Read an Excerpt
"If I'm not mistakenand the twist in my gut tells me I'm notthat there" Hank Corsaut fixed his eyes on a puff of dirt stirred up on the road a quarter of a mile in the distance "is trouble."
The silver SUV went sailing over the bumps in the old dirt road that led from the highway to the sanctuary proper and disappeared down a hill.
Hank braced his hand against the dinged-up fender of his old truck and shifted his white straw cowboy hat to the back of his head. He had come out to check on things at the Gall Rive Migratory Bird Sanctuary this morning with all the good humor and enthusiasm of a feral tomcat facing a flea dip. He was a large-animal vet, after all, not a watchdog.
The car slid around the last long curve then went whisking by where he had pulled off to the side of the road without so much as the customary "hey, I see ya there" wave of her hand.
"Yep. That's trouble all right. Wavy-haired, heart-stompin', stubborn-as-she-is-beautiful trouble," he muttered.
This new development was doing nothing to brighten his mood.
Not that he had been particularly cheerful since Samantha Jolene Newberry, the woman who single-handedly ran the bird sanctuary and more often than not thought she ought to run Hank's life, had fainted dead away in his arms. Dead away. In this case it was not a colorful turn of phrase.
He wasn't sure for how long, but being a doctor of veterinary medicine he knew that when her body fell into his arms her heart had stopped beating. And Sammie Jo's being one of the biggest hearts he'd ever known, it had grieved him like nothing he'd ever experienced. Then her eyes opened again, and she let loose on him a whole new wave of griefof the bossing him around, getting him to agree to do things he didn't have the time or inclination to do variety. He had had to agree to do her bidding before she'd let him call for help.
Hank rubbed his eyes, clenched his teeth and wondered what he was thinking when he had taken on the task. These acres of untouched natural habitat swept with tall grasses, live oaks hung thick with moss, isolated with nothing but dirt roads to connect them to the highway and nearest neighbors, had withstood hurricanes and the high-strung females that lived here. What could happen in the few days Sammie Jo would have to be under a doctor's care as she recovered from her near brush with a heart attack?
The silver SUV didn't just make the turn into the drive that most people, even ones who had been out to the Newberry family home dozens of times, missed. It went gliding around the bend and through the crookedly hanging open iron gates like a plane coming in for a perfect landing.
Hank's feet seemed to grow roots, anchoring him in place. He'd pulled over just shy of Sammie Jo's yard to let the dogs run for a minute to expend some energy so the animals would be less inclined to chase any wounded or unsuspecting birds on the sanctuary proper. That's what he'd told himself. In truth he'd needed a moment alone with his thoughts, alone with the Lord, to regroup and go back to the place where not twelve hours ago he'd thought he'd lost one of the first people who had ever believed in him.
The SUV disappeared over a rise in the sparsely graveled drive.
What could happen while the owner was away? The past could come calling, that's what. Sammie Jo's past. Gall Rive's past. Hank's past.
All those pasts wrapped up in the form of Emma Evangeline Newberry, the girl who had run out on him on the eve of their elopement. He pressed his callused fingers against the pale blue oxidized paint of the truck until his skin burned.
If he got into that truck right now and drove until he got back to town or maybe even all the way back to New Orleans, where he had lived before he ever heard of the Newberry family, no one would blame him. But Sammie Jo had asked him to help out, and he had vowed to do it. Unlike some people he could think ofthat he often thought of over the past ten yearshe would not turn his back on someone just because things did not go according to the plan.
With a snap of his fingers, Hank directed his pair of rescued shelter dogs to get into the extended cab behind the seat.
"Gotta go, boys." He climbed in behind the steering wheel and slammed the door. "Looks like Emma Newberry has finally come home to Gall Rive. Let's go welcome her, shall we?"
Earnest T, a lanky, scruffy-looking Australian shepherd and Airedale mix, stuck his head between the seat and the passenger-side window and gave a gruff woof.
Hank cranked the engine and shifted into Drive. "Don't worry. I have no intention of getting involved with her."
A doctor of veterinary medicine for about a decade now, he didn't hold much with the idea some folks had of carrying on conversations with the creatures in the animal kingdom. Particularly when those people took it upon themselves to hold up both sides of that exchange as if they knew the minds of the animals themselves. But as a man who had landed wounded and weary in this small town hoping to put his lonely and painful childhood and family life behind him, he also embraced the notion that sometimes a man needed to think things out loud, to unload a bit to a sympathetic ear. All the better if that ear didn't have a direct connection to a pair of lips that might blab it all to the neighbors.
"No, I've learned my lesson as far as Emma New-berry is concerned," Hank said.
Otis, Earnest T's bulldog best buddy, snorted.
"I mean it." He pulled the old truck onto the well-rutted road and headed after the SUV. "I won't give her the chance to get to me again. Not that she would be interested She made that perfectly clear when she left me without even saying goodbye."
The truck hit a dip in the road. The dogs bounced into each other. Earnest T laid his ears back and gave Hank a look someone else might have described as scolding. Otis lapped his tongue out and slobbered.
"Almost there, right through these trees, boys." He wasn't talking to the dogs, he justified inwardly. He was talking to keep from thinking about what waited for him through those trees, what had his pulse racing and his mouth dry. He eased out a long, resigned breath then gripped the steering wheel to maintain control over the last bit of broken road.
Up ahead sat the silver SUV framed by a yard scattered with live oaks. Hank thought the moss hanging from their branches looked like streamers, as if the very landscape had arranged itself to welcome home this too-long-absent member of the family.
Movement in the driver's seat drew his attention, but the SUV's tinted windows kept him from seeing the driver clearly. He reached across the seat of his truck to the passenger-side door and yanked the handle. When she opened her door, he would call out to her. Better that than jumping out of a truck and striding up to her. He was only thinking of her feelings.
Which meant he had completely forgotten to take into account his dogs' eagerness to get out and get an eyeful and a snout full of Gall Rive's newest arrival.
As soon as the passenger door of his truck came open just a crack, Earnest T gave Hank's elbow a hard nudge. The truck door swung outward. The already banged-up truck door went clanging into the cautiously opening door of the SUV just a few feet away. The wham of metal against metal rang in the quiet of the slowly spreading daylight.
Earnest T leaped out.
Otis came clumping along after.
A flurry of waves of rich brown hair whipped forward and back from the SUV's open door. The lower part of a tanned leg kicked outward. A high-heeled shoe went somersaulting into the shaggy, damp grass. A glimpse of black fabric, a flash of something shiny and a hand grasping nothing but air. That was all Hank saw of her.
That was enough.
His heart lodged in his throat, sending a hard, expectant pounding beat all the way to his temples.
She let out a sound that, as a vet, Hank was prone to call a yelp followed by a series of unfinished thoughts that went something like, "My car! Dogs? Where did This is my family's property Keep these vicious animals "
At that point she lunged from her seat to grab the door handle. That was her first mistake.
She leaned out and down and right into the path Earnest T's ice-cold nose, extended in the enthusiastic reverie of doggy greeting. Otis's unfurled ribbon of a tongue was not far behind.
"Yeah, they are pretty vicious." Hank laughed. "That one licked the scowl right off your face. If you're not careful one of them might actually get you to smile."
Earnest T and Otis went loping back and forth, sniffing at the tires and underside of the new vehicle.
As soon as they moved away from her, Emma jerked her head up. Her hair bunched against her slender neck and over her bare upper arm but mostly it covered her eyes.
Hank could hardly see her face, or anything but bits of hera bare foot, an arm, the wink of gold and diamonds on her wrist. Still, just being this close to her made something in him feel suddenly.
Lighter? Not exactly.
Love struck? Hardly.
As if he'd come home.
He pushed the fleeting and foolish thought aside. Closed the lid on it. Locked it down. That's how he had survived his childhood, how he dealt with the hard realities of his work, how he had coped all those years ago when this very woman had broken his heart.
"This is private property. You should take your dogs and get off it before I call." Emma pushed the tangle of hair back from her face with one hand, lifted her chin and her gaze met his. "You."
"No need to call me, Emma. I'm already here." Had he thought she felt like home? Hank got out of the truck. He should have been suspicious at the tenderness and warmth he'd associated with the term. Those things had nothing to do with the home he'd grown up in. Maybe there was more warning than welcome in his first thoughts about the youngest Newberry.
The dogs rounded the SUV and headed for Emma again.
Hank strode to the back of his truck to better take command of the situationat least the situation with his dogs. He had not quite gotten between the two vehicles when a squeal of pure delight caught his attention.
Layers of pink-netting stuff flipped and flapped and fluttered above the tops of clunky green rubber boots that were clomping over the overgrown grass of the yard. A purple knit scarf bounced over the orange-and-yellow swirls of a tie-dyed T-shirt. A small girl with tufts of blond hair sticking up here and there on her head stumbled over Emma's lost shoe. Arms flung wide she shrieked, "Dog-friends! Dog-friends! Here I am! I want to hug you, dog-friends."
"Ruthie, no!" Emma's arm shot out, but between Earnest T and Otis and her own safety belt restraining her she couldn't climb out of the driver's seat fast enough. "You don't know these dogs. They might bite you."
Hank clenched his jaw at her frantic tone, knowing it was doing nothing to calm the dogs or educate the child. He stepped in front of the girl rushing headlong toward the animals who had spotted her and turned to bound her way. He gave a quick, sharp whistle, held out his hand and said, "Cool it."
The child pulled up short in her tracks.
"You have no right to yell at my daughter." The click and clatter of the seat belt releasing underscored Emma's indignation.
"I wasn't yelling." Daughter? Emma Newberry had a daughter? Even without looking at the child's bright hair and pale skin or guessing from her slight build and barely-out-of-first-grade behavior, Hank knew the child was not his. That meant Emma had married? He'd told Emma's aunt shortly after Emma left never to mention her to him again, and Sammie Jo had honored his wishes. Now he wished he'd have at least asked about the big stuff, marriage, children, that might have prepared him for this moment.
"I never yell." He adjusted his hat and tipped his head back, not quite making eye contact as he said, with as much quiet grace as he could muster, "And I wasn't talking to.your daughter."
He had no problem believing that Emma had become a mother, though. Not after the talk they had had the last night he had seen her.
He nodded toward Earnest T and Otis. "I was giving a command to my dogs."
Emma tipped her face down toward the pair of dogs lying in the grass between the vehicles with their expectant gazes trained on Hank. "Oh."
Hank bent at the knees to lower himself eye to eye with the child to better impart a little heart-to-heart lesson. "Your mom is right about running up to strange dogs, sweetheart. You should never do that. Not all dogs are your friends."
"All dogs are my friends," she said back at him, her tone decidedly stubborn as he might have expected of Emma's child. Still, something was off about the cadence the sentiment the "not quite connecting" of it all.
Hank studied the girl, carefully, methodically, which was pretty much how he approached everything and everyone. "I know you want to think that but"
"There's no point in arguing with her." The distinct swish-thump-swish of Emma walking one-shoed up behind him alerted him to her closing in on him.
"Yeah, I know." Hank held up his hand to cut her off. "She's a Newberry woman. And when a Newberry woman makes up her mind about something, then she expects the rest of the world to order itself according to her ." He stood and turned to face her at last, prepared to see a cool, aloof, polished professional woman ready to fiercely protect her child. Instead he saw an almost frail figure with uncombed hair blowing in the breeze, dark circles blended with smudged makeup beneath her luminous eyes, wearing. "What are you wearing?"
"What?" She glanced down as her fingers flitted over one slender strap. She adjusted the sparkling belt then tugged at the hem just above her knees. "It's your basic little black dress. Every woman needs one."
"Not in Gall Rive." He shook his head. "And certainly not at a bird sanctuary at half-past dawn."