On a dark summers night, with only occasional bolts of heat lightning to relieve the blackness, Layla stretched her stiff legs as best as she could while driving the rented moving van. All her worldly possessions were stuffed behind her as she drove the long five hour trip. She turned left onto a gravel road, almost there now, almost to her new home in the country and to her new life in nearby Durant, Oklahoma.
Off in the distance, an orange, yellow, and red glow flickered on the horizon. A large gray cloud emerged from above the glow. A fire! Layla pulled into the long winding driveway as flames leaped, dancing in the wind, while devouring the old weathered wood barn. She jumped from the van and ran toward the blazing flames. That barn was supposed to be an animal shelter and headquarters for her new job. Layla felt like she was watching a funeral pyre for her new life. What kind of new beginning was this?!
The fire, hot as the hinges of hell, singed her strawberry blonde hair as she ran into the choking cloud of billowing black smoke. Layla couldn't see more than a few inches in front of her face. Something ran into her causing her to collided into what felt like a brick wall and her knees buckled.
"Get out, lady!" Large gentle hands clasped her shoulders to stop her from falling upon impact, and then practically forced her back out of the heat.
Layla's heart faltered at the sound of the deep, rich baritone voice. His blue eyes locked onto her brown ones then widened with surprise. Or was it appreciation? Perhaps the scorching heat was roasting her thinking processes? Something soft squirmed against her chest before she realized his brawny arms were filled with whimpering rabbits. He was rescuing the baby animals! Although glistening with sweat and smudged with charcoal, too sooty to distinguish his features, he seemed like a knight in not-quite shimmering armor. "Who are you?" Layla whispered.
"I'm Asher." Asher remembered his mission as the weights wiggled in his arms. "Here." He thrust the bundle of panicky rabbits into her arms before brushing a stray lock of strawberry blonde hair from her lovely round face. He took a giant step back, away from the temptation of her feminine and athletic form. Asher wondered why no one warned him that she was such a beauty. "You must be Layla, the new vet," he tossed back over his shoulder as he again ran toward the barn to save more animal shelter strays.
Layla settled the newborn rabbits on the grass, well away from the blazing barn, as fire engines roared into the driveway. Firemen hollered out directions to each other, working in harmony with hoses to blast water into flames. Asher hauled out the baby rabbits’ mother, handing it and three more strays to Layla, before dashing back for another rescue.
Professionals that they were, the firemen had the inferno down to a smolder in no time. One of the fire fighters led Layla to a large neighboring ranch house at the end of the lane and told her the owner said for her take care of the rescued animals there.
Although she kept her hands busy by washing the smoky scent from the rabbits, her mind zoomed from one worry to another with the speed of a NASCAR race. What would she do now that she had nowhere to live or work? Was this some kind of curse? Layla wondered what she had done to deserve this.
Would her new partner want to rebuild the animal shelter? She'd never spoken with him directly, but had been interviewed by the relocating vet who was to hire a replacement partner. What did the future hold for her? Layla sighed deeply. Only two hours ago she was giddy with glee, full of positive attitude, and excited at the potential for the new direction she was taking with her life.
Cleaning her third bunny she thought that despite the animal shelter in ashes down the lane, again and again, she wondered just who precisely was Asher? Where had he come from and would she see him again? He wasn't what she would call handsome, covered head to toe in grime, but there was something about him… something she liked. Something she hadn't felt for a very long time, that happened instantly when their gaze met. Well, Layla conceded, their head-on collision could have knocked her senses out of whack. She'd simply misread their physical impact. Nah. It wasn't chemistry.
She settled the rabbits into a makeshift bed, and looked out at the rising sun. She was starting to feel a little tired after the long night. No sooner had she cleaned up her mess than she heard the smooth baritone that Layla recalled from earlier. She turned her head toward its source and her mouth went dry. Surely this wasn't Asher? This man was freshly showered, his features no longer smudged and indistinguishable. She inhaled deeply as she detected the pleasant sensation of his pure masculine scent. With his tan coloring, dark brown hair, and blue eyes that also held a mixture of humor, wisdom, and kindness, the man before her could give any number of professional male models a run for their money in the fluttering-of-the-female heart department. The smoky voice was saying something, but her heart was thudding too unevenly to hear. This man couldn't possibly be the one from before, could he?
Yet he smiled slowly at her gaping mouth and that rich deep tone rumbled, "You okay, Layla?" Wow! Swallowing hard, she forced her gaze away from his blue one before her face could betray her thoughts. He looked like a modern-day gladiator with broad shoulders, corded neck, and perfectly sculpted face. When she dared another glance, he stared at her for a moment. From the twitching at the corner of his mouth, Layla guessed he was trying to hold back a laugh. She wasn't sure if she wanted to slap him or kiss him now. Instead, she cleared her throat. Twice. "I'm fine thanks."
Asher leaned his back against the wall and stuck his hands in his belt loops, regarding her with that same lazy, sexy smile. Disturbed, Layla looked away. Asher held out one large hand. "I'm Asher Dudek by the way." When her much smaller hand gripped his in a handshake, Asher attempted to regulate his breathing. He'd prayed for God to make the way clear, to make the path obvious in the direction Asher should take his life. Now this woman was fresh-out of places to live until the barn was reconstructed. How did you invite a gorgeous woman you've just met to spend the night without making it sound like a pick-up line? "Welcome to Durant, Layla."
She snorted ineloquently. "Yeah sure. I arrive just in time for heat lightning to strike and start an inferno. Some omen, huh?" Asher tried to catch his breath, reminding himself of why he couldn't let himself like her. Or touch her athletic body. Yet he couldn't release the smooth olive hand in his. Her touch was affecting him like being struck with a white-hot bolt of heat lightning. "Hmm. Start an inferno is right."
He reluctantly released her hand when she tugged. She nibbled on her bottom lip as her brown eyes narrowed on him. Her honey-sweet voice seemed to pick up a little spice when she asked, "How was it that you were there at the fire so quickly?" "I live here."
She swallowed hard, then practically squeaked her realization. "You?!" It wasn't a question. For the first time, Asher wondered if the attraction went both ways. She didn't sound necessarily pleased about it. In fact, her next statement sounded more like an accusation. "You are my new partner!"
Asher nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Dr. Asher Dudek D.V.M. at your service." When she all but growled her frustration, he added, "Don't worry. We'll rebuild." She tossed her hands in the air before hitching a thumb back toward the lane. "I can't exactly live in that moving van while the shelter is under construction."
Asher took a step toward her and closed the gap. He watched her breathing speed up. "You can live with me until then. There's lots of rooms to choose from. I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship." She shook her head, flipping strawberry blonde hair back over her shoulder, then tipped her stubborn chin in the air. "That's partnership, mister. Not relationship."
"Yes," Asher agreed. "That too. It takes an equal partnership for any relationship to work. After you interviewed for the job, the vet you're replacing told me you're sweet, big-hearted, and a good doctor. He failed, however, to mention how beautiful you are."
She grumbled, "He failed to mention my future partner could double for a male model if he needed a change of employment." Layla’s eyes widened and she clamped a hand over her mouth, she hadn’t meant to say that out loud. She whipped her eyes off his form-fitting t-shirt, her cheeks turned crimson with embarrassment.
Laughing, Asher shook his head. Oh yes, this would be interesting. She was definitely interested in him whether she wished it so or not. God had definitely handed Asher a blessing when He sent Layla. The animal shelter burning down was like a flashing neon sign for Asher's life, sending Layla into more than his business, sending her into his home as well. God was looking out for Layla, too. She just didn't realize it yet.
Asher motioned toward the hallway. "Pick a room, any room, for your stay. Then I'll help you carry in your suitcases so you can shower away the smoke and soot from the fire. In the morning, I'll help you unload the moving van." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "Welcome home, Dr. Layla Myers."
With that, Layla spun around and practically stomped toward the hallway. Asher smiled after her. Feisty. Dang but if he didn't like that about her too. If you want more let me know