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The moment Quint Cantrell walked through the door of his grandfather's ranch house, he got the eerie feeling that something was wrong.
At this time of the early evening Abe was usually watching the news on the small television situated in a corner of the cozy living room. Instead, the old man's leather recliner was empty and the TV screen was black.
Uneasy, Quint started to call out, but stopped as he caught the sound of a radio coming from the direction of the kitchen. As he quickly strode toward the back of the house, he realized with another start that the singer was Billie Holiday.
What the heck was going on around this place? His grandfather liked music, but certainly not that kind! And the house held the peculiar scent of roses instead of pipe tobacco and old boots.
Rounding the open doorway to the kitchen, he practically skidded to a halt as he spotted a woman standing at the cabinet counter. Yesterday, while he'd been eating lunch at the Blue Mesa, a family acquaintance had stopped by his table and mentioned that a rumor was going around about a woman staying out at Apache Wells. Quint had laughingly dismissed the idea as nothing more than a wild rumor. Since his grandmother had passed away fifteen years ago, the only females who ever stepped foot in this house were Quint's mother or sister. Hell freezing over would be more likely to happen than a woman living in Abe's house. Or so Quint had believed.
Stunned by this turn of events, Quint stared.
Tall and slender with hair the color of a black cherry hanging nearly to her waist, she was dressed casually in blue jeans and a green Western shirt with darker green flowers dotting the yokes and cuffs. If her face looked anything like her backside, Quint decided, she was definitely a pretty woman.
"Uh—excuse me, ma'am."
Obviously surprised by the sound of his voice, the woman whirled around to stare at him. Her dark eyes were wide, and her lips parted as she took a halting step in his direction.
"Oh! I didn't realize anyone had come in," she said in a breathy voice. "You gave me a fright."
He stepped forward and even though his gaze was focused solely on her, he knew his grandfather wasn't in the room. He also realized his initial guess had been correct. The woman was pretty—though quietly so. Like a violet hidden beneath a clump of sagebrush, it might take a second look to find the beauty, but it was there.
"I could say the same about you," he replied, his eyes sliding over her face. She appeared vaguely familiar. "It's not every day I walk into my grandfather's house and find a woman. Who are you, anyway?"
Her lips, which were full and dusky pink, twisted ever so slightly. "I'm sorry. I urged Abe to warn you about me, but you know that he pretty much does things his own way. He wanted me to be a surprise," she said with a mixture of amusement and regret. "As to who I am, I thought you might recognize me. But I suppose I've been away from Lincoln County too long for you to remember."
So his earlier assumption had been right. He had met the woman before. But where? he wondered, as his gaze scanned her dark green eyes, high cheekbones and heart-shaped face. She was definitely easy to look at, he realized, and then his memory kicked in like a startled mule. Hellfire, she was one of the Donovan bunch! A rich, rough and rowdy family that owned a notable horse farm down in the Hondo Valley.
"I remember now," he said. "You're one of the Donovan brood. A nurse. You were at the hospital when my sister had her baby."
She inclined her head forward. "That's right. I'm Maura—second oldest of six siblings. You've probably seen us around from time to time."
Shrugging, he wondered why her suggestion made him feel like a recluse. "I don't do much socializing anymore. But I know your brothers and sisters. Bridget is my mother's doctor."
She nodded. "Bridget is very good at her job. And very busy."
Folding his arms against his chest, Quint glanced beyond her shoulder to where a pot of something was simmering on the stove. It was filling the whole room with the scent of chicken and spices. Where was Jim, the old bunkhouse cook who usually prepared his grandfather's meals? And why in the world would a Donovan be here at his grandfather's ranch?
"Yesterday, when someone in town told me that a woman was staying on the ranch, I practically called him a liar." Quint shook his head as he tried to assemble the questions running rampant in it. "I don't mean to sound meddlesome, but why are you here? And where is Gramps?"
Her breasts rose and fell as she drew in a deep breath, then blew it out. His questions appeared to make her uncomfortable, which only roused his curiosity even more.
"Abe is down at the ranch yard visiting with the hands," she answered. "And I'm here because I live here now. With your grandfather, as his nurse."
If she'd whacked Quint's shins with an ax handle, the shock couldn't have been any greater. He sputtered. "His nurse!"
"That's right," she said smoothly, then quickly added, "Excuse me, would you? I need to tend to the soup."
Dazed by her revelation, Quint watched her turn to the cookstove, where she stirred a bubbling pot with a wooden spoon. Her movements seemed so casual, that he got the feeling she'd been here long enough to feel at home.
Two weeks had passed since he'd taken the time to drive to Apache Wells, but he'd talked on the phone to his grandfather several times and nothing had been mentioned about a nurse, or any need for one. She'd said that Abe had wanted to surprise him. Well, the old man had done that and more, Quint thought.
Walking farther into the room, Quint lifted the gray Stetson from his head and raked a hand through his curly hair. He'd had a day that would try a saint, and he wasn't in the mood for beating around the bush.
"Okay, is this one of my grandfather's outlandish jokes? Abe doesn't need a nurse. He's as healthy as a horse."
"Is that what you think?" she asked politely.
"Hell, yes!" he blurted out, then stabbed his fingers through his hair again and added in a calmer tone, "I mean of course, I do. Gramps went for a checkup about three weeks ago. The man pronounced Abe as fit as a fiddle. Or is there something I need to know?"
"I doubt that. Abe says you're aware of his vertigo problem."
Putting down the spoon, she turned to face him and Quint was knocked for a loop all over again. Of the three Donovan sisters, he was least familiar with this one. If his calculations were right, she'd finished high school a few years ahead of him. Which would make her midthirties— though she sure didn't look five or six years older than his twenty-nine. He recalled hearing, a long time ago, that she'd moved away and married some man from Albuquerque. But from the look of her empty ring finger— Quint told himself he didn't know why he had looked there first—her marital status had changed along with her residence.
"I'm aware that he has dizzy spells," Quint replied. "But the way I understand it, the condition isn't life-threatening and it only hits him occasionally."
"If a spell of vertigo caused him to suffer a bad fall, it could be life-threatening."
"Sorry, Ms. Donovan, but I could suffer a fall walking across the backyard. Any of us could."
"The likelihood of that happening skyrockets when a person's head is spinning."
Quint couldn't argue that point. He'd been with his grandfather when one of these spells hit him and the old man had been unable to walk without someone to assist him.
"So? I'd rather see him die than to chain him to a chair. And you can't go around holding onto his arm all day. In fact, I doubt you could keep up with him," Quint added.
She sighed. "Abe isn't a young man anymore, you know."
Quint bristled. He didn't want anyone insinuating that Abe was getting old and decrepit. He wasn't. And Quint refused to let anyone make him believe otherwise.
"Eighty-four may sound old to you," Quint said to her, "but trust me, Gramps has the mind and the body of a man twenty years younger."
"I agree with that."
His expression turned incredulous. "If you know that, then what the hell are you doing here?"
She walked forward and leaned a hip against the edge of a chrome-and-Formica dining table. Quint couldn't help but notice the sensual curve of her breasts and waist, the way her dark red hair waved against her pale cheek. He didn't recall Maura Donovan as being so sexy. But back before she'd left the area, he'd only had eyes for Holly. Lovely, fickle Holly.
"Are you angry because I'm living here?" she asked.
Was he? The question jarred him almost as much as the sight of her. No. He wasn't angry. He was confused, shaken and a bit hurt that Abe hadn't seen fit to consult him about hiring Maura Donovan. But then, his grandfather had always been a maverick. The only person he'd ever answered to was his late wife, Jenna. There was no reason for Quint to think Abe needed or wanted his grandson's opinion.
"I'm not angry. I'm confused. Abe isn't sick. And there's no way you can protect him from a dizzy spell. So why did he hire you?"
A faint smile tilted the corners of her lips and it suddenly dawned on Quint that it was the first semblance of warmth he'd seen on her face since he'd walked into the room. The subtle expression softened her features and he found himself looking at things about her that had nothing to do with anything. Like her skin that was all smooth and pink and pearly.
Hell, what had she done to Abe? he wondered. Batted her long lashes at him and smiled? He could see how a young man would succumb to this woman's charms. Quint was feeling the effects of her presence himself. But Abe? Sure, his grandfather was still a man, but he'd always been so crazy in love with his late wife that he'd never looked twice at another woman. But maybe she did something to change that, Quint thought.
"Your grandfather suffers from benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. When it happens I can help him with the exercises and head maneuvers he needs to do in order to get over it. And see that he takes his medication, whenever it's needed. Having a nurse close by makes him feel safe and cared for. Surely you wouldn't want to deny the man that much?"
Shaking his head with resignation, Quint pulled out one of the dining chairs and flopped down on the seat. He'd been building fences all day. Sweat and dirt stained his shirt and jeans and he was tired enough to sleep for a week. He wasn't in any shape to argue with Maura Donovan. And maybe he shouldn't be arguing, he thought wearily. Maybe he should just thank his lucky stars that Abe was being looked after on a daily basis.
"I didn't realize nurses also cooked for their patients," he said, his gaze straying to the simmering pot on the stove, then back to her.
He watched faint color warm her cheeks and then his gaze dropped to her lips. She didn't appear to wear lipstick. But then, she didn't need to. Her lips were already dark and moist and the idea of biting into them, kissing them, flashed through his mind, shocking him with the totally erotic thought.
"I understand that before I came Jim did all the cooking around here, but I offered to take over because—" Pausing, she wrinkled her nose. "Well, neither man was eating a healthy diet. Red meat and potatoes was about all I could find around here."
"That's what Gramps likes," Quint said automatically while he pushed his mind to more pertinent issues. How long was she planning on staying here and was she thinking to get more out of his grandfather than just nurse's wages? The Donovans were wealthy people. If Maura never worked a day in her life, she could still live in luxury. So why would she want to hide herself away here on Apache Wells? Abe's ranch was remote, with the nearest neighbor—an old woman everyone called Crazy Gertie— fifteen miles away. Gertie was someone who'd been known to take potshots at anyone who decided to come near the shack she lived in. As for his grandfather, Abe could be charming whenever he chose to be, but for the most part he was set in his ways and didn't hesitate to speak his mind. A young, beautiful woman like Maura wouldn't deliberately choose to spend her days like this unless there was something in it for her, would she?
The questions were really none of Quint's business and probably totally out of line. But damn it, Abe was his grandfather! Someone had to look out for the old man's security. Two years ago his sister had married a Texas Ranger and moved to his ranch near San Antonio. A month ago, Alexa had given birth to daughter Jessica. Add her to the couple's toddler son, J.D., and his sister's life was consumed with caring for her own family. That left only Quint and his mother, Frankie, to keep an eye on their aging relative.
"What we like and what's good for us aren't always the same, Mr. Cantrell."
Amen to that, he thought drily. "My grandfather never was one to follow rules—good or bad."
And Maura figured the man sitting at the small dining table wasn't much of a rule follower, either. He'd said he wasn't angry about her being here, yet she could see doubts and questions unfolding like a picture show across his rough-hewn face.
Well, she couldn't blame the man. She'd had her own doubts about taking this job. But Abe had been persistent. He'd also come along with the proposition at just the right time. She'd loved her job at Sierra General Hospital. Helping ailing patients get back on their feet was something she'd always wanted and needed to do since she'd become a nurse nearly fourteen years ago. But recently Dr. Weston's uninvited pursuit of her had turned the job she'd once cherished into a walking nightmare. On the whole he was a nice man and an excellent doctor, but he'd refused to believe she didn't want to see him romantically. His attention hadn't quite crossed over to harassment, but it was making her a bit uncomfortable. So she'd spent the past two months running around the hospital trying to dodge the man.