Was she single? he wondered absently.
He opened his door, unfastening his seat belt with the other hand. “I take it that’s your car?”
She shot the green hatchback a glare of pure loathing. “Yeah, it’s mine.”
“Did it overheat?” He hazarded a guess, reasoning that even an igloo could overheat in weather like this. The air around them was sticky, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the tar-based road beneath their feet come to a boil.
“The gauge didn’t show any signs of overheating, but who knows? Gauge could be busted. Just about everything else is.”
Already unbuckling his own seat belt, Geoff asked, “Can I come take a look, too?”
As much time as the teen spent reading car magazines these days, he probably knew more about automotive mechanics than his father. Adam was used to working with his hands, but in surgery not in garages. “Sure. But stay off to the side of the road. Your mother would kill me if you wandered into traffic on my watch.”
This elicited a snort from Eliza, a formerly delightful child who seemed to have developed a personality disorder moments after blowing out the twelve candles on her last birthday cake. “Traffic? We’re in the backwoods of nowhere. They probably only get one car a day on this road.”
Brenna cocked her head to the side, smiling at his daughter through the open door. “Actually, someone passed by less than five minutes ago.”
At an apparent loss for a response, Eliza merely twisted a strand of her long hair and looked away. It was such a change from the constant sniping that Adam wanted to cheer. Instead, he asked Brenna, “The people ahead of us didn’t stop for you?” That didn’t bode well for the friendly small town he’d been promised in the tourism literature.
“They paused briefly, but were on the way to the county hospital. The passenger was in labor,” she explained, stepping aside to let Geoff pass, “so I told them I’d try to flag down the next car. I heard you coming by then and was hoping you’d be someone I knew. But-” She stopped, checking her watch. The leather band was covered with paw-print cutouts. Her hair, styled in a short, elegant bob, was tucked behind her ears, revealing matching silver paw-print studs.
“Problem?” Adam asked as she scowled.
“Time crunch. Would I sound too melodramatic if I said it was a life-or-death situation?”
“That’s my specialty,” he assured her wryly. Had he even introduced himself? Being trapped in the SUV with the kids had robbed him of his adult people skills. “I’m Dr. Adam Varner, cardiac surgeon from Knoxville. My children and I are staying in Mistletoe until just after July fourth.”
“At least two and a half weeks? Wish I could get my clients to go away for that long,” she murmured, more to herself than him. “Then I could replace the lemon.”
“I’m a local pet-sitter, owner of More than Puppy Love. I take care of other people’s animals. Like Lady Evelyn here. And Patch, a diabetic cat. His owner is in Savannah on business. I have to make sure Patch gets his daily insulin shots on time.”
“Someone keeps a pet even though they have to give it shots every day?” Eliza asked, climbing out from the back seat. Adam should have known that if he let one kid out, the others would follow. Just as well-they probably needed to stretch their legs. “Sounds like a lot of trouble.”
“It’s not ideal,” Brenna said, “but most of my clients consider their pets family members. You go the extra mile for someone you love.”
Though Adam couldn’t see his daughter’s expression behind him, he felt her accusing stare boring holes into his skull. Was she thinking of the instances he hadn’t made enough time for his own loved ones? He sighed, trying to be patient. It was true that he’d been overwhelmed by the demands of residency at the hospital and hadn’t been the husband and father Sara and the kids had deserved. But Sara had just remarried, happily moving on with her life, and Adam was doing his level best to reconnect with his kids. By the end of the summer, they’d see that.
“Daddy doesn’t like pets.” This was from curly-haired Morgan, not her terminally ticked-off older sister.
“That’s not true.” He turned, defending himself in a mild tone. “I grew up with animals. I’ve always liked animals.”
“But you wouldn’t get a dog for your place,” Eliza said. “Which would have been the perfect solution since we can’t have one at our house!”
Our house-the house he’d bought right after Sara discovered she was pregnant with Morgan. Sara had asked him to move out just before their youngest daughter’s first birthday. Watching his wife-ex-wife-marry someone else last weekend had been something of a wake-up call. An entirely new household was forming under his erstwhile roof; he was more determined than ever to make up for lost time. He never again wanted to feel as if he’d blinked and missed entire chunks of his children’s lives.
“Daddy Dan’s allergic to dogs,” Morgan informed Brenna, creeping forward with a hand outstretched to the Yorkie.
With effort, Adam managed not to flinch at the “Daddy Dan.” After all, Sara’s new husband had earned the moniker. He’d been there for Eliza’s dance recital when Adam’s patient had encountered postsurgical complications. Adam had tried to make the most of watching her ballet solo with her on tape afterward, but she hadn’t been mollified. Dan had also been there when Morgan got the chicken pox, sitting up with her at night to reapply calamine lotion and distract her from her misery. He was a good guy.
Pushing away an immature stab of resentment, Adam reminded Eliza, “I didn’t want to get a dog, because it wouldn’t be fair. I’m not home enough to take care of it and give it the companionship it deserves.”
“Right. You’re always at the hospital,” his daughter agreed. She flounced off to join her brother by Brenna’s car, not giving him much chance to respond.
He shot an embarrassed look at Brenna. Unaware of his past missteps with his daughter and the latitude he was trying to give her now, Brenna must think Eliza was a demon child and that he was the world’s most ineffectual parent. The redhead wasn’t looking at him, however.
Instead, she busied herself with showing Morgan how “Lady Evelyn” liked to be petted. Not for a minute did he believe Brenna had missed the tense exchange, but he was grateful she was pretending not to notice.
“I have my cell phone in the SUV,” he told her. “We can call someone for you. Or we can give you a ride, if that will get you to the cat faster.”
Brenna set down the dog but held on to the leash, not that the pooch seemed motivated to escape Morgan’s adoration. “We can try your phone, but reception in this particular spot is lousy. I would have called someone by now if I could get a signal. And I really do need to reach Patch.”
“We’re happy to take you,” he reiterated.
She bit her lip. “Well, I wouldn’t normally…”
Come to think of it, was he setting a terrible example picking up a stranger? He’d make sure the kids understood later that this was a rare exception. In her khaki shorts and navy-striped tank top, both of which revealed long, well-toned limbs, he couldn’t imagine where Brenna would conceal any weapons. Since he outweighed her by probably forty or fifty pounds, he was confident he could take her physically-a random thought that somehow got all turned around in his mind and heightened his awareness of the golden expanse of dewy skin.
Luckily Brenna, who was looking around at his kids, was oblivious.
She turned to him with the beginnings of a smile. “You don’t exactly seem like an escaped convict.”
He pulled his wallet from his jeans pocket and handed her his Tennessee driver’s license. “I’m an upstanding citizen, I swear. The only thing scary about me is my association with-” he affected a shudder “-teenagers. They’re not for the faint of heart.”
She laughed, a warm, husky sound. Pleasure tightened inside him, and he reminded himself that a responsible single father didn’t get lust-stricken on the side of a dusty road over a total stranger with his three kids standing right there. His sole purpose in Mistletoe was to focus on rebuilding his relationships with his children. He had only a few weeks to make up for the past few years. There was no room for distractions.
Brenna pulled a business card out of her pocket and handed it back with his license. “I once helped take care of a ball python, so I should be able to brave teenagers.”
“It’s settled, then,” Adam said. “We’ll take you to give Patch his injection and to figure out what to do about your car once the medical crisis has passed.”
She hesitated only a heartbeat before nodding. “Let me grab Lady E’s bag out of my car and make sure the doors are unlocked. With any luck, some enterprising thief will figure out a way to get it running and steal it.”
BRENNA WAS ACCUSTOMED to odd “herds.” She’d once worked for a family who owned a domesticated pig, two hermit crabs and a ferret. And she was no stranger to unusual human clans, having been raised by a man with no biological ties to her and a woman who would have been well within her right to resent the heck out of her presence. So despite Dr. Adam Varner’s alternately mortified and apologetic glances during their drive into Mistletoe town proper, she was mostly undaunted by his children’s antics.
The littlest Varner, with her mop of unruly honey-gold curls and light eyes, looked the least like her father and was also the least inhibited. Brenna would have expected such a small child to be shy, but Morgan chattered constantly. She was the one who volunteered that they were on “vay-cay-tion,” pronouncing the word with emphatic concentration, “because Mama and Daddy Dan wanted alone time to kiss. Last week I saw Geoff kissing his girlfriend on our couch!”