An Oregon dog groomer teaches a brokenhearted veterinarian to heal in this contemporary romance by the author of Puppy Love.When Zoe Hornsby isn’t running her successful pet grooming business, she’s busy caring for her mother’s ailing mind. As far as she’s concerned, the town gossips of Redwood Ridge, Oregon, can set their matchmaking sights on someone else. Once upon a time, she harbored a little crush on sexy veterinarian Drake O'Grady, but he’d only had eyes for her best friend. And neither Zoe nor Drake is willing to acknowledge the crazy attraction building between them now.
Drake is finally clawing his way out of grief after losing his wife to cancer. That doesn’t mean he's ready to jump in the dating pool, no matter how much his family tries to push him and Zoe together. As his dead wife’s best friend, she’s strictly off limits. And yet she makes his blood roar like he never thought it could again. Could it be that limits were made to be pushed?
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"I'm going to kill you."
Drake O'Grady stopped dead in his tracks and pulled his cell away from his ear to glance at the screen.
Yep. It was definitely Zoe Hornsby who had called him, but that wasn't her voice. Not that she hadn't threatened to kill him before. She was usually more subtle about it than coming right out with it, though. Feisty, opinionated, and with a spine of steel, she was just attractive and smart enough to be a pain in his ass.
Wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm, he put the phone back to his ear and called her name. When she didn't respond, he sighed and glanced around, flustered. Always — always — she flustered him. Her favorite hobby.
Deep in a pocket of dense woods, he stood outside his cabin and caught his breath after a three-mile run. All he wanted was a shower, a beer, and two hours of ESPN. He inhaled brine from the Pacific a few miles away that mingled with pine and moss from the forest. Dusk had come and gone, and the residual humidity made oxygen exchange nearly impossible.
Or maybe that was worry. His heart tripped behind his ribs in the off-chance Zoe didn't have things under control. It sounded like he was on speaker phone. Crashes and screams and glass shattering emitted through the ear piece. Which meant Zoe's mom was having a rough night. And judging by Zoe's lack of response, she'd ...
"Pocket-dialed me again." Drake glanced at his faithful German Shepherd, Moses, sitting by his feet, tongue lagging from their nightly run. If dogs could shrug, his just did.
Though he and Zoe had been friendly since they were both in diapers, and they worked together at the animal clinic where she was a groomer and he a veterinarian, he hated to get involved. Zoe was fiercely independent and she'd been handling her mother's early onset dementia diagnosis the past few years better than a saint.
Drake's gut clenched at the weary tone in Zoe's voice. Heart pounding, he teetered in the decision to butt in or not. She'd probably maim him for the effort. Damn it, anyway. Unable to stand it, he whistled for Moses and opened the front door to let the dog inside.
"I'll be right back. Don't drink all the beer while I'm gone."
"I heard that."
T-shirt soaked with sweat and muscles protesting the lack of cool-down stretches, he climbed behind the wheel of his truck. Disconnecting the call, he stared out his windshield, ground his molars, and shoved the vehicle in gear. He'd be in and out of her place in ten minutes. Then he could continue his fun-filled Friday night. Alone.
He drove the long, winding private road past his brothers' Flynn and Cade's houses, then his mother's, and continued to the main strip in their small town of Redwood Ridge. Folks were out enjoying the Oregon summer, eating ice cream and walking the cobblestone sidewalks. Old world lampposts lit the way, emitting a yellowish glow against the stars.
Truck at a crawling speed, he strummed his fingers on the wheel, avoiding eye contact with passersby. Eye contact meant encouragement to ... chat. He shuddered.
After a few blocks and a handful of quick turns, he was in Zoe's subdivision. This older part of town consisted of gingerbread houses and postage-stamp yards teeming with flower boxes. Fireflies blinked over the neatly trimmed lawns. He pulled into her driveway, cut the engine, and strode up the porch steps.
In and out.
Screeching came from the other side of the door, and he rubbed the back of his neck while he waited for her to answer his knock. As he was about to pound again, the door swung wide.
All five foot four of her stood framed in the doorway. She was a bitty thing, though one would never recognize that fact with all her attitude. Wearing a pair of jean cut-offs and a white tank top, she cocked her hip.
And Jesus. Was a bra too much to ask? Avoiding the nipples poking out to bid him hello, he kept his gaze trained on her hazel eyes. Sometimes green, sometimes gray or blue, they were outlined by dark lashes and too big for her narrow face. Her once light brown, shoulder-length hair was pinned up in a messy knot, and was now a ridiculous shade of pink. For a year, she'd been dyeing it unnatural colors. Why, he hadn't a clue.
"It's not a good time, Drake."
To emphasize her point, something crashed inside the house.
"Zoe? Zoe, honey." From the house beside Zoe's, her neighbor stepped out the front door, leaned over the porch rail, and wrung a towel in her hands. Distressed guilt was fraught all over her young face. "I just got the kids to sleep. Is there any hope your mom will calm down soon?"
Closing her eyes, Zoe sighed. Shoulders deflating, she poked her head out her own front door. "I'm sorry, Mary. I'm trying."
"I know. I know you are, honey." She bit her lip. "Can I do anything?"
Drake would give her neighbors this, at least. They were good people who helped as much as they could. Except the deep caverns under Zoe's eyes and the fact she seemed thinner than ever could attest that no amount of aid was enough. Her mother had been declining at a rapid rate this past year, and Zoe was doing everything in her power to keep her at home. And killing herself in the process.
"Thank you. I'm okay." She crossed her arms and waited to speak until the other woman had gone back inside. "The pharmacy screwed up our refill request and I had to wait an hour. Thus, she's getting the sedative later than usual. With her sundowning as bad as it is, she's past confused and irate. I can't get her to take the pills."
He nodded. Sundowning — a common term for people with Alzheimer's and dementia — had been Zoe's worst enemy. Confusion tended to increase later in the day, ergo the term. Stepping around her, he walked inside, taking in a tossed coffee table and lamp on the bare wood floor. Around the divider island, her kitchen floor was littered with spaghetti.
She followed his gaze. "That's what kicked off the festivities. She claimed I was trying to poison her. Feng shui via pasta. Has a nice look."
At least she still had her sense of humor.
She scrubbed a hand over her tired face. "What are you doing here anyway?"
"You called me."
Her brow wrinkled in that adorable defiant way it used to as a child. "I did not."
"Pretty sure you did." Since they were about to get into a he said/she said battle of kindergarten wits, he grabbed her shoulders, spun her around, and fished her cell out of her back pocket. He held up her phone and raised his brows.
"I pocket-dialed you again. Sorry." She took the phone back and set it down. A blush crept up her neck, and he felt like a dickhead for embarrassing her. It was a rare sight, indeed. She squared her shoulders as if channeling her last diva reserve. "Unless it was an excuse for you to touch my ass."
And there was the Zoe who made his temples throb and his left eye twitch.
He narrowed his eyes in warning even though she was only baiting him. "I have never touched your ass."
"You just did."
"To get your ..." He drew a slow, deep inhale for patience. "Why do I bother?"
An eye roll, and she waved off the argument. "Relax. It's the most action I've seen in awhile. I should thank you."
He snapped his jaw shut to avoid putting his foot in his mouth. Four years ... For four years he'd been living in an almost near state of numb autopilot. A ghost among the living. His wife Heather's death from ovarian cancer had left a gaping hole where love used to be, had killed hope. And in all that time since, the woman before him had been the only one to arouse any kind of emotion.
Irritation mostly, but emotion just the same.
Catherine came into view from down the short hallway. A wrinkled nightgown was all she wore and it slipped off one shoulder. Her hair was the same shade of Zoe's natural color and they shared similar waifish body types. Before the disease had taken her mind, Catherine had raised Zoe alone, making her the independent, self-assured woman she was today. Add to that, they'd been more friends than mother-daughter.
Hollow bewilderment and a trace of fear were all that radiated in Cat's eyes now. His stomach bottomed out at the shell she'd become. If he was this wrecked after five seconds in the same room, he could only imagine how it was affecting Zoe. He'd watched Heather slowly fade, get sicker, and it was the hardest damn thing he'd ever done.
"Oh crap." Zoe grabbed his arms, startling him. She stepped in front of him and blocked his route to her mother.
Catherine raised her arm.
"Duck —" A book flew across the room and into Zoe's back. She sucked in a harsh breath and pinched her eyes closed, then dropped her forehead to his chest. "Damn, that hurt. She's been throwing things all night."
He froze, shocked out of his shoes that Catherine had shown any signs of violence. She'd yelled and rearranged a room burglary-style, but he'd never witnessed aggression like this directed at her daughter. He stared at the paperback that landed at his feet.
Zoe's light scent of lavender filled his nose, swirled around them, and reminded him of their position. He held his hands up in surrender at her unexpected touch. It had been a long time since he'd had even accidental contact. He tried to regulate his breathing, get a grip on just what his reaction was, then snapped out of it.
Anger sent his pulse hammering. Holding her at arm's length, he ground his jaw. "Did you just shield me? What the hell, Zoe?" He raked his gaze over her pained expression. "Are you all right?" The way her fingers dug into his forearms said no.
"I'm fine." Slowly, she straightened with a wince. "Mama, look who came for a visit."
Knowing his role, he offered a smile and took a step away. "Hey, Cat. I'm home." For whatever reason, she was more comfortable with men than women. The past year especially, she'd regressed to a time in her memory before Zoe, and often thought Drake — or any other male she came in contact with — was her uncle.
Cat's confused gaze leveled on him and softened. "Jimmy?"
He eyed Zoe and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Who's that?" Cat's brother's name was Ed.
"I think it's my dad," she whispered.
He faced her fully, not liking the mask she'd donned to hide her true feelings. "I thought you never met your father." Far as he knew, Zoe didn't even know the guy's name.
"I haven't. He took off while she was pregnant and didn't come back. But by the way she brings up his name and the things she says, it's a logical leap."
He nodded, wondering what to do now. "Where are her meds?"
"On the kitchen table in a cup."
"Jimmy? Is that you?"
Smiling, he stepped over to Cat and cupped her shoulders. "It's me. It's very late. How about I tuck you in and we can talk tomorrow?"
She appeared to be thinking it over, her gaze darting around. "I guess that would be okay." She glared at Zoe through hell-hath-no-fury eyes. "Who's this tramp?"
The moment the words must've sunk in, Zoe swallowed hard and hung her head. "I'm your new neighbor. I just dropped off a plate of cookies." Her voice broke near the end and she cleared her throat. "I'll leave you alone."
With dejection radiating off her in waves, she shuffled into the kitchen. It took everything inside him to keep up the charade and not follow. Everyday. She did this day in and day out.
He took the cup of pills off the kitchen table and, with a hand at Cat's elbow, walked her to the bedroom. She'd torn the place apart. Dresser drawers were pulled out, clothing everywhere. The bedding was in a pile in the corner.
Quickly, he righted what he could and convinced her to swallow the meds. After he got her tucked in, he sat at her hip for a moment to ensure she stayed there. Zoe needed a few damn minutes of peace.
"I can't believe you're here, Jimmy. I missed you."
The only thing harder than watching someone in this state had to be living in it. His throat tight, he smiled. "Me, too. You should get some rest."
Her lids drooped. "I think we should name the baby Diane. Or maybe Zoe." She yawned, eyes shut.
Guess that meant this Jimmy guy was Zoe's dad. It took a special breed of asshole to leave a pregnant woman and never look back. No child support. No birthday cards. And now she was stuck, alone, taking care of her mother.
"Zoe's a wonderful name." She was a hell of a person as well, much as they got under one another's skin.
Once he made his way down the hall, he noted Zoe had the spaghetti mess cleaned up and the coffee table righted. It was a cute little house. She'd grown up here and moved back in after her mother's diagnosis. But the place didn't fit Zoe's personality, not like her old apartment. Blue and pink striped drapes, floral-print couches, scarred pine tables.
He found her at the kitchen table, picking at a bowl of pasta. "She's asleep."
"Thank you." Refusing to look at him, she stared at the food. Silence stretched. "Are you hungry?"
"No." He pulled out a chair and sat next to her.
"The spaghetti is from the pot, not the floor." A dare lit her eyes.
He shook his head, his attempt at a smile failing miserably.
How many times had she been there for him, and he couldn't think of a proper thing to say. She'd been Heather's best friend and a damn good one to him. He wasn't a guy of many words, but Zoe was the only person who rendered him speechless. Always had, in fact. Not quite nerves, per se, but something uncanny anyway.
Crossing his fingers, he stacked his hands on top of his head. "I believe you're right about Jimmy being your father." He paused. "Have you ever tried looking for him?"
A noise resembling a dry laugh burst from her lips. "I have no interest. He couldn't bother to stick. I don't need him."
Drake whole-heartedly agreed.
Her cat bumped his leg and, happy to have something to focus on, he picked up the white ball of fur to set in his lap. Cotton, she'd name the thing. Poor guy had probably been hiding during all the commotion. "He's due for a distemper vaccination soon, isn't he?"
"Probably. I'll have Avery put him on Cade's schedule."
Avery was their office manager and his youngest brother's wife. Cade did most of the in-house clients at their veterinarian clinic. Flynn, his other brother, made house calls and traveled. Drake was the surgery vet, though he saw patients two days a week for appointments, like Flynn.
"I'll bring a vaccination over next week." She had enough on her plate. "Do an exam, too."
Her gaze whipped to his. Held.
He didn't know what to make of her expression or the way it made his stomach shift, so he eyed the cat. Cotton batted his arm in a silent demand for attention. Complying, Drake stroked the furball, letting the rumble of his purr settle him.
Zoe pushed her bowl away, not eating a bite. "I'm going to need to soundproof the house at this rate. Mama's getting louder. And worse. I'm lucky the neighbors haven't called the cops yet."
Jesus. "Zoe —"
"Don't." Her full lips thinned into a line. "Not you, too. I promised her I'd keep her at home. You did for Heather."
They hadn't outright said her name in so long it jarred him for a beat. "Heather had terminal cancer. Your mom's body is fine. It's her mind that's gone. One of these days, she could really ..."
"What? Hurt me? She'd never —"
"She threw a book at you tonight." He closed his eyes to calm his temper, cool his tone. This situation wasn't Zoe's fault anymore than it was Cat's. Fifty-five years old, and her life was gone. "She's not the same woman who raised you. This person doesn't know you. She's confused, scared. Not even she could've known how bad it would get."
Abruptly standing, she sent the chair across the floor. Her back to him, she walked her bowl to the sink. "I can't put her away, Drake."
No, she wouldn't. Not even at the risk to herself. Loyal to a fault. He couldn't blame her. If it were his mother, he'd do the same thing. He hated seeing her like this, though. Tough as nails Zoe Hornsby, reduced to a wilted balloon.
"I should go." He rose and set the cat on the floor, surprised he didn't really want to leave. "I'll see you at the game tomorrow." Their clinic had teamed up years ago with some of the doctors and nurses from urgent care to start a softball league every summer. Tomorrow, they played the firefighters and police officers.
Her gaze skimmed over him as if seeing him for the first time all evening. "Why are you wet and sweaty?"
"Your call interrupted my nightly run."
"Oh. You're welcome, then."
Smartass. "You know, some exercise might do you some good."
Excerpted from "New Tricks"
Copyright © 2017 Kelly Moran.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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