The Cowboy’s Best Friend’s Sister


Chapter 1

“My nose is itchy.” Sawyer Olson’s voice was scratchy, like a rusty metal fence blowing in the cold North Dakota wind.

But the nurse heard him. She blinked before continuing to tap the iPad she held in her hand as she stood beside his hospital bed. The scent of antiseptic mixed with body odor and stale coffee permeated the room. A typical hospital smell that Sawyer would never get used to. He’d take the wild North Dakota wind any day.

The nurse tucked the iPad in her arm like a book. She brought her finger to his face. “Where does it itch?”

No, that wasn’t what he wanted at all.

Sawyer’s lips didn’t even twitch. “Right nostril, about a half-inch up inside on the right edge.”

The nurse’s eyes narrowed. Her finger wavered. “I’ll need to go get gloves.”

Nope. That wasn’t what he wanted, either.

“It’s killing me,” he rasped. The breathing tube had done a number on his throat. “Just let my hand loose for a second so I can scratch it.”

He forced one side of his lip to turn up in a half-grin that had always worked with the girls in high school. That was over a decade ago. Maybe he was rusty, but the nurse didn’t seem to notice.

Her lashes waved before she slanted a glance at the door to his room, like there was a doctor standing guard or something.

Her voice lowered. “It says right here in the chart that the hand restraints are to stay on unless there are two orderlies in the room.”

Sawyer did his best puppy dog imitation, while still trying to hold the lopsided smile. It wasn’t easy, especially when what he really wanted to do was pull a Hulk. But he’d already tried the brute strength method, which had earned him the Velcro straps that held his arms tied to the hospital bed and didn’t budge.

“But I can let one arm out for just a second if you promise to be a good boy.”

Irritation gripped his throat. He hated being treated like a child. Like he wasn’t a grown man with a hundred head of cattle depending on him. Like he hadn’t survived the brutal North Dakota winter with a few boards and a gas stove between him and the howling wind outside. He’d dragged his entire herd of cattle through that winter, too. Hadn’t lost one.

Now this nurse was telling him to be a “good boy.”

He gritted his teeth, knowing he was being unreasonable. Being tied up did that to a man.

The nurse set her iPad down on his rolling bed tray. The purple polish on her nails glinted from the afternoon sun shining through his window as she took hold of the straps around his right arm, her pinkies sticking up in the air, and pulled.

The Velcro tore open with a ripping sound that echoed in the bare room.

Blood rushed into his fingers. When he lifted his hand, his forearm showed the red creases from the restricting bands. He gave his nose a token rub, wishing he could free his other arm and shove the nurse out of the way. But years of ingrained teaching on respecting women wouldn’t allow him to take advantage of her like that.

So he itched the nonexistent itchy spot on his nose. The lines for his IV dragged along the thin hospital cover as the sleeve for his “gown” fell around his shoulder. He lowered his arm back against the side of the bed. It was hurting now that the blood had a chance to start flowing, and he tried not to cringe.

He needed to focus on flexing his forearm and holding it in such a way that the nurse was fooled into thinking it was closer to the rail than it actually was.

Come to think of it, maybe he could prey on her sense of compassion, and he allowed his face to scrunch up.

“Are you okay?” she asked, her brows dipping down over her heavily made-up eyes.

“Yeah,” he ground out.

“Aww. You don’t have to play the big, tough cowboy with me. They did have those bands squeezed pretty tight. I’ll loosen them if you promise to behave.”

“It’s an easy promise, sweetheart.” He allowed a husky note to deepen the already rough tone of his voice.

It worked, as the nurse smiled, like he’d actually promised to behave. He would behave, just as soon as he walked out of the hospital and found his truck.

Except his truck wouldn’t be in the parking lot. Someone had driven him to the hospital, as best he could recall.

But he had a herd of cattle that needed his care.

He also had a person he was supposed to be meeting this afternoon at five, if the date on that calendar on the wall was correct.

It had taken him a while this morning when he woke up to shake the grogginess that clung like vines on a fencepost to his brain. Maybe they’d sedated him. After he’d yanked the ventilator tube out of his throat and tried to walk out of his room with the IVs still attached, they probably felt it was in his “best interests” to strap his arms to the bed and sedate him.

He disagreed.

He’d rather die on the prairie than stay another night in this stinking prison.

Although dying on the prairie would kind of defeat the purpose of the person he was meeting.

Her name was Danielle, and she had agreed to marry him.

The nurse finished strapping his arm down. It was much looser than it had been, bless her sweet, gullible heart. A flash of guilt pinched at his chest, and for some reason, like it always did when he did something he was less than proud of, Georgia Hanson’s face popped into his head.

Why in the world he saw his best friend’s little sister’s face anytime he did wrong was beyond his comprehension. Maybe because he didn’t really have a mother.

He had a woman who gave birth to him, of course. She just hadn’t stuck around to raise him.

But he was over that.

He tried to replace Georgia’s face with Danielle. They were opposite. Maybe he’d done it on purpose. Danielle was tall, slim, blond, porcelain white skin. Georgia’s skin was light with tons of freckles. Long lashes, dark and thick, almost touched her cheeks when she blinked. An easy smile. Lots of laughter. That wild, dark, unruly, curly hair that never quite got tamed. She was short. Really short, next to his height. Young. Always looking younger than she was. Reminding him of a draft pony. Pulling more of her weight than anyone ever expected.

His lips didn’t move, but he smiled inside. Georgia was one of those one-of-a-kind girls who lit up a room with her cheerful personality and bright smile. A girl that always found someone to help, something to do that would be a benefit to others. That she was kind and selfless was a bonus. She’d make some man a great wife.

But she was also his best friend’s little sister. That man would never be him.

The nurse finished checking whatever she’d been checking to begin with and bustled out of his room, leaving the curtain between his bed and the older man beside him opened.

Sawyer didn’t think the guy would press the “call” button when he figured out what Sawyer was doing. He’d be grateful if he didn’t, anyway.

The pinpricks in his arm had subsided into a dull numbness. He couldn’t feel his other arm. It might seem a little cruel to have him trussed up like a calf ready for branding, but after the holy heck fit he’d thrown the day before yesterday…or was it yesterday?

He hated the cobwebs in his brain. It was the sedation. Or the medication. Either one. Which was part of the reason he needed to get out. He couldn’t stand his mind being messed with.

He wiggled his arm. Loose. Yeah. He should have done it this way to begin with. Problem was, he wasn’t the kind of guy who went around sneaking stuff. Maybe it was because he was the oldest. Maybe because his parents had left. Or maybe it was just his natural personality. Whatever. He was used to being his own man. Commanding. He didn’t need to raise his voice, and he typically didn’t throw fits, the one from earlier being a notable exception.

He tried pulling back, but his working man’s hands were too big to slip out through the looser bond.

Wiggling in the bed, he managed to bend over his arm. Still not quite close enough, but with the extra room, he could twist his hand around, picking at the Velcro with his fingers.

After about ten minutes of using his two middle fingers to pull the strap up, it stuck up enough for him to catch it with his teeth. He didn’t have quite the right angle to rip it off in one shot, but he pulled some with his teeth, peeled it off a little with his fingers, back and forth, each time getting a little closer to his goal.

Patience might not have been something he’d been born with, but the long North Dakota winters had a way of shoving that teaching down his throat.

Finally, the last of the Velcro popped open and his arm was free.

He froze as sounds come from the hall. A shout. Running footsteps. Panicked voices. Beeping and more running.

It wasn’t right to rejoice in another’s suffering, but he did bless the timing. He might actually be able to get out of this prison without anyone noticing, if he hurried.

His head was turned and he met the eyes of the old man beside him. Same guy that’d been there when he’d tried to get out and they’d strapped him down. The man grinned.

Sawyer ripped the Velcro holding his other arm flush with his bedrails.

From there, things might have gone a little better if he’d taken the time to let the feeling and circulation come back into his arm. As it was, he was in a rush to take advantage of whatever emergency was happening outside his room.

Maybe he twisted the IV as he ripped it out of his arm. Or maybe IVs just weren’t intended to be self-removed. The fact that he couldn’t feel the fingers he was using to rip it out couldn’t have improved an already bad situation.

Blood squirted out of his arm, arcing up, landing on his pristine white sheets. Dripping on the floor. Turning his white room into a backdrop for a shiny primary color.

The blood didn’t bother him. He’d seen gallons of it in his time. Been covered with it more than once. His own, his best friend’s, and various animals’.

With fumbling fingers, as blood continued to leak out of his arm like a hose still cracked at a quarter turn, he lifted the covers and pulled the tape off the tube that connected to his private area. Catheters weren’t something he had a ton of experience in, and he gritted his teeth before pulling on the tube.

If they hadn’t drugged him and tied him to his bed, he wouldn’t have needed a catheter.

Having that thing out of him felt as good as seeing the first green blade of grass in spring. Possibly better, although after nine months of below-freezing temperatures, that blade of grass always looked good enough to eat.

He yanked his blood pressure cuff off and threw it on the rumpled sheets as he swung his feet out of the bed.

The problem with the blood was other peoples’ reaction. That and it left a better trail than footprints in the snow.

One of the monitors started beeping. A long, shrill noise.

Grabbing a handful of tissues out of the box, Sawyer shoved them in the crook of his elbow, then reached over and yanked the cord for the monitor out of the wall. Whether that would make it better or worse, he wasn’t sure.

Regardless, he straightened, not bothering to look for his clothes, shoes, and phone. They’d taken his stuff out of his room shortly after they’d strapped his arms to the bed. He’d never wanted to get physical with a woman in his life more than he’d wanted to deck the nurse who’d smirked at him as she held his jeans, shirt, and shoes in her arms. “Guess you won’t be going anywhere without these,” she’d said in a superior tone, like she’d won some kind of battle.

He couldn’t hit a woman, which was the only reason he’d been in the bed and she’d still been on her feet. That and there were four guys holding him down.

Still, the taunting was childish. If the hospital sent him one of those surveys, he’d make sure to note it on the form. Although, something told him he wouldn’t be getting a survey.

The gown he wore was physically incapable of covering both his butt cheeks at once. He took it off and wrapped it around his waist, careful to keep his arm bent to put pressure on the tissues that were soaked through with blood. Red dripped from his elbow.

With a quick glance at his prison cell—it looked like a life-and-death struggle had taken place or possibly some kind of pagan blood sacrifice—he pulled the edges of his gown together at his hip bone, made sure all his important bits were covered, and strode out in front of the old guy’s bed.

“Nice day for a stroll,” the guy said. Native North Dakotan, for sure.

Sawyer’s jaw was shoved out, determination to get back to his life keeping his face looking serious. But he gave the old guy a lifted lip. “Wouldn’t want to be overdressed.”

Twenty degrees wasn’t that cold. The snow didn’t start to squeak until single digits. It was a point of pride in North Dakota that anything above zero was “warm enough.” Normally he wore shoes and a shirt, at least.

Still, he’d rather freeze to death than spend another second in that room, strapped to that bed, stuck.

He had cattle to tend to. In more ways than one. If he missed picking up Danielle, his solo ranching days might be over before they’d barely begun. Especially with a big hospital bill to pay now, along with everything else.

Maybe if he hadn’t had to pay the government lien that had been on the property when he’d bought it. Maybe if he’d been able to make more hay. Maybe if they’d had more rain last summer… He shoved the “maybes” out of his mind. What good did they do?

Holding tight to the gown, wishing he at least had his boots, he stuck his head out of his hospital door. The hall and the nurses’ station were completely deserted.

A wave of nausea, punctuated by dizziness, pitched him against the wall. He leaned there for a moment, cognizant that he was still dripping blood out of his arm. Nothing in his life had ever prepared him to feel weak. He hated the feeling. Anger at the weakness straightened his spine. He’d walk out of this confounded hospital or die trying.