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Present Day: Wilford Hall Medical Center, Texas
Major Rick DeMassi forced his steel-pin-filled legs to move as he gripped the metal bars for balance. He narrowed his focus to a tunnel as he always did on missions, and no undertaking had been more important than getting back on his feet again.
Every day in rehab he resolved to end this one better than he finished his final assignment during the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. The carnage had threatened to suck him under, but he'd kept his eyes on the teddy bear ahead, sticking halfway out of the muck. After years of search and rescue, he'd known in his gut there was a child close by.
Too bad his gut couldn't tell him if that child was alive or dead.
Now there weren't teddy bears to zero in on, even theoretically. His teenage daughter was long past the age of such toys. Still he wanted to greet her on his own two feet someday soon—as the hero she thought he was. So he went through the daily torture of grabbing these damn bars and shuffling one shattered leg in front of the other.
What a joke in comparison to the old days when he leaped from helicopters. Swam churning waters. Or sludged through unstable wreckage toward a stuffed toy to pull out a child.
"Careful, sir." The voice echoed in his head. Then or now, he wasn't sure. The stench of antiseptic burned his nose as strongly as the stench of rotting muck. "Steady is better than fast."
One foot in front of the other.
For the kid. For his child. For the trapped child. Both merged in his head. The past and the present. Both times painful, squeezing labored breaths from his body until he thought he didn't have anything left inside him but somehow he kept going. Running then. Shuffling now. The irony didn't escape him, but he wasn't a quitter.
"There isn't much time left," the sergeant said, an orderly watching him like a babysitter in case he fell, but the voice could have been from the past, rushing him along. Urging him to the cargo plane. But he couldn't leave the little girl and her doll behind.
He'd been a crap father to his daughter, always on the job, barely a presence in her life. He wouldn't let this wounded little girl down, too. Even if the best he could do was recover her dead body for burial...
Rick gritted his teeth. "Five more minutes, Sergeant, and I'll be done."
"Roger that, Major."
He would reach the end of this walk without falling. Not like before.
Pain. Penance. Step. The sound of airplane engines had hummed in the background much the same as the heater now. Gusting wind over him. The antiseptic scent of the hospital as unwelcome a stench as the stench of...worse than muck...
Except the child had been alive, even if barely. He'd seen the doll flutter as if tugged.
Walk now. Run then.
He'd pulled the girl out, a child maybe four. They'd even made it to the emergency personnel where he'd passed her off...just as rotten boards gave way underneath him.
Agonizing pain razored through him. The ground sucked him in. Nails and boards cut into skin and muscle. Bones snapped. Wood tore into his legs. Ripped tendons.
Reach up. Out. Trudge. Don't give up.
His vision tightened the tunnel until he could swear he saw the load ramp at the end of his metal bars. How damn ridiculous was that? Maybe it was just some of that visionary crap the shrink was always telling him about.
Picture what you want. Yeah. That was it. He wanted his job back.
Hell, he wanted his life back.
Okay, the load ramp gaping at the back of the airplane. Go with that image. Move toward it.
Light faded and blazed as he struggled with consciousness. A voice tugged at him from his past. He blinked, cleared his vision and his eyes agreed with his ears. What the...?
He must be delusional thinking of that woman who'd left his bed with only a terse little note five years ago.
Still he couldn't stop himself from croaking out the name. "Nola?"
The woman moved toward him, stepping into the light streaming through the rehab area's windows and revealing a face from the past he'd never expected to see again...
At a time when he very likely didn't have a future.
Putting the past to rest so she could move forward with her future was easier said than done. But Nola was a determined lady.
She needed to wrap her brain around a reality she barely dared dream was real. She'd reached her five-year remission mark.
Her docs all encouraged her to celebrate. The mind and body worked in synch after all.
Easier said than done. Believing in the future was tough after so long of living for today. Milk the most from each second because today was a gift and tomorrow an unknown. Walk to the towering man inching slowly her way.
Her hand closed around her purse, which held her very organized day planner, which held her list.
The list. A list of all the people she needed to make contact with for closure. She'd already contacted every friend she could think of that she may have wronged. A flight student she'd been unnecessarily harsh to during a check ride because in her early days as an instructor perhaps she'd been a bit full of herself.
She'd even contacted a guy from junior high who she'd picked on unmercifully all because she'd liked him and had been too immature to know how to show it. He'd thought she was nuts for calling, but ah well, such was life. She wasn't as worried about looking cool these days.
Today she'd finally tracked down Rick DeMassi, the man she'd left high and dry and gloriously naked in a VOQ room. Once she'd learned of his injuries, her relief at finding him alive had been stronger than she would have expected for someone she'd only spent thirty hours with five years ago. But they'd been a crucial thirty hours. He'd given her a great gift over that weekend, even if he hadn't known.
His talented touch had been the last she'd felt on her breasts. More importantly, his gentleness and strength had bolstered her to walk into hell alone and she would never forget him.
She'd had a mastectomy, but beaten the cancer. Now she needed to see Rick one more time to complete her list before she could close the door on the recovery part of her cancer journey.
So she'd driven all the way from her home base in Charleston, South Carolina, and here she stood at a physical rehab center connected to the same hospital where she'd started her treatments. How ironic was that? But somehow serendipitous.
How bad must his injuries have been for him to still be recovering a year later? Her stomach knotted at even the mention of hospitals. Walking into one usually had her fighting back an anxiety attack. Striding into this one in particular threatened a flat KO.
But she refused to let anything stop her, especially once she'd heard he was the patient. No way could she turn her back until she was certain he had everything he needed. Theirs may have only been a weekend together where he unwittingly gave her comfort, but those two days stayed with her still. His face on the back of her eyelids, recalling his touch to override pain...
All of it carried her through hell as surely as his arms had carried her across a room to rest her so gently, seductively on a mattress.
Right now, he could barely carry himself across the room.
Overall, he might be slimmer, but his chest bore the same rippled muscles, his eyes the same fathomless intensity. But his face had an angular cut to it, his features a hard enigmatic look. No joking this go-round as he shuffled the last two feet between them to stop. She'd seen his lips move with a muffled whisper, but couldn't hear what he'd said.
She inhaled deeper with a bracing breath and noticed something else familiar. Even through the antiseptic hospital smell she recognized the spicy scent of him.
A cleared throat pulled her out of her reverie. The sergeant—a therapist of some sort—raised a brow, mumbled something about break time and draped a hand towel around Rick's neck before leaving.
Okey doke. Time to quit daydreaming. "Hello." She forced a smile over her lips when she really just wanted to stare awhile longer, and doggone it, there went her mother's voice again about rude manners. "I don't know if you remember—"
Long lashes swept down over his chocolate brown eyes and up again in his first sign that he'd actually noticed her. "You're a memorable lady, Nola."
Thank God, thank God, thank God he remembered her name and she hadn't just made a total idiot out of herself.
Then a smile twitched at one corner, just a hint but enough of the man she'd known to help her relax her grip on the Tupperware container she'd forgotten she held.
"Why thank you, Rick."
"And you're here because?" He released one bar and held on single-handed.
He looked more "okay" that way. She couldn't gauge the extent of the injury to his legs since he wore dark blue sweatpants and a gray T-shirt with Air Force logos imprinted. Whether or not his sudden easy stance was an act for her benefit she didn't know, but it eased some of the tension inside her. She understood about "brave front" acts.
"I have a list." She blurted.
Sheesh. She was a mature woman. A seasoned combat veteran, trained to fly multimillion-dollar cargo jets and here she was acting like hormonal mush.
All right. Maybe not hormonal. More like knocked off balance by the whole hospital scene and seeing his pain. Remembering her own. Knowing how pride hurt more than any needles.
Rick shifted from one foot to the other and studied her through narrowed eyes. "They took me off the painkillers a long time ago, so my brain's clear. Still, you'll need to run that by me again, because you're not making a bit of sense."
She couldn't help but notice how he continued to grip the bar, his arm not even shaking, but his complexion beginning to pale beneath his tan.
More of that pride.