grump. But he wasn’t grumpy. Not really. A little preoccupied, often totally focused, sometimes distracted. That really wasn’t grumpy, though. More like concerned or concentrated. Not fond of being interrupted in the moment. The way she was, come to think of it. Sometimes she would ignore someone or snap when someone interrupted her, but that wasn’t grumpy, the way Jack wasn’t grumpy when he did the same. Then there was his competence—it radiated from him. He was very calculated in what he did, didn’t waste time or effort, but he was methodical. And to her even that was sexy. In fact, the whole aura surrounding him was sexy. He was perverse, intense, maybe a little dark at times, but there was nothing wrong with that. Not personally. Not professionally. All in all, Carrie liked Jack Hanson. Not for a deeply personal relationship, since he was giving off absolutely no vibes in that direction, but maybe in a situation she would loosely define as a casual friendship. And the thought of him as her friend while she was here in Marrell—she liked that. It could work. If his crown didn’t get in the way.

* * *

Priscilla Anderson was sitting on the edge of her bed, looking like she was ready for a hike down the mountain. Probably something well north of seventy, she looked twenty years younger, all decked out in jeans and a red plaid jacket, with her long white hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Just let me get my boots on and I’ll be ready to go back down with you,” she said.

“How?” Jack asked, as Carrie sprang to action, checking the woman’s vital signs. “Your road’s icing over, and I’m going to be lucky to get volunteers in, let alone get you out of this damned isolated shack.”

“It may be a shack, Jackie Hanson, but it’s all mine. Which is more than I can say for that shack you’re living in. Willard Mason’s old run-down piece of trash. No running water, no toilet...”

“It has water, it has plumbing. And electricity. All the modern conveniences...”

“Which you had to pay to have put in.”

“Because I bought the place.” He bent to give his grandmother an affectionate peck on the cheek, then shoved one of her cats aside so he could sit next to her. “So, when did the pain start?”

“It’s not exactly a pain. More like a heavy sensation. And it started three hours ago. I’d have called you sooner, but I was hoping it was indigestion and it would go away.”

“Well, it didn’t.” He took hold of Priscilla’s wrist to take her pulse. Then looked up at Carrie. “Fast, but not thready.” Then he looked into his grandmother’s eyes, took out his stethoscope, listened to her lungs. When he went for her chest, though, she swatted away his hand.

“Let her do that,” she snapped, nodding to Carrie. “Don’t want you touching me so privately. Not respectable for a grandson to be doing that.”

“When did you become such a prude, old woman?” Jack said, standing up and stepping back from the bed, which allowed Carrie to get closer, check Priscilla’s heart and take her blood pressure.

“The day I heard you were taking over here as a doctor.” She looked up at Jack, and actually winked. “Scary stuff, Jackie, for an old woman who used to powder your behind.”

“Blood pressure’s a little elevated,” Carrie interjected, looking first at Priscilla, then at Jack. “Heartbeat’s strong, but tachy, like you said. I counted one-forty.”

“Who’s she, by the way?” Priscilla nodded toward Carrie, but didn’t look directly at her. “Your nurse?”

“Nope. Her name’s Carrie. She’s one of my new students,” Jack said as he pulled an IV setup out of his backpack and continued to talk as he worked. “From Chicago. A paramedic. Highly trained in dealing with people as stubborn as you. Oh, and she carries a gun.”

Priscilla arched appreciative eyebrows. “Well, good for you, Carrie. I’ve always admired a woman who could shoot.”

“Only on the job, Mrs. Anderson,” Carrie told her. “I’m a cop. Guns come with the territory. Out here, though, no guns. The only weapon I have is a wooden spoon that comes with the apartment I’m renting. I don’t do guns on my own time. Don’t even own a personal one.”

“Me either. Best weapon I’ve got is my brain. Use it wisely and I can get everything I want. Like a grandson who makes house calls in the middle of the night. Oh, and call me Priscilla. Mrs. Anderson is too formal.”

“Because I want to persuade you to move to town. To move in with me.”

Priscilla winked at Carrie. “Jackie seems to think he knows what’s best for me. Always has. Most of the time I just indulge him. It makes him feel better.”

“Then indulge me now,” Jack said. “Just say yes, and by the time I get you out of the hospital, I’ll have a room ready for you.”

“And my cats?” She looked up at Carrie again. “See, that’s the question I always ask him when he brings it up, because he won’t take the cats, and I won’t go without them. So this is where he shuts up about moving me and gets back to business.”

“This time, back to business means...” He waved an IV catheter at her.

“You’re not sticking that in me,” Priscilla warned him.

“If I have to tie you down, I will,” he said, pointing to the pillow at the head of her bed. “Now, jacket off, feet up, head where it belongs. And stick out your arm.”

“Don’t trust you as far as I can see you,” she grumbled, doing exactly what he said. “Never have.” She looked at Carrie. “No compassion for his elders,” she said.

Except compassion was all Carrie saw. It was touching, and sweet. Sweet—a word she was sure he wouldn’t like attached to him. But he was, and it was lovely to watch. He loved his grandmother dearly, and it showed in everything he was doing. It especially showed in the worry written all over his face. And seeing that worry—she fell in love a little bit. Not in the happily-ever-after sense, but in the sense that Jack had qualities she’d never seen in any of the men in her life, and she loved seeing them in him. Loved knowing a gentler side than she’d ever seen in another man—not that there’d ever been a significant man in her life, because there hadn’t been. But the ones she’d known—users, for the most part. Not Jack, though. She could tell he was a giver.

She’d never had that in her life, never had someone love her the way Priscilla loved Jack either. Or the way Jack loved Priscilla. It was nice. Gave her hope that it might be out there for her, someday.

* * *

There was something about this place—all the time he’d spent here growing up, the things his grandmother had taught him here, bringing Evangeline and Alice here... Priscilla had loved Alice deeply and dearly. They’d had a special bond. The same bond he’d shared with his grandmother when he’d been Alice’s age. Walks through her garden, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and the stories... Nobody told better stories than Priscilla and he could almost see Alice and Priscilla sitting together on the floor, Alice’s brown Salish eyes wide with amazement as Priscilla told the tales of her childhood, or her own adventures in Saka’am, when she’d go to visit friends. It hurt. All of it hurt now. The memories. And images. He wanted them back the way they used to be, not the way they were now.

Except he couldn’t have that because everything was shrouded in grief and sorrow. That picture of Alice—the one where she and Priscilla were wading in the stream, drenched from a spill or two, looking all sloppy and wet and happy—Jack knew his grandmother had put it away because he couldn’t bear to look at it. Because it broke his heart when he did. And that afghan Evangeline had spent months crocheting—nowhere to be seen. Bits and pieces of his past all tucked away so he wouldn’t be reminded, but everything reminded him. Dragged him back to those days. To his wife. Especially to his daughter. “Oh, I have compassion,” he finally said in response. “I save it up for those who deserve it.”

“And I don’t deserve it?” Priscilla asked, pretending to be outraged.

“What you deserve is for me to come in here, throw you over my shoulder, and carry you down that mountain, like it or not.”

“Not,” Priscilla practically shouted. “And I’ll have you arrested—”

“You know, every family has one—the crazy relative nobody talks about,” he said to Carrie as he gave his grandmother’s hand a squeeze, once the IV was in place. “Well, this is the one who belongs to my family.” He bent and kissed Priscilla’s cheek.

“Never had a family, so never had the pleasure,” she told him.

Priscilla laughed, and reached over to pat Jack’s hand. “Well, my Jackie here is available. I’d die a happy woman if he could find someone again.”

Again? Carrie raised her eyebrows, but didn’t ask, much to Jack’s relief. “Except you’re not going to die,” Jack reassured her, as a telltale red started creeping from his neck to his face. He didn’t talk about Evangeline. Or Alice. Ever. And people who knew him knew better than to speak of her. “And I’m not looking to find someone. So, no more talking. I want you to save your energy for the trip back to Sinclair.”

“I know why you don’t want me talking, Jackie, and it has nothing to do with going to Sinclair. But I’ll cooperate.” With that, she pretend-zipped her lips, lay back into her pillows and shut her eyes.

“She’s pouting,” Jack said to Carrie, the red still evident. “Thinks it gains her some sympathy.”

“Well, I’m sympathetic.” Carrie sat down on the other side of the bed, then took Priscilla’s hand. “And for your information, Jack, I like your grandmother. I like her spunk and her attitude. You’re a lucky man to have her.”

“That’s what I keep telling him,” Priscilla interjected, opening her eyes. “So, when do we ride, Jackie? Because if I must do this, I want to get it over with so I can get back home to my cats.”

“Soon, Priscilla,” he said, feeling as helpless as he had the night his wife and daughter had died. Helpless, angry, and damned ready to kick in that wall. “Got a couple of people on the way up right now to help carry you out.”

“You can’t carry me?” she asked, her voice weakening.

“Too dangerous. Carrie’s not experienced on the mountain, and I can’t do it by myself...”

“He climbs like a mountain goat. Did he tell you that, Carrie? Jackie climbs like he was born on the side of a mountain. Taught him everything he knows about it.”

“You climbed?” Carrie asked her.

“Up until the arthritis got me a few years back. In fact, Jackie and I had a lot of good times together. He was a natural on the ropes. Liked to free-climb, too. Not me, though. I was always a little more cautious. So, do you climb at all, Carrie?”

“Never have. But I’m going to learn.”

“Good for you,” Priscilla closed her eyes again, this time finally succumbing to exhaustion. “Jackie likes his women strong. Likes ’em keeping up with him.”

“But I’m not—” she started to protest, then stopped. No point. Priscilla was sound asleep, her head leaning on Jack’s shoulder, and Jack’s arm around her, supporting her.

“She’s one tough old bird,” Jack said affectionately, as he took her pulse.

“A tough old bird who taught you how to rock climb.” Carrie broke away from Priscilla to check the drip of the IV.

“That, and other wilderness survival skills. She’s been a midwife of sorts for more than fifty years. There probably isn’t a mountain within forty miles of here she hasn’t climbed at one time or another, trying to help in a medical situation. People around here trust her, probably more than they’ve ever trusted my mom and me, and we’re both doctors.” Probably a whole lot more than he’d trusted himself as, for the past five years, he hadn’t had a lot of that going on.

* * *

The trip down the mountain wasn’t as bad as he’d anticipated. Help had arrived, they’d carried Priscilla to his truck, and while the ride to the hospital was interminably long due to road conditions and safety concerns, three hours after getting to his grandmother, she was safely tucked into a hospital bed, with an IV drip in her arm and heart monitor leads stuck to her chest, fussing that she was feeling fine and she wanted to go home to her cats.

“She’s stubborn,” Carrie commented, as she passed by Jack, who was seated in the chair across from Priscilla’s bed, on her way to fill the bedside pitcher with water.

“And proud of it,” Priscilla said, even though her eyes were closed.

Jack glanced up at the heart monitor over her bed, glad it was reading normal. Glad that Carrie had been there to help him through this. But, most of all, glad that Carrie had met his every expectation of her as a medic. He didn’t always have a lot of patience with the people who worked with him. They were too slow to suit him. Or, didn’t have a technique or bedside manner he liked. But Carrie had been...perfect. She’d known exactly what to say, and do. And, most of all, she’d gained his grandmother’s trust, which wasn’t an easy thing to do, as Priscilla hated modern medicine. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping, old woman?” he asked, his eyes stuck on Carrie as she carried the water back to the bedside stand.

“How am I supposed to sleep when you’re hovering over me the way you are?”

“I’m not hovering,” he said, giving Carrie a wink. “I’m just being a good doctor and watching over my patient.”

“Which is the same thing as hovering. So, go hover somewhere else.” She opened her eyes, reached over and squeezed Carrie’s hand. “And you, young lady, look like you could do with some sleep.”

“So she gets to sleep while I have to go hover?” Jack asked, as he pushed himself to his feet, then walked over to the bed. He bent over and kissed Priscilla on the cheek. “You take care of yourself tonight, Priscilla,” he said. “And call me if you need anything. I’m ten minutes away.”

“I’m fine, Jackie,” she said. “Just had a little scare.”

“Which gave me a big scare. Now—sleep.” With that, he took hold of Carrie’s hand and led her from the room. Once in the hall, he slumped against the wall, shut his eyes and simply stood there for a minute before he said anything. “If anything happened to her, I don’t know what...” He opened his eyes and stopped. He was revealing too much of himself. He’d almost allowed Carrie into places no one was allowed. But she was easy to talk to, to be around. Which meant, he was going to have to be more careful. “Look, Carrie. I appreciate you going out there with me. Priscilla can be difficult at times, and the way you were with her...again, I appreciate it.”

“Why do you call her Priscilla, and not Grandmother or Grandma?” she asked.

He chuckled. “When I was young, she made me call her Mrs. Anderson. Said it was all about proper respect. It wasn’t until I was about fourteen or fifteen that she let me call her by her first name. She said I’d earned that right.” Carrie had earned that right immediately. He was impressed, as Priscilla was a hard person to reach out to. But Carrie had reached out and touched. Which made him feel...good. Yes, he felt very, very good about Carrie. Maybe that even went a little beyond her medical skills. He felt good about her in general.

Chapter Three (#u80b7b85f-6421-54ac-b185-4dec7d63a38f)

“NO, I’M FINE,” Carrie said, trying to ignore the well-intentioned nurse who’d decided to take Carrie under her wing and turn her into a happy woman. Got to be married, got to be in a relationship. That was all she’d heard from Georgia Hobbs since her first day on the job. This was day five now, and Georgia hadn’t given up. She had an available nephew. A son. And a next-door neighbor’s son. All of them just looking for someone.

“I appreciate your invitation, but I’ve got to study tomorrow evening, to get myself ready for my class.”

Besides, she didn’t feel like trying to be social with someone she didn’t know and didn’t seem to have anything in common with other than work. So, while Carrie was grateful for the invitation to dinner, she simply wasn’t interested in what was being offered. She didn’t date. Didn’t want to get back in the habit again. At least, not now. Not when there were more important things in her future.

Georgia blew out a frustrated breath. “Do you even know anybody here in Marrell?”

She knew Jack a little bit. In the few days she’d been here, they’d had a casual coffee once. And joined in with a group from the hospital who’d gone out for a beer after work. But that was all, and it was fine. It worked. They were friendly, but not friends. “I don’t really have time,” she said, trying to edge her way out of the entrance door and find a place to hide in the storage room, or anyplace else Georgia might not be so inclined to look for her.

“We’re going into winter pretty soon, and it can get depressing if you’re here all by yourself. No friends. No one to go out and grab a pizza with. You start feeling...shut in.”

She’d spent a lifetime feeling shut in, in one way or another. Why should this be any different? “I’m really not interested,” Carrie emphasized, then sidestepped away from the entry, hoping Georgia wouldn’t follow. But she did. And persisted.

“I was a stranger here once, Carrie. I know what it’s like being alone in a new place.”

“I’ve been on my own for a long time, Georgia.” That was why she took on independence with a vengeance. She didn’t want to depend on somebody else for her life. There was no stability in that and, above all, Carrie wanted stability. Or, at least, a little piece of it. “And while I appreciate your concern, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Like I said, I’m fine.”

“Well, in case you change your mind...” Georgia shook her head, not so much annoyed as perplexed. “Just let me know. Promise?”

“Promise,” Carrie said grudgingly, then turned and almost ran toward the supply closet, where she stepped inside, shut the door behind her, and leaned against the door. At least in Chicago no one had bothered her. No one had cared. No one had come after her, trying to fix her. As if being single was something to fix. She was fine as she was. Well suited for her life. Steeled against the pain and disappointment of getting too close, only to be rejected.

And, she wasn’t about to let Georgia, or anybody else, make her feel guilty for her choices, or force her into a change she didn’t want to make, so she could fit in better. Truth was, she’d never fit in anywhere, and now she didn’t care if she never did.

“You OK in there?” A familiar voice seeped through the door. “Saw you come in, thought you’d come right back out, but it’s been five minutes, and since there’s nothing worth spending five minutes on in the closet...”

“I’m fine,” she said, still not giving up her spot against the door.

“Need some help?”

“Nope, I’m good.”

“Got time for a cup of coffee?” he asked. “There’s something I want to discuss with you. Privately. In my office.”

“About the school?” She was not quite ready to accept his invitation, yet not quite ready to turn it down either. Because the idea of a little one-on-one with him did raise her heartbeat a notch or two, as it had previously during their few times together. But it was something she always wrote off as nervousness due to her new direction in her career path.

“Come out and I’ll tell you. It’s something I think you might enjoy. You and that dog of yours.”

“Bella. Her name’s Bella.” Carrie stepped away from the door, then opened it, but didn’t emerge into the hall. Rather, she stood in the doorway and looked up at him. She tried not to get herself caught up in how good he looked in his green scrubs, stethoscope slung casually around his neck. A couple of days’ growth of beard. Hair mussed. He was a handsome man by any definition of the word...and just because she didn’t date them it didn’t mean she couldn’t look, and enjoy.

Unfortunately, she got caught up too quickly, too easily. “Did you say coffee?” she asked, to diffuse the moment. Or the imaginary moment that was trying to pop into her mind. The one where she hadn’t stepped into the hall for him, but he’d stepped into the closet for her... Just let it go, she chided herself, forcing her eyes to the clock on the wall behind him. “Because I’ve got a break coming up and...”

“Yes, coffee,” he said, his expression perfectly impassive. Then followed immediately with, “What’s got you so spooked? You seem jumpy.”

She smiled. Not spooked as much as affected. He did that to her. He affected her. “People around want to...” She exaggerated a cringe. “Fix me up. You know, introduce me to brothers, nephews and cousins.”

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Daring to love again…When handsome surgeon Jack Hanson returns home, he’s not looking for love. His guilt over his wife’s death means he’s never going to risk his heart again! But feisty new employee Carrie Kellem can’t help but intrigue him…Carrie’s tough childhood has made her independent; she doesn’t need anyone! Until she meets Jack… And suddenly Carrie wishes she wasn’t alone. Can she help Jack to let go of the past, and see that he has a future with her?Sinclair Hospital Surgeons

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