Read My Sunshine Online

Authors: Catherine Anderson

My Sunshine (7 page)

She'd been cleaning a cage, and he had appeared out of nowhere to jot something on the dog's chart. “Hello!” she'd said. “How are you this morning, Isaiah?”

He'd given her a long look and then smiled. “I'm not Isaiah; I'm Tucker. You must be Laura.”

Laura's face had gone instantly hot. They were slightly different when you really
looked.
Tucker was just a little heavier, and there was a sharpness to his gaze that was absent in Isaiah's, an edge that said,
I'm here, I'm paying attention, and nothing gets past me.

“Yes, Laura, I'm Laura,” she'd said.

He had thrust out a big brown hand. “Good to meet you, and welcome to the clinic. Our mother has only good things to say about you.”

In between the lines, Laura had heard,
I'll still be watching you closely. Don't think I won't. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out.

As unnerving as that had been, Laura respected it. An employer who didn't demand excellence didn't get it. Tucker Coulter would be fair. She sensed that in him. But he'd also put her on notice that he wouldn't overlook anything, either.

“I'll do my best to do a good job,” she'd said.

He had given her another long look, a straight-into-the-eye look. Then his expression had softened. “I'm sure you will, Laura. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask someone. We've got
a great team here at the clinic. Everyone is always willing to lend someone else a helping hand.”

Everyone
had been the key word in that sentence. There were so
many
people, all of Tucker's team as well as Isaiah's. Just keeping their names straight would be a challenge. In addition to that, she'd had to learn the layout of the clinic and where everything was stored. Her eyes ached from staring at chart instructions, and her head hurt from information overload.

But, oh, it was a wonderful kind of tired. After sinking down to sit on the concrete floor of a kennel stall, Laura closed her eyes, leaned her head against the cement-block wall behind her, and began petting Marcus, a boxer who'd convinced everyone that he was a vicious killer. It felt nice to sit for a moment on the cool, slightly damp cement and stroke his coarse fur.

She was going to be
good
at this job, she thought with a shiver of delight. She'd had a few bad moments this morning, but overall her first day had gone well. She'd managed to make sense of the charts and follow all the instructions. More important, she'd kept her head and had been able to help save the life of an old cocker spaniel. That had been so rewarding, like working in the ER.

Laura opened her eyes to look down at her blue smock. It was smeared with blood and other stuff she preferred not to identify, but she still hated to take it off.
A uniform.
She didn't have a name badge yet, but Susan said she would get one tomorrow. Then she'd look just like everyone else. She guessed
it was silly, but looking like everyone else was im-portant to her.

“Good grief, what're you doing?”

Startled, Laura glanced up to see a pretty brunette outside the wire-mesh gate. “I'm just sitting with Marcus for a while.”

The woman rested her shoulder against the wire and smiled. “Susan said you'd made friends with him. That's amazing. My name is Belinda, by the way.”

“I'm pleased to meet you.”

When Laura started to get up, the tech waved her back down. “Don't bother.” She hunkered to get on Laura's eye level. “We aren't formal around here.”

Laura resumed stroking Marcus's head where it rested on her thigh. “Have you worked here long?”

“Only about six months. But around here that makes me a veteran. Only two techs have been here longer than I have now, and they work in Tucker's wing.”

Laura stilled her hand on the boxer's head. “I have trouble with long words. Your name will be hard for me.”

“Would Lindy work better?”

Laura nodded. “Much better.”

“Just call me Lindy, then. I won't mind. It's a family nickname, and I'm used to it.” Belinda stuck a finger through the wire and wiggled it, earning herself a low growl from Marcus. “God, he's nasty. I'm surprised you're not missing an arm.”

The tension eased from Laura's body. Glancing
down at the dog, she said, “He isn't as mean as he acts. All bark and no bite. He's just afraid, I think.”

“Got him all figured out, do you?” Belinda shook her head. “With those teeth, what does he have to be afraid of?”

Laura could have named several things. Marcus had an infection, requiring twice-daily injections of antibiotic, and because he looked mean, all the techs went to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves from him. A loop, Laura now knew, was a retractable cable noose at the end of a long pole. The user could ensnare a dog's head, tighten the loop, and hold even a large animal like Marcus immobile while someone else moved in on him. Naturally Marcus was fearful. No one here petted him. Instead they ganged up on him, one person choking him while someone else stuck him with needles.

“It's hard for dogs to understand why they're here,” Laura said softly, her mind swimming with unpleasant memories. “Their people leave them all alone, and strangers do mean things to them.”

Belinda regarded Marcus thoughtfully. “Yeah, I guess maybe you're right. When I treat dogs, I think of it as helping them, but from their perspective I suppose it does seem mean sometimes.” Her mouth curved into a smile. “Very insightful, Laura. No wonder Isaiah is convinced you'll be a great kennel keeper.”

“I hope he's right.”

Belinda pushed to her feet. “You'll do fine.”

“I'm going to try. This seems like a great place to work.”

“A fabulous place, actually. I love it. Mostly I work with Isaiah. He's a great boss.” She shrugged and grinned. “The scenery isn't bad, either.”

Laura wondered what she meant. Her bewilderment must have shown in her expression, because Belinda laughed.

“Isaiah,” she explained. “Talk about easy on the eyes. Isn't he gorgeous?”

Heat gathered in Laura's cheeks. “He's all right, I guess.”

“All right?” Belinda laughed again. “Hey, it's just us girls, honey. We can get down and dirty.”

“Okay,” Laura relented. “He's a little better than all right.”

“Tucker isn't bad, either,” Belinda confided. “Of course, they're twins, so that goes without saying.” She thumped the heel of her hand against her temple. “What am I thinking? You've probably known Tucker a heck of a lot longer than I have.”

Laura shook her head. “No. I've never even met him.”

Belinda frowned. “I thought Isaiah said you were a friend of the family.”

It was Laura's turn to laugh. “Sort of, I guess. My grandma lives next door to his mom.”

“Ah. So you don't really know the family, per se.”

“I know his mom pretty well. Sometimes when I go to Gram's she's over there for coffee.”

“I see. Well, however it came about, I'm glad you got hired. Things will be hectic for you the next couple of weeks, but maybe after you settle in we can do lunch together and get better acquainted.”

Laura's heart lifted with gladness. Lunch with a
coworker. It was just the sort of thing she'd hoped might happen, but she'd never expected an invitation so soon. “I'd like that.”

“Good. It's a date then.” Belinda flattened her hand against the wire. “Catch you later, Laura. Welcome to the team.”

Laura smiled to herself as Belinda walked away.
Welcome to the team.
For the first time in five years, she finally felt as if she were part of something again.

 

Belinda's prediction proved to be correct; the next couple of weeks were incredibly hectic for Laura. After training all morning at the clinic, she raced back into town to walk dogs, clean houses, and do people's ironing. As a result, she hit the floor running at five each morning and never slowed down until after five in the afternoon. She spent her evenings cooking dinner, doing dishes, cleaning her apartment, and doing her laundry. In short, she barely had time to take a relaxed breath.

But it was worth it. She absolutely
loved
her job at the clinic. She had expected kennel keeping to be a fairly lonely occupation, but it wasn't. Employees from both wings frequently entered the kennel area to check on dogs or administer medications, affording Laura an opportunity to get acquainted with some twenty-odd people. In addition to Belinda, Trish, Angela, Susan, Mike, and James, who worked in the south wing with Isaiah, there were a number of people from Tucker's team whom Laura really liked, namely Sally Millet, a short, stocky technician with curly brown hair and merry brown
eyes who loved to tell jokes and had a raspy, contagious laugh; Jeri Gibson, a plump, out-of-a-bottle redhead in her late fifties who waged an ongoing war with gray roots; Tina Moresly, a tall, big-boned lady in her forties with a fun-loving personality; and Lena Foster, a white-haired grandmotherly type who had retired as a vet assistant five years ago and had now returned to the field part-time to supplement her Social Security income.

Laura enjoyed having so many new friends. It felt good to walk through the clinic and have people calling out hello. During coffee breaks she listened to gossip, laughed at jokes she didn't get, and enjoyed a sense of belonging that had been lacking in her life for far too long. Judi always had amusing anecdotes to share about her granddaughters. Lena was always trying to get pledges for walkathons, trying to raise money for MS and breast cancer research. Tina, married but childless, brought in snapshots of her nieces and nephews. It was fun, and Laura always felt a little sad when break times ended.

The sadness never lasted long. Working so closely with the animals gave her a deep sense of joy and satisfaction. There were sweet-faced felines who purred and nuzzled for more petting when she held them, and dogs with all types of personalities to keep her from growing bored. Every time Laura washed a blanket, cleaned a cage, or stole a moment to give an animal special affection, she knew she was making a difference. That felt indescribably wonderful.

One day she had just finished cleaning the last
dog kennel and was about to leave for home, her thoughts on the upcoming weekend, when Isaiah appeared in the aisle behind her. “Hey,” he said. “Long time, no see.”

It had been days since they had spoken. She had caught fleeting glimpses of Isaiah occasionally as she scurried about, doing her job, but both of them had been too busy to do more than nod. Seeing him up close again kicked her pulse to a faster rate. How did he manage to look so good? His plaid shirt was in sore need of ironing, his boots were nicked and dusty, and his Wranglers were faded almost gray. He clearly put very little effort into his appearance.

In a classically masculine stance, he stood with his hands resting loosely at his hips, one knee slightly bent, his broad shoulders relaxed. A stethoscope was looped around his neck. His dark hair fell in attractive, tousled waves over his high forehead. When she looked into his blue eyes, every rational thought in her head leaked out.

“Hi,” she managed to say. “It has been a while.”

He rested an arm against the dividing wall between two kennel stalls. “Two weeks, to be exact.” His gaze warmed on hers. “It's time for your first performance review.”

Performance review?
Laura's stomach dropped.
Oh, God.
If he fired her, she would just
die.
She loved this job, and she'd made so many new friends. Val Boswell, the office manager, a thin, sunbaked blonde in her late fifties, was always ready with a warm smile, and being a dog lover she often visited the kennels just to hang out for a few
minutes. And that wasn't to mention all the techs and tech assistants from both wings. Laura's favorite person of all was Trish Stone, one of Isaiah's techs, a petite brunette with merry brown eyes who talked incessantly about her kids, and about her dogs, two rambunctious Airedales named Kip and Rip.

And the animals. Laura's heart squeezed at the thought of leaving them.

“Would you like me to come to your office?” she asked, and then wanted to kick herself because her voice quavered.

“Nah, nothing so formal as that.” He flashed her a slow, crooked grin that made her feel as if she'd just swallowed a dozen live goldfish. “Everyone tells me you're doing great, the best kennel keeper we've ever had. You're well liked. Tucker's people think you're fabulous, and so do mine. You're always eager to work, no matter how nasty the chore. I'm even told that you hang around after your shift is over to spend extra time with the animals.”

Laura released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. “I get to stay, then?”

He threw back his dark head and laughed. As his mirth subsided, he said, “Try to leave, and every-one may stage a revolt. As far as I'm concerned, we can forget our original agreement to keep you on probation for thirty days. The position is yours, Laura. Everyone here, including me, feels that you're ready to become a bona fide member of the team. Stop by to see Val on Monday. She'll have a work schedule drawn up for you.”

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