Authors: Susan Craig
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Craig.
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Toss Up/ Susan Craig. -- 1st ed.
To Susan Marie, with love.
utumn sunlight struck flung bits of straw, turning them into gold as the chestnut yearling reared, striking out with flailing hooves. Jameson Donovan slipped aside, letting the nylon lunge line slide through his hands, then stepped forward as the nervous colt settled all four feet on the smooth cement floor.
“Take it easy, now.”
Jim gripped the horse’s halter, using his triceps to exert a steady downward pressure on the colt’s head, allowing movement, but not the free toss that would permit another attempt at rearing. Nervousness caused a thin sheen of sweat on the chestnut’s neck, and Jim stroked it away, soothing with the touch of his hand and gentle murmurs, giving the colt time to recognize and accept both mastery and gentleness.
“That’s right, boy.”
“I’ll steady him for you.” Hector Sanderson moved up, his gnarled hand taking a firm grip on the halter, as Jim bent to examine the horse’s foreleg. If everything checked out, the colt would return to pasture with the other yearlings. He ran practiced hands over the leg, testing tendons and bone.
“No tenderness, no heat. He looks sound, Hector.” Jim straightened and stroked the solid withers, appreciating smooth coat over suppl
e muscle, feeling in tune with the warmth of life under his hand. He drew in the mix of scents that said stable—horse, hay, and an underlying thread of something earthier. “He’s good to go.”
lad to hear it, Doc. Thanks for stopping by.”
nodded at the older man and glanced at the lengthening shadows near the open stable door. Hector’s place had been the last stop in a high-mileage day. “Happy to do it, Hector.” With a wave of his hand, Jim crossed to the RAM four by four parked in the stable yard. He opened the lid of a Porta-Vet storage unit snugged just behind the cab and dropped in his examination kit. Time to head back to the loft for some food, a beer, and maybe there’d be a game on television worth watching. With a quick turn of the key the truck’s engine roared to life, and Jim pointed the RAM towards town.
Approaching a fork in the road, his mind moved to Sally.
Thinking of her, warmth crawled under his skin. The left fork would take him a bit further around, leading through fields and hills until just outside of town. If he swung right he’d pass the animal shelter, and Sally’s house. He could stop by on his way home, invite Sal and her son to get a bite to eat with him. Maybe she was finally over Trent…
Yeah, right, that’s likely.
You stupid sap.
Jim ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. Why did he do this to himself? Deciding to be
the young widow’s friend was without a doubt the stupidest thing he’d ever done. Just being in the same room with her made his teeth ache with want.
was smart, he’d give it up and stay away. Swing left. Tools in the Porta-Vet rattled as the truck hit a depression in the well-worn road. Who was he kidding?
He knew he would stop by.
Standing in the doorway of the animal shelter, Sally Johnston, manager of Man’s Best Friend, watched Gretchen Maxwell slide her daughter’s wheelchair into the trunk, then waved goodbye as the car pulled away. She smiled as she saw the girl’s arm slide around the neck of a shaggy-coated dog sitting beside her on the back seat.
“Hey, Sal, t
hat’s a fine match.”
Sally saw Ramon Hernandez, one of the college volunteers. “Yeah, I think so too. You know, one of the best things about working here is finding just the right dog for a family to adopt. I’ll miss Dusty though. He’s a sweetheart.”
smiled at her. “You miss them all when they go.”
Sally shrugged, glancing at the clock behind the reception counter. “Time to close up.” She looked at Ramon. “You can take off, if you like. I’m good.”
“Thanks, I think I will.”
He walked toward his car, the only one remaining. “See you.”
Sally waved a hand in reply
, then stepped behind the counter and shut down her computer. There were still dogs to bring in from the outdoor paddock. She grabbed a jacket and headed out the back door of the converted ranch-style home.
Across the meadow sat her house, on property abutting the shelter’s land. Light streamed from the kitchen window. She laughed to herself and shook her head. The lights were probably on in the hallway, her son’s room and the bathroom, too—Tyler favored the abundant use of electricity. Typical boy.
Turning back to the paddock gate, she called the dogs into the common run leading to the kennel wing, where she returned each to his own pen and began closing down for the night. The volunteers had given each of the shelter’s tenants fresh water, but this last group still needed to be fed. By the time she finished distributing kibble, shadows stretched long across the yard. Rolling the portable food bin back into place, she used her foot to flip the locks on the rear wheels, and leaned against the windowsill to watch the pale October sun set.
When the last ray of light had vanished, she straightened. Quiet me
lancholy filled her heart…a comfortable sadness, appropriate for a fading autumn day with winter already in sight. Content, she turned back toward the unlit office at the far end of the wing.
A soft, unexpected sound came from the empty room.
Sally froze. Her hand reached to touch the wall, steadying her, and she moved forward in the darkness, one cautious step at a time, listening.
So soft she had to strain to identify it. So unexpected that recognition fisted her stomach and stopped her in place, with a hand on her heart. She’d thought she was alone. Cautious, but not yet afraid, she went on toward the soft, mournful wail of a solitary bagpipe. If a friend had come, why sit in the dark? Her fingertips groped for the wall plate, still a few steps ahead. Reaching it, she took a tight breath, then flooded the office with light.
Nothing moved. The empty lobby stared back at her, its windows black.
The funeral dirge continued, coming from her computer—the computer she’d shut down before bringing the dogs in for their food.
Heart pounding and poised to flee if the need arose, she checked the area, peering down the back hallway and looking behind and beneath the counter enclosing the reception desk. She saw no one. The computer monitor blinked. Placing an unsteady hand on the edge of the desk, she lowered herself into a chair to read the words that appeared like the dull ache of happiness lost, then dissolved into darkness: Semper fi.
Sally stared at the screen, the knife-edge of pain in her chest holding her motionless.
As her eyes watched the words appear and fade on the screen, she remembered his hard, handsome face, the diamond black eyes, and rough shadow of beard on his jaw. The pain of loss, which had dimmed
over the years, hit her with fresh force, resurrected by the music and the words. Tears ran unheeded down her cheeks.
Who would do this
? Who would be so cruel?
The headlights of Jim’s truck
bounced off Sally’s neat, brick house. Tyler must be home; light shone from every window. Pulling into the driveway, Jim shook his head and straightened his shoulders, running a hand over his hair. Here he was again.
Looking across the meadow adjoining Sally’s house, Jim saw the shadowy outline of the animal shelter and the pine-covered ridge beyond. A beautiful crescent moon rose behind the trees. A light flicked on in the darkened shelter, catching his attention. Curious, he left the truck in the driveway and strode across the meadow in the crisp twilight.
What was going on? Sally should be home already; the shelter had been closed for almost an hour. Maybe she had a sick animal on her hands. Glad that, as vet-on-call, he had keys to the place, he unlocked the outer door and turned to walk along the entryway to the shelter i
With a crash that rattled the glass in its upper half, the door to the shelter lobby banged open.
What the hell?
Sally flew down the entry way toward him, her beautiful face so co
ntorted with grief he barely recognized her. “Jim. Thank God it’s you.”
She threw herself against his chest, and his head reared back even as his arms moved automatically to hold her close. Then he took her by the shoulders and stepped back to look at her in as
tonishment, shocked by the pain and tears on her face. In all the years he’d known her, he’d never seen her cry.
Now she sobbed, and her face was deathly pale. Fear for her struck his heart like a blade of ice. “Sally! What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
She shook her head, struggling to speak as her face crumpled again. “Trent… Trent…”
He stared at her for a second, then pulled her tightly into his arms and held her close. What on earth had happened? His heart rate, which had accelerated when the door crashed open,
slowed, but didn’t return to normal. Not with her in his arms. With a gentle touch, he stroked her hair, murmuring comfort and breathing in her scent—a heady mixture of dog, lilac and woman. He drank in the feel of her, the way she clung, needing him, at least for these few minutes.
It was j
ust his luck. The woman who haunted his dreams was wrapped in his arms, and she was crying for another man.
He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.
His will built an impenetrable wall of control, but it was still torture to hold her like this and give no sign of desire.
Gradually, her sobbing stopped, the tears slowed, and all too soon she was stepping away from him—out of his arms to stand solidly on her own. Jim let her go, stifling a sigh. She was a strong woman, maybe too strong.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hands. She took a deep, trembling breath. “I shouldn’t have flown at you like that.”
“What happened?” He placed a hand on her arm.
“Listen—you’ll hear it.”
Jim hadn’t paid any attention to the music. Now he tuned in and heard the wail of the funeral dirge. He felt a dull weight in the pit of his stomach. “Why are you—?”
“Not me. Somebody messed with the computer. Look at the screen.”
Sally stayed in the entryway, as if unwilling to re-enter the office. So Jim walked over and looked at the monitor, reading the dark gold words that appeared and faded into black.
Semper fi. Always faithful—the motto of the United States Marine Corps.
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know.” Her arms wrapped around her waist. “A tasteless prank?”
“No.” Jim shook his head slowly. “Sally, no one who knows you would joke about your husband’s funeral.” He stopped, not wanting to say what had leapt to mind, and chose to prevaricate. “It’s more likely some kind of computer virus. I can drop the machine by Phil’s and have him check it out on Monday—you won’t need it before then, will you?”
Sally hesitated. “No, we’ll be fine. One day of paperwork by hand won’t kill anyone.” She took another steadying breath. “Thanks, Jim. But get him to do it as quick as possible. I have a paper to write for my online course.” She took another deep breath, not shaky this time, and her voice was almost light. “So. How is it that you happened to be here to rescue me?”
Jim picked up the laptop, recognizing the let’s-move-on tone of Sa
lly’s voice. He would do that, for now, since she wanted it. “I was on my way home from the Sanford place, thinking about dinner. When I saw the lights at your place, I thought I’d see if you and Tyler wanted to grab a pizza. Then a light came on in here, so I walked over.” He frowned into Sally’s green eyes. “Sally, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She shook her head and her lips pressed tight t
ogether. “It just hit me hard, you know? It’s so weird.” She crossed her arms and shuddered.
“Well, I’ll get it fixed for you Monday. So how about pizza? You and Tyler interested?”
Sally gave a small laugh. “You and pizza—you’re as bad as Tyler. Sure, we’re interested. Sounds like fun.” Her face cleared as she grabbed her parka from a hook by the door. “Let’s go get him, and I want to change. Fifteen minutes.”
Sally decided she needed a quick shower. Getting in and out in record time was no problem. Her heart was still bumping along at time-and-a-
half after her scare in the shelter. Somehow the incident had left her feeling unclean.
As manager of Man’s Best Friend, closing up as she had today was routine. She loved the animals and her job, finding satisfaction even in the long hours. But tonight, she’d been afraid.
She shuddered again as she toweled herself dry. Her usual self-confidence had deserted her, despite her height and self-defense training. She’d never before been quite so glad to see Jim… but his attempted explanation was ludicrous.
Computer virus, my foot.
She snorted softly. Phil at
CompuCraft wasn’t going to find any virus.