Lacey traced the outline of her mom’s face on the picture on her nightstand, wishing for the millionth time that she was here to see her as a grown up. So many times, she wished she could pick up the phone and ask her for advice, but she’d been unable to do that for fourteen years today. She wondered, as she always did, if her mom could ‘see’ her, if she knew who she was as an adult. She hoped that she did, and she often talked to her like she could, because to believe she was just gone was something she couldn’t fathom. It had gotten easier over the years, but never better. The hole that her mom left by dying was something that could never be filled by anyone. Not her ‘barely functional’ dad, her well-meaning sister, her grandparents, aunts, no one.
When she had walked across the stage with her doctorate in Veterinary Medicine, she pretended her mom was in the audience, dabbing her eyes. When she started her first day at Kindness Animal Hospital, she wished that she could call her mom and tell her how nervous she was. But she had settled with talking to Aubrey, her little sister. Aubrey was twenty-two to Lacey’s twenty-six, and had just graduated from college with her teaching degree. She moved in with her boyfriend and was looking forward to the next part of her life. She constantly harassed Lacey about finding someone to spend her life with.
Lacey wished it was that easy for her. She had her share of boyfriends over the years, but she never wanted anything very serious. She had goals, and none of them included being tied down to a serious boyfriend or marriage already. Seeing what her dad went through after her mom died, and still to this day, showed her that sometimes love hurts more than it helps. She could say she’d never been in love before, and that was on purpose.
Her best friend Samantha, who had turned country superstar over the last few years, had just had her baby girl recently after a whirlwind romance with her bodyguard, Ellis Warner. Lacey knew they were meant to be, but even their relationship hadn’t been without some major drama. She just couldn’t put herself through that kind of emotional trauma. She was content with just focusing on her new career. She had always loved animals; it was something that her and her mom had shared. Growing up on the outskirts of Nashville, her parents had a lot of property and her mom had taken in just about any stray animal that needed a home. She and Lacey would feed, bathe, and love all of them, and Lacey knew from a very young age what she wanted to do when she grew up.
Now her dream was a reality. She had worked her butt off to graduate top of her class, and had gotten the job she had wanted for years, at the top veterinary practice in Nashville. She had only been there a few weeks now, but it already felt like home.
Her phone rang and she jumped, the picture frame clattering face down on the nightstand. Seeing that it was her sister, she accepted the call, straightening the frame.
“Hey, Aub,” Lacey said.
“Lace,” Aubrey said back, and neither sister had to say a word. They both knew what they were feeling. Even though Aubrey had been only eight and had been sheltered from a lot of what had happened, she missed their mother with every fiber of her being as well. “Same time, same place?”
A tear trickled down Lacey’s cheek. Today, like every anniversary over the last fourteen years, Lacey would visit the Mississippi River, where her mother’s ashes had been set free. She would listen to the breeze rustle the trees, the water lap the shore, and the wildlife moving on as if nothing had ever happened. Aubrey sometimes joined and other times didn’t, but Lacey never missed. Not once.
“I’ll be there,” Lacey answered softly. “Right after work.”
She finished the call as quickly as she could and finished getting ready, trying but failing to keep the sadness off of her features. Looking in the bathroom mirror, she saw her cerulean eyes sparkling, her mom’s eyes. They were framed by dark eyelashes and long, dark hair. She ran lip gloss, powder, and mascara over her face and slipped into her scrubs with the dogs on them. Giving herself one more glance, she sighed. Today was going to be a long day, but she was going to spend it doing what she loved, and she knew that her mom would be happy about that.
“Dr. Russell, we’ve got an emergency on the way in that Dr. Jenkins would like you to assist on.” Lacey looked up from her chart at the veterinarian assistant, Chloe.
“What kind of emergency?” Her heart fell to her stomach as she thought of what it could be. She hated emergencies.
“Dr. Jenkins didn’t say. He just said to come get you and have you meet him in Room 1.”
Lacey shuffled her papers back together and followed Chloe down the hall to the room. She glanced towards the front door, wondering what she was going to see.
“Dr. Jenkins? Chloe said you needed me?”
He looked up and smiled at her. Dr. Jenkins was the lead veterinarian here, and had been practicing medicine longer than she had been alive. He reminded her of a kind, old grandpa, but she learned right away that he was sharp as a tack and she could learn a whole lot from him. She was lucky he had taken to her and she spent any time she could around him.
“Yes. I have a Rottweiler coming in that was hit by a car. He’s a regular patient and is three years old. Mr. Tucker called in and said that has a compound fracture of his leg, so we’re going to have to prep for surgery.”
“What’s his name?”
“Max. He’s an easy going fella, though we want to be sure that he stays that way, since he’s in pain. He should be here any second.”
As soon as he said that, Lacey heard commotion from the waiting room and the door swung open to the exam room. A man, whom she presumed was his owner, carried the massive dog in his arms. She jumped into action, assessing Max as he whimpered. His femur on his front right leg was splinted, she assumed by the man who had brought him in. She muzzled Max, just a precaution, as Dr. Jenkins moved around the dog. Lacey knew he was checking him for shock, as that was something serious they saw often with compound fractures resulting from car accidents. They were also going to have to worry about infection, after they got the bone put back together.
Dr. Jenkins gave Max a shot, and the dog’s body relaxed as the pain subsided. It was then that Lacey was able to step back and take a deep breath. Her adrenaline was high, as it always was when she saw an animal hurt or in pain. She was glad to see that it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, though it was still serious.
“Is he going to be okay?” Mr. Tucker spoke up. She could hear the anguish in his voice, and she realized with the flurry of stabilizing Max, she had forgotten about him even being in there.
Finally looking at him, she had to fight to keep her mouth from dropping open at the sight of him. Her eyes took in the work boots, the body that jeans and a tee shirt couldn’t hide, and felt a blush creeping up her cheeks. His tanned, toned arms flexed as he wrung his hands, his chiseled face serious. When her gaze reached his eyes, she thought at first that she gasped out loud, but thankfully she didn’t. He was probably somewhere around her age, obviously did something right with a body like that, yet hadn’t even glanced at her. That was rather refreshing, to see a guy like him that probably had women falling at his feet so worried over his animal.
“Brantley, Max was lucky. It seems that he is uninjured except for his leg, and he hasn’t lost too much blood thanks to your quick action. I’m going to have to do surgery to repair his leg, then monitor him for a few days for signs of infection. Can you tell me what happened?”
Brantley. That was his name. Brantley Tucker. Even his name was sexy. And that was nothing she should be thinking right now. He was here for them to help Max, not have her drool over him. She struggled to keep focused on the words Dr. Jenkins was saying as her mind went off on a tangent.
Brantley’s eyes flicked to her momentarily, then back to Dr. Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins noticed as well and gestured towards her.
“Where are my manners? I’m sorry. Brantley Tucker, meet Dr. Lacey Russell. She will also be part of Max’s care.”
Lacey lifted her eyes to meet his, forcing a smile on her face. “Sorry to meet you under these circumstances.”
Brantley nodded, his face grim. “It’s Brant. Thank you for helping take care of Max. He means a lot to me.” He cleared his throat, and she knew he was fighting emotion. For some reason, that made her stomach feel funny, and she fought against her own rising emotion.
He turned back to Dr. Jenkins. “We were at home, and Max wanted to go out. He never needs a leash, he’s the best dog I’ve ever had and just stays right in the yard. He was just kind of walking around, enjoying the sunshine. I walked away for just a minute to go inside and grab a drink when I heard the screeching tires. When I ran outside, I saw him lying in the middle of the road, not moving.”
“Did the driver stop?”
Brant shook his head. “I never saw it. Whoever did this just drove away and left him there to die.”
Lacey bit her lip, anger surging through her veins. Who would do such a thing to a helpless animal?
“Did you call the police?”
Brant shook his head. “No. I just picked him up and rushed him here. I-I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted him to be okay.”
Dr. Jenkins smiled, placing his hand on Brant’s arm. Lacey just watched, like she was an outsider looking in. She had never felt so tongue tied in all her life. “He’s going to be okay. You did the right thing, getting him here right away. We’re going to take him into surgery. Do you want to wait in the waiting room, or do you want me to call you once he’s out?”
Brant looked down at a sleeping Max. He ran his hand over his big head, and Lacey had to look away to keep the tears at bay. What was wrong with her? What was it about watching him with this dog that made her such a hormonal mess?
It was just the whole day, she decided. She was emotional already because she knew after work she had to go to the river with her sister and deal with all of the feelings that her mom’s death brought out in her.
“I’ll wait. I can’t focus on anything else until I know he’s okay, anyway.” Brant stood up, his eyes sliding over to her. “Take care of him.”
She nodded, her throat thick, and turned back to Max. Focusing on the dog made it easier to pretend that Brant Tucker wasn’t affecting her.
The technicians laid Max gently in the huge kennel. His leg was all put back together and cleaned out, and he would sleep for a while. An IV drip delivered antibiotics and pain medicine. They would have to watch him to make sure no complications came up, but thankfully it had been a rather simple surgery. Lacey shut the door after the guys and stood there, watching Max’s chest move up and down in sleep. It was always a guessing game what an injured animal would do when they woke up, but she would be there for him.
“Can you go tell Mr. Tucker that Max is stable? You can bring him back here to see him, but just for a few minutes,” Dr. Jenkins said from behind her. She nodded, waiting for Dr. Jenkins to walk away before she moved.
Steeling herself, she took a deep breath before pushing the door open to the waiting room. The second her eyes connected to Brant’s, he stood up, his eyes searching hers for what she was going to say.
“Lacey,” she corrected, trying to keep her tone professional. “Max is out of surgery and did well. There were no complications. Dr. Jenkins said that you could see him for a few minutes.”
Brant breathed out, running his hands through his hair. “Thank God. Thank you, Lacey. Max is more than just my dog.”
Lacey nodded, not trusting her voice. Not only was he the most ridiculously good-looking guy she’d ever seen, but he was so obviously in love with this dog that it made her knees weak. And she was fully aware that she was acting like a complete female around him, but he still showed no sign of realizing her silliness.
“Follow me,” she finally said, pivoting on her heel and leading him back to the kennels. He followed her without a word. Once they reached Max’s kennel, he let out a loud breath, looking at Max and then at her.
“Can you open the door, just for a minute?”
Lacey nodded, unlatching the door. Once she did, Brant stroked Max’s head, running his hands along his sides and whispering so quietly she couldn’t make out what he was saying. She knew she should probably back away, give him a few minutes, but she couldn’t seem to make her feet move. She watched his jaw muscles work as he continued talking to his dog. Her eyes scanned the muscles of his arms, contracting as he caressed the sleeping animal.
“He’s really okay?” She realized a moment too late that he was talking to her, and she looked up.
“As long as he has no complications or infections, yes. The true test will be when he wakes up and if he’s controllable as far as not trying to fight us or get up on his leg too early.”
Brant shook his head. “He’ll be okay. He’ll be looking for me, though, if he wakes up.”
“He has to stay here at least through tomorrow. If at that point there’s no complications, he can be released but will still have to be checked daily for a while until he’s cleared. This isn’t going to be a quick recovery, unfortunately. His femur was shattered in several places, and we had to use screws to fix it.”
Brant leaned down and kissed Max’s big head, tracing his fingers over his eyebrows like he was a lover he was expressing his love to. Standing back up, he shut the door and turned back to Lacey. “When can I come back to see him?”
“I’ll double check with Dr. Jenkins, but tomorrow morning should be good. He should be awake by then and I’m sure would love to see you. Let’s go on out here,” Lacey lead him back to the lobby, where she verified that Brant could come back in the morning.
“He’ll be okay, here, I promise,” Lacey said, seeing Brant looking longingly back at the door. He nodded, his gaze seemingly finding her for the first time. His eyes roved over her, making her squirm. A small smile played on his lips. He probably could sense her discomfort with his perusing.
“If he wakes up and sees you, I’m sure he’ll be just fine. Max always did love a pretty girl. And a doctor to boot.” Brant whistled, and she blinked. He was flirting with her? Taking her hand in his, he pressed his warm lips to her hand.
“Thank you again,” he rumbled, his breath whispering over her hand. She looked up at him, her eyes wide with shock. “Dr. Lacey Russell.” The way her name rolled off his tongue made her shiver from head to toe, and she fought to make her mouth work.
“M-my pleasure, Brantley Tucker,” she responded finally, feeling as if her tongue was three inches thick.
He winked, turning to walk to the door. “Brant.”
With that, he walked out the door, the wind whooshing through her ears as the door swung behind him. What in the hell just happened?
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