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'All we're doing is pasting a bandage over a gaping wound.'
Dr. Matt Palermo, in the middle of resectioning a femoral artery, ignored the exasperated mutter from the doctor beside him, knowing his colleague wasn't speaking literally. The neighboring gurney housed an injury just as frightening as the one Matt was working on. Except the patient's foot was long gone, lost somewhere in the depths of the rainforest.
The quick shrug of his shoulders had nothing to do with indifference and everything to do with dabbing a stray bead of perspiration that threatened to contaminate his surgical site. That was, if the sticky heat and buzzing flies hadn't already coated all the equipment with noxious bacteria.
He fought the frustration that rose in his throat. He knew exactly what the doctor to his left was going through. Hadn't he experienced the same overwhelming sense of hopelessness when he'd first come to this part of the Amazon? He still felt it at times. But that had had nothing to do with Brazil and everything to do with burying a large chunk of his heart in Tennessee. Even his bout with break-bone fever a couple of years ago couldn't compare to the agonizing phrase that had changed his life for ever: I'm sorry; we did everything we could.
He shook off the memory and eyed the newly closed artery, checking it manually for leaks. Satisfied with the job, he prepared to close.
'You need any help?' he asked, risking a quick glance at the other doctor, who now sat slumped in a chair while his patient slept on, unaware that life as he knew it was over. Just like Matt's had been.
'I'm done.' Averted eyes and fingers scraping through hair that was stiff with a mixture of sweat and hair gel told Matt those two words would prove prophetic. After the city guy's two-week stint down the Amazon on the medical boat was over, he'd catch the first flight home to Chicago. He'd go back to his urban medical practice. Back to his pristine surgical suite and soft piped-in music. He wouldn't be coming back to Brazil.
And Matt would again be left to fight the losing battle of man against nature. Alone.
The blast of heat punched hard and fast as Stevie Wilson stepped from the cocooning shelter of the plane. She had to lock her knees and force herself to remain upright, or she'd end up melting onto the shiny black tarmac that danced and shimmered around her.
Wow. Coari was even hotter than she'd expected.
A quick tap of her hand sent her sunglasses toppling from their perch on her head to the bridge of her nose, where they cut the glare of the sun by half. She gave a sigh of relief and headed toward the worker who was busy tossing suitcases and foot lockers from the underbelly of the ancient aircraft.
'Oi, Senhor! Cuidado com a mala vermelha, por favor.''
The man smiled and gave her a thumbs-up signal, and then, despite her request to the contrary, dropped her medical bag with a thunk onto the growing mound of luggage.
She winced. 'Things can only get better from here, right, Stevie?'
Moving a few yards toward the vacant exterior of the airport terminal, she prayed someone was inside to meet her. She'd only dealt with the director of Projeto Vida, and though the woman had been cordial, she'd given a noncommittal 'Have the applicant e-mail his full resume, including qualifications and a copy of his medical license. We'll get back to him.' She'd rung off before Stevie had a chance to admit the 'friend' she'd been calling for was actually herself.
Much to her shock, after sending in the requested information, she'd received an affirmative response, along with a list of necessary vaccinations and visa requirements. A month later, here she was.
Free and clear.
Free from her lying fiance-cum-hospital-director and the political maelstrom that had arisen in the wake of their broken engagement. Free from the subtly averted eyes of the nursing staff that had torn at her heart and shredded her confidence.
She was free to do what she'd gone into medicine to do: treat those in need. And if traveling down the Amazon on a floating hospital ship was the only way she could meet that goal, so be it.
She tugged her sticky cotton shirt away from her body and fanned it against her ribcage, hoping her deodorant proved to be as Kevlar-strong as the ads claimed. A flatbed cart raced by, heading toward the growing mountain of luggage. Well, at least she didn't have to worry about unearthing the rest of her bags from that stack. Except that if her medical bag was now on top of the heap, it would soon be
Turning, she took off at a sprint towards the pile and waved frantically at the two men. They stopped what they were doing, obviously wondering what the crazed foreigner was so upset about this time. She skidded to a stop and motioned to her bag, telling them what she wanted in Portuguese. Well, continental Portuguese, which she'd been told was different than the Brazilian version of the language, but it was all she had.
They evidently understood because the thumbs-up signs were again flashed in her direction before her bag was plucked from the stack and handed downrather than tossed, this time.
'Obrigada.' She pulled a couple of small bills from her wallet and handed them to the men, directing them to her bags and asking if they'd bring them to the terminal for her. They nodded as she righted her case and set it on its wheels so she could tow it behind her.
A minute later, she was inside the main building, where the lack of air-conditioningor even a fanmade the closed space seem more oppressive than the air outside. A rivulet of sweat ran down her back, lodging in the waistband of her low-rider jeans. Glancing around, she saw no one, other than employees and the fellow passengers who'd boarded the air taxi with her in Manaus. Stevie wondered for the first time if she'd made the right decision in coming. She'd expectedif not a giddy cheer by a pack of overworked doctorsat least one person to meet her at the airport and help her get to the boat.
Making her way to the desk, she asked if anyone had mentioned meeting a doctor here today.
'Ninguem, Senhora, desculpa.'
Not the answer she'd hoped to hear. She moved away from the counter and stood in the center of the room just as a wave of panic broke over the top of her. Despite her sensible flat sandals, her legs wobbled threateningly. Ignoring the scolding she'd just given the baggage handler over her medical bag, she shoved the telescoping handle into place and plunked herself down on the hard plastic casing. She dropped her handbag onto the cracked concrete floor beside her, wondering if she needed to put her head between her knees. No, then she might miss whoever was coming to pick her up. She settled for propping her elbows on her thighs and sinking her chin into her cupped palms.
Slow, deep breaths. That's it.
Surely she wasn't going to be abandoned.
A door on the other side of the building swung open and a man appeared, his gaze sweeping across the interior of the terminal as he strode toward the ticket counter. His height and close-fitting khaki slacksas opposed to the uber-casual clothing worn by the male workersmarked him as an outsider. She couldn't quite see his eyes, but Stevie sat up straighter anyway and attempted a smile, praying this was her ride. But his glance merely clipped hers as he went by, a frown now marring the tanned flesh between thick, dark brows. He continued on to the desk and spoke in hushed tones, his black polo shirt pulling taut across powerful shoulders as he leaned over the counter. When the woman's hand swept in Stevie's direction, her heart leaped and she waved, stopping in midstream when he looked right past her. As if she were invisible!
The flicker of hope went out, and she cringed at how desperate her madly waving arm must have appeared. Desperate with a capital D.
She forced back her thoughts before they took a more destructive path. The man wasn't rejecting her personally, he was simply here to meet someone else.
'Onde?' he asked the woman at the counter, his voice loud enough for Stevie to hear this time.
'A loira sentada na mala, senhor.'
The blonde sitting on the suitcase? She glanced behind her just to be sure. There was no one sitting on a suitcase, except for.
The words slowly sank in. Oh, no. Surely not.
If her expression was horrified, the man's was doubly so. Triply so, if the brackets now etching the sides of his mouth were anything to go by.
He stalked toward her, every step appearing a battle of wills, one that he seemed determined to win. Stopping in front of her, he paused. 'Is this some kind of joke?'
'Excuse me?' Her neck had to crane back to look up at him, and her sunglasses slid off her head in the process, crashing to the floor. She ignored them, forcing herself to keep meeting those icy blue eyes.
'I'm here to meet Dr. Stefan Wilson,' he said, mangling her first name.
Stevie bit her lip, realizing just how tall he actually was, especially from her perch on the suitcase. If she weren't so worried about the still-shaky condition of her legs, she'd stand up. 'It's Stefani, not Stefan. 'Dr. Stefani Wilson. Most people call me Stevie, though.'
He shoved a hand through his hair and swore, before pulling a folded group of papers from one of his back trouser pockets. He took his time opening them and going over the documents. 'It says Stefan on the application. I was expecting a man.'
She gulped. Maybe he really was rejecting her.
Taking the papers he handed her, Stevie perused them, frowning over the missing 'i' on the application. So that's why he'd brushed her off earlier. 'I don't understand. I filled this out online and sent it to the director of Projeto Vida myself.'
She flipped the pages until she found her license. 'Here. See? It says Stefani, right here on my medical license. I also included a copy of my passport photo hmm, which doesn't seem to be here either.'
'Great.' He took the papers and jammed them back into his pocket then looked off into the distance. 'Looks like the joke's on me.'
Matt couldn't believe Tracy would have the nerve, when he'd specifically asked for a male doctor. She knew what this job was like. So far, no onenot even the last three men who'd signed up for the positionhad been able to endure the tough working conditions. And Tracy thought this little scrap of a person could? That she'd be able to hack off a putrid, rotting leg, if the situation called for it?
He took in her white blouse, which clung to her curves wherever perspiration had gathered, becoming almost sheer in spots. At least it was thin and cool, which was so Practical was the only word he allowed himself.
Even as the unlikely description bounced around his skull, he noticed a heavy droplet of moisture beside the coil of wheat-colored hair. As he watched, it slid down the side of her neck, gathering speed until it dipped into her collarbone. It hesitated as if unsure where to go next, then found the right path and headed down. Straight down. He swallowed and tore his eyes from the sight.
'Forget it. You're not staying.' He sent her a glare that he hoped would send her fleeing back to whatever cushy hospital job she'd left behind. If she was looking for adventure, she'd come to the wrong place. And he sure didn't need his mind wandering into areas it didn't belong.
'Forget it? You've got to be kidding me! I've just traveled four thousand miles to get here.' Her eyes flashed a warning. 'I'll have you know I'm a well-qualified vascular surgeon'
'For which there's little use in the jungle.' He ignored the silent voice that reminded him he could have used her skills on the leg wound he'd treated a month and a half earlier.
'I've also done a year's residency in the emergency room, which means I'm well versed in the art of triage.'
'The art of triage?' He gave a hard laugh. 'It may be an art form where you come from, but battlefield triage is something completely different.'
Her head came up, and a vein in the damp skin just below her jaw pulsed with what could be either anger or fear. He'd bet fear. Good. That meant she'd soon be running back home, like Craig had done before her. And Mark before that.
And he'd bet his life he'd never once stared at a pulse point in either man's neck.
A baggage carrier came up behind them and set three giant red bags beside her, color-coordinated matches of the one she was currently sitting on. They were all spotless, evidently purchased just for this trip.
He was surprised there weren't white roses embroidered across the fronts of them, or little save-the-rainforest slogans like the ones Craig had had on several of his T-shirts.
The carrier held up three fingers as if asking if these were all of her bags.
The woman in front of him gave the ubiquitous thumbs-up signal. The carrier nodded and hurried away without even waiting for a tip. Probably knew it was a lost cause.
Matt rolled his eyes. She knew nothing about this culture. 'I bet you don't even speak Portuguese.'
'Well, that's a bet you'd surely lose. And as far as 'battlefield triage' goes, the last time I checked my history books, Brazil was a pacifistic nation.' She scooped up the sunglasses, which lay broken on the floor, and dumped the remains into the open handbag that sat beside her. Picking up her purse, she stood to her feet, the top of her head barely reaching his chin.
'You can't learn everything about a country from a history book.'
The sing-song intonation she gave the word only served to tick him off further. Women. When he got hold of Tracy, he was going to give her hell.
But Tracy wasn't here at the moment, and Dr. Stefani Wilson was. 'I don't think you and this job are going to mesh.'
She hitched her handbag higher onto her shoulder, but there was now a hint of wariness in her gaze that made him frown. 'Is that right? You know I don't believe I caught your name.'
'Matt. Matt Palermo.'
'Well, Mr. Palermo. Why don't you let me worry about whether the job and I are going to suit each other? If you'll just take me to Tracy Hintonwho evidently felt I was adequately qualified for this positionI'll soon be out of your hair.'
'Not bloody likely.'
'Two things. One, if you take this job you won't be "out of my hair" for a very long time. And, two, Tracy obviously didn't inform you of the living arrangements.'
'She spelled it out quite nicely. She and I will be living on a hospital boat, traveling from village to village. We'll be out for weeks at a time.'
'You and Tracy.' He nodded, a small smile coming to his face when he realized she had no idea who he was. And he wondered if that was a simple mistake, or if Tracy had her hand in that as well.