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Excerpt: Don't Promise Me Rainbows

Book 3

Rainbow Rock Romance Series

 

Chapter One

No doubt about it, Jezebel was in trouble. She lay on her side in the farrowing pen, groaning and making hard little grunting sounds, her pink trotters thrashing the new straw. She’d been like this for more than an hour. Chris groaned too, running his hand over his short blond hair in abject frustration.…

A sharp noise from down the aisle sent him scurrying to check on Flossie. He grimaced when he saw her. Flossie wasn’t doing any better than Jezebel. Chris drew in a deep breath and blew it out through his teeth. It was nothing but foul luck that put two of his best sows into labor at the same time, both with difficult births.

He couldn’t help flashing on a memory. Farmers lost animals. It was the reality of the business. But the loss he’d experienced when he was barely thirteen had stayed with him throughout the years. It had happened only days after his father’s death. One of the hands sent him for help and he’d rushed to his sister, Joan. She called their large animal vet and Doc Richards came as soon as he could, but six of the piglets died before help arrived.

Chris had felt the loss acutely, but he’d also felt the depth of his love for the work and the animals and the farm. That was the day he’d decided he’d grow up to run Rainbow Rock Farms.

He’d checked Jezebel a few minutes before. Experience told him the first piglet was large and turned sideways, blocking the space so the rest of the litter couldn’t be delivered, and positioned so it was impossible for Chris to grab it. Then while Chris was working with Jezebel, Flossie had started groaning. He’d checked her too, and found exactly the same problem. One difficult birth he could probably handle, but two?

He straightened. What he needed was help. From habit, he thought first of his brothers, but Jim was away on a business trip in California and had taken his wife and baby daughter with him. Kurt was honeymooning with his new bride; they wouldn’t return for another week. Here he was, in need of help and fresh out of brothers.

Even his mother, who lived on the farm, was away this week, visiting his sister Joan and brother-in-law Bob, helping their three little children through an unexpected bout of flu. Chris was on his own, smack-dab in the middle of Rainbow Rock, Arizona.

A sharp squeal brought him out of his reverie. Flossie was clearly in pain. The litter needed to be delivered, and fast. Dashing to the end of the hallway, he yanked out his cell phone and punched in the number for Doc Richards’s office. The family vet for more than thirty years, the doc had seen more birthing emergencies in more varieties of animals than most people ever heard of. He’d even delivered a camel once. If there was anyone qualified to help in this emergency, it was Richards. The phone rang three times before a female voice answered, “Richards Veterinary.”

Caught off guard, Chris stammered, “I-I want to speak to Richards.”

“He isn’t in today. How may I help you?”

“Where can I find him?”

“What’s your emergency?”

Chris felt his knuckles whitening on the receiver. “Look, I need to talk to Doc Richards. Can you put me in touch with him?

 

Now?”

The woman sighed. What did she have to be impatient about? He made a mental note to talk with Richards about his pushy new receptionist. “Dr. Richards is unavailable. What is your emergency?”

Chris bit his lip, becoming angrier by the moment, but he was beginning to realize that if he wanted any help at all, he was going to have to play this woman’s game. He could tell her she was an officious Amazon queen later, after Flossie and Jezebel were okay, their piglets safely delivered. Steadying himself, he said, “This is Chris McAllister at Rainbow Rock Farms. I have two sows farrowing, both in trouble. Both seem to have first piglets presenting in unusual ways. Neither can deliver without help and I’m alone here.”

“How long are the labors?” It sounded like the woman was taking notes.

“The first has been trying to deliver for about twenty minutes; the second, maybe fifteen. I called as soon as I could. Look, I need the doctor. Can you find him for m—’’

“I’ll be right there.” The line went dead.

I’ll? Had the Amazon queen said I’ll? Chris put his phone in his pocket and hurried back to Flossie.

She was still struggling to deliver, her whole body pulsing with each contraction. Feeling helpless, Chris went back to Jezebel, who was now straining harder than ever. He needed Doc Richards and he needed him now. Fearing he was on his own, Chris pulled on sterile gloves and decided to do what he could for Jez.

Several long minutes and one good kick from Jezebel later, Chris managed to push the badly positioned piglet back far enough that he could get a finger on the creature’s snout. After that it took only a few seconds of groping before he located the two front feet. With a quick tug, he jerked the trotters around into the birth canal. Jezebel heaved, thrusting away from him, and he lost his grip, but before he could try again, she was delivering. With the logjam broken, the little porker slid out into the straw, feet first as nature intended. “Good for you, Jez!” Chris said encouragingly, and then knelt to have a look at the little one.

He was a boar, as Chris had suspected, and a big one for certain, bigger than most newborns by far—maybe ten inches long. But something was wrong. A quick check revealed that although the little guy had a heartbeat, he wasn’t breathing. Chris flipped him to his back and began massaging his abdomen, pressing the pads of two fingers into the little guy’s diaphragm. It took three tries, then there was a hissing sound—like air released from a bike tire—and the piglet took a breath. Exultant, Chris rocked back on his heels, just in time to see Jezebel deliver a second piglet, this one a tiny sow that squealed almost as she hit the straw.

“Good work, Jezebel,” he repeated, stroking the pig’s side. She grunted in apparent satisfaction and delivered a third healthy baby. Deciding she was doing well enough on her own, Chris stood, determined to do what he could for Flossie, but a close examination had already told him that her case was more difficult than Jezebel’s. He tensed his jaw. Then, as he started toward Flossie’s stall, he heard a truck pull up outside.

He gave Flossie a quick check first. Nothing seemed changed. Then he strode toward the doorway and out into the sunlight. It was Doc Richards’s truck. Wiley C. Richards, D.V.M. gleamed in sedate black lettering along the panels of the back. But the slim, fragile-looking redhead who slipped from behind the wheel certainly was not the tall, lanky, gray-haired who’d helped at the farm at least once a month for as long as Chris could remember. This delicate young woman barely looked strong enough to lift the medical kit she was wrestling off the front passenger seat. She’s the officious Amazon queen?

Uncertain of how he should proceed, Chris asked, “Where’s the doc?”

“I’m the doc,” the redhead answered, not even looking up as she unloaded various tools from the back of the panel truck, putting them into her medical bag. “Sarah McGill, D.V.M., University of Arizona. I even have a license to practice, issued by the state last spring.” She straightened, giving him a withering look. “Now, where’s my patient?”

Chris hooked a thumb toward the farrowing shed. “In here.” He turned, leading the way, wondering as he walked what this petite young woman could do with a sow well over twice her size. When he arrived at Flossie’s stall, the redhead opened the gate and slipped past him, dropping to her knees at Flossie’s side while Chris was still wondering how she got in there so fast. She barely took a moment to examine the sow. “Do you have some heavy twine? Baling twine, maybe?”

Chris bristled at her take-charge attitude, but answered anyway. “Sure. There’s a basket near the door where we keep the twine off the straw bales.”

“Bring some. Hurry. Then get in here and help me if you can.”

“Sure thing,” Chris grumbled and moved to comply. He still had serious doubts about whether this little slip of a thing could do anything when he couldn’t, but if she stood a chance of saving Flossie and her litter, he had to give her a try. He was back promptly, carrying the twine.

“Good,” the redhead said, barely looking up at him. She had put on sterile gloves and was now busy working near Flossie’s belly, injecting something into the sow’s haunch. “Unravel that twine, then come help me.”

“Right,” Chris growled, but under his breath, he added, “You’d darn well better know what you’re doing.”

“Okay,” the redhead said, looking up at him. “I’m going to try to get a loop around the little one, around a foot if I can. If not, I may have to put the loop around its neck. Once the loop is fixed, I’ll need you to hold the sow on her side with two feet in the air while I use the twine to yank the piglet. We might lose this baby in the process, but we can save the sow and the rest of the litter. Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” Chris answered, moving to Flossie’s side.

For several long seconds, she fumbled with the pig and the twine, and then looked up with a triumphant grin. “Got it! Now, roll her up. There. Okay, let’s go,” she instructed, giving the twine a firm, steady pull.

For several seconds, nothing seemed to happen, then miraculously, as if in slow motion, a snout emerged. Behind it came two front trotters, bent at the knees and turned back on themselves, and then the rest of the piglet.

Chris watched, trying to remember to close his mouth. “Amazing,” he murmured when he regained his power of speech. The way those front trotters were turned backward, he’d have sworn it would never work.

But the lady vet wasn’t through. “Okay, he’s free.” She held the little boar in both hands. “Now let’s see if we can get him started.” She slipped the noose from around the piglet’s neck and rolled him onto his back, rubbing life into him as Chris had done minutes before with Jezebel’s firstborn.

Chris watched, admiring her skill and her care. He noticed how red her hair was, almost coppery where it picked up stray shafts of sunlight. He noticed the snowdrop whiteness of her skin. He noticed too that her commands had softened as soon as the level of emergency diminished. She worked with an absolute economy of motion, palpating the piglet’s diaphragm until he finally breathed. “That should do it,” she said as she set him down. “How’s Mama doing?”

“Just fine,” Chris answered as he watched Flossie deliver her second piglet with ease.

“Great!” the redhead answered, relaxing for the first time since she arrived. She turned to Chris, blue-green eyes sparkling. “Now, where’s the other one?”

“Other one?” Still impressed by what he’d just witnessed, Chris went blank.

“The other sow?” the woman prompted. “The unusual presentation?”

“Oh, Jezebel. I took care of her before you got here.”

A look of confusion crossed her face, transforming itself into grudging respect. Something about her look, the turn of her head, reminded Chris of someone. “Mind if I look at her?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Chris said. Suddenly feeling generous, he led the way down the aisle toward Jezebel’s stall. They arrived just as Jez delivered another healthy piglet. The straw around her was littered with baby pigs.

“Looks like she’s doing fine,” the lady vet said approvingly. She rubbed Jezebel’s ears and crooned, “Aren’t you, sweetheart?”

 

The pig snorted and leaned into the woman’s hand. Chris stirred uneasily. He’d never felt envious of a pig before. The redhead gave Jezebel a thorough once-over, then looked around. “You have standing racks?”

“Yeah,” Chris answered.

“Okay if we get her into them? I think she’s through delivering, and we wouldn’t want her to roll over on one of these little guys by accident.”

“Good idea,” Chris answered. He walked to the sow’s head. “Come on, Jez. Time to get up now.” The pig, trained from years of human contact, obediently stood and followed him into the standing racks, where he rewarded her with an ample measure of grain. He fastened the gate behind her. All around, the piglets swarmed in, each latching onto a teat.

“One, two…,” the lady vet counted under her breath. “Looks like you’ve got sixteen healthy babies here. That’s more than she can suckle.”

“Yeah, Jez is one of our best producers,” Chris gloated. “That’s why I worry when she has a problem. Mimsy gave birth to eight yesterday. I’ll bet she’ll take on Jez’s extras.”

“I think everything is fine now,” the redhead answered, her voice flat. There was an odd air of sadness about her. “Shall we check on Flossie again?” By the time they returned, Flossie had delivered eight and seemed well on her way to producing a record litter. “Everything looks fine here, too,” the vet said as she began to pack up her things.

Chris remembered his business manners. “What do we owe you?”

“The office will send you a bill.” She kept on packing.

Curious, Chris changed his approach. “What happened to Doc Richards, anyway?” He leaned againt the fence rail, watching her as she worked. He noticed the way her slim back moved beneath the fabric of her shirt and the way her glossy hair shone. She sure is pretty. Doesn’t look like any vet I’ve ever known. He shook off his wayward thoughts and focused on what she was saying.

“Dad was kicked by a horse,” she answered. “Broke his kneecap. I’m afraid he’ll be out of commission for a few weeks yet.” She spoke so matter-of-factly that the first word almost slipped by.

But Chris had heard it. “Dad?” he repeated slowly. “Doc Richards is your dad?” Then he knew why she looked familiar. “You’re Sarah Richards!”

For a second, emotion flashed in her eyes, eyes almost as turquoise as the beautiful stones the Navajo silversmiths worked into their jewelry. That heated look made Chris want to lick his lips, but it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Sarah’s voice was icy as she answered, “It’s Sarah McGill—Doctor McGill to you, cowboy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Chris answered, his face dimpling in a cheeky grin. “But you were Sarah Richards. I remember.”

She looked perplexed. “You remember? But I don’t remem— Wait a minute! You’re the youngest brother, right? The one we used to call Goldilocks!”

Chris cringed. It had been at least ten years since anyone had used that hated nickname. The last time, he’d been sixteen and finally starting to get some size. The kid who said it had spent the next ten minutes catching his breath and the following half-hour apologizing. “My name is Christopher McAllister,” he answered coolly. “That’s Chris to you, Doc.”

The lady grinned, her brilliant eyes twinkling. “That’s a deal, Chris. And you can call me Sarah.” She offered her hand.

Chris took her hand in his, holding it firmly. “Sarah,” he answered, acknowledging her words. “Thank you for helping me with Flossie today.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” She released his hand and started to turn away.

He caught her arm, noticing as he did so that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. What he wanted was to see those brilliant eyes flash again the way they had a few moments ago. “You know, Sarah McGill, for a nice-looking woman, you’re not a bad animal doctor.”

She lifted her chin, a defiant gesture, and her eyes flashed as he had hoped they would, but there was a look of pure mischief in them when she said, “I’d have said that for a brilliant veterinarian, I’m not bad looking.” She pulled away from him, tossed him a look that almost curled his toes, hopped into her truck, and barreled down the gravel road, raising a plume of red dust in her wake.

“Whew!” Chris whispered as he watched her go. He’d felt this way once before, when he was nine and an ornery mule kicked him in the stomach. Only this time it felt good, really good. He wondered if, and when, he might see Sarah McGill again.