The morning Tess Doe walked naked out of the Half Moon, Iowa, cornfield, psychiatrist Ryan Donovan was three miles away, wolfing down one of Sally Todd’s homemade sugar doughnuts and sipping some of her fresh-brewed coffee.
“You want a dozen of them to go, Doc?” Sally asked, backing out of the kitchen and balancing a huge metal tray of iced apple turnovers in one hand. She set the tray onto the counter and wiped her flour-smudged hands on her apron.
“Alice will kill me if I bring any of that stuff into the office,” Ryan said, using the corner of a paper napkin to swipe at his mouth.
Shortly after meeting him, his new secretary had lamented to every other secretary on their floor that her new boss could eat like a horse and never gain an ounce. Ryan had taken it as fair warning not to bring in the usual office goodies.
“Pish-posh, the girl just needs to accept the fact that she comes from good farm stock. She needs to celebrate her largeness.”
Ryan didn’t have a response to that one. Sometimes Sally’s hometown philosophy wasn’t debatable. He had a feeling this was one of those times.
Sally grabbed a white baker’s bag off the shelf and snapped it open. Before he could stop her, she’d shoved a dozen sugar and bavarian-cream doughnuts inside and set it on the counter in front of him.
“Did you hear those helicopters overhead last night?” she asked.
“Heard something hovering overhead, but I didn’t have time to go look.” Ryan took a sip of coffee. If there was anything Sally Todd liked better than baking, it was exchanging a bit of gossip.
“When I stopped for gas this morning, Gary said he thought he saw an explosion over by the Carson farm,” Sally said. “But by the time he got there it was too dark to see anything.”
“Wonderful,” Ryan said dryly. “Now we’ll have Gary telling everyone that aliens have landed in Half Moon.”
“Don’t be making fun of poor Gary. People are a tad spooked with that research center being here.”
Ryan laughed. “Talk about small town paranoia. All we’re doing is boring pharmaceutical research.”
Before Sally could comment, her phone rang and she reached around to answer it. Ryan pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet, set it on the counter, and picked up the bag of doughnuts. He nodded to Sally, prepared to head out to work. But she waved at him, signaling for him to wait.
A few seconds later, she hung up the phone. “That was the police dispatcher. She said the Chief is looking for you. Wants you to meet him out at the Carson farm.”
Ryan frowned. “Chief Cole wants to see me?”
“Yep, right away.”
Puzzled, Ryan shrugged. “Okay, I’ll head out there.”
He waved and strolled out onto the main street of Half Moon. A few cars and pickup trucks were parked along Station Street, the main drag through town. Most belonged to the store owners that occupied the not-so-bustling shopping strip that made up downtown Half Moon. No large malls or superstores in this tiny town. But Ryan figured he’d adjust. He’d have to.
Two months ago, weary from battling traffic and short-tempered city folks, he had quit his staff position at Boston’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital and returned home to Half Moon, a tiny, rural farming community. It was only luck that his old mentor, Dr. Sidney Bloom, had a position open for him at the Half Moon Research Center, a small, private facility dedicated to neuropsychiatric research.
Ryan shook his head. Who was he kidding? Crowds, traffic and a busy schedule hadn’t prompted his decision to leave. Failure had forced him to leave. There wasn’t much room for a psychiatrist who didn’t know how to function better than a first-year medical student. A psychiatrist who failed his patients.
He breathed deep, tasting the sweet warmth of summer, and raked a restless hand through his hair. Time to quit analyzing everything. Some things were better left alone. Research, not clinical work, was where he needed to concentrate his talents.
He climbed into his dusty BMW and took off out of town. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled up the winding dirt driveway leading to the Carson farm.
On the front lawn, next to one of Betty Carson’s carefully tended flower beds, stood Half Moon’s Chief of Police Ted Cole and Bud Carson. Bud’s expression was worried enough to send a jolt of concern through Ryan. Not much rattled Bud. Not even the night a private patient had left the research facility and climbed through the downstairs window of his house and started cooking scrambled eggs in the Carsons’ kitchen.
Ryan pulled up behind Cole’s truck and jumped out. “Morning, gentlemen. What’s the big emergency?”
Chief Cole scowled. “Another nutcase has escaped from the center and landed in Bud’s cornfield.”
“Chief, people don’t
Chief Cole snorted. “Still means they’re going over the wall, if you ask me.” He nodded his head in Bud Carson’s direction. “The nut job scared the stuffing out of poor Bud here.”
Ryan smiled at the elderly farmer. “You do look a little rattled, Bud.”
Bud ran a gnarled hand through his thinning gray hair. “I have good reason to, Doc. I was out back, taking a look at the corn when I heard something rustling. I looked up and out steps this woman. Damn near dropped my teeth.”
Cole shot a sly sideways grin at his friend and then elbowed him in the side. “She got old Bud’s pulse aracing, too.”
Ryan raised a questioning eyebrow in the farmer’s direction.
“She was buck naked, Doc,” Bud explained. A twinge of red pinked the tip of the man’s ears. “Not a stitch on. Good thing Betty brought me some of that new denture adhesive. Otherwise I might ’ave lost ’em for sure.”
Ryan glanced at the Chief. “I haven’t heard anything about anyone leaving the center without permission. Did you call Dr. Bloom?”
The Chief nodded. “He was too busy to talk to me. I just got some flunky of his. I figured you’d be easier to deal with.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” Ryan said.
After nodding to the two men, Ryan took the wooden porch steps two at a time. As he pulled open the screen door and stepped into the cheery farm kitchen, Betty Carson greeted him. “I’m glad they found you, Ryan. She’s in the living room. Go easy on her. Poor thing is as scared as a newborn baby rabbit.”
Ryan gave Betty a reassuring smile. “I’ll be gentle.”
He stepped around her and walked into the dimly lit living room. Like a lot of farm folks, Betty Carson kept the main part of the house cool by drawing heavy curtains to block the hot morning sun. The front room was dark, the furniture sitting amidst a heavy gloom.
In spite of the poor light, Ryan spotted the woman immediately. She sat in the cushioned easy chair occupying the far corner of the room. She was covered from neck to feet with a hand-stitched quilt-one of Betty’s legendary homemade quilts, no doubt. Her legs were drawn up beneath the blanket, and her chin, small with a slight indentation in it, rested on her knees.
She watched him from beneath a fringe of dark lashes. Lashes so dark they were startling when contrasted with the fall of white-blond hair spread out like a shawl across her slender shoulders.
But it was the wide, iridescent green eyes beneath the straight line of bangs that caught and held his attention, sending a deep and intense awareness shooting through him. He couldn’t help but be struck by her stunning beauty.
“Good morning,” he said softly. “My name is Donovan. Ryan Donovan. I’m a doctor.”
At the word
He smiled. “Good, because I’m in the mood to just talk. Is that all right with you?”
She stared at him in silence, her gaze penetrating, almost haunting in its directness. It seemed to sear him with a heat that was more piercing than twin lasers. But she didn’t lift her head off her knees or make any other move to indicate she was opposed to his suggestion.
Ryan crossed the room, moving slowly, so as not to crowd or frighten her. She followed his progress with her eyes, their color radiating an unblinking brilliance in the dimness of the room. She didn’t seem tense or skittish, simply wary, as if prepared for anything.
He pointed to the couch directly across from her. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
She shrugged. “Do what you like. This isn’t my house.”
Ryan leaned forward to catch her words, the sound so soft and light it was like a breeze brushing past his ear. The effect startled him and he struggled to regain his composure, feeling oddly off balance.
What the hell was going on? He was never rattled when meeting a patient. He was the man always in control, always ready to handle the situation. The interns in the E.R. used to love it when he was the attending on-call and showed up to consult on a case. No matter how off-the-wall the E.R. walk-ins got, the interns knew that Ryan Donovan could handle them without breaking a sweat.
He sat down and crossed one leg over the other, taking a moment to get a feel for the situation. As he slid an arm along the back of the couch, he tried to impart an air of calm he didn’t feel. But the last thing he wanted to do was spook her.
“The Carsons asked me to come because they were concerned that you might be injured.” Ryan waited, but when she didn’t respond, he continued. “They thought you might have been in an accident.”
She shook her head and the perfect cut of bangs ruffled a bit with the movement of her head. They parted to reveal a small cut on her forehead, but it wasn’t bleeding and didn’t appear very deep.
“I don’t think I was in an accident.”
She spoke each word clearly, but there was a slight hesitation, as if she was struggling to form the words before saying them. Perhaps the pause indicated some kind of head trauma, he thought. She seemed oblivious to the cut on her head.
“May I ask your name?”
“Tess.” The small frown was back between her brows, and she looked as though she might have searched for the name, dug it up from somewhere deep inside. “My name is Tess,” she said slowly.
Ryan waited a beat and then asked, “No last name?”
Beneath the quilt, her hands moved, tightening around her knees. “Just Tess.” Her shoulders braced as if anticipating his next question.
Ryan attempted to inject some lightness into the tenseness that hovered between them. “I don’t know too many people who go by only one name.”
She lifted her eyes, her gaze slightly mocking. “Cher. Batman. Garfield.”
He had to laugh. “Okay, you’ve got me there. A famous celebrity and two equally well-known cartoon characters. Are you telling me you’re someone famous?”
She shook her head and the hair shimmered in the soft light. Her chin settled back on top of her knees. “No, I’m not famous.”
“Can you tell me how you got into the Carsons’ cornfield?”
“Yes, but where were you before you walked into the field?”
Ryan tried another tack. “I haven’t seen you around here before. Do you live close by?”
For the first time, she smiled, a slight trembling stretch of her lips, as if she were afraid of him but wanted to come across as compliant. Cooperative. As if she hoped that if she kept things on an even keel, everything would be all right and he’d leave her alone.
“No. I don’t live close by. I’m visiting.”
“Who did you come to visit? Perhaps we could contact them and tell them you’re here.”
She shook her head. “There’s no need. Betty and Bud are out in the kitchen. They know I’m here.”
“You’re here visiting the Carsons?” Try as he might, Ryan couldn’t keep the confusion out of his voice.
“Yes, this is their house.” She sat forward, the tiny frown popping up between two delicately arched eyebrows again. “You didn’t know this was the Carsons’ house? Are you lost?”
Ryan rubbed the side of his jaw. It wasn’t often that patients were able to get around him so easily. “No. I’m not lost. I thought you might be the one who was lost or confused.”
She settled back again and smiled with relief. “No, I’m not lost, either.”
Ryan decided that he needed to get a bit more direct. Otherwise they were going to talk in circles all morning. “You said you were visiting the Carsons. But the Carsons don’t seem to know you. Why would you visit people you don’t know?”
Tess smiled serenely. “New friends are important. Bud and Betty are my new friends.”
Ryan tried to keep his exasperation from showing. “Where specifically were you before you came to Half Moon,” he asked.
“I told you, I was somewhere else.”
Ryan swallowed hard. This was going nowhere. Maybe his ex-boss’s assessment of his clinical skills were right. Perhaps he had lost his touch. “I noticed you have a small cut on your forehead. Did that happen last night?”
Tess stared at him, her emerald-green eyes seeming to cut right through him. “Yes. I tripped and fell in the dark. It’s nothing. A small scratch.”
“I’d like to examine it, if you’ll let me.”
She sighed, a tiny puff of air passing between lush, slightly parted lips. Ryan waited. The corner clock clicked off the minutes as she considered his offer.
Finally she nodded, her gaze still wary. “I guess it would be all right.”
Ryan stood up and moved over next to her. Tess tilted her head back, giving him access to her forehead. He brushed aside her silky bangs, his fingers sliding over her soft skin. Air hissed between her teeth as he touched the edges of the cut.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It-it’s all right. Stings a bit, but you have a very gentle touch.”
Ryan leaned across her. “I’m going to turn on the light so I can see it better.”
She slid an arm out from beneath the blanket and touched him, her fingers resting lightly on his forearm. A shiver shot up his arm and Ryan paused, glancing down into the clear green of her eyes.
“Please, the light hurts my eyes,” she said.
Ryan laid his hand over hers. “It’s important that I check your pupils, Tess. The fall might have given you a concussion.”
She nodded her understanding and slipped her hand from beneath his. Ryan tried to ignore the twinge of regret when she pulled away.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a penlight. A quick check of both pupils told him that in spite of the light hurting, her pupil reaction was fine.
Perhaps a mild concussion. It didn’t exactly explain her extreme mental confusion, unless she’d been in an accident and couldn’t remember the details.
He crouched down in front of her. “Do you know what today’s date is?”
She tilted her head to the side. “I’m sorry. Have
Ryan bit back a grin. “No, Tess. I’m checking to see if you remember. You might have a head injury. I’m checking your memory.”
The frown popped up between her brows again. “But I just told you that I know the date. Don’t you believe me?”
Ryan paused. He didn’t want to anger her or shut her down so that she refused to cooperate. He tried a lighter approach. “Any chance you’d humor me and just tell me the date?”
“Good. Now, can you tell me the capital of Rhode Island?”
A slight twinkle of humor entered those exquisite eyes. “You’re not going to start asking math questions next, are you? Because I’m really lousy at math.”
Whatever had happened to her, Tess had managed to maintain her sense of humor. He held up a hand in mock Scout’s honor. “I promise, no math questions.”
From across the room, Betty interrupted. “Isn’t that enough questions, Doc?”
Ryan glanced over one shoulder. “It’s okay, Betty. I’m not hurting her.”
“I know that. But you’re scaring her. I can tell.” Betty walked into the room, her dark eyes watching the young girl with motherly compassion. “The poor child must be exhausted. This is no way to treat a person who’s been through what she’s been through.”
“But that’s what I’m trying to determine-what she’s been through.” Ryan didn’t bother to hide the hint of irritation. Unlike most interviews he conducted, he definitely wasn’t in control of this one. But then it wasn’t every day that he had to conduct an initial assessment in the living room of one of his neighbor’s houses.
“Providence,” Tess said softly.
They both turned to look at her. “Providence is the capital of Rhode Island. And I feel fine-just a little hungry.”
The hard-nosed farm wife shot a triumphant look in Ryan’s direction. “Of course you are, dear. I’m going to make you a nice stack of buttermilk pancakes.” She glared at Ryan. “And if you’re done asking silly questions, you’re welcome to have some, too.”
Tess stood, the huge quilt draped around her like a tent. As she walked toward the archway leading to the kitchen, the quilt caught on the end of the couch, slid off her shoulders and fell to the floor. Seemingly unaware of her naked condition, Tess continued on toward the kitchen, her bare feet padding softly on the hardwood floor.
Ryan blinked and swallowed hard. Lord, give me strength, he muttered. A true goddess walked among them. A goddess with legs that went on forever and a body so magnificently flawless that his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
He tried not to stare, but he had a perfect view of her firm buttocks as she walked away. Muscle dimpled one firm cheek as she moved, and Ryan forced himself to breathe.
She turned to glance at him and Ryan struggled to keep his mouth from falling open. Her breasts were high and firm, and as her hair swung forward, each strand reflected an almost blinding sheen of white in the faint light. The fall of white gold fell over her slender shoulders and onto her chest, brushing the dark, taut nipples that peeped through the silky strands.
The fact that she seemed totally unaware of her nakedness wasn’t lost on Ryan. It was an unusual reaction and one he tucked away for later consideration.
“Are you coming, Doctor?” she asked innocently before turning and continuing on into the kitchen.
Ryan stumbled, getting to his feet, raising a hand to stop her, but he couldn’t get any words out. Damn. He had expected beauty, but this went way beyond even that. Way beyond.
A shaft of heat shot through him and settled deep in the pit of his belly. Sweat dampened his hands. He sucked hot air.
“Oh, my,” Betty blurted out as Tess brushed past.
A string of startled curses and the sound of chairs scraping frantically across the linoleum told Ryan he wasn’t the only male getting an eyeful.
He bent down and picked up the quilt. “If I were you, Betty, I’d find Tess something a little more permanent than a blanket. Otherwise, none of us are going to be able to concentrate on your good cooking.”
Betty snatched the quilt out of his hand and marched through the archway into the kitchen. “Close your eyes, all of you!” she ordered in the crisp tones of a drill sergeant.
Ryan followed, concern replacing his amusement. Tess might be beautiful, but her confused mental state and the hesitation in her speech worried him. If she was from the center, it would be a relatively easy task to get her back there.
But he couldn’t deny the small tug of regret that pulled at him. He didn’t like the possibility of her being a patient at the center. Patients came to the center because they had a long history of not responding to the more traditional medications and treatments. Most of their families had given up hope of them ever living normal, productive lives, and the patients came because they were desperate to try some of the more experimental, riskier treatments.
The thought of Tess, a vibrant, beautiful young woman, being one of those desperate individuals, unresponsive to other treatments, saddened Ryan.
If there was anything he’d learned over years of practice, it was that the results of experimental treatments benefited future generations, not the people who subjected themselves to it in the here and now. Tess might be a pioneer, but if she was from the center, her prognosis was most likely poor.
“CALL FOR YOU, General Flynn. Line two, sir.”
General Thomas Flynn swallowed his irritation at the interruption and swung his desk chair away from his office window. He reached out and stabbed the intercom key. “I’m busy, Lieutenant. Take a message please.”
“It’s a Dr. Sidney Bloom, sir,” Lieutenant Sanders said, her soft feminine tones drifting musically through the intercom. “He’s somewhat insistent that he speak with you immediately, sir.”
General Flynn ran an impatient hand through the close-cropped iron-gray hair. It never ceased to annoy him that someone in personnel had taken it upon himself to assign him a female aide.
Not that Flynn advertised his prejudice against women in the military. No siree. He wasn’t a fool. He knew what the twenty-first-century army was all about-a dumbing down of the troops and a lowering of standards.
“I’ll take the call, Lieutenant.” Flynn punched the button for line two and picked up the receiver. “Why are you calling me here?” He didn’t bother to keep the anger from seeping into his voice.
“You asked to be kept informed of anything having to do with the project. I didn’t want to wait any longer.” Dr. Sidney Bloom’s cool tones conveyed his lack of intimidation.
Flynn reached down and flicked a switch on the side of the phone, the one that scrambled anything and everything that came through the phone. “What’s the problem? I’d prefer to keep any specifics out of this conversation.”
“My sentiments exactly, General.”
Flynn could hear the bristle of indignation in Bloom’s voice. From his dealings with him, Flynn knew that the doctor wasn’t used to being treated as a flunky. It brought a smile to Flynn’s lips. He couldn’t deny that he took a certain amount of pleasure in doing exactly that. He waited for the doctor to continue.
“Our subject took off last night. She knocked out a guard and escaped the grounds.” Before Flynn could react, Bloom rushed to add, “But we were able to locate her fairly quickly. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get her back here to the center.”
Flynn’s hand tightened so hard on the receiver that his fingers ached. “What do you mean she took off? I thought you had a handle on things down there. She’s supposed to begin her assignment in a week.”
“I realize that, General. Why do you think I insisted on talking to you instead of being put off by your trained seal in the front office.”
Flynn didn’t mind his own bias against his aide, but he didn’t appreciate anyone else making comments. “Lieutenant Sanders was only following my instructions. Why isn’t the subject back at the facility? Has she spoken to anyone?”
“Slow down, General. One question at a time,” Bloom said softly.
Flynn shifted the phone to his other ear and took a deep breath. “Don’t ever tell me what to do, Bloom. We’re paying the bills for your little research facility out there in God’s country. Without us, you’re just another egghead looking for funding.” He paused for a moment to savor the shocked silence on the other end of the phone. Nothing worked better than threatening a greedy research scientist with cutting off his funding. “Now that we’ve got that straight, why don’t you tell me what happened and keep it short.”
“Apparently her accomplice had a car waiting for them. When my men gave chase, they crashed through the perimeter fence.”
“Let me guess-you’re calling because your men screwed things up?”
Silence hummed on the line, but Flynn waited, his impatience building.
“My men were concerned they’d get away,” Bloom said, his voice rising a bit as he tried to explain. “They were forced to shoot the accomplice.”
Flynn sighed. “I hope you’re calling to tell me that they were able to take our subject back into custody.”
Bloom sucked air. “Unfortunately not. She took off across the field, and in the dark my men were unable to find her.”
“Then at least reassure me that your men were able to sanitize the crash scene before the local authorities arrived.”
Another long pause.
“Well, they had time to wipe the car down,” Bloom said. “But a local farmer must have heard the commotion and came to investigate. They were forced to leave before removing the body.”
A searing heat churned in Flynn’s stomach. “Wonderful. And where is the test subject? Has she been found yet?”
“How cozy. Do we know if she’s been connected to the body or the car?”
“Not yet.” Bloom paused again. “We do, however, have a more serious problem.”
Flynn closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Of course there was a more serious problem. He couldn’t expect anything less. “Please, enlighten me.”
“Reports indicate that the subject doesn’t remember who she is.”
Flynn came up out of his seat, his fist hitting the center of his thick green desk blotter. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He glanced toward the door, concerned his roar might have drifted out through the steel door into the outer office. There was no knock on the door.
“She has amnesia-no memory of who she is or why she’s there. My man says that she has a small cut on her forehead. She might have fallen or hit the dashboard of the car. It’s possible the recent drugs and programming have added to make the injury a little more than a mild concussion.”
“It’s possible? What the hell am I paying you for if it’s not to give me answers, Doctor?” Flynn forced himself to take a deep, cleansing breath. Anger ripped through his veins, heating his face and neck. If he didn’t calm down, he’d have a coronary right here in the office and never live to see the changes he’d worked so hard to bring about.
“Are you still there, General?”
“Of course I’m still here, you idiot,” Flynn snapped. “Where is she now?”
“One of my new doctors-someone not connected to the project-is out at the farmhouse talking to her right now.”
“Are you insane?”
Silence met Flynn’s question.
“Get the unauthorized physician off the case immediately. Tell him you’re taking over. And while we’re on the subject, why the hell do you have someone not connected to the project working at the facility?”
“Ryan Donovan is an old student of mine. A brilliant researcher and clinician. He finally took me up on my offer to leave Boston and come help me with some of my research.”
“I don’t care if he’s the Albert Einstein of medical research. It’s too risky having him involved.”
“But Donovan has done some interesting research that dovetails perfectly with mine. There are no plans for him to be directly involved in the project. He’ll continue his research without any knowledge of what we’re doing.”
Flynn rubbed the side of his jaw, unable to quiet the rumblings of concern from shooting acid into his already aching stomach. “I don’t like this, Bloom. I don’t like it one bit. Get her back under lock and key, and then call me. I don’t plan on losing this window of opportunity because you can’t arrange for the proper amount of security.”
“I’ll get back to you in an hour or so. Everything is under control.”
Flynn snorted his disbelief. “If everything was under control she’d be in her room, and you’d be finishing up the final touches on her programming.” He slammed the phone down.
Less than a week to go before the
Flynn sighed and got to his feet. Walking over to the window, he stared down at the river and clasped his hands behind his back. Things were starting to unravel.
Perhaps he needed to make a trip to Half Moon. To really check on his investment and see if there was still time to carry out his plans. After all, the decision to control the destiny of United States politics demanded one’s full and undivided attention.