Authors: Catherine Anderson
While she returned to the stove, Isaiah took her up on the offer, selecting a big red apple, rubbing it
on his shirt, and then taking a crunchy bite. She put on mittens, opened the oven, and withdrew a blue-speckled baking pan. When she removed the domed lid, the smells that wafted across the room almost made him groan.
“I hope you like roast.”
She smiled, plucked the meat from the pan to put it on a waiting platter, and then began spooning carrots and potatoes into a serving bowl. As she busied herself making gravy from the meat drippings, she glanced over her shoulder. “And pumpkin tarts. Do you like those?”
“I like pumpkin pie.”
“Good. These are little pumpkin pies. I made oodles, and they're never as good after I freeze them.”
Isaiah settled back to munch on the apple, sip the wine, and enjoy watching her work. She did everything with an economy of movement, indicating that she not only knew her way around a kitchen, but also enjoyed cooking.
When she'd set the table and put out the food, he stared incredulously at the side dishes, which included fluffy homemade biscuits. “My God, this is a feast.”
She dimpled her cheek as she unfolded a dark blue napkin and spread it over her lap. “Crazy, huh? I ate frozen dinners for a while, but that gets old. Now I cook and freeze what I can't eat. My food bill is huge, and my freezer is crammed. I take stuff to Gram and the people on my street, but I can give away only so much.”
Isaiah started to dig in. Then he noticed that
she'd folded her slender hands and bent her head. He quickly followed suit, feeling like a dunderhead. At home his family always blessed the food at mealtime, but he'd fallen out of the habit.
“Dear Lord,” she said softly, “thank you for this nice day, and thank you for blessing us with plenty. Amen.”
“Amen,” he mumbled.
She glanced up. “I'll let you slice the meat.”
His father always did that. Reminding himself that he was a surgeon and could surely handle carving a roast, Isaiah drew the platter toward him. While he applied himself to the task, she dipped some food onto her plate and buttered a biscuit.
When they had both served themselves, she said, “I'm sorry I didn't show up at the clinic this morning. After talking to Gram, I just couldn't.”
Isaiah searched her beautiful eyes. “I'm not clear on why, Laura. My mom and your grandmother were trying to set us up, and we found them out. I admit that it could be an uncomfortable situation if we allowed it to be, but why should we? Let's just laugh it off and continue as planned.”
“I only wanted the job if you thought I'd be good at it,” she said. “For someone like me, that's very im-portant.”
think you'll be good at it.”
She flicked him a dubious look. “You're a smart man. You say your mom has done this before. I think you knew all along and were only being kind. There's nothing wrong with that, mind you. But I can't take a job I didn't get on my own merit.”
So that was it. Isaiah rested his fork on the edge of the plate and leaned back in the chair, which creaked in protest under his shifting weight. “I'm a busy man, Laura. Smart, maybe, but hopelessly absentminded, too. I have way too much on my mind to keep track of my mother's matchmaking schemes. Maybe I
have known, but I honestly didn't.”
She still looked unconvinced.
“Okay,” he said. “You want the actual truth?”
“I never suspected a matchmaking scheme because my mother told me you had brain damage. I pictured a shuffling, overweight lady with blank eyes, a lax mouth, and drool on her chin.” He paused to let that sink in. “Mom has tried to set me up a number of times, but never with anyone like that.”
Stomach knotted and hands clenched into fists under the table, Isaiah waited for her reaction, half-afraid she might be hurt and burst into tears. Instead her mouth quirked at the corners, and then she giggled.
Relieved, Isaiah grinned. “Bad of me, right? I shouldn't stereotype people, but that's honestly what I expected. When I saw you in my office and realized who you were, I was so surprisedâpleasantly soâthat I never gave my mother's motives a thought.”
He couldn't help but chuckle. “I'm sorry.”
“Not all people with brain damage are like that,” she informed him.
“Intellectually, I knew that,” he confessed, “but I wasn't wearing my thinking hat or trying to call up clinical images the afternoon she told me about you. I was worried about a sick cow.”
She tipped her head questioningly. “If you thought my brain damage was that bad, why did you agree to meet with me?”
Isaiah picked up his wineglass. “Because my mom seldom asks me for a favor. To make her happy, I said I'd interview you. I honestly didn't believe you'd be able to do the work. But once I met you, I changed my mind.”
She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “After I got hurt, not being able to talk was only part of the problem. My right arm and leg were almost useless, and I had motor problems.” A faraway look entered her eyes. “When I wasn't in rehab, my parents had to look after me. When I started to get better and could do some things for myself, I swore I'd get well and never need help again.”
Isaiah nodded. “Becoming self-reliant wasn't easy for you, in other words.”
“No.” Her gaze flicked to his and held. “I had to take it one day at a time. I'm as well now as I'll ever be.” She gestured at their surroundings. “For this to work, I have to make it on my own. No special favors, not from my parents, not from you, not from any-one. It's no good, other-wise. I'd only be kidding myself. Do you understand?”
Isaiah understood better than she knew. His sister, Bethany, had expressed similar concerns after the barrel-racing accident that had paralyzed her
from the waist down.
I need to do it by myself,
she had cried whenever anyone tried to help her. It had been frustrating for everyone in the family. But in the end, her stubbornness had paid off. She'd become self-sufficient, and now she was happily married to a wonderful man and had a normal life.
“I do understand,” Isaiah replied. “No special favors, Laura. If I didn't sincerely believe you could do the work, I wouldn't be here. We desperately need good kennel people. They quit almost as fast as we can train them. I think you'll do a great job, and I believe you'll stay, not because you'll have no other opportunities along the way, but because you'll really like the animals.”
She searched his face for a long moment. “All right then,” she finally said. “If that's really why you gave me the job, I'll be there in the morning.”
“That's really why.”
She didn't prompt him to offer her more reassurance. Taking him at his word, she simply resumed eating her meal. Isaiah released a pent-up breath, took a sip of merlot, and reclaimed his fork.
After taking a few bites, he had to compliment her on the food. “The only time I get to eat like this is when I go home for dinner.”
“What do you eat the rest of the time?”
“Restaurant fare, TV dinners.” He shrugged. “Sometimes nothing at all. When I get home late, I'm generally too tired to dig something out of the freezer and nuke it. I'd rather go to bed hungry.”
She shook her head. “You should keep things on handâcheese, fruit, stuff like that. At least then you could grab something quick and easy.”
Isaiah shrugged. “I would, but half the time I forget to go shopping.”
She pushed the platter of meat toward him. “Have some more roast and taters. You're too thin.”
There it was again, her avoidance of words with more than two syllables. Little wonder she talked slowly. It would be difficult enough to learn to speak all over again without constantly having to choose words that were easy to say.
By the time the meal was over, Isaiah had devoured three large helpings of meat and vegetables, four buttered biscuits, a generous serving of salad, and five little pumpkin pies topped with whipped cream. He was so stuffed that he groaned when he rose from the table.
“You don't have to help clean up,” she protested as he began scraping plates.
“Sure I do.” He glanced up and winked. “After a meal like that, helping with the dishes is the least I can do.”
They fell into a comfortable silence as they worked. Then the phone rang. Isaiah continued loading the dishwasher while Laura took the call. When she returned to the kitchen, she said, “That was Gram.”
“My mother's partner in crime?”
She rolled her eyes and nodded. “I'd like to stay mad at her for a while, but she makes it hard.”
“More like impossible, if she's anything like my mom.” Isaiah ran a plate under the faucet before sticking it in the rack. “Â âI'm so sorry, Isaiah,'Â ” he mimicked in a high-pitched voice. “Â 'Please, please,
forgive me. I'll never do it again.' After about six phone calls, I finally caved.”
“Do you think she'll keep her promise?”
“To never do it again, you mean?” Isaiah considered the question. “Heck, no.” He flashed a quick grin. “But at least her taste has improved.”
Laura bent to put away the roasting pan. “Right. No drool on my chin.”
It goes a lot farther than that,
Isaiah thought as he surveyed her attractive backside, but he refrained from saying so. He had accomplished what he'd set out to do. Laura had agreed to take the job at the clinic. They had established a friendship of sorts. He didn't want to mess that up by telling her she was the most attractive woman he'd met in a very long time. It wasn't an appropriate thing for an employer to say. Hell, it wasn't even an appropriate thing for an employer to
he following morning, as Laura parked her Mazda behind the clinic, she whispered scolding lectures to herself. “You're only a kennel keeperâa lady who'll be hosing dog poop down the drains. If you blow this chance and get fired over a silly crush on your boss, you'll be sorry.”
a silly crush. Isaiah Coulter was a handsome, accomplished, and very successful man who could have his pick of women. He'd never look twice at someone like her.
Schooling her expression, Laura entered the building and found herself in a room lined from floor to ceiling with boxes of surgical supplies. She traversed the pathway to a gray door and was promptly greeted by a cacophony of mournful wails when she opened it. The kennels, she realized, and from that moment forward she forgot all about Isaiah Coulter.
Looking up the center aisle, she saw all different kinds, purebreds and mutts, large ones and small ones. The only things any of them seemed to have in common were their limitless joy at seeing her and their frantic attempts to get her attention.
“Oh, you poor baby,” Laura whispered as she knelt in front of a rottweiler's cage. A tube protruded from a wide bandage around the canine's belly, and an IV was taped to its front leg. “What happened to you?” she asked softly, thrusting her fingers through the wire mesh to touch his broad muzzle. The dog nudged her fingers and whined. “Oh, yes, I
It's so awful. Here you are, sick and hurting, and your people have left you all alone.”
Laura knew exactly how that felt. After her acci-dent she'd been hospitalized and then eventually transported to a rehab center. Her friends had come to see her at first, but over time they'd shown up less and less, uncomfortable in her presence because she could no longer talk. Her family had visited her as often as they could, of course, but after several weeks, the demands of day-to-day living had kept them away a good deal of the time. Even now Laura could remember her sense of abandonment. Unable to communicate, walk, read, or watch television, she'd been isolated in her misery, the hours of each day stretching endlessly before her. Blocks of painful physical therapy had been her only relief from the boredom and loneliness.
Looking into the rottweiler's bewildered brown eyes, she remembered her own bewilderment during that time and the helpless rage that had often come over her in waves. Trapped and forgotten, that was how she'd felt, exactly like this dog.
In that moment, a sense of purpose filled her.
This is where I belong,
I can help, really help these poor animals, because I understand how they
feel in a way no one else can.
It was the loveliest sensation, a huge, exhilarating rush. For five long years she'd been searching for her place in a world that had been turned upside down. Now she'd finally found something important that she could do. These animals truly needed her.
Laura moved up the aisle, stopping to pet a spaniel with a cast on its front leg, a poodle with a shaved butt that seemed otherwise fine, and a black Lab with a bandaged paw and what looked like a plastic lamp shade buckled around its neck. She would have visited each and every cage if not for the sudden appearance of a stout blonde at the end of the aisle. As Laura pushed to her feet, she took in the other woman's shoulder-length hair, kindly blue eyes, and masculine features set in a square face.
“You Laura?” the woman asked, her tone clipped and unfriendly.
“Yes. I was just saying hello to the dogs.”
“You shouldn't poke your hands through the wire until you've been briefed. You looking to get bitten?”
Laura tucked the offending hand into a hip pocket of her jeans. “No, I was justâ”
“A couple of these dogs are mean. To clean their cages, you'll have to use the loop.”
Laura had no idea what a loop was. She glanced into the sad eyes of an Irish setter. She had never been wary of strange dogs, least of all pathetic creatures like these. As she walked up the aisle, she yearned to stop at each gate. Tomorrow, she vowed,
she would come thirty minutes early so she could give each animal a little one-on-one.
“I'm not late, am I?” she asked.
“No.” The blonde opened a cage. Drawing a syringe from the front pocket of her blue smock, she petted the collie within the enclosure, and then bent to grab the animal by its scruff. As she gave the injection, she said, “You're a little early, in fact. I'm Susan Strong. I'll be training you.”
Laura held out her hand as the other woman straightened. “I'm pleased to meet you, Susan.”
Instead of smiling, Susan merely tightened her mouth. At the right corner a pinpoint dimple popped up, so low that it was almost on her chin. “You like dogs?”
“Oh, yes, very much.”
“Good thing.” She finally shook Laura's hand and then gestured at the cages. “We have 'em in spades. They come and they go.” She gave Laura a scowling look. “Sort of like kennel keepers. Mucking around in shit and puke gets old real fast. If you don't have the stomach for it, save me a lot of trouble and quit right now. It's a lot of work to train someone.”
Laura straightened her shoulders. She couldn't honestly say she liked the smell of poop, but she did have a strong stomach. She was also convinced that she'd finally found her niche.
“If I can do the work here, I'll never quit,” she replied.
Susan snorted, a loud, up-both-nostrils snort that made her meaning clear. “Heard it before. And just for the record, any idiot can do the work.”
Laura didn't normally discuss her affliction with strangers, but in this case it seemed smart on two counts. Susan needed to know about Laura's handicap. She also had a chip on her shoulder that needed to be knocked off.
“That's good news. I'm an id-iot.”
Susan gave her a sharp look.
Laura moistened her lips. “Brain damage. I dove off into the river near the falls. Most times it's safe, but there'd been a drought that year, and I hit my head on a rock.”
“Holy Toledo.” A thoughtful look came into Susan's eyes. “I remember that. It happened a few years back, didn't it?”
“Five,” Laura confirmed.
Susan nodded. “For a while they thought you might die. You were in a coma, weren't you?”
“Yes, for about three weeks. I woke up with aphasia, damage to the left lobe of my brain.”
“I had to learn to talk all over again,” Laura went on. “You'll notice that I speak slowly. I also have trouble keeping up if people talk too fast or use long words.” She gestured at the cages around them. “As for this job, I'm very lucky to get it.” She met Susan's gaze. “If I can do the work, I won't be quitting.”
Susan finally smiled, and it transformed her face, making her look more like a plump angel than a Marine Corps drill sergeant. “You'll be able to handle the work.”
Isaiah leaned his head to one side so the technician-cum-anesthesiologist could dab the sweat from his brow. In the middle of an abdominal surgery he had blood to the top of his surgical gloves, and Belinda, his assistant, was frantically searching for a clamp. Just then a door at the rear of the room swung open. Isaiah glanced up to see Susan Strong entering the chamber. He gave the stocky blonde a “stay put” look, then returned his attention to his patient.
When the artery was clamped, he met Susan's questioning gaze. “How's Laura Townsend doing?”
“So far, so good,” Susan replied. “You know the boxer with the attitude problem? When she opened the gate to his kennel I about had a heart attack, but all he did was lick her to death.”
Isaiah chuckled. “Has a way with dogs, does she?”
“Big-time. Even that nasty little Pomeranian likes her.”
“We need someone good with animals back there,” Isaiah observed.
“Amen. Her biggest problem will be caring too much,” Susan predicted. “I don't know how she'll handle it the first time she gets a âdead dog walking' order.”
Isaiah hated to put down an animal himself, but he had long since come to accept it as a necessary evil. When nothing more could be done to ease an animal's suffering, euthanasia was the only merciful option.
“You think she'll be able to handle the work?”
Susan planted her hands on her broad hips.
Under the gruff exterior she was a marshmallow, one of the kindest and most caring people Isaiah knew. “My money says she'll do fine,” she replied. “Been a nasty morning. Puke, shit out the yang, and a hemorrhage to top it all off.”
“The little red cocker miscarried.”
“That really old dog?” the anesthesiologist asked.
“That's the one,” Susan confirmed. “It's sad that she lost her puppies, but she'll be better off. Tucker had to spay her. People who keep breeding animals when they get that old are crazy. I just don't get it.”
“They're not crazy,” Belinda inserted. “They're just mercenary. If the cocker had whelped seven pups, they would have sold for four hundred dollars apiece, possibly more.”
“More.” James Masterson, a tall, stocky twenty-year-old with brown hair and baby-blue eyes who'd begun training as a tech assistant a year ago, drew a blanket from the warmer. “My mom paid six hundred for a cocker last month. Run the numbers on that, why don't you?” He grinned and winked at Belinda. “Two litters a year would put a serious dent in my rent.”
“Mine, too.” Belinda pursed her lips. “Seven puppies. My God, that'd be forty-two hundred dollars! Maybe I'll move where I can have a dog and become a breeder.”
“I'd never breed an old dog,” James said, “but I can't see any harm in breeding a young, healthy one. If nothing else, it'd help to cover the vet bills.”
“I'm just glad the little cocker's whelping days
are over,” Susan said. “If her owners want to continue making money on the side selling puppies, they'll have to buy another bitch.”
“How did Laura handle all the blood?” Isaiah asked.
Susan shrugged. “I think she panicked a little at first.”
“Doesn't everyone?” Angela chimed in. “How'd she do once she calmed down?”
“Better than most trainees. When I needed help, she jumped right in and did what I told her.”
Isaiah was pleased to hear that. “I had her figured for a gutsy lady. Nobody could come through what she has without having plenty of backbone.”
“Who's this you're talking about?” Belinda asked as she handed Isaiah the stapler.
“Laura Townsend.” Isaiah quickly closed up. “Susan's training her for the kennels.”
“Oh. I didn't know Val hired anybody.” Belinda drew the paper pad closed over the contaminated surgical implements. “That's good news. We never have enough kennel people.”
“Actually, Val didn't hire her,” Isaiah corrected. “I did.”
Belinda raised her eyebrows. “
I thought Val handled all that.”
“Normally she does.” Isaiah stripped off the surgical gloves and deposited them in a waste container. “Laura's a friend of the family. My mom recommended her.”
“Ah.” Belinda stepped over to the sink to rinse the implements before putting them in the sterilizer. “Have you known her long?”
“No, just met her.” Isaiah recalled Laura's expressive eyes and smiled slightly. “You're all going to like her. She's a sweetheart. Right, Susan?”
Susan shrugged. “So far I like her fine. She talks kind of slow, and every once in a while she looks at me like I'm speaking Greek. But otherwise I can barely tell there's anything wrong with her.”
Belinda turned from the faucet. “There's something wrong with her?”
“Aphasia,” Isaiah replied, deciding on the spot that it would be easier for Laura if all her coworkers knew about her disability from the start. “It's a form of brain damage that affects language and math skills.”
Belinda gave him a wondering look. “You hired someone who can't talk or do math?”
“It isn't that bad,” Isaiah countered. “She speaks slowly, like Susan says, and she gets confused if you throw long words at her. But otherwise she does fine. As a favor to me, I'd appreciate it if all of you would make a special effort to help her settle in.”
Belinda lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “Sure. I'll help her out any way I can.”
Her first morning of training was over, and Laura felt as if her bones had turned to water. She had never shied away from work, but this job taxed her mentally as well as physically. There was so much to remember. She'd met at least a half dozen people, Tucker, her other boss, included. Oh, how disconcerting that had been. She'd known that he would resemble Isaiah. They were twins, after all.
But she'd never expected them to be so identical at a glance, both tall, dark, muscular, and too handsome for words.