As Little Horn, Texas, prepares for Thanksgiving, Dr. Tyler Grainger tries to count his blessings. Returning to his family's ranch brings bittersweet memories of the sister he lost. But one thing he can be grateful for is Eva Brooks, who's just become the nanny for her cousin's baby. Tyler is glad to offer advice, but when his late sister's f horse is stolen, Eva's the one who helps him cope. Tyler's past heartache urges him to ride off into the sunsetalone. Yet the holiday season offers hope that the good doctor may have finally found a woman to heal his heart.
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Eva Brooks opened the oven door and peered inside. A blast of heat struck her in the face and she pulled back quick. The biscuits looked as flat as pancakes, yet they'd been in there for thirty minutes already. Maybe they needed more time. Maybe the oven wasn't hot enough. But weren't Martha Rose's biscuits usually golden brown by now? These biscuits still looked anemic white, like pieces of chalk.
Eva closed the oven door, feeling dismayed. "They're not done yet."
Martha Rose, the head cook at Stillwater Ranch, showed a doubtful frown. "Let me see them."
Eva stepped aside. Martha Rose jerked open the door, released an impatient huff, then snatched up an oven mitt and pulled out the pan of biscuits. She set them on the counter with a clatter.
"Darlin', you can bake these biscuits until the Second Coming, and they're never gonna get any fluffier than that. You obviously forgot to put in the baking powder."
Eva's face heated up like a flamethrower. She clenched her eyes closed. A feeling of mortification rushed over her. There was no doubt about it. She was no cook. Never had been, never would be. And it was time she faced up to it.
"Oh, no, Eva! You're supposed to be caramelizing those onions, not incinerating them."
Eva whirled around and gaped in horror at the stove top. Martha Rose pointed a plump finger to where the gas flame flickered beneath the bottom of a blackened skillet. The pungent odor of burning onions filled the air. Eva's nose twitched. She shook her head and groaned. The beautiful onions she'd carefully chopped up had shriveled into little black spikes that popped around in the hot pan.
She clasped the handle of the skillet to remove it from the heat and promptly let go. "Ow!"
She shook her hand. Tears of pain and embarrassment burned her eyes. Before she could decide what to do, she found her wrist clasped in a strong grip and was propelled toward the sink. A masculine hand reached out and cranked on the faucet all the way. A gush of cold water rinsed her burned fingers. She felt immediate relief and looked up. Tyler Grainger stood close beside her, holding her hand beneath the spray of water. His hazel-green eyes locked with hers. She stared, dumbfounded, and wondered vaguely what he was doing here. Tyler was a doctor. A pediatrician. He must have been making a house call. But she didn't move. Not with his tall frame pressed against her side. As she gazed into his eyes, a giddy sensation swirled around in her head. She felt locked there. Suspended in time.
"Feel better?" His deep voice filled her ears.
All she could do was nod.
He flashed a crooked smile. A smile she recognized as well as her own. After all, she'd known this man her entire life. And with no siblings of her own, she'd idolized him. Oh, yes. With good reason. He'd been one of the star athletes in high school, the valedictorian, school president and winner of every science fair. Not to mention his tanned good looks. She'd always admired him. Depended on him, even. Having him witness her failure in the kitchen made her humiliation all the more complete.
"Put some ice on the burns and I'm sure you'll be fine." His voice sounded low, like rumbling thunder.
Though she was still bent over the sink, Eva's gaze swept him. A thatch of blond hair fell over his high forehead. His eyes sparkled as he released her wrist and stepped back to dry his hands on a clean dish towel. His gray Western shirt stretched taut across his muscular arms and torso. He wore faded blue jeans that hugged his long legs like a second skin. With his scuffed cowboy boots he was dressed like an ordinary ranch hand. Except he wasn't, not with a medical degree.
But even though he was one of the most eligible bachelors in Little Horn, Texas, he apparently wasn't interested in the young ladies of the community. He'd returned to the area almost a year earlier, running a small medical office out at his family ranch nearby. But he never dated. Never escorted any woman down Main Street. In a town this size everyone knew everyone else's business. And rumor had it that Tyler would be leaving for Austin right after the Thanksgiving holiday.
In four short weeks.
"What are you doing here?" she blurted.
"Paying a house call. Miss Mamie's worried about the baby. I heard the commotion here in the kitchen and thought I might be able to help," he said.
The baby. Three-month-old Cody, who had been left on their doorstep recently with nothing more than a cryptic note that read "Your baby, your turn."
Obviously one of Eva's two cousins had dallied where they shouldn't have and Cody had been the result. But with Ben and Grady both out of reach for now, no one had any idea who the mother was. Thankfully the soft blanket left with the baby had his name embroidered on it, or they wouldn't even have known what to call the poor little tyke.
"Thanks for your help," Eva murmured.
"My pleasure." Heading for the door to the living room, Tyler reached out and snatched a grape out of a bowl sitting on the counter. He popped the fruit into his mouth and grinned. With a pleasant nod, he exited the room.
Watching him go, Eva felt a melting warmth flood her veins. Tingles of excitement coursed up her arm from where he'd held her hand. She shook her head, trying to focus on the present. What on earth was the matter with her? At the age of twenty-five she wasn't a young girl anymore, and she certainly didn't find the man that attractive.
Okay, maybe she did. But that didn't make a difference. He was a friend, nothing more. Besides, after her fiancé had dumped her at the altar six months earlier, she'd promised never to trust another man.
"Humph. I'm glad someone in this house has a lick of sense," Martha Rose said as she switched off the stove burner.
The matronly woman thrust open the window by the sink and waved her arms at the cloud of smoke, letting the fresh air clear the stinky room. With an oven mitt, she clasped the skillet and set it out on the back porch to cool. Then she jerked open the freezer, poured some ice into a clean dishcloth and thrust it at Eva.
"Here. Put this on your hand." With several quick twists of her wrist, Martha Rose shut off the water faucet.
Eva dried her fingers, feeling awful. She'd tried so hard to learn how to cook, but it was a catastrophe every time.
"I'm sorry, Martha Rose," she said.
Martha Rose planted her hands on her thick waist and studied Eva for several moments with a critical eye. "Look, darlin', you know I love you. But you're just no good in the kitchen."
Oh, no. Eva knew what was coming next, and a sinking dread settled in her chest. "Maybe I can stick to washing fruits and vegetables. And I can set the table. I'm good at those chores."
The matronly woman inclined her head, conceding that point. "But you can't peel potatoes and carrots. You nearly took off your finger the last time, and you peeled off more than the potato skins. We hardly had enough potato to put in the pot to boil. It was a good thing I'd made extra rolls."
Eva blinked, knowing Martha Rose was right. But she had to do something to help out here at Stillwater Ranch. After all, her cousin Ben had been so generous in offering to let her stay. If only she hadn't given up her apartment in town. She doubted she could get her old job back as a waitress at Maggie's Coffee Shop. Eva had seen the pleased look in Maggie's eyes when she'd given notice just before her wedding date. No doubt Maggie had been glad to see her go. Heaven only knew how many dishes Eva had dropped and bagels she'd burned while she'd worked there. And she'd ruined enough pots of coffee to last a lifetime. But she'd been tops at customer service. Even so, she should be married now and settled into her former fiance's home, not mooching off her cousin's generosity. If Ben hadn't offered her a job and a place to stay, she'd have nowhere to go. She had to make this work. Had to find something she could do right.
"I don't think this is a good fit, darlin'," Martha Rose said again.
"I'll do better. I promise. I never make the same mistake twice," Eva said.
But that wasn't the problem. Eva always learned her lessons. But her mistakes were doozies. Such as driving the tractor, taking the turn too wide and tying up the side rake in the barbed-wire fence. Another time she'd mistakenly grabbed a bucket of rolled corn instead of oats to feed the horses. Thankfully, one of the ranch hands had caught her before she'd made the horses sick. She'd then found herself sequestered in the kitchen, but that hadn't proved to be much better. But the biggest mistake of all, the one she'd never repeat again, was falling in love. Never would she trust another man with her deepest, darkest secret. Never would she hope that he would love her for herself and not the children she could never give him.
As if on cue, a baby's cry permeated her muddled brain. Her heart wrenched with the sound. She instinctively wanted to run to Cody's nursery and pick him up, but she forced herself to stay put. No sense in torturing herself.
"Please give me one more chance, Martha Rose," Eva pleaded.
The woman placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and met her eyes. "Darlin', you and I both know it isn't gonna work. We might as well not pretend. With all this trouble in the town, cattle rustlings and stealing, those burnt onions and flat biscuits are the least of our worries. It's not the end of the world. But it's time for you to go and do something else."
True, but it went deeper than that for Eva. Her heart still stung from being rejected by her fiancé. In this small community, most of the ranchers valued family and children above everything else. Except their land and cattle, which they wanted to pass on to their kids one day. If she couldn't have children, what good was she? No man in the area would ever want her. And she wasn't about to leave town. She loved Little Horn. She'd been born and raised here. The thought of leaving to try to find a husband left her feeling cold and empty inside. She had to develop a career and learn to make it on her own. There must be something she was good at.
"Why don't you go and help Miss Mamie with the baby? She's got her hands full with that little one, and she could sure use the help," Martha Rose said.
Eva shook her head. "No, anything but that. Not the baby. Please, Martha Rose."
A spear of panic pierced Eva's chest. Lots of people in town knew that she'd been gored by a bull when she was only sixteen years old. But they didn't know that the horrifying incident had left her barren. Unable to have children. And no one knew how badly it hurt her to be around kids the one thing in life she wanted most and could never have. Not without adoption or taking in foster kids. She had loved and admired her father and couldn't imagine raising her own child without a daddy. She'd have to be married first, which brought her back to the problem of finding a man in this small community who was willing to marry a woman who couldn't give him biological children. And she couldn't take in foster kids when she didn't even have a home of her own.
"Land's sake, it's just a small baby. And babies are easy to love," Martha Rose insisted.
That was just the problem. Eva didn't want to love Cody. Or any child, for that matter. But Martha Rose seemed oblivious to Eva's anguish. Turning back to the stove, the woman bustled about as she stirred a pot of gravy and checked the roast beef. Eva seemed to have been forgotten. And she figured maybe it was for the best.
As she faced the door, Cody's piercing screams continued, filling the entire house. No wonder Miss Mamie had called in the doctor. Every evening it was the same. The baby cried and cried.
Clamping an iron will on her fears, Eva pulled off her apron, set it on the sideboard, lifted her head in determination and walked into the other room. Down the hall leading to the back bedrooms, she followed the baby's plaintive cries. And when she reached the doorway to his nursery, she stood there feeling lost and all alone in the world.
Wearing only his diaper, Cody lay on the changing table with Tyler leaning over to inspect him. The doctor moved a stethoscope over the baby's perfectly formed miniature chest and abdomen. Cody kicked his tiny legs, closed his eyes, scrunched up his face and howled in outrage. Yet Tyler seemed completely unruffled by all the fuss.
"There now, little guy. It's okay. We'll wrap you up in your blanket in just a moment." Tyler smiled and spoke in a soothing voice.
Mamie Stillwater stood beside the doctor, her dark, flashing eyes filled with concern. At the age of seventy-eight, Mamie was the matriarch of the Stillwater family. A woman with an iron will and a delicate bone structure who had withstood the test of time. Her cottony white hair couldn't diminish the regal beauty she'd carried throughout her life. But just now she was clasping her wrinkled hands in frustration.
"He sure is mad, Dr. Grainger. No matter what I do, I can't get him to stop crying," Mamie said.
Tyler cooed and spoke gently, trying to calm the angry baby. "I think he's just colicky. See how he pulls his legs up toward his stomach? Crying at this time of the evening is normal for a baby of his age. It'll pass soon enough. Just be patient."
Eva listened intently, feeling lulled by the deep bass of Tyler's voice. Since he was a pediatrician, he must know lots about kids that Eva had never even contemplated. But since Little Horn was such a small town, Eva had heard that he also treated an adult patient on occasion.
"Oh, I'd forgotten about colic," Mamie said. "No wonder he's upset. It's been so long since I had a small baby to care for. I don't know what I'll do if I don't soon find a nanny to help take care of him."
Eva's heart pinched hard. Watching the red, squalling baby wave his thin arms in the air brought out her compassion. She wanted to do something to help him. To soothe him. But fear kept her frozen in place. Babies were her one taboo.
"Any news yet on who the baby's mama is?" Tyler asked as he used a lit instrument to peer into Cody's nose and ears.
Mamie barely spared Eva a glance. "No, nothing since Ben found him on our doorstep with nothing more than a blanket to tell us his name. If only Ben hadn't had that horrible accident right afterward. And now he's lying in the hospital in a coma."
Mamie spoke above the wailing of the baby. The elderly woman sounded so miserable that Eva stepped over and wrapped her arms around Mamie's slender shoulders in a quick hug. "Don't worry, Aunt Mamie. I'm sure Ben will come out of it soon."