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Storm's Refuge



To all the animals who need rescuing and to all those who rescue them. May they all find forever homes. Especially to Lily, Gibbie, Merrily, Miley, Alex, No Name, Hector, Spook, Big Bird, Chance, Two Socks, Rhaedar, and finally, the black momma dog with no name who wasn’t as lucky as Storm.

Thanks to the Travelling Mabels for their participation in this novel. Thanks also to Eva Levesque for the use of lyrics from Smolder Blues ~The Travelling Mabels Album 2009

Special thanks to Dr. C.D. Bell, B.Sc, DVM, MVetSc, DACVS, for his help and information regarding all things veterinary in this work. Any errors in the translation from doctor speak to layperson are mine.



Chapter One



Silent night, Holy night. The familiar strains issued from the barn radio and hung in the frosty air. Michelle Wilson cut the strings of the hay bale which parted with a satisfying pop. The sweet scent of summer rose from the released flakes of grass and legumes.

She spared a glance out of the barn window where the storm demons hurled fistfuls of snow out of the north. Well, it’s a holy mess out there that’s for sure. The irreverent thought brought a tiny smile to her lips as she stooped to scoop up the loose flakes.

Quickly, Michelle tossed hay into the horses’ stalls and checked their water. Her two barrel racers and her brother’s rope horse munched contentedly on the feed. George’s mare was due to foal, but appeared comfortable at the moment. Satisfied everything was in order she flicked off the light and stepped out into the blizzard that had descended on southern Alberta. She double checked the latch on the door and then bent her head into the storm, turning toward the porch lights shining dimly through the driving snow.

Michelle stomped the snow off her boots as she crossed the wide porch at the back of the house and stepped into the warmth of the mud room. She hung her coat to dry after shaking the snow from it and placed her boots near the heat vent. There was nothing worse than ice cold boots to stick your feet into before venturing out in the bitter cold. With a sense of relief, Michelle pulled the mud room door closed behind her, filled the kettle, and set it to boil.

The warm light spilled from the kitchen window onto the drifts already accumulating on the veranda. Now, if that mare will hold off until the storm is over, I’ll be happy. Michelle poured water into the teapot and sank down into the chair behind her. The fire crackled in the cook stove which had stood in the kitchen longer than Michelle could remember. The surface of the cast iron and enamel behemoth shone with the patina of age. The memory of her grandmother baking cookies in the cavernous oven brought a smile to her face.

She rose, poured her tea, and returned to sit at the kitchen table. Unconsciously, she smoothed the embroidered cloth covering the surface. Purple prairie crocus and the red and grey of the prairie smoke flower twined around the edges mixed with green foliage. The ranch brand adorned each corner of the cloth. Gramma made it to celebrate the day the mortgage on the ranch was paid off.

Now they’re all gone, except me and George.” Michelle whispered. She missed him, even though he was a typical bossy big brother. The man always had to have things his way. Came from running a drilling crew she guessed.

She shook her head and pushed back from the table. It was no night to be wallowing in memories. The power was sure to go out with this storm, so she brought the oil lamps down from the top of the buffet in the dining room and set two on the sideboard in the kitchen. She placed another by the foot of the stair and then ventured out into the chilly wood shed attached to the front hall. No need to freeze to death fetching wood, Grandpa always said. Michelle knew he built it especially so her grandma wouldn’t have to go outside in the cold to haul wood through the snow drifts when she was pregnant. Gramma always maintained ranching was man’s work. The house including wood and water was her domain.

Michelle stopped for a moment and sighed. Why couldn’t she find a man who would be a partner and a friend? She wanted what her grandparents had—a real team that worked together like a well-oiled machine. Grandpa always said those words with the special smile reserved for Gramma alone.

Michelle gathered the wood and paused, her foot raised to kick the door closed. She cocked her head and listened. An insistent sharp cry overrode the whine of the wind in the cracks and the hydro wires. She kicked the door shut and latched it before she entered the front hall and made her way to the living room where she dumped the armful into the wood box by the fireplace. She needed another load for the kitchen stove, but first, Michelle went to investigate the source of the cry.

Bundled against the storm once more, she waded through the drifts on the wide porch, straining to hear over the wail of the wind. Snow flung itself in her face, and Michelle blinked rapidly to clear her eyes. The snow was drifted over the edge of the porch, and she missed the top step all together, landing face first in a hard packed bank at the bottom of the stairs. Muttering words her grandma would not have been proud of, Michelle dug her way out of the hole she was mired in. She wallowed over to the edge of the porch and grabbed the bottom of the rail to pull herself onto her feet. Michelle hesitated, half in and half out of the snow bank. Yes, there it was again, the sharp insistent cry coming from under the porch. Michelle let go of the railing and dug in the snow piled up against the edge of the porch. She managed to create a tunnel large enough to wriggle through and wished she had been bright enough to bring a flashlight. It was dark as the bottom of a well under the boards of the porch floor. Michelle wriggled out again and retrieved a flashlight from inside the front door and crawled back into the hole. The beam cut a small path through the darkness and finally, at the very back, up against the side of the house, the flash of an animal’s eyes reflected the light back at her.

“Hey, missy,” Michelle crooned in a soft voice, the same tone she learned from her grandfather when training young horses. “What have you gone and done to yourself?”

Michelle kept up a steady conversation with the animal cowered against the side of the house. Within a few feet, Michelle could make out the shivering body of a black dog…at least she hoped it was dog and not some coyote. It was hard to be sure of the colour and shape of the thing in the faint illumination provided by the flashlight.

Cautiously, Michelle inched a bit closer. The dog lowered its head and half closed its eyes as if expecting a blow. Michelle reached out a hand. The dog curled its lips back from its teeth and a low growl rumbled in its throat.

“Now, now, missy, none of that,” Michelle spoke softly and reached out confidently to touch the dog’s foot nearest her.

The dog rumbled again but made no move to strike, so Michelle scrunched closer to the animal. She dug in her pocket and finally managed to extricate one of Rex’s left over dog treats. She held it out to the dog. The animal hesitated, looking from the treat to Michelle and back again, clearly not trusting the offering. Michelle laid the cookie on the ground by the dog’s foot and sat back. The animal snatched the biscuit without taking its eyes off Michelle.

“Are you starving then, little dog?” Michelle spoke conversationally.

As she continued to speak nonsense to the dog, she took stock of what was wrong with the creature. It was obviously pregnant. The distended belly was visible even in the dim light. A front leg was damaged from the way the dog was holding it, and she was criminally thin. Her hipbones and the bones of her shoulders poked up sharply through the ratty, matted coat. Michelle hunched her shoulders in her jacket. It was freezing, and her knees were cold and sore from the hard ground.

How am I supposed to get you out of here? I’m not sitting out here all night freezing my butt off, that’s for sure.

Michelle fed the dog another cookie, backed away a few feet and set another cookie on the ground. The dog eyed her suspiciously, but apparently decided hunger was greater than her fear and dragged herself across the frozen ground toward the cookie. Michelle’s breath caught in her throat. The dog was covered in matted blood, and there was a huge lump on the top of her head. The front leg was either broken or dislocated. Michelle backed up another couple of feet, and the dog followed. Slowly, they made their way to the snow tunnel. Michelle crawled out butt first into the storm. The dog stopped at the entrance and refused to come any further. Michelle laid a trail of cookies across the snow and up onto the porch to the front door. Once inside, she opened a can of beef stew and dumped it into a bowl which she set just outside the opening. She hung her snowy coat on the newel post and set her boots by the door. The wind through the open door snaked across the mat and up the legs of her wet jeans. Abandoning her post for a moment, she scurried into the kitchen to retrieve a hot drink. With her hands around a cup of hot chocolate, she settled inside on the second step near the front door and waited for the dog to make up its mind.

“It’s up to you now, little dog, trust me or not,” Michelle whispered to the animal still cowering under the porch.

Michelle had almost given up hope after an hour passed. The house was freezing, she’d have to shut the door soon. Rising to take her cup back to the kitchen, she paused when something brushing against the door. Carefully, she padded across the floor and inched it open further. The black dog was collapsed against the frame, a trail of blood from its frost bitten paws showed where she crawled up the stairs and over the porch.

The exhausted dog didn’t possess the strength to do more than growl faintly at her. Michelle eased the door open further, and the mongrel slid down the door unto the floor of the front hall.

She grasped the hall rug and slid the shivering dog into the entryway far enough to allow her to close the door on the howling wind. The dog raised her head and tried to growl fiercely, but all that came out was a guttural whimper. Michelle dropped to her knees and scooted closer. She moved her hand and cupped the dog’s lower jaw in her palm. The black dog was too cold and weak to do more than narrow her eyes and curl her upper lip. Michelle sat quietly and massaged the dog’s lower jaw with her fingers while she assessed what she could of the injuries with her eyes. Lulled by the warmth of the house and the gentle touch on her head, the dog let her head drop down onto the mat. Michelle grabbed an afghan hanging on the stair rail waiting to be taken upstairs, and covered the emaciated creature with it. Making as little noise as possible, she slipped down the hall into the kitchen and put the kettle back on to boil.

Deftly, Michelle began to prepare a warm gruel, canned dog food mixed with some condensed milk, a bit of kibble left over from Rex and hot water from the kettle. Michelle’s eyes misted a bit as she mixed the concoction. It was four weeks ago today Rex left her. She missed his happy bark when he got to ride in the truck with her and his constant presence as she went about her chores. She just hadn’t got around to replacing the old guy yet, the dirt over his grave was still fresh. Well, not now, she guessed, it was covered with snow.

Michelle shook her head, left the kitchen, and headed down the wide hall to the front entry way. She paused briefly as she passed the large living room. Earlier in the week, she cleared a space for the Christmas tree, but just hadn’t found the time to drag the thing in from the woodshed. Christmas was only a week away. Michelle frowned. Oh, well maybe tomorrow. She pushed the problem of the nonexistent Christmas tree to the back of her mind and knelt down by the shivering dog.

The black dog’s nose twitched at the scent of food, and her head came up quickly when Michelle set the bowl of mush by her. With an effort, the dog buried her muzzle in the warm food. Michelle stroked her while the dog was occupied with her food and gently tested the area over the huge lump at the back of the head. Her hand came away sticky with blood and bits of matted fur. Michelle reached up and turned on the overhead light. The dog’s front leg was twisted at such an unnatural angle, she was sure it was dislocated at best and probably broken. The rest of the skinny dog was a welter of cuts and missing fur. At least she didn’t look like she had the mange, a fact for which Michelle was very grateful. She left the dog on the rug eating and stepped into her office to the right of the front door past the wide staircase.

Michelle picked up the receiver and was relieved to hear the dial tone. She pressed the speed dial for Doc and dropped down into her chair. Wearily, she tilted her head back and leaned it against the headrest as she listened to the phone ring. God, I hope you’re home. Michelle just wanted to hear Doc’s rusty old voice confirm what she already expected. On the tenth ring, Mary, Doc’s wife, picked up the line.

“Michelle, it’s so nice to hear from you. No trouble at your place I hope,” Mary said brightly.

“Hey, Mary, a stray dog just wandered onto the place, looks like someone’s beaten the tar out of it. I need to ask Doc for some advice. Is he around?” Michelle sat up in her chair and scrounged for some paper and a pen under the papers on her desk.

“No, dear, Doc’s out at Murray’s place. That fancy cutting horse of his has colic, and he’s fit to be tied. Just got back from the NFR with all his winnings and now this.”

“I guess it could wait ‘til morning. I just wanted to know how much pain killer I should give…she’s so skinny.” Michelle chewed on her bottom lip.

“Well, dear, you know I could refer you to the new vet in town. Nice boy, Doc and he are talking about throwing in together anyway. Cold nights and crazy cows are getting to be too much for Luke these days,” Mary offered.

Michelle smiled in spite of herself. Nobody called Doc, Luke, except his wife of forty some odd years. Just as quickly a frown clouded her features. She plain didn’t like the new “boy” as Mary called him. He wasn’t a rancher. He was a fancy horse guy from what she heard about him. Used to dealing with all those expensive show jumpers and people with more money that brains.

“It can wait ‘til Doc gets home,” she assured Mary.

“Happens that Cale is here right now and says he can stop by on his way home,” Mary said in that voice of hers she used when some plan she concocted was starting to work out.

“I can’t think that I’m on anybody’s way home.” Michelle laughed.

The ranch was ten miles out of Longview, so Michelle was confident she wasn’t on the new vet’s way home. Nobody other than her neighbours was likely to venture past her lane on a night like this.

Mary chuckled, and Michelle’s stomach did a flip. “Silly girl, Cale bought the old Chetwynd place across the coulee from you. He’s your closest neighbour now.”

“Oh.” Michelle’s voice was small. “I haven’t got around to meeting the new people yet.”

“Obviously, darlin’.” Mary snorted. “You can meet young Cale tonight on his way home.”

“But, I…” Michelle trailed off when she realized she was talking to a dial tone. “Damn and double damn.”

Michelle ran her hand over her unruly hair and sighed. Mary, bless her soul, was her mom’s oldest friend. Mom was gone over five years now. With her brother, George, being away more than he was home working on the rigs, Mary had appointed herself Michelle’s guardian. Michelle pushed herself out of the comfortable chair with an exasperated sigh. She knew Mary was matchmaking again. Every eligible bachelor who came into town for any length of time somehow managed to find their way to her door on some made up errand for Mary.

Well, dog, we’ll let him look you over and give us his exalted opinion, and then tomorrow I’ll call Doc.” Michelle spoke as she stepped out into the hall to check on the mutt.

The black dog was awake, and her mouth was open as she panted. Her body language was wary, her narrowed eyes and lowered ears indicated she didn’t expect anything good to happen. At least she wasn’t in any shape to charge. Michelle knelt beside the dog and offered her hand. The dog ignored the outstretched hand and continued to watch Michelle. Finally, deciding there was no threat, the dog laid its head wearily back on the rug. Michelle got to her feet and left the animal to rest. She entered the kitchen and grabbed a cloth to wipe the table with and then briskly swept the bits of hay and shavings off the floor which had fallen from her clothes. She stored the broom back its place and went to stand by the wide kitchen window, where she observed the storm was blowing as bad as ever. If that vet doesn’t have a four by, he’s never getting down my lane, let alone home. Michelle thought with some satisfaction. Fancy city boy.

Michelle got the bottle of aspirin out of the medicine cabinet and set it on the table. She would give the new vet until eight-thirty to put in an appearance, after that she’d give the dog one tablet. The cuts and the front leg would have to wait until she could get to Doc in the morning. She checked the clock over the sink and realized it was three hours since she checked on Liza, the buckskin mare, who was due to foal any day now. Michelle stepped quietly into the hall where the black dog was asleep with her nose resting on the lip of the bowl of food. Most of the food had vanished, and Michelle hoped it wouldn’t reappear on her rug as vomit or poop. Sometimes starving animals didn’t tolerate the sudden reappearance of food well.



Chapter Two



Michelle returned to the kitchen and glanced out the window at the thick snow that was still falling. She picked up the monitor and turned the little video screen on. The mare in the barn was restless, and Michelle could see where she had kicked up straw against the walls of the stall when she laid down and got back up again. As she watched, the mare kicked at her belly and swung her head around to look at her swollen sides. The horse was young, and this was her first foal, so Michelle had no idea how she would react to another life suddenly appearing in the straw at her side.

“Great idea, George, breed the damn mare, head back to the rigs, and leave it to me to worry about foaling her out.” Michelle cursed her absent brother for the millionth time.

She turned her attention back to the monitor in time to see the mare lower herself heavily to the bed of straw. Even on the grainy monitor, dark patches of sweat were apparent on the mare’s neck. She set the monitor back on the table and checked on the black dog by the door one more time before she pulled on her still damp coat and crammed one of George’s thick toques on her head.

The force of the wind stole her breath when she stepped out of the lee of the house. The snow was over her knees and some quickly found its way into her boots. Doggedly, Michelle plowed through the snow toward the barn. She was relieved when her hand found the rough wood of the corral fence, and she followed it to the barn. She flicked on the lights as she stepped inside. It seemed quiet after the raging wind outside, even though the old building creaked and groaned as the force of the wind hit it.

Michelle made her way quietly to where she could see into the buckskin mare’s stall. The horse was down in the straw and stretched out flat on her side. Her tawny coat was dark with sweat, and her sides heaved with the strength of the contractions. Michelle stayed quiet, not wanting to disturb the mare, just be there in case she got into trouble. The woman settled herself on a bale of straw and pulled her jacket more firmly around her. Still cold, she snagged a wool cooler hanging nearby and wrapped it around herself as well.

It took the mare another thirty minutes of labour until her water broke with a gush. Michelle sat up straighter and waited. The sac and the foal should make an appearance within twenty minutes, or Michelle would have to call Mary back and see if Doc could make it out. She pushed the thought of the new vet to the back of her mind. Within ten minutes, the shiny membrane of the sac protruded from the mare, and a tiny hoof pushed against the opaque surface. The mare heaved again, and more of the foal slid into view. The tiny hoof inside the sac showed its soft rubbery bottom, complete with tiny frog as it pushed through the membrane.

“God damn it,” Michelle swore as she got to her feet and unlatched the stall door. The foal was coming backward, a breech birth. “Just freaking marvellous,” she muttered.

She laid her hand on the mare’s haunch and moved her tail aside to check if both feet were showing. She let her breath out through her teeth at the sight of two little hind feet and two hocks laying side by side. So far so good.

“C’mon, little horse, one more push, and we should have it,” Michelle encouraged the mare. “We need to get your baby out, so he can breathe.”

Michelle threw her gloves into the straw and grasped the slimy hind legs of the foal and waited. When the mare convulsed with the next contraction, Michelle pulled with her, and the foal slid wetly out into the straw. Michelle tore the tough skin of the caul away from the foal’s nose and face. Then she got to her feet and stepped out of the stall. The buckskin mare raised herself up off her side and peered back at the foal lying steaming on the straw behind her. Michelle held her breath, waiting for the mare to realize the foal belonged to her. A throaty nicker came from the mare’s throat, and the foal struggled and kicked his way free of the caul. The buckskin heaved herself to her feet and moved to nose the small body in the bedding, soon her tongue was licking him clean and dry. Michelle allowed herself a small sigh of relief. She slid back into the stall with a length of binder twine in her hands and spoke softly to the mare. The horse paid her no mind, and Michelle trailed her hand from the mare’s shoulder to her hindquarters and lifted the heavy afterbirth which was still attached and hanging out onto the floor. She caught the heavy caul and tied it up to the mare’s tail, so it wouldn’t get stepped on and pull away from the mare, leaving a piece of it still attached inside. Once the afterbirth was up out of the way, Michelle left the stall again and leaned on the door to watch the momma and baby get to know each other. The buckskin pushed the foal with her nose, and the foal attempted to get his legs underneath him and stand. On his third try, he managed to scramble up on his stilt-like legs, only to fall in a heap. The next time, he had better luck, and the mare pushed him with her nose toward her flanks. The baby stuck his nose under her flank and found the udder. Michelle held her breath. This was the moment when some first time mothers objected strongly to the foal groping around her swollen and tender udder. The sound of slurping and the mare’s tongue licking the foal’s butt was music to her ears. His little tail twitched as he ate his first meal. Right now, she needed a hot drink, even though she’d have to come out later and make sure the baby had his first poop and passed the meconium out of his system. The first bowel movement was sticky, thick and dark. If he didn’t pass it, the colt would need an enema.

Michelle left the pair to settle and flicked the lights off as she left. She pulled her toque down further over her ears and squinted through the heavy curtain of snow, trying to see the glow of the porch light. The veils of wind-whipped snow obscured any chance of her actually seeing the light, so Michelle put her hand on the corral fence, and using it as a guide, headed in the direction she knew the house was. She came to the end of the corral and could make out the bulk of the garage just ahead of her. Stepping into the lee of the building she paused to catch her breath and wipe the snow from her face.

“Almost there,” she muttered through cold lips. “Stupid snow storms,” she added as an afterthought.

Michelle struck out from the shelter of the garage with her chin tucked down on her chest. The corner of the house should be right in front of her. The wind howled fiercely, and snow devils whirled everywhere, throwing biting bits of ice into her face. Her feet found the steps of the back porch first, and Michelle thankfully grabbed the snowy railing with her right hand. The drifts were thick on the broad steps and made it hard to get footing. Michelle fought her way up the stairs and missed the top step. She pitched head first into the big drift on the porch between the steps and the door. Michelle floundered in the snow as she tried to find some purchase for her feet in the sifted snow. Her breath stuck in her throat as her flailing hand was caught in the grasp of a strong gloved hand.

“George, is that you? What are you doing home? Is the rig shut down?” Michelle gasped as she used the extended hand as an anchor and emerged from the snow.

She got to her feet and pushed the snow laden toque back from her eyes and swiped her wet hair out of her face. Her eyes widened in surprise as she looked up at the tall figure of a man who was definitely not George. The porch light behind the stranger made it hard to see his features, that and the fact he had a hat pulled low over his face and a scarf wound around his neck and lower face. Who the hell is he? A small jolt of fear seared through her. This was definitely not someone she knew. Maybe somebody stranded by the blizzard?

“Michelle?” The man’s voice was barely audible over the wind. “Is this the Wilson place?”

Do I know you?” Michelle peered up at him through her snow crusted lashes. He knew her name and whose ranch it was, so there was no sense standing out in the storm. “C’mon into the house. I need to get out of this wind.”

Michelle opened the back door and shook the worst of the snow off before stepping into the blessed warmth of the mud room. The tall stranger followed her in. He slapped his Stetson on his thigh to knock off the crusted ice and snow and unwound the long scarf from his neck. Michelle turned from hanging up her wet jacket and took in the man’s seal black hair and startling blue eyes. I would definitely remember if I knew this guy. Michelle licked her lower lip and ran her hand through her wet, tangled hair.

Are you lost, or do you live around here?” Michelle queried him. I wish! She added silently.

“I just bought the Chetwynd place, over the coulee,” he said, a smile warming his face.

The Chetwynd place.” Michelle paused, as the pieces fell into place. “You’re the new vet?”

“Cale Benjamin.” He stuck out his hand.

Michelle automatically shook the proffered hand. Her brain was in overdrive. Damn Mary, she could have warned me he was gorgeous.

“You’re the fancy horse vet from up Calgary way.” Michelle’s voice sounded stern and disapproving even to her ears.

Cale’s smile faltered a little, and a small frown creased his forehead. “I do some equine work up that way, yeah.”

“I thought a guy like you would be living in the big city, not out here on the bald assed prairie. Not a lot of opportunity to make big bucks on ranch horses and cattle.” Michelle couldn’t seem to stop herself from being rude.

“I’m not a city guy.” Cale grinned. “My parents ranch down near Nanton, so I’m used to the bald assed prairie.”

Huh.” Michelle turned to the stove and set the kettle on the burner. “Want some tea or coffee? You must be cold.” She remembered her manners at last, and her grandmother’s voice sounded in her inner ear. Any folks is always welcome at this table, especially in a storm.

What about that dog you called Doc about. Where is she?” Cale hung his polar fleece under jacket on the back of a kitchen chair.

Michelle swung around from the stove, and her gaze immediately caught on Cale’s hips, which filled out his jeans just the way they should. She swallowed hard and dragged her gaze back to his face. Cale’s gaze burned into her, and Michelle lost any thought in her head except that she really wanted to feel his lean muscular body against her and to run her tongue over his sensuous lower lip. A deep smile creased Cale’s face, and he cleared his throat, breaking the spell hanging in the air between them. Michelle shook her head and turned back to the stove, embarrassment heating her cheeks.

“She’s in the front hall, by the door.” Michelle indicated the door to the hall with her hand and lifted the whistling kettle off the burner.

She poured water into the teapot and covered it with a knitted cosy before following Cale into the darkened hall. She found him on his knees beside the dog. The pitiful thing was now mostly thawed out and emitting a decidedly toxic odour.

“Oh, my word, something must be rotting off for her to smell like that.” Michelle knelt beside Cale and tried hard not to breathe in the sickly sweet stench.

The dog thumped its tail on the mat and licked Cale’s hand as he slid his fingers under her chin to examine her head. His expert hands moved over the dog’s body, all the while he talked soft nonsense to the dog. With a final pat on the animal’s head, Cale sat back on his heels and looked at Michelle. An odd expression crossed his face before he looked away. Cale got to his feet and offered her a hand. Michelle ignored his outstretched hand and stood up quickly before taking a step back.

What is wrong with me, for heaven’s sake? He’s no different than any other man around here. I want to touch him so badly, but I can’t deal with the way he makes me feel. Damn Mary and her matchmaking, damn her all to hell!

Well, Mr. Hot Shot Vet, what’s the verdict? Will she live?” She cringed inwardly at how harsh and rude she sounded.

The paw on the injured leg is black and necrotic and will have to come off, the leg is smashed and dislocated, and in light of the damaged paw, I would say the whole limb should be amputated. The rest is cuts and bruises and starvation. The puppies are another matter altogether.” Cale took a step back from Michelle, a puzzled frown creasing his forehead.

“I’ll call Doc in the morning and arrange to take her into the clinic.” Michelle flicked on the overhead light in the hall as she spoke.

More light, that’s what I need. It won’t be so intimate with the lights on, Michelle thought desperately.

Cale bent and scooped the dog up in his arms. He smiled at Michelle’s startled face, turned, and marched down the hall to the kitchen. He gently set the dog in Rex’s bed that was still by the woodstove and covered her with an old blanket from the pile on the spare chair.

“She needs a warm bath and something for the pain, before anything else.” Cale rose and shrugged back into his coat. “I’ll just step out to the truck and get what I need.”

Michelle stared at the back of his broad shoulders as he walked into the mud room, she sat down abruptly onto a kitchen chair and let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“What is wrong with me?” she muttered. “What is it about this guy that has me tied up in knots?”

She was still sitting at the table with her chin propped on her hand when Cale returned with his medical bag. Snow clung to his black wavy hair and sparkled on his thick lashes. Michelle tore her gaze away from his face and pushed away from the table.

“What do you need?” she asked, glad to have something to keep her hands busy.

“Is there a place we can bath her down here, or is the bathroom upstairs?” Cale set the medical bag on a chair and shed his coat.

“There’s a shower down here.” Michelle opened a door off the kitchen and turned on the light.

Cale gathered the dog in his arms and shouldered his way past Michelle as she held the door open for him. He set the dog down on the floor of the shower stall and took the hand held shower head Michelle reached down for him. She adjusted the water temperature to lukewarm and then knelt beside Cale to hold the dog while he applied the stream of water.

The shower room was small and only meant for one person. Michelle’s hip was pressed firmly against Cale, and he had to reach across her to clean the dog’s face. Michelle rested her chin on his shoulder because there was no room to do anything else. Her heart kicked into double time, and she hoped fervently Cale couldn’t hear it. The dog sat quietly on her haunches while the vet shampooed her belly, careful of her swollen teats. With her long coat slicked back by the water and the mud taken out of it, the swollen bulge of the dog’s pregnancy was strangely at odds with the rest of her. The dog turned her head and rested her chin on Michelle’s wrist. As if she was too tired to hold her own head up anymore.

Cale washed the last of the frozen mud and ice from the dog and applied shampoo again. The dog slid down onto the floor of the shower, her injured leg thrust out to the side awkwardly. Michelle held her head up with one hand and gently helped Cale clean the injured leg with her other. Twice his fingers brushed hers, and it was all Michelle could do not to snatch her hand away. She gritted her teeth and mentally chastised herself. Stop it for God’s sake! He’s a vet, and you hardly know him. Stop it!

The memories flooded back, unbidden and unwelcome. The smell of shampoo and the warm hiss of the water confined in the little shower stall took her back to a place in her mind she avoided like the plague. Memories of Rob’s hands on her body, slippery with soap, his fingers in her hair; his lips everywhere. Both of them tired from long days in the saddle, sometimes full of weary exhilaration if it was a winning day at the rodeo, and Rob had day money in his pocket. Michelle dragged her thoughts away from dangerous territory and tried to focus on the dog under her hands. And look how that turned out, you idiot. He took off for the big city at the first chance he got.

“I think that’s as good as she gets.” Cale’s voice rumbled in her ear and broke the stream of memories.

Startled, Michelle jumped and tipped over against him. Her head came up quickly, and she was caught in the snare of his electric blue eyes.

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