Healing a Hero

Healing a Hero
Skye Taylor

August 2016 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-708-3

The Camerons of Tide’s Way, Book 4
 
Our PriceUS$15.95
Code978-1-61194-708-3
 
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Philip Cameron is a Marine sniper, a leader of men in the field for most of his career. Although decorated for saving the lives of five fellow Marines when their vehicle hit an IED, he doesn’t feel like a hero. His right hand was crushed and bones in his shoulder and arm were broken. He was shot and nearly bled to death, but after several months and surgeries at Walter Reed Medical Center, he turned down a medical discharge and has been reassigned to a desk job in intelligence at Camp Lejeune, where he faces months of physical and occupational therapy to regain full use of his hand and arm so that he can get back to doing what he does best, leading quick response teams in the field.

After the dissolution of her marriage, Elena Castillo is eager to move on with her life and cement her growing reputation as a top-notch therapist for recovering soldiers. She returns to the east coast with her teenage daughter to step into a very desirable position in the physical therapy department at Camp Lejeune, where her very first patient is Gunnery Sergeant Philip Cameron.

But Elena and Philip have a past that could compromise both of their goals.

Fourteen years earlier, home on compassionate leave, Philip fell in love with Elena, but she was young and he was afraid to declare himself until she had time to discover what she wanted in life. Elena fell hard for her older brother’s best friend, but was never sure Philip felt the same about her, so when his leave was up, they parted.

Then 9/11 happened. And Elena discovered she was pregnant.

War tore them apart.

Can its aftermath bring them back together?

"Turmoil, tenderness, and painful secrets from the past!”—Heather Ashby, author, the Love in the Fleet series

Skye Taylor is a former Peace Corps Volunteer. She writes The Camerons of Tide’s Way series, published by Bell Bridge Books. Visit her at skye-writer.com.

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Excerpt


Prologue

September 2014

Afghanistan

PHILIP CAMERON jerked his eye away from the high-powered scope and scrambled to his feet. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. He shoved his sniper rifle into its case and began hustling back to the rendez­vous point with his spotter hot on his heels. Just as he jumped the last few feet into the roadway, the explosion assaulted his ears.

Bwoom...

The armor-plated vehicle carrying half a dozen Marines lurched into the air. The blast wave hit Philip and his spotter, knocking them to the ground. His pulse jacked into the red, and he shook his head, trying to clear the ringing in his ears.

"Fuck!” Ames spat dust from his mouth.

The MRAP came down on two wheels, teetered, and, almost in slow motion, toppled into a canal of murky brown water.

As an ominous silence fell, Philip shot to his feet and scanned the ter­rain in every direction. No movement. Nothing. Just the rumbling echo of the explosion.

The MRAP settled into the canal upside down. His Marines could be trapped inside. If they were unconscious, they would drown. He bolted toward the canal, half expecting rounds from an AK-47 to start chasing him.

But all remained eerily quiet.

As he plunged into the water, the door cracked open. A dazed Ma­rine almost fell into his arms. Philip dragged him clear of the MRAP and heaved him half way up the embankment. Ames grabbed the guy’s flack vest and hauled him the rest of the way onto the road.

The second MRAP came into sight. Philip dove into the rapidly fill­ing interior of the upended vehicle. He felt around in the dark and found a second Marine, this one unconscious, his head crammed at an impossible angle against the roof. He grabbed fistfuls of clothing and eased the man out.

Two men from the second vehicle scrambled down to relieve Philip of the unconscious Marine, and Philip returned to the murky darkness.

A medevac chopper was on its way. Only one man left to pull to safety. Philip slithered down the embankment one last time.

Then the shooting started.


 

 

Chapter 1

January 2015

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

ELENA CASTILLO swallowed her panic, pushed the door open, and called out the Gunnery Sergeant’s name. Her first day on the job and the last man she ever wanted to see again was her first patient.

The tall, broad-shouldered Marine in a short-sleeved service uni­form got to his feet and started toward her.

He was bigger than she remembered. He seemed to fill the whole room.

The polite greeting she’d practiced stuck in her throat at the stunned look of confusion in Philip’s shockingly blue eyes. An hour hadn’t been nearly long enough to prepare for this moment. A week maybe. Or a month. Or forever.

Her heart fluttered like a trapped bird as she took in the narrow bands of ribbons on his chest and the silver strands threaded through the blond hair at his temples. A wave of vertigo washed over her, and she grabbed the back of the nearest chair to steady herself.

How could she possibly be expected to heal this man who had bro­ken her heart?

Sharp creases bracketed his generous mouth, and the spray of lines at the corners of his eyes were etched deeper. This was her Philip. And yet, he was not. The vertigo intensified as memories of the last time she’d seen him paraded unstoppably through her mind.

He’d brushed tears from her face and promised to stay in touch. Then he’d kissed her like he really meant it. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t kept his word. He hadn’t loved her after all. Those three weeks that had changed her life forever had meant nothing to him.

She stiffened her shoulders and pushed the door wider, hoping he would not notice her shaking fingers. Her knees weakened as he closed the distance separating them, but she couldn’t let him see the effect he had on her. Not now. Not after everything that happened between them that long ago summer or in the years since. Especially not now that he was her patient.

"This way, Sergeant.” Elena gestured with the clipboard in her other hand. She was relieved her voice came out sounding calm and professional, without a hint of the panic clawing at her insides.

Philip glanced down at her with that baffled look still haunting his eyes. "Philip,” he corrected. "It’s been a long time. How have you been?”

Elena lifted her chin. "I’ve been fine, Sergeant Cameron. Now please, come this way.” She turned to lead him toward her section of the therapy department.

"I thought you got your degree and settled on the west coast.” His voice followed her through the maze of equipment in the big therapy and exercise room.

Arriving at an alcove with two chairs separated by a narrow desk, she dropped the clipboard holding Philip’s orders and the doctor’s assess­ment onto the desk and settled into one of the chairs.

Philip had been checking up on her? Her heart stuttered. Or maybe he’d only been filled in on Tide’s Way gossip. How much didhe know about the last fourteen years of her life?

He took the chair across from her. "I heard you got married.”

She hesitated. She was his therapist. He was her patient. He had no need to know anything about her life. But it wasn’t like her current situation was a secret. And Tide’s Way was a small town. It was surpris­ing he didn’t already know.

"I’m divorced. I moved back east a couple of weeks ago.”

His eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I’m sorry. Are you living in Tide’s Way?”

She shook her head. "We’re renting a condo just outside the main gate.” She thumbed through the thick wad of papers on the clipboard as if she hadn’t already read them through several times. She had to get a grip.

"We?” Philip’s perceptive blue gaze sharpened.

Elena took a deep breath. Her heart insisted on doing strange things, and there was no ignoring the fact that his physical closeness still melted her insides even after all this time.

"My daughter and I.”

A slight smile lifted the corners of his generous mouth and a dim­ple punctuated his lean cheek, easing the harsh brackets that had aged his face. "Is she as pretty as her mom?”

Elena had the most insane urge to throw herself into Philip’s arms and tell him everything. But the time for that was long past. Way, way long past.

"Prettier,” she replied. "Now, let’s see that hand, Sergeant.”

The dimple disappeared. "Call me Gunny, if Philip isn’t good enough.” He removed his arm from the sling and rested it on the desk.

Elena swallowed again, squared her shoulders and lifted his dam­aged hand to begin her examination.


 

 

Chapter 2

August 2001

Tide’s Way, North Carolina

WHEN A HAND touched Philip Cameron’s shoulder, he jerked in alarm. His heart thudded as he whipped his head around. His best friend’s kid sister plopped down onto the steps beside him.

"Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you all right?” Elena Castillo smiled at him with contrition on her face.

"Yeah. I’m... fine,” he answered, his fight or flight reaction fad­ing quickly.

She slid her hand across his thigh and laced her fingers into his. Her fingers were slender and warm. He hadn’t held a woman’s hand in a long time, and he’d forgotten the comforting intimacy of it.

"I’m sorry you didn’t get home in time to say goodbye,” she said softly.

"Me too.” Gran would have understood and forgiven him, even if he had a hard time forgiving himself.

"I didn’t know your grandmother very well, but the church was packed so it seems like half of Tide’s Way and a big chunk of Wilmington thought pretty highly of her.” Elena’s fingers tightened around his.

Philip turned away to look out toward the ocean so she wouldn’t see his eyes flood with tears. "Gran was a very special lady.”

Last Thanksgiving, the last time he’d seen her, she’d seemed so strong and healthy. Like she’d live forever. How could cancer have claimed her so quickly? He should have asked for leave earlier. Not that it would have changed the outcome, but he could have hugged her one last time. He could have told her how important she’d always been in his life.

"Wanna go for a walk?” Elena asked, tipping her head to one side. A silky curtain of black hair slid down to cover half her face.

Philip studied the woman sitting next to him on the bottom step of his parent’s home on the beach in Tide’s Way. He was suddenly and pleasantly aware that Elena was no longer the tomboy he remembered. She was a college woman now. All grown up and gorgeous. And offer­ing him a welcome distraction from the heaviness of the last several hours.

"I’d like that. Mind if I change first?”

Elena patted the shoulder of his navy blue tunic and chuckled. She let her fingers trail down over the ribbons and medals decorating his chest. "Since I’ve already been suitably impressed with the decorated Marine, I might as well have the chance to spend some time with the ordinary guy underneath.”

"What makes you think I’m just ordinary without the uniform?”

She flashed him a smile that made his pulse race. "Why don’t you show me, then?”

He got to his feet. "I’ll be right back.”

Five minutes later, she playfully ogled his favorite khaki shorts and the only sport shirt in his closet that still fit, and whistled her approval. They left the murmuring voices of the last few mourners behind on the deck and slogged through sun-warmed sand toward the receding tide.

"Where were you when—” Elena broke off abruptly.

Philip sighed. Plenty of people had asked him that question or some­thing similar. "In the South China Sea.”

She frowned. "It must have taken forever to get home.”

"Twenty-seven hours. Once the Red Cross got things arranged.”

"I’m so sorry for your loss. What a sad trip for you.” She tipped her face up to his, sympathy deepening the chocolate brown of her eyes. Wisps of black hair blew across her face, and he felt an overwhelm­ing urge to reach out and push them back behind her ear.

"When did you grow up?” he blurted.

"I’ve been grown up awhile now. You just haven’t been around to no­tice.” She grinned and the mood lightened. She reached to take his hand again.

He laced his fingers into hers. "My loss.”

She flashed an impish smile and began walking along the water’s edge, towing him with her as she kicked up spray with her bare feet.

"Andy said you were going to USC. Couldn’t find a good school closer to home?”

"It was my dad’s alma mater. I got a nice scholarship package. And they have a great physical therapy curriculum. Besides, it’s nice being somewhere everyone doesn’t think of me as Andy’s kid sister.”

"Well, you are Andy’s kid sister,” he pointed out with a laugh. Memo­ries of her tagging after them in pigtails made him smile.

"Like Jake is your kid brother, but he got to grow up and now he’s not just your kid brother any more. You never had to cope with being the baby of the family, so I don’t expect you to get it.”

Philip shrugged. "You got me there.” Being the oldest carried respon­sibilities he’d always taken seriously. And he’d never questioned either his position in the family or Jake’s. It just was.

She grinned. "So I’m going to school where I can be just me.”

Her dark eyes held mystery and mischief. They were the kind of eyes a man might never get tired of looking into. She was sexy and desira­ble and so not the girl he remembered as Andy’s kid sister.

"Won’t you miss your family?” He struggled to get his mind off ideas it had no business exploring.

"Do you miss yours?” she countered.

"Of course I do.”

"But that didn’t stop you from joining the Marines.”

"Touché.”

They talked about her first-year classes and a little about his last few months aboard the Peleliu as they continued down the beach and darkness began to creep in. There was no moon yet, just a faint hint of pink in the western sky, and already the horizon over the ocean was fading from blue to indigo.

Philip glanced at the darkening sky. "I better get you back before your brother comes looking for you.” Before I forget I’m not home on leave to chase after my best friend’s kid sister.

"My brother left an hour ago. I was hoping I could bum a ride off you.”

So much for putting temptation out of my way....

ELENA WAS STILL trying to decide what to wear when she heard the roar of Philip’s motorcycle pull up out front of her brother’s house. In a flurry of haste, she grabbed her favorite shirt and put it on. She dashed a tad of color to her lips and dragged a brush through her hair, took one last look at herself in the mirror then hurried down the stairs and out the door.

Philip waited for her, still seated astride his motorcycle with his booted foot stretched down to balance the big machine. He grinned at her as she dashed down the walkway toward him.

She was still mentally pinching herself, amazed that he’d really asked her to go for a ride with him and that it wasn’t a dream. Just think­ing about it made her a little breathless.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had her share of boyfriends and dates. She’d gone steady and even lost her virginity to a boy named Brad while she was still in high school. And there had been Eli during most of her freshman year of college. But Brad and Eli were boys. Philip was a man.

And Philip took her breath away. Just looking at him made her chest feel tight with excitement. He wasn’t ordinary at all. Even in civil­ian clothing.

He had the carved muscular body of a warrior, shoulders that made even his ratty old T-shirt look sexy, and an air of confidence that set him apart. The kind of man that drew attention just by being there without doing a thing.

He shoved his visor up and smiled. Laugh lines crinkled the cor­ners of his eyes, adding to the magnetism of his sky blue eyes. "You ready to go?”

She glanced at his jeans and boots, then back to his compelling blue eyes. "Maybe I should have worn something a little more... a little—”

"I like you just the way you are.” His gaze traveled slowly down over the sleeveless shirt she’d knotted below her breasts and the white-cuffed shorts that contrasted so nicely with the tan she’d ac­quired in Southern California. "I promise I’ll drive careful so I won’t scuff up all that perfection. But you do have to wear this.” He leaned back and pulled a second helmet out from under the bungee cords secur­ing it to the rear of the motorcycle’s seat.

Elena took the helmet and tugged it down over her head, shoving wayward wisps of hair inside. Philip reached out to fasten the strap beneath her chin and the touch of his fingers started her heart beating faster. Then he dropped his visor and jerked his head toward the back of the bike. "Hop on.”

Elena climbed on behind him. She’d never ridden on a motorcycle be­fore and wasn’t exactly sure what to hold onto. Before she could decide, Philip grabbed her hands and pulled them around his waist.

"Hold on tight. And don’t be afraid to cuddle up close.” He kicked the engine back to life and pulled away from the curb.

As he turned out of the side street onto Route Seventeen and picked up speed, wind whistled through the helmet and tugged at the hair she’d tried to confine, but she didn’t dare let go to do anything about it. A few minutes later, she didn’t care.

The exhilaration of flying down the road plastered against Philip’s broad warm back was like nothing she’d ever experienced in her life. Just before he leaned into the first curve, he took one hand off the handle­bars briefly to secure her arms where they crossed his flat abs.

"Having fun?” he yelled back at her, his words ripping past her ear and getting lost in the rush of air. Unable to do anything else, she just hugged him tighter as delighted laughter bubbled up inside her.

She would have loved nothing better than to just hang on and feel the power of the man and the machine rumble through her forever. But when Philip finally turned off onto a dirt road in the Holly Shelter Game Land and slowed, she realized she was ready for a break. He brought the bike to a stop next to a babbling brook meandering along­side the road.

Reluctantly, Elena let go of Philip’s waist and eased off the bike.

"This a good place to stop for a picnic?” Philip asked as he shoved the kickstand down and pulled his helmet off.

She nodded as she removed her own helmet and surveyed the lit­tle clearing. When he’d promised lunch, she’d thought of Joel’s. Or Ethan’s Ribs, but this was so much better. She’d have him all to herself without interruptions from everyone else Philip knew in Tide’s way barging in to offer sympathy or say hi.

He lifted the seat she’d been sitting on and pulled out a blanket, then a soft-sided cooler. In minutes, they were settled cross-legged on the blanket, chowing down on chicken sandwiches and homemade cook­ies Elena guessed were left over from the post-funeral gathering at Philip’s parents’ house. Their conversation picked up right where it had left off the evening before.

"What’s it like? Being in the Marines?”

"It suits me.”

"But what’s it really like? You hear all about the few, the proud, Sem­per Fi and all that, but isn’t it hard?”

"Hard is good for building character.” Philip picked up a stone and tossed it into a smooth patch of water. Ripples eddied out to meet the current as Elena waited for him to go on.

When he didn’t, she pushed. "I heard you were in Bosnia or Kosovo or somewhere.”

He shrugged. "Bosnia. And a few other places.”

"And?” She touched Philip’s shoulder, willing him to look at her.

He looked down at the wooly plaid blanket and flicked a bit of cookie off with one finger. Tipping his head up, he glanced at her with his eyebrows lifted and the hint of a dimple creasing one cheek. "And what?”

"What’s war really like?”

The dimple disappeared and his eyes clouded.

Suddenly she wasn’t so eager to hear about that part of his life af­ter all. She’d watched a pushy young demonstrator at USC corner a soldier and boldly ask if the man had ever killed anyone. The look of regret and sorrow sweeping over the young soldier’s face had filled her with disgust at the swaggering picketer’s nastiness. And here she was, behaving no better.

"Forget I asked.” She looked away, not sure how to get the earlier light-hearted mood back.

"Why did you choose to study physical therapy?” he asked, chang­ing the subject.



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