Calving season had arrived. Anya felt like she belonged in some episode of The Walking Dead as she pulled around the back of the clinic. The past two nights she’d been out on call. One of the ranchers had called in time, and she was able to save both the mama and the calf. The other had called too late. Even though she had spent hours trying, she could only save the calf—-the mama had already lost too much blood.
Elena had been checking on her daily, knowing this was the hardest time of the year for her. She stopped by multiple times with a packed lunch or dinner, something Anya could take with her if she had to race out the door for another emergency call. She didn’t know what she would do without Elena. They had become best friends while at Texas A&M and been inseparable since.
One of the benefits of living at the clinic was that she was always ready for what might come at her and the bed was only a room away when she needed her sleep. The downside was…she lived at her clinic.
She unlocked the back door and went into her room, ready to rinse off and get into fresh clothes and, if she was lucky, maybe get a half hour or so of sleep. She pressed her head to the cold tile in the shower when her phone began to buzz on the sink counter. No rest for the weary.
She hastily turned off the water and grabbed a towel and quickly dried her hands, snatching up the phone before it could go to voicemail. “Dr. Gutierrez,” she said out of habit.
There was a pause on the other end of the line, then: “Anya?”
Stryker. She would recognize the husky baritone of his voice even in a loud room. Just the sound caused her heart to jump. It had been nearly a week since she’d seen him. She’d been too busy to check on his cattle as she’d planned. But part of her was also embarrassed to see him again after her panic attack. No one had ever witnessed one, and she felt betrayed by her own mind for giving up her secrets.
“Yes?” she replied, suddenly anxious. Most calf births happened overnight. It was nearly six in the morning. Something must’ve gone wrong.
“Anya, one of the heifers, one that you were concerned about because her hips are narrow… She’s been in hard labor for close to four hours.”
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes or less.”
True to her word, less than twenty–five minutes later, Anya punched the code into the gate and watched the gates open with agonizing slowness. She drove up to the house at a breakneck speed and pulled a medical bag from the passenger seat. She was heading for the barn when a sharp whistle drew her attention. She turned to see Stryker riding up to her on one of their workhorses.
“She’s out in the field,” he said and extended an arm down to her.
Anya hesitated only a split second before reaching up and grabbing his forearm. The direct skin–to–skin contact was jarring.
She looked up into his dark eyes and saw something flash. Was it possible he was feeling the same thing? But whatever had been in his eyes disappeared almost instantly as he lifted her quickly, setting her in front of him in the saddle. He spun the horse around and spurred it into a gallop. Anya reached for the horn of the saddle, but suddenly Stryker’s thick arms were around her, holding the reins while securing her in a tight embrace.
Anya drew in a deep breath and was struck by the smell of horse, leather, and man. She felt a little light-headed as she clutched tightly to her medical bag. They had gone about a quarter of a mile when Stryker finally pulled the horse to a stop. Anya could hear the weak cries of the heifer, but couldn’t move until Stryker did. Fortunately, he was in as much of a rush as she was, and he dismounted quickly, then pulled her from the horse and set her firmly on the ground.
She shook off the goosebumps that had pimpled along her skin and hurried in the direction she’d heard the cow. Stryker stayed close to her, and she began to fire off questions. “As of now, how many hours has she been in labor?”
“Hard to say when her first labor pains began. But it’s been close to four and a half hours since she really began bearing down as if she was ready to give birth.”
She cast him a sideways glance. “And you’re just now calling me?”
He frowned. “She seemed to be progressing just fine, same as the others. And we know that it usually takes longer for a first–time mama. But then she started thrashing around and seemed to be in a lot of discomfort. More so than would be considered normal. She took to ground right about the time I called you.”
Anya was already yanking on her long, latex gloves as they rounded a large mesquite shrub and the heifer came into view. It was obvious she was in the middle of labor as her body strained against another contraction and she let out her distressed cry.
“Try to keep her calm while I check her,” Anya said softly, trying not to frighten the animal.
Stryker went to do as she asked, placing a knee on the heifer’s neck, preventing her from lunging to her feet. Anya did a quick examination, and it was as she feared. The amniotic sac had already burst. The cow’s hips were very narrow, almost too narrow for the calf’s head and feet to fit through. Almost.
“I need to twist the calf.” She looked up at Stryker, and he was watching her intently.
“Okay. So what do you need from me?”
Anya focused on the task at hand. “Hold her like you are, but brace yourself. She’s going to try to move.”
Stryker frowned at her a little deeper, then braced himself. Anya reached into the heifer’s birth canal and felt the head of the calf. There was a very high percentage it was going to be stillborn, depending on how long the calf had been without the amniotic sac to protect it. Carefully, she turned the calf’s head, then reached for the legs that were already pointed in the right direction of the birth canal.
She waited until she felt the start of a contraction by the tightening of the heifer’s muscles, then pulled hard on the calf’s legs. The next contraction almost immediately followed, and the heifer tried desperately to push. Suddenly there was a give in the calf, and the heifer pushed again—-hard.
The calf came out so quickly, Anya was propelled backwards into the mesquite bush. She felt thorns dig into her flesh and winced at the burning, stabbing pain, knowing they were going to hurt like hell when she pulled them out. It hurt like hell already. She drew in a deep breath to keep from crying out at the fiery ache.
“Let her up,” she said to Stryker, and he lifted his knee from the heifer’s neck. Instantly she propped herself up on the ground, staring at the unmoving object she’d given birth to. With a few grunts, she went to a standing position on trembling legs and began to lick the slickened calf.
A minute passed by, and Anya grew anxious that the calf wasn’t moving. She couldn’t lose two in one night… But as faint streamers of light appeared in the sky, she realized it was no longer night. A new day had dawned.
“I should’ve called you sooner. Thanks for trying…”
“Shh!” Anya exclaimed, wincing as she extracted herself from the mesquite bush. The calf was moving.
“Have you had a lot of calls this week?”
“Ouch! Yes. It has been busy.”
“Have all the calls been as bad as mine?”
“No, and yours wasn’t so bad. If you had waited much longer, it would have. I lost a heifer last night because the rancher waited far too long. It breaks my heart every time I lose one of my animals.” She drew in an audible sharp breath.
“Sorry. I can’t believe how many of these you have in you! You do realize that you’ll probably have a rather painful reaction to this?”
“Trust me, I’m already painfully aware of everything involving these damned thorns right now.” Anya stood leaning against the horse they had ridden out to the pasture, her eyes squeezed closed against the pain as Stryker removed each agonizing thorn one by one. He wished he could take the pain away from her and take it upon himself. Fortunately, her jeans had protected her from some of the smaller, more difficult thorns, but several of the long thorns had penetrated the thick denim and would certainly leave sores.
“This is my fault,” he said with sincerity.
A smile touched Anya’s face. “If you knew all the stuff I’ve fallen into over the years, you would realize this is nothing. I once fell into a cactus. So this is definitely not the worst.” She hissed out her breath through her teeth when he pulled out a thorn that was deeply embedded in her upper thigh. Because of the way the thorns had gone in, it was far easier to pull them out with her jeans still on, much to his disappointment. The thorns had literally pinned her jeans to her body.
His hands roamed over her back, feeling for any additional thorns he might have missed. Then his hands moved lower, and he could feel the tension in her body. He wanted her to trust him completely. It was a thought that suddenly disturbed him. Why did he want her to trust him? What was it about her that had him dreaming about her, thinking about her as he went about his work, even looking forward to the next time she would come to the ranch? It’s because she challenges you in a way no one else ever has. She makes you want to be a better man.
“You have some more…” His hands continued to trail over the backs of her thighs.
“Believe me, I know. I can feel every single one of them.”
He frowned, and she turned her head to look at him. He was pulled into her light hazel eyes. It seemed as if there were a thousand colors in those eyes. She gave him one of her smiles that he’d wondered if he would ever see again. The soft, carefree smile that had intrigued him from the moment he met her.
“You’ve got this, tough guy. Don’t go fainting on me now.”
He could feel the corner of his mouth pulling into a smile. “I was feeling a bit woozy there for a second. Would you revive me if I passed out?”
“Not a chance. I’d finish pulling out the thorns myself and ride your horse back to the ranch. You could walk back once you came to.”
Stryker was dumbfounded for a moment, unsure how to respond to her comment. Then she chuckled. He shook his head. “Woman, you have thorns sticking out of your ass, and you’re in the mood to joke?”
Still laughing softly, she replied, “Who says I’m joking?”
Stryker plucked out one of the thorns, and she drew in a sharp breath. “Because I know you, and you could never be so cruel.”
“You think you know me.”
His mind flashed back to that horrible night when she’d tried to get out of the truck. He could still feel the tug on his arm when he knew she’d fallen. She had risked serious harm just to get away from his truck, from her nightmares, from him.
He kneeled and his eyes were level with her ass. If it wasn’t for the thorns sticking out, he would be mesmerized by its perfect heart shape. She was a small woman, and many would probably say she was too thin. But he recognized her strength and her muscle and knew she wasn’t thin. She was lean, like a well–trained athlete. He plucked the last thorn loose, and he lightly ran his hands over her ass, checking to make sure there weren’t any that he missed.
Damn, he was getting hard just touching her! But he had another motive as he was kneeling there. Quickly, he leaned down and lifted up the leg of her jeans, and there was the evidence of road rash he had suspected.
He stood and turned her to face him. “You did get hurt that night. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Seriously? You really want to rehash that night again?” Her eyes held shock and…pain.
He should have realized the subject would be a delicate one for her. He wanted to rewind and take back his words. “I don’t mean to bring up old feelings. What you went through was terrible. I just can’t believe you tried to jump from a moving truck.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“At first I thought it was something I’d said, or done. But then… Wait, what?”
“I said, I know. I know what you were trying to do. But that doesn’t make it any easier to relive my embarrassment. I don’t want anyone to know I had a panic attack. Can we just forget it ever happened?”
Why can’t I let this go? I’ve just got to make it right. She’s still hurting.“No.” His answer made her gaze fly up to his in confusion.
“I thought you would want to move forward as if it never happened, so to speak.” Anya watched him, her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“Having a panic attack is hardly anything to be ashamed of. In fact, it makes you a little more—-well, real. You were coming across a little too perfect to be human.” He smiled when her lips twitched. “I want you to trust me. I want you to feel like you can be yourself around me.” I want you to like me again. I want to be blessed with those smiles again. I want to feel your sweet body pressed against mine again. I want you to touch me again. I want you.
The realization was jarring. He wanted her. He wanted her to be his and only his. The idea of another man receiving the same attention brought up an unexpected jealousy. He didn’t want to be feeling these things for a woman. And yet, this woman…
“I would like that too,” Anya said softly.
Had she been reading his mind? Was she saying… No, wait, she was replying to his earlier comment. “So you
think we can go back to the way things were?” He wanted to put his hands on her waist. He wanted to kiss her.
“Yes. I just… I don’t know how to explain it. You’re the first person ever to see me have a panic attack. You won’t tell anyone about it, will you?”
He smiled down at her. “Not a soul. Well, you’re finally thorn–free. We can head back now.”
She smiled up at him, and he quickly mounted the horse, then offered his hand down to her. She grabbed ahold of his forearm, and he lifted her up and in front of him again. She leaned back against him and settled in comfortably. Which meant her ass was nestled directly against his crotch. He was in trouble.