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Dr. Abigail O'Sullivan stepped off the bus and felt the hair on the back of her neck spike. It was all she could do to hold back the groan climbing up her throat as she looked around, trying to pin down the source of her uneasiness.
It's nothing, she told herself, you were careful. There's no way he could have followed you. You're just sick.
The fever had started yesterday. Monday, right? She thought so. The aches and pains had followed shortly thereafter. She needed something to drink. Some water. But she'd been on a bus for the past three hours fading in and out. During a lucid moment, she wondered exactly how high her fever was.
But was it truly just illness causing her to feel so out of sorts?
Even now, exhausted and sick, she felt watched. How? her sluggish mind cried. She'd taken buses, crisscrossed states, paid cash for everything. Her dry eyes burned as they canvassed the area around her. How could he still be behind her?
He's not, he couldn't be.
His parting words made her shudder. "I'm going to make sure you suffer for the rest of your life." Cutting words. Hurtful, hateful words. But that's all she'd thought they were. Just words.
Until someone tried to run her off the road and the police blamed her and chalked it up to reckless driving.
And then there was the series of incidents that frightened her terribly. Coming home to find her house had been searched was terrifying. Then her car had been broken into and her office searched.
Subtly. Very carefully. But she'd known it. And she'd reported it to the police.
Who'd done absolutely nothing.
She snorted. The police. A lot of help they were.
So was it him? Or someone else? Possibly someone he'd hired? A chill shook her, and she pulled the edges of her coat tighter. Her tongue snaked out to lick dry lips. Snagging her purse, she rummaged through it until she found a crumpled bill and some change. Surely there'd be a drink machine somewhere in this bus station.
Her mind hopped back to the person after her.
If he'd hired someone, then she'd have to keep running no matter how awful she felt. Swallowing hard, she grimaced at the pain the action brought. She felt sure gulping razors wouldn't hurt as much. Vaguely, she wondered if she had strep in addition to the flu.
Probably. She thought about the young boy on the last bus. He'd been coughing, flushed and complaining his throat hurt. Abby had wondered if he had the flu or strep.
Now she knew.
"Are you all right, dear?"
Abby turned to look at the woman who'd posed the question in a light Irish accent and had to fight off a wave of dizziness. When her head stopped spinning, she took note of stylish salt-and-pepper hair before landing on the green eyes glistening with concern. Abby guessed the lady was in her mid-fifties.
Feeling a cough coming on, Abby turned her face into her elbow until the spasm passed. Using the tissue she'd found in the bottom of her purse, she dabbed the cough-induced tears from under her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm just sick. The flu, I think, and maybe strep, too, so you might want to keep your distance."
But the gentle lady smiled. "I've had my shot. And I've never had strep in my life. Guess I'll take my chances. I'm waiting on my son to pick me up. Been visiting my sister over in Bryson City."
Dizziness swept over Abby again and she closed her eyes to ward it off. She didn't bother telling the woman she'd had her flu shot, too. Fat lot of good it had done her.
When she opened her eyes, her new friend placed a hand on her arm and led her to a nearby bench. "But you don't care about all that. Here, why don't you sit here while I get you a bottle of water?"
Before Abby could protest, another wave of dizziness attacked her and she sank onto the bench with a grateful groan.
A shiver racked her and she huddled deeper into her thick down winter coat. The middle of December in North Carolina was cold. Of course the fever didn't help. Squinting, she fought sleep even though she wanted nothing more than to curl up and sink into oblivion.
Unfortunately, she couldn't do that. She had to stay awake, keep her eyes peeled. Stay alert. He would be waiting for her to show weakness, catch her off guard. But she'd been so careful.
She reached down and patted the small bulge in the lower part of her jeans. The reassuring feel of the wad of cash soothed some of her anxiety.
She looked around again and another tremor shook her as the faces blended, merged, then separated. Abby blinked fast to clear her vision.
Yes, she'd been careful.
At least she thought she had. But what if she hadn't been? What if her paranoia wasn't fever-induced? After all, what did she know about running from someone who caught criminals for a living? Not that she was a criminal, but the process was the same wasn't it?
Visions of her brother-in-law's stony glare as Abby clutched her dead sister's hand stumbled to the forefront of her brain.
Her sister and baby girl dead because of Abby Grief racked her. "My fault." "Here, darling. Here's your water." Abby felt liquid slip between her lips to cool her fiery throat. "Thanks," she whispered. "What's your name?" "Abby."
"Well, Abby, I'm Justine McIvers and I think we need to get you to a doctor. Are you meeting someone here?"
"No, I'm alone. But I'll be all right." The water did seemed to revive her a bit. She took another swallow and nearly cried at the pain the action caused.
Then her eyes fell on a man behind the woman and she gasped, shoved aside the water and lurched to her feet. She stumbled, got her balance, then fell headlong into a hard chest.
Strong hands grasped her upper arms. "Whoa, there, little lady. What's going on?" The deep bass voice rumbled in her ear.
"She's very sick, Cal," the woman behind her said. "I think she needs an ambulance."
"No, please," Abby gasped. "No, no ambulance, no hospitals."
The darkness started closing in and she fought it. She couldn't pass out! Not now. He was here! He'd found her. She looked again and didn't see him.
Or was he just a hallucination?
Panicked, she looked up into the blue eyes of the man who kept her from landing face-first on the floor at his feet. "Don't let him get me."
And then she lost the battle as blackness coated her.
Deputy Sheriff Callum McIvers held the sick woman against him, his eyes scanning the gawking crowd. Who was she afraid of?
Don't let him get me. Her words echoed in his ears.
Who? In a town the size of Rose Mountain, Cal prided himself on knowing just about every resident by name.
Except during the holiday season. Christmas was right around the corner, and every day the bus brought more strangers to town than he could count.
Even through both of their heavy winter coats, he could feel the heat from the fever emanating from the woman who'd just passed out.
Trained as a first responder, he acted quickly. Doing a preliminary check, he was relieved to find a strong pulse. However, her breathing seemed labored. Probably from the congestion in her chest.
Cal looked up at his mother, whose concern was etched on her normally smooth forehead. He said, "We need to get her to a doctor. She's burning up."
"She said it was the flu and possibly strep."
Cal frowned. "Call Dylan and have him meet me at the house. She's obviously afraid of someone, so I guess I won't take her to the hospital if she doesn't need to go. If she's running from someone, her illness could be a combination of exhaustion and whatever bug she's picked up."
"You're taking her home? To your house?" Surprise lit his mother's eyes as Cal picked the woman up in his arms and ignored the crowd that had gathered to watch the drama play out.
"Well, maybe not to my house. Yours isn't a very good idea with you promising to watch Tiffany this week. We sure don't want her to come down with whatever this woman's got." Tiffany was the five-year-old granddaughter of his foreman, Zane Dodson. Zane's daughter, a single mother and a doctor, had volunteered to go to Haiti for a week on a mission trip. Zane was excited about having the little girl nearby, but the thought of caring for her by himself had terrified him. Cal's mother had stepped in and volunteered to help babysit.
Cal said, "What about Fiona's? I don't want to expose Fiona to her, though. What do you think?"
"If we take her to Fiona's, she can have the apartment in the basement. I can come over and check on her, bring her food or whatever until she's past the contagious stage."
Cal nodded. "Sounds like a plan. I've got the car outside. Do you have Dylan's number?"
"Sure. And I've got her purse, too. Let's go."
Cal carried her out, doing his best to shield her from the cold wind blowing off the mountain.
As he settled the unconscious woman into the backseat, his mother climbed in the front. "Dylan said to bring her by his office, it's quicker. He's already shut down for the day and happened to be there working on some files. He can see her right away."
Once more, Cal checked her pulse. Still strong. "I don't know if she had a bag other than her purse or not."
Cal grunted as he worked the seat belt around her. "I'll call Joe and tell him to hold it if a strange bag shows up with no one to claim it."
Joe was the bus transit director and one of Cal's good friends.
Cal climbed into the front seat and started the engine. Five minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of Dylan Seabrook's medical practice. A quick scan of the road behind him showed no cars, no one following. But the fear on the woman's face just before she passed out stayed with him.
Gathering the sick woman in his arms, he headed for the door. Dylan swung it open. "I was watching for you. Bring her on down here."
Cal followed Dylan down the hall to an empty room. As gently as possible, he settled her on the examination table and looked at Dylan. "We'll be right outside."
Dylan took over as Cal took his mother's hand and pulled her from the room.
His mother spoke. "What makes you think she's afraid of someone?"
"She said, 'Don't let him get me,' just before she passed out."
She blanched. "Oh, my."
Cal nodded. "Did you see anyone suspicious hanging around her?"
"No, darling, I was just looking for you and noticed how flushed she was. She also looked a little lost, so I asked her if she needed some help."
Cal smiled. "Leave it to God to lead you to the one who needs help." He glanced at the door wondering what was taking so long. How sick was she? He started to get concerned. Had he misjudged the seriousness of her illness?
Outside the window at the end of the hall, darkness had fallen and the full moon cast shadows.
His gaze sharpened. Wait. Was that someone trying to look in? "I'll be right back."
"What is it?" She frowned up at him.
"Just want to check something out, all right?"
"Cal, you've got that look on your face."
But he was already moving toward the front door. He could feel her worried gaze drilling his back as he turned the corner.
Once outside, he stopped and listened. Had he just imagined the shadow outside the window?
Making his way as silently as possible around to the back of the building, he found the window where he thought he'd seen the image of someone trying to peer inside the building.
Nothing stirred but the normal end-of-day noises and his breath in the air.
A footfall to his left.
Cal whirled. The shadow ran.
"Hey! Freeze! Police!"
Ignoring him, the person never stopped. Cal took off after him, boots slapping against the asphalt as he rounded the side of the building.
Squinting, Cal tried to get a look at the fleeing man, but in the darkness, even with the light of the moon, wasn't able to make out much more detail than the man's baseball cap. He thought the guy had on a dark colored heavy coat and boots, but wasn't a hundred-percent sure.
The figure slipped between The Candy Caper and John's General Store. Cal heard the roar of an engine, but by the time he got around the corner, man and vehicle were gone, taillights fading in the distance. In the dark behind the buildings, he couldn't even get a make on the car or a license plate.
Cal slapped his thigh in frustration as he stopped to catch his breath even as his brain started processing the events.
A sick womanwhose name he still didn't knowin a bus station. A frightened plea for help. A stranger lurking outside the medical building where the woman was receiving care.
Who was he? An ex-husband or a boyfriend?
Had Cal found himself in the middle of a domestic violence situation?
His jaw tightened as he stared in the direction of the long-gone taillights as another woman's pleas echoed in his ears. Another woman he'd failed.
If this new stranger he and his mother had taken under their wing needed help, Cal would do everything in his power to make sure she received protection and care for as long as she needed it. And from whomever she was scared of.