Thief of Hearts

Page 1

CHAPTER ONE

Dr. Jared Dean hated being interrupted more than just about anything in the world. So he was annoyed when he heard the crash of something falling over in the chart room. For heaven’s sake , he thought darkly, scrawling orders for one of the seven patients he’d admitted that evening, just put the charts back in their rows, you guys. Don’t play keep-away with them.

“What’s going on in there?”Shari , one of the RN floats, asked without looking up from restocking the meds cabinet.

“The guys have too much time on their hands,” Jared said, writing NO NARCOTICS!!!!!!! in Mrs.

O’Leary’s chart and underlining it twice. Mrs. O’Leary (“Like the lady with the cow, honey.”) was a frequent visitor to the ER. To all the Emergency Rooms in the city, actually. She was in her late forties, impeccably groomed, ridiculously rich and hopelessly hooked on Demerol. Jared had been trying to get her into a drug treatment program for two years, to no avail. Mrs. O’Leary thought drug addicts were smelly street people, not grande dames of society who contributed five figures to charity every year.

“Can’t blame them for horsing around. Third shift can be a snoozer.” He glanced at his watch—three in the morning, groan—and swallowed a yawn.

“Maybe we should threaten to sic the A.A. on them,”Shari joked.

Jared snorted. He didn’t believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, a balanced federal budget, or vigilantes who ran around at night righting wrongs. The newspapers had been whispering about the A.A.’s activities for almost a decade.

“At least the clerks aren’t pulling this crap during first shift,”Shari added, shoving a hank of her strawberry-blonde hair out of her eyes.

Jared was about to answer her when there was a dull thump. The sharp crack of someone slamming against the window brought him to his feet. He moved past an open-mouthedShari , headed for the chart room at a dead run and fairly leapt through the doorway, ready to start chewing some ass…or kicking some.

Instead, he stood there with his mouth open. Nothing he’d seen in his years as an E.R. resident prepared him for the sight of a startlingly beautiful woman engaged in a vicious hand-to-hand battle with the largest man he’d ever seen.

And winning.

She was stunning. Petite—her assailant was well over a foot taller—and delicately built, with small hands and feet. Her white-blonde hair was skinned back into a French knot at the nape of her neck. She looked like a princess, one who could pour tea or break your nose, depending on how you addressed her. She was dressed in dark colors—black turtleneck, black leggings, dark shoes—which accentuated her fair skin and hair. Exertion had brought a delicate flush to her features.

Her assailant wasn’t nearly so attractive—dirty blonde hair shaved close to his skull, thick black eyebrows that met in the center of his forehead, fists the size of bowling balls, a nose that had been broken at least twice. Thick lips skinned back from his teeth as he snarled wordlessly at the woman and sent a punch whistling toward her wide-eyed face.

Jared opened his mouth to shout a warning… and the woman deftly blocked the punch, twisted the man around without letting go of his arm and slammed him, face down, on the table. Jared winced at the ‘pop’

the man’s shoulder made coming out of its socket.

The man howled curses, which were abruptly cut off as the woman grabbed a fold of skin at the nape of his neck and slammed his head into the table.

Silence.

“Look out,” Jared said, finally able to articulate. The woman’s head snapped up and she stared at him.

For a long, electric moment, their eyes met and Jared had the absurd thought that she could see all the way down into his soul. Her mouth popped open in a small ‘o’ and she gasped, a quick intake of breath that made her br**sts (high and firm, his mind reported happily) heave.

“Don’t worry,” he said. She had the look of a doe trapped in the headlights, which was ridiculous—what could he, mild-mannered physician and volleyball player—do to her, kick-ass princess?

“I’m here to rescue you.”

Her lips twitched at that and she sidled toward him, then dashed past him as he came forward to meet her, turning left out the door. He could hear her running lightly and damned quickly.

“Hey!” he yelled and took off after her. Blessed—or cursed—with a Texan-sized curiosity bump, he had to catch her. She could tell him why there had been a fight, who the unconscious man was, her name, and if she was free for dinner any night this week. This year. She was the most intriguing woman—certainly the most beautiful—he’d ever seen.

He couldn’t say ‘he’d ever met’ because they hadn’t exactly been properly introduced. A fact he intended to remedy, post-haste. Part of him wondered what he was doing, chasing a stranger around hospital hallways in the wee hours of the morning. Another part of him urged him to run faster .

He caught sight of her just before she darted around a corner and forced himself to put on speed. Come on, Dean, you wimp , he thought contemptuously. You’ve got to be a head taller at least—certainly your legs are longer. Catch up! And, on the heels of that: Where the hell is Security? For that matter, where the hell is anybody?

Speaking of dead ends, he just about had her cornered in one; she’d zigged when she should have zagged and there was no door at the end of this hallway, just a window, too far above her head to climb out. She was facing him, trapped with her back against the wall, when he jogged around the corner.

“There you are,” he panted, slowing his pace. “Are you okay? Did that guy hurt you? Before you hurt him, I mean?”

Her eyes, which had been narrowed to blue slits studying him, now widened in surprise. He was hopelessly dazzled and gave in to the feeling—he was a long way between girlfriends and she really was spectacular. Had he thought her eyes were an ordinary blue? Coming closer, he could see they were the color of the sky on a cloudless day, pure and perfect.

“If you’re hurt,” he said, trying not to wheeze, “I’d be glad to take a look at it for you. It’s the least I can do, since you got me out of finishing my chart work…dull stuff, believe me.”

He heard himself babbling and told himself to shut up. She said nothing, just kept studying him. He noticed she wasn’t even out of breath. Kicking ass must keep her cardiovascular system in top form , he thought.

“Seriously,” he said. “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? If you’re in some kind of trouble, I can call a shelter, find you a safe place to stay.”

Still she said nothing, but her lips twitched, as if fighting a smile. He wasn’t sure what the joke was, but took a cautious step forward. “Everything’s all right,” he soothed, as if calming a wild doe, “now if I can just get you to come with me, I mean without rearranging my kidneys first, we’ll find an exam room, make sure you’re okay and then we can talk about the trouble you’re in. Whatever it is, I bet we can fix it if we put our heads together.”

She opened her mouth and he waited eagerly, then they both heard the noise of pounding feet. Well, well

, he thought tiredly, what do you know—Security finally woke up from ye olde one a.m. snoozefest.

Whatever she had been about to say was forgotten as she reached up, just barely catching the bottom edge of the window. The hospital’s windows were old—no wire mesh—and deep-set. He watched with utter astonishment as she grabbed hold of the ledge and flipped her legs up and over her head, her boots smashing through the glass and the rest of her following through.

He figured it was a good thing they were in the lowest level of the hospital, because he had the feeling she would have gone through that window even if they’d been ten stories up. He wondered if the boots she wore had protected her from lacerations. Given the woman’s incredible speed and luck, he assumed they had.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said numbly and was nearly run over as two security guards came thundering around the corner. “She went thataway,” he added, pointed to the shattered window. “And don’t even try, she’s long gone. Come on, I’ll show you where the other one is.”

The guards had a thousand questions. Jared couldn’t tell them much and what he could tell them—the woman won, the woman was incredibly tough but seemed strangely vulnerable, the woman had eyes like the sky, the woman was going to be the mother of his children—he prudently kept to himself.

“You said the other one was in here, Dr. Dean?” one of the guards asked and that was when Jared saw the woman’s assailant was gone. The only thing left of him was a small puddle of blood on the table, presumably from a nosebleed. “Fan out,” the guard said to the others, “he can’t have gone far, not after Dr. Dean bashed him around.”

“Actually,” Jared began and then shut up. He didn’t want to get the woman in more trouble, so he’d take the blame for KO’ing the bad guy. It hadn’t been the first time people had taken in his size and assumed he was capable of violence. And he had been, in his youth—certainly he’d been in more of his share of after-school scuffles. But years of stitching up victims, of probing for bullets and setting smashed limbs, had made him lose his taste for it. “Uh…actually, I should get back to work.”

“You got a description for us, doc?”

“For Nosebleed? Sure. About six-five, two hundred fifty pounds, shaved blonde hair, one black eyebrow, one dislocated shoulder, one broken nose.”

“Uh-huh,” the guard asked, stepping close to Jared and sniffing him. This might have been intended to be a subtle move on the guard’s part, except the man had a deviated septum and Jared could hear the shrill whistling intake when the man inhaled. “Broken nose, one eyebrow, we’ll get right on it. You have anything to drink before you came on-shift?” Sniff-sniff. Whistle-whistle.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jared snapped. “I gave up booze when I took up he**in. Seriously, I haven’t had a drop. The bad guy really did look like some sort of mutated freak of nature. Now go get him!” Before he catches up with what’s-her-name, he added silently.

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