LUKE HOVERED OVER his older brother Ross's shoulder as Ross examined Shaley's leg. Ross was five years older than Luke and he had a veterinary practice in town.
"Mind giving me a little space?" Ross looked over his shoulder at Luke. "You're like a mother hen."
"I can't stand that she's hurt." Luke stepped from the stall to give Ross space.
"She'll be fine. It's a fresh wound. You caught it early, Luke. That's a good thing. I can't tell you how many clients don't check their horses closely enough at night and wonder how bacteria can settle in overnight. You did good. It's a three-inch gash, and it's not too deep. I cleaned it up and put salve on it. You'll have to check the dressing to make sure it doesn't get too tight and change it twice a day."
Luke heard Daisy's car in the driveway. "I'll be right back." He met her on the path to the barn and wrapped her in his arms. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Is Shaley okay? I saw the Braden Veterinary truck. Is Ross here? I haven't seen him in years."
"Yeah. He's checking her out. He thinks she's okay."
"Hey, are you okay? You look really worried." She stroked his cheek, and he pressed his hand to hers and held it there.
"I'm worried. I hate that she's hurt, but I'm okay. I'm better now that you're here. I missed you." He kissed her as they walked into the barn.
Ross came out of Shaley's stall and wiped his hands on a rag. "She'll be okay, but, Luke, you need to keep an eye on it. You know the drill. If she gets feverish or the skin gets hot-any signs of infection, call me." He smiled at Daisy. "Daisy Honey, I haven't seen you in a hundred years. I think you were twelve or thirteen the last time I saw you."
"Hi, Ross." Daisy's eyes jumped between the two men. "Wow, you guys could be twins."
"I'm much better looking." Ross rolled up his sleeve. "And my tattoo is much cooler than his." He flexed his biceps and the palm tree on his muscle wiggled.
Luke punched him in the arm.
"You're a doctor, right?" Ross asked. "What's your specialty?"
"Great. We need a new doc in town."
"Actually, Daisy's not sure she's going to practice here," Luke explained.
"I haven't decided." She looked at Luke, and he could tell she was wrestling with the decision.
His gut clenched tight at the reality that she was still considering leaving.
"I know you're the town vet, but do you mainly handle large animals, or do you see small animals, too?" Daisy asked.
"Both. Like a small-town doc, I do whatever the good old Trusty residents need, but I'm sort of known for doing regenerative therapy in horses. I do state-of-the-art stem cell and platelet-rich-plasma therapy to enhance the healing and quality of repair of tendon and ligament injuries."
"You do PRP. That's fascinating."
Luke stole into Shaley's stall while they talked. It killed him to see Shaley's leg wrapped up.
"I have to take off, Luke. Keep it clean and change the dressing twice a day."
Luke rose to his feet and embraced Ross. "Love you, bro. Thanks for coming out."
"Anytime." Ross opened his arms to Daisy. "We're huggers, so you might as well get used to it." He folded her into his arms. "Take care of Luke tonight. He's a big baby where his girls are concerned. He'll need pampering."
Luke loved seeing Ross welcome Daisy so warmly, and when Daisy met Luke's gaze over his brother's shoulder, he could feel the love she felt for him.
"I think I can handle that."
After Ross left the barn, Luke drew Daisy into a deep kiss.
"You guys look so much alike, it's scary."
He kissed her again. "Don't get any ideas. I'm a much better kisser than him." He nuzzled against her neck. "Did you bring your closet?"
"Just about. I've got my bag in the car." She knelt by Shaley and stroked her belly. "How are you, sweet baby girl?"
Luke joined her, and they sat in the stall with Shaley. "Are you sure you don't mind being here instead of your place?"
"I want to be wherever you are, and now I want to be wherever she is. Poor girl." Daisy's eyes filled with compassion. She scooted closer to Luke, and he draped his arm around her. "You know you treat your girls like they're your children."
"Yeah. It's really cute. I love it, actually."
"Before my cousin Treat and his wife, Max, had their baby, Adriana, it had been ages since I'd been around a baby. One thing's for sure. You can't be in a bad mood with a baby around. You should see Treat with her. He's six foot six, and she's so tiny. One smile does him in."
"My mom always says babies turn grown men into melted butter." She smiled, he assumed, at the memory.
Luke kissed Daisy's cheek. "So do you."
"Do you ever think about having kids?"
He felt her tense a little against him as she asked the question. It struck him as a very big question, one that made him hope she was contemplating a future with him. Honesty rolled easily off his tongue. "Before I met you, I never thought about having a girlfriend, much less kids. Being with you has brought a lot of stuff to the surface. I've been thinking a lot about my dad. A few days ago, I asked Pierce to help me track him down. He called earlier and said he's got the information. Pierce is visiting my uncle in Weston, so I'm meeting him there on Friday. I won't be gone long, just a few hours."
"Wow. Is that...Wow. You've never met your father, right?" She looked up at him with an assessing, and compassionate, gaze.
"Nope. I'm not sure if I want to now, but I want answers. I don't really know why he left, or why he never got in touch with me to, I don't know, get to meet his son. He left before I was born. I'm the only one he's never met."
"Oh, Luke. I hadn't thought about that. That has to hurt. I'm so sorry." She squeezed his hand.
He shrugged. "It is what it is. I just...I want to move forward with you, but I feel like I need to have closure with my past before I can make a meaningful future."
"I'm sorry, Luke. You must have had this on your mind. I should have been more aware of your feelings."
"How could you? I wasn't even aware. I've never thought about family much. I sort of take them for granted, you know? But being with you has me thinking about all sorts of things." He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "Enough about my father. Tell me what happened with Janice."
"Being with you has me thinking about things, too."
They held each other's gaze, the silence filled with unasked questions-What things are you thinking about? Do you want more with me? Should we talk about it? There were a million things Luke wanted to ask, and it was his fear of the answers that held him back. He knew what he wanted with Daisy-a future. Everything. And he could feel that she loved him. He didn't doubt that one bit, but what she had at stake was her entire future, the career she'd worked toward for eleven long years.
He saw questions and worry in her eyes, too. He loved her too much to force the issue. He held his tongue and let her lead their conversation in whatever direction she chose.
"Janice," she said quietly.
Disappointment hung over him like a cloud, but he didn't blame her for choosing that path. With Shaley hurt and their emotions so raw, she needed time.
When she continued, her voice was stronger. "She showed up at my apartment and thanked me for helping her and apologized. It was weird, but I'm glad she came over. It was nice to actually sit down and talk instead of just reacting to crazy situations, you know? She's staying with her mom, but she loves Darren. Gosh, I could see it in her eyes, Luke. She really loves him."
I know the feeling. "Hopefully, he'll get some help." Luke pulled her close. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, just tired, and I'm trying to figure out my job situation. You know."
Boy, do I ever. His stomach clenched. "Want me to give you a rubdown?"
She narrowed her beautiful blue eyes. "Is that code for something dirty?"
Luke rose to his feet. "It wasn't, but I'll have to keep that in mind. I'll be right back." He went into the tack room and came back with a blanket, which he spread on the ground outside Shaley's stall. "Take your shirt off, lie on your stomach, and I'll help you relax."
She hooked her finger in his jeans with a flirtatious smile. "My shirt? This is definitely something dirty."
"You keep doing that and it will be something dirty
." He lifted her shirt over her head, and the sight of her lacy pink bra drew a groan from him. "Okay, maybe that wasn't a good idea." He lowered his mouth to her bare shoulder and kissed his way to the crest of her breast.
"Or maybe it was a very good idea." She slid her hands beneath his shirt, and his body instantly reacted to her touch.
He drew back. "Jesus, Daisy, you get me hard so fast. This is not where I was headed." He guided her down to the blanket on her stomach. "You're way too sexy. You make it hard for me to think."
She stretched her arms above her head and closed her eyes. "Then don't think."
He came down on his knees beside her and kissed her cheek. "As much as I want to climb on top of you and love you until you scream out my name..." He kissed the back of her neck. He was so nervous about revealing his feelings that he was having trouble concentrating. "This is harder than I thought."
She opened her eyes and smiled. "Or you're harder than you thought."
"I'm stumbling over my own feet, Dais. I was hoping we could talk about things." He needed to talk to her, had to clear the air and see where they were heading. He forced himself to push aside his lust-if only for a little while. He placed his hands on her shoulders and her hot, silky skin had him even more befuddled.
"Things?" She smiled. "Like the weather?" She wiggled her hips.
"That is so unfair." He massaged her shoulders. "Like us and where we're headed." He felt her shoulders tense beneath his touch.
"That made you tense." He drew a deep breath. Somehow, thinking about and talking about the future were very different. He thought it would be easy, but now fear trickled in. What if she was dead set on going to New York or Chicago?
"Not tense, just nervous," she admitted.
"Me too." Luke worked his way down each arm, squeezing the muscles and kneading the tension away. "Does that help?"
She exhaled, and he felt her tension slip away, just as he had with the horses. Maybe he could connect on a deeper level. Wasn't that what his emotions had been driving him toward all along? It wasn't that he couldn't connect, he was realizing. It was partly that his past was holding him back, but now he realized that it was so much bigger than that. How could he bond with anyone on a deep, meaningful level without the base of love? The love he felt for Daisy was pure and real. Nothing in his life had ever come close. Even his love for his family and his love for his horses-all of whom he thought he loved with his entire being-was different. They'd scratched a deep groove into his soul-Daisy ripped it open and slipped straight through.
He drew the tension away from her spine, massaging outward with a firm, loving touch. He contemplated not revealing his feelings. Maybe she'd feel pressure to stay if he did, and that wouldn't be good. He took another deep breath.
"If you take one of those other jobs, when would you leave?" His stomach took a funky, nervous dive. He felt her holding her breath, which caused him to hold his, anticipating and fearing her answer. He moved his hands down to her leg and massaged her thigh.
"I'm not sure I can think with you doing that," Daisy said in a seductive voice.
"If I can think, and I'm the one touching you, then you can at least try." His thumb grazed the crease of her ass. He grit his teeth against the urge to follow that curve right up between her legs.
"I'll try." She exhaled loudly. "Trusty is the last place I wanted to settle down, but now that I'm here, it's hard to ignore how badly they need a doctor."
He was afraid to get his hopes up. He squeezed her leg as he moved down toward her calf. "And?"
"I don't know." She sucked in a breath when he moved his hands to the other leg. "If I was rubbing you like this, there's no way you'd be able to think."
"I can barely think now, Dais."
"Or you're trying to relax me into submission." She turned over onto her back. "Does this help relax you into submission?"
Luke's eyes took a slow stroll down her body, drinking in taut nipples pressed against her lacy bra and the swell of her hips above the waist of her low-riding cutoffs. His chest constricted so tight, he thought it might clamp down and his lungs would stop functioning if he didn't get it out right then.
"Daisy, I..." Love you. Want to touch you. Need to touch you. What he felt for her was so much bigger than three simple words. "You make my head spin." He inhaled deeply, trying to concentrate-which was becoming more and more difficult with every breath he took. He lay down beside her and brought his thigh over hers, then draped his arm across her stomach and leaned on one elbow. Daisy lay on her back, gazing up at him with so much love in her eyes it felt like an embrace.
"I've been restless my whole life, and I couldn't, or maybe I wouldn't, connect with anyone. I don't know why that was, but I've never felt anything like what I feel when I'm with you. When I think about sharing my thoughts, or sharing my bed, there's only you, Daisy." He cupped her cheek and gazed into her eyes. "I love who you are, and I want to be with you-when you want me and when you need me. I want to feel your body melt against me at the end of a hard day, and I want to help you hold down bloody, drunken guys in bathtubs."
"Luke," she said in a breathy whisper. She reached for him, and he took her hand in his and pressed a kiss to it.
"Let me finish." His pulse raced. He was powerless to stop the words from tumbling out. "I know you might not feel as strongly, and I know you have big plans for your career, and that you might leave Trusty and go to New York or Chicago, or someplace else altogether. I get that, and if that's where you're headed, then it is. I support whatever you want to do. But I want you to know that I want to be with you, Daisy." He brushed her hair from her face and cupped her cheeks. "I feel like I can't think beyond being with you."
Daisy put her hands on his wrists, and for a minute-which felt like a lifetime-she didn't say anything. Her eyes searched his; her luscious lips parted. He wanted to lean down and kiss her, but he was struck numb. Had he made a mistake? Had he totally misread her? He lowered his hands from her cheeks, and she blinked several times, as if she'd been struck as numb as he had.
When she finally spoke, her voice was a jagged thread. "I do feel just as strongly. I..." She lifted up on her elbow; her lips were a breath away.
"You do?" He could barely breathe.
"Yes. I love everything about you. I love the way you look at me and how when another guy walks by, you tighten your grip on me."
"I tighten my grip?"
She nodded, smiled. "Yeah. Just a little."
"I didn't even realize it."
"I know. I figured. But you don't do it around Kevin."
"No? I guess coming from a big family, I understand that no one person can be everything to the person they love. Friends have a valuable place in everyone's life." Luke's siblings had always filled the roles that friends filled for others. "Kevin was there for you when you needed him most, and I expect he'll be there for you forever. Or at least I hope so. That's a good thing, Dais. I'm glad you have him. He loves you and cares about you like you're his sister...or at least that's how it seems to me."
She shook her head. "I love that about you. Some boyfriends would be jealous of Kevin."
Boyfriend. He loved that.
"Know what else I love about you?" She continued. "That you care enough about people to step in and stand up for them when they're too weak to stand up for themselves. I love that you wanted to stay with Shaley tonight. I love that you're close to your family and that you care enough about me to help my dad. But mostly, I just love being with you. It doesn't matter if we're kissing, talking, cutting hay, or holding down a drunken, bloody guy in a bathtub. My heart is full when we're together, and when we're not, it's the emptiest feeling in the world."
Luke's world stilled as her words sank in, and when he lowered his mouth to kiss her, more words tumbled free.
"I love you, Daisy."
Her eyes dampened. "Oh, Luke. I was afraid to say it, because it's all so fast, and I thought I must have been fooling myself or something, but I trust my feelings, and I love you, too."
Their lips met with a tender, loving kiss that sealed their words.