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"Sam! It's the Barton ranch. Emergency."
Sam Hyatt looked up from his desk, where he was organizing the scattered papers into priority piles. He'd spent almost three minutes trying to catch up on at least five days worth of paperwork. "Tell them I'm not available." He couldn't believe Joe Barton had the balls to call.
Katie Murray nodded with satisfaction and walked back into her part of the vet clinic before saying in her professional tone, "I'm sorry. Dr. Hyatt isn't available."
Sam could hear the voice on the other end of the line from where he sat, and it wasn't the owner of the Zephyr Valley Ranch. The voice belonged to a woman.
"I'm sorry. He's not available." More squawking, then Katie said haughtily, "So why don't you sue us? Oh, yeah. I forgot. It didn't work out very well for you the last time, did it?"
Sam stood and crossed the office in a few long strides.
"Katie." His tech glanced back at him, her strawberry-blond ponytail swinging over her shoulder. She had good old Irish fight in her eyes. "I'll handle this." He took the phone. "Sam Hyatt."
"Dr. Hyatt. This is Jodie De Vanti." She needn't have identified herself. He could tell it was her by the frost in her voice, the way the phone receiver was growing cold in his hand. "I have a horse with a gaping wound on its shoulder and chest and it needs to be stitched. Now."
"Then you'd better call Dr. Stewart."
"Dr. Stewart is also out." He could tell she suspected a conspiracy…and with good reason. No vet wanted to go to the Barton spread after what had happened to Sam.
"Sorry. You might try one of the vets in Elko."
Sam was ready to put the phone down when Jodie blurted, "Don't you take some kind of Hippocratic oath? Don't you owe something to this animal?"
"I can't afford another lawsuit."
She was so silent that he wondered for a moment if the connection had been broken. Then she cleared her throat. "I guarantee, regardless of the outcome, no lawsuit."
"What if I have to put the horse down?" That was how he'd gotten into trouble the last time.
"You shouldn't have to." Sam said nothing. "But if you do, then there will be no repercussions."
Katie was staring at him, her lips pressed so tightly together that they were turning white. She slowly shook her head.
"My father isn't here," Jodie continued, her voice cool, but not icy like before. "Mike is gone, too. It's just me and Margarite. I need some help."
Sam turned his gaze to the ceiling. Not only did he feel for the horse, but three minutes at his desk had driven home the point that he could use the money. The Bartons always paid cash up front. They could afford to, unlike many of his other clients.
"Bad, or I wouldn't be calling you."
No doubt. They'd tried to ruin him once. Ironic that because they'd failed, he was available to help now. "Give me forty minutes."
"Sam," Katie said as he hung up the phone. "No."
He didn't answer. Last time he'd checked, he was the boss of the outfit. He went back into the mudroom, shrugged into his canvas coat, stuck his feet into his insulated boots.
"Don't forget your Elmer Fudd hat," Katie said resignedly, holding out the plaid wool hat with the earflaps and fuzzy red ball on top. A gag Christmas gift to him from his nephews. Stupid-looking but warm when the north wind was blowing, as it was now.
"Sam?" Katie said as he headed out the back door. He stopped, his hand on the knob. "Watch yourself."
He smiled. "You bet."
Was he ever going to get there?
Jodie De Vanti stood at the horse's head, smoothing a hand over his nose, trying not to look at the pool of blood forming in the snow after running down the gelding's shoulder and leg. If Sam Hyatt didn't arrive soon, the horse was going to bleed to death. She just knew it.
"Are you all right?" Margarite called from the gate. The housekeeper hated snow and she hated blood, even more than Jodie did. For being ranch raised, the woman was surprisingly squeamish, and since someone had to be with the animal, Jodie had sucked it up and volunteered.
"I'm fine," she called back. Even though her voice shook—more from reaction than from cold—she couldn't keep the note of bitter irony out of it. Of course she wasn't all right. She was dealing with a bleeding horse and waiting for an incompetent vet.
But any vet was better than no vet, so she'd take what she could get.
The puddle of blood was getting larger, spreading darkly through the crystalline snow.
"Hold on, big boy," Jodie murmured, averting her eyes. The horse's knees started to buckle. He was going down, into the snow. "No…" She desperately hauled on the halter. All that did was to raise the animal's nose and keep it up as he collapsed. Shit.
"Don't you dare die," she muttered as she let the horse have its head. Her father would kill her, since it was quite possibly her fault the horse was all cut to pieces. And besides that…she didn't know if she could live with herself if she was responsible for this beautiful animal's death.
"Where are you, Sam Hyatt?" she yelled, scuffing her foot into the snow and kicking a small spray away from the horse.
"Are you all right?" Margarite called again.
Just then headlights appeared around a bend in the driveway, bobbing up and down as the truck went into the little dip before the last rise up to the ranch house. Thank goodness.
"Okay. It's going to be okay," she said to the horse. She'd never spent that much time around animals. Her mother was allergic to dogs and cats, so they'd never had family pets when she was a child. Then what did her father do? He moved her mother to a Nevada ranch after selling the investment firm he'd built from the ground up. Still no dogs and cats—in the house, anyway— but lots of cattle and horses. The crazy thing was, her mother had settled in without complaint. She seemed to enjoy country life.
Not Jodie. She appreciated the occasional holiday or long weekend, but right now—especially right now— she wanted to get back to Vegas. Back to the law firm where she worked, a place where she actually felt competent and could indulge in her need to overachieve.
The truck stopped next to the pump house and Sam got out. He opened one of the exterior panels and removed a kit. Margarite was already at his side, talking and waving. He nodded once and then gestured toward the house. Margarite didn't need a second invitation. She scuttled inside as Sam began walking toward the gate.
He was a big man. Not so much broad as tall and sturdy. Fair-haired and gray eyed. Striking really, if one favored Vikings. Jodie favored sophistication and dark good looks—a preference that had gotten her into trouble in the past. Her restaurateur ex-husband had been dark and sophisticated. He was also no longer in her life, although his name remained. She'd started building her legal career as Jodie De Vanti and kept the surname to avoid confusion.
Sam grimaced as he shone the flashlight on the horse, took in the cuts on its chest, shoulder and legs. "What happened?"
"He got out of the pasture and one of the dogs spooked him. It was dark and he hit a piece of farm equipment. The disk."
Sam blew out a breath, then knelt down and started checking the horse's vital signs. "I'll need you to hold the light. We'll stitch him right here. I'm going to have to suture the muscle first on this bigger gash…."
Jodie swallowed and took the light. It shook. He shot her an impatient glance, which made her backbone stiffen.
"You can drop the lead rope. He's not going anywhere."
"Right." She did so and held the light with both hands. Sam went to the truck, then came jogging back with more equipment. A few minutes later the wounded area was numbed and he was stitching a gash. Or Jodie assumed he was. She couldn't make herself watch.
"Hold the damned light steady."
"It would help if you watched where you were shining it."
"I don't see how my fainting would help anything," she said, though she ventured a glance.
His hands stilled momentarily before he pulled the thread on through the flesh, did a few fancy passes with the suturing needle, then snipped the thread.
"Blood makes you faint?"
"I'm not a fan." It was the needle going into the skin that made her queasy at the moment.
"Great," he muttered.
"You could have brought an assistant."
"So you could sue the pair of us?"
"That's uncalled for."
Sam didn't reply. He started stitching in a new area. The horse's chest was in ribbons and this was going to take a long, long time. Jodie bit her lip and fixed her eyes on the rise and fall of the gelding's ribcage.
By the time Sam had finished sewing up the horse, his fingers were numb and his legs were cramped from being in almost the same position the entire time. But thanks to the cold, the blood had flowed slowly, so the animal hadn't lost a significant amount, and Sam was able to get the poor horse put back together. He sat back on his heels, surveying his work. What a damned shame. This gelding was a beautiful animal, and now he would be scarred for life. Joe Barton, Jodie's father, wouldn't be able to ride him to impress people, and he was gelded so he couldn't breed him. Sam wondered just what he would do with him. The horse would probably make a decent pleasure ride.
Sam glanced at Jodie, who was staring sightlessly at the rows of neat black sutures crisscrossing the horse's chest and foreleg. She'd lost her cool, all-business demeanor. In fact, she appeared to be done in. Her dark blond hair, longer in the front than in the back, was jammed behind her ears, her face was pale and there were smudges of mascara under her eyes.
"How'd he get loose?" The shift in Jodie's expression was brief, fleeting, but he caught it. "Did you forget to latch the gate?" he asked as he got to his feet. She didn't answer. The reveal-nothing lawyer expression was once again in place, and he had to admit she carried it off well, even with mascara where it didn't belong.
The horse was starting to make an effort to get back to his feet, and Sam assisted him all he could, pulling up on the lead rope to help the gelding keep his balance. Finally the animal heaved himself up, and all the stitches held. The first hurdle had been cleared.
"Is there a place in the barn for him?"
Stupid question. Most people didn't have homes as nice as Joe Barton's new barn. And Sam bet that this horse had his own stall with a brass nameplate.
"Will I need to give him any medication?" Jodie asked after they had slowly walked the horse to the barn and then released him into a large box stall used for foaling.
"Yeah. I'll get that. And I have some written instructions for you to follow." It was snowing lightly when they left the barn and headed to the truck. Sam was glad Mother Nature had held off for a while. Usually when she had a January blizzard in store, she made certain he was doing something critical in the middle of it.
Once they reached his vehicle, he opened a frosted utility panel and pulled out a bottle of penicillin. "He'll need 20 cc's twice a day the first couple days."
"With a needle?" Jodie took a step backward, her hand rising to her chest.
"With a needle," he agreed, holding the bottle out. She accepted it gingerly.
"Will you come back to give the shots?" Sam gave a small negative shake of his head and Jodie's eyes went a little wild. "I can't…."
"I'll leave the syringes, too."
"No," she stated adamantly.
Under other circumstances it would have been amusing to see the calm, collected lawyer knocked out of her comfort zone by something as simple as an injection. But these were not ordinary circumstances and there was nothing amusing about the Bartons.
"When's your father getting back?" He knew from the very efficient grapevine that Joe Barton had left the day after Christmas for a long vacation in Europe.
"Weeks from now."
"How about your worthless foreman?"
Jodie didn't even blink at the insult, which Sam felt totally justified in delivering. The arrogant SOB had tried to testify against him in the malpractice suit. He'd come off looking stupid—one of the few satisfactions Sam had had during the trial, with the exception of the not guilty verdict.
"Chandler quit just after Thanksgiving," she said stiffly.
Thank goodness, Sam thought, wondering if perhaps Joe had finally fired him. When the foreman had testified at Sam's trial, he'd smugly announced he had degrees in human resources and agribusiness, but hadn't said a word about being a ranching menace.
"What about the other hand?" Joe had hired a cowboy with some veterinary training when he'd come to realize that no vet in the area would service his ranch. For the big jobs he flew in a fancy vet from Las Vegas.
"Mike is in Idaho visiting family." Her expression grew more hopeful. "But he'll be back in two days. You'd have to make only a couple trips…."
Sam hated people who wouldn't take no for an answer. "Lady, I'm not driving thirty miles to give an injection. Besides—"
"You know I'll pay you," she interrupted. "I'll pay you right now if you want."
"I have other clients that need my services."
"But like I said," Jodie replied significantly, "I'll pay you."
"Times are rough," Sam snapped. He wasn't going to have this rich bitch looking down her nose at his friends and neighbors who sometimes couldn't make payments. "And I was about to tell you that Margarite can give a shot if she has to."
"Really?" Jodie seemed shocked at the idea, though why, he didn't know. Injections were common on a ranch and Margarite had grown up on a huge one up north.
"Yes." Sam pushed back the edge of his coat sleeve and glanced at his watch. He might just make it back for the second half of his nephews' basketball game. "I want to be paid now."