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A person could die of asphyxiation down here. Lacey Kirk held her breath against the noxious wave of exhaust fumes that greeted her as she stepped out of the elevator into the parking garage.
The heels of her boots clipped on the cement, creating a lonely echo in the empty lot. Most of the doctors, including her boss, parked on the lower level. At this hour, the cars in the upper levels cleared out quickly, leaving gaping parking stalls in their wake.
She scooped her keys out of her purse, dropping them onto the garage floor, where they skidded underneath her Jetta. She uttered a curse.
"Hope that battery doesn't pop out of the remote again," she commented to no one in particular.
She crouched down and pinched her small desk key between her fingers, dragging the key chain toward her. Damn. She forgot to lock her desk after she pulled out the appointment book to check Dr. B's appointments for tomorrow.
She stood up, sawing her bottom lip with her teeth. Normally, she wouldn't worry about it, but she'd left the front door of the office unlocked for the deli delivery guy. She'd ordered Dr. B a sandwich before leaving for the night. Someone had to take care of the man.
Sighing, she dropped the keys back in her purse and trudged back toward the elevator. At least this would give her a chance to make sure Dr. B got his food.
As she rushed off the elevator, she almost collided with a man carrying an armful of file folders while fiddling with his BlackBerry and holding a cell phone. A few files slipped off the top of the stack and fell to the polished floor.
"Watch where you're going." Dr. Nick Marino's black brows collided over his aquiline nose, and two spots of color stained his broad cheekbones before he stooped to pick up the files.
"You're the one juggling electronic devices. Why don't you watch where you're going?" She dug a fist in her hip and tapped the toe of her pointed boot as the doctor straightened up, clutching the folders in his hand.
He dropped his BlackBerry into the pocket of his white coat, which flapped open, revealing his tailored shirt molded to his chest. Pec implants? His full lips twisted into a semblance of a smile. Did men get collagen treatments?
"I'm sorry. You're right." He patted his pocket. "Multitasking."
She rolled her eyes and pivoted toward the corner.
"Lacey, right? You work for Dr. Joseph Buonfoglio."
"Yeah, Lacey." She glanced over her shoulder. He knew her name? She didn't think she was worthy of Dr. Perfect's notice.
"I've seen you over at San Francisco General. You're in the hospice/palliative nursing program, aren't you?"
She spun around. She'd seen him at SF General, too. Pretty hard to miss a six-foot-two Adonis with groupies trailing him around the hospital. "That's right. I'm in the hospice program. What does an internationally acclaimed cosmetic surgeon, darling of the rich and famous medical-convention rock star know about a hospice?"
He raised an eyebrow just as she stumbled around the corner.
She covered her face with her hands. Smart move, Lacey. The hunky Dr. Marino may be arrogant, but he also had connections. She giggled. Even getting kicked out of the hospice program was worth the look on his face. Well, almost.
Stepping up to the office door, she grabbed the doorknob, but it didn't turn. She jiggled it. Had Dr. B locked the door after the food arrived? That didn't seem likely.
She slipped her key into the lock and pushed open the door. Rustling noises echoed in the office, and the door that separated the rooms in the back from the reception area stood open. Dr. B must be eating his sandwich.
She sniffed the air. Cappicola didn't have that heavy, metallic smell. It reminded her of the smell in the hospital the hospital emergency room. Her heart banged against her rib cage as she crept toward the gaping door.
Placing a hand against the wall, she inched forward. She peered into Dr. B's office and clutched the doorjamb to steady the spinning room.
Dr. B lay crumpled on the floor in front of his desk, a pool of blood soaking into the carpet under his head. The scream that barreled up from her lungs snagged in her throat, and she choked.
A large figure with a black ski mask and black gloves stepped into the hallway from the supply room. His eyes glittered through the holes in the mask, and Lacey stumbled back, banging her elbow against the wall.
The shooting pain released the tightness in her chest and she screamed as she scrambled toward the reception area and the door she'd left open. She felt the man's body heat behind her before he yanked her hair, pulling her backward. He twisted her hair, jerking her head against his body, his garlic-scented breath bathing her cheek.
She stomped on his foot with her high heel. He grunted but tightened his grip, circling her throat with his other arm.
Rather than immobilizing her, the terror raging through her body spurred her to action. Her purse slipped from her shoulder and dangled from her arm. She shook it down farther, gathered the strap in her hand and swung back, but the blow barely grazed her captor's hip.
She jabbed her throbbing elbow into his rib cage and had the satisfaction of hearing his muffled curse. The vise pinioning her neck loosened, and she gathered her breath and let loose with another scream that tore through her ragged throat.
"What the hell?" Dr. Marino charged through the office door, and Lacey took advantage of her assailant's surprise as his hold on her slackened.
She wrenched out of his grasp, tumbling forward onto her hands and knees. She looked back in time to see Nick plant his fist against the man's face. As the intruder staggered back, Nick reached forward and twisted the ski mask so that the eyeholes were no longer positioned over the man's eyes. The man raised his gloved hands to correct his mask, desperate to keep it on, and Nick punched him in the gut.
The man grunted but kicked Nick's midsection, sending him reeling backward and crashing into a table. Magazines scattered and a heavy lamp tipped over, the lampshade bouncing across the carpet.
"Look out. He might have a weapon." Lacey crawled to the door and dumped out her purse, scrambling for her cell phone.
The masked man advanced on Nick, still bent over the table. Nick grabbed the base of the lamp, spun around and brought it down toward the man's head. The blow glanced off the side of the intruder's skull as he brought his arm up to knock the lamp back.
Lacey gripped the phone in her stiff fingers and punched in 911 just as Nick and the intruder fell to the floor next to her. Lacey flattened her body against the floor. Amazingly, the man's ski mask still covered his face.
The 911 operator answered the phone, and Lacey shouted, "Please come right away. Someone's been hurt. The man's still here." Then she gave the operator the address and disconnected.
"Who ordered the" The deli delivery guy, a skinny teenager, gaped in the doorway, his eyes bulging out of his head as he dropped the food.
Nick paused at the intrusion, and the man reached for the heavy doorstop under the table and swung it at Nick's head.
"Nick!" Lacey screamed and dropped the phone. The doorstop skimmed the side of Nick's head instead of flattening his face as he jerked out of the way.
Nick collapsed, and the man with the ski mask jumped up and shoved the delivery guy out of his way. His foot smashed the bag of food on the floor as he sprinted down the hallway.
"Go after him." Lacey dragged herself up and waved her arms at the teenager frozen against the doorjamb.
"Are you crazy?" He swallowed, his Adam's apple resembling a golf ball. "That guy's huge."
Nick moaned, and Lacey hobbled over on her knees and inspected the gash on the side of his head. She shrugged out of her sweater and yanked her cotton T-shirt over her head. The delivery guy's eyes got bigger and rounder. She folded the T-shirt into a square and pressed it against Nick's wound, staunching the flow of blood.
She glanced over her shoulder at the speechless teenager. "Hold this bandage on his head. I have to check on my boss in the back."
"Th-there's someone else here?"
"Yeah, but he's unconscious." Tilting her chin toward the door, she said, "Keep an eye out for the emergency response team."
Dr. B was more than unconscious. She didn't want to go back to his office. Judging from the amount of blood on the carpet, she doubted he could use her help now.
She returned to his office, anyway, and tiptoed toward his still form, as if afraid she'd wake him. She pressed a fist to her mouth as her gaze hitched on the gun in Dr. B's slack hand. When did he get a gun? Didn't do him much good today.
She could see now that the intruder, the murderer, had smashed in one side of Dr. B's skull. A marble bookend, smeared with blood and hair, lay next to Dr. B's body. Pressing her fingertips against his neck, she felt for a pulse. No sign of life.
What if she had stayed? Would Dr. B be alive? Would she be dead?
She brushed a tear from her cheek and tripped back to the disordered reception area.
The teen looked up. "How's your boss?"
She shook her head and shooed him away. Leaning over Nick's body, she kept the pressure on the makeshift bandage. She inhaled the incongruous aroma of spicy cologne and antiseptic wash.
His spiky, dark lashes stirred, and she murmured, "Dr. Perfect doesn't look so perfect now."
Nick's body ached all over, especially on the left side of his head, right above his ear where a lead weight pressed against his skull.
He opened one eye. A pair of shapely breasts molded by a white, lacy bra hovered above him. Had to be natural. He opened the other eye. A lock of silky, dark hair tickled his chest. Had he died and gone to heaven?
He dragged his gaze away from the alluring sight in front of him, where it collided with a pair of stormy green eyes. He'd seen those eyes shooting angry sparks earlier, before all the chaos.
Lacey. Lacey from Dr. Buonfoglio's office. Lacey, the aspiring hospice nurse. Lacey, the master of torture.
He shifted and wrapped his fingers around her deceptively delicate wrist. "I think that's enough pressure. I'm in danger of losing oxygen to my brain."
She sucked in a breath as he heard someone yell, "Over here."
Nick lifted his head. Two uniformed cops crowded the doorway while an EMT lurked behind them.
Lacey took Nick's hand and held it against the cloth on his head. Had she used her shirt as a bandage? Maybe he could convince her to use her bra as a tourniquet.
"You have to go after him." Grabbing her sweater from the floor, she jumped up and faced the older officer. "The man who attacked us took off down the stairwell."
The EMTs surged through the door and plucked Lacey's shirt from Nick's head. He tried to sit up, but they wouldn't allow it. Damned cocky EMTs. He preferred the topless nurse.
"Who are we looking for?" The cop pulled a notepad from his pocket and flipped it open.
"A tall man." Lacey stuffed her arms into her sweater and buttoned it up the front before holding her hand well above her own head. "Stocky build, dressed in black with a black ski mask over his face and gloves. I doubt if he left any fingerprints in here."
"A ski mask?" The cop tapped a pencil against his notebook. "Shackleford, check it out."
When Shackleford took off down the hallway, the other officer asked, "What happened? What'd he want?"
"I came up here from Antonio's Deli to deliver a sandwich, and this guy and another guy were rolling around the floor fighting." The pimply kid with an Antonio's Deli cap askew on his head waved his arms around. "Then he pushed past me and stepped on the sandwich."
"Officer" she leaned forward to peer at the cop's badge "Bates, the man killed my boss, Dr. Buonfoglio. He's in the back."
Jesus. Nick's gut constricted. He didn't even know Dr. Buonfoglio was in the office. The fight with the masked man just took on a more sinister aspect and a more deadly one.
At Lacey's words, the paramedics working on Nick abandoned him and rushed to the back while Officer Bates radioed for homicide detectives. Nick took the opportunity to stagger to his feet and immediately dropped to the chair. He'd lost more blood than he'd thought.
"Okay, let's take this from the top." The cop's gaze darted between Nick and Lacey, settling on Lacey. "Who are you, and what's your name?"
"My name is Lacey Kirk, and I'm Dr. Buonfoglio's office manager." She smoothed her auburn hair back from her face, leaving a smudge of blood on her cheek. His or Dr. Buonfoglio's?
As she told Officer Bates about the events leading up to the fight, her voice remained steady and calm, but her hands trembled until she clasped them in front of her.
Nick eased himself out of the chair. "You need to sit down, Lacey. Is there any water in here?"
"Don't touch anything in the office, Doc. Homicide's on their way and they'll want a pristine murder site."
Lacey's pale face blanched further, and she swayed forward.
Nick took her arm and led her to the chair next to the one he just left. "Can I run back to my office to get her some water and a sedative?"
The officer held up his hand. "What's your involvement? Were you in the office, too?"
"No. My office is down the hall. I was on my way back to my office after dropping off some files in the lobby. I heard Lacey screaming and ran in here."
After Nick answered a few more questions, he jogged down the hallway to his office.
When he returned with a cup of water and a couple of sample packets of Xanax, the cop who took off after the masked intruder had returned, and the two paramedics huddled in the corner of the room ready to pounce on him.
"Is Dr. Buonfoglio dead?" He handed Lacey the paper cup and the packets. Her fingers brushed his as she accepted the water, and his nerve endings tingled in response. His adrenaline must still be pumping after that fight.
One of the paramedics nodded. "Yeah, blow to the head. He lost a lot of blood, and so did you. We need to finish with your vitals."
"I'm all right." He traced a fingertip along the angry red mark across the soft creamy skin of Lacey's neck. "You should have a look at her. The guy had his arm locked around her throat when I came in."
"I'll check her out, and my partner can have a look at you." The paramedic shrugged. "The guy in the back doesn't need us. He's ready for the coroner."