Fifteen dogs and twenty-one cats. The number of strays changed daily—but one thing didn’t—they all depended on Ally Curtis. This had to go well. She checked her appearance one more time, spritzed on vanilla body spray.
A clatter echoed through the house.
“Mom, you okay in there?”
“Just digging for a Pyrex lid.”
Ally hurried to the kitchen. Her two Pomeranians trailed behind, their nails clicking across the hardwood floor.
“Found it.” Mom snapped the blue lid onto a glass casserole dish on the counter. Layers of cream cheese and chocolate were visible through the sides. “I knew you’d be too tired to make anything after vaccinating all that cattle and we need to win over our new neighbor.”
“You really didn’t have to do this, but I’m glad you did.” A cramp shot through Ally’s shoulder and she massaged the aching spot. “Thanks, Mom.”
Every muscle she owned ached as if she’d spent the first day of September steer wrestling. And she pretty much had.
Vaccination day at a large ranch paid a lot of bills at her vet clinic in tiny Aubrey, Texas. But she always came home exhausted and reeking like a stockyard. The shower had removed the stench but not the twinges.
At least she had another vet in her practice and the new tech she’d hired would relieve some of their load tomorrow. But it was only Thursday night. Two more workdays until her only day off.
“You smell much better,” Mom teased.
“Definitely. Now all I have to do is lay on the charm.”
“My persuasive daughter bearing a four-layer delight. Who could resist?” Mom’s eyes widened. “What if our new neighbor is allergic to chocolate?”
“Or pecans.” Ally’s heart stammered. “Should I make something else?”
“Forget I said that.” Mom winced. “If there are allergy issues, just apologize and I’ll bake a pie or something else.”
“If there’s any more baking to be done, I’ll do it.” Ally picked up the dessert. “You’ve done enough.”
“It probably won’t be necessary. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love four-layer delight.”
“Neither have I.” It was Daddy’s favorite. And Cody had practically begged for it.
Thoughts of her father always led to Cody. It had been twelve years since her policeman dad had died in the line of duty. Twelve years since her good friend Cody’s comfort had turned into an earth-shattering kiss. A kiss that had dug an awkward gulf between them.
Since then, she’d seen him exactly twice. When their mutual friend married his brother a few years ago and when he was in rehab for an injured shoulder and knee after his recent bull wreck. Her heart had clamored both times. But his apparently hadn’t.
She sighed. By now he was probably fully recovered and back on the circuit. Even if he gave up bull riding someday, he was a nomad. A confirmed bachelor, he’d never settle in Aubrey. And she was way too independent for anything other than friendship. So stop thinking about him.
“You look pretty without the braid for a change.” Mom smoothed her hand over Ally’s hair.
“Want me to go with you?”
“Tempting.” Ally took in a sharp breath and squared her sore shoulders. “But what if the new neighbor’s not a people person? We don’t want to overwhelm. All we need is some animal-hating grouch to complain and try to shut down my rescue program.”
“We’re probably overthinking the what-ifs.” Mom patted her arm.
“I hope so.” Her shoulders slumped. “I just can’t believe somebody bought the place. I almost had the owner talked into selling me a parcel. Can you imagine how many more strays I could have housed with the extra land?”
“I’m sorry I sold our land off over the years.” Mom sighed. “It should have been yours.”
“Stop, Mom. You were a widow. You did what you had to do. We’ll just have to make the best of it. If I can get on the new owner’s good side, maybe I can eventually convince them to sell me an acre or two.”
Two canine puffballs—one orange, one gray—danced for attention at her feet. “Poor babies. I promise we’ll have a good long cuddle when I get back. But right now I have to go butter up our new neighbor.”
“Rotten babies.” Mom picked up a Pom in each arm. “You’d think they never get any attention. Despite these little distractions, I’ll be praying.”
A lot of good that would do. But she couldn’t let Mom know she felt that way.
Ally stepped out and strolled casually toward the farmhouse next door.
She’d just wanted to be a vet, not run an animal shelter. Yet after a client had brought her an injured stray, word had gotten out. And before she knew it, Ally’s Adopt-a-Pet was born.
But she was running out of room. Thank goodness the inspector had already come for the year. If the state showed up tonight, she’d get written up for being over her limit. All she could do now was sweet-talk her new neighbor. And hope whoever it was liked animals.
Trying not to let her nerves show, she unlatched the gate between the properties and stepped through.
The horse trailer by the barn had to mean something. Ally’s heart rattled. Surely their new neighbor wouldn’t mind a few dogs since he, she or they clearly liked horses. Surely.
A cacophony of barks and yips echoed from the barn behind her clinic. Her volunteers—three girls from the local youth group—strolled the property walking several of the dogs. She waved a greeting and climbed her neighbor’s porch steps.
Who was she kidding? There were way more than a few dogs, with a generous sprinkling of cats, plus the pets she boarded for her traveling clients. And if she tried to shush the menagerie, it usually only made the racket worse.
Maybe she should wait until the teens left and the dogs settled down a bit.
The door swung open.
Cody Warren—in the flesh. Tall, muscular, with hair the smoky brown shade of a Weimaraner and soothing aloe eyes.
Ally gasped. Twelve years since his kiss had changed her world. Twelve years since he’d left to follow his dream.
Twelve years of trying to forget.
The glass dish slipped from her hand.
Cody grabbed the dish, his hands closing over hers. His breath caught.
Ally. On his porch.
Same old Ally. Long waves the color of a dark bay horse’s coat, usually twined in a thick braid but loose today and spilling over her slender shoulders. Cautious coffee-colored eyes as skittish as a newborn colt.
He’d succumbed to her charms once. It had rearranged his insides and altered everything. Who would have thought one kiss would put the wariness in her eyes, build an uncomfortable wall between them and cause Ally to spend all that time since avoiding him? All because of his disobedient lips.
“Cody?” Her voice went up an octave. “You’re my new neighbor?”
“Looks like.” And now he’d gone and moved in next door to her. Maybe not the best way to keep his distance. “Let me take this.” He scooped the dish out of her hands.
“I thought you’d be back on the circuit by now.” Her gaze dropped to his shirt collar.
“I…um…I decided not to go back to the rodeo.” More like his doctor decided for him. And that little bubble in his brain had something to say about it, too. “Aubrey is home and I needed a place of my own.”
“You bought the place next to me?”
“This was the only land available with enough acreage to start a ranch.” Technically leasing, with an option to buy. If he decided to have surgery. And lived.
She hugged herself. “What happened to Aubrey not being big enough for you?”
“Things change.” A brain aneurysm changed lots of things. “Does your mom still live with you?”
“She does.” She bit her lip. “Okay, yeah, I still live at home. But it’s the perfect place for my vet practice-slash-shelter and Mom’s my office manager at the clinic.”
“Come on in.” He stepped aside, striving for casual, despite the drumming of his heart. “And tell me this is a pecan chocolate four-layer delight.”
“It is. Mom made it, but I didn’t come to stay.” She glanced toward her place.
“You got a passel of kids waiting for you?”
“Um, no.” Sarcasm laced her words. “Surely you know I’m not married.”
“I meant the teenage girls out there walking dogs, but it looks like they’re leaving.”
“Oh.” Pink tinged her cheeks. “They volunteer to make sure all of the animals get attention and exercise.”
“Since they’re leaving, I figure you can stay and help me eat this.” He took her by the elbow and led her into the empty kitchen. Warmth swept through him. Shouldn’t have touched her. Not even her elbow. “Come on. Humor me. Catch me up on Aubrey happenings.”
“I don’t know any.” She slid her hands in her pockets. “I pretty much stay to myself except for cattle calls and hospital visits with my dog program. I hope the realtor told you about my small-animal shelter before you moved in.”
“Like a good realtor, she did.” He set the dish in the middle of the kitchen island and rubbed his hands together. “Actually, she didn’t have much choice. All the critters were serenading us when we arrived.”
“Do they bother you?” She grimaced. “The noise, I mean.”
“Not at all. You know I’ve always been an animal lover. In fact, once I get settled in, I plan to come over and adopt a dog or two, maybe a cat or three for the barn.”
“Really?” Excitement filled her eyes for the first time since he’d opened the door for her.
“Sure.” Maybe the way to reclaim their easy friendship was through her animals. Ally had always had a soft spot for all four-legged creatures. He could lend a hand with the critters in her shelter. Maybe help her find homes for them. But more than anything, he could use a friend about now. He opened a drawer and remembered he hadn’t even brought his utensils in yet.
“Why don’t you have any furniture or appliances?” She strolled around the large kitchen.
“My home’s been in the living quarters of my horse trailer for several years.” Maybe he shouldn’t have kept his move secret from his family. A furnished house might improve his rep. “I never needed furniture until now.”
Over the years, his humor had pegged him as the class clown. His yearning for freedom and travel made everyone assume he had Peter Pan syndrome. His years on the circuit had only solidified his image as someone who refused to grow up, to take responsibility and settle down.
Now he was out to show everyone there was so much more to him. Maybe if he morphed into a mature adult before their eyes, they’d buy his cover. That he wanted to retire and be a rancher. Not that he was forced into retirement and might not live to tell about it.
“I’ll be right back.” He shut the drawer. “My silverware is still in the horse trailer.”
“I have a better idea. Have you eaten supper?”
“Not yet.” Why was she being so nice after making a career of avoiding him over the years? “But I can have dessert for supper.” He gave her a sly grin. “I’m an adult.”
“Jury’s still out on that.” She rolled her eyes.
Yep, he had a lot of convincing to do.
“Come on over and I’ll warm up some taco soup.” She scurried toward the door.
“You’re making my mouth water. Lead the way.” It would be hard to keep up with her with his bad leg. But he didn’t want to let on, so he followed her out. He’d made it down the steps and a few feet farther when he stepped in a hole and his knee wrenched before he caught himself.
“Whoa.” Ally grabbed his arm. “Are you okay?”
Heat crept up his neck. “My doctor warned me to be careful on uneven surfaces. I’ve got a little hitch in my get-along these days.”
“Why didn’t you tell me to slow down?”
“I sort of forgot when you mentioned taco soup.” Actually, he’d wanted to hide his weakness.
“How are you going to run a ranch when you can barely walk?”
“Easy. With a great foreman and trusty ranch hands. I’ll be the brains behind the operation.” He shot her a wink.
“Okay, change of plans.” She put her arm around his waist. “Lean on me.”
A bum leg was worth getting this close to Ally. He slipped his arm around her shoulders. Her fruity shampoo tickled his senses along with vanilla and that fresh hay scent that had clung to her for as long as he could remember. The smell of Ally. He’d missed it.
“We’re gonna turn around nice and slow and take you back inside. Once you’re on solid ground, I’ll go warm up the soup and bring it over.”
“That’s too much trouble.” He really should tell her he could walk just fine. Just needed to use his cane and take it slow. But what he ought to do and wanted to do were two entirely different things.
“No, it’s not.” She helped him climb his steps. “I won’t have you hurting yourself for no reason.”
She cared and smelled good. But he couldn’t get used to leaning on Ally. Couldn’t get too close. Not until he figured out his future. If he had one.
A waft of steam rose from the bowl of warmed soup on Cody’s granite counter. Cody’s counter. How had Ally gotten herself into this? She’d had a momentary lapse of judgment—that was how. But if the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, maybe the way to getting him to sell land was too.
If only Mom could have brought the soup over. But by the time Ally got back to warm it, Mom had already showered and was in her pajamas.
As long as he’d been in the hospital and then rehab, Ally hadn’t worried about him. But obviously, she hadn’t realized how banged up he was. With him living next door and unable to walk across his own yard, he was like a magnet. Seeing him again, and seeing him in pain, had brought old feelings flooding back.
Staying away from Cody was the smart thing to do. But he could barely walk, much less cook. Especially with no appliances. He needed her help.
“So where have you been since you left the rehab center?” She leaned her hip against the breakfast bar.
“I stayed with Grandpa in Medina until this morning.” He stood across the island from her, making quick work of the soup.
“Medina is almost a six-hour trip. You should be resting.” She scanned the open floor plan, just to keep from looking at those mesmerizing eyes. Large roomy kitchen with a peninsula and a big eat-in area. The former owner had installed new cabinets and tiled floors a few years back, but Cody didn’t have a stick of furniture. No pictures or personal items, nothing on the paneled walls. Not to mention necessities like a refrigerator. “Do you at least have a bed?”
“Grandpa sent one with me from his spare room until I get my own.”
“So instead of resting in your borrowed bed—” she rolled her eyes “—you try and walk to my house on uneven ground after your doctor warned you to be careful? What were you thinking?”
“Taco soup.” He grinned, deepening the cleft in his chin. “And four-layer delight.”
Her heart did a flip. He seemed a bit more serious and mature than the Cody she’d always known. Until it came to food.
He wolfed down another spoonful of soup. “Mmm.”
Gravel crunched in the drive and vehicle doors opened, then closed.
“No one knows I’m here.”
Ally peered between the miniblind slats. “A blue pickup.”
“Oh no, they’ve found me.” Cody hung his head.
“Who?” Ally frowned.
“My folks.” His tone was filled with dread.
Why? He’d always had a great relationship with his family. Unless something had happened between them. “They didn’t bring you home?”
“One of Grandpa’s ranch hands was headed to Fort Worth to buy a bull. I hitched a ride with him.”
“I don’t want to be fussed over.”
Audra Warren, Cody’s mom, entered first without knocking. “Cody, what were you thinking?” She splayed her hands. “Grandpa said you came home to surprise us.”
His dad, Wayne, followed. “We were worried when you didn’t answer your cell.”
“I forgot to charge it.”
Despite Ally’s attempt to blend into the corner, Audra noticed her. “Ally? How nice to see you.”
“You too.” She waved her fingers.
“Why all the secrecy?” Audra’s attention swung back to Cody. “We had to call the local Realtor to even find out where you were.” Her eyes were teary, a testimony to a mother’s love and worry over her recently injured son.
“I just didn’t want a bunch of fuss.” Cody hugged his mother, evidently feeling guilty now for upsetting her. “I’m pushing thirty—I don’t need a lot of fanfare. And I figured y’all would insist I stay with you. I just wanted to come home. To a place of my own.”
“We love you, Cody.” Audra sniffled. “We merely want to help you get settled. But if you’d stay with us, we could at least gather the furniture we all have in storage and get this place livable for you.”
“You should have called.” Wayne’s jaw tensed. “Your mother was worried sick.”
“Sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You don’t even have a bed.” Audra’s voice cracked. “You can’t stay here.”
“That’s the one thing I do have. I’m fine.”
“I guess I should just be glad you’re well enough to be home.” Audra pushed away from him and gave Ally a quick hug. “Just like old times with you looking after Cody. Thanks for seeing to him.”
“No problem.” Act natural. She and Cody had been friends since grade school. That was all he was to her, a friend. “I brought a dessert to welcome my new neighbor, but once I saw it was Cody and he didn’t even have a microwave, I brought soup over.”
“Isn’t this some setup?” Wayne winked at Ally. “You and Cody right next door to each other. Y’all could get into all kinds of mischief.”
Like the mischief they’d gotten into twelve years ago. No way. Ally’s lips would steer clear of Cody Warren this go-round.
In fact, all of her would. “Since y’all are here, I’m gonna go.”
Cody grabbed her hand. “I wish you’d stay. We’ve still got catching up to do.”
Electricity moved up her arm. Ally pulled away. “I’ve got chores to do and a surgery in the morning. It’s good seeing y’all.” She aimed for the door and put it in high gear.
Distance. She’d have to keep lots of distance between her and Cody. Her heart couldn’t take any more teasing.
Cody scanned his cozy house, grateful to have a loving family. Even though they sometimes smothered him.
Only twenty-four hours since his parents had caught up with him and his new house was already furnished. There would have been even more fuss if he’d told his family he was leaving Grandpa’s. And if he’d accepted a ride home from his parents, he’d have likely ended up at their house. Yet because of them, he actually had a table to sit at to savor his last serving of four-layer delight.
In a day’s time, his dad and his brother, Mitch, had brought over Mitch’s old dining room set, appliances and dual recliner couch, along with Cody’s old bedroom suite from when he lived at home. He’d moved out twelve years ago and Mitch had given up his bachelor pad two years ago, but they had kept everything. His family officially ranked as hoarders.
The rich coffee aroma still permeated his house, as they’d offered him countless cups throughout the day.
If only he could have the real stuff instead of the fake. The empty maker mocked him from the counter. He’d die for a cup. Literally. He filled the carafe with water, poured it in the back, scooped decaf grounds into the filter and turned it on. It would have to do.
The doctor’s list of aneurysm triggers included intense nose blowing, vigorous exercise and strain. Since he had no allergies, he should be okay unless he got a cold.
It was a genuine wonder the aneurysm hadn’t ruptured during his physical therapy, which came to a screeching halt after his doctor found the bubble during a follow up scan after his last concussion. Hopefully, his leisurely walks on his new treadmill would help with his limp.
Anger and surprise would be easy to avoid since he was laid-back and not easily startled. But real coffee? He came from a family that joked about having caffeine in their veins instead of blood. Having his dark roast again just might be worth the surgery that could kill him or reduce him to vegetable status.
He scraped all the excess chocolate and crumbs out of the glass dish and polished off the last bite of the lip-smacking dessert. The tang of cream cheese lingered on his tongue.
Despite all the activity and furnishings, Ally had stayed away. Her mom had brought him a casserole, but he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Ally since yesterday.
Maybe moving next door to her hadn’t been the best plan. It was the only land he’d found to lease, but it wasn’t a good way to relieve the tension between them and get their friendship back on track.
He stood and waited until the stiffness eased in his knee before shuffling to the sink, then made short work of washing the pan and poured a cup of decaf.
Since they’d grown up in the same church, hung out in youth group and been in the same class, he, Ally and his now-sister-in-law, Caitlyn, had been best friends all the way back to kindergarten.
But Ally had avoided him at Mitch and Caitlyn’s wedding. And after his bull wreck, when Ally had visited the rehab center with her dog program and had realized her patient was him, she hadn’t been able to get out of there fast enough.
She was obviously uncomfortable because of that kiss that had spun his world into a blur faster than any bull ever had.
But hadn’t affected her.
Maybe they needed to talk about the kiss. Agree to forget it. He dried the glass dish and tucked it under his arm. If he walked slow and careful and took the stupid stick, he could handle the uneven yard. He gulped the useless coffee, grabbed the cane and stepped out his back door.
Must have been after hours for her clinic. Only one other truck and a car were parked next to Ally’s—probably one of her youth group volunteers. He continued past the house to the block structure with a neon open sign in the window.
A cowbell clanged when he opened the door.
“I’ll be right with you,” Ally called from the back. “Is it an emergency?”
“It’s just me.”
A deep woof came from behind the counter. Cody eased closer. A male German shepherd lay sprawled on the floor, his ears perked up.
“Hey, buddy, don’t worry—the vet’s nice.” He lowered his voice. “And she’s a looker, too.”
He set the dish on the counter, settled in a chair in the waiting area, picked up a livestock magazine and thumbed through it.
“You know I’m on your side, Ms. Curtis.” A man’s voice came from the back. “I love animals as much as you do. But you’re not in compliance with the cats. You’re supposed to provide eighteen square feet per cat.”
“The mama cat and two kittens just came in yesterday.” Her words came fast, desperate. “Their owners moved and abandoned them. I just couldn’t turn them away. I planned to buy some more acreage so I could expand, but someone else beat me to the property.”
He’d tied up the land she needed. Cody closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to write you up.”
“I understand.” She sounded so broken.
And now she was in trouble.
Cody had to find a way to fix it.