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"Maybe it's nothing."
Susie Carrigan glared at the man she had chosen to save her from a fate worse than a hard frost on the first buds of spring.
Thirty-year-old Tyler McCabe was more than her best friend and an accomplished large animal vet. He was an astute fellow observer of human nature who could predict a person's next move with startling accuracy, a fact that made his refusal to see the gravity of her current situation all the more frustrating.
"It's not 'nothing,'" she argued.
They were in the hospital barn of Tyler's Healing Meadow Ranch, located just south of Laramie, Texas. He gave her a sexy half smile that warmed her from the inside out.
"You can't know that," he said, hunkering down to finish his task.
Susie watched Tyler stitch up the flank of a longhorn calf who'd gotten tangled up in barbed wire. As always, his touch was gentle and sure, his sutures precise.
Trying not to think how those same hands would feel on her, if the two of them ever got together againa fact she knew darn well was as unlikely as it was secretly appealingSusie leaned back against the stall wall. She folded her arms in front of her. "Believe me, I know this. My parents are through waiting for me and my sibs to settle down and have families of our own. The holidays will be here in a few weeks. They've got plans for me, I'm telling you."
Tyler swabbed antibiotic on the sealed wound, then covered it with a waterproof bandage. "I'd think that the heat would be off the rest of you now that Rebecca and Trevor are married."
"Precisely the problem," Susie lamented, her aggravation increasing. She looked at Tyler, studying his six-foot-four frame. Although he had an independent aura that could be a little off-putting at timesand a desire never to marry that matched her ownthere wasn't a finer-looking rancher around, in her opinion. He was strong and solidly muscled, with shoulders that were broad enough to lean on. She knew, because she'd done so, every now and again. He wore his thick reddish-brown hair on the longish side, so it brushed his collar and the tops of his ears; the no-fuss style suited him perfectly. His eyes were a distinct sage green with flecks of gray, his gaze both assessing and intent. He had a habit of shaving only every couple of days. The stubble of red-brown beard that surrounded his lips only served to remind her how passionately and skillfully he could kiss. Add to that a ruggedly handsome face, a McCabe-stubborn jaw that defied anyone to try and mess with him and a smile that was reckless and intuitive enough to make her heart flutter. And best of all, when she found herself in a potentially difficult situation, he always knew what to do or say to make her feel better.
Which was, of course, why she had come to him now.
Susie scuffed the toe of her sturdy engineer's boots on the cement barn floor. "My parents think their plan to find suitable people for us to date, and hopefully marry, is what spurred Rebecca into going out and finding her perfect mate on her own. Basically, their plan worked! Now they aren't going to rest until they match up me and Amy and Jeremy, too."
"Meg and Luke can't force you to do anything you don't want to do, Suze."
Susie flushed at Tyler's use of the nickname he had given her when they were kids. "That will not stop them from trying."
Tyler shrugged. "So tell them to back off. You'll find your own man when you're good and ready."
Susie knew what she wanted. In theory, anyway. Whoever he was, the man of her dreams wouldn't be much different from the man she saw standing in front of her.
Like Tyler, she would want her ideal someone to be taller than she wasnot so easy to find for someone of her five-foot-ten-inches heightand physically fit. She'd like him to be as comfortable working with his hands as she was with hers, and to enjoy being outdoors. She'd want someone, like Tyler, who had a wealth of experience in his expression, and a twinkle of humor that cropped up in his smile at the least expected times. She'd want him to call her on her bull, and let her call him on his. To make her feel that she could tell him anything. And most importantly, she'd want him to make her feel as if everything would turn out okay.
In a perfect world, that was the man she wanted. Unfortunately, her future wasn't without potentially daunting liabilities, and in her heart of hearts, she knew it wasn't fair to any man to ask him to share in those risks. It was bad enough that she had to deal with them, without dragging anyone else into that uncertainty.
"I want you to run interference for me," Susie told Tyler.
He strode over to wash his hands in one of the sinks located at either end of the aisles between stalls. "By "
"Going to my parents' home with me."
Susie's mouth dropped into an O of surprise. Their eyes met and held.
"I'm not going to help you put off until tomorrow what you should be taking care of today," he told her firmly.
"Thanks a bunch," Susie replied sarcastically.
Susie was used to Tyler being right there when she needed him. She wasn't used to him refusing her anything.
He shrugged and, to her increasing dissatisfaction, held his ground. "You know your parents aren't going to rest until they say whatever is on their mind. Therefore, you may as well just go on and get it done without me."
"We called you here because we're worried about you," Meg Carrigan began as she and Susie's father continued the preparations for the backyard party that would welcome Rebecca and Trevor home from their two-week honeymoon.
"It's time you moved on and forgot the past," Luke Carrigan added.
Susie tried to focus on the beauty of the November afternoon. It was unseasonably warm, with the temperature in the low seventies. The sky was a brilliant Texas blue. It made a perfect backdrop for the red, gold and orange leaves on the trees.
Susie helped her mother spread burgundy cloth on the row of tables that would hold the buffet. "That's easy for you to say. You didn't go through what I did."
Luke poured bags of ice into large galvanized tubs. "That was twelve years ago."
And it feels like yesterday, Susie thought, putting bottles of beer and soft drinks in the ice to chill. "I'm fine."
Her father moved on to setting up the barbecue grill. "If you were, you'd be dating someone."
Maybe it was because her parents were both in the medical profession, but they had always been a lot more ready to dismiss what Susie had been through than she was. "Maybe," Susie said calmly, "I'm just meant to go through life alone."
Luke frowned, taking on the gentle but commanding air of a respected physician. "And maybe you're not."
Meg smiled like the understanding nurse she was and wrapped her arm around Susie's shoulders. "We just want you to give love a chance."
Susie tensed and stepped away. "I think they wrote a song about that."
"Susie " Luke's voice held a warning tone.
Susie stopped rolling her eyes and sighed. "I suppose you two matchmakers have the man I should be seeing picked out, too."
"Actually," Meg allowed, "we have five."
Susie blinked. "You're kidding."
Luke set the dials on his barbecue and began layering the first of several dozen baby back ribs on the grill. "All we are asking is that you allow us to arrange for you to make their acquaintance."
"Which means," Meg added, handing her husband a platter of Fredericksburg sausages, "giving them at least thirty minutes of your undivided attention."
Susie laid out stacks of napkins, paper plates and silverware. "I can see the introductions now. Here's my daughter, Susie. She's a landscape architect who runs her own company and she can't get an evening out to save her life."
Her parents winced at her revealing choice of phrase.
"More accurately," Luke corrected, "won't accept an invitation for an evening out, from what I hear."
Susie watched her father close the top of his grill over the sizzling meat. "Why lead 'em on if my intentions aren't in the least bit serious? I'm always available for hanging out and going places with friends."
Meg sat down to shuck some corn. "It's not the same thing and you know it."
"Why is this so important to you?"
Her father now walked around the yard, setting up folding chairs. "We want to know you're moving on, especially now that the danger is over."
As far as Susie was concerned, the danger would never be over. "The heartache can still come back."
"It's unlikely." Her father came over to wrap an arm around his daughter.
"Unlikely" was not the same as "impossible," and Susie wasn't about to inflict her suffering on anyone else. "Look, Mom, Dad, I know you mean well," she said, "but I'm happy with my life the way it is." Her parents had a very happy marriage but she had a thriving business, a career she loved, a cozy house and enough money to do whatever she wanted in her leisure time.
"You could be even more content," Meg said gently.
Susie studied her parents. Luke had silver running through his sandy-blond hair. Meg covered her silver strands with an auburn rinse that matched her natural hue. Both were fit, trim and remarkably energetic for a couple in their early fifties. They could also be indefatigable when it came to getting what they wanted for their four kids. Susie propped her hands on her hips and exhaled in exasperation. "You're not going to give up on this, are you?"
Looking very much a couple, they shook their heads. "Not until you give it a try," Meg admitted.
Given the fact that Thanksgiving was only a couple weeks away, Susie was willing to do whatever necessary to keep the peace for the holidays. She lifted a hand and set her boundaries. "I'm not going husband hunting. I will agree to meet the five guyson one condition. If it doesn't work out, if there's no chemistry or interest on either one of our parts, you two have to back off. Permanently. And swear on all that is Texas that you will never say another word about me settling down, marrying and trying to have a family ever again."
Her folks nodded, with obvious reluctance.
"How soon can we get this over with?" Susie asked impatiently.
Meg look over at the Congratulations Rebecca and Trevor! banner strung across the front porch. "I think we can arrange for you to meet all five bachelors in the next two weeks."
"What's going on between you and Susie Carrigan?" Teddy McCabe asked Tyler, several hours later. "You haven't taken your eyes off her since you arrived."
Which, unfortunately, had been late, Tyler thought. Beer in one hand, plate of barbecue in the other, he moved a little farther out in the backyard where the party was being held, and tried not to be so obvious about watching over the feisti-est, most vulnerable woman he had ever known.
"Who's the guy she's been talking to?" Tyler asked.
It was clear from the range of expressions on Susie's face that the stranger was one of the guys her parents had hoped to match her up with.
"New doctor at Laramie Community Hospital. Name is Whit Jenkins. Susie's parents introduced the two of them soon after Whit arrived."
Tyler could see why Meg and Luke would hope the two would hit it off. Whit Jenkins was thirty-something, decent looking, personable. In the twenty minutes Susie had been talking to him over by the arbor, her expression had gone from pleasantly irritatedan expression Tyler knew well himselfto wary, to somewhat interested. He could tell by the way she was holding herself that she wasn't drawn to Whit in the way her parents were probably hoping, but the night was young and the man showed no sign of leaving her side, especially now that Susie's brother, Jeremy, fellow LCH physician, had joined the conversation.
"Do you know something I don't?" Teddy continued.
"Meg and Luke are fixing Susie up with five different guys in the next two weeks." Teddy lifted a brow in surprise. "She agreed to that?"
Tyler nodded, recalling his phone conversation with Susie after the dreaded summit with her folks. She'd sounded remarkably chipper for someone who had lost the battle to keep any and all matchmaking out of her life, but Tyler wasn't fooled. Susie might go along with Meg and Luke Carrigan's wishes to keep the family peace, but she'd be privately gritting her teeth in resentment the whole time.
"So why is it bothering you?" Teddy asked.
Tyler looked at his brother. Teddy, Trevor and he were triplets, but the identical part only went so far as their basic looks. Teddy bred horses on his ranch, the Silverado. Trevor ran cattle on his place, the Wind Creek. Tyler's Healing Meadow Ranch was a large animal veterinary hospital.
Now the once fiercely independent Trevor was married.
The irrepressible Teddy was openly lamenting not having a wife and family.
Only Tyler knew he was not destined for the altar, now or at any time in the future.
"We both know if Susie turns to anyone, she turns to you."
"In crisis," Tyler qualified. What happened when Susie wanted more than that? Would someone like Whit Jenkins step in to claim Susie as his own? And even if Whit did, what did it matter to Tyler?
It wasn't as if he and Susie shared a romantic love. The affection they felt for each other was much deeper, and just as difficult to define. They'd never officially dated. They had tumbled into bed with each other, at last count, four times. If they both remained single, Tyler did not doubt it would happen again. And be followed, just as swiftly, by indecision and regret.
"The two of you hang out together for fun sometimes."
Tyler shrugged as he polished off the potato salad and beans on his plate. "In a group. Never alone."
"Not that hard to changeif you so desire," Teddy murmured with a probing sidelong glance. The question was, what did he want? Tyler put down his plate and walked back out into the crowd to say hello to everyone he had yet to talk with at the party. He and Susie were a hell of a lot more than casual friends, yet they didn't see each other all that often. They had the ability to talk in shorthand no one else understood, and yet there were times when he didn't know what she was thinking or feeling or doing to save his life. He was always happy when he saw her. And he thought about her more than he knew he should. The two of them had cried on each other's shoulders, slept together. And stayed up all night long exchanging confidences. Yet they'd never had a single date in all the time they had known each other.
And up until now, Tyler thought, as Susie finally broke away from Whit Jenkins, that had been okay, too.
Catching Tyler's glance, Susie smiled and headed toward him.
And as usual, when he was anywhere in her radius, Tyler found he could not keep his eyes off her.
When working as a landscape architect or at the garden center she owned, she wore clothes that were ranch-hand rugged and yet sophisticated, too. Tonight, instead of the usual denim skirt or jeans, she had a soft flowing skirt of turquoise and dusty blue flowers with a ruffled hem and a silktrimmed V-neck white knit shirt. Her small feet were encased with sturdy brown leather boots that just peeked from beneath the ruffled hem. A simple blue-and-white necklace encircled her throat, matching earrings adorned her ears.
As perfectly as the clothing draped her tall, slender frame, it was nothing compared to the captivating beauty of her face. Shoulder-length honey blond hair caught the evening light and framed her pretty face in a tumble of soft, mussed waves. Insightful amber-brown eyes gleamed beneath thin, elegant brows, the same shade as her hair. Her nose was long and straight; her high cheekbones well defined; her lips soft, pink and perfectly drawn. Her normally fair skin bore the golden hint of summer sun, and a job that had her outdoors a great deal of the time.
His pulse picked up as her favorite fragrancea combination of flowers and citrusengulfed him.
She linked arms with him and drew him close. Smiling up at him, she said, "I need you to come with me. Now."