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What was he doing here?
Dr Amelia Stockton's head spun at the sight of the uniformed naval officer crossing the sick bay of the USS Benjamin Franklin.
No way was Dr Cole Stanley really walking towards her.
And if that was Cole with the senior medical officer, well, she couldn't consider what his presence on board her ship implied, what that would mean to her hard-won peace of mind.
"Wow, Dr Stockton," Tracy whispered under her breath, nudging Amelia's arm. "Is that the new ship's surgeon? If so, sign me up for an elective procedure stat. Yum."
Amelia didn't turn to look at the petite blonde nurse, neither did she answer. She couldn't even if she wanted to. Along with her spinning head, now her throat had swelled shut.
Cole really was on board her ship.
She'd known the aircraft carrier's new surgeon would be arriving today. But Dr Evans's replacement was supposed to be Dr Gerald Lewis, not Cole Stanley, military surgeon and heartbreaker extraordinaire. Just because she hadn't seen him for two years, it didn't mean she hadn't instantly recognized that confident swagger, those piercing blue eyes, the crazy tune of her heart that had only ever played for him.
What was he doing here and why were her lungs crying for air?
From the overwhelming need to hit him for how he'd walked out on her and her family. That's why her head spun, her throat swelled, and she couldn't breathe. Her body functions hadn't gone haywire because of Cole himself, just what he'd done. Really.
Certainly, her fluttery heart had nothing to do with the last time she'd seen him, the things they'd said, done. Dear sweet heavens above, the last time she'd set eyes on Cole he'd kissed her until her lungs had felt just like they did this very moment.
"Dr Stanley, welcome aboard, sir." A corpsman saluted Cole, as did the physician's assistant, acknowledging Cole's higher military rank. "It's good to see you again."
"You, too, Richard. It's been a while."
He spoke with that voice. The one that haunted her sleep, her dreams. Nightmares, not dreams.
He shook both men's hands, said something about the naval hospital he and Richard had worked at together, but Amelia's ears roared, blocking out the details.
Cole. Was. On. Her. Ship.
Oblivious to the turmoil he was creating in Amelia's safe, tight-knit world, in her mind and entire bodyjust as he'd always donehe acknowledged Tracy.
The nurse practically fell over herself batting her lashes and blushing up a storm. Puh-leeze. Tracy could do so much better. Any woman could. Sure, Cole came in an eye-catching packageand how!but so did most poisonous snakes.
Cole Stanley was a low-down, belly-crawling snake of the worst kind. Yes, Amelia had once thought he'd hung the moon and walked on water, but her eyes had been opened.
Lastly, he turned to her, acknowledging her salute. He hesitated only the slightest of seconds, making her wonder if perhaps she'd been wrong, if perhaps he did know how his being there affected her, that perhaps he was equally as affected by seeing her after all this time.
"Dr Stockton." His gaze sought hers, searching, but for what she wasn't sure. Did he expect her to welcome him? Not after what he'd done to her, to her sister, surely?
Still, her heart sped up and stalled all at once when their gazes tangled for the first time in two years. Memories from the past assailed her. Memories of her and Cole, laughing, working, devouring pizza while he quizzed her, caring for patients together during residency. Memories of Clara, Cole and herself spending hour after hour together back during Cole and her sister's last year at medical school. They'd been two years ahead of her.
Amelia sank her teeth into the soft flesh of her lower lip, welcoming the pain, the metallic tang of blood.
A tentative smile cut dimples into Cole's cheeks. "It's been a while since our paths have crossed, too."
Not long enough. Not nearly long enough. Oh, Cole, what are you doing here?
His eyes were still bluer than the sea. His light brown hair still streaked with gold, as if the sun hadn't been able to resist reaching out and touching him. Clara had called him Dr Delicious. Amelia and Josie had agreed when they'd met Cole. After all was said and done, though, they'd dubbed him Dr Disastrous.
Cole was here. On board her ship. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Tainting her first real deployment.
Oh, yeah, Dr Disastrous fit and she suspected she was headed for the biggest disaster of her life. The Titanic of disasters. Especially since she wavered between wanting to punch his handsome face and she wasn't sure what the other emotion battling for pole position was, but either way she didn't like the uneasy fluttering in her chest.
"You know him?" Tracy asked from beside her, nudging her again, much to Cole's obvious amusement. "You never said anything about knowing Dr Evans's replacement."
Taking a deep breath and reminding herself she was a lieutenant in the United States Navy, the middle daughter of Admiral John Stockton and a force to be reckoned with under any set of circumstances, Amelia shifted her gaze to her nurse.
"Dr Stanley graduated from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences with my oldest sister, Clara, two years ahead of me." She kept her face stoic, kept her tone even, emotionless. "With the last names so close, they were constantly thrown together and became acquainted. I met him during that time."
"Oh," Tracy said, her curious gaze going back and forth between them. "I see. Thrown together. Acquainted."
Cole's eyes flashed, hinting at the fire that burned beneath the surface, at the fact he'd known he'd be seeing her even if she hadn't known of his arrival.
"How is Clara?"
Despite the tight rein she always held on her emotions, Amelia's eyes narrowed. How could he ask that question? She wanted to scream, wanted to rip out his hair and kick
him in the solar plexus. He'd been her big brother, her friend, her biggest crush, her sister's fiance.
And then he'd walked away.
"She's fine." Not really, but I'd never let you know how you hurt her, how you hurt me! Oh, God, why was breathing so difficult? "She's serving as a flight surgeon with an air wing unit in the Middle East and has been commissioned there for about three months."
He studied her much as she scanned a blood smear beneath her microscope, looking at each individual cell, searching for anything outside the norm. "I'd heard that."
Did you hear how she went a little crazy after you left her? How she volunteered for the most dangerous assignments? How I've wondered if I played a role in my sister's unhappiness and have had to live with that guilt?
"Josie and Robert? Are they well?"
As if he really cared how her vivacious younger sister and daredevil brother were. Oh, please. Why was he making the conversation between them so personal when the crew watched? Did he know that if they were alone she'd give him a piece of her mind? That she'd tell him where he could go and she'd happily buy him a one-way ticket? Her family had taken him in as one of their own and all he'd left them with was fragmented relationships and hearts.
She despised Cole for what he'd done to her family.
Except that he was her superior officer and as such she had to pay him respect, whether she felt one iota of it or not.
Life could be so unfair.
"Robert is serving on board the USS George Washington as the senior medical officer and Josie is doing field training exercises at a combat support hospital. She earned her nursing degree. They're both fine. They're Stocktons."
His smile deepened at her last comment. It was a given all four Stockton children would succeed in life and medicine. Even when jerks like Cole came along and pulled the rug out from under their feet.
After her experience with Cole, Amelia had vowed never to give her heart to any man. Never did she want to feel the pain her devastated sister still hadn't recovered from.
Just look at how much she had been hurt, too, and she had simply had a hero-worship crush on Cole, not been in love with him. Thank goodness.
When a Stockton gave their heart, they gave it forever.
"I'm glad to hear they're doing well," Cole said, pulling Amelia back to the present, moving closer to where she and Tracy stood.
Although she couldn't possibly really smell him, she'd swear her nostrils filled with the musky scent of his skin, a scent once so familiar to her that, again, she was swamped by unwanted memories of when he'd starred in a daily role in her life.
"Your parents must be proud."
Amelia didn't answer. All four Stockton children had been raised to never show weakness to the enemy. Clara had put on a good front when Cole had dumped her, but privately her overachieving sister hadn't been able to "Suck it up and move on," as their father advised in any given situation. If she had, she'd have moved on, dated. Clara hadn't. There'd been no one since Cole. Amelia's heart ached at the enormity of her sister's pain, and her role in it. At her own pain. All at the mercy of this man's careless hand.
The others in the sick ward eyed them as if observing a ping-pong match. Cole's gaze bore into Amelia, waiting, but for what she didn't have a clue. For her to melt under his intense blue laser vision? For her to tense to the point she cracked into a thousand pieces?
Ha, he could wait until hell froze over.
She'd had enough.
"We've patients to see," she reminded the crew. "A full schedule this morning." She turned to the corpsman who eyed Cole with a bit of hero-worship. She recalled the look well. "Richard, since you and Dr Stanley are acquainted, why don't you show him the surgery suite? I'm sure it's similar to ones he's worked from in the past, but he'll want to familiarize himself with his new workstation and our equipment before getting started in the morning."
Cole's gaze lingered on her, but Amelia refused to meet his eyes again. Later, no doubt, they'd talk. Not that she wanted to talk to him. But how would they avoid doing so when they'd be forced to work together for the length of their deployment?
How would she deal with him at such close quarters? Although there were five thousand crew members aboard the aircraft carrier when the air wing was on board, she wouldn't be able to keep from interacting with Cole. Not in the medical ward.
What were the odds of being stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the last man on earth she'd ever wanted to see again?
And yet, even with that thought, she couldn't deny that she'd always known their paths would cross again.
How could it not when they'd left so much unfinished business between them?
* * *Amelia Stockton in the flesh shamed Cole's memory of John Stockton's middle daughter. How had he forgotten how her melted-chocolate eyes sparkled with intelligence? How her high cheekbones accented her heart-shaped face? How her dark hair beckoned his fingers to free the upswept locks? How just being near her turned his insides outward?
No, he hadn't forgotten that. Neither had he forgotten how fiercely loyal the Stockton siblings were, how they'd been trained to be soldier tough from the time they'd worn diapers. Although Amelia's father had been civil when their paths had crossed recently, Cole suspected the majority of the Stocktons despised him.
All but Clara.
Then again, his former fiancee was the only one who knew the truth of what had transpired between them.
Cole stepped into the privacy of the surgical suite just off the sick ward, wondering if he'd really known what he was getting himself into when he'd finagled the assignment on board the USS Benjamin Franklin. He'd thought he had, but now, after seeing Amelia again, he had to wonder at his logic. Had he made a horrible miscalculation?
"I thought that went surprisingly well, considering."
He glanced at the corpsman serving as his guide. "Considering?"
Had word already gotten out? The military community, especially the military medical community, was small, but surely his and Clara's wedding fiasco hadn't been such a hot topic that two years later folks were still talking about it?
"Considering you obviously upset Dr Stockton in a former life."
"Obviously," Cole muttered, knowing exactly what he'd done that had upset the lovely Dr Stockton and wishing
circumstances had been different, that their relationship hadn't taken the disastrous course it had. Tagging along with him and Clara, frequently working beside him during residency, she'd been like the kid sister he'd never had. Only, his feelings for his fiancee's little sister had developed into something much more intense than those of a big brother.
Something so intense that no matter how he'd tried fighting those feelings, how long he'd denied them, he'd had to face facts. He had been engaged to the wrong Stockton daughter. He'd wanted Amelia. Deep down, all-consuming, wanted her with a passion he'd never felt before or since.
"She's usually even-keeled," Richard continued, looking intrigued. He crossed his arms, leaning against the bulkhead. "I've never seen her lose her cool, or even come close as she almost did when you walked into the sick bay. Honestly, I didn't think anyone could rattle her infamous Stockton stoicism. What happened?"
"Between Dr Stockton and I? Nothing." Cole took in his shipmate's "yeah, right" expression and clarified. Better to get his version of the truth out before the rumor mill started something nasty that would add fire to Amelia's hatred toward him.
"I was engaged to her older sister. It didn't work out."
Didn't work out. Such an understatement, but what had happened between Clara and himself wasn't his secret to tell. He'd promised he'd never reveal that she'd been the one to call off their wedding. Yes, only because she'd beaten him to it, but she had spoken up before he had. She'd also sworn him to secrecy. Cole hadn't told a soul. Not even Amelia when he'd gone to her that night, desperately wanting to explain, to beg her to forgive him.
"You were engaged to Clara Stockton?" Richard whistled, looking impressed. "How come I never knew that?"
"I met her, when I was inland. She was stationed nearby and joined several of us for drinks." He whistled again. "She's a looker."
"Yes," he agreed. Clara was a beautiful woman. On the day they'd met, she'd charmed him with her smile, her intelligence, her inherent toughness that was so in contradiction of her beauty-queen looks. She'd had a passion for medicine that matched his own and had professed to want the same things out of life. For the first time, he'd connectedreally connectedwith a woman.
For the first time, he'd felt a part of a family.
A wonderful, admirable family that would take on the world to protect each other.
Or to keep from disappointing each other.