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Authors: T. J. Kline

Close to Heart

BOOK: Close to Heart
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Dedication

For my husband.

You have always been the most romantic man I know.

Thank you for showing me what a hero should be.

Contents

Chapter One

J
USTIN
H
ART
ROLLED
his neck from side to side, working out the stiffness as he stared at the computer screen in front of him. He wished this new accounting program his cousin, Bailey, had insisted he try was easier to learn. He knew she was right and it would make everything easier—eventually. With a niece on the way and a holiday double wedding next month, he was trying to get as many items as possible eliminated from his to-do list before the end of the month. And since their accountant had been imprisoned for embezzling from his sister Jessie, it was just one more thing on his already full plate.

Justin rubbed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, flexing his hands before folding them behind his head. He should have let Nathan, his financial guru future brother-in-law, handle it. Nathan had offered to handle Justin’s finances until they found another accountant, but that would mean spending even more time on his sister’s part of Heart Fire Ranch than he already did. Not that he didn’t love Jessie and his other sister, Julia, but they were both so busy finding a rhythm in their new relationships that, most of the time, he felt like a third wheel. It was frustrating trying to talk to either of them while they made lovey faces at Nathan and Dylan. No matter how much he liked Nathan and Dylan, it made it hard to keep from punching either man. It was still his job to protect his little sisters, the same way he always had.

It would piss both of his sisters off if they heard him say that out loud. He couldn’t begin to count how many times they’d both told him to quit acting like their parent over the past year. But, now that Mom and Dad were gone, he was the only one left to watch out for the girls. And since her mother had left and her father was busy running his car dealership, that included Bailey, the youngest of their clan and, right now, the one frustrating him the most.

She needed to grow up and settle down, but she’d always been the family “wild child.” It was obvious from their argument after he closed his veterinary clinic earlier this evening and the way she’d spun her tires as she pulled out a couple of hours ago that she was losing patience with his meddling. He should probably call and check that she got home okay. Justin grabbed his cell phone as he rose from behind his desk and made his way to the front windows of the clinic, lifting the blinds to watch the snow that was now coming down heavily. It rang several times before going to voice mail, and he prayed she just had the ringer turned off. If Bailey hadn’t headed straight home, or had gone to one of the local bars as she’d been doing more often lately . . . he didn’t even want to finish his line of thinking.

He disconnected the call and tucked the phone back into his pocket. Hopefully she’d missed driving in this mess. The early snowstorm was unexpected and wet, quickly turning into sludge all over the roads. He was glad he didn’t have to walk more than a few feet out the back of the clinic to his house. It might not be ideal for some, but it sure made late-night emergencies convenient for him. Or nights like tonight, when he just couldn’t shut his brain off enough to sleep, he could stay and get his paperwork done.

The wide swing of headlights coming around the bend toward his clinic caught his eye. It was late and, with weather like this, most locals knew to stay inside. It had to be someone traveling too fast on the icy stretch of highway. Suddenly, the headlights spun and he saw the taillights and flashing brake lights moving forward as the car skidded. He ran back to his desk to grab his jacket when the screech of metal cut through the silence of the night.

Justin ran out the front door, barely registering the dark shadow that ducked into the bushes by the driveway. He was too focused on the car pressed against the brick wall that lined the entrance to his clinic. He could vaguely make out that the driver was a woman as he ran to the side door, pulling his cell phone out. Somehow she had managed to do a complete spin, stopping with the headlights facing the correct direction again but with the front bumper of her very expensive luxury car firmly planted into his brick wall. Banging on the window, he saw her look his way. With eyes wide, looking scared and surprised in the light from his phone, she opened the car door.

“No, I’m fine, thank you. I don’t need anything but the tow,” he heard her say just before she pressed a button to disconnect a call over the speakers in the car. Hurrying to the front of the car, she looked past the bright lights into the bushes before turning back toward him. “Did you see it?”

“See what? Are you okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?” The air bags in her car hadn’t deployed, so she couldn’t have been going too fast and she didn’t appear to be injured, although she seemed frantic as she searched the darkness.

“I’m fine. I was going slow because of the snow, but there was a dog. Where is it? I know I hit it. We have to find it.”

The soft
thump
of the windshield wipers was the only sound in the darkness as she moved toward the driveway. Had this woman lost her mind? She was out in the middle of a snowstorm, in a car that cost a small fortune, at night, without chains on her tires, with nothing more than a sweater on, looking for a dog that might or might not exist.

“Ma’am, let’s get you inside. We can wait in there for the tow truck to come get your car and you can get warm.”

“No, I
know
I hit a dog. I felt it when the car spun.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t just you hitting the wall?” She turned back toward him, her body silhouetted by the headlights.

Holy crap, she’s pregnant!

He ran to her side, yanking his jacket down his arms and wrapping it around her shoulders. “Okay, let’s just get you inside and then I’ll come back out and look for the dog.”

She narrowed her gaze at him warily. Even in the semidarkness, he could easily read the distrust in them. Or maybe it was her stiff shoulders. Either way, she didn’t believe him for a second.

He sighed loudly. “Fine, you go inside and sit down. I’ll find the dog.”

She looked as if she was about to refuse again but she nodded once, then leaned in to turn off the car and grab her purse from the passenger seat before hurrying into the warmth of his clinic. He wanted nothing more than to follow her back inside, where he could change into dry clothes. Justin let out a low growl, wishing he could ignore his father’s voice in his head reminding him he had to keep his word. He went back to her car and, moving to the other side of the vehicle, inspected the damage. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but the bumper was bent forward to the point of pressing against the tire. She wasn’t going to be able to drive it until it was fixed.

“That’s a damn shame,” he muttered. That BMW cost twice what he’d paid for his 4x4 pickup. And it was brand-new. It was going to cost a small fortune to fix it, if they could even get the parts all the way out here. The headlights turned off automatically, and Justin looked back toward the clinic. He could see her silhouetted against the window from the lights inside, watching to see if he really searched for the dog. “Seriously?” he muttered to himself.

Wandering slowly up the driveway, Justin scanned the wet shrubs, looking for the mysterious stray dog that, if it existed, was likely long gone. The snow had turned to icy rain, pelting him mercilessly as he tried to use the light from his cell phone to look for the animal. After several minutes of freezing torment, he concluded there was nothing to see. If she had even hit a dog, it had probably crawled off to die. It wasn’t pretty, but it was common, and there was little he was going to be able to do to save it. He was a veterinarian, not a miracle worker. There was no point in staying out here freezing any longer while snow and icy rain slid down the collar of his flannel shirt. He almost regretted giving up his jacket.

Justin turned off his phone and tucked it into his pocket, turning back toward the clinic to see the woman still watching through the window. He recalled her desperate eyes, how she’d been ready to search for the dog herself, and felt guilty for not finding the dog.

What the hell?

Justin heard a quiet rustling near the shrubs and turned back toward them, pulling out his phone again. This time, as the light swept over the base of a large pine, he saw the unmistakable glow of eyes. He slowly crept toward the tree, cautious of making any sudden moves that might frighten what could be a dangerous, injured animal.

“Come here, buddy. Are you hurt?” Justin held his hand out slightly, praying that it wasn’t a coyote. “It’s okay,” he said, using a falsetto tone.

He heard the soft whine and saw the wet paws move toward him from under the shrub just before the unmistakable blocky head of a black Lab followed. “Damn it,” he muttered.

The dog crawled toward him, low to the ground, and nudged his outstretched hand. “Are you going to let me carry you inside?” he asked the dog, praying it was friendly.

He was rewarded with a warm lick on his fingers, as if the dog understood and was happy to comply. He moved toward the animal and circled his arms around its soaked body. Justin could feel the poor thing shivering against him, though he was unsure whether from fear, injury, or the cold, as he hurried toward the clinic.

The woman opened the door as he reached it. “You found it!” She rubbed the dog’s face. “I’m so sorry, baby.” She followed closely as he took the dog into one of the exam rooms.

Justin immediately palpated the animal, looking for blood and broken bones. He noticed a scrape on her hip as his fingers trailed over the animal’s rounded belly. He snatched a stethoscope from one of the drawers and pressed it against the wet dog, under its ribs.

Crap!
“She’s pregnant.” He should have realized as soon as he picked the dog up, but he’d been so busy trying to get inside that he hadn’t paid attention.

“What?” The woman’s hands instinctively touched her own rounded abdomen before covering her mouth. “Oh my goodness, is she okay?”

He took the dog’s temperature and glanced at the thermometer. It was only slightly lower than normal, but her gums were too red for his liking and she was panting faster than he would like to see. The dog rolled her pleading, chocolate-brown eyes up at him. There was a good chance she was either going into second-stage labor or shock. Maybe both.

He met the woman’s gaze and could see the worry in her green eyes, tears forming in the corners. She moved toward the dog’s head, stroking the animal’s silky wet ears, apologizing as if the dog could understand her words. It struck him as odd. Most of the women around here didn’t cry after hitting a stray dog in a snowstorm; they were far too worried about their own well-being or what had happened to the car. But so far, she hadn’t exactly met any of his expectations.

“I’m going to take her to the back. My guess is that she’s far enough along to deliver these pups, but I want to see what I’m dealing with. You can’t go back there.” She remained silent but her eyes flicked up to meet his, and he could read the distrust again. “I can’t have you exposed to the X-rays in your condition,” he explained. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this dog and her babies safe.”

He reached for her hand. It was meant to be reassuring, something he’d done with dozens of patients, but the jolt of emotion that shot through him took him by surprise. Sure the woman was beautiful, but it wasn’t as if he hadn’t been around beautiful women before. Justin didn’t want any romantic complications now, so it was easier to date women who wanted the same thing he did—no stress and no ties, friends with benefits. He’d gladly let his sisters have their romance; it just wasn’t something he had time for right now.

“I . . . I promise,” he stammered, trying to ignore the foreign feeling, shoving the reaction aside.

He scooped the dog in his arms before carrying her into the back room to take the X-rays, wondering if the stress of having too much to do and his late nights were responsible for his momentary lapse of logic and oversensitized response to the woman in his lobby. As Justin prepped the dog for sedation, he pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed Bailey’s number again. He needed her here to help him with this.

No answer and his call went directly to voice mail.

“Bailey, I need you to come back. I have an emergency. A pregnant Lab came in and I need to deliver these puppies by C-section. She’s going into shock.” He took a deep breath, wondering how he was going to manage this alone. “I know you’re mad at me, but get back here now.” He paused, cursing his stubborn streak. “Please,” he muttered before hanging up.

Justin shoved his phone into his pocket. Was she really so pissed at him that she wouldn’t answer the phone? Or was it just his bad luck? Either way, he was screwed.

He looked down at the now-sedated dog lying on the table. He couldn’t waste any time if he was going to try to save her and the puppies. He’d seen the proof on the X-rays. The puppies were viable, but she had a small internal hemorrhage that had to be controlled. He was going to have to recruit the only hands he had available.

“I
NEED YOU
to help me deliver these puppies.”

Alyssa stared at him and wondered if he’d lost his mind. She couldn’t deliver puppies; she didn’t know anything about animals. She hadn’t even been around any since she’d moved away from home and her mother’s yapping Yorkie for college. “I thought you said I couldn’t go back there,” she pointed out.

“That was while I doing the X-rays.” He pointed to a door off to one side of the room. “I need another set of hands, and we can’t waste a lot of time talking about this. I’m going to open her up. When I get the puppies out, I’ll hand them to you and I need you to wipe them down with those towels. You just need to make sure they’re all breathing, then put them over there, so that the mask blows oxygen on them.”

She looked where he pointed at what looked like a small nest of bedding with a cuplike oxygen mask to one side of it. Alyssa looked back at the man in front of her. He was doing everything he could to help this dog when he could have just walked away. She had been the one who caused the damage, after all. Her eyes fell on the dog, lying on the table, completely covered with sterile blue paper except for the exposed section the vet had wiped down with what looked like iodine.

BOOK: Close to Heart
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