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"I don't need a babysitter," Mae Parker declared imperiously from the wingback chair where she sat across from Claire Hannaford. "In fact, if every time I turn around you're there, I'm not gonna like it. What I need is for you to act as my backup. I'll tell you where I'm goin' and how long I plan to be there, and if I don't show up when I'm supposed to, you come lookin' for me. But I don't want you with me every minute. I can take perfectly good care of myself. Except" her shoulders twitched "for when I'm havin' one of my spells."
Claire shifted slightly on the couch. She had not expected such a vigorous client. The head of the home health care agency where she was registered had informed her with gushing excess of the Parker family's importance in far West Texas and of the matriarch'sMae Parker's long-time political influence across the state, but she'd told her very little of the woman's actual physical condition. The usual Q and A collected about a client's health history had been overlooked in the haste to accommodate Mae Parker.
"I was told when you called the agency, you said you'd fallen in the bathtub," Claire replied evenly. "Were you injured?"
"My pride was."
"I bruised my hip and an elbow."
"You were lucky. They could've been broken."
"I'm aware of that."
Mae Parker seemed remarkable for her years. Her mind was clear, her posture erect, her tone commanding. Even at ninety-one, the force of her personality radiated throughout the room.
"Does your doctor know about these spells?" Claire asked.
"He knows. He just looks at me and shakes his head."
Claire decided to be direct. She didn't want to be a babysitter any more than Mae Parker wanted one. Too many people were in real need of help for her to waste her time with someone who wasn't.
"Considering what you've said, Miss Parker, wouldn't it be better to ask a family member to act as your backup? Why hire mea nurse?"
"Because I want a nurse."
Claire tried another tack. "Tell me about these spells."
"I get a little light-headed on occasion."
"Enough that you fall?"
"The tub was slippery."
"What does your family think about you hiring a nurse?" Along with the flow of information about the family's status, Claire had also been told they were a tightly knit group.
The woman's shoulders twitched again, but she gave no reply.
"They are concerned, aren't they?" Claire pressed.
"Of course they're concerned! They're concerned too much! Been in a tizzy ever since I fell. Been after me to"
Claire frowned at the terminated sentence. "I don't" she began.
She'd been going to say "understand," but the matriarch broke in with a prescient, "You don't have to understand. You just have to be willin' to help!"
Everything about Mae Parker gave witness to the fact that she was a proud womana strong woman, one accustomed to being in charge. For her to admit that her life needed monitoring couldn't have been easy.
The woman's hawklike eyes watched Claire as she considered what she would do. She thought for a moment to refuse. But the agency had sent her here to do a job and she would do it. "I'm willing," she said.
A satisfied smile tugged at the older woman's thin lips. "Then I'll have Axel bring in your luggage."
"I have a trunk."
"A trunk," Mae Parker repeated.
"A wardrobe trunk, fitted to the top of my car."
"Good thing Axel's a big man. You'll be usin' the parlor off my bedroom while you're here. We've moved a few things put in a single bed. Will that be satisfactory?"
"Certainly," Claire agreed.
The woman cocked her head and examined her more closely. "There's somethin' different about you. You're very calm."
"My charges often find that soothing."
"I'm not complainin', mind you. It's probably a good thing, what with the family likely to have another tizzy when they hear about you. Maybe you'll be able to soothe them."
"My being here will upset them?" Claire asked.
"Oh, they'll get used to it," Mae Parker said, then stood up with the aid of a shiny black cane. "Now, I'm sorry to put this on you before you've barely had a chance to catch your breath, but news travels fast in these parts, and I want at least some of 'em to hear what's goin' on direct from me. I'll deal with the others later."
Claire rose slowly as her new employer started for the door. She was tired. The drive from Midland to the ranch had been longer and more difficult than she'd expected. Especially the last leg, where few markers guided the way. The Parker Ranch was in the middle of nowhere. More than once she'd almost despaired of completing her journey the same day.
Mae Parker paused, and mistaking Claire's weariness for hesitancy, explained, "I've sent word for a few of 'em to come over so I can introduce you. They might make some noise, but no one'll bite."
Together, the two women walked down the hall. Normally Claire settled into a job with little fanfare. If her charge had a familya big if in most casesthere were rarely more than one or two members. And they were greatly relieved to have someone to help.
They passed through the Spanish-style en-tryway and entered a large living room where a small group of people waited.
All eyes locked on Claire.
Mae Parker wasted no time. "Everyone, this is Claire Hannaford my new nurse. Claire" she pointed from one person to another "this is Rafe, my great-nephew and the manager of the ranch. Next to him is LeRoy, another great-nephew. Next to LeRoy is Harriet, his wife, and next to her on the couch is Rafe's wife, Shannon. They all live in the ranch compound, like me."
Claire's gaze moved, quietly curious, over each of the four people. Rafe was long and lean and in his early to mid-forties. He had the same strikingly chiseled features as Mae, mostly dark hair and dark eyes. LeRoy was shorter and stockier than his cousin, a year or so younger and with the same Parker "look." Harriet was a sturdy brunette; Shannon a slim, blue-eyed blonde. All of them stared back at her as if thunderstruck.
"It's very nice to meet you," Claire said into the lengthening silence.
"A nurse!" Rafe burst out, jerking forward in his chair.
Mae bristled. "You heard what I said. I don't know why you're all so surprised! You've been after me for the last couple of weeks to do something. And now that I have, you act like the next thing you'll be doin' is kickin' dirt in on my grave!"
The outrageous assertion brought instant protests.
Mae lifted a quelling hand. "I've made up my mind, and that's that!"
"But, Aunt Mae," Harriet appealed. "You know our Gwen would be happy to spend nights over here. And Shannon and I can take turns keepin' an eye out in the day. Jodie'll be glad to take her turn, too. So will Christine and Delores. You don't have to look outside the family. We want to help you.in any way we can."
"Harriet's right, Mae," Shannon agreed. "If you'd just let us, we'd"
Mae Parker would have none of it. "Most of you have your hands full with babies and such, and those that don't" she moved quickly to foil another protest by Harriet "have other things to worry about. No, this is the way I want things done." She glanced toward Claire. "If you keep makin' a fuss, you're gonna make Claire think she's not welcome."
Harriet, too, sent Claire a quick glance. "We didn't mean it that way. It's just"
"Why didn't you talk to us about what you were thinkin'?" Rafe demanded. "Why keep us in the dark, then spring it on us like this?"
"Because I didn't want any of you tryin' to talk me out of it!"
"We wouldn't have done that!"
Mae glared at him. "Yes, you would. You're tryin' it now!"
Rafe's smoldering dark gaze flicked to Claire, as if he resented having to discuss private family matters in front of a stranger. "I'm not trying anything, Aunt Mae." He ground the words out tightly.
"Good," Mae said, then to change the subject, she looked around the room and demanded, "Where's Tanner? He's supposed to be here, too. LeRoy, go see if you can find him. Marie's probably in the kitchen this minute, tappin' her foot, waitin' to serve the coffee I asked for." The implacable gaze returned to Claire. "Claire, if you're hungry, she can rustle you up whatever you want in two shakes. Just say the word."
Before LeRoy could gain his feet, a man in his mid-thirties stepped into the room. Instead of the western gear the other men had onserviceable jeans, boots and long-sleeved cotton shirtshe wore a pair of trim-fitting khaki slacks and a rust-colored button-up shirt.
Claire noticed right away that he didn't have the Parker "look." He was equally nice looking, but his features were more even, more relaxed. And his brown hair, curling onto the nape of his neck, was casually cut.
"Ah! Tanner! There you are!" Mae exclaimed. "Now we can go for our coffee. Claire, you sit by me. Tanner, you, too."
They shifted into the adjoining dining room, where the matriarch took primary position at the head of a long highly polished table already set for refreshments. Claire and the man named Tanner seated themselves where directed, while the others took their accustomed places.
Upon their arrival, a plump middle-aged woman with short gray hair bustled in from the kitchen. She carried a silver coffeepot and moved around the table to fill each cup. Her blunt features had been tight all along, but when she served Claire, they grew even tighter.
"Thank you, Marie," Mae said, and the woman bustled off again.
Claire was highly aware that she continued to be the object of everyone's attention. She tried to ignore the curious, sometimes hostile looks, but found it difficult. Finally, Mae Parker shifted the spotlight away from her.
"Tanner," the matriarch barked. "Marie tells me you've only brought one suitcase."
"That's right, only one," he confirmed. He had a nice voice, slightly husky, and an attractive smile.
"Won't you need more than that?" Mae demanded. "What kind of clothes did you bring? Those you're wearin' now sure aren't good for ridin' a horse."
"I didn't expect to ride a horse."
The woman's dark eyes moved over her family, causing them to tense, before she again addressed the man. "Just because you're not gettin' to do what you came for it doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself. You and your brother and sisters have always been welcome guests on the ranch."
"I'd rather work for my keep," Tanner said easily.
"Then Rafe can find somethin' else for you to do. You can, can't you, Rafe?"
"It'd be a waste of Tanner's time to have him work cattle," Rafe growled from the foot of the table.
"It's better than havin' him work our books!" Mae shot back. "There's nothing wrong with the way we keep our records. If it's been good enough for the past hundred and more years, it should be good enough today." She turned back to Tanner, her fierceness deliberately tamed. "A young man like you shouldn't spend so much time indoors. You need fresh air, sunshine, exercise. You can't get that sittin' in an office starin' at one a' them computers."
Claire had the strong sense of a giant spider weaving her web. Or a chess master planning her moves.
"Tanner's done pretty good for himself by doin' just that, Aunt Mae," LeRoy reminded her from his seat next to Claire.