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Kendra Michaels looked out at the four-hundred-odd seminar participants at Pepperdine’s Elkins Auditorium. She’d just delivered her latest research paper at a conference on aging, and it had seemed to go well. She’d documented several success stories using music therapy to treat Alzheimer’s patients, but there was still resistance in the medical community. Not as much as there had been only a couple of years ago, when most academics still put her in the alternative-therapies woo-woo column.
She had helped move that needle, one study, one paper, one boring academic conference at a time.
Try not to go on autopilot, she told herself. Stay in the moment.
But how could she, when she knew that the man in the front row was obviously angry with his colleague about something. His pursed lips, narrowed eyes, and clenched fingers told the story as she watched him make small talk before the presentation. And how about that female brain surgeon who clearly hadn’t operated on anyone in months? And, sadly, probably wouldn’t again, if the slight tremor in her left hand was any indication.
Stay in the here and now. Answer the questions with crystal clarity and politeness even as condescending as some of them were. She’d show them.
She looked up toward the back of the auditorium.
It couldn’t be.
A man stood in the doorway, partially silhouetted by the light from the corridor beyond. She couldn’t make out his facial features, but she didn’t need to.
His ramrod-straight posture, impeccably tailored suit, crossed arms, and slight tilt of the head told her all she needed to know.
Dr. Charles Waldridge was in the room.
How long had it been since she’d seen him? Four years, maybe five. And then it had only been an accidental meeting at a conference. She felt the usual rush of excitement and intimidation. Suddenly everyone in the room faded but the man in the doorway. No one on earth had changed her life more. Why was he even on this continent?
Get through with the questions.
She finished the Q & A, and as the participants left the auditorium, Waldridge moved down the aisle toward her.
“Well done, Kendra.”
He spoke in his British accent that always sounded distinctly upper-crust to Kendra, though she knew he’d grown up in a working-class neighborhood in South London. Waldridge was in his late forties, and he had a few more lines and gray hairs since she’d last seen him. But his angular good looks hadn’t faded, and the added maturity only made his face more intriguing.
And there was that ever-present fierce and intelligent spark in his dark eyes that had held her captive since the first instant she had seen him.
She smiled and came toward him. “Dr. Waldridge…”
“Please.” He made a face. “I thought we’d moved far beyond that. Why do you keep forgetting? It’s Charles.”
“Charles … I can’t help it. I still have trouble being informal with you, dammit. You catch me off guard and I’m that starstruck kid again.” She gave him a quick hug. “I didn’t see your name on the attendee list.”
“Because I’m not an attendee. This is a bit out of my specialty, you know.”
“Don’t tell me you’re teaching here?”
“Hardly. I haven’t taught anywhere since I left St. Bartholomew’s.” He stared deep into her eyes. “Everything okay?”
His stare made her uncomfortable even though she knew he was looking at her clinically. She fought the urge to look away. “Yes. My eyes are fine. No cloudiness, no watering.”
“Good. Have you been examined lately?”
“About a year ago. Still almost twenty-twenty.”
“Excellent.” He looked from right to left and back again, then spoke softly. “Everything I could have hoped for, Kendra.”
“I didn’t think doctors made house calls anymore.”
He smiled. “Only for very special patients. And you’ll always be very special to me.”
Kendra finally forced herself to look away. She’d been born blind and spent her first twenty years in the darkness. She knew she’d still be there had it not been for Waldridge and his experimental stem-cell procedure. She was nineteen when her mother had seen mention of the Night Watch Project in academic journals and brought her, uninvited, to the front door of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Her mother had ruthlessly browbeaten Waldridge and his staff until they agreed to see Kendra and eventually grant her a spot in their test group.
“It’s been over nine years,” she said. “But this all still feels new to me. I don’t take it for granted. I never will.”
“Sight, you mean?”
“Yes. I’m still making discoveries. All the time.”
“You have a wonderfully inquisitive mind, Kendra. You always have. I could tell the first time I met you.”
“So why aren’t you in England poking around in that lab? There are a lot of other people in this world who need your help.”
“Oh, it’s the eternal problem. Finances. Research is expensive. There are occasions I have to leave the lab, hat in hand. This time it has brought me to your shores. But when I learned you were here, I knew I had to come see you in action.”
“You’ve seen me work before.”
“I’ve seen you working with your patients, which was miraculous. But here, watching you hold your own against some of the top specialists in the world … It’s a side of you I hadn’t seen.” He added quietly, “It made me very proud.”
Her face flushed. “Thank you. That means a lot.”
“I was hoping I could take you to dinner if you know a decent place nearby.”
“We’re in Malibu, California. There are dozens of decent places nearby.” She gathered her presentation materials and gestured toward the door. “And, just so you know, I’m taking you to dinner.”
* * *
WALDRIDGE FOLLOWED KENDRA half a mile up the Pacific Coast Highway to Geoffrey’s, a restaurant offering a large Mediterranean-themed patio and a spectacular view of the ocean. They arrived just in time to enjoy the sunset, a pale orange orb shimmering over calm waves, and an excellent dinner.
They followed the meal with coffee, and, after a few minutes of small talk, Waldridge folded his hands on the tabletop. “Okay, Kendra … time for me to say something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I don’t believe I’ve ever given you a proper apology.”
Her eyes narrowed on his face. “Apology for what?”
“For the way I treated you in those first few years after your procedure. I turned you into a show pony, trotting you out for the media, medical conferences, fund-raising dinners … I know it couldn’t have been fun for you.”
She looked away from him. “I tried to cooperate. But not always gracefully. I was going through a lot at the time.”
“Of course you were. Your reality changed overnight. And I was too wrapped up in my project’s success to even think about that. I wanted everyone to see what was possible. For someone to go from total blindness to near twenty-twenty vision, that was a dream come true for so many of us who had been working for years. You were our first great success. There have been several since then, but at the time, you were totally unique. You were the key to showing people that this was the path worthy of all their attention and funding.”
Kendra nodded. She was silent, remembering that time. “I’m sorry I didn’t handle it better. I guess I just kind of … rebelled.”
“I didn’t blame you. None of us did. You probably don’t know about the others who came after you, but many of them had a difficult time after gaining their sight. A life-changing experience like this has completely redefined who they are, along with every single one of their relationships. There have been divorces, family estrangements, bouts of severe depression…”
“That actually doesn’t surprise me.”
“Because you lived through it yourself. One would think that a gift like this would bring nothing but joy. But as you found out, it doesn’t solve all of life’s problems, and that disappointment can bring some hard feelings.”
“Exactly. It took me awhile to find out who I was. I call those my ‘wild days.’ I wanted to experience everything I could, no matter how risky or dangerous it was. I know I scared the hell out of my friends and family.”
“And me,” he said ruefully.
She shrugged. “I came through okay. I’m grateful for the time and effort you were able to give me while I was fighting my way out of the dark. And I don’t regret those wild days one bit. It helped to make me who I am.”
“Which is an extraordinary young woman. But you always were that.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Since the last time I saw you, you’ve become distinctly more extraordinary.”
She cocked her head. “As much as I enjoy hearing you call me ‘extraordinary’ in that British accent of yours, I don’t know why you would say that.”
“I’m referring to your fascinating sideline, of course.” He smiled teasingly. “You’ve become Kendra Michaels, crime fighter.”
She cringed. “Oh, don’t say it like that. Better still, don’t say it at all.”
“Why not? It’s the truth, isn’t it?”
“I’ve consulted with the FBI and a local police department on a few cases.” She shook her head emphatically. “Believe me, it’s nothing I’ve ever asked for.”
“Success breeds demand, and from what I understand, you’re very much in demand.”
“Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. In a way, it makes perfect sense.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“I do. Almost all the vision-impaired people I’ve known have developed their other senses to compensate. They know who’s in a room from the particular sound of each person’s footsteps. From a mere whiff, they can identify one of dozens of colognes, soaps, and even tobacco brands. They make themselves aware of their surroundings in a way that few other people can, just as a survival mechanism. I imagine that gives you quite an edge in the investigative arena.”
Kendra nodded. “I’ve found that most detectives only go by what they can see. They don’t pay enough attention to the sounds, the smells, and the textures. A lot of answers can be found there.”
“But I’m sure you also see things they don’t.”
“Sometimes. Because I didn’t have sight for so long. I now savor the things I see. I try to absorb every detail just because I can. I suppose that helps in the investigative work, too.”
He shook his head. “Like I said, extraordinary. Are you working on anything now?”
“No. I still haven’t quite recovered from my last case. It was a serial killer, probably the worst I’ve ever come across. I spent months trying to find him, and it took a real toll on me. As I said, it’s nothing I’ve ever asked for.”
“Then why do you do it?”
She thought for a moment. “When there’s a killer out there who can and will strike again, it seems wrong to refuse if I know I might be able to help catch him.”
Waldridge nodded. “You have a good heart, but you’re right to take care of yourself, Kendra.” He was silent a moment, gazing out at the ocean. “I’m sorry I even brought it up.”
“It’s okay.” But she wasn’t sure it was okay. There had been something odd about that hesitation. She shifted uneasily in her seat before changing the subject. “So what have you been working on?”
“I’m afraid I can’t talk about it.”
“Aw, come on. I practically bared my soul to you.”
He smiled. “And I felt honored by every word. But I really can’t return the favor. I wish I could.”
“I heard you abandoned your corneal-regeneration work.”
“I keep abreast of the latest developments, but I leave it to others to refine the techniques I pioneered. I get more satisfaction from exploring new frontiers.”
“Frontiers you can’t tell me about.”
“Not right now.”
She wrinkled her brow. “Now you have me curious.”
“There’s an old adage about a cat and curiosity. Drop it, Kendra.”
She stiffened. “I’m not a cat, and I’m uneasy about the idea that my being curious about what you’re doing now could cause me to be killed.”
“Of course it couldn’t. I shouldn’t have used that term.” His smile was full of charm. “I was merely trying to shift you away from interrogating me. You always were persistent. It’s really much better for you that we don’t discuss it.”
“Better for me?” Her gaze narrowed on his face. “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “I suppose I’m just being overly dramatic. It’s really not all that interesting.”
“Everything you do is interesting. You’re a groundbreaker. Look what you did for me. You’re one of the finest minds in medicine.” Kendra studied him. “I don’t believe you. What’s going on, Charles?”
“Nothing. Just fund-raising meetings, as I said.”
“Downtown, Pasadena, Century City.”
“Please don’t lie to me, Charles,” she said quietly.
Waldridge looked as if he was about to protest, but he caught himself. Then he looked away, then back. “Of course. What, exactly, do you know, Kendra?”
“You arrived here from London only in the last couple days. Since then you’ve been in the local mountains. Big Bear or Baldy, I would guess.”
Waldridge cursed under his breath.
“Am I wrong?” she asked.
She shrugged, then continued, “You drove straight from there to see me. You’ve spent a good deal of the day talking on the phone. You’ve been under an incredible amount of stress.”
“You don’t think asking foundations for money is stressful?”
“That isn’t what you were doing. You were telling Porter to stay out of sight until it was safe. Whoever the hell Porter is.”
He stared at her in shock. “How do you know all this?”
“Same way I always do. I pay attention.”
“That’s too vague. I need to know now. It’s important.”
He spoke with such desperate urgency that Kendra felt compelled to explain herself quickly. “Fine. Take it easy. Your car has a nice dusting of rock salt all the way around. That may be common in other parts of the country at this time of year, but it’s extremely rare in Southern California. The San Bernardino Mountains have had record snowfall this week, and it’s probably the only place within hundreds of miles that has been salting the roads. You also have some on your shoes and the cuffs of your slacks. If you hadn’t come straight here, I know you well enough to know that you would have changed clothes or at least tried to wipe it off.”
Waldridge looked down at his shoes. “I didn’t think that it was that noticeable.”
“It isn’t. And I know you were just in London from your haircut. You’re very particular about the cut, and your stylist also has a specific way of sculpting the eyebrows. I can tell it’s just been cut. Within days of each of your haircuts, a stray lash or two appears between your eyebrows. There are none there. You’ve been in London in the past three or four days.”
“What about my phone calls?”
She could tell that was really bothering him. She hadn’t realized that it would upset him. She had known him so long, she had felt as if she could trust him to understand. “The opening of your right ear is red and slightly chafed. It’s a small area, just about the size of an earbud. If you had been listening to music, you probably would have been using both earphones, not just one. You pretty much confirmed it when I looked in my rearview mirror on the way here and saw you talking on it at a stoplight.”
“How did you know what I was talking about?”
She said simply, “I read your lips.”
He gazed at her in disbelief. “You can do that?”
“I guess I never told you. When I got my sight, I was amazed to discover the visual aspect of human speech, the whole interplay of tongue, lips, and teeth. It was fascinating to see what caused the sounds I’d been hearing my entire life. I just paid attention to what movements caused what sounds. After a couple years of studying that, I was pretty good at lipreading. It’s nothing I planned to do. It just happened.”
“Pretty good is right, but you’re not infallible,” Waldridge said sourly.
“I never said I was. Did I get a word wrong?”
Waldridge stared at her for a long moment. “Clever as always, Kendra. You’re always a surprise and experience for me. But you could get yourself into trouble.”
She grinned at him. “Well, I’m always doing that.”
“I’m serious. I shouldn’t have come. This was a bad idea.”
Her smile faded. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
He shook his head. “Drop it please. It was a mistake.”
“I know you have a right to say that this is none of my business.” She was silent a moment, then she said with sudden passion, “But you’re wrong. You became my business when you gave me my sight. Nothing can ever change that. But if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me about this, so be it. I’ll try to back away.”
He pulled the napkin from his lap and tossed it onto the table. “Things aren’t as simple as they once were, Kendra. I wish they were, believe me. I think that’s why I wanted to see you. Seeing you takes me back to a happier time, when things were more clear-cut, black-and-white.”
“They were never that black-and-white for me.”
“Of course not. But from a purely scientific point of view, we saw a problem that needed to be solved, and we fixed it. You’re my greatest success, Kendra, and I will always feel good about that.”
“Even if you don’t feel good about what you’re working on now.”
“You’re guessing, and I’m not confirming.” He made a face. “I’ve said too much. Perhaps we should call it a night.”
She didn’t want to let him go. She felt frustrated, and the uneasiness was growing by the minute. But she could see by his guarded expression that he wasn’t going to tell her anything more. “Perhaps we should.”
Kendra paid the check, and they walked out to the valet stand in silence. After they handed their tickets to the attendant, Waldridge turned toward her. “Things aren’t always what they seem, Kendra. The Night Watch Project was formed to do great things, but there was more going on than any of us were aware. Even I didn’t know until much later that I couldn’t take pride in all of it. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Enough, Charles. Forgive you? You gave me the greatest gift anyone could ever give me.” She took a step closer, her eyes holding his own. “You have to talk to me about this.”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“I’m afraid it’s not. This was a mistake.” His rental car rolled to a stop in front of them. Waldridge embraced Kendra and kissed her gently on the forehead. “I’m sorry. I know I must be driving you mad, but it’s for your own good. Trust me. It’s better for you.”
“That’s my decision. You don’t call the shots any longer in our relationship, Charles.” She gripped his arm. “Whatever is going on, I can help. Try me.”
“All that intensity. How I’ve missed it.” Waldridge pulled away and looked down at her for a long moment. “No, Kendra. You can’t help. I can’t let you.”
He climbed into his car and drove away.
* * *
JADEN STOOD AT HIS HOTEL room’s floor-to-ceiling windows and stared out at the twinkling lights of West Hollywood. His mobile phone was on speaker while he finished changing his clothes.
“No problems?” Hutchinson asked. His voice on the phone had a slight echo.
“No problems,” he replied. “The snow will melt off before anyone finds him. There will be no footprints, no trace I was ever there.”
“I’ll be out on the early flight tomorrow. I’ll be back with the team by early afternoon.”
“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you. He needs you to stay a few more days.”
“It was supposed to be in and out. He promised me.”
“I know, but there’s been a development. Dr. Waldridge has reached out to an old friend. We’re still not sure why, but we’d be foolish to ignore it. Sit tight until we can check it out.”
Jaden muttered a curse as he turned from the window. “I don’t like this.”
“Nothing to worry about. Just a precaution. You haven’t asked me who the friend is.”
“I didn’t ask because I don’t give a damn.”
“I doubt that.”
“It’s Kendra Michaels.”
Jaden froze. “Are you sure?”
“They were having dinner together less than an hour ago.”
“Kendra Michaels … That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. I really hate unfinished business.” Jaden sat on the edge of the bed and smiled. “Okay. I’ll stay. This just got interesting…”
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