Heather’s mind had been mostly foggy with only a brief respite for days. The medication the doctor had given her made it hard to remember how many days had passed or who had been to visit her since she first arrived at the hospital. Had it been three days? Maybe four?
She couldn’t be sure when she had last been awake, but as the haze rolled away this time, her brain felt less fuzzy, and she was able to concentrate on the sound of footsteps on tile. Then a gentle touch on her arms and leg. Then searing pain in her left leg. She could manage only a whimper. Then there was a prick on the back of her hand and a voice she didn’t recognize. “She pulled it out again.”
None of the past days made any sense, no matter how hard she tried to pull them all into focus. Her brain felt like mush, her memory hibernating.
Soon the pain ebbed, and she sighed, sinking a little deeper into the pillow beneath her head. Light flashed before her closed eyes, and she tried to open them, but they refused to respond.
After several minutes another set of footsteps entered the room, this one lighter and punctuated by the staccato taps of high heels. The steps quick and purposeful. A gentle voice said, “How’s she doing?” She knew that voice.
“No—” Her voice cracked, but she tried again. “Nora?” The sound was barely audible, but immediately a warm hand slid into hers.
“Heather. I’m here.”
Slowly, her mind started to clear through the haze of the drugs they’d given her. Nora. Nora James. Who was engaged to Nate Andersen, her supervisor at the Bureau.
“Do you want some water?”
She nodded, but was met with resistance under her chin. The neck brace. The leg brace. They had repaired her torn ACL, which had been shredded in the crash.
It all hit at once and tears leaked between her closed eyelids, running down the sides of her face. A smooth knuckle slid along her temples, wiping the drops away. Then a plastic straw pushed against her lips. She drank several long sips before Nora pulled it away.
Fighting the pain that wanted to keep her eyes closed and brain turned off, she opened them a crack. Nora’s kind features and long blond hair were blurry but unmistakable.
“How are you doing, sweetie?” She squeezed Heather’s hand. “Do you need anything else?”
Heather opened her mouth, but couldn’t push another word past her throat. Was Nate here, too? She didn’t want him to see her like this. Please say he hadn’t already been to visit.
And then the footfalls that had walked past her office for nearly three years entered her hospital room. “Sorry I’m late, ladies.” Nate stepped up to the bed, leaning over just enough so she could see his ever-present five o’clock shadow, which looked longer than usual. He rubbed it with one palm as he pulled up a chair closer to her bed. “Just had another phone call with Mitch. He’s worried about you, kid. Everyone at the office is.”
“I’m fine,” Heather managed just before another wave of pain from her shoulder stole her breath.
Nate wrapped his arm around Nora’s waist but seemed to lean in closer to Heather, even if she could barely see him out of the corner of her eye. “It’s good to see you. You look good.”
She looked awful, and she didn’t even need a mirror to know it.
And she looked weak. She felt weak. She just didn’t want Nate to see her in this state. Would he think she couldn’t handle an assignment after seeing her like this?
“Nate.” She sighed, finally offering him half of a smile. “You’re a good boss, but I wish you wouldn’t have come.”
He chuckled. “You’re on a lot of medication. You’ll think otherwise when you’re back to normal.” Picking and choosing what he heard had always been his way with her.
She managed a tiny shake of her head, despite the neck brace and heavy fog threatening to roll back in. She blinked again, trying desperately to make her mind return to its normal speed.
“We were here yesterday with Mitch and Myles and Kenzie, too. You just didn’t have the decency to wake up to greet us.”
She had woken up yesterday, though not while her friends or family were there. She wished her timing had been better. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much if she’d been told by her parents or friends that she was the crash’s only survivor—that Kit was dead.
Still she offered the obligatory apology that she knew Nate was waiting for. “Sorry.”
He chuckled again and squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go.
“The nurse said you were talking about your gun in your sleep last night,” Nora said. “I think you were looking for it and pulled out your IV instead.”
Nate’s shoulders jostled as a broad smile spread across his face. Since he’d returned from his last assignment where he met Nora, he’d been smiling and laughing a lot more than usual. “I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else from you. But don’t worry about it. I’ll keep it safe until you’re released.”
Heather scowled, her hand searching for the cool handle of her Glock out of pure habit. She pleaded with her eyes for him to give her back her gun, but Nate shook his head. “Nope. You’re on way too much medication, not to mention the amount of oxygen just sitting next to your bed. When they let you out of here, you’ll get it back.” He smirked at the glare she shot his way.
She swallowed again, forcing her vocal cords to recall their job. “How did you get it?”
“Your mom gave it to me. I guess the hospital had it with your clothes and other personal affects.” He tugged Nora a little closer and whispered in a mock-conspiratorial tone, “Apparently she had it with her in the helicopter. Because, you know, when I go on a strictly sightseeing tour of Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood, I always bring my weapon with me.”
Nora shoved her fiancé’s shoulder. “Give Heather a break.”
Heather shrugged, then cringed as pain shot through her shoulder. Twisting as much as her multiple braces and injuries allowed, she turned toward Nate. “So where are my parents? Does the hospital only allow two visitors at a time?”
He looked away then brought his steel blue eyes back to meet hers, all teasing aside. “Listen, Heather, I’m sorry.” He swallowed thickly, and her stomach turned with a sudden knowledge.
“It was this morning. Nora and I skipped the graveside service. Your mom wanted someone here when you woke up.” He studied the spot on the floor between his shoes, and she realized that he was dressed in his best black Hugo Boss. They’d worked together for almost three years, and she could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen him wearing the slick suit.
When he brought his gaze back up to meet hers, all she could see was the pain there—all traces of humor gone. He just shook his head. “I’m sorry you couldn’t be there. Your parents wanted to wait, but the doctors don’t know how long you’re going to be in here. And your dad’s unit was called back overseas. He ships out right away, so one or the other of you would have had to miss it. And the funeral home couldn’t wait indefinitely, so the director suggested just going ahead with the service.”
Through the fierce ache in her shoulder, Heather lifted her hand to her eyes, brushing away two unruly tears.
She’d missed her chance to say goodbye to her little sister. And she didn’t have any idea why any of this had happened. Why their helicopter had gone down. What Kit had meant about following the drugs. None of it made sense.
But she would figure it out. Kit was far too special to just let go without a reason.
Reining in her emotions, Heather cleared her throat. “I’ll bet my parents told you not to tell me all of that.”
“They said they weren’t sure you could handle it just yet. I knew otherwise.”
“Thank you, Nate. It’s better to know. Right?”
A yawn caught Heather off guard and made her two friends smile.
“We better get going and let you get some rest. We’ll see you tomorrow,” Nate said before squeezing Heather’s hand and standing at the same time as Nora. Hand in hand they took a step toward the door before Nate suddenly stopped.
“Heather, I need you to promise me something,” he said over his shoulder.
“What?” The word was more of a croak than anything else, but he seemed to understand.
“It’s going to take you a while to recoup. Give it some time.” His brow furrowed, his mouth turning stern. “Don’t try to push yourself too hard.”
After a long pause, she conceded. “I won’t.”
He nodded and gave her a knowing look. “And let the police do their job. Stay out of this investigation.”
Nate’s face softened.
She didn’t respond, and he took a firm step toward her, his face a concoction of sharp angles. “I’m not kidding, Sloan.” He didn’t usually call her by her last name unless he was tired or she was being obstinate. “I need you to focus on getting better. Nothing else. You won’t get involved in this case beyond answering whatever questions the investigator has. That’s a direct order. Understood?”
She had no other choice but to agree. “Yes.”
“Have the nurse call me if you need anything,” Nora called from the doorway just before they disappeared. “See you tomorrow.”
The way Nate had rested his hand on Nora’s back mirrored the familiar actions of Clay Kramer, Kit’s fiancé. Except now he wasn’t engaged to her anymore. Because she was—
Heather closed her eyes, willing the image of Clay and Kit laughing together the night before the crash to vanish. It faded slightly, leaving only an imagined likeness of the pain Clay was enduring, his handsome face twisted in agony. How could he survive with the love of his life gone? How could she ever think of having a happy life with her sister gone?
Beyond questions of her own happiness lay more sinister inquiries that were painful just to ponder. Had someone really wanted to hurt Kit? Why would they want to kill someone everyone loved? Was it possible that Heather’s own life could be in jeopardy, too?
These questions haunted her as she fell into a fitful sleep.
Heather heard the rattle and click of the turning door handle before she was consciously awake. Her brain still foggy from sleep and the pain medication, she struggled to open her eyes, wondering if she was having another visitor. Her parents had been by earlier, but she’d insisted they go back to the hotel. She could see how drained they were after the funeral.
At the same moment that the door opened, her eyelids raised enough that she could see through her lashes.
A short, round man ducked into the room, looking over his shoulder as though confirming that he wasn’t being followed, before silently closing the door behind him. When he turned to face her, she could make out only his ratty, gray jacket and violently shaking hands. She’d never seen anyone’s hands shaking that badly—except drug addicts going through withdrawal.
But what was an addict doing in her hospital room?
He spun around slowly before shuffling toward her bed. She flexed her hand, feeling around for her gun. Which Nate still had. Maybe she could reach the call button on the side of the bed without tipping him off that she was alert—if somewhat groggy. Before scaring him off, she needed to know what he wanted.
A wave of body odor nearly sent her to the floor gagging, and she quickly adjusted to breathing through her mouth.
“Put the tube in the line,” the man mumbled. “Put the tube in the line. Then get the fix.”
What tube? What line?
The fix was easy enough to understand.
Suddenly he grabbed the IV line attached to the back of her hand, almost tugging it out. She forced her eyes to open all the way, looking into the face of a man with glassy eyes, long white hair and several days of patchy beard growth.
“What are you doing?” she asked, carefully keeping her tone soft, if scratchy.
He didn’t look at her, just continuing his chant. “Need to put the tube in the line. Then I get a fix.”
“What are you doing?” she asked again, putting more force behind her words as she reached for the call button, praying it would bring help right away. Her words made him glance at her, but it didn’t make him pause, as he pulled a small medical vial from his pocket and tried to connect it to her IV. “Stop! Don’t do that!”
Even with the tremors in his hands, he moved quickly, slipping the vial into place to feed whatever was in it into the line. She tried to roll to the side to stop him, but the sudden burning in the back of her hand was excruciating.
The man shuffled a step toward the door, as she clawed at her hand, trying to pull the tubing out.
“What is this?” she cried as the fire raced up her arm.
It took her another moment to realize that the bloodcurdling scream filling the room came from her own throat.
Excerpted from Code of Justice © Liz Johnson, 2011, Love Inspired Suspense