Author: Jane Harvey-Berrick
Release date: January 2, 2017
(Sub)genres: Contemporary Romance
Buy: Amazon US ~ Amazon UK
Alex is lost and alone, with only his dog, Stan for company. He doesn’t expect kindness from anyone anymore, but sometimes hope can be found in the most unlikely places. He has a second chance at happiness, but there’s a dark side to Alex, and a reason that more than one person has called him crazy.
Single mother Dawn is doing just fine. Except that her ex- is a pain in the a**, her sister isn’t speaking to her, and her love life is on the endangered list.
At least her job as a veterinarian is going well. Until a crazy-looking guy arrives at her office accompanied by an aging dog with toothache. Or maybe Alex Winters isn’t so crazy after all, just … different.
Dawn realizes that she’s treated him the same way that all the gossips in town have treated her—people can be very cruel.
Tanner’s hooves kicked up small spirals of dirt as he ambled through the forest, picking his own path. It was peaceful and a deep sense of calm spread through me. It had been too long since I’d come out for an early morning ride. I rarely had the chance anymore—life always seemed to get so busy.
Even though it wasn’t more than half-an-hour after sunrise, humidity was beginning to climb. I felt sweat trickle down my back and armpits, but I didn’t care. It was too beautiful out here to worry about anything.
The lake’s surface was quiet, stretching glassily toward the horizon, and I watched the tiny ripples reach the muddy bank as lazy clouds drifted across the sky.
As I rode into the small clearing, the quality of the light changed from the deep green of the forest to the soft glow of the rising sun.
I breathed deeply, enjoying the muted sounds and sense of being utterly alone. It was a rare moment to be carefree.
But as Tanner neared the lake, I spotted a bundle of old rags on the ground. God, I hated that! How could people toss their trash somewhere so beautiful? Sadly, I was used to seeing discarded bottles, cans and sandwich wrappers on the trails.
I was going to pick them up and dump them in the garbage at home, so I dismounted and poked my riding crop through them. But they weren’t rags exactly—instead, I found a tattered pair of jeans, a faded t-shirt and a washed-out plaid shirt.
That was odd. Who would have left them here? Someone camping maybe? I sighed wearily and picked up the clothes. I hated people littering in this beautiful forest.
Suddenly, Tanner shifted next to me and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I had the unpleasant sensation of being watched, and when I looked up, my breath stuttered in my throat.
A man was standing in the lake, waist-deep in the water, and he was glaring at me. Instinctively, I tightened my grip on Tanner’s reins.
“Oh, crap! You startled me!”
He didn’t reply, and his icy stare made me nervous.
He was a big man, tall and strong, with broad shoulders and clearly defined muscles. His unkempt beard was thick, and long tangled hair matted against his skull—he looked like one of the fabled Mountain Men.
He made no attempt to speak and his eyes narrowed as anger rolled from him in heavy waves.
I swallowed nervously and took a step back, but then my heel caught in a pile of leaves, and I dropped the clothes I’d been carrying.
He glared, his lips peeled back so he was baring his teeth.
It took everything in me to keep calm while I mounted. Tanner’s large presence was a huge comfort. I borrowed him from my employer and he was usually a skittish horse, but right now he stood happily chomping on grass and ignoring the stand-off.
“I’m going now,” I said weakly, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Yes, I’m riding away.”
The continued silence was unnerving, but at least he hadn’t come any closer. I began to wonder if he understood English.
Close up, he seemed younger than I’d first thought. His hair was dark blonde, his beard a light brown tinged with red. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were from this distance. Maybe he was Eastern European?
Finally, the man spoke.
I blinked, surprised.
He screwed his eyes shut, took a slow breath and tried again.
I stared back, not having a clue what he was talking about, then my eyes dropped to the pile of clothes on the ground.
“Oh, these are yours?”
He scowled at me, folding his arms across his chest. His body language was screaming at me to leave, but otherwise he was silent, menacing, and that scared me more.
My eyes followed the movement of his arms as he clamped them across his body, the biceps bulging, an unspoken warning that this man was bigger and stronger than me, and that I was alone in the forest, miles from help.
At least he wasn’t coming closer.
Then my eyes dipped to the waterline rippling at his waist.
My eyes widened with the realization that he was completely naked. The water was clear enough that I’d seen everything. And I mean everything. As I glanced up, shocked, he met my gaze, raising an eyebrow suggestively, the implication that I’d been checking him out. I shot him a filthy look, jerking the reins to get Tanner moving.
“You’re trespassing on private property,” I snapped over my shoulder, just to show I wasn’t really completely terrified. “You should leave.”
His lips twisted in a sneer and he took half a pace toward me, his demeanor threatening.
Sensing his mounting fury, I rode away. I’d get the hell out of here and let Dan know that a crazy guy was camping illegally. I urged Tanner to go faster, only looking back once to make sure that the man wasn’t following. But he was still standing in the lake, watching me.
My early morning ride left me completely shaken, and I hated feeling so vulnerable. So I was in a foul mood by the time I got to work at Petz Pets, and Ashley’s shrill voice was like a jack hammer in my head.
I tried to ignore her endless description of a new pair of shoes that were to die for apparently, while I quietly phoned my friend Dan, who also happened to be Girard’s police officer, telling him about the crazy guy at the lake. Then I had to listen to Ashley for half an hour, catching me up on all the gossip that I’d ‘missed’ over the weekend. Mostly it consisted of who’d slept with whom, who was having an affair, and how many Cosmopolitans she’d drunk.
I was trying not to listen, but it was impossible to ignore her piercing tone.
“Oh, that’s so sad!” she said suddenly, her voice falling for a moment.
“Mrs. Humphries emailed to ask if we’ve seen Missy.”
Missy—a two year-old black-and-white ball of fur with wicked long claws, as I knew from painful experience. She was also pregnant the last time I’d seen her and the kittens were due any day. Come to think of it, I’d expected to hear from Mrs. Humphries before now.
“When did she last see her?”
“She’s probably making a safe place to have her kittens. Tell Mrs. Humphries to check all her neighbors’ outbuildings and any other places that she thinks Missy might go to. She won’t have gone far.”
“Mrs. Humphries is out by the State Game Lands. She doesn’t have many neighbors.”
I shivered, recalling the scary homeless man I’d encountered. I wondered if Dan would have a chance to check into it today.
Ashley typed something, muttering under her breath and chewing on the inside of her mouth.
“Oh, you’re going to love this,” she cackled as she worked her way through the overnight messages and today’s calendar. “A new client has emailed to make an appointment. That’s weird—people usually phone. Jeez, he’s sent me his dog’s entire life story! Whatever, but get this—he only wants a male veterinarian.”
I glanced up, frowning. “Seriously?”
“Yep. I had to read his message twice to check I wasn’t seeing things. And guess what? His address is Tanglewood. He must be the one who bought Old Joe’s cabin—you know, the place Bob Delaney was going to buy and develop. What do you want me to do?”
I was surprised. I didn’t know that Bob had wanted to buy the place, but it made sense since he owned the adjoining property along the lake. Sort of. Joe had never minded me riding over his land, but I knew for a fact that Bob wouldn’t like it. Mostly because he hated me. And as for Stella’s opinion of me … I didn’t want to think about that.
I’d ridden past Old Joe’s cabin many times. It was a dreary, depressing place, dank and dark and falling apart, deep in the woods. The kind of place you could imagine in a horror movie, except for its location by the lake, which was beautiful.
I gazed at Ashley, constantly amazed by the random information she had rattling around in her head. The FBI needed her on their team.
I redirected my thoughts back to the question. “Does Gary have any slots this afternoon?”
Gary was our chief veterinarian and also owned the business. He was good with prickly customers.
“Yes, three o’clock.”
Ashley gave me an overly-dramatic look of astonishment.
“It doesn’t bother you that the new client is a sexist asshole?”
Yes, the request was irritating, but Ashley was something of a drama queen and I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of a reaction.
“Not my concern,” I answered, giving a firm look that bounced right off her.
“I’d be pissed as all hell because he obviously doesn’t think women can be vets,” she said, not willing to let it drop.
I tuned her out after that, instead prepping the examination room and reading through my list of patients for the day.
Then our first customer arrived, a West Highland Terrier with eczema, and I didn’t think about the new client again until after lunch when Gary got an emergency callout to a valuable stud animal with a suspected fractured tibia.
Ashley gave me a wide smile as Gary’s Jeep disappeared in a cloud of dust and gravel.
“So … since Gary has been called away … are you going to see this new client? The sexist asshole?”
I sighed, but tried not to look too irritated as I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was just after 2.45PM so she might be able to catch the new client before he left his house.
“Call him and explain what’s happened. If he wants to see me, that’s fine, otherwise reschedule an appointment with Gary.”
She picked up her phone and started to place the call, but stopped suddenly.
“Too late,” she said, jerking her thumb at a battered pickup truck that had pulled into the parking lot.
I turned to look, but for a minute, there was no movement and I began to wonder if the new arrival would ever leave his truck. Finally, I saw the driver’s door swing open and a man jumped out. For some reason, I’d expected an older guy to be the sexist new client, but judging from the way he moved, I was wrong.
In fact, I could see that he was tall and muscular and … then I recognized him.
It was the man from the lake. The naked man who’d scared the crap out of me. I’d been thoroughly rattled seeing him this morning. Being alone with him had made me realize again how vulnerable I was riding by myself and I’d decided to rethink my regular route.
But now I was facing him for a second time. He still reminded me of a Mountain Man, and he appeared to be wearing the clothes that I’d thought were rags. His long, shaggy brown hair and thick beard hid most of his face. A shudder of apprehension ran through me.
He seemed just as ill at ease as he had been by the lake, his eyes darting around restlessly, but then he walked around to the passenger door and I lost sight of him.
When he reappeared, he was carrying a large dog, one that easily weighed 80 or 90 pounds. He must have been strong because he carried the weight easily. I recalled the thick slabs of muscle that sculpted his chest and arms when I’d seen him earlier. Yes, there was no doubt that he was strong, but as he held his pet, his hands were gentle.
I watched his chin bob, and I realized that he was talking to his dog.
Carefully, he set the animal on the ground and fixed a leash around its neck.
The dog immediately sat down and refused to budge. His coat was thick and looked glossy and healthy, his muzzle starting to gray. I guessed he was part retriever, part mastiff—large and solid. And heavy.
Ashley giggled as the man tugged on the leash, but the dog still wouldn’t move. The man stood still, looking at his pet, his hands on his hips, then he shook his head in defeat. Bending down, he scooped up the dog again and shouldered his way through the door into the office.
Now he was closer, I could study him in more detail.
His hair was a tangle of light brown with sun-blond lights, still uncombed, an off-putting mess of wild, crazy curls. His clothes were even worse now I could see him wearing them, unkempt and torn as if he’d given up, but they were clean. And when he stopped in front of Ashley, I caught the faint scent of soap and laundry detergent—no cologne. This man was a paradox.
Ashley smiled tightly from her position behind the reception desk.
“Mr. Winters and Stan, is that right?”
He nodded but didn’t speak, still holding his dog in his arms. His face was grim, as if he’d never smiled, never thought of smiling.
So this was the man who’d bought Old Joe’s place? I immediately felt guilty that I’d assumed he was trespassing and camping illegally. I didn’t know that somebody had already moved into the property. Technically, I’d been the interloper this morning. I felt like such a judgmental bitch. But he’d really scared me, and I hadn’t been thinking clearly.
“I’m so sorry,” Ashley said with fake sweetness, “but Dr. Petz, our male veterinarian, had to go out on an emergency visit. Dr. Andrews over there is available.”
He turned to stare at me and his body stiffened. I saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes before he dropped his gaze to the floor again. I thought for sure that he’d turn and walk out, but then he glanced at his dog and I saw the expression soften in his curious golden-brown eyes as he peered up at me and nodded slowly.
“Great!” said Ashley, her gaze glancing across to me. “I’ve got basic information from your email, but if you could just fill out this form and…”
“Maybe you’d like to bring Stan into the examination room, Mr. Winters,” I interrupted quickly. “He looks rather heavy.”
The man blinked twice, but carried the dog inside without commenting or even looking at Ashley.
“Rude!” Ashley said, not quietly enough, and although I agreed, I shot her a look and took the form from her.
She leaned toward me, her eyes wide as her voice dropped to an urgent whisper.
“I’ll keep my ears open, Dawn. He looks kind of weird. You know, serial killer weird.”
I pressed my lips together and followed my new client.
The dog was sitting on the examination table, drooling heavily and panting. I could tell he was an older animal from the salt-and-pepper muzzle, and his breath was pretty bad. That usually indicated either a gastrointestinal problem or dental issues.
The man was standing in the furthest corner of the room with his hands in his pockets, his head hanging down, peering at me warily through the thick curtain of uncombed hair.
“So this is Stan,” I said, stroking the dog’s head. “A reluctant patient?”
His tail thumped twice.
“I guess you don’t like going to the vet, huh, boy?” I looked up again at his silent owner. “Don’t worry about it. We get a lot of animals like that on their first time here. He’ll get used to us and we’ll take good care of him.”
He stared back at me, his face unreadable.
“And, um, I really must apologize for this morning,” I said, still stroking Stan’s head. “Old Joe didn’t mind me riding across his land. When I saw you, I didn’t know that … well, I made assumptions. It won’t happen again.”
His head tilted to one side, but he didn’t reply, and my cheeks flushed with annoyance and confusion.
“So, how can I help you today?” I asked briskly.
Stan stared at me docilely then yawned widely.
“Phew! That’s some serious halitosis he’s got there. What do you feed him?”
Mr. Winters blinked rapidly, crossed his arms across his chest the way he had this morning, then took several deep breaths. His eyes screwed shut and his whole face contorted. I was afraid he was having a seizure, but then his eyes opened wide and he coughed out a single word.
He nodded, then took another breath.
“Eh … eh … eggs.”
It took him three tries to aspirate the word, and a sudden ache twisted my heart.
My new client wasn’t rude—he had a speech impediment. A severe one.
My heart softened as I stared at this rough-looking man. Then his gaze dropped to the floor, unable to meet my eyes.
But before he looked away, I saw pain and frustration as well as humiliation.
Was it always so hard for him, or was it me? Was this the reason he asked for a male veterinarian?
I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to go through life without that basic ability of human communication, of connection. I felt wretched that I’d judged him so harshly when we’d first met.
No wonder he’d done everything to avoid speaking either to me or Ashley.
No wonder he hid behind his long hair and straggly beard.
How lonely that must be.
“I’m guessing you’re worried about Stan’s drooling?” I asked gently.
There was no doubt that he loved his dog. I could see the concern in his eyes when he looked my way, see it in the gentle way he handled his pet.
Two intelligent eyes blinked up at me and he nodded.
“Is Stan okay with me touching his mouth?”
He nodded again.
“Okay, let’s have a look at those teeth, Stan.”
I saw the root of the problem right away: gum disease. His teeth were yellow and stained, and Stan also had a plaque issue. But the immediate problem was his inflamed gums. He must have been in a considerable amount of pain, but he didn’t growl or pull away as I checked the rest of his mouth carefully.
“Oh dear, Stan, you should have brushed.”
After giving him a full examination and taking his temperature, which was slightly elevated, I gave his owner the news.
“Several of those teeth will have to come out eventually, and the rest need to be cleaned to get rid of residual plaque. But right now, I want to treat his gingivitis—gum disease—it’s an early stage of periodontal disease, although he’s got quite a nasty infection. And I’d like to schedule a procedure to remove the plaque build-up. Do you have insurance?”
I was already planning the lowest premium our practice could charge, and wondering whether or not Gary would agree to fund the procedure through our charitable program, when Mr. Winters nodded again and pulled a card out of his wallet.
The wallet looked new and expensive. My eyes narrowed with suspicion, but then I saw that it was embossed in gold A.W., and his pet insurance card appeared valid.
I couldn’t figure him out.
“Also I’ll need you to fill out some forms. I noticed Stan’s never been neutered?”
He grimaced and shook his head. I had to hold back a smile—many men reacted like that. Besides, Stan was too old for the procedure now.
I glanced at my new client thoughtfully.
“And Mr. Winters, bacon and eggs is not a healthy daily diet for Stan. He needs suitable food for a senior dog. How old did you say he is?”
I winced at the word ‘say’ but covered it up quickly, turning to the wall-mounted computer screen to see what information Ashley had already entered.
“Ah, he’s about nine or ten. A rescue dog. Where did you find him?”
I kicked myself for forgetting again that I needed to stick to questions that could be answered with a nod or a headshake. I moved on quickly.
“Well, he seems fine, given his age. But you really should improve his diet. I’ll give him a shot now. It’s a three-in-one: painkiller, anti-inflammatory and mild antibiotic. That will make him more comfortable until we can take care of those gums and teeth.”
I stroked Stan’s head and he nuzzled my hand.
For a second, I thought I saw the man smile, although it was hard to tell behind his bushy beard, but after I’d given Stan his shot, he simply nodded at me and lifted him down from the examination table.
“How’d that go?” Ashley asked brightly as we walked out with Stan.
“Fine,” I said flatly, then scheduled the next appointment while Mr. Winters stood beside me, a silent, looming presence.
I couldn’t get Mr. Winters out of my head. When I’d met him this morning by the lake, I was so certain that he was dangerous, but now I saw all his actions in a completely different light and I was ashamed of my assumptions and reactions.
Of course he’d been angry when we first met. I was trespassing on his land and had even told him off for being there. I’d misread his silence, too. And all the time, he’d been stuck standing naked in the water because I was ridiculing his clothes.
My skin felt hot at the memory. I was ashamed of myself, but I couldn’t quite dispel a quiver of interest at the hardness of his body, the obvious masculine strength. It had been a while since I’d seen something that good in real life. Not since college, unless it was some actor on TV.
Everything about him was a contradiction. His expensive-looking wallet and premium pet insurance; his rusting truck and his ragged clothes—and the fact that he’d apparently paid cash for Old Joe’s cabin—no mortgage required, or so Ashley told me. She’d heard it from Jenny who worked for the town’s only attorney Simeon Spender, the man who’d handled Old Joe’s estate, so I guess it really was true.
No one knew what had brought him to Girard, Pennsylvania, population 3,065. On the few occasions he was seen in town, he hadn’t spoken to anyone or even tried to. Of course, now I knew why, but the town had decided that he was ‘strange’, ‘a recluse’ or even ‘creepy’.
I wondered if anyone else had sensed his loneliness and isolation behind that forbidding appearance. Did he hide because of his stutter, or was there something else?
I dreamed about him that night. Totally inappropriate dreams for a respectable single mother who rarely dated and whose eight year-old daughter was sleeping in the next room.
I woke up ratty, in a bad mood and stupidly aroused. Not a great combination. So, I pushed the thoughts from my mind as I dropped Katie off at her friend’s house, and then headed to work, thankful that I was only doing a half-day today. During school vacations, Gary let me work part-time as much as possible.
I arrived just as Ashley was parking her Honda, but she didn’t get out of the car, instead she waved to catch my attention, pointed behind me, then ducked down, peering over her steering wheel.
I soon saw the reason. Mr. Winters’ was climbing out of his rusting truck, a large cardboard box in his hands. He placed it by the office front door and then walked away. I saw him glance in our direction, and I felt hugely embarrassed that he’d seen us cowering in the parking lot, but his long hair fell across his face, screening his expression, so I couldn’t tell what he thought about our crazy behavior.
When he sped away in his battered pickup, I realized that I’d been holding my breath.
Ashley gave a theatrical shudder as she climbed out of her car.
“Ugh, that guy gives me the creeps. What do you think is in the box? Oh God, don’t open it! It might be a head!”
I didn’t bother to answer, instead cautiously lifting one of the flaps.
I jumped back with a squeal, and Ashley shrieked. A sudden flutter of wings had startled me.
Sitting in a nest of torn up rags was a Golden Eagle, very young, its flight feathers still fluffy, and its left wing obviously broken as it trailed next to him, the poor bird crying loudly.
I sent Ashley to find a pet carrier and took my latest customer inside.
Some people think it’s not possible to mend a bird’s broken wing, but if you’re careful and patient, they can make a full recovery.
Golden Eagles were rare around here and protected, but there were a few. Mr. Winters must have found this one in the forest.
I suppose I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t stayed to speak to us, but I was taken aback to find a note in neat handwriting offering to pay for the young eagle’s treatment.
The bird didn’t have any other injuries, so I cut a 12 inch strip of veterinarian bandaging tape, a special type that doesn’t stick to fur or feathers. Then, as gently as possible, given the bird’s distressed squawks, I folded the broken wing against his side in the most natural position I could manage, while avoiding his sharp beak. Then I strapped the wing to his body and asked Ashley to call the aviary veterinarian in Pittsburg. In three or four weeks, the bird would be good as new. I hoped.
It was lucky that Mr. Winters had found him. He wouldn’t have survived in the wild like that.
For such a big man, he was incredibly gentle.
And that intrigued me even more.
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