Stephanie Phillips is sick of charm. And Clint Morgan, the newest resident of Covenant Falls, has it in spades. Stephanie knows she should run the other way because the former Blackhawk pilot is too good-looking, too charismatic and much too sexy.
As the town veterinarian, Stephanie has truly found her home here. Clint, on the other hand, is staying for only a short time while he recovers from an injury. But when he starts to fit seamlessly into the close-knit community, the irresistible risk-taker makes his way into her heart.
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Faster. Faster. He ran the gears, his foot heavy as he edged up to ninety miles an hour. The road ahead was straight and empty. Plains stretched in every direction. He relished the power of the used Corvette that had cost him nearly every penny he had and hundreds of hours of work.
The road was perfect for his purpose. Rarely, if ever used, it connected one Texas ghost town to another. A fellow chopper pilot, who was also a car enthusiast, had told him about it. A forty-mile strip of pavement from nowhere to nowhere.
He had finished restoring the car two weeks earlier. In ten days, he would be back in Afghanistan. This was his last chance to put the Corvette through its paces.
The sun danced and shimmered on the pavement ahead. His foot lightened on the gas pedal as the road took a turn and mounted an incline. An old battered truck appeared from nowhere, turning into He slammed on the brakes
Clint Morgan, former army warrant officer and military helicopter pilot, jerked awake as the bus stopped. It took him several seconds to realize where he was. Some place going to no place.
"Hey, mister," the bus driver said. "Your stop."
Clint reluctantly stepped through the open doors into the first day of the rest of his life.
He was the last passenger to leave the bus, an indication of his total lack of enthusiasm for his new reality. He glanced around. He had been told someone named Josh Manning, also a vet, would meet him at the bus in Pueblo. But Clint saw no former-military-looking guy.
Damn but he hated being dependent on a stranger, even a fellow vet. It was bad enough that occasional blackouts and blinding headaches kept him from driving, but the helplessness he felt now was searing. What in the hell was he doing standing here in the middle of nowhere on a blistering September day?
The other bus passengers quickly dispersed. He was alone with a large duffel at his side. As he contemplated his alternatives, which were few, a van roared onto the street and squeezed into a parking spot. A woman emerged and strode quickly toward him.
"Clinton Morgan?" she asked. "Clint," he corrected. This woman did not look like a Josh.
"Sorry to be late," she said. "I hope you haven't been here long." She thrust out her hand. "I'm Stephanie."
He took her hand, and her grip was as strong as his. She was nearly as tall as his own six feet. No makeup, but then she didn't seem to need any. Her eyes were a dark blue, and her skin was tanned, the kind that came from working outdoors. Her hair was a mass of unruly rich copper curls, some of which escaped the braid that reached below her shoulders. Clad in jeans and a checkered cotton shirt splotched with dirt, her body was more lean than curved. Athletic.
"I volunteered to pick you up since I was inoculating some cattle not far away," she continued. "I had a bit of a problem and ran late. Thus, my less-than-suitable chauffeur attire. I had planned to change and wash. I'm afraid I smell like cow and sweat."
She said it all in a hurry and without apology, although her tone was friendly. Husky. Sexy as hell.
Things were looking up, even if the odor of cow was strong. He was intrigued. She was good-looking now, but add a bit of lipstick and a dress, and she would be striking.
"But a very pretty chauffeur," he said with a grin that usually had a positive effect on the opposite sex.
The friendliness seeped from her eyes, replaced with something like wariness.
"Is the duffel all your luggage?" she asked, ignoring the compliment. Her question had a definite edge to it.
He felt duly kicked in the rear. "That and my laptop," he said. "You learn to travel light in the army."
She started for the duffel, but he beat her to it and hefted it over his shoulder.
Without another word, she led the way to the dusty red van with the words "Langford Animal Practice" on the door. "I hope you don't mind dog hair," she said in a businesslike tone. "My dog, Sherry, usually rides with me."
"Fine with me. It's not as if I'm going to the opera," he quipped. "And I like dogs." He went to the passenger's side. The door was unlocked and he climbed inside.
"Darn good thing," he heard her mutter in a barely audible voice.
Before he could respond, she started the van and roared out of the parking lot, obviously ignoring the thirty-miles-per-hour speed-limit sign. He glanced at her, but she concentrated on the road ahead. He admired a good driver, and she was that. He looked at the speedometer. The van had a hundred and fifty thousand plus miles on it, and she was going over the speed limit. Both said something about her.
He felt an immediate kinship. Interest sparked in him, the first since the accident that doomed his military career. He definitely wanted to know more about her. Particularly whether she was already taken. Not that he was interested in any long-term involvement. He sure as hell didn't have anything to offer a woman. Struggling for conversationstrange as it usually came easierhe asked, "Are you the Langford in Langford Animal Practice?"
She shrugged. "I'm not Langford, but I do own the vet practice or at least the small part that's paid off. I bought it from Tom Langford and never changed the name on the van. Never really saw a good reason to do it. I'm Stephanie Phillips."
"No one calls me that. It's just Stephanie." Her tone seemed to cut off any other questions.
He took a deep breath and shifted restlessly. He ached to take her place at the wheel. Just as everything in him ached to reach for the controls of a chopper. Ached to be in the house he shared with other chopper pilots on the base or even a tent in Afghanistan. Sitting in a passenger seat, dependent on a drivereven an interesting womanwas his idea of hell.
He stared out at the plains spread out in front of him. Arid desert.
The blurb he had read online called this area of Colorado high desert. To him, it resembled parts of Iraq and Afghanistan. So did the heat.
"Is it always this warm?" he asked.
"This is a bit unusual. It's usually in the low nineties in July and then starts going down. This year, it's hanging around. It's a bit cooler in Covenant Falls. We're higher, altitudewise, from here, and the town is nestled next to the mountains." Her tone was cool. It had lost something since he'd said she was pretty.
He shifted uncomfortably in the seat and stared ahead. He had been doing that a lot since leaving the hospital. The journey to Pueblo from Denver had been agonizingly long, or maybe it had just seemed that way. He had been a passenger on a plane, in a car and on a long-distance bus. Brutal. He yearned for his seat in a chopper, in controlling a complex machine that both protected and destroyed. He had been doing both for most of his adult life. Flying was his life. His identity. At gut level, being a pilot was who he was. Who he had been since he was seventeen.
Now he might never fly again. Or even drive a car. Worse, he didn't have a goal for the first time in his life. A driving force. A purpose.
He was a fighter. Always had been. Since he was eight years old and his stepmother decided she didn't want him in her house any longer, he'd looked ahead, determined to plot his own path.
"You'll like the cabin," Stephanie said, interrupting his thoughts. "Josh did a great job in rehabbing it."
"I'm not sure how long I'm staying."
She turned to him and gave him a wry smile. "Neither did Josh when he came. Covenant Falls can get to you."
"Have you lived there long?"
"Five years, but even if I'd lived there twenty years, I would still be a newcomer. You should know that everyone is rather curious about new residents, and gossip spreads faster than a sky full of locusts."
Her cell phone rang. The thunderous tone was the theme music from the movie The Magnificent Seven.
She glanced down at it, then steered to the side of the road and stopped the car. Quick questions. Something to do with a cow. When she hung up, she turned to him. "A short detour," she said.
"An ailing heifer. She's not far from here. Shouldn't take more than an hour. Okay?"
"Fine," he said. He didn't really have much choice. He was hitching a ride, after all. He was at the driver's mercy. But he had to ask: "The Magnificent Seven? That's an interesting ringtone."
"Dr. Phillips to the rescue?"
"Stephanie," she reminded him.
"I beg your pardon," he replied with a quick grin.
She frowned. "That's not why I have it. I just like the tune. It's hard to ignore. Very effective in cutting off conversations."
Wry humor. It intrigued him. "You like cutting off conversations?"
"Inane ones, yes."
Well, she had put him in his place. Neatly. Maybe Covenant Falls wouldn't be as dull as he'd thought it would be. That prick of interest was expanding.
He tried another tactic. "What's wrong with the cow?" he asked.
She shrugged. "A rancher says one of his heifers isn't eating, which could mean a number of troubles. All bad. Like I said, the ranch isn't far from here."
It was an obvious though unspoken question.
Clint settled back. "I have nothing pressing in mind."
"Good." She turned back to the road. "I'll call Josh and tell him we'll be late. He's going to meet us at the cabin to give you the keys and probably tell you the best way to piss off the town. He did a great job when he first came to Covenant Falls."
Clint grinned. "Are you saying diplomacy is not one of his virtues?"
"You could say that, but he's learning. Too bad." There was amusement in her voice again. He was discovering she didn't go out of her way to be diplomatic, either. He liked that. No bullshit. No false sympathy or concern.
He tried to remember exactly what Dr. Payne had said about the cabin and its owner.
The psychologist hadn't been very forthcoming about the cabin or his new landlord, although he'd been good at prying into Clint's life. Dr. Payne's first visit had been to introduce himself and say he was available. The second had been two weeks before Clint's discharge. He'd asked about his future plans, and the fact was, Clint had none.
He closed his eyes and thought of their meeting.
"No family?" the shrink had asked, and Clint suspected the man knew he'd had no visitors.
"No," he said, but his records proved otherwise.
"No support system?"
"I don't need one. It's just a headache now and then."
Dr. Payne stared at him. Waited. "Well, maybe you can do a favor for me, then. A friend of mine, a former patient here, is looking for someone to look after his cabin. He just married and moved in with his wife. He rehabbed the cabin after it was vandalized, and he doesn't want it to happen again. It's in a small town with a lot of veterans. You can walk to nearly every business in town, and there's both a lake and mountains."
"What's the rent?"
"Just the utilities. And keeping it in good shape."
"Where is it?"
"A little town named Covenant Falls in Colorado. It'll give you time to decide what you want to do "
Clint suspected there was more to it than that, but hell, he had nowhere else to go and Payne knew it. He couldn't pilot or drive because of recurring blackouts. His career was over, even if the injury to his brain healed. There were too many young guys coming up behind him. And family? That was opening another can of worms. Despite some doubts, he'd accepted
"We're here." Stephanie turned into a long driveway, drove past a sprawling ranch house and parked in front of the barn. She made a quick phone call, apparently to Josh, explaining there would be a slight delay in reaching the cabin. Then she turned to him. "You can stay inside the van if you want."
No way. He was damned tired of being passive. He shook his head.
She eyed him speculatively. "Your clothes are a little fancy for a ranch."
He looked at his chinos and dark blue polo shirt. They were new because he'd lost weight in the hospital. He kind of liked them. He also liked the comfortable loafers. A welcome relief from heavy combat boots. But fancy? Not in his wildest imagination.
Clint stepped out of the van and waited as Stephanie grabbed a medical bag, then they both strode over to a weathered-looking man who walked up to meet them.
"You got new help, Stephanie?" The rancher's gaze measured Clint.
"Nope," Stephanie said. "A passenger headed for Covenant Falls. Clint Morgan. A friend of Josh." She turned to Clint. "This is Hardy Pearson. He breeds the best cattle in this part of Colorado."
Hardy held out his hand. "The most troublesome, anyway. Good to meet you, son," he said. Then he turned to Stephanie, his eyes worried.
"She's in the barn. My best heifer. Hasn't been eating. I've seen this twice before. Pretty sure it's a twisted stomach."
"How long since she ate?"
"She didn't look good yesterday, and I brought her into the barn. I put hay out and she wouldn't have any part of it. Can't tell you how unusual that is."
"Did she calve recently?"
"Three months ago."
The questions and answers came quick. Clint observed the trust between the rancher and Stephanie. She was all efficiency as she threw him one question after another. He followed as Hardy led the way into a big barn where a large cow was tethered by a rope halter to a post. The animal stood on a pile of hay. Stephanie retrieved a stethoscope from the medical bag and examined the heifer's stomach.
She glanced up at Hardy, "You were right. It's a twisted stomach. The ping is definitely there. There's a lot of gas."
Hardy sighed. "What do you recommend?"
She hesitated. "I think we should roll her stomach. It might not work, and it could be dangerous for the heifer, but the alternatives are worse."
"An operation would be just as dangerous, wouldn't it?
She nodded. "And expensive."
"Let's roll 'er."
"You got anyone else who can help?" she asked.
He shook his head. "My son's at a cattle auction. And my wife's been ailing."
Two sets of eyes focused on Clint. He sensed that wasn't a good thing.
"Sorry to hear that," Stephanie said to Hardy even as she studied Clint. After a few seconds, she asked,
"You game to help?"
"Help how?" he asked cautiously.
"Roll over that heifer. Putting it simply, she's got three stomachs and one of them is in the wrong place. If it isn't fixed, she'll die."
He hesitated, then shrugged. "What do I do?"
"We use some ropes to get her down. Then you help Hardy hold her down while I palpate her and move the wayward stomach into its rightful place. Then I suture it. Okay?"
He met her challenging gaze, then studied the cow. It was a damned big animal. Hell, he didn't have anything to lose. He nodded. "I'm a city boy, but I'll give it a go."
She hesitated, tilting her head to the right. "Is there any medical reason you shouldn't?"
"Not that I know of."
"Hardy will help, but this really takes three bodies." She looked at the old man. "Have a pair of muck boots he can use?"
The rancher nodded and hurried inside the house, returning with a pair of worn, heavy rubber boots. "Here, son, try these. Don't want to get those new shoes messed up."
Clint regarded the boots warily. Well, he'd worn worse. He removed his shoes and replaced them with the boots. What in the hell had he gotten himself into?