Authors: Shirley Jump
There were pluses and minuses to living next door to the shelter and veterinary office, Mike realized. Pluses because he didn’t have to go far to find something to do that kept his hands occupied and reduced his stress level by a thousand percent. Minuses because being in so much as the same county as Diana Tuttle made him daydream about
things to do with his hands and raised his stress level ten thousand percent.
The first round of work on the shelter was mostly demo work, which kept the initial costs down for Diana and Olivia. He’d worked out a plan that involved minimal changes, so that their budget wouldn’t be compromised. With him doing the labor for free, there’d be even less expenditures. A bargain all around. In exchange, Diana and Olivia offered to take turns watching the girls so that he could work without interruption—and without the earsplitting temper tantrums.
“Why do we have to stay here all day?” Jenny tromped along beside him, a backpack loaded down with enough supplies to keep a large school occupied for a year. Ellie followed behind, towing Teddy by one arm and clutching two other stuffed animals in the other.
“Because I am going to be doing some demo work and I don’t want you guys underfoot.”
“What’s unda-foot?” Ellie asked, pausing to turn a flip-flop clad foot up and look at the bottom. “Do I have one?”
“It means he thinks we’ll get in the way,” Jenny said. “He doesn’t want us around.” Then she lowered her head and added, “As usual.”
“This isn’t a permanent thing,” Mike said to Jenny. “I’m helping out a friend”—though the word
, associated with Diana, sounded weird and inadequate—“for a few hours and then I’ll get you guys and we’ll go have some dinner.”
“Like chicken nuggets?” Ellie asked, bouncing in place, yanking the bear up and down like a yo-yo. “Cuz I love chicken nuggets.”
“Well, those aren’t exactly healthy. I was thinking we’d have salad and—”
“Yuck! I hate salad. Toma-hos are gross.” Ellie stuck out her tongue, then crossed her arms over her chest. “Mommy gets us chicken nuggets. Mommy likes chicken nuggets.”
Mike didn’t want to have this argument about Mommy versus Daddy and who made better meal choices right now. Hell, ever. He was out of his depth in this world of Barbies and Legos and questionable choices. He liked his black-and-white military world, where the questions made sense and the answers were clear. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“That’s code for
,” Jenny whispered to Ellie.
“You are not helping the situation,” Mike said to her.
“That’s because I don’t want to be in this situation,” Jenny said. “Nobody asked you to come get us and drag us halfway around the world so you can see your stupid friends and build some stupid shelter.”
“No, nobody asked me. But I couldn’t leave you guys where you were. It wasn’t…” He searched for the right words. “Wasn’t as much fun as coming to the beach.”
“Fun.” Jenny snorted. “Let me know when we start having some of that.”
They had reached the veterinary office, and not a moment too soon. Mike opened the door, ushered the girls in front of him, and prayed the air conditioning would cool everyone’s irritation a bit.
His temperature shot up when he saw Diana behind the counter. She had on her white lab coat, which gave her this sexy air of authority and made him wonder what she would look like in just the lab coat and nothing else. “Hi,” he said.
Lamest entrance ever. But ever since that kiss in the kennel, his mind became Jell-O around her. When was the last time a one-night stand did that to him? Mike had made moving on a specialty in his life, especially after the disaster of his marriage when he’d deluded himself into thinking he could stick to any one woman for longer than a few nights.
But Diana was different—in his thoughts, she stuck to him like glue. He’d slept a grand total of three hours last night, and spent three more hours trying not to fantasize about her. Yeah, not much success in that department.
“Hi, girls,” Diana said, bending over the counter and giving Mike a peek of her cleavage, which started up those fantasies all over again. “Jenny, later today, do you want to take Cinderella out in the yard for some play time? And Ellie, do you want to help us play with the kittens?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Ellie jumped up and down, her little feet slapping the tile floor. “I love kitties!”
“Well, you have to be quiet,” Diana said. “Remember, it’s super easy to scare kitties, and you wouldn’t want to do that, would you?”
“Nuh-uh.” Ellie shook her head, serious now, and morphed into a patient, still child.
Jenny stood at attention and gave Diana a smile. “Nobody’s adopted Cinderella yet?”
“Nope, and she can’t wait to see you. I was hoping you could brush her, too, and get her all ready for the adoption event tomorrow. We want all our animals looking their best.”
“Awesome.” Jenny grinned. “I can’t wait.”
“I swear, you work some kind of hypnosis on them.” Mike shook his head. Was he that bad of a parent or was it just that hard for the girls to connect with him? For a second, he considered getting the girls a puppy, then he realized he wouldn’t be here long enough for the dog to get its first shots. There was no way he was dropping off a dog at Jasmine’s. His ex could barely take care of the two girls, never mind a pet, too.
“They’re nice girls,” Diana said. “It’s easy to connect with them.”
Yeah, easy for her; not so much for him. He tried to tell himself he wasn’t jealous or hurt, but he was. All he wanted to do right now was get to work. Get his hands dirty, do something hard and physical, and then none of this would bother him anymore. “I better get to work. I’ll be out back if you need me.”
“Actually, if you have a minute, I could use some help moving something.”
She had put her hand on his arm to get his attention, and it was all Mike could do to keep himself from taking her hand, hauling her down the hall and kissing her again. It was as if Diana’s touch flipped some switch in his brain, one that went to instant on. “Uh, sure.”
Monosyllabic answers. A clear sign that Man Brain was activated.
“Thank you. It’s definitely a job that calls for a brawny man.” She grinned.
He remembered that joke, from the first time they met. He’d even flexed, if he remembered right. Trying to impress her, like a horny fifteen-year-old. Hell, who was he kidding? He might be in his early thirties now, but the horny fifteen-year-old in him had never died. And every time he was around Diana, that side became stronger, louder, the kind of voice that said he’d bust through a concrete wall just to get a kiss from her.
“This brawny man is all yours,” he said.
A part of him wondered if he meant just for this task, or for more. Diana’s held his gaze for a moment, as if she had the same question, then she looked away. “The, uh, delivery driver unloaded the dog food shipment in the wrong place. I need the bags moved closer to the dog kennels.”
“Just point me in the right direction. I’m here to help.”
She laughed. “Don’t say that too loud or I’ll give you a to-do list as long as your right arm. I always have about five hundred things on my wish list.”
Jenny tugged on Mike’s sleeve. “Can we stay here?”
He’d forgotten the girls were there. Forgotten they were standing in the lobby of the veterinary office. Diana had touched his arm and asked for his help, and wham, his brain short-circuited. “If it’s okay with Diana”—she nodded her assent—“then yes, as long as you two stay out of trouble.”
Jenny made a face. “Duh. We’re not going to do anything wrong.”
Ellie got out of her seat and spun a circle on the floor. “We’re going to draw pictures for the kitties. And make up songs. And play games. We’ll be good, Daddy.”
That’s what he was afraid of. Their version of good and his version were two different definitions. He gestured toward the plastic seats. “Stay in the chairs, and don’t touch anything. Nothing. Understand?”
“I gotta touch my crayons, Daddy. I gotta draw a picture,” Ellie said.
Diana laughed. “Kids. Smarter than us sometimes.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” He followed Diana down the hall, watching the sway of her hips underneath the lab coat. She had nice, easy movements, and he remembered she told him once that she ran in her spare time, to keep fit. Those miles showed in the muscles flexing in her legs, the tight roundness of her ass, and the easy confidence she had in her stride. Maybe someday they could go on a run together, a few miles on the beach, and then, when they were done and sweaty, strip off their clothes, dash into the ocean—
Okay. Not a good line of thought. He was here to work, not to let the Man Brain control his day. He needed to stay focused on his goals—get closer to the girls, help Diana and Olivia out, then figure out what the hell to do with the rest of his life.
The career he loved had begun to lose its luster in the last few days. Somewhere in the midst of all those
s and colored pictures and barbecues, he’d begun to wonder just what the hell was so wonderful about living in near-isolation in Alaska. Far from the beach, from the girls, and from here.
He was just getting maudlin, that was all. Too much vacation time, not enough work time. Get back on track, get back on schedule, and the world would right itself again. He didn’t need to derail with deluded thoughts about being some white-picket-fence family man who washed the minivan on Saturdays and coached Little League.
They turned right, toward the shelter entrance, and stopped by a mountain of dog food bags strapped to a wooden skid. “These need to be moved to the other side of the building,” Diana said. “If we tackle it together, it should be done pretty fast.”
“I can handle this, if you want. Don’t you have patients to see?”
“Not for another twenty minutes. Besides, I could use the workout.” She flexed an arm.
“You look amazing the way you are,” he said. “Absolutely amazing. In fact, I wouldn’t change a thing about you.”
She blushed and shook her head, but a small smile played on her lips. “If you keep flattering me like that, I’ll end up…” her voice trailed off.
He took a step closer. Tipped her chin up to look at him. “End up what?”
Her green eyes were wide, her lips parted slightly. A heartbeat passed, another. She swallowed, and the tease in her face gave way to sober frankness. “I’ll end up falling for you all over again.”
Falling for him again. The thought made his pulse stutter. “Would that be so bad?” he asked, questioning himself as much as he was Diana.
“Would it be so good?”
His thumb traced her bottom lip. Her breath whispered over his fingers, warm and teasing. “You know it would be good. Knock-your-socks off good.”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “We have work to do.”
“It can wait a second.”
“If I let it wait, I’ll get distracted and off-course. I can’t let that happen.”
She didn’t mean her schedule or her work, and he knew it. Distracted and off-course. That was exactly how Diana made him feel. That was a dangerous path to tread, and if he was a smart man, he would pull back now and stop dancing with fire. “You’re right. We have work to do.”
He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw disappointment puddle in her eyes before she turned away. They worked together for a few minutes with little conversation, transporting the fifty-pound bags from one end of the building to the other. The dogs barked, the cats meowed, and the rest of the staff bustled around them, doing the regular morning chores of feeding and checking on the animals in their care. When they got the last two bags moved, Mike paused by the door that led back to the front office, waiting before he headed back to Jenny and Ellie. “Diana, can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” Diana brushed her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, then pulled two water bottles out of a nearby fridge and handed him one. She looked sexy and beautiful even when she was tired and sweaty from working hard.
“Thanks.” He uncapped the bottle and took a long swig. He palmed the hard plastic cap and turned it over and over in his fingers. Beyond the square of glass in the door, he could see the girls, Ellie on the floor drawing, Jenny sitting there, knees drawn up to her chest, watching. They were mirror images of him, with their dark hair and blue eyes, but emotionally, they might as well be strangers. Even after all this time together, the gulf between himself and his daughters seemed as wide now as it had when he’d first arrived in Atlanta and they’d shied away from him like they’d never met.
He’d thought it would be so easy to slip into the temporary role of dad. He’d been wrong, and as the days went by and the gulf stayed wide and impassable, he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have just left them with Jasmine instead of trying to force a relationship that might never exist.
“How do you do it? How do you get close to your kids?” he asked finally.
Diana leaned back against the wall and held the water bottle by her side with the tips of her fingers. “I don’t know if there is one magic answer. All you can do is find something in common between you and build on that. That’s what I did with Jackson. He loved animals as much as I do, and we would spend time together here at the shelter, or at the zoo. Anything where he could interact with them. He’s a science geek, too, though if you ask him right now while he’s busy playing the tough teenager, he’ll deny it. Because he loved chemistry and formulas from the day he could talk, I involved Jackson in the lab. Let him run some tests while I supervised, that kind of thing. We’d spend hours talking about the animals and the test results and how this enzyme or that medication can impact a dog’s health, stuff like that. It wasn’t playing catch in the yard, but it still brought us together.”