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"What did you say?"
As the question left Laurel Stanton's lips, she was transfixed on the man seated behind the large, messy desk. Dr. Russ Hollister had owned and operated Hol-lister Animal Clinic for twelve years, and Laurel had worked as his assistant for the past five of those. It was unimaginable to think her days with him were coming to an end.
His gaze locked on hers, he picked up a pen and tapped it absently against a stack of files. At thirty-eight years old, he was a tall, muscular man with big arms and hands to match. His shaggy blond hair was never combed and a dark five-o'clock shadow always covered the lower half of his face. But that was easily explainable, she thought. The man never had time to shave or get a decent haircut.
"Just what I said," he spoke with exaggerated patience. "As of January twenty-fifth, I'm taking the position of resident vet at the Chaparral Ranch. The Cantrell family owns the cattle and horse operation. I believe you're acquainted with them?"
Laurel had gone through high school and college with Alexa Cantrell. Now her friend lived in Texas with her Ranger husband and their children. Alexa's mother, Frankie, spent most of her time in Texas, too, where she had grown sons from a previous marriage. Only Quint, Alexa's brother, remained here in New Mexico to keep his late father's ranching dynasty going.
Laurel swallowed hard as a sinking weight hit the pit of her stomach. She'd noticed that Russ had been acting a bit unlike himself here lately, as though his mind were preoccupied with more than work, but she'd never dreamed he was about to do anything this drastic. What in the world could have come over him?
She said, "I've been friends with the Cantrells for years. They're great folks, but"
Bewildered by it all, her voice trailed away, however, he seemed not to notice as he quickly replied, "That's one of the main reasons I decided to make this major job change. The family is trustworthy, solid and dependable. I can be sure that the ranch will always remain in their hands and I won't ever have to deal with the uncertainty of a new owner coming in and replacing me."
Being a resident vet for a prominent ranch like the Chaparral was an impressive position to hold. Plenty of veterinarians would give their eyeteeth for such a job, she thought. Besides the prestige, there would be many other advantages, such as not having to deal with tons of paperwork, the demands of the public and traveling all over the county in the middle of the night. Still, Russ had always been his own boss. It was hard for her to imagine an independent guy like him willing to be an employee rather than the other way around.
"But you own this clinic," she reasoned. "Your business is so great that you can't handle it all. Why"
Before she could get the whole question out, he interrupted, "That's right. I can't handle it all. It's grown to be too much for you and me to deal with."
Questions and doubts tumbled through her mind as her gaze slipped over his rugged features. She'd never thought of Russ Hollister as a handsome man. He was too rough around the edges for that description. But he was sexy as all get-out and totally unaware of the fact, which made him even more unbearably attractive.
Five years ago, when he'd first hired her, he'd been a married man. But three years later, that had all changed when divorce had parted him from a classy, career-driven wife. Ever since then, Laurel tried not to think of him in terms of being "available." He was nothing more to her than her boss, or, from the sound of things, soon-to-be former boss.
Pressing fingertips against her puckered forehead, she tried to put her concerns into words. "I realize you're overworked and"
"We're both overworked," he corrected.
"Okay. I agree. You have to deal with people and things that would frazzle the nerves of a saint, but this place and all the animalswho will care for them? You've been here"
"I don't need for you to tell me how long I've been here, Laurel. The floors in this old building are stained with my blood and sweat. But that's soon ending. I'll be leaving the end of next week. And Dr. Brennan will be taking over shortly afterward. So there's no need for you to worry. The horses from the track and all the other animals around here won't go without a vet."
But what about her? What about the long, arduous hours she'd invested in this clinic? In him? Were they all for naught? She wanted to fling the questions at him.
This isn't about him or what he means to you, Laurel. This is about your job, your livelihood, the sum of what makes up your life. This isn't about your personal feelings.
Russ was a demanding boss who spoke bluntly and, more often than not, took her for granted. But he was also honest and fair. And where animals were concerned, his heart was as big as Texas. It wasn't enough for him to simply cure a patient from illness or injury. He always went a step further to make sure the animal would remain healthy and happy. There was never a time he put himself before the welfare of his patients. She admired him greatly, and though he often irked her with his caustic tongue, once she'd begun working for him, she'd never considered working for anyone else. She was hopelessly devoted and attached to the man.
Suddenly feeling weak in the knees, Laurel sank into one of the hard metal chairs that were normally reserved for pet owners. But it was eight o'clock at nightfar past closing hoursand the building was empty, except for him, her and the few cats and dogs that remained at the clinic for more extensive care.
"I see," she said, her voice low and hoarse, then asked, "Does Dr. Brennan have an assistant?"
Shrugging, he leaned back in the wide leather chair, and the indifference she saw on his face made her wish she had the guts to reach over and pop her palm against his jaw.
"I haven't questioned the man about his staff," he said frankly. "That's his business."
After five years, Laurel was used to his curtness, and most of the time she ignored it. But his announcement had knocked her for a loop. She wasn't in any mood for sarcasm.
Her back teeth grinding together, she quickly rose to her feet. "Well, did you ever think it might have been more thoughtful to let me in on this a bit sooner? Jobs aren't exactly hanging from tree limbs right now. But I suppose I'm just an afterthought in all of this."
He arched a brow at her. "Sit down."
The quietly spoken command made her hackles rise. "Why? I still have work to do before we close up. And I'd like to get to bed before midnight."
"I'm not finished with this conversation yet. That's why." He pointed to the vacated chair as though she was a child instead of a thirty-year-old woman, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him what an ass he could sometimes be. After all, her job was coming to an end. But what else could he do to her, she asked herself. Fire her before the week was out? The thought sent a bubble of hysterical laughter rising in her throat, and she realized she was very close to breaking down in front of this man who had little to no patience for weakness in human beings. Yet he had a massive heart where animals were concerned.
Biting back a weary sigh, she sank into the still-warm seat. "Okay. Lay it on me," she invited with a fatal dose of sarcasm.
He frowned. "First of all, I didn't share all of this with you earlier, because I knew you'd be upset."
She sputtered in disbelief. "Upset! That's putting it mildly. I'm going along thinking my job is secure and you spring this on me! Wouldn't any normal person be upset?"
He didn't say anything for a moment, and she suddenly felt his gaze roaming her face and hair. She had no doubt her gray eyes were sparking fire and her cheeks were pink. As for the rest of her, she was certain she looked as tired as she felt. Her long chestnut hair had loosened from its thick, single braid and now hung raggedly against the front of her left shoulder. What little makeup she'd applied this morning had been washed away by the early-morning drizzle that had fallen while she and Russ had trudged into a cattle pen to treat a bull with an infected horn. Her blue jeans and green-plaid flannel shirt could no longer be deemed clean, and her black cowboy boots were caked with dried red mud.
It was rare that Russ ever took the time to really look at her, and Laurel never fussed with her appearance. Not for him or any man. But now as she faced him in the dimly lit office, she realized his warm brown eyes made her feel quite uncomfortable and very much like a woman.
Since he was making no effort to speak, she decided to do it for him, saying, "Don't bother to answer. I shouldn't have said any of that. This is your clinic. What you do or don't do with it is entirely your business. I'm just an employee."
So why did she feel like so much more? she wondered, her spirits as dead as the potted plant in the window behind his head. Maybe it was the fifty or sixty hours she spent every week with this man. Maybe it was the emotional ups and downs she'd gone through as the two of them had lost and saved animals of all types, ages and sizes.
A grimace creased his broad forehead and pressed his hard lips into a crooked line. "Do you think you can manage to be quiet for two minutes?"
"I don't know," she quipped. "Do we have the time to do a test?"
He tossed down the pen and used the hand to rake a path through his sandy-blond hair. "If you'd shut up, I might be able to explain that I've not forgotten you in all of this. Do you think I'd just heartlessly dismiss you without any warning?"
She didn't think he was heartless. He showed love and kindness to the animals every day. Just not to her. But then, he wasn't that sort of man. And she was his assistant, not his girlfriend, she reminded herself.
Swallowing a sigh, she blurted, "I've never been able to read your mind. So I can hardly know what's in it now."
His nostrils flaring, he darted her a sharp look. "Good thing," he muttered, then shook his head with something like self-disgust. "I don't know why in hell I've put up with you all these years. Or why in hell I want you to go with me. You're a pain. A big, fat pain. But the truth is I don't want to work without you."
That last shocking remark straightened her spine and scooted her butt to the edge of the chair. "Work! Without me? What are you talking about?"
"The Chaparral," he snapped with impatience. "I want you to remain my assistant. I will need one there. Or hadn't that crossed your mind?"
All sorts of things had been rolling through her mind these past few minutes, she thought. But nothing like this!
She glanced at the watch on her wrist. "It's been less than five minutes since you've sprung this news on me. I haven't had time to think about anything!"
He deliberately swung his attention to the clock on his desk. Once the second hand made a complete sweep of the numbers, he said, "Okay. You've had five minutes now. What do you think?"
Her insides were suddenly trembling, and she quickly clasped her hands together to keep them from outwardly shaking.
"First of all, the Cantrells offered you a job. Not me. And secondly, the ranch is several miles west of Ruidoso, and part of the trip is over rough, graveled road. The commute there would take at least forty-five minutes one way. That's"
"The Cantrells have already agreed to hire youif you want the job," he quickly interrupted. "And you wouldn't be commuting. You'd be living thereon the ranch. Just like I will be."
He was leaving his large home in the suburbs and moving to the ranch? And the Cantrells were offering her a job and a place to stay, too? Something was wrong with this picture. She'd not spoken to Alexa in several weeks, but that didn't mean her old friend might not be pulling strings. As grateful as Laurel was for the offer, she'd been independent sincewell, since she was a little girl. She didn't want handouts from anyone. And she especially didn't want to be hired because Russ had made stipulations to include her.
"I find all of this hard to believe. I mean, I believe the part about youI'm sure the Cantrells were willing to offer you the moon to get you to work for them. But methe ranch hardly needs my services."
Leaning forward, he pulled a card from a Rolodex and tossed it on the desk in front of her. "If you don't believe me, call Quint and talk with him. I'm sure he can answer any questions you might have."
Quint Cantrell was Alexa's younger brother. And since their father, Lewis, had died several years ago, he was now the man in charge of the ranch. Through her friendship with Alexa, she knew him quite well. But she didn't want to talk with him tonight. She needed time to calm herself, to think about what all of this was going to do to her life.
"I'm not sure I have any questions for Quint," she said after a moment. "Because I'm not at all sure I want to take the job."
Surprise flickered in his eyes, but he couldn't be any more surprised than she was at herself. The words had popped out of her mouth with a will of their own, as though something inside her had plucked the remark straight out of the chaos going on in her head.