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She knew better.
Of all people, Dr. Marja Pulaski knew to be alert when she was sitting behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.
It really didn't matter that the vehicle in question, a car she shared with her sister, Tania, was going at a pace that, in comparison, would have made the tortoise of "the Tortoise and the Hare" fame change his name to Lightning. A car was a dangerous weapon, an accident waiting to happen unless it was parked in a garage.
Hadn't she seen more than her share of auto accident victims in the E.R.? Marja was well versed in the kind of damage just the barest distraction could render.
Her excuse, that she'd just come off a grueling double shift at Patience Memorial Hospital, wouldn't have held water with her if someone else had offered it. And everyone knew that the cheerful, outgoing Dr. Marja Pulaski, the youngest of the five Pulaski physicians, was harder on herself than she was on anyone else.
Other than being somewhat vulnerable and all too human, there was no real reason for Marja to have glanced over at the radio just as one of her favorite songs came on. Looking at the radio hadn't made the volume louder, or crisper. And it certainly wouldn't restart the song. It was just an automatic reflex on her part.
The song had been hers and Jack's. Before Jack had decided that he was just too young to settle down, especially with a woman who'd let him know that, although she loved him, she wasn't going to make him the center of her universe.
Trouble was, for a while, Jack had been the center of her universeuntil she'd forced herself to take stock of the situation and pull back. Pull back and refocus. Being a doctor was not something she knew she could take lightly, especially not after all the effort that had been put forth to get her to that point.
Her parents were naturalized citizens. Both had risked their lives to come to the United States from their native country of Poland. At the time, it was still bowed beneath communist domination. They'd come so that their future children could grow up free to be whatever they wanted to be.
Once those children began comingfive girls in allthe goal of having them all become doctors had somehow materialized. Her father, Josef, and her mother, Magda, worked hard to put their firstborn through medical school. Once Sasha graduated, any money she could spare went toward helping Natalya become a doctor. Natalya, in turn, helped Kady, who then helped Tania. And it all culminated in everyone working together so that she, Marja, could follow in the firm footsteps that her sisters had laid down before her.
She didn't do it because this was the way things were, she did it because, like her sisters before her, she really wanted to become a physician. Looking back, Marja couldn't remember a day when she hadn't wanted to be a doctor.
But there were moments, like tonight, that got the better of her. She'd spent her time trying to put together the broken pieces of two young souls, barely into their permanent teeth, who'd decided to wipe one another out because one had stepped onto the other one's territory.
So when the song came on, reminding her of more carefree times, she let the memories take over and momentarily distract her.
Just long enough to glance away.
Just long enough to hit whoever she hit.
The weary smile on her lips vanished instantly as the realization of what had just happened broke through. The sickening thud resounded in theAugust night, causing the pit of her stomach to tighten into a huge, unmanageable knot and making her soul recoil in horror. Perspiration popped out all over her brow, all but pasting her golden-brown hair against her foreheadnot because the night air was so damp and clammy with humidity but because the flash of fear had made her sweat.
Her vow, to first do no harm, exploded in her head, mocking her even before Marja brought the vehicle to a jarring stop, threw open her door and sprang out of her car.
She worked in the city that boasted never to sleep, but at two o'clock in the morning, the number of Manhattan residents milling about on any given block had considerably diminished. When she'd turned down the side street, determined to make better time getting back to the apartment she shared with Tania, her last remaining unmarried sister, there hadn't been a soul in view. Just a few trash cans pockmarking the darkened area and one lone Dumpster in the middle of the block.
You are knowing better than to go down streets like that.
Marja could all but hear her father's heavily Polish-encrusted voice gently reprimanding her. He'd been on the police force over twenty-eight years when he finally retired, much to her mother's relief. Now he was the head of a security company that had once belonged to his best friend and was no less vigilant when it came to the female members of his family.
He was especially so with her because she was the last of his daughtersthrough no fault of her own, she often pointed out. He always ignored the comment, saying that the fact remained that she was the youngest and as such, in need of guidance. Stubborn mules had nothing on her father.
Marja's legs felt as if they were made out of rubber and her heart pounded harder than a marching band as she rounded her vehicle. She hoped against hope that her ears were playing tricks on her. That the thud she'd both heard andshe sworefelt along every inch of her body was all just a trick being played by her over-tired imagination.
But the moment she approached the front of her car, she knew it wasn't her imagination. Her imagination didn't use the kind of words she heard emerging from just before the front of the grille.
And then the next second, she saw him.
He was lying on the ground. A blond, lean, wiry man wearing a work shirt rolled up at the sleeves and exposing forearms that could have been carved out of granite they looked so hard. The work shirt was unbuttoned. Beneath it was a black T-shirt, adhering to more muscles.
Had the man's shirt and pants been as dark as his T-shirt, she might have missed it. But they weren't. They were both light-colored. Which was how she was able to see the blood.
What had she done?
"Oh God, I'm so sorry," Marja cried, horrified as she crouched down to the man's level to take a closer look. "I didn't see you." The words sounded so lame to her ears.
The man responded with an unintelligible growl and at first she thought he was speaking to her in another language. New York City was every bit as much of a melting pot now as it had been a century ago. The only difference was that now there were different countries sending over their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to be free.
But the next moment she realized that the man spoke English, just growled the words at a lowered decibel. Maybe he was trying to mask the real words out of politeness.
No, she decided in the next moment, he didn't look like the type to tiptoe around that way.
"Are you hurt?"
It was a rhetorical question, but she was flustered. Her parents thought of her as the flighty one, but that description only applied to her social lifepost-Jack. Professionally, Marja was completely serious, completely dedicated. She needed one to balance out the other.
"Of course you're hurt," she chided herself for the thoughtless question. "Can you stand?" she asked. Marja held her breath as she waited hopefully for a positive answer.
Rather than reply, the bleeding stranger continued glaring at her. She could almost feel the steely, angry green gaze, as if it were physical.
It wasn't bad enough that he'd just been shot, Kane Donnelly thought. Now they were trying to finish him off with a car.
At least, that was what he'd thought when his body had felt the initial impact of the vehicle's grille against his torso, knocking him down. But now, one look at the woman's face and the sound of her breathless voice told him that she wasn't part of the little scenario that had sent him sprinting down dark alleys, holding on to his wounded side with one hand, his gun with the other.
Damn it, he was supposed to be more on top of his game than this.
Kane swore roundly again. He was a veteran, for God's sake, of the air force as well as the Company. He wasn't supposed to let some barely-shaving punk kid, who hadn't a thing to do with his undercover assignment, get a piece of him as he fired drunkenly into the night.
Taking a deep, ragged breath, Kane began to struggle to his feet, praying fervently to a deity that, until a few minutes ago, he'd firmly believed had left a Gone Fishing sign on His heavenly gate. The prayer encompassed the hope that nothing had been broken in this little-man-versus-machine encounter that had just occurred.
And then, interrupted, he stopped praying.
Kane was surprised that the diminutive woman with the lethal car had begun to prop her shoulder beneath his. Her hands tightened around his torso as she joined him in the effort to make him vertical again.
What the hell was she up to? "Hey," Kane protested angrily.
She didn't let his tone stop her. She was used to being yelled at. It amazed her what people in pain were capable of saying that they'd never even utter under different circumstances.
"Just trying to get you upright," she said in a voice that kindergarten teachers used on their slower students.
Where did she get off, copping an attitude? It annoyed the hell out of him. He needed to be out of here. Needed to see to the bullet wound.
The next minute, as Kane planted his feet on the asphalt a little less firmly than he was happy about, he felt her soft, capable hands traveling up and down the length of his legs.
What the hell was she, a hooker trying to arouse him? Or was she just trying to roll him for money? In either case, he was on his guard. He tried to grab her hands, but she eluded him, continuing to feel up his body.
"Hey," Kane demanded, "what the hell do you think you're doing?"
She would have assumed that would have been obvious, Marja thought. But apparently not to the likes of him. It reminded her just how sheltered, in some ways, she still was.
"Just checking for broken bones. There don't seem to be any," she concluded.
At least, she added silently, no major ones. That didn't mean he didn't have a cracked rib or two. He had blood on his shirt and it had to have come from somewhere. Was it someone else's? The best way to find out just what was going on would be for her to get this man to the hospital.
Straightening, she suddenly saw the reason for the blood. There was a hole in his shirt just beneath the third rib. A hole whose outline was surrounded with blood.
She raised her eyes to his. That was why he'd stumbled in front of her car when he had. Why hadn't he said anything?
"You've been shot."
Kane blew out a breath. "No kidding, Sherlock." He bit off the retort. Damn, but the bullet wound hurt like hell. He was pretty sure the bullet was still in there somewhere. This working undercover without benefit of a vest was the pits.
He certainly wasn't in the running for a Mr. Congeniality award, she thought, frowning at him. Marja nodded at the bullet wound. "You need to have that taken care of."
He glanced over his shoulder. No one was coming.
He'd managed to lose the little son of a bitch. Kane looked back at the woman, wondering if he could commandeer her car. "You always state the obvious?"
Definitely not Mr. Congeniality. More in the running for Oscar the Grouch. "Only when I'm talking to a Neanderthal."
She'd give him too much of a hard time if he tried to take her car, he decided, and he was in no condition to take her on. He felt as weak as a wet kitten someone had done their best to drown.
He had to get going before his strength deserted him altogether.
"Well, let's remedy that right now." Kane stepped back, away from the annoying woman, and then turned around on very shaky legs. Right now, he needed to get back to the run-down hotel room his handler had secured for him while he played out this half-assed charade. If he didn't get this bullet out soon, he had the uneasy feeling he was going to pass out.
To his surprise and great annoyance, the woman he was trying to get away from shifted, moving faster than he did. She got in front of him. More than that, she got in his face.
Pointing to his wound, she said, "I can take care of that for you."
Against his will, he winced, the result of taking in a shallow breath. His side felt as if it was on fire. "Haven't you done enough?"
"I'm not the one who shot you," she pointed out. Somewhere in the back of her head, she could envision her father, his frown so deep it imprinted itself into the furrows of his deep jowls, demanding to know what she was possibly thinking, standing and arguing with a man with a gunshot wound. But she couldn't just leave him here. That wasn't why she'd become a doctor.
"Lady, get out of my way," the stranger growled menacingly.
Marja stood her ground on knees that didn't quite feel solid. "I'm a doctor," she told him. "I can take you to the hospital and treat you."
There was disdain on the handsome face. He looked dangerous, she thought, wondering if she was making a fatal mistake.
"Business that slow?"
Rounding the hood, she got over to the passenger side and threw open the door. "Get in," she ordered in the most authoritative voice she could manage. She was channeling her mother, who no one disobeyed.
Obviously her future was not in channeling. The stranger didn't move. If anything, his expression grew darker. "No, thanks."
He was about to go. Again, she moved so that she was in front of him, blocking his way out of the side street. He was breathing harder, she noted. It was getting more difficult for him to stand, she guessed.
Marja did her best to brazen him out. "That wasn't an offer you were supposed to refuse."
"I can't go to the hospital." He couldn't afford for his cover to be blown, not when things were beginning to come together, however slowly.
"Why?" Marja demanded.