“Is he cute?” Pam asked.

Annie leaned toward Pam and whispered, “You’d wet yourself.”

And Pam’s cheeks got a little pink. “Whew.”

“Well, tell us about him,” someone said.

“Yeah, what kind of guy is he?”

“Should you call the police or wear something with a real low neckline?”

“How old is he? How many times has he been married? Because that’s key. Believe me!”

“Listen, I can’t talk about this,” Annie said. “I’ve known the man barely a week! And only because of these puppies! Honestly, if it weren’t for these puppies, we wouldn’t even know about each other. He’s a large-animal vet. He was just doing the bartender, Jack, a favor by looking at the orphaned litter.”

“Um, Annie, don’t you have large animals? Who’s your vet?”

“Well, he is, but I didn’t know that. I mean, my folks keep an eye on the horses and Erasmus. My bull,” she clarified for those confused stares in the room. “When they said they called Doc Jensen to the farm, I thanked them and paid the bill. I mean, it hardly ever happens that the horses or the bull needs something. I thought he was the same Doc Jensen who’d been looking after our animals since I was in diapers. But it turned out to be his son. Doc Jensen Junior.” She cleared her throat. “He’s thirty-two. And never been married.”

“Whoa,” someone said. Another woman whistled.

“He’s had girlfriends,” Annie said. “Not from around here. But when he came up here to take over his dad’s practice a couple of years ago, he brought a young buxom blond fiancée with him and it didn’t work out, but—”

“Low neckline,” someone advised.

“Tight jeans. Snug, anyway. I mean this in the nicest way, but if you could think about a little extra makeup, like eyeliner and lip liner,” someone said.

“You don’t need that,” Pam said quietly.

“I was thinking that maybe being unavailable would be a good—”

“No!” three women said at once.

“Why would you do that?” Pam asked.

“He’s just too damn sure of himself,” Annie answered.

“Well, how about this,” Pam said. “Maybe you could try being sure of yourself?”

Annie thought about that for a second. “See, that’s the hard part.”

Usually Annie was very confident. She knew she was intelligent; she was a small-business owner and it was going well. She was independent and doubted that would ever change, even once she partnered up. And as for her modest upbringing, she had not yet met the person she’d trade places with. Life on the farm was rich in many ways. She might’ve had a moment of shallow jealousy over the skinny, fancy, city girl who could attract not only Nathaniel’s attention, but acquire a big engagement rock, as well, but all that had passed pretty quickly.

There was one area in her life where her confidence was a little shaky, however. She’d barely recovered from Ed. She’d put a lot of faith and trust in a man who’d clearly been using her. If this new guy, the big-shot vet, was really interested in her, he’d have some proving to do. She wasn’t going to be played for a fool. And she certainly wasn’t going to be the only available two-legged female he’d run across lately.

Later that day after work, she fed Ahab, dug around in her refrigerator and fluffed up a nice green salad, fixed a plate of frosted brownies and headed for Nate’s place.

When she pulled up to his house, a woman was just leaving the clinic, locking the door behind her. She was a tiny thing with salt-and-pepper hair cut supershort, and when she might have headed for the only car parked outside the clinic, she stopped and waited for Annie with a smile on her lips.

Annie approached her. “You must be Virginia,” she said.

“And you would be Annie McKenzie,” the older woman said. “Nice to meet you. I met your parents some years ago, but I think all you kids were either at school or had maybe already left home. Nate’s not home yet, but you have a key, right?”

“I do,” she said. “Thanks for helping with those puppies. These are for you,” she added on a whim, passing Virginia the plate of brownies.

“You shouldn’t have, but I’m glad you did. Annie, tell Nathaniel to give you both the clinic and my home phone numbers and to leave your phone number for me. If we run into a situation when he’s stuck out at a farm or ranch, we can work together to cover for him. I live in Clear River and he tells me you’re in Fortuna. It’s about the same distance for both of us to get here.”

“Sure. And I’ll tell him to call me first. I don’t have a husband to irritate by running off somewhere to take care of puppies.”

Virginia tilted her head, regarding her. “He doesn’t talk about women, you know,” she said.

“Your husband?” Annie answered, confused.

Virginia laughed. “Nathaniel. Can’t get a word out of him about his love life. And I’ve known him since he was this high,” she said, her hand measuring about midthigh.

“Maybe it’s not much of a—”

“But he’s talked about you for a week now. Annie this, and Annie that.”

Annie’s eyes grew round and maybe a little panicked. “This and that what?” she asked.

“I think he finds you delightful. Maybe amazing. You knew exactly what to do with the puppies because, raised by Hank and Rose, you were trained to know. And you’re tall. For years he’s been asking me if I’ve always been this short. I think he likes tall women. When you were little, he said, you had a big batch of curly, carrot-orange hair, but you obviously outgrew it. You shot a mountain lion, butchered a cow, raised a blue-ribbon bull. Oh, and you’re beautiful. But a little crabby, which he finds humorous.” Virginia shook her head. “Nathaniel likes to try to find his way around a difficult woman,” she said with a grin. “Being the youngest of four with three bossy older sisters, he can’t help it, so don’t let down your guard.”

Annie laughed. No problem there—her guard was up.

“It’s nice that you two have renewed your friendship,” Virginia added.

“But, Virginia, we were never friends,” Annie said. “We barely recall each other from childhood. He knew my older brothers, but not that well. We all went to different schools and might’ve run into each other at fairs, 4-H stuff, that sort of thing. Really—a long time ago. A couple of decades ago.”

But the woman only flashed her friendly grin. “Isn’t it great when you renew an acquaintance with someone you have that kind of history with?”

That kind of history? Annie wondered. That wasn’t much history. “But we don’t know each other as adults. Not at all.”

Virginia laughed. “Bet that’ll be the fun part. Now you call me if you need me,” she said, moving toward her car. “And thanks for the brownies! My husband will be as thrilled as I am!”

“Sure,” Annie said. “Of course.”

Virginia paused at her car door. “Annie, if you need anything other than puppy care, don’t hesitate to call on me.”

“Thanks,” she said.

It wasn’t long after Annie had spoken to Virginia and let herself into Nate’s house that he came home. She heard his truck enter the garage, and when he walked in the door to the kitchen, his face lit up. “Hey,” he said. “I thought I’d beat you here.”

“Just got here,” she said. “And something smells good.”

“I just hope it also tastes good. I admit, Virginia gave me a hand.”

“No shame in that, Nate.” Then she smiled at him. Standing in the kitchen like that, waiting as he walked in the door after work, felt very nice. And then she told herself not to fantasize. Just one day at a time.

They fed the puppies and while a roast simmered in the Crock-Pot, complete with potatoes, carrots, onions and whole mushrooms, they let the puppies loose in the family room. They sat on the floor with them, a roll of paper towels handy, and laughed themselves stupid trying to keep track of the little animals, which escaped under the sofa, down the hall, behind furniture. They kept grabbing the puppies, counting, losing count, temporarily misplacing one. Nate estimated they were just over four weeks old because they were starting to bark, and every time one did, he or she fell over. It was better than television for entertainment.

After the puppies were put away again, dinner eaten, dishes cleaned up, Annie made noises about leaving, and Nate talked her into sitting down in the family room. “It’s early,” he said. “Let’s just turn on the TV for a while.”

She plopped onto the couch. “Oh God,” she said weakly. “Don’t let me get comfortable. I really have to go home. You have no idea how early I start my day.”

“Oh, really?” he asked. “Do you have eight whiny, hungry puppies in your laundry room? I start pretty early myself. Besides, I want you comfortable. This is such a great make-out couch.”

“How do you know that?” she asked.

He shrugged like it was a stupid question. “I’ve made out on it.”

“You said you’d be a gentleman!”

“Annie, you just have to try me out—I’m going to be very gentlemanly about it. Come on, don’t make me beg.”

She grinned at him. “Beg,” she said. “I think that’s what it’s going to take.”

He got an evil look in his eye and said, “Come here.” He snaked his fingers under her belt and tugged, pulling her down into the soft sofa cushions. “Let’s put a little flush on your cheeks.”

The next night Annie took eight lengths of ribbon in eight different colors to Nate’s house. They tied the ribbons around the puppies’ necks, so they could be identifiable. They weighed them, made a chart, had dinner—and Nathaniel was more than happy to put a flush on her cheeks again.

Night after night, she fed Ahab right after work so she’d be free to—ahem—help with the puppies. And talk and play and kiss. The kissing quickly became her favorite part. Greedy for that, she trusted Pam to hold the shop open two nights a week and a half day on Monday. In exchange for that, Annie insisted Pam take a little comp time to get her own Christmas baking and shopping done; she came in late a few days to compensate.

There was more contributing to that flush of happiness on Annie’s cheeks than just the kissing. Minor though it might seem, getting to know him when he had his shirt pulled out of his jeans and his boots off seemed so much more than casual. Of course her boots were off, also, and while they necked, their feet intertwined and they wiggled their toes. They wiggled against each other, too. It was delicious.

When they were feeding or cleaning up after puppies, preparing a meal together, they were also getting to know each other. Annie had never really thought about it before, but that was what courtship was all about—figuring out if you had enough in common after the spark of desire to sustain a real relationship.