Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (2 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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“Coming from a nurse like you, that's high praise, indeed.” Returning her smile, he pulled off his white lab coat and draped it over the desk.

A blush heated her cheeks. She quickly turned away. Now wasn't the time to let her growing attraction for this man get in the way. They worked well together. That was all. She shouldn't read anything into his friendliness. Every unmarried nurse in the hospital, and half of the married ones, had a crush on the handsome resident who worked weekends in their small town. She didn't intend to add herself to the list.

He glanced at the clock. “Does your husband mind you working late? Or is he used to it?”

“She isn't married,” Jane piped up. Robyn shot her a quick frown, but Jane only grinned and winked. A newlywed herself, Jane made no secret of the fact she thought Robyn should be dating again.

“You're not married?” His tone was puzzled. He glanced at her hand. “You wear a ring.”

“My husband passed away four years ago,” Robyn said quietly.

“I'm sorry.” His voice held true compassion. She liked that about him.

“Thank you.” Even after so many years, she still found it difficult to talk about Colin.

She quickly moved the conversation back to the task at hand. “I'll check the IV supplies and make sure we have everything. Jane, you get started on the paperwork.”

When the ambulance backed up to the doors, they were ready and waiting for it.

“What do we have, gentlemen?” Dr. Cain grabbed the foot of the gurney. He guided it inside the doors and into the nearest room. Thick, blood-soaked bandages covered most of the patient's face. A wide foam-and-plastic collar held his head and neck immobile. The front of his blue-and-white-striped shirt was covered with blood—a lot of blood. Robyn grasped his wrist to check his pulse.

The paramedic held an IV bag high in one hand. “White male, early thirties. He took a horn to the face. He has severe lacerations to the left cheek and eye. Looks bad for his eye, Doc. He was trampled, too. Labored breathing, concave left lower chest, no breath sounds on that side.”

“Fractured ribs, probably a punctured lung. Stupidest sport ever invented.” Dr. Cain snatched his stethoscope from around his neck, pulled back the patient's shirt and listened.

Looping his stethoscope over his neck again, he said tersely, “Jane, get me a chest-tube tray. Crank up his oxygen to 15 liters. Let me hear some vital signs, people.”

Robyn was already gathering the information he wanted. She used the blood-pressure cuff the ambulance crew had wrapped around his arm. She took a reading and said, “BP is ninety over fifty. Pulse ninety, weak and thready, respiration's thirty-eight and labored.”

Dr. Cain peeled back the dressings on the man's face and frowned. “You're right. I doubt we can save his eye. Keep a moist sterile dressing on this. We'll let the surgeons in Kansas City sort it out.”

Jane wheeled a metal stand up beside them and pulled the wrappings off a sterile pack. “Here's the chest-tube tray.”

“We need X-rays of his skull, neck, chest and abdomen.” Dr. Cain snapped out orders. “Get lab and X-ray in here now! I want a blood gas, a complete blood count and I want him typed and cross matched for a blood transfusion. Do we have a name?”

The two paramedics didn't answer. Robyn raised the phone to her ear and punched in the number for X-ray, but she felt the men's gazes on her. She turned toward them.

“It's Neal Bryant,” one of them said.

The room grew dark at the edges of Robyn's vision and seemed to tilt. The phone fell from her nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. She groped behind her for the wall.

Dear God, it can't be!
She stared at the still, blood-soaked figure in stunned disbelief.

“Robyn? Robyn, who is he to you?” Dr. Cain's voice seemed to come from a long way away.

“Nobody,” she whispered, wishing it were true.

“They were engaged once,” Jane said, then picked up the phone and spoke quickly. “Portable X-ray in E.R., stat.”

For a long, painful moment, Robyn's heart seemed to freeze. Then it began to pound wildly inside her chest. She couldn't get enough air. She drew in one deep breath, then another, and slowly her vision began to clear. “It was a long time ago.”

“Well, he's going to be a dead nobody if we don't get this chest tube in. Help or get out of the way.” Dr. Cain's voice was harsh as he began to swab Neal's chest with antiseptic.

“What?” She looked at him in confusion.

“You heard me. Help, or get out of here. I need a nurse, not a jilted sweetheart. Someone start another IV line, and get this shirt out of my way.”

“Of course, I'm sorry.” Robyn picked up a pair of scissors. Her hands trembled, but she managed to cut away the bloody fabric from Neal's chest.

Neal flinched and moaned when the chest tube went in, and she grabbed the hand he raised. “Neal, can you hear me? You're in the hospital. You're going to be okay.”

God she hoped that was true. His hand tightened on hers, and he tried to speak. She bent close to hear his voice, which was muffled by the oxygen mask. “Robyn?”

“Yes, Neal, it's me. You're going to be okay.”

His grip tightened. “I'm sorry,” he rasped. “Want you...to know...” His voice trailed away, and his hand fell limp.

“How soon on that Air-Life flight?” Dr. Cain's question spurred her back into action. She wrapped a tourniquet around Neal's muscular forearm and began to prep for another IV line.

“Twenty minutes,” Jane said.

“Type and cross for two units. We've got a lot of blood coming out of this chest tube. Get a unit of O neg. in as fast as you can. Do you have that IV yet?”

“Yes.” Robyn slid the needle into place and taped it.

“Start Ringer's lactate wide-open, and Robyn?”

“Yes?”

“Good job.”

She nodded. “I'd better notify his family.”

“Let Jane do it. I need you.” He held out a gloved hand and said, “Suture.”

Somehow Robyn managed to keep working, but she couldn't stop glancing at the clock. Time seemed to move in slow motion. Where was the transport crew? How much longer before they arrived? She listened to each rattling breath Neal took and prayed he would keep breathing. The nurse in her kept functioning, snipping sutures, checking vital signs, starting blood, while another part of her watched the whole scene with a sense of disbelief.

It was the nightmare scene she had always feared when they were together.

She wasn't surprised Neal had been seriously injured. He was a world-class bull rider. He risked injury, even death, a hundred times each year. That was part of the reason she'd walked away from him five years ago. A small part.

What did surprise her was how much she still cared.

At last the outside doors slid open and the transport crew rushed in. Dressed in blue-and-white jumpsuits and carrying large red-and-white cases, they set up on the scene with practiced ease. It was a relief to step out of the way and let them take over. Within minutes, Neal had been assessed and was loaded onto their stretcher. He was quickly wheeled out the door, across the parking lot and up to the waiting helicopter.

Neal's mother's white Buick Regal tore into the lot as he was being lifted aboard. Ellie Bryant jumped out of her car and raced toward the chopper. The crew let her in beside him as Dr. Cain and Robyn hurried toward her. Leaning in the chopper, Ellie spoke to her son and kissed him before the crew urged her aside.

Robyn took Ellie by the shoulders and pulled her away. Covering their faces with their arms, the two women huddled together as the chopper rose into the air and clung to each other until the sound of it faded away.

Ellie used both hands to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “I've always been afraid of this. At least he was close to home and not a thousand miles away.”

Turning to Robyn, she asked, “Will he live?”

“He's getting the best care possible, but it is bad.”

Dr. Cain came up and rested a hand on Ellie's shoulder as he spoke. “Do you have someone who can drive you to Kansas City tonight? I think you should go as quickly as possible.”

“My oldest son and his wife are in Dallas. I'm fine to go by myself.”

“I'll go with you,” Robyn surprised herself by offering.

“Are you sure?” Ellie asked.

“Yes, I'm sure. You shouldn't drive all that way alone. Let me call Mom and make some arrangements for Chance.”

Robyn rushed back inside to make the call. She couldn't rest until she knew that Neal would live. If he didn't, she'd never have the chance to tell him he had a son.

CHAPTER TWO

R
OBYN
AND
E
LLIE
sat quietly beside Neal's bed in the ICU on their third day of vigil. He still hadn't roused. Sunshine poured through the window and painted a bright band of light across the white sheets. Outside, the blue sky promised another hot summer day.

His mother rose and closed the curtain against the brightness. She pressed both hands to the small of her back and stretched. Turning to Robyn, she said, “I'm going to step out and get a bite. Do you want anything?”

“No, thanks.” She didn't have much of an appetite.

“I swear the smell in this hospital makes me sick. I think I'll run across the street to McDonald's.”

Robyn smiled. She found the faint antiseptic smell comforting and familiar. “You don't fool me. You just like their French fries better than the ones in the cafeteria.”

“I'm a sucker for a Big Mac, too. I won't be gone long.”

“Take your time. His vital signs are stable. I know you could use the break.”

“Is there any way to tell how much longer he'll be unconscious?”

“Not really.” The doctors had placed him in a medical comma to monitor the swelling in his brain. They had stopped his sedation that morning. He should have been awake by now. Robyn didn't want to worry his mother any more than she had to.

Ellie stopped beside her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Thanks for staying with me, honey. Jake and Connie are flying in tonight. They will be able to spell me so you can go home. I know you miss Chance.”

“I do. I've never been away from him for this long.”

“I used to think that you would be my daughter-in-law one day. I never gave up hoping my hardheaded youngest would realize his mistake and come settle down with you.”

Robyn covered Ellie's hand with her own. She avoided looking at the older woman. “Neal and I were kids when we were head over heels for each other. We mistook infatuation for love. It wasn't meant to be.”

While her statement wasn't a complete lie, it wasn't the truth, either. She had been deeply in love with Neal, but he hadn't loved her in return.

“Well, a body can still hope,” Ellie declared and then left the room.

Neal moaned softly. Robyn leaned forward to brush back a dark brown curl and laid her hand lightly on his forehead. His skin was warm to the touch but not feverish. His color was sickly pale under his deep tan. A thick bandage covered the left side of his face.

She moved her hand and laid it over his where it rested on the bed at his side. A gentle smile touched her lips as she remembered a time when they had measured their hands against each other's. His fingers were long, straight and calloused. Her little finger curved outward, and he had laughed as he'd teased her about that.

They had laughed about so much when they were young. Her smile faded. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't been in love with him.

In grade school, she had followed him around like a faithful puppy. Having grown up as neighbors, they were inseparable friends. It didn't matter to Neal that she was a girl. She could ride and rope as good as any boy.

In high school, they'd begun to rodeo together as a team roping pair. During Neal's senior year, their friendship had evolved into a tender teenage love affair. When he'd graduated the year before her, she'd worried constantly that he might meet someone else at college. It was during that time that he had given up roping and began riding bulls.

She'd hated it. She had known what could happen. Not long after that, he'd quit school and begun traveling the pro rodeo circuit. His father had been furious.

She had tried to wait patiently for Neal's infrequent visits home, but in the end, she'd simply had to follow him. She'd moved into his tiny camper and set up house. Being with him had been wonderful and terrifying at the same time. She had hated watching him put himself in danger. They'd had some fine arguments about it, but he wouldn't quit. She had tried not to let her fear and worry show. He'd loved riding, and she'd loved him. She'd been happy in spite of the rough life and hardships of being on the circuit because she'd known his heart belonged to her. All she could do was pray that he survived.

During the long months of traveling and living out of a secondhand camper, she'd dreamed of the day when they would leave the rodeo behind, settle down outside Bluff Springs and raise a family on the ranch where she'd grown up.

Then one day, she had learned a painful truth. No one woman owned his heart. Her dreams had withered and died in that instant.

Robyn sighed and let her head fall back against the chair cushion. That heartbreak belonged in the past. She had moved on with her life. A lot of things hadn't worked out the way she'd expected them to. The ranch she had grown up on was failing now that her father was gone. If something didn't change soon, they would have to sell. She hated the idea. She had dreamed that one day her son would raise his children there.

She had expected to marry her childhood sweetheart and live happily ever after, but Neal had broken her heart, and she'd left him. When she had discovered she had a reason to go back, her pride had kept her away and driven her to make a choice that had changed the course of her life and many others.

She gazed at Neal's pale, still face. He would never know what that decision had cost both of them.

The small voice of her conscience whispered that she was wrong to keep her secret. What if Neal had died without knowing he had a son? Could she live with that?

She glanced at the wedding band she wore on her left hand. She had promised her husband, as he lay dying in a hospital bed very much like this one, that she would never reveal Chance wasn't his child.

Closing her eyes, she whispered, “Were we wrong, Colin?”

She had been young, deeply hurt and bitter when she'd left Neal. She hadn't discovered until weeks later that she was pregnant. Neal had never wanted children. She had refused to use a child to force him back into a relationship that he clearly didn't want with her. She had let him have the freedom he craved. Not a day went by that she didn't question her choice.

There was no going back, no way to undo the past. Right or wrong, she'd kept her secret.

Weariness crept into her bones. She closed her eyes to rest them. She must have fallen asleep, because she jerked awake sometime later when a hoarse voice whispered, “Where am I?”

She sat up and brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Hey, cowboy. It's about time you woke up.”

“Me? You're the one snoring.” His voice was weak, but she was so glad to hear it.

She smiled softly. “How rude of me. Do you know where you are?”

“A torture chamber?”

“Close. A hospital in Kansas City. Would you like some water?”

“Yes,” he croaked.

She picked up a white Styrofoam cup from the bedside table and held the bent straw to his lips. He sipped slowly. When he turned his face away, she put the cup down. “How do you feel?”

“Like the bull rode me for the full eight.” His voice was stronger when he answered her. His feeble joke triggered a new flood of relief. His doctors had been worried about possible brain damage.

“I think you threw him before the whistle,” she answered.

“Kent,” he said suddenly. “Kent Daley, is he okay? I saw the bull knock him down.”

“He's fine,” she assured him. “He was out cold for a few minutes, but that's all. The outriders managed to keep the bull off of him.”

Neal relaxed. “That's good. He's a decent guy.”

“He's been here twice to see you. He's very grateful for what you did.”

“He did the same for me.”

Neal focused on her face for a long moment. She waited until the silence became unbearable. She knew what was coming. “What?”

“How bad is it?” His voice wasn't quite steady.

Robyn bit her lip to stop its trembling. She searched for the courage to tell him the full extent of his injuries. She dreaded the news she was going to deliver. She thought for a second about going out and finding his doctor, but she decided against it. Neal wouldn't want an outsider with him for this.

His hand closed over hers, and he squeezed gently. “Come on, Tweety, give it to me straight. I know I can wiggle my toes, but it hurts to breathe, and my head's on fire.”

Her heart wrenched at his use of her childhood nickname. They had been friends long before they had become lovers, long before he broke her heart. He would need a friend now.

In a calm voice, she began. “It's bad, Neal. You have three broken ribs. One of them punctured your lung. You lost a lot of blood. Your face hurts because you also have a fractured cheekbone, a shattered eye socket and...” Her voice trailed away. She couldn't do this.

His grip on her hand tightened. “And?”

“The bull hooked your face with his horn. The doctors couldn't save your left eye.”

“Oh, God, no!” His anguished cry tore at her heart.

“I'm so sorry,” she whispered.

* * *

N
EAL
KNEW
HIS
grip had to be crushing her small hand. It couldn't be true. He didn't want to believe her. The pain in his head intensified until he almost screamed.

Forcing himself to let go of her, he raised a trembling hand to grope at the bandages on his face. His eye was gone. He was half-blind. He wanted to tear the dressings off and prove it wasn't true.

“Is that the worst of it?” he managed to ask.

“Yes. You will have a scar on your face, but you'll be able to get a prosthesis as soon as it's healed.”

“A glass eye, you mean?” Repugnance filled him. This was some kind of cruel joke. It couldn't be happening.

No, the real joke was that
she
was the one to see him like this.

She leaned close and took his hand. “I can't imagine what you're going through, but your family and friends will be here for you. You will get through this.”

The pain in his head grew along with his need to lash out. He jerked away from her. “You should leave now. It's what you do best.”

“I'm so sorry, Neal.”

“I don't want your pity! Leave me alone.”

“Anger is a very normal reaction to such terrible news.”

How could she be so calm about the worst moment in his life? It infuriated him. It wasn't rational to blame her, but he couldn't help himself. “Don't tell me what's normal. Just get out!”

“Neal, please,” she pleaded.

“Get out!” he shouted.

The pain was making him sick. He didn't want her to see him puke his guts up. He closed his eye and gritted his teeth. Cold beads of sweat broke out across his forehead as his stomach roiled.

The room grew quiet. Had she gone?

A feeling of panic swelled in him. He didn't want her to go. He needed her. He had always needed her; he just didn't know how much until she was gone.

A hand touched his face and a cool cloth was laid on his brow. “Breathe through your mouth. Take slow, deep breaths,” she said.

“I told you—”

“Shut up. I'm a nurse, and you'll do as I say. I have a basin here if you need it.”

Damn her. She knew what he needed almost before he did.

Did she know he needed to feel her lips against his? That he wanted to hold her in his arms? Did she know that he still lay awake at night missing her warmth next to him?

No, she couldn't know, and he'd be damned if he would tell her now.
She
had left him.

He heard the door open as someone came into the room, but he couldn't see who it was. The door was on his blind side.

His blind side! Just thinking the words made him feel sicker. This couldn't be happening. It had to be a nightmare. Any second he would wake up.

Robyn moved away and spoke quietly to someone. The door opened and closed again. He wanted to call her back. He didn't want to be alone. He wanted her by his side. He raised his hand, groping for her.

She moved back into his line of sight and his feeling of panic began to lessen. He heard the door again, and a woman's voice said, “This will help.”

A cold sensation snaked up his arm from the IV in the back of his hand. After a few minutes, the pain and nausea began to recede.

Robyn held his other hand. “The nurse has given you something for the pain. Is that better?”

“Yes,” he admitted weakly. He grew strangely weightless. The pain slipped away, leaving him weary. There was so much he wanted to say to Robyn, only he had no idea where to start.

Her fingers caressed his face. “Sleep now. Your mother will be back soon.”

“Don't go.” He wanted her to stay. Foolish as he knew that wish was, he didn't want her to go.

“You're going to be okay, Neal.”

“I'm sorry I yelled at you.” He tried to hold on to the feeling of her hand touching his face, to the scent like spring flowers she always wore, but everything began to fade. He couldn't sleep. He fought against the drug. “Tell me why,” he begged.

“Why, what?”

“Why you left me.”

“Because you didn't love me.”

She was wrong, so wrong, but he couldn't form the words to tell her as the darkness closed over him.

The drugged sleep brought him no peace. Instead, it carried him into a world of foggy, half-formed nightmares where an enormous bull with bloody horns pursued him relentlessly. He awoke in near darkness with pain pounding in his head again and the taste of fear in his mouth.

He turned to search for Robyn, craving the gentleness of her touch. His hopes soared for an instant until he recognized his mother asleep in the chair beside him.

Robyn was gone. The pain he felt then had nothing to do with his injury. It was an old, familiar pain. One he knew he deserved.

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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