Series: Howelton Texas #3
Genre: Contemporary Western Romance
Release Date: August 13, 2020
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Acacia has cared for her quadriplegic, cognitively impaired twin brother for two long years. Hope arrives in the form of Noah, the rocking-hot new cowboy physical therapist. Dumped by her former fiancé when her brother came back injured from Afghanistan, it takes several months for her to realize that Noah is the real deal. That is, until her second date with him.
With Noah’s goodnight kiss comes a terrible shock. Heartbroken, Acacia shuts the handsome cowboy out of her life.
But life is about to throw her a curve ball. Can she face the crisis and still care for Bobby alone? Or will she have to swallow her pride and call on Noah, the closest thing she has to a friend in San Antonio?
PRAISE FOR COWBOY STRONG:
Author Janalyn Knight reprises her cowboy-based series with Cowboy Strong. Acacia Richards is in over her head caring for her quadriplegic brother, Bobby. When cowboy Noah Rowden becomes Bobby’s physical therapist, Acacia is attracted to him. Having been burned in a prior relationship, she hesitates to get involved. Noah must convince her that his heart is big enough for both Bobby and Acacia. A sweet romance with a bit of after-the-wedding-ceremony spiciness. - Suanne Schafer author of A Different Kind of Fire
Acacia Richards finished cleaning Bobby's bottom and fastened his diaper. It had been all she could do to drag herself out of bed this morning and now she had only minutes until his new physical therapist arrived. She lowered her twin brother from the bed and settled him into his wheelchair. Morning sunlight shone bright through the open curtains on Bobby's dark blonde hair. She closed her eyes. God, I can't do this anymore. Please, I just can't. Hot tears pooled behind her eyelids. But, tears were useless. She learned that a long time ago. A moment later, the doorbell rang. Slowly her eyes opened, and she blinked them dry.
The corner of her mouth tilted up, and she wheeled him into the living room in front of the TV where his cartoons played.
Still wearing the leggings and t-shirt she slept in, she hadn't even brushed her hair before wadding it up and clipping it behind her head. It didn't take a mirror to know that the usual circles under her eyes would be dark from lack of sleep. Cursed with a porcelain doll's skin, the slightest blemish showed clearly.
When she opened the door, instant heat crawled toward her cheeks. Instead of a woman like Marilyn, their previous PT, she faced a tall, rocking-hot guy in a scrub top and Wranglers pressed so stiff they'd stand on their own. A crisp, fresh cologne wafted past her nose.
His light brown eyes twinkled, surely at her dumbstruck expression.
"C-come in. Sorry, I got up late. I mean, we're ready now. But just barely," she stammered, like an idiot. Had Marilyn said her replacement was a man? How had she missed that? His shirt stretched over his chest and upper arms, and his jeans hugged his narrow hips. Acacia couldn’t help but stare. His body was raw sculpted muscle. He was by far the finest male specimen she’d laid eyes on in a while. She took a deep breath and backed away from the door.
He grinned as he entered the room and offered his hand. "Hi, I'm Noah Rowden. If you need more time, please, go ahead."
Her girly brain screamed at her to run for the sanctuary of the bedroom to repair her appearance. Instead, she shook his hand, a tight smile on her face, and walked into the living room. Turning Bobby's wheelchair around, she patted his shoulders. "This is Noah. He'll help you like Marilyn did. Noah, meet my brother, Bobby."
The therapist bent down and shook her brother's hand, saying, "May I give you something?"
Bobby grinned crookedly. "Uh-huh."
Noah wrapped his arms around her brother’s broad shoulders and squeezed him in a gentle hug. "That was from Marilyn. She told me what a hard worker you are and said she misses you."
Still smiling, Bobby said, "Marilyn, I love Marilyn," in his slightly slurred voice.
Noah knelt on the floor. "She loves you, too." Unzipping his therapy bag, he pulled out a file folder.
Acacia knew what it would say. Her brother had amnesia, the cognitive functioning of a four-year-old, and was quadriplegic. Thank you, Afghanistan.
After a quick note, Noah returned the folder to his bag and searched inside again, finally bringing out a large red toy car with a raised yellow button on top. "I brought you something to play with."
Her brother laughed and his arms made small spastic movements while his blue eyes focused on the car.
The therapist pushed the button and a loud siren sound wailed through the room while the headlights flashed on and off.
Her brother threw his head back and shrieked his laughter. "I wa-a-ant it. Can I ha-a-ave it?" High emotion made his speech less clear.
"Of course. I'll teach you how to push the button. You have to work hard. I'll leave it here so you can practice." He placed the car in Bobby's lap and helped him move his forearm to the yellow button. The siren filled the room, and Bobby laughed. No matter how many times he succeeded, he never failed to howl with joy.
After a time, the therapy moved to lower body exercises. With the help of the Hoyer lift, they lowered her brother to a soft blanket on the carpet. Noah worked Bobby's legs, one at a time, increasing his flexibility and using every muscle.
Most of the movements were familiar to Acacia as she did therapy with her brother every morning on the days he didn't have a PT visit.
Noah's shoulder muscles bunched and released, stretching the fabric of his scrub top as he moved Bobby's legs. His long, supple back arched, and she imagined him naked, hovering above her bare breasts. She snapped her head up. God! Where in the hell had that come from?
Hopping off the couch, she stalked into the kitchen for another cup of coffee. So, it was true. After two years, she was desperate, letching after the first male trapped in her presence. Leaning on the cabinet, she buried her face in her hands. The emptiness she lived with, day in and day out, overwhelmed her. After several moments, she gathered her courage. She was stronger than this. Strong enough to face this man and face another day—alone.
Acacia reentered the living room as the session wrapped up, and she helped Noah put her brother in the lift, then back into his wheel chair.
Bobby had been a big man at six-feet-two inches and two hundred pounds. He weighed less now with muscle loss but was still quite a handful.
A nurses' aide from the Veteran's Administration assisted Acacia with Bobby's bath three days a week. One day each week she had a VA caregiver who stayed a short time with him while she ran errands and bought groceries. The rest of the time she was alone with him. This brought back the crushing weight she awakened with and a deep sigh escaped her.
Noah raised a brow. "You okay?"
She spun away from him. How could she feel this way? Her brother was so vulnerable—so helpless. What kind of sister was she to dream of escape? Of a new life? A life without this responsibility? Hot blood rose up her neck. What would this man think of her if he knew she yearned to get away from this house—away from the weight that nearly knocked her to her knees on her bad days? She mumbled, "Uh, yeah. I'm fine."
Still facing away, she said, "The car is a great idea. I can see where, over time, it may help Bobby gain more control over his arms. He certainly loves it. You're the first one to see him as I do—a little boy who wants to have fun. That's really who he is now."
"I gathered that from the notes in his file. I like to motivate my patients with fun things because so much of what I do is boring or hard work."
She turned back, her face now under control. "Thank you. I'm sure you'll be good for my brother."
Later that morning, after feeding Bobby the breakfast he missed, Acacia retreated to the back patio, her safe place, where she had her container garden. The exquisite taste of a sun ripened tomato, the crisp pop as she crunched into a fresh jalapeno pepper or cooking with her home-grown herbs were her greatest pleasures.
Some of the morning's tension eased. What had come over her when Noah was here? That sex fantasy was some kind of crazy. The last two grueling years had worn her strong resolve to care for her damaged twin down to a ragged thing. She hardly recognized herself anymore. Physically she was thinner, honed to a strange, harder replica of herself. Emotionally she was strung out, tuned to a raw edge.
But, the worst part, what had been increasingly hard to bear, was the isolation. The four walls of her home had been closing in on her the past few months. The people she was close to were back in Howelton, in North Texas. While caring for her brother, she had no avenue to meet new people, to go out and blow off steam. Bone-deep, she felt the lack—of friends, of family surrounding her. Though her best friend, Sarah, came as often as possible, her visits just weren't enough. Way down at the bottom of Acacia's soul there was a big, black nothing where Johnny used to be. Loving him back then, before Bobby, had filled her to the brim.
She missed it terribly. Romance. Having a man's strong arms around her. Adoring everything about Johnny and planning her dream wedding with her friends. This was her darkest secret. How ugly was this need of hers when her poor brother had lost his body, his soul, serving his country? Everything that was Bobby had been blown up on a battlefield in Afghanistan. And little Acacia wanted romance? She couldn't stomach herself sometimes.
Setting her now empty iced tea glass down on the table, she grabbed her gardening basket and shears. The spicy smells of her pepper and tomato plants called to her. Pruning and harvesting her vegetable garden was one of her most treasured joys. She chewed her lower lip. Noah had said he'd see her brother on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That gave her two days to get herself under control.
Noah grabbed a bag of feed from the flatbed trailer and stacked it in the barn. Ronnie, his best friend and roping partner, was right behind him with another sack. They just got home from Jupe Mills in Fredericksburg where they bought horse and cattle feed at bulk price.
Ronnie reached out, stopping his friend before he grabbed his next bag. "What about this new client you mentioned?"
"He's a cool guy. An Afghanistan veteran. Came back a mess. His sister's taking care of him. Thing is, he's like a young child now. Acacia, his sister, is wonderful. Been caring for him two years."
"What's she look like? I can see you like her."
Noah took his hat off and squeezed the brim, wiping sweat from his brow. "Well, she's a looker, all right. But she's worn down. Life hasn't been easy on her. Her hair's real dark, and her skin's pale. Looks like you might blow her over with a feather. Makes a man want to take care of her, you know? Something about the eyes." He put on his hat. "She's tough, though. I got that too." He hadn’t been able to quit thinking about her. With her hair pulled back in a simple clip, it gave her a wholesome, sexy look, though her solemn expression made her seem sad. And her lips—they were just full enough to be tempting without detracting from her overall air of sweetness.
Ronnie raised a brow. "Sounds like you're into her."
Noah headed over to pick up another sack, breathing in a hint of the sweet feed inside. "Not sure what I can do about it, if I am."
Ronnie followed him, not giving up. "Well, you said your client's like a child, right?"
"She could use a man in her life, you ask me."
Noah turned, hands on his hips. "I'm not asking you, all right? I can't do something like that. I'm Bobby's therapist. It wouldn't be right."
Ronnie stood his ground. "I say you can. She's not your client, he is. Two years have passed. Is he getting any better?"
"There you go. You said she's worn down. She needs a man. Any woman would. Look at the responsibility she's taken on. Hell, she needs somebody—something—more than what's she got looking her in the face right now."
Noah picked up a bag of feed and walked into the barn.
Ronnie followed with another sack. "Well?"
Noah shook his head. "Well, dammit, nothing's ever easy."
Noah gusted out a breath. Bobby was part of the problem. He reminded him of Joe. His older brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was five years old while mutton busting at a local rodeo. The sheep he was riding ran him head-on into a steel pipe fence post. Back then kids didn't wear helmets. After weeks in a coma, Joe had awakened, but he never talked, walked, or cared for himself again.
The guilt of being the "normal" boy, the one who could run, laugh, play, and make his parents proud, had never left Noah. Watching the physical therapists work tirelessly with Joe's lifeless arms and legs had inspired Noah in his vocation. He wanted to make a difference in his patients' lives. And he did. Well, most of the time. But the cases like Joe's, and maybe Bobby's, broke his heart. Many times, his job was holding back the tide of muscle deterioration, not improving a patient's condition.
He had hope for Bobby, though. There was a chance that he might increase Bobby's arm control. Noah would give it everything he had for that chance.
Acacia had spent most of Bobby's PT visit this morning cleaning house in any place but the living room, making sure more fantasies about Noah were out of the question. She'd learned first-hand how a man felt about a woman with a responsibility like Bobby in her life.
By early afternoon, she turned off the faucet and placed the final dirty bowl in the dish washer, the smell of bleach telling her the kitchen was clean. If she kept going like this, her house would be spotless.
Her cell rang, and she dried her hands as she walked to the table to answer it. Sarah. Acacia sighed and considered letting the call go to voice mail. She wasn't up to being grilled by her best friend. Snatching the phone before it rang for the last time, she put on a cheery voice. "Hi. What's up?"
"Does something have to be up for me to check in with my bestie? How are you, honey? How are you holding up?"
Always the same old question. "I'm doing fine."
"Have you found a sitter yet? Did you run an ad? You know I'll pay for it."
Acacia held the phone against her chest and closed her eyes. Why couldn't Sarah leave it alone? Her friend meant well, but Acacia couldn't let any old stranger stay with Bobby. Her brother wasn't a child, and despite his size, his health was fragile. Even with the excellent care she provided, urinary tract infections were a constant threat. It took experience and muscle—and maturity—to care for him. That kind of service was rare. She raised the phone to her ear again.
As she sat down at the table, Sarah continued talking about Acacia's needs.
When she could finally get a word in, Acacia said firmly, "With no other siblings to help, and Dad caring for Mom with her breast cancer, there's only me left. You know how old Mom and Dad are, with us being change-of-life babies. They'd never cope with what it takes to care for Bobby. And I won't put him in a home. I won't do that to him, Sarah. So, can we just drop this? Please?"
Before her friend could respond, Acacia changed the subject. "My brother has a new PT. His name's Noah."
Sarah was silent a moment. "Tell me more."
Acacia rushed on before Sarah could read anything into her bringing Noah up. "He's great with Bobby. Treats him like a child. Nobody's done that before, and it makes such a difference. I don't know why I didn't think to suggest it. Bobby really likes him. The guy brings kids' toys to work with him. It's amazing how different Bobby feels about his therapy. Noah invited us to go to the park Sunday morning and he says he has a surprise for Bobby."
"I'm liking this already. You're getting out of the house. With a man. Oh, yes, I'm loving this," Sarah said.
Moving to the living room, Acacia picked up a couple of her brother's toys and put them in the toy box in the corner. "Would you stop that? He's Bobby's PT. This is about my brother, not me."
"What does this guy look like, anyway? Is he hot?"
Acacia's heart skipped a beat then sped up. Yes, Noah was hot. Blazing, in fact. His expressive eyes and curly dark hair brushing the nape of his neck would fill any woman's fantasies. "Uh, he's nice looking, I guess."
Sarah prodded her. "How nice looking? Come on."
Acacia strode back into the kitchen and grabbed the trash bag from under the sink. This conversation had gotten way out of hand. "Okay, he's a hunk, all right? But, like I said, he's just being sweet to Bobby. He's not doing this for me."
Sarah sighed and continued. "Let's face it, hon. You're more of a mother to Bobby now than your mom is. But you're still a beautiful woman. This Noah's got eyes. He can see that."
Acacia threw open the door to the garage and dumped the bag of trash into the can. "I don't want to talk about this. He's Bobby's therapist. He's here for him."
"Okay. I'm just saying, though."
"Well, don't say, okay?"
Sarah laughed. "All right, all right. You just be darn sure you have a good time on Sunday. You haven't seen the outside of your front yard unless you have a doctor's appointment or need groceries in I don't know when, so you better enjoy yourself, my friend. Or you'll answer to me."
Sunday morning, Noah checked his watch again. Acacia and her brother should have been here by now. Was there a problem? Why didn't he offer to meet them at the house and help put Bobby in the van? How dumb could he be? He dug out his phone but before he could call, Acacia turned into the parking lot. Waving his arm high over his head, he strode in their direction, motioning her into a parking spot near the picnic table under a tall oak tree.
As he approached them, the door slid open on Bobby's side. "Hey there, buddy. You ready for some fun?"
Bobby swung his head toward him and moved his arms spasmodically. "Yeah." A smile lit up his face as Noah's dog, Rowdy, set his paws on the edge of the van's floor and peered inside.
Noah patted the dog's head. "This is Rowdy, my cow dog. He helps me bring the steers up when I'm roping." Motioning Rowdy up into the van, he reached for Bobby's hand. "You can pet him."
Noah helped her brother stroke Rowdy's neck and Bobby laughed when the dog licked his fingers.
Acacia got out and joined them. "Wow, he's a good-looking Border Collie. I'll bet he's a lot of help on the ranch."
A hint of her floral, spicy perfume wafted to him and he sucked in a breath. God, he loved that smell. It was different from what other women he knew wore. He could feel Acacia as if an invisible force drew them together. What was this instant attraction? It felt physical—elemental—like nothing he’d experienced before. He was in trouble. Reaching for the lock on Bobby’s wheelchair, he said, "Come on. I'll help you get your brother out. You're set up over there under the tree. There are sodas for us and juice for him."
They settled in the shade, but with the temperature in the low eighties on this May morning, it was getting hot. A small tendril of hair was sweat-stuck to Acacia's temple, and Noah had to throttle the temptation to reach up and brush it away. He opened a juice packet and poured it over some ice, offering it to Bobby. "Hey, have a drink, buddy. It's hot out here." With his help, Bobby took several long swallows.
Noah set the cup on the table and clapped his hands together. "Now, are you ready for the rest of the surprise?"
Bobby's smile was his best answer.
"Okay. I've been too busy to work on Rowdy's fetching lately. I need you to lend a hand today so he doesn't forget how to do it." Noah reached into his therapy bag and pulled out a bright pink tennis ball. "Now, you knock this ball off your lap and Rowdy will run and pick it up and bring it back to you. Okay?"
"Yeah." Bobby nodded his head.
The dog trotted over and sat beside Bobby's chair.
Acacia settled at the table, out of the way.
Noah put the ball in Bobby's lap. "Now, push it off. Hard as you can."
Bobby's arms lurched into motion, nowhere near the ball.
"Slow down. You just keep trying."
In a moment, his arm flew in the ball's direction, and it rolled off his lap and down to the ground, spinning a few feet away before coming to a stop. Bobby squealed with laughter.
Acacia clapped. "That's it. You did it."
She looked different today. The sunlight made her creamy skin glow, and she seemed lighter, less worn. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and brush his lips behind her ear—to make that lost look disappear from her eyes. He jerked his mind from those sensuous thoughts. The woman was Bobby's sister, for cripe's sake. He couldn't go there.
Noah motioned to Rowdy, who had been waiting patiently by the chair. "Fetch." After the dog grasped the ball in his mouth, Noah signaled him to return it.
Raising his paws to Bobby's legs, he dropped the ball squarely into the middle of his lap.
Bobby laughed, excitement slurring his words. "Rowde-e-e. Rowde-e-e got it."
Noah squeezed Bobby's shoulder. "Yes, he did. Let's keep working with him. Knock the ball down again."
Thirty minutes later, though Noah had helped Bobby to empty his juice cup, his cheeks were flushed. Heat was one of his worst enemies.
Noah touched Bobby's face and frowned. "I think it's time to get you into some air conditioning, buddy. It got a lot warmer out here than I thought it would. Old Rowdy's had enough, too. You worked him pretty hard." Patting Bobby on the back, he looked at Acacia. "If you want to get the air conditioning going in the van, I'll buckle him in."
Bobby said, "Aww," and whined.
Acacia forestalled the tantrum. "How about we go home and put on Aladdin and have some ice cream? That'll cool us off."
All for ice cream, he went willingly to the van.
A few minutes later, Noah pulled the last tie-down strap on the wheel chair tight, and said, "Acacia, I want to suggest something. But you have to decide what's right for your family. Have you ever thought about getting a dog?" In the close confines of the car, her perfume, slightly floral, with something a tad peppery, distracted the hell out of him. He drew in a quiet breath. She smelled so good. His body responded to her—heart speeding and his breath quickening.
She raised her brows. "Not since we've lived here in San Antonio. No."
He tuned back in. What were they talking about? Oh, yeah. The dog. "If you're open to the idea, I'll go with you to pick one out at a shelter, and I'll help train it. It would be really good for Bobby for a number of reasons. He could be responsible for part of the dog's care, which would build his self-esteem. And he could play fetch, which I’m hoping, over the long term, will help him gain better control over his arms."
Acacia pressed her lips together. "I like your enthusiasm, Noah. And I appreciate everything you do for my brother. A dog's quite a responsibility, though. Let me think about it and I'll let you know."
Noah backed out of the van and slid the door shut. As she drove out of the parking lot, he narrowed his eyes. His attraction to Acacia was getting worse. The woman drove him to distraction whenever they were together. He had to figure out what to do about it.
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