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A knock on the front door echoed through the small house. Eloise Leblanc glanced quickly toward her patient. Robert Bessler lay on crisp, clean sheets, his papery eyelids closed in sleep. A fan oscillating in the corner shifted his white hair against his forehead, but he didn't stir.
Eloise pushed herself up from the chair next to his bed and stepped into the hall, angling her steps toward the front door. She paused at the door, tucking a fiery curl back into the loose bun at the base of her neck, then stood on her tiptoes to peek through the peephole. A tall man looked down, his face obscured by a cowboy hat.
Eloise paused for a moment and sucked a deep breath.
This is it.
She opened the door and the man lifted his gaze to meet hers in frank evaluation. He pulled off his hat and held it across his chest. His hair hung in dark, disheveled waves across his forehead and his piercing dark eyes sparkled. A dusting of stubble softened his chiseled features, and he smiled hesitantly.
"Hi," he said. "Is this the home of Robert Bessler?"
"You must be Eloise. We spoke on the phone."
"Of course. Cory?"
He nodded and she stepped back, allowing him entrance. "Your father is sleeping right now. Would you like to have a seat and wait for a few minutes?"
Eloise performed a veiled inspection as Cory Stone stepped past her and into the small entryway. She'd only moved to the town of Haggerston six months earlier for the job with Mr. Bessler. She'd grown up in Billings, the largest city in Montana, and while she was well acquainted with cowboyswhat Montana girl wasn't?she still felt a sense of admiration when she saw the real thing. He loomed head and shoulders taller than she was, and his cowboy boots clunked solidly against the hardwood floor. A hint of musk lingered near, and despite his wide shoulders and obvious strength, he moved with ease.
"Please sit down." Eloise gestured into the sitting room, and the big man dwarfed the sofa as he sank into its depths.
"How is my father doing?" Cory asked.
"He doesn't have much strength left, and he's in a lot of pain," she replied, perching on the edge of a chair opposite him. "It's better to let him sleep when he's able to. Sometimes the pain keeps him awake, so the more rest he can get, the better."
Cory nodded. "It's okay. I don't want to wake him up."
"He doesn't know I called you." Eloise blushed and cleared her throat. "So this will be a little delicate."
A grin broke over the man's face. "I'll be a surprise, then."
"That's one way to put it."
"So, how did you find out about me?" he asked.
"My father told you about me?" Cory raised his eyebrows.
Eloise paused, unsure how much information to divulge. "He always said he had no family, so when he mentioned a son, I did an online search. I was a little surprised to find you as quickly as I did. I thought it best to tell you that there wasn't much time left if you wanted to connect with him."
Cory nodded slowly and fiddled with the edge of his hat. His hands were calloused and rough, nothing like Eloise's ex-husband's smooth fingers. She swatted back the memories, irritated with how quickly they seemed to rise lately. Philip had left her for another woman two years ago. He'd moved on with the woman, but obviously, if Eloise was comparing a rugged rancher to her lawyer ex-husband, she wasn't as over him as she'd like to think.
"You didn't say how much time he has when we spoke," Cory said.
Eloise pulled her attention back to the task at hand. "I don't know. His cancer is aggressive and he's refused more treatment. So it won't be very long."
"How long have you worked for him?"
"For the past six months." Eloise glanced in the direction of Mr. Bessler's bedroom. "Your father is a very complicated man, but he has a softer side, too. I'm sure you know that."
"I don't know him at all," Cory admitted. "I've never met him."
"Never?" Eloise sucked in a breath. "You didn't think to mention that on the phone?"
"I'm sorry. I thought you knew."
"He'll be angrier than I thought." She smiled wanly and tucked that stray curl behind her ear once more. "I'd just assumed that you would have seen him at some point from the way he talked about you."
Cory looked uncomfortable. "No, ma'am. He was out of the picture before I was even born."
"I suppose I should warn you, then. The medication doesn't control the pain as well as it used to, so"
Eloise nodded. "He doesn't mince words."
"Thanks for the heads-up."
Eloise pushed the feeling of dread back down into her stomach. She'd gone through this scenario in her head a hundred times since their telephone conversation, but not once did she imagine she'd orchestrate the meeting between a son and father who had never laid eyes on each other.
This is so much worse than I thought
A thin voice wavered from the bedroom, "Red?"
Eloise forced a smile and stood. "It looks like he's awake now. I'll be back."
As she left the room, her heart hammered in her chest. A week ago, this seemed like the best course of action, but now she wasn't so sure. Not that it matteredthe time of reckoning had come. She wished she could close her eyes and be anywhere elsea play, perhaps, or in a bustling little coffee shop in downtown Billings, a city big enough to swallow her up. Instead it was time to face the consequences of her phone call to Cory Stone.
Entering the bedroom, she found Mr. Bessler struggling to sit up, and he grunted with effort. Eloise hurried forward and helped him the rest of the way. He nodded his thanks, his breath coming in short gasps. Eloise put the breathing tubes in his nose and turned on the flow of oxygen-rich air.
"Where are my pills?" he muttered, and she pushed a paper cup of pills forward. He tipped them into his mouth with a shaky hand and slurped the water she offered him. He shut his eyes, inhaling through his nose.
"You slept for a few hours," Eloise said quietly. "How do you feel now?"
"No better. I'm dying." He opened his eyes to shoot her an irritated look.
"You aren't gone yet, Mr. Bessler." She took the cup away.
"I heard voices in the other room." He turned his head toward the wall. "You have a boyfriend visit when I sleep?"
"Hardly." She chuckled. "You give me too much credit for a personal life."
"Then who is it?" the old man demanded.
"A visitor for you."
Eloise turned her back to get the old man's slippers and brought them by the bed, then busied herself with his wheelchair.
"Do you want to come out to the living room to talk to him?" she asked. "Or would you rather have him come in here?"
"I'll go out there." Mr. Bessler pushed himself up and allowed Eloise to steady him as he slid his feet into the slippers. "Why on earth would I have somebody into my bedroom? Can't a man have any privacy?" He grumbled until he was settled in his chair.
"Ready now?" Eloise asked cheerily.
"Who is it?" he repeated.
"You'll see," she replied as she wheeled him out into the hallway.
"If there are balloons and a cake, you're fired," he muttered, and Eloise chuckled.
"I would expect nothing less."
As Eloise rolled Mr. Bessler's chair into the room, Cory rose. He towered over the small sitting room, broad shoulders blocking out the light from the window behind him. A piano sat against one wall, and doilies adorned every surface from side tables to the back and arms of the couchMr. Bessler's late wife's addition to the decor. Cory scrubbed a hand through his dark hair and he locked dark, pensive eyes on the old man.
"Whatever you're selling," Mr. Bessler said, "I'm not interested."
Cory's gaze flickered toward Eloise, then back to his father. "I'm Cory Stone."
Eloise settled her patient by the couch. She held her breath, utterly unsure of what to expect from her charge. For a long moment, no one said a word; then Mr. Bessler broke the silence.
"Your mother gave you her last name. Seems appropriate."
"She thought so," Cory agreed.
"And why are you here?" the old man queried.
"To meet you. You're my father."
"To get my estate, perhaps?" Mr. Bessler held up one finger and waggled it in his son's direction. "You think I owe you something?"
A dark look crossed Cory's face, and the muscles along his jaw tensed. "I've done well for myself. I don't need your money."
"That's good, because you aren't in my will."
Cory glanced at Eloise, eyebrows raised questioningly. Mr. Bessler scowled, and Eloise bent down close to her patient's ear.
"Mr. Bessler," Eloise murmured. "I know this is a shock, and I'm sorry about that. But this is your son."
"You're a quick one," the old man quipped.
"If you've ever wanted to speak to him, tell him somethingthis is your chance. You've mentioned him before, and time isn't on our side."
"It's me who has no time," he retorted. "You've got plenty."
Eloise let his comment pass, knowing from experience that he expected no reply.
The old man turned his attention to Cory. "So, what exactly do you want?"
"You're my father." Cory cleared his throat. "I wanted to"
"Why now?" the old man interrupted. "I'm dying, you know."
Cory didn't answer.
"But you seem to know that." Mr. Bessler twisted in his chair to cast a scathing glare at Eloise, then shook his head slowly. "You called him, didn't you, Red?"
Mr. Bessler had called Eloise "Red" since her first day on the job. Lately, he'd consented to use her proper name, but the old nickname gave his words a deeper sense of betrayal.
"Yes, sir, I did," she admitted. "You've been lonely, and when you mentioned your son" She swallowed the hot, rising anxiety. She'd crossed a line in calling her patient's son without his permission. She was here to help keep the old man comfortable. Her job did not include manipulating her patient into confrontations he wanted to avoid, no matter her intentions. While she'd truly believed that Mr. Bessler wanted to reconnect with his only son, it appeared now that she had been wrong and for one fleeting moment she wished she could go back in time and undo that phone call to Cory Stone.
"I see." The old man turned around. He nodded several times, eyeing the big man before him. "You're fired, Red," he said, his gaze pinned to his son instead of the woman he was addressing. "I won't require your services any longer."
Fired? Cory's gaze snapped between the hunched old man and his pretty nurse. Eloise blinked twice before she looked down, her long lashes veiling those deep green eyes from his scrutiny.
"Fired?" Eloise's tone registered little surprise. "Mr. Bessler, you fire me once a week. You don't really mean that, do you?"
"Why would I want a nurse who lies to me?" he barked. "I didn't lie."
"You went behind my back," he retorted.
"Yes, sir, I did. And I'm sorry about that. It was an error in judgment. I really did think you would appreciate this last chance to know your son."
"Did you?" His voice dripped with sarcasm.
"If I'm fired, then I'll call the agency to find you another nurse." She rose to her feet and started to walk from the room, but his father heaved a sigh.
"You aren't fired," he muttered. "Come back."
She stopped, smiled and brushed a spiral curl away from her cheek. Cory didn't know her at all, but he had a good instinct when it came to character, and Eloise seemed like a good person. His father, however, hadn't exactly endeared himself yet.
Cory had expected someone more impressive. His mother had always described his father as a strong, powerful man, but this quivery gentleman looked nothing like the father he'd imagined. Frail. Old. Ornery.
I should be at the ranch, trying to find a medic to replace the guy who quit, he thought dismally. What am I doing here? I have a hundred better things I should be doing.
Eloise moved over to the couch and sat down. She idly adjusted a doily across the arm of the couch. The same errant curl she'd just brushed from her face fell back against her creamy skin, and Cory found his attention fixed on her. Her composure surprised him.
"So she's still your nurse?" Cory clarified.
"What is that to you?" his father asked. "I can fire her if I want to."
Eloise's gaze flicked up at Cory, and she glanced quickly between both men but didn't speak.
"Do you feel like a big man when you cast women aside?" Cory couldn't veil the chill in his tone.
"Is that your way of asking about your mother?" the old man demanded. He coughed and slouched lower in his chair.
"No," Cory said. "My mother told me enough."
"What a horrible man I was?" his father asked with a bitter smile.
"No, she thought more of you than that."
"Where is she now?"
"She passed away a few years ago." Images of his mother's last days filled his mind. She'd died in a hospital, a gaunt figure, pain medication pumping into an IV that left a purple bruise over her bony hand. Her hair had begun to grow back in soft gray curls over her headchemotherapy had been abandoned at that late stage of the illness. His mother had slipped away one afternoon, dying while he was out getting a breath of fresh air. He'd never fully forgiven himself for that.
His father frowned and dropped his gaze. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too," Cory said, but words could never encompass the feelings that welled up inside him when he remembered his mother's passing.
"What took her?"
"Breast cancer." Cory sat down on a chair and turned it to face his father. He hadn't decided how much he wanted to tell this virtual stranger about his time with his mother, but he had some questions of his own that he'd been waiting a lifetime to ask. He cleared his throat. "I know you don't want any kind of relationship with me, and that's fine, but I had a few things I wanted to ask you."
"Fair enough," his father replied.
"When did you meet my mother?" Cory asked.
"I don't want to talk about her."
Irritation plucked at his practiced calm. "Why not?"
He was met with a chilly silence. Eloise shifted in her seat, and Cory glanced toward her to find her green eyes full of compassion. Her pink lips parted, and he was struck anew by her unaffected beauty. Cory pulled his gaze away from her and tapped his hat against his thigh.
A smile flickered at the corners of the old man's lips. "Are you married, boy?"