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Marco came to in unfamiliar surroundings, and tried to sit up. An arm held him down. 'Stay there, Capitán.'
'Where am I?' he asked.
'Back at base. In the hospital.'
Marco forced himself to focus. He recognised the medic from times when he'd treated some of Marco's team. 'Dr Herrera. How are my men?'
'We need to talk about you,' Dr Herrera said.
'We need to talk about my men,' Marco corrected. 'Were there any survivors from the first Jeep?'
'No, but all of those from your vehicle are safe. Some of them have impact trauma from the crash, but nothing too serious.'
Marco absorbed the information. 'OK. I need to talk to their families. The dead soldiers'. Tell them what happened. Apologise for not keeping them safe.'
'You need to listen to me,' Dr Herrera said,
'unless you want to lose the use of your hand permanently and be invalided out of the army.'
That got Marco's attention. Stop being a soldier? His mother would be ecstatic, he knew; but in his own view it was unthinkable. This was what he was born to do. 'Give me the bottom line,' he said.
'You have a flexor tendon injury.'
At Marco's blank look, Dr Herrera explained, 'The flexor tendons connect the muscles of your forearm to the bones of your thumb and fingers. They let you bend your fingers, and the extensor tendons let you straighten them again.'
Remembering what had happened when he'd tried to open the door of the Jeep, Marco tried to bend his fingers. His index and middle finger wouldn't move, and his hand hurt like hell.
Dr Herrera rolled his eyes. 'Well, you can see that for yourself. I take it the window came in and you put your hand up to shield your eyes?'
'Some glass shards must have severed the tendons. They won't heal themselves, because the tension in the tendons causes them to pull apart when they're brokenthink of them working like a bicycle brake cable.'
'So I need surgery?'
'Microsurgery. And it needs to happen within twelve hours. Twenty-four at most. The longer it takes, the more likely it will be that scarring develops on the ends of the severed tendons.'
'Which means?' Marco prompted.
'Bottom line: you'll get less movement back in your hand.'
It was enough to convince Marco. 'OK. Do what you have to.'
Dr Herrera shook his head. 'I won't be the one operating. You're going to need specialist plastic surgery as well, once the tendons have been stitched and the wound has healed. We have a twelve-hour window from when it happened to getting you into theatre. Say two hours getting you back here from the site of the bomb, seven hours between here and London and an hour's transfer between the airport and hospital ' He grimaced. 'I need you on a plane to London now.'
Marco frowned. 'My men need me.'
'You wanted the bottom line, yes? Right now you're not much use to them, and you'll be even less use if you don't get your hand fixed,' Dr Herrera pointed out. 'I want you on a plane to London so they can operate.'
Marco's boss, Comandante Molina, came striding in and clearly overheard the last bit. 'You know the rules, Marco. Medical orders outrank military ones.'
Royal ones, too, Marco thought grimly.
'Get on that plane and get fixed up,' Comandante Molina ordered.
'What about my men?' Marco demanded.
'I'll sort out the medical side and fix them up again, good as new,' Dr Herrera promised.
'And I'll talk to the families,' Comandante Molina said.
'You seriously want me to go London?' Marco asked with a grimace.
'To the Hunter Clinic. Leo and Ethan Hunter. They have an excellent reputation for treating injured soldiers. One of them used to be an army doctor,' Comandante Molina said.
The Hunter Clinic. Marco had heard that name before. Mariannahis older brother Ferdinand's fiancéehad visited the clinic earlier this year for a blepharoplasty. And she'd had other work done there, too. 'I thought they just did cosmetic stuff.'
'They specialise in reconstructive surgery as well as cosmetic surgery. Burns, microsurgery.' Comandante Molina folded his arms. 'They have hand specialists. Which is what you need.'
Well, if his boss was insistent on it, it didn't look as if Marco was going to have much choice in the matter. Even so, for the sake of his men, he gave it a try. 'Why can't I be treated here? Surely it's better for everyone's morale if I'm treated here instead of being flown out to London as a special case. I don't want everyone thinking I get treated differently just because of who my parents are.'
'It's nothing to do with that. We can't guarantee to hold the media off. Not now you've been injured,' Comandante Molina said. 'Though I admit that, yes, your mother has views on the subject.'
His mother hated him being a soldier on active duty, worrying constantly that he was in danger and would get hurt. Marco had had enough conversations with her on the subject. And the injury to his hand would make her worries increase exponentially. Giving a little ground now might make it a bit easier on his mother.
'She wants me out of here, doesn't she?'
Comandante Molina said nothing but gave him a sympathetic look.
'OK,' Marco said, resigned. 'I'll go to London. But only for as long as it takes to get me fixed. I intend to be back on duty as soon as possible.'
'Marco, your dedication has never been in doubt,' Comandante Molina said softly. 'And your men know you don't think of yourself as any different to them. If this was Pedro sitting here, not you, wouldn't you be demanding that he gets the right medical treatment in the right place?'
'You have a point,' Marco acknowledged. 'So listen to Herrera, here, and do what he tells you.' Marco said nothing.
'While you were out cold I flushed your hand with saline to get the grit out and avoid infection setting in. I need to give you a tetanus shot now,' Dr Herrera said. 'Antibiotics are controversial but, given that you're travelling for hours to another country for surgery, I'd rather you had them now to avoid the risk of infection.'
'Fine. Do whatever you need to,' Marco said.
'Thank you.' Dr Herrera smiled at him. 'I've spoken to the surgeon in London. He doesn't want me to suture your skin as your palm is a mess. I'm just going to dress your wound so it holds until you get to London.'
He talked Marco through what he was doing: a petroleum-impregnated gauze for the first layer of the dressing, to stop the wound sticking to it. Then another layer of gauze, this time soaked in saline but with the excess fluid wrung out, to let any blood escape and avoid a haema-toma forming. The third layer was gauze fluff for padding, topped by a loose wrap, and finally there was cast padding with a fibreglass splint to protect the wound from further injury.
'There's a helicopter on standby to take you from the airport to the clinic,' Comandante Molina said. 'We'll talk later.'
'Right,' Marco said wryly to his boss's retreating back.
He was pretty sure his mother would put pressure on his father now to make sure his tour of duty was over, and the injuryeven though it wasn't life-threateningwould probably make his father agree and put pressure on Comandante Molina to give Marco an honourable discharge. And there was only one circumstance in which Marco would accept that.
'When the tendons are repaired and the wound's healed,' he said to Dr Herrera, 'is the injury going to affect the use of my hand at all? Can I still do my job?' And he knew the doctor would understand what he wasn't asking: would he be able to work alongside his men without putting them in danger because his hand would be too weak for the job?
'I'm not going to lie to you,' the doctor said. 'There may be some loss of movement in your hand. It's your flexor tendon that was severed, which means it's likely to affect the strength of your grip.'
Loss of movement. Loss of grip. His left hand. The hand Marco needed to steady a rifle or change a magazine in a machine gun.
And it also could affect him playing his guitar again; with a classical guitar, you needed a strong grip to press the strings against the neck. Playing the guitar was what always calmed Marco down and swept away the stress.
If he couldn't do the job he loved well, then he could still do his duty to his family and his country. Marco had always known that one day he'd have to leave his military career behind and go back to his royal duties. But he hated the pressure of that world. And if he was going to lose the one thing that could always soothe his soul, what would his life become?
Eight hours later, Marco was in London, sitting in a waiting room at 200 Harley Street. Everything about the place was discreetly luxurious: polished marble floors, white leather sofas, chandeliers, soft lighting. It felt more like a luxury hotel than a clinic. Though, for all Marco cared, the clinic could have been a shack thrown up out of corrugated iron and bits of reused timber.
He just wanted his hand fixed.
And for life to be back as normal.
OK, so the surgeon who was meant to be sorting him out had been called to see a patient urgently. Marco could understand that. He knew he wasn't the only patient at the clinic. He probably wasn't from the richest family or the most titled family there, either; the little time he'd had to glean information from the internet had told him just how exclusive this place was.
But the longer he waited, the more use of his hand he'd lose. And he really wasn't prepared to accept that.
'But, Ethan, you're Leo's brother. Surely you should be the one to head the Hunter Clinic in Leo's absence,' Declan said.
Ethan shrugged. 'You're Leo's second in command.'
'But you have the Hunter name.'
Yeah. And didn't he know it. The albatross round his neck. 'Declan, you've worked for it. I don't have a problem with you being in charge.'
Ethan was aware that the other surgeon was eyeing him curiously. Probably wondering if he and Leo had had yet another row and this was Ethan's way of getting his own back. It probably had something to do with it. But Ethan knew that Declan would never ask. The Irish doctor was charming, yet he kept people at arm's length and he knew to keep out of other people's sore spots.
'And you're better at PR than I am,' he added.
'That's the Blarney Stone for you,' Declan said lightly. 'Ethan, are you quite sure about this?'
'It's the right decision for the clinic. And the clinic's what matters, right?'
Declan nodded. 'Then, thanks. I'm happy to do the job.'
'Good.' One problem down. At least for a little while. 'I have a patient to see. Catch you later?' Ethan asked.
'Laters,' Declan said with a smile.
Just as Marco was about to go and find someone and askvery politely, and through gritted teethif they could give him any idea how much longer he'd have to wait, a man walked into the room. Well, limped.
He was about six foot twoMarco's own heightwith dark brown short hair, dark brown eyes, and stubble that Marco thought privately was just on the wrong side of what women found sexy. If this was the doctor and he didn't give a damn about his appearance, did it follow that he also didn't give a damn about his job? Or was this guy some kind of porter?
'Ethan Hunter,' the man drawled.
One of the Hunter brothers, then. Surgeon. The one who was going to treat him?
He didn't try to shake Marco's hand. 'Sorry to keep you waiting.'
Marco had the distinct impression that the other man wasn't sorry at all. There was an edge to his tone, though right at that second Marco couldn't work out why.
'And I'm sorry it's me you're seeing rather than my brotherhe usually does the royals and celebs, but rather inconveniently he's gone on honeymoon.'
Royals and celebs, hmm? Suddenly it was clear: Ethan Hunter had an issue about that kind of lifestyle. He'd automatically assumed that just because Marco was the younger prince of Sirmontane he was an over-privileged, thoughtless and selfish socialite. And Marco was in just enough pain now not to be able to rise above it. If Hunter wanted attitude, then he'd get it. Every damn step of the way.
'So how did you do it?' Ethan asked.
'How do you think? Skiing, drinking with my celeb friends and guffawing so hard at the peasants I didn't look where I was going, fell over and severed my tendons,' Marco drawled.
Ethan gave him a level stare. 'How about the truth?'
Common sense kicked back in. Hunter needed to know what had happened because it might affect the way he fixed the damage. Dr Herrera should have briefed him fully, but then again maybe Hunter was the thorough type and didn't just take other people's words for granted. Marco himself never accepted a brief without asking questions to make sure that nothing had been missed. Maybe Hunter was the same.
'I was in a convoy of Jeeps. The one in front of me drove over a bomb. My windscreen imploded and I put my hand up to protect my eyes.' Judging by the mess of his hand, that was just as wellor he'd be blind as well as having a potentially useless hand.
'Bomb.' Ethan stiffened. 'I see.'
Interesting, Marco thought. Was this the brother who'd been an army doctor? Marco shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't strapped up. 'I was in Afghanistan.'
'You were a soldier.'
'Am a soldier,' Marco corrected. 'And I hate being cooped up instead of being where I belong, leading my men and sorting out that whole mess out there. Making a difference. Making things better. But ' He blew out a breath. 'I guess it's still no excuse for being rude to you just now.' He'd been unprofessional and let the pain get to him when he should have known betterboth from growing up as a prince in the glare of the public eye, and then from his military training. Time to defuse the situation. 'I apologise.'
'I apologise, too,' Ethan said, surprising him. 'Just because you're rich and royal, it doesn't mean that you're ' He grimaced.
Marco knew exactly what he meant. It was something that he hated himself, particularly in some of the people who liked hanging around his brother. He gave a mock braying laugh, and grimaced back. 'Pampered.'
Ethan seemed to relax at last. 'Yeah.'
'You were out there, too?'
Ethan shrugged. 'That's not important.'
'When did you get hit?'
Ethan's eyes narrowed. 'What makes you think I was hit?'
Marco nodded at his own arm and Ethan's leg. 'Different limb, same kind of pain.'
They shared a glance, and Marco knew that Ethan Hunter understood the rest of it. The frustration of being stuck here when your heart was back there.