Undercover Avenger. Rita Herron

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Undercover Avenger - Rita Herron

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In her late fifties, she had a mop of curly brown hair dusted in gray. Padded with a few extra pounds, but not heavy, she mothered the other staff members.

      “Sit down and put your feet up, honey. You’ve had a busy morning.”

      Melissa nodded, dumped a packet of sweetener in her coffee and plopped onto the love seat across from the woman. “How long have you worked here, Helen?”

      Helen popped a powdered doughnut hole into her mouth, then dabbed at the corners. “Seems like forever,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s only been thirty years.”

      Since before Melissa was born. Maybe this woman did know something….

      “I imagine the center’s changed a lot.”

      “Changed and grown. When the hospital was first built, it was very small, everything was housed in one building. Now it’s all spread out, and the research facilities have expanded. Whew, I can’t keep up.”

      “I know, I’ve read about some of the cutting-edge techniques.” Melissa had studied the layout. The psychiatric ward was actually in another building, which was attached by crosswalks, as were the rehab facility and the main hospital. Other buildings housed experimental-research centers and laboratories scattered across Catcall Island, with additional ones on the more remote Whistlestop and Nighthawk Islands.

      Helen shook her head. “Hopefully, all the trouble’s passed.”

      “But you’re worried?”

      “You hear things, you know, about questionable projects out on Nighthawk Island. Did you know they named the island after some mysterious nighthawk who preys on people, not just other animals?”

      “No, but that’s interesting.” Melissa sipped her coffee. “They conduct government experiments on the island?”

      “Yes, but everything’s so danged secretive. One of the founders, Arnold Hughes, actually killed a scientist a long time ago because Hughes wanted to sell the man’s research to a higher bidder. And when this cop named Clayton Fox started nosing around last year, they replaced his memory with another man’s.” She shuddered. “And then there was that poor baby…”

      Melissa chewed her lip. So the things she’d read on-line had been true.

      Helen twisted her hands. “Maybe I’m getting paranoid in my old age, but I worry they’re doing chemical and biological warfare research,” she admitted, her agitation growing. “With all this talk of terrorist attacks and war, it could be awful. And what if they release chemicals or germs on the people through the water?”

      “It is scary. Since 9/11, I’ve had a few nightmares myself.”

      Helen rubbed her fingers together while Melissa struggled for a way to ask more questions without arousing suspicion. “Have you always worked with rehab patients, or did you ever work in other departments?”

      “I moved around when I first came here, trying to find my place.” Helen folded her arms across her plump belly. “Worked in labor and delivery awhile, the cardiac unit, the E.R., then I got my PT license.”

      “Delivering babies must have been exciting.”

      Helen shrugged, then stiffened and stood, dumping her coffee into the trash. An odd expression streaked her face. Panic? “I… Break’s over. I have to get back to work now.”

      Without another word, she hurried from the room, looking agitated and eager to escape more questions.

      Melissa frowned. What had triggered her reaction?

      TWO HOURS LATER, Eric finally dragged himself from bed to the shower. Even with the handicap rails, pulling his body from the chair into the tub and onto the customized seat took enormous effort and taxed his upper-body strength. The grueling morning session had taken its toll. Although he was tempted to add a few reps to the series of stretching exercises Melissa Fagan had assigned him, he worried he’d barely complete the basic ones.

      At any rate, he wasn’t supposed to tackle them until after dinner. Maybe he’d take a nice long stroll outside—in his chair—for some fresh air, scope out the facility.

      Maybe he’d even run into his therapist. Not that he wanted to see her again…

      And even if you did, he thought, what would she want with some scarred, crippled man?

      Disgusted with himself, he toweled off, dressed in baggy sweats and a T-shirt, then wheeled outside to get some air. He couldn’t let himself become obsessed with things he couldn’t have. Like a woman.

      But there she was.

      Standing off the path, looking out at the ocean. A stiff wind flung her hair around her face. Her cheeks looked softer in the fading sunlight, but her eyes looked troubled. What exactly was her story? And why did he care if she was lonely? He wasn’t anyone’s hero, not anymore…

      Unable to resist the forces drawing him to her, though, he wheeled over to her. The creak of his chair alerted her to his presence and she glanced his way. A small smile lifted the corner of her mouth.

      “Hi, Eric.”

      God, he loved the way she murmured his name. He must be desperate. “Hi.”

      “How are you feeling tonight?”

      He shrugged. “I hate to admit it, but you wore me out earlier.”

      A twinkle replaced the sadness in her eyes, and he grinned.

      “It’s always hard at first,” she said softly. “It’ll get easier.”

      But never quite back to normal. He knew it. But he didn’t want to believe it.

      “You like the ocean?” he asked.

      She nodded and angled her face into the wind again, once again melancholy. “I haven’t spent much time at the beach, though. The sea is so vast, it looks like it could go on forever.”

      There was that sadness in her voice again. “I know what you mean.” Damn. He was bad at chit chat. Didn’t know how to talk to a woman anymore. “Back home I have a cabin on the lake. At night, I like to sit outside, look at the stars and the moon. It’s peaceful.”

      She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and glanced down at him. Moonlight played off her hair, making him itch to touch it. Her lips parted, eliciting fantasies of long slow kisses that went on forever, just like the ocean.

      But he couldn’t even reach her, much less kiss her. Not sitting down.

      A reminder of his condition.

      Reality crashed over him, just like the waves breaking on the shore. “I guess I’d better go. Can I walk you to your cottage?” The minute the words came out, he realized how ridiculous they sounded.

      But she didn’t react. Probably out of pity.

      “Sure.” He wheeled beside her, the tension crackling as they crossed the path. When they reached her cottage, she turned to him. “Thanks, Eric. I’ll see you tomorrow.”


      “Get some rest.”

      Any illusion he might have harbored about her seeing him as a man was shattered. She saw him as a patient.

      And he’d damn well better remember it.

      Furious with himself, he wheeled back to his cabin. He’d do his job, learn to walk again and get the hell out of Savannah. Determined, he spread out the computer printout listing all the CIRP employees. He studied ages and basic body sizes, narrowing the field down to five potential men who might be Hughes. The new CEO of CIRP was a definite possibility. But claiming Hughes’s original position would almost be too obvious. Another possibility was Dennis Hopkins, a scientist who’d recently transferred to CIRP from the Oakland facility in Tennessee, and a chemist, Wallace Thacker. Of course, the list might not be complete. With the classified projects on Nighthawk Island,

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