Turn and burn, p.34
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       Turn and Burn, p.34

         Part #5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  Chapter Thirty

  The following weekend, they were naked in Fletch’s gigantic bed, entwined together, half watching TV, half dozing, when Fletch’s cell phone buzzed on the nightstand.

  He reached over, picked it up and muttered under his breath.

  “Is it an emergency call?”

  “No. It’s Tilda.”

  “Tilda of the Mud Lilies? What does she want?”

  “Probably a ride home from the bar.” Fletch answered with, “Tilda, darlin’, are you out tearing it up again?”

  Tanna snickered. The Mud Lilies cracked her up.

  Fletch disentangled his legs from hers and sat up. “Slow down and start over, okay?”

  Uh-oh. Fletch was using his vet voice. Not good.

  “Last time he ate?” he asked gently. He listened and said, “I can’t diagnose over the phone so it’d be best if I came over. Hey, Miz T, I promise it’s no trouble. See you in a few.” He hung up and stood.

  “What’s goin’ on?”

  “Tilda’s dog is sick.” Fletch slipped on his athletic shorts. He pulled his T-shirt over his head. “So I’m going to check him out.”

  At eleven o’clock at night. “Do you do that a lot?”

  Fletch shrugged. “Not really. But Tilda doesn’t have family around here to call, so I don’t mind.”

  Such a sweet, sweet man.

  “Plus, she’s a little bit of a thing. Although she’d whap me upside the head if she heard me say that.” He smiled softly. “Tilda dotes on Ripper. When he’s healthy, it’s not an issue. But when he’s sick . . . she struggles with his size.”

  “What kind of dog is he?”

  “A Newfoundland.”

  “Holy crap.”

  He perched on the edge of the bed to put on his socks and shoes. “I don’t know what time I’ll be back.”

  Tanna debated all of four seconds before she tossed back the covers and dragged on her bra and underwear. She slipped her sundress over her head and moved to stand in front of him.

  Fletch quirked a brow at her. “That doesn’t mean you’ve gotta go home.”

  “I’m not. I’m coming with you.” She stepped between his thighs and ran her fingers through his hair. Damn. She’d really messed it up earlier when he’d gone down on her.

  “Tanna—”

  “I’ll stay out of your way. Or I’ll help you if you want. I know this is par for the course in your practice—you headed out at all times of the night. It just makes me sad thinking about you bein’ alone.”

  His eyes turned that beautiful liquid brown and he pulled her mouth down to his for a thorough kiss. “Thank you. I’d love it if you came with me.”

  Neither said much on the drive to Tilda’s.

  Even in the dark Tanna could see the gingerbread cuteness of Tilda’s house that fit her personality.

  Fletch squeezed her hand as they pulled up to the house. He grabbed a large black satchel and they exited the truck.

  He knocked once and walked in.

  Tilda sat on the floor next to an enormous black dog. She glanced up at Fletch and offered a wan smile. “Thanks for coming, Doc.”

  “You’re welcome. How’s he doin’?”

  “No different.”

  He knelt on the blanket and slipped on a pair of surgical gloves. “Let’s do a few basic checks.”

  Tanna took a chair in the living room and watched Fletch work. Taking in his gentle hands, his soothing demeanor with both animal and owner. He asked question after question while performing his exam, taking out his stethoscope, penlight, without stopping to dig through his bag.

  The dog’s breathing was thready, his eyes were closed. Ripper allowed Fletch to arrange his limbs and palpate his abdomen. After taking the dog’s temperature, Fletch patted the furry rump.

  “So, is there anything you can do?”

  Fletch shook his head. “I’m sorry. The old boy is just plain worn out. How old is he?”

  “Twelve years.”

  He whistled. “Dogs this big don’t usually live that long. It’s testament to your love and care that Ripper’s had such a good, long life.”

  Tilda’s chin dropped to her chest. “I got him the year after Robert died. He was such a cute little puppy and I was so lonely.”

  Tears prickled in Tanna’s eyes.

  “How long does he have?” Tilda asked softly.

  “A couple of hours. Maybe a day.”

  “He whimpered a lot this morning. But as the day wore on, he stopped.”

  “I think . . . even making noise became too much effort for him.” He ran his hand down the dog’s side. “Tilda, darlin’, he’s in a lot of pain.”

  “I know.” She dabbed her eyes with a lace handkerchief. “I hate that.” She glanced up at Fletch. “Can you . . . make it easier for him?”

  “Yes.” Fletch kept stroking Ripper’s fur. “Is that what you want?”

  Tilda nodded. “I can be with him until . . . ?”

  “Of course. You sure this is what you want?” he repeated.

  She nodded again. “Yes, it’d be for the best for him.”

  “I’ll be right back.” Fletch went out to his truck.

  Tanna remained in the easy chair, her heart aching as Tilda petted Ripper’s head in her lap. The dog’s tail no longer thumped. Still, Tilda kept murmuring and petting.

  Fletch returned holding a syringe. He spoke softly to Tilda and her beloved dog.

  Tanna couldn’t see where he inserted the needle. Ripper didn’t even flinch. Then Fletch patted the dog and returned outside. She wanted to run after him, but she stayed in place and turned away, giving Tilda privacy.

  She knew the drug was quick acting, but she wasn’t sure how much time had passed as she’d sat in silence. When she closed her eyes, it wasn’t the horrifying images of Jezebel running away that flashed through her mind, but the good times with the horse who’d been close to her best friend. They’d been partners and teammates for years. For the first time in months she welcomed the flood of memories. The hours they’d spent training and traveling together. Their victories in the arena. Their hard-fought struggles when stubborn rider met stubborn horse. She’d never forget the huffy way Jezebel acted if Tanna somehow changed the status quo in her perfect little horsey world. Or how Jezebel would prance so prettily and then buck so damn hard when she wanted to remind Tanna of her place in the equine world. She thought back to the horrible time after her mother died, and the hours she’d spent with her face buried in Jezebel’s neck, the horse’s soft hide absorbing her tears and her grief.

  Grief. God. Had she even grieved for the horse she’d loved and lost?

  No.

  Maybe her inability to be near a horse after the accident hadn’t been only about fear, but the sorrow that any horse she got on wouldn’t be Jezebel.

  A noise permeated the flashbacks and Tanna opened her eyes to see Tilda’s shoulders shaking and that Ripper’s too-still form wasn’t moving.

  Fletch came back inside and paused in the doorway, his face heavy with sorrow. His eyes met Tanna’s and he motioned her closer. Then he dropped to his knees beside Tilda and put his arm around her. “I’m sorry.”

  “Thank you. For everything you did.”

  “You’re welcome. Do you need more time with him?”

  She shook her head.

  “You took great care of him, sweetheart. Will you let me take care of him now for you?”

  Tilda released a small sob. “I didn’t even think about that . . .”

  “I know,” Fletch said softly. “That’s why I did. Is there some special place to lay him to rest?”

  Tanna was crouched beside them and watched Tilda firm her trembling chin, which only caused Tanna’s tears to fall faster.

  “The flower garden. On the north corner by the birdbath.” Tilda’s small hand ruffled the fur behind Ripper’s ears as she’d probably done a thousand times. “This big guy could sit there for hours watching birds. He loved to chase butterflies.
He’d never hurt them and they liked to tease my gentle giant.”

  “Sounds like the perfect place for him.” Fletch looked at Tanna. “Would you fix Tilda a cup of tea?”

  “Sure.”

  Tilda placed a kiss on the top of Ripper’s head and hugged him one last time. She rose to her feet as regally as a queen.

  Tanna put her arm around her, throwing a quick look over her shoulder as Fletch lifted the big dog and carried him outside. As she fixed tea, she cried silently for Tilda, for herself, for the animals that came into their lives and changed them for the better. She even cried for Fletch. It went above and beyond his job to bury a client’s pet. But he was outside at midnight, doing just that. Such an incredible man.

  “There are lemon bars in the fridge,” Tilda said after Tanna served her tea.

  “Would you like one?”

  “No. But I know the doc has a sweet tooth.”

  Tanna sat next to her. “I’d ask you for the recipe, but I’d just botch it.”

  “I’m not much of a cook either. Vivien made the bars. I had to stop myself from eating the whole pan.”

  Several more minutes passed.

  “Do you want me to call Vivien or another of your Mud Lilies pals to come stay with you?”

  “That’s okay. It’s late. I don’t want to bother them.”

  She leaned closer and took Tilda’s hand. “Tilda, darlin’, if one of them was dealing with this and called you, would you consider it a bother?”

  “Heavens, no. I’d be there right away.”

  “Then you gotta let them make that decision, don’t you think?”

  Tilda nodded and more tears fell.

  “So who should I call for you?”

  “Vivien,” Tilda choked out. She pulled her cell phone from her purse on the table and handed it over to Tanna to make the call.

  Within thirty minutes Vivien and Pearl showed up. Tanna wandered to the front window while they fussed over their friend. She wanted to fuss over Fletch. Where was he? Should she go out there and offer to help him?

  A light bobbed in the darkness and then it disappeared.

  She heard heavy footfalls on the steps.

  Fletch came through the door and headed straight for the bathroom.

  Vivien, Pearl and Tilda returned to the living room.

  Pearl said, “Where’s the doc?”

  “Washing up.”

  He’d barely left the bathroom before he was surrounded.

  Vivien pressed her palms to his cheeks. “You are such a dear, dear man. Thank you for everything you did tonight.”

  Fletch blushed.

  Pearl elbowed Vivien aside. She whispered something in his ear. Then Pearl too, gave his cheek a motherly pat.

  Tilda merely threw herself into his arms and sobbed.

  His eyes met Tanna’s when neither Vivien nor Pearl stepped in to console Tilda.

  Tanna moved beside them and patted Tilda’s shoulder.

  She stepped back and wiped her eyes. “Sorry. I’m just so grateful.”

  “I know. Try and get some rest tonight.”

  Pearl held out a bottle of whipped cream–flavored vodka. “We’ll all sleep well.”

  He curled his arm around Tanna’s waist. “Good night.”

  Fletch was so distracted he didn’t open Tanna’s door.

  Once they were speeding down the gravel, she reached for his hand. “You all right?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Have you been doin’ this long enough that animal deaths don’t bother you?”

  He looked at her strangely. “It bothers me. I hope I never get cynical enough that it doesn’t bug me. But to be honest, this was a reminder of why I didn’t go into a regular veterinary practice, despite the more reasonable work hours. People losing pets is about the most heartbreaking thing.”

  Tanna brought his hand to her mouth to kiss his knuckles. “Have I mentioned what a wonderful guy you are?”

  “Jesus. Not you too. Can we please drop it?”

  “Fletch. You really have no idea how much it meant to Tilda that not only did you show up, but you eased her dog’s suffering and you buried him for her.”

  “She’s in her seventies. How was she supposed to haul a one-hundred-fifty-pound dead dog out of her house?”

  “Would any of your colleagues have done the same thing?”

  “How should I know? It’s done. Now can we please drop it?”

  And a humble man too.

  “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said that day at Eli’s when you forced me to groom that horse with you.”

  He stayed quiet—but a tensed quiet.

  “You said that I needed to let go of the guilt where Jezebel was concerned. I guess I’ve always known I didn’t do anything to cause her death, despite the thinly veiled accusations from the owners. But looking back, I realize they were hurting from the loss, and they were just lashing out at me because they couldn’t be with Jezebel either. So seeing Tilda tonight, watching her stay with Ripper to the very end? It’s like I was finally able to let go too. No more guilt about not bein’ by Jezebel’s side. From here on out I’m gonna concentrate on all the good years we had together.”

  Fletch swept his thumb across the inside of her wrist. “I’m so glad to hear that, sweetheart.”

  Then he slipped back into silent mode. He’d had a long day before this midnight call. “You tired?” Tanna asked.

  “I’m a little wired if you wanna know the truth.”

  “So if you go home alone in this state, what do you usually do to take the edge off?”

  “Some nights I drink. Some nights run on the treadmill. Some nights I lift weights. Depends.” Fletch shot her a look. “Why?”

  “Just taking an informal poll.”

  He laughed softly.

  Her brief attempt at humor vanished quickly and the cab became somber again. Tanna didn’t push him to talk. But the death of the animal left a lingering sadness around him, almost like guilt, despite the fact that nothing he could’ve done would’ve made a difference.

  As soon as they crossed the threshold at his house, Tanna jumped up and wrapped her legs around his waist, plastering her mouth to his.

  He couldn’t help but grin, given the ferocity of her kiss. “Lucky you’re a little whip of a thing or you would’ve knocked me over. Not that I’m complaining, but what was that for?”

  “Because you’re amazing. Because you’re you.” Because I couldn’t be more crazy about you if I tried.

  Fletch rested his forehead to hers. “If you’re trying to sweet-talk your way into my bed, sugar twang, it’s working.”

  Tanna slid down his body and grabbed his hand, leading him to his bedroom. Once they stood beside the bed, she slipped her fingers beneath his T-shirt, letting her palms rest on his hard, ripped abdomen. “Take off your clothes and lie facedown.”

  “Why?”

  “’Cause I’m fixin’ to give you a massage.” Her fingers inched up and she squeezed his pectorals before placing a kiss on his chest, over his heart. “Any other questions?”

  He shook his head and stripped, releasing a soft sigh when his overheated body met the cool sheets.

  She sat on his butt and dug into his shoulder muscles, earning a heavy sigh of satisfaction. “You always wound this tight? Or are you sore from your stint as a midnight grave digger?”

  “A little of both. Goddamn. Yes. Right. Fucking. There.”

  “I take it I hit a good spot?” she murmured in his ear.

 
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