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Today was the day. She was finally going to escape this hellhole.
A heady mixture of adrenaline and fear rushed through her veins. Adrenaline because the day was finally here after three long months of waiting and planning. Fear because she knew this was her only chance. If she failed, she would be trapped here forever. Her life would effectively be over.
The thought sent another blast of anxiety through her, but Claire Preston allowed her body to betray none of her turbulent emotions. The breathing exercises and years of yoga she'd practiced helped her keep her heartbeat steady. Her eyes remained fixed on an empty space on the lawn in front of her. She didn't move a muscle, other than a slight bob of her head to relieve the growing crick in her neck. Even that could easily be viewed as an unconscious twitch by anyone who might be looking. There was absolutely nothing that might lead anyone to think she was anything more than what she appeared to be.
Just another patient at the Thornwood mental health facility, so drugged out of her mind she didn't even know who she was anymore.
Except Claire did know. Just as she knew the only way that would continue to be the case was if no one else was aware of that fact.
Voices drifted toward her as people passed by on the edges of the lawn, none of them paying her any mind. Late afternoon sunlight poured down over the veranda where one of the nurses had parked and abandoned her. Claire felt none of its warmth. She'd felt nothing but a bone-chilling cold from the moment she'd woken up in this place and found herself living her worst nightmare.
More than once she'd wondered if this was really happening or if it was all in her head.She didn't know what would be worse, being sane and locked up in a mental institution, or figuring out this was a hallucination and she really was crazy after all.
It hadn't taken her long to determine this was all too real. Nightmares didn't last this long.
But no more. It was time for this nightmare to end.
The voices finally faded from earshot. She waited and listened closely for the sound of anyone else approaching. Hearing nothing, she lifted her head slightly and scanned the area.
The lawn stretched before her, lush and green, seeming to go on forever. She had to fight the urge to bolt, to lunge out of the chair and make a break for it as fast as her legs could carry her.
Not yet. But soon.
A flicker of movement in the corner of her vision drew her eye. It was a man, walking toward her on the path bordering the lawn. The sunshine at his back, he seemed to rise out of the horizon. Dismissing him, she quickly looked away, only to find her attention drawn back for some reason a moment later.
More details became visible the closer he came. He was a stranger. She recognized that much. She'd never seen him before.
The sunlight caught his dark blond hair, burnishing it with a golden glow. He had the big, brawny body of an athlete, with broad shoulders and biceps that filled the contours of the dark suit he wore. His long, confident stride, not quite a swagger, but close, told of a man at complete ease with himself. It was the kind of effortless confidence she'd always envied, even resented maybe. Even from a distance, she could see the slight smile on his face. He had a nice face. Friendly. Open. Incredibly good-looking.
He moved like some kind of conquering hero, every inch the hale, hearty knight in complete command of himself and his world. No one would ever accuse this man of being insane.
He looked like someone who could help her. Someone she could trust.
She didn't know where the thought came from. Something painful twisted in her chest at the very idea. She couldn't remember the last time she'd thought that about another human being, if ever.
She tried to dismiss it. Instead, a burst of longing seized her, so fierce and unexpected she lost control of her heartbeat for a moment. For just a second, she allowed herself the foolish fantasy that the knight had come to save the princess trapped in a tower, before forcing herself to face cold, hard reality.
No white knight was going to step out of a fairy tale and save her.
No one ever had and no one ever would.
This princess was going to have to save herself.
Someone was watching him.
Josh Bennett was halfway to the building when the unmistakable feeling swept over him. The main building of the Thornwood psychiatric hospital featured a multitude of windows overlooking the back lawn. He scanned them with a quick glance, but didn't see anyone looking out at him.
Still, the feeling persisted. A whisper of unease slid down his spine.
Trying to shake it off, he continued toward the building.
Then he saw her.
She was sitting on the deck overlooking the lawn. The robe she was wearing left little doubt that she was a patient. She must be the one who was watching him.
The explanation came as something of a relief. He'd felt uneasy ever since he'd arrived at Thornwood. Then again, many people probably were when it came to mental hospitals, regardless of their own sanity, especially one as imposing as this one. The century-old building was massive and grim, sprawling atop a small hill like some kind of crouching beast. Even in broad daylight on a bright, cloudless afternoon, an air of gloom hung over it.
He'd never considered himself easily spooked, but this place was enough to get to him. As a result, he'd likely been placing more importance on his previously unseen watcher than was necessary. He had to smile at his own foolishness.
As he walked closer, Josh couldn't help but notice that the woman was almost absurdly beautiful. He might have believed she was a statue carved by a great artist. Her face was that flawless. High cheekbones. A straight little nose. A ripe, full mouth. Dark brown hair brushed the tops of her shoulders, a few flyaway strands fluttering in the breeze.
Yet there was an aura of sadness around her as she sat there, alone and seemingly abandoned on the veranda. He wondered why she was here, what she was being treated for.
It was only when he'd almost reached the building that he saw what he'd been unable to from the distance. There was no expression on that beautiful face. Her eyes stared blankly in front of her.
Sympathy twisted his gut. She appeared completely unaware of her surroundings, lost in a world of her own. Evidently she hadn't been staring at him after all.
He was about to look away when her eyes suddenly shifted and caught his.
A jolt of awareness surged through him, as though a charge of pure electricity had passed between them through their locked gazes. Her eyes widened slightly, seeming surprised to have made contact with his. And for one heart-stopping moment, he saw something burning in her fevered gaze, a raw emotion he knew too well.
No. More like pure terror.
Then, just as suddenly as they'd met his, her eyes seemed to lose focus and slowly rolled away.
The moment couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, a brief enough time that he almost had to wonder if he'd imagined the whole thing. The pounding of his heart and the tension strumming through him told him he hadn't. No imaginary moment could have caused such a visceral reaction.
He stood frozen, waiting to see what she would do next, wondering if he should go over and try to talk to her. If she needed help, there might be something he could do.
As he watched, her lips parted slightly.
He held his breath.
A bead of saliva slid out of the corner of her mouth and down her chin. She made no move to wipe it away.
He exhaled sharply. The woman clearly wasn't conscious of her surroundings. He must have imagined whatever he'd thought he'd seen in her eyes.
Still, he couldn't leave her sitting there with drool on her face. There didn't appear to be any nurses or orderlies around. He could at least do that for her.
He took a step toward her.
"Bennett! You made it!"
Josh looked up to see Dr. Aaron Harris striding through the doors of the facility toward him. Josh eased his expression into a practiced smile. "Barely. For a while there I wasn't sure they were going to let me onto the grounds."
Aaron matched his grin and extended his hand. "Let me guess. You're still driving that beat-up old wreck. How much duct tape does it take to hold that thing together these days?"
"Three rolls just about covers it," he quipped. He wondered idly what Aaron would think if he knew what Josh really drove most of the time. The other man probably wouldn't even believe it.
Aaron shook his head. "That's why we have to get you out of that city hospital. You're never going to make any real money working in the E.R."
"Believe it or not, some people actually think there are more important things in life than getting rich and spending money."
He might have imagined it, but for a second it seemed like the warmth in Aaron's smile cooled slightly. "Same old Josh. Still trying to save the world, huh? Did that trouble in the E.R. have anything to do with that?"
Josh gritted his teeth, but kept his smile intact. The story of an E.R. doc slugging a patient's husband in front of her had gotten enough play in the media that there probably wasn't a single person in the Philadelphia area who hadn't heard about it, especially when the husband in question had run crying to a lawyer.
The usual fury coiled in the pit of his stomach at the thought of that bastard. The man should be in jail, but Josh was the one facing a mess of trouble, on a forced leave of absence while the hospital decided what to do with him.
Rather than say any of that, he simply shrugged. "Oh, you know how it goes. Stressful environment, emotions running high. Things like that are bound to happen every once in a while."
"Happily, I don't. Dr. Emmons has done such a terrific job creating a peaceful environment for the patients here that it's a great working environment for the staff as well. Beats the E.R. hands down."
Dr. Walter Emmons, Josh knew from his research in preparation for this meeting, was the highly respected psychiatrist who ran Thornwood. "I have to admit, I was surprised when you called. We both know I'm not a psychiatrist."
"Of course. But most of our patients are long-term residents who require care beyond their mental needs. With your experiences in emergency medicine, I doubt there's too much we could throw at you that would surprise you. I think you'd be a valued member of our team." Aaron shook his head. "Listen to me ramble on. Come on. Let me show you around."
Josh felt the strain of keeping his smile in place, but Aaron didn't seem to notice. No one ever did. With a polite nod, he followed him into the building.
As they walked, Aaron launched into a recitation of the wonders of Thornwood. Josh listened with half an ear. He already knew he had no intention of taking the job. He'd only come at Beth's urging. She'd told him he was in no position to turn down any job offers out of hand when he might be in need of a new one fairly soon. Faced with that logic, he hadn't been able to say no.
The job certainly seemed to suit Aaron. Josh hadn't seen his old classmate since back in med school, but it didn't look like he'd changed much. Still effortlessly smooth, still dressed to the nines. Josh wouldn't be surprised if Aaron's shirt had cost more than his entire outfit. Aaron had always been a little too slick for Josh's tastes, but it seemed to work for him. Back in school, they'd been on friendly terms, but never particularly close. The last he'd heard about him were rumblings of some sort of trouble he'd gotten into at the hospital in Chicago where he'd done his residency. Busy with his own life, Josh hadn't paid much attention at the time. Whatever the trouble might have been, it seemed like Aaron had landed on his feet.
And now he was the one with a job opportunity for an old classmate in trouble of his own. But Josh wasn't looking for a cushy job where he could get paid well for doing little. He could tell he'd be bored out of his mind working somewhere like this.
Not to mention the place gave him the creeps.
The uneasy feeling had only increased when they'd stepped inside. An unsettling sensation slid across his skin. He suppressed a shudder.
He couldn't quite explain the feeling, especially when the inside was less forbidding than the exterior. Though the building obviously showed its age, the facilities appeared well maintained. The first floor featured high ceilings and all those windows that let in the sunlight and made the space feel open and airy. The tiled floors beneath their feet gleamed. The formerly state-run hospital had been taken over by a private corporation a decade earlier, with the state now paying it to house patients who had nowhere else to go. From all appearances, the company that now owned Thornwood was doing a bang-up job, as well as pulling in a decent enough profit that they could still pay Aaron a better salary than a city hospital could.
But despite the tranquil surface, the atmosphere was charged with something else. Bad vibes, Josh thought. For one thing, it was eerily quietnot in a peaceful way, but a distinctly unnatural one. Odd for a hospital. Other than Aaron prattling on beside him, the building resounded with silence.
They passed a television lounge where several patients stared glassily, only a few at the actual TV, its volume set to a barely intelligible murmur. Each of them appeared as lost in their own minds as the woman he'd seen on his way in.
The thought of her brought the terrified look in her eyes back to him. Aaron had appeared and pulled him away before he'd had a chance to try to speak to her. Now he wished he'd had just a few seconds to do so, to confirm for himself at least that everything was all right with her.
He glanced back just before they turned a corner. It was too late. She was already out of view.
Okay. That s enough sun for one day.