He couldn’t save his friend…can she save his bruised heart?
Haunted by the fact he couldn’t save his best friend, brooding surgeon Chase Barrington dedicates himself to saving lives. He won’t get close to anyone again, but is blindsided by a passionate kiss with stunning ex-army doc Kristina Morton. Suddenly Chase is on a rollercoaster of emotions, but can he leave the past behind and embrace a future with Kristina?
Intense, uplifting and relatable romances set in the medical world.
SCREECH. THUNK. METAL hitting concrete.
‘Quelqu’un est blessé!’
A swinging metal chain swiped the crane it was attached to, swinging outward.
More shouts and yells.
‘Cherchez le médecin!’
Kristina Morton spun around and began running towards the noise, her heavy pack bouncing on her back, aggravating damaged muscles.
‘I’m a doctor,’ she shouted to the security guard standing at the steel gate accessing the wharf where a freight ship was being loaded. Tapping her chest, she said, ‘Doctor. Me.’
The man shook his head. ‘Non.’ He pointed to another ship. ‘Docteur.’
‘Oui.’ Pointing in the same direction, Kristina uttered one of about five French words she knew. ‘Yes, I’m a doctor joining that ship. Doctor.’
Rolling her shoulders back, she slid out of the straps of her pack and dug into a side pocket, handed over her wharf pass. Written in French, it did say she was a doctor. Didn’t it? She hadn’t taken a lot of notice when she’d received it along with other documents at the hotel reception desk where she’d stayed in central Marseilles last night.
The lock clanged open and the gate swung wide, allowing a man in fluorescent overalls to run frantically towards the SOS Poseidon, the Medicine For All charity ship Kristina had been bound for.
The guard called after him with urgency and Kristina took the opportunity to slip into the sealed-off area, her pack knocking against her good leg. It wasn’t hard to see what’d happened. Seventy metres along the wharf pieces of a metal cage were spread across a wide area, and from under what looked like a side of the crate protruded a pair of legs, while the man’s helmet-encased head was under the edge bar. Men were clustering around, waving their hands and yelling at each other.
‘Oh, hell.’ She ran faster, reached the men and dropped to her knees with a hard thump. Ignoring the pain that set off in her injured thigh, she shouted, ‘I’m a doctor.’ ‘Doctor’ sounded similar to the French version; surely they’d get the message? Too bad if they didn’t, she was already observing the man crushed under the steel strops meant to hold the side of the cage together, except they’d sprung apart on impact. ‘What’s his name?’ she asked without thinking, and got a surprise when someone replied.
‘Antoine. Is he unconscious?’
‘I’m not sure.’ Reaching under the metal for his wrist proved impossible, it was too far in, so she pressed a finger on his carotid. ‘Antoine, can you hear me?’ Damn. He wouldn’t understand her. ‘Can you talk to him, see if he’s responsive?’ she asked the man who spoke English, before focusing on the pulse rate. Normal. So far so good, but still a long way to go.
She couldn’t understand what he said to Antoine but she recognised the flickering eyelids. The helmet had done its job. A quick appraisal showed blood seeping through Antoine’s trousers from his groin where a metal shaft had lodged. Her heart stuttered as the memory of a similar injury swamped her. Automatically her hand went to her thigh and rubbed down the ridge of scar tissue.
‘I told him you’re a doctor. I’ll get some men to lift this.’ The man now squatting next to her knocked the cage.
‘Get them ready, but don’t move it yet. Antoine’s bleeding. Removing the pressure could cause a haemorrhage.’ Bleeding out wasn’t an option on her watch. Not again. The guilt at not being able to prevent Corporal Higgs dying had not dissipated so much that this didn’t unnerve her. Not that she’d been in any position to help the soldier, being disabled herself, but doctors were meant to save people, no matter what. ‘I need something to make a wad to press over the bleeding.’
Moments later Kristina was handed a small bundle of shirt pieces folded into squares, while another man was tearing his shirt into strips to tie the wads in place. She wouldn’t think about the hygiene aspect, containing the bleeding was the priority.
‘Thank you. Merci.’ The odd angle of Antoine’s left leg indicated a fracture above the knee. ‘Be careful, don’t hit this when you take the grill away.’ She pointed to the rod.
‘It’s attached. It’ll pull out.’
She hadn’t noticed that. Now she’d prefer the man unconscious. He needed morphine, fast. ‘Can you send someone to the Poseidon and get a doctor to bring drugs for pain and some oxygen?’
The man looked along the wharf. ‘Someone’s coming. He’s got a bag and a small tank. Is that what you want?’
‘I hope so.’
The man was there in an instant, barely puffing despite his sprint. ‘I’m a doctor.’ He hunkered down on the opposite side of Antoine’s legs.
‘Me, too,’ Kristina told him. ‘I was headed for the Poseidon when this happened. Kristina Morton.’ She held her hand out.
His hand gripped hers briefly, firm and electric.
Shock ripped through Kristina. Rubbing her arm, she stared at him. What just happened? He’d sent fire through her veins with a handshake? Unreal. She was supposed to be focused on a man in distress, not this one with the most intriguing face she’d ever encountered.
A startled look was reflected in the dark depths of his eyes, too. Had he felt that spark? ‘Chase Barrington, SARCO.’
Shock of another kind rocked her. This was Chase? The man who caused his family heartache on a regular basis? No one had told her he was hot! ‘I met your sister when I was a locum at Merrywood Medical Centre. I finished a fortnight ago.’ His brother-in-law, Jarrod, was one of the partners there.
‘Libby told me.’ He gave her a sharp look. ‘Bring me up to speed.’ Chase was taking charge.
Typical. She’d worked with enough male doctors in masculine environments to know the signs. ‘There’s a rod intruding into Antoine’s groin that’s attached to the grill. I’m hoping you’ve got morphine in your pack.’
‘Yes, and compression pads.’ Chase nudged the kit with his foot, and focused on the man needing his attention.
Leaving Kristina to get her breath back and stop feeling flustered by Doc Barrington’s touch. She could tell him to get the pads himself, but time was of the essence, not her pride. Finding the morphine, she read the date out loud, gave the vial to her counterpart to cross-reference before drawing up a dose. Once administered, she opened packs of compression pads, ready for the grill to be lifted away.
Chase was methodically checking for further injuries on Antoine’s body without jarring the grill. No wasted movements, his lean body muscular without being heavy. Picture perfect. So not good for her pulse. Deep breath, concentrate—on Antoine, not the SARCO. But he was so distracting. She closed her eyes, opened them and watched.
Without stopping those long fingers moving over Antoine, he told her, ‘Ribs staved in, fractured femur and arm, blood loss from where the humerus protrudes, and I don’t like the look of his mouth. It’s possible he’s bitten his tongue.’ He was good, and thorough. Impressive in more ways than that magnificent body.
She nodded. ‘Let’s do this. The sooner we can get to him the better.’ It was hard not to glance at Chase for another take on those muscles shaping his loose T-shirt but she managed. Looking behind to the men waiting to help, she said, ‘On the count of three lift the grill—very slowly.’
The moment their patient was free she was pressing a pad onto the wound in his groin. ‘The femoral artery’s torn. Is there a catheter in your kit I can put in to keep the blood flow in the artery?’
‘Unfortunately not.’ Chase was gently removing the man’s helmet in preparation for putting a facemask on Antoine for the oxygen. ‘I haven’t got a neck brace either.’
Kristina continued working on the haemorrhaging, making do with what was on hand, but the sooner help arrived in the form of a well-equipped ambulance the better. ‘Has anyone called the emergency services?’
‘Oui,’ replied a man hovering in the background.
Like magic, the sound of a siren filled the air.
Kristina didn’t relax. Antoine wasn’t out of trouble by a long way.
A quick glance showed Chase working as hard, diagnosing all the injuries while keeping an eye on the man’s breathing. There was a determined look on his face that said, I am not letting you die, Antoine. Something they had in common.
But anything else? She doubted it. The little she’d heard from Libby and Jarrod indicated she and Chase were like north and south. She was looking for a place to settle down and feel as though she belonged, a place where she wouldn’t be thrown aside at anyone’s behest, while this man apparently did not have the time or inclination for stopping still. He was driven. Not that she’d been told by what.
The ambulance squealed to a halt beside them. Instantly paramedics were moving in, asking questions in rapid French she didn’t understand. Continuing monitoring their man, she left Chase to answer them.
‘How’s that bleeding?’ he asked her moments later. ‘Still bad?’
‘Yes.’ She nodded around the relief that getting Antoine to hospital fast was now happening, as long as the paramedics didn’t take too long preparing him for the trip there.
‘We’ve done all we can. The paramedics are taking charge,’ Chase said, his hands clenched on his thighs, his jaw tight, and his eyes fixed on the two men as they put a cardboard splint on the broken leg and a brace around their patient’s neck. He wanted to remain in control, was itching to continue working on Antoine.
Kristina knew that feeling but moved back, knowing she would not be thanked for doing anything else. The paramedics knew what they were doing, and were used to working without the luxury of all the equipment an emergency department came with, but couldn’t they get a hurry along? Glancing at Chase again, the same thought was reflected in his steady green gaze.
When Antoine was finally loaded into the ambulance, relief loosened the tension gripping Kristina and she was free to walk away, if only her feet would move. Staring across the now quiet wharf, her gaze fell on the ship she’d be working on for the next three months, sharing the space with a man who had her hormones in a lather already. She’d be toast by the end of her time on board.
It had been Jarrod who’d suggested she do a spell with Medicine For All, instead of taking on the locum job in the far north of Scotland she’d been half-heartedly considering.
Watching men and women walking up the gangway laden with heavy packs for the start of the next three-week stint, tiredness enveloped her. She was weary of constantly moving from place to place, locum position to locum position, and not having somewhere of her own to return to after each contract finished. MFA was merely another diversion. It was harder this time because she’d finally found what she’d been looking for.
The quaint town of Merrywood and its friendly folk had sucked her in, made her welcome and comfortable in a way she hadn’t known since she was ten and her family had imploded, leaving her bewildered and alone. She’d wanted to stay on, continue working at the medical centre and buy a cottage on the riverbank, only there was no job once the doctor she’d been covering for returned. However, Jarrod had told her to stay in touch and drop in when her time with MFA was up as he might know of a position for her. She planned on doing exactly that, fingers crossed and expectations high.
‘Time to go aboard and meet everyone.’ Chase stood beside her, legs tense, his eyes constantly on the move.
‘I’m looking forward to this.’ The organisation did amazing work with refugees and other people in need of medical attention in horrific parts of the world, and to be a part of it was awesome. And in case Jarrod didn’t come up with the goods, she’d have time to research small towns and medical centres in the south of England in the hope of finding that same enticing family-orientated atmosphere she’d found in Merrywood.
Why did she look to the man beside her? He wasn’t the answer to her need to settle down. From what she’d heard, Chase Barrington could no more stop in one place than he could knit a blanket for a baby.
‘What made you decide to give Medicine For All a go?’ Chase asked as they walked out of the secure area.
‘I’m getting tired of locum work. I start to feel settled and then have to pack up and leave again. Jarrod suggested MFA and how I might fit in. Once I started delving into the organisation I knew I had to give it a go and contacted Liam.’ The director had been effusive when she’d volunteered. Though again she’d be moving on afterwards.
* * *
Fit in. Chase studied the slender woman before him. Get under his skin, more like. His brother-in-law had been chuckling when he’d told Chase how Kristina Morton was perfect for the summer operation in the Mediterranean. Yes, he’d known who’d put her up to signing up and until now had had no problem with it. All doctors were welcome any time. But now Chase had to question what fates had put this doctor on this mission. ‘You want to get away from GP work?’
Her laughter was soft and sweet, and stirred him. Not that he wanted to be stirred by a beautiful woman. Or any woman. He’d put her where he put any female who managed to tweak his interest—out of his mind.
‘Not at all.’ Her shrug was tight. ‘It’s just that I would like something permanent, somewhere to get to know people beyond their headaches and high blood pressures.’
Good. The complete opposite from him. ‘You like ships? Being at sea, getting tossed around in storms?’
Another shrug. ‘Wouldn’t have a clue, but I’m about to find out.
There was more to this. For someone who wanted permanence she seemed to move around as much as he did. Not that he was about to ask her about it. That spoke of being interested and getting involved. Not his thing. ‘Liam’s a great advocate for our organisation. Without him we wouldn’t get half the volunteers that sign up.’ If not for Liam, who knew where he’d be working right now? For all he knew, it could’ve been in Africa, Asia, New Guinea, anywhere there were lives that needed to be saved. That was his mission in life. Not that he’d ever make up for the loss of his best friend, Nick, but he would keep trying. One day the guilt might run out. Might.
‘I didn’t stand a chance once he started in on me,’ the woman matching his strides admitted. Then her eyes went a bit sad.
He wasn’t asking about that either. They’d reached the security gate. ‘Yours?’ He nodded at a pack and roll mat the guard held out.
‘Thanks.’ She stretched for them.
‘I’ll take those.’ Chase reached out at the same time. His fingers skimmed across hers before wrapping around a shoulder strap on the pack. A jolt of heat caught at him. Spinning sideways, he swung the pack over one shoulder and hooked the mat under his arm then headed for the ship, ignoring Kristina and the inferno in his blood. That was the second time he’d felt the heat around her.
Unfortunately she kept up with him. ‘I don’t expect you to carry my gear.’
Chase stopped as quickly as he’d taken off. ‘I’m not trying to show you up as incapable. I’m exercising the manners I was taught as a lad.’ If not in the polite way his father expected.
‘It’s just…’ She hesitated, seemed to be thinking how to say whatever was bothering her. ‘I’m ex-army. No one ever carries your pack there.’
He’d read in her CV about Kristina being ex-military. And the evidence was in front of him in her upright, controlled deportment—and apparently in her determination to carry her own pack. Because she’d heated his blood and stirred him with her soft laugh, he was going to rock her boat. ‘You’re not in the army now. I’ll carry these to the ship.’
‘Fine.’ Her mouth drifted up into a lazy smile, stirring him tighter. He should’ve walked right past the blasted gear and its owner. It was as though she was poking him with sharp pins to wake him up from a long, deep sleep. But he wasn’t asleep and as far as he could tell Kristina hadn’t come armed with anything sharp, except maybe her tongue.
Chase pulled on his co-ordinator’s hat; only way to go. ‘I saw in your CV that you’ve worked in quite a few different medical jobs.’
The smile slipped away slowly, painfully. The light that had begun shining in her eyes faded. ‘I have.’
Again, there was more to this than the simplicity the words suggested. If she wasn’t saying anything else it had to be that something had happened to affect her badly. He’d respect that, because he understood too well about keeping fears close, and pain closer. Suddenly he wanted her smile to return. ‘On board we tend to treat one another kindly, no ordering anyone to do anything.’
Her nod was abrupt. ‘Good.’
Try again. ‘The refugees are going to love that calm manner you showed with Antoine.’
‘That’s me. Calm throughout a crisis, a bit rocky afterwards.’
‘No one would know that from helping Antoine.’ There. A subtle lifting of those lips he’d have missed if he hadn’t been watching for it. His heart lightened. Then her perfume wafted across his nose and he pictured pine cones on the fire at home. Pine and roses. Yes, the strange mix that was home was this woman’s scent. A scent he was not going to get out of his senses in a hurry. They’d just met, and she’d found a way to get under his skin already.
It didn’t bode well for his sanity when they’d be crammed together for weeks with all the other medical staff in the small spaces that were the ship’s medical facilities. They’d probably end up hating the sight of each other. It happened. There was little privacy, no space to think without being interrupted. Having no alone time did a number on everyone, especially on those used to their own company; like himself. Something about how Kristina held herself, self-contained, suggested she’d fit into that group.
Chase began striding towards the ship again. ‘I think most people have arrived.’ He automatically scanned the people at the gangway. And tripped. Ethan Reid stood at the bottom of the gangway, looking directly at him.
Chase’s heart began a low thump, thump. So much of who he’d become was tied up in that man. And Nick.
The past charged at him in waves, winding him, curdling his stomach, raising the fear of not being able to save those he loved, bringing ice and snow pushing away the warm summer air, suffocating him. Death. Not his. Nick’s. The crippling guilt.
I can’t do this.
Yes, he could. He had no choice. He’d been the one to put out the feelers, asking Ethan to step up to the promise he’d made way back then. If ever you need me, call.
Right now Chase rued that phone call, even though it had been about helping others. But it was done. He needed to start moving forward, towards Ethan, the man he had saved instead of Nick, and the hideous past they needed to dispel, or at least subdue so they could work together. Would they be able to talk about what had happened that fateful day in the Alps? About why certain people had survived when others hadn’t? Why Nick had died, and Ethan had survived? Why he’d had to make that choice about who to save even when there really was no choice? Turning his back on Nick as the last breaths left his body had haunted him ever since, and made him go over it again and again looking for a way to change the outcome.
‘Chase? Are you all right?’ Kristina’s question seemed to come from miles away. Her hand gripped his arm, shaking him, soft and endearing in her touch.
‘Yes,’ he lied, stunned at how easily she saw past his barriers, how she was there with him. No one did that. No one. He shrugged free of her hand, his eyes firmly locked on Reid. Don’t think you’re getting the chance either. His past rose higher, flared, threatening to overwhelm him. Bile soured his tongue. ‘I’ve got to talk to that man.’ It was that or charge past him to shut himself away in his cabin and not come out for six weeks. Six weeks. Why had he made that blasted phone call?
Ethan was walking towards him like they did this every day, but as he got closer Chase saw the tight lines around his mouth, the rigidness in his shoulders. Chase’s heart was still drumming that slow, heavy rhythm as he nudged his feet forward. ‘I’d have known you anywhere.’ Even after sixteen years.
‘Same.’ Ethan did the unexpected. He embraced Chase, tight, strong, hard.
Tears sprang to Chase’s eyes. He refused to let them out. Refused. And won, by a scratch. Stepping back, he stared at the other man who’d haunted him for so long. Thump, thump, in his chest. This was relief over finally meeting up. It was time. Not that he had any expectations of this being an easy ride. No, the coming weeks were going to test patience and forgiveness on both their parts.
‘I’ll take my gear,’ came the voice of female reason from behind him.
He barely noticed Kristina lifting the weight from his shoulder, although as she began walking away and he was watching Ethan, she slipped into his mind, sitting on the edge, like she was not going to be easy to ignore. Right now that was about the only thing he was certain of.
Hell, Nick, what have I done?