Mystic Creek Series
Harrigan Family Series
Coulter Family Series
Kendrick Family Series
Other Contemporary Romance
Valance Family Series
Coulter Family Series Historical
Other Historical Titles
ONLY BY YOUR TOUCH
In the three weeks since Chloe Evans had moved to the mountain resort community of Jack Pine, Oregon, she'd lost count of the times she'd driven by the feed store to let her son, Jeremy, watch the animated scarecrow pitch hay and the old farmer milk his cow. Like all the buildings in the business district, the barnlike structure was quaint and charming. Flanked by towering Ponderosa pines, the store had weathered cedar siding complemented by forest-green trim.
Jeremy grinned as Chloe jockeyed the Honda into a parking space. His sherry-brown eyes danced with excitement. "Are we really going in there, Mom?"
"We sure are." Chloe pushed ineffectually at the wispy auburn curls that had escaped her French braid. "Sue says this store has the best selection of puppy food." She narrowed an eye at her son. "You do still have our list, I hope."
Jeremy waved a crumpled piece of paper. "Hurry, Mom!" He threw open his door. "Rowdy's home all alone. After being 'bandoned, he might think he got left again."
"Whoa!" Relieved to see her son acting like a normal little boy for a change, Chloe leaned over to unfasten his belt. "You can't go anywhere still strapped in. And no crossing the parking lot without holding my hand."
"I'm not a baby anymore. I won't get hit by a car."
Chloe grabbed her purse as she climbed out on her side. "As of yesterday, I officially became an old lady, remember? Maybe I need you to hold my hand."
"You're not that old."
Chloe felt old. She'd never expected to be divorced and starting over at thirty. Taking Jeremy's hand, she swung her arm and forced a jaunty bounce into her step. That chapter of her life was closed, she reminded herself. She and her son were making a brand-new start. That was what she needed to think about, this delightful little town and the wonderful future it offered them.
With so many wealthy tourists flocking to the area all year long, there was a lot of money to be made in Jack Pine, and if Chloe's father had his way, she would have a piece of the action someday. In three years, her folks planned to pull up stakes in Washington and join her, using the proceeds from the sale of their home to buy a business. He claimed he needed something to keep him busy after he retired, but Chloe wasn't fooled. Once the business was purchased, he would inform her that he was unable to handle the workload, and he'd plead with her to save him from financial ruin by taking over.
My dad. Just thinking about him made Chloe smile. In many ways, Mike Pritchard had been all that had kept her sane during the difficult times with Roger, a living reminder that there were a lot of good men left in the world. Too often over the last year, Chloe had found it difficult to remember that.
Breathing deeply of the mountain breeze, Chloe focused on the whimsical, fairy-tale feeling of Jack Pine. At the edge of the parking lot, a red sleigh parked under a tree bore a dusty sign on one its runners that read, SLEIGH RIDES, $15. Chloe could almost see the small town blanketed with snow, with all the rustic buildings sporting icicles along their eaves.
Across the road was the Christmas Village, a darling little log structure with a shake roof and frosting-pink gingerbread trim, its twin bay windows chock-full of twinkling lights and holiday decorations. Christmas being her favorite season, Chloe couldn't wait to browse for at least an hour in there.
That was for later, though. Today she had to make this shopping expedition special. It wasn't every day that a small boy got a new puppy, after all.
Jeremy beamed. "Thank you, Mom," he said for at least the twentieth time. "I know we can't 'ford a puppy right now."
"Sure we can. Remember all those pop bottles and cans we've been picking up off the side of the road? Tomorrow night while I'm at work, you can put them in plastic bags, and we'll go redeem them on Friday." "
Will we make a lot of money?"
Not by a long shot, Chloe thought dismally, but she wasn't about to tell Jeremy that. "Enough to afford puppy chow and chew toys."
She bent over to plant a kiss on his forehead. "No worries. Okay?"
" 'Kay." Jeremy suddenly braked to a stop, his gaze fixed on something high and to Chloe's right. In a faint, tremulous voice, he asked, "What's that?"
Chloe's heart kicked hard against her ribs. Perched atop the cab of a dusty green pickup, a silver-and-black wolf stared at them with feral yellow eyes. Instinctively, Chloe moved her son behind her and retreated a step. It was only a dog, she assured herself. Malamute huskies had a wolfish look. This animal was probably a malamute mix.
"Nice doggy," Chloe said. Normally she got along well with canines, but the ones she'd encountered had never stared at her with a hungry look in their eyes or been sitting on top of pickup trucks, poised to leap. "Good boy," she trilled as she shoved Jeremy back another step.
The dog growled low in its throat. Getting a tight grip on her purse in case she had to use it as a weapon, Chloe continued backing away. One step, two. Jeremy clung to her leg, the clutch of his hands conveying his terror.
"It's just a dog, sweetie. Don't be afraid."
"He's big, Mom, and he looks mean."
When Chloe had put some distance between them and the dog, she walked calmly to the boardwalk, where she felt marginally safer, and hurried toward the front doors. An overhead bell jangled as they pushed inside. Still clinging to her slacks, Jeremy, his eyes as round as quarters, went up on his tiptoes to peek out the door window. The wolf stared through the glass at them with its eerie yellow gaze.
"Big bully," Chloe muttered.
She wanted to find the dog's owners and give them a piece of her mind for allowing such a vicious animal off its leash in a public place.
"He's scary." Jeremy finally let go of Chloe's leg.
"I know." Mustering a smile, Chloe swatted at the wrinkles in her slacks, where Jeremy's damp fingers had bunched the twill. "I doubt he would bite anyone, though. Mean dogs aren't usually left loose like that."
Jeremy's eyes went wide. "Uh-oh." He held out his hands. "I dropped our list." Chloe looked out the window and saw the crumpled piece of paper fluttering across the parking lot. Ruffling Jeremy's hair, she said, "I think I can remember what we need."
"Puppy chow," he reminded her.
"Oh, yes, definitely."
"And dishes, Mom. We can't forget those."
"And puppy biscuits."
"And a chew toy so he doesn't eat our shoes."
Taking her son's hand, Chloe headed for the merchandise area of the feed store. Open wooden barrels lined both walls of the foyer. Being from Seattle, she found the earthy scents strange and unfamiliar, but placards on the barrels identified the commodities as barley, oats, and alfalfa pellets.
As they moved up the center aisle, Chloe saw an older woman with sandy hair working behind the counter. Wiping her hands on her green bib apron, the woman asked, "Can I help you folks find somethin'?"
"We're looking for the puppy food," Jeremy informed her. "Puppy food, huh? Sounds to me like somebody just got a dog."
"Yup," Jeremy said proudly. "A golden 'triever."
"Ah." The clerk nodded. "That's a very popular breed."
"Do you have any chew toys?" Jeremy asked.
"Aisle five." To Chloe, the clerk added, "You'll find the dog food there as well. The carts are by the front windows."
Tugging Jeremy along beside her, Chloe set off for the dog-food section. With her gaze lifted to read the overhead signs, she wasn't watching where she was going as she rounded the end of an aisle, and she ran face-first into what felt like a cement wall. She lost her grip on her son and her purse. Lipsticks, pens, car keys, and loose coins spilled over the floor as she staggered to catch her balance.
Large, capable hands clamped over her shoulders to keep her from falling. "Are you all right?" a deep voice asked.
"I'm fine." Chloe was so jarred by the impact that she couldn't focus for a moment. She couldn't believe she'd barreled into someone. "I'm so sorry." She realized she was apologizing to a shirt button, broke off, and located the face that went with the chest and shoulders. "I should have been paying attention."
"That makes two of us. I didn't mean to mow you down like that."
His voice was a rich, vibrant baritone with a raspy edge. Even with the brim of a brown Stetson dipping low to shadow his face, she could see that his features were striking. High, sharp cheekbones underscored eyes so clear and intense a blue, they were startling in contrast to his dark skin and jet-black brows. Deep creases slashed his lean cheeks, bracketing a perfectly shaped mouth that might have looked hard if not for the sensual fullness of the lower lip. He had a strong, angular jaw, and his cheek muscle bunched and rippled, giving him the look of a man with turbulent emotions roiling just beneath the surface.
"Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"No, no, I'm—fine."
The collar of his blue shirt lay open at the throat, revealing a circlet of cobalt beads, from which was suspended a crude stone medallion with a star burst etched on the face. Chloe had never seen anything quite like it. Slipping free of his grasp, she bent to collect her things.
When he crouched to help, she said, "Oh, no, please. I can manage."
Ignoring her protest, he began picking up stuff, a blur of blue shirt and sun-bronzed skin as he shoved items in her bag. He had the hands of a man who labored outdoors, callused at the palm, with rough ridges capping his knuckles. The sleeves of his shirt were folded back to reveal thick, sinewy forearms with only a sparse dusting of dark hair.
Low in her abdomen, Chloe felt a quickening. It had been so long since she had experienced the sensation that it took her a moment to realize it was sexual attraction. Surprised at herself and more than a little unsettled, she forced her attention back to the task at hand. As the mother of a small boy, she had developed a bad habit of carrying a little of everything in her purse, not to mention all the little treasures that Jeremy had given her—pretty rocks, a wilted violet, a ring he'd made from braided pine needles. The collection was a junky-looking mess.
When the stranger picked up an unwrapped peppermint candy with more hair on it than stripes, Chloe wished the floor planks would separate and swallow her. His hard mouth twitched as he dropped the candy back in her purse along with an emergency tampon whose wrapper had nearly disintegrated.
"Thank you," she said when the mess was finally cleared away.
"No problem." Still hunkered at her eye level, he nudged up the brim of his hat to regard her with unsmiling intensity. "I just hope I didn't hurt you."
Chloe waved a hand as she pushed to her feet. "I'm fine. Next time maybe I'll watch where I'm going." Smiling at Jeremy, who'd backed away to stare, she added, "My little boy just got a new puppy, and we were searching for the dog-food section."
"Ah." He glanced at the child. Then he tipped his hat to Chloe and said, "I'll leave you to it, then."
As he walked away, Chloe turned to get a better look at him. His chambray shirt and snug denim jeans were common garments for a man in Jack Pine, but nothing else about him was ordinary. Hooked behind his ears, his jet-black hair fell to his shoulders, the gleaming strands as straight as a bullet on a windless day. In place of a standard leather belt, he wore a woven sash decorated with intricate beadwork. The band encircling the dusty crown of his Stetson bore a similar design, as did his knee-high moccasins of heavy canvas.
"He's wearing a necklace!" Jeremy blurted loudly.
"Shh!" Chloe herded her son down aisle five.
"Well, he is!"
"I know. Lots of men wear jewelry."
"Not that kind."
"I think he's a Native American, sweetie."
"What's a native 'merican?"
Chloe wished her son would speak softly. "An Indian," she whispered.
"Oh." Jeremy glanced worriedly behind them. "Does he scalp people?"
"No, of course not. Native Americans don't scalp people anymore. That happened more than a century ago when they were fighting to keep their land."
Chloe searched her son's upturned face. "This land," she finally found the presence of mind to say. "That's why they're called Native Americans, because they lived here first. We came along much later and took everything from them."
Leaning closer, Jeremy asked, "Do you think he's still mad about it?"
"No, I don't think so."
"He looked kind of mad to me."
Chloe struggled not to smile. If the stranger was overhearing this, she could only hope he liked kids and had a sense of humor. "I'm sure he's not mad, sweetie."
"He didn't smile."
"Just because people don't smile doesn't mean they're mad."
"What's it mean then?"
Jeremy had a knack for asking dozens of questions at the most inopportune moments. "I don't know. I guess maybe it means he doesn't feel like smiling. You don't always feel like smiling, do you?"
They reached the pet-food section. Chloe tapped a sack of puppy kibble. "Down to business, big guy. You have a hungry puppy waiting for you at home."
Chloe bent over the stacks of dog food, struggling to shift the forty-pound bags so she could read the ingredients on the sides. Jeremy homed in on a bag with a picture of a golden retriever on the front. "Here's a good one!"
"That's six dollars more than anything else, Jeremy. How about this kind here?" Chloe strained to shift a bag with a picture of a black Lab on the front.
"But Rowdy's a golden 'triever! He needs golden 'triever food, Mom!"
"Sweetheart, the pictures don't mean anything."
Her son's bottom lip started to quiver. A year ago, Chloe would have stood firm, but recently, she had fallen into the habit of giving in whenever possible. Jeremy had an asthmatic condition that, according to his doctor, was caused by emotional stress. The breathing attacks frightened Chloe, and whether it was wise or not, she would go to almost any lengths to ensure he didn't have one.
"Please, Mom!" His eyes filled with tears. "Please?"
Chloe was about to give in when a deep voice said, "Excuse me."
The raspy baritone, coming from so close behind her, made Chloe jump. She wasn't surprised when she turned to find the beaded stranger standing almost on top of her. Her heart kicked hard against her ribs.
"Oh, hello again," she managed to say with a semblance of calm.
This time, one corner of his hard mouth actually turned up, not exactly a smile but close. He extended a ballpoint pen. "I think we missed this when we were picking up. I spotted it lying under the edge of a shelf."
"Oh, thank you." Chloe took the pen and slipped it in her purse.
He glanced at the sacks behind her. "I couldn't help overhearing the puppy-food debate. I happen to be something of an expert, if you'd like some advice."
His half-smile deepened into a grin that softened his stern countenance. "You could say that, yes." He turned to Jeremy. "Your mom's absolutely right about the pictures, son. They mean nothing." With impressive strength, he flipped over a bag to reveal the list of ingredients. Tapping the print with a long finger, he said, "This is the number to check, percentage of protein. Too much is bad for a pup's skin and may cause hot spots."
Jeremy ducked behind Chloe to peer around her hip at the stranger. Under the best of circumstances, the child was timid around men, and given their recent discussion about Native Americans, he was warier than usual.
The stranger's smile blinked out. After studying the boy for a long moment, he directed a burning look at Chloe. All warmth gone from his voice, he said, "You can take the advice for what it's worth. No skin off my nose, either way."
She stared bewilderedly after him as he strode off. She didn't know what had upset him, but his gruff tone had frightened Jeremy and set him to trembling. She smoothed a hand over Jeremy's curly hair. "It's okay, sweetheart."
The child clung more tightly to her leg. "See? He doesn't like us."
Chloe could think of no better explanation. "I guess maybe not."
Twenty minutes later, when Chloe pushed a brimming cart to the checkout counter, the dark stranger had already left. Still upset over the way he'd frightened Jeremy, Chloe was glad to find him gone.
The clerk greeted them with a friendly smile. An older woman, she had a wiry, no-nonsense look well suited to someone working in a feed store. Propping her elbows on the counter, she took in the cart of merchandise, her blue eyes dancing with amusement. "Looks like you found everything."
Chloe nodded. "And then some. I'm afraid we went a little overboard."
"You must be the new gal over at the sheriff's department."
Chloe was momentarily taken aback. "Why, yes. How did you know?"
"I've seen your car parked over there—or one like it, anyway. You could have been a tourist, but when you mentioned the puppy, I figured you had to be the new gal. You'll get used to our grapevine. Jack Pine isn't very big. Gossip travels fast, and a new hire at the sheriff's office is hot news." She thrust out a hand. "Lucy Gant."
Returning the handshake, Chloe said, "Chloe Evans and my son, Jeremy."
"Hi, Jeremy." Lucy grabbed a jar of individually wrapped candy from a nearby shelf and unscrewed the lid. "Help yourself, young man."
Jeremy politely selected one piece.
"No, no, take a handful," Lucy urged.
Jeremy helped himself to several candies. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome," Lucy said. "I got a soft spot for boys. Have two of my own." She watched Jeremy wander away to look at the animated displays in the front windows. "Handsome boy."
"Thank you. I think so."
"I heard your last name is Owens."
"That's amazingly close. I guess there really is a grapevine."
"Anytime you want to know anything about anybody, honey, just come see me. How do you like the new job?"
"I love it. The people I work with are really nice, it pays pretty decent, and the health insurance is great."
"With the cost of insurance nowadays, that's a plus. You get weekends off?"
"Unfortunately, no. I work the three-to-eleven with Wednesdays and Fridays off. But I lucked out on a sitter. Deputy Bower's daughter, Tracy, stays with Jeremy. He absolutely adores her."
Lucy nodded. "Nice girl, Tracy. Spittin' image of her mama, that one." Lucy leaned across the counter to pass a scanner over the bag of dog food. "Sheriff Lang's a decent fellow. A little too laid back to be a good lawman, but nice. We graduated the same year. He went off to college." She tapped her chest. "I got married to a good-for-nothing, gave him two sons, and then got left to raise them alone."
Chloe knew how hard that was. She laid a red puppy collar on the counter. "I'm sorry to hear that. It must have been very difficult for you."
"I managed. All things considered, I was better off. He was a mean-tempered man and quick to rile."
Chloe's throat tightened. She and Lucy Gant had a great deal in common, it seemed. The older woman shook open a sack and glanced after Jeremy again as she began bagging items. "So what did you think of Crazy Ben?"
"Ben Longtree, the fellow who about knocked you down."
"Oh! I really couldn't say. I spoke with him only briefly."
Lucy's mouth thinned. "I'm not your mama, but I'll give you a piece of advice anyway. Watch your step with that one."
Chloe lifted a rubber chew bone from the cart. "No worries. I'll probably never see him again."
"Trust me, honey, you'll see him again. When a man gets that look in his eye, he always comes back around for another sniff."
A cold sensation moved through Chloe. "Oh, I don't—"
"Cash or charge?" Lucy interrupted.
Thanks to her ex-husband, Roger, Chloe's credit cards were all maxed out. "Cash—or rather a check. You do take checks, I hope?"
"Sure. If it bounces, I know where to find you. That's forty-two dollars and ninety-three cents. The advice is free."
While Chloe fished through the jumbled contents of the purse for her checkbook, Lucy rattled on about Ben Longtree. "I always did say he'd come to no good. Wasn't no surprise to me when he up and killed a man a few years back."
Chloe gave the clerk a startled look. "Figured that'd get your attention. One blow of his fist—next stop, the funeral parlor. Happened down in Riverview. I figure Ben was probably drunk. Quarter-breed Shoshone, you know. Mix Injuns with booze, and you get trouble every time. Not that I'm racist or anything."
Chloe glanced over her shoulder to make sure Jeremy was still out of earshot. "He actually killed someone?"
"Deader than a doornail. Highfalutin lawyer got him off. Self-defense and lack of malice, they said. Ha. Money talks. That's the truth of it. A cold-blooded killer's walking our streets, all because he could buy himself an innocent verdict."
Recalling the burning anger that had flashed in Ben Longtree's eyes, Chloe had no trouble believing he had a hot temper. "How terrible."
"He's a mean one—make no mistake," Lucy continued. "His father beat on his mama every day of their marriage. The apple never falls far from the tree. I could tell you some stories that'd curl your hair."
"I'd better pass. My little boy is sensitive."
Lucy went on as if Chloe hadn't spoken. "There's some real strange happenings up on that ridge."
"Cinnamon Ridge, where Longtree lives. You don't know nothin' about nothin', do you? I take it you've never driven out that way. Beautiful place. A quarter section of Ponderosa pines, bordered on three sides by forestland. From the house, you can see clear into next week. Isolated, too. Not many people venture up that way, but those that have can tell you some mighty spooky stories. Wild animals milling around everywhere. And rumor has it that Ben has been seen walking a grown cougar on a leash."
"A grown what?"
"A mountain lion. We got a lot of them in these parts, but most folks don't make pets of them."
"I don't imagine so."
"There's something strange going on up there—mark my words." Lucy rubbed her sleeves and shivered. "Take that wolf of his, for instance. Who in his right mind would have a dangerous critter like that for a pet? Claims it's a hybrid, but no one believes it. Looks like a real wolf, don't it?"
Chloe recalled the creature that she and Jeremy had encountered in the parking lot. She wasn't surprised to learn that Ben Longtree was its owner. "What if the thing attacks someone?"
Well into gossip mode, Lucy ignored the check Chloe laid by the register. "Mandy Prince over at the Clip and Curl thinks Ben is dabbling in witchcraft. She got into all that hocus-pocus stuff at college, and she thinks that cougar could be his familiar."
Chloe struggled not to smile. Granted, Ben Longtree had been surly, but it struck her as being a little outrageous to accuse him of practicing witchcraft.
"He's a big man," Lucy went on. "If he's a witch, maybe a regular-size house cat isn't big enough to suit him."
Chloe nudged the check closer.
"Something is attracting those animals to his place. Maybe he casts some kind of spell over them. Even as a boy, he was a strange one." She arched her eyebrows. "You heard about the two young fellows that vanished up that way?"
"No, I don't believe I have."
"Went out bow hunting last summer and never came back. There's a number of folks who think Ben killed them and let his critters eat the evidence."
Chloe's stomach lurched. She shot a pointed glance at Jeremy, but Lucy just kept talking. "Ben gets fighting mad if anyone pesters his critters. Those boys were out hunting. What's to say they didn't accidentally wander onto Longtree land and shoot one of the deer?"
"I suppose that's possible."
"More than just possible. Then they up and vanish? Ben Longtree had a hand in it—mark my words."
"I'm sure Sheriff Lang would take action if he thought that were the case."
"No evidence," Lucy volleyed back. "You gotta have a body—or bloodstains or something. You can't arrest a man on supposition."
Exactly, Chloe thought. And so far, Lucy had spouted nothing but supposition.
"You know what I think?" Lucy asked in a stage whisper. "I think something more dangerous than witchcraft is happening on that ridge. When Ben came home after that murder trial, he was flat broke. Now he's rolling in it." She pointed to a poster on the bulletin board. "How can a man without a job offer that kind of a reward?"
Chloe turned to regard the poster in question. It read $10,000 REWARD FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO THE ARREST AND CONVICTION OF THE PERSON/PERSONS RESPONSIBLE FOR WOUNDING WILD ANIMALS NEAR CINNAMON RIDGE. Below the large block print were particulars, namely that the weapon being used was a .22-caliber rifle, and that the intent of the shooter was to maim the animals, not kill them.
"Why would anyone want to wound helpless animals?" Chloe mused.
"The thing that bothers me is, where did Ben Longtree get ten thousand dollars to give away?"
Chloe had no idea, and suddenly she wanted to get out of there. She glanced at her watch. "My goodness! Look at the time. It's almost four."
The clerk barely paused to draw breath. "No more'n a year after he came back to town, he started building that big, fancy house he lives in now. You can bet he didn't foot the bill with his mama's social security checks."
"This is very interesting, Lucy, but we've got a hungry puppy waiting at home. I really need to be going."
Lucy held up a finger. "The way I see it, honey, I'm doin' you a favor. If, by chance, Ben does come sniffing around, you'll know to run the other way."
Chloe had no intention of allowing Ben Longtree or any other man within sniffing distance.
"He's doing something illegal up there. I'd bet my retirement on it. Nan—that's his mother—never worked a day. She must be drawing on Hap's social security, and God rest his soul, he was always too busy drinking and fornicating to hold down a steady job. She can't be getting very much per month."
"Maybe Mr. Longtree got some kind of inheritance."
"Nah. His daddy frittered away every cent they had on booze. When he plowed his truck into that Ponderosa pine on Dead Man's Curve a few years back, he died drunk and flat broke."
Chloe didn't care to hear any more of this. "I need to—"
"I think Ben has a drug lab up on that ridge—that's what I think. Big money to be made in drugs, and being a vet, he's got the education to know about chemistry and such. That would explain why he runs folks off his land with a shotgun. A man doesn't behave that way unless he has something to hide. Now, does he?"
Jeremy returned to the check stand just then. Chloe flashed Lucy a warning look. The older woman fell silent and reached across the counter to pat the child's auburn curls. "Well, now, young man, I can assure you of one thing. You got yourself the best puppy food in the store."
"I did? Mostly, we got it 'cause it's cheap."
Lucy laughed. "Cheap or not, it's good puppy chow. People can say what they want about Ben Longtree, but he knows animals. He's a vet. It's a shame he lost his practice after that spot of trouble with the law. Healing critters is the only useful thing he ever did in his life."
Chloe piled her purchases back into the cart.
Left with no choice, Lucy finished the transaction. Handing over the receipt, she said, "It's been a pleasure talking to you, Chloe."
Chloe wished she could say the same.
Though it was her day off, Chloe felt as if she had worked a full shift by the time she parked her Honda in the dirt driveway in front of their rental. Eager to check on his puppy, Jeremy was out of the car like a shot. Chloe almost called after him not to run, but she gulped back the warning. According to the doctor, Jeremy was fine physically. A sprint to the house wouldn't hurt him, and she had to stop being so paranoid.
The child never broke stride as he raced up the rickety steps. Chloe stared after him, feeling oddly disoriented. This was their home now, she reminded herself as she studied the ramshackle house. She spent a moment taking inventory of the needed repairs, all of which would be at her own expense. The landlord had just shaken his head when Chloe asked him to fix things.
"As is!" he'd shouted, fumbling with his hearing aid. "You think this is New York City or somethin'?"
Chloe merely felt seven hundred dollars a month entitled her to a kitchen faucet that didn't drip, a back door that locked each time she turned the key, and a living room floor that didn't sag under her weight.
Ah, well, I'll manage, she assured herself. Some paint and elbow grease would work wonders on the house, inside and out.
The screen door slapped back open just then, and Jeremy spilled onto the porch. One look at her son's face, and Chloe knew something was wrong. Bolting from the car, she cried, "What is it, sweetheart?"
As pale as milk, Jeremy worked his mouth, but no words came out. Chloe broke into a run. When she reached the front steps, Jeremy wheeled and dashed back into the house.
"He's sick!" the boy shrieked. "He's really, really sick, Mom."
The smell almost took Chloe's breath. She raced to the bathroom, where they'd left Rowdy while they were shopping. At the doorway, she careened to a stop. Never had she smelled anything quite so foul. Puppies made messes on the floor. That went with the territory. But Rowdy had messed and vomited everywhere. Blood was mixed in with the watery excrement.
Chloe's heart plummeted to her knees. The puppy had seemed a little listless that afternoon, but she had blamed it on weakness due to starvation. One of a litter, he had been abandoned in an old barn at the edge of town, and he'd nearly died before someone found him. Chloe had hoped good care and plenty of food would turn him around.
Stupid, so stupid. She inched into the bathroom. For a moment, she didn't see Rowdy anywhere. Then she spotted him slumped against the chipped tub, his front paws spread, his muzzle flattened on the floor.
"Oh, dear." She crouched by the motionless puppy. That he was still alive was the best that could be said for him. "Oh, you poor baby."
"He's so sick," Jeremy said shakily. "We need to take him to the doctor, Mom."
Chloe couldn't afford a vet bill. She had just under a hundred dollars to last until she got paid. Granted, the situation was heartbreaking, but she had other, equally pressing concerns, like keeping food on the table. Only how could she tell Jeremy that? He had already been through so much. This puppy was the first really wonderful thing that had happened to him in a very long time. Surely veterinarians carried balances for services rendered. Maybe she could get Rowdy treatment now and pay for it later. It was worth a shot, wasn't it?
She just hoped the puppy wasn't beyond help. She opened the cupboard under the sink and plucked out a towel. "We'll just bundle him up and take him to the vet, sweetie." When Chloe lifted Rowdy into her arms, his head hung limply over her arm. His furry little body felt hot even through the towel.
Jeremy started to keen—an awful wailing sound that nearly broke Chloe's heart. Wrapping his thin arms around himself, he swayed on his feet. "He's gonna die, isn't he?"
"Oh, Jeremy, I don't know." Without loosening her hold on the puppy, she twisted her arm to look at her watch. It was 4:40, which left only twenty minutes to find a vet.
Thirty minutes later, Chloe stood at one side of a stainless steel examining table, staring stupidly at the veterinarian across from her. The half-dead puppy lay stretched out between them.
"Can't you make an exception? I'll have the money here in the morning."
The balding doctor stared at Chloe over the rims of his glasses. "No payment, no service, that's our policy. We accept credit cards."
Chloe wanted to reach across the table, grab him by his smock front, and give him a hard shake. "I don't have any credit cards."
His eyebrows lifted. "May I ask why?"
It was none of his business. "My husband fell ill. All my cards are limited out."
"I see." He sniffed. "That's unfortunate. Treating parvovirus is very expensive. I won't demand payment in full, of course, but I need three hundred down."
Chloe thought of her child sitting in the waiting room. For all intents and purposes, he'd lost his father a year and a half ago. And three weeks ago, she'd taken him away from everything familiar, including his doting grandparents. He'd been so thrilled to get this puppy, and now, only a few hours later, he was about to lose it.
She couldn't let that happen. No matter what, she absolutely couldn't let it happen.
"My little boy isn't well," she tried. "It'll half kill him if this puppy dies. Please. I have a ruby brooch—a family heirloom. I can get at least three hundred for it. I'll be back with the money before noon tomorrow."
"The dog will probably make it through the night, Mrs. Evans. Bring him back when you have the cash." He gave her an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. Everyone is long on promises when a pet's life is at stake. It's a different story when the crisis has passed."
He turned and left the examining room. Chloe stared at the closing door. This couldn't be happening. Shaking with impotent anger, she gently gathered the puppy back into her arms. Jeremy leaped up off the bench when Chloe reentered the waiting room. His small face was pale, his eyes huge.
"Can't the doctor make him well?"
Chloe was so furious she could barely speak. "I'll tell you about it outside, sweetie."
Once in the car, Chloe carefully transferred Rowdy into her son's waiting arms. Jeremy pressed his face against the puppy's matted fur. "Please, Mom, don't let him die."
Chloe clamped her hands over the steering wheel and stared balefully at the clinic building. "The doctor says Rowdy has a disease called parvo," she said carefully. "The vet wants three hundred dollars down."
"Three hundred is a lot, isn't it?"
"All we have right now is ninety-eight." She forced a smile. "But, hey, all isn't lost. The vet thinks Rowdy will be okay until morning, and I've got an idea how to get the money then."
"But, Mommy, he's so sick." Jeremy's breathing became ragged. "What if he—?" The child gulped and dragged in a laborious breath. "What if he dies tonight?"
Searching her little boy's face, Chloe thought, A child his age should still believe in miracles. All she saw in her son's eyes was shattered hope. The wheezy whine of his breathing filled the car. Chloe's heart clutched with fear. "We'll pray really, really hard that that doesn't happen," she tried.
Jeremy bent his head over the puppy. "Praying didn't help Daddy."
Chloe looked away. "No," she conceded hollowly, "praying didn't work for Daddy."
"It prob'ly won't work for Rowdy, either."
Tears sprang to Chloe's eyes. What could she say? A dozen lies came to mind, but Jeremy had already heard them all.
Once they'd sponged Rowdy off and Chloe got her son tucked into bed that night, she collected the sick puppy and sat on the sofa with him cradled in her arms. As deathly ill as Rowdy was, he emitted that sweet puppy smell that Chloe could remember so clearly from childhood. Through the bath towel and her clothing, she felt the heat of his fever. He was so very sick. She feared only a miracle would save him.
The thought nearly broke Chloe's heart. Running a fingertip up the bridge of the puppy's nose, she huddled there in the shadows, too exhausted to weep. Why was it that she so often failed at even the simplest things? Other people got puppies for their children, and those dogs didn't die. Recently Chloe had begun to feel as if life and its many problems were bigger than she was—that no matter how hard she tried, nothing went right. God, she was tired, an awful, bone-melting weariness that made her limbs feel leaden. If Rowdy died during the night, how would she tell Jeremy?
Moonlight slanted through the living room windows, feeble fingers of illumination that spilled over the floor like puddles of silver. Chloe gathered the puppy closer and pressed her cheek to his head. Exhausted though she was, she was afraid to put him in his box and go to bed. He might die while she slept.
And so she sat there in the darkness, rocking him as she might a sick child, holding on to the fragile thread of life for him because he was too weak to hang on himself. The clock ticked loudly in the silence. The night wind puffed against the exterior walls of the house, and bushes scratched the siding. The sounds made her nerves jump, and she kept looking over her shoulder. Not so very long ago, she'd heard similar noises outside her Lynnwood apartment, and it hadn't been bushes making the sounds.
The memories filled Chloe's mouth with the metallic taste of fear. She tried to tell herself she was being silly, that Roger couldn't find her now that she was living in another state. But somehow that didn't make her feel better.
The minutes dragged by, small eternities that mounted, one by one, into an hour, and then two. Occasionally, Rowdy's small body would convulse with heaves. He brought up only bile. Each time, Chloe wiped his face and wrapped him in a clean towel. Keeping vigil, she lost track of time. Her eyes grew dry and started to ache, and her arms cramped from the weight they cradled.
When the first faint rays of dawn lightened the windows, she stirred from the sofa, carefully laid the puppy in his box, and staggered to the kitchen. Her joints throbbed like those of an old woman as she filled the coffeemaker with water and scooped grounds into the basket. She punched the BREW button and went to the window to watch the sunrise.
The sky turned a gorgeous pink, long, wispy streaks of rose and burgundy threading through clouds as soft and fluffy as cotton candy. Watching the glorious transformation, Chloe felt a resurgence of hope. The puppy had made it through the night.
Order now from: