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Afternoon sunlight spilled into the room, chasing away the gloomy shadows. Bright murals of children playing decorated the walls, the cheerful paintings a stark contrast to the sterile, high-tech machinery filling the room. A hand puppet, looking like a little boy, dressed in blue boxer shorts and a red-striped T-shirt poked its bandaged head between the high metal rails at the side of the hospital bed. The bed seemed much too big for the small patient it held.
"Hi, Davey," a soft voice said. "Remember me? I'm Joey. I was here yesterday."
The blond lashes that lay against pale cheeks fluttered, but the eyes of the boy in the bed didn't open. The only sound to break the expectant stillness was the steady beep of the cardiac monitor.
"I'd really like to have a friend," Joey said, waving one tiny hand hopefully. "Wouldn't you?"
This time there wasn't any sign at all that the injured child, his own head swathed in bandages, had heard.
Mallory Blakeand, thus, Joeysighed.
She'd been at this for a week now, coming every day to spend a half hour or more at Davey Landers's bedside, hoping to penetrate the wall of silence that distanced him from the world. The nurses had told her he'd been like this ever since he came into pediatrics from intensive care. For nearly a month now he'd had no visitors except the staff, and few of them had time to sit with him and talk. He wasn't an assigned case, but Mallory was touched by Davey's desperate need for love and attention. She found the time for him in a schedule of rounds and appointments that grew more crowded each day she was at Fairview General.
She'd heard about the near-miraculous surgery that had saved Davey's life. She also knew it had been touch and go with him for a while in intensive care. Now, according to his chart, his physical condition was improving every day, but emotionally he couldn't be reached. His state of mind wasn't surprising, judging from his medical history and the bits of information she'd been able to pick up from the social worker on the case, but it saddened her just the same.
At first Mallory had simply talked during the visits to Davey, keeping her voice deliberately low and soothing. She had read him countless stories, asked him questions that were never answered. Because he refused to eat, he was still being fed by IV and she tried to tempt him by bringing in approved special treats. Not once did he even look at her, much less accept the offerings.
On one occasion she had tried foolishly to hold his hand, but he'd reacted so strongly to the gesture, his body tensing with fright, that she hadn't tried again. It wrenched her heart to see a six-year-old boy so terribly withdrawn, his psychological scars far deeper than his physical pain. She'd seen adults with no will to live, but never a child. She was determined to give him back that will, to see him laugh and play again.
For the past two days she'd brought Joey with her, hoping that Davey would respond to the puppet without the fear he obviously and understandably had of adults. In her practice, she often used puppets and dolls to help children get through the aftershocks of a trauma or to prepare them for surgery.
Joey, whose head had drooped while Mallory sat thinking, perked up and inched closer to the head of the bed for another try.
"Davey," he called beguilingly. "Won't you talk to me? I'm very lonely. I think this place is scary. If I had a friend, I'd get better faster. See, I've got bandages on my head, just like you."
There was the slightest rustling of the sheets as Davey moved. His eyes didn't open and he didn't speak, but Mallory rejoiced just the same. Davey had reacted and that was what counted. Maybe he was beginning to trust her. If only he would look at the puppet just once, he might discover it was less intimidating than he feared.
"Couldn't you look at me, Davey? I'd like to see what color eyes you have. Mine are brown. I wish I had blue eyes," the puppet said wistfully. "Somebody told me your eyes are blue. Is that true?"
Mallory waited breathlessly as Davey's eyes blinked once. But before they could open, a harsh voice cut across Joey's gentle whisper like the fall of a rough-edged ax. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Davey's eyes clamped even more tightly shut, and he curled into a tight ball under the sheet. The moment of breakthrough was lost, and only concern for Davey kept Mallory from raising her voice in an outpouring of frustrated fury. She looked up to see hazel eyes burning with anger and a firm mouth tensing into a tight-lipped frown.
So, she thought, this had to be the infamous Dr. Justin Whitmore. Despite a day-old beard and a rumpled green scrub uniform, he was impressive and intimidating. Boldly masculine, he had an aura of confidence and strength about him that a military commander would envy and a woman would automatically swoon over. Mallory had always thought she was immune to sheer physical presence, but it was all she could do to keep from sighing aloud. Heaven knows what effect he could have on her in a suit and tie, with that square jaw of his clean-shaven.
Her reaction was absurd, especially since she'd been anticipating this meeting with dread ever since the nurses had called her in to help Davey. Mallory had been a child psychologist at Fairview General for less than three months and in that short time she'd heard a lot about Dr. Whitmore, the thirty-one-year-old chief resident in neurosurgery.
The kinder reports described him as driven and obsessed, a skilled, tireless surgeon who demanded perfection. Others called him arrogant, temperamental, cynical, even cruel, especially toward those who didn't live up to his impossibly high standards. The nurses in pediatrics had warned her that he had a low opinion of psychiatrists and psychologists and that he'd probably blow a fuse if he found out about their interference in one of his cases. Once she'd seen Davey, though, Mal-lory had been willing to risk the physician's wrath.
Besides, no one questioned Justin Whitmore's dedication to his patients. She was certain he would come around, once she could prove to him that Davey needed her. Now that he was here, though, glowering down at her, she wasn't so sure. He didn't look like an easy man to sway. He looked
indomitable, even more so than she'd expected.
Mallory had heard almost as much about the physician's attractiveness as she had about his attitude. No one, least of all the awed nurses, disputed the fact that he was wickedly handsome, in the style of a bold and rugged adventurer.
With the evidence staring her in the face, Mallory wasn't about to dispute it, either. He had a trace of prematurely gray hair intermingled with shaggy brown at his temples, eyes that could strip a woman bare and leave her trembling, and a scar at the corner of his mouth that could emphasize a cruel scowl or a sensual smile. Word had it, though, that the scowls were all too familiar, the sought-after smiles disappointingly rare.
He certainly wasn't bestowing one on her now. In fact, if looks could kill, Mallory figured they'd better start digging her grave.
"I asked you what you were doing?" he said again, his voice not one whit more mellow. His body unconsciously shifted to get between her and Davey, as if he felt the need to provide a protective shield for the boy.
"Talking to Davey," she said coolly, determined not to be put off by the rude tone or the assessing gaze that seemed to strip her of her silk blouse and the lacy bra beneath it. Ironically, the boldness of his look didn't seem intentional, which made its effect on her pulse all the more disconcerting. She felt an urge to tug her lab coat more tightly around her, but sensed he would find the instinctive gesture irritating, if not amusing.
She held out her hand. "I'm Mallory Blake. Dr. Blake," she added, deciding that even though Justin Whitmore wouldn't be a full-fledged member of the staff until he completed his residency, he was the sort of man to consider status important.
Apparently he did, because he ignored her hand, looked her up and down and demanded disbelievingly,
Nothing short of an outright lie would get her around that question, and Mallory wasn't about to try. "I'm not a medical doctor. I'm a child psychologist, a Ph.D."
His gaze narrowed. So much for status, Mallory thought. The nurses had been right. Hers clearly wasn't good enough. In fact, it only seemed to anger him further.
"Who brought you in on this case?" he demanded. "I'm Davey's doctor and I assure you I haven't placed a request for your services."
"The staff in the unit told me about Davey," she said. She decided it wouldn't serve any purpose to start casting the blame on the nurses who had to work with this man. Dr. Whitmore already had a reputation for having members of the staff written up at the slightest provocation. "They said he wasn't responding. I thought I might be able to help."
"Do you always butt in where you're not needed?"
Mallory's temper was slow to flare, but once it did, the Irish in her made it a spectacular sight to behold. It was beginning to flare right now. "I didn't consider it butting in," she said, her teeth clenched so tightly her jaw was starting to ache. "I considered it part of my duties, even though I acted unofficially."
"Look, Miss Blake"
"Doctor," she corrected firmly.
"Whatever. This child doesn't need your sort of psychological mumbo jumbo. He needs time to heal. He won't get it with you in here pestering him."
Blue-green eyes flashed and full, sensual lips parted, then clamped shut as she whirled around, grabbed Dr. Justin Whitmore by his rock-solid arm and dragged him from the room. She was wise enough to know that at five-feet-two and 107 pounds she'd never have budged all six-feet plus of him if he hadn't been willing to follow. She wasn't sure whether it was curiosity or his own fully aroused anger, but at least he came.
In the hallway, she dropped her suddenly trembling hand to her side and stared defiantly at him. She tried very hard not to notice how exhausted he looked. It might have made her feel a stirring of sympathy for him and that was the last thing she needed if she was to put him quite properly and thoroughly in his place.
"I do not practice psychological mumbo jumbo, doctor," she began indignantly, then tried to temper her tone to one of pure, straightforward professionalism. She met his challenging gaze with a direct, undaunted look of her own. It took every ounce of self-confidence she possessed not to duck and run for her life.
Justin gazed down at her and found himself admiring her guts despite himself. Not many people dared to tell him off and he had no doubt that was what Missno, Dr.Mallory Blake was about to do. He hadn't intentionally cultivated his domineering attitude but he'd found it useful, and it usually kept people at a satisfactory, respectful distance. This pint-size hellion was closing that distance and practically spitting fire in his eyes. Yet her words were cool, calm and so damned reasonable he had trouble maintaining his anger.
"From everything I've seen, that child in there is suffering from a deep depression, in addition to whatever physical injuries he sustained," she was saying.
"Do you blame him? It doesn't take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out that kid has gone through hell," Justin snapped.
"Exactly," she said, and this time Mallory Blake's fury mounted until it equaled his own. Her words lashed across him with the force of a particularly nasty, well-aimed whip. "And with every minute that his withdrawal continues, it's going to be harder and harder to bring him back. If someone doesn't reach him soon, if someone doesn't deal with the hurt that little boy is feeling, all your high-tech medicine won't do a damn bit of good. You'll have saved him on that operating table, only to lose him because you're too damned arrogant to think he needs anyone's help but yours."
With her head tossed back, she glowered up at him, her short black hair practically crackling with electricity. Much to his surprise, Justin found he was not immune to the effect she produced. Mallory Blake was one hell of an attractive woman, even if she was pushy and totally out of line. His body's instinctive response would have told him that, even if he'd been too blind or determinedly reluctant to see it.
Well, maybe she wasn't totally out of line, he finally conceded grudgingly. What she said was true to a certain extent. Davey wasn't getting any better. He needed attention, perhaps not a psychologist's, but certainly more attention than the staff could give him. His own scattered visits during the day were far too brief and unproductive. Aside from assessing the boy's physical state, he had no time for more. There was always another patient waiting, another surgery scheduled. In the dark, middle-of-the-night hours when he did have time, he didn't want to wake Davey. Usually at those times he just sat by the bed, sometimes falling asleep with the straight-backed chair tilted against the wall, hoping in some way that his mere presence would offer comfort.
Suddenly Justin's shoulders sagged in defeat and some of the fire went out of his eyes. Mallory Blake, Ph.D., apparently knew her business. She sensed a victory and promptly pressed her point. "Has he talked to you? Has he even looked at you?"
"No." It was a reluctant admission.
"Well, he was about to respond to me, when you came barging in there and confronted me. Not only did that interrupt the progress I was making, but it might have been a further setback. You saw how he reacted. The last thing that child needs is to hear more people arguing, especially people he might be learning to trust. He's obviously heard all too much of that."
Justin sighed and rubbed his eyes. "You're probably right," he conceded, though he didn't apologize.
"So, do I work with him or not? If it's not me, it will be some other psychologist assigned by the state."
Justin glanced toward the room, and Mallory recognized an astonishing depth of pain in his eyes. It intrigued her that a man who appeared so cold on the surface was capable of such powerful emotions. She wondered if anyone at Fairview General had even begun to understand the complexities of Dr. Justin Whitmore.
As soon as the thought crossed her mind, she brought herself up short. No way, she insisted stoutly. She wasn't going to be the one to try. Davey was her only concern, and as she waited out a seemingly interminable silence, Justin apparently came to some sort of decision. He uttered a resigned sigh.
"Do what you can," he said at last, the words so quietly spoken that she almost had to strain to hear him. "I'll write the order to make it official."
Then his gaze met hers and for one split, heart-stopping second, he and Mallory connected, electricity arcing between them. Mallory's breath caught in her throat, and the thanks she'd planned to give died on lips gone suddenly dry. She longed to moisten them with her tongue, but didn't dare for fear it would seem a blatant invitation for the kiss she suddenly yearned for. She swallowed nervously.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, the sensual tension vanished, and Justin's expression hardened again. "Just stay out of my way."
Inexplicably hurt by the abrupt return of his animosity, Mallory felt her own anger resurface. It sputtered to life, then died just as quickly when she looked in his eyes and saw those traces of pain again.
"Gladly, doctor," she retorted, but he was already gone, leaving her relieved, yet oddly puzzled and disturbingly intrigued. Outright, aim-for-the-shins fury would have been a more appropriate response.
"I'll work on it," she muttered to herself as she walked away in the opposite direction.