Summer Rose

Summer Rose
Elizabeth Sinclair

January 2012 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-089-3

The Second Book in the Hawk's Mountain series
 
Our PriceUS$14.95
Code978-1-61194-089-3
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Can their love survive a secret he never suspected?

A tragedy transformed Rose Hamilton from a surrogate mother for her beloved foster sister into a single mom expecting twins. But when she walks into Dr. Hunter Mackenzie’s West Virginia wildlife rehab clinic—with her pregnancy still a secret—all he sees is a gorgeous, likable woman applying for a job.

Rose doesn’t want a romance with the handsome veterinarian who doesn’t suspect that she’s expecting, and who’s already got plenty of trouble thanks to a mayor who wants to rid his town of Mac’s lion cubs and injured wolves.

Why would a man who obviously loves the wild life want to fall in love with a ready-made family?

Book Two of the bestselling Hawk's Mountain Series

"Elizabeth Sinclair lulls you into a place and holds you there.” – Vicki Hinze, bestselling author of the Crossroads Crisis Center series.

Elizabeth Sinclair is the award-winning author of eighteen romance novels. The next book in her Hawks Mountain series will be FOREVER FALL. Visit her at www.elizabethsinclair.com.

Reviews

"…is a warm regional romance…local flavor…compassion…a tender pairing of two people fearful of relationships falling in love as he recognizes her as a natural and she realizes he is her hero." -- Klausner’s Bookshelf – Midwest Book Review

Excerpt 

Granny Jo’s Journal

Summer

Hi, ya’all,

So you took my advice and came back to our little town for another visit. But even if it’s your first visit to Carson, you’re not gonna be disappointed. Now that the temperatures have heated up, it seems things around town are doing likewise.

George Collins, Carson’s windbag mayor, is harassing Doc Mackenzie about all the wild animals he has out at the Paws and Claws Animal Clinic and Wildlife Sanctuary. George says they’re a danger to the community. Doc says George has bees in his bonnet, and there’s nothing dangerous about any of his animals. Can’t convince the darn fool mayor that they’re just babies, and they’re not gonna hurt a soul. Doc’s holding his ground, but if George has his way, Doc will have to get rid of them. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with Davy, George’s boy, working at the sanctuary.

Rumor has it that Doc’s new assistant and Davy have something up their sleeves, but no one knows what it is, not even Laureene Talbot, which is a minor miracle considering there’s nothing in this town that old busybody doesn’t get wind of. Guess we’ll all have to wait and see.

Becky and Nick’s wedding plans are in full swing and should be ready to go right on time for their late summer wedding. Last I heard Becky’s ordered daisies for the entire wedding: church, bouquets and all. She says there’s something special about them little white flowers that means something to her and Nick. Won’t say what. Her and Nick just smile and kiss whenever I ask.

There’s a new gal working at the social services office with Becky. Name’s Amantha James. Goes by Mandy. My Becky says she’s a real go-getter and has a plan for the school that’s gonna turn a few heads. But that’s a tale for another day.

The house that Jonathan Prince fella is building outside town is really coming along. It’s gonna be a big one, too. A mansion, some say. One of the young men Nick’s training to be an EMT works for the construction company building it, and he says, outside of the big hotels in Charleston, he’s never seen anything this size before.

Well, I have to go now. It’s time for Lydia Collins’ radio show, and I never miss it. After that, I’m off to Charleston with Becky to have lunch at one of those big, fancy restaurants, and then we’re gonna pick out her wedding gown. But don’t you go away. I have a feeling things around Carson are going to get real interesting, real fast, and you won’t want to miss a minute of it.

Love,

Granny Jo


 

Chapter 1

She took one look at him and gagged.

The reaction of the stunning, auburn-haired woman, who’d just entered the Paws & Claws Animal Clinic and Wildlife Sanctuary, surprised Dr. Hunter Mackenzie. He’d never thought of himself as particularly handsome, but he wasn’t that bad either.

As he stared at her, she clamped one hand over her mouth and pressed the other one to her flat stomach. She closed her startlingly blue eyes and swallowed repeatedly.

Deciding her reaction had been physical and no fault of his, he pressed the telephone’s mouthpiece, into which he’d been talking when she’d entered the clinic, against his shoulder. "Are you all right?”

Swallowing one last time, she coughed lightly, and then removed her hand from her mouth. "I’m fine. I think I may have eaten something for lunch that didn’t agree with me.”

He studied her for a moment. "Are you sure?” Though her face remained pale and drawn, she smiled wanly and nodded. To be certain, he waited a moment before going back to his phone call. He motioned toward the waiting area at the side of the room. "Why don’t you have a seat while I finish my phone call?”

She nodded and walked to the grouping of plastic chairs lining the clinic’s waiting room.

Hunter’s alert and decidedly appreciative gaze followed her shapely form across the waiting room, noting almost absently that she had no animals with her. Once she’d safely seated herself, he removed the phone’s receiver from his shoulder. With a sigh of resignation, he went back to his conversation with the mayor of Carson, West Virginia, George Collins.

"George, none of the sanctuary’s animals have ever escaped or attacked any of the townspeople. What keeps making the council think they’re a safety risk?” Stupid question. Hunter knew who kept the belief alive. Since he’d become mayor of Carson, Collins had launched a ridiculous crusade to shut down the sanctuary. Hunter would make book on it that George had browbeaten the council members into agreeing with him. The odd part was that Hunter had no idea why George was so hell-bent to shut it down.

"Listen, Mackenzie, we know you took in an African lion the other day. We can’t have that kind of threat living on the edge of a populated community.” Collins’ voice boomed from the phone into Hunter’s ear.

The frustration building inside Hunter threatened to overwhelm him. He took a deep breath, and then leaned forward, planting his forearms solidly on the desk. "Good grief, George, why don’t you people call me before you get yourselves all in a lather? The lion is a cub, orphaned when its mother died. He’s just a few weeks old. It’ll be quite a while before he poses a risk to the town or anyone in it. By then, I’ll have found a zoo that will take him.”

"The cub will soon be gone, but that doesn’t solve the problem of the other animals you keep out there and the ones that will inevitably replace the cub.” The mayor’s voice gained volume again. "They’re wild, too, and dangerous. They...”

While Mayor Collins again listed all the reasons for closing the sanctuary, arguments Hunter had heard every time he obtained a new animal, he assessed his female visitor.

She busied herself by leafing through a magazine she’d found on the side table. Unfortunately, because of her bent head, a thick curtain of auburn hair obscured her face from his view. As if she’d heard his thoughts, she swept back her shoulder-length hair and tucked it behind her ear. The color had begun to return to her cheeks, and he noted that her skin had a peaches and cream quality that he’d only read about in books.

"Mackenzie, do you hear me?”

George’s irate voice blasting into Hunter’s ear pulled him abruptly from the pleasurable view. He sighed and dragged his attention back to his tormentor. "Yes, I hear you. What I’m not hearing are any new arguments to convince me to close down the sanctuary. I don’t know how many ways I can say this, but those animals are not dangerous. Most of them are babies who’ve lost their mothers, either naturally or with the help of some fool with a gun. The others are sick or injured and in no shape to hurt anyone.” Hunter took a deep breath and repeated the words he’d been saying to George for six months now. "I will not shut down the sanctuary because a few people think a bunch of baby animals are going to sneak out in the middle of the night and eat them.”

"You’re a pigheaded man, Hunter Mackenzie, but this is not the end of this.”

Click!

The line went dead. Hunter stared down at the humming phone. "I’m sure it’s not.” He shook his head, and then placed the receiver in the cradle.

"Problems?”

Her soft voice drew his attention. "Nothing I haven’t heard before.” He relaxed and folded his hands on the desk. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m afraid my assistant picked this week to elope, and I’m trying to be vet, receptionist and assistant.”

She stood, and then came to stand before him. Straightening her back, she reached in her large, black tote bag, pulled out a folded newspaper and then laid it on the desk in front of him.

"I want to apply for the job you advertised in the want ads.”

The ad he’d placed two days ago in the Hawks Mountain Herald glared back at him from inside a thick circle of red ink.

She stuck out her hand. "Rose Hamilton.”

He grasped it and had to pause before speaking. The odd sensation of warm water swamping him from head to toe then sucking him beneath its surface came over him. The tension fostered by the mayor’s phone call ebbed away as if it had never existed. Hunter hung onto her hand overlong, enjoying the total peace her touch had brought to him.

From beyond the wall behind him, a dog barked and soon a cacophonous chorus of woofs and yips could be heard.

Hunter shook himself free of the residual effects of her touch, released her hand, and then stood.

"Hunter Mackenzie,” he said loud enough to be heard above the racket. He smiled apologetically. "Excuse me.” Stepping back, and with a balled fist, he hit the wall once. The dogs quieted, except for a few stray yips that quickly died away. "Normally, that doesn’t bother me, but I’m not up to that noise right now. That phone call managed to produce the start of a headache.” He rubbed a forefinger on the side of his temple.

"Stress.” She flashed a radiant smile at him. Suddenly, the sunshine illuminating the room seemed to brighten considerably. "I’m a nurse. A licensed practical nurse.”

He continued to stare, mostly at her full lips. He tore his gaze away. Reaching into her voluminous tote bag, she extracted her wallet. Taking a small white card from her billfold, she handed it to him.

Finally able to rouse himself from his uncharacteristic fascination with the shape and color of her eyes, he coughed and scanned the card that verified her nursing credentials. "So, you want the job as my assistant? And you think nursing sick humans qualifies you to nurse sick animals?”

"Dr. Mackenzi—”

"Hunter.” He motioned for her to take the seat facing the desk, and then passed the card back to her.

"Hunter,” Rose went on, her heart beating a wild tattoo against her chest. She took the seat, grateful to get off her shaking legs, and prayed silently to find the right words to convince him to give her the job. "Nursing is nursing, be it with animals or humans. They all need the same care, the same attention and the same compassion.”

He smiled again, and she felt something inside her drop to the bottom of her stomach. Oh, no. She couldn’t be sick again. Not now. When he looked away for a second, she realized the sensation she’d just felt had nothing to do with her stomach upset, and everything to do with the man smiling at her.

"I can’t argue that point, Ms. Hamilton.”

"Rose.”

"Rose,” he repeated, then licked his lips as if tasting the sound of her name. Her stomach flipped. "Did you bring a résumé.”

Once more she delved into her tote. This time, she pulled out the folder she’d tucked in there that morning before leaving the motel. Handing it to him, she said, "I think you’ll find everything you need in here.”

While he scanned her work record, Rose assessed the doctor. Age? About thirty-four or thirty-five. Laugh lines around his hazel eyes and mouth. A good sense of humor? His immaculate lab coat told her he believed in a clean, antiseptic working environment. The open-necked, white-and-blue-striped shirt beneath the lab coat could mean a casual, relaxed personality. His brown hair showed attempts at waving despite the smooth comb he’d given it.

Then, to her surprise, her perusal shifted, became less impersonal. Shoulders wide enough to support another man, or a woman with some heavy burdens to carry. Full lips and an expressive mouth. Good kisser?

Acutely aware that she had just trespassed into dangerous territory, Rose stopped the inventory abruptly.

"Your resume is quite impressive.” He handed the folder back to her. "Why aren’t you looking for a job in a hospital?”

She had anticipated this question. Replacing the folder in her tote, Rose stalled for time while she silently rehearsed her carefully prepared answer.

Finally confident, she looked him in the eye. "Because, when I came to Carson, I found it to be exactly the type of town I’d love to settle down in. Unfortunately, you don’t have a hospital, and I don’t want to commute. Besides, my car is far from reliable, and I can’t afford a new one right now. I’m afraid I’m not trained to do anything else, so working as your assistant is the closest I could come in Carson to finding a job in my field of work.”

She said a silent prayer that her explanation sounded as convincing now as it had when she’d composed it before the motel’s bathroom mirror that morning.

The vet stared at her for a long moment. Was that skepticism she saw in his expression or just her imagination? She really hated subterfuge, but if he knew the truth, he might not hire her, and she needed this job.

Rose had been about to add that she’d grown up in a small town, when the door opened. A young boy of about ten careened into the room. His freckled face glowed with a heated flush, and his midnight-black hair shot out in all directions. Through the open door behind him, Rose could see a dusty, red bike lying on its side, the front wheel still spinning.

"Whose car is that?” The boy pointed toward the parking lot.

"Mine,” Rose said.

"Boy, it’s sure a wreck.”

She certainly didn’t need that to be pointed out. The car had been on the verge of dying for weeks now, and she’d prayed it would hold out for just a bit longer. Just until she got a job and could get it fixed. Rather than explaining all this to the boy, she just smiled.

He turned to Hunter. "My mom said you have a lion cub. Can I see him?”

"And hello to you, too.” Hunter smiled at the young boy. "Rose, this is Davy Collins, the mayor’s son, who normally has very good manners.”

"Sorry.” The boy dipped his head, and then looked at Rose from beneath his long, black lashes. "Hello, ma’am. Nice to meet ya.”

Social obligations seen to, Davy swept past Rose. She got a whiff of fresh air, sunshine, and something chocolate flavored that she assumed came from the candy bar protruding from his back pocket.

"Can I see the cub now, Doc? Huh?” His young face transmitted the urgency of his request.

"I don’t know, Davy. Your dad would skin me alive if he knew I let you near that animal.”

The boy frowned. "I won’t tell him. Beside, since he and my mom got divorced, he doesn’t care about me anyway.” The brightness in the boy’s eyes dimmed a fraction.

Hunter frowned. "Davy, as long as he lives, your dad will care about you.”

Davy shrugged.

Hunter drummed the eraser end of a pencil on the desktop. Rose got the feeling Hunter wanted to say more, but didn’t. "Does your mom know you’re here?”

"Yup. She said I could come over as long as I didn’t get too close to the animals and didn’t get in your way. Now, can I go see the cub?” His scuffed sneakers shuffled on the spotlessly clean linoleum, as if they had a brain of their own and couldn’t wait to be off to this new adventure.

Hunter glanced at Rose. "I’m kind of busy right now, and you can’t go alone. You’ll have to wait.”

"Aw, Doc.”

Rose winked at Davy, then looked at Hunter and smiled. "If it’s okay, I’d like to see the lion cub, too.” Rose stood and moved to stand beside Davy. "Why don’t you show both of us, and that way you won’t have to worry about Davy.”

Hunter couldn’t believe the impact of that smile on his equilibrium. If she’d requested he set fire to himself, he wasn’t sure he could have refused her. "No fair. That’s two against one.” He looked from one to the other. "Okay, we’ll go see the cub.” He activated the answering machine, stood, and then circled the desk. Stopping Davy’s plunge for the door with a hand on the boy’s slim shoulder, Hunter looked down at him. "You have to do exactly as I say. The cub may be little, but his claws are still dangerous. Deal?”

Davy looked up at Hunter with pure love and admiration shining from his dark brown eyes. "Deal.” He held up his hand, the palm stained with chocolate candy. "Promise.”

The three of them left the office and walked toward a large, fenced-in enclosure several hundred yards from the office. On the way, they skirted Rose’s less-than-reliable old Taurus, and then passed a very small, but lovely house with a wide front porch and a two-story garage.

"Yours?” Rose asked.

Hunter nodded. "I wanted to live close by. I’m the kind of guy who likes to roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, and then roll into the front door of my work place.”

She laughed. "I know just what you mean. I’m not a morning person either.”

Almost immediately, Hunter’s mind launched into a vision of what Rose would look like in the morning, sleep still in her eyes, pillowcase creases on her face and her auburn hair splayed out across his bare chest.

Whoa! You’re getting yourself in way over your head, fella. Remember, you’re the guy who doesn’t want anything to do with the responsibilities that relationships inevitably demand.

How could he have forgotten all the years of raising his siblings, worrying about them, arranging his life around them?

By the time he had his wayward imagination under control, they’d arrived outside a small, cinder block building with a sign over the door with the words Animal Nursery emblazoned on a small sign to the side of the door. He opened the door for them and waited while Davy passed through, followed by Rose.

Rose looked around, the nurse in her doing a clinical assessment of the room. The overly warm room held wire cages in a variety of sizes—some empty, some occupied by a variety of furry babies. In the center stood a stainless steel examination table. One wall held cabinets with glass fronts that displayed an array of medicines and instruments and what looked like a baby scale. The odor of antiseptic permeated the spotless surroundings, reminding Rose of a hospital operating room.

"Here’s our newest baby,” Hunter said, releasing the catch on one of the cages and scooping out a small ball of fur from inside.

The lion cub, a light tan with dark markings on the ears and head, looking amazingly like a larger version of someone’s full-grown house cat, stretched its paws out and yawned. Rose ran a tentative finger over the downy fur. In response, the cub licked her hand, its rough tongue sending shivers over her. An odd, but certainly not repulsive feeling.

"Where’s its mother?” she asked continuing to pet the little cub.

"It’s a male. Born in captivity in a privately run, roadside zoo out west. The authorities closed the zoo for cruelty to the animals, and the mother died shortly thereafter from the abuse she’d sustained there. A friend of mine had helped with the animal removal and reassignment of the stock and had the cub sent to me. When he’s healthy enough, I’ll transfer him to a reputable zoo.”

"Does he have a name?” Davy stroked the cub’s nose.

"No, I’m afraid I’ve been too busy to think about names.” Hunter turned to the boy. "Would you like to name him, Davy?”

"Really, Doc?”

Hunter nodded. "Really.”

Davy’s eyes glowed with excitement, and then he became serious. "It has to be a special name. One that fits him.” The boy stepped back and studied the baby cat, the expression on his young face reflecting his deep consideration of the name issue.

The cub stretched again and curled up in Hunter’s hands. Hunter offered the cub to Rose. At first, never having held an animal before, she hesitated. Then the cub licked her hand again, and that’s all it took to make her reach for him. Cradling the small animal close, she moved her body back and forth in a rocking motion. His eyes drifted closed.

"You’re a natural,” Hunter said. "Maybe you can get him to eat. I haven’t been able to get him interested in food since he arrived two days ago. If I don’t get some food in him soon, I’m afraid...” He shifted his gaze to Davy.

Knowing the consequences of the cub not eating, she gave a slight nod. "I’ll give it a try.”

Hunter set to work preparing an oversized baby bottle filled with a white liquid, then handed it to Rose. She shifted the cub into the crook of her left arm, as if it were a human baby, and offered him the nipple. At first he sniffed it, and then turned away, but moments later, when she commenced a soft cooing sound, the cub turned back, sucked in the nipple and began devouring the formula.

"Well I’ll be damned,” Hunter said, under his breath. "You’re hired.”

His unexpected proclamation almost caused her to drop both the cub and the bottle. "Really? You mean it?”

"Anyone who could get that little fella to eat is qualified in my book.”

She’d been about to ask Hunter about job benefits when Davy broke in. "Boomer. We can call him Boomer.”

"Boomer?” Hunter looked at the small cub still sucking greedily on the nipple and laughed. "Isn’t that name kind of big for such a little guy?”

"Maybe now,” Davy explained, his face serious, "but when he grows up, it’ll be perfect.”

Hunter looked at Rose, who smiled. "Can’t argue with that, can you?” She glanced down at the tiny cub. "Besides, now that he’s got the hang of eating, he’ll be a bruiser in no time, so you can’t pin a sissy name like "Tabby” on him. He’d spend all his time fighting off other lions who make fun of him.” She looked at a grinning Davy. "Right?”

Davy nodded enthusiastically.

Hunter grinned, too. "Okay, Boomer it is.”

The cub had finally stopped feeding, and Rose noted the look of longing on Davy’s face. She stepped forward, then stopped. Glancing at Hunter for his okay and receiving it, she carefully shifted the small, furry body into the boy’s waiting arms. They all laughed when Boomer stuck his nose into the opening in Davy’s shirt front and immediately fell back to sleep.

"I think he thinks I’m his mom,” the boy said, a tinge of red coloring his cheeks.

Watching the boy with the cub gave Hunter an idea. Normally, he steered clear of kids, having had enough of them while raising his sister and brother, but he liked Davy. Besides, a chasm separated standing guard 24/7 over two teenage kids and having Davy around for a few hours every day.

"Davy, how would you like to work part-time for me?”

The boy’s head snapped up, and his gaze searched Hunter’s. "For real, Doc?”

"Yeah, for real. I’ll even pay you.”

"Cool,” the boy exclaimed, his attention immediately recaptured by the cub.

"You could come out after school and on Saturdays and help me feed and water the animals and clean out their pens. What do you think? Is that something you can handle?”

"You bet I can.” Davy’s eyes sparkled with excitement.

"You’ll need to get your mom’s okay.”

"I will. I promise. She won’t care though. She knows I’m a sucker for animals. Mom says I can charm anything with fur on it, just like Dr. Dolittle.” The boy’s face flushed pink. "She wishes I’d be as eager to do my chores as I am to take care of the animals.” He giggled, dipped his head, and turned a slightly darker shade of pink. "She calls me Dr. Littledo sometimes.”

"Well, Dr. Littledo, if your mom calls me tonight and okays it, you can start tomorrow.”

The grin on Davy’s face widened. "Thanks, Doc.”

As Hunter turned away, he caught Rose looking at him. Her half smile made his stomach flip. Just the type of smile he’d envisioned her having first thing in the morning.

Shaking away his thoughts, he stared back at her. "What?”

She shook her head and her long hair shifted back and forth, caressing her cheeks in a very sexy, unconscious come-on. "You’re a nice man, Hunter Mackenzie.”

"It’s nothing. The kid is as natural at this as you seem to be.”

She continued to bathe him in her glorious smile.

Despite his efforts not to read anything into it, her smile made him feel like he’d just won the Nobel Peace Prize.

By the time they got back to the office, an elated Davy had rushed off home to get permission to work for Hunter. That left Rose and Hunter to discuss salary and other aspects of her new job.

Rose had just filled out the job application form, when Hunter’s curiosity got the better of him.

"I’m amazed at what you did with that cub. I’ve tried everything to get him to eat. Have you worked with animals before, had your own pets?”

Rose dipped her head. Her face disappeared behind that veil of auburn hair. "The closest I have ever come to an animal, domestic or wild, is in books and movies and watching people walk their dogs.” She lifted her gaze from the form she’d been filling out. "Foster homes don’t allow pets. Out there,” she motioned toward the animal nursery, "that’s the first time I’ve ever touched an animal.”

He couldn’t believe it. She seemed so comfortable handling the cub. "You’re telling me you had no pets?”

"Well, I had a cricket once for about a week, and then my foster mother found it and stepped on it. She said crickets eat clothes, and she couldn’t afford to buy me new ones, so the cricket had to go.”

Hunter, who, along with his siblings, had had every kind of pet from a snake to a pot-bellied pig while they were growing up, couldn’t imagine anyone not allowing a child to have some kind of animal, fish, insect or bird as a companion. From the tone of her voice, he sensed that, while it had only been a cricket, her pet’s death had left a scar on Rose’s life.

"You meant what you said out there, didn’t you?”

Roused by her question, Hunter sought to put meaning to it. "What I said?”

"About hiring me,” she explained, handing him the completed application form. "You’re not going to just file this and forget about me, are you?”

Forget her? Not in this lifetime. "Oh, you’re hired all right. You performed a miracle out there. I want to see if it was a fluke, and the only way I can do that is to hire you.” He took the form and laid it atop a pile of papers threatening to cascade to the floor at any minute.

Her large eyes opened wider. "Does that mean I’m on a trial basis?”

He laughed. "No, you are not on a trial basis. The job is permanent for as long as you want it. I will expect you here bright and early at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.”

"What about your former assistant? Won’t she want her job back when she gets home from her honeymoon?”

"No. She’ll be moving to Raleigh where her new husband works, which means I need a permanent replacement, and that would be you”

"Well, then, I’ll see you tomorrow at eight.” She bathed him in a smile unlike any he’d seen from her so far. "I better be getting home.”

"Which is where?” He scanned the form she’d just filled out.

"I left that line blank because I’m still looking for a place. Until I find one, I’m staying at the motel out on Route 6.” She stood and began gathering up her things to leave.

"If you’re interested, the apartment over the garage is empty. I lived there while the carpenters built my house. You’re welcome to it if you want. It’s completely furnished, and all you’d need to move in right away are your clothes, food and some linens. It’s rent-free and comes with the job. Right now, I’m using it for storage, but if you’re willing to stick around for a couple of hours after work tomorrow, we can clean it out.”

Although the rent-free part fit right into her financial status, the idea of living so close to a man who could turn her knees to mush with a smile cast serious doubts on her decision. Not to mention that right now, letting a man into her life would not be the smartest move on her part.

"May I think about it?”

"Certainly. It’s been vacant for almost three years now. A few days more isn’t going to change that.”

"Fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

"Tomorrow, eight o’clock,” he said and winked. Her stomach flipped.

Rose had almost reached the door when she recalled that she’d forgotten one very important thing. "Are there medical benefits with this job?”

In the act of punching the play button on the blinking answering machine, he paused thoughtfully. "Yes, of course.”

"Could I ask what they are?’

He walked to the gray filing cabinets, opened a drawer and rifled through a bunch of folders. "My assistant took care of these things. Let me see if I can... Yup, here it is.” He pulled a file from the drawer. "This explains everything.” He handed her a manila folder marked Health Insurance.

She sat again. Taking it with shaky fingers, Rose spread the folder open on her lap. Mentally intoning a silent prayer that she would find what she sought, she began leafing through the pages of the medical insurance policy. Holding her breath and knowing that this would mean whether or not she could accept this job and begin a new life, she carefully scanned each page.

It had to be here. She needed it to be here.

Finally, when the form she’d been searching for caught her eye, she heaved a sigh of relief. Rose read silently.

Maternity benefits take effect ten months after the initial date of employment.

Her heart sank. Not good news to a woman already two and a half months pregnant with twins.


 

Chapter 2

Rose threw her purse on the motel room bed and collapsed heavily on the edge of the mattress. Sighing with exhaustion, she kicked off her shoes and lay back against the pillows, cursing herself for not being better about saving money before all this happened. The lumps pressing into her back reminded her that this motel did not offer the most posh accommodations. Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford anything better.

Lying back, she closed her eyes, knowing she had some critical decisions to make that couldn’t be put off. She had accepted a job and been offered a rent-free apartment close enough to the office to walk to work, but the job provided no maternity benefits that she could tap into to cover the birth of the twins. All but certain her supervisor had gotten Rose fired from her last job because of the pregnancy while claiming that Rose’s termination had been due to staff downsizing, Rose couldn’t take that chance this time with Hunter. The babies would remain her little secret for now.

If, when Rose had decided to be a surrogate for them, Beth and her husband had only taken out medical insurance on Rose and the babies instead of paying as they went, Rose wouldn’t be facing this dilemma now. But Beth and Patrick hadn’t been any better off financially than Rose, and it had taken every spare buck they had to pay the obstetrician.

Despite the lack of maternity benefits, the job did have its pluses. After holding the lion cub and feeding him, she’d lost all her trepidation about working with the animals and, in fact, she had decided that she’d probably enjoy it. Also, if she took the apartment over the garage, living so close to her job would mean she wouldn’t have to worry about getting her car fixed right away. Maybe not having maternity benefits didn’t signal the end of the world. Without the cost of car repair bills, gas to travel back and forth to work, and rent, she could save enough to cover a decent portion of her doctor and hospital expenses.

Thoughts of the apartment Hunter had offered her brought to mind her strong and unexpected reaction to the handsome vet. Could she do it? She already knew Hunter held an unexpected attraction for her, an attraction she didn’t need complicating her life. She had enough complications already. Would it be foolish for her to move into his apartment and put herself squarely in temptation’s way, or would it be more foolish for her to spend time looking for another job that she’d have to commute to with an unreliable car and an apartment that would require the added expense of paying rent?

She rolled to her stomach, rested her chin on her hands and frowned thoughtfully. Logic told her to take the job and the apartment. It only made sense. After all, a grown woman should be able to control her emotions for eight hours out of every day. Shouldn’t she?

She sat up. One of the lumps in the mattress bore into her leg, adding one more reason to her list of reasons for taking Hunter’s apartment and the job. Punching the lump down with her balled-up fist, she dreamed of a night’s sleep on a bed that didn’t feel like Mount Rushmore’s rock dump.

Being picky had never been one of her personality traits, but right now, her health had to come before everything else, and getting a solid eight hours of sleep played a major role in keeping her fit for the next six and a half months. She spread her hands over her flat stomach.

"You’re my responsibilities now,” she told the twin lives growing within her. "Your mom would want me to do what’s best for the two of you, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Rising from the bed, she hauled her suitcases from under it and went to the dresser. A few minutes later, she had all the clothes she’d brought with her packed in two suitcases, except a clean uniform and underwear for tomorrow and her nightclothes. She would move into Hunter’s apartment and make it her mission to keep her emotions under control. As for the medical bills... though she hated having to resort to it, Medicaid would cover them if need be.

A wave of happiness and relief washed over her. She had a job, a roof over her head and a plan to cover her and the babies’ medical expenses. Her life was finally smoothing out and in her control.

From beside the suitcase, she picked up a framed photo of a lovely blonde woman and looked at it for a long time. Beth had been such a big part of Rose’s life that she had difficulty believing she would never see her best friend again.

"I miss you, but don’t worry, your babies will be okay.” And for the first time since the accident that had killed Beth and her husband, Rose almost believed it—almost.

The babies would eat well and be cared for. Right now she could promise no more. After all, when she’d agreed to be Beth’s surrogate, Rose had never imagined that she would be the one raising the children—not Beth. Had she known that, as much as she loved her foster sister, she would have never volunteered for the job of carrying Beth’s babies.

Rose knew that Beth would have been the perfect mother for the twins. Because she’d known a mother’s love and lost her mother to cancer at an early age, she’d always loved kids and wanted them with what almost amounted to desperation.

In Rose’s case, however, as a result of her mother’s lack of nurturing genes and her desertion of her only child, Rose had always been terrified that she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps and, as a result, had never planned on having children.

Putting down the picture, she moved to the mirror over the dresser and gazed at her reflection. Rose had been told over and over by one foster parent or another that she had inherited her mother’s hair, eyes and stature. How many times had she heard... You’re just like your mother.

She had no idea how they knew or if they really did know. The indisputable fact remained that her mother had deserted her. That her mother didn’t have what it takes to raise a child. Rose had to wonder if her outward appearance had been all she’d inherited from the woman who had given birth to her.

Hunter sat at the receptionist’s desk and sipped his second cup of morning coffee while he listened to the angry voice of George Collins emanating from the answering machine. When the beepinterrupted George’s tirade about his son working around all those dangerous wild animals, Hunter sighed and hit the rewind button. He’d expected the call, but it still made him want to find George and shake some sense into him.

Hunter had Davy’s mother’s okay, and she was the parent with legal custody of the boy. But he had neither the time nor the patience for George this morning. Hunter felt... keyed up. As if he stood on the verge of a momentous happening in his life. Excitement swirled inside him. He felt edgy and unable to sit still.

He’d felt this way when, at age ten, he’d gotten his first bike for Christmas. A blizzard had kept him from riding it for three days. Each day the anticipation had grown greater and greater until he thought he’d burst.

But that was then, and this was now, and the anticipation he felt could not be appeased with a simple bike ride.

Then he heard the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires, then the cough and backfire of a car coming to a stop, and he knew the cause of his edginess. He’d been waiting for Rose’s arrival.

He shook his head, and then combed his fingers through his hair. Not a good sign. Not good at all. He needed an assistant, not a relationship. Relationships led to marriage and marriage led to children. If he caved to his emotions, his life would be altered forever. Lord, help him. He had steered clear of this ever since he left college.

Personal experience had made Hunter all too aware of the demands children put on a man’s life. After his parents’ deaths, he’d been forced into the role of the head of a household overrun by two younger Mackenzie siblings for over four years. He didn’t need or want his quiet life disrupted like that again.

Hold it, Mackenzie. She’s coming to work. Nothing more. You’re letting your imagination get the best of you. Just calm down and keep everything in perspective, and you’ll be fine.

The door opened, and the fact that Rose had put up her hair in a tight knot at the back of her head and donned sage green pants and a flowered smock top helped some. However, he could still feel the stirrings of a disturbingly strong attraction.

"Good morning.” Rose smiled, making Hunter wish she were bucktoothed and bald or something equally as unappealing.

"Morning.” He tore his gaze away and busied himself with his appointment book. "I don’t have any appointments until eleven, so that will give you time to feed Boomer and get acquainted with the office routine.” He grabbed a sheet of paper from a pad and began writing furiously. When he’d finished, he handed her the paper. "These are the instructions for preparing Boomer’s formula. Everything in the nursery is well marked so you shouldn’t have any problems. He’ll be fed at eight in the morning, twelve noon and four in the evening. For today, you can take the early feedings, and I’ll try doing the evening feeding, but I’d like you here just in case he won’t eat for me.”

Rose accepted the paper and looked at him questioningly. He didn’t blame her for looking a bit confused. He’d been babbling and couldn’t seem to stop himself.

"I’ll be here. I planned on starting to clean out the apartment you offered over the garage right after work.”

His head snapped up. "The garage?”

She frowned. "You did say I could live there, right?”

He shook away the cobwebs draped over his brain that prevented him from having a coherent thought. "Oh. Sure. Right. It’s still yours if you want it.”

"Thanks, and please, let me know if you change your mind about me paying rent.”

"I won’t change my mind. The apartment comes as a perk of the job. Besides, I want you close by.” He paused and began shifting his feet uncomfortably. "I mean...”

Before he could say more, she raised her hand to stop him. "Are you absolutely sure about the rent—”

Hunter frowned. "Look, it hasn’t been rented for three years. I haven’t missed the money, and I don’t expect to start just because I now have a tenant. You’ll take care of your own utilities. Other than that, it’s yours for as long as you want to live there.”

"I appreciate this. You won’t be sorry,” she added, laying her hand on his sleeve.

Hunter moved his arm away slowly, trying not to seem as though he were running for cover, even if he was. As for not being sorry, he’d invited her to live in his backyard... Only time would tell. If the way he felt when she’d touched him and smiled at him meant what he thought it did, sorry had already started tugging at his coattails.

The phone rang, and they both reached for it at the same time, their hands entwining on the receiver. He quickly pulled away.

She picked up the phone. "Good morning, Paws and Claws Animal Clinic. How may I help you?”

Hunter didn’t have to ask who it was. From the other side of the desk, he could hear George Collins demanding to know who he was speaking to. Casually, Hunter picked up Pansy, the orange, tiger-striped house cat, who had adopted Hunter a few days ago. He held the cat close, reminding himself that she needed to be spayed as soon as he had a free moment.

"This is Dr. Mackenzie’s new assistant, Rose Hamilton. How may I help you, Mr. Collins?”

Silence, while she listened. Hunter could no longer hear the mayor’s ravings across the room. Rose had already worked her magic on the resident thorn in Hunter’s backside. Would she work it on him, too?

"Yes, sir. Yes, I understand. I’m afraid the doctor is busy...” She glanced at him and Pansy. ". . . with one of the animals right at the moment. I’ll give him your message.” She shrugged innocently at Hunter’s grin. "Yes, sir. No, I won’t forget. I’ve written it all down. Have a good day, sir.” She replaced the receiver. "He wants to speak to you about hiring Davy.”

"That’s the best end-run I’ve seen since I played high school football. Thanks. I should have known that hiring his son would have him up in arms and that I’d have to face him on it sooner or later. However, what I don’t need today is another go-round with our illustrious mayor.” He set Pansy down at his feet. "You better get Boomer fed before my scheduled patients start arriving.”

He smiled at Rose. She blinked several times, and then grabbed the paper with the recipe for Boomer’s formula written on it, and hurried out the door in the direction of the animal nursery.

Hunter watched her go and waited for his heartbeat to resume normalcy, then he bent over and stroked Pansy’s soft coat. "You know what, Pansy? This might be tougher than I first thought it would be.”

Later that evening, Rose wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead, and then shifted a large box of Hunter’s belongings nearer to the pile that he had been moving from the apartment to store downstairs in the garage. She straightened for a second and looked around. Perfect.

The living room, dining room and kitchen were one big open area. And two smaller rooms would serve perfectly as bedrooms. All in all, the place wasn’t too big to care for, but not so small she felt cramped.

The furnishings, all leather and wood, reflected a man’s taste, but the addition of some bright-colored throw pillows and lacy curtains would give the room a more feminine appeal. A few plants on the tables and a couple of colorful area rugs on the bare wood floor and it would be a place where any woman would be happy to live.

More importantly, free rent aside, the smaller bedroom close to the main bedroom would be perfect for a nursery for the twins. Thoughts of the babies brought to mind the fact that she hadn’t told Hunter about her condition yet. Would he let her go when he found out? The last place she worked had, or at least, she was almost certain they had. It just appeared all too coincidental that shortly after she confided her condition to one of the other nurses, Rose’s supervisor had called her into her office and laid her off. At least that’s how she had put it, but Rose wasn’t stupid. She’d been fired.

She knew she’d have to tell Hunter soon. After all, she wouldn’t be able to hide it forever. Hopefully, by then, she’d have proven her worth, and he’d keep her on, despite her pregnancy.

"Please tell me that’s the last load,” Hunter said, climbing the flight of stairs for the umpteenth time and coming face to face with a new pile of boxes. "Where did all this come from?” He flopped down on the end of the couch and leaned back, exhaling a gust of air. "Woman, you’re a slave driver.”

"Are we taking a break, Mr. Softie?” She grinned. "You need to spend less time over an examination table and more exercising.” Despite her good-natured scolding, she flopped down next to him, grateful for the respite, but not about to admit it.

Only after she sat down did Rose realize that the loveseat forced her into closer proximity to Hunter than was good for her peace of mind. A rock-hard thigh pressed intimately against her leg and had her rethinking her earlier advice to Hunter about needing more exercise. Obviously, not a problem for him, but the feel of his leg along hers definitely presented a problem for her. She shifted as close to the arm of the loveseat as space would allow.

He checked his watch. "It’s almost seven o’clock. We’ve been at this for two hours. I don’t know about you, but I missed supper and I’m starved. Let’s go down to my place and get something to eat.”

The playfulness she’d felt moments before vanished. His little house? Alone? Working with him was one thing. Just sitting around tempting her raging hormones to do something stupid was an entirely different matter.

"I’m... I’m not really hungry. You go ahead if you want.”

Truth be known, she was starving. As soon as he left, she planned to haul out the milk, fruit, crackers and peanut butter she’d picked up at the store on her way to work that morning and chow down.

He stood and then looked down at her. "I know you didn’t eat any lunch. So I’m not buying that you’re not hungry.” He grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet.

His unexpected move caused her to lose her balance and careen into his chest. To keep from falling, she latched onto his shoulders, just as his hands encircled her waist to steady her. Her T-shirt had slid up, and his warm palms lay against her bare midriff.

They stared into each other’s eyes. The warmth of him seeped through her sweat pants as if they weren’t even there. As if they stood there skin to skin. She could feel every inch of his long, muscular body pressing against her. It didn’t take a college professor to conclude that their nearness had a very pronounced effect on him, too.

Rose kept telling herself to pull away, that this could give birth to nothing but problems, that things could happen that she’d regret, but her body paid no heed. Instead, she found herself enjoying the security his nearness provoked and wanting to snuggle deeper into the haven of his embrace.

Hunter stared at the woman in his arms. Her hair had come loose from the clip she’d used to confine it, and a few strands stuck to the sweat on her reddened cheeks. He brushed it away with the tip of his finger. Her lips opened just slightly, giving him just a glimpse of the straight row of white teeth behind them. When her pink tongue came out and swept across her mouth, he thought it would be his undoing. He felt himself lean toward her, wanting to touch her lips with his more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.

"Doc? Doc Mackenzie?”

The strident call came from the foot of the stairs. They sprang apart as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water on them.

"Hey, Doc. You up there?”

Hunter moved to the railing surrounding the top of the stairs, trying not to watch as Rose dragged her T-shirt back into place. He glanced back at her to make sure she’d finished before he answered.

"Yes, I’m up here.” He leaned over the railing and peered down into the half-lit entry. "Who is it?”

"Jim Delaney. Want me to come up there?”

Hunter glanced to where Rose frantically sorted through a pile of old magazines with a concentration that was far too focused to be authentic.

"No, I’ll come down.” Hunter rounded the end of the railing and descended the stairs.

At the bottom, Jim stood to the side, his flashlight beam lighting the last few stairs. Just beyond the building, Hunter could see the front bumper of Jim’s pickup truck, the extinguished headlight lamps peering at him like two alien’s eyes.

"What’s up, Jim?”

"You best take a look at this,” the older man said, leading the way to the bed of the truck. He glanced at Hunter and shook his head. "You ain’t gonna like this, Doc.” He lowered the tailgate.

A large, gray, furry animal lay sprawled on a blanket. Spatters of blood stained the animal’s coat in several places on its hindquarters.

Hunter boosted himself into the truck. "Bring that flashlight up here.”

Jim followed him into the truck’s bed and then aimed the flashlight at the animal’s head. It was a gray wolf.

"What happened?” Hunter’s tone reflected the angry disgust he always felt when a helpless animal became a senseless target for fear.

Jim shrugged. "I found her on the side of the river road. She had two pups with her. Both dead as a doornail.” Jim shifted the beam so Hunter could see more clearly. "Near as I could tell, both pups were shot, and I’m figuring she was, too.”

Using the beam from the flashlight Hunter inspected her ears. "I was wondering if she was part of the gray wolf recovery program going on just north of here, but she’s not tagged. The pups probably wandered off from the pack, and she went looking for them and found more than she bargained for.” Hunter rolled the unconscious wolf on her other side and inspected the wound. "She’s been shot in the thigh.”

Hunter leaned closer to examine the wound. He ran his hands over and under her leg. "It doesn’t look like the bullet damaged the bone, but there’s no exit wound. The bleeding’s stopped, but we need to get the bullet out to prevent infection.” He jumped out of the truck, and then pulled the blanket toward him, slowly sliding the wolf’s heavy body to where they could get a grip on the blanket. "Help me carry her into the office.”

Jim jumped down beside Hunter, turned off his flashlight, tucked it in his jacket pocket, and then grabbed the opposite ends of the blanket. He and Hunter moved in unison and heaved the animal out of the truck. As they moved toward the office, Hunter turned his head back toward the garage.

"Rose, we have an injured animal down here. I need your help.”

Upstairs, Rose had been sorting magazines trying to quell the aftermath of their close encounter, when Hunter’s raised voice reached her. Hearing the urgency in his tone, she dropped the magazines she’d been transferring to the trash pile and ran down the stairs. In the illumination from the security lights, she could see the two men struggling with a large object while making their way toward the office. Quickly, she hurried after them.

Beating them to the office, she opened the door and waited while they passed through with their burden. As they did, she saw the animal and the large bleeding wound in its upper thigh. Her stomach lurched.

This was no time for her queasy stomach to act up. She swallowed down the bile rising in her throat and hurried after them to the back of the building. Having familiarized herself with the location of everything in the operating room earlier in the day, she began to immediately assemble the instruments Hunter would need to operate on the animal.

Pausing for a moment, she looked over her shoulder. "What is it?” They’d transferred the animal to the operating table, but the men blocked her view.

Hunter moved aside so she could see and then gently patted the wolf’s neck. "Her Latin name is Canis Lupus, gray wolf. They usually travel in packs. She must have gotten separated from hers.”

Now able to see the entire animal, Rose ran her hand over the blood-damp coat. The coarse fur surprised her. It had looked so soft. "Poor thing.”

Jim edged toward the door. "If you’ve got everything under control, Doc, I’m gonna get home to the missus. She expected me for dinner an hour ago, and she’ll be fit to be tied by the time I get there.”

"Thanks, Jim. Would you give Fish and Wildlife a call? They’ll want to know where you found her so they can pick up the pups.” Hunter smiled. "And tell Sarah not to be too rough on you. You saved one of an endangered species tonight.”

"I’ll call F&W, and I’ll tell Sarah what you said, but I don’t think it’s gonna make a hill of difference. She’s gonna be mad as a hornet no matter what excuse I give her.” Jim laughed, and then looked at Rose. "Evenin’, ma’am.”

"Good night.” Rose watched him go.

Hunter waved to Jim, and then moved toward the sink at the side of the room. "Let me get out of this dirty shirt, and we’ll get started.”

"So this is how you get animals for the sanctuary.”

He didn’t answer, so she turned toward him. When she saw Hunter stripped to the waist, a wave of heat rushed over her. She seemed to lack the will power to drag her eyes away from the glistening drops of moisture dotting his tanned skin, and the way the muscles in his arms and back rippled as he dried himself. Willing her frozen body to react, she quickly averted her gaze, but the picture of a half-clothed Hunter stayed indelibly imprinted on her mind.

Hunter slipped into a white lab coat and came to stand beside her. "I don’t always get animals this way, but it’s how I started the sanctuary. One day, someone brought me a raccoon to fix up, then the next thing I knew, I was overrun with wild animals needing medical care. I built the sanctuary, and they’ve been bringing them to me ever since.”

"What happens to them after they’re healthy?” She handed him a syringe filled with an anesthetic that would ensure the wolf slept through the procedure.

"I prefer that they get returned to where Mother Nature intended them to grow old and die of natural causes, but that’s not always possible.” He gave the wolf the injection and then passed the empty syringe back to her. "Sometimes, because they’re too old or, as in Boomer’s case, too young to defend and feed themselves, they’re placed where I’m assured they’ll be well cared for.”

His tone of voice, the almost reverence with which he spoke of the sanctuary and the animals he treated, told Rose exactly what it meant to him—his life.

He slipped a soft muzzle over the wolf’s jaw and secured it with a Velcro closing at the back of her head.

The muzzle disturbed Rose. "Is that really necessary?”

"I’m afraid so.” He tested the Velcro by pulling on the side to make sure it remained secure. "She can exert fifteen hundred pounds of pressure per square inch with her jaw. If she came out of the anesthetic before we expect her to, she could remove one of our arms with one bite. You want to take that chance?”

Rose shook her head and looked at the muzzle doubtfully. "Will that hold her?”

"Yes, it’s been tested. I wouldn’t use it otherwise. Besides, the power in her jaw is when she closes it, not when she’s opening it.”

She sure had a lot to learn about animals, and oddly, she found herself looking forward to it. As she shaved the area around the wound, Rose made a mental note to borrow some of Hunter’s books and read up on wolves and lions.

While propping the wolf’s leg up so Hunter had easy access to the wound, Rose noted the enlarged mammary glands. "Does she have babies?”

"She had a couple. Jim said they were dead. Whoever shot her had better aim when it came to the pups. They probably thought she was dead, too.” He stared down at the wound in the wolf’s thigh. "Someday people will realize that these animals are not dangerous.”

Sadness overcame Rose. She’d never considered something happening to Beth’s babies, either before or after birth. To think that this mother had lost her babies was almost more than Rose could bear. Tears threatened to blur her vision. She blinked them away. What would Hunter think about her crying over an injured wolf who’d lost her puppies?

"Let’s get started,” Hunter said.

Hunter began the long process of removing the bullet from the wolf and repairing her flesh. From Rose’s short stint as an assistant in a small clinic the first summer after she’d earned her LPN, she’d learned that doctors don’t take kindly to chatter while doing surgery, so she stopped asking questions, did her job and observed.

A long time later, Hunter tied off the last stitch. "She should be as good as new in a few weeks. I don’t think the bullet damaged her muscles.”

Rose began bandaging the wolf’s thigh. "Then what?”

"We’ll keep her here until she’s fully recovered. Then I’ll have her transported back up north to the recovery area. They’ll release her so she can find her pack.” He walked to the sink, stripped off the rubber gloves, dropped them in the waste basket and then washed his hands.

"You did good tonight,” he told Rose.

And she had. If he hadn’t been impressed before with his new assistant, her performance tonight had made that very clear. She’d stopped talking as soon as he’d picked up the scalpel, and he’d never had to tell her something more than once. But the compassion she’d shown for the wolf had probably impressed him most. Her questions, her gentle caress and the tears she’d done her best to hide, told him she truly cared about the animal.

Now, if he could just keep his hands off her, they’d have a terrific working relationship. Rose picked that precise moment to stretch her shoulders back to remove the kinks. Her breasts pushed against her T-shirt. Hunter swallowed hard and turned away.

"Are you hungry?” He removed his lab coat and quickly slipped back into his shirt.

When he turned to face her, she was staring at him openmouthed. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Desire was written as clearly in her eyes as if the words had been printed across her forehead.

He cleared his throat, and she seemed to rouse from her sensual stupor.

"I’m sorry. What did you say?” She cringed at the telltale breathlessness in her voice. Why couldn’t the man stay dressed when she was around?

"I asked if you’re hungry?”

Once more, the image of him shirtless and sexy as all get out assaulted her. Yes, she was hungry, but she was also certain that he didn’t mean the same kind of hunger she felt coursing through her.

Suddenly, a meal of peanut butter and crackers outside with one of the wild animals sounded much safer than surf and turf with Hunter in his little house.

 




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