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Tears of fear and frustration welled in Claire Ren-quist's eyes as she swiped at her cheeks with her waffle-knit shirtsleeve. She knew there'd be long days and early mornings when she decided to start an agricultural business. But she'd never expected the gut-tugging angst that sideswiped her when one of her animals was in trouble.
Claire's hands shook as she pulled out her cell phone and punched in Dr. Charlie Flynn's speed dial. Her vet and family friend never let her down. When Claire moved back to Dovetail, Maryland, two years ago she'd asked Charlie to doctor her animals. He'd promised to come whenever she called.
She stood outside the modest barn she'd refurbished. Cell phone reception was better out here, away from under the thick oak beams. Although it was pitch-dark and cold for the middle of March, the full moon lit up the surrounding fields and rolling hills.
Claire stared numbly at the view and not for the first time wondered why she'd done it—not only moving back to Dovetail, but starting a llama farm. She'd been a political reporter, assigned to the White House press corps, for heaven's sake. Her TV network had given her free rein and allowed her to follow the president wherever and whenever she wanted. And she'd been able to branch off if a story called for it, visiting some of the most far-flung places on earth. Today she had her pick of consulting jobs where she could name her own salary, which helped her fund the farm until it got on its financial feet—
"Dr. Flynn's answering service. May I help you?"
"Oh, I was expecting Charlie." She caught her breath and forced herself to think.
"This is Claire Renquist at Llama Fiber Haven. Can you please tell him I need him immediately? I have a dam in distress with a breech birth." A long mewl came from inside the barn. "Tell him to hurry."
She snapped her phone shut and shoved it into her down vest pocket. Her nerves warred with her training, which allowed her to remain calm in most crises. Charlie was going to be annoyed with her. He'd been adamant that she call him as soon as she suspected Stormy was in labor. But she'd wanted to claim this first birth as her own. The llamas had become part of her life from the moment they'd arrived here in Dovetail. She'd nurtured them, rejoiced when Stormy became pregnant by artificial insemination and at times felt like one with her animals.
She'd been so sure she had everything under control.
Until labor began two weeks earlier than expected. She should have called Charlie as soon as she thought anything was amiss.
But she hadn't.
She ignored the critical voice. This wasn't about her.
Claire rounded the corner of the stall and looked at her prized female llama. Stormy's pecan-colored coat shook as her ribs heaved from the effort of breathing through her labor pains. Pains that should've been over after Claire helped birth the baby llama who stood blinking up at her, his brown eyes globes of innocence and trust. He mewled at her, shivering. He'd walked away from the heater she'd left him next to.
"Come on, baby." She led the cria closer to the warmth and rushed back to Stormy's side. Llamas weren't usually vocal, and if Stormy had been the one mewling… Claire distracted herself by keeping her focus on calming Stormy.
"You did a wonderful job, momma," she crooned to the three-year-old llama.
But Stormy wasn't done. Claire swallowed down her fear. There was another calf in Stormy's womb; she'd felt the hooves after the first cria was born. Plus the dam's apparent discomfort alarmed her. It wasn't typical for llama's to convey distress during birth.
Twins. Claire groaned.
Twins weren't a cause for joy, not in the llama world. They often meant death for the dam.
"Hang in there, Stormy." Claire rested her hand on Stormy's side, hoping to calm her. It was an impossible task as her own anxiety threatened to shatter her brittle composure.
Daniel "Dutch" Archer, Jr., squinted against the glare of the bathroom light.
"Humph." He groaned as he splashed cold water on his face.
Waking up from a deep sleep to go out and make a house call wasn't unusual for a large-animal veterinarian. Especially in rural Maryland.
What was unusual was his reaction to this message from his service.
Emotions he never wanted to feel again. The one person on earth he never wanted to deal with again, not at such close proximity.
"Damn it." He yanked open his bathroom door and strode back into his bedroom. This was just another call.
Like hell it is.
Underneath the layers of indifference, resentment, anger and a sheer distaste some might even describe as hate, Dutch recognized the tickle of anticipation. And he despised the part of himself that enjoyed it.
It wasn't anxiety over the difficult job to come—saving a cria twin and the dam. It was knowing that in a few short miles he'd come face-to-face with the woman he'd avoided so carefully for the past two years.
He grunted. Two years, hell; try more than a decade.
Sure, they'd had unavoidable run-ins around town since Claire moved back to Dovetail, but they'd never spoken a word. The few times their eyes had met they'd looked away, each refusing to acknowledge the other. Like strangers, and that was how Dutch wanted it to stay.
If he'd been more mature when he'd chosen Claire's closest friend, Natalie, over Claire all those years ago, he would never have encouraged Natalie to remain friends with Claire. He and Claire had drifted apart during their senior year in high school. After the horrific accident that had killed Dutch's best friend, Tom, Dutch had gone to comfort Tom's twin sister, Natalie, and, in a moment that changed the rest of all their lives, made love to her.
His relationship with Claire was irrevocably severed.
Never mind their childhood bond. Never mind that Claire had christened him with the name "Dutch" when, at age three, her pronunciation of Daniel Archer had become "Darch" and then "Dutch." Dutch's mother had loved it and so the name stuck.
He pulled on his work jeans and made a mental note to leave a note by his sister, Ginny's, coffee mug. If not for Ginny he couldn't keep making these late-night calls. Hopefully he'd be back before Sasha left for school.
He sighed and yanked a sweatshirt over his head.
This was the hardest part of his job—leaving Sasha in the middle of the night. But he needed a paycheck to clothe, feed and house himself and his eleven-year-old daughter. Natalie's parents had been in their forties when she was born and elderly by the time Sasha came along. They'd passed away while Dutch and Natalie were in college, one year apart. Dutch had only himself and his family to lean on.
A squirming warm body squeezed between Dutch and his bureau, then sat.
Rascal thumped his tail and looked at Dutch with complete adoration—and expectation.
A low chuckle forced itself past Dutch's tight throat.
"No, boy, I don't need an Australian sheepdog yip-ping around the barn with me. Wait here and keep an eye on the ladies, okay, pal?"
Rascal's fringed tail thumped twice before the dog lay down and rested his head on his front paws. His ears were still pricked, in case the tone of Dutch's voice changed. In case his master decided to take him along, after all. But he'd stopped making eye contact with Dutch. Rascal knew the deal. Birthing was vet's work, and Rascal wasn't invited.
Claire glanced at her watch for the tenth time in as many minutes.
Where the hell was Charlie?
It was quiet, except for Stormy's heavy panting, a quiet that closed in on her. Half past two in the morning. The hour she'd always found least appealing, even when her surroundings had been the offices of the White House or a foreign capital city and not a rustic old barn with thirteen llamas.
Fourteen llamas, with one still on the way.
She left Stormy for a moment and went over to the cria, who stood in the corner of the birthing area. The surprised expression on his small face reflected her thoughts.
What the heck is going on?
"Here you go, sweetie." She crooned as she rubbed another large, dry towel over the animal in front of the heater. His shivers had ceased and he seemed more relaxed than when he'd landed on the barn floor.
Claire allowed a wave of relief to wash over her before she returned to Stormy's side. At least one cria might make it. Her emotions reminded her of when she'd first come home to Dovetail, thinking she'd be nursing her mother through heart surgery for much longer than had turned out to be the case. Thinking she'd leave after mom got better—but deciding to stay and start her new business—the llamas.
"Hang in there, lady. Help's coming." But as she said the words Claire couldn't ignore the bitter burn of dread deep in her belly.
"No!" The cry burst up out of her.
She couldn't, wouldn't, lose Stormy. Stormy had been her first purchase for the farm, even before she'd found the location for Llama Fiber Haven. She'd put the money down on Stormy based on a single phone call to a couple in Michigan. They'd had to sell off their livestock quickly due to his illness.
She recalled the conversation as though it was last night and not more than two years ago. She'd called them from location in Iraq via a satellite phone. Thirty-four days on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan covering the presidential visit had left her exhausted, grimy and on the edge of a mental breakdown. Her team was leaving the next morning, but she couldn't wait that long to talk to the llama farmers.
Her dreams of leaving Washington, D.C., and having her own business were all that kept her going by that point. Ten years of constant pressure weighed on her spirit. She'd given up everything for her job, which in the early years seemed reasonable since she could say she was doing it as a service to her country.
But she'd had nothing left for herself. She'd let all her relationships decay. First to go were her girlfriends; she couldn't possibly make time for a monthly dinner or cocktail social. Then any signs of a dating life disappeared. Her on-again, off-again relationship with a lobbyist had to be turned off permanently once she realized he wanted her to publicize his agenda.
Any new love interests never went past the second date—if they even made it that far. She'd had heads of state and diplomats, not to mention her own bosses, try to fix her up with some of their acquaintances, but it was for naught.
Claire was a dedicated career girl.
Until she had an epiphany. One that came to her, strangely enough, when she saw a group of women knitting. Claire had landed a plum interview with the First Lady during visits to local Washington charities. She'd been allowed to travel in the motorcade and should've been celebrating her journalistic coup. But then a bookstore window caught her eye. The presidential motorcade roared through D.C. unchallenged, but slowed to navigate a traffic circle.
Light glowed from the corner bookstore's front window, forming a backdrop to a group of women who sat around a table. Holding needles—knitting.
The table between them was loaded with what looked like woolen items in different colors. Sweaters? Afghans? Scarves?
But it wasn't the colors she noticed. It was the women, their oblivion to everything except what was happening around that table.
Laughing. Enjoying one another's company. Happy, living in the moment.
Claire made a lightning-swift discovery then: She didn't want to work so hard for the rest of her life, with no time for the sense of serenity the knitting women in the bookstore exuded. Even through the bulletproof glass of the limo she rode in and the windowpane of the bookstore, Claire felt the joy those women shared with one another.
She'd known in that instant that she had to go home. She'd been no more than two hours away, in Washington, D.C., for the past decade, but rural Maryland might as well have been the far side of the moon. Claire never took time off back then, not even to see her family or childhood friends.
Stormy's mewl of pain brought her mind back to the present and elicited a shock of nausea. As a political reporter anxiety had been her constant companion and she'd actually believed she thrived on it.
She'd been insane.
"I'm here, Stormy." The words struggled through her dry throat as Claire stroked Stormy's long, graceful neck. Claire's stomach twisted again as she recognized that Stormy wasn't going to make it through this. Twins were too much stress on the llama's body, especially since it was her first birth.
Claire fought back tears. This was the llama who'd got her through her first year back in Dovetail. Who'd helped her start to heal over her many too-raw emotions. It felt as though Stormy was part of Claire.
"Hold on, Stormy! You have to."
Dutch pulled into the long drive that led to the farmhouse Claire had purchased from the Logan family on her return to town almost two years ago. The headlights of his pickup arced across the large painted Llama Fiber Haven sign she'd erected at the end of her property, but he didn't pay attention to it. He'd already focused on the huge job that lay in front of him and the llama.
He'd managed to avoid Claire this entire time. There were at least three other vets she could go to, and had. Whenever her name or her farm came up in conversation with his colleagues, he'd been grateful he had no involvement. It was a relief that Charlie Flynn had taken her on as a full-time client.
The large-animal vets in town and surrounding environs all ran individual offices but worked together to help one another out. They had an agreement that any of them would fill in during an emergency.
Charlie was away, visiting his new grandbaby. That baby had come early, too, as the twin llama crias were arriving for Claire. The other two vets in their circle lived too far out of town to get to her place in time, so the night-duty call service had contacted Dutch.
He shook his head.
She wasn't going to be pleased when he walked into her barn.
Over the past year they'd avoided each other with all the skill of secret agents. When he'd heard she'd returned, he thought she wouldn't stay more than a few months.