Before you can heal, you must accept that you've been broken...
When an accident leaves her with severe burns, Captain Eden Archer has one goal – to get back to full fitness and her duties at her United Nations job. Eden is not a joiner, but the Ruby Challenge – a four–day hike across Nevada's Ruby Mountains – seems like a great way to boost her rehabilitation, and to prove herself ready and able to move on. She just has to get through the pre–challenge medical.
As a doctor in Accident and Emergency, Dan Barbour is used to dealing with people in pain, people in denial, and people who don't much like doctors, but the prickly servicewoman who dismisses his medical skills awakens an interest that has long been dormant.
The Ruby Mountain hike is as much about the emotional challenge as the physical, and as Eden and Dan find themselves getting closer and closer, they both face enormous obstacles. Eden protects her heart with distance and reserve; Dan keeps everyone at bay by being wholly unavailable. But if they stay true to their old course, they will lose the one chance at a real connection, the one chance to really find someone to love.
A broken–hearted doctor and a reluctant patient should be a match made in heaven, but are Eden and Dan strong enough to find courage outside of their respective battlefields and expose their hearts?
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About the Author
Lifelong romance addict J.C. Harroway lives in New Zealand. Writing feeds her very real obsession with happy endings and the endorphin rush they create.You can follow her at www.jcharroway.com www.facebook.com/jcharroway, www.instagram.com/jcharroway and https://twitter.com/jcharroway
Read an Excerpt
Eden Archer pushed up from the hard plastic chair and paced to the small window in the featureless clinic room that stank of antiseptic. When she'd volunteered for the Ruby Challenge, the endurance and team building event run by Scale, a charity for injured veterans, she hadn't anticipated there'd be a medical. At least not for the volunteers, although her role encompassed both supporter and participant.
Eden tugged the sleeve of her baggy grey sweatshirt lower, until the cuff hung far below her injured hand, flapping uselessly like a sock on a clothesline.
A whoosh of air.
'I'm so sorry to keep you waiting, Ms Archer.'
Eden spun to face the new arrival and her immediate fate. Tall, lean and slightly dishevelled, he shrugged out of his jacket and ran a hand over his rain-darkened hair, disrupting the smattering of misty droplets clinging to the strands.
'I'm Dr Dan Barbour.' He placed his dripping jacket on the back of the comfortable chair on the far side of the desk.
So not all doctors were crusty, dull-eyed authoritarians with sharp tongues and sharper scalpels? This one looked almost human. Shame he was the wrong doctor.
A raging fire of uneasy prickles covered her skin, and she forced herself to fight the urge to flee. Dan stood before her, his large, tanned hand outstretched in greeting. She stood, frozen, and stared at the hand, which dropped to his side as his warm smile slipped.
He cleared his throat, smoothing his tie. 'I'm one of the challenge doctors. I understand you're also a Ruby volunteer?' His eyes crinkled at the corners — kind eyes full of compassion, understanding, patience.
Eden dragged her leaden limbs forward, trawling her manners and years of military training from the deeply ingrained recesses of her psyche. 'Eden Archer.' He grasped her extended hand. Warm, strong, competent fingers.
Eden returned to the plastic chair, her brain working on the dichotomy between the approachable, attractive man before her and her experiences at the hands of others in his profession. Of course, it wasn't him personally she dreaded, but she'd been through enough painful procedures to instil a deep-rooted fear of any medical professional.
'So will the Ruby Challenge be the first time you've volunteered for Scale?'
She nodded, her head heavy and cumbersome.
'Mine too. And I've never been to America, but I can't wait. Did you know that the Ruby Mountains are known as the Alps of Nevada and —'
'I'm sorry. Medicals make me nervous. Could we begin?' She exhaled, her pursed lips frigid.
His thick brows dipped, drawing together at the centre. 'I'm sorry I was a little late — traffic.' He rummaged around at his feet, pulling a thick file from his backpack.
Her file. Sweat broke out under her hairline. Every horrific detail of what she'd been through was in that folder. Her eyes connected with his, pleading. Don't ask me. Don't remind me. Not that she needed the reminder. Thanks to the long-lasting effects of PTSD, she awoke most mornings with the smell of smoke in her nostrils and her heart fighting its way between her ribs.
Dan smiled, thankfully oblivious to her inner turmoil. 'So, a little bit about me — I'm an A&E consultant here in Derby.'
Eden shifted her weight, her buttocks numb in the disagreeable chair. 'Can we expect Dr Chalmers any time soon?' Yes he was attractive, but she didn't need his life history. She ignored the fascinating spangles of his hazel eyes, rebelling at the pull of his ridiculously handsome face and his polite, laid-back charm. The only reason she'd agreed to this medical was, aside from her injuries, she was as fit as flea and hoped it would be, at worst, a brief box-ticking exercise. She needed to get out of here, before the aseptic smell tainted her forever.
Dan paused, his previously impeccable bedside manner slipping a fraction. 'Dr Chalmers is based in Peterborough.' His tone softened a fraction, as if speaking to a child or a cornered animal. Perfectly intuitive of him, as Eden crept closer to a full-blown panic attack.
'I'm your assigned doctor.' He reached for a pen, the click of the nib echoing around the walls of Eden's skull. 'Scale requires everyone, including us volunteers, to undergo a preliminary medical. Today is really just about getting to know each other so I and Dr Chalmers can anticipate any health problems that might arise during the challenge.'
'Yes, I understand.' Eden's back teeth ground together until her enamel creaked. 'But I requested Dr Chalmers, specifically.' Surely Scale employed someone competent enough to team up a female participant and a female doctor?
His relaxed posture didn't falter, his face an irritating picture of calm, and his intelligent eyes thoroughly assessing. She may as well be stripped naked.
She tensed her muscles, suppressing a shudder. Her eyes flicked to the door. To escape.
'Shall we get the basics over with?' He moved to the examination couch and lifted the cuff from the blood pressure machine mounted to the wall. 'If you could sit here, we'll get some measurements and I'll have a quick listen to your heart and lungs.'
His wide reassuring smile couldn't prevent icy fingers of dread skittering down her spine. Despite the boyish smattering of freckles across his straight nose and the distinguished sprinkle of grey at his temples, she'd had enough of hospitals to last a lifetime. Sadly, sexy Dr Dan's very profession left her shivering and scoping the nearest exit.
But she was far from a coward. Refused to be. But why did he have to be young and attractive? It was easier to admit fear to the old, jowly doctors. Approaching the examination couch as if it housed the vicious blade of a guillotine, she perched on the very edge.
Up close, the freckles on his nose coalesced, blending into the warm gold of his weathered face. He spent a lot of time outdoors, despite his occupation. His shirt was expensive, crisply pressed, the cuffs fastened with cufflinks. She breathed deeply, focused on the fine, downy hairs of his earlobe as leaned across her, reaching for the blood pressure cuff and pulling it around to the left side of her body.
A scrumptious waft of clean male and freshly laundered cotton surrounded him. Not fair.
'Can you roll your sleeve up, please?' His kind, hypnotic eyes lanced her.
Her voice croaked out. 'Can you use this arm?' Eden held out her right arm.
'Of course.' Dan shifted the cuff to her right side before pushing up the sleeve of her too big sweatshirt.
A clock ticked in her brain, every second jarring her overwrought senses with rhythmic predictability. This would soon be over. She'd be out of here any minute now. Even the allure of Dr Hot here couldn't compensate for this torture.
Clearly not much fazed Dan. With efficiency of movement, he fastened the cuff around her upper arm and pressed the digital machine into action. Eden tolerated his gentle ministrations, his outdoorsy scent buffeting her senses, dragging her back from the edge of a dark chasm.
The scent of the elements clung to him. Fresh, earthy and covering his own unique undertones. Eden forced her breathing to slow, savouring the delicious distraction.
The graze of his warm fingers on her arm scalded her — pleasure and aversion rolled into one. His touch fit outside of the designated categories in her mind. Gentle enough to be that of a lover, although it had been a while since she'd experienced that, but clinical, methodical, therapeutic. Of all the people to find attractive ...
The blood pressure cuff inflated, squeezing her arm until her pulse thrummed in her fingertips and a bite of pain snaked into her armpit. Within seconds it was over, an electronic beep sounding the arrival of her vital measurements.
Every muscle in her body relaxed. She needed to pull herself together. It was just a few basic measurements, not invasive surgery.
'That's great. Now, I just need to listen to your heart and lungs. Could you remove your sweater, please?' Dan stepped away, drawing the privacy curtains around the examination couch until the edges brushed either side of Eden's jelly-like thighs.
'No.' The word blasted free. Her face flamed but she stiffened, slipping from the edge of the couch, her feet spread a combative distance apart.
He was taller than her, but she'd never allowed that to intimidate her in the past. Raised by men. Working in a man's world. His masculine bulk nothing more than an obstacle to be surmounted. Regardless of how appealing the package.
He seemed unruffled by her reticence as he rummaged in his backpack and withdrew a stethoscope. 'Okay. I can listen through the shirt.' He smiled — a reassuring tilt of his mouth. No censure. No judgement. 'Would you prefer I call in a chaperone? I'm sure one of the nurses could pop in. This won't take long.'
'No.' The whisper-thin veil of civility she'd maintained tore, slipping away. 'I ... I'd prefer Dr Chalmers.' She fought the curl of her fingers, which twitched towards making fists.
Dan looped his stethoscope around his neck, face neutral. 'That's fine. But you'll have to travel to Peterborough.'
Tiny trembles zapped through her muscles like mini electric shocks. What now? The medical was mandatory. She'd wasted his time.
'The reason I was assigned your care is that you and I both live in Derbyshire. I'm closer. But if you want a female doctor, that's fine —'
Mouth dry, Eden forced her voice to emerge strong. Clear. 'I do.' Her body pulsed with heat, her heart hammering. If he placed the earpieces of his stethoscope into his ears, he'd probably hear its pounding, erratic rhythm from across the room. 'That's why I requested one.'
She needed to get out of here. She glanced at her medical file still sitting unopened on the wooden desk. Her fingertips tingled with the urge to snatch it up, to flee this room and the unexpected Dr Dan with all her sordid little secrets intact.
As if he'd read her thoughts, he said, 'I'll pass your file along to Dr Chalmers and she'll contact you to set up another appointment.' Still enigmatically watchful, his eyes skittered over her heated face.
Eden nodded, her head swimming with lack of oxygen. Breathe. Breathe. 'I — I'm sorry.' She cleared her throat, moderating the high pitch of her voice. 'It's nothing personal.' At last she found her manners. He was just doing his job. 'I'm ...' Why was it so hard to explain her reluctance to expose her injuries to this man? He was a doctor, like any other. Her face burned and she stared at the floor. 'I didn't know I'd have to strip off today. I'm not ... prepared. Sorry.' She was so messed up. He'd see that now. Next would come the pity.
His lips curved, the crinkles around his eyes deepening. 'That's fine, Ms Archer.'
Under normal circumstances, she'd acknowledge the dazzle of his crooked smile or the way it transformed his eyes lighting them from within. But normal was a thing of her past. And she'd come here today with a set of expectations, ones that didn't include stripping off for a male doctor, or being in any way attracted to him.
Eden tugged at her coat with her right hand, her refusal to use her injured hand and risk exposure increasing her clumsiness. She bit the inside of her cheek, inwardly cursing a body that would no longer do her bidding, no matter the depth of her determination.
'Here, let me help you.' Once more up close, he held open the coat, his benign smile and genteel thoughtfulness the final insult to her already bruised and battered psyche.
'I can do it.' She snatched the garment from him and bent to scoop up the strap of her bag. Releasing a prolonged sigh that sank as low as the slump of her shoulders and the depth of her well of shame, she slid her gaze to his. 'I'm sorry.' She didn't sound sorry. But she hated feeling helpless.
She couldn't need help from chivalrous, handsome doctors. She couldn't need help, full stop. And every time she accepted it, another piece of her crumbled. Soon there'd be nothing of the old Eden left.
He backed away, his own rugged and capable hands raised in supplication. 'Of course.' At the desk he collected his belongings, placing them inside his backpack with discreet, downcast eyes, affording Eden the privacy to shrug her coat and bag up onto her shoulder and complete the ungainly grapple of forcing a stiff arm and useless hand into a sleeve.
At the door, she hesitated. Yes, she'd learned to dread contact with the medical profession, dreaded hospitals, dreaded any reminder she was less than whole. Damaged. But Dan didn't deserve her rudeness and he was, after all, volunteering his time to Scale so people like her could ... heal? Her shoulders tensed, her scalp crawling.
'I'm sorry.' How many times had she said these words? Swallowing, she injected her tone with as much regret as she could muster. 'I'm sorry I wasted your time today. I made it clear on my application form I wanted a female doctor. I apologise if you've been inconvenienced.' Don't go getting warm and fuzzy now, Archer ...
He lifted one shoulder, his warm stare pricking her crawling skin. Seeing right through her? 'No problem. See you at training, Saturday.'
She nodded, a brisk jut of her chin as she swallowed back the bitter taste of ... oh, too many emotions to fathom. Spinning on her heel, she left the clinic, still cloaked in the putrid stench of vulnerability.
After a fourteen-hour day, Dan shuffled over the threshold of his cold, dark house, his feet leaden. A double shift in A&E and a dash across town in between to meet the prickly Ms Archer had drained every ounce of his considerable energy, leaving him hollowed out and in desperate need of food that didn't originate in the hospital canteen and taste like cardboard and boiled cabbage.
He flicked on the lights in the hall, dropped his backpack on the floor and heeled off his shoes. His toes recoiled, blood thrumming into digits too long confined. A glass of wine and a home-cooked meal would go a long way to restoring his equilibrium, but a quick shower and a microwave dinner would have to suffice. Unless his sister, Amelia, had restocked his freezer with her famous lasagne. His gnawing insides growled.
After washing away the day, he made his way to the kitchen, switching on lights as he passed, the simple act of illuminating his home so depressing he almost lost his appetite completely. All those times he'd taken for granted the mundane pleasure of lights guiding him home. The welcome of a glow at the window. Someone waiting inside. He could set timer switches, of course, but it wouldn't be the same.
She'd still be gone.
After a meal for one that tasted only marginally better than the food at the hospital canteen, Dan settled in front of the TV with his laptop to catch up on emails. Ignoring the bills and the flyers advertising various medical conferences around the country, he opened the latest news from Scale.
Renewed energy pulsed trough his bloodstream. Scale, an inspiring nonprofit organisation, took injured veterans on physical challenge adventures as part of their rehabilitation, and he'd signed up as a volunteer. Not that he didn't have enough commitments. But nights like tonight, when even his own home made him twitchy and ready to crawl out of his skin, seemed endless. Volunteering, like his day job, made him feel useful, gave him purpose, kept him busy.
Dan glanced at the banner on the email, his chest lightening. The trip to America with fourteen injured servicemen and women represented the highlight of his calendar, which was conspicuously devoid of anything personal. He'd already met half of the group, whose injuries ranged from amputations to PTSD, and as team medic he'd be responsible for their care during both the training weekends to come and the Ruby Challenge itself.
He stretched out his aching legs, already smelling the crisp earthy air and feeling the sun warming his back. A lifelong passion for the great outdoors often found him hillwalking the majestic Derbyshire Dales on his days away from the hospital. The inspiring scenery and sense of accomplishment recharged his batteries for what was often a demanding and draining job.
Not that he didn't love his work. The job of an A&E consultant was fast paced and no two days were ever the same. Take today, for example.
Dan sighed, his fingers stalling on the keyboard. What should have been a routine check-up on a fit and healthy young woman had turned into an intriguing and bewildering lesson in humility.
Excerpted from "Exposed"
Copyright © 2017 JC Harroway.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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