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Earlier after catching up on voice mails, Jake had felt compelled to come here to find Mike, to see if he'd done harm to himself. Glasses clear, Jake shuffled down the steps, with Bummer trailing behind. The two of them entered the brightly lit church basement, where laughter punctuated cheerful voices of those attending the fundraiser potluck. As he scanned faces for Mike's, several people, many of whom recognized him from his vet practice, greeted him.
Then the door opened behind him, letting in another rush of Arctic wind. Two little girls rushed down the steps.
"We found two kittens!" they shouted. "Out in the snow!"
Jake turned. He saw two little girls so bundled up that little of them showed, except their pink noses and tendrils of blond hair. And in the mittened hands of each little girl, a small golden tabby kitten mewed and shivered. He hurried to them and knelt down on the hard, cold linoleum. "Where did you find these little ones?"
"They were in the snow near where I parked," a tall woman behind the girls replied, her voice low and rich. "Are they okay? It's so cold out and the kittens are so tiny." She dropped to her knees beside him.
"I think their eyes have just opened recently," Jake said. At his elbow, Bummer did something unusual. He licked one kitten and then the other with his big tongue.
"Don't let him bite the kitties!" one of the little girls cried.
Jake held up a hand. "Bummer isn't going to hurt them. Let's see what he does."
Bummer licked the kittens thoroughly. Then with delicate care, he lifted each kitten with his teeth by the scruff of its neck and placed it into Jake's hand, one then the other. The basset hound woofed.
"Do you want me to keep the little ones warm, Bummer?" Jake asked.
Bummer woofed again and licked the top of the kittens' heads. Jake pulled off his gray wool scarf and made it into a tight circle. Then he placed the kittens in the center of the makeshift nest. He cuddled them close, knowing they needed warmth fast.
"Oooh," the little girls sounded their approval. They both petted Bummer, crooning, "Good dog. You're a good dog."
"You're the vet, aren't you?" the young woman kneeling beside him asked.
"Yes." He realized he'd neglected his manners. Sliding the scarf nest to one arm, he offered her his hand. "I'm Jake McClure."
"Jeannie Broussard and these are my girls, Mimi and Cindy."
Jake became aware that Annie, a frequent volunteer at the local animal shelter, had appeared beside him. Middle-aged, Annie wore her usual denim "outdoorsy" attire and hiking boots. He recognized the concern on her face. Would they have to squeeze in two more stray kittens? Another question came to mind. "Mimi and Cindy, did you see a mama cat outside?" Jake asked.
"No," Jeannie replied for them. "I looked around, too. I can't see why kittens so small would be outside in this weather."
A man in the crowd that had gathered around them cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I saw a cat at the side of the street near here. It was a golden tabby, too."
Jake didn't have to ask. The tone of the man's voice and his use of the past tense said loud and clear that the mother cat no longer needed his help. He and Annie exchanged weary glances.
Beside him, Jeannie made a sound of sorrow and regret. "Poor little orphans."
As if understanding their words, Bummer bayed mournfully and licked each kitten again. Jake rose, still cradling them in his scarf. "I'll take these little ones to the animal shelter before I go home tonight," he said.
The two little girls bounced up and down. "Mom, Mom, can't we keep them? Mom, please."
Jake hesitated, certain that the girls were putting Jeannie on the spot.
But Jeannie nodded, a smile lifting her face. "I've been promising you kittens, haven't I? It looks like God has chosen just the ones He wants us to have."
"Thank goodness," Annie breathed.
Again as if understanding, Bummer woofed and grinned. From around her neck, Jeannie untwined her fuzzy red scarf, followed Jake's example and soon the two babies were transferred to it. The gathering around them broke up.
Jake leaned forward. He wanted to make sure she knew how to take care of the babies. "From my observation of their teeth, these kittens should be old enough to eat soft warmed food. I suggest a food specially formulated for kittens so it doesn't upset their delicate systems."
"I was thinking warm milk?" Jeannie lifted one eyebrow.
"No, most kittens are lactose intolerant. You can buy special kitten milk, but canned food and water is sufficient. They'll need to be fed every four hours."
Jeannie looked worried.
"Is that a problem?"
"No," one of the girls piped up. "Our babysitter likes cats. She'll help us when you're at work, Mom."
The woman's pretty face lightened. "Yes. Yes." She beamed at him. "Thank you."
He pulled out his card and handed it to her, slipping into the usual doctor-pet owner relationship. "I'm happy that these two have found a good home. Please bring them by sometime this week and I'll thank you with a free checkup and shots for them."
"Oh, no—" she protested.
He held up a hand. "I insist. I volunteer my services at the local no-kill shelter. You just bypassed that step. I'm glad these two found a good home."
She took his hand and squeezed it. "Thank you."
This impulsive gesture embarrassed him. His usual shyness around women rushed back. He nodded and stepped back.
"No, thank you, Jeannie," Annie said. "We're almost out of room at the shelter. You're a Godsend for these two."
Still smiling shyly, Jeannie began shepherding the girls toward the coatrack along the wall.
Unable to look away however, he followed her with his eyes. Something about her caught and held his attention.
"Well, we dodged another bullet," Annie said in an undertone. "What are we going to do when we reach capacity?" She walked away, not waiting for an answer.
"Hello, Jake," a seductive feminine voice hailed him as he turned.
He glanced over to see a woman who owned a pampered poodle, named Something Ridiculous in French. He nodded, not recalling if they had progressed to first-name status. And they likely hadn't because she reminded him too much of Sheila, the only kind of woman he seemed to attract. He kept moving.
A petite, silver-haired woman named Ginny bustled up to him. "He's over there." She pointed to Mike, his man Friday. "He shouldn't be out in this cold after being so sick."
"Tell him that," Jake said, one side of his mouth drawing down as he remembered just why he'd come here tonight.
"I did," she said with a decided nod.
"So did I. A lot of good it did." Jake moved through the crowd. And then confronted Mike, best friend of his late grandfather, who kept house for Jake. "I told you—"
"You're a vet, not a people doc," Mike interrupted, rising from where he sat with his cronies and looking Jake nose to nose. "I covered my face with my muffler, breathed through my nose, and I'm fine." He turned to Ginny, behind Jake. "I wasn't going to miss this potluck. This church has the best food in town, especially your baked macaroni, Ginny."
Ginny flushed at the compliment, got flustered and retreated to the kitchen.
"Don't try that soft-soap macaroni flattery on me," Jake warned.
"Wouldn't dream of it. But that wasn't flattery. It was a sincere compliment."
Mike's cronies, the over-eighty-five group of retired farmers and paper mill workers, chuckled with appreciative grins. Most wore jeans or overalls and plaid flannel shirts.
"I'll come back and take you home after the meal," Jake said.
"No, on both counts," Mike announced, looking for agreement from his cronies. "You're staying to eat. Otherwise, left to your own devices, you'd just eat a granola bar or some other garbage. And after the meal, I'm staying to play pinochle. One of my pals will see me home. And again, you're not my nursemaid. Don't go trying to give me a curfew. I'm too old for that nonsense. We've all been getting cabin fever and this potluck and some pinochle afterward is just what we needed."
Jake looked at the deeply wrinkled but smiling faces all nodding in agreement with Mike. One of them piped up, "You need a good wife, Doc. That's what you need."
I had a wife. Two years post-divorce, Jake still had no desire to repeat that mistake. He shook his head and stifled a yawn, ready to make his departure. However, the fragrances of good homemade food made him reassess his plans to head straight home and early to bed. Why not stay? I have to eat.
"Okay. But, Mike, make sure you don't breathe that cold air. It strains your lungs and heart."
"Hey, Jake." The tall, graying pastor of the church came to the table and offered his hand. "Glad you could come. We're trying to raise several thousand dollars tonight for our Jeannie." The pastor motioned toward the woman with the girls and kittens.
She had shed her winter outerwear, revealing a slender figure and waist-length golden brown hair. She wore it loose, gleaming in the light. Jake paused, captured by the sight. "So Jeannie is getting the Habitat for Humanity house?"
"Yes, Jeannie Broussard. We couldn't be happier for her. A hardworking single mom. Her dream has been to have a home of her own. Those are her twin nieces." The pastor lowered his voice. "Jeannie's had custody of the girls since they were babies."
"I see." Jake didn't know what else to say, and watching Jean-nie took most of his focus.
The pastor urged Jake to stay and eat. Then the man moved away to greet others.
Alone again, Jake recognized something unusual, unexpected had happened. Till now, he hadn't realized that his faithful shadow Bummer had not accompanied him when he went to talk to Mike. Instead, Bummer had stayed with Jeannie, her little girls and the kittens. Jake stood still, trying to decide if he should go get Bummer or not.
Jeannie waved to him, her face lifting into a welcoming smile. The smile transformed her from merely pretty to lovely.
Jake found himself moving toward her, his mouth suddenly dry. He halted when he reached her but couldn't think of a thing to say that made sense. "You're pretty" would not be appropriate. This is why I'm good with animals, not people.
"I was wondering when you'd miss Bummer," she said with an impish gleam in her eyes.
"He's my sidekick all right," Jake managed to say. He stared at Jeannie, taking in her brown eyes. They reminded him of the fur of one of his dogs, a deep warm brown. He loved that rich shade of mahogany.
"Sidekick?" one of the little girls repeated after him.
"It means," Jeannie said, stroking the little girl's white-gold pigtails with obvious affection, "that the dog is his companion, right, Dr. McClure?"
"That's right." Her fingers were long, slender and gentle. Mesmerizing. Bummer woofed and Jake looked down at him and the children.
Both little girls were pretty and blonde but not carbon copies. One wore her hair in pigtails and one in braids. Both were dressed in turtlenecks and worn blue jeans but not matching outfits. He approved of that.
"You're not identical, are you?" he asked, the doctor in him coming out.
"No, we're fraternal, Doctor," the one with the pigtails replied seriously.
Then both girls dropped to their knees again and began petting his basset hound. Bummer yodeled his pleasure and wiggled in welcome. Jeannie swung her head, shifting a few strands of hair that had swung forward.
He watched the very feminine gesture. Long hair didn't always look this good, shiny and full. He tried to think of something to say but—as usual—came up empty.
The sound of mewing caught his attention. Jeannie's fuzzy red scarf with the two kittens still rested in the crook of her arm. Jake said the first words that came to mind. "Bummer doesn't usually take to kids like this."
She gazed down at the basset hound. "I think it might be the kittens. Your dog seems to have taken an interest in them."
"That does happen." Jake couldn't resist reaching over to stroke the soft kitten fur with one index finger. He imagined that this woman's hair would feel as soft. That froze him in place.
He had stepped out of his comfort zone tonight. He usually just kept to work and home. This social stuff always baffled him. He wanted to walk away, but stayed to watch the interaction of the girls and kittens and his basset hound. When it came to social confidence, Bummer certainly topped him. Jake folded his arms and just watched Bummer charm everyone around him.
The twins continued taking turns petting the kittens and Bummer, who was moaning with pleasure in his low gruff voice. Bummer's unusual affinity for these two kittens and little girls amazed Jake. Yet he couldn't stop himself from concentrating on Jeannie, a beacon in the crowded, noisy room.
The pastor stopped further conversation by raising his hands for silence. The cheerful hubbub in the church basement subsided.
"You all know why we're here. Our Jeannie needs funds to help get the work on her Habitat house moving. This unusually cold winter we've been having has slowed progress."
While the pastor spoke, Jake wondered how the man could speak so easily in front of all these people and ask for donations. If he had the pastor's gift, he could do more than just volunteer at the animal shelter. He could make his life's ambition real.
He caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye. The woman who owned the spoiled-rotten poodle was wending her way toward him. He'd seen that intense, almost predatory expression before. Jake moved closer to Jeannie, hoping this would deter the poodle woman. But he doubted it would.
The pastor was still speaking. "Please be generous and leave your donations for Jeannie's house in the buckets on the buffet tables. Make checks out to the church and mark the memo line with 'Habitat.' Thanks for your support. Let's pray." The pastor said a short grace and then called out, "Now let's eat!"
People applauded and children rushed ahead to line up. Jean-nie and her nieces were swept away from him to be the first in the buffet line. Bummer surprised him by loping after the little girls.
Jake's radar picked up the poodle woman. She had almost reached him. Jake started to go back to Mike, then remembered something.
This was a good read, I hated to put it down. Cute kids, adorable animals, humor, interspecies adoption (haha), drama, family and friendship. The great stuff you come to expect from a love inspired book. Jake and Jeannie have heavy burdens on their hearts, can they overcome their pasts to make a bright new future? It was fun finding out.
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