“They’re not going to get here in time.”
Wade Parker ran a frustrated hand under his hat. What was taking so long? He wondered. He’d sent for the veterinarian almost an hour ago. Once he’d realized he’d had no other choice.
“They’ll be here soon, son. But the way the rain’s coming down, it’ll slow down old Doc and Scott.” James rested a calloused hand on Wade’s shoulder. “Go check on the cow again, and I’ll have a look outside.”
Wade had been taught from a very young age that no matter how bad things got, there was always something to be thankful for. And right now, he was thankful for two things. One, for James. Not only had James been foreman of the Triple P for as long as Wade could remember, he was also a friend. A friend who, at times like these, reminded Wade no matter how bad things got, he had family and friends to see him through.
The other thing Wade was damn glad for was that Doc Fletcher’s replacement hadn’t arrived yet from Pennsylvania. Not that Wade hadn’t helped choose the vet’s replacement and not that he wasn’t satisfied with the new doc’s qualifications but, with the lives of his animals at stake, he wanted someone he knew, someone he trusted, tending what was his. Doc Fletcher would understand the importance of saving the cow and calf. But then, most everyone in Marietta would.
It was no secret the Triple P was neck deep in debt.
Wade made his way to the stall while James’s steps made squishing sounds behind him. Wade blew out a troubled breath. They needed to get that new barn finished. Adding the cost of the vet, he ran figures in his head, refused to be defeated by the staggering numbers that filled the debt column. He’d manage. By God, he’d manage. He wasn’t losing the ranch his pa had built.
Wade took a deep breath, braced his forearms on the top rail and prayed, not for the first time, that he wouldn’t lose two animals before the night was over. While he knew he’d find a way to survive should the worst happen, it sure would be a hell of a lot easier if the cow and calf survived.
The animal’s eyes were glazed with pain; her mooing was raspy where a few short hours ago it had been loud and strong. Though she struggled to get up, she wasn’t able to do more than lift her head. He cursed, feeling an iron band of tension wrap around his shoulders. He’d already sold off part of his herd but he couldn’t afford to sell it all. He needed enough heifers for breeding, enough to keep selling. And if nothing else happened, maybe, just maybe, he’d start thinking about starting that horse ranch.
“They’re here!” James yelled.
Relief poured through Wade. “Hang in there, girl. Help’s on the way.” Wade ran to the door.
“Well,” James said, pushing his hat further up his forehead. “This sure is an unexpected surprise.”
“What’s the problem?” Wade asked, stepping around James.
He stopped dead, felt his jaw slacken.
What greeted him in the yellow glow of the barn was not even remotely close to old Doc Fletcher, or the J. Matthews they’d hired to replace him. This wasn’t the short, plump vet Wade had expected. Neither was he the tall, strapping man Wade imagined would cross a country to replace Doc Fletcher. Instead there stood a woman barely tall enough to reach Wade’s shoulder.
She held her horse’s reins in one gloved hand and saddlebags in the other. Though she didn’t seem to notice, water streamed over the brim of her hat. Her eyes never left his and the directness of that gaze stopped him momentarily. Wade turned to Scott. Scott Taylor, the only ranch hand Wade could afford besides James, shrugged.
“She was at Doc’s place. Told me she could help.” He explained.
“Doc’s place?” Wade shook his head.
That made no sense. If Doc wasn’t at his place, then it should have been Dr. Matthews, as was the agreement made when they hired the new vet. He turned back to the woman.
Green eyes, a heart-shaped face. She was pretty, no question, but it wasn’t pretty he needed at the moment.
He glared at Scott, then James. “This isn’t time for one of your damned practical jokes.”
He stepped out into the rain. Surely Doc Fletcher was waiting around the corner with his bag in hand. Surely any moment now Scott and James would laugh and gloat as he’d fallen for their prank. But there was nothing outside but darkness and sheets of rain and his ranch hand and foreman remained unnaturally silent.
The woman’s voice cut through the silence like lightning. “Could you see that my horse is looked after?”
Wade spun round. She handed the reins to Scott then skirted past a wide-eyed James. She strode purposefully into the barn, saddlebags in hand.
“Wait just a minute!” Wade said as he loped behind her.
“What?” she asked, never once breaking stride.
“Where’s Doc Fletcher?”
“He left town.”
“Since when? He was still here last I heard.”
“Apparently he didn’t feel you needed to be apprised of his comings and goings,” she said, slipping into the stall.
She tossed her hat and dripping slicker onto the clean straw. A thick braid of auburn hair fell down her back. Stunned, Wade could only watch as she opened her bags, set a pristine white cloth onto a dry patch of straw, and began placing shiny medical tools onto it. None of what he was seeing made a lick of sense.
“What are you doing?”
Her hands stilled and her fiery green eyes snapped. “Exactly what you brought me here to do.” She took her stethoscope, placed one end of the wooden tube on the hide and her ear to the other.
His gaze snapped right back. “I sent for Doc Fletcher.”
“No, you sent for the veterinarian,” she said, shifting to her knees. “And that’s what you got.”
Her hands skimmed over the distended belly of the animal as she continued to talk. “I’m trained as a vet, and I’ll explain afterward. But right now, this cow is my only concern.”
He couldn’t help it; his eyes roved over the woman. Her black belt cinched a tiny waist. Leaning over the way she was, it was only natural he noticed the way her skirt draped over her trim backside.
His mind told him she couldn’t be a doctor. Her shoulders didn’t look broad enough, nor did her hands appear strong enough to do what needed to be done. But, as she said, they didn’t have the luxury of arguing. Time wasn’t on their side. If Doc wasn’t coming, she was his only hope.
She placed the stethoscope to the cow’s brown hide. The barn was silent as she worked except for the constant patter of rain, both inside and outside.
“Is this her first time?” she asked when the cow tried once again to raise her head, then gave up with a low moan.
“It is.” Wade confirmed.
“Calf must be too big for her.” She fixed those green eyes on his again. “I’ll need clean towels, warm water and all of you to help hold her down while I do the surgery.”
Wade took a breath, nodded. Whether she knew what she was doing or not, she was here and she was all they had. He, James, and Scott had tried everything they could think of earlier. He’d just have to trust she could get his animal through this crisis alive.
“I figured you might,” he answered. He gestured to the corner of the stall. “We already got the rags and there’s hot water ready on the stove. I’ll be right back with it.” He turned to James, who’d joined him at the stall. “Stay here in case she needs anything else.”
Wade strode down the aisle, his pace increasing when the cow moaned again.
Scott, who was in the last stall tending the woman’s horse, looked up as Wade approached. “You need me?”
“We will, just as soon as I get back.”
“I’ll be ready,” Scott answered.
Wade ran for the house. His mother came running the moment he stepped inside.
Worry filled her eyes. “Did you lose them?”
“Not yet.” Though with this unexpected turn of events, the possibility seemed more likely than ever.
Eileen Parker’s shoulders fell. “Well, that’s a blessing I’ll take. You’re ready for the water now?”
“I’ll get it.”
She didn’t have far to go; the house wasn’t very big. Two bedrooms upstairs; one for him, the other his ma and his daughter, Annabelle, shared. Downstairs consisted of a kitchen to the left with a small enclosed porch jutting off of it to wash up and a parlor to the right. Since Samuel and Eileen Parker only had one child, there hadn’t been a need to build a large house.
“Thanks, Ma,” he said, taking the buckets from her grasp.
“I’ll get some more going, in case you need it.”
She opened the door for him. “Don’t let Miles leave without coming in for a hot cup of coffee.”
Wade paused. “Miles Fletcher left town.”
Panic filled her eyes. “You don’t have help?”
“We do. I think. I hope.” He shook his head, thinking of the woman he was trusting with his animals. He hoped to hell she knew what she was doing. “I don’t have time to explain, I have to get back. But don’t worry; I plan on asking her a whole lot of questions once this is over.”
Lanterns hanging along the back and sides of the stall illuminated the little square. Other than the patter of rain on the roof and dripping into the puddles in the corner, Jillian worked in silence. She was relieved James didn’t seem bothered by her presence and wasn’t firing questions at her as fast as Mr. Parker had.
Did it matter where their precious Doc was or why she was there in his stead? Did Mr. Parker really think she’d follow a complete stranger in the middle of the night if she didn’t know what she was doing?
Granted, since women weren’t allowed in veterinary schools, she could understand his questions. She had, in fact, expected them. But she had the tools and she’d followed his ranch hand in the dead of night, surely that ought to prove something. But then, he wasn’t the first man to look at her and not see past the fact she was female.
She’d grown and learned despite the abundance of such attitude toward her, and Mr. Parker, no matter his prickly attitude, would not deter her from doing what she was trained for, what she loved to do.
The owner returned and his men followed him in, making the already small stall even smaller.
“Okay, we’re ready,” she said. “I need her two front legs kept forward, her rear legs kept back as well as her head held down. I don’t want to give her too much ether, that way she can stand and nurse sooner.”
Scott took the back legs, James the front and head. The owner’s knee rested against Jillian’s when he took his position at her side. Despite their wet clothes, his heat seeped through and made her skin tingle. Annoyed by her reaction, she immediately broke contact.
“We’re ready when you are,” James said.
Pouring some ether on a rag, Jillian held it briefly under the cow’s nose until she felt its muscles relax. “That’s it. We’ll take good care of you.” She switched the rag for her knife. “Here we go, hold her steady.”
Carefully, Jillian cut an incision into the left flank of the cow. Its legs jerked, but the men held her easily enough. The sound that came from its mouth was low and pitiful. She heard the owner’s quick inhale, felt the intensity of his stare on her. He didn’t think she could do this. Well, he wouldn’t be the first man she proved wrong.
Moving quickly, Jillian cut through the skin followed by layers of muscle. She reached inside the abdomen to get a hold of the uterus. When she felt the calf’s legs through the tissue she pulled it toward the opening.
“I’ve got a hold of the calf’s rear legs. Mr. Parker, I’m going to cut through the uterus, then I’ll need your help to pull it out.”
Jillian didn’t wait for his answer; time was too critical. Holding the calf’s legs in one hand, she cut through the uterus until they had enough room to pull out the calf. Water and blood poured out onto her skirt. A thin veil of vapor rose from the incision as the warmth of the animal combined with the cool night air.
Jillian dropped her knife in the bloody water at her feet and together she and Mr. Parker grasped a leg and pulled. The calf slipped out of its mother’s womb and onto the floor. Jillian quickly pulled the mucus from its nose and mouth.
“It’s not breathing!” Jillian scrambled up and as she grabbed the calf’s rear legs, Mr. Parker leapt in and helped. Together they pulled the animal off the straw floor, gave it a few good jerks. Placing it back down again, she leaned over the newborn. Warm air blew on her hair as the calf exhaled. Hers wasn’t the only sigh that filled the stall.
“Keep holding her.” She reminded the other two men, though they hadn’t made any move to let go.
Jillian dealt with the cord efficiently but the amount of blood worried her. Why was there so much?
Mr. Parker grabbed the calf. “I’ll take him to another stall and clean him up. It will give you more room to work.”
Jillian didn’t look bother looking up. She simply nodded as she tried to determine where the excess blood was coming from.
“There’s a problem, isn’t there?” James asked.
“I think there’s a tear somewhere, I just need to—”
She found it immediately. There, a rip in the uterus. It must have torn when they’d pulled out the calf. It wasn’t an uncommon thing to tear something in a cesarean section, but it could be fatal. And if she hoped to prove herself, she couldn’t afford for the animal to die.
Using all her skills and sending up a few prayers for good measure, Jillian sewed the tear and the cut. The catgut worked well as an interior suture material because it was eventually absorbed naturally by the body. Using some of the rags to wipe at the blood, she inspected her work. There didn’t appear to be any seepage. Wiping the moisture from her brow with her sleeve, she then began closing the hide.
A precise row of sutures later, followed by a confirmation of a strong and steady heartbeat, Jillian pressed her hands to her lower back and stretched.
“Thank you, gentlemen, you can let her go now.”
Scott immediately scooped up the bundle of straw that contained the placenta. “I’ll take care of this,” he said.
“Should I bring in the calf?” Mr. Parker asked from outside the stall.
Jillian looked up, saw where his gaze was aimed and dropped her hands to her side. “Yes, the sooner he can nurse, the better.”
Though the mother had yet to stand, she nonetheless moved her legs aside to give her young access. The calf didn’t waste any time and began to suckle.
With the crisis taken care of, Jillian had a chance to examine Mr. Parker a little more closely. He too had taken off his coat and his shirtsleeves were rolled up, revealing forearms sprinkled with golden hair. His wet pants clung to long, lean legs. Jillian had always thought a man looked more, well, manly in working clothes than he did in fancy suits. She’d always been drawn to the more rugged sort.
But she’d made that mistake once before, to heartbreaking results. A smart woman learned her lesson. And Jillian Matthews was no fool.
“Will she make it?”
“Infection is always a risk, as is internal bleeding. It’s why many vets choose not to perform the surgery. Though I’ll examine her again come morning, I’d say the worst is over.”
The worry faded from his eyes. Yet he didn’t say thank you, didn’t acknowledge her skills. The omission stung because she knew good and well his old Doc Fletcher would have received a hearty handshake and likely a solid pat on the back.
She wasn’t the kind of woman who needed pretty words. All she’d ever wanted was to be accepted for who she was, a woman who also happened to be a skilled doctor. Good Lord in Heaven, why was it so blasted hard for a man to accept that?
Annoyed, she hurried through cleaning her instruments, but was careful when she placed them back into her bags. Standing, she grimaced at the squishing sounds coming from her boots. Luckily her hat and slicker had remained dry. She settled her hat onto her head and slipped into her slicker.
Down the aisle, Hope’s snuffle caught Jillian’s attention. Scott had stepped back into the barn. He stopped as he passed the horse and spoke in a gentle way, his eyes locked with those of her horse as he scratched her withers. Jillian watched, mesmerized, as Hope nickered and leaned into Scott.
“He’s got a way with animals, especially horses,” James said.
Jillian marveled when Scott walked toward them and Hope stared lovingly at his back. He set a shovel against the wall.
“I buried it far enough away that it shouldn’t attract any trouble.”
“Thanks,” his boss said.
Jillian gnashed her teeth. His ranch hand, who’d done nothing more than bury the afterbirth, got the man’s thanks when she didn’t get so much as a nod of gratitude? Her gaze went to the shovel Scott had returned. She was sorely tempted to use it.
“Miz Matthews”—James approached, his hand outstretched—“that was fine work. Thank you.”
His hand was calloused, his grip firm. Because it was the same handshake he’d have given a man, Jillian smiled, knowing she’d gained someone’s approval. And if she had his then hopefully—
Mr. Parker’s head snapped back as though slapped. “Wait! Did you say Matthews?”
Seeing the shock in his eyes, Jillian braced for an even fiercer storm than the one raging outside. James’s brow furrowed, then the wrinkles smoothed out as realization dawned.
“We introduced ourselves when you were fetching the water. Wade, this here’s Jillian Matthews, she’s the new vet.”
Wade’s mouth pinched.
Jillian crossed her arms. “I responded to the advertisement and was given the position.”
“No. Miles and I read through the replies for our post together and we offered the position to the most qualified man who responded. Jared Matthews.”
It was the first time Jillian had heard her father’s name spoken since his funeral a month ago. For a moment, she cherished the sound, held it close as though, somehow, she was holding him.
“That’s not possible. Jared was my father and he died last month.”
“If he’s gone how is it that—”
James put a hand on Wade’s arm. “Let’s go inside. We could all do with a cup of coffee and I’m sure Miz Matthews would appreciate a chance to get dry.”
Extending him the same courtesy he showed her, Jillian ignored Wade and turned her eyes to James. “I’d love a cup of coffee, thank you.”
She could almost feel the frost form in the air.
“I’m turning in,” Scott said. Then he too extended a hand her way. “Thank you. It must have been a little scary following a stranger in the middle of the night.”
“Well, the pounding on my door gave me a fright, but it’s what I do. Thank you for taking care with my horse.”
He shrugged. “She’s a beauty.” He tipped his hat to her, nodded to Wade and James and slipped out into the rain.
“Well, no point in us lingering here either. We’ll finish this inside.”
Lightning shot for the ground outside the open door. A thunderclap rattled the building. Lifting the collar of her slicker against the wind and rain, and hoping the menacing weather wasn’t a sign of what awaited her in the house, Jillian trailed Wade across the yard and into the house.
The smell of fresh coffee greeted her like a warm blanket.
Mrs. Parker was there to take her slicker and hat. “I’ve set warm water and clean towels for you upstairs, the door on the left. Wade, dear, there’s a basin and some dry clothes for you in the porch.”
Cold and wet, Jillian didn’t argue. She removed her boots then lifted the hem of her soiled riding skirt and padded up the stairs and into the bedroom on the left. Immediately the masculinity of the space hit her and she realized that she’d been sent to Wade’s room.
A dresser displayed a handful of coins and a comb. A blue quilt covered the bed. At the end of the mattress was a pine chest with a pair of pants tossed over it.
She’d been courted by Clint for almost a year. They’d gone to dinner, gone dancing, gone to the theater. She’d seen him dressed in his best suit and dirty in his working clothes. They’d kissed, held each other close. Yet none of those events had been as intimate as standing there, where the scent of leather, hay and man clung to the log walls; where his presence breathed in the room.
Realizing she was standing there like a ninny thinking of how Wade’s room smelled rather than getting her wet, clinging clothes off, Jillian closed the door. She was here for one thing and one thing only. There was no room in her life for men, especially selfish, short-sighted ones who couldn’t accept that a woman was capable of more than cooking and raising babies.
While Jillian hadn’t had much experience with either children or cooking as they’d had a maid to cook at home and her sister Katie was only four years younger than Jillian was, she’d nonetheless always hoped to have a family one day. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t do more. Didn’t need to do more. She was amply qualified to be this town’s vet and she aimed to ensure, before this night was over, Mr. Parker understood he had hired the best doctor for the job.
The murmur of voices grew louder as Jillian—dressed in dry riding skirt, blouse, and stockings—descended the stairs. Light from the kitchen spilled onto the entryway floor, creating a pale glow on the worn wooden surface.
“We were just talking about you,” Mrs. Parker said when Jillian stepped into the kitchen.
Jillian’s gaze flew to the table where Wade and James sat. She acknowledged James with a smile, but it was Wade who commanded her attention. He’d taken off his hat but hadn’t combed his hair. Damp, sandy brown waves fell onto his forehead. His jaw was dark with stubble. His accusatory gaze followed her to the table. Oh, she had little doubt they’d been talking about her. And even less doubt that Wade had anything positive to say.
Mrs. Parker pulled out one of the chairs that rimmed the table. “Sit. I’ll get you some coffee.”
Jillian had barely taken her seat before Wade leaned forward, arms braced on the table.
“I assume you have an explanation for misleading us about who you were?”
Mrs. Parker’s simple calico skirt swooshed as she spun round.
Her honey-colored eyes flashed. “Your interrogation can wait until the poor woman’s had a chance to get some coffee.” She held her ground, finger still pointed until Wade slumped back in his chair. Only then did she turn back to the stove.
James, with a twinkle in his eye, gave Jillian a wink. Before long Wade’s mother had placed a steaming cup before Jillian. Jillian wrapped her hands around the mug. Heat seeped into her chilled palms. Not caring that she’d likely burn her tongue, Jillian took a sip of the bold brew and sighed as it warmed her throat and belly. Her moment of peace was shattered all too soon.
“I’m still waiting.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Parker.”
“Eileen. We don’t stand much on formality around here.” She shot Wade another glare. “As you can obviously see.”
Wade once again rested his forearms on the table, intertwined his long fingers. The hard lines of his jaw said the little patience he’d been hanging onto was gone. “She lied to us and I want to know why.”
Jillian set her cup down. Hard. Wade wasn’t the only one losing patience. “I never lied to you or anybody else.”
“Is that what you call never once saying you were a woman? You signed all your correspondence with the letter J. If you weren’t lying, why didn’t you use your full name?”
“Wade, it’s late. I think this can all wait until morning.”
“It’s all right, Eileen, I can answer this.” Jillian shifted forward in her chair. “I didn’t sign my full name because you advertised for a trained veterinarian and that is exactly what I am. I suspected, rightly so as it turns out, that if I signed Jillian you wouldn’t hire me. As to my father, I have no idea how you even came to know of him.”
“When you first sent your letter of interest we telegraphed Philadelphia, asked for information on J. Matthews. Everything that came back about a vet in Philadelphia was for Jared Matthews.”
Jillian finished her coffee, pushed the cup aside. “I’m not responsible for that. Clearly you sent away for this information prior to his passing.”
“Which doesn’t change the fact that you aren’t what we are looking for or expecting.”
“Wade Parker!” Eileen hissed.
Though James said nothing, his scowl said he didn’t think too highly of Wade’s words either.
“Ma, the town entrusted me and Doc to find Doc’s replacement. They’re not going to be happy about this and I don’t have time to soothe feathers nor to start looking for another doctor. That took weeks as it was.” He glared at Jillian, laying the blame at her feet.
Jillian grabbed the last edge of her temper before it snapped wildly. She’d come west to practice medicine. Nobody back east wanted a female vet. She’d believed moving west, where trained veterinarians were in shorter supply, would be the answer. That the need for her skills would matter more than her gender. That there might actually be a man out west open-minded enough to acknowledge her skills. That she wouldn’t have to fight, every single day, to be accepted.
She took a deep breath, knowing she had to convince Mr. Parker he hadn’t made a mistake. Moving back home wasn’t a possibility. Not only would it mean giving up her dream of being a veterinarian, but it would also prove Clint right. And after the way he’d treated her, she’d never give him the satisfaction of seeing her back in Philadelphia.
She forced a smile she didn’t feel. “I have no doubt my being a woman is a shock to you. I realize it’s not common, but I assure you that I am everything I claimed to be. My father, as I’m sure you know if you sent for information about him, was the most highly sought after veterinarian in Philadelphia. He was schooled in London. He taught in many cities and towns in Pennsylvania. I learned at his hand and worked alongside him for years.
“I assure you, Mr. Parker, that you won’t be disappointed in having hired me. All I ask is that you give me a chance to prove so.” Jillian gestured to the darkness behind the windows. “Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got home. Eileen, thank you for the coffee.”
Jillian took her cup to the counter and almost bumped into the other woman when she turned around.
“Jillian, it’s the middle of the night and the rain isn’t letting up. I won’t have you going home in this weather.” As though to prove her point a gust of wind splattered a sheet of water against the window.
“It’s fine. I’ll be home in—”
Eileen held up a hand. “No, I won’t have it. You’ve been through enough tonight. Not only has my son been unquestionably rude, but you’ve worked hard. Surely you must be tired.”
“Exhausted,” Jillian answered. “Which is why—”
“Then it’s settled. You’ll stay the night. Let me just change the sheets on Wade’s bed, and then you can go on up and get some sleep.”
“What?” Jillian sputtered.
Wade leapt to his feet at the same time. “Ma!”
James chuckled and slipped out of the kitchen into the porch as Wade’s mother ignored them all and went upstairs.
End of Excerpt