The bright halogen beam slicing through the chill night air hit Cory Adams square in the eyes. Momentarily blinded, he jerked to a stop, averted his gaze and shut off his own flashlight.
Even without sight, he knew who wielded that glaring light. Mia Barker. The two of them had banged heads more than a few times over the past couple of weeks. She didn’t like him, and he didn’t care.
Not much, anyway.
“What are you doing on this side of the woods so late at night?” she asked in her deceptively soft voice.
Cory imagined her large eyes narrowed in warning: get off my property.
Her three-legged mutt, Ginger, limp-trotted over, nudging her snout at his thigh. The dog seemed to think he was all right. Hell, they'd met multiple times.
“Hey, girl.” He shoved his flashlight into the pocket of his denim jacket, then hunkered down to scratch behind the dog’s ears. “I’m looking for Nugget,” he told Mia. “He got out before dark and hasn’t come back. I thought he might be here with you.”
The beam of light dropped from Cory’s face to the ground. While his eyes readjusted, he lumbered to a standing position. Though it had been nearly two years since the accident, he hadn’t regained all his strength and stamina, and tonight every muscle ached. Too many hours stomping over plowed-up earth, scaling ladders, and hefting building supplies. He needed a massage, but in the boonies of Dunlin Woods, Oregon, he doubted he'd find a physical therapist trained to do the job. He wouldn’t let anyone else work on his wreck of a body.
Dunlin Shores, twenty-odd miles away and the closest town, might, but it wasn’t much bigger than here. Anyway, he couldn’t afford the time.
“Nugget hasn’t been here today.” Mia shot a glance over her shoulder, toward the large hawk’s pen, which was empty and awaiting the next injured wild bird in need of her services. Nugget enjoyed sniffing around the perimeter and doing his inbred pointer routine. “You shouldn’t have let him run off,” she said with obvious disapproval. “It’s not safe.”
As if he didn’t know that. Feeling like a scolded kid, Cory set his jaw. In Dunlin Woods animals of all kinds freely roamed the terrain. Over the years coyotes, bobcats, weasels, and muskrats had been spotted—or so he’d heard. In the two weeks since he’d parked his truck and fifth wheel here, he had yet to see anything besides the usual birds, squirrels, and deer.
“I didn’t figure on Nugget learning how to open the fifth wheel door,” he said.
With the light trained at the ground, Cory saw Mia clearly. She wore a shapeless, fight-colored flannel nightie that reached her calves, and clutched a large woolen shawl around her shoulders. The unlaced boots on her feet looked as if she’d toed into them in a hurry.
She was his neighbor, the only neighbor within a ten-mile radius. He wondered if he’d awakened her, or if, like him, she had difficulty sleeping.
“It’s close to midnight, and you were up and pounding on that house of yours at dawn. Don’t you ever rest?” she asked.
After putting in a twelve-hour-plus day he longed to fall into bed and let sleep claim him. But that'd have to wait. “Not until I find my dog.”
In the beat that followed his statement the silent woods around them grew quieter yet. Even the gurgling creek running along the perimeter of both properties seemed subdued. Ginger issued an uneasy whining sound, and worry sluiced through Cory.
Mia bit her lip. “Ginger and I will keep an eye out for Nugget. I hope you find him.” She paused, tucking her hair behind her ears. “If he needs medical attention, bring him straight over. Anytime, day or night.”
Cory appreciated the offer, but hoped he wouldn’t need his neighbor’s veterinary services. He wasn’t here to make friends or to rely on anyone other than the temporary crew he’d hired. He wanted only to build the house, win the award, put the place up for sale, and leave.
“Well then, good night.” Mia aimed the flashlight like a rifle at a point between two madrones, showing him where she expected him to go—back to his own property.
Sliding his flashlight from his pocket, he turned in the opposite direction, heading rapidly toward the stream and woods beyond and gritting his teeth against his protesting muscles. Her stronger light followed and shot out ahead of him, illuminating the way across a ground jumbled with wet spring grass, twigs, half-imbedded rocks, and occasional mole holes.
He stumbled on a tree root concealed in the shadows, swearing under his breath and wincing, but not slowing his pace. Damn woman made him self-conscious. When the arc of her light no longer touched him or the land, he heaved a relieved breath.
Then, compelled for some reason he couldn’t name, he halted and pivoted toward her place. With her flashlight now off, he could barely make out her form as she moved silently toward her house. She pulled open the door, emitting a thick slab of rose-hued light as warm and inviting as a crackling fire.
Cory couldn’t help comparing her cozy cottage to the utilitarian fifth wheel that doubled as his office and house. House, not home. Even Nugget knew the difference. Lately he’d spent more time at Mia’s than with Cory.
A one-eared, flat-nosed tomcat, the ugliest cat Cory had ever seen, appeared on the threshold as if welcoming Mia and Ginger home.
The two animals touched noses before the dog pushed past and disappeared inside. Mia scooped up the feline, cuddling it against her chest. Like a voyeur, Cory drank in the homey scene, wondering how a creature like that sounded when it purred. Because nestled in the heat from Mia’s body, cushioned against her soft breasts, he was surely purring. Cory swallowed against a pang of longing.
But warm and welcoming as Mia’s place was, she lived as solitary a life as Cory did. Her land and house were a good twenty miles from Dunlin Shores. True, she ran her vet clinic from there and had a steady stream of patients, but business wasn’t exactly booming. There was a part-time assistant, Sookie Patterson, Cory knew, because her husband Bart worked for him. The rest of the time, it seemed Mia was alone.
Cory speculated on that, wondering what personal demons drove her to stay separate. She didn’t seem to mind the solitude, actually seemed content. Which made her unlike any woman he knew.
Mia and the tomcat slipped inside. The door closed, shutting out the light and warmth. Cory rubbed his arms, but his thin jacket and the damp air hadn’t caused his chill. That came from the lonely ache inside his chest. An ache he’d carried so long, it had become a part of him.
He whistled softly, calling for his dog as he resumed his search.
The following morning, just as the paws on Mia’s funky cat clock hit eight-thirty and the tea water started to boil, Ginger woofed at the back door. Rags swished his ratty kitty tail and meowed.
The front door was reserved for patients and company. The back was for friends. “I'll bet that's Sookie,” she told the animals.
The latch lifted and her veterinary assistant waltzed in. Small, slender, and bouncy, Sookie Patterson was a gem of an employee and also a good friend.
“Hey, you.” Mia smiled and pulled two blue earthenware mugs from the old maple cabinet. “You’re a half hour early this morning.”
“I hope you don’t mind.” Sookie wiped her feet on the mat and gave Ginger and Rags each a warm hello pat. Satisfied with the greeting, the animals curled up together on the doggie mattress near the heat vent. “We haven’t had a chance to schmooze for a while, and I figured this was a good morning for it.” Her cheeks red with cold, she shut the door firmly behind her. The odor of fresh clean air clung to her.
“I’d like that,” Mia said. "Perfect timing too. I'm about to make tea."
"Great—I could use something hot to drink." Sookie hung her plaid wool jacket on the coat tree beside the door, then blew on her hands. “Can you believe how chilly it is this morning?”
Mia packed two tea balls with peppermint tea leaves and placed one in each mug. The fragrant smell of mint permeated the kitchen as she poured water from the steaming kettle.
Sookie’s curly hair bounced as she plopped down at her customary seat at the table. “There’s frost on the ground, and it’s the third week of April!”
“I hope this cold hasn’t killed my flowers, or yours.” Mindful of spilling, Mia carried the mugs to the oak table in the corner. Like the sixty-year-old home, it was scarred, but comfortable and sturdy.
“As long as your new neighbor keeps Bart employed, I don't mind. I can always plant more.”
Mia had spent a restless night fretting over Cory and his lost dog. And not just last night. The man had unsettled her since the day he’d parked his fancy oversize fifth wheel on the cleared patch of what'd been old Cyrus Murphy’s five-acre homestead. She was tired of Cory’s intrusion into what had been a quiet, orderly existence, and didn’t want to think or to talk about him anymore. She joined Sookie at the table.
“Cory’s a little brusque, but he’s not that bad,” Sookie said as if reading her thoughts. “Not counting Bart, he’s my favorite man in the world.”
She liked Cory, but then, so did just about everybody in town. So what if he’d razed Cyrus’s old cabin and plowed up a good chunk of the meadow where it had stood? The man had only been dead a few months and his property on the market all of three weeks. Five lush acres, most of them unspoiled, behind the house.
Rumor was that Cory had paid cash for it. He’d lost no time spreading the word about the house-beautiful he intended to build over the next few months. Thanks to Cory, Bart and two others had good jobs and steady paychecks. Which in the economically depressed area—locals unable to find jobs were forced to leave and work elsewhere—was a very good thing. Even so, Mia resented the noise and upheaval.
“He’s good-looking too,” Sookie added. “In a brooding sort of way.”
“I suppose.” Mia concentrated on removing the tea ball and placing it on a small plate.
Cory Adams was tall, lean and muscular, with piercing whiskey-brown eyes and a generous mouth some women might find sexy—if he ever bothered to smile. With or without a smile, he didn't appeal to Mia, not in any way.
“I get the feeling you don’t like Cory.” Sookie angled her head and frowned. “What’s the deal?”
Mia didn’t even need to think about that. She had a list of complaints, which she was happy to rattle off. “The mess and the lack of privacy. Cory may own five acres, but he’s building the house five hundred fifty feet away.”
She nodded at the large window behind Sookie, then at the smaller one over the kitchen sink, beyond which the woods partially obstructed her view of Cory’s project. Thank goodness for small favors. But aside from scattered trees and bushes, the front of her home and clinic were visible from the construction site.
“With him and his crew coming and going at all hours, I don’t dare leave the curtains open at night. And the noise! It bothers me and disturbs the animals. Can’t you hear it?”
She cocked her head and listened. So did Sookie. A thin, erratic droning sound carried through the trees, the buzz of some machine at work. Mia wrinkled her nose. “I want my quiet, peaceful world back.” She sighed. “Why didn’t Cory choose someplace closer to Portland to build his house? That’s where his company is based.”
“Bart says he plans to win a big architecture award with the house, and the rural setting is important to the overall design.” Sookie leaned toward her, her eyes bright with excitement “Just think what will happen if he wins. We won’t be Dunlin Shores’ poor cousin anymore. Maybe we don’t have ocean views or beaches out here, but people will come. They’ll fall in love with our woods and fields, maybe enough to live here. We’ll grow and have an economic boom for sure.” She rubbed her hands together.
“Oh, joy,” Mia deadpanned. “Do we really want a bunch of builders tearing up our woods?”
“If it means permanent jobs around here, definitely. I don’t want to lose any more people. Do you?” Though there was no one else in the room, Sookie leaned even closer and lowered her voice. “They say Cory Adams is a man with a past.”
“Hmm.” Mia sipped her tea. His hard exterior and gruff manner didn’t fool her. Anyone with eyes could see he was hurting. God only knew who and what had caused him pain.
The nurturing part of her wanted to reach out and offer comfort. Her rational mind recoiled. She sided with logic. People were unpredictable. Mia preferred to spend her time and efforts on animals, who were loyal and loving, and asked for nothing but kindness in return.
“A man of mystery,” Sookie continued. “I find that romantic.”
“You're kidding, right?”
Her friend gave her a sideways look. “He’s your neighbor, your only neighbor. Aren’t you even curious about him?”
“Not in the least. We all have baggage, and his is none of my business.” Mia directed a pointed frown at her friend. “Or yours.” Sookie opened her mouth, but Mia cut her off. She wasn't going to talk about Cory any more. “The hawk ate this morning,” she commented, neatly changing the subject.
Two days earlier, the clinic had taken charge of the wounded red-tailed male, a young adult coming into his prime. He’d been hit by a vehicle, possibly one of the trucks coming and going next door.
With Sookie’s help, Mia had cleaned his infected wing and bloodied chest and injected antibiotics. If all went according to plan, as the bird healed and gained strength, Mia would transfer him from his cage in the sick bay in a smallish outbuilding she'd added when she'd opened her business five years earlier, to the large flight pen outside. By late summer he’d be ready to return to the wild.
“I sure hope he makes it,” Mia said.
“With your gifted touch he stands a good chance. You’re as good if not better than having his own mama tending over him.”
Mia knew she was a capable veterinarian. She also knew she’d make a rotten mother. She scoffed. “I’m nobody’s mama, Sookie.”
“Well, you’d be a darn fine one. First things first, though. We need to find you a man.”
Not that again. Mia rolled her eyes.
Sookie, who’d found true love at the age of thirty, believed every female should find her mate and settle down to wedded bliss. Mia wasn't against marriage, but it wasn't a priority. So far, she hadn't met anyone she wanted to spend her life with. Not that marriage came with any guarantees of lasting that long. Look at her own parents… Stifling a grimace, she pushed the past away. He had to be a man who didn't want kids, or whose children were in high school or older. No babies or toddlers—that was non-negotiable.
"I wouldn't mind meeting someone, but like I keep telling you, I'm doing fine by myself. My life is full.” So she wasn’t exactly happy. She had friends and a job she loved, which counted for a lot.
Sookie squinted at her. “Something's bothering you.”
“I didn’t sleep well last night. Cory stopped by around midnight, looking for his dog.”
“Nugget, missing? That's not good.”
“No, and between the cold snap and the wild animals prowling around out there, I shudder to think what could happen.” With Sookie’s help, Mia had stitched up a fair number of wounded animals and euthanized others too far gone. “Did you see Nugget when you dropped Bart off this morning?”
“No, but I wasn’t exactly looking.” Mia’s friend smiled. “Since Bart got that job, he can’t keep his hands off me. Amazing what a regular paycheck will do for a man’s libido.”
“Is that right.” Pleased for her friend, Mia grinned. She was also envious. Sookie and Bart had been married nearly two years. They were crazy in love and still as wild for each other as honeymooners.
Not that Mia wanted what they had. Marriage wasn't for her, and she certainly didn't want children. She frowned into her half-empty cup. A premonition she couldn’t identify shivered through her. Though the room was a comfortable seventy degrees, she suddenly felt chilled.
Sookie fiddled with the napkin holder, two ceramic cocker spaniels attached to a wooden base—a gift from a grateful patient last Christmas. “I’m going over to the site on my noon break, to eat lunch with Bart. I’ll ask Cory about Nugget then, unless—”
The front doorbell buzzed. Mia glanced at her watch. “Who can that be? It’s a quarter to nine. Everyone knows we don’t open for another fifteen minutes.”
“Probably Mamie Beeler.” Sookie rose. “I scheduled Peachie first thing for her annual shots, and you know how Mamie is about that dog.”
The widow doted on her Pomeranian, treating him like a grandchild. “Always early,” Mia sighed as she too stood. "Tell her I’ll be with her shortly.” She scooped up both mugs and carried them to the sink.
“Right. Thanks for the tea.” Sookie was halfway through the kitchen when the doorbell buzzed again. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she muttered as she hurried toward the living room and front door. Mia ducked into the small utility room off the kitchen where she kept her lab coats. She slipped on a clean one, then smoothed her chin-length hair. Now she was ready for Peachie and whatever else the day brought.
When the landline rang—in Dunlin Woods, cell phone service was iffy at best, and everyone depended on landlines—she shot a pleased grin at Ginger and Rags. “Looks like it’s going to be a busy day.”
The dog yawned. The cat opened one eye, then burrowed closer to the canine’s side and promptly went back to sleep. They didn’t care at all, but Mia did. She enjoyed busy days.
Stepping around the animals, she picked up the phone. “Mia Barker.”
“Good morning, Ms. Barker,” said a brisk female voice. “Please hold for Judith Ellison, attorney-at-law.”
“Who?” Mia asked, but the tinny music let her know she’d been placed on hold.
She didn’t know a Judith Ellison, did she? Frowning, she searched her mind and came up blank. The only attorneys she knew were the two who lived in town. They were both men, didn’t have their secretaries make their calls, and unless their pets needed attention, they had no business with her.
Maybe someone was suing her. But who, and why? Mia could think of no reason. As the seconds ticked by, her earlier unease returned. She trusted her feelings, depended on her instincts. Working with animals, she had to.
Right now, those instincts warned her she was about to get unexpected news—bad news. Bracing herself, she pulled the phone cord taut and sank onto a kitchen chair.