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"Dr Sanders, if you have a moment could you come to the nurse's station? There'ssomeone here who I think you need to see."
Ileana Sanders frowned slightly. It wasn't like Renae to sound evasive. In the few years that Ileana had known her, she'd been an excellent nurse who didn't waste time playing guessing games.
"I'm working on a chart, Renae. Who is it? Do they need medical attention?"
"No. Helooks pretty healthy to me." There was a pause on the phone, and when Renae's voice returned, Ileana could barely hear her whisper. "Get down here now, Doc. If you don't, I'm not sure I can keep him out of Ms. Cantrell's room!"
"I'll be right there."
Dropping the phone back in its cradle, Ileana grabbed a white lab coat from the back of her chair and left the little cubicle she used as an office while making her hospital rounds.
From the internal medicine wing of the building, Ileana had to walk down a long, wide corridor, then make a left turn and walk half that distance again to reach the nurse's station.
Along the way, she met several of the more mobile patients walking the hallway. They all spoke to her, and she gave each one an encouraging smile and a thumbs-up on their progress. One of the perks of working in a smaller town, she thought, was knowing most everyone who walked through the hospital doors.
But the moment Ileana turned the corner and peered toward the nurse's station, she definitely didn't recognize the tall man standing at the counter. Even though it was exceptionally cold outside, he was without a jacket, making it possible for her to see that he was dressed all in blue denim. A chocolate-brown cowboy hat was slanted low over his forehead and covered hair a shade darker than the felt. And in spite of the lengthy distance, she could see he was a walking mass of lean, hard muscle.
He must have heard the hurried click of her heels on the shiny tile, because he suddenly turned in her direction, and for one brief moment, Ileana felt her breath catch, her heart jump. His features were chiseled perfection, his skin burned brown by the sun. Authority was stamped all over him, and she knew, without being told, that he was a stranger to Ruidoso. There was a subtle edginess about him that was different from the locals.
Instinctively, Ileana's steps slowed as she tried to regain her composure, while to her left, Renae swiftly walked from behind the counter to intercept her.
"Dr. Sanders, this is Mr. McCleod. He's traveled all the way from Texas to see Ms. Cantrell."
His dark brown eyes were sliding over Ileana with a lazy interest that left her uncomfortably hot beneath her lab coat; yet she did her best to appear cool and collected as she stepped up to the man and thrust out her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. McCleod," she said with a faint smile.
His big hand closed around hers, and Ileana was acutely aware of warm, calloused skin and firm pressure from his fingers.
"Call me Mac," he said. "Are you Ms. Cantrell's attending physician?"
The easy smile on his face was a tad sexy and a whole lot charming. As Ileana drew in a deep breath, she realized she'd never met this man. Because he was clearly unforgettable.
Inclining her head, she hoped she didn't look as awed as she felt. Which was really a quite ridiculous reaction on her part. She'd lived on the Bar M Ranch all her life. She'd been around rugged men throughout her thirty-eight years, and some of them had been darn good-looking with plenty of rough sex appeal. Yet none of them had grabbed her attention like this one. This was one striking cowboy.
"Yes, I'm Ms. Cantrell's doctor. Are you a friend of hers?"
Beneath his dark tan, she watched a hint of red color work its way up his throat and over his face. His embarrassed reaction wasn't the norm, but Ileana had certainly contended with worse. Everyone reacted differently when a friend or loved one became ill. Some got downright angry, quick to blame the doctor, even God, for the misfortune. She'd learned to take it all in stride.
The aim of his brown gaze landed somewhere near her feet rather than on her face, making her curiosity about the man go up another notch.
"Uhnot exactly," he said.
His face lifted, and Ileana couldn't help but notice the faint, challenging thrust of his chin, the resolution in his eyes. She shivered inwardly. For all his smooth manners, she instinctively sensed Mac McCleod had a very tough side to him.
"Nurse Walker tells me you're not allowing Ms. Cantrell to have visitors right now."
"That's right," she said, then feeling she needed to keep their conversation private, Ileana touched a hand to his arm and gestured to a waiting area several feet away from the nurse's station. "Why don't we step over here, and I'll explain."
He didn't say anything as he followed her over to a small grouping of armchairs and couches covered in green and red fabric, but once they stood facing each other, he didn't wait for her to speak.
"Look, Dr. Sanders, I've traveled a considerable distance to see Ms. Cantrell. At the Chaparral Ranch, I was told by a maid who answered the door that she was hospitalized, so I drove straight here. All I'm asking is a few short minutes with the woman. Surely that couldn't hurt," he added with a persuasive little smile.
Even though he seemed pleasant enough, there was something about the way he said "the woman" that left Ileana uneasy. Besides sounding a bit disrespectful, there was no warmth, no fondness inflected in the words. Had he and Frankie had a falling-out over something? Did he actually know her?
"I'm very sorry, Mr. McCleod. Perhaps you should have called before you made the long drive. Ms. Cantrell isn't up for visits. Presently, her condition is very fragile. The only people I'm allowing into her room are her son, daughter and father-in-law."
For one brief moment his jaw hardened, but just as quickly a smile transformed his face, and Ileana felt certain he was deliberately trying to charm her into letting him enter Frankie's room. The idea was very odd and even more worrisome.
"What about her husband?" he asked.
This brought Ileana's brows up. Clearly he wasn't a close acquaintance of Frankie's. Otherwise, he would have known that Lewis, her husband, had passed away a little more than a year ago.
"I'm sorry if you didn't know. Ms. Cantrell is a widow now. Lewis died about a year ago."
His expression suddenly turned uncomfortable, and Ileana was relieved to see that the man did have a streak of compassion in him.
"Uhsorry. No, I didn't know."
"Have you spoken with Quint or Alexa, Ms. Cantrell's children? Perhaps they can help you," she said.
Quint and Alexa. Mac mulled the two names over in his mind. If Frankie Cantrell was Mac's missing mother, and from every indication it appeared that she was, that would make Quint and Alexa his half siblings. The idea knocked him for a loop. For some reason all these years, he'd never considered the idea of Frankie having more children. A stupid, infantile idea to cling to, he supposed. But if she'd not wanted to be a mother to Mac and Ripp, why would she have had more children?
"No. I've not spoken to either of them," he told her.
"II'm not sure there were any family members at home when I visited the ranch."
"Well, both of Frankie's children have their hands full with trying to watch over their mother and keep up with their jobs, too. Alexa works in Santa Fe at the state capital, and Quint runs the ranch here in Ruidoso. I expect he'll be around later tonight. If you'd like to wait. Or contact Abe Cantrell, her father-in-law."
Frustration made him want to howl, but he kept the reaction to himself. This woman wouldn't understand. And frankly, she was looking at him as though he were one of those criminals he often locked behind bars. Which was a strange reaction for Mac, who was used to women sidling up to him with a warm, inviting smile on their faces. He liked to flirt but hadn't gotten serious in a long time.
Hell, Mac, she's a professional. She isn't going to be flashing you a sexy smile or flirting with you.
She was a doctor. And from the looks of her, she'd never heard the words sex or glamour. She was plainer than vanilla yogurt and appeared to be one step away from a convent.
Except for a pair of deep blue eyes and naturally pink lips, her round face was pale and devoid of any color. Dark, reddish-brown hair was brushed tightly back from her forehead and fastened in a long ponytail at her nape. The starched stiff lab coat hid her clothing, along with the shape of her body. Even so, Mac sensed she was as slender as a stick and as fragile as the petal of an orchid.
"I'm not sure I can wait," he told her. "You see, I was planning on talking to Ms. Cantrell about anurgent matter." Besides, Mac wasn't ready to meet the man who might be his half brother. He'd only arrived in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a few hours ago. He'd driven straight out to the Chaparral Ranch in hopes of finding Frankie and putting the whole matter of her disappearance to rest. Now it looked as though there wasn't going to be any meeting or answers of any sort.
Dr. SandersIleana, he'd heard the nurse call her shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said again. "But I'm only allowing family members to enter Ms. Cantrell's room and even they are only allowed five minutes with her."
"Is she in the intensive care unit?"
The woman's shoulders drew back, as though remembering privacy laws for patients. He wondered just how well this doctor knew the woman. Maybe Frankie had been a patient of hers for a long time, but that didn't necessarily mean Dr. Sanders knew all that much about Frankie's personal life.
"Not exactly. She's in a room where she's monitored more closely than a regular room. That's why I made the decision to limit her visitors to relatives only. People can be well meaning, but they don't realize how exhausting talking can be to someone who's ill."
Mac's visit hadn't meant to be well meaning or anything close to it. Maybe that made him a hard-nosed bastard, but then in his eyes, Frankie had been more than callous when she'd walked out of Mac's and Ripp's lives. She'd promised to come back, but that promise had never been kept. Two little boys, ages eight and ten, had not understood how their mother could leave them behind. And now that they were grown men, ages thirty-seven and thirty-nine, they still couldn't understand how she could have been so indifferent to her own flesh and blood.
Mac's gaze settled on the doctor's face, and Frankie McCleod was suddenly forgotten. Plain or not, there was something about Ileana Sanders's soft lips, something about the dark blue pools of her eyes that got to him. Like a quiet, stark desert at sunset, she pulled at a soft spot inside him. Before he realized what he was doing, his glance dropped to her left hand.
No ring or any sign of where one had once been. Apparently she was single. But then, he should have known that without looking for a ring. She had an innocent, almost shy demeanor about her, as though no man had ever woken her or touched her in any way.
Hell, Mac, her sex life or lack of one has nothing to do with you. Plain Janes weren't his style. He liked outgoing, talkative girls who weren't afraid to show a little leg or cleavage and drink a beer from a barstool.
Yeah. Like Brenna, he thought dourly. She'd showed him all that and more during their brief, volatile marriage. Since then he stuck to women who knew the score.
Sucking in a deep breath, he tried again. "I guess you'd say I'm more than a visitor, Dr. Sanders. I wellyou might consider me a relative."
Even if Renae hadn't told her that the man was from Texas she would have guessed. Not just from the casual arrogance in the way he carried himself, but the faint drawl and drop of the g at the end of his words were a dead giveaway.
"Oh? I didn't realize Frankie had relatives living in Texas."
"We haven't been togetheras a familyin a long time. And we just learned that she was living in New Mexico."
Totally confused now, Ileana gestured to one of the couches. "Let's have a seat, Mr. McCleod. And then maybe you can better explain why you're here in Ruidoso."
Without waiting for his compliance, Ileana walked over and took a seat. Thankfully, he followed and seated himself on the same couch, a polite distance away.
As he stretched out his legs, her gaze caught sight of his hands smoothing the top of his thighs. Like the rest of him, they were big and brown, the fingers long and lean. There was no wedding ring, but then Ileana had already marked the man single in her mind. She doubted any woman had or ever could tame him. He looked like a maverick and then some.
With a sigh she tried to disguise as a cough, she turned toward him and said, "Okay. Maybe you'd better tell me a little about yourself and your connection to Frankie. None of this is making sense to me."
He glanced over to a wall of plate glass. Snow was piled against the curbs and beneath the shade of the trees and shrubs. It was as cold as hell here in the mountains, and being in this hospital made Mac feel even colder. At the moment, South Texas felt like a world away.
"I imagine right about now you're thinking I'm some sort of nutcase. But I'm actually a deputy sheriff from Bee County, Texas. And I have a brother, Ripp, who's a deputy, too, over in Goliad County."
Ileana inclined her head to let him know that she understood. "So you're both Texas lawmen who work in different counties."
"That's right. So was our father, Owen. But he's been dead for several years now."
"I'm sorry to hear that. And your mother?"
His gaze flickered away from hers. "We're not certain. You see, my brother and I think Frankie Cantrell is our mother."
If a tornado had roared through the hospital lobby, Ileana couldn't have been more shocked, and she struggled to keep her mouth from falling open.
"Your mother! Is this some sort of joke?"
"Do I look like I'm laughing?"
No, she thought with dismay. He looked torn; he looked as though he'd rather be anywhere but here. And most of all, he appeared to be genuine.
"What makes you think she's your mother?"