Read No Regrets Online

Authors: Claire Kent

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction

No Regrets

BOOK: No Regrets
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No Regrets

Claire Kent

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 by Claire Kent. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means.

Proofreading by
Vanessa Bridges

One

It started with trying to get Polly, my fourteen-year-old Springer Spaniel, out of the backseat of my car.

She’d never liked riding in the car, so she always lay flat across the backseat with her head up, stabilizing herself by pressing against the back of the seat. The dog was lying in that position now, except her head was down.

As I leaned in, the sight of her lowered head and exhausted eyes almost made me cry.

“Come on, baby,” I said in a hoarse voice, motioning her toward me. She always got up and walked toward the opened door so I could help her to the ground.

She didn’t move. Just looked at me with those pained, brown eyes.

I leaned farther in to try to grab her and pull her forward, but she resisted the move. It was like she knew where we were going.

Polly wasn’t a large dog. Just thirty-five pounds now that she’d lost weight in the last several months. But I couldn’t get a good hold on her to lift her out unless she was closer to me, and I couldn’t bear to just grab her collar and yank.

“Come on. Come to me, Polly.” I tried to pitch my voice to sound light, positive, and encouraging but didn’t succeed. I’d stayed up all night with her, and my emotions were too close to the surface to fully hold back.

She wagged her tail just a little at my tone, but she didn’t move.

“Please, Polly. Let’s go in to see Jenny and Bert.” My eyes rested on her—black and white fur, graying around her muzzle, brown eyes, long ears, sweet Spaniel face—and I started to shake with emotion.

Her ears twitched slightly, since she’d known the veterinarian assistant and the technician for years and recognized their names. But she still wouldn’t move.

Desperate, I leaned in and tried to drag her closer to me, but my back caught since I’d sat on the floor next to her dog bed for most of the night.

I made a choked sound at the jolt of pain and tried to straighten up, grabbing onto the car door. “Please, baby,” I begged. “I need to get you inside.”

“Can I help?” a male voice asked from behind me.

I jerked in surprise and turned to see a very good-looking guy standing in the parking lot, evidently having just gotten out of the old SUV parked across from me. He had short brown hair, broad shoulders, and strong, well-cut features with a square jaw. He wore khakis and a green dress shirt with an opened collar.

“I’m okay,” I said, looking back into the car at Polly. “She just doesn’t want to get out.”

He walked over and stood beside me, looking in at the dog. “Let me get her for you,” he said in a softer voice.

I stepped aside automatically, not in any condition to object. “Please be careful. She’s…really sick.” My voice cracked, and I had to swallow hard to control myself.

He reached in for her and drew her out gently, setting her beside the car.

She immediately lay down on the pavement.

I almost choked at the sight and had to turn away from the man beside me.

“I’ll carry her in for you,” he said, leaning down to pick the dog up again.

The man had very vivid blue eyes, I noticed, but it was just a passing thought. I was focused only on Polly, who was leaning her head against his arm and gazing over at me as I walked beside them into the vet’s office.

They’d just opened, and it was a half-hour before scheduled appointment times, so no one else was there yet. Jenny, Dr. Miller’s assistant, straightened up when she saw me. “Hey, Leslie.” Then she saw the man with my dog in his arms. “Oh, no, Polly,” she added, the words obviously coming out before she could stop them.

I tried to explain why I was here, but there was no way to form even a single word through the lump in my throat.

I didn’t have to. The man carrying Polly, who must work here too, although I’d never seen him before, said to Jenny, “I’m going to put her in B.”

Jenny nodded and hurried to open the door to Room B, where I had sat more times than I could count over the last fourteen years, waiting for Dr. Miller.

I lowered myself on the bench and reached for Polly, before the man could set her on the floor.

He handed her into my arms, even though she was too large to comfortably hold. I held her on my lap, hugging the soft, warm body and trembling helplessly.

The man looked down at me, his face very sober. “I’ll be back in a minute. I need to look at her chart.”

I didn’t know why he’d be back. I didn’t even know who he was. But I just nodded blankly and held onto my dog. She was huddling against me.

I sat for five minutes or so, and then Jenny came in with the same man. He was now wearing a white coat.

“Where is Dr. Miller?” I asked. I didn’t want to be rude, but Dr. Miller had been my vet since Polly was a puppy, and I didn’t even know this guy, who was evidently a veterinarian.

“She’s on vacation this week,” the man said. “And Dr. Li doesn’t come in until the afternoon. I’m Josh Bennett, their new partner.”

I’d heard they were taking on another vet, but I hadn’t paid much attention. “Oh.”

“Is it all right if I check her over?”

I nodded and let him take the dog off my lap and put her on the table. I stood up beside it so I could stroke her face.

“Did she have a bad night?” Dr. Bennett asked, carefully standing the dog onto her legs so he could feel from her neck down toward her tail.

“Yeah. She wouldn’t sleep at all. She just kept shifting positions and panting. I gave her all the medication I could, but it didn’t seem to help.”

“How is her eating and drinking?”

“She drank a little. She hasn’t eaten anything since the day before yesterday.”

“The cancer is very far advanced,” he murmured, his eyes on the dog and not on me.

“I know.”

Polly whimpered when he pressed in at her abdomen. I knew it hurt her, and I scratched behind her ears to distract her.

After examining the dog thoroughly, Dr. Bennett looked back at her chart.

I didn’t know how old he was. He could be anywhere in his twenties or thirties, although there were little lines around his eyes that made me decide he was probably at least thirty. However old he was, he was a lot younger than Dr. Miller.

And I didn’t know him.

Finally, Dr. Bennett looked up to meet my eyes. “I know Dr. Miller has talked to you about things. Polly is on the highest dose of pain medication we can give her.”

I couldn’t look at him, so I looked at Polly, who was still gazing up at me with mournful eyes, as if she still trusted me, even though she felt so bad.

“It’s your decision,” he continued. “But she’s in a lot of pain right now, and it’s not going to get any better. My advice would be that it’s time.”

Jenny was openly crying on the other side of the room. She turned away, evidently to try to control herself. She’d known Polly for years. She’d loved her for years.

But not as much as I did.

I tried to swallow and could barely do it. I wished desperately that Dr. Miller was here. I believed this man was telling me the truth, but I didn’t know him.

“I can try to get Dr. Miller on the phone,” he said, apparently reading something in my expression. “So she can give you advice too. I really think she’ll tell you the same thing.”

I knew she would. The decision was quite obvious.

But it meant Polly would be gone. She’d just be gone.

I just shook my head and hunched down to nuzzle Polly’s soft face.

After a moment, Dr. Bennett said, in an even softer voice, “They depend on us. To do what’s best for them. You’ve taken care of her for years. Even when it was hard. I’m looking at everything you’ve done for her over the last year. All these medications. All these tests and appointments. You’ve done a really good job for her. This is the last thing you can do to take care of her. It’s your decision. I just don’t want you to get home and regret not giving her a way out of her suffering.”

Eleven months ago, I’d turned thirty-eight, and I’d made one vow for the year. Live with no regrets.

I hadn’t done a good job of keeping it. I still lived the life I had a year ago. Quiet. Scheduled. Mostly alone. But his words echoed back to my vow, and they made my decision.

I nodded. Couldn’t say anything.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go get things ready. Is there anyone we can call to be with you?”

I lived alone. My parents were in Florida now, and I was an only child. I hadn’t had a boyfriend in four years. I had friends, but I didn’t want them to leave their jobs or their families just to come hover around me.

It had always been just me and Polly. So that was the way it should end.

I shook my head.

“Okay. We’ll give you a few minutes.” Dr. Bennett and Jenny left the room them, leaving me alone with Polly.

I finally let myself cry.

Two

Eight hours later, I was sitting in the park I used to take Polly to walk.

I’d tried going into work after I’d left the vet, since I thought it would help distract me, but I’d had to give up at lunchtime since I was getting nothing done except crying at my desk. I’d gone home and packed up all of Polly’s food, treats, medicine, and dishes, but then I couldn’t stand the sight of the familiar rooms in my own home, since Polly should have been there too.

So I’d basically fled my apartment and come to the park to sit on a bench. I was still holding her pink collar in my hand as I talked to my mom on the phone.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come down here for a visit?” my mom asked, concern in her voice.

“No. I’m coming the week of Dad’s birthday, and I can’t take any more time off.”

“Well, are you going to do something with friends tonight?”

“I might.” I hadn’t called any of them yet. I could barely make it through a conversation with my mother. “I’m not sure yet.”

“You shouldn’t be alone.”

“I’m really fine, Mom.” It was all I could do to keep my voice steady. I stared down at the collar. It was pale pink with darker pink flowers on it. It had always looked fine when it was around Polly’s neck, but now it looked old and worn and sad and lonely.

Exactly how I felt myself.

“I should go now,” I added, when the emotion started to catch up to me. If I cried on the phone, my mom would call back every hour to make sure I was all right. It didn’t matter if I was thirty-eight. That was still what she did.

“Okay,” my mother said, sounding unconvinced. “Call me later. Any time.”

“I know. Thanks. Talk to you later.”

When I hung up, I slid the phone into my purse and held onto the collar with both hands.

I’d taken Polly to this park since she was a puppy. When I was younger, she would run with me. When she’d started to get some arthritis, we’d just walked. In the last year, she’d only been able to make it one lap around the paved walking track that wound around the park.

She’d always loved it, though. She’d started to whimper with excitement in the car as soon as we got close to this park.

Several people were walking dogs here today. There was a chocolate lab. And a German Shepherd. And two Beagles. No Springers, though.

No Polly.

I watched the dogs, kids, and runners blindly, trying to talk myself into getting it together. Dogs died. Sooner than you ever wanted. Getting one meant you would lose it eventually. After a while, I would start to feel better. After a while, I’d get a new dog.

But even the thought felt like a betrayal. Polly was the only dog I’d ever had. I’d gotten her when I was twenty-four and had just moved to Lexington, Kentucky and taken this job. She’d always been part of the fabric of my life here.

I had to go home eventually, though. I couldn’t stay on this park bench forever.

I hadn’t moved yet. I was still staring blindly at the dogs and people on the path when I noticed from the corner of my eye a man slowing down from a run and then jogging toward me.

Glancing over, I expected him to head past me toward the parking lot, but he seemed to be coming directly toward me.

When he got close, I realized it was Dr. Bennett.

He looked different than he had this morning. He wore a t-shirt and gym shorts, both wet with perspiration. His face and short brown hair were wet too. He’d obviously been running hard.

His eyes rested on me as he approached. Obviously, he’d recognized me. Before I’d recognized him.

“Hey,” he said, breathing heavily. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

It was a stupid question and a stupid answer, but that’s what people do. It was part of living in a civilized world. You made up nice-sounding lies and you said them to each other, instead of talking about how much the world sucked.

His face was flushed, and he was having trouble catching his breath. Bending at the waist, he rasped, “I better do a lap to cool down. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay.”

I had no idea why he’d bother coming back. We didn’t know each other. We had nothing to say to each other. And I wasn’t really in the mood for talking.

He’d killed my dog that morning, but I could hardly hold it against him.

He took a slow jog around the track and ended up back at the bench with a water bottle in his hand. His breathing was less ragged as he sat down beside me.

He didn’t say anything, and I felt a little strange. I didn’t know exactly what he expected from me. I certainly wasn’t going to cry on his shoulder, if that was what he was thinking.

So I just asked a casual question. “You’re done with your shift for the day?”

“Yeah. I got off at three.”

“Do you always come here to run afterwards?”

“Sometimes.” His vivid blue eyes rested on my face, searching or questioning or something. “It’s on the way home.”

“Have you lived in Lexington long?”

“I grew up here—in Versailles, actually. But I just moved back to the area.”

“Where were you before?”

“Vet school.”

“Oh.” I blinked, slightly surprised. I’d landed on his age as younger than me but still in his thirties, but he must be quite a bit younger if he was just out of vet school. “So you just got your degree?”

“Yeah.” As if he could see the surprise in my face, he added, “I started late. I didn’t go right after college.”

That made more sense. The conversation, as casual as it was, managed to distract me from thoughts of Polly, so I pursued it. “What were you doing before you went to vet school.”

He didn’t answer immediately, which prompted my curiosity. To take the edge off the silence, I said, “Bank robber? Computer hacker?”

He gave a low chuckle and smiled at me—not broadly, but it still transformed his face until he was almost unbearably attractive, even as sweaty as he was. “Nothing that exciting. I was in Chad.”

“Chad? In Africa?

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” My eyes widened in surprise. “What were you doing there?”

“International aid work. I started right after college and did it through most of my twenties. I was mostly in Chad and Sudan.”

“So what made you decide to be a vet instead?”

He gave a strange little shrug and looked away from me. “I couldn’t do it anymore. And animals…are different.”

I studied him, trying to read his expression, trying to interpret the paradoxically empty bitterness on his face. There was obviously more going on with him, but there was no reason to expect him to tell me.

There was no reason I needed to know.

“What do you do?” he asked, obviously trying to change the subject.

“Paralegal.”

“Who do you work for?”

We chatted for almost a half-hour, about my job, about how he was settling back into the area, about running—which I used to do, although not much recently.

Eventually, the perspiration had dried on his skin and his clothes, and we’d both faded into reflective silence.

I felt a little better—like I wasn’t on the verge of tears—but the thought of going home still filled my stomach with dread.

He’d been staring off in the distance, and he said without warning, “This morning was the first time I’ve had to do that.”

I glanced at him in surprise, realizing immediately what he was referring to. “Aren’t you supposed to be professional and distanced about the whole thing?”

“I guess. I thought I’d be able to keep the right perspective with animals, but it was harder than I thought. She seemed like a very sweet dog.”

I took a loud, ragged breath as emotion surged up. “She was.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks.” I took a few more breaths until I was in control again. “I really don’t want to go home.”

“Do you want to get a drink or something?”

I blinked. “Right now, you mean?”

“Yeah. Why not? I don’t want to go home either.”

I finally landed on an explanation for his mood. He seemed adrift, kind of lost, not emotional but torn in some way.

I wondered what he’d experienced in Chad. What it had done to him. Why he’d decided against working with people anymore.

Even yesterday, I would have said “no” to his invitation. For the last few months, I hadn’t done much of anything except go to work and take care of Polly. I hadn’t liked to leave her in the evenings.

It had been years since I’d had a drink with a guy I didn’t know, and this particular guy was too young for me anyway.

But it was just a drink. Nothing more. He wasn’t coming on to me. He was just being nice. And it would give me something to do with myself, other than go home to an apartment without Polly.

I felt a little better, talking to him. Like the world wasn’t about to pull me into some sort of black hole.

I remembered my vow, eleven months ago, on the day I’d turned thirty-eight.

I was supposed to be living with no regrets, and so far I hadn’t done a good job.

This would be something I wouldn’t have to regret.

“Okay,” I said. “Why not?”

***

Two hours later, we were sitting in a booth in the corner of a little bar I’d never heard of, and he was all over me.

I mean,
all over
me.

We’d talked about a variety of things—movies, books, politics, beer, anything except his work in Africa and Polly. And then he’d gotten up to get us more beers and had sat down on the same side of the booth as me, instead of across the table.

“Dr. Bennett?” I asked, staring at him as he situated himself close to me. I was a little fuzzy, but definitely not drunk.

He made a choked sound. “Josh.”

“Josh, what are you doing?”

“I like your freckles,” he murmured, reaching up to stroke his thumb across the bridge of my nose and my cheekbone.

My breath sped up, hardly believing that he was touching me like that.

In all honesty, I might have gotten a little touchy myself as the evening progressed, putting my hand on his arm several times and at one point stroking my fingers over his wrist, which had been resting on the table. I couldn’t help it. He seemed so
physical
, sitting across the table from me, even as we talked, and something physical in me wanted to touch it, connect with it.

Maybe he felt the same way.

I’m no beauty queen, if you hadn’t guessed it before. I’ve got reddish-brown hair, brown eyes, and a tall, slim body, but there’s nothing at all special about me. “I used to hate the freckles.”

“Why would you hate them?” His eyes had grown warm, admiring. It was impossible not to recognize the expression. “They’re gorgeous. Do you have them all over?”

He was younger than me, so maybe he was used to asking questions so bold. I definitely wasn’t used to hearing them. “That’s none of your business.”

“I’d kind of like to know.” He gently slid the neckline of my top to the side to expose my shoulder. He smiled. “I see more freckles.”

Then he leaned down and gently nipped me, right on the hollow of my throat.

I gasped at the shocking jolt of pleasure. I’d never experienced anything like it—so completely out of the blue.

Then he was kissing me, and there was no way I could resist kissing him back.

The bar was dim and not very crowded, but the other customers hardly crossed my mind as the kiss deepened. It had been a long time since I’d been kissed, and he was somehow stronger and more passionate and more skillful and just
more
than the other men I’d been with.

It felt like he was everywhere. Filling all of me.

His mouth was devouring mine, and his hands were getting quite presumptuous. But I somehow wanted it—despite the other people in the bar, who could easily see us making out like this. Even when he palmed one of my breasts over my top, I arched into it instead of pulling away.

My whole body pulsed with excitement and arousal—an edge to the feelings I’d never experienced before.

It was like I was someone else. Someone other than me. Someone not quiet and boring and safe.

Someone who would do a thing like this. Make out with a near stranger in the booth of a bar.

Then he pulled away, far sooner than I wanted him to.

“Damn,” he muttered, rubbing his face with his hand as if he were trying to wake himself up from a dream. “What am I doing? This must be the last thing you want to do tonight.”

My body definitely didn’t appreciate the abrupt end to our embrace. Then I realized what he was thinking. He assumed I was too emotionally delicate to genuinely desire this.

Yes, I’d had the worst day in recent memory, but it felt like he’d had a wrenching day too. Like he needed something from me, as much as I needed from him. And that was why I said, “I do want to do this.”

“I don’t want to take advantage of you, if you’re vulnerable—“

BOOK: No Regrets
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