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Dr. Colton's High-Stakes Fiancée
Cindy Dees


Whoever was on the porch moved again slightly. The intruder appeared to be crouching at the far end of the porch near the back door.

“I see you!” she shouted. “Go away before I call the police!”

But the intruder only slinked back deeper in the shadows. Her eyes were adjusting more to the dark, and she could make out the person’s shape now. There. Finally. Her fingers wrapped around the mace can. She pulled it out of her purse and held it gingerly in front of her like a lethal weapon.

“I swear, I’ll use this on you. Go on! Get out of here!”

But then she heard something strange. The intruder whimpered. She frowned. What was up with that? Surely she hadn’t scared the guy that bad. She heard a faint scrabbling sound … like … claws on wood decking.

Ohmigosh. That wasn’t a person at all. It was some kind of animal! She was half-inclined to laugh at herself, except this was Montana and a person had to have a healthy respect for the critters in this neck of the woods.

She peered into the shadows, praying she wasn’t toe to toe with a mountain lion. She wasn’t. Actually, the creature looked a little like a wolf. Except he was too fuzzy and too broad for a wolf. They were leaner of build than this guy. Nope, she was face-to-face with a dog.

She lowered the can of mace and spoke gently, “What’s the matter, fella? Are you lost?”

Another whimper was the animal’s only reply.

She squatted down and held out her hand. Okay, so a stray dog wasn’t exactly the safest thing in the world to approach cold, either, but she was a sucker for strays. Heck, she’d been collecting them her whole life. Yeah, and look where that had gotten me, a cynical voice commented in the back of her head.

The dog took a step forward, or rather hopped. He was holding his right rear leg completely off the ground. “Oh, dear. Are you hurt? Let me go inside and put down my purse and turn on a light and then we’ll have a look at you.”

She hurried into the kitchen and dumped her purse and mace canister on the table. She turned on the lights and opened the back door. “Come here, Brown Dog. Come.”

The dog cringed farther back behind an aluminum lawn chair. She squatted down and held out her hand. The dog leaned like it might take a step toward her and then chickened out and retreated even farther behind the chair. If she knew one thing about frightened animals, it was that no amount of coaxing was going to get them to go where they didn’t want to go. Looked like she had to go to the dog.

“Hang on, Brown Dog. Let me get some more light out there and then just have a look at you on the porch. Would that make you feel better?”

She kept up a stream of gentle chatter as she went inside, opened all the blinds and flooded the back porch with light. She stepped back outside. And gasped. The entire far end of her porch was covered with blood. As she watched, the dog staggered like it was nearly too weak to stay on its feet. Even though the dog had a thick, shaggy coat, she could still see hip bones and shoulder blades protruding. The creature was skeletal, his eyes sunken and dull in his skull.

And then she caught sight of his right hind leg. It was a bloody, mangled mess with white bone sticking out of a gaping wound she could put several fingers into. For all the world, it looked like he’d been shot. And the bullet looked to have nearly ripped his leg off.

Oh, God. This was way beyond her paltry skills with antibiotic cream and bandages. The sight of the wound nearly made her faint, it was so gory. She had to call a vet, and now. Dr. Smith, Honey Creek’s long-time veterinarian, retired a few months back, and the local ranchers had yet to attract another one to town. She’d have to call someone in Bozeman. She raced into the house and pulled out the phone book, punching in the first number she found.

“Hello,” a sleepy female voice answered the phone.

She blurted, “Hi. A dog is on my back porch. He’s been shot and he’s in terrible shape. I need a veterinarian to come down to Honey Creek right away!”

“I’m sorry, dear, but my husband doesn’t cover that far away. And besides, he’s out on a call. Said he’d be gone most of the night.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God. Breathe, Rachel. “Is there another vet in the area I can call?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know any small-animal vets who’ll go to Honey Creek. You’ll have to bring the dog up to Bozeman. Can I take your number and have my husband call you? He may have a suggestion.”

No way could she pick up that big dog by herself and hoist him into her car. And even if she did manage it, she suspected the dog on her porch wasn’t going to live another hour, let alone through a long drive over mountain roads. It might be twenty miles as the crow flew to Bozeman, but the drive was considerably longer. Especially at night, and especially when it got cold. Even the slightest hint of moisture on the roads would freeze into sheet ice in the mountains. “Thanks anyway,” Rachel mumbled. “I’ll figure out something else.”

She hung up, thinking frantically. Now what? She needed someone who could handle a gunshot wound. A doctor. Maybe she could take the dog down to the local emergency room—

No way would they let her in with a stray dog carrying who knew what diseases. She swore under her breath. She got a bowl of water for the dog and carried it outside. Tears ran down her face to see how scared and weak he was and how voraciously he drank. He was dying. And for who knew what reason, he’d wandered up to her porch. She had to get him help.

Without stopping to think too much about it, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed the phone number that hadn’t changed since she was in high school, and which she’d had memorized for the past decade and more.

“Hello?” a gruff male voice answered.

She couldn’t tell which Colton it was, but it definitely wasn’t Finn. She spoke fast before her courage deserted her. “I need to speak to Dr. Finn Colton. This is a medical emergency. And please hurry!”

While she waited a lifetime for him to come to the phone, the dog lay down on the porch, apparently too weak to stand anymore. Panic made her light-headed. He was dying right before her eyes!

“This is Dr. Colton.”

“Oh, God, Finn. It’s Rachel. You have to come. I tried to call a doc in Bozeman but he can’t come and there’s so much blood from the gunshot and I don’t know what to do and I think I’m going to faint and please, there’s no one else I can call—”

He cut her off sharply. “Unlock your front door. Lie down. Elevate your feet over your head. And breathe slowly. I’ll be right there.”

The phone went dead.

Why would she put her feet up? Time was of the essence right now. She ran into the kitchen and grabbed all the dish towels out of the drawer. The dog let her approach him and press a towel over his bloody wound, indicating just how close to gone he was. Pressure to slow the bleeding. That’s what they said in her Girl Scout first-aid training about a century ago.

The dog, which she noted vaguely was indeed a boy, whimpered faintly. “Hang on, fella,” she murmured. “Help is on the way.” She stroked his broad, surprisingly soft head and noticed that his ears were floppy and soft and completely out of keeping with the rest of his tough appearance. His eyes closed and he rested his head in her hand. The trust this desperate creature was showing for her melted her heart.

Oblivious to the pool of blood all over her porch, she sat down cross-legged beside the dog and gathered the front half of his body into her lap. He was shivering. She draped the rest of the towels over him and cradled him close, sharing her body heat with him. “It’ll be all right. Just stay with me, big guy. I promise, I’ll take care of you.”

The dog’s jaw was broad and heavily muscled, somewhat like a pit bull. Maybe half pit bull and half something fuzzy and shaped like a herding dog. Underneath the layer of blood he was brindled, brown speckled with black.

“Hang in there, boy. Help is on the way. Finn Colton’s the one person in the whole wide world I’d want to have beside me in an emergency. He’ll fix you right up. You just wait and see.”

Finn tore into his bedroom, yanked on a T-shirt, grabbed his medical bag and sprinted for the kitchen. He snatched keys to one of the farm trucks off the wall and raced out of the house, ignoring a sleepy Damien asking what the hell was going on.

He peeled out of the driveway, his heart racing faster than the truck. And that was saying something, because he floored the truck down the driveway and hit nearly a hundred once he careened onto the main road.

“Hang on, Rachel,” he chanted to himself over and over. “Don’t die on me. Don’t you dare die on me. We’ve got unfinished business, and you don’t get to bail out on me by croaking,” he lectured the tarmac winding away in front of his headlights.

He’d followed her home from the hardware store this morning—at a distance of course, where she wouldn’t spot him. He’d been worried at how she looked in her car in the parking lot. It was nothing personal, of course, just doctorly concern for her well-being. Good thing he had followed her, because he knew where she lived now. Turned out she was living in her folks’ old place. On the phone, she’d sounded on the verge of passing out from blood loss. And a gunshot? Had there been an intruder in her house? An accident cleaning a weapon? What in the hell had happened to her? First Mark Walsh, and now this. Was there a serial killer in Honey Creek?

He’d call Wes, but he’d left his cell phone back on his dresser at home, he’d been in such a rush to get out of there. He’d have to call his brother after he got to Rachel’s place. And after he made sure she wasn’t going to die on him.

“Hang on, baby. Don’t die. Hang on, baby. Don’t die—” he repeated over and over.

In less time than Rachel could believe, headlights turned into her driveway and a pickup truck screeched to a halt behind her car. Finn was out of the truck, medical bag in hand before the engine had barely stopped turning.

“Rachel!” he yelled.

“I’m right here,” she called back more quietly. “No need to wake the entire neighborhood.”

He raced up to her, took one look at the blood soaking her clothes and flipped into full-blown emergency-room-doctor mode. “Where’s the blood coming from? How did you get hurt? I need you to lie down and get these towels off of you—”

“Finn.”

“Be quiet. I need to get a blood pressure cuff on you. And let me call an ambulance. You’re going to need a pint or two of blood—”
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