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Martigny Hospital, Valais, SwitzerlandNovember 27th
Nick Sandro swore under his breath. He knew what he had to do. His parents had put it to him like an order. Look after Cate. Friendship demanded it. He had no excuse not to. He had done it reluctantly during the greater parts of their childhood and adolescence. He would have to do it now.
Bracing himself, he pushed open the door of her hospital room. "Hi, Catie," he said softly. "You awake?"
Her smile looked as forced as his felt. "Hey, Nick. They told me you were here. It was good of you to come."
"Glad to," he said with a shrug. "Besides, Mom and Dad would have my head if I didn't come and see about you."
"Like old times, huh? Trying to match us up." Tears leaked from her right eye, but the smile stayed in place.
She looked frail. Her long, straight hair had been snipped close to her scalp in the area around her incision. The rest lay lank and lifeless around her pale, striking features. She had wide, dark-lashed eyes of the deepest blue imaginable, a straight no-nonsense nose and a luscious mouth that begged kissing. Even after all this time, he could still recall the feel of those lips and the taste of her as she'd kissed him. The sensation still raised guilt. He had been twenty. She had been jailbait.
"How are they?" she asked.
"Fine," he said, keeping his voice bright. "Dad's in London at a seminar. Mom went along. They'll stay for a vacation and return home in a few weeks."
"Yeah, they sent me a card. Picture of the horse guards," Cate said with a chuckle. "Inside, it said Giddyup."
Nick laughed with her, losing a little of the wariness he felt. "Serious get-wellwish."
"Karen? How's she?"
"Pregnant. Divorced again. She should have known better than to marry another doctor." He grimaced automatically, but added a small laugh to show he wasn't carrying a torch for his ex-wife.
Cate smiled at him. "She's a real dunce, that girl."
He nodded, smiling. "It was a mistake. We're both wiser."
She sighed heavily. Her smile remained, wistful but sincere. Nick wondered if Cate ever regretted passing on marriage. As far as he knew she had never shown the slightest interest in it. He had kept pretty close tabs over the years through their parents. "How about this Austrian you were with on the slopes? Important?"
The smile crooked a bit. "Mostly to himself. But he did save my bacon when he called for the rescue."
"But the bastard didn't try to dig you out. I'd like to break his neck."
"Judging by the tracks, they think he did try after he called in. One of his skis was found near where I was buried. Apparently, he fell on the way or was caught in a secondary slide. They probably won't find him until spring thaw."
"So he wasn't involved in trying to kill you."
"Somebody probably paid him to ski that particular slope. He was pretty insistent we do that one. Jack said Werner made a cash deposit in his account the day before, but it wasn't enough to hire someone to conspire in a murder. True, Werner was a little vain, but I know he was no killer."
Nick saw a tear trickle down her cheek, but she didn't seem to be really grieving over the man, just sad that he'd been lost.
Even without makeup, hair a mess and dressed in a wrinkled, faded hospital gown, Cate was the most beautiful woman he knew. She was tall, nearly six feet; her body was angular, yet very graceful. He noted her nails were clipped to the quick with no polish, making her supple, long-fingered hands look smaller than he remembered.
The need to hold and reassure her hit him like a fist every time he looked at her. He hadn't worried enough about his own reactions before taking this on. Maybe he should have examined his reasons a little more carefully. No way could he let them seclude her in some safe house without the kind of help she would need, though, no matter how hard this got for him. The government might furnish doctors to check on her, but who was to say what sort and whether they would be concerned about anything other than her vital signs.
Cate was observing him closely. "You're looking good, Nick. Still plundering around in people's gray matter?" she asked as a brave attempt at being chipper.
He looked away from her direct blue gaze. "I'm taking some time off."
"Knocking around Florence, Jack says. Working vacation?"
"Sort of. I came over a few months ago. Attending some seminars at the Johns Hopkins campus there."
"Teaching them how to cut?" she asked, blunt as ever.
"No, not teaching." So she didn't know what had happened. Hadn't heard. What had proved a life-changing event for him hadn't even warranted a paragraph in the local paper. No one had died, after all. He hadn't really been on duty when it had happened, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. His parents would not have mentioned the incident to her except to relate how lucky he was to have escaped death.
No, he was the only one who felt the full impact of his injury. He could no longer operate. His career was over.
No reason Cate should have heard about it. Oddly enough, she was probably the only one who would fully understand. Eventually she would, but he couldn't dump that on her now. She had enough problems of her own.
"Odd that you'd choose Florence," she said. "I would have thought Rome. Isn't that where your grandparents were from?"
He nodded. Her parents came in just then and he turned to greet them. "See you later," he said to Cate. "I'll leave you to your visit."
Jack Mercier, Cate's boss, was waiting for Nick in the lounge across the hall. "Did you tell her?" he asked, frowning.
"Not yet," Nick said. "I'm still not sure "
"She'll be safe with you in Florence. Safer than anywhere else she could go. I'll station eyes there in case you run into trouble."
Eyes? Agents that surveilled, no doubt. That whole business was foreign to him, the terminology as strange as medical terms would be to Cate. Yet another barrier between them. Good. He could use more of those.
Mercier headed up the elite counter-terrorist organization Cate had been working as an undercover operative for these past couple of years. Nick thought Cate had been working as an intelligence analyst at a desk somewhere in Washington. God only knew what her duties had entailed. Had being the key word. She was finished.
Mercier's voice dropped to a confidential tone. "I have to ask, Sandro. Are you physically capable of firing a weapon if you need to?" He glanced pointedly at Nick's right hand, permanently damaged in an E.R. confrontation with a crackhead nearly a year ago when he had stopped in on an informal consult. Mercier pressed. "You are left-handed, right?"
Nick flexed his fingers out of habit. "I used to shoot skeet and I could still pull a trigger, but there's no way I'm qualified to give Cate the protection you say she might need."
"I only ask as a precaution. You'll have bodyguards keeping a close watch." He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. "Take her to Florence, help with her rehab and give me an evaluation. That's all you have to do."
"That's all?" Nick gave a wry huff. "Right."
"We have a good protection program, as I told you before, but I really think she'll have a better chance of recovery with the help of someone she knows. She needs that with what she'll be facing. You spoke to Dr. Ganz. You know what she's up against. Want her to do that with strangers who are just doing their jobs?"
Every instinct of self-preservation within Nick warned against it. Not because someone might still be gunning for Cate. If anything, that was the most compelling argument Mercier had for convincing Nick to agree.
He had been living in Florence the last few months, attending the seminars. After Cate's injury, the Olins had contacted his parents and asked them to plead their case. They wanted someone they knew to see that Cate was getting the best medical help available. They had obviously spoken with Mercier, who had roped him in to helping her with therapy.
"Do you have any idea who tried to kill her?" he asked. What had happened had been no accident. Mercier had stationed guards outside her door since she'd been admitted. "What about the man she was with that day?"
"He called for rescue and was pinpointing Cate's location when he was cut off midsentence. He's still missing. He said he heard the shots that caused the avalanche. When Cate regained consciousness, she verified there was gunfire, definitely a rifle. We think maybe he was going to dig her out and got buried in a drift. One way or another, we'll find him."
"Any new suspects?"
Jack nodded. "Yes. Two of our operatives coordinating with the Police Nationale have someone under surveillance now, a known assassin who was spotted in the area. It's a matter of time before they make an arrest, maybe only hours. But even if he is our shooter, somebody hired him for it. I'd like to have Cate stashed somewhere she can't be found."
"Why would someone want to kill her? And why that way?"
"We'll have some answers soon. Sam Jakes, a freelance reporter from D.C., blew her cover the week before this happened. He must have had an inside track at the White House. That was a very private ceremony with only our teams, the president and a couple of staff present. Jakes reported the commendation she received and explained her part in the investigation. Unfortunately, he gave her name, a recent photo and some background material on her."
"So she was outed and you think some wacko read that and is after her? Did you arrest the bastard who did the article?"
"Of course. The point is, that put Cate at great risk."
"So she would no longer be good for covert work anyway?"
"I'd planned to have her doing backup or mop up, not as primary. At least not for a while. Now, because of this injury, any type of field work is out of the question. Whatever she does for us, we'll have to keep her under wraps. She's made enemies. We'll get whoever is after her. In the meantime, all you need to do is keep her with you and take care of her health."
"And have a gun handy, of course," Nick added, his words laced with irony.
Mercier nodded. "That would be wise, but it's highly unlikely you'll need it. Do you have one?"
Nick coughed a laugh. "Are you kidding? I'm a physician, an American residing in a foreign country. How the devil would I get a gun?"
"We've got you one," Mercier assured him. "That, plus some other things Cate might need will be in the trunk of your car."
"Well, I've shot snakes and targets, but never anything with legs. I'm not sure I could take a life." He frowned at Mercier. "Just so you know."
"Trust me, if someone starts shooting, you'll be damned glad to have the means to return fire."
"What if she refuses to go with me?" Nick asked. That was a distinct possibility. She had always resented his "hovering" as she called it. Hated it when he cautioned her about taking risks.
"She'll go," Mercier declared. "We can't take her home yet. Ganz says she shouldn't fly for that long in her condition. For her safety, we're creating a diversion to make everyone think she's on a plane back to the States."
Mercier's wife, Solange, joined them in the waiting room just as Cate's parents came in. After greeting them, the Merciers excused themselves and went in to speak with Cate.
Cate's mother, Tess Olin, an Amazon who looked scarcely older than her daughter, approached Nick. "I know this is an imposition, dear. It's not fair to ask it of you."
Yeah, but Nick knew he really had no choice. "Dr. Ganz and Cate's supervisor agree it's the best thing. I know what to watch for, can prescribe whatever she needs and conduct her therapy."
"It's the perfect solution," Rolph Olin said. He shot a look at his wife, one that warned her to stop protesting.
"I guess it does make sense," Tess said, obviously relieved. Cate's younger brother, Anderson, nodded in agreement, looking from one parent to the other, taking his cue from them as usual.
Nick could only imagine how Cate would fare if these three took over her care. The best she could hope for would be benign neglect. The worst would be another attempt on her life when she was at her most vulnerable and unprotected.
Sending Cate into whatever kind of protection program they offered would be even worse. She would probably get very little medical attention since all the damage was virtually invisible. Her condition could deteriorate in either case.
"So you'll be flying home with her?" her mother asked.
"Of course." Nick figured it wasn't exactly a lie. They would fly home eventually. "Go ahead and do whatever you have to do. I'll take good care of Cate," he assured the Olins and was somewhat mollified by Tess's tears of relief and Rolph's obvious gratitude.
They did care about her, but they were definitely not equipped to be caregivers. All their focus was on her little brother's career. Sport freaks, to the exclusion of everything else. "I promise to call you and give you progress reports."
Tess smiled up at him and gave him a motherly hug. Rolph and Anderson shook his hand. He couldn't miss the renewed hope for a love match in their eyes, a hope both he and Cate had always resented. Even his own parents had pushed that.
Their families had been friends since he and Cate were kids. His own father was a big name in sports medicine, Cate's was a world-class coach. That common interest, and living in the same town, had cemented a friendship that had grown over the years. Their folks had entertained each other frequently and even traveled together on family vacations.
Cate was three years his junior and back then it seemed to Nick that he was the only one who cared whether she reached adulthood. Totally unsupervised and absolutely fearless, Cate had dragged him into more life-threatening scrapes than he could count. Apparently, her adventurous nature hadn't changed.