Spurs and Lace – Book 1 – Sneak Peek

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Spurs and Lace

Feud is a four-letter word.

And so is love.

A tough Montana rancher…

A desperate doctor from the city…

They’re fighting their own differences and a feud that threatens to rip apart the town.

Slate will do whatever it takes to keep his ranch – except fall for the doctor who might be working for his nemesis. To protect the people he loves, he might have to risk his own life… and his heart.

Becky will do what it takes to get rid of debt and help her parents. Will she be a traitor to her heart and the cowboy she’s falling for?

Take a ride into Big Sky Country with Becky and Slate!

Get this feel good page turner now and immerse yourself in the sweetest of romances!

Slate is torn between worrying about his absent twin brother, what his enemy will try next, and his attraction to a woman who surely isn’t suited for life in rugged, rural Montana. But when he rides to her rescue, the two learn that together, they may just be stronger than the adversity they face.

Chapter 1

No one ever seemed to need a doctor in a blizzard.

Becky couldn’t think of a single soul dumb enough to leave the warmth of the fireplace or the company of a television set to venture into the harsh winter weather. Even for an appointment at the doctor’s office. Even for an emergency. Not in Montana. Most people knew how to splint up and wrap down. Apply pressure to stop bleeding was the consensus, right?

Bored, she sighed and tossed her book on the pale gray laminate counter. A Bachelor degree in Biophysiology, a Doctorate of Osteopathy, and a five-year surgical residency had prepared her to sit in a silent clinic reading romances while the entire region stayed uninjured and healthy, not to mention warm and cozy in their own places.

Great. Just great.

Four hours before, she’d told the nurse and receptionist to head home before the blizzard closed down the roads and isolated them along with her. The head nurse, Shelley, had made a cryptic comment involving “dangerous roads follow snow” or something along those lines. She’d been the last person in the clinic besides Becky. It probably meant there would be a lot of wrecks or something.

Nothing fazed Becky. Snow, rain, wind, floods, whatever. She didn’t care. She’d seen worse than Montana could throw at her that was for dang sure. The western coast of Washington had premenstrual weather cramps complete with moodiness. Montana’s predictability had an almost male-like feel to it.

A shadow passed the window. The only movement she’d seen since right after three when the sun had given up the fight and conceded to the burgeoning clouds, pregnant with impending snow.  

The round clock above the thick wooden door read five. Becky braced for the wind that would rocket through the office when the person burst through.

A minute passed.  

Hmm. Maybe a large clump of snow had blown in front of the street light, causing the shadow she’d seen. Lame.

Thirty more minutes and she could return to her hole-in-the-barn apartment and stare at the clock there, shivering in the chill. Joy.

Thud. Clank. Clank. The sounds carried dully through the walls of the building.

Boredom caved to curiosity. Becky rushed to the entryway. Yanking the panel open, she gritted her teeth against the stinging wind as it bit any exposed flesh.

Who in their right mind was out in – a man slumped against the office building, protected in part by a snorting, stomping black horse whose breath fogged before him.

“Whoa.” She didn’t have extensive knowledge on how to calm horses, but she’d heard that phrase around town a couple times. She’d lived in Washington not Wyoming.

Grab the reins. Becky approached the horse and grabbed for the dangling leather straps attached to the sides of his face. “Whoa, girl… or boy.” What was politically correct to call a horse? She refused to look under the tail and find out and quite frankly, the horse wasn’t her concern.

She wouldn’t even bother with the animal except for two reasons – one, the large beast was built like a tank and if Becky didn’t move him, he very well could squash the man. And two, people in northern Montana valued their horses almost as much as their children, some more so.

Calmer, the horse stood still. The whites of his eyes flashed in the orange glow from across the road.

Becky, assured by the horse’s stable stance, checked the patient’s throat for a pulse. The scent of warm man encircled her with fresh husky cologne, leather, and dried grass. Almost immediately the wind swiped a cruel gust between the horse and the building, erasing the smell Becky could’ve curled into.

She couldn’t see who he was, hidden under the wide brim of his hat, but she’d make a note in his chart for the nurses that he smelled delicious. The joys of a small town. A strong, albeit slow, pulse pressed against her fingertips. At least he’d live. Maybe. She’d never seen a cowboy popsicle before.

“Sir?” Becky prodded his shoulder. A glance up and down the street revealed nothing. The man was the only idiot outside, besides her, and, jeesh, she was out there because of him. Typical.

Her hands shook with the cold.

Who knew how long he’d been on the horse. If he’d fallen from the saddle, chances were he had hypothermia. Her boring afternoon had just taken on an extremely interesting twist. She had no one to help her but she wasn’t going to balk from the challenge.

“Come on.” She rolled her eyes at having just told an unconscious man to come on. Three feet away, the door might as well have been thirty for all the good it did either of them.

She sucked in a deep breath. Come on, Bec. I don’t need him in an exam room, just out of the storm. I can do this.  

Gripping the shoulders of his thick leather coat, she eyed the horse. “I’ll be back. Don’t move.” Thank goodness, no one witnessed her talking to an animal that couldn’t possibly understand. The large creature offered another eye roll and looked on.

Becky closed her eyes and yanked. The large man could have neck damage, brain damage, back damage. She didn’t know what injuries he had, but she couldn’t check in the dangerously frigid temperature. The list of possibilities mounted. Inside, she could assess the overall picture better.

If she didn’t hurry, she’d be treating her own case of “frozen tail”.

She pulled.

He slid.

She pulled.

He slid more.

“Unh.” Not the most ladylike sound, but the man was out and couldn’t hear her grunts.

At the doorjamb, she readjusted her grip and put her butt into it. Heck, those squats she did at the desk when she was bored better be good for something.

After a pause that felt like nothing was going to move – ever, the man slid fully into the front office. Becky left him on the floor and pushed his legs to the side.

The horse. What would she do with him? She couldn’t leave him out in the cold. She might not be a huge animal fan, but she wasn’t cruel.

Tim’s office. The physician’s assistant never used the spacious room, preferring instead the outlandish accommodations the rich, pretentious Mr. James provided. Becky liked to call her wanna-be-colleague PA Tim. The name irritated him something fierce and kept his lofty nose in its place. Never around, the jerk wouldn’t notice if anything happened to his office. Plus, she wouldn’t have to worry about the horse leaving droppings around the office or bashing up the floors.

PA Tim was a horse’s rear end, why not outfit his office like one lived there?  

Back outside, Becky captured the reins once more and clicked her tongue. “Okay, this way. Come on. Hello. There you go. Yep. Beautiful accommodations for you, sir or madam, whatever.” Large, yet graceful, the – oops, there it was – gelding followed her with a weird rhythmic tune to his step. He carefully picked his way over the man when Becky led him inside.  

The horse followed her into the office off the side of the lobby. Dark and shiny, his coat had a luster of well-maintained care giving a strong indication of how well he was treated and fed.

Becky left the room’s door open, unsure what a horse would do with an oak desk, shelved books, and plastic plants. One never knew though. His hooves had scratched and scraped across the tiled floor. Good thing it hadn’t been linoleum.

Wind whirled snow and biting chill inside. Becky slammed the front door.

By the calendar behind the desk, she spun the dial on the thermostat to eighty-five. Ridiculous, of course, but there was a distinct possibility a certain southern locale was freezing over.

She rubbed her hands together and knelt beside the man bundled in layers of well-made outfitter’s clothing. Each article would have to come off. Double joy.

His hat had fallen away. Sleek, sable-colored waves fell across his forehead and grazed his ear. Stubble shadowed the well-formed angle of his jaw, framing full, masculine lips. Long lashes rested on his cheeks. Before Becky knew what she was doing, her hand raised to touch the black line of his eyebrow.

She yanked her fingers away from his chilled skin. Had she met him before? Something familiar about his coloring and the contour of his rugged features teased the edges of her mind…

His clothes had to come off. Keep that in mind. Nice. Not that way, Becky O’Donald. Not where she needed her thoughts to travel.

She hadn’t undressed a man in forever and a half, medically or otherwise. Buttons the size of quarters taunted her. The top one slid through the hole. The leather of the oilskin duster had a worn but supple look. Running her hand down the panel to the next button, Becky appreciated the soft feel under her palm.

Sneaking a look at his face, she froze. Nothing. No movement. Of course, there wasn’t anything. Something was wrong with him and Becky didn’t have the time to act like a nervous CNA. She was a doctor with a job to do. She’d seen naked men before. But… never any with his coloring, sculpted features, or sheer size.

Shaking her head, Becky squeezed her hands tight before releasing the hold and wiggling her fingers out. She could do it.

Once undone, the buttons freed the coat to reveal a zipper which whirred as she pulled it down. Tan, down underwear peaked from under a blue flannel shirt tucked into denim jeans covered with stiff Carhart pants. Layered like a lasagna and belted with a gun holster complete with bullets and gun. Like the ultimate chastity belt.

How was a girl supposed to get in those pants?

Becky yanked off his gloves.

He groaned, turning his head from side to side. “Mac. I’m coming.”

Who was Mac? Becky’s fingers fell to grasp his wrists. Startled at how cold he was, she wrapped her fingers around the exposed skin of his hands. The office would never warm up fast enough.

She thrust up from her kneeling position and rushed into the back-supply room. Heating pads and blankets filled her arms. Beside him once more, she packed pads and blankets around his extremities and placed a rolled-up blanket under his head.

Moments passed filled with the faint puff of her breath as she worked on moving his arms and legs and rubbing his shoulders and chest along with the occasional scrape and rasp from the office where the horse stood.

Becky leaned back on her heels. Holy cow, the breadth of his shoulders seemed to take forever to span with her well-intended massage. He really was beautiful in a rugged, powerful way.

Lashes fluttered, revealing deep blue eyes more dazed than pained.

A hand on his shoulder, Becky leaned close. His smell surrounded her, but she ignored it, focusing on his cues. “Hello? I’m Dr. Becky O’Donald. Can you tell me your name?” She pressed her thumb into the carpal side of his wrist. “Can you feel this?” She could.

He moaned.

She rubbed the skin she had been able to bare with fast friction. “Good. That means you didn’t get frost bite.”

Moving to sit up, the man pulled his hands from her grasp and wiped his eyes and forehead. He inhaled a large breath and blew into his palms. Blankets and pads fell from his shoulders and arms.

Becky held out her hand to offer help, but he shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks.” Hot chocolate with mint couldn’t warm her faster than the rough timber of his voice. He clenched his jaw and his eyes pierced her, like he saw into her thoughts – knew what she’d been thinking while he’d been out. “Did you say you’re a doctor?”

Taken aback by his abrupt “recovery”, Becky tilted her head and jerked her chin forward. “Yes. Why? Are you okay? Does anything hurt? I couldn’t find any injuries, but I’d just started my exam.”

“Where’s my horse?” He patted his waist, reassuring himself the gun was still in place. The man shook his head and glanced out the window on level with his eyes. “How long was I out?”

“I can’t be certain on the time, but my guess is not long. You fell outside the door.” Becky poked her finger toward the office where the coarse tail twitched just in view. “The horse is in there, but I’m a human doctor. I don’t do animals.” Had to draw the line somewhere or any old hick would have her performing vasectomies on chickens.

“I’m a veterinarian. I wouldn’t wander through this weather on an animal that needed attention.” Condescension riddled his words and the curl of his lip mocked her. “Do you have a coat?”

Put in her place and not sure she should have been, Becky recoiled. “What? Yes, of course I have a coat.” Maybe the cold had done more damage than he let on.

“Grab it and let’s go. Pig can hold us both. It’ll help with the wind, too.” He stumbled as he climbed to his feet. Looking down at his jacket, he stared at the open layers, arms akimbo. “What’d you undress me for?”

“I didn’t. I just opened your coat. Ahem… you were cold… I…” Embarrassed as if caught in the act of licking his eyebrows, Becky thrust her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes. “Now, wait a minute. You fell outside off your – Pig did you call him?” She raised her jaw, refusing to be cowed by his towering height. “I dragged your butt in here out of the cold, which I’d like to add you’re not light. Then I put your horse in the office. And you’re looking for a doctor? Maybe you want to demonstrate your manners a little more.” Satisfied he’d received his own “place”, she pursed her lips to further her point.

“Are you serious?” He rolled his eyes like his horse but the only similarities between the two imposing creatures were the inky coloring of their hair and their unnatural height. He might have passed out from the beginning stages of hypothermia, but he wasn’t letting that hold him back. “How old are you? Did you just graduate? What kind of a doctor are you? Where’s Dr. Roylance?”

Which insult did she start with? Hippocratic Oath. Do no harm. Do no harm. She breathed in deep. “I’m old enough. Dr. Roylance is on sabbatical. You need a doctor? Here I am. What can I do for you, Mr…?”

“Slate MacAllister. It’s not me. The patient is at my ranch. At this point, I think it’s reached life or death. Pig will take us.” Slate refastened his clothing and stomped to the door. A low whistle whipped through the air. Pig moved a full circle in the small office and returned beside Slate in seconds, nuzzling his shoulders.

Dumbfounded and sure she appeared stupid; Becky just stared. She had no words. Had a very hot man just woken up during an examination and asked her to climb onto his horse for a “ride” to his ranch in Antarctic-like weather? She glanced at the book lying on the counter. No more romance novels for her. She was obviously losing her mind.

On top of all that, she’d been dying to meet the famous Slate MacAllister. Everyone around town spoke his name with reverence. And the ladies visibly drooled. Becky could see – and smell – why. Too bad he wasn’t very polite or she’d entertain all kinds of ideas… alright, who was she kidding? She entertained them anyway.

Ignoring her unprofessional train of thought, Becky tried to return to a level of politeness that suggested he hadn’t ruffled her in nine very distinct ways. “Which ranch?” Behind the desk, Becky opened a drawer and pulled out her keys. She couldn’t remember which one he owned, but chances were his land crept up the side of the mountain range.

“Lonely River.” He eyed the jangling metal as they hung from her fingers. “Your car isn’t going to get us there. The roads are almost impassable. Pig will be faster.”

“Sir, I don’t do horses and I don’t do cold. Your ‘impassable’ and my ‘impassable’ are probably two different things. My vehicle will do just fine.” She picked up the handset and punched in a series of numbers. While the phone rang, she watched him.

He reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t quite place who.

Becky smiled at the older woman’s sweet voice who answered. “Mrs. Roylance? This is Becky at the clinic. Slate MacAllister needs assistance at his residence. We have to leave his horse here at the office, can you send Junior over to put him in the stable and watch out for him until Mr. MacAllister can return? Oh, you do? Yes, it is Pig. Okay, thank you so much. I’ll tell him.” She hung up the phone, irritated that the situation hadn’t warranted more concern for Becky’s welfare but more for Pig’s. She bit out. “Mrs. Roylance said hello.”

Slate glared at her; the heat uncomfortable in the warming office. “We need my horse and you didn’t need to bother Junior. He’s probably busy with his new wife, anyway.”

Becky tapped her finger on the counter. Keep it professional. “We don’t need your horse. Junior’s wife is out of town right now and his mother didn’t hesitate.” She grabbed her coat and purse from the back table. “I’m parked in back.”

His heavy boots clomped behind her. The tingles were a little hard to ignore.

Where had she seen his face before?

Chapter 2

Two vehicles huddled together in the parking lot, snow drifted behind tires.

Slate slammed his hat on his head and rubbed his wrists. He didn’t remember how he’d gotten inside the office, but the uppity She-Doc chafed him the wrong way and he didn’t want to believe that she’d dragged him in there herself.

It didn’t matter.

He needed a doctor and she was willing to come with him. He honestly didn’t know if the roads were completely impassable or not – his truck had some kind of battery or electrical issue and he hadn’t wanted to mess with it. Pig was guaranteed to be efficient and safe.

If she crashed the car, they’d come back and get Pig. If she was going to crash, it’d happen quick since the first turnout had slick written all over it.

Slate’s desperation to have her help surpassed his desire to throw her over the saddle and head out without her permission. Plus, to be honest, something about her raised his hackles and he wanted her on the horse so he could maintain some semblance of control. Control. The situation he found himself in had zero control up for grabs.

Hopefully, the little guy at home was alright.

Slate waded through the piling snow, coming to a stop beside a small Honda. Smirking as the good doctor high-stepped behind him, he shot a wistful glance at the other vehicle. A large Dodge Ram truck – one that would most likely crawl up the side of an iceberg and back down without needing to put on the brakes – made it difficult to return his gaze back to where the doctor had been. Wait, where’d she go?

A light blinked on in the cab of the masculine rig. Slate snapped his eyebrows together. Her clipped tones and stiff posture suggested an uptight city girl. Slate had never met one who drove a vehicle the size of a tow truck. Did she actually drive it? Or were her handling skills strictly town driving?

He muffled a laugh. Wow, he sounded like a sexist jerk. Not a normal reaction to a hot woman trying to undress him. If he’d had the time, he would’ve shown her exactly what hid underneath all his clothes.

Climbing into the passenger seat, Slate pointed at the steering wheel. “Do you want me to drive?” He arched his eyebrow, unsure if he teased or not.

Auburn hair, dark with wet snow, bobbed at her shoulders as she shook her head. “I’m good, thanks.”

A safety bar beckoned after he engaged his seatbelt. The truck deserved more than to be owned by a city girl who wouldn’t use it for what it’d been built for. Slate almost felt sorry for the poor Ram. The roads would be icy and she didn’t look like her arms were strong enough to steer the beautiful machine.

The engine roared to life. She-Doc shifted, spun the wheel, pumped the levers, and pulled the truck out of its spot onto the disappearing road better than a stunt driver – drifting and all.

Okay, so she made it out of the parking lot. He’d give her credit. The test would be when they got to Lacey Caverns’s first hill.

A small watch face glinted from under the cuff of her classy wool coat. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a woman’s watch. Time seemed to stand still in the quiet world he’d been raised, where people didn’t worry about scheduled minutes or deadlines but rather followed the seasonal needs and demands of the animals and resources.  

Her green eyes had startled him when he’d awoken on the floor. He’d lost his composure and snapped at her. Slate cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I’ve been so rude. I’m not normally so blunt.” Worry over Mac took precedence. He had the feeling the doctor could handle herself. Like the truck.

“It’s okay. I haven’t been as gracious as I would like either.” She spun the wheel and pushed at the brakes. The truck didn’t buck when she roared into the turn.

“That’s the deadliest curve in all of Montana. Some say it even has ice on a hot summer day.” Impressed she hadn’t even slid on the notorious up-swing, Slate relaxed into the leather seat.

The pixie chuckled, disarming Slate. He couldn’t remember what she’d done to annoy him, but the root of his angst dissolved under the mutual attempt at congeniality. Did she feel the spark that singed his skin where she’d touched him? Or could it be aftereffects of the cold – like nerve damage from the ice?

Her tinkling laugh made him smile, a miracle considering the circumstances. The urgency of the moment seemed surreal in the warmth of the truck, next to the doctor.

“Well, don’t be too impressed. Montana has nothing on Seattle and its Cali drivers.” She offered a pointed glance. “Calis as in Californians.”

Slate arched his eyebrow. “I know what Cali means.” The thwap of the windshield wipers punctuated his words. Annoying how he jumped from wanting to laugh with her to glowering at her in disbelief.

She-Doc shifted in her seat. “Right.” Discomfort filled the air. She glanced between the mirrors before breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Anyway, you need to know what you’re doing in a vehicle to get from point A to point B while maneuvering between three Lexuses, a limo, and most likely a Humvee, all driving at ridiculous speeds on Snoqualmie Pass.”

He tugged on the shoulder strap of the seat belt. “Are you from Seattle?”

She shook her head, hair flipping under her chin. “No, just medical school in Seattle. I grew up in Spokane.”

So, she was a city girl. He didn’t feel so bad about the generalization, especially since she seemed to think he was some stupid hick.

Roaring, the Ram climbed the hill, pushing through feet of piled snow that flew around them like cotton candy.

Trees climbed into the dark, swollen sky framing the road. Snow fell, white flakes diminishing vision further than twenty feet in front of them. Snow banks protected the forest.

Silence fell again.

The shoulder disappeared under the white blanket.

The wheels left the road for a ditch.

Unfazed, She-Doc engaged four-wheel drive with the push of a button and effortlessly recovered the pavement. Headlights bounced in line with the truck, illuminating large nickel-sized snowflakes flying through the air. “Can you tell me about the patient?”

Mac. “He’s about three years old or so. His pain has been mounting. Fevers. Crying. It hasn’t been getting better. We tried acetaminophen and ibuprofen, but they haven’t made a dent in his temperature – or the pain.” Slate shook his head and swallowed. The little kid meant more to him than he wanted to acknowledge.

“Okay, I’ll do an exam when we get there. Fevers can be a tricky thing.” She focused on the driving wind and snow attacking the windshield.

He shot a look at the driver. Her profile could have been stone for all the emotion she displayed, like on the tired side of bored. Slate had a mare that looked like that a while back. Once he’d bred her with Pig the look hadn’t returned.

Her green eyes glanced his way. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing serious. I’m pretty good at what I do.”

“You remind me of a horse I own.” Slate had no reason to lie, plus what woman didn’t want to be likened to a beautiful animal?

She spluttered. “I… what? You didn’t seriously just call me a horse, right?” The reassuring slant of her shoulders toward him disappeared. She arched against the seat and tucked her chin.

“What’s the problem? I didn’t say you look like one. You look tired. And bored.” Slate sat up. How could she possibly have taken his comment the wrong way? He’d always been the talker. He should’ve kept his mouth shut like his little brother would’ve done. Nothing was going the way he pictured.

“Tired and bored? Sir, you don’t know me well enough to say such things. And if you did know me?” She clenched her jaw. “You wouldn’t say them.”

He didn’t quite know how his words had become twisted, but he’d irritated the She-Doc. Disgusted with himself and the situation, Slate turned his attention to the fighting storm outside his window. He would keep his mouth shut.

What did he care what she thought anyway? Get her to help Mac and then let her get home. He didn’t go into town enough to worry about seeing her or to care if she ground her teeth at his compliments.

What’d she want, a man to liken her auburn hair to a sorrel mare’s? That wasn’t going to happen. Well, it might, but not from him – out loud.

Dang it, now that he thought about it, her hair was thick and russet enough to match Sissy’s coat.

Slate tightened his lips. If hearing that she reminded him of his favorite mare angered her, imagine what she’d think if he told her she had the same coloring as another in Pig’s harem. Slate adjusted himself in the leather seat. For Mac’s sake, Slate would keep his mouth shut.

Out of nowhere, the wrought iron ripples reining above Lonely River’s drive glowed through the white sea. “This is me.” His brother had suggested placing the lights to work like a gathering of small lighthouses. It wasn’t the first time the beacons had saved someone’s life in the middle of a blizzard.

Small solar-powered lanterns hung from trees lining the heated driveway. The Ram’s studs clicked on the wet blacktop.

She-Doc broke the silence. “Why isn’t the snow sticking to the drive?”

“Radiant heating. My brother’s idea for guests. Long pipes run under the blacktop and hot water runs through them. The house and garage are heated the same way.” He refused to look at her, certain she expressed disbelief at the seemingly indulgent extravagance.

Slate had never understood the concept of heating the outdoors, but in the beginning he and his brother had been partners in the guest ranch and outfitter setup. Slate had acquiesced on the little things, grateful they worked together at all. Any second with Robbie was a second he could feel whole.

“Guests? You have a dude ranch or something like that, right?” She formed a polite smile around the formalities, the little talk, between people who didn’t really care.

He tapped his finger on the arm rest of the door, suddenly anxious to get away from her. Dude ranch, the term annoyed him more coming from her, like a belittled idea.

Slate pointed toward the belled-out parking area close to the double entryway.  She rolled to a stop under the port a cache and leaned forward in her seat. Her jacket separated when she pressed against the steering wheel. Her breasts enhanced under her taut shirt. A half-awed sigh escaped from her pouty lips.  

“Ready? Mac’s in the kitchen.” Slate opened the door, erasing the warmth of the cab and the heat of his thoughts with the introduction of one blustery gust. He jumped from his seat.

She-Doc slid from hers and leaned the chair forward. A soft grunt reached him.

“You okay over there?” He closed the passenger door and rounded the hood. Had it been his truck, he would have opened her door.

She struggled with the straps of a large messenger bag. Black leather spanned across her waist and obliterated her slim hips. She was feminine defined.

He reached forward. “Here, let me.”

But she jerked back, a death grip whitening her knuckles. “I’m fine. Thank you. Lead the way.”

Radiant heating had nothing on her, her eyes could spark a fire. Was that anger or desire? Slate turned away. Of course, it had to be anger. He’d been watching too many Lifetime movies with Amelia.

He pointed at the house. “This way.” He’d insulted her left and right. Plus, he’d just ogled her on his driveway. She probably thought he wanted to swallow her whole.

Brick steps framed by log columns led the way to the large wraparound deck. Slate refused to look her way. He didn’t care if she could keep up. Oh, wait. Mac. Of course, Slate cared. He had to care. His whole world was wrapped up in that little boy.

Infuriating how the silence between them spoke more than words. Insults slung like crossbows in the air thick with awareness. They orbited around each other, careful not to touch as they crossed the threshold, but never more than a few feet away. He knew she was there even if he couldn’t hear her or smell the strawberry vanilla of her shampoo. He knew. His body knew. Stupid body.

Over the landing and across the catwalk overlooking the spacious game room, Slate led the She-Doc. Urgency grew with every step. And grew. Until he was almost running on the hardwood floor.

The baby wasn’t crying anymore. When Slate had left, Mac had screamed and cried for almost seventeen hours. And now he was quiet? Slate hadn’t been gone more than an hour or two. How much worse could Mac have gotten?

Chapter 3

The luxurious log rancher-style home knocked her on her butt. Did she have a Beverly Hillbilly man in her truck? He didn’t seem affected by the warm lights highlighting the intricate dry rock bricking the entryway, the warm glow of wood, or the bronze statues on either side of the foyer depicting elk and stallions. He ignored the glass river streaming above their heads filled with chiseled fish captured in varying poses of life.

Becky was worried about this “Mac” as well, but come on – how many chances would she get in her life to see a castle in the mountains where civilization didn’t exist. Couldn’t exist. And just how sick could the little boy be? A fever, they most likely needed to give him some cool compresses and remove all the blankets and fleece pajamas. Moms liked to over-snuggle their kids.

She stumbled over her own feet and cursed under her breath. She needed more sleep.

Slate had come to a stop on the edge of a kitchen. Becky halted before she plowed into his immovable mass. Like a dressed statue that belonged somewhere else in the house.

Edging around what had to be six-foot-five of masculine irritability, Becky tossed her own sass in the squint of her eyes and arch of her brow over her shoulder. He didn’t look her way, stared, instead, in the direction of a nook the size of her entire apartment over the Roylance barn.

PA Tim had better not be at a place this exquisite. She’d be mad.

Heavy breathing cut through her distraction. Labored.

Becky forgot about her attraction to Slate and everything that had nothing to do with being a doctor. The professionalism she’d struggled with on the way there and while dealing with the man who’d fetched her snapped into place.

“That’s not good.” She rounded the Kauai-sized island counter and pulled her bag from her shoulder. The backbreaking weight almost doubled her over, but the sight of the red faced, exhausted little boy rushed adrenaline through her.

The little angel rested on a couch past the kitchen in an informal sitting area.

He was the reason she’d been brought. And it really did appear to be life or death.

Becky’s heart broke for him. His splotchy cheeks and swollen lids suggested he’d lost a fight with tears and screams. His dark black hair contrasted sharply with the burnished gold strands of the woman kneeling beside his resting form. If what he was doing could be called resting. Each breath rasped and moaned. Becky didn’t need a stethoscope to hear the damage he’d caused to his throat.

She met the anguished look in the mother’s brown eyes.

The child seemed so small.

Becky knelt beside the fragile woman and replaced the mother’s hand on the top of the boy’s – Mac’s – head, out of the way of Becky’s examination but still in contact. Moms who touched their ailing children made administering medicine a thousand-and-one times easier for physicians, somehow kept the children calm – and the moms.

Even though she didn’t need the hearing device for his breathing, Becky withdrew the black cord and breathed onto the chilly round piece. In low tones directed at Mom, Becky asked, “How long has he been like this?”

“Sleeping about an hour. His fevers have been getting higher and higher over the last two days.” Her voice shook, matching the tremor in her fingers while she stroked the side of his cheek.

Pressing the stethoscope to his chest, Becky listened, a finger in the air to hold the silence. She hadn’t been a doctor long, but she’d been top of her class at University of Washington Medical School and her surgery residency had garnered job offer after job offer. She didn’t have the experience of Dr. Roylance but she had a feel for medicine.

She pulled her hand from the front of the child’s chest and sat back. “I need to hear everything he’s been doing. What’s the highest fever he’s had?” She lifted the flap on her bag and slipped the thermometer from a front pocket.

“The highest was just after he fell asleep, 105.6. He throws up the ibuprofen and Tylenol we keep trying to give him.” Amelia sniffed.

The forehead thermometer glided across his toddler skin. Beeped. 106.0. High enough for Becky. Over her shoulder, she called to Slate. “I need a bucket of ice, three washcloths, and a cup of water.” He’d do it. Somehow, she recognized it as fact. She turned back to the mother. “Okay, we’re looking at 106 right now. That’s too high. Has he been saying anything hurts? Aches? Has he given you any indication of what might be wrong?”

Amelia’s tears started anew. She motioned with her hands in jerky gestures toward her body. “At first his tummy hurt and then the last six or seven hours have been spent with him screaming and he’s held his hand here.” She pointed to the lower right quadrant of the abdomen.

Slate returned and tucked the items on the couch at Mac’s feet.

Offhand, Becky nodded her thanks. She fought the urge to close her eyes and swallowed instead. High fever and searing pain worsening at an accelerated rate in the right lower quadrant. She lifted his small shirt. His distended belly and half-fetal position slammed the possibility of appendicitis to the forefront of Becky’s mind. But she had to be sure.

To herself, she mumbled, “I’d give anything for an ultrasound machine, right now.”

“Ultrasound? I have a portable machine on-hand in case of ranch emergencies.” Slate interrupted her thoughts, his eyes earnest.

Becky’s heart raced. “Can you get it? Now?” If the boy had what she suspected, they needed a clear picture before they proceeded with any plans. With his fever as high as it was, there was no way antibiotics would work fast enough.

Slate’s worried blue eyes flitted between Becky, the mother, and Mac. One curt nod and he bolted from the room. Becky had never seen a cowboy move so fast.

The mother’s morose stare bit at Becky’s conscious. Safe topics didn’t come to mind and Becky finally allowed herself to focus on Mac. Everything in her head came back to the boy, including the man she’d arrived with. Nothing better to offer the mother, Becky said the first thing that came to mind. “I’m sorry about this. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. How did you come up with the name Mac?”

A soft smile curved the corners of the mother’s mouth. “His whole name is MacAllister Lee James. Big name for a three-and-a-half-year-old, so we just call him Mac.”

“MacAllister? Like Slate’s last name?” Curious. Becky hadn’t thought to ask about their relationship. Not that it was any of her business. But still, human curiosity usually won over professional stoicism. And it seemed like a smart thing to consider since she couldn’t seem to decide if she was hot or cold for him.

“Yeah. Named for his father. My last name is James.” She picked at the sleeve of her shirt.

Becky didn’t have a reply. She dug into the metal bucket full of melting ice. Wrapping a cloth around a handful of rounded chunks, she tied off the cold packet and pushed it between Mac’s ankles at his pulse point. “I’m Becky O’Donald. What’s your first name?”

“I’m sorry. I’m Amelia James.” She smiled with more exhaustion in her expression than Becky had ever seen on any medical student.

“Very nice to meet you, Amelia.” Becky packed another ice wrap and tucked it under Mac’s arm into the crook of the left axilla. She pressed the last one into the small curve where his shoulder met his neck.

“What are those for? Why don’t you just put the ice on his forehead?” His mother’s question sounded rote, like she was grateful someone else had arrived to decide how to care for her child.

“Well, his fever is in his whole body. If we can reduce the temperature of the blood, I’m hoping we can cool everything down, not just his head. I happen to believe the controversial statement that your son won’t actually ‘burn’ his own brain with his fever. The body develops heat to rid itself of something else. Something foreign.” She held in her sigh. No need to worry the woman more than necessary. “But there’s no reason we can’t try to make him more comfortable.”

Slate rushed through the door, weighted down by the large box in his arms. He set the container on the island and pulled out cords, a monitor, and paddles.

Becky joined him. He bent his head toward her as if he knew she needed to speak. Her words flowed in hushed tones. “I think he has appendicitis. If he does, his best bet would be to get to Sacred Heart in Spokane. Second, the hospital in Missoula. Third, Sandpoint in northern Idaho or even Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene. But if he’s too far along, then the only option we’d have is…” Becky bit her lip.

He stilled his hands and turned the ice blue of his gaze on her. Up close, the difference in thickness and shades of black of his individual whiskers sharpened.

She didn’t want to say it. As if keeping the option locked inside would make the moment freeze. But every second Mac went undiagnosed was wasted time. She held her words but unfroze the moment. “Can you bring him over here and lay him on the table? I’ll have Amelia get a blanket.”

Noticing the intricacies of his facial hair and the angle of his jaw seemed to steady her. Not only was the situation a life-or-death matter, but the woman he had a child with was feet away. His son. The whole affair was inappropriate.

Becky stifled the desire his nearness had stirred. Behave, Becky. She needed cold water splashed on her.

Slate joined Amelia, abandoning the assembled machine. He ever-so-gently lifted the child into his arms. Their heads tilted close. The similarity of their coloring enhanced by their nearness. Like looking between a past and future version of the same person – identical black hair, long black lashes, black eyebrows and the suggestion of a hard jaw line under the rounded curve of Mac’s cheeks. Slate murmured to Amelia. She grabbed a large comforter from a stack inside the trunk-coffee table and followed the pair to the kitchen.

Father and son.

Well, didn’t that just suck?

Kindle

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