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The thin, reedy voice whispering from the frail woman on the bed was nothing like Quinn Southerland remembered.
Though she was small in stature, Jo Winder's voice had always been firm and commanding, just like the rest of her personality. When she used to call them in for supper, he and the others could hear her voice ringing out loud and clear from one end of the ranch to the other. No matter where they were, they knew the moment they heard that voice, it was time to go back to the house.
Now the woman who had done so much to raise himthe toughest woman he had ever knownseemed a tiny, withered husk of herself, her skin papery and pale and her voice barely audible.
The cracks in his heart from watching her endure the long months and years of her illness widened a little more. To his great shame, he had a sudden impulse to run away, to escape back to Seattle and his business and the comfortable life he had created for himself there, where he could pretend this was all some kind of bad dream and she was immortal, as he had always imagined.
Instead, he forced himself to step forward to the edge of the bed, where he carefully folded her bony fingers in his own much larger ones, cursing the cancer that was taking away this woman he loved so dearly.
He gave her his most charming smile, the one that never failed to sway any woman in his path, whether in the boardroom or the bedroom.
"Where else would I be but right here, darling?"
The smile she offered in return was rueful and she lifted their entwined fingers to her cheek. "You shouldn't have come. You're so busy in Seattle."
"Never too busy for my best girl."
Her laugh was small but wryly amused, as it always used to be when he would try to charm his way out of trouble with her.
Jo wasn't the sort who could be easily charmed but she never failed to appreciate the effort.
"I'm sorry to drag you down here," she said. "I
only wanted to see all of my boys one last time."
He wanted to protest that his foster mother would be around for years to come, that she was too tough and ornery to let a little thing like cancer stop her, but he couldn't deny the evidence in front of him.
She was dying, was much closer to it than any of them had feared.
"I'm here, as long as you need me," he vowed.
"You're a good boy, Quinn. You always have been."
He snorted at thatboth of them knew better about that, as well. "Easton didn't tell me you've been hitting the weed as part of your treatment."
The blankets rustled softly as her laugh shook her slight frame. "You know better than that. No marijuana here."
"Then what are you smoking?"
"Nothing. I meant what I said. You were always a good boy on the inside, even when you were dragging the others into trouble."
"It still means the world that you thought so." He kissed her forehead. "Now I can see you're tired. You get some rest and we can catch up later."
"I would give anything for just a little of my old energy."
Her voice trailed off on the last word and he could tell she had already drifted off, just like that, in mid-sentence. As he stood beside her bed, still holding her fingers, she winced twice in her sleep.
He frowned, hating the idea of her hurting. He slowly, carefully, released her fingers as if they would shatter at his touch and laid them with gentle care on the bed then turned just as Easton Springhill, his distant cousin by marriage and the closest thing he had to a sister, appeared in the doorway of the bedroom.
He moved away from the bed and followed Easton outside the room.
"She seems in pain," he said, his voice low with distress.
"She is," Easton answered. "She doesn't say much about it but I can tell it's worse the past week or so."
"Isn't there something we can do?"
"We have a few options. None of them last very long. The hospice nurse should be here any minute. She can give her something for the pain." She tilted her head. "When was the last time you ate?"
He tried to remember. He had been in Tokyo when he got the message from Easton that Jo was asking for him to come home. Though he had had two more days of meetings scheduled for a new shipping route he was negotiating, he knew he had no choice but to drop everything. Jo would never have asked if the situation hadn't been dire.
So he had rescheduled everything and ordered his plane back to Pine Gulch. Counting several flight delays from bad weather over the Pacific, he had been traveling for nearly eighteen hours and had been awake for eighteen before that.
"I had something on the plane, but it's been a few hours."
"Let me make you a sandwich, then you can catch a few z's."
"You don't have to wait on me." He followed her down the long hall and into the cheery white-and-red kitchen. "You've got enough to do, running the ranch and taking care of Jo. I've been making my own sandwiches for a long time now."
"Don't you have people who do that for you?"
"Sometimes," he admitted. "That doesn't mean I've forgotten how."
"Sit down," she ordered him. "I know where everything is here."
He thought about pushing her. But lovely as she was with her delicate features and long sweep of blond hair, Easton could be as stubborn and ornery as Jo and he was just too damn tired for another battle.
Instead, he eased into one of the scarred pine chairs snugged up against the old table and let her fuss over him for a few moments. "Why didn't you tell me how things were, East? She's withered away in the three months since I've been home. Chester probably weighs more than she does."
At the sound of his name, Easton's retired old cow dog that followed her or Jo everywhere lifted his grizzled gray muzzle and thumped his black-and-white tail against the floor.
Easton's sigh held exhaustion and discouragement and no small measure of guilt. "I wanted to. I swear. I threatened to call you all back weeks ago but she begged me not to say anything. She said she didn't want you to know how things were until
Her voice trailed off and her mouth trembled a little. He didn't need her to finish. Jo wouldn't have wanted them to know until close to the end.
This was it. For three long years, Jo had been fighting breast cancer and now it seemed her battle was almost over.
He hated this. He wanted to escape back to his own world where he could at least pretend he had some semblance of control. But she wanted him here in Cold Creek, so here he would damn well stay.
"Truth time, East. How long does she have?"
Easton's features tightened with a deep sorrow. She had lost so much, this girl he had thought of as a sister since the day he arrived at Winder Ranch two decades ago, an angry, bitter fourteen-year-old with nothing but attitude. Easton had lived in the foreman's house then with her parents and they had been friends almost from the moment he arrived.
"Three weeks or so," she said. "Maybe less. Maybe a little more."
He wanted to rant at the unfairness of it all that somebody like Jo would be taken from the earth with such cruelty when she had spent just about every moment of her entire seventy-two years of life giving back to others.
"I'll stay until then."
She stared at him, the butter knife she was using to spread mustard on his sandwich frozen in her hand. "How can you possibly be away from Southerland Shipping that long?"
He shrugged. "I might need to make a few short trips back to Seattle here and there but most of my work can be done long-distance through e-mail and conference calls. It shouldn't be a problem. And I have good people working for me who can handle most of the complications that might come up."
"That's not what she wanted when she asked you to come home one more time," Easton protested.
"Maybe not. But she isn't making the decisions about this, as much as she might think she's the one in charge. This is what I want. I should have come home when things first starting spiraling down. It wasn't fair for us to leave her care completely in your hands."
"You didn't know how bad things were."
If he had visited more, he would have seen for himself. But like Brant and Cisco, the other two foster sons Jo and her husband, Guff, had made a home for, life had taken him away from the safety and peace he had always found at Winder Ranch.
"I'm staying," he said firmly. "I can certainly spare a few weeks to help you out on the ranch and with Jo's care and whatever else you need, after all she and Guff did for me. Don't argue with me on this, because you won't win."
"I wasn't going to argue," she said. "You can't know how happy she'll be to have you here. Thank you, Quinn."
The relief in her eyes told him with stark clarity how difficult it must have been for Easton to watch Jo dying, especially after she had lost her own parents at a young age and then her beloved uncle who had taken her in after their deaths.
He squeezed her fingers when she handed him a sandwich with thick slices of homemade bread and hearty roast beef. "Thanks. This looks delicious."
She slid across from him with an apple and a glass of milk. As he looked at her slim wrists curved around her glass, he worried that, like Jo, she hadn't been eating enough and was withering away.
"What about the others?" he asked, after one fantastic bite. "Have you let Brant and Cisco know how things stand?"
Jo had always called them her Four Winds, the three foster boys she and Guff had taken in and Easton, her niece who had been their little shadow.
"We talk to Brant over the computer every couple weeks when he can call us from Afghanistan. Our Web cam's not the greatest but I suppose he still had front-row seats as her condition has deteriorated over the past month. He's working on swinging leave and is trying to get here as soon as he can."
Quinn winced as guilt pinched at him. His best friend was halfway around the world and had done a better job of keeping track of things here at the ranch than Quinn had when he was only a few states away.
"What about Cisco?"
She looked down at her apple. "Have you heard from him?"
"No. Not for a while. I got a vague e-mail in the spring but nothing since."
"Neither had we. It's been months. I've tried everything I can think of to reach him but I have no idea even where he is. Last I heard, he was in El Salvador or somewhere like that but I'm not having any luck turning up any information about him."
Cisco worried him, Quinn had to admit. The rest of them had gone on to do something productive with their lives. Quinn had started Southerland Shipping after a stint in the Air Force, Brant Western was an honorable Army officer serving his third tour of duty in the Middle East and Easton had the ranch, which she loved more than just about anything.
Cisco Del Norte, on the other hand, had taken a very different turn. Quinn had only seen him a few times in the past five or six years and he seemed more and more jaded as the years passed.
What started as a quick trip to Mexico to visit relatives after a stint in the Army had turned into years of Cisco bouncing around Central and South America.
Quinn had no idea what he did down there. He suspected that few of Cisco's activities were legal and none of them were good. He had decided several years ago that he was probably better off not knowing for sure.
But he did know Jo would want one more chance to see Cisco, whatever he was up to south of the border.
He swallowed another bite of sandwich. "I'll put some resources on it and see what I can find out. My assistant is frighteningly efficient. If anyone can find the man and drag him out of whatever cantina he calls home these days, it's Kathleen."
Easton's smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "I've met the redoubtable Kathleen. She scares me."
"That makes two of us. It's all part of her charm."
He tried to hide his sudden jaw-popping yawn behind a sip of water, but few things slipped past Easton.
"Get some sleep," she ordered in a tone that didn't leave room for arguments. "Your old room is ready for you. Clean sheets and everything."
"I don't need to sleep. I'll stay up with Jo."
"I've got it. She's got my cell on speed dial and only has to hit a couple of buttons to reach me all the time. Besides, the hospice nurse will be here to take care of things during the night."
"That's good. I was about to ask what sort of medical care she receives."
"Every three hours, we have a home-care nurse check in to adjust medication and take care of any other needs she might have. Jo doesn't think it's necessary to have that level of care, but it's what her doctors and I think is best."
That relieved his mind considerably. At least Easton didn't have to carry every burden by herself. He rose from the table and folded her into a hug.
"I'm glad you're here," she murmured. "It helps."
"This is where I have to be. Wake me up if you or Jo need anything."
He headed up the stairs in the old log house, noting the fourth step from the top still creaked, just like always. He had hated that step. More than once it had been the architect of his downfall when he and one of the others tried to sneak in after curfew. They would always try so hard to be quiet but then that blasted stair would always give them away. By the time they would reach the top of the staircase, there would be Guff, waiting for them with those bushy white eyebrows raised and a judgment-day look on his features.
He almost expected to see his foster father waiting for him on the landing. Instead, only memories hovered there as he pushed open his bedroom door, remembering how suspicious and belligerent he had been to the Winders when he first arrived.