All God's Creatures

All God's Creatures

4.8 6
by Carolyn McSparren
     
 

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Say Hello to Maggie McLain, an unlikely Southern debutante in 1960s Memphis. Gawky, restless, smart and opinionated, young Maggie isn't cut out to fill the patent leather pumps of a Southern belle. When she ditches a Cotton Carnival ball to save a drowning pup, Maggie realizes her destiny. Is the land of Mint juleps and Elvis ready for a woman veterinarian? Maybe not,… See more details below

Overview

Say Hello to Maggie McLain, an unlikely Southern debutante in 1960s Memphis. Gawky, restless, smart and opinionated, young Maggie isn't cut out to fill the patent leather pumps of a Southern belle. When she ditches a Cotton Carnival ball to save a drowning pup, Maggie realizes her destiny. Is the land of Mint juleps and Elvis ready for a woman veterinarian? Maybe not, but Dr. Maggie McLain sets out to prove otherwise. Over the years, Maggie earns the devotion and respect of crusty farmers, snobby horse breeders and doubtful pet owners throughout western Tennessee. She's an inspiration to up-and-coming women vets, a loving wife to her proud husband, a patient mother to her demanding kids, and above all, a champion to sick and injured animals. When loss and grief knock Maggie off her pedestal, she falls hard. It may take a miracle for her to understand that sometimes even the best doctor must struggle to heal her own heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780967303581
Publisher:
BelleBooks
Publication date:
11/28/2004
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
1,424,980
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

* * * *

Chapter 1

In which Maggie disappoints her mother and chooses a new name

The day I told my mother I intended to become a veterinarian was the first time I disappointed her by choice. It would not be the last.

The kicker came when I changed my name. Becoming Maggie when I'd spent my entire life as Margaret might not seem like much, but to my mother it was the equivalent of burning my bra and going off to live in an Ashram.

For eighteen years I had attempted to live up to her vision for me, although I knew it was an impossible fit. She held desperately to the forlorn hope that one day I would blossom into a Southern belle with streaky blonde hair. I was supposed to marry a rich planter's son and present her with half a dozen blonde grandchildren. Mother dreamed big.

I never fully understood how she planned to transmogrify all five feet ten and a hundred and thirty pounds of Margaret Evans into a petite size six. The only time I let her bleach my hair--normally the color of the water after you've mopped the kitchen floor--it had come out in tiger stripes--white on the ends, beige in the middle and teint du rat at the scalp.

Mother's given name was Minnatrey--can't get much more Southern than that. She longed to be a member of polite society. In Memphis, Tennessee, where I grew up, that required either a family lineage traceable to General Andy Jackson and his contemporaries, or a sizeable fortune.

The Evans family had neither. We weren't rich. We were solidly upper middle-class. Daddy was a Certified Public Accountant and made a good living, but nothing that could be considered wealth. Mother stayed home or worked oncharities. The family hadn't inherited money either.

Mother spent a bundle on genealogy charts. She longed to be eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. Turns out her family fought for the British in 1776.

She would have been happy to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, her family fought for the Yankees in what is known in the south as The War of Northern Aggression.

Daddy's family had even less cachet. His great-something grandfather and his great-something uncle snuck into the country from Scotland by way of Canada. They preferred the dangers of the frontier to starving while the Duke of Cumberland hunted them down after the battle of Culloden. Unfortunately for Mother's hopes, they took up stealing and selling horses on the Natchez Trace. They were both eventually hanged. My cheekbones and my nose come straight from one of the Cherokee maidens they married along the way.

Mother's only hope was that I'd marry somebody whose family would shoehorn me into the Junior League, and give her an entry into society as a by-product.

I tried to become a Southern belle, but I was too brainy, too gawky, and much too out-spoken. And I never learned to lie. Successful Southern belles in the 1960s sucked in duplicity with their mother's milk.

Mother had to be content with running the Altar Guild and the Women of the Church at St. Cecilia's Episcopal Church. Both meetings rotated throughout the year from house to house. The week before Mother's turn, we polished every bit of silver we possessed, ironed tablecloths and linen napkins, and scrubbed until we both had housemaid's knee and permanent burn scars on our fingers.

And boy, did we fix food. I have made a million of those nasty little ham horns wrapped around cream cheese. I can still aim and fire a pastry gun of filling into a deviled egg straighter and faster than Wyatt Earp ever shot his .45.

Mother's crowning achievement came when I was a sophomore at Southwestern College in Memphis. She managed to persuade her music club to sponsor a princess at Cotton Carnival. Me. They had never sponsored a princess before. I'm not certain they ever did again.

Cotton Carnival had originally been invented to rival New Orleans Mardi Gras and advertise cotton. Memphians had always called it simply "Carnival."

I don't remember precisely when it lost its association with cotton entirely and became simply "Carnival." For a while it dwindled into a tame and 'inclusive' little party. Lately, it's been enjoying a resurgence, but with less emphasis on old money and more on just money.

In the early sixties, however, stuffy, staid Memphis turned rowdy and bawdy for one week in May each year because of Cotton Carnival.

Memphis did not allow liquor by the drink in those days. Every time the city fathers suggested regular bars would be good for tourism, the bootleggers and the teetotal preachers joined forces to defeat the proposal. Unless you were a member of one of the country clubs that were exempt from the statute, you brought your Jack Daniels to parties in a brown paper bag and consumed the whole thing during the evening. Not worth carrying home a quarter of a bottle, so most people drank one hell of a lot more than they would have if they'd been buying whiskey sours or margaritas.

During Carnival, however, the secret societies (that were not secret at all), all took 'club rooms' in The Peabody and other fancy hotels, set up twenty-four-hour-a-day bars for their members, and partied down for almost an entire week--Tuesday through Saturday. The married women who were crowned queens of Sphinx or Memphi or chosen as duchesses spent fortunes on their costumes and their parties. I can remember they all had very tall stand-up collars like Dracula's, except as he would have been interpreted by Liberace. I doubt there was a sequin, a paillette or a rhinestone to be had this side of St. Louis for months before the first day of Carnival.

The children of Memphis society were co-opted to act as pages and flower girls for the court. The little girls probably loved the dress-up.

The boys were dressed in elaborate cotton velvet Lord Fauntleroy suits. Since most of them were accustomed either to jeans or Little League outfits, I don't even want to consider the coercion it took to cram a bunch of seven-year-old over-bred tow-headed thugs into short pants and lace. The organizers had learned years earlier that the fewer pockets were available to be filled with live toads and spitballs, the better for everyone concerned.

Sometime during the roaring twenties, the husbands of the duchesses and secret society queens had gotten sick of being ignored for that week, so they invented their own society--the Boll Weevils. They rushed around Memphis in black masks with boll weevil snouts hoo-rawing and courting alcohol poisoning.

The only real fun I ever found in Carnival was in the separate (but equal, right?) Cotton Makers Jubilee held by Memphis's African American social elite. Things were still very much segregated in Memphis and the mid-south at that time, although the cracks were visible in the white monolith. The Jubilee took place down on Beale Street. They had the best jazz, the best blues, the best dancing, and far and away the most awesome parades.

The merry-makers involved in the Jubilee were also polite to white interlopers from Carnival who found their way to the clubs where the jazz greats were playing. I doubt the white secret societies would have been so welcoming to them.

Did I want to be a Cotton Carnival princess? Hardly. My parents had struggled to send me to a private school with most of the girls who were princesses of old, established country clubs, that had been sending princesses to Carnival for donkey's years.

I knew most of the boys--those scions of wealth and privilege Mother wanted me to court, but none of them had ever asked me for a date. They thought I was weird, while I thought they were stupid and shallow.

Ditto the girls. But rich and beautiful. Who doesn't envy rich and beautiful when you're eighteen?

Anyway, the one stipulation about the costumes the court had to wear was that they all had to be made of cotton. Not drip dry, not wrinkle free--your basic iron-it-and-starch-it-every-whipstitch cotton.

I'm sure Daddy couldn't easily afford either the day and evening costumes I had to wear as a member of the court, nor the even fancier dress I was supposed to wear to "my party," the ball given by my sponsoring club for the entire Carnival Court. He never complained, bless him.

The other sticking point was that every princess and lady-in-waiting had to be accompanied either by a prince charming or a lord-in-waiting to dance attendance on her. Possibly other Carnival ladies got to pick their own boyfriends. My escort, however, was chosen for me.

He was one of those scions, so Mother tossed me at him the way you might toss a bone to a hungry Rottweiler.

He was not a happy choice. First of all, he stood only an inch taller than I do, so when I wore pumps with heels, I towered over him. Second, poor Giles had been born with no discernible chin and had little piggy eyes set much too close together.

Since he had gone away to college and was four years older than I was, I had never actually met him before. We agreed to meet at the old Fortune's Jungle Garden on Poplar to get to know one another. I intended to make the best of it, I really did.

Within five minutes, I discovered that his political and religious beliefs had been handed down intact from Attila the Hun. Within five minutes of meeting me, he informed me that women were much happier in a subservient relationship to a strong man, and that held true for the "colored folks" as well. Both civil and women's rights were nothing more than a minor impediment to the forward march of history's dominant, preferably Southern, white male.

If not for Mother, I would have walked away and never looked back. But I was still being a good girl. I did tell him he was a Neanderthal idiot. We hated each other from that moment on.

One of the few good things about being a Carnival Princess was that for the week I was lent a brand-new yellow Cadillac convertible to drive with a sign across the back that read "Cotton Carnival Princess." The bad thing was that I couldn't remove the sign.

Tuesday afternoon Giles, the Prince of Darkness, and I drove together all the way down to the tip of President's Island on the Mississippi River. He hated having me drive. That was a man's prerogative.

I parked the convertible, and we clambered aboard the gigantic barge that had been fitted up with lights and fireworks for the trip up river to the foot of Beale Street. Once we landed, the Carnival King, an older married man wearing more gold braid than a Paraguayan dictator, declared Carnival open. Fireworks, music, party down.

Then came the first of several parades at which the court got to ride in open wagons called 'tally-hos'. We would wave and throw candy to the peasants who lined the streets. I was about as happy riding the tally-ho as I would have been on a tumbrel in the French Revolution.

After opening night on the float, the prince and I arrived at the staging areas for hospital visits and parades in separate automobiles. It says a good deal for Memphis that I thought nothing of driving home alone at two in the morning in an open convertible with a sign the size of Arkansas across its trunk.

My special Princess party was to be held Thursday night at the Nineteenth Century Club, an elegant old mansion on Union Avenue in the Garden District. Mother wasn't a member, but she had a dear friend who allowed us to use her membership.

There was no place to dress at the club, so I dutifully decked myself out in my ball gown--a white cotton eyelet affair with a Scarlet O'Hara hoop and four crinolines under it--at home. Mother had made me practice sitting down in the hoop. If I didn't smash it flat at the optimum moment it would flip up in front and bare my underwear to the waist.

No matter how warm and sunny May had been to that point, it always rained during Carnival. The night of my party rain was sluicing down in buckets, so Daddy put the top up on the convertible for me. Mother had left hours before to dither about the food and flowers. She expected The Son of Dracula to pick me up in a limousine with champagne and roses. Daddy and I let her think that.

Instead, I squeezed myself into my whalebone corselet, ducked under my crinolines and hoop, fidgeted while Daddy fastened all the buttons down the back of the dress, shoe-horned myself into my convertible and drove north down Cleveland Avenue from our house in the Garden District.

The area of Cleveland close to Union was lined with seedy apartments that rented by the week. I generally drove through that area ten miles faster than the speed limit, but that night I could barely see to navigate. I hugged the right-hand side of the road even though the water was deeper there. The car lights reflected against the curb to provide me an idea as to where I was driving.

If I hadn't been close to the curb I'd never have seen the movement. I have no idea why I didn't assume it was a raccoon trying to cross the street. All I saw was something black and shiny scrabbling in the light my headlights cast.

The gutter was running with water. Whatever the thing was, it was being swept closer to the storm drain. A rat? No, too dark a lump. And two things, not one.

I slammed on my brakes, rucked up crinolines and hoops above my knees, and jumped out practically into the path of an eighteen wheeler. God knows what he thought I was, but I'll bet he went home sober that night.

I didn't consider the rain. I had to keep those things from disappearing down the storm drain.

One was fighting hard to stay afloat. The other was just floating.

I reached down, grabbed one, clutched it to my bosom, and snatched the other just before it slipped out of sight. The one against my chest lay inert.

The one in my hand, however, opened its little pink mouth and gave a pitiful imitation of a howl.

Puppies.

I shook the inert one. No response. Dead? Or unconscious from water and cold? I couldn't tell. The other pup was obviously still alive and fighting to stay that way. He scrabbled against my hand with sharp little claws.

"Oh, no you don't," I said. I clutched both pups with one hand, smashed my hoop flat with the other, dove into my car and slammed the door barely in time to avoid a wall of water thrown up by the wheels of another eighteen wheeler.

As his lights swept across my rear view mirror, I caught a glimpse of my face. God in heaven!

My beauty-shop-arranged French twist was hanging down around my face, and I could barely see for the water running off my eyebrows into my eyes.

My fancy satin pumps squished against the floorboards as I felt for the pedals.

I checked my skirt. The bottom eight inches of my ruffles felt sodden, although the crinolines underneath had somehow stayed dry.

"I'm dead," I said aloud. For one frantic moment I actually considered heading west across the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and driving across Arkansas until I ran out of gas. I must have been crazy. How could I show up at my party soaking wet? Mother would be mortified.

I would be toast.

The dashboard clock said I had an hour before I was supposed to be presented to the court. Despite the warmish weather outside, I turned the heater on full blast and aimed it straight at my shoes and skirt.

At least one of the pups seemed to love the warmth. He snuggled into my lap.

I couldn't run away from my responsibility, either to the pups or to my mother. Those little critters needed professional help. Fast. I didn't dare take them to the party. I'd never be allowed to leave once I actually showed up.

I'd never had a pet. Mother thought dogs were dirty and stank up the house, and my father was so allergic to cats that one whiff could send him into anaphylactic shock and twenty-four hours in the emergency room.

That meant I had no idea where to find a veterinary clinic.

I turned right onto Union Avenue and wracked my memory. I vaguely remembered the sign for a veterinarian's office east of the Helen Shop where I'd bought my dress. If I found it quickly, I could dump my charges and race to the club in time for Mother to make repairs before the court showed up for my presentation.

I could see it now. 'Your Majesties, may I present Princess Drowned Rat?'

I groaned. Mother would never be able to hold up her head in society again. One mad impulse on my part and the Evans family would be social pariahs forever.

But then again, Mother wouldn't die. If I didn't get this shivering little pup some help quickly, it would.

Bingo. I saw the sign. A veterinary clinic. As I looked, the lights that shown through the glass front door flicked off. I peeled into the parking lot, grabbed both pups and sprinted for the door just as someone inside started to turn the key.

"No! Stop! Please open!"

He smiled, but shook his head.

"Look!" I held up the pups. "Help me."

He opened the door and stared at me. "Young lady," he said, "Do you generally dress that way?"

He took both pups. "Brother and sister, I'd say. No more than three weeks old." He held his finger against the bundle that had not moved. "Drowned, I suspect. Where did you find them?"

I poured out the entire story.

"Some bastard probably tossed them out of a car. You see any others?"

"God no. You mean I missed some?"

"No way to tell. Doesn't matter now." The pup wriggled and nibbled at his finger.

"He's a fighter." I pointed to the bundle that was already beginning to fluff in the warm, dry air. "I thought he deserved a chance."

"So he does. Let's see if we can save him."

I glanced at the clock over his head. "Oh, Lord, I have to leave. My mother will kill me."

"He's your pup, miss. I may need your help."

"I have to use your telephone," I said.

"Help yourself. Meanwhile I'll stick this young man in the oven while I get some things ready."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Don't worry. I won't broil him."

When I finally reached her, Mother was frantic.

"I'll be there within half an hour," I said. "Find me some towels and dig out your makeup and comb. I'm going to need some work."

"Cotton Carnival party?" The doctor peered over his bifocals at me.

I nodded and hung up on my mother's hysterics.

"To whom do I send the bill for all this? Or shall I pass him along to the Dog Pound for euthanasia?"

"Euthanasia? I just saved his life. Nobody's going to kill this pup, dammit! Are you crazy?" I'd never spoken to my elders that way in my life.

"Ah, then I shall keep him for you. You can pick him up tomorrow morning."

"About the bill..."

"We'll make some arrangement." He pulled the squirming puppy from the small oven and handed him to me. "Now, first we need to get some fluids into him."

"He's nearly drowned. Fluid is the last thing he needs."

"At what point in your young life did you become a veterinarian? Intravenous fluids. You will have to hold him very still. Hard enough to insert a needle into a Great Dane. Finding a vein in a scrap of fur this size requires a genius." He stared at me over his glasses again. "Which, fortunately for you, I am."

So far as I could tell, he was serious. As I came to learn, he was also correct.

He inserted a needle into the pup's left front leg and attached it to a small plastic bag filled with liquid. "Here, hold this bag," he said. "Above the table, blast it, not down by your side. Functions by gravity."

"Yes sir."

He busied himself at the other side of the examining room. His back was to me, but I heard water running, and a moment later, he came back holding a doll bottle. "Let us pray he'll suckle. If I have to shoot the formula down his throat by syringe, he might aspirate milk into his lungs. He doesn't need pneumonia."

He took the now empty bag from me and handed me the bottle. I stared at it until he said, "Young lady, don't you have bat brains? Stick it in his mouth."

Old coot. But I did as I was told, and miraculously, the baby began to suckle. Its tiny little black paws moved in and out rhythmically against the towel on my lap. I laughed. "Look at that. Go to it, little bear."

"He'll need to be bottle fed every four hours around the clock."

"Will he live?"

"I will give him a shot of antibiotics as a prophylactic." He glanced up. "The word merely means protection."

"I realize that. I asked if he'd live."

"That depends on his will to fight, his God, and you." He looked at me over his glasses again. "Who might you be when you're not royalty?" He took the pup from me and began to rub his tummy, which now bulged with milk.

I reached into the beaded evening bag hanging from my wrist and brought out an engraved visiting card. It was a little damp. I can't believe I actually ran through dozens of the things in high school and college. I stuck it out to him. He ignored it and continued rubbing. "What are you doing now?" I asked.

"His mother is not available to stimulate his bowels and bladder. I am in a sense in loco parentis."

"Oh."

"Read me what your card says."

I did.

"Hum. Margaret Parker Evans." He wiped the baby's belly and spoke to it. "Good. You'll do, young man."

I wrote down my address and telephone number on the back of the card.

"Leave it on the desk," he said, "and take back your animal while I shoot him full of anti-germ juice. No doubt he's full of worms, but they'll have to enjoy his happy home until he's stronger."

I nestled the now fuzzy baby into his towels, and watched the doctor shoot him with antibiotics.

"Do you intend to raise this pup?" he asked.

I took a deep breath. If I said the words, I could never take them back. "Yes sir."

"Good. When you come to pick him up tomorrow morning, I will set you up with formula, and a schedule for shots and worming."

"Who'll feed him in the meantime?"

"Not your concern so long as he is under my care. As a matter of fact, a young man who is waiting to leave for medical school comes in at ten tonight and stays until eight. He handles such chores."

"Oh." Dollar signs flashed across my brain. The bills for this Cotton Carnival fiasco must have been horrendous. I couldn't ask Daddy to pay a fortune for a foundling, and I definitely didn't have any money. "Uh--can I pay your bill in installments?"

"I assumed from your garb and your automobile that you are rich."

"I'm poor. Extremely poor. Look, I'll work my tail off for you until the bill is paid if you'll let me. I'm free after two in the afternoon four days a week. I'll scrub cages, mop floors--whatever you need. I couldn't do night duty. My mother wouldn't let me."

"We will discuss it tomorrow morning if he's still alive."

"He will be. Oh, Lord, my mother's going to kill me." I ran out without another word.

I checked the sign beside the front door as I ran out. "Hubert Parmenter, D. V. M." The man had asked for my name, but never bothered to give me his. He was rude and arrogant. I didn't care. I was crazy about him. I didn't stop to think why. Maybe it was that heavenly perfume of alcohol and wet dog. I'd never smelled it before, but I knew I preferred it to Chanel No. 5.

Maybe because he didn't know anything about me, but simply accepted me and let me help him. Maybe it was the way he looked at me. He didn't see a soggy, would-be debutante, but an assistant. A stupid assistant, grant you, but an assistant nonetheless. Nobody had ever required anything like that of me.

There are defining moments in every life. Mostly, we don't recognize them, but that night, I knew my life had changed forever. That dingy, antiseptic clinic felt more like home than my bedroom. My life clicked into place like a puzzle when the missing piece finally shows up. I wanted to spend my life smelling that wet fur, holding that little creature whose heart beat so fiercely against mine.

I wanted to be Dr. Parmenter.

What I didn't want was to go to my dad-dratted party, but of course I went.

I slipped into the back door of the Nineteenth Century Club and ran straight into my mother in the kitchen.

"Margaret, where have you been?" she wailed. Then she took a good look at me. "Did you have an accident? Oh, Lord, you didn't hurt that car, did you?"

"No, mother, the car is fine. I had to rescue a puppy."

Of course I should have kept my mouth shut. I should have run the car into a telephone pole or off the Mississippi River Bridge. I should have told her I'd been kidnapped by Gypsies. Anything but the truth.

"You what?" For a moment she stared at me blankly. Then she began to simmer. She was swelling toward a full-fledged hissy fit. "I do not believe this. The most important night of my life and you ruin everything! Just the way you always do. Oh, God, I don't know why I try. What will people think? You look like something the cat dragged in. When I think of what that dress cost!"

The Southern hissy fit takes a while to lift off. Mother was fast approaching a rolling boil.

"Mother, we don't have time. You have to fix me up quick."

It was the only thing that could have saved me. Nobody ever said my mother wasn't good in a real crisis. In her estimation, this was right up there with Armageddon.

She went to work. Under her breath and around the hairpins she used to re-pin my hair, she kept up a running commentary. "You do not have the brains God gave a goose. You have never listened to me or your father. Just wait 'til he hears about this! All that money down the drain. We'll be the laughing stock of Memphis. It's no wonder you can't get a date. Nobody in my family was ever crazy."

She started scrubbing the mud off the bodice of my dress. "You've never appreciated one thing we do for you. We scrimp and save and what do you do? Pick up some drowned cur. There. That'll have to do." She looked up at me. "You've never loved me. You did this on purpose just to ruin things."

That's when the maitre d' announced the arrival of the court.

Actually, I doubt that anybody noticed there was anything wrong with the way I looked. The entire court was wet from running to and from the buses and cars in which they were traveling from party to party. They'd already been to three or four other parties, so they were fairly soggy. And fairly drunk.

My prince and I welcomed the court and were presented in turn. I whispered to my mother on my way to the dance floor, "Don't worry. They wouldn't notice how I looked if I were stark naked."

She glared.

The court stayed for one full set played by the combo Mother had hired before they dashed off to their buses and limos for the next party.

I was expected to stay for the whole evening and dance with every male there, most of whom were my father's age. Mother kept thrusting me toward my prince.

I was so chastened I only insulted him once. Mostly we danced in stony silence, while I stared over the top of his balding head and prayed to be allowed to go home.

When I finally got to bed, I lay awake until dawn wondering about my pup. I cut my eight o'clock class and drove straight to the clinic.

Dr. Parmenter had been at the clinic late the previous night, so he'd hardly be there early this morning. But there he was. As I walked in the front door, he scowled at me. "Well, Miss Maggie, you here to pick up your dog?"

I started to give him my correct name. A great many Southern belles bear the last names of illustrious ancestors as first names. Mother had tried to have me called Parker, her maiden name, but for once my daddy put his foot down.

Thus I had spent eighteen years as Margaret. Not Meg. Not Peggy. Certainly never Maggie. Why bother to correct him? Besides, I liked it.

"Could I leave him here until Carnival's over?" I asked. "I'll come by to feed him and look after him as often as I can, and next week I'll be here to scrub floors to pay for him." Then what was I supposed to do with him?

With Mother?

She had fallen into bed exhausted at three a.m. the previous night. I'd managed to sneak out before she or Daddy stirred, but I knew I'd face the third degree the minute I showed up this afternoon. I had promised Dr. Parmenter to raise the pup, but that had been in the heat of the moment and to keep him out of the dog pound. The only way to avoid a major confrontation with mother was to have a suitable place for the pup to go to.

I couldn't do it. The Chinese say that when you save somebody's life that person is your responsibility forever. This fuzzy, nuzzly, cheerful little black pup was mine forever. He would go to no one's home but mine. Mother would simply have to suck it up.

"Little Bear," I whispered as I massaged his bulging tummy, "You have got me in one hell of a lot of trouble."

He grinned up at me.

"Very well, Miss Maggie," Dr. Parmenter said. "I suspect we can find some lovely cages for you to scrub out next week."

"I'll leave my schedule of classes with your receptionist. Thank you." God knows where I got the chutzpah to do it, but I leaned down and kissed him.

He growled. Dr. Parmenter, that is, not Bear.

I managed to run by the clinic twice on Saturday between visits the court paid to retirement communities and hospitals. By then even Dr. Parmenter believed the pup would live. That meant I had to tell Mother I was bringing a dog into our lives.

But not until after Carnival.

Saturday night of Carnival was the final party called "Last-Nighters," for obvious reasons. After the king and queen declared the official end to the festivities everybody in the court wound up at The Peabody out of costume and ready to party 'til we dropped. The Prince of Darkness escorted me into the room, sat me down at a table with some of my friends from school, set a fifth of bourbon in a paper bag in front of me, and disappeared without so much as a goodbye.

I was amazed that I was asked to dance every dance--and not out of pity either. Being without a stuffy date had its advantages. At seven in the morning, six of us wound up at the Whitsitts' big old house in the Garden District for breakfast.

Then I drove home for the final time in my fancy convertible and collapsed into bed. I never told mother how my prince had deserted me.

Sunday afternoon after I woke up, I convinced Daddy to help me talk to Mother about Bear.

She was horrified. "It goes outside."

"Bear's tiny, Mother, he'll live in my bathtub until he can eat on his own."

Then I regaled her with further piteous details of his dead sister and being tossed out of a car to drown.

Mother was really a pushover. I'd been counting on that.

"Very well," she said, "but only until he's old enough to stay outside in a dog yard."

When I brought him home Monday, she took one look and said, "My God, Margaret's got a rat."

He weighed about five ounces. That evening as I held him on my lap in a nest of towels and listened to him suckle happily from his baby bottle full of formula, Mother walked in. "Humph, ridiculous creature," she said, and touched his little black head with her index finger.

He was in. I knew he'd never live outside in a doghouse.

By the following Sunday none of us could imagine life without Bear.

He toddled after Mother when she charged into the breakfast room at eight o'clock, slammed The Commercial Appeal down in front of me and pointed to a photo and story on the society page.

The photographer had done a nice job of hiding the prince's flaws. He stood in the shadows behind a blonde Delta Deb, who had the most vapid eyes I'd ever seen. The story announced their engagement and their marriage in three months.

"If you'd played your cards right, that could have been you," Mother snapped. She picked up Bear and cuddled him against her chest to prove she preferred him to me.

"I can just see our write-up," I said. "'As the highlight of the engagement party, the bride-to-be slit her wrists.'"

"He's been running from matrimony for years. One week with you and he's engaged to another woman. What did you do to him?"

"Told him the truth."

Mother started to throw up her hands in despair, realized she was still hanging onto Bear, and stalked out of the room.

Until Bear came into our lives, my father and I had never realized how lonely my mother was. She knew darned well that neither Daddy nor I bought into her view of life, even though we tried. Bear knew at once. He loved us, but he adored Mother and she adored him back. He became her shadow.

After two weeks of working with Dr. Parmenter, I slipped into Mother and Daddy's room to say goodnight, and sat on the end of their bed. "I'm going to summer school," I said.

"You're working too hard," Mother said.

I knew she meant the hours spent with Dr. Parmenter.

"I need some additional credits if I'm still going to finish in four years."

Daddy sat up and looked at me over his bifocals. "I thought you had most of your English credits already."

I had declared myself an English major two semesters earlier. B. B.--before Bear.

"I'm changing my major to biology," I said, not daring to meet their eyes. "I'm going to become a veterinarian."

While they were still gaping at that I scooted. At the door to the hall, I turned back and said, "Oh, by the way, y'all mind calling me Maggie from now on?"

"Margaret! You come right back here this instant!" Mother shouted. I heard her feet hit the floor and knew she was coming after me.

I bolted.

* * * *

Mother's reaction to my announcement that I was changing my name and planning to become a veterinarian was typical.

"Don't be ridiculous, Margaret," she said. "Girls do not become veterinarians. And Maggie sounds like an Irish washerwoman."

In my previous attempts to break out of the mold she kept trying to force me into, I had meekly gone back to being a nice obedient daughter and relinquished my goals.

Not this time. Mother took to sighing deeply and casting her eyes to heaven every time I mentioned anything about Dr. Parmenter or vet school.

She even enlisted a couple of her Junior League buddies to 'counsel' me.

I never answered back or argued. I simply smiled and signed up for more chemistry classes. Now, that really infuriated her.

By the end of that August I had endured summer courses in biology and chemistry in un-air-conditioned classrooms, and nearly died of asphyxiation. The straight A's kept Mother's disapproval at bay, but only barely. She had retrenched, and was now suggesting that I become a nurse. Then I could marry a doctor.

Dr. Parmenter never questioned me about my plans, although I was up to working four afternoons a week and all day Saturday for him. I had also graduated to doing most of his anesthesia and was learning how to stitch up wounds on old innertubes.

One hot afternoon as he finished neutering a tabby cat, he looked over those glasses at me and asked, "Well, do you really want to do it?"

I nodded. I knew what he was talking about although we had never actually discussed my becoming a veterinarian.

"They won't like it," he said, and clipped the last suture.

"If you mean my parents, they already don't like it."

He pulled off his gloves, balled them up and tossed them overhanded like a basketball into the waste receptacle in the corner. "Goal." Then he turned to me and sighed. "Assuming you get into vet school, and that's a mighty tall assumption, your professors won't like it, your colleagues won't like it, and if you should graduate, a great many potential clients won't like it."

These days more than half the graduating veterinarians in this country are women. But not then. There were women vets, of course, but more up north than in the mid-south. Tennessee didn't yet have its own vet school, so that meant I'd have to vie for a place at Auburn or Alabama or Mississippi State. Against all their native good ol' boys.

"Why should they care?" I asked. Because I spent twelve years in a girls' school environment, I had never worried about competition with males, and Southwestern at that time demanded good brains from both genders.

He lifted one scrawny hip onto the edge of the examining table and clicked off the reasons on his fingers.

"Your professors will not wish to waste their time teaching you as you will undoubtedly get married, quit the profession and raise babies."

I snorted.

"Your male colleagues will dislike you because you are taking a place that should have gone to a man. Your female colleagues will resent you because they wish to be queen bees. Finally, your potential clients will think you're incapable of being as good a vet as a man, particularly if you should decide to treat large animals."

"Why should I want to be as good as a man?" I asked. "I intend to be a damned sight better."

* * * *

Chapter 2

In which Eli Scheibler saves Maggie's bacon for the first time, but not the last

Back in the Pleistocene era when I went to vet school, female students were a rarity and not a blessed one. In class I was the invisible woman. The professors ignored my questions. They wrote snide comments on my papers, and graded me harder than any of the male students.

One professor said to me, "You are not precisely stupid, Miss Evans. Go to nursing school. Become a secretary. Teach kindergarten. You don't belong here. You take up time I should be spending with the real students." Meaning, of course, the men.

"I am a real student."

"You're a city-bred dilettante. Even if you do manage to graduate, you'll spay toy poodles for a couple of years until you marry and have babies."

"The men will marry and have babies too. Some of them already have wives and families."

"Miss Evans, men have careers. Women have jobs until they become mothers."

Someone slashed the tires of my bicycle. I couldn't afford a car. The male students stole my equipment and tried unsuccessfully to sabotage my lab work. They told endless filthy jokes and cussed extensively whenever I was within earshot. I learned not to react.

They made passes that stopped just short of actual assault. One charmer pinched my rear end so hard I had a bruise on my rump for a week. After I stomped his instep he never did it again.

The book learning was no problem for me, and I certainly didn't mind dissecting dead creatures. I'd been assisting Dr. Parmenter for two summers. I could stitch up an inner tube like a plastic surgeon. Despite the sniping from colleagues and professors, I felt cocky. No--arrogant.

There's an old saying that she who rises fast and far, falls faster and harder.

In theory, I realized that once in vet school I'd be working with every sort of animal--mammals to fish to reptiles. That's one of the so-called joys of veterinary medicine as opposed to human medicine. MD's only have one species to treat.

During my first few weeks, I still entertained some vague illusion of continuing the work I had been doing with Dr. Parmenter--dogs and cats with the occasional cockatoo or box turtle. After all, Dr. Parmenter had already intimated that he'd take me into his clinic once I graduated.

Mississippi State, however, took its role as a producer of veterinarians able to treat livestock very seriously. Most of my classmates were big, strapping men who had grown up on farms and were at ease with everything from guinea hens to Brahma bulls. I did my darnedest to act as though I was ready and willing to castrate every bull that ran in Pamplona without benefit of anesthetic. In reality, if I'd been faced with even one bull to castrate, I'd have been the one needing the anesthetic. Assuming I didn't faint first.

I was not looking forward to working with live critters of the bovine, equine and porcine persuasion. I prayed my first day in the stock barn area I'd be assigned to treat something smaller than a draft horse or a full-grown cow. "Lord," I prayed, "Give me a pygmy goat or a week-old lamb or even a baby pig. I promise I'll get around to the big stuff if you'll just let me start small."

What's that old saw about being careful what you wish for?

Before dawn on one of those December days in Starkville when the fog hung in the air on the verge of turning to ice, my colleagues and I assembled at the stock barn for our first real session. Despite two layers of heavy sweaters and long johns under my jeans and wool-lined parka, I had already lost contact with my toes. I noticed that the guys were all wearing heavily padded khaki jumpsuits and wool John Deere caps with earflaps. Most of them were large to start with. Encased in their jump suits they looked not only monumental but monolithic.

How come nobody told me what to wear?

When little Eli Scheibler, the only other woman in this class, came in, I saw that she hadn't been informed of the dress code either. She looked even colder than I did in jeans and parka.

I caught a snicker from Zach Hitchens, leader of the anti-feminist brigade, and realized that they had intentionally left us out of the information loop.

Although we shared classes and labs, Eli and I weren't yet friends. I knew her real name was 'Elizabeth,' although everyone called her Eli. I knew she lived alone in an apartment across Starkville, an unheard of luxury for the rest of us. We either lived in rented rooms or shared apartments with other people. She drove a ratty truck. I rode a bicycle.

I knew she had been married. Whether she was a widow or divorcee nobody knew. She kept herself to herself.

Eli stood under five feet tall and weighed maybe ninety pounds. She had short brown hair cropped short, wore no makeup on her pointed little face, and seemed to be dedicated to blending into the woodwork.

I couldn't blame her. The other members of the class and the professors all treated her with offhand contempt when they weren't actually calling her names like 'Tinker Bell.'

The professor, Dr. Crawford, a burly, bearded Tweedledum close to retirement age, curled his lip, looked Eli and me up and down, and said, "Ladiiiiiiieees, in future please dress appropriately for this class."

Behind me Zach--or somebody else--snorted. I felt my face flame and started to turn around, but felt Eli's small fingers bite into my arm with surprising strength. "No," she whispered.

I had already learned to dislike Dr. Crawford and knew he reciprocated in spades. This morning, he assigned Eli and me to work together for the first time. He probably thought it was great to segregate the only two women on the rotation so we couldn't get in the men's hair.

"Miss Evans, Mrs. Scheibler," he said and pointed, "in that stall is a sow with twelve piglets born yesterday. They all need to be sexed, examined, their ears clipped, weighed, measured, entered into the registry and given their first shots. Do it." He strode off to deal with what he no doubt considered real students.

I'd never seen even one live piglet. Here I was stuck with a dozen my first day.

"Come on," Eli said, "Let's find one of the treatment carts and set it up."

I followed meekly. "You didn't get the word either, did you?"

Eli cut her eyes at me. "About the stupid jumpsuits? I never wore anything but jeans and a jacket on Daddy's farm. We sure couldn't afford uniforms." She made the word sound like an oath. "I'll bet it's not listed as a requisite for this class either. Dr. Crawford's just being a jackass."

"A role he was born to play."

I caught a grin at the corner of her mouth.

Eli and I found the steel rolling treatment cart and set it up with scales, rulers, log book, a dozen worming and antibiotic shots, and alcohol to treat the piglet's umbilical cords. We worked silently, and then congratulated ourselves because we'd gotten the cart set up properly without once referring to Dr. Crawford's checklist.

One up for us.

We walked over to look at our patients. The pen that held the sow and piglets stood waist high with a three-foot wide gate of lumber with metal strapping.

Pigs have a reputation for being dirty. They are, in fact, extremely clean. Given sufficient space in their enclosure, pigs will choose one corner in which to wallow, another to use as a latrine. The rest of the pen will remain dry and clean.

All my life I have heard my daddy say, "I'm sweating like a hog in August." In actuality, pigs do not sweat. That's why they need their wallow, to cool off and to coat their bristly bodies with mud to lower their body temperature and avoid fly bites. Pigs are also extremely intelligent. So intelligent that they regard human beings with suspicion and generally refuse to do anything we ask of them unless they see the sense of it for themselves.

Eli and I leaned over the edge of the pen and peered at the sow. "She a Yorkshire," Eli said.

"Same as an American White?" I asked.

"Uh-huh. And a big one."

In theory I knew what I was supposed to do with the babies. I simply had never done it. Eli seemed to be familiar with live pigs, rather than pigs in books. Was I the only city person in the class?

Then I looked down at those piglets. One baby pig might be cute, but a dozen was twelve times cuter. All my fears about my inexperience evaporated in sheer lust to get my hands on those babies. They looked like small bundles of pink velvet with wiggly snouts and fat little bellies, and they made soft little snuffling sounds as they nursed. Occasionally they'd squeal tiny little bat squeaks. How could something so cute be a problem?

"Momma's asleep. Good." Eli sounded very professional. I was beginning to feel like a real dude. If I couldn't sound knowledgeable, I'd have to act like an expert.

The pen in which the new mother nursed her piglets was large enough to provide separate areas for food, wallowing and toilette. It was bedded with straw and wood shavings. At the back left hand corner hung a triangular trough for Momma to root around in when feeding time came. It would be some time before the piglets would eat solid food, but when they did, they'd fight to be first to get their noses into that trough.

The sow lay propped against the back wall of the enclosure with her eyes closed. She snored softly while the piglets rooted around her belly searching for a teat to latch onto. Since she didn't have a dozen nipples, somebody was always on the outside butting in, but she didn't seem to notice.

Even Eli was making cooing noises at the babies. We must have looked like a pair of dotty matrons at the window of a hospital nursery.

Eli got her senses back first and turned away, once again all business. "I'll roll in the table."

I decided not to wait for Eli to bring the cart. She might have some experience of pigs, but she was itsy-bitsy. She wouldn't be able to hold more than one or two of those piglets at one time.

I, on the other hand, could gather five or six in one armload. I'd go in to the pen, sweep up as many as I could carry, deposit them in the empty pen to the right, and return for the rest. Before Eli had the cart in place, I'd be set to bring the first piglet out for processing. We could do our thing and return each one to Momma as we finished, thereby avoiding the necessity of handling the same piglet more than once. Fast and efficient and impressive as hell.

"Piece of cake," I said.

I opened the gate to Momma's pen, stepped in and shut it behind me. Momma opened one eye and stared at me, but didn't move. She seemed completely serene.

As I took a step toward mother and young, I heard Eli whisper, "Lordy, Maggie, back out. Fast."

"I'm fine," I said.

The sow surged to her feet. Piglets clung to her teats and hung on for dear life.

Eli yelped.

I froze.

"Nice piggy," I crooned.

She stood her ground and glared at me.

"Go back to sleep like a good girl."

She opened her mouth to reveal three-inch tusks she must have inherited from a prehistoric wild boar.

"Oh, shit," I whispered.

That's when she charged. She rained piglets into the shavings like hailstones.

If she hit me, I'd go down.

That was blood lust in those piggy little eyes. Once she got me down, she'd eat my liver.

I didn't hear the gate behind me open, but I felt somebody yank me backward into the aisle so hard I toppled over backward.

"Quick. Kick the gate shut," Eli wheezed.

I kicked with both feet and felt the gate connect with the sow's snout. She screamed in rage and backed up. I kicked again and heard the gate latch an instant before she hit it for the second time.

The safety latch held, but the sound of hog against steel and wood echoed through the barn like a mortar round. She hit the gate three more times before she gave up and sauntered back to her piglets. She'd made her point.

"Get off," Eli wheezed. "I can't breathe."

I hadn't realized I'd fallen on Eli.

I rolled off to the side, pulled myself to my hands and knees, and reached down for her. "Are you all right?"

"Assuming she can still breathe." A male voice spoke from behind me. I looked up to see Dr. Crawford, hands on broad hips, scowling down at both of us.

The rest of the class was hanging out of their respective pens laughing their guts out.

I started to gabble about having done this many times with Labrador Retrievers, but Eli brought her knee up into my gut. I shut up.

"If you have quite finished your comedy routine, Miss Evans, Mrs. Scheibler, may I suggest you complete your assignment?"

I saw the glee in his nasty little gray eyes. This was a damned setup.

"Certainly, Professor," I said through clenched teeth. How the hell were we going to do it?

"The normal method is to begin by leaning over the side of the pen from outside the fence, snubbing a line around the sow's neck and hauling her up tight. One of you can then go into the pen and tie all four legs together. That, my dear Miss Evans, is why it is called hog-tying."

I could have killed him with my bare hands.

"You have so far successfully avoided her teeth. Take care that you avoid her hooves as well. They are sharp. She is quick. I would prefer not to risk having those piglets hurt by another show of irritability on her part. A distressed sow will eat her own babies."

Well, great. Now I was going to be responsible for porcine cannibalism.

"Thank you, Professor," Eli said quietly. Without another word she walked away to get the chains and rope to hold the sow.

Eli and I worked well together. Once the sow was immobilized, she simply went back to sleep while we treated her piglets.

We watched her after we released her to check her reaction. She showed no signs of mistaking her babies for lunch. Thank God. She probably weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. We couldn't have stopped her.

As we were trundling the cart back to the staging area, I asked, "How did you know what would happen when I went into that pen?"

She shrugged. "Daddy used to raise hogs when I was little. Not to sell, just to smoke hams for us and the relatives at Christmas. Sows and boars are mean as water moccasins."

"So if I'd waited for you ... I am so sorry. You saved my life."

She grinned up at me. "No, just your bacon. I'm not so sure about your grade."

I later found out that Dr. Crawford had paired the male members of the class so that each twosome weighed, measured and registered one lamb with one hundred pound ewe apiece to deal with, while Eli and I were assigned a mighty hog and a dozen piglets.

"The old bastard did it on purpose," I said as Eli and I left the barn together.

"He'll do it again too. The next time we'd better be ready to do the job he gives us without screwing up."

I felt my face flame. "You didn't screw up. I did. I have never been that close to a pig in my life. Or a cow, for that matter."

"Then you'd better stick close to me," she said and looked me over. "I can use your brawn."

"And I obviously can use your brain." She didn't deny it. "At least I owe you lunch."

From that time on, Eli and I have saved one another's bacon innumerable times. After a while, we stopped keeping score.

* * * *

Chapter 3

In which Maggie loses a mouse, but a gains a man

Those first two years of vet school I remember only that I was exhausted all the time, but I kept up a four point average. The summer before my senior year my grades landed me a really plumb assignment.

A private corporation in Olive Branch, Mississippi, just south of the Tennessee State line from Memphis and Germantown, had been conducting a long-term study on the effects of obesity on rheumatoid arthritis. They were searching for a combination of vitamins and minerals that could alleviate both the obesity and the arthritis. I don't think they had much success. Two years later they closed that lab and moved the entire operation to Arizona to start another study on hanta virus.

Despite some of the horror stories to come out of animal labs in the 1960s, most reputable labs treated their animals with kindness. This lab treated the monkeys and white mice they used in their tests like royalty. Once their part in the experiment was finished, they were sent to zoos or retired to live happy lives--not that mice live that long.

That's where I learned to distrust monkeys. They may be cute, but they are dirty, noisy, and prone to bouts of viciousness against one another and any human being in the vicinity. We had to be extra careful not to let them bite the hand that fed them. I darned near got carpal tunnel syndrome the first week chopping fresh carrots and apples and cabbage for the little dears. They didn't appreciate my efforts and delighted in firing the remains of their meals back at my head with amazing accuracy.

The best assignment was supposed to be with the mice. Mice were relatively clean, quiet, and they didn't throw things at you. Unfortunately, as a temporary employee, I got stuck with the monkeys.

Then, the first of July the mouse person quit. She said flipping burgers was preferable to shooting syringes full of vitamins into the mouths of mice. I took over her job.

I knew mice from all my lab work at school. When I opened the sound-proofed door to their holding area, I realized that a great many mice all squeaking at once reached a much higher decibel level than I had anticipated. They also smelled worse.

Across from the door hung a large sign that read, "Please do not throw mice on floor."

Why on earth would anybody throw a mouse on the floor?

There were wire cages floor to ceiling on three walls and a desk and cabinets for supplies along the back wall. Soft artificial lighting left the corners of the room in shadows, but the room was air-conditioned. Blissful. Monkeys hate the cold, so their big room was hot and stuffy. After playing Jane to dozens of Cheetahs (okay, I know Cheetah was an ape and not a monkey), I really looked forward to my first day with the mice.

I checked my list for my first subject and found the corresponding cage number. The sole inhabitant was a spectacular mouse twice as big as any mouse I had ever seen. I was supposed to shoot a syringe of vitamin mixture down his fat little throat. According to my predecessor, the stuff tasted like cherries. The mice loved it.

I opened the cage, took out the mouse, held him in my left hand, and poked at his mouth with the syringe in my right.

"Hey," came a baritone voice almost at my shoulder. "Know where I can find Royce Williams?"

I jumped a foot and loosened my grip. The mouse snapped his teeth hard into the ball of my thumb.

I yelped. Without a conscious thought I side-armed that mouse straight at the wall with the force of Arthur Ashe returning a serve.

Now I understood the sign that said, "Do not Throw Mice on Floor."

The mouse slid down the wall completely unhurt, tossed me a satisfied look and scurried under the supply cabinet at Mach 1.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry. I hope it's not rabid or carrying tetanus," said my visitor.

"Listen, you..." I said, and swung around ready to deck him.

"It bit you," the man said, and came out of the shadows with a fresh white linen handkerchief in his hand. He took my thumb and wrapped it quickly and efficiently. Then he looked up at me.

Up to that point I had considered Juliet was the sappiest of Shakespeare's heroines. Really stupid to fall in love at first sight with a thug from the wrong side of town. That day changed my mind. The French call it a coup de foudre--a blow of madness. It happened at a most inconvenient moment.

The man holding my hand had the bluest eyes I'd ever seen. They were full of concern, but they crinkled at the corners with good humor. He looked as though he laughed a lot.

"Do you need to sit down? Should I try to recapture the escapee?"

I shook my head and probably said something like 'urk.' Then I remembered I was annoyed at this jerk, snatched my hand back, and said, "The mouse is perfectly healthy. You can't possibly catch him."

"If that sign by the door is any indication, I suspect he will join his compatriots who have successfully escaped to freedom."

"At least I didn't actually throw him at the floor."

He took back my hand and carefully unrolled his handkerchief from around my thumb. "Little bastard."

"Huh?"

"The mouse."

"Oh. I might need to sit down after all." Not because I was faint at the sight of my own blood. After two years of vet school I had seen plenty of my own and everybody else's. I was weak at the knees. "Who are you and why did you scare the hell out of me that way? This area is off limits to visitors."

"I'm Morgan McLain. I work in a bank and I'm looking for Royce Williams to get his signature on some papers. One of the secretaries told me he might be out here."

"I have no idea where Mr. Williams is. I haven't seen him all morning."

"Look, the least I can do is to walk you over to the main building so you can get that hand looked after, then buy you a cup of coffee, maybe lunch."

I started to tell him not to be ridiculous, that I was perfectly capable of bandaging my own hand, but for some reason I didn't want him to walk out of my life. "Yes, all right. Damn, I'll have to type up an accident report. I'm going to have to account for the one I side-armed. It's my first day with the mice. Mr. Williams will scalp me."

"No, he won't. It's my fault." He put his hand casually on the small of my back. "Shall we go?"

I've never believed in jolts of sexual electricity either, but I swear I jumped a foot when he touched me. As we walked out the door into the heat, he said, "I wish I had you on my soft-ball team at the bank. We'd be leading the league with a pitching arm like yours."

This guy wasn't exactly handsome, although he had plenty of chin, unlike the Prince of Darkness. He did have a wonderful voice, deep and warm and friendly, but who falls in love with a voice? He was about six feet one, which meant I could wear heels when we went out, and had the kind of burly figure that would be called portly by the time he was forty. I guessed he was probably five or six years older than I was. Maybe over thirty.

He wore an air of casual authority that said 'man,' rather than 'boy.'

But it was those bright blue eyes of his that got me and held me.

I was not looking for a serious relationship, much less marriage. I had all I could handle with my last year of school, passing my board exams, and starting my internship with Dr. Parmenter. Unfortunately, no life-changing experience ever seems to come at a convenient time. Not in my life, at any rate.

* * * *

Chapter 4

In which Maggie marries Morgan

I gave Morgan my virginity on a rainy Saturday night in a Starkville, Mississippi, Holiday Inn.

Sex with him was incredible. When he reminded me that I had no frame of reference, I assured him I wasn't about to acquire one. My entire last year of vet school I was torn between elation that I had him and terror that I'd lose him.

Starkville isn't just over the hill from Memphis--it's a three-hour drive if you speed. I certainly didn't have time to come home to Memphis to see him, so he dutifully commuted to Oxford to see me.

That's where our lives became permanently entwined with Eli's.

It started as a way to save money--Holiday Inns in Starkville aren't cheap, particularly on weekends when the Mississippi State football team is playing at home.

At Eli's little apartment we could be together. Thanks to Eli's kind heart we could often be alone as well. When she gets to heaven, her crown is going to glitter like a crystal chandelier from all the stars she accumulated during those months. She'd camp out at the library so we could snatch a couple of hours of passion. One day she remarked that my skin had never looked clearer. I seem to recall I smacked her. Not hard. Since she weighed under a hundred pounds, I might have broken her.

No, that's wrong. She had already taken more hard hits than most women experience in a lifetime. She hadn't broken. We'd known one another for nearly four years. She knew just about everything about me, but I still knew only bare facts about her life. I didn't know what had forged her into the person she'd become. Her father ran a commercial cattle farm outside of Pontotoc, Mississippi. Eli had four older brothers, and her mother died young. I knew Eli was a widow.

One night over pizza and too much red wine she finally opened up.

My youth had been relatively privileged. Hers should have been at least comfortable.

"I guess the family genes for bulk petered out before they got down to me," she said. "Momma died of a heart attack two days after my twelfth birthday. Only way she could get any rest."

Having met Eli's four enormous older brothers a time or two, I could see that death might be an appealing alternative for a wife, but hard on an only daughter. Her father, a fireplug of a man with the soul of an armadillo, believed that women were put on this earth to make the lives of men pleasant, to provide them clean houses, good food and plenty of it, and to stay the hell out of their way when they went drinking and whoring. "He believed Momma ought to be able to handle all his needs on butter and egg money," she said.

As is so often the case, one magnificent teacher opened Eli's eyes to the possibilities of the world and discovered that this underfed waif with the circles under her eyes was not just bright, but brilliant.

"Not that being smart would cut much ice with Daddy," Eli said. "He didn't believe in more than a high school education for females, and he only put up with that because the truant officer would have fined him if he hadn't. I'd have settled for marrying some good ole boy and having a passel of kids and dying young like Momma if Josh Scheibler hadn't come along."

She leaned back against the ratty old couch in her apartment, but I could tell from the dreamy look in her eyes that she was seeing Josh Scheibler the day he walked into her life.

"Here I am, four feet ten, and here comes this long, tall, drink-of-water veterinarian that must have been about six-six. Came into the kitchen to warm up before he went back to Tupelo where he was a partner with a small animal vet. He'd been treating one of daddy's bulls. I fixed him the damndest, richest cup of hot chocolate man ever had this side of Paradise."

"He came back, I take it?" I asked.

She smiled sheepishly. Eli was seldom sheepish about anything, but just thinking of Josh Scheibler made her blush. "I already knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I also knew there wasn't a chance in hell I could do it. Daddy would never pay for college, much less vet school. He planned to hold onto his housekeeper and cook as long as possible."

"So how did you wind up Mrs. Josh Scheibler?" I asked.

"One day Josh came by and found me crying, because Daddy had just ref

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