Authors: Catherine Anderson
“Food first,” she said firmly as she arranged the makeshift meal on a paper towel on the counter.
“No time. That bladder is ready to pop.”
Laura sent him a scolding look over her shoulder. “You have to eat. You can't cut on a cat with shaky hands.”
Isaiah was unaccustomed to being looked after by an employee. Normally on a busy day, it was every man or woman for himself. Nevertheless, he had to admit that it felt kind of nice. After joining her by the sink, he straddled a stool and grabbed a yogurt container.
“Thanks, Laura.” He peeled the wrapper from a plastic spoon and practically inhaled the yogurt. Before he took the last bite, she had pulled the safety seal off another container and was pushing it toward him.
“Take a few sips of pop, too,” she told him. “It'll get your blood sugar up faster.”
Isaiah took several swigs of Coke. As he set the can back on the counter, he realized how badly his hands were shaking. “Thanks,” he said again. “I'm feeling a little better already.”
Her pretty hazel eyes were dark with concern. “You really should eat more often. No one can work this hard without food.”
The simplicity of the statement wasn't lost on
Isaiah. Most people would have used the words
Her avoidance of those terms drove home to him just how extraordinary her performance this morning had been. While working with her, he had forgotten for long stretches that she was handicapped.
“Have I told you how much I appreciate your help this morning? I know it hasn't been easy for you.”
Her mouth curved up at the corners when she smiled, lending her full lips a kissable sweetness that was difficult to ignore. “Easy is for sissies.” Her eyes danced with devilment. “And, yes, you have thanked me.” Her gaze shifted to the cages at the far end of the room where Humphrey now lay awake. The dog was weak but could lift his head, which Isaiah took as a positive sign. “The truth is,” she went on, “I'm the one who should thank you. I got to help save lives today. That's not something I thought I could do.”
Isaiah understood her sense of wonder. The first few times in surgery, he had felt it himself. Over time he'd lost that, something he hadn't realized until he worked with Laura and saw the awe in her eyes. “It's an incredible rush, isn't it?”
She nodded and looked down at her hands. “Even now, I can't believe I did it.”
He couldn't help but smile. “You not only did it, you did a great job.”
Isaiah almost added that she would make a great technician with the proper training, but he caught himself before the words were out. Laura had done well under his direction, amazingly well, but that
was as far as it could ever go. The realization saddened him.
The blush of pleasure that stained her cheeks told him how much the compliment had meant to her, which saddened him even more. If not for the acci-dent, she would have had such a brilliant future.
He tossed the empty yogurt containers into the trash. “You going to eat?” he asked as he peeled the plastic from a cheese stick.
She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Later. I don't feel very hungry.”
It occurred to Isaiah that she probably felt too queasy to eat. He remembered those days, too. “Sorry. I forget that other people don't see this kind of stuff on a regular basis. After you've done it for a while, you get used to it.”
“Hmm.” She gave him a dubious look. “Maybe.”
By five o'clock, Isaiah's back was killing him. They'd been standing for hours without a break. When the last surgery had been successfully completed, he sank wearily onto a stool, leaned his head back, and sighed.
“What a day.”
Laura was at the sink, washing her hands. “If we're done, I need to go and make sure all the animals in the kennels have been taken care of.”
Isaiah groaned. Jennifer had found a kennel person to fill in for Laura this morning, but the afternoon person had called in sick. That meant a good four hours of work still had to be done. “I'll help.”
“I can handle it.”
“And have you here until God knows when?”
“I may have to work the night shift if all the kennel people are sick, too.”
“Jennifer got in touch with Dan Fosworth. He says he feels fine, so he's got tonight covered. Good thing. I may need you in here again tomorrow.”
She paused in drying her hands. “You think?”
“It's possible. Depends on what kind of flu everyone has. Unless it's the twenty-four-hour kind, chances are we'll be shorthanded again.”
“Who'll work in the kennels tomorrow?”
“Lena needs the hours. Gloria says she agreed to work the whole day.”
Thirty minutes later they were cleaning the kennels together. Laura gathered the soiled bedding while Isaiah hosed and disinfected the floors. As had happened in the surgery, they soon found a compatible rhythm and managed to get a lot accomplished in record time. Isaiah no sooner got a cage cleaned than Laura was putting down fresh bedding. Then she brought the animal back in while he washed the dishes and refilled them with food and water.
In a hurry to finish and go home, Isaiah almost snapped at Laura when he noticed that she was lingering in each cage to pet the dogs and talk softly to them. Hello? They'd already put in a twelve-hour day. At this rate they'd be here all night. But just as he opened his mouth to say something, he saw the look in one of the dog's eyes: pure adoration.
Isaiah smiled wearily and leaned a shoulder against the wire mesh of a kennel gate.
he realized, was what made Laura so good at her job.
She truly loved the animals, and they truly loved her. She spent only a minute with each dog before moving on to the next. All totaled she would waste no more than ten minutes, and it would be time well spent. Each and every dog in her care got its share of affection.
“You are amazing,” he finally said.
She straightened and gave him a bewildered look.
Isaiah pointed at his watch. “You've been here since six this morning, and I know you have to be beat. Yet you still take the time to make all these dogs feel loved. I think that's pretty special.”
That was all she said, but the response told Isaiah more about her than she could possibly know. His mother had called it right: Laura Townsend was every bit as sweet as she looked. It wasn't an act. She wasn't out to impress him. In her estimation, the affection that she doled out to every animal was just as important as fresh bedding and food.
“Pizza,” he said.
Again she looked bewildered.
“Dinner, you and me, my treat. What d'ya say?”
“You don't have to feed me.”
“We both have to eat, and I hate going anywhere by myself.” He narrowed an eye at her. “Are you or are you not the same lady who was lecturing me about eating earlier?”
Her cheek dimpled in a smile. “You make it hard to say no.”
Wednesday was pretty much a repeat of Tuesday, with over half the staff out sick and only Laura to assist Isaiah in surgery, the only difference being that fewer emergencies came in. The slower pace gave Laura more opportunities than she liked to notice the man beside herâhow the tendons in his bronzed forearms bunched and moved as he worked, how his eyes darkened when he concentrated, and how he smelled, an enticing blend of spicy cologne, traces of soap, and a sheer male essence that made her want to move closer for a better whiff. Bad situation. Laura's only hope was that a couple of the techs would be well enough by tomorrow to return to work so she could go back to the kennels where she belonged.
At ten she found a few minutes between patients to put on a fresh pot of coffee. When the machine had finished its cycle she grabbed Isaiah's sleeve and escorted him from the operating room. “Time for a snack,” she informed him. “This time in your office, so I can eat a little, too.”
“A snack?” A glimmer of interest came into his eyes. “What? More yogurt?”
“Nope. Something much better than that.”
Isaiah stopped dead just inside the door. “Cinnamon rolls? I've died and gone to heaven!” He circled the desk, dropped onto his chair, and leaned forward to sniff. “They smell just like my mom's.”
“Safeway has nice baked goods.” It wasn't a lie; Safeway did have a fabulous bakery. Laura just preferred not to tell him the rolls were some that she'd made herself. She wasn't sure whyâpossibly
because it seemed too personal. “They'll be good with fresh coffee.”
He sighed as he took a bite. Laura took a roll for herself, setting it on a paper towel. Before having a taste, she tried the coffee. It was the first pot she'd ever made with the clinic's coffeemaker, and she hadn't been sure how many scoops to use. She was relieved to discover that it tasted all right.
“This is wonderful,” he said, licking sugary glaze from the back of his thumb. “Cinnamon rolls are one of my favorites. I swear, these taste homemade.”
Laura smiled as she sank her teeth into her roll. It was good, she decided, not one of her best batches, but acceptably light, with just the right amount of cinnamon and icing. It was Gram's recipe, a one-step dough that eliminated the kneading process, so she'd had time to make a batch last night before she collapsed into bed. “I'll bring some more one of these mornings,” she promised.
He nodded. “Just be sure to reimburse yourself. I don't want the cost coming out of your wages.”
The cost had been mostly in time and labor, but she couldn't bring herself to tell him that. Better that he believe the rolls had come from the store. That way she could make them again without feeling funny about it.
“For lunch I got sandwich makings, some chips, and a bunch of instant soups. Thank goodness Safeway is open twenty-four hours. Starving isn't my thing.”
“Sandwiches will be great.” He grabbed a second roll and rocked back in his chair, the expression
on his dark face the very picture of contentment. “Better than great. Keep this up and I'll want you in the surgery full-time.”
“I can keep the fridge stocked no matter where I'm working,” she pointed out. “The market is on my way to work.”
“That would be wonderful, Laura. When we have a full crew working, the techs give each other lunch breaks, and they usually go out somewhere to eat. I don't normally have time for that.”
An overabundance of dedication was more Isaiah's problem than a lack of time, Laura had determined. He wasn't merely a good vet; he was totally devoted to his profession and the animals entrusted to his care. In her recollection, she'd never worked quite as hard as she had yesterday. She had a feeling that Isaiah gave one hundred percent each and every day.
Gazing across the desk at him, she once again found herself hoping that at least a few of the technicians would return to work tomorrow. She would be glad for things to return to normal. Familiarity didn't always breed contempt. Sometimes, deep in a foolish female heart, it planted the seed for feelings that ran much deeper.
Laura couldn't allow that seed to take root. She needed to return to the kennels, safely away from Isaiah, before she did something totally stupid, like fall in love with him.
aura got her wish. The following day most of the other employees returned to work and resumed their normal duties. Happy to have the worst of the flu epidemic behind her, Laura was able to go back to the kennels. Working with Isaiah had been challenging and exciting, but being with the animals was where she belonged. She had the routine down pat, she felt more relaxed, and though she loved all the animals that came briefly into her care, she was in no danger of permanently losing her heart to any of them.
When her shift ended at noon she went out to her car to collect the bulging plastic bags that had been crowding the backseat since her shopping spree on Monday night. Just as she opened the trunk, a truck pulling a horse trailer pulled into the parking lot. An older man in Levi's and a lined denim jacket exited the vehicle.
“It okay if I park over here?” he called. “All the spots are taken in front of the equine center.”
Laura glanced over at the large metal building where Isaiah and Tucker treated horses, and sure enough a long four-horse trailer had been parked
sideways and was taking up all the available parking space. “I think that'll be fine.”
While Laura gathered bags of decorations from the trunk, the man unloaded a pretty reddish-brown horse from the trailer. The animal favored its right front leg and was limping badly. “Oh. How did he hurt his leg?” she asked.
“Just a sprained tendon, I hope,” the man replied. “But he's limpin' pretty bad. I thought I'd better have Isaiah take a look.”
“Ah.” Normally Isaiah made farm and ranch calls three mornings a week so he could treat the minor injuries and common ailments of large ani-mals on site. “You must live quite a distance away.”
The man nodded. “Sixty miles north of here, a tad too far for a vet to come to me.”
Laura knew that both Isaiah and Tucker had far too many patients to travel so far to treat only one. “I see. Well, I hope your horse's leg gets better soon.”
She gazed after the man as he led the gelding toward the equine center. A tech in a blue lab coat emerged from the front office to raise a large slide-up door so the horse and its owner could enter the building.
A few moments later, when Laura stepped into the front waiting area with her arms laden with bags, Debbie, one of the secretaries, asked, “What have you got there? Do you need help?”
Laura couldn't tell Debbie what was in the sacks.
were multisyllabic words. Trying to say both, back-to-back, would have set her to stammering.
She settled for grinning and wiggling her eyebrows. Debbie, who could best be described as nondescript, with short, light brown hair, blue eyes, regular features, and an average body type, was normally a reserved person with a businesslike air. But now curiosity was clearly getting the better of her. She pushed up from her chair and circled the counter.
“What do you have?” she asked, craning her neck to see into a sack.
Laura gently deposited her burdens on the floor. With a wave of her hand, she said, “Look and see.”
A woman sitting on an end chair in the waiting area leaned sharply forward as Debbie opened one of the bags. Exclamations of delight followed, and before Laura knew quite how it happened, her Halloween purchases were under siege, with all of the receptionists fishing through the merchandise while patrons with dogs on leashes hovered behind them, trying to see. Even Gloria, a seemingly humorless woman, said, “Oh!” and “Ah!” as she examined the decorations.
The commotion brought Val from her office. “What on earth is going on out here?”
“Halloween decorations!” Jennifer Bacchi, a tall but nicely proportioned redhead, held up a miniature tree, a denuded deciduous branch painted black to make it look delightfully spooky. “Come look, Val.” Compliments of tinted contact lenses, today Jennifer's blue eyes were emerald green, and they sparkled with excitement. “She got the cutest stuff to hang on the branches.”
Pixie-cut blond hair in a wind-ruffled stir from
her having recently stepped outside for a cigarette, Val came around front to bend over one sack and then another. The scent that surrounded her, an oddly pleasant blend of smoke and perfume, filled the air as she moved.
“Am I good or what?” Her sun-parched face went all crinkly in a pleased smile when she looked up at Laura. “I
you'd be great at this.”
“Get a load of these candied apples!” Debbie cried. “Don't they look real?”
Val grabbed a yellow basket from Debbie's bag. “Oh, Laura, these are wonderful. What are you going to put them in?”
Normally when Isaiah got back to the clinic after making farm and ranch calls, he entered the building by a rear door, but this morning a horse trailer blocked his regular parking place. Isaiah recognized the truck that pulled the conveyance as one belonging to a client of his who lived out of the area. Isaiah did't recall the fellow's having an appointment with him today, but that didn't mean much. His schedule was so busy that his daily appointment roster was all that saved him.
The lack of parking space in the rear lot forced Isaiah to leave the Hummer out front. Peeling off his leather gloves, he circled the vehicle, leaped onto the front walkway, and measured off the stretch of paw-printed cement with long, hurried strides.
He heard the shrieks before he reached the building. Just inside the door, he drew to a stop and stared. His normally efficient, devoted employees
had abandoned their posts to squat, kneel, and sit on the floor of the waiting area, all of them intent on a colorful array of Halloween stuff. As they plucked items from the cluster of plastic bags, they emitted sounds like a flock of startled chickens.
Her cheeks flushed with pleasure, Laura stood over the group, explaining in her slow, soft way where she hoped to put this or hang that, a telltale sign to Isaiah that his pretty blond kennel keeper was responsible for all the chaos. Given the fact that the female patrons seemed to be having as much fun as the employees, Isaiah could only grin. Nothing, it seemed, was going to stay the same at the clinic now that Laura had been hired. Her sunny disposition and warmth seemed to rub off on everyone.
A golden retriever caught his owner unaware and lunged against the leash to shove his head into one of the sacks. Laura gave a startled laugh and crouched to hug the dog's neck. “Aren't you a smart boy?” She tousled the animal's ears, then thrust a hand inside the bag and drew out a package. “Yes, I got doggy treats.” She rewarded the sniffing canine with a liver-colored biscuit. “Tasty ones, not those icky healthy things that Isaiah and Tucker buy.”
The dog made fast work of devouring the goody. Laura smiled, gave him one more, and then grabbed a plastic pumpkin with a removable lid as she pushed to her feet. She was in the process of emptying the dog treats into it when she saw Isaiah.
The laughter instantly subsided, and all heads turned. Isaiah straightened away from the door frame. “Ladies,” he said by way of greeting.
Debbie shot to her feet. Jennifer's face went nearly as red as her hair. Gloria, always the cool and collected one, returned the items she'd removed from a sack before she joined the sudden exodus back to the workstation. Only Val held her ground, a four-foot triangle of space on the tile littered with gourds of various colors.
“At the last staff meeting, you did ask for the clinic to be decorated,” she informed him. “Remember?”
Isaiah recalled making the request. At the time he had imagined that it would be a one-woman task. Now he could see the error in his thinking. “It looks like a worthwhile project to me. Carry on.”
At his words, the receptionists who had scurried back to their posts froze in midmotion. Isaiah winked at them. Shoulders began to relax, smiles peeked back out, feet retraced their steps, and soon feminine chatter was bouncing off the walls again. Only Laura didn't move. Eyes still round, she continued to stare at him.
“I guess I should have saved this for after hours,” she said. “I didn't mean to mess up the normal routine.”
“The normal routine needs to be interrupted every once in a while.” Isaiah only wondered how Laura had gotten stuck with the decorating detail. He glanced at the paraphernalia strung across the tile. Jennifer was playing with what appeared to be a battery-powered miniature jack-o'-lantern. It
glowed orange, then blinked out. “Where on earth did you find this stuff?”
“Season's Delights, a shop in Old Town down by the park. I went in there last Christmas, and now that's where I always go. Some of their stuff is spendy, but mostly not.”
Isaiah was coming to suspect that Laura liked to shop. She seemed to know exactly where to go for any given item. “I'm impressed. Pumpkins that light up?”
“They're for the tree.” Laura plucked a black thing affixed to a base from the jumble of stuff at her feet. It looked more like a glorified twig than a tree. “I found witches on brooms and little goblins to hang on it, too. And cobwebs. It'll be cute. I think it will look nice on the counter.”
She hurried on, showing him a number of other items she'd boughtâbaskets, gourds, fake candy apples, autumn wreathes and swags, treat containers shaped like pumpkins, and a collection of Halloween standards that included paper witches, goblins, and skeletons.
Isaiah had eyes only for the woman. She wore a rust-colored knit top that went so well with all the autumn tones that she might have popped out of a sack herself. As he ran his gaze over her tidy figure, he found himself wishing that she had. He would have tucked her under his arm and taken her home to brighten his house for Halloween.
“SoÂ .Â .Â . what do you think?” she asked.
He snapped back to awareness. What did he think? That he was losing his mind was a strong possibility. “I, umÂ .Â .Â . it's all great,” he said.
“I tried to choose tasteful stuff.”
Isaiah had no vision when it came to decorating, but he'd seen Laura's apartment. She had a knack for taking odds and ends, assembling them into groups, and making them look good. “I'm sure it will all look great when you've finished.”
Laura's heart lurched oddly in her chest when Isaiah stepped closer. This morning he wore a tan Stetson that added to his already impressive height, the brim casting a shadow over his chiseled features. His brown canvas coat, cut long at the hem for riding horses on chill winter days, only enhanced his rugged good looks. The chatter of the women beside her grew dim until only the sound of her breathing hummed in her ears.
“You okay?” he asked.
Laura straightened her shoulders. “Fine, just fine.” Only she wasn't. Just looking at him made her heart squeeze. Working with him for two whole days had not been a good thing. She wanted to ask if he'd eaten any breakfast. She had to bite her tongue to keep from reminding him to have lunch. “Just glad you like my choices.”
He nodded and swept off the Stetson. His dark hair lay in rumpled waves over his forehead, making her fingertips itch to smooth it. He smiled slightlyâone of those off-center grins that twitched up only one corner of his mouth.
“I guess I should go so you can get back to work.” He toed a sack. “Just don't work too long. All right? That flu bug may still be making its rounds. Don't overdo and wear down your resistance. I don't want you getting sick.”
The concern in his deep voice sounded sincere, giving Laura cause to wonder if he was as confused by his feelings for her as she was by hers for him. The thought no sooner slipped into her brain than her blood went cold.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
A man like Isaiah would never be interested in someone like her. With his intelligence and drive, he could make his mark in the world of veterinary medicine. With that future success would come wealth and exciting opportunities. The last thing he needed was a brain-damaged woman to hold him back.
The squeezing sensation around her heart grew painful even as she forced a smile. “It won't take me very long.” She gestured at the other women. “I have lots of help.”
His beautiful blue eyes held hers, and for just an instant Laura felt as if they were the only two people in the room. Then he pivoted on his boot heel and walked away.
Once inside the surgery, Isaiah slapped his hat on a hook and shrugged out of his coat.
Most times he had no trouble squelching feelings of attraction when they were inappropriate. Take Zeke's wife, Natalie, for instance. She was beautiful, talented, and charming. Any guy with eyes in his head drooled a little the first time he met her. Isaiah had been no exception, but the instant he'd felt a twinge of yearning, he had stamped it out and never allowed himself to feel it again.
Why in the hell couldn't he do the same with Laura? Yes, she was pretty, but so were thousands of other women. He never had a problem resisting
In fact, busy as he was, it was the rare female who even made him look twice.
“Hi!” Trish turned from a cat cage. Her welcoming smile faded the instant she saw his face. “Uh-oh. Problems?”
“Nothing related to here.”
Laura was carving out a place for herself at the clinic, proving to be a valuable asset. He had to get his head screwed on straight where she was concerned. Men who lusted after female subordinates were slimeballs, and he wouldn't allow himself to go there. “Just feeling out of sorts.”