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There were a lot of things Tammy Byrd would rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon than driving five hours to meet a bunch of relatives she'd never met, but there was no way around it.
Her paternal grandfather was dying, and he'd called his estranged family home.
She supposed she ought to feel something after hearing of the poor man's plight, like sadness, grief or compassion, but any kind of relationship with him had been lost to her, thanks to a falling-out he'd had with her father years ago.
Apparently, now that Jasper J. "Tex" Byrd was about to face his maker, he was going to try and make things right. At least, that's how Tammy had it figured.
When she'd first heard of the old man's request, she'd assumed her stubborn, my-wayor-the-highway daddy would have dug in his boot heels and refused to go.
She'd also wondered what her dad would say when he learned that she was going to make the trek on her own.
But he'd blown her away by announcing he was going to make the trip and insisting that she and her brothers join him.
Whatever his reason, be it guilt, love or a need to set things to right, her father, who never took orders from anyone, had caved to the old man's request.
Tammy's brothers had been summoned, too, but they were fishing in a remote area of Montana and couldn't be easily reached for at least several days, maybe a week. Still, she knew they'd be on the first flight they could find back to Texas. Family had always been important to them. Well, at least, their immediate family was.
Her father would be coming later, too. She supposed she could have waited until after he'd had his appointment for his annual physical and rode with him, but she'd wanted to have her own vehicle handy. Besides, she was intrigued by the whole idea of family feuds and secrets. So she'd packed her bag this morning, prepared to meet the rest of her family—a dying grandfather, an uncle and two cousins she'd never met. Then she'd slid behind the wheel of her little pickup and left her daddy's ranch.
Five hours later, with the satellite radio tuned to a classic country-western station, an empty diet soda can in her cup holder and the printout of the directions on the seat beside her, she neared her final destination in Buckshot Hills.
She slowed as she reached a cluster of oak trees, which her father had told her to watch for, then searched for the sign that indicated she'd reached Flying B Road.
There it was, a bold wrought-iron-and-metallic creation that was as big as day—and as ornate as all get-out.
Before she could turn off one road and onto the other, a black Dodge Ram pickup with mud flaps roared around her. As it passed, the left rear tire hit a mud puddle and shot a big splash of dirty water at her little white truck.
She was about to lay on the horn, but held back. After all, it might be one of the relatives, and there was no need to get off on a bad foot before they'd had a chance to meet face-to-face.
Realizing she'd have to wash the truck to get the bug spatters off the windshield, anyway, she shrugged off her annoyance and turned right onto the road that led to the ranch house.
As she drove, she scanned the rolling hills and the lush pastures dotted with grazing cattle. It was a beautiful piece of property, and she wondered what it would have been like growing up on a place like this, instead of back in Grass Valley, on the much smaller spread her daddy had inherited from her maternal grandfather.
When she neared the big, sprawling house, with a wraparound porch, she looked for a place to park her truck. Then she chose a spot next to the Dodge Ram.
A dark-haired man who appeared to be in his early thirties still sat in the driver's seat, talking on his cell phone.
He was too young to be her uncle. Was he one of the cousins?
She pulled in beside him and shut off her ignition, just as he opened the driver's door and climbed from the cab.
Unlike the cowboys or ranch hands she'd grown up with, he wore a pair of polished loafers, black slacks and a light blue button-down shirt. A thick head of dark hair and an olive complexion boasted of a Hispanic bloodline.
Tammy blew out a little whistle. She didn't find many men worth a second glance. She was too busy competing with the ones she rubbed elbows with each day. But this one was different.
And she couldn't help sitting in her seat, her hands braced on the steering wheel, her heart pounding to beat the band.
Who was he?
She had no idea, but she hoped he wasn't a blood relative.
He pulled a worn leather satchel from the cab of his truck, the kind an old-fashioned doctor who made house calls might carry.
But there wasn't anything old-fashioned about him.
When he looked her way and caught her eye, he gave a little smile and a nod of acknowledgment. Then he made his way toward the house.
For the life of her, all she could do was sit and watch him go.
By the time she'd cleared her head of goofy, hormonal thoughts and gathered her courage for an introduction of some kind, he was climbing up the steps to the house. So she quickly got out of the truck and grabbed her suitcase from the bed. Then she followed him up the steps to the front door.
As she neared the porch, a woman with silver-streaked black hair swung open the door as if she'd been waiting for the man all day and had just heard him drive up.
"Good afternoon," she said. "Come on in, Doc."
So he was the doctor—her grandfather's personal physician, no doubt. The fact that a man like him was willing to make house calls was enough to make a girl feel faint—or to claim feeling that way just so she could get his attention and spend some time alone with him.
"Thanks," Doc said. "How's Tex doing today, Tina?"
"Not as good as he was yesterday, but maybe that's because he didn't sleep too well last night.
"Can I get you anything?" the woman—Tina—asked as she stepped aside to let the doctor into the house. "Coffee maybe? Barbara just whipped up a batch of blueberry muffins."
"Sounds great. I'd never turn down anything Barbara baked. She's got to be the best cook in the county."
As Doc stepped into the house, the woman at the door noticed Tammy standing just a few feet away, her suitcase in hand. She hoped she wasn't caught gaping like a lovesick puppy.
So she rallied, reclaiming her runaway thoughts.
"Good afternoon," Tammy said, realizing she'd better introduce herself. "I'm William's daughter. Mr. Byrd is expecting me."
The older woman greeted her with a slow smile and an outstretched hand. "I'm Tina Crandall, your grandfather's housekeeper. Please come in. We've been expecting you."
Tammy carried her suitcase inside.
"I'm afraid he's not able to talk with you at the moment," Tina said. "As you can see, the doctor just arrived. But in the meantime, I can show you to your room so you can freshen up."
Tammy glanced down at the blue plaid flannel shirt she wore, as well as the denim jeans. She'd showered this morning, and her clothes were clean. As far as she was concerned, she'd dressed for the occasion.
Another woman might have wanted to powder her nose or apply some lipstick, but Tammy never had cottoned to using makeup. But she wouldn't mind checking out the room where she'd be staying during the unexpected homecoming. "Sure, that'd be great. Thanks."
Tina led Tammy across the scarred wood plank flooring in the entry and into a large, rugged living room, with white plastered walls, dark beams and an amazing stone fireplace adorned with an antlered deer head.
So this is where her daddy had grown up and learned to be a man. It certainly had a masculine decor.
In a way, the style appealed to Tammy. As the only girl in a family of men, she'd grown up trying to not only keep up with her brothers, but also outdo them. In fact, she'd become so competent as a ranch hand on her daddy's ranch, that not many of the cowboys could best her.
"As soon as you freshen up," Tina said, glancing over her shoulder, "I'll take you into the kitchen, where we'll get you fed. Barbara has been cooking and baking for the past two days, just getting ready for y'all."
"Sounds good to me." Tammy wondered how wealthy "Tex," or rather her grandfather, was if he could afford to hire one woman to clean his house and another to fix his meals.
Back home, Tammy handled all the household chores, especially the cooking. And she wasn't half-bad at it, either.
'Course she complained about the chore every chance she got. It wouldn't do her a lick of good to let the men she lived with know that she actually liked puttering around the kitchen.
"Am I the first to arrive?" Tammy asked.
"So far. But I expect the others will be rolling in soon."
Tammy brushed her free hand along the sides of denim jeans, glad she'd gotten here first since her nerves were so jumpy. She wasn't looking forward to meeting the people who were strangers to her. Still, at the same time, she looked forward to it. It ought to be interesting.
But not nearly as interesting as having a chance to see the handsome doctor again.
Doc didn't seem to notice that Tammy was alive, which, surprisingly, was more than a little disappointing.
For the first time in her life, she wished that she'd packed more than jeans and Western shirts to wear. But she couldn't have done that when she didn't wear—or even own—anything else. Why waste her money or her closet space on stuff she wouldn't have any use for on a working cattle ranch?
But maybe she should have considered something a little more feminine, at least for times like this.
Oh, for Pete's sake. She'd never been the least bit feminine, and had never regretted that fact.
Okay, so she'd regretted it once. In high school, she'd taken a liking to Bobby Hankin, who'd sat across from her in biology. He'd been nicer to her than most of the other guys, so she'd flirted with him—or at least, tried to. And it had backfired on her. She'd overheard him talking about it to a friend, saying that Tam-boy had taken a fancy to him. So from then on she'd set aside any girly or romantic thoughts.
She'd best remember that now. After all, she really ought to be more concerned about her reasons for being at the Flying B in the first place. Somewhere down the hall, Jasper J. "Tex" Byrd lay dying, and Tammy owed him her condolences, to say the least.
Ever since learning that the family had been called home to Buckshot Hills, she'd been champing at the bit to meet her grandfather for the very first time. And while she was certainly looking forward to doing that, she was also dead-set on introducing herself. It wouldn't be so hard to think about her first introduction to Tex, if she wasn't so focused on meeting the doctor who'd just stopped by to examine him.
Mike Sanchez removed the stethoscope from Tex Byrd's chest, then took a seat in the chair beside the bed. "How are those pain meds I prescribed working for you?"
"They're taking the edge off, I suppose."
Mike could increase the dosage. He could also prescribe morphine, although he'd been holding off on that until closer to the end. Maybe it was time to consider it now. Tex would be having a lot of pain in upcoming days, and he was going to need all the help medical science could give him to deal with it.
The white-haired old rancher shifted his weight in the bed, as if trying to find a more comfortable spot. Then he grimaced, suggesting the move hadn't helped much.
As he settled back on the pillows propping him up, he said, "My boys and grandchildren agreed to come home. Did I tell you that, Doc?"
"You'd mentioned extending the invitation to them."
Tex closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "I wasn't sure what they'd tell me. That blasted feud had gone on for so damn long, I figured they might not give a rip about me or the Flying B."
"For what it's worth," Mike said, "I think one of them just arrived."
A smile stretched across the old man's craggy face, softening the age lines and providing a hint of color to his wan complexion. "Oh, yeah? Who'd you see?"
"I'm not sure. A girl—or rather a woman, I guess. She's probably about twenty, with long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail of some kind. She was driving a little white pickup."
"Was she all dolled up like a city girl? Or wearing pants like a tomboy?"
"She wasn't wearing any makeup at all. And she had on a pair of worn denim jeans and a blue flannel shirt."
"Then that must be Tammy," Tex said, his tired gray eyes lighting up. "She's William's girl. And quite the cowboy, I hear. She can outride, outrope and outspit the best of 'em."
Mike wouldn't know about that. The girl certainly appeared to be a tomboy, but she was also petite. He wasn't sure if she could hold her own or not.
"I thought you told me that you'd never met your grandchildren," Mike said.
The old man gave a single shrug. "I've seen pictures of them. But only because I hired a private investigator a few years back. And now " He lifted an aged, work-roughened, liver-spotted hand and plopped it down on the mattress. "I'm glad that I did. It would have been tough finding them all with only a short time to do it."
Tex only had a few weeks left to live, although it was always hard to guess just how long for sure. The rancher was a tough old bird. And he might just will himself to stay alive long enough to put his family back together again.
From what Mike had heard, there'd been some huge family blowup over thirty years ago. Both of Tex's boys had taken off in anger, leaving the Flying B and Buckshot Hills far behind. But no one seemed to know any more details than that. And Doc didn't plan to stick around any longer than he had to, so none of it really mattered to him.
Tex took a deep, weary breath, then slowly let it out. He'd be needing oxygen soon, so Mike would place the order so it would be on hand.
"You know," the old man said, "I wasn't happy about switching doctors. I'd hoped Doc Reynolds would be back in Buckshot Hills by now. But you seem to know your stuff—at least, for a young fellow fresh out of medical school."
Mike never planned to fill in for the local doctor who was being treated for a brain tumor in Boston. But then again, Mike had a debt to repay. And spending six to nine months in Podunk, Texas, appeared to be the only way he could do that.