Authors: Catherine Mann
“My personal plane is at your disposal,” he said without hesitation.
“What? I didn’t realize you have a plane. I mean I know you’re well off, but....”
Her shoulders braced and he could almost see another wall appearing between them. He appreciated that she wasn’t impressed by his money, but also hated to see another barrier in place.
Still, the more he thought about flying the animals for her, the more the idea appealed to him. “Make the arrangements with the rescue and whatever else needs to be done as far as crating the animals. I assume you have procedures for that.”
“Yes, but....” Confusion creased her forehead. “I don’t know how to say thank-you. That’s going above and beyond.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for. This is a win-win.” He got to help the animals, score points with Megan and spend more time with her to boot.
“But the cost—”
“A tax write-off, remember? Fly animals as far as you need them to go and your time away will be reduced considerably.” This idea just got better and better, not only for the animals, but also by giving him an “in” to see Megan, to figure out where to take this attraction. “This isn’t a one-time offer either. You’re packed with critters here. If there’s help out there, take it and my jet will fly them there.”
“I can’t turn you down. The animals need this kind of miracle if we’re going to find homes for them by the holidays.” She exhaled hard. “I need to get to work placing calls. There are rescues I hadn’t considered before because of the distance and our limited resources. Rescue work happens fast, slots fill up at a moment’s notice.”
“And this little gal?” He stroked the cat’s head and for once the calico didn’t dig her claws in. Perched on the back of the chair, she arched up into his hand and purred like a race car.
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep her?”
He pulled his hand away. “I can’t. I’m at work all the time, which wouldn’t be fair to her.”
“Of course.” Megan looked disappointed in him, even though he’d just offered her thousands of dollars’ worth of flight hours.
But then, hadn’t he said it? Offering his plane was easy. Taking care of another living being? Not so easy.
“I should let you get to work on lining up those rescues.” He pulled a business card from his wallet and plucked a pen from the cup on the edge of her desk. He jotted a number on the back of the card. “This is my private cell number and my secretary’s number. Don’t hesitate to call.”
When he passed her the card, their fingers brushed. He saw the flecks of awareness sparkle in her eyes again. He wasn’t mistaken. The mutual draw was real, but now wasn’t the time to press ahead for more.
“Thank you again.” She flipped the card between her fingers, still watching him with suspicion, their old conflicts clearly making her wary. “Would you like to name your kitty cat?”
“That’s not my kitten.”
“Right,” she answered, a smile playing with her plump lips that didn’t need makeup to entice, “and she still needs a name. We’ve had to name so many this past month, we’re out of ideas.”
He thought for a second then found himself saying, “Tallulah.”
“Tallulah?” Her surprise was a reward. He liked unsettling her. “Really, Whit? I didn’t expect such a...girly name choice.”
“That was the name of my mom’s cat.” She was briefly theirs, but when they’d moved, the cat ran away. Then his father had said no more pets. Period.
“It’s a lovely name.”
He nodded quickly then turned to leave.
“Whit,” she called, stopping him short, “about what happened after you helped me get to Evie that day....”
Was she finally acknowledging the impulsive, explosive kiss? The thought of having her sooner rather than later... “Yes?”
“Thank you for helping me reach my daughter.” She looked down at her shoes for an awkward moment before meeting his eyes again. “I can never repay you for that...and now this.”
“I don’t expect repayment.” The last thing he wanted was to have her kiss him again out of gratitude.
The next time they kissed—and there would be a next time—it would be purely based on mutual attraction.
* * *
The stroke of Whit Daltry’s eyes left her skin tingling.
Standing at the shelter’s glass door, Megan rubbed her arms as she watched Whit stride across the parking lot back to his truck. His long legs ate up the space one powerful step at a time. His suit coat flapped in the late afternoon breeze revealing a too-perfect, taut butt. Her head was still reeling from his surprise appearance, followed by the generous offer she couldn’t turn down.
After six weeks of reliving that brief but mind-blowing kiss, she’d seen him again and would be spending an entire day with him. Somehow, because of that day they’d gone from avoiding each other to.... What? She wasn’t sure exactly.
Maybe he’d gotten the wrong idea from that kiss and thought she was looking for something more. But she didn’t have time in her life for more. She had a demanding job and a daughter, and both had taken a hard hit from last month’s tornado.
And speaking of her child, she’d left Evie long enough. Thank goodness Miss Abigail had been so accommodating about helping with Evie. The retired legal secretary had even babysat a couple of evenings when Megan got called out to assist with an emergency rescue. Evie had been particularly clingy this past month. And she couldn’t blame her. That nightmarish day still haunted Megan as well; she often woke up from dreams of not reaching her daughter in time, of the whole roof of the preschool collapsing.
Dreams that sometimes took a different turn with Whit arriving, of the kiss going further....
Megan watched his truck drive away, a knot in her stomach.
It would be too damn easy to lean on those broad shoulders, to get used to the help, which would only make things more difficult when she was on her own again. Megan turned away from the door and temptation, returning to reality in the form of her precious daughter sitting on Abigail’s lap as they played on the iPad together. Evie’s knight’s armor was slipping off one shoulder, her toy sword on the ground beside her tiara.
Megan held out her arms. “Come here, sweetie.”
She gathered Evie into her arms and held her on her hip. Not much longer and her baby girl would be too big to carry around. This precious child, who wanted to be a “princess knight” for Halloween and cut through tornadoes with a foam sword. Megan had hoped her daughter would relax and heal as they put the storm behind them, but now Thanksgiving was approaching and Evie was still showing signs of trauma.
The holidays were tough anyway, reminding her that she was the sole relative in Evie’s life. She was a thirty-year-old single mom.
And damn lucky to have landed in this small town full of warmhearted friends.
“Thank you, Abigail, for helping out even after the school finished repairs. You’ve been a lifesaver.”
The roof of Little Tots Daycare had been reconstructed quickly, but the dust and stress had taken its toll on the kids and the workers. Some had gotten the flu.
Others, like Evie, had nightmares and begged to stay home. Her daughter conquered pretend monsters in iPad games and dress-up play.
Abigail rocked back in her chair. “My pleasure. She’s a doll.” She pinched Evie’s cheek lightly. “We have fun readin’ books on the iPad. Don’t we, Evie?”
Bringing her daughter to work wasn’t optimal, but Megan didn’t have any choices for now. “Thanks again.”
“I’m always a call away. The benefit of being retired. Maybe we’ll see Mr. Daltry again tomorrow. Now wouldn’t that be nice if he became a regular volunteer?”
As much as Megan wanted to keep her distance, she couldn’t ignore all the amazing things Whit had done for her.
Evie patted her mother’s cheek with a tiny palm. “Where did the nice man go?”
“He brought a kitty to stay with us here.”
She stuck out her bottom lip. “We don’t like people who dump their pets. Does this mean I can’t like him anymore?”
“He didn’t dump the kitty, sweetie. He saved her from being cold and hungry in the woods.” Although she had to admit she was disappointed he hadn’t offered to keep the cat. She struggled not to resent his wealthy lifestyle. Everyone knew he was a self-made man who’d worked hard to build a fortune before his thirty-fifth birthday. “Tallulah lost her family and had nowhere else to go. We’re going to help her find them again.”
“Right. That’s her name.”
“She can come home wif us and live in our house. I’ll get her a costume too.”
They already had three cats and two dogs, all of which Evie had been dressing up as part of her medieval warrior team. The costumes transformed them into horses, elves, queens and even a unicorn.
Their house was full.
And Megan was at her limit with work and her daughter. “You can visit Tallulah here while she waits to find her family. We have our kitties and doggies at home to take care of and love.”
Evie patted Megan’s face again. “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’ll tell Mr. Whit to keep ’Lulah.”
If only it worked that easily. “I need to work a little longer, just a few phone calls and then we can go home for supper. We’ll make a pizza.”
“Can Mr. Whit share our pizza?”
Abigail laughed softly from her perch behind the counter. “I think Mr. Whit wants to share a lot more than pizza.”
Evie looked up, frowning. “Like what?”
Megan shot Abigail an exasperated look before kneeling to tell Evie, “Mr. Whit is sharing his airplane to help send some of the puppies and kitties to forever homes before Thanksgiving.”
“He shares his plane? See. He is very nice. Can I play my games, please?” Evie squirmed down with her iPad, her foam sword tumbling from her hand. “I’m gonna play a plane game this time.” Her daughter put on her tiara and fired up a game for touring the states in a puffy airplane.
Megan glanced at the receptionist. “I don’t want to hear a word about Whit’s visit today, Abigail. And no gossiping.”
She glanced over her shoulder to see if other volunteers were listening in. Luckily, most of them were occupied with exercising animals, folding laundry and washing bowls. The only person even remotely close enough to hear was Beth Andrews, Megan’s favorite volunteer.
“Gossip?” Beth chimed in. “Did I hear the word gossip? That would surely never happen in the town of Royal where everyone stays out of each other’s business. Not.”
Beth wasn’t a known gossip, but was definitely known for helping out everywhere; she was very involved in the community. The leggy blonde owned Green Acres, a local organic farm and produce stand. Beth’s business had taken a big hit from the tornado. That made her generosity and caring now all the more special, given how rough life had been for her lately. The homemade goodies she brought to the animals were always a treat. Beth had that willowy thin, effortless beauty that would have had women resenting her if it weren’t for the fact she was so darn nice.
Abigail stroked her phone as if already planning a text. “It’s a gift having a community that cares so much. Like how Whit Daltry just showed up to make a big donation.”
Beth arched a blond eyebrow. “You two are speaking to each other?”
Megan shrugged her shoulders and examined her fingernails. “He’s helping with the overflow of animals. I can work with anyone for the good of the animals.”
“Everyone’s had their lives turned upside down since the twister. To lose over a dozen lives in a blink...to have our friend Craig gone so young....” She paused with a heavy sigh. “No one has been exempt from the fallout of this damn storm. Even our mayor was critically injured. And that poor Skye Taylor...”
“What tragic bad luck that she came back to town after four years on such a terrible day. How is she doing?” Megan rubbed her arms again, feeling petty for stressing over her life, thinking of Skye Taylor, found seriously injured and unconscious after the storm, her baby delivered prematurely. And since Skye was still in a coma, she hadn’t even met her child. Megan shivered again, even though she didn’t know the woman personally. As a mother, she felt a bond. Thank God Evie was safe. That’s what mattered most. She would figure out how to heal her daughter’s fears.
Clearly agitated, Beth thumbed a stack of shelter flyers. “Drew checked in with the family and Skye is still in a medically induced coma and the baby girl—Grace—is in the neonatal intensive care unit.”
Abigail sighed. “And the doctors still don’t know who the father is?”
Did this qualify as gossip? Megan wasn’t sure, but if the talk could help find the father, that would be a good thing. “I’ve never met her, but I heard a rumor Skye ran off with the younger Holt brother despite their parents’ protests. So I assumed he was the dad.”
Beth tucked a stray curl back into her loose topknot, scrunching her nose. “I recall hearing mentions of an age-old feud between the Holts and Taylors. Abigail, do you have any idea who started it?”
“I haven’t a clue. Quite frankly, I’m not sure they do either, anymore.”
Beth shook her head slowly. “How sad when feuds are carried on for so long.” She stared pointedly at Megan. “So what’s this with Whit Daltry coming to the shelter to see you? And you actually spoke to him rather than running out the back exit?”
“Running out the back? I wouldn’t do that.” Okay, so maybe she had avoided him a time or two but hearing it put that way made her sound so...wimpy. And she didn’t like that one damn bit. “I think we’ve all done some reevaluating this past month. If he wants to offer his private plane to transport homeless animals to new homes, who am I to argue?”
Beth laughed softly. “About that flight... Look how neatly he tied in a way to see you again. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”
Not even having a clue how to respond to that notion, Megan clasped her daughter’s hand and retreated to her office. The second she closed the door, she realized she’d done it again. Run away like the coward she’d denied being.
But when it came to Whit Daltry and the way he flipped her world with one sizzling look, keeping her cool just wasn’t an option.
hit parked his truck in the four-car garage of his large, custom-built home in Pine Valley. With a hard exhale, he slumped back in the seat. He’d spent the whole day at work thinking about seeing Megan at the shelter when he’d brought in the cat. Knowing he’d locked in a reason to see her again pumped him full of excitement. Life had sucked so badly the past month. Feeling alive again was good. Damn good.
He reached for the door and stepped out into the massive garage, all his.
Growing up, he’d lived in apartments half the size of this space, which also held a sports car, a speed boat and a motorcycle. He liked his toys and the security of knowing they were paid for. Since the day he’d left home, he’d never bought anything on credit. His college degree had been financed with a combination of scholarships and two jobs. Debt was a four-letter word to him.
His father had showered his family with gifts, but too often those presents were repossessed or abandoned as the Daltry family fled creditors yet again. His parents had passed away years ago, his dad of a stroke, his mom of a broken heart weakened from too many years of disappointment after disappointment.
Every time they’d moved to a new place, his mother wore that hopeful expression that this time would be different, that his father wouldn’t gamble away the earnings from his new job, that they could stay and build a life. And every time she was wrong. Most times that hope would fade to resignation about a week before his dad announced the latest cut-and-run exit for the Daltry family. Whit came to appreciate the advance warning since it gave him the opportunity to tuck away some things before the inevitable pack-and-dash.
He’d built this house for himself as a tribute to leaving that life behind. But he’d waited to start construction. He’d refused to break ground until he had the money to pay for every square foot of it. People viewed him as lighthearted and easygoing—true enough, up to a point. No way in hell was he sinking himself into debt just to make a show of thumbing his nose at the past. He knew the pain of losing everything as a kid and he refused to go through that again. He’d been damned lucky his home in Pine Valley hadn’t sustained any damage from the storm.
As he stepped from the garage into the wide passageway, he thought of all this empty space. He made a point of donating to charities, even throwing in elbow grease as well when called for, like pitching in with the never-ending cleanup after the tornado.
And now working with the animals? Except he wasn’t. He’d left that cat at the shelter. He’d meant everything he said about not having time for a pet, but Megan had asked about temporary fostering and he’d rejected that out of hand. He knew he’d disappointed her with his answer. Or rather confirmed her preconceived negative notions about him.
Maybe if he got a couple of cats to keep each other company. Cats were more independent, right?
As he opened the door to the kitchen, his cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and the caller ID showed...Megan Maguire?
His pulse kicked up a notch at just the sight of her name. Damn, he needed to get a grip. Pursuing her was one thing. Giving her this much control over how he felt? Not okay. He needed to keep things light, flirtatious.
He answered the phone. “Hello, pretty lady. What can I do for you?”
“Seriously?” she asked dryly. “Do you always answer the phone that way?”
“Megan?” he answered with overplayed surprise. “Well, damn, I thought it was my granny calling.”
She laughed, her voice relaxing into a husky, sexy melody. “You have a granny?”
“I didn’t crawl out from under a rock. I have relatives.” Just really distant ones who had cut ties with his branch of the family tree long ago because of his father. “Actually, my grandmother passed away ten years ago. My cheesy line was totally for your benefit, I just didn’t expect it to fall so flat. So let’s start over.”
That might not be a bad idea: to call for a do-over in a larger way, erase the past three and a half years.
“Sure,” she said. “Hello, Whit, this is Megan Maguire. I hope I didn’t disturb your supper.”
“Well, hey there, Megan.” He opened the stainless-steel, oversized refrigerator and pulled out an imported beer. “What a surprise to hear from you. What do you need?”
He sat in a chair at the island where the cooking service he’d hired left a dinner in a warmer each night. He couldn’t cook. Tried, but just didn’t have the knack for more than grilling and he worked too late to grill. He twisted open the beer and waited for her to answer.
“I was just loading my dishwasher, and this weird panic set in that maybe you weren’t serious earlier.”
“About what?” He tipped back a swig of the imported brew.
“Did you really offer your plane to transport animals?”
“Absolutely. I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” His father was the king of broken promises, all smiles and dreams with no substance.
“Whew,” she exhaled. “Thank goodness. Because I asked a contact in Colorado to check out the rescue. I also spoke with the veterinarian the rescue uses and everything appears perfect. So I called them and they can still take a dozen of our cats, a huge help to us and to local animal control. Am I being pushy in asking how soon we can transport them because I would really like to see them settled before Thanksgiving?”
“Not pushy at all.” This was Thursday, with turkey day only a week away. He had a meeting he couldn’t miss on Friday, but the notion of spending the weekend with her was enticing as hell. He’d hoped this would work out. He just hadn’t realized how quickly the plan would come together. “Glad they have space to accommodate. I could see you’re stuffed to the gills.”
“Feeding and caring for so many animals is depleting our budget in a hurry.” Her voice was weary, tempting him to race over to her house with his pre-cooked dinner. “We try our best to plan for disasters, but having just built the new shelter, we’re stretched to the max.”
He couldn’t feed her tonight, but he could lighten some of her load. “I also meant it when I said I’ll talk to the Cattleman’s Club about rolling up their sleeves and opening their wallets. We can help. We’re about more than the Stetson hats and partying.”
“I honestly don’t know what to say to all of this generosity. You’ve really come through for us with so much, especially offering your plane. Thank you.”
“Glad to help. Can you have the animals ready to fly day after tomorrow? I’m free to fly them to Colorado on Saturday.”
She gasped. “
are flying the plane? I thought you would have a pilot....”
Had he failed to mention that part of his offer? Would she go running in the opposite direction? Not with the cats’ well-being at stake. But might she try to send someone else from the shelter in her place? Had he just roped himself into a weekend with her kennel supervisor?
That didn’t change his promise. He didn’t break his word.
But he would definitely be disappointed to miss out on the chance to get closer to Megan.
He clicked speakerphone and placed his cell phone on the slate island. “I do have a pilot who flies me around if I need to have a meeting or entertain en-route. But I’m a licensed pilot too, quite proficient, if I do say so myself. What do you say? Let’s make a weekend out of it.”
“A weekend away together in Colorado?” The shock in her voice vibrated through the phone line. “Are you trying to buy your way into my life?”
“Now that stings.” And oddly enough, it really did. He wanted her to think well of him. “I will concede that I’m trying to get your attention, and bringing the cat today offered an excuse to see you again, but it’s not like I concocted a fake stray to meet you. Flying the other cats to Colorado is the right thing to do for the shelter and for our community. Even a hard-ass like me can see that. If you doubt my motives, bring your daughter along. She’s a great kid.”
The silence stretched and he checked the menu card with his meal—balsamic skirt steak with corn polenta—while he waited. Her answer was suddenly a lot more important than it should have been. But he wanted more time with her. Hell, he flat-out wanted her. He had since the first time he’d seen her. The tornado had just made him reevaluate. Life was too short and too easily lost to put off pursuing goals.
And right now, his goal was to discover if the chemistry between him and Megan was as explosive as that one kiss led him to believe.
“So, Megan? About Saturday?” He rolled the beer bottle between both palms, anticipation firing in his gut.
“Without question, Evie would love the adventure. I’m not able to offer her much in the way of vacation or special trips. She’s also been hesitant to stay at the sitter’s....” Megan drew in a shaky breath. “Saturday it is then.”
A thrill of victory surged through him, stronger than any he’d experienced in a damn long time.
“Excellent. And hey, feel free to make more calls and line up a place for the extra dogs and we can make it a weekly outing. Wait—before you accuse me of using the animals to get to you, the offer still stands if you want to send one of your staff in your place.”
She laughed dryly. “Let’s take it one week at a time.”
But he knew she wouldn’t be able to turn down the offer. He’d found the perfect in with her. “And by the way, a trip that long won’t all fit into one day. Be sure to pack an overnight bag.”
* * *
Megan held a clipboard and cross-referenced the information on the printout with the card attached to each cat carrier lined up inside Whit’s aircraft. The plane could easily hold a dozen or more people, but those sofas and lounge chairs were empty. The kitty cargo had been creatively stashed beneath seats and strapped under the food station bar.
Most of the felines were already curled up and snoozing from the sedative she’d administered prior to crating them. Three of the cats, though, were staring back at her with wide, drugged eyes and the occasional hiss, hanging on to consciousness and looking at her suspiciously. Sheba, an all-black fluff ball, had come from a home where she was an only pet and queen of her domain, but after her owner passed away, the extended family had dumped their mother’s beloved pet at the shelter. Sheba had been freaked out and terrified ever since. She needed a home environment, even a foster setting, until an adopter could be found. Skittles, an orange tabby stray, had been found at the shopping mall with no name tag, no microchip and no one to claim her. If she went much longer without a home setting, Megan feared Skittles would turn feral. And the third of the cranky passengers, Sebastian, was a gorgeous, very huge Maine Coon cat that desperately needed more space to move around than the shelter could offer.
Provided the Colorado group was as wonderful in person as her contact and the vet indicated, by evening the twelve cats would be with a rescue that only operated with foster homes until adoptive homes were found. No more shelter life for them.
She rested a hand on top of a crate, exhaustion from the past month seeping through her. Maybe now that she had some help in sight, her body was finally relaxing enough to let all those extra hours catch up with her. She still could hardly believe this was happening—and thanks to Whit Daltry, of all people. The last man she would have expected to go the extra mile for her.
But the very man who’d done more than that for her when he’d helped her reach Evie after the tornado.
Megan stole a quick glance to check on her daughter, currently sprawled out asleep on one of the leather sofas. They’d had to get up early to ready the cats at the shelter. Evie had insisted on wearing a cowgirl outfit today—with the ever present tiara, of course.
Footsteps sounded outside on the metal stairs, and a second later Whit filled the hatch. He looked Texas-awesome, with broad shoulders—as if Texas ever did anything half way. He wore a chambray button-down with the sleeves rolled up. And his jeans—Lord help her. The well-washed denim fit him just right. Her mouth watered. He ducked and pulled off his hat to clear the hatch on his way inside.
“Everything’s a go outside whenever you and Evie are ready to buckle in.” His boots thudded against the carpeted floor as he walked to Megan and rested a hand on her shoulder.
Static sparked through her so tangibly she could almost believe crackles filled and lit the air. Whit’s clean soap scent brought to mind the image of a shared morning shower, a notion far too intimate to entertain, especially when they had to spend the next two days in close confines. She eased away from him under the guise of flipping the page on her clipboard. Except it was already the last page so she looked too obvious.
Quickly, she flipped all the papers back into place.
Whit stuffed his hands in his jean pockets. “We might as well talk about it.”
“Talk about what?” How she couldn’t peel her eyes off his strong jaw? Could barely suppress the urge to step closer and brush her cheek along the fresh-shaven texture of his face? She was having a hard time remembering why she had to stay away from this man.
“When you kissed me.”
“Shhhh!” she whispered urgently. “Do you want someone—Evie—to hear?” Her daughter was a great big reason she needed to tread warily with any man she let into their lives.
He stepped closer. “Okay, how’s this?”
His voice rumbled over her like the vibration of quiet thunder in a summer rain. Desire pooled low in her belly, her breasts tingling and tightening as if the first drops of that summer storm were caressing her bare skin.
Damn. She was in deep trouble here.
She clutched the clipboard to her chest. “I didn’t kiss you that day. Not exactly.”
“I remember the day well. Your lips on mine. That’s a kiss,” he bantered with a devilish glint in his eyes. “But just so that we’re clear, none of this trip today is contingent on there being another kiss.”
“I meant to kiss your cheek as...a thanks.” A mind-melting, toe-curling thanks. “You’re the one who turned your face and made it into something more.”
He dipped his head and spoke softly, his breath warm against her ear. “And you’re the one who smells like cinnamon and has this sexy kitten moan. I dream of hearing it again.”