“No. We operate an eating-and-drinking establishment,” Preacher said.

“Awww, Dad! Dad, come on. Please, Dad. I’ll do everything. I’ll sleep with him. I’ll make sure he’s nice. Please.”

“Christopher…..”

“Please. Please? I never asked for anything before.”

“You ask for everything, as a matter of fact,” Preacher corrected him. “And get most of it.”

“Boy shouldn’t grow up without a dog,” someone said.

“Teaches responsibility and discipline,” was another comment.

“It’s not like he’d be in the kitchen all the time.”

“I run a ranch. Little hair in the potatoes never put me off.” Laughter sounded all around.

Four of the eight pups were doing real well; they were wriggling around with renewed strength and had lapped up some of the formula thickened with cereal. Two were trying to recover from what was certainly hunger and hypothermia; Annie managed to get a little food into them with an eyedropper. Two others were breathing, their hearts beating, but not only were they small, they were weak and listless. She dripped a little food into their tiny mouths and then tucked them under her shirt to keep them warm, hoping they might mistake her for their mother for now, all the time wondering if old Doc Jensen would ever show.

When yet another gust of wind blew in the opened front door, Annie momentarily forgot all about the puppies. Some of the best male eye candy she’d chanced upon in a long while had just walked into Jack’s bar. He looked vaguely familiar, too. She wondered if maybe she’d seen him in a movie or on TV or something. He walked right up to the bar, and Jack greeted him enthusiastically.

“Hey, Nate! How’s it going? You get those plane tickets yet?”

“I took care of that a long time ago.” He laughed. “I’ve been looking forward to this forever. Before too long I’m going to be lying on a Nassau beach in the middle of a hundred string bikinis. I dream about it.”

“One of those Club Med things?” Jack asked.

“Nah.” He laughed again. “A few people from school. I haven’t seen most of them in years. We hardly keep in touch, but one of them put this holiday together and, since I was available, it sounded like an excellent idea. The guy who made the arrangements got one of those all-inclusive hotel deals—food, drinks, everything included except activities like deep-sea fishing or scuba diving—for when I’m not just lying on the sand, looking around at beautiful women in tiny bathing suits.”

“Good for you,” Jack said. “Beer?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Nate replied. And then, like the answer to a prayer she didn’t even know she’d uttered, he carried his beer right over to where she sat with the box of puppies. “Hello,” he said.

She swallowed, looking up. It was hard to tell how tall he was from her sitting position, but certainly over six feet. Annie noticed things like that because she was tall. His hair was dark brown; his eyes were an even darker brown and surrounded with loads of thick black lashes. Her mother called eyes like that “bedroom eyes.” He lifted his brows as he looked down at her. Then he smiled and revealed a dimple in one cheek.

“I said hello,” he repeated.

She coughed herself out of her stupor. “Hi.”

He frowned slightly. “Hey, I think you cut my hair once.”

“Possible. That’s what I do for a living.”

“Yeah, you did,” he said. “I remember now.”

“What was the problem with the haircut?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Don’t know that there was a problem,” he replied.

“Then why didn’t you come back?”

He chuckled. “Okay, we argued about the stuff you wanted to put in it. I didn’t want it, you told me I did. You won and I went out of there looking all spiky. When I touched my head, it was like I had meringue in my hair.”

“Product,” she explained. “We call it product. It’s in style.”

“Yeah? I’m not, I guess,” he said, sitting down on the raised hearth on the other side of the box. He reached in and picked up a puppy. “I don’t like product in my hair.”

“Your hands clean?” she asked him.

He gave her a startled look. Then his eyes slowly wandered from her face to her chest and he smiled slightly. “Um, I think you’re moving,” he said. “Or maybe you’re just very excited to meet me.” And then he grinned playfully.

“Oh, you’re funny,” Annie replied, reaching under her sweater to pull out a tiny squirming animal. “You make up that line all by your little self?”

He tilted his head and took the puppy out of her hands. “I’d say at least part border collie. Looks like mostly border collie, but they can take on other characteristics as they get older. Cute,” he observed. “Plenty of pastoral breeds around here.”

“Those two are the weakest of the bunch, so please be careful. I’m waiting for the vet.”

He balanced two little puppies in one big hand and pulled a pair of glasses out of the pocket of his suede jacket. “I’m the vet.” He slipped on his glasses and, holding both pups upside down, looked at their eyes, mouth, ears and pushed on their bellies with a finger.

She was speechless for a minute. “You’re not old Doc Jensen.”

“Nathaniel Junior,” he said. “Nate. You know my father?” he asked, still concentrating on the puppies. He put them in the box and picked up two more, repeating the process.

“He…..ah…..My folks have a farm down by Alder Point. Hey! I grew up there! Not all that far from Doc’s clinic and stable. Shouldn’t I know you?”

He looked over the tops of his glasses. “I don’t know. How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Well, there you go. I’m thirty-two. Got a few years on you. Where’d you go to school?”

“Fortuna. You?”

“Valley.” He laughed. “I guess you can call me old Doc Jensen now.” And there was that grin again. No way he could have grown up within fifty miles of her farm without her knowing him. He was too delicious-looking.

“I have older brothers,” she said. “Beau, Brad and Jim McKenzie. All older than you.”

At first he was startled at this news, then he broke into a wide smile. Then he laughed. “Are you that skinny, fuzzy-haired, freckle-faced, tin-mouthed pain in the neck who always followed Beau and Brad around?”

Her eyes narrowed and she glared at him.

“No,” he said, laughing. “That must have been someone else. Your hair isn’t pumpkin orange. And you’re not all that…..” He paused for a second, then said, “Got your braces off, I see.” By her frown, he realized he hadn’t scored with that comment.

“Where is your father? I want a second opinion!”

“Okay, you’re not so skinny anymore, either.” He smiled, proud of himself.

“Very, very old joke, sparky,” she said.

“Well, you’re out of luck, cupcake. My mom and dad finally realized a dream come true and moved to Arizona where they could have horses and be warm and pay lower taxes. One of my older sisters lives there with her family. I’ve got another sister in Southern California and another one in Nevada. I’m the new old Doc Jensen.”

Now it was coming back to her—Doc Jensen had kids, all older than she was. Too much older for her to have known them in school. But she did vaguely remember the son who came with him to the farm on rare occasions. One corner of her mouth quirked up in a half grin. “Are you that little, pimply, tin-mouthed runt with the squeaky voice who came out to the farm with your dad sometimes?”

He frowned and made a sound. “I was a late bloomer,” he said.

“I’ll say.” She laughed.

Nate was now checking out his third set of puppies.

“Why don’t I remember you better?” she mused aloud.

“I went to Catholic school down in Oakland my junior and senior year. I wasn’t going to get into a good college without some serious academic help, and those Jesuits live to get their hands on a challenge like me. They turned me around. And I grew five inches my first year of college.” He put down the puppies he’d been holding and picked up the first one. He became serious. She noticed a definite kindness, a softness, in his expression. “Annie, isn’t it? Or do you go by Anne now?”

“Annie. McKenzie.”

“Well, Annie, this little guy is real weak. I don’t know if he’ll make it.”

A very sad look came into her eyes as she took the puppy from him and tucked him under her sweater again.

Nodding at her, Nate said, “As much incentive as that is to live, I don’t know if it’ll do. How long were these guys outside before someone found them?”

“No one knows. Probably since before sunrise. Jack was in and out all day, fussing with the tree, and he never saw anyone. His little boy crawled under the tree and came out holding a puppy. That’s how we found them.”

“And what’s the plan now?”

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head.

“Want me to drop them off at a shelter for you? Then you don’t have to witness the bad news if one or two don’t make it.”

“No!” she exclaimed. “I mean, that’s probably a bad idea. Some of the shelters over on the Coast are excellent, but you know what it’s like this time of year. All those people adopting cute puppies for Christmas presents and then returning them in January. And returning them is the good scenario. All too often they’re neglected or abused. Wouldn’t it be better to take care of them until reliable homes can be found?”

“Who, Annie?” he asked. “Who’s going to take care of them?”

She shrugged. “I have a small house in Fortuna and I work all day.”

“What about the farm?” he asked.

She was shaking her head before he finished. “I don’t think so. My dad’s arthritis is bad enough that he slowly sold off the stock and my mom runs around like a crazy woman taking care of all the things that wear him out.”

“Your dad’s Hank McKenzie, right? He gets around pretty good for someone with bad arthritis.”

“Yeah, he’s proud. He doesn’t let on. But it would fall to my mom and I can’t ask her to take on eight puppies. And the whole family is coming home to the farm for Christmas. All thirteen of ’em.”

“Well, Annie, I can’t think of many options here,” he said. “I know a few vets in the towns around here and I don’t know one that would take this on. They’d put ’em in a no-kill shelter.”

“Can’t you help? You and your wife?”

He smiled at her. “No wife, Annie McKenzie. I have a real nice vet tech who’s going to keep an eye on the stable while I’m out of town over Christmas, but that’s the only help I have out there, and she doesn’t have time to add eight puppies to her roster.”

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