About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Thirty seconds after walking in the front door from a lousy day at work, these were not the first words Teresa Burkett wanted to hear from her daughter.
"Don't whine," she said automatically. "I didn't let you whine when you were two, and I'm not going to start now."
Nicole dumped a cat off her lap and rose from her slouch on the sofa. Sounding teenage indignant, she said, "Can't I ask a perfectly reasonable question?"
"Certainly." Teresa headed for the kitchen. "Go right ahead."
Mark was already there. A typical ten-going-on-eleven-year-old boy, he was eating. String cheese, a bowl of some sugary cereal and a pop. Teresa shuddered.
She opened the fridge and grabbed a cola. Caffeine. She needed it quick. One long swallow later, she noticed the casserole dish, still covered with aluminum foil, reposing on the refrigerator shelf.
Stay calm. "You didn't put dinner on like I asked."
"Mo-om." Her pretty dark-haired daughter looked at her as if she were an idiot. "It isn't time to put dinner on. You're home early."
Teresa sighed. "I'm sorry. I forgot."
Mouth full, Mark asked, "How was your day?"
"Crummy." She made a face. "I did three spays, wormed two horses and treated a few miscellaneous cats and dogs. Otherwise, I hung around the clinic hopefully and helped Eric load his truck."
The dairy farmers had decided their animals could afford to wait until the vet they knewa mancould get around to them. They were a conservative lot, these farmers. Their daughters and wives might get their hands dirty helping out, but they didn't make the major decisions and they didn't become veterinarians.
A couple of the farmers had checked Teresa out by bringing their cats or dogs in for treatment. She had to assume that her appearance was part of the problem. Maybe if she'd been a big strapping gal, they would have accepted her gender philosophically. Instead, she was a slender five foot four when she stretched. Her wiry strength didn't show. She looked petite and elegant, ornamental instead of useful.
Only, if they wouldn't give her a chance, how the hell did she demonstrate her competence? A wave of panic washed over her. Financially and legally, she was Dr. Eric Bergstrom's partner now; she'd bought into the practice. But she wouldn't blame him if he got damn tired of doing all the work while she loitered around the clinic.
"Dr. Craig said you could come back to your old job any time." Nicole was trying hard not to sound hopeful. "It's not too late. The sale on this house hasn't even closed." The pause was calculated; the three-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of town was not, in Nicole's opinion, a suitable residence for a sophisticated teenager. She belonged back in the oversize, ostentatious, French-provincial style home they'd left behind in Bellevue, an increasingly ritzy community across Lake Washington from Seattle. Teresa was trying very hard to be patient. Fifteen was a tough age at which to have to move, but Nicole would adjust.
Assuming, Teresa thought ruefully, that her mother didn't end up tucking her tail between her legs and running.
"Actually, I signed the papers today. It's all ours. Give up, kiddo," she said lightly, then groaned when the dogs leapt to their feet and raced, barking, to the front door. A second later the doorbell rang. "Are either of you expecting a friend?"
"Friend?" Nicole struck an astonished pose. "Who has a friend?"
Nonetheless, she trailed her mother to the door. Presumably even some hick neighbor would be a diversion in this outpost of civilization.
"Quiet!" Teresa snapped at the dogs. Golda and Serena quit barking and looked sheepish. She opened the door and gaped. If the man on her porch was a hick, might she never find civilization again.
He actually wore overalls and muddy work boots, as most of the farmers around here seemed to, but this guy was built. Muscles, shoulders wide enough to shelter a woman from a cold wind, long legs He had to be at least six foot two. His straight dark hair looked silky, his lean face was tanned, his wide mouth set in the kind of grim line that served as a challenge to any self-respecting woman. But it was his eyes that riveted her. In that dark face, they were a vivid electric blue.
"May I help you?" Thank God, she didn't sound quite as dumbstruck as she felt.
He moved his shoulders, as though uncomfortably aware of what had been going through her mind. "Dr. Burkett?"
"Yes?" A client?
"My sister suggested I stop by. Jess Kerrigan. She said you wanted some trees taken down."
Trees? Jess Kerrigan? Teresa snapped out of it. Jess was the nice owner of those show-quality Arabians. She had actually agreed cheerfully to let the new vet treat one of them.
And the conversation with her had even been useful. During a discussion of Teresa's old farmhouseJess knew the previous ownersTeresa had asked about tree-toppers. Her client had remarked that her brother was a logging contractor.
"He'll give you a good price," she'd announced. "I'll tell him to."
"Oh, you don't need"
"We like to welcome newcomers to White Horse."
If only the dairy farmers felt the same.
The man was still standing there on her doorstep waiting. Teresa pulled herself together. "Bless you. I'd forgotten to get your name or phone number from her. Why don't you come in?"
He glanced down at his boots. "I'd better not. If you could just show me the trees "
"Sure." She stepped out and let the dogs slip through. Closing the door in her astonished daughter's face, she smiled. "Around the house."
She was conscious of him behind her in a way she couldn't ever remember being. She couldn't remember, either, the last time she'd hoped so fervently that a man had noticed her, as well. Unless Oh, nohad Jess Kerrigan said anything about a sister-in-law? But of course he'd be married. Any man this beautiful had to be. In fact, any man over thirty with a half-decent character was married, never mind what he looked like.
The front lawn was springy under her feet. Too springy; it was half moss, shaded by the stand of mixed cedar and hemlocks to the south of the house.
"These," she said simply, standing aside. "The realtor said one of them came down last year on the roof, which is why the house has a new one. I don't want to take a chance on a repeat. Besides, I'd like a little more sun. The closets are mildewing."
He nodded and rubbed his chin reflectively as he stood contemplating the fifteen or so trees, tilting his head back to gaze up, then glancing around as though her yard told him something.
"I thought I might leave the big cedar," Teresa said, feeling the need to fill the silence. "It's pretty."
Without a word, he went to the tree. From a pocket in his overalls, he pulled a screwdriver and poked it into the trunk. "Rotten. Better take it out, too."
"Rotten? Oh, what a shame."
"Are you thinking you might get much for these trees?"
"Get much?" She blinked, then realized she didn't even know the man's name. When she asked, he looked surprised.
"Sorry. I guess I figured Jess would have mentioned it. Joe Hughes." He held out one large hand.
It completely engulfed hers. She liked the feeling, which took her aback. She'd spent most of her life trying to overcome the handicap of her size. Now she wanted to be overwhelmed by some primitive hunk of masculinity?
There was no denying it. That was exactly what she wanted. Their clasped hands brought other visions to her mind: his head bent over hers, his body pressing hers down, his She firmly put the brakes on her imagination. He was married, she reminded herself. He must be. Besides, he hadn't demonstrated any great interest in her. Maybe his tastes ran to six-foot Nordic goddesses.
But, no. He hadn't let her hand go, and when she lifted her gaze to his, it was to catch a flicker of something in those eyes that sped up her pulse more than her first chance at surgery had. Were his cheeks tinged with red as he finally released her hand?
"Jess always says I have no manners," he said ruefully. "I guess she's right."
"What do sisters know?" Teresa said, grinning at him.
He lifted one dark brow. Didn't it figure he could. "You have some, too?"
"Two. I'm the middle child. I'm sure that's why my psyche is so fragile."
For a moment he studied her as gravely as he had the stand of trees. Then he smiled, slow and heart-stoppingly sexy. "You look fragile all right, but my mama always taught me appearances are deceiving."
His eyes lingered on her face as the smile faded. She felt flushed and dizzy.
"Five hundred dollars," he said.
"What?" She stared at him.
"For your stumpage. The trees aren't big enough to be worth much, but I can get them out easy enoughthe truck can back right down your driveway. Pulp mill'll take 'em. You'll be rid of the trees and have a little cash."
Thank heavens for his speech, the longest out of his mouth yet. It had given her time to realize he wasn't offering five hundred dollars for her body.
"Does that include your taking the stumps out, not just grinding them down?"
"Yup. And burning the stumps and slash."
"You're on," she said.
That eyebrow rose again. "Don't you want to get other bids?"
"I already have. Two. One of the guys wanted to charge me two thousand dollars. Said the trees weren't worth anything. He was going to buck them into firewood length and leave them for me. I'd have been stacking them for the rest of my life. The other fellow didn't do stumps. He gave me the names of a couple of places that grind them down. I'm thinking of putting the vegetable garden there. How can I if the ground is full of roots?"
Joe Hughes nodded. "I don't think anybody would beat my price, anyway."
"Your sister guaranteed you."
"Sisters are good for something," he said, straight-faced.
"Yours seemed like a nice woman. She let me touch her horses."
He heard the flash of bitterness, because those disconcerting eyes fixed themselves on her face again. "You're a vet."
"I'm a woman."
His gaze flicked downward, then back to her face. "...