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Panic spiraled through Cara Morrison as she stared at the cowboy standing with his back to her looking at a chart on the wall of the vet clinic.
Nicholas Chapman. The man she was once engaged to. The man she thought she didn't care for anymore.
He wasn't supposed to be back in Alberta, Canada. He was supposed to be working overseas.
And she wasn't supposed to be reacting to her ex-fiancé this way.
The familiar posture, the slant of his head with its broad cowboy hat, the breadth of his shoulders, his one hand slung up in the front pocket of his faded blue jeans all pulled at old memories Cara thought she had pushed aside.
Bill, the other vet, was out on call and her uncle had chosen this exact time to grab a cup of coffee, leaving the clinic in her capable hands, he had said. If she'd known who the next client would be, she wouldn't have let him leave!
Nicholas turned and Cara's heart slowed for a few heavy beats, then started up again. She sucked in a quick breath as her mouth went dry.
Gray eyes, the color of a summer storm, met hers in a piercing gaze. Eyes she had once looked into with love and caring. Eyes that once beheld her with warmth instead of the coolness she now observed.
"Hello, Cara. I heard rumors you were back in town." Nicholas pushed his hat back on his head, his well-modulated voice showing no hint of discomfort.
The last time she saw him, three years ago, he wasn't as in control. His anger had spilled over into harsh words that cut and hurt. And instead of confronting him, challenging him, she had turned tail and run.
And she and Nicholas hadn't spoken since then.
Her friend Trista had assured her Nicholas was working overseas on yet another dangerous job.
Yet here he stood making her heart pound and her face flush.
"I'm visiting my aunt and uncle for a week," she said, forcing a smile to her face, thankful the trembling in her chest didn't translate to her voice. "After that I'm heading to Europe for a holiday."
"What made you decide Europe?"
Okay, chitchat. She could do chitchat.
"My mother spent some time in Malta."
"Ah, yes. In her many travels around the world."
Cara frowned at the faint tone of derision in his voice. Though Cara had wished and prayed that her mother would stay with her instead of heading off on yet an other mission project, she also had wished she shared her mother's zeal.
"She did some relief work there," Cara said. "I'd like to visit the orphanage where she worked." She folded her arms over her chest. "And how are things with you and your father?"
"We're busy on the ranch," he replied. He drew his hands out of the pockets of his denim jeans and placed them on the counter.
The hands of a working man. Cara fleetingly noticed the faint scars on the backs of his hands, a black mark on one fingernail.
His eyes bored into hers and for the smallest moment she felt like taking a step back at the antagonism she saw there. But she clung to the counter, holding her ground.
"And how are you enjoying Vancouver?" he asked.
Nicholas raised one eyebrow. "Where to this time?"
"I've got a line on a job in Montreal working for an animal drug company in a lab."
He gave a short laugh. "Didn't figure you for a big-city person working in a lab."
"The job is challenging." She gave a light shrug, as if brushing away his observations.
At one time this man held her heart in the callused hands resting on the counter between them. At one time all her unspoken dreams and wishes for a family and a place were pinned on this man.
She couldn't act as if he were simply another customer she had to deal with. "What can I do for you?" she asked, going directly to the point.
He gave her a smile that held no warmth and in spite of her own hurt it still cut.
"I need to vaccinate my calves before I put them out to pasture."
"How many doses?" she asked, sliding the large glass refrierator door open and pulling out the boxes he asked for.
"Anything else?" she asked, favoring him with a quick glance, hoping she looked far more professional than she felt.
"Yeah. I'm sending a shipment of heifers to the United States. I need to know what I have to do before I send them out."
"From your purebred herd?"
Nicholas nodded, reaching up to scratch his forehead with one finger. He often did that when he contemplated something, Cara thought. She was far too conscious of his height, of the familiar lines of his face. The way his hair always wanted to fall over his forehead. How his dark eyebrows accented the unusual color of his eyes. How his cheekbones swept down to his firm chin.
He looks tired.
The thought slipped past her defenses, awakening old feelings she thought she had dealt with.
She crossed her arms as if defending herself against his heartrending appeal.
"I'm sending out my first shipment of heifers along with a bull," he continued. "If this guy likes what he sees, I could have a pretty good steady market."
"You're ranching full-time now?" Cara fought the strong urge to step back, to give herself more space away from the easy charm that was causing her tension.
Nicholas frowned, shaking his head. "After I ship out the heifers I'm heading overseas again."
"Overseas?" She'd been told that, but she didn't know the details. Guess working offshore rigs wasn't dangerous enough, or didn't pay enough. "Where will you be?"
"A two-month stint in Kuwait. Dad's still able to take care of the ranch so I figure I better work while I can."
"And how's your leg?" she asked, referring to the accident he suffered working on the rigs just before their big fight. The fight that had shown Cara that Nicholas's ranch would always come before anything or anyone else in his life. Including her.
Nicholas eyes narrowed. "The leg is fine."
"Glad to hear it."
Before they could get into another dead-end discussion, Cara pulled a pad of paper toward her. "As for the heifers you'll be shipping, you'll need to call the clinic to book some tests." Was that her voice? So clipped, so tense? She thought after three years she would be more relaxed, more in control.
She reached for a pen but instead spilled the can's contents all over the counter with a hollow clatter.
Of course, she thought, grabbing for the assortment of pens. Nicholas Chapman shows up and hands that could stitch up a tear in a kitten's eyelid without any sign of a tremor suddenly become clumsy and awkward.
"Here, let me help you," he said as he picked up the can and set it upright.
For the briefest of moments, their hands brushed each other. Cara jerked hers back.
Nicholas dropped the handful of pens into the aluminum can, then stood back.
Cara didn't look at him as she scribbled some instructions and put them in her uncle's appointment book. "I made a note for my uncle to call you, in case you or your dad forget." She didn't want to sound so aloof, but how else could she get through this moment?
He took the paper she handed him and, after glancing down briefly at it, folded it up and slipped it into his pocket. "I could have phoned for the information, but I was in town anyway."
He'd heard she was around, but was seeing her as much of a shock to him as to her?
He grabbed the bag, murmured his thanks then left. As the door swung shut behind him, relief sluiced through her.
Their first meeting had finally happened.
Maybe now she could finally get past her old feelings for him and get on with her life.
It had been three years since they'd broken up over the very thing they had talked about. His blind devotion to his ranch and his commitment to working dangerous jobs that paid high wages, which all went back into the ranch.
When she found out he'd broken his leg on one of his jobs, she'd been sick with worry. After his accident, she'd pleaded with Nicholas to quit working the rigs. But he hadn't even entertained the idea.
When he'd left, when he chose the work over her, she'd left, too.
She'd come back to Cochrane periodically, but only when she was sure he was gone. So they had never talked about her sudden departure and they had never met each other face-to-face. Until now.
Cara wished she could do exactly what Trista, her best friend, had been telling her ever since she left. Get over Nicholas. Start dating.
Trouble was she had no interest in dating. She never did.
As a young girl, she had moved every couple of years as her mother sought the elusive perfect job. Each move meant pulling up roots and breaking ties.
Then, at age fifteen, she moved in with her aunt and uncle in Cochrane. Determined to make something of herself, she applied herself to her studies and worked summers in her uncle's vet clinic.
It wasn't until she graduated medical school and started working at her uncle's clinic full-time that she met Nicholas and truly fell in love for the first time. They dated for six months and got engaged.
And six months later they broke up.
Though she knew she had to get over him, seeing him just now was much, much harder than she'd thought it would be.
One thing was sure, Cara couldn't stay, knowing she'd run into Nicholas again. Her reaction to him showed her that quite clearly.
She'd stay the weekend and go to church with her aunt and uncle. Then, on Monday she would be on the phone to a travel agent getting her ticket changed as soon as possible.
Nicholas adjusted his corduroy blazer, straightened the tie cinching his collared shirt and shook his head at his own preening.
Since when, he asked himself, did you get so fussed about what you look like when you go to church?
Since he knew Cara Morrison would be attending. He had almost changed his mind about going this morning. He had to trim horses' hooves and check fences, but at the same time he felt a strong need to be at church. When he worked rigs, he couldn't attend at all, so he when he had a chance to worship with fellow believers, he took it.
He turned away from his image in the bathroom mirror and jogged down the stairs.
His father was rooting through the refrigerator and looked up when Nicholas entered the kitchen.
Dale Chapman still wore his cowboy hat and boots. Obviously he'd been out checking the cows already this morning. He was a tall, imposing man and, in his youth, had been trim and fit.
Now his stomach protruded over the large belt buckle, a remnant from his rodeo years that had taken his time and money and given him a bum back and a permanent limp. Though his hair was gray, he still wore it long in the back.
"What's with all this vaccine?" He pulled out one of the boxes Nicholas had purchased yesterday.
"I thought we were out."
Dale Chapman narrowed his eyes. "I heard that Morrison girl was back in town," his father said as Nicholas pulled out the coffeepot and found it empty. "Is that the reason you went to the vet clinic?"
Nicholas shrugged off the question, wishing away a sudden flush of self-consciousness as he pulled the boiling kettle off the stove and rinsed off an apple. Not the most balanced breakfast, but it would hold him until lunchtime.
"If you think she's going to change her mind you're crazy," Dale said as he pulled a carton of milk out of the fridge. "She's not a rancher's wife and we all know how that can turn out."
Nicholas ignored his father's little speech as he poured grounds and hot water into the coffee press. Though it had been fifteen years since Nicholas's parents' divorce, Dale had mistrusted women ever since. And that mistrust had seeped into his opinion of Cara. His father's negative opinion of Cara Morrison hadn't been encouraging when he and Cara were dating. When Cara broke off the engagement, Dale had tried and failed not to say "I told you so" in many ways, shapes and forms.
"How long she around for this time?" his father asked, pouring the milk over his bowl of cereal.
"Probably not long, if she's like her mom."
Nicholas didn't say anything, knowing nothing was required, and he wasn't going to get pulled into a conversation about Cara.
He thought he had been prepared to see her again. Thought he had successfully pushed her out of his mind. Hadn't he even dated a number of other girls since Cara?
Again he could feel the miscreant beat of his heart when he turned and saw her standing behind the counter, almost exactly as she had the first time they had met.
That first time he'd seen her, he'd been enchanted with her wide eyes, an unusual shade of brown. The delicate line of her face. She had looked so fragile.
But he knew better.
He'd seen her covered in mud, rain streaming down her face as she helped deliver a foal. He'd seen her do a Cesarean section on a cow in the freezing cold, seen her manhandle calves that weighed almost as much as she did.
Cara Morrison was anything but fragile.
And he was anything but over her.
She left without a word, he told himself. She couldn't even break up with you to your face. She ran away instead of facing things. Get over it.
So why was he going to church knowing he might see her?
Because he wasn't the kind of person to run away or get chased away.
He had some pride, he thought, finishing off his apple and tossing the core into the garbage can. And because, when he stayed away from church, his heart felt empty and his soul unnourished.
He said a quick goodbye to his father and ran to his truck. He was already running late.
Half an hour later a helpful usher escorted him to one of the few empty spots in the building. He sat down, got settled in and ended up looking directly at the back of Cara Morrison's head.
He glanced around, looking for another place to sit, but then the minister came to the front of the church and encouraged everyone to rise and greet their neighbors.
Nicholas immediately turned to the person beside him and then Cara's aunt called out his name. Was it his imagination or did Cara jump?
"So good to see you here," Lori Morrison said, catching his hand. He shook Lori's hand and then, with a sense of inevitability, turned to Cara.
She gave him a tight smile but didn't offer to shake his hand. "Good morning, Nicholas. Good to see you again."