A Doctor's Watch
A Doctor's Watch
The drumming of the shower quit, and with it, Ty’s time ran out.
No doubt in another life he’d do whatever it took to make Mia a permanent fixture in his life and his bed.
Unfortunately, he was stuck in this life. And Mia Serrat was unreachable. Untouchable, at least by him.
She almost ran into him before she saw him in the doorway. They stood toe-to-toe, so close he could feel the heat rising from her skin. So close he could see the same heat in her eyes. Eyes that were locked on him.
“I want to believe you,” he finally said.
“Shh,” she said, and put a finger to his lips. “Don’t.”
Her finger was rose-petal soft on his mouth, and he wanted to pull it inside, devour it, taste it. Instead, he shifted just enough to brush the pad a little harder. A whisper of a kiss…
Writing a book is often a gradual process of building a world, characters and a plot one decision at a time, agonizing over each small choice for a period of days, weeks and months. Once in a while, though, an author is lucky enough to be struck by a novel idea fully formed. The characters, the plot, the twists, the conflict flood her mind in a single bombardment of images and voices. The author becomes merely a scribe, taking down what has been given to her. A Doctor’s Watch is one such story, and I’m very pleased to bring it to you with the help of Silhouette Romantic Suspense.
Mia Serrat is a strong woman, but she’s been through some really tough times. For the sake of her young son, she fought to regain her health after a debilitating bout with depression and she succeeded. Or so she thinks.
Dr. Ty Hanson is the one man who can help her convince everyone that she’s not crazy, but his own history and his feelings for Mia complicate his professional judgment.
I hope you enjoy their story.
A Doctor’s Watch Vickie Taylor
is the bestselling author of more than a dozen romantic-suspense and paranormal romance novels. She is a four-time finalist for a Romance Writers of America RITA® Award and is the winner of a Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence in mystery/suspense fiction. When not writing or reading, Vickie spends her time riding horses, training search-and-rescue dogs and volunteering for her local humane society. For up-to-date news and information, visit Vickie at www.VickieTaylor.com.
Many, many thanks to my editor, Ann Leslie Tuttle. You set me on this crazy road of publication, and you’ve stuck with me through the good times and the bad. Without you, this book and many others would never have seen the light of day.
Five more good days. A quick tally of all the other groups of five ticks in her diary added up to three hundred and ten. Three hundred and ten good days. Days without shadows. Days without darkness lurking inside her.
Days without depression.
Mia Serrat smiled. Despite the stark white winter landscape outside her window, she felt as bright as the California sun she’d been imagining. As fresh as the sea air. Soon she would go home to California for real, away from the cold and snow of Massachusetts.
Now all she had to do was tell Nana.
A knot of apprehension coiled in her belly. She’d already waited too long to talk to her mother-in-law, but she wouldn’t wait any longer. Today was the day—as soon as she’d had her morning run.
Heading downstairs, she buoyed herself by humming a pop tune about soaking up the sun.
“You could take a day off, you know,” Nana called from the kitchen as Mia bounced into the foyer, reaching for her scarf from the coat tree by the door. “It’s freezing outside.”
Undaunted, Mia wrapped the scarf around her neck and grabbed her gloves. Not even Nana’s motherly nagging, or the difficult conversation ahead between them, could keep her from enjoying the start of a new day. Already her blood was flowing faster, her breath coming deeper in anticipation of her daily workout. “I dressed warmly.”
“I’ll be careful.” She followed the scent of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls toward the kitchen, where she would undoubtedly find her eight-year-old son with a full stomach and an icing mustache. “Smells like you’re spoiling Todd again.”
“Won’t hurt the boy to be fussed over now and then.”
Mia gave Nana a hug in the kitchen doorway to let her know how much she appreciated everything the older woman did for them. “No, I suppose it won’t.”
She caught Todd’s eye over the rim of his milk glass. “Hey, tigerbear.”
He thunked down his glass and groaned. “Mo-om.”
“Oh, sorry. I mean Sir Samuel Todd Serrat.” He was so sensitive to anything remotely childish these days. Including pet names.
“Todd would do.”
His face brightened as he nodded toward the platter in the center of the table. “I saved ya the last roll.”
“Thanks, but I’ll catch a yogurt after my run.”
“Yogurt? Bleck!” He grabbed the lone sticky bun and grinned.
She ruffled his hair. “I’m getting in shape. It’s called exercise. You should try it sometime instead of sitting in front of your computer all the time playing video games.”
The cinnamon roll puffed out his cheeks like a chipmunk’s when he smiled. “I get plenty of exercise. Just this morning I fought off a squad of Ninja hit men, slayed two dragons and saved the world from an alien invasion.”
Even Nana laughed at that.
“Have you decided what you want for Christmas, mighty warrior?” Mia asked, and then held up her hand. “Besides computer games?”
“Christmas?” Nana asked, winking as her gaze swiveled from Mia to Todd. “Is it that time of year already?”
But Todd wasn’t biting on her feigned indifference to childhood’s mega holiday of holidays. Still, his bright eyes darkened.
“You don’t gotta get me nothing.”
“Of course we do.” Mia’s heart fluttered around in her chest like a tiny trapped bird. “It’s Christmas!”
“Christmas is for kids.” His shoulders stiffened.
“I hate to break it to you, but eight years old still qualifies as a kid in my book.”
“I said I don’t want nothing, all right.” Todd dropped the cinnamon roll on his plate, scraped his chair back and made a grab for his books as he stood.
Her hands balled on her hips. Todd had always loved Christmas. “No, it is not all right.” She scooted in front of him before he could make a break for the back door.
Lowering her arms, she took a deep breath and waited. After several long seconds, Todd slowly raised his head and looked up at her through the sheaf of dusty-blond lashes he’d inherited from his daddy.
Suddenly, Mia could have sworn she was looking into the eyes of an eighty-year-old man in her son’s body. His sad gaze wrapped around her heart and squeezed.
She’d done this. She’d put the darkness in her child’s eyes. She knew the exact day, the exact time she’d done it.
The week before Christmas two years ago, when she’d tried to kill herself.
Mia swallowed the lump in her throat. She’d put the darkness in Todd, the fear, and she would take it away, she vowed. No matter how many years, how many Christmases it took.
“You don’t gotta get me nothing,” he mumbled. “Don’t worry about it. Christmas is dumb anyway.”
Straightening up, she took a deep breath and smiled brightly on the outside even as she died a little more inside at his words.
Don’t worry about it.
It pained her, knowing her family still thought her so fragile.
“Try to think of a present that involves something we could do together, okay?” she said. “Like jigsaw puzzles or something.” Something that would reassure him that she wasn’t going anywhere. She forced a placid smile to her face. “And you’d better come up with something soon, or you might just get socks and underwear.”
Todd’s frail shoulders relaxed a bit. “Eww…”
Mia kissed his wrinkled nose, then pulled his coat off the hook by the back door and held it out to him. “You’d better get going. The bus will be here any minute. Be good today.”
With the heavy sigh of a child faced with seven hours of sitting still and keeping quiet—and a mother he didn’t quite trust to be here when he got home—Todd pulled on his coat.
Nana tucked his scarf in around his neck and smooched him and threw an air kiss as he tromped out the door. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.” He waved without looking back.
Inside, apprehension flipped Mia’s stomach. The house was quiet. She’d barely navigated her way through one difficult conversation, and now she was more determined than ever to have another one, this time with Nana. It was time to tell Nana she was leaving, the sooner the better. If nothing else, Todd’s reaction to Christmas had reinforced how badly she needed some time alone with her son. Time to rebuild his trust in her.
First, she needed tea. She heated water in the microwave, then dunked a bag of her favorite green tea in the mug while Nana busied herself with the dishes in the sink.
“I called the property management company,” Mia said. “The one who’s been looking after the house in Malibu.” She tried for calm, confident strength in her voice, but couldn’t help but notice the little squeak at the end of the sentence. “She said they could have the utilities turned on and everything cleaned and opened up right after the first of the year.”
Nana’s shoulders stiffened. Dishes clattered. “So soon?”
“School starts on the fifth of January.”
Nana turned, the dishcloth twisted in her hands. “Put him in a new class in the middle of the year? Is that wise after all he’s been through?”
Another pang of guilt stabbed through her.
“I talked to the counselor at the elementary. She said it’s actually easier for kids to transition during the school year. They have a chance to make new friends right away instead of sitting home alone during the summer, waiting for a new term.”
Nana leaned heavily on the counter behind her. “Are you sure you’re ready? What if you…?”
Mia pulled her shoulders back. Now was not the time to question herself. “You know you can come visit us anytime, Nana.”
“It just wouldn’t be the same as having you here, under my roof.” Her eyes brimmed. “And besides, I have Citria and Karl here.”
Mia hated making Nana choose between her grandson and her daughter and brother. Nana’s roots were here. Still…
“You’d love California. It’s warm and sunny all the time. Your arthritis—”
“I couldn’t. I—I’ve lived all my life in Eternal.”
“Then we’ll come visit you, in the summer when Todd is out of school.”
Nana turned back to the sink and attacked the dishes with a vengeance that might leave the household short a few china plates if she didn’t ease up. “You don’t have to decide today. We’ve still got three weeks before Christmas.”
Mia’s heart hurt, but she lifted her chin. “Yes, we’ve got time.” Time, she hoped, for Nana to accept the inevitable, and for Mia to accept that she had no choice but to break her mother-in-law’s heart.
She needed to take her life back—for all their sakes. She’d worked hard to get healthy again. She needed her independence.
“I thought you were going for a run,” Nana said, her jaw stiff. “You’re all dressed for it.”
Understanding Nana’s veiled request for some time alone, Mia downed the last of her tea and stood. At the back door, she doubled over to stretch her calves, then lifted each foot behind her in turn and pulled, loosening her hamstrings. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
Before she could leave, Nana snugged up the crimson scarf around Mia’s neck, tucking the ends beneath her collar just as she had for Todd. The wool would be scratchy, Mia thought, especially when she started to sweat, but she accepted the coddling without comment. Nana was just looking out for her. Lord knew there’d been a time when she’d needed it.
She set off across the yard, toward the bike trail to Shilling’s Bluff, at an easy pace, giving her muscles time to warm. Her thoughts drifted at random. Running put her in an almost meditative state, and soon she found herself pondering Todd’s Christmas gift again.
She had a feeling he wanted something special, but hadn’t worked up the gumption to tell her yet. She would have to talk to Nana later and see if she knew what it was. Otherwise, she might make a critical holiday faux pas, and she so wanted Todd to be happy this year. He deserved it.
Heart pumping harder now, she turned off the bike path onto the hiking trail up the bluff. Her breath clouded in front of her face. The snow was deeper here. It drifted in piles against rocks and clung to the boughs of the evergreens crowded on the side of the trail opposite the cliff.
As she climbed higher, the town emerged in the valley below, white tufts of snow scalloping the eaves of the buildings along Main Street and dusting the sidewalks.
Todd said that after a snowfall, Eternal looked like the village in one of those snow globes kids played with, just waiting to be shaken. On mornings like this, she agreed with him.
He was such a smart kid, and thoughtful, too. She wished his father could have seen how he’d grown up. He would be so proud.
Mia’s ankle turned on the steep slope. She slipped and stumbled, but caught her balance before losing her footing altogether. Her heart stuttered as she tried to recapture her rhythm. Her arms swung jerkily and her feet landed unevenly.
It annoyed her that a simple stray thought of her husband, Todd’s father, Sam Serrat, was enough to make the dark cloud that was never far behind her seem to loom directly overhead. She quickened her pace to escape it.
Depression couldn’t be outrun, she knew, no matter how long or how hard she tried. But she could stay one step ahead of it. As long as the darkness was behind her, and not inside, she would be okay.
Three hundred and ten days, she reminded herself. She’d worked hard to get her life back, and she’d succeeded. She wouldn’t lose herself again. She wouldn’t lose Todd.
Cautiously, she let herself think about her husband again. The way his sandy hair fell over his eyes when he laughed. The sense of humor and compassion he’d passed to his son, even though he was gone before Todd ever really knew him. The way he made love to her so slowly, so gently, she thought it might last forever.
Only, nothing lasted forever. She’d learned that the hard way.
Tears filled her eyes, but they didn’t spill over. Time diminished the pain his memory caused. Each day she hurt a little less when she thought of Sam.
Todd was what kept her going now. He was the reason she’d worked so hard these last two years to take her life back from depression.
Muscles quivering with exertion, she plunged up the last few feet to the top of the bluff and stood with her hands on her hips, blowing hard. Forty feet below her, a winding road cut through the granite rise that made Shillings Bluff. Right on time, the yellow school bus lumbered around the turn.
Mia started jogging again, slowly, letting the bus catch her. She sped up as it pulled even, feigned a hard run as it overtook her.
Todd sat in the backseat, as he always did, face plastered against the rear window as he watched her. He waved and encouraged her on. She ran faster, pretending to race the bus, pretending to go all out. It was their game. Their ritual.
With Todd bouncing in his seat, she lowered her head. Kicked harder. Stole a glance at her son, and his sweet face took her breath away as the bus pulled ahead and around a bend. She—
Something solid—a hand—thunked between Mia’s shoulder blades. She tried to turn to see who had hit her from behind, but the blow had thrown her off balance. Her sneaker skidded on a patch of ice. Her other toe caught on a rock. She flailed.
Mia tried to throw herself back onto the path. Away from the granite slope. She failed. She fell.
And she screamed, but no one heard. Or if they did, they didn’t care.
Crap, crap, crap.
Ty Hansen cursed all the way to his car, but the sound was lost in the swoosh of the north wind that sailed right through his leather bomber jacket and chilled him to the bone. Snow-laden clouds hung low overhead, ready to dump their payload. Already the first tiny flakes stung his face like icy needles. He shoved his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders against the miserable weather.
Talk about tap dancing in minefields.
Why the hell did he have to be the one to draw the Kaiser’s niece as a patient?
“The Kaiser,” as Karl Serrat was called by the staff when he was out of hearing range, oversaw all the residents in the psychiatric specialty program at the Massachusetts Hospital of Mental Health. They all considered him a taskmaster, but he seemed to ride Ty particularly hard. He also held Ty’s entire future—his completion of the residency program required before taking the exams from the American Board of Medical Specialties to become a licensed psychiatrist—in his twisted grasp.
The man was just looking for an excuse to kick him out. Karl Serrat had been on Ty’s back since their first meeting.
With the snow, the drive to Eternal took an hour and a half. Stomping his boots and shrugging out of his jacket at the ER nurses’ station, he asked the large-boned African-American woman behind the desk for the psych consult file and plowed down the hallway, reading the patient history as he walked.
He tapped twice with his knuckle on the door to evaluation room 5, counted to three to give her a few seconds to pull herself together, then took a deep breath and poked his head in. “Ms. Serrat, may I come in?”
The hell with Karl Serrat. He had a job to do and it didn’t matter if the woman waiting for him was Serrat’s niece or Mona Lisa. She was a patient, and he would do his best by her, consequences be damned.
Fixing that thought firmly in his mind, he pasted on a smile and said “Hi, I’m Dr.—”
The woman who turned to look at him from her place by the window nearly made him forget his own name. It wasn’t her beauty so much that stymied him, though she had that, as her intensity.
She stood as far away from the door as she could get. If she hadn’t been holding a disposable cup, he was sure her arms would have been folded tightly over her chest, fingers fisted. Her tousled mahogany hair was thrown back over her shoulders and her full mouth pursed slightly. Her eyes, as lush, green and mysterious as a tropical rain forest, glinted with tightly controlled anger.
Obviously she’d figured out he wasn’t here to give a second opinion on her bumps and bruises. Yet, instead of pouting about a psychological evaluation, or retreating inside herself, there was a challenge in her eyes.
The woman wasn’t just all good looks. She had moxie.
“Dr.—?” she asked, hooking one eyebrow.
“Hansen. Ms. uh—” He cleared his throat. “Serrat.”
She studied him critically. “My uncle sent you, I assume.”
“Uh, yeah.” Brilliant. Very eloquent.
Sighing in resignation, she hopped up on the edge of the examination table. “Well, let’s get this over with. I have a son to get home to.” Her feet dangled off the floor, exposing the delicate bare ankles at the ends of two very long legs.
“Sure. Uh, yeah.”
Heaven help him.
Mia had prepared herself to do battle with some pasty-skinned, condescending head-shrinker who had his name sewn over the breast pocket of his lab coat and who spoke through his nasal passages. She was ready, or she thought she was.
Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined they’d send someone like young Dr. Handsome, here, to check up on her. One look at him, and her game plan fell apart with an audible crash.
He was tall and tanned and lean, but with enough bulk under his blue denim button-down dress shirt to hint at a fit body. His hair was conservatively cut, but just enough overdue for a trim that the light brown ends curled over his collar. A few flakes of snow still clung in the cowlick over his left temple.
The cold had left ruddy spots on his cheeks, and the beginnings of a slight shadow darkened his jaw, but not grimly. The stubble, combined with brilliant hazel eyes, a lazy smile that only reached one side of his mouth and the battered leather jacket slung over his shoulder gave him a slightly harried, sleepy, sexy look.
She wasn’t ready for him at all.
She wondered if he knew exactly how disarming that lopsided grin of his could be. She wondered whether it was genuine or part of his psychotherapy-babble bag of tricks.
“Ms. Serrat?” He lifted his eyebrows in question.
Polite, too, still waiting for her to invite him in. Not a common trait in doctors, in her experience.
Despite his charm and his manners, she jutted her chin when she nodded, reminding herself he was the man standing between her and Todd. She needed to get home to her son, preferably before school let out for the day. She didn’t want him to know anything about this little incident.
He shouldered his way through the door and eased across the room, stopping about three feet away and extending his hand. Tricky, he was. Making her go to him. A subtle but effective shifting of power in the room.
On another day, she would have refused to play his mind games. But today, she decided an antisocial display would not further her cause.
Hopping off the exam table and stepping forward, she accepted his hand. His knuckles were scraped and swollen as though he’d been in a fight, she noticed. Young Dr. Handsome was one surprise after another.
Before she thought better of herself, she swept her thumb over the abrasions. “Rough day at the office, Doc?”
He looked puzzled for a second, then glanced down and extricated his hand from hers. “Just a little difference of opinion.”
It was her turn to look puzzled, but she didn’t ask for an explanation, nor did he offer one. It was best they get down to business, anyway.
“I’m sorry you had to wait so long,” he said, throwing his jacket across the foot of the bed. “I’d have been here an hour ago, but the weather’s taking a turn for the worse and the roads are getting nasty.”
An hour. What was one hour? she wondered.
An eternity to an eight-year-old boy. A boy waiting for his mother.
“Why don’t we get this over with so you can get back on the road to wherever home is, then?”
“Sounds like a plan.” He rubbed his hands together to warm them, looking her up and down.
Her spine tingled as if he’d run his fingers up her back. The look hadn’t been sexual at all—it was definitely a doctor’s appraising gaze.
Still, she had felt it.
As if he’d felt it, too, he took a step back.
Even fully clothed and with four feet of distance between them, she felt naked. Bare to the soul. Unable to resist any longer, she set her tea down and crossed her arms over the buttercup-yellow flannel pajama top Nana had brought for her.
She wished Nana had brought clothes, instead.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Fine,” she lied. Her hip hurt like hell. “The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.”
“Good. Do you know why I’m here?”
Her lips pressed together in a bleak smile. “You’re a psychologist.”
“Psychiatrist, actually. You know what happens next?”
She nodded and sat on the edge of the bed, her legs hanging over the side. She’d been through this before. At least he wasn’t patronizing her.
He asked a battery of questions. Her name. The date. The name of the current president. The immediate former president. Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?
She looked up at him quizzically. “Grant?”
He grinned. “Just seeing if you were paying attention. Thought I had you there.”
“My son loves riddles. I hear that one, or some variation on it, at least once a week.”
“What happened this morning?” Dr. Handsome asked. His gaze followed her as she hopped off the bed and paced, limping. She didn’t want to do this, but he wasn’t going to let her go home to Todd until she did.
“Why don’t you just come right out and ask me?” she said, hating the impatience in her voice.
“Ask you what?”
“If I tried to kill myself again.”
“Did you try to kill yourself again?” he said without missing a beat.
“But you have tried before.”
Statement, not question. No sense denying it, she thought. The facts would be in her medical record.
“A long time ago,” she said flatly.
“After you lost your husband?”
“And my sister six months before that, and my parents a year before that.” Her heart constricted painfully at the memory. Memories.
A moment of silence passed. “That’s a lot to go through in eighteen months.”
“Too much.” She turned to him, her lips pressed in a grim line. “Or so I thought at the time.”
His smile was gone, and the look that had replaced it brought a lump to her throat. His face glowed with a warm, quiet concern.
“But not anymore?” he asked.
She took a deep breath, raw at having to expose herself like this to a stranger. Most people had a right to privacy. To dignity. Not so the mentally ill, or those suspected of mental illness. They were expected to drag their deepest fears, their most personal vulnerabilities out for inspection by anyone with the right abbreviations or acronyms behind their names.
She considered lying, knew it would only delay the inevitable. He would pick at her until he got the truth.
Looking down, she saw her hands were trembling and clasped them together to hide the weakness. “I spent eight months in the hospital learning to deal with my grief. I clawed my way back to normalcy day by day. Sometimes minute by minute or second by second, but I made it.” She threw her chin in the air. “My doctor there had me keep a journal. I still do it. I record my good days and bad days and why each was the way it was. As of this morning, I’d had three hundred and ten consecutive good days. Three hundred and ten.”
When she dropped her gaze again, she realized she’d fisted her hands so tightly her knuckles had gone white.
Dr. Hansen gave her a few seconds to collect herself, then asked gently, “What happened this morning?”
She hesitated. “I fell.”
He checked the file, then said in that same placid, calming tone, “You told the police you were pushed.”
“I was confused. I hit my head.” She touched the knot on her temple as if to prove it. Damn it, she shouldn’t have to prove anything to him.
But she did, if she wanted to go home, and she did want to go home, even if it meant lying. She’d told the police and the first doctor who had examined her that she’d been pushed into the road.
It hadn’t gone over well.
She ducked her chin. She would not give him reason to call her paranoid. “Maybe some snow slid off the trees and hit me in the back. The sun was warming things up pretty good.”
She lifted her head. “Or maybe I just stumbled. That’s how I ended up in the road.” Desperately, she tried to give him a reassuring grin. It wobbled and she gave up. “I did not throw myself over a cliff on purpose.”
To her surprise, he smiled back. “Good.”
She rolled her shoulder, feeling the tension easing out. He believed her. Didn’t he?
He made a few notes on her file and then raised his head. “What were you thinking about before you fell?”
“Todd’s Christmas present. My son, he’s eight. I was deciding what to get him.”
He made a sympathetic noise. “Tough age to buy for. Young enough he still wants all the good kids’ toys, but too old to admit it.”
“Exactly.” She couldn’t believe he understood. Maybe there was more to him than a pretty face. “You have kids?”
“No, but I was one once. And I know how little boys’ minds work. I am male.”
Surprising herself, she swept her eyes from his broad shoulders to his lean waist, long legs and back up again.
It had been a long time since she’d noticed that about anyone.
“So what did you decide on?” He grinned at her. She couldn’t decide if he knew exactly what she’d been thinking or if he was really as innocently naive as he seemed.
“I didn’t,” she explained, heat rising to her cheeks. Focus. She needed to focus on the conversation. She had no business noticing anything about this man. He was a doctor. The doctor who held the power to declare her sane or crazy. “I was wishing my husband were there. He would know what to get.”
“How did it make you feel that he wasn’t there?”
She snorted, suddenly disappointed in Dr. Handsome. “Oh, please. Not the ‘how did it make you feel’ question. How do you think it made me feel?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Have you ever been married?”
“Maybe if you had, you’d have some inkling of what it means to be twenty-five years old, with a four-year-old baby and to lose all the family you have, not to mention the man you love, the only man you’ve ever been with, without warning. Until then, don’t pretend to understand what I do or don’t feel about my dead husband.”
He stilled the pencil he’d been twirling between his fingers and looked her right in the eye. “Well said, and with lots of feeling. You’re very good. How many doctors have you used that shtick on?”
The accusation took her aback. Until she recognized it as the truth. “A few.”
“Did it work?”
“More times than not.”
He strolled toward her, his tongue in his cheek. “Then you’ve been seeing the wrong doctors.”
He locked his golden gaze on hers and she couldn’t look away.
“Let’s try this again,” he said, towering over her. “How were you feeling just before you fell?”
The irrational urge to run swept over her. He was too close. Physically and emotionally. He smelled like Polo cologne.
And tasted like fear. Her fear.
She was not crazy. She wouldn’t let anyone say she was.
“If you want me to say I was depressed, you can go to hell,” she said.
“Been there. Didn’t care for it.” His face remained impassive, but his eyes changed. Cool intellect gave way to a dark, hot fury that burned somewhere deep inside him. The kind of fury only someone who has suffered could feel.
“Me neither,” she said. “Depression was my hell. I almost had to die to do it, but I escaped. I won’t ever go back.”
He looked away as if he suddenly found their linked gazes too intimate. “You’re one of the lucky ones, then.”
“I am.” She touched the scars on his right forearm and he flinched as though she’d burned him. “What about you?”
“I’m working on it.” He raised his head, cupped her chin and looked into her eyes again, his own fires now banked. “I—” His fingers tightened on her face. “Damn.”
“Did the ER doctor give you something when he treated you? Pain medication? A sedative?”
“Your pupils are big as dinner plates.” He let her go and cursed again. “I can’t sign off on the evaluation if you’re medicated.”
She followed him when he turned his back and marched away. “I don’t need to be evaluated. I just need to go home. To my son. Please.”
He groaned like a man in pain. “I can’t. I have to talk to you when your head is clear. I can’t afford to mess this up. Director Serrat—”
He stiffened, and she knew she’d made a mistake mentioning her uncle. His boss.
He picked up his jacket and shrugged into it without turning. “I’ll come back to finish the evaluation tomorrow.”
“Let me go home and I’ll come to you in Belier in the morning.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just can’t risk it.”
Understanding exploded with a burst of bitterness on her tongue. “Worried about my life or your career?”
“Neither,” he said stiffly. “You have a son.”
Rage rose to the surface. “I would never hurt my son. Never!”
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He headed toward the door, but stopped just inside, shoulders stiff.
“Wait. Please!” Desperation propelled her across the room after him. She stopped just short of touching him, her arm extended.
“Tomorrow,” he said without turning. “Try to get some rest. I’ll be back early.”
He was gone before she could argue. Before she could plead.
Alone again, Mia propped her hips on the edge of the bed, fighting back the desperation. The humiliation.
Maybe he was right. Maybe they were all right, and she’d imagined someone else with her on the bluff. A sinister shadow behind her.
Three hundred and ten days, she thought, her eyes welling with tears. She’d had three hundred and ten good days.
And tomorrow, she’d have to start over again at one.
Ty felt like a heel as he left the Eternal Emergency Care Clinic. Not because he’d admitted Mia Serrat for overnight observation when she so clearly wanted to go home—standard procedure was standard procedure, and he dared follow nothing but when the patient was Karl Serrat’s niece. There was also her son’s safety to think about.
What troubled him was the niggle of pleasure he’d felt at the knowledge that, by admitting her, he’d have to see her again in the morning.
She was a patient, for Christ’s sake. He knew better than to think of her in any other terms.
She was also a woman, though. A spirited, strong-willed, self-reliant woman.
Exactly the kind of woman he liked.
Shivering, he turned the heater on full blast in his ancient VW Beetle and pulled out onto Highway 18 toward Belier. Snow swirled furiously around his little car, falling faster now than when he’d driven in, and whipped into a frenzy by a fierce north wind. Windshield wipers and headlights hardly penetrated the miasma.
He leaned forward, peering into the blizzard to make out the road, but instead he kept seeing her defiant green eyes, the determined set to her full lips.
He shook his head at himself. Mia Serrat was completely off-limits.
She also had a history of mental illness. She’d backed off her story about being pushed off the bluff this morning without argument, but she wasn’t convinced. He could see it in her eyes. She just knew the psychiatry game well enough to know better than to sound paranoid.
The sooner she was out of his life, the better.
Still, she pulled at him on a lot of different levels. Sure, she was beautiful. But she’d also overcome a lot of tragedy. She was a survivor, Mia Serrat. No way a woman trying to pick out a Christmas present for her kid had tried to kill herself. Suicidal people didn’t make plans for a future they wouldn’t be around to see.
On his left a steep rock wall angled back from the roadway. He slowed, squinting up at what he could see of Shilling’s Bluff. On impulse he swerved to the shoulder, parked and got out for a closer look.
More than the cold made him shiver as he stared up at the rough slope. How the hell had she come down that and into a busy road without being seriously hurt?
It would, he thought, be a good place to kill someone.
He crossed the road and found a trail in the woods to one side of the bluff. Without stopping to question why, he climbed to the top.
He knelt. Lots of footprints in the snow here. Rounded and shallow as the wind smoothed off the edges and new snow filled the impressions, but definitely more than one person’s prints. Someone could have waited. Hidden in the trees—
His cell phone chirped, nearly sending him headfirst over the edge of the cliff.
He stood and turned away from the precipice to answer. His mother’s voice screeched at him across the line.
“Ty-baby? Is that you? You sound like you’re sitting on the wing of an airplane.”
He capped one ear with his hand. “I’m outside, Ma. It’s windy.”
“Outside?” she chattered. “In this weather? You’ll catch your death. What are you doing outside?”
He looked over his shoulder at the bluff, the nothingness beyond. What the hell was he doing? Trying to prove that Mia Serrat was as stable as she seemed? That she hadn’t imagined someone pushing her?
Or trying to eliminate one of his reasons for keeping her at arm’s length?
He swore and pulled his collar up as he started back toward his car. It was friggin’ freezing out here. Sure there were lots of footprints. The sheriff’s deputies would have checked out the scene after the accident.
“I’m headed back in, Ma. What did you need?”
He could hear Beethoven’s Fifth playing in the background. It always played in the background.
“I was thinking you could come see me this weekend,” she said, her voice more like a child’s than a mother’s now. “Maybe stay a little longer, even.”
His shoulders tensed. “I have a lot of work, Ma. Besides, you have an appointment with Dr. Calvin.”
“You’re a doctor. You can look after me.”
His free hand fisted in the pocket of his coat. He struggled to keep his voice steady. “I’m a resident, Ma. You know what that means? It means I have no life. No time. It means if I don’t keep my mind one-hundred-percent on the job, I might never be a doctor for real. Do you understand?”
“I could cook for you.” Her voice took on a dreamy tone. “I bet you haven’t had a decent meal in months. Do you remember when we used to make cookies together? I’d mix the batter and you’d lick the bowl?”
Ty bit his tongue. She’d never baked cookies for him in his life. Much less fixed him a decent meal. But she didn’t know that. She thought all her little imaginings were fact.
For a moment, he almost wished it were true—that his childhood had been idyllic. That he’d been her golden child and she’d been his storybook-perfect mother.
Only for a moment, though. If his mom hadn’t been the way she was when he was a kid, he wouldn’t have become the man he was now. What better motivation was there for becoming a psychiatrist than growing up in the clutches of a crazy mother?
Intellectually, he knew that her psychosis was a disease, an illness she hadn’t asked for and couldn’t prevent, but as a kid he’d only known the effect, not the cause. He’d known her mood swings, her temper. His mother had been sick, but too often, he’d been the one to suffer.
And yet, she was still his mother. He’d never been able to turn his back on her. Not completely. He closed his eyes. “Sure, we can do it again sometime,” he said softly. “But not right now, okay? I just don’t have time to b—”
He stopped himself just short of saying babysit.
“—to be with you. I should have a break around the end of the month. I’ll drive out for the day.”
“Only for a day? But I miss you, My Ty.”
He reached his car and ratcheted the door open with numb fingers. His stomach tightened. The assisted-living complex she lived in was only about ten miles from here. She was his mother, and she was lonely.
He was a doctor and he had responsibilities. He had patients to see and a whole caseload of patient files to update before 8:00 a.m.
“Look, Ma, I gotta go,” he said, ashamed to feel grateful for the Kaiser’s last-minute assignment, but grateful all the same. He just didn’t have the time, or the mental energy. Not right now. “I’ll try to get out there next week.”
He hung up without waiting for her acknowledgment. He folded himself into his car, blew on his hands and rubbed them together, wishing he could warm the cold knot of guilt in his chest as easily as he could warm his frozen fingers.
He started the car.
He’d give her a call and have a long chat when he got a break tomorrow, he promised himself.
Day after that, at the latest.
Mia jogged along the trail at the top of the bluff, her muscles burning, blood singing, breath puffing in front of her face. The view was beautiful from up here. The snow on the trees, the roads winding toward the valley, the village—
A hand hit her in the back. She felt the impression of the palm distinctly. Five fingers.
Falling. Pounding against rocks. Grating against frozen earth. Pavement—
Mia lurched to wakefulness, her heart pounding.
But she wasn’t on Shilling’s Bluff. Wasn’t falling into the road with a pickup truck bearing down on her.
She was in her hospital room. In the dark.
Her mouth was dry, so she sat up to search the bedside table for water. She could make out a chair beside the bed and a monitor—not active, thank goodness—on a cart across the room. A slice of light angled in through a narrow window on the door.
Her heart stalled, then raced as she stared at the door. She couldn’t see the handle.
She had to know.
Silently she slipped out of bed and padded into the light. Holding her breath she reached for the doorknob and turned it.
Her breath exploded in relief. For a minute she’d thought…
But, no. Thankfully, she’d been wrong. It wasn’t locked.
She should go back to bed. There was no reason to worry. She wasn’t a prisoner here, she hadn’t been involuntarily committed. She’d agreed—albeit with little real choice in the matter—to stay for observation of her own accord. In the morning, she’d make nice with Dr. Handsome and be on her way. She had to be calm. Composed.
Unfortunately there was nothing rational about the fear skittering up her spinal column like a monkey on a vine. Or about her growing certainty that her fall hadn’t been an accident, despite what anyone else thought.
She hadn’t slipped; she’d been pushed.
Was she losing it again? Going crazy?
She couldn’t. Wouldn’t let herself.
She glanced at the bed, but the restlessness inside her wouldn’t let her sleep. What was the point of lying there and worrying?
She raised up on her toes and looked out the narrow window in the door. The nurses’ station down the hall sat abandoned. Silently she pushed the door open and padded toward the desk. Maybe her medical chart would hold some clue as to what had really happened. At the very least it would tell her what the doctors—Ty Hansen, in particular—were thinking about her.
Tightening the drawstring on her yellow flannel pajamas, she shuffled over to the cluttered workstation. On the upper level of the desk area, coffee rings topped untidy stacks of folders. Yellow sticky notes and phone message slips papered the lower tier.
Mia fingered the files until she found what she was looking for. She scanned the pages quickly. History of depression. Prior commitment to a mental-health facility. Mother-in-law concerned about her current state of mind.
Before she had a chance to read exactly what Nana had told the doctor, a shuffling sound around the corner caught her attention.
Fear paralyzed her until it was too late to scurry back to her room unseen. She wouldn’t have worried about being caught by a nurse or orderly, but these footsteps didn’t sound as if they belonged to a hospital employee. They were too slow, too measured.
It seemed almost as if the person around the corner was sneaking down the hallway. Toward her.
Maybe she really was paranoid. She debated standing her ground, but gave in to fear, the memory of this morning’s shove firm in her mind—and on her back.
Out of time, she ducked behind the nurses’ counter. The footsteps shuffled slowly closer, but didn’t turn at the intersection of the two hallways. Instead they moved forward.
Toward the door to her room.
Heart thundering so loudly she thought surely whoever was out there would hear it, she raised up high enough to peek over the counter.
A slight man in baggy black sweatpants and an oversized black jacket stood outside her door. He looked over his shoulder as if to check whether he’d been seen. The hooded jacket hid his face, but Mia saw menace in the stoop of his shoulders, his careful step.
She held her breath as he pulled a vial out of his pocket. He uncapped a syringe with his mouth, drew the contents from the vial and tapped the bubbles to the top of the syringe. When he turned to check over his shoulder one more time, Mia ducked again.
That was no doctor. Even if it was, Dr. Hansen said she wasn’t to be medicated.
A feeling that something was very, very wrong crept over her. The intruder turned his back to her and flattened a hand on the door to her room, easing it open.
She hugged the wall with her back, then slid sideways, away from her room. Away from that man.
She was just about to turn the corner when her foot connected with the ball on a rolling chair. The chair clattered and crashed into the desk.
The intruder turned.
Mia gave in to panic and ran. Her bare feet slapped the cold tile, her footsteps in synch with the squeak of the intruder’s sneakers as he followed her. She banged open the door to an emergency stairway and launched herself toward the ground floor.
Even as she ran she realized she should scream. Find someone to help her. But the sound froze in her throat.
She’d screamed before. No one had heard her. Or if they had, they hadn’t cared.
The Eternal Emergency Care Clinic operated overnight with a skeleton staff. Most patients in need of extended treatment transferred to larger hospitals in Belier or Kyacy. Rarely did a patient stay overnight.
The building was virtually empty, except for her and a man with a syringe.
Mia ran faster.
The door to the stairwell clacked open behind her. Footsteps matched her hurried descent. She stopped at the ground floor and pushed through the exit.
A blast of frigid air hit her like a slap in the face. She had no way of knowing what time it was, but it was still dark. In the distance, a single streetlight lit the empty parking area. Drifting snow danced in its glow.
Mia backed inside the building and let the door close. She couldn’t go out there. She had no coat, no shoes. The parking lot was empty, the street deserted. Who knew how far she would have to run before she found help in a sleepy little village like Eternal?
A hysterical laugh bubbled out of her. She might be crazy, but she wasn’t stupid.
Hugging herself, she hurried down the final flight of stairs to what appeared to be the basement. There was no sign of the man chasing her, but he was coming. She could feel it. Gooseflesh bubbled on her skin.
Maybe she had imagined it, the way she had imagined someone pushing her on the bluff.
Somewhere above her, a door creaked open.
Giving in to her dread, she raced through a door marked Cafeteria. She yanked open drawers in the empty kitchen until she found a knife and then settled herself between a huge stainless-steel double sink and a stand of metal shelves.
She didn’t know who was after her, or why. If he really even existed or if he was a figment of her imagination, a bump on the head and medication.
But real or not, she was going to be ready.
About the time he pulled into the parking lot of the Eternal Emergency Care Clinic, Ty could have used a couple of toothpicks to hold his eyelids up. With the help of two pots of coffee and a Red Bull, he’d managed to land his updated patient-care charts in the Kaiser’s inbox just shy of 6:00 a.m. The winds had died down since last night and the snowplows had cleared the roads, so he’d made good time from Belier. Now all he had to do was give the good Ms. Serrat the once-over—professionally speaking, of course—and send her on her way, and with any luck her uncle Karl would have no cause to send his career down in flames.
Maybe he’d even get in a little catnap before his shift at the hospital.
A sheriff’s cruiser sat cockeyed in front of the employee entrance. Funny. He’d noticed another out front.
His guard was up a little, and the difference in atmosphere struck him like a slap when he walked into the corridor. Groups of orderlies huddled in the hall, their eyes darting back and forth as they whispered. A couple of pale-faced nurses tapped anxiously on each door as they moved away from Ty, opening and entering each room before coming back out and shaking their heads. A uniformed deputy strolled along behind, a hint of boredom barely showing beneath his stone-faced expression.
Ty tapped a nurse he recognized from last night on the shoulder. “What’s going on?”
She grabbed him by the elbows. “Oh, thank God you’re here. We’ve lost your patient.”
“What do you mean, lost her?”
“I mean she’s gone. Her bed was empty when the floor nurse went in for morning rounds.”
The blood drained from Ty’s head. “Have you called her family? Maybe she skipped out and went home.”
“We checked. They haven’t seen her. Her mother-in-law and uncle are on their way here.”
Great. Maybe he’d been premature in his prediction that his career would last another week.
“She can’t have gone far,” the nurse continued. “Her clothes and shoes are still in the closet in her room. She has to be in the building somewhere.”
Reflexively, Ty stole a glance out the glass door at the snow beyond and shivered. The mentally ill sometimes didn’t feel physical discomfort until it was too late. If she had left the building…
He threw his coat over the nurses’ counter and raked a hand through his uncombed hair. “All right. What areas have you searched so far?”
“Her whole floor. The common areas on other floors, waiting rooms, doctors’ lounges and such. The main lobby and the second-floor patient rooms.”
“So that leaves intensive care—I doubt she’s there, there are enough staff around someone would have noticed—the first-floor patient rooms and the basement.”
“We just sent a group to the first floor to look. The graveyard shift stayed over to search, and the morning crew is helping out, too. Everyone we can spare. They’ve got all the main floors covered.”
“Guess that leaves us with the basement, then.”
He gestured toward the stairwell and strode off after her. At least he wasn’t sleepy any longer. Amazing what a jolt of adrenaline could do to the human body.
The high he was riding didn’t subside, even after twenty minutes of searching for his wayward patient.
There was only one area left to search down here—the kitchen. Ahead a faint gruelish smell filtered around a stainless-steel swinging door.
He threw a glance at Nurse Renee. “Let’s go.”
His heart sank when they walked into the kitchen. A couple of cooks in grease-stained white aprons shuffled about, clanging pots and pans. Mia couldn’t be here; she would have been spotted. Maybe she really had left the building, in which case she was out in the snow, coatless and shoeless somewhere. He’d seen stranger things as a psychiatrist, but none had given him quite the same feeling of dread as picturing Mia shivering and alone did now.
“Mia?” he called out, helplessness loud and clear in his voice.
The cooks stopped and stared at him.
He walked down the aisle between stoves and sinks, looking left and right, studying. Ahead, the kitchen bent around in a narrow L shape. A row of stainless-steel cutting tables and cabinets lined one side of the room.
From beneath one of the tables, five bare toes wiggled against the tile floor.
“Mia?” Barely aware of the nurse jogging behind him, Ty hurried to where Mia sat huddled on the floor, but made himself slow down before he squatted next to her. He didn’t want to startle her.
When he did lower himself to her level, he was the one who startled.
Both hands wrapped around the handle, she clasped a butcher knife against her chest.
Though his heart thundered in his chest, he forced a professional calm into his voice. “Hey, what’cha doing down here?”
She blinked, her eyes vacant.
“Mia? Are you okay?”
This time he got a twitch out of her. A tiny sign of recognition.
“Can you tell me what you’re doing here?” He made no move toward her. Not with that knife so close to her heart.
Her lips trembled. “There was a…There was a man.”
“A man where?”
“In my room.”
“In your hospital room? Upstairs?”
She nodded, the movement jerky. At least he could see her breathing now, and a spot of color had returned to her cheeks.
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know. He was dressed all in black. He had a hood.” Her gaze jumped up to his, suddenly electric. “He was going to hurt me.”
Damn. How could he have been so wrong about her? She’d seemed so stable yesterday, despite her confusion about being pushed down the bluff. That could be written off as a normal defensive mechanism. He wanted to write it off.
He wanted her to be normal.
But the paranoid delusion she described was anything but normal. Hiding beneath a stainless-steel counter with a butcher knife before dawn was anything but normal.
A knot tightened in his chest as he realized how long and painful the road to recovery would be for a person with an illness like this. And not just for her, but for her family, too. She had a son, she’d said.
“Mia, why don’t you put down the knife and we can talk about it, okay?”
Confusion clouded her green eyes. She glanced down, and looked at the weapon she held as if she’d never seen it before, hadn’t realized she held it. Her eyes went wide. The blade clattered to the floor.
Moving slowly, Nurse Renee leaned in and slid it away.
“There, that’s better.” Ty slowly raised his hand toward Mia. She hesitated to take his hand, to trust him, but he waited out her reluctance. Her shock.
What he wouldn’t give for a shower and a clean shirt. Yesterday’s clothes were getting a little ripe. He wouldn’t be leaving here for some time, though. When he did go, Mia Serrat would be going back to the Massachusetts Hospital of Mental Health with him—as a patient.
And she knew it—her green eyes had gone so dark they were almost black. He steeled himself against the urge to comfort her, to tell her everything would be all right. She had to face her illness, and he had to help her do it.
This was why he’d gotten into medicine. Into psychiatry. Because of people like Mia. People like his mother. Good people who needed help.
He just hadn’t known how it would eat his gut.
“Come on,” he urged. “Why don’t we go somewhere a little more comfortable and you can tell me what happened?”
Ten minutes later, Mia was tucked back between her covers with a mug of steaming tea and Dr. Handsome was perched on a stool next to the bed.
“You don’t believe me,” she said flatly.
“I’m just trying to understand—”
“Huh.” She gulped a mouthful of air. “Don’t give me the psychobabble. I’ve heard it all before.”
He raked a hand through his hair and stretched his back. “Okay, why do you think someone would want to hurt you?”
She cut him a sideways glance. “Oh, now you believe there is a man?”
“Just go with me here.”
She sighed, a wistful breath of air that rippled the tea. The steam above the mug swirled. “I don’t know.”
“Did he say anything?”
“No. He didn’t see me. Not at first.”
“How could he not see you?”
“I wasn’t in my room. I was in the hall…. Oh, what’s the use.”
“No, go ahead. You were in the hall.”
She blew on her tea and took a sip. “He stopped outside my door and looked around like, to see if anyone was watching.”
The doctor scrubbed his hands over his face. He looked tired, and he was wearing the same clothes he’d had on yesterday. “Are you sure it wasn’t a doctor? You were tired and had hit your head. Maybe you just thought—”
“How many doctors do you know that wear black hoodies pulled way up over their faces when they’re making rounds?”
“So you’re basing your assumption that someone is trying to kill you on one person’s bad choice of clothing?”
“He pulled a syringe out of his pocket!” She set her tea on the bedside table and crossed her arms over her chest. “Didn’t you tell me you left orders that I wasn’t to be given any medications so that you could clear me for release in the morning?”
He just stared at her, his eyes unreadable. Tired, but unreadable. The doctor look. She hated it.
“Fine,” she spat out and threw her head back on the pillow. “It was all my imagination.”
“Telling me what you think I want to hear.”
“Well you didn’t seem too pleased to hear the truth.”
“That someone is trying to kill you.”
“Well I’m not going to say that I was trying to kill myself.”
“I found you holding a knife to your chest.”
“For protection! Someone tried to kill me twice in one day!”
He frowned. “You said you slipped and fell off the bluff.”
“Then, I was telling you what you wanted to hear. Now, I’m telling you the truth.”
“How am I supposed to know which is the truth and which is the lie?”
She gritted her teeth, clenched her fists and groaned, then sank back against the bed, deflated. “Shrinks.”
He opened his mouth. She cut him off fast and hard. “Don’t you dare ask me how I feel about shrinks.”
He feigned innocence. “I was going to ask you if you’d like some more tea. Yours is cold by now.”
Terrific. A little humiliation to go with her mortification.
“No, thank you.”
He straightened and took a deep breath. She braced herself—she knew what that meant.
“Look, I think you should come to the MHMH for a few days. Straighten out in your head what really happened and didn’t happen yesterday and last night.”
Someone had dropped a bowling ball on her stomach. “No!”
He reached over and covered her clenched hand with his. His palm was warm, slightly rough. She jerked from beneath his touch.
“I’m afraid I have to insist,” he said.
She bolted upright in bed. She’d known this was coming, and still she wasn’t prepared. “You can’t do this!”
“On the contrary.” He stood, his shoulders rounded. “It’s my job to do this, whether I like it or not.” The expression on his face made her believe that in this case, he definitely did not. It was small comfort.
Every nerve in her body jumped. She was on fire. She licked her lips. “Look, you’re probably right. I slipped and fell on the bluff. And last night, I—I had a headache and I don’t sleep well in hospitals. It was probably just a nightmare. I didn’t really see anything at all. I overreacted a little.”
He stopped at the door. “I really hope that’s all it was. But I have to be sure.” His lips pressed together. “Not just for your sake, but for your son’s.”
If there was one thing in the world he could have said that would set her back, make her think about what was happening to her, that was it.
If there really was something wrong with her, it wasn’t Todd’s fault. From the moment he’d been born, she’d vowed to protect him. Protect him she would—even if it was from herself.
Tears welled in her eyes. Dr. Handsome stayed in the door, looking torn.
“We’ll work it out,” he said quietly. “Don’t give up.”
Then he was gone.
Work it out? Hell, what was there to work out if she was losing her mind?
Ty slapped the vending machine on the side trying to eke a few more drops of stale coffee into the paper cup.
“They’re waiting for you,” Nurse Renee said from behind.
He grabbed the cup, downed half, and turned. “I know.”
She grimaced. “How do you think they’re going to take the news?”
“Oh, about like a bad case of the stomach flu.”
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