LOST AND FOUND
After serving in the Army, veterinarian Ethan McCall isn't sure where he belongs. So visiting Claire Reynolds's family ranch to help with her military dog rescue seems as good a place as any. Except that he can't stop thinking about the beautiful single mom. Ethan's happy to lend Claire a hand, but he can't offer his heart, as well. As far as he's concerned, it's damaged goods anyway.
Claire recognizes the pain in Ethan's green eyes. With a son to raise, there's no room in her life for romance or so she tells herself. But Claire and Ethan can't deny their attraction forever. Can two broken hearts come together to make a family whole? Or will Claire and Ethan continue to run from the thing that scares them most?
About the Author
Barbara currently lives in a log house on a wooded acreage in Canada's Yukon, where bears outnumber people and moose wander through the property. By day, she works as the Yukon's Film Commissioner. By night, she pens romance novels in front of a roaring fire.
Barbara loves to hear from readers. They can contact her through her Web site.
Read an Excerpt
There was something about a man in uniform.
Claire Reynolds had seen a lot of them over the years. It had gotten to the point that she hardly even noticed them anymore, but this man, she thought as a warm wind blew off the tarmac, this man stood outand not just because he wore dress blues.
"Ms. Reynolds?" He walked out from beneath the shade of a C-40, although he had to yell to be heard. Behind him, across a strip of asphalt that shimmered from desert heat, the nose of a C-5 cargo plane lifted. The roar of its engines sounded as if a thousand storm clouds hovered overhead.
"You must be Dr. McCall?" she all but yelled back, a hank of her long black hair blowing across her face. She should have pulled it into a ponytail.
The man nodded, his hand lifting to his hat, a black beret with a gold oak leaf cluster near the pointy tip. Major Ethan McCall. Decorated soldier. Veterinarian for the US Army. She'd been on base before thanks to CPRCombat Pet Rescuebut she'd never met this man. Was he new?
Beneath his hat, green eyes squinted as he turned to face the back end of the smaller cargo plane, the big bay door yawning open like the back of a semi. In the shade of one of the wings, an aluminum dog crate stood silent. Claire watched as a black nose and part of a snout popped out of one of the holes, then back in again. For some reason, it made Claire smile. She looked up at the man in uniform and found him staring at her.
"Thanks for coming all the way out here." He looked away, and Claire took a moment to gather all her hair in one hand and twist it so that it would stay in place. He was young, much younger than she had expected. And handsome. She hadn't expected that, either. Light brown hair. Strong jaw. Sideburns. A younger version of George Clooney.
"I didn't mind." And she hadn't. She'd needed to get away, even though her troubles had followed her here. As much as she loved her six-year-old son, as much as she wanted to be there for him every step of the way, she'd craved a brief burst of freedom. So she'd made the long drive east and then south to the desert, leaving Adam in the care of her brother and sister-in-law. God help her, she'd wanted to keep on driving.
"Sorry about the uniform." She looked up in time to see something cross behind his eyes. "Funeral detail."
The reason for the heightened security presented itself. She'd been on base enough times to have the routine down by heart. But today there had been an added layer of tension. She did a half turn toward the plane and spotted it then. A casket sat just inside the cargo bay. It caused Claire's heart to stab her rib cage, the same way it did whenever she heard more bad news about her son's health.
"Oh." Of pithy things to say it probably didn't top the list, but there really wasn't much more to verbalize. He probably hadn't heard her anyway. The roar of four jet engines as they reached maximum horsepower made words disappear. When the sound faded somewhat she raised her voice and said, "I better make this quick, then."
He hadn't taken his eyes off the casket, and when he turned back to her, she saw the sadness in them.
"It's his dog." The words emerged from her, unbidden, but when she saw him flinch, she knew it to be true.
Janus. The Belgian Malinois, which a less trained eye might ID as a German shepherd, had belonged to his friend. She had to look away for a moment, her throat closing in mute sympathy because she recognized his type of pain.
"I'm so sorry."
Her security badge caught the breeze and blew against the white shirt she wore. Inside the crate the dog poked his nose through a hole again. She was tempted to present her scent, but there would be time for that later. Instead she took a deep breath and looked Major McCall in the eye.
"Is the family certain they don't want to keep him?"
He shook his head sharply. "He's a great dog. Passed his personality test with flying colors. It's just that the wife has two small kids. She's worried about Janus being too much to handle."
He would be a lot of work. Military dogs were known to be hyper, but they settled down once they realized their job description had changed. From military dog to family pet. It happened all the time.
She inhaled, trying to think of something else to say. "Tell them they can always change their mind."
He shook his head mutely. Inside the kennel Janus whined. You could tell a lot by an animal's cry. There was the feed-me whine and the I-want-out-of-my-crate whine, and the one that always tugged at her heart. The I-miss-my-master whine.
Janus wanted his master.
"Toughest part of the job, listening to their cries." She'd said the words softly, too softly to be heard by him, or so she'd thought. The cargo plane had lifted higher into the clear, blue sky, the sound of its engines slowly fading away, and the wind had caught her words, bringing them to his ears.
"It is, isn't it?" His eyes were so light that the black lashes stood out in stark contrast. From a distance it would look as if they were lined with makeup. Major Ethan McCall was all man. Wide shoulders. Narrow waist. Big hands.
She had to look away because noticing his hands seemed somehow wrong, especially given their conversation.
"I wanted to come do this for Trevor, but after tomorrow "
She looked up again because something about his words caught her ear. She tipped her head sideways. "You're getting out?"
He nodded. "Seemed as good a time as any."
She'd met a lot of veterinarians over the years. Army. Marine. Yes, even Navy, but they were always stateside. When he glanced toward the back of the plane again, she knew he hadn't been. He'd been over there. In combat.
"Going into private practice, then?"
He shrugged. "Not sure yet."
She searched for something to say because the sadness in his eyes tore at her heart and reminded her of all she'd lost, too. Funny how you could go through life wrapped up in your own little world, feeling sorry for yourself, only to be smacked in the face by someone else's problems.
"Well, if you find yourself at loose ends, you're always welcome to visit CPR. My family owns a big ranch. You'd be welcome there."
He hadn't heard her. He kept glancing back toward a nearby hangar. The family would be here shortly, she surmised. That was the reason the base commander had stressed the importance of being on time. They wanted Janus off base so the family wouldn't have to see the dog. Less painful to them that way.
"I'll think about it," he added.
So he had heard her. "It's a nice drive," she said, even though a part of her warned to just shut up and get the hell out of there. "It might do you good to get out." Damn her need to mother everybody.
She was almost grateful when his gaze shifted back to Janus again. It must have served as a reminder of what they were there to do, because he braced himself. She saw the physical effects of it when he straightened his shoulders and clenched and unclenched his hands. She knew in an instant that the man whose body he'd accompanied back home had been more than a casual friend. He'd been a brother in arms. A member of his fighting family. Major McCall had been in combat, which meant someone must have pulled some strings to allow him to attend the body. She understood that type of bond all too well. She had two brothers who were military, one of them ex, the other about to be. Her husband, too, had been in the military before. She took a deep breath. "Maybe we should get Janus loaded."
He nodded, and then turned. The dog's kennel had been placed on casters, making it easy to wheel to her vehicle. She'd been allowed to park near the tarmac, and she'd taken advantage of the shade offered by the massive metal building used to house aircraft. A local car dealership always loaned her a van for free. She chirped the lock, the two of them pausing for a moment near the double back doors.
Janus whined. She glanced at Major McCall just in time to see him swallow. Hard. "You mind if I say goodbye?"
She nodded mutely. He squatted down next to the metal box, cracked the door open.
"Shtopp," she heard him softly mutter the German commands nearly all combat dogs grew up hearing. "Sitz."
Inside the kennel, Janus shifted around. She couldn't see much with the metal door blocking her view, but she spotted the black paw that landed over the top of Major McCall's hand. He turned it until the two were touching palm to pad. It made her want to cry.
"This kind lady is going to find you a new home," she heard him say. "A place where someone won't be trying to kill you every five seconds." She saw him smile bitterly. "Well, aside from maybe a five- or six-year-old kid that might try to saddle you up and ride you around."
That was so close to the truth of what might happen, Claire found herself momentarily smiling, but her smile faded fast because watching Ethan say goodbye to his friend's dog was difficult to watch. Usually a pickup was impersonal, the military staff remote. Not this time. It took every ounce of willpower not to lose it right then and there.
"Take care of yourself, buddy." He reached in and stroked the dog's head. "Trev will be there with you every step of the way."
One last pat on the head before the man closed the kennel door. He didn't look at her as he straightened. "Can you help me lift?"
His hands shook as he reached for an aluminum handle. In a matter of seconds they had the crate inside. Claire stepped back and closed the doors.
"I'll take good care of him."
"I know." He still wouldn't look her in the eye. "The base commander told me about you."
"It's a labor of love."
He met her gaze and she could see it thenhow hard he'd fought for control. But he had himself in hand. His eyes might be rimmed with red, but he was a soldier through and through. A combat veteran. A man who'd been trained to keep his cool even when the world fell apart. She knew the type well.
"Thank God for people like you."
She felt close to tears again for some reason. "And thank God for servicemen like you."
They both dropped into silence, Claire wondering what he would do after today and where he would go, warning herself that it wasn't her problem.
"I should get going."
He nodded. "I'll be in touch."
She started to back away, but he held out a hand. She didn't want to clasp it. She really didn't. Stupid, ridiculous thing because there was no reason why she shouldn't, but the moment she touched him she knew she'd been right. It was like a scene from an old-time movie. A slowing down of time. A freeze-frame moment when everything seemed to stand still and all sound faded: Zoom in camera one. Hero and heroine touch and seem unable to look anywhere but into each other's eyes.
He let her hand go and smiled. He had dimples. She would have never expected dimples.
"Thanks," she heard herself say, and then she forced herself to take a deep breath as she turned away and headed toward the driver's side door.
Don't look back. Don't look back. Don't look back.
She looked back.
Major McCall still stood there, his hand lifting to his hat as he saluted. She smiled, saluted back, all but wilting into the driver's seat a moment later. She started the engine and slowly backed out, Janus whining one last time. It wasn't until she hit the main road that she pulled over on the shoulder.
She leaned back and closed her eyes, shaken by the touch of his hand.
"What in the world was that?"
What was he doing here?
Ethan McCall looked down at his nearly finished coffee. He'd just driven five hours to pull into a strange town, order breakfast at a place called Ed's Eatery, and then sit and watch traffic pass through the small town of Via Del Caballo, California.
My family owns a big ranch. You 'd be welcome there.
He recalled her eyes. They shared the same eye color, only his were nothing like her green eyes. Hers were like the rind of a lime. Bright green. Bottle green. Sun shining through glass and right into her soul green. He'd never seen anything like them before. They'd been filled with kindness, too, and maybe that's why he'd driven to her hometown. That, and the truth was, he had no place else to go.
Out in front a new car pulled into an empty parking spot, one of the diagonal kind. A small family. Two little kids. Mom laughing at something Dad said. It was such a stark contrast to his view over the past four yearscrumbling buildings, half-dressed children, dust-covered carsthat for a moment he simply stared. The mom took the hand of the youngest child, a little girl with cute blond curls that caught the morning sun. Behind them and across the street, someone loaded what looked like grain into the back of their truck. The sign on the store read Via Del Caballo Farm and Feed. Out in front sat a row of livestock feeders. Round. Square. Tall. Feeders of all sizes. When he'd first sat down he'd gazed at them for the longest time, just thinking about the times he'd been in the Middle East, longing for a view like the one he had now.
"Need more coffee?"
He glanced up at the waitressa teenage girl with dirty blond hair and frecklesand said, "No, thanks."
She smiled and walked away, Ethan would bet she entered her pig in the county fair every year. FFA. Local rancher's daughter. Good kid with no bad habits and a weekend job.
Life in a small town. He'd fought to protect that lifestyle. Had kept going even when the chips were down. And then Trev and Janus had been shot and.
He nearly cracked the handle of his coffee mug. It took him a moment to regulate his breathing again. When he did, he glanced across the street.
It was her. Claire Reynolds. The woman he'd come to see. The one he'd convinced himself wouldn't be home. The woman who'd called him on the phone one dayout of the blueand asked for his opinion on a dog in her care. Behavioral issues, she'd said. But instead of calling her back he'd slipped behind the wheel of his old truck and found himself heading north and then west.
And there she was.