Authors: Joan Hohl
he was a mess.
Royce Wolfe clenched his teeth and gave another yank on the driver's-side door of the mangled sports car. A grunt of satisfaction vibrated his throat as the door popped open. The interior light flashed on. Pushing the door back, he stepped into the opening.
The woman was slumped over the steering wheel, her face concealed by a mass of long, dark red hair. A frown of annoyed disapproval tugged at his brows and lips.
She was not wearing the seat belt.
Royce shook his head and reached inside, grimacing at the faint but unmistakable scent of alcohol. Booze and rain-slick roads were a deadly combination.
Brushing the long tresses aside, he pressed his fingertips to her throat. The pulse was rapid, but strong.
The deflated air bag, now draped limply over the wheel, had very likely saved her life.
The woman moaned, and her eyelashes fluttered.
“It's all right,” Royce said, giving her shoulder a comforting pat. “Help's on the way,” he assured her, catching the sound of sirens in the distance, swiftly approaching from opposite directions.
“Wha-what hap—?” The woman blinked, then squeezed her eyes shut, in obvious pain.
“You went off the road,” Royce said, answering her unfinished question. “Crashed into the guardrail.”
And you were going like hell.
Royce kept the disgusted observation to himself. The information would go into his report, but right now, she had enough to contend with.
A drop of water fell from the wide brim of his hat and splashed onto her pale cheek. The woman flinched. Royce pulled back, away from the opening. Cold rain pattered on his hat and slicker.
March. Where was spring?
Royce shivered, and shifted his bleak gaze, first back the way he had come, then toward town. The wail of the sirens was louder, closer, as the vehicles converged, lights flashing atop the ambulance and police car.
Well, at least it isn't snow, he thought, shooting a glance at the woman as the vehicles came to a screeching stop—the ambulance facing him, opposite the sports car, the other vehicle, Pennsylvania State Police emblazoned on its side, directly behind his own car.
“She's alive,” Royce said to the paramedic who jumped from the driver's side.
“What you got here, Sergeant?” the police officer asked, loping up to Royce.
“Hi, Evans,” Royce said, acknowledging him. “Female, all alone,” he said, sending a spray of rainwater flying with a jerk of his head toward the car. “Shot out of Pine Tree Drive, back there.” Water ran in a narrow stream from the brim of his hat as he inclined his head to indicate the side road, less than a quarter of a mile back. “Cut right in front of me, doing at least seventy. She lost it almost at once. I had no sooner taken off after her in pursuit when she plowed into the rail.”
“Drinking?” Evans asked, stepping closer to the sports car to give it the once-over.
“I caught a whiff of alcohol.” Royce shrugged. “But I don't know if it was above the legal level.” He raised his voice to the two paramedics working to ease the woman from the car. “You guys come across a purse?”
“Yeah,” the man who had entered the vehicle from the passenger side replied. “Just found it.” He handed it to the man outside, who passed it to Royce.
“Thanks,” he muttered. “Can you tell if she's going to be all right?”
“Can't see anything major from here,” the paramedic said. “Won't know for sure until we get her out of here and back to the hospital.”
“Need the jaws?” Royce asked, referring to the jawlike apparatus used to pry mangled metal apart, commonly called the Jaws of Life.
“Naw,” he said. “She's regaining consciousness, and if she can move to help, there's enough room for her to slide out from between the wheel and the seat.” The man ran a quick glance over the front of the car. “But I'm certain you're gonna need a wrecker for this heap.”
“Yeah.” Royce shared the man's opinion.
“I'll call for one, and get some flares set up,” Evans offered, turning away. He took two steps, then turned back, a frown drawing his brows together. “Didn't you go off duty at eleven, Sergeant?”
“Supposed to,” Royce answered. “I stayed to finish some paperwork, left the barracks around eleven-thirty. I was on my way home when this lady cut out of the road in front of me.” While he was speaking, he kept an eye on the paramedics, monitoring their progress as they transferred the woman from the car to a gurney, then to the rear of the ambulance.
“How's she doing?” he asked.
“Okay,” one of the men answered. “She managed to slide out, but she's lost consciousness again.”
A gust of wind blew rain under the wide brim of his hat and into his face. Royce shivered.
“Why don't you go on home now?” Evans suggested. “I'll ask for assistance when I call for a wrecker, then I'll go on in to the hospital.”
The rear ambulance door thunked shut. Royce started for his car, shaking his head. “Night like this, we need every man on the roads.” He opened the door, shucked out of his slicker, then slid behind the wheel. It felt good to get out of the stiff coat and the pouring rain. “You wait here for the wrecker,” he said, tossing the woman's purse and his hat onto the passenger's seat. “I'll follow the ambulance into town. I live only a couple of blocks away from the hospital. I'll go home after I've talked to the woman, and I'll file a report in the morning.”
“Whatever you say, Sergeant.” Evans sketched a salute of thanks for being spared the chore of the extra paperwork, then strode to his car.
Royce tailed the ambulance into the small town of Conifer, Pennsylvania, and pulled alongside the covered, brightly lit entrance to Conifer General Hospital's emergency unit, where the ambulance had parked.
Having been alerted to expect an accident victim, a nurse and two orderlies were awaiting their arrival. Since Royce's assistance was obviously not required, he took a few minutes to fish the woman's wallet from her purse before stepping out of the car. Flipping it open, he read the information on her driver's license.
The first thing that caught his eye was her picture. It was not great, yet even with the inferior quality of the photograph, she was clearly not unattractive. Then his eyes shifted to her name.
Megan Delaney. Nice name, Royce thought absently, his eyes moving up the laminated card, past the issue date, to the medical restrictions. Must wear corrective lenses. Hmm... There had been no sign of glasses when he brushed her hair away from her face. Had they flown off on impact, or was she wearing contact lenses? Check it out.
His eyes moved again, skimming over the expiration date, classes, endorsements and driver ID number, and came to rest on birth date.
The woman was twenty-seven years and three months old—eight years his junior.
Old enough to know better than to drink and drive, Royce thought, especially on a rain-slick road.
His eyes skipped over the top line of information, and settled on one tiny section. Blue eyes. Big surprise, for a redhead he reflected, closing the wallet.
Royce glanced up at the sound of the automatic entrance doors swishing open. With the nurse leading the way, the orderlies were pushing the gurney into the building. Gripping the purse, he stepped out of the car, gave a casual wave to the paramedics and followed the group inside.
“Hey, Sarge!” a fresh-faced young nurse called out cheekily from behind the desk just inside the doors. “Don't tell me you've given up the desk job to go back on road duty again!”
“Okay, I won't tell you that,” Royce drawled, flashing a teasing grin at her. “You want to hit the release?” he said, inclining his head toward the second set of automatic doors, which for safety reasons were activated by buttons accessible only to hospital personnel.
The doors parted, and with a murmured thank-you, Royce stepped through the opening.
you back on highway duty?” the nurse called after him.
Royce paused in the opening, keeping the doors apart. “No,” he answered. “I was on my way home when this woman crashed into the guardrail. And, since I was coming into town anyway...” He shrugged.
“Gotcha.” The nurse turned her attention to a man who came limping up to the desk, but slyly observed, “By the way, Sarge, I must tell you that your red handbag definitely clashes with your uniform.”
Responding to her teasing comment with a dry look, Royce continued past the doors, which closed behind him, and to the doorway of a long room containing a row of curtained cubicles. The orderlies were pushing the now-empty gurney from the last cubicle.
“Hi, Sarge,” one of the men said as Royce passed by on his way to the cubicle. “Haven't seen you in here for a while. Where have you been hiding out?”
“Behind a desk,” Royce answered. “Where it's dry and warm. No mangled bodies. No blood. No gore.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” the other man said, grinning. As he pushed the gurney through the doorway, he called over his shoulder, “I just love your purse.”
“Yeah.” Royce didn't return the grin or respond to the good-natured gibe as he normally would have. This little jaunt to the hospital stirred too many unpleasant memories, strongly reminding him of his reasons for having accepted the desk job when it was offered to him six months ago.
Royce was a good cop. If pressed, he would have had to admit, without exaggeration or conceit, that he was a damn good cop. But, with over ten years with the state police, investigating robberies, working on drug busts and patrolling the highways, he had had his fill of trips to the hospital with torn, bleeding and sometimes dead bodies.
The day would come when, restless and tired of pushing papers, Royce would request a transfer back to highway patrol. But until that day arrived, he'd just as soon avoid the distinctive scents of disinfectant and medicine.
Royce wrinkled his nose at the assault on his senses by the familiar smell, and shoved the curtain aside.
“Doc Louis not here, Jill?” he asked the nurse, a middle-aged woman who had been on duty in Emergency for as long as he had been on duty in the Conifer district. She was standing by the gurney where the woman lay, taking her pulse.
The nurse frowned, concentrating on the pulse count. “Busy down the line,” she said, gently laying the woman's arm by her side. “He's stitching a head wound.”
“No.” Jill gave him a tired smile, and a shrug of resignation. “Knife fight in a barroom. As you can see, we're pretty busy, and stretched mighty thin. Dr. Hawk's splinting a finger—a slightly inebriated teenager slammed a car door on it.” She sighed. “Just the usual Friday-night fun and games.”
“Yeah.” Royce grimaced.
The nurse frowned. “What are you doing here? I thought you were riding a desk now.”
“I am.” Royce suppressed his growing impatience; he was getting pretty tired of answering the same question. “I just happened to be close by when the lady decided to test the strength of the guardrail.” He shifted his eyes to the ashen-faced woman. “She all right?”
“Looks like all surface injuries. A few cuts, abrasions, bruises—a lot of bruises—but...” She lifted her shoulders in another shrug. “I'm sure the doctor will want X rays after a more thorough examination.”
The woman on the gurney moaned.
Jill gave her a sharp-eyed look. “She's coming around. If you'll stay here with her, make sure she doesn't roll off the gurney—” she moved past him “—I'll go see if I can take over for one of the doctors.”
“Will do,” Royce agreed. “Don't stop for a coffee break along the way...okay?”
She grinned at him. “Not even if I bring you a cup on the house?”
“No, thanks.” He grimaced. “I've tasted what that machine passes off as coffee.”
“It grows on you,” she said, laughing, as she pushed aside the curtain.
“That's what I'm afraid of,” he drawled, smiling at her retreating back.
A low moan sounded next to Royce, wiping the smile from his face. Turning, he placed her purse at the bottom end of the gurney, then moved closer to the other end to gaze down at the fragile-looking woman.
She moaned again. Then her eyelashes fluttered and lifted, and he found himself staring into incredibly lovely, if presently clouded, sapphire blue eyes.
The license photo did her a terrible disservice, Royce realized absently. Even with the nasty bruises marring the right side of her face, Megan Delaney was not merely attractive, she was flat-out, traffic-stopping gorgeous.
Facial bruises? Royce frowned, and took a closer look. Why hadn't the air bag protected her from—
She moaned again, louder this time, scattering his thoughts, demanding his full attention.
The clouds of confusion in her eyes were dissipating, and she moved, restlessly, in obvious pain.
Following the nurse's request, Royce stepped closer, until his thigh pressed against the gurney. Bending over her, he placed his right arm on the other side of the gurney to prevent her rolling off, onto the floor.
“It's all—” he began, but that was as far as he got in his attempt to reassure her, because she screamed, drowning the sound of his voice.
“Get away from me!”
Royce started, shocked by the sheer terror evidenced by Megan Delaney's shrill voice and fear-widened eyes. Her hands flew up defensively, and she began striking at his face. One of her fingernails, broken and jagged-edged, caught his skin, scratching his cheek from the corner of his right eye to his jaw.
“What the hell?” he exclaimed, jerking backward and grabbing her wrists to keep her hands still.
She continued to scream, struggling wildly against his hold. “Get away! Don't touch me!”
“What in the world is going on in here, Sergeant Wolfe?” The voice was sharp, authoritative, and definitely female. Recognizing it, Royce sighed with relief.
“Damned if I know, Dr. Hawk,” he answered, shooting a baffled look at her as she came to a stop beside him. “She took one look at me and started screeching like a banshee.” He winced as Megan Delaney let out another piercing cry. “Maybe you can do something with her.” Releasing Megan's wrists, he moved aside to give the doctor access to the patient.