Finding the Way Back
A field agent betrayed, tortured, and broken. Can the gentle love of his nurse heal his wounds?
Ian Grant withstood captivity and ruthless torture on his latest mission. Now home, his body slowly heals from the deep physical injuries. His mind, though, refuses to mend — and his voice refuses to return. Unable to answer the persistent questions of his superior agents, Ian grows despondent. Until he meets beautiful nurse practitioner, Hazel Baker.
Hazel’s job is to treat bodies, but compassion calls her to heal Ian’s deeper wounds. Agreeing to care for him long-term from her home, Hazel sees how PTSD unravels Ian’s thoughts and behavior. He seems a mental mess, but the warmth in his eyes shows promise, and when he interacts with her four-year-old daughter, the single mother catches a vision of resiliency even Ian doesn’t see any longer.
As Hazel and Ian work on his recovery together, Agency corruption threatens his peace. His trauma can be put to rest only by regaining his voice and speaking against the brutality. Can Hazel’s sweet love help him find the way back to the man he used to be?
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Agency Headquarters — Columbus, Ohio
A summons to the restricted wing wasn’t uncommon, but such a summons from the Agency’s head psychiatrist was enough to strike fear into the heart of any agent. Hazel Baker placed her palm against the biometric scanner and thanked her lucky star she wasn’t an agent.
As a nurse practitioner for the Agency, she was used to meetings and consultations with high-ranking officials. Of course, the consultations usually involved a simple phone call, but she had attended meetings all over the building. The part that worried her this time was the top-level security required for the patient, which would keep her in the dark about his identity and condition until she arrived at the specified observation room.
The solid steel door clicked open, and Hazel passed through into a nondescript hallway brightly illuminated by LED bulbs. Few people roamed this part of the building. Aside from a handful of security personnel stationed at random intervals, Hazel was alone on her journey into the secret depths of the Agency. The situation was a bit unnerving after the well-populated halls in the less secure areas of the building.
Arriving at the specified location only served to unnerve her further. In addition to Dr. Pursley — the head psychiatrist — she found Agency Director Cole, head physician Dr. Hou, and Mr. Wolenczek, the director of field operations. A meeting with the top four men in the Agency was never a good thing.
Hazel drew in a calming breath and pasted a pleasant smile on her face. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” Director Cole said, his gaze more serious than usual. “We need your help.”
Her heart skipped a beat as her smile faded. “Of course. What do you need?”
“We have a patient in need of specialized care,” Dr. Hou said. “He is one of our field agents and was involved in a rather difficult mishap.”
Hazel had a feeling difficult mishap deserved an award for being the understatement of all time. “What is it you would like me to do?”
Dr. Pursley cleared his throat. “We want you to take him home with you.”
“What?” She stared at the men, trying to decide if they had suffered simultaneous mental breaks. From their solemn expressions, she could only conclude they were serious. “You want me to take a field agent home with me?”
“After much discussion, we feel it would be in his best interest to recuperate in a home environment, away from the stresses of the Agency.” Dr. Pursley gave her what he likely intended to be a confidence-building smile. Unfortunately, it did nothing to allay Hazel’s worry, especially when he continued. “You have the necessary skills and experience to care for him, plus your home is in a rural area, which will be therapeutic for him.”
“What about my daughter? If this agent is in such bad shape that he needs special care, should he be near a four-year-old?”
“Your daughter will be perfectly safe,” Mr. Wolenczek said. “Ian’s behavior may be a bit erratic right now, but he would never harm a child.”
“Does his erratic behavior put me in danger?” The more Hazel heard, the less she liked their plan. “Keep in mind, I’m the only family my little girl has.”
Mr. Wolenczek opened his mouth, but Dr. Pursley interrupted. “Nurse Baker, I understand your concerns. You have every right to be worried about your safety and that of your daughter, but I honestly believe you both will be fine and that recuperating at your house will be beneficial to Ian’s recovery.”
Hazel shifted her gaze to the glass wall several feet past the men. The light coming from the room indicated it was occupied, but she couldn’t see whoever was inside. Most likely, it was the mysterious Ian they were discussing. But how could she in good conscience take home a field agent in such bad shape he needed to recuperate outside the usual facilities? And what did Mr. Wolenczek mean when he said “erratic behavior”?
She returned her attention to Dr. Pursley, ready to jeopardize her job if necessary to protect her daughter’s physical and mental well-being. “I need more information before I make a decision. What exactly is wrong with this field agent that would require him to spend time at my house?”
“He was taken prisoner during a mission. We don’t know the full extent of what he endured, but there was physical evidence of torture. He still has a couple of healing wounds you will need to keep clean and bandaged.”
The poor man. Kidnapping, torture, and even death were risks all field agents accepted as a part of the job, but few expected to actually deal with such things. “Wait. How can you not know what he endured? All agents are debriefed as soon as they return from the field.”
“We attempted to debrief him,” Mr. Wolenczek said. “He hasn’t spoken since his rescue, although Dr. Hou assures me there is nothing wrong with his vocal chords.”
Dr. Pursley cleared his throat. “That is one reason we believe time in a home environment, especially a rural home like yours, will aid in his recovery. Whatever he endured has traumatized him badly, and staying in this institutional setting isn’t doing him any good.”
Hazel’s heart broke. The agents she had met were all such strong people, outgoing, full of confidence. To know that one had been completely broken by his assignment made her want to accept the task of helping him to recover. However, there was still one matter she needed to know more about before she gave her consent.
“What is the erratic behavior Mr. Wolenczek mentioned?”
The four men exchanged glances, and Hazel grew suspicious. Surely, they hadn’t lied when they said she and her daughter would be safe. Had they?
Dr. Pursley motioned her toward the glass wall. “Ian’s behavior is a bit unpredictable, but he doesn’t appear to be dangerous. At times he wanders restlessly. Other times he appears almost catatonic. He tends to either sleep all the time or not at all.”
She stepped up to the glass and finally caught sight of the man in question. He sat on a padded bench bolted to the wall, head down and hands lying palm up in his lap. His dark hair was in need of a comb, but he appeared to have shaved that morning. The pale blue scrubs hung loosely on him, and Hazel wondered if he had always been so thin or if he had been starved during his captivity.
“As you can see, he’s not particularly wild or out of control.” Dr. Pursley turned toward her, his gaze full of sincerity. “Ian Grant is a good man. Until his captivity he was a great field agent, one of the best. While we would like to see him be able to one day do the job again, it is much more important to get him to the point where he can function in society.”
Hazel studied Ian, who seemed completely unaware of being observed. “Is there anything I should or shouldn’t do to help him on the road to healing?”
“Don’t sneak up on him. He has a rather violent startle response right now.” Dr. Pursley scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “He isn’t likely to harm you if you do happen to startle him, but it seems to set back his recovery each time it happens. With that in mind, always make sure he knows you’re there before you touch him to change a bandage. It occasionally takes a little while for him to realize someone is speaking to him, but it’s best for his mental health to wait until he acknowledges your presence in some way before you touch him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Hazel focused on the psychiatrist. “What injuries does he have?”
“I’ll let Dr. Hou explain those.” Dr. Pursley looked at the trio of men waiting down the hall. “Dr. Hou, Nurse Baker would like to know about Ian’s injuries.”
“Of course.” The doctor joined them and handed Hazel a chart. “This details his condition since he was brought in.”
She opened the chart and skimmed the pages. Ian had endured horrible treatment at the hands of whoever had taken him prisoner. Malnutrition, dehydration, cuts, internal bleeding, cracked ribs, burns, sprains, dislocations — the list was long and stomach-churning. She closed the chart and met Dr. Hou’s gaze. “How long ago was he rescued?”
“A month. As you can see, he has been through a lot.” Dr. Hou sighed and looked at his patient, who hadn’t moved. “Most of the physical injuries have healed at this point. His ribs will be sensitive for a few more weeks, but they’re healing nicely. The only real medical treatment he needs is to have two bandages changed. One is covering an incision on his abdomen. He only needs that one for another day or two. The other bandage is covering a deep second degree burn on his left calf. You will need to keep a close eye on the burn to insure he doesn’t develop any complications, but the healing has been fairly steady with no setbacks so far. Hopefully, it will continue to heal well.”
“I assume I’ll receive all the necessary supplies and detailed instructions for Ian’s treatment.”
“Of course. A kit will be prepared for you. If you run low on something, you’re welcome to request more. It will be delivered to your house.”
Director Cole stepped up behind her. “Does this mean you agree to take him home?”
“Almost.” Hazel turned to face the director and Mr. Wolenczek behind him. “I want to speak with Ian for a moment before I make a final decision. If all goes well, I will take him in and do whatever I can to aid his recovery.”
A furrow formed between Director Cole’s eyebrows, and he drew in a breath. “I’m not sure—”
“Let me go in first,” Mr. Wolenczek said. “Ian knows me, so it might go better if I introduce you before you talk to him.”
“That’s fine.” Hazel ignored the director’s displeased expression and followed Mr. Wolenczek to the door of the observation room.
He typed a code into the keypad by the door, and the light turned red. Opening the door, he stepped inside and spoke in a low, even tone. “Ian, let me know you hear me.”
Ian lifted a hand in a halfhearted wave before letting it fall into his lap again. Mr. Wolenczek stepped farther into the room and motioned for Hazel to join him.
“Ian, this is Hazel Baker. She’s a nurse practitioner and would like to speak with you. All right?”
The same hand lifted briefly in acknowledgement, but otherwise Ian showed no sign that he was aware of the world around him.
Hazel glanced at Mr. Wolenczek, and he nodded. Drawing in a calming breath, she stepped forward and knelt before her soon-to-be patient and housemate. “Ian, they’ve asked that I bring you to my home so you won’t have to stay here any longer. Would you like that?”
He lifted his head ever so slightly and met her gaze with chocolate brown eyes. The shadows of horror were unmistakable, but she suddenly had a feeling he was aware of a lot more than he let on.
She gave him a smile and laid her hand on his arm in a show of friendship. “I have a four-year-old daughter. Her name is Ellie.”
Ian studied her for what felt like an eternity before he finally gave a single small nod. He dropped his gaze again, and Hazel glanced at Mr. Wolenczek. He shrugged, offering no help in deciphering the nod. She turned back to Ian.
“Does that mean you want to come stay with me?” He nodded again, and Hazel gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “All right, then. We’ll make arrangements to transport you to my house.”
She stood and followed Mr. Wolenczek out of the room. As he and the others discussed the transportation plan, she glanced through the glass wall. Ian met her gaze and held it for a few seconds before looking away again. He stretched out on the bench with his back to the hall, and Hazel tried to return her attention to the discussion around her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get those troubled brown eyes out of her mind. It felt like he was trying to tell her something, but what?
* * * *
The pretty blue-eyed, blonde-haired nurse practitioner haunted Ian’s thoughts long after they turned the lights out for the night, leaving the illumination from the hall as his only companion. He didn’t know why the Agency wanted him to stay at her house, but he wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to get out of this cold, unfeeling place. The nightmares made sleep nearly impossible, especially since he spent a good portion of every day listening to Wolenczek, Pursley, and Cole spout the few facts they knew about his captivity in an attempt to get him to talk about it. They claimed it was to help him recover, but Ian knew better.
They had no interest in helping him recover from the horrors he’d endured. They only wanted to know everything he’d learned during his captivity so they could use it.
His chest tightened with the now familiar beginnings of a panic attack. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing deeply, filling his mind with images of Hazel Baker. Memories of her soothing presence when she had briefly spoken with him that afternoon had comforted him throughout the following questions about his captivity, orders for him to start talking, and instructions for how he was to behave while he was at her house. He longed to be there already, in a place where someone might truly care about him, rather than only about what he knew.
The panic faded and depression took its place. Before his capture, he had been well-liked at the Agency and had counted Wolenczek among his friends. Now, however, he knew the truth. He had no friend within the Agency. Even Dr. Hou, who had shown the most concern for his well-being, seemed to care more about getting him healthy so he could be done with him than about Ian himself.
Hazel once again infiltrated his thoughts. Did she care as much as her gaze and gentle words had indicated? Or was she only pretending like the others to get the information they wanted as quickly as possible?
He couldn’t bear to think of her being so manipulative. Over the years since she had come to work at the Agency, he had heard good things about her. Although he had never received treatment from her, he knew several other agents who had been under her care. Each had been impressed with her caring attitude, which was something field agents didn’t often see within Agency employees. Usually, they were treated as an expendable commodity, one to be cared for as long as they were useful. Once their usefulness was gone, or greatly diminished, the true feelings of their higher-ups came through.
The system was undeniably corrupt, but Ian had yet to find a way to stop it. Ever since his rescue a month ago, he had been hard-pressed to do more than fight off the overwhelming memories slowly gnawing away at what remained of his sanity. He hoped Hazel could help him find balance in his off-kilter world once more. Then, and only then, would he be able to fight back against the Agency that had betrayed him so cruelly.