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Authors: Tamra Rose

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BOOK: To Love and Protect
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"Did you know her husband well?"

Sergeant Rinaldi turned to face Matt. "I couldn't have loved him more if he were my own son. We spent a lot of time together, both on and off duty. He was one heck of a guy. I miss him every day. Loved Shelley, I'll tell you that."

Matt's stomach tightened and he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear more.

"It's been tough for her," Sergeant Rinaldi continued, "but she weathered it all. Got her pets, which are basically her kids in fur suits, got her job, which she loves. Just needs a good man to come into her life to make things complete. The one thing she doesn't need in her life is some superhero who's gonna have her reliving Ted's death every other day." He turned to Matt, a knowing look in his eyes. "But I have a hunch that ain't gonna happen. I think the guy she ends up with is gonna understand how important stability and security are to her after what happened to Ted."

Matt leaned back, slightly dazed. He must have some kind of concussion, he thought, otherwise he could swear that the sergeant was channeling a cross between Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra right now.

"Let's have a look at that," a paramedic said as he approached.

Matt was uncharacteristically passive as the paramedic poked and prodded at the gash on his forehead. "You're going to need a few stitches on this thing," the paramedic announced.

Normally Matt would have fought the advice, opting instead for a quick butterfly bandage to close things up. But suddenly he didn't have the energy to fight. Too many thoughts were swirling around in his mind, too many mixed emotions were vying for his attention. He walked to the rescue truck in a daze, less from the bump on his head than the conflict in his heart.

 

Matt sighed after another restless bout of tossing and turning in bed. Four hours had passed since his head played volleyball with a beer mug, but despite a trip to the emergency room for stitches and more nuggets of advice from Sergeant Rinaldi on the way back, Matt was still wide awake. Even without a goose egg and five stitches, his head would probably be throbbing right now.

Sergeant Rinaldi's observations were still ringing in his ears, but he knew he had a point. Not all women could cope with the uncertainty posed by the dangers even small-town police officers faced, and least of all the widow of an officer killed on the job. Maybe Shelley deserved better than what she could find with him. He would do anything to have a chance with her − anything. Except give up his badge and the work that he loved. It was in his blood, and literally so. His father was a retired police captain, his younger brother Joe was presently enrolled in the police academy, and his older brother Brendan was a firefighter and paramedic. He was proud of his family's heritage in public service, proud of the store clerk he once saved from a man with a knife, proud of the baby he once delivered in a shopping parking lot, heck, even proud of the cat he once rescued from a water drain. He wasn't saving the world, true. But he had made a difference to those people. He understood Shelley's fears, how deeply embedded they were after the tragedy of losing her husband. But he could no more give up police work than she could stop being a veterinarian. They were both devoted to saving lives. He of the two-legged sort, she of the four. And in that way, they were so alike that it pained him to think their situation might be one that couldn’t be resolved with a compromise.

SIX

 

"What the heck did you do?" Dave bluntly asked Shelley the next morning. "Pull an all-nighter?"

"Do I look that bad?"

"No, no, of course not." He paused for effect. "Just don’t go out in the woods today. You might be mistaken for raccoon."

"So much for my eye-concealer," she murmured.

"Didn't you sleep?"

"On and off. Mostly off."

"How come?"

Shelley debated for a moment over whether or not to reveal her growing feelings for Matt. She knew Dave could be trusted to guard her privacy, but would he understand her dilemma? She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and told him of Matt's visit.

"I can see why you're gun-shy..." Dave stopped. "I'm sorry, that was a really poor choice of words."

"It's okay. I know what you were trying to say."

"But Shelley, you have to get past all that. Matt's in no more danger than we are working at the clinic."

"Oh, please−"

"No, listen to me. How many times have we had a vicious animal in here? I know you were bit last year by that Great Dane and ended up with a nasty infection and stitches in your hand. And don't forget when I was kicked
there
by that mini-pony."

Shelley's eyes inadvertently fell to Dave's crotch. "Ouch … I remember. But let's face it – a bite or kick is one thing, a bullet is another. Animals don't carry guns."

"Look, Matt will be fine. This is a small town. If he were a cop in New York, then, yes, you'd have every reason to worry. But this is Fairfax."

It was still Fairfax when Ted was killed, too, thought Shelley, though she knew it wasn't worth arguing the point. Dave no doubt had her best interests in mind, but he just didn't understand. He
couldn't
understand.

"Hi, Guys," Geri said as she started her shift. "Oh, Shelley, you look terrible. Are you sick?"

"Not you, too. Someone better give me a stocking cap to wear over my face today."

"That's not a bad idea," Dave teased as Shelley flashed him a pretend warning glance.

Three hours later, Shelley collapsed in a chair in the break room, her legs splayed out in front of her. "It's just my luck that Beastie would be scheduled for his yearly shots today," she said breathlessly to Geri. "I feel like I've been in a wrestle-mania match."

"Yeah, and Beastie won," Geri quipped. "Is he a St. Bernard or a horse with dog teeth?"

Shelley laughed, then mustered up the energy to lift her arm and read her watch. "Please tell me we have no one scheduled for the next half-hour."

“You're in luck. The next appointment's at one, so you actually get to sit down and eat lunch today."

"Now, if it would only walk to me," she said dreamily, her eyes closed.

"What walk to you?"

"My lunch. I left it in my truck."

Geri wrinkled her nose. "I hope it's not tuna fish or something, or else your truck's going to reek."

"A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some oatmeal cookies."

"You're kidding. I haven't had a lunch like that since third grade."

Shelley laughed. "So I'm reliving my childhood."

Geri grabbed a soda out of the refrigerator. Her bouncy dark brown bob flattered her prominent cheekbones and amber cat-like eyes. Shelley enjoyed having Geri's youthful enthusiasm around and was happy to be a mentor to her as she worked her way through night school in the hopes of one day being a veterinarian herself.

"Where are your keys?" Geri asked. "I'll get your lunch for you."

Shelley popped open an eye. "Are you sure?"

"Shelley, right now you look like you don't have the energy to chew your sandwich, never mind go get it."

"Well, since I look that pathetic, I'll take you up on your offer." She took her keys out of her purse that Geri handed her. "It's on the passenger seat. And I'll even let you have an oatmeal cookie for your efforts."

Geri smiled. "Be right back."

She bounded out of the room, returning less than a minute later with a look of panic on her face.

Shelley bolted up in the chair. "What's wrong?"

"I think you'd better come out to your truck."

Shelley jumped up, a jolt of adrenaline supplying energy that she didn't know she had. "Is someone hurt?"

"No−"

"Thank God," she exclaimed breathlessly as she ran out to the back parking lot ahead of Geri. Her relief was short-lived once she spotted her truck. She stumbled back as her eyes landed on the windshield, which was streaked in blood-red letters that read: YOUR NOT SAFE. Her dread skyrocketed at the three words in smaller letters below: OR YOUR PETS. "No," she mumbled in disbelief, grabbing onto the back of the truck for support.

"I'll call the police," Geri yelled as she ran back into the building. Several moments later, Dave and Joan came outside, their horror-stricken eyes scanning the windshield.

"Is that blood?" Dave asked, walking over slowly. Shelley wrapped her arms around her stomach to quell her sudden queasiness. Dave reached into his lab coat and extracted a latex glove, gingerly dabbing at the red substance with a protected finger. "It has a chemical smell to it," he noted. "I think it's some kind of paint."

"I hope that's what it is," Shelley said, her voice shaking. It was too painful to even consider that a person or animal had been harmed in the process of trying to frighten her.

"The police are on their way," Geri announced as she came back outside. It seemed as though the words were barely out of her mouth before a police cruiser pulled up alongside the truck. The door swung open before the car had fully halted into park.

"Are you okay, Shelley?" Matt asked forcefully, immediately at her side.

She nodded. "I was inside when this happened. We all were."

Matt scanned the back of the small parking lot, which was only used by employees during clinic hours. "What time did you get here?"

"Just before nine."

"Who else was here?"

Shelley took a few moments to process his question. Her mind still reeled with shock, making an intelligible response near impossible. "Dave was already here," she said finally, pointing to his jeep several spaces over.

"I came in about ten minutes after Dave," Geri said. "And there definitely wasn't any writing on the truck at that point."

"And there wasn't when I got here around ten-thirty," Joan added.

"Are you certain about that?" Matt asked, his strong arms close around Shelley's waist. Perhaps it wasn't the most professional, objective stance for him to take, she thought, but he didn't seem to care. Making sure she felt safe and protected seemed to be his first priority at the moment, and Shelley had to admit to herself that it was just what she needed.

Joan nodded vigorously. "I'm positive there was no writing then because I had to walk by the truck to go inside," she explained, pointing to her car at the far end of the small parking lot.

Matt viewed the area once again, his eyes coming to rest on the stretch of woods that started where the parking lot ended. "And no one heard or saw anything unusual?"

All three heads shook negatively in unison.

"We've been busy inside all morning," Geri said. "None of us even had a break until noon, and that's when I came out to get Shelley's lunch from the truck and spotted this."

"Is there anyone else working here today?" Matt asked.

"There's a vet assistant, Karen, who was supposed to start at nine," Geri replied. "She called because her daughter's sick so she won't be in for another hour or so. And Jack, the other assistant, has the day off."

Another police cruiser pulled into the parking lot. A young, short female officer stepped out, looking like a high-school student who rented a uniform for the day and stole the police car for kicks. "Hi," she said, shaking Shelley's hand with a grip that belied her small stature. "I'm Officer Jenkins."

"Hi," Shelley replied, smiling weakly.

BOOK: To Love and Protect
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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