Working in a small town was the easiest way for Dr. Sonya Vega to outrun her unhappy past, not to mention the sleepy little place fitted in perfectly with her dream to give at least one needy child a home. What she wanted now was the support of the town's citizens, but how could she get that when the prickly publisher of the local papera man who got under her skin in more ways than onewas nursing a grudge?
Barry Lowell had been stuck in Downhome far too long, and all the ambitious newsman could think about was getting out. Until the tempestuous Latina talked him into helping with her adoption plans, leaving Barry to wonder if he could talk the doc into making room in her instant family for him .
|File size:||922 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sonya could hardly bear to set the baby down.
He had dark eyes, a tuft of black hair and a sweet little mouth. His incredibly cuddly shape felt right in her arms.
Her heart ached with a longing she rarely allowed herself. And wistfulness. And regret.
"Dr. Vega?" the nurse said softly.
Sonya lowered the newborn into the plastic crib. He was one of eight babies she'd delivered that hectic day. "Yes?"
"A girl called. She wouldn't give her name, but she left a message. "I saw Gina at Hillcrest Park." Does that mean anything to you?" Moving to the crib, the nurse smiled down at the baby.
"Absolutely. Thank you." Sonya had spent several days searching for Gina, who was overdue to deliver.
"One of your special cases?" the nurse asked.
"Eighteen years old, hypertensive, due at the end of February." That was two weeks ago. "And, need I add, believes she's invulnerable."
Because of the high blood pressure she'd developed, Gina Lenox required careful monitoring. Treatment was complicated by her frequent changes of residence and overbearing, gangbanger boyfriend, who went by the name of Duke.
A week ago, she'd canceled an appointment to discuss inducing labor and had left a message saying that she planned to deliver "the natural way." Sonya's messages had gone unanswered.
Like many uncooperative cases, Gina might have fallen through the cracks. Other specialists in obstetrics and gynecology at North Orange County Medical Center did their best for such patients, but lacked the determination to track them down.
Sonya had lost a close friend to an ectopic pregnancy. A preventable death, had Lori sought treatment early enough, but she'd tried to hide her condition until too late.
Her death had inspired Sonya to pursue a medical career. She intended to make sure Gina and her baby had a happier outcome.
She'd contacted a girl who'd accompanied Gina on several prenatal appointments and at whose apartment Gina had stayed for a while. Sonya had explained that gestational hypertension could progress suddenly into a dangerous condition termed preeclampsia, which in severe cases might lead to convulsions.
"If anyone else tries to reach me, I'll be on my cell. I appreciate your help," Sonya told the nurse. Calls often came through the nurses' station, since mobile phones were banned in most areas of the hospital.
"You got it."
At the nursery exit, she stuffed her coverall into a laundry hamper. Thank goodness she had no further patients in labor and had finished her scheduled hours at the hospital-affiliated clinic where she worked.
Sonya's rapid pace down the hall aroused a twinge in her Article 02: Untitled
right knee. Even two years after the accident, she still suffered pangs both physical and emotional, especially when stressed. She'd grown so accustomed to the pain that she hardly noticed.
In her office, Sonya brushed her dark shoulder-length hair out of its chignon. She changed from scrubs into jeans and a knit top so Duke's buddies wouldn't peg her as a social worker, then exchanged her low-heeled pumps for jogging shoes.
Because of the hour—5:15 on a Monday evening—traffic was heavy on Harbor Boulevard. Fullerton, a Southern California city with a population of more than 125,000, a thriving economy and a state university, generated almost as much congestion as Anaheim, a few miles to the south.
Sonya tensed each time her compact car approached an intersection. Would she ever lose the instinctive recall of metal crunching into metal and her fiancé"s shout of alarm?
Ex-fiancé. Once the figurative road got rough, he'd taken the first exit.
From Harbor, she made a couple of turns that brought her up winding Lemon Street, lined with thick trees marking the approach to the aptly named Hillcrest Park. How on earth was she going to find Gina in this thirty-seven-acre expanse, assuming she was still here? Well, it wouldn't be the first wild goose chase Sonya had gone on since the girl had vanished.
She pulled into the parking lot and halted close to a steep flight of stone steps that led to the hilltop park. A tot playground and a striking Spanish-style community center flanked the blacktop.
At this hour, the place appeared deserted except for a silver sedan parked close to the community center. If Duke was nearby, perhaps he'd stashed his green van on a side street. That must be one of the precautions you took when you made your income selling drugs, as she suspected he did.
Great company Gina kept. As Sonya exited into the cool March air, she wished the girl had agreed to stay with her mother and stepfather, who disapproved of Duke.
A movement startled her.Around a corner of the community center appeared a tall man in a business suit intent on framing a detail of the picturesque building in his camera viewfinder.
He descended toward Sonya. She was about to ask if he'd seen anyone when, instead of issuing a greeting or simply minding his own business, he raised the camera and pressed the button.
It flashed. So did her temper.
She wasn't part of the scenery, and this stranger had no right to capture an image that he could manipulate at will. Sonya had spent enough time around tech-savvy adolescents to know the angles.
"Please delete that shot," she rapped out as he approached.
"You shouldn't have taken it without asking."
"Sorry. Is that considered rude around here?" The man had a scar slanting across his forehead, and black eyes that seemed to absorb all the light in the vicinity. He didn't sound apologetic, nor did he obey her request.
Sonya dropped the matter. She had a more urgent agenda. "Have you seen a pregnant girl about my height?"
He indicated the long flight. "I saw her staggering up that way with a couple of guys. That can't be good for her, in that condition. Friend of yours?"
"Yes." Cutting off further conversation, Sonya hurried upward. To her annoyance, the man trailed behind.
Due to the contours of the land, she couldn't see past the top of the climb, and the rapidly fading dusk cast the area into shadow. What if the man had lied about spotting Gina? Although houses bordered the park on two sides, the sheer size of the place made it unlikely anyone would hear a scream.
Until her accident, Sonya had possessed steady nerves. Now anxiety sometimes threatened her ability to think rationally.
But she refused to yield. Clearing the top of the stairs, she glanced past a flat concrete bandstand to rows of picnic tables, where a welcome figure caught her eye. Sitting alone, Gina hugged herself inside a jacket that barely covered her swollen abdomen. Her heavily moussed shoulder-length hair stuck out in places. Evidently, she hadn't brushed it since the last time she slept.
That resolved Sonya's suspicions of the photographer. Even so, she disliked the way he arrived at her side and stood surveying the scene as if invited.
When Gina spotted Sonya, her face registered a mixture of guilt and defiance. A bit farther off, Duke was arguing with another man so fiercely he didn't at first notice the new arrivals. Both men had the shaved heads, baggy pants and sleeveless undershirts of gang members.
Sonya caught the words money and need a few more days. Then both men broke off as they spotted her and the strange man, who asked in a low voice, "What's going on here?"
"This is a private situation," she said tightly.
"It's a public park." Despite his air of indifference, his body language struck her as wary. "The whole situation makes me curious."
"Curiosity could get you killed."
He shrugged. "That's a risk reporters have to run." Newsmen didn't usually wander around parks in search of stories. "For what paper?" she challenged.
"Out of state," he replied calmly. "I was attending a conference in Anaheim."
"And you made a beeline for Fullerton because it's such a hotbed of news?" Sonya had nothing against an undercover DEA agent—that seemed the most probable explanation for his nosiness—but Gina and her baby were more important than some drug bust.
"I had an interview in the area. My flight doesn't leave till tomorrow, so I took a self-guided tour of local landmarks." He halted as Duke fixed them with a glare.
"Hey, Doc," the fellow called. "You bring a narc?" He'd obviously drawn the conclusion from the man's business suit.
"Don't be ridiculous! I have no idea who he is."
The rival gang member seized on his opponent's distraction to lunge toward Duke, knife flashing. The move happened so quickly and unexpectedly that no one reacted except the would-be victim, who dodged, grabbed his opponent's arm and wrestled him to the table.
Sonya was trying to figure out the best way to protect Gina. The reporter, if that was what he was, simply watched as if knife fights were a common occurrence.
The pair deadlocked with the knife in the opponent's hand. "You owe me," he panted. "I'm sick of your lies."
"Hey, Frankie, how am I gonna pay if I'm dead?"
The men's gazes locked. Then the assailant tore free and stepped back, knife upraised. "You'll pay me tonight. No more crap."
"My girlfriend's got some cash. She'll lend it to me, okay?" Duke waggled his fingers and eased toward Gina.
"Give it to me, baby."
Rigid with suspicion, Frankie waited for the payoff. Sonya figured the amount had to be significant. Where would Gina get that kind of money?
She'd just drawn the conclusion that this had to be a ruse, when something came out of the girl's purse. It wasn't a wad of cash. It was a gun.
Duke's. He'd sunk so low as to draw Gina into his criminal actions, Sonya surmised, although that didn't excuse the girl for her part.
Duke hadn't quite reached his target, and the attacker seized upon the gap to leap toward Gina. Apparently, he'd rather risk getting shot than abandon his quest.
"Gina! Get out of there!" Sonya broke off as strong hands grasped her arm and pulled her toward the steps.
"You have some kind of death wish?" the stranger demanded.
"Let go! I have to help!"
"Are you nuts? Unless you're wearing Kevlar—"
The gun roared. Sonya stumbled and might have fallen without the man's steadying grip. Her heart thundered so hard she wasn't certain how much of the ringing in her ears resulted from the blast and how much from panic.
Through her confusion, she realized Frankie had seized the weapon and looped an arm around Gina's throat. Sonya could almost feel the girl's blood pressure soaring, but she didn't observe any sign of injury. Judging by the speed with which Duke fled down an incline to the left, he hadn't taken a bullet, either.
Frankie forced the girl closer to the adults. Despite the patchy light, Sonya could see sweat beading her face.
The reporter raised his hands in a pacifying gesture. Sonya's pulse was still racing and her head felt light, but for Gina's sake, she held her ground. "Let her go. You don't want her to lose the baby, do you?"
"Duke's brat? Why should I care?" Frankie included them in a wave of the gun. "That creep owes me five hundred bucks. Somebody's gotta make it good."
Surely a nearby resident would hear the gunshot and dial 911, Sonya thought frantically. Yet the situation might turn even nastier if the police showed up.
"I have an ATM card. I'll get your five hundred." The photographer spoke with a raspy edge. "Take me instead of her, for God's sake."
Sonya's assessment of the man ratcheted upward. Narc or not, he had guts.
Frankie's lip curled. "Never mind the hero act. Hand over that ATM card. And your camera." He waved the gun toward Sonya. "Your purse, too."
Even with their money in hand, the situation would remain volatile—and the girl appeared increasingly ill. They had to get her free, but how?
As Sonya slipped the strap from her shoulder, she caught a twitch of the reporter's eye. A signal? Hoping she wasn't imagining his intention to coordinate a rescue, she braced to follow his lead.
He held out his wallet and started toward Frankie. Cautious, controlled. Drawing attention from the hostage. "The card and my money are in here. There's quite a bit of cash and some traveler's checks."
Sonya approached from the other side, closer to Gina. She dangled her purse just beyond Frankie's grasp. "Here you go."
"Hey! What're you two—" The barrel shifted from the girl's temple.