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The big gray bull, part Brahman and part Angus, ran from the trailer. He stopped in the middle of the corral, snorted and shook his mammoth-sized head at Blake Cooper and his brother Jackson.
"He's mean." Jackson propped one booted foot on the bottom rail of the corral and leaned his arms on the top rail. "I'm not sure about him."
"He's at a level that most bulls aren't. As for mean, Jackson, there are no guarantees for a guy willing to get on the back of a one-ton animal," Blake offered, eyeing the bull that he'd talked his brothers into buying. He didn't usually get involved in this side of the business, but there were times a guy made exceptions.
He was the family lawyer and practiced law in the neighboring town of Grove. But he was a Cooper, and being a Cooper meant ranching was in his blood.
"I know there aren't," Jackson agreed. "I just try to stay away from the bulls that are pure mean."
Blake nodded because he couldn't have agreed more. They were in the business of raising bucking bulls, and both of them had been around long enough to know what a mean bull could do to a guy.
A car came up the driveway, swirling dust that would settle if they got more than a drop of rain. It was dry for May. Too dry.
"Someone you know?" Jackson stepped down from the fence to watch the car that pulled in next to Blake's truck.
"Doesn't look familiar." Blake adjusted his cowboy hat to block the sun and get a better look. "New York plates. Must be a rental car. Did you say someone was coming to look at that mare we bought from Wyatt Johnson?"
"Not until next week."
"Maybe just lost?" Blake offered, then he started toward the barn. He needed to take care of a few things, then head to his place.
Behind him, Jackson whistled low. "Blake, I think you might want to take a deep breath."
"Why?" Blake looked back to see what would cause him to need a deep breath. He would tell Jackson later that a deep breath wouldn't have done him a bit of good. He wasn't even sure his heart knew how to keep beating. The woman, petite, blonde and rightfully hesitant, walked toward them. She didn't smile. Blake didn't feel much like smiling, either.
"Blake, I.. " She shook her head and shrugged.
Jackson's hand settled on Blake's shoulder. "Don't go crazy."
"I'm not going crazy." He shifted his hat and glanced away from the woman standing there looking up at him with a million questions in her blue eyes. For a long moment he looked away, letting his gaze settle on the field, on cattle grazing, on all of the things he knew and he could handle.
"We need to talk." Her words were shaky and spoken with the softest English accent, the same accent that used to slay him.
"Talk? I don't know, Jana, maybe we needed to talk ten, almost eleven years ago." Blake looked at her, trying hard not to see her as the woman he'd loved, that he'd married. He needed to see her as the woman who had left him and taken their daughter with her. "What are you doing here?"
He needed to focus, to get his thoughts under control. It wasn't an easy thing to do. She was still beautiful. That was the last thing he wanted to think about her, not the first. Next to him, Jackson cleared his throat a little. Blake drew in a deep breath and focused on his ex-wife.
She shifted from one sandaled foot to the other, forcing him to stare at her pink toenails. He didn't want to notice anything about her. He didn't want to notice that she still looked a lot like the girl he'd met years ago in college. He didn't want to notice that her eyes were still as blue as the Oklahoma sky in March.
He wanted nothing from her but the daughter she'd left the country with all those years ago. He glanced past Jana, at the car she'd driven up in. He didn't see any sign of Lindsey. If he focused on his daughter, maybe he wouldn't get tangled up in Jana.
At that moment, Jana's gaze connected with his, pushing him off balance like an emotional avalanche.
"I'm here because I made a mistake, and it's time to right that wrong." Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears.
"Where's my daughter? Where's Lindsey?"
Jana bit down on her bottom lip, and the tears started to fall.
"Jana, tell me where she is." The longer Jana stood there, the more worry settled in his gut. None of this felt right.
"Blake, take a step back." Jackson edged close to him. "Give her a minute."
"I've given her ten and a half years of my daughter's life. Years I didn't have."
"Lindsey's sick." The words tumbled out quickly as she took another step toward him. "We need you."
The words hit him hard. He didn't know what to say, but he knew he needed a minute to process. He looked down at the hand that rested on his arm, the look in her eyes pleading for his mercy. He'd loved her. He remembered back to the woman he'd thought he'd spend his life with. She'd been a college student from England spending a year in America. He'd fallen in love with her soft gestures, her sweet innocence and the accent.
He took off his hat and brushed a hand through his hair. She was watching him, waiting. Jackson stood nearby. Blake returned to what she'd just said. They needed him.
"Blake, please." Her words were soft. His daughter was sick.
"Where is she?"
"Don't take her from me."
"Of all the " He had to walk away. When he turned, she was still standing where he left her, tears rolling down her cheeks. Real tears. He knew that. He knew she was hurting. That didn't undo the way his insides were tied up in knots. "You took her from me."
"I know," she whispered, her gaze lifting to meet his.
Every emotion he'd felt in the past ten years rushed through his mind. The woman he'd promised to love "until death do us part" was standing in front of him. It was hard to look at her and not think about the past. She'd gotten tired of country life. She'd left him and taken their two-year-old daughter away from him, hiding her in Europe and then in Africa. He knew this because he'd been on her trail for several years. Yet she'd always managed to disappear just before he caught up with her.
The only thing she'd left him was a note telling him she couldn't be a Cooper anymore, and she didn't think he'd understand. Almost four years into their marriage, she should have known him better than that. He would have understood.
"Does any of this matter right now?" Jackson asked, jumping into the conversation, the voice of reason. "Jana, where's Lindsey?"
"Tulsa." Jana brushed the hair back from her face as she stood facing him, a lot braver than he would have been, Blake thought. "I brought her to Tulsa. She's in a hospital there. Blake, she needs a kidney transplant."
Blake was already pulling his keys from his pocket. He nodded toward the rental car. "You can park here. You'll ride with me."
"I can drive myself."
Blake laughed a little. "I don't think so, Jana."
"I'm not going to leave."
"I'm afraid I can't take your word on that. I seem to remember telling you that I had to make that meeting in Oklahoma City but we'd work things out when I got back. Problem was, I got back and you were gone."
Jackson interfered again. Blake needed to tell his younger brother that he could do without the kid gloves and worried looks. "Let me call Madeline and tell her what's going on. I'll drive the two of you to Tulsa."
"I can drive." Blake reached for Jana. She walked next to him, looking down, not up. He relaxed his hold on her arm.
"Let me go with you." Jackson stayed close.
"We'll take this." Blake opened the passenger door of the rental car for Jana. "Get in."
Jana got in. She looked up at him, her big blue eyes swimming in tears. "Blake, I'm sorry."
"I know." He closed the car door and turned to face Jackson. "Let the family know what's going on. I'll call you when I know more."
Jackson's mouth stayed in a firm line, unsmiling. "Blake, let me go with you."
"Not this time, little brother."
"Don't hurt her," Jackson warned.
"Hurt her? You mean like the way she ripped my heart out? Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt her. I'm going to get my daughter back and then I'll be done with Jana Parker."
"Blake, remember that the real issue at hand is your daughter. You're not thinking straight, and you've got a daughter who obviously needs you both."
Blake leaned back against the compact car Jana had rented. The reality of the moment hit him head-on, taking the air from his lungs as he tried to process that his daughter was back, but she was sick.
All of the years he'd dreamed about getting her back, he'd never imagined this scenario. He'd had it in his mind that they would reunite. She was always healthy, and Jana was never in the picture.
"Thanks." He managed a smile for his brother, then he walked around to get behind the wheel of the car. Next to Jana. He gave her a quick look and then jammed the key in the ignition, because looking at Jana did crazy things to him. After all these years he'd thought he'd only feel a serious dose of anger. But he was wrong.
Jana didn't know what to say to Blake. He got in the car, sliding the seat back to make room for his longer legs. She blinked away the tears that continued to fall. Tears that had been falling for weeks now. He had no idea how much it hurt, to watch her daughter suffer and to know there was nothing she could do.
That wasn't fair, though. He'd had his own share of suffering. And she was the reason why. Her actions had cost them all. It was time for making amends, for seeking his forgiveness.
She'd finally gotten it, this faith thing that was so important to the Coopers. She hadn't understood it when she'd been married to Blake. She hadn't seen the need for the Sundays spent at church and then together at Cooper Creek.
Now she knew what faith meant. She knew what it meant to face the past and seek forgiveness. But she couldn't tell Blake, because no doubt he would accuse her of using faith to manipulate him, to get what she wanted. She couldn't blame him for thinking the worst of her.
"What happened?" Blake's deep, husky voice broke the silence.
She glanced at him, at the strong profile she'd fallen in love with all those years ago. The first time she'd laid eyes on him, he'd looked like a model for a Western wear catalog. He'd been about to get in his truck, all cowboy from his hat to his boots. She'd been trying to start her car and couldn't. He'd come to her rescue. She'd never known a man like him, a man who wore masculinity the way some men wore cologne. It had been natural to him, to be strong.
"Jana?" He glanced her way, his mouth in a tight line.
"I'm sorry. I was thinking."
"Maybe you could tell me about Lindsey?"
"Her kidneys started to fail. The doctors call it Chronic Kidney Disease caused by a birth defect in her kidneys. She was weak, tired all of the time."
"Why wouldn't we have known that years ago?"
"Because she was young. Her kidneys managed while she was small. As she got older, her kidneys had to work harder and they couldn't keep up."
"What's the prognosis?"
"With a transplant, good. There will be challenges, of course."
"Okay, we'll get her a kidney."
Jana shook her head at his belief that it would be so simple. He didn't get it. They were here because she'd been on a donor list. They tried hospitals in Europe. They'd been fighting this battle for a while.
"Blake, it isn't that easy."
He clenched and unclenched the steering wheel, and she knew he was working through his anger. And his concern for their daughter.
"Is she on a list, and is she in a hospital that can do this type of surgery?"
"She is on a list, and this hospital has been doing kidney transplants for a decade. But the best donor is a living donor. A parent or a close relative is best."
"So we'll find a donor."
She nodded because she hoped they would. And she hoped his confidence would rub off on her.
"How is she right now?" he asked after they'd been driving awhile.
"She's getting stronger. Since we got here they've put her on dialysis to get her body healthier in preparation for the transplant."
"I need to know what you're thinking." He briefly looked her way and then refocused on the road.
"I guess my first thought is that we need to get our daughter better."
He let out a deep sigh. "I won't let you leave with her, Jana. I can't do that again."
"I know." She shuddered at the coldness in his tone. He had every right to be angry. She'd known when she boarded that plane back to the U.S. that she would face his anger. She had known that returning could mean any number of things. But for Lindsey, she'd been willing to risk it.
"I want to know my daughter." He took off his hat and tossed it in the backseat of the car and brushed a hand through his dark hair, now touched with silver at the temples. "Jana, do you realize that something could have happened and I wouldn't have seen her again."
She heard the break in his voice. "I know, Blake. I'm here because I know she needs you. I know I've hurt you all, and I'll do whatever it takes to make that right. But please."
"Don't take her from me. I know you could probably have me arrested."
"I never pressed charges, Jana. It's hard to go that route when there wasn't a custody hearing. And I also didn't want the fear of being arrested to keep you from coming back with her."
"But you have the ability to take her."
"I don't want to discuss that right now."
She nodded in agreement, her heart slowly returning to normal. For now she could relax. She knew Blake, knew that they would handle one problem at a time. And the most important thing was their daughter's health.
"Does she have any idea that she has family here?"
"Yes. I told her she has family in Oklahoma who can help us."
"Did you ever tell her that she has a dad who loves her? That she has a family who misses her?"
"Not until recently." She brushed a hand across her eyes. "I think she knew. She would question me sometimes, like she had some memories of being here."
"I don't even know what to say to you right now." Blake ground out the words. Jana shivered and hugged herself tight, wishing that she could take back every last moment of the ten years they'd been apart. She wished she could undo what she'd done to all of them.