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Saturday, May 24 11:00 a.m.
Sabrina Matthews shuddered in the warm air as an eerily intent gaze crawled up the back of her neck. Again.
She sent a wary glance behind her, and smiled tightly. Twit. Of course she was being watched. Two hundred people were assembled on the grass beside the hospital. The administrator introduced her, and applause crested. She resisted wiping damp palms on her red silk sheath. Don't screw up. Her stomach jittered as she walked toward the podium. Don't barf. She ascended the stairs. Don't fall on your butt and give your coworkers more ammo for blonde jokes.
Public speaking argh. About as much fun as her annual pelvic exam.
"G-good morning." Staring at reporters, news cameras, the sea of faces, she stumbled over the greeting. Then her attention focused on her father, sitting in the front row. Sabrina locked wobbly knees. She'd macarena through the hospital naked before she'd fail in front of the iron-willed trauma surgeon. "I'm Sabrina Matthews, head child life specialist here at Mercy Hospital." She cleared her throat. "On behalf of my late grandfather, Senator William 'Filibuster Bill' Vaughn, thank you for attending the ground-breaking for our new pediatric wing." Her voice evened, and Dr. Wade Matthews nodded approval.
Sabrina's glance swept over friends, neighbors and coworkers, then lingered on the empty chair in front. The now-ragged Reserved card fluttered forlornly in the breeze.
Did you really think Grady would come?
Her heart fisted. But she'd also thought he'd be there when she'd stood shivering in the bitter March wind beside her granddad's coffin. Not her first, or even her second, mistakewhere he was concerned. And because the word surrender wasn't in her vocabulary, also not her last.
But today wasn't about what she wanted at least in her private life. She was here for Granddad and needy children. She gripped the podium. "I was a very strong-willed child." She glanced at her father, his head tipped in rueful acknowledgment. "Nothing frightened me. My adventures scared off four nannies and caused my share of childhood injuries. I broke my wrist when I was eight. At ten, I had to have an appendectomy. There was no time to prepare, and the fear was overwhelming. I've always wanted to work with children, but didn't want to make life-or-death decisions as a physician. And I didn't want to be an evil needle-wielding nurse." That earned hearty chuckles from her coworkers and a hard stare from her father. Yeah, as a kick-ass trauma surgeon, he considered empathy a weakness. But it was her greatest strength.
"Which is why I became a child life specialist. Many of you may wonder what a CLS does. We're certified professionals trained to ease children's anxiety during medical situations." Sabrina adjusted the microphone. "A child's illness disrupts the family structure. Our programs alleviate that stress and help everyone cope."
Warmed to her crusade, she smiled at the rapt crowd. "We're go-betweens for overwhelmed parents who don't know the right questions to ask and busy medical staff who sometimes forget to speak 'civilian.'" She arched a brow at her father, and received his stern "doctor face." He still attempted to intimidate her into obedience the way he did his staff. As if.
The audience chuckled again. Whew! "We also initiate therapeutic activities to help relieve a child's suffering. When the time comes for treatment or surgery we've prepared both the child and the family. Easing a child's terror makes their treatments not only more bearable but more medically effective."
Her work meant everything to her, and her department's funding depended on her pitch. "My grandfather, Senator Vaughn, devoted his life to children's causes, and his estate was bequeathed to build the new pediatric wing. I urge each of you to consider a personal donation. A pledge to Child Life Services supports children and their families during traumatic times."
Sabrina concluded with a video of her kids engaged in program activities and updates on their progress. Then she introduced families who offered heartwarming testimonies.
By the time the first symbolic shovel was thrust into the ground and cake and punch were served, she was giddy at the stream of envelopes being dropped into well-guarded strongboxes.
A wide smile—her emotional cloaking device—held steady. But she couldn't help searching for the one face she knew she wouldn't see. The bitter awareness of being utterly alone in the crowd hollowed her insides. She shook it off. Stop being a wuss! She'd learned long ago to bury the pain, to throw her all into her job and ignore the inner restlessness, the yearning ache.
Sabrina said her goodbyes and strode into the depths of the parking garage to fetch her silver Miata convertible. Surreptitious footsteps whispered behind her and she spun, seeing nothing but cars. "Hello? Who's there?"
Enveloped in uneasy silence, she was again assaulted by the skin-crawling sensation of being closely observed. Her stare probed dark corners as she scrambled inside the car and hit the lock. She'd experienced heebie-jeebies since her granddad had died two months ago. And recently someone had searched her apartment and office. She had no proof, other than the perception that her things weren't positioned as she'd left them. Nothing the police could investigate. Only a creepy sense of violation.
Sabrina didn't see anyone as she drove outside, but kept the convertible top up. Launching a new wing was a huge undertaking. Her father was right her reaction had to be stress or anxiety. Maybe lingering grief. Though sorrow over losing her vibrant grandfather had dulled, perhaps his passing had magnified other emotions.
She maneuvered through traffic, brows scrunched in contemplation. The cerulean skyline in her rearview mirror would eventually be graced by a twelve-story pediatric complex. Her grandfather had left a tremendous legacy.
What was her legacy?
Her mischievous youth had been blamed for her father's premature gray. But every challenge had molded her into the woman she'd become. She sighed. Perhaps she'd been too headstrong.
Maybe her heart was stubbornly clinging to the one man she couldn't have and she would never be truly happy.
Memories of Grady O'Rourke haunted her, from when they were kindergarteners to their agonizing confrontation nine years ago before he'd abruptly left for the Army.
After he'd mustered out and returned home, they'd spoken at neighborhood gatherings and run into each other via their jobs. But each meeting had been painfully casual. Don't ask, don't tell.
He'd dropped off the face of the earth seven months ago, right after the long-delayed trial of the man who'd murdered his father. Where was he? Was he all right?
Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Regrets? She had a cartload. She was professionally successful but lost and lonely. Like a tree trapped in shade, yearning for sunlight. No blossoms. No fruit. Never fulfilling her true purpose.
Sabrina checked her mirrors again and scowled. Had that black sedan been tailing her since the hospital? She stomped on the gas, changed lanes and swung right.
She watched all the way home. Nobody followed when she finally pulled into her apartment complex. Paranoid much?
Fatigue weighed her limbs as she unlocked the sunny sanctuary of her apartment. She hadn't taken a day off in wow several months. Sabrina dropped her purse and kicked off her heels inside the door. Past time for a mental-health day. She would bake her favorite apple crisp, brew a pot of Earl Grey and curl up with a romance novel.
She unzipped the restricting dress. Silk was a pain to iron, and she wanted to hang it up ASAP. In red satin bra and panties, she meandered through her jungle of potted plants. Cool leaves brushed her body, and she inhaled the earthy scent that carried her back to her childhood. After the nanny fiasco, Letty Jacobson, the Matthewses' neighbor who'd wrangled five kids of her own, had offered to babysit. Wild child Sabrina had found a soul mate in the feisty senior, and they'd shared wonderful times in Letty's garden.
Lost in anticipation of her stolen afternoon, Sabrina strolled into her bedroom. She froze inside the doorway, the dress dangling from numb fingers.
Two strange men stood at the end of her bed, staring at her.
With neat haircuts, tailored black suits and conservative ties, they could be any average businessmen.
Except for the guns pointed at her.
Choking fear clawed in her throat, and she gasped. The tall, sandy-haired man motioned with his gun. "Don't scream. You'll die before anyone hears."
Clutching the dress like a shield, she swallowed terror. She'd never shown fear to her enemies and now didn't seem like a good time to start. "I'm not the screaming type." She inhaled a quivering breath. "Who are you and what are you doing in my apartment?"
The stocky blond man laughed, but it wasn't reassuring. "She has nerve. She inherited more from the old soldier than those sharp brown eyes."
Sabrina started. They meant Granddad. She stared at the silencers attached to the pistols. Her grandfather had been in politics for three decades. She'd heard his stories. Knew the reality behind the rhetoric. Granddad was a straight shooter, but arrows in other quivers were bent. The crisp suits and sharp haircuts suddenly made sense. Who had Granddad crossed? "Are you FBI CIA NSA? What's going on?"
"Smart," the sandy-haired one said. The men exchanged a glance that made her stomach lurch. Too smart. "Cooperate, and nobody has to get hurt."
These guys weren't street criminals. Soulless eyes and steady hands with silenced guns. Professionals—who made people disappear.
Cooperation be damned—they were here to execute her.
The certainty she was about to die froze her blood. Granddad, what did you do?
"Give us what the old man sent you."
"Who?" she asked, stalling.
"Too late to play dumb," the blond said. "Senator Vaughn mailed you something. What was it?"
If she lied, they'd kill her. If she told the truth, they'd still kill her. The dress crumpled beneath her shaking fingers. They could toss her apartment and stage the murder as a burglary. Nobody would question it. "I don't know what you're talking about."
His lips thinned. "Don't play games. You won't like the way we keep score."
Breathe. "Granddad didn't send me anything.You can't tell me your information is a hundred percent reliable. I know better." Delaying the inevitable was her only tactic. Twenty minutes ago she'd worried about an unhappy future.
Now, she had no future.
The sandy-haired man pinned her with an icy stare. "If you don't have what we need, you're useless."
She bit the inside of her cheek. Tasted blood. Should she tell them she had a package in another place? If she could get outside, she could relay an SOS or escape.
"And don't try a bait and switch. One of us will stay with you, while the other checks. If you're lying " He sliced his finger across his throat.
Her instincts screamed run! Sabrina shifted, and both men tensed. Their impassive eyes narrowed, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. She'd be dead before she turned around. "I don't know anything."
"I'm beginning to believe you. We've searched everywhere. If you had it, you'd have used it by now." The blond pointed his gun at her head. "I'm out of patience."
Sabrina stared into the black barrel. She had nowhere to run. Nothing would save her. She swallowed. If she had to die, her final defiance would be thwarting them. "I have nothing to say."
The blond smiled coldly. "Then say goodbye."
She braced herself. Who would miss her? Her mom had died when she was four. Dad was married to his work. She and Letty were close but had their own lives.
His finger tensed on the trigger, and her eyes slammed shut. Her life coalesced. A face rose in her mind.
Her last thought was for the man who'd captured her heart. The man whose rejection had broken her heart. Would he grieve for the girl who'd been his friend? For the woman he'd refused to know?
She'd never see him again.
She'd die, without ever knowing what might have been.
That hurt worse than anything her assailants could do.
A boom shattered the silence. Sabrina flinched as brilliant heat seared her closed lids. Then the bullet slammed into her head—and everything went black.
She surfaced to consciousness. A man was calling her name.
"Can you hear me?"
Was she hallucinating? Or dead?
"Sabrina, wake up."
"Di-did " Her mouth wouldn't work right. "Did I die?"
"No, sweetheart. You're very much alive."
She jerked. She recognized that low, husky voice. She forced heavy eyelids open, and her heart kicked. She knew those sooty-lashed mossy eyes. Knew that square jaw and stubborn chin. Knew the full, sensual curve of that gorgeous mouth.
She blinked at the hovering man in camouflage fatigues. "Grady?"
Grady O'Rourke's concerned gray-green gaze tangled with hers. Grim emotion flickered in those expressive eyes before he shuttered his expression. "You're gonna be fine."
"Now I know I'm not dead. Because you're no angel."
"Not even close." Relief warmed some of the anxiety from his handsome face. "The halo doesn't fit over the horns."
Gunpowder stung her nostrils, mixed with the metallic tang of blood. Sensation returned, flooding her with pain. Her head pounded with each heartbeat. "Ow." She frowned. His hand was applying aching pressure to her right temple. Was he shaking? Or was she? "Some suit shot me. Call 911."
"Honey, I am 911." The SWAT cop/paramedic smiled crookedly.
"Nobody shot you. I had to take you down from behind to get you out of the line of fire. You cracked your head on the doorjamb."
Grady was here. Her coconspirator. Her confidant. Her childhood hero. He cupped her cheek with his other hand. He was trembling. What was that? Nothing rattled her Irish daredevil. She'd never seen him fazed by anything, except Terror hurtled back. "Two men! Guns!" She struggled to sit up.
"Stay still." His big body filled her field of vision. "The threat has been neutralized."
The former Army medevac chopper pilot's capability was no surprise. The loud boom she'd heard must have been his gunfire. "You mean dead."
His features hardened from caring friend to lethal soldier. "It was them or you. I picked you." His dual nature never failed to fascinate her. A Gemini, Grady managed to meld two disparate instincts often at war with each other—healer and warrior.
"Those men tried to murder you, Sabrina. Would have, if I hadn't arrived when I did. Too bad I wasn't able to interrogate the bastards first. I overheard the confrontation while I did recon. You have no idea what this is about?"
"Zero." Someone had sicced pros maybe government pros on her. They'd send more. Grady had saved her life; she had to save her strength. Not only was she down, injured and under attack, but being with him again would require shoring up all her defenses.
She needed to keep what wits she had functioning. "Did you call the station?"
"Perps aren't going anywhere. I'll call it in when I'm sure you're okay."
"I didn't hear you break into the apartment."
A dark, glossy brow arched. "You weren't supposed to."
"What if more goons show up?"
"Then I'll handle it."
Her glance drifted to the Glock holstered on his thigh, then back to the glittering resolve in his eyes. His expression might be hard, but his heart was not. "Thank you," she said softly.
His pale face was somber. "Just doing my job."
She frantically inventoried his muscular torso. "You weren't hit?"
"I dodge bullets for a living." His warm fingers pressed against her jugular. "You were only out a few minutes and your vitals are strong. Relax and let me fix you up."
That's what he'd done his entire life. Fixed wounded animals and found them new owners. Fixed broken people and sent them home. "Am I bleeding?"
"All head wounds bleed profusely." He gently caught her hand and pressed it to the cloth-covered injury. "Hold this. I'm going to lift you."
Her fingers tangled in the fabric, and she groaned. "Please tell me my new silk dress isn't a field dressing."
His lips twitched. "I didn't exactly have time to be choosy."
"Sorry." She groaned again. "Of course not."
He yanked the comforter from her bed. "Hey, you just got clocked. You're not thinking clearly."
She probed her injury through the silk. "Youch. How bad is it?"
"Stop that, and keep the pressure on." He covered her hand with his. He wasn't shaking anymore, but was still far too intense. What was wrong with him? "It's not critical. How do you feel?"
"Like I was trampled by a 190-pound SWAT cop."
"There's my girl." His smile warmed into a grin.
And there was the Irish daredevil she knew and loved. Those killer twin dimples so did it for her. And she so didn't want them to. "Did you at least call an ambulance?"
"No need." He wrapped her in the comforter and scooped her up. "Average ambulance ETA to this neighborhood is eighteen minutes. I'll have you patched and into Mercy before they can even process the request."
"No doubt." He was the best—at everything. With one infuriating exception. Cooking a microwave dinner took longer than what passed for Officer I-Live-for-Excitement's "relationships."
He carried her out the bedroom door. When she tried to look back, he blocked the view. "Don't, Sabrina."
She pressed her cheek to his broad chest and inhaled his familiar essence of fresh citrus and warm man. The reassuring thud of his heartbeat was rapid. He probably had a major adrenaline rush going, which would account for his earlier shakiness.
His stride was easy, as if she weighed nothing. "I left my medical bag in the Jeep. Do you have a first-aid kit?"
He laid her on the sofa. "Be right back." He returned within seconds and sat beside her. He found gauze, and then tugged a Swiss Army knife from his cammo pants pocket to slice tape. She still remembered his proud grin when his dad had bestowed the traditional O'Rourke thirteenth-birthday gift.
"Grady?" Reality clouds rolled in, and the initial luster of seeing him again dimmed. "Nobody has heard from you for seven months." Two weeks after he'd gone missing, Sabrina had learned from his sister-in-law Zoe that he'd taken a leave of absence from his Riverside SWAT paramedic job. But nothing more. His disappearance shouldn't have shocked her. When the climate turned stormy, Grady was a pro at fast takeoffs.
"I've been busy." His enigmatic gaze flickered. Busy with another woman? She had no ties to him. No right to ask. He'd just evade questions.
But the flash of a bullet fired at her head had illuminated her perspective. Nearly dying had snapped her priorities into clear focus. She would settle things with Grady O'Rourke, once and for all.
Even if neither of them liked the answers.
She touched his hand, now strong and steady at her temple, and taut awareness hummed between them. "Where have you been? And how did you get here just in time to save me?"
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