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Tori McKenzie slapped her hands on her denim-clad hips and studied the twenty-six-year-old man sitting before her, defiance etched in bold strokes across his handsome face.
She'd taken all she could stand from Matthew Clayton, and even a softie like her was bound to explode sometime. "Are you immune to the feelings of others? You've made the poor cook cry three times this week. And she doesn't deserve it."
The afternoon sun slanting through the window highlighted strands of gold in Matt's uncombed, chestnut-colored hair. If he'd been going for the rugged, sexy look, his tousled locks and unshaven appearance would be enough to cause a flock of buckle bunnies to swoon.
But Tori knew better than that. Matt didn't seem to care about anything these days. Not even his appearance.
If she hadn't been a registered nurse once upon a time and sworn to promote healing, she would have ditched this thankless assignment the moment Gran-nyTori's employer and Matt's sweet, elderly motherhad suggested it.
As it was, now she was stuck trying to get through to the stubborn man who refused to let anyone break down the walls he'd put up.
"I just want to be left alone," he said. "Can't you and the cook get that through your pretty little heads?"
Tori wasn't prone to violence, particularly when the target was a man who'd been confined to a wheelchair following a tragic car accident, but she had a growing compulsion to grab him by the scruff of his shirt and shake some sense into him.
Instead she muttered, "A lot you know."
Matt relaxed his rebellious pose, allowing himself to sit easier in that chair than a former rodeo cowboy ought to. "Now, listen here,Red"
"Don't call me Red." He couldn't know that the childhood taunt still rubbed her the wrong way, and telling him might actually make his mood worse, but her patience had run thin today. "You have no idea how old that nickname has gotten or what negative connotations it holds for me. Call me Tori. Or Ms. McKenzie, if you prefer."
"All right." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Then Miz McKenzie it is. But either way, I'm still not interested in your help or your sympathy. And you can pass that info on to Connie, too. She was hired to cook, and you signed on to clean the house and do laundrynot babysit me. So go peddle your damn TLC elsewhere."
"I have nowhere else to peddle it." And that was the truth. Tori had left her job at the hospital and had no intention of applying for another position elsewhereat least, not in the near future.
Nor was she ready to provide references and offer any explanations.
She wasn't sure what had gone down in her personnel file after her brother's foolish crime, but she'd been officially reprimanded about it.
And the entire situation had been embarrassing painfully so.
Someday she'd go back to nursing, she supposed. But right now, she was still licking her wounds.
"Well, I don't need your golly-gee, everything's-turning-up-roses attitude," Matt said. "So why don't you find something else to do and leave me alone?"
"Because I need your help."
His brow furrowed and his right eye twitched. "What do you want me to do? Reach something for you? Maybe run out to the barn and saddle a horse so you can go out riding?"
"Actually," she said, "your mother's birthday is coming up in a few weeks. And I need help planning a party."
He blew out a snortlike breath. "I don't do parties."
"She's going to be eighty." Tori made her way toward his wheelchair, as though they'd broached some kind of friendship when that couldn't be any further from the truth. "And you and I are going to figure out a way to surprise her."
"Good luck with that. People in town have been trying to plan celebrations behind her back for as long as I can remember, and she always catches wind of it. No one surprises Granny."
"You and I will."
He reached over to the lamp table and took a glass of amber-colored liquid, which could be either melted-down iced tea or whiskey.
She suspected it was the latter, although she couldn't be sure unless she got close enough to catch a whiff of his breath.
"I told you before," he said. "I don't do parties."
"And I told you, Granny is going to be eighty in a few weeks. That's a very big deal. Do you realize this could be the last birthday party she ever has?"
"Don't say that!" His words came out sharp, abrupt. And his response was the first sign of any tender feelings he might have bottled up with all that grief he'd undoubtedly suppressed.
Good. That meant she was making progress. So she was glad she'd thrown out her ace in the holehis deep love for and devotion to the woman who'd raised him.
Granny had been a childless widow who was pushing sixty when she adopted Jared, her oldest son. Matt, the youngest, had come next, followed a year later by Greg, whom Tori had never met.
The homeless boys hadn't had any kind of future to look forward to when Granny had opened her heart and her home to them. And as a result, they each loved her unconditionally.
Tori got behind Matt and began to push his wheelchair, just as she'd been pushing him emotionally for the past few minutes, pressing him to do what was best for him.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked.
"Taking you outside."
"And then what are you planning to do? Push me down the steps?"
"Would you blame me if I did?"
He grunted as though he knew how difficult he could be, how miserable he'd become to anyone who got within five feet of him.
"The foreman had a couple of the ranch hands build a ramp from the mudroom into the yard so that you can get in and out easier." She didn't dare admit that the men had done so at her request.
"What if I don't want to get in and out?" He turned his neck, glancing over his shoulder at her. His gaze locked on hers as she continued taking him where he didn't want to go. "Did you hear what I said? I don't want to go outside."
"You don't seem to give a darn about anyone else's feelings around here," she said, catching a whiff of alcohol on his breath. "Why should I care about yours?"
"Because you're a pushy little thing. Did anyone ever tell you that you remind them of a bantam rooster when you get your feathers ruffled?"
"No. But thank you. I do believe that's more accurate than what you called me yesterday."
"You mean carrot top?"
"Carrot tops are green."
"So they are."
She'd been warned that he could be especially surly and ornery when he drank, so she'd have to keep that in mind as she chipped away at his barriers. She might have pushed him too hard today already, but she couldn't very well backpedal now.
In the kitchen she stopped long enough to open the plastic container in which Connie, the new cook, kept the leftover goodies and sweets she'd made, and Tori grabbed two chocolate chip cookies, handing one to Matt. Then she continued to take him through the mudroom to the back door.
As she began to steer him down the wooden planks the ranch hands had built, the slope and his weight caused the chair to pick up momentum. "Uh-oh."
He grabbed for the top of the wheels with hands that still bore the calluses of a man who'd worked with cattle and horses all his life. His efforts crushed the cookie she'd given him a moment ago. "Dammit, Tori. Are you trying to kill me?"
"Actually, the thought crossed my mind earlier, but I suspect Granny would like to have you around, at least until her birthday." Tori continued along the dirt pathway to the barn.
"Where do you think you're taking me?"
"I have an idea for the party, and I want to get your thoughts on it."
"I don't see why. You seem hell-bent on having your own way no matter what I say."
Actually, she was hoping that the fresh air and sunshine would brighten his mood. That maybe, if he were able to inhale the familiar smells of the ranch, the animals, the alfalfa and oats, he'd remember what he'd liked about lifebefore the accident had taken all he loved away from him.
Jared had said that Matt had been a rodeo cowboy, that he'd always enjoyed life and had lived it to the fullest. But after the accident that had crushed his legs and killed his fiancée and her young son, Matt no longer cared whether he lived or died. And apparently, that meant he didn't care if he walked again, either.
According to Jared, Matt's doctor had wanted him to start physical therapy, but for some reason he'd chosen not to.
So the nurse in Tori was determined to pull him out of the blue funk he'd slipped into, even if it was the last thing she did.
Sometimes life dealt a sucky blow to peopleor sometimes more than that, as it had to her. And a person just had to make the best of it.
She pushed Matt through the open doorway into the barn, where the scent of oats and horse and leather was especially strong. A couple of broodmares and their colts were stabled along the side walls.
"What are we doing in here?" Matt asked.
"Checking out the setting of the party."
"You can't be serious. You want to have a party in the barn?"
"Well, we could at least hide the people in here." She studied the interior. "You have to admit, it limits the amount of decorating we'd need to do if we chose a cowboy theme. Hey, what do you think about hiring a country-western band?"
He scoffed. "And how about pony rides for all the guests? And maybe a piñata filled with candy under the tree in the front yard."
She wondered what his voice actually sounded like without the ever-present surly tone. She really didn't know the real Matt. Only that he'd been a rising star on the rodeo circuit and could no longer compete because of his injuries.
"I'd like to surprise Granny," she said. "And where better than right under her nose? She goes to church each Sunday. We could have everyone arrive after she leaves. We can hide the vehicles, then set up all the food in here. I think we can pull it off."
"If you're dead set on having it at the ranch, why not have it out near the lake?"
"Ooh. That's an even better idea. I'm glad you thought of it." She scanned the barn again. "We can give people a ride on a buckboard to the lake."
"A buckboard? What the hell are you talking about? We don't have a buckboard."
"Maybe we can rent one."
"Hmmm." She put the tip of her index finger into her mouth and lightly bit down on it. Then she cocked her head to the side. "I don't know. But I'm sure you'll think of something. Put that on your list of things to do."
He grimaced, but didn't say no.
"And if we have it by the lake, we'll also need to rent portable potties.You can be in charge of getting those, too."
"Okay, now you're really getting out of hand."
A horse whinnied, and Tori turned toward it. "Oh, look. How sweet is that? A mom and its baby."
She made her way to the stall and stroked the mother's velvety nose. She'd always been a city girl, and all of this was new to her. But if she had to give up her old life, at least the new one wasn't completely intolerable.
"Her name is Willow," Matt said. "And she's one of the best cutting horses Granny has."
"Horses aren't cute."
"I think they are." She turned, leaning her hip against the stall. "Or were you referring to the jackass on the premises? You know, the one who snaps at anyone trying to reach out to him?"
Touché. So she thought he was an ass. That served his purpose.
Instead of conjuring a snappy retort, Matt studied the pesky redhead, with her wild curly hair and eyes that were as green as anything the Emerald Isle had to offer. He could almost imagine her speaking with a bit of the brogue, although there was an intriguing lilt in her voice as it was.
Either way, she promised to be the death of him, but only because he hadn't been able to run her off, like he had Connie, the cook. A part of him felt a bit of remorse at having made Connie cry, but not enough to change his tune.
He wasn't in the mood to socialize and hadn't been since the accident. Why couldn't people just leave him alone?
For that reason he made one last attempt to get Tori off his back. "I heard a rumor about you and want to know if it's true."
She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "What did you hear?"
He hadn't believed what Jared had said about her background. After all, why would she be stuck out on this ranch, getting a small wage plus room and board, if she had other options?
But his older brother didn't spread tales.
For one guilty moment Matt considered changing course by making up something that would provide some comic relief. But he reminded himself that even though he'd told her to leave him alone, she hadn't been sensitive to his need for privacy. So why should he care about hers?
"I heard that you used to be a nurse," he said. "Before you became a maid."
She stilled to the point that a light breeze might blow her off balance, a reaction that told him what he'd heard was true. And he figured a career change like that hadn't been made on a whim.
Not that there was anything wrong with being a maid. But people didn't usually put aside years of training and education without having a good reason to do so, and it made him wonder just what hers was.
"Why'd you give it up?" he asked. "I would imagine there's always a need for nurses."
She seemed to stew on her answer.
Or maybe she was suffering over it. It was hard to say.
Her stance softened. "Let's just say that there have been a lot of changes in my life."
Apparently so, but it only made Matt all the more curious about her.