For the first time in a very long time he could feel the tight, invisible bands around his chest loosen enough to let him draw in a deep breath.
The feeling of relief was seductive and he wanted to breathe in more.
But he couldn’t forget—wouldn’t forget—that letting down his guard created a sure-fire path to disappointment and bone-crushing pain.
WATCHING DR. HART stride away, stretching out his steps, going over the pipe-rail fence in one fluid motion, making the most of those incredibly long, lean legs of his while seeming to be unhurried and in control, left Deseré feeling lost and alone.
But wasn’t that her status quo with men?
Not that Dr. Hart was a—Of course he was a man, but he wasn’t a relationship or a potential relationship, except purely in the professional sense.
And that’s the only sense she needed. Except for her common sense, which she seemed to have misplaced.
My nurse practitioner, Dr. Jordan had said. That meant she was hired, right?
She hadn’t been able to acknowledge her worries and doubt before, not even to herself, but now she could admit to herself that she’d had no other options if this one hadn’t worked out.
Going back the way she had come hadn’t been an option. She’d never been afraid of any man. Cautious, sure. Wary, always. But not out-and-out afraid.
Not until her brother-in-law had sidled up to her at her sister’s funeral and said he’d made arrangements out of state for an off-the-books abortion. They could call it a miscarriage, blaming it on grief.
When she’d refused, she’d seen pure evil in his eyes.
As time had passed, he’d changed his tune, deciding Deseré would take her sister’s place as mother to the child that wasn’t biologically his—and in his bed. He’d had it all figured out in that twisted mind of his, even down to the admiration of his friends when he’d magnanimously taken on the responsibility of his dead wife’s sister.
An icy chill ran down her spine as she remembered his threats, the least of which had been unemployment as he’d tried to wreck her financially so she would have to comply with his plans.
Her brother-in-law had made it very clear she would never work in New Orleans again. And the interviews she’d had at all the major hospitals in Louisiana, Mississippi and most of Texas had emphasized the reach of his power.
Thankfully, he had forgotten this tiny fly speck on the map. Hopefully, he’d never find it.
“Ma’am? I’m Plato.” The old cowboy she’d first seen in the parking lot was at her side. He tipped his hat as he officially introduced himself.
Deseré figured that meant something, some kind of acceptance into this world of boots and spurs.
“Deseré Novak.” She held out her dirty hand then tried to pull it back. “Sorry.”
He took her hand in his. His gnarled knuckles stood out as he gave her a light but firm pressure. “No, ma’am. The way I see it, that’s angel dust coating your hand, not dirt. What you did for Rusty, well …” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand before he cleared his throat. “I’m sure one of the girls could come up with something for you to wear, if you wanted to change.”
Deseré looked down at her blouse and slacks, covered in red-tinged dust. “It’s a good thing I’m not a dry cleaning-only kind of woman.”
She brushed at her pants leg and her hand became as dirt-coated as her pants. Not that her hands or arms were especially clean after she’d lain on her belly in the dirt, stabilizing Rusty’s head and neck. She probably had red dirt all over her face, too.
Plato gave her a rueful look. “We’ve got iron ore in our soil around here.” He pointed to her pants. “That might not come out.”
Deseré categorized her limited wardrobe. Three pairs of slacks, two blouses, a set of very washed and worn scrubs, one little black dress inherited from her sister’s closet, a pair of jeans with the waistband already too snug, a pair of sweats and three oversize T-shirts she slept in.
“I’ve got it covered.” She turned to head toward her car in the parking lot but all she saw was a solid ring of pipe fencing.
And bleachers full of people watching her every move as she stood under the bright arena lights.
As she moved, the crowd erupted into cheers.
For her? She’d only done what any medical professional would have done.
Her heart beat as if pure energy surged through it instead of blood as she soaked in the approval. It had been so long since she’d felt like anyone was on her side. And now bleachers full of strangers were cheering her on.
It felt good, but overwhelming at the same time.
“This way, ma’am.” Plato put his hand on her elbow, making her feel like rodeo royalty.
Cowgirl princess had always been a fantasy of hers. But her cowboy prince had already left the arena.
Her cowboy prince? It must be the adrenaline swing, the sleepless nights—her stomach growled—and the hunger getting to her.
She didn’t believe in princes on white horses rescuing damsels in distress. She didn’t believe in damsels in distress, either. All she believed in was herself—and some days that was hard enough, without trying to add fairy-tales to the mix.
As they reached a part of the fence that looked as solid as every other part, Plato swung a gate open. It creaked and squealed on its hinges, proving it didn’t get much use.
A woman in her forties, or well-preserved fifties, with big white-blonde hair and huge diamonds at her ears, neck and fingers, met her at the gate. She could have been the mother of any of the blonde cowgirls now crowding the rail.
“I’m Gayle-Anne.” Her smile was orthodontia perfect. “Honey, you can use my trailer to change in. It’s not very big but it’s private.”
Deseré bet it was a lot bigger than the bathroom stall at the discount department store where she’d last changed.
“Thanks. I’ll just get clean clothes from my car.”
If the woman wondered why Deseré had a wardrobe change in her car, she was polite enough not to ask about it.
How long did rodeos last? Hours?
Squeezing into her tight jeans had no appeal, especially if she was going to be stuck on one of those wooden benches for any length of time.
Too tired to give fashion decisions any more thought, she unzipped her bag and grabbed the first thing that came to hand, her sweats and a T-shirt.
The promise of comfort more than made up for her lack of ability to make a better decision.
Digging into the bottom of the bag, she snagged her tennis shoes and exchanged them for her useless sandals. The beat-up shoes had seen better days but, then, so had she.
And so had Jordan Hart.
She might have been the one lying in the dirt, but he was the one walking through hell. She’d seen it in his eyes as he’d gazed down at his cousin. Being a stoic medical professional worked just fine until it was someone close to you who needed your care.
She’d felt so helpless. So useless. The only thing she’d been able to do for her sister had been to promise to take care of her baby, a promise she’d given without reservation, then had had to fight dirty to keep.
She didn’t regret the loss of her home or her career even a fraction as much as she grieved the loss of her sister.
Inside, baby James moved. Everyone would tell her that he was too small to feel, but they would all be wrong. She might not feel his tiny body, but she felt