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A Soldier’s Return by RaeAnne Thayne (1)

Some days, a girl reached a point where her best course of action was to run away from her problems.

Melissa Fielding hung up the phone after yet another unproductive discussion with her frustrating ex-husband, drew in a deep, cleansing breath, then threw on her favorite pair of jogging shoes.

Yes, she had a million things to do. The laundry basket spilled over with clothes, she had bills to pay, dirty dishes filled her sink, and she was scheduled to go into the doctor’s office where she worked in less than two hours.

None of that mattered right now. She had too much energy seething through her, wave after wave like the sea pounding Cannon Beach during a storm.

Even Brambleberry House, the huge, rambling Victorian where she and her daughter lived in the first-floor apartment, seemed too small right now.

She needed a little good, hard exercise to work some of it off or she would be a stressed, angry mess at work.

She and Cody had been divorced for three years, separated four, but he could still make her more frustrated than anybody else on earth. Fortunately, their seven-year-old daughter, Skye, was at school, so she didn’t have to witness her parents arguing yet again.

She yanked open her apartment door to head for the outside door when it opened from the other side. Rosa Galvez, her de facto landlady who ran the three-unit building for her aunt and a friend, walked inside, arms loaded with groceries.

Her friend took one look at Melissa’s face and frowned. “Uh-oh. Bad morning?” Rosa asked, her lovely features twisted with concern.

Now that she was off the phone, the heat of Melissa’s anger cooled a degree or two, but she could still feel the restless energy spitting and hissing through her like a downed power line.

“You know how it goes. Five minutes on the phone with my ex and I either have to punch something, spend an hour doing yoga or go for a hard run on the beach. I don’t have a free hour and punching something would be counterproductive, so a good run is the winner.” Melissa took two bags of groceries from Rosa and led the way up the stairs to the other woman’s third-floor apartment.

“Run an extra mile or two for me, would you?” Rosa asked.

“Sure thing.”

“What does he want this time?”

She sighed. “It’s a long story.” She didn’t want to complain to her friend about Cody. It made her sound bitter and small, and she wasn’t, only frustrated at all the broken promises and endless disappointments.

Guilt, an old, unwelcome companion, poked her on the shoulder. Her daughter loved her father despite his failings. Skye couldn’t see what Melissa did—that even though Skye was only seven, there was a chance she was more mature than her fun-loving, thrill-chasing father.

She ignored the guilt, reminding herself once more there was nothing she could do about her past mistakes but continue trying to make the best of things for her child’s sake.

Rosa opened the door to her wide, window-filled apartment, and Melissa wasn’t surprised to find Rosa’s much-loved dog, an Irish setter named Fiona, waiting just inside.

“Can I take Fiona on my run?” she asked impulsively, after setting the groceries in the kitchen.

“That would be great!” Rosa exclaimed. “We were going to go on a walk as soon as I put the groceries away, but she would love a run much more. Thank you! Her leash is there on the hook.”

At the word leash, Fiona loped to the door and did a little circular dance of joy that made more of Melissa’s bad mood seep away.

“Let’s do this, sweetheart,” she said, grabbing the leash from its place by the door and hooking it to Fiona’s shamrock-green collar.

“Thank you for this. Have fun.” Rosa opened the door for them, and the strong dog just about pulled Melissa toward the stairs. She waved at her friend, then she and the dog hurried outside.

The April morning was one of those rare and precious days along the Oregon Coast when Mother Nature decided it was finally time to get serious about spring. Sunlight gleamed on the water and all the colors seemed saturated and bright from the rains of the preceding few days.

The well-tended gardens of Brambleberry House were overflowing with sweet-smelling flowers—cherry blossoms, magnolia, camellias. It was sheer delight. She inhaled the heavenly aroma, enjoying the undernote of sea and sand and other smells that were inexorable scent-memories of her childhood.

Fiona pulled at the leash, forcing Melissa to pick up her pace. Yes. A good run was exactly the prescription she was writing herself.

As she headed down the path toward the gate that led to the water, she spotted Sonia, the third tenant of Brambleberry House, working in a bed of lavender that hadn’t yet burst into bloom.

Sonia was an interesting creature. She wasn’t rude, exactly, she simply kept to herself and had done so for the seven months Melissa had lived downstairs from her.

Melissa always felt so guilty when she watched the other woman make her painstaking way up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, often pausing to rest on the landing. She didn’t know the nature of Sonia’s health issues, but she obviously struggled with something. She walked with a limp, and Rosa had told Melissa once that the other woman had vision issues that precluded driving.

Right after moving in, Melissa had offered to switch apartments with her so Sonia wouldn’t have to make the climb, but her offer had been refused.

“I need...the exercise,” Sonia had said in her halting, odd cadence. “Going upstairs is good...physical therapy...for me.”

Melissa had to admire someone willing to push herself out of her comfort zone, sustained only by the hope that she would grow from the experience.

That was a good life lesson for her. She wasted entirely too much energy dwelling on the painful reality that life hadn’t turned out exactly as she planned, that some of her dreams were destined to disappointment.

Like Sonia, maybe it was time she stopped being cranky about things she couldn’t control and took any chance that came along to force herself to stretch outside her comfort zone. She needed to learn how to make the best of things, to simply enjoy a gorgeous April day.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

“Lovely,” Sonia said with her somewhat lopsided smile. “Hello...Melissa. Hello...Fiona.”

She scratched the dog under her chin and was rewarded with one of Fi’s doggie grins.

While the Irish setter technically lived with Rosa, the cheerful dog seemed to consider all the occupants of Brambleberry House her particular pack. That shared pet care worked out well for Melissa. Her daughter had been begging for a dog since before the divorce. Skye had been in heaven when they’d moved into Brambleberry House and discovered Rosa had a dog she was more than willing to share. This way, they got the benefits of having a dog without the onus of being responsible for one all the time.

That was yet another thing she had to be grateful for on this beautiful spring day. She had been so blessed to find an open apartment in Brambleberry House when she and Skye returned to Cannon Beach after all those years of wandering. It was almost a little miracle, since the previous tenant had only moved out to get married the week before Melissa returned to her hometown and started looking for a place.

She didn’t know if it was fate or kismet or luck or simply somebody watching out for them. She only knew that she and Skye had finally found a place to throw down roots.

She ran hard, accompanied by the sun on her face, the low murmur of the waves, the crunch of sand under her running shoes. All of it helped calm her.

By the time she and Fiona made it the mile and a half to the end of the beach and she’d turned around to head back, the rest of her frustration had abated, and she focused instead on the endorphins from the run and the joy of living in this beautiful place.

She paused for a moment to catch her breath, looking out at the rock formations offshore, the towering haystacks that so defined this part of the Oregon Coast, then the craggy green mountains to the east.

It was so good to be home. She had friends here, connections. Her dad was buried not far from here. Her mom and stepfather were here most of the time, though they had just bought an RV and were spending a few months traveling around the country.

She would have thought being a military wife to Melissa’s dad would have cured her mother’s wanderlust, but apparently not. They would be back soon.

Melissa didn’t envy them. After moving to a new base every few years during her childhood and then following Cody around from continent to continent, she loved being in one place. This place. She had missed it more than she even realized, until she finally decided to bring Skye here.

She should have done it years ago instead of trying so hard to stay close to her ex-husband for Skye’s sake. She had enjoyed living on Oahu, his home training location, but the cost of living had been prohibitive. Most of her salary as a nurse had gone to housing and the rest to food.

When he decided to move to South America on a whim, she had finally thrown up her hands and opted not to follow him. Instead, she had packed up her daughter for one last move and come home to Cannon Beach.

She started her run again, not wanting to spend more time than she already had that morning dwelling on her mistakes.

It made her sad, wondering if she should have tried harder to make things work, even though she was fully aware both of them had left the marriage long before they finally divorced.

Now wasn’t the time to obsess about her failures or the loneliness that kept her up at night.

He had gotten married again. That was what he called to tell her earlier. It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision and they’d gone to St. Croix for their honeymoon, which had been beautiful but expensive. He’d spent so much on the honeymoon, in fact, that he couldn’t make that month’s child support payment, but he would make it up to her.

He was coming back to Oregon to stay this time, and was willing to finally step up and be the dad he should have been all along. She’d been hearing that story or versions of it for fifteen years. She hoped it would happen, she really did.

Cody wasn’t a bad man. She wouldn’t have loved him all those years and followed him from country to country to support his dreams if he were. But with the birth of their child, her priorities had changed, while she was afraid his never would.

Enough about Cody. She was genuinely happy for her ex, even if hearing about his new marriage did make her wish she had someone special in her own life.

She sighed again and gripped Fiona’s leash. “Come on, Fi. Let’s go home.”

An odd wind danced across the sand, warmer than the air around it. She almost thought she could hear laughter rippling around her, though she was virtually alone on the beach.

She was hearing things again. Once in a while at the house, she could swear she heard a woman’s laugh when no one was there, and a few times she had smelled roses on the stairwell, for no apparent reason.

Maybe the ghost of Brambleberry House had been in the mood for a run today, too. The thought made her smile and she continued heading home.

Few people were out on the beach on this off-season morning, but she did happen to catch sight of a guy running toward her from the opposite direction. He was too far away for her to really see clearly, but she had the random impression of lean strength and fluid grace.

Ridiculous, she told herself. How could she know that from two hundred yards away?

She continued running, intent now only on finishing so she could go into work.

Fiona trotted along beside her in the same rhythm they had worked out through countless runs like this together. She was aware of the other runner coming closer. He had a dog, too, a small black one who also looked familiar.

They were only fifty feet apart when Fiona, for no apparent reason, suddenly veered in front of Melissa, then stopped stock-still.

With no time to change course or put on the brakes, Melissa toppled over the eighty-pound dog and went flying across the sand. She shoved her hands out to catch her fall instinctively. Her right arm hit sand and she felt a jolt in her shoulder from the impact, but the left one must have made contact with a rock buried beneath the sand, causing a wrenching pain to shoot from her wrist up her arm.

This day just kept getting better and better.

She gasped and flopped over onto her back, cradling the injured wrist as a haze of pain clouded her vision.

Fiona nosed her side as if in apology, and Melissa bit back her instinctive scold. What on earth had gotten into Fiona? They had run together dozens of times. The Irish setter was usually graceful, beautifully trained, and never cut across her path like that.

For about ten seconds, it was all she could do not to writhe around on the ground and howl. She was trying not to cry when she gradually became aware she wasn’t alone.

“Are you okay?” a deep male voice asked.

She was covered in sand, grabbing her wrist and whimpering like a baby seal that had lost its mama. Did she look okay?

“I’m fine,” she lied. “Just a little spill.”

She looked up—way, way up—and somehow wasn’t surprised to find the other runner she had spotted a few moments earlier.

Her instincts were right. He was great-looking. She had an impression of dark hair and concerned blue eyes that looked familiar. He wore running shorts and a formfitting performance shirt that molded to powerfully defined muscles.

She swallowed and managed to sit up. What kind of weird karma was this? She had just wished for a man in her life, and suddenly a gorgeous one seemed to pop up out of nowhere.

Surely it had to be a coincidence.

Anyway, she might like the idea of a man in her life, but she wasn’t at all prepared for the reality of it—especially not a dark-haired, blue-eyed runner who still somehow managed to smell delicious.

He also had a little dog on a leash, a small black schnauzer who was sniffing Fiona like they were old friends.

“Can I give you a hand?”

“Um. Sure.”

Still cradling her injured wrist, she reached out with her right hand, and he grasped it firmly and tugged her to her feet. For one odd moment, she could swear she smelled roses above the clean, crisp, masculine scent of him, but that made absolutely no sense.

Was she hallucinating? Maybe she had bonked her head in that gloriously graceful free fall.

“You hurt your wrist,” he observed. “Need me to take a look at it? I’m a doctor.”

What were the odds that she would fall and injure herself in front of a gorgeous tourist who also happened to be a doctor?

“Isn’t that convenient?” she muttered, wondering again at the weird little twist of fate.

He gave her an odd look, half curious and half concerned. Again, she had the strange feeling that she knew him somehow, but she had such a lousy memory for faces and names.

“Melissa. Melissa Blake?”

She narrowed her gaze, more embarrassed at her own lousy memory than anything. He knew her so she obviously had met him before.

“Yes. Actually, it’s Melissa Fielding now.”

“Oh. Right. You married Cody Fielding, Cannon Beach’s celebrity.”

And divorced him, she wanted to add. Don’t forget that part.

“I’m sorry. You know me, but I’m afraid I don’t remember your name.”

He shrugged. “No reason you should. I was a few years older and I’ve been gone a long time.”

She looked closer. There was something about the shape of his mouth. She had seen it recently on someone else...

“Eli?”

“That’s right. Hi, Melissa.”

She should have known! All the clues came together. The dog, whom she now recognized as Max, the smart little dog who belonged to Eli’s father. The fact that he said he was a doctor. Those startling, searching blue eyes that now seemed unforgettable.

How embarrassing!

In her defense, the last time she had seen Eli Sanderson, he had been eighteen and she had been fifteen. He had graduated from high school and was about to take off across the country to college. The Eli she remembered had been studious and serious. He had kept mostly to himself, more interested in leading the academic decathlon than coming to any sporting events or social functions.

She had been the opposite, always down for a party, as long as it distracted her from the sadness at home in those first years after her father died of brain cancer.

The Eli she remembered had been long and lanky, skinny even. This man, on the other hand, was anything but nerdy. He was buff, gorgeous, with lean, masculine features and the kind of shoulders that made a woman want to grab hold and not let go.

Wow. The military had really filled him out.

“I understand you work with my dad,” he said.

She worked for his father. Melissa was a nurse at Dr. Wendell Sanderson’s family medicine clinic. Now she realized why that mouth looked so familiar. She should have picked up on it immediately. His dad’s mouth was shaped the same, but somehow that full bottom lip looked very different on Dr. Sanderson Jr.

Her wrist still ached fiercely. “How’s your dad?” she asked, trying to divert her attention from it. “I stopped by to see him yesterday after his surgery and was going to call the hospital to check on him today as soon as I finished my run.”

“He’s good. I was trying to be here before he went under the knife, but my plane was delayed until last night. I did speak to the orthopedic surgeon, who is happy with the outcome so far. Both knee replacements seem to have gone well.”

“Oh, good. He won’t tolerate being down for long. I guess that’s why it made sense for him to do both at the same time.”

“You know him well.”

After several months of working for the kindly family medicine doctor, she had gained a solid insight into his personality. Wendell was sweet, patient, genuinely concerned about his patients. He was the best boss she’d ever had.

“Let’s take a look at this wrist,” Eli said now. Unlike his father, Wendell’s son could never be described as kindly or avuncular.

“I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Again, I’m a doctor. Why don’t you let me be the judge of how fine it might be? I saw that nasty tumble and could hear the impact of your fall all the way across the sand. You might have broken something, in which case you’re going to want to have it looked at sooner rather than later.”

She was strangely reluctant to hand over her wrist—or anything else—to the man and fought the urge to hide her hand behind her back, as if she were caught with a fistful of Oreos in front of an empty cookie jar.

“I can have the radiologist at the clinic x-ray it when I go in to work in an hour.”

“Or you can let me take a look at it right now.”

She frowned at the implacable set of his jaw. He held his hand out and she sighed. “Ugh. You’re as stubborn as your father.”

“Thank you. Anytime someone compares me to my father, I take it as a compliment.”

He gave his outstretched hand a pointed look, and she frowned again and, cornered, held out her wrist. The movement made her hurt all over again, and she flushed at the unwilling tears she could feel gather.

His skin was much warmer than she might have expected on a lovely but still cool April morning. Seductively warm. His hands were long-fingered, masculine, much longer than her own, and he wore a sleek Tag Heuer watch.

Her stomach felt hollow, her nerves tight, but she wasn’t sure if that was in reaction to the injury or from the unexpected pleasure of skin against skin. He was a doctor taking a look at an injury, she reminded herself, not a sexy guy wanting to hold her hand.

Melissa aimed a glare at Fiona, who had started the whole thing. The dog had planted her haunches in the sand, tail wagging, and seemed to be watching the whole episode with an expression that appeared strangely like amusement.

“It doesn’t feel like anything is broken. You can move it, right?”

He held her hand while she wiggled her fingers, then rotated her wrist. It hurt like the devil, but she didn’t feel any structural impingement in movement.

“Yes. I told you it wasn’t broken. It’s already feeling better.”

“You can’t be completely sure without an X-ray, but I’m all right waiting forty-eight hours or so to check it. I suspect a sprain, but it might be easier to tell in a few days. Do you have a way to splint it? If you don’t, I’m sure my dad has something at the office.”

“I’ve got a wrist brace I’ve worn before when I had carpal tunnel problems.”

“You’ll want to put that on and have it checked again in a few days. Meanwhile, ice and elevation are your best friends. At least ten minutes every two hours.”

As if she had time for that. “I’ll do my best. Thanks.”

A sudden thought occurred to her, one she was almost afraid to entertain. “How long will you be in town?”

When he was making arrangements to be gone for his surgery, Wendell had hoped Eli might be able to cover for him at the clinic. The last she had heard, though, Eli’s hadn’t been able to get leave from his military assignment so his father had arranged a substitute doctor through a service in Portland.

Given that Eli was here, she had a feeling all that was about to change—which meant Eli might be her boss for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not sure how much time I can get,” he answered now. “That depends on a few things still in play. I’m hoping for a month but I’ll be here for the next two to three weeks, at least.”

“I see.”

She did see, entirely too clearly. This would obviously not be the last she would see of Eli Sanderson.

“I need to go. Thanks for your help,” she said quickly.

“I didn’t do anything except take a look at your injury. At least promise me you’ll raise it up and put some ice on it.”

Considering she was scheduled to work at his father’s clinic starting in just over an hour and still needed to shower, she wouldn’t have time for much self-pampering. “I’ll do my best. Thanks.”

“How far do you have to go? I can at least help you walk your dog home.”

“Fiona isn’t my dog. She belongs to my neighbor. We were just sort of exercising each other. And for the record, she’s usually very well behaved. I don’t quite know what happened earlier, but we’ll be fine to make it home on our own. I don’t want to disturb your run more than I already have.”

“Are you sure?”

“We don’t have far to go. I live at Brambleberry House.”

His expression registered his surprise. “Wow. You’re practically next door to my dad’s place.”

They couldn’t avoid each other, even if they wanted to. She didn’t necessarily want to avoid him, but considering she was now bedraggled and covered with sand, she was pretty sure he wouldn’t be in a hurry to see her again.

“Thanks again for your help. I’ll see you later.”

“Remember your RICE.”

Right. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. The first-aid prescription for injuries like hers. “I’ll do my best. Thanks. See you later.”

This time as she headed for the house, Fiona trotted along beside her, docile and well behaved.

Melissa’s wrist, on the other hand, complained vociferously all the way back to the house. She did her best to ignore it, focusing instead on the unsettling encounter with Dr. Sanderson’s only son.

* * *

Eli told himself he was only keeping an eye on Melissa as she made her slow way along the beach toward Brambleberry House because he was concerned about her condition, especially whether she had other injuries from her fall she had chosen not to reveal to him.

He was only being a concerned physician, watching over someone who had been hurt while he was nearby.

The explanation rang hollow. He knew it was more than that.

Melissa Blake Fielding had always been a beautiful girl and had fascinated him more than he had wanted to admit to himself or anyone else when he was eighteen and she was only fifteen.

She had been a pretty cheerleader, popular and well-liked—mostly because she always had a smile for everyone, even geeky science students who weren’t the greatest at talking to popular, pretty, well-liked cheerleaders.

He had danced with her once at a school dance toward the end of his senior year. She had been there with her date—and future husband—Cody Fielding, who had been ignoring her, as usual.

While his own date had been dancing with her dad, the high school gym teacher and chaperone, Eli had gathered his nerve to ask Melissa to dance, hating that the nicest girl in school had been stuck sitting alone while her jerk of a boyfriend ignored her.

He remembered she had been everything sweet to him during that memorable dance, asking about his plans after graduation.

Did she know her boyfriend and future husband hadn’t taken kindly to Eli’s nerve in asking Cody’s date to dance and had tried to make him pay? He still had a scar above his eyebrow from their subsequent little altercation.

It had been a long time ago. He was a completely different man than he’d been back then, with wholly different priorities.

He hadn’t thought about her in years, at least until his father had mentioned a few months earlier that Melissa was back in town and working for him.

At the time, he had been grieving, lost, more than a little raw. He remembered now that the memory of Melissa had made him smile for the first time in weeks.

Now he had to wonder if that was one of the reasons he had worked hard to arrange things so that he could come home and help his father out during Wendell’s recovery from double knee-replacement surgery. On some subconscious level, had he remembered Melissa worked at the clinic and been driven to see her again?

He didn’t want to think so. He would be one sorry idiot if that were the case, especially since he didn’t have room in his life right now for that kind of complication.

If he had given it any thought at all, on any level, he probably would have assumed it wouldn’t matter. He was older, she was older. It had been a long time since he’d felt like that awkward, socially inept nerd he’d been in the days when he lived here in Cannon Beach.

He had been deployed most of the last five years and had been through bombings, genocides, refugee disasters. He had seen things he never expected to, had survived things others hadn’t.

He could handle this unexpected reunion with a woman he might have had a crush on. He only had to remember that he was no longer that geeky, awkward kid but a well-respected physician now.

In comparison to everything he had been through in the last few years—and especially the horror of six months ago that he was still trying to process—he expected these few weeks of substituting for his father in Cannon Beach to be a walk in the park.

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