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SHE COULD NOT BELIEVE HER EYES
He dressed like a biker, talked like a thug, and looked like a ruffian. And he was the man assigned to protect her!
When Elise opened the door of her secluded California home to Detective Dean Cornell, she thought maybe she was safer without police protection.
Dean thought that moving in with the lady vet was a choice assignment–heck, there were worse jobs than guarding a sexy woman. But life in the Carpenter household was anything but normal. With three squabbling girls, two snoring tortoises, and a loudmouth macaw on his tail, Dean feared even he wasn’t safe here.
Then, after long nights in close quarters, they discovered that the biggest threat wasn’t from the killer on the loose at all.
“If you’ve come to rob the place, you’re too late.”
Her voice was pitched low enough not to carry to the wrong set of ears, which made it music to this man’s acute hearing. Dean slowly inched up from the belly crawl he’d been performing since sliding through a rear window that was smaller than he’d gauged. He swore his back was scraped raw from his wiggling; he’d almost gotten stuck halfway in. The guys at the station and the six-o’clock news sure would have loved that—it was the type of event that haunted a man right up to his retirement dinner.
He raised his head slightly and surveyed the area. The main lobby of the midtown bank was the tension-ridden stage of a robbery gone bad. A guard had already been wounded, and ten people were still being held hostage while the police negotiator tried to deal with three unstable kooks probably sky-high on drugs.
“You’re awfully calm for a hostage,” he commented in a sotto voce to the woman watching him with a pair of the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. Turquoise eyes, straw¬berry-blond hair, heart-shaped face. Just the kind of woman he wouldn’t mind getting to know better. She smelled real good to a man who’d been crawling along a dusty floor. He crept over to a column where he could crouch down, unseen by the robbers brandishing lethal-looking weapons over a huddled group of men and women.
Her lips barely moved as she kept a wary eye on the armed men. “It doesn’t do any good to get upset over a situation I can’t resolve by myself.”
He grinned. “Good girl.”
She arched an eyebrow. “The times are changing, my friend. Woman is the appropriate term.” She looked back down at the man lying beside her, who moaned, shifting restlessly, his bloodstained gray uniform shirt torn open to reveal a wadded-up half-slip used as a compress.
The one-man rescue team hissed through his teeth. “How bad is he?”
“Bad enough. I was able to stop the bleeding, but he’s awfully shaky.”
Dean rubbed a hand over his beard. “You a nurse?”
Her lips twitched with what looked like secret amuse¬ment. “I’m a doctor.” She eyed the dark-haired, dark-eyed man who looked like the answer to any woman’s dream. The kind who got the blood stirring and the hormones jumping. The kind she preferred to stay as far away from as possible.
He looked properly rueful. “Guess I blew it with my sexist assumptions, huh?” He wondered what she’d say if he told her that she had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen and, by the way, was she free Saturday night?
“So what are you here for? To take a census?”
He grinned as he pointed to the gold shield clipped to his shirt pocket. “Detective Dean Cornell. I’m your rescue party.”
She rolled her eyes. “God help us.”
“Your prayers have been answered.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s going on back there?” A man wearing dark clothing and a ski mask and cradling an automatic weapon against his chest walked toward the woman and her pa¬tient—and Detective Dean Cornell.
The doctor showed no outward sign of fear. She had once vowed she would never be victimized by a man with a gun again, and her firm resolve kept her from backing down in abject terror before this animal. “I’m talking to my patient in hopes of keeping him alive. I didn’t think you’d want a murder charge added to your list of misdeeds.”
“Lady, if you don’t want to see that pretty face roughed up, you won’t open your mouth again.” His voice was strained, high-pitched with either fear or something even more dangerous.
She didn’t flinch. “Sorry, I thought you’d want your question answered.”
The man stalked back toward the front where his two accomplices paced restlessly, twitching fingers caressing their guns. She watched him, wondering why he seemed so familiar to her even though she couldn’t see his face. She dreaded the idea he might have been in her clinic at one time.
For Elise Carpenter it was the perfect climax to a hellish morning. The minute she’d gotten up and realized it was Friday the thirteenth, she should have climbed back into bed and stayed there.
First the automated teller ate her bankcard, forcing her to go inside to cash a check and request a new card. Before she finished her transactions, three maniacs ran in, waving automatic rifles and yelling, “Hold up.” Between custom¬ers screaming, a teller hitting the alarm button, the guard getting shot, and panicked robbers seeing no choice but to hold the people hostage while deciding how to get out of there in one piece, she felt as if she were living a night¬mare.
She’d fudged her credentials a bit in hopes of helping the wounded guard and told the robbers she was a doctor. And just as she saw her day going to hell in a hand basket, this overgrown adolescent, looking more like a street person than a cop, crawled into the lobby and announced he was going to save her! She only hoped her daughters in River¬side County and sister here in town wouldn’t hear her name on the evening news; thank heavens, her parents were on a cruise.
“Detective, if you have an extra weapon on you, I’m a crack shot,” she said softly.
“Sorry, I never carry a spare. You think these guys will surrender to that SWAT team or come out shooting?”
“The latter. While I don’t claim to be an expert, I’d hazard a guess two of them are coming down from some heavy-duty drugs and growing more unstable by the min¬ute. The leader is just as unbalanced. Probably even more so. He appears to enjoy intimidating anyone who gets in his way. He’s the one who shot the guard.”
Dean swore under his breath. “Okay, Doc, remain calm, and we’ll get you out of here as soon as possible.”
She turned her head slightly and ran into a pair of eyes so dark a brown they were almost black. Bittersweet choc¬olate, she thought illogically. Good thing she was a milk chocolate fan. The detective wore a full beard that was just a bit shaggy, as if he hadn’t taken the time to trim it lately. His hair, too, was overlong, and had waves most women would kill for. Hadn’t the character ever heard of hair¬cuts?
Still she had to admit that this thug with a badge looked as if he could handle any situation that came along. So why didn’t she put her trust in him? Easy. He was a cop. Past experience had taught her police weren’t all they were cracked up to be. “Ah, yes, the men in blue to the rescue. It’s amazing, I feel safer already.”
Dean frowned. Her sardonic tone told him she didn’t have much faith in law enforcers. The cop in him noted the hectic rose color dotting her creamy complexion and the glitter in her gemstone eyes; he’d hazard a guess both were indicative of a temper most people would probably duck to avoid. Not him; he never backed down from a good fight. He glanced at his watch.
“I need to count on you, Doc. In a minute all hell’s go¬ing to break loose, and we’re gonna have to pray those people up front hit the deck fast.”
“What you’re talking about is performing your person¬alized version of Die Hard and taking a chance with peo¬ple’s lives.”
“Saving lives is more like it.”
Dean watched the second hand on his watch, slowly counting down. Precisely as it swept past the twelve, he leaped up.
“All right, freeze!” His eyes widened as the three gun¬men, automatics ready, spun around, and he realized his backup hadn’t yet appeared. “Sh—!” He dove for cover, rolling over and over as the front door crashed open in a storm of glass and men in uniform came running in, guns drawn.
Thanks to quick thinking and near-precision action, gunfire was kept to a minimum. Elise huddled protectively over her patient and fervently prayed it would all be over soon and she would remain in one piece.
“You okay, ma’am?” A uniformed officer wearing a bulletproof vest bent over her.
She ignored his outstretched hand and stood up, dusting her hands against her thighs. “Yes, I’m fine, but this man needs immediate medical attention.”
“Paramedics!” he bellowed.
Elise turned at the sound of the disgruntled voice. Her “hero” was sprawled on the floor, mumbling curses and holding his right hand against his left shoulder, which was stained a bright red.
“We have another casualty,” she announced crisply. “Why am I not surprised?” she added quietly, hoping nonetheless that Detective Cornell was not gravely in¬jured.
Dean looked into Elise’s eyes. “I can’t stand the sight of blood,” he told her just before he keeled to one side and passed out cold.
A tall man in his mid-forties appeared and crouched down next to Dean’s prone figure. “Good going, buddy,” he said in a gravelly voice. He chuckled, then caught the surprise on Elise’s face. “It’s just a flesh wound. This guy can handle any situation as long as it doesn’t involve his own blood. Then he’s a goner.”
Elise shook her head. “Some rescuer he turned out to be.” She moved away to accompany the paramedics as they wheeled out the wounded bank guard.
Dean came to, he found himself strapped to a gurney outside the open doors of an ambulance.
“Hey, Mac,” he croaked, trying unsuccessfully to lift his hand out from under restraining straps.
Frank “Mac” McConnell appeared at his side. “Don’t worry, buddy, you’ll live.” He grinned.
“You guys were five seconds late,” he accused, closing his eyes to fight the lightheadedness overtaking him.
“Your watch was probably fast. That’s what happens when you buy cheap merchandise.”
Dean turned his head. “Better me shot than you, I guess. If you’d gotten it, Stacy would have skinned me alive.”
Mac chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right there.”
Dean shifted, then winced as white-hot pain tore through his shoulder. “Is the gorgeous doc anywhere around?”
“Yeah, over there.”
Dean tried to move, then swore under his breath as shafts of pain whizzed through his shoulder. “Could you ask her if she’d like a new patient? Be sure to tell her what a great guy I am.”
Mac shook his head. Trust Dean to use any situation, including a gunshot wound, to get a pretty woman’s atten¬tion. “I don’t know, Dean, she doesn’t seem too friendly to cops.”
“Oh, come on, she’s the best thing I’ve seen in years. Besides, I don’t have a regular doctor. Give me a break. I could be dying here.” He hoped he looked suitably pa¬thetic.
“We should be so lucky.” Mac sauntered off, catching up with Elise, who was talking to one of the uniformed offi¬cers.
With a hopeful gaze, Dean watched Mac talk to her and saw her amused smile as she glanced toward the gurney. She said something else and pulled a card out of her purse, handing it to Mac. Dean didn’t like the expression in Mac’s eyes when he returned.
“At first she turned you down flat,” he said without preamble. “Then she reconsidered and said maybe she was the doctor for you.” He dropped the business card onto Dean’s chest.
Dean craned his neck to decipher the small print on the blue pasteboard. He couldn’t. “Meaning what?”
Mac tipped the card. “Read it and weep, my friend.”
With the card angled, Dean read: Dr. Elise Carpenter, Doctor of Veterinary Science. Below, in smaller print was her specialty: exotic animals.
“The world is cruel, Mac. Really cruel.”
”Were you frightened in there?”
“Did you feel as if they would kill you at any time?”
“Please, look this way?”
“Vultures,” Elise muttered to the young officer record¬ing her words, glaring at the press people buzzing all around them.
He looked confused. “Ma’am?”
She sighed. “Let’s just get this over with, all right?” Her brow creased in a puzzled frown as she looked beyond the officer’s shoulder to the three handcuffed prisoners being led toward waiting patrol cars. Something about the leader of the deadly trio still jogged her mind. Then he struggled briefly, and the sleeve of his sweatshirt slid back to reveal the tattoo of a grinning skull with a coiled snake emerging from the mouth. A vivid scar was slashed across the skull. The tattoo and a scar.
The officer’s words became nothing more than white noise as she stared at the tattoo and the scar while old memories exploded in her brain. She was suddenly blind to her surroundings and deaf to the young man’s worried-sounding questions as scenes from five years ago flashed through her mind, renewing pain she thought she’d finally put behind her.
The clinic she and her husband Steve had worked so hard to expand… the night they stayed late to tend an ailing macaw… the two men breaking in, looking for drugs… Steven fighting with them, getting shot during the struggle… one of the intruders slapping her around… the seemingly miraculous sound of a police cruiser’s siren. She’d fought back, grabbing a scalpel and slashing at her attacker, cutting open his arm, which left him crazy with pain and determined to do worse to her. It all unfolded be¬fore her eyes: the frantic ride to the hospital, only to hear her husband pronounced dead on arrival… two hours later, going into early labor and miscarrying the baby boy they’d hoped for after having their three delightful daughters.
Then came the questions, the investigation, the arrests, finally the lineup. She had identified the two men easily, especially the one with the distinctive tattoo on his left arm, now marred by a diagonal slash. And then, because of po¬lice error—a “technicality,” the wrong name was typed on the arrest report—the man was freed, leaving a bitter widow with three young children to raise.
From that day on, Elise had had no use for the police.
Elise stared at the man, feeling all the anger and all the pain rise up. All the fury of a woman who had lost too much and never had the chance to see justice served. Justice she felt compelled to carry out herself if no one else would do it.
“You bastard!” she screamed, shoving past the stunned officer and running toward the prisoner, murder on her mind. Just as she reached her prey, a strong arm circled her waist, lifting her off her feet and out of the way. “No! Let me go!” She vainly batted at the arm.
“That I can’t do, Doc,” Mac murmured, stepping back a few paces. “Now, we know these creeps put you through hell back there, but you can’t take the law into your own hands.”
The pain bursting through her brain left her blind with fury. “You don’t understand! That son of a bitch killed my husband and my baby five years ago, and you idiots let him loose!” The anguish flowing through her made her entire body quiver with rage.
Mac uttered a pungent curse as he noticed the television news cameras hungrily recording the scene. “Look, Doc, I think we should go down to the station and get this straightened out.” He ushered her toward his car and away from the hungry press eagerly recording every word.