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She blew out a sigh and stared down the sidewalk. “You’re a pain in my ass.”

“Ditto, Wild Girl.” He paused, softened his voice. “You’re getting so much stronger,” he said. “You got out of the wheelchair when they said you wouldn’t. You’re off the pain meds—”

“But I still have pain.”

He knew it, he hated it. “Your PT says you’re doing better every day.”

“My PT’s evil.”

Her physical therapist happened to be AJ Colten, one of Wyatt’s oldest friends. AJ owned and operated Sunshine Wellness Center, both a gym and a physical therapy facility. He was a big bear of a guy who’d been through his own hell, and one of the best men Wyatt knew. “That’s bullshit, Darcy. And so’s this.” He gestured to the dispensary behind them. “I know it sucks, but—”

“Do you?” she challenged. “Do you know what it’s like?” She rolled her eyes again and lifted a hand when he would’ve spoken. “Forget it,” she said, and blew out a sigh. “How about donuts? You going to object to donuts for breakfast?”

“No,” he said, aware that he’d won the sprint but not the race. “I’ll even buy.”

Belle Haven was still quiet when Wyatt arrived for work. The sun’s sleepy rays were just peeking over the rugged, majestic mountains at the other end of the valley as he strode around the back of the building to the barn.

As a kid, he’d never owned more than could fit into a backpack. He’d been ten the year he’d attempted to stow away a lizard. It had died on a train in Africa, and he’d learned a valuable but painful lesson.

No pets.

He’d spent years aching for that to change, rescuing injured animals, begging to keep them.

It had never happened.

He walked up to the first pen and greeted the horses. Reno and Kiki, who belonged to Adam and Dell. And Blue.

His. He and Adam had rescued her from a shitty hell-hole of a horse ranch about two hundred miles south of here, and after doctoring her up, he’d fallen in love.

Blue nickered at him and pressed against the fence to get closer, blowing in his face, fogging his glasses. Wyatt wasn’t sure if the show of affection was because she loved him back, or because he carried treats.

“Miss me?” he asked, stroking her.

She snorted, and he couldn’t help but smile. The thrill of owning something that didn’t fit into a backpack hadn’t faded one little bit. Like the land he’d bought himself, Blue represented another tie to Sunshine. He was growing roots, and he wasn’t done.

He saddled up Blue while she frisked him for the treats, prancing in place with anticipation.

She loved to run.

So did he.

They took the hills, and only when they were both satisfied with themselves did Wyatt turn them back to Belle Haven.

By the time he’d cooled her down, put away the riding gear and entered the animal center, it was nearly seven. They didn’t open the doors until eight, but the place was showing signs of life. Dell was there, prepping for the morning’s surgeries. Mike hadn’t arrived yet, but he would soon.

Same with Jade. And, presumably, the new fiercely determined intern that he was going to do his damnedest to ignore, as dictated by the fiercely determined intern herself. It made good sense, for both of them. Problem was, he’d never been all that down with being good.

Emily parked in Belle Haven’s lot and gave herself day two’s pep talk. “You can do this.” Yesterday she’d been thrown off her game by one sexy Dr. Wyatt Stone, but not today. Today she was prepared. No matter how hot he looked with his rumpled hair, glasses, and cargo pants filled with goodies—not all of which were in his pockets—she was sticking to The Plan.

Totally doable. Of course, it would be a heck of a lot easier if she hadn’t dreamed about him last night and how he looked without the cargoes. Tall. Broad. Built . . .

“Oh boy,” she whispered and banged her head on the steering wheel a few times. She lifted her head and stared at herself in the rearview mirror. “You can do this.”

Her reflection didn’t look as sure as she’d like.

Blowing out a breath, she got out of the car and headed inside. Jade was at the controls, and smiled at her. “I’ve got coffee on in the staff room,” she said. “And your day’s schedule in your inbox. We had a surprise patient show up early, so Wyatt’s already at it in exam room one. Dell’s in surgery, the poor guy had to get up extra early to handle today’s insanity.”

Emily smiled. “It’s nice that you two get to work together.”

Jade laughed. “Nicer for me than him.”

“Dell doesn’t enjoy having you run his world?”

“Well . . . you’d have to ask him. But maybe don’t ask him today.” She grinned. “I had to transfer some funds, and let’s just say that sometimes I like to get creative with the label I put on the transfers. Today’s was ‘grocery money for the Guatemalan hookers.’”

Emily burst out laughing. “Because they don’t feed themselves?”

“Exactly!” Jade grinned. “You should’ve heard him when he saw it.” She lowered her voice and affected a Dell-like tone. “ ‘You know this appears on our formal bank statements, right? Our accountant sees this, Jade.’ ”

Emily was still smiling when she entered exam room one, momentarily forgetting her nerves about seeing Wyatt again.

Until her eyes landed on him.

He was sitting on the floor, long legs stretched out in front of him. Between them was an opened crate, and he was sweet-talking a terrified, pissed-off tabby at the back of the crate, who, given her long, howls of protest, absolutely did not want to be sweet-talked.

“Where’s her owner?” Emily asked.

He pushed up his glasses and glanced up at her. “Missy can’t handle this.”

“I can see that.”

“No, Missy’s the owner. Sweetie’s the cat.” He was wearing another pair of cargo pants, battered steel-toed work boots, at least a size twelve, and today’s shirt under his open lab coat read: Vets Do It With a Lot of Heavy Petting.

He should’ve looked ridiculous sitting on the floor, leaning into the crate making kissy-kiss noises at the cat, but he didn’t. He looked . . . mouthwatering.

“Hey, sweet thing,” he said in a low cajoling voice. “Come on out. I’m gonna love you up, I promise. You know you want some of that.”

“Oh, please,” Emily said on a laugh to cover up the fact that her bones melted at the sound of him. “That’s never going to work—”

But hell if the cat didn’t shift ever so slightly closer to Wyatt and sniff at him.

Wyatt flashed both Sweetie and Emily a smile. “Aw, that’s it,” he crooned to the suspicious, wary cat. “Come on, baby girl, all the way. I’ll be good to you, I promise.”

Emily laughed again, even as she felt her ni**les tighten. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Honestly, Wyatt, no self-respecting female—cat or woman—is going to—”

But Sweetie walked out of the crate and into Wyatt’s lap. He cuddled the cat in close and eyed Emily over its head. “All females react to that.”

“Not all,” Emily said. “I wouldn’t.”

He just smiled at her.

“I don’t,” she repeated. Liar, liar . . . “I’m . . . seeing someone.” Holy crap. Where had that come from?

Wyatt raised a brow at her.

“It’s true,” she said.

He totally didn’t believe her, she could tell. “We met in college. John,” she said, clarifying. Good Lord, stop talking! But her brain receptors refused to carry the message to her mouth. “He’s concentrating on his career right now, but . . . yeah.” She bit her tongue, hard, to keep from saying anything else. She’d bite it off if she had to.

Wyatt had gone back to checking out the cat in his lap, feeling her lymph nodes, looking in her ears and eyes. Somehow he got Sweetie to open her mouth for him. Emily would’ve sworn Sweetie was actually purring.

“So . . .” Wyatt said, continuing the conversation from hell. “You and your boyfriend are on a break. So he can concentrate on his career.”

“Um . . .” Emily wasn’t sure how John Number Two had gone from boyfriend fantasy to fake boyfriend but she wanted off this subject. “Yeah.” The. End.

“In the meantime, who’s concentrating on you?” Wyatt asked.

Not the end. “Me?” she asked, trying to sound bored.

Wyatt looked up from his exam of Sweetie. “Yes. You.”

“I . . . don’t know what you mean.”

“Say you need something,” he said. “A spider removal, someone to hold you after a bad dream, help with your car. Or maybe just some company, seeing as you’re new to town.”

She stared at him. “I handle my own spiders. And I don’t have very many bad dreams, but when I do, I turn on all the lights and watch Say Yes to the Dress on Netflix. My car’s in okay shape but if I need help, I’ll call a mechanic. And I don’t get lonely.”

Again with the liar, liar thing. Because the truth was, sometimes, she did get lonely.

But hell if she was going to admit to it.

Wyatt’s gaze said he knew she was full of shit, but he didn’t call her on it. Instead, he shocked the hell out of her by responding seriously.

“If you were mine,” he said. “I’d want to do those things for you. Just for future reference.”

“Well . . .” Gulp. “Good to know.” Something in the way he’d said mine had her taking a second look at him. He had that whole laid-back look going, but he had a good amount of protective alpha in him. “Are you with someone?” Oh, please don’t let her have slept with someone else’s man.

A small smile twitched at the corners of his mouth as he read her expression through those hot smart-guy glasses. “Worried?” he asked, stroking Sweetie into a puddle of goo in his lap.

“It’s a legitimate question,” she said.

His smile faded. “I wouldn’t sleep around if I was with someone.”

She nodded and then squirmed a little at the implication. “Listen, regarding my . . . boyfriend.” Oh boy. She squirmed some more. “The truth is, the relationship is sort of . . .” Nonexistent. “Silent.”


“Yeah. Like the K on knight. Actually, to be honest, it’s more of an implied thing.”

Wyatt was looking amused again. “As in made-up?”

She sighed.

And he laughed. “You’re a nut.”

Yes. Yes, she was. A complete nut. “Let’s go back to ignoring each other,” she said a little desperately. “Can we?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m good at ignoring nuts.”

She sighed again.


Emily worked hard over the next few days to maintain some sort of professional distance with Wyatt, to varying degrees of success.

Or failure, depending on how she looked at it.

On Monday of week two—three hundred and fifty-eight days left—Emily and Wyatt went over their schedule and got right into it. Their first patient was a female boxer, approximately one-year-old, with a runny nose.

“’Morning, Martha,” Wyatt said to the dog’s owner. “This is Dr. Stevens, our new intern. What’s up with Gracie today?”

“She’s sick,” Martha said, wringing her hands. “So sick. She whistles when she breathes.”

Emily took a look at Gracie, who weighed around fifty pounds. Solid girl. Currently she was rolling in ecstasy in Wyatt’s lap, loving up all over him.

And she did indeed whistle when she breathed.

“Gracie’s new to Martha’s family,” Wyatt told Emily. “Which includes four kids and two other dogs. She’s very playful and obsessed with all the toys she can get her mouth around, as we learned last month when she swallowed Martha’s son’s coin collection,” he said, stroking Gracie. “She came from a shelter, so I think she’s just trying to make up for lost time, aren’t you, girl?”

Gracie licked his jaw, whistling with each inhale.

“Why don’t you do the assessment for us, Dr. Stevens,” Wyatt said, voice calm. She knew that was to keep both patient and owner calm. He always spoke calmly, even through the tough ones, like Friday’s tricky feline birth, or the extremely pissed-off pit bull who hadn’t wanted his shots, or extracting a nickel from the back of a yellow Lab’s throat.

But Emily knew that his casual ’tude had nothing on his sharp intelligence. No doubt he already knew exactly what was wrong with Gracie. But happy to learn and gain new experiences, she moved closer. Gracie sniffed her hand before turning back to Wyatt.

Wyatt smiled and held Gracie for her, taking on the role that she’d taken for him her first week. First thing she did was look at the dog’s extreme runny nose. Interestingly enough, it was only dripping down one side. This was a blatant clue that either something was anatomically incorrect, or there was a physical blockage. She turned to Wyatt and found him watching her.

Yeah. He was way ahead of her.

Her first thought was maybe the dog had broken a tooth, and she looked into Gracie’s mouth. Nope, not a broken tooth. But it was something she’d never seen before and again met Wyatt’s gaze.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a new one for me, too.”