Authors: Kim Watters
COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Kim Watters
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Kimberlee Mendoza
Cover Photos from www.istock.com
Troels Graugaard, Marje Cannon, J. Clegg
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Bounced from one foster home to another, Sarah Churchill learned early that love is conditional and nothing is free. Not even the homeless dog she accidentally runs over.
Veterinarian Grant Morrison is a sucker for strays, both the four-legged kind and the two-legged kind. So when a redhead walks into his office with an injured dog, he does the only thing he knows how to do and stitches up the dog for free.
But Sarah has her pride. Determined never to be a charity case again, she won't accept the service and insists on working at the clinic to pay for the bill.
Can one man and one big, furry dog break down the wall of hurt and distrust and show Sarah the true meaning of happiness and unconditional love?
“Can you help him, doctor?”
Sarah Churchill cradled the bedraggled dog’s head. The animal lay shaking on the examining table. Tenderly, she pushed the dirty golden hair from the dog’s eyes, and then stroked the matted fur behind his ears. “I didn’t mean to hit him—I—he just darted out from behind a parked car…”
“And into your path,” the doctor, a Grant M. Morrison according to the tag on the clinic door, finished for her.
“But it was an accident.” Unable to read the man’s eyes, Sarah stepped back. “It was. Do you actually think I’d harm the dog on purpose?”
Silence stretched between them. It reminded her of the time she took the blame for her foster sister’s car accident. Sarah was ready to grab the dog and find another veterinarian who could help her. But in the central California town the size of Greer, which boasted a population of 8,531, she doubted there were many other options.
As he thrust his hand through his hair, his expression softened. “No. I don’t think you would.”
“Is he hurt?”
“I don’t know. Let’s take a look, little fella.” Dr. Morrison spoke in a low, soothing voice as he returned his attention to the dog. “I’m just going to check you out and see where you hurt that’s all.” With kind, probing fingers, he examined the entire length of the small golden body.
As the dog thumped his tail against the metal table, a slight smile played at the veterinarian’s lips—quite a change from a few moments earlier. Sarah released the breath she’d been holding, and relaxed her fists which had been balled up at her sides. This man had nothing to do with her past—he probably had no clue how defensive his actions made her. She should give him some slack. He was only trying to help.
With his focus on the dog, Sarah took the opportunity to study him. Tall and lean, he exuded a no-nonsense attitude, but the dark, curly hair brushing past the collar of his lab coat contradicted his otherwise professional appearance.
Her curiosity aroused, she looked around the rest of the room, wondering if anything else was out of place. Not that she’d know or anything. Her trips to doctors’ offices had been limited. Unless it was an absolute necessity, the people who’d taken her in for foster care hadn’t given a hoot about her. They just wanted that monthly check from the government. Most of the time she’d been told to tough it out and not to be an inconvenience.
And she hadn’t. She’d almost died rather than complain her side had hurt. It wasn’t until she was in the emergency room that they discovered her appendix had burst. That was home number two. Three wasn’t much better. But that was all in the past. When she’d turned 18, she’d hit the road and hadn’t looked back.
After a few more minutes, the vet's smile disappeared, replaced by a perplexed look as he lifted the dog into a standing position and ran his hands across his body again. “You say you hit him?”
“Where? I don’t feel any broken bones.”
His gaze captured hers. The intensity of his eyes caught her off guard. She’d never seen such a color before—a cross between the evening sky and the dark, forbidden waters of the lake at her fourth foster home.
She inched her way back to the examining table and looked at the bundle of fur which, now that she had a good chance to look at him, realized she’d hit a puppy.
“I—I, my tire hit him here…I think.” She caressed the dog’s hip. “He squeaked when he hit the ground and didn’t move right away. Not until I got turned around. And when he stood up, he started to limp right away.”
“Really?” Dr. Morrison looked at her inquisitively.
Sarah squirmed. She stared over his shoulder at the poster of a family and their big, yellow lab, a much bigger version than the one on the table, selling some brand of dog food. A made-up family—paid to look happy—but they still resembled a family. Sarah imagined the vet’s upbringing. He probably had a big, happy family, a permanent bed, and a house full of love and understanding.
Which was great—for him. She knew those places existed, and often dreamed of living in one when she was a kid, until reality set in. But she wasn’t jealous of what other people had; it just made her more determined to succeed.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how fast were you going?”
“Not very fast. I wasn’t pedaling that hard.”
Grant wasn’t sure he’d heard the young woman correctly. “Excuse me? Did you say pedaling?” His hands stilled on the puppy’s back as he absorbed the information. “You were on a bike?”
Grant glanced at the dog, and then returned his full attention on the woman he guessed to be in her mid-twenties. A profusion of curly, blonde hair stuck out from beneath her faded Oakland A’s baseball cap. Freckles dusted her cheekbones and the bridge of her upturned nose. And her lips, full with just a hint of gloss, turned down at the corners, making him wonder if she ever smiled.
Not that he’d given Sarah Churchill—whose name he’d gleaned from the information sheet she’d filled out—much to smile about with his sour attitude. It wasn’t her fault things had been going wrong for him all day.
“A bike. I see. Then he shouldn’t be too badly hurt.” He crossed his arms in front of him and gave her a reassuring smile, glad she wasn’t the type who drove one of those big sports utility vehicles. This dog might not have been so lucky.
Still, he didn’t know why the image of her riding a bike struck him as funny. He coughed to cover the sound of his laughter. Her attire was totally unsuitable. A brown flowing skirt fell almost all the way to her ankles, while a frilly peasant blouse hung loosely from her slight frame.
If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it was at least two sizes too big for her, though with the fashions these days, one couldn’t tell. The only items that made sense were the stone-washed denim jacket that had seen better days, and the black, army style boots on her feet.
“Good.” The woman adjusted her backpack; a look of relief mixed with hesitation flickered across her face as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Well I’d—I’d better get going. I’m sure his owners will be happy it’s not serious. Thanks.”
The puppy whined, bringing Grant’s mind back to the task at hand. He continued to inspect the dog, who obviously enjoyed the attention. In a total show of submission, he rolled over on his back, his four paws batting at the air. Grant took a moment to pat his belly, noticing how painfully skinny he was as her words sank in.
? With a sinking feeling, he realized his days would go from bad to worse if he let Ms. Churchill leave without the dog.
“Wait. Don’t go. This dog is most likely a stray.” He sighed. Having seen far too many unwanted animals in his short career, he couldn’t understand the irresponsible behavior. When would people learn to fix their pets?
“A stray? As in homeless?” A hint of compassion laced her voice, sending a pleasant tremor through Grant. That, and the fact she hadn’t bolted out the door made him think that maybe today wouldn’t be a total loss after all.
The puppy whimpered as he touched his hind leg. “Yes. And here’s the problem.” He parted the matted hair, revealing an inch-long gash. “Let me stitch him up, give him some shots, and then the two of you will be on your way.”
“The two of us?” Sarah stepped back from the table, feeling her stomach tumble to her knees. “I can’t keep him. Between my job and school, I don’t have the time, the money, or anything to offer a dog.”
Sarah remembered the poster again on the far wall; dogs belonged in families—families with a big house and a bigger yard. A single woman, living in a studio apartment with very little furniture, who had a car that didn’t work, wasn’t the type of person who should own a dog.
Clutching the strap of her backpack like a lifeline, she forced herself to meet the vet’s gaze. She could tell by the look on his face, her reaction upset him. It upset her, too. Who was she to talk? Being homeless as a human with no place to turn, no warm bed to sleep in, and no set meals was no fun. She should know, she’d tried it more times than she’d care to think about, but she’d made that choice herself. The dog probably had no say in the matter.
An uncomfortable silence lingered as Sarah watched the man thrust a hand through his now unruly hair. Both he and the dog looked like they could use a good brushing, but that was none her concern. She had to get back to her apartment and study for her English test.
Grant shoved his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and turned away. This was a part of his profession he hated. To him, dogs and cats were furry humans. Not disposable objects, thrown away on a whim. But that wasn’t this young woman’s problem. She’d only done what she’d thought best.
Turning to face her again, he sensed disquiet about her, a need. His gaze shifted back to the dog, who gave him a forlorn look and a whimper. They both did. An idea sprang to his mind.
“How do you know you don’t have a lot to offer our friend here, if you don’t try?” He gave the dog a good rub behind his ears. “It’s not your fault he’s been abandoned, but there aren’t many options. The pound won’t work because most of the animals that wind up there never make it out alive, and the no-kill shelter across town is full.”
There was no way he could take the dog home. He’d already rescued two dogs, three cats, two rabbits and a pregnant ferret. His townhouse was full.
“Look, Ms. Churchill, just try it for a week. I’ll put up some posters and make a few inquiries with my other clients to see if I can find a place for him. But in the meantime, take him home with you. At least he’ll be off the streets and safe.” If he could convince her to take the pup home, Grant knew he’d never need to make those posters or phone calls.
“I don’t know.”
She was wavering. He could tell. Unsure, she reached out and began stroking the dog’s belly. The puppy grunted in contentment, his tail thumping the metal table again. As she continued to stroke him, he licked the back of her hand. A tentative smile graced her lips. “I think he likes me.”
Without a doubt, the dog had struck a needy core in the woman. By the look of longing on her face, a companion was the perfect solution. Yet it was the surprise in her voice that made him pause. He couldn’t imagine anyone not liking Sarah Churchill.
He did. Why, he’d love her if she took the dog home, it would be one less thing to worry about.
He heard Sarah sigh. “He is kind of cute, isn’t he? But I don’t know the first thing about taking care of him.”
“It’s not that hard.” As if the dog knew she was weakening, the animal flipped over, sat up and began to lick her face. Her expression switched from surprise, to shock, to utter delight. She leaned in and hugged the dog.
“You’ve got a deal, Dr. Morrison.” She extended her hand. Grant was surprised at the firmness of her grip, the softness of her hand, and…how well it fit inside his.
“Great. We should have you on the road in a few minutes.”
Ten minutes later, the blood drained from Sarah’s face. In horror, she stared down at the bill the woman behind the front counter handed her. “How can it be this expensive for some stitches and a few shots?”
Sarah glanced down at her new puppy in dismay. His big, brown eyes stared back at her, his long, pink tongue hung out of his mouth. His floppy ears perked up as he cocked his head and his tail wagged enthusiastically.