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"You reap what you sow."
Josiah Morgan to his four sons, a general reminder.
Late March, Union Junction, Texas
Jack Morgan stood at his father's bedside in the Union Junction hospital, staring down at the large sleeping man. Josiah Morgan had the power to impress even in his peaceful state. Jack couldn't believe the old lion was ill. He didn't think Pop had ever had so much as a cold in his life.
But if his brother Pete said Pop was weak and in need of a kidney transplant, then those were the facts. Jack took no joy in his father's situation, even though the two of them had never been close. He hadn't seen Pop in more than ten years, not since the night of his rodeo accident, his brothers' car accident and the all-out battle he and Pop had waged against each other.
It had been a terrible night, and the details of it were still etched in his mind. And then there was the letter he'd received through Pete from his father just last month.
Jack, I tried to be a good father. I tried to save you from yourself. In the end, I realized you are too different from me. But I've always been proud of my firstborn son. Pop
As patriarchal letters went, it stank. Jack figured Pop wouldn't have sent a letter at all if he wasn't sick, so he'd decided to come see for himself. He hadn't expected to care what happened to the miserly old man; Josiah was miserly with his affection, miserly with his money, time, everything. At least that was the father Jack remembered. Still, Jack preferred his father fighting.
"All right, Pop, you old jackass," Jack said, "you can lie in that bed or you can fight."
One eye in the craggy, lined face opened to stare at him as he spoke, then the other opened in disbelief. "Jack," Josiah murmured.
A thousand emotions tore through Jack. "Get up out of that bed, old man."
"I can't. Not today. Maybe tomorrow," Josiah said gamely.
"Damn right," Jack said. "Because if I'm giving you one of my kidneys, I expect you to be jumping around like a lively young pup."
Josiah squinted at him. "Kidney?"
"Hell, yeah," Jack said. "You and I might as well be tied together for a few more years of agonydon't you think? It could be the one thing we have in common. We're apparently the perfect match for a kidney swap, which I find amusing in a strange sort of way. Not any of my brothersme, the perfect donor match for you. It's almost Shakespearean."
His father shook his head and closed his eyes. "I don't want any favors, thanks."
Jack pulled a chair close to the bed and sat. "No one's trying to do you a favor, you old jackass, least of all me. Quit feeling sorry for yourself, because I sure as hell don't."
Josiah's eyes snapped open, sparks of fire shooting at his son. "No one has ever felt sorry for Josiah Morgan."
Jack nodded. "Glad we got that settled. You'll need to be in the right frame of mind to get healthy for all those brats you thought you needed."
"You've been bringing children into the family faster than popcorn popping. Pretty selfish of you to drag all those kids in here and then send up the white flag of surrender, don't you think, Pop?"
"I didn't ask to have rank kidneys!" Josiah barked.
Jack stretched his legs out in front of him, legs that had seen a few sprains and breaks from bulls that had taken their own rage out on him. "We all make our choices."
"I did not choose this."
"You've been 'self-medicating' for years. It's one of the reasons I don't touch a drop of liquor. I decided long ago not to live by your example."
"Alcohol didn't give me kidney disease." Josiah pulled a whiskey bottle from under the sheet and took a swallow he would have deemed "just a drop."
"Sure didn't help it, either." Jack stared at his father. "Pitiful, if you ask me."
"Well, I didn't ask," Josiah snapped, secreting the bottle again.
"It's nice to be able to tell you exactly what I think while you lie there captive. I've waited years for this moment."
Josiah looked at his son. "I guess you think paybacks are hell."
"I guess so, Pop." Jack wasn't about to give his father an inch of sympathy. The old man was mean as a snake. All the charity and benevolence he'd been throwing around in the past few years didn't fool Jack. Josiah Morgan didn't do anything without a motive.
Josiah shook his head. "So many years passed, and you didn't even let me know you were all right. You chased the one thing you cared about all your life rodeoand at thirty-two, you decide you're going to give up the one thing that matters to you? You can't ride with one kidney. It'd be foolish."
"I'll take the risks I want, Pop." Jack stood, staring down at his father. He didn't like the old man, would never forgive him for the harsh words over the years. Wouldn't forgive him for never being proud of him. Wouldn't forgive him for blaming him for the car accident his brothers had been in the night Jack had been carted off to the hospital. "It's just a kidney, Pop, and I'm not doing it for you. I'm doing it for my brothers, who are bringing up the families you've saddled them with. You ought to live to reap what you've sown."
"I'm proud of what I've sown!" Josiah shouted after him as he departed. Jack kept walking. It was a kidney he was giving up, not rodeo. Pop had that all wrong.
Cricket Jasper spotted the lean cowboy loping through the hospital exit and knew immediately who it was. There was no one like Jack Morgan, not in looks nor in sheer magnetism as far as Cricket was concerned. Why he was at the Union Junction Hospital she couldn't guesshe'd had very little contact with his family for years. She'd only met him a time or two in the past couple of months, and that had been purely by chance.
The brief meetings were enough to make her pray to see him again. Oh, yes, as a deacon, Cricket was fond of prayer, and she also knew that the Lord didn't always grant a person what they wanted, particularly if it wasn't in the mortal's best interests. However, she was drawn to Jack from some deep, emotional part of her soul, and she knew this could be her only opportunity for monthsif ever againto catch him. "Jack!" she called, waving.
He hesitated, glanced her way, considered, she knew, retreating in a different direction. She didn't take this personallyCricket knew retreat was the cowboy's standard reaction when confronted with anyone connected to his family. She caught up to him. "Jack Morgan, it's good to see you."
He looked at her, his gaze skimming over her white dress. "You, too."
She smiled. "You weren't visiting Josiah, were you?" She wanted so badly to allow her eyes to do their own one-stop shopping up and down Jack's loose-hipped body, but she resisted the urge, telling herself to be patient. The hunted never wanted to feel caught, after all, and she was determined to catch Jack Morgan, even if all she got from him was a kiss.
Jack shrugged. "I wouldn't call it a visit."
"Oh, I'm sure that meant the world to him." Cricket gave him her most friendly, innocent smile. "Now all you need to truly make his day is to find a wife and kids."
He shook his head, not appreciating the joke. Josiah had managed to wrangle three of his four sons to the altar with the promise of a million dollars each, delivering Josiah the grandchildren he wanted in his golden years.
"It won't happen to me," Jack stated. "I'm giving him a kidney, not another branch for the family tree."
Cricket gasped. "A kidney!"
He shrugged. "I keep thinking I'll come to my senses and talk myself out of it, but it hasn't happened yet."
She couldn't catch her breath. It was a stunning revelation for the man who'd vowed to never even visit his father or speak to him again. "Jack, that's
His face was impassive. "Glad you think so."
It was clear he wanted to move on, but Cricket wanted to keep him right where he was. "When's the surgery?"
"Don't know. I need to talk to the doctor about the details. Pop says he doesn't want my kidney, but Pop doesn't always get what he wants. I can wait him out on this one."
Her eyes went wide. "No one told me."
"Maybe we don't need prayer, Deacon," Jack said.
"I'll be praying anyway, cowboy," she shot back.
They stared at one another silently, each making their own private assessment. A hundred thoughts ran through Cricket's mind. Why was he doing this? Forgiveness. Redemption. What Jack would never admit about himselfhe loved his father, and his family mattered to him.
"You're a good man, Jack," she murmured.
"Don't kid yourself, Deacon." And with that, he walked away.
She watched him go. If he was aware that she had a crush on him, he ignored it steadfastly. She doubted he thought much about her at all. What did he know about her, other than that she was friends with Suzy, Priscilla and Laura, women who had married his brothers. There would never be anything between them. Like roping wind, she didn't have a chance of capturing Jack Morgan.
But she still felt an undeniable pull toward him, feelings that defied her normally practical heart.
This would take some thought. Josiah hadn't bothered to match make for this son because he was unmatchable. Gabe had been fixed up with Laura Adams, who had a young son and daughter. Gabe had fallen like a tree. Dane had been determined not to repeat Gabe's surrender to his father's wishes, but Suzy Winterstone had been moved into the Morgan ranch as a housekeeper, bringing with her little twin girls. Spellbound, Dane had followed his brother to the altar. Pete had wanted to give up the military for a life closer to home but never planned to marry, and certainly not the woman he called Miss Manners, Priscilla Perkins. His father had found quadruplet orphans who needed parents and persuaded Priscilla and Pete to marry. Josiah had nearly completed his family tree, and now Jack was willing to extend the old man's life, giving him the time he needed.
Jack had better watch out. Josiah lived to build his family, and while Jack might give up a kidney, he also might find himself giving up his freedom. Cricket frowned. She knew Josiah too well. As soon as he could draw a healthy breathand maybe even beforethe man would start hunting a bride for Jack. Oh, Josiah would be very sneaky, very underhanded, but before he knew it, Jack would be roped and tied to the Morgan ranch, no matter how much he thought it couldn't happen to him.
The problem as Cricket saw it was that Josiah had always chosen women with children for his sons, and Cricket had none. Nor could she simply seduce Jack into her bed and catch him that way. Not that she would, though the seduction part was worth investigating because she had a feeling it would be a heavenly experience. As a deacon, she'd look mighty fallen to her congregation if she came up pregnant and unmarried.
Cricket mulled over her other options. There were none, as far as she could see. Walking into Josiah's hospital room, she found him surrounded by cute, young nurses. Josiah appeared pleased to have this beautiful companionship. It was public knowledge that the wealthy man had one son who was still single, and there were certainly plenty of willing bridal candidates making themselves known to Josiah. She had to make certain he didn't get that baby-making glow in his eyes for Jack. "Hello, Josiah," she said, bending down to give him a kiss on the forehead.
The nurses left the room one by one. Josiah grinned at Cricket. "What did you bring me?" he demanded.
"Cookies," she said.
"I saw Jack as I was coming in."
Josiah nodded, pleased. "I always knew he'd come around."
The fact was, no one had ever thought Jack would come aroundthere wasn't a gambler in the county who would have taken a wager on it. Cricket smiled. "Did you?"
"No." Josiah smiled. "Just felt like bragging for a minute."
"You're entitled," Cricket said. "So I hear you might get a new kidney."
"That's what he says," Josiah said. "But I have no intention of taking his kidney."
"Because he'll still ride rodeo." Josiah eased himself up on his pillow. "He just wants to make me crazy. It's his favorite thing to do, payback for the years he thinks I was a bad parent."
She looked at the elderly gentleman. "The story I heard was that rodeo was in Jack's blood. Nothing anyone can do about that."
"True," Josiah said. "but he can't ride with one kidney."
"But you know he would and that would make you crazy."
"Right." Josiah nodded. "I don't mind heading off into the wild blue yonder, but I do mind sitting around worrying like a durn fool about my durn stubborn son."
"You have a lot to live for."
"Oh, hell. You're a religious person, Cricket. You're supposed to spout that kind of nonsense. A man lives to do."
"So?" Cricket demanded. "What's your point?"
"My point is that I'm not taking Jack's kidney just so I can spend a few more years on this earth!" Josiah bellowed. "What good would it do me if he got bucked off and stomped? Do you know how often cowboys get stomped?"
"Perhaps some protective gear"
"Bah!" Josiah tossed off his covers impatiently. "Have them turn down the heat in here, Cricket. It's nearly April. Why do they have the heat so high? I'm not some sissy old man who can't make my own body heat! By heaven, I'm not a corpse yet."
She smiled. "It is a bit warm in here."
"Hey, Deacon," Josiah said. "Sneak me out of this joint."