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Sara Beth O'Connell slowed her bike to a stop at a red light, her gaze fixed on it. Red, the color of hearts and roses—
A car honked, jolting her into action. She pedaled through the intersection, picking up the bike lane again on the other side. The air was unusually mild and the traffic Sunday-afternoon light in Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving her time to think, time to decide that she wasn't really bothered by not having a date on Valentine's Day. It was more about what being dateless implied—that there was no one special enough in her life to spend the romantic evening with.
So what, right? No big deal. Only the minute hand on her biological clock was ticking, not the hour hand.
And then there was the man in the grocery store earlier…
Sara Beth tossed her head, her bike helmet preventing her long hair from falling into her face as she rode into the employee parking lot of the Armstrong Fertility Institute, the understated but modern structure where she worked as head nurse. Eyeing Lisa Armstrong's car in the distance, she locked her bike to a rack, then moved to the employee entrance. She slid her ID card into the security reader and pressed her thumb against a pad until a buzzer went off, unlocking the door.
Once inside, her footsteps barely registered in the quiet building as she headed to Lisa's office, finding her door open. The head administrator of the institute, a research center and fertility clinic, sat in front of her computer, her slender frame hunched, her dark eyes focused on the screen.
Sara Beth drew a calming breath, not because she was annoyed that Lisa had called her into the office on a Sunday, but because of the memory of the man Sara Beth had seen that morning buying a stuffed teddy and gummy bears for his five-year-old daughter. My Valentine, he'd called her when the clerk commented on the items. Sara Beth hadn't been lucky enough to have a father do that for her. This morning's reminder of that loss curled painfully inside her.
Ignoring the flash of pain, she set her helmet on top of a file cabinet, unzipped her jacket then plopped into a chair on the other side of Lisa's desk. "What's so all-fired important that it couldn't wait until tomorrow? Or you couldn't tell me on the phone?"
Lisa blinked. "You have something better to do?"
"Just because you work 24/7 doesn't mean I have to, you know," Sara Beth said, not letting Lisa off easy. "It is Valentine's Day."
Lisa's smile was a little crooked. Her dark eyes shimmered knowingly. "You don't have a date."
"How do you know?"
"How long have we been best friends, Sara Beth?"
Sarah Beth pulled off her jacket, not wanting to make eye contact, not wanting Lisa to play the best-friends card for whatever it was she'd called Sara Beth in on a Sunday for. "Since before we spoke our first words."
"Twenty-eight years. If you had a date tonight, I would know." Lisa sat back, looking satisfied with herself. "You tell me everything."
Sara Beth sniffed. "A date on Valentine's Day isn't important."
After a moment, Sara Beth smiled. "So, what's up? Why the command performance?"
Lisa lowered her voice. "Shut the door, please."
"Someone else is in the building?" Sara Beth asked, complying. "Someone else doesn't know that weekends are for relaxation?"
"As a matter of fact—Dr. Bonner."
Which meant he didn't have a date, either. If a man like Ted Bonner didn't have a date, she couldn't feel sorry for herself. Except, he still could have dinner plans. It wasn't too late for that. She wouldn't have minded going out with him herself.…
"This has something to do with Dr. Bonner?" Sara Beth asked.
"Everything to do with him. You know the investigation he's supposed to be running on the protocol errors he and Dr. Demetrios discovered right after we hired them a few months back?"
"They haven't come up with results yet. We've learned that some outsiders are starting to question our recent cluster of multiple births. Bad press will hurt us, especially our funding. We already narrowly escaped a disaster when that magazine article was published a while back about donor eggs being misused here. We can't afford another problem, or even a hint of one. We need answers, Sara Beth, before the press gets wind of this one."
"Not just answers but exoneration," Sara Beth said.
"Well, yes, of course, but first and foremost, we need to know whether information has been falsified or breached in the past—or whatever the truth is. And we need to know now."
"How does that affect me?"
Lisa leaned her elbows on her desk. "We want you to assist Drs. Bonner and Demetrios so that the project gets done. You will report to us if they're doing anything to stall the investigation."
She would be working directly for the man she'd had a serious lust for since she'd first laid eyes on him?
"Um, us?" she asked.
"Paul and me."
"Why would the doctors stall? They weren't part of the problem, if there is a problem. It happened before they were hired."
"Because even a whisper of scandal could affect donations and grant money, which will limit Dr. Bonner's and Dr. Demetrios's hope of success in their research—not to mention the institute's reputation and credibility. If something unethical has been going on, our funds could dry up and their jobs could be eliminated. Wouldn't you stall if that was about to happen to you?"
Sara Beth didn't believe she would, but that was her. "So you're asking me to spy on them?"
"I wouldn't call it that. We're just lighting a fire under the doctors to get action before we get burned on this. You love the institute, and my father. This has to be important to you."
"Absolutely." The institute, and especially its founder, Dr. Gerald Armstrong, had been very generous to Sara Beth's mother so that she could retire early and comfortably. He'd been good to Sara Beth, as well.
"You're loyal to me, too," Lisa said.
"It goes without saying. Not just you, but also your brother Paul as chief of staff. But you know how I feel about deceit." Most of her life Sara Beth had been haunted by not knowing who her father was, which felt like an enormous deceit to her. All she knew was he'd been a sperm donor here at the fertility institute founded by Lisa's father, whom Sara Beth affectionately called Dr. G.
Anonymous donors never brought teddy bears or candy on Valentine's Day. Or sent birthday cards. Or pretended to be Santa. Or tucked a tired little girl in bed at night. Only a father did that.
"I do know how you feel about deceit," Lisa said. "That's my point. You could be uncovering a lie. Isn't that reason enough?"
Sara Beth wandered to the window but didn't really take in the sights. Could she pull it off?
Lisa joined her. "You're the eyes and ears of the institute, because in your job capacity you bridge both aspects of what we do, the medical and the research programs. You haven't hesitated to tell me when you've noticed something needing looking into, so how is this any different? Except that this time you're being assigned to observe and report something specific. Otherwise it's business as usual."
Lisa had a point. "What if they don't want me on board?"
"They won't have a choice."
"But how effective can I be if they won't cooperate?"
"When did you become such a worrier?" Lisa cocked her head. "You've always been optimistic and adventurous. What's going on?"
Sara Beth couldn't share what was going on, not this time, because she wasn't sure herself, except that lately, and especially today, she'd been feeling a little lost. Left out.
Lonely. She was missing a father she'd never known, and wishing for a man in her life, as well, a man to love and cherish, and be a hands-on father to whatever children they were blessed with.
She loved her job, but she didn't want to end up like her mother, who'd never married, having been married to the institute. And yet Sara Beth could see that she was following in her mother's footsteps, even taking on the job of head nurse, like her mom. Where had Sara Beth's adventurousness gone?
Being asked to spy for the good of the institute would be an adventure of sorts, wouldn't it? More important, their work was critical to the many people whose deepest dreams they helped fulfill—having a child.
"All right. I'll do it."
"Thank you." Relief coated Lisa's quiet words. "Let's go talk to Dr. Bonner."
Sara Beth clamped her mouth against the "Now?" that threatened to come out. She wanted to face him in her official capacity, wearing her uniform, her scrubs. Instead she wore cycling pants, a Boston College T-shirt and her old, comfortable riding sneakers. She'd left her hair down instead of pulled away from her face as usual, out of her way, her helmet taking care of that problem.
It wasn't the best way to start their new association, not as far as she was concerned, not if she wanted to keep a professional relationship—which she did. Unfortunately.
Sara Beth walked silently beside Lisa as they made their way through the cavernous hallways of the building, past the administration section, past examination rooms and consultation areas. During the workweek the hallways were alive with people. It wasn't a boisterous place—the work they did was too important to be treated frivolously—but it was always pleasant, the employees chosen not only for their abilities but their personalities. No drama allowed.
Until now, she'd only seen Dr. Bonner in passing or through the windows of the lab where he did his research. His partner, Chance Demetrios, was much more social and talkative, plus he was also a practicing physician, not just a researcher. Sara Beth often assisted him in his ob-gyn practice, whereas Dr. Ted Bonner had apparently discovered that he was better suited to the lab than patients. His too-direct bedside manner evidently wasn't the best for inspiring confidence or easing anyone's fears.
At least, that was the rumor floating around about him. Since she'd rarely had a discussion with him longer than "Nice to meet you" or "Good morning," she couldn't verify anything else. She'd intentionally avoided conversations with him because her throat closed when she was around him, something that never happened with anyone else. She always wanted to comb his hair away from his forehead with her fingers, too.
When Sara Beth and Lisa reached the lab, they stood side by side peering through the glass at the man inside. Tall, dark and gorgeous was a cliché, but the description fit him, if in an intellectual way. His hair brushed his neck, but she figured he'd just forgotten to get a haircut lately. Every so often he got it cut, and when he did, it was very short, as if he couldn't be bothered with regular trims.
He truly fit the stereotype of the absentminded professor: black-framed glasses; long white lab coat, pocket protector and all, his personal uniform; along with a white or blue dress shirt and dark slacks.
She shouldn't find him sexy, but she did. She'd heard he often forgot to eat, which was probably why he was so lean and wiry, and which also made him look even taller than his well-over-six-foot frame.
Lisa knocked. He continued entering information into a computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard. She knocked again. Still no response. Sara Beth looked to see if he was wearing earbuds and listening to music. He was only thirty-two, of an age to blast tunes in his head and work at the same time. No earbuds were visible, no dangling cords, either.
"Let's just wait until tomorrow," Sara Beth said, tugging on Lisa's arm. "He's in some impenetrable zone, that's for sure."
"I wonder if a fire alarm would get his attention?"
Sara Beth stared at her friend. "You wouldn't—"
"Of course not." Lisa laughed. "I was thinking out loud. You know, what would happen if? Would he hear it in time to escape?"
"He can't be that bad. Come on. Let's just go. He's doing important work, and we shouldn't disturb—"
Lisa entered her security information, turned the doorknob and stepped inside. Sara Beth sighed and followed.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Bonner," Lisa said as she drew close.
He didn't startle, but Sara Beth saw awareness click in. For one thing, he blinked. He held up a hand briefly then continued to type.
Sara Beth glanced around the lab. The two waist-high lab tables were neat and orderly, even loaded with equipment as they were—microscopes with projection screens, computers, other high-tech pieces she couldn't identify. Then there was the low-tech, standard lab equipment—stainless-steel sinks, glass vessels and tubes. Everything seemed to have its place, all order, no chaos.
Why aren't you on a date tonight, Dr. Gorgeous? she wondered. He was young, handsome and gainfully employed. She'd always assumed he played the field as much as his inveterate-flirt research partner, Dr. Deme-trios, did.
"Ms. Armstrong," he said finally, turning toward Lisa. "And Ms. O'Connell. What can I do for you?" His gaze zeroed in and held on Sara Beth in an unnerving way as he gave her the same kind of complete attention he had given the computer just moments ago.
Not a multitasker, she decided, fascinated, as he took off his glasses and set them on the tabletop then shoved his fingers through his rich brown hair. She itched to do the same.
"I know you've been frustrated, Dr. Bonner," Lisa said, "at being unable to find answers to the protocol problems."