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She couldn't help being impressed. As a nurse, Kaylie Chatam had encountered many patients whose physical conditions sadly diminished them, but not this time. Not even the bulk of the casts protecting his broken bones deflected attention from the big, commanding presence asleep on the high, half tester bed. Tall and long-limbed yet brawny, with an air of intensity about him even in sleep that his shaggy blond hair and lean, chiseled face did nothing to diminish, he emitted a potent force, a larger-than-life aura.
Kaylie lifted a petite hand to the heavy, sandy-red chignon at the nape of her neck, wishing that she'd secured it more firmly that morning when dressing for church. She'd have preferred to conduct this interview in the shapeless scrubs that she always wore when working, her long, straight hair scraped back into a tight knot. Instead, here she stood, wearing skimpy flat mules with big silver buckles on the shallow toes, a straight knee-length skirt and a frothy confection of a white blouse, her hair slipping and sliding, tendrils hanging about her face.
Turning to the man crowded next to her in the doorway of the bedchamber in one of the second-floor suites of Chatam House, the antebellum mansion owned by her three delightful aunties, Kaylie felt at a distinct disadvantage. Stocky, blunt-featured and of medium height with short, prematurely gray hair, a practiced smile and a pricey, light grayish brown suit, Aaron Doolin had identified himself as the patient's agent.
"Who is he exactly?"
"Who is he?" Doolin parroted, obviously shocked. "Who is he? Why, that's the Hangman." At her blank look, he went on. "Stephen Gallow. Starting goalie for the Fort Worth Blades hockey team." He glanced at the bed, muttering, "At least he was before the accident."
A hockey goalie? Here at Chatam House? She knew little about the game beyond its reputation for violence, but that was enough to make her wonder what the aunties had gotten themselves into now. More to the point, what had they gotten her into? Provided, of course, that she decided to take on this patient, which she could not do in good conscience without at least nominal approval from her father.
"What happened to the bed hangings?" she asked Doolin, gesturing toward the massive headboard of the bed. One of her aunts' prized English antiques, it stood a good seven feet in height. Even the square footposts were taller than Kaylie, though at a mere five feet in her stocking feet, that wasn't saying too much.
Doolin just shrugged. "I don't know from hangings."
"The curtains at the sides of the front of the bed."
"Oh!" He waved a hand, the sapphire on his pinky flashing in the midday light. The edges of his ever-present smile frayed. "Well, during the excitement last night—" he churned his hands then shrugged sheepishly "—they sort of came down in the scrum. Your aunts thought it best to get them out of the way."
Kaylie analyzed that and came to the conclusion that whatever had happened the night before had involved a certain amount of violence, which explained why the original nurse had walked out and why she was here at Chatam House, staring at an injured, sleeping hockey player. The idea still did not quite compute. She tilted her head and wondered what was so compelling about this particular patient.
That he was handsome could not be denied, despite the faint slanting scars on his chin and high on his right cheek. Thick, pale gold hair formed a shaggy frame for a rectangular face with large, even features, the eyes set deeply beneath the slashes of incongruently dark brows. The sooty shadow of a beard that hadn't seen a razor in some days colored his square jaws, cheeks and chin, calling attention to wide, surprisingly soft lips that might have looked feminine in a less aggressively masculine face.
How was she, a pediatric nurse, supposed to deal with a man like this?
Kaylie almost turned around and walked away right then, but her aunts would not have asked this of her if the need were not acute. They had approached Kaylie immediately after worship service that morning, asking her to stop by the mansion at her earliest opportunity. Some tinge of desperation in that request had made Kaylie drop off her father at his—their—house and drive straight here. Only then had she learned of the aunts' guest and his need for nursing care. She had been shocked, to say the least.
Known for their good works, the Chatam sisters, triplets in their seventies, often opened their historic antebellum mansion to family and family connections, but this was the first time in Kaylie's memory that they had ever taken in a complete stranger. His situation must be desperate, indeed. She turned to Aaron Doolin once more.
"What is his condition?"
"Drugged," he replied flippantly.
Kaylie just looked at the man. Of course Gallow was drugged. Obviously so. It was nearly one o'clock in the afternoon, and the man was sleeping as soundly as if two people were not standing in his room talking. She understood that the doctor had been called in during the night to sedate the patient. Such a heavy dose indicated that the poor man had been in great physical distress.
Doolin cleared his throat and got serious. "You want to know about his injuries. Uh, let's see. Stevie broke his leg and arm. The arm was pretty bad. That and the ribs is why they've strapped it to his chest that way, and naturally it had to be his left arm because he is left-handed." Doolin grinned and added proudly, "One of the few truly left-handed goalies in the league."
"Is that good?"
The agent goggled at her. "Good?" Shaking his head at her obvious ignorance of all things hockey, he sent her a pitying look. "That, Miss Chatam, is a very good thing, indeed. Especially if said lefty is a big brute with reflexes quick as a cat and the eyesight of an eagle."
A brute. His own agent called him a brute. She could just imagine how her father, a retired pastor, would feel about that. Hub Chatam considered his youngest son's participation in pro rodeo barbaric. Chatam men, he asserted firmly and often, were called to higher purposes than mere sport. Chatam men were lawyers and pastors, doctors and professors, bankers and titans of industry who used their wealth and talents for the good of others in the name of Christ. That Chandler chose to dismiss his father's convictions was a great bone of contention within the family. No doubt, Hub would hold an even less favorable opinion of a pro hockey player, though of course a boarder and patient wasn't the same thing as a son.
"Sorry," she muttered to the agent. "Not much of a sports fan. My field is medicine."
"Medicine. Right. Gotcha. About his condition… Let's see… Broken bones. Two in the right leg, two in the left arm, four ribs, collarbone. I think that's it. Internally, there was a lacerated liver, a bruised pancreas, busted spleen…" Doolin tsked and shook his head. "I don't know what all."
Kaylie nodded in understanding. "Concussion?"
"Um, unofficially, he got conked pretty good."
Unofficially? "Was there brain damage?"
Aaron Doolin reared back. "No way! He's sharp as ever!" The agent smiled. "Mouth certainly works. He's singeing my ears regular again, but hey, that's what I get paid for. Right?" He chuckled, only to sober when it became obvious that she wouldn't join in with anything more than a weak smile.
Stephen Gallow sounded like both a brute and a bully, but who was she to judge such things? Her one concern should be the health of the patient. "What about his lungs?" she asked. "Were they punctured?"
"Nothing said about it."
"They would have mentioned something like that," Kaylie told him. "Trust me."
Nodding, Aaron looked to the bed. "Kid's got plenty to deal with as it is."
No doubt about that, Kaylie mused, thinking of her father, who had suffered a heart attack some six months earlier. Compared to all this man had been through, that seemed almost minor, though Hub continued to behave as if his life remained in immediate danger. She wandered closer to the bed.
Stephen Gallow moaned and twitched, muttering what sounded like, "Nig-nig."
Doolin slid his hands into his pants pockets. "Must think he's talking to Nick."
"Nick? Who's that?"
"Uh, old buddy."
"He's dreaming, then."
"Yeah, yeah. Does a lot of that since the accident." Doolin churned his hands again, in what seemed to be a habitual gesture. "The trauma of it all, I guess."
"He's suffered some very serious injuries," Kaylie murmured.
"You're telling me! Man, I thought he'd bought it, you know?"
"How long ago was the accident?"
"Nine, ten days." He looked at his client, and for the first time the mask of beaming bonhomie slipped, showing genuine concern. "Ask me, he oughta be in the hospital still."
Kaylie smiled to herself. Patients and family were often of that opinion, but home could be a safer, more restful environment than the hospital.
"But you know how it is," Doolin went on. "A big sports star draws attention that hospitals don't particularly appreciate, and when said sports star is trying to keep a low profile… Well, that's why we're here, obviously."
Kaylie furrowed her brow at that. "You mean he's hiding out here at Chatam House?"
The agent licked his lips warily before admitting, "You could say that."
"The press, mostly."
"But why Chatam House? How did he wind up here?"
"Oh, that." The pinky ring flashed again. "Brooksy arranged it."
Brooksy? "You mean Brooks Leland? Doctor Brooks Leland?"
Doolin's gray head bobbed. "Yeah, yeah. Me and Brooksy, we went to college together. We were fraternity brothers, and hey, once a frat bro, always a frat bro. Right?"
Frat bro. A smile wiggled across Kaylie's lips. She'd remember that and give her older brother's best friend—that was, Brooksy—a hard time about it later. Obviously, Doolin had called Brooks about his patient's need to keep a low profile while recovering from his accident and Brooks had contacted the aunts, apparently Aunt Odelia specifically. Finally, this situation was beginning to make some sort of sense.
"So what do you think?" Aaron Doolin asked. "Can you do it? He just mainly needs someone to help him get around and manage his pain, meds and meals." He eyed her warily. "You think you can make him take his medicine?"
Make him? Kaylie lifted a slender eyebrow at that. She thought of her father again. At seventy-six, Hub Chatam was twice widowed and a retired minister. As the youngest of his four children and the only daughter, she'd taken a leave of absence from her job after his heart attack in order to move into his house, take care of him and help him adjust to the new lifestyle necessitated by his health realities. Six months later, he still wouldn't take a pill that didn't come from her hand. He claimed that he couldn't keep them straight, but let ten minutes pass the appointed time for one of his meds and he was demanding to know when she was going to dispense it.
Before she could answer the agent's question, Gallow's eyes popped open. Startled by their paleness—they were like marbles of gray ice—Kaylie registered the panic in them. She instinctively started forward just a heartbeat before he bolted up into a sitting position. Roaring in pain, he dropped back onto the pillow. A blue streak of profanity rent the air, then he gasped and began to writhe.
Though taken aback, Kaylie instantly realized that he was doing himself damage. Stepping up to his bedside, she bent over him and calmly advised, "Be still. Take slow breaths. Slow, shallow breaths." For the first time he looked at her. Confusion, anger and pain poured out of those eerily pale eyes, but as he stopped moving and gradually controlled his breathing, lucidity took hold of him. Impulsively, Kaylie brushed a pale gold lock from his brow, smiling encouragingly. "Slow…slow… That's it."
His pale gaze skimmed over her with acute curiosity even as he followed her instructions. After a moment, he swallowed and rasped, "Who are you?"
"Kaylie Chatam. Hypatia, Odelia and Magnolia Chatam are my aunts."
"Kaylie's a nurse," Aaron Doolin put in helpfully. "How about that? The old biddies, er, our hostesses had one in the family. Go figure."
Gallow's gaze abruptly shifted to his agent. Kaylie shivered. Had she been the recipient of that suddenly furious, frigid, accusatory glare, she'd have ducked. Doolin just ratcheted up his grin and spread his hands.
"Hey, Stevie! That's my boy. How you feeling there, huh?"
"How do you think I feel?" Gallow gritted out. "And don't call me Stevie."
"Sure. Sure. Doc says you reinjured those ribs last night. Must be killing you."
Literally baring his teeth, Gallow revealed a pair of spaces on the right side where his upper and lower second molars should be. Something about those empty spaces pricked Kaylie's heart. He was no longer the impossibly handsome sports figure or the angry brute but a mere man at the mercy of his own injuries. Until he snarled.
"Reinjured my ribs? You think? That ba—" He slid a gaze over Kaylie. "That bozo ball of lard you hired to take care of me threw himself on top of me! That's what reinjured my ribs."
Doolin lifted his hands as if to ward off a blow. "Hey, calm down, will you? How was I to know the guy would do that? I mean, he's a nurse, right? He said you were all over the place and that he was trying to pin you down so you wouldn't fall off the bed."
"He was trying to pin me down, all right, and enjoyed every second of it, until I kicked him in the—" Gallow broke off there and gave Kaylie an irritated look.
Doolin chuckled. "You gave him an anatomy lesson he didn't get in nursing school, that's for sure."
Kaylie stepped back and folded her arms, appalled. This man was a powerhouse of lithe physical strength and jagged emotion that ranged far beyond her personal experience. Stephen Gallow sent her a cool, challenging look. She felt frozen and singed at the same time. A sense of foreboding shivered through her as she watched him take his agent to task with little more than a glare and growl.
"Where's the bozo now?"
"Fired him last night."
"And you think he's going to keep his mouth shut after this?"
"He signed a nondisclosure, and I sent the attorney to remind him of that in person this morning, along with a check for his trouble."
In other words, Kaylie thought, shocked, they'd paid off the man! Whether to keep him quiet or forestall a lawsuit, she didn't know. Most likely both. Obviously she had stumbled into a situation that was well beyond her depth.