A Mistletoe Mishap in the Show Me State

 

Chapter 1

Reagan Boyle looked up as the bell above the veterinary clinic door chimed, and a blast of cold air ripped through the waiting room, ruffling her papers.

She put a hand down to make sure her papers didn’t blow away, but she did not, not for one second, wish she was back at her place of previous employment, which had been completely paperless.

Some things weren’t worth it.

“It looks like Toto has a clean bill of health, Mrs. Hudson,” Reagan said as she handed the receipt to Mrs. Hudson.

She smiled at Toto and patted the miniature poodle mix on the head around the tuft of fur tied up with a pink ribbon as she poked out of Mrs. Hudson’s over-the-shoulder dog carrier/purse.

Mrs. Hudson set her checkbook down on the shelf and began writing. Many of their older clients still wrote checks, even though they encouraged electronic payments.

“He sure does. It’s a nice report to get,” she said as she scribbled on the paper. Her head turned to the left, and Reagan turned her head with her. Whoever was coming in hadn’t made it past the doorway yet.

Often animals, especially dogs, didn’t like to walk into the office without sniffing for a long time in the doorway.

Reagan didn’t think too much of it.

“I have to admit, Mrs. Hudson, you don’t seem like the kind of person who would have a designer dog in her purse to carry around. I could see you with a more practical dog. A good German Shepherd, maybe.”

Maybe she couldn’t have said that to another lady, but Mrs. Hudson seemed like the kind of woman a person could say anything to.

“I think my boys bought him for me as a kind of practical joke. Not that they think that animals are jokes, exactly, and they knew I would love him. But you’re right, this is not the kind of dog that I would have chosen.” Her work-roughened hand stroked over the dog’s head while the pink tongue came out and licked her worn fingers. “But I can’t say that Toto hasn’t brought me a good bit of comfort, with Mr. Hudson being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a week ago.”

“You’re kidding?” Reagan said, truly horrified. Mr. Hudson was a pillar in the community of Cowboy Crossing, and everyone knew him. She had to add, “I just saw him last week at the grocery store, and he seemed fine.”

“He’s just been feeling a little under the weather and had some pain. It was a shock. But we’re going to fight it. Of course.” Mrs. Hudson wrote her check out, and her voice was matter-of-fact, not that Reagan would expect anything different from the sturdy stock of Cowboy Crossing. Missourians were descended from the tough folks who tamed the West. They were most definitely proud, independent, and very capable.

Mrs. Hudson epitomized the soul of that.

“Of course.” Reagan put her hand on her stomach, pressing the material of her sweatshirt closer. The temperature in the room had dropped since the door was still half open. Thankfully the wind was no longer blowing her papers.

“My goodness, it’s chilly outside for the middle of November,” Mrs. Hudson said, tucking her checkbook back in the pocket of her purse and patting Toto’s pink-ribboned head.

“I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Hudson. If there’s anything I can do…” Reagan’s voice trailed off. She could barely take care of herself and her little brother. In fact, she needed a place to rent. She was moving out of her apartment in Trumbull, since she quit her job at the vet clinic there.

Thankfully her lease was up, because the place she was renting was more than she could afford. Not to mention the commute was longer than she liked.

Ideally, she’d like to find a place closer to her new job so Dylan, her younger brother, was closer to her. She’d had custody of her brother since she turned eighteen, not long after their dad had been sent to prison for his third DUI.

Her older brothers had offered to take him, but they were working hard on getting the ranch that they owned jointly up and running, and Reagan had felt she would be a steadier influence.

That was laughable. After the massive mistake she’d made seven months ago, she wasn’t any better influence than anybody else in Dylan’s life. She should have let their older brothers take him.

Too late for that now.

“Thank you so much, sweetie, I’ll definitely take you up on that if I need you.” Mrs. Hudson adjusted the strap on her shoulder. Her tone was sweetly thankful, making Reagan feel like her offer—as little as it was—was deeply appreciated. “Actually, if you don’t mind keeping an eye on Toto right now while I carry this dog food out to my car, that would be a help.”

Mrs. Hudson’s eyes sparkled, and she didn’t look like a woman whose husband had just been diagnosed with a cancer that probably had one of the highest death rates of any he could have gotten. She looked just as happy and serene as she always had. And she knew how to make Reagan feel better. Because, yeah, there wasn’t much she could do, but she could babysit a dog for five minutes and feel like a help.

“Hang on one second; let me come around.”

There was a door at the side she had to go out, and while she was walking to it, she heard a deep voice say, “Mrs. Hudson, I’ll get that dog food for you, if that girl will hold my dog. Her name’s Gladys.” The man added the last sentence almost sounding sheepish, like he was a little ashamed of the name.

Reagan had come around the corner, and at Mrs. Hudson’s smile and nod, she continued on to take the leash the man held out.

She didn’t recognize the guy. She wouldn’t call him exactly handsome, but he was striking.

Not his looks maybe, but the way his eyes seemed to slam into her as he tilted his head and they became visible under his cowboy hat.

Intelligent eyes, with a confident bearing, and a body that looked like it was used to physical activity.

He didn’t specifically look like a rancher to her, but she couldn’t put her finger on why not.

She tore her eyes away, fastening them on the first thing she found, which happened to be his dog, even as she took the leash from him, and their fingers brushed.

She completely ignored any sensation that might be traveling up her arm.

She already made that mistake seven months ago when she’d been caught by magnetic eyes and mistaken lust for love.

Her bad.

But she did not need to make the same mistake twice.

Even if similar consequences were impossible in her current situation.

In her peripheral vision, the man jerked his head. “Thanks.”

He walked to Mrs. Hudson and picked up the bag of dog food at her feet. “This is an awful lot of dog food for that little dog to be eating.”

Mrs. Hudson’s laugh rang out, the kind of laugh that sounded like she wasn’t afraid to laugh and wasn’t afraid for anyone to hear. The kind of laugh that made anyone listening want to smile along with her. It just sounded so happy.

“He’s not the only dog out on the ranch. One of them has a delicate stomach and needs to have this special blend.”

“I see.” The man paused with the bag slung over his shoulder. “How’d you find out that your dog had a delicate stomach?”

Mrs. Hudson’s face glowed with humor. “Every time after she ate, every time, she threw up. We couldn’t get her to stop. So we brought her here. Dr. Violet suggested we put her on a more bland diet. That did the trick, and she’s been fine ever since. We’re kind of afraid to change her back, although Dr. Violet said it’s probably okay. A lot of times, puppies’ stomachs are just a little sensitive for a period.”

“Yeah, sounds a little like what Gladys is going through. I’ll make sure I say something to the doc during my visit.” He eyed the dog connected to the leash Reagan was holding. It was a beautiful German Shepherd, golden with black highlights, but she huddled against Reagan’s leg like she was scared to death. Not uncommon in the vet’s office, and her eyes never left the man. She strained a little against the leash like she wanted to be with him, even as she cowered behind Reagan.

She did seem a little underweight too. Although her fur was thick and beautiful, and there were no ribs visible through it.

“You do that. I’m sure Dr. Violet will fix you right up,” Mrs. Hudson said as the man adjusted the bag of dog food and turned toward the door.

Mrs. Hudson hurried around and opened it for him, holding it. But instead of walking out to her car, she came back to the doorway.

“Reagan?” she asked softly. “I believe Dr. Violet told me that you were looking for a place to stay. If you check on this board,” she indicated the bulletin board that was right beside the door when a person walked in, “it looks like there’s a couple of offers here.” Her brows lifted, and her face kind of lowered as her voice came out in more of a warning tone. “Just be careful. If you want one of my boys to check it out for you before you go by yourself, you just let me know. Cowboy Crossing is a very safe place, but bad people are everywhere.”

“I’ll do that,” Reagan said, fingering the leash, knowing she wouldn’t want to put anyone out, but also knowing Mrs. Hudson was right.

“Mrs. Hudson!” a voice called as an exam room door opened and closed. “I heard you were in here. Just hold on a second. I want to talk to you… I heard about your husband.”

Mrs. Hudson smiled and walked past Reagan to the lady who was calling her. They hugged each other, and Reagan looked away.

She hadn’t been around Cowboy Crossing long enough to feel comfortable hugging anyone. That wasn’t the fault of anyone in Cowboy Crossing; it was her own. She hadn’t gotten out nearly as much as what she wanted to, or should have, since she started working here six months ago.

Gladys whined at her legs, and Reagan stroked between those tulip-shaped ears. Maybe if they got a stable home, if she found a great place to rent, they could afford to get a small dog. Dylan had been begging for one…

She probably shouldn’t be thinking about getting a dog. She had other responsibilities to think about.

Shifting her bulky sweatshirt, glad that she worked for a vet who didn’t require her to dress up, she shuffled toward the bulletin board, careful not to step on Gladys who huddled against her legs and shuffled along with her.

To read the board, she had to stand right in front of the door, but thankfully it opened in the opposite direction, so no one would smash into her when they walked in.

There were two cars for sale, a motorcycle, free kittens, and seven horses. No houses for rent.

Her heart dropped. She needed to find something.

But that’s what she’d been running into everywhere she looked. There just weren’t any places in Cowboy Crossing.

She had a little less than a week to move out of her current place.

If she absolutely had to, she could move in with her brothers. But they were almost just as far outside of Cowboy Crossing in the opposite direction as her current place in Trumbull. Dylan wouldn’t be any closer, and her commute wouldn’t be any shorter. Plus, she didn’t want to be a burden to her older brothers. They were fighting hard to start something from scratch. She couldn’t help them—not with taking care of Dylan and the new little one, but she could keep them from having to take responsibility that would draw them away from what they were working on.

Their family hadn’t exactly been the kind of family where the parents had launched the children into the world well prepared, with plenty of financial and emotional resources behind them.

They’d been kind of dropped on their heads into their lives.

She wanted something different for Dylan. And for the baby that she would have soon.

She put another hand on her stomach.

She’d made a mistake, but her baby wasn’t a mistake.

Unfortunately, it seemed she was destined to repeat the mistakes of her parents, because she wasn’t exactly bringing this child into a stable home. She was no more ready to bring up a child and launch them into the world than her parents had been.

Except, her child would have love. All the love she could give it. She would make sure of that.

Whatever else happened, her baby would never wonder whether there was anyone in the world who loved her.

Her brother wouldn’t either. Dylan was such a great kid. He didn’t deserve to feel unloved, even for a second. No child did.

She wouldn’t wish her childhood on anyone.

The door opened with a blast of cold air, and Reagan whirled, crossing her arms over her chest and hugging them to herself.

The striking man had walked back in. She wanted to back up, to get away from him, but Gladys cowered behind her legs, pushing and squeezing, and actually causing Reagan to take a step closer rather than the step back as she wanted.

She looked up and met the eyes of the man. His hat was pulled low down on his head, probably so the wind wouldn’t blow it away, and his coat hung loose over broad shoulders, unbuttoned. She didn’t drag her eyes down, but she’d already noticed the jeans and boots.

She supposed they would draw the eye of a typical girl. And she had been a typical girl, earlier this year.

She wasn’t anymore; she had a baby to protect, and she needed to do a better job for her brother. So despite the almost magnetic pull the man had on her, she turned her head away. She wasn’t interested. Not even a little.