Darling, VT Series Book 3
Veterinarian Rory Gallagher chose a different path from his brothers, both of whom became first responders in the lovely little town of Darling, Vermont. Rory’s always had an affinity for animals―and the ladies. Known for his impressive track record in breaking hearts, Rory never meant to hurt anyone; he’s just never been in a hurry to settle down. It’s not as if he needs to pay a visit to the town’s famed Kissing Bridge to magically find love. He’ll know The One when he sees her. . .right?
Oaklee Collier is the kid sister of Rory’s best friend―and, even now that she’s all grown up, remains immune to the pet-doctor’s charms. When she shows up at Rory’s clinic late one night―devastated after hitting a stray dog with her car―Rory’s so-called “bedroom eyes” are the last thing on her mind. Still, his care and kindness toward the dog, and his concern for her feelings, catches Oaklee by surprise. . .and soon the two (and rescued dog makes three!) begin to share a deep connection that neither could have ever imagined. Could it be that love has been waiting for them by the bridge all along?
Oaklee Collier was so sick of attending bridal and baby showers she was thinking of developing a chronic and convenient illness just so she wouldn’t have to go.
Saying no just wasn’t an option. Not for sunny and upbeat Oaklee, who ran the town of Darling’s social media and knew exactly what was going on, where, and when. She’d been present at so many events that she’d been given the office nickname—unoriginal at that—of Social Butterfly. Of course she’d been naïve back a few years ago when she’d started interning with the Darling Town Office during the summers. And oh, so smug, like she had the world by the proverbial tail. Flitting from event to event had suited her just fine. Brides and babies had her oohing and aaahing appropriately, because she’d figured she was well on her way to both events, and in that order.
She wasn’t smug anymore. And she was sick and tired of pasting on a smile when faced with happy ever after when she knew for a fact such a thing didn’t exist.
She hit the gas and turned onto a backroad, heading toward the lake just outside the town. This last shower had been a double whammy. The bride was a coworker, and she was also expecting a baby. Double the celebration, since the wedding would happen in September and the baby was due in February. Rebecca was blissfully happy with her blissful husband-to-be and their blissful home, and in six and a half months she’d give birth to a blissful little baby Becky or Darren.
And it might have been easier to stay cynical and annoyed if she hadn’t felt the sting of tears at the back of her eyes, clogging her throat.
Damn Jeff anyway. Damn him for ripping out her heart by leaving her standing at the chapel altar. The only consolation was that they’d been eloping in Vegas, so her humiliation hadn’t been witnessed by a church full of family and friends. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Darling—no small feat.
Thank God for small miracles. Being left at the altar was not an event that would ever have been forgotten in a town the size of Darling. Especially not when the bride was a former Homecoming Queen and the groom was her high school sweetheart, and both were at the tender age of twenty-two. Thankfully Jeff had disappeared across the country to a new job and she didn’t have to face him ever again.
She was twenty-four; young, just embarking on her career and with a world of options ahead of her. But tonight, at the fifth or six shower since spring, she’d felt much, much older. And tired.
The lake never failed to make her feel better, though. It was mid-August, and the brash heat of July had faded just a bit, taking the humidity with it. Days were hot with a clear, blue sky; evenings were cool and peach and purple, all soft around the edges. She parked away from the public beach, wanting to avoid people. Instead she took off her flimsy sandals and walked away from the evening stragglers who marred the smooth sapphire surface with their splashing. She followed the slightly more rocky shore a few hundred yards east, and then stopped and stepped into the cool water.
It surrounded her toes, curled around her ankles, washing away the hectic pace of the day and the constant ache from her impossibly high heels. She let out a sigh and waded deeper, but not up past her calves. She didn’t want to get her hem wet, then have it itch the whole way home. Instead she stood there, soaking in the last of the sun’s rays, letting the lake water wash away the stress of her daily performance. Oaklee Collier. Good for a laugh, plays on the Internet as her job, never has to worry about money because her brother’s a big shot. Oaklee Collier who has it all. And oh, by the way, how’s your love life? The reality was far more boring, so she never bothered to set anyone straight. The truth was, she worked damned hard, and she refused to let her big-shot hockey-playing brother pay her way. Her love life? Hah. Nonexistent.
A powerboat sped by, quite a way from shore, but close enough she heard the catcalls from the guys on board. In a few minutes the wake would create gentle rocking waves that made the lake sound remarkably like the ocean. Oaklee waited, and smiled a little as the first little curl chased her calves. The rhythmic laps of the waves broke on the gravelly beach, and Oaklee took a step back. When she did, her foot landed on a rock—a slippery rock that put her off balance. She stumbled and instinctively reached out to steady herself, only there was nothing to grab on to. Instead she took half a dozen awkward steps, splashing in the waves and soaking her skirt in the process.
She made her way back to the dry shoreline and assessed the damage. The back of her skirt wasn’t too bad, just a little damp. But the front, where she’d tipped forward, was soaked halfway up her thighs. It was a white skirt, and she supposed she should be grateful that it hadn’t got wet farther north. She still had to walk back to her car. The last thing she needed was to be practically exposed. No one needed to see what she was wearing beneath her skirt. She wondered if people would be surprised to find she preferred plain cotton underwear instead of cute lacy and silky panties.
So much for peace and quiet and equilibrium.
Still out of sorts, she started for Darling and home. Home consisted of an apartment, the end unit of a four-plex in a new development close to the golf course. She lived there alone. Her folks lived across town in the same house they’d lived in as she was growing up. There were days she seriously considered taking her talents and moving elsewhere, but she had a good job and in the current economy that wasn’t anything to sniff at. Besides, Darling was home. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but there was still something comforting about it. She could always count on Darling to stay exactly as it had always been.
She was halfway back to town in the purple twilight when her phone buzzed. She ignored the sound, but a few seconds later it buzzed again, and then again. Sighing, she reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed it. She hit the power button and looked down, only for a second, and when she glanced up again she gasped and hit the brakes as hard as she could.
But it was too late.
Her heart pounded as she sat for a few moments, numb. Oh God. She’d hit . . . something. Had it been a raccoon? A bear cub? A dog? She didn’t want to go look, but knew she must. Throat tight, chest cramped, she got out of her car and ventured carefully toward the front of the vehicle.
It was a dog, and it lay on the road, chest heaving, head resting on the dirt. His—or her—tongue lolled out of its mouth, and tears spurted into Oaklee’s eyes. “Oh God,” she said, stepping forward. “I’m so sorry. Oh God.”
The dog whimpered, tried to get up, but fell back down again. She couldn’t see much blood, but she knew she had to do something. She couldn’t just leave it here to die. Tentatively she reached out a hand to pat its head, and it nuzzled at her wrist, giving the pad of her thumb a lick.
The damn thing was licking her hand after she’d just hit it with her car. Stupid thing. How dumb and trusting did you have to be to do something like that? Why wasn’t it angry or afraid and snapping at her?
She went back to the car and found an old beach towel in the mess that was her backseat. “Come on, then,” she said, wondering how she was going to possibly move it. At her best guess, the animal weighed at least fifty or sixty pounds. She was in good shape, but that was still a hefty dog to be lifting into a car.
It took another five minutes of struggling and sweating before Oaklee had the dog half on the towel. It had yelped several times, and she was crying now, hating that she was hurting it but unable to do anything else. Why had she thought taking the backroads would be a good idea? There hadn’t been another car since she stopped. There were no houses, either. She couldn’t even stop and ask someone if they owned the dog.
“Lift with the knees, Oaklee,” she reminded herself, squatting down and gathering the dog in her arms. She got her hands beneath shoulders and hips, beneath the towel, and hefted upward. The dog cried out and struggled briefly, then sagged in her arms. The change in momentum sent her staggering toward the car, fighting not to fall down or drop the dog, causing more injury.
With sweat, tears, and a lot of dirt, she got the animal into her backseat, shoving over a grocery bag full of garbage and a couple of jackets she’d thrown in there and hadn’t taken out yet. The dog was panting more now, and its eyes were a bit wild. She stopped and patted its head awkwardly. “I’m going to take you to someone who’ll make you all better,” she promised. She’d never been much of an animal person, particularly dogs, but she wasn’t cruel. Her heart ached knowing how much it must be hurting, and that it was all her fault. With one last pat, she shut the door, got back in the driver’s seat, and headed toward Darling.
This was turning out to be one hell of a day.
It was past nine thirty when Rory heard the tires in the driveway and the slam of a car door. He went to the window of his apartment—the living space above the veterinary clinic where he worked—and peeked outside. After-hours calls were supposed to go through the answering service. The hazard of living onsite meant that people knew he was there and sometimes stopped in at all hours.
Generally he billed them accordingly. Once word got around that an after-hours call cost mega dollars, the drop-ins stopped . . . for the most part.
But not tonight.
A woman got out of the car . . . she looked familiar, but in the semi-dark and from the angle of his small kitchen window, he couldn’t quite make out her features. He could hear her loud and clear, though, as she banged on the glass door to the clinic. “Rory? You in there? I’ve got a dog down here.” Bang bang bang—a flat palm on the glass. “Come on, Rory!”
Unless he was mistaken, that voice belonged to Oaklee Collier. A complete and utter pain in the ass. She’d never let him and Cam alone when they were kids. He’d been best friends with her brother, and with nearly two years of an age gap, it was enough to drive them crazy. When she was fourteen, she’d followed him around with puppy eyes.
He opened the window. “Oaklee, is that you? What the hell?”
She looked up and he caught his breath. Oaklee never looked anything but one hundred percent together. But right now he could see her tawny-blond hair was a tumbled mess, her eye makeup was streaked around her eyes à la Alice Cooper, and her outfit had once been white and was now streaked with brown and red smears.
“I hit a dog, Rory.” Her voice broke . . . another bad sign. “It’s in the backseat. I need you to come take it and . . . and look after it.”
He sighed. “I’ll be right down. Hang on.”
It didn’t take more than thirty seconds for him to shove on some shoes and go down to the clinic and unlock the door, but by the time he did she was pacing in front of the entrance. “You say the dog’s in your car?”
“In the backseat. I didn’t know what else to do. I was out by the lake and coming into town the back way and he just . . . jumped out in front of me.”
Her gaze skittered away, and she sniffed.
He went to the car and opened the back door on the passenger side. There was a dog in here, all right, though he shared the space with an astonishing amount of female clutter: shoes, a pile of clothes, what looked like a handbag though he couldn’t be sure, and a few fast-food paper bags. The dog was a mutt from the looks of it, with the beard and eyebrows of a terrier and the size and coat of a lab. The poor thing looked halfstarved and right now was laboring to breathe. “Hey, buddy,” he said softly, giving him a once-over with gentle fingers. He scooped his hands beneath the towel and lifted, cradling the animal in his arms as he stepped back and headed straight for the clinic doors.
“Hey, open this, will you?” The dog was heavy and was dead weight, limp as he was. Oaklee rushed to open the door, then stepped aside as Rory went through to the first exam room and put the dog down on the table.
“I looked up and he was just there,” she said, her voice shaking. “I didn’t know what else to do. I came the back way from the lake, you know, along Frontage Road? But there wasn’t a house close or anything. He doesn’t have a collar or any tags. He’s going to be okay, right?”
Her voice broke on the last syllable. He knew people always felt horrible after a hit-by-car.
“Shh, and let me examine him,” he said gently. “Why don’t you wait in the waiting room?”
She shook her head. “I’ll stay. In case you need help.”
Well. He looked up at her briefly, found her mouth set in a stubborn line. Oaklee had been dramatic as a teenager, and had this sort of sorority girl appearance about her, complete with perfect smile and perky attitude. He tended to forget that she was also completely bullheaded and had a tendency to get what she wanted. He didn’t want to waste time arguing.
“Fine. Put on a pair of those gloves, then.” Not that he’d have much for her to do; she had no idea how to look for internal injuries or assess cuts. The most she could do was sit by the dog’s head and keep him calm, and possibly help irrigate some of the lacerations so Rory could see if they needed stitching.
She was tougher than he expected, though, and followed his directions without question as he gave the pup a thorough exam. She held his paw just so when he put in an IV, and even donned an apron and helped with the X-ray, which proved there was a broken front leg that would need to be set and cast.
They cleaned the cuts, but he noticed her paling when he took out the suture pack to stitch up the worst.
“I can do this,” he said gently. “You don’t have to stay.”
“Yes, I do. It was my fault, and you’d normally have someone to help, wouldn’t you?”
Not always, not on an after-hours call, but he didn’t argue with her. If anything, he was impressed she’d lasted this long. And even more impressed she’d followed his orders without question. That wasn’t the Oaklee he knew.
She looked away when he put in the sutures, but stroked the dog’s head. At this point the dog was very sedated and lay quietly on the table, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. Once Rory looked up and saw a tear sneak out of the corner of her eye, and his heart softened a bit. Oaklee was known around town as a real go-getter. Seeing her a bit emotional reminded him of the cute girl she’d once been.
A cute girl with a softer heart than she let on most of the time. But Rory had seen. And he’d been the one who’d had to step in and play big brother when Cam was away playing in the junior leagues.
When he set the leg, he sent her out. He was pretty sure that as stalwart as she’d been, the process of setting the bone might be a bit too much.
By the time it was done, it was midnight and Oaklee was on a stool just outside the room, looking as if she might tip over at any minute. But she’d held up well, better than he expected. Apparently sheer force of will wasn’t a thing to underestimate.
Rory sighed and peeled off his gloves. “There. He’ll rest for tonight. He’s going to be fine, Oaklee. A little worse for wear, but he’s going to make it. Don’t worry.”
She smiled a little. “Okay, then.” When she took off her latex gloves, the sound echoed through the silent hall. She tossed them in a garbage can, and shrugged out of the white lab coat she’d put on when she got cold. “This has been an experience, Rory. But I expect I look like a bag lady. I need a shower and my bed.”
As soon as she said it, dual images popped into his brain and lodged there. There was no denying that Oaklee had always been pretty. There’d been a girlish beauty to her in her teen years, but she was more stunning as a woman, with sexy curves and a bit more knowledge behind her big blue eyes. The idea of her taking a hot shower and crawling beneath the covers of her bed did weird things to his head. He shouldn’t be thinking of her this way . . .
“You don’t need anything more from me, right?” Her words brought him back to the present and he frowned. Of course. She was back to her regular, practical self now, he thought. Oaklee was the type to clock out at five and head blissfully for home, no worry about taking work home with her. She probably lived in a super-stylish apartment with some sort of trendy décor. That wasn’t Rory. The apartment upstairs was fairly Spartan by most standards. The fact that he’d lived there with his brother until the last month or so hadn’t changed anything, except that he didn’t have to go behind Aiden and pick up dirty clothes and dishes.
Blond strands of hair had slipped out of the knot at the back of her hair and cascaded around the sides of her face. She did look tired . . . and her makeup was smeared from her earlier crying. The sight of the always-put-together Oaklee in such a state made him want to put his arms around her and assure her that everything was going to be okay. He’d never, ever acted on those impulses, though. Even if he’d wanted to, Rory had always known Cam would play the big brother and kick his ass for touching his baby sister. Oaklee had first caught his attention in her sophomore year of high school. Rory remembered because Cam had caught him looking at her chest and had decked him. For just looking. Of course, Cam wasn’t in Darling anymore, and Rory hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. Once Cam had been drafted and made it to the NHL, he’d lived in the team city, and didn’t really come back in the off-season, either. Rory’s contact with him was strictly through the odd e-mail. Maybe a Facebook post, but he wasn’t really into social media much and never had been.
Didn’t matter, though. Oaklee was still his best friend’s little sister, and that made her Off Limits.
“You go ahead,” he said quietly. “I’ll get this boy settled for the night.”
She looked up at him with those big eyes. “You’re leaving him alone?”
“He’ll be KO’d with the pain meds for a good while, Oaklee. And I’m right upstairs.” He looked at the clock. “Besides, I’m due back down here in about six hours anyway.”
“Oh. So early?”
He nodded, wondering why she kept talking, why she didn’t just go. It would definitely make it easier on him. The same urge he’d had when she was sixteen came roaring back: he’d do anything to stop her from being upset. To make her feel better. His voice was tight as he answered her question. “When you’re the junior vet, you get the shit schedule. Plus I live upstairs and the rent’s a steal. It’s a trade-off.”
“Well, okay. If you say so.” She gave the dog a last, sad look and reached out to touch his silky ear—the only soft bit about him. He was terribly malnourished, and his coat had suffered, too. It was wiry and rough.
“Thanks for your help,” he added.
“You’re welcome. Thanks for opening up for me.”
“Oh, don’t worry. It’ll all be on the bill.”
A look of shock flattened her face. “Oh God.” Then she pasted on a nervous smile. “I mean, of course. Do we have to do this now? Or can you send a bill?”
He shook his head. “We can do it later. When the office staff is in and the computers are booted up.” As it was, he’d be up for a while writing up the chart for their Fido Doe.
He was sure he saw relief cross her face. “Okay, then. I guess I’ll . . . I’ll go.”
Her gaze lifted and caught his. It was after midnight, they were both covered in blood and dirt, and he was exhausted. But in that split second, Rory was utterly aware that he was a very single man all alone with a very single woman who happened to be incredibly attractive—even at her worst.
And at her worst just happened to be when Rory found her most approachable. He imagined what might happen if he stepped forward, curled his hand through that mess of blond hair, and pulled her lips to his. As the thought raced through his mind, her lips parted, just a bit—a silent and unconscious invitation.
He swallowed tightly and clenched his hands into fists inside the lab coat pockets. This was Oaklee, for God’s sake. Cam’s little sister. A nosy, flirty little pain in the ass and not his type. No sir, not his type at all. Been there, done that.
“Drive safely,” he said instead, and took a step backward.
“You too,” she said, then her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He only had to climb a flight of stairs. “I mean . . .”
“I know what you meant.” Rory had the upper hand again, and he relaxed a little. “You can stop in anytime to settle up.”
“Thanks. Bye, Rory.”
“Bye. I’ll lock the door behind you.”
He locked the door and cut the lights in the reception area, but waited until she was in her car and driving away before he turned back toward the surgery.