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Flirting with Love

By:Melissa Foster


Chapter One


ROSS BRADEN HANDED Flossie, a frail fifteen-year-old tabby with thinning fur and soulful eyes, to Alice Shalmer. Alice had recently retired from the Trusty, Colorado, library, where she’d been the head librarian for thirty-plus years. She lived on the outskirts of town and had seven cats, but Flossie was her favorite.

Alice clutched the cat against her thin chest and buried her angular nose and pointy chin in her side. “Think I’ll get another year out of my old girl?”

No, he didn’t, but Alice knew this already. They’d been playing the I-hope-so game for several months already. No need to drive the sadness home.

“I sure hope so.” And Ross truly did.

Alice pushed her black frames back up her nose and smiled. With Flossie safely snuggled against her, she left his office, closing the door behind her. It was Friday morning, and as the Trusty town veterinarian, Ross had a long day ahead of him. He didn’t mind, as Fridays were reserved for well checks, giving him a less stressful workday than the rest of the week. And Friday night was just a few hours away. He was already thinking about his options—call one of his brothers and have a beer in town, or drive down to one of the neighboring towns and connect with one of the handful of women he’d dated over the past few months, getting lost in her for a few hours. Ross didn’t date women in his hometown, where gossip was as plentiful as the grass was green. He preferred to keep his private life to himself, and driving half an hour in either direction offered him the comfort and privacy that he desired.

“Ross?” Kelsey Trowell poked her head into the exam room where Ross was washing his hands. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a casual ponytail. Kelsey was in her midtwenties and rarely wore makeup. In the standard Trusty attire of jeans, cowgirl boots, and a T-shirt, she looked about eighteen years old. She was smart, efficient, and sweet as molasses. More importantly, she was one of the few women around who wasn’t trying to rope a husband, or more specifically, wouldn’t try to reel in Ross, one of the last Braden bachelors, making her ideal for her position.

“Yes?”

Knight, one of Ross’s three Labradors, walked into the exam room behind Kelsey. She reached down and stroked Knight’s thick black fur as he passed.

“I told your two o’clock she could come in at ten. She had a hair appointment that she forgot about and couldn’t reschedule.”

Ross arched a brow and reached for a chart. “We wouldn’t want Mrs. Mace to miss her hair appointment, now, would we? That’s fine.”

Kelsey moved to the side as Sarge, Ross’s three-year-old golden Lab, joined Knight, now lounging at Ross’s feet. Ross’s boys were always on his heels.

“Want me to take the boys out of the office so you can bring Tracie Smith back with their new silky terrier? Her daughter, Maddy, is so cute. She hasn’t put their new puppy down since they got here. Oh, and your next two appointments are here. Everyone seems to be early today. Should I get them set up in the other exam rooms?”

Ross looked up from the chart he was studying. It was eight forty and Tracie’s appointment was at eight forty-five. “No. I need to run upstairs for a second. When I come down, I’ll get Tracie and Maddy.” He closed the file. “Justin Bieber? Tracie named her puppy Justin Bieber?” Tracie had grown up in Trusty, and she was a few years younger than Ross. Justin Bieber was her family’s first puppy.

“Maddy named him.” Kelsey lowered her voice. “Leave it to an eight-year-old girl.”

Ross took the back stairs two at a time with Sarge and Knight on his heels. His house and the veterinary clinic were connected by a front and back staircase, as well as a door that led directly to his kitchen. The property spanned thirty acres, with an expansive view of the Colorado Mountains. He snagged his cell phone from the bedside table and slanted his eyes at Ranger, the two-year-old golden Lab feigning sleep on his bed.

“Off.”

Ranger opened one eye and yawned, then crawled to the edge of the bed and slithered off. For the past six years, Ross had been the veterinarian and trainer for Pup Partners, a service-dog training program run through Denton Prison. Denton, Colorado, was forty miles west of Trusty. He had a hard time letting go of the dogs that didn’t make the cut, hence his three boys.

Ranger climbed atop his doggy bed and closed his eyes. Ross headed down the front stairs to the reception area of the clinic with Sarge and Knight in tow. They’d wait for him outside each of the clinic rooms while he met with families throughout the day, but when Ross was in the lobby or his office, his boys remained by his side.

Maddy Smith jumped to her feet and held up her silky terrier with a smile that radiated from her green eyes. “Dr. Braden, look at our puppy! His name is Justin Bieber. I named him. Isn’t he so cute?”

Tracie settled a hand on her excited daughter’s shoulder and shrugged. “She loved the name.” Tracie freed Maddy’s fiery red hair from where it was tangled in Justin Bieber’s leash.

“It’s a great name,” Ross said as he petted the adorable puppy, while Mack, a Burnese mountain dog and Ross’s nine-o’clock patient, sniffed his legs.

“How’s it going, Dr. B.?” Mack’s owner, David, nodded.

“It’s a fine day so far, David. I’ll be ready for Mack in a few minutes. Thanks for waiting.”

Kelsey was talking with Janice Treelong by the registration desk. Janice held her cat in one hand and clutched her young son Michael’s hand with the other. Ross was unfazed by the three patients. Fridays were his easy days.

A woman burst through the door with a squealing piglet in her arms. Her shoulders rounded forward as she turned from side to side, struggling to restrain the wiggling animal.

“Can someone please help me? I’m so sorry; something’s wrong. I don’t know what to do.” She leaned over the registration desk, her long blond hair curtaining her face as the piglet slipped from her arms and ran across the desk squealing loudly. Janice’s son shrieked, sending her cat into full panic mode. The cat jumped from Janice’s arms, then bolted down the hall. Knight turned in the direction of the cat while Sarge tried to climb the desk to get to the piglet, which Kelsey was trying to capture. Ross was drawn to the blonde, but he forced himself to focus on the ensuing mayhem.

“Leave it,” Ross said in a calm, deep voice as he took a squirming Justin Bieber from Maddy to keep from having one more loose animal to contend with. Sarge and Knight sank onto their butts, tails wagging with a whimper. As trained service dogs, Sarge and Knight immediately responded to Ross’s commands. He was used to animals sparking one another into a frenzy, and he’d long ago honed his calm demeanor, which helped keep the animals from getting too riled.

“Stay.” Ross eyed the dogs—then the blonde.

David struggled to keep ahold of Mack’s leash as he also tried to go after the cat.

Janice pointed down the hallway where her cat had disappeared and Ross nodded. “Go ahead.”

“Kelsey, piglet,” Ross instructed.

“Trying.” Kelsey lunged toward the squealing piglet.

With Justin Bieber tucked under one arm, Ross stood between Mack and the registration desk. “David, can you please take Mack into room two?” Two down, one to go.

“Can do.” David pulled a reluctant Mack down the hall.

Ross handed Justin Bieber to Tracie. “Room three, okay? I’ll be in in one minute.”

“Sure. Sure.” Tracie grabbed Justin Bieber and Maddy’s hand, then disappeared down the hall.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t see a crate to carry him in, and—”

Ross turned to address the woman who had wreaked havoc in his clinic. Correction. The incredibly gorgeous woman with hair so silky it reflected light in at least seven shades of blond and green eyes as bright as springtime buds. Holy Christ, she was beautiful, and definitely not from Trusty. There were beautiful women in Trusty, Colorado, but none with skin so flawless and with such luscious curves that they looked like they’d stepped out of a fashion magazine.

“Got it! Room four.” Kelsey had the piglet wrapped in the hoodie she kept on the back of her chair. She carried it down the hall to the last open exam room.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble. He won’t eat, and I’ve tried everything. I couldn’t find a carrier or anything, and—”

“It’s okay. We’ll take care of him. Relax. Take a deep breath.” His day had just gotten a whole hell of a lot better. He drew in a deep breath, too, to curb his rising interest.

She nodded, breathed deeply, then closed her eyes and drew in another few deep breaths. Ross took advantage of those few seconds and slid his eyes down her body. She wasn’t wearing anything tight or revealing: a simple white peasant blouse with lacy sleeves and jeans tucked into flat-bottomed, brown boots. She was only a few inches shorter than Ross, five nine or ten, he guessed, and when she opened her eyes and smiled, it sent a jolt of electricity straight to the center of his chest.

“Better,” she breathed. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay. I take it this isn’t your piglet?”

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