These newcomers to Nugget have left painful pasts behind them—just in time to embrace a future together . . .
Picturesque Nugget, California, couldn’t be more different than the glittering caverns of Manhattan, but Brynn Barnes is grateful for the change. After the accident that took her husband’s life and seriously injured her young son Henry’s legs, a clinical trial from a pioneering young doctor offers Brynn hope that Henry may walk again. And even as the magnificent landscape and the town’s hospitality help mend Brynn’s broken spirit, it’s a certain handsome surgeon’s compassion that soothes her aching heart . . .
Reeling after a bitter divorce, Ethan Daniels has brought his medical practice and his young daughter to Nugget, where he hopes its homey warmth will ease the transition to a family of two. A new relationship is the last thing he should be thinking about. But Ethan can’t help his immediate attraction to beautiful Brynn—or the feelings she’s awakening in him. For two people battered by life’s cruelest blows, love may be the perfect prescription . . .
Release date: February 9, 2021
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 248
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Ethan Daniels reined his gelding to the right, cutting off three stray cows that had broken loose from the herd. “Get!” he shouted, waving his Stetson in the air as he maneuvered them back to the pack.
He wiped his forehead on the shoulder of his ranch jacket and moved to the drag position at the rear of the herd. The ground was still soggy from the last rain but at least he wasn’t choking on a cloud of dust.
A few of the neighboring ranchers had come to help move his cattle down from the hills to the lower pasture, where he’d be weaning calves in about a month. The camaraderie of the ranching community was one of the reasons he’d chosen Nugget, California for his new home.
The other reasons had more to do with his six-year-old daughter, Veronica.
Ethan let out a loud whistle to bring up a few stragglers from behind, hanging off the side of his gelding to slap a lollygagging calf on its rump. “Get along now.”
Clay McCreedy, owner of a ranch seven miles away as the crow flies, sidled up next to him on his horse. “Watch those million-dollar hands of yours.”
Ethan grinned. “I’ll do my best.” He gazed up at the clear blue sky. “Couldn’t have asked for better weather for this.”
“Don’t jinx it. These mountains are fickle. Ten o’clock sunshine, noon a monsoon.”
“Yep.” Ethan nodded. It was rainier and colder here than in Reno but according to the locals, they were having a fairly mild February. Still, it had to be forty degrees out.
Greener than the high desert river valley where he’d grown up in Nevada, the landscape here was thick with fir and pine trees and lush with grass nearly year-round. Another reason he was enamored with the place.
The land—two-hundred acres—had been in his family for as long as Ethan could remember. His father used to run his cattle here in summer when the only blades of grass left in Nevada were on city watered lawns.
Last year, he hired a local contractor and carpenter to build a two-story home—rustic farmhouse, Alma called it—and a guest cottage with views of the Feather River and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The house was finished just in time to enroll Roni in first grade at Nugget Elementary.
Flynn, the point rider, moved the cattle down the gully. It was slow going, as they had to watch their footing on the slippery slope. But Flynn, Ethan’s neighbor to the east, knew what he was doing. Like the rest of them, he’d been moving cattle since he was knee high.
They’d been out since sunup; the sky painted a pink and smoky gray. It was Ethan’s favorite time of the day, when the land began to wake up from its long night’s sleep and the birds stirred, restless.
When they got to the bottom of the ridge, Flynn let out a holler and the herd dispersed, spreading out across the pasture to munch on the tall grass.
Ethan and his neighbors rode back to their trucks and trailers and served themselves coffee from the CaterGator, before loading up the horses.
“I guess we’ll be back in a month or two.” Clay shielded his eyes and stared out over the fields. Come March, they’d corral the calves away from their mothers for weaning, before trucking them to a feedlot in the Central Valley.
“Yep.” Ethan cradled his cup to warm his hands. “Thanks for the help, fellows.”
Ethan pushed off the back of the trailer he was leaning against so Clay could pack up his horse.
“Lunch at the Ponderosa?” Lucky Rodriguez hitched his thumbs in his jeans. The former bull-riding champ raised rodeo stock and ran a dude ranch a few miles from Ethan.
“I’m game,” Flynn said. “No court today, which leaves me footloose and fancy free.”
Ethan laughed. “Nice job if you can get it.”
“Yeah, then how come I feel a lawyer joke coming on?” Flynn scraped his boot on a rock and sniffed himself. “I need a shower.”
“Why don’t we meet in thirty minutes?” Clay led his gelding up the ramp and locked the Dutch doors.
“I’m afraid I have to bow out,” Ethan said. “I’ve got to get to Reno. But lunch is on me. I’ll call Sophie and Mariah . . . tell ’em to put it on my tab.”
“Nah, not necessary.” Clay waved him off. “You helped us; we help you. That’s the way it’s done around here. But I wouldn’t turn down a beer one of these evenings.”
Flynn and Lucky nodded in agreement.
“How about the PRCA championship on Saturday?”
“I’m in,” Flynn said. “Here or the Ponderosa?”
“Either way.” If Ethan asked nice enough Alma might make her legendary chile con queso.
“How big’s your TV?” Lucky asked.
The corner of Ethan’s mouth hitched up. “Big.”
“We’ll do it here then.” Clay opened his door and slid behind the wheel. “See you all Saturday.”
After everyone drove off, Ethan mounted up and rode to the stable. Like his house, the gable barn was new construction. Despite housing five horses, it still showed shiny and clean. He’d hired Clay’s youngest son to muck stalls a few times a week. Even so, he suspected that by next winter it would feel more lived in.
He unsaddled Reggie, combed the old boy’s coat, cleaned his hooves, and turned him out in the paddocks. Leaning against the fence, he watched Reggie nibble on a patch of grass for a while, then turned for the house for a quick shower.
No one was home and he could hear the clicking of his boots on the hardwood floors echo through the hallway. Alma would’ve had his head for not leaving them in the mudroom.
She’d befriended a group of women who called themselves the Baker’s Dozen. They met the first Thursday of the month at the big inn on the square to exchange recipes. Ethan was glad she was making a place here. He didn’t know what he would do without his stepmother. Besides helping with Roni, she made the trains run on time and was good company.
At first, he’d worried that Nugget, away from her glittering life in Reno, would be too pedestrian for her. Even when Alma married his dad, she preferred her high-rise condo to his sprawling ranch, sixty miles from the city.
But she seemed to be adapting well to retirement in Nugget, making friends, volunteering at Roni’s school. And when she got homesick, it was only a fifty-minute drive to Reno.
He climbed the timber staircase to his bedroom. The smell of fresh paint and floor finish still clung in the air. The master bathroom bordered on the obscene with a walk-in shower three times the size of his old one. It seemed a bit much for a bachelor but the architect had gotten her way, claiming that a stingy master would hurt re-sale value.
He had no intention of selling but secretly enjoyed the decadence of all the water jets and the rain showerhead, not to mention the radiant heated floors. Today, though, he didn’t linger. He bathed, dressed and was on the road thirty minutes later.
The freeway was nearly desolate. He watched the view change from forest to prairie to desert and finally to billboards advertising all-you-can-eat buffets and the Gatlin Brothers, who were performing three nights at the Grand Sierra.
Glancing at the time, he was confident he’d make it to his appointment with a few minutes to spare.
His phone rang and the Bluetooth dashboard lit up with caller ID. His ex-wife. For a second, he considered not picking up. But with a sigh he pressed handsfree.
“What’s up, Joey?”
“That’s a nice way to answer the phone. I was calling about Saturday. I want to take Veronica to The Discovery for the Mindbender Mansion exhibit.”
“We talked about this. You’re welcome to spend time with her at the ranch as long as Alma or I am there.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Ethan. She’s my daughter. I want to take her to a children’s museum, not a brothel.”
He tried for patience. “For now, we’re sticking with the court order.”
There was a long pause and for a second Ethan thought Joey might’ve hung up on him. It was her MO, after all.
“Come on, Ethan, I’ve been clean for almost a year. This isn’t fair. I could go back to court, you know. Push for fifty-percent custody. My lawyer says I’d get it.”
“Your lawyer, huh?” Joey needed to work on her poker game. Her bluff sucked. She was living with her parents and supporting herself with the alimony he paid her, which was a nice chunk of change. But not enough to retain the kind of attorney who could go up against his. “Take me to court, then. In the meantime, we follow the judge’s orders. I’ll be home on Saturday. Come any time after ten, stay as long as you like.”
“Aren’t you generous?”
He didn’t respond. The whole damn thing exhausted him. “How are your folks?”
“Fine. They miss you . . . they miss Veronica.”
“We’re fifty miles away. They can visit anytime. How’s the job search?”
She huffed out a breath. “Humiliating. Degrading. Yesterday, I interviewed with a toddler for a barista job. Seriously, I don’t even think he was old enough to shave.”
“You hear from the board about your license yet?”
He wasn’t surprised. “How are you on money?” She had student loans, a new car payment, and had never been much good with a budget.
He let out a frustrated breath. “My exit’s coming up. I’ll see you on Saturday . . . and Joey . . . if you need cash I can float you.” The minute the words left his mouth, he saw an image of Alma scowling and shaking her head.
He hung up, got off on Mill Street, turned into the parking structure, and slid into his personal space. It was a plum location, just across the breezeway to the lobby.
The double doors swished open when he reached the entrance and he nodded at the senior woman at the volunteer desk before heading for the elevator.
“Afternoon, Dr. Daniels.”
“Afternoon.” He picked up his pace, hoping he wouldn’t get waylaid on his way to the orthopedic unit.
“Dr. Daniels, how are you?!” A nurse stopped him just before he reached the south wing of the hospital.
Ethan flashed a smile and struggled to remember her name. She was one of Joey’s friends. Raina? Rosalind? Renee? Yeah, Renee. He was pretty sure that was it. “Hey, Renee.”
She beamed back so he must’ve gotten it right.
“You have surgery today?”
“Just a consult.” He tapped his watch. “Gotta go or I’ll be late.”
“A few of us are meeting for drinks at five if you’d like to join us.” Her face flushed red.
“Thanks for the offer. Can I take a rain check?” he asked, walking backwards. He didn’t want to seem rude but he needed to get going if he had any hope of reviewing the radiologist’s notes before his two o’clock arrived.
“Uh . . . of course. Any time.”
He brushed by her and made it to the elevator as the door slid closed. Without thinking twice, he wedged his arm in and forced it open.
“Hope those hands are insured.” The chief of staff leaned against the back wall, a stethoscope shoved in the pocket of his white lab coat.
Ethan gave a weak smile. It was the second reference to his hands that day. He hadn’t minded when Clay had made the quip. But the joke was getting old.
The door dinged open on the fourth floor. “This is my stop. Catch you later.”
Ethan walked to the end of the corridor to the orthopedic surgery center, the crown jewel of Renown Children’s Hospital. Its reputation as having one of the finest, most cutting-edge programs in the country—maybe the world—was largely due to his mentor. Five years ago, Dr. Jason Bentley retired, leaving Ethan to carry on his legacy.
He used his keycard on a door off the passageway and bypassed the waiting room. Marjorie, one of the center’s receptionists, passed him, carrying a lunch tray from the cafeteria.
“Your appointment is here.”
“Already?” He glanced at his watch. “She’s ten minutes early.”
Marjorie shrugged and went out the same way Ethan had come in with her empty tray. He flicked on the light in his office, took a quick assessment of the mess on his desk, and booted up his computer. The room was smaller than his new walk-in closet but it served him well enough for meeting with patients and referrals. He had a more spacious office at the School of Medicine at UNR, where he was on the faculty.
Ethan quickly called up the radiologist’s report and ran through it. He took off his jacket, slung it over his chair, and called the front desk. “Send in Ms. Barnes, please.”
A few minutes later, she was led through his doorway. He looked up from the referral notes he’d been reading and suddenly lost his train of thought. Quickly rising, he locked eyes with her, then remembered to shake her hand.
“You look different than your picture,” she said. “Younger.”
The hospital’s profile picture of him had been taken three years ago. He was now forty. In another context her observation would’ve been a compliment. But age added credibility to his position.
“Have a seat, Ms. Barnes.” He motioned to a metal chair and closed the door before taking his own place behind the desk. “How was your flight?”
“Fine. We got in yesterday.” Nervous, she fidgeted with the button on her coat and he noted that her hands were delicate and fine boned.
Ethan leaned in. “Ms. Barnes, it’ll be okay.”
“Will it? I just want my son to be normal again.”
He got up, came around the desk, and sat on the chair next to her. He could smell her perfume, something soft and feminine without being cloying. “What is normal, Ms. Barnes?”
“The way Henry was before the accident.” She sniffled, drawing her shaking hand across her nose. “Able to walk. Run, jump, ride a bicycle.”
“Not being able to do those things does not make your son abnormal. It’ll be a challenge for him, sure. But in my experience, children with the proper support and encouragement can rise to meet almost anything.”
“I didn’t mean normal.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, strain tugging at the edges of her mouth. “That was a terrible word to use.”
He held her gaze and tried for a consoling smile. “Your son is amazing, no?”
“Beyond amazing.” Her voice cracked and her eyes watered but she was holding it together, which impressed him. “He’s the love of my life.”
He reached across his desk for a box of tissues and rested it in her lap. He felt for all his patients but something about her unguarded vulnerability got to him. “Then no matter what, he’ll always be the amazing love of your life.”
“He will.” She dabbed at her blue eyes with a tissue and turned away to collect herself. Gathering up her courage, she asked, “Are you saying you won’t be able to perform the procedure?”
“No, what I’m saying is that even with surgery, Henry might not have full use of his legs. His injuries were extensive and Dr. Brunswick is one of the best pediatric orthopedic surgeons in the country.”
“But not better than you.” She turned slightly in her chair. “I’m grateful for everything Dr. Brunswick did. Really I am. Because of him and the entire team at Boston Children’s, Henry is alive. But . . . Are you a father, Dr. Daniels?” She leaned forward in her chair and he nodded. “Then you understand that I would do anything for my son. Anything.”
He not only understood, he felt it in every fiber of his being. The day Veronica was born, holding her tiny body in his arms, he’d felt an overwhelming instinct to protect her. To keep her safe. To love her beyond anything he could’ve imagined. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his daughter.
“I do, Ms. Barnes but there is a lot to consider here. The accident crushed much of Henry’s femoral shafts. Dr. Brunswick focused on open reduction and internal fixation, using screws and pins to align his bones together. The problem is the damage was severe and the bones aren’t healing.”
“Dr. Brunswick explained all this,” she said. “He said if anyone can repair the damage it’s you. That you have been successful with a new, experimental treatment that could give Henry back full use of his legs.”
Successful in the world of science didn’t mean a hundred percent. And with a patient as severely injured as Henry the returns were even more diminished.
“Stem cell therapy is not a guarantee and will require hours of post-op physical therapy, not to mention a level of pain that would be difficult for anyone, let alone an eight-year-old. And, at the end of the day, Henry may not have any more mobility in his legs than he has now.” He looked at her, assessing whether she truly understood the magnitude of what he was telling her. Every parent of a hurt child wanted a magic bullet and he simply couldn’t promise her one.
“What are you telling me, Dr. Daniels? You won’t do it? You won’t help us?”
“What I’m telling you are the facts. It’s my duty as a surgeon to help you make an educated decision about your son’s care.”
“Tell me this, Dr. Daniels, could the surgery make Henry worse?”
With any surgery there were dangers. Anaphylaxis, infection, heart failure, the list went on and on. But that wasn’t what she was asking. “Besides the inherent risks of anesthesia, no. The question is whether the gain will be worth the pain, Ms. Barnes. Your little boy has already been through so much.”
Ethan had pored over Henry’s case history. An all-terrain vehicle accident eight months ago had left the young boy’s father dead and Henry with a severe concussion, broken wrist, and two femoral shaft fractures.
For a long time, she didn’t speak and he got the sense she was thinking long and hard about what he’d said. Good. A decision like this should be made with her head, not her heart.
“I need a drink,” she said at last.
Ethan laughed. There was no shortage of bars in Reno but he didn’t think she’d actually meant liquor. Though he’d known her all of twenty minutes, she didn’t strike him as someone who looked for answers at the bottom of a bottle. Considering what she’d been through, she’d sat through their appointment like a steel magnolia. Her clothes—a black pair of trousers, a red silk blouse and a cashmere coat—were impeccable. Her dark hair was neatly tied back from her face and her blue eyes sparked with intelligence.
From the moment she’d walked in the room he’d been rendered speechless by her looks. But now it was her fortitude he admired. As bleak as the picture he’d painted of the bone regeneration treatment Bentley and he had pioneered, he could tell by the set of her jaw that she was still determined to get her son into his clinical trial.
“Let me see if I can scare up a beverage for you. At least a juice box.” He grinned and went in search of a bottled water or a can of soda, returning a few minutes later with both.
She chose the water and seemed to get a second wind after a few sips. “If Henry doesn’t do it now will he blame me later? Will I blame myself?”
“You’ll tell him what was at stake.”
She leaned forward in her chair. “But if you do the procedure there’s a chance my son could get full mobility?”
“There is a chance.” They’d had good results on adolescents and even better results in children five and younger. Bentley, a biomedical engineer and an orthopedic surgeon, started the research specifically to repair severe fractures in toddlers who’d been abused and children with birth defects. “And as I stated before there is a chance that the large gaps in his bone may never be repaired. We just don’t know, Ms. Barnes.”
“Please call me Brynn. What would you do if you were me, Dr. Daniels?” She looked at him expectantly.
He started to say that he wasn’t her but it was a cop out. Ethan knew exactly what he’d do. “Is Henry here?”
“He’s in the playroom.”
“May I see him?”
“Uh . . . yes . . . of course.” She started to get up and he motioned for her to remain seated.
He picked up the phone. “Letty, please bring Henry Barnes to exam room two.”
Together, they walked down the corridor, the walls covered in laminated children’s artwork. Fish and whales. Somewhere up there was a picture Roni had drawn on a day he’d brought his daughter to work.
Brynn Barnes’s high heeled shoes clicked on the linoleum floor beside him. At the exam room, Ethan tapped on the door and went inside. Henry’s wheelchair had been pushed to the side and the young boy sat on the exam table, reading a comic book.
“Hey, buddy, I’m Ethan.” He bumped fists with Henry, then went to the sink and washed his hands. “Let me take a look at that wrist of yours. That okay?”
Henry glanced at his mother, who smiled and nodded encouragingly. “Uh-huh.”
The boy was a good-looking kid, same dark hair and blue eyes as his mother. A little on the slender side. Henry didn’t quite make eye contact, leading Ethan to believe he was shy. Or sick of doctors. Lord knew the boy had seen enough of them since the accident.
“This the one?” Ethan lifted Henry’s left hand and winked. According to the boy’s X-rays the scaphoid had healed nicely. He gently rotated Henry’s wrist. “How does this feel?”
“Good.” The boy brushed a lock of hair away from his face. Looked like he could use a haircut.
Ethan picked up Henry’s comic book. “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, huh?”
“It was all that was out there.” Henry shrugged.
Wheeling a stool over, Ethan sat, facing the exam table so he could be eye level with Henry. “What do you like to read?”
“The Last Kids on Earth, My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish, books about facts.”
Ethan grinned. “What kind of facts?”
Ethan hitched his shoulders again. “Stuff about everything. Sports, whatever.”
“You like sports?”
“Yeah. Football and baseball mainly.” Henry let his eyes drop to the white paper on the exam table.
“You ever been to a rodeo?”
“No.” Henry shook his head. “What’s that?”
Ethan rolled around to the foot of the table so he could take a closer look at Henry’s legs. The right one was longer than the other. The boy had taken the brunt of the accident on his left side. “Cowboys and cowgirls competing on horses and bucking broncs and bulls. It’s something to see.”
Henry raised his face to Ethan’s, suddenly interested. “Is it on TV?”
“Yep. You’ve got to look around for it but it’s there. Better to watch in person, though.” Ethan gently manipulated Henry’s left femur. “Can I get you to stand up, son?”
He reached out his hand to help Henry get down from the table but the boy rejected the assistance. Henry scrambled to the edge and used his arms to lower himself down, holding on to the table for stability.
Henry nodded and lowered his eyes. Brynn jumped up and started to go to him but Ethan gestured for her to stop.
“Can you get to the door without the wheelchair?” It was roughly eight feet away.
Henry made it a few steps before stumbling and grabbed onto his mother’s chair.
“Pretty good there, champ.” Ethan helped Henry back to the exam table and resumed his spot on the stool, tilting his head to one side. “Do you know why you’re here, Henry?”
Henry played with the pages of the comic book. “So you can fix my legs so I can play Little League when I’m ten.”
“Is that the plan?” Ethan mussed the boy’s hair.
Henry bobbed his head enthusiastically. “Yep. Shortstop.”
“Like Brandon Crawford, huh?”
“Nope, like Derek Jeter.”
“The Yankees?” Ethan threw up his arms in feigned outrage. “Then let’s see what we can do. In the meantime, do you want to hang out here or in the playroom while I talk to your mom in my office?”
“The playroom, please.”
The kid had nice manners. Ethan was working on that with Roni, who couldn’t sit still long enough to say please or thank you. His little girl was a bundle of energy.
He got Letty to take Henry back to the playroom, a plexiglass room with colorful carpet tiles and donated books and toys.
“Let’s take a walk,” Ethan told Brynn. It was too cold for the children’s garden. The manicured yard with its flowers, whimsical sculptures and interactive games was often where he took stressed out parents for pre-op discussions. Instead, they strolled in the direction of the cafeteria. “You asked what I would do if I were you.”
She unconsciously moved closer. “Yes?”
“I’d do the surgery.”
Brynn rose the next morning in her hotel, wondering if she’d made the right decision. Henry had been to hell and back. But if there was a chance, even a small one, that he’d gain more mobility in his legs wouldn’t the surgery and subsequent therapy be worth it? Yeah, easy for her to say. It was Henry’s small, battered body taking the hit. Though sometimes she could swear she felt his physical pain right down to her marrow.
Ever since the crash, she’d spent most nights either crying herself to sleep or mentally punching Mason in the face.
She could hear Henry’s gentle snores in the bed next to hers. He slept so soundly that she stayed still under the covers just so she wouldn’t wake him, when what she wanted to do was lean over and kiss his sweet face. Her beautiful boy.
There were a million things to do today, including arranging shipment of their things. She assumed that after their meeting with Dr. Daniels they’d return to New York until he could fit them in for the procedure. He was a world-renowned surgeon after all. It had taken her two months just to get in to see him, even with a referral from Brunswick. But now everything was moving at warp speed, even arrangements for housing.
Dr. Daniels offered them a cottage. A sort of Ronald McDonald House for the families of the patients in his trial. The cottage was funded by the Bentley Foundation, a charity named after Daniels’s mentor to help parents with their out-of-pocket expenses during treatment or just to give them one less thing to worry about. The foundation had housing closer to the hospital but unfortunately it was full. Though she could rent a nearby apartment, it would be difficult on short notice.
When Dr. Daniels said there was a cottage to handle the overflow that was available to trial patients who could provide their own transportation to and from the hospital, she jumped at the chance. The lodging was a good drive from Reno but she could rent a car.
They’d taken a Lyft from the airport to the hospital and Dr. Daniels dropped them off at the hotel after their appointment in his pickup. A beat-up truck with a scraped up back bumper and a crack in its windshield. The distinguished doctor, who’d worn jeans, a Western shirt and cowboy boots to their appoi. . .
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