But he was there by six every day, right about the time she finished her puppy chores. He always bought her a beer, then Jack provided dinner, which they ate together at a table near the hearth. They talked and laughed while catching up on their families and all the locals they knew, getting to know each other in general. Although she knew this friendship would probably fade and disappear by the time the puppies were adopted, and even though traipsing out to that bar every day was wearing her out, she was enjoying his company more than she could admit even to herself.

“Did you always plan to come back here? To take over your father’s practice?” Annie asked him one evening.

“Nope,” he said. “Wasn’t part of my plan at all. First of all, I prefer Thoroughbreds to cows. I wanted to treat them, breed them, show them, race them. I did a couple of years’ residency in equine orthopedics, worked in a big practice in Kentucky, then in a real lucrative practice outside Los Angeles. Then my dad wanted to retire. He’d put in his time—he’s seventy-five now. Years back, he and my mom bought a horse property in a nice section of southern Arizona, but they wanted to keep the house and stable, not to mention the vet practice, in the family. You have any idea how hard it is to build a practice with these tough old farmers and ranchers?” He chuckled. “The name Nathaniel Jensen goes a long way around here, even though I am the upstart.”

“So here you are…..back at the family practice?” she asked. But she was thinking that he’d been rubbing elbows with big-money horse people. Society people, whom she’d seen at a distance at certain competitions and fairs, but knew none of. She’d been riding since she could walk, took lessons and competed in dressage, and so was more than a little familiar with the kind of wealth associated with breeding, racing and showing Thoroughbreds. The well-to-do could send their daughters to Europe for lessons, fly their horses to Churchill Downs in private planes and invest millions in their horse farms. Humboldt County farm girls couldn’t compete with that. She swallowed, feeling not a little out of her league.

“I said I’d give it a chance. My plan was to put in a year or two, save some money, maybe break in a new guy with an interest in the stable and practice. But I haven’t gotten around to that and it’s been two years.”

“I see,” she said. “You’re still planning to leave?”

“I don’t have to tell you what’s great about this place.” He smiled. “And I think I don’t have to tell you what’s missing. It’s kind of a quiet life for a bachelor. Remember that dull social life you mentioned?”

“How could I forget?” she threw back at him.

“You seeing someone?” he asked suddenly, surprising her.

“Hmm? No. No, not at the moment. You?”

“No. Date much?” he asked.

Startled, she just shook her head. “Not much. Now and then.” She thought for a moment and then said, “Ah. The vacation. Getting away to see if you can jump-start your social life a little bit?”

He just smiled. “Couldn’t hurt. And it’ll be nice to catch up with friends. We were real tight in vet school. We got each other through a lot of exams.”

“How many of you are going?” she asked.

“Five men, including me, two of them married and bringing wives. Two women vets.”

“Women vets? Married?”

“One’s still single and one’s divorced.”

“Gotcha,” she said. “I bet one’s an old girlfriend.”

“Nah,” he said.

“Come on—didn’t you ever date one?”

“I think I dated both of them. Briefly. We worked out better as study partners than…..well, than anything else.” He took a drink. “Really, I want to fish.”

She took a last bite of her dinner. “Fishing is real good around here,” she said.

“I fish the rivers here. A little deep-sea fishing sounded like a good idea. Some sun would be acceptable. I have golf clubs,” he said with a laugh. “I used to play a lot of golf in L.A. Yeah,” he mused, “a little sunshine won’t hurt.”

After a moment she reminded him with a smile, “And soon you’ll be lying on a beach in the middle of a hundred string bikinis.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said with a grin. “Maybe I should do more fishing around here if I want to catch the big one.”


By the time Sunday rolled around, Annie was back at the farm. She went early in the day so she could drop by the bar later that afternoon. Today, so close to Christmas, she was baking with her mother all day—breads, pastries, cookies to be frozen for the barrage of company—but she would have her dinner at the bar. Because of the puppies, of course.

“You’re very quiet, Annie,” her mother said. “I think you’re letting this adventure with the puppies wear you out. You’ve always had such a tender heart.”

“I am tired,” she admitted, rolling out cookie dough. “I’m getting up extra early, starting at the shop earlier so I can leave earlier, staying up late to finish work. And you know I won’t leave my house alone—I’m decorating for Christmas. I’ve been doing a little here and there, before and after work.”

“Then you shouldn’t be out here two days a week,” Rose McKenzie said. “Really, I appreciate the help, but I’m not too old to do the holiday baking.”

“I count on our baking as gifts,” Annie said. “So I’m glad to help.

“I didn’t realize we had a new and improved Doc Jensen,” she went on, changing the subject. “I thought it was still old Doc Jensen who came for the horses and Erasmus when you needed a vet. But when he stopped to look at the puppies, he explained he was Nathaniel Junior. You never mentioned.”

“Oh, sure we did, honey. His coming home was good gossip there for a while. He had some woman living with him, but she took off like a scalded cat. I don’t think we talked about anything else for months.”

“A woman? When was that?”

“A couple years ago. Some fancy young Hollywood girl,” Rose said with an indulgent laugh. “We ran into them a few times—at the fair, the farmers’ market, here and there.” Her mother was kneading dough as she chattered. “You know, you don’t run into people that often around here. They could’ve been here a year before anyone met her, but Nathaniel had her out and about. Probably trying to help her get acquainted. But it didn’t work too well, I guess.”

“I’m sure I would have remembered, Mom. I don’t think you ever mentioned it.”

Rose looked skyward briefly, trying to remember. “That might’ve been about the time you were preoccupied with other things. Like buying the Clip and Curl shop. And then there was Ed, and that ordeal with Ed. You might’ve had other things on your mind.”

Ed. Yes, Ed. She hadn’t exactly been engaged, thank God, but they’d been an item for about a year and she’d expected to be engaged. They had talked about marriage. She laughed humorlessly. “That could have distracted me a little,” Annie agreed.

“The bum,” Rose McKenzie muttered, punching dough more aggressively than necessary. “He’s a pig and a fool and a liar and a…..a bum!”

Loving it, Annie laughed. “He’s really not a bum. He works hard and earns a good living, which it turned out he needed for all the women he had on a string. But I concede to pig, liar and fool, and I’m certainly not missing him. The louse,” she added. “I can’t remember now—why was it we didn’t let the boys shoot him in the head?”

“I can’t remember exactly, either,” Rose said. “I knew all along he wasn’t right for you.”

“No, you didn’t,” Annie argued. “You had me trying on your wedding dress about once a month, asking me constantly if we’d talked about a date. You expected him to give me a ring.”

“I just thought if…..”

Ed was in farm-equipment sales and had a very broad territory in northern California, a job that had him on the road most of the week. Then she learned that for the entire time they’d dated, Ed was involved with another woman in Arcata. About six months ago he’d decided it was time to make a choice, and he chose the other woman.

Ouch.

Annie’s pride was hurt, but worse than hurt pride was her embarrassment. How had this been going on without her getting so much as a whiff of it? When she hadn’t seen him, she had talked to him every single day. He never betrayed the slightest hint that she was not the only female in his life. And it made her furious to think he’d been with another woman while he was with her. She even drove to Arcata to sneak a look at her, but she couldn’t figure out, based on looks, just what it was that won her the great prize that was Ed.

Before she could ponder that for long, that Arcata woman found her, looked her up, informed her they weren’t the only two. Ed, as it happened, was quite the dabbler. He had at least one other steady girlfriend to spend the nights with.

Her tears had turned to fumes. She threw out everything that reminded her of him. She bought all new bedding and towels. Went to the doctor and got a clean bill of health. But at the end of the day when she grieved, it wasn’t so much for Ed as for the idea of Ed; she had invested a year in a man she thought would give her the stability of marriage and family, a settled life. The dependence of love. Security. When she thought about Ed, she wanted to dismember him. She wanted her brothers to go after him and beat him senseless. But not only would she never take him back, she’d cross the street to avoid him. So maybe Rose was right—maybe they both really knew all along he just wasn’t the one.

But neither was anyone else. She hadn’t been out on five dates since the breakup a little more than six months ago, and the number of boyfriends she’d had before Ed had come along were too few to count. She went out with her girlfriends regularly, but the best part of her life was spending a couple of days on the farm, riding, cooking or baking or putting up preserves with her mom.

The farmhouse had a wide porch that stretched the length of the house, and from that porch you could watch the seasons come and go. The brightness of spring, the lushness of summer, the burnt color of fall, the white of winter. She watched the year pass from that porch, as she had since she was a little girl. But lately it seemed as though the years were passing way too quickly and she wondered if she’d ever find the right partner to sit there with rather than alone.

A Hollywood woman? A fancy Hollywood woman? That would explain things like Caribbean vacations. Nate was drawn to flashy, sexy women. Or maybe the kind of women found in the private boxes at races or horse shows; Annie had seen enough of those televised events to know the type—model gorgeous, decked out in designer clothes, hand-stitched boots, lots of fringe and bling. Or the type seen at the fund-raisers and society events attended by the wives, daughters and sisters of Thoroughbred breeders, the kind of women whose horses were entered in the Preakness. Or perhaps he preferred medically educated women, like another vet who could appreciate his professional interests—the kind of women who also rubbed elbows with the well-to-do because of their profession.

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