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Cal Riddell Jr. hated hospitals. He hated how he didn't have a single ounce of control in the way they were run. Take how Electra Community was set up, for examplethe place was designed like a rat's maze. It took forever to get anywhere, and half the time he got lost.
He hated the constant noise of the building, too. Metal carts squeaked and clanked as they rolled along the sterile linoleum floors. Doctors and nurses rushing down the halls. And the persistent hum and beeping of various monitors and machines. All of it pressed on his nerves something fierce.
The smell was bad. Without a doubt, the whole place reeked like gas station bathrooms and disease, all covered up with a hefty dose of disinfectant. It was a far cry from his preferred place to worka converted tack room in the main barn back at the Riddell Ranch.
But most of all, Cal hated that his dad was in the hospital and there wasn't one thing he could do about it.
"I'm fine, Junior," his father snapped. "Do not go get me another glass of water." With an impatient glare, he added, "I told you, I'm not thirsty. Something wrong with your hearing?"
"No, sir." Cal strived for patience, but he was losing ground, fast. From the moment Cal had arrived four hours ago, his father had been especially cranky and bullheaded. Though this behavior wasn't all that new, Cal wasn't used to being the main recipient of his father's temper. He had always prided himself on being the son who was responsible and courteous.
Until very recently, it had gotten him pretty far in life. "The nurses said you needed to drink more liquids."
"Dammit, Cal. I'm sixtytwo years old, not ninetytwo. If I want to sip some water, I can get it myself. Without your help. But I don't want it. So stop sticking that cup in my face."
Cal put the pitcher of water aside and wished one of his brothers would appear at the door and take his place. The old coot could get him riled up like nobody's business in two seconds flat. "Fine."
Faded blue eyes flashed. "Damn right it's fine. Now, stop fussing. You're acting like an old woman. Fact is, I don't even know why you're here. You should be back at the ranch, making sure everything's running right."
"Everything is." Cal knew for a fact it was. He'd been at his desk at fourthirty that morning, checking on the latest financial holdings and making sure nothing had blown up overnight. After that, he'd joined two of the hands in the barn and helped load up the truck with supplies to take out to the north pasture.
At the moment, his BlackBerry was in his pocket, collecting emails and voice messages. He'd check in and take care of business the second he had a spare moment. Really, nothing was going to happen that he didn't know about.
But his father was oblivious. Ever since Cal had begun to take on more and more responsibility for the ranch's vast financial holdings, the old guy had asked less and less about the usual daytoday business. Now Calvin Sr. was more likely to be riding his horse or hanging out with one of his cohorts.
That's why, instead of looking reassured, his dad just looked skeptical. "Sure?"
"Positive." As his father shifted and studied the ceiling, Cal eyed him once again. He was looking thinner. His cheeks looked sunken in, and he was agitated, too. Cal didn't blame the guy. Sitting in bed, waiting for surgery, was a horrible way to spend a day. "Want to watch some television? Maybe there's a game on."
"Doubt it." But a flicker of interest in his eyes belied his negative words.
"Let's check, just in case." Needing something to do, Cal picked up the remote and turned the TV on. Cartoons blared back at them.
His father let loose a steady stream of profanities. "Turn that thing off and get on out of here, would you? Don't know why you're even here."
"You are having surgery tomorrow, Dad. Of course I'm going to be here."
"Jarred's not. Neither is Trent."
"Trent is on tour with the rodeo. And Jarred was here yesterday before he and Serena left for their vacation in Mexico."
When Jarred had returned home, Cal learned that their father had spewed out a steady stream of abuse to Jarred for eight hours straight. And though his older brother had acted disappointed that he hadn't been able to either change the date or get a refund for his vacation in the Mexican Riviera, Cal thought it was basically all talk. More than likely, Jarred was doing everything he could to convince Serena to take even more time off at the library just so they could stay out of sight even longer.
Cal didn't blame Jarred. Not really. Fact was, their dad was difficult. And, well, a man could only take so much.
The door opened, preventing his dad from continuing his tirade.
Thank the Lord.
In clanged one of those metal carts, with a pair of nurses in tow. "Hello, Mr. Riddell," the first nurse said, a pretty gal named Rachel. "We're here to draw some blood."
His dad crossed his arms protectively over his chest. "The hell you are. You already took blood today."
"Dad, watch your mouth."
"All I said was hell." One eye fixated on Rachel. "Are you offended?"
A shy smile lit her features. "You haven't managed to offend me yet, Mr. Riddell. Even though you sure have tried."
His dad turned to him. "See?"
But all Cal saw was that it was only a matter of time before his father alienated half the hospital staff. For some reason, he felt responsible for that.
Fact was, some days he was just really tired of being his father's keeper. "I'm real sorry, Rachel," he murmured.
"Don't worry about a thing, Junior," she said softly. "He's nothing I can't handle." Then, turning to his father, she raised her voice and held out a hand. "Mr. Riddell, I'm afraid I have my orders. We need more blood. Can you hand me your arm, please?"
To Cal's embarrassment, his father told her exactly where she could put that needle.
But instead of running away, Rachel grinned and winked. "You're not scaring me away. I'm still here, Mr. Riddell. And I'm still going to take this blood."
"My heart's about to collapse, as it is. Don't see why"
Cal looked over at the other nurse. So far, she hadn't said a word, just stood next to the cart as if she was afraid the thing would roll off without her.
Poor thing. "Dad, enough," he said. "These nurses need to do their jobs."
"Heck, I haven't even gotten started."
Cal was just about to find a gag for his father, when Rachel turned to him again. "It looks like we're going to be here for a little while. Why don't you go take a break."
"I can stay if you need me." The only time his father had been a good patient was when he was sedated. Cal liked Rachel, and felt too sorry for the mute one to have her put up with his dad without help.
To his surprise, Rachel's smile brightened. "Things will be better if you're gone."
"Are you sure? Because I can"
"Cal, you heard the woman. Get out of here!"
"Fine." Cal walked out just as his father started cursing everyone in the room again. He hesitated for a moment, but continued when he heard Rachel chuckle and his dad settle down.
Obviously that nurse was right. Things were going better without him in the room perhaps because Rachel was as aware as Cal what his dad's real problem was.
Plain and simple, his father was scared to death. His years on the rodeo circuit, followed by even more years of hard living and next to no regard for food of any nutritional value had made his arteries plug up. He was due for a bypass at 7:00 a.m. and Dr. Williams had been pretty clear that he was worried about his patient's blood pressure.
He'd also told Cal that his dad was likely going to need weeks of recuperation and therapy afterward. And a lot of help.
It was a hard pill to swallow for a man who'd lived his life on his own terms. So, to Cal, his father's mood was understandable. But, boy, was he tough to deal with.
Aimlessly, Cal wandered down the hall and caught the elevator down to the cafeteria. Two dollars bought a cup of coffee and a stale chocolatechip cookie.
He sat near the window and slumped. What was he going to do if his dad wasn't okay? He'd been the rock in their lives. The standard to which he and his brothers all tried to measure up. What was he going to do if the old guy didn't get better?
"Excuse me. Do you mind if we sit here with you?"
Cal looked at the redhead standing in front of him, her hands full of a tray packed with enough food to feed a small village. Next to her stood a little boy about seven.
Without waiting any longer, she set her tray on the table. "Because we're starving and there's no room anywhere else. You don't mind, do you?" she asked, sitting right down and pulling out a chair for the boy before Cal even had a moment to answer. "I mean, you've got this whole table all to yourself."
The way she was talking, you'd think he was holding up prime retail property. But as Cal looked around, he saw that she had a point. Somehow the place had gotten packedmostly with uniformed personnel. There wasn't a spare seat to be found.
That brought him up short. Exactly how long had he been sitting there, looking out the window?
When their eyes met again, she tilted her head to one side. "You really don't mind, do you?"
He shook his head no but couldn't help ribbing her a bit. "What would you have done if I said I did?"
"I would've moved, of course."
She smiled, and Cal suddenly became aware of how beautiful her mouth was. "Really. But we wouldn't have been happy about it, would we, Hank?"
Hank shook his head but didn't answer. 'Course, it would have been hard for the kid to do that because there was half a hot dog in the boy's mouth.
Cal sipped his coffee and grimaced.
"You picked a bad time to get coffee," she murmured.
She leaned closer, bringing with her the faint scent of gardenias. "It's three o'clock. New pots are always brewed at five," she whispered as though she was divulging something top secret. "You got the old stuff."
Put that way, his drink now tasted worse than ever.
Her pretty green eyes flashed as if he'd said something interesting. "Next time, wait two hours. It's worth it. I promise."
He hoped to God there wouldn't be a next time. "Thanks for the tip."
"Sure." She picked up her fork and dug into a plate of baked ziti. "Have you ever had this? It's great."
"You should. Lucindashe's the head chefshe fancies herself to be Italian. She really can make great pasta."
In spite of himself, he was caught in her conversation. "Fancies herself to be? You mean she's not?"
She grinned at Hank, who grinned right back as he stuck a straw into his carton of chocolate milk. "Heck, no! She's Mexican. Grew up in Acapulco." While he processed that, she turned all dreamyeyed. "Doesn't being from Acapulco sound exotic?"
"Why not?" Hank blurted. "Lucinda says there's cliff divers there. Have you ever dived off a cliff?"
"Well, do ya want to?"
Hank wrinkled his nose and snorted, "Mister, can't you say anything but no?"
"Can't you ever shut up?"
Hank stilled and sneaked a worried look at his mom.
She glared at Cal. "We don't say 'shut up.'"
"I do. If you don't want to hear it, don't sit with me."
Instead of being cowed, the boy grinned even wider. "You've got something on your shirt! It looks like dog poop." Then the boy hopped up and scurried over toward one of the napkin dispensers.
Stunned to silence, Cal slowly looked down at his front and spied a twoinchlong slab of goo smeared right over his heart. Hastily, he grabbed a napkin and swiped.
But all that seemed to do was set the stain in worse.
Tentatively, he examined what he'd been able to get off with the napkin. Shoot. It probably was poopbut of the horse kind. When he'd helped the hands load up boxes, one of the boxes had come from an old stall. From an old stall that hadn't been properly mucked. Great. He'd been decorated with it all day long.
But everyone else had been too wellmannered to speak of it.
"Shoot. It probably is crap." He was just about to explain the stain, when he noticed the woman was staring at him, and not a bit of her expression was pleasant. In fact, that redhead could've breathed fire, she looked so pissed off.
"You know, someone really should have washed your mouth out a time or two," she blurted.
What Red didn't know was that for pretty much the entirety of his fourthgrade year, he and a bar of Dial had been best friends. Of course, that bar of soap had been his mother's doing. Everyone knew she'd been doing the best she could with three rambunctious boys.
What was this gal's excuse for her son's mouthy ways?
"Maybe someone should have taught that boy of yours some manners."
"Someone? As in me?" Her eyes narrowed. "You have a lot of nerve."
He'd had enough. Enough of being jabbed with questions. Enough of sitting in the cafeteria stewing and worrying. "Look. Just because you came over here and sat down doesn't mean I wanted to talk to you. I didn't, you know."
She had the gall to bat her eyelashes. "And here I thought you were just shy. Don't worry, I won't bother you again."
"Good." And because she was still staring at him with those sparkling eyesand because he even noticed them he continued, "Just so you know, I think what you're doing is shameful."
"And what is that?"
"You're obviously trying to pick me up. In a hospital. With your son in tow."
"Is that right?"