Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (4 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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Neal turned his gaze to the unique, old-fashioned soda fountain that occupied the far corner. Five chrome bar stools covered in green vinyl lined up in front of a bar decorated with distinctive brown, rust and orange Mexican tiles. A wide brown marble counter topped the bar. Fluted glasses and silver tumblers sat in neat rows on the oak shelves that framed a large mirror behind the counter.

He sat down on the first stool. The mirror reflected a man in a black hat and eye patch. It took a second before Neal recognized himself. He tore his gaze away from the scarred cowboy and forced a smile to his lips when his mother joined him. “Remember when you used to bring us kids here for ice cream?”

“Of course I do. You loved coming here.”

“Every time we had to go to the dentist, you would bring us here afterwards. Something about that never made sense, dentist then ice cream.”

She smiled. “It was the only way I could get both of you to behave. I had to bribe you.”

“Maybe it will still work.”

Her grin widened. “Now, why didn't I think of that? The promise of a chocolate malt used to turn you into an angel for at least an hour.”

“I've been pretty hard to live with lately, haven't I?” he asked quietly.

Her eyes narrowed in speculation. “Now that you mention it, yes, you have.”

“I'm sorry, Mom.”

“I know, dear. I try not to take it personally. You've been through a lot.”

He pushed the brim of his hat up. “Well, since you know what it takes to bribe me into being good, why don't you tell me what you'd like?”

She rubbed her hands together like a gleeful child. “I'd love a hot-fudge sundae with extra whipped cream, extra nuts and extra cherries.”

Leaning back, he eyed her petite figure. “I had no idea you indulged in the hard stuff.”

“It's the whipped cream that gets me. It brings back such fond memories of your father.”

He held up a hand. “I don't think I'm old enough to hear this.”

She gave him a playful slap on his arm. “Don't be sassy. Your father used to bring me here when we were courting. We always ordered a double hot-fudge sundae with extra whipped cream to share.”

“Whew. That's a relief. I was imagining all kinds of kinky things.”

Her mouth dropped open. “If you weren't so old, I'd turn you across my knee.”

“Hey, I'm an injured man, remember?”

They gave their order to the smiling young woman behind the counter and waited while she prepared it. Neal took his malt and sipped the smooth chocolate ice cream slowly. He watched with an indulgent smile while his mother savored her treat.

Setting his drink down, he stared at the metal tumbler for a moment and then scraped the thin coat of frost on the outside of it with his thumbnail. “You and Robyn seem to have remained pretty close.”

“Her mother and I are dear friends—you know that. We go way back. Did you know I was dating Frank before Martha stole him away from me?”

He looked at her in surprise. “And you're still friends?”

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Because you met Dad?”

She nodded. “I went out with your father to try to make Frank jealous. I'd like to believe I would have discovered what a wonderful man your father was anyway, but somehow I don't think that's true. I think I would have settled for Frank, and I would have never known what real love was. Thankfully, Martha and I both ended up with the right man.”

She eyed him intently for a long moment. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Shoot.”

“Why did you and Robyn break up?”

Neal stabbed his straw up and down in the thick malt. “She hated my riding bulls. We fought about it all the time. We were on the circuit in North Dakota when she got the call from her mother.”

“When Frank suffered a stroke?”

“Yeah. Robyn flew home and she never came back.”

“Did you try to contact her?”

“She was a big girl. She made up her own mind. I wasn't going to beg her to come back.”

“Neal, you know that I love you. The Bryant men have very few faults, but their pride is one of them.”

Anger stirred in him. “What should I have done? Dragged her back by the hair?”

“You should have come to see her and demanded to know what was wrong.”

He couldn't help the sarcasm that slipped out. “She sure didn't miss me much. I heard she got married a couple months later. Did she leave him, too?”

“No, Colin Morgan died six months after the wedding.”

That bit of news stunned him. He shook his head slowly. “I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me?”

“If I remember correctly, you told me point-blank that you never wanted to talk about her again. So I didn't.”

Foolish pride could do that to a man. “That must have been rough for her.”

“It was so sad, but, thankfully, they had a beautiful little boy named Chance. I know that having Chance has helped her deal with her grief. Children give us hope.”

Robyn had a kid? He didn't know that, either. Apparently, there was a lot about Robyn O'Connor Morgan he didn't know.

His mother toyed with her spoon a moment before she said, “Robyn's single now, and her mother says she's not seeing anyone. Maybe you two could patch things up.”

He shook his head. “Not much chance of that. Besides, I'll be leaving soon.”

“What?” Her eyes widened in surprise.

“I'll be leaving as soon as the doctor gives me the okay. Another four weeks at most. I've got a lot of catching up to do if I'm going to make it into the National Finals.”

“You're going back to riding bulls? I don't believe it.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she stared at him.

“Mom, what did you think I was going to do?”

“I don't know, but I never considered you'd be foolish enough to risk your life again. I've spent every day since I got that phone call giving thanks to God that you're alive. I'm sorry you lost an eye. I'm sorry that your face is scarred, but it could have been so much worse. I thought this would be the end of your bull riding.”

“You don't understand. I can't quit like this.”

She stood and wiped away her tears. “I can't bear it if you go back! I've already buried a husband—I don't want to bury one of my children, too.” She turned away, then hurried out the door.

Neal stared after her, feeling ashamed and confused. Why didn't anyone understand? He was a bull rider, for heaven's sake. It was who he was as much as what he did. He'd been among the best of the best. If he couldn't ride, then there wasn't anything left for him. His gaze was drawn to the stranger in the mirror wearing his clothes.

Hell, who did he think he was kidding? The thought of trying to ride again turned his insides to jelly. He was afraid, plain and simple. And that fact scared him worse than anything. He'd never been afraid in his whole life.

He needed to ride again, needed to prove he was still the same man he'd always been and not the coward who cringed like a child in the darkness. Life like this wasn't worth living.

CHAPTER FOUR

R
OBYN
SAW
E
LLIE
Bryant was crying as she hurried out of the drugstore, and her annoyance at Neal grew by leaps and bounds. Apparently, nothing she'd said had gotten through his thick head. He followed his mother out of the store a few moments later, and they drove away.

The truck door opened and Robyn's mother stuck her head in. “All done. What shall we do next?” Her mother's chipper voice rang hollow.

“Are you okay, Mom?”

“I can't believe what a relief it is to have finally done this.”

“I'm glad.” She would try to be supportive for her mother's sake.

“I need to run into the drugstore for a minute. Then I'll be ready to go.”

“I've got the whole day off, so take your time. Tell you what, let's have lunch at the Hayward House, my treat.”

“Sounds great.”

Her mother entered the store, and Robyn turned up the radio to listen to her favorite country song and hum along. A few minutes later, her cell phone rang. Frowning, she pulled her phone from her purse. She'd taken Chance to a sitter today, something she didn't normally do. She hated leaving him with anyone but her mother. She'd given the sitter this number.

Her feeling of alarm vanished as soon as she saw the caller ID. She recognized the voice on the other end. It was the hospital operator.

“I'm glad I got you, Robyn. Dr. Cain needs you to come in right away.”

On her day off? What could be so important? “What's going on?”

“It's Mildred Eldrich, one of our deaf patients. She's had a stroke. We need your help to communicate with her.”

Robyn saw her mother walk out of the drugstore. “All right, I'll be there in a few minutes.” She snapped the phone closed as her mother climbed into the truck.

“Who was that?” Martha asked.

“The hospital. Something has come up and they need me.”

Martha scowled. “Can't they get along without you for one day? I declare, that place will suck the life out of you if you let it.”

“They need someone who can sign for a deaf patient.”

“Oh, well, that's different. If it's not too much trouble, can we run by the Bryant ranch on our way home?”

She shot her mother a suspicious look. “Why?”

“The pharmacist said Ellie came in to get a prescription refilled, but then she left without it. It's for her high blood pressure. He's afraid she'll run out. I told him we could drop it off on our way home. I left a message on her machine so she doesn't turn around and drive back in.”

Robyn had seen Ellie in tears as she'd left the store. It wasn't surprising that she'd forgotten her medicine. Having Neal Bryant for a son would be more than enough to raise any sane woman's blood pressure.

“Sure. We can drop it off after lunch.”

“Well, if you're going to the hospital, I'm going shopping. The dress store is having a sale. Give me a call when you're done at the hospital and I'll meet you at the restaurant.” She opened the truck door and hopped out.

“See you then.”

A few minutes later, Robyn entered the Hill County Hospital through the front doors. After checking to find which room Mrs. Eldrich was in, Robyn made her way down the hall, pushed open the door of 106 and entered quietly.

Dr. Cain sat beside the bed of the small, elderly woman and wrote on a pad with a blue marker. He held the message up for her to read, but she pushed it away with her left hand and moaned softly. He bowed his head a moment, and then he reached out and laid his hand gently over hers. “That's okay, Mrs. Eldrich, we can try again later.”

Robyn said, “Hello. What can I do to help?”

He glanced up and smiled as she moved to stand beside him. “Am I glad to see you.”

“Tell me what's going on.”

“Mrs. Eldrich has suffered a stroke that has paralyzed her right side. She won't answer any of my questions and I can't tell why. The nurse from the care home says she hasn't had any trouble reading lips or writing until this morning.”

“Has she tried writing with her left hand?”

“She's tried, but I can't make out any of it.”

Robyn sat on the bed and touched the woman's shoulder.

Mrs. Eldrich opened her eyes, but she seemed to have trouble focusing. Robyn began to sign, but the woman closed her eyes and tossed restlessly in the bed. Her left hand twisted the covers into a tight wad and then slowly she began shaping letters.

“What is she saying?” he asked.

“She says, ‘See half.'”

“See half of what?”

Robyn glanced at his perplexed face. “I think she means she can only see half of everything.”

Comprehension dawned on his face. “Hemiopia. No wonder she can't read lips or my writing. She has vision only in the left half of each eye. Why didn't I think of that? Ask her if she's in pain. Man, I'm glad you showed up.”

They spent the next hour assessing Mrs. Eldrich. Robyn spelled the questions slowly on the woman's hand, letting her feel each letter, and waited as she spelled her answers slowly with her left hand in return. Finally, Dr. Cain called a halt.

“Tell her to rest now. I'll have the nurse bring her something to help her sleep.”

Together, they left the room. Out in the hall, he paused. “Thanks for coming in. I don't know how I would have managed without you.”

“No problem. I was already in town. I have an idea how the rest of the staff can communicate with Mrs. Eldrich.”

“How?”

“We could use a raised alphabet board. We have one for the children to play with in the lobby. Mrs. Eldrich could feel the letters to spell words for the staff, and the staff could guide her hand to each letter to spell a reply. It wouldn't be perfect, but it might work.”

He smiled and started down the hall. “That sounds like a great idea. You amaze me. Did they teach you to be this creative in nursing school?”

She fell into step beside him. “Sure. Don't doctors have to take Make Do with What You've Got 101?”

He shook his head. “I don't remember it. I may have cut class that day.”

She grinned. “You must have missed it when you were in Basic Bad Handwriting.”

“Hey, my handwriting isn't that bad. Is it?”

“For a doctor or for a preschooler?”

“Ouch! I don't think I deserved that.”

“Maybe not,” she conceded.

He stopped beside the nursing station and faced her. His expression grew serious. “My handwriting may be bad, but my eyesight's not. I know a good nurse when I see one.”

Surprised, she said, “Thank you.”

“You're welcome. Have you ever thought about going on with your training, maybe into advanced practice, like a family-medicine nurse practitioner?”

“Sure, someday I'd love to, but I can't afford to go back to school anytime soon.”

The additional years of education to become a family-medicine nurse practitioner would allow her to diagnose and treat patients without the constant supervision of a physician. She would be able to perform prenatal, well-child, and adult checkups, even diagnose and manage minor traumas like suturing cuts and splinting broken bones, things she wasn't allowed by law to do as a registered nurse. Her ability to make treatment decisions, order tests and write prescriptions would free up the physicians to concentrate on more complex diseases and conditions. An NP would be a welcome asset to a rural hospital already struggling with a shortage of doctors, but education costs money.

“Didn't you get the application for the NP scholarships I gave to the nursing supervisor?”

“You did that?” she asked in amazement. She'd only worked with him for a few short months.

“Yes. Did you fill it out?”

She hadn't, but she hadn't thrown it away, either. It lay in the top drawer of her desk, tempting her with its possibilities, even though she knew she couldn't send it. Not now, not with her family losing the ranch.

Now more than ever, they'd need a steady income until the ranch sold, and who knew how long that would take? But she wasn't about to discuss her financial problems with him. “I like what I'm doing, and I'm needed here.”

“Think about it. You have a gift for medicine, and I'd hate to see it go to waste.”

“Thank you, but I hardly think my talent is going to waste here. You needed me today.”

He flipped open the chart. “Indeed I did. I'll just scribble a few illegible orders here.”

She grinned. “Sorry about the handwriting crack.”

“You can make it up to me.”

“And how would I do that?”

He closed the chart and smiled at her. “Have dinner with me tonight.”

His request caught her totally off guard. Quickly, she glanced around to see who might have overheard his offer, but the nursing station was deserted. She stared at his friendly, handsome face and blurted out, “I don't know what to say.”

His bright blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “How about, ‘Yes, Adam, I'd love to have dinner with you. I thought you would never ask.'”

She clasped her arms across her middle and stared at the floor. “I can't.”

“Tomorrow night?” he asked hopefully.

“I don't think it would be a good idea. I'm sorry.”

“No, I'm the one who's sorry. I didn't mean to upset you.”

He was silent a long moment. When she glanced at him, his kind smile made her regret her hasty decision. “You didn't upset me. You just surprised me.”

“You realize you are condemning me to another night of cafeteria food, don't you?”

Her smile returned. “If that is a bid for sympathy, you'll have to do better. The food here is excellent.”

He chuckled and put the chart back into the wire rack. “Yes, it is. The coconut-cream pie is the main reason I moonlight here. So why won't you have dinner with me? Do you avoid doctors in general, or are you involved with someone?”

“I don't think it would be a good idea since we have to work together. It might create a problem.”

“I see. I thought maybe you and your bull rider were trying to work things out.”

“Neal?” she asked in surprise. “What gave you that idea?”

“I saw your face when they brought him in. I'd say there are still some pretty strong feelings on your part.”

“Well, you would be wrong. That was over a long time ago,” she snapped. She refused to accept there was anything left of her former feelings for Neal except the remnants of an adolescent fantasy.

Adam held up both hands. “Whoa. I'm sorry I said anything.”

Her protest had been too sharp. She forced a smile to her stiff lips. “You need to understand that his mother and mine are best friends. They've been our neighbors all my life. I can't tell you how often I've heard the phrase, ‘You and Neal should get back together.' It's kind of a sore subject with me.”

He nodded solemnly. “Gabriella Prichard.”

She frowned. “Who?”

“Gabriella Prichard. That's the woman my mother wants me to marry. I call her Crabby Gabby. Not to her face, of course. She feels the same about me. Our mothers are the best of friends. They throw us together at every opportunity. Neither of them will accept the idea that Gabby and I aren't right for each other.”

Robyn had to laugh at his glum expression. “I know how hard that can be.”

He brightened and flashed an impish grin. “It seems you and I have quite a bit in common.”

“Maybe,” she admitted cautiously.

“If you won't go out with me because we work together, I can always stop working here. Say the word.”

“That's blackmail. You know we need you.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, but is it effective blackmail?”

“Maybe,” she admitted. It had been a long time since a man had showed interest in her as a woman. It gave her ego a much-needed boost. She didn't believe for a minute that it was anything more than Adam's boredom at being stuck in a small town. So what would it hurt to go out and have a little fun? Besides, it might take her mind off a certain irritating cowboy.

“I'll think about it,” she conceded.

* * *

N
EAL
STEPPED
OUT
of the car as soon as his mother pulled to a stop in the drive, but he made no move toward the house. Restlessness rippled through him. He didn't want to go inside. He'd spent too much time indoors. He was going stir-crazy.

“Are you coming?” his mother asked, heading to the front door.

“I think I'll take a walk down to the barns.”

She nodded and disappeared inside the house.

She was probably glad to get him out from underfoot. He hadn't been the best of company. He had managed to apologize for upsetting her on the way home, but she was still dead set against his returning to the rodeo.

After crossing the ranch yard to the first of two large red barns, he stepped into the welcoming dimness. The smell of animals, hay and oiled leather mingled with the faint scent of dust. He smiled. Now he really felt like he was home. He and his brother, Jake, had practically lived in the barns.

Together, they had raised and trained some pretty good cow ponies. While Neal had drifted away to the rodeo, Jake had continued breeding quarter horses and training them for roping and cutting. His nearby ranch, the Flying JB, was renowned for producing quality stock horses.

Down the wide front aisle of the barn, four horses looked over their stalls and whinnied. Neal's mother maintained an expansive cattle ranch with the help of a few hired men. Like nearly all Flint Hills ranchers, she still used horses to work cattle. ATVs were useful, but they couldn't learn to read which way a calf was going to break from the herd the way a good cow pony could.

Neal stopped at the first stall. He drew a hand down the horse's silky neck. “Think I came in here to feed you? No such luck, honey. You must be one of Jake's.”

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
3.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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