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Accusing gazes followed Special Agent Lia Taylor through Hopewell General Hospital.
They burned twin laser holes in the back of her head as she toured the facility, which was so massive, foreign and overwhelming to her that she might as well have been dropped via parachute into Beijing or Abu Dhabi. Her first-day jitters intensified, threatening to cause an ulcer in the lining of her churning stomach.
How in God's name had she, an FBI systems analyst with an impeccable record, landed herself here, in this hospital and this predicament? How could this possibly work? When would she ever go back to life as she knew it?
She felt like a tiny little fish, so far out of water that she'd never make her way back to her pond again. It didn't help that the immortal words of Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale kept running through her overwrought brain:
Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
No one in the building seemed to speak her languageshe caught snippets of conversation from passing personnel, which included incomprehensible phrases like, So, you 're thinking bowel disimpaction? Dude. I hope you're ready to glove up and dig in, and Did you finally get rid of that GOMER? and Negative appendix? Now what? She was sure she stuck out like a surgical clamp on a chest X-ray. Worse was the creeping certainty that people were staring and whispering as she passed, muttering darkly about the things she'd done and what she was:
Or maybe those accusations were only in her mind. Man, she hoped so.
Picking up the pace, which was tricky because of her pencil skirt and black pumps, she hurried after her new boss, Germaine Dudley, M.D., chief of staff. He seemed determined to lose her in this labyrinth, possibly because if she disappeared forever into the depths of, say, nuclear medicine, he'd never have to deal with her again.
They would not be winning any popularity contests with each other, she and the good doctor. Oh, no. And while she might be imagining the disapproving glances of everyone else around her, his were the real deal.
"This is the back way into the E.R." Dr. Dudley reached out a weathered brown hand and smacked the wall switch plate, making the heavy metal doors whoosh open ahead of them. They strode into yet another nerve centerthe hospital seemed to have dozens of themwhere so many scrubs-and-Crocs-wearing people hustled by it was as though she'd stepped into Grand Central Station. "This is the easiest way to get here from the cafeteria, if you ever need to."
He pointed. "The admissions desk is on the other side of that door. This is the nurses' station, of course."
"Of course," she murmured.
Without breaking stride, he shot her yet another narrow-eyed look over his shoulder, his lab coat flapping as though it, too, was irritated with her. "Am I boring you?"
"No," she said, and decided it was past time for her to grow a backbone where this man was concerned. He was not, after all, the Antichrist, even if he was in a position to make her life uncomfortable for a while, and they needed to get a few things straight. "But I can see you're not thrilled to be my tour guide, and I feel bad for taking you away from your real duties. Maybe someone else can show me the rest of the hospital ?"
The suggestion made him stop and snort with obvious disbelief. "Nice try, but I don't think it's a good idea for me to let you out of my sight. Do you? You might break into patient or employee records next. Why would you limit your hacking to the sperm-bank database?"
She'd earned that, yeah, but she didn't like hearing it said aloud, and she hated being under this pompous bastard's thumb. He may look something like Danny Glover, but he had none of the actor's warmth or, as far as she was concerned, humanity.
Hitching up her chin, she got in his face. Screw it. What was the worst that could happen? Being fired? Hauled in by the police? Whatever it was, it was a sunny day in the park compared to what she was already facing in her personal life.
"If I'm so untrustworthy, Doctor, then why don't you throw me out and call the police? I hate to hang around where I'm not wanted. In fact, why don't I just go?"
For emphasis, she took a step toward the nearest glowing Exit sign, and that brought Dudley to heel, just like she'd known it would. Putting a hand on her arm, he stopped her and lowered his voice. "I don't think so. I don't like you, and I think you're a criminal who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but this isn't about me. This is about what's best for Hopewell General, and the hospital"
He caught himself with a grimace, but she already knew and took the opportunity to rub it in. Just a little.
"The hospital can't afford another scandal so soon, can it? Not after all that nasty publicity about your intern who was stealing narcotics from the hospital to support his habit." She tsked. "That was unfortunate, wasn't it?"
Dudley stilled, his face slowly hardening into stone. She waited.
"Allegedly stealing narcotics," he said finally, and she knew she'd won. This round, anyway.
"Right." Feeling cheerier by the second, she smiled. "Allegedly. Whatever. The bottom line is, I need you not to press charges, and you need me to build you a world-class security system to protect the hospital's computers. See? Win-win. So maybe we could work on not hating each other so much. What do you say?"
To her dismay, he continued to stare at her, but the vibe twisted and changed into something that made her skin crawl, especially when that slow gaze scraped down and over her body, as though he could see through her black suit to the parts of her body no man had seen in more years than she cared to count. Those brown eyes became thoughtful considering calculating. He was so obvious about it she could almost hear the clank of gears shifting in his devious little mind. It would have been funny except that she didn't have time for this kind of nonsense, not with
No. She wouldn't think about that now. First things first.
"Maybe we could discuss this over dinner," he suggested, his voice as sleek and oily as a spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Hmm." She smiled sweetly, purely for the pleasure of seeing that flare of greedy lust in his expression right before she cut him off at the knees. "Just so you know, Doctor, I was the best shooter in my class at the academy, and I'm licensed to carry a concealed handgun with me wherever I go. Still want that dinner?"
His skin went pale around his frozen grin.
"Oh, well. Too bad. And please make sure to tell your wife that we've decided to keep our relationship on a professional level. I don't want her coming after me. Okay?"
Dudley goggled at her. "My wife?"
"Your wife" Lia jerked her head in the direction of a woman behind the nurse's station. Though she quickly tossed her fall of sleek black hair, lowered her head and made a show of flipping through a patient chart, the woman had been tracking Lia's interaction with Dudley since the second they came into view. She was about thirty-five-ish, Lia guessed, and would have been stunningly beautiful if she hadn't been giving Lia the Medusa stare for the last several minutes. "She seems to be the jealous type."
Looking bewildered, Dudley turned to see whom Lia was referring to and spied the woman, who shot him a quick glare. His expression cleared with sudden understanding that made his face brighten to a stunning magenta. Lia considered the color change a dead giveaway to some sort of questionable behavior between him and Ms. Attitude, but Dudley apparently imagined himself to be quite the player and was now giving Lia the wide-eyed, innocent act. Lia played along, just for kicks. If this idiot wanted to delude himself into thinking that FBI agents couldn't read people's body language, then who was she to disabuse him of that notion?
"That's not your wife?" she asked.
"Ah, no," Dudley said, clearing his throat. "She's, ah, Kayla Tsang. Head of nursing in E.R "
"She seems very interested in our conversation."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Keeping his resolute gaze straight ahead, Dudley resumed his march around the nurse's station. "And I need to get back to the office."
Lia ducked her head, careful to keep her smile to herself. "My mistake."
Yeah, it was time to get cracking, and, amusing as the good doctor and his extracurricular activities were, they had nothing to do with Lia. Well, unless he tried to hit on Lia again; then she'd use what she suspected as leverage against him. But she didn't think it would come to that. Meanwhile, the sooner they got done with this ridiculous tour, the sooner she could get back to her new office and work on the security system, and the sooner she could return to the FBI after this leave of absence. They'd already wasted the better part of the morning.
"I'm just trying to understand what was going through your mind, Brown." A man's deep voice, low but hard-edged with annoyance, cut across the hubbub from the other side of the nurse's station. "Give me something to work with here."
Don't be nosy, Lia told herself, even though Dudley and everyone else, for that matter, were already glancing around and craning their necks like rubbernecking drivers on the highway. It's none of your business.
Her feet, unfortunately, didn't understand social niceties and were already slowing for a better look at the developing ass chewing. There was something compelling about that man's voice, something that caught her attention in a steel-jawed grip and didn't let go.
And then she saw him.
Not the red-faced and stammering Brown, a young guyresident, she was guessingwho looked like a twelve-year-old who'd tried on his father's scrubs and was now horrified to actually be mistaken for a doctor.
No. Lia couldn't look away from the other guy. The angry one who had his back to her while he got in Brown's face.
About six feet tall, he, too, was dressed in scrubs hell, everyone around here wasand had the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, round-assed combination of a born athlete or a gym rat. His gesturing arms were smoothly brown and sculpted, and he wore battered running shoes, which told her they saw action outside the corridors of this hospital. A stethoscope dangled around his neck at the base of his skull-trimmed head, and she hoped he wasn't about to whip it off and use it to strangle Brown, which seemed like a distinct possibility.
After several excruciating beats, the stammering and floundering Brown found his tongue and worked up an answer. "I didn't think" he began.
Dr. Pissed Off snorted. "That much is clear."
"that we needed a chest X-ray," Brown continued.
"So you didn't order one." Dr. Pissed Off swelled with indignation, somehow taking up more than his fair share of the air and space around the nurse's station. "And now we've got a patient with a raging case of pneumonia, which should've been diagnosed yesterday. Does that about sum it up?"
Everyone within a twenty-foot radius was listening now. Oh, they kept up the pretense of working, sure, but the personnel behind the counter had their ears cocked as they tapped on their keyboards or spoke on the phone, and even the passing orderly and the patient he was wheeling on his gurney turned their heads to gape. Beside Lia, Dudley was watching with rapt attention, which, she figured, gave her permission to keep watching.
Brown had the good sense to keep his mouth shut. But if he'd hoped that would shorten his time in the dunce chair, he was sadly mistaken.
"I don't think you have the chops for this," said Dr. Pissed Off, whom she was beginning to think of as Dr. Jackass. "I really don't. Any third-year medical student would have ordered the film. Hell, anyone's who's ever watched half an episode of Grey's Anatomy would've ordered the film. I'm thinking you should've gone to law school, Brown."
Ouch. Low blow.
Brown seemed to think so too, because he jerked his chin up, grew a pair and tried to defend himself. "Look. I made a mistake. It won't happen again. I'm sorry."
Dr. Jerk was not impressed. "I don't want your apology," he said. "I want you to do your job. Now get out of here."
Brown wavered for a second, his humiliated and defiant gaze flickering between his tormentor and their avid audience. A couple of the nurses gave him an encouraging smile, which seemed to give him courage. He looked like he wanted to return to the battlefield and maybe fire off one last salvo, but he couldn't seem to find the guts.
Instead, he ducked his head and hurried off around the corner, heading for the elevators and, probably, a long day spent beating himself up for his honest mistake.
Poor guy. Lia's heart squeezed with sympathy as she watched him go. Was this kind of abuse dished out to the beleaguered residents on a daily basis? And did Dr. Pissed Off think he was God?
Dumb question. Yes, of course he did. Didn't all doctors?
"For God's sake," Dr. Evil muttered to no one, continuing his ridiculous little temper tantrum by slamming the patient's metal file on the counter as he strode off. Everyone jumped and then hastily resumed their busy-work, as though they'd been so engrossed in minding their own business that they'd missed the whole interlude. "How am I supposed to teach these clowns?"
Something possessed Lia. She'd been accused, on more than one occasion, of being a crusader, and right now she felt the strong urge to find a cape and a sword and fly to the rescue of young Dr. Brown.
Idiotic, yeah, especially considering that she didn't know the guy, who could well be the worst student to ever claw his way through a sub-par medical school, but she couldn't just stand quietly by while his boss the jerk tore into him. Injustice of any kind, real or imagined, made her face burn with anger. And why was no one else standing up to the ogre and speaking out against his reign of terror?
"For God's sake." She kept her voice loud and clear as she spoke to Dr. Jackass's departing back. "How are residents supposed to learn when they're being bullied?"
A ringing silence bloomed like a nuclear explosion, giving her time to wonder if she'd gone too far.
And yeeeeeaaah. She'd probably gone too far.