An uplifting small town holiday romance
When billionaire Jake Simons rescues a kitten the week before Christmas, the orange tabby leads Jake to the greatest gift of the season – Veterinarian college student Marley West.
The last thing Marley needs is a client meddling in her personal business, but Old Man Winter, Mother Nature, and Jake’s pregnant mares have other plans for her holiday. When she gets snowed in with Jake during the worst blizzard in racehorse country, sparks fly.
But will Jake be strong enough to let go of ghosts from his past? And, in this friends-to-lovers story, will Marley learn to trust that Jake just might be her very own Christmas miracle?
Marmalade’s First Christmas
(c) Paula Millhouse, all rights reserved
JAKE SIMONS EASED HIS pickup truck into a parking space in front of Marley West’s Vets4Pets on Main Street and glanced down at the scruffy kitten on his lap. He smiled. “You ready for this, little one?”
The orange marmalade tabby peered up into his face with almond-shaped blue eyes, and answered with a curious mew. He had a stumpy, crooked tail, and Jake worried he’d been injured. He stroked the kitten’s chin, and grimaced a little when the tiny cat purred and buried his head in his hand. Sweet little cuss. “I’ll bet Marley can help find you a forever home? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He gathered the marmalade up and secured him inside his quilted denim jacket to protect him from the cold. With Christmas just around the corner, the weather in Lexington had turned icy with the threat of a blizzard blowing in. The kitten hadn’t stopped shivering since they’d found each other.
Jake made his way into the pet shop and stopped for a moment. “See, there. That’s Marley, little one. She’s the lady for this job.” The kitten poked his head out and searched around, hanging on to him with pinpoints of tiny claws. Jake winced, but held the kitten gently.
Dressed in green denim jeans and a soft red sweater, Marley was busy helping a customer decide on a Christmas present – a dog bed for a growing Labrador Retriever puppy who wiggled and yipped its owner’s feet – so Jake waited and wandered around the aisles of the old store.
Jake smiled when he looked around at the Christmas decorations and let the nostalgia of twinkling lights, presents with bows, and candy canes touch his heart for a moment.
His mother would have loved all the shiny holiday decorations.
He swallowed hard when Bing Crosby started crooning the lines of “White Christmas” in the background music, one of her favorites. Posters hung on the walls, announcing the annual holiday animal adoption, a town tradition the week of Christmas. Marley’s father had started the pet drive back in the sixties when he’d first opened the town’s historic store. Marley continued the tradition, even though her father had died six months before.
“Marley and I share a lot in common, little man,” Jake explained. The little orange kitten mewed and touched Jake’s chest with his paw.
A blonde cashier, Marley’s best friend, Bonnie, rang up another customer’s purchases at the old timey, hand-cranked register, while a mother and son picked out dog bones and filled a holiday stocking full of gifts for their pets.
The Lab caught sight of the tabby poking his head out of Jake’s jacket, and tugged on his leash. The kitten hissed, exploding into a puffball with a bottlebrush tail. The puppy reacted and bounded toward them, dragging his owner along behind him.
“Uh, oh…” Jake said, and turned around just in the nick of time.
“Bailey! Sit! Heel! Stop!” his owner commanded.
Bailey, or his owner, rather, had obviously not been to obedience school yet. Jake made himself scarce and headed back toward the front door to move the tiny kitten with the steel shredding claws out of harm’s way. He was about to escape the vigorous black Lab, when another customer opened the door with the tinkling Christmas bells and walked in. Jake looked up into her face.
Jessica Snow, daughter of Harrison Snow, the town banker, and Jake’s former girlfriend. Great.
They’d broken things off just before Thanksgiving, but living in a small town offered plenty of opportunities to run into each other.
“Oh, hi, Jake, I didn’t expect to run into you today. Merry Christmas,” Jessica said, her eyes lighting up with a hungry stare. She was dressed for the city in business attire, a suit with a skirt and high heels.
The marmalade growled, low and deep, a sound that surprised Jake. He’d never counted on the little guy sounding so fierce.
“Oh? When did you adopt a… a kitten?” Jessica edged back, a fake smile on her face. She put her finger to her nose, and sneezed.
The kitten hissed at her, then spat. Jessica’s expression fell, then she sort of sneered at them. As Jake recalled, she never liked cats, or any animal whatsoever. For that matter, what was she doing in the pet store?
He made his living as a horse rancher, so a woman who didn’t take to critters wasn’t exactly his idea of a good match. Besides, Jessica wanted his money, not the real him.
He looked down at the kitten, who’d set up a proper growl. What was that old saying about trusting your animal’s instincts about people?
Jake backed away from Jessica. Something plowed into the back of his legs from behind. His knees buckled with the impact, and gave out. He tried to catch his balance, grasping for something to hang onto, but before he knew it, he was sprawled out on the floor, furious at being knocked down.
Jake managed to twist at the last minute to protect the kitten from being squished. Seventy-five pounds of vigorous black Lab, sporting a dangling leash rushed them, trying to get at the kitten.
The kitten leapt out from his jacket, every hair on its hide standing up on end. He reared up on his hind legs, and swiped the Lab’s nose with an open pawful of claws. It happened so fast, all Jake could manage to do was laugh.
The little rascal was a force to be reckoned with.
The Lab squealed, tucked his tail between his legs, and hightailed it, howling toward the far ends of the pet store. His owner raced after him, yelling, “Bailey stop! Bailey, come here this instant! Bailey!”
Jake propped himself up on his elbows marveling at the kitten’s stance.
Jessica reached to help him up, but was rewarded with a clawed kitten swipe as well. She recoiled. “What a hideous creature! You need to put a muzzle on that wild cat before he hurts someone, Jake.”
“Jake? Jake, are you all right?” Marley rounded the corner and inspected the situation. She eyed Jessica. In a cool tone she said, “Hello Jessica. I’ll be right with you.”
Jessica huffed off to another aisle.
Pride wounded, Jake hated for Marley to see him like this. Marley knelt beside him with compassion in her eyes, and caressed his face. Well, he wasn’t expecting that. The warmth of her touch startled him, and he laughed despite his injured ego. “Anything broken?” Marley asked, rubbing her hands down his arms.
“Just my pride. And I’m afraid that pup’s got a slice across his nose, courtesy of this little lion here.”
“He’s beautiful.” Marley regarded the kitten with blue eyes the color of a cloudless sky on a warm summer’s day. She tucked a wave of long, strawberry blonde hair behind her ear. “Were you protecting your human, little one?”
Still twice his normal size with that spiked bristly tail, the little orange tabby cat reminded him of a fierce lion standing on Pride Rock, surveying Marley’s pet store kingdom. Marley lifted her lips at him with a curious stare. “Where’d you find this cutie pie?”
He sat there watching the two of them interact, his eyes lingering on Marley’s moist, pink lips.
She eased her hand closer to the kitten, and the mini-hellion settled down for her.
It didn’t take her ten seconds before the little puffball was nuzzling up to her long fingers, wrapping his tiny body around her hand. He started his motor up and purred for her.
Jake raised his brows, the memory of Marley’s touch on his arms, both soothing, and caring. She was so damn comfortable to be around.
“Did that big ole’ puppy scare you, little guy?” she asked, petting the purring kitten with adoration. “What’s his name, Jake?”
He shrugged. “I was hoping you might help me adopt him out. I found the poor little guy nearly frozen to death on the sidewalk outside the café this morning. He was digging in the trash, looking for food. I think someone abandoned him.”
“Abandoned at Christmas? Oh, the poor little thing. He couldn’t possibly be six weeks old, right?” Marley scooped up the orange striped kitten and cuddled him under her chin.
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“Hmm, well, he doesn’t appear to be feral, or you’d never have gotten your hands on him. I know there’s a feral colony nearby that they feed behind the diner, but those cats shy away from people.”
“Not this one. He came running right over to me, meowing, and scaled my Levi’s trying to catch my attention. I’ve never seen anything like him.” He rubbed the kitten’s back, and when his fingers touched Marley’s, a zap of static electricity that had built up in the kitten’s fur snapped between them.
They locked eyes, hers a beautiful blue a man could get lost in.
The kitten meowed between purrs, and wound himself around their hands, practically prancing between the connection the three of them had made.
Her eyes widened, and she laughed, a deep, sexy sound. “Let’s take him in the back and feed him a decent meal, and examine him, shall we?” She gathered the kitten up in her hands. He filled her hands perfectly, a ball of mewing fur. “Bonnie – would you manage things out here while I see to this little patient and his owner? I think Bailey’s mom might need some help rounding him up.”
“Sure!” Bonnie called from the register.
Jake collected himself off the floor and followed Marley to the back of the store where she kept her office.
MARLEY WEST TOOK JAKE’S kitten back to her father’s exam room in the back of Vets4Pets, and placed him on the table. She put her stethoscope to her ears, slid the bell onto the kitten’s chest, and listened intently. Though his little heart was racing from all the excitement, she didn’t hear anything that concerned her except for his stomach growling, and a louder-than-a-bulldozer purr. “No worries, little one. We’ll get a meal in that empty belly in a jiffy.”
He nuzzled her hands and mewed in agreement, watching her with bright blue eyes and a perfect pink nose. Large, white whiskers fanned out from his face, and his fur was thick. “Your coat is going to grow long and fluffy, Mister.”
Jake joined them, and when he smiled at her, two dimples peeked out from his clean-shaven face. She was more than impressed that he’d risked wounding his pride to protect the kitten. A girl could do worse than find a man who cared for animals. He stood tall, broad-chested, and so handsome that she had a hard time focusing while he was in the small office with her.
Jake looked around the exam room with his hands tucked into his front pockets while she finished up the kitten’s exam. When she removed the stethoscope, he asked, “How much longer before you officially take over as town veterinarian?”
She pointed toward her grand, framed university degree which she’d proudly hung on the wall right next to her father’s.
“I’m taking the credentialing exam today. I can hardly believe it.” She beamed. Getting her veterinarian degree and license to practice had meant the world to her. Finances had been tough, though, considering she’d had to use most of the money from her parent’s estate to pay off their medical bills. “I just wish my dad could have been here to see me graduate.”
She and Jake had both lost their fathers this past year. Both mothers were gone as well. She didn’t like sharing that hallmark of life with anyone, but at least she and Jake were sort-of friends who could commiserate.
Together they focused in on the kitten. “Is he healthy? He sure looks fine, except for that tail.”
“I think he is healthy. His short tail is a genetic thing – a quirk. He’s not a Manx, there’s too much tail for that, but it won’t hurt him.” She pulled a dish out and scooped out some kitten food. The little marmalade chowed down with appreciative squeaks and growly purrs like he’d never eaten before. “Nothing a few extra calories won’t fix, especially in this freezing cold weather. What are you going to name him?”
“Uh, hmm. I hadn’t actually gotten that far. I brought him here, hoping you might help me find him a home.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice falling. She stared up into Jake’s green eyes, wondering why he’d ask such a thing. It was hard for kittens to be adopted, and she didn’t think this one should be stuck in a store over Christmas. He deserved better. He deserved a home.
Jake pulled his hands from his pockets, and said, “With my mares about to foal any day now, I won’t have the time to devote to someone this, well, this small.”
“He’d be the perfect barn cat, Jake. You could hire him on as a mouser. Did you think of that?”
Jake slowly shook his head, and she saw he was considering her words.
“It’s just that, especially this time of year, we have more animals in need of a home than we can place,” Marley said, and stroked the kitten’s fur. “The Annual Adoption Drive is coming up, and I need all the qualified owners I can find. I thought about calling you to see if you might foster some of the puppies I have that need homes.”
“I guess I can take him for Christmas. Your dad started that organization before he died, right?”
Marley lifted her brows and smiled. “He did. His point was a community is only as healthy as the way they treat their animals. Matching pets with their perfect owners is a wellness practice.”
A loud, insistent knock sounded on her father’s office door. “Marley! It’s Jessica. We need to talk. I hope you’re not avoiding me?”
Marley heaved in a heavy sigh. “Time to deal with the sharks,” she said.
“What’s she doing here anyway?” Jake asked, tossing his thumb over his shoulder at the door.
“It’s nothing, really…” Marley lied. The last thing she wanted to do was let Jake in on her personal financial crisis. While it was true that the man had more money than God, she didn’t want him to know she was in danger of losing the shop. Especially not now that she was so close to making all her ends meet in the middle like she planned. “Bank business.”
Jake raised his brows, and peered at her with his intense questioning green eyes.
Another bout of insistent knocking on the door drew both their glances.
Jessica barged in and interrupted them. She tucked a long strand of platinum blonde hair behind one ear, spied the kitten emptying his food bowl, and sneered.
She pointed to Marley’s stethoscope. “You’re not even licensed yet, and you’re doing exams on animals?”
Her face stung like Jessica had slapped her. Thoroughly insulted, Marley replied with a touch of ice in her voice, “I’ve been doing exams on animals with my father since I learned to walk, Jessica.” She eyed her degree hanging on the wall. How dare Jessica implicate she was doing something wrong?
Marley’s fingers trembled, and she clutched the edge of the exam table to stop them from shaking. Jessica Snow had a way of pushing her buttons, always had, but she didn’t have to participate in her head games.
Maybe Jessica was jealous because she was helping Jake? For the life of her, Marley couldn’t figure out why Jake had dated Jessica. Maybe it had something to do with all their money.
“We had an appointment at ten am sharp to discuss the building lease, and I don’t have all day. This is a business, not a charity,” Jessica said.
Jake turned to address Jessica. “Marley was just giving me an opinion on my new kitten.”
Jessica sneezed and pulled a tissue out of her designer crocodile bag. “Oh, well, if it’s for you, then, of course I don’t mind waiting.” She checked her watch again in an impertinent way.
Marley felt bad for the crocodile. Watching Jessica soften because of Jake infuriated her.
Jessica moved close to Jake and put her hand on his arm. “My parents wanted me to make sure you’d gotten your invitation to the town Christmas Party, You will be coming, won’t you?”
“Honestly, I haven’t decided yet,” he said, sliding his hands into his pockets, pulling away from her.
Marley looked down to hide a grin, cheering inside that Jake saw through Jessica’s rather poor acting skills.
“It’s the biggest celebration of the season. I want you there, beside me.” Jessica’s voice was possessive, longing, and she pursued him.
Jake held out his palms to stop her, then stepped back, shaking his head. “It’s really not my sort of thing… besides, I’ve got mares about to foal and I can’t be away from the ranch so late at night for a social function.”
Jake looked miserably uncomfortable to be put on the spot like that, something Jessica was famous for. Marley felt bad for him, but maybe the two of them were trying to work things out. It wasn’t her place to interfere, after all. They’d been an item for some time now.
“It’s just a couple of hours, Jake. I’ll be expecting you to pick me up at seven sharp on Thursday night, and Daddy promised we could talk about that business venture I proposed last week for your horses.” Jessica tapped her spiked heeled foot on the floor.
Marley watched Jessica morph from the shark she was into a doting girlfriend, and she did her best to keep a sneer from her own face. She wasn’t about to let Jessica Snow get the best of her. Marley had mortgaged her father’s building to the bank. She’d had to find an investor to keep the shop open while she’d finished her studies, so Harrison Snow had been her last resort.
That point of contention tied her hands, though, and all she could do was try to make things civil between them. The fact that Jake and Jessica were an item was something to be considered as well.
“I can see you two are busy here with your… kitten. Still, Marley, we have business to discuss. If you’re too busy helping Jake we can reschedule for…” Jessica took her smartphone from her Christmas red designer bag and tapped the screen, then zeroed in on her calendar. “I can meet you at my office at 2:30 this afternoon.”
“I’m not available then. I’m scheduled to take my credentialing exam this afternoon.”
Jessica stamped her foot. “You’re avoiding the inevitable. If you can’t meet the payment schedule we set up for you, you’ll have to move everything out of this building.”
“Our business is confidential, if you don’t mind. I’m not interested in discussing this with you in front of Jake.” Marley’s face heated. She couldn’t believe Jessica would be so bold, but what should she expect? That somehow the week before Christmas Jessica might cut her a break? Right. So much for believing in the spirit of Christmas.
Jessica’s eyes brightened. “Everyone’s going to find out eventually, Marley.” She wheeled around the room like a kid who’d spotted presents under the Christmas tree. “I have plans for this building. It’s going to be the best designer clothing boutique in town. Won’t that be grand?”
She sort of squealed when she said it, and spun around like a little girl, touching the place that Marley had known as her home for most of her life. “I see it as a site where everyone can come from far and wide to buy high-end fashion in our little corner of the world.”
“You’re going to replace the town’s Feed & Seed with a dress store?” Jake asked, his mouth falling open. “That’s a terrible idea.”
Marley stiffened. So that’s what all the rush was about. Jessica wanted her property for herself. “I think the people in this town need a veterinarian front and center, not a designer dress shop. What about all the animals? The farmers? Besides, this place has been a part of this town for years. My grandfather started the store in the forties. It’s part of our cultural heritage.”
Jessica huffed, and turned toward the door. “Times are changing, or haven’t you heard?” She opened the door, then turned back and glared at her. “Unless you can come up with the money for the first payment on the mortgage before Christmas, Snow Enterprises will be foreclosing.”
With that, she was gone.
JAKE TURNED AND GLARED at Marley. “Is it true?”
Marley stiffened. “I don’t want to talk about it, Jake.”
“Why not? Maybe I can help stop her.”
She shook her head. “It’s important to me to handle this myself.”
He frowned. Maybe she didn’t want his help. Maybe she had a plan, and he didn’t have any business poking his nose in where it wasn’t needed. Still, he hated the thought of losing the pet store. Marley’s father had always been here, steady and true, the best small town veterinarian in three counties.
“I’m going to pass this test this afternoon, and then I’ll deal with Mr. Snow.” She took down a bag of kitten food , a cat crate, and a package of vitamins. She put the kitten in the crate and handed Jake the food and supplies.
“This should be enough to start you off. You’ll need to set him up a litter box. Take the kitten home with you. If you can’t make things work out, we can add him to the list of animals to be adopted, but at least give him a chance, will you? He’d be a fine asset to your stables, Jake.”
He nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You can at least foster him until then, right? Besides, every cowboy needs a cat.”
Still, he wasn’t willing to let the issue with Jessica go. “Why don’t you at least let me talk to Mr. Snow? We’ve done some business together. I can convince him to extend your lease until the spring.”
Marley held up her hand to dismiss him. “I’m fine. Right now, I have to go. I’m due on campus in an hour to take my certification test. If I don’t get my credentials, this conversation is pointless anyway.” She frowned, and the corner of her mouth tilted down on the right. He focused in on the gesture, and all he wanted to do was make her frown turn back into a smile.
He followed her out of her office and into the store. He went to his truck, put the kitten in, got in, and sat there for a few minutes looking at the historic building.
Vets4Pets had stood there on Main Street ever since he could remember. It was as much a part of the town as anything else, the church, the post office, the bank… When he was a child his dad brought him here, and they’d gotten all the supplies for his dad’s ranch from Marley’s dad. Everyone had.
Jake sighed. Jessica was threatening more than Marley with her ridiculous business plan.
He’d never considered the place would ever go out of business. What would the town be like without it? Moreover, who would take care of all the town’s animals? His racehorses?
It was already snowing big, fluffy snowflakes, and the weather report reflected the gray sky. Some of the old timers in the café this morning spouted warnings of an impending blizzard, and while Kentucky never really got that much snow, Jake had to return to his ranch to check on the two mares. He fired up his truck’s ignition.
Marley walked out of the store and got into her old truck a few spaces away. The constant sound of an engine refusing to turn over caught his ear, followed by a slamming door, then a string of most unladylike curse words. He grinned. Then the engine sound ground against his nerves again.
He hopped out of his Silverado, and rounded the front of the truck to check on her. Marley leapt out of her vehicle, and shook her fist toward the sky. She kicked the tire of her ancient, rusted pickup.
He strode up to her. “Your day keeps getting better and better, right?”
She turned on him, and took a quick glance at her watch. “I can’t miss this exam. Everyone’s depending on me.”
This was something he could actually fix for her. “Let me drive you to campus.”
She shook her independent head, and said, “I couldn’t put you out like that.”
“The University’s only a few miles on the other side of my place. It’s the least I can do for you helping me with the kitten.” He pointed at the snowing sky. “If you wait here for someone to fix your truck, you’ll miss your exam. Come on. Your chariot awaits.” He gestured over his shoulder toward his red Chevrolet 3500 Dually.
Marley’s face brightened. “You really wouldn’t mind? If I miss the testing time, the fee to schedule another one is enormous.”
He shrugged. “I’d love to. Consider it an early Christmas gift.”
She rushed over to him, and kissed him on the cheek. Her breath brushed across his face, and her lips were as soft as orchid petals. The kiss was innocent, and friendly. She turned away and climbed into the warmth of his big red truck. “Let’s go!”
Jake paused, touched his cheek, struck with the way her sweet kiss startled him. The simple act left a burning question in its wake. Could something be brewing between the two of them? He’d known her his entire life, but she’d always been younger than him. When they’d both come of age, they’d always been attached to someone else when the other one was free.
That wasn’t true anymore.
Was it a mistake to feel this way? He didn’t know how he felt about that, but he’d liked the kiss. Something urged him to want another, this time with his lips initiating the kissing. He liked the way she’d agreed to let him help her in her time of need.
This slow, burning attraction for Marley tempted him. As he climbed into the truck, her delightful smell, like vanilla and cinnamon, hit his senses. He smiled over at her, wondering what might happen if he decided to go with his instincts.
Who was he kidding, though? Women only wanted him because of his father’s money. If he acted on the impulse to kiss her, and she turned out the same, he couldn’t take it.
He’d promised himself Jessica would be the last woman to break his heart, and it was better for him if he never gave Marley the chance to disappoint him.
No, it was better to stay friends, enjoy the mystery, and just not push the issue.
MARLEY HOVERED HER FINGER over the last computer question on the Veterinarian Certification Exam, and firmly tapped submit. “This one’s for you, Dad, for everything you’ve taught me along the way on this incredible journey.”
She lifted up a silent prayer to God that he’d take all she’d worked so hard for and use it together for good. She wouldn’t know the results until a week from today – the waiting would be sheer torture – but this could be the best Christmas gift ever.
She stretched her weary body, her muscles tense from focusing hard on the test questions, and looked outside the campus window. The snow blew sideways, piling two foot drifts against the building. The gray sky showed no signs of letting up. Great. How the heck was she going to get home without her truck?
She couldn’t call Bonnie out in this storm. Getting stranded at the University during a blizzard wasn’t exactly her idea of a fun day. Did they even have provisions here for overnight guests?
She collected her things, pulled on her coat and walked out to check on the weather. Maybe cabs were still running and she could book a ride back home?
Jake Simons was waiting in the foyer, a hot cup of coffee in his hands. He thrust it out for her. “Thought you might be ready for something warm in your belly. How’d you do in there?” His expression was hopeful, his smile brilliant. She hesitated. Seeing him was sure a surprise.
She took the coffee. “What… what are you doing here?” Surely he didn’t wait this whole time on her.
“I couldn’t leave you stranded here without a way home.”
She took a deep, long sip, and eyed him over the cup. It tasted like heaven, just the way she liked it, warm and sweet, and he looked like an angel, her Knight in Shining Cowboy boots.
Tall and handsome, Jake’s body was big and hard from good, honest work, hauling hay and building fences out on his horse ranch. He was dressed in jeans and boots with a denim shirt and black vest. His dark hair curled under his Stetson hat, which had caught heavy snowflakes on its brim. Her heart fluttered at the sight of him while she sipped the coffee.
“Cream and sugar,” he said and pointed toward the cup. “Did I get it right?”
She nodded and took another big sip. He’d remembered. “Yes, you did.”
It seemed like such a small thing, but she couldn’t help her smile. She and her father had helped Jake and his dad when one of their mares foaled several years back. The mare had to be sedated. They saved the colt, but things were touch-and-go for a while.
They’d all drank a lot of strong coffee that night while they worried over the horses. Even though she’d only been a teenager then, and he was four years older than her, nights like that stuck with a person.
It was as if his family’s horses had tied them together that fateful night with a woven rope she’d never untied from her heart. He was as handsome and as kind today as he’d been way back then. And so sweet to come and rescue her from the storm. The Simons were just good people.
He reached for her hand, and when they touched, her heart beat galloped fast, like a racehorse going for the win. “We’d better get going because this storm is taking a turn for the worst. Fast.”
She nodded, and looked around at the blizzard falling from the sky, covering everything in white. “I’ve never seen this much snow.”
Jake pointed toward his snow-covered candy apple red pick-up truck. Even in the near white-out conditions, it reminded her of Santa’s sleigh, and she grinned. “The roads are icing up, and the plows are already having a hard time keeping the highway clear,” he said. “I saw a few cars slide into the ditch.”
Marley zipped up her down parka. “What about your mares?”
“I went back to the ranch and checked on them while you were in there. Florida Girl’s close, but Honey’s Mead isn’t showing any signs of labor yet.” They walked down the icy steps of the University. He held her arm so she didn’t slip on the ice, and the warmth of his touch, even through her coat, made tiny butterflies dance in her belly.
Such a gentleman.
Once they were in the warm cab of the Silverado, Jake eased the truck into four-wheel-drive, and drove out onto the freezing highway. She latched her seatbelt, and he navigated back toward town.
The truck plugged on through the whitened road. Snow and wind rocked the cab, and every once in a while, she felt a tire slip, losing its grip. Jake drove at a careful pace. The heater intensified his clean, woodsy smell, and she snuck a glance at his handsome profile every now and then.
“Wow, it’s really getting bad out here. Holy cow!” Ice covered the wipers, and they smeared snow across the windshield, almost making it impossible to see ten feet in front of them.
The curvy roads into town were dangerous, even when it didn’t snow. She would never forgive herself if something happened to them. Snowstorms like this could get deadly.
“Yeah, looks like we’re in for quite a clean-up over the next few days. Couldn’t be worse timing for foaling, either.” He grimaced, obviously worried about the mares.
She wanted to reassure him. “Your barn is the perfect place for them, though, all warm and cozy. Sometimes I think your dad built the stables so big because he loved his horses. Most people who own racehorses don’t feel that way.”
Jake laughed. “Jonathan Simons did love his horses.”
“Maybe the snow will hang around for Christmas. It’ll be beautiful.” Her voice was hopeful.
Still, her concern for the mares grew. Since her father had died six months ago, the only veterinarian who saw to large animals in the area was three counties over, and the old fart hated to make house calls. “What was the latest report from Dr. Burt on their progress?”
“His ultrasound showed the colts were in position. Just a matter of time until the mares went into labor. I hope this storm doesn’t have them spooked.”
A car sped by them, going way too fast for conditions. Marley appreciated Jake’s careful driving. The snow plows had only left one lane open, and already there was at least four inches of powder piled up where the county workers had last gone through.
“Whoa, that was close.” The ice was getting bad, and the Silverado’s engine groaned when Jake pulled them out of a slide, and straightened the wheels.
She braced her hands on the dashboard, frowning. Road conditions were dismal. Even though it was early afternoon, the sky was dark gray, and visibility was limited. Jake crept the truck along like a freezing snail, steady, but slow.
Marley tapped on the radio, and tuned it to the AM station for a traffic report. “A massive snow front is hovering over the counties of Lexington and the surrounding areas. Avoid travel unless absolutely necessary. Police and firefighters are asking everyone to stay off the roads until further notice. The governor has issued a state of emergency.”
“This is really bad.” Jake’s voice sounded grim, reflecting her anxious mood. “I don’t think we’re gonna make it back to town, Marley.”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Let’s stop at your ranch. You can put me up until the weather passes, and I can look in on the horses. There’s no way Dr. Burt’s gonna get out here to check your mares, and who knows, I may be the newest certified veterinarian in Kentucky, right?”
Jake’s face brightened. “You mean it?”
“Heck, yes. Let’s get off this road.”
“Awesome idea. You’re the best bet around here for our animals anyway. Man, that time you and your dad came out and helped us foal Simon – I’ll never forget it.”
She’d never forget it either. It was one of the first times her dad had actually let her do most of the delivery, and maybe the one visit that had convinced her that she wanted to become a veterinarian. “Simon Says put your dad’s ranch on the thoroughbred map, right?”
“Yeah, he did. I’ve never seen a horse run like him.”
Triple Crowns were nothing to sneeze at. As the horse’s original owner, Jake’s dad made a smart move by breeding the stallion. “When my parents died, I put all the money back into the ranch, and back into our horses.”
Marley clasped his arm. “It would be an honor to look after your mares,” she said. Why not start her career out helping foal potential Kentucky Derby colts? Excitement flooded her chest. God, was she ready for this?
She looked out the icy windows. Looks like Old Man Winter and Mother Nature had made her decision for her.
Jake flipped on the turn signal, and eased off the highway down the long driveway toward the Triple S ranch. There was at least three feet of pure driven white snow on the ground already, and the wind whipped furiously as more fell. It was creeping up the pasture fences, covering everything like a stark white fleece blanket.
Her phone rang, and she answered it. “Hey, Bonnie.”
“Where are you? Your truck’s still here in town, and I’ve been worried sick. Oh, my God, the storm is crazy. Did you get to take the test?”
She smiled, and peeked at Jake. “I did. Jake Simons gave me a ride to the University, and I think I did okay. But, the blizzard is getting really bad out here. We’re gonna stop at his place to check on his mares.”
“Oh, that’s right. He’s got those horses about to foal. Well, good for him that you’re there. I can come pick you up when the weather clears. I’ll call Tate at the service station to come fix your truck, but it looks like that won’t happen until tomorrow.”
“Okay, sounds good. We’ll talk all about it later.”
“You guys be careful out there, okay? No frostbite allowed. Man, it’s really coming down in town.”
She worried about Bonnie getting home safe too. Good help, and good friends were hard to find. “Close up the shop and get yourself home.”
“I’m heading out now. Gonna curl up with a good romance novel in front of the fire.”
“Thanks for checking on me. Hugs.”
“Hugs right back at you,” Bonnie said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Marley pressed End, and Jake eased the Silverado to a slippery stop at the top of the hill leading down to the house. “We’ll have to walk from here. I don’t want to risk a slide.”
Marley nodded in agreement and looked at the Triple S Ranch. His father’s billion dollar ranch-style mansion was connected directly to their twenty-stall horse stables. The manor sat on four hundred acres of prime Kentucky racehorse real estate. She gazed out at the incredible property, and took in a deep breath of frosty air. It looked like a fairy tale castle, all covered in snow.
“Okay, just so we don’t turn into popsicles, let’s get inside, shall we?” he said. “Let’s hope the power holds out. Our generators won’t keep us warm if things get much worse.”
JAKE HELPED MARLEY TO the stable doors, holding on to her like their lives depended on it. The usual ten minute walk took half an hour, and conditions outside were threatening, to say the least.
He’d sent the staff home earlier, because his housekeeper and chef didn’t need to hang around while they had their own families to worry about. He was used to being alone anyway.
Well, maybe he wasn’t used to it, but he spent a lot of time alone. Having Marley here with him as a guest felt odd, but in a good sort of way. She’d tucked her black and silvery checked wool scarf around her neck, setting off her strawberry blonde hair, and snowflakes covered her head. He had to get her inside, out of the storm.
He heaved open the heavy stable door and they walked in. He shut and bolted the door behind him, then dragged off his coat.
The stables were remarkably warm and cozy against the bleak threat of the blizzard.
“Let’s go see about Florida’s Girl,” she said, hanging her coat on the rack. As Jake hung his coat up too, an orange streak raced across the stable toward them.
She giggled, her laughter a low, soothing sound, and she knelt down and scooped up the marmalade kitten. “Hey there, little one, I hear you have a new job as the Simons’ stable mouser. How’s it going?” The kitten’s body rattled with his larger than life purr. When she looked up at Jake with her clear, blue eyes, she asked, “What’d you name him?”
Surprised with her question, he stroked the kitten’s chin. He hadn’t taken the time to name him yet, but something had stuck in his mind, something that reminded him of her. “I think I’ll call him Marmalade.”
She smiled, and curled her fingertips through the kitten’s fur. “It suits him. Marmalade it is.” The kitten meowed as if in affirmation.
“I’ve got Florida Girl stationed down in stall fourteen. Let’s go have a look and see how she’s doing.”
“Good plan.” Marley set Marmalade down and followed Jake down the wide central stable aisle. They peeked in on her, and Marley gasped. “Oh, my, would you look at that.” Marmalade climbed up the paddock wall, and peered over the top, looking in with Jake and Marley.
The mare had foaled.
Beside her, already standing, was a perfect, chestnut colored colt with a stark white three-pointed star on his forehead. He whinnied, and went back to nursing.
“Wow! That happened fast.” He grinned, because things looked well between mother and son. He had a special place in his heart for the mare, and to see her with her baby, healthy and eager for life, eased the chest full of tension he’d clung to for the past week.
Florida Girl whinnied, and swung her head up to look at them as if to say, “Look what I did.”
“He’s incredible,” Marley said.
“Eleven months I’ve waited for this. I wish my dad were here to see him. That colt is everything the man dreamed of. The offspring of his favorite horse.”
“Nothing like baby horses to make the world seem right,” she said.
They stood there watching the couple, giving them time to get acquainted. “Let’s have a closer look, should we?”
“I’ll get the iodine so we can get them cleaned up.”
“Good plan,” she agreed.
Jake returned with a stable box of veterinarian supplies. Marley took the stethoscope, and they eased into the paddock to check the horses.
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