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"The Bastrop Homecoming Rodeo must be a hell of an event. You're the third cowboy today who's fallen off his horse."
Drew Rawlins glared at the E.R. doctor as he sucked in a lungful of sterilized air. Not smart. A burning band of pain squeezed his injured ribs, and the words escaped his mouth in a long wheeze. "I was bucked off."
"I'm Dr. Feller." The doctor flipped on the light box mounted against the wall and studied Drew's X-ray.
Drew prayed he wouldn't draw another crazed bronc like Demon the day after tomorrow when he competed in the final round of the saddle bronc competition. He'd been lucky today to escape with a kick to the chest.
"Your ribs are badly bruised. I recommend taking a few weeks off before you ride again."
Drew broke out in a sweat that had nothing to do with pain. In order to make the National Finals Rodeo in December, he needed to be among the top fifteen saddle bronc riders in the country. Today was August sixthhe was running out of time.
"You've got callus new bone formations on five of your ribs." The doctor pointed to several spots on the X-ray.
So he'd fractured a few ribs over the yearsDrew had fared better than most cowboys who'd competed at the sport as long as he had.
"You're lucky you didn't break a rib."
"I don't need luck, Doc." Drew chuckled, then winced as a flash of fiery pain snaked around his middle.
"Rib injuries are nothing to joke about." Feller leaned against the wall. "A fractured rib can puncture a lung, liver, spleen or worse."
Worse. The word sent a shiver down Drew's spine. He'd been ten years old when the famous bull rider Lane Frost had died at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. After Frost had ridden Taking Care of Business and dismounted, the bull had turned and hit him in the side with one of his horns, breaking the cowboy's ribs. Frost had gotten up and headed toward the chutes, but had stumbled. When he'd hit the ground, a broken rib had severed his pulmonary artery, ending his life.
"Keep testing fate, cowboy, and you'll die with a mouthful of dirt or end up connected to a ventilator the rest of your life." The doctor waved his hand in the air. "Either way, the horse comes out the winner."
The solemn warning spawned another flashback
. Drew struggled to block out today's eight-second ride, but the image of the crazed gelding's hoof coming at him while he lay unprotected in the dirt had been branded on his brain.
"No worries. I don't plan to let another bronc stand on my chest." Drew was thirty-two. No longer in the prime of his life in the world of rodeo. He'd been bustin' broncs for fourteen years. If he ever had a chance at becoming a world champion, this was the year.
He needed the damned title to prove his dead father wrongthat Drew Rawlins hadn't wasted half his life chasing a dream. His father had been a rising star in bareback riding when he'd gotten Drew's mother pregnant. In order to support Drew and his mother, his father had given up rodeo and helped manage his father-in-law's small-town grocery store. To this day Drew believed his father had resented him because having a family had kept the old man from achieving his dream of making it to the NFR.
When Drew had graduated from high school and announced he intended to ride the circuit, his father had scoffed, insisting Drew didn't have what it took to be a champion. Drew ignored the old man, his focus solely on winning the granddaddy of 'em all. But the big one had eluded him. Drew had made it to the NFR the year his father had dieda decade agobut he'd placed last. Last wasn't near good enough. Most cowboys with half a brain would have retired by now, but Drew had never forgotten his father's dying words before the cancer had taken him.
You ain't never gonna be as good as I was.
Angry at himself for allowing the memory to resurface, Drew inched closer to the edge of the examining table. He had plenty of experience with injured ribs. As long as he moved carefully and took shallow breaths, he could tolerate the pain.
"No rodeos for three weeks." Dr. Feller scribbled on a pad of paper.
Drew kept his mouth shut. Bruised ribs would not prevent him from competing in the final go-round on Sunday. He needed the thousand-dollar jackpot to boost his earnings.
The doctor handed him a prescription. "For pain."
Pain was good. If he focused on the pain, there would be no room in his head for his father's taunts. "My boots are missing," he said, after spotting his shirt, which he'd thrown across the chair in the corner.
Ignoring Drew, the doctor rambled on. "You have a chance of developing pneumonia after a rib trauma. Take deep breaths and cough every hour to keep your lungs clear. An ice pack will help you feel more comfortable." He handed Drew his shirt.
"Does a nurse by the name of Hallie Sutton work here?" Drew clenched his teeth against the heat searing his side when he slid his arm into the shirtsleeve.
"How do you know Ms. Sutton?"
Ms. Hallie hadn't married? "She put a dozen stitches in my head five years ago."
Every year Drew competed in the Bastrop Homecoming Rodeo. And each time he searched for Hallie in the stands. Once, he'd driven to the hospital to look her up but had chickened out at the last minute and left town.
Just because you've never forgotten your one night with her doesn't mean she hasn't.
He remembered walking into Cozie's bar and spotting Hallie sitting at a table with her coworkers. When their gazes met, he'd been struck by the sadness in her brown eyes and had wondered what had happened to the cheerful, talkative nurse who'd stitched his head earlier in the afternoon. The abject misery reflected in Hallie's expression had drawn him to her. Before he'd realized his actions, he'd asked her to dance. At first, she'd refused, then at the prodding of her friends she'd allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. Drew closed his eyes as the memory swept him away
"Want to talk about it?" he'd whispered in Hallie's ear.
"No." She'd burrowed into him as if seeking protection from whatever had tormented her.
He'd held her close and they'd danced foreverat least eight songs. Then the band had taken a break and so had Hallie's friendsthey'd left the bar. "Need a lift home?"
"I don't want to go home." Her brown eyes had shimmered with tears.
"We could keep dancing," he'd offered. "No."
"C'mon." He'd grabbed her hand and led her outside. The August night had been warm and muggy. "There's a coffee shop down the road." When she hadn't taken him up on the suggestion he'd thrown caution to the wind. "My camper's parked a few blocks away. We could talk there."
Hallie had stared at him for the longest time before she'd slipped her arm through his. "Okay."
The one word had sent Drew's blood thundering through his veins. They'd walked in silence, Drew preparing for anything once they reached the camperanything except Hallie jumping his bones as soon as they'd stepped inside.
Twice, he'd attempted to take the high road and put a stop to her advances. Hallie might not have been drunk, but she hadn't been herself, either. He'd been no match for her persistence. Her touches and kisses had been edged with desperation, and her urgency fueled his desire for her. Their union had been as combustible as a four-alarm fire.
"These will hold you over until you fill the prescription." The doctor held out two pain pills and a Dixie cup of water.
"Thanks." Drew tossed back the medicine. "If you suffer nausea, dizziness or have trouble breathing"
"I know the routine."
The noise out of Feller's mouth sounded like the snort a bull gave when a cowboy settled onto its back. Shaking his head, the doctor left the cubicle, white coat tails flapping in his wake.
Drew closed his eyes and focused on the pain. Pain, he could handle.
Giving up rodeo, he could not.
Hallie Sutton stepped through the emergency doors of Lakeside Hospital and squinted until her eyes adjusted to the bright fluorescent lights. Aside from a muffled grunt drifting into the hallway, the E.R. appeared quiet. Her best friend and mentor, Sharon, manned the nurses' station.
"Thanks for filling in on short notice." Sharon's orange corkscrew curls bounced around her head as she spoke.
"Sure." Hallie locked her purse in a cabinet drawer. "Who's the lucky nurse?" She sniffed a bouquet of red roses on the counter.
"No one. A patient checked out this morning and left them behind. Our station was next on the list for free flowers." Sharon gestured over her shoulder. "Look who's heading this way."
Dr. Mark Fellerthe newest doctor on staff.
For two months Mark had pestered Hallie for a date. This past Friday she'd agreed to dinner and a movie. The evening had gone well until he'd kissed her goodnight. No sparks. No tingly, fuzzy feelings. Nothing. She blamed her inability to respond to the handsome blond-haired man on a certain cowboy from her past. A cowboy she should have forgotten years ago.
"Hallie. What are you doing here?" Mark's eyes never left her face as he handed Sharon a medical chart. Hallie caught a whiff of his designer colognethe light lime scent would be the nicest odor she smelled all day.
"I'm filling in for Liz," Hallie said. "Her daughter has the chicken pox."
Mark winked. "Call me when you break for dinner and I'll meet you in the cafeteria." He walked to the elevator bank and punched the button, then faced Hallie. "The guy in." Mark's pager bleeped. After checking the number he switched directions and disappeared down the corridor, Hallie forgotten.
"What's he like in bed?"
"I haven't slept with him." Hallie hadn't had sex in, well, since.never mind.
"Not for lack of trying on the good doctor's part, I'm sure."
Hallie arranged the charts on the counter and ignored the heat suffusing her neck. Sharon was right. During their date, Mark had made it clearin a teasing waythat he was physically attracted to her and wouldn't turn down an invitation to join her in bed. Although Mark was a nice man, like most of the doctors she worked with, he was married to his career. Hallie didn't want a fling. She wanted forever. As for a one-night stand with Mark. She'd made that mistake once and it had changed her life forever.
"You're twenty-eight years old, Hallie." Sharon's eyes twinkled. "Age is progressive, not regressive."
"Thanks for the reminder." Hallie examined her reflection in the shiny metal supply cabinet. She couldn't do anything about her generous bust line, but she was proud of her flat tummy. Her hips were a bit curvyshe blamed it on her short stature. She flipped her blond braid over her shoulder. Hmm
Maybe a new hairstyle. Oh, who was she kidding? She barely arrived to work on time after getting herself and her son ready for the day.
"Dr. Feller's handsome. Successful. Sexy." Sharon bumped her aside and opened the cabinet. "What's holding you back?"
Successful and handsomeDr. Mark Feller in a nutshell. But Mark wasn't interested in a long-term relationship and his kiss had left her cold. Hallie had felt the fire once in her life. Why should she settle for anything less?
"C'mon," Sharon teased. "Jump in with both feet."
The last time Hallie had jumped, she'd darn near drowned. She wasn't about to leap againnot in this lifetime.
"Hey! Anyone out there? I need my damned boots!"
Hallie chuckled and looked at Sharon.
"Some cowpoke from the rodeo. Bruised ribs." Sharon perused the patient's paperwork. "Prescribed pain meds and advised against competing for three weeks." She closed the chart and handed it to Hallie. "Patient refused doctor advice."
"Typical." Rodeo cowboys weren't short on guts, but they were missing half their brains.
"Discharge him before he tears the place apart." Sharon grabbed a pair of dusty ropers from beneath the counter. "They were left in the ambulance. An off-duty paramedic brought them in a few minutes ago."
A pungent odor permeated the shabby boots, and Hallie crinkled her nose. Judging by the worn-down heels and decaying leather, they should have been discarded years ago.
Boots in hand Hallie marched down the hall, then flung aside the cubicle curtain. "Besides your" The ropers escaped her grasp and thudded against the floor. A loud buzzing filled her ears, and her chest constricted until she feared she'd drawn her last breath.
Drew. Hallie felt the blood drain from her face, then rush back with such force her head throbbed.
"Been a long time, Hallie."
The mellow drawl sailed across the room and smacked her in the chest, jarring her out of her stupor.
After five long years, his voiceits deep pitch, the husky endearmentsounded all too familiar.
Drew's brow wrinkled with concern. "Hey, you okay?"
No, she was not okay. Her life was on the verge of crumbling, yet all her stupid heart could do was pitter-patter over the cowboy's good looks and sexy voice. "I'm fine."
She surreptitiously studied Drew while pretending to read his chart. He looked older. Harder. More intimidating than she'd remembered. His eyes bore the brunt of aging, the once bright blue irises had faded and were glazed with pain.
Sympathy welled up inside her, until she reminded herself that since their one night together, her life had been no walk in the park, either.
He hadn't buttoned his shirt and when he caught her staring at his muscular pecs, he grinned. White teeth pulled her attention from the squint lines around his eyes to his shaggy hair and the few strands of silver mixed with dark brown at his temples. One thing for certain, aging hadn't affected the man's sex appeal.
"Mind handing me those?" He pointed to the floor.
She thrust the boots at him.
While he tugged the ancient ropers over his dingy athletic socks, she noticed his shaking hands and rapid breathing. Her nursing instincts kicked in. Placing her fingers against his wrist, she forced herself to concentrate on the second hand of her watch.
His scent surrounded hera mixture of sweat, dust and faded aftershave.