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The day Brenna Pierce was having would be enough to drive any woman crazy. Which, in Brenna's case, would actually be an improvement, because at least she would be driving somewhere.
Instead, she paced alongside a curvy stretch of blacktop in the pounding late-June heat. Her stepfather had raised her to believe that swearing was vulgar, but now, sweaty and exasperated, Brenna mentally chanted a stream of four-letter words, running them together in an all-purpose Über-Curse. Coincidentally, loan was a four-letter word—and something she might have to apply for soon.
She'd been praying her ancient hatchback would make it through this summer, but the faded green car appeared to be on its last legs. Er, tires.
Her cell phone wasn't currently working, either. No bars here. Maybe she'd unintentionally discovered Mistletoe, Georgia's answer to the Bermuda Triangle, a magnolia-lined stretch of asphalt where all things mechanical sputtered and died. Investigating scientists could name it the Brenna Straightaway.
To find a patch with better reception, she'd climbed out of the car. Her pacing hadn't netted any results yet, but she couldn't cover more than a few yards without taking along the vehicle's occupant, Lady Evelyn. Wiping damp strands of coppery hair away from her face, Brenna glanced through the open window. Lady Evelyn, a Yorkshire terrier, sat in the back seat wearing her safety restraint harness as imperiously as though it were crown jewels. The Yorkie glared, unamused by first the lack of air-conditioning—fixing the A/C would cost more than the car was worth—and now the unscheduled stop.
At least Brenna had managed to almost coast to theshoulder. Though the vehicle wasn't as out of the way as she would have liked, it also wasn't in the middle of the road.
Reaching inside, she patted her canine companion on the head. "What do you say, Evelyn? Wanna get out and help me push?"
Beneath the pink bow holding up silky hair, the dog's dark eyes seemed incredulous. Surely you jest. I'm a prizewinning purebred. I have ribbons. I don't do manual labor.
Hearing doggie voices in her head couldn't possibly be a good sign. I have got to get out of the heat. Even more importantly, Brenna had to reach Patch by three-thirty. Four o'clock at the latest.
Brenna grabbed the leash from the front seat. "Come on," she said, unfastening Lady Evelyn's safety harness. "Let's go for a walk."
If they were lucky, she'd get cell reception just up the road and reach someone who could drop everything to come give them a ride. Preferably someone with air-conditioning. They hadn't gone far when a car came barreling over the hill. Brenna waved her arm.
As she squinted against the sunlight, she made out the people inside the oncoming vehicle: Rachel and David Waide. For a minute she didn't think they were going to stop—odd, since the popular Mistletoe couple could usually be counted on to help anyone—but then David swerved to a haphazard halt just past her parked lemon. She scooped up Lady Evelyn and jogged toward the Waides.
David rolled down the window, his handsome face surprisingly pale in spite of a summer tan. "Brenna! Are you okay? We're just on our way to take Dr. McDermott to the hospital."
From the passenger seat, his very pregnant wife leaned over with a grin. "He means we're on our way to meet Dr. McDermott. My water— Oh!"
David swung back to Rachel. "I lost track of how far apart they are. I'm supposed to be keeping track!"
"Doesn't matter," Rachel gasped. "Just drive."
He turned to Brenna. "If you need a lift, hop in, but we have to go straight to the hospital. Rach is in labor!"
Brenna nodded, hiding a smile. "I got that. You two run along." They obviously didn't have time to take her to Patch and were going in the opposite direction from where she needed to be.
David eased off the brake, the car beginning to roll as he asked, "What about you?"
Maybe he could call someone for her on his way? The Waide family owned a supply store not too far from here. Perhaps one of his siblings, Arianne or Tanner, could come get her. She hadn't been planning to call them, but it would be easiest for David to dial a number he already had programmed into his phone.
"Could you—" She broke off at the sound of another automobile approaching. "Never mind. You take care of your wife. I'll get help from the next Good Samaritan."
Not waiting to be told twice, David pulled away.
"Good luck," Brenna called after them. Then she focused on the brown SUV coming into view, gesturing with her free hand.
The car slowed and veered off the road. She saw two males in the front—one considerably younger than the other—and tops of heads that indicated shorter passengers in the back. She recognized neither the vehicle nor the inhabitants.
Still carrying the Yorkshire terrier, hardly an armful at five and a half pounds, Brenna neared the driver's side. A dark-haired man rolled down his window. She'd never passed him in town; he was someone she would have remembered. His face was perhaps the most geometrically perfect she'd ever seen—symmetrical features, strong jaw, straight nose, well-defined cheekbones and eyes so dark their color was unfathomable. On a blindingly bright day like this one, they made her think of cool, shaded pools.
Brenna gave a quick shake of her head, such poetic thoughts unlike her. Definitely been in the sun too long.
"Hi," she said. "I'm Brenna Pierce. You're not from Mistletoe, are you?"
"No, just vacationing here." His deep voice was a touch rueful.
An adolescent female from the back seat piped up with, "You mean we've finally made it to Mistletoe? It feels like we've been driving around for days," she added on a whine.
The boy, who shared the driver's features but in a blocky, awkward, not-yet-grown-into way, whirled around. "Maybe if you girls didn't have to stop every five minutes, Dad could have paid better attention to the map."
"Well, if boys weren't too stubborn to admit when they're lost—"
An excited, high-pitched voice interrupted. "Doggie! Daddy, can I pet the doggie?"
As three children chorused various questions and complaints, the man driving the SUV asked Brenna, "So did you need some help, ma'am?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Wincing as the noise level from inside the SUV escalated, she found herself thinking, But who's gonna help you?
Dr. Adam Varner squelched the urge to throw himself out of his car and beg for mercy from the stranger. Even though he'd assured Sara that he'd have no trouble with the kids—I'm their father, for pity's sake, I spend nearly every day in an operating room, how hard can this be?—he'd realized in the last hundred miles that parenting was far more difficult than he remembered.
What the heck had happened to Morgan, the apple-cheeked infant? Eliza, aka Daddy's Girl? Or Geoff, the doting son who'd wanted to be just like his father? Now they were a soon-to-be kindergartener, a sullen preteen and a teen obsessed with cars and girls. Admittedly those were probably normal interests for a fifteen-year-old, but Adam had to keep reminding himself that the kid was no longer content with a skateboard-scooter.
Amid Morgan's inquiries of "are we almost there?" and Geoff's insistence that he was hungry again, even though he'd had lunch a couple of hours ago and wiped out the stash of snacks inside the SUV, Adam had been switching through satellite radio stations and suggesting car games in a desperate search for a distraction. He certainly hadn't expected roadside diversion in the form of a tall redhead and her rag mop of a dog.
Adam had grown up with a German shepherd and a black Lab. The piece of fluff Brenna Pierce held looked like it would lose a street fight to a gerbil. Even though he knew nothing about her, somehow the immaculately groomed lapdog looked all wrong for her. Brenna's tan suggested lots of outdoor activity, as did her footgear— instead of strappy summer sandals, she wore a pair of blue-and-silver hiking shoes. She needed a sturdy dog that could keep up with her. And if she was single, maybe something big enough to growl at intruders.
Was she single? he wondered absently.
He opened his door, unfastening his seat belt with the other hand. "I take it that's your car?"
She shot the green hatchback a glare of pure loathing. "Yeah, it's mine."
"Did it overheat?" He hazarded a guess, reasoning that even an igloo could overheat in weather like this. The air around them was sticky, and he wouldn't have been surprised to see the tar-based road beneath their feet come to a boil.
"The gauge didn't show any signs of overheating, but who knows? Gauge could be busted. Just about everything else is."
Already unbuckling his own seat belt, Geoff asked, "Can I come take a look, too?"
As much time as the teen spent reading car magazines these days, he probably knew more about automotive mechanics than his father. Adam was used to working with his hands, but in surgery not in garages. "Sure. But stay off to the side of the road. Your mother would kill me if you wandered into traffic on my watch."
This elicited a snort from Eliza, a formerly delightful child who seemed to have developed a personality disorder moments after blowing out the twelve candles on her last birthday cake. "Traffic? We're in the backwoods of nowhere. They probably only get one car a day on this road."
Brenna cocked her head to the side, smiling at his daughter through the open door. "Actually, someone passed by less than five minutes ago."
At an apparent loss for a response, Eliza merely twisted a strand of her long hair and looked away. It was such a change from the constant sniping that Adam wanted to cheer. Instead, he asked Brenna, "The people ahead of us didn't stop for you?" That didn't bode well for the friendly small town he'd been promised in the tourism literature.
"They paused briefly, but were on the way to the county hospital. The passenger was in labor," she explained, stepping aside to let Geoff pass, "so I told them I'd try to flag down the next car. I heard you coming by then and was hoping you'd be someone I knew. But—" She stopped, checking her watch. The leather band was covered with paw-print cutouts. Her hair, styled in a short, elegant bob, was tucked behind her ears, revealing matching silver paw-print studs.
"Problem?" Adam asked as she scowled.
"Time crunch. Would I sound too melodramatic if I said it was a life-or-death situation?"
"That's my specialty," he assured her wryly. Had he even introduced himself? Being trapped in the SUV with the kids had robbed him of his adult people skills. "I'm Dr. Adam Varner, cardiac surgeon from Knox-ville. My children and I are staying in Mistletoe until just after July fourth."
"At least two and a half weeks? Wish I could get my clients to go away for that long," she murmured, more to herself than him. "Then I could replace the lemon."
"I'm a local pet-sitter, owner of More than Puppy Love. I take care of other people's animals. Like Lady Evelyn here. And Patch, a diabetic cat. His owner is in Savannah on business. I have to make sure Patch gets his daily insulin shots on time."
"Someone keeps a pet even though they have to give it shots every day?" Eliza asked, climbing out from the back seat. Adam should have known that if he let one kid out, the others would follow. Just as well—they probably needed to stretch their legs. "Sounds like a lot of trouble."
"It's not ideal," Brenna said, "but most of my clients consider their pets family members. You go the extra mile for someone you love."
Though Adam couldn't see his daughter's expression behind him, he felt her accusing stare boring holes into his skull. Was she thinking of the instances he hadn't made enough time for his own loved ones? He sighed, trying to be patient. It was true that he'd been overwhelmed by the demands of residency at the hospital and hadn't been the husband and father Sara and the kids had deserved. But Sara had just remarried, happily moving on with her life, and Adam was doing his level best to reconnect with his kids. By the end of the summer, they'd see that.
"Daddy doesn't like pets." This was from curly-haired Morgan, not her terminally ticked-off older sister.
"That's not true." He turned, defending himself in a mild tone. "I grew up with animals. I've always liked animals."
"But you wouldn't get a dog for your place," Eliza said. "Which would have been the perfect solution since we can't have one at our house!"
Our house—the house he'd bought right after Sara discovered she was pregnant with Morgan. Sara had asked him to move out just before their youngest daughter's first birthday. Watching his wife—ex-wife—marry someone else last weekend had been something of a wake-up call. An entirely new household was forming under his erstwhile roof; he was more determined than ever to make up for lost time. He never again wanted to feel as if he'd blinked and missed entire chunks of his children's lives.
Posted November 26, 2012
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Posted May 22, 2011
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