SUNDAY AFTERNOON DAISY and Luke worked for three hours in the hot sun at her father's farm. They'd cleared the fields of the remaining hay bales that had fallen apart or jammed on the stacker. While they were in the fields, Daisy had seen Mrs. Caden's car drive down the driveway and she wondered why Janice's mother was there. She imagined Janice's mother giving her mother hell for what Luke had done, and the thought sickened her. She was relieved when they'd come back to put away the equipment and Mrs. Caden's car was gone. She pushed the thought away as Luke came out of the equipment shed. She loved watching him work, all testosterone-laden brawn. Tanned and ripped. Manly, sexy, delicious. She shuddered, thinking about the evening before. Her stomach fluttered as Luke reached for her hand. He pulled her close with a devilish grin, and in that second, his tough exterior fell away. She loved those first moments when they came together. The instant their thighs touched, when his entire body melted against hers before he took a breath and the strength returned and he gathered her in against him. She loved the complexities of him, and she wasn't sure he even knew how complex he really was. His mind was always churning. She saw it in his eyes, thinking, planning, wondering. The lazy smiles and easy nature ran deep, but he was anything but simple. He held her close, and she felt the heat of his body envelop her as desire replaced the tenderness she'd seen in his eyes.
"Stop looking at me like that." Daisy felt her cheeks flush, though the last thing she wanted him to do was stop.
"Like what?" He nuzzled against her neck. "Like I have an insatiable appetite for you?" He lowered his mouth to hers.
When they drew apart, she was breathless. "God, you're good at that."
Luke smiled, and a soft laugh escaped his lips. "It takes two to kiss, Dais." His cell phone vibrated and he pulled it out. "It's Emily. She has the drawings for the apartment above the barn, but I've got another change for her."
"You're going to drive her crazy and she won't ever get to finish." Daisy ran her finger down his chest.
"It's a simple change this time. I just want to move a wall and create a small alcove." He texted Emily back, then shoved his phone in his pocket.
"Do you make those changes to drive her crazy?"
He shrugged. "It's like the last bit of restlessness I have or something. It never feels done. Hey, while we're on the subject of workspace and changes, I know you're bummed about your boss saying you can't hold that clinic, but what about doing it someplace other than at the clinic? Couldn't you do it anywhere else?"
"You've been thinking about this, too? I can't stop thinking about it. Yeah, I can. I mean, I have insurance, and I'm licensed, so it wouldn't be a big deal, and it's only physicals, so we don't need a lot of space. I just need to figure it all out. Maybe I'm biting off more than I should."
Luke narrowed his eyes. "Why? Is it too much? Are you too tired after work?"
"No, but it's not like the people here really like me that much. I mean, most of the parents of the school-aged kids are the people I went to school with, and you know...They may not even want me to do their kids' physicals." It was a painful thought she'd been nursing for the past two days. What if she offered to do the physicals and no one but Kari showed up?
He folded her into his arms. "You do realize that you've been gone from this town for so long that those people have probably matured by now. I'm sure they don't still harbor the jealousy that made them say all those things."
"I think you have Trusty confused with Mayberry." She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
"Whether a few people love you or hate you isn't what this decision should be about, Dais. You studied medicine for a reason, which I assume was to help people."
"Of course," she murmured against his neck, soaking in his strength and support, not to mention his delicious, masculine scent.
"Here's the bottom line. Would you be doing the physicals for the parents or for the kids?"
"Kids, of course." She pushed out of his arms. "Kids need annual checkups. You wouldn't let your horses go unchecked, would you?"
He grinned, and she knew he had purposely egged her on.
"Then nothing else should matter. Open the clinic, and those who come, you help, and those who don't?" He shrugged. "Their loss, but at least you've done all you can to help the people who matter. The kids."
While in medical school and during her three years of residency, Daisy had come up against jealousy and competition. She'd gone face-to-face with some of the most stubborn professors, and arrogant doctors had challenged her. She was used to adversity. Support, however, came less often. She could count those she could always rely on on one hand: her parents and Kevin. And now, she realized, she could add a fourth person to that list. Luke.
"Thank you for reminding me of what really matters." She was unable to take her eyes off of him. He had an entire ranch to deal with, and she knew he was wrestling with thoughts of his father, and he was still carrying the burden of his arrest, and here he was, focusing on her issues, and he was right. For a guy who claimed not to know how to connect, he was connecting on so many levels that she couldn't imagine ever disengaging from him.
Or ever wanting to.
"You're welcome, and I know it's not my place to be proud of you, but I am. I love how you saw a need and offered to help instead of doing what most people who worked as hard as you might do-help Kari and let the others fend for themselves." He buried his hands in her hair and cupped the back of her head. "You're really special to me, Dais. I can't wait for you to get to know my family better."
Her heart did a little dance. Things were moving fast, but everything about being with Luke felt right. She'd dated enough guys to know that what she felt for Luke was completely different, and it wasn't the toe-curling, mind-blowing sex, or the way her body caught fire every time she saw him. She felt safe with him, respected, happy, and comfortable. She loved the care he took with his animals and the way he respected her father's ways. Most of all, she really liked who he was. He stood up for what he believed in, and he stepped outside of himself to help others. He trusted. He believed in others, and those were attributes she could learn from. She knew things with Luke were different, because when she wasn't with him, she never stopped missing him.
She also knew she had entered dangerous territory. Territory that had her pushing away her decisions about employment and reconsidering all she'd ever believed about her hometown. She should probably put some space between them, focus on the clinic and her offers of employment.
One look into his dark eyes and she nearly melted on the spot.
If his family was anything like Emily, she knew she'd love them. A streak of worry skittered through her. Luke must have seen it in her eyes.
"What is it?"
She swallowed hard. She was way too old to be worried about this crap. Goddamn Trusty. "I always worry about people who know of me but don't really know me. All those years of rumors..."
"Dais, that was years ago. Kick it to the curb." He pressed his cheek to hers and whispered, "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you can be a very naughty, sexy temptress."
After a hot streak raced through her and she caught her breath, she swatted his arm.
"Look at me." He waited until she met his gaze. "Seriously, even if those rumors had been true and you'd slept with the whole town, my family wouldn't care. I adore you, and they will, too." She opened her mouth to say she hadn't, and he cut her off.
"I know you didn't, but it wouldn't matter if you had."
She couldn't think of a darn thing to say and couldn't have pushed words past the lump that had lodged in her throat if she'd wanted to. Instead, she kissed him, and the worry drifted away.
"Come say hi to my mom?"
He smiled. "Absolutely."
She took his hand, and on their way out of the pole barn, she saw him eyeing the older, smaller barn that they used for storage.
"We don't use that barn for much anymore. Once the loft elevator broke, Dad was too busy to worry about fixing it; then he got hurt and, well..."
"What's wrong with it?" He squinted, and she felt him pulling in that direction.
"I'm not sure. The chain or something."
"Let me take a quick look. Does he keep his tools in there?"
"Luke, you don't have to do that. We can hire someone." She took a step toward the house, but Luke was already heading in that direction.
"Why hire someone when I'm here? If it's really just the chain, I can have that fixed in no time."
"You've done so much already."
"Dais, I don't mind. Besides, your dad's hurt. The last thing he needs to do is worry about finding someone to take care of this. It's probably killing him that he isn't taking care of everything else. Don't you think?"
She didn't think. She knew. But she was surprised that Luke could understand that. Knowing there was no convincing him otherwise and loving that he'd take his time to help her father, Daisy showed him where her father kept his tools, and while Luke went to work fixing the elevator, Daisy headed to the house to get them cold drinks.
She found her mother on the porch, drinking a glass of lemonade, and remembered Janice's mom had been there. She took a deep breath, steeling herself against whatever had gone down.
"Hi, Mom. Was that Janice's mom's car?" Please tell me that she didn't bitch you out for what Luke did.
"Yes. She brought a dish of lasagna. Wasn't that sweet? I swear, you never realize how great a community is until you need them."
"Really? I was worried that she came to give you a hard time about Luke and what happened at the fair."
"I think she was thankful that he stepped in. What's all this I hear about you setting up a clinic for school physicals?"
Daisy's breath caught in her throat. The Trusty grapevine was fast, but how could the news have traveled that quickly? She hadn't mentioned the idea to anyone other than Kari, Luke, Kevin, and Ashley. "How do you know about that?"
"Janice told her mother that you were setting up a clinic."
"Janice? How on earth did she hear that?"
"Well, are you?" Her mother's face was a mix of seriousness and hope.
"I don't know. Gosh. How does word spread so fast around here and change into plans when I've barely had the thought in my own head? Kari must have said something to someone, and by the sound of it, the whole thing is taking on a life of its own. I have no idea what I'm thinking about doing. Ashley won't let me do it at the urgent-care office, so I'd have to figure out a place to do it, and it's a big job. I'll have to order vaccines and schedule times to see them in the evenings and weekends." Despite her earlier misgivings, she felt the hum of excitement building inside her, similar to the thrill she'd experienced delivering babies during her residency. The birth of something new.
"If anyone can do it, you can."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom. I'm considering it."
Her mother had never thrust her opinions on Daisy. She had a quiet way about her, like when Daisy had first mentioned that she was applying to medical school, her mother had simply raised those thin blond brows of hers with a hopeful smile on her lips. Much like she was doing right now.
"How did it go in the field?" Her mother offered Daisy a drink of her lemonade.
"Great. We're done."
Her mother patted the chair beside hers. "Sit with me a minute." She looked more rested today. Her eyes were brighter and the worry lines across her forehead weren't nearly as pronounced as they'd been the other day.
It felt good to sit down and relax. "I was going to bring Luke in to say hi, but when I told him Dad's loft elevator was having trouble, he wanted to take a look at it
." She looked in the direction of the old barn and saw Luke kneeling by the loft elevator engine.
"Did he, now?"
"Yeah. I told him that we could hire someone to do it, but he didn't want Dad to worry. How's Dad? He goes to rehab tomorrow, right?"
"Yes. You know your father. He's not going to tell me if his back gets any worse, so I have to gauge his progress by silent signals. I think he's doing fairly well. He's not groaning much these days." Her mother smiled and then reached for Daisy's hand. "How are you, sweetie? You're working long hours at the clinic and then helping here. Are you doing okay?"
"I'm fine. I don't mind helping Dad, and with everyone who showed up, it was actually kind of fun."
Her mother patted her hand. "Your father appreciates all that you do. He does seem to be doing better, and you saw he was outside today. I have hopes that he'll be up and around in a few weeks." Her mother squinted in Luke's direction. "Your father said Luke's a smart, nice young man."
Daisy shot a look at her mother. "Dad said that?" This took her by surprise.
Her mother smiled. "I know. I was surprised, too, given his history."
"His...you mean Luke's arrest?" Of course she did.
"Well, yes, but it sounds as if he was arrested for doing something quite chivalrous." Her mother knitted her brows together. "At least that's what I heard."
What she'd heard. The Trusty grapevine was hard at work again. Daisy had enjoyed spending the last few years away from prying eyes and gossipmongers while she was at school and during her residency. Coming back to Trusty had been a bit of a culture shock, but like riding a bike, it took only a few minutes before it all came rushing back to her. And makes me want to turn and hightail it out of here.
She had enjoyed living in Philly, where hearing things meant reading about real newsworthy items-world news, medical breakthroughs and political issues, in the newspapers-not receiving a phone call every time a neighbor farted. Even though she was in Trusty by choice and she could pack up her stuff and move away at any time, she'd never abandon her family, and now she had Luke to consider. He'd snuck into her every thought and was clouding her once-urgent need to flee her hometown.
"Mom, does it ever bother you that there's so much gossip in this town?"
"Oh, sweetie, that's like asking if it bothers me that the sun goes down each evening. Trusty is my home. It will always be my home, and no matter where you live, there will be people who talk about you. Not you specifically, but you know what I mean." Her mother set her glass down on the table beside her. "I know how difficult high school was for you, and I hate that you went through that hard of a time. Girls can be so vicious at that age, but you know no one believed those rumors, don't you? I tried to tell you then, but you were too hurt to see it. You must know that now."
"I'm not so sure."
"Oh, Daisy. Be sure. I know you think Trusty is the very opposite of where you envision yourself. It's the epitome of small-town living. We gossip. We don't wear fancy clothes or drive fancy cars, but, sweetie, Trusty is also known for other things. More important things, like forgiveness and community. When your father first injured his back, the community came out in droves, bringing casseroles and helping on the farm. Trusty is home to good people, Daisy."
She couldn't even imagine people coming out in droves.
"You're the first person from Trusty to go to medical school-not veterinary school, but medical school-in a very long time. Everyone here is so proud of you, and honestly, I'm tickled pink that you came back, because Lord knows that even with our weekly calls, I went batty with you being so far away. I worry about you. Sometimes a mother needs to put her arms around her daughter and know she's okay."
Daisy sighed. "You're guilting me. Don't get too used to it. I'm still considering all of my options."
Her mother shook her head. "Daisy, what about when you have a family of your own? Don't you want family nearby?"
"Don't you think you're jumping the gun? I don't even have my career in line yet."
"I guess. Things are so different for you than they were for me. I can't even imagine what it would have been like for you not to have been close to your grandmother."
An ache of longing washed through Daisy. She'd always been close to her grandparents, especially her maternal grandmother. She'd taught Daisy to bake, and she would read to her for hours. Daisy had spent many weekend nights watching movies and eating ice cream with her grandmother. We'll keep this treat as our little secret. She'd missed her so much when she'd gone away to college that they'd called each other at least a few times each month, which was all Daisy could manage with her workload, and when her grandmother died, Daisy couldn't shake the feeling that she was still watching over her. The pain of missing her had eventually eased, except for moments like now, when the sadness in her mother's eyes brought it back.
"I haven't made my decision yet, Mom. I'll keep that in mind." Her voice was thin and weak. She cleared her throat. "Dad's accident was kind of good timing, though, don't you think? If there is such a thing, and I know that sounds bad. Dad got hurt right before my residency ended, and I needed time to decide on where I wanted to live and which job to accept." Thinking of Luke, she said, "It's almost as if I was meant to be here."
"Good timing is one way to think of it. Maybe fate is another." Her mother gazed in Luke's direction. "Have you thought about which job you want to accept?"
"I haven't decided. They're both great opportunities. I'll tell you one thing, though. Working at the clinic has shown me how desperately Trusty needs a doctor. I never realized how many people put off their health care because of a forty-five-minute drive. It's crazy."
"You could fix that, Daisy Lee."
Her mother used her middle name so infrequently that it caught her attention, which she was sure was the whole point. Daisy rolled her eyes.
"We've been over this a million times. I really want to do more than well-care visits, Mom."
"Yes, I know you do, but a mom can hope, can't she? And what about Luke?" Her mother's tone was serious.
"What about him?" She tried to play Luke off as if he were no big deal. The pit of her stomach sank. He was so much more than a big deal, and she knew her mother would see right through her facade.
"You've been seeing him a lot, and I see the way you look at him, Daisy. How does he feel about you leaving?"
"I don't know. We haven't talked about it much." Daisy fidgeted with the arm of the chair. She didn't want to think about leaving. "He's probably dying of thirst. I'm going to grab some lemonade. Want me to fill yours?"
Her mother touched her hand. "No, thanks. Sweetie?"
"These things have a way of working themselves out."
"Thanks, Mom." She watched Luke put the ladder away. "I have no idea how I can be so attached to him after just a few days."
"Oh, goodness, Daisy." Her mother laughed. "I knew I wanted to marry your father after our first date. No, wait. I knew it after I first noticed him in second grade."
Daisy had never believed in anything remotely close to love at first sight, but she was dangerously close to that big L word, and she feared it had the ability to turn the life she'd planned for herself upside down.
Luke crossed the lawn with a purposeful, confident gait. His broad shoulders were squared, and as he neared, his rounded biceps and ripped abs came into clear view. Daisy's pulse sped up.
"Lordy, Daisy. Now, that's one handsome man," her mother said just above a whisper.
"I know, right?" The comment didn't surprise her. Her mother loved her father, but she was still a woman, and a person would have to be blind not to be taken with Luke Braden. "I'm going to grab that lemonade. I'll be right out."
Daisy went inside and filled two glasses with ice and lemonade. Noticing her father sitting in his recliner with a stack of papers in his lap, she said, "Hi, Dad. Want some lemonade?"
"No, thanks. How did it go out there?" He sounded tired, or maybe bored.
Daisy came around to the front of his chair so she could see his face. Dressed in his typical jeans and plaid shirt, he kept his eyes trained on his papers, his brows drawn together. She'd misread his voice. He was three fingers deep in inventory spreadsheets. Daisy took that as a good sign. Even if he wasn't out and about, at least his mind was ready to get back to work. "Fine. We're done, and Luke worked on the loft elevator on the old barn. I'm not sure if he fixed it or not."
At that, her father drew his eyes up to her. "Did he, now?"
"Mm-hm. I hope that's okay."
Her father pushed to his feet with a low groan.
"Are you okay, Dad?"
She grabbed the lemonade and followed him out to the porch.
"You should be good to go now," Luke said as he climbed the steps. He pulled his shirt from his back pocket and wiped his hands, then nodded at Daisy's mother. "Good to see you, ma'am."
Her mother shook his hand. "Nice to see you, too, Luke."
He nodded at Daisy's father. "How's your back doing, sir?"
"Getting better every day," her father answered.
Daisy and her mother exchanged a that's-news-to-me glance. She was surprised that her father would share that with Luke when he hadn't so much as given Daisy or her mother any indication that he was feeling better.
"The chain on the loft elevator was loose, but I tightened it up and it's working fine now." Luke shoved his shirt back in his pocket.
"Thank you, Luke," her father said. He lifted his chin and looked down at Luke. "How's that ranch of yours coming along?"
Luke's smile reached his eyes, and pride filled his tone. "Couldn't be better. My young stock's coming right along. You know how farm life is. Every day the sun comes up is another day to enjoy it." Luke looked down at his bare chest. "I'm sorry for not being dressed, sir, but my shirt is pretty drenched."
Her father nodded, but didn't respond.
"That's okay, Luke. I think David was bare chested for the first twenty years we lived here. Right, hon?" She patted his leg.
Daisy's father smiled down at her mother, then drew serious eyes back to Luke. "At some point we should talk about crops."
"Oh, David, Daisy's only here for another few weeks, and he'll probably want to spend as much time with her as he can before she leaves." Her mother slid a smile her way.
Before she leaves. The thought of leaving scratched like sandpaper. Daisy handed Luke a glass of lemonade.
"Thanks, Dais." He finished the lemonade in one long drink. He looked down at his sweaty body. "I should probably get back and check on my girls."
It shouldn't bother her that they were going in separate directions. He needed to take care of his horses, and she needed to go home, get cleaned up, and spend some time thinking about her job offers. But as he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, and she melted again, she knew she'd go home, shower and change, and then get into her Prius and drive straight to his place-with a bag of clean clothes for tomorrow morning, or maybe for the week.
Luke shifted his eyes to her parents. "Sir, ma'am, it was nice to see you."
Daisy had to bite her tongue to keep from sighing dreamily like a fan girl as he walked away, Levi's hugging him in all the right places, bare, broad shoulders swaggering, and all those tanned and glorious muscles bunching and flexing as he reached into his pocket and dug out his keys.
"Nice young man." Daisy's father patted her shoulder, knocking her world a little more off-kilter.