Astrid smiled, which was a beautiful thing to see when paired with her sparkling eyes. “That was lovely.”
“Told you so.”
“But you’re still a client.”
“And a man.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that.”
“Good. The word client is so impersonal. I’d like to progress to friend.”
“I already think of you that way, Fletch.”
“You do? Hey, that’s great. Then maybe we can move right past that designation. I’d like to suggest—”
“I’m sure you would.” The sparkle remained in her incredible eyes. “But right now, I need to return to being your vet and make sure Janis continues to do as well as she can.”
“You bet.” He stepped aside immediately. By his calculation, the kiss had only lasted a few minutes. He’d packed a lot of sensory delights into those few minutes, but he couldn’t imagine they’d been involved with each other long enough to cause a problem with the mare and her foal.
Astrid started into the stall and paused to comb her hands through her hair. “My hair’s down.” She seemed bemused by the fact.
“My fault.” He scanned the wooden floor of the barn aisle and found the clasp lying there. He picked it up. “Here.”
“Thanks.” She scooped her hair back and fastened the clasp. “I didn’t even realize that you’d done that.”
“That’s because I’m such a smooth operator.”
She laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“For next time?”
“Nice try, cowboy. There won’t be a next time. That was a delicious kiss, but we won’t be—oh, Fletch! Janis is getting up!”
“I see that.” He watched his brave girl struggle to her feet, and his heart swelled with pride. Despite her outstanding bloodlines, she’d been offered at a bargain price three years ago because she was past her prime. He’d feared if he didn’t take her, she might end up in a bad situation or be sold to a meat-packer.
He hadn’t bought her simply out of charity, though. He’d believed she could produce at least one more quality foal, and he’d gambled on that by paying an outrageous stud fee. The first attempt hadn’t worked, but the second had resulted in this pregnancy.
When she’d run into problems, he’d questioned his judgment, but thanks to Astrid’s excellent care, Janis had come through for him and delivered a healthy colt. Now she’d get her well-deserved rest.
Once Janis was upright, she began nudging her foal, Buddy Holly. Fletch had picked out the name after an ultrasound seemed to indicate Janis would have a colt. Sure, these rocker names were corny, but his mom had loved rock music. He was a sentimental sap and proud of it.
“Oh my God. This is it.” Astrid rushed back to her bag and pulled out a point-and-shoot camera. “This is the money shot. Buddy Holly is about to get to his feet for the first time.”
Fletch hadn’t even thought to bring a camera. Maybe he’d been a little superstitious about that, too. If he’d brought a camera and the worst had happened . . . But it hadn’t, and Astrid was ready to record the moment.
He’d experienced this event several times with his other vet, and the contrast in that guy’s response and Astrid’s was dramatic. Where the other vet obviously had been eager to get the process over so that he could go home, Astrid behaved as if being here was a privilege.
No wonder he was so drawn to her. She understood the importance of honoring new life. He wanted her here every time a foal was born on the Rocking G. She had the kind of energy he craved.
The colt was shaky, and he took several tries to get up on those impossibly slender legs. But he kept at it with a determination that made Fletch’s heart squeeze. Janis coaxed him to try again, and this time, he got all four legs under him and stood. His damp body quivered with the effort, but he was up.
Astrid let out a muted whoop of joy, enough to show she was thrilled, but not enough to scare the wobbly colt. She snapped picture after picture, and Fletch reminded himself to ask for copies. Something told him Buddy would be a remarkable colt, and an even more remarkable stallion. This birth could be the beginning of a legacy for the Rocking G. A shiver of anticipation raced up Fletch’s spine at the thought.
He didn’t think it was coincidence that Astrid was here to share this moment, either. He’d had a feeling about her ever since she’d climbed out of her truck on that first day, six months ago. She was a bitty thing, probably only about five-two, but her size didn’t stop her from doing a bang-up job as a large-animal vet.
Although he didn’t know a lot about her background, he figured she’d grown up on a ranch somewhere. He’d meant to ask her, but the timing had never seemed right. She knew far more about him, he realized now, than he knew about her. Time to fix that.
After Buddy began to nurse, Astrid left the stall and came to stand beside him. “Was that exciting or what?”
“Yep.” He smiled at her. “Thanks for remembering a camera. You’ll send me the pictures, right?”
“Absolutely. Part of the service.” She tucked the camera back in her bag and stood. “Wow. Adrenaline rush.” She blew out a breath and glanced at him. “The process will be pretty boring for the next couple of hours or so. I have to make sure Janis passes the entire placenta, and that can take a while. If you want to go to bed . . .” Her voice trailed off and she blushed a becoming shade of pink. “I mean, if you—”
“I know what you meant, although a proposition would be welcome right now.”
Her cheeks still pink, she shook her head. “No can do. I’m already worried that we’ll be uncomfortable working with each other after that kiss.”
“We won’t,” he said quickly. That was the last thing he wanted. “I’ll cut the loaded comments. I don’t want you to think about dropping me as a client. That would be bad for my animals.” And worse for him. He looked forward to her visits more than he’d been willing to admit.
“I would hate that, too. The Rocking G is my favorite call.”
He longed to ask her if that was because of the ranch itself, or if the rancher had something to do with it. But he wouldn’t say another word. He’d just hope that over time he’d win her over.
“Anyway, you don’t have to stick around,” she said. “I can finish up here alone and lock up the barn when I leave.”
“I wouldn’t dream of letting you do that. The rain’s been constant, which means that the usually dry gulch is full of water. I’m going to follow you as far as the bridge to make sure you get across okay.”
“Fletch, that’s not necessary. The bridge is sturdy, and I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m not a risk taker. If I’m worried, I’ll come back here and wait until the water goes down.”
He folded his arms. “That’s all good to hear, but I’m going with you as far as the bridge. Then if you have to come back, I can give you breakfast while you wait.”
“Okay.” She sounded hesitant.
“Or were you trying to get rid of me because I make you nervous?”
“Maybe a little bit.”
He sighed and let his arms drop to his sides. “I regret that. I can’t make myself regret kissing you, but I’d hate to think I’ve messed up the dynamic between us.”
“Let’s just say it’s not quite as relaxed as it was before.”
“Then I’ll work on that, which is a good reason for me to hang around. I’ll prove to you that we can get along the way we always have.”
“All right. Any more coffee left?”
“There is.” He’d brought the biggest thermos he had for that very reason and had set it right outside the stall door. “I’ll get us some.” Moments later he handed her a full mug. “Astrid, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen between us, I want you to continue to care for my animals. That’s a top priority for me.”
She accepted the mug and wrapped both hands around it. “I could help you find someone. I realize your last vet wasn’t very good, but I could recommend—”
“I want you.”
Her eyes widened.
“Hell. I want you as my vet.” Then honesty prodded him. “I also want you, in the larger sense, but that is the last time you’ll hear me bring up the subject. So let’s talk about something else.”
She still seemed extremely wary. “Like what?”
“How about you? Your family? I realized tonight that I’ve rattled on about my parents and my dreams for the ranch, but I don’t know much about your background.”
Surprisingly, her wariness seemed to increase. “It’s not very interesting.”
She was hiding something. He couldn’t imagine what, but for some reason she didn’t want to talk about her family. For all he knew, her dad was in jail and her mother was a drunk. That would explain not wanting to discuss them.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to pry.” He settled on an easier question. “But I would like to know how you ended up wanting to be a vet, if that’s not too personal.”