Authors: Catherine Anderson
The confusion in her voice caught Isaiah back just as he started to tug his jacket from the hook. Hand hovering over the leather, he gave her another long study. “You are one of the cleaning crew, right?” When she only gaped at him, he lowered his arm. “No, I guess not.” He ventured an inquisitive smile. “So, who are you, then?”
“My name isâ” She broke off, flicked the tip of her tongue over her lower lip, and then stared at him with what could only be mounting dismay. “My name isâ” She thrust a hand into her hair and took three deep breaths. “Oh,
just give me a second.”
“No problem.” Relaxing his weight against the door to push it closed, he crossed his arms and offered her another smile. “Maybe we should move on to how I can help you and come back to the name business later.”
Some of the rigidity left her body. She pressed a
fingertip against her temple, closed her eyes, and slowly exhaled. “I'm L-Laura Townsend.”
Isaiah's stomach dropped.
Laura Townsend, the four-thirty interview.
The memory punched into his mind like a hard fist. He'd been doing an exploratory on a shepherd with a lacerated bowel when Gloria, one of the secretaries, had paged him on the intercom. “Tell Gloria to have Ms. Townsend wait in my office,” he had told one of the techs, and then the chocolate Lab had come in with a mangled leg, and he had completely forgotten about it.
All the starch went out of Isaiah's spine. He let his head fall back against the door and almost groaned. “I am so sorry.” He straightened and glanced at his watch. Two hoursâshe'd been waiting for over two hours. He would have been climbing the walls. “This is inexcusable.” He hurriedly explained about the emergencies that had come in. “Things got so crazy, I totally forgot you were here.”
“It's okay.” Her lovely eyes went dark with concern. “Did the dogs both live?”
Once again, Isaiah noticed how slowly and deliberately she formed her sentences.
It all made sense nowâher flustered reaction when he startled her, then the confusion about her name. “The shepherd swallowed a piece of glass,” he replied. “Fortunately his owners suspected that he had, and the moment he started to act sick, they brought him in. The damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. I think he'll pull through.”
She looked relieved to hear that, which told him more about her than she could possibly know.
“What about the Lab?” she asked. “Will he live, too?”
“He'll make it, but he wasn't quite so lucky. The leg couldn't be saved.”
“Oh, no.” A distant look entered her eyes. “The poor thing. How will he walk?”
“Dogs are amazing creatures. They do very well on only three legs. In a few weeks he'll be back out chasing field mice and squirrels.” Isaiah pushed erect. “Enough about that. I can't believe I left you waiting all this time. You must think I'm the rudest person alive.”
She hugged her waist and shook her head. “Saving two dogs was much more im-portant than the meeting with me.”
as though it were two separate words. “The least I could have done was send someone to tell you I was tied up.”
“It was better that I waited.” Her mouth turned up sweetly at the corners. Her smile lent her lovely countenance a glow that made him feel as if the sun had just broken through on an overcast day. “It gave me a chance to hear all the stuff going on out there.” She inclined her head toward the door. “It gets very busy hereâhurt ani-mals and upset people. I don't think I'm right for the job, after all.”
Isaiah was still struggling with the fact that
was Laura Townsend. Granted, his mother had told him she was pretty, but he'd learned from hard experience that Mary Coulter's taste in women seldom jived with his own. There had also been the brain-damage thing. Maybe it had been bad of himâokay, no maybe to it; it had been
himâbut he had envisioned a dumpy, shuffling individual with a vacuous expression and a bottom lip perpetually shiny with drool. He hadn't been prepared for hazel eyes bright with intelligence, a body that could stop traffic, or a face to break a man's heart.
When she moved past him to get her coat, he snapped back to the moment. “You're leaving?”
Smiling, she tugged the pink jacket from a hook. As she drew it on, she nodded. “I think it's best.” She drew her purse from where it had been hanging beneath the coat. “You need someone who's quick on her feet, not someone like me, who gets rattled and forgets her name.”
As she started for the door, Isaiah made a snap decision. “I need someone who loves animals.” Even as he spoke, he had to wonder what he was doing. “Working in the back, you seldom have to deal with emergencies.”
“By the time a dog or cat is put in a kennel, the worst is usually over. The job mostly involves washing down cages, changing bedding, and refilling food and water dishes. The only confusion in the kennels is usually generated by the animals themselves. The dogs tend to bark a lot, trying to get attention. The noise is so bad you can barely hear yourself think. The cats meow almost as much, probably for the same reason.”
She gave him a wondering look. “And that's all there is to it?” She pushed at her hair. The golden wisps drifted back into place like strands of silk. “I wouldn't have to give out meds or take temps?”
Isaiah noted that she shortened both long words in that sentence. Words with more than two syllables were clearly difficult for her to pronounce.
“No medications, no taking temperatures,” he assured her. “My mom says you're absolutely fabulous with dogs. Is that true?”
Still smiling, she wrinkled her nose, a gesture he felt sure was meant to convey humility, but instead only made her look cute as a button. “I like them a lot.” She lifted her narrow shoulders in a slight shrug. “They don't care how well I can talk, only how my voice sounds.”
Isaiah didn't care how well she could talk, either. She managed to communicate. That was all that mattered. “Do you like cats?”
“Yes. Not as much as dogs, but I like them.”
Isaiah crossed his arms. Before he could offer the lady a job, there was a lot more about her that he needed to know, but he was well on his way to believing that his mother was right: Laura Townsend might have what it took to be a great kennel keeper. “If I apologize profusely for making you wait, ingratiate myself, and beg a lot, will you stay and let me interview you for the job? If I let you leave without at least talking to you, my mom will have my head.”
A dimple flashed in her cheek. “Your mom is a sweet lady. She won't be mad. Just tell her you don't think I'm right for the job.”
“That isn't precisely true. I think you may be perfect for the job.”
He gestured at the castered chair in front of his
desk. “Please, Laura, have a seat. Maybe you're right, and you aren't suited for the work. Neither of us will ever know if you won't stay and discuss the particulars with me.”
She glanced hesitantly at the chair. Isaiah saw that she was sorely tempted, which told him she wanted the job a lot more than she was letting on.
“Just to talk,” he assured her, and then settled the matter by grasping her elbow to lead her toward the desk. After pressing her down onto the chair, he circled to sit across from her. She hugged the coat close as if she were chilled.
Isaiah rocked back in his chair and rested a booted foot on his opposite knee. “Kennel work requires three things: a love of animals, a kind heart, and a strong stomach. On a glamour scale of one to ten, it's about a negative one.” He saw a tiny frown pleat her brow and wondered if he might be talking too fast. Relaxing more deeply into the leather cushions, he made a conscious effort to slow down. “The worst part of the job is having to clean up a lot of smelly messes,” he went on. “We occasionally board healthy animals, but mostly they're either sick or recovering from surgery.”
She clasped her hands on her lap, the clench of her fingers so tight that her knuckles went pale. “Did your mom tell you I have brain damage, Dr. Coulter?”
“Isaiah,” he corrected, “and, yes, she mentioned it. A swimming accident, I believe she said.”
She nodded. “Five years ago. It left me with aphasia.” Her cheek dimpled in a fleeting smile. “I can finally say it. For a long time I couldn't.”
Isaiah subscribed to a few medical journals to keep abreast of the advances made in treatments for humans. Canines had many of the same ailments, and the same medications often helped them. As a result, he had recently read an article about aphasia, which affected approximately a million Americans to varying degrees, their numbers growing at an alarming rate of about eighty thousand annually. Some people became afflicted because of strokes, others due to head injuries that damaged the left lobe of the brain.
“Ah,” he said. “Aphasia affects language, doesn't it?” Isaiah also knew what aphasia did not affectâa person's intelligence. Victims were essentially trapped in their own bodies, the damage to the left lobe interfering with normal brain signals. Many people had weakness on the right side of the body. In severe cases, sufferers were unable to speak and understood very little or nothing of what was said to them. Laura Townsend was fortunate in that regard. “You seem to speak quite well.”
“I couldn't at first.” She looked him directly in the eye. “And I still have problems.”
Now that he knew what kind of brain damage she had, Isaiah better understood why.
“Even if I'm thinking the right word,” she went on, “I can say the wrong oneâand sometimes when I get nervous, even words that should be easy, like my name, just won't come to me.”
Little wonder his mother's heart went out to this young woman. She was beautiful and obviously very bright. One had only to look into her eyes to see that. Yet she'd been reduced to thisâapplying
for a menial job that many people wouldn't even want. Even sadder was the undeniable fact that neither he nor any other vet would normally consider hiring her.
The realization made him feel small. How many people like Laura lived in or around Crystal Fallsâpeople the world ignored and had left behind? Her brain injury clearly wasn't so severe that she had nothing to contribute. All she needed was for someone to give her a break.
He hated to embarrass her by asking personal questions. When he tried to imagine how he might feel if he were in her shoes, he almost cringed. But there were some things he had to know before he offered her a job.
“Are you able to read, Laura?”
“On a good day.” She shrugged, the gesture implying that there were worse things. “About a third-grade level the last time I was tested.”
He tugged on his earlobe. “And on a bad day?”
“The letters jump around.” She pushed at her hair again, a gesture he was coming to suspect was a nervous habit. “My per-periphâ” She broke off and lifted her hands in defeat.
“Your peripheral vision?” he supplied.
She nodded. “It's messed up, worse some days than others. I can still read the words in the middleâif they're short.”
Isaiah jotted a note on a Post-It pad, ripped off the top sheet, and handed it to her. “Can you read that?”
She stared down at the writing for a full two seconds. “This isn't a good day,” she said with an airy
laugh that was just a little shaky. “When I get nervous, it's always worse.”
A strange, achy sensation filled Isaiah's throat. Being tested on her reading ability obviously unsettled her. “It's not a pass-or-fail thing. Just take your time. Give it your best shot.”
Her delicate brows scrunched together over the bridge of her nose. “You spelled out the numbers.”
“We do that here to avoid mistakes. I had a one mistaken for a seven once. Luckily the result wasn't disastrous. Now it's our policy to write the number and also spell it out.”
She looked relieved. “That's good. That you spell them out, I mean. Numbers are tricky for me. Sometimes I see them upside down or backward.” She hunched over the note, frowned again, and haltingly read the words aloud. “Threeâcupsâdryâfood, twoâ” She broke off and looked up. “There's an X all by itself.”
“It's an abbreviation for âtimes,' in this case, two times daily. I use it a lot in chart instructions.”
“Oh.” She nodded. “Two times daily. I see.”
She laid the paper on the desk and smoothed the tacky edge with trembling fingertips. Watching her, Isaiah found himself wanting to pat her hand. “You managed that very nicely. Can you remember from now on what an X stands for?”
“I think so.”
“Do you have difficulty counting?”
“I lose track without my beans.”
He'd been almost convinced that she could do the work. Now she'd thrown him a curveball. “Without your
“Beans.” She fished in a pocket of her coat and held out her hand. Several dried kidney beans rested on her outstretched palm. “It'sâa trickâfrom rehab. I carry twenty with me. That way, when I have to count, I don't lose track.”