BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND MORNING
He ought to get down in the dirt beside her. That would be the right thing
to do. But the fun thing was to watch the good doctor try
to wrestle the brindle calf into submission.
Yeah, the right thing would be to help her out because she was
definitely going down for the count. But she had told him to stay
back, he reasoned. And the view of Alison Samuels’ tidy little
backside looked mighty fine from where he stood. Mighty fine.
John Tyler thumbed back his Resistol and hitched a dusty boot
on the bottom rail of his dry lot fence. Crossing his arms over
the top board, he settled in to watch the show … and a fine
one it was proving to be, he thought with a grin.
Damn, the Doc was a tiny little thing. Cute as a button too with
her honey blond hair pulled back in a long animated ponytail. Like
her, it had looked sleek and professional when she’d answered
his call this morning. It didn’t look that way now. Nothing
about her did. Now, she was a pretty, dirty mess. Despite the dust
smearing cheeks pinkened with heat and exertion, flyaway strands
of spun gold hair standing every which direction around her face,
she was the kind of mess that made a man think of sweaty sheets,
sultry sighs and a whole lot of pleasure between midnight and morning.
He straightened, cleared his throat and tugged his hat lower on
his brow to cut the glare of the July sun. Then he told himself
to think about something besides Alison Samuel’s slim, bare
limbs tangled with his. Something like why a city woman would want
to pick up and move from Kansas City to Sundown, Montana, and take
over old Doc Sebring’s vet practice. And why this particular
woman – who looked more pre-disposed to cocktail parties
and little black dresses – would make the choice to set up
shop in what most folks referred to as north of nowhere, was as
intriguing as hell.
It was almost as intriguing as her skintight Wranglers that strained
at the seams while she hunkered down, dug her boot heels into the
packed dirt, and tried to muscle the calf into her way of thinking.
It wasn’t gonna happen. Not with that technique. In fact,
it was pretty apparent that up until this point in her vet career
the biggest thing she’d ever wrestled was most likely a fat
tabby with a hairball.
The brindle – a good one hundred fifty pounds of ornery
on the hoof – let out a P.O.’d bellow, swung his head
around and butted her under the chin. John winced then shook his
head. Oh man. That had to hurt like blazes. He’d been on
the receiving end of one of those head butts. It was a pretty good
bet that Doctor Dish was riding a rising tide of nausea and counting
a sea of stars – but she gritted her teeth and hung on like
a bulldogger bent on winning a championship rodeo buckle.
Grit. She had it in spades. She couldn’t hide the pain in
her eyes though and when he saw it, he swore under his breath and
decided this was as far as he was willing to let this fiasco go.
He swung himself up and over the fence, finessed the calf into
a headlock and threw him on his side.
“Didn’t ask for your help.” The Doc grunted, a little breathless,
as she tugged the plastic cap off a syringe with her teeth and quickly jabbed
the antibiotic into the wriggling animal’s neck.
“And you obviously didn’t need it.” John tossed
her a congenial grin as he released the calf. “But I just
couldn’t stand the idea of you having all that fun by yourself.”
He rose to his feet then brushed corral grime off his jeans. Silver
blue eyes set in a face that made him think of porcelain and princesses
met his through the heat and the dust as the calf ran, bawling,
toward his anxious mother.
Judging by the look in her eyes, the Doc was considering getting
huffy. In the end, she just shook her head and gave up a weary
“Well … far be it from me to spoil a boy’s
fun.” She capped the needle, tossed it into her utility
bucket and offered, if not an exuberant, an appreciative but weary, “Thanks.”
Maybe it was the boy comment. Maybe it was her valiant defiance
even after the calf had gained the upper hand. Or it could be it
was just the pleasure of finally seeing her smile – even
if it was a feeble effort. He was a sucker for a beautiful woman’s
smile – and this woman’s had him asking a question
he’d pretty much decided he wasn’t going to ask again.
“How about you thank me by having dinner with me tonight?”
She didn’t even blink as she gathered up her supplies and
headed for her truck, rinsed her hands in a bucket of soapy water
then hastily dried them on a towel. After digging around in a refrigerated
compartment in the vet unit topping the pickup box, she found what
she wanted then filled two syringes with antibiotic.
“He’ll need another dose tomorrow and one the day
after,” she said, handing him the medication. “If
you don’t see any improvement by mid-week next week, give
me a call.”
John slipped the syringes into his shirt pocket. “Can do.
Now … about dinner?”
Pointedly ignoring his question, she stowed her medical supplies,
shut the compartment and skirted around him toward the truck’s
cab. “Have a good day, John,” she said, climbing behind
He caught the door before she could shut it then stood in the
opening, grinning up at her.
“It’s J.T. My friends call me J. T.”
She scowled down at him. “I need to get going.”
Damn, she was something. Sweat streaked down her temple, corral
grime powdered her cheeks. Her hair clung to her face and neck
in wet ringlets and double damn, a bluish pink bruise had started
forming just under the point of her chin.
Yeah. Even wrecked, she was something. And worth the rejection – six
times by his last count since she’d set up shop in Sundown
a month ago.
“Better get some ice on that,” he suggested, pointing
an index finger to his own chin.
“First chance I get.”
Which meant, never, if he read her tone right.
“Hold on. I’ll get you an ice pack.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“I do,” he insisted. “Sit tight.”
He headed for the tack room in the barn before she could finish
her protest. After finding a disposable pack in the freezer – bruises
and sprains were standard fare on a working cattle ranch – he
walked back to her truck.
“Thanks,” she said again, and again with a grudging
reluctance when he handed her the pack.
“You can thank me by going to dinner with me. Hey – how
about that? Déjà vu all over again.”
She made an exasperated sound. “What is it with you? Why
do you bother? You know what the answer’s going to be.”
“Oh, it’s that fun factor again, I suppose.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of the hard-head factor.”
He tugged on his ear lobe, grinned. “That too. I’m
persistent as hell when something’s important to me.”
“And it’s important that I go out to dinner with you?
Why? I don’t get it.”
“Lord above, woman. Don’t you ever look in a mirror?”
Their eyes met for the briefest of moments while the sun beat
down like an endless lick from a bass guitar. Pulsing, heavy, hot.
She let out a huge sigh. “This is all very flattering. You’re
a sweet guy-”
“Good looking too,” he pointed out, pleased as punch
when that little bit of foolishness pried a small, reluctant grin
out of her.
“And let’s not forget humble,” she added with
a shake of her head. “But I’m not-”
“Interested. I know. Okay … so don’t think
of it as a date. Put any spin on it you want. Think of it as a
neighbor being neighborly.
“Look,” he continued reasonably, “you’re
single. I’m single. You have to eat. I have to eat. What
part’s hanging you up?”
She turned the key in the ignition, gripped the steering wheel
with both hands and met his eyes with unwavering resolve. “It’s
not going to happen.” Another sigh. A big one. “If
you want to use another vet, I’ll understand.”
He waved that notion away and squinted up at her. “Is it
the age thing? Because if it is-“
“Stop!” She dropped her forehead on the steering wheel
with a groan. “It has nothing to do with our age difference.”
“Well, then, there you go.” So he was thirty-two
and she was forty – this tidbit of info compliments of his
friend Peg Reno who was chummy with the Doc. He didn’t see
a problem. She did though, no matter that she claimed otherwise.
“Come on, Doc,” he wheedled, trying his damnedest
not to sound like he was doing just that. “We’re talking
about dinner, for Pete’s sake. I’m not asking you to
go to bed with me.”
She lifted a brow and pinned him with a look that said, aren’t
Yeah. Well. She had him there. He scratched his jaw. Eventually,
hell yes, that’s exactly where he wanted her. And as their
gazes locked then held, he saw something in her eyes that punched
him in the chest like a bullet. For an unexpected and sensually
charged moment, cool blue accusation transitioned to awareness
to heated longing … then to panic and desperate denial.
If he hadn’t been paying attention, he’d have missed
the whole parade because in the next instant, she shifted into
gear, tore out the lane and laid a trail of Montana dust that boiled
up behind her truck like a cyclone bent on rearranging hell’s
And as he stood there, watching her go, he finally understood.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he uttered under his
breath and headed back for the barn. She wanted the same thing
he did – which was a lot more than dinner – but for
some reason, it scared her half to death.
Scared her and inexplicably, made her sad. Yeah, he’d seen
that in her eyes too, he realized as he opened the tack room door.
The woman was a whole boatload of contradictions and complications … which
begged the obvious question, why was he bothering?
Because the Doc was a knockout, that’s why.
Snagging Snowy’s bride, blanket and saddle, he headed for
his mare’s stall. Alison Samuels was sexy, intelligent, mature – unlike
many of the women who came on to him – and he was guessing
she’d be great in bed. Plus, everything about her suggested
that she wouldn’t probe or analyze or want to get all touchy
feely with his emotions or his life. Another major draw, he thought,
sobering and walked into the stall with a soft, “Hey, girl,
time to earn your oats.”
He set aside the tack then tugged a brush out of his hip pocket.
While he worked on the mare’s coat, he thought about Alison’s
blue eyes that made him think of Russian sage and sleepy mornings
after. Eyes that always looked guarded and distant … a sure
sign that she’d respect his privacy.
And privacy was something that grew more important to him with
each passing day. Just like every day, he fought to keep from taking
a wrong step and falling into the black hole that persisted in
trying to take over his life. Most days, he won the battle. But
some days … some days he didn’t have it in him to
even show up for the war.
Those were the days he wasn’t fit to be around anyone. Those
were the days he wasn’t fit to be. On the best of the bad
days, he’d saddle Snowy and try to outrun it. On the worst,
he’d hole up in his bedroom. Shades drawn, lights off. And
wait to feel human again. Wait to be able to cope again. And feel
like the weakest slug on earth because he had no control over when
or how hard the darkness hit him.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. That’s what the marine shrinks
called it. A result of his experiences in the field. He’d
wanted to be a warrior. He wanted to be on the front line where
he could make a difference, so he fudged on his aptitude tests
so they wouldn’t stick him behind a desk working computers.
Well, he’d made it to the front line all right but with a
hospital field kit instead of a rifle. They’d made him a
medic. And he’d forever be haunted by what he’d seen
Yeah, they called it PTSD. He called it something else. Weakness.
And his inability to lick it filled him with shame. So much shame
that he hid it. Hid it from his friends, hid it from his family.
Sometimes, for weeks at a time, he even managed to hide it from
Hell, ask anyone who knew him and they’d tell you the same
thing. John Tyler? He was one good time Charlie. Nothing gets
to J.T. Always grinning. Always flirting with the ladies. A wild
one, that boy, and pity the woman who ever expects him to settle
Well, no woman was ever going to have to worry about that. Because
no woman deserved to be saddled with him for the long haul. The
minute a woman showed signs of wanting more from him than a good
time and a hot physical relationship, he was gone. If they started
telling him their life stories, well, then they’d expect
the same from him and that just wasn’t going to happen. The
last thing he wanted was a long-term relationship and the inherent
emotional intimacy that went with the territory.
Which led him right back to Alison. He strongly suspected that
the blond Doc had secrets too. Her eyes told him that much. She
had something in her past she either wanted to forget or kept under
lock and key. Well, he didn’t want to know about it, just
as he was guessing she wouldn’t want to know about his.
“What doc you think, pretty girl?” he murmured scratching
the bald faced sorrel’s jaw. “Seems to me she’s
just what the doctor ordered. An independent woman who won’t
feel the need to fix me or get too deeply involved.”
Snowy stood placidly while he settled a saddle blanket over her
“Could you be a little more decisive?” he continued
and hefted the saddle high on her withers. “No? Well, guess
I’ll just have to go with my gut on this then.”
As he led Snowy out of the barn into the sunlight, his gut told
him to fight the fight. Maybe that’s what he needed – a
challenge with a reward at the end instead of merely relief for
making it through another day. The Doc was definitely a challenge – and
He mounted the mare and headed for the summer pasture, looking
forward to the long ride ahead of him. A ride long enough to come
up with any number of ways to win the Doc over to his way of thinking.
If nothing else, it would keep his mind from wandering back to