Undercover Avenger. Rita Herron

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Undercover Avenger - Rita Herron

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Hospital, and moved into one of the small cottages on Skidaway Island CIRP had built for employees. But she’d hit a brick wall in Savannah when she tried to locate Candace Latone. Apparently, there weren’t any Latones living in the area, either that or they weren’t listed in the phone book. It was possible her mother had come to Savannah as a student from another city. Although Melissa’s funds were limited, her investigative skills were even more so. She would have to hire another P.I. to search for Candace.

      Unless she discovered information at the school or hospital that would lead her to her mother.

      People were funny about keeping secrets, even ones over twenty years old. She had to pursue her search slowly, so as not to upset the tide should someone object to her jimmying the closed doors of their lives. Last year, she’d read an article about an adopted child who’d been murdered because she’d unearthed the truth about her parentage. Her father had been a well-known politician who’d wanted to cover his mistakes.

      Mistake—was that what she had been?

      Shaking off the troubling reminder that she’d been unwanted, she considered the possibilities. But she doubted she’d discover anything quite so newsworthy or dramatic in her past. Still, Dormer’s warning had unnerved her, as had the stories she’d heard about the research park since she’d arrived—unethical research experiments, the death of the former director, the disappearance of another, Arnold Hughes, the murder attempt on a scientist and his wife when they had defied the institute. All too scary.

      Deciding to lie low the first few days, make friends, acquaint herself with the patient load and staff, she focused on meeting the nurses, doctors and other therapists. She had just finished with her first patient, a child who’d suffered two broken legs in a car accident, when Nancy, one of the college-age girls who volunteered at the center, nudged her. Melissa’s gaze veered toward the door, where a broad-shouldered man with dark brown hair rolled toward them in a wheelchair. Masculinity and sex appeal oozed from him, along with the anguish evident in his tightly set jaw and black expression. He hated the wheelchair, that was obvious. Hated his weakness, that was obvious, too.

      She didn’t blame him. She hated her own weaknesses.

      “Not bad for an old guy,” Nancy murmured.

      Melissa winced. He was only thirty-four. His name, Eric Collier. His chart revealed he was over six feet tall, weighed two hundred pounds. He didn’t have to stand up for her to see that his body was muscular. His face was nice looking, too, a broad jaw, angular with a firm nose and deep-set dark eyes.

      “What’s his story?” Nancy asked.

      Melissa explained his injuries. “He also suffered burns over twenty-five percent of his body, he’s had some skin grafts, waiting for more.”

      Nancy shivered. “What happened?”

      “Some kind of car accident. Apparently there was a gas leak and his car exploded.”

      Nancy backed away, stricken. “Poor man. He was probably even better-looking before.”

      He’s gorgeous anyway, Melissa wanted to say, but she didn’t. She had to remain professional. She never got involved with patients. And she wouldn’t make an exception here.

      But the injuries and scars didn’t faze her as they did the young girl beside her. The courage the patients possessed did—everyone she worked with had a story. Dreams lost, shattered bodies and bruised self-esteem. Some gave in to pity, others fought hard not to succumb to the depression. To regain those dreams and their lives. With every failure and setback, she felt their frustration. With every success, their joy. And for those who tried to give up, she rallied harder to encourage them to fight back.

      This one looked like a fighter.

      The wheelchair rolled to a stop, the man’s hard gaze pinning her as he looked up into her eyes. His were a muddy brown, almost black. Angry. Full of pride. Challenge. Pain.

      “Eric Cal… Collier,” he said. “I’m here for my session.”

      She extended her hand, ignoring the fact that he was as handsome as sin. Anger radiated from his every pore in palpable waves, an attitude of aloofness surrounding him that would have been off-putting had she not seen it before. This man was not only scarred on the outside but on the inside, as well. Old wounds hadn’t healed, had festered instead, maybe all the way to his soul. She understood about those kinds of wounds too. She’d lived with them all her life. “Melissa Fagan.”

      His mouth twitched as if he was trying for a smile but couldn’t force his lips to form one. She smiled for him instead. She’d seen tough men before and understood their difficulty in accepting help, as well as their own imperfections.

      Especially when they had to depend on a woman.

      Male pride and all that. This guy possessed it in spades.

      “We’ll start over here, Mr. Collier.” She directed him to a desk in the corner for their first consultation. As soon as she sat, he relaxed slightly, although for a fleeting second his gaze skittered over her in an almost appreciative way, as if he’d noticed her as a man notices a woman. Good, some part of him wasn’t dead.

      She’d wondered at first.

      As a therapist, in the past, a few patients had been attracted to her. At first. But once they started the sessions, they usually wound up hating her. Hating her for pushing them. For punishing their bodies. For reminding them she could walk without help and they couldn’t.

      She didn’t let their attitudes affect her, either. In the end, when they stood and walked out on their own two feet, free of their crutches, tolerating their temper outbursts was worth it.

      Thankfully, putting herself more on his level helped dissipate some of his tension. She’d seen that reaction before, too. Men despised women towering over them. Control issues.

      “Well,” she said, inflecting a cheerfulness in her voice she used with her patients. “It looks like we have our work cut out for us, Mr. Collier.” She reviewed his injuries and described the strategy for getting him back in shape, outlining basic exercise routines to be performed at the center and at home. “Remember, it takes time to regain your strength. You have to be patient.”

      His curt nod warned her not to count on it.

      She gestured toward the workout area. “Are you ready to get out of that chair, Eric?”

      He seemed momentarily startled she’d used his first name, but he dismissed it quickly, then nodded, somber but determined.

      “Good, but remember, you’ll have to take it one step at a time, one day at a time.” She smiled, hoping to temper her comment. “If you overdo, you can damage yourself further and cause a setback, so remember when I tell you to stop, it’s for a reason.”

      “Right.” His sarcastic reply wasn’t lost on her. She’d have to stay on top of him or he’d ignore caution.

      She pointed to the locker room and watched him wheel toward it, his broad shoulders stiff, his head held high. She hoped he would maintain the attitude.

      He would need it to survive the long grueling sessions ahead of him.

      ERIC STEELED HIMSELF against the instant attraction he felt for Melissa Fagan while he changed into workout shorts and a T-shirt. He should have worn them to the session, but pride had made him stall in revealing his scars. Especially when he’d heard his therapist was going to be female.

      Disgust filled him for even momentarily noticing her beauty. This woman had read his chart. She knew the extent of his injuries. She would have to help him stand, help him learn to walk again.

      She would have to touch his ugly marred flesh.

      He could not think of her as a woman.

      Still, he sucked in a sharp breath at the thought of exposing himself to her, though after all he’d endured in the hospital the last three months, he should be accustomed to it. The baths, the skin grafts, the constant

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