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The Men Of Medicine Ridge
By Diana Palmer
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-77066-9
"I'll never get married!" Vivian wailed. "He won't let me have Whit here at all. I only wanted him to come for supper, and now I have to call him and say it's off! Mack's just hateful!"
"There, there," Natalie Brock soothed, hugging the younger girl. "He's not hateful. He just doesn't understand how you feel about Whit. And you have to remember, he's been totally responsible for you since you were fifteen."
"But he's my brother, not my father," came the sniffling reply. Vivian dashed tears off on the back of her hand. "I'm twenty-two," she added in a plaintive tone. "He can't tell me what to do anymore, anyway!"
"He can, on Medicine Ridge Ranch," Natalie reminded her wryly. Medicine Ridge Ranch was the largest spread in this part of Montana - even the town was named after it. "He's the big boss."
"Humph!" Vivian dabbed at her red eyes with a handkerchief. "Only because Daddy left it to him."
"That isn't quite true," came the amused rejoinder. "Your father left him a ranch that was almost bankrupt, on land the bank was trying to repossess." She waved her hand around the expensive Victorian furnishings of the living room. "All this came from his hard work, not a will."
"And so whatever McKinzey Donald Killain wants, he gets," Vivian raged.
It was odd to hear him called by his complete name. For years, everyone around Medicine Ridge, Montana, which had grown up around the Killain ranch, had called him Mack. It was an abbreviation of his first name, which few of his childhood friends could pronounce.
"He only wants you to be happy," Natalie said softly, kissing the flushed cheek of the blond girl.
"I'll go talk to him."
"Would you?" Bright blue eyes looked up hopefully.
"You're just the nicest friend anybody ever had, Nat," Vivian said fervently. "Nobody else around here has the guts to say anything to him," she added.
"Bob and Charles don't feel comfortable telling him what to do." Natalie defended the younger brothers of the household. Mack had been responsible for all three of his siblings from his early twenties. He was twenty-eight now, crusty and impatient, a real hell-raiser whom most people found intimidating. Natalie had teased him and picked at him from her teens, and she still did. She adored him, despite his fiery temper and legendary impatience. A lot of that ill humor came from having one eye, and she knew it.
Soon after the accident that could as easily have killed him as blinded him, she told him that the rakish patch over his left eye made him look like a sexy pirate. He'd told her to go home and mind her own damned business. She ignored him and continued to help Vivian nurse him, even when he'd come home from the hospital. That hadn't been easy. Natalie was a senior in high school at the time. She'd just gone from the orphanage where she'd spent most of her life to her maiden aunt's house the year before the accident occurred. Her aunt, old Mrs. Barnes, didn't approve of Mack Killain, although she respected him. Natalie had had to beg to get her aunt to drive her first to the hospital and then to the Killain ranch every day to look after Mack. Her aunt had felt it was Vivian's job - not Natalie's - but Vivian couldn't do a thing with her elder brother. Left alone, Mack would have been out on the northern border with his men helping to brand calves.
At first, the doctors feared that he'd lost the sight in both eyes. But later, it had become evident that the right one still functioned. During that time of uncertainty, Natalie had attached herself to him and refused to go away, teasing him when he became despondent, cheering him up when he wanted to quit. She wouldn't let him give up, and soon there had been visible progress in his recovery.
Of course, he'd tossed her out the minute he was back on his feet, and she hadn't protested. She knew him right down to his bones, and he realized it and resented it. He didn't want her for a friend and made it obvious. She didn't push. As an orphan, she was used to rejection. Her aunt hadn't taken her in until the dignified lady was diagnosed with heart failure and needed someone to take care of her. Natalie had gone willingly, not only because she was tired of the orphanage, but also because her aunt lived on Killain's southern border. Natalie visited her new friend Vivian most every day after that. It wasn't until her aunt had died unexpectedly and left her a sizeable nest egg that she'd been able to put herself through college and keep up the payments on the little house she and her aunt had occupied together.
She lived frugally, and she'd managed all by herself. The money was almost gone now, but she'd made good grades and she had the promise of a teaching position at the local elementary school when she graduated. Life at the age of twenty-two looked much better than life at age six, when a grieving child had been taken from her family home and placed in the orphanage after a fire had killed both her parents. Like Mack, she'd had her share of tragedy and grief.
But teaching was wonderful. She loved first graders, so open and loving and curious. That was going to be her future. She and Dave Markham, a sixth-grade teacher at the school, had been dating for several weeks. No one knew that they were more friends than a romantic couple. Dave was sweet on the clerk at the local insurance agency, who was mooning over one of the men she worked with. Natalie wasn't interested in marriage anytime soon. Her only taste of love had been a crush on an older teenager when she was in her senior year. He'd just started noticing her when he was killed in a wreck while driving home from an out-of-town weekend fishing trip with his cousin. Losing her parents, then the one love of her short life, had taught her the danger of loving. She wanted to be safe. She wanted to be alone.
Besides that, she was far too fastidious for the impulsive leap-into-bed relationships that seemed the goal of many modern young women. She had no interest in falling in love, or in a purely physical affair. So until Dave came along, she hadn't dated at all. Well, that wasn't quite true, she conceded.
There was the dance she'd coaxed Mack into taking her to, but he'd been far older than the boys at the local community college who had attended. Nevertheless, he'd made Natalie the belle of the ball just by escorting her. Mack was a dish, by anybody's standards, even if he did lack social graces. By the time they left, he'd put more backs up than a debating team. She hadn't asked him to take her anywhere else, though. He seemed to dislike everybody these days. Especially Natalie.
Natalie hadn't really minded his abrasive company. She admired his penchant for telling the truth even when it wasn't welcome, and for saying what he thought, not what was socially acceptable. She tended to speak her own mind, too. She'd learned that from Mack. He'd forced her to fight back soon after she became friends with his sister. He put her back up and kept it up, refusing to let her rush off and cry. He taught her to stand her ground, to have the courage of her convictions. He made her strong enough to bear up under almost anything.
She remembered that they had an argument the night she'd coaxed him to the dance. He'd left her at her front door with one poisonous remark too many, his black eye narrow and no smile to ease the hard, lean contours of his face. There was too much between them to let a disagreement keep them apart, though.
Mack looked much older than twenty-eight. He'd had so much responsibility on his broad shoulders that he'd been robbed of a real childhood. His mother had died young, and his father had succumbed to drink, and then became abusive to the kids. Mack had stood up to him, many times taking blows meant for the other three. In the end, their father had suffered a stroke and been placed in a nursing home while Mack kept the younger Killains together and supported them by working as a mechanic in town. When Mack was twenty-one, his father had died, leaving Mack with three teenagers to raise.
Excerpted from The Men Of Medicine Ridge by Diana Palmer Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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