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Nick Pirelli was exhausted. Staring out the windshield of his SUV, he was glad he knew the back routes around his hometown as well as he did. The evergreen-lined asphalt curving through the mountains had landed more than one tourist—and the occasional local—in a ditch or with a new guard-rail-shaped hood ornament. But even under the dark skies of an approaching storm, he could easily find his way.
It had been one hell of a day. Nick had worked as Clear-ville, California's only vet for years, and most days, he loved his job. He had an affinity for animals and recognized the joy they brought to people's lives with their loyalty and affection. In his almost ten years as a vet, he'd learned to control his emotions to best deal with the animals and owners who trusted him with their care. He'd treated injuries and accidents and the heartbreak of old age.
But the horse the sheriff had called him out to evaluate wasn't sick or injured or old.
Instead, it had been abandoned and left to fend for itself in a weed-and-debris-filled paddock. Nick didn't know how people could walk away from someone who depended on them. Who needed them.
The animal had stood still as Nick and the sheriff debated its fate, head bowed, posture as poor as the pitiful creature had to feel. But in that moment of decision, the horse's head rose and it looked right at Nick. Its eyes had been dull and listless, but in the soulful brown gaze, he saw a hint of.. It was ridiculous to call it hope in such a hopeless situation, but he'd seen a flicker of something. Maybe just the ghost of a chance that with a little care, a little love, the future could be so much brighter.
Not wanting to look too closely at the reason why the horse's plight seemed to reach inside and grab hold of his gut, he'd pulled out his phone. Within the hour, Jarrett Deeks had arrived with a trailer hitched to his king cabin truck.
None of the local rescues would have the resources or ability to even try to nurse a horse this far gone back to health.
The horse barely had the strength to walk, but the two of them managed to ease it into the trailer. Nick had followed Jarrett out to his property. He gave the former rodeo star all the instructions he could, promising to check on the horse the next day and letting Jarrett know he could call for help at any time.
Nick was still wondering if he'd made the right choice as he headed home. Only time would tell. For now, he was looking forward to relaxing and, hopefully, leaving this day behind. With nothing more pressing to do, he planned to spend a few hours in front of the television, enjoying a baseball game and having a beer. Alone.
Thanks to a slumber party his daughter, Maddie, had been invited to, he had a weekend to himself, and he was looking forward to it with enough anticipation to send guilt dogging his heels.
After all, Maddie had just gotten back from a trip to San Francisco to see her mother. He shouldn't have wanted—needed—a break so soon. The only saving grace was that Maddie had missed her friends during her two weeks away and had been thrilled with the invitation to stay with the Martins.
So, really, he had no reason to feel guilty at all.
Trying to force the feeling aside, he focused on the cold, crisp taste of the beer waiting for him at home, the smoky flavor of the burgers he'd cook on the charcoal grill, the peace and quiet of having the house to himself. The cabin in the woods he and his younger brother Drew had built together was more than a home to Nick. It was his haven, his sanctuary, his—
He'd heard the gibe from more than one family member, and he was tired of listening to their complaints that he was turning into a hermit. Hell, some days he was tired of being a hermit, a realization that had blindsided him more than once lately. The most recent blow had been at his parents' anniversary party a few weeks ago, a celebration concluding with his sister Sophia's engagement to Jake Cameron.
The newly engaged couple had glowed, lit from within by their emotions for each other. His little sister deserved that kind of happiness and a man who loved her as completely and utterly as Jake did. Already they'd worked their way through some daunting hurdles with Jake having to earn Sophia's trust after she'd been betrayed by a man she'd met before Jake. A man who was the biological father to the baby Sophia carried. But Jake had already vowed to love the baby as much as he loved its mother, and no one in the Pirelli family doubted his word.
Love—strong and solid after his parents' thirty-five years of marriage and as bright and shiny as the engagement ring his sister now wore—had surrounded him and yet Nick had somehow felt apart from it all. His mother's words had only multiplied the feeling of life and love passing him by as she'd embraced his sister in a tearful hug. "I can't believe my little girl is getting married! It seems like only yesterday you were Maddie's age."
Nick had immediately looked toward Maddie, his own little girl who he feared was ready to make her eight-going-on-eighteen leap in a blink of his eye.
His hands tightened on the wheel. This last trip to San Francisco over summer vacation—or more specifically, Maddie's return from that vacation—solidified Nick's fears.
His daughter was changing.
At first, after Christmas and then spring break, he'd convinced himself the changes were merely superficial. The new outfits that cost more than his entire wardrobe combined. The haircut too sophisticated for an eight-year-old. Underneath it all, he'd told himself, Maddie was still his Maddie. His little girl.
But this time, he couldn't close his eyes to what was happening. His concerns had hardened into cement blocks around his ankles, and no matter how he struggled, he felt himself going under. Getting in over his head while Maddie drifted further and further away. Because each time his daughter left their small hometown of Clearville to visit her mother, she came back different. A little less the girl he knew and a little more the woman he'd married.
But a girl needed her mother, so he'd done his best to accommodate Carol's requests to see their daughter even after she'd walked out on both of them with little warning five years earlier.
Lately, the uneasy feeling that his ex wanted more time with Maddie had crept into his gut whenever they spoke. Not that Carol had come out and said anything directly, but then that wasn't her style. She was more subtle and sly. Like the most recent visit when Carol had sadly informed Maddie they had time to go to SeaWorld or Disneyland but couldn't possibly do both.
Nick had known extending the trip would be playing right into Carol's hands, and he'd been damn close to telling her she could take Maddie to SeaWorld and he'd take her to Disneyland. But one thought stopped him. He didn't want to take Maddie only to have her wishing the whole time her mother was the one holding her hand through the happiest place on earth.
Nick was glad his daughter enjoyed her visits with her mother. If Maddie was happy, he was happy. Most of the time, he could even convince himself it was true; after all, it wasn't Maddie's happiness that worried him. It was how unhappy she was when she returned that had his gut tangled in knots.
He'd hoped his sister Sophia's upcoming wedding and Maddie's role as flower girl would give her something to look forward to, but she wasn't nearly as excited as he'd expected. He couldn't figure it out. With her recent fascination of all things girly, he'd thought she'd jump at the chance to be in the wedding party. He just didn't get little girls.
Nick snorted. Hell, it wasn't like he got women, either. Maybe that was what happened when a man was single for too long.
His jaw tightened, and he half expected a lightning bolt from the approaching storm to strike him down. Hadn't he said it'd be a cold day before he ever took a chance on another relationship?
But watching Sophia and Jake together, he'd envied their courage to risk heartbreak for the reward of finding love again. He felt as though something had hit him in the chest in that moment, striking the emptiness inside him like a blow to a bass drum. Even now, weeks later, the reverberations still vibrated inside him, urging him to do something.
But Nick wasn't a man to give into rash impulses. He'd learned his lesson after trying to turn a heated, whirlwind affair into a long-term relationship. If that hadn't already made him cautious, he also had Maddie to consider. Word of his first date would spread throughout town before he'd glanced at the dinner menu, and the woman would likely have nieces or nephews—if not a son or daughter—who went to school with Maddie.
The idea of putting his daughter through that kind of speculation—of putting himself through it—had kept at bay any thoughts of trying to date as a single dad. Until now .
The buzz of Nick's cell interrupted his thoughts. A glance at the screen showed his office number, and he cringed. If Jarrett Deeks was having trouble with the horse, he'd have called him directly, so Nick could only hope that whatever his assistant needed could wait until tomorrow.
Answering the call on speaker, he said, "I'm on my way home, Rhonda. Unless this is an emergency—"
"Oh, but it is," the forty-something woman replied with a hint of amusement in her voice.
The first splatter of rain hit the windshield, and Nick bit back a curse. "If this is some kind of a joke—"
"Hey, don't shoot the messenger, Doc."
Nick sighed, mentally kissing his beer and ball game goodbye. "What's the emergency?"
"Darcy Dawson called. She said she 'needs the doctor right away.'"
Personal experience reminded him Darcy Dawson's voice sounded nothing like his assistant's pack-a-day rasp. Darcy had a just-out-of-bed-sexy murmur and a laugh that stroked like fingernails down a man's spine.
"Better watch out," Rhonda was warning him with a fair share of teasing in her tone. "I'm surprised Darcy hasn't tried making a play for you or one of your brothers already. The three Pirelli boys are some of the best catches in town. You're all young, successful, single—"
"Give me a break, Rhonda," Nick said with a snort of laughter at his assistant's joking and the implication that he, like his brothers, was free to have the kind of fling Darcy Dawson had become known for in her less than two months in Clearville. He had Maddie to think about, and even though she was still a little girl, he was painfully aware how the decisions he made could affect her.
Doubly aware, he felt, since Carol wasn't always as discriminating as he thought she should be. He'd made it more than plain to his ex-wife a few years ago—when Mad-die came home talking about the "sleepovers" her mother had—that he didn't want any of Carol's casual boyfriends around his daughter.
Carol had turned his words back on him, insisting he, too, keep his girlfriends away from Maddie, and Nick had immediately agreed. He hadn't known any women in Clear-ville he'd want to have a casual fling with then.
You still don't know any, he mentally berated a libido that had taken immediate notice the very first time he heard Darcy Dawson's laugh.
He'd been standing one row over at the grocery store, trying fruitlessly to decide on the hair bands his daughter had sent him to the store to buy. But the moment he'd heard that laugh, he'd forgotten all about them. Heaven help him, for a moment he'd forgotten all about being a single father, and before he knew where he was going, he'd sought out the woman behind that laugh.
Fortunately within the first glance, he'd come back to his senses. Well, mostly, since he hadn't been able to get Darcy Dawson out of his mind since. Still, it had only taken that first look to know Darcy wasn't the kind of woman he was looking for. Wasn't the kind of woman a man ever found, not in Clearville, at least.
A pair of expensive oversize sunglasses propped on the top of her head held back a tumble of shoulder-length red hair and she carried a purse that likely cost more than the monthly payment on his SUV. Her clothes—a tailored white shirt belted over narrow black trousers that hugged a pair of legs that seemed to go on forever before ending in spiky heels—spoke of a fashionable, sophisticated woman. Not the kind he was looking for, he'd determined, and that was before he'd learned of her reputation.
Single or not, he didn't have the freedom his younger brothers did. Sam especially enjoyed the opportunity to have a good time. He'd dive into a fling with Darcy Daw-son headfirst and come out smelling like roses on the other side. Women could never stay angry at Sam.
Normally, Nick could never stay angry at Sam, but just the thought of his youngest brother and Darcy Dawson together made his jaw clench tight enough to crack.
"Did Ms. Dawson say what the emergency is?"
"Nope. Her cell phone started breaking up before she could say. Funny thing, I didn't even know she had any pets."
Deciding he was having some cell problems of his own, Nick hung up on his assistant's chortling laugh.
Having his name even temporarily linked with Darcy Dawson's would only scare off the right kind of woman. His ill-fated marriage to Carol was already something of a black mark against him. He didn't need to be down two strikes before he even came up to bat.
Maddie needed a positive female influence. Sure, his mother had been around her entire life, and Sophia had recently moved back to town, but a grandmother and aunt weren't the same as a mother. Someone who could be a constant, consistent, solid presence in Maddie's life. Someone who was small town, with Clearville roots dug deep in her soul. That was the kind of woman Nick was looking for.
This time, he was going to be damn sure he made the right choice from the start. He couldn't risk jumping on and off some kind of dating-go-round, asking out any woman who happened to spin by. His failed marriage and Carol's desertion had made him cautious, but Nick knew once he found the right woman, he'd have to jump in with both feet, hang on and not let go. Because try as he might, after looking at the idea from every angle—up, down, inside and out—he couldn't work his way around one simple fact.
If Maddie needed a mother, then he needed a wife. Because God help him, he couldn't figure out how to get one without the other.
Posted January 16, 2013
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