When city girl Brooke Bellamy rushes to Sweet Springs, Texas, to be by her ailing aunt's side, little does she know that she's headed straight into a whirlwind of her own! Managing Marsha's floral shop and keeping an eye on her aunt's mischievous basset hound, Humphrey, is hard enough. Luckily, Marsha's neighbor, veterinarian Gage Sullivan, is more than willing to give a helping hand with the stubborn pup among other things!
For years, Gage has heard about his neighbor's wonderful niece, and he's curious to see if the stories hold up. When Brooke proves to be everything Gage had imaginedand morehe's faced with his biggest challenge yet: to convince her that she belongs in Sweet Springs with him.
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"Humphrey? Here, sweetie. Nice dog. Time to come in now."
Brooke Bellamy felt like a fool. How the heck did you convince a dog to return to its home when what it wanted wasn't back there?
Although it was almost midnight, and only the first Tuesday in June, it was plenty warm already. Most saneand luckypeople were in their air-conditioned houses, probably in bed. Brooke, however, was spending her third night in Sweet Springs, Texas trying to make metaphorical lemonade out of lemons.
"Oh, no," she moaned, upon coming to a new hole dug under the chain-link fence. She'd just spotted the evidence she most feared: her aunt Marsha's beloved basset hound had escaped again!
On Sunday morning, seventy-year-old Marsha Newman had fallen in the shower and fractured her right hip. As soon as Brooke had gotten the news, she had packed a suitcase and raced from her house in Turtle Creek in Dallas to her aunt in Central East Texas to offer what assistance that she could. Never would she have dreamed that her life could turn upside down in such short order; life-changing upheaval had occurred not once but twice in a month. Then again, she also hadn't expected it likely that the daughter of business tycoon Damon Bellamy would find herself unemployed!
"Humphrey!" she called in an urgent whisper. "Where are you? C'mon, boy. You'd better get back here before you get yourself run over," she added. Actually, at this hour there wasn't any traffic that she could see or hear, and this Cherokee County town, south of Tyler, only had a population of fewer than four thousand people; but the way her luck was going, she wasn't taking any chances.
How long had she left the not-so-little tubular test on her patience in the backyard in order to take a shower in peace? Not more than ten minutes. Yet for someone who tended to move at the pace of an armadillo, Humphrey must have recognized this as a prime opportunity and had kicked his short legs into gear. Now he was out, and who knew where? Wearing only her sleep shirt, she wasn't exactly dressed to go prowling through the neighborhood in search of the critter. But she would because, heaven forbid that, come morning, she had to return to the hospital to confess to Aunt Marsha that she'd lost her beloved companion of ten years.
Aiming her LED flashlight toward the double gate, she hurried to open it and check the driveway in case she could see muddy prints to give her new clues as to Humphrey's whereabouts. Why she expected prints when it hadn't rained in days, and she hadn't yet had a chance to water, was testament to her fatigue and growing anxiety.
"Humphrey, sleepy time. Let's go in and have a cookie."
That coercion had worked Sunday night, the first time he'd snuck off, and a variation of it had been successful last night. Not this time, though. Humphrey was a fast learner, even if in dog years he was her aunt's age. Surely dogs didn't get dementia or could they?
"Humphrey sit! Stay!" In the past, Aunt Marsha had bragged that a horn blast from a passing freight train couldn't budge her obedient pet once those orders were given. "I guess it depends on who's doing the ordering," she muttered to herself. Then again, the dog would have to be within hearing distance to cooperate.
Increasingly worried, Brooke made her way around the outside of the fence to where the escapee had gained his freedom and focused her light on the grass hoping for some hint as to which way the dog had gone.
"At it again, I see."
Gasping, Brooke spun around. Wholly preoccupied, she hadn't heard that Doc had come outside and joined her. Dr. Gage Sullivan was the local veterinarian, who owned Sweet Springs Animal Clinic on the outskirts of town. He had come to her aid last night as well, and had been a great help. What a relief that he'd either seen or heard her out here. Correction, it would be if she'd thought to put on something over her nightie. Last night she'd only just returned from the hospital and had still been wearing her street clothes.
"Hey, Doc. My, you sure do stay up late for a guy who says he heads to the clinic at the crack of dawn." Despite the limited lighting provided by their porch fixtures, she had the strongest urge to fold her arms across her chest, which might have something to do with the way he was smiling down at her. Not that it was anything remotely lecherous; his expression was more like someone seeing a line of sevens appear on a casino slot machine.
"Lucky for you, I'm behind on paperwork." Gage directed his own flashlight at Humphrey's latest escape hole. "Looks like he worked fast. At this rate, he won't need a nail trim for a while. How long since you last saw him?"
"Ten minutes . Well, fifteen now. I've been out here for at least five calling for him. I should never have given him his private time, but I was dying for a shower."
"You think Humph needs private time?"
Brooke grimaced her agreement that the phrasing sounded ridiculous to her, too. But she had her reasons for putting it that way. "He gives me a look if I don't turn away while he's, you know, doing his business."
Gage choked on a laugh. "He was just setting you up, rookie. That hound can play an innocent the way a pickpocket can work a mark."
With pessimism fast becoming a knee-jerk reaction, Brooke asked doubtfully, "And what do you know about pickpockets?" It seemed an unusual analogy to use.
With a philosophical shrug, Gage replied, "We had a black sheep in the family tree."
Brooke studied his appealing, all-American face capped by shaggy, medium-brown hair still wet from his own shower. "Seriously?"
"It was when my uncle was young. After a few run-ins with the law, he wisely tried magic instead, and had a pretty successful career."
Brooke didn't know whether to take him seriously or not. After only three brief conversations with Gage Sullivan, she'd come to the conclusion that he was very laid-back and just as amiable. Her aunt sang his praises every time she had a chance to bring him up in a conversation. But at the moment, there was no sign of the serious, disciplined person Marsha described. As a bemused expression played across his face, she thought of him as someone who liked to just throw ideas out into the cosmos to see what kind of reaction he would get from people. If he hadn't chosen the profession he had, he could have been a popular college instructor. At least the female students would have enjoyed fantasizing over him.
"Is that something you should be telling a near stranger?" she asked, hoping he got the hint. She wasn't in to gossip, and this was not the time to be practicing some stand-up comedy routine or whatever it was that he was doing.
"I figured it would be better to get the awkward stuff out of the way. Did you happen to look under that sweet BMW 650i of yours?"
It was sheer reflexes that had Brooke glancing toward the silver metallic convertible in the driveway before resuming her studious inspection of the man who was built like a sequoia compared to her own stretch-to-get-there five foot two. "Uhyeah. Get the awkward stuff out of the way because ?"
"I'm going to ask you out. When Marsha is feeling better and you're not so pressed for time."
That startling bit of news left Brooke without a clue as to how to answer him. She couldn't deny that he was an attractive man, solid and relaxed in his own skin, even though his white T-shirt and jeans were clinging to his body as though he hadn't taken time to towel off from that shower. In comparison, she had to be reflecting sheer self-consciousness, as she gave in to the need to cross her arms over her purple satin-and-lace sleep shirt.
"You work fast, Doc."
"My parents would disagree with you, considering that I'm thirty-six and still single. But," he added with almost boyish pleasure, "I've had the advantage of seeing a few photos of you at Marsha's. Combined with her delightful gushing about what a thoughtful niece and smart woman you are has convinced me that I have to make an impression before everyone else realizes you're back in town."
"Oh, Aunt Marsha," Brooke groaned softly. "Really, Doc, I may be Texas born and bred, and spent a good portion of my childhood here, but no one died of a broken heart when Dad relocated us to Houston after my mother died. What's more, it's been too long between my visits back for anyone to get their hopes up." To get his attention off her, Brooke gestured toward the street. "About Humphrey Do you think if you called him, he might respond? Aunt Marsha has told me plenty of times that he adores you."
"Until I take his temperature and a blood sample," Gage drawled. Nevertheless, he cupped his hands around his mouth and whistled sharply. Then he called, "Yo, Humph. Here, boy."
Yesterday, the basset hound had yelped from two houses away and come waddling up Gage's driveway, eager for familiar company and the promised treat from Brooke. When several seconds passed and only crickets and tree frogs broke the silence, Brooke sighed. "I'd better go change into street clothes and initiate a wider search."
"I'll get started on that while you do."
Guilt forced Brooke to protest. Her conscience wouldn't let her allow him to do that when she had been told repeatedly by Aunt Marsha what long hours he worked. "That's good of you, Doc, but"
After a gently reproving look at his unabashed flirtation, Brooke continued. "All I was going to say is that I'm sensitive to the fact that you're probably already dead on your feet. You need to get what rest you can."
"Do you think that's going to happen knowing you're out here wandering about by yourself? A Saint Bernard could grab you by the scruff of the neck and carry you off like a pup. You're certainly no match for anything larger."
That gave her pause. There were still less than fifty thousand people in all of Cherokee County, and most of them lived around communities like Rusk, the county seat to their northeast. Had things changed around here so much? "My aunt says Sweet Springs is still the friendliest town, and that this remains the quietest of neighborhoods."
"Okay, but then what if you come upon Humphrey having a face-off with a rabid skunk, or a mother raccoon protecting her young?"
Brooke's stomach lurched, and she pressed a hand against her abdomen. She so did not want to have to deal with either scenario. While Marsha was a second mother to her, especially after the death of her mother when Brooke had been barely twelve, she just didn't share her aunt's love for indoor pets. As far as the wilder creatures were concerned, she would be content to know they'd been exiled farther out in the country or to a zoo!
"Too much information," Gage said, upon noticing her distress. "Come, take my Windbreaker. I keep it by the back door. It'll save you the time it would take to change, and we can search together."
With long-legged strides, Gage backtracked across the yard until he could reach inside the door of the two-story, colonial-style dwelling; Brooke followed with less enthusiasm. Had he meant it about wanting to ask her out? She hoped not. He'd been nothing but kind and helpful since her arrival, and he really was a good-looking man. She would forever be grateful that he'd been outside on Sunday morning when he'd heard Aunt Marsha crying for help from inside her house. On the other hand, Brooke wasn't here to date, especially since her plan was to return to Dallas to get her career back on track as soon as possible.
"Thanks," she said, once he held the lightweight dark jacket up for her. Sliding into it, she tried to flip her still-damp blond hair from under the collar and found long sleeves thwarted her efforts. With a wry smile, she rolled them several times. "This reminds me of when I was a kid and up here for Halloween. I borrowed one of my uncle's sweaters for Halloween to create my Robin Hood costume."
"I would never have guessed. Not a princess? Not even Maid Marian?"
Brooke shook her head at his stereotyping. "You only think you have me figured out."
"Interesting. You do tend to look and act as though you came out of the womb wearing high heels and a business suit. Extremely well tailored, but sexy," Gage added, his blue-gray eyes sparkling with good humor in the glow of the overhead light.
Her tendency to fixate on looking professional had started later, after her father had taken over directing more and more aspects of her life. Until then, she'd enjoyed playing games, watching Saturday-matinee movies and indulging in a healthy fantasy lifeall of which her mother and aunt had supported. It relieved Brooke to realize that Aunt Marsha hadn't gotten around to sharing that bit of information with him. Yet. It was challenging enough when Gage Sullivan looked at her with those kind but knowing eyes that seemed to see way beyond flesh and bone.
Averting her gaze, she dealt with his comment by changing the subject. "Where do you think we should start? Even though your jacket is lightweight, I'm already about to melt."
"Well the hospital is that way," Gage said, nodding toward the west, the direction both their front doors faced.
Disconcerted, Brooke asked, "Do you think Humphrey would actually try to go there? I'd about convinced myself that he was simply running away from me. Can he actually pick up her scent from that distance?"
Gage shrugged. "It's not two miles, and something is compelling him to ignore his obedience training. Since I don't think you'd be cruel to a pet your aunt loved so much, it has to be pure heartache for his mistress that's compelling him to escape. Let's take a left out of the driveway and see if we can hear or spot something. Considering his age, and with legs as short as his, speed and endurance are on our side."
As she followed, Brooke glanced from her size-six designer flip-flops sparkling with rhinestones in the artificial light to his size twelve or better athletic shoes. "Speak for yourself."
Looking over his shoulder and following the direction of her gaze, Gage chuckled. "I'll try to remember to cut my strides in half. I'm sure he hasn't gotten too far, and he's bound to trigger someone else's family pet to bark sooner or later." As he reassured her, Gage directed the beam of his flashlight across the street to scan each yard for any sign of movement.
Following his lead, Brooke used her flashlight to check houses on their side. Although most dwellings were dark, suggesting their inhabitants were already in bed for the night, she uttered, "I feel terrible about abusing people's privacy. What do you want to bet some insomniac spots us and calls the police thinking we're prowlers?"
"Relax, I know everyone in the department," Gage assured her. "Plus, their drug dog is a patient of mine." After only a few more steps, he paused. "Aha! Hear that?"
Brooke was about to ask him how long he'd been in Sweet Springs, when she, too, heard an excited sound aheadpart bark and part yodel-howl. "Oh, dear. I hope he's not standing under someone's bedroom window."
They hurried the rest of the way, crossing the street, into the next block, where they came upon Humphrey running around someone's koi pond. Illuminated in the center by accent lights was a fat, indignant-looking bullfrog.
"Whoa, Humph." As the winded but excited dog tried to circle the pond again, Gage scooped him up into his arms. "Some dog on a mission, you are. One chubby amphibian and your whole master plan to get to your lady flies out of your mind. And look how you upset Brooke." In the soft pinkish glow of the streetlights, his eyes twinkled with humor as he turned the dog to face her.