Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
With Isabella tucked under one arm, he made his way up the walk to a small white cottage with dark blue shutters. The house stood on a tall hilltop overlooking the Kansas River as it wound its way eastward out of the plains and through the rolling hills of eastern Kansas before it emptied into the wider Missouri River near Kansas City.
The view was one of the reasons he’d purchased the place. It reminded him a little of the view from his parents’ home in Montana. Although the Kansas hills didn’t compare to the foothills of the Bighorn Range, the view and the smell of the tall cedars and pine trees beside the front door always took him back to the mountains—back to where he and Emily had been so happy together. He let the grief pour out now that he was alone. The ache in his heart had become a part of him. It never left.
From the brass mailbox, he extracted a handful of envelopes and flyers. “Looks like you’re in luck, Isabella. There’s lots of junk mail.”
He tucked his mail under his chin as he struggled to unlock the door without dropping the rabbit, the correspondences or his cane. Once inside, he closed the door, then set his pet on the floor. She scampered to a box beside his chair and hopped in.
Brian crossed the hardwood floor and sank with a sigh of relief into his recliner. He rubbed his thigh for a minute before leaning back and raising the leg cushion. From the table beside him, he picked up a silver-framed photo. In it his wife, Emily, smiled sweetly back at him. He had taken the picture of her when they were on their honeymoon. It had been her favorite.
“You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had,” he began. “My newest patient has the most irritating owner.”
He often told Emily about the challenges of his job, but tonight he found he didn’t want to tell her about Lindsey. It didn’t seem right.
The silence of the house closed in, filling him with an aching sense of loss that never faded. He didn’t deserve to have it fade. He had killed the woman he loved and nothing would ever change that fact.
He set the picture aside and picked up his mail. Sorting through it with Isabella was also a nightly ritual. The flyers from the local grocery stores he tossed into the box with the rabbit. She instantly began to shred them into pieces. Next to nibbling pencils, paper shredding was her favorite pastime and one he allowed her to indulge in only in her special plastic bin.
It hadn’t taken him long to learn that a bored rabbit could be very destructive. He’d had to replace the wooden handle on his recliner twice during the first year Isabella lived with him. Fortunately, he had discovered the cure before any other items of furniture had to be replaced. If he gave her something fun to do, she was as good as gold.
He turned over the first envelope. “Hey, we might have won ten million dollars. It says all we have to do is enter to win. Like that will happen.”
He crumpled the envelope and contents and tossed it into the box. Isabella attacked the new paper with glee. The next two envelopes were bills. He considered tossing them in with the rabbit, but decided against it. Telling the electric company that his rabbit had ripped up the bill wasn’t likely to keep the lights on if he missed a payment. The third envelope bore the logo of the United Jockey Club Research Foundation. Knowing the UJC Research Foundation had donated nearly one million dollars in grants the previous year, he quickly tore open the letter.
“Listen to this, Isabella. They are interested in my new study. They’re calling it groundbreaking work and their grant committee is interested in learning more. They plan on sending a representative to hear my presentation and review my data at the Equine Surgical Conference in January.”
Brian glanced at his pet, but she was only interested in her game. Picking up Emily’s picture, he studied the face he knew so well.
“Do you know what this means, honey? If they back my project, I won’t have to beg money and cut corners to make ends meet at the clinic for years.”
Things were falling into place for his work. The conference would bring the best and brightest equine surgeons in North America to hear him, along with a dozen other speakers. If he could persuade Equine Equipment to have one of their ambulances on display he might be able to convince the college advisory board to actively pursue purchasing one for the clinic. Just the thought of the horses who could be saved by being safely transported to the clinic brought a lump to his throat.
He held Emily’s picture close to his heart. “I wish you were here to share this with me.”
After a while, the unshed tears stopped stinging the back of his eyes. Little by little, the silence of the house lulled him into sleep. As he did almost every night, he fell asleep in the chair with Emily’s face pressed to his chest and her presence filling his dreams.
Sometime later, Brian awoke with a start. He had been dreaming, but not about his wife. The woman he saw riding toward him on a bay horse had had red hair and green eyes. Disgusted with himself for letting Lindsey intrude into his personal life, he got up and put Isabella in her cage before making his way to his bedroom.
Sleep was a long time in coming. When it did arrive, he dreamed about his childhood—about lying on his back and looking up through the green aspen leaves and feeling the whole world was full of promise. Green leaves that were the same color as Lindsey’s beguiling eyes.
* * *
Early the next morning, Brian walked into the entrance of the Large Animal Clinic with a half-formed plan for the day. Isabella lay firmly tucked in the crook of his arm. He hadn’t slept well and he was sure it showed. Thoughts of Lindsey had kept him up until long into the night.
Why on earth he couldn’t stop thinking about her was something he couldn’t understand. And she was going to be here again today. The plan he had come up with for dealing with her was to make rounds as early as possible and then barricade himself in his office. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all he could come up with at three-thirty in the morning. Looking up, he was surprised to see Jennifer crossing the room quickly to meet him.
“Good morning, Dr. Cutter. Let me take Isabella outside for you.”
“Thank you, but I’d like to have her with me in the office today.” He had a feeling he was going to need her comforting presence to help keep him on track and not think about Lindsey. Sergeant Mandel, he corrected himself.
Jennifer gave him a tight smile and took Isabella out of his arms. “I’m just going to take her anyway. You know how loud voices upset her.”
“Not that I’ve ever noticed.” Puzzled, he tried to make sense of Jennifer’s tense demeanor. “Are you planning on yelling at me? Whatever I did, I apologize.”
Gathering the oversize rabbit into her arms, Jennifer said, “It’s not something
“I’m glad to hear that. Oh, before I forget, Sergeant Mandel is going to be in today. Give her a list of her horse’s treatments and let her do what she can to help.”
Jennifer’s look held a trace of pity. “She’s already here. I’m just going to be outside with Isabella for a while.”
With the rabbit in her arms, Jennifer hurried out the door.
Shrugging off her peculiar behavior, Brian limped toward his office. So Lindsey was here already. That shot down the first stage of his plan. He would certainly encounter her when he made rounds. As he was unlocking his door, two of the fourth-year students came down the hall from the holding area. They stopped short at the sight of him, then hurried past with their heads down. He glanced after them with a puzzled frown. What was going on? Whatever it was, he wasn’t ready to face it until he had at least one cup of coffee.
Inside his office, he set out the carpet-covered boxes Isabella used as steps to reach the top of his desk and her favorite spot—an old towel in a shallow tray at the far corner. After starting the coffee, he held his cup under the brewer until it was full, then slipped in the pot. The first sip of the scalding hot, dark brew was exactly what he needed. Taking a second sip, he set the cup on his desk, put on his lab coat and headed down the hall to check on his patients.
The first thing he noticed when he entered the stall area was the large group of students clustered outside Dakota’s stall. He hurried forward. If something had gone wrong and he hadn’t been called, heads were going to roll.
hat’s going on here?” Brian’s irate bellow caused the students hovering outside Dakota’s stall to part like the waters of the Red Sea.
Lindsey winked at the elderly woman inserting hair-fine acupuncture needles along the horse’s neck and turned to face the oncoming battle. She even managed to put on her sweetest smile. “Good morning, Dr. Cutter.”
“What is the meaning of this?”
“Allow me to introduce Mia Chang. She is a horse acupuncturist.”
“I can see that. What is she doing with my patient?”
“I am relieving his pain and the great stress he is suffering from,” Mia said with a slight bow in Brian’s direction before turning her attention back to Dakota.
“It’s quite remarkable, actually,” one of the students ventured. “His pulse and respirations are back to normal and he has a brighter look in his eyes after only twenty minutes of therapy.”
“Yes, he is feeling much better. This will help strengthen the healing bones.” Mia pulled a handful of pellets from her pocket and held them under Dakota’s nose. He nibbled them up with relish.
“What is that?” another student asked.
“My special blend of healing herbs with a little honey to sweeten the taste. I can give you the recipe if you like.”
Lindsey didn’t think Brian’s scowl could get any deeper, but it did. He leaned forward on his cane. “Ms. Mandel, may I speak to you privately in my office?”
His cold, clipped words told Lindsey not to expect a thank-you. He turned and left without waiting for her answer. She followed him down the hall, fully prepared to fight for Dakota’s well-being. It was obvious that the horse was feeling better and she wasn’t about to let Dr. Grumpy change that.
Inside his office, he indicated she should take a seat. She preferred to stand, but the thought that he might be uncomfortable or in pain standing made her hasten to sit on the sofa. She wondered what the carpeted boxes stacked up beside his desk were for but decided not to ask.
Brian sat with a tiny sigh of relief that made her glad she hadn’t insisted on confronting him while he was on his feet. Knowing that the best defense was a good offence, she launched into her prepared speech. “I’m sure you’re happy Dakota is obviously in less pain. I’m certainly glad Miss Chang was able to come on such short notice.”
“Her techniques have worked wonders with some of our other horses. My father was stationed in South Korea when I was ten and I saw firsthand the value of their nontraditional medicine.”
“I appreciate your desire to help your horse, but—”
“I knew you would. That’s why I asked her to come. She is also a trained veterinary assistant.”
“Her fee will be covered by me personally, so you don’t need to worry about that.”
The husky way he said her first name sent an unexpected shiver along her nerve endings and blotted all other comments from her mind. She waited in silence for his next words. For a heartbeat he simply stared into her eyes and she wondered what he was thinking.
He looked down and took a deep breath. When he looked up again he didn’t appear angry, just tired. She had the craziest urge to take his hand and offer him comfort or at least a cup of hot tea.
“Lindsey, do you know how many horses are put down each year in this country for a simple fracture of the leg? I don’t mean just the expensive racehorses or show horses, but horses that belong to ordinary people who love them?”
“Hundreds. Maybe even thousands. I’ve euthanized far too many of them myself. Do you know why I put most of them down?”
“Because the breaks can’t be healed?”
He shook his head. “No. It would be easier to take if that were true. Money is the single biggest reason a horse gets put to sleep. The average person simply can’t afford to spend fifteen thousand dollars on an animal’s medical care. But what if that cost could be cut in half?”
“More horses could be saved?” she ventured, feeling less in the right with each passing minute.
“Maybe hundreds more each year. That is what I’m trying to do with the study Dakota is in. I’m trying to prove this therapy will cut healing time and therefore the cost of a break significantly. But to do that I have to have absolute hard facts. Facts that can be reproduced in other horses time after time. Facts that can be published in a reputable journal.”
She listened to him with a sinking sensation. “You’re trying to tell me I’ve altered the study.”
“I’m trying to make you understand how important this work is. I don’t want to see your horse in pain any more than you do. But I have to know that what I give him to help won’t interfere with what I’m trying to accomplish.”
“I don’t see how simple acupuncture can interfere with your gene therapy.”
“In all likelihood it won’t. But what if he begins to run a fever? What if the herbs he ate today react with the antibiotics I have to give him? Just because a substance is a natural remedy doesn’t mean it can’t have side effects. The fewer variables I have to deal with, the better.”
“I understand what you’re saying. I wasn’t thinking about how important Dakota’s recovery will be for others. I was only thinking of how important it is for me. I’m sorry if I’ve interfered with your work.”
She looked so contrite that Brian was tempted to smile. “I want your help and input. All I’m asking is that you discuss your ideas with me first. Can I have your promise on that?”
Nodding, she said, “Of course.”
“Good. This is a teaching hospital and acupuncture is gaining ground as a legitimate treatment for pain and lameness in horses. The students seemed quite interested in Miss Chang’s techniques. I may see about including her in our guest lecture series next semester.”
“She would like that.”
The sudden silence between them seemed weighted with tension and expectation.
“Will you be staying long today?” he asked, not wanting to see her leave in spite of his earlier plan.
“I have to get back to the post. Karen and I are helping organize a fund-raiser for the cost of Dakota’s care that isn’t going to be covered by your grant. The men and women at the fort have been overwhelming in their offers of support. We’ve already raised nearly a thousand dollars just with donations from the troops and their families.”
“Dakota is an army horse. He’s no different than any other injured soldier. We take care of our own.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Tomorrow our unit is traveling to Medicine Falls for their centennial celebration. I’m on restricted duty so I won’t be riding, but I’m going along to help the ground crew and do the PR part of the job.”
“People are always curious about the unit. We are ambassadors for the army, as well as a living history exhibition. We put on a really good show if you ever get the chance to see it.”
She rose to her feet. Brian headed for the door and held it open for her. “If you need any help with the fund-raising, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
Brian could hardly believe what he heard himself saying. The words were out of his mouth before he even had a chance to consider the ramifications. He didn’t get involved in the lives of the people who brought their animals to him. He certainly had no intention of getting involved with someone as impulsive and outspoken as this woman. His life was quiet and orderly. It was exactly the way he wanted it. At least it had been until he arrived at work this morning.
Lindsey cocked her head to the side and grinned at him. “Thank you. I may take you up on that offer.”
As she walked out the door, he realized with a sinking sensation that she might do just that.
Ten minutes later he looked up from his work at the sound of a timid knock. The door opened and Jennifer peeked in. “Is it safe to bring Isabella in?”
“For her, but maybe not for you.”
She pushed the door open and stepped in with his pet draped over her arm. “Why? What did I do?”
“You took off faster than the proverbial rabbit at the first sign of trouble. I’d like to remind you that you work for me. The next time there’s trouble brewing in this office, I expect you to be the first one to inform me of it.”
“Was there trouble this morning?” she asked, giving him a wide-eyed innocent stare.
He glared back at her, but she simply put Isabella on the floor. The rabbit made a beeline for the steps he’d set out and quickly climbed to his desk. She paused in front of him long enough to have her head stroked, then she hopped to the far corner and settled herself in her favorite spot.
“I like Sergeant Mandel, don’t you?” Jennifer asked, still lounging in the doorway.
He felt the heat of a blush creeping up his neck. “I haven’t given it much thought.”
“You spent a long time with her in here this morning.”
“We were discussing Dakota’s plan of care.”
“I just noticed that the two of you seem to be getting along rather well when she left.”
“Because we weren’t shouting at each other?”
“That was my first clue, but I think it was your offer to help with fund-raising that clinched the deal. Is she married?”
“That is none of our business. She is a client.”
“She’s a cute client, even if she does wear combat boots. Don’t you think so?”
Exasperated with her prying, he said, “Is there something you wanted, Jennifer?”
“Oh, right. The people who make that horse ambulance are on line one. I knew you’d been waiting for their call.”
He picked up his phone, but hesitated before pressing the blinking button. It was his hope that he could convince Equine Enterprises to allow the school the use of one of their new ambulances for an extended period of time. The need to transport injured horses safely was no different than the need to transport people. He wanted to raise awareness of the issue and hopefully convince the school’s board to purchase one. His first challenge would be to persuade Equine Enterprises to loan him the vehicle, only
PR skills weren’t the best.
The image of Lindsey pressing his case popped into his mind.
was a persuasive person. She would be hard to stop when she had her mind set on something.
“Do you need anything else, Doctor?” Jennifer asked.
“No, thank you. Oh, wait. How far away is Medicine Falls?”
“It’s about an hour northwest of here.”
“Can you pull up a map on your computer?”
“Yes,” she drawled. “But why would you want to go to Medicine Falls?”
That was a very good question, and one he wasn’t sure he knew the answer to, except that Lindsey would be there.
“I have Saturday off. I heard they were having their centennial celebration. I thought I might take a drive up that way.”
As answers went it was pretty weak, but it was the best he could do on the spur of the moment.
The look she gave him said louder than words that she wasn’t fooled. “If you don’t want to give me a straight answer, I can take a hint.”
“Fine.” He waved his hand in dismissal before she could probe deeper into his motives—motives he didn’t understand himself. He picked up the phone and, with renewed determination, launched into his plea for the loan of an ambulance.
When he finished his call, he had the satisfaction of knowing the company was at least considering his proposal. He had begun putting away his papers and shutting down his computer when Jennifer came in and held out a thick manila folder.
He scowled at her. “What’s this?”
“The map you asked for and the file on the Shetland pony you did hip surgery on last spring. Remember fat Dolly? The family was from Medicine Falls. I thought since you were going out that way, you could do a follow-up visit to see how they’re getting along. Besides, it’s a better excuse than saying you thought you’d take a drive. The whole, ‘I just happened to be in the neighborhood’ line is kind of lame, but this way you can back up your story with a straight face.”
“I don’t need an excuse to go for a drive. This is a free country.”
“I believe Sergeant Mandel will agree with you when you see her in Medicine Falls. Did you know they’re putting on a performance tomorrow?”
“And how do you know that?” Had she been eavesdropping on his conversation with Lindsey?
“Avery told me. He drove Lindsey out here this morning. Isn’t his accent the cutest thing?”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
She smiled. “Don’t lose that map.”
Brian opened his mouth to tell her he had changed his mind about going, but instead found himself saying, “Jennifer, I’m beginning to see you in a whole new light.”
“Finally. I’ve worked here, what, two years? And this is the first time you’ve noticed that I’m a genius?”
“I was going to say I’ve begun to notice that you’re rather devious.”
“Oh. Well—only when I know it will help.”
“Will help what?”
With a long-suffering sigh, she said, “Never mind. You’ll figure it out.
* * *
Lindsey watched from the running board of the unit’s candy-apple-red pickup as eight other members of her unit led their horses out of the matching red trailer emblazoned with the unit’s name. The CGMCG was preparing for their last event of the season. The busy schedule of travel and performances over a five-state area would begin again in late spring. Usually by this time all the horses and riders were looking forward to a much-needed rest, but this year rest wouldn’t be on the duty roster until after the trip to Washington, D.C., in late January.
All the men were looking forward to participating in the Inaugural parade with excitement and pride. The talk of late had been about little else.
Looking up, Lindsey noticed that the flawless blue sky overhead promised beautiful weather for the little town’s special day. Even the relentless Kansas wind seemed to be taking a break. The flag jutting out from the ornately carved limestone post office hung quietly with barely a whisper of a breeze to ripple the Stars and Stripes. The stark branches of the trees that lined the streets radiating out from the town square were the only sign that fall had descended. The sun on Lindsey’s shoulders was hot enough to make her glad she was wearing the unit’s red T-shirt and not one of the dark wool uniforms.