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Authors: Tamra Rose

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BOOK: To Love and Protect
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"Actually, no.  I usually get the paper on my way into work, but things were kind of thrown off today when I was called in for the emergency."

"They have the guy in custody that Carly took down.  And the guy that shot her is in the hospital now, recovering from a shot to the shoulder.  Courtesy of me, I might add."

Again, dark feelings returned, but Shelley tried to concentrate on the situation at hand.  "Well, at least it's all over."

"I wish it were.  But it looks like this was just part of a larger, organized ring of armed robbers that have been hitting places on a regular basis in the surrounding towns.  It’s probably just a matter of time before they strike again."

Shelley turned the key in the ignition, starting the engine.  Whatever opening she had allowed Matt earlier was slammed shut in a hurry.  "Call the clinic tomorrow morning for an update on Carly.  I'll be there by nine."

Matt looked slightly bewildered.  "Did I say something wrong?"

"No, not at all.  Thanks for the coffee," she said, throwing the transmission into reverse.  "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

She accelerated out of the parking lot, glad that Matt was off-duty.  The last thing she needed was a speeding ticket.  Because right now she felt as though she were heading down a one-way street that could only lead to heartbreak. She had finally met a man who had awakened long-dormant feelings inside her, but it was an attraction that was littered with roadblocks. She simply could not allow herself to become involved with someone who could be taken away from her in an instant. It had happened once.  It would not happen again.

 

Matt stepped back as gravel flew up from the wheels of Shelley’s truck.  Or maybe he stepped back from sheer bewilderment.  He couldn’t be sure.  In the span of a single day, he had dodged a bullet – make that several − and witnessed his beloved dog survive a life-threatening injury, thanks to the skill and sheer determination of a beautiful and compassionate veterinarian. He leaned against his SUV, shaking his head as if to dislodge the sense of surrealism nestled inside.  Over the past few years he certainly had his share of well-meaning friends and relatives itching to see him settle down with someone and start a family, but their nudging fell flat.  Sure, he had dated plenty of women, most of them attractive and successful in their own right and eager to stick their toothbrush next to his.  But inevitably, he always ended a relationship before it delved into deeper waters.  Why prolong a situation when he couldn’t imagine being with the woman for the rest of his life?

“You’re too picky,” his friend Bill had said to him not long ago.  “You expect to fall in love on the first date.  It doesn’t happen that way.  Things like that take time.”

Bill was happily married to Tina, and together they were raising two daughters.  So his words carried weight with Matt. And part of him was beginning to concede that the whole love-at-fist-sight thing was just some foolish romantic notion cooked up by the greeting card industry.  Perhaps he should just find a nice woman he liked, if not loved, and settle down, accepting that his feelings would eventually grow.  After all, wasn’t fondness better than loneliness?

And then there were the events of this morning.  Without even looking, without so much as a thought of love or attraction – most certainly not in the context of watching Carly fight for her life – he had been struck.  It was how he had always imagined it would be, a certain knowing that went far beyond skin deep, a pulling at the hollow of his stomach that literally ached with awe.

Matt sighed and stared up at the star-specked sky.  It was just him and the crickets and his thoughts.  He preferred the crickets.  Because those thoughts of his were driving him damn near out of his mind.  He prided himself on his cool control, but it was as if his brain had been inertia dynamite, and someone had suddenly just lit the wick.  He had
wanted
to be floored by someone, but now that it had happened, the logical side of him questioned how real it could be.  Was he simply reacting to the heightened emotions of all that had transpired earlier?  Staring death in the face?  Nearly losing his faithful canine companion?  His thoughts were even drowning out the crickets now, and that was no easy feat on a warm night like this.  So now he knew how it felt to be captivated.   And it rattled him.  Staring down a burglar with a gun pointed at his head?  That had every nerve fiber in his body flying with adrenaline.  But the funny thing was, the more critical the situation, the more level-headed and cool he became. Uncertainty didn’t enter the picture.  But it was certainly painting its own portrait right now.

Matt grabbed the door handle but froze in thought.  An image of Shelley flashed in his mind, her long sun-kissed ponytail falling to the side as she had peered over Carly, her forehead creased in concern as she had tried to gage Carly’s condition. She had been purely in the moment, completely oblivious as to how she looked, yet more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen.

Matt pulled open the door and swung his solid body onto the seat, immediately aware of the fact that Carly wasn’t in her usual spot beside him.  He was alone now, save for the sounds of the night.  It was a feeling he was used to – even relished – as he plowed through life and tackled his job.  But now it felt different.  Now he carried around with him the thoughts of someone else – someone he had only just met, no less – and it was probably a fruitless endeavor.  He had seen something in Shelley’s eyes this morning when she first looked up from Carly and spotted him in the corner of the room.  He had caught how her focus had gravitated toward his badge, the split second of recognition coupled with apprehension in her eyes that faded as quickly as it came. 

Still, it was there.  Barely perceptible, perhaps, but he had noticed it.  His training as a police officer had fine-tuned his senses to pick up on nuances that other people might miss.  How could he expect her to look at him and not be thinking of her late husband’s fate?

“Damn it,” he said under his breath, starting the engine and revving the gas. He wasn’t going to give up so easily.  So what if he had to wait for Shelley to come around.  So what if she was beginning to occupy most of his thoughts, and the silent moments in between. He wasn’t a big believer in fate, and yet he couldn’t deny that he had just survived a potentially deadly situation with the odds only half at best in his favor.  Knowing that it could have gone the other way only strengthened his resolve to hold onto something good that had come into his life, and to see where it could potentially go.

THREE

 

Shelley squeezed an eye open as Toodles, her white Persian cat, sat on her chest and poked her face repeatedly with her paw.  It was a morning ritual that Shelley had grown grudgingly fond of, though a little less so on mornings like this when she craved an extra five minutes of sleep.

"Toodles!"

Another stab in the cheek and Shelley relented, dragging herself to the kitchen to feed the awaiting cats and dogs.  She opened a can of cat food, her mind squarely on Matt.  She poured some dry dog food into three dishes, her mind on Matt.  She placed a filter of coffee grounds into the coffeemaker, her mind on Matt.

Wait a second
, she thought. 
I see a pattern here
.  How quickly her resolve from the night before had evaporated. She pictured his face, his warm eyes and easy smile that contrasted the obvious strength of his solid, muscular build.  It was an enticing thought, and she smiled to herself, almost giddy.  It wasn't a bad way to feel.

After several cups of coffee and toast enjoyed on the back deck that overlooked rolling fields, Shelley showered and then set about finishing up a few more morning chores. Opening the front door, she bounded down the porch stairs, her foot sinking several inches when she reached the bottom step.

“What the …”
  Extracting her shoe from a small pile of manure, Shelley quickly scanned her surroundings.  Several leaves wafted to the ground from the large oak tree beside the driveway – the only movement she could detect on such a still morning. Diana’s earlier words of concern flooded back, but Shelley tried to find reason in the situation.  She lived in the country.  A rogue cow on the loose was certainly not unheard of, and it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could have traipsed through her property during the night and heeded the call of nature with its back facing her porch.  Still … . 
Enough, Shelley
, she chided herself.  After all, Diana had the anxiety gene, not her.  And if it weren’t for the egg-throwing incident last week, she wouldn’t have thought twice about the offending heap that was now spread across her step.  Her nerves were a bit on end, that’s all.  When you live out in the country, she reasoned, then you have to deal with rustlings in the woods at night, animal excrement on your property, and yes, bored kids throwing eggs at your vehicle while out on a midnight joyride in their monster trucks.

Later that morning, as she drove over to Elaine’s palatial home several towns over to give her monthly vet check to Elaine's poodle, Fifi, Shelley felt as though the flame of life that had been flickering inside her had suddenly been doused with kerosene.  The  colorful early autumn trees somehow seemed twice as vibrant, while the fresh-smelling air awakened her senses with a heightened clarity. And the sun – did it always feel this glorious on her bare skin when she leaned her arm out the open window of her truck?"

"Look at
you!
” Elaine declared dramatically as she opened the door to let Shelley inside. 

Shelley ducked as though she had been ambushed by a madwoman, which wasn't too far from the truth.  Elaine pulled her inside – but carefully.  After all, she was wearing her new silk pantsuit, and no creases were allowed. 

"You're glowing, Darling.  Either you've switched over to that yak butter skin regimen I recommended, or you've finally met someone who's put your hormones in a flux."

Shelley laughed.  "Oh, come on now."

"Who is he?  I want all the details.  Now that your sister Diana is refusing to let me work my magic with her love life, I've been bored to tears."

"I didn't exactly meet someone as in he's my
boyfriend
or anything..."

"
Yet
.  Continue."

"Okay," Shelley relented.  "He's a police officer who brought his dog to the clinic the other day."

Elaine sucked in a pocket of air.  "A police officer!"

Shelley sighed.  "I know.  Bad news already."

"No, no, Darling.  I was just thinking about those handcuffs and all those other little playthings."

"Elaine!"
"All right.  Anyway, so you like him, I take it."

Shelley tried to sum up her mixed feelings to Elaine in as few words as possible, careful to emphasize that she had only just met Matt and things were in the early stage – if any stage at all.   It was hard to keep Elaine at bay when she smelled romance. "Where's Fifi?" Shelley quickly added, hoping to move onto another subject.

"Resting in the spa room.  She just had her nails done."  Elaine held out her hand, displaying ice-blue nails like an eagle spreading its talons.  "Now we match."

"Have you cut back on that liver pate like I told you?"

"I don't touch that stuff.  It goes right to my thighs."

Shelley rolled her eyes.  "You know I'm talking about Fifi!"

"Now, Shelley, Darling.  Even dogs need a little indulgence here and there.  Especially my Fifi."

Shelley sighed exasperatedly.  "If you want Fifi to be around a while for matched manicure sessions, you need to cut out the rich foods that–"

Elaine clasped her hand over Shelley's mouth.  When she finally removed it, Shelley could still taste the metal of Elaine's accordion of rings.  "Don't harp," she instructed. "It will give you wrinkles."

She pulled Shelley over to a zebra-print couch.  "Come.  I think I know what the problem is here.  You're reluctant to get involved with another police officer, right?"

"I can't help it," Shelley replied as she sank into the cushion.  "I just have this bad feeling that something could happen to him like it did Ted."

BOOK: To Love and Protect
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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