TARGET ON HER BACK
Copyright ©2020 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
On sale March 17th in print; April1st in digital
(available earlier to Harlequin subscribers and on the Harlequin website)
“Ian? I’m sorry to interrupt your meeting, but if you’re here, answer me.”
Gigi's shoe crunched over broken glass and she stopped. Her blood chilled away that brief shot of annoyance and left fear in its wake. “Ian?”
Something was wrong. Ian might have a weakness for a pretty face, but his pride in his work, maintaining a state-of-the-art showplace in the physics lab, and feeding his ego, took second place to nothing and no one. Something was very wrong. “Ian!”
She slid on something slippery and she grabbed a nearby table for balance. This was not good. She pulled her foot up from the goo she’d stepped in, hating the gross, sucking sound it made.
Righting herself against the table, she turned her flashlight to the puddle of red on the floor. A soupy brown liquid coated the top of it. Was that a chemical spill? She couldn’t identify the faint acrid smell that stung her nose. The lab had been in pristine condition when she’d left for the reception. Ian would never allow a mess like this. “Dr. Lombard? Are you in here?”
All at once, the lights kicked on, blinding her momentarily before she blinked her surroundings into focus. Now the damage was clear. She was walking over jagged shards of glass stained with… “Blood.”
She gasped a fearful breath. “Oh, my God. Jerome!” She shouted an alarm for the security guard to return. “We had a break-in!”
As if she could yell loudly enough for him to hear her through steel beams and cinder blocks. Gigi didn’t wait for the guard to come to her rescue. There’d been a struggle here. And someone was hurt. “Dr. Lombard!”
For a split second she hoped that whoever belonged to this trail of blood had gotten himself to a hospital. But then she heard the sounds coming from Ian’s office. Something falling to the floor. Groans. Curses. Another crash. “Ian!” Gigi punched in 911 and skirted her way around the blood to reach Ian’s office. “Ian? Are you here? Are you all right?”
She shoved open the door, dropping her bag to the floor before she raced across the room and knelt beside her boss. “Oh, my God. What happened?”
Ignoring her attempt to get him to lie flat, he flung his arm up to pull a stack of books off his desk. He cried out when they hit his stomach and fell to the floor. A crumpled notepad dotted with blood lay on the floor next to him, the blood soaking into the paper and blotting out some of the numbers and symbols written there. He pushed away Gigi’s hands and flopped what seemed to be his one functioning arm at the desk again, pulling more things onto himself and the floor.
“Ian, stop. Lie still.” She pushed him onto his back, trying not to gag at the wounds puncturing his tuxedo shirt and turning the white pleats red. He was hurt badly, maybe dying. “What do you need?”
“Pen,” he muttered, spitting blood when he made the p sound. “Find…finish…”
The dispatcher had answered her call and was talking to Gigi on the phone. But she ignored the questions and pulled down a pen from the top of his desk. She pressed it into his hand and tugged a velour throw blanket off the nearby couch, wadding it up to press it against the worst of his wounds. He was weak, but struggling with her, determined to scribble something on the paper beside him.
Gigi punched the speaker button on her phone and set it on the desk, freeing her hands to stanch his wounds. But there were so many. There was so much blood. “Ian? Stay with me.”
“Ma’am?” The dispatcher’s voice was louder now. “Tell me what’s happening. Are you all right?”
Shoving at her glasses to keep them from falling off her nose, Gigi leaned over Ian. She shouted to the dispatcher. “I’m okay. My boss…” She swallowed her panic. She needed to make sense. “There’s been a break-in at the Williams University Technology Lab. My boss, Ian Lombard, he’s been stabbed. He’s bleeding badly.”
So much blood. She could see now that the pool of blood she’d stepped in earlier had become a trail of red dots across the carpet in here, and then a smear that led right to Ian’s desk. He must have been attacked out in the lab, then made his way in here to call for help or to escape his killer or to… “Damn it, Ian, stop messing with that paper.”
“I’ve dispatched an ambulance and the police to your location. Ma’am? I need your name. Can you tell me your name?”
“Virginia Brennan. My friends call me…” She stopped that useless sentence and wiped the perspiration from Ian’s forehead before returning the pressure to his wounds. Not that she could cover them all. But she had to try. “Professor Virginia Brennan. I work with Dr. Lombard. Please hurry.”
The blood was coating his lips now, trickling from his mouth as he tried to say something to her. “Safe…”
“Who did this to you?” Gigi tried to decipher his babble. At least he’d given up on writing his last will and testament or whatever note had been so important that he’d risked his life to put pen to paper instead of calling an ambulance himself. “He’s been stabbed multiple times,” she reported to the dispatcher. “Abdomen and chest. He’s losing a lot of blood.”
“Is the victim awake? Responsive?”
“Must finish…work…” he spat out. “Go…”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she promised before answering the dispatcher. “He’s conscious. But he’s incoherent. Ian, I don’t understand—”
With a strangled gasp, he grabbed a hank of her long hair and jerked her down to gasp in her ear. “Finish it.”
“Finish what? What are you talking about? You’re not finished.”
He rolled his head from side to side. “Made deal… But I couldn’t… So sorry…”
“Sorry for what? What deal?” His life was seeping through her fingers.
“My prize…” His rheumy eyes tried to focus. “Too damn…smart… Smarter…than me.”
“Don’t talk. Save your strength.” She cursed the urge to cry and extricated his fingers from her hair to speak to the dispatcher. “There are too many wounds. I can’t stop all the bleeding.”
“I thought she…my own fault… You must…”
“An ambulance is on its way.”
“Listen to me!” Fluid bubbled up from his lungs and Gigi’s eyes burned with tears. Help wouldn’t get here in time. Where was Jerome? Where was that stupid ambulance? “Take…” He wadded up the paper he’d scribbled all over and, with a monumental effort, dragged his hand onto his stomach, nudging it into her blood-stained fingers. “For you… Trust no one…” She glanced down at the words that were so important to him and saw nothing but random letters and numbers. “Finish…”
“Finish what?” Gigi whipped her gaze around the room, desperate for help. “Help me!”
“Understand what?” When he kept batting against her hand, she took the paper and stuffed it into the pocket of her sweater. But even in those few seconds that she’d eased the pressure on his wounds, his eyes drifted shut. “No! Ian!”
She patted his cheek, urging him to open his eyes again, mindless of the bloody fingerprints she left on his skin. “Stay with me.”
But he was gone.
Ian Lombard was dead.
Gigi sat back on her heels, eyeing her soiled hands, feeling the tears burn down her cheeks. She heard someone hurrying through the lab behind her. Help. At last. “In here!” She turned her head, catching a shadowy movement from the corner of her eye. “Jerome—”
Pain exploded in her skull. Her glasses flew off and she crumpled to the floor beside the dead man. The room spun and blackness consumed her.