Bud Mac Phearson's job is to protect Mallory Christiani and her young daughter, Emilynot to get personally involved with either. But after Emily disappears and the trail leads directly to a well-known crime boss, Mac can't refuse the beautiful single mother's pleas for help. With assassins hot on their trail and danger around every corner, the tentative partners race to find the missing key needed for the ransom even as they try to fight the attraction blooming between them. But when Mac trades his own life for Emily's, Mallory must risk it all to save the man she's come to love
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The moment Mallory Christiani stepped into the Intensive Care Unit, she saw the fear in her father-in-law's eyes. He lay propped against two pillows, the weight of his silvery head creasing the starched cases, his sunken face cast in stark relief against white linen. She took a steadying breath, repositioned the shoulder strap of her leather purse and pasted on a smile.
The click of her heels echoed as she walked toward the bed. She was glad she'd taken extra pains freshening up while she was at the house. Her collarless blazer and matching green skirt were crisp and wrinkle free. Keith would never know she hadn't eaten or slept since he'd been stricken yesterday.
"Dad. It's so good to see you awake." Mallory leaned over to kiss his cheek, holding her amber-colored hair back so it wouldn't trail in his face. As she straightened, she took his right hand in hers. His skin felt cold. The lack of response in his limp fingers shocked her. Until now, she hadn't realized how dearly she had come to love him, how big a part he played in her life now that they shared the same home. Keith was more a father to her than her own had ever been. "You're looking better already, you know? Some of your color's coming back."
A treacherous catch in her voice nearly betrayed her. Why hadn't she recognized his prestroke symptoms? Any nurse worth her salt would have.
Spying tears slipping down his pallid cheeks, she gave him a careful hug. "Oh, Dad. We're through the worst, right? From here on in, you'll be amazed at how quickly you recover."
Keith's blue eyes followed her as she drew away. Was there something wrong here, something more than anxiety over his paralysis? She glanced at the monitor above his head. It seemed to her his heartbeat was too rapid, but she could detect no irregularities in the configurations. If the fast pulse were anything to be concerned about, the monitor alarm would be going off. Through the glass partition, she could see the ICU nurse sitting at the desk, her dark head bent as she filled out charts. Nothing out of the ordinary, apparently.
Pulling up a chair, Mallory eased her purse to the floor. Spittle ran from the corner of her father-in-law's mouth. Suddenly the nightmare of what had happened to him became a reality. She reached for a tissue and wiped his face, keeping her smile steady, her hands sure.
"Emily will come see you as soon as they move you to a regular room. She can't wait. She lost another tooth, but she won't put it under her pillow until you get home. Holding out for more money, I think. So much for believing in fairies, huh?" She laughed. The sound reminded her of two tin cans clanking. "She's staying with Beth Hamstead until Mother and Dad get home. They're driving back from Texas immediately, but it'll take them an extra day. Dad lost the motor-home keys. Can you believe it? You remember Beth, the lady with all the little redheads?"
Keith's eyes clung to hers, frantic, pleading. His bottom lip quivered as he strained to speak. Spying a flutter of movement, she glanced over to see his left hand twitching, his fingers extended like claws. A low moan erupted from him.
"What is it?" She shot up from the chair. "Are you in pain?" The green graph line was rocketing across the monitor screen. He was clearly agitated about something. Her own pulse began to race as she grabbed the nurse buzzer. "There, there, it'll be okay. Relax, Dad. Take deep breaths."
The approaching swish of the nurse's polyester uniform eased the tension from Mallory's shoulders. She turned to watch the plump woman hurry to the bed. "Problems?"
"I don't know. He was fine and then" She broke off. The nurse looked so unperturbed by the racing monitor that Mallory felt foolish. "I was just talking. And he became agitated."
The nurse smiled. "He's just pleased to see you. Right, Mr. Christiani?" She slid her twinkling blue gaze to Mallory. "A little too much excitement, that's all."
Another moan erupted from Keith. The nurse flashed Mallory a concerned glance and lifted her patient's hand. After studying the configurations on the monitor a moment to be certain nothing was wrong, she said, "You're fine, Mr. Christiani. Just too many visitors." Turning toward Mallory, she added, "Why don't you have a cup of coffee? Let him nap for an hour or so. We have a lovely cafeteria."
"Visitors? I thought only immediate family was admitted."
"Yes, but we make exceptions for clergy. Your parish priest got your message and came in about an hour ago. And a few minutes after that, Mr. Christiani's son came in. You're the third in a short period of time. Even brief visits from family and close friends can be wearing the first day."
A prickle of alarm ran up Mallory's spine. "I'm the only relative and we're Methodists. Are you certain you're recalling the right patient? Mr. Christiani's son is" She hated to remind Keith of Darren's accident when he was so ill. "I'm a widow."
The nurse looked nonplussed. "How odd."
Mallory was beginning to feel extremely angry. Keith shouldn't be having a parade of people marching through his room so soon after a massive stroke. The priest could have come by mistake, but the so-called son had clearly lied to gain admittance. Who had the man been? Why had he lied to see Keith? "What did this son look like?"
The nurse pursed her lips. "He was tall, blond, quite good-looking. The athletic type. Mid to late thirties, I'd say. He was wearing scruffy gray sweats and a blue windbreaker. He asked after you, wanted to know where you were. He seemed like a very nice man."
A very nice man wouldn't have lied to get into Intensive Care. Mallory racked her brain, visualizing all Keith's friends and associates. None she knew fit the description the nurse had just given her. Glancing at Keith, she decided the less said about it in front of him the better. No wonder he was tired.
"If I'm quiet, wouldn't it be all right if I stayed?"
"It would really be better if you gave him a rest," the nurse replied with underlying firmness. "I know he seems distressed about your leaving, but that's quite common the first day. Trust me to know what's best."
"Well I believe I'll go have that cup of coffee you suggested, then." After stooping to retrieve her purse, Mallory touched her father-in-law's hand reassuringly. His eyes seemed to beg her not to leave. She felt as though she were abandoning him. "I'll be back soon, Dad. Okay? You take a short nap while I'm gone. When I come back, I'll read to you for a bit. I found a great issue of National Geographic in the hall. Would you enjoy that?"
Keith's reply was a dry sob. She forced herself to smile with a cheerfulness she was far from feeling. Once outside the room she drew the nurse aside and said, "Our minister is Reverend Miller. He should be the only church visitor allowed in. And I'm the only relative except for my daughter, Em, who's only seven." Mallory glanced at her watch. "An hour, you say?"
"Give or take a few minutes." The nurse seemed to empathize with Mallory's difficulty in leaving and gave her a kindly pat on the shoulder. In a low voice, she said, "Thank you for cooperating. I'll put the visitor information on his chart."
The sound of Keith's sobs echoed in Mallory's mind as she left Intensive Care and walked down the long hall. She couldn't remember ever having felt so helpless. She wanted to do something for Keith, make him better somehow. The shining floor tiles blurred as she blinked back tears. Seeing Keith so distressed made the visit from his so-called son all the more infuriating. Mallory couldn't imagine who the blond man had been, and it was probably just as well. If she knew, she'd be tempted to strangle him. At least she had the consolation of knowing Keith had a good nurse caring for him, that instructions were being logged on his chart so the visitor flow would be monitored more closely from now on.
A good nurse. There had been a time when she had classified herself as one. Memories rushed through her. Pictures of her husband Darren's face flashed in her mind. Blood, so much blood. She lifted her chin and took longer strides. She couldn't let these sterile surroundings get to her. It had been over a year. Long enough for the memories to fade. So why couldn't she put them behind her? When she reached the elevator, she could barely see the buttons. Extending an arm, she jabbed blindly, biting the inside of her lip. Crying was a luxury she seldom indulged in, certainly never in public. This is what you get for going without sleep.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Christiani?" a deep voice called.
Because she didn't want to be seen in tears, she almost ducked into the elevator without answering. But what if it was Keith's doctor? He might not make rounds again until tomorrow. She swiped at her cheeks, then turned. The elevator doors closed behind her.
At first glance, Mallory knew the man loping down the hall wasn't Dr. Stein. He had golden hair, not dark brown, and looked to be about a foot too tall. Gray sweats and a blue wind-breaker. Keith's mysterious "son"? Anger flashed through her, and she straightened her shoulders.
As he drew nearer, she saw why the nurse had pegged him as the athletic type. Though she did so begrudgingly, Mallory had to admit she had never seen blue nylon and gray knit filled out quite so impressively. Her gaze fell to a yellow smear on the front of his sweatshirt that looked suspiciously like mustard. Her attention then plunged to his smudged white sneakers. One toe was stained orange.
He shoved a hand into the pocket of his windbreaker and withdrew a business card. As he extended it to her, he whispered, "I'm Bud Mac Phearson, Keith's detective friend. Sorry I took so long. You must be half out of your mind."
Still rigid with anger, Mallory said, "I beg your pardon?"
The faint aroma of hot dogs clung to him. She had a hazy impression of tanned skin, sharply cut features and full lips. She glanced down at the card but didn't reach out to take it. The words PRIVATE INVESTIGATION stood out in boldface type.
Heaving a frustrated sigh, the man raked a hand through his already disheveled hair. "Keith didn't tell you?"
His eyes unnerved her. They were that rare, light shade of gray that seems to see right through you. "Keith isn't able to speak, so he hasn't told me much of anything. The nurse, however, told me plenty. You're the man who lied to gain admittance to Intensive Care, aren't you?"
She didn't miss the guilty surprise that flashed across his face. Without giving him a chance to speak, she rushed on.
"I suppose you're working on a case for the law firm? I've known a few overzealous investigators before, but this stunt takes the prize. The hospital rules are meant to protect the patients. You can't help but know my father-in-law is an extremely sick man." She gave the elevator button another jab. She was so furious her hand was shaking. "What could be so important that you'd bother him here? See his partner, Mr. Finn. He's handling everything until my father-in-law recovers. Now, if you'll excuse me."
He slipped his business card back into his jacket and stepped closer. "Wait. I have to talk to you. It's urgent."
Mallory, whose escape was thwarted by the slow response of the elevator, found herself meeting his unsettling gaze again. "Nothing you have to say could be that urgent. Christiani and Finn handles only civil cases."
"Could we find someplace private where we could talk?" He was already looking around as he spoke and reaching for her arm. "Someplace where we won't be seen or overheard?"
She avoided his outstretched hand. Now that she was studying him, she could see a fine sheen of sweat on his face. He kept looking around, as if he expected someone to creep up on him. Not the kind of fellow with whom she wanted seclusion. He turned to glance down the hall again. As he did, the front of his jacket fell back and she saw that he wore a shoulder holster and gun. Since Darren's accident, just being in the same room with a gun made her nervous.
The elevator doors slid open. Before she could react, Mac Phearson stepped forward to block her path with a set of shoulders that suddenly seemed as wide as a linebacker's. She tipped her head back to glare at him. He topped her five foot five by a good ten inches and outweighed her by at least eighty pounds. Her heart sank when the doors closed again behind him.
"Please," he said. "I realize I'm scaring you, but if you'll just give me a minute I'm sure I can explain."
Mallory inched away from him, growing more uneasy by the moment. "So explain."
"I'm an old friend of your father-in-law's. I've been out of town on a case for nearly a week, got back a day later than I planned. When I called in to check my answering machine this afternoon, there was a message from Keith. He said that he needed me to get you and your little girl out of town. Immediately. A man named Pete Lucetti has made a threat on your lives." He paused as if for emphasis. "He must have left that message yesterday, before he collapsed, which means I'm a day late as it is. We can't waste any time."
Of all the things Mallory had expected him to say, this wasn't one of them. She didn't like the way this man was behaving. Terrified was the only word to describe him. Or maybe paranoid, the way he kept checking the halls. "That's preposterous."
"But true. We can call Keith's office so you can be sure I am who I say I am, but we can't do it here in the hospital. Right before I went in to see Keith, some guy dressed like a priest visited him, and believe me, he was the farthest thing from a priest you're ever going to see. I saw the guy up close, and I recognized him. The last I heard, he was a strong-arm type who collected on delinquent bets for a local bookie. I watched him through the window and it looked like he was threatening Keith. About what, I have no idea. Do you have any idea how Keith got tied up with Lucetti? Do you know what this is about?"
"InoI" Mallory swallowed. "You're really serious."
"Why didn't Keith simply call the police?"
"He said Lucetti has a couple of cops on the payroll. He must have been afraid, not sure who was safe to talk to and who wasn't. Mrs. Christiani, Pete Lucetti heads one of the largest crime rings in Seattle. He's bad newsreal bad news."