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Panic choked off Elizabeth Forester's breath as she turned the car onto Mulberry Street, the wheels screeching when she took the corner too fast. The maneuver didn't shake the car that was following her. She was pretty sure she had picked up the tail after she had left the motel where she'd been hiding out-using a car she thought nobody would recognize. She made a snorting sound. Apparently her precautions hadn't been enough.
For the past week, she'd been acting like she was in the middle of a TV cop show. But she'd decided the evasive action was necessary. Today it looked like she'd been absolutely right to try to cover her tracks.
It had gradually dawned on her that a dark-blue Camaro was appearing in her rearview mirror on a regular basis- following her during the day-and that the ever-present car must be connected to the case she was working on. Something too big for her to handle?
She hadn't started off understanding how big it really was. But a lot of little details had led her to the conclusion that she needed to protect herself by checking into the motel a few miles from her house and taking alternate routes to work.
She glanced again in the rearview mirror. The blue car was inching up, and she could see two tough-looking men in the front seat. She shuddered, imagining what they were going to do if they got their hands on her.
She'd almost decided to go to the police with what she knew at this point, until she'd concluded that the plan was dangerous. It was terrible when you couldn't trust the authorities, but she had to assume that they were protecting the man who'd sent the thugs to intercept her.
As her work took her all over Baltimore, she had an excellent knowledge of the city. If she could get far enough ahead of the men tailing her, she could turn into the nest of alleys up ahead and disappear. And then what? For now the prime objective was to get away.
She made another quick turn into an alley, slowing her Honda in case a kid came darting out from one of the fenced-in backyards.
Glancing behind her, she breathed out a little sigh. She was in the clear. In the next moment, she realized her mistake as she saw the Camaro whip around the corner also. Damn.
Still on the lookout for pedestrians, she sped up again, turning onto the next street. To her horror, a delivery van had just pulled over to the curb. And a car coming in the other direction made it impossible to escape by crossing to that lane.
She swerved to avoid the van, thinking she could squeeze past on the sidewalk. But a woman and a little boy were coming straight toward her.
The fear on their faces as they saw the car bearing down on them made her gasp as she swerved again. If a lamppost hadn't suddenly materialized in front of her, she could have gotten away. But she plowed into it and came to a rocking stop.
The old Honda she was driving didn't have an air bag. The seat belt kept her from hitting the windshield, but she was stunned as she sat behind the wheel.
She knew she had to escape on foot, but she was moving slowly now. Before she could get out of the car, one of the men from the Camaro appeared at her window.
"Got ya, bitch."
Yanking open the car door, he dragged her out, hitting her head on the car frame as he hurled her to the sidewalk. The blow stunned her, and then everything went black.
Dr. Matthew Delano's first stop on his morning rounds was the computer at the nurses' station, where he scanned for urgent cases and noted which patients had been discharged-or had passed away-since his last visit to the internal-medicine floor.
No deaths. He always counted that as a good sign. This morning most of the patients on the general-medicine floor were in for routine problems-except for one woman whom the cops had named Jane Doe because she didn't remember who she was.
As he read the notes from the E.R., he gathered that the whole situation with her was odd. For starters, she hadn't been carrying any identification. And she'd been driving an old car registered to a Susan Swinton.
But when a patrol officer had knocked on Swinton's door late in the afternoon yesterday, nobody had been home, and the neighbors had said the woman was on an extended trip out of the country. Which left the authorities with no clue as to the identity of the mystery woman in room twenty-two.
Matt noted the irony of the room number. As in Catch-22, the novel by Joseph Heller. The term had come to mean a paradoxical situation in which a person is trapped by conflicting circumstances beyond his control.
Dr. Delano skimmed the chart. The woman, who was apparently in her late twenties, had no physical injuries, except for a bump on the head. The MRI showed she'd had a mild concussion, but that was resolving itself. The main problem was her missing memory-leading to her unknown identity.
Her trouble intrigued him. But although he was curious to see what she looked like, he made his way methodically down the hall, checking on patients on a first-come-first-served basis. A woman with COPD. A man with a bladder infection he couldn't shake. Another man with advanced Parkinson's disease.
They were all routine cases for Dr. Delano since spending time in a dangerous African war zone a couple months ago and taking this interim job in Baltimore, where at least he could feel useful.
He hadn't really wanted to return to the States-he was more comfortable in a foreign country than at home. Here he had to do normal stuff when he wasn't working, and normal stuff was never his first choice.
He liked the rough-and-tumble life of doctoring in a war zone and the chance to help people in desperate need of medical attention. But now the rebels were systematically shooting any outsiders who were dumb enough to stay in their country and try to help the people. Since Matt wasn't suicidal, he was back in Baltimore, working at Memorial Hospital while he figured out the best way to serve humanity.
He made a soft snorting sound as he walked down the hall, thinking that was a lofty way to put it, especially for a man who felt disconnected from people. But he'd become an expert at faking it. In fact, he was often praised for his excellent bedside manner.
He stopped at the door to room twenty-two, feeling a sense of anticipation and at the same time reluctance. Shaking that off, he raised his hand and knocked.
"Come in," a feminine voice called.
When he stepped into the room, the woman in the bed zeroed in on him, her face anxious. He stopped short, studying her from where he stood eight feet away.
She wore no makeup and the standard hospital gown. Her short dark hair was tousled, and she had a nasty bruise on her forehead, but despite her disarray, he found her very appealing, from her large blue eyes to her well-shaped lips and the small, slightly upturned nose.
She looked to be in her late twenties as her chart had estimated. About his own age, he judged. She sat forward, fixing her gaze on him with a kind of unnerving desperation.
"Hello," he said. "I'm Dr. Delano."
"I'd say pleased to meet you, if I knew how to introduce myself," she answered.
"I take it you're still having memory problems?"
"Unfortunately. I don't know who I am or what happened to me."
"It says in your chart that you were in a one-car accident."
"They told me that part. Apparently I hit a light pole. It's the rest of it that's a mystery." She gave her arm a little flap of exasperation. "I don't know why I didn't have a purse. The cops said there was a crowd around me, and a man had pulled me out of the car. The best I can figure is that he took the purse and disappeared." She dragged in a breath and let it out. "I don't even know if the man is somebody I know-or just a random thief taking advantage of a woman who had an accident. Either way, I don't like it. He left me in a heck of a fix."
"I understand," Matt answered, keying in on her fears. Some pretty scary things had happened to him in his overseas travels. In one African country, he'd been threatened with having his arms cut off-or worse-until he'd volunteered to remove some bullets from a bunch of rebels.
He'd been shot at too many times to count. And he'd been on a plane that had made an almost-crash landing on a dirt runway of a little airport out in the middle of nowhere. Taking all that into consideration, he still wouldn't like to be in this woman's shoes. She had no money. No memory. Nowhere to stay when she got out of the hospital.
She must have seen his reaction.
"Sorry to be such a bother."
"That's not what I was thinking."
"I was feeling sorry for you, if you must know."
"Right. I'm trying to keep from having a panic attack."
He tipped his head to the side. "You know what that means-panic attack?"
"Yes. You get shaky. Your heart starts to pound." She laughed. "And you feel like you're going to die."
"You remember details like that but not who you are?"
"I guess that must be true."
"Have you ever had one?"
That stopped her. "Either I have or I've read about it."
"Is the picture of the syndrome vivid in your mind?"
"So it's probably more than just reading about the subject. Either you had one or you know someone who has."
Her gaze turned inward, and he knew she was trying to remember which it was.
"Your chart says you're doing okay physically. Let's have a look at you."
She sighed. "Okay."
"Does anything hurt?"
"The lump on my head is still painful-but tolerable."
"And I'm kind of stiff-from the impact."
"Understandable. Let's check your pupillary reflexes."
She tipped her face up, and he looked into one eye and then the other with the flashlight, noting that the pupils were contracting normally.
"Okay, that's good. I'm going to check your heart and lungs." He pressed the stethoscope against her chest, listening to her steady heartbeat. "Good."
Up until then it had been a routine examination-or as routine as it could be when the patient had amnesia. When he put a hand on her arm, everything changed.
As he touched her, she gasped as though an electric current had shot through her, and perhaps he did too, because suddenly the room began to whirl around him, making it seem like the two of them were in the center of a private, invisible tornado. He knew the windows hadn't blown in or anything. The air in the room was perfectly still, as it had been moments before. The whirling was all in his mind. And hers because he was picking up on her confusion and sense of disorientation-as well as his own.
He should let go of her, but he felt as though he was riveted in place. With his hand on her arm, memories leaped toward him. Her memories-that she'd said were inaccessible to her. He was sure she hadn't been lying, but somehow recollections that had been unavailable to her were flooding into his consciousness.
The first thing he knew for sure was that her name wasn't Jane Doe. It was Elizabeth something. He clenched his teeth, struggling to catch the last name, but it seemed to be dangling just beyond his reach. Although he couldn't get it, he latched on to a whole series of scenes from her past.
Elizabeth as a little girl, at her first day of nursery school-shy, uncertain and then panicked, watching Mommy leave her alone in a roomful of children she didn't know. Elizabeth as a grade-schooler working math problems from a textbook. Elizabeth refusing to eat the beef tongue her mother had bought-to save grocery money.
Elizabeth alone in her room, reading a book about two lovers and wishing she could have the same feelings for someone. Elizabeth leaving the hockey field, distraught because she'd missed making a goal she thought should have been hers. And then in a college classroom-taking a social studies exam and sure she was going to get a perfect score.
The old memories faded and were replaced by something much more recent. From yesterday. She was worried about being followed. She was driving an old car she'd borrowed from a friend, glancing frequently in the rearview mirror- seeing a blue vehicle keeping pace with her.
She sped up, fleeing the pursuers, weaving down alleys and onto the street again. She thought she was going to get away until a delivery van had blocked her escape. She plowed into a lamppost with a bone-jarring impact. While she was still stunned from the crash, a man rushed to her, yanking her from the car, hitting her head on the door frame as he pulled her onto the sidewalk, just as a crowd of onlookers gathered.
"Hey, what are you doing to her?" somebody had demanded.
That memory of the accident cut off abruptly with a flash of pain in her head and neck. She must have passed out, and one of the people who'd come running had called 9-1-1.
The recollections flowing from her mind to his were like pounding waves, but they weren't the only thing he experienced. As he made the physical connection with her, he felt an overwhelming sexual pull that urged him to do more than dip into her thoughts.
He was her doctor, which meant that ethically there could be nothing personal between the two of them; yet he couldn't stop himself from gathering her close. Somewhere in his own mind he couldn't squelch the notion that letting go of her would be like his own death.
And he knew from her thoughts that she felt the same powerful connection to him. It made her feel desperate. Aroused. More off-balance than either one of them had ever been in their lives.
He told himself he should pull away. But he was trapped where he was, because her arms came up to wrap around his waist. Well, not trapped. He wanted to be here, and she'd given him a reason not to break the connection.
She pressed herself against him, increasing the contact and the frustration and the sheer need. He breathed in her scent, picturing himself bending down so that he could lower his mouth to hers, imagining the taste of her and letting himself see what it would be like to kick off his shoes and climb into the hospital bed with her.
She made a small needy sound, and he knew that she was picturing the same thing as he was. Part of his mind was shocked and aghast at how far he was going with this fantasy. The other part ached to push her back onto the bed and roll on top of her so he could press his body to hers. Only first he needed to drag off his shirt and pants and get rid of her hospital gown.
That last frantic image was what finally made him come to his senses and pull away, breaking the physical contact and, at the same time, the mental connection.
He stood beside the bed, dragging in lungsful of air, feeling dizzy and disoriented and still achingly aroused.
And she was staring at him, looking like a woman who was ready for sex. When she reached out her hand toward him, he forced himself to step farther back.