Bad Boy Rancher(8)

By: Karen Rock


When the nurse said “drug addict,” she’d dropped her voice and whispered it, as if she’d uttered a filthy word. She’d pursed her mouth then said characters like that had no place in a sweet, sleepy town like Carbondale.

When she’d asked what brought Brielle to Carbondale and learned she would be running the new rehab and mental health treatment facility, the chatty nurse clammed up and busied herself sharpening pencils. Looked like Brielle might be one of those undesirables the nurse mistrusted.

Brielle paused at a water fountain and bent over to press the tab. She drank the icy stream, recalling the nurse’s dismissal. While she hadn’t expected the town to roll out the red carpet, it surprised her how few had dropped by the new facility. She’d written a letter to the local newspaper’s editor inviting Carbondale residents to tour the facility and ask questions about the provided services before the first patients arrived next week.

She straightened, wiped her mouth, then continued down the hall. Other than a couple rubberneckers who’d looked plenty and said little, the townsfolk steered clear of Fresh Start. Worse, a couple of nasty letters to the newspaper’s editor blasted the facility, calling it a threat to the community because it would attract the “wrong elements” and drop real estate values.

She blew out a frustrated breath. She needed Carbondale’s support to succeed. While she’d stayed busy, reading through case files for incoming patients, hiring staff and inventorying supplies, her mind kept drifting back to how she could improve community relations…and to a rough-and-tumble cowboy who’d looked like he’d walked right out of a biker fantasy…

Speaking of which.

She pulled up short at the sight of the tall, lean, bearded man tightening his tie knot. His light hazel eyes bored into hers then narrowed in recognition.

“You,” he said, the single word sounding like an accusation. His hands fell to his sides, and he stalked toward her, smooth and graceful, a predatory animal. There was no other way to describe how he zeroed in on her. Like a wolf with hackles raised, Justin Cade seemed to flex every muscle in his possession.

Brielle swallowed hard and stuck her hand out. “Brielle Thompson.” After a moment of hesitation, he clasped it with his callused palm. Warmth exploded up her arm at the brief contact. “I’m sorry about the accident.”

He crossed his arms and his biceps bulged beneath the tailored suit material, curving it. “Wasn’t your fault.”

“I braked, but it all happened so fast.”

“There wasn’t anything you could have done.”

She tilted her head so her eyes caught his. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged and his gaze flitted outdoors, landing on the parent and child she’d spotted earlier.

“Are you doing okay?”

“Suppose,” he said without looking at her, which gave her plenty of license to indulge her curiosity and study him.

Beneath his bearded scruff, he had a perfectly proportioned face: a strong jaw, high cheekbones and a straight, narrow nose. Normally she didn’t like the mountain man look, especially after a lifetime spent around clean-shaven, tightly shorn military men. Yet something about his wild, untamed looks appealed to her. Challenged and drew her in.

“I tried visiting you in the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me back.”

“You’re not family.” He inserted a toothpick in his mouth. “Or a friend.” His eyes slashed across her face then back to the outdoor scene.

Heat crept up her neck and into her cheeks. “True.”

It wasn’t like she wanted to be his friend. Getting close to Justin Cade, she sensed, would be as futile as trying to throw a hug on a cactus.

“I heard you broke your ribs. A concussion, too,” she persisted.

His piercing eyes swung back to her, and the impact of his ferocious gaze was like a hand on her chest, shoving her.

“It’s a fracture.” He yanked at a green tie that brought out the yellow flecks in his eyes. In fact, looking closer, she realized his eyes were lighter than she thought.

“That’s a relief.”

A line appeared between his thick brows. “You think I’m relieved about this?” he mumbled around the toothpick.

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