North of Heartbreak
Since her divorce, Willa Hayes has thrown herself into her work as a nurse practitioner in the remote town of Stony Creek, Alaska. She's regained her self-confidence and her heart is almost healed. Then her newfound peace is shaken by the arrival of sexy flyboy Liam Reynolds. Willa can't deny she's instantly, intensely attracted to him—even if she's convinced he's yet another Mr. Wrong.
Liam has his own reasons for fleeing to the isolation of the north, and a relationship is the last thing he wants. He wasn't counting on being drawn to the pretty nurse who accompanies patients on his flights to southern hospitals.
Fortunately, the temptation—and the desire to avoid anything serious—is mutual. So the pair comes up with an arrangement: sensual, steamy, no-strings fun. But when things heat up on a cold Alaskan night, the rules of the game may change forever...
"I can't wait, Jason," Willa Hayes yelled into the radio handset. "I've got a compound fractured femur here. I need a plane. Any plane."
Willa flashed an urgent palm at Tommy Inqulactiuk, who held two splints in place on either side of his uncle Joe's leg. Blood dripped steadily onto the floor and she prayed the splints would keep the broken bone stable enough to travel. The nearest hospital able to handle an emergency like this was a long ninety-minute flight away. She feared he'd bleed out before she got him there.
"The plane isn't the problem," Jason Reynolds replied, his voice distorted by the radio, as if he was yelling at her from the bottom of a deep well. "I've only got one pilot available. He's brand new and has never flown a MedEvac."
"I don't care if he's still got a price tag attached, I need a MedEvac now."
A long painful silence followed, broken only by the heavy breathing of her patient.
"Roger that, Med-One. ETA of your MedEvac is ten minutes."
Willa had to stop herself from sounding too relieved. "Thank you, Tundra Air. Med-One out." She dropped the handset, letting it dangle by its cord. "Tommy, can you shift this way a bit without moving Joe's leg?"
"Yes, ma'am," Tommy answered with a short nod, moving without letting go of the injured limb so she could squeeze around him. The gurney Joe lay on had been jammed between the room's bed and the counter, leaving her with less than a foot in which to maneuver.
She took several large pieces of gauze and layered them around, but not over, the tip of the bone protruding from her patient's thigh. Then, starting from his groin and working her way down, she wrapped a tensor bandage around his leg and the splints, carefully avoiding the jagged bone end.
"How are you doing, Joe?" Willa asked, giving him a sharp glance.
"Okay," the white-lipped Inuit hunter said, his eyes fixed on a spot on the ceiling above him.
She secured the end of the bandage then pressed down on the injured man's toenails, watching as the pale flesh beneath his nails returned to its normal warm pink. "His blood flow is okay and his leg's as stable as we're going to get it. Watch his breathing and keep an eye on his radial pulse for me, Tommy. I need to write everything down."
"Sure, Willa." He moved his fingers over Joe's ankle. "Pulse is good," he reported.
She stopped writing in her notebook for a second to smile reassuringly at both men. "Your uncle is going to be fine thanks to you. You did everything right. I'm looking forward to reporting this to Emergency Services."
His round face turning a dull red color, Tommy stared at the linoleum beneath his feet. "I just did what the first-aid instructor told me to do."
"Exactly. Good job."
Tommy shrugged then asked, "Do breaks like this usually bleed so much?"
"No, but a compound fracture, especially one involving the leg, can be dangerous. That's why I want Joe flown to a fully equipped hospital as soon as possible. They'll be able to set his leg, repair any damage to the muscle and transfuse him with blood if he needs it."
"The pain isn't that bad," Joe said, the pinched look on his face refuting his words. "Don't waste a plane ride on me."
Willa put her hand on his shoulder. "Your leg needs to be set properly, Joe. It'll require surgery."
Joe and Tommy snorted in unison.
She stared at them then rolled her eyes and muttered, "Men. Why do I bother stocking morphine? I haven't had to use it once in the last six months."
"Pain tells me I'm alive," Joe said. "If I didn't feel pain right now I'd be worried."
"Ever the pragmatist." Willa shook her head again then checked Joe's vitals and the bandages only to find that blood had seeped through to the outer layer. A trickle of sweat ran down her back and she struggled to keep her shock and fear off her face.
He shouldn't be bleeding this much.
Tommy leaned over, taking in the blood-soaked bandages. His gaze jumped from his uncle's leg to Willa's face, but with Joe right there she could only stare back, keeping her features carefully neutral.
Tommy opened his mouth.
"Cold, Joe?" she asked, before the young man could speak.
"Yeah, a little."
Willa glanced at the thermometer on the wall. Seventy-two degrees. Joe Inqulactiuk was an experienced hunter who normally wouldn't complain if the mercury dropped to minus fifty. The fact that he admitted he was cold told her he was going into shock.
Tommy stared at the thermometer with his mouth sagging open, and she knew she'd have help if she needed to convince Joe to allow medication.
She started Joe on an intravenous line with albumin to keep his blood volume up then readied her equipment for the flight. She kept a close eye on her patient as she bustled around her small clinic.
Her receptionist, aide and scheduled patients watched the action silently, their concern hanging heavy in the air.
"Elizabeth, is there anyone waiting with something urgent?" Willa asked, looking at her half-full waiting room.
"No," the receptionist replied. "Joanne and I can handle the rest."
"Good. Ask anyone who wants to see me to come back on Saturday."
"But you don't work Saturdays."
"I do this week. If there's an emergency, follow protocol and call Emergency Services. They'll provide medical personnel if needed."
"Don't worry about us," a loud feminine voice boomed.
Willa's eyes searched out the owner of the voice and discovered Joe's sister, Mary, standing in the middle of the waiting room.
"Joe's more important," Mary added. The rest of the people waiting nodded or spoke in agreement. "The whole family is at my place. How is he? Jack and Barry said his leg was all but falling off."
"It's broken, and he did a really good job of breaking it. He's going to need a couple of pins put in to keep the bones in place while it's healing. I'll call from Fairbanks when I have some news," Willa said to her, then looked around at everyone. "Thanks for understanding."
Most of them stood and headed for the door, patting Mary on the shoulder or shaking her hand as they passed her.
"Hold on," Elizabeth called out. "Let me reschedule the rest of you." She grabbed her stack of charts and hustled around the reception desk to the waiting room.
The drone of a plane engine made Willa pause. Had it been ten minutes already? She hurried back to the exam room where Tommy and Joe waited.
"Toss me those blankets will you?" She pointed to a pile of three stacked on the far corner. "The plane is here."
Tommy grabbed them and helped her cover Joe then tie the straps down over the older man and blankets.
The roar of the plane's engine as it landed on the strip behind the clinic was the only signal Willa needed to grab her equipment. "You go with Joe, Tommy, I'll be right behind you."
He pushed the gurney through the treatment room doors, then propped open the side exit and eased his uncle through it. Blood dripped off the side of gurney like a leaky old faucet.
Elizabeth watched from near the front door, mop in hand, ready to clean up.
That's the way people did things in Stony Creek, Alaska, jumping in to lend a hand without a second thought. It was why Willa loved working and living here so much.
"Have a safe flight," Elizabeth said.
"Thank you." With a grateful smile, Willa pushed her way through the door and outside. "I'll see you in a few hours."
The closing door cut off any answer.
She rushed to keep up with Tommy, who practically ran the gurney to the waiting Twin Otter. The engines idled at a dull roar like a barely leashed hurricane.
The pilot wasted no time. He jumped out and helped collapse and lift the gurney across the back seats, strapping it in as if he'd done it a million times. He turned, bent over and grabbed the medical supply tackle boxes in Willa's hands, giving her a close look of the top of his head.
He moved as if it was all second nature for him.
"Is this everything?" he bellowed, looking her in the eye.
Willa blinked as she gazed at the most handsome man she'd ever seen. Ice-blue eyes dominated a square-jawed face and strong mouth. He waited for her response with the stance of a man who led rather than followed.
Her stomach swan-dived into her thermal socks.
She sucked in a breath, drawing courage from God knew where. "Yes," she shouted back.
"Where's the rest of your team?"
"I am the team." Willa stabbed a finger in Joe's direction. "We need to get this man to Fairbanks as soon as possible."
"You're the team?" The pilot threw an incredulous look behind her as if expecting more people to show up.
"He's got no time," she said, stepping into the pilot's line of sight. To save her patient, she'd face down the devil himself.
The pilot's lips thinned into a grim line. "Understood." Without warning he grabbed her by the elbow and hoisted her into the rear of the plane. She landed in a heap, fear tying her feet into a knot, but he immediately let go to slam the door.
She stuffed her panic into the back of her mind and scrambled over to Joe to check the straps, but she couldn't have done a better job herself.
Hadn't Jason said this guy was new?
A door banged and Willa glanced up. In the front seats, Tommy and the pilot belted themselves in.
She checked the pulse in Joe's ankle and found it weaker than she liked.
"Let's go," she yelled at the pilot.
He peered at her over the seat, eyebrows low. "Get your seat belt on."
"I'm fine, just take off."
"Nothing doing, lady. Regulations. Seat belts during take-off."
"Don't worry about me." Willa phrased her words carefully. She didn't want to alarm Joe, but time was a critical factor. "We need to go. Now."
"Not until you put your seat belt on," Mr. Handsome said, his expression as hard as a glacier, his eyes two shards of ice.
Willa glared at him. "Fine," she said, plunking herself on the seat and ramming the belt buckle into the clasp at her hip. "Now fly."
A flash of satisfaction crossed his face then he turned away and taxied the plane down the short runway.
She kept her gaze focused on Joe, though she'd prefer to tear a strip of skin off the pilot. Never trust gorgeous. She'd found that out the hard way a long time ago from her pretty-boy ex-husband. A man as bad on the inside as he was good-looking on the outside. A man who'd cost her more than any woman should have to pay.
Willa took Joe's hand in hers. "How are you doing?"
He hadn't uttered a single complaint so far, but she knew from the tight set of his lips that he was in pain.
His ordeal wasn't about to get any better.
She watched him closely as they lifted into the air, the slight dip as the plane fought gravity registering on his face as a painful grimace. Willa squeezed Joe's hand to reassure him.
A warm, wet sensation tickled her right knee. She glanced down and saw that his blood had soaked through her jeans.
Her own pulse thundered in her ears as she stared at the growing spot.
"Now that we're in the air, Joe," she said loudly so everyone could hear her. "It won't be long until we're at the hospital." Willa glanced at Tommy and the man she'd tagged as Mr. Handsome. Both looked at her over their shoulders. She touched the blood on her pants then lifted her hand just high enough for them to see. "Isn't that right?" She knew Tommy would keep his mouth shut, but fear of what the pilot might say put a choke hold on her chest.
Please, please don't be a complete jerk.
Mr. Handsome's gaze darted from her hand to Joe's face. "Yep, clear sailing," he hollered over the roar of the engines.
Relief surged through her, freeing her lungs to breathe again. Smiling, she turned her attention back to Joe. "See, nothing to worry about. We'll get your leg fixed up and have you home in no time." She grabbed one of her medical kits filled with IV sets and oxygen masks. "I'm going to put you on a little extra oxygen."
"Do you want the hospital on the radio?" Mr. Handsome called from up front.
"Yes, please. You know which frequency?"
The pilot nodded as he handed her and Tommy each a headset.
She popped hers on and settled the mike near her mouth.
"Can you hear me?" a smooth, deep voice said. Its darkness made her shiver as she unwrapped the oxygen mask and tubing.
"Yes, thank you."
Tommy just nodded.
"What's the situation with our patient? If you talk low he won't hear us."
Willa repressed a jolt of surprise and dismay at hearing Mr. Handsome refer to Joe as "our" patient. Taking over already? "He's holding his own for now, but the sooner we get to Fairbanks the better."
"What happened to him?"
"Compound fracture of the femur. He was hunting, but luckily Tommy just finished his Wilderness First Responder training and got him to the clinic in good condition."
"Advanced first-aid training for when you're nowhere near a hospital."
"That describes ninety-nine percent of Alaska, doesn't it?"
The pilot wasn't quite accurate, but Willa didn't have time to correct him.
"Can you stop the bleeding?" he asked a moment later.
"I've done all I can for now. If I put pressure on it, the bone splinters could puncture his femoral artery."
"Give him a unit of blood."
"I don't have any."
"What kind of hospital has no blood?" His voice dripped with derision.
Good grief, did Jason tell this guy nothing? "Stony Creek has no hospital, just a clinic."
"You're a doctor then?" Mr. Handsome asked in a dubious tone.
"A nurse-practitioner, specializing in obstetrics and family medicine," Willa answered absently as she checked Joe's vitals. "I can prescribe and treat minor injuries, but something like this.I can't deal with on my own. He's going to require surgery and a transfusion."
"Wait a sec," Mr. Handsome said with enough emphasis to gain her full attention. "Are you telling me you work alone?"
"I have a nursing assistant."
"What about him?" he asked, angling a thumb at Tommy who seemed more concerned with hanging on to his door and stomach than talking.
"He doesn't work for me. He's the patient's nephew."
"So, aside from a nurse's aide, you've got no help?" Mr. Handsome shook his head. "There's something seriously wrong with that."
A chunk of ice formed in the pit of her belly. "Like what?"
"You're so." he paused, obviously searching for the right word, ".small."
Willa froze. It had been a long time since someone assumed her size meant she wasn't capable of doing her job. At five feet even she'd had to fight for respect everywhere she went, but in the two years she'd been working in the Alaskan Arctic no one had implied anything remotely close. The people here cared about what you could do, not how you looked. Having this stranger judge her ability because of her size was worse than a slap in the face.
"I assure you I'm quite capable of handling most of the emergencies I see."
He gave her a skeptical look. "I'm sure you're fine with the medical stuff, but what happens when you have to move a two-hundred-pound man?"
"I find a way." She glared at him. "I'm not stupid."
"I never said you were."
"No, you said I was small." It had taken too much hard work to build up her self-confidence after her disastrous marriage. She wasn't about to let this man make her feel worthless. She maintained eye contact, daring him to keep arguing.
"Sorry," he said, meeting her gaze. "I'm sure you can take care of yourself."
But not someone else. He never came right out and said it, but the hesitation in his voice told her what he was thinking.
Willa jerked her attention away from him. She had a patient to worry about. She went back to Joe, checking and rechecking his vitals.
"You've been up here long?" Mr. Handsome asked a minute later.
"Two years." Let him find fault with that.
"Two weeks for me," he said, though she had no intention of asking anything so personal. "Jason said I'd have to get rid of a lifetime of preconceived notions when I got here." Mr. Handsome shook his head then turned and smiled at Willa, his crooked grin impacting her hormones like a testosterone missile hitting its target. "I guess I'd better get started."
She didn't bother with a reply to his attempt at charm, just made sure her expression declared her disbelief as blatantly as anything she could've said out loud.
Joe lifted his head, his gaze searching.
"Joe?" Willa took her headset off. "Joe? What's wrong?"
His mouth moved, but she couldn't hear him.
"Say that again." She put her head close to Joe's.
"Can't feel my feet."
"Cold," he mouthed.
She pulled the blankets off Joe's feet. His toes were white tinged with blue. She quickly tucked the blanket firmly around both feet then checked his thigh. Blood continued to drip onto the floorboard.
She rammed the headset back on. "Pilot, what's our ETA to Fairbanks?"
"About forty-five minutes."
"Can we go any faster?"
Mr. Handsome turned his head to look over the seat at her. Willa didn't know what he saw on her face, but whatever it was must have convinced him speed was of the essence.
"I'll do what I can," he said.
As Willa tried to stem the flow of blood, she could hear the engines rev higher. She smiled at Joe and leaned down to talk directly into his ear.
"I'm sorry it's so cold in here. I just asked the pilot to turn up the heat and fly faster. You know how these new guys are. They don't have a clue how far it is between places up north."
Joe's lips twitched upward and he nodded, but his head wobbled and his eyes drooped. It wouldn't be long before he fell unconscious.
She checked his pulse. Slow and thready.
Willa moved forward, sticking her head between the front seats so Joe wouldn't see the concern she couldn't hide anymore.
"Pilot," she said, tapping him on the shoulder.
"Liam, my name's Liam. What's happening with our patient?"
"He's losing blood and going into shock."
"I've got the engines at top RPMs now, but I'll see if I can coax any more out of her."
"Thank you." He might be judgmental and arrogant, but at least he was willing to go the extra mile for Joe.
"Fairbanks is on the radio for you," Liam said.
A click and a second of static then the voice of the head nurse from the hospital's ER. "What have you got, Willa?"
"I've got an Inuit male, late forties with a compound fracture of the left femur. The wound is bleeding and the patient is shocky with decreased blood flow to the extremities."
"Have you started an IV?"
"Yes, I'm running albumin."
Background noise filtered through the radio then a male voice spoke. "Hung any blood yet?"
"No, I only have two additional units of albumin and a few bags of saline."
"How far out are you?"
Willa glanced up at Liam and he flashed three fingers at her.
"Approximately thirty minutes," she answered.
"Start a second IV with saline. We'll push packed cells into him as soon as you arrive."
"Understood," Willa said. "I'll keep you advised if his condition changes."
"Roger that, Fairbanks out."
She opened another equipment kit and removed a bag of clear fluid.
Tommy waved at her. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"Your uncle is bleeding too much, too fast. He needs a transfusion and the closest place for that is Fairbanks."
"We're going as fast as this machine can fly," Liam said. "I should have you on the ground in less than thirty minutes."
Willa took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed for a second before starting the second IV. Joe was a strong, stubborn man. He'd pull through this.
"Joe." She put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention. His face had faded to a dull pale white, but he still managed to meet her gaze. "I need you to stay awake for me, okay? We're almost there."
Joe nodded slowly.
Willa started the second IV in Joe's other hand, but as she started the drip, his eyes sagged shut and his body went limp.
"Joe? Joe?" She yelled in his ear and shook him, but got no response.
"What's going on?" Liam demanded.
"He's unconscious and I can't wake him," she hollered back. "I don't care if you wreck the engines, get us to Fairbanks now."
Cover art copyright C 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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Copyright 2006-2013 by Julie Rowe
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