Cade O'Grady has never met a woman he couldn't handle, but when Avery Stowe walks into his office late one night cradling an injured puppy, he's struck stupid. Which might explain her total lack of interest in him. But now that she's working for his family's clinic, he doesn't have to lust from a distance. He might just have a chance at convincing Avery-and her too-guarded heart-that falling for the right man isn't a mistake . . .
"The chemistry is sizzling in this series opener." -Library Journal
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By Kelly Moran
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Kelly Moran
All rights reserved.
Avery Stowe squinted and leaned closer to the steering wheel, trying to see past the fat white snowflakes blanketing a dark, quiet Redwood Ridge. They sure didn't make storms like this in San Francisco. She supposed her mom's insight on trading in her Camry for a SUV before the move had been the right call. Her sedan never would've gotten them through an Oregon winter. Even her flighty mother had to be right once and awhile. Once, being the operative word.
Grateful to almost be at their destination after two days of travel, Avery chanced a peek at Hailey in the backseat and breathed a sigh. Assured her daughter was still asleep in her booster, she directed her attention to the road.
Four inches had already fallen since they hit the state border. It was insane. Pretty, but insane. Having never been outside of warm, sunny California, this was a culture shock. But ... new year, new start. Both she and Hailey needed this.
Even if the new town did look like Silent Hill. She checked for creepy zombie things, but found none.
The sidewalks had been rolled up for the night, the only illumination coming from the old world lampposts lining the two-lane cobblestone street. Avery thought her mom had fallen out of the crazy tree — and hit every branch on the way down — when she moved here ten years ago after inheriting a string of cabins from an aunt they never knew existed. Her mom had been happy, though, and figured Avery and Hailey would be, too.
It sure seemed ideal on paper. "Not Silent Hill, not Silent Hill." Seriously. Where was everybody?
Pocketed between the coast and the foothills of the Klamath Mountains, Redwood Ridge was both a tourist hotspot and a charming small town of fifteen hundred residents. It had to have merit if it was able to hold her mother's attention this long. Row after row of small, independent shops lined both sides of the street. It was like stepping back in time to simpler, sweeter days. If only it had people.
Ten minutes later, the snow was dwindling and they were on a private road cocooned by cypress, pine, and redwood. It was pretty freakin' amazing, but she'd have to appreciate it more later. In daylight. Right now it looked like the set for Friday the 13th.
Maybe she should stop watching horror movies altogether.
They passed a few larger homes still decorated for Christmas and, five miles down, made the turnoff to the rentals. She pulled up to the first cabin and parked, eying her surroundings. Not Friday the 13th.
That was a yes to no more scary movies. Definitely.
There were five log cabins in total, evenly spaced and single story, dusted with snow. Cookie cutter in design, each had a small porch and an A-frame slant roof. The first had a warm, yellow glow illuminating the windows and smoke billowing from the chimney. Her mother's car was parked off to the side.
For the first time in what seemed like ten years, Avery breathed and closed her eyes. No sirens or horns. No conversation or rush. No ex or in-laws to fight. Just ... peace.
Until Jason arrives in his white hockey mask ...
Okay, that's it. Nothing but comedy movies from now on.
It would take some getting used to, but the move would be worth it for Hailey. With her daughter's condition, too much stimulation equaled tantrums and fits. The city life wasn't for them. Maybe Hailey would excel better in this environment. Having her mother close by was a bonus, too. During her childhood, Avery often felt more like the parent in their two-person family as her mother was always off in la-la land. She never lacked for love, though, and right now, she desperately needed support.
It had been so long since she had someone to lean on.
Avery glanced in the backseat and reached around to tap Hailey's knee. "Hey, sweetie. We're here."
Like a switch, her daughter's dark eyelashes flickered to reveal blue eyes the same color as her dad's. All her other traits had come from Avery. Thick, brown hair and a curvy, lithe frame. Even at seven years old, Hailey was the spitting image of her.
Hailey took in her surroundings in the seemingly distracted manner Avery had grown used to since her daughter's Autism diagnosis. Her gaze darted everywhere at once, never landing on one spot for more than a millisecond. After a moment, she squealed and flapped her hands.
Well done, Mother, Avery imagined her saying.
Since Hailey was a nonverbal Autistic, at least so far, Avery often choreographed her own dialogue in her head. It had helped her cope.
She smiled, pleased Hailey liked what she saw. "Grandma's inside waiting for us. Would you like to check out our new home?" At least it would be home until Avery could find them an apartment or small house to rent. Perhaps not next to Camp Crystal Lake.
Hailey squealed again and fumbled with the seatbelt, clumsily getting it undone. Avery quickly climbed out of the car and met her daughter by the rear passenger door before she could take off. Deciding to wait until after they saw the place, she left their bags in the car and directed Hailey up the porch steps, careful not to touch her more than necessary.
The door swung inward before they could knock, and the sight of her mother standing there had tears clogging Avery's throat. Justine Berry might be capricious and unpredictable, but she'd always been there. After everything her and her daughter had been through, Avery just needed ... her mom.
"I'm so excited you're here!" She bent down at eye level with Hailey, bursting at the seams to hug her granddaughter.
It went against her mother's instincts not to smother, but Avery knew Hailey's limitations. She had warned her a million times before the drive, just in case she forgot. Her mother and memory lapses were BFFs.
Hailey nudged her grandmother aside and rushed into the cabin. Outta the way, G-ma. Better things to do.
Avery shrugged. "She's excited. That's a good thing."
In the next instant, she was wrapped in her mom's arms and squeezed until breathing became impossible. The familiar scent of patchouli filled her nose. She bit back the tears threatening to fall and smiled. "Hi, Mom."
"At least I can still hug you." Mom stepped back and patted her wild, shoulder-length brown hair. She preferred the natural approach to everything, so it probably hadn't seen conditioner or product. In decades. The fine lines around her mouth and eyes had grown deeper in the year since she'd last visited Avery in San Fran, which only added to her mother's charm. She was a woman who laughed often and loved hard. Four ex-husbands were proof. "How were the roads?"
Avery closed the door behind her. "A little slick, but not too bad. Wow, Mom. This place is great."
Not B horror movie at all.
The whole cabin was natural wood and stone and glass. Shiny, clean, and rustic. A floor to ceiling redbrick fireplace created warmth from a corner. Plaid print couches were nestled over the bare wood floor with scarred pine tables. The living room was spacious and separated from the kitchen by an island. Large picture windows encased the back of the open room, where moonlight caught the water trickling in a thin riverbed.
Hailey disappeared down a short hallway and squealed. Avery went to follow, but her mom stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"There's no exit back there and nothing to get into. These cabins are rentals, so they're pretty bare. I did stock the kitchen for you, though." She smiled and hugged her again. "I'm so glad you're here. Ten years and you just now get to see my town."
Avery pushed down the guilt and nodded. The past couldn't be helped. "You did a lot of work on the property, I remember you saying. This is lovely."
Mom sighed. "Good contractors and money left in the will took care of it. We're pretty busy year round. I live above my shop in town, but I'll stay with you tonight, if that's all right?"
Her mother owned a secondhand clothing store she'd named "Thrifty" in addition to the rental cabins. As far as Avery was aware, she had someone else manage the businesses. Finance was not her mother's strong suit. She had idealistic dreams and ideas aplenty, but the numbers and details she wisely delegated to others.
"I'd love it if you stayed the night. It's getting late, anyway."
And speaking of, Hailey had been pretty quiet the past few minutes. Worry and suspicion mounting, Avery made her way down the hall and found her daughter asleep in one of the twin beds, curled in a ball with her hat and coat still on.
Affection and love so deep it hurt punched her chest. Carefully, she unzipped Hailey's coat, leaving it on so she didn't wake her. Removing her hat, Avery ran her fingers through her daughter's dark hair. The only time she got to openly touch Hailey was when she was asleep, otherwise contact bothered Hailey to the point she screamed. But she had these few quiet moments of the early evening to watch her and stroke her perfect little pale cheeks.
Bone tired, Avery barely took stock of the bare wood furniture or bay window before finding her mom in the kitchen stirring a pot at the stove. Stunned still, she waited in the doorway.
Mom turned and grinned. "I made hot chocolate. Go have a seat in the living room. Take a load off. You look wiped out. I'll bring you a cup."
"Is it ... edible?"
Mom shook her head, then said, "I think so."
"Remember that time —"
"One fire. That was one fire, Avery!"
Too exhausted to argue, she grinned, settled in a chair, and closed her eyes, amazed it was so comfortable. The crackling fire and scent of chocolate soothed her, allowing her to sink a bit deeper into her head. Darkness pulled heavy at her consciousness.
The next thing she knew she was shivering and a cooling cup of cocoa was next to her on the end table. There were mysterious chunks floating in it. Blinking, she straightened. Her mother was asleep in the chair beside her.
Wow. How long had they been out?
Taking a moment to stretch before checking on Hailey, she stood and glanced across the room to make sure her mother had turned off the stove. It wouldn't be the first time she'd gotten distracted and forgot. Assured it was off, Avery tried to find the source of the draft circling the room and froze when she spotted the open back door.
No. God, no.
"Mom!" Avery screamed, already halfway down the hall. Her heart hammered in sickening panic.
Hailey's bed was empty.
No, no, no, no, no ...
Bolting back into the living room, she slammed into her mother and quickly moved around her.
"What is it?"
Avery shoved her feet into boots and grabbed her coat. "Hailey's gone. We fell asleep. I didn't secure the door." A mistake she knew better than to make. Hailey took off way too often. Not to run away, but because she lived inside her head and had no concept of danger.
Oh, God. Her daughter was out there in the cold, in the middle of nowhere, at night. The region had mountain lions not to mention ...
"Call the police."
She ran for the back door and rounded the house, but Hailey wasn't in the car or on the porch. Avery circled back around, fear clawing her throat as she slammed into her mom again.
"There's footprints." Mom tied a scarf around her neck. "She went straight into the woods."
Avery looked down. A small set of tracks her daughter's size led away from the cabin and deeper into the dense trees. She took off, following the tracks. Cold air rasped her lungs, and her fingers were numb by the time they reached the copse of pine.
Hailey was so small. She wouldn't make it long exposed to these temperatures. It had to be in the twenties. Hailey couldn't talk, either. If she needed help, she couldn't ask for it. Avery had done her research before the move. She knew the vegetation and wildlife, knew her daughter was at risk for an animal attack and from what animals. Black bears, mountain lions, and bobcats sprang to mind. Hailey wouldn't know how to defend herself.
Tears blurred her eyes. She quickened her pace to a sprint, kicking up snow in her wake.
Be okay, sweetie. Be okay.
The footprints made a hard right and, as they rounded a bend, the breath left her lungs in a whoosh.
Hailey was sitting on a stump, her back to them. Her pink coat was still on, but she didn't have her hat. The relief was dizzying.
"Hailey." Avery circled the stump and squatted. "We talked about this, sweetie. You cannot go running off —"
There was blood. Lots of blood. At Hailey's feet. On the front of her coat.
"Where are you hurt? Where are you hurt, sweetie?" She ran her trembling, frozen fingers over Hailey's head, down her neck, to her chest, and stopped.
A furry, warm head poked out of Hailey's partially opened coat.
A scream wedged in Avery's throat until she realized it was a dog. No, a puppy. A little, tan-colored fluffy thing. Hailey was rocking it, stroking its head, and jerking her gaze around.
Recognizing the motions as nervous and scared, Avery kept her voice quiet. Hailey would never hurt a living thing, so she had to have found the animal out here. "You found a doggy. It's okay, Hailey. Is the doggy hurt? Is that where the blood is coming from? Can Mommy see?"
Gently, she lifted the trembling ball of fur from her daughter's grasp and the poor thing yelped. Surprised by the noise in the quiet night, she fell back on her butt in the snow. It couldn't have been more than six weeks old. Seven pounds, max. Sad, scared brown eyes looked into hers and Avery melted.
"Well, crap on a cracker. You're adorable."
"Avery ... its leg." Mom jerked her chin toward the dog and shoved her hands into her pockets.
Avery's gaze swept over the animal in the moonlight and eyed what her mother was talking about. The lower half of one of its front legs was severed clean. Blood saturated the fur. Her stomach churned. What could've happened to it?
Nausea swirled in her gut. "You poor thing."
Hailey began rocking in earnest.
Avery reached over and clasped a hand on her daughter's arm. "It's going to be okay, sweetie."
She looked at her mom, at a loss. She'd never had a pet before. It was freezing outside and who knew how long the little guy had been hurt out in the woods or how much blood it had lost. By all the red marring the snow, it seemed like a lot for such a small thing. It didn't have tags or a collar. It was doing little more than whimpering and trembling. She needed to get Hailey out of the elements, too.
Her mom unwrapped the scarf from her neck and passed it to her. "I'll call the O'Gradys. They own the vet clinic in town. Go. I'll take Hailey back to the cabin —"
Hailey shot to her feet and grabbed Avery's jacket, a sound of duress escaping her throat even as her gaze darted elsewhere.
"She wants to come." She looked at her mom. "Zip her coat, would you? Call the vet. We need to go. This little guy doesn't have long."
* * *
Cade O'Grady stared at the tiny gray kitten as it sucked milk from the bottle he held. The furball was small enough to fit in one of his hands. Anger surged again, so he blew out a breath and glanced around the small confines of his clinic office.
It was late, and he'd decided to stay to catch up on some charts. That was two hours ago, and said charts were still in need of dictations. Good thing he'd stayed or the tiny kitten in his hand would've died, just like its mother and siblings.
What the hell kind of person left a box of kittens outside a clinic door in the snow? Cade had no idea how long they'd been in the elements — someone had dropped them by the kennels outside the back door — but the kitten he was currently feeding was the only survivor. He gnashed his teeth, mad enough to kill the SOB if he ever found him.
Luckily, the kitten, which looked like a Brazilian Shorthair, was made of strong stuff. She'd taken to feeding right away and didn't need an IV. In his exam, the temp and BP had been good, all things considered, and he found no outward signs of trouble.
Closing his eyes, he listened to the answering machine kick on from the reception desk outside his office. If it were an emergency, he'd be paged, since it was his week on call. Animal Instincts was a small clinic, started by his father forty years ago and run by Cade and his two brothers since the old man had passed away. Almost nine years now. Hard to believe.
The bottle empty, he set it on his desk and eyed the kitten. "You are a cute little bugger."
It mewed in agreement.
He laughed for the first time all day and rubbed its head. "Modest, too. I think I shall call you Cutin. Get it? Combining cute and kitten? Cutin."
Excerpted from Puppy Love by Kelly Moran. Copyright © 2016 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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