“Can’t happen,” she said. “I hardly remember what he looks like. I’ll be right here when you get back.”

“What if I get so lonely and distraught I make love to some big-breasted nymphomaniac while I’m down there and come back to you all innocent, lying about it, just to teach you a terrible lesson?”

“I’d know.”

“You didn’t know with Ed,” he reminded her.

“I know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot because it’s been a real issue with me, that somehow I didn’t know. I think Ed wasn’t that important to me, or I would have been upset we had so little time together, and I wasn’t. Wouldn’t I have known something was off if he’d meant more to me? I don’t think I cared as much as I wanted to. Lord, I think I would have married him even knowing he’d only spend two nights a week with me.” She took a breath. “Maybe I would’ve married him because he’d only spend two nights a week with me.” She ran her fingernails through the hair at Nate’s temple. “But much as I fight it, Nathaniel, it’s different with you.” Then she smiled.

“In only three weeks?” he asked softly.

She was shaking her head. “It didn’t take three whole weeks.”

He took a breath, then groaned deeply just before he covered her mouth in a deep, hot, wet kiss that went on and on and on. When he finally lifted his lips from hers, he said, “Okay. We’ll do this your way. We’ll wait until you’re ready. And when it’s over and we’re together forever, don’t think you can boss me around like this.”

“You’ve got a deal,” she said, laughing.

Nathaniel called Annie twice before noon on Monday. First he wanted to know if there was anything he could bring to the farm. “I think we’re throwing a couple of big pans of lasagna in the oven for dinner, and Mom is busy making bread. How about bringing some good red wine?”

The next time he called, he said, “I know you work on Tuesday. I’m leaving Tuesday afternoon. So tonight, if I pass the brother test, will you come home with me for just a little while?”

“For just a little while. And don’t try that ‘I’m going into battle and you have to show your love before I leave’ trick. Okay?”

And he laughed.

That was the best part about Annie—her sense of humor. No, he thought—it was her beauty. Her dark red hair, her creamy, freckled complexion, her deep brown eyes. But then a smile came to his lips as he recalled how good she was on a horse. An accomplished equestrienne. And while she would not find the term sturdy at all complimentary, he admired that about her. Fortitude had always appealed to him. Sometimes when he was holding her, he felt like he was clinging to her as if she anchored him to the ground. She had no idea how unattractive flighty, timid, weak women were to him. Did such women make some men feel strong and capable? Because for Nathaniel, to be chosen by a woman of strength and confidence met needs he didn’t even know he had.

He had calls to make, ranches to visit, patients to see, inoculations to administer, a couple of cows who had a fungus to look in on, breeding animals who would deliver early in the year to check. He phoned the vet from Eureka who would cover for him while he was away, paid a visit to a local winery to select a few bottles of good red and finally made his way to the McKenzie farm.

When he pulled in, the place almost resembled a fair in progress. Not one but two RVs were parked near the back of the house, which probably eliminated the need to borrow Annie’s house for the family. There were also trucks and snowmobiles on trailers. A bunch of cross-country skis leaned up against the back porch. The McKenzies were here to play. Kids ran around while several sat on the top rail of the corral. Inside the corral, Annie had a couple of young children mounted on her horses. She held the reins and led them around the corral while they held the saddle pommels. Four men—her brothers and father—leaned on the rail, watching.

Nate wandered up to the fence and leaned his forearms on the top rail with the rest of them. “So,” he said. “I’m here for the inspection.”

The man next to him turned and his mouth split into a huge grin. “Hey, man,” Beau McKenzie said. “I heard a rumor you were dating my sister. Good to see you, buddy.” He stuck out his hand. “This true? You and Annie? Because I can tell you things that will give you ultimate control over her!”

“Nathaniel Jensen,” the next man said. Brad McKenzie stuck out his hand. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in twenty years! You finally made it over five foot six, good for you.”

“Yeah, and beat the acne.” Nate laughed. “How you doing, pal?”

“Jim, any chance you remember this clown?” Beau asked his oldest brother.

“I just remember this squirt from football,” Jim McKenzie said, sticking out a hand. “Couldn’t tackle worth shit, but you sure could run.”

“I had to run,” Nate said. “If anyone had caught me, I’d be dead. I was the smallest kid on the team.”

“You take steroids or something? You caught up.”

“Nah, I just got old like the rest of you,” he said. “Thanks for letting me invade the family party. Annie’s been looking forward to it so much.”

“This is true, then?” Beau asked, Brad and Jim and even Hank looking on with rather intense gazes.

What had she said? That he’d have to be cool? Maybe she expected him to joke around the way they did? One side of his mouth tilted up in a sly smile. He supposed it wasn’t cool, but could they beat him up for being honest? “She knocks me out,” he said. “Where have you been hiding her? I didn’t even know she was here! I bumped into her in a bar!”

“That’s our Annie,” Beau said. “Out tying one on.”

Nate laughed again. “Actually, she rescued eight orphaned puppies. Mostly border collie, we think. Cute as the devil. How many you want?”

Beau put a hand on his shoulder. “Pass on the puppies, my friend. But we got beer, Nathaniel. And seriously, we can give you stuff on her that will give you years worth of control. Power. Mastery. Don’t we, guys?”

“We do,” said Brad.

“Indeedy,” said Jim.

It was an amazing day for Nathaniel, though not exactly a brand-new experience. The venue was a little smaller and more crowded than his family gatherings, but the family interaction was pretty much the same as in his family. The men got a little too loud, the kids ran wild and had to be rounded up several times, the women had a little tiff about kitchen things like whether the bread should have garlic butter or not and whether the salad should be dressed or not. There was a lot of furniture moving to accommodate a dinner for seventeen. They needed the dining-room table extended, and two card tables. The youngest child present at dinner was three and the oldest fourteen, and they sat at the kid table, as it was known in both the Jensen and McKenzie households. Nathaniel felt at once a special guest and right at home.

The McKenzie boys had married well; their wives were attractive, fun, energetic, and there was a lot of family rapport—which always helped. The kids were mostly well behaved, just a couple of small problems that the mothers foisted off on the fathers. Mrs. McKenzie fussed over Nate in a welcoming fashion, maybe a hopeful fashion, showing her approval. Mr. McKenzie, whom Nate had only known as Hank for the couple of years he’d been practicing here, handed Nate his jacket and took him out to the front porch during the after-dinner cleanup. Hank gave him a cigar. None of the brothers joined them, so Nate knew this was the father-and-man-in-his-daughter’s-life talk.

Hank lit Nate’s cigar. “I don’t have a whole lot to say about this. Always got along with you just fine, so I don’t have any basic complaint,” Hank said.

“That’s good,” Nate said, puffing. Coughing. He smoked about a cigar a year and never remembered to take it easy.

“Just a couple of things I want to say.”

“I’m ready.”

“I like Annie,” her father said. “She’s good people.” He puffed. “Now that might not seem like much of a recommendation, but in my book, it’s the best there is. She’s just plain good. She’d never in a million years hurt a soul. But don’t get lazy on her, because she’s nice but she’s tough. She can hold her own if there’s some injustice, and she’s not afraid of a fight. And smart? She could’ve run this dairy farm single-handed, she’s that smart. That strong-willed. I offered it to her, too. Boys didn’t want it, so I said, ‘Annie, you could do it just fine, even if I dropped dead tomorrow,’ and she said, ‘Dad, if I stick myself out here with the cows, I’ll never leave and never do anything else and I think maybe there’s got to be more to my life. At least more people in my life.’ That’s what she said. So that’s how it was. She bought that beauty shop and I sold off the Holsteins. You better be nice to her.”

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Don’t even think about hurting her, Nathaniel. I can handle about anything but seeing my girl, who I admire and respect, hurt.”

“I promise,” Nate said.

“Because if you do…..”

“You’ll shoot me?” Nate asked.

“Aw, hell, why would I do that? I’m not a violent man. I’ll just spread the word that as a vet, you’re not worth a crap.”

Nate couldn’t help it, he burst out laughing.

“The boys, though,” Hank went on, “they’re a tad violent. When it comes to Annie. So be nice.”

Nate hadn’t had a lot of dates in the past couple of years, but in the past ten he’d had quite a few. When he was tending Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and then in Los Angeles County, plenty of women were attracted to him. Socialites, daughters of rich breeders, women he’d met at parties, on ranches, at races. He’d never been talked to by a father, however. Not even Susanna’s, not even when he’d given her a rock and carted her up to Humboldt County with the misguided notion of marrying her.

As father talks went, Hank’s hadn’t been stunning. But Nate liked it. It made him feel like a man with a job to do.

“It’s probably way too early to talk about intentions,” Hank said.

“No, sir, it’s not,” Nate replied. “I like Annie even more than you do. It’s my intention to treat her very well while we’re dating, and I think it might be a good match for both of us. I also think we might have a future, me and Annie. But you know what? She’s a smart, stubborn girl—it’s going to be up to her.”

“Yeah, I reckon,” Hank said.

“So. Could you at least wish me luck?” Nathaniel asked.

“You bet,” Hank said, sticking out his hand. “Best of luck there, Nathaniel. Try not to screw this up.”

“You bet, sir. Nice cigar, by the way.”

“Yeah, not bad, huh? Have no idea where I got ’em. One of the boys, probably.”