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What was she doing?
Molly Stewart Bailey couldn't ignore her queasy stomach a moment longer, so she pulled off the highway onto the side of the road. Quickly she turned to see if her unexpected action had awakened her son Trent who was sound asleep in his car seat, his head lobbed to one side. For a second Molly considered jumping out of the car and propping his head back upright.
She squelched that idea as traffic was swishing by her at a rapid rate and in her present state of despair, she was liable to get run over. Still, she paused and continued to look at her son, who favored her, with dark brown hair, smoky blue eyes and clearly defined features.
A friend once told Molly she had the most uncluttered face ever. When she recalled that, it made her smile.
Her mind was in too much turmoil; maybe that was why she kept her eyes on her child.
The only feature he had of his father was...
Suddenly Molly slammed the door shut on that thought. Now was the worst possible time to travel down memory lane. As it was, it would take every ounce of fortitude and courage she could muster to do what she was about to do. But she had no choice, even though choices had consequences. In this case, the consequences could change her life forever, and not for the better either.
That was why she had to guard her heart and its secret with every bit of fight she had in her.
Shaking her head to clear it, Molly pulled back onto the highway, soon to realize she was closer to the Cavanaugh Ranch than suspected. Once again she felt a wave of nausea wash through her. So much for her vow never to return to east Texas, much less to thisprecise location.
But then who could've known her mother would fall and injure her back to such an extent she was now bedridden? Molly stifled a sigh and tried to concentrate on something mundane like her surroundings, the tall oaks decorated in their fall colors of reds, browns and golds, the pines whose limbs seem to reach to the heavens--the ponds whose waters glistened like diamonds, and the meadowlands dotted with fenced-in cattle.
Only she found she couldn't fix her mind on anything other than gaining ground on her destination.
Nothing could usurp the fact that after almost five years she was about to see Worth Cavanaugh again. In the flesh. Cold chills darted through Molly, and she shivered. Stop it! she told herself. She had to get control of her splattered emotions and never let go of them. Otherwise, she was in for a world of hurt for the next couple of weeks, if not longer.
Gripping the steering wheel harder, Molly made the last turn before entering the long strip of graveled road which led to the ranch house atop the hill. Once there, she stopped the car and took several deep breaths, which helped settle her nerves. She'd known this endeavor wouldn't be easy, but she hadn't envisioned it being this difficult. It seemed that every nerve in her body was riding on the surface of her skin.
Not a good thing, she told herself, and not at all like her. As a registered nurse, she prided herself on having nerves of steel. Her job actually demanded it. But the who she was about to encounter didn't have anything to do with her job. It was personal. She would soon come face-to-face with the one man she had hoped never to see again, the man who had not only broken her heart but had jerked it out and stomped on it.
"Don't, Molly!" she chastised herself out loud, then quickly glanced in the rearview mirror at Trent. Her self-imposed rebuke hadn't impacted him at all. He was still sleeping soundly. She frowned, realizing that in a few moments, she'd have to awaken him, which would not be to his liking, or hers. When he didn't get his full nap, he tended to be grumpy and oftentimes hard to manage.
Waking up in a ranch setting would most likely right his world quickly, as she'd been telling him about the horses and cattle he'd see every day. She had even bought him a new pair of cowboy boots and hat in honor of this visit to see his grandmother.
Trent had insisted on wearing his new attire today, which brought a smile to Molly's face, recalling how he'd paraded around the house, peering at himself in the mirror every chance he got, a big grin on his face.
Another sigh filtered through her at the same time the smile disappeared. Worth's house stood in front of her, and for a second she was tempted to jerk the gearshift in Reverse and back down the drive. Out of sight; out of mind. That thought was only fleeting as the needy edge in her mother's voice rose up to haunt her, recalling this visit wasn't about her, Molly, but rather her mother.
As long as she kept that uppermost in her mind, she would do just fine. Molly owed Maxine Stewart more than she could ever hope to repay, and not because she was her mother, either. Maxine had stood by her, though she had been kept in the dark about much of what had gone on in her daughter's life these last few years. If for no other reason, Molly would always love her for that.
Glad for the interruption, Molly flung her head around and smiled at her son who was now wide-eyed and kicking his booted feet. "Hey, it's about time you woke up."
"When can I see the horses and cows?" Trent asked right off the bat.
Molly grinned. "First things first, okay? We'll see Granna, then the animals."
"Granna'll take me."
Molly heard that comment just as she exited the Toyota Camry and came around to release Trent from his car seat. Then helping him out, she said, "Remember Granna can't do anything. She's in bed with a hurt back."
Trent frowned as he jumped to the ground, his eyes scanning the surroundings. Molly followed suit, taking in the lovely manicured lawn close to the modern ranch house. Then her gaze dipped beyond to the sloping grounds where animals grazed in the distance near a blue pond.
"Mommy, look, I see lots of cows."
"Me, too," Molly said absently, turning Trent by the shoulders and steering him in the direction of the side door to her mother's small living quarters. Although Maxine's bedroom and sitting room were part of the main house, Worth had been thoughtful enough to add a private entrance, for which Molly was especially grateful today.
As splintered as she was, she didn't need to run into Worth, not until she'd at least seen her mother and found out for herself how seriously she was injured. Beyond that, Molly intended to take the moments as they came and deal with them no matter how painful or unsettling.
"Mom, we're here," Molly called out, knocking on the door, then opening it.
Maxine Stewart lay propped up on a pillow in her bed, a broad smile on her still-attractive face, her arms reaching out to Trent, who seemed hesitant to move.
"It's okay, honey, go give Granna a hug."
"I'm expecting a big hug, you cutie tootie. Granna's been waiting a long time for this day."
Though Trent still appeared reluctant, he made his way toward his grandmother and let her put her arms around him, giving him a bear hug. Finally pushing Trent to arm's length, Maxine's eyes glistened with tears. "My, what a big boy you are."
"I'll be five my next birthday," Trent said with pride. Maxine winked at him. "Granna hasn't forgotten. I already have your birthday present."
"Wow!" Trent said with awe.
"Don't get too excited," Molly cautioned. "Next month you'll only be four and a half, which means your birthday's a while off yet."
"Can I have it now?"
Molly grinned, tousling his hair. "Not a chance, boy." Then it was her turn to hug her mother, though through it all, her heart took yet another beating, but for an entirely different reason.
Maxine's once unlined face had wrinkles that were unavoidably noticeable and dark circles under her eyes where none used to be. Her mother appeared frail, so much frailer than she had ever been.
Though Maxine wasn't a robust woman, she'd always been the picture of health and beauty. Friends and strangers who saw the two of them together knew they were mother and daughter because they favored each other so much. Some even told them they could pass for sisters.
Pain. That was the culprit that had so changed and aged her mother. Peering at Maxine closely through trained eyes, Molly didn't see any signs of that pain turning Maxine loose any time soon, not if the X-rays her doctor had sent Molly to peruse were correct. At this point, Molly saw no reason to question the diagnosis.
"Mom, how are you really doing?" Molly asked into the short silence.
Molly rolled her eyes. "Hey, remember who you're talking to."
Maxine made a face. "A nurse, I know."
"All the more reason you need to be honest and 'fess up."
"Okay, my back hurts like you-know-what," Maxine admitted down in the mouth, casting a glance at Trent who was busy wandering around the room, fingering this and that.
"That's why I'm here."
"Only not for long, surely." Maxine made a face. "You just can't leave your job. I'd feel even worse if you lost it because of me."
"Hey, calm down," Molly said, leaning down and kissing Maxine on the cheek. "I have a great doctor for a boss. Besides, I have sick days, as well as vacation days, I haven't used. Four weeks' worth, actually."
"It's all right, I promise. I'm not going to do anything that puts my career in jeopardy."
Maxine gave a visible sigh of relief. "I'm glad to hear that." She smiled. "It's so good to see you and Trent. You're a sight for my sore eyes." Maxine faced her grandson and her smile widened. "He's grown so much since I last saw him."
"He's growing much too fast," Molly said with a crack in her voice. "He's no longer my baby."
"That's not so." Maxine looked back at Molly. "He'll always be your baby just like you'll always be mine."
Tears welled up in Molly's eyes, but she blinked them away, hopefully before her mother could see them. "So tell me what's going on here."
"Are you referring to my job?"
Molly was taken aback. "No. I wouldn't think there's a problem with that."
"I hope you're right," Maxine said, her brows drawing together. "Worth let me hire a part-time helper several months ago, which is good. She's more or less running the house now, with me telling her what to do, of course."
"So is that working out?"
"Yes, but this home needs a full-time housekeeper, especially with Worth thinking about entering politics."
The last person Molly wanted to talk about was Worth. Actually, she'd rather not know anything about him period. Under the circumstances, she knew that wasn't possible.
"I just can't help but be a little fearful of eventually losing my job," Maxine said, "especially if I don't start improving."
"Oh, come on, Mom, Worth's not going to let you go. You know better than that."
"Maybe I do, but you know how your mind plays tricks on you and convinces you otherwise." Maxine paused. "I guess what I'm saying is that my mind is my own worst enemy."
"That comes from lying in bed with nothing to keep you occupied." Molly smiled with a wink. "But now that Trent and I are here, that's going to change." Speaking of Trent made her turn to check on him, only to find he was no longer in the room.
"Did you see Trent leave?" Molly asked, trying to temper her building panic.
"No, but he can't go far."
That was when she noticed the door leading to the main house was open. "I'll be right back," Molly flung over her shoulder as she dashed out of the room, soon finding herself in the house's main living area. "Trent Bailey, where are you?"
"Who is Trent?"
Molly stopped in her tracks, and stared into the face of Worth Cavanaugh. For what seemed the longest time, not only did her body shut down, but their eyes also met and locked, though neither said a word. But that didn't matter. The tension was such that they might as well have been screaming at one another.
"Hello, Worth." Somehow Molly managed to get those words through cotton-dry lips.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in a curt tone, choosing to ignore her greeting.
"I would think that's obvious."
"Maxine failed to tell me you were coming." Instead of curt, his tone was now in the freezer, showing no chance of thawing.
"That's also obvious."
"Again, who's Trent?"
Worth's black eyes flickered and his mouth stretched into a pencil-thin line. "Lucky you," he finally said in a caustic tone, his eyes filled with scorn as they traveled up and down her body.
The word bastard was about to fly out of her mouth when Trent rounded the corner, racing to her side. "Mommy, I went to see the moo cows."
Molly pulled him against her, clamping her hand on his shoulder. When he started to squirm, her hold tightened. As if sensing he was in trouble, Trent stopped wiggling and stared up at Worth with open curiosity.