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Stay here and honk if you see anyone going inside."
Jennifer Grant pushed open the door of her old dark blue pickup, but paused to glance at her passenger. "Got it?"
Fifteen-year-old Lizzie Grant, the second of Jennifer's three younger siblings, hooked a lock of curly brown hair behind one ear. She didn't bother looking up from her math book. "I've got it."
"I'm serious." Jennifer stressed each word.
Lizzie shut her book and pulled her pink T-shirt collar up to cover the lower half of her face, mocking her sister's intensity. She glanced in all directions. "Have no fear, Agent Double oh six, Double oh seven is on the job."
"Don't be a smart aleck."
Dropping the fabric, Lizzie opened her book again. "Fine. Then stop acting like a wimp. If I see Avery, which is who you're really trying to avoid, I'll honk three times so you'll know your ex-boyfriend is coming."
"Very funny." Jennifer gave her sister a dour look, but knew in her heart that Lizzie was right. Private Avery Barnes was exactly who she wanted to avoid.
"Why do we have to do this now?" Lizzie demanded. "It's Saturday."
"Because Dr. Cutter needs the follow-up films on Dakota's leg done today." And because Avery should be away from the stable for at least another hour.
Sighing with teenage impatience, Lizzie focused on her homework once more. "Is it going to take long? I don't want to be late and neither should you."
"It'll take ten minutes, tops. I can get you to your chess meeting, drop the films off at the Large Animal Clinic and still get to my horse show on time."
Jennifer was used to making the most of the limited hours in her day. To save time, she was already dressed in her tan riding breeches and white shirt beneath her pale blue lab coat. Her black show jacket hung in a garment bag behind the driver's seat. Her knee-high riding boots, polished to a high shine, sat ready to be pulled on before she took the field.
After she stepped out of the truck, Jennifer pulled a large yellow case from the front seat and glanced around. The narrow strip of white gravel between the close, single-story stone buildings reflected the heat of the warm September morning. The parking area contained only a few cars, but one was the sleek lapis-blue Jaguar she knew belonged to Avery.
Glancing into the horse trailer hitched behind her truck, she saw McCloud, her gray ten-year-old gelding, standing quietly, his head up and eyes alert. It was a sign he was ready to get down to business. Both of them needed to be on their game today or she would have wasted an entry fee.
Money was tight in the Grant household, and the possibility that she could earn an extra five hundred dollars in prize money wasn't to be taken lightly. Her riding, plus her work for Dr. Cutter, were paying her way though vet school. This semester's fees were due in the next few weeks and she didn't yet have the full amount she needed.
She walked quickly to the wide doorway of the old limestone and timber stable, pausing to check down the dim, cobblestone paved corridor. It was empty. She glanced over her shoulder at a small building a dozen yards away. It housed the offices of the Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard at Fort Riley, Kansas.
No one stepped out to greet her. She relaxed and blew out the breath she had been holding. She had permission to be here, she just didn't want to encounter a certain soldier.
The men who made up Fort Riley's unique cavalry living history unit should be at their training corrals now. When the unit wasn't performing around the country they practiced daily to hone their exceptional equestrian skills and train their horses. She didn't expect anyone back for at least another hour.
Part of her was glad that the maddening Avery Barnes was nowhere in sight. Another part of her half-hoped she'd be able to show him exactly how little she cared if he was. Grasping her equipment case tightly, she walked down the corridor to the last stall on the left.
Inside the old building, the air was cool and laced with the smell of horses, hay and oiled leather. All scents she loved. Opening the upper half of the Dutch door, she spoke softly to the brown horse dozing with his head lowered near the back wall. "Hey, Dakota. What're ya doing?"
When his head came up and she was sure he wasn't startled by her presence, she opened the lower half of the door, stepped inside and held out her hand. Dakota whinnied and came to collect the slice of apple resting in her palm.
She patted his neck as she checked behind her. There was still no one in sight.
"Okay, fella, let's make this quick. I want to get done before you-know-who shows up."
Dropping to her knees, she felt along Dakota's leg, checking for any tenderness or swelling. To her satisfaction she didn't find anything but a nicely healed scar on the big bay's pasturn. She popped open the fasteners on the cumbersome yellow case and removed the new portable X-ray machine her boss and mentor, equine surgeon Dr. Brian Cutter, had entrusted her with.
It only took a few minutes to set up and position the machine, and get Dakota to stand with his foot on the X-ray cassette. Taking the series of shots Brian needed to monitor the healing progress of Dakota's fractured leg took only a couple minutes more. She propped one used cassette against the side of the stall behind her so she wouldn't accidentally take two exposures on it, and set up for one final shot.
"Well, well, look who's here. If it isn't my darling Jenny."
As always, the broad New England accent in his deep voice did funny things to the pit of her stomach. Apparently just telling herself she was over him wasn't enough.
When Avery had asked her out the previous winter, Jenny had been flattered but cautious. His playboy reputation was no secret. She'd accepted because she'd sensed that beneath that smooth charm was a lonely man who needed her, and God, in his life.
Getting Avery to open up proved more difficult than she had imagined, but because she cared about him, she hadn't been willing to give up. Jennifer Grant never walked away from a challenge.
In the end, she'd turned to a mutual friend, Lindsey Cutter, for help. Avery and Lindsey had served together in the CGMCG. Lindsey told her that Avery had joined the army after a falling-out with his only remaining family member, his grandfather.
Sensing she had found the key to understanding him, Jennifer had tried repeatedly to talk to Avery about his family, but he shut her out. After wrestling with her conscience, she'd made the decision to contact his grandfather herself. Her good intentions blew up in her face. Avery had found out and had been furious.
Their breakup that day at her clinic was both public and humiliating. Then, as if to prove he'd never really cared about her, Avery spent the next several weeks dating a series of Jenny's classmates.
Which only confirmed that he didn't care about me.
Choosing to ignore her reaction to the sound of his voice, Jennifer snapped the last shot, braced herself, then rose to face him.
Lizzie was in so much trouble. A heads-up really would have been nice.
Leaning with his tan forearms resting on the half door, he grinned at her with a cocky smile that had probably melted more female hearts than she could count. It had certainly softened hers the first time she saw it. Fortunately, she knew him better now. Unfortu-nately, the lesson had been an emotionally painful one to learn.
He wore the unit's standard issue red T-shirt. His matching red ball cap was pushed back on his head revealing his military-cut dark brown hair above his deep-set hazel eyes.
Eyes that a woman could get lost inif she didn't have the good sense to see Avery Barnes for what he wasa playboy who broke hearts without a second thought.
"I'm not your anything, Private Barnes, and you know that I don't like being called Jenny."
It had taken months, but she had patched her heart back together with will power and hard work. She wasn't about to let him think she still cared. She didn't. She was so over him.
"It's Corporal Barnes now. I've been promoted since we last met and now that you mention it, Jenny, I do recall that you don't like being called Jenny."
"I'm busy. Go away if you can't be nice." She imbued her voice with as much toughness as she could muster.
A second soldier came up to stand beside Avery. Jennifer recognized another member of the mounted color guard. Private Lee Gillis was dressed in the same red shirt with the unit's logo embroidered on it. His smile, unlike Avery's, showed genuine warmth.
"Hi, Jennifer," Lee said brightly. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be riding in the Deerfield Open today."
Lee, like many soldiers assigned to the CGMCG, had never been on a horse before his transfer into the special unit a year ago. Everyone who came into the unit trained in cavalry tactic from manuals the U.S. Army had used during the Civil War. Once exposed to the world of equestrian sports, Lee had quickly become a fan of all things horse related, particularly show jumping and dressage. Jennifer often saw him at the local events when she was competing.
"Yes, Jenny, what are you doing here?" Avery interjected with mock interest. "Besides looking for me."
"I have absolutely no interest in seeing you. Dr. Cutter sent me to take Dakota's follow up films this month and if you call me Jenny one more time, I'm going to make you regret it."
Avery shook his head as he gave her a reproachful look. "Shame on youthreatening a member of the U.S. military. I could get you in serious trouble for that."
Jennifer smiled at Lee. "You'll short sheet his bed or put a large snake in it for me, won't you?"
Lee's eyes brightened. "Gladly."
Folding her arms over her chest, she said, "You see, Avery, I can get to you whenever I want."
"Lee, do you know why she doesn't like to be called Jenny?"
Holding up both hands, Lee took a step back. "I think you two should leave me out of this."
"Because a jenny is a female donkey," Avery said with a smirk. "Can you see the resemblance? Cute, with big ears and a long nose that gets into everyone's business, and too stubborn for her own goodthat's my Jenny in a nutshell."
"I didn't come here to be abused by you. I'm here to do a job and you're interfering. Do I need to tell Captain Watson that you're ignoring your own work and keeping me from doing mine? I'm sure it won't be the first time he's heard that you're slacking."
"She's got you there, Avery." Grinning, Lee slapped his buddy on the back then walked away.
"You can tattle to the captain if it makes you feel better, Jenny, but the truth is I'm not doing a thing to prevent you from working. I'm just standing here watching."
Jennifer bit back a retort. The last thing she wanted was to get into a verbal battle with the man. Instead, she turned away and stuffed the X-ray machine into the carrying case before snapping it shut. "I'm finished anyway."
Picking up the case, she spun around and marched toward the stall door. Avery pulled it open, swept his arm out and bowed low in a courtly gesture as she passed. She wasn't sure, but she thought she heard him chuckling behind her.
The man was insufferable. Why she had ever considered him handsome and interesting was a complete mystery.
The bright sunshine made her squint after the dimness of the barn's interior. She shaded her eyes with one hand as she crossed to her truck and yanked open the door. After depositing the equipment inside, she slid behind the wheel.