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“S’cuse me.” The voice came out of nowhere…hesitant, almost timid, and barely above a squeak. “S’cuse me, please?” It repeated itself with more volume and brought the nurse’s head up, eyes searching.
Jamie Westmoreland rose from her chair situated behind the nurse’s desk and peered over the edge of the console. She saw a large white straw cowboy hat, red and blue plaid western shirt, huge silver buckle, denim jeans over brown cowboy boots. There was nothing new about seeing males in those parts dressed in such attire. What set this one apart was the fact he was only about three or four feet tall, and the hat appeared to be larger than his whole upper body.
As his head moved backward on his neck to gaze up at her over the tall desk, the too-big, too-loose hat tipped farther back on his head and allowed two bright blue eyes to come into view. They were large and wide-eyed in a face smattered with freckles across the nose and upper cheekbones.
Something in those eyes caught smack in the middle of her chest. Jamie couldn’t help the spread of warmth softening the smile that automatically curved the corners of her mouth. She straightened and moved around the desk to stand, hands on hips, looking down at the small figure.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m Thomas Andrew Tremayne, the third one, and I’m six years old. But I’ll be seven in a month. I want to see my dad…please.”
Her smile broadened. “And who is your dad?”
“His name is Thomas Andrew Tremayne, Junior. The second one. He’s a lot older ’n me.”
Jamie bit the inside of her lip to maintain professional composure and keep in check the wide grin that threatened to pop out. This little boy was trying to be so matter-of-fact and grown-up as he faced her. But she could see fear now and then lurking in those clear blue depths and around the edges of his voice even as he tried so hard to be a little man. She squatted on the back of her legs to be able to speak with him eye to eye.
“I see. And where is your mom?” Her gaze swiftly swung up and down the hallway and saw no sign of an accompanying adult.
“She died when I was real little.”
Jamie’s heart caught in her throat at that bit of information. That left the obvious that he got separated from someone who was probably searching for him that very moment. He was a lost little boy.
“I’m sorry you’re lost. Tell me who you came here with, and I’ll see if we can find her for you.”
“I’m not lost,” he spoke up. “I know I’m here. My dad is here, too. But people said I was too little to come back here. I’m big for my age. My dad will be worried if he doesn’t see me.”
“Who brought you to the hospital?” She would try that tact one more time.
“Pops did, in his truck.”
“Where is Pops now?”
“He had to park the truck.”
“And how did you find your way back here?” Although the hospital was not large by most standards, it did take some maneuvering to find the entrance to the surgical wing. This little guy had managed to do so, and on his own. “Did Pops tell you to wait in the reception area for him?” By the tell-tale coloring that rose in his cheeks at her question, she had her answer.
“There you are! Andy, I told you to wait up front for me. You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”
Jamie rose to stand, taking in the older man, dressed in faded, but clean denim jeans, his own sweat-coated hat carried by tobacco-stained fingers at his side, his hair, what little there was of it, grew in tufts of gray across the crown. Scuffed and worn-work boots still only brought him to an inch taller than her own height of five feet, five inches. His eyes reflected the fact he had weathered a lot of years, and probably many a bad road as evidenced by the lines radiating from their corners in a windblown, sun-speckled face that placed his age someplace north of sixty… Maybe even flirting with seventy.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, if he was bothering you. Sometimes I think I need to bring a rope just to tie him in one spot for more than two seconds.”
Jamie could well imagine that this particular youngster could be a handful at times. She turned a professional smile on the older man. “He wasn’t a bother. He was telling me he’s looking for his father. Did you check at the front desk?”
“I didn’t have that much time, once I discovered this one missing. But I do know he had surgery last evening right after he was brought in.”
Jamie had just walked onto the floor right before the young man appeared, so she had not begun the shift meeting with the four other nurses who worked the surgery unit. She moved behind the console again and scanned the list of patients. Thomas Tremayne, Jr. was third on their short list.
“He’s in Room 201, but I’m afraid the policy is that no children below the age of twelve are allowed in this wing.” She saw the hint of a tremble at the corner of the mouth of the little boy before her. Again, there was that unfamiliar tug within her. Jamie’s next words surprised even herself as they came out.
“If you’ll both have a seat in those chairs in the waiting room behind you,” her head nodded in that direction, “that will give me some time to check on Mr. Tremayne myself. I’ll come speak with you after that.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am. We appreciate that. Come on, Andy, sit yourself.” The pair moved to make themselves comfy in a pair of blue plastic chairs that no one would ever describe as comfortable.
Jamie walked down the hall and pushed open the door to the fourth room on the right. The blinds were drawn over the one large window in the room and the only light came from the fluorescent fixture above the bed. White blankets had evidently lost in a tug-of-war with the man beneath them and were shoved down past his waist. A swath of bandaging covered a good portion of his lower rib cage, a plastic ankle boot kept the sheeting raised from his lower left leg.
She moved closer and signed on to the computer terminal on the platform jutting from the wall beside the bed. Her eyes were soon scanning Dr. Cuesta’s notes. The surgery had removed a foreign object—specified as a broken strip of metal fencing—from the ankle where it had lodged itself. It indicated need for monitoring for nerve damage and would have orders for future physical therapy. A couple of bruised ribs would require some mending time. The cuts and scrapes were superficial. All in all, nothing life-threatening, just aggravating to someone who obviously was involved in ranch work. Exiting from the record, she moved to stand closer to the head of the bed, her eyes observing the man and not the paperwork.
He spent his life in the outdoors as evidenced by the tanned skin of his upper body, muscled arms, and the planes of his face. It was a strong face. It was definitely one that you would notice…strong nose, square jaw covered in a couple of days’ growth of stubble at the moment. Lowered lashes on his cheeks indicated he slept, and she momentarily wondered what color the eyes would be. His hair was a thick, dark chestnut color and looked as though it might be raked through by long fingers on a regular basis. Her gaze slid down to rest on the mouth. It was interesting and the lips definitely…
“Get me out of this bed.” Those lips moved at that moment, and the voice they emitted was deep and none too soft. It was a coarse rumble that came from deep within the bandaged chest. This was followed by an immediate wince as his ribs had their say.
“Sorry, but you’re our guest for a few days. I would suggest you not make any sudden moves or issue any more orders. Bruised ribs can be painful, especially if you keep irritating them with your loudness.”
“I know all about hurt ribs. I had them before and I survived just fine.”
Why was she not surprised he was going to be a difficult patient? “Then you know that the longer you disobey orders, the longer you suffer. But please, suffer in silence as there are other patients on this hall who are in worse shape than you.”
His eyes came fully open and locked on her. She had an answer to her earlier silent question… They were the same vivid blue as his son’s. There could be no mistaking they were related. Also, no mistaking the electric effect they had on her ability to think clearly in that moment. They packed quite an unexpected punch, and she didn’t care for its effect.
“That’s some bedside manner. Thought nurses were supposed to be compassionate?”
“Thought cowboys had manners?” she came right back at him, finding control over her breathing again. “Guess there are exceptions to all rules.”
She moved to the doorway and paused, looking over her shoulder at him. “By the way, your son is in the waiting room. I’m going to allow him two minutes in here, provided you calm down and keep your voice below a shout.”
Thomas’s eyes held the empty spot where she had stood for a full minute after she left. Smart-mouthed little thing. His eyes next moved to the ceiling. Fine mess. Here he was, stuck in a hospital bed, with a ranch to run and a son to keep an eye on, then add a cheeky nurse that looked at him with eyes that reminded him of a wounded doe he had come across last fall…all full of mistrust, a hint of fear, and still a will to fight all rolled into one. Large, sable-brown, expressive doe eyes. Damn. The pain meds must be playing with his brain.
He hadn’t given much thought to any female for a long time. Well, not real thought, he amended. There were the occasional “dates” he had every two or three weeks with that bank teller in the next county. That was just to fill a natural need they both had—she a widow of three years and he…well, he was a single dad of almost seven years. And he wasn’t looking to be hooked again by any female. No matter what color her eyes. Once was more than enough for him.
The door opened, and those doe eyes were now shuttered and coolly professional. She gave a nod of her head behind her and the small form of his son came into view. The little boy halted beside the woman, his eyes going from the hospital bed to the woman’s face. The man felt a quick stab somewhere above the damaged rib cage as he noted the way his son looked at the woman beside him and how magically, her face transformed with an almost ethereal light as an actual smile was bestowed on the youngster. Her voice was soft velvet, and he felt an odd moment of longing for it to be directed at him. Get a grip. She’s just doing her job.
“Remember what I said about hugging. I’ll come back for you shortly.” She stood and watched the small figure move with solemn steps toward the man in the bed. Thomas raised his hand off the blanket, and the little boy’s small hand grabbed for it as if it were a lifeline. The intensity of the smile that crossed the man’s face went straight to the heart. She cleared her throat and stepped quickly from the room. Distance was needed from the pair.
“How are you and Pops doing?”
“We’re okay, I guess, ’cept he forgot to put eggs in the pancakes, and they didn’t taste good and they looked kinda funny. So we had toast. I like it with the black stuff on the edges.”
Black stuff…great. He needed out of the hospital bed or his son would be treated to a lot of black stuff. He’d give Milton Lewis’s sister a call and maybe she could pitch in with meals while he was stuck in the hospital. If he hadn’t been in such a rush to get to the house and pack up his son for school yesterday morning, then he wouldn’t be in this mess. His mind had not focused as it should have when they were moving the larger steers into the pens for the trucks. A fluke accident had him and his left side penned between two iron posts and the metal gate, and the posts won in the contest with his body.
He needed to make sure his son was taken care of. Pops had been the senior foreman of the Four T Land and Cattle Company since before he was born. He knew everything there was to know about cattle and ranching, but very little about children and dietary needs and all the rest of the things Thomas had had to learn quickly when his wife walked off without a backward glance when their son was barely three months old.
“You need to promise me that you’ll mind Pops just like you always have, and do your chores and help take care of things until I get back, okay? Your aunt and uncles are busy and out on the road for a few more weeks, so we have to all pull together.”
“Yes, sir. I promise. I’ll take care of the ranch for you.” His eyes were solemn.
Thomas Tremayne’s heart swelled with pride as his hand rose to ruffle the sandy-colored hair visible now that his son held his hat in his hand at his side. Big Boss and Little Boss, as the ranch hands called them sometimes, had been a pair since the day when his son had reached out and with the smallest fingers in the world, curled them around his own small pinkie when the nurse handed him the swathed bundle. The tall cowboy and the baby looked at each other with solemn matching gazes for several long moments. A bond forged itself in blue steel in that short period of time and only grew stronger with each passing day.
“Nurse Jamie is nice.” His son’s words surprised the man. “She bended the rules so I could come visit you.”
“Broke, not bended,” he corrected his son. So the woman wasn’t as ramrod stiff as he first thought? “We must thank her for that.”
“I already did. And she gave me a lollipop, too. But she made me promise to not eat it until Pops said I could. I put it in my back pocket.”
“Time is up, little man.” Nurse Jamie walked into the room with a smile on her face…for the little boy. When her eyes lifted to the patient, the smile disappeared. “I believe your foreman wants a word. I gave him three minutes and then you need to rest.” Her gaze returned to the boy as did the smile. Her hand reached out for his, and his small one automatically left his dad’s and joined hers. Something akin to sadness smacked through the man’s feelings at how easily his son had given his allegiance to the woman.
“Bye, Dad. Don’t worry about us. See you later,” his son tossed over his shoulder with a wide grin. Then he disappeared. The shuffling figure of Pops Turner entered next.
“Before you go getting yourself all worked up, let me tell you that Dottie said she would be glad to come over and make sure the kid doesn’t starve. She’ll be with him at the house until I get back in the evenings. Between us and the rest of the hands, we’ll take care of the ranch and Andy, too. So don’t lay around here worrying. We got it under control. And I already let your brothers and sister know what happened and that it’s all taken care of. Little missy wanted to fly home right away. But I talked her out of it. I figured you’d not want any of them pulling off the circuit contracts because of a little dustup. Don’t worry about your aunt, either. She’s on that cruise ship and won’t get wind of this.”
“You got that right. Those contracts are what matters. And Aunt Sal hasn’t had a vacation in a few years, and this isn’t something she needs to worry about just three days into a month-long vacation to Europe. It’s good to know that Dottie can help you out. I figured you’d be on top of things. I just know what a handful Andy can be these days.”
“Over fifty years I’ve kept an eye on the ranch and you Tremaynes. It stops only when I’m six feet under. You should just enjoy this little vacation of your own for a while…and the scenery.” The man’s eyes had a sparkle of mischief coloring the last words.
“There’s a scrawny bush and a brick retaining wall beyond my window, not much scenery.”
Pops eyed him. “You’ve been around cows too long. I meant the scenery inside this hospital. You didn’t hit your head, did you? That’s a mighty pretty little thing that takes your temperature.”
“That nurse is as prickly as a cactus and probably as ornery as the rattler you’d find coiled under it,” Tom responded, not caring for the way the older man’s eyes narrowed in on him. He was glad his foreman didn’t reply. He didn’t have time.
“Rattlers give a warning when they’re about to strike. I don’t.” The words brought both men’s gazes toward the door. “Your time is up, Pops.” Jamie’s eyes swung from the foreman to the patient. “And this is for you.” The gleam of the hypodermic needle in her hand matched the wicked glint in her eyes.
End of Excerpt