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San Francisco, California, February 11
The headline on Page 2 slammed Cal Jeffords in the face.
Two Years Later Exec's Widow, Foundation Cash Are Both Still Missing Swearing like a longshoreman, Cal crumpled the morning paper in his fist. The last thing he needed was a reminder that today was the second anniversary of his best friend and business partner's suicide. And he didn't need that grainy file photo to help him remember Nick and his wife, Megan, with her movie-star beauty, her designer clothes, her multimillion-dollar showplace of a home and her appalling lack of human decency that let her steal from a charity and then leave her husband to carry the blame.
With a grunt of frustration, he crammed the newspaper into the waste basket.
He had no doubt that the whole ugly mess was Megan's fault. But the questions that still haunted him two years later were how and why? Had Megan coerced Nick into complying? Had the demands of their lavish lifestyle driven Nick Rafferty to embezzle millions from J-COR's charity foundation? Or had Megan embezzled the money herself and forced her husband to take the blame? She'd had plenty of opportunities to siphon off the cash her fundraisers brought in. He'd even found evidence that she had.
But Cal would never know for sure. The day after the scandal went public, he'd found Nick slumped over his desk, his hand still clutching the pistol that had ended his life. After the private funeral, Megan had vanished. The stolen money, meant to ease the suffering of third-world refugees, was never recovered.
It didn't take a genius to make the connection.
Too restless to sit, Cal unfolded his athletic frame and prowled to the window that spanned the outer wall. His office, on the twenty-eighth floor of the J-COR building, commanded a sweeping view of the Bay and the bridge that spanned the choppy, gray water. Beyond the Golden Gate, the stormy Pacific stretched as far as the eye could see.
Megan was out there somewhere. Cal could feel it, like a sickness in his bones. He could picture her in some faraway land, living like a maharani on the millions stolen from his foundation.
It wasn't so much the missing cash itself that troubled himalthough the loss had cut into the foundation's resources. It was the sheer crassness of taking money earmarked for food, clean water and medical treatment in places rife with human misery. That Megan hadn't seen fit to make amends at any point after her husband's death made the crime even more despicable.
She could have returned the money, no questions asked. Even if she was innocent, as she'd claimed to be, she could have stayed around to help him locate it. Instead, she'd simply run, further cementing Cal's certainty of her guilt. She wouldn't have run if she didn't have something to hide. And the woman was damned good at hiding her trail. Not one of the investigators he'd hired had been able to track her down.
But Cal wasn't a man to give up. Someday he would find her. And when he did, one way or another, Megan Rafferty would pay.
Cal turned at the sound of his name. His receptionist stood in the office doorway. "Harlan Crandall's outside, asking to see you. Do you have time for him now, or should I schedule an appointment?"
"Send him in." Crandall was the latest in the string of private investigators Cal had hired to search for Megan. A short, balding man with an unassuming manner, he'd shown no more promise than the others. But now he'd come by unannounced, asking for an audience. Maybe he had something to report.
Cal seated himself as Crandall entered, wearing a rumpled brown suit and clutching a battered canvas briefcase.
"Sit down, Mr. Crandall." Cal motioned to the chair on the far side of the desk. "Do you have any news for me?"
"That depends." Crandall plopped the briefcase onto the desk, opened the flap and drew out a manila folder. "You hired me to look for Mrs. Rafferty. Do you happen to know her maiden name?"
"Of course, and so should you. It's Cardston. Megan Cardston."
Crandall nodded, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose. "In that case, I may have something to tell you. My sources have tracked down a Megan Cardston who appears to fit the physical description of the woman you're looking for. She's working as a volunteer nurse for your foundation."
Cal's reflexes jerked. "That's impossible," he growled. "It's got to be a coincidencejust another woman with the same name and body type."
"Maybe so. You can decide for yourself after you've looked over this documentation." Crandall thrust the folder across the desk.
Cal opened the folder. It contained several photocopied pages that looked like travel requests and personnel rosters. But what caught his eye was a single, blurry black-and-white photograph.
Staring at the image, he tried to picture Megan as he'd last seen herlong platinum hair sculpted into a twist, diamond earrings, flawless makeup. Even at her husband's funeral, she'd managed to look like a Hollywood screen goddess, except for her pain-shot eyes.
The woman in the photo appeared thinner and slightly older. She was wearing sunglasses and a khaki shirt. Her light brown hair was short and windblown, her face bare of makeup. There was nothing behind her but sky.
Cal studied the firm jawline, the aristocratic nose and ripe, sensual lips. He willed himself to ignore the quiver of certainty that passed through his body. Megan's face was seared into his memory. Even with her eyes hidden, the woman in the picture had the same look. And Megan, he recalled, had worked as a surgical nurse before marrying Nick. But was this image really the woman who'd eluded him for two long years? There was only one way to be sure.
"Where was this picture taken?" he demanded. "Where's this woman now?"
Crandall slid the briefcase off the desk and closed it with a snap and a single word.
Arusha, Tanzania, February 26
Megan gripped the birth-slicked infant and delivered a stinging fingertip blow to its tiny buttocks. Nothing happened.
She slapped the baby harder, her lips moving in a wordless plea. There was a beat of silence, then, suddenly, a gasping wail, as beautiful as any sound she'd ever heard. Megan's knees slackened in relief. The delivery had been hellish, a breech birth coming after a long night of labor. That mother and baby were both alive could only be counted as a miracle.
Passing the baby to the young aide, she mopped her brow with the sleeve of her smock, then reached over to do the same for the baby's mother. The air was warm and sticky. Light from a single bulb flickered on whitewashed walls. Drawn by the glow, insects beat against the screened windows.
As Megan leaned over her, the woman's eyelids fluttered open. "Asante sana," she whispered in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Thank you.
"Karibu sana." Megan's deft hands wound a cotton string, knotted it tight and severed the cord. With luck, this baby would grow up healthy, spared the swollen belly and scarecrow limbs of the children she'd labored so desperately to save in Darfur, the most brutally ravaged region of Sudan, where a cruel dictator had used his mercenaries to decimate the African tribal population.
Megan had spent the past eleven months working with the J-COR Foundation's medical branch in the Sudanese refugee camps. Two weeks ago, on the brink of physical and emotional collapse, she'd been ordered to a less taxing post for recovery. Compared with the camps, this clinic, on the ramshackle fringe of a pleasant Tanzanian town, was a luxury resort.
But she would go back as soon as she was strong enough. She'd spent too many years feeling purposeless and adrift. Now that she'd found focus in her life, she was determined to finally make the most of her skills and training. She should be where she was needed most. And she was sorely needed in Darfur.
By the time the afterbirth came, the aide had sponged the baby boy clean and swaddled him in cotton flannel. The mother's eager hands reached out to draw him against her breast. Megan took a moment to raise the sheet and check the gauze packing. So far, everything looked all right. She stripped off her smock and her latex gloves. "I'm going to get some rest," she told the aide. "Watch her. Too much blood, you come and wake me."
The young African nurse-in-training nodded. She could be counted on to do her job.
Not until she was soaping her hands at the outside faucet did Megan realize how weary she was. It was as if the last of her strength had trickled down her legs and drained into the hard-packed earth. Straightening, she massaged her lower back with her fingers.
Beyond the clinic's corrugated roof, the moon glimmered like a lost shilling through the purple crown of a flowering jacaranda. Its low angle told her the time was well past midnight, with precious few hours left for sleep. All too soon, first light would trigger a cacophony of bird calls, signaling the start of a new day. At least she'd ended the day wellwith a successful delivery and a healthy new life. The sense of accomplishment was strong.
Tired as she was, Megan knew she had no right to complain. This was the life she'd chosen. By now her old lifethe clothes and jewelry, the cars, the house, the charity events she'd hosted to raise money for Nick and Cal's foundationseemed little more than a dream. A dream that had ended with a headline and a gunshot.
She'd tried not to dwell on that nightmare week. But one image was chiseled into her memoryCal's stricken face, the look of cold contempt in his glacial gray eyes, and the final words he'd spoken to her.
"You're going to answer for this, Megan. I'll hold you accountable and make you pay if it's the last thing I do."
Megan hadn't embezzled a cent, hadn't even known about the missing money till the scandal had surfaced. But Cal would never believe that. He'd trusted Nick to the very last.
Seeing Cal's look and hearing his words, Megan had realized she had no recourse except to run far and fast, to someplace where Cal would never find her.
That, or be trapped with no way to save her own soul.
But all that was in the past, she reminded herself as she flexed her aching shoulders and mounted the porch of the brick bungalow that served as quarters for the volunteers. She was a different person now, with a life that gave her the deepest satisfaction she had ever known.
If only she could put an end to the nightmares .
As the sleek Gulfstream jet skimmed the Horn of Africa, Cal reopened the folder Harlan Crandall had given him. Clever fellow, that Crandall. He alone had thought to look in the last place Megan would logically choose to hidethe volunteer ranks of the very foundation she had robbed.
The photocopied paperwork gave him a summary of her postingsZimbabwe, Somalia and, for most of the past year, Sudan. Megan had taken the roughest assignments in the programevidently by her own choice. What was she thinking? And if the woman in the photo was really Nick's glamorous widow, what in hell's name had she done with the money? She'd stolen enough to live in luxury for decades. Luxury even more ostentatious than the lifestyle her husband had given her.
Cal couldn't repress a sigh as he thought of the expensive trappings Nick had lavished on his wife. He'd always wanted her to have nothing but the best. His taste might have been over-the-top, but Cal had always been certain that Nick's intentions were good, just as they had been back when the two had become friends in high school.
They'd graduated from the same college, Cal with an engineering degree and Nick with a marketing major. When Cal had come up with a design for a lightweight modular shelter that could be erected swiftly in the wake of a natural disaster or used at construction and recreation sites, it had made sense for the two friends to go into business together. J-COR had made them both wealthy. But they'd agreed that money wasn't enough. After providing shelters for stricken people around the world, it had been Cal's idea to set up a foundation. He'd handled the logistics end. Nick had managed the finances and fund-raising.
Within a few years the foundation had expanded to include food and medical services. By then Nick was married to Megan, a nurse he'd met at a fund-raiser. Cal had been best man at their wedding. But even then he hadn't quite trusted her. She was too beautiful. Too gracious.
Too private. Beneath that polished surface he'd glimpsed something elusive; something hidden.
Her cool distance was a striking contrast to Nick's natural openness and warmthparticularly given the way Nick clearly doted on her. He had showered his bride with giftsa multimillion-dollar house, a Ferrari, a diamond-and-emerald necklace and more. Megan had responded by using her new position in society to supposedly "help" the foundation. The charity events they'd hosted for wealthy donors at their home had raised generous amounts for the foundation. But of course, those events had done much more to line Megan's pockets. Three years later, after a routine tax audit, the whole house of cards had come tumbling down. The rest of the story was tabloid fodder.
Cal studied the photograph, which looked as if it had been snapped at a distance and enlarged for his benefit. Meganif that's who it really wasmay not have even known it was being taken. She was gazing to her left, the light glinting on her sunglassesexpensive sunglasses. Cal noticed the side logo for the first time. He remembered her wearing that brand, maybe that very pair. His mouth tightened as the certainty slid into place. Megan hadn't quite abandoned her highend tastes.
It was a piece of luck that she'd been sent to Arusha. Finding her in Sudan could have involved a grueling search. But Arusha, a bustling tourist and safari center, had its own international airport. The company jet was headed there now, and he knew how to find the clinic. He'd been there before. If he so chose, he could round her up with the help of some hired muscle and have her on the plane within a couple of hours.
And then what? Tempting as the idea was, Cal knew it wasn't practical to kidnap her in a foreign country without a legal warrant. Besides, would it do any good if he could?
Megan was smart. She'd know that despite her signature on the checks that had never made it to the foundation's coffers, he had no solid proof she'd kept the money. If she stuck to her original story, that she'd had no knowledge of the theft and knew nothing about the missing funds, he'd be nowhere.
He didn't have grounds or authority to arrest her; and it wasn't in him to threaten her with physical harm. His only hope of getting at the truth, Cal realized, was to win her trust. He wasn't optimistic enough to think he could make her confess. She was too smart to openly admit to her crimes. But if he got close to her, she might let something slipdrop a tiny clue, innocent on its own, that could lead Crandall to the location of the hidden accounts.
That could take time. But he hadn't come this far to go home without answers. If that meant wining and dining the lady and telling her a few pretty lies, so be it.