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Maxine O'Neil bounced in the passenger seat of the Jeep Grand Cherokee as the Texas landscape flashed by in the pouring rain. The boywell, he was seventeen, she'd seen his Park IDdrove like a bat out of hell over the rugged terrain.
Her head almost hit the ceiling as her jean-clad butt left the seat. The windshield wipers scratched across the glass in harmony to Toby Keith blaring from the dashboard about loving him even though you might hate his politics.
How in the world had she ended up in Reddington, Texas?
The answer was simple. She'd walked in on her fiancé screwing his administrative assistant on the new office sofa. A "goodbye boff," the idiot had claimed in his smooth British accent, once he'd gotten his pants back up.
She hadn't cried. She'd just stood there in shock for a moment, the oddest thoughts popping into her head. Like did the vacation insurance she'd purchased for their upcoming cruise cover this eventuality?
Death in the immediate family. Serious illness. Car accident on the way to the port.
Catching your fiancé doing his secretary the day of departure? Boffing insurance. Probably not covered by Caribbean Cruise Lines.
Forty-five minutes later she sat on another sofa with a strong cup of her mentor's Darjeeling tea in handher cruise and engagement now a thing of the past.
"He did what?" shouted Kirk, jumping up from behind his desk and nearly overturning his own ever-present cup of tea. "On that lovely new sofa you helped him pick out? Good God, they'll ruin the upholstery."
Max stifled a sad giggle. Traitorous moisture seeped behind her lashes.
"That effing idiot," growled Kirk in his Scottish brogue, gray hair sticking out in all directions. He looked like a red-faced, overweight Einstein. "What the hell was he thinking?"
Max swallowed before she answered. "Oh, he explained all that. He told me he wasn't thinking. He was reactingto Marciewith his penis."
She did laugh then. Because it was so true. This was all horseshit. The picture of Robert scrambling to pull up his boxers and slacks as he explained his "goodbye boff," or "the GB" as it would forever be labeled in her head, while Marcie smirked in the background.
They'd given that twit a Coach handbag for Christmas. Robert always insisted on spectacular gifts for his "support staff." Jesus.
Max shook her head at the hideous memory and dug in her purse for her Relpax tablets. The neurologist had said she should take them as soon as she felt a headache coming on. Not to wait.
Lord, if she'd known what today had held, she'd have taken two before she got out of bed. She took her medicine with the hot tea and wished for a double shot of tequila, but it was only ten-thirty in the morning.
"So did you kick him in the balls?" Her former college professor was rabid about his female employees knowing how to defend themselves.
"No, I'm afraid I didn't. I acted like a girl."
He looked stricken. "Don't tell me you cried in front of that prick. You're thirty-two years old, for God's sake."
Oh, she adored this man. Ralph Kirk held her accountable and loved her like the daughter he'd lost. The one male figure in her life she didn't have to pretend to or put on any kind of front with.
"No. No. I just stood there like a duck in thunder. I couldn't figure out what to do. Then Marcie piped up about how they'd been seeing each other for several months and I lost it."
"What did you do?"
"I threw a paperweight at him."
Kirk gave an inelegant snort.
"I'm pretty sure it's the one you gave him last year. I think I must have clipped him. He didn't have his pants up yet. He was still trying to 'talk me down.'"
Kirk smiled his toothy grin and began to cackle like a rooster on crack.
She shook her head. "Don't laugh too hard. You're gonna hear about this, I'm sure."
"I just hope I do."
"But, Ralph, he could sue you. And, of course, me. I mean, he was bleeding when I left. Besides that he's the most litigious man I know."
"Hell, woman." Kirk shrugged. "Let him fuss. He was balling another Earth Pharm employee in my offices on my nickel. He'll most likely be sued for sexual harassment himself before it's over."
"No." Max closed her eyes, not because of the crudity of the terms, but because of the mess this was shaping up to be.
Kirk nodded. "Max, he'll lose his job. The company shrink can't screw his secretary on company time and get away with it. Not to mention cheat on his fiancée, the VP of Development, and not expect consequences."
Mentally Max cringed. The publicity and the pity of her fellow coworkers. The thought of all the fallout to come ratcheted her headache up a notch.
"But even my lawyers will say you've got to get out of here while we deal with all this. You don't want to be around when we fire this idiot."
"No, I certainly don't." She struggled not to whine. "You know we'd been planning to go on a cruise. Hell, my bags are in the lobby." She took a deep sip of tea and swallowed hard. "I agree I've got to get away for a while. I needed a break before all this happened. I just
I don't know if I can face the Caribbean by myself right now."
"Darlin', you don't want to go on a cruise alone, although I agree you do need a change of scene. You've been working nonstop upstairs in the lab. And it just so happens I have the ideal place for you. I'd wanted to ask you about it beforein fact, you were my first choicebut I knew you were taking a vacation. However, now that your plans have changed, this is perfect."
"What's perfect?" She took another slug of tea and imagined it to be Patrón Silver.
"It's called Devil's Hollow."
"That sounds like the remake of a bad Halloween movie. What's Devil's Hollow?"
"Cute." He pulled out a file folder as he spoke. "It's a newly discovered aquifer cave near Reddington, Texas. A friend of mine in Austin teaches at UT. One of his students is a spelunker, caverwhatever they call themselves. She isolated bacteria in a new cavern pool with some rather fascinating properties and used the special microbes for her thesis project. My friend thought I might be interested."
"Really." Max was still feeling sorry for herself and only halfway listening.
"I was all set to go down myself and take a look at things with Sal Evans and a small research team, but now that you're available
" He left the idea hanging. "You could go in my stead. I have the field lab already in place and Sal left this morning with the techs. I just need someone to oversee the project."
"Hmm." She slumped into Kirk's luxurious leather sofa, trying to wipe out the memory of Robert and his bimbo on the couch three floors below. A new bacteria didn't sound very promising. But she asked the prerequisite question anyway because one, this was Ralph and he was trying very hard to help her take her mind off the abysmal state of her personal life. And two, the incident in Robert's office could become a professional problemcourtesy of her quick temper and sure aim with a crystal paperweight.
"What's so special about these bacteria?" She sipped her Darjeeling.
"They eat cancer cells."
Max bobbled her teacup, rattling the Wedgwood cup and saucer. "What?"
"The bacteria eat cancerous tissue and leave healthy tissue behind."
Her eyes widened and she sat up straighter on the sofa, Robert and his tart forgotten. "Are you sure?"
He nodded, a small smile playing about his face as he nonchalantly opened the file on his cluttered desk.
"Good Lord. That's unbelievable." She swallowed. "Can it be reproduced? Does anyone else know about it? Have you seen it yet? Do you know what this means?"
He raised an eyebrow and stared at her. "To answer your questions, I don't know, I don't know, no and yes. If the bacteria can be cultured outside the cave on a large scale, I've got a pretty good idea we'll be turning the world of cancer research upside down."
He stood and walked around the captain's desk to put a hand on her shoulder. "Now breathe, darlin'."
Max realized she was looking at him with a wild-eyed expression and that she hadn't taken one sip of oxygen or tea since he'd started talking about cancer-eating microbes.
"Are you interested?"
She took a gulp of air, huffed a laugh and nodded her head vigorously. "Hell, yes, I'm interested. This is amazing."
"Indeed it is." He poured himself more tea. "Now there is one catch, and for you, dear, it's a pretty big one. This field research and lab will all be inside Devil's Hollow."
"Uh-huh." She picked up her cup automatically as he motioned to refill it.
"That's a cave, Max."
"Right." She didn't really hear him, so lost in the possibilities of what the research could mean for Earth Pharm.
He leaned down, in her face, holding the teapot in one hand and gesturing with another. "A cave. You hear me, girl? A dark, closed-in, claustrophobia-producing cave. Can you handle that?"
Max stared at him, finally absorbing the information. A cave. Damn. Her worst nightmare.
She said the first thing that came to mind. The honest answer. "I'm not sure, but I'll die if I don't get to try this."
He looked at her and smiled sadly, none of the teasing or slyness in his eyes now. "Yes, I know, but there's no shame in not being able to do this if you can't. None at all. Your mother would understand. She wouldn't want you to"
"Stop it, please." Max held up her hand; she'd just gotten over being weepy. "I'll be fine or I'll tell you if I'm not. I'd never jeopardize a project like this. You know that. And I'll take Tim Ryan with me. If I can't handle the lab work inside the cave for any reason, he can gather the samples and I can analyze the data topside. I trust his work implicitly."
He nodded. "Fair enough."
"Tell me everything."
"The cave is on private farmland adjoining Whispering Pines National Forest, so we've leased the farm for the next six weeks. If this bacteria is for real, we'll negotiate to purchase."
"Has it remained closed since the initial discovery?"
Kirk shrugged. "That's anyone's guess. This grad student could have been throwing keg parties there for all I know. It's why I wanted to get someone on-site as soon as possible. From now on no one goes in or out unless an Earth Pharm representative says they do. That's a lease stipulation."
"It's a good thing you knew this professor at UT or our bacteria could just as easily have ended up in some competitor's lap, huh?"
"Don't even think that out loud, darlin'. Until we have solid lab results and are certain that the bacteria can be cultured and reproduced outside the cave, no one outside Earth Pharm can know about the project."
Max leaned forward. "I'm not sure I understand."
"We don't own the property or the mineral rights yet. The owner is hesitant to agree to my terms." Kirk sipped his tea. "But he will. The short-term lease buys us time. But the true nature of this project must remain top-secret or it could get stolen right out from under us. As a cover story, we're going to call it mineral research for women's makeup."
"That's big business and as far from cancer research as you can get. Earth Pharm is branching out and expanding its markets, so this makes sense. It'll also make your cover easier to sell. You'll still be gathering samples from the pond. The grad student and her professor have signed nondisclosure agreements about what the samples are really for."
Max nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
They spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon mapping out her approach for the research. Max's lab would have been cutting back hours and staff while she was out of town anyway. That's why Sal and some of her techs were already en route to Devil's Hollow. Now Max would just be taking Kirk's place overseeing the project.
She was entirely convinced that her boss was the Pied Piper. She'd gone to his office to request an extended leave of absence and come out in charge of the biggest plum in the company. Devil's Hollow.
The project was a total fluke. Bacteria that ate only cancer cells and left healthy tissue behind. Amazing.
So many lives could be saved. So many that could have been saved. Their findings had the chance to revolutionize cancer research and make Earth Pharm the brightest star in the pharmaceutical world. Hell, the brightest in the Fortune 500.
Max stared out the window at the swiftly passing trees. This opportunity at Devil's Hollow was a godsend. The chance of a lifetime. And thanks to Kirk, she wouldn't have to think about the fiasco with Robert until she was good and ready.
The Jeep hit a large pothole and a migraine fluttered to life in the back of her head. She grimaced, reaching into her backpack for the medication that had been keeping the headaches mostly at bay for three months now. One more month wouldn't hurt. Then she'd be back to her old life and she could figure out what she needed to make it work. Not that she'd ever trust a man againbut maybe a sabbatical, a cruise or a wild fling would be just the thing for her flagging confidence. For now she just wanted inside that cave.
The boy-child next to her had spoken. "We're almost to the Lodge."
"Oh, I thought we would stop by the cave first."
Looking at her designer sandals and capri pants, he frowned. Inwardly, she cursed Robert. He had locked her out of her own apartment the night of "the GB," the ass.
She'd spent last night in a hotel with her vacation clothes. There'd been no time to change or repack once she got back into her loft. Robert had moved out with all of his things and many of hers
including her entire Toby mug collection.
She still couldn't believe he'd taken the antique Royal Doulton jugs. The man didn't even have a cabinet to keep them in. He couldn't possibly care about such things.
He'd always made fun of her when she'd bought one of the unique face mugs at a flea market or hobby shop. She wouldn't be surprised if he'd tossed the whole box in the first Dumpster he passed walking out of their apartment. He'd taken them only to hurt her.