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“Jethro Hansen, meet Sadie St. Martin.”
The woman he’d seen a few weeks ago when he dropped off some paperwork for Layla. Interesting that she turned out to be the new assistant.
Layla Cox cupped her swollen belly and reached for the edge of her desk. “Sadie used to work for me in Denver. Out of all my so-called friends, she’s the only one who’s kept in touch, and that means something. And being the good friend that she is, she’s kindly offered to spend three months here while I go on maternity leave and she works out where her future lies. Works well for both of us.”
Layla paused for breath, grimaced, and wiped a hand across her cheeks. He reached for her, but she brushed his hand away. “I’m fine.” Layla took a shuddering breath. “As I said, Sadie used to work for me, and there isn’t anyone else I’d trust while I’m away. She’ll be around to take care of anything that troubles you. I’ve told her the situation, and in the few weeks she’s been here, she’s pretty much read every file in the office.”
He glanced at the petite blonde standing beside his lawyer. Her pale blue gaze flickered over him and she quickly looked away. Was she dismissing him or merely uncomfortable in his presence? Not everyone who came from the big city fit in right away or felt at ease in such a rural town. It took longer for some than others to find their feet.
“Miss St. Martin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand and engulfed her slim fingers in his. Her skin was soft under his calloused grip, and Jethro wanted to hold on longer than necessary, but he let go before she could withdraw herself. The less embarrassment he caused her, the better, in his opinion. She was going to see a fair bit of him while Layla was busy being a mom, and, from the first time he’d seen Miss St. Martin, she’d cropped up in his thoughts more than once or twice.
“Thank you. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting few months.”
Layla groaned again and leaned forward, her knuckles pale on the edge of the desk.
“Layla. Are you okay?” Sadie’s voice wobbled and a hint of fear reached Jethro’s ears.
He moved forward, slipped his arm around Layla’s shoulders, and she leaned into him. “You’re in labor, right?”
She nodded and moaned again.
“How far apart?” He had helped at many an animal birth on the ranch, but this was the first time he’d been around a pregnant woman in labor. How different could it be?
“Three or four minutes.” Beads of sweat appeared on her top lip.
Heck, that was close from what he remembered. He really should’ve paid more attention to that recent documentary, but his mind had been on other things when the television was blaring in the living room. Wasn’t she due in a few weeks, not now? Maybe he had it wrong.
He turned to Sadie. “Can you call Emily, get her to come help, and maybe let Tyson know?”
Sadie stared at him with panicked eyes. “It’s too early for the baby. We still have another three weeks and four days to get me up to speed on the cases I’ll be dealing with. I have it all written down on my calendar.”
Seriously? “Well, we’ve got no say in the matter. Call Emily. She’ll know what to do.”
Sadie flapped her hands in front of her face as she looked at her watch. “Emily’s out getting her hair done. She won’t be back for an hour or more.” She chewed her lip and stared at her boss, whose face was pale and pinched. “I’ll call Tyson, but he hardly ever picks up, according to Layla.”
There was nothing for it. He’d have to get his lawyer to the hospital himself. “Well, try anyway, and I’ll start walking her out to my truck. I don’t think we have any time to waste.” He tried to help Layla to walk out of the office, but she managed only a couple of steps before she stopped and leaned against him. Beads of sweat broke out on her brow, and she screwed up her eyes, lips taut across her clenched teeth. Jethro scooped her up into his arms and held her against his chest. “Bring your cell phone and try on the way to the hospital. This baby isn’t going to wait for him.”
Sadie ran to the next room, grabbed her handbag, and opened the front door for Jethro. He hustled past her and nodded to the truck at the curb. “Door’s unlocked. Open it for me, please, and then get in the back.”
“You want me to come too?” Her face paled. “Shouldn’t someone stay here in case Tyson calls back or a client comes by?”
“Sadie, I need you with me.” Layla gripped her hand and dragged her along. “Don’t you dare leave me now!”
“But, I… surely I should be doing something in the office. Schedule meetings or something.”
“Please, Sadie, send him a text message.” Jethro slid Layla into the front seat and reached for the seat belt, locking it in place around her. “I need help with this one. I owe her, you know, and I’d feel better if there was a friendly face with me.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“No, but she does, and from what I’ve seen, she trusts you more than anyone. Pretty sure a woman needs someone she trusts at a time like this.”
A roar of frustration came from Layla perched in the truck. “You two together, with me—now!”
“Get in. We can argue how much we know each other later.” He shoved Sadie to the back of the truck and ran around to climb in the driver’s seat. Damn lawyers. Always wanting to do things by the book instead of stepping up when the going gets tough. This woman had better not let Layla down or she’ll have me to deal with. Friend or not!
Jethro gave her a flickering glance in the rearview mirror, noting the paleness of her skin and the way she huddled back into the seat. Maybe he should’ve left her behind. The last thing he needed was a wilting wallflower in a delivery room.
“You can come in now. Mrs. Watson is kicking up a fuss because you’re still out here instead of in there helping her.” The nurse gave Sadie a gentle push on the back and guided her to the delivery suite.
She inched through the door and pulled up short. Layla lay on the birthing bed with her legs up in stirrups. Jethro stood behind her as she screamed through another contraction. Never had she heard such profanities from her boss. Was it too late to run away?
“Don’t you even think about leaving me, Sadie.” Layla lay back, sucked in a breath, and glowered at her. “Get over here and tell me I look pretty, the hills are covered in early snow, anything to take my mind off this god-awful pain!”
I can do this. I can. I will. I don’t think I can stand it. Premature labor doesn’t always end well. My worst nightmare come true!
“Come up this end, Sadie, and stand with me. You can hold her hand from here.” Jethro’s soft voice amid the heavy breathing and cuss words cut through the chatter in her brain. She focused on his deep, warm eyes and, refusing to look down, shuffled past the doctor positioning himself between Layla’s legs.
Jethro moved over to gather her in beside him. “That’s it. You’ll be fine. Just stand here with me and breathe. Cousin Evan here—” he nodded at the doctor “—has it all under control. Hold her hand and ignore the screaming and carrying on. If it helps her through the process, so be it.”
Sadie took one of Layla’s hands and an instant death grip crushed her bones. This was worse than she’d imagined. The snippets she’d overheard from her parents discussing her baby brother’s premature birth described a serene experience, a lie she’d willingly bought into. He’d been born struggling to breathe, his lungs far too immature to cope on the outside world among a long list of health problems, and they could do nothing but cuddle him until his battle was over.
Not once had her mother ever indicated the pain she’d gone through during or after the birth, when infection had set in. The following operation had meant Sadie would always be an only child. And she had no one to blame for the guilt she felt but herself.
“You got this, Layla. With the next breath, I want you to push.” The doctor spoke from behind his mask, his eyes twinkling with anticipation. “Jethro, young lady, give her all the encouragement you can. We’re almost there.”
The grip on her hand tightened and Sadie gritted her teeth to stop from crying out. Had her mother protested like this? During sex-ed classes, Sadie had preferred to imagine herself somewhere else, ignoring the short film on birth. What a wasted opportunity that’d been.
“Good girl, Layla. I can see his head.” The doctor’s voice sounded far away and the whoosh of white noise echoed in Sadie’s ears.
Jethro whispered, “You okay? You’ve gone kinda pale. Don’t go passing out on me now.” He spat out a curse word, and Sadie wondered if Layla was digging her fingernails into his hand as much as she was Sadie’s.
Sadie breathed through her mouth, desperate to hang on to whatever sense of propriety she still had hold of. “I’m okay.” As long as this baby is okay.
Another wail rendered the air sending a chill down Sadie’s back.
“Okay then, push again, Layla. We’re here for you, aren’t we, Sadie?”
Like I have a choice!
“Keep going, he’s almost out. Come on, Momma, push!” The doctor reached down and guided the baby’s head out. “That’s it, almost there. You can relax now for a minute.” The nurse hurried forward, a warm blanket in her arms. “Here we are, Dr. Watson.” In a flurry of movement, a slippery newborn was handed over and whisked away.
Silence screamed loud in the delivery suite. “He’s not making any noise.” Dread filled Sadie’s chest. “Why isn’t he making any noise?”
Layla lifted herself up on her elbows. “Evan, what’s going on? Is my baby okay?”
Sadie felt the walls closing in on her and she slumped against Jethro. This couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t.
“Hey, it’s okay.” He held her in his arms, her face pressed against his chest. The smell of fresh hay mixed with male sweat and spicy deodorant wrapped around her, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from losing her grip on reality. The white noise threatened to take over and Sadie wanted to give in to the darkness grabbing at her mind. She clutched his shirt between her fingers, trying to push down the panic in her chest. How could Jethro remain so calm in a situation like this? He wasn’t a freaking doctor. He was a cowboy.
“Nurse has him over there, cleaning him up for his momma, isn’t that right, Jethro?” the doctor said.
A lusty squall filled the room a few seconds later and Jethro patted her on the hair as though soothing a small child. “That’s right, Evan. See, nothing wrong with him. Just needed a little bit of help. Same as in the animal world.” He continued to stroke her hair as he spoke. “You’d be surprised if I told you how many calves or lambs I’ve had to help breathe. Why, it was only a few months back that our foal’s nostrils filled with birthing fluid. Poor wee thing struggled for a bit, but he’s all good now. I’ll show you him sometime if you care to come out and meet him.”
Sadie breathed a shuddering sigh as the crying baby was handed to his mother. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lose it on you.”
He eased her back into a chair. “Hey, stop beating yourself up. Not everyone’s good at this. Least not the first time. I’m on the ranch, so it’s kinda normal for me.” He wiped his finger under her eyes, and she felt the urge to lean in again. He was comforting, strong—she hadn’t been on the receiving end of this sort of kindness before. Her family was too busy trying to live with their failures and make their mark on the world to give into useless displays of affection.
“Can I buy you a coffee? Debrief or whatever it is that people do after a major event?” He gave her a lopsided grin that made her stomach flutter.
Sadie let out a shaky laugh. “Oh, I um… sure. Why not?” She touched Layla on the shoulder. “Okay if we leave you for a little bit?”
“Thanks for being here, Sadie. You too, Jethro. I know it wasn’t planned, but you guys did great.” Tears filled her eyes. “I’m so grateful, and I know Tyson will be too.”
“Oh, crap. I never got through to him. He didn’t pick up or answer my text.” Sadie pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked the screen for a message.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he gets the message and this lady gets to her room okay. You two deserve a coffee for helping out.” Evan Watson shook Jethro’s hand. “Thanks. Very much appreciated, Jethro.” He turned to Sadie. “Thank you.”
Jethro’s arm came around her shoulders, and with another glance at the baby to reassure that he was breathing fine, she let him guide her out of the birthing suite right into the face of Tyson Watson.
“What the heck are you doing here with my wife, Jethro Hansen?”
Sadie didn’t expect the fist that came flying and landed with a crunch against Jethro’s cheek, sending him to the ground.
“Tyson. What the heck did you do that for?” Sadie crouched down next to the fallen cowboy and shot accusing glances at Layla’s husband.
Jethro grabbed her hand, shushing her. “It’s normal between us.” He spit blood on his other hand and wiped it on his jeans.
“I didn’t know he was here. Thought it was just you when I got the message. Is Layla all right? The baby?”
Sadie handed Jethro a tissue and stood. “For your information, if it weren’t for Jethro bringing her in, Layla would’ve been in trouble. Premature births can go wrong.” And don’t I know it. “Luckily for everyone, your wife and son are both okay.”
Tyson shifted his gaze between Sadie and Jethro, mumbled something she couldn’t hear, and pushed his way into the delivery suite.
“Thanks.” Jethro reached for her hand, and Sadie helped him to his feet.
“He’s such a fool. You did a great job in there, Jethro.”
“Anyone would’ve done the same.” He prodded his cheek with a finger, wiped a bit of blood on his jeans.
“No. Look at me. I’m her friend and look how hopeless I turned out to be.” She’d heard about the discord between the families and understood most of it centered on Tyson and Jethro. If anyone was going to cop an insult for failing to stand up when it counted, it should be her, not Jethro.
“You did fine, honestly.”
Sadie doubted it, but at least he made it so easy to forget her fear now it was all over.
End of Excerpt