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Braced by Stacy Gail (1)

Chapter One

“Trust me, Mrs. Pfeiffer, Dolly Bea does not have laminitis.” Huffing so hard her cheeks inflated, Lilah Ledbetter charged once more across the lawn after the elusive two-toned La Mancha goat, a lasso clenched in one hand. It was a damn good thing she was in such great shape, she couldn’t help but think. If she weren’t in the habit of running every morning, she probably would have dropped dead by now. “Laminitis affects the hooves.” Huff, puff. “It’s very painful for the afflicted animal to stand or walk, much less run around like a maniac.” Huff, wheeze. “Dolly Bea doesn’t look like she’s in pain.” Lilah was, however. Any minute now she was going to keel over from playing this never-ending game of goat tag.

“I suppose you’re just going to have to catch Dolly Bea to make sure of that, dear.” Sitting in a rocker and sipping coffee from a rose-patterned china cup, Winifred Pfeiffer watched the goat marathon from the comfort of her front porch. “You know, Lilah, I just had a thought. Why don’t you try cornering Dolly Bea over there by the oleander bushes down by the duck pond?”

Lilah didn’t even bother to look around for whatever bushes Bitterthorn’s one and only chèvre maker was referring to. “I have a feeling I’d be the one who’d get cornered.” At that moment Dolly Bea zigzagged yet again, leaving her in the dust. Exasperated, Lilah came to a stop, adjusted the phone she’d tucked into the breast pocket of her camp shirt the moment she’d arrived, and frowned at the old lady sitting on the porch. “I also have a feeling you didn’t call Dr. Petrosian’s vet clinic because one of your goats was in distress.”

“What’s this? Lilah, I’m shocked.” Idly, Mrs. Pfeiffer sipped her coffee. “Whatever makes you say that?”

“Because you’ve been raising goats for longer than I’ve been alive, and you know no laminitis-afflicted goat is going to be running around like a streaker on a football field.”

“Good heavens, you make me sound quite conniving. Why would I call the vet’s office if I didn’t think there was a problem with Dolly Bea?”

“Oh, there’s a problem with Dolly Bea, all right, and that problem is obvious. Your fleet-footed goat did a Houdini right out of her enclosure, and you’re without your nephew-slash-farmhand because he’s in Mexico on spring break.”

“Well, well, aren’t you the clever one,” Mrs. Pfeiffer drawled, not even bothering to deny it. “But then again, maybe not. You have been chasing Dolly Bea for ten minutes before you finally figured it out.”

Arrrrgh. “What I’ve figured out is that I’m not chasing this frigging goat around anymore.”

“Language, dear.”

“We both know that I’m more than entitled to drop something far worse than the word frigging.” Reaching into her back pocket with her free hand, Lilah made a production of retrieving a half-eaten granola bar, her so-called lunch. She crinkled the wrapper and half-turned away from Dolly Bea to hide the lasso, all the while keeping the four-legged escape artist well within her peripheral vision. “Fair warning, Mrs. Pfeiffer. I’m not a big fan of being screwed with. Kinda makes me want to punch back twice as hard.”

“Oh my. Don’t you sound tough.”

Seriously, this woman... “Guess I’m going to have to suggest that Dr. Petrosian marks your file as an unreliable client for the short term, at least until your nephew is back in Bitterthorn.”

“Does that mean you’re going to tell on me? Why, I’m just shaking with fear, dear. Shaking.”

Lilah had to bite her tongue to keep from asking the old biddy if living with goats had made her a salty smart-ass, or if she’d just been born that way. “You reported a vet emergency, but the only emergency around here was Dolly Bea reenacting a scene from The Great Escape. With no actual medical emergency going on, you’re like the boy who cried wolf, so guess what that means? You can’t be trusted. I suggest that from this point on, you hope and pray that no real vet emergencies happen on your farm while your nephew’s out of town.”

Mrs. Pfeiffer’s rocking stilled. “What?”

“You heard me. Once I talk things over with Dr. Petrosian, you can bet a year’s worth of chèvre that your farm will no longer be a tier-one priority for the clinic.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the goat’s head swivel her way as she continued to crinkle the wrapper. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, the greedy-eyed goat lolloped in her direction.

Hallelujah.

She should have thought of this sooner. Like ten minutes and half a pint of sweat sooner.

Oh well.

“I have a dozen goats, a henhouse, three cats and a dog, young lady.” To Lilah’s satisfaction, the older woman’s smug smirk vanished as the reality of her shortsighted actions set in. “I live in the country. Vet emergencies are a part of everyday life out here.”

“They’re a part of everyday life everywhere, Mrs. Pfeiffer. At this very moment, someone could be having a legit vet emergency while you’ve wasted my time and energy to chase down a problem that obviously doesn’t require a vet—or in this case, an overworked vet tech like me.”

Closer.

Closer.

Almost there...

“I’ll have a word with your mother, Lilah Jane Ledbetter. Dottie and I were close back in the day, so I know she’ll listen to me.”

Lilah couldn’t hold back a snort. “If you really were close to my mother, you’d know that woman doesn’t listen to anyone.”

“Then I’ll go higher up,” Winifred Pfeiffer said with a decisive nod. “Why bother with little Miss Perfect Dottie, when I can go straight to the ones who hold the strings on the pair of you? I’ll have a word with your mother’s employers, the Brodys. They’ll make sure you don’t get me blackballed by Dr. Petrosian.”

It took all of Lilah’s will not to freeze at the Brody name. Instead, she focused on crumbling up the granola bar in one hand, her face a meticulous mask of calm. Moving in slow motion, she brought the lasso up, its loop wide open for Dolly Bea to put her head through as she reached for the handful of granola waiting for her on the other side. Without hesitation, Dolly Bea placed her head through the circle of rope, intent only on what she wanted and not seeing the trap.

“Poor Dolly Bea,” Lilah said softly, feeding the goat while gently tightening up the lasso. “I know how it feels to be suckered like that. I was once talked into putting my head through a noose too.”

“What was that?”

Lilah shot a glance up at Winifred Pfeiffer. “I said, nice try but no dice. Like the song says, I have no strings on me, so feel free to do your worst as far as the Brodys are concerned. They don’t scare me.” With that, she turned and headed toward the barn behind Winifred Pfeiffer’s whitewashed farmhouse, leading the still-munching Dolly Bea.

By the time Lilah made it back to Petrosian Animal Hospital, she was a hot mess with a temper to match. Though it was only mid-March and most of the country was still thawing out, in South Texas it was already ninety degrees and promising to go higher. The sweat she’d worked up chasing Dolly Bea all over creation had dried to a fine salty crust, and she could feel wisps of hair that had escaped their usual Dutch braid blowing around her face as she headed into the clinic. She was still burning up from the inside, both from irritation as well as exertion, and if she didn’t get in front of a fan with a cool drink soon—preferably a nice, cold beer—she wasn’t going to be responsible for her actions.

“There she is, the so-called lazy employee who refused to do her work and was so insulting to a paying customer that she made a helpless little old lady cry.” Natalie Petrosian-Baker, office manager and daughter of the veterinary clinic’s owner, waved cheerily from the reception desk. “Nice of you to show up, slacker.”

Lilah stopped dead as the clinic’s glass door swung shut behind her. “I think I might be suffering from heatstroke, because the words coming out of your mouth aren’t making a damn bit of sense.”

Natalie laughed, absently patting her ever-expanding baby bump. “Three guesses as to who I just got off the phone with, and the first two don’t count.”

Oh. “Winifred Pfeiffer, Bitterthorn’s one and only evil cheese maker.”

“Bingo. My oh my, girlfriend, did that woman have an earful to say about you.”

“I’ll bet.” Lilah listened to her boot heels scuff tiredly against the terra-cotta tiled floor on her way past the reception desk to the mini-fridge tucked underneath it. Snagging up a bottled water, she pressed it to her neck and sighed blissfully. Heaven. “Did you tell her that I livestreamed my time out there on her farm directly to the office, and that you bore personal witness to that wild goose chase?” Then she frowned. “Wait. Is it still called a goose chase when there’s a goat involved?”

“I’d go with goat chase. And I did tell Mrs. Pfeiffer that it’s clinic policy for our employees to video problem situations, should they arise while out on house calls, due to liability purposes.” Natalie’s dark eyes twinkled as she again ran a hand over her stomach, no doubt trying to soothe the active baby within. With only a couple months to go, Natalie swore her firstborn was an Olympic gymnast in the making. “By the way, my favorite part was when you got tripped by a needy barn cat while on your way to trip over a cute baby goat. I kid you not, everyone in the office laughed out loud at that.”

“Kid. I see what you did there.”

“I get punny when baby goats are involved.”

“I promise to laugh when I’m not dead from exhaustion.” Lilah dragged herself to a nearby empty chair in the waiting room, slouched into it and tried unsuccessfully to get the water bottle open. “Please make my day and tell me the crazy goat lady apologized.”

“Oh, bless your heart.”

Lilah snorted at the quaint Southern phrase that, roughly translated, meant Wow, you’re stupid. “I’ll take that as a no.”

“Does Winifred Pfeiffer strike you as the kind of person who apologizes?”

“Not really, but I have hope.”

“Hope away, but I like to stick to reality. Instead of copping to the bogus emergency laminitis call, and then lying through her teeth about how you performed your duties on behalf of the clinic, that woman didn’t say another word. She just hung up on me.”

“What a peach.” Lilah gave the bottle’s cap one more try before giving up and tilting her head back to rest it against the wall behind her, eyes closed. Maybe a five-minute power nap would restore her to full bottle-opening strength. “Word is her nephew will be back soon, so hopefully good old Winifred will have the grace to lay low until then. Wake me up if I start drooling, okay?”

Natalie made a sound of sympathy. “I wish I could just send you home after the day you’ve already had, but I can’t. Dad’s been locked in an important meeting for the past hour—though I have to admit, everyone took a break to watch you and Dolly Bea run the goat marathon. It was agreed by all that it just needed a soundtrack of ‘Yakety Sax’ to be the most perfect video ever.”

“Outstanding.”

“Anyway, with Dad tied up and Dr. Carstairs out on vacation, you’re the one who’s officially on call if anything crazy comes up.”

Ugh. She’d had enough crazy for one day. “I’m not a vet yet, Natalie.”

“Yeah, but graduation’s coming up in June.”

“So? That means I’m still not an actual vet.”

“No, that means you’re three measly months away from being an actual vet, and an almost-vet will do in an emergency, at least until Dad can come to the rescue.”

Maybe Natalie would take pity on her if she started snoring. “There are other vets in the area, yeah? It’s not like we’re the only game in town.”

“We are the only game in town when it comes to being a large-animal hospital. We’re the only one within thirty miles, so that means we need every warm body available.”

“You’d think Winifred Pfeiffer would’ve taken that into account before pulling her little stunt to make me into her personal farmhand.” Lilah heard the office door open behind the counter, but she was too done in to lift her head and open her eyes. “That woman didn’t even offer me anything to drink after running me all over creation, can you believe it? I sweated half my body weight out there and she didn’t even offer me a sip from a damn garden hose.”

Natalie clicked her tongue. “Southern hospitality leaves a lot to be desired these days, doesn’t it, hon?”

“You’re telling me.” Lilah wearily shook the water bottle she held. “I have half a mind to sue her for bad manners. Once I find the strength to get this stupid bottle open and save myself from dying of thirst, I’ll get right on that.”

“I’ll get that for you. Can’t have you dropping dead, now can we?”

Lilah’s eyes snapped open and her head came up so fast something popped in her neck. She barely felt the pain of it as the familiar deep male voice stabbed her in every working nerve.

Finian.

Her weary muscles seized up, and she sprang out of her chair like she’d been ejected. But she couldn’t help it. What else was a person supposed to do when they found themselves in the same room with their own personal nightmare?

No, that wasn’t quite right.

He was worse than a nightmare.

He was the worst part of her reality.

“Damn. Good reflexes, sunshine.” Eyes never leaving her, Fin Brody took the bottle from her slack hand, and if he noticed her slight flinch at both the childhood name and his nearness, he didn’t give any sign. All he did was keep his steady, oddly intense gaze trained on her as if there was no one else in the room, and twisted the bottle’s cap off. “So good it’s a wonder Dolly Bea was able to escape you for as long as she did.”

There were so many freak-out trigger points happening all at once that she froze, not sure which one she should have a heart attack over first. The most obvious one was that she hadn’t been this close to Finian Brody since she’d lost her idiotic mind and had sex with him. Though that wasn’t surprising; he’d let her know about five seconds after the first orgasm she’d ever had that the idea of hooking up with her long-term was so ridiculous it made him laugh.

Literally.

It had been a couple months since that disastrous night. She’d seen Fin around, of course. In a town as small as Bitterthorn it was impossible not to. But she’d still managed to avoid being in the same room with him.

Until now.

How horrifying.

It wasn’t fair, she thought as she stared at him. Fin was supposed to stick to his corner of the world, because that was where he belonged: Green Rock Ranch, swank parties populated by cattle barons and oil barons and agro barons—hell, baron-type barons. Her corner of the world was way more common, like her—Abel’s Market. The Dirty Duck. The vet clinic. Night school in San Antonio. Barns and corrals and pastures. Her jogging trail.

She knew her place in the world, and she loved every last inch of it.

Part of what she loved about it was that Fin didn’t belong there.

So why was he there?

“Um.” Valiantly she gave her brain a kick to get it started, but it refused to come up with a comment that wouldn’t get her ass fired. But damn it all, she could hardly be blamed for that. She’d made a promise to herself that she’d never again allow herself to be so close to Fin that she could look into his grass-green eyes. Or be so close that she’d have the urge to brush back the waving black hair that fell over his square brow. And she sure as hell never again wanted to be so close to him that his familiar scent of sun and soap made her remember that night she’d lost her mind.

And her virginity.

And the dream that he could love her.

That thought was all it took to inject some much-needed steel into her spine. “I can open my own bottles, thanks.”

“When you’ve been run off your feet by a demented goat, it’s okay to accept a little help. Easy,” he chided when she made a grab for the water bottle. With an amused smile she hated, Fin handed the bottle over as if he had all the time in the world. “It’d be a shame to spill it when you went through so much to work up that thirst. Running, dodging, tripping over barn cats and baby goats... Hell, you’ve gotta be wrung dry.”

She’d only gotten a couple gulps of icy water down her throat before it closed up, while his words—and Natalie’s—rang in her ears.

Everyone took a break to watch you and Dolly Bea run the goat marathon.

Oh no.

He’d seen it.

The whole goat-wrangling episode, he’d seen every last “Yakety Sax” bit of it.

Maybe, at this point, it would be best if she just went ahead and poured the rest of the water into her lungs.

Fuck my life.

“Whoa.” As she coughed and hacked, Fin thumped a flat hand between her shoulder blades, moving in close to support her while Natalie looked on in alarm. “Take it easy. No need to get excited.”

Take it easy, she thought while coughing hard enough to make her eyes water. He had to be frigging kidding.

Heartless jerk.

“Wow.” Natalie hurried over, looking like she had every intention of performing the Heimlich maneuver. “You okay, hon?”

“I—I’ll live.” Sadly. “Just went down the wrong way.”

“Yeah, it did.” The hand between her shoulder blades stopped thumping and began rubbing in slow, muscle-melting circles, his eyes now filled with a concern she couldn’t imagine he actually felt. “You’re really having a day, aren’t you, sunshine?”

“You might say that.” What the hell. Unnerved by a touch that seemed so warm and proprietary—a touch she once would have chased a dozen demented goats for if it meant there was any genuine emotion behind it—Lilah stepped out of Fin’s reach while mopping her face up with her forearm. Not exactly a classy or dignified move, but since water had just shot out of her nose, classy and dignified was kind of a moot point. “What are you doing here?”

“You mean besides watching you slack off by playing goat tag?”

It was a shame, really, how she hadn’t choked to death. “Never mind. I just realized I don’t give a damn why you’re here.”

“Lilah.” Natalie’s dark eyes grew to the size of quarters. “Uh, you should know that Finian Brody’s here as a client.”

“No worries, Natalie.” Fin’s sudden grin lit his chiseled features, showing deep, sexy grooves on either side of his mouth. “Lilah and I go way back, even before kindergarten. For her, anyway. She’s the only woman I’d ever allow to talk to me like that.”

Natalie’s brows shot up. “Really? I didn’t know that.”

“Yep. We even got married when we were...what, six and ten years old?” he asked, looking to Lilah.

“I guess.” Lilah cleared her throat one last time and suffered a wave of fury when he gave her a smile designed to melt the bones of any woman under the age of ninety. What the hell was he playing at? “I don’t remember the details.”

“Really? I’ve been remembering a lot about you lately, that day especially. Still can’t figure out how you roped me into playing the part of the groom.”

Lilah flinched so hard it knocked her back a step. Shit. Just when she thought she was invulnerable to his daggers, he found a soft spot and stabbed her clean through. “Yeah, well, don’t worry. It won’t happen again.”

“Lilah,” he murmured softly, a clear invitation to meet his eyes that she stubbornly ignored. She didn’t need to meet his eyes, or hear his words, to deal with him in any damn way. They were done.

He’d made sure of that.

“How sweet that must have been,” Natalie said into the beat of awkward silence that followed. “Childhood memories are the best, aren’t they?”

“My oldest brother, Killian, presided over the whole thing, so I guess that tells you we go way back. As pretend husband and wife, Lilah and I can say pretty much anything to each other, can’t we, sunshine?”

“Hm.” It was the best she could do when she’d suddenly come down with a bad case of lockjaw.

“That is so cute.” Natalie did a girly squeal before the reception’s phone bleeped. “Do me a favor, though, and don’t let my dad hear you talking like that to each other here in the office, okay?” As she moved back around the desk to answer the call, she gave Lilah an eye roll. “Honestly, he’s like all you veterinary types—he adores the animals, but he’s baffled by the whole human-to-human thing. He probably wouldn’t get the banter you two have going on.”

“Is that how you’d describe yourself?” Fin wanted to know after Natalie tuned them out, and out of the corner of her eye Lilah saw him shift closer to her. “I wouldn’t say you don’t get the human-to-human thing, myself. Your preferences were always pretty damn clear whenever you were around me.”

Seriously, this day couldn’t get any crappier. “Let’s try this again. Why are you here?”

“It’s calving season.”

“Oh gee, really? I hadn’t noticed.” She had to bite her lips together to keep from asking what that had to do with his ranch, but it would’ve been one hell of a good question. Green Rock Ranch was known as one of the greatest Black Angus stud ranches in the world. Their three award-winning bulls—and their precious, purebred seed—was what made the Brodys one of the wealthiest families in the state, if not all of North America. They were all about making babies of the bovine variety, at least from the artificial-insemination standpoint.

The calving part, though... The ranch had a savvy ranch manager in Gus Anders, who oversaw whatever births there were at Green Rock. But for as long as Lilah had been alive, calving had never been a huge part of Green Rock Ranch’s operation.

Until now, apparently.

But as curious as she was, she’d be damned if she was going to ask him about it.

Fin slid his hands into the back pockets of his well-worn jeans. “Look at you. You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? Your mom and your brother haven’t told you what’s been going on at the ranch, have they?”

Her mother, Dottie, was the Green Rock Ranch’s office manager, and her brother, Lawrence, had become a ranch hand right out of high school, and was now their heavy machinery equipment manager. “Nope.”

“And you haven’t asked about what’s going on at Green Rock?”

“Nope again.”

“Why not?”

At that, she finally swiveled her head to stare at him. Was he serious? “Why would I?”

His green gaze was unwavering, locking on to hers with an almost tangible ferocity. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Ugh. “News flash, pal. I don’t waste my time asking about things I’m not interested in. But I am interested in getting on with my day, so—”

“You used to be interested.” Without warning he stepped into her space, and the option of moving forward vanished unless she wanted a full-body collision. Which she didn’t. Not anymore. “Wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t turn around without bumping into you.”

Pain twisted in her chest, but she refused to flinch again. Was he trying to remind her of how much of a fool she’d made of herself? Was he really that much of a dick? “Wow, you’re in the mood for ancient history today, aren’t you? First our so-called wedding, and now this—rehashing how much I annoyed you by being your faithful little shadow. Feeling nostalgic in our old age, are we?”

“I’m not that old, and when did I ever say you were an annoyance?”

“I’m not sure I can count that high.”

“I never said it, because you weren’t, so don’t go putting words in my mouth. I’ll allow you to put a lot of things in my mouth, sunshine, but words aren’t on that list. I can speak for my own damn self.”

Her skin sizzled from the top of her head all the way down to the juncture of her thighs, and that purely physiological reaction infuriated her. “Why the hell are you here?”

“Finally, the real Lilah appears.” His smile spread slowly, from one corner of his mouth to the other, and she despaired at how beautiful it was. “God, I’ve missed you, sunshine.”

“Yeah? Somehow I find that hard to believe.” That was the sad truth of it, right there; she could never believe he’d even noticed she was gone from his life, much less missed her. A person had to care about her in order to miss her, and she now knew the truth—she was nothing more than a mistake to him. A mistake he’d wished he’d never made.

I screwed up, fucking a friend.

Silently, Lilah gritted her teeth. Those words had hurt, so much. But the real pain had come when she’d been made to feel she needed to apologize to him just for what she’d had in her heart.

Unforgivable.

She couldn’t forget that. Not ever.

By degrees, the softness in his expression stilled and his gaze became hawk-like watchful. “You didn’t used to be so cynical. Kinda guts me that you are now.”

“Why?” Seriously, why would it matter to him?

“Because I’m thinking I gave that to you. Did I, Lilah? Did I give you all that coldness I see in your eyes now?”

They both knew the answer to that one. “If you don’t want to answer why you’re here at Petrosian’s clinic, that’s fine by me. I’ve got work to do, so if you’ll excuse—”

“Ry’s decided to run a small organic Black Angus beef operation called Pure Angus,” he said before she could take a step. “Ever heard of it?”

“No.” And she didn’t want to.

A brow lifted, and for a second she could have sworn he’d read her thoughts. “Yeah, well, he’s trying to grow his organic herd as fast as possible. Unfortunately that asshole went and got married a week ago. You were invited to the wedding, by the way. Can’t tell you how disappointed I was when you didn’t show.”

That was news to her. “Even if I’d known about Ry’s wedding, I wouldn’t have gone.”

“What do you mean, even if you’d known about it? Didn’t your mother tell you? It was a quick ceremony, no time to send out invites, but I told your mom I wanted you there.”

Her mother. Of course. “Guess it slipped her mind.”

That didn’t un-narrow his eyes one bit. “Ry getting married was great and all, but he could’ve picked a better time for it. He’s run off on his honeymoon at the worst time of year, leaving the rest of us to deal with his shit. This includes dozens and dozens of cows and heifers about to pop, or in the process of popping. I came into the clinic today to get Green Rock on Doc Petrosian’s radar to try to get out ahead of the rush. Before you know it, the whole damn ranch is going to be balls-deep in calves and complications. Our regular operation can’t handle that kind of distraction, so from now until the end of calving season we’re going to pay top dollar to have the Petrosian clinic pretty much live out at the ranch to make sure our first year of being in the organic beef business is a successful one.”

The thought froze her in place, along with the blood in her veins. Then she realized he wasn’t specifically referring to her. “Okay.” She offered a totally fake smile she knew he’d see right through, but whatever. The days when she’d cared about what Fin saw in her had come and gone. “Sounds like you’ve got everything taken care of, so yay for you. As Green Rock Ranch is one of the biggest working ranches in Texas, I’m sure Dr. Petrosian will be happy to accommodate your needs.”

“Oh, my needs are definitely going to be accommodated,” he assured her. “And you’re going to play a big part on that score.”