Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

525,600 Minutes

The first date my husband and I went on was to see the movie Rent. Neither of us knew it was a hit musical. But the song 525,600 minutes rolled around my head for weeks. If you don’t know, this is the number of minutes in a year.

And oh, what a year!

On September 30th, social media reminded me I was celebrating my one-year anniversary of selling Unlocking the Ex-Army Doc’s Heart to Mills and Boon. Since then Falling Again for the Single Dad has released too, and A Stolen Kiss with the Midwife comes out in February 2021. I actually turned in Book Four, as yet untitled, the week before this anniversary note.

I started reading romance because I needed a happily ever after. I began writing romance because it made me happy when my job, at the time, did not. Romance has been my escape for years.

And Book Four will always have a tender place in my heart – no matter how well it sells. I set this story in Dallas, Texas. I grew up in one of Dallas’ many suburbs. The movie theater the characters worked at in high school is where I spent hours behind the concession stand. The high school football rivalry is a single line reference, but for my friends still in the area, the payoff will be so sweet.

It was simply a fun retreat home when I first started it. But two weeks after I put the initial words to the page, we learned my mother-in-law had cancer. She left this world before I finished. In the haze of doctor visits and hospice talks, Dot and I talked romance books.

She had stacks of them!

And when I sat with Dot while she rested, I retreated “home” to work on my character happily ever after.

When I tell people that I am an author, I get all sorts of happy questions. But when I mention my genre, a light dims in some of those excited faces. A week after I sold my first book, a man sitting next to me on a plane told me he thought romance was the easy genre. Formulaic!

It is such a grating misconception about the bestselling genre. But it is one that over that last year, I have mostly learned to ignore. Romance offers what so many don’t. An escape with a guaranteed smile at the end. The promise of hope and love for everyone.

This is the first romance that I’ve written where Dot didn’t know the end. I wouldn’t put the final flourishes in until a few weeks after she’d left. But in so many ways, Dot knew when we talked about Tessa and Gabe, and all the struggles I was putting them through, how it would end. That Tessa and Gabe would ride off together.

And writing their forever love in the days after helped pull me forward too. Getting to focus on love healed part of me. I believe that love is so much more enduring than the other emotions.

Love’s feeling—even its memory—outlasts all the emotions.

So, a year later, a year that looks so much different, in so many ways, I am grateful to shout from the rooftops—I write happily ever afters!

Here’s to finding our way through the next 525,600 minutes. May they be filled with more love and laughter than tears.

–          Juliette

Excerpts, Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels, New Releases

Friends on the Long Road to Publication

NA CoverIt is hard to believe that I am getting to write the blog post for my second Mills and Boon Medical! An author may dream up the characters and write the stories, but, if they are lucky, the bumpy road to seeing their name on the cover of a book isn’t done alone. And I am incredibly lucky to have had more than a few people hold my hand or give me a shoulder to cry on when that long road felt never ending.

This book fulfills a promise I made years ago to my very first beta reader, Sarah. I always said that my first book had to be dedicated to my supportive husband, but if I was ever lucky enough to write more than one, the dedication would be to Sarah.

Sarah read works that have never, and may never, see the light of day. Though she is a good friend; she also never held back on telling me when something didn’t work, or when a hero was coming off a might (or a lot) evil! She cheered me on as rejections piled up and never hesitated to say she’d love to read what I had.

There are not enough words to say thank you for all Sarah read and her continued encouragement. But I hope this dedication makes a small dent in the enormous debt I owe her.

For Sarah, who lovingly read my early works and cheered me on.

An excerpt from Falling Again for the Single Dad – available September 1st: 

Chapter One

DR. ELI COLLINSS breath caught as he stared at the gaggle of new employees. The first night was always a bit disorienting for the new hires, and they tended to arrive in packs for the first week or so. A petite woman, with long dark hair, lagged behind the rest.

The graceful way she moved sent a pulse of need through him. Amara? He hadn’t seen her in years.

And he wasn’t seeing her now.

Still, Eli’s heart pounded as he tried, and failed, to control his reaction to the miniscule possibility she was here. Hope, need, love, all wrapped around him before pain dismissed the fantasy.

Amara Patel was the best part of his past—and the worst. Any time he saw someone who bore a vague resemblance to her, Eli would stare for just a moment. It was never Amara, but after nearly a decade of trying, he still couldn’t break the habit.

“The new crop of nurses and doctors start tonight.” Dr. Griffin Stanfred slapped Eli’s shoulder as he slid in front of him.

“I know.” Eli shifted, trying to catch another glimpse of the woman. But she’d disappeared with the rest of the group. He wanted to run after them, force his mind and heart to realize that the mystery hire was just another look-alike. A beautiful, graceful, jet-haired woman, a talented nurse or doctor, sure, but it wasn’t his Amara.

His—that was a ridiculous thought. Amara hadn’t been his for nearly a decade. It was just a symptom of Eli’s loneliness.

He had let his desire to be the perfect son of the great Dr. Marshall Collins cost him his happiness. At least he’d come to his senses before taking on a surgical residency he didn’t want. That decision had been the right one, but Marshall had refused to speak to Eli during the entire duration of his residency and subspecialty training or the years that came after.

Only after Eli had given a keynote address at the second-largest emergency medicine conference in the country, eight months ago, had his father reached out to him. Their relationship was still more professional than personal, but Eli couldn’t stop the hope that one day Marshall might finally soften toward him. If Eli just achieved enough…

He let his eyes linger on the staff lounge door for a moment longer. Eli took a deep breath. Amara wasn’t at his hospital—she couldn’t be.

She’d landed a job at a prestigious university research hospital a week before graduating with her nursing degree. And two weeks after they’d broken up. Eli had watched from the corner of the room as she celebrated with their friends.

He’d wanted to reach out to her, to tell her how proud he was, celebrate with her. But he’d worried that if he said anything, he would beg her to take him back. Instead, Eli had made his excuses and left the party. It was one of the many moments in his past he wished he could change.

But life didn’t have a rewind button.

Eli hadn’t gone into surgery, but every activity he did was weighed against what it could do for his career. How it would improve Boston General. Make the institution great. Get it noticed.

Get him noticed.

Because no matter Eli’s achievements, he couldn’t stop the questions about his father. Even when he was surrounded by emergency professionals, someone always asked if he was related to Dr. Marshall Collins. Their eyes inevitably widened when Eli admitted he was his son. And part of him evaporated as they peppered him with questions about his father’s legacy.

You’re enough…

Eli’s soul lifted a bit. Even after all these years, Amara’s voice still floated through his memories just when he needed it. That constant kept him sane and yet sometimes drove him mad.

Eli had considered calling Amara so many times. Just to check in, say hello. See if she’d like to catch up; if she’d gotten the life she wanted; if she’d moved on. But he couldn’t, because if she had, then the tiny ball of hope Eli had never managed to extinguish would die. His heart didn’t want to accept that final loss.

It was easier to imagine Amara in the ER than at home with a husband and family who loved her. Safer… They’d both believed emergency medicine was their calling. Even if he’d doubted it for a brief period.

“Gina quit. Took a job in Baltimore.” Susan Gradeson, the ER’s head nurse, sighed as she laid her laptop on the charging pad at the nurses’ station. “Luckily, one of the new hires agreed to take her shift.” Before Eli could ask any questions, Susan hustled away.

Boston General’s emergency room had one of the highest trauma rates in the nation. It was used by physicians and nurses as a launching pad to one of the nationally ranked academic hospitals that dotted the city. If only they were recognized on that list, then maybe the other hospitals wouldn’t have such an easy time siphoning away Boston Gen.’s talent.

Eli had been offered a position at several of those academic hospitals too. But he loved the chaotic nature of Boston Gen. He thrived on the constant challenges, and even took pleasure in turning down the jobs. He’d bring in the offer letter and let the staff help him draft a blistering no-thank-you note. Eli never sent those, but it was an excellent way to let his friends and colleagues blow off steam.

His cell dinged with an image of his niece, Lizzy. She was waving at the camera; her cheeks covered in chocolate pudding. Eli darted around the corner and video called his mother. She’d taken to the role of grandma the minute Lizzy was born. And she’d refused to allow him to hire a nanny when Lizzy came to live with Eli eight months ago. He didn’t know how he would have survived without his mom’s calming presence.

He’d never expected to be a father. Marshall hadn’t set a great example, but Eli was doing his best. Which mostly meant Googling everything and hoping the mistakes he made were minor. His insides relaxed a bit as Lizzy waved again. Lizzy looked a lot like her father—a man she’d never remember.

Eli pushed his grief away. The months since his brother’s passing had dulled the pain, but there were still moments where Eli had to remind himself that he couldn’t call Sam after a hard day. Or text him a celebratory note after an unexpected success.

At least he had Lizzy.

“Hi, cutie!” Eli cooed as his niece played with the chocolate pudding on her high chair tray. Lizzy needed a happy parent, not a concerned, uncomfortable uncle who was still terrified that he was going to screw everything up.

He smiled and laughed at her silly antics as worries niggled at the back of his brain. Eli never wanted Lizzy to see how terrified he was to be a father. He may not have planned to be a dad, but he couldn’t fail Lizzy now that he was.

“Did she eat any of that?” Eli shook his head as he stared at the messy, almost two-year-old.

“A bit.” His mother laughed. “I was just getting ready to put her in the bathtub. Figured she might as well have some fun. Every kid loves to play with pudding at this age. I’ve got pictures of you and—” she paused for just a moment “—and Sam covered in the sweet stuff.”

A nurse with dark hair passed by in Eli’s peripheral vision. Amara? She’d already slipped into a patient’s room by the time he turned to get a better look.

Why was his mind playing tricks on him tonight?

“Look!” Lizzy giggled as the pudding dripped off her fingers.

Focus, he reminded himself. Smiling at Lizzy, Eli shook his head. “You really are a mess—a cute mess.”

“Daddy!” Lizzy stuck her tongue out at the camera.

Eli’s stomach clenched. That title still felt off. Like he was robbing Sam somehow. “It’s Uncle Eli, sweetheart.”

“Daddy,” Lizzy repeated.

“Well, I’m going to get her cleaned up.” His mom offered a soft smile, though he could see her blink away a few tears. “It’s okay to be daddy, Eli. Maybe it’s what she needs. Sam would understand—even give you a hard time about it.”

“Probably.” Eli agreed, then waved one last time before his mother shut off the video connection. Eli wasn’t Lizzy’s father. Sam was…always would be.

But he was gone.

He’d been killed in a plane crash along with his wife, Yolanda, heading to a surgical conference, just as Lizzy was starting to say her first words.

Like Daddy.

Daddy… It held so much meaning. Eli still felt lost, but Lizzy was his responsibility. No, she was his daughter. When she was older, he would make sure that Lizzy knew as much about her parents as possible.

Sam was the good son, after all. The one who’d followed in his father’s footsteps, though he’d refused to take on any roles at his father’s research facility after Yolanda announced she was pregnant. It was unfair that Eli was now the one putting Sam’s daughter to bed, getting to watch silly pudding videos, planning her future.

And hearing the word Daddy.

When Sam and Yolanda had asked him to be Lizzy’s guardian less than a week after her birth, Eli had agreed without thinking about it. But he’d never expected to take custody of Lizzy. He loved Sam, though watching him with his wife and daughter had always sent a wave of jealousy through him. But Eli’s goals didn’t include a family.

Hadn’t included a family.

In the horrid days after the accident, Eli had held their sleeping child feeling devastated. But he’d sworn to raise her with all the love Sam had shown for her. Somehow, Eli was going to be both an amazing father and a top emergency room doctor. The patients and Lizzy came first. He could do this—he had to.

Turning, he stared at the room where the dark-haired nurse had disappeared a few minutes ago. Eli didn’t think she’d exited yet. If a patient was being difficult, she might need help. That was why he was moving toward the room. Not because he needed to prove to himself that it wasn’t Amara.

Just before he got to the door, Susan grabbed his arm. “I’ve got a kid in room 7 that needs stitches and an elderly man in 4 that probably needs to be admitted for pneumonia. Any chance you can clear either of them out of my ER?”

Your ER?” Eli echoed. “Last time I checked, I was the senior doctor on staff this evening.”

“That supposed to mean something?” Susan quipped as she marched toward another room.

That was Eli’s running joke with Susan. The head nurse had worked at Boston General longer than anyone, and she ran a tight ship. Everyone fell in line when Susan Gradeson ordered it.

Eli looked over his shoulder one last time. But the nurse, or more likely, the figment of his imagination, still hadn’t materialized.

He tried to convince himself that it wasn’t Amara. It wasn’t.

Eli had a few hours left on his shift. He’d see the dark-haired woman before he went home. Then his brain could stop hoping that a miracle had occurred. He had never stopped loving Amara, but that was a feeling he’d learned to live with.

***

Amara held her breath as Dr. Eli Collins finally walked away from the room where she was hiding. Her pulse rate was elevated, and she could feel the heat in her cheeks. Eli was here…here.

She’d already double-checked on the patient, a young woman waiting on her release papers following a minor fender bender. Amara had gone over the concussion protocol with her and made sure she knew the indicators for internal bleeding. Now Amara was hovering. Her stomach twisted as she tried to work out what to do.

She’d left Massachusetts Research after her relationship with Dr. Joe Miller had crashed and burned in full view of all her colleagues. No matter how high she’d held her head, there’d been whispers when Joe immediately started dating her ER colleague Kathleen Hale. Louder whispers when they’d eloped a few weeks later.

Amara had been considering a change for years. If Joe’s affair was the catalyst for it, so what? But now she was facing working with another ex—and she’d never fully recovered from their breakup…

Amara was independent. That was the word she used to describe herself. Independent…that word sounded so much better than afraid of commitment. Terrified of losing your dreams to someone else’s goals. Of disappearing in the one relationship where you were supposed to stand out.

That was the fear that had driven her to walk away from Eli. It had been the right choice. But it didn’t stop the regret that sometimes seeped deep into her bones as she lay awake at night. They wouldn’t have worked. It was the mantra she’d repeated for years. He wanted to chase glory, like her father. Eventually, that need destroyed everything it touched.

She’d watched her mother give all of herself to her father. All her dreams, her goals had been sacrificed to support him. And she’d gotten almost nothing in return.

Even after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Amara’s father hadn’t put away his bid to secure funding for his newest start-up. Her mother had fought for her life without her husband by her side. And it had been Amara holding her hand at the end, not the man she’d stood beside for nearly forty years.

The patient coughed, and Amara’s cheeks heated again. The young woman hadn’t commented on her extended presence—yet, but she was watching Amara count the supplies in the cabinet. Amara made a note to restock the extra-small gloves, and wanted to shake herself.

Coward! her brain screamed. She should march out of the room and pretend that Eli was just any other doctor on the ER floor.

Boston General was supposed to be her fresh start. Her new place.

And Eli was here.

Did he still have to look so handsome?

Amara hated the selfish thought. Eli had been gorgeous in college, and the last decade had been very kind to the man. No beer belly or receding hairline for him. No, he was still the tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired medical student that had been every woman’s dream date. Except now, he was an ER doctor. Not a surgeon.

Joy tapped across Amara’s skin. Eli had evidently followed his own path. That didn’t make it any easier to walk out the door and say hello, but she was surprised by how much it warmed her heart.

Amara once believed they’d grow old together. That they’d work in the same ER and go home to a small house with a couple of kids. It had been a good fantasy, and for a short period, she thought those dreams were enough for Eli too. But what was a happy home life compared to medical glory?

Amara’s heart clenched as she forced the past away.

What was Eli doing at Boston General?

She’d assumed he’d gone to Chicago. It was ridiculous, but every year she checked the online annual hospital report to see if he was listed with the other top surgeons. He’d wanted to be like his father so much, but working at Boston Gen. wasn’t likely to land Eli on that list.

In a city full of prestigious academic hospitals, Boston Gen.’s administration wasn’t interested in attracting investors that would make demands that took resources away from the hospital’s patients. Which meant it was chronically underfunded in its quest to provide quality care. Eventually, many of its talented physicians and nurses sought out the hospitals with research dollars, beautiful new buildings and better hours.

The low retention rate for employees at Boston Gen. was well-known. It was one of the reasons why, when Amara figured she needed a change to jump-start her life, she’d applied here.

If she’d known Eli was working at this hospital… She forced that thought away. It didn’t matter. Amara was not going to be another retention statistic on Boston Gen.’s ledger.

Squaring her shoulders, she marched from the room and ran directly into the head nurse, Susan.

“Sorry!” Amara grabbed her to keep them from tumbling to the floor. She instinctively looked over Susan’s shoulder. Eli was gone—at least he hadn’t witnessed her bout of clumsiness.

What would he say when they finally crossed paths?

Amara ignored that thought. She didn’t want to think about Eli, now. Or ever, though there was little hope of that.

“No harm done…?” Wrinkles ran along Susan’s forehead as she stared at her.

“Amara,” she said helpfully. She’d stepped in at the end of their orientation yesterday when Susan had announced that the ER was short-staffed for this evening’s shift. Amara doubted the head nurse had even bothered to write her name down before rushing back to her post.

She looked around Susan one more time and then mentally chastised herself. Amara needed to get Eli out of her head.

“Looking for someone?” Susan raised an eyebrow.

“A doctor… I…no,” she stuttered.

Amara suspected Susan knew she was lying, but at least she didn’t press her. “While we have a lull, I wanted to see if you’d help with the health fair in a few weeks. All the hospital’s departments have a few booths. Several of the ER doctors always run their own. There is a competition—the winner gets two extra vacation days.”

Eli would love that. He’d thrived in competitive environments in college—always pushing himself to come out on top. But Amara hadn’t been the right prize. She knew that wasn’t fair, but a decade later, she still woke up from dreams where he was holding her. Her subconscious refused to give up the whisper of hope Amara was too scared to voice while awake.

Pain rippled up her spine, but she ignored it. Amara was starting a new chapter, and it did not include Dr. Eli Collins. Straightening her shoulders, she gave Susan her full attention. “Put me down for whichever booth needs help.” Her voice didn’t sound as strong as she wanted, but at least it was a start.

A man walked behind Susan, and Amara made sure to keep her gaze focused on the head nurse. She was not going to look for Eli again—she wasn’t.

“You might want to get to know the doctors who are participating first. Like I said, this helps the community, but the competition…”

Amara waved away Susan’s concerns. “It’s fine. I don’t need extra vacation time.” Her father and his new wife lived in California now, and she had no desire to visit.

Not that she’d been invited.

Jovan Patel had barely waited until her mother was gone to set a wedding date. No long mourning period for him.

“We’ve got a four-car pileup coming in!” one of the nurses cried as she ran past Amara and Susan.

Susan turned and yelled, “Dr. Collins was talking to his daughter over by room 3, but he might be in room 7, putting in a few stitches now, and Dr. Stanford is in room 6.”

Amara’s insides chilled. Eli had a daughter. Perhaps even a wife. Her heart raced as she headed for the ambulance bay doors. It was her body prepping for the incoming wounded, not because of Eli.

How simple would life be if she could believe that?

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Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels, Quirky Stories, The Writing Life

After the Happily Ever-After

Romance is the only genre that guarantees a happily-ever-after. That warm fuzzy feeling that everything will be alright is baked in. If that premise isn’t met, then the book is not a romance, despite the multitude of lists that routinely tout non-happily ever afters as the “Greatest Romance.” Looking at you, Wuthering Heights and Great Gatsby!

What we never really get to see is the “after” story. Sure, we may get a brief epilogue a few months or a few years later. Usually, it’s a snapshot showing that the couple is still happy and often starting or growing their family. But then what?

The truth is that what happens next looks a lot less exciting to the outside world. It doesn’t have the tension of will they or won’t they to keep the story going. If I included it in my novels, I know my lovely editor would tell me that it might be better on the cutting room floor.

But it’s the simple bits after the grand declarations that make a great love story. On Tuesday, my husband and I will celebrate thirteen years of marriage. Our day to day life is routine now. We’re raising two girls, going to the office, making dinner, and binge-watching Netflix. He’s on his tablet as I type these words. It is not the stuff that lands between the covers of my books.

But it is what my books are based on. That feeling that love can last forever. That years into the future, two people can look past the gray hairs and smile lines and wonder how did I get so lucky?

My husband still gets up and shovels the snow off my car, even when he doesn’t have to be at work until much later than me. He always starts the electric kettle so I can pour hot water over my coffee grounds as soon as I come downstairs. Though that may be self-preservation – I am a nightmare before caffeine! And he’s shouldered more than his fair share of housework, homework, and carpooling when I am on a tight deadline.

These are the moments that make a real happily ever after. And I want my readers to believe my characters are still doing these things for their partner long after the epilogue has ended. Because no matter who you are or who you love, we are all worthy of someone who treasures us – years after the vows have been said.

Happy early anniversary to my hero. Thanks for the inspiration.

Juliette Hyland_Wedding

Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

Adventures in Homeschooling – or Stuff I never Planned For!

Like many around the world, my girls were released from school by the governor of Ohio. This resulted in a bit of a mad scramble as my husband and I tried to adjust our schedules. My girls are in the fifth and second grades, and we dealt with more than a few understandable tears about missing friends and teachers.

Before I became a cubicle dwelling civil servant, I went through all the steps to be a high school teacher. Except actually getting my license. So, I told the girls we would be moving to a homeschooling routine because “Mom’s got this.”

UntitledNarrator voice: Mom did not, in fact, have this!

I decided that my girls would pick a topic and research it throughout the week and then give a small presentation. My youngest picked jellyfish. Which have no hearts or brains and have been around since before the dinosaurs! But I digress.

My oldest chose volcanoes. She loves all things rocks and has planned to be a geologist since she was six. She read through all her library books on volcanos during her reading and free time on day one. Maybe I should have made her pick books from the adult section…live and learn.

When she asked to do additional research online, I said sure. I figured she’d watch a few Youtube videos on volcanic eruptions and lava flow before getting bored and moving to something else. What could go wrong?

Pompeii. Pompeii. Pompeii.

Five minutes into research, my ten year old was looking through images with her eight year old sister. Who then came running to me after seeing the famous picture of the mom laying in the street covering her baby with her body. Less than forty-eight hours in, I had one in tears and another horrified.

If they’d been a bit older, this would have no doubt been a great learning assignment. Instead, it heightened fear in a time when fear is already baked into the atmosphere.  Mom fail!

From a geography standpoint, both my kids now know there are no volcanoes in Ohio. Or the surrounding states. And our topics for this week do not include any things that cause natural disasters.

One thing I did get right was letting them watch the Facebook lives that the Cincinnati Zoo is posting every day at 3 pm Eastern Standard Time.  So far, we have learned about hippos, sloths, porcupines, lions, and penguins! If you can’t catch it live, they are keeping the videos on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cincinnatizoo/

JulietteWe are also practicing cookie decorating this week:

Our schools are out for at least the next four weeks, so I am sure there will be more mom fails. And that’s okay because there will undoubtedly be mom successes (at least one or two).  I hope everyone stays safe and sane. Remember – you got this!

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some resources I found helpful.

https://www.khanacademy.org/

https://www.homeschool.com/

https://www.thoughtco.com/homeschooling-basics-101-1832577

https://www.facebook.com/KennedySpaceCenterVisitorComplex/ – live science lessons

 

Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical Romance Novels

When a Character Just Pops in!

NAIt seems unbelievable that my first book is being published next month. Unlocking the Ex-Army Doc’s Heart, was such fun to write. Mostly because my heroine popped into my head one afternoon and then refused to quiet down.

Last March, Harlequin announced the Medical Blitz, and I knew I had to put something in. Unfortunately, all the ideas I had were less than stellar. Some were downright terrible.

I was hovering over note cards and near tears when my oldest asked me to watch Fuller House on Netflix.

For those raised on the wonderfulness that was Full House in the 1980s and 1990s, this show follows a few of the main characters all grown up. My girls love it! There are multiple references to one important missing character – Michelle Tanner. The adorable kid played by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

After a bit of online searching, I learned that the Olsen twins left the spotlight once they were in their early twenties. They are now successful fashion designers and have no desire to return to acting. My brain went into overdrive. What if one or both of these women had gone into medicine instead of fashion?

Annie materialized in that instant and demanded I tell her story.

Annie

Dr. Annie Masters marched out of stardom to get away from her controlling mother. She enlisted in the Army and trained as an Army medic and then became a general practitioner. She now runs her own clinic in Alaska – as far away from the spotlight as possible.

When Dr. Rafe Bradstone arrives as a short-term replacement physician, Annie is unimpressed by his guest spots on the Dr. Dave Show. But when she sees the depth behind the playboy’s public persona, the walls she’s placed around her heart begin to melt.

Unlocking the Ex-Army Doc’s Heart is out in May, but I hope you enjoy this short excerpt.

Chapter One

Dr. Rafe Bradstone shivered as he stepped to the door of the small plane. Pulling his scarf across his mouth, he bounced from foot to foot as he grabbed his duffel bag. The wind blasted his face as he stepped onto the Tarmac, and goose bumps rose across his body. The heavy jacket he’d acquired at the last minute in LA seemed pathetically inadequate. How did the residents of the Arctic get warm?

Stepping into the airport waiting area, Rafe sighed as warm air slid around him.

“Excuse me.” A woman with black curls pushed past him.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stop in front of the door.”

She didn’t hear him as she raced toward a pair of happy kids. The kids hopped around her, each trying to outshout the other as their father hugged her. The love pooling between the small family was evident—these children never had to fight for their mother’s attention.

Rafe’s stomach tightened and he forced his eyes away from the lovely scene. It had been over a year since he’d found his mother, and two hundred and sixty-one days since she’d ordered him off her porch. Rafe wanted to believe the pain of her abandonment would fade, but his heart was still raw.

The woman with dark curls placed one child on her hip and held the other’s hand as she walked out of the airport. That was the way it was supposed to be: a mother loved her children, wanted to be with them. Glaring at his hands, Rafe wondered why his mother didn’t react that way. What was wrong with him that his simple presence caused her pain rather than excitement?

His phone beeped. Burying the pain, he answered without looking at the caller ID. “Hello, Carrie.”

His agent didn’t waste words on a greeting. “Why are there social media posts of you in Alaska?”

Rafe started to roll his eyes but caught himself. Carrie was supposed to be interested in his professional life. It wasn’t her fault this opportunity for him to serve in Blue Ash, Alaska, conflicted with his television duties, or that witnessing a family hugging their mom had put him in such a bad mood.

Keeping his tone level, he leaned against the wall. “Because I ran into a few fans of The Dr. Dave Show. They wanted a selfie, and I couldn’t say no.”

That wasn’t true. He could have said no, but Rafe never wanted to. Whenever someone ran up to him, phone outstretched and excited, Rafe got to be a part of their life—to belong. It only lasted a moment, but he treasured each fan who wanted a memory with him. They never told him to go away.

Rafe had accepted the part-time host position on Dr. Dave, a medical talk show promoting healthy living techniques, hosted by a bevy of attractive practitioners, to help pay off his medical school debts. The legion of daytime television fans was just a great perk.

“You know that isn’t what I mean.” The sound of Carrie’s nails clicking on her desk echoed down the phone.

Chuckling, Rafe ignored her tone. “I told you I was volunteering at an outpost clinic in Northern Alaska for a few weeks.”

“I assumed you were joking.” Her screech tore through the speaker. “You’re Dave’s favorite substitute host, and you’re scheduled to be on during the live Thanksgiving special!”

“I know my schedule.”

 

He smiled as a plump middle-aged woman rushed toward him. She danced on her toes while she waited for him to stand.

“Dr. Bradstone! It is you! I love The Dr. Dave Show. You should be on all the time. Your interviews are always the best. Better than Dave’s! Can I get a picture with you?”

“Of course.”

His soul felt a touch lighter as she slid her arm around his waist and his loneliness disappeared as she raised her cellphone. He owed this brief window of happiness to The Dr. Dave Show. Rafe was determined to get that fulltime host position and all the acceptance that came with it.

Patches of pink highlighted her cheeks as the woman stepped back. “Thank you.” Pushing a strand of salt-and-pepper hair from her face, she scrunched her nose. “I’m Helen Henkle and this is my husband, Jack.” She nodded toward a reed-thin man striding toward them. “We’re your ride to Blue Ash.”

Jack barely glanced at Rafe as he huffed, “You’re going to need better shoes if you want to keep all of your appendages.”

Variations on this theme had peppered Rafe’s conversations since he’d crossed the Alaskan border yesterday. The tingle of cold in his toes made it seem more dire now that he was in the Arctic Circle.

Staring at his shoes, Rafe moved his digits. “We don’t have much need for cold weather gear in Los Angeles.”

“Well, up here it can mean the difference between ten toes or two. Don’t want to explain to your grandchildren that you sacrificed a few toes rather than wear sensible boots.”

Helen slapped her husband on the shoulder before offering Rafe a smile. “A man can get around on eight toes.” Ignoring her husband’s frown, Helen waved her hand toward Jack’s feet. “It’ll be a good way to ensure your children or grandchildren always wear their boots.”

A flash of pain echoed across his belly as Rafe grabbed his bag and followed them onto the Tarmac. It didn’t matter how many toes he kept, there were going to be no grandchildren to look at his feet. His family tree didn’t have a great track record as parents, and Rafe didn’t plan to extend that legacy.

Helen giggled as she slid into the seat next to him in Jack’s tiny plane. “A real celebrity in Blue Ash. Well, if you don’t count—” Helen coughed and smiled at her husband.

“Dr. A is expecting us. If you and the Playboy Doctor are ready, we’ll get going.”

Playboy Doctor… That tagline had been assigned to him because it sold magazines and received website clicks, not because it was true.

“That isn’t a word I’d use to describe myself.” The defense slid from Rafe’s lips before he could stop it. He didn’t owe these strangers, or anyone else, an explanation.

“Of course.” The words were even, but the man’s lip twitched before he let his eyes slide over Rafe.

Rafe shifted, hating the ball of tension pooling in his belly. He’d been weighed and found lacking. Again… It shouldn’t matter. Rafe didn’t know Jack or Helen. Still his tongue itched to defend himself, to make them understand that Rafe knew what playboys were and how much damage they could cause.

After all, he looked just like a particular one—though the tabloids didn’t know that. To them it was a flashy headline. To Rafe it was a curse.

Rafe was his father’s doppelganger. His mother had referred to him as his father’s mini-me—though it hadn’t been a term of endearment. Rafe’s father had been an attractive professional dancer, and he’d been on the road constantly. His mother’s stable job as an accounting assistant had kept a roof over their heads, but with each new trip away for his father, each new booking, each lonely night, she’d become more vindictive.

When his parents hadn’t been arguing about his father’s many infidelities, they’d been yelling about Rafe. His mother would scream that she never got a break from being a mom—no fancy dancing getaways for her. His father would yell that he hadn’t wanted a kid anyway.

Neither of them had paid any attention to the small child in the corner. Rafe might not have understood everything they were screaming about, but he’d always known that his father hadn’t wanted him.

Why had he believed his mother had?

Rubbing his hands on his pants, Rafe tried to focus on the frozen scenery below. His father had died in a car accident with another woman a few days after his seventh birthday. A date neither of his parents had remembered, let alone celebrated. His mother had always constantly reminded Rafe of how he looked like the stupid cheater she’d married. She’d given up even trying to pretend she cared after that.

Infidelity had destroyed his family, and he would never repeat that mistake.

A few days before his eighth birthday, Social Services had taken custody of him. Rafe had bounced around the system until he’d aged out on his eighteenth birthday. He’d lived with many families but had never earned acceptance—never got to permanently belong. Now, when he was on set, he was the successful Dr. Rafe Bradstone, and for a little while that wound in his heart that had never closed bled a bit less.

Rafe was grateful no one attempted to make small talk on the short hop to Blue Ash. He needed to close off the pain twisting through him.

Rafe squinted as a small runway began to take shape ahead. “Are we going to land there?” The strip didn’t look wide enough to handle the small Cessna.

Patting the plane’s yoke, Jack grinned. “Don’t worry, Doc. I’ve landed my baby in much worse conditions.”

The broad smile spilling across Jack’s craggy features did little to calm the nerves dancing in Rafe’s belly. And as the wheels touched the ground they slid. Rafe’s cry of alarm echoed through the tiny cockpit, but his fear was quickly replaced with embarrassment as Jack pulled the plane to a perfect stop.

“That runway has one patch of ice and you aimed for it. There was no need to demonstrate your skill on ice!” a husky voice yelled over the sound of the slowing propellers.

“Gotta toughen up the newbie. This region doesn’t usually get stars whose faces are splashed across the tabloids.” Jack tossed Rafe’s bag to him as he turned to greet the young woman on the Tarmac.

“Tabloids are designed to make money, Jack, not to tell the truth.”

The tiny welcome party was buried in an oversize parka, and her bright orange scarf hid everything but her stunning gray eyes. She met Rafe’s gaze. The roar of the engine, the pilot’s judgement, even the bite of the wind as it stole through his jacket—all vanished as her eyes searched his.

“I bet you’re cold!” She motioned for him to follow her into what he assumed must be the clinic.

Heat marched up Rafe’s neck. He hadn’t even introduced himself—just stared at her. Matching her step, Rafe tried to think of a way to salvage this introduction.

“Welcome to Blue Ash.”

Red hair tumbled from the hood of the parka as the woman hung her coat on a hook.

“Thanks.”

Freckles danced across her nose, and Rafe sucked in a breath. His fingers wanted to trace each one. It was a ridiculous notion. She was exquisite, but so were many of the women in and around LA.

Fire erupted across his skin as he tried to regain his composure. He was not going to make a fool of himself. Rafe flashed a bright smile as he hung up his own coat. He would swear he knew her, but it was a crazy thought. Rafe didn’t know anyone in this state. His brain itched, urging him to find her name.

His heart sped up as his mind put the puzzle pieces together. He barely resisted the urge to slap himself. This Arctic goddess was a woman he and much of the world had once welcomed into their living rooms weekly.

“You’re Charlotte Greene.”

“I played the character Charlotte Greene.” The phrase didn’t sound bitter as it escaped her lips, just resigned—and exceedingly well rehearsed. “My name is Annie…”

“Right…”

Everyone knew who Annie was; she’d graced every teen magazine and even landed a cover for Vogue before she turned seventeen. He hadn’t meant to refer to her as Charlotte Greene. It had just popped out.

“I didn’t realize you were hiding in Alaska.”

Regret pooled around him as her full lips turned down. He was saying all the wrong things.

Annie crossed her arms as she lifted her chin. “I’m not hiding.”