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Forrest wrapped up his quick meeting with Annabel Cates, Thunder Canyon's librarian and therapy-dog owner. "I'm glad we're starting this group for veterans. Sometimes it's just easier to talk when you're petting a dog," he said and couldn't resist giving Smiley, Annabel's therapy dog, a quick rub.
Annabel smiled in return. "I'm sure Smiley will love all the attention. Why don't you take him for a walk? He's been cooped up in here all morning."
Forrest nodded and accepted the leash of the gentle golden retriever. "Sounds like a good plan to me."
As he stepped outside the library door, the cold November air hit him with a snap. He inhaled and the sensation was so sharp it was almost painful, but the sun was shining brightly and Smiley was wagging his big furry tail so hard it was banging against Forrest's good leg. The dog's happiness gave him a lift and he led the golden down the street. One of the nice things about Smiley was he was trained so well that he never pulled on the leash. The dog followed his lead, and with Forrest's bum leg, that made the walk a lot more pleasurable.
Forrest crossed the street and relaxed a smidge. With Smiley, he'd noticed one of the symptoms of his PTSDthe docs called it hypervigilancediminished just a little. Always nice to get a break from feeling like he needed to be ready for incoming fire any minute.
Forrest turned down another street, liking the way he was starting to feel at home in town. After his medical discharge from the army, he'd hoped that going back to the family ranch in Rust Creek Falls would help, but it hadn't. Everything he'd once done with ease underscored his new limitations with his injured leg. Forrest glanced down and noticed that his shoelace was untied. With his iffy balance, he sure as hell didn't want to trip over it. Awkwardly bending down, he began to retie it.
Suddenly Smiley let out a bark and raced away from him. Forrest reached for the leash, but it slid from his grasp. He swore under his breath. His heart raced in his chest. What if Smiley got hurt? He'd never forgive himself.
"Smiley," he yelled. "Smiley." Stumbling after the galloping golden retriever, he walked down the street as fast as he could.
A young woman appeared out of a doorway and stood directly in Smiley's path. Forrest feared the dog would knock her down. "Smiley," he called again.
"Smiley! Sit," the woman said.
Wonder of wonders, the therapy dog plopped his bottom on the pavement and wagged his tail, with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
Relief rushed through Forrest as he finally caught up with the dog. "Thanks for stopping him," Forrest said, grabbing his breath at the same time as he grabbed the leash. "I was afraid he was going to run into that traffic."
The girl shrugged her shoulders. "It was nothing. I guess he just wanted to come over and say hello."
"Do you know him?" Forrest asked, still perplexed that Smiley had taken off like that.
The girl studied Smiley for a moment. "Based on that therapy vest, I'm guessing he belongs to Annabel Cates. My sister Haley is married to Marlon Cates and he's Annabel's brother, but I have to say I've never actually met the dog before."
"That's weird, because Smiley headed over here like he knew where he was going," he said, taking a second look at the girl. He couldn't exactly nail her age, but she looked young. Her brown hair flowed past her shoulders and her eyes were big and brown, glinting with happiness. She made him feel a little old.
The girl laughed lightly and the sound felt like a cool drink of water on a hot day. "Maybe this dog is just super smart and knew that ROOTS is a great place to hang out," she said, pointing to the sign in the window. She gave him an appraising look. "Wait a minute. Are you related to Rose Traub?"
"Yeah, she's my cousin. Why?"
"Rose is married to my brother Austin. I'm Angie Anderson," she said and extended her hand.
"Forrest Traub. Man, this is one small town. Seems like most everyone is related," he said.
"You're right about that. Why don't you come inside? We've got hot chocolate and cookies," she said.
"That's okay. I better get Smiley back to Annabel," he said.
"I'm sure Smiley could use a little rest after the way he was racing down the street," she said.
His leg was aching like hell, so he decided he could use a break. "If you're sure," he said. "What do you do here, anyway?" he asked as he followed her inside.
"I'm a volunteer," she said. "ROOTS is a safe haven for the local youth."
"But aren't you a youth?" he couldn't help asking because Angie looked so young.
She laughed again, and the sound just made him feel better. "I guess I'll accept that as a compliment," she said. "I'm twenty-three and going to college. I work here at ROOTS part-time. How do you like your hot chocolate? Light or loaded on the marsh-mallows?" she asked.
He almost chuckled at the way she asked. "Light. The bad thing about a sugar high is what comes afterward," he said.
"Coming right up. Have a seat," she said and went to a snack and beverage table at the far end of the room.
"Hey," a teenage boy with long hair said, stepping toward Smiley. "Cool dog. Can I pet him?"
"Sure can. He's a therapy dog, so he's trained to be friendly. He may need a little refresher course, though," Forrest said wryly, giving the golden an affectionate rub.
"What do you mean?" the teenager asked, bending down to pet Smiley.
"He took off while I was walking him today, and he's not supposed to do that," Forrest said.
"So he's in trouble?" the teenager asked.
"His mistress will have to make that call," Forrest said.
Angie returned with a cup of hot chocolate. "What do you think of Smiley, Max?"
"He's a cool dog. You should bring him around more often," he said. "Oh, look, Lilly's here. We're gonna do some homework together."
"Okay, I'll be right here if you need any help," Angie said and sat next to Forrest. When Max took a few steps away, she shot Forrest a mischievous look. "I don't know how much actual homework they'll get done. Max has a monster crush on Lilly," she said in a low voice.
Forrest glanced at the teenage boy and girl as they sat at a table together and felt a pinch of loss. He shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder if I was ever that young."
"Well, you're not ancient," she said. "It's not like you can remember when electricity was invented."
This time he did chuckle. "I guess. It's just been a long road since I got back from Iraq."
Angie's eyes widened. "You were in Iraq?"
"Yeah, army. I enlisted after high school and earned my engineering degree before my first tour of Iraq. My second tour ended my military career," he said and took a drink of hot chocolate. "I hadn't planned on that. An IED took me out of action."
"IED?" she echoed.
"Improvised explosive device."
"That must have been horrible."
"It was worse for some than others. I was in the first vehicle, so we took the brunt of it."
"So, you're a hero," she said, her gaze intent.
"Oh, no," he said, feeling self-conscious at the admiring expression in her eyes. "Just doing my job."
"I'm sure plenty of people would agree with me. How long will you be in town?" she asked.
"A while," he said. "There's a doc here who's going to do some more work on my leg. Plus I've started doing blueprints for an architectural firm. What about you?" he asked, ready for the attention to be taken off of him.
"I'm hoping to finish my bachelor's degree in sociology within the next year. I work in the college administration office one day a week. I temp for a CPA during tax season and work part-time for a catering business. And like I mentioned, I volunteer here at ROOTS and for some other charities," she said and her cheeks turned pink. "I really don't know what I want to do for the rest of my life," she confessed. "I wish I did. I wish it would just hit me on the head like it seems to do for other people, but so far, it hasn't. But I'm not going to sit home waiting to find out, so I stay pretty busy."
"Jill-ofall-trades," he said.
"Huh?" she asked, furrowing her brow in confusion.
"As opposed to jack-ofall-trades. You're a jill-ofall-trades," he said.
She gave a slow smile that had a surprising edge of sexiness. "I like that. I'm glad Smiley led you to stop here today."
Forrest felt flattered at the same time that a mental alarm went off. Angie might not be a teenager, but she was still too young for him, so he sure as hell didn't want to give her any ideas. "Thanks for lassoing Smiley and giving me some hot chocolate. I should walk him back to the library now," he said, rising. Pain shot through his leg, but he gritted his teeth so no one would see.
"There's no need to rush off," she said, bobbing to her feet.
He couldn't prevent a twist of envy at how easy it was for her to move around. Those days were gone for him. At least for the present. "I really should go. Thanks again," he said. "You take care."
She met his gaze. "You, too. Who knows? It's a small town. We may see each other again."
Making a noncommittal sound, he made his way out the door to the sidewalk. He glanced back at the doorway and caught sight of Angie waving at him. He waved in return and walked away.
She was a cute girl. In the same way a sister was cute, he told himself. She was the exact opposite of him. He was a busted-up retired army major. Most days, he felt like he was eighty-years-old.
Angie had the lively glint of a very young woman who hasn't seen the ugly side of life. He envied her innocence, and he couldn't ever imagine being as open as she was. Not now. Not after everything he'd seen and experienced.
He took the short walk to the library and led Smiley inside.
Annabel smiled and greeted both of them. "Smiley, boy, good to see you. And to you, too, Forrest. How did Smiley do?"
"Pretty good except when he ran off," he said, giving her the leash.
Annabel's face fell. "Ran off?" she echoed and glanced at her dog. "When did he do that?"
"About halfway through the walk, he took off toward ROOTS. Maybe he was drumming up business for himself," he said.
Annabel gave a half laugh, but he could tell she wasn't really amused. "Maybe. He's trained not to run away."
"Angie Anderson stopped him. Good thing. I was afraid he would get hit by a car."
Annabel winced. "I don't know why he did that. Thank goodness for Angie," she said, rubbing Smiley's neck.
"True," he said. "What do you know about her?"
"The Andersons are a great family," Anabel said. "They've had some tough times, but Angie really came through it well."
"She seems too young to be working at that youth center."
"ROOTS?" Anabel said. "They actually like having some younger volunteers. It helps the kids identify with a good role model. I hear Angie's a sweet, easygoing girl."
Forrest shrugged, backing off. He shouldn't be curious about Angie. "Okay. I'll head on back home now. Thanks for the adventure," he said.
She bit her lip. "I feel bad that he ran off on you."
"It wasn't a problem," he said. "I caught up to him."
"Well," Annabel said. "I think Smiley is due for some retraining, and I'll start tonight."
Forrest nodded. "You'll figure it out," he said. "You've done a great job with him."
"Thanks," Annabel said. "But he'll be even better next time you see him!"