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In the front yard of her leased house on Danbury Way, Rebecca took another swipe at the leaves with her rake. She had no idea how many leaves an oak tree could produce, but the one gracing this particular patch of lawn was shedding them by the ton.
She was so not into yard work, but the job had to be done. It also gave her something to do while she forced herself to accept that she, Rebecca Anne Peters, a still-single, twenty-eight-year-old freelance fashion writer who possessed excellent taste in clothes and hideous taste in men, was never going to find the security and happiness all of her friends had found. Most of them, anyway. Angela Schumacher's life was a bit of a struggle. But her best friends in NewYork were all now married, engaged or seriously involved and none of those options was ever going to be available to her.What had happened with Jack a few days ago had proved that in spades.
It wasn't as if she'd fallen in love with the guy, she reminded herself as she attacked the leaves. She'd only liked him. So at least she'd been spared having her heart ripped out and handed back to her. Still, she'd been left feeling totally embarrassed and rejected.
The awful sensation seemed all too familiar. It also brought back the numb, hurt and sick feeling she'd been left to cope with after Jason Cargill had broken up with her six months ago. She'd spent two years dreaming of a future with that man only to have him inform her on their way home from a movie that they were over. Two months to the day he'd said he had never really loved her, he had married someone else.
She hated that she could still feel the painful sting of their ugly split. She hated even more thatthe awful sense of rejection she'd been living with was once again so acute.
Golden leaves scattered and crunched as she waded through them in her Ralph Lauren riding boots--the only boots she owned with a heel that wouldn't sink into the grass--to start another pile. Rake in hand, she loosened the pumpkin cashmere scarf that matched her V-necked sweater and the warp thread in the brown plaid Burberry jacket she wore with her designer jeans and attacked the dead vegetation with renewed vigor.
The breakup with Jason had been like the starting bell of a downhill race into a single woman's worst nightmare. Right on the heels of his betrayal had come the gorgeous weddings of two of her best friends and the birth of another friend's beautiful baby girl. She'd been thrilled for them all. At least, she'd wanted to be, but each event had been an in-her-face reminder of all that she had always wanted so badly herself.
She figured she'd hit bottom when her apartment had been broken into and her CD player and television had been stolen. With her insurance about to go up again and her personal life going nowhere, she'd taken the break-in as a sign to get the heck out of Dodge--or midtown Manhattan, anyway--and make a new beginning for herself.
Finding her father had seemed the perfect place to start. If she could just meet him, she might finally have the family and security she'd never had growing up with just her mom. Then, she'd found herself actually getting interested in his stepson....
She forced her mental mutterings to an abrupt halt. She would not go there again. The only thing that mattered was that she had now been dumped twice in a row. Next time, if there ever was a next time, she would be the dumper. Not the dumpee.
Her determination gave way to a disheartened sigh as she looked from the charming two-story colonial she'd leased to the other impeccably neat homes in the cul-desac. Resolving to take the upper hand was all well and good. In the meantime, however, she was stuck alone in the suburbs in a too-big house with two hairy cats who hated her, two months left on her lease and not a clue what to do next. Unlike her neighbors, she had no kids, no husband and no interest in the state of her lawn. With so little in common with them, it was as clear as the early November sky that she didn't belong here, either.
The sharp bark of a dog had her jerking around to look behind her. That excited sound also put an end to her little pity party when she noticed one of the little fur balls in her charge atop one of the brick columns flanking Carly Alderson's long driveway.
She'd had no idea that the cat had escaped. Whenever she left the house, she always checked to make sure the little monsters, who'd come as a condition of the lease, weren't anywhere near the door. Obviously, as preoccupied as she'd been with her totally messed-up life, she'd overlooked that precaution when she'd come out a while ago.
Of more concern than her lapse, however, was the cat's behavior. It had its back arched and was hissing at Molly and Adam Shibb's young black Labrador. Elmer, the dog, kept barking, his tail wagging as if he thought the racket might somehow convince the cat to come down and play.
It occurred to Rebecca that with Adam at work and Molly at her new prenatal yoga class, the puppy shouldn't be out, either. Aware of his newly discovered talent for digging, and thinking he must have dug himself right out of the backyard, she turned to prop her rake against the trunk of the oak. Even as she did, she heard the dog's bark change pitch and the cat screech.
She had no idea what had happened, but she'd no sooner turned back than she noticed that the cat was no longer atop its perch. It was part of the yipping, screeching tangle of fur at its base.
Adrenaline had barely turned the beat of her heart into sickening thuds when Elmer gave a shake that somehow sent the cat flying. As if landing on the run, the tabby raced in a streak of black-and-silver fur through the piles of leaves and up the rose trellis at the other end of the house.
Elmer had already turned tail and scrambled for home, the house on the other side of Carly's mansionlike place. She could see his little butt wiggling as he shimmied himself under the fence near the front gate and back into the safety of his yard.
The breath she'd held had barely left her lungs before she darted through the leaves herself to peer up at the frightened feline clinging to the top of the latticework.
Her stomach gave a sick little lurch. On a good day, animals of any variety simply made her uneasy. One hissing at her with blood leaking down the side of its face flat-out frightened her.
Reminding herself that she was bigger than he was didn't make her any braver.
She eyed the cat. The cat eyed her back. She couldn't tell if this one was Columbus or if it was Magellan. Since she'd never been able to tell the cats apart, she also didn't know which of the two had peed in one of her pink Prada pumps. But even if this one was the culprit, she couldn't let him stay there and bleed.
The viney vegetation had turned brown with the frosts. Gingerly pushing the crackling foliage back so she wouldn't get stuck on its thorns, she hooked one foot on the bottom rung of the wrought iron trellis and inched herself up. The cat inched exactly that much higher.
"You are not dying on my watch." You little brat, she would have added, but she was too busy avoiding rose thorns to bother.
The cat ran out of trellis. He had nowhere else to go that didn't involve a leap.
Rebecca had no desire to chase him all over the neighborhood. Catching him around the middle before he could spring over her head, she slammed the ten pounds of struggling fur against her chest, jumped at his indignant screech and promptly lost her balance. Had she not still had hold of the trellis with her other hand and somehow managed to turn and come to a stop with her back against the house, she would have landed with him in a heap in the flower bed.
Her reward for the rescue was the sharp sting of claws as they scraped the side of her neck.
Sucking in a breath, she flipped the cat around paws-out to avoid getting slashed again and hurried through the open garage and into the house.
Multitasking came as naturally to Rebecca as breathing. She'd been known to conduct a phone interview while scanning photo proofs for another article and still manage to slip a note with her sandwich preference to whoever was making a deli run for lunch. In an animal emergency, however, she was a tad out of her element.
Having no clue what she could do for the mewling cat on her own, she stuffed him and a towel into the carrier she'd noticed in the laundry room, made sure the other cat was inside and hurried into the garage. After shoving the carrier onto the passenger seat of her sporty little leased coupe, she backed onto the street and parked in front of Molly and Adam's place.
A ten-inch pot of mums sat on the corner of their porch. Leaving the engine running, she grabbed the pot and ran to where the dog had dug the hole under the fence, shoved the pot into the hole to thwart another escape and hurried back to her car.
The Turners, who owned the house she currently resided in, had left a list of emergency numbers pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. At the top of the list had been the name, number and address of their veterinarian in the strip mall across from Fulton's Hardware Store. Having ripped the list from the board on her way out, she headed for the animal clinic, using her cell phone on the way to tell them she was bringing in a cat that had been in a fight with a dog and was bleeding all over the place.
Within minutes she'd pulled into one of the three empty spaces near the All Creatures Animal Clinic, pushed her way through the door with the carrier and been ushered into an exam room by an abnormally calm, middle-aged veterinarian's assistant wearing a pastel paw-print scrub top.
Rebecca was afraid she'd sounded every bit as panicked as she felt on the phone. That panic fed a high-energy state that was pretty much normal for her, anyway, but she didn't know if it was her anxiety or because she'd mentioned blood that the woman immediately took the carrier from her. She barely had a chance to tell the kind-looking, copper-haired woman that she'd gotten there as quickly as she could before the assistant removed the still-displeased animal from the carrier and set him and the crimson-spattered towel on the exam table protruding from the middle of the wall.
"I didn't see exactly what happened. I mean, I saw the cat on the column and the dog barking at it," she explained to the woman as someone else entered the room behind her. "But I turned away for barely a second and all of sudden there was all this noise, then the cat was flying one way and the dog ran the other."
"The dog had the cat in its mouth?"
The rich, deep voice had her glancing toward the man who'd stopped on the other side of the table. Seeing nothing but a white lab coat, she jerked her eyes past his broad shoulders to the lean, carved lines of his face. Dark, neatly trimmed hair brushed his broad brow. Intense blue eyes barely met hers before returning to his patient.
She was definitely upset. She barely noticed that Joe Hudson, DVM, according to the embroidery above his pocket, was drop-dead gorgeous. All that really registered was how gentle he was as his assistant held the animal and he ran his hands over the cat's little body. "I don't know," Rebecca replied, watching his long, lean fingers move expertly over fur. He wasn't wearing a ring. She didn't notice a tan line, either. "I guess he must have, to toss him like that." She crossed her arms, tightened her hold. "It all happened so fast."
"So the dog shook it," he concluded, holding the cat's head between his hands to look at its eyes. "How big was the dog?"
"Three times the size of the cat. Maybe four. Elmer's a puppy, but he's big already. Can you save him? The cat, I mean? Please?" she begged, struck by his incredible gentleness with the animal. "Like I told the woman I talked to on the phone, he's not mine. He's the Turners'. I don't even know if it's Columbus or Magellan," she admitted, her agitation rising in direct proportion to how much the cat had calmed. It was getting too weak to move. She was sure of it. "I can never tell them apart. They're the same color and the same size and their markings all look the same, so it's impossible to tell which is which."
"Why do you have the Turners' cats?"
"Because I'm leasing their house while they're in Europe. They've been gone for four months and have two to go. Taking care of the cats was part of the deal because they thought they'd be happier in their own environment. They said that as long as I kept their litter box clean and their food and water dishes filled they'd practically take care of themselves, so I've been doing that, but I really don't know anything about animals at all because I've never had a pet," she explained without taking a breath. "The buildings I've lived in wouldn't have allowed them anyway," she went on, uncrossing her arms, crossing them again. "I've only seen cats in alleys before and the only dogs I've ever been exposed to are the ones I've seen with dog-walkers in Manhattan."
Joe's first concern was to identify the source of the blood. Next was to check for telltale signs of internal injury or broken bones. The cursory skim of his hands over the cat's body revealed nothing alarming. The feline's eyes were bright and clear, the color of his tongue good. The majority, if not all, of the bleeding also seemed to be coming from its head, specifically the ear missing its tip.
His second order of business was to calm the incredibly attractive and stylish brunette who reminded him of a gnat on caffeine. She talked a mile a minute and her body language was all over the place. What it said--even more than how anxious she was about the cat--was that she was not at all comfortable in her present surroundings. Given what she'd just admitted about her nearly nonexistent experience with animals, he'd be willing to bet his veterinary degree that she wasn't comfortable with the cat, either.