Authors: Catherine Anderson
“Laura brought in homemade cookiesâthe big, fat, chewy kind with gobs of milk-chocolate chips. They should cheer you up.”
Isaiah almost groaned.
Laura, Laura, Laura.
In almost every conversation, her name seemed to crop up. Determined to focus on his work, Isaiah glanced over his roster for the day. Sure enough, Roger Petty had a one-thirty appointment with Isaiah for his quarter horse gelding, Rusty. Bad limp, right front leg. Isaiah hoped it was nothing serious. The old guy loved that horse as if it were a child.
Rolling up his shirtsleeves, Isaiah stepped to the sink to wash his hands. When he turned to grab a paper towel, Trish went up on her tiptoes in front of him and shoved a cookie in his face.
“Come on. Big bite. Chocolate brightens the mood.”
Just the smell was enough to lift Isaiah's spirits. Breakfast, a half bag of cheese puffs that he'd eaten while driving, had been six hours ago. He took a huge bite of the cookie.
As he started to chew, Trish added, “Some studies say that chocolate gives people the same feeling they get when they're falling in love.” Isaiah froze with his teeth imbedded in yummy chunks of chocolate. The last thing he needed was a hormone enhancer. Unfortunately, the chips were already melting over his tongue, and he was only human. What normal, rational person could resist swallowing?
The cookie was delicious. Isaiah practically inhaled the rest of it and grabbed two more from a deep orange party tray trimmed with little black witches. As he ate, he decided there was some truth to the old adage that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach.
After Laura finished decorating the waiting area, she moved on to Tucker's wing of the clinic in the hope that Isaiah might be busy in the examining rooms by the time she was ready to tackle his. No such luck. He was in the middle of an operation on a gray tabby when she entered the south-wing surgery.
At the sound of the door closing behind her, he glanced up and gave her a long, contemplative look. Accustomed to a friendlier reception, Laura wondered if she'd done something wrong.
Trish, looking like a masked elf beside her tall employer, flicked Laura a mischievous look. “There you are. If your ears have been burning, it's because we've been talking about you.”
Belinda turned from cleaning an observation
cage. “Yeah, lady,” she said with a grin, “you're in big trouble.”
Laura sent Isaiah a questioning glance. He caught the look and finally winked. “Not in a bad way,” he assured her. “We're just grateful for the cookies, is all. They're delicious.”
“I'll say. And the trays are totally cute. Puts me more in the mood for Halloween.” Using her forearm, Trish scratched her nose through the surgical mask. “Hurry up and finish here, Isaiah. I'm hungry for another cookie.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Isaiah bent to resume his work. “By the way, Laura, I understand that you and your grandmother are invited to have Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house.”
“Thanksgiving?” Belinda wadded soiled newspaper in her hands. “Puh-lease. Can't we get Halloween out of the way first?”
Trish laughed. “Heck, no. We'll be on the holiday fast track for the next two months.”
Belinda huffed and rolled her eyes.
With Laura's parents living in Florida and her sister in Portland, she had been counting on spending the holiday with her grandmother. “I haven't talked to Gram,” she settled for saying. “And she's said nothing about going to your parents' for Thanks-giving.”
He didn't look up. “Well, it's early on. My mother always plans everything for the holidays well in advance. I was just wondering if you might be there.” He dabbed sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his lab coat. “No big deal if you have other plans.”
Pleasure radiated through Laura, suffusing her whole body with warmth. He wanted to know if she'd be having Thanksgiving dinner at his parents' house. She couldn't help but wonder if that meant he was hoping she might. The thought no sooner came than Laura pushed it from her mind.
Where this man was concerned, she needed to keep her feet firmly rooted in reality. He thought of her as a friend, nothing more.
“Gram hasn't said any-thing. But that'd be fun,” she heard herself say.
“If you guys decide to be there, you'd better brush up on your checkers game then,” he said with a grin. “I'm the all-time champion.”
Laura had always enjoyed checkers, and it was one of the few games that she could still play. “I'm not so bad myself.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners, a sure sign that he was smiling. Then he gave her a thumbs-up and returned his attention to the cat. “Uh-oh. I don't like the looks of that.”
Trish followed his gaze. “Does it look malignant?”
“Shit.” Isaiah sighed wearily. “We'd better do a biopsy.”
Trish stepped over to a cupboard. “Shania and Trevor love chocolate-chip cookies, Laura. Can I have your recipe?”
Laura was staring at the unconscious cat and thinking of its owners. If the feline had cancer, they might have to put it down. “What?” She refocused on Trish. “I'm sorry.”
“Christ,” Isaiah said softly. “This is cancer.”
Returning to the table with a clear plastic slide, Trish replied to Laura's question. “I said I'd like your cookie recipe.”
“Sure.” Laura pushed the word up a tight throat. “I'll copy it forâ”
“Son of a bitch. There's more than one tumor. Forehead.” Isaiah angled his head toward Trish so she could wipe the sweat from his brow. Then he bent low again, intent on his work. “What rotten luck. She thinks the world of this cat.”
Belinda abandoned her task to approach the table. “Oh, no. We can't lose him, Isaiah. Mrs. Palmer will be heartsick.”
Trish's brows knitted in concern. “How bad, do you think?”
Beneath the mask that covered the lower half of his face, Laura could see Isaiah's jaw muscle ticking. “I don't know if I can get it all. But I'm sure as hell going to try. No wonder he's been off his food. Poor fellow's eaten up.”
Trish looked at Laura. “Have you met Mrs. Palmer?”
Laura shook her head.
“She's a sweetheart,” Belinda inserted. “A little old lady. Seymour is all she's got now. Her husband died about six months ago.”
Isaiah swore again. Laura's heart hurt for him. In that moment there was such anguish in his eyes.
“Jesus.” The whispered word was like a shout. He straightened and closed his eyes. “Hold the fort for me,” he told Trish. “I have to go call her.” He ripped off the mask as he stepped away from the table. “Be right back.”
Laura's stomach rolled with nausea as he left the surgery. Trish stood over the cat, her eyes devoid of the mischief that was so characteristic of her. Belinda returned to cleaning cages, her expression glum.
“This is the downside of veterinary medicine,” Trish said huskily. “That isn't going to be a fun phone call for him to make.” She stroked the cat's head. “Poor kitty.” She hauled in a deep breath. “Better this way than how some of them go. He'll just never wake up. Off he goes to Rainbow Ridge.”
“Rainbow Ridge?” Laura echoed.
Belinda interrupted with, “Not that ridge bunk again. Animals don't have souls, Trish. Therefore they don't go to heaven.”
“They do so,” Trish argued, “and Rainbow Ridge is where they wait for their ownersâa wonderful place halfway between here and heaven. They romp and play there in animal paradise, waiting for their owners to join them for the rest of the journey to heaven.”
Laura hugged her waist. To her horror, she realized that she was about to cry. It didn't help any to see tears in Trish's eyes.
“I hate days like this,” Trish said. “I wish we could save all of them.”
“Yeah, well, we can't,” Belinda said brusquely, kneeing the garbage can ahead of her as she advanced on another cage. “If you're going to last in this field, Trish, you can't be a bleeding heart. You'll burn out.”
Laura thought of her grandpa Jim, who'd left them a little over two years ago. The doctor who'd
come out afterward had held her grandmother's hands and gotten tears in his eyes as he'd given her the news. There was life, and then there was death; it was a sad reality that no one could escape. The doctor who held himself apart was in grave danger of losing his compassion.
Isaiah reentered the surgery just then. He didn't speak, didn't make eye contact with anyone. He went directly to a cupboard, withdrew a vial, and filled a hypodermic needle with clear liquid. When he approached the table without washing his hands or putting on another mask, Laura knew what he was about to do. Moments later a hushed silence fell over the room as he bent to press a stethoscope to the cat's chest.
“Does she want him cremated?” Trish asked, her voice still oddly thick.
“No, she wants to take him home,” Isaiah replied.
“Does she have kids in town?” Belinda asked. “She can't bury him by herself. She's a little old lady. The ground is starting to freeze.”
“I'll run over and do it.” Isaiah turned the edges of the surgical sheet over the cat and carried it from the chamber.
Trish shook her head and gave Laura a sad look. “Like he has time to do that. He's such a sweetie sometimes.”
Laura found Isaiah in his office, tipped back in his chair, one arm angled over his eyes, his feet propped on the desk. At the sound of her entrance he bolted upright, his boots slapping the floor with
a loud thump. She could tell by his expression that he was embarrassed to have been caught grieving. Why, she didn't know. His ability to care was one of the things she found most wonderful about him.
“Laura.” He swiveled to face her and flashed a stiff grin. “What are you still doing here?”
Laura thought it was more appropriate to ask what he was doing there. He had patients waiting for routine exams and inoculations. All the examining rooms were full, and the waiting area was becoming crowded. It wasn't like Isaiah to keep people waiting. In fact, she'd never once known him to neglect his duties. The fact that he had chosen to now told her a great deal.
“I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about Seymour.”
He grimaced and forced another smile that didn't reach his eyes. “Ah, well. You win some, you lose someâno big deal.”
a big deal. He was feeling sad, and Laura ached for him. She'd seen the look in his eyes when he'd realized the extent of the cancer. She'd also seen the grim resignation on his face as he had administered the lethal injection. Until now she'd never stopped to think of all the sadness that came with this man's profession. She'd thought only of how talented he was and how that talent opened doors for him that were forever closed to her.
“They're all a big deal.” Laura broke off to swallow. “A little old lady lost her only friend. If you didn't feel awful about that, what kind of vet would you be?”
“A happier one?” He ran a hand over his hair and propped his elbows on the desk. Passing a hand over his eyes, he softly confessed, “Okay, I feel like shit. I admit it. Feeling like shit goes with the territory.”
Laura sank onto the chair where she had interviewed for her job. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
“She's all alone,” he whispered. “Seymour was all she had left. I learned in college not to let things like this get to me. I guess it didn't stick. She's such a sweet old gal. She brought Seymour in because he'd been off his food. When I saw a mass in the X-rays, I hoped it was benign.”
Laura knew that a lot of people, Belinda included, might remind him that Seymour was only a cat. But she'd been present the morning before last when it had been Humphrey on the table. To this man, all animals were important.
“You can't save them all. It's the same with people. When we get old and our bodies wear out, it's over.”
He nodded. “I know.” His mouth twisted. “It's just hard when I'm the one making the decisions and putting them down. It's particularly hard when I know a sweet old lady trusted me so implicitly and put her whole world in my hands.”
Laura could almost feel his pain and couldn't think of anything comforting to say.
“She didn't expect that phone call,” he said hoarsely. “She thought I'd perform a miracle, that Seymour would come home tomorrow feeling better.” He grimaced and slumped his shoulders. “She
can't afford the bill. She's on Social Security. I think Seymour ate better than she did.”
“Yeah.” He shrugged and rubbed his jaw. “I'll play around with the charges. She'll have to pay the fixed costs. Tucker and I jointly purchase the inventory. But I can shave off a lot by not charging for my services.”
Laura wanted to hug him. “That's very kind of you, Isaiah.”
“Kind? I killed her cat.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “
I know she's sobbing her heart out right now. It just makes me sick.”