The Man Who Wouldn't Marry [NOOK Book]

Overview


Military hero—tick! Confirmed bachelor—tick!

But stand-in father?

Of all the medical pilots in all the world, why-oh-why did Mark Branson have to be assigned to her hospital?! It's been years since Mark turned his deliciously muscled back on nurse Sammi Trenton and headed to the front line. Now she's a mom, surely Sammi's chances of being noticed again by this determinedly single man are zero…

...
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The Man Who Wouldn't Marry

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NOOK Book (eBook - Original)
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Overview


Military hero—tick! Confirmed bachelor—tick!

But stand-in father?

Of all the medical pilots in all the world, why-oh-why did Mark Branson have to be assigned to her hospital?! It's been years since Mark turned his deliciously muscled back on nurse Sammi Trenton and headed to the front line. Now she's a mom, surely Sammi's chances of being noticed again by this determinedly single man are zero…

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781459245532
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 11/1/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 731,157
  • File size: 248 KB

Read an Excerpt




Why was he here?

Mark Branson's eyes slid for the hundredth time to the small child standing beside him at the altar, the boy's dark suit and red tie a miniature version of his own. They could almost be father and son.

But they weren't.

His gaze automatically swept to the left, coming to rest on the bridesmaid across the aisle. The woman he'd once planned to marry in this very church, before life had intervened, and she'd married someone else.

And having her child propped against him as they waited for the wedding to begin was pure torture.

'Do you have the rings?'

Mark blinked and switched his attention back to the priest, the man's gold-embroidered robes and matching cape seeming as ancient as the ornate carvings inside the small Russian Orthodox Church. Candles of all shapes and sizes adorned the altar, placed on glittering stands by the people in attendance. The flickering glow added a sense of awe and mystery to the room, and also provided the only source of illumination. The absence of electric lights in the church had always seemed strange to Mark but, then again, he could count on his fingers the number of services he'd attended here.

The last time had been for his father's memorial service. He could still remember his mother's tears. Her grief so misplaced. Mark had never visited the man's grave. Not once.

A throat cleared. 'The rings?' The concern in the priest's tone echoed off the high ceilings. The groom shot him a look, his best friend's brows lifting in question.

Mark cleared his own throat to make sure it came out normal. 'I have them.'

Okay, good. The steady throbbing behind his temples hadn't crept down to his voice box. Digging in his pocket, he located the pair of rings and handed them to the boy, who in turn trudged up the two steps to the top of the platform, giving one to the groom and the other to the bride.

The bride, a relative newcomer to the Aleutians, bent down to hug the child and watched as he skipped back down the steps. She then wrinkled her nose and smiled at her soon-to-be-husband, who gazed back at her with besotted eyes.

Mark barely restrained himself from rolling his own. His buddy had it bad.

Willing the child to go and stand beside his mother, who hadn't met Mark's gaze once since they'd taken their places on the steps at the front of the church, he gave an almost audible sigh of frustration. Because the boy wound up back at his side, leaning against him. The turmoil already raging within his gut turned into a firestorm of the worst kind.

Worse than his years in the military. Worse than what he'd returned home to six months ago.

'Do you, Blake Taylor, take Molly McKinna to be your lawfully wedded wife…'

The voice droned on as a curtain of red slowly rose behind Mark's eyelids. Could this get any worse? When his friend had asked him to be best man, he'd known it was a bad idea.

Churches and weddings?

Not for Mark. Not any more.

He'd become adept at drifting from relationship to relationship, never allowing things to become too serious. Never willing to risk the hurt that came with discovering someone you'd cared about had married someone else—had another man's child. It was his own fault, but he'd had no choice. Not at the time.

'Muster Mark?' The words brought his gaze back down to the boy beside him. 'Are we almost done? I'm thusty.'

The slight lisp sent a half-smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, before he cranked them back down. The child had to be almost six years old. A surge of hope had flashed through him the first time he'd seen the boy. Hope that he had been his son. But he had been aboard an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea at the time, flying missions to Afghanistan, so there was no chance.

He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He'd told her to move on with her life, and she'd done exactly that. Two years after his plane had left Dutch Harbor that final time.

Which brought him back to his original question. Why was he here?

A question that had nothing to do with witnessing his best friend's wedding and everything to do with moving back to his hometown. He swore once his dad died, he'd never come back, but his mom had seemed so.

Frail.

Terrified of being alone for the first time in her adult life. So he'd done what he'd tried to do as a young boy, protect her from the bad things in the world. He wasn't any better at it now than he'd been all those years ago.

He glanced down at the kid, who was about the same age Mark had been when he had realized something was terribly wrong with his family. That they were different from the families of his classmates and friends. Hence the fights he'd frequently got into. The need to prove he was tougher—better than them all. It had also kept anyone from focusing on the truth behind his bruises.

Almost against his will, his hand went to the boy's head, resting for a second on the dark silky hair—so like his mother's. 'A few more minutes,' he whispered, realizing he'd never answered the child's question.

The kid blinked up at him, eyes trusting. Innocent.

Hell, he hoped Sammi knew enough to protect that at all costs.

He glanced over at her again, this time finding her brown eyes staring at him, brows drawn together in worry. He had a feeling if she could snatch her child away from him without causing a scene, she'd do it in a heartbeat.

Mark removed his hand from the boy's head, and crossed his arms over his chest, staring back at her in defiance. She jerked her attention away and faced the bride and the groom, her teeth digging into her soft bottom lip.

Her customary braid was gone today, her long dark hair left free to spill over her bare shoulders and halfway down her back. Thick and glossy, he knew firsthand how decadent those silky strands felt as they flowed across his hands…his body.

He shifted in his spot to keep from remembering too deeply, knowing this was not the time or place. Later, when he slugged back his first shot of whiskey and tried to push away the horrors of the last eight years, he could afford to nurse his regrets.

But he wouldn't go back and change how he'd done things. It had been the right thing to do under the circumstances. The only thing. His father had made sure of that when he'd cracked open the tiny velvet box and discovered Mark's secret.

Well, well, boy. What have we here? The slow, ugly smile that had made Mark's insides tighten with dread had appeared. Don't worry. I'll make sure the girlie is given a proper Branson welcome.

He'd left for Anchorage the next day, the engagement ring tucked into the pocket of his jeans, a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. He'd shown up at the first recruitment station he could find…and the rest was history.

Soft clapping around him made him realize the bride and groom were now in each other's arms, their lips locked together.

He couldn't bring himself to applaud, so he dropped his hands to his sides. When his gaze wandered back to Sammi, he noted that she was standing as still as a stone, her knuckles showing white as she clenched the stems of her bouquet.

How soon could he get out of there?

There was no reception planned, which was a big relief. He didn't have to mingle and make small talk about how great it was that the bride and groom had finally gotten hitched. Or how wonderful it was that they were moving permanently to Anchorage. Mark had never thought his buddy, of all people, would ever leave the island.

Love conquers all.

Wrong.

Sometimes love just turned you into a victim.

His friend's desertion, though, meant it was now Sammi…and him…doing the island's medevacs. Why he'd agreed to take the job, he had no idea. He should have said no, that he was strictly a tourist pilot, sticking to a fluffy job that required nothing more than a smile and a canned speech. Nothing like the life-and-death missions he'd flown in the military—or the terrible images that still invaded his thoughts and woke him in the night. But it was either that or stand in the way of his buddy's happiness.

And his friend knew how to lay on the guilt. He always had.

The pair at the front of the church broke apart amidst laughter. They pivoted towards the small assembly and started down the aisle to the pipe organ's piercing rendition of the 'Hallelujah Chorus', drawing more chuckles from friends and family.

The groom put his arms around his bride and pulled her close, stopping for another kiss before they'd gone a half-dozen steps.

All Mark wanted to do was escape.

The rest of the wedding party—he, Sammi, and Sammi's son—turned to follow suit. He started to hold out his elbow for Sammi as he'd been instructed by his friend—under threat of death—but found her boy's fingers grabbing his hand instead.

Sammi shot him a glare that could have scalded milk and swept in front of him, perfectly rounded curves showcased by her snug emerald dress. The thing actually shimmered with each angry swish of her hips. It took several seconds and a tug at his hand before he realized he was still standing there, rooted in place, as Sammi drew further and further away.

He forced himself to move, having to dial back on the length of his strides to match the kid's. By the time they caught up with her, she was standing in the reception line by the front doors of the church, and he was once again trying to figure out why he was there.

Samantha Grey Trenton sucked down a deep breath and tried not to let her rising panic overwhelm her. Her son Toby's sudden fascination with Mark was nothing more than the fact that he was tall and dark like his father, her ex-husband. Despite the physical resemblance, though, Mark was not the kind of person she wanted her son hanging around. The kind that led you on for as long as it suited him and then left with barely a word.

'I think I have something of yours.' Low and deep, the murmured words slid over her, his breath ruffling her hair.

She swallowed, then turned to face him, realizing with relief he was talking about Toby and not some sentimental relic from the past. That thought caused a warning prickle behind her eyelids that she forced back with a single harsh blink.

Mark's hand came out, her son's small fingers still gripping it like a lamprey. No choice. Her only hope was to try to take possession of him without touching anything but Toby.

Except it ended up being impossible.

In order to take her son's hand, she was forced to wriggle her fingertips between their palms. Mark's warm skin sizzled against her icy flesh, and for a split second all three of their hands were sealed together: Hers, Toby's, and a stranger's.

The prickle reappeared. Oh, God, she was going to lose it. Right here in front of all these people.

The image of the funny, laid-back boy who'd asked her to be his date for their senior prom—whose desperate kisses had awoken something deep inside her—appeared in the back of her mind. But that person was gone for ever, destroyed when he had announced he was going into the military. That shocking decree had come just weeks after he'd professed his love for her, his face turning a charming shade of red as he'd said the words.

It had all been a lie, however. A way to get her into his bed, because there'd been no promise of a future when he'd left. Just a few tight-jawed words spoken at the front door of her house. Then he had gone. The remembered humiliation of that night still had the power to crush her heart in a giant fist.

The tall, rugged man who'd returned to Dutch Harbor eight years later was indeed a stranger. Flippant, arrogant and who now chased anyone in a skirt.

Anyone but her.

With a start, she realized Mark was now eyeing her, their hands still joined together. She gulped and with a quick move, prised Toby's hand free. She moved a few steps forward in line, needing to put some distance between her and Mark.

Please let me get through this in one piece.

That tiny prayer seemed doomed the second she sensed the heat from Mark's body close behind her. Too close.

Ignore him. You've done it for the last six months. You can do it now.

Not so easy this time as Toby had twisted around to look, a contented sigh lifting his thin chest. She listened for the warning wheeze, but it didn't happen. A dose of self-righteous anger whipped up at the deadly charisma her former beau gave off in waves. She would not let him hurt her son the way he'd hurt her.

She leaned down. 'Just a few more minutes.' She realized too late those were almost the exact words she'd heard Mark whisper to him earlier.

Thank heavens she hadn't waited around for Mark's return. Because he now barely gave her the time of day. And she wasn't much better. She avoided him whenever she could—not an easy feat on an island like Dutch Harbor—and the only times he'd appeared at the clinic over these last months had been to deliver a tourist who'd gotten a scrape or a bruise.

Her turn to offer her congratulations to the happy couple. Finally!

She pasted on a smile as she reached out her free hand to Blake, the groom. 'So you went and did it.' She tried to keep her voice light, but it betrayed her by shaking just the tiniest bit. She pushed on, anyway. 'I can't believe you're leaving the island and taking Molly with you.' Blake, Mark, and Sammi had joined forces during their childhood days, becoming a kind of mod squad—inseparable and lifelong friends. Those strands were now tattered and worn—she doubted they could ever be woven together again.

Blake laughed, evidently not noticing the strain she was under. 'I think if Molly had a choice, she'd never leave Dutch Harbor.'

Molly had worked as a doctor at the tiny clinic with Sammi for the last year until her funding had dried up, forcing her to move back to Anchorage. She and Blake had met while doing medevacs and, after a rocky start, realized they were meant for each other. Once she left, Sammi would be stuck doing medical evacuations with Mark, not something she was looking forward to.

Who was she kidding? She was dreading it.

Pausing to gather her thoughts, she tried to keep her mind on the happy couple and off her own problems. 'Treat her right, Blake. Or I'll come and find you.'

'I intend to.'

While Blake squatted to talk to Toby, Sammi moved over to embrace the bride. 'Be happy,' she whispered.

'You too.'

If only it were that easy.

She sensed Blake rise to his feet to greet Mark. At the sound of awkward male hugs—complete with palms delivering a few resounding smacks to the other's back—she had to fight back a smile.

She tried to tune out their words, but Mark's 'You caved, bro' caught her attention, the wry tone as flip as ever.

The bride's voice brought her back to the present.

'Okay, you two, I'm tired and starving.' She crinkled her nose. 'And I still have a three-hour flight to Anchorage to get through.'

That drew a laugh from Sammi. Her friend had married a pilot, yet she didn't like to fly. At all. Talk about opposites attracting. She gave Molly another quick hug. 'You'll be fine.'

Molly smiled. 'I know I will. I just like the extra handholding it gets me.'

Those words made Sammi's heart ache. Although she was over the moon that her two friends had found each other, she was sad she'd never found that same perfect happiness. Her ex-husband had done his best, but in the end they'd both known it wasn't meant to be. When Toby had been one, they'd separated. They'd finalized their divorce two weeks before Toby's second birthday. Her ex, now living in Anchorage, had remarried and was, to all appearances, blissfully happy with his second wife. Even Toby liked her.

A throat cleared behind her, making her jump. She realized she was holding up the line and that Mark couldn't get around her in the narrow gap between the door and the newly married couple without touching her. Again. The thought made her quake inside. She squeaked out a quick 'Sorry'.

Then she grabbed Toby's hand and did the only thing she could think of.

She fled.

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