Nate wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think his own father had ever had one of these talks with his brothers-in-law or he would’ve heard about it. But right there, right then, he decided that if he ever had a daughter, he was going to do that. It was a good idea—take the young man aside, expound on the girl’s wonderful qualities, threaten his life a little. It had merit.

A few minutes later Beau joined them, clipping off the tip of a cigar. Then Brad, then Jim. Nate leaned close to Beau’s ear. “How’d you know he was done with me?” Nate asked.

“If he wasn’t done, you weren’t going to work out,” Beau said with a shrug.

“Just out of curiosity,” Nate asked, “has he had many of these talks?”

“I think you’re the first.”

“What about that loser, Ed?”

“Ah, Ed. I don’t think Annie brought him around all that much. From what we heard, he was very busy. I met him once, I think, and not on a holiday. He did sell a couple of things to my dad, though. Farm things. Before he and Annie hooked up. Dad? We didn’t like Ed much, did we?”

Hank just snorted and said something derisive under his breath.

“Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you like him?” Nate asked.

“He swindled me on a hay baler,” Hank said. “Said he had the best price in the county. Took me about a month to find all kinds of better deals.”

“So, it didn’t have anything to do with how he treated her?” Nate asked.

“Son, you really think if a man will swindle you on a hay baler, you can trust him with your kin?”

“I hadn’t ever thought about it that way.”

“I can’t imagine another way to think about it,” Hank said.

“Wow,” Nate said, feeling more than a little privileged. Yeah, he thought. I’m picking out my daughter’s guy and giving him a talking-to.

When the cigars were finished, the men wandered back inside where the women were sitting in the kitchen with coffee. Nate paused in the doorway and signaled Annie. “Got a second?” he asked her. When she stood before him, he said, “I’m going to get a head start. Spend as much time as you want with the family. I’ll go home and make sure the puppies are fed and watered and their bedding is dry.”

“I can come now.”

“No, stay. I’ll get the puppy chores done and when you get there, I’ll have more time with you. By the way, are we all set on their care while I’m gone? We talked about it a little…...”

“Not to worry, Nate. Virginia and I worked out the details. We’re going to share the load and they’ll be looked after. And if it’s okay with you, I’ll make sure the adopted ones are delivered on Christmas Eve. I think Pam from the shop is going to take one, which brings us down to three left to place. I’ll make sure they’re okay.”

“Tell anyone you take a pup to that if they bring ’em by in a couple of weeks, I’ll check them over and give them shots, free of charge.”

“That’s nice, Nathaniel.”

“Then I’ll see you in a little while,” he said, giving her a platonic peck on the cheek. “Thank you, Mrs. McKenzie,” he said to Rose. “Nice meeting you all.”

“Have a great trip, Nate,” someone said.

“Good meeting you.”

“Travel safe.”

He shook the men’s hands and was on his way.

Two thoughts occupied him as he drove home. He couldn’t wait to get his arms around Annie. And he didn’t want to be away from her for ten days. He didn’t think a beach full of naked women could make him more inclined to leave right now. But he had packed his bags earlier, not leaving it to the last minute, and he would get this over with. Then, as far as he was concerned, it was full steam ahead with her. And she’d better not give him the slip, either. He was thirty-two and had had plenty of girlfriends, but he couldn’t remember ever wanting a woman like he wanted this one. Heck, he wanted her whole family. He wanted to bring her into his. He wanted them to merge and grow.

He’d even been engaged without wanting all that. It was eerie.

He was barely home, the puppies slopping up their dinner, when the pager on his belt vibrated. He recognized the phone number of a horse breeder whose animals he took care of. His favorite patients, Thoroughbreds. This family was not nearby—they were over the county line in Mendocino.

He answered the call. One of their valuable broodmares was miscarrying, and she was all freaked out, kicking at the stable walls.

He disconnected the line, but he held the phone. He took a deep, disappointed breath before he dialed the McKenzie farm and asked for Annie.

“Nate? What’s up?” she asked when she came on the line.

“You don’t know how much I hate to do this. I have to go out on an emergency. There’s a mare miscarrying, and the stable is in the next county. It could be complicated. It could be late.”

“Don’t worry about the time, Nate. See about the horse,” she said.

“Honey, you shouldn’t wait here for me. I might be tied up until very late. There’s a chance I’ll be out all night with just enough time to come home, clean up, get ready to leave. But, Annie, I won’t leave without seeing you—worst case, I’ll stop by your shop on my way out of town tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do that, Nate. If you find yourself pressed for time, just give me a call.”

“But I do have to,” he said softly. “I can’t leave without holding you, without kissing you goodbye.”

“That’s so sweet. But if it doesn’t work out that way, I understand. Drive carefully. I hope everything is all right with the mare.”

Despite Nate’s warning that he might not make it home until very late, she went to his house anyway. She could hear in his voice his desire to spend a little time with her, and what did she have to keep her away? If he wasn’t back by early morning, she’d feed the puppies and go home to shower and get ready for work.

She was inexplicably drawn to the master bedroom, though she had no real reason to go there. It was the sight of a couple of suitcases open on the floor, filled with clothing, that saddened her so deeply she felt a small ache in her heart. Oh, she was going to miss him so much! Disappointment filled her—she had looked forward to an hour or two of cuddling before she had to give him up for his ten-day adventure. Now it was probably not to be.

Suck it up, Annie, she said to herself. And with that, she shucked her jacket and went to make sure the puppies were taken care of. “Well, my little loves,” she said to the box of squirming, jumping, yelping, vibrating puppies. “Ew,” she said, taking a sniff. “Time for a refresh, I see.” And she set about the task of giving her little charges clean fur and dry bedding. “Yeah, you’re ready for new homes. You have to be about six weeks by now. Close enough, as far as I’m concerned.”

Her puppy chores didn’t take long. She wandered into the family room and sat on that comfy sofa. That lonely sofa. She hated to leave prematurely; she wanted to give him time to get home, to catch up with her. As she looked around the family room, it seemed so barren. At least compared to the farmhouse, which was full to the brim with food, decorations, people, laughter and happiness.

She turned on the fire to make it more welcoming for him, and then on a whim she went to the garage and looked through the storage cabinets that lined the walls of the three-port garage. She smiled to herself. Nathaniel’s mother had certainly made it easy. One entire cabinet held boxes that were neatly labeled. She skipped the one that said “ornaments” but opened another. And another. And another.

She really only meant to bring a touch of Christmas into the house for Nate, even if it was only for one night, or just an early morning. First was a centerpiece for that long, oak kitchen table, then a couple of fat, glittery candles on a bed of artificial holly, which she put on the coffee table. She thought if she were decorating this house for real, there would be lots of fresh stuff and the smell of pine. And the aroma of hot chocolate and cookies.

She put her jacket on to go back into the garage and soon she had a garland for the mantel, stockings and brass stocking holders, and three-foot-tall nutcracker characters for a grouping in the corner. She found a large basket of red ceramic apples mixed with huge pinecones, a poinsettia with little twinkling lights. That gave her another idea, and she found some tiny tree lights in a box, which she brought in and used to adorn the house plants—a couple of tall ficus trees and a couple of lush philodendron and ivy. She tied thick, red velvet bows to the backs of the kitchen chairs.

A box labeled “Christmas dishes” was just too much to resist. Inside were some festive plates and cups. So she turned on the oven and poked around in the pantry, laughing to herself. Hadn’t she said she wouldn’t poke around? Well, Nathaniel obviously didn’t do a lot of baking, and who knew how long that canister of flour had been there? And the brown sugar was like a brick. But he did have butter, sugar and M&M’s. It took only thirty minutes to produce a plate of pseudo chocolate-chip cookies. She found chocolate-milk mix and fixed up a couple of cups with spoons in them, ready for filling. It was probably in her DNA—she covered the festive plate of cookies with plastic wrap.

“Christmas for a day,” she said to herself, pleased.

She made sure all the boxes were stowed in the garage. Then she looked at the clock. Almost eleven, and she had to get up early for work. But it didn’t take her a second to make her decision—a girl doesn’t find a quality boyfriend every day. She turned down some lights in the house, took off her boots, reclined on the sofa in front of the fire with the throw over her legs and promptly fell asleep.



Nate was was physically tired and emotionally drained. By the time he reached the Bledsoe stables, the mare had miscarried a five-month foal and she was skittish. Frantic might be a better word. Indication was that the horse was sick, the cause of the miscarriage, though Nate had checked her over before she was bred and she’d been in good shape. Because he wasn’t going to be around to follow up, he had called Dr. Conner, the Eureka vet. He tranquilized the mare to calm her, administered antibiotics, made sure the placenta was whole, and then transported the products of conception to Eureka so that Dr. Conner could follow up with a postmortem to try to determine the cause. Conner would probably choose to do an endometrial biopsy. Other horses in the stable would have to be examined immediately; Bledsoe had six breeding at the moment.

But that was not the hardest part. Not only was the mare valuable and the stud a champion, the owners’ teenage daughter had raised this horse from a filly and it was her first foal. The girl was as distraught as the horse, and terrified her mare was going to die.

She wasn’t going to die, but the jury was still out on whether she was a good broodmare. Some mystery problem or illness had taken its toll and caused her to drop the foal and suffer a considerable amount of bleeding. Time and follow-up would tell the story. But when Nate left the family, quite late at night, it looked as though the teenage girl was going to sleep in the stable with her horse.