Read My Sunshine Online

Authors: Catherine Anderson

My Sunshine (4 page)

“What if you have to count to over twenty?”

She put the beans back in her pocket. “I'm in deep doo-doo.”

He gave a startled laugh, pleased on the one hand that she could joke about it, but sad for her as well. “What did you do for a living before your accident, Laura? My mom couldn't recall.”

She puffed air into her cheeks. “Why does that matter? I can't do it now.”

Isaiah acknowledged the point with a nod. “True, and it doesn't really matter. I'm just curious.”

“I, um, did—studies—before they built roads.” She pressed her lips together and swallowed. “To see if traffic would hurt the plants and ani-mals.” She gestured helplessly again. Her eyes darkened with frustration. “I was an env-envi—” She went back to clasping her hands, the tendons in her neck growing distended as she struggled to speak. Finally she released a taut breath, squeezed her eyes closed, and shook her head.

Isaiah realized that he was leaning forward in the chair, his muscles knotted, his teeth clenched.
He wanted to help her get the words out, only he couldn't. “An environmental scientist?” he offered.

Her sooty lashes fluttered open. “Yes. I w-worked all over the N-Northwest.”

She'd once done environmental-impact studies, and now she had to carry beans in her pocket in order to count? He had taken tons of biology courses while studying to become a vet and had a fair idea of what it took to become an environmental scientist. What courage it must have taken for her to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and build a new one. In a very real way, she was a phoenix that had risen from the ashes.

Gazing across the desk at her, Isaiah reached a decision guaranteed to please his mother. “Being a kennel keeper won't be nearly as exciting as doing environmental-impact studies.”

“I don't care about excitement. I'd just like a normal job again. I miss working with people and having friends.”

Searching her expression, Isaiah could almost taste her yearning. “If a job is all you want, you're in luck. Judging by what I've seen so far, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to handle this one just fine.”

“There isn't?”

She sounded so incredulous that Isaiah chuckled. “No, there isn't. You may need a little extra training before we let you take a shift by yourself, but that's a simple enough thing to arrange.”

For an instant she looked at him as if he'd just offered her the moon. Then her expression clouded. “What if I make a bad mistake?”

“You'll be monitored closely during the training period. If you make a mistake, and I stress the ‘if,' the person training you will catch it. At the end of two weeks we'll do a performance review. If you're
going to have problems doing the work, it should be apparent by then.” Isaiah lowered his foot to the floor and swiveled on his chair to face the desk. “It's only ten dollars an hour to start, and we can't offer you full-time. Veterinary clinics require an inordinate number of employees in order to cover all the shifts and give everyone enough time off.”

Laura had never really thought about the behind-the-scenes operation of an animal clinic, but she supposed it would be similar to a hospital, with inpatients requiring constant care or observation.

“The animals are left alone here from about six in the evening—sometimes later, depending on when Tucker and I leave—until nine, when a night-shift person arrives,” he went on. “Then they're left alone again from two in the morning until six. But aside from those brief periods, we've got to have someone here seven days a week. As a result, we have the usual full-time employees who work the same days all week—office personnel, technicians, and tech assistants—plus a number of part-time people who work rotating shifts. Kennel keepers fall into that group.”

She nodded, an indication to Isaiah that she was following him.

“For a kennel keeper, it works out to about twenty hours a week, I think.”

“Part-time is better for me,” she assured him. “I can't work too much without losing part of my assist-ance.”

“There, you see? This may turn out to be the perfect job for you.”

Her cheeks flushed with pleasure, and a gleam
of excitement lighted her eyes. “Maybe so,” she agreed.

“In addition to the position being only part-time, you'll also have two bosses, myself and my brother Tucker.” Isaiah gestured toward the door. “Our building is laid out like a plus sign. We have the lobby at the front and a kennel at the rear, which serve both the north and south wings. Tucker conducts his practice in the north section; I conduct mine in the south, and we share the front office and the kennels. I have techs and assistants who work primarily with me. Tucker does as well. But the office and kennel people work for both of us.”

“I see.”

“Will it bother you, having two bosses?”

She considered the question for a moment and then shook her head. “I don't think so.”

“Does that mean you'll take the job?”

She gave him a questioning look. “If your brother is going to be my boss, too, won't he want to meet me?”

Isaiah almost said that their mother would snatch Tucker bald-headed if he threw a wrench in the fan blades, but he settled for, “We're not quite that formal around here. Tucker and I trust each other's judgment. If I think you're the lady for the job, he won't quibble with my decision. And I do. Think you're the lady for the job, I mean.”

She beamed another smile, revealing small, perfectly straight teeth. “Well, in that case, yes, I'd like to give it a try.”

Isaiah had a feeling that
had been her motto for the last five years. Only a positive, do-or-die
attitude had gotten her where she was today. He opened a drawer and drew out an application form. “How does this sound? We'll get you trained and see how you're doing in two weeks. If you've had problems doing the work, I'll let you go then, no hard feelings. If you're doing fine, we'll give it another two weeks, just to be sure, and then we'll make it permanent.”

“That sounds good.”

Isaiah asked the usual questions, getting her full name, her birth date, and her last place of employment. Because of her disability, her responses took a little longer than normal. By the time he got down to the withholding section, his stomach was snarling with hunger, and his hands were getting shaky. He hurriedly jotted down her Social Security number and returned the card to her.

“That about covers it,” he said, rocking back in the chair. “How soon can you start training?”

“I can come in mornings now. Later in the day will be harder. I do odd jobs. I don't want to quit any of them until I know this job will last. I need the money.”

Isaiah tossed his pen on the desk blotter. “For the time being, training in the morning will work fine. If all goes well, we'll readdress your hours when the thirty days are up. Once you become a permanent member of the team, you'll be required to work the night shift about one week a month. It's from nine until two in the morning. We rotate our kennel people. That way no one gets stuck on night shift all the time. Will that pose a problem?”

She shook her head. “Nights are fine.”

His stomach growled again, so loudly this time that her gaze dropped to his midsection. Embarrassed, he flattened a hand over his diaphragm. “I'm sorry. I haven't eaten since six this morning.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “That isn't good for you.”

“So my mother tells me.” He smiled sheepishly. “When I get busy, I'm a little absentminded, I'm afraid.”

Her eyes danced with amusement. “I noticed.”

He had to laugh. “I really am sorry about that.” He bumped his temple with the heel of his hand. “I can't believe I forgot you were waiting in here.”

“I'm the queen of forget-ting. Don't feel bad.” She nibbled her lower lip. “What's his name?”

Isaiah gave her a blank look. “Pardon?”

“The brown Lab that lost his leg.”

“Ah. His name is Hershey, after the chocolate bar.”

“Hershey,” she repeated softly. “Maybe I'll get to meet him.”

Isaiah would have offered to introduce her to the dog right then, but he was starving and needed to get something in his stomach fast. “That depends on when you can start training.” He put the application in the center drawer. “He'll be here only a couple of days.”

“As long as I have after-noons free for my other jobs, I can start right away.”


She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. Urgency to eat driving him, Isaiah rose and circled the desk to grab his jacket. “Can you come in at six? They start pretty early in the kennels.”

“Six will be fine.”

As he slipped on his coat, he said, “I'll leave a note for Susan Strong, the gal who'll be opening up in the morning. If I'm not here, she'll get you all lined up.”

Laura retrieved her purse from the floor and slung the strap over her shoulder as she stood up. “Thank you. I'm very glad for this chance. I can't promise I won't make mistakes, but I'll try my best.”

“Your best is all anyone can expect.”

She nodded and turned to the door. At the last second, she hesitated and glanced back at him. “One thing.”

“What's that?”

She swallowed hard and stood there for a moment, turning the doorknob back and forth. Her eyes sparkled with pride as she met his gaze. “I need to know that you'll tell me if I'm not doing the work well enough. I don't want the job unless I'm really good at it.”

“I'll tell you,” he promised.

She nodded, said good night, and let herself out. Isaiah stared somberly at the closed door after she left, wondering if he'd be able to follow through on that promise. Laura Townsend had touched him in a way few people ever had. If she wasn't able to do the work and he had to fire her, it would be one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his professional career.

Chapter Two

s Laura drove to the clinic the next morning, an eerie predawn gloom blanketed the northbound bypass. When she reached the outskirts of town, she saw that a faint crescent moon still shone in the blue-gray sky, its bottom tip reaching so low it seemed to touch the tops of the ponderosa pines that crowded the banks along each side of the road.

Steering with her left hand, Laura took careful sips from a spillproof mug that she'd filled with coffee before leaving her garage apartment. Each time the bitter brew washed over her tongue, she grimaced. She'd been running late and hadn't bothered to use her beans to keep track of the scoops she'd put in the filter basket. The result was the equivalent of Mississippi mud. Always the optimist, she consoled herself with the thought that one cup would do her this morning. In order to wake up, she normally needed at least two.

Just as Laura set aside the mug and reached to turn on the radio, her cell phone rang. She groped in her purse, found the device, and flipped it open. “Morning, Gram.”

“How did you know it was me?” Etta Parks asked.

Laura checked to make sure the oversize mug hadn't tipped sideways in the cup holder. “You said you would call this morning to make sure I got up on time.”

“Which you did!” Etta noted cheerfully. “It's good to know you've finally mastered that darned alarm clock.”

“Not really.” The alarm clock Etta referred to had been one of Laura's Christmas gifts from her mother last year, a digital gadget that was too complicated for her to set or read. “As soon as Mom and Dad moved, I stuck it in a drawer. I'm using my old windup again.”

Etta gave a raspy laugh, compliments of a smoking habit that had spanned over forty years. “Uh-oh. Do I detect a trace of rebellion in your voice?”

“No. I think Mom's right. I'll never get better unless I work at it. But I need to choose my battles.”

“And be practical. If you learn to set a digital alarm with all the bells and whistles, how will it improve your quality of life?”

“Good point.”

Etta sighed. “Don't feel too bad about the alarm clock. The instant your mother left town, I got rid of that horrid bedspread she gave me.”

“The green one?”

“I called it the Rambo spread. It was supposed to be a floral pattern, but it looked like camouflage.”

“What'll you tell Mom when she comes back for a visit?”

“That I wore a hole in it having hot sex with all my lovers.”

Laura gave a horrified laugh. “You are

“Not nearly as bad as Marsha thinks I am.” Etta sighed. “If only I were having that much fun. It's so nice having them down in Florida. She calls me once a week, and we have a nice little chat. She asks questions, I tell her what she wants to hear, and she never gets in a dither.”

As much as Laura loved her mother, she knew exactly what her grandmother meant. Marsha Townsend was a wonderful woman, but she had a tendency to micromanage other people's lives. Laura didn't miss all the hovering, and if she never had to take another brain-enhancement herbal supplement, it would be too soon. Her mom still sent her bottles of pills—all the old standbys and any-thing new that promised to work a miracle—but now Laura could just toss them in the trash.

The click of Etta's cigarette lighter came over the line. “So how are you this morning? Still nervous about the job?”

“Very,” Laura confessed. “I'm afraid I'll mess up.”

“Sweetheart, you're so good with animals. You're going to be the best kennel keeper they've ever had. Trust me on this. Sweet old grannies know about these things.”

Laura's sweet old granny slept in lacy teddies, one a mind-boggling hot pink. She'd also dated four different men in the last six months, all of them over a decade younger than she was.

“There's going to be a lot for me to learn,” Laura reminded her.

“You can handle it.”

“I hope so.” Laura tucked the phone under her chin so she could take another sip of coffee. The sun had risen higher in the sky, and the light coming at an angle through the trees dappled the blue-gray highway with splashes of gold and shadow. “It'll be fun to have a real job again.”

“I'm so happy for you, honey.”

“I'm happy for me, too. I just hope it all works out.”

“It will. No son of Mary Coulter's can be any-thing but wonderful. She is such a lovely person. What do you think of Isaiah, by the way? We were so busy talking about the job last night that you never said much about him.”

An image of Isaiah's dark, chiseled features flashed in Laura's mind. On a handsomeness scale of one to ten, he was clear off the chart, one of the most attractive men she had ever seen. “Well, I can say his name. That's a big plus. ‘Aphasia' and ‘Isaiah' are sort of alike.”

“And that's it?” Etta asked incredulously. “You can say his name?”

“He's nice,” Laura expounded.

Oh, come on. I've seen that young man. Only from a distance, mind you, but even then he packed a wallop. Made me wish I were fifty years younger.”

“He's my

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“No drooling allowed.”

“So you
think he's cute.”

was not the word Laura would have chosen to describe Isaiah Coulter. Rumpled sable hair, a devastating grin that was impossible to resist, and sizzling sky-blue eyes that made her skin tingle every time he looked at her. It had been a very long time since she had felt even mildly attracted to a member of the opposite sex—over five years, in fact—and even then her heart hadn't thudded against her ribs like a hard rubber ball bouncing down ladder rungs.

“He's a
Gram. He prob'ly makes more money in a month than I do in a year.”

” Etta corrected. “And what does his annual gross have to do with anything?”

“He's way out of my—” Laura broke off, unable to recall the word she wanted to use.

“League,” Etta supplied. “And that's pure nonsense. You're an intelligent, beautiful young woman. You have a lot to offer any man, Isaiah Coulter included.”

“Right.” Laura could no longer even say
without her tongue getting tied into knots. Men like Isaiah wanted female companions who challenged them intellectually, women who were smart, beautiful, and successful in their own fields. What was her field—cleaning toilets? “Put it out of your head, Gram. It won't happen.”

The moment Laura said the words, the hair at the nape of her neck started to prickle. She remembered how surprised she'd been the night before last, when Mary Coulter had called her about a job possibility at her sons' clinic. Then she recalled
Isaiah's words to her yesterday:
If I let you leave without at least talking to you, my mom will have my head.
He'd obviously been pressured into giving her an interview.

“Oh, Gram,” Laura murmured shakily.

“What?” Etta asked innocently—a little too innocently for Laura's peace of mind.

“Are you and Mary hoping that Isaiah and I might—” Laura broke off, her tongue suddenly as dry as cotton.

To Etta's credit, she didn't prevaricate. “And why not? He's handsome, successful, single, and needs a wife. He just hasn't met the right lady yet. Who's to say you aren't exactly the kind of girl he's been looking for?”

I was so glad to get this ch-chance, and now I f-find out it's a sch-scheme you and Mary hatched?”

“Laura, sweetie, calm down. You're starting to stammer.”

“How could you

“Do what? Laura, listen to me. This is a great opportunity for you, and it'll benefit Isaiah, too. He and Tucker have a terrible time keeping good help in the kennels, and you'll be wonderful at the job. Mary and I are just hoping that something more may come of it. That's all.”

Laura wondered if Isaiah realized that his mother and her grandmother were trying their hands at matchmaking.
Oh, God.
he realized. He wasn't dumb. She was the one who'd taken forever to catch on. How would she ever face him?

“I n-need to go,” Laura said tautly.

“Sweetheart, don't be this way. You want the job. That's all that really matters. The rest is . . . well, a wait-and-see kind of thing. Maybe he'll never look twice at you. If so, you've still got the job.”

Laura had a very bad feeling that Isaiah had already looked twice at her and thought she was pathetic. He'd probably realized all along what his mother was up to and had played along only to please the woman. No big deal, from his perspective. If Laura was foolish enough to harbor any hope that he might be interested in her, he could quickly disabuse her of the notion by ignoring her. In the meantime, he'd be doing a good turn, giving a handicapped person a chance at gainful employment.

Laura's cheeks stung with embarrassment and no small amount of anger. She didn't want to hang up on her grandmother, but she was too upset to continue the conversation. It felt as if a noose had tightened around her throat.

“It's not as if Isaiah knows anything about it,” Etta went on. “That part is just between Mary and me—and now you, of course. There's really no reason for you to be—”

Laura ended the call. Then she pulled over to the side of the road, turned off the car engine, and stared blindly out the windshield. So much for her wonderful new job. She closed her eyes, her sense of disappointment so crushing it was hard for her to breathe. After the interview with Isaiah, she'd left the clinic walking on clouds, believing that he'd
hired her on her own merit. It hurt—oh, how it hurt—to realize that hadn't been the case.

She could not, under any circumstances, accept the position now. She hadn't clawed her way, inch by inch, toward a partial recovery to accept Isaiah Coulter's charity. She needed to make her way in the world without any special concessions. Other-wise all her struggles had been for nothing.


Three hours later, Isaiah was turning off onto a rutted dirt road to make his weekly call at a local dairy farm when his cell phone rang. Jerked from his distracted perusal of the snowcapped Cascades on the horizon, he sighed and tugged the silver communication device from his belt. “Isaiah here.”

“Hi, sweetie.”

“Hi, Mom.” Isaiah had expected it to be someone from the clinic. His mother seldom telephoned during the day because he was always too busy to talk. “How are you this morning? Is everything okay with you and Dad?”

“Oh, Isaiah, I'm so upset. I've made an awful mistake, and now I don't know what to do.”

Isaiah frowned in concern. The dairy barns were just around the curve, so he pulled the vehicle over onto the grassy shoulder of the road, shifted into park, and cut the engine. “Anything I can help with?”

“Oh, dear, I hope so.”

Boomer, the dairy farmer's tricolored Australian shepherd, careened around the curve just then, gave a glad bark, and leveled out into a run to reach the Hummer. Tied up on the phone, Isaiah couldn't
greet the Aussie as he normally did, so he quickly grabbed a dog biscuit from the sack he kept on the passenger seat and thrust it out the open driver-side window. The strategy worked. Instead of jumping at the door and scratching the paint, Boomer took a running leap to snatch the treat from Isaiah's hand. For good measure, Isaiah tossed out two more biscuits to keep the dog occupied.

“You know I'll help if I can, Mom. What's the trouble?”

Mary made a mewling sound. “It's about Laura Townsend.”

Isaiah's attention sharpened. “Yeah, what about her?”

“Oh, Isaiah, you're not going to be happy about this. First, let me just say that I really, really believed she would be a fabulous kennel keeper. You know I'd never have recommended her otherwise.”

Isaiah cocked an eyebrow. “Of course you wouldn't. That goes without saying. The clinic is my and Tucker's livelihood.”

“Exactly, and I'm sure Laura would have been a fabulous asset to both of you.”

“Would have been? I'm not following.” He glanced at his watch. “She's at the clinic as we speak. This is her first day of training.”

“No,” Mary said faintly. “I'm afraid she's not there. Oh, Isaiah, I'm so upset I could cry. She's such a sweet girl. I never in a million years meant for her to know.”

“Know what?”

Mary moaned. Isaiah began to get a very bad feeling, which only grew more pronounced when
his mother added, “Oh, how I wish I didn't have to tell you. You're always so unreasonable about this sort of thing.”

Isaiah narrowed his eyes. The only times he could recall being remotely unreasonable with his mother had been when she tried to set him up with women. “You didn't.”

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