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“Whatever life I choose.” Dev had heard that more than a few times before he left the hospital… from the agents he used to work among, to the doctors who managed to put him back on his feet again, and even echoed from his brother, Chance. He and Chance… and Josie, Chance’s wife… all had some talking to do once he got settled in. It would take some time to get his plans together. But for the moment, he was headed back to Braxton, Texas. Not as the black sheep brother, but the real man. A man who would be a total stranger to so many… including himself. He had to get acquainted with the person he had buried deep inside for the last seventeen years.
As for the life he’d choose… that was a whole other problem. How did he choose when he couldn’t remember what was real life and what wasn’t? He had played so many parts for so long he had no idea where to find the real Devlin Braxton. What would he be like? Would he like himself? Would others? Lord knew he had given enough reason to a lot of the people of Braxton to not welcome him back with warm, open arms. They were glad to have seen the last of him. No one would have missed him. Except, maybe Josie… but she always did have a kind heart. And his brother had married her.
He could have flown home. Instead, he chose to drive it. Maybe because he had a sense of dread? Too many nerves? Too much uncertainty? Dev surmised it would be a mixture of all of those things. He was buying time. Maybe he would have an epiphany along the way about the future and his place in it. Or maybe he was just a coward. Either way, he was nearing his destination.
The two-lane road stretched like an endless ribbon ahead of him. But there were no answers around each bend of it… just more highway. The land alternated between flat plains, rolling hills, and rigid rock mesas. And as far as one could see in any direction, the Braxton brand was evident on fence posts, oil rigs, cattle pens, and even historical markers here and there along the roadway.
If the cattle and horses would stand still in their herds long enough, a person could see it on each hide. Past Braxton generations had settled the town along a much-awaited railroad that enabled thousands of head of cattle and horses to be shipped to the rest of the country from deep within Texas. Now, it was a far-flung empire belonging to his two half brothers and him.
He shook his head. He had a half brother he never knew about, had never seen… no one had, but dear old Dad and more recently, Chance. The patriarch certainly kept his secrets well hidden. Maybe some of that secretive gene had rubbed off on Dev. That was why he could play his parts so well… no one had a clue who he really was. Not even him.
Royce Braxton had been a hard-nosed, mean bastard who didn’t like to share… and that included affection. Dev’s memories of his days living in Braxton caused an anger to build and that increased the pressure on the gas pedal. He should have been paying more attention. But, he rounded a bend in the road and there was a scrawny mutt of a dog moving slowly across the road, his nose glued to the ground, sniffing for any trash along the way that might have been tossed out of a car window. Dev reacted but not quite quickly enough. There was a bump and Dev cringed, applying the brakes, his gaze flying to his rearview mirror.
“Damn!” He placed the gear in neutral.
For a moment, he considered driving on because the animal was not moving. But then there was a small sound… a whimper? One paw tapped the pavement. Damn. Dev shook his head, opened his door, and he stepped out of the truck. This he did not need. The animal showed no visible signs of trauma… no blood oozing, no bones protruding. But the fear and pain spoke volumes in the brown eyes that gave a silent howl for help in their huge size compared to the boney body of the rest of him. Dev was a sucker for animals, especially dogs. There was nothing for it, but to grab an old blanket he had in the box in the back of his truck. He would try to lift the animal without doing any more damage to him or her, and also to keep from getting bit by an animal in pain.
Dev laid the dog as gently as he could on the floorboard in the back-seat area of his truck. He hoped he still remembered how to get to Doc Hollins’s place. Reversing the truck and doing a U-turn, his reunion with his family at the ranch would have to wait.
“Not one more problem better come through that front door today.” Grace Jarvis had maintained her position at the front desk of the Braxton Animal Clinic for the last four decades and very few people in Braxton, where she had spent all of her sixty-nine years, would dare to question any of her edicts.
But then, no one counted on Braxton’s prodigal son returning and landing smack dab on their doorstep… wounded creature in his arms.
“I need to see the vet right away. I’ve got an injured dog here.”
“What’s the injury?”
“He got hit by a truck… my truck. I didn’t see him. One minute I was rounding a bend in the road and—”
“You were speeding.” The pronouncement came with raised eyebrows behind a pair of pink-rimmed glasses that were right out of the fifties costume closet.
The tall beehive hairdo could have been formed in that same little room, also. The whole persona caught Dev off guard for a moment.
“Well, I don’t—”
The woman behind the desk began tapping on a keyboard. “Name…”
“I don’t know. He’s not my dog.”
“Your name.” She froze him with a look over the glass rims.
“Devlin Braxton.” For the first time, Dev gave notice to the woman who had come to stand behind the receptionist typing into the computer terminal, and had supplied his name to the typist.
She knew who he was. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but then the dog in his arms let out another little whimper and the woman in the blue scrubs moved toward the door behind her.
She turned to look over her shoulder at him. “Bring him this way.”
He followed her down a long, blue-tiled hallway with doors opening off either side of it. They entered a small exam room about halfway down on the right. Dev laid out the animal, still partially wrapped in the blanket. The same sorrowful eyes implored him to not leave. Dev glanced up and watched as the woman picked up a stethoscope and began listening to the animal’s chest, then her hands were examining him in gentle, yet precise movements. Another staff member in scrubs slipped into the room and stood ready to help in the exam.
The woman, who had known his name, appeared to be about his age. The coal-black hair was long and held back in a severe ponytail from her face. Then she glanced up at him and her eyes caught his attention. They weren’t the normal shape… like most people. They were more oval, and the combination of long, black lashes and a slight upward tilt of their outer corners gave her a hint of the exotic. Their color was a deep amber, maybe with a rim of lighter caramel?
“You’re staring. And I asked a question.”
That brought him right back to earth with a thud. “I’m sorry. I guess I was trying to place how you knew who I was. I don’t recall having met you before. Are you new to Braxton?”
For whatever reason, the temperature in the small room seemed to go from civil to downright chilly with one look from her in that moment.
She straightened. “I’ve lived here all my life. But I asked you if you had any idea where this animal belonged? Where did you come across her?”
“Out on the road to Braxton Ranch. It was just before the first bend… it’s a blind curve and she was in the middle of the road. I tried to stop, but there wasn’t any time to miss her.”
“She probably was dumped out that way and has been fending for herself as best she could. She’s dehydrated, and in need of good nourishment. I don’t see any cuts or broken bones. So your vehicle may have just been a glancing blow. However, I’ll do X-rays and lab work and look for any internal damage. If there isn’t anything major, we’ll keep her here for two or three days and get her on her feet again.”
“I’m sure Doc Hollins can take good care of her. That’s why I brought her here.”
The female’s eyes flashed to a dark chocolate in color as she met his gaze with a steady one. “Well, Doc Hollins retired over two years ago. So, we’ll just have to muddle along as best we can. The receptionist will have some paperwork for you at the front desk.”
He was dismissed. She gave a nod to the other person and the animal was bundled off before he could say anything else. He was left to return to the reception area.
“Sign your name at the bottom of the first page. Initial in the space marked with the X on the second page and then sign and date at the bottom.” The woman was most efficient in her directions and flipping the pages on the counter in front of him.
He noted the information already present at the top of the document.
“You have my address on here already.”
“I’m clairvoyant,” she responded, then added, “When I heard your name, I automatically added in the Braxton Ranch address. Your family has an open account with us. When you return to pick up your dog, you can either leave the expenses on the account or we can open you a separate one that you can pay if you prefer.”
“I see.” He completed the form and gave the pen back. “I’m not the dog’s owner. In that case, what happens to her? I mean I’ll be happy to pay for her medical expenses and all, but if she isn’t claimed by anyone?”
“Then she’ll be turned over to animal services for either adoption… which isn’t likely since she is already a grown dog with some medical history… or she’ll be euthanized.”
That wasn’t a good option in his mind. The dog seemed to not have any good expectations for its future. Dev didn’t say anything else. He nodded and left the building. That was an added downer to his welcome back to Braxton. Things could only improve, right?
Once more inside his truck, he headed away from the town. It hadn’t been a pleasant detour. He had harmed a poor creature just trying to survive and probably placed it on death row for its short future. And he had alienated a stranger by insulting her in some way he wasn’t certain of. He still had the strangest feeling he knew her, but he couldn’t put his finger on the where and how and when of it.
The fact that she knew him, and possibly it wasn’t in a very positive way, was unsettling. And he had insulted her with his remarks about Doc Hollins. How was he supposed to know that the vet had retired? He hadn’t been in the know about happenings in Braxton for a long time. Even when he was here, he was never there… but occupied with his work on one level or another… or with causing grief to his brother or irritating his father… or both.
It was already not the most auspicious of homecomings.
“So that’s the black sheep of the Braxtons returned for another short visit? Maybe to meet the newest brother in the fold?” Grace laid the folders on her boss’s desk that needed final signatures or notes.
It was past quitting time and she had already placed the closed sign on the front door and turned the key in the lock for good measure.
“There’s no telling why he’s back in our little country town. Can’t imagine it’ll be for long since he favors bright lights and big cities.”
Grace nodded. “And fast cars and even faster women as I recall the saying went when describing him. He certainly turned out different from his brother Chance… and even Rio. They’re both good, decent young men. Don’t know what happened to that one.”
“Every family has their trials and tribulations, Gracie. At least he had heart enough to bring the dog to us that he hit in order to get some help. We can give him credit for that. You have a good weekend.”
“You, too. Try to do something fun for yourself this weekend. Next weekend will be a booger of one.”
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said with a grin at her office manager. “See you on Monday.”
A few minutes later, she switched off the desk lamp and stood. Another week completed. She stopped when she caught her reflection in the mirror in the corner of her office. Had she changed all that much? So much so that Devlin Braxton hadn’t even a hint who he had been looking at?
The blue scrubs weren’t the most flattering of clothing items. And she always kept her hair pulled back when working. There wasn’t that much need for more makeup when she might be in the office in one moment and in the middle of a cattle herd in the next. And why should she care? She blew out a sigh, sliding the straps of her bag over her shoulder, then flipping off the office lights.
Although, the fact that he had made the comment about coming to the clinic specifically because of the previous vet’s abilities did strike a sour chord within her. It had taken the better part of those two-plus years to get people in the county to accept the fact she could function just as well as their beloved vet of the past thirty-five years. Maybe she was still a bit thin-skinned on that score.
“Face it,” she said, throwing a smirk at her reflection in the glass door ahead of her. “You got your hackles up when he had no recognition of who you are. Little Marissa Flanagan didn’t even rate a blip on his radar screen.”
Why should she? Just because she had been one of the many girls in their high school that had been rather large due to the consolidating of four small towns into one very large high school. She blended in with a huge group. And the fact she forgot to breathe whenever he passed by in the hallway, or had been too tongue-tied to speak to him when he handed her a book in the library or borrowed a pen or pencil from her in the two classes they shared… why would he remember that?
But for him to forget about the girl he had stood up at college when they had been assigned an important class project? Basically ruining her life at the time? That was pushing her forgiveness level.
Devlin Braxton had left her holding the bag… a paper to write and visuals to prepare for the final exam grade in their biology class. He had disappeared for three days. The next time she saw him, he ignored her… no apologies. And when she had tracked him down and stood in his path as he exited the cafeteria? He had tossed a sorry at her and then left her standing. That was the last time she had seen him until he walked into the clinic that afternoon. Most people would say, hey it was a long time ago in college… no big deal. Except, it was a big deal.
She had been up for a major scholarship and there were only two points separating her and her competitor. Their professor had dinged her a whole letter grade because it was not the highest standard of work she was capable of and it was supposed to be a partnered project. She had lost out on the scholarship, and that cost her another semester in school. She had needed those funds in order to not have to take on a second job to pay for the last semester and delay graduation. Devlin Braxton hadn’t cared, and he just reminded her of another major letdown in her life by another male.
Her cell phone vibrated inside her pocket and that brought her into the present. She recognized the caller and a smile underscored her words. “Let me guess, we need to postpone our brunch tomorrow? Perhaps because you’re about to have a family reunion?”
“Hey, very good. You can give up the clinic and open up a fortune-telling business instead.”
“And you’re such a comedian, Josie Braxton.” Rissa came back with the retort in response to her friend’s comment, her smile increasing.
“I take it you’ve heard that Chance’s brother, Dev, is coming home tonight. He should have been here by now, but he hasn’t shown up. Based on his track record in the past, he might not at all, or it could be some time tomorrow… he travels to the beat of his own drum. Or at least he used to. Who knows now?”
Rissa found some of her words a bit cryptic, but she chalked it up to the fact that her good friend, Josie, had a pet peeve about people who weren’t punctual. “Well, I happen to know that he will probably be driving up your driveway within the next few minutes.”
That brought a laugh. “And just how and why do you sound so sure of that?”
“Because he just left the clinic a few minutes ago. He had a little detour. He hit a dog just after the turnoff to the ranch and he stopped and ended up bringing her into the clinic. He should be on your doorstep soon.”
“Chance just let me know there’s a truck pulling up in the driveway. Maybe that’s him. Anyway, we best do a rain check for the brunch. Why don’t we plan for lunch on Monday? At the diner?”
“Sounds good. Enjoy your family reunion.”
Rissa went down the hall, stuck her head in to say good night to the two interns who would be the night crew since they had some patients who needed hourly monitoring. “Have a good evening. I’ll be just a phone call away as always.”
A few minutes later, she was in her SUV and heading toward her small acreage on the outskirts of the town. As she drove through the quiet of the early evening, she noted that the local restaurants and the single cinema were all doing a good business. It was the usual scene for the beginning of a weekend in Braxton. If people didn’t drive the forty-five minutes into the larger city of Abilene, then they had limited choices on a Friday night… go out to dinner and/or catch a movie at the theater or one at the drive-in that still operated every Friday and Saturday night.
For her, she had her usual big plans. She would go through the take-out window at Pete’s Barbeque Pit, then head home, where she would binge watch the latest show on Netflix that she had become hooked on thanks to her friend Dee’s recommendations.
Such was the exciting life of being a single, small-town vet. And then she remembered to be thankful. Rissa amended that last thought to include her thanks. If she hadn’t once been jilted before walking down the aisle at her wedding, then she might be a miserable, married, or more likely, divorced vet going home… to a miserable evening. Thankfully, she wasn’t the poor to-be-pitied jilted fiancée suffering the looks and gossip of her fellow neighbors. But that hadn’t come easily. It had taken some time. People in town had moved on from their pity party for her and gossip sessions centering on her lack of love life. And that was how she wanted to keep it. And with friends like Josie and Dee and others, she had moved on.
Josie. She gave a slight smile. It might be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the reunion happening out at Braxton Ranch at that moment. And she hoped Devlin Braxton was getting just what he deserved. The smile widened at that thought.
End of Excerpt