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The trill of a ringing phone woke Amanda Colton from a deep sleep, but her maternal instincts had her fully awake in seconds. She grabbed the phone before the next ring, praying the noise hadn't woken eight-month-old Cheyenne. Her daughter had been fussy last night at bedtime because of a stuffy nose, and Amanda had worked for two hours to get her to sleep.
She glanced at the alarm clock as she dragged the phone to her ear. 3:23 a.m.
Her gut tightened. Nothing good ever came of a call at three in the morning, and her family had had enough bad news and tragedy in the past several months to last a lifetime.
"Hello?" she said warily.
"Amanda, thank God! I need your help!"
Hearing the fear in her youngest sister's voice, Amanda sat up and shoved her hair from her face. "Gabby? What's wrong?"
"It's Peanut. I think he has colic, and he keeps trying to lie down!"
Dread speared her chest. "Oh, no."
Equine colic could be deadly, especially if the horse tried to roll on the ground, which could cause the intestine to become wrapped around itself.
Amanda tossed back the covers, disturbing the fuzzy orange cat sleeping beside her, and swung her feet to the floor. "Is Trevor there with you?"
Trevor Garth was head of security for the ranch. But more important, in this case, he was Gabriella's fiance.
"Not yet." Gabby's voice cracked, and she sniffed hard, clearly trying not to cry. "He's on his way. He said to call you."
Peanut, Gabby's horse, had been a birthday present when her sister was seven and Peanut was still a foal. Ga-briella and Peanut had grown up together and her softhearted sister loved the horse dearly. Amanda hated the idea of Gabriella losing Peanut.
"Who's going to stay with Avery?" Amanda asked, her mothering instincts again surging to the forefront when she thought of Trevor's infant daughter.
"Mathilda, I think. She No, Peanut! Stop. Please, stop!"
"Okay, I'm on my way. Until I get there, do not let him lie down."
"I know he's supposed to stay up," Gabby said, her voice tense with frustration and panic, "but you try keeping a fourteen-hundred-pound animal on his feet when he wants to roll on the ground."
"Gabby, it's critical! Do whatever you have to." With one hand Amanda stepped into a pair ofjeans while she held the phone with her other hand. "Are any of the hands there? Do you have any help at all?"
"No. The place was deserted when I got here a little while ago."
Amanda groaned, lamenting the shortage of ranch help, thanks to the National Finals Rodeo competition taking place in Las Vegas that week. She shoved her feet in her boots without bothering with socks. "I'll make some calls, see who's around to help. Meantime, try to get Peanut to walk, even if just up and down the center aisle of the stable."
Amanda keyed off the connection to Gabby and pushed speed dial 4, ringing the land line in Tom Brooks's room. Tom was a retired Marine and former police officer who had been shot in the hip five years ago and forced to take a desk job. Trevor had hired him this summer after it became clear Cheyenne was the target of kidnappers. He answered with a crisp, "Tom Brooks."
Amanda tucked her night shirt into her jeans and grabbed a sweatshirt from a drawer. "Tom, it's Amanda. I'm so sorry to wake you, but there's been an emergency."
She heard the rustle of sheets and squeak of bed springs as Tom flew into action. "What's happened?"
"Gabriella's horse is sick."
"And you need me to guard Cheyenne while you see to the horse."
"Yes, please. I know you're supposed to be off duty, but"
"No such thing as off-duty. My job is to protect that sweet babe of yours, whatever and whenever. I'll be there in two."
"Thank you, Tom. You're a godsend."
Amanda disconnected and stuck her cell phone in her back jeans pocket as she hurried into the adjoining room where her daughter slept. In the dim glow from the bunny-shaped night-light over the crib, Amanda peeked over the railing at her sleeping child. Her whole world. Her life.
As it always did whenever she looked at her precious baby girl, Amanda's heart swelled until she thought it might burst. How could someone so tiny and fragile stir such a deep, consuming love?
Cheyenne gave a snuffly sigh, and Amanda bit her bottom lip, concerned over the baby's congestion. Levi, Amanda's half-brother and the doctor who was caring full-time for her ill father, had assured her it was nothing but a cold, that Cheyenne would be fine in a couple days. But as a first-time mother, Amanda still fretted over every runny nose and hiccup.
Bending over the crib rail, Amanda rubbed Cheyenne's back and tucked the fuzzy pink blanket around her daughter's feet. Straightening, she whispered, "Oh, chickpea, what would I do without you?"
A soft knock heralded Tom's arrival, then he opened the door and peered into the nursery. "Miss Amanda?"
Amanda waved him in. "I don't know how long I'll be. Maybe all morning. If she wakes up all congested, Levi said to give her a dropperful of this." She handed him the decongestant bottle and backed toward the door. "Thanks again."
Tom nodded gravely. "Yes, ma'am. You go help that sick horse."
Amanda grabbed her veterinary bag from a bench at the foot of her bed and hesitated at the bedroom door. In recent months, it had become all too clear that her daughter was the target of kidnappers intending to extort money from Amanda's wealthy family. Leaving Cheyenne, even for a few minutes, even with a trained guard, always reminded Amanda how vulnerable Cheyenne was, how quickly her baby could be snatched, how devastated she'd be if anything happened to her daughter.
Tom noticed her hesitation and smiled. "Go on, Miss Amanda. I'll protect your little princess as if she were my own."
With a sigh and a smile of gratitude, Amanda ducked into the hall and hustled to the stairs. She took the steps two at a time, grabbed her work gloves and a parka from the back closet, and was practically running by the time she reached the back door. She'd just pulled her cell phone from her back pocket to start waking ranch hands when a tall dark-haired man barreled out of the employees' wing.
"Hey," she called, squinting in the darkness to determine which of the ranch hands he was. But when he raised his head, glancing her way as he strode briskly across the ranch yard, she didn't recognize him, and a tingle of apprehension crawled down her spine. In light of the recent tragedies at the ranch, a stranger wandering the grounds in the predawn hours sounded all kinds of alarms for Amanda. "Hey, stop right there, pal!"
The man stopped, shifting his weight restlessly and sending her an impatient glare as she hurried to catch up to him.
She returned a hostile stare, sizing him up as she approached him. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
He flicked his black Stetson back from his face and frowned. The blue-white security lights cast harsh shadows across his square jaw and rugged cheeks. "Slade Kent. Word is there's a horse with colic needs tending, so I'm headed to the stable."
Somewhat mollified, Amanda hitched her chin for him to accompany her as she continued toward the stable. "So you're a new hand?"
"Who's asking?" Slade fell in step beside her, his long-legged strides outpacing her so that she was nearly jogging to keep up.
"I'm Amanda." When he sent her a look that said, So? she added, "Amanda Colton. Dead River Ranch belongs to my family. It's my sister's horse that has colic."
He gave a little nod. "I see. Well, ma'am, I promise to take good care of the horse. You can go back to the house and stay warm. I'll be sure someone keeps you posted on how the horse is doing."
His patronizing tone grated her already-stressed nerves, and she barked an ill-humored laugh. "I also happen to be a vet." She held up her medical bag. "I'll be the one treating Peanut."
He gave a dismissive scoff. "Unnecessary. Any ranch hand worth his salt has dealt with colic before. I don't need your help."
Her eyebrows shot up, and she gave him an incredulous look. "Oh, really? Who died and made you king?"
"Not king. Foreman. Which means decisions about the livestock and horses are my call."
She slowed to a stop, stunned by his audacity and his job title. "You're our new foreman? Since when?"
He stopped when she did and faced her. "Since Dylan Frick hired me."
"Dylan?" She cocked her head, suspicious. "Dylan moved out of town." To be precise, he'd entered Witness Security with his fiancée, but Slade didn't need to know that.
Slade gave her an impatient glance. "He made the arrangements before he left. I have an employment contract with his signature I can show you if you need proof. But later. Right now, that horse is my only concern."
He spun on his boot heel and continued up toward the stable.
Clamping her mouth in a line of frustration, Amanda ran to catch up again. "Foreman or not, I'm the one with the veterinary degree, and I'm in charge of medical issues with the animals." She panted for a breath, irritated to be winded from keeping pace with him. A white cloud formed in the frigid December air as she puffed out a deep breath. "That includes colic."
Slade reached the stable first and grabbed the large slide bolt that secured the alley doors. "A degree is no substitute for experience."
When he opened the heavy door, she scooted past him and sent him a smug grin. "Then it's a good thing I have plenty of experience, as well." Spotting Trevor and Gabby in the center alleyway walking Peanut in circles, she hustled toward them. She dug an elastic band out of her coat pocket and finger-combed her hair into a pony-tail. "How long has he been symptomatic?"
Relief eased the worry in Gabby's face when she saw Amanda had arrived. "He was acting edgy when I was in here after dinner, and I couldn't sleep, worrying about him. I got up a little while ago to check on him and found him like this." She waved a hand at the sorrel gelding, who tossed his head, fighting the lead clipped to his halter and kicking at his abdomen with a rear hoof.
"Have you taken all the water and feed out of his stall?"
"Yes," Gabby answered.
Amanda set her medical bag on a bale of hay and retrieved her stethoscope. When she turned around, Slade had taken the lead from Trevor and was stroking Peanut's neck. He leaned close to the horse and made a low soft noise meant to calm Peanut.
Amanda opened her mouth to tell Slade to butt out, but she caught herself and swallowed the words. She needed his cooperation in calming Peanut while she examined him more than she needed to win a battle of wills with the new foreman. She introduced Slade to Trevor and her sister and learned Trevor had already met the new foreman earlier that night.
Peanut pawed the ground restlessly, and Amanda sent Slade a hard look. "Keep him still. I need to listen for gut sounds."
Trevor and Gabby helped Slade calm the horse while she moved the stethoscope from one spot to another on Peanut's abdomen, checking for sounds of intestinal motility. "It's pretty quiet in there, but I do hear some movement, which is good."
"Can you give him something for the pain?" Gabby asked, her eyes full of tears. "I hate to see him suffer."
Amanda moved the stethoscope to listen to Peanut's lungs and heart. "I'll need to sedate him before I insert the naso-gastric tube. That and a dose of Buscopan to suppress the intestinal spasms will help him feel better." She returned to her medical bag and dug out the case where she kept a small selection of drugs for the most common emergencies. She prepared injections of both an appropriate sedative and the anti-spasmodic. Knowing she needed to perform a rectal exam, she gave her sister an errand to keep her busy. "Gabby, can you get me a pair of long gloves? I want to check for impaction." She caught Slade's raised eyebrow as she turned back to her patient and cocked her head. "Unless you want the honor of doing that exam."
He slid a pack of peppermint gum from his pocket and calmly stuck a piece in his mouth while he gave her a level look. "I will if you're too squeamish."
"Oh, brother," she grumbled under her breath. She refused to rise to his baiting. Now was not the time to lock horns with the new foreman.
Nickering testily, Peanut tried to lie down again, and Slade walked the horse forward a few steps, then crooned to him. "Easy, fella."
Gabriella returned with the long examination gloves. Taking them, Amanda sent her sister off on another errand, this time for the mineral oil and naso-gastric tube she'd need once Peanut responded to the sedative.
Feeling Slade's watchful gaze on her, Amanda removed her parka and snapped the long latex glove into place, covering her arm past her elbow.
Stepping to Peanut's hind end, Slade pulled the horse's tail up and held it out of her way.
She cut a side glance to him, prepared to thank him for his helpfulness, but the smug challenge in his eyes stopped her. Did he think she would balk? That the less pleasant aspects of veterinary care would stop her from doing what was best for an animal in need? Amanda gritted her back teeth. A rectal exam was not her favorite way to spend an evening, but she was no shrinking violet. She'd never shied from doing the dirty work involved in either large animal veterinary care or ranching.
She squared her shoulders and flipped her ponytail over her shoulder, silently accepting his challenge. The sooner the new foreman knew who he was dealing with the better.