By Sandra Orchard
There's a murderer in the hospital, and nurse Tara Peterson is determined to prove it. With mysterious deaths in the cancer ward, anyone could be next. But no one wants to believe her…except undercover agent Zach Davis. The murderer wants Tara's suspicions silenced, permanently. To protect Tara, Zach lets her in on his secret, and unwittingly into his heart. Tara and her three-year-old daughter are like the family he lost years before. Zach will risk everything to keep them safe, no matter the cost.
Excerpt of chapter one:
He couldn't imagine why a couple of deaths in a palliative-care unit—a ward where people go to die—would warrant an undercover investigation. But his former partner Rick Gray had needed a detached officer from out of town and had refused to take no for an answer.
Not that Zach had felt like explaining why this was the last place he wanted to be. He'd never told Rick he'd been married, let alone that his wife had died of cancer. As far as Rick was concerned, the five months Zach had spent posing as a computer-store owner made him the perfect candidate for his new cover as an information-technology consultant. End of discussion.
At the front of the crowd, Dr. Whittaker—the namesake of the hospital's new addition—slid giant scissor blades around the obligatory ribbon and offered the media a smile as polished as his two-hundred-dollar shoes.
As spectators jockeyed to be the first through the doors, Barb, the real IT consultant, bumped her arm against Zach's. "Come on, let's get started." The petite brunette hadn't questioned her boss's request to let Zach learn alongside her. He just hoped she'd be too distracted by her own work to notice what he really did.
He followed Barb into the happy hum of staff sharing cake and juice with patients, smiling and clothed in bathrobes and brightly colored caps. The kind of caps that masked chemo-razed hair.
His stomach knotted into a hard, tight ball.
He'd held his palm to spurting bullet wounds, wrestled drug-crazed addicts, immobilized the fractured bones of abused wives. But not one of those encounters had hit him like this, with an unnerving sense that if he looked one of these patients in the eyes, his grip on his emotions would completely unravel.
Someone—a nurse—cupped his elbow. "You okay? You've gone white."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." An antiseptic odor coiled through his nostrils, raking up memories of nightlong vigils at his wife's bedside. Lord, why have You brought me here? I don't want to remember.
"You'd better sit a minute. You don't look so good." The nurse ushered him to a chair along the wall. "I'll bring you a glass of juice." Her compassionate voice pulled his thoughts from the edge of a dark abyss.
His colleague had kept walking, but now, her three-inch heels clicked quickly toward him. As she drew closer, her puzzled scowl softened.
Zach scraped a hand over his face. "That bad, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. I take it you don't like hospitals?"
He shook his head. "Just cancer wards."
"You lost someone close to you?"
Zach let out a heavy sigh. "Yeah." Close. The word didn't begin to describe what he'd lost. His wife had been everything to him. His best friend. His confidante. His very being.
The nurse hurried back with a cup of juice. "This should bring back your color. You'd be surprised how many visitors we have who get a little faint. You'll be okay in a few minutes."
He doubted more time here would do the trick, but he kept the thought to himself. Undercover work was all about attitude. With the right attitude, even in uniform, he could convince the wariest drug dealer to sell him a fix. He'd never allowed a situation to get the better of him. And he sure didn't intend to start today.
He downed the juice, crushed the cup in his hand and rose to his feet. "Thanks, I'm good to go, Miss…" Seeing the woman's doe-size brown eyes smile up at him, Zach backed into the chair's arm. A jabbing pain to his thigh anchored his feet.
"Peterson." She tilted her head as if questioning whether they'd met before. "Tara Peterson."
He blinked, then swallowed to clear the roar from his ears and the image of his dead wife standing two feet away, arm outstretched in greeting.
Not his wife. The mouth was wider, the reddish-brown hair wavier and longer. She looked a few inches taller, too. But, those eyes.
Zach blinked again, and chalked up the leap of his heart to the woman's uncanny resemblance to his wife.
Forcing a smile, he extended his hand. Then her name clicked in his brain and turned his "pleased to meet you" to paste in his mouth.
This was the nurse who'd reported the murders.
Tara glanced at the ID badge hanging from his neck, and then to Barb's. "I guess you two are the IT specialists we were warned about."
"Warned?" Zach repeated, scrambling to regain his equilibrium.
Tara chuckled. "Sure, we finally got the hang of the last system, and now you're going to change it on us again."
"I thought your present system was over five years old?" He looked to Barb for confirmation.
Barb rolled her eyes and mouthed, "Stone age."
"I heard that." Tara's grin belied her offended tone. "You computer gurus just like to torture us. But if there's anything I can do to help, don't hesitate to ask."
Zach nodded his thanks. He liked the woman's playful sense of humor. She didn't seem like the type to cry wolf. Maybe his reluctance to take the case had made his negative assessment of its merits too hasty.
Zach shadowed Barb for most of the day to acquaint himself with the job. Then he forced himself to return to the cancer ward, where the alleged murders had occurred. Implementing a new software system gave him a perfect excuse to question staff, not to mention peek at their online activities.
As he passed the staff lounge, a commotion erupted.
"You have to let this go," a female voice soothed.
"I won't let it go. Someone murdered those people." Zach recognized Tara's voice and the flint of pain behind her words.
"The coroner disagrees," the other woman responded.
"For all we know the murderer paid him off."
Zach tensed. The last thing he needed were rumors of a killing spree spreading through the hospital.
"You're talking crazy," a different woman spoke up.
"Am I? Someone shoved me into the bed. Clearly, he didn't want to be seen."
"Are you sure you didn't just trip? You hit your head pretty hard."
"No!" The slap of a hand against a table punctuated the denial. "How many times do I have to tell you? Someone murdered Mrs. Parker. Her husband begged me to stop the killer."
Zach rushed to the door. Tara might as well have painted a bull's-eye on her forehead. He needed to get her out of there before she made the situation any worse.
Two nurses and a doctor were in the room with her. Tara reached for a lunch container in the fridge and deposited it into a cloth bag on her arm. Absorbed in the discussion, no one acknowledged his arrival.
"I was there and I didn't hear Mr. Parker say anything," the older nurse said. "How about you, Dr. McCrae?"
The young resident standing at the counter with his coffee shook his head. "Afraid not." He took a sip from his mug and shot Tara a sympathetic look.
"Well, I know what I heard." Tara's voice sharpened. "And if the police won't—"
"Miss Peterson…" Zach tapped on the door. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need your help."
Looking a little stunned, Tara lifted her gaze to his. "My help?"
"With the computer setup for your nurse's station." When she hesitated, it was all he could do not to grab her by the wrist and yank her out of the room. Something he should've done the instant he'd heard the word murderer come out of her mouth.
"Yes, of course." She followed him to the door, and he motioned her to go ahead of him.
Dr. Whittaker passed them with a cursory glance. "What was all that yelling about?" he asked, stepping into the staff lounge.
"Tara was ranting about the murderer again," one of the nurses said.
Zach couldn't make out Whittaker's riled response—something about bad press—but Tara must've heard, because she clenched her fingers into a fist.
"I can't believe the police aren't doing anything," she muttered.
Zach steered her to the privacy of the empty nurse's station. "About what?" he asked, since she had no idea why he was really here. He couldn't believe that she'd all but thrown down the gauntlet for a murderer to come after her.
Maybe he should have taken Rick up on the option to let her in on the operation.
Clearly heartened by his interest, Tara seemed to forget about his computer questions and explained in detail what happened the night of Mr. and Mrs. Parker's alleged murders.
He nodded as if it were all news to him. "I can see how important finding this person is to you, but you might not want to broadcast your intentions."
Her face blanched. "You think he'd come after me?"
"It sounds like you're the only witness."
"But I didn't see who shoved me," she insisted.
"He—or she—wouldn't know that. Chances are that he didn't even know whom he'd shoved out of his way until…"
Tara's bottom lip trembled. "Until I opened my mouth."
Offering an empathetic smile, Zach nudged her toward a desk chair. "You weren't exactly keeping your voice down."
Her teeth dug into her lip, stilling the tremble, and the vulnerability in her eyes—those enormous eyes he couldn't tear his gaze from—completely undid him.
She sank into the chair. "What am I going to do?"
"I'd suggest stop talking about what you saw."
"I can't. You don't understand…. There have been other suspicious deaths."
The anguish in her voice had him debating whether he'd be better off letting her in on his undercover operation. If she kept up these tirades, she'd not only give the supposed murderer a reason to silence her, she'd make Zach's job a whole lot tougher. "Suspicious how?" he asked, pulling a chair next to hers. He scrolled through a couple of computer screens so they'd appear to be looking over the new software.
"Sudden, inexplicable fevers. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Parker's death last week, we had an incident a couple of months ago, and another, Ellen Clark, the night before last. But the police still won't believe me. If only I'd done more to convince them…" Her voice hitched. "I might have saved her."
Rick had told Zach about Miss Clark. The woman had been presented in the E.R. with the same symptoms as Debra Parker.
"The doctors and nurse who tried to resuscitate Mrs. Parker say I'm crazy." Tara's fingers did a frenetic dance along the edge of the table, and Zach had to resist the urge to still them. "They say the high fever triggered the seizure that killed Debra. But they can't explain the fever."
"How do your colleagues account for the husband's death?"
"Dr. Whittaker figures that witnessing his wife's seizure triggered a heart attack and made Mr. Parker spout the—" Tara made air quotes "—nonsense about stopping a killer. But someone else was in that hospital room." She held up her bandaged wrist. "That's how I got this. And he's already struck again. Don't you see? That's why I can't stay quiet."
That's what Zach was afraid of. Maybe the smartest thing would be to tell her he was a cop.
"Do you realize you're the first person who's taken my concerns seriously?"
Zach lowered his voice. "I'm sorry you've been made to feel that way. And I am concerned, especially if this person has figured out you're a witness." He recognized the moment his implication sank in.
Tara's determined expression wilted, but then she suddenly bolted to her feet. "My daughter."
Zach's heart skidded to a halt at the thought of a killer going after her child. "Where is she?"
"The hospital daycare. You don't think—?" Tara raced to the elevator without finishing the thought he could guess all too well.
He rushed after her.
The elevator doors closed before Tara reached them. She slapped the button, and when they didn't reopen, she took off down the stairwell.
"Tara, wait," Zach called after her. He'd wanted to scare some sense into her, not scare her senseless. He had to tell her who he really was.
At the bottom of the stairs, he caught her arm and hauled her to a stop. "You need to calm down." He gripped her shoulders. "You don't want your little girl to sense your fear, do you?"
The air swooshed from her lungs. "No, but—"
"Shh." He touched his fingertips to her lips, and a jab of awareness pinged through him. What was he doing?
Her eyes grew even larger, if that were possible.
Instantly, he dropped his hands to his sides. He wanted to tell her she wasn't in any danger, but after hearing her account firsthand, he wasn't so sure anymore. "I need to tell you something."
A door above them banged open.
Instinctively, Zach stepped between Tara and the stairs. A couple of housekeepers hurried down a flight and exited on the next floor. "Let's talk outside," Zach suggested.
"Not until I get Suzie." Tara's voice edged higher.
Zach cringed. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have in front of her daughter. "She'll be safe in the daycare."
Tara glanced at her watch. "My shift finished ten minutes ago—she'll be expecting me." Tara yanked open the stairwell door and strode to the daycare center.
Zach waited in the hallway, debating whether he should call Rick before disclosing his true occupation. But one glimpse of the rosy-cheeked tot Tara swept into her arms had him deciding he'd rather remind Rick, after the fact, that he'd given Zach that option. When Tara emerged carrying the girl on one hip, Zach gave the child a goofy grin. "Hey, Suzie, my name's Zach. How old are you?"
The tot smushed her baby finger and thumb against her palm and proudly displayed three fingers.
"Three, wow! You're a big girl."
Her golden ringlets bobbed as she stretched herself taller, straining the seams of her yellow jumper.
"Careful, honey," Tara singsonged in that sweet, high-pitched tone women seemed to use with anyone under two and a half feet. "Mommy's wrist is sore. Remember?"
Suzie thrust her arms into the air and flung herself toward Zach.
Swallowing his surprise, he scooped her into his arms. "I got you, you little munchkin. We're giving Mommy's boo-boo a rest, are we?"
"I'm sorry." Tara reached for the child.
"That's okay. I don't mind carrying her for you."
A strange expression flitted across Tara's face, followed by a manufactured smile. Her arms dropped to her sides. "Thank you."
Considering her contradictory response, he didn't know whether to apologize or say "you're welcome." So he led the way to the back exit. A mirror hung by the door. Zach tapped Suzie's reflection. "Who's that?"
She splayed her palm on her chest and gave herself a huge smile. "Me!"
"You," Zach agreed with a chuckle, mesmerized by the chocolate gaze so like her mother's.
Suzie lunged for the glass, almost toppling out of his arms. He caught her just as her chubby fingers smacked against his startled reflection. "Dak!"
His heart suddenly felt too big for his chest. "That's right. My name's Zach." He glanced at Tara's reflection, but she seemed intent on avoiding his gaze. He half expected her to make an excuse, take back her daughter and leave.
But she opened the door and led the way to a picnic table at the edge of the daycare's playground. Clearly, she was desperate for a compatriot to her cause. She dug a notepad and crayons from her oversized handbag and then patted the seat beside her. "Come and draw, honey, while the grown-ups talk."
Suzie bounced in Zach's arms, apparently a three-year-old's signal for put me down.
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