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Authors: Tamra Rose

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BOOK: To Love and Protect
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"I'm sorry.  You pulled up just as I was leaving a plant for you."  She pointed to a potted begonia on the porch by the door.

"You didn't have to do that," Shelley said, partly to acknowledge Marge's generosity, but also because she knew her nurturing instincts didn't always extend to houseplants.  She would water them, talk to them, even sing to them, but they always ended up in a heap of decayed greenery.  Then again, she thought, maybe her singing was part of the problem.

"Oh, it was nothing," Marge replied, smiling but still looking strained.  She was only a few years older than Shelley, but the years had not been kind to her.  Her thin, brown hair hung lifelessly about her ashen, weather-beaten face, making Marge look like a farmwife from another era who had spent the better part of the week battling locusts out in the field.  Her non-descript, too-big cotton dress didn't help the situation.

Shelley smiled in appreciation as she looked at her neighbor.  Of course, living in this part of Fairfax meant a “next-door” neighbor lived a mile or two down the road, but it was still nice to know one's fellow residents.  Marge and her husband Herb owned one of the more contemporary homes in the area.  Situated on a couple of acres, it bordered Shelley's eight-acre property on the wooded side.  Herb was a computer programmer who commuted an hour and a half into Boston when he wasn't working from home.  Marge tended to their two young children and the various gardens she kept on their property. 

But there was something about Marge that made Shelley feel almost sorry for her.  Whether it was a sense of loneliness or unfulfillment, Shelley couldn’t be sure.  She only knew that Marge stopped by often.  Sometimes too often.

"How did you get here?" Shelley asked, knowing that Marge had stopped driving after an accident several years ago.  No one had been seriously hurt in the crash, but she had yet to get behind the wheel since.

"I rode my bike."  Marge pointed to her old-fashioned bicycle leaning up against the garage, complete with a quaint whicker basket hanging off the front handlebars.  "Is this a bad time to come by?"

Normally, Shelley would have said that it wasn't in order to spare Marge's feelings.  But the day had already been too overwhelming, and what she now needed most was some time alone.

"Actually, Marge, I just had an emergency at the clinic, and my nerves are kind of shot right now.  I think I could really use a nap."

"Oh," Marge replied, looking slightly wounded. 

Shelley immediately felt guilty.  "Maybe we can get together for tea before the week is out."

Marge visibly brightened, at least as much as her haggard complexion allowed.  "It's probably just as well.  Herb's watching the two kids, and he can't go for more than an hour without losing his patience."

Gee, that's nice, Shelley thought to herself.  No wonder Marge always looked so tired.

"Do you want a ride home?  You can stick your bike in the back."

"Would you mind?  The afternoon sun's awfully hot."

Marge chatted as usual on the short drive to her house, but Shelley didn't hear any of the words.  Instead, her thoughts kept drifting back to Matt.  There was just something about him that brought up emotions that she hadn't felt since Ted.  Yet she couldn't put her finger on exactly what it was.  A physical attraction?  A comfortable rapport?  Both?

"Shelley?  I said are you okay?"

"Huh?  Oh, yes.  I'm sorry – I was just thinking about someone. 
.  I was thinking about something."

"I guess you must be, because you drove past my house."

"I did?" she replied sheepishly, making a quick U-turn in the road.  They pulled into the driveway just as Herb was coming out of the house with their two sons.

"Hi, Shelley," he said, smiling.  For a computer guy, she thought, he wasn't all that bad to look at.  Her tastes had always run to the outdoorsy, sporty type, not men whose idea of a good workout was maneuvering a mouse across a pad.  But that was just her preference.  Marge certainly seemed enthralled enough with her husband, especially judging by the way she would gaze at him with sheer adoration.  It was a pairing that always baffled Shelley.  The conservative, neatly attired, bespectacled Herb, and the disheveled, frumpy housedress-wearing Marge.  To Shelley, they appeared to have been dropped off on the same planet by different alien races.

"Want to come in for a cold drink?" Herb asked.

"Thanks, but I really have to be going."

Shelley detected disappointment on Herb's pinched face, but she was too tired to hang around out of forced politeness. 

Instead, she returned home to nap for a half-hour, then took a relaxing walk through the woods with her dogs. At ten-thirty she pulled into the clinic parking lot, first surprised and then concerned when she spotted a dark SUV in one of the front spots.  No one told her they were working late, she thought slowly as she pulled her truck up.  The SUV door opened and Matt stepped out in track pants and a tee-shirt, looking as though he had just come from the gym.

"I just finished working out and I was on my way home," he said, confirming Shelley's guess.  "I knew you said you were coming by around now, so I thought I'd stop over and see if I could talk you into letting me take a peek at Carly."

Shelley would normally be a bit cautious at the unexpected arrival of someone after clinic hours, but not this time.  She was only too glad to see Matt, which her racing heart confirmed.

"Sure," she said, unlocking the front clinic door.  "I've been in touch with the staff up until they left a few hours ago, and they said she's doing great.  She even ate some food tonight, which is an excellent sign."

Matt reached in front of her to open the door, his arm brushing against her stomach, which was enough to set lose a swarm of butterflies.  Her eyes met his and she briefly matched his gaze  before pushing the door open and turning on the light.

"Carly, my girl," Matt said soothingly as they walked over to her cage.  Still weak, she nevertheless managed to lift her head, pressing her nose up against the thin metal bars.  Shelley could see the delight in Carly's eyes as he scratched her forehead.

"She sure is happy to see you."

"Probably not half as happy as I am to see her looking this good."

"I'm just going to check her bandages," Shelley explained as she opened the cage and reached inside.  A minute later, she announced, "Everything looks fine."

Matt spent several more minutes talking to Carly and rubbing her face through the cage.  At one point Carly mustered enough strength to do a half roll on her back, putting her three good legs up in the air in a stance of submission.  A sense of ease  pervaded the room as they shared a laugh over her antics.

"Would you like to get a coffee or something?" Matt asked unexpectedly. 

Shelley's smile faded, out of surprise and perhaps a quick twinge of fear.  "Sure," she finally said after several moments of hesitation.

"We don't have to," he added, no doubt sensing the uncertainty in her voice.

Shelley looked down at the floor. If only he knew why that uncertainty was there, she thought.  It wasn’t that she didn’t like him.  It was that she
. And that was the problem.  How could she risk getting involved with someone who could be taken from her the next day?  What if Carly hadn't attacked the first gunman yesterday?  Would he even be standing here now?

"Maybe some other time, then," Matt added when Shelley was slow to respond.   

"No – I'd like to." 

"All right then," he smiled.  "Let's go.

Fifteen minutes later they were sitting in a doughnut shop, sharing coffee and conversation. "Something tells me you're a hard person to get to know," Matt observed.

"Me?  Really?"  Shelley was genuinely perplexed as to what could have prompted such a conclusion.  "Why do you say that?

He shrugged.  "You just seem a bit guarded to me."

Shelley sank back in the booth, somewhat hurt.  She honestly felt she was opening up to Matt, talking to him about their jobs and, well ... their jobs.  Maybe he had a point. 

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I didn't mean to upset you.  I thought if we came here and I wasn't in my uniform, you'd find it easier to talk to me."

"I do find it easy to talk to you.  It's just ..."

Several moments passed before Matt broke the silence. "Look, I know you probably don't feel comfortable being around police officers, period.  And I understand that."

Shelley looked down at the table.  It wasn't just the fact that he was a police officer.  It was the fact that he was a police officer whose company she enjoyed way too much.

"You'd think after two and a half years, it wouldn't matter, wouldn’t you?" she noted quietly.

"No.  I wouldn't think that at all."

Shelley found her eyes leaving his gaze and dropping to his lips. Something about Matt's mannerisms, his words, made her feel understood in a way that made her feel she
open up to him.

Matt leaned his elbows on the table.  "I have a confession to make.  You know how I said earlier that I was waiting for the chance to have a peek at Carly? Well, that's only partly true.  I was also hoping to have another peek at you."

Shelley froze, uncertain what to say.  For that matter, she wasn't sure what to even

"You're not saying anything," Matt said, unwilling to let her off the hook.  "I probably made you even more uncomfortable by telling you that."

"No, no, you didn't," she lied.  "I guess I just wasn't expecting you to say something like that."

"I don't know why not. I'm sure lots of guys try to sneak a peek at you.  They'd be crazy not to."

"You're making me blush," Shelley said, figuring honesty was the best policy at this point.  Besides, her crimson cheeks were too obvious to go unnoticed.

Matt leaned back, smiling in a way that indicated he was only partially admitting defeat.  "You know how they say patients can get crushes on their doctors when they see how much the doctor is trying to help them?" 

"I've heard that."

"Well, when I saw the way you were with Carly..."  He paused, then shrugged.

Shelley grinned.  "So you're attracted to my veterinarian skills?" 

"Something like that."

She arched her eyebrows as if to say, 'Oh.'

"You're really going to make me work for this, aren't you," he laughed.

Shelley laughed as well, her tense body softening. "Come on.  You must already have a girlfriend or something."

"Nope.  I'm married to my job."

"Uh oh."

"Something tells me you're no different, so don't give
a hard time about that."

She knew there was no point in trying to convince him otherwise, especially when he was right on the mark.

He looked at his watch.  "I don't want to keep you here if you have to work in the morning.  I know you've had a long day already, thanks to me."

"I don't mind.  Seeing Carly looking as well as she did tonight made it all worthwhile."

 "Nice truck," Matt commented a short time later as they stood in the parking lot.

"Thanks," she said, climbing the lengthy step into the driver's seat.  "By the way, whatever happened with the whole robbery thing today?  Were the guys caught?"

"You didn't see the local paper or news today?"

BOOK: To Love and Protect
8.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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