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"Now you just stay there for a minute. Everything will be all right."
The low, gruff voice came from outside the construction trailer where Cimarron Cole was working at a paper-strewn desk. Frosty air from a window air conditioner blasted the side of his face and ruffled his hair, but at least it beat the stifling humidity outside. Cimarron glanced at the large clock on the opposite wall as the doorknob turned.
Cimarron's brother, R.J., popped his head around the door, a sheepish look on his face. "Hey, little bro. Late again. Sorry."
"Yeah, I've heard that before. Get to work. You've put the painters behind schedule already."
"Well, see, ah " RJ. screwed up his mouth and glanced behind him. "I've got a little problem."
Cimarron waited in silence. RJ. had a lot of little problems. He was good-looking, with curly dark hair and the Cole family's legendary doe-brown eyes that women couldn't seem to resist. The thirty-eight-year-old still considered himself a ladies' man. Well, at least until the past few years, when he'd been forced to slow down.
"You see, Erica ran out on me this morning. Left me. Told me to Well, you probably can figure out what she told me."
Cimarron grunted and made an impatient gesture with his hand. "So, what's new? You trade girlfriends like most people trade cars. And come insideyou're wasting energy and letting the cool air out, to boot."
RJ. twisted around in the doorway and motioned. A five-year-old miniature RJ. stepped hesitantly into the tiny office. R.J.'s son, Wyatt. Cimarron tensed. What now? Why the hell had he caved and hired his brother on this project?
"See, she just up and left.And I ain't got nobody to watch Wyatt, so I thought maybe he could sit here while you "
Cimarron's jaw clenched and he shoved his chair back and went around the desk, taking RJ. by the arm and forcing him outside onto the narrow stoop. Cimarron shut the door and they faced off with their chests almost touching.
"You think I'm going to babysit for you today? No way in hell. I have got work coming out my ears. I'll be here till midnight as it is. I told you when you talked me into taking you on, you had to be reliable."
RJ. pressed back against the porch rail to put another inch between himself and his brother. "Okay, okay. But I'm here now, just a few minutes"
"Over an hour late! And dragging your kid with you."
"Look, I'll have a sitter by tomorrow. Hell, Erica might be back by then. He ain't going to bother you. I swear, he'll sit right there in that chair."
"No. You just go home for the day. I'll get somebody to finish painting the molding."
"That's not right, Cimarron. I need the money. More than ever now, if I gotta hire a sitter. Just let him stay in there while you work. I'll hurry and look for a sitter over my lunch hour."
Cimarron's shoulders sank at R.J.'s imploring look. Nothing but problems. The whole family. All his life. Nothing but problems.
RJ. grinned. "You've always been a good little brother."
"Yeah, I've always been a pushover," Cimarron said. "You get your work done this morning and come get him. You know I don't know a damn thing about kids."
"He's a good boy. Won't give you a lick of trouble. And you gotta admit he's pretty cute," RJ. said, winking, with a lilt of pride in his voice.
"He looks a hell of a lot like you."
RJ. grinned. "And that means he looks just like you, too."
That much was true. Cimarron and RJ. could have passed for twins, except for the four-year difference in their ages.
"I'll be back for him in a couple of hours."
RJ. bounded off the porch and trotted along the tree-lined allée leading to Cimarron's current restoration project, a grand antebellum plantation house. Once finished, the home would be the crowning glory, so far, in his body of work.
A sultry Louisiana breeze drifted by, stirring the leaves of an overhanging oak branch, leaving Cimarron's skin hot and sticky. He longed to suck in the cool, clean air of Idaho, but he'd been gone so long now the place didn't seem like home anymore. Besides, there was nothing left there for him. No home, no family. Even RJ. didn't know where their good-for-nothing father wasor so he said. And the sad thing was, Cimarron doubted his brother would be around for Wyatt any more than their own father had been around for them, once the rodeo bug bit him again and he got bored with "daddying."
The phone ringing in the trailer caught his attention and he ducked back inside. Wyatt perched on the chair in the corner, watching Cimarron's every move with wary eyes.
"Hello," Cimarron said into the receiver, his gaze wandering to avoid looking at the child as he listened to the voice on the other end of the phone.
"Yes, who's this?"
"Bobby James. We met at the casino in New Orleans last year."
Cimarron frowned, trying to recall the meeting. "Sorry, I can't "
"I own that old fishing lodge in Montana. Near Bozeman. Remember?"
"Ah, okay, it's coming back."
"Look, I wonder if you "
Wyatt squirmed on the chair, setting Cimarron's teeth on edge. Kids made him nervous. In a way, he'd never been a kid himself, and maybe that was why he couldn't seem to identify with them.
"Hold on a minute." Cimarron put his hand over the mouthpiece and turned his attention to the child. "What's your problem? Can't you be still?"
"Gotta go to the bathroom."
Cimarron jerked his head toward a door behind him. "There's one in there. Can you go by yourself?"
The child looked at him as if he had sprouted snakes on his head. "I'm five years old."
"I guess that says it all. Have at it."
"Go ahead," he said to the other man, who launched into a long spiel about his house in a place called Little Lobo.
Listening to the muffled noises behind the bathroom door, Cimarron had to ask Bobby to repeat his words twice. Finally, he gave up. "Let me get back to you. Give me a phone number where I can reach you."
"Okay, but you'd better call pretty soon."
Cimarron jotted down the number, then rolled his chair back and tapped on the door. "What are you doing in there?"
Cimarron rolled his eyes. "Fine." After a moment of guilty hesitation, he asked, "You need any help?"
Cimarron stuck Bobby James's number on his bulletin board with a note to return his call that afternoon when he could count on being undisturbed. Finally Wyatt came out, careful to close the door behind him.
"Stinks," he said.
"I imagine." Cimarron lifted his chin toward the chair in the corner and Wyatt obediently climbed into the seat again. "Your daddy'll be back in a few minutes."
"Unca Cimron?" Wyatt asked softly. "Do you have something I could draw on?"
Curbing his impatience, Cimarron shuffled around in a drawer and found a legal pad and a pencil, which he handed over. When Wyatt bowed his head over the paper and began to write, Cimarron gathered his thoughts and tried to figure out where he'd left off when his day jumped the tracks.
He studied the costs ledger. This project was almost finished, under budget and on time. Another few weeks, tops, and he could put the house on the market for a substantial asking price. After some time off, he would buy another building that should turn over a good profit after renovation.
He worked uninterrupted while Wyatt occupied himself in the corner. Once in a while Cimarron glanced over, surprised that the child could remain quiet for so long. Wyatt looked up briefly when Cimarron closed the ledger. Then, a commotion outside drew their attention. Another yell from the direction of the house brought Cimarron to his feet. As he opened the trailer door, he saw his project superintendent, Ron Gibbs, sprinting toward him. Beyond Ron, a couple of workmen were rushing into the house.
"What's going on?"
"Accident!" Ron yelled, breathless. "Get an ambulance."
Alarm shot through Cimarron. He grabbed the cordless office phone, punching in 911 as he hurried out the door. On the porch, he turned around to stick his head inside again.
"Wyatt, you stay right here. I'll be back in a few minutes. Understand?"
Without looking up from his drawing, Wyatt nodded.
"What happened?" Cimarron asked when he caught up to Ron.
"I don't know," Ron said. "One of the men came and got me."
The 911 operator answered and Cimarron summoned help, keeping the line open. He matched Ron stride for stride into the stately foyer of the refurbished house. Through the arched entry to the dining room bright sunlight flooded the floor-to-ceiling windows, making the wet paint on the moldings glisten.
Several workers gathered around the base of the high scaffolding that had been erected to reach the twenty-foot ceilings. Cimarron handed the phone to Ron and pushed his way through.
"Oh my God," he whispered, kneeling beside his motionless brother, who was lying faceup on the hardwood floor. "R.J.?"
Cimarron laid his fingers against R.J.'s neck, finding a weak, halting pulse.
"R.J., can you hear me?" He glanced up at the men surrounding him, their faces drawn with concern. "Anybody see what happened?"
A young painter spoke up. "We'd finished and I was getting the brushes and pails ready to go. He was going down to catch them at the bottom. I heard him grunt and when I looked around he was falling. I don't know what happened. Yesterday he was complaining about the fumes making him lightheaded and he said living in Louisiana was messing up his sinuses, but he didn't mention anything today. He was just in a big hurry to get done."
RJ.'s eyes fluttered, then opened. He squinted up at Cimarron and managed a lopsided grin. "I must have missed a step," he whispered.
"Just stay still. You'll be okay," Cimarron said with more confidence than he felt.
"Little bro," RJ. said. "You take care of Wyatt, you hear?"
"Come on, R.J., you're going to be around to do that."
"Don't think so," he managed to say with effort. Cimarron tried to keep him quiet, but he insisted on speaking. "I made a will before I came down here. Meant to tell you." He attempted to grin again, but failed. "I made you Wyatt's guardian "
Cimarron stared at his brother in shock. "What?"
"You're the only one I trust to see that he's done right by. You gotta do it for me, little bro. Give him a good life."
RJ.'s eyes rolled back. Cimarron's probing fingers found no pulse this time.
No sign of breathing.
"Don't you die on me!"
By rote, Cimarron started CPR, his own heart pounding, drumming out every other sound. Breathe, breathe, pump, pump, pump
His expression fixed, his face turning blue, RJ. looked just like their mother had when Cimarron turned her over that night so long ago. Sweat poured down his body as the panic grew. He glanced in the direction of the construction office, where a little boy sat waiting Cimarron would be the one who had to tell him his daddy wasn't coming to get him after all.
No way. No way in hell!
"Damn it, RJ. Don't you die and leave me with that child!"