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"What do you think you're doing?" Kate asked the man standing beside her patient's hospital bed.
The well-dressed stranger stalled in the process of handing the boy something… A miniature sports car. The man raised his deep blue eyes from Dillon, squinting as he locked on to Kate's glare. He gave her a disarming grin.
One she had no trouble resisting.
Her mission as a child had been not falling prey to her brother's Southern charm. It was either that or be in constant trouble for the mischief Martin could so easily talk her in to. Now that she'd reached the wise age of thirty-two, sophisticated stuffed shirts brandishing easy smiles didn't rate a raised eyebrow.
"Visitation for minors is limited to immediate family only," she said in her no-nonsense nurse's voice as the tall, dark-haired man gave Dillon the car.
"But he knows Papa." The ten-year-old, who was usually so withdrawn, flashed a megawatt smile.
The bruises mottling Dillon's right cheek and eye kept Kate from sharing his enthusiasm.
Dillon's joy was palpable whenever his papa was around. The two of them were inseparable at the homeless shelter where Kate volunteered most of her free time away from the hospital. Dillon's unquestioning love for his only parent was what made this situation even harder to accept.
"Look what I got!" he exclaimed, his flawless English colored by a heavy South American inflection.
He held up the plastic Corvette, but Kate could only see the electric green cast that protected his thin arm. His severe ankle sprain had been wrapped to stabilize the joint, and elevated to reduce swelling. Injuries resulting, supposedly, from Dillon's latest accidentalfall—this time, down the Midtown Shelter's basement stairs.
An accident Manny Digarro had no better explanation for than his only child was more clumsy than other kids his age. Accident-prone. What's a father to do? "That car rocks, tough guy." She smiled as she walked to the bed.
"It's the one Papa said we couldn't buy when we saw it in the store Monday night."
The same night the little heartbreaker had been rushed to Atlanta Memorial's emergency room—for the third time in two months, Kate had discovered after reading his chart. Though this was the first time he'd been admitted to Pediatrics.
"The boy's father asked me to bring the toy by." The man's small talk didn't distract her from his too-observant gaze. "Seems the nurses at the admissions desk refuse to discuss Dillon's condition when Mr. Digarro calls. He wasn't sure of his welcome if he came himself."
If the hint of judgment in his voice weren't enough, the worry on Dillon's face was all the motivation Kate needed.
"I'll speak with you outside, Mr.…?" She was polite, but he was definitely leaving.
He merely smiled.
Was she supposed to swoon or something? As if she hadn't seen dimples and perfectly straight teeth before!
She half dragged him toward the hallway. "Play with your car for a minute, Dillon," she said over her shoulder.
She kicked at the magnetic device that secured the bottom of the door against the wall. Once the door whooshed shut behind them, she released the man's arm, stopping short of wiping her hand on her cartoon-covered scrubs.
Just barely. "You're so out of here." She headed for the nurses' station to page Security, picking up her pace when she heard his footsteps behind her. "I don't know who you are, but—"
He edged around her, putting his body between her and the nearest phone, and bringing her to a skidding halt.
"I'm Stephen Creighton," he announced. "And I represent the innocent man you're so determined to keep away from that child."
"YOU BET I'M KEEPING Manny Digarro away from his child!" The nurse who'd rushed Stephen into the hall was furious. "If he does show up here, which I suspect he won't, the staff won't let him anywhere near Dillon."
Stephen didn't have to read her name badge to know she was Kate Rhodes, the woman Manny Digarro had warned him about. The homeless shelter volunteer who'd befriended the immigrant family last week, then two days ago had lodged a formal complaint of child abuse with the APD— Atlanta's police department.
"Mr. Digarro's done nothing to deserve this treatment," Stephen insisted, the soul of reason.
"You can't separate him from his son. Dillon fell down those stairs, and his father is beside himself worrying about—"
"From the looks of the old fractures on Dillon's X rays, someone should have done more than separate your friend from his son years ago."
"Client," Stephen corrected. "Manny Digarro is my client. A good man that I'd be honored to call my friend—regardless of the color of his skin, his ethnic background or his current inability to afford his own home."
Kate's eyes narrowed. If her spine got any stiffer, she'd break in two.
"This isn't about them being homeless, or from another country, or anything other than protecting an abused boy from further harm—by someone who's supposed to love him."
"My client does love his son. Very much. He—"
"Belongs in jail! In addition to his current injuries, Dillon has poorly healed breaks on both arms, his left wrist and ankle. Weeks-old contusions on his chest, to go along with the shiny new ones on his face. And don't get me started on the poor dental hygiene and the vitamin deficiency we suspect is causing his complexion to be three shades lighter than a healthy child's should be."
"Do you find oral hygiene and a healthy glow common among the homeless Nurse Rhodes?"
She crossed her arms. "Once we have the results of the tests Dillon's pediatrician ordered, I'm confident—"
"What tests? Manny hasn't signed consent forms for treatment…."
"In the case of suspected abuse, doctors can sign on the child's behalf. The tests have been run. Once their results are in, not being able to visit Dillon will be the least of your client's concerns. Until then, Manny Digarro should be thankful that restricting his access to the pediatric floor is the only option the other nurses and I have."
The golden-haired beauty's chest rose and fell. The warm green eyes that had smiled down at Dillon sparked with fire.
It was inappropriate, under the circumstances, to find Kate Rhodes's temper tantrum arousing. But that kind of passion was hard to come by in Stephen's world—especially in the defense of another person's well-being. And certainly not in someone so meticulously put together. Stephen would bet tomorrow night's poker stake that Kate rarely let a hair slip out of place, let alone her emotions.
Too bad this wasn't the time or place to push her buttons further, just to see what she'd do next.
Work the case, man. "You only met the Digarros a week ago," he said, as if reason would work better the second time around. "You didn't see Dillon's accident. Admit it—you don't know for sure what happened, any more than I do."
"Dillon fell, violently, down a flight of stairs. Only his father seems to have witnessed it, just like all the other accidents. What else do I need to know?"
"Manny's no more a threat to his child than I am," Stephen assured her. "He's—"
"An abusive bastard who's never going to hurt his son again! Dillon is terrified. He's barely spoken to anyone since he got here."
Stephen blinked and focused past the righteous indignation that he'd label racism or sheer ignorance in someone else. There was genuine fear in Kate's voice.
Most people took one look at an impoverished immigrant like Manny Digarro and saw someone they couldn't trust. Someone they didn't want to be any closer to than they had to be. But Kate Rhodes spent several evenings a week working to help the homeless community. Shielding them from a world too often unconcerned about the well-being of the most needy.
And now she was hell-bent on protecting a child she'd convinced herself had no one else in his corner.
"Manny Digarro's terrified, too," Stephen countered. "He's watched his son have one accident after another, and tried to care for him the best he could, while working countless dead-end jobs to keep them off public assistance. Now he's being told that's not good enough. That Dillon doesn't belong with him. I'm here to make sure someone in this hospital hears my client's side of the story before a terrible mistake is made."
She sized up his Brooks Brothers suit. "Where did Manny dig you up," she wanted to know, "if he's struggling so badly?"
"At the legal aid center, where he'd heard someone would listen to him, instead of taking one look at his ethnic background and worn-out clothes and figure he was a no-account… 'bastard,' I think you called him, who beats up on his kid to get his jollies."
Her eyes widened. But instead of biting back, she breathed deeply and squared her shoulders.
"Bait me all you want. But my first clue your client was a no-account bastard came while assessing the damage to Dillon's body, not Manny's fashion sense. And you've gotten all the details about Dillon's condition that you're going to. Leave, Mr. Creighton. Or I'll have Security make sure you do."
He stood his ground, soaking in the honesty and integrity rolling off her. Kate Rhodes wasn't on some blind mission to punish an innocent father for socioeconomic circumstances he couldn't control. Instincts that had never let Stephen down screamed that this woman could help his client, if he could only get her to listen.
She started to walk around him. He grabbed her arm. His mistake was instantly obvious.
She didn't jerk away from his touch. She cringed. The agitated breathing that she'd brought under control just seconds before, stopped completely.
Frightened eyes snapped to his face, then dilated.
"Let me go," begged the woman who'd just verbally handed him his ass. "Please, let me—"