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My Best Friend, the Billionaire (The Billionaire Kings Book 1) by Serenity Woods (1)

Chapter One

Izzy

Hal’s angry.

I doubt anyone else can tell. When he walks into the surgery where I’m in the middle of vaccinating an abandoned dog against distemper and leptospirosis, Hal gives his normal, melt-you-from-the-inside-out smile to the two veterinary nurses who are working with me, before saying, “Sorry for interrupting.”

“Hey, Hal,” one of them replies, “haven’t seen you all day. You been busy?”

“Yeah, nonstop today.” He looks and sounds perfectly normal, like any other day he’s on call as an Animal Welfare Inspector. I run my gaze up him as I depress the syringe. His old gray Converses are flecked with mud, as are his well-worn navy pants. The SPCA navy polo shirt is stretched tight across his broad shoulders, the collar flicked up to protect the back of his neck from the hot sun while he walks across the estate. I can just see the curl of the Maori tattoo on his right arm peeking out of the base of the sleeve.

His brown hair looks as if he hasn’t combed it this morning, which is probably the case. He has a few days’ growth of beard. His lips wear a smile, and his deep voice bears the husky, soft tone he uses when he talks to people he likes.

But I’ve known him for long enough to spot the tension in his shoulders, and the fact that his smile doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Izz, I need you,” he says.

I remove the needle from the terrier’s skin and rub its neck. “I’ve got one more dog to see. I’ll be about ten minutes.”

“Now, Izzy,” he says, and walks out.

The nurses both look at me, their eyebrows rising at his tone. I shrug. “Can you finish up here?” I ask Em, the older of the women.

“Of course. We’ll get Mr. Salt-and-Pepper all cleaned up, won’t we sweetie?” she coos to the little gray-and-white terrier, who’s adoring being the center of attention for probably the first time in his life.

I wash my hands, then leave the surgery. Hal’s not in the waiting room, so I walk out of the veterinary center and into the bright sunlight.

It’s midafternoon on Monday, the twenty-first of January, the height of summer in New Zealand. Here in the Bay of Islands the sun is high and hot, and my skin crisps as I walk across the large square around which most of the buildings are based.

Noah’s Ark No-Kill Animal Sanctuary is situated on a headland outside the town of Paihia overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sea is a deep blue today, filled with boats heading out to or returning from the islands, and I can smell the salt, mingled with the aroma of the steak-and-cheese pies and coffee being served in the canteen. Even though I don’t eat meat, I’m so hungry it makes my stomach rumble.

Hal’s leaning against the ambulance, his arms crossed. “Ready?” he says, pushing off the van as I walk up.

“What?” I frown at him. “I was just about to go and have lunch. I’m starving.”

“I’ve had a call from a farm out in Oromahoe. Reports of a badly mistreated dog. I want you to come with me.”

I blow out a long breath. “Can’t Stefan go with you? I’ve been working all morning and I could really do with a break.”

“If I say I want you, it means I want you.” His tone is flat, irritated, the words forced through his gritted teeth as if he’s pushing an apple through a tennis racket.

I stare up at him. He’s six-three, and although I’m five-nine and the tallest woman at the Ark, I still have to crane my neck.

He glares at me. His brown eyes are hot and feverish, and his chest rises and falls faster than usual. Despite being a big guy, he’s one of those men who’s always on the move, even when he’s sitting down, his knee bouncing, fingers drumming on the table. I can feel the energy flowing through him; if he were a car, his engine would be revving, the wheels spinning as he strained to get away. If I were to touch him, I think our skin would spark; my hair’s almost rising around my face with the static.

There’s something odd about his expression. I’ve known this guy for eighteen years and I know him better than almost anyone. We’re the best of friends, and I can read his moods the way ancient druids used to read the entrails of animals, so I know he’s angry, irritated, and frustrated about something. But I don’t know what it is.

He takes a step closer, his gaze boring into mine. How often do you really look into someone’s eyes? I knew his were a dark brown, so dark that often you can’t see the pupil, but it’s only now, right up close, that I can see there are little orange flecks in them. They’re intense, filled with emotion, like a whisky-filled barrel about to overflow. His lips part as if he’s about to say something, and my gaze drops to his mouth. When he smiles, you can see his canines, which are slightly longer than his front teeth. I call him Edward, from Twilight, which annoys him.

But he’s not smiling now. I wait for him to tell me what’s bothering him. Instead, he snaps, “Get in the van.” He turns, walks around the ambulance, and climbs in the driver’s side. He slams the door shut.

I wait for a moment. If he were anyone else, I’d give him the finger and walk off in the opposite direction. At nearly thirty, I’m old enough that I don’t have to put up with anyone talking to me like that anymore.

But it’s Hal, and he’s obviously in trouble, and his pain is my pain—that’s the way it’s always been.

Plus, although I’d never admit this to anyone, he said, “If I say I want you, it means I want you.” The fact that he’s my best friend doesn’t change the reality that he’s the best-looking guy at the sanctuary, and although he’s being an arrogant ass today, I’m enough of a woman to be flattered by his words.

I glance over my shoulder, thinking quickly; Stefan’s in the surgery with Clio, a trainee vet, and Summer’s due in an hour. The morning rush has died down, and it’s relatively quiet now. They can do without me for a while. I have my phone, credit card, and SPCA ID, and I don’t need anything else. Lunch will have to wait.

I walk around the van, open the door, and climb in. Hal pulls away before I’ve buckled my seat belt, driving fast down the long lane toward the main road.

I wait for him to apologize for being rude to me. After a long silence, I realize that’s not going to happen.

Puzzled, I survey him with a sidelong glance. His gaze is fixed on the road. His knuckles are white on the wheel. Normally when he’s grumpy I’ll tease him until he laughs, but I have a feeling that approach won’t work today.

“Want to talk about it?” I ask.

He indicates to take the turn toward Oromahoe. “A woman from the farm next door reported there’s a dog kept in a cage outside her neighbor’s farm. It’s been there for a few weeks, never let out, no shelter, and she’s not sure if it’s been fed.”

I’d meant did he want to talk about what’s bothering him. I think he knew that, and clearly the answer is no. I decide not to push it.

“Are we expecting trouble?” I ask.

“Possibly.”

I frown. “Yeah, it’s a good job Stefan didn’t come.” Stef’s the same size as Hal, a six-foot-three Viking lookalike, and probably a little better in a fight than me with my puny muscles.

Hal doesn’t answer. For some reason, he wants me with him. I sit back in my seat, again deciding not to push it.

We drive in silence for about fifteen minutes through the Northland countryside. We had a lot of rain last week and everything looks green and lush. It’s humid today, and I always wear the long-sleeved SPCA shirts, so I’m hot, and a bead of sweat trickles down between my breasts, making me scratch. My stomach rumbles loudly, and Hal glances at me, the corner of his lips curving up for the first time.

“I haven’t eaten anything today,” I tell him.

“I keep telling you to have breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry at six a.m. My digestive system doesn’t wake up until at least ten.”

“I’ll buy you lunch when we get back.” He slows the van and indicates as we approach a battered yellow letterbox. There’s no road sign, but Hal’s obviously been given directions, because he turns onto the drive and heads up the hill.

I straighten in my seat, my heart picking up speed as he crests the hill and starts going down to the farmhouse at the bottom. I’m a qualified Animal Welfare Inspector, the same as Hal, and it’s not the first time we’ve removed an animal from an angry owner. But Hal’s mood has got me on edge, and I can feel trouble on the horizon like storm clouds, even though the sky is blue as a baby’s eye.

He draws up by the fence that surrounds the farm and turns off the engine. We get out, he retrieves our emergency bag and shoulders it, and we approach the gate. It’s padlocked shut, and there’s no other way in. Hal drops the bag over the fence and vaults over it, then turns and holds up a hand. I sigh and clamber over, taking his hand as I jump down onto the grass. He squeezes my fingers briefly before releasing them, and I know it’s the closest I’m going to get to an apology today.

We approach the farmhouse. It’s a long, low building, stone-built, which is unusual up here in the Northland, and looks in a bad state of repair: one window broken, the wooden sills unpainted, tiles missing from the roof. The area out the front is full of rubbish: rusted metal, old bricks, torn cardboard boxes, piles of dirty rags. If the people who own this place keep it in such a bad state of repair, what kind of attention are they going to pay to their animals?

We make our way around the left of the house, and I spot the cage immediately. The dog is lying on its side, its chest rising and falling slowly. It hasn’t stirred, even though it must have heard us. It’s a Border Collie, an intelligent and obedient breed used for herding sheep. Its coat is dirty and matted, and sores mar its skin. The one bowl in there is upturned. There’s no kennel, no bed, no food or water, and the only shade it would get would be late in the day from the house when the sun has passed overhead. There are feces in the cage, so clearly it’s not been let out, because it’s rare for a dog to defecate where it sleeps.

I exchange a glance with Hal. It’s hardly the first abused animal we’ve seen. Although we’re both qualified vets, we’ve been running the Ark’s Animal Welfare Team for five years, and we both love feeling as if we’re doing good out in the community. We’ve brought in hundreds of dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, cows, and even horses, and I’ve trained myself not to get emotional when I’m out on call, because me breaking down in tears isn’t going to help the animal or my partner. I keep all the feelings locked away, although I admit I sometimes have a quiet cry when I go home.

But today, tears prick my eyes, possibly because I can see Hal struggling to hold it in, too. He drops the bag and looks at the cage, his hands on his hips, breathing heavily.

“Come on,” I say softly. “Let’s get her back to the van.”

We approach the cage, and the dog lifts her head and looks at us. I drop to my haunches as Hal investigates the cage door, and I look her in the eye. “Easy now,” I say. “Good girl.”

Hal grunts. The cage is locked. “Fucking thing,” he snaps, although he keeps his voice low, so he doesn’t startle the dog. “I’ll have to break it, Izz.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice comes from behind us, and I turn to see a red-faced man emerging from the side door. He’s short but wide, with arms like tree trunks, thick, dark hair that looks as if it’s never been combed, and there is a look of fury on his face.

He’s also carrying a shotgun.

 

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