Josh Rowder parked in front of the ranch house at noon. He killed the engine as he stared at the screen door, then leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. After a full week of caring for his grandmother, he’d been relieved—no, overjoyed—to hear that the long-term care insurance his grandparents had paid for had come through and that a nursing agency was sending over someone to care for her.

He and his father had recently learned that, along with her other health problems, Granny was suffering from dementia. After finding her wandering the fields late one evening, lost and confused, it had been obvious that she could no longer live alone in the small retirement house she and his grandfather had built on a nearby tract of pasture. Josh’s father, Drake, had moved his mother in with them immediately, and Josh had taken over her care.

He shoved open his door and strode up the porch steps, hoping like hell he would find good news awaiting him. Granny could be incredibly difficult. The change in environment had been hard for her, and confusion and ill temper had been her norm ever since.

The living room was empty when he entered. Granny was probably eating lunch, which was what he’d returned home for. As he neared the kitchen, he heard the pleasant murmur of a woman’s voice and nothing untoward from his grandmother. That was good news.

When he entered, the owner of the voice looked up and he froze, unbelieving. The fiery redhead with the flashing green eyes was as beautiful as he remembered. “Nikki?”

Her jaw clenched, and then she said with a coldness that he also remembered, “Josh.”

He forced himself to move forward, to act as though seeing his former high school sweetheart sitting in his kitchen was no big deal. “How did the morning go?”

Nikki returned her attention to the elderly woman and smiled. “Here we go, hon, just a few more bites to go.”

He glanced at the bowl of finely chopped spaghetti in Nikki’s hand. It was leftovers from the evening before, and was almost empty. Wow. Granny’s really eating well for her. I’ve been struggling with that all week.

Without looking at him, Nikki said, “We’ve had a good day, once Betty got used to me. That didn’t take long. She loves swinging in the porch swing.”

He frowned. The porch swing? Damn. Why didn’t I think of that? “Good to know.”

“Your father said that you’ve been caring for Betty?”

“Yep.” He dished up some spaghetti for himself and put it into the microwave to heat. “It’s been a challenge, to say the least. Leaving her familiar surroundings was rough on her. She’s confused and angry, and I don’t blame her.”

Nikki patted the elderly woman’s hand, which lay listlessly on the tabletop. “Things are going to get better, Betty. Don’t you worry.”

His granny’s fingers reached for Nikki’s hand. The younger woman put the spoon down and clasped his grandmother’s hand with both of her own. “Betty, we’re going to have happy days, you and I, okay?”

Josh watched as his granny met Nikki’s gaze and a slow smile crossed her face. Would wonders never cease? His granny had been anxious and out of sorts since the moment she’d arrived at the ranch house—mumbling to herself and resistant to everything he’d tried with her.

Bathing her had taken his father’s help, and she’d been totally uncooperative. He felt sure that part of the problem was having a man giving her a bath. Her personal privacy had been abruptly taken away from her when she’d moved in with them, and she had every right to be upset about that. The upshot of the whole mess was that they’d only managed two baths in the week since she’d arrived.

The microwave dinged, and he took his plate to the living room to eat, feeling certain that Nikki wouldn’t welcome his presence at the kitchen table.

He sat down in the recliner, still in mild shock that Nikki, the girl he’d wanted to marry, was here in his house. Their parting of ways had been anything but amicable, and when he’d seen her occasionally in town in the past twelve years, her chilling glances had made it clear that she still despised him.

His mind roamed to the good times they’d had when they were high school sweethearts. How deeply he’d loved her. And how she’d broken his heart. He grimaced and shoved a bite of spaghetti into his mouth.

Despite the fact that she was good with his granny, having someone who obviously wanted nothing to do with him in the house was something he wasn’t prepared to do—let alone talk to that same person about his grandmother’s care each morning and afternoon. He’d talk to his father about having another nurse from the agency assigned, and that was that.

* * *

Nikki glanced toward the living room, where the front door had opened and then closed firmly behind Josh. He hadn’t even brought his dirty plate back into the kitchen. She knew she should have been more welcoming—it was his home, after all—but, damn, seeing him instead of Drake had completely thrown her off balance. He was as strikingly handsome as she remembered, with those broad shoulders and his jet-black hair. It’d been ages since she’d seen him around town. But that same old feeling of betrayal had come welling up, and she’d wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled.

Well, never mind. Being here was all about Betty, not that good-looking, annoying cowboy. She wiped the old woman’s face and helped her to stand. Betty was unstable on her feet, and even more so when she walked. Nikki wondered how she’d managed in her own home for so long.

The first thing she was going to do was ask Drake’s permission to have the agency order a walker for Betty. Medicare would pay for it. They’d need gliders on the legs, though, since Betty’s cognitive and motor skills were affected by her illness.

Taking Betty’s arm, she led her toward the front door. “How about we swing for a while, huh? Shall we?”

“I want to swing.”

She patted Betty’s arm. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”

A moment later, as they stepped outside, Betty said, “Swing. I want to swing.”

Nikki chuckled. “We’re going to swing now, Betty. Right now.”

She held the swing steady as Betty lowered herself into the seat, then settled in beside her. “Take hold of the chain, Betty.” Nikki pushed off, slowly at first, letting the elderly woman adjust to the motion, but soon they were going much faster. She’d learned earlier in the day as Betty had urged her to go higher and higher that the old woman loved the sensation of flying through the air. This had surprised Nikki, since Betty obviously had balance problems, but if it made her happy, then higher they would go.

They stayed in the swing for over an hour. Betty was blissfully happy, smiling and talking to herself, and sometimes telling Nikki about something that had happened long ago. Nikki encouraged these conversational tidbits and enjoyed learning more about the young Betty she’d never known.

After feeding her patient a mid-afternoon snack, she led Betty to her room, found a clean set of clothes, and took her into the bathroom. Drake had filled her in on the bathing problem, and mentioned that they hadn’t been able to wash her hair, so she’d decided that part of her daily routine with Betty would be giving her a bath. As Betty sat on the commode, Nikki turned on the bathwater and then removed the bandages from Betty’s feet and lower legs.

“No, no bath. No, no, no.”

She patted Betty’s knee. “It’s okay, Betty. I’ll be here with you. We’ll have fun.”

Betty looked at her, as if trying to figure out how the despised bath could be fun.

Nikki smiled. “I promise. We’ll have a good time, okay?”

Betty continued to study her, but didn’t say anything else. And she didn’t fight Nikki as she removed her clothing and briefs. Nikki helped the old woman step into the tub and made a mental note that another thing that Betty needed were grab bars on the side and wall of the tub. She’d talk to Drake about that too.

She found a washcloth in the cabinet and took the cap from a can of shaving cream. She’d made the bath hot, but not too hot, feeling that the water would be relaxing for the elderly woman’s muscles.

Filling the cap with water, she poured it over Betty’s forearm. “Doesn’t that feel good?” She handed the cap to Betty. “Now you do it.” The elderly woman looked at the cap from different angles, as if trying to decide what to do with it, then dipped it in the water and poured it over her arm.

“That’s right. Good job.”

Meanwhile, Nikki used the large plastic cup she’d brought with her and poured the heated water all over Betty’s back. Betty visibly relaxed, and Nikki kept up her rhythmical actions. This first bath was incredibly important, as it would set the stage for all of Betty’s future baths. Making it a relaxing, enjoyable experience was paramount.

Next, she took the bar of soap and created suds with her hands. Then she rubbed them all over Betty’s back, working her muscles gently at the same time. Soon, she did the same for Betty’s neck and arms. The old woman sighed, bowing her head and relaxing even more. After rinsing her off with the cup, Nikki washed Betty’s front and then had her scoot to the back of the tub so that she could wash her legs. The poor old woman probably hadn’t been able to bathe herself well in ages. Nikki lathered and scrubbed and paid extra attention to her feet and toes. Finally, she got the washcloth soapy and had Betty stand up. “Can you wash between your legs, honey, or shall I do it?”

Betty took the cloth. “Me. I’ll do it.”

Nikki watched closely. Betty seemed to do a pretty thorough job, so she had her sit down and rinse herself.

Lastly came her hair. If she was going to have a problem with her patient, it would be here. “Okay, Betty, let’s wash your hair.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“I understand, but we’ll be real quick, okay? You don’t want your boys to see you with nasty, dirty hair, do you?”

Betty’s eyes clouded. and she chewed her lip. After a moment, she said, “I’m not nasty dirty.”

“Well, Betty, I hate to tell you, but your hair looks pretty nasty dirty right now. Let’s wash it and get it nice and clean. We’ll show Drake and Josh how pretty you look when they come home this afternoon. Okay?”

Rather than using the shower wand to wash Betty’s hair, Nikki used the cup to pour water over the old woman’s head. This gave her much better control and she was able to make sure that no water or shampoo suds got into Betty’s eyes.

As she washed Betty’s long hair, she wondered if a haircut might be in order. Taking care of long hair with a dementia patient was problematic. Brushing out the hair was usually a despised task. Would Drake agree to his mother getting a new, more manageable hairstyle? She’d talk to him about that too.

After drying Betty off and helping her dress, she looked in the cabinet for a bottle of detangler and found none. There hadn’t been any conditioner available either. Poor Betty was going to have a time of it when Nikki brushed out her hair.

A huge problem that she’d encountered not long after she’d arrived this morning was the fact that Betty was diabetic and there wasn’t much that a diabetic patient could safely eat in the house. That had made the top of her list to talk with Drake about. It was no wonder that Betty had diabetic ulcers on her feet and lower legs.

The bath had been good for the sores, though. After brushing her patient’s hair, she’d put more bandages on. She’d brought supplies with her in her rolling bag in case the family didn’t have any supplies or didn’t have the right stuff. And Drake had also mentioned this morning that Betty regularly removed her bandages.

She found a carrot in the refrigerator. Chewing became problematic as dementia advanced, and the hard carrot would present a challenge for her patient. It also wasn’t perfect for a diabetic patient as it had a healthy dose of carbs, but it was better than anything else she could find, so she scrubbed it good in the sink, then searched until she found a grater and shredded it. She let Betty eat it with a spoon, and the elderly woman didn’t do too badly with it.

With something in her patient’s tummy now, Nikki asked Betty to sit on the couch in front of the TV in preparation for brushing out her hair. Nikki sat down beside her, adjusted the older woman’s position a bit so that she could reach her long hair, and then began to gently brush, beginning at the bottom.

Twenty minutes later, and without a fuss, she had Betty’s hair tangle-free. Proud of herself for the accomplishment, she poured both of them a glass of iced tea and took Betty out on the porch to swing. She kept it slow this time so they could easily drink from their glasses.

She’d need to get artificial sweetener for Betty, a natural kind like Stevia. Drake had said that Betty didn’t like water but craved iced tea. However, this sugared version was a big no-no.

But the two men had had their hands full with Betty, and Nikki certainly understood. Dementia patients were some of the most difficult to deal with. And Josh—she still couldn’t believe that the gregarious, fun-loving young man she’d known in high school had taken over full-time care of his grandmother, but then he’d always been sweet. Maybe she shouldn’t be surprised. Her pulse picked up speed, despite how she felt about him. There was obviously more to this grown-up version of Josh than she’d thought possible.