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"Is that the last one?"
Tessa McCade stumbled to a halt on the driveway; her boots gouged the gravel. She gripped the lead rope until the rough fibers dug into her hand. Yes, this was the last one, but she couldn't say it out loud. The very last one of the sick horses she had to hand over to Dr. Robert Staley for euthanasia. It might have been easier if they actually had symptoms. If they were in pain or dying slowly, this wouldn't hurt so badly.
She'd saved her favorite horse for lastSugar Cookie, the one she'd crawled out of bed every three hours to bottle raiseas if the mare would have a miraculous recovery or the vet would forget about her.
No such luck. He stood by the open end of the white trailer, one hand in his front pocket and the other poking a toothpick around in his mouth. He looked so damned comfortable with the situation that Tessa wanted to scream. Maybe scratch some lines into his perfectly chiseled features. Instead she froze. Unable to take the last few steps.
Sugar Cookie stopped beside her, waiting obediently. Ignorant of the fate that awaited her.
"Well?" Dr. Staley pushed away from the trailer. "Is that it?"
Tessa looked from the vet to the trailer. With the ramp down, it looked more like the gaping mouth of a monster than a simple aluminum compartment on wheels.
"Yes," she answered. "She's the last one."
Painunadulterated and searingsliced through her chest with icy blades, just as a cloud obscured the October sun, giving the atmosphere an ominous feel. Tessa stood frozen in place, with stars dancing in her vision, blurring Dr. Staley's form. She forced herself to breathe; Sugar Cookie would sense her anxiety, and Tessa had to stay calm enough to lead the mare into the trailer. To her death.
Staley reached for the lead, but Tessa pulled away. "I'll do it." She didn't even recognize her voice. She lifted her chin and looked directly into Dr. Staley's eyes. "I need to be the one."
He shrugged. "You're taking it awful hard."
Those bloody lines on his face were becoming more and more likely. "Are you kidding me? This is the fortieth horse I've led into your trailers today. Each time you bring another empty trailer, it means more death. How do you expect me to take it?" Her tirade ended in a harsh whisper rather than the scream of rage she ached to let loose. She'd scream later. When her employees weren't gathered around, watching every move she made. When Dr. Staley was gone. Tessa could hold it together until then.
"You've got insurance, right?" He pulled out the toothpick and studied the gnawed tip for a moment before clamping it back between his molars. "It's gonna be a wash."
She blinked. "A...a wash? How can you say that? These horses meanmeant the world to me. I've spent God only knows how many man-hours on them, training, breeding, caring for them. They're not just stock, Dr. Staley. These horses are the life force of this ranch."
He rolled his eyes, then gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You're such a girl."
Tessa clenched her teeth until she thought they might chip from the force. Before she could teach him a lesson in sexism, he continued, "It's cute that you got attached to your stock, but you need to remember this ranch-owning thing is a business. Profits and losses. This" he waved toward the trailer, "is a loss. You write it off, and you move on." He reached for Sugar Cookie again.
"No," she snarled. "I told you I'd do it." She glared until he backed away with his hands raised.