“Well, hey, Doc Jensen,” a female voice sang out.

Nate turned to see Annie come out the back of the bar, Christopher trailing so closely that if she stopped suddenly, he’d have crashed into her. She carried a furry ball of black and white that fit perfectly into her palm. Looking at her, he realized he hadn’t remembered her quite accurately. Or rather, quite enough. Tall, curvaceous, high cheekbones, soft dark auburn hair swinging along her jaw, long delicate fingers…..She was beautiful. And her figure in a pair of snug jeans and turquoise hoodie with a deep V-neck just knocked him out. Where the heck had this girl been hiding?

And why was he, a man who could appreciate cleavage and tiny bikinis, suddenly seeing the merits in jeans, boots and hoodies?

Then he remembered she’d been hiding in a little hair salon in Fortuna, under a pink smock.

He picked up his beer and wandered over to the hearth. Christopher and Annie sat on opposite sides of the box, which left no place for him, so he stood there in the middle.

Annie passed Chris the puppy. “Hold him for just a minute, then snuggle him back in with his brothers and sisters,” she said. “It’s good for him to be part of his family. They give him more comfort than we can right now.”

“A little maintenance?” Nate asked.

Annie looked up at him and smiled. “This is the part that gets to be a bother—without a mother dog to change their diapers and keep them clean, by the end of the day they’re looking a little worse for wear. Some of them actually needed washing up. My dad always used to say a little poop never hurt a puppy, but you let that go long enough and it will. Gets them all ugly and matted and sick.”

“You bathed him?”

“Four of them, without dunking them,” she said. “Can’t let them get cold. Preacher’s wife loaned her blow-dryer to the cause. Okay, Chris, he’s been away from home long enough now.” She reached into the box and pushed some puppies aside to make room, and Chris gently put his puppy into the pile. “They’ll be ready to eat again in about an hour. Why don’t you get back to your homework, or dinner, or chores, or whatever your folks have in mind.”

“Okay, Annie,” he said.

And Nate fought a smile as Chris vacated his place on the hearth. But before he sat down he asked Annie, “Can I buy you a beer? Or something else?”

She tilted her head and smiled at him. “I wouldn’t mind a beer, thanks.” He was back with a cold one for her in just moments and sat down opposite her. “I think they’re doing okay here,” she said to him.

He wasn’t a hardhearted guy, but he only pretended interest in the pups, picking one up and then another, looking at their little faces. He’d rather be looking at her, but didn’t want to seem obvious. “Were you here yesterday?” he asked, studying a puppy, rather than her.

“Uh-huh,” she said, sipping her beer. “Ah, that’s very nice. Thanks.”

“You planning to come every day?” he asked.

“If I can swing it,” she said. “I kind of made a deal—if they wouldn’t hand them over to some shelter, I’d do my part. These little guys are just too cute and vulnerable. They could turn into impetuous Christmas presents, no matter how carefully the shelter volunteers screen the potential owners. And look at their markings—I’d say Australian-shepherd-and-border-collie mix. Outstanding herders. They should find good homes around here, and they’ll be glad to work for a living.”

Nate lifted his eyebrows. “Good guess,” he said. “You get off work before five?” he found himself asking.

“Not usually. I have a small shop in Fortuna—six chairs. It’s a franchise—my franchise. So I’m responsible, plus I have a large client list and it’s Christmastime. But I’m moving appointments around the best I can—a few of my clients will take another stylist in a pinch. And I’ve been training an assistant manager, so she’s getting thrown into the deep end of the pool because of these puppies. And I’m doing my puppy laundry and paperwork at midnight.”

“What kind of paperwork?” he asked.

“The kind you have with a small business—receipts, receivables, bills, payroll. Jack and Preacher are managing real well during the day when it’s sort of quiet around here, but when it gets busy at the dinner hour, they need a hand. And you heard Jack—he’s not washing puppy sheets with his napkins.” She smiled and sipped her beer. “We should all take comfort in that, I guess.”

“I guess.” He smiled. “How’d you end up with a beauty shop?”

“Oh, that’s not interesting. I’d rather hear about what you do. I grew up around animals and being a vet is my fantasy life. You’re living my dream.”

“Then why didn’t you pursue it?” he asked.

“Well, for starters, I had exactly two years of college and my GPA was above average, but we both know it takes way more than that to get into veterinary college. Isn’t it harder to get into veterinary college than medical school?”

“So I hear,” he said. “So, after two years of college…..?”

She laughed and sipped her beer. “One of my part-time jobs was grooming dogs. I loved it. Loved it. The only thing I didn’t love was going home a grimy, filthy mess and not exactly getting rich. But I saw the potential and needed to make a living. I couldn’t focus on a course of study in college, so I went to beauty school, worked a few years, hit my folks up for a loan to buy a little shop, and there you have it. I do hair on two-legged clients now. And it’s working just fine.”

“And your love of animals?”

“I stop by this little bar every evening and babysit a bunch of orphaned puppies for a few hours,” she said with a laugh. “I still have a couple of horses at the farm. My dad got rid of the livestock years ago except for Erasmus, a very old, very lazy, very ill-tempered bull who my dad says will outlive us all. They’re down to two dogs, my mom keeps some chickens and their summer garden is just amazing. But it was once a thriving dairy farm, plus he grew alfalfa and silage for feed.”

“Why isn’t it still a thriving farm?” he asked.

“No one to run it.”

“Your brothers don’t want the farm life?”

“Nope,” she said. “One’s a high-school teacher and coach, one’s a physical therapist in sports medicine and one’s a CPA. All married with kids and working wives. All moved to bigger towns. And the closest one lives a few hours away.”

“What about you?” he asked.


“Yeah, you. You sound like you love the farm. You love animals. You still have a couple of horses at your parents’ farm…...”

She smiled. “I’d be real happy to take on the farm, but that’s not a good idea. Not the best place for me.”

“Why not? If you like it.”

She cocked her head and smirked. “Single, twenty-eight-year-old woman, living with Mom and Dad on the farm, building up the herd and plowing the fields. Picture it.”

“Well, there’s always help,” he said. “Hired hands for the rough stuff.”

She laughed. “Rough stuff doesn’t scare me, but I can’t think of a better way to guarantee I’ll turn into an old maid. My social life is dull enough, thanks.”

“There are ways around that,” he pointed out. “Trips. Vacations. Visitors. That sort of thing. Something to break up the isolation a little.”

“That’s right—that’s what I heard. Before I knew who you were, I heard Jack ask you if you had your plane tickets yet and you said something about Nassau, a Club Med vacation and lots of string bikinis. Right?”

For some reason he couldn’t explain, that embarrassed him slightly. “No, no. I don’t know anything about that Club Med stuff. A buddy of mine, Jerry from vet school, set up a get-together over Christmas with our old study group. We’ve only been in touch by e-mail and haven’t been together since graduation. The Nassau part is fact, the string-bikinis part is fantasy. I’m planning to do some scuba diving, snorkeling, some fishing. I haven’t been away in a while.” He laughed. “Frankly, I haven’t been warm in a while.”

“You don’t get together with your family over the holidays?” she asked.

“Oh, they were gracious enough to invite me to join them all on a cruise. All of them,” he stressed. “My folks, three sisters and brothers-in-law, four nephews and two nieces. It’s going to be hell to give up all that shuffleboard, but I’ll manage somehow.”

“Do they ever come back here?” she asked. “You know—to the old homestead? Where you all grew up?”

“Frequently. They move in, take over, and I move out to the stable and take up residence in the vet tech’s quarters.”

“You and the tech must be on very good terms.”

He grinned at her. “She’s married and lives in Clear River, but we keep quarters for her for those times we have cases that are going to need attention through the night. She was my dad’s assistant before he retired. She’s like a member of the family.” Then he studied her face. Was that relief? “The family was all home for Thanksgiving,” he went on to explain. “It was great to see them all, and boy was I glad when they left. It’s madness. I have really good brothers-in-law, though. At least my sisters did that much for me.”

She sipped her beer. “You must be looking forward to your vacation. When do you leave?”

“The twenty-third. Till the second of January. I plan to come home tanned and rested.” And with any luck, he thought, sexually relaxed. Then he instantly felt his face grow hot and thought, Why the hell did I think that? He wasn’t typically casual about sex. He was actually very serious about it.

Annie peered at him strangely. “Dr. Jensen, are you blushing?”

He cleared his throat. “You don’t have to be so formal, Annie. Nate is fine. Is it a little warm by this fire?”

“I hadn’t noticed, but—”

“Have you eaten?” he asked.

“No. I hadn’t even thought about it.”

“Let’s grab that table, right there close by, before anyone else gets it. I’m going to tell Jack we want dinner. How about that?”

“Fine,” she said. “That sounds fine. By the time we’re finished, Chris will be back, ready to feed his puppy.”

Through the rest of that first week the puppies seemed to do just fine. Thrived in fact. So did Annie, and she hoped it didn’t show all over her face. There was no particular reason for Nate to show up day after day; the pups weren’t sick, didn’t need medical care and he hadn’t made the commitment to help that she had. Yet he returned on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. She’d love to believe he was there to see her, but it seemed such a farfetched idea. So highly unlikely that she could interest a man like him through this odd doggie-day-care-in-a-bar that she wouldn’t allow herself to even think about it.