Cowboy or doctor? Sawyer McCord has been wrestling with that question since he came home to the Circle H after fleeing his remote clinic in the Himalayas. A tragedy there has him doubting his medical skills, but his reception on the ranch has been chilly at best. Sawyer can’t blame his family—or Olivia Wilson, his brother’s ex—for their anger. So why does Olivia’s opinion of him suddenly matter so much? Sawyer has unfinished business here and at his clinic. If he’s ever going to redeem himself, he needs to start by making amends to the one woman who might never forgive him.
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OLIVIA WATCHED HER ex-husband dance with his bride.
From the deep shadows along the driveway, in view of the ranch house where she'd once lived at the Circle H, she watched other people join the bride and groom and listened to the soft strains of the ballad the band was playing. And felt her eyes fill. She always cried at weddings, but this reception held special significance.
Overhead the stars twinkled like ornaments just for this summer night. Strung through the nearby cottonwood trees, fairy lights winked as if someone had matched the two displays, heaven and earth.
She wasn't really part of this. Olivia had been invited to the wedding earlier that day, but as Logan's former wife, it had seemed inappropriate to accept the invitation and she'd skipped the ceremony.
Carrying a large box wrapped in white with a silver bow, she stopped here and there to say hello to someone but didn't linger. She planned to leave her gift — a quilt in the classic wedding ring design from her antiques shop — collect her seven-year-old son, who'd been his dad's ring bearer, then go home.
What's done is done.
Three years after her divorce, Olivia bore no hard feelings. The bride looked lovely in her lace-trimmed gown and Olivia already liked her. After all, she was Nick's stepmother now, and Olivia's little boy adored Blossom. Besides, Olivia had finally made her peace with Logan, her ex.
If she felt slightly left out tonight, that was her problem.
She'd had her turn and blown it. Olivia had always half expected her marriage to disintegrate as her parents' had, and like some self-fulfilling prophecy, she now had the papers to prove it. Love clearly wasn't her strong suit — except her maternal love for Nick. In that, she could be as fierce as a mother tiger, and Olivia intended to be the best single mom on the planet. On her own again, she worked hard to provide the emotional security for him — the stability — that she'd never known.
She could handle feeling invisible; she'd had a lifetime of experience at it.
Taking her gift toward the house, she spotted her brother in the crowd but didn't get the chance to talk to him. Before she took another step, Olivia noticed yet another man crossing the lawn. And froze. At first, she thought he was Logan, that he'd changed from his khakis and navy blue blazer with the yellow pocket square to jeans with his white shirt. But it wasn't Logan.
After nine years, her ex-husband's twin brother was back.
Olivia turned then went the other way.
* * *
THE HEELS OF Sawyer's new cowboy boots sank into the grass, forcing him to slow his steps before he reached the large gathering of wedding guests.
He was late. Later than late, actually. He'd almost missed the whole thing. He'd been lucky to make it at all and he could tell the reception was already half-over.
With varying degrees of skill, half a dozen couples gyrated on the temporary wooden dance floor in the middle of the lawn to a fast tune. Classic rock, which the band had just launched into after the bride and groom's first dance. The cork from a fresh bottle of champagne popped loud enough to be heard over the music.
Sawyer glanced around but didn't see his brother. Maybe just as well.
He wasn't sure of the welcome he'd get. Weeks before, Logan had asked him to be his best man, but his brother's email and some missed follow-up calls hadn't caught Sawyer's attention until recently. In the small, far-off country where he spent most of his time these days, he'd had his hands full. He wondered if the epic landslide in Kedar and its aftermath would strike Logan as reasonable excuses not to show up until now.
He scanned the yard again, recognizing a high school friend here, a longtime neighbor there. No one had seen him yet.
Or ... had she?
His heart sank into the ground like his boot heels. Olivia. But almost before their gazes met, she looked away.
Wouldn't you know she'd be the first person he saw?
Maybe he shouldn't have come at all.
Hoping to buy a little more time before he faced Logan, Sawyer halted steps away from the milling group of wedding guests — and saw his grandfather coming toward him with a slight limp.
"Well, I'll be. Sawyer McCord." Sam studied him, then looked down at his own navy blue jacket and the white rose boutonniere in his lapel. "Wouldn't be shocked if you didn't recognize me in this getup. But what happened to you?"
"Guess like Indiana Jones, 'it's not the years, it's the mileage.'"
In the past few weeks, while dealing with so much death and destruction, Sawyer had probably aged ten years. He hoped that didn't show, but it probably did.
Sam had changed, too. His still-thick hair had a few more gray strands among the dark brown, and there were lines in his face Sawyer hadn't seen before. But his blue eyes had stayed as sharp as ever and he was still whipcord lean. "When you were kids, no one could tell you apart from Logan."
"They will now," Sawyer said.
Sam's voice hardened. "About time you showed up."
"I would have come sooner, but ..." He trailed off.
He didn't want to think about, or remember, his final screwup thousands of miles from here. The clinic he'd cofounded with his partner in Kedar was always in danger of attack from rival tribes, but bullets and bombs weren't the only means of devastation there. That huge landslide had brought half the mountain down, isolated the village and destroyed more lives than it should have. The disaster had tested his skills to repair, to heal, to save. And despite his lifelong urge to always step in, to help, Sawyer had failed. Was he as good a doctor as he'd believed he was, or — in violation of his Hippocratic oath — had he done more harm than good?
He tried to quiet his unruly thoughts. "How's your leg, Sam?" According to Logan, a few months ago Sam had been thrown by one of his bison cows that took offense to him getting too close to her calf. Now, Sam's cast was obviously off but his muscles must still be weak, even withered. At his age, full recovery would take time.
Sam was tough, though. "Good enough," he said.
Sawyer could almost hear someone say, Go on, you two. At least slug each other on the arm as men do to show affection.
But he was afraid to move. Sam didn't, either. They hadn't parted on good terms, to put it mildly. Over the years since Sawyer had left the Circle H instead of taking over the ranch, finished medical school, then based his practice overseas, they hadn't exchanged a single word. If Sam or Logan — or Olivia — had read about the landslide in the papers or online or seen the coverage on TV, they wouldn't have known he was there. And although he'd felt tempted to let them know he, at least, was unharmed, Sawyer hadn't tried to get in touch. He wouldn't worry them. There was nothing they could have done, except worry.
Sam continued to study him. "Never thought I'd see you again. Don't know if my heart's up to the shock."
Sawyer's throat tightened but he didn't say the words. I love you, too, Pops. Maybe he no longer had the right to call him that. He wasn't sure Sam or the others cared about him anymore. His fault.
Without another word, his grandfather stomped back across the lawn to join a group of other ranchers and their wives. A moment later, his laughter floated on the warm night air to Sawyer, excluding him. He hadn't been here twenty minutes and he was already in trouble with Sam. Nothing new.
He looked toward the spot where Olivia had been standing moments ago. In a wisp of filmy skirt and a silken swirl of blond hair, she was gone. He hadn't missed the look in her eyes, though. She was no happier to see him than Sam seemed to be.
He squared his shoulders, then plunged into the crowd, greeting former friends he hadn't seen in years. People, like Olivia and Sam, he'd never thought he'd see again.
* * *
THE LOUD MUSIC — the band played hard rock almost exclusively as the night wore on — made Olivia's head hurt. Sipping at her single glass of champagne, which she didn't really care for, she stayed on the fringe of the festivities, counting the minutes before she could leave. Avoiding Sawyer. Avoiding her father.
He and her stepmother had arrived from Dallas only that morning, her brother had told her. While she was glad her father had found a better life with Liza, she didn't want to talk to him. Or to her, either.
Olivia was still here only because Nick had balked at leaving.
"I'm having fun!" he'd shouted. Then he'd run off again with his new best friend, headed for the refreshment tables.
Olivia had left her gift in the ranch house, and she wished she could go home now. Other people were beginning to drift toward the makeshift parking lot on the far side of the yard, the hard packed dirt area beyond the grass that led to Logan's barn. She heard laughter, talk of some upcoming doings in town, a promise here and there to get together soon.
"Are you hiding?" Sawyer's familiar voice snapped Olivia to attention. "I never thought of you as a wallflower. Yet here you are, keeping away from everyone. Or someone," he added, obviously meaning himself.
She looked away. "I'm about to leave. It's way past Nick's bedtime."
"Your son," he said.
She nodded. "Your nephew. The one you've never met."
That didn't surprise Olivia. Sawyer had cut and run long ago, and he hadn't come back — until now. Which reminded her of Nick's mostly absent grandfather. Her dad hadn't seen her son in a year. Nick was far closer to Sam Hunter, not that she would keep Nick from her father if he ever decided to play devoted grandpa at last.
She fought an urge to squirm. Seeing Sawyer appear so suddenly again had been a shock, but she hadn't confused him with Logan for more than a second. Olivia had always been able to tell the twins apart when most people couldn't. They had the same dark hair and deep blue eyes and almost identical builds, yet Olivia could see subtle differences. Their physical resemblance was strong but, for her, superficial.
Logan, who'd become a professional test pilot, was steady and calm; Sawyer was more intense and impulsive. She couldn't deny he was an attractive man, to put it mildly, but she couldn't bring herself to look at him again, and Olivia wasn't in the mood for a heart-to-heart chat — or anything else.
She searched for Nick, then spotted him marching around the yard carrying a big piece of cake in a napkin. The band launched into yet another earsplitting tune and Olivia took a step. "I'd better go."
Sawyer stopped her. "So this is how it will be, Olivia? Come on, I've already been stiffed by Sam. Haven't talked to Logan yet. Why not spare me a minute here? It's been a long time. Tell me how you've been since ... the last time I saw you."
"Fine," she said. Her personal life was certainly none of his concern. Never mind that they'd once been friends. That had ended a long time ago in a field between the Circle H and Wilson Cattle, her family's ranch next door. "In fact, I've just heard about a possible opportunity to expand my antiques business. There's another store on the way to Wichita that I've been interested in for some time. The owner plans to retire." She bit her lip not to ask Sawyer about his life. They weren't friends anymore.
He looked past her toward Nick. "Which would mean a move? Away from Barren?" He knew she wasn't fond of the Circle H, in part because of him.
"Possibly. I haven't thought that far yet," she admitted. "I'd probably want to be near both shops. There's a nice little town halfway between there and Barren, so I'd have an easy commute each way. I've heard good things about their elementary school. By September, when Nick starts second grade, maybe I'll be ready to move."
Olivia hadn't said the last word before Nick rushed up to them with his friend Ava, Olivia's niece. The two had gradually come closer but Olivia hadn't noticed. His deep blue eyes, so like his father's and Sawyer's, flashed. "No!" he yelled, making Olivia's ears quiver.
"I won't leave the Circle H! I'll stay here with Daddy!" Then he pulled Ava across the yard, through half a dozen cars in the parking area and they raced toward the barn. "I'm going to see my kitten!"
The blood drained from Olivia's face. "I didn't realize he could hear us. I haven't talked with him yet or made a firm decision."
"He had a point, though. And what would Logan say?"
"He won't want us to leave town, but ..." She watched the children disappear into the barn and stifled the need to go after them. "I didn't mean to upset Nick. I'll give him a bit of time, then talk to him." She hesitated. "But I have to think about my business, too. Our means of support."
Determined to avoid any more talk with Sawyer, she left him standing there and started toward a small group of other guests gathered near the porch. On the front steps, Blossom held her bridal bouquet aloft. An excited bunch of younger women were waving their arms, hoping to catch the spray of white roses, baby's breath and calla lilies and be the next to marry.
After she'd made the toss, Blossom came down the steps, her gait somewhat impeded by her gown and her obvious pregnancy. Her unhappy previous relationship was behind her now. This baby, although not hers with Logan, would be born into love, would be cherished ... as Olivia cherished Nick.
Blossom said, "Thank you for the gorgeous quilt."
"My pleasure. Best wishes."
Olivia said goodbye to Blossom, then started toward the barn. She was halfway there when nine-year-old Ava burst outside and tore up the hill, her eyes wide as she barreled into Olivia.
She caught the little girl's shoulders. "What is it, Ava?"
Breathless, she could hardly speak. "Nick! He fell. I think he's dead!"CHAPTER 2
SAWYER HAD FINALLY found a chance to speak to Logan. They had just started to talk, when a little girl he didn't recognize shot out of the barn, waving her arms and shouting. Halfway up the hill, she ran straight into Olivia, and Sawyer watched Olivia's face turn white.
Logan was already running toward them. "Nicky!" he yelled. "Nicky!"
As if his boots were glued to the spot, Sawyer stayed where he was. For a guy who'd always responded to any crisis stat, who'd studied and interned, done his residency and practiced medicine under the worst trauma conditions, he couldn't seem to move.
Nicky. His nephew's name alone should have galvanized Sawyer but didn't. He heard the girl's words echo, sounding thick inside his head, as if both ears were plugged. Dead.
A dozen images of disaster flashed in his mind. A man pulled from the rubble, one of his arms crushed. A pregnant woman, her cuts and scrapes ignored as she went into labor on the hard, rock-strewn ground, moaning in pain. A precious child ...
From behind him, Blossom loped across the lawn, holding up her bridal skirts, then passed him by. Several other late-leaving wedding guests rushed with her to the barn.
And still he didn't move.
After a long moment, he realized Olivia hadn't, either. With one hand over her mouth, her blue eyes wide circles of fear, she stood there, frozen like some ice statue. The little girl clung now to her skirt.
"Stay here," he said, finally forcing his legs into motion. On his way past, he lightly touched Olivia's shoulder. "Let me check out the situation."
She didn't answer. Pulse thumping, he left her and, like some caboose at the end of a train when he was used to being the steam engine, followed the last people into the barn.
He couldn't see through the circle of wedding guests in the aisle, their bodies blocking his view.
"Move back. I'm a doctor," he said but in a weak tone.
Logan was the last person to obey his order. He'd been down on one knee, bending helplessly over his little boy. Sawyer felt the same way. Those other images kept running through his brain.
He pushed the memories aside. "Let me see, Logan."
Logan didn't have a trace of color left in his face. He got up but his gaze didn't leave his son.
Sawyer's nephew — the small blond boy he'd never seen in person until tonight — lay half-conscious, sprawled on his back on the barn floor. His skin gray, his eyes closed, he looked almost peaceful.
Sawyer assessed his condition — airway, breathing, circulation. He preferred the few photos he'd seen of Nick, his birth announcement with a newborn picture attached to the email, the baby looking as if he were already able to smile, and later a first-birthday party shot of him in his high chair. Happy times in which he'd had pink cheeks and bright eyes.
He felt Nick's fine-boned wrist again for a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief. "Light," he said, adding silently, and a bit thready. He didn't want to worry people.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboy on Call"
Copyright © 2017 Leigh Riker.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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