He put his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels, lifted expressive dark brows and with a grin he said, “Well, not all over.”

“Oh, that’s disgusting,” she returned, disapproval sounding loud.

“Well, it’s not nice to talk meanly about past girlfriends.”

“I bet she looked great in a string bikini,” Annie said with a snort.

“Just unbelievable,” he said, clearly taunting her. “Now, why would you be so jealous? You don’t even know poor, thin Susanna. For all you know, she’s a sweet, caring, genuine person and I was horrible to her.” And he said all this with a sly smile.

“I am certainly not jealous! Curious, but not jealous!”

“Green as a bullfrog,” he accused.

“Oh, bloody hell. Listen, I’m shot. Long day. Gotta go.” She grabbed her purse and jacket and whirled out of the kitchen. And got lost. She found herself in the wide hall that led to the bedrooms. She found her way back to the great room, then to the kitchen. “Where the hell is the door?”

He swept an arm wide toward the door that led to the garage, still wearing that superior smile. What an egomaniac, she thought, heading for the door.

When she got to her car, she thought, well, that was perfectly awful. What’s more, he saw right through her. She was attracted to him, and because she knew there had probably been many beautiful women in his past, she’d let it goad her into some grotesque and envious remarks about the only one she knew of, Susanna. The child-woman who obviously had a little butt and nice rack. Why in the world would she do that? What did she care?

It probably had something to do with touring a four-thousand-square-foot custom home, beautifully furnished, across the compound from a spacious stable with a couple of horse trailers her dad would have killed for. Well, what was one to expect from a veterinary practice that served so many, over such a wide area? And not a new practice, either, but a mature one—probably forty years old. Established. Lucrative.

She’d grown up in a three-bedroom, hundred-year-old farmhouse. Her three brothers shared a bedroom and never let her forget it for a second. They all shared one very small bathroom. But she loved the way she’d grown up and had never been jealous a day in her life—why would she be now? Could it be that in addition to all that, she’d never gone to special, private schools, never worn custom-tailored riding gear, never could afford the best riding lessons or most prestigious competitions? Also, she had wide hips, big feet and a less-than-memorable bustline. “Oh, for God’s sake, Annie,” she said to herself. “Since when have you even thought about those things!”

How long had she been sitting here in her car? Long enough to get cold, that was how long. Well, it was time to suck it up. She’d go back in there and just tell him she was cranky, that being one of those “sturdy” farm girls who owns exactly one pair of high heels she can barely walk in, it just rubbed her the wrong way hearing about the kind of woman who could get the attention of one of the county’s few bachelors. Not that she wanted his attention, but just the same…..She’d apologize and promise never to act that way again. She wasn’t usually emotional. Or irrational.

She walked back into the still-open garage, up to the back door and gave a short tap. It flew open. He reached out and grabbed her wrist, pulled her roughly into the house, put his arms around her, pressed her up against the kitchen wall just inside the door, and kissed her! His mouth came down on hers so fiercely, with such dominance and confidence, her eyes flew open in shock. Then he began to move over her mouth while he held her against the wall with his wide, hard chest, his big hands running up and down her rib cage, over her hips.

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t raise her arms or let her eyes drift closed or even kiss back. She held her breath. What the hell…..?

He finally lifted his lips off hers and said, “You like me. I knew it.”

“I don’t like you that much. Never do that again,” she said.

“You want me,” he said, smiling. “And I’m going to let you have me.”

“You’re conceited. I do not want you.”

He kissed her again, and again her eyes flew open. This time she worked her arms free and pushed against his chest.

“Well, hell, just kiss me back and see if I start to grow on you,” he said.

“No. Because you think this is funny. I came back in here to apologize for being crabby. I don’t care about that skinny woman. Girl. I’m just a little tired.”

“You don’t have to apologize, Annie. I think it’s kind of cute. But you don’t have to be jealous of Susanna. She’s long gone and I hardly even missed her. We weren’t right for each other. At all.”

“That’s what my dad said.”

“Hank said that?”

She nodded.

“What did he say? Exactly?” Nate wanted to know.

She shouldn’t. But she did. “He said I’d be more your type, but I’d have had to kill the skinny blonde first. He said she looked near death, anyway.”

Nate thought that was hilarious. He laughed for a long time, but he didn’t let go of her. “Good thing she left, then. She couldn’t hold her own in any kind of fight. She cried if she broke a nail.”

“I bet she was just one of many.”

He withdrew a little, but the amusement stayed in his eyes. “You think I’m a player.”

“How could you not be? It’s not like I don’t know about those rich horse people. And you’re the doctor! Of course you’ve had a million girlfriends.”

The smile finally vanished. “No,” he said. “I’m not that guy, Annie. Just ’cause I’ve been around those folks doesn’t mean I’m that kind of guy.”

“Well, there are the girl vets you’re going to the islands with,” she reminded him.

“Tina and Cindy,” he said with a laugh. “Shew. I hate to brag, but I’m thirty-two, Annie, and there have been a couple of women in my past. But I bet there are a couple of guys in yours, too. Tina and Cindy are just friends of mine.”

“Uh-huh. I’m sure. Old friends and a hundred string bikinis.”

“Come back in and finish your coffee,” he said with a tolerant chuckle.

“I have to go. I have to get home to Ahab.”

“Who’s that?” Nate asked.

“My cat. Ahab. Tripod. He has a lot of names. He’s three-legged.”

“What happened?” Nate asked.

“I don’t know. I adopted him from the shelter when it was clear no one else would ever take him. He’s got a bad attitude, but he loves me. He’s very independent, but he does like to eat. I have to go.”

“Are you coming back tomorrow after work?”

“Are you going to be a gentleman?” she asked.

He lifted one of those handsome brows. “You want me to?”

No. “Absolutely. Or I’m leaving the puppies all to you without helping.”

“Just come tomorrow after work. Swing by home and feed your cat first so you don’t have to be in a hurry to leave.” He gave her a very polite kiss on the cheek that just oozed with suggestiveness. “I’ll see you then.”

 

Four

Christmastime in a beauty shop was always frantic and the Clip and Curl was no exception. There were less than two weeks till Christmas and Annie’s clientele, the clientele of the whole shop, wanted to look their best for parties, open houses, family visits, neighborhood gatherings. Appointments were one after the other. There was a lot of gossip, a lot of excited chatter. Annie was pretty quiet the next day, but there was plenty of talk in the place to cover the void.

Pam, who was older than Annie by a few years and had been married for ten, was training to be the assistant manager. While Annie was applying foil to strips of hair for highlighting, Pam approached with the appointment book in her hands. “We have three choices. We can turn away some of our best regular customers, stay open till nine a couple of nights or open up the next two Mondays to fit them in.”

“Why don’t people schedule ahead of time?” Annie asked.

“As you taught me, they expect to be accommodated and we can either do that or lose them to another shop.”

“Staying late is hard for me and you have a family. I don’t want to stick you with that duty,” Annie said. Then after thinking about it, she said, “Maybe I should work nights. That would settle that.”

“Settle what?” Pam asked, holding the large appointment book in her crossed arms, against her chest.

“Oh, that guy. The vet. You know.”

“Know what?”

“The guy at the bar, Jack, he said they couldn’t keep the litter of puppies there anymore. The dogs are doing very well, growing, which means they’ll soon be up to their eyeballs in puppy poop. Not a real appetizing prospect for a restaurant. So Jack said that’s it, they have to go. Dr. Jensen took them to his house, which is part of the whole stable-and-vet-clinic operation. And since I made a commitment to help…..he’s counting on me coming over after work.”

“To his house?”

“Yeah. He said if I’d help, he’d thaw something for us to eat. We’ve been having a beer and dinner at that bar.”

“Listen, it’s up to you, Annie. It’s your shop. My husband’s on board to get the kids from school and take care of their dinner and homework. You know I need whatever hours…..”

“Then you make the decision,” Annie said.

Pam lowered the appointment book and held it against her thigh. “Annie, I don’t need you to stay if the shop is open till nine or open Mondays for a couple of weeks. Two of the girls are willing to work a little extra to help pay for Christmas. But you have to feel comfortable about leaving me in charge. And I don’t want to push you to do that before you’re ready. You’ve run a pretty tight, one-woman show here.”

“Have I?”

Pam nodded. “But I don’t blame you, Annie. This is your shop, your investment, your responsibility. Whenever you think I’m ready, I’m glad to help.”

“Thing is, he kissed me.”

It became very quiet in the shop. Pam’s mouth dropped open.

“Nuts,” Annie said. There were no ears gifted with supersonic hearing like those found in a beauty shop, despite the noise of dryers and running water. She looked around the small shop. It was tiny—three chairs on each side of the room. Two dryers and two deep sinks in back. Behind that was their break room and Annie’s little office.

In the salon now were women in various stages of beautifying, rods, rollers, foils or backcombed tresses blooming from their heads. Beauticians with blow-dryers, curling irons, combs and brushes in their hands, poised over those heads. All silent. All waiting. “Talk among yourselves,” Annie instructed.

“Lotsa luck,” Pam said. “Is this guy, this vet, in any way appealing?”

Annie’s cheeks got a little rosy.

***

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