When Dr. Tyler Fresno stared down at the woman on the stretcher, he had the weirdest sensation that he had met his destiny and there was absolutely nothing he could do to alter his fate.
If someone had pressed him to elaborate on his feelings he would not have been able to put it into words, but there was no denying the rush of anxiety that clutched his stomach and held fast when he gazed upon her.
“Details,” Tyler demanded of the eager young emergency room intern following at his heels.
“Jane Doe. MVA. Rollover. Found unconscious at the scene. BP seventy-two over forty-eight,” the earnest physician-in-training reeled off. “X ray reveals hairline fracture of the right femur. Minor facial lacerations. Possible ruptured spleen. Neuro signs intact.”
The woman’s eyes were shuttered closed, her dark blond hair fanned across the pillowcase. Tyler placed her age somewhere between late twenties and early thirties. There was a superficial cut over one eyebrow and another along her jaw. Those wounds wouldn’t even require stitches.
She was a beautiful woman with a proud aquiline nose that at the moment played host to green plastic oxygen tubing. Her lips were salmon-colored, her cheeks pale. Her face was slender, her complexion as flawless as a cosmetics model’s.
Tyler snapped on a pair of rubber latex gloves, slipped a yellow barrier gown over his starched white lab jacket and tied a surgical mask over his clean-shaven face. He had just stepped from the shower after a twelve-hour workday when he had gotten the phone call. He’d been preparing for dinner out with friends, but as usual, the hospital had changed his plans at the last minute. Tyler couldn’t say he minded too much. He was happiest when working and this case promised to be more intriguing than most.
And there was nothing he liked more than a complicated medical puzzle to solve.
“Go on,” he prompted the intern, his eyes focused intently on the inert woman lying so still beneath the crisp green sheet.
A strange sensation slithered over him. Something he couldn’t name. Not trepidation, but something similar. Apprehension?
But why should he feel apprehensive?
“She has what appears to be mild chemical burns scattered over her arms and legs.”
“Chemical burns?” Tyler repeated, frowning.
The intern shrugged. “The paramedics found shattered glass vials throughout her car and an empty lockbox with a biohazard sticker on it. Apparently, she was transporting some volatile drug or chemical, and during the course of the accident the lockbox clasp was damaged and the vials tumbled out.”
“Do we know what we’re dealing with here?”
The intern shook his head. “The vials weren’t labeled but the paramedics were able to retrieve a small sample.”
“You’re saying the paramedics were exposed?”
“Potentially.” Tyler swung his gaze to the younger man. “We could have toxic contamination.”
The intern nodded. “Dammit, where’s the Hazardous Materials team?”
“I want this side of the E.R. evacuated and this room sealed off. Immediately.”
“And anyone else who came in contact with this patient needs to be examined. Have those paramedics admitted for observation.”
He could tell the intern thought he was going overboard, but the young pup was wet behind the ears. The man had no idea what lingering effects chemical substances could have on the human body, nor did he have a clue how serious this could be for the young woman. He hadn’t seen the dark things Tyler had seen. Hadn’t experienced the devastation of chemical warfare firsthand.
“Hop to it,” Tyler commanded.
The intern spun on his heels and hurried out the door, pulling it tightly closed behind him.
“Well now, Jane,” Tyler crooned, stepping up to the gurney. “Just what have you gotten yourself into?”
Jane Doe did not respond.
He studied the heart monitor attached by electrical wires leading to conductive gel pads on her chest. Normal sinus rhythm. A good sign. Apparently the mystery chemical hadn’t affected her cardiac functioning.
Hang in there, Jane. He mentally willed her; determination a solid fist in his gut. I’ll take care of you.
The emotional intensity of his thoughts startled him. He wanted to help all of his patients, but there was something special about this woman and he did not know what it was or why. He just knew that he felt committed to her case in a way he hadn’t experienced in a very long time.
Peeling back the covers, he allowed his gaze to rove over her while his fingers investigated. A smattering of first-degree contact burns carpeted her arms and legs. Tyler sucked in his breath and shook his head.
Her chest rose and fell in a shallow rhythm. Her body was lithe, supple. Her firm musculature told him that she worked out often and her lack of a tan meant she was either conscientious about the use of sunscreen or spent most of her time indoors. Her breasts were high and firm. Her abdomen was flat.
Tyler registered these things and tried hard not to be moved by them. He was a professional. A doctor. He’d seen thousands of unclothed women and had never been aroused. He was a surgeon, and because of his stint in the first Gulf War, also something of an expert on chemical exposure. Apparently, that was why the intern had called him in to consult on the case.
Curiously enough, considering she’d been exposed to a potentially harmful chemical, her respirations were deep and unlabored. Color good. Her blood pressure was low but he could put that down to the internal bleeding from her spleen, not from the chemical.
Tyler made a mental note to get her lab analysis as soon as possible. Until he knew what he was up against he was not taking any unnecessary chances. She needed surgery but anesthesia at this juncture might be risky. He would not operate until he knew what he was dealing with or until her physical circumstances deteriorated, forcing his hand.
She moaned when he pressed the right-upper quadrant of her abdomen where her spleen was located. He glanced up and saw her eyelids flutter open.
Their gazes met.
The woman looked like a delicate doe startled in the woods by the sound of a hunter’s gun.
Something stirred inside him. Her vulnerability reached out to him, strumming a chord that was far too familiar. In a flash, he saw a loneliness inside her that matched his own, a sense of desolation that ran as deep as the pain he had harbored for so long.
The connection was instantaneous and frightening in its power.
For God’s sakes, Fresno, stop it.
She was his patient, he was her doctor and even if she weren’t his patient, she deserved much more than a damaged man who’d lost his ability to love.
“Miss?” he said, purposefully denying the heavy thump, thump, thump of his heart. “Can you hear me?”
“Marcus,” she mumbled.
“I’m Dr. Tyler Fresno, and you’re in the emergency room at Saint Madeline’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. You were involved in a motor vehicle accident.” Tyler leaned closer and touched her shoulder. “Can you tell me your name?”
She shifted away.
“Are you in pain?” She didn’t answer or meet his gaze again.
Tyler pressed the button on the electronic blood pressure cuff—88/62. Her BP was up. Excellent news. Perhaps her spleen wasn’t bleeding as profusely as he had feared.
“Can you tell me your name?” he repeated.
“Your name is Marcus?”
“Marcus.” Her lips puckered in a whisper. She stirred. “Where are you?”
Was Marcus her husband? Tyler glanced at her ring finger and saw that it was bare. A woman as beautiful as this one was no doubt married or engaged or at least had a significant other. Somewhere, somebody, probably this Marcus fellow, was worried about her.
A twist of pain stabbed through him as he imagined how frantic her husband must be. If she were his wife…
No. She wasn’t his wife. She was a patient. She meant nothing to him beyond the healing of her injuries. That detached attitude had kept him sane and functioning for the last six years. It was the only attitude he could entertain.
“Miss,” he said, “we need to take you to surgery. You’ve suffered internal injuries and your right leg has a hairline fracture.”
Her eyes were closed again. She did not move.
Tyler shook her. “Is there someone we can call? A family member? Your boss?”
Her eyes flew open and he noticed they were as blue as the ocean outside his beach house on Galveston Island. “No,” she snapped. “There’s no one.”
At least he had gotten a response. “What’s your name?” he repeated.
Fear flitted across her face. She paused a moment before saying hesitantly, “I don’t know.”
He had the oddest notion that she was lying, but it wasn’t that unusual for patients to suffer temporary amnesia following a major trauma such as a car accident. So maybe he was imagining things.
“Can you tell me what chemicals you were transporting? It’s important.”
“Chemicals?” Her voice went up an octave and she dropped her gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There were no chemicals in my car.”
“The paramedics found broken glass vials and a damaged empty lockbox in your vehicle.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jane Doe repeated, but she still refused to meet his gaze.
“It’s important. Your life might depend upon this.”
“I’m sorry,” she insisted. “I don’t remember anything about any chemical.”
“Where were you going?”
She shook her head. “I can’t recall. Are the paramedics okay? Did they come into contact with these chemicals?”
Something flickered in her eyes. Remorse? He knew now that she was lying but he had no idea why.
“Possibly.” Two could play this withholding information game. A little guilt might loosen her tongue. “I’ve got to check your lab values, then I’ll be right back with some papers for you to sign. Permission to do surgery. Since you don’t know what your name is, you can sign with an X.”
“All right,” Jane Doe murmured, and he had the suspicion she was simply placating him.
He left the examining room and stepped into the empty work lane. He pulled the door closed behind him, sealing the woman inside. His mind whirled. What had just passed between the two of them? Why was his pulse thready, his breathing rapid?
The intern, obeying his command, had shut down one whole side of the E.R. The HAZMAT decontamination team had arrived garbed in gas masks and rubber suits. The three men carried instruments that looked something like Geiger counters. A band of curious nurses watched the proceedings from behind a glass partition. A representative from administration waited with them, safely out of harm’s way, no doubt fretting over the cost involved.
“Doctor.” One of the members of the decontamination unit moved to block his exit.
Tyler knew what to do without being told. He stopped, raised his arms level with his shoulders and allowed them to run their instruments over his body, searching for foreign material.
“You’re clean,” the man said at last. “But I recommend you decontaminate, just in case.”
“Do you have any idea what the chemical is?” Tyler asked.
“No, sir.” The man shook his head. “We just came from the accident site and we’ve impounded the car.”
Whatever the chemical was, it must have a short half-life if the HAZMAT crew had been unable to find anything. He would check with the lab, then visit the paramedics. Tyler stripped off the barrier gown, the rubber gloves and paper mask and tossed the items in a special biomedical-hazards bin located near the exit. After scouring his skin in the decontamination shower, he dressed in fresh hospital scrubs and combed his damp hair.
As he left the E.R. and headed for the lab, he was stopped in the corridor by a uniformed police officer.
“I’m Officer Blankenship and I understand you examined the Jane Doe who was brought in this evening from the MVA on Interstate 45.”
“When can we interview her?”
Tyler shook his head. “I’m afraid she won’t be much help. She’s suffering from amnesia and I’ll probably be taking her to surgery soon.”
“We understand from several eyewitnesses that she was forced off the road by a white sedan. We need to confirm that.”
“Come back in the morning, officer. You’ll be able to talk to her then.”
“Will do.” The policeman thanked him and left.
Tyler continued on his way, his mind on his patient. Someone had intentionally run her off the road? If so, why? Did it have anything to do with those chemicals she was transporting? Or was it a random case of road rage? He worried his brow with his fingers and pushed through the door into the lab. There he found a wizened technician peering through a microscope.
“Any luck identifying the chemical that Jane Doe was transporting?” he asked the ruddy complexioned, sixty-year-old Irishman perched on the stool.
Danny O’Brien, of the twinkling blue eyes, infectious grin and short stature, abandoned the microscope. He greeted Tyler with a hearty slap on the shoulder. “I shoulda known you would be the one behind this mess. You’ve played havoc with my dinner hour.”
“Hey, I didn’t start it.” Tyler grinned. “E.R. called me as a consult.”
Danny sobered. “I think you better take a look at her blood work.” He handed Tyler a computer printout with Jane Doe’s name at the top and list of lab values beneath.
“Her white blood cell and reticulocyte counts are dangerously low.” Tyler’s heart plummeted.
Cancer. The word ripped through his mind and he immediately thought of Yvette. Did Jane Doe have cancer? Had the woman taken matters into her own hands and concocted her own bizarre chemotherapy? She wouldn’t have been the first to try such a daring and desperate experiment. It would explain her reluctance to admit to having the chemicals in her possession.
“Such a shame,” he whispered and stroked a finger over the piece of paper as if stroking her in a gesture of comfort.
How tragic that a woman so young and beautiful could be in such dire trouble. He didn’t want to feel the surge of sadness that rose inside him, but he did. He clenched his jaw, chasing away the softness in his heart. He plucked a prescription pad from the pocket of his lab jacket and scribbled something on it.
“Run these additional tests. And page me the minute you have a fix on that chemical.”
“We don’t have enough blood left to run all this,” Danny said. “Could you get me another sample? The HAZMAT team is only letting essential personnel into her room.”
“Will do.” Tyler nodded. He felt sorry for her. She was in pain. All alone. Not even remembering her own name.
“She got to you, didn’t she?”
“What?” Tyler stopped at the door and turned to stare at Danny.
“Jane Doe.” Danny tapped the left side of his chest.
“No.” Tyler denied Danny’s perceptive observations.
How had he slipped? Usually, he maintained an impassive countenance. The stone wall he had erected over the years served him quite well. He lived his life on the surface, never delving too deeply into anything or anyone. Hadn’t he prided himself on masking his feelings, on how well he kept out of his patients’ personal lives? No cozy bedside manner for Tyler Fresno. He was all business. His colleagues admired his objectivity, his self-reliance. What would they say if they knew about the tender emotions Jane Doe had stirred in him?
He’d better watch himself. If Danny had picked up on his mind-set, others would too.
“You’re full of romantic blarney, Danny O’Brien,” Tyler said gruffly.
“Yes.” Danny’s eyes twinkled. “But without a little romantic drama where would a man be?”
Then Tyler realized with alarming consternation the door he had slammed and locked shut six years ago had fallen off its hinges, revealing a gaping hole just aching to be filled.
Time was running out.
Dr. Hannah Zachary couldn’t afford the luxury of a hospital stay. She had to find Marcus. It was imperative.
He was the only one who could help her now. The only one who could understand the gravity of the situation.
Lionel Daycon and his nefarious cronies would stop at nothing. She had learned that tragic lesson all too well and now she was paying a very high price for her naiveté.
Hannah bit down hard on her bottom lip, fighting back the swell of tears. She had no time for self-pity. Too much was at stake. Too many lives hung in the balance. It was up to her to stop Daycon before he unleashed Virusall on an unsuspecting world.
Virusall. The elixir that was supposed to have been a miracle cure that obliterated all viruses. A unique and stunning medication that anticipated a virus’s ability to mutate and destroyed it completely.
Virusall. The drug she had invented. The drug that had once promised to revolutionize medicine.
Until three days ago when the results of the initial clinical trials had started coming in and her world had collapsed.
Hannah shuddered against the memory. The side effects were horrific. Everyone with type O blood who used Virusall experienced violent psychotic episodes three to four weeks after they’d ingested the drug. One test subject had committed suicide, another had beaten his family, yet another had randomly attacked a group of schoolchildren.
And she was the one responsible.
Hannah shuddered again.
Immediately after receiving the first disturbing report, she’d gone to see her boss Lionel Daycon. She’d never liked the unctuous man, but he’d had deep pockets and an amazing laboratory. He’d left her alone to work as she pleased, and Hannah had convinced herself that carrying out her deceased parents’ ground-breaking experiments with the Ebola virus was far more important than trusting her boss. The virus had killed her parents. There was no better way to honor their deaths.
How she’d deluded herself!
On Monday afternoon, she’d walked into Daycon’s office, but he wasn’t there. Restless, agitated, she’d begun to pace and that’s when the fax had come through. When the faxed paper floated to the floor, she’d picked it up. She hadn’t meant to violate Daycon’s privacy, but the word Virusall had caught her eye and compelled, she’d read on.
By the end of the letter, she was trembling with fear and fury.
What she learned from the fax was that Daycon had known for days about Virusall’s deadly side effects. Not only had he known about it, but he was capitalizing on it. He’d been corresponding with overseas terrorists, promising them tailor-made assassins for exorbitant sums of money. All they had to do was administer Virusall to anyone with type O blood, wait a few weeks and then put a weapon in their hands. Absolutely, carnage would result.
Most alarming of all, however, was that the fax had originated from inside the CIA. Someone high up in the government was not only sanctioning Daycon’s exploits, but had actually instigated the contacts for him.
Armed with this knowledge, she knew she couldn’t risk going to the authorities. Desperate to keep the drug out of the wrong hands, Hannah had taken an irrevocable step by obliterating every scrap of written data related to the drug. Except for an e-mail message she’d sent to Marcus that included an encrypted formula for Virusall.
She’d also had the presence of mind to reserve ten vials of the elixir in hopes that she and Marcus might create an antidote together in order to administer it to those unfortunate test subjects. She’d packed the vials carefully and secured them in a metal lockbox. After that, she’d set fire to the lab and fled without even retrieving her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk.
And then one cold, dreary November evening two desperate days later somewhere outside of Houston, on a stretch of rain-soaked highway, Daycon’s henchmen had run her off the road. Only the presence of concerned motorists pulling over to help had saved her.
She recalled the sickening crunch of metal as her little Fiat had hydroplaned after being struck repeatedly by the henchmen’s car. It had hit the median and rolled end over end. She cringed as she heard again the sound of her own screams, as the impact had wrenched open the lockbox sending the glass vials flying around the car. She’d felt the hot splash of Virusall burn her skin in numerous places and she remembered saying a prayer of thanks that she had type AB negative blood just before she’d lost consciousness.
Somewhere, Daycon’s goons still lurked, waiting for the opportunity to finish the job they’d left undone.
She had to get out of here.
Five minutes after Dr. Be-Still-My-Beating-Heart Fresno had left her alone, Hannah sat up on the gurney, flung back the stiff green sheet that smelled of antiseptic and peered down at her right leg. Hadn’t he claimed her femur was fractured?
Tentatively, she ran a hand along her thigh. Her leg seemed fine. Puzzled, Hannah looked around the room at the medical equipment stored on the shelves. A defibrillator and crash cart stood beside a suction machine and a heart monitor. She heard the steady blip, and saw that her heart rhythm was normal. Leaning over, Hannah flicked the Off button, silencing the machine.
The overhead lights beamed down hot and bright. She wore a flimsy hospital gown and nothing else. Not even her underwear. Where were her clothes?
Plucking the oxygen tubing from her nose and peeling the sticky monitor pads from her chest, she then carefully swung her legs over the edge of the gurney. Her head swam and she was forced to grip the railing for support. Once she had regained her equilibrium, Hannah eased her bare feet onto the tile floor and hissed in a breath against the shocking coldness.
She had to get out of here. Before Daycon’s goons came back. Before the police showed up. Before Dr. Handsome returned and started demanding answers. She knew he hadn’t believed her when she’d lied about not knowing her own name. She had seen the suspicion in his dark eyes, had heard the doubt echo in the richly resonant tones that matched his cautious demeanor. She lied to protect him, to keep him from getting any more involved with her than he already was.
And any minute he would be back, wanting to take her to surgery. Hannah couldn’t allow that to happen. If she succumbed to anesthesia she would be too vulnerable.
What a predicament.
She had no money, no identification and no clothes. Plus, she had a movie-star handsome doctor who made her pulse race and wanted to slice her open. To top it all off, she was starving.
As if to illustrate the point, her stomach growled.
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