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The steel-gray pickup truck sat like a vulture at the end of the desolate beach road. Tinted windows in the extended cab and covered camper obscured her view of the thugs she knew were hunkered down inside.
Men whose intimidation had forced her to flee her home six months ago and hide in this rental unit where no one asked questions about a woman on the run. Depraved, amoral men who had killed her husband and who now planned to kill her.
Meredith glanced at the table where sections of the Georgia Coastal News lay scattered. Even in the darkened house, she could read the headline. Suspect Arrested in Payroll Loan Scam. Two additional men sought for questioning. The article mentioned a possible connection with her husband's murder.
Why had the overzealous reporter added Meredith's name in the same paragraph with the unidentified police informant who had recently come forward?
Be not afraid. The verse from scripture had comforted Meredith in the past. Tonight, the words did little to calm her pulse or the pinpricks of anxiety that scurried along her spine.
The door of thetruck swung open, and a man stepped onto the sandy road. He spoke to someone inside the vehicle before he pointed to the tiny cottage that had been her latest refuge.
Her heart crashed against her chest.
Meredith stumbled into the bedroom and snatched the overnight tote from the closet, a bag she'd packed in case this night ever arrived.
Adrenaline and fear pushed her forward. She reached for her purse and threw the strap over her shoulder. Three steps to the kitchen, and she was at the door. Her hand touched the knob.
She paused for half a second, then raced back to where the baby quilt lay on the couch. Grabbing the fabric she'd patiently stitched over the last few months, she retraced her steps and unlatched the back door.
Meredith peered into the darkness of the backyard. Seeing no one, she slipped into the night.
Pete Worth adjusted the ocular on the microscope until the leukocytes and neutrophils swarmed into view. Eve Townsend's blood smear confirmed that the woman's condition had deteriorated since her last lab appointment at Magnolia Medical.
Exactly as Pete had expected. Being right didn't prevent the sadness that slipped like a dark pall over his shoulders.
He steeled himself to the reality VHL patients eventually had to face. Von Hippel-Lindau disease. Seemed the more bizarre the name, the more convoluted the illness. Just like the twisted tumors that grew within Eve's body.
He hated VHL as much as he was intrigued by the secrets it held. If scientists could understand how to block the blood flow to the tangled cluster of capillaries that formed the tumors, they'd understand how to retard the growth of other malignancies as well.
In time. Pete sighed. Something Eve didn't have.
He glanced up as Denise Ryan, Magnolia Medical's secretary, entered the lab and headed for his workstation. Denise had a big heart as well as an insatiable interest in the personal lives of the technologists on staff.
"Eve's in the waiting room," Denise announced as she neared. "She has a four o'clock appointment with Dr. Davis and wants to hand carry her lab results to his office."
"I thought she was Dr. Fleming's patient."
"She was. But the VHL Institute encouraged her to switch physicians on Sheila Hudson's recommendation. Remember, Sheila drove her son over from Savannah to be treated by Davis."
Pete raised his brow. "Brice died eight months ago, blind and riddled with tumors. That's hardly a favorable recommendation."
Denise sighed. "A tragedy for sure. Still, if I were Eve, I'd try anything or any physician who offered hope. Which is probably why she made the switch. Besides, she told me Davis was a close friend of her parents. Since their deaths, she's stayed in touch."
Davis's treatment protocol was costly and questionable. Pete hated hearing that Eve had succumbed to the hype. She needed hope, but not false hope.
"Tell her I'll send the results to his office electronically."
Denise's eyes softened. She touched his arm. "You know Eve's here to see you."
Pete glanced back at the blood smear. Cells didn't make comments he chose to ignore.
"Eve considers you the son she never had," Denise continued, oblivious to the emotions that swept through Pete, his eyes trained on the array of cells. "If you weren't so fiercely independent and focused on making your own way, you'd accept her love."
"And her money?"
"That's something your father would have said."
She was right, but then, Denise had known his dad.
Despite working for Eve's parents and living in the caretaker's lodge on their vast estate, Pete's father had been bitterly vocal about his disregard for the wealthy Townsend family. A by-product of the jealousy he felt after Pete's mother's untimely death, no doubt.
"I've got her lab slips." Pete pointed to the printouts, lying next to the microscope. "Tell Eve I'll be out after I finish her CBC."
As Denise left the lab, Pete turned his attention to Eve's test results. Chemistry profile, urinalysis, CBC.
An unexpected and unwelcome lump filled his throat. Clinical lab tests didn't lie. One kidney surgically removed two years ago. Renal cell carcinoma in the remaining organ. Dialysis might help initially, but the eventual prognosis was kidney failure and death.
Grabbing the slips off the counter, Pete squared his shoulders and walked purposefully toward the waiting room. His resolve melted when he caught sight of Eve.
His gut tightened. This was the part of medicine he didn't like.
She sat on the edge of the straight-back chair, her arms draped with one of the quilted stoles she stitched to occupy her fingers while the disease ate through her body.
Forty-two on her next birthday, she was meticulously groomed in silk pants and a matching jacket. Her hair and tasteful makeup accentuated her green eyes and high cheekbones, camouflaging the sallow skin and pale complexion hidden underneath.
Critically ill, she looked older than her years, yet her smile when she glanced up and saw Pete was anything but melancholy. For half a heartbeat, he longed to go back in time to when he was a little boy wrapped in her embrace.
Clearing his throat, he forced the thought to flee and held out the lab slips. "Denise said you're seeing Dr. Davis today."
Eve raised her brow as she took the forms. "From your tone of voice, I take it you don't think I should have changed physicians?"
"You don't need my approval, Eve."
"But I value your opinion."
"Evidently you value Sheila's more."
Her face clouded momentarily, making him regret his hasty retort.
"Sheila founded the Institute as a source of information for VHL patients and their families. I trust her judgment, Pete."
"Of course you do." He softened. This wasn't the time to open old wounds.
When he had started working at Magnolia Medical a few months back, he knew Eve would be one of the patients the outstanding research and clinical lab facility served. What he hadn't expected was the raw emotion he felt each time he saw her.
"Sheila stopped by to see me when she came to Atlanta last week," Eve said.
"How's she doing?"
"Managing to put up a good front. Brice was twenty-one, but she still considered him her baby."
Eve shook her head and tried to smile. "I remember when she told me she was pregnant. It was at your fifth birthday party."
The extravagant event Eve had thrown for him, open to the estate staff and their children. "A celebration your parents weren't happy about when they returned from Europe," he reminded her.
"My parents didn't approve of a lot of things I did."
"Like befriending the caretaker's kid?"
"You needed love, Pete, and I needed a child to dote on. Seems we were good for each other in spite of what they thought."
"Bucking authority is never easy. I owe you my thanks."
"You don't owe me anything. You know that. Although I wish you'd let me help. At least with funding for your research."
He held up his hand, palm out. "Eve, please. We've had this conversation before."
Her purse sat on the floor. In an obvious attempt to change the subject, she bent and searched the contents before pulling out a photograph. "I told you I wanted to find my daughter. The private investigator I hired located her."
Eve had always been forthright about her past. Unmarried and pregnant at seventeen, her only recourse—or so her parents had insisted—was to put the baby up for adoption. Struggling with the pain of giving up her child, Eve had found comfort in the Lord.
A testament to His healing grace, she often claimed.
Not that Pete fell for the religious hype. Eve could keep her God. He would depend on his own abilities to get through tough times.
She held up the photo. A bleached blonde with widespread eyes, flat nose and an underdeveloped upper lip.
Pete stared at the picture. "I thought the lawyer who handled the adoption died years ago."
"That's right. But the P.I. located the records. The Collins family, who adopted my baby, lived in Augusta at that time. They named her Dixie. She currently lives in Craddock Sound."
"About eighty miles south of Fort Stewart."
"You know the area?"
"I spent three years at Fort Stewart with the army after my tour in the Middle East."
Eve averted her eyes. Absent during that portion of his life, she didn't comment, but returned instead to the subject at hand.
"Sam and Hazel Collins received their baby girl on November sixteenth, the day I delivered. Dixie's driver's license and social security card verify she's who she says she is." Eve pointed to the woman in the photo. "I'm sure Dixie Collins is my daughter."
Who doesn't look a thing like you, Pete wanted to add. Besides, there was something unsettling about the blonde.
The photo's resolution wasn't the best, still ?
He had never known Eve to touch alcohol, yet the woman who claimed to be Eve's daughter had the facial characteristics of a person born to a mother who drank excessively. Fetal alcohol syndrome.
Not that he'd mention it to Eve. Not now. Not until he learned more about the unlikely daughter. A phony driver's license and social security card were easy enough to come by. The vast fortune Eve's rightful heir stood to inherit could make a number of people claim to be the missing daughter.
"Of course, my attorneys insist on DNA testing to confirm that she's my daughter."
Thank goodness for lawyers.
Eve glanced at her watch, then back at Pete. "I need to head to Dr. Davis's office before the afternoon traffic."
For a moment, she searched his face as if she, too, were remembering the past. Then she adjusted the stole around her shoulders, grabbed her purse and stood.
Excerpted from Protecting Her Child by Debby Giusti Copyright © 2009 by Debby Giusti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Once again Debby Giusti has you sitting on the edge of your seat with this exciting suspense. I was unable to put Protecting Her Child down until I'd read the last word and then I didn't want it to end. And the skill in which Debby created a romance in a weekend, but what an action packed intense weekend. I was totally in love with both characters as I cheered them on and worried about each new twist. Great writing Debby. Loved how you wove the information about VHL into the drama. I'd never heard of it before so while being entertained, I'm also informed. Thanks and keep on writing those riveting suspense novels.
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