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Exhaustion thrummed through Megan Corning's body, a combination of too many grant applications and too few days off in the past months.
Knowing she didn't have time to be tired yet, Meg dug her fingers into her red-gold hair and told herself to focus on something else. Something positive, like the new office the Boston General Hospital administrators had given her just the week before.
She glanced around the room and grimaced. The walls were painted a classy ice-blue and hung with a handful of diplomas and accolades. The front cover of last March's Science magazine was smack in the center, announcing a "New Noninvasive Method for Prenatal Diagnosis." If her desk were a bed, it would've been a California king, and the rolling chair was real leather.
It all looked very impressive. Hell, what she'd done was impressive. But the wall art, added to the stark white padded chairs opposite her black metal desk, gave the decor a chilly feeling.
The room was so not her.
At least, it wasn't how she saw herself. She had a sneaking suspicion the austere furniture and harsh lighting were perfectly aligned with how too many of her co-workers saw her. Functional. Dependable. Lacking warmth.
And why is that?
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, knowing she'd created the image herself a decade earlier, on her father's orders that she tone down her reputation when he got her the job at Boston General.
Well, not orders, precisely. Call it a strong suggestion from Dad. Who also happened to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Tone down the dangerous stuff, Meg, Robert Corning had said in his resonant lecturer's voice. They already doubt your science, why give them an excuse to criticize your sense?
As much as she'd hated to admit it, he'd had a point. Her insistence on proving that a baby's cells could be found in the mother's bloodstream had already raised too many eyebrows. Her grades hadn't been the best, and her Ph.D. thesis had been long on theory, short on results.
Of necessity, she'd grown out the streaks in her hair, put her skis, parachutes and other toys into storage, and focused on figuring out how to test a baby's genetic makeup from a sample of the mother's blood.
They said it couldn't be done, but she'd managed it. She'd developed a blood test that was poised to revolutionize prenatal genetic analysis. Boston General Hospital and her cosponsor, Thrace University, would reap the rewards and Meg would be assured tenure. She'd be set for life—she'd have a job, a good salary, a whopping pension and a corner office.
"And it won't be black and white!" she said out loud.
A head popped around the open office door. "You need me, boss?"
"Um, no. I was talking to myself, actually." Meg grimaced when Jemma Smoltz, her patient coordinator and sometimes lab assistant, stepped into the room.
Short, dark hair framed Jemma's pixie-perfect face, and she wore flirty capri pants that showed off her slim ankles, one of which was tattooed with a pink rose.
She was twenty-six, tiny and feminine, and she made thirty-four-year-old, five-foot-ten Meg feel like a human water buffalo in comparison.
Less so these days, though, because Meg had been working out. She'd lost fifteen pounds since winter, and had her sights set on another ten.
Jemma grinned. "Daydreaming about that stud rock climbing instructor at your new gym?"
Meg rolled her eyes. "I never should have told you about Otto." But there was no harm in it, really. She was just window shopping, admiring the kind of active, muscle-bound hunk she'd always found attractive. "You should ask him out."
"Not on your life. He's too young for me. And besides—" Meg waved at the diplomas, the glossy magazine cover and the cool blue walls "—that's not my lifestyle anymore. I can't take off on a moment's notice to free climb God only knows where." Though there were sure days she wished she could. "I've got a lab. Responsibilities."
Jemma wrinkled her nose. "That doesn't mean you have to be boring."
"I'm not boring, I'm focused. There's a difference." Although some days, she worried that there wasn't any difference at all. That she wasn't pretending to be boring anymore—she'd actually become boring.
Hell, even her recent return to free climbing was on an indoor wall with landing pads on the floor.
Unusually annoyed with her office, with herself, Meg reached across her desk and flipped open the next folder on a stack of twenty, hoping Jemma would get the hint.
"Aw, come on," the younger woman wheedled.
"You owe it to yourself to ask Otto—"
"I owe it to the hospital to collect another fifty beta test subjects before the end of the week," Meg snapped. "Is the next patient here?"
Her assistant's answer was a long, slow grin. "You're thinking about it."
"Just shut up and send in the patient, will you?" But once Jemma was gone, Meg looked around the sterile-seeming room, then down at the edges of clothing visible beneath her lab coat. The green pullover, tan suede skirt and tall brown boots had seemed smart and professional that morning.
Now they're boring, she thought. Maybe Jemma had a point. Maybe it was time to do something different, time to—
"Mr. and Mrs. Phillips," Jemma announced from the doorway.
Nope. It was time to get to work.
Meg stood and moved around the ginormous desk as the couple entered the room. "I'm Dr. Corning. Please call me Meg." She focused her attention on Mrs. Phillips first, because it was the woman's body they'd be discussing. Her child. Her blood sample.
The wife was a knockout. She wore expensive-looking navy wool pants and sensibly flat shoes, topped with an Empire-waisted tunic that flowed down past her hips, obscuring any evidence of the early term pregnancy she'd reported in her initial interview with Jemma. Her glossy brunette hair was swept into a soft French braid, and her brown eyes and full, dusky lips were accented with fashionable hints of purpley brown makeup that made her features pop.
But her eyes held a distinct flicker of nerves when she took Meg's hand in a brief clasp. "I'm Raine, and this is my husband, Erik."
The pause before the word husband was almost imperceptible, but Meg tucked it in her mental files before she turned and extended her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Erik."
Then she got a good look at him and had her own moment of hesitation.
The guy made a hell of a first impression.
His clothes matched Raine's, not in color, but in the understated taste and quality of the fall-weight, steel-gray suit, dove-gray oxford shirt and gunmetal tie. The monochromatic scheme might have washed another man out, but it complemented this one, emphasizing both his angular face and the faint silver frost that touched the edges of his blue-black hair. He was tall, topping Meg by a good four inches or so, and his shoulders were broad beneath the tapered suit jacket.
His eyes were a deep, nearly sapphire-blue, and they narrowed when he took her hand and held it a beat too long. "The pleasure is mine."
Meg dampened an instant shimmer of attraction—he was another woman's husband, after all. She gestured toward the chairs opposite her desk. "Take a seat and tell me a little bit about yourselves."
Raine sank into one of the chairs, but Erik remained standing. Then, as though realizing that Meg wouldn't sit until he did, he grabbed his chair and pulled it a few inches away from his wife. It wasn't until he braced himself to step forward that Meg realized he carried a gunmetal-gray cane nearly the color of his tie. He leaned on it with the ease of long practice as he lowered himself to the chair, right leg braced stiffly in front of his body.
He stared at her, eyes saying, Don't you dare pity me, but out loud, he said, "What do you want to know?"
His wife frowned. "I thought we were here for a blood test. We already filled out the questionnaire and your assistant took a preliminary sample." She pushed up the bell sleeve of her tunic to show a small Band-Aid at the crook of her elbow. "Isn't this just a formality?"
Meg smiled. "I need to make sure you understand the study structure and your privacy rights." She paused, losing her place in the oft-repeated speech as Erik shifted uncomfortably in the upholstered chair.
He looked up and caught her staring. His eyes glinted with an expression she couldn't interpret and wasn't sure she liked. But he said, "Can you tell us a little bit about the test? My—Raine is a cautious woman."
Another hesitation? Meg thought. Wonder what sort of marriage these two have.
Telling herself it was really none of her business, she pushed a glossy folder across the desk. "Here's some information for you to take home and look over later. Most of it is also on our Web site." She slid a brochure from the folder and tapped a color schematic cutaway of a pregnant woman. "We're in the final stages of streamlining prenatal blood tests for a number of common genetic disorders. The technique is called Noninvasive Prenatal Testing, NPT for short. We're enrolling pregnant women in their first or second trimester, and asking that you come in for biweekly blood draws." Meg smiled at Raine's indrawn breath. "It's just one milliliter at a time, so we won't drain you dry. We're not vampires."
"Twice a week is a substantial time commitment for me." Raine glanced at her husband, whose attention was focused elsewhere. She touched his knee. "Erik, don't you think twice a week is too much for me to be out of the office?"
He diverted his gaze from the wall art and glanced at her. "I'm sure your boss will give you the time." His lips twitched. "He's not all that bad, you know."
The two traded a look that excluded Meg. The sense of connection sent a slice of harmless envy through her chest.
Maybe Jemma was right. Maybe she had been neglecting her social life for too long. Maybe it was time to meet a man, someone she could hike and bike and climb with, someone who loved all the things she used to love.
As soon as the licensing went through and tenure was announced, she promised herself. Then she'd focus on moving from ice-blue walls to something more interesting.
Maybe teal. Hot pink.
Focus, Meg! She gave herself a mental shake and continued her explanation. "We're testing whether the different phases of pregnancy affect our results. In addition, we'll be able to examine your baby for most known genetic diseases. We can—"
"Some people say that's impossible," Erik interrupted. His attention wasn't on the wall art anymore. Now it was focused on Meg. "Plenty of experts in the field say your results are nothing but false positives and hopeful interpretation."
Normally, Meg would have taken the challenge and explained the strength of her science. But now she paused as her instincts jangled a warning.
Something told her that this guy wasn't quite what he seemed.
She forced a smile. "I see you've done your homework, Mr. Phillips."
"Call me Erik." He leaned forward, hitching his weight to the left to ease his bad leg. "And yes, I've done some background reading. Three of the top experts in the field of prenatal testing have publicly denounced your discovery."