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From its stately exterior overlooking the bucolic Colorado River just outside Austin, Texas, Confidential Rejuvenationsa small but criminally expensive medical treatment facility for the crème-de-la-crèmeexuded an atmosphere of supreme tranquility.
The lush green lawns were perfectly clipped, as were the bountiful privacy hedges. Ivy-twined trellises shaded genteel redwood park benches. The profusion of petunias, pansies, daisies and daffodils in full bloom undulated in the breeze, testifying to the exemplary gardening skills of the groundskeepers.
A luxurious flagstone walkway led toward the discrete front entrance in one direction. The other fork wound its way to an elaborate hand-carved gazebo positioned on a bluff above the sensuous curve of the river.
Confidential Rejuvenations was a favorite recuperation spot for southwest politicians, actors, musicians and other VIPs seeking various cures for addictions, aging and crisis of identity.
But Dr. Dante Nash wasn't fooled by appearances.
Beneath the serene surface, behind the healing promises made in the glossy full-color, trifold brochure resting on the passenger seat beside him, beyond those stately vine-covered walls, lurked a shadowy menace.
Careers lay on the line. Fortunes stood to be lost or gained. Lives hung in the balance.
And Dante was the catalyst. Sent undercover by the FBI to find out exactly who at Confidential Rejuvenations was trafficking in a very potent sex drug.
The designer party drug, street named Rapture, had been popping up on the club scene and college campuses around the Southwest for the past several months. It was being blamed for a dozen senselessdeaths, and the FBI had traced the genesis of the substance to this quaint boutique hospital, partially owned by Dante's former college roommate, Dr. Mark Lawson.
For the past three years, Dante had worked for the Bureau as a plastic surgeon, giving new faces to people entering the Witness Protection Program. This was his first actual undercover assignment; he'd been hand selected for the project due to both his skills as a surgeon and his connection to Mark.
Dante didn't know if his ex-roommate was involved or not, but if Lawson was, he would take the man down without a moment's hesitation. Nothing was going to stop Dante from getting those drugs off the street. Ultimately, he was doing this to avenge Leeza's death.
He winced at the thought of his murdered sister. Of all the things they had suffered together. Sense memories of his miserable childhood rolled over him. The stench of sour mash whiskey on his father's breath. The feel of a leather strap slapping against his skin. The taste of fear on his tongue. He thought of the beatings he'd taken. Both from neighborhood thugs and his old man, until he had learned to fight back, learned how to protect his baby sister.
Painfully he recalled the way Leeza had looked the last time he'd seen her, strung out on drugs, eyes red, unwashed hair matted to her head, track marks running up and down her arms as she carried that hopeless, helpless air of the damned.
He'd tried to help her. Had gotten her into rehab twice, and she'd run away both times, unable to resist the seductive allure of heroin and the dangerous pull of her mob-connected boyfriend, Furio Gambezi.
Dante's desire to save his sister was the motivating factor in his decision to join the FBI after he'd completed his residency in reconstructive cosmetic surgery. It was the burning need to see justice served. His hunger to even the score.
His body tensed, fingers tightening around the leather steering wheel, his mind on full alert.
Dante stopped the Porsche Carrera GTthe FBI had provided it as a propat the security guard station and rolled down the window. The car had been seized during a drug bust. After the mobster who'd owned it had gone to prison, the FBI had been allowed to keep it for use in undercover operations such as this one.
He had to admit he took some satisfaction in driving one of the world's most expensive sports cars, especially since it had been confiscated from a gangster. The sensuous purr of the engine, the luxurious feel of the butter-soft leather, the illicit thrill. It put him in mind of truly great sex.
Unfortunately, it had been so long since he'd had truly great sex he was a bit fuzzy on the details of exactly how good it did feel. His job didn't allow much time for developing intimate contacts and he'd never been proud of his brief, meaningless affairs.
"Morning, sir," the security guard on duty greeted him.
"You here to visit?" The guard eyed him. "Or are you a patient checking in for treatment?"
Dante wore high-end sunglasses and a dove-gray silk Armani suit. His cologne was exotic, his hair fashionably clipped and his fingernails manicured to a high sheen. A purple orchid boutonniere nestled in the buttonhole of his outrageously priced suit.
Nothing about the slick exterior represented the real Dante. His inner soul was much darker, much grittier, much more tortured than the glitzy image he projected. He was playing the part of an upscale young plastic surgeon with an ego bigger than God. It was his duty to embody the role. Insecurities and vulnerabilities had no place in this plan. Nor was there any room for mistakes.
"I'm the new physician, Dr. Dante Nash," he said with an air of aloof entitlement, and presented the man his driver's license.
The security guard checked Dante's credentials against a list on his clipboard. "Ah, yes, here you are. Welcome to Confidential Rejuvenations, Dr. Nash."
"Thank you." Dante glanced at the man's name badge. He might have to play the arrogant, rich doctor, but he could still be civil. "Freddie."
"Have a nice day, sir."
"You do so as well."
The guard pressed a button that opened the wrought-iron gate onto a red cobblestone driveway. Dante followed the road around more privacy hedges and white rock retaining walls. The breeze was cooler up here in the hills than it was in Austin. He kept the window rolled down and flipped off the air conditioner. The fresh smell of spring floated into the car.
Leeza had died in the spring and he hated the season for it. Dante clenched his teeth.
Three years had gone by since her death, but he was still having trouble letting go of his anger. Still haunted by the fact he'd been unable to save her.
Don't think about Leeza. Not now.
A quaint, hand-carved wooden sign directed him to the physicians' parking area. He parked the Porsche, rolled up the windows and got out. A punch of a button on the keypad locked the doors and activated the alarm.
Another sign along the sidewalk pointed to the private entrance to the emergency department open exclusively to Confidential Rejuvenation's elite clientele. It was closer than walking around to the front entrance so he went in that way. Stepping through the pneumatic doors, he walked into the plushiest emergency waiting room he'd ever seen.
The place was spotless. The couches and chairs were made of sage-colored leather and looked brand-new. The televisions mounted on the walls were all forty-two-inch plasma screens and came equipped with TiVo. They were turned on and playing to an empty room.
The potted ficus tree was real and the complimentary coffee was gourmet. Polished metal on the fleet of well-maintained wheelchairs stowed along the far wall gleamed brightly underneath the recessed lighting.
Even more impressive was what was missing.
No gory blood stains. No suffering moans. No acrid smell of gunshot residue. No distraught family members sobbing their hearts out.
No question why it was so damned clean. Clearly emergency medicine wasn't a specialty of Confidential Rejuvenations.
He paused to take it all in.
There had to be a reception desk around here somewhere. The thick double doors before him were locked. A sign instructed visitors to ring the bell for service. Dante glanced up and spied the small, discreet surveillance cameras mounted at all four corners of the entryway.
He was being watched.
Dante pressed the button. A pleasant disembodied voice greeted him. He identified himself. A buzzer sounded and the doors swung open.
Lab and Radiology and Surgery to the right. Admin and the cafeteria lay straight ahead. The actual emergency exam rooms themselves were to the left.
And not a single soul in sight.
He was beginning to regret not walking around to the front entrance. This whole place was spooky as hell. Where did they keep the woman who'd buzzed him in?
Maybe it wasn't a real woman at all, he thought, but a robotic recording.
Suddenly, feeling as if he'd wandered onto a movie set of Stepford Hospital, he had a compelling urge to find a living human being. Pushed along by his anxiety, Dante turned left, rounded the corner and walked into a nightmare.
The reception area he'd been searching for was in utter chaos. Papers were strewn across the room, equipment knocked over, glass broken. Three sobbing nurses sat huddled on the floor behind the desk. Two people in street clothes lay bleeding profusely on the white tile floor. One of them was an elderly woman.
Like a splash of cold water doused in his face, shock was the first thing that hit Dante. It was quickly followed by a jolt of adrenaline. The air around him seemed to turn stale, heavy. His blood pounded sluggishly in his ears.
Another nurse, this one with a calm, brave expression on her face, was talking softly to a wild-eyed young man wearing a patient gown and pajama bottoms spattered with blood. Torn cotton restraints dangled from his wrists like extra appendages.
The man stood between the soft-spoken nurse and the huddled women. In his hand, he clutched a bloody bowie knife.
Even in the midst of the crisis, there was something about the nurse that commanded Dante's attention. She looked so earnestin a job that quickly made cynics of mostlike a new graduate clinging to her ideal that healing the sick was the highest of callings.
Dante envied her.
And simultaneously lusted after her.
The lust surprised him. The feeling was so completely out of context and it had been such a very long time since he'd felt anything akin to this sudden need.
What the hell was wrong with him?
"Please, put the knife down. We can work this out. I know you really don't want to hurt anyone," the nurse cajoled.
"Stay back or I'll kill them all," the deranged patient threatened, his voice high and reedy.
Anger seized Dante then. Furrowed his brow, tightened the corners of his mouth and narrowed his eyes. He had been caught in the grip of this feeling many times. It was an old but dangerous friend.
Like the trained FBI agent he was, he sprang into action without hesitation. In two long-legged strides he was across the room, slapping one hand around the man's wrist and spinning him backward.
The red-haired nurse was screaming at him, but he was so intent on the task at hand that he couldn't process what she was saying.
Blow his cover or not, he would not allow this scumbag to harm another soul.
Determination, fear, anger, excitement slid thickly through his veins, rolling, crashing, thundering. Dante hooked the crook of his elbow around the assailant's neck and squeezed tight.
Surrender the knife, you bastard, or die.
ONE MINUTE ELLE KINGSTON, RN, and her emergency room nursing staff were role-playing a hostage standoff scenario, and the next minute, this sharp-dressed, broad-shouldered stranger had her orderlywho was portraying the hostage-takergripped in a deadly chokehold.
The orderly made a strangling noise. His face was red, his eyes bulging. His fingers loosened and he dropped the rubber bowie knife smeared with a theatrical solution simulating blood. The knife bounced harmlessly against the tile.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Elle demanded of the stranger, her body shot full of fear. "Let go of Ricky before you kill him."
The stranger's gaze pierced her so thoroughly she felt a breath-stealing blur of heated intensity.
"It's a drill." Elle glowered and laid her hands on her hips. "You're suffocating my orderly."
"Oh." His shoulders lowered, and for the briefest of moments the stranger looked sheepish.
He let Ricky go.
The orderly bolted across the room, hand to his neck. "Not cool, dude," he croaked. "Not cool."
The nurses behind the desk rose to their feet, dusting off the seats of their scrubs pants. The two "bodies" on the floor sat up. One was the E.D. front desk ward secretary, sixty-eight-year-old Maxine Woodbury, who loved Confidential Rejuvenations so much she ignored the fact that she was past retirement age and just kept on working.
The second "murder victim" was the affable hospital janitor, Carlisle Jones. Carlisle was the father of five, and he frequently moonlighted as an extra in Austin-based movies and television commercials. He'd appeared in three of Sandra Bullock's films and was on a first-name basis with Matthew McConaughey. Carlisle was always up for a starring role in Elle's disaster-preparedness plans.
Everyone eyed the stranger speculatively.
"I didn't realize it was a drill," he muttered.
"So you think you're what?" Elle folded her arms over her chest and assessed him with a glare. "The Armani Avenger?"
He cracked a smile, albeit a brief one. "I subdued the attacker."
"You caught him by surprise. Do you know how irresponsible that was? Ever heard the adage that a gentle word turns away wrath? If Ricky had been a real patient and the nurses real hostages " Elle shook her head.
The stranger put a hand to the left side of his chest. It was a quick, slight gesture, barely noticeable. But Elle, who had grown up the daughter, sister, granddaughter and niece of cops, had the strangest feeling he was wearing a shoulder holster underneath that fancy, dove-gray pin-stripped silk suit. It was a gesture that said if the hostage situation had been real, he would have shot the suspect.
But her instincts about him and the image he projected didn't fit.
Oh, the man looked like he could be a cophe possessed the right posture, the right air of self-assurance, the "no bullshit" eyes. Like he'd seen too much of the world, knew too much to ever really trust anyone again.
What didn't jive were the suit and the hair and the platinum watch and the way he seemed to be biting his tongue to keep from saying what was really on his mind.
She hated to admit it, but he intrigued her.
Plus, he was exceptionally handsome. Not that she let good looks sway her opinion of someone.
He leaned toward her, narrowing the gap between them. His gaze was level and she felt it again.
Something oddly exciting.