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Ross Lane had messed up big-time.
Every time his gaze settled on the petite blonde nurse in Bay Two the message reverberated louder and louder through his skull, pounding like the worst of headaches.
Oh, yeah, he'd messed up big time five years ago.
Lately, not a day went by that he didn't wonder what his life would be like had he stuck around and been the man Brielle Win-ton had wanted him to be.
Funny how time changed one's perspective, one's priorities.
He leaned back against the emergency room nurses' station, pretending to read the hospital newsletter someone had handed him moments before. In actuality, he soaked in every detail of the woman he had never been able to forget.
Beautiful as ever, she smiled at the elderly gentleman she was hooking to telemetry. Dimples dotted the corners of her lush mouth, tugging at past memories and something deep in his chest. She went about her job efficiently, smiling often, speaking in a soft, soothing tone, completely unaware that he couldn't drag his gaze from her, that tension crackled from his every pore.
She was so close.
Yet never had she felt so far away.
How could he have walked away and broken her heart?
How could he have believed that out of sight would mean out of mind?
How could he have believed she would forgive him if he showed up out of the blue five years down the road from when they'd once been inseparable and he'd stupidly thrown away what they'd shared?
She looked up, her brown gaze meeting his with an intensity that jackhammered the pounding in his head.
Her friendly smile morphed into an agitated scowl. Shooting a quick glare that told him exactly where she wanted him to go, she turned her attention back to the frail gentleman lying on the emergency room hospital bed. Her expression was immediately pleasant for her patient's benefit, her smile so potent he was shocked the man's heart monitor didn't go haywire.
Brielle had no smiles for him.
Not a single one.
She barely spoke to him and never when it wasn't patient related.
He didn't blame her. He couldn't. Not when almost everything that had gone wrong in their relationship had been his fault.
Almost everything, but not all.
They'd both made mistakes. His had just been bigger.
Pulsating pain stabbed his temple, making him wince.
Letting Brielle go really was his biggest regret. The one thing he couldn't get over no matter how many successes he achieved, no matter how much time passed. When he closed his eyes, she was who filled his mind, who he longed to wrap his arms around and hold close, who he wanted to share those successes with.
Five years had passed since he'd touched Brielle, but he hadn't forgotten one thing. Not the sound of her laughter or the feel of her hand clasped within his. Not the way she looked upon first waking or the way that no matter how tired she'd been she'd always had a special smile just for him.
If he'd been haunted before, his memories had escalated to torment when he'd bumped into her older brother at a medical convention. He'd known within minutes of seeing Vann that he would go to Brielle. He'd had to know if his memory played tricks on him, making the recollection of her more than the reality had ever been.
Although he had brought her up a couple of times during conversations, his former friend had barely commented on his sister, had managed to change the subject each and every time Ross had mentioned her.
Actually, Vann hadn't said much of anything about Brielle since the night he'd broken Ross's nose. That night Vann had said plenty.
Lots. Mostly about how Ross had better never set foot near his sister again or he would do more than bloody his nose.
Ross hadn't fought back. He'd taken Vann's punch, figured he deserved the pain, and he'd walked away from his best friend and the woman he'd been crazy about.
The one woman who had enough of a hold over him that once he'd learned where she was livinghad Vann let that slip intentionally or on purpose?he'd taken leave from his thriving family practice to accept a temporary emergency room position just to be near her, to work side by side with her as they once had. For the next three months he'd cover for the emergency room physician who was on maternity leave.
Would three months be enough to finish whatever unresolved business existed between Brielle and himself?
Would three months be enough for him to know if all those years ago she had stolen his heart and he'd been too blind to realize it? Too young and stupid to know what he was losing? Or was guilt over what he'd done to her the culprit for why she haunted his dreams? Why his mind couldn't let her go?
Either way, he had to know.
He'd reached a point where he was ready to find someone to share his life with, to settle down, marry, have a few kids, and experience all the craziness that went along with being married with children.
Back in Boston, he'd been dating a beautiful, talented hospitalist, had even considered asking Gwen to marry him, but hadn't been able to bring himself to do so. Something kept holding him back.
So, instead of a proposal, he'd come back from his conference, broken things off with her and put his current life on hold so he could reconcile his past with his future.
The pretty little blonde, once again glaring at him from beside her patient's bed, was the starting point for him to achieve that next phase in his life.
One way or the other, his future started with Brielle Winton.
If only she'd co-operate.
Surely she needed resolution too?
Or maybe she had gotten all the resolution she needed when he'd left. Maybe she already knew that his leaving had been the right thing and that her feelings for him hadn't been real after all. Her antagonistic attitude toward him sure gave testimony to the fact she didn't want him here.
Then again, she always had been a stubborn little thing, but that had never presented a problem before.
In the past they'd always wanted the same thing.
When she'd started talking marriage almost non-stop, even to the point they'd argued more often than not, he'd flown the coop.
Figuratively and literally.
He'd already been considering the internship in Boston. Not everyone got offered such a great opportunity. He'd have been a fool to turn the chance down. But he had hesitated, and he'd known why. Brielle. Part of him had resented that their relationship was holding him back, keeping him from fulfilling all his career dreams. Crazy, immature, but he'd suddenly felt a noose tightening around his neck.
Still, he regretted the panicked tailspin he'd nosedived into.
Thinking she could forgive him was pure foolishness.
Yet forgiveness was why he was here.
Brielle was why he was here, why he wouldn't leave until he had the answers he needed, why he wouldn't let her animosity get to him.
To prove his point, he winked at her, not one bit surprised when her scowl deepened.
"Dr. Lane, there's a UTI in Bay Four if you want to have a look." Cindy Whited's words interrupted his thoughts, causing him to glance at the buxomly nurse. "Her urinalysis results are in the computer for your review."
"Thanks. I'll be right there," he assured her, his attention immediately shifting back to Brielle. Their gazes collided again, causing a rumble in his chest, the same rumble he got every time he looked at her.
Love? Shame? Guilt? Regret about the past?
It was high time he knew exactly what role Brielle would play in his future. The sooner he knew, the better.
The stirring below his belt every time he looked at her left no doubt at the role he wanted her to play in his present.
His memory hadn't overplayed the reality at all. Brielle was all that he remembered and more.
He wanted her. In his life and in his bed.
She evoked his senses as no other woman ever had. Just looking at her left him wanting to drag her into the doctors' lounge and have his way with her delectable, curvy little body.
He wouldn't, of course. Bay Four was waiting. Not to mention that she would bite his head off if he tried.
Once upon a time she'd worshipped the ground he'd walked on, but that had been years ago. Now she looked at him as if she wanted to bury him six feet under the ground he walked on.
He wanted Brielle to look at him with the light that had once shone in her eyes just for him. He wanted her to want him as much as he wanted her, for them to burn up the sheets and see if there was anything left beyond the phenomenal chemistry they'd always shared.
With the way she regarded him these days he may as well wish for the moon.
He straightened his shoulders, stared at her with renewed determination. He'd never backed away from a challenge.
Well, perhaps once, and hadn't he lived to regret that mistake?
"Forget McDreamy and McSteamy. If that man were a television doctor, he'd be McHottie." Cindy fanned her busty chest to emphasize her point.
Brielle ignored her friend's antics, as she'd grown accustomed to doing since McHottie's arrival earlier that week. If only her friend knew what evils lurked beneath Ross's beautiful facade she wouldn't constantly harp on about his royal hotness.
No, he hadn't been evil, she admitted. He'd just No, she wasn't going to let her mind go to the past. Not again.
"Too bad he only has eyes for you," Cindy continued, unfazed by Brielle's lack of response. "Because I wouldn't mind feeling the heat."
Brielle fought to keep from looking up from the computer monitor where she was entering a patient's latest assessment data. She would not react to Cindy's comment. She couldn't. Her friend would have her shoved into a supply closet with Ross and bar the door. Cindy was constantly trying to get her to date, to splurge on life's niceties, as she called the opposite sex. Brielle had other priorities.
"Take now, for instance," Cindy said with a hint of amusement in her voice.
Brielle wasn't going to look up. She wasn't. Ross seemed to have eyes for her a lot these days, but she didn't care. She didn't.
"Here I am practically having hot flushes over those sultry blue eyes and that chiseled body, and does he even notice?" Her friend sighed dramatically. "No, he just keeps looking at you as if you're a fascinating puzzle he has to solve, as if you're a dessert he has to taste, as if"
"You can have him," Brielle interrupted before Cindy could elaborate further, before her face could grow any hotter.
They'd been friends too long for Brielle not to know exactly what her friend's expression looked like without having to glance her way. Cindy's brow was arched high in question and a smile toyed on her lips.
Wasn't that the thing she'd loved most about Bean's Creek? That no one knew Ross other than Samantha and Vann? That she'd been able to move home without anyone feeling sorry for her because the man who'd been her world had abandoned her when she'd needed him most? Granted, he hadn't known the full story, but she had tried to tell him more than once and he'd refused to listen. "He's not my type."
"Honey," her friend scoffed with another wave of her hand, "that man is every straight woman's type."
Brielle hit the "enter" key, then leaned back in her chair. "Not mine."
"Because?" Cindy persisted.
Been there, done that, have the scars and the kid to prove it.
"He just isn't."
A short silence followed and when Cindy spoke her tone was softer, more serious. "Because he reminds you of Justice's dad?"
Hello. Had Cindy read her mind? Brielle's gaze jerked up.
She shouldn't have looked. Really, she shouldn't have. Yet her gaze had instantly gone to Cindy. A very curious Cindy, who was watching her way too closely. No wonder. She probably looked like a deer caught in headlight beams. Maybe her friend really had read her mind. Or maybe she'd just thought she was talking in her head and really she'd mumbled her sarcastic remark out loud? No, she knew she hadn't.
"Why would you ask that?" Had her voice squeaked? Had the racket her mouth had emitted even been actual words or pleas to not push?
"I am your best friend," Cindy reminded her, sounding slightly offended. "Plus, I'm not blind. Dr. Lane's eyes are a fantastic blue, just like Justice's."
"Lots of people have blue eyes." She did her best to look bored with the conversation, to look as if she thought Cindy was crazy.
Cindy was crazy if she thought Brielle was going to have this conversation while entering patient data at the emergency room nurses' station. Especially when Ross could step up at any time.
"True." Cindy shrugged. "I just thought"
Cindy's brow rose, and she shook her head. "Oh, yeah, comments like that one from my way-too-serious, too logical, always-overthinks-things friend doesn't raise questions in my mind. Not at all."
Was that how her friend saw her? Fine. She'd earned the right to be logical and serious. Brielle winced. She had to get her act together. To quit being so jumpy where Ross was concerned. Three months. Less than three months now. She could keep her cool for that long. Then he'd be gone and hopefully never come near her again.
That gave her pause.
Never see Ross again?
Not that she'd thought she ever would. Not after he'd told her he didn't want anything to do with her ever again, that she was holding him back, and he planned to get on with his life. Without her.
And he had. All too quickly he'd moved on.
Yet, here he was, back in her life, creating emotional havoc.
Just as Cindy was, waiting for an explanation. Any moment her friend would start with the hands-on-hips foot-tapping.
"Look," Brielle said slowly, hoping to put off the interrogation, "the man annoys me and isn't someone I'd be interested in. Let's just leave it at that. Please."
Cindy considered her a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, for now, but only because your annoyance factor is about to skyrocket anyway."
Brielle took a deep breath, turned slightly to see Ross headed their way. Great. Her annoyance factor shot into orbit.
"Hey, Brielle, can I talk to you a moment?"
One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. If she counted to infinity it wouldn't calm her Ross-ified nerves.
She could do this. She could be calm, professional. He meant nothing to her. Nothing but a pesky fly she'd like to swat away.
"Obviously, you can."
Perhaps she shouldn't be so snappy with a physician who was her superior, but she couldn't help herself. Not so close on the heels of Cindy's question about Justice.
Her son's eyes were the exact shade of blue of Ross's. He had the same strong chin and facial structure. Made expressions that were so similar to Ross's that at times Brielle's breath caught and memories pierced her heart.