“Who are you?”
“Excuse me?” Cody O’Neal sent a haughty gaze traveling the length of the blonde’s curvy body and tried not to let his dick get too hard.
The lady was something. With her arms crossed in a way that plumped up her breasts and her lips drawn into a succulent pout of irritation, he would have sworn he saw a shimmering in the air around her. She looked like a miniature Valkyrie guarding his grandfather’s hospital room. Cody willed his lower half to remain numb to the embodiment of a fantasy he’d had since he had been a teenager. His travel-wrinkled khakis wouldn’t hide the evidence of his attraction all that well, and the attitude rolling off the little firecracker warned him to be cautious. And he certainly had more sense than to openly lust after a woman who’d snarled at him the moment he arrived.
The lady lifted her chin and planted her fists on her hips. “So help me God, if that bastard Wiggins sent you here with any goddamned papers for him to sign, I will personally—”
“My name is Cody O’Neal,” he interrupted in his most lethal middle-school-math-teacher tone. Cody’s own irritation morphed into anger and, with a sharp wave toward the bed, he told her, “Eugene’s my grandfather. I don’t know who the hell Wiggins is, just as I don’t know you, madam, so I suggest you either prove to me you belong in this room or get the hell out before security gets here.”
The blonde deflated. Exhaling as color drained from her cheeks, she sank back into the chair she’d launched herself out of the second Cody had entered the room. She rubbed her face with her hand, drawing his attention to the fact that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring or makeup. Good thing, too—she’d be a knockout he couldn’t resist with a little mascara on those mile-long lashes and a hint of stain on her bee-stung lips.
“My God.” She exhaled. “Cody O’Neal? I didn’t know you. Not surprising, I guess. We’ve never met. You don’t really look like your pictures, though. Huh. All these years and we’ve never met.”
He narrowed his eyes. “No, we haven’t.”
“Well, you were never here, and I didn’t really start hanging around the Double O until long after you stopped coming to visit.” She sighed and shook her head, then snorted rudely. “I never expected you.”
“Like I said,” Cody bit out, “he’s my grandfather. Now—”
“Where the hell have you been? He had the damned stroke a month ago!” Once again, the lady bounced to her feet, a new surge of anger flushing her face. “Where were you then? Better yet, where is his son? Your father, I presume?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, of course, however, my father is out of the country and I came as soon as I could.”
“A month later? Hell, he’s been in physical therapy for two weeks already.”
Having had just about enough of the conversation, Cody straightened his tie with a hard yank. “I know. I get progress reports. Lady, I think it’s time you told me exactly who you are, and if you tell me you’re a nurse, I’ll—”
She waved her hand but didn’t offer it to him. “Olivia Raines. My family owns the ranch that adjoins the Double O.”
“I see.” The Raines clan had been the O’Neal family’s somewhat-friendly rivals for generations, ever since Cody’s great-great-grandfather had waived stud fees in exchange for the water rights to the stream that crossed both properties. Cody didn’t know much about ranching and couldn’t care less about his run-down ancestral home, but he was a history buff. The O’Neals had an interesting lineage. “And what exactly are you doing here, Miss Raines?”
“Visiting a friend.” She crossed her arms. “What are you doing here?”
The anger bubbling in Cody’s veins grew a degree hotter. “I’ve come to check on my grandfather and get his affairs in order.” He dismissed her with a nod. “Thank you for your visit. Have a good day.”
The little firecracker proved stubborn. She didn’t move. “His affairs? What, exactly, does that mean?”
Cody shrugged. “Means he had a stroke. He can’t stay on his own anymore and this rehabilitation center isn’t a long-term option. At best, he’s got another two months or so before the insurance company transfers him to a state-run facility, and I would rather him be in a nice place where the staff is well-trained and friendly. There’s an assisted living home near my residence that—”
“You’re out of your mind!” The color flooded the lady’s cheeks again, bringing out the blue of her eyes. “Eugene will never let you stuff him into some nursing home. And no matter what you think of the staff, he won’t be happy. If he leaves Creek Bend, he can’t walk his own land. He can’t—”
“He can’t do that, anyway, Miss Raines. Thank you for your concern, but he can’t take care of himself, and Creek Bend is too far away for me to come to his aid.”
“Get a nurse!”
“On my teacher’s salary?” Cody dragged in a breath and bit his tongue. His problems weren’t available for this woman’s entertainment. “I, as Eugene’s family member, feel that I know better than you what the situation calls for.”
“Well, you don’t know better than me. You haven’t even seen him in nearly a year, while I’m here every day.” Olivia lifted her chin. “He’s doing remarkably well in therapy and his medical test results have been wonderful.”
“You’ve been getting progress reports, too, have you?”
Cody moved closer to the bed where his grandfather slept. Relaxed as the elderly man was, the drooping of the left side of his face was more pronounced. Eugene’s head was elevated, with a tube in his nose and some machine beeped softly nearby, but his color was good and his breathing even. That was better than Cody had feared he’d find.
“Being family,” he stressed again, “I’m sure my reports have been more in-depth.”
“Being a part of this small town for my whole life, I doubt it,” she shot back. “Gossip can have a great amount of detail, you know.”
“Well, then I suppose it’s a good thing I’ll be putting my grandfather somewhere more discreet!”
“Putting him somewhere? He’s a man, not a plate!”
“But like a plate—a very fragile plate, Miss Raines—he needs looking after by professionals. He needs someone nearby to care for him and make medical decisions on his behalf—something you do not have the authority to do.”
Cody was surprised when Olivia deflated. Exhaling loudly, she ran a hand over her face and through her hair, lifting her pretty eyes toward the ceiling. It almost seemed as if she blinked back tears, too.
“Look,” she gasped. “I’ve been taking care of him, you know? You weren’t here, your father wasn’t here and Eugene needed help.”
“Oh.” Cody eased his defensive stance somewhat. “Well, thank you for that.”
“I didn’t do it for you and I didn’t do it for anyone’s gratitude.” A mean glint reentered the lady’s eyes as she caught him in her sights once more. “I did it because I like Eugene. Because he taught me how to ride all those damned horses on my ranch, and he taught me how to drive a car, fix a flat tire, balance my budget and—” She stopped, inhaled audibly and continued. “All the things my father never got to before he died.”
“So, you’re saying you have a vested interest in his welfare and that’s why you’ve been kept informed of his health and recovery?”
He was certain the woman had no idea how telling the color of her cheeks was—like an emotional barometer going pale when she was in the wrong and red when she grew angry. Her face pinkened, showing her embarrassment. “My cousin Diane is his physical therapist,” she admitted. “She tells me what I want to know.”
“Well, then.” Cody laughed, though he didn’t really know if he was amused or not. “It’s interesting that medical information can be shared among cousins, in spite of any confidentiality hang-ups.”
“How much do you know of your grandfather’s business affairs, Mr. O’Neal?”
The brusque switch in topic left Cody reeling. “Nothing. My family’s financial advisor will handle all of that, I’m sure.”
“That’s what I figured.” Olivia got to her feet and crossed to the bed, where she dropped a kiss onto Eugene’s white hair. “Do me a favor, Mr. O’Neal. Don’t sign any papers concerning the water rights of the Double O Ranch, okay? What you do over there concerning the natural spring that runs through your property directly affects life on the Raines Ranch. Since Eugene’s stroke, the vultures have moved in and have been pressing him to sign, even when he was hooked up to oxygen and relearning how to speak.”
“Who wants the water rights?”
“Mayor Bradley Wiggins, the man who is refusing to update the local water treatment facility. He’s got it in his head that our stream, the one that runs through my land and yours, is the answer to his budget nightmare. I keep telling him there’s not enough to serve the whole town, and if he tries, all he’s going to do is kill my cattle and my business, but he tells me the good folks of Creek Bend can’t possibly have their taxes raised again.”
“Times are tight everywhere. I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“I don’t know where our taxes go,” she interrupted. “Our roads are awful, our school has black mold and this hospital is dangerously short-staffed. I do know that Mayor Wiggins just bought a car, has a fucking pool boy and his kid just went off to Harvard. In fact, the entire City Council seems like they’re doing much better than the rest of us. You’re free to have your own opinion on that. All I’m asking is that you don’t sign anything on behalf of your family concerning the water flowing from my property until you get all the facts!”
Cody cocked his head and looked the lady over. Olivia’s color was high and her pretty eyes threatened carnage if he didn’t agree. He figured, if she really had taken care of Eugene—and he had no reason to assume she’d been lying about that—then he owed her something. With his father out of the country and his own job demanding so much of his attention, God knew the old man had been left to his own devices during the neediest time of his life. Cody was grateful Olivia had been there.
“All right,” he agreed. “I’ll wait to hear all the facts before I make a decision or sign anything, or…well, anything. I just got here. My suitcase is still in the car.”
She dropped her gaze to the floor as she walked toward the doorway. “Thank you.”
“Fair warning, though, Miss Raines. I don’t even know if I’m the one who would make these decisions. It might be up to my father.”
“Well…” She seemed uncomfortable, pausing to fidget on the threshold, her flushed face vibrant in comparison to the oatmeal walls on either side of her. “I just…don’t trust Wiggins. He’s been pushing real hard, especially lately, and I wouldn’t put it past him to take advantage of the situation and your lack of knowledge.”
Cody opened his mouth without any real idea of what he might have said, but Olivia turned and left before he could make a sound. With a sigh, he sank down into the chair she’d vacated and examined his grandfather’s sleeping form.
Out at the Double O, Cody knew there were pictures on the mantel of Eugene in his dress blues—handsome, strong and ridiculously young, more than ready to face the enemy in the Pacific during World War II. There were pictures of him and his wife, the grandmother Cody barely remembered, and him and his sons—the only reminder of Uncle Otis that had remained after the man’s tragic death. A single picture of Eugene and his Aunt Opal, who had raised him at the Double O after his own father had died, a small snapshot of Eugene holding Cody when he was a baby and a staged portrait of Cody, his father and Eugene all together completed the mantel-top collection.
What a difference time had wrought. In Cody’s mind, Eugene was still a big man, strong-shouldered, with lots of energy and a deep voice. Now Eugene was frail and stooped, his white hair thin and his yellowed face nearly unrecognizable through the wrinkles. The left side of his mouth drooped dramatically and his eyelid looked a little strange, even closed, but Cody knew the effects of the stroke could have been more jarring and thanked God his grandfather was on the road to recovery.
Guilt burned him alive as he grabbed Eugene’s cold, papery hand. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. I should have.”
The call had come weeks ago, but Cody’s job had demanded further attention. To ease his shame, he’d told himself that there had been no opportunity and no time to come to the ancestral home, half a nation away. He had hoped his father would return to the States and take care of things, but that hadn’t happened.
Clutching his grandfather’s hand, Cody thought of the time he’d wasted. He thought of the years Eugene had been on his own, with little in the way of family and maybe not even friends. After all, how many other people his age were still around in Creek Bend?
“At least you had Olivia.”
Cody was aware of the hand in his gaining a bit of tension. Eugene barely stirred, but the right side of his mouth moved and slurred speech emerged without him ever opening his eyes. “She’s a good girl. Glad you’re home, boy.”
“Yeah, Grandpa, I’m…home. Dad’s still in Sudan. He said his hospital just got an X-ray machine and he’s over the moon about it. I don’t know where they plug it in, but—”
Eugene snorted. “Solar power?”
“Go home, boy—to the Double O.”
Fighting back tears and an ill sensation as he strained to understand his grandfather’s words, Cody struggled to harness a teasing tone. “You tired or something, old man? We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“I know why you’re here.” One eye cracked open, shocking Cody with the pain buried in the depths. “I’m exhausted,” Eugene whispered. “Tomorrow is soon enough.”