Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (3 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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Raising his hand slowly, he touched the gauze bandage on his face. He hadn't dreamed this. His eye was gone. He would be scarred for life.

Why him? What kind of life would he have as a one-eyed freak? A sudden thought sent a new chill of fear through him.

What if he couldn't ride again? What would he do? He couldn't lose that. Not that.

He was Neal Bryant, soon to be a world-champion bull rider. Not a runner-up. Not a loser. He'd given up everything to make it this far. Everything, including Robyn.

His hands clenched into fists on the sheets. He would ride again. He had to.

CHAPTER THREE

“M
OM
,
ARE
YOU
sure you want to go through with this?” Robyn sat behind the wheel of her battered green Ford pickup and struggled not to cry as she gazed at her mother's face. Martha O'Connor was pale but composed as she buttoned the top button of her blue cotton blouse.

She took a deep breath and nodded once. “I don't want to do it, but I have to. I have no other choice. The ranch is too much for me to handle now that your dad is gone. There are too many decisions to make, too much work that needs doing. This is the only way.”

“I could help more,” Robyn offered one last time. It didn't seem right to sell the ranch that had been in their family for generations. Who would love it as much as her family had? Her great-great-grandparents had come from Ireland and settled in the green treeless hills so unlike their native land. They were hearty people. They had survived in spite of drought, prairie fires and floods and built a ranch to be proud of. She would make them proud by keeping her head up.

Her mother said, “You can't help more. You work five and six days a week as it is. If we move into town, you'll be able to spend more time with Chance. You won't be driving thirty miles twice a day to get to work and back. I should have put the place up for sale two years ago when we started losing money, but I thought— Well, it doesn't matter what I thought. This drought has finished us.”

She turned pleading eyes toward Robyn. “You can make a decent living as a nurse. You don't need to worry about outguessing the weather or gambling everything on the cattle market. You don't need to watch your dreams wither and dry into dust. I want a stable, secure life for you and my grandson. Can you understand that?”

“Are you doing this because you think Chance won't be able to run the ranch?”

“I'm doing this because I can't run the ranch. This is my decision. You know it hasn't been an easy one. To tell the truth, if we don't sell now, we'll lose the place anyway. I've borrowed as much as I can against it. If we spruce the place up and get top dollar for it, we can pay off the mortgage and afford the special schooling Chance will need.”

“That will take a lot of sprucing, Mom.”

“We'll have to hire some help, but it can be done. I know how much you want to become a nurse practitioner. This might make that possible, or at least not as difficult. If the place brings what it is worth, you can go to school and I can have a comfortable retirement.”

Robyn reached to grip her mother's hand. “You deserve that. I understand, honest I do. Only, can't I feel a little sad that my childhood home is going up for sale?”

“Yes, of course you can. Just don't start crying. If you do, I'll never be able to go through with it.”

“I won't cry in front of you. I promise.”

Her mother squeezed Robyn's hand. “Good. I'll be back in half an hour.”

“Are you sure you don't want me to come in with you?”

Martha stepped out of the truck. “I need to do this alone. I only hope your father would understand.”

“Dad always put the family first, Mom. He'd understand. I'm sure of it. He would say it's just a big piece of dirt. The people we love are what's important.”

“You're right—bless you for that.” Martha closed the truck door, smoothed the front of her navy blue skirt and squared her shoulders. Then she crossed the street and walked into the Flint Hills Real Estate office with her head up.

Robyn watched with a sinking heart as her mother entered the building. She had hoped the ranch would pass into the hands of her children one day. So much for another girlhood dream. They seemed to have all fallen by the wayside.

She pushed her short dark curls off her forehead as a trickle of sweat slipped down her temple in the rising, late-June heat. The trouble with letting go of the dreams she'd once cherished was finding something to replace them.

A white sedan pulled up to the curb two spaces down from her truck in front of the drugstore. She recognized Ellie Bryant's car and watched Neal swing his long legs out of the passenger side. Fighting down the compulsion to rush over and help him, she studied him closely.

Weeks had passed since the accident, but he still moved stiffly. His mother came around beside him. He pointedly ignored her offered hand. Robyn was glad she hadn't jumped out to help.

As he stood beside the car, she saw he was still pale beneath his tan, but his color was better than the last time she'd seen him. The bandages were gone, and she got her first look at the scar he would bear for the rest of his life. A crooked red line ran up from the center of his left cheek and disappeared beneath the black eye patch he wore.

She wanted to feel pity, but she couldn't deny the truth. It wasn't pity that sent her pulse racing. It was the sweet rush of desire he always triggered in her.

As the familiar longing swept over her, she closed her eyes to fight it. She wouldn't fall for him again. She had more pride than that. He didn't love her. He'd proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt five years ago.

When she had a grip on her emotions, she opened her eyes and saw a pair of teenage girls walking past the front of her truck. Their gazes were pinned on Neal and looks of admiration sprang onto their young faces. Their walks slowed and turned into prowling saunters.

He tipped his hat as they strolled past him, but something struck Robyn as odd about his move. She'd seen him do that a thousand times. What was different this time?

Then she knew. He'd used his left hand to touch the brim of his hat. Was he trying to cover the scarred side of his face?

A quick pang of compassion pushed a lump into her throat. His appearance had been drastically altered. It would be hard for anyone, but it had to be especially hard for someone as proud as Neal was.

He had always been a handsome man. Women had flocked around him. He was above-average height and lean, with a cowboy's natural swagger. He wore his brown hair slightly long, and it curled at his shirt collar. She'd always thought his hazel eyes were his best feature, but it was his impish sense of humor she had adored.

She watched the two girls glance back at him before they turned the corner. Neal might not realize it, but the eye patch made him look dangerous and exotic. He would be the object of some teenage fantasies for many nights to come judging by the girls' reactions. Who could blame them? He was a sexy hunk.

He started to step up on the curb, but he didn't step high enough and stumbled. He regained his balance quickly, but he pressed his arm to his side. Had he hurt himself?

His mother rushed around the car to help as he leaned against the hood, but he shook her off. Robyn found herself out of the truck and standing beside him before she realized what she was doing. “Are you okay?”

His head snapped up at the sound of her voice, and his lips pressed into a tight line. “Sure. One too many beers, I guess.”

She frowned as she studied his face. “Don't be a smart aleck. You're having trouble judging distance because of your altered depth perception.”

“They tell me I'll get used to it.”

“Did you hurt your ribs?” his mother asked.

“I jarred them, that's all. I'm fine. Go and do your shopping, Mom. I don't need a babysitter.”

Surprised by the sharp sarcasm in his voice, Robyn glanced at his mother. A look of hurt flashed across Ellie's face, but it disappeared quickly as she pasted a smile on. She stepped away from him and let her arms fall to her sides.

“Okay. I won't be long.” Turning away, she hurried into the drugstore. The bell over the door clanged as it closed behind her.

“I see your manners haven't improved,” Robyn snapped.

He frowned at her. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Your mother is only trying to help.”

“I see you haven't changed, either,” he drawled, leaning against the car hood.

She refused to rise to his bait and kept her mouth shut. She'd said too much already.

He looked her up and down. “You still butt into other people's business. I didn't like you trying to tell me what to do years ago, and I don't like it now.”

What on earth had possessed her to think he needed her help? Robyn didn't know if she was more furious with him or with herself. “Someone needs to tell you what to do, you slow-witted stubborn oaf. You were plain mean to your mother.”

He scowled at her but didn't reply.

Maybe it was none of her business, but he was going to get an earful. His mother didn't deserve that kind of treatment. “Your mother watched helplessly as they loaded you on a chopper and then drove for two hundred miles, praying you would still be alive when she got to the hospital. While they were putting you back together, Humpty Dumpty, she paced the waiting room for hours, worried sick with fear. When she finally heard you would live, they told her you might have brain damage. I could barely get her to leave your bedside. She didn't sleep for two nights straight.”

Robyn poked a finger into the top button of his shirt. “So cut her a little slack if she's overprotective, and be kind to her. She's been through a lot.”

Robyn wouldn't tell him all those fears and sleepless nights were hers, as well. He wouldn't care.

His face could have been carved from granite. “Are you finished?”

She folded her arms across her chest and clamped her jaw closed on all the other things she wanted to shout at him. “Yes.”

From behind her, she heard someone speak. “Mr. Bryant, can I have your autograph, please?”

She turned around and saw three high-school-age boys standing on the sidewalk, looking eager but uncertain.

Neal's face softened. “Sure, I'd be glad to.”

“We saw your last ride,” the lanky one said in a rush. He wore a cowboy hat pushed back on his blond hair.

“That was so brave the way you drew the bull away from the clown when he was down.” Awe filled the second boy's voice.

“Yeah, we could see you were hurt,” the third boy interjected. His eyes brimmed with admiration. “You could have made it to the fence, but you ran back to help him.”

“I sure hope you'll be able to keep on riding,” the first boy added, holding out a pen and a slip of paper.

Neal took the pen and scrawled his signature on the paper. “I've got to give these ribs a chance to heal, but I intend to be in the National Finals come December.”

“Thank you, sir.” The boy took the paper back and stared at it in awe as they walked away. “I told you havin' one eye wouldn't keep him from riding,” the blond boy insisted proudly.

Robyn stared at Neal in disbelief. “You don't mean that, do you?”

He looked at her. “What?”

“That you'll go back to riding bulls.”

He stiffened and stood away from the car. “You bet I mean it.”

“I guess the doctors were right. You are brain damaged!” She spun on her heels and stalked off.

* * *

N
EAL
FELT
HIS
resentment fade. A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. She didn't pull any punches when it came to telling him what she thought. She hadn't changed a bit.

He tilted his head slightly as he studied her retreating form. Well, maybe a little, but it was all for the better.

Her boyish figure was gone. She'd put on some weight, but it only made her curves more generous. The hips filling out her Wranglers now were anything but boyish.

He pressed his lips back into a thin line. Okay, he still found her attractive; too bad for him. She'd dropped him like a hot rock and moved on with her life. He was glad she had. She deserved better. There was no point standing in the hot sun and wishing things had turned out differently.

He glanced toward the drugstore. Much as he hated to admit it, she was right about one thing. He'd been taking his frustrations and his anger out on anyone who came within range, including his mother. Everyone in his family had suffered his bouts of temper in silence, as if they were afraid to say anything. Only Robyn seemed able to treat him the way she had before the accident.

He wanted that. He wanted people to stop treating him like an invalid, to stop treating him differently.

Rubbing his hand across his jaw, he admitted the cold hard truth. He was different. The brash and reckless cowboy he'd once been was gone. A quaking coward now stood in his boots. Neal hated the man he had become.

Every time he closed his eye, he saw the huge, gray bull bearing down on him. Even in his sleep, he could feel Dust Devil's hot breath on his neck. He'd jerk awake with his heart pounding in his chest so hard he couldn't draw a breath.

Sometimes, he woke in the darkness afraid he had gone completely blind. He'd taken to sleeping with a night-light on like some frightened toddler.

Robyn might think he was crazy, but until he could ride again, he knew his fear would only grow. Getting back on a bull was the only way to fight it. As soon as he was healed, he would climb on a bull if it killed him. He had to. He couldn't live knowing he'd lost his nerve.

But right now, he had another mission. As Robyn had so gently pointed out, he needed to apologize to his mother.

The bell jangled overhead as he entered the long, narrow building from the late 1800s. He moved carefully past the display cases filled with ceramic and glass figurines and local souvenirs. The smells of potpourri and scented candles surrounded him with their sweet fragrances. He crossed to the pharmacy through a wide archway and paused. Little had changed here since his boyhood days.

Above his head, globe lights and a wooden fan hung on pipes suspended from the high, pressed-tin ceiling. The blades of the fan hummed faintly over the sounds of Tim McGraw coming from a radio on the back counter. His mother stood in front of a tall counter, talking to the pharmacist behind it.

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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