Subgenre: Contemporary Romance
Book One in the Hope Series
When it comes to love, they already know the rules…by heart.
Thirty-two and finally setting up her veterinary practice in the town she once called home, Emma Burnett is on her own and loving it. Independent and driven, she’s not letting any man get in the way of her dreams. Not again.
That’s fine with Luke McCormack. Divorced and hardly lacking in female company when he needs it, he’s devoted to the only faithful companion in his life—his police dog. Still, there’s something about Emma he can’t shake.
When a series of local break-ins leaves Emma vulnerable, she seeks help from the first man to spark her desire in years. And now they’re giving each other something they thought they’d lost forever… hope.
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"If you're looking for a sweet, hot, small town romance, Hope Flames fits the bill perfectly."
Read the entire review.
"This was a great start to a new series. A hero with commitment issues, a heroine who is just a little bit broken and a bunch of adorable animals. Trust me, this is a winning combination."
— Book Binge
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" ...a heartwarming second-chance-at-love contemporary romance enhanced by engaging characters and Jaci Burton's signature dry wit... "
— HEA USA Today
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Start Reading Chapter One
Emma Burnett could have never imagined that going hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt would be so exhilarating.
She could barely contain her excitement as she looked over every aspect of her just-about-to-open new veterinary practice with a heavy dose of pride and more than a little trepidation.
It was six-fifteen in the morning. Her staff would be arriving soon. She grinned at the thought. She had a staff now.
“We’re here, Daisy. We made it.”
Daisy, her yellow Labrador retriever, thumped her tail and looked up at her, dark eyes filled with adoration. You had to love a dog because no matter what happened, they’d always love you back. You could have an awful day, be grouchy and in the worst mood, and your dog would still sit at your feet and be there for you.
Emma rubbed Daisy’s head and locked up her bag in her office, then closed the door, moving into the lobby. Daisy followed along, sniffing every square inch of gleaming tile Emma had spent the weekend polishing to perfection.
Sure, she could have had a cleaning service do that, but this place was hers and she wanted to do it herself. Then, after she’d cleaned, she’d inventoried, going over every scalpel, forceps, I.V. pole and thermometer. She’d inventoried all the drugs—twice—from antibiotics to pain medications, making sure everything was in order.
This place was hers. She still couldn’t quite believe it.
She swept her hand over the pristine reception desk, tapped her finger on the desktop computer that was hopefully filled with appointments for the day, then moved on through the double doors leading to the back room where the sparkling instruments awaited her first touch.
Cages were ready, and so were the exam rooms. The OR was prepped. Everything was spotless and sterilized.
She was in debt up to her eyeballs, but, come hell or rising water from the creek down the road, this place was all hers now. It had taken years and more than a few major detours, but Hope Small Animal Hospital was now owned and operated by Dr. Emma Burnett, DVM.
She inhaled and blew it out, letting the dual feelings of satisfaction and utter terror wash over her. At least this time it was a healthy dose of terror. Not like before.
It would never be like before again. She’d lost five years of her life on that mistake and now, at thirty-two, she was making a late start. But after going back to school and working with a veterinary group in South Carolina, she was finally home and on her own with a practice that was all hers.
A knock on the front door made her startle. She curled her fingers into her palms.
“Calm, Emma. This is your big day.” She hurried to the door, grabbing her keys out of her lab coat pocket.
It was Rachel, her receptionist, along with Leanne, her tech. Her two assistants were the gas in the engine that drove this clinic. She smiled and unlocked the door. “Good morning.”
“Mornin’, Doctor Emma,” Rachel said with a grin, her arms laden with donuts and coffee. “Thought you could use these.”
“It’s so good to be back here again,” Leanne said, her long blonde hair braided into two pigtails, her purple scrubs decorated with tiny paw prints.
They sat in the tiny break room together and ate donuts, drank coffee and went over the appointments for the day.
“You have a full day, Doctor Emma,” Rachel said.
“Really? That’s great.” She wanted to leap up and pump her fist in the air, but that would be so unprofessional.
“Doc Weston always had a full waiting room.” Leanne licked donut icing off her fingers. “Everyone was disappointed when he had to close so suddenly. So were we.”
“No kidding,” Rachel said. “Leanne and I were lucky to hook up with the Barkley clinic on the north side of town after Doc Weston closed, but Barkley sucks.”
“Understatement,” Leanne said. “The doctors there are dicks.”
Emma would not smile about that. Really, she wouldn’t.
Leanne nodded. “I’ve been spreading the word about the reopening. It’s like Field of Dreams, Doc. People will come.”
Emma let out a hopeful sigh. “That’s so good to hear.” She wanted to be busy. She needed to fill this place up with clients.
Since Dr. Weston had retired six months ago, the clinic had been closed and Hope residents had to go to the other clinic for animal care. Bruce Weston had been a wonderful veterinarian. He’d taken care of Emma’s terrier Soupy and her collie Max when she’d been a kid and she’d loved him. She’d always been eager to come here and look at all the pictures of animal breeds on the wall of the exam rooms, check out the charts and the models of the insides of dogs and cats. She’d been curious and he’d smiled, sat down with her, always willing to answer all her questions. Besides her utter love of animals, Dr. Weston had been one of the primary reasons she wanted to become a veterinarian. He was kind, patient, and had taken just as much care of the owners as he had of the animals.
She’d been sad to hear about his heart surgery and subsequent retirement, but happy for him now that he and his wife Denise were moving closer to their grandchildren in Colorado. She’d been ecstatic that he’d been amenable to her buying out his practice. It had taken a whirlwind trip from South Carolina back here so she could meet face to face with him to iron out the particulars once she’d found out his practice was for sale. He’d been generous in his price and had helped her work out the loan details so she could get it done.
Maybe her luck was finally changing.
At six forty-five they cleared out the remnants of donut nirvana and Rachel, ever efficient, booted up the computer, while Emma and Leanne set up the rooms and instruments, ready for the first patients to start rolling in.
And did they ever. The first clients started coming in as soon as they opened the doors at seven. The clinic offered drop off service for people on their way to work in Tulsa. Since they were on the main road leading to the highway, it was convenient. People could drop off their animals, Emma would diagnose and treat them throughout the course of the day, and their owners picked them on their way home from work. She charged a minimum boarding fee to house them for the day.
By eight o’clock, the appointment customers started piling in and Emma reacquainted herself with the people in her town. She’d been so busy renovating the clinic, updating inventory and working with her staff since she’d come home she’d had no time to visit with anyone. She wished she’d had a chance to see her sister, but Molly didn’t come home. Ever. Period. If she wanted to see her little sister, she had to first track her down, since Molly was as mobile as they came, and then fly or drive to whatever location Molly called home that particular month.
They talked on the phone at least once a week, and that would have to be good enough for now.
At the moment she had her hands full with a hundred and forty pounds of very exuberant Newfoundland, who was happily slobbering on her neck as she performed an exam.
“He’s very healthy, Mrs. Lang,” she said, as she and Leanne wrangled King, who was determined to play with them. He stuck out his tongue and slurped her face.
Good thing she appreciated dog drool.
“He’s eating my pear tree. Bits of bark at a time.” Mrs. Lang did not look happy.
“Do you take him out for walks? How big is your back yard? Do you have other dogs for him to play with?”
“King is our only dog, and the yard is small. And well..he’s kind of a lot to handle. It was my husband Roger’s idea to get him.” Mrs. Lang looked mournfully at King. “He was such a cute little puppy.”
Many people thought puppies were so cute. The problem was, cute puppies often grew into giant dogs. Like King. She glanced over at the Lang’s chart to check out their address. “He needs exercise and stimulation. There’s a great park over on Fifth. Does he walk on a leash?”
“Yes. Very well. I made Roger take him to those classes.”
“Excellent. If you walk him twice a day and take him to the park, it will help work off all this energy he has. Also, I highly recommend neutering him. You don’t want him to get out and father a bunch of unwanted pups, do you? And it will help settle him.”
The morning flew by in a blur of shots, exams, worming and one tiny and filthy Pitt bull puppy someone had found in a ditch. She was a mass of flea bitten adorable, a brown and white baby who’d either been abandoned or lost. The person dropping her off said she couldn’t keep her because she had two Rottweilers at home and couldn’t possibly handle one more dog, but she couldn’t leave her shivering in the morning cold, either. Though it was late spring and the days were warming, the nights were still cool.
Emma assured the woman they’d clean her up and find her a good home. She examined the pup, and other than needing a serious flea bath and a good meal, she was healthy, thankfully. She gave the pup to Leanne, who took her away to give her the flea bath and her first round of puppy shots.
She only had time for a quick bite of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she’d packed for lunch when the second round of afternoon clients came in. Daisy wound her way around the clinic, checking in on Rachel and Leanne as they did their work, too. Emma was so thankful to be this busy, she had no complaints. They were jammed all afternoon until the last pick up at closing, when her staff finally left.
It was quiet. She swiped her hair out of her eyes and breathed a sigh of utter contentment as she walked around the clinic.
It had been a good first day. This is what she’d wanted, what she’d worked so hard for. She’d lost sight of it for a while and thought she’d never have it.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
Daisy’s ears perked up and she bounded out of the office at the sound of the deep, booming voice in the lobby.
Emma had thought she’d locked the door.
She hurried out to see a man holding a German shepherd by the leash who sat regally while Daisy tried to play with it.
“Daisy, come here.”
Daisy came over and sat dutifully next to her, her tail whipping against Emma’s lab coat.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah. I saw your lights were on and was hoping you’d still be open. My dog hurt his leg.”
He came toward her, and she took a wary step back, until he walked under the overhead lights and she saw he was wearing a cop uniform. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“You scared me there for a second.”
“I’m really sorry. Luke McCormack. I’m local police here. This is my dog, Boomer.”
McCormack. Last name sounded familiar but she couldn’t quite place it. She’d definitely remember a guy who looked like him. Tall, broad shouldered, wearing a uniform that fit him—very well. Dark brown pants, lighter brown shirt. Gun strapped to his hip. Very dark hair, cut short, full lips. Serious expression, which only made him look…
Hot. Sexy. Though she didn’t think about men being sexy these days. She didn’t think about men at all, and hadn’t for a very long time.
As he approached, she noticed the dog was limping. “Oh. What happened?”
“We were chasing a perp—uh, a suspect. Boomer must have twisted his leg in a hole or something because he yelped and came up limping. I was headed toward the Barkley’s vet clinic and saw Doc Weston’s office was open again, so figured I’d stop here first. If you’re closed, I can—”
“No. Of course, I’ll look at him. Bring him on back.” He walked side by side with her and she noticed how very tall and broad he was. Daisy wound between them, licking the officer’s hand and staring adoringly up at him.
Yeah, some watch dog you are, Daisy. Daisy wasn’t exactly what one could consider a personal bodyguard, unless excessive licking and an overabundance of affection counted as weaponry.
Emma led the officer into the exam room and flipped on the lights, then turned around and knelt down, trying to calm her stupid, raging heartbeat. She smiled at the dog. “Okay, Boomer. Let’s take a look.”
“Boomer. Sit,” the officer said.
The dog sat and she examined his leg. He whimpered as she pressed on it. After finishing the exam, she lifted her gaze to the police officer. “Officer McCormack, I’d like to get an x-ray of this leg. I don’t think anything’s broken, but I want to be sure.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
“You can come with me. It’ll calm him to have you there.”
“So, you bought Dr. Weston’s practice?” he asked
Again, that voice of his. Deep and seriously…unnerving, but not in a bad way. It was doing something to her nerve endings she found decidedly...
Uncomfortable wasn’t the word. She just noticed his voice. And so did her body. “Yes. I bought it right after he retired.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I got your name.”
She looked up at him and frowned, then realized she’d been a complete moron and hadn’t bothered to introduce herself. “I’m so sorry, officer. I’m Emma Burnett.”
“Nice to meet you, Emma. Are you new in town?”
“Actually, I grew up here. My parents live over on Willow.”
He nodded. “Did you go to Oakdale High?”
“No. I went to Hope High.”
“Oh. I went to Oakdale.”
That’s why she didn’t recognize him right off. He’d gone to the high school nearer to the county line. “Your name sounds familiar. Did you play football for Oakdale?”
“Yeah. Wide receiver.”
Now she knew why the name sounded familiar. He’d been some kind of football star. She remembered reading about him in the newspaper. He’d been good.
“So this is your clinic now?” he asked.
She grabbed the film and slid it in.
She looked up. “Excuse me?”
“Call me Luke. Not officer, and definitely not sir. Too formal.”
He’d cracked a smile. He had a quirky, kind of off-kilter smile, and greenish blue eyes that went really well with his dark hair. He had a rugged face, a square jaw and again, that really sexy mouth.
Not that she was looking at him in that way, because she didn’t do that anymore. She and men were definitely off limits. She’d learned her lesson the hard way.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t be nice to her clients. “Okay, then, Luke. Let’s get this x-ray going. I need you to position his leg here for me, then if possible, ask him not to move.”
“No problem. Boomer—stay.”
Boomer lay perfectly still as they went behind the screen so she could take the shot.
“Good boy.” Luke said to Boomer after the x-ray was taken. He swept his hand over the dog’s back and neck, showing care and affection.
She liked seeing that in a dog’s owner.
“Just one more film and that should do it. I need to turn him this way.”
Luke helped her, and she couldn’t help noticing his hands. Strong. Big. Masculine, with a fine sprinkling of dark hair on his forearms. He hadn’t worn a coat inside, and had some serious muscle peeking out from the hem of his uniform shirt.
But she wasn’t looking, and she definitely wasn’t interested, despite the pinging in her nerve endings that thought otherwise.
Chemistry couldn’t be denied. But that was biology. She had a choice, and she already knew what her choices were these days regarding men.
She took Luke behind the screen and captured the second x-ray.
But he did smell really good, though it wasn’t cologne. Shampoo, maybe? Or soap? Did they make scented soap for men? She had no idea.
But she wasn’t interested, so it didn’t matter what kind of soap he used.
“Are we done?”
She looked at him. “Yes. Yes, we are.” She turned one way and he went the other, so they bumped into each other. He reached out for her arms to steady her, and she found herself staring up into those amazing eyes of his.
“No. It’s my fault.” He took a step back and she moved around him.
He had her acting like a teenager all filled with raging hormones. Ugh.
“Just wait here a second with Boomer so I can make sure we don’t need to retake any shots.”
She hurried out of the room, and took a deep breath when she got into the reading room.
What was wrong with her? She’d had male customers all day long. Some had been really good looking, too, yet none of them had affected her like Luke was doing now.
Likely because she hadn’t been alone all day. That had to be it. She never put herself in a position to be alone with a guy. And though Luke was a police officer, owned a dog and seemed all nice and trustworthy, she knew better than to trust any man.
She’d been naïve and trusting once, and it had cost her dearly. She was never going to be that stupid again, no matter how gorgeous a man was, or how nice he seemed.
Or how good he smelled.
Besides, this was the year of her career and nothing else. And so far, day one had been spectacular.