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"Anyone else?" Dr. Belle Carter called out to the ten or so ranch hands standing around, gawking at her. She was used to men gawking, but not like this bunch was doing. They were queasy, some of them wobbling on their feet, grabbing on to furniture, hugging walls. If there was a particular shade of color common to the sickly lot presently resisting her, she'd call it gray-green. But food poisoning did that, even in slight cases. Today, the old E. coli bug had struck down half the crew who worked on the Chachalaca Creek Ranch outside Big Badger, Texas. She'd suspected bad bean sprouts on the salad were the culprit when she'd sent the first samples to the lab for tests, though she was actually quite encouraged over a bunch of cowboys eating salads and not big, thick steaks or pork chops. Until all those cowboys let her take a look, she wasn't going to be sure about anything, though. "If you've still got any of the symptoms I've just described, or talked about the other times I was out here, you'd better tell me now. If you don't, it's going to knock you down, maybe for up to ten days. That's a promise." She held up a large bottle of pills, rattled it for effect. "Anti-nausea pills, if you're interested." Which nobody was. This was her third trip out here for this, and her last, if they continued to shun her the way they were doing.
"It's hard getting used to a new doc in town," Maudie Tucker, her nurse, said under her breath as she pulled Belle back from the men. "These boys are used to the way Doc Nelson used to do it, and having a lady doc makes them jumpy. They don't trust you yet."
They didn't trust her? That was clear. But they were sick, and in most cases sickness would override distrust. Not here apparently, and she was about to be bested by a bacterial gastric upset. "But Doc Nelson eloped with his thirty-five-years-his-junior receptionist, and I'm the only doctor within a hundred miles, so it's get used to the lady doctor or ride out the illness without my help," she whispered back, sympathetic to the men's plight and at the same time annoyed, watching them lope and drag themselves in single file into the next room overthe game room. Just to get away from her. As if she couldn't follow them and perform their exams on the pool table if she had to.
"It'll take them some time to adjust," Maudie replied. "Folks around here are cautious, but they'll get used to youeventually."
"Eventually's not good enough. They're sick right now." Belle loved Maudie to pieces. She'd come with the medical practice, boasted forty-two years of hard-boiled nursing, and if she could she'd mother every one of Big Badger's citizens. Today, though, mothering wouldn't work. But a firm hand would, and she doubted Maudie had it in her to be firm with any of the ranch hands. "Which means they take the pills or " She shrugged. "Some of them will probably get sicker, incur more time off work, and have to face the consequences when I explain to the ranch owner that they refused treatmenttreatment he hired me to give." It also meant she was going to be the one to take a hard line here, if she intended on getting somewhere with the men. So she was going to chase them down, examine them, and treat them, whether or not they liked it. Good thing she was used to taking a hard line. Dr. Belle Carter, family practice specialist, had developed pretty thick skin over the course. Had had to, with what she'd gone through to get to this point in her lifetackling med school years later than many of her classmates, being a single mother, marriage to a man who'd spent most of their wedded years somewhere else. Married, past tense, naturally.
So today, with ten moderately sick people trying desperately to run away from her in their sluggardly sick gait, six appointments back at the office this afternoon, and flu vaccinations to give out later at the Salt Creek Ranch, she was extra-busy, and time was something she didn't have much of because at the end of it all she'd promised most of her evening to her son, Michael, and that was a promise she didn't want to break. He was the reason she was doing this, and doing it the hard way.
"My purpose here, my only purpose, is to have a look at each and every one of them, check their vital signs to make sure nothing else is going on and assess for dehydration or worsening symptoms, then treat what I find. It's a simple thing. Or it should be, if they'd let me do my job."
"Need some help?" a familiar voice asked from the doorway. "I don't have my medical bag with me this trip, but I can certainly help you with some of the process."
Anger was her first reaction to that voice. Then her heart skipped a beat. Then her lungs clutched, but only for a fraction of a second as when she caught her breath again she was right back at anger.
"What are you doing here, Cade?" she hissed, trying hard not to let the ranch hands overhear, even though every last one of them had now exited the room. "It's not your weekend. In fact, it's not even a weekend. So why are you here, bothering me, while I'm trying to do my job?"
"I'm here because I missed my favorite person in the world."
She swallowed hard, fighting to regain control as all the ranch hands in the other room, no matter how sick, were watching her, gauging her reaction, probably trying to find some argument to use against her when they were called out for refusing treatment. She sucked in a deep breath, squared her shoulders, steadied herself, and said, with all the calmness she could muster, "He's in school." Three words, so much effort. But Cade took effort.
Oh, they had an amicable situation where Michael was concerned. No one looking on could say otherwise. Twice a month Cade flew from Chicago to Texas to visit his son, and he never missed a date, never made excuses. He was diligent in that, something she actually admired in the man. In fact, she'd seen Cade more often in the two months she and Michael had lived in Texas than she had the last two months they'd lived a block down the street from him. He'd never missed his visitation then either. But in that situation it had been easier to avoid Cade, which she did as often as she could.
Now, though, with Cade showing up on her doorstep so often, coming from so far away, avoiding him wasn't all that easy. "And I don't need help taking care of my patients." Finally, now that the first flush of anger was under control, and nothing was skipping, clutching, or doing anything abnormal to her physiology, she turned to face him. "How did you know where to find me anyway?"
He looked straight at Maudie, who was blushing all kinds of red, and smiled. "I have a few friends here in Big Badger, Texas."
Dr. Cade Carter could sweet-talk the needles right off a prickly old cactus. He was a charmer, all right. Nothing about him had changed in that respect, and Maudie Tucker was the living proof. "Well, in case your friend didn't tell you, I've got a busy day ahead of me and I don't have time to waste standing here talking to you. But since you're here, for who knows what reason, you can see Michael after school. I'll call Virginia and let her know you'll be picking him up." Virginia Ellison, retired librarian, was Michael's caregiver, and the only person in Big Badger she really trusted with her son.
"Except it's not just Michael I came to see. Normally, when I'm here on my visitation weekends, there's not enough time or you're too busy. But we need to talk, Belle. There are some things I want to say, want to tell you, that don't fit into the regular schedule, and I was hoping " He shrugged. "It's important. That's all I'm saying."
Now her heart skipped a beat again, and not in a good way. She'd had years of disappointments, one after another, from this man, and she was conditioned for it. But not here, not now, and that's all she could think this would be. Cade changing something, Cade doing something that would affect her life. The divorce, five years ago, had ended all the letdowns and she didn't want to go back to that. Not even for a minute. Yet it felt like that's exactly where Cade was trying to drag her now. Except nearly ten years of having Cade Carter in her life had taught her how to dig her heels in. But those same years of Cade Carter had also taught her just how vulnerable she could be to him, if she let herself.
"I'm working, Cade. Whatever you want, we'll do it later when I'm ready. And in the meantime, leave me alone."
"Fine, later. When you're ready. But in the meantime, it looks to me like you could use another doctor here."
She glanced into the next room at her patients, who all seemed to have lost interest in the interchange between Cade and herself, then took two steps closer to Cade. Gritted her teeth. Whispered, "Don't do this to me in front of my patients, Cade Carter. Do not undermine my abilities by implying that I can't do my job without your help. So get out of here and leave me alone."
"I was just offering," he said, not budging.
Just offering. But what was he really offering here? That's what had her stumped. They'd been divorced five years now, and she'd been relieved to see it end when it had. Sure, it had been sad, in so many ways. Especially because of Michael. But she couldn't have survived with Cade. She'd needed more, he'd needed less. "Fine. We'll talk later. Whatever kind of bad news you're going to spring on me can wait until I've finished my day."
"I never meant to do that to you, you know?"
"Make you think the worst of me. Or anticipate that anything I have to say to you is bad news."
"I don't think the worst of you, Cade. But we were married, remember? I got used to having the worst of you."
"And sometimes the best." He cocked a half-smile, stepped back, tipped his cowboy hat at her. "Later," he said, then turned and walked off.
"Surprised you'd let him get away," Maudie commented, watching him almost as hard as Belle was.
"You can't keep someone who doesn't want to be kept, Maudie," she said, turning back to the group of men she'd come to treat. Now, though, her mind was on Cade. Good dad. First-rate surgeon. And the last person she'd expected to see when he wasn't scheduled for a weekend with Michael. But Cade was up to something. She knew it, felt it, didn't know what it was, and that's what she had to get her mind off right now.
"OK, everybody," Belle said, fighting to refo-cus on her patients. "Here's the deal. I've got a kid to support. He's seven. I don't have a lot of time to spend with him, and the longer it takes here, the less time Michael and I are going to have. So you can fight me on this, refuse to let me check you, but it's affecting my son. Any of you have children you'd like to spend more time with, or mothers who'd love spending more time with you? Because if you do, then you'll understand what I'm talking about, and get in line so I can get this done as quickly as possible."
"Ah, the sentimental touch. Well done," Maudie joked as, one by one, the men started to trickle forward.
Belle laughed. "Whatever it takes." She wondered what it would take with Cade. Surely he wanted something she didn't want to give. Quite the opposite from their marriage, where she'd wanted something he hadn't wanted to give. Definitely, whatever it takes, she thought to herself.
Two hours later Belle was pleased with the results of her morning. All but three ranch hands had eventually fallen in line. This evening, once the nausea pills took effect, all but three ranch hands would feel better. Had she gained any respect from these men? Nah. She wasn't that deluded. They'd sympathized either as a father or a son. It was good enough for now. Battle number one went to the lady doctor. Battle number two coming up, though, with Cade? No, she didn't know for sure there was going to be a battle between them, but she was clearly feeling something in the pit of her stomach, and it made her nervous, as the only thing she could think that Cade would want was Michael.