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Mason Hyde said adamantly as he stared up at his boss. And he hoped to hell he showed none of the alarm he was feeling. "You can't fire me."
"You insist on checking yourself out against medical advice and I'll have no choice." Coleman Black's voice was flat. Unmoved. "I don't need stupid agents. What I do need is you recovered and healthy, Mase." The grayhaired man frowned and moved across the hospital room, finally showing some emotioneven if Mason figured it was only irritation. "You just had surgery yesterday," Cole pointed out. "And two days before that, you were still in the hospital in Barcelona."
Mason grimaced and looked away. Maybe stupid was the perfect word to describe his desperation to get out of the hospital, but if anyone should understand why he needed to get out get away it should have been Cole.
Yeah, he was Mason's boss. But he was also Mason's friend. And Mason didn't have many people in his life that he considered a friend. He had even fewer people in his life who knew his history like Cole did.
"I don't want to end up like I did before," he muttered, and hated that the admission made him feel weak.
Cole glanced at the open door to Mason's room and shook his head. "Maybe if you told the hospital what your history is, why you keep refusing the"
"No." Mason cut the other man off. It had been ten years, for God's sake. But right now, lying there in a hospital bed while pain racked every corner of his body, it felt as if it were just yesterday.
Yesterday, when he'd been in another hospitalonly that trip had been courtesy of an explosion rather than a deadly aimed SUV. Then, he'd been shot full of endless painkillers. Painkillers that had become the only thing he'd been able to think about and just about the only thing he'd been able to care about. He'd ended up losing everythingexcept his jobthat really had mattered to him.
He'd be damned if he'd head down that road again.
And he'd be damned if he'd admit to anyone now what a hole he'd had to climb out of before. Particularly his doctors. "It has nothing to do with anything now," he muttered.
Cole raised his eyebrows and pointedly eyed the contraption that held Mason's casted left leg at a strange angle above the bed. A triangular bar was also suspended above Mason's chest, allowing the big man something to grab on to with his left hand, since his right was also in a long cast. "I believe the entire medical community would disagree," he said drily. Then he sighed, knowing that there were some arguments that never would work with Mason. The man marched to his own drummer.
The phone inside his lapel pocket was vibrating. Had been ever since he'd walked into Mason's hospital room ten minutes earlier. As the head of HollinsWinword, he had at least fifty things that needed his immediate attention. Yet he was here, standing in a hospital room having a battle of wills with one of his most talented and most stubbornagents.
He stifled a sigh again. It was no coincidence, he supposed, that talent and stubborn seemed to generally go hand in hand. An agent had to have a strong will to work in the field. Cole didn't want to have anyone under his watch who didn't have a strong will.
But right now, that particular trait was causing him no small amount of consternation.
"Well, the doctors are up to you as long as you're inside these walls. But once you go AWOL from this place, your recuperation is up to me. And I'm telling you that you don't have a choice. Either you give up the notion of not needing any more medical care, or you won't have a job to come back to.
At the best of times, Mason's face was stoic. Cole had known the man since long before he'd acquired the thin scar that extended nearly the entire side of his face, so he knew that basic expression wasn't owed to the scar. And now, given the situation, Mason's face had all of the animation of the grim reaper.
"You can't fire me." Mason's voice was low. Gruff.
Which meant he was actually worried that Cole would.
And much as it pained him, that's what they both needed right now. "I can and I will," he assured flatly. Though he wasn't quite sure how. But Cole hadn't gotten to where he was without mastering the art of a bluff. Not that he was bluffing, exactly. He truly did not want to lose Mason as an agent. Whether he was profiling maniacal nuts or invisibly protecting people who weren't easy to protect, the guy had a talent that went miles beyond training. It was instinctive. As if he'd been bred into it.
But more importantly, Cole didn't want to lose Mason, period. And the damn fool was likely to kill himself at the rate he was going.
The annoyance of his buzzing cell finally drove him to pull it out of his pocket and glance at the display. More crises that, at least, had nothing to do with his business with Mason. He pocketed the phone. "Be glad you have alternatives," he continued. "I know Axel Clay has talked to you. Considering everything, getting out of Connecticut and lying low in Wyoming for a few months while you recover seems an excellent idea to me."
Mason slid him a look. Trust Cole to hedge around until he got to the crux of the matter. The older man had obviously been a spy for too damn long. How else had he known that he and Ax had spoken?
He started to reach for the bar to shift in the bed, but just thinking about lifting his arm above his shoulder sent a shock wave down his spine. Instead, he curled his good hand into a fist and breathed through the pain, reminding himself that feeling that pain was a helluva lot better than ending up addicted to painkillers again, and feeling only the uncontrollable urge for another numbing pill. "Bugging the hospital telephone, Cole?"
His boss didn't answer that. "His solution is pretty damn perfect, far as I'm concerned. Not only will you be under the watchful eye of a nurse without having to stay in the hospitals you detest, but you'll get some peace from the media hounds here."
"I've had enough of nurses, thanks." At any other time, Mason mightmighthave found the double entendre humorous, but right then, he couldn't muster it. "I'll be bored crazy in Wyoming," he lied. Nothing had been boring the last time he'd been there over a year and a half ago.
The other man just shrugged. "Then you get yourself transferred to a twentyfourhour care center whether you like it or not or you stay here, 'cause you're not going to your own place. I know you. You go to that box you call a home, and you'll do too much before you should and end up back here again even worse off than you are now."
If it weren't for the heavyduty antibiotics that were being intravenously pumped into him, Mason wouldn't even have to be in the hospital. The collision between his body and the SUV he'd jumped in front of had happened a week ago. The most recent surgery that he'd had to finish putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was the last one he was supposed to need. And if he hadn't gotten the infection that necessitated that surgery, his doctors and his nurses would have been glad to see the last of him the minute they'd finished wrapping half his body in plaster.
"Damned if I do, damned if I don't," he muttered. The longer he stayed in the hospital, the worse he felt. But if he left on his own, Cole would cut him off from the only thing that mattered to him.
"I'll check on you tomorrow morning." Obviously unmoved, Cole headed toward the doorway of Mason's private room. "Either have a plan in place or give me your resignation." His voice was hard, and without another glance his way, the man walked out of the room.
Mason leaned his head back and let out a long, colorful oath.
Agents who pushed Cole hard got pushed back hard. And more than a few good ones had ended up walking away from the agency that had been the center of Mason's life for so many years.
He wasn't going to be one of them.
He grimaced and threw his good arm over his eyes. He could feel panic nibbling at the edges of his sanity.
And Mason wasn't a man who panicked.
Admitting it, even to himself, was damn hard.
But not as hard as it had been to kick an addiction that had ruled his life for eighteen months. And right now, ten years or not, he was craving a narcotic numbness as badly as he ever had.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Hyde. How are we feeling today?" The young nurse who came into the room on her squeaking, rubbersoled shoes greeted him in a revoltingly cheerful voice. One corner of Mason's brain had to give the kid credit for maintaining that unswerving cheer when dealing with him.
He knew he wasn't an easy patient.
"When you have a dozen broken bones, we will talk about it," he said wearily. He wasn't interested in watching her as she fussed around himeven if she was about as cute as a freshfaced cheerleaderand closed his eyes.
She didn't reply, but he could still hear her moving around and feel her faint touch as she checked this and adjusted that. Which meant maybe the kid did have the ability to learn.
"You know, Mr. Hyde," she said after a moment, proving that he'd overestimated, "I couldn't help but hear a little bit of your conversation with your visitor."
He opened his eyes and watched her.
She smiled tentatively, looking more than a little nervous. "I was out in the hall waiting to come in and change your IV bag. Anyway," she rushed on, "I'm supposed to help convince you that it's in your best interests to stay with us for a while longer, but I do know some really good nurses who provide home health care if you'd like some names."
He shrugged and held back a curse at the pain the movement caused. "Yeah. Sure." His voice was short. And even though he had no real intention of following up on her wellintentioned list, at least it took the nervousness out of her eyes. She could get on her way and leave him in peace.
She deftly slid the call button into the fingers that protruded below the edge of his cast. "I'll get the names for you. Be sure to call if you change your mind and want something stronger than the OTC stuff for that pain."
He'd chew off his tongue before he asked for anything stronger. He managed a relatively civil grunt in return, and her shoes carried her, squeaking, back out of the hospital room.
When he'd called Cole, he'd hoped to enlist the guy's aid to get out of the hospital. His place wasn't much, but at least he didn't have an ongoing stream of medical professionals bugging him every hour on the hour, and he wouldn't be a call button away from begging for a damn narcotic. His job kept him on the road about fifty weeks out of the year, and his apartment was more a repository for the mail that was shoved through the mail slot than it was a home.
Hell. He didn't even have dishes in his kitchen cupboards. He barely had soap and a towel in his bathroom.
The only thing he'd end up finding at his apartment was more discomfort and a barrage of phone calls from eager reporters who'd regrettably discovered he was the socalled hero who'd saved the life of an internationally known businessman's daughter.
Mason wasn't the only one who was media shy. He didn't want strangers looking into his life, poking and speculating. But he also worked for an agency that preferred operating under the radar. Their primary concern was securitypersonal and internationaland it was beneficial for everyone concerned that their activities not be looked at too closely by an inquisitive public. Particularly since HW generally operated with the government's tacit approval. They handled the stuff that the elected boys and girls couldn'tor didn't want toget caught up in.
Unfortunately, Donovan McDougalor someone from his sizable camphad opened their mouth to the wrong person about Mason's involvement in McDougal's personal security, and even though Cole had done his best to get a lid on it, the newshounds were busy sniffing out the story behind the neartragic "accident."
He let the call button fall out of his grip and reached out for the hospital phone that was on a rolling stand beside the bed. His cell phone had been decimated by the vehicle that had hit him. He'd had no opportunity to replace it yet, but he had a good memory for numbers. He dragged the corded, heavy phone closer with his good arm so he could punch out the numbers.
Axel answered on the second ring.
"Set it up," was all Mason said. Then he let the receiver clatter back in place.
Going along with Axel's idea might keep Mason in Cole's good graces, but that didn't mean it was a good idea. Yeah, Ax's cousin was a registered nurse. Yeah, she'd recently bought a house and wanted to pick up some extra money.
From the outside, it might seem like a winwin situation. Courtney Clay padded her bank account, and Mason got Cole off his back.
But none of them knew about the night that Mason had spent in Courtney's bed over a year and a half ago. A memorable night. The kind of night that haunts a man.
But it had only been one night. He'd known that going in, he'd known it when he'd walked away the morning after and also when, during the days that followed, he'd had to fight the urge to contact her again.
Women like Courtney Clay were better off without guys like Mason Hyde in their lives.
Even she had agreed to that particular fact.
He was surprised that she'd gone along with her cousin's suggestion to not only give Mason room and board now but to also provide him with whatever nursing care he needed until he could take care of himself.
But maybe she hadn't been as haunted as he'd been by that night together. Maybe it made no difference to her one way or another who her temporary roommate was going to be. Maybe it was just about the money.
It didn't seem to fit what he knew about her. But then, what he knew most about her was what her lips tasted like. What her smooth, honeytinted skin felt like beneath his fingertips.