Authors: Catherine Anderson
Isaiah dimly recalled hearing about that. For a while the young woman had been comatose and not expected to live, if he remembered correctly.
“When Laura awakened after the accident,” his mother went on, “her whole life had been destroyed. I can't remember now what she did for a livingâa scientist of some kind, I think. Very good income, lots of travel. Then, in a twinkling, it was all taken from her. Now she lives in an apartment over someone's garage and walks dogs to earn money.”
“That's a shame,” Isaiah said. And he meant it with all his heart. “I'm just not sure what any of this has to do with me.”
The corners of Mary's mouth tightened. “Laura is such a pretty girl, and sweet as can be. Her life would be so much fuller if she had a regular job and could meet people her own age.”
Isaiah shifted uneasily on the chair. “I suppose that's true, Mom, but practically speaking, what kind of work can a woman with brain damage do?”
“Well, you see, that's just the thing.” Mary leaned
slightly forward, her expression suddenly earnest. “She's absolutely wonderful with dogs, Isaiah. It occurred to me the other day that she might make an excellent kennel keeper.”
“Whoa.” Isaiah held up a hand. “You're not suggesting what I think you are. A kennel keeper at our clinic?” He shook his head emphatically. “Tucker and I are running a veterinary hospital, Mother, not a charity organization. We can't hire someone with brain damage.”
“But, dear heart, Laura's brain damage isn't that bad. I never even knew something was wrong until Etta mentioned it.”
“No, absolutely not. I'm sorry, Mom, I really am. I'd like to help her out, but there's just no way. Remember the rat? A perfectly normal woman pulled that stunt. Tucker and I have worked hard to get where we are. Our reputations as vets are on the line. We're responsible for the well-being of people's pets and farm animals. We can't have a mentally handicapped woman working at our clinic.”
Mary pursed her lips. Isaiah knew that look. She'd used it on him a fair thousand times when he was a kid. “If you'll remember, your father and I loaned you boys the start-up capital you needed to open that clinic.”
Isaiah pinched the bridge of his nose. That was true. The debt had been repaid in full, but that was beside the point. “I know we owe you a lot, Mom.”
Mary nodded. “And it's not often I ask a favor.”
Why, Isaiah wondered, was it so difficult for him to tell his mother no? He was thirty-three years old and hadn't lived at home since he started college.
He guessed it was because his parents had always come through for him without fail when he needed them, and he felt obligated to do the same for them. “That's true. You seldom ask me for anything.”
“Well, I'm asking now,” she said softly. “I honestly believe Laura can do the work, Isaiah, and I know for a fact that you have trouble finding good kennel keepers.”
Isaiah couldn't argue that point. Hosing dog poop down kennel drains wasn't a glamorous job.
“It seems to me the least you can do,” Mary went on, “is interview her for the position.” She spread her hands in appeal. “If you decide she isn't capable of doing the work, fine. I know you have a kind heart, and I'll trust your judgment. But won't you at least give her a chance?”
Isaiah knew when he was licked. “I'll have to talk with Tucker first. We're partners, remember. We don't make decisions like that independently.”
Mary arched a sable eyebrow. “Have Tucker call me if he has any objections. I'll handle him.”
Isaiah had no doubt that his mother would do just that.
weat filmed Laura Townsend's palms as she parked her old red Mazda in front of the Crystal Falls Animal Clinic.
A real job.
Since her phone conversation with Mary Coulter last night, those three words had danced repeatedly through her mind. She was thrilled at the prospect of working in an official capacity again, but she was also terrified. What if Isaiah Coulter actually hired her, and then she made some awful mistake?
After slipping the car keys into her purse, Laura sat for a moment, staring through the streaked windshield at the veterinary clinic, which faced a busy two-lane highway at the far north end of town. A sprawling brick structure with a wing at each end, it was frontally divided by a tall, wide bay with tinted floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a landscaped grass median bordered on both sides by walkways and parking slots. The pinkish color of desert sand, the building was striking, with several tiled rooflines that peaked and sloped together.
At the back of the clinic, a large, unpaved parking area peppered with barnlike structures, fenced
enclosures, and ponderosa pines created a rural backdrop that suited the sparsely populated surroundings. The largest of the outbuildings bore a sign that sported the silhouette of a horse and the words
. It took Laura a second to sound out the words and to recall what they meant. No small operation, this, but a full-scale hospital for both large and small animals.
Did she really want to work in a place like this? More important, could she handle the responsibility? She was fairly happy as things were. A little lonely, maybeâokay, a
lonelyâbut she managed to keep busy with her odd jobs and hobbies, and overall her life was far better now than the doctors and therapists had predicted five years ago. As long as she remained calm, she could speak fairly well, and she was finally able to watch television and movies, which she greatly enjoyed. Recently she'd even improved enough to listen to books on tape and could understand practically all the words. Why turn her world topsy-turvy by taking a job that might overwhelm her? Once she got a taste of something more, would she ever again be satisfied with her life as it was now?
Greatly tempted to drive away, Laura continued to stare at the clinic. What if kennel keepers were required to administer medication, and she misread a label? Or what if she had to take temperatures when the animals were sick? She had no idea if she could read a thermometer.
Don't set yourself up for failure.
That motto, drilled into her at rehab, had saved her a lot of grief over the last five years.
this job. It would be so wonderful
to work with other people againâto possibly even make friends close to her own age. She craved more human contactâa chance to talk and laugh with others, maybe even enjoy an occasional night out with the girls. She would never have those pleasures in her life if she always played it safe. Change involved a certain amount of risk, and taking chances took courage. It all boiled down to one question: Was she a coward?
Laura wrenched open the driver door and forced herself to exit the vehicle.
One step at a time.
Why worry about worst-case scenarios before she even got the job? During the interview she would be completely forthright with Isaiah Coulter about her disability. If he still wanted to hire her, she'd be delighted. If not, she would accept it, go home, and be happy with things as they were.
As Laura approached the clinic, she took measured breaths and forced the tension from her body. When she got in there, she wanted to put her best foot forward, not babble like an idiot and make a fool of herself. Aphasia, her type of brain damage, did not mix well with agitation. The last therapist had best explained it by likening Laura's brain to a complicated electrical panel, and agitation to a mental wrench that blew all the circuits. Staying calm was as vital as breathing to someone like her.
To that end, Laura tried to talk herself down, something she'd done repeatedly since her conversation with Mary Coulter last night.
It's just a dumb job, a dead-end position most people wouldn't even want.
Somehow, though, the words failed to comfort her as she grasped the handle of the door and
pushed it open. She wasn't like most people, not anymore, and this might be her only chance to rejoin the workforce and lead a halfway normal life.
Laura stopped just inside the doorway. The spacious lobby was crammed with customers, several waiting in line at the U-shaped front desk, others seated in a divided waiting area to her right, one section for people with dogs, the other for those with cats. The drone of human voices was interspersed with the shrill barks of nervous canines and the terrified meows of felines imprisoned in pet carriers.
Four harried receptionists manned the counter, while two others bustled back and forth behind them, pulling files, plucking printouts from machines, and answering phones. Laura got a jumbled impression of pristine white walls, attractive cedar accents, a vaulted wood ceiling, and the faint, pleasing scent of lemony disinfectant.
She had never imagined that a veterinary clinic would be this busyâor so interesting. She studied a dachshund in a bright yellow raincoat, then turned her attention to a small brown-and-white dog in a siren-red pet stroller. Recently she had watched a newscast about the billions of dollars Americans spent annually on their pets, but she'd never realized until now just how frivolous some of those expenditures were. She could scarcely believe her eyes when she saw a Chihuahua in a colorful wool poncho and a miniature sombrero.
And people thought
Concerned about the time, she glanced at her watch, an old-fashioned clock-face timepiece with
dots instead of numbers. Numbers tended to confuse her because she sometimes saw them upside down or backward. It was two dots shy of four thirty. Normally ten minutes would have given her plenty of leeway, but the lines at the desk were three and four deep and didn't appear to be moving quickly. She hated to wait her turn and risk being late for her appointment, but unless she crowded to the front, she saw no alternative.
Good manners won out, and she took her place behind a man in dusty jeans, a red windbreaker, and a greasy yellow ball cap.
Shoulders aching from long hours in surgery, Isaiah hunkered down in front of a cage to check on a patient just coming out from under general anesthesia, a six-month-old chocolate Lab that had gotten its right rear leg tangled in barbed wire. By the time the owner found the dog, the leg had been damaged beyond repair, and Isaiah had had no choice but to amputate. The operation had gone well, but the pup had lost a great deal of blood and was weak despite a lifesaving transfusion from its sire.
“Hey, Hershey.” Isaiah opened the cage door to check the dog's gum color. “Oh, yeah, you're doing great. Before you know it you'll be back on your feet and feeling fine.”
The Labrador whined and nudged Isaiah's wrist with a dry nose. A firm believer that a little TLC was as important after surgery as pain management and good medical care, Isaiah stayed for a moment to scratch the animal's ears.
It was sad to see a dog so young lose a leg, but Isaiah knew from experience that canines were amazingly resilient. If this pup recoveredâand all indications were positiveâthe missing limb probably wouldn't slow him down.
“You've got a lot of great years ahead of you, Hershey,” Isaiah whispered. The realization helped to ease the ache in his shoulders.
Over time, Isaiah had learned to appreciate the successes, because, like any doctor, he also had many failures. “A lot of great years.”
Just then Isaiah heard someone enter the room behind him. Because of the hour, he guessed without looking that it was Belinda, the technician who had assisted him in surgery all afternoon. She opened the fridge. An instant later a soft spewing sound told him she'd just pulled the tab on a soft-drink can.
“You thirsty?” she asked. “All we've got is diet orange, but it's wet.”
“No, thanks.” What Isaiah needed was a hearty meal. He'd had a bagel for breakfast early that morning and hadn't had a chance to eat since. It was now half past six. “I think I'll wrap it up and get out of here.” He pushed to his feet and gave her a weary smile. “You do the same. You put in one hell of a day.”
A brunette with regular features, pretty brown eyes, and a great figure, Belinda laughed softly. “In the six months since I've been here, when haven't we put in a hell of a day?”
“Point taken.” Isaiah rubbed the back of his
neck. “Tucker and I need to bring in a couple of partners.”
“Good idea. Unfortunately that won't help us out tonight.” She flashed him a saucy grin. “Got any plans for dinner? I make a mean spaghetti sauce, and I've got a fabulous merlot I've been saving for a special occasion.”
This wasn't the first time Belinda had invited Isaiah over for a cozy supper, and he was running out of polite excuses. Meeting her hopeful gaze, he decided it was time to level with her. “You're an attractive lady, Belinda.”
“Glad you noticed.”
“Oh, I've noticed.” Not wishing to hurt her feelings, Isaiah injected more enthusiasm into that rejoinder than he actually felt. The truth was, he worked too hard and slept too little nowadays to feel much interest in the opposite sex. “But for purely selfish reasons, I'm not going to act on it. You're a valuable member of my team here at the clinic. I can't risk losing you over a workplace romance gone sour.”
She set the soda can on the counter and shrugged out of her blue smock. Underneath, she wore a tight green sweater that showcased ample breasts. “We have so much in common: a keen interest in veterinary medicine, a love of animals, and a mutual desire to excel at what we do. What's to say it'll ever go sour?”
Isaiah chuckled. “Murphy's Law.” He crossed the room, clasped her shoulder, and gave her what he hoped was a regretful smile. “Let's keep it
professional. All right? You're a fabulous tech, one of the best we've had.”
“I'll take that as a compliment, even though you haven't been in business all that long.”
“Going on three yearsâlong enough to know a great technician when I see one. We can't afford to lose you.”
Her eyes went misty. The corners of her mouth quivered as she said, “Spaghetti and professional conversation, then. We both have to eat.”
“I'm done in,” he replied. “Maybe another time. Tonight the spaghetti will come out of a canâif I can muster the energy to hunt up the can opener.”
“You don't know what you're missing,” she called as he left the room.
Isaiah didn't bother with a reply. He'd been polite, hadn't minced words. There was nothing more to say. Maybe Belinda was one of those women who had trouble taking no for an answerâor maybe he was sending her mixed signals. That was possible, he supposed. He admired her professional skills and enjoyed her quick wit and sense of humor. Unfortunately, liking a woman and wanting an intimate relationship with her were two different things.
Belinda was attractive, but he felt no spark, no zing. Not that it came as a surprise. The clinic was so busy that even Tucker, who had taken their brother Hank's place as the Coulter family lothario, had backed off on dating recently. Neither he nor Isaiah had the time or energy for much of a social life.
Isaiah opened his office door, stepped inside,
and stopped dead. A blonde was straightening the framed diplomas on the wall behind his desk. He gave her slender backside a slow once-over. She wore a loose, bulky white sweater that somehow managed to accentuate the narrow expanse of her shoulders and the trimness of her waist. As his gaze dipped lower, his recent certainty that he was too preoccupied and exhausted to feel physical attraction went out the proverbial window. Snug blue jeans cupped a delightfully well rounded posterior and showcased a pair of shapely legs that begged for a much longer look.
Because it was so late, Isaiah assumed she worked for the janitorial service that came in each evening after the clinic closed. “Hi, there.”
She jumped as if he'd jabbed her with an electric prod and whirled to face him. “Oh!” She splayed a slender, fine-boned hand at the base of her throat. “I'm sorryâfor touching your things. They wereâhanging crooked.”
She spoke in a slow, halting way that Isaiah blamed on nervousness. “I hope you dust them while you're at it. Half the time they forget, and Val, our office manager, goes ballistic when she finds cobwebs.”
A bewildered look came over her face. And a very pretty face it was, an almost perfect oval with large hazel eyes lined with thick, sooty lashes, delicate features, and a full, lush mouth. Her hair was the color of expensive cognac, streaked with wisps of lighter blond, and was cut in a collar-length, every-which-way style.
Isaiah felt sure he had never seen the lady before.
He would have remembered. No big surprise. The cleaning company was continuously training new people, mostly college students in sore need of extra cash. This woman looked older than that, but not by much, late twenties at a guess. He wondered if she was studying for her master's degree.
“No need to stop what you were doing,” he told her. “I'm not here to work. I just have to grab a couple of things.” As he leaned around the door to get his jacket, he added, “Can you make sure to empty my trash? They've forgotten to dump it a few times.”