City Girl, Country Vet


By Cathy Woodman

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London veterinarian Maz Harwood has learned the hard way that love and work don’t mix. So when Emma, her best friend from vet school, asks her to look after her practice in the English countryside for six months, Maz decides that is just the change of scenery she needs. But country life is trickier than she could have imagined.

It is one thing to trade her smart heels for wellies; it’s another to deal with unwelcoming locals, an intense rivalry with the town’s other vet practice, and worse yet, the realization that her friend’s practice is in as bad a shape as Maz’s own broken heart. Things get even more complicated when she meets her rival’s dashing son, who is totally unsuitable as a prospect . . . or is he? Can Maz win over the locals, save the lives of her patients, keep Emma’s practice from going under . . . and find love again?

Cathy Woodman, a fresh new voice in women’s fiction, has written a warm, breezy romantic comedy with just enough mishap and plenty of adorable four-legged creatures.

Previously published in the UK as Trust Me, I’m A Vet.



First Blood

It's a far cry from Starbucks. In fact, the blue and yellow gingham curtains with matching tablecloths and the paper doilies give the Copper Kettle a rather retro feel. There are no lattes or cappuccinos here. The coffee comes either with milk, or without. The local clientele look decidedly downbeat too with their blue rinses, and floral polyester dresses and macs, and the only buzz about the place emanates from a wasp, which crawls feebly about on our table, having woken from its winter slumber a couple of months too early.

"So what do you think, Maz?" My best friend, Emma, sits opposite me with a cream tea and a piece of fruitcake in front of her because she can't decide between the two. The sun's rays slant through the window, emphasizing the dark shadows under her eyes.

"I think you've been overdoing it," I say.

"It did cross my mind to book myself in for a quick eyelid tuck when I looked in the mirror this morning," Emma goes on. "I look like some old spaniel."

"Emma, you're exaggerating," I say, smiling. She has the most amazing cheekbones, naturally long lashes, and lips that need little enhancement. "The last thing you need is surgery."

"You're right. A good night's sleep would do." I watch her pour two cups of tea from the pot, which sports a tea cozy knitted from oddments of wool. "Now, where was I?"

"You need a relief veterinarian to run the practice while you're away." I'm glad she's decided to take a break at last—no one can say she hasn't earned it. I pick up a knife, slice my scone in half, and scoop on a generous blob of strawberry jam, real jam with the pips left in.

"When you're in Devon you're supposed to put the cream on before the jam," Emma whispers. "You'll be drummed out of town if anyone notices."

"As if," I say. "You are joking?"

"We're very set in our ways here in Talyton St. George," she says, her cheeks dimpling and her dark eyes sparkling with merriment as a tractor rumbles past, rattling the teacups. Yes, a real tractor—not one of the Chelsea variety, which I'm more used to.

I wipe my knife and scoop up a small portion of clotted cream instead, then take a second, more generous dollop.

"Have you been in touch with any of the agencies yet?"

"Of course not. I want you to do it." Emma gazes at me through the fringe of her brunette bob, which has grown overlong, like an Old English sheepdog's. "I want you to look after Otter House for me," she goes on as I choke on my scone.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not averse to the idea of helping Emma out, but here in this quiet market town, where nothing ever happens? Let's just say I wish she'd set up her practice even a tiny bit closer to London.

"All right, I know we disagree on a few things like"—she struggles to think of an example—"like how to pronounce the word scone, but we have a pretty similar approach when it comes to work, which'll suit my staff and clients."

"I've never taken sole charge of a practice," I say doubtfully. The idea of being responsible for absolutely everything, from dealing with disputes to handling finances, is daunting. I like being a vet, just a vet.

"If I can do it, you can, Maz."

"I haven't had much experience of the business side of things either."

"I've already thought of that. Nigel, who looks after the practice computers, he's agreed to handle the admin and accounts, so you won't have to worry about those."

"I'm really not sure."

"Well, I can't trust anyone else to look after it." I notice Emma stealing a glance at the small child who's squirming about in a high chair at the table beyond ours and squeezing vanilla sponge between his fingers. "It's like … well, it's my baby."

At the word baby, there's a sudden hush. Scones hover between plate and mouth, teaspoons between sugar bowl and cup. Cheryl, proprietor of the Copper Kettle, who I could swear was behind the counter slicing freshly baked chocolate cake a moment ago, appears at our table, wiping her hands on her frilly apron.

"Baby? Did I hear someone say they're having a baby?" she says. "Congratulations, Emma—I guessed you were eating for two."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Cheryl," Emma says, her eyes overly bright and her smile forced. There's something wrong, something she isn't telling me. She's only thirty, like me, so there's no great hurry, but she used to joke about having a family the size of a football team, until setting up and running the practice took over her life. I realize that she hasn't mentioned babies for a long time.

"So you aren't?" Cheryl says, sounding surprised.

"No," Emma says sharply, and a spoon chinks against a dish, a cup against a saucer, "absolutely not." Her voice softens as she goes on. "Please, don't go spreading that rumor around town."

I suspect from Cheryl's crestfallen expression that the rumor has already been spread, and I'm upset for Emma. It must be pretty hard living in a small town where everyone's talking about you. I know I'd find it difficult to put up with.

"I'm trying to persuade my friend Maz here that Talyton is a much nicer place to be a vet than London," Emma tells Cheryl.

"Our babies are registered with the Talyton Manor Vets," Cheryl says, referring to the other practice in Talyton, a father-and-son outfit, a traditional mixed practice treating farm animals and horses as well as cats and dogs. "The Fox-Giffords have generations of experience behind them. We'd never trust anyone else."

Emma winks at me. I can tell she's more than happy with that arrangement. Anyone who calls their pets "babies" is going to be very demanding of their vet, and Cheryl, with her sharp features and short dark hair set in tiny, precise curls, doesn't strike me as the easiest person to please.

"Cheryl and her sister, Miriam, breed Persian cats," Emma explains when Cheryl drifts away to greet more customers, two young families of tourists, or grockles as they're known in this part of the world. "Cheryl and the Fox-Giffords are welcome to each other." I know there's no love lost between Emma and Talyton Manor Vets, but I'm still surprised at the venom in her voice when she talks about them. The Fox-Giffords were openly hostile when Emma's practice first opened, but I had the impression things had calmed down since then. Obviously not. "I hope they don't start throwing their weight around again," Emma goes on. "If they start accusing you of pinching their clients and undercutting their fees, just ignore them. Don't get involved."

"I haven't said I'll do it yet," I point out gently. Part of me wants to do it for Emma's sake. Part of me wants to stay well out of it. I have no desire to get involved in some silly feud between competing practices. The job can be stressful enough without that kind of complication.

"Excuse me." Emma pulls a mobile out of her bag—from the ring tone, I'm almost expecting one of those old-fashioned Bakelite telephones, but it's a blue slimline model—and answers it with "Otter House Veterinary Clinic. Emma speaking. How can I help?" She listens, chewing one of her fingernails down to the quick, and I think how typical it is of her to be so busy looking after everyone else that she forgets to look after herself.

"I'll meet you at the surgery," she says, ending the conversation and tucking her mobile back into her bag, along with a packet of aspirin that fell out with it when she took the call. "It's an RTA. I've got to go."

"I'll come with you."

"You don't have to …"

From the back of the chair, I grab my blazer, a cropped number in citrine that I fling over my tunic and skinny jeans, an outfit that might be considered by the residents of Talyton St. George as outlandish rather than the latest trend. Emma never has had much fashion sense—what's left seems to have become mired in an overattachment to soft lamb's-wool sweaters and timeless navy skirts. She looks like a county cricketer's wife on her way to make afternoon tea at the pavilion, not a young and savvy professional. I'm not being mean—she needs help and, if I'm going to be the one to do it, I guess I'd better see what I'd be letting myself in for.

I take out my purse, but Emma gets there first.

"It's my treat," she says, leaving some cash on the table before we hurry back along Fore Street and turn up the drive alongside a smart three-story Georgian house that is rendered the same color as the clotted cream I had with scones.

"The client—the one whose dog's been run over—he's the chap who bought the Talymill Inn a year or so back, an ex-policeman. He was in the Met," Emma says, unlocking one of the double glass doors to the modern conservatory-like extension at the side of the building. "The patient's an ex–police dog."

There's a sign to the right: OTTER HOUSE SMALL ANIMAL VETERINARY CLINIC, dark blue lettering on white, with a logo of an otter, surgery hours, and a telephone number. Beneath that is a brass plaque engraved EMMA KENDALL, M.A., VET.M.B., M.R.C.V.S.

I follow her into the reception room. It's a while since I was last here, and the whole area has been redecorated. It's very blue: royal blue chairs; pale blue walls; a blue-gray non slip, easy-clean floor. And as if there isn't already enough blue (Emma's favorite color, as I now remember), the notice board and posters—three seascapes—have navy frames. I barely have time to take in any more because a man in his fifties has come staggering through to join us. He's well-built with a fair-size paunch and has gone for the shaved rather than the comb-over look to disguise the fact that he's bald on top. He carries a big, old dog in his arms.

"This way." Emma shows him straight through to the consulting room. "Stick him on the table." I follow and close the door behind us. Emma grabs a stethoscope and gives the dog—a German shepherd with a belly to rival any fat fighter's and the distinctive smell of hot dog, earwax, aftershave, and stale beer—a quick once-over. "I'm very sorry—Mr. Taylor, isn't it?"

The dog struggles to sit up, panting for air and whimpering in pain.

"It's Clive. And this is Robbie. It's my stupid fault. I wasn't watching out for him." He shudders. "One minute he was at my feet, the next he was in the middle of the road underneath a bloody great tractor." He has an East London accent. His shirt and jeans are smeared with blood and, like the dog, he appears to be in shock.

"I'm sorry," Emma says, "but I don't think he's going to make it. Robbie's bleeding internally—his gums are very pale." She raises the dog's lip to prove her point.

"You must be able to do something." Clive's voice quavers. "You have to."

"He'll die if I don't operate." The ticking of the clock above the door seems to grow louder, more insistent, as Emma continues, "And very likely, he'll die if I do."

While Emma's waiting for Clive to absorb this information, I reach out and stroke Robbie's head, discovering a crinkled ear and a scar to match a longer one on his chest. He turns his eyes toward me and, somewhere behind his glazed gray pupils, I catch sight of the dog he once was and perhaps still is. A fighter.

"I want you to give it a go." Clive twists a worn leather lead tight around his fist. "Can I wait?"

"It could take some time," Emma says. "A couple of hours, maybe more."

"Now I feel really guilty, because I've got to get back to the pub," Clive says.

"I'll call you as soon as I have any news," Emma promises.

"Thanks, Emma. Please, do what you can. I don't care how much it costs. He means everything to me …"

"No pressure then," I say once Clive has left, having signed the consent form and given Robbie one final hug in the sorry knowledge that it could be the very last time he sees his beloved dog.

Emma smiles ruefully.

"I think Clive's right, though," I say. "I'd want to give him a chance if he was my dog."

Within minutes, we're in the operating theater. Emma stands opposite me, scrubbed, gowned, and gloved. On the operating table between us lies Robbie, belly up and almost completely hidden under blue cotton drapes. His tongue lolls out of his mouth alongside the ET tube, which delivers oxygen and anesthetic to his lungs. Fluid pours at speed from a bag hanging from the drip stand, down a tube and into a vein in his front leg.

"How's he doing, Maz?" Emma's surgical cap is riding up her forehead, exposing the roots of her hair, and her eyes peer out anxiously above her face mask.

"Not great." I check and recheck the tension in Robbie's jaw to assess the depth of his anesthetic-induced slumber. "I don't think he's going to leap off the table anytime soon."

I watch as Emma picks up a scalpel and uses it to cut a line in the skin over the dog's belly, then snips right through with forceps and scissors, releasing a gush of blood, a coil of gut, and even more blood.

"I'll need more swabs," she says calmly.

"How many?"

"As many as we've got."

I rip open a couple of packets of gauze swabs and tip them out onto the instrument tray on the stand. Emma uses a fistful to dab at the blood. Sweat begins to form in beads across her forehead. I watch her bite her lower lip as she concentrates on finding the source of the bleeding. If anyone can save Robbie, she can.

"What do you think?" Emma sticks the end of a suction tube into the dog's belly. I flick the switch.

"That it doesn't look like a good place to lose a contact lens," I say lightly, although deep down my confidence is waning the more the scene resembles something from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

"Ah, I've found it," Emma mutters. Her voice cuts through the sound of blood spattering around the inside of the suction bottle. "It's the spleen—it's ruptured."

A greasy, metallic scent fills my nostrils, and my hands grow hot with panic. I watch the blood from Robbie's belly trickling down Emma's plastic apron and into her Crocs, while his pulse fades to a barely perceptible flicker beneath my fingers.

"Emma, I can't get a pulse." Using a stethoscope, I try for a heartbeat instead. It's very faint, as if I'm listening to it with cotton wool stuffed in my ears. "I think we're losing him."

"No, we aren't," Emma says fiercely, and she's right, we can't let him die on us now.

Recalling the look in Robbie's half-blind eyes, and the sob that rose in Clive's throat as he held him, I summon all my resources.

"Come on, old boy, you'll have to do better than this," I mutter as I cut the anesthetic, leaving Robbie on oxygen alone to support his vital organs, and fix up a second drip to run in more fluid. I guess in an ideal world we'd have plumped for a blood transfusion, but there isn't time for that. Gradually—it seems like hours, but it's only minutes—Robbie's pulse begins to strengthen. It isn't great, but it's probably as good as we're going to get, considering the circumstances.

Emma continues to operate, and a while later the dog's spleen—a dark and swollen mass, like offal on a butcher's slab—lies on an instrument tray, bristling with every pair of artery forceps I could lay my hands on.

To our relief, Robbie has come through, and is now snoring in one of the kennels.

"I'll make a start on the clearing up," I offer as Emma finishes writing the notes and clips the board to the front of the kennel.

"Oh no you won't." Emma pulls off her gown. "You've done more than enough already. When I asked you down for the weekend, I didn't intend you to end up working."

"It's been a bit of a busman's holiday," I admit, "but I don't mind at all." I'm used to it. You never know when you're going to be called upon—it's a hazard of the job. I thought Emma was used to it too, but I'm not sure she's coping with the demands of running her own solo practice and being on call 24/7.

"I don't know about you, but I could do with a gin and tonic after that," Emma says cheerfully as she grabs the phone. "We'll have one with dinner later."

I catch sight of my reflection in the silvery steel lining of the cage above Robbie's kennel and run my fingers through my short blond crop, half listening as Emma talks through the list of potential post-op complications with Clive.

"It's still touch and go, though," she adds at the end of the conversation. "I'll call you again in an hour or so."

"Now, where were we?" she says as we settle on the sofa in the staff room with a welcome cup of tea, leaving the door propped open so we can keep an eye on Robbie. "When do you have to leave Crossways?"

"In a couple of weeks, when I've worked out my notice." Two weeks? The realization that I'll be leaving Crossways, the place I've called home for the past five years, so soon hits me in the chest. It's my own fault, though. I went and lost my job—okay, I jumped before I was pushed. I broke one of the cardinal rules of the workplace—never fall for a colleague, especially one who's recently divorced. When it all went wrong, I decided I wasn't staying to have my nose rubbed in it.

"I'm really sorry it didn't work out, Maz." Emma takes off her surgical cap and ruffles her hair. "Mike seemed like such a nice guy."

"They always do at first," I say. Mike owns Crossways Vets in southwest London. Charismatic, successful, and good-looking, with the most amazing brown eyes. I really thought he was the one. He was clever and dedicated too, managing to mix working in a practice with some research work at the Royal Vet College, which might partially explain why his marriage fell apart.

He'd been divorced for just a few months when I started work there, and I admired him for admitting the almost instant attraction between us, while wanting to hold back for his ex-wife's sake. Perhaps that's what made it so exciting, the frisson of Mike's arm brushing against mine as he showed me the latest techniques for ligament repair in the operating theater, then the snatched kisses in the consulting room before he announced to the rest of the staff that we were a couple. Funnily enough, they didn't seem surprised.

We moved in together and started making plans for me to buy into the partnership with him. We had four and a half blissful years together. Until he realized he was still in love with his ex-wife.

"I'm going to find the next couple of weeks pretty humiliating, what with the nurses gossiping in the staff room and Mike going around the practice singing like he's James Blunt. He always sings when he's happy …" Robbie lets out a deep and noisy sigh from his kennel, matching my own sigh of regret. I try to shrug it off as I watch Emma top up Robbie's pain relief with an injection, but I can't—there's nothing that can deal with the pain of rejection. "I'll get over it," I say, the words rasping out of my throat. "My heart isn't broken this time, just bruised."

"I don't believe you," says Emma.

"Mike wasn't anything special," I reaffirm, but I know I'm lying to myself, and Emma can tell too. "He had a hairy back—spooning with him was like nuzzling a shaggy dog." I wrinkle my nose at the thought. "And he was a bit of a geek. And he liked playing golf. And he was a faithless piece of sh—" I stop abruptly. No point in getting wound up all over again. He isn't worth it. "Men, they're all the same," I say.

"Ben excepted," Emma replies, glancing toward her wedding ring, a simple but weighty gold band, which she wears on a chain around her neck.

"Ben excepted," I say contritely.

"He's my rock." Emma smiles, and I feel a twinge of envy that she's been so lucky in love and I haven't. "In fact, it's partly for Ben's sake that I'm asking this enormous favor of you. We're planning to take six months out to travel—you know he's got all those relations in Australia."

"Six months?" That's a lot longer than I expected, and I try not to let my dismay show. I was beginning to come round to the idea that, if I decided to work here in Emma's place, I could treat it as a bit of a holiday, a couple of weeks in the country.

"It's doctor's orders—Ben's actually." Emma's husband is a GP, which I guess comes in useful sometimes. "He says I'm stressed out, that I'll have some kind of breakdown if I keep going as I am …"

Her voice trails off, and I realize that she's been putting on a brave face since I arrived late last night. She does look completely shattered. I've been so wrapped up in my problems, so busy whinging on about my breakup with Mike during our recent phone conversations that it didn't occur to me Emma was having a tough time too.

"I haven't been coping terribly well recently …"

"When did you last have a day off?" I ask.

"Not since I opened the practice."

"But that's two—no, three and a half years ago. Emma! Why didn't you ask for help sooner? I could have covered the odd weekend for you."

"I didn't like to bother you—you were busy enough already."

"Not too busy to help a friend." I've known Emma for twelve years now, and she's always been there for me, always ready to help me out of a fix. "Do you remember when we first met? There can't be many people who can say they met their best friend at vet school over a dead greyhound."

"I wonder if Professor Vincent is still stalking the Dissection Room, scaring the life out of first-year vet students." Emma smiles. "What did he used to call you? Gwyneth, wasn't it? As in Gwyneth Paltrow. And I was Catherine Zeta-Jones, which was rather flattering, I thought."

"I didn't make a terribly good first impression, did I?" I say, recalling how I'd been fiddling with the knot on the canvas roll holding my dissection kit when suddenly it came undone and my shiny new scalpels, forceps, and scissors skittered across the floor to land at Professor Vincent's feet.

"There was one person you impressed," Emma says, getting up from the sofa.

"Oh, don't." I know exactly who she's talking about. Ian Michelson. Sandy blond with hazel eyes and a few freckles across the bridge of his nose, good-looking and clean-cut with a brilliant smile and glasses, he shared our greyhound. When our gloved fingers touched, very briefly, across the dog's brindle chest, my heart skipped a beat and I fell for him. We went out together for almost six years. He was my first boyfriend, my first love, my first heartbreak.

I watch Emma walk across to look at Robbie. She checks on his wound and covers him with a blanket to keep him warm.

Emma has stuck by me and helped me through the difficult times—when I thought I was too clumsy to be a vet, and when I ran out of money and nearly had to abandon my studies halfway through the course—which is why I'm going to do this for her. Even if I do have to spend six months stuck in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest Starbucks. I owe her.


Country Ways

Mike doesn't have the courage to say good-bye, but that's the kind of man he is. I glance back in the rearview mirror when I stop at the traffic lights a few yards down the road from Crossways. The figures of the people in the waiting room are silhouetted against the windows, and as far as I know, Mike is hiding behind the blinds in his consulting room.

From the group who came out to wave good-bye—some of the staff and the chap from the corner shop who's also one of my favorite clients—only Janine, the ex-wife who hounded me out, is left. Having turned up at the practice today on the excuse that her dog needed its booster, she stands on the pavement with her arms hugged around her chest—with glee, I imagine, that she's seen me safely off the premises and out of temptation's way. But she needn't worry: to be honest, the way I feel at the moment, I can't imagine being tempted by any man again. Ever.

If you put me in a room with Jude Law, Daniel Craig, and Brad Pitt right now, would my heart beat a little faster? I doubt it.

When the lights change, I put my foot down and I'm off, joining the queue of traffic leaving the capital.

There isn't much room for luggage—I've sent most of my belongings ahead by courier—but I've stuffed a couple of clinical waste bags of clothes and books in the passenger footwell. At least one of my contemporaries from vet school is driving about in an Aston Martin with a personalized number plate, something like K9 VET


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
384 pages
Hachette Books

Cathy Woodman

About the Author

Cathy Woodman began her career working as a small animal vet before turning to writing fiction. She won the Harry Bowling First Novel Award in 2002. Her Otter House Vet series is an extremely successful franchise in the UK. Cathy lives with her husband, two children, two ponies, three exuberant Border Terriers, and two cats in a village near Hampshire, England.

Learn more about this author