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Change was coming.
He could feel it in the air, Teague Johnson thought. It wouldn't be long before the trees started to turn. Soon after that there would be a riot of color as the Pacific Northwest said goodbye to summer and settled in for a long, likely wet and maybe cold winter.
He'd missed that. As a kid, all he'd wanted was out of the wet, but after a while spent at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, he'd found the lack of defined seasons oddly disconcerting. It messed with his sense of time passing. And when he'd finally come home, he'd welcomed the shift from summer to fall and winter to spring in a way he never had before.
You never miss it until you lose it.
Terri's voice echoed in his head as the pain jabbed at his gut. He steeled himself against it with the ease of long and frequent practice. The past had been nagging him lately, in all its various ghostly forms. That was usually a signal he'd been living too much in his head, and the cure was something hard, physical and exhausting. Maybe he'd borrow Cutter for a long, mostly uphill run.
"Crazy dog," he muttered, but he was smiling. The uncannily clever beast had quickly gone from being the pet of his boss's fiancée to being an amazingly useful member of the team.
He hesitated for a moment, looking at the small coffee place next door to the groomer's. Another sure seasonal sign; they were putting up the sign for a string of pumpkin spice items. Tempting. He had a silly weakness for them. Maybe he'd pick up a latte and grab a muffin to share with Cutter, who seemed to have an affinity for the particular flavor as well. That would, if nothing else, guilt him into taking that long, hard run.
After, he decided. He continued toward the groomer's, smiling at the image of a floppy-eared dog in a tub of suds painted on the window.
A bell rang as he pulled open the door of the small shop. A humming sound from the back halted just as he stepped inside, and a split second later he heard a woof of greeting come from the back. He couldn't see the dog, but obviously Cutter knew he was here.
"Almost done, be right out."
The female voice calling from the room at the back was low, even husky, but there was another note in it that made his brows furrow. An unsteadiness or something that was noticeable. He shrugged it off; it wasn't his business. Maybe she had a cold. Or maybe the mess Cutter had gotten into Hayley, said fiancée and the dog's first chosen person, had said he was mud and muck from nose to plumy talehad required some heavy-duty cleaners, although the only thing he could smell was a faint scent of something that reminded him of cough drops. Eucalyptus or something.
The humming began anew, and he realized it was a hair dryer of some sort. The image that brought on made him smile, but he had to admit Cutter had enough long, thick fur that it would probably take him hours to dry without the electronic assist.
He wandered as he waited, feeling a bit out of place here amid the displays of dog stuff. He'd had no idea there were so many different kinds of food and supplements. The toys were more familiar, and a couple made him smile; one designed as a fire hydrant actually made him chuckle. He noticed, here and there, more pictures like the one painted on the front window, featuring the same dog, with various expressions from mournfulover the diet foods, he noticed with a grinto silly. Whoever the artist was, he or she had a great imagination, and clearly a good sense of humor.
He walked toward a few pictures he saw on a side wall. Photos from local 5K and 10K charity runs, in which the shop had apparently participated or sponsored a team. Community involvement. He looked at the people in the shots, wondered if the owner was one of them.
He stopped in front of a rack of colorful collars and leashes, each one sporting a fabric pattern of varying designs and degrees of whimsy. He picked up one with fire hydrants on it, and again chuckled. Bark Boutique, the tag said, with a website of the same name. He wondered if they did custom work. A collar with alternating doggie angels and imps would be more in order for the irrepressible Cutter.
On that thought, the dog appeared in the back of the store. Tail up and newly fluffed, he trotted toward Teague sporting his usual attentive expression. With gleaming black fur from his nose to well back over his shoulders, where the thick coat shifted gradually to a rich, reddish brown, and upright, alert ears, he was, Teague admitted, a beautiful animal. But it was the gold-flecked amber eyes and the uncanny intelligence behind them that was his most striking feature. And Teague had quickly learned the intensity in that gaze wasn't effective just on sheep.
"Hey, boy," he said when the dog reached him and sat expectantly at his feet. "Don't you look all spit-and-polish."
He reached down to deliver the anticipated scratch behind the dog's right ear. He remembered that Hayley had told him how impressed she'd been when she'd brought Cutter here the first time, and the owner had carefully researched his breed to learn the proper way to groom him.
"At least, the breed he looks like," Hayley had added with a laugh. It was of no concern at all to her that nobody knew for sure the ancestry of her fey lost waif. "I want to see her make a go of it. I like that she donates groomings to shelter animals, so they can look their best at adoption days."
Teague liked that himself.
The woman called from the doorway to what was apparently the grooming room. Her voice was steady now, whatever he'd heard before gone.
"Teague Johnson," he agreed as the woman approached. She was tall, maybe two or three inches shorter than his own five-eleven, he thought, attractive in an outdoor, bet-she-could-keep-up-with-you-on-that-run kind of way. Participant, not just sponsor, he guessed, thinking of the run pictures. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a jaunty ponytail he supposed was practical for her work, but also fit with her long-legged grace. She wore scrubs, the damp spots showing that was for practicality as well.
She shook her head. "Quinn, actually."
That his boss had made the call himself didn't surprise him; Quinn never considered much of anything in the way of work beneath him. It was one of the many reasons he was so effective. Not to mention that he was stark, raving crazy about Hayley and would lay down and die for her if necessary. Teague envied him that. If it wasn't so clear the feeling was mutual he might envy him Hayley as well; she was a remarkable woman. The kind Teague had begun to think didn't really exist.
"I'm Laney Adams," she said, and held out a hand as she came to a halt before him. He took it, firmly but not crushingly. Shaking hands with a woman was always tricky, or seemed so to him. Too strong and they winced, too easy and some seemed to get offended. Laney did neither, she just met his grip and released after a solid shake.
And didn't seem to feel at all the jolt of awareness that had gone through him at the contact.
He quickly shook it off. Hadn't rained much yet, so it was probably just some residual charge of static electricity.
Cutter rose and went to stand beside her, nuzzling the hand he'd just shaken in the way usually reserved for cheering humans up; obviously the dog liked and trusted this woman, and Teague had learned to trust the dog's judgment about people.
"You work with Hayley?" she asked.
Teague nodded in answer to her question. And couldn't help noticing the woman's eyes and nose were slightly reddened.
"Dog soap get to you?"
Startled, she swiped at her eyes. "I No. It's fine." She looked away, then down. "I'm sorry, I forgot his collar and tag. I'll go get it."
She turned on her heel and left quickly. To his surprise, Cutter followed her, although he wouldn't put it past the dog to have understood about the collar.
He barely had time to appreciate the way she moved when it all tumbled together in his head. Red eyes and nose, that undertone in her voice, and the way Cutter had been nosing at her hand
It wasn't soap. She'd been crying. Unease spiked through him. Female tears unnerved him, like most guys. They made him start looking for something to fix, to make it better, and too often there wasn't anything.
He heard the slight clink of the boat-shaped tag as the now-dressed Cutter approached. According to Hayley, he'd shown up on her doorstep with only that tag, engraved with his name, for identification. All her efforts to find his owner had failed, and in the meantime Cutter had settled in and begun to work his special kind of magic on her grief-torn heart.
And now he seemed glued to Laney Adams. When she stopped again, Cutter stayed pressed against her leg. He nuzzled her hand again, and the woman petted his head as if instinctively.
Cutter looked up, his gaze fastened on Teague. He stifled the urge to read "Well? Fix it!" into the dog's expression, knowing it had to be arising out of his own earlier thoughts.
But there was no denying the intensity of the dog's steady, unwavering gaze. And in the relatively short time since Cutter had come to Foxworth, they had all learned it was wise not to ignore the determined dog when he got "that look."
He didn't want to ask, but did anyway. "What's wrong?"
"You were crying."
He was a little surprised when she didn't deny it, but simply acknowledged it this time.
"Some women can cry beautifully." She shrugged. "I'm obviously not one of them."
He admired her blunt honesty, but felt awkward. He didn't even know this woman. But Hayley did, she'd said she really liked her, maybe that was why. Friend of a friend in need or something.
He opened his mouth to ask "Are you all right?" then shut it again. Obviously she wasn't all right, or she wouldn't have been crying. Feeling a bit proud of himself for having avoided a stupid question, he felt even better when she leaned down to scratch Cutter's ear briskly.
"I'll see you next time, you lovely boy," she said.
There, another bullet dodged, Teague thought.
"Let's go, dog," he said.
Cutter didn't move.
"Hayley's waiting," Teague said.
Cutter's tail wagged, and he gave the softer version of the happy bark he always greeted Hayley with in reaction to the sound of her name. But he didn't move from Laney's side. And again he gave Teague that look, that compelling gaze that he had no doubt could drive those sheep right off a cliff if that's what the dog intended. Not that he ever would. No, Cutter was a softie, always seeming to find the walking wounded, the ones who needed help.
Often, the ones that needed Foxworth-style help.
Cutter gave a short, sharp yip of impatience. Teague drew back slightly. He did not like how this was shaping up.
With a long-suffering sigh, Cutter finally left Laney's side. Teague let out a long breath of relief. He'd been afraid there for a minute that
His thoughts were interrupted when the dog, instead of heading for the door, walked behind him and bumpedhardagainst the back of his legs. Pushing him rather awkwardly toward Laney.
The muttered phrase escaped Teague before he could stop it.
"Something wrong?" Laney asked. "Hayley already paid the bill, if that's what you're wondering."
"I only wish it was that simple," Teague said, staring down at Cutter, who seemed to realize he'd finally gotten the message. The dog walked back to Laney, sat this time, and looked back at Teague expectantly.
"He seems restless," she said. "He's usually pretty laid-back with me."
Teague looked back at her. Her eyes were the color of cinnamon, he thought. He hadn't noticed that before.
"Laid-back? I'd have to see that to believe it," Teague said wryly. Then, with a smothered sigh, he gave in to the inevitable. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Nothing." She had herself together now, and clearly wasn't inclined to discuss whatever had been bothering her with a total stranger. He appreciated that, understood it, and normally would have let it end there.
Except that when Cutter got involved, normal wasn't a word that got used very often.
Laney inwardly steadied herself. It wasn't really a lie, she told herself. Not sharing personal pain with a total stranger wasn't lying. Maybe denying anything was wrong was, but not pouring out her heart to a man she'd never met before was simply reasonable. Even if she was disposed to see him favorably because he worked with Hayley, whom she'd very quickly come to like a great deal.
Now, Hayley's fiance, Quinn, was a man she'd found more than a little intimidating the one time she'd met him. But not this man, she thought. In fact, the easy smile, and the way he'd seemed so relieved when she'd refused to talk about the reason for her tears, made him seem much more approachable than his boss.
Not that he wasn't as attractive, just in a different way. He was a bit taller than she, enough to be appreciated given her own height of five-eight. He looked lean, fit and strong. His eyes were a light, clear blue, and went well with his sandybrown hair. And besides the nice smile, he had an easy confidence she found appealing. She even liked his haircut, buzzed close on the sides, slightly longer on the top. Ex-military? she wondered. Navy was her first thought, this being a navy region, but army and air force bases weren't far, either.
Cutter nudged her hand again, stopping her musing and making her wonder how long she'd been standing there staring at him.
"See, he knows it's not 'nothing,'" Teague said.
It took her a moment to backtrack in her mind, she'd been so lost in her contemplation of the man before her. That was unlike her, and only added to her unsettled state.
"No," she admitted, "it's not. It's just not something you need to hear." She reached down to stroke Cutter's head once more. "See you next time, Cutter. Nice to meet you, Mr. Johnson."
She turned to head back to her office. And had to stop when Cutter darted in front of her, blocking her path. Startled, she couldn't help but laugh.
"Well, I'm flattered, sweet boy, but your mom's probably missing you by now. You'd better go."
"He's not going anywhere," Teague said.
Laney whirled around. In her state of mind, the words almost sounded ominous. But the man's expression was so glum and resigned any thought of being in danger from him vanished quickly. She wasn't sure what this man didwasn't sure exactly what Foxworth did, for that matterbut she was sure he wasn't a threat.
You thought that about Edward, too, she reminded herself, the thoughts flooding back, a painful contrast to the pleasant diversion of contemplating an attractive man. You thought he was harmless, safe to recommend to your best friend.
"Don't let me see an expression like that and then try to convince me that nothing's wrong," Teague said quietly. "I may not be as smart as Cutter, but I'm not blind."
She managed a laugh at the joke.
"I mean it. He knows when people are in trouble."
"I'm not in trouble." That much, at least, was true. She wasn't the one in trouble. She was just to blame for it.