“Who in the blue blazes are you? Tourists are not allowed back here,” the man snarled, the deep bellowing reverberation of his bass flashing through her being like a rocket exploding.
Layla grimaced at the tone. She was already dead on her feet after a long day caring for her patients. Getting an emergency call about a pregnant mare having a difficult labor meant she wouldn’t be sleeping for the foreseeable future. And, of course, her day wouldn’t be complete without an interaction with Mister Grumpy Gus here.
“As I’m not a tourist, that shouldn’t be a problem,” she said, standing by the entrance to the horse stall. The cedar and stone stables were clean and well maintained. She admired the crisscrossed exposed black beams decorating the ceiling. But it was the gruff man barring her entrance to the stall who commanded the bulk of her attention. The air positively sizzled around him. Or maybe it was just her reaction to him.
The giant man put his huge hands on his hips, emphasizing their muscled leanness, and glowered at her, apparently expecting her to cower before him. He made her think of kilted Scottish warriors of old with his lion-like head of hair stuffed beneath the brim of a black cowboy hat. Hair the color of sunset with myriad colors of gold, orange, and hints of auburn. But it was the man’s amber gold eyes that truly struck her. Never mind the fact that they were currently narrowed at her with an undercurrent of menace.
“If you’re not a tourist, then who the hell are you and why are you in my stables?”
She noticed his lips move, incredibly edible full lips that he proceeded to press into a thin line. His clenched square jaw had a hint of a cleft and there was a tic in his cheek.
His stables. She should have guessed from his overconfident bearing. This must be the owner of Hunt Trail Rides, a Mister Alex Hunt. The one who had left the message requesting her presence. Man was an absolute peach. And, if their rocky introduction was anything to go by, tonight was going to suck monkey balls. She held out her hand, inviting him to shake hers. With her spine straight, she said, “Doctor Layla Walker. You called my office emergency line tonight—something about a pregnant mare in labor and having difficulty with the birthing.”
“You’re the vet?” he questioned, seemingly unconvinced by her statement. Likely because she had boobs. It should infuriate her, the dismissal and degradation she experienced at times over her sex and profession. She knew that not many female vets catered toward larger barn animals. But she was all about diversity, had made it a point to study how to treat them, and it just so happened that she’d inherited a practice that encompassed their care.
When he didn’t take her hand and shake it, she gestured at their surroundings. “Do you see anyone else here? I left behind a perfectly lovely dinner to come help.”
The mare took that moment to intervene and bleated her pain. Layla’s heart clenched. While the owner may be a bit of an ass, she couldn’t let the poor thing suffer. Not on her watch. She pushed past the giant man in blue jeans and a checkered blue and green flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows displaying his thickly muscled forearms. Shock registered on his face at her boldness but she brushed it off, ignoring him as best she could. Then she went and knelt at the horse’s side.
The mare was a beautiful golden Andalusian, probably sixteen hands tall when she wasn’t lying on her side, struggling to bring her progeny into the world. Layla set her bag down and pulled out her stethoscope. She listened to the heartbeat and the mare’s breathing, relieved that it all sounded good.
“What’s her name?” she asked, putting her stethoscope around her neck and stroking the mare’s distended belly, feeling a contraction take hold. Giving birth bit the proverbial big one no matter the species. She just wished she could ease the mare’s obvious agony.
“Willow,” Alex said and knelt beside her, making Layla feel incredibly small beside him.
“Hi sweet girl. I know you’re in pain,” she soothed, rubbing small circles over Willow’s belly.
“She’s been in labor longer than normal and is weakening,” he said, the strain in his voice obvious, making her realize that while he might be a bit of an ass, he cared about his horse a great deal.
“I need you to stroke her neck and face. Keep her calm for me while I check the position of the foal,” she ordered.
Layla positioned herself at the horse’s tail end, rolling up her sleeve. There was no point in using a glove that could potentially get lost in the vaginal canal. She had to give the big guy credit. He did as she instructed while she slowly, between contractions, inserted her hand and subsequently her forearm up the horse’s hoohah. It was painstaking, slow work. She had to move between contractions and stop when they hit.
As a vet, she loved her job: being able to help animals overcome illnesses and being able to properly diagnose them so that they were able to live long, healthy lives. But this was not one of the perks of the job. This—helping a large animal like this through the birthing process—was messy, smelly, and could potentially end in disaster.
When her hand reached the uterus, she grimaced, recognizing the problem. She could fix it, but it would take time. “Okay, I have some good news and some bad news.”
“Give it to me,” he said, holding the mare’s head in his lap. His big hands never stopped stroking her face or neck. What did it say about Layla that she found herself wondering what those big hands would feel like stroking her body? She squelched that line of thinking.
“The problem is the foal is turned the wrong way to enter the birthing canal. I’m going to have to turn it around in between contractions and get it into the right position.”
He snorted. “And that’s the good news? What’s the bad news?”
“It’s going to take a while and be painful for Willow.” And for her as well.
“Can you do it?” he asked, sizing her up.
The man got her gander up and she had to bite back a nasty retort. It wasn’t his fault that he seemed to be a bit of a Neanderthal when it came to her profession. And it was difficult to reply with a modicum of dignity when she was elbow deep in a horse’s vagina.
“Well, you’ll just have to trust me. Keep stroking her face and holding her like you are doing.” She hissed as a contraction squeezed her arm. It would be bruised by the time she was finished, but as long as her patient survived—both of them—she could handle a little bruising.
Over the next hour, she turned the foal, little by little, between Willow’s worsening contractions. Layla got covered in birthing fluid. Sweat beaded at her temples and soaked the back of her flannel shirt. By the time she got the foal into the proper position, Layla was ready to drop.
But she was aware of the man’s amber gold gaze on her, never wavering or faltering when she called out an order.
Once the foal was in position, she was able to remove her arm from the birthing channel.
“It’s done. Now we just have to wait for nature to take its course,” she said, wiping fluids from her arm onto a towel from her bag.
“Thank you for coming. I can handle it from here,” he said dismissively.
“If it’s all the same to you, Mister Hunt, I’d prefer to stick around and make sure there are no other complications with the delivery. We’ll need to double check the placenta too once it’s out.” She didn’t half ass anything when it came to her patients. No matter how much of an ass their owner was, she didn’t stop until she knew a patient was out of the woods.
“Suit yourself. And it’s Alex. Mister Hunt is my father.”
Like she’d previously thought, the man was just a peach. Too bad such a glorious hunk of man meat was an arrogant jerk. He was the epitome of a controlled alpha with golden good looks. And she would ignore the fact that now that they had nothing to do but wait, the kind of dominance he exuded caused her girly bits to sigh.
He was leaning his wide chest against one of the walls, still holding the mare’s head in his lap, as he considered her. “Walker. Any relation to Caleb Walker?”
“He was my grandfather.” And there was still a twinge of grief that he was no longer alive. That in order to gain her most cherished dream, she’d had to lose one of the people she cared about most.
Alex cocked his head to the side. The glint of the overhead light made the hair peeping from beneath the brim of his hat glow golden. “But you’re not from around here.”
Well hello, captain obvious. Did he want a cookie for figuring that out all by himself? “No. I’m not.”
But then Willow shifted as another contraction hit and she trumpeted in agony. Layla moved back into position as hooves and a snout emerged from the birthing canal. “It’s time.”
It all happened relatively fast from that point on. One moment there was no foal and the next, its fluid-covered body was sliding out onto the hay. Layla worked with Alex to get the foal’s nostrils clear and wipe off the birthing fluids with some of the hay.
The placenta was expelled from the mare’s vagina and Layla checked it over to make sure it was intact before resting back on her heels, still on her knees. She wiped her face with her sleeve as the foal took its first stumbling steps. Willow’s maternal instinct kicked into gear as she began cleaning her baby.
Layla grinned, touched by the poignant scene. Relief flowed in dousing waves over her system. She was dog ass tired. Her body felt bruised. And she had every intention of taking a long hot soak in her tub once she got home and then going horizontal in bed for as long as she could. Then she glanced at the big man who had moved to her side and helped with the last part of the birth. Glancing up into his magnetic amber eyes, framed by some of the longest lashes she’d ever seen on a man, her stomach flipped over and a shiver of liquid heat slithered through her veins.
In his exuberance, Alex cupped her chin and slanted his lips over hers. It was unexpected. It was shocking. And holy moly, the hottest kiss of her life. He didn’t just kiss her. Alex delved with tongue and teeth and lips into the very fiber of her being. She clung to him, covered in less than desirable things and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that she was coated in blood and birthing fluid, or that her body felt bruised. All she knew was that she had never been so thoroughly and soundly kissed until Alex placed his lips over hers.
Movement in the stall broke them apart. Layla gulped in a steadying breath and put space between them. As he stared at her, dark hunger shrouded his features and Layla felt a resounding ache in her midsection. What was more startling than the fact that he had kissed her was watching the alpha reel back control until there was not even a tiny sparking hint of the blazing inferno that had turned his gaze to molten gold. He sealed up his desire as if it had never existed, his face becoming inscrutable.
The jerk! How he could switch it off so readily when her body was still humming in sweet anticipation? And that hot bath she had wanted? Better make it a cold shower.
It was rather ironic that she’d thought she would end up having an uneventful night when she left the clinic last night. Because the long, dark night had proved to be anything but dull and ordinary.