Authors: Michele Dunaway
She rested her head on his shoulder, drew in the scent of a woodsy aftershave. The starched shirt didn't scratchâshe could have stayed in this delightful hazy trance all day. She'd danced many times, but never, ever, had her body longed for a man as it did Jack. Nestled in his arms, she felt safe. Cherished. He was strong, yet soft, and as she looked up, her gaze settled on the pure temptation that was his lips.
He drew her even closer, keeping her there as the band began another slow number. “So what did you and Sharon talk about?” he asked.
“This and that. She wanted to know how we'd met, how serious we were. I told her we'd fallen in love at first sight.”
His exhale tickled her ear. “You are good.”
He felt dreamy, and she fought from falling into that Cinderella-like, happily-ever-after fantasy that crept into every woman's head during a slow dance.
Kat drank in his scent again before forcing herself to ignore the warm, intoxicating glowâit wasn't real. She had to remember that. “Glad to be of help,” she quipped. “After meeting Matt and Sharon, I can see why you needed me.”
Fingers traced circles on the small of her back. “My family is a little intense.”
“A little,” she agreed, for while they had hidden it quickly, she'd seen the tension between the two men. “But sometimes families have very specific ideas.”
“Mine has a mold, and I don't quite fit.”
“Well, I like you just the way you are,” Kat said, drawing back and brushing some microscopic lint off his shoulder as the song ended. “I wouldn't change a thing.”
They stood there for a moment, gazes locked, until the music changed and the crowd began the electric slide, a St. Louis staple no matter how old the signature song was. Jack gestured. “Shall we look at the auction items?”
“Let's.” Kat took his outstretched hand and followed him from the dance floor. She enjoyed the way her fingers fit into his as they began to look at the items, which ranged from some less-than-fifty-dollar pottery pieces to full-blown four-thousand-dollar vacations. She let go of Jack when she bent over a set of St. Louis Blues tickets and wrote down a bid. She set the pen down. “If nothing else, if I lose, someone else pays more. Every dollar counts. It's for the animals.”
Jack looked around. “There's a lot of money in this room.”
“Which is good for Pet Rescue and the animals,” Kat replied, hearing his unspoken “too rich for my blood.”
His arm made a sweep. “This doesn't intimidate you?”
“Why should it? I'm comfortable and I became a vet because I love animals, not because I wanted to be rich like my parents.”
She bid on a handcrafted bead necklace running about seventy-five dollars. “This would be a perfect Christmas gift for my mother. I am a sucker for silent auctions. Do you know I have thirteen autographed baseballs?”
He gave her an odd look. “Do you even like baseball?”
She laughed. “Yes, and I go to the occasional game, although I admit I'm not a diehard fan. But I'm addicted to my collection.”
“Well, then you might want that ball over there. Tony La Russa.” Jack pointed out the former St. Louis Cardinal manager and Hall of Famer.
She sighed. “I have that one. He is a huge supporter and always donates. He has his own animal rescue foundation. Maybe that's the route I need to take.”
“Let's not talk business tonight.”
She stopped in front of an autographed book and wrote down a bid. “Okay. That's fair.”
“I know the case upsets you. And you seemed to be enjoying yourself. I want us to have fun tonight.”
“I am having a good time.” They went to the bar and picked up new drinks. “It's been a nice evening. Best time I've had in years.”
“I agree, and I hate these things. But you've made it tolerable. Highly enjoyable,” he admitted.
“Me, too.” They wandered back to their table, a process that took a while as they kept stopping to socialize. Kat didn't mind. She liked watching Jack in action. He was a born leader, and clearly well respected. If she was being honest with herself, she also liked the way he moved and the way he filled out his tux. Judging from the appreciative glances he was getting, she wasn't the only one.
She bit the inside of her lip, a reminder not to forget. She could lose herself in the moment far too easily. She had a bad habitâshe often jumped in with both feet, never fully considering the consequences. It's how she'd ended up in her predicament with the shelter. Impulse often won over rationality, a trait she'd been trying to correct most of her life with little success.
This whole evening might not have been real, but she still wanted to kiss him. Her lips had quivered during the slow dance, her compulsion to touch overpowering.
Toss caution to the wind. Who cares if it won't lead anywhere!
She'd somehow managed to keep her wits.
“There you are.” Sharon grabbed Kat's arm. “I have to check my items. Come with me.”
Kat allowed herself to be propelled along to the first group of auction items, using the time away from Jack's magical presence to clear her thoughts and regroup. “What did you bid on?”
“This fabulous winery weekend in Napa. You?”
“A book. A necklace over there that my mom might like.”
Nothing nearly that expensive
, Kat thought as Sharon upped her bid by a hundred dollars.
“We should check on them,” Sharon said, but Jack approached, holding out Kat's sequined evening bag.
“You're buzzing,” he said. “I didn't want to open it, but whoever's calling has tried multiple times.”
Kat unlocked her phone, noting three missed calls and two texts. Her stomach dropped and her face drained of color. “We need to go.”
Her voice rose in a fevered pitch. “Jingle. The clinic. We have to go.”
“What if you win?” Sharon asked, clearly confused.
“Buy it and I'll pay you back,” Jack said, understanding the urgency. He grabbed Kat's hand and led her toward the exit. “I'll get the car while you retrieve our coats.”
“Perfect.” Kat took the claim ticket, and by the time she reached the front of the hotel the valet was holding the SUV door open. Jack put the siren on the roof, and within minutes they were at the back entrance to her clinic.
“Kat, thank God,” the overnight vet tech said as Kat rushed into the OR. “I'm not sure what happened. Vitals were stable and then they plummeted â¦”
Jack didn't understand the medical jargon uttered next, and he stepped back as Kat pulled a surgical gown over her dress. She pointed to a small closet. “Jack, suit up. Scrubs are in there. I'm going to need you.” She pulled a mask over her mouth.
“Sure thing.” He peeled off the tuxedo coat, donned the green gown and a mask, and waited for instructions. While for the briefest moment at the ball Kat had been panicked, now she was in full control, as good and professional as any other first responder with whom he'd worked. “What do you need me to do?”
But Kat didn't answer; she was a flurry of activity as she worked on Jingle. She tapped a syringe to get the air out before slowly plunging the contents into the IV line. The dog, who had been trembling, immediately began to calm. Then she began to peel back the bandages. “Damn,” she said, and as much as Jack wanted to ask, he kept his mouth shut, only asking for further information as needed after she issued him directions.
Kat and her tech worked well together, and Jack passed over this and that, until finally Kat wiped her brow and said, “That's it. All we can do. Now we wait again.” Jingle lay sedated on the table as Kat turned to her tech. “Thanks, Jane. You were great. Go home. I've got it from here.”
The girl took off her gloves. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely.” Kat nodded. “Jack will help me.”
“Thanks.” The tech scrubbed out and left.
“So what happened?” Jack asked.
“Infection. I had to reclean one of the wounds. He's on an antibiotic but â¦” She stopped, clearly drained. “His body has a lot of recovery left to do. Can you help me move him? He's okay to pick up by lifting under his front legs and under his stomach.”
Jack put Jingle back in his crate, and the dog seemed to sigh. “Good thing my cats won't miss me,” Kat said, removing her scrubs and tossing them into the hamper. She glanced at her dress and sighed. “Some end to our evening. Thanks for staying and helping.”
“Do you know how many times I've been called away on an emergency? I get it.”
Most men she'd dated hadn't, Kat reflected, but Jack drew her close with a “Come here.” His fingers found the knot on her left shoulder blade, and she practically moaned. “That feels so good.”
“Least I can do,” Jack replied. His phone pinged and he used his free hand to get it out of his pants pocket. “You won some of your items.”
A tear slipped down Kat's cheek, and then she began to laugh as the weight of the evening crashed into her. “Yay,” she quipped. “A bonus.”
“Hey,” Jack said. “It's okay. You saved him. And your dress is still beautiful. You're still beautiful.” He turned her to face him and flicked away the stray tear with the rough pad of his finger. “How about I rustle up some food?”
“There's stuff in the break room. End of the hall,” Kat told him. “Meet you there. Let me check his monitors.”
She needed a moment to regroup. She made sure Jingle was fine, and then stopped in her private bathroom. Her updo had fallen. Her dress had wrinkled. Her right eye mimicked a raccoon's. Her lipstick had long faded. Taking a makeup wipe, she removed the black under-eye smudges, whisked away the last of her lip color. Then she took a quick swig of mouthwash and sighed.
She reached down and slid off the sanitary shoe covers and her heels, putting on the spare slippers she kept on the shelf. She had spare clothes in the closet, but no point. She'd rather change straight into the sweats she'd sleep in later. She padded toward the break room, where she discovered Jack microwaving frozen individual deep-dish pizzas. “Found these in the freezer.” He held out a paper plate. “Hope you like plain cheese. It was this or some cheese rice thing with a green giant on the box.”
Her mood lightened and she laughed. “Actually, I'll have you know that that cheese rice is pretty good. But this will be perfect.”
A tickle of awareness passed between their fingertips as she took the plate. The microwave beeped, and Jack retrieved the second pizza. Kat sat at the small table, and Jack dropped into the chair beside her. He handed her a napkin. “There's silverware in that drawer,” she said.
“Ah, no need. Fingers work.” Jack lifted the four-inch circle and his lips closed around a bite. He pulled back and a string of melted cheese extended from mouth to finger. He wrapped it around the digit, stuck it in his mouth, then pulled his finger out with a pop. He grinned. “Good stuff.”
Kat's legs clenched involuntarily as she watched his mouth work on his finger. No,
was the good stuff. He'd helped save Jingle again, simply rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting to work. Now he sat nonchalantly eating microwave pizza, the little dip to his chin catching another string of cheese, the edge of his lips wearing a dab of tomato sauce. She checked her hand's instinctive forward motion by lifting her own pizza. Instead, she pointed at her lips and chin, and he laughed and used the napkin to clean up. “Messy stuff, finger food.”
“I offered you silverware.”
“Real men don't use forks for pizza.” He reached up and tugged off the bow tie, tossing the glossy black fabric on the table. “Annoying thing.”
“Real men don't wear bow ties either?”
“Not while eating pizza.”
She took a second bite, chewing slowly as the adrenaline of rescuing Jingle faded. Jack rose, went back to kitchenette, and returned with two glasses of ice water. “Thanks for helping.”
He passed her a glass. “You look tired. Not quite the way we planned on ending the evening.”
“Definitely not,” she agreed, taking another bite. The warm gooeyness assaulted her taste buds, and for a second she closed her eyes in appreciation. “Almost better than the banquet food.”
“Shock and awe does that to you. Until the adrenaline clears, you have heightened awareness. Extra energy. And an ability to think this pizza is gourmet.”
“I guess you get adrenaline rushes all the time in your line of work.”
“It happens.” He nodded, thought back. “Yeah. Pretty much. To compensate, I'm a stress eater.”
“You don't look it.”
“I work out constantly to get rid of the excess energy. Supposedly it also helps relieve stress. And gives me biceps.” He flexed and winked, looking silly and sexy at the same time.
“I wish it'd work that way for me.”
His gaze roved over her, dropping to where the open diamond shape formed the V at the top of her breasts. “I'd say you have little to worry about.”
“You're clearly delusional from tonight's adventure.”
“Nope. Sharp as a tack. You handled yourself well. You knew just what to do. You were impressive.”
“Practice and training,” she replied. “Seriously. When I first started out, I had book knowledge, my schooling, and my on-the-job training, but it never truly prepares you, you know?”
“What's the worst mistake you made?”
“Thankfully, I haven't yet made a bad one and I pray I never do. Embarrassing, yes. This lady brought in her feral cat. Bad winter, so she'd brought him in after years of him living outside in one of those little igloos, complete with heating pad. I cleaned him up and looked him over, but it wasn't a comprehensive exam. So a few weeks later, the cat is still indoors, so she brings him in to be neutered. Thing is, he already was. I mean, I have this cat all sedated and there's nothing there. How did I not notice that the first time? How did I miss that?”