Authors: Rebecca Winters
“Let's just say he's more reserved around strangers, but he's a dear.”
“I can see that.” Cassie hunkered down in front of him. “Dusty? I know you're sad to lose your best friend. How would you like to come home with us? I can tell you're a sweetie. We'd take very good care of you.”
Connor had told Trace that Liz was a horse whisperer. As he watched the way Cassie talked to the dog, he sensed she had that special gift, too. The dog's ears pricked up. Like the little fox, Dusty's head moved with the sound of her voice. It was touching beyond belief.
“Do you mind if I pat your head?” She put her hand out palm down and let Dusty smell her before she scratched his ears. “We'd like to take care of you if you'll let us.”
Dusty lifted his head and licked her wrist.
Trace hunkered down next to her. “What do you think, Dusty? Will you let us be your friend?” The dog cocked his head.
Cassie said, “His name is Trace, and I'm Cassie. Do you know what? I think you have a smile on your face and your blue eye looks like Trace's eyes. It's as if you belong together. Isn't that amazing?”
The dog made a little moaning sound as if he understood. His tail waved slowly back and forth.
Grace was beaming. “I'd say you've already won Dusty over. He's usually hand shy. My father would be in tears if he knew.”
Cassie's eyes were full as she stood up. She looked at Trace. “What do you think?” she whispered wearing her heart in her expression.
He got to his feet. “Grace? Will you hand me the leash? Cassie and I will walk him around the front yard and see how he does.”
“Come on, Dusty.” The dog went with them, but after a few seconds he worked himself between them and they chuckled. When Trace made a turn, Dusty barked.
“Dusty's afraid you're going to take him back in the house,” Grace called to him. “He loves walks and rides in the car.”
“Do you love walks?” Cassie leaned over and rubbed his head and ears. “So do I.”
This time the dog licked her everywhere he could.
“I think we'll take this dog with us, Grace. I'll get his dish and dog bed.” Trace handed the leash to Cassie.
“Don't forget the toys,” Cassie reminded him. “We'll wait right here for you.”
Before long Trace came outside with the dog's things. Dusty walked right over to him smelling everything. When Trace opened the rear door, Cassie got in first and Dusty followed. He sat on the seat next to her. There was no question Cassie had already bonded with him.
With a smile, Trace walked around and put everything on the floor in the front before getting behind the wheel. “I told Grace not to come out in case it created more anxiety.”
“That was smart.”
“Are you buckled up?”
“OhâI forgot. We're ready now, aren't we, Dusty.” He barked.
When they got back to the ranch, Trace set up the dog's bed in one corner of his room with a couple of his toys. Grace had given him the doggie treats she had left, along with his bag of food and bowl.
He and Cassie took a couple of the treats out in front and exercised him to wear him out. When it was time for bed, Trace gave him a treat. “It's outside time.” He walked around the side of the house to train him where to go.
“Good dog,” Cassie patted him.
They went in the house and removed the leash. Dusty took off running everywhere and sniffing everything, causing them to laugh. Trace eyed Cassie. “One day your little girl is going to be able to crawl around and explore. This dog is going to break you in.”
“I'm already picturing it.”
Trace walked through to the kitchen. After he filled one of the bowls with water, he put it down in the corner. Dusty came running and lapped up most of the liquid. “You were thirsty.”
“You seem to know exactly what to do, Trace.”
“With a vet for a father, you pick up a few tricks, but it's going to take time to train Dusty to our lifestyle. So far I'd say he's doing great. You need to get to bed. I'll turn out the lights.”
“Thank you for an unforgettable evening. I'm thrilled you got a dog.”
When Dusty started to follow her out of the kitchen, Trace told him to stay. He stopped in the doorway and made a few strange sounds, but he didn't take another step. Mr. Ogilvie had trained his dog well.
“Good night, Dusty. See you in the morning.” She patted his head before disappearing.
“Okay buddy, let's lock up.” Dusty stayed by him as he walked around before going to his room. “Here's your bed.” He stood by it until the dog curled up in it with one of his toys that looked like a weasel.
Trace got ready for bed and wore the bottom half of his navy sweats. Before he got in, he knelt down to gentle the dog. “We need you a lot more than you need us, Dusty. That woman in the next room needs all the protection we can give her.”
After turning out the light, he slid under the covers with a deep sigh. He didn't envy the dog who had undergone a huge change in his life. But as Trace's father had told him, even if a dog had a long memory, he would adjust fast if given love and attention. He and Cassie could supply that in abundance.
He drifted off with visions of Cassie running through his mind. But sometime during the night he was awakened by low moans that made him jump out of bed. Dusty wasn't in his bed. Trace left the bedroom and found the dog outside Cassie's door. He'd put his paws as far under the slit as possible. Trace had to smother his laughter.
I know how you feel
, he spoke to himself.
I want to crawl into her bed, too, but we can't. You have to be invited.
“Come to bed, Dusty.” The dog made another moaning sound, but he obeyed Trace. “Stay,” he said after he got back in his little bed.
Ten minutes later the moaning started up again. Through the slits of his eyes he noticed the dog was missing again. Once more he got up and walked down the hall. But this time Cassie opened her door dressed in a robe that revealed her swollen figure. Her hair was beautiful, all disheveled and golden.
“Are you lonesome tonight, Dusty?” She darted Trace a glance. “I know he needs to learn his place, but do you think it would be all right if I sit by his bed for a few minutes so he'll settle down? Otherwise you're not going to get any sleep either.”
How could he possibly tell her no when she looked at him with eyes as pleading as the dog's?
“Come to bed, Dusty,” he told him. Cassie followed them to his bedroom and sat down on the floor next to the doggie bed. Dusty lay down on his back with his paws up, another peculiarity they found endearing. Trace sat next to her. The dog had gotten his way. In the end he was thankful for Dusty because an hour later, Cassie had fallen into a sound sleep against Trace's shoulder.
He put his arm around her and lowered her head to the floor, leaving his arm there for a cushion. She turned into him, bringing her body breathlessly close to his.
The world in his arms.
That's what it felt like. In a minute he'd waken her so she could go back to bed. But for this moment he wanted to savor her sweetness a little longer.
When the sleeping dog whimpered, Cassie stirred and her eyes opened. “Trace?” she whispered, sounding disoriented.
“You fell asleep.”
Her free hand had been resting against his chest. Now that she was waking up, she started to touch him experimentally. “For how long?”
“About an hour.”
“I'm not. You were out like a light and needed the sleep.”
“You're so good to me.”
Their mouths were achingly close. He brushed his lips against hers out of need. “It's because you're so easy to please I want to do everything for you.”
This time she took the initiative and pressed her lips against his. That was all it took to deprive him of his last shred of self-control. Maybe he was dreaming, but her mouth seemed to welcome his, urging him to kiss her and hold nothing back.
He pulled her against him, loving the shape of her, the fragrance of her hair, the softness of her skin. She'd aroused his passion on so many levels, he didn't know how he was going to stop, but he had to. He could feel her baby. Much as he wanted to make love to her, he couldn't. This wasn't the time, and the floor wasn't the place. Cassie needed to be able to trust him.
Let go of her now, Rafferty.
As carefully as he could, he eased her away from him and got to his feet. “Even with the carpeting, the floor is hard. Come on. Now that we've got Dusty to bed, it's your turn.” He helped her to her feet. She weaved in place. Trace clasped her upper arms until she felt steady.
Her eyes looked glazed as she stared at him in the semidarkness. “I won't pretend I thought you were Logan when I first woke up.”
Her honesty slayed him. “Believe it or not, Nicci wasn't in there either.”
“Attraction is a dangerous thing.”
“Only if it's wrong, but there's nothing wrong with what we just shared.”
“Thank you for having more discipline than I do.”
He smiled, loving her frank speaking. “If I had control, I wouldn't have let you fall asleep on my shoulder. That makes us even. Let's blame it on nerves over becoming new parents tonight.”
To his relief Cassie smiled back. “I like that excuse better than anything you could have come up with besides the truth. I'm going back to bed now. If Dusty whines at my door, I won't open it. He has to learn discipline. Unfortunately his new parents have to teach him âdo as we say, not as we do.'”
But for the dog, Trace would have burst into laughter. Long after she went to her bedroom, Trace lay in his bed knowing he might not get any sleep for what was left of the rest of the night. Cassie had fanned the flame tonight. It was all part of the same fire he'd felt ignite when he'd first found her in the garden.
He knew in his gut she'd felt it, too.
Dr. Raynard helped Cassie sit up on the examining table. “After you're ready, come into my office. I want to talk to you.”
She hoped nothing was wrong. A little alarmed, Cassie got off the table and straightened her skirt. After reaching for her purse she went into his office and sat down opposite his desk.
“Is there anything wrong?” she asked immediately.
“Your baby is doing fine and we want to keep things that way. But you've developed a condition called preeclampsia. For one thing, your blood pressure is higher than I'd like to see it.
“Are you under any undue pressure lately that could have contributed to it since your last exam?”
“Yes.” Ned had come home, but she didn't want to talk to the doctor about her brother. Everyone in her family was trying to do something about it. Trace had gotten them a dog to ease her anxiety. She loved that man to distraction.
“I'm sorry to hear it. You must have noticed you have more swelling.”
“Yes. What can I do?”
“Don't salt any food and lie down between your normal household activities.”
“But I've got a job at a beauty salon.”
“I'm afraid you'll have to quit. We want to keep your blood pressure from elevating.”
Cassie couldn't believe it. “Can I take walks with my horse and dog?”
“Once a day. A short walk. Ten minutes, no longer.”
“I've been doing volunteer work at the wildlife sanctuary on Saturdays.”
“No more of that, no grocery shopping, no rides in the car. Let someone else do any errands.”
I can't do that to Trace
“What aren't you telling me, doctor? This is really serious, isn't it.”
“It can be if you ignore it. But if you'll mind me, you'll be fine. As a precaution I want to see you weekly for a urine sample and blood pressure check until the baby is born. You're at twenty-four weeks now. I'm hoping you can go as close to term as possible.”
Panic had taken over. “What if I can't?”
“If it looks necessary, we might have to do a Cesarean. There's only one cure for this condition. That's to give birth. Until then we take every precaution to ensure a healthy mom and baby. Go home and relax as much as you can. You're in excellent condition in every other way. Continue to take care of yourself and I know things will be fine.”
She wished she had his faith.
“Do you have any more questions I can answer?”
“What are the chances of the baby surviving if you have to take her early?”
“Don't worry about that right now, Cassie. Just concentrate on rest. Watch TV, read some good books, listen to music. Those are distractions that will alleviate some of your stress.”
Nothing was going to relieve her fear while Ned was out there. She got to her feet. “Thanks, Dr. Raynard. I'll follow your advice. This baby means everything to me.”
“Of course it does. See you next Friday.”
Cassie left the clinic in such a different frame of mind, she didn't know which foot to put in front of the other. For the moment she had to get back to work until Mildred relieved her. Then Cassie would drop her bomb. She hated having to let the owner down. It meant Mildred would have to advertise for someone else, but Cassie's precious baby had to come first.
At three-thirty she left the beauty salon for the last time. Mildred had been so kind and understanding. Cassie drove her truck down the alley and headed for Zane and Avery's ranch. She needed to find out if their offer still stood to let her stay with them until the baby was born. To put any more burden on Trace was out of the question.
After what happened the night they'd brought Dusty home, she needed to put space between them anyway. When Trace had started kissing her, she'd spun out of control. It still embarrassed her that he'd been the one to bring a halt to the rapture she'd experienced for those unforgettable moments in his arms.
For the past week they'd been friendly and had spent any free time together playing with Dusty. The dog was a great buffer to prevent her from getting too close to Trace, who kept his distance without being obvious. Despite the desire they both felt, he respected her pregnant condition. His gallantry was a revelation.
She'd been so happy since he'd come home from Italy. Who could have foreseen a health problem this serious that forced her to seek Avery's help after all? If not hers, then maybe Millie Henson would be willing to let her live with them and pay rent until after the baby was born.
Cassie should have known this past heavenly month with Trace couldn't continue. Tears rolled down her cheeks while she took the turnoff for Zane's ranch. If Avery wasn't home yet, she'd wait for her out in front. Maybe she ought to seek out Millie right now, but Cassie needed someone to talk to first. Avery was like a sister.
When she turned in to the ranch her heart leaped to see the Explorer just leaving. Trace put on his brakes and drew alongside her. He was the last person she'd expected to see. She didn't have time to wipe her wet face before he scrutinized her.
His brows furrowed. “What's wrong? Did Owen or Ned do something while you were at the salon?”
She wiped her cheeks. “No. I came to see Avery.”
“Zane said she wouldn't be home until later.” Cassie groaned. “How did your doctor's appointment go?”
“Fine. What are you doing here? Where's Dusty?”
“In the kennel for a little while. If anyone comes around, he'll bark and hopefully warn an intruder off. I've just picked up some surveillance cameras Zane bought for me to install on the property. When we're both away from the house, anyone who trespasses will be caught on video. I'll follow you home and mount them.”
Trace was doing everything in his power to relieve her fear. The only thing she could do to repay him for his goodness was to move out so he could get on with his life. She couldn't bear for him to have to wait on her because she knew he would treat her like a princess. Since she wanted to talk to Avery before she did anything, Cassie turned the truck around and drove back to the ranch.
Once parked, she hurried inside the house and ran to her room. After sitting on the side of her bed, she phoned Avery but had to leave a message on her voice mail. Cassie asked her to call her when she could, then hung up.
She made one more call to the sanctuary. When she told the owner she wouldn't be able to volunteer until after the baby was born, Adrian thanked Cassie profusely for all her help and wished her the very best. She made Cassie promise to visit with the baby when she was able to go out.
Lindsey wasn't home when Cassie phoned her. She left a message telling her the doctor told her not to volunteer anymore until after the baby was born. With those phone calls made, she went to the kitchen for a cold lemonade and a bologna sandwich. She made an extra one for Trace.
After reaching in the bag for a doggie treat, she grabbed the leash and went out the back door to find Dusty. He barked excitedly when he saw her approach the kennel. She gave him a peanut butter doggie bone, then let him out and walked him around the front of the house.
Trace was up on the ladder mounting one of the cameras. Between his powerful legs sheathed in jeans and the muscles that played across his back beneath his white T-shirt while he worked, she was mesmerized.
The dog led her around the ladder. “Dusty wants to be with you.”
He looked down at her, impaling her with those blue eyes. “I know, but this isn't the right time. We'll play in a little while, Dusty.”
The dog barked.
“He understood you! He's so affectionate.”
“We have Mr. Ogilvie to thank for that.”
And Trace's kindness. “When you're hungry, I've made you a sandwich. I hope you like bologna and cheese.”
“I like everything you fix.”
Cassie knew he was waiting for an explanation of her earlier tears, but she would wait until Avery called her back. When she told Trace everything, she wanted her plans to be a fait accompli.
“Come with me, Dusty.”
She climbed the front steps and sat down on the swing. The dog jumped up next to her and put his head in her lap. There wasn't much room for him and the baby, too. She played with him. Anyone looking in on the situation would think they were a real family enjoying a lazy summer evening together.
A pain pierced Cassie's heart. There was so much wrong with this picture. Trace only had partial vision in one eye and was attempting to get over a broken heart. Cassie had to quit her job so she could hope to keep the baby Logan would never see. Her brother was out there somewhere stalking her. Dusty was grieving for his original owner.
Hoping Avery would return her call soon, she put her head back and closed her eyes. Long before she heard the sound of a truck, Dusty started barking and jumped to the porch floor. That pulled the leash out of her hand, bringing her fully awake.
“Dusty! Stay!” she called to him, but he'd already run out to the parking area and barked at Zane and Avery who got out of their truck. Cassie walked down the steps and caught hold of the leash. “It's okay, Dusty. These are friends.”
Zane grinned. “That's a great little watchdog you've got there.”
“Come and meet him.”
After Dusty sniffed them, he stayed by Cassie.
“Look at that,” Avery murmured. “He's adorable. I love his coloring.”
“He has a blue eye and a brown eye.”
“I noticed. You're an original aren't you?” Avery patted his head and he licked her hand.
“While you three have fun, I'll go see what Trace is up to.”
Once Zane disappeared around the side of the house, Avery glanced at Cassie. “You sounded serious on the phone earlier. Tell me what's wrong.”
The tears started again. “I'm so glad you're here.”
Avery hugged her before they went up the steps to the swing and sat down. Dusty sat at Cassie's feet. “I went to my doctor's appointment today. The news wasn't good.”
For the next few minutes she poured out her heart to Avery, who was the best listener in the world. “It was one thing to stay here as housekeeper for Trace until the baby came, but I can't do that now. Would you still be willing to let me stay with you? I'll pay rent.”
“Do you even have to ask? As for rent, you're crazy. I told you that when I learned you were pregnant, you would always have a home with me and Zane until you were on your feet again. Have you told Trace yet?”
She averted her eyes. “No. He saw me crying earlier and knows something's wrong, but I needed to talk to you first.”
“Are you prepared for him to protest your going anywhere else?”
“That'll be the Good Samaritan in him talking. But you don't know Trace the way I do. He'll become a full-time caretaker, doctor, nurse, cook, breadwinner. He didn't sign on for that kind of responsibility when he decided to go back to ranching again. I was hired to keep the house up and fix his meals, not the other way around.”
“What if he wants to be all those things?”
“You're not serious!” she exclaimed.
“Maybe it's because you're too close to it, but Zane and I have noticed a change in Trace over the last few weeks, a contentment. I think helping you has pulled him out of that deep depression since his injury. Zane told me he isn't the same morose man he was a month ago when he dropped in with Jarod, determined to sell the ranch.
“Frankly, you're not the same depressed woman, either. You'll have to look at the video Mac took of everyone at the shower. Anyone watching the two of you wouldn't have a clue there was any sadness in either of you. Something tells me that if you tell him you're leaving, his PTSD could act up.”
“You know about that?”
“What does that mean, Avery?”
“Only my brothers and Zane know what I'm about to confide. Since you're like my sister, I'm going to tell you. I was assaulted by a man who's in prison now. It happened when I went to college in Bozeman.”
Cassie hugged her for a long time. So many things suddenly made sense that had never made sense before she married Zane.
“I've had to live with my PTSD and Zane's. We've seen it in Trace. It wasn't just the injury to his eye. He suffered severe trauma when his parents divorced. Not all children of divorce react that way. My psychiatrist told me you don't just get PTSD in war. I can tell that living with you is helping him to heal.”
Was it true?
“Cassie, when I've talked to my therapist about you, she told me you've been dealing with PTSD, too. The trauma of your family life was bad enough. But when Uncle Grant ordered you out of the house, you went through a life-changing crisis. Logan's death only added to it. You need to heal. I've seen how you respond to Trace. It's my belief you two need each other. Don't worry about the future. Just take it a day at a time.”
Avery didn't know what she was asking. But since she'd been through the most horrific experience a woman could face, Cassie knew there was a lot of wisdom in her cousin.
“I'll think about what you've said.” She hugged her hard.
“Good. But like I said, you can come home to us if that's what you decide.”
“Thank you. Have you had dinner yet?”
“Then come in the house. I'll make some more sandwiches and whip up a salad.”
“That sounds good.”
“Come on, Dusty. Let's go inside. I'm sure you need water.” He barked, causing Cassie to laugh. “Trace swears he understands everything.”
Avery's eyebrows lifted. “Did he suggest getting the dog?”
“Yes. He had a collie years ago.”
“I remember. Sounds like he's over the pain of losing his dog. Connor told me he was so broken up, it changed him into a much more serious guy. He swore he'd never own another one again.”