. . .Which is probably why it’s best the big city beauty hasn’t been back to her small South Dakota ranching town since her teens. But with family business to take care of, the out-of-work actress is now strutting around in her stilettos, stirring up all kinds of trouble–especially with a certain ruggedly handsome hometown man. . ..
Morgan Browning is in a bind. . .
. . .And it seems the only woman who can help is Bea. He claims it has nothing to do with her long, lovely legs, but really why would the town vet hire her to run his office? It could be something in the way Bea sweet-talks every man–and beast–who crosses her path. Or it could be that Morgan can’t resist wrangling a woman who’s intent on making a getaway–especially when he can see the country girl beneath the glamour. . .
Morgan Browning, DVM, stared his archenemy down.
“You can’t beat me.”
His enemy blinked.
“I’m smarter. I’m stronger. And I can think.”
“I will take you down.”
The phone blinked again, signaling that this little intimidation exercise had not, in fact, helped solve the problem of how to get the voicemail off the machine to make the light go off.
“Dammit.” He pushed away from the desk in disgust. Why had Jaycee left for the day already? It was only three. She was the only one who knew how to make the stupid machine behave.
She’d given him a month to find a replacement for her as she trained for the opening for vet tech. And in reality, he agreed with her choice to become a tech. But even so, Jaycee had been pulling double duty, answering phones between patients. And it wasn’t fair.
But why, God why, did she leave him along for the afternoon without teaching him how to make the ugly thing stop blinking?
The bell above the door swung open, and Morgan pasted on his friendly, paying-customer smile. But as he turned and caught sight of his patient, the smile broadened naturally.
“Bea, hey. What’s going on?”
“I—” She glanced at the phone as it rang, then at the empty chair. “Do you need to get that?”
“No, it’s fine.” He reached for Bea’s Boston Terrier, Milton, who she’d adopted a few months ago. “Did you have an appointment?” The dog licked his face, smudging one lens of his glasses more so than it already had been.
The phone stopped ringing, and blissful silence—but for the dog’s snuffled breathing—filled the waiting area. He sighed in relief, then his body clenched again when the phone rang once more.
“No appointment. I just…okay, are you sure you don’t want to get that?” She pointed a finger at The Devil. “We can wait a few minutes.”
“Ignore it.” He was. Morgan held the Boston up to eye level, squinting through the smudge. “Hey, dude. What’s up?”
“He keeps scratching.” Bea puffed and blew out some baby-fine white-blond hair from her eyes. Her hair reminded him of a pile of feathers, it looked so lightweight. And she wore it in a short style that framed her face, too short for pulling back like most women he knew. But with a face like that, it deserved a frame.
“Dogs scratch, Bea.” He hid a smile behind Milton’s back. To Bea’s mind, every whimper and whine was a new health scare for her pup. “But let’s go take a look at—”
“Okay, that’s it!” Bea swerved around the desk on heels so high they had to be a danger to her health and plopped down in Jaycee’s old chair. Picking up the phone and pressing two buttons he never would have considered pressing together, she chirped, “Morgan Browning’s office, how can I help you?”
Morgan’s eyes nearly bugged out as far as Milton’s. The flighty, sometimes-ditzy acting Beatrice Muldoon had just sounded like a true professional. Fascinated, he leaned over the desk to observe.
“Yes, of course. Oh, the poor thing,” she cooed. “Let me check for you, please hold just one moment.” Pressing another two buttons, she glanced over at him quickly. “Appointments this evening?”
He shook his head. “None so far. Who is it?”
“The Peckinpaughs. Their family dog is throwing up. Do you want to…” She motioned to the phone.
“Yeah, just a minute.”
He picked up the receiver, then stared helplessly at The Devil. “Help.”
“Men,” she muttered, then pressed a few buttons and waved for him to continue.
“Thank you,” he mouthed and pointed toward the open exam room behind him, holding up a finger to indicate he’d be there in a moment.
She nodded and scooped Milton up, walking to the room and closing the door behind her.
God almighty, those legs of hers made his mouth water more than any medium rare steak ever could. The things he would give up in life to be able to watch her kick off her shoes under his exam table and crawl up there for—
Shit. “Yes, hello Mrs. Peckinpaugh. I hear Toby’s having some trouble.”
Legs could wait. At least for now.
“No, Milton stop that.” She bent down and placed her fingers between his scratching paw and his neck, earning an unintentional swipe over her knuckles for her trouble. “Ow, that hurt.”
“Did he get ya?”
Morgan’s voice from behind startled her, and she straightened so fast blood rushed from her head. His hands went around her biceps to steady her and ease her into a chair.
“Whoa now. Didn’t mean to scare you. Just sit a second. Standing up at that altitude might really get ya.”
“Altitude?” she asked, bringing her hand up to inspect the scratch. Just a red scrape, no broken skin. She eyed the dog, who looked innocent. A look he’d been perfecting for a few months now.
“The heels,” he said with a smile. “They’re tall enough to have you ducking low flying aircraft. Need me to check your pulse?” He was watching her eyes from behind hopelessly smudged glasses, and she knew he was taking stock of whether her pupils were dilated. Or not dilated. Whatever it was those medical types were looking for.
Cutie. Dr. Cutie. Wanting to save the world one forlorn case at a time.
“I’m fine. But Milton needs help.”
Morgan looked skeptical at that, but he sat back on his haunches and called the dog over, who trotted toward him with ease. Morgan removed his collar to inspect the skin under. “Where is he scratching at?”
“His shoulders and neck, mostly. Sometimes at his ears.”
“You’re using a flea and tick prevention?”
“The one you recommended, yes.”
“Bathed him in anything new?”
“No. Same stuff since I got him.”
“Hmm.” Morgan picked up the dog and checked under one leg, then the other. “Any other problems? Not eating, not drinking?”
“He’s fine, other than the scratching.”
“Well, then I think you’re gonna make it, my man.” He roughed up the top of Milton’s head with two knuckles in an adorable gesture of manly affection for the small dog. “I think he’s got allergies.”
“Allergies? The dog?” She rolled her eyes. “It would figure I’d get a high maintenance canine. Allergies.”
He refrained from making any sort of joke about a high maintenance dog for a high maintenance woman. It was a softball, even she could admit it. She appreciated the restraint. But he did smile and hold out a hand to help her up.
“I’ll get some samples of allergy meds. But really, you can give him the human stuff. I’ve got a paper around here somewhere that gives you the dosing instructions based on his weight.”
He walked back out to the front desk and started opening file cabinets at random, peering in, and slamming them shut again quickly. Milton escaped deep under the desk, in a dark corner, as if sensing something bad was coming.
The phone rang again, and Morgan completely ignored it.
After the third ring, she asked, “Should I get that again?”
“No, I can do it.” His voice was muffled in a drawer.
Uh huh. Right. Like he didn’t know how to take a call off hold, he could obviously answer the complex office phone system. To soothe the male ego, she said, “Since you’re busy, I’ll just answer this one.” She slid around him, her thigh brushing against his shoulder.
And okay, wow, her nerve endings stood up on point for that one. Clearly, if she was getting hot for the vet, she’d been in Marshall too long. Finding him adorable in a distant, sure, he’s cute sort of way was one thing. Getting hot for the good animal doctor was another thing entirely.
“Morgan Browning’s office, how can I help you?” She listened, scribbling the message down on a pad of paper to pass him when he was through. “That’s wonderful, I’m so glad you’re considering a dog from the shelter. I have to tell you, I just got my Milton from there a few months ago and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Morgan turned to watch her, but she shrugged. How hard could this be?
“What kind of dog were you looking for? Mm hmm, yes, okay…” She scribbled down the descriptions the family was hoping for on a pad of paper. “I’ll have Dr. Browning give you a call back here in a bit after he’s had a chance to think about it. How does that sound? In the meantime, there’s a form online you can print off and fill out to bring in with you. That would save you some time when you come in. Yes, just go to the vet website, then click on the tab up above for the shelter. Yes, that’s right. Well, thanks to you, too. I hope you find what you’re looking for!”
She hung up and smiled, then caught Morgan’s stare. “What?”
“How did you do that?”
“What?” She looked to the phone. “Answer it?”
“No, know how to do all that…” He waved a hand around like he was swatting flies. “All that talking crap. Know all the right things to say.”
Bea rolled her eyes and patted his cheek…which was easy to reach given he was squatting by another file cabinet. “Sweetie, talking is what I did for a living. Acting on a soap is ninety percent talking. And when I was still auditioning for gigs, I was night receptionist at a twenty-four hour pharmacy.”
“But even with the adoption stuff..”
“I just went through this process a few months ago. It’s fresh in my mind. They’re looking for a small dog, more of a lap dog then anything. No kids, just the wife and her husband. Empty nesters.” She pushed the pad toward him and stood. “That’s their number. I told them you’d check what’s available now and get back to them.”
He grabbed her arms again, like he had in the exam room, but it had nothing to do with catching her before she fainted. His hands were warm against her chilled, bare skin, the pressure just a little insistent.
“You can answer the phones.”
She nodded slowly at his wild-eyed gaze. “Yes.”
“You can talk to people.”
“I manage to use real words and everything,” she bit off.
“Can you use email and figure out a calendar program?”
“Morgan, who the hell doesn’t know how to use email anymore? What’s this all about?”
Bea walked into the big house, dropped her keys and bag on the floor by the row of boots, flipped her heels off out of habit more than any desire to please, and set Milton down on the floor. The dog, for all the trouble he’d caused her that afternoon, had the good sense to go hide somewhere. Likely wherever the always-snacking Seth had been earlier, dropping crumbs. Kid left a trail of Cheerios in his wake like he was inviting ants to a picnic.
And shit. Peyton’s voice. Darting upstairs would cause too much noise. Maybe if she quietly walked toward the office, she could slip away unseen. They might just assume a hand was dropping something off in the office. They might—
Seth’s delight shriek—Milton’s butchered name—had her closing her eyes in resignation.
“Bea, we’re all in the dining room.”
She sighed and headed that way. As she turned the corner and saw everyone sitting down, she bit back a second useless sigh and propped her shoulder on the door jamb. “Yes?”
Trace patted the seat next to him. “Sit. We’re eating, and there’s plenty, as usual.”
Milton hopped up into the chair, tail wagging excitedly at the idea of being invited to dine with the big peoples with the good food.
“Oh no. No, no, no.” Emma walked around the table and used a napkin to shoo the dog back down to the floor. “I tolerate that barking cat in the house but I won’t have him sit at the table.”
“Calm down, Emma. He was just confused.” To placate the housekeeper, she sat and grabbed a plate. Nothing made Emma happier than people eating her food. Emma nodded her satisfaction and headed back to the kitchen—her kingdom over which she reigned on high—and left the siblings, plus Red and Jo, to eat. “Pass some veggies, please.”
“Try protein,” Peyton suggested, handing over the platter of fried chicken instead.
Bea’s mouth watered, but she used one finger to nudge the platter of fried trouble to the side. “Thank you, no. The vegetables if you please.”
“Here.” Peacekeeper Red handed over the mixed veggies with a smile. Over the clatter of silverware and Seth’s excited babbling from his high chair, he asked, “How was your appointment? Everything okay?”
Bea scooped a heavy serving of vegetables on her plate, debated a second spoonful, then decided no. They were likely cooked in butter and oil already. She’d grab an apple on the way back to her garage apartment across the ranch. “Milton has allergies and I have a job.”
The screech of a fork over a plate made her cringe. When she glanced up from her forkful of green beans and carrots, she stared into four identical shocked faces.
Peyton, naturally, was the first to break silence. “A job? Like, where you do work?”
“No, the other kind, where I do nothing and get paid for it,” she bit out.
“So your old job,” her sister replied.
“Acting. Is. Work.” Her jaw ached from clenching.
“How exciting!” Jo exclaimed, a little louder than socially acceptable. “Doing what?”
Just to piss Peyton off, she answered, “Working at Harem Ladies.”
“You,” Peyton said dryly. “Working at the strip club outside city limits.”
“Oh sure. They have the cutest uniforms.” Warming to the idea of annoying Peyton, she continued. “Of course, I’ll have to order my pasties from online. There’s bound to be a pitiful selection here in town.”
“Jesus, Bea-Bea.” Trace flushed and looked like he wanted to escape, or maybe rip something apart with his bare hands. “What the hell?”
She threw a piece of her uneaten roll at him. “Oh for God sake, Trace. No. Morgan Browning asked me to fill in for his receptionist at the vet clinic.”
Silence greeted the statement.
“Answering phones, checking in patients, that sort of thing.”
More silence, minus the sound of Jo’s water glass clinking on the table in front of her.
“Oh, come on guys. It’s not like I’m neutering dogs or anything. It’s sitting in front of a computer for a few hours a day.” God, how inept did they really think she was?
How inept had she let them think she was? Maybe she really was a better actress than she ever thought.
“If you wanted money,” Jo said slowly, “you could have asked me for a job at the bar.”
“Or just pulled your weight around here,” Peyton added.
“Right. Like you would even give me the chance.” She didn’t look up, didn’t care to see the scorn in her older sister’s face. Okay, so mucking out a stall was about as high on her to-do list as swimming in shark-infested waters. But it was lowering to know her own sister wouldn’t have given her a job if she’d begged for it.
Maybe that was her own fault.
Morgan walked in the back door of his parents’ home and wiped his boots on the mat.
“Morgan?” His mother’s voice filtered into the mud room.
“Yeah, Mom.” He hung his jacket on the hook by the door, next to his father’s heavier coat meant for his days in the fields.
He thought to argue they were his good, clean office footwear, not his barn shitkickers, but didn’t bother. Instead he sat down on the wooden bench his grandfather had made his parents as a wedding gift and pulled off his shoes. The cement of the mudroom was freezing cold, the chill seeping through his socks as he hopped his way onto the marginally warmer worn linoleum of the kitchen.
Cynthia, his mother, set another plate on the table. Without looking up, she pointed at the kitchen sink. The now-familiar routine served as a good reminder why he had built the house at the edge of their property for himself, rather than live with his parents. Plenty of room, but plenty of rules. At thirty-three, he should be able to wash his hands when he wanted.
But under his mother’s roof, he washed when Cynthia said.
Over the rushing water, he said, “It’s quiet. Where are the little demon spawn?”
“If you are referring to your niece and nephew, they’re in the den with your father, watching some God-awful show they insisted was fantastic and they couldn’t miss.” Cynthia rolled her eyes and handed him a towel to dry his hands on. “They watch too much, but I swear I was going crazy with them underfoot while I made dinner.”
Morgan wasn’t fooled. He set the towel on the counter and leaned down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “You love every noisy minute, and you know it.”
“Of course I do. Having little ones in the house is a nice change from the quiet.”
“When do Meg and Simon get back again?” His sister and her husband had taken themselves off on a cruise to celebrate their tenth anniversary and left the kids with Grandma and Grandpa Browning.
“Four more days.” She looked up to the heavens, as if exasperated and begging for relief. But the minute those kids left, Morgan knew she’d be sobbing. Even living only ten minutes away, she’d be heartbroken to part with them.
“Uncle Morgan!” Six year old Andrea bulleted out from the den and ran smack into his legs, nearly taking him out. Small, but mighty. “Did you bring any puppies home? Did you? I want to bottle feed a puppy!”
“No, not today. Sorry, short stuff.” He ran a hand down her messy ponytail, tilting crazily to one side.
“Did you cut anything open?” Brent, at eight, was more interested in guts and gore than fuzzy puppies who wanted to snuggle.
“Brent. We’re about to eat dinner. That’s not appropriate. Now go take your seat. Bert! We’re eating!”
Morgan’s father shuffled in, slippers already on, paper tucked under his arm. The man loved his paper. And he winked at Morgan before asking, “So, any operations today, son?”
“Honestly.” His mother yanked the paper from under his arm and whacked him with it. “Go sit.”
Morgan watched with amusement at the short fight for who would sit next to who at the table, before both Brent and Andrea were satisfied. Sitting in the exact same seats they had been yesterday for dinner, naturally. But the bickering never got old. He’d done the same thing with Meg when they’d been children.
“Anything interesting at work today? Not operating-room related,” his mother qualified quickly, with a scolding look at Brent.
“Not too much. A couple might stop in for a dog later this week. And I found a temporary replacement receptionist.”
“Really?” His mother glanced up from cutting Andrea’s asparagus. “Who?”
“Bea Muldoon.” He took a sip of water and waited.
Cynthia froze in the middle of a cut. “Beatrice?”
“That young Muldoon gal?” his father asked, just as puzzled.
“She’s pretty,” Andrea said, ignorant of the shock. She spooned up a piece of potato. “I saw her at the grocery store once. Mama said she was an actress. You have to be pretty to be an actress.”
“That’s not what’s important,” his mother said quickly, resuming her grandmotherly duties.
“But she is pretty hot,” Brent acknowledged with a grin.
“You’re eight, what do you know from hot?” Morgan asked, biting back a smile. Christ, kids were growing up too fast these days.
“I know it when I see it.” Brent shrugged, then dug into his casserole.
Uh huh. He turned to his dad, hoping for a little back up. Instead, he got a wink. “She is definitely a cute one, no denying it.”
“Okay, so she’s attractive.” Sexy, sassy, with mile long legs and a slender neck that made him want to take quick, nipping bites all along that elegant curve… “But that’s not all. She’s good at the job, as she showed me today. She can handle it.”
His mother snorted, then winced when Andrea looked up. “Sorry, dear. That was rude. We don’t snort at the table.”
Andrea giggled, but said nothing more. Brent smiled down into his plate.
“But really, Morgan. I don’t mean to tell you how to run your business…”
“Which is to say, she’s going to tell you how to run your business,” his father muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
Cynthia shot him a Look. Capitol L. “But,” she continued more sternly, “I have to say I think this is unwise. You know I adore Peyton.”
“Didn’t you think she and Morgan would make a cute couple at one point?” Bret asked.
“Jeez, Dad.” Morgan winced at the thought. He loved Peyton, like a sister. She’d been a good friend, as had Trace, and he’d hated how hard she had to work the past few years under her mother’s thumb. But she’d triumphed with Red’s help, and they were a solid duo, both in business and as a couple.
“I’m merely warning you. She’s not long for here. She’s told anyone who would listen for more than five seconds she has big plans to head back to Hollywood and continue her career. Don’t depend on her.”
“She’s a temp, not a full time employee. She’s filling the gap until I can find and train someone new. I’m lucky she’s willing to help out. I was drowning and she just walked in like a life raft at the perfect moment.” When neither of them said a word, he blew out a breath. “You’ll be eating these words. I believe in her.”
“Sometimes,” his mother said quietly, not looking up from her plate, “one should be wary of perfectly timed life rafts.”
He attacked his meal with a vengeance, eating fast enough to get out of there quickly but not so fast his mother’s feelings would be hurt. Andrea and Brent’s good-natured squabbling helped keep the mood light, but he needed his own space.
On the short walk back to his own house, a half mile down the road, he wondered why his mother was so insistent on him not thinking about Bea being around for the long haul. Did she suspect he’d been struck dumb by her since the minute she’d come into town?
He winced at the thought of his own mother contemplating his love life, or current lack thereof. Not a good place to go.
It didn’t matter, really. She was a temp, and he had no desire to force her to stay. But if something should just happen to nudge her into thinking about making Marshall her permanent home again…
Well. He wouldn’t argue.