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The willowy blond was spotlighted in the center of the stage, her long platinum hair gleaming, her soft blue eyes half–closed and faintly sultry as she sang. Her voice, as clear and soulful as a bell in late evening, held the audience spellbound.
Heather Shaw was only twenty, but she had the stage presence of a much older performer. This was her first big break, though by no means her first performance. Tonight was the culmination of two years' work, the moment she had looked forward to ever since she'd set out to win her independence from Cole.
As the last notes of her finale were followed by loud, enthusiastic applause, she felt strangely empty. She stood there, a vision in black lace and silver, and wondered if this was all there was to success.
When she'd left the ranch, Cole had warned her that success wasn't the gleaming treasure she imagined. "It won't be enough," he'd said in that cool, controlled voice of his. "You'll miss Big Spur."
Heather sighed as she took off her stage makeup, changed into street clothes and got her jacket and purse. It was well past midnight, and she wanted nothing more than her bed. Cole was rightshe did miss Big Spur.
She climbed into her little sports car with a wry smile. Maybe it wouldbe best if she gave up her ambition and went home to the ranch. The rain was misting all around her, and she shivered, uncertain whether it was the cold or a sudden wave of homesickness that had caused her to tremble.
She pulled out into the sparse traffic and sat impatiently at a red light. Staring through the rain–blurred windshield at the nearly empty road, she wondered what Cole would say if he could see the loneliness in her eyes now.
The light changed and she stepped on the accelerator, in a hurry to get home to her warm apartment. She sped down the narrow street, unable to see the car coming at her on the wrong side of the road until she rounded a curve. And then it was too late. She gasped, hit the wheel too hard, and heard with a sense of unreality the screeching of tires, the crushing of metal, the wild shattering of broken glass .
Heather woke to darkness. It lurked outside the drawn blinds on the window, and she felt alone and afraid. Her slender body moved anxiously between the crispness
of clean cotton sheets in the narrow hospital bed. She wanted to scream, but that was impossible. Her long, pink–tipped fingers went to her throat in frustration, and tears washed her pale blue eyes. If only Cole would come!
Her eyes darted again to the blinds and she frowned, tossing her long platinum hair restlessly on the pillow, teasing it into curling wisps. Surely he would have come as soon as he heard about the accident! Despite their disagreements, the stepbrother she worshiped would never have deserted her at a time like this. Cole could be cruel, but he was never heartless.
She shivered under the thin sheet. The heat was on, of course, but the room was still chilly. She'd have given a lot for one of the quilts her stepmother Emma liked to make on cold winter nights.
The door opened, and a smiling young nurse came in with a tray. "Time for your dinner," she said pleasantly. She put the tray down and paused to rearrange the bedclothes before moving the food within reach.
Heather tried to speak, but it wasn't any different now than it had been last night when they'd extricated her from the wreckage of the sports car. No sound came from her throat except a hoarse croak. The fear showed in every line of her delicate face and in the pale blue Siamese cat eyes under the tousled platinum hair that fell in untidy wisps around her shoulders.
The nurse glanced down and read her expression. "It's not permanent," she assured her. "Just a result of shock from the accident. You'll talk again, dear."
But I'm a professional singer,she wanted to protest. I'm a singer, and I've just gotten my first big break! Why did this have to happen to me now? I'm committed to a two–week run at the Bon Soir, and now everything's ruined!
Her eyes closed on a wave of nausea. If only it hadn't been raining. If only she'd listened to Cole and bought a bigger car, one that wouldn't have gone into a skid on the wet road . Heather's soft eyes filled with tears. She glanced around at the bedside table and mimed her frustration at having nothing to write with.
"I'll get you something," the nurse promised. "Back in a minute."
Picking at the food in front of her, Heather watched the nurse's retreating figure. She felt so lost and alone. Even Gil Austin hadn't shown up yet. He was her best friend in Houston, a reporter who'd been doing a feature story on the band she was appearing with when she met him. Gil was a live wire, and he'd taken the shy young singer under his wing, watching over her almost as protectively as Cole. Gil and Cole were even about the same age, Gil thirty, Cole thirty–three. But the resemblance ended there. Gil had fair hair and green eyes, and was always smiling. Cole's hair was dark, his eyes were gray, and his face resembled deeply tanned stone. His life was the enormous ranch he and Heather's father had built up together. Big Spur was a showplace, and Cole never tired of it. No woman had ever been able to nudge it to one side long enough to get him to make a commitment. Cole didn't like ties of any kind.
"There you are!" came a breathless, relieved voice from the doorway.
Gil Austin let the door slide shut again as he came forward, his eyes worried, his fair hair tousled, his habitual smile noticeably missing as he studied the slender young form under the sheets. "Johnson sent me to Miami on a story." He grimaced, looking wounded. "If I hadn't been out of town, I'd have known about the accident long before now. I'm sorry, little girl!"
She tried to speak, but the effort was futile. She nodded instead.
He caught her small hand and squeezed it. "Are you hurt bad?"
She shook her head, pointing at her throat, and smiled again.
The nurse came back in with a pad and pen and handed it to Heather, smiling pleasantly at Gil. "Are you her stepbrother?"
Gil shook his head, frowning. "Hasn't he been notified?"
"Of course." The nurse nodded. "His name and phone number were in her purse. The attending physician called him from the emergency room. That," she added with a hasty glance at Heather, "was very early this morning."
Gil, too, looked at Heather, who was busily scribbling a note on the pad. "Taking his time, isn't he?" he asked quietly.
The nurse nodded with a sigh. "If you're through
with your dinner, I'll take it away now. Ring if you need anything." She smiled at Heather.
Heather smiled back and handed Gil a note explaining how the accident happened and asking if he'd make sure they had notified Cole. "He'd be here if he knew," she'd written.
Gil frowned at the faith in her bright eyes. He knew how she worshiped Cole Everett. But he also knew how fiery their relationship was, and how much Cole disapproved of his stepsister's singing career. He wasn't convinced that Everett might not be teaching her a painful lesson by his absence. The Texas rancher had a reputation for being difficult and temperamental. Gil, who covered the entertainment beat for the paper, had never met him, but he'd heard the business reporters talk about him and shudder. Everett was a millionaire several times over, and something of a power in Texas politics. A man with that kind of wealth would naturally be arrogant, but they said Everett made an art of it.
"I'll go and check now, okay?" he asked, forcing a smile he didn't feel. She looked so helpless lying there, so vulnerable. He wanted to protect her, but despite the weeks they'd been dating, she wouldn't let him get close to her. He wondered if anyone had ever been able to measure up to Everett in her eyes. Her awe of the man was almost unnatural.
He left her long enough to check with the head nurse, and was informed in no uncertain terms that Mr. Everett had indeed been advised of his stepsister's condition.
The woman didn't know why he hadn't come, but she promised to have someone call him a second time.
Gil stayed with Heather until visiting hours ended, when he told her he'd have to go. She clung to his hand, but only for an instant. He left with promises to return early in the morning, and she held back her tears until the door closed behind him.
Being alone was frightening. It was all too easy to lie there and brood about the loss of her voice. She'd talk again, they said. This was just a temporary condition, hysterical paralysis of the larynx, the doctor had told her. When she got over the shock of the accident her voice would return. But could she sing again? She bit her lower lip. Oh, Cole, if only Cole were here, she wouldn't be afraid.!
The sound of a cold, angry voice penetrated her depression. She blinked her eyes, straightening in the bed. She half turned toward the door, where the voice was coming from.
"I don't want excuses!" it growled. "I want to know why in hell I wasn't notified!"
Cole! She sat erect, the sheet falling away from the shapeless green hospital gown they'd put her in, and stared at the door with her heart in her soft eyes. There was a placating murmur just before the door was thrown open and her stepbrother walked in.
His hard, dark face was like a thunderhead, his silvery eyes blazing under his jutting brow. Tall, dark, blatantly masculine, he towered over the small, nervous nurse behind him. Heather's pale eyes brightened with
tears at the sight of him, so arrogantly commanding. All the arguments between them were abruptly forgotten, and she held out her arms like a hurt child seeking comfort.
His silvery eyes flashed at the gesture, and for an instant he looked as if he wanted to throw something. He tossed his cream–colored Stetson into a chair and bent to lift her slender body into his hard arms, cradling her against his broad chest as he eased down beside her on the bed.
She wept brokenly, her tears staining the brown fabric of his vested suit, and he held her even closer.
"I didn't know," he ground out, his deep voice rough with emotion. "I'd have been here hours ago if anyone had bothered to notify me."
"Mr. Everett, you were called," the nurse protested gently. "Honestly, you were. The attending physician put the call through while I was in the emergency room. I heard him give the message."
Cole glared at her, his eyes dangerous with anger. "No one spoke to me,"he said deliberately.
The nurse swallowed. "That's possible, of course. We're very sorry about the mix–up." She slipped out quietly, closing the door gently behind her.
Cole drew back to look down at Heather's wet face. His eyes narrowed when he studied her wan cheeks in their frame of curling platinum hair. She looked like a whipped child. "Was it bad?" he asked softly.
She shook her head and tried to smile. Her eyes openly worshiped him. Cole was the biggest thing in
her young life. She might fight with him, rebel against his arrogance, his absolute domination, but she loved him obsessively and she made no secret of it. It had been that way from the very beginning, when she was thirteen and Emma and Cole came to live at Big Spur.
His eyes slid down over her body in the hospital gown, lingering on a bruise at her collarbone. He reached down and touched it, and she stiffened instinctively at the unfamiliar sensation. "You're bruised," he said harshly, tracing the purplish area angrily. "I warned you about that damned little car."
Her lower lip pouted at him and her eyes flashed. She wanted so badly to speak, to argue, but all she could do was fume.
He looked down at her steadily. There was no expression on his impassive face, but for an instant something gleamed in his eyes.
"Have they sent anyone for your clothes?" he asked.
She shook her head, reaching for the pad and pen. "Hasn't been time," she wrote.
"I'll bring your things," he said. He stood up, flexing his shoulders as if he hadn't had much rest. Probably he hadn't had any, she thought, studying him. Cole went like a dynamo, all the time. Her gaze was caught by the attractive brown Western–cut suit he was wearing. She couldn't help noticing the way it emphasized his broad shoulders and narrow waist and hips, the way it clung to his powerful thighs like a second skin. There was something so sensuous about Cole, about the way he moved .
She squashed the disquieting thought. "Home?" she mouthed.
One dark eyebrow went up. "Your apartment or the ranch?" he asked.
She stared down at her fingers and her mouth pouted. "The ranch," she scribbled, hating her own weakness.
"It won't be that bad," he promised. "Emma could use the company. I've been away a lot."
"Not with cattle," she wrote on the pad, flashing him a knowing look. "Not in winter."
A rare smile touched his hard, chiseled mouth for a second, and she caught herself wondering if he ever used that smile on other women. It was devastating.
She shifted slightly in the bed, trying to ease the ache that seemed to affect her whole body. He leaned down and his long, brown fingers touched the white bandage that covered one of many abrasions on her arm. "Does it hurt, baby?" he asked.
He was the only man who'd ever called her that. It wasn't an endearment she particularly liked, but Cole made it sound special.
She shook her head, reached her own fingers up to cover his, and caressed them lovingly.
The gesture seemed to bother him. He drew back as if she'd burned him and quickly moved away from the bed, ramming both hands into his pockets as he prowled around the small hospital room.
Heather felt rejected. Cole was acting so distant tonight. It was as if he didn't want to be in the same room with her.