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A veteran Army Ranger and a clumsy veterinarian build a friendship on the ranch but it isn't long before unexpected feelings grow between them.
When bumbling veterinarian Jennifer Barsby’s friend Hazel falls ill, she doesn’t hesitate to take action. After quitting her job in Atlanta, she packs up her life and moves to the Cotton Tree ranch in South Georgia to take care of her sick former room-mate. But when circumstances change, she wonders what she should do with the rest of her life.
Handsome and brooding cowboy, Parker Williams, is just another pal — at least that’s how Jen sees him. A former Army Ranger, he’s found renewed purpose as part-owner of the ranch. But he’s given up on the idea of ever moving on or finding love. That is until Jen moves in.
She’s fun-loving, accident-prone, earnest and caring. But could she ever see him as anything more than a friend?
Release date: January 20, 2018
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 188
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Jennifer Barsby clenched the steering wheel with both hands, blinked, stifled a yawn, blinked again. Surely she was close to arriving at the ranch – she didn’t remember it being this far off the highway. She flipped on the radio, grimaced as static boomed through the speakers and spun the dial to the left.
She was on her way to the Cotton Tree Ranch to see Hazel. Her former roommate had been diagnosed with breast cancer only weeks earlier, on her honey‐ moon with the ranch’s co-owner Dalton Williams. Jen was determined to do everything she could to help her friend. She knew she had no control over how things would turn out, but at least she could be there for Hazel during the most difficult time of her life.
Her eyes smarted as the memory of their phone conversation replayed in her mind. She still couldn’t believe Hazel was sick. The last time she’d seen her, at the wedding, she’d glowed with health. She shook her
head and yawned again, one hand over her open mouth.
There it was – the sign for the Cotton Tree Ranch. Tapping on the brakes, she slowed and turned onto the long winding drive.
Once she was through the gate, she smiled at the sight of Harley, Dalton and Hazel’s black dog with the floppy ears, standing rigid beside the ranch house, barking furiously at her approach. The occasional tail wag betrayed his friendly nature. When she parked out front, he bounced beside the vehicle. She laughed, opened the door and before she could even set foot on the grass, he’d climbed into her lap and was licking her face, his ears back against his head.
“Harley, stop!” she giggled, shoving him away. His tail wagged hard against the car door, thudding in a steady rhythm, before he launched himself at her again, wetting her arm and cheek with his long tongue. He was still just a puppy, but he’d grown so much in the short time Dalton and Hazel had owned him. Now he was a lanky bundle of floppy ears, pink tongue and long legs.
She stroked his back and scratched his rump. “Oh, you’re such a sap, aren’t you, boy?” She scratched his head and tugged him back by his collar with another laugh, then stepped out of the car and stood as he pressed against her, peering up at her with wide brown eyes full of love.
The ranch house was a long single-story structure. A wide porch adorned the front of the house, and fresh paint gleamed in the afternoon light. She smiled at the hanging plants on the porch – no doubt Hazel’s touch. In the short amount of time her friend had lived there, it had definitely benefited from her good taste.
The last time she was there, the house had a bachelor pad feel to it. Dalton lived there with his two brothers Eamon and Parker, and though the men kept the place clean and tidy, its sparse furnishings and lack of decor made it clear there were no women living there. But things were different now – Hazel had moved in and made the place a home, and the ranch house looked cozy and inviting.
The front door flew open and Hazel stepped onto the porch with a grin. She waved and laughed at the sight of Harley bouncing in excitement beside Jen. “I think he’s as happy to see you as I am.”
Jen skipped up the stairs and threw her arms around Hazel. Her throat tightened and she held onto her friend, unwilling to let go. Hazel felt thin. Too thin.
Hazel chuckled. “You okay?”
“Uh-huh,” she mumbled against Hazel’s auburn curls. “It’s just good to see you. I’ve missed you. Are you feeling all right?” She pulled back and studied her friend with concern.
Hazel tipped her head to one side and smiled weakly. “Not too bad. And I’ve missed you too. But you know, you really didn’t have to come. I mean, you quit your job and moved to south Georgia just because I’m sick? You shouldn’t have done that.”
Jen swallowed around the lump in her throat and shook her head. “Yes I should’ve. You’re my best friend and you need me, so here I am.”
Hazel hugged her again. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”
“But what about your amazing veterinary job that you didn’t want to lose? What will you do?”
“Don’t concern yourself with that.” Jen linked her arm through Hazel’s as they walked into the house together. “I’ll figure it out. Besides, I’ve got some money saved, so it won’t hurt me to take a little time off. You just focus on getting better.”
“Oh dear, Harley’s followed us inside.” Hazel stopped and faced the dog, who looked at her with his head cocked to one side and one ear standing on end. “Back out you go, Harley. You know you’re not allowed in here.”
“I’ll take care of it – you sit down and rest.”
“I’m not an invalid, you know,” muttered Hazel. “Not yet, at least,” she said as she sat on the couch.
Jen turned, clucked her tongue and shooed Harley back toward the porch. He didn’t budge, so she grabbed him by the collar and ran with him through the door. He darted to one side and she tripped over the lip of the door and fell – directly into a thick, hard chest. She crumpled to the ground, landing in a heap on a set of mud-encrusted cowboy boots and whacking the back of her head on the hard porch.
“Jen?” the owner of the boots asked.
Jen squinted up at him, rubbing the back of her bruised head with one hand, and smiled. “Hi, Parker.”
* * *
Jen took the ice pack Parker offered her and put it to the back of her head with a sigh. Hazel hovered over her, a worried expression on her pretty face. “Really, I’m fine. It’s not that bad – it doesn’t even hurt,” she complained. “I should be taking care of you, not the other way around.”
Hazel handed her a tall glass of iced tea and sat beside her on the edge of the couch. “Never mind that. I’m happy to help.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked Parker, crossing his arms.
“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Well, I’ll just stash your things in the guest room for you, then head back out to work. Dalton will be wondering what happened to me.” He chuckled and headed for the front door.
“Thank you!” called Jen at his retreating back.
“I’m sure glad this house is so big,” said Hazel, tucking a cushion behind Jen’s head lovingly. “Dalton and I have the master suite, and Parker and Eamon each have their rooms. Even with you here, we have another empty guest room we’re using as a storage space and office. If someone else comes, we’ll be packed to the rafters.” She laughed and folded her hands in her lap.
Jen noticed the dark circles beneath Hazel’s green eyes. “I could always stay at a hotel or something in Tifton, if it gets too crowded …”
“No, please stay here. I’m going to love having you around. We were roommates for so long, I miss living with you.”
“Me too,” said Jen with a smile.
“I mean, here there’s no one to leave expired cartons of milk in the fridge, or blast their bizarre dance mixes on full volume through the house.” Hazel winked at her and chuckled.
Jen made a face. “Yeah, yeah. I kept things interest‐ ing, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. Especially when you called me from your hospital bed begging me to fill in for you and impersonate a vet at a ranch in south Georgia!”
Jen laughed. “That was beyond the pale, but I’d say it worked out pretty well for you.”
“Yes, it did.” Hazel patted her arm gently. “Thank you. And thank you for coming down here when you heard I was sick. I really appreciate it … you’re a good friend …” Her voice broke.
Jen leaned forward to embrace her. “We’ll get through this together,” she whispered.
“Yes, we will.”
Both women pulled back, wiped the tears from their eyes, laughed and sniffled. Hazel grabbed a box of Kleenex from the side table at the end of the couch and handed it to Jen. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Jen took a few and handed the box back. “So how are Eamon and Emily doing?” she asked.
Hazel grinned. “They’re sickeningly happy,” she said with a laugh. “Do you remember how any display of love used to make her grimace? Well, now she’s the one being all lovey-dovey, and it’s beautiful.”
“That’s good to hear.” Jen pulled the ice pack off her head and set it on the coffee table, then stood with a yawn.
“Tired?” asked Hazel.
“Yeah, for some reason driving makes me sleepy.” “It does that to me as well. Never mind – you can hit the hay early tonight if you like. We generally go to bed pretty early around here, since work on the ranch starts at dawn for Dalton and his brothers. And I’ve been sleeping a lot more lately. My doctor wants me to take care of myself and give my body the best chance it has of fighting off the cancer.”
Jen nodded. “That’s a good idea.”
Hazel stood as well and ran her fingers through her hair. “Come on, I’ll show you to your room and you can get settled before dinner.”
Jen followed her down a long hallway to a door on the right-hand side. The door opposite it was shut. “That’s Eamon’s room. I’m not sure when you’ll see him – he left on a business trip of some kind a few days ago.”
Jen raised an eyebrow. “A business trip? I thought he worked here on the ranch.”
Hazel nodded, her brow furrowed. “Yeah, he does. He was very cryptic about the whole thing – some‐ thing about investigating some blood lines. And Emily left for some kind of surgical conference a day after Eamon.”
Jen frowned. “I thought she was supposed to be performing your surgery.”
“Oh, she is. She’ll be back in plenty of time. I think she’s only gone for a few days.”
“Hmmm …” Jen wasn’t pleased to hear that Hazel’s surgeon and future sister-in-law was out of town. But she supposed she could overlook that, seeing as how Emily was planning on saving Hazel’s life when she got back.
Hazel pushed the guest room door open and waved inside. “Here we are – this is your room. If you need anything, just let me know.”
Jen’s brow furrowed. “I’m sure I can find my way around. Don’t you worry about me – I’m not here to cause you extra work, I’m here to help take care of you.” She didn’t want Hazel to fuss over her or see her as a guest – she wanted to be the one to do the fussing.
Parker appeared in the hallway with the last of her luggage, holding her veterinary bag up in the air. “Where do you want this one?”
Jen smiled and held out her hands. “I’ll take it, thanks. It’s full of my medical supplies. Hey, just so you know, I’m happy to take care of any sick animals free of charge while I’m here. Since Hazel won’t let me pay rent.”
Parker arched an eyebrow. “That’d be great, thanks!
I’ll tell Dalton – I’m sure he’ll really appreciate it.”
“No problem at all. I’m happy to do whatever I can to help. Besides, as of yesterday I’m unemployed, so I’ll need something to do with my time.” She laughed.
He passed her the black bag. “You really quit your job, huh?”
“I did. My boss told me I could come back anytime, so that’s good – if I run out of money before I find something else, I may have to take him up on that.”
“I’d be happy to give our vet Will a call for you,” Parker replied. “See if he’s got any work available.”
“Would you? That’d be great, thanks. I’d like to get some part-time work if nothing else, just to keep me occupied. There’s only so much coddling Hazel will put up with, if I know her as well as I think I do.”
Hazel laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’ve got that right.”
“Okay, I’ll call him tonight.” Parker set the rest of Jen’s luggage in the guest room, then headed back down the hall with a wave over his shoulder. “See you in a few. Dalton and I just have to finish up the chores and we’ll be in for dinner.”
Jen walked into the room and set her medical bag down on the floor beside her rolling suitcase. She sighed and slumped onto the bed, rubbing her eyes. “It’s good to be here. It’s been such a flurry of activity getting everything ready to come. I’ll be glad to get some rest!”
Hazel tapped her fingers on the door frame and smiled. “Well, you’ll have plenty of time for rest now.
I’ve already made dinner. I’ve taken to making easy meals these days, so it’s pot roast tonight.”
“Wow, that sounds delicious,” marveled Jen with a grin. “You’re like a regular Martha Stewart these days.”
“If only,” laughed Hazel. She turned to leave, then grinned back over her shoulder. “Welcome to Cotton Tree Ranch, Jen. If you’re not careful you may end up like Emily and I and never leave.” She laughed as she walked away.
Jen blinked. It was true. Hazel came here for only a few days, and almost two years later she was back living on the Cotton Tree Ranch. Emily arrived a couple of months ago for Hazel’s wedding – she ended up moving to Tifton to be close by, and before long she’d be married to one of the Williams brothers and perhaps living at the ranch as well.
She swallowed hard. Well, that wouldn’t happen to her. She and Chris were happy in their relationship and she could imagine them getting married one day. She couldn’t say for sure yet, since they’d never discussed the possibility, but they both got along well and enjoyed each other’s company. He was a great guy, good-looking, a successful junior lawyer with a big Atlanta firm. And he seemed to care a lot about her.
Anyway, the only eligible Williams brother left was Parker, and even though he was strikingly handsome in a mysterious, melancholy kind of way and they always had a lot of fun together, theirs was more of a brother-sister relationship. They teased each other and laughed together, but there was no flirting, not that she’d picked up on. She was glad to have his friendship, but it’d never be anything more than that.
She lifted her suitcase off the floor and set it on the bed. As she unzipped it, the thought crossed her mind that she should probably call Chris to let him know she’d arrived safely. He hadn’t been thrilled when she told him she was moving to south Georgia. It was only temporary – she’d been very careful to stress that. But still, his jaw had clenched in the way it did when he wasn’t happy about something. And he’d gritted his teeth when she said she was quitting her job to care for her sick friend. He didn’t say she shouldn’t go, but he’d made it pretty clear he didn’t want her to.
Still, she couldn’t fault him for a lack of support – he’d told her she should do what she had to do and he’d wait for her to come back to Atlanta. She smiled at the memory of their kiss goodbye. It had been hard to leave. But in her mind the decision was made the moment she heard Hazel’s diagnosis. She’d missed Hazel, and once she knew she was sick, she couldn’t let her go through that alone. She had to be with her and support her, or she’d regret not doing it for the rest of her life. If something should happen …
No. Jen couldn’t think about that. Hazel would beat this thing – she had to. And Jen would do everything she could to help her.
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