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Faith Perry didn't expect an answer from her schnauzer as she let her dog in from the backyard, but the silver-gray purebred responded with a whimper anyway.
"Come here, let me see," Faith urged, bending over to take a look.
But what was soaking the animal's beard and had dribbled onto Charlie's chest and front legs wasn't mud or muck from a yard damp from an early April rain. It was blood. "Oh! Charlie! Did you kill something?"
Charlie whimpered again and looked at Faith with big, beseeching black eyes that finally caused her to register that the mischievous dog might be hurt.
Faith picked up the fifteen-pound pooch she'd owned for about a year, carried her through the kitchen into the living room and sat down with Charlie in her lap.
On closer inspection, Faith could see that the blood was coming from inside Charlie's mouth.
With some worry that she was going to find a dead bird or part of a squirrel inside, Faith grimaced and pried her pet's jaws apart.
There was more blood in Charlie's mouth but there wasn't anything else. Except for a very broken tooth.
"What did you do?" Faith lamented sympathetically.
It was four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in her small hometown of Northbridge, Montana. Faith had been in town less than twenty-four hours and she had no idea if the local veterinarian—who had been ancient when she'd left Northbridge eleven years ago—was still in practice. Or if there was another vet or if Northbridge might have joined the twenty-first century and gained an animal hospital.
She did know that she had to get her dog to someone, though. Right away."You poor baby," she muttered to Charlie, taking her back into the kitchen.
She set the animal gingerly on the tile floor, gave her a loving stroke and said, "Just sit and let me figure this out."
To Faith's surprise, Charlie minded her.
"Oh, you must be in bad shape," Faith said of her pet's unusual compliance.
Until the day before, the house had not been Faith's primary residence. It had only been a place for her and her former husband to stay when they were in town. Because of that, it wasn't well-equipped with things like a current telephone directory. Hoping that she had even an outdated one, she hurried to the laundry room off the kitchen.
"Keep your fingers crossed," she said to the companion who had no fingers to cross.
Still, she counted herself lucky to find the mail-order-catalog-sized phone book in a cupboard and she quickly returned to the kitchen to search the two-year-old listings.
"No, no more old Doc Chapman," she said when she couldn't find the old veterinarian's name listed.
"Boone Pratt—he's the vet now," she told Charlie. "I knew that. My sister married his brother—and an emergency call about an animal was the reason he wasn't at the wedding. I should have remembered."
But in the time since Faith had left Northbridge she hadn't put much effort into keeping up with anyone in the small town other than her family. And even when the information had been shared with her recently, she hadn't retained a lot of it. Her life had been too much of a mess lately for her to have grasped much beyond her own problems and immediate family matters.
Her cell phone was on the counter and she used it to dial the number for the veterinarian's office. Maybe someone was on duty this weekend.
No such luck. On the second ring the other end of the line was answered by a recorded female voice.
Office hours were given before an in-case-of-emergency number.
Cursing her own stupidity for not being prepared with pen and paper, Faith repeated the number out loud, over and over again as she ended the call and dialed it.
"Come on, come on, come on," she said impatiently to each unanswered ring. "You're the only vet in town, what am I going to do if you don't pick up—"
"Is this Boone Pratt?" Faith asked.
"Yeah. Who's this?"
Faith reminded herself that she was in North-bridge. Things were much more casual here.
"This is Faith Perry—"
"Faith," he repeated, obviously needing no further explanation. Of course, it was Northbridge. They had grown up together, been in the same grade all through school. And her cousin Jared was marrying his sister, Mara, next Sunday. It wasn't as if she were a complete stranger even though, to Faith's knowledge, she hadn't set eyes on the man since high school graduation.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she continued, "but I just got to town, my dog seems to have broken a tooth and I guess you're the vet."
"No guessing about it. I am. The only one in town."
He'd gone from the laid-back, friendly yo to a much more curt tone of voice. But then they'd never been friendly, so maybe this was his version of professionalism.
"How bad's the tooth?" he demanded.
"Bad enough for me to see that it's broken and for there to be blood all over."
"I'll have to meet you at my office. Do you know where that is?"
Because the directory was still open she was able to read out the address that put him just off of Main Street and only a few blocks from Faith's house.
"That's it," the vet cut her off before she got the complete address out. "I'm in the middle of something at my place outside of town so it'll take me about half an hour to get things under control here and drive in. I'll see you there."
That was it, he'd hung up.
"Well, okay " Faith muttered to herself, taken aback by the man's abruptness.
But at that moment manners—or the lack of them—was less a concern than getting Charlie taken care of.
Faith arrived at Boone Pratt's office exactly half an hour after calling him. But when she carried Charlie from the car to the door she found it locked. Peering through a plate-glass window, she saw no sign that anyone was inside, so she sat on the wooden bench below the office window to wait with Charlie in her lap.
Fearing she might hurt the dog, Faith had only gingerly washed the blood off of her pet's fur. Charlie wasn't as much of a mess as she'd been when she'd come in from outside but she wasn't altogether clean, either. Faith was embarrassed to bring the animal in with matted hair, but putting Charlie through a bath had seemed cruel.
Faith had changed her own clothes, though. In the circles she had become accustomed to in the last eleven years it would have been unthinkable to be seen in the sweatpants and T-shirt she'd been wearing to unpack her belongings. Even an emergency trip to the vet in Northbridge had compelled her to slip into an ankle-length skirt and a silk blouse.
Her bittersweet-chocolate-colored hair had been taken from its ponytail, too, and, rather than leaving it to fall to her shoulders, she'd swept it back into an impromptu French twist.
Not even on a day at home did she go without makeup, but she had double-checked to be sure there were no mascara smudges beneath her violet-blue eyes. That her thin, straight nose was powdered. That the high cheekbones that had made it seem as if she'd fit into the patrician class in Connecticut were dusted with blush. And she'd added an ever-so-light touch of gloss to lips that could have been cosmetically plumped-up but that she'd let remain naturally nottoo-full in a quiet rebellion against the tides.
All in all, her former mother-in-law would still have barely considered her presentable for a visit to the facialist or the hairdresser, both of whom would make improvements, but it was the best Faith could do in a hurry.
On the other hand, when the grimy red truck pulled up to the curb to park next to her BMW, it didn't seem as if anyone who might emerge from it could have any reason to judge.
Probably because she was worried about her dog, that emergence seemed to be in slow-motion and Faith was more aware of details than of the whole that was being unveiled before her as Boone Pratt got out of the truck.
The first thing she noticed were dusty cowboy boots that were obviously unfamiliar with polish or a boot-buffer. They brought with them long legs encased in jeans rubbed nearly white at all the stress points and caked with mud around hems that were partially there, partially ripped into fringe. There was also a denim shirt that was so threadbare it hung almost diaphanously around a lean torso and broad shoulders. The entire ensemble was grimy.
He didn't look any cleaner from the neck up.
Shockingly handsome, but no cleaner.
And I was worried about Charlie being too dirty to be out in public, Faith thought.
"Boone?" she asked, not intending to sound as put-off as she did.
"Faith?" he countered facetiously.
Had he caught her shock at the way he looked? It wouldn't help anything if he had.
"Thank you for coming. I'm sorry to drag you out on a Sunday afternoon," she said, making sure nothing but gratitude echoed in her voice this time.
"Part of the job," he said dismissively.
She stood and he gave her the once-over, making her wonder, again, if she had given herself away, prompting him to get even.
Or maybe he just found her clothes somehow inappropriate. As eyes the blue of a clear, cool mountain lake assessed her down a hawkish nose, the sneer on a mouth that was devastatingly sexy left her with no doubt of his thoughts. He didn't approve of what he saw any more than she had.
Not attempting to conceal his distaste, he walked from the truck to the office with long, confident strides and unlocked the door.
Faith stood aside until she and Charlie were ushered in by a motion that managed to mock her. She was convinced that this man genuinely disliked her. And considering the change in his response on the phone when she'd identified herself, it seemed as if it wasn't only based on her failure to hide that she'd noticed his lack of cleanliness. But if that was the case, she honestly didn't understand why. They had only coexisted in this same small town while growing up; it wasn't as if they'd ever spoken more than ten words to each other. Why did he seem to have so much animosity? But it was there anyway, unmistakably.
Unless it was just that Boone Pratt had a bad disposition, like her grandfather—who had been the town's pastor and was infamously bad-tempered. But a lifetime of the reverend's unlikable personality had given her a basis of comparison and Faith felt as if there was something more personal when it came to Boone Pratt's bad attitude toward her.
"In there," he ordered, pointing a long index finger in the direction of an examining room off the waiting area they'd just entered.
Faith took Charlie into the other room, setting her pet on the countertop that obviously served as an examining table.
Boone Pratt brought up the rear, going around to the inside of the L-shaped space formed by cupboards and counters. As he came into sight again, he ran his big hands through hair that—without the dust that frosted it—was so dark a brown it was almost black.
He needed a haircut—that was what Faith thought of the unruly mane that grazed his shirt collar and waved away from a ruggedly beautiful face with remarkable bone structure. It was a face the photographer who took her former family's annual portraits would have adored. Sharply defined cheek-and jawbones would have put her ex-husband's and her ex-father-in-law's pie-shaped faces to shame.
After this cursory hair-combing, the vet made a show of washing his hands in the sink that occupied the other section of the counter. As Faith cast a glance down at Charlie, she somehow caught sight of Boone Pratt's derriere. Disreputable jeans or not, it was one fine rear.
Fine enough to make Faith swallow hard to keep her composure.
After the vet had done a thorough job of washing his hands, he turned and came to stand directly opposite her and Charlie, dwarfing them both from a stature that must have been a full three inches over six feet.