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Cole Dawson strode through the wing of Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital, a frown on his tanned face. His worn cowboy boots clattered on the shiny terrazzo floor, and he held back an urge to spit.
How the hell had Jack Elbert Dawson Sr., the toughest man he knew, ended up in a cardiac rehabilitation ward?
No matter. He had to see Dad himself. Reassure himself the man, only sixty plus a few years young, was still going strong.
He rounded the hallway, fielded a couple of nurses he’d hadn’t seen yet, noted their upturned brows and lightning-fast looks of inquiry, then headed down the stretch to Dad’s room.
Caught the vibration in his pocket. Damn. He’d forgotten to turn his cell off, like all the signs yelled at him to. He yanked it from his faded jeans. Probably one of the posse back home desperate for news about Dad or Boss, whichever Jack Dawson was to them.
The list of emails flashed, the requisite ads. A couple from Delilah Toms, his agent, still in touch. Some from Jesse, his lead hand, already responded to.
And there was the latest message, bolded. Waiting. Impatiently. From Krystal.
Figured. No preamble, just straight and to the point.
—How’s he doing?
Only third time this morning she’d asked.
He texted back with work-hardened thumbs barely hitting all those damn buttons.
—Just about to see, Sis.
And then added, because Krys did fret so much—had to be that artistic temperament she kept telling everyone she had—
—I’ll let you know as soon as I see him.
But Krys, astute young woman she was, wasn’t ready to let him go yet. There came the telltale words, where she shared what she wouldn’t, with anyone else…
—Cole…I’m scared.
That’s all it took, and his mind was back with her. With all the family, back at their beloved ranch at the foothills of the Rockies in Dawson Ridges, British Columbia. Where the northern winds blew down from Alaska, decimated the land with its unforgiving iciness. Where Deep River surged, in the spring, then finally let go, and the hills, the lowlands all flushed an emerald seen nowhere else on God’s green earth.
Where right now, until everything was fixed and the ranch was sorted, there was a huge, gaping hole.
Jack Elbert Dawson was that hole. He had to be back there. Healthy, sound, barking out orders again, at his spread of countless acres.
But right now, Cole needed to ease the worry in his sister and tame the crazy, if he could. Hell, he had tons of experience, right? As the respected platoon leader Dark Storm for the elite Delta North Special Ops Team, a special unit cobbled together from both Americans and Canadians, like their forerunner The Devil’s Brigade, he’d had to bolster many a soldier under him. Strengthen them, give them courage. He’d done it every which way he could.
Here? Redirection might work.
—How’s mom? The others?
Krys answered, using the voice command feature she loved. Because she could pound out voluminous responses that way, without doing any work.
—What do you expect? Mom’s baking up a whole bunch of Dad’s favorites, filling the freezer. Says she’ll be busy tending him, or trying to, when he comes home, so she wants to be ready. Fighting off Baxter, John QT and Roger, who all want to lick the bowl every time she’s done a batch, and are jumping at the counter, fighting among themselves.
A smile curved on his face. Baxter was their squat little pug, the one who wanted to rule the world, and sometimes just about managed it. John QT was their highly intelligent wolfhound. Roger was an untamed, furry, who knew the heck what. Irrepressible in spirit, but oh, so loyal.
A more unlikely trio you’d never meet, but they were inseparable. They spent their days together, visiting the various operations and people around the ranch.
Making their rounds, Mom called it. Doing their shifts, Dad snorted. They spent a ton of time in the ranch house, in the kitchen when things were going on—and when weren’t they? At night, they cuddled with each other or various members of the family in the huge, rustic living room everyone gravitated to.
They all needed to be back there. Especially Dad. Cole thumbed his own response back.
—Her own fault. She trained them that way since they were pups. If there’s food around…
—Well, when Mom really gets tough with them, they listen. But right now she’s too worried about Dad. And it’s turning into butter tarts, date squares, and egg bread. It’s crazy the output that woman has when she gets in her mind the whole world depends on—or will one day depend on—her culinary prowess.
Cole chuckled, back in the kitchen with Krys, mentally. Watching the scene, first hand, the warm glow filling his heart again. Added his own two bits.
—That’s why Dad kept the hands on, back when we lost work, years ago. We didn’t have Dax then, and Mom was too sad when there weren’t a zillion people to cook for.
He could see her, auburn hair tied back, the odd pale swatch in it when she didn’t get to the beauty salon on time. Peeling, cooking, stirring. Singing. The dance steps interspersed with the cooking, as she tried to do her routine while handling bowls, fryers, pots. Feeding everyone, and it wasn’t only with food. But love.
It was a special picture, and time had taught him just how special.
His throat tightened. Dad needed to come home again, be part of that picture. Be healthy, strong.
Be Dad.
He pushed his mind back into the conversation. No sense worrying, borrowing trouble.
—Yeah, well, that’s what she’s doing. I gained 5 pounds already. But man! Homemade butter tarts! All that rich, golden goo. Who could resist? I think it’s keeping her occupied, in a good way.
Krys’ dialogue broke a bit, and there was a lengthy pause. He could see her trying to collect herself. Wiping away the tears that came, no matter how hard she tried to keep them at bay. The stuffiest, sternest marshmallow you’d ever want to meet.
—He’s okay, then?
—I don’t hear him yelling at anyone yet, so that’s a good sign, Pooh-Bear.
The familiar nickname slipped out. Krys rarely tolerated it, but today, he sensed it would help. Lastly, he added a smiley-face—because he knew it would relax her, though he hated the damn things—and he saw her returning emoticon flash.
He allowed his face to relax into a smile. She was okay for the moment. The conversation was done. The tension that had spiked in his chest eased.
Now all that was left was the sick feeling that had taken up residence in his gut ever since Dad’s ‘event’, as the ambulance attendants and the doctor had called it. That wouldn’t be gone until his surgery was successful, and he was back where he belonged.
Riding Storm, cutting a breathtaking sight along the main ridge. Sitting back in his chair—no one ever dared sit in his spot. At the kitchen table with mom, laughing out loud, or digging into a thick, grilled steak and allowing the errant, designer oil-dressed avocado on his plate…because Mom had asked him to.
Molly Andrews she’d been born, and he’d made her Molly Dawson. She’d caught his eye and still had it, after forty years of marriage. To the tune of said avocado, and endless broccoli-kale combinations that made even Roger whimper softly, no matter what sauce she put on top.
True love. Not something he ever expected to find. Not like that.
It made Dad strong, the head of his clan, up until now. Making the business decisions, but in concert with his whole family. The pantheon of sisters, the mess of brothers. But taking the responsibility of it all on his broad shoulders—the ones that didn’t seem so strong anymore.
Damn. Where was that old pain in the ass?
“One more, Mr. Dawson. Just one more.” The voice drifted out into the hallway from his dad’s room. Cole stood in the doorway, watched his father eye the nurse, give her his most disgusted look.
Chloe, actually his favorite nurse despite the current battle of wills, shrugged. “It really doesn’t matter, Mr. Big-shot, Jack Elbert, the flippin’ third. You’re taking it. I’m not leaving until you do, and you know how much you’re going to love that.”
Jack turned toward Cole, shook his head slowly. “She figured it out, Son. The one weapon I cannot fight.” He slapped his upturned palm in the air toward her, and a tiny white pill landed in the middle of the weathered, brown skin.
She kept her blue eyes fixed on him. “Now. Not in an hour, not with lunch and not with the damn Twinkies I know you had smuggled in, and that are likely under your pillow, or if I’m lucky, quickly shoved under your thigh, flattening, just to serve you right for trying to fool me. Now.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed, he flipped his palm toward his mouth and practically slammed the pill in. She wordlessly handed him a glass of water, and he took an angry gulp. “Satisfied?”
Her expression softened but her eyes gleamed with humor. “Can’t say. Want to keep my job.”
“Finally. Silence. Something worth celebrating.”
She grinned, fluffed his pillow, then halted her hyper-efficient movements for a moment, patted its corner with uncommon gentleness, and headed toward Cole. “He’s all yours now.”
Damn, but he could’ve used ten of her in the Middle East.
“Don’t forget,” she called as she strode into the hallway. “Sponge bath. Bessie. Noon.”
Jack Elbert practically spat as he looked up at his son. “Just had to get the last word. And that’s about enough to wipe the smile off any man’s face, kill his will to live. Have you seen that woman, Son? Built like a trucker.”
Still joking. Still trying to make everyone laugh.
But he didn’t laugh the day he crumpled, fell, and was rushed to their local hospital in Dawson.
“When’s the surgery, Dad?” Cole laid his Stetson on the back of the chair, settled into a chair, close to him.
The light left Jack’s eyes. “Monday, 3 weeks. They’re going to do tests and build me up in the meantime.” His voice turned faint, abruptly. The difference in energy was noticeable. “I could do with a bit more water, Son.”
Cole reached for the foam cup, grabbed it.
Cole blinked, looked at the cup still in his grip. Saw the edge he’d cracked, the spilled liquid. Hell. He let it go quickly, and the foam expanded back to its original shape. “Sorry, Dad.”
He waited for the requisite joke, but his father slumped.
Okay, this was not working. Something deep in Cole fell, but they all had to maintain a good spirit. Maybe a bit of news from home might cheer him up.
“Krys is working with the vet, and Ranger’s got the feed contract sorted. Aggie’s sorting out PR, says it’s the thing to do. Got to get us into the current century, she says.”
He immediately regretted his words. Talking to Dad about the problems that had precipitated his illness was not the way to go. All of that had been a shock to everyone, including Cole, freshly back from his tour.
Back home because he was needed, because things were going sideways.
The second break-in at the ranch, the one that defied all understanding. The sick horses that had been let loose without any care, with no one in their employ admitting to it.
They’d managed to come through all that, but it had scared them. They’d seen the possibilities, if what they were sure was sabotage, continued. None of them were good.
Dad nodded, said nothing. Turned his head toward the window, looked through it, far away.
“Do you want any newspapers? I’ll go down to the gift shop and…”
The hard grip of steel clamped on his arm. His dad’s fingers tightened on him, and Cole’s gaze jolted upward, met the eyes of the man staring at him.
“Stop fussing. You’re as bad as your Mother, and at least her, I’ve got trained.”
The sudden strength in his Dad’s grasp…Cole’s gut clenched.
It had to be okay. All of it. Dad, the ranch. Their family’s legacy, though they were fighting the hardest they’d ever fought in their lives to keep it. It had cared for them and then, by extension, for the community around them.
It all had to be okay. Fine.
But instead of gentleness, a faraway storm lit the man’s eyes. “No, Son. Go. You’re fussing over me worse than a sow with piglets and I’m not a pig, not a foal and not a woman. I’ve lived my own damn way these sixty odd years and you’re not changing me now. I’m facing what I need to and I’ll do it, on my own terms. I’m telling you right now, I don’t want you around. Hear?”
Cole stared at the man. The lick of a summer’s tan still on his face, tiny lines fanning from the corners of his eyes. Green eyes, the ones a young Molly Andrews had fallen in love with, those far off forty years ago.
Was still, even harder in love with, today.
The expression on that face was serious. Determined. The man was going to do this on his own.
Something in Cole abruptly decided. The man had lost control on so many fronts. The weird issues with the ranch lately, the never ending battle with Quinn. His other sons taking off—Mason, Lucas, Jared and Dane—going literally to the corners of the globe instead of staying home, and growing Dawson Ridges, even though they were all part owners.
He was damned if he was going to wrest control from him on this one.
Wasn’t going to happen.
Cole nodded, allowed his face to soften, anything to not give the old man another hill to climb. “Fine. I’ll find something to do in the city.” His mind switched to the inhospitable, crazy mess that was Toronto.
Though all cities felt the same to him, whenever he was unlucky enough to set foot in one. Tall buildings, barely a glimpse of sky, in between. Concrete. Crowds of people.
If that’s what it took. “I’ll be back, later tonight, for supper.”
But Jack Elbert Dawson the Third had other ideas. “No. I didn’t mean shift the babysitting component of your day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Son. I mean go. Leave. Back to the ranch. Or somewhere else. Downtown Toronto, meet some fillies. Do what you need to do. But let me do what I need to do. Alone.”
“It’s okay, Boy. I know you’re doing what you think is right. But it’s not right for me.” The grip on his arm loosened, gentled. Patted him, once. Soft.
And that was more telling than anything.
“Come back after my surgery. But until that day, I need time, and I don’t want to see you. At all. Got it?”
The man he’d fought with, argued with, and pretty much idolized all his life fixed him with a steadfast look, and suddenly, instead of the weakness he’d been seeing, the strength in his pose hit him.
Like it or not, Dad wanted to be left on his own to face things, and was making a request of him. He could stay and annoy the hell out of him, or he could get the hell out of here.
But not back to the ranch. They’d spent so much time dividing the labor among everyone, it would throw everything off if he went back.
No. They all needed to find their way and take on their roles for the interim. Which meant he had to find something else to do for the next three, damn weeks.
His shoulders stiffened. Fine.
“Go. Find yourself a woman, Boy. The sooner, the better. Let go some of that steam.” Jack Dawson’s face softened, as did his tone. “Look at something beautiful for a while. Heaven knows you could use it.”
Cole Dawson, former Delta North Team leader, reserve soldier, volunteer fireman and now foreman of the whole damn spread of Dawson Ridges—as well as cowboy—snorted. “In this city? Not bloody likely.’