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"Got me some news," Buzz Martindale announced to Tallie Shanahan as Tallie made him do five more leg lifts than he wanted to.
She knew distraction was what the old wrangler had up his sleeve. As nurse, midwife and physical therapist in the small town of Elk Creek, Wyoming, she'd been visiting the Mc-Dermot ranch every day for the past three weeks to put elderly Buzz through his paces. Buzz had broken his knee shortly before Tallie had returned to her hometown and become the sole provider of medical care for the close-knit community that had recently lost its only doctor.
"Four more, Buzz," she persisted, ignoring his lure. But not without difficulty.
"Got me some news 'bout Ry," he added, up-ping the ante.
Okay, so it sparked some curiosity in Tallie. It wasn't as if sheand the rest of Elk Creekhadn't been wondering what was going on with
Buzz's grandson Ry McDermot. Ry had received a mysterious and sobering phone call and hightailed it out of town without a word to Buzz or anyone else except to say he was leaving Buzz in the care of their housekeeper and Tallie. That had been a full week ago, and although Tallie had tried not to ask every day if Buzz had heard from Ry, she'd rarely managed to get through a session of Buzz's rehabilitation exercises without saying something.
"Three more," she instructed the wily old man, who was dressed in boxer shorts, a ratty bathrobe, even rattier cowboy boots and a hat that his housekeeperJunebug Brimleywanted desperately to burn.
"Ry's comin' home," Buzz said in almost a taunt. "On his way right now. Should be here any minute."
Tallie couldn't help the glance that shot itself toward the door as if Ry might, indeed, have just stepped up to it. In the process she lost the gentle grip on the elderly man's ankle that urged the lower half of his injured leg into its slow rise.
Buzz chuckled as if he could see right through her.
"Two more will do it for today, and then I'll rub that horse liniment into your knee," she said. "Guess he's been in Cheyenne," Buzz offered.
"With Shane and Maya on their honeymoon?" she asked, the words spilling out on their own.
"Ry and Shane might be twins, but I don't think ole Shane needed Ry along on that," Buzz said with a sly laugh.
"Well, at least now you know where he's been," Tallie said as if she hadn't lost a minute wondering about it herself.
"Says he's bringin' home a sur-prize. A big 'un. But he didn't sound too happy about it."
"That so?" Tallie responded, still pretending she didn't have the slightest interest in anything to do with Ry.
But she was just pretending. The truth was that she had an inordinate interest in everything about Ry McDermot.
Not that she wanted it that way. She didn't. In fact she fought like mad against it. Fought like mad so the no-nonsense, keep-to-himself cowboy wouldn't guess that the highlight of her move back to Elk Creek had been the few times she'd talked to him about his grandfather's injury and recuperation.
She hadn't admitted that to a living soul. She didn't even want to admit it to herself. But old Buzz seemed to have sensed it.
Or maybe he just noticed how her eyes were always wandering to the door, watching for Ry, wondering if she might see him before each therapy session ended.
"Okay. That's five," she said then, removing the one-pound weight she had secured around Buzz's calf just above the boot top. "Where's the liniment?"
Medically speaking, Buzz's home-made concoction of horse liniment really wasn't doing anything. But she humored him every day by rubbing some of it into his knee. He insisted it made him feel better. Most likely the massage was what did the trick after the tiring exercises designed to rebuild his strength. But she didn't begrudge him that. She liked the old cuss.
Besides, it gave her an excuse to spend a few more minutes there. A few more minutes that increased her chances of running into Ry
"There you go," she said when she'd finished with the liniment, too. She wasn't in a hurry to leavealthough as busy as she was without a doctor in town, she should have beenbut there was no more reason to delay. No reason but one. "I'll wash my hands and get going."
She snatched up her purse on the way to the bathroom connected to Buzz's room, hoping he didn't notice. Or realize why she wanted it with her. And rather than leaving the door open as she usually did, she closed it behind herself as if she wanted to use more than the sink.
She wanted to use the mirror, too. Just in case.
So after washing her hands, she took a comb from her purse and ran it quickly through her springy, pale blond hair. She kept the style short, only a few inches long on top and on the sides, letting it grow just past her collar in back because otherwise the natural curls became an unruly bush. Even so, her hair wasn't tame. Years ago she'd had to give up the notion of ever having sleek, sophisticated locks.
But then a sleek, sophisticated hairdo wouldn't have gone with her face.
Cute and perkythat was how her looks had always been described. It was better than being called homely and drab, but still the description didn't thrill her.
She'd always wished for a face that was classically beautiful. More refined. Stunning. But what she had was very white skin, eyebrows that matched her hair, a small, turned-up nose, lips she wished were fuller than they were and cheeks that didn't even hint at high bones or gaunt model's hollows.
Not that hers was a fat face. It wasn't. She'd been blessed with an enviable metabolism that kept her five feet four inches thin even when she overate or indulged herself. It's just that she was cute and perky.
She did have good eyes, though, she reminded herself as she freshened her mascara. There was nothing about her eyes she would have changed. As far as she was concerned, they provided the only color she hada blue the shade of the sky just before a spring storm, bright and dark at once. Thank heaven for small favors.
She dug a tube of lipstick out of the bottom of her purse then, telling herself she was being silly, that the odds of running into Ry in the next five minutes were nil. But still she applied the barely pink tinted gloss, again hoping that Buzz didn't realize she'd been in there sprucing herself up just in case she met Ry on her way out.
To justify the time she'd spent behind the closed door, she flushed the toilet, rewashed her hands and returned to the bedroom where Buzz was grinning like a Cheshire cat, as if he'd known all along what she was up to.
"He just parked out front," the old man informed her.
"Who?" Tallie asked, playing dumb while her pulse kicked into overdrive at just the assumption that Buzz was referring to his grandson.
But the elderly cowpoke never let her get away with anything. "You know whoRy. He left his truck at the train station when he took off, and I just heard it outside. He's home!"
"That's nice. I'm sure you'll be glad to have him back. Especially with Junebug feeling under the weather. Now she can have that time off she needs."
"Ha! I'm not the only one who'll be glad to have 'im back," the old man said with a laugh.
Tallie began to gather up her exercise mat and weights, all the while listening much too intently for the sound of the front door opening. And telling herself to cool it, that she wasn't interested in Ry McDermot. Or any other man, for that matter.
But the moment she heard the front door actually open, she felt a rush of excitement that she couldn't hold down to save her life. And she ended up with her hands frozen on the handles of the athletic bag she used to carry her things, her gaze stuck like glue to the doorway and her heart beating in unison with each heavy footfall of cowboy boots across the entry way's tiled floor.
And then there he was.
Her eyes rose, taking in that first glimpse of hair that was barely brown and bleached by the sun with streaks that were nearly as light as hers. He wore it close to his head on the sides and back, longer on top where a natural wave carried it away from his face.
And oh, what a face it was!
Lean, angular, rawboned and ruggedly masculine, he wasn't fashion-magazine handsome, just staggeringly attractive in an all-man, rough-and-tumble, outdoorsy sort of way. He had a high forehead and a shelf of brow over eyes the bright green of kiwi fruit. Intelligent eyes that were deliciously incongruous with the hard-washed features of the cowboy, and shadowed by lashes so thick they hardly seemed real.
His nose was slightly long and thin, with a small ridge at the bridge and a pointed, slightly uneven tip. His upper lip was a mountain range of twin peaks with a deep valley in between, above a lower lip that was lush and turned Tal-lie's insides to mush every time she got a look at it.
His jawline was sharp, there was an indentation just off center in his chin and, as if his face weren't enough to dumbfound even the most savvy woman, he also had a strong neck, shoulders so broad they filled the doorway and commanded attention and a work-honed, muscle-laden body to die for.
But after losing herself in that first sight of him, Tallie's eyes refocused and took in more than the man himself. She suddenly realized that he had a backpack slung over one of those great shoulders, a bright-colored cloth bag held under one well-muscled arm, a suitcase dangling from that same hand and, carried like a saddle on his opposite hip, was what had to be his big surprise. And a surprise it was.
For there, parallel to the floor, as if intent on the study of Ry's boots, was a little boy.
"What the?" Buzz began but didn't seem able to finish.
Ry took a deep breath, breathed it out as if he were about to face a firing squad, set the three bags down and then swung the tiny tot to stand in front of him.
"This," Ry announced in a voice that echoed with what sounded like a mixture of his own shock, disbelief and dismay, "is Andrew."
Tallie guessed the tyke to be not more than eighteen or nineteen months old. He had a lot of straight wheat-colored hair cut neatly around a round-cheeked face. Big, bright blue eyes stared warily out as chubby fingers fiddled with each other. He was dressed in stubby tennis shoes, cuffed jeans, a striped T-shirt and a miniature jean jacket, and Tallie felt an instant craving to scoop him up into her arms.
But she didn't dare.
Andrew glanced up at Ry from over his wee shoulder as if he didn't know what to make of the big man any more than Ry knew what to make of him. Then he looked from Tallie to Buzz, and out came his bottom lip at the same time the corners of his mouth went rapidly south.
Thinking fast and acting before the wail could reach the surface of that pout, Tallie reached into her carryall and pulled out a small, round, brightly colored Band-Aid. She dropped to her knees so she was closer to the baby's eye level, made quick work of unwrapping the Band-Aid and promptly thumbed it to the center of her forehead.
The corners of Andrew's mouth stayed pointing at his chin, but instead of crying he tentatively headed toward her on one of those crooked baby walks to see what she was doing with the second Band-Aid she'd taken from the bag.
He stopped before getting too close, and she held the bandage out to him.
"Hi, Andrew," she said in a soft, soothing, cheery voice.
He toddled nearer, looking suspicious but too intrigued to resist. When he got within reach, he pointed to his forehead and said something that sounded more like a grunt than a word.
Tallie got the idea. She pressed the Band-Aid to his forehead while the tiny boy rolled those big blue eyes upward trying to see it. Then she pushed her athletic bag toward him, spreading the zippered top wide open so he could rummage inside as if it were a treasure chest, knowing there was nothing in it that could hurt him.
Once the distraction had succeeded, she looked back at Ry, who was watching with a forlorn expression on his face.
"What's goin' on, boy?" Buzz demanded.
"You know that phone call I got a week ago? Dirk Breckman and his wife were killed in a car wreck. This is their son. And they named me his guardian," Ry explained succinctly, his deep voice flat and matter-of-fact. But definitely not thrilled. "I spent the last seven days sorting through red tape and legalitieswith the help of Maya, who probably didn't appreciate spending part of her honeymoon workin'and here we are. A done deal."
A done deal that Ry was clearly uncomfortable with. He might be a big, strong, accomplished, successful, take-charge kind of guy, but it was obvious he was daunted by the prospect of sudden fatherhood. Daunted by the little boy himself. Not to mention that he was totally unprepared, ill-equipped and inept when it came to handling AndrewTallie had seen that for herself just in the way he'd carried him into the house.
"Glad you're here, though, Tallie," Ry said then.
It was a silly thing to note at that moment, but Tallie realized that it was the first time he'd ever said her name. And she wished she didn't like the sound of it so much.
But she did.
She tamped down on the feeling and raised questioning brows to him.
"Been thinkin' the whole way home. I'm gonna need some help with all this. I don't know my asshead from a hole in the ground when it comes to these things. I'd like to hire you to help out."
There was no reason to feel disappointed. There was nothing that had gone on between them before, nothing he'd said or done since arriving home, to raise her hopes. Yet for some reason that simple comment about his being glad she was there must have struck a chord in her or why else would what had followed it have bummed her out?
Directly in front of her, Andrew had discovered the whole box of Band-Aids and was trying to figure out how to get the wrapper off a red strip.
Tallie smoothed a gentle hand across his hair and stood ramrod straight to face Ry, putting an effort into smiling so he wouldn't know she'd had such a ridiculous reaction.
"I'm sorry, Ry, but my plate is full right now. It might be different if we had a doctor in town again, but as it is"
"I'll pay you. Anything. Name your price."
"It isn't money. It's time.''"
"I'm desperate here," he admitted, sounding it. Looking it, too, as his eyebrows arched toward his hairline.
Something thrummed inside Tallie again.
Damn him, anyway, for the power to affect her with no effort at all! she thought.
"I suppose I could give you a few pointers. Help out where I can when I can. And you could come to my parenting class," she said, thinking all the while that having more contact with him was probably not a good idea. Even if the prospect did send a little thrill through her.
"I don't know if that'll be enough."
"It's the best I can do."
"Take it," Buzz advised from his perch on the edge of his bed.