Authors: Michele Dunaway
“What's incoming?” she asked, forcing a focus on the professional. The kiss had been a momentary lapseâa stupid romantic fantasy of a career woman who had too little time and a bad dating track record to boot.
“Dog with burns on at least half its body.”
Kat winced and rose, court summons forgotten. She listened as her tech outlined the extent of the dog's injuries. It was clear that the rescue group doing the transport needed the nearest vet. “ETA?”
“Five minutes max. Claire's prepping the O.R.”
“Make sure we're ready.”
“We will be. I told them to use the emergency entrance.”
Kat stepped from her office into the waiting room, the aromatic scent of a real Christmas tree greeting her. She'd spent Thanksgiving morning decorating the clinic, and Christmas music played over the speakers. “Silent Night,” her favorite.
To her, there was nothing better than picking out a Christmas tree, and she'd bought hers down the street at Ted Drewes, a St. Louis landmark. The store located on Old Route 66 had been at the location since 1941, serving frozen custard in the summer and selling balsam fir trees from Nova Scotia in the winter. The owner picked them out himself. As for the ice cream, a mini-chip concrete was her favorite.
She greeted a few patients who waited to see her associate, Dr. Stuart Marshall. She noted that there was fresh coffee and plates filled with Christmas cookies for both humans and dogsâseparate, of course. Her staff had everything under control, and they'd keep it that way.
Flickering red and blue lights reflected through the large picture window as a black SUV pulled into the lot and headed around the side of the building. Adrenaline pumped in Kat's veins, and she took a deep breath. Her white lab coat flapped as she strode into the back of the clinic. Since she loved animals, joining the task force as a partner had been a logical step, especially since the new task force needed a partner clinic in her area. Jeff Ellis of Pet Rescue had spent three months vetting her clinic. She'd trained for this. She wouldn't fail.
She'd donned her green surgical gear and scrubbed in by the time the man carrying the dog entered her operating room.
“Hey sweet baby,” she cooed, her gaze on the suffering dog.
“Hey to you, too.”
Kat's head jerked up. She knew that deep-timbered, rough-sounding voice. Six feet of blond all-American hero stood there, his windbreaker askew.
Where was the rescue group?
“You,” she sputtered. Mr. December, the man whose kiss sent tingles to her feet, stood in front of her.
“Me.” He gently placed the dog on the stainless steel table. “And thanks for such a sweet greeting. Don't usually get that.”
“I was talking to the dog,” Kat clarified, all business. He didn't need to know how he'd made her body react. “I was expecting the rescue group.”
Jack's lips formed a thin line. “Too bad. I could use some babying after this. There was no time to wait. How bad is he?”
Aware of her staff's avid curiosity, Kat's fingers peeled back the blanket to find what appeared to be a five-month-old pit bull puppy. Sweet, hopeful brown eyes tore at her heartstrings. “Shh,” she urged, and the dog closed its eyes, the pain unbearable.
“Can you save him?” Jack asked.
“I'm going to try my best.” Her brain registered and then dismissed her horror and anger. The puppy was going into shockâshe didn't have time for distracting emotions. While she'd expected to see Jack Donovan at some point during her volunteering for the task force, she hadn't expected to be blindsided like this. She'd envisioned their next encounter at a training seminar or a meeting, or something â¦ sometime when she'd be polished. Wearing makeup.
Her staff moved around her, getting things prepared. Work called. “I need you to leave,” she told Jack.
He hesitated, his beautiful blue eyes imploring, holding her gaze. The world seemed to drop away, as if they were the only two in it. “I'm going to save him,” she promised. “But I can't do that unless you leave.”
The moment Jack left the room, Kat exhaled the breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. Twice now Mr. December's calendar image failed to do him justice. Twice now she'd felt the heat that radiated between them. Even being stressed and obviously tired hadn't lessened his magnetic, innate appeal.
If anything, today proved he had a deep, caring heart as well; he'd carried the dog and brought the animal himself. Mr. December certainly had far more layers than his objective photo revealed, layers she wanted to explore. Later. Much later.
After she saved this dog. This is why she'd signed up to volunteer, why she'd built the shelter. To save animals. Seeing Mr. December was not going to throw her off her game. “Let's get you fixed up,” she said to the puppy, and got to work.
Even after an hour on the hard bench, the growing backache was the least of Jack's discomforts. Once he'd dropped off the puppy, he'd rejoined Mike at the crime scene, and together they'd interviewed neighbors and various onlookers.
They'd also met with Billy, who was devastated over the loss of his dog. His mom had been at work, but his aunt has been babysitting and “consoling” Billy by telling him that real men didn't cry. She'd told Mike and Jack that it was probably for the best, as the dog had bitten a younger cousin. Jack hadn't liked the petite blond much. He'd left after telling Billy he'd be back to talk to his mother.
Upon his return to the clinic, Jack was encouraged to hear the puppy was still in surgery. Had the puppy's condition been hopeless, he figured Kat would have euthanized.
So Jack waited, for aside from finishing and filing his report, there was really little else he could do. One or two pet owners had recognized him and mentioned the calendar, but they'd simply been friendly and somewhat curious, and he'd been able to disengage from the conversations without being offensive.
The clinic staff was another matter. He'd been getting quite a few sideways glances from the front-desk staff, especially over the last fifteen minutes. When he'd caught one staring, she'd even blushed. Had their boss told them about the kiss that was now plaguing his thoughts?
Jack tapped his fingers on the smooth surfaces on each side of his MacBook Pro's silver trackpad, a clear sign of agitated nerves. He rubbed his right temple, forâdespite two ibuprofenâhis head pounded. The barking dogs and that annoying Christmas music didn't help. He stretched out his legs, leaned back, rubbed the end of his nose to stop the annoying twitch, and reminded himself his suffering was nothing compared to that of Case Number 63, the burned puppy, now in the hands of the woman whose kiss had roared back into his memory the moment he'd walked into her O.R. and seen her standing there like an angel in scrubs.
He hadn't forgotten herâhe didn't forget anythingâbut he hadn't been able to dismiss her. His memory was such that when given a date or an incident, he relived it. He could feel the clothes he wore, experience a soft touch, even smell the perfume. Now it was as if he was there all over againâthe sensations all rushing back.
Now here she was, the woman who'd gotten under his skin, who'd bothered him since that impromptu kiss under the mistletoe. He'd wondered who she wasâhe'd read over the guest list and not found Kat's name.
He'd gone back into his memory, searching for clues but finding none. That action only incited his subconscious to give her a staring role in one particularly graphic dream, making him wake up in a hot sweat. That fact had bothered him most of all. He was not a randy fifteen-year-old who couldn't control his hormones.
His e-mail popped up a message from the Public Affairs officer that a local media outlet had caught hold of the story and a news crew would be arriving at any time.
Jack closed his laptop and resisted the urge to Google Kat and her clinic, now that he had a somewhat free moment. Instead he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall.
Why was it always pit bulls?
Once known and loved for their gentle dispositionsâHelen Keller had a pit bullânow the worst of humanity raised them for dogfighting or home protection, giving the entire breed a bad name. From his own experience he knew there weren't any bad dogs, just bad owners. In this case, neighbors and Billy's aunt had told him the dog had bitten several people. After further questioning, Billy's aunt had admitted the dog had been provoked into biting. The kids had been playing rough, teasing the dog by showing it a toy, letting him have it a second, and then yanking it away. Puppies didn't understand jokes.
Jack made a fist then unclenched it, the movement diffusing his anger. Based on the initial investigation, he was 95 percent certain who'd done it. Soon he'd have solid proof, enough irrefutable evidence for an airtight arrest warrant and hopefully a subsequent conviction. Under the emergency warrant a judge had granted twenty minutes ago, the police force's finest computer hacker was on the case; so Jack opened his eyes, lifted the laptop lid, and filed the report via the secure web portal.
“Can I get you anything?” He tilted his head; one of the front-desk women stood there. Like everyone at the practice, she wore scrubs. She gestured to the refreshment table. “We have fresh coffee and cookies. I'd be happy to grab you a cup. You look tired.”
He was, not that he'd admit it. His stomach growled, and he assumed the cookies with the chocolate chips were for humans. He held up the insulated paper cup he'd grabbed earlier at the local gas station. “Thanks, but I'm good. I'll grab something later if I change my mind. Do you know how much longer?”
Her smile was apologetic. “I'm sorry. I have no idea. We close at five, but you're welcome to stay after. I'm sure Dr. Saunders will want to talk with you.”
“And me with her. Thanks.”
He finished the cold coffee, eyed the cookies again, and decided he didn't feel like moving. He gave into curiosity and entered Kat's name into his web browser's search bar.
By the time Kat appeared at ten minutes past five, not only was he the only one left in the waiting room aside from the staff, but he also knew everything about KatâKatherineâSaunders.
“You're still here,” she said.
“Yeah.” He rose, noting she'd changed. She wore a clean white lab coat with
Dr. Katherine Saunders, DVM
embroidered in blue over her heart. She'd secured her brown hair into a messy ponytail, and brown eyes with gold flecks didn't hide that she'd been through a shell-shocking experience. He had the sudden urge to give her a big hug, to tug her against him. “How is he?”
She thrust her hands into her coat pockets, the fabric stretching over her breasts. “Three cracked ribs from where he was probably kicked multiple times. Burns on fifty percent of his body caused by an accelerant, my guess gasoline. Stable, for now, but the next twenty-four hours will tell if he'll pull through. But for now he's alive.”
Her full lower lip quivered, and Jack quelled the need to take his forefinger and explore the texture. Even without a stitch of makeup she was beautiful, and the jolt of desire he felt surprised him, as did his overpowering need to comfort her, to take care of her. “Thank you. I know this is probably not what you signed up for.”
“All in a day's work.” Kat's quip fell flat, and her brown eyes misted.
“Come here.” Jack pulled her into his arms, where she fit as if made for him. For a moment she nestled her head on his chest, and it felt heavenly. He had a sudden flash of being in bed, cuddled together after a long night of lovemaking. His hold tightened, and she bit back a sniffle. “People can be real assholes,” he said gruffly.
Realizing where she was and what she was doing, Kat pulled away and Jack let her go, not sure if he was disappointed or relieved.
She crossed her arms, her tough professional exterior dropping in place. Her anger grew and she scowled. “Just tell me you'll get whoever did this.”
Jack's jaw tightened, and the throbbing behind his eye returned. “Trust me. That's my promise. I will get the person who did this.”
As her receptionist approached, Kat's cheeks flushed. Her front-desk employees had just watched her hug Mr. December. Could they tell how much she wanted more? “Yes?”
“We have company,” Louise, her receptionist, said.
A movement out the picture window captured everyone's attention as a news van pulled into the parking lot. Kat's face paled. “What are
“They got hold of the story. You're the one who treated the dog. They'll want to talk to you,” Jack said.
She dug her fingers into his arm. “You don't understand. I can't. I don't want the publicity.”
“Ow!” Jack stepped back, massaged where she'd touched. That wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. “Why not? It'll be good for your clinic and for the task force. You saved the day. You deserve some credit. Happy press.”
As a news reporter and cameraman climbed out and made their way to the front door, panic clawed at Kat. Her lawyer had said that she needed to keep a low profile. Do nothingânothingâthat would bring unnecessary attention. Being on the local news wasn't considered discreet.
The glass door squeaked open, and a two-man crew entered. “Jack,” the reporter greeted, shaking Jack's hand. “How are you?”
“Had better days.” Jack said. “Anthony, this is Dr. Katherine Saunders. She saved a puppy todayâone of the worse animal abuse cases I've ever seen.”
“Tell me what happened, but first â¦” Anthony handed Jack a wireless microphone. The camera light flashed red for Record. “Okay, go.”
Jack began to speak. “Today I received a call about a pit bull puppy with burns on over fifty percent of his body. I brought him here â¦”