Nate transported the puppy box in the covered bed of his truck. They were bundled up with extra blankets and wouldn’t get too cold on the short ride. Annie followed in her own truck. They made a left off the main road at the sign that said Jensen Stables, Dr. Nathaniel Jensen, DVM. The road was paved, which was high cotton in this part of the world. It was tree-lined and the snow-covered brush was cut back from the edge. The road had to be at least half a mile long. Then it opened into a well-lit compound. The stable was on the left of a large open area, with a corral surrounding it on the side and back. The clinic itself was attached to the stable. There were Christmas lights twinkling in one of the windows. On the right was a sprawling, modern one-story house with a brick sidewalk that led up to double front doors of dark wood set with beveled-glass windows. Not a single Christmas light or ornament on the house at all. Annie wondered if the vet tech had decorated the clinic.

Between the house and stable were two horse trailers. One could hold six horses, the other two, and both were so fancy they probably came with a bar and cabin attendants.

The garage door at one end of the house opened automatically, and Nate pulled in. Annie parked outside and walked through the garage. She carried the formula and baby cereal while he carried the box, managing to open the door into the house and flick on lights with his elbow as he walked through the kitchen and then disappeared. The kitchen was the kind Annie’s mother would have died for—large new appliances, six-burner stove, double oven, work island with a sink. It was gorgeous. It looked newly remodeled.

Annie moved more slowly, peering past a long breakfast bar into a spacious family room with big, comfy-looking furniture and a beautiful fireplace. On each side of the fireplace were floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes.

“Annie? Where are you?”

She stopped gawking and followed the voice. She passed a very long, old oak table in a large breakfast nook inside bay windows that looked out on the back of the property. A sharp left and down a short hall took her past a bathroom, a bedroom and into a laundry room. In addition to cabinets, there was a stainless-steel washer and dryer, along with a deep sink. This was not an old farmhouse, that was for sure.

“I’ll use linens from the clinic to line their box,” Nate said. “They’ll be fine in here. Listen, I know you signed on for this duty, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to rearrange your schedule to get out here the first minute you can escape work every day. Virginia, my tech, can help during the day and I get called out sometimes, but this time of year, no one’s breeding or birthing, so it’s not usually too hectic. But—”

“Okay,” she said. “I won’t come. I’ll leave a number. If you need me.”

“Well, could you still come sometimes?” he asked with a laugh. “If you give me a hand feeding and cleaning up, I’ll thaw a hunk of meat to throw in the broiler or something. Nothing like Preacher’s, but edible. Just let me know when you can be here.”

“You have your tech…...”

“I don’t like to ask Virginia to stay after five unless we have special patients—she wants to get home, have dinner with her husband. I’ll fix you up with a key, in case I’m tied up on a case and you beat me home.”

“Sure. Tell me exactly what you want,” she said.

He put his hands on his hips. “I want to know what’s wrong. Why are you frowning like that? You’ve been frowning since I walked into Jack’s.”

Mentally, she tried to smooth out her eyebrows, but she could still feel the wrinkle. She’d been trying to picture him with a trophy girl on his arm, that was what. Or with an equestrienne from a high-muck-a-muck ranch who raced or showed horses all over the world. Or maybe a mature and attractive woman his age who was as smart and successful as he was. And he was so damn handsome it wasn’t hard to imagine all this. But she said, “You’re downright chipper. This is exactly what you didn’t want, but you’re almost thrilled about having the puppies here. What’s up with that?”

He laughed. “Nah. I knew it was going to come to this. I’m glad Jack and Preacher handled them for that first week for two reasons—they had to be fed, dried and checked frequently, and I enjoyed stopping by the bar on the way home every day. Don’t know when I’ve eaten so well,” he added, rubbing a flat belly. “Now that it’s apparent they’re all going to make it, they only have to be checked and fed every few hours, something Virginia and I can handle during the day. I agree with you about the shelter. They’d probably be just fine—those folks are devoted, and they interview and screen efficiently before they let a tiny, orphaned animal out of there. But why take chances? If we have to use the shelter, we’ll just do so after Christmas.”

“That’s it? You knew all along you’d get stuck with them?”

He just laughed. “Come on, I’ll show you the house I grew up in, we’ll put on some coffee, feed the pups and put ’em down for the night. How about that?”

“You don’t have to show me the house. I’m not going to be poking around in here.”

He grabbed her hand. “I’m not worried about you poking around. Come on,” he said again, pulling her back through the kitchen. He took her through a spacious great room, where he said, “Many fights between my sisters happened here. When I grew up, there was old, floral, ratty furniture in here, but once everyone got educated and off Mom and Dad’s payroll, new things began to appear around the house. Things got updated and remodeled.” He pulled her down the hall, showed her where the master bedroom and three others were located. “I got the bed-and-bath on the other side of the kitchen. Kept me away from the girls.” Then he took a right turn off the great room. “Formal living room, used only on family holidays like Christmas, and dining room, used for overflow at big family dinners.” And then they were back in the huge kitchen.

“It’s enormous,” she said breathlessly. “It’s very beautiful. What must it have been like to grow up in a house so large?”

“I probably took it for granted, like any kid would,” he said with a shrug. “It’s still my parents’ house, though I doubt they’ll ever move back here. Come on, I’ll put on coffee.”

“You don’t have to entertain me, Nate.”

“Maybe I’m entertaining myself. I don’t have much company out here.”

The moment they had the coffee poured Annie remembered. “Damn,” she said. “Don’t move. I have something for you.” She dashed out the garage door to her car, retrieved the cookies and brought them in. In typical country fashion, they were arranged on a clear, plastic plate with plastic wrap covering them. “For you,” she said. “They should be warm, but now they’re nearly frozen. My mother insisted.”

“She baked them for me?” he asked, surprised, as he peeled off the wrap and helped himself.

“Well, kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“We baked together today. All day. We do that for the holidays. Stuff for the freezer, gifts for neighbors and for my girls at the shop. We bake on my days off for weeks right up to Christmas.”

“You bake?” he asked, looking mesmerized, maybe shocked.

She smirked. “All farm girls bake. I also know how to quilt, garden, put up preserves and chop the head off a chicken. I couldn’t butcher a cow by myself, but I know how it’s done and I’ve helped.”

“Wow.”

She was not flattered by his response. She’d hardly led a glamorous life and she’d much rather have told him she’d gone to boarding school in Switzerland and dressage training in England. “I bet I remind you of your mother, huh?”

He chuckled. “Not exactly. Do you fish? Hunt?”

“I’ve been fishing and hunting, but I prefer the farm. Well, I shot a mountain lion once, but that was a long time ago and I wasn’t hunting. The little bastard was after my mother’s chickens, and the boys had already moved away, so I—”

“How old were you?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know—thirteen or fourteen. But I’m not crazy about hunting. I like to ride. I miss the cows. I loved the calving. Ice cream made from fresh cream. Warm eggs, right out from under the chicken. I have more 4-H ribbons than anyone in my family. Erasmus, that mean old bull? He’s mine. Blue ribbon—state fair. I was fifteen when he came along—he’s an old guy now, and the father of hundreds. I have a green thumb like my mother—I can stick anything in the ground and it grows. I once grew a rock bush.” He threw her a shocked expression and she rolled her eyes. He recovered. “Just one of those plain old farm girls. Size-ten boot and taller than all the boys till I was a senior in high school. My dad calls me solid. Steady. Not the kind of girl men are drawn to. I attract…..puppies. That’s what.”

He smiled hugely, showing her his bright white teeth and that maddening dimple. “Is that a fact?”

“Not your type, certainly. I’ve never had a string bikini. I wouldn’t know what to do with one. Floss your teeth? Is that what you do?”

He laughed. “There are sexier things than string bikinis,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “The minute I heard you describe being lost in the middle of a hundred string bikinis, I got a picture in my mind that I haven’t been able to get rid of. It’s like having a bad song stuck in your head.”

“Oh, Jesus, don’t you just have a giant bug up your ass,” he said, amused.

“I have no idea what you mean,” she said, though she knew exactly. She was a terrible liar. “I didn’t even know you weren’t your father, you know. I had no idea you were the vet until you showed up at Jack’s. And today while we were baking, my folks told me that when you came up here to take over the practice, they’d talked about nothing else for months. I guess you brought your girlfriend with you. A beautiful, fancy, Hollywood woman.”

Shock widened his mouth and eyes. “Get outta here,” he said. Then he erupted into laughter. “Is that what they’re saying?”

A little embarrassed, she shrugged. “I don’t know that anyone’s saying anything anymore, and I don’t know who besides my folks saw it that way.”

He laughed for a long time, finally getting himself under control. “Okay, look. She was my fiancée, okay? But it was my mistake, bringing her up here, because she was far too young. I must have been out of my mind. She wasn’t ready to get married. Thank God. And she wasn’t a Hollywood woman, although she really wanted to be. Maybe she is by now, for all I know. Susanna was from Van Nuys. The only thing she knew about horses was that they have four legs and big teeth. She was twenty-four to my twenty-nine, had never lived in a small town and really didn’t want to.”

“And thin,” Annie added. “Very thin.”

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