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Protecting The Innocent
By Cassie Miles
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRoman Alexander ran alone on the packed sand of the narrow beach. A patina of morning dew coated the surface of his thermal black running suit and dampened his thick black hair. He picked up the pace, churning through the heavy fog off San Francisco Bay, running harder. Exercise without exertion was useless. To build his strength and stamina, he challenged his physical limits.
Changing stride, he ascended the eighty-seven winding stairs up the cliffside to the grounds of the Legate Corporation. At the top, he hit the asphalt footpath, which was exactly five point eight miles in length.
Across the rolling lawn, he could see the outline of the main headquarters, a sprawling gray stone mansion built more than a hundred and twenty years ago on this prime bay-front real estate south of Oakland. When he first came to work here as chief administrator and vice president, he thought of the mansion as a castle. Legate was his realm - one of the foremost think tanks in the nation. Their motto was For The Greater Good. And Roman had believed it. Years ago. Now, those gray stone walls seemed as ominous as the guard towers of a prison.
At Building Fourteen near the front entrance to the gated grounds, he took a detour, slowed his pace to a jog and entered.This squat, ugly structure - little more than a barracks - had always been intended as a temporary headquarters, and tomorrow the physicists and biochemists who worked here would complete their transfer to a large, state-of-the-art permanent facility nearer the mansion.
The sterile white hallway bisecting Building Fourteen was cluttered with packing crates. Many had already made the move.
Roman shoved open the door to an office beside the biochemistry lab. As he expected, Jeremy Parrish was still here, hard at work. He was a good man, a trusted friend. Sitting behind his desk, he scribbled furiously in a spiral notebook.
"Use the laptop," Roman said.
"Gotta see it on paper first." Without looking up, Jeremy kept writing.
"Should I instruct the movers to crate you up and carry you across the grounds?" Roman asked.
With a flourish, Jeremy completed his notation. He seemed ill. His complexion had taken on a sickly pale sheen, like the underbelly of a trout.
"You're working too hard," Roman said. "You look like hell."
"No big deal. There's some kind of flu floating around the lab."
It was an incredibly vague comment from a respected scientist with a doctorate in biochemistry, a man who regularly dealt with complex viral and bacterial infections.
"Besides," Jeremy said, "I want to complete this project fast so I can get back to Denver."
His gaze slid across the cluttered desk to a photograph of his wife, Anya, and their four-year-old son. Roman picked up the framed picture of a healthy toddler and a bashfully smiling woman with long, straight, white-blond hair. He'd always admired Anya. Though she appeared delicate and ephemeral, her blue eyes snapped with intelligence and humor. She was always ready to laugh, always up for a challenge. If she hadn't married his friend, Roman might have gone after her for himself, giving up his reputation as one of the most eligible bachelors in the Bay Area. "You're a lucky man, Jeremy."
"Don't I know it. I never thought I'd be able to have children. And little Charlie -" He broke off, coughing.
"That kid is the light of my life."
Little Charlie was the primary reason Jeremy had agreed to work at Legate on specialized projects. It was Legate's discoveries and experimentations that had paved the way for Anya's successful in vitro fertilization.
When Jeremy coughed again, Roman said, "That sounds bad. You should take some time off."
"I can't believe what I'm hearing." Jeremy forced a grin. "Is it possible? Is Roman Alexander, the administrative slave driver, suggesting that one of his scientists take time off?"
Roman grinned back at him. Very few people would dare to smart mouth to him. But his relationship with Jeremy was different. They'd known each other since they were both on the high school track team. Roman achieved a statewide record in the 500 meters that remained unbroken. Jeremy had been a pole vaulter.
"Somebody has to look after you eggheads," Roman said. "If I didn't come over here and rattle your test tubes occasionally, you'd forget to eat."
"I'll have this project done by the end of the week. Then I'll have a month, maybe two, in Denver with Anya and Charlie."
"Or you could book a flight out today," Roman suggested. "This formula of yours isn't exactly a world-shattering priority."
"I beg to differ. This antiseptic cleansing agent will prevent infection, especially in makeshift Third World clinics where -"
"It's soap, Jeremy."
"Maybe you're right. I should go home and get well." He sat behind his desk. "Right after I finish this last computation. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so."
If Roman had a woman like Anya waiting for him, he'd have flown out the door. He waved goodbye to his dedicated friend. "Say hi to Anya and Charlie for me."
Roman left the office and dodged around the clutter in the hallway. After this move was complete, he might take a little time off himself. He needed a break, and the sexy lady lawyer he'd been dating had dropped a couple hints about how much she'd enjoy a long weekend of skiing in Squaw Valley.
Outside, the fog had lifted only slightly. The promise of another dank, dreary day made the sunlit ski slopes with glistening white snow seem even more appealing.
Halfway up the incline toward the mansion, the ground rumbled beneath his custom-made running shoes. An earthquake? Then he heard the explosions.
Building Fourteen shattered in three bursts of red flame. Bits of glass shimmered in the sudden intense heat. Chunks of concrete from the foundation soared then crashed to earth. The wooden frame of the building splintered into matchsticks.
Acting on instinct, Roman charged back toward the lab, toward the door he'd left only moments ago. But there was no door. No building. Only a raging wall of flame. He darted close, but the heat drove him back, stinging his eyes. Harsh black smoke seared his lungs.
He had to get inside the fire. It was his job to take care of these scientists. He wouldn't let them die. He ducked down and crawled closer.
Crimson embers burned holes in his running suit. Nothing could survive this heat, but he had to try, had to impose his iron will on the force of the explosion.
Someone pulled him back. Dizzy from inhaling the acrid smoke, Roman didn't have the strength to resist. He sat back on his heels and stared.
Jeremy! God, no! This can't be.
Excerpted from Protecting The Innocent by Cassie Miles Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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