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With a violent shiver, Mitch shook the rain from his dark hair and strode briskly up the stairs. Outside, there was a “lalapalooza” of a wind, as they called it in Idaho, and his bulky fisherman's sweater afforded only minimal protection against the damp, cold morning. The first of November was announcing itself with a vengeance.
At the top of the stairs, he pushed open the heavy steel door and wandered through, automatically turning left into the familiar corridor of Branson's, the new medical facility halfway between the college towns of Pullman and Moscow. The bright walls of the children's wing were decorated with cartoon art, while painted rainbows graced the ceilings.
Unfortunately, the cheerful decor in no way muted the unmistakable smells of alcohol and antiseptic. Mitch jammed his hands in the front pockets of his worn, loose cords and felt his teeth instinctively clench, just a little.
Old dreads. He'd spent too many years in hospitals to shake his revulsion for those smells; yet that very revulsion was the reason why he spent so many Saturday mornings here. Antiseptics and fear went together if you were a kid. He knew. The hospital he'd been in had been much older and drearier than Branson's, and he'd been a few years older than most of the children on this floor, but he understood exactly what they were going through.
Way back when—when he was fifteen, to be exacthis only goals in life had been to play football and to get laid.
One's goals changed slightly when one had spent thirteen years fighting for survival. A narrow streak of white in Mitch's dark hair and a deep furrow between his brows bore witness to the change. Still, his face must have retained some traces of that hell-bent-for-trouble teenager, because when the brunette at the nurse's station glanced up, her eyes sparkled in welcome.
“You're early, handsome.”
“A little.” He returned her wide grin. Rhoda had soft brown eyes, curly hair and a figure that almost made her nurse's uniform look seductive. He let his eyes sweep over her a little longer, primarily because she would have been disappointed if he hadn't.
She fussed hurriedly with the papers in front of her. “You give me that kind of look every time you come in here,” she accused mildly.
“You have terrific legs.”
“Thank you.” She stopped fussing. “Now, are you going to see Peter for me?”
Mitch's easy smile didn't falter, but his dark eyes ceased to dance and turned broody and gentle. “He was better last week,” he said shortly.
“Medically, he's doing fine. Oh, chafing at the traction, but it's his mother he's frantic about. She's his whole family ”
“Last week you said she'd been taken off the critical list.”Rhoda nodded. “She has been, and in time she'll be fine. But we can't let him see her, Mitch. The bandages alone would scare him to bits…especially since he's convinced something terrible has happened to her. Kay's already in there, by the way, but never mindthat little boy can use all the company he can get.”
Mitch had already taken a determined stride toward the child's room when he hesitated, one eyebrow raised curiously. “Who's Kay?”