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If I can’t have you, no one will…
The words have haunted McKenzie Reynolds for months. Running away wasn’t the best answer, but she had zero choices. If she’d stayed, he’d have continued down his path of abuse disguised as domestic discipline. Once a man she thought she could trust, his evil deeds slipped past the mask. A new home. A new life. Only her Golden Retriever, Maverick by her side. She is free, ready for every new challenge, including the chance at love.
Until he finds her…
Dr. Diego Mitchell, a struggling veterinarian, leaves his past and every bad memory behind, or at least he tries to. He has begun forging new relationships in a new community, while developing clientele. On a stormy night, he learns a valuable lesson as tragedy strikes. He’s forced to use his valuable skills to save a life, but what he doesn’t expect is a rush of emotions, including the need to protect. The mysterious woman might be his savior.
Two strangers bond together as a mystery develops, leaving the local ranchers terrified of the recent arson attacks. With several dead, including an unidentified man, McKenzie is not only the key but perhaps the intended victim. A game of cat and mouse ensues and McKenzie and Diego race to find answers before the monster strikes again.
Can McKenzie take a chance and truly trust Diego? Can Diego push his demons away so he can protect McKenzie? Will the rugged cowboy be able to rescue the woman he loves? Will the scared, haunted woman take back her power and rescue the man she loves in return? Together, can they survive and heal?
This is the first in a collection of stories involving humans who rescue beloved animals. Or is it the other way around?
Publisher’s Note: This suspenseful romance is intended for adults only.
*** Currently available exclusively at Amazon ***
McKenzie Reynolds cringed as she inched toward the bay window. Another bolt of intense lightning sent tingles skating down her spine. She rubbed her arm and brought the wine glass to her lips. Stop. Just stop. Fear of the weather she didn’t need.
Maverick. Shivering, she swallowed hard hearing whimpers coming from the other room. Her beloved golden retriever hated thunderstorms as much as she did. A sip of wine turned into a gulp. Sadly, even the expensive merlot couldn’t calm her nerves. Nor had the sleeping pills the night before. The storm added to her growing list of fears and concerns, the majority intangible. At least her only real girlfriend kept telling her. Little did Jessie know about the life she led behind her usually pristine mask. The mask was now brittle, pieces falling away into oblivion. She laughed bitterly before tipping her head towards the terrified pup. “There you are. Were you hiding under the bed again?” Of course, he sensed her worry. He always knew when she was sad or angry. How many tears had she shed while burying her head into his fur?
Maverick padded into the living room, his tail hanging between his legs. Woof.
“It’s okay, baby. Nothing’s going to hurt you.” Not unless she was six feet under. After patting her thigh three times, Maverick finally inched forward, his eyes never leaving hers. “My baby boy. Mommy loves you.” Crouching down, she snuggled against his neck, drinking in the same sweet scent he’d had since a puppy. He licked her face as his tail whapped back and forth. Her baby was her constant comfort, sleeping next to her every night, abating nearly all her nightmares. She kissed his muzzle and eased to her feet. Every nerve was on edge.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s not going to be a tomorrow.” The words were hollow, the sound little more than a ragged whisper, but Maverick understood. Nuzzling against her legs, he huffed as if acknowledging her concerns.
“I know, baby. A new life. A better world. Maybe I’m just a fool.” All she wanted was peace yet the hackles on the back of her neck remained armed and ready. The storm was a nasty reminder of her past – cold and stormy.
“Shit!” The exclamation rushed from her mouth. She opened her eyes wide and watched as a tree limb thudded on the rain soaked ground. Maverick turned in circle after circle, his nails scraping against the old wooden floor. She allowed a thin smile as he nuzzled in between her legs. As she placed her hand on top of his head, a pair of headlights in the distance caught her attention. She expected no one, not on a night where the weather station had mentioned the possibility of tornadoes. A thin line of sickening anticipation slithered down the back of her legs as her intuition kicked in.
The monster was here.
McKenzie rubbed Maverick’s ear and licked a bead of wine from her glass. The warm day had turned into a tumultuous night. The humid and wet weather pattern was completely unusual for Virginia at the end of December. Christmas Day had brought torrential downpours, further exacerbating her horrific mood swings. Now she was praying for the start of the new year. A bitter laugh slipped past her lips. As if there’d be something to look forward to. Her thoughts turned ugly, memories of so many wretched months lingering deep in her psyche.
Maverick’s yelp dragged her back to reality. She prayed the visitor would veer off toward one of her two neighbors, even if they were acres apart. When the stream of light drew closer, she cursed under her breath.
“Go away. Please, go away.” Don’t let him get the best of you. He’s a lying sack of shit. He’s a piece of dirt. He’s a worthless son of a bitch. All true. Then why did tears threaten to fall down her cheeks? She gripped Maverick’s neck for support. This was merely a poor soul lost in the storm. The unwanted visitor had to be a stranger.
The lights dimmed and blipped, going off completely then popping back on a second later. Whoever had found her wasn’t going anywhere.
“Shhh. We have late night visitors. Be on your best behavior.” Please God make them go away. Please, oh please.
Biting her lip, she eased away from the window. Shadows had become her friend. She concentrated on the bright LED lights on her Christmas tree. The colorful decoration was supposed to have brought her happiness. Right. There’d been no Christmas for her, except for a single party with a few acquaintances. Even the festive event hadn’t brightened her mood. This was no longer her favorite time of year.
A vivid series of images flashed in the back of her mind. She’d been happy once upon a time. Laughter and love, nights spent in front of the fireplace or outside on the deck had been the norm. Then everything had changed, leaving her empty.
A series of lightning bolts made her shudder. Within a few seconds, she heard the sound of heavy feet on her front porch. Her stomach churned as the front door knob was turned, the person behind the door anticipating entrance without interference.
“Asshole,” McKenzie whispered. She took another gulp of wine and moved in front of the door. She glanced over her shoulder as Maverick whined. The poor baby didn’t know there was a jerk off standing less than a foot away, only three inches of solid oak standing in the way. Or maybe he did know given his teeth were barred. This couldn’t be happening. She’d planned carefully, or so she thought. Maybe her attorney had accidentally slipped, giving out her address. If so, she’d fire his ass.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Instantly she placed her index finger over her mouth and shook her head, willing Maverick to be quiet. She held her breath hearing nothing for a full minute.
“Mackie. I know you’re in there. Open the door. I’m drenched. I need to see you and talk.”
The tone of his deep voice, one she used to consider sensuous, now offered nothing but a decent slice of fear. Talk? The man knew little more than control. Violence. “What do you want, Anthony?”
“To see you. It’s Christmas.”
“That was three days ago. I’m busy.” Her husband wasn’t exactly slurring his words, but she had zero doubt he’d been at a bar or bought a bottle or five at the local liquor store. With him drinking meant he was planning on staying in town. Not if she had any say. She grimaced realizing there was little she could do.
“Oh, come on. I just want to see you and my baby boy for a few minutes. I came all this way just to see you.”
“Baby boy?” she scoffed, a tear slipping past her lashes. The sight of Maverick trembling, his tail hung low, sent a piercing arrow through her heart. He hadn’t cared about their dog from the moment she’d brought the puppy home. In fact, her ex had made certain she knew he wanted nothing to do with feeding, walking or caring about the lovable ball of fur. Anthony had been true to his word, never spending as much as five minutes playing ball or even petting the now three-year old beautiful golden boy. Hell, he hadn’t been a husband either for that matter. His need for power had turned him into an abusive tyrant.
“Yeah. That so hard to understand?”
She shook her head and closed her eyes, praying one more time to a God that seemed to have forsaken her.
The front door rattled from the force of his hand.
“Come on, honey. Baby. I know times have been rough, but I just want to see you. Ten minutes. Make it worth your while. Okay?”
His voice had turned imploring, almost sweet like the man she’d fallen in love with. She realized her entire body was shaking and her hand was clutching the thin crystal goblet in a forceful manner.
Maverick’s tail thumped and he crept closer. His wet nose pressed against her leg as he emitted a single whine.
She looked down into his big brown eyes, longing for another life and one far away. Perhaps she’d never know real peace. She looked over her shoulder into the shadowed space. There would be nothing stopping him from getting inside. She hadn’t protected herself or her angel well enough. Hesitating while debating only brought about another series of hard knocks. Why was he here? She knew the answer. He wanted her back at any cost.
“Let me in. I’m still your husband.”
Dear God, his voice had the same air of arrogance she’d become accustomed to. She had no choice but to try and buy time. For what? There was no one coming to her rescue. She was very much on her own. “Okay, baby. Ten minutes, Anthony. That’s it. Do you understand? We have different lives now. You get it?”
“I do. That’s all I want, honey. We’ll say a proper goodbye.”
Tentatively she unlocked the door, grateful she’d changed the locks. Anthony was in the habit of getting everything that he desired, through violence or basic threats. She’d been on the receiving end more than once. Shaking her head, she knew she had no choice. Not tonight anyway.
She turned on the outside light before taking a giant step backwards. “You can come in, but ten minutes. That’s it.” She exhaled slowly as the doorknob twisted and the door was gently pushed open.
Anthony stood in the doorway, his massive body illuminated by the amber glow of her porch light. He leaned against the doorjamb, grinning as he looked from her face to her breasts. “You look great, but then you always did.”
Even from where she stood she could detect bourbon, his drink of choice. She could only make out half of his face, but she locked in on the evil grin, one she knew far too well. Taking a step back, she stood tall, feigning courage.
“There you are, my princess.”
In his hand was a brightly colored package. The golden bow seemed to shimmer in the dim lighting. She took two more steps back and fingered Maverick’s neck. “Say what you need to say and go. And I’m not your princess.”
Sniffing, he walked inside, not bothering to close the door. “Why do you have to be such a hard ass? It’s Christmas.”
McKenzie gave him a look of disdain. “Yeah? Well, I don’t care anymore.”
“Come on. I got something for you, a treat I know you’ll like. Just like the old days.” Anthony gave her a wry smile as he held out the package. “Remember how good we used to be together?”
She hesitated, memories rushing to the surface. Yeah, she remembered. Once she thought she could trust him. He wasn’t like his family. He wanted a nice house, a normal job and a wife he could adore. Power, influence and money changed everything. Chills remained skittering down her spine to the back of her legs. “Why are you here?”
“Told you. I wanted to see you and bring you a present,” Anthony stated flatly as he leered down at the dog.
McKenzie heard the low-slung growl coming from Maverick’s throat. The pup’s stance was one of protection as well as fear. The dog knew what kind of a man stood in front of them. There was an alternative motive. Game playing, she was damn good at. “I don’t want your presents. How did you find me, anyway?”
“Come on. It ain’t gonna bite you.” The look of amusement remained plastered on his face. “I told you there was nowhere you could go that I wouldn’t find you so here I am.”
As if encouraging, Maverick pushed the back of her leg. She wasn’t surprised. The pup was highly intelligent. Play the game. That’s what he was telling her. Yeah, she could do this. She eased the glass down on top of the glass coffee table and nodded as she accepted the package. “Fine. You certainly didn’t have to get me anything.” Except signed divorce papers. The thought had been the only thing she could concentrate on for weeks. Any additional bills from her attorney and she’d deplete her dwindling bank account.
Anthony shrugged. “I saw this and had to buy.” He shifted closer. “You were always so pretty when you fixed yourself up.”
The cut was one she was used to. She hesitated, anger increasing.
“Open it. Do as I say!” He took another step closer.
There was the man she knew and hated. She couldn’t help but notice the slight sway. The bastard’s drunk. While she’d seen him letting loose with his goons once or twice, losing control he loathed, refusing to succumb to the lure of liquor or drugs. Sex was another story entirely. Let it go. You’re getting your own life back. Life. What did that actually mean? Sighing, she fingered the ribbon before pulling the tie. He certainly hadn’t wrapped the brightly decorated package.
“Go on. Rip the paper. We’re not getting any younger. In fact, you need something to liven you up. I can tell. Get any lately?”
His laugh infuriated her. The asshole was goading her. Playing on her once tenuous emotions. Little did he know that she was much stronger than before. Exhaling to calm her nerves, she ripped open the rest of the present. Seeing the Victoria’s Secret label on the box taxed the remainder of her patience. She held her tongue as she lifted the lid. The colored pink tissue paper would have once given her hope. Tonight, she only experienced a disgusting taste in her mouth.
“Come on,” he huffed.
Using a single finger, she pulled the crimson teddy from the box. She kept her expression as well as her tone of voice flat. Nausea swept into her stomach. “Beautiful.” She wanted nothing more than to shred the lingerie with her fingers, ripping the thin slip of material to tiny shreds of nothing. “Now you can go.”
“Go?” Anthony smiled. “Not yet, sweetheart. Why don’t you try it on for me?”
“No.” Over my dead body.
Maverick issued a guttural sound and moved in front of her.
“Little protector, ain’t ya?” Anthony growled and barked several times. “You forget, you piece of matted fur, that I’m the one in charge.”
A series of crimson flags flew high and mighty. She was right. The man was going to try and take her back. She wrapped her hand around Maverick’s collar, becoming fearful the dog would snap.
“Like I said, try it on,” he demanded. “You always told me you wanted a commanding man. Well, here I am, baby. You still belong to me whether you like it or not. You ran and I didn’t give you permission.”
“Belong? Permission?” McKenzie managed. Anger mixed with trepidation and she thought about how to get out of the house. Her keys were in the kitchen. By the time she raced to get them, Anthony would either kill her or her baby. No, she had to play this out.
“Hell yeah, princess. My. Wife. Forever.”
The words had never seemed so chilling.
“Hush, baby,” she cooed in her softest voice as she stole a quick glance at Maverick. She revisited the single time she’d expressed her desires for a dominating man. She’d been such a fool. “I said no. I don’t think that’s appropriate given we’re getting a divorce.”
Anthony exhaled and looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah? About that.”
“What?” She slid the tip of her index finger across the black lace adorning the top of the gorgeous teddy, fighting back tears. “Did you sign the papers? You told me that you were going to. I’ve been damn patient. You can have your life back. I just want out and nothing else. I don’t want your money or the house. Nothing but my life.” No, she refused to show exasperation or anything resembling she gave a shit.
“I remember everything I agreed to.” After snarling, he took a step forward and pulled an envelope from his back pocket. “You mean these?”
Relief swept through her. She’d fought her inner demons for so many months, worry and dread turning into a complete wash of being a failure.
“Go try it on. Now!”
“Anthony, I appreciate the gift, but you and I aren’t together any longer. If you’ve signed the papers, let me have them. I’ll get my attorney to finalize them after the holidays. Then we can both move on.” Grabbing what seemed to be the last of her inner strength, she closed the distance, holding out her other hand. She was shaking but determined. This was the new McKenzie. This was a woman who would have a new life.
They locked eyes.
She could read exactly what he was thinking. She was nothing more than his property. No more. Holding her stance, she refused to blink.
Anthony snorted then looked away. “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
“Maybe so but we’re through. We’ve been over for a long time. You know it as well as I do.” When he looked up she was surprised to see tears in his eyes. There was no way she’d fall for his line of crap, not after the months of physical and emotional abuse. He was no longer the sweet man she’d married. Maybe he’d never been. No one could hide from their upbringing or their past. The ugly thought she dreamt about every night, nightmares so rich in detail she thought she was going mad. She noticed a glimmer in his eyes, haunted. She kept her grip on Maverick, a tethering to force her sanity to remain intact.
“I’m really sorry for everything. I want you to know that I’ve always loved you. I might not have been the best husband, but I never stopped loving you. I’ve thought about nothing else but those first couple of years. We were happy. We were.” He shook his head, his expression softening.
McKenzie longed to feel anything but contempt for a man who nearly destroyed everything they’d worked for. She couldn’t. There was nothing left inside of her but coldness.
“We were, but things changed and I’m never going back to the way I was.” She half expected him to slap her. Then she noticed he suddenly seemed a hell of a lot less intoxicated.
Anthony looked from Maverick back to her, his eyes devoid of any emotion. “Once a bitch, always a bitch. Have your divorce.”
“Thank you.” She gripped the envelope. There was the real man. Still, everything was going to be all right. When Anthony sucked in his breath she shuddered. “We tried. What more do you want me to say?”
“That you don’t want this.”
After trying to figure out what angle he was playing, she nodded her head. “I do want this. We were good together once, but it’s time we both move on. There’s too much baggage. I can’t live that life. I just can’t.”
“Baggage?” His eyes flashed anger then he snorted. “Didn’t I give you everything you ever wanted? Jewelry? A car? A house?”
“A prison. I was nothing but your prisoner, Anthony. Now leave me alone.” She was fortified by her resolve.
“We’re still good, if you’ll let me have another chance,” he purred. His smile returned.
“I’m sorry, Anthony. We’ve been over this more than once. You don’t want me. You desire to be a playboy and far too controlling. You don’t want responsibilities or a real life. You want everything given to you. Well guess what? That’s not the way marriage works.” The defiance in her voice no longer surprised her. She was healing finally.
“Everything given to me? I work very hard to put food on the table.”
“Beating the crap out of others. That’s what you call working hard?”
Shifting, he narrowed his eyes. “Put the damn slut outfit on.”
“No.” Her mouth was suddenly dry. She heard the change in his tone but kept her resolve. “I appreciate the present. I really do, but our marriage is done.” She shoved the teddy back into the box and dropped the package on the floor.
A laugh bubbled past his lips as he looked down at Maverick. “Stupid dog. He always took your side.” Ripping the envelope out of her hand, he held it above his head.
“You never cared about him. Dogs know character. They know love and honesty and—”
“You bitch. You turned him against me.” His face was a vivid hue of red, sweat rolling down the sides of his face.
“I did no such thing!” McKenzie inched closer to her beloved pup. She could easily tell the dog was agitated. The poor baby had been down this road before. He’d been the only creature, let alone human, to offer support and comfort during the months that led to her fleeing. Jesus. She was nothing more than a fugitive from her own life.
Anthony took a step backwards, catching the edge of the coffee table and stumbled. He caught himself before falling and huffed. “You didn’t deserve me, my family or my life.”
“Maybe so. Let’s just end this and be friends.”
“Sure.” He lingered as he fingered the white linen. Then he ripped the envelope into small strips.
Tears slid down her face. She knew the divorce wouldn’t be easy. He was doing nothing more than taunting her. His family was behind this, pushing him. Why had she fallen for such an abusive con man? Because he swept you off your feet. Yeah, he certainly had when no one else had any interest in her. “Please don’t do this. Please.”
Anthony loomed over her, his eyes empty, his expression one of possession. “Did you really believe you could get away from me? Hide? You know exactly what I can do. I own you. If I can’t have you, no one can. You forget your place as well as who I am.”
“Own? You never had me. You’re nothing but a monster.” She realized she’d crossed the line. Fear trickled down her spine as her pulse raced. He would make good on his threats. She’d disappear without a trace. Tonight, she was no longer certain she cared.
He glared at the pieces of the envelope before closing the distance, wrapping his hand around her throat. “Yeah? You’re such a little whore.”
“Anthony,” she wheezed through clenched teeth.
Grrr. Maverick jumped and growled, baring his teeth.
She flailed her hand as Maverick nudged Anthony’s leg. “Please.” The sound was barely a sputter.
Anthony lifted her onto her toes and dug his fingers into her neck. “You never gave a shit about me.”
Unable to breathe, she clawed at his hand. She’d never seen his eyes so cold. Evil. He was going to kill her.
Opening his hand, he allowed the remnants of the divorce papers to float to the floor. After a few seconds, he let her go and wiped his mouth. “Bitch. You’ll come crawling back to me. Then your punishment will be worse.”
She scuttled backward and reached for Maverick, who howled. Coughing, she glanced toward the door. She’d never be able to get around him. There was nothing but dense woods surrounding her small house. Only a few people even knew she existed. “Get out,” she managed.
“You really thought I’d sign this bullshit? You’re mine. All mine.” Anthony grabbed her around the neck and squeezed.
The forceful slap hit her square across the cheek. As he released his hand, she tumbled toward the floor, her head missing the edge of the coffee table by a mere inch. She groaned as stars swept in front of her eyes, marring her vision.
Woof! Woof! Gggrrr .
Maverick lunged at Anthony, his canines snagging the man’s jeans.
Anthony brushed both hands through his hair and laughed. “Like I said. Stupid fucking dog.”
McKenzie heard her baby’s cry before she registered the concept of the hard kick. “No!” As she scrambled to her knees, Maverick leapt forward, his teeth gnashing at Anthony’s forearm, digging in. “Let him alone!”
“I should have killed him months ago.” He balled his fist and wrapped his other hand around McKenzie’s hair, yanking back her head.
Maverick’s whimpers echoed in her ears as her baby was punched. “I’ll kill you.” In the next few seconds, her entire world was in slow motion. She slammed her fists into Anthony’s abdomen, breaking his hold. She managed to twist and kick out, her foot catching Anthony in the groin.
“Fuck!” He released his hold and lost his footing. As he tumbled down he punched her in the face, catching her just beneath her right eye.
Shattered glass spewed over her. “Maverick!” Stunned, she scrambled toward the door, fumbling until she yanked the handle. A single flash of lightning highlighted the torrential downpour just as Maverick rushed outside. “Baby. Stop.”
Anthony moaned behind her. She could feel his feet kicking out and knew he was reaching for her. She had to get to her baby. She had to save Maverick.
“Come… here… you… slut!”
McKenzie struggled to her feet. She slapped her hand on the doorjamb and limped out onto the front porch. “Maverick!”
He was nowhere to be seen.
Adrenaline kicked in as her mind and soul pushed her forward. She raced off the front porch and into the darkness, still able to hear Maverick’s beleaguered cry. She willed her feet and body to continue forward. Rain pelted against her face as she lumbered toward the heartbreaking sound. “Please, baby. Come to mama.”
She ran faster as her heart pumped. After a few yards, she tripped and was pitched to the ground. “No.” Nothing would stop her from getting to her pup. Nothing. No man. No act of nature. She unearthed her inner strength and rose to her feet, panting as pain became anguish.
Inhaling, she rushed onward until she was near the main road. She could still hear Maverick’s whining cry as he continued on his path. With every other step she lost her balance. Tree limbs and dense foliage snapped against her face, blinding her, yet she pressed on until she reached the edge of the road.
Maverick was crouched on his belly. From where she stood she could see his heavy breathing. “Come here, baby.”
He heard her and lowered his head, whimpering and crying. Another crack of lightning allowed her to see his face and his terrified eyes. Giving one last sound of anguish, he raced into the road.
She could see a set of headlights as if the driver was racing toward a needed destination. She reached out as she rushed into the blinding light, only two feet behind Maverick. “Maverick!”
Two Hours Earlier
“I’m surprised to see you here, but very pleased. You’re looking fabulously delicious I might add.”
Dr. Diego Mitchell heard the purr in Samantha’s voice and exhaled before plastering on a smile as he turned to face her. The leggy blonde winked and pursed her lips. “Samantha. How lovely to see you. You look like the sassy vixen I know you to be. Eye catching as always.” Of course he accentuated the cowboy twang on purpose. She just wanted to rope and ride, much like his last attempt at dating.
“Mmm. Always the cowboy and a gentleman.” Using just her index finger, she dragged the manicured tip down the side of his face.
“Always.” He refused to pull away even though he’d had enough of her cat and mouse games to last the rest of his life. Of course, she was beautiful. The root of her problem was that she was well aware of the effect she had over men. A quick glance from right to left reminded him that every man in the room would be happy to take a turn wining and dining her. Then again, she could roast and feast with the best of them. He chuckled as visions of her eating her prey for breakfast burst into the back of his mind.
She lifted her glass of wine in a toast. “And where is the cowboy spending New Year’s?”
Diego swilled his drink and took a sip as he thought about an answer. They’d gone out on two dates and she’d been ready to pick out china patterns. The marrying kind he wasn’t. “I’m working, sugar. My work is my life. I think I told you that before. Got a lot of fine looking animals depending on me.”
“You did and I mentioned all work and no playtime leads to a dull cowboy. How about a ride on one of those fabulous horses of yours?” Samantha batted her eyelashes.
“Maybe after I get the place fixed up.” Exhaling, he scanned the room. He knew maybe two of the guests but he had no doubt there were influential people among them. He knew clearly the kind of old money his buddy was worth. He was more than surprised a half dozen lawmen were in the room. Then again, he had a feeling the party was about entertainment of the BDSM variety. Police and politicians loved to play with handcuffs. He smirked as he envisioned a fond memory from the old days.
A good brew, a thick hamburger and spanking a little filly or two. His cock twitched. He was no longer a self-serving lone ranger. He’d grown into a revered veterinarian complete with loans up the ass. The responsibilities were killing him. Taking a full year off from work hadn’t helped either. Nose to the grindstone was his only motto.
“That’s such a pity.” She inched closer and stepped in front of his line of sight. “Isn’t there anything you’d like to find under your Christmas tree? Would you like to tie me up in red ribbon, spank my tight little ass the same color before you have your way with me? Or have you been too much of a naughty boy?”
“Christmas is over.” Granted, the woman needed a hard whipping, but the punishment would have zero to do with play time or sex. He pushed back a chuckle.
“Not in my world. Christmas comes when and how I choose. If you’re a very good boy I’ll allow you to taste the merchandise.”
He watched as she dropped her hand to her cleavage, her fingers absently rubbing across the thin bodice of her dress. Her perfume was indeed intoxicating and he thought about taking her home, spending a quiet night by the fire. Sadly, they shared nothing in common other than a physical attraction. “What do I desire? A fine bottle of scotch, a decent cigar and a good mystery.”
Samantha’s eyes were instantly cold, full of venom yet she gave him a practiced smile as she slapped one hand on her hip. “Mr. Excitement as always I see. Too bad you’re going to learn about cold nights all alone, just you and your horses.” Huffing, she licked her lips before turning her attention toward another man.
Diego smiled as she walked away and offered her a salute. “Mighty fine by me.”
“Ouch. There’s no wrath like a woman scorned.”
His best friend and the guy who’d single handedly lured him into moving to Virginia flanked his side. Drew Weathers was himself a lady’s man and without a doubt the best catch in the tri-state area. Old money and powerful friends assured him a bright future. “If I know the little filly, she’ll lick her wounds and move on very quickly.”
“Little filly, huh? More like a black widow if you ask me.”
“And one that might eat her children at birth,” Diego added.
“You know her well, don’t you?” Drew chortled and patted Diego on the back.
“I think I’ll skip the female action for a little while.”
Drew clinked his glass with Diego. “You and me, buddy. They’re after one thing and I’m not talking about sex. When they have all the fancy cars and jewelry, they move onto a younger version, one with a name like Magnum.”
Diego burst into laughter. “Or Maverick?”
“Oops, forgot about your middle name. Hey. Diego Maverick sounds like a model or a movie star. You’re in the wrong business, partner.”
“Eh. Not in my mine. However, Mama did have a flair for romantic western attire, which is why I try and forget I have a middle name. Anyway, since I don’t have a lot of money, I guess the vultures will leave me alone.”
Drew winked. “They just want you for your cowboy accent and good looks.”
“Very funny.” A few seconds passed.
“Hey, I’m glad you decided to come. I thought you were permanently locked away in that office of yours.”
Diego shrugged. “Well, I don’t have any early appointments and there is something to be said for your best friend threatening you.”
“Now would I stoop to unscrupulous tactics?”
“That you would my friend. That you would indeed.” An awkward silence settled in. He wasn’t even certain why except they were moving in different directions. They’d once been able to talk about anything. They’d been inseparable. Party boys with brains. Drew was decidedly different than all those years ago in college. Perhaps he was as well. Life certainly had taken some difficult turns over the last few years.
“How’s the house coming along?”
“You mean a dilapidated cabin with thousands of dollars of needs?” Diego laughed.
“Hey, I don’t want to hear a word. You were the one who insisted on purchasing the place sight unseen.”
“True, but how many ranches are there in Goochland?”
Drew grinned as his eyes flashed. “You’d be surprised my man. You need to get out more. There are more horse ranches here than anywhere else in Virginia. I know the county ain’t Montana, but we have our share of cowboy wannabe’s anyway. Why don’t you consider coming out with me and my buddies more often?”
“Between fixing up the house and growing the practice, you know I can’t. There’s not enough time in the day or the night for that matter. My practice is my life.” Diego raised his eyebrow. “Let’s not talk about home and hearth, my friend. This is a totally different place in comparison to home.”
“Bigger than you think. We’ll go sightseeing one day.”
“Whew, the storm is getting bad. I think I should go. I got me a couple of terrified pups I’m tending to,” Diego said as he glanced out the window. The lightning flashes lit up the sky in eerie formations.
“Terrified pups? Come on. Nonsense. Let’s get another drink and I want to talk to you about a business proposition.”
“One more but that’s my limit.” Diego cringed. He hated leaving the animals alone.
Shaking his head, Drew chuckled. “Always the responsible one. Fair enough.”
Five minutes later they walked into Drew’s office. Diego studied the room as if seeing the dark wood paneling and mahogany desk for the first time. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
“I just invested daddy’s money well. The various land acquisitions have been good to me. You might try it one day. I could hook you up.” Drew winked as he walked behind his desk. He opened an ornate wooden box, tossing Diego a cigar.
Diego caught the smoke, immediately bringing the cylinder to his nose. “You have good taste in everything. You always did.”
“The perks of a solid practice.” He studied Diego as he snipped the tip and produced a lighter. After lighting the end, he pushed the cutter in Diego’s direction. “Indulge my friend. This is a Christmas party.”
“Christmas is over and I’m kinda glad.” He had little to celebrate this year. Moving across country had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, he wasn’t entirely certain he’d made the right decision.
“Such a Scrooge. You’re going to find your way here. I know you very well. As soon as you get your name out, the rich and famous will flock to your doors to have you care for their animals.”
Diego lit the end of the cigar and took a deep puff. The taste was exquisite. He blew out a ring of smoke and walked toward the window, studying the electric sky. The swirling clouds remained ominous, a foretelling in his mind. He closed his eyes briefly. “I have to admit. I have my doubts.”
“You just need a little push. That’s all. You’re a damn good vet.”
“How do you know? Until four months ago we hadn’t spoken in years.”
“After your midnight call, I had you checked out,” Drew admitted.
Diego darted a glance over his shoulder and snorted. “I’m not surprised. A crazy, drunken call in the middle of the night from a friend you haven’t spoken to in over eight years would make me suspicious as well.”
“Not suspicious, just curious. I learned a hell of a lot about you from various sources.”
“I hate to ask who those sources might be.”
“They all had glowing reviews or you wouldn’t be here.” Drew opened his desk drawer and pulled out an envelope. After fingering the flap, he inched around the end of the desk. “I want you to have this. Merry Christmas.”
“What’s this?” Diego eyed the crisp linen, his gut churning. There was far too much to learn about his past. Something he wasn’t proud of. A memory of his father flashed into his mind.
“A surprise, dingbat. Open it. My Christmas present to you.”
Groaning, Diego slid his drink on top of the desk and gripped the envelope. He placed the cigar in his mouth and peeled away the flap. When he eased the check from inside, he blinked twice. “You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to take this.” The twenty-thousand dollar number was exactly what he needed to finish the repairs to the barn and make a dent in the plumbing and electrical work, but handouts he refused to take.
“Ba hum bug, eh? Don’t be ridiculous. You need an influx of cash and I’m loaded.”
“I really appreciate the gesture but I’m not taking charity.”
“Charity? Are you kidding me? I do intend to bring my animals to you free of charge you know,” Drew insisted.
“You don’t have any animals.” Diego held out his arm.
“Oh. There’s that.” His laugh hearty, he puffed on his cigar then took a step backwards. “Then consider this a loan. Okay? Please. You’re a good guy. You deserve a break and I can give you one. Work with me here.”
Diego looked down at the check, contemplating what to do. His father would be mortified. Then again, his father was dead. God rest his soul. “Drew, you don’t know me, not really.”
“I want you to have a fighting chance to succeed. That’s all. Besides, I remember the guy who protected me in more than one bar fight.”
He concentrated on the sound of the ticking grandfather clock. He was backed into a corner. Without money, he’d lose everything. He couldn’t go back. There was nothing in Montana for him except heartache. “Okay, but this is a loan. I’ll pay you back with interest.”
“I mean it.”
“I hear you.” Drew took a sip of his drink.
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.” For some reason, Diego felt sick to his stomach. Handouts from his best friend could have a hefty price tag, even if he had no clue what that might be. However, the clinic meant more than just a fresh start. Saving animals might just save his very soul.
“Now, time to enjoy the party, my friend. Just another thirty minutes until the storm dies down.” Winking. Drew remained close. “I know how much you’ve been through. We don’t have to talk about it, what happened I mean. I know the guy inside. You deserve a new life. So, relax and enjoy for once. Tomorrow you can work yourself to the bone.”
Diego exhaled and glanced out the window. Digging into the past had been inevitable, but how much had Drew learned? He didn’t want to think about the answer tonight. Relaxing was tempting. The clinic was almost empty. There were no medical emergencies, just a couple of borders given the holiday season. The babies could wait a while longer. “Just keep the vixen away from me.”
“Now that you’re going to have to pay me for,” Drew said as he turned out the light. “Then again, I heard she’s into the kinky stuff.”
He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “For all her teasing, she loves to be spanked.”
“You would know this how?”
“I have my ways. Think about the concept. Something we used to do.”
Diego raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t thought about that part of his past for two years. “Used to being the key words.”
“Oh, come on. Take a look at the women in this room.” Drew nodded and his eyes darted from one female to the next.
“Yes. What about them?”
“You and I both believe women not only appreciate but deserve to have a hard spanking from time to time. Keeps them in their place.”
“Still the Neanderthal,” Diego mumbled. Granted, this was once his true belief. However, he’d never had a relationship where a woman embraced the lifestyle. Playful spanking during sex was fine, but anything else was akin to abuse.
Drew grinned and eased in front of Diego. “I know a club in town you might like.”
“Uh, no thanks. Not my thing any longer.”
“Okay. How about this,” he said and winked. “I have a few spanking parties a year. I’ll let you know when the next one is. Maybe you’ll enjoy, pick up where you left off.”
Diego shifted and gave him a look. “There’s a lot I don’t know about you. Isn’t there?”
“Wow. You are one big dud, aren’t you?” Laughing, he winked. “Let’s just say I enjoy my play time.”
“Good. We might get the stick out of your ass sooner versus later. Well, I’m off to find a lady who would enjoy being tied up for the night.”
Diego shook his head and stood watching. The memories of that time in his life were certainly sweet, but would remain where they belonged. In the past.
“Why don’t you stay here? There’s plenty of room.” Drew leaned against the doorframe and swirled his drink. “We can tell war stories.”
“I need to get home. I have animals to feed and those two pups in the clinic overnight to look in on.” Diego yanked on his coat. So, he was telling a small lie. This wasn’t his life any longer and he wanted no part of the activities they’d shared in the past. A brief but vivid memory crested the surface, one he didn’t like. You’re a different man now. Or was he? When his buddy slapped him on the back, he swam to the surface of reality.
“Don’t you have staff to help you?”
Diego grinned. “Can’t afford them just yet.”
“Maybe. We’ll talk this week.”
“You drive a hard bargain but good enough. Be safe my friend. I’ll keep the vixen away.” Laughing, Drew waved him off.
He raced toward his vehicle as the rain pelted against him sideways. Slamming the door shut, he wiped the water from his face and groaned as the lightning continued to flash. Instead of dying down, the storm had picked up in intensity. “Perfect. Just perfect.”
Diego sat inside the car with the engine running for a full minute. The storm raged all around him, thunder booming against the ground. The trees swayed to the point limbs were touching the ground, tips scraping back and forth across the top of his car.
Shivering, he turned on the radio and placed his phone on the seat. He only had ten miles to go, but in this kind of weather, he’d be lucky to get home in half an hour. Exhausted from a long week, he rubbed his eyes and turned on the radio. Instantly the information regarding a tornado watch gave him a series of shivers. Montana weather he was used to. This was something else.
Even with the wipers going full speed, the road was difficult to see. He switched back and forth from high to low beams, settling on low as a wafting of fog floated across his windshield. The winding road was deserted and after a few minutes he was more at ease. He rounded a corner and gripped the steering wheel as a tree limb danced off the hood, crashing on the other side of the road.
“Shit. This is nuts.” Keeping both hands on the wheel, he maneuvered another series of curves.
“What the…” Out of the corner of his eye he saw what appeared to be a text message. Ignoring, he squinted and slowed down. Debris was everywhere.
Curiosity getting the better of him, he grabbed his phone. “Jesus. Don’t you ever stop?” Samantha. Why had he given her his number? He didn’t need to get—
“What the?” His headlights flashed on a figure dashing across the road then a second and…