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'If I don't eat in the next five minutes I'm going to slip into a coma,' Ruby Smith told her boss and crew partner, Dave.
'Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before. Didn't you have breakfast?' Dave stacked the two medical packs at the helicopter door, ready to be taken into the storeroom and replenished.
'That was hours ago.' She glanced at her watch. 'Six hours ago, to be precise.' A call had come through as she'd been about to sit down to a hot steak pie from the local bakery. Now they'd just returned from an MVA on State Highway One. They'd airlifted a young man with both femurs broken and one femoral artery torn to Hutt Hospital.
'Hey, Red, is that you?' A deep, male voice with a slight rasp called from down on the tarmac.
Ruby's heart leapt into her throat. Jack? Even after years apart, that voice was as familiar to her as her own. And it still had the power to unravel her carefully put-together resolve to keep him at arm's length. That voice had been what had first attracted her to Jack, the only man she'd ever loved. The man she'd walked away from. For the dumbest of reasons.
But what was Jack doing here? Today? He wasn't due to start until Monday, when she'd have been prepared. Right now she was still getting her head around all the ramifications of working with him. Would it be like old times? Jack the consummate professional watching her like a hawk, always teaching her, helping her improve her nursing skills? And would she be listening impatiently, wanting to touch him every time no one was looking? A sigh tickled over her lip. Want to or not, she had to keep her hands to herself. She'd go around with them jammed in her pockets if necessary. She'd moved on, grown up, knew her worth. So if there were a few blips between them as they got used to working together again, she'd survive.
There was no choice. Wellington was home now. Never again would she toss her few possessions into her pack and head away. She'd even burnt that pack against the day wanderlust struck again. She'd done her searching, found what she'd been looking for and sucked up the pain from knowing she'd wasted years of her life because of it. To let Jack back under her skin would risk her newfound and fragile contentment.
She peered out into the glittering winter sun, gripping the doorframe, her knuckles white. Jack, tall and slim, emanated strength in his stance as he stared up at her. Her mouth dried. Solid need sliced through her, heating and freezing her all at once. Need she believed she'd finally wrestled into submission. Jack Forbes. Her new boss and crew partner. Her old lover.
She couldn't do this. She had to do this. 'Hi, Jack,' she managed feebly. Hi, gorgeous, her brain mocked her.
He grinned his well-practised, impish grin that had always got him everything he wanted, including her. 'Get your butt out of that flying machine and come say hello to an old mate.'
So that was how he was going to play it. Mates. She could work with that, and it was a better start than she'd hoped for. Ruby jumped down onto the tarmac, grimacing as she jarred her bung knee. Tugging her shoulders back tight, she strode towards the moment she'd been both looking forward to and dreading since returning home to New Zealand. She strode towards Jack, apparently her friend. She hadn't been sure if she was as over this man as she should be. And now? The jury was out.
'Jack, it's great to see you.' Talk about the understatement of the year. Of her life.
'Great to see ya, ruby-red girl.' His old greeting. The one he'd shouted out as he'd come in the door at night, when he'd rolled over in bed in the morning.
Ruby's heart tripped. Ruby-red girl. Did he even realise what he'd said? She blinked up at him, saw his Adam's apple bob and shoved down the sense of drowning brought on by that greeting. Fixing a tight smile on her face, she desperately hoped she'd managed to hide the shock blowing through her at the close-up sight of him. Jack had always been a handsome dude, but three years on and wow. Her fingers tingled. Her stomach crunched. Lust, pure and simple, hot and complex, bubbled through her. Oh, boy, this reunion wasn't supposed to be filled with desire and temptation. Mates, remember? 'To think you're going to be working on the helicopters.'
'Why wouldn't I?' His grin faded. 'I was blown away when I saw your name on the staff list. I didn't know you were back in the country, let alone Wellington.' His eyes narrowed as he looked her over with a familiar slow slide down her body that made her blood race and lifted goose-bumps on her skin. Made her want him.
The whole thing about having to work with Jack had just got monumentally harder. She fought the flare of annoyance that he could make her feel like this so easily after such a long time. 'I know what you mean. To think you'd even consider leaving the emergency department came as a bombshell.' That was the truth.
'I'm full of surprises.' Was that a hint of sarcasm in his tone?
'Maybe I've got a few of my own,' she retorted. Like the house she'd bought and the renovations she was doing to it, like her cute little friend sharing the place with her. If those things didn't astonish Jack then he must have turned to stone over the years she'd been away.
Then a memory swamped her, flattening her with shame.
Three years ago Jack's face had registered shock and disbelief over her biggest surprise ever. 'You're really going? Leaving Wellington? Leaving me?'
'I have to. I'm never going to find my father by staying here, and since I've learned he's American it makes sense to go over to the States. Come on, Jack, try to understand. For the first time ever I've got a starting point. How could I not go?' Her hands had trembled so much she 'd dropped her dinner plate and splattered her meal all over the floor. 'You could come with me,' she'd whispered in desperation.
'Sure, Red, just drop everything and leave. Like it's that easy. I've got nearly a year to go before I qualify as an emergency specialist. Stopping in midstream just isn't possible.' He'd taken her cold hands in his. 'You could wait for me.'
She'd shaken her head, beating down the urge to fling herself in his arms and hold on for ever. 'I can't. I've waited all my life to meet my dad and this is the closest I've ever got to finding him. This is so important to me. I have to go.' Jack had been just as important, maybe more, but she 'd foolishly believed finding her parent had been paramount.
Jack's face had been bleak, his eyes dark with sadness. 'Until you do this you're never going to be completely happy, are you? Not even with me?'
She hadn't been able to answer him for the lump in her throat.
That was when the arguments had begun, almost as a defence mechanism to protect their shattering hearts. They'd agreed they had to make a clean break but the days before she'd flown out had been intense as they'd crammed as much loving as possible into the little time left.
Now Jack lifted a hand in a stop sign, worry darkening his all-seeing eyes. 'Hey, let's leave the past alone. After all, it isn't called the past for nothing.'
Ouch. 'True. This is a different job; we're probably different people now.' She certainly was. Forcing a smile, she asked, 'So how's life been treating you? You're looking pretty good for an old guy.'
His smoky grey eyes lightened, twinkled, the crinkles at their corners bunching up. That heart-stopping smile lifted his mouth. And cramped her stomach. 'Can't complain. And less of the "old guy" stuff. Turning thirty was an event, not a disaster.'
So why the sudden doubt reflecting back at her? Jack had always been confident, in control. Doubt hadn't even been in his vocabulary. These days she wasn't in a position to ask anything personal. Not that he'd tell her anyway. Talking about the things that bothered him wasn't in his make-up. He took everything life tossed at him and moved on with a nonchalance that hid his true feelings. He was a rock. The person everyone could, and did, rely on in all situations. He didn't ever ask anyone to prop him up.
So she knocked on her head in fun. 'Of course, you've had one of those big birthdays.' She did a quick tap dance on the spot, checked him out. 'I hope that means everything's okay with you, no bits rotting and dropping off your wrinkled old frame.'
'Heck, Red, I've missed your cheek. No one else is ever so damned rude to me.' Suddenly Ruby's feet were off the ground as Jack swung her up against his hard-muscled frame and engulfed her in a bear hug.
'So who's been keeping you in line, then?' she gasped against his chest. His heart pounded under her ear. Strong and steady, like Jack. His arms were muscular and warm around her back. Just like old times. As her bones liquefied with longing, she wriggled to be set free in case she did something dumb like press in against him and hold on for ever.
Jack tightened his grip, but he didn't answer her question. 'You're looking good, girl. Even with that weird spiky hair and the glaring scarlet colour you've dunked it in,' he murmured against her ear, sending thrilling shivers down her spine. 'What happened to that beautiful, sherry-coloured mane?'
It had reminded her of Jack too much. Every time she'd looked in a mirror after they'd broken up her heart had snapped in half all over again. 'It was a nuisance whenever I put my headpiece on in the 'copter.'
'Fair enough.' His disappointed sigh blew against her cheek. His arms tightened further. 'Pity, though.'
She murmured against his jacket, 'You would say that. You didn't have to look after the darned stuff.' But he had spent hours brushing the waist-length hair that had been her one vanity. She quickly added, in case he thought she was stirring up trouble, 'It was a full-time job.'
When his fingers pressed a little harder into her waist Ruby felt a pull of the love they'd once shared. A steady love emanating from Jack's goodness, strength and caring. Added to by her quirky sense of humour and the wonder she'd felt at someone so smart wanting her. Not even her beloved mother had made her feel as good, as safe, as Jack had. And just as she'd done with her mother's love, she'd fought that feeling, turned it against herself, shunned Jack's love for her own needs, thereby ruining something very special and worth holding on to at all costs. Hindsight sucked. Big time.
Would she get a second chance?