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'I need to see you in my office, Amelia.'
Chloe Moreno froze as her boss's soft-spoken request sounded from behind. She'd been in the process of pulling a patient chart from the large steel cabinet in the file room, but now her fingers trembled, causing her to lose her grip on the Danford file. It fluttered to the shiny linoleum floor, and as papers spilled out of the blue folder, the heat of embarrassment blasted through her.
Cheeks scorching, Chloe dropped to her knees and quickly collected the strewn papers. "Sorry. I'm such a klutz sometimes," she murmured, keeping her eyes downcast. "Let me just pick this up and I'll meet you in your offi"
A shadow fell over her. Clothing rustled as her boss knelt down, his big, gorgeous hands reaching out to help her collect the papers.
Swallowing, Chloe gathered up the courage to lift her headand found a pair of deep brown eyes watching her in amusement.
"No need to look so terrified," Derek Colton said in that smooth, baritone voice of his. "I'm not going to fire you for dropping a file, Amelia."
Amelia. Lord, would she ever get used to that name? It was the reason she'd dropped the file in the first place; hearing Derek address her by a name that wasn't her own made her so damn uneasy, so very jittery.
You're Amelia Phillips now. Get used to it.
Chloe drew in a breath, heeding the commanding voice in her head. She couldn't keep jumping at shadows and battling a sense of disorientation each time someone called her Amelia. She was Amelia. Chloe Moreno was dead. And according to the LA Times website, Felix had shelled out the big bucks for her memorial service. A funeral hadn't been an option, seeing as her body was presumed to be at the bottom of the Pacific.
Shoving the unwelcome thoughts from her mind, Chloe rose to her feet and tucked the patient file under her arm. Derek stood up, too, his six-foot frame towering over her.
A shiver danced up her spine, a common occurrence in this man's presence. Derek Colton was too attractive for his own goodtall, muscular, ruggedly handsome. And his chocolate-brown eyes were too damn perceptive. Each time he focused that intense gaze on her, she felt as if he was peering into her soul. Like he knew all her secrets.
But he didn't. He couldn't. Chloe herself had lost track of all the secrets and lies. Over the past six months she'd spun a web so thickly complex that she didn't even know who she was anymore.
She knew who she wasn't, though.
Chloe, the wife of celebrity plastic surgeon Felix Moreno, no longer existed. She'd been replaced with Amelia, the quiet, hardworking nurse who'd impressed the heck out of her new boss when she'd helped him save a patient from bleeding out three weeks ago.
And as long as she continued to impress Derek with her skills, she could stay in Eden Falls and live the life she'd always dreamed of.
The life she'd earned.
So, pasting on a professional smile, she glanced at Derek and said, "What did you need to talk about?"
"Let's go to my office." His expression revealed nothing, no hint of what he needed to discuss with her.
As Chloe trailed after him, she took a calming breath, silently praying that he wasn't about to fire her. Unfortunately, inhaling was a bad idea because it only succeeded in drawing Derek's appealing scent into her lungs. The man smelled so good, like soap and aftershave and something intoxicatingly masculine.
Her gaze homed in on his broad back, covered by the white coat that contrasted with his smooth, mocha skin. He kept his black hair in a buzz cut, which left the nape of his strong, corded neck exposed. Another shiver ran through her as she admired him, and she was grateful that he couldn't see her face. She'd worked hard to hide her visceral reaction to this man, the flames that licked at her flesh each time he flashed one of those sexy, easygoing smiles in her direction.
Derek led her down the brightly lit hallway of the clinic. When they reached his office, he opened the door and gestured for her to enter first, just like the gentleman he was. Gosh, she'd never met anyone like himthe man oozed charm and sex appeal, yet at the same time, he exuded a quiet strength that was downright inspiring.
In the three weeks she'd worked as a nurse in Derek's practice, she'd been so tempted to dig deeper and get to know this intriguing man, but the need to maintain a certain level of professionalism had reined in the impulse. This job meant everything to her. Getting chummy with the boss would be a bad idea, especially because she hadn't exactly told him the truth about who she really was.
"Have a seat," Derek said pleasantly, gesturing to one of the plush chairs in front of his commanding mahogany desk.
Chloe sat, nervously crossing her ankles.
Derek settled in his leather chair and clasped his hands. "I wanted to discuss your performance," he began, those deep brown eyes seeking her out again.
She experienced a twinge of panic. "Oh. Did I do something wrong?"
He chuckled, and the husky sound teased her senses. "On the contrary. You're doing everything right. I wanted to talk about making this arrangement permanent."
Relief and pleasure washed over her. "Really?"
"Really," he said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I know we didn't have a chance to talk about the long term, what with you being thrust into this practice so abruptly. Have I told you how wonderfully you handled the Violet Chastain situation?"
Fighting a burst of pride, Chloe smiled. "Numerous times. How is Violet doing, by the way?"
"Nearly fully recovered and driving my brother crazy." Derek grinned. "But he loves it. I don't think I've ever seen Gunnar this happy."
Yeah, love could do that to a person. Or so she'd heard. Chloe hadn't lucked out in the relationship department, unlike Derek's older brother Gunnar, who'd found happiness with Hollywood starlet Violet Chastain. Violet had been in town researching a movie role when she'd been attacked and left for dead on the side of the road. Fortunately, she'd survived the assault and near-kidnapping and found a loving partner in Gunnar Colton, who'd stepped in to help Violet with her twin boys while she recovered from the injury to her leg.
Although Violet had gotten her happy ending, managing to escape her assailants, the attackers had abducted the young woman who'd been accompanying the actress.
The memory brought an ache to Chloe's heart. "Has there been any word on Mary and Hannah?"
Derek instantly sobered. "None. Emma and Tate are still working the case, but there are no new leads."
She shook her head in dismay, unable to comprehend the events that had transpired. The town of Eden Falls bordered Paradise Ridge, which was home to a small Amish community looking to live quiet, peaceful lives. But there was nothing peaceful about recent events. Four Amish girls had disappeared over the past month. Two had been found dead in a remote cabin near the Colton ranch, and the other twoMary Yoder and Hannah Troyerwere still missing.
Derek's siblings, Emma and Tate, both worked in law enforcement, and while investigating the disappearances, they'd uncovered a horrific truththe missing girls were being sold in a sex ring that catered to seedy buyers with even seedier intentions. Emma had gotten closer to Hannah's brother Caleb over the course of the investigation.
It sounded unimaginable, yet it didn't surprise Chloe to learn that sadistic people like that existed.
After all, she'd spent the past twelve years living with her very own personal sadist.
"I hate thinking about what those girls must be going through," Derek said. His handsome face revealed the frustration he felt over the situation. "I wish I could do more to help, but I fear I'd only get in Emma and Tate's way."
"I wish I could do more, too," she said softly, her heart breaking for those missing girls.
"Well, you're doing your fair share around here," Derek answered, steering the discussion back on track. "I'm going to be honest, Amelia. You're a real asset to this clinic. Having you around these past few weeks has made me realize I can't afford to lose you. That's why I wanted to sit down with you and talk about your plans."
"My plans?" Chloe echoed.
He nodded. "I wanted to make sure you still plan on making Eden Falls your home, that you're not going to suddenly pack your bags and move to Philly or accept a job with some other big-city hospital."
"Not at all," she blurted out. "Eden Falls is where I want to be, Dr. Colton. And the only job I'm interested in is this one."
"That's good to hear." Those brown eyes danced playfully. "And how many times must I remind you to call me Derek?"
"Right. Sorry. D-Derek." Her voice wobbled, and she tried not to cringe. She was forty-one years old, for crying out loud. Why did she always stammer like a schoolgirl in the presence of this man?
Derek seemed to be fighting a grin, which told her he'd picked up on her bout of nervousness. "Well, if you're serious about sticking around, then I want you to know I'm thrilled to have you. It still amazes me at times, the calming effect you have on anyone you come into contact with." He looked vaguely embarrassed. "You're really good with the patients, Amelia."
"So are you." The abrupt admission caused her cheeks to heat up again.
Uh, suck up much?
Fine, she had a total case of hero-worship when it came to Derek Colton. But how could she not? The man happened to be an incredible doctor. He had an easy rapport with his patients, and he carried himself with a self-assuredness that made her envious. She wished she had half the confidence that this talented doctor possessed in spades.
Also, it didn't hurt that he was drop-dead gorgeous, which meant that taking orders from him could hardly be considered a chore. And even though she had about ten years on him, he carried himself with a sense of maturity and strength that tugged at something inside her. Derek was a first-class man, the kind of man she wouldn't have believed existed if she hadn't just spent three weeks by his side.
"Anyway, that was all I wanted," Derek said, scraping back his chair. "Could you prepare the exam room for our three o'clock?"
"Of course." Chloe stood and smoothed out the hem of her shirt. "I already pulled up the Danford file."
A smile tugged on the corners of his mouth. "Efficient as always, aren't you, Amelia?"
"Just trying to make an impression on the boss," she answered lightly.
He chuckled again. Her heart did a little flip.
Oh, brother. This had to stop. Her growing attraction to Derek was becoming a total nuisance. She hadn't traveled clear across the country to get lovesick about a man.
She was still a married woman, after all.
As a lump of bitterness rose in her throat, Chloe quickly banished the reminder. "I'll prep the exam room," she said before ducking out of Derek's office.
Her white sneakers squeaked against the floor as she hurried down the hall. She sucked in a few deep breaths, wishing she could erase the memory of Felix from her mind. But each time she thought she was close to forgetting her former life, those annoying reminders crept in like a cat burglar.
Why couldn't she just put the past behind her? After too many years of living in fear and being tormented by the man she'd foolishly married, she was finally free of Felix Moreno. She'd spent the past two years painstakingly preparing for this, stashing money, renewing her nursing license, arranging her escape. Once she'd gotten free, she'd spent six months making her way east, never staying in one place for long while she waited for the dust to settle. Waited until she could be absolutely certain that Felix truly believed she was dead.
She'd wound up in Eden Falls, Pennsylvania, by pure chanceshe'd run out of gas right outside of town. She'd intended on filling the tank and continuing on to Philadelphia, but the moment she'd laid eyes on the idyllic Eden Falls, she'd fallen in love. This small town had everything she'd always dreamed of and never had in Californiawarmth, joy, a tight-knit sense of family and community. There was nothing fake about the people of Eden Falls; they were kind, decent folks who looked out for each other, which was the complete opposite of the phony, materialistic people she'd been surrounded with her entire life.
When she'd sat in the little diner in the heart of downtown and flipped through the newspaper, the job ad she'd come across had been like a neon sign from a higher power. The clinic in town was in need of a nurseand what do you know, Chloe had a nursing degree just waiting to be put to use again.
This past month had been so utterly wonderful. She loved her job, adored her cozy one-bedroom apartment, respected the heck out of her boss.
So why was she still battling the impulse to continually look over her shoulder?
As Chloe entered the exam room, something cold touched her cheek. She jumped, then relaxed when she realized it was her own hand. She'd involuntarily begun to stroke the left side of her face, a nervous gesture she'd been trying to wean herself out of. She didn't want to draw any undue attention to her face, and besides, the thin ridge of scar tissue marring her skin beneath the makeup simply served as another reminder of the life she'd left behind.
Letting her hand drop, she crossed the room and quickly rolled a fresh sheet of exam paper over the table. Then she strode toward the cabinet against the far wall and removed a blue hospital johnny.
As she placed the gown on the table, she squared her shoulders, forcing her brain into work mode. She couldn't agonize over Felix anymore. She was free now. Safe.
And happy. Damn it, for the first time in her life she was honest-to-God happy, and she refused to let Felix Moreno take that away. He'd already taken too much from her. He'd terrorized her, scarred her, humiliated her.
But he hadn't broken her.
As a rush of pride welled up in her belly, Chloe left the exam room and headed for the waiting area, banishing all thoughts of Felix and her past from her mind. The only thing she needed to focus on right now was calling in the next patient and proving to Derek Colton that hiring her had been the best decision he'd ever made.
Had he made the wrong decision in hiring Amelia?
Derek puckered his brows as he watched his new nurse slip her arm through Rachel Danford's. He couldn't hear what Amelia was saying, but he made out the encouraging note in her soft voice.
Rachel and her husband, Jacob, looked stricken as they listened to Amelia. Jacob was strong and stoic in his dark trousers, brown suspenders and white shirt, his work-hewn hands clutching a wide-brimmed straw hat. Rachel wore a modest black dress and lace-up boots, and beneath the white head covering indicating her married status, her light brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She was a pretty girl with a spattering of freckles on the bridge of her nose and the kindest brown eyes Derek had ever seen.