Authors: Michele Dunaway
“Jack. Saw you on the news a few minutes ago. How's that poor puppy?”
“Doing much better.”
“That's good. Good. Did you get my e-mail?”
He had, and promptly ignored it.
“We need to know if you're bringing a date to your sister's wedding,” his mother insisted. “If not, I have a solution.”
Jack's fingers tightened on his cell. “I'm in the middle of something. Can I call you tomorrow?”
“Will you actually call me?”
She knew him well. He didn't/couldn't forgetâbut he'd just get busy and hours would pass. “I'll call the moment you get home from church. Still around noon?”
“Yes. Cecily and Brian are coming over at four and staying through dinner. We have a few more wedding details to finalize. You could stop by, you know. She'd love to see you. Why don't you come? We've missed you lately. You could watch football with your father. The Rams are playing the Saints. Starts at three.”
While he loved his stepsister, who'd been four when she'd become part of his family, the last thing he wanted was to listen to his mother and Cecily ramble on about the nuptials occurring in three weeks. He'd already been fitted for a tux. Now they were hounding him for his plus one.
“I'm working tomorrow,” he told his mother, which wasn't exactly a lie. He was always working.
“If you could try â¦”
“I might be able make it around six,” he conceded.
“We'll be eating by then and trimming the tree afterwards.”
Which meant he'd be conned into helping his mother turn her house into an overboard winter wonderland. “I'll see what I can do. But I will call you no matter what.”
“You better. We're finishing the seating chart tomorrow, and I must have your answer by four thirty or I'm putting you next to Jane Moorhead. You remember Jane, right? She's flying in from Stanford where she's studying to be a lawyer. Pretty thing. Really blossomed from that girl you threw mud at in third grade. Could be the one for you. God knows Julie wasn't.”
Jack grew impatient. “Mom, you loved Julie up until she dumped me, and I really do have to go,” he said, for glittery round red ornaments were cascading from the Christmas tree and thudding onto the floor. He'd found Pippa, the longhaired calico kitten currently shaking the branches and testing the theory of gravity. “Love you!” he told his mom as he ended the call. He shoved his cell phone in his pocket and made a fast grab for the next ornament.
“They're not glass,” Kat said behind him.
“Didn't think so but â¦” He tossed her the satin ornament, and she caught it one-handed and set it in a bowl on the dining room table.
“It's a game. Pippa knocks everything off the low branches, so cloth ornaments only for the first four feet. The breakable things are up at the top where she can't get them. She also tries to pull the tinsel off, but she won't eat it, so it's safe. It just drapes badly at the floor.”
He lifted a fallen strand of silver and looped it back over a low branch. “I can see that. You ready?”
Pippa launched a few more balls, before flying out of the tree to scramble after one. Her tiny paws flew out from under her, and she went sliding sideways on the hardwood before she tackled her prey. Then she jumped a foot skyward.
Jack and Kat looked at each other and laughed. “I'm ready. Food and water are filled.” She gave Ty a scratch on the head. “You'll see me in the morning, won't you sweetie?” Ty flicked his tail and headed for the kitchen. He crunched on kibble as Kat locked up.
“Pizza okay?” Jack asked. “I was thinking Louie's, as it's close to the clinic.”
“Love that place. Another good choice. You know your restaurants.”
“I like good food,” Jack said.
He patted his stomach and her mouth watered. No extra pounds there. When she'd been in his arms, she'd touched solid muscle, with not an ounce of flab. Against his chest during their hugs, she'd heard the powerful
beneath his shirt. Her hands itched to touch his chest, feel the texture of his smooth skin. He was heavenly. Divine. Her body remained on high alert as they walked downstairs.
He assisted her both into and out of the SUV, his touch lingering as they reached Louie's. The place wasn't much to look at from the outside, but the plate glass window revealed a line of people waiting for carryout orders. They sat toward the back at the last empty table, and their waitress came for their drink order.
“After today, a glass of wine is in order,” Kat said, ordering a Riesling. Jack opted for a Budweiser. The waitress wrote it down on her green pad and disappeared, but not before giving Jack an odd look.
“Do you think she recognizes you?”
“My family is pretty big. We know everyone it seems. It's like a very small world. You?”
“Only child,” Kat admitted. “My parents were always busy with their medical professions, and I actually had a nanny. My dad traveled a lot and my mother worked long hours.”
He arched a sexy blond brow. “Really?”
“Wow. My mother was always home and in everyone's business. Still is.” He tapped his fingers on the table, then stilled the nervous habit. The waitress returned with their drinks, and he wrapped his fingers around the cold bottle and lifted it.
“Cheers,” he said.
Kat's forehead creased quizzically. “To what? It's not been that good of a day. Rather lousy actually.”
“Then how about we toast to Jingle, who's made it this far. That's reason to cheer.”
“Fair enough.” She perked up and clinked her wineglass to his bottle. Each took a sip.
“Speaking of Jingle, I watched the new story. Anthony did a nice job. You were portrayed in a positive light, so that should help with your legal troubles.”
Kat unrolled her flatware. “I saw it, and I hope so. My lawyer called. She wasn't too pleased with the interview.”
“Lawyers are a pain. Necessary evil.”
“So you said you're brother is a lawyer.”
“Yeah, when we were little I said I'd catch them and he'd put them away. One of the few times we agreed. But he went into corporate litigation. Pays better.”
Kat sensed there was more, but didn't want to press. “What made you want to be a police officer?”
“I liked all those Encyclopedia Brown and Hardy Boys books. Then I moved to mysteries as I got older, working my way through Agatha Christie, all the Sherlock Holmes. He observed everything, and I have a memory that allowed me to do that too. I like problem solving. I also liked Dick Francis.”
“I've read a few of his. He was a jockey. Did race horse mysteries.”
“Yeah. Once I chose the police force, I thought it'd be cool to be a member of St. Louis's mounted police. Instead, I realized that I could do more good by helping animals rather than riding them. I get to do more detective work this way. And I can't stand to see innocent creatures suffer.”
He shrugged, clearly reluctant to accept praise. “No more than saving animals like you do.”
The young waitress returned and held out a copy of the calendar. “Are you Jack Donovan?”
He gave her the media smile. “I am.”
“Could you autograph this? We're going to be hanging it in back come January. How cool that you eat here. Well, you will once I get your order.” Unlike Kat's laugh, the waitress's light giggle got on Jack's nerves.
He signed the calendar with a flourish, and then they ordered a St. Louisâstyle, thin-crust green pepper and onion pizza. Kat added an Italian salad for a starter.
“Does that happen often?” Kat asked after the waitress departed. Now other patrons were looking at them and pointing and whispering.
“More and more,” he admitted. “It's a bit unnerving.”
Kat heard snatches of “vet” and “Jingle.” Surprise had her eyes widening. “They're talking about me.”
Jack shrugged. “It's nothing. Ignore it. You have to or it'll drive you crazy.”
She tried, but after a few minutes said, “You're right. It's annoying. How do you put up with it?”
“It's part of the job.”
Kat sighed. Then her ears perked up. “Now they're talking about my legal issues.”
She hated being the subject of gossip. “I can't. I'm so worried. It should have been a simple permit fix. It's blown up into this huge issue. Do you know how much money I invested? My parents told me it was a waste. But I don't like animals to suffer any more than you do. All I wanted to do was help.”
“I'm truly sorry.” He sipped his beer, mouth wrapping around the opening. “It has to be hard.”
He swallowed, the mesmerizing sight momentarily stripping her of her focus. A routine act shouldn't be so darn sexy. What had she been about to say? Oh yeah. She blinked. “It hasn't been an easy process.”
He reached for her hand, covered it with his. “What can I do?”
“I was hoping, wonderingâ” She stopped. She couldn't do this. She pulled her hand away, breaking the magnetic connection, and he let her fingers go.
“I want to help,” he prodded.
Kat clenched her hands in her lap, twisted them together. “I can't. Even though I got put on the spot, I'm now as bad as all those other women who wanted something from you, or I'll sound like an autograph-seeking fangirl like our waitress.”
She released her hands and sipped her wine for courage. “You know I've a huge adoption event coming up. We hope to clear out the shelter, which we need to do just in case things don't go my way in court â¦”
Her voice trailed off and she took a deep, fortifying breath. “I'd like you to be our celebrity guest. You'd talk to people, help them choose an animal, sign some autographs â¦ maybe even wear a Santa hat.”
He didn't respond, and she placed both hands flat on the table and sighed. “I know. Poor joke. Plus, it's everything you hate, but you might be my last hope. I honestly don't know what else to do. I was impulsive and once again it bit me.”
The waiter set her salad down, then topped off their water glasses. Jack lifted his beer to his lips, let a good long sip pass. Then he set the brew down and brushed some lint off the red and white plastic tablecloth. “I told you how I feel about animals being Christmas presents; they are a huge responsibility. Jingle was a present.”
She bristled. “I screen every adopter personally. I'm like an animal-human love connection. I also have a return policy. If they don't want the animal, no matter when, they are to bring it back to me.”
“Even if you don't have a shelter?”
She jutted her chin forward. “I will work something out.”
He toyed with the frosted red plastic water cup, wiping away a bead of condensation. “How many come back?”
“We've had a few,” she admitted, “but not as many as you'd expect. Less than two percent. And I've been able to find new homes for each one. All of my dog owners can partake in free obedience classes held here at my clinic. While you may not like Christmas, it's a great time to get a pet because people are home. Kids are off school for at least a week, so there are people around during the day to assimilate the animal. I also hold kiddie classes to teach children proper pet care. Good animal care comes from education. Kids need to learn how to show appropriate affection and how to take care of their pets. I provide that.”
His fingers moved up and down the bottle in an absent caress. If those fingers were on her â¦ Her mouth dried and she took a long, nourishing sip of cold wine. “Seems like you've thought of everything.”
She nodded, and her loose brown hair swished around her neck and brushed the tops of her shoulders. “I've made my clinic full service. I do not want what happened to Jingle happening to any of my animals.”
He liked how she said “my animals.” Saving pets was a calling, not just a mission, not just a job. On that point, at least, they were kindred spirits. “What if we did it at a later time?” he asked.
She finished her Riesling. “You're missing my point. I know you hate Christmas adoptions, but I am out of time. My hearing is right before the holiday. I have mere weeks to find homes for twenty dogs and fourteen cats. I'll do anything to save them. Anything.”
That caught his interest. “Anything?”
“Anything.” That had come out wrong. “Well, within reason.” Where was that waitress? More wine. Stat.
Those fingers continued their sensual assault on the cup. “So, if I do you this favor, will you owe me one?”
“Owe me one.” He repeated, those three words subtly suggestive. Kat's breath hitched.
Just what did he mean?
He rubbed his fingers together then reached for the beer bottle. “If I do this, I want quid pro quo.”
She'd grabbed her fork, and she set it back down. Was he really considering helping her? “Like what?”
“You want to use me, yes? My particular skills?” The words rolled seductively off his tongue, sending an anticipatory shiver to her toes. She could think of all kinds of skills she'd like to use, none involving signing calendars or finding homes.
Oh boy. Her impulsivity once again had her in far too deep. His lips molded around the bottle opening. Her mouth dried, and she sipped water for much needed composure. “I sound like all those women. It was Angela's idea. Forget I asked.”
“I never forget a thing.”
“No. It's one of the reasons I became a cop. It's also the reason that kiss we shared is so potent. Or that I wouldn't like to try it again.”
“Oh.” She let that sink in.
“First, I am not posing sans clothes â¦ in public.”
Her skin heated and she blushed deep. “I wouldn't expect that.”
Beer slid down his throat. “You'd be amazed who would and how many times I've been asked.” Bottle down, long, firm fingers now tapped against the plastic water cup. “Also, I'm happy to take pictures and sign autographs, but I don't want that to be my only focus. As much as I hate Christmastime adoptions, I do like helping people find a pet. I also want to be able to publicize the Task Force and its work. So we need to make sure all animals are going to good, forever homes.”