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One week before Thanksgiving
"Mom, my ear is fine. How much longer do we have to wait?"
Serena Delgado looked up from the pair of socks she was knitting. Her six-year-old son Pepe's brown eyes and earnest expression looked so much like his father's it made her smile.
A smile was a big improvement over the heart-crushing pain the thought of Philip used to bring.
"Pepe, we have to be patient. I brought my new knitting project to keep me busy. Look, they're the Army-green socks you asked for."
Pepe wasn't impressed by her intricate stitches, or the fact that she was knitting both socks at once on her circular needles.
"Are you that bored with your video game already?"
"This waiting is taking a long time, Mom. I'd rather be playing soccer."
Serena checked her watch. She'd never attempted two-at-a-time socks before, and her absorption in the task must have been deeper than she'd realized.
They'd been sitting in the pediatric waiting area of Naval Hospital Oak Harbor for forty-five minutes. Located on Naval Air Station or NAS Whid-bey, it was the only military medical facility on the island.
"Maybe you're right, mi hijo. Let's go see if we can find someone to help us. They may have lost our paperwork in the shuffle."
She stuffed the needle and yarn into her tote and grabbed each of their jackets. They walked past the empty reception area and Serena's hunch that they'd been overlooked grew stronger. She knew patients weren't supposed to enter the hallway where the examination rooms were located without a nurse or corpsman to escort them, but since it was a Friday afternoon, she'd take her chances. She was as eager as Pepe to start the weekend.
The first few exam rooms were empty, lights out.
"No one's here, Mom," Pepe whispered, as if they were going on a spy mission.
"We'll find somebody."
Light spilled from the room in front of them and Serena paused, her hand on Pepe's shoulder. She didn't want to barge in on someone else's exam.
Pepe stilled next to her and a conversation became clear.
"This is crap, Doc, and you know it." A deep voice filled with frustration rumbled from the room.
"You're back home, Jonas. In case you haven't noticed, there's no battlefront here at NAS Whidbey."
Serena's spine stiffened. The one "Jonas" she knew of fit this scenario too well .
"I'm putting you where the Navy needs you, and right now I need you in the regular pediatrics clinic for the next few weeks. You'll treat the routine cases. When Petty Officer Reilly isn't available, you'll have to check in the patients, too. If you have any problems getting used to the system we've upgraded to, ask HM1 Reilly. I don't think you willit's all pretty straightforward."
"I'm trained for so much more, Doc. At least put me in the E.R."
If this was the Jonas she had heard about Jonas Scotthe had an awfully sexy voice. Nothing like his brother Paul's, whom she'd met in person.
"Mom, that's Doc Franklin!" Pepe whispered his recognition of the second voice, but his excitement threatened to break his self-control. Besides being his beloved pediatrician, Doc Franklin shared the name of one of Pepe's favorite heroes in American history. Pepe loved Dr. Benjamin Franklin, from the moment the Navy had assigned him to the family. Serena liked him, too, mostly for his easygoing manner with Pepe. She'd never heard this side of him, however. Military medical officers were more than doctors; they had to lead, too. And Jonas didn't sound like he wanted direction from anyone.
"Shh, we shouldn't interrupt them." Her law-yerly instincts seemed to vibrate as she did her best to ignore the twinge of guilt at admonishing Pepe. She was eavesdropping, pure and simple.
But if Dr. Franklin was indeed speaking to Jonas Scott, the one man on Whidbey Island who could change Serena's life, it behooved her to listen.
Just a bit longer.
"You can rotate through the E.R. as needed, but not until after the holidays. Peds isn't always boring, Jonas. Right now, take advantage of being back from deployment. You weren't even due to report to work until next week, after the Thanksgiving holiday."
"Sitting around my house isn't a whole lot of fun."
Regret pierced through Serena's stoic attorney mode. It had to be Jonas Scott. It had been as much of a surprise to her as it had been to Jonas that his stepmother and her biological aunt, Dottie Forsyth, had willed her family farmhouse to Serena. The tragic circumstances of Dottie's unexpected death hadn't helped. Dottie was supposed to grow old in the farmhouse, not be murdered by a crazy woman the previous summer.
"I'm sorry, Jonas. It's a crappy time of year to be single and alone."
"It's not about that, Doc. I'm over it."
"I know you're over your ex, Jonas. What you're not over is deployment and the constant insane pace. You're done deploying, trust me. With the drawdown in Afghanistan and your rank, you could finish out the rest of your time on shore duty. And what about your stepmother's death? You've got a lot to process."
It was Jonas Scott, Dottie's stepson.
He had an ex?
"I'll deal." His voice was little more than a growl.
"I have no doubt that you will. But it won't hurt you to scale it back a bit and enjoy the lighter schedule. Give yourself time to grieve, Jonas."
"There has to be something I can do besides weigh in snotty-nosed kids whose mothers are overreacting to the common cold."
Serena's face heated as she fought her maternal anger.
"Save the tough-guy routine for someone who doesn't know you as well, Jonas. You're great with kids or I wouldn't have assigned you to my unit." Dr. Franklin's tone reflected compassion. As if he knew Jonas better than most.
"Give me a break, Doc. These folks wouldn't know a medical emergency if it bit them in the ass. Did you see that last family? They had all three of their kids still on bottles, and the youngest was two. I don't have time to treat overpampered, overfed, sugared-up kids whose parents need a lesson in nutrition and physical fitness. For heaven's sake, Doc, I was stopping Marines from bleeding out less than two weeks ago, and the kids I treated had real, often life-threatening, needs. Now you want me to hand out cartoon-hero stickers?"
Serena grasped Pepe's hand. Enough was enough. Pepe didn't need to hear any of this.
That's what she got for snooping like the lawyer she wasshe'd exposed her son to a post-deployment tirade he'd had no part of. She bent to his ear.
"Come on, mi hijo. Let's find out what happened to our appointment."
Doc had gone quiet and Jonas wondered if he'd pushed his boss too far. Doc Franklin was an easygoing guy, and Jonas had enjoyed working with him overseas, in a combat zone. In war, they were teammates fighting to save every life, every person who came into their unit. And even back home where Doc was a pediatrician, he was still a naval medical officer. He thought he had the most important job in the world.
"Well?" Jonas prompted.
Doc's stare should have tipped him off. Too late, the hairs on the back of Jonas's neck rose and he knew someone was standing behind him.
He mentally groaned and turned around, expecting HM1 Reilly, or worse, the naval hospital's Commanding Officer.
Instead, he found himself looking into the deepest, darkest mocha-brown eyes he'd ever seen. They sparked with anger and a knowing he couldn't quite identify He shook his head to clear it.
The stunning woman in front of him had night-black hair that fell in a straight sheet past her shoulders, skimming around her generous breasts. Breasts that were covered snugly by her purple turtleneck. She didn't cover up her sensuous figure with the added layer of a sweater or pullover like a lot of women, either. He gave her points for that. Her bottom was just as sexy and he couldn't miss how her jeans emphasized every curve.
This was a woman who knew her power over men.
He knew it wasn't some sort of vision brought on by deployment fatigue. But even in his dreams he'd never conjured up an image quite this distracting.
"Hey, Dr. Franklin!" A black-haired boy stood next to the woman, his enthusiasm for Doc making him bounce up and down while his mother held his hand.
"Pepe, Ms. Delgado, how is my favorite Marine Corps family?" Doc walked next to Jonas and kneeled down to the boy's level.
Son of a bitch.
Not only had he shown his worst side to Doc Franklin, he'd made a mess of things with the one woman he needed to treat right, the one woman who had what he wanted so badly, what he'd waited to have for so long. He knew more about her than she knew, and they hadn't met in person yet. Until now.
How much had they heard?
Serena Delgado. And her son, Pepe. The family living in the farmhouse that Dottie had promised him.
Pepe yanked his hand out of Serena's and ran over to Doc.
"We're great, Doc! We're going to Friday Island for Thanksgiving. I might get to swim in the heated pool."
"It's San Juan Island, Pepe. Friday Harbor is the town." Her voice matched her looksdeep and harmonious with a side of sexy.
Serena Delgado kept staring at Jonas as she gently corrected her son. The daggers of light in her eyes were anything but gentle. If he were to guess, she was sorely pissed off.
And she had every right to be.
He'd planned to introduce himself in person to her later. After he'd been back long enough to get over his jet lag.
More like get over your wounded ego.
Her eyes reminded him of an iced coffee. Dark and rich, with a bite.
Jonas held out his hand. "I'm Jonas Scott."
"I know who you are." She flicked her gaze at his hand long enough to make her point. She wasn't going to shake his hand or make this any easier for him. Why should she?
"I'm not sure how much you heard of what I saidI'm sorry and please understand that I was just being a pain in the, um, you know."
"It's clear you don't usually work in pediatrics." Her tone remained grave but he caught the slight tic at the corner of her mouth. "I hope I'll be able to control myself. Being a mom and all, I never know when I'm going to get all hysterical and go crazy on you."
He wasn't sure if her attractiveness or the fact that she was enjoying his discomfort rattled him more.
"Touché." They continued to stare at each other.
He'd be turned on by any attractive woman after being downrange so long. It was just his luck that it happened to be the woman who'd upended his whole life.
Unexpected disappointment punched him in the gut.
Even if their shared connection hadn't been so ugly, so life-changing, he wouldn't stand a chance with her. Not after she'd overheard his harsh words.
And the boyPepe. Jonas didn't like the twinge of envy he'd felt when Pepe smiled and ran to Doc Franklin. He used to be the practitioner kids loved, the one who loved taking care of kids, but after the past several months of deployment, he couldn't look at a child and not feel the immediate wash of sorrow that'd become too familiar to him.
"Please call me Jonas. I'm sorry I haven't contacted you yet. I've been home a short time, and I didn't want to stop by the house without calling first."
Had she heard him stumble over the word house? Or was it just his imagination that referring to the farmhouse as anything but his or his family's caused him pause?
She held her hand up to stop his meager attempt at an apology.
"I think we've said all we needed to in our emails, don't you?"
"No, not at all. Six months ago we were both in shock, and an email is never the same as meeting in person."
He looked over to where Doc was goofing around with Pepe.
"I don't want to have this conversation now, Serenacan I call you that? Not with Pepe here."
"I imagine it would be difficult for you to ask me to give up our home while Pepe's within earshot."
Frustration made his vision blur as the goddess turned into a witch. An immediate ache in his chest opened up, spewing the ugly visions of children he hadn't been able to save. Damn his post-deployment emotions. His ability to compartmentalize, the usual method of coping with unwanted emotions and allowing a warrior to focus on a mission, seemed to have evaporated the minute he landed back on Whidbey last week.
"I may deserve that, ma'am, but trust me, I'm not the bogeyman. I understand that you and Pepe have been through a lot. More than your share."
Those brown eyes remained steady on him. Measuring him, assessing his integrity. He'd had stares from top admirals that weren't as unnerving.
"As have you. And yes, you can call me Serena."
Her tone held no recrimination, no pity. Dot-tie's claim that Serena was "a gal with real class" rang through his mind. Thinking of Dottie, of her death, made him want to put his fist through the clinic wall.
"Dottie loved you so much. She never stopped talking about you." As if she'd read his mind. As if she knew he needed that reminder of Dottie's love for him.
"Funny, because she was the same way about youshe went on and on in her emails and our few phone conversations about how thrilled she was to finally have met you, to have closed the family circle by meeting her long-lost niece."
Her eyes narrowed and she took a step back. "You're right, Jonas. We need to have this conversation elsewhere."
Her anger had melted into another emotion he didn't want to consider. Sadness?
"Mom, Doc Franklin says I can go back to soccer next spring!"
"That's nice, Pepe." Her shoulders sagged and Jonas made a conscious effort not to offer her an arm, a shoulder of his own.
"What's going on with Pepe?" If he was going to check her son in and probably see more of him in the clinic, he'd better do his best to be professional.
"He's had a rash of ear infections. The last one took him out of the second half of soccer season. He loves soccer, as he'll be sure to let you know any minute now."
Her exasperated expression reflected her obvious love for Pepe.
"I understand. I get antsy when I can't get to the gym. You two must have a special bond."
A small line appeared between her brows and Jonas swore he tasted the bottom of his uniform boots. How many times could he say the wrong words in one afternoon?
"I'm sorry, Serena. Obviously small talk isn't my forte any more than pediatrics is."
She opened her mouth to speak but Doc interrupted them.
"Commander Scott, this is Pepe, my main man. I've known this kid since he moved on island last spring. He's a champ. Pepe, this is Commander Scott, and he's going to take care of you." Doc raised his hand for Pepe's high-five slap.
Jonas gritted his teeth for the fifteenth time in as many minutes. This wasn't going to be easy. If Doc Franklin had made the connection between Serena and Jonas, he wasn't talking. And Jonas wasn't about to mention it now, not after already shoving his foot down his throat twice.