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"He did not ask you to do that to him." Lexi Delacourt's voice brimmed with laughter.
"He did." Dr. Michelle Kerns had her fellow book club members in the palm of her hand. It hadn't a thing to do with the novel they were discussing in a local Jackson Hole coffee shop. When someone mentioned having a problem with the hero in the book using a whip on a horse, Michelle happened to mention Larry's request.
Larry was a pharmaceutical sales rep from Idaho who she'd been seeing. Until she'd discovered he had a thing for whips. Or more specifically, being whipped.
"What did you say to him?" Mary Karen Fisher rested her arms on the table, her eyes wide. For having five children, the RN could be a bit naive about the kind of men out there.
"First, I picked my jaw up from the floor." Before continuing, Michelle glanced around to make sure no one at any of the nearby tables was listening. "Next, I told him I wasn't into flailing men with whips. Then I made it clear that I wasn't interested in seeing him again."
"You have the worst luck." Lexi sighed. "Have you ever just dated a normal guy?"
Even though Michelle had been in Jackson Hole almost two years this was her first book club meeting. She felt as if she'd finally arrived when she received the invitation to join the group. More than a little nervous, Michelle had done a whole lot of talking.
She'd already shared about her high school boyfriend who turned out to prefer guys, the guy in college who'd forgotten to mention he was married and the one back in Saint Louis who'd stalked her. "There were a few normal ones interspersed among the crazies. My ex-husband, Ed, was a normal guy."
"I didn't know you'd been married before." Mary Karen looked at Lexi. "Did you know?"
Lexi shook her head. The other women at the table appeared equally surprised.
"It was when I was in residency in Saint Louis." Although it had been over three years since her divorce was final, the failure of her marriage still stung. "Didn't even make it two years."
"That had to be tough." Betsy Harcourt covered Michelle's hand with hers and gave it a squeeze. "What happened? If you don't mind my asking, that is."
"Ed was a widower with two middle-school-aged daughters." Michelle kept her tone matter-of-fact. "The girls resented me. Ed sided with them. It was a difficult situation all the way around."
That had been a dark period in her life. When she'd married Ed, Michelle had been convinced it would be forever. Her parents had been married thirty-eight years. No one in her family was divorced. Except her. She hadn't turned her back on the institution. But next time, if there was a next time, she'd look for red flags. Like teenage kids.
"We'll find you a good man." July Wahl glanced at her friends and the other women nodded agreement.
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm plucking myself out of the dating pool for now." Michelle experienced a sense of relief just saying the words. "The only one in my life will be Sasha."
Mary Karen pulled her brows together. "Sasha?"
"It's her dog." Lexi spoke in a tone loud enough for all of them to hear.
"Everyone here knows how much I love my Puffy." A doubtful look filled Betsy's eyes. "But would you really choose to spend time with Sasha over someone like that?"
The newlywed pointed out the front window of Hill of Beans to a tall man with broad shoulders and lean hips loading supplies into the back of a red pickup. Thick dark hair brushed the denim collar and faded jeans hugged long muscular legs.
Even though Michelle wasn't interested, if she were interested, she liked that he was tall. Call her shallow, but she rather enjoyed looking up to a man. And being five-nine, unless she wore flats, there weren't too many men around like that.
"He's one fine specimen," Michelle acknowledged. "At least from the backside."
The women watched for a few more seconds, but the guy never turned in their direction.
"Who is he?" Mary Karen asked. "Anyone know?"
"Doesn't matter." Michelle sipped her latte and resisted the urge to steal another quick glance out the window. "Remember, I have Sasha."
"The dog can keep you company for now." Betsy's dusty-blue eyes held a gleam. "Until we find a man for you."
"Which might not be that easy." Lexi's lips turned up in a little smile. "I mean, Michelle is one picky lady. Heterosexual, single, nonstalker and no fetishes. What does she think we are miracle workers?"
Michelle pulled into her driveway in the Spring Gulch subdivision just outside of Jackson and chuckled, remembering the conversation in the coffee shop. Most of her friends were happily married and determined to aid in her search for Mr. Right.
But she'd been serious when she'd told them she wanted to step off the dating-go-round. Going out with a new guy was not only a huge time suck but an emotional roller coaster, as well. She'd really liked Larry. He was smart, funny and insanely handsome. Although she knew some women might embrace the whips-and-chains thing, she wasn't one of them.
So here she was, after two months, back to square one. She only wished Larry had made his proclivities known on the first few dates. The mistake she'd made was trying to take things slow. If she'd considered sleeping with him early on, this would have come out and they could have gone their separate ways sooner.
Perhaps with the next guy, she should consider tossing aside her old-fashioned morals and jump in the sack right away. Of course, she reminded herself, that was a moot point because she didn't have any plans to date. At least not anytime soon. Perhaps she'd even take the rest of the year off.
Yes, that would be best. Focus on continuing to grow her ob-gyn practice. Spend more time with Sasha. Perhaps even work on making the town house she'd bought late last year feel more like a home.
Michelle eased the car into the garage. Just before the door lowered, she saw a red vehicle pull into the adjacent driveway. She barely got a glimpse of it before her overhead door shut. It seemed the new owners had finally arrived.
The rumor around the neighborhood was a young couple from out of state had purchased the unit next to her. Michelle only hoped they were quiet. She put in long hours at her medical practice. With only two doctors and a nurse-midwife, she got called out often, at all hours of the day and night. When she was home she needed her sleep.
Perhaps she'd have to find a way to mention that to the new owners. Just so they understood
Michelle shut the thought off before it could fully form. Egad, what was she? Eighty? Before long she'd be complaining about the children running through her flower beds. If she had flower beds. And if there were any children in the upscale neighborhood of young professionals to run through them.
After heading inside and changing into a pair of shorts and a hot-pink T-shirt, Michelle clamped the leash onto the collar of her golden retriever and took the dog for a run.
By the time they returned, it was almost dinnertime and her neighbor stood outside washing his truck. As she and Sasha drew close, she realized with a start that he was the man from the coffee shop. Only this time she could see that his face was as delectable as his backside.
Tall. Dark. Handsome. Something told her he had a petite blonde wife who doted on her husband's every word. Those kind always did.
Still, Michelle slowed her steps as they reached the driveway. She remembered well the kindness of the neighbors when she'd first moved in and it was time to pay that forward.
"Hi." She stopped a few feet from him and extended her hand. "I'm Michelle Kerns. I live next door. Welcome to the neighborhood."
He looked down for a heartbeat, took off the soapy mitt he'd been using before taking her hand in his. "Gabe Davis. Pleased to meet you."
Electricity shot up her arm. She jerked her hand back in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner.
Her new neighbor had charisma with a capital C and the looks to go with it. His eyes were an amber color, his hair a rich coffee-brown. Other than a slight bump on his nose, his features were classically handsome.
Michelle ran her hand across the shiny red fender of his truck, the water rippling beneath her fingers. "What brought you all the way from Pennsylvania?"
He stepped close and the spicy scent of his cologne teased her nostrils. But his gaze remained riveted to her hand, caressing the sleek paint. He cleared his throat. "How did you know we were from there?"
"Your license plate was my first clue." Michelle pulled back her hand. His eyes had turned dark and intense. She could read the signs. He didn't appreciate her touching his truck but was too polite to say so.
"Of course." He lifted his gaze and raked a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. "It's been a long day."
Then he smiled.
Michelle felt something stir inside her at the slightly crooked grin. Mrs. Davis was a lucky woman.
She glanced toward the house. "Is your wife inside?"
His brows pulled together in puzzlement. "I'm not married."
"For some reason a rumor was going around the neighborhood that a couple was moving in." Michelle stumbled over the words.
"Nope. Just me and Finley."
"Daughter." The smile returned to his lips. "She's inside unpacking. At least that's what she's supposed to be doing. At thirteen, they're easily distracted."
Michelle heard affection in his tone. And fatherly pride.
Thirteen. Chrissy, Ed's oldest daughter, had been thirteen when they married. A knot formed in her stomach.
"Those are interesting years," she managed to mutter when she saw he was waiting for a response.
"Tell me about it." He chuckled. "You have kids?"
"No," she said. "No husband. No children. Just Sasha."
Her gaze dropped to the dog who sat at her feet, tail thumping.
Gabe crouched down and held out a hand to the retriever.
Sasha sniffed his fingers and her tail picked up speed. "Nice golden." The man scratched behind the dog's ears. "Finley and I used to have one."
"Buttercup passed away." At her questioning look, Gabe continued. "She died of cancer last year."
"I'm sorry." Michelle couldn't imagine losing Sasha. "That must have been hard on both of you."
Gabe nodded, then shifted his gaze back to the dog. "Tell me about Sasha."
"She's a purebred," Michelle said as proudly as if she was introducing him to her child. "She's three."
In fact, she'd picked up Sasha the day her divorce was final. The golden bundle of love at her feet had gotten her through the toughest period in her life. Now she couldn't imagine her world without Sasha in it.
His hands moved along the dog's ribs. A frown furrowed his brow. "Has she always been this thin?"
Michelle's smile faded. "What do you mean?"
"I can feel her ribs."
"Dogs aren't meant to be fat," she murmured even as a chill traveled up her spine. She'd always had to watch Sasha's weight. Being too thin had never been an issue.
"You should have a vet take a look at her."
"You think she could be sick?" She pushed the words past her lips. "Like your dog?"
"All I know is Buttercup started losing weight and we didn't notice it at first. When we did, it was summer and we thought it was no big deal, just her eating less because of the heat." He paused, as if considering how much to say. "Latertoo latewe learned golden retrievers are prone to lymphoma. Early diagnosis is critical for survival."
Fear, heart-stopping fear, sluiced through Michelle's veins quickly followed by a healthy dose of self-directed anger. She was a doctor. She should have noticed Sasha's weight loss, not needed a stranger to point it out to her.
"I'll definitely have her checked. I certainly don't want anything to happen to her." Unexpected tears filled Michelle's eyes, but she hurriedly blinked them back before he could notice. "Thank you for caring enough to speak up."
Before she could take a step, she felt his hand lightly touch her arm. She looked up into warm amber eyes. "Just remember, if it is something serious, you'll have caught it early."
Michelle considered herself to be a strong, independent woman, but times like this made her wish she had a special someone in her life. A man to wrap his strong arms around her and tell her everything was going to be all right.
After her experience with Larry, she'd begun to believe good men only existed in the movies or in the pages of a book.
The spicy scent of Gabe's cologne grew stronger and Michelle realized that while lost in her thoughts, she'd taken a step closer. Even though a respectable distance still separated her and Gabe, it wouldn't take much to bridge that gap.
She met his gaze. Almost immediately their eye contact turned into something more, a tangible connection between the two of them. A curious longing surged through her veins like an awakened river.
Michelle experienced an overwhelming urge to wrap her arms around his neck and pull him close, to feel the hard muscular planes of his body against her soft curves. To press her lips against his neck and
"Dad," a young female voice called out. "Grandma's on the phone."
Gabe's hand dropped to his side. He turned toward the house, where his daughter stood on the porch, cell phone in hand. "Tell her I'll call her back."
Michelle took a step back, her heart pounding in her chest. Thankfully the crazy spell tethering her to him had been broken. She tugged on the leash and Sasha stood. "Thanks again for the advice."
"It was nice meeting you," Gabe called to her retreating back.
"You, too," Michelle said without turning around.
Tomorrow, when she saw her friends in church, she was going to tell them they could scratch the guy with the truck off their potential suitor list.
No matter how charming, sexy or caring her new neighbor was, she now knew he had a teenage daughter. Which meant Gabe Davis was one man she wouldn't have, even served up on a silver platter.