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"You're working late again."
Dr. Brenda Storm glanced up from the open files spread out across her desk and winced. Dr. Sam Johnson walked into her office, looking very GQ, with his gelled hair, pressed slacks and starched shirt beneath his white lab coat. She hadn't heard the door open, let alone a knock.
The thought of having to fend off another of his unwelcome advances made her stomach churn. The plastic surgeon might have excellent skills when it came to facial reconstruction, but he hadn't a clue about her lack of interest in him. He was probably so used to women falling at his feet that he saw her disinterest as a challenge.
Well, she wasn't looking for romance. She had too much to accomplish, too much at stake. Her career came first. It would always come first.
And even if she were looking for a relationship, it certainly wouldn't be with some playboy hotshot whose ego was triple his shoe size. She'd made that kind of mistake once when she was young and naive.
She'd fallen for such a guy once her first year of med school. Josh had been cute, smart and charismatic. A total player.
And she'd been just another conquest to brag about.
Humiliated and hurt, she'd vowed then to be more careful when it came to romance. So far her carefulness hadn't lent itself to finding a husband, much to her parents' chagrin.
She forced a smile. "Hi, Sam. What can I do for you?"
His white, even teeth gleamed when he smiled. All practiced charm. It usually worked for him, she was sure, but to her it came across as very phony. Too much like the men her parents were constantly trying to fix her up with. Men who wanted the prestige of having a general surgeon for a wife, but not the lifestyle that went with it.
Long hours and single-minded focus were what got her this far. At thirty-four she was a well-respected general-practice surgeon with ambitions to be department chief. That usually didn't settle well with prospective suitors.
She'd been called a workaholic, too serious, too controlling, too dispassionate
"Since we're both speaking next Friday, I was thinking maybe we could go together," he said.
She blinked. "Where?"
"The annual fundraiser."
She'd forgotten about the hospital's yearly fall gala. She'd been asked to speak about the technological advances used in general surgery. Ugh. No way of bowing out. She scrambled, searching for a reason why they couldn't "go together" as he put it. "I "
Gary, the hospital's security guard, poked his head inside the doorway. "Package for you."
Glad for the interruption, she waved him in. In his sixties, the man was twice her age, with graying hair and a wide smile, but he was still strong and capable. He'd been a part of Heritage Hospital long before she'd come aboard. She hoped he'd be around for a long time. He helped out when he saw a need, unlike some of the younger guards who manned the front reception area during various shifts.
Given that Heritage Hospital took up a full block in a very affluent suburb of Chicago, she guessed the younger guards viewed their time at Heritage as a cushy job since they saw little criminal activity on a daily basis. Still, having a security presence gave patients and staff of the hospital a measure of comfort.
And for the doctors and nurses, an extra pair of hands was an extra pair of hands. Welcome when needed.
"These smell delicious." Gary carried a pink bakery box. The distinctive label on the side was from a posh cupcake shop not far from the hospital. "There's a card taped to the top."
Brenda rose and came around the desk to peel the envelope from the top of the box. Inside was a pretty thank-you card. The signature of the sender was illegible. She had no idea who was thanking her or why.
"You get cupcakes from patients?" Sam asked, peering over her shoulder. "All I get are pictures once they've healed. I'd prefer cupcakes."
Brenda received other gifts and tokens of gratitude from patients, nice gestures for doing the job she'd spent her whole life training for. She had more wins than losses. Still, the Hanson case hanging over her head robbed her of appreciating this small thank-you.
Three months ago, Peter Hanson had died on her operating table. He'd come into Heritage Hospital with acute appendicitis. She'd been the surgeon on call and quickly assessed he needed surgery. Everything went smoothly until his heart stopped in the middle of what she'd considered a textbook procedure.
The autopsy had been inconclusive. There had been no heart disease. No blockage. No aortic stenosis, no myocarditis. No genetic issues. No structural damage.
And now his family was suing her and the hospital for malpractice.
A blemish on her otherwise spotless record. She felt sick thinking about it. Had she done something wrong, made some crucial mistake? The possibilities gnawed at her, eating away at her confidence.
She set the pink bakery box on the desk and opened the lid to reveal four fancy cupcakes with colorful sprinkles atop fluffy white frosting and little smiley-faced rings, the kind usually meant for children.
Brenda normally didn't operate on children. At least not at Heritage Hospital. However, she did treat patients of all age ranges and walks of life at the downtown clinic she'd helped establish.
In the past couple of years, she'd taken out an inflamed appendix on a ten-year-old girl, adenoids for a preteen boy, a ruptured spleen on a six-year-old and tonsils from at least three prepubescent kids. Had this come from one of those families? Or had these been the only available cupcakes at the bakery? That seemed more likely.
"Yum. Those are from Blissful Indulgence," Sam said. "So much goodness in a small package."
The cupcakes didn't look that small to Brenda. Each confection looked to have about five hundred grams of fat ready to clog arteries. "Help yourselves."
"Don't mind if I do," Gary said and reached to take a cupcake. He peeled back the paper wrapper around the bottom and took a bite. After he swallowed, he said, "Thanks, Dr. Storm. These are amazing." He left the office with a smile.
Sam picked up a cupcake but didn't take a bite. "You still haven't answered my question. The fall gala? Us going together?" He gave her a searching look. "Unless, of course, you already have a date."
No date. And she didn't want one with him. Or anyone for that matter. "Let me think about it and get back to you."
"I know what that means," Sam replied with a slightly petulant tone.
Maybe he had more of a clue than she'd thought. She'd give him an A for persistence.
Gary reappeared at the door. "Help," he croaked, clinging to the door frame, his face ashen as he slid to the floor in a heap.
Alarm jolted through Brenda. Heart attack? A massive coronary, perhaps.
She pushed Sam out of the way and ran to Gary. She rolled him over. "Call for help."
"On it." Sam picked up the phone on the desk.
She placed her fingers against Gary's neck, hoping to find a carotid pulse. He had none. Her stomach sank. "No pulse. Not breathing."
Sam spoke into the phone. "Code Ninety-nine. Dr. Storm's office."
Dread chipped away at her composure. She tilted Gary's head back and tugged his jaw forward to open the airway. From her coat pocket, she grabbed a mi-croshield CPR mask and placed it over his lips, fitting the mask air valve against his tongue. The faint scent of almonds wafted from his mouth. "Beginning CPR."
"Gary died from cyanide poisoning?" Stunned, Brenda sat back in the armchair across the expansive mahogany desk from Ned Landsem, Heritage Hospital's administrator. Her stomach roiled at the news. The smell of almonds on Gary's breath hadn't come from the flavoring in the cupcakes but from poison.
Despite her and the staff's best efforts, Gary had died. Her heart ached at the loss. She tucked her sadness away in the deep depths of her heart. Compartmentalizing came with the job. "How? Why?"
"I don't have all the details." Nearer to seventy than sixty, Ned Landsem was still a dashing man with thick white hair and a robust personality that made working for him a joy. "The police suspect the cupcakes that were delivered to you were laced with cyanide. Once toxicology comes back, they'll have confirmation."
Realization slammed into her like a gale-force wind coming off Lake Michigan in the winter. Someone had tried to kill her. Shock stole the breath from her lungs.
She shuddered as anxiety and fear dug deep talons through her, leaving weeping wounds. Someone wanted her dead.
And had murdered Gary instead.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes. A senseless death.
"The police don't have the resources to give you round-the-clock security, so the hospital has hired a protection specialist from Trent Associates."
She drew back. "'Protection Specialist,' as in bodyguard?"
"We had to move quickly. Trent Associates has an exemplary reputation. They were able to send someone out right away."
She sat forward. "I don't get a say in this?"
Though she logically understood the need for a bodyguard and could see the value, she hated not being in control of her own destiny. And having someone out there who wanted her dead made her feel vulnerable in a way she'd never felt before. She didn't like it one bit.
His expression turned parental. "You're an important member of our staff, Brenda. Your safety is our priority. We care about you."
As good as the sentiment felt, she had no illusions about her worth. Her skills in the operating room made her a high-priced commodity, one other hospitals and private practices sought after.
But on a personal level, she wasn't that close to the staff. Relationships only complicated matters. It was easier to keep people at a distance than to risk disappointment. Theirs and hers.
"I'm sure the staff would appreciate the extra security." The weight of responsibility pressed on her shoulders. Someone had already been hurt because of her; the least she could do was accept the hospital's generous gesture.
Ned nodded his approval. "I'm glad you understand. This will be in everyone's best interest"
A knock interrupted him. "Come in."
The door to the office opened. She looked over her shoulder to see the newcomer. Her breath stalled out.
Ned rose and came around the desk, his hand outstretched. "Mr. Martin, I trust your trip went well."
A tall, lean and drop-dead gorgeous man strode forward and halted beside her chair. He wore khaki cargo pants and a loose-fitting shirt more appropriate for a pool party than a professional meeting. And he wore flip-flops on his feet. Did he plan to head to the lake-shore when he was done here?
"Yes, without a hitch. You must be Dr. Landsem." The two men shook hands.
Surely this wasn't her bodyguard. Brenda frowned in confusion. Weren't bodyguards supposed to look tough and intimidating? Like James Bond or something?
This guy with his shaggy blond hair belonged on a movie set for a beach flick or a photo shoot for a male hottie-of-the-month calendar. Not that she didn't appreciate his handsomeness. She was a woman with a pulse. She rather liked his angular jawline and full lips.
Lively sky-blue eyes met hers. His gaze slowly raked over her in silent appraisal. Would he see the flaws she worked hard to hide?
The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile as if pleased with what he saw. Her pulse skyrocketed.
She sat up straighter. Oh, no. No, no, no. This guy couldn't be the protection specialist the hospital hired. He was too too much. Too young. Too good-looking. Not a man to be easily ignored.
Ned gestured to the man and said, "Dr. Brenda Storm, I'd like you to meet Kyle Martin. Your bodyguard."
"Hi there, Dr. Storm, I've heard good things about you." Kyle Martin extended his hand toward the brunette beauty sitting perfectly straight in the leather armchair.
She didn't move. Her lips pressed into a firm line. She couldn't disapprove of him already, could she? No matter, she wouldn't be the last.
Odd that she'd wear all black beneath her white lab coat on a hot late-September day. Black slacks, black buttoned-up blouse. Okay, not everything was black. Her red pumps sporting little embroidered roses were in vivid contrast to the stark outfit. Not as somber as she wanted others to believe? Interesting. And intriguing.
Her dark hair was twisted up in a fancy bun in the back. He wondered what she'd do if he undid the pins holding her hair. She'd look softer with all that mass spilling about her shoulders.
Probably slug him. His lips twitched with a suppressed chuckle.
"Okay, we'll skip the pleasantries," he said. "I hear you've had a tough time lately." He'd read the dossier on her during the plane ride from Boston. A lot of facts but no real hint of her personality.
She slanted him a glance. Were those tears shimmering in her dark eyes? "If you mean someone trying to poison me and instead killing a sweet man who'd done nothing wrong except indulge in a pretty cupcake, then yeah, I'd say a tough time."
She was not impressed. Tough. Like it or not, she was stuck with him.
"And being sued for malpractice. I'd say that qualifies, as well."
With a quick glance at her boss, she said, "Well, you can hardly protect me from that, now can you?"
"You'd be surprised what I can do," Kyle quipped.
She jumped to her feet, her dark eyes no longer filled with tears. Now they flashed with indignation. "I do not need you."
Kyle grinned. "Yes, you do need me. I'll be sticking to you like surf wax to a surfboard until the police catch the person who tried to harm you. No one's getting near you without going through me."
Her eyes widened. Her mouth clamped shut. She swung her gaze to the boss man. "This won't work. I can't have him" she waved a hand in Kyle's direction "with me in the O.R. The man has on flip-flops. Please, Ned. This isn't a good idea."
"It's an excellent idea." Ned tipped his chin in Kyle's direction. "Mr. Martin will take very good care of you."
"I don't need to be taken care of," she argued. "I need to get back to work."
Ned slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Once the police find who tried to hurt you, everything should all settle down."
"If it doesn't, then what?" she asked with a quick glance toward Kyle.
Kyle widened his grin, enjoying the myriad emotions traipsing across her expressive face. She'd bounced from sorrow, to fear, to anger to more anger in the space of a heartbeat.
Her frown deepened.
Okay, shadowing the doctor for the next few days was going to be a challenge. But man, she was easy on the eyes. That was a huge plus. Not that it mattered what she looked like. Protection was protection. He'd do his job and then walk away like always. That was why he liked his job. Each assignment was different, mostly interesting and always temporary.
He was a temporary type of guy.
Especially when it came to women. Prickly women, like the doctor, in particular.
"All we can do is pray the police find whoever did this and arrests them quickly," Ned said.
"What if they don't?" she asked, her voice rising slightly.