Four months later …
When his truck rolled up to the wide-open doors of Jo Hollister’s barn, Ben was conscious of a familiar lift in his spirits. It happened every time he came out to Windy Corner on a call. He didn’t want to understand it at first, but by now, he’d admitted the truth to himself.
Even the possibility of running into Merry was like a pair of warm hands taking him by the shoulders and shaking him, hard.
But in a good way.
He swung down from the cab carefully, avoiding the loose runner board by habit, and hauled his battered canvas medical kit over his shoulder. Rolling his shoulders, he blinked up at the puffy clouds billowing across the fading brilliance of the sunset.
Sanctuary Island, off the coast of Virginia, had satisfyingly defined seasons—cold winters with the occasional ice storm, rainy springs leading to profusions of blooming flowers, steamy summers cut by cool ocean breezes … but fall was by far Ben’s favorite.
The humidity of summer finally overtaken by the oncoming chill, the turning of the leaves from green to burnished orange, red, and gold. The air was so clean and clear, it almost sparkled. Breathing it in, Ben felt his lungs open up, greedy for more. After the strenuous work of the last two hours, vaccinating Pete Cloudough’s herd of weaning calves, his muscles twitched with the need to stretch.
He’d deliberately left his weekly Windy Corner visit to last on his schedule for the day, so he could take his time and maximize the chances of seeing Merry and baby Alex. The vaccinations had gone on longer than he’d planned, though, and now he was pretty sure he’d missed his window.
Jo’s younger daughter was almost as invested in the scheme to turn Windy Corner from a regular boarding and training stable into a therapeutic riding center as her mother was. When Ben came by to check the horses, Merry was often working in the barn office, with her infant son in a playpen by the desk.
Since that stormy night when he’d gazed down at the new mother and baby boy and realized how much he wanted to be a part of their lives, he’d worked to establish a fairly friendly rapport with Merry. He’d asked her about the process of learning to write grant applications and how much money they could hope for from government programs to supplement the bank loan the Hollister women had fought so hard for last spring. He’d shared his management woes when yet another receptionist quit on him, and heard Merry’s complaints about how hard it was to hire the perfect person to start building their therapy staff.
But that was about as far as Ben had gotten. Anything more personal, and either he froze up or said something cutting without even meaning to. It was intensely frustrating that he seemed to have no control over his demeanor when he’d always prided himself on his self-control. But then, all that so-called self-control was actually a conditioned response, a habit of behavior he’d developed at a young age to keep people at arm’s length.
He locked people out, behind the impenetrable wall of his sarcasm and cynicism. Sure, it meant he spent most of his time alone … but at least it was by his own choice. It worked for him.
Or it used to. But ever since he’d met Merry, ever since the night when he was the first person to hold Alex … well. He wanted to change. But change didn’t come as easily as he’d hoped. It didn’t help that he knew Merry had disliked him from the minute they met.
Not unusual—he had that effect on most people. And for the most part, Ben was happy to keep the world at arm’s length. A few folks made it their business to nudge in closer, like his friend and neighbor, Grady Wilkes. But when it was up to Ben to invite someone in because he wanted to be closer, he choked.
It just wasn’t something he’d learned how to do while growing up in that big, cold, empty estate just outside of Richmond. Esteemed surgeons Tripp and Pamela Fairfax hadn’t had a lot of time for personal relationships, including parenting.
And of course, there was Ashley.
Grimacing, Ben shook his head to dislodge the image of his pale, perfect ex-wife, and strode into the barn.
The welcoming scents of cut hay, leather, and oats enveloped Ben the moment his boots hit the rough concrete floor of the open corridor between the horse stalls.
An inquisitive, dappled gray head poked over the door of the stall closest to him. Ben took a moment to run a hand down the mare’s soft, whiskered muzzle, automatically using the caress to check that her nostrils were dry. All summer, this little lady had sported a runny nose like a sniffly kid, and Jo had been in a flap, worrying about issues like tooth rot, a sinus infection, or worst, strangles. But after Ben did some blood work and an endoscopic, he’d diagnosed the mare with allergies.
“Looks like I was right, yet again. Swapping out that old, dusty straw for clean wood-pellet bedding took care of those sniffles, exactly as I predicted.” There was nothing like the satisfaction of having a diagnosis proved right, and a patient on the mend. A feeling almost like happiness uncurled, warm and soft, in his chest.
The mare blinked her long-lashed eyes at him dreamily, nosing at his pockets for the peppermints he carried as treats. Ben gave her a grin as he unwrapped a piece of candy.
“You’ve got my number, huh? A little light flirting, some nuzzling, and I’m all yours,” he said, holding the candy on the flat of his palm for the horse to lip up.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The throaty, amused voice behind him squeezed at Ben’s heart, forcing it into an irregular rhythm.
Ben froze, his ridiculous pulse racing as the mare crunched down that peppermint in half a second and went back to his empty hand for more. Finding nothing, the mare blew out a breath and removed her head from the stall opening, and Ben swallowed.
Time to face the woman who’d crashed into his well-ordered life like a comet exploding through the atmosphere.
“Or does flirting only work for your four-legged patients?” Merry asked as he turned and stuck his suddenly sweaty hands in his pockets.
“They are my favorites.” He shrugged, pleased at the cool steadiness of his tone.
Merry tucked her wavy dark hair behind her ears and gave him a knowing look. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
Awkwardness stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth as he wondered if she’d figured out how he felt about his last human patient. The silence stretched for an embarrassing moment, broken only by the shift of horses in their stalls.
Finally Merry rolled her eyes, prompting Ben to notice the deep purple smudges of exhaustion in the fragile skin under them. “I meant Alex, Doc. Don’t worry, I know you don’t particularly like me—but I’ve seen you with Alex. You can’t pretend you don’t like him.”
Relief made Ben a little light-headed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t like anyone,” he reminded her. “But speaking of Alex, where is the little monster?”
Merry’s mouth quirked up at one side. “You want to say hi to him? And kiss his chubby little cheeks and rub your face in his pudgy belly. Because you don’t like him.”
She paused dramatically before poking him in the arm. “You looooove my kid.”
Ben stepped back hurriedly. When had he drifted close enough to touch her? “I like to see Alexander in a professional capacity. After I went to all the trouble of helping him into the world safely, it only makes sense to check periodically and make sure you’re not screwing him up too badly.”
He said it to tease her, trying to get into the swing of bantering. Merry made it look so easy with everyone else. But Ben proved, yet again, that what was easy for other people turned to crap in his hands.
Instead of laughing or poking him again, Merry reared back as if he’d slapped her face. “I’m not going to screw my son up!”
Torn between the desire to apologize and the need to correct an obviously inaccurate statement, Ben pressed his lips together, then shook his head. “That’s moronic. You’re a parent. All parents screw up their kids in some way.”
That one hit home—he saw it in the way her gaze suddenly darted to the door of her mother’s office on the left side of the main barn corridor.
“Why are you bringing this up?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did Mom say something to you?”
Ben was beginning to regret getting into this conversation at all. “I didn’t bring it up as a serious concern,” he said, impatience at being misunderstood sharpening his voice. “And I’m hardly the person Jo Ellen would unburden herself to, if she’s got an issue. What issue could she possibly have, anyway?”
Stubbornness firmed Merry’s soft, dimpled chin even as her lips curved up in a bright smile. “Nothing. Everything’s great.” She paused, tapping her lower lip. The playful expression on her face couldn’t quite mask the intensity in her voice when she said, “But you think I’m going to be a bad mother. Admit it.”
“Oh, for the love of—” Ben planted his hands on his hips. “Yes, studies show that single mothers are prone to using male children to replace the absent adult partner, attempting to tie the child so closely to them that bonds of codependence are often the result.”
Merry’s pretty cupid’s bow of a mouth lost its curve, going flat and thin. Ben didn’t like it.
Working to soften his voice, he tilted his head to study her. “Look. Statistically, yes, it’s likely you’ll smother Alex with attention and affection, and turn him into a classic mama’s boy. But I promise you, there are worse fates. Better too much love than too little. Everything else will work itself out.”
He wasn’t sure he believed his own words, but he could see from the struggle on Merry’s expressive face that she wanted to.
Rubbing her hands over her flushed cheeks, she pulled an embarrassed face. “Too much love—is that really possible? If so, well … too bad, because there’s not much I can do about it.” She lifted her eyes to his, glittering fiercely. “Alex is my whole life.”
Ben tried to swallow, startled at the tightness of his own throat. She was so passionate, intense in her devotion and open about showing it. Before he could think better of it, he said the words beating in his brain, barely managing to hold back the deeper truth of his heart.
“Alex is lucky to have you.”
He clenched his teeth around the rest. Anyone would be lucky to have you in his life.
The line of her shoulders loosened even as her eyes widened a bit. He’d surprised her. “Thanks. I really needed to hear that today. And I’m sorry I jumped all over you. I know you’re not exactly Mr. Warm and Fuzzy—it’s dumb for me to expect that from you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me—I would’ve thought the pregnancy hormones would be out of my system by now!”
Ben, who’d recently hauled out his old medical school textbooks and done some brushing up on human pregnancy, childbirth, and the aftermath, shook his head. “The pregnancy hormones are long gone, along with any potential postpartum shifts in mood. Whatever you’re feeling now is all you, and the effects of your current life choices.”
Merry tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave him another of those gleaming smiles that somehow didn’t reach her eyes. “My life choices. Is this your version of the you-made-your-bed-now-suck-it-the-hell-up speech? Because not everyone in the world has unlimited options, Doc.”
Dismay clutched at Ben’s gut. This interaction wasn’t going well at all. Why this should be so hard for a person of his intelligence and education, he could never figure out. Frustration tightened his chest, and for one scorching moment, he hated himself.
Retreat was the only option he could see. Turning abruptly, he muttered, “No. Sorry. I should get to work.”
The sad part was, he acknowledged silently as he slipped into the dappled mare’s stall, he knew he’d be back again next week. Hope was an irritatingly resilient emotion, especially considering that the definition of insanity was running the same experiment over and over, and expecting a new result.
Insane. Because unless Ben somehow achieved a personality transplant, every conversation he ever had with the woman of his dreams was going to turn out exactly this way—crossed wires, misunderstandings, and distance.
* * *
Merry watched him go with a funny sinking sensation around her heart. It almost felt like disappointment—an emotion she ought to recognize instantly, after the trail of loser boyfriends stretching behind her, all the way back to Shawn, who’d written her a heartfelt love letter in second grade, then torn it to shreds when his friends laughed at him—but it made no sense.
She barely knew Ben Fairfax, except as the taciturn, abrasive large-animal vet who took care of her mother’s horses, as well as most of the animals of all sizes on Sanctuary Island. And she had no intention of getting to know him better. Considering the sizzle of attraction she felt every time she saw his perfectly sculpted jaw, his tousled dark hair, his broad, muscled back hunched over as he inspected a horse’s hoof … that way lay danger.
If Merry’s heart beat faster at every glimpse into Ben Fairfax’s intense gray eyes, it was a sure bet he was no good. Her track record with men didn’t lie.
And, oh yeah—Dr. Ben Fairfax also happened to be the man who had gotten more than an eyeful of Merry’s goodies when he braved a storm to deliver her baby.
And wasn’t that just about the most awkward thing ever? This man who clearly hated every moment of making conversation with her, impatience and annoyance all over his stern, sculpted countenance, had seen her red-faced and screaming, heaving and crying and sweating and gross.
Meanwhile, he’d had his hands up her skirt and all over her ladybits, and not in the fun way.
Even for a seasoned expert in repression like Merry, that was pretty hard to sweep under the rug and roll past. She had to give him credit, though—he didn’t look at her any differently now than he had before she spent two hours grunting in his ear.
Of course, that was partly because, since the moment Jo introduced them five months ago, he’d watched her with the same intent glare. A dark, searching glare that seemed to imply Dr. Ben Fairfax could see right through her veneer to what was underneath … and boy, was he unimpressed.
Clearly she was a glutton for punishment, because she couldn’t quite make herself leave the handsome, taciturn vet alone, the way he so obviously wanted.
Wandering over to prop her arms on the stall’s crossbeam, Merry watched attentively as Ben stooped and ran his strong, square hands down Oddity’s back leg. He was checking for any swelling or hot spots, she knew from pestering him with questions on previous visits. Apparently he didn’t find any because he got to the bottom of her leg and leaned his shoulder into Oddity’s side. With a gentle cluck, he said, “Come on, sugar. I know you’re tired, but I need to check your feet.”
Merry shivered again, but this time, she couldn’t fool herself that it was the evening breeze.
Ben turned into another person when he was around animals. All his rough edges sanded down to a smooth, comforting voice that tickled over her nerves like a feather. Merry knew she should go back to the office—nothing good could come from feeding her unwanted attraction with images of Ben’s big, careful hands sweeping gently up the mare’s sensitive legs—but she didn’t move.
With a sigh, Oddity picked up her back left hoof and allowed Ben to scrape away the accumulated dirt of the day with the pick he tugged from the back pocket of his jeans. Merry had to fight not to echo the horse with an appreciative sigh of her own at the way Ben’s jeans molded to his lean hips and cupped his rear.
The silence in the barn was oddly intimate, like a warm blanket cocooning the two of them away from the rest of the world. With a rising sense of the trouble she was courting, Merry broke the silence. “You’re later than usual today. Did you have a lot of calls?”
Ben didn’t jump—as usual when he was around the horses, all his moves were slow and deliberate, with the easy grace of a man accustomed to spending time around animals much larger and stronger than himself. But from the way he glanced over his shoulder at her, a wave of black hair tumbling over his forehead, she could tell she’d startled him.
The moment spun out, strangely charged and fragile as a Tiffany glass lamp.
Ben dropped their locked stare first, going back to his exam of Oddity’s hooves. “A few. Semi-interesting case of bloat out at Miss Ruth’s farm. But then Mr. Leeds called with a Pippin emergency.”
He straightened up and sent her a wry look over Oddity’s back, and Merry bit her lips over a smile. Percy was a fifty-two-pound bulldog who was the light of elderly Mr. Dabney Leeds’s existence—especially since his scheme to get his hands on her family’s ancestral home was foiled last spring.
Percy the bulldog was arguably the most spoiled, cossetted animal in the history of the world, living a pampered life of luxurious cashmere doggie beds, gourmet canned food, and designer outfits. Crotchety old Mr. Leeds adored him unreservedly—but his love was mostly unrequited.
The poor dog was frequently sick—at least, according to his worried owner, who had a subscription to WebMD and wasn’t afraid to use it. Ben had been called out for varying complaints ranging from canine restless leg syndrome to hiccups.
To top it off, Percy appeared to find the dainty costumes he was forced into to be the worst sort of torture imaginable. He was often seen around town wearing his tweed coat and miniature lace-up booties, straining at the end of his custom-tooled leather leash, a wild look in his bulging eyes.
“Oh no. What did Mr. Leeds think Percy had this time?”
“According to Mr. Leeds, he was concerned that after my last visit when I told him Percy needed to lose weight, the dog had become bulimic. Evidently, he’d been exhibiting binge-and-purge behavior.”
Merry grimaced in sympathy. “Lots of puppy puke, huh?”
“Oceans of it,” Ben agreed. “Of course, what Mr. Leeds failed to take into account was the fact that Percy’s so-called binging occurred when Mr. Leeds fed him foie gras as a special treat.”
Suppressing laughter, Merry cocked her head. “Well. I guess … it looks like dog food?”
“That was exactly his justification when I yelled at him for giving brandy-laced, fattened goose liver paste to a dog. This is why I hate the small-animal calls! Only in a backwater town like this would a large-animal vet get called in to tell a moron to stop giving his dog a fifty-dollar-a-pound purgative stuffed with black truffles.”
The aggrieved, long-suffering tone of Ben’s voice made Merry grin. “You know you love it here, Dr. Crankypants.”
He shot her an unconvincing scowl and she couldn’t help but smile.
He shook his head, loose wavy curls slipping into his eyes as he bent back to his task.
“Merry! Sweetie! Can you come here a sec?”
Jo’s voice echoed authoritatively through the quiet barn, and Merry couldn’t help it. She winced.
She’d wanted a closer relationship with the mother she’d been estranged from for most of her life—but maybe living together and raising baby Alex with Jo Ellen Hollister constantly looking over her shoulder and offering advice on everything from how long between feedings to when he should start crawling wasn’t the best way to go about learning to love her mother.
Checking on Ben, who appeared very absorbed in his examination of the sores she’d noticed earlier behind Oddity’s front legs, Merry blew out a steadying breath.
“Sure,” she called back, once she had her voice under control. There was no reason for Jo, or anyone else, to know that Merry was having a tough time figuring out how to be a good daughter.
I’m lucky, she reminded herself. I should be thanking my lucky, lucky stars with every breath. I have a home, and a family, and the most beautiful baby ever born.
“See you next week,” Ben called.
Merry glanced over her shoulder at the man in the shadows and felt another quiet shiver of warmth tingle down her spine, chasing the chill away. Nodding a hurried good-bye, she made her escape before he commented on whatever he’d seen with those laser-sharp eyes of his.
She had enough worries without falling prey to her old habit of obsessing over a guy. Especially one as harsh, sarcastic, and infuriatingly hard to figure out as Dr. Ben Fairfax.
Copyright © 2014 by Lily Everett