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Dr. Walker Shaw tried to look somber and professional while accompanying His Grace, Russell, Duke of Carrington, the acting regent of the tiny country of Silvershire, as they strolled through the imposing halls of the palace toward the medical wing. After all, he was here on official business. Walker's appearance might be a tad disreputable, and his accent slow and lazy as molasses, but his credentials as a consultant with the elite Lazlo Group were sterling enough to allow him regular admittance to places mere mortals rarely visited. Places such as this.
It was not appropriate to be wearing the roguish grin of a man with nothin' but romance on his mind.
But he simply couldn't help himself. He'd been fantasizing about coming to the quaint island kingdom for seven years now, to track down and charm the exquisitely sexy and mysterious Lady Sarah -- with any luck right into his bed -- as he'd done so memorably all those years ago at that medical conference in Italy.
Lord willing, she was still living in her native land. And single.
"I understand your specialty is memory loss," Lord Carrington said, yanking Walker from a particularly vivid memory of Lady Sarah's delicious behind bending over a breakfast tray.
"That's right," Walker answered, shifting smoothly into his professional persona. "Mainly as it relates to advancing age and dementia."
As a doctor of psychiatry, Walker had spent the better part of his adult life researching the affliction in the elderly. In his flourishing practice, he had treated patients with all kinds of memory loss resulting from everything from psychological trauma to physical accident to Alzheimer's. Medical research hadn'tbeen his job, it had been his calling.
Well. Until the ugly scandal that had tanked his meteoric career three years earlier put an end to all that.
"I trust it won't matter," Lord Carrington said, "if your patient here is all of thirty-four?"
Walker hardly registered the quick churl of regret at the word patient. He certainly didn't bother to correct it. What the hell. He had moved on. And the life he had now was far more relaxed than the one he'd had as an overworked doctor. He was even doing much of the same kind of work -- minus the research, of course. With the Lazlo Group, he consulted on fascinating cases by day and had lots of free time by night. He'd be a fool to miss his old life.
"Not at all," Walker said, turning his attention to his newest assignment. "I understand she was injured in the assassination attempt on King Weston."
"The palace bombing, yes."
"A terrible thing. She's a doctor, isn't she?"
Lord Carrington nodded. "Dr. Zara Smith."
"The renowned neurosurgeon?" Walker asked, vaguely surprised. Though they'd never met, he'd read a couple of her papers in the journals. Intelligent woman.
"She's been treating the king's brain tumor. She sustained her head injury saving his life during the blast."
"How did it happen, exactly?"
"Under the plaster, the palace walls are made of stone," Carrington said. "Several dislodged in the explosion, and one of them caught her in the temple. She remembers nothing. Not even her own name."
Walker thought about the relative merits of being able to forget one's past so completely. There had been days over the past three years he'd have gladly traded places with her. But no more. He'd made peace with his demons.
Besides, not for anything would he give up the memory of a certain auburn-haired young lady stretching across an elaborately carved feather bed, bathed in the glow of the magical Italian dawn. If he couldn't remember her, how could he find her?
"Has Dr. Smith regained consciousness?" he asked, getting back to the point. The sooner he dealt with this, the sooner he could start looking. And hopefully fill some of those free nights he had...
"She woke the next day. Her physical injuries are nearly healed now. It's just her memory that is lacking." The duke's long-legged stride slowed. "That's why we need your help. We're anxious to have her remember as quickly as possible, so she'll be able to tell us more about the bombing. We're hoping she saw something. Perhaps even the perpetrators." The future king's eyes sought his. The weight of grave concern and heavy responsibility were clearly etched in his young face. "We need to catch these traitors. Silvershire is already in an uproar over the death of Prince Reginald. And now this vile attempt on the life of our king. The stability of my country could very well depend upon the information Dr. Smith might give us."
Walker returned his gaze steadily. "I understand." Corbett Lazlo, Walker's boss, had given him a bit of background on the situation before sending him in. Crown Prince Reginald had been found murdered at his lavish country estate -- poisoned by cocaine spiked with digitalis -- and there had been all sorts of speculation in the press about who might have killed Reginald, and why. At the moment the leading contenders were the Union for Democracy, a radical anti-monarchy group that had been steadily gaining political clout over the past decades, and Lord Carrington himself.
In addition to clout, the UD had also been increasingly accepting of violence as a vehicle for political change. On the other hand, before the murder, Lord Carrington, although unrelated to the present king, had been second in line for the monarchy. Now he'd not only moved up to number one, he'd also hastily married the crown prince's fiancée and then become acting regent when King Weston collapsed. Two months from now, due to an ancient, quirky law that mandated the ascension of the heir to the throne upon his thirtieth birthday, Carrington would be crowned King of Silvershire.
It all seemed a little too convenient to the country's rumor-mongers and particularly the local weekly tabloid, The Inquisitor, popularly dubbed the Quiz.
Still, the Lazlo Group's money was on the UD and not the duke, who seemed sincerely reluctant to become king. It was he who'd hired them to investigate both the prince's murder and the attempt on King Weston's life. But it would be nice to have proof of his innocence in the tangled intrigue. Walker could see why Carrington was anxious for Dr. Smith to recover her memory if he was indeed innocent.
"How long has it been since the bombing?" he asked.
"Just over a week."
Walker pursed his lips consideringly as they passed through a magnificent gilded hall filled with mirrors and tapestries, huge paintings and windows overlooking a formal courtyard garden. A week wasn't all that long. He'd seen cases where it took a year or more for the memories to return.
"She's remembered nothing at all?"
"And your physicians have ruled out any lingering physical injury?"
"Their examinations have been meticulous. Can you help her, Dr. Shaw?"
"I'll certainly try," he said, knowing better than to promise anything. The mind was as unpredictable as the weather in a South Carolina springtime. As they approached the palace medical wing, Walker added, "But there's one thing I need to insist on."
"Anything. Just name it."
"The way I work requires that the subject not be told anything about their former life other than what's strictly necessary. Has anyone talked to Dr. Smith about her background?"
Carrington shook his head. "Just her name, nothing else. Corbett Lazlo already made that recommendation. She hasn't been allowed to watch the news or read the papers, since she has been all over both since the blast. I even managed to dissuade her family from visiting her yet, though it wasn't easy. Her father is the Marquis of Daneby, one of the most influential men and highest ranking nobles in the country."
"I appreciate his cooperation. The reason for the precaution is to prevent false memories. It can be hard for amnesia victims to distinguish between something they are told and a true memory. We don't want to influence Dr. Smith's recollections in any way."
"No, of course not."
They'd arrived in the medical wing, and Walker glanced around at the compact facility, modern and crisply white. The nurses' station was manned by a rosy-cheeked matron named Emily, whose smile lines indicated she was usually a lot more cheerful than she appeared today. There was a short bank of blinking monitors, cozy furniture and a couple of framed paintings of flowers. No signs of fire or debris.
"You've already made repairs from the explosion?" he asked, surprised Corbett would have allowed that.
"Good God, no," Carrington said, indicating a hallway to their right. "The room where the bomb went off is down at the end. We haven't touched anything, since the investigation is ongoing." He swept a hand in an all-encompassing gesture.
"Damage was pretty much confined to King Weston's recovery room and Dr. Smith's connecting office and lab. The stone walls are over three feet thick."
"Is that a fact?" Walker hid a smile, recalling a similar comment by the nubile Lady Sarah concerning the walls of the Florence palazzo where they had been staying. And they'd been grateful for every sound-dampening inch. "I'm surprised anyone even heard the explosion."
They arrived at a closed door and Carrington halted. "This is Dr. Smith's room. Would you like me to go in with you?"
"I'm sure your schedule is more than full, Your Grace, so I won't keep you any longer. Thank you for meeting with me."
With a formal nod and an offer of any further assistance, Carrington strode purposefully back down the hall.
Walker watched him round the corner, then he turned to the door in front of him and took a deep breath. After a quick knock, he entered the room and stood in the doorway, his eyes adjusting to the dimness. The lace curtains were drawn, but the sun was setting on the other side of the palace, throwing the interior of the room into a misty sort of soft focus.
On the tidy bed lay a woman, her long, loose auburn hair spreading across the pillow.
His body gave a jolt of surprise. Or maybe of primal recognition. There was something about that hair....
His mind was still working in slow motion when she turned her face toward him.
He froze, welded to the spot, his entire being shocked to the core.
Sweet merciful heaven.
It was her.
There on the sterile hospital bed lay his delectable Lady Sarah. No longer a young ingenue, but all grown up and sexier than ever, her mouthwateringly curvy body ill-concealed under the thin white sheet, her beautiful face pale and fragile, her sensual eyes wide with apprehension.
She gazed right at him.
Without an ounce of recognition.
Lord, who was she kidding? Everyone was a stranger to her. Including herself.
She stared back at the handsome man standing in the doorway watching her with an appalled expression. As though he'd seen a ghost.
Did she really look that awful? "Sarah?" he whispered. Or rather, croaked.
She swallowed, resisting the urge to pull her unruly hair back in a twist at her nape. "They tell me my name is Zara. Zara Smith. And you are...?"
His startlingly blue eyes skittered up from her body. "You don't remember?"
Something in the way he said it made her think she should. She clutched at the sheet covering her and pulled it a smidgen higher, to the base of her throat. Then shook her head.
"No," she said through a trickle of panic that was beginning to seep through her veins. "Not a thing."
Panic? Or was it embarrassment, over the sudden sexual awareness that engulfed her...?
"Who are you?" she repeated. Then a startling thought occurred. "Are you my...gentleman friend, or -- " surely they would have told her! " -- or my husband?"
The stranger's square jaw dropped. It was definitely panic that flew across his face, accompanied by a low curse. "No. I'm not -- I'm your -- That is, I'm a -- " He clamped his teeth together, said, "Excuse me," through them, then turned on a toe and disappeared back through the door. It closed behind him with a soft whoosh.
"Well," she whispered aloud, feeling uncomfortably like Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party. "That was very curious. But then, everything's curious these days."