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By Susan Peterson
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe morning Tess Doe walked naked out of the Half Moon, Iowa, cornfield, psychiatrist Ryan Donovan was three miles away, wolfing down one of Sally Todd's homemade sugar doughnuts and sipping some of her fresh-brewed coffee.
"You want a dozen of them to go, Doc?" Sally asked, backing out of the kitchen and balancing a huge metal tray of iced apple turnovers in one hand. She set the tray onto the counter and wiped her flour-smudged hands on her apron.
"Alice will kill me if I bring any of that stuff into the office," Ryan said, using the corner of a paper napkin to swipe at his mouth.
Shortly after meeting him, his new secretary had lamented to every other secretary on their floor that her new boss could eat like a horse and never gain an ounce. Ryan had taken it as fair warning not to bring in the usual office goodies.
"Pish-posh, the girl just needs to accept the fact that she comes from good farm stock. She needs to celebrate her largeness."
Ryan didn't have a response to that one. Sometimes Sally's hometown philosophy wasn't debatable. He had a feeling this was one of those times.
Sally grabbed a white baker's bag off the shelf and snapped it open. Before he could stop her, she'd shoved a dozen sugar and bavarian-cream doughnuts inside and set it on the counter in front of him.
"Did you hear those helicopters overhead last night?" she asked.
"Heard something hovering overhead, but I didn't have time to go look." Ryan took a sip of coffee. If there was anything Sally Todd liked better than baking, it was exchanging a bit of gossip.
"When I stopped for gas this morning, Gary said he thought he saw an explosion over by the Carson farm," Sally said. "But by the time he got there it was too dark to see anything."
"Wonderful," Ryan said dryly. "Now we'll have Gary telling everyone that aliens have landed in Half Moon."
"Don't be making fun of poor Gary. People are a tad spooked with that research center being here."
Ryan laughed. "Talk about small town paranoia. All we're doing is boring pharmaceutical research."
Before Sally could comment, her phone rang and she reached around to answer it. Ryan pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet, set it on the counter, and picked up the bag of doughnuts. He nodded to Sally, prepared to head out to work. But she waved at him, signaling for him to wait.
A few seconds later, she hung up the phone. "That was the police dispatcher. She said the Chief is looking for you. Wants you to meet him out at the Carson farm."
Ryan frowned. "Chief Cole wants to see me?"
"Yep, right away."
Puzzled, Ryan shrugged. "Okay, I'll head out there."
He waved and strolled out onto the main street of Half Moon. A few cars and pickup trucks were parked along Station Street, the main drag through town. Most belonged to the store owners that occupied the not-so-bustling shopping strip that made up downtown Half Moon. No large malls or superstores in this tiny town. But Ryan figured he'd adjust. He'd have to.
Two months ago, weary from battling traffic and short-tempered city folks, he had quit his staff position at Boston's Neuropsychiatric Hospital and returned home to Half Moon, a tiny, rural farming community. It was only luck that his old mentor, Dr. Sidney Bloom, had a position open for him at the Half Moon Research Center, a small, private facility dedicated to neuropsychiatric research.
Ryan shook his head. Who was he kidding? Crowds, traffic and a busy schedule hadn't prompted his decision to leave. Failure had forced him to leave. There wasn't much room for a psychiatrist who didn't know how to function better than a first-year medical student. A psychiatrist who failed his patients.
He breathed deep, tasting the sweet warmth of summer, and raked a restless hand through his hair. Time to quit analyzing everything. Some things were better left alone. Research, not clinical work, was where he needed to concentrate his talents.
He climbed into his dusty BMW and took off out of town. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled up the winding dirt driveway leading to the Carson farm.
On the front lawn, next to one of Betty Carson's carefully tended flower beds, stood Half Moon's Chief of Police Ted Cole and Bud Carson. Bud's expression was worried enough to send a jolt of concern through Ryan. Not much rattled Bud. Not even the night a private patient had left the research facility and climbed through the downstairs window of his house and started cooking scrambled eggs in the Carsons' kitchen.
Ryan pulled up behind Cole's truck and jumped out. "Morning, gentlemen. What's the big emergency?"
Chief Cole scowled. "Another nutcase has escaped from the center and landed in Bud's cornfield."
"Chief, people don't escape from the Half Moon Research Center," Ryan said patiently. "Sometimes people leave the center without signing out or letting anyone know where they're going, but they're at the center of their own free will."
Chief Cole snorted. "Still means they're going over the wall, if you ask me." He nodded his head in Bud Carson's direction. "The nut job scared the stuffing out of poor Bud here."
Ryan smiled at the elderly farmer. "You do look a little rattled, Bud."
Bud ran a gnarled hand through his thinning gray hair. "I have good reason to, Doc. I was out back, taking a look at the corn when I heard something rustling. I looked up and out steps this woman. Damn near dropped my teeth."
Cole shot a sly sideways grin at his friend and then elbowed him in the side. "She got old Bud's pulse aracing, too."
Ryan raised a questioning eyebrow in the farmer's direction.
"She was buck naked, Doc," Bud explained. A twinge of red pinked the tip of the man's ears. "Not a stitch on. Good thing Betty brought me some of that new denture adhesive. Otherwise I might 'ave lost 'em for sure."
Ryan glanced at the Chief. "I haven't heard anything about anyone leaving the center without permission. Did you call Dr. Bloom?"
The Chief nodded. "He was too busy to talk to me. I just got some flunky of his. I figured you'd be easier to deal with."
"I'll help in any way I can," Ryan said.
After nodding to the two men, Ryan took the wooden porch steps two at a time. As he pulled open the screen door and stepped into the cheery farm kitchen, Betty Carson greeted him. "I'm glad they found you, Ryan. She's in the living room. Go easy on her. Poor thing is as scared as a newborn baby rabbit."
Ryan gave Betty a reassuring smile. "I'll be gentle."
He stepped around her and walked into the dimly lit living room. Like a lot of farm folks, Betty Carson kept the main part of the house cool by drawing heavy curtains to block the hot morning sun. The front room was dark, the furniture sitting amidst a heavy gloom.
In spite of the poor light, Ryan spotted the woman immediately. She sat in the cushioned easy chair occupying the far corner of the room. She was covered from neck to feet with a hand-stitched quilt - one of Betty's legendary homemade quilts, no doubt. Her legs were drawn up beneath the blanket, and her chin, small with a slight indentation in it, rested on her knees.
She watched him from beneath a fringe of dark lashes. Lashes so dark they were startling when contrasted with the fall of white-blond hair spread out like a shawl across her slender shoulders.
Excerpted from Emergency Contact by Susan Peterson Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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