Tina Leonard, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

That Starry Night

Read the Excerpt

Chapter One

Emma Glass was late to work, thanks to her two German shepherd puppies—as yet unnamed—who had decided they weren’t ready to be left without adoring companionship. So she called her best friend, Jenny Wright, over to babysit the new fur babies while she went to the clinic. Asking your best friend to watch your pets the day after Thanksgiving was no small thing, but Jenny agreed with a squeal and said she could study case law while she kept an eye on Emma’s pet menagerie: the pups, her high-minded blue-point Persian Princess, and her two beautiful lovebirds. Disorganized seemed to be the catchword of the day. Emma stuffed her red hair up in a bird’s nest, brushed her teeth, and hurried out the door. She shifted her very old green Jeep, turning into the parking lot of the sole vet clinic in Star Canyon, New Mexico, which had been run by her father before her, and which she’d taken over last year after her father had passed away. The last three years she’d had the pleasure of working at the clinic with him, learning under him, and getting to know her patients. The low-slung brown building that housed the clinic always felt like a second home to her, her father’s presence all around. Parking in the last spot in the employee section around back, she got out, stuck her feet in her rubber work shoes, and slipped her black backpack over her shoulder. Very urban, Jenny called the backpack, which had made Emma laugh, because they lived in a two-stoplight town of five hundred people. She grabbed up the paper sack of old, soft towels someone had kindly left on her porch as a donation for the clinic, and hurried toward the back door. “Oof!” Something large careened into her back, sending her sailing. The concrete parking lot was cold and hard, and remnants of snow clung to her jeans, but the sweet brown eyes in a golden-furred face charmed her instantly. “Hello, handsome! If you wanted attention, you could have just said so, Joe. I love the new camo bandana. Very big-boy.” She got to her knees, felt a strong hand haul her to her feet. She was pulled up against a strong, wide chest she had dreamed of being acquainted with for years, even back to high school when she’d spent all her time studying to get a college scholarship and he’d spent his time being the local rodeo star. Santana Dark brushed her clothes off and set her back on her feet. “I’m sorry as hell, Emma. Are you all right?” “I’m fine. Happens all the time when you work in a vet clinic.” Her eyes seemed glued—and traitorously so—to Santana’s tight backside as he picked up the towels, stuffed them back into the bag, and handed it to her.

He grinned. “Joe doesn’t know his own strength.” “So your sister introduced you to Joe.” She looked up at Santana, wishing she didn’t sound so breathless. But she was, and it wasn’t from getting knocked to the ground by a rambunctious seventy-pound junior Golden retriever. “I didn’t know you were back from Afghanistan.” He smiled, eating her up with his eyes, the way every woman said he made them feel. Emma begged her heart to quit racing. “Got back last night. Sierra said I had dog duty right off the bat because Joe needed to come see his friend and guardian angel, Dr. Glass.” He tugged lightly at a strand of Emma’s hair, which had exploded from its bird’s nest knot when she’d fallen. “You’d be surprised how often I thought about this crazy ruby-colored hair of yours while I was overseas.” She stepped back, gripping the bag of towels to her. “Why?” He shrugged. “I don’t really know.” Well, there it was. Just typical non-meaningful flirtation from one of the Dark brothers. The four of them—Luke, Cisco, Santana, and Romero—were all sex on a stick, and the women in Star Canyon had been trying to tie them down for years, with no success. “I’m actually late, so I better get inside.” She edged away from Joe’s tongue, eagerly trying to connect with her hand in a plea for more attention. “Glad you’re home safely, Santana. Bye, Joe.” She relented with a swift pat for Joe as she scurried inside the clinic, away from the fiercely sexy combo of a SEAL and his dog. Sierra had said Santana would need a friend when he got home, and adopted Joe on the spot, the day he’d been brought in, found dumped in Star Canyon. Sierra had also said it would keep her brother from lodging his head too far up his butt once he returned, so he’d “have something else to think about besides military crap.” That was Sierra—always working an angle, keeping her brothers from getting too comfortable out at their two thousand-acre ranch. Emma walked past the receptionist desk, handed Connie Merritt the bag of donated towels, and tossed her backpack into her office. “You’re late,” Connie said, following her. “Don’t think I didn’t notice Santana Dark’s truck parked out front and him taking that big lug of a dog around back for a potty break. What happened to your jeans?” Emma glanced down, spying the small tear. “Nothing.” Connie grinned. “He’s been trying to get your clothes off of you for years.” “Who?” Connie laughed and went back to her desk. “Ever thought about letting him?” she called back. That was the trouble with your receptionist being an old friend of the family—helpful advice got ladled out often. “You’re assuming I’d want him taking my clothes off.” She flipped on the lights in the first exam room, made sure the trays were out and clean for her first patient. The waiting room had filled pretty quickly—she’d spied two cats in carriers, Mrs. Sanders and her Chihuahua Betty, and little Marty Johnson with his guinea pig Squeakers. No sign of Joe and his new hunky dad, which would give her a chance to get settled into professional mode before she had to face Santana in the confines of a small examining room. Whew. “First patient of the day,” Connie said, too cheerful for words, as she ushered Joe and Santana in. Joe made a beeline for Emma. His master lounged against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, slightly amused. “Like a bull in a china shop, and a helluva welcome home gift from my kid sister,” Santana said. “So, who’s been trying to get your clothes off of you for years?” He laughed at Emma’s embarrassed expression. “Connie’s voice carries.” It was true. Which meant the entire waiting room had heard their conversation, and no doubt everyone knew Connie had meant Santana—or they would within the next five minutes once Connie filled in the details to all very interested parties. “You know Connie. She talks a lot.” “I thought she might have been talking about me. It’s not entirely true, but it wouldn’t be entirely false either.” Emma’s heart thundered. “Big talk coming from a man who hasn’t been in Star Canyon much in years.” She took a fast peep at the big-shouldered man casually eying her. Big brown eyes with long dark lashes. Sheepskin jacket, brown Stetson. Well-worn boots, great smile in a deeply tanned face. She was staring, and he’d noticed. She got Joe square on the silver table, pushed the button to raise the table to exam height, ignored Santana’s grin, and hoped she wasn’t blushing. “Hello, you big baby,” she crooned to Joe, who offered her a paw. “New trick?” she asked, shaking his paw and slipping him a treat.
“Sierra claims she’s been working with him. Was it your idea to send this overly large hound out to our ranch?” Thankfully they were off the dangerous topic of clothing removal. “The idea was all Sierra’s. She said you’d need a friend when you got home.” “My sister loves thinking she rules the roost.” He didn’t seem too worried about that, so Emma went back to checking Joe over. “You’ve put on six pounds since I saw you last,” she told Joe, running her hands over his wiggly body. “Good boy.” “Joe got a steak last night for dinner.” Emma raised a brow. “You feed him steak?” “He took the steak. Raw, before it hit the grill.” Santana laughed. “In the future, I won’t underestimate his reach.” “A little steak never hurt anyone, but don’t make a habit of that, young man.” She peeked in Joe’s ears, nodding with satisfaction. “You’re on the mend, buddy. No more infection, and according to your last stool sample, no more worms. Your blood test came back heartworm negative, which is excellent.” She moved the table down, and Joe jumped off with delight, wagging his tail. “Thanks for bringing him in. I’d hoped to see improvement, and my faith has been rewarded.” “You didn’t think Sierra would let any animal live a completely unpampered life, did you?” “Exactly why I allowed him to go to the Dark ranch as opposed to the six other people who offered to adopt Joe. I know your sister and your brothers have soft hearts.” Santana looked at her. “I notice you didn’t mention my soft heart.” A strange feeling hit her. It was the way he looked at her, studying her, like he was searching for an answer to which she didn’t know the question. “There’s nothing soft about you, Santana, but I think everyone in this town would say that you and all your family serve your country and are good to Star Canyon.” She closed up Joe’s folder, opened the door. “It’s good to see you again. Both of you.” Emma gave Joe one last fond pat and headed into the hallway. “Connie’s right about me, you know,” he murmured as he stepped into the hall, way too close for comfort. So very close, so tall and strong. He even smelled sexy, like clean, warm, manly skin, and she concentrated on keeping her distance. Not looking like she was falling under a spell. Emma thanked her lucky stars for Connie’s curious gaze and the full waiting room also staring at them with great interest so she could escape into the next examining room. “I have a guinea pig patient, and by the squeals I hear, mini-Marty is none too happy to be in an establishment with cats. Good-bye, Santana.” She hurried into waiting room 2 to the sound of Santana’s deep chuckle, her heart beating way too hard. Oh, who was she kidding? She was crazy about Santana Dark. So many muscles, so much attitude. But taking on that much heat—well, there was no reason for her to desert her geeky-girl origins. There was plenty of attraction between her and Santana, but attraction was nothing solid to build a relationship on. Or build anything on. The Dark men, every last one of them, had never been engaged and never pretended to be interested in matrimony. For that matter, Emma wasn’t exactly known for the longevity of her relationships. A few boyfriends scattered throughout college and one in vet school that might have turned serious if she hadn’t decided to return to Star Canyon. She’d made the right decision—knowing in her heart that she didn’t feel about any man the way she’d always felt about Santana. And it wasn’t something she could solely ascribe to unrequited youthful longings. Somehow she’d always known he meant more to her than any other man. She sternly commanded her blood to quit racing and the parts of her body which had no business heating to cool off. The very last thing she needed to do was drool after Star Canyon’s most elusive bachelor, now that he’d finally returned home—for however long.

• • •

Sierra glared at him when Santana walked into the big, roomy kitchen, a little in need of updating but still the cozy place they’d always gathered for meals. This was home, and he’d missed the hell out of it in a way he was just now beginning to understand. Here in this rambling ranch house, surrounded by miles of fields and pasture, was his touchstone. Everything he’d learned about being a strong, loyal person, deeply committed to family and community, he’d learned from his parents raising them in this house. “Where’s Joe?” his bossy baby sister demanded. “Outside taking in some fresh air.” “He should be with you at all times.” Santana edged into a ladder-back chair and gave his sister a stern eying. “Did you get Joe for me so that I’d have to go to the vet clinic to see Emma?” “Of course not!” She didn’t meet his eyes. “I got Joe because I knew you’d come home with all kinds of mental problems, the same mental problems you had before you left.” She looked thoroughly pleased with herself. “Joe needed a friend, and you need a friend. One plus one equals two good buddies who need each other.” “I think you sent me up there just so I’d have to be in a small room with Emma.” Which had been a pretty good plan, actually. Seeing Emma again, watching her calmly and capably taking care of her patients, had put her squarely on his mind. He stopped his sister’s cleaning of the kitchen table by removing the rag from her hands. “I smelled a rat when Connie told me Joe didn’t have an appointment.” “Oh, pooh.” Sierra shrugged. “Of course he had an appointment. Didn’t Joe get seen?” “Yes. First patient of the day. Which was also strange, given that there was a waiting room full of cats, dogs, and guinea pigs, and somehow, we got to see the pretty doctor first.” Sierra smiled at him. “How nice of Connie to fit you in. I mean, fit Joe in.” “You’re not doing this very well.” If there was one thing he knew about his sister, it was that she was a first-rate buttinski, rushing headlong where angels feared to tread, pushing her older brothers around because she knew she could get away with it. Usually. Not this time. “I’ll manage my own love life, thanks.” She sent him a sidelong glance and snatched the rag away. “Go away. You’re bothering me. Go teach Joe to fetch a tennis ball. He needs to burn off energy. And so do you.”
She glanced up. “By the way, I take it as an encouraging sign that you even notice that Emma’s pretty.” “Of course she’s pretty.” Emma was hot, with her rubber shoes and her big, friendly smile—not that she smiled at him all that much, but Joe had certainly gotten the treatment. She was sexy, always had been, but at twenty-nine, she was a full-blown woman men would look twice at, and more. Hell, even eight-year-old Marty had stared up at Emma with something akin to rapture on his little freckled face as he’d held Squeakers in a box like a trophy. Sierra laughed. “She’s too good for you, you know.” “Then why’d you send me to see her?” “Assuming I did, which I’m not admitting to, I just thought you’d want to see what you’re missing out on. Before it’s gone forever.” He raised a brow. “Where’s it going?” “I don’t know,” Sierra said mysteriously, “but the grapevine has it that one of our esteemed Star Canyon bachelors is planning to ask her out.” Santana swallowed a growl. “Who?” His sister smiled cagily. “I don’t know.” “You know.” “Foster Smith.” He rolled his eyes. “Emma wouldn’t go out with him.” Sierra didn’t say anything. She opened the back door, and Joe thundered in, shaking his body and jingling his collar, then making a beeline for Santana. He patted the dog, his fingers smoothing through the thick, golden coat. “Would she?” “On paper, Foster and Emma would be a good match. He teaches math at the high school, and Emma’s something of a brainiac. He also helps coach the kids and runs an after school program for kids whose parents work and have no place else to go. Helps them with their homework. Does any of this penetrate your thick skull, brother dearest?” “Yeah.” Santana got up. “Come on, Joe. Let’s go burn off some energy with a swim.” “In thirty-two-degree weather?” Sierra demanded. “Are you missing parts of your brain?” Maybe. Even likely. Unfortunately, all his brain wanted to do was think about Emma, now that he’d seen her again, been near that womanly body, heard her sweet voice. The scarred, caged beast in him roared, demanding to explore the comfort of soft, gentle territory. But freshly-returned from war was no time to appease the beast. It wouldn’t be fair to Emma. Four deployments, the last the worst of all. He had physical scars, of course: a couple of bullet wounds from enemy snipers, a long gash on his leg where an IED…he shut down the thoughts the beast wanted him to remember. He wouldn’t think or talk about those days. Nothing but icy-cold water was going to get Emma out of his mind now. He’d thought about her constantly overseas, and even then he couldn’t have said exactly why he couldn’t get her out of his mind—except for that one kiss they’d shared back in high school, courtesy of a dumb dare where Bobby Sanford had dared him to kiss the class geek because, as Bobby said, somebody had to throw himself on the pyre for the sake of mankind. So Santana had done it—a really fast kiss in the hallway as they’d lined up for graduation, when it was too late for teachers to do anything about it if Emma got all mad at him about it. He’d pressed his lips against hers, going for a fast kiss—and to his shock, found soft, pliable lips that molded to his and sucked him in, like kissing a delicious red velvet cupcake. He’d wanted to lean into the soft moistness that was Emma’s mouth so badly, but the greatest shock of all was when he felt her lips press against his in sweet response. He’d thanked his lucky stars the graduation gown covered the erection that sprang to life—and when the line of students erupted in cheers, he’d broken away, staring at her guiltily. Emma had looked back at him, her face a little flushed, her red hair spiraling out from under the white mortar board. He’d thought she looked like an angel. But the angel had gone off to college, and he’d gone off to enlist. The kiss had stayed on his mind. No matter how many women crossed his path, he’d never forgotten the softness of Emma’s mouth. All that sweet velvety hotness would be criminally wasted on well-meaning, upstanding-citizen Foster Smith.