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Please, God. Let her be okay.
Nikki bent over her little sister's hospital bed. Angelica was sound asleep, one hand clutching the ragged teddy bear that had slept beside her since birth. Nikki brushed a lock of hair from the child's cheek and smoothed her palm down the length of silky black braid that lay against the pillow.
She bitterly regretted the four years she'd lived away from Angelica. That time seemed wasted when it might prove to be the last four years her little sister had on earth.
The wind picked up outside, the breeze finding its way through the open window to stir the drapes and cool the room with night air. Muted sounds of city streets at night drifted upward, reaching inside the room on the fifth floor of Denver's Adair Children's Hospital. Somewhere far below, a police siren grew louder before fading away, leaving only occasional traffic noise in its wake.
Nikki glanced at her watch: 3:00 a.m. Even the hardiest of Denver's citizens must be sleeping. How she wished she were one of them. She hadn't slept an entire night through in weeks.
Angelica stirred, moving fretfully beneath the light blanket.
"Shh." Nikki brushed the backs of her fingers soothingly over the little girl's pale cheek. "Go back to sleep, sweetie. I'm here."
Angelica sighed, pressing her face against Nikki's fingers and murmuring incoherently before settling once again.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside, then the faint swish of the door moving inward joined the muted beep of monitors in the quiet room.
A smile of welcome curved Nikki's mouth and she glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see the night nurse on her rounds.
Far from it.
A tall man dressed in jeans, denim jacket and boots, his body tapering from wide shoulders to slim hips and long legs, stepped over the threshold. He halted just inside the room, the door easing shut quietly behind him. Beneath the brim of his white Stetson, his eyes narrowed as his gaze leveled on Nikki.
An unexpected surge of joy and bittersweet pain swept through her before being swiftly burned away by a wave of anger.
She'd known Cullen Bowdrie would arrive sooner or later. She knew that she needed him here. But she hated knowing that she was forced to deal with him. She'd managed to avoid him for more than four years, and if that time lapse had been a lifetime, it still wouldn't have been long enough for Nikki.
"Cullen," she murmured, managing a stiff tilt of her head in greeting.
His answering nod was just as brief, his deep voice as devoid of emotion as she hoped hers had been. He moved toward her, his loose-limbed stride evoking powerful memories that Nikki ruthlessly ignored.
He paused an arm's length away, tucked his hands into the back pockets of his faded, snug jeans and studied her assessingly. Nikki refused to look away from his hard stare, though she felt the impact of that green gaze as if he'd touched her.
"I wasn't expecting you tonight." Nikki spoke at last, her murmured words carefully neutral in the hushed quiet. "I didn't know that Quinn had found you."
"He didn't. I called home last night and he told me about your sister."
Your sister. The emphasis in his voice was telling. Don't lose your temper. You need his cooperation. Nikki's fingers gripped the raised bed rail tighter. "Did he explain? About the blood tests?"
"He told me that your sister has some kind of rare blood disease and needs a donorand that you asked him to have his blood tested. He also told me that you gave him some wild story about our father having had an affair with your mother. And that Angelica is the result."
Cully's tone left no doubt that he didn't believe the claim. Beneath the brim of his Stetson, the lines of his face seemed carved in stone, his gaze steely. Nikki refused to let her own gaze waver.
"And you don't believe me." It wasn't a question. Nikki was sure she already knew the answer, but the dismissive shrug of his shoulders confirmed his reaction. Angelica stirred, her slight body shifting beneath the sheet. Nikki glanced at her sister and stepped away from the bed. "I don't want to wake her," she whispered. "We can talk over here."
Without waiting for Cully to agree, she crossed the room to the open window. Her back to him, she stared out at the city glow that lit the dark night, her skin prickling with awareness when he joined her.
He leaned one shoulder against the wall, folded his arms across his chest and waited patiently for her to speak.
Bracing herself, she turned to face him, her gaze meeting his. "Is there a specific reason why you won't consider the possibility that your father might be Angelica's biological father?" she asked evenly, keeping her voice low.
"Yes, there is. You're the fourth woman in the last three years to claim that a Bowdrie fathered a kid we didn't know about." He didn't add that one of those females had sworn that Quinn was her baby's father, nor did he mention that he himself had married the woman to buy her silence. The marriage and the birth that followed had been a disaster he refused to discuss. Instead, he only shrugged once again, although his hard gaze belied the offhand movement. "Ever since our stepmother sued Quinn and me over Charlie's will and made it common knowledge that any of his descendants, legitimate or illegitimate, would inherit a share of the estate, women have been coming out of the woodwork with claims that their kids are half Bowdrie."
Nikki stiffened, anger heating her cheeks. She struggled to keep her voice low. "If you're suggesting that the reason I asked you and Quinn to have your blood tested is to prove that Angelica is entitled to a share of Charlie's estate, you're wrong."
"Maybe. But you have to admit that it seems a little too coincidental that your aunt remembered your mother once had an affair with Charlie at the precise moment that your half sister needed expensive medical care."
Nikki's fists clenched tighter, her fingernails digging half-moons into soft skin. "I'm only interested in finding a bone marrow donor. I don't need your money and neither does Angelica."
With the swiftness of a striking rattlesnake, Cully reached out and caught her left hand in his. Nikki instinctively moved to pull away, but he held her fast.
"No ring." His hooded gaze flicked from her bare fingers to her face. "So you didn't marry money. What have you been doing since you ran away from Colson that brought you enough money to pay for high-cost hospital care, Nikki?"
She couldn't bear the warm touch of his callused palm beneath her fingertips. She tugged against his hold, and this time he let her go. Unfortunately, he remained standing only inches from her. The scent of night air, leather and man that was unique to Cully assaulted her senses with every breath she took. She steeled herself not to react to the memories that plagued her, and stood firm, refusing to step back.
"It's no concern of yours what I've been doing since I left Colson, Cully," she said evenly. Angelica's medical costs were being covered by a charitable organization for children afflicted with aplastic anemia, but she didn't intend to share that information with Cully. She refused to care if he thought the worst of her. "I don't owe you an explanation and I won't give you one." Despite her best efforts, bitterness seeped into her words.
"Why not? Are you ashamed of what you've been doing?" he shot back.
The banked anger that lay beneath his response was clear. Nikki ignored it.
"No, I'm not ashamed of my life in Seattle." Anger heated Nikki's cheeks and thrummed through her veins. "The only thing in my life that I'm ashamed of is the one-night stand I shared with you."
"It wasn't a one-night stand." His mouth tightened, flattening into a hard line.
"No?" Nikki lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. "We had sex once. That qualifies as a one-night stand."
"You were a virgin," he bit out. "And we didn't just have sex. We made love."
"You have an interesting memory of events, Cully. Let me tell you how I remember our prior association. Yes, I was a virgin. Yes, we had sex. You left before dawn, while I was asleep, with a note that you'd call me later. You didn't call. Then you showed up at the apartment two days later and stayed just long enough to tell me that you were marrying someone else." Nikki swallowed the flood of bitter betrayal that filled her, refusing to let him know how much his marriage had hurt her. "You used me, Cully. I was a one-night stand."
"Hell, you won't listen, will you?" A muscle flexed along the tense line of his jaw. "There's no talking with you when you're like this," he said flatly.
"There's no talking with me about this," she corrected, the antagonism in her glare matching his. "What happened between us four years ago is ancient history. All I want from you is your agreement to have your blood tested. That's all. Quinn understands that, even if you don't."
"Quinn's a pushover where kids are concerned. He always has been, and ever since he married Victoria and they had one of their own, he's worse. He would have taken in every kid that claimed they were Charlie's if I hadn't stopped him." His gaze narrowed on her. "What Quinn didn't tell me was why he believed you."
"I don't know that he did believe me." Nikki briefly tried to conjure up an image of tough rancher Quinn Bowdrie being a soft touch for scheming women, but found the picture too incredible. "But he's willing to have his blood tested on the chance that he might be a bone marrow match for Angelica."
"And is he?"
"I don't know. We won't know the test results until tomorrow."
"So much for the paternity claim against Charlie." Cully shrugged in abrupt dismissal, his gaze hardening. "What about you? You're her sister. Why can't you give her what she needs?"
"Because I'm not a match." Nikki's gaze met his. "But you might be, Cully."
"If Quinn doesn't match, I won't, either."
"You might." Nikki drew a deep breath, meeting his hard stare unflinchingly. Despite the fact that he clearly thought she was lying about Angelica's connection to his father, she swallowed her anger and pride and forged ahead. "Without a bone marrow transplant, Angelica will die." Her voice wobbled, and the lump of emotion that clogged her throat made her pause before she tried again. "I don't want your money, Cully, I just want my sister to live. I don't know if my mother was lying or telling the truth when she claimed Charlie fathered Angelica. I don't care. All I know is that if there's the slightest chance that you and Quinn are related to Angelica, then there's a chance that your bone marrow might be able to save her life."
She searched his features, but no emotion moved across his face. No acceptance, but neither could she read outright rejection. "Please, Cully," she whispered, hating the weakness that roughened her voice with tears. Hating him for making her plead.
"Please do this."
Cully absorbed her words without expression. Bracing himself internally, he did what he'd purposely avoided since he'd entered the room. He half turned to stare at the little girl on the bed.
She's so little. The knowledge hit him with the force of a blow. That a life-threatening disease raged within that small body seemed obscene. He didn't recall ever seeing her in their small hometown of Colson, Montana, and wondered if he'd ever passed her on the street. He'd occasionally nodded hello to white-haired Cora Petersen on Col-son's Main Street, but he'd paid little attention to the child at her side.
He left the window and crossed the room, halting by the bed rail to stare at the child asleep on the high bed. He was aware of Nikki joining him, but the little girl claimed all his attention.
His gaze moved slowly over her face, searching for familiar features. Her hair was the same raven black as his own, but neither he nor Quinn shared her distinctive widow's peak. Her mouth was a Cupid's bow, soft and vulnerable, and neither it nor the delicate bridge of her small nose bore any resemblance to the nose and mouth he saw each day in his shaving mirror. The small hands that lay atop the blanket were small-boned, nothing like his larger, callused fingers and palms.
Could this small, delicate person really be his half sister? A wave of fierce protec-tiveness swamped him with unexpected strength. His body tensed to endure the slam of unwanted emotion.
"Cully," Nikki murmured softly. She hated to beg, but for Angelica's sake, she would have gone down on her knees.
He glanced from the child to Nikki, following her when she left the bedside for the window once again.
"You're the only sibling that remains untested."
"Possible sibling," he corrected. Although he fought the pull, something deep in his gut told him that an undeniable force connected him to the little girl who lay so still beneath the hospital bed's white sheet. "We don't know for sure if there's a connection."
"Okay," Nikki conceded. "Possible sibling. Nevertheless, if there's any chance at all, won't you let the hospital test you? A few minutes in the lab to have a technician draw your bloodthat's all it would cost you, and it could mean life or death for Angelica."
"All right," he said abruptly. "I'm not agreeing that Charlie was her father, but there's still a chance that an unrelated person might be a match, right?"
Nikki felt her heart stop before it resumed a rapid beat once again.
"Yes. Although the probability that you might match would be substantially less." Tears of relief trembled on her lashes before overflowing to trickle down her cheeks, and she wiped them away with unsteady fingertips, grateful that Cully's brooding gaze had returned to Angelica.
The quiet in the room was broken only by the beep of a monitor and the occasional sound of a nurse passing in the hall outside. Cully appeared to have forgotten her presence, and Nikki took advantage of the opportunity to watch him unobserved. She hated to admit, even to herself, that conflicting emotions surged through her. She wanted to feel nothing for Cully Bowdrie beyond anger and a thankfulness that he was willing to be tested for compatibility. She didn't want to acknowledge that the undeniable pull of male to female still existed between them.
He's thinner than the last time I saw him.
Beneath the shadow of black stubble, his cheekbones and jawline were more defined. His nose and forehead seemed more sharply etched. His eyes seemed an even deeper green in the lamplit room, his brows and lashes the same raven black as his hair, which curled against the collar of his jacket.
But the most startling change was the jagged scar that started beneath the left side of his jaw and zigzagged its way down his throat until it disappeared beneath the blue cotton of his shirt collar.