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Dawson Gray clutched the phone in a death grip to keep his hand from shaking. "I'm not right for this job. Isn't there a surveillance gig I could cover? What about Jack, can't he do it?" This was just the kind of job his buddy Jack was best at. Dawson didn't want to disappoint his new boss, but he didn't want to be responsible for anyone's life other than his own.
Private investigation is what he'd signed up for when he'd joined the Lone Star Agency. Taking pictures of cheating spouses, he could handle. Protecting someone from an unknown enemy, never again.
He stared at Laredo's Doctors Hospital from the parking lot, dreading the visit. The last two times he'd been in a hospital had left him with the permanent need to stay clear. When he was in the military he had to stand at the bedside of the young corporal he'd been responsible for and watch him slowly bleed to death of wounds from an IED roadside explosion. Then he had to witness his wife's death, or rather he missed saying goodbye to the only woman he'd ever loved. She'd died before he'd arrived.
"The D.A. in Laredo needs someone today. I'd send Jack, but he's not available. You're the only agent not tagged at this time." Audrey Nye sighed over the line and pleaded with him. "I need you to do this. A woman's life depends on you."
His boss's words made his stomach knot and his palms sweat against the steering wheel. Who was he to provide protection to anyone when he'd already lost too many of the people he cared about? How could Audrey give him this assignment when he'd only been sober for two months? Two months wasn't enough to make him qualified to blow his nose in public, much less watch over the welfare of a woman who'd been left for dead in an alley. He opened his mouth to tell his boss he couldn't take the job, but she beat him to the punch.
"Dawson, you can do this. I wouldn't have assigned the case to you if I didn't think you could handle it. Laredo itself isn't bad, but the city's so close to the border a lot of the drug-war fighting happening in Mexico bleeds across the Rio Grande. You're trained in Special Ops, you know how to use a weapon. I know you're right for this job. You're there, you might as well check it out. If you still don't think you're up to it, I'll find someone else, even if I have to take the case myself."
When his female boss, with no military training whatsoever, volunteered to take on a potentially violent bodyguard gig, he knew he had a problem. Dawson's jaw tightened and he drew in a deep breath. "I'll take care of it."
"Thanks, Dawson. I knew you would." Before he could comment, she continued. "The D.A., Frank Young, is scheduled to meet you at the nurses' station on Savvy's floor. He'll fill you in on the details. Tell them you're her fiancé or they won't let you in. Don't let on to anyone you're anything else. The D.A. wants this all to be low-key. Got that?"
"Yes, ma'am." As long as it stayed at the pretend level. Dawson wasn't in a position to be anything other than a hired protector. Since his wife's death two years ago, he'd been nearly suicidal. Brokenhearted, he'd volunteered for the most dangerous of missions in Iraq, taking risks no one in his right mind would dream of. He hadn't been in his right mind. Not since Amanda's death. After nearly getting killed three times and a mandatory psych evaluation, his commander shipped him home and Dawson had gotten out of the service.
He shifted his truck into Park, pulled the keys from the ignition and pushed the door open. Heat hit him like a steamroller. The glaring Texas sun beat against the black asphalt.
Thankful for the thick soles of his cowboy boots, Dawson stepped out of the truck and stood.
An image of his wife lying across sterile sheets with tubes and wires attached to her sent a shiver over his body despite the oppressive morning heat. His heart thundered against his chest and he couldn't quite catch his breath as he approached the door to the hospital lobby. The sudden craving for whiskey hit him so hard he wanted to drop to his knees.
A woman carrying a baby stepped through the sliding doors on her way to the parking lot. She smiled at him and held the door open. "Are you going in?"
He nodded and hurried forward to hold the door for her so that she could grab hold of a toddler while she juggled the baby in her arms. "Thanks."
Dragging in a deep breath, he stepped inside the cool interior of the hospital and marched toward the information desk.
An older woman sat behind the desk, peering over the top of her glasses. "May I help you?"
"I'm looking for Savvy Jones's room."
The woman touched her finger to a keyboard, one letter at a time.
Dawson bit his tongue to keep from groaning. That ubiquitous hospital scent of disinfectant filled his lungs and made him feel nauseous.
The woman smiled up at him. "Are you a relative?"
Dawson forced the words past his constricted throat. "I'm her…fiancé."
The woman directed him to the fourth floor, giving him a room number and pointing out the elevator.
After he stepped into the elevator and selected the floor, Dawson's fingers curled into tight fists. He watched the numbers change above the keypad. The elevator stopped on the third floor, a young nurse stepped in, her eyes widened and her gaze swept over him. "Hi." She smiled and tucked a strand of long blond hair over her shoulder. "Visiting?"
He barely cut her a glance. "Yeah, my fiancé."
Her shoulders slumped and she sighed. "The hunks are always taken." She flashed another smile and held out her hand. "I'm Dani. Call me if things don't work out."
"Things will work out." If he had anything to do with it, they would. He'd perform his protective duties until a suitable replacement could be found, then he'd be on his way back to San Antonio and his next assignment. He nodded toward the door opening on the fourth floor. "Getting off here?"
She shook her head. "I wish, but no."
Dawson stepped out into a hallway, read the signs on the wall and followed the one toward Savvy's room. At the nurses' station he stopped. Audrey had said that the district attorney who'd contracted for a bodyguard would meet him there.
A man stood with his back to Dawson, a cell phone pressed to his ear. His voice was barely a murmur. Tall, with sandy-blond hair and wearing a tailored business suit, the guy had to be the district attorney.
He turned, spied Dawson and nodded. "Check on it, will you?" he said into the phone. "If she is who this guy thinks she is, we have to handle things carefully. Call me later with what you find out." He disconnected and faced Dawson with his hand held out. "You must be Dawson Gray. Ms. Nye told me all about you."
"Not much to tell." Dawson accepted the man's hand. His grip was firm, if somewhat cool.
"Frank Young, Webb County district attorney." He dropped Dawson's hand and nodded toward a corner. "Ms. Jones's room is down that hallway. The nurse says the sedative should be wearing off soon."
"Ms. Nye said you'd fill me in on the case."
Young nodded. "Last night Ms. Jones was found in the alley behind the Waterin' Hole Bar and Grill, where she works, with what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her left temple. Fortunately for her the injury was only a flesh wound. The unfortunate part is that the gun found beside her and that she supposedly used to shoot herself happens to be the same gun used to kill Tomas Rodriguez."
Dawson gritted his teeth. "Are you telling me she killed Mr. Rodriguez?"
"I can't tell you anything. When she woke up this morning she was so doped up the nurses couldn't get anything coherent out of her. When they asked her questions, she swore she couldn't remember anything."
"About the shooting?"
Young shook his head. "Anything, as in even her name."
Dawson glanced toward the hallway. "Amnesia?"
"That's what the doctors are saying. It could be temporary, or it could be permanent. Only time will tell." Young crossed his arms over his chest.
"Are you sure it's not just a convenient stall? She can't testify in a trial if she can't remember."
The D.A. nodded. "That's very true."
"What about her other mental faculties? Can she talk?"
"Yes, she asked the nurses for water and told them that she was cold and wanted a blanket. No slurred speech or problems following simple directions."
"Why hire a bodyguard? Why not post a policeman on her?"
"With all the trouble from across the border, the police force is shorthanded. And I'm not so sure I can completely trust the force to handle this matter as delicately as is needed."
"Why?" The D.A. stared at Dawson as though he expected more from him. "Do you know who Tomas Rodriguez is?"
Dawson shook his head. "Name sounds familiar."
"I suppose the border troubles don't always make national news. Make no mistake, though, people around here know the name." The D.A. looked left then right before going on. "Tomas Rodriguez was the son of Humberto Rodriguez, one of the most powerful leaders of Nuevo Laredo's drug cartel."
Dawson stared at the closed door. "Which paints a bright red bull's-eye on Ms. Jones." Great, he was in for a rough time of protecting a potential murder suspect from being killed by an avenging father with an army of mercenaries.
"Exactly. Once word gets out that Tomas is dead, which it probably has by now, Rodriguez will be gunning for her and I'm not so sure the police force will stand in the way."
"Are they that corrupt?"
"No, it's just that they have families to worry about. Some of them have family on both sides of the border. If they want their loved ones to remain alive, they have to stay out of it. Anyone standing in the way of Rodriguez's desire for vengeance on the person responsible for killing his only offspring will suffer consequences."
The woman had her death warrant signed before Dawson had even shown up for work. "If she killed Tomas, why don't you lock her up?"
"Another fact I just learned a few minutes ago when I talked to one of the nurses has me worried, something I haven't shared with the press or anyone else."
"I thought you said Ms. Jones doesn't remember anything."
Frank Young gave a mirthless laugh. "She doesn't. But some things you don't forget even when you forget your name."
Dawson crossed his arms over his chest, impatient with the other man's dramatic pause. "Enlighten me."
"The prints on the weapon match the prints from her left hand. Since she shot herself after she supposedly shot Tomas, she had to have used her left hand."
"Your point?" Dawson snapped, the smell of disinfectant making him eager to get to the crux of the matter so that he could get the hell out of the hospital.
"She used her right hand to eat breakfast this morning. Ms. Jones is right-handed." As if sensing the importance of the D.A.'s words, the busy hallway stilled. No nurse pushed through a door, no patient ventured out. Silence filled the space after Young's announcement.
"She's right-handed?" Dawson's eyes narrowed as he stared at the district attorney, the full impact of those words sinking in.
The D.A. nodded. "Exactly. Why would a right-handed person shoot herself in the head with her left hand?"
"You don't think she shot herself." It was a statement, not a question. "You think that whoever killed Rodriguez shot the woman and made it look like murder-suicide." The pulse in his temple throbbed and he pressed his fingers to the growing ache.
"And whoever tried to kill her the first time will most likely try again."
"Right, again. Murderers don't normally like loose ends."
"She's the only one who saw the crime take place?"
"As far as we know. No one else has stepped forward." The D.A. nodded toward her door down the hall. "She hasn't actually pointed any fingers. Since she probably didn't shoot Rodriguez, I can't put her in jail."
Dawson scoped the hallway again with new purpose, his gaze narrowing at every person passing by. "Whoever killed Tomas Rodriguez won't want to give her the chance."
A dull ache throbbed against the side of her head. She struggled to open her eyes and adjust to the fluorescent light in the hospital room. She lifted her hand to press against her temple, but her hand was tied to something.
An IV was taped to the top of her hand. She vaguely remembered the tubes from the last time she'd woken, when the nurses had insisted on cranking her bed into an upright position to eat a breakfast she couldn't taste. What had happened? Why was she lying in a hospital and why did her head hurt?
What else was wrong with her? She tested movement of her toes. The sheet near the end of the bed wiggled and she let out a sigh. She wasn't paralyzed. She attempted to sit in the bed and made it halfway up before collapsing back. The effort was exhausting.
Again, she tried to remember what brought her here. Had she been in a wreck? Where was her family? A sudden emptiness filled her chest, pressing hard against her heart. Did she have a family? She glanced around at the sterile room. No flowers, no get-well cards, no signs of anyone caring whether she lived or died. She didn't know which was worse, that she couldn't remember who should care about her or that she didn't actually have anyone who cared about her. For the life of her, she couldn't picture anyone, couldn't name a name, not even her own.
Her heartbeat jumped, her breath coming in low shallow gasps. The more she tried to remember, the more she realized she couldn't. Where had she been, what was she doing? How had she gotten hurt?
A violent shiver shook her body, having nothing to do with the temperature in the room and more to do with the fact she couldn't remember her name or even what she looked like.
She tried again to sit up in the bed, this time succeeding. An uncontrollable urge to run hit her. Before she could think, she yanked the tape off her hand and pulled the IV needle out. Cool air raised chill bumps on her legs as she slid them from beneath the sheets and let them drop over the side of the bed.
She slipped off the mattress, her bare feet touching the cold floor. For a moment, she thought no problem. Then her knees buckled, her muscles refusing to cooperate. With a dark sense of the inevitable, she cried out as she crumpled to the floor.
She lay still for a few moments, willing the air to return to her lungs.
The swoosh of a door opening and closing made her turn toward the sound.
"Help," she called out.
No one answered.
Irrepressible fear gripped her so firmly she couldn't breathe. A hospital usually meant a safe place where people went to recover from their injuries. Why then did panic seize her and squeeze the air from her lungs?
Footsteps neared, rounding the corner of the bed.
She shrank back, looking up at a man wearing green-blue staff scrubs.
"Savvy Jones?" he asked through the matching mask on his face, his words heavily accented.
"I d-don't know," she whispered.
The man's dark brown eyes narrowed, his bushy black brows dipping low on his forehead. He lifted a pillow from the bed. "Let me help." Instead of reaching out to lift her, he bent beside her.
"I can get up myself," she said, although she doubted she could. "If you'll just move back. Please."
The man didn't move back. He reached out, his dark-skinned arms covered in tattoos of vicious red devils and blue-green dragons.
Alarmed by the violent nature of the pictures on the man's arms, she scooted backward until her head bumped into the table beside the bed. "Leave me alone."
"I will," he said, his voice cold, menacing, "once I take care of you."
The pillow came down over her face, pushing her head against the cool tiles of the floor.
She fought and screamed into the pillow, her struggles useless.
The man held her down with minimal effort, his body bigger, stronger—his goal, murder.