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Abbey Harris climbed the stairs to the third floor at Cimarron City Hospital with Gabe, her black Lab, on a leash next to her. This was the only exercise she got all day. She worked long hours as a medical social worker at the hospital as well as volunteering to bring her dogs to see patients here to make them feel better.
At the door to the third floor, Abbey knelt and rubbed her Lab behind his ears. "Gabe, we've got a little girl who needs your love and care. Are you ready?"
He nudged her with his head, and she hugged him before standing and opening the door. The antiseptic smell and brightness from the fluorescent lights hit her as she stepped out onto the busy surgery floor in the middle of the day. A patient with a portable IV was strolling the hall, and she paused to let him pass.
When Abbey stopped at the nurse's station to check in with the head nurse on the floor, Gabe sat beside her. "Hi, Caron. I got your call about a patient you think Gabe can help."
Dressed in blue scrubs, Caron Wyatt looked up from reading a chart and smiled, her brown eyes twinkling.
"I'm so glad you and Gabe are here. If anyone can help, it'll be you and your dog. I've seen what you've done with other children on this floor."
"Which girl is it?"
"Madison Winters. She lost both her parents in a plane crash six months ago."
"I remember hearing about that. Greg and Susie Winters. What an awful story." Abbey patted the top of Gabe's head. She knew what it was like to lose someone close. She'd always miss her daughter, Lisa.
"Madison has come in for yet another operation. Hopefully it'll be her last one, and she'll be able to walk after it. That is, with physical therapy."
"Has she spent a lot of time in the hospital?"
Caron nodded, smoothing her short auburn hair back from her face. "Over the past few months I've seen the child grow more depressed, which really concerns me. You know how important a patient's attitude is to the recovery process."
"That's why I started bringing Gabe and my other dogs here to visit. It goes hand in hand with my job."
"I'm hoping he'll work his wonders with this little girl."
"How old is Madison?"
Abbey's breath caught for a moment before she released it. Her daughter, Lisa, would have been eight if she had lived. If only she hadn't died from leukemia She couldn't go there now, not when someone needed to be cheered up. "We'll try our best."
When Abbey arrived at room 345, she stood in the doorway to the little girl's hospital room, decorated in pink with purple accents and Disney characters painted on the walls. It was bright. Cheerful. Yet Madison sat in a wheelchair staring out the window with the saddest expression on her face.
Abbey tried to contain her emotions at the sight. She racked her brain, trying to recall what the reporter had said about the child and her situation. She had been the only survivor in the plane crash that killed her parents. Her half brother, Dominic Winters, had returned to Cimarron City to be with his little sister. Was he still here? Or was someone else looking after Madison?
Gabe nudged Abbey's hand as though he knew instinctively he could help the child. If any animal could comfort and cheer up Madison, her black Lab would.
Abbey took a deep, fortifying breath, then plastered a smile on her face and entered the hospital room. "Gabe, look who I found. Madison."
On cue, Gabe barked.
The girl glanced toward Abbey and her dog as they crossed the distance between them. The child's blue eyes grew round. "You were looking for me?" she murmured, her attention fixed on Gabe.
He stopped at the side of the wheelchair and sat, looking up at Madison. She was a fragile-looking child, with short brown hair and long dark lashes. For a few seconds she just stared at him.
"You can pet him. He loves kids."
"How did you get a dog in here?" Madison asked as she laid her hand on the top of Gabe's head. Tentative at first, she then began scratching him behind the ears.
"That's one of his favorite places to be rubbed. I'm Abbey, and he's Gabe." Abbey squatted down next to her dog. "I've been bringing him to visit different people in this hospital for a while now. I work here, and friends of mine let me know when there's someone special he should meet. One of them thought you might enjoy getting to know Gabe."
"She didn't say anything to me." Madison leaned more toward them, now using both hands to pet Gabe when he put his head on the arm of the chair.
"I told her I wanted to surprise you."
Madison grinned. "You did. I used to have a dog. A small one."
Abbey's heart swelled, thinking about what the little girl had gone through in the past few months. A picture of her late daughter hovered in her mind. She couldn't go there, or she wouldn't be able to cheer up Madison. She forced a light tone to her voice. "I have several dogs."
"You do? Are they like Gabe?"
"No, the others are smaller, what I would call lapdogs."
"Like Zoe was."
"Was she your dog?"
Madison nodded, tears welling in her eyes.
Wet tracks coursed down the little girl's cheeks. "She was in the plane with me when it crashed. I tried holding on to her, but " The last of the sentence ended on a sob.
Abbey ached at the sight of the child's tears for her dog. That piece of information hadn't been in the news reports she'd heard. She opened her mouth to say something comforting but a booming voice stopped her.
"What's going on in here?"
Abbey shot to her feet and whirled around to face a man over six feet tall with the same crystalline blue eyes and long black eyelashes as Madison. "I'm Abbey Harris, a social worker with the hospital. I bring Gabe here to see different patients. A nurse on the floor thought that Madison would enjoy meeting him."
As though she'd given him too much information to process, he stared at her with a blank expression for a few long seconds before turning his attention to Madison. "You're crying, Madi. What's wrong?" His voice softened as his intense gaze did.
The child swiped her hands across her cheeks. "Nothing. Gabe is a wonderful dog, Dominic."
So this was Dominic Winters, Madi's older brother. For a moment she thought of her ex-husband, who couldn't deal with his own child when she had been so sick. How very different these two men were.
He knelt by the wheelchair and held his hand out for Gabe to sniff. "I'm sure he is. I used to have a golden retriever when I was a boy."
Dominic Winters's commanding presence filled the room. He exuded power. Abbey couldn't imagine him as a child. Maybe because of all the stories she'd heard about him.
"Madison, I need to talk to Gabe's owner for a few minutes, then you'll be going down for some last-minute tests. Okay?"
"Can Gabe stay while you two talk?"
Dominic finally looked back at Abbey. "That's your call."
"He'd love to. You can have him do some tricks while I'm gone. Roll over. Sit. Shake hands. He loves to perform. I think he's a clown at heart," Abbey said, giving the young girl a wink right before she followed Dominic from the room.
The second she stepped outside into the hallway, she knew this wouldn't be a friendly little chat. He frowned as he moved a few feet from the doorway.
"What did you say to Madison to make her cry?" Though whispered, his question was full of forceful steel. His taller frame towered over her smaller one.
Abbey straightened, throwing her shoulders back. She had done nothing wrong. "We were talking about the dogs I have. She asked me if Gabe was the only one. I told her I also had two small ones. She mentioned she'd had a small dog. She didn't exactly say it, but I assumed Zoe died in the plane crash."
Dominic's jaw visibly tightened. "I see," he said between clenched teeth, peering down the brightly colored corridor as a myriad of emotionsfirst sadness, then anger, then something she couldn't readflittered across his face. "She's gone through so much lately." His murmured words, spoken so low Abbey barely heard him, held none of the forceful steel now.
In that moment Abbey realized Dominic Winters was hurting as much as his younger sister. "I understand she'll have surgery tomorrow."
"Yes. It'll be her most difficult one to date, but I hope her last."
"I'd love to bring Gabe to see her during her recovery. He's helped a lot of patients, especially some who have been fighting pain and " She held her tongue. It was only a guess from what she'd seen before going into the room.
Abbey doubted she would be telling him anything he didn't already know. "Before I came in, she looked so lost and sad. I know that depression can be an issue with people who are dealing with the kinds of injuries she has, not to mention the loss of her parents."
"Well, I don't think it would be a good idea to have Gabe visit her. I don't need her upset by anything. She's been dealing with so much."
He started for his little sister's room. "Thank you for your concern, but we'll be fine."
The controlled politeness in his words, his stiff bearing, shouted the opposite. She hurried after him to retrieve Gabe, deciding that the man hadn't said anything specific about her not coming to see Madison. Remembering the loneliness she'd glimpsed in the child's eyes only strengthened her plan to help her as much as she could.
Good thing she worked at the hospital as a medical social worker. Dealing with families of patients was part of her job. Although bringing her dogs to the hospital wasn't technically part of her work, it helped when interacting with the patients and their families. As a child she'd learned the power of animals to help others when she'd assisted her father at his veterinary hospital.
Abbey spied her black Lab with his head lying in the girl's lap while she stroked him over and over. "I'm sorry, Madison, but Gabe has to leave. There are some other patients expecting to see him, too."
The child looked up at Abbey, that sadness dulling the color of her eyes. "Can't he stay a little longer?"
Abbey tossed a glance at Dominic. "I believe you have some tests to do before your surgery. That's very important. You can't miss them."
Madison pouted. "The last two operations haven't helped. I don't know why I'm having another one. They don't even know if I'll walk again," she said in a fierce voice, then dropped her head, staring at Gabe, who scooted closer to her as though he sensed her emotional pain and wanted to help ease it.
Just like Gabe had done with Lisa. The memory intruded into her thoughts. She shoved it away again, the pain still raw.
"The doctor says you have a good chance of recovering the full use of your legs, Madi. It'll take lots of work and physical therapy, but I'll help you as much as I can."
The child leaned down and kissed the top of Gabe's head. "See you later, Gabe, then you can show me your tricks," she whispered in a thick tone.
The defeat in Madison's voice tore at Abbey. She peered at Dominic. His sharp gaze broadcasted that she needed to leave. As she called Gabe to come with her, she turned away, but not before she saw the man's grief. His eyes connected with hers, and he quickly veiled his expression.
"I'll be praying for you, Madison." Abbey rushed from the room, knowing she'd probably overstepped her boundaries. That wasn't wise considering Dominic Winters had the kind of power and money to make her life difficult.
At the nurse's station, Abbey stopped to see her friend. "Caron, thanks for the heads-up about Madison. Gabe and she hit it off right away, as you thought they would."
"When does Gabe not do that? Even Mr. Johnson couldn't resist your dog's charm, and my nurses have never dealt with someone so grumpy. But Gabe got him to smile. I didn't think the man had it in him."
"You're exaggerating. Mr. Johnson has been in a lot of pain, but I think his meds are finally helping."
"Nope, it was definitely Gabe. Are you working tomorrow?"
Abbey nodded, her gaze straying back toward Madison's room. Dominic Winters, with a nurse's aide, wheeled his sister out into the hall and headed for the elevator. For just a few seconds his eyes captured hers, but he quickly averted them and bent down to say something to his sister.
"Yes. I'll be around. I want to make sure Madison's surgery goes all right. Mr. Winters may need my services."
One of Caron's eyebrows rose. "I don't see him needing anyone's services. Every time I've dealt with him, he knew exactly what he wanted."
That wasn't the man she'd gotten a brief glimpse of, but she could have been reading more into their encounter. "Maybe. He's probably anxious about Madison having another operation. Does that make three now in six months?"
"Yes. She had multiple fractures to both legsa lot of damage to repair."
Abbey inwardly sighed. Her daughter, Lisa, had come to hate going to the hospital those last few months of her life. "I'd better go. Mr. Johnson is expecting Gabe."
"And we wouldn't want him to get upset," Caron said with a long sigh. "No, we wouldn't."
Holding Gabe's leash, Abbey headed for the other side of the third floor, where the eighty-year-old man's room was located. The closer they got, the more Gabe pulled on the strap. The second she hit the doorway she unclipped Gabe, and he padded toward Mr. Johnson, his tail wagging frantically. The frail, hunched-over man sat in his wheelchair, his head down as though he had fallen asleep seated in front of the window. Tufts of gray hair lay at odd angles as though he hadn't combed it since he got up.
Gabe nudged Mr. Johnson's hand. He straightened, a grin spreading across his wrinkled face, an ashen cast to it. "It's about time you got here, boy. I expected you fifteen minutes ago." Mr. Johnson shot her a censuring look.
"Sorry about that. We paid another patient a visit before we came here."
"Are you going to come see me at the nursing home once I'm transferred?" His gruff voice wavered.
"Of course we are. I thought others at the place would enjoy meeting Gabe, too."
"Sure. Sure. So long as you come." Gabe perched his front legs on the arm of the wheelchair while Mr. Johnson rubbed him. "If I have to be in prison, I need something to look forward to."
"You can count on us. I talked to the Shady Oaks Nursing Home this morning. Everything will be ready." Another one of her duties at the hospital was often making arrangements for patients who were leaving for some kind of long-term care.
Mr. Johnson snorted. "That'll make my son happy. He won't have to deal with me."
"Now, Mr. Johnson, you know he cares about you. He comes to see you every night."
Another snort preceded a series of coughs. Tears crowded the old man's gray eyes. Gabe licked him on the cheek, and Mr. Johnson cackled as one tear slipped down his face. "He always knows what to do."
Abbey took a seat in a chair in a room decorated very differently from Madison's. The walls were pale blue with two generic landscape pictures. She watched as Mr. Johnson produced a ball he liked to toss for Gabe, one of her pet's favorite activities.
She used to throw a ball to Gabe for endless hours after her daughter's death because Lisa had loved to do that when she hadn't been too weak. If it hadn't been for her dogs, she didn't know if she could have pulled her life together, to finally finish her master's degree and become a medical social worker. But nine months ago, she finally did just that. She knew more than anyone the power of animals to heal a broken heart.