CINDY GERARD - New York Times Bestseller


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Chapter 1

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 grin.

“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 the wheel. 

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 you? 

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 half acre. 

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 and done. 

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 himself. 

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 down.

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 back.

“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 a reward.

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 the black.