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Present day. Shoshone, Wyoming
Dear God in heaven. Regan O'Connelli, DVM, parked his truck outside the large double gate of Peaceful Kingdom Horse Sanctuary, nudged his Stetson back with his thumb and leaned his forearms against the steering wheel while he contemplated the sight before him. If his hippie parents ever ran an animal rescue operation, it would look like this.
Nick Chance, his brother-in-law and business partner, had mentioned that Lily King was slightly
different. Judging from the psychedelic colors she'd painted the ranch house, the barn and the outbuildings, different was an understatement. Even though he was wearing his Ray-Ban sunglasses, the neon green, pink, orange and turquoise hurt his eyes.
She had to be the one who'd chosen the color scheme. She'd taken over from an elderly couple two months ago, and prior to that, it had been too cold to paint. Maybe if she'd stuck with one color per building, the effect wouldn't have been so startling. But a pink barn with turquoise doors and trim was wrong on so many levels. It was a wonder the horses agreed to go inside.
Or maybe they'd refused. He counted at least twenty of them milling around the property, which was a dozen more than Nick had told him to expect. There was a corralhe could see it from herebut the gate was openaccidentally or on purpose? He had a feeling she'd meant to keep it open so the horses wouldn't feel constrained by any artificial boundaries. His parents would have done that sort of thing, too.
Regan wished Nick had given him a little more information before sending him off on this mission of mercy. All he knew was that Lily's parents were two of Nick's favorite high school teachers and their daughter had an extremely high IQ, although she'd never stuck with one major long enough to earn a degree when she attended Berkeley. She had, however, invented a video game that continued to pay royalties, and she'd wanted to do something charitable with the money.
Maybe Nick had been vague about Lily's free -spirited persona because he knew Regan's history. Regan and his seven siblings had lived a vagabond existence with their parents, traveling the country in a van painted the same colors Lily seemed to favor. Nick wouldn't want to make fun of Lily's setup and insult Regan's folks in the process.
Everybody at the Last Chance Ranch had come to love his unconventional parents, Bianca Spinelli and Seamus O'Connor. Regan loved them, too, even if they had saddled their kids with the surname of O'Connelli to avoid hyphenating O'Connor and Spinelli. They'd also given each child a gender-neutral first name to prevent stereotyping. Grade school had been hell, especially because the family had moved constantly and the name thing had to be explained every time they'd enrolled somewhere new.
Regan had forgiven his well-meaning parents long ago, but Lily's paint job brought up memories he'd rather forget. He had a job to do, though, and the color of the buildings had no bearing on that. Nick, who'd invited Regan into his vet practice six months ago, had volunteered out here for several years when the Turners had run the place. Nick had said he was grateful Lily had come along. Without her sudden decision to buy it, the sanctuary would have closed.
Regan agreed that Lily was performing a valuable service, so he was prepared to do his part. As he climbed out of his truck and closed the door, a second truck pulled up. He didn't recognize the middle-aged couple inside, but he instantly identified the crated animal in the back of the truck.
When the man left the driver's seat and started toward the tailgate, Regan walked over to find out what was going on. "Looks like you have a potbellied pig there."
"Yes, sir, I do." The man adjusted the fit of his ball cap. "If you wouldn't mind, I could use a hand carrying the crate. My wife helped me get Harley up there, but I think she did something to her back in the process. Harley's put on a lot of weight since we got him."
"They tend to do that." Regan made no move to help with the crate.
"We didn't figure on him getting this big. When he was little, we'd let him in the house, but now he's even too big for the patio. We like to barbecue outside in the summer, and with Harley's mud hole expanding by the day, it's impossible."
Regan's jaw tightened, although he knew this kind of thing happened all the time. People saw a cuddly baby animal and took it home while conveniently forgetting that baby animals grow into adults. "Where are you taking him?"
The man looked at Regan as if doubting his intelligence. "Isn't that obvious?"
"Not to me. This is a horse sanctuary, and what you have there is a pig."
"True, but I know for a fact the lady running the place accepted a pig last week from a guy I work with. So if she took one pig, I imagine she can take another. I'll make a donation to the cause. If you'd grab one end of the crate, I'd be much obliged."
"Before we do that, let's make sure she'll take him." Regan didn't know a lot about animal rescue, but asking first seemed like common courtesy.
"She'll take him. My buddy said she's a softie."
Regan held on to his temper with difficulty. "She may be, but if there's a potbellied-pig rescue organization in the area, that would be a better place for Harley."
"Look, mister." The man's eyes narrowed. "This is the day I set aside for handling this problem. My wife and I managed to get the pig into the crate and into the truck, which wasn't easy. If you're not gonna help me with the crate, step aside and I'll do it myself, although God knows what that'll do to my back."
"Hey, guys, what's up?" On the far side of the gate stood a young woman of medium height with the kind of bright red hair that made people take a second look. It was so kinked it fanned out like a lion's mane. Unlocking the gate, she stepped out and refastened it. She wore a tie-dyed shirt knotted at her waist, faded jeans and scuffed boots.
Regan told himself to ignore the cuteness factor as she walked toward them. Nick could have mentioned that, too. Or the fact that sunlight made her hair glow. Maybe happily married Nick didn't notice those things anymore. "Lily King?"
"That's me. I'll bet you're Regan, the vet who moved here from Virginia. Nick said you'd be coming today instead of him."
"Right." At her approach, his senses went on alert. She smelled great, like a fresh meadow, and as she drew nearer, he noticed the freckles scattered across her nose, as well as her intensely blue eyes fringed with pale lashes. No makeup to speak of. It should all add up to wholesome, but instead she looked sexy and approachable. Good thing he wasn't in the market right now. "Listen, this guy has a potbellied pig he wants to"
"So I gathered." She glanced up at Regan, laughter in her gaze, as if they shared a secret.
Oh, yeah. Sexy lady. And he didn't think she was trying to be, either, which made her all the more interesting.
"And I could use a hand with the crate, people." The man had adopted a martyred tone.
"I'll help you." Lily started toward the tailgate.
"Hang on a minute." Without thinking, Regan grabbed her arm and felt her tense. He released her immediately, but not before feeling firm muscles under her sleeve. This was no delicate flower. He admired that. "Is there a potbellied-pig sanctuary where he could go, instead?"
"There is, but last I heard they're at capacity. I already have one pig, so"
"Told you," the guy said to Regan, folding his arms and looking smug.
"So I think Wilbur would be happier if he had a friend," Lily said. "I'm willing to take this pig."
Regan accepted defeat. "In that case, I'll help carry him."
"Thanks." She gave him a brilliant smile. "I'll get the gate."
Moments later, the crate was inside the chain-link fence that surrounded the approximately five acres of her property and the couple had left without making the donation the husband had promised. Regan wasn't terribly surprised. "Where should we take him now?"
"I'll let him decide where he wants to go."
"Maybe that's not such a" But she'd already unlatched the crate and Harley burst forth in an apparent frenzy ofjoy. The horses trotted out of his way, and he flushed several chickens, which rose up in a cloud of feathers and angry clucking.
Lily smiled as she watched the pig cavort. "See how happy he is?"
"You have chickens?"
She shrugged as she continued to follow Harley's progress with her gaze. "It's the new thing to get chickens and have fresh eggs every morning. Urban farming is very in. But when the thrill is gone, people don't want those chickens. I've had a few people ask, and I've got room, so why not? Oh, look. Here comes Wilbur to see his new friend."
Regan watched as a considerably smaller potbellied pig came around the end of the ranch house and approached Harley. "What if they fight?"
She laughed, and the warmth of that laugh said a lot about her. She was obviously an optimistic soul who believed everything would turn out well. "Then you and I can wade in and separate them, I guess. But they're not going to fight. They like each other. See? Is that sweet or what?"
He had to admit the pigs seemed okay with each other, but it could have just as easily gone the other way. Then one of the horses, a sway-backed buckskin gelding, walked calmly past the pigs and began munching on what was left of a flower bed in front of the ranch house porch. "You let him do that?"
"If it makes him happy."
"Then I guess you don't care about having plants there."
She turned to face him. "I took over the sanctuary because I want to give these horses a home and a sense of self-worth. If they want to eat the flowers, so what? They've been arbitrarily yanked away from the life they used to know, so they deserve to be spoiled, right?"
"Philosophically, yes. Practically, no. These are two-thousand-pound animals, and they need to live by a set of rules. In fact, all domestic animals function better that way." Kids, too. He and his siblings had been given more freedom than they'd known what to do with. Somehow they'd avoided the serious consequences of that freedom, but he shuddered when he thought of how their lives might have turned out.
"I disagree." She said it cheerfully, though.
"Is that why you don't have the horses confined in the corral or the barn?" Or did the horses stage a rebellion when they caught a glimpse of that pink-and-turquoise monstrosity? The jury was still out on how well horses could see color. At the moment Regan wouldn't mind a little color blindness, himself.
"Exactly. I let them wander as they wish, and they all show up in the barn at mealtime. When it's cold, they tend to stay in there during the night, but they're welcome to go wherever they want on the property."
"Makes my work more complicated if I have to chase them down."
She nodded. "That's what Nick said. He'd rather have them all in one place when he comes out, and I meant to close them in the barn while they ate breakfast. But the sunrise was so beautiful that I got distracted. Before I realized it, they'd all eaten and headed out. Once they're loose, it's nearly impossible to get them in again until dinner. I should have arranged for you to come before mealtime, instead."
"Next time I'll do that." He sighed. "Guess I'd better get started."
"I'll help, but I wonder if
She hesitated, her expression earnest. "Would you consider, just this once, rescheduling for this evening?"
"Never mind. That's asking too much. You probably have a wife or a girlfriend who expects you for dinner."
"I don't, but that's not the issue."
"And there's the matter of making a second trip. I'll help you catch them and we'll get 'er done. I know I'm too lax with them, but I think about the fact that the poor things have never been in charge of their lives, and that's why I like to give them more control over their comings and goings. I promise next time I'll remember to keep them in the barn when you're due to arrive."
He gazed into her solemn blue eyes. Only a man of stone wouldn't warm to the compassion shining there, even when he knew she didn't have the faintest idea how to run this operation. "Have you spent much time around horses?"
"Not until I took over the sanctuary, which was a leap of faith. I wanted to come back home and do something good for the community, and this place really spoke to me. Now I'm around horses 24/7."
Déj vu. Either of his parents could have delivered that kind of speech, except that none of their seat-of-the-pants decisions had involved horses.
"And you know what?" Her expression grew more animated. "They're such individuals! Buck, the one who likes to eat the flowers, is really stubborn, while Sally, that little bay mare over there, is shy. You have to coax her to be friends, but once she trusts you, she'll follow you around like a dog. I have to watch out she doesn't try to come in the house."
Oh, boy. So at least one of the horses had started crowding her, a typical power move. No doubt they all sensed that Lily wasn't the leader of the herd. She didn't understand that they'd take more and more liberties until some of them would become unmanageable and even dangerous, both to themselves and to her.
But she was genuinely fond of them after only two months, and he didn't want to mess with that. Homeless animals needed all the friends they could get, so he'd tread lightly. But she was going about this all wrong. If she didn't create some order and discipline soon, the situation could become unworkable.
Yeah, Nick could have been more forthcoming. Regan wondered why Nick hadn't put a stop to this laissez-faire attitude of hers. Regan planned to ask. In fact, he had a whole list of questions now that he'd been here.
Glancing around, he calculated how much time he'd need to rope each horse and do an exam. Even with her help, it would take too long, considering the other appointments he'd scheduled today. The horses might not be cooperative, either. Nick hadn't been to Peaceful Kingdom since early May, so no telling how they'd react to being examined after a month of doing as they pleased. "Maybe I should come back during their dinnertime, after all."
"That really would be better. Tell you what. If you'll do that, I'll feed you supper."
"That's really not necessary." He'd bet the keys to his truck that she was a vegetarian, maybe even vegan.
"I know, but it would make me feel better about inconveniencing you. Please say you'll stay for dinner."
"I wouldn't want to put you to any extra trouble on my account." Some people could make vegetables taste yummy and others couldn't. The minute he'd left home he'd reverted to being a carnivore, and so had his brothers and sisters. Even his parents weren't as strict these days, especially when they hung out at the Last Chance Ranch.
She grinned at him. "You think I'm going to serve you sprouts and tofu, don't you?"
Apparently she was good at reading expressions and had figured out why he was hesitating. "Are you?"
"Nope. I make a veggie lasagna that's out of this world. My parents love it, and they're dyed-in-the-wool carnivores."