The temporary vet had been working for the practice one whole week, and Joy wasn't at all sure he should be there another day, never mind waiting until they had appointed someone permanently. It wasn't that he didn't work hard, or that he didn't know his job, because he did; his experience was extensive and his meticulous punctuality and his enthusiasm were A1. No, it was none of these things; it was his attitude that got up her nose and not only hers but Mungo's and everyone else's too. He'd be in shortly and she was wishing like hell he wouldn't be, and that it would be the much-lamented Scott who would be nonchalantly strolling in to collect his call list, his devastatingly blue eyes twinkling, his hands in his pockets, and be setting himself out to flirt with her. But it wasn't to be; all she could do was make sure that over her dead body would this particular temp become a regular member of the staff. Glancing at the reception clock, she saw she had only five minutes exactly before the glass doors swung open and he would march in, brisk and alert, eager for whatever the day would bring, good or bad.
She checked his list of calls for the fourth time to make sure he couldn't find any fault with it and wished Kate weren't on her day off because she seemed to know instinctively how to deal with him. Kate needed a break, though. She'd been looking ghastly this last week, and they all knew why but didn't dare say a word to her because Kate was endeavoring to carry on as though Scott had never existed, but it was evident from her face that he'd worked his magic on her, as he had on others, and his sudden departure had hit her hard. Joy heard the outer door open and braced herself for the arrival of Daniel Brown.
Somehow he could have been excused some of his bluntness if he'd been good-looking but he wasn't. He was a couple of inches under six feet, well built, very dark haired with a kind of craggy face that even his mother couldn't call handsome, and he had large, challenging, alert brown eyes, which missed nothing. Also, there was a sort of "in your face" energy about him which intimidated lesser mortals.
The inner glass door crashed open and there stood Dan, in his brown corduroy trousers, his checked sports jacket and matching cap; jaw jutting, his dark eyes wide awake, eager to begin his day's work. "Good morning, Joy. Got my list?"
"Good morning to you. Here it is, Dan; long list today, I'm afraid."
"Afraid? Why afraid? Isn't that what work is about? I shan't earn my keep if I'm sitting about all day twiddling my thumbs. Those results back from the laboratory?"
"The mail hasn't come yet, unfortunately."
"That isn't your fault; I'll ring in during the morning."
Joy nodded her head. Come back, Scott, all is forgiven.
"Right, I'll be away then. There's something wrong with the Land Rover. That chap who had it before me must have driven it like a maniac. Which garage do you use for servicing the vehicles?"
"Where is it?"
Joy turned to the map pinned behind the reception desk and pointed it out to him. "But Mungo likes to know; I'll tell him."
"No need for that. I'll take it and see what they say. Something to do with the transmission. I can't afford for it to break down and leave me stranded with calls still to do. That's not the way to run a practice, is it?"
"Well, no, it isn't."
"Are they not serviced regularly?"
"Of course they are; but we can't repair them before they've gone wrong, can we?"
"Is it you responsible for seeing them serviced?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"When is the service due, then?"
"I asked a simple question."
"I'd have to get the records out."
"Then do it now; let's find out. I can't afford to be standing around here wasting time." Dan tapped his fingers impatiently on the reception desk.
"At this time in the morning I'm busy with clients and appointments. I'll have a look later when I've a few minutes to spare."
Dan shrugged his shoulders. "Very well, but don't say I didn't warn you. I can't stand inefficiency; and if the Land Rover breaks down today, that's exactly what it will be: inefficiency, yours not mine."
"If it's cost you're concerned about, I can assure you that if I take it to the garage myself, don't fret yourself, they won't overcharge me."
Joy, seething with the injustice of his opinions, thought, No, I bet they won't. They'll do it for free just to get you off the premises.
He studied his list for a moment. "This first call, Lord Askew's? Is it a stately home, then?"
Joy answered him as civilly as she could: "A minor one, but stately all the same. We do all his farm work, but his horses are looked after by a practice near Sherborne."
"Why don't we do all his veterinary work?"
"Because his horses are rather special; the Sherborne practice specializes in equine work, and he prefers to use them."
"That's enough to get my back up. However..."
"Be seeing you."
"Indeed." Dan nodded his head at her and dashed out through the front door.
Livid with temper and more determined than ever that he had to go, Joy listened to the roar of the Land Rover and heard it brake suddenly; and then there was the screech of brakes other than his. But there was no sound of metal on metal, so they must have missed each other. Pity.
Dan roared off, guided by the sign for Askew Newton as he was leaving the town. He'd spent a whole evening in the clinic painstakingly copying onto his own large-scale map the names of the farms and their positions from the map behind the reception desk, so now with only the briefest reference to his handiwork he could head off to the various clients. It took a while to get to know all the farmers and their own particular idiosyncrasies; but he was already getting the hang of the place, and Dan had to admit to a liking for it. It hadn't been easy coming back to England after seven years abroad, but a clean break had been the best thing. He'd done that and found this job in less than a week of returning, and he had half a mind to stay if they would have him.
He swung into the turning for Lord Askew's place, admiring the beautifully sculptured parkland and enjoying the glimpse he caught of the large stone house through the trees.
He pulled up in an immaculate cobbled courtyard surrounded by stables. A groom was walking a horse across the yard. Dan didn't know when he'd seen a more princely looking animal. It was a wonderful roan, just the shade which appealed to him. He admired it for a moment, thoroughly enjoying its beauty.
The groom called to Dan. "Morning, can I help?"
Dan got out and went across to him. "My name's Dan Brown, from the Barleybridge Veterinary Hospital, come to see Chris? Has a cow with mastitis."
"That'll be through the archway."
"Right." Dan paused for a moment, looked at the horse and said, "Don't like the look of the action of his front feet." He touched his cap to the groom, climbed back in the Land Rover and swept away through the arch. Now this really was a well-kept place. Just what he preferred to see. Attention to detail meant well-cared-for animals and he liked that, did Dan. Nothing he hated more than careless husbandry. In fact, if it was careless, husbandry was a misnomer.
A man he took to be Chris came out to greet him. "Where's Scott, then?"
"Gone back to Aussie land in a hurry."
"Not surprising. Woman trouble I expect! He was a rare womanizer, was that Scott. There wasn't a female anywhere around these parts who hadn't fallen for his charm, including her ladyship. Pick of the lot of 'em he could have had. So, it's goodbye, Scott, and hello...?"
"I'm Dan Brown, come to see a cow with mastitis."
"I'm Chris, nice to meet you." Chris appraised Dan with a piercing eye as he shook his hand and said, "That Scott was a bad lad, but he knew his job."
"You'll find no fault with me. Lead the way."
"Didn't say I would; just didn't want you to get the wrong impression of Scott."
"How big's your herd?"
"One hundred and forty-three at the moment. All pedigree Guernseys."
Dan was impressed, but he was appalled when he saw how ill the cow was.
While he took her temperature he very, very quietly asked how long she'd been like this.
"Three or four days, not bad like, just off color more than anything this morning..."
After checking the thermometer and feeling the affected quarter of the cow's udder, Dan straightened up and looked Chris in the eye. "You're the stockman, are you?"
"Are you sure?"
Puzzled, Chris nodded again.
"No stockman worth his salt would allow a cow to suffer like this. She's been more than "off color" as you put it for three or four days, as well you know. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. It could be almost too late to save her. Is his lordship about this morning?"
Chris took a deep breath, "Out riding. But..."
"There's no buts about this. How many years' experience have you had?"
"Eleven years in charge, but look here, it's not my fault."
"Kindly tell me whose fault it is, then? The gardener's or the housemaid's or someone?"
"No, of course not, but his lordship..."
"Oh! I see, now it's his lordship to blame, is it. What time is he usually back from his ride?"
"Any time now."
"I'll deal with the cow and then I'll deal with him."
"It's the money you see."
Dan wagged his finger at Chris, saying, "I don't expect owners to lavish care on their beasts, but I do expect them to be well cared for. With veterinary work, a good motto to remember is 'a stitch in time saves nine,' and you'd do well to abide by that."
"But that's what he doesn't..."
"I bet one of his eventers would have had quicker treatment than this, no matter the cost."
"Yes, but you see..."
"It may surprise you to know that cows feel pain just as much as horses."
Dan, having assessed the cow's problem, went back to his vehicle and picked out the drugs which past experience told him he would need. He returned and concentrated on treating the cow. While he waited for an injection to bring down the milk into the infected quarter to take effect, he gave the cow antibiotics into the vein. After a few minutes he was able to strip out the milk and give the cow some relief. "I would normally suggest that I leave you some antibiotics for you to give her for the next three days; but in view of your reluctance to call us in, I'll be back in the morning myself first thing. Right?"
Angered by his attitude, Chris said, "Right. Perhaps next time you might let me get a word in edgeways."
Dan turned back. "I'm so sorry, please...be my guest."
"His lordship gets wild if I call in a vet too early or if he considers we could have managed without. It's the money, you see. It all goes on the horses. It's more than my job's worth; I've a wife and children, and we're living in a tied house and that. If I upset him we'll all be homeless. Scott knew that and made allowances."
"I beg your pardon. I was angry; it always affects me like that when pain could have been avoided. I'll clear it with..." The clatter of hooves and a loud, braying voice interrupted him.
Quietly Chris said, "That's him back."
"Right. See you tomorrow." Dan, emerging from the archway, saw a splendid black horse skittering about on the cobbles; and mounted on its impressive back was a giant of a man in immaculate riding kit. From under his riding hat a thick swath of snow-white hair framed a ruddy, well-fleshed face with a prominent pulpy nose dominating it.
"Mornin' to you. Who might you be? Here, Gavin, take him for me." Lord Askew dismounted and eyed Dan up and down. He was a head taller than Dan, so the word giant was very apt. His shoulders were wide, his chest built like a barrel and his arms were thick as tree trunks.
Dan held out his hand. "I'm Dan Brown from Barleybridge."
Lord Askew ignored his outstretched hand. "Seeing that damned cow of mine, I've no doubt. Eh? More cost. Coming back tomorrow, are you, on some flimsy excuse? More money. Never ending it is."
Dan deliberately kept his voice low in sharp contrast to his lordship. "You have a herd of over a hundred cows and you can't expect them to produce milk at the rate they do without needing attention from time to time..."
"Eh? Speak up. Can't hear."
Dan raised the level of his voice but kept the same quiet determination in his tone. "I'm sorry to have to say this, but I should have been called earlier. In fact, to be honest, I'm annoyed your stockman has felt compelled to leave it so late."
Lord Askew began to bluster. "I damn well don't know who you are, but whoever you are you've too damn much to say for yourself. Too damn much, and I shall be having a word with Mungo Price about you. What's yer name, you say?"
"Dan Brown. You can have as many words as you like, but Mungo will agree with me that she shouldn't have been left for so long. As I have several other calls to make this morning; if you will excuse me, I must leave right now."
"Damned impertinence! There's no need to come back in the morning. My stockman can see to her."
"Either I take responsibility for her or I don't, you can't have it both ways. I shall be here tomorrow. By the way, that roan"- he nodded his head in the direction of the roan now tethered to a ring in the stable wall- "has a problem with its front feet."
Lord Askew's face registered shock bordering on horror. "Eh? Eh?"
"Good morning to you."
Dan drove away seething with temper and well aware he'd made a big mistake tackling Lord Askew in the way he had, but people like him made his blood boil. Mungo would be rather less than pleased to have that blustering idiot complaining on the phone, though.
Excerpted from Country Wives by Rebecca Shaw. Copyright © 2006 by Rebecca Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.