Read an Excerpt
Even though he'd only been gone for a few days, Ethan McClure sighed as he pulled into the drive leading to his family's ranch. But his relief turned to curiosity as he took in the old, beat-up brown pickup parked out front. He'd never seen that wreck before. Who did it belong to?
His mind still on the unknown truck, Ethan saw his dad hurrying from the barn. Ken McClure froze at the sight of his oldest son. "You're home."
Obviously. But the note of alarm in his father's voice put Ethan on edge. "What's wrong?" He climbed out of the truck, his luggage forgotten.
"Don't worry, son. Ranger's goin' to be fine. Tessa's got everything under control."
Ethan's stomach dropped. "Tessa?" He looked again at the beat-up truck, wondering what its owner had to do with his favorite horse. "Who's Tessa? And what's wrong with Ranger?"
Ranger whinnied, drawing Ethan's attention. Everything else forgotten, Ethan raced toward the barn, his tension zooming into high gear. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the barn's interior.
"It's going to be okay, big guy," a woman crooned.
That didn't sound good. Down the rows of stalls, he saw Ranger. A small person was in the stall with him. His father ran in behind him.
"Who's that?" Ethan demanded, not taking his eyes off Ranger.
"That's Doc's new partner, Dr. Tessa Grant." Off balance, Ethan glanced at his father. "When did that happen?"
Ken swallowed. "She got here last week when you were in Boise."
Ethan knew that Doc Adams had finally made the decision to bring another vet into his practice, but Ethan hadn't realized it would happen that quickly. He'd been gone less than a week.
Ethan and Ken strode together toward Ranger's stall. His horse raised his head and nodded in greeting.
Ethan grabbed the bridle and rubbed Ranger's nose. "Hey, big guy." The woman stepped back from Ranger and met Ethan's gaze. Golden-brown curls framed her pixie face and her huge green eyes found a path straight into his heart.
Ethan jerked, though he wasn't sure if it was from his intense reaction to their eyes meeting or his surprise at the idea of this tiny woman as the new vet. Short and slim, if she didn't have a stethoscope around her neck, Ethan would've thought the woman standing beside his horse was a teenager, not a grown woman and certainly not someone who worked with large animals. "What's wrong with Ranger?" The tone of the question came out gruffer and harsher than Ethan expected. His father pointedly frowned at him.
The woman's brow shot up, and she stood up straight. "He's fine." Her tone made him think of the times his mother had scolded him for addressing her in a disrespectful tone when he tried to get out of chores. "He just got spooked by the weather last night. He has a few scrapes from flying debris, and I think he ran into the barbed-wire fence. He'll be fine."
Ethan looked at the wounds and nicks on Ranger's side.
"The storm last night just came up without any warning," his father explained. "A tornado touched down at the Barlows' ranch. They lost one storage shed. Several of our horses were out in the north pasture. First thing this morning I was able to get Ranger, Sadie and Ringo rounded up, and brought them in. Doc Adams and Dr. Grant have been out all day checking with the other ranchers, seeing to the different needs of the animals."
The woman shook her head. "That storm was something else. We had bad weather in Kentucky, but yesterday wasI felt like I was in a metal barrel with someone banging on it with a hammer." She held out her hand. "You must be the Ethan I've heard so much about. I'm Dr. Tessa Grant, Dr. Adams's new associate."
He felt as if he was in that same storm, disoriented and waiting for the next blow. "I am." His hand enveloped hers, but that small hand had a surprising number of calluses on it. "I did see some evidence of the storm as I drove in. Ringo and Sadie okay?"
"They've got a few cuts from flying debris, but they look fine." She patted Ranger's withers. "This guy took the worst of it."
Ethan bristled a little. He didn't know this person from Adam and no one touched his horse. "Maybe we should wait for Doc Adams."
"No needI've this under control."
"He's kinda high-strung."
"I know." She went back to work, cleaning the last of the horse's wounds, but he thought he heard her mumble, "He's not the only one."
His father shifted. Ethan wasn't going to apologize for being concerned about his horse. He also was having trouble wrapping his brain around the fact that the woman was a veta big-animal vet, no less. How could she do the job? She wasn't big enough or strong enough, as far as he was concerned. He turned to his father and opened his mouth, but his father's warning expression stopped him. But much to his embarrassment, he could only stare in amazement as Ranger stood docilely by while the lady vet finished working on him.
Ranger head-butted Ethan's hand, wanting attention. Ethan rubbed the big guy's nose. "Usually, Ranger's not so cooperative with exams," Ethan heard himself say. "He likes to give Dr. Adams a run for his money."
"You should've seen Tessa handle Ranger when she first got here," Ken eagerly explained. "She worked on Ringo, then Sadie before seeing to Ranger. He got jealous, and finally Ranger couldn't take the suspense anymore and turned to her."
"Really?" Amazed by his father's comment, Ethan knew his horse liked to be a pistol, dishing out a bad attitude. Doc and his dad had been on the wrong end of Ranger's mischief. But he didn't like being ignored, either. Small or not, the vet must have some horse sense if she'd figured that out right from the start. Or had she gotten lucky?
"I wouldn't have believed it myself unless I saw it with my own eyes," Ken added.
The woman studied him. Ethan knew doubt showed on his face. The telltale tightening of her right hand told him he wasn't the first to question her skill.
"When I was growing up," Tessa explained, addressing Ken, "the stable manager I worked with was a genius with horsesthat 'horse whisperer' kind of thing. He was truly amazing. He taught me how to get acquainted with horses. I haven't found a single horse who's given me grief." She glanced over her shoulder. "A lot of owners, but not the horses."
Ethan didn't doubt that other owners had trouble with her. He wondered if she had the strength to help with a distressed pregnancy, a breech foal or an angry cow that was on a rampage. Could she wrestle a branch out of a cow's throat like Dr. Adams did a couple of years ago?
"You need anything else, Dr. Grant?" Ken asked.
"I don't think so. I'll leave some salve for the horses and drop by next week to see how things are progressing."
Ken nodded. "You coming, son?"
"I'll just stay here and help Dr. Grant with Ranger."
Ken laughed and walked out of the barn.
Ethan watched carefully as Dr. Grant finished with Ranger. She had a way with his mount as if she had some connection to him. She gave Ranger plenty of affection, murmuring sweet words and pats. His horse ate it up as if no one had ever praised him. Those sweet words charmed more than his horseEthan felt himself respond to that affectionate tone, too. It'd been so long since that bright morning, standing in the church, waiting for his bride that never showed.
He mentally jerked himself out of the painful memory. "So what made you come out here to New Mexico?"
"I graduated from Purdue, same as Dr. Adams. I got the call from him about six weeks ago. He asked if I wanted to practice in a rural setting and pass up the glamour of an urban practice. He said he needed a young associate."
Her story made sense. Ethan and his dad had noticed that Dr. Adams wasn't moving quite as fast as he used to. A couple of months ago, one of their cows had kicked out and Doc hadn't moved quick enough to avoid that hoof. Doc had to spend a few hours at the house, an ice pack wrapped around his leg.
"I laughed and told him I'd love to practice out here, but did he realize my size. He said that he knew, but asked if I was willing to give it a try. I jumped at the chance," she added, turning to put away her things. "I wasn't interested in working in a practice that only dealt with dogs, cats and assorted pets." She pulled her stethoscope off her neck and put it in what looked like a tackle box.
He waited for the rest of her answer. "Why not?"
"My love is horses. I grew up in Kentucky and we had a full stable." Her wistful smile told him she was recalling good memories. "I loved working with them. Hasn't anyone told you that horses have a special place in little girls' hearts? I knew early on that I wanted to be a vet and work with horses. I had a lot of my professors and other people try to talk me out of it, but sometimes you just know what God wants you to do."
He eyed her size. When his gaze met hers, he saw the determination glowing there. Before he could say anything or stick his foot into his mouth again, his cell phone rang, saving him from having to eat shoe leather again.
Saved by Mountain Bell before he uttered the comment she hated: Aren't you too short? And a girl?
Tessa ran into that attitude far too often, first from her mother and close friends, then from the other students in vet school. She learned quickly to respond to their doubts with a smile, a joke, but knew she had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to prove herself. So why did doubt from this tallover six feethandsome man with chestnut-color hair and piercing gray eyes jab her in the heart? She knew how to deflect those comments, so why had she mumbled that crack about Ranger's owner?
She knew God had called her to be a vet, given her the talent. Despite the odds against her, God had been with her through the lean times after her father deserted the family and they'd lost the family horse farm because of his gambling debts. God had been there with her in school, helping her through the nasty and despicable comments and opposition she faced from professors and fellow students. And He'd been there when she'd learned her fiance wanted to marry her as his ticket through law school. She survived it all, so why'd this tall rancher suddenly get to her?
Her wounded heart needed to stay behind the walls she'd built and not be tempted by a good-looking cowboy.
"You believe in me," she whispered to Ranger, stroking his neck. The horse turned his head as if agreeing with her.
Her phone rang. She pulled it out of the pocket of her jeans and flipped it open. "Dr. Grant."
"Tessa, this is Dr. Adams. The local horse rescue group is seizing some horses this afternoon. I can't get there since I'm scheduled for surgery in a few minutes. Since you've worked with rescue groups before, I want you to go out to the Moores' ranch where the seizure will occur and oversee it."
"Okay, but I don't know where that ranch is located." She glanced at Ethan.
"Is Ethan there at the ranch?"
"He's the head of the local rescue group. The group's lawyer is calling him now. He can show you."
She looked at him. "Okay, I'll follow him." Hanging up, she waited for Ethan to finish his call. When he did, he turned to her.
"I need to go."
"I know. Dr. Adams just called and wants me to help with the seizure and document it. Since I am not familiar with this area, I'll need to follow you out to the Moore ranch."
"You've worked with a rescue group before?" His tone made it clear he still doubted her skill.
"Yes. In high school I worked summers with the local vet. We went on several rescues. I kept active in the organization through college and then in veterinary training. I've done rescues in Kentucky, Ohio, Montana and Wyoming."
"Good, because we're going to put your expertise to work. We've got twenty horses that need our help." He studied her.
If he thought the size of the rescue would worry her, he thought wrong. "Lead the way," she answered, without a moment of hesitation.
He studied her for a moment before coming to some decision. There he nodded, turned and walked out of the barn. Tessa hurried to put the last of her equipment in her medical bag and raced out after him. Ethan had already pulled his truck out of the driveway. A moment of panic shot through her. Was he going to leave without her? She hurried to his truck. The driver-side window was down. He stopped by her.
"I'm going to drive around the barn and hook up the trailer."
"You need help?"
He gave her an odd look. "I'll do it. Just be ready to leave when I drive by."
"You've got it."
She raced to her trusty, dented, secondhand F-150 truck, put her bag in the bed and hopped into the cab. She started the ignition and turned the truck around and waited, frowning a little at the noise the engine was making. Her baby, although eighteen years old, hadn't failed her yet, but its time was coming. She couldn't keep duct-taping the seats and hoses much longer.
Ethan's truck rumbled by, turning her thoughts to the drive ahead. She still wasn't as familiar with the roads around this part of New Mexico as she'd like. It didn't help that a lot of the ranches she visited were off small easy-to-miss roads. Doc had given her an old dog-eared map of the area, telling her to use it because it showed all the roads in the area which might not show up on any modern device.
She'd doubted Doc's warning and accidentally left the map at the office yesterday. Once she discovered that, she'd told herself that her modern technology was better. The GPS device had been a graduation gift from her mother. But Tessa learned quickly the spotty reception in the canyons in this rural area made the new technology undependable. The device failed her completely, leaving her driving around the area for close to two hours, until she pulled into a ranch and asked directions. The couple, the Cousinses, smiled, commiserated then gave her directions. She wouldn't repeat the mistake a second time.
After twenty-five minutes, Ethan's truck turned off the road onto a private drive. There were six other pickups with trailers parked around the interior gate. The ranch house showed signs of neglect, as did the stables. One man, who seemed to have come from the house, yelled at the others to go away, a shotgun cradled in his left arm.
"If you don't leave, I'm going to start shooting," the man shouted.