GP Julia MacKenzie's life is finally back on track! Fighting to save St. Bryar's Clinic has helped her to forget her heartache and make way for a new futureon her terms.
Until Julia falls into gorgeous Dr. Oliver Wyatt's armsliterallyand suddenly her whole world is turned upside down! Not only is Oliver the Duke-of-Breckonshire-in-waiting, he's the very man threatening to shut her practice down and, even more worryingly, to steal her heart!
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"C'mon, Doc! Race you to the top!"
Clawing herself out of the mud was one thing, but clawing herself out of a mud-filled moat via a seven-meter mesh wall was another.
"I think I know who'll win." Julia panted, fairly certain the nineteen-year-old apprentice gardener had the advantage.
"You're the reason we're doing this. Show us how it's done!"
The words of encouragement gave her a new charge of determination. Julia grabbed ahold of the mesh and began to pull herself out of the waist-deep pool of mud and water, a trail of muck dripping down her legs. She felt and looked like a swamp creature. Big picture? This was fun!
Surely it was just like having an all-over body mask? Julia risked opening her mud-covered mouth to give a short bark of laughter. What did she know about fancy spas and mud masks?
Boarding school hadn't exactly been the stuff of luxury, and being a military wife from a young age? Let's just say the SAS boys weren't lining their coffers with gold pieces. Her foot found purchase on a mesh square as she blindly reached up to grab another handhold. A surge of adrenaline took over as she pulled herself up another meter.
The burst of energy was a reminder that her family's life was on a new track. After two dark years, this was all part of starting over. Thanks to a generous overload in the talent department, and a loving uncle, her children were enjoying an education she could only have dreamed of. And as for her? After military wife had morphed into military widow, she'd found herself on a different life path. One that had landed her in the middle of a mud-filled obstacle course! Matt would've laughed his socks off.
No. Check that. Matt would already have been at the finish line with the kids cheering her on. And laughing his socks off.
A quick squeeze of the eyes and Julia lifted her right knee again and found a foothold, arm reaching for another rung to pull herself even higher, as if the physical exertion would help push away the memories.
It was all right. Everything was going to be all right. She'd slogged through the grief-laden, crying-every-day thing and now it was time for the moving-on part. She had to do it. For herself and for her children. Here in St. Bryar she was slowly putting everything to rights, clearing the fug of heartache to make way for a new future. If only her feet weren't weighed down with fifty kilos of mud! The sensation reminded her of how she'd felt in the days after she'd opened the door to two uniformed officers handing her the official confirmation of her husband's death.
"Doc! I'm almost at the top!"
The quickfire scrabble of bodies jolted Julia back into the moment. There was laughter, shouting and cheering coming from everywhere. A group of villagers lined the stone wall circling the moat of Bryar Hall. Their shouts of encouragement rallied the unrecognizable runners as they scrabbled over the final hurdle before the finish line in front of the three-hundred-year-old hall.
"This should get you an extra fiver, Doc!" Julia peered through the mesh and watched as the assistant gardener flung himself from the other side of the mesh wall belly-flop style back into the moat. The crowd roared with delight.
Fingers crossed, the charity run would bring in some much-needed funds for the St. Bryar Country Hospital. Funds that would hopefully keep the rumors at bay about the heir apparent leaving the clinicand the estateto its own devices when a cash injection was what they needed. She didn't really know what to make of what she'd heard of Lord Oliver. Globetrotting do-gooder or playboy of the whole, entire world?
None of the stories she had heard added up to somethingor someoneshe could picture. For the villagers' sake, she hoped he saw the clinic as part of Bryar Estate's future. Right now, it was the only thing keeping the doors open to the public. Realistically, any funds gathered today would barely make an impactbut she couldn't think about that now. Not with a so-called fun run to finish.
She sucked in a deep breath, wiped the mud from her eyes and looked up. A bit of training might not have gone amiss. Only two more meters to go but she was knackered. Hanging in midair was not the optimal place to stop and have a peaceful break.
Logic was belatedly kicking in. So what if the run had been her idea? Surely, as GP of the clinic, she should have stayed on the sidelines in case anyone was injured?
Her gut? It was saying actions spoke louder than wordsand it was time to get moving.
She flicked her mud-slicked ponytail out of her mouth, put a hand up to grab ahold of another rung and pulled up one step, then another, and another. Just a rung or two more and
"Ouch! Foot! Foot! Foot on hand!" She looked up to see a desert-style military boot lift off her hand as the body attached to it vaulted over the top of the mesh wall, coming round soundly to land directly opposite her on the mesh.
Their bodies made impact with a gooey thwack. Mud-pie suction adhered their chests together then released and joined them together again as they each fought for breath and balance.
"I'm slipping!" Julia's feet struggled to find balance on the footholds. She wasn't winning. He-Man was.
She felt his arm slip round her waist, easily pulling her in tight to the mesh and what felt like a particularly nice man-chest. Muddy but nice. Her eyes lingered for a moment on the wet T-shirt outlining her captor'sor was it savior's?shoulders. A lightning flash of response tugged her body closer into his. It was hardly the mile-high club, but tingles of excitement danced along her skin like an electric current.
"Are you on?"
What? Seventh heaven?
Oh, for goodness' sake. Don't say that.
"I just need to grab"
"Put your feet in one of the squares. I've got you."
You sure do! Julia's bare legs slid along his as her feet finally slipped onto a rung. Mmm I could get used to this. The cheering sounds around them shifted from distinct calls into a fuzzy hum. Was it possible to sustain a concussion from a couple of cracked fingers?
"What about your hand? Are you all right?" His voice kept pulling her back to reality.
I'm fitting a little too perfectly into your chest for me to answer that accurately.
"How's your hand?" he repeated. "Are you holding on? I can wrap my leg around you for support if necessary."
Please don't. That would definitely tip me over the edge. Who was this guy anyway? Tarzan? His hair was a bit shorter, but
"I'm not going to let go of you until you tell me you're all right."
"I'm fine, I"
Having finally dared to look directly at him, Julia felt the air being sucked out of her lungs for a second time. She was face-to-face with a pair of mossy-green eyes beaming out at her from the midst of a mud-slathered face. A face she was pretty certain sported a pair of very nice cheekbones, a broad mouth and, underneath the mud, jet-black hair. A gently furrowed brow.
The fingers of her left hand tightened on the rung. The physical connection reminded her of the ring she no longer wore. She glanced at the green eyes again and felt her knees wobble as her tummy did a heated whirly-hoop twirl. For the first time in a long time she felt an overwhelming urge to kiss. And it was very specific. She wanted to kiss He-Man.
No, she didn't!
Yes, she did.
What was she? Twelve?
Julia blew a controlled breath through her lips as she demanded her brain explain to her what a mature thirty-three-year-old widow with thirteen-year-old twins would do in these circumstances. There wasn't much room to escape the six-foot-something body pressing into hers. She was a doctor, for heaven's sake. She felt bodies all day long. Just not leanly muscled, mud-covered ones hanging five meters above a mud pit pressing a bit too sexy-style into hers. A surprise spree of spicy images sped up her heart rate.
"I'm really sorry if I've hurt you. May I have a look?"
Blimey, his voice was nice. Like hot chocolate. She could do with a cup of that about now. Direct delivery. Oops! Remember to hold on!
Julia felt his fingers tighten his grip on her waist, steadying her. She abruptly pulled her eyes away from his, certain she was blushing. Wait a minute. You're covered in mud. He doesn't have a clue. Thank you, fun run!
"Have I hurt you? Or are you up to making it to the finish line?"
Fine. If you're going to insist upon dealing with the matter at hand.
Julia put her left hand in front of her face. It wasn't bleedingbut two of the fingers were swelling fairly rapidly and had the telltale thudding pump of more to come. Prognosis? Most likely cracked, if not fully broken. Not really what a GP running a country hospital was hoping for.
"Don't worry. I'm a doctor."
"Don't worry. I'm a doctor."
Julia laughed as they spoke simultaneously then shook her hand a bit as if to shake away the incident. Youch. Bad idea.
Hang on a second.
Doctor? She was the only doctor she knew of in St. Bryar. Was he from a neighboring village? Did that mean she'd see him again? Stop it, Julia. Don't go there. Men are not part of the
Get Your Career On Track scheme. Particularly men of the scrumptiousenough-to-eat variety.
"Where do you practice?"
"Where do you practice?"
The laughter came again. Nervously now.
She was the only one to answer this time and saw any warmth in his eyes cool.
Hmm. Had she stolen his job? Were there bad feelings about an 'outsider' coming into the small community? She'd not felt that from anyone else, so the reaction was a bit strange. Whatever it was, she didn't like the vibes coming off him.
"Not to worry." She wriggled out of his hold as best she could. "I'll sort it at the finish line. There wasn't much chance of me getting a red ribbon anyhow."
"Distinguished Service Medal would be more like it. I really am sorry about your hand. Do catch me up if there's anything I can do." A tight smile of apology broke through the man's mud-slathered face. Before a word could escape her lips, he grabbed ahold of the side of the mesh wall and slid down into the moat for the final stretch of the run.
Julia remained static, his words ringing in her ears. Hearing them had stung. Painfully so.
Matt had been given a Distinguished Service Medal posthumously. Julia had been presented with it only a few months ago. As if it would change the fact her husband was dead.
"Better press on, then!" she called, hoping her voice sounded bright. A sharp blade of heat ran from her fingers through to her heart as she grabbed the top line of mesh and swung herself over. Her hand hurt like hell. Suppressed emotion was fueling her to finish the obstacle course now. Matt was gone and being here was the start of a whole new life. She had to remember that. It wasn't just her body's response to the sexy mud monster that was new. The past seven months here at St. Bryar had doled out moment after moment of proof she'd made the right decision. Pursuing her medical career had been a long time coming. Through the years her medical degree had fizzed and itched for action while she'd 'held the fort', as Matt had said each time he'd swung his duffel onto his shoulder and headed out the front door.
She couldn't stop a grin from forming as she took a one-handed, mud-slicked slide down the mesh wall into the history-rich confines of the moat. She was holding the fort, all righta ruddy nice oneand this time it would be different. Even if she had to fund-raise her heart out to show the ever-absent future Lord of the Manor the clinic was worth its weight in gold.
Oliver scanned the crowd, wondering if he could pick out the blue eyes and mud-caked ponytail that had stayed with him since the obstacle course. The impact the womanthe new GP at St. Bryar Clinichad made on him wasn't just physical. It was a hitall-the-senses body-blow. Not something he was used to. Not by a long shot. Years of working as a volunteer surgeon in combat zones had helped him retain his emotional distance from just about everything. Until now.
Since when had there been a new GP throwing fun runs in the moat? Where was Dr. Carney? The sixty-something doctor had been in charge of the estate's small country clinic since Oliver had been a boy. Surely his father wouldn't have replaced him without telling him? Then again, he hadn't imagined his father throwing an assault course, either.
"Lord Oliver! So nice to see you!"
Oliver turned to see a mudencrusted man stretching out a hand.
"Max Fend. From down the village. I used to help my dad." He paused, waiting for a glimmer of recognition. "He sorts out all the Bryar Hall firewood. Done so for yonks." Max filled in the blank then withdrew his hand as he saw Oliver was freshly showered. "Best not muck you up, your lordship"
"Don't be ridiculous, Max." Oliver smiled, hoping it would cover the all too familiar fish-out-of-water feeling he was experiencing. "And, please, it's Oliver." He hated being called Lord Oliver. Served him right to get a big dose of it. He'd not recognized Max, someone he'd seen nearly every day throughout his childhood. It didn't sit well, being so out of the loop.
The one thing he'd always been able to count on at Bryar Hall was nothing changing. His title, the unwritten aristocratic code, the unnecessary kowtowing of locals who, like it or not, had livelihoods that depended upon what he did when he inherited the estate. He'd spent his entire adult life avoiding the confines of the role he'd be handed one day. And here he was, stepping right into the mold history had cast for himan aloof aristocrat.
Kaboom! There goes ten years of plain old
"Dr. MacKenzie sure knows how to throw one heck of a bash."
"Ah, the new GP?"
He received a nod and grin. Little wonder.
Anyone could see the woman was a knockout, even covered in mud.
"So this was her brainchild, was it?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Like a whirlwind, she's been. Changing this, changing that. Sometimes you hardly recognize the place for all of her 'spring cleaning.'" Max held his fingers up in the air quotation-style but, instead of the frown of displeasure that usually accompanied change in St. Bryar, his lips held a broad smile.
"She seems to have bewitched the lot of you." Oliver wasn't sure if he was giving a compliment or castigating the locals for falling under the new GP's spell.
"Oh, that she has, Lord Oliver. That she has. High time someone with a bit of drive and commitment came round and gave the old carpets a fresh beating!"
Call a spade a spade, why don't you?
"Not meaning you, Lord Oliver," Max quickly covered. "I know the Red Cross couldn't get by without you and all the help you must be giving all those poor people in war zones and whatnot."
"Not to worry. No offence taken."
Oliver smiled and gave Max a light clap on the shoulder to settle the matter but the remark niggled.
No. It had cut right through to the heart of the matter. The locals didn't see him as a stayer. And they were right. The last place he saw himself putting down rootsif he were to do such a thing at allwas here at Bryar Hall, the estate that time forgot.
A place bursting with life was the last thing he'd expected to see when his taxi pulled up in front of the house less than an hour ago. The kid in him had barely stopped to think before pulling on a pair of shorts and a scrubby T-shirt so he could join inbe the Oliver he was anywhere but here.
As a child, he'd always dreamed of an escapade in the moat, and here it was handed to him on a not a silver platter, exactly complete with a beautiful woman willing to risk her manicure for a charity combat exercise. Brilliant! Holding her against him had felt as natural as breathing.
Then he'd gone and stomped on it. With combat boots. Talk about a literary analogy! Crushing the very thing you'd been hoping for your entire life.