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Smack. Smack. Smack. Julia Caldwell listened to the familiar sound of a ball hitting the center pocket of a baseball mitt. It echoed through the hospital corridors, as routine as the monitors beeping at the nurses' station in Miami's Cari-dad del Cobre Children's Hospital. For the last month, the Cortez family, mother and fourteen-year-old twin sons, had been a fixture at the hospital; Michael Cortez and his baseball obsession were a welcome break from sickness and pain.
Michael and his brother, Manny, were twins, alike in so many ways except for a cruel genetic twist. Manny had leukemia. Michael did not. Manny had his mother at his side day and night. Michael did not.
As the healthy child in a single-parent home, baseball was the only comfort Michael Cortez had. Nobody, from the nurses to the doctors to other patients or parents, would ever ask him to stop the repetitive sound.
Every afternoon, Michael walked to the hospital from school and took up residence in either his brother's room or the family lounge. Not wanting to be a burden to his mother, he'd do his homework without being reminded, bring his mom coffee and then turn to the comforting routine of tossing the ball into the glove.
Smack. Smack. Smack.
From her small office near the nurses' station, Julia filled out the Request for Assistance forms for the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation. As the social worker responsible for the pediatric wing of Caridad del Cobre, Julia had already been in contact with the program manager at ASRL and the foundation was expecting the formal request. Within twenty-four hours, ASRL would cut a check to Anna Cortez's landlord, electric company and phone provider. The rent for their apartment and other essential expenses would be taken care of while Anna sat by Manny's bedside, willing him to live. Anna had already lost her job because, as everyone at the hospital understood too well, a child's illness was all consuming. ASRL's motto was Compassion Can't Wait.
And the foundation always stepped up immediately.
Before Julia faxed in the Request for Assistance, she said her usual prayer of thanks to the people at ASRL, grateful she'd contacted the foundation almost two years ago for another single parent of a teenage girl with a brain tumor. Since then, Caridad del Cobre routinely applied to ASRL for funding for families who met the criteriasingle caregivers who needed to be with their sick children.
Julia leaned against the wall and sighed. But who would make sure the needs of Michael Cortez, the healthy child, were met?
Smack. Smack. Smack.
She listened to the sound, as familiar to her as the number 22 emblazoned on the fourteen-year-old boy's jersey. Number 22, Kyle Hansen, star pitcher for the Miami Suns, the city's three-year-old expansion team, which had made it as far as the playoffs last year. Kyle was their multi-million-dollar boy, their marquee player and their captain.
He was also Julia's high school sweetheart and first lovebefore life choices got in the way. The fax machine beeped loudly, letting her know the message had gone through. Shaking off the past, she headed down the hall to tell Anna Cortez that everything would be taken care of soon.
Smack. Smack. Smack.
Drawn by the sound, Julia paused by the family waiting room and glanced at the dark-haired boy sitting alone in the lounge, rhythmically smacking the ball into his glove.
"Hey." He didn't take his eyes off the ball. With hard work and a guardian angel, the boy's focus and concentration could take him far.
Just like his idol.
"What time is today's Suns game?" she asked him.
Julia nodded. Her paid day ended at five. "Want company?" She didn't have plans for the night and she could just as easily watch the game here as at home.
The boy shrugged. "Don't care."
Smack. Smack. Smack.
"Good. That settles it, then. I'll pick us up burgers for dinner and be back in time for the game. It'll be like we're at the stadium."
"Burgers from Burgers, Shakes and Fries?" he asked, showing the first sign of eagerness.
Julia grinned. "Yeah. I can go to Burgers, Shakes and Fries." Even if it was fifteen minutes in the other direction. Michael's smile was worth it.
Her heart swelled and she felt an overwhelming empathy for the boy who was losing his childhood along with his brother. She'd once been there, the healthy sibling with a sister dying of leukemia, and she knew exactly how Michael was feeling.
Alone, lonely, resentful and afraid. She also knew that whether Manny recovered or not, Michael's life would never be the same. His relationship with his mother, his sibling, even the rest of the world, would be forever altered. As hers had been.
If someone didn't step in and acknowledge that he was important too, his already rioting emotions would change him from just a teenager with attitude to one who found validation elsewhere, in crime or, worse, in one of the street gangs prevalent in the downtown area where he lived. Julia knew it would take a special person with unique skills to get past the teenager's well-honed defenses and impress him. Someone like the man Julia hadn't seen in nine years and who she'd never had any intention of contacting again.
She ran her hands up and down her arms as she traveled down memory road. Kyle had signed a letter of intent to play baseball for the University of Miami, but turned down the scholarship when he was selected in the first round of the amateur draft to play for the Seattle Mariners right after graduation. He'd asked, actually he'd expected, her to go with him.
She'd refused. For more reasons than she could think about now.
Could she just resurface in his life all these years later and ask him for help? And even if she was willing to step up and do that, she couldn't easily find a way to contact him now that he was a celebrity.
But she had resources. Illness didn't discriminate, and thanks to her work at Caridad del Cobre and her association with ASRL, she had met people from all walks of life.
With all sorts of connections.
As always, Kyle arrived at the newly built Suns Stadium way before game time. Usually he stretched and hung with the team, and on a pitching day, he used the time to get into the zone. Today wasn't his day on the mound, so he could relax his focus somewhat. He parked his Porsche in the private team lot, grateful for the reprieve from the female groupies who never stopped believing the star players would single them out for attention.
It wasn't that Kyle didn't appreciate the fans who filled the seats and helped pay his hefty salary. He definitely did. But he could do without the hangers-on who wanted a taste of fame, fortune and whichever ballplayer would toss some kind of interest their way. He used to revel in that kind of attention and indulged in whatever the willing females had to offer.
He hadn't been that desperateor interestedin a while. Restless and edgy described him a lot better. Not that he knew why, when he'd achieved his dream. Lessons learned were often painful. Back in the days when he'd been a staple at the bar scene, running far from memories and himself, he'd had something to prove. He'd taken his aggression out on the mound and the players at the plate. Off the field, he'd dared anyone else to try to mess with him, shoving his up-and-coming star status in everyone's face.
He'd always known he was more talented than the average ballplayer and that he'd have to work his way out of the gutter in which he'd been born. A lucky break got him noticed by a pastor at Westminster Academy, who'd wrangled him a scholarship to the school. That's where he'd met Julia Caldwell. But after she'd wished him luck in the minors and kissed him goodbye, he'd lost his focus. After one drink and one fight too many, Kyle had ended up behind bars. His mentor in the minors bailed him out, sobered him up and shoved his face in the mirror, forcing him to realize the path to success wasn't strewn with alcohol and bimbos.
Kyle shook his head and shoved his sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose. There was no reason those days should've come back to him now. He'd behaved and worked hard ever since, and he was finally living his dream as the marquee player of Miami's newest expansion team.
He swung his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked through the stadium doors, waving to the security guard as he passed.
Before he could turn down the long corridor leading to the locker room, a familiar female voice called to him. "Hansen, I need a word!"
He cringed at the commanding tone. Macy Kroger, the Suns' publicist, had a stronger voice than any man he knew and an iron will. When she wanted something from someone, she usually got it.
As the captain and face of the team, Kyle went out of his way to play nice with Macy, but he had one rule he expected her to obey.
"Business after the game, not before," he called over his shoulder as a reminder. Whether or not he was pitching, he demanded his concentration be on the game.
Macy's stilettos clicked as she ran down the hall, catching up with him just as he rounded the corner. "Kyle, wait."
He turned to face her. "What?"
She'd tucked a pen behind her ear, and her fiery-red hair fell over her shoulders, but to her credit she wasn't winded from her sprint down the hall.
Macy was about thirty, tough as nails and as gorgeous as they came. The Suns' owners had lured her away from their crosstown rivals with the promise of a six-figure salary and complete access to the players, which she needed to make her job a success.
"What's so important that it can't wait?" he asked.
"A mission of mercy." She pulled out a folder and began to read him sad statistics on single parents and the effect of catastrophic illness on families, along with a host of other issues he was way too familiar with.
Once again, thoughts of Julia tried to come flooding back.
He glanced at his gold watch and tapped the face. "Get to the point," he told Macy. "Game's in three hours."
She shot him a smirk. "Fine. Twin brothers. One has leukemia. The other doesn't. Healthy twin could use a mentor of sorts."
Kyle's gut tightened at the word leukemia and the notion that it was the other sibling who needed help. Julia had once been that other sibling. Back when they'd met, he'd needed her to tutor him in Spanish. She'd just plain needed attention and he'd been only too happy to provide it. His days with Julia represented a time in his life he didn't like to revisit. She'd hurt him badly and he hated going down that road.
Too many what-ifs and could-have-beens.
So, as he always did when random thoughts of Julia arose, he squelched them. "Put Ryder on it," Kyle told the publicist. "He could use some exposure and I've seen him with the manager's kids. He's your guy."
In the year since Macy had been on the job, she'd made stars of their rookies and garnered the team a reputation for charitable good deeds. Children were the Suns' most passionate cause. Ryder would make a great mentor for the kid.
"I wasn't asking for suggestions. I already have my man." Macy met his gaze with a determined one of her own and stepped closer.
That was Macyshe talked in circles until he finally understood her point. Which was usually a good one.
"Let me backtrack so you'll have a clear picture," she said, unaware of his thoughts. "Dave Granderson's new wife has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. The daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years ago, when the current Mrs. Granderson was a single parent. Are you with me so far?"
Granderson was the team's co-owner, and if he was involved with this request, Kyle understood why it would be given top priority. "Go on."
"The hospital that treated her daughter, Caridad del Cobre Children's Hospital, referred Mrs. Granderson to the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation, ASRL for short. ASRL stepped in and made sure her rent and electric bill were paid, they put food on the table when she couldn't work because she was by her daughter's bedside. In short, Mrs. Granderson would do anything for ASRL."
"Understandable," Kyle said. Forget that the order came from ownership. He respected what ASRL did for single-parent families. He'd only suggested Ryder to avoid old memories, but if he was the best man for the job, so be it.
"You don't need the hard sell," he told Macy. "I'll meet the kid."
She smiled in obvious relief. "Good. Because Michael Cortez, the boy whose twin is dying, idolizes you. ASRL told the hospital's social worker to contact Mrs. Grander-son, who in turn promised you'd be happy to get together with him."
He nodded. "Now that I've agreed, we can talk details after the game." He turned toward the locker room.
Macy stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Not so fast. You need to take a meeting. Now."
"The social worker in charge of coordinating your meeting with the boy. She's waiting for you in my office."
Kyle shook his head in frustration. "Seriously. Doesn't business after the game mean anything to you?"
Macy smiled. "Well, normally I insist anyone who wants to meet with my players abide by my rules, but this woman said she knew you."
"Does she have a name?" Even as he asked, the hair on the back of his neck stood up and every nerve ending in his body prickled with unease.
The name hit him like a fastball to the head. No wonder he'd thought of her earlier. Call it premonition or just a plain old gut feeling, somehow he'd sensed her presence.
"You can find her in my office, but I'll give you some time alone first," Macy said. "You look like you need it."
She turned and walked away, leaving him to digest her news.
Julia Caldwell had come back. For business, not for him. Man, she had a knack for bruising his ego, he thought as he strode down the hall toward Macy's private office.
He passed life-size photographs of the Suns' current roster lining the walls of the stadium, including one of number 22Kyle Hansen, Team Captain captioned beneath. But not even the reminder that he was no longer the kid with one pair of jeans and just a minor-league contract to his name helped make Kyle feel like the superstar he'd become. The prospect of seeing Julia again had brought him back in time and he didn't like it one bit.