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Linda Lael Miller is the author of seventy historical and contemporary romance novels, many of which are set in the American West. She was awarded the Romance Writers of America's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Sometimes, especially in the dark of night, when pure exhaustion sank Olivia O'Ballivan, DVM, into deep and stuporous sleep, she heard them callingthe finned, the feathered, the four-legged.
Horses, wild or tame, dogs beloved and dogs lost, far from home, cats abandoned alongside country roads because they'd become a problem for someone, or left behind when an elderly owner died.
The neglected, the abused, the unwanted, the lonely.
Invariably, the message was the same: Help me.
Even when Olivia tried to ignore the pleas, telling herself she was only dreaming, she invariably sprang to full wakeful-ness as though she'd been catapulted from the bottom of a canyon. It didn't matter how many eighteen-hour days she'd worked, between making stops at farms and ranches all over the county, putting in her time at the veterinary clinic in Stone Creek, overseeing the plans for the new, state-of-the-art shelter her famous big brother, Brad, a country musician, was building with the proceeds from a movie he'd starred in.
Tonight it was a reindeer.
Olivia sat blinking in her tousled bed, trying to catch her breath. Shoved both hands through her short dark hair. Her current foster dog, Ginger, woke up, too, stretching, yawning.
"O'Ballivan," she told herself, flinging off the covers to sit up on the edge of the mattress, "you've really gone around the bend this time."
But the silent cry persisted, plaintive and confused.
Olivia only sometimes heard actual words when the animals spoke, though Ginger was articulategenerally, it was more of an unformed concept made up of strong emotion and often images, somehow coalescing into an intuitive imperative. But she could see the reindeer clearly in her mind's eye, standing on a frozen roadway, bewildered.
She recognized the adjoining driveway as her own. A long way down, next to the tilted mailbox on the main road. The poor creature wasn't hurtjust lost. Hungry and thirsty, tooand terribly afraid. Easy prey for hungry wolves and coyotes.
"There are no reindeer in Arizona," Olivia told Ginger, who looked skeptical as she hauled her arthritic yellow Lab/golden retriever self up off her comfy bed in the corner of Olivia's cluttered bedroom. "Absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, there are no reindeer in Arizona."
"Whatever," Ginger replied with another yawn, already heading for the door as Olivia pulled sweatpants on over her boxer pajama bottoms. She tugged a hoodie, left over from one of her brother's preretirement concert tours, over her head and jammed her feet into the totally unglamorous work boots she wore to wade through pastures and barns.
Olivia lived in a small rental house in the country, though once the shelter was finished, she'd be moving into a spacious apartment upstairs, living in town. She drove an old gray Suburban that had belonged to her late grandfather, called Big John by everyone who knew him, and did not aspire to anything fancier. She had not exactly been feathering her nest since she'd graduated from veterinary school.
Her twin sisters, Ashley and Melissa, were constantly after her to 'get her act together,' find herself a man, have a family. Both of them were single, with no glimmer of honeymoon cottages and white picket fences on the horizon, so in Olivia's opinion, they didn't have a lot of room to talk. It was just that she was a few years older than they were, that was all.
Anyway, it wasn't as if she didn't want those thingsshe didbut between her practice and the "Dr. Dolittle routine," as Brad referred to her admittedly weird animal-communication skills, there simply weren't enough hours in the day to do it all.
Since the rental house was old, the garage was detached. Olivia and Ginger made their way through a deep, powdery field of snow. The Suburban was no spiffy rigmost of the time it was splattered with muddy slush and worsebut it always ran, in any kind of weather. And it would go practically anywhere.
"Try getting to a stranded reindeer in that sporty little red number Melissa drives," Olivia told Ginger as she shoved up the garage door. "Or that silly hybrid of Ashley's."
"I wouldn't mind taking a spin in the sports car," Ginger replied, plodding gamely up the special wooden steps Olivia dragged over to the passenger side of the Suburban. Ginger was getting older, after all, and her joints gave her problems, especially since her "accident." Certain concessions had to be made.
"Fat chance," Olivia said, pushing back the steps once Ginger was settled in the shotgun seat, then closing the car door.
Moments later she was sliding in on the driver's side, shoving the key into the ignition, cranking up the geriatric engine. "You know how Melissa is about dog hair. You might tear a hole in her fancy leather upholstery with one of those Fu-Manchu toenails of yours."
"She likes dogs," Ginger insisted with a magnanimous lift of her head. "It's just that she thinks she's allergic." Ginger always believed the best of everyone in particular and humanity in general, even though she'd been ditched alongside a highway, with two of her legs fractured, after her first owner's vengeful boyfriend had tossed her out of a moving car. Olivia had come along a few minutes later, homing in on the mystical distress call bouncing between her head and her heart, and rushed Ginger to the clinic, where she'd had multiple surgeries and a long, difficult recovery.
Olivia flipped on the windshield wipers, but she still squinted to see through the huge, swirling flakes. "My sister," she said, "is a hypochondriac."
"It's just that Melissa hasn't met the right dog yet," Ginger maintained. "Or the right man."
"Don't start about men," Olivia retorted, peering out, looking for the reindeer.
"He's out there, you know," Ginger remarked, panting as she gazed out at the snowy night.
"The reindeer or the man?"
"Both," Ginger said with a dog smile.
"What am I going to do with a reindeer?"
"You'll think of something," Ginger replied. "It's almost Christmas. Maybe there's an APB from the North Pole. I'd check Santa's Web site if I had opposable thumbs."
"Funny," Olivia said, not the least bit amused. "If you had opposable thumbs, you'd order things off infomercials just because you like the UPS man so much. We'd be inundated with get-rich-quick real estate courses, herbal weight loss programs and stuff to whiten our teeth." The ever-present ache between her shoulder blades knotted itself up tighter as she scanned the darkness on either side of the narrow driveway. Christmas. One more thing she didn't have the time for, let alone the requisite enthusiasm, but Brad and his new wife, Meg, would put up a big tree right after Thanksgiving, hunt her down and shanghai her if she didn't show up for the family festival at Stone Creek Ranch, especially since Mac had come along six months before, and this was Baby's First Christmas. And because Carly, Meg's teenage sister, was spending the semester in Italy, as part of a special program for gifted students, and both Brad and Meg missed her to distraction. Ashley would throw her annual open house at the bed-and-breakfast, and Melissa would probably decide she was allergic to mistletoe and holly and develop convincing symptoms.
Olivia would go, of course. To Brad and Meg's because she loved them, and adored Mac. To Ashley's open house because she loved her kid sister, too, and could mostly forgive her for being Martha Stewart incarnate. Damn, she'd even pick up nasal spray and chicken soup for Melissa, though she drew the line at actually cooking.
"There's Blitzen," Ginger said, adding a cheerful yip.
Sure enough, the reindeer loomed in the snow-speckled cones of gold from the headlights.
Olivia put on the brakes, shifted the engine into neutral. "You stay here," she said, pushing open the door.
"Like I'm going outside in this weather," Ginger said with a sniff.
Slowly Olivia approached the reindeer. The creature was small, definitely a miniature breed, with eyes big and dark and luminous in the light from the truck, and it stood motionless.
"Lost," it told her, not having Ginger's extensive vocabulary. If she ever found a loving home for that dog, she'd miss the long conversations, even though they had very different political views.
The deer had antlers, which meant it was male.
"Hey, buddy," she said. "Where did you come from?"
"Lost," the reindeer repeated. Either he was dazed or not particularly bright. Like humans, animals were unique beings, some of them Einsteins, most of them ordinary joes.
"Are you hurt?" she asked, to be certain. Her intuition was rarely wrong where such things were concerned, but there was always the off chance.
She approached, slowly and carefully. Ran skillful hands over pertinent parts of the animal. No blood, no obvious breaks, though sprains and hairline fractures were a possibility. No identifying tags or notched ears.
The reindeer stood still for the examination, which might have meant he was tame, though Olivia couldn't be certain of that. Nearly every animal she encountered, wild or otherwise, allowed her within touching distance. Once, with help from Brad and Jesse McKettrick, she'd treated a wounded stallion who'd never been shod, fitted with a halter, or ridden.
"You're gonna be okay now," she told the little deer. It did look as though it ought to be hitched to Santa's sleigh. There was a silvery cast to its coat, its antlers were delicately etched and it was petitebarely bigger than Ginger.
She cocked a thumb toward the truck. "Can you follow me to my place, or shall I put you in the back?" she asked.
The reindeer ducked its head. Shy, then. And weary.
"But you've already traveled a long way, haven't you?" Olivia went on.
She opened the back of the Suburban, pulled out the sturdy ramp she always carried for Ginger and other four-legged passengers no longer nimble enough to make the jump.
The deer hesitated, probably catching G...