DAISY'S STOMACH HAD been tied in knots all day over talking to the administrator about holding a clinic for the kids' physicals before the school year started and in anticipation of seeing Luke again. She sighed as she left the administrator's office and was glad for the distraction when her cell phone vibrated. She smiled when she saw the text was from Luke. Just seeing his name on the screen of her phone sent a little thrill through her. She opened the text and a picture popped up of Luke's face pressed to the cheek of the most adorable little horse she'd ever seen. The caption read, Come by after work and meet Shaley. Her shift at the clinic was over in ten minutes, and she could think of nothing she'd rather do than see him and meet that cute little horse. He'd called her while she was on her way to work to say good morning, and he'd said that he'd thought about her all night. She'd had to repress a squeal of delight like a fourteen-year-old crushing on the coolest boy in school, because she'd spent the night reliving their time together.
"Romeo?" Kevin glanced at her phone.
She sighed. "Am I that transparent?"
"Let's put it this way. You either had great sex last night with your new man, or you're wearing vibrating underwear like Katherine Heigl wore in The Ugly Truth," he whispered.
She swatted him. "Shh. Oh my God. I can't believe you remember that scene." The movie had been on pay-per-view one night when they were on the phone commiserating about something or other, and they'd watched it while they talked.
"That's awful." She bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.
"That's worse. Now you look like...Oh never mind. What did the wicked witch say?" Kevin had deemed the administrator of the clinic, Ashley Brunt, the wicked witch the first week he'd worked there. She looked down her nose when she spoke to the employees. She was a stickler for rules, short-tempered, and hardly ever left the chair behind her enormous wooden desk-or as Kevin called it, her throne.
"What do you think she said?" Daisy stalked down the hall. "She said we're an urgent-care center, not a well-care facility, and that if the parents need to have physicals done in a timely fashion, they should find more equipped GPs. Can you believe that? I mean, talk about coldhearted. She lives here. How can she go to sleep at night knowing there are kids who aren't getting their well-care checkups?"
"You're surprised? She is the wicked witch, you know, not the fairy godmother. So what now?" Kevin was giving her his I-know-you're-not-giving-up squinty-eyed look.
"Want to grab a beer while you think?"
"I can't." She felt the tell-all smile return.
"You're seeing Luke? Good for you. You deserve a little fun."
"Thanks, Kev. John didn't show up, so I need to cut my dad's hay today, too, and tomorrow I need to bale it. After I see Luke for a few minutes, my budding romance and my free weekend will both be pushed aside with one fell swoop while I play farm girl." She banged her head on Kevin's chest.
"Now, now, drama girl."
She glared at him. Drama girl was their term for the girls who played out annoying theatrics in high school. "Didn't I ever teach you not to taunt a frustrated female?"
"I thought Luke relieved all of your frustration. Now you're just being greedy."
She lifted her hand as if to swat him, and he held up his hands in surrender.
"I'm kidding. Sorry." His bangs flopped into his eyes, and he tossed his head to the side to clear them. They flopped right back into place. "I'll help you tomorrow. What time?" Kevin's family owned a farm at the other end of town, and while they were primarily sheep farmers, they had a small hay field as well.
"Really? God, I love you. Nine? Does that work?" Thank goodness. She was surprised that John hadn't shown up to cut the hay, but her father's farm wasn't his responsibility. It's not mine, either. She didn't mind helping him, but she had hoped for more time with Luke.
"Yup. I'll meet you at your dad's. Come on. I'll walk out with you."
Daisy gathered her things and hung up her lab coat. "Do you think I'm making a huge mistake? I mean, I really like Luke, and I'm leaving in a few weeks." She needed to make time to review the offers again and to think about what she wanted from them. This weekend. She'd definitely do it this weekend.
"Part of me wants to convince you to marry the guy, just to keep you in Trusty instead of New York or Chicago. You know you won't find any friends there who are as great as I am."
She rested her head on his arm. "You can come with me. Nurses can work anywhere."
Kevin sighed. "I'm afraid I'm a true Trusty boy, and someday I'll find a non-Trusty girl to sweep off her feet." Kevin loved Trusty as much as Daisy hated it, despite the gossip. He'd kid about wanting to leave, but Daisy knew better. He never missed the Christmas tree lighting at the center of town. He got excited before the town parade in May each year, and he stayed until the last of the confetti had been thrown. He never seemed to crave the fast pace and same level of experience that Daisy did, and despite it all, their friendship was solid and he supported Daisy's desire to flee Trusty-even when she knew he'd rather she was right there beside him, singing Christmas carols and throwing confetti.
"We'll find you someone. I just know it. So? Mistake?"
"No pressure in that question," he said sarcastically. "The way I see it, you're here now, and you enjoy spending time with him." He shrugged. "What's the harm?"
"That I'll really fall for him and then leaving will be ten times as hard."
"When you're taking someone to bed, follow your heart and not your head. You're the one who taught me that, remember?"
"I was drunk and hundreds of miles away. When was that? Our freshman year of college? I was drinking when I said it, and I meant for you not to overanalyze like you were. Remember that phase you went through?" She deepened her voice to sound more like Kevin. "What message will I send her if I text too often? What did that look mean? She slept over. Does that mean I have to ask her out again?" She rolled her eyes.
Kevin opened the door to the clinic and they walked out to the parking lot together. "I thought it was very sage advice."
"It was, for an eighteen-year-old. I think I have to use my head and my heart."
Daisy had her nose in her purse, searching for her keys while she and Kevin walked to the parking lot.
"Hm? Where did I put those darn keys?" She finally felt them and whipped them out with a victorious smile, jingling them in front of Kevin.
Kevin held her gaze. "For once in your damn life, listen to your heart and let your head take a little nap." He headed for his car. "See you tomorrow. Nine o'clock."
It wasn't a nap she was worried about where Luke Braden was concerned. Ever since last night, her heart had been doing the hundred-yard dash while her head was playing hooky altogether.
LUKE STOOD BESIDE Rose in the center of the barn. Rose was a six-year-old chestnut broodmare and the mother of Shaley. Luke took great care when grooming his horses, and as he brushed the tender skin of Rose's face with the soft brush, he swore he saw a contented, grateful look in her dark eyes. She bent her neck and leaned her forehead against Luke's chest. He pressed a kiss to her hard head, then rested his cheek against her for a breath, enjoying the connection. Before moving to Trusty when he was six, Luke and his siblings had spent a lot of time at their uncle Hal's horse ranch, and while Luke had a difficult time bonding with people, horses stuck to him like glue.
Luke used that same soft brush on Rose's underbelly before moving to the thick, blond feather around her hooves. He was careful around the bones in her lower legs, as they were closer to the surface and could be sensitive if knocked with a comb or brush. Like most gypsy horses, Rose was good-natured and patient. She seemed to enjoy the grooming process as much as Luke did. Luke's stock of gypsy horses were affectionate creatures, fast learners, and he raised them well. The offspring usually started out as pocket ponies, following on his heels whenever they could.
A breeze swept through the open barn doors, drawing Luke's eyes to the front of the barn for the tenth time that hour in anticipation of Daisy's arrival. As crazy as it was for a man like Luke, he missed her
. He'd seen his cousins fall in love over the past few years, and just like in the movies, they fell fast and hard. Luke had never imagined himself being swept up in love, or even wanting to be, but Daisy stirred all sorts of emotions in him that he'd never felt before. He couldn't help but wonder if that is what his cousins had felt. All those warm and unfamiliar feelings also had him thinking about his parents, and more specifically, his father. His mother wouldn't talk about his father, but he wondered if someplace deep inside she still missed him, or if she loathed the very thought of him.
He wondered if his father ever thought of them after all these years. Did he miss his children when he left? Did he ever try to reconcile? Those were things he hadn't given much thought to until recently, and now he couldn't let those wonders go. He tried to push the thoughts away and focus on Rose.
Luke set the grooming brushes and combs aside and spread his hands on Rose's chest, then closed his eyes, concentrating on matching the cadence of her breathing. Once they were in sync, he ran his palm across her back, pressing firmly as he moved down her chest, along her belly and hips, drawing tension away from her spine. He became aware of each of Rose's muscles, the way her coat felt thinner around her knees, and the curve of her belly as he followed the point of her hip south. Luke had found that massage helped him to relax as much as the horse. He felt a change in Rose's breathing as he moved along her chest, and his thoughts turned to Daisy. There was nothing erotic or sexual about touching Rose, and he wasn't thinking about a sexual touch with Daisy. He was thinking about bonding on a deeper level. He wanted to learn where she was the most sensitive, what calmed her-and what revved her up. He wanted to know more about her-what had driven her into medicine, what she dreamed of, and what she feared.
And he knew he was jumping the gun.
When he finished the massage, he came around to Rose's head again and pressed another kiss to her face. "You're a good girl, Rosie."
"Is it crazy that I'm jealous of that horse?" Daisy stood in the doorway, watching him with the dreamy look girls got in their eyes when they saw kittens or puppies.
Her smile shot right to Luke's core as he crossed the barn and took her in his arms. "God, I've missed you." When he lowered his mouth to hers, she kissed him hungrily, anxiously, clinging to his chest like she had last night. They came apart breathless, and he held her against him in a warm embrace. "I'm happy to give you a rubdown. How long were you standing there?"
"Long enough that I was practically panting for your affection. That was amazing. You both looked so...peaceful. Can I pet her?"
"Of course." He watched Daisy with Rose. "My cousin Rex's fiancée, Jade, taught me about horse massage. It's a great way to bond with the horses."
Daisy ran her hands through Rose's thick mane. "Women would kill for this type of hair. You are a lucky girl." She petted the soft spot between the horse's nostrils and gazed into her eyes. "She's really beautiful. Don't you wonder what she's thinking about? What are you thinking, Rose?"
Luke had seen too many people treat horses like they didn't have feelings. They'd pet them with the emotion of touching the cold steel of a car, or led them to the pastures with about as much care as if they were pulling a wagon of hay. It was disconcerting for Luke, and as he listened to Daisy talking to Rose, it warmed him all over.
"She's Shaley's mom, the four-month-old filly in the picture I sent."
"Oh my God. She was so cute, I could barely stand it."
"Now I'm jealous of my foal." He untied Rose and they walked her back out to the pasture. The other horses ran to the gate to greet them. Shaley was among the group.
Daisy stuck her hand through the fence and petted Shaley. "She's so cute. How do you stand it?"
"I spend a lot of time training, grooming, giving them rubdowns. I get more time with my girls than anyone else." He leaned against the fence and watched her eyes widen as Shaley went to Rose and began to nurse.
Daisy sighed. "Look at that. The maternal connection always blows me away, with people and animals. I mean, childbirth is not easy, and instead of taking all that pain out on the baby, mothers forget the pain and they nurture and love the very thing that caused it." She shook her head. "It's incredible."
"It's kind of crazy that paternal instincts aren't as strong." He couldn't believe he'd said it aloud.
Daisy hooked her finger in the waist of his jeans. "Thinking about your father?"
Yes. He shrugged.
"Father's don't carry babies for months and get attached to them before they're born like mother's do."
"True, but sometimes they stick around for years and then disappear." He had no idea why he was revealing his most intimate feelings to Daisy, when he barely admitted them to himself. The compassion in her eyes was so vivid and clear that he fought against it out of embarrassment, and he looked away. "Stallions are the same way. They kick and bite. Maybe it's a male thing."
She pressed her palm to his cheek and drew his eyes back to hers. "You don't kick and bite. And these horses aren't your offspring, but you nurture them as if they are. It's not a male thing. I think it's a chemical thing. Think about it. Some mothers do horrible things to their children, or abandon them, and some fathers do the same. So it can't be related to the sex of the parent. It has to run deeper. Otherwise all fathers wouldn't feel connected to their children. Right?"
"Dr. Daisy has arrived." He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.
"Your dad left before you guys moved here, right?"
His chest tightened. "Yeah. He stuck around until a few months before I was born."
"Does caring for the young horses and seeing the way the broodmares nurture them make you think about him?"
Luke slowed his pace. How could he have missed the connection? As much as buying the ranch had helped him become less restless, it also made him want to settle down in his personal life. Of course it was that desire to settle down that had him thinking more and more about his childhood and about Buddy. He was nowhere near ready to talk about this.
"I didn't ask you to come over to talk about something so heavy. Do you have time to grab dinner?"
"Actually, I have to cut my dad's hay. John didn't show up, and since there's no rain in the forecast, this is the perfect weekend to get it done."
"He didn't show up?" Luke knew John Waller had been helping Daisy's father since he injured his back. He was a responsible man and a loyal friend. Luke was surprised to hear he'd leave her father hanging.
Daisy shrugged. "I learned a long time ago never to expect too much from people. He has his own farm to take care of. I'm just happy I'm here to help."
"I'm not sure what it was like in Philly, but here, it's okay to rely on people."
She rolled her eyes. "That's not the Trusty I know."
"Sounds to me like you still see Trusty through the eyes of a scorned teenager." No wonder you're in a hurry to leave.
"Probably." She fiddled with the seam of her shirt.
"That's a shame, but it makes sense." Looks like we both have something to learn about connecting. "Come on. I'll help you cut your dad's hay." He draped an arm over her shoulder.
"You don't have to help. I know how to do it, and I'm sure you have stuff to do here."
"Chores are never done on a ranch, so sure, I could work until midnight, but none of them would be as much fun as being with you or as meaningful as helping your father." He pulled her close and kissed her cheek.
DAISY'S PARENTS WERE inside when they arrived, and since it was already late, Daisy went inside to see her parents while Luke went to work. He drove Daisy's father's tractor, cutting the hay under the evening haze, and he thought about Daisy. He hadn't planned on talking to her about his father, but once the words came out, he was glad they had, even if he'd had to cut the conversation short for fear of becoming too emotional. She hadn't pushed him or talked so much that he couldn't think, and she'd watched him so intently that he couldn't help but feel as though she was doing so for more than just curiosity.
She might even care.
He hoped she did.