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NICE, REASONABLE, DEDICATED AND COMPLETELY QUALIFIED—NO WOMAN LIKE THAT WOULD BE WILLING TO LIVE WITH HIM.
Linc Ketchum hadn't been a pussycat before the fire at the T Bar K burned his hands, but now he was next to impossible. And he knew no woman would put up with him, especially not Nevada Ortiz, the so-called nurse that Linc's cousin had sent to take care of him. She was unexpectedly pretty and smarth-mouthed to boot. Her jet-black hair and creamy brown skin were a serious ...
NICE, REASONABLE, DEDICATED AND COMPLETELY QUALIFIED—NO WOMAN LIKE THAT WOULD BE WILLING TO LIVE WITH HIM.
Linc Ketchum hadn't been a pussycat before the fire at the T Bar K burned his hands, but now he was next to impossible. And he knew no woman would put up with him, especially not Nevada Ortiz, the so-called nurse that Linc's cousin had sent to take care of him. She was unexpectedly pretty and smarth-mouthed to boot. Her jet-black hair and creamy brown skin were a serious distraction, not to mention the feelings that she stirred up. Like any cowboy, Linc hated to admit he might be wrong, but Nevada's tender loving care was slowly changing his mind about women. Or one woman, in particular .
"A nurse! Hell no! I don't need a nurse! I just need to get out of here!"
Line Ketchum's loud protest rattled around the small hospital room. Normally he considered himself a quiet, unobtrusive guy, but since the terrible fire at the T Bar K horse barn two weeks ago he'd turned into a growling bear.
His tall, graying doctor gave him a stern look. "Sorry, Mr. Ketchum, but your hands and arms were badly burned and unless I'm assured that a nurse will be with you at all times, I cannot release you from this hospital. And that means round the clock. You're still highly susceptible to infection and I don't want any sort of pressure placed on your hands before they heal completely.
Your bandages will have to be changed routinely and your skin dressed. I want to know that it's done correctly."
Linc looked up at Dr. Olstead. "Hell, doc, if you're going to force me to have a nurse underfoot, I might as well stay in the hospital."
"I can certainly arrange that. As far as I'm concerned I'd rather have you here. But your family seems to think you'll heal better at home."
Grimacing, Linc glanced down at the sheets covering the lower half of his body. Except for short walks down the hall and sitting for brief spells in an armchair, he'd been stuck in this bed for too long. His whole body was beginning to ache. And that was just the physical side of things. Staring at the close, pale-green walls and the small television screen hanging in one corner of the room was enough to send him to the psychiatric ward. If he didn't get out of here soon he was going to start yelling and never stop.
"All right, doc. Whatever you say. If I have to have a nurse—well, guess there's not much I can do about it. At least I'll be getting out of here." He lifted his heavily bundled hands and arms. The stiff white objects reminded him of a couple of pesky tree stumps in an otherwise clean pasture. If he had to button his jeans without assistance, or walk out of the hospital naked, he'd be forced to choose the latter. "I want to get out of this mess, doc. I want to get back to work."
"I'm going to cut the bandaging down soon," the doctor assured him, "but it will be at least two or three more weeks before I'll even consider allowing you to go back to work."
Linc opened his mouth to protest, but the doctor jumped in before he could say a word and went on to discuss the do's and don'ts he wanted Linc to stick to once he was released from the hospital.
When the man finally left the room, Linc was overwhelmed and just a little angry at being put in such a vulnerable state. He was a man who had never needed or asked for anything. He took care of himself and had done so from the time he was a teenager. He didn't like depending on other people for anything. But it appeared as though in the coming days he was going to have to do a lot of things he didn't like.
The memories of the fire that had brought him here suddenly welled up in Linc's head. He saw flames ripping at the walls of the horse barn and licking at the gates to each stable, the terrified horses rearing and pawing as they tried to escape the fire closing in around them. Their frightened squeals and whinnies had mixed with the loud roar of the crackling flames and the horrible sound still continued to wake Linc from his sleep. And though he tried to forget, he couldn't get anything about that nightmarish night out of his mind.
Time after time, he'd run back into the burning barn, grabbing every mare that he could and opening stall gates that were being eaten up by the creeping fire. The only thing he had to be thankful for was that all his beloved horses had gotten out safely. Only one had been slightly burned and his cousin Ross had assured him that she was well on the mend. As for Linc, the ordeal had pretty much cooked his hands and arms. But when he thought of his mares and colts and stallion, he knew saving them was worth every second of the pain he was going through now.
"Well, we've finally gotten some good news," Ross said now as he and his sister Victoria entered the room. "At least you're getting out of here tomorrow. That's something to look forward to."
Ross Ketchum was Linc's cousin. The two of them were almost the same age and had grown up together on the Ketchum's T Bar K ranch. They shared the responsibilities of running the multi-million-dollar operation. In spite of Ross being talkative and outgoing and Linc liking his privacy, the two of them were more like brothers than anything else. They even shared the same physical characteristics: long legs, a lean torso full of muscles, dark-brown hair and green eyes. Only, Linc's hair was lighter than Ross's and his eyes a much darker, muddier green.
"Yeah," Linc mumbled. "But where the hell am I going to go? I'd drive the boys in the bunkhouse crazy and I can't have a nurse wandering around a bunch of naked cowboys in the mornings. Unless it was a male nurse."
Victoria Hastings, Ross's sister and a practicing medical doctor, looked at him and laughed. "I don't think any nurse would be welcome in the bunkhouse."
"Only if it was Nurse Goodbody," Ross jokingly interjected.
Victoria rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "Ross, our cousin doesn't need a Nurse Goodbody. He needs good care and rest."
"And that's just what he's going to get, sis." Standing at the head of Linc's bed, Ross grinned down at him. "As soon as he moves into the big house with me and Bella."
"Oh no! That's your place. I'm not butting in."
The main ranch house had been built nearly fifty years earlier by Linc's father, Randolf, and Ross's father, Tucker. Back then, the two Ketchum men had been partners, each of them owning half of the T Bar K, a spread that covered several sections in northwestern New Mexico. Initially, both men and their wives had lived together in the monstrous house built of rock and logs. But eventually Randolf had developed heart disease, sold his half to his brother and built a modest house across the ridge from the main estate.
His cousins Seth, Ross and Victoria had always treated Linc as a sibling. All three of them had insisted he always have access to the Ketchum house and the ranch's funds just as if he were their brother. Linc had always been grateful for their generosity, but he'd never taken advantage of it. He was his own man. And he wanted to be able to say he'd earned what he had by hard work, not by handouts.
"Damn it, Linc. The house is yours, too," Ross said now. "It belongs to all of us. Bella and I just happen to be living in it. And you don't have to be told there's plenty of empty rooms in the place. In fact, there's so many Bella doesn't know what to do with them."
Mutiny tightened Linc's jaw as he looked up at his cousin. "You can fill those empty rooms with kids. That would be a damn sight better than hosting a helpless cowboy who can't even button his own jeans."
Ross chuckled. "We're trying to fill them with kids, Linc. But that takes time, you know. It will take us a while to fill that many rooms."
"Well, I'm not going to be underfoot," Linc grumbled. "You and Bella are still newlyweds, you need to be alone."
"Tell that to Marina," Victoria wryly interjected.
Marina had been the cook-housekeeper for the Ketchum family since Linc and his cousins had been born. The large Hispanic woman knew more about all of them than they did themselves. She had an extra soft spot for Ross and didn't make any bones about showing it. Nor did she worry about speaking her mind. And no doubt she would demand to help care for Linc.
"That's another thing," Ross quickly put in. "In the big house Marina will be available to the nurse and—"
"No!" Linc interrupted. "Marina already has too much to do. I'll not be piling more problems on her old shoulders."
"Damn it, Linc, you're acting like a child."
Since Linc couldn't use either hand or elbow, it took some doing for him to lever himself off the mattress, but he finally managed to sit up and glare hotly at his cousin. "All right, you cocky bastard. If you think—"
"Stop it! Stop it right now!" Victoria shouted at the two men. "There's no need for all this arguing."
"You're damn right, there's not," Ross said flatly. "Linc is going to do what I say!"
"Like hell!" Linc muttered.
Victoria interceded once again. "That's enough. Nobody is going to make Linc do something he doesn't want to do," she said to Ross and then resting her hands on the footboard of the bed, she leaned toward Linc and smiled encouragingly. "I have the solution, Linc. Your parents' old house is empty. Grady, the foreman on the fence-building crew moved out a week ago. He bought a place of his own. So we'll have the house clean and ready for you by tomorrow."
Relief washed over Linc's face. "Victoria, you're a real darlin'."
"My husband tells me that very same thing everyday," she teased, then walked to the head of the bed, where she bent down and placed a kiss on Linc's clammy forehead. "Don't worry, cuz, I'm not going to let anyone badger you. Especially my mean ol' brother."
"Aw, Victoria, quit babying the man," Ross complained, but there was a half grin on his face to soften his words. "You'll have him so spoiled by the time he gets well, he'll be worthless to all of us."
This time Linc didn't let Ross's jabs rile him. Now that he knew where he was going to go once he was released from the hospital, there was another pressing problem on his mind.
"Sounds good, Victoria, but what about a nurse? I can't imagine any woman wanting to stay out at the ranch. Especially not round the clock."
Victoria frowned at him. "Why not? The ranch is beautiful. And even though the house isn't anything fancy, it's very nice."
Linc shrugged as memories of his mother pushed at the edges of his thoughts. Darla had hated the ranch. The dust, the livestock, the isolation and the constant work it took from her husband to make the place go. He could still remember her arguing fiercely with his father and constantly throwing in his face threats to leave him and the whole mess behind.
Eventually his mother had left the ranch. But not until his father had died from the heart disease that had slowly debilitated him. Linc had been a young teenager when his father had finally passed away and at the time he'd often wondered why Darla bothered to hang around. She'd obviously not given a hoot for her husband. And she had not shown much more concern for Linc. She'd been content to let him run loose on the ranch and more or less take care of himself.
Darla had remarried quickly after his father's death and to his amazement, she'd demanded that Linc move to the east coast with her and her new husband. If the idea hadn't been so ludicrous it would have been laughable. Linc had lived his whole life on the T Bar K. He'd grown up with cousins who were his own age. The place was his home and would always be his home. He wasn't about to move to some city, away from everything he loved. So he'd chosen to stay behind and his mother had walked away without a backward glance.
"Well, yeah," he finally said to Victoria. "But some women—"
"I'm not going to hire just some woman," Victoria assured him. "If she isn't nice and reasonable, dedicated and completely qualified, then she isn't going to step foot on the ranch. Understand?"
Linc wanted to tell her that there wasn't any such woman of that sort who'd be willing to live under the same roof with him, even in a nurse/patient situation. But he kept his mouth shut. He'd already done enough arguing and complaining and Victoria was doing the best she could. At the very least, he was grateful.
"Where are you going to find a woman like that?" Ross questioned his sister. "They don't grow on trees around here, you know."
She made a face at her brother. "I am a doctor, remember? I do have sources. Trust me, I'll find one."
Quickly skirting the bed, Ross looped his arm through Victoria's and tugged her toward the door. "Sounds like a big job to me. You'd better get out of here and get started on it. Linc and I have important things to discuss."
"I hope it's horses," Linc said from his seat on the bed. "Because I'm sure sick of discussing nurses!"
"Oh, all right, I'm out of here," Victoria said with a helpless shake of her head. "But just remember, Linc, you can't get back to work until you heal. And you'll need a nurse to get you there."
"Yeah. Well, I guess a man can stand most anything if he has to," Linc muttered.