The Courage to Love Her Army Doc

Taking chances

Dr. Joe Braden took a posting as locum on a remote Fijian island to escape his memories. But he finds the solace he seeks in the unlikeliest of places...the arms of captivating Dr. Emily Clifford.

Born with a distinctive birthmark, Emily has spent years hidden behind a mask of makeup. Yet Joe makes her feel beautiful in her skin for the first time ever. She's been burned before, but if she can find the courage to love her army doc she can claim the happy-ever-after she's dreamed of...

“Are you really going to stand there and pretend nothing's wrong?”

“What are you talking about?”

“This.”
Emily couldn't believe she was voluntarily pointing out her flaw.

“Oh, your birthmark? I see it. So what?”

“‘So what?' he says. You could have given me a heads-up that I'd gone out in public like this.”

She didn't know why she was taking her mistake out on him when he'd been nothing but supportive. But her lashing out might have had something to do with this being the most vulnerable she'd felt since arriving on the island.

“I assumed you were actually comfortable enough around us to stop hiding away.”

“You weren't shocked?”

“If I'm honest, I knew about it. But even if I hadn't, it doesn't make any difference to me. Your birthmark is part of you. How could it be anything other than beautiful?”

He tilted her chin up so she had to look in his eyes and believe what she saw there—pure, undiluted desire.

Joe leaned forward and placed a light kiss on the exact spot between her cheek and her nose where her greatest weakness blazed brightly. She held her breath. It was one of those moments she'd dreamed of, when someone would embrace her, warts and all, not shy away from any part of her. It was better than she'd ever imagined.

Dear Reader,

I'm a big fan of modern-day adventurers and those TV programs in which they're dropped at remote locations with nothing but a camera and the will to survive. Mainly because I come from the “what if?” school of thought, and prefer a cozy seat in my comfort zone to camping in the potentially spider-infested unknown. I admire that devil-may-care attitude to life—even though I watch those shows wondering why people would put themselves in unnecessary danger.

When former army doc Joe came to my mind, he had that same adventurous spirit. He flits from one exciting escapade to another with no intention of settling down. Until he meets GP Emily, who is trying to break free from her own boring world, and begins to see the attraction in having someone to share his experiences with.

Although the remote island where they both arrive to volunteer their medical services is beautiful and welcoming, Emily's insecurities are in danger of stifling her enjoyment. Thank goodness Joe is there to give her a little nudge forward when she needs it.

Now I think about it, he kind of reminds me of my husband...

I do hope you enjoy going on Emily and Joe's exotic adventure with them. It was certainly fun to write!

Lots of love,

Karin
xx

THE COURAGE TO LOVE HER ARMY DOC

Karin Baine

Books by Karin Baine

Harlequin Medical Romance

French Fling to Forever
A Kiss to Change Her Life
The Doctor's Forbidden Fling

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For the ladies who've shared this adventure with me—Ann, Cherie, Donna, Doris, Heather, Joanne, Julia, June, Kiru, Michelle, Rima, Sharon, Stacy, Stephanie, Sukhi, Summerita, Suzy, Tammy, Teresa and Xandra. UCW was where it all began.

With thanks also to the residents of Los Balcones and the members of “The Monday Club” who bring a little sunshine into my life.

And to George—the other half of me.

Praise for Karin Baine

“The moment I picked up Karin Baine's debut medical romance I knew I would not be disappointed with her work. Poetic and descriptive writing, engaging dialogue, thoroughly created characters and a tightly woven plot propels
French Fling to Forever
into the must-read, highly recommended level.”

—
Contemporary Romance Reviews

“This is a wonderfully written book and one I could not put down and had to finish. You will not be disappointed in Karin Baine's writing.”

—
Goodreads
on
French Fling to Forever


A Kiss to Change Her Life
by Karin Baine is a well-researched, well-written, emotionally touching story... One Harlequin Medical Romance you do not want to miss!”

—Goodreads

CHAPTER ONE

P
ARADISE
. I
T
WAS
the only word to describe these sun-drenched islands that Emily Clifford hoped were going to change her life. Unfortunately, she hadn't accounted for the distance she would have to travel to find her solace.

Travel sickness wasn't something she'd ever suffered before or she would've had one of her colleagues at the GP practice prescribe her something before she'd left England. If she'd been thinking clearly she might have realised that accessing one of these remote Fijian islands would take more than a taxi ride. Her first day after landing at the airport on the main island, Viti Levu, walking through the markets, and her night at a luxurious five-star resort now seemed a lifetime ago.

Today's white-knuckle charter flight, followed by a bone-jangling cross-country drive and hours of sailing these waters, had taken their toll.

The only thing she was looking forward to more than a shower and bed was seeing Peter, her stepbrother, waiting for her. He was the reason she was even attempting this adventure. The chance to prove her ex-husband wrong about her being
boring
was simply a bonus.

She and Greg had been together since high school, married for ten years, but it hadn't been enough. She hadn't been enough.

When Peter had told her about the mission out here and how they were struggling to find medical professionals to volunteer, she'd jumped at the chance to help for a while. Not least because this fortnight away meant she'd be occupied while Greg and Little Miss Bit-on-the-Side held the wedding of the year.

Another swell of nausea rose as the boat bobbed again but this had to be better than sitting at home, crying over her wedding photographs and wondering where it had all gone wrong.

As they finally reached the far side of the island and prepared to go ashore, she could see a figure sitting cross-legged at the water's edge. She waved manically, desperate more than ever to get off this boat and find comfort in the arms of her big brother.

With her hand shielding her eyes from the glaring sun, she squinted at her welcome party of one slowly getting to his feet. He appeared to have grown in the two years since she'd last seen him, and he was leaner than she remembered, as though someone had stretched him like golden-coloured toffee.

Eventually she had to come to terms with the fact that no amount of sand, sea and sun could cause such a physical transformation. Disappointment settled in her belly as she realised it wasn't Peter at all. She was going to have to wait for her tea and sympathy for a bit longer.

She'd done her best to be strong over this past year and a half, holding it together as she'd moved out of her marital home and keeping a smile in place for all her patients when she'd been dying inside. For a short time she wanted to stop pretending she wasn't crushed by the rejection and it didn't take every ounce of strength just to get out of bed in the morning and face the world. Ten minutes of being the baby sister, crying out her pain to her big bro, would help reset the factory settings. Two weeks doing what she loved, what she was qualified to do, would remind her she was more than a redundant wife. She'd lasted this long for a shoulder to cry on so waiting a few extra minutes wouldn't kill her. Although she couldn't swear the pent-up anger and emotion she'd been gearing up to release wouldn't seep out somewhere along the way.

Her bejewelled sandals and floral maxi-dress flapped through the water as she stepped ashore. In hindsight, it hadn't been the ideal choice of travelling outfit. Her feet ached, her dress was creased and as she came face-to-face with the hunk on the beach she was pretty sure the flower in her hair was wilting. What had been an attempt to get into the holiday spirit had probably succeeded in making her appear even more ridiculous than usual, like a stereotypical tourist instead of a qualified professional hoping to fit effortlessly into society.

With his close-cropped brown hair and dressed in mid-length khaki shorts and navy T-shirt, her greeter looked more action man than island native. There was no sign of a grass skirt anywhere. Unfortunately.

‘Hi. I'm Emily.' She held out her hand for him to shake but he bypassed the traditional greeting to head for the boat. The bit of research she'd done said they mostly spoke English here on Yasi island but perhaps she'd found the one local who didn't.

He began unloading her luggage, muscles flexing as he hurled her case and boxes of supplies onto the white sand.

‘Bula.'
She tried again, using the one Fijian word she'd picked up on her travels so far.

The Peter impostor waved off her last link to civilisation and came back to join her.

‘
Bula
to you too.' The cut-glass British accent didn't fit with the swarthy skin but the familiar tongue and the glimpse of a smile put her mind at ease about being stranded here with an uncommunicative stranger.

‘You're English?'

‘Yeah. From Oxford, actually. I'm Joe. Joe Braden.' This time he did shake her hand, the firm grip showing the strength behind those muscles.

Emily shivered, regardless of the tropical heat. Clearly she'd been on her own too long when a single handshake was enough to get her excited. Not that she was ready for the dating game. In the day and age when physical attributes held more value than loyalty or commitment, she was in no rush to put herself through any more heartache.

‘Joe Braden... Why does that name ring a bell?' They'd never met. She'd have remembered if they had.

‘I served with Peter in Afghanistan.' The smile disappeared as quickly as it had formed.

That made sense of the military haircut and the no-nonsense attitude. She'd heard that name in conversation and she was sure there was an extra nugget of information tied to it that was just out of reach in her subconscious.

‘Where is he? No offence, but I had hoped he'd be here to meet me.' She didn't want to get into a conversation about their time in combat and she doubted he'd be keen to rehash the whole experience either. It had been hell for all those involved, including the families waiting anxiously at home for their safe return. Peter's decision to leave the army and begin a life dedicated to his faith had been a relief to everyone who loved him.

‘None taken. We couldn't be sure exactly what time to expect you and Peter had a service this evening. I volunteered for lookout duty.' He handed her a suitcase and a holdall while he hoisted the large box onto his shoulder.

She didn't dare ask how long he'd waited. His lips, drawn into a thin line and his apparent hurry to get moving, told her it had probably been too long. Not exactly the welcome she'd been hoping for.

Joe was already taking great strides across the beach, so Emily traipsed after him as fast as she could with a holdall hooked over one shoulder and a suitcase in the other, waddling like a colourful penguin. There was no immediate sign of human habitation nearby and she didn't relish the thought of being left behind.

‘What brings you out here anyway?' She caught up with him at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope. Their journey apparently wasn't going to be an easy or short one. Some small talk might help it pass quicker.

‘Your stepbrother.'

‘You're visiting Peter?' He hadn't mentioned having company in his emails. She hadn't counted on sharing his attention. As pitiful as that sounded, she hadn't seen him in two whole years and wanted to make up for lost time. Who knew where he'd be going next or how long he'd be gone? Quality time with him wasn't going to be quite the same with surly soldier dude tagging along.

‘I'm here as a medical volunteer, the same as you. I'll be here for another month. Maybe. I prefer to keep on the move. What you would call a modern-day adventurer, I guess. This is the longest I've actually spent in one place since leaving the army, which is entirely down to your stepbrother's powers of persuasion.' He didn't even slow his pace to deliver the news, leaving her staring open-mouthed at him.

There were two things wrong with that statement. First of all, it meant he had personal intel on her already if he knew why she was there. She didn't have her stepbrother down as the gossipy type since he hadn't seen the need to share information concerning her new companion, so perhaps soldier boy had insisted on a debriefing before meeting his assigned target. Goodness knew what went on between ex-military buddies, they had a bro code mere mortals could never infiltrate, but she hoped any discussion about her arrival hadn't included details of her failed marriage. That shame was exactly what she was trying to escape.

Secondly, his introduction undoubtedly meant she'd be working alongside this man for the duration of her stay. Trying to get more than a few words out of him on this trek was proving hard enough.

In her version of this medical outreach programme she was simply transferring her cosy GP office to an exotic location without interference from third parties. Peter had sounded so delighted to hear she was coming she'd assumed she'd be the sole medical professional in residence. This Joe was stealing all her thunder.

‘Do I call you Dr? Sergeant? Joe...?' She was going to have serious words with her stepbrother about dumping her on a complete stranger without a word of warning. It immediately put her on the back foot when Peter should have known how important it was for her to feel comfortable in her surroundings.

‘Joe will do just fine.'

She couldn't work out if the reluctance to engage in conversation was personal or he was simply trying to conserve energy. The hike up this hill was a test of endurance in itself, never mind the heavy box he was balancing on his broad shoulders. She was starting to regret packing the weighty school books she'd brought with her as a gift.

‘Isn't there someone who could give us a hand?' She was tired, achy and full of guilt, watching him shift the burden from one shoulder to the other.

‘Did you bring the
yaqona
?' He ignored her question to stop and ask one of his own, as if hers wasn't important enough to deserve the few seconds it would take to answer it. With any luck this place was big enough to house two independent clinics. There was no way she was spending the duration of this trip with someone so rude.

‘Yes. It's in this bag.' She, however, was polite enough to answer him. Peter had at least given her the heads up about bringing gifts with her, including the root of this pepper plant. Apparently it was some sort of payment for her stay among the villagers, even though it did look kind of funky to her. She would have preferred to give him a pot plant or a nice bottle of wine with a thank-you card.

‘Good. We'll go and make
sevusevu
now with the chief.'

‘Can't we do that later? I really need to shower and freshen up.' By the time they reached their destination she wouldn't be fit to be seen in public.

‘No can do. You have to show your respect to the tribal leader before you can integrate yourself into village life. If you respect the customs here it'll ensure you become part of the community.'

Right now, the heat and humidity were making her feel as though her face was melting. She was very wary of her potentially sliding make-up and the fact he was telling her she wouldn't get the chance to redo it. The heavy, thick concealer she wore to cover her birthmark was the one essential from home she couldn't do without.

She was self-conscious of the deep red port wine stain dominating the left side of her face, so noticeable against her otherwise pale skin. It was something that had caused her a great deal of distress over the years. And not only from uneducated, tactless strangers. Her own mother had been ashamed of her appearance. She'd told her that when she'd forced her through painful, ineffective laser treatment as a child. She'd shown it when she'd left the family home without her. In the end it had been the camouflage make-up and the love of her father's new family that had helped her live with it.

This was a big ask for her anyway, to come to foreign lands alone, never mind leaving herself exposed and open to scrutiny from strangers.

As they crested the hill she could see the settlement nestled below. It was now or never.

She stopped and dropped her bags. This trip was always going to be about improvising and making use of whatever resources she had at the time.

‘What are you doing?' Joe raised an eyebrow at her as she rooted through her belongings for her mirror compact.

‘I need to look my best if I'm going to meet someone of such great importance.' She made a few repairs before she scared small children and animals, ignoring Joe's shake of the head.

‘You know, that's really not necessary. You should let your skin breathe and I'm sure you look just as amazing without it.'

There was no time to linger on the fact he'd paid her a compliment as he spun on his heel and started walking again. Besides, he'd be running if he knew what really lay beneath. She took one last glance in the mirror to check for any errant red patches shining through the layers of powder and paint and packed her precious cargo away again to follow him. Now she'd had a chance to boost her confidence again she could face any new challenge.

* * *

Joe couldn't hang about to watch her plaster that stuff over her face. He knew why she did it, of course, he'd seen the photographs of his kid sister Peter had kept with him out in Afghanistan. It simply irked him that someone had made her feel as though she had to use it to keep her real self from view. He knew how it was to have people devalue your worth so readily over a minor flaw.

Okay, his hearing had taken a hit along with the rest of him on the front line but that didn't mean he should have been written off altogether. The army might think all he was good for now was a desk job or teaching but he had no intention of sitting still. Fiji was just one stop on the list of adventures he'd embarked on since taking medical retirement.

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