Read an Excerpt
"Do you understand everything we talked about during the drive here?"
Annabel Cates pulled into an empty spot in the Thunder Canyon General Hospital parking lot. "I know these visits are routine by now, but it's important we cover the dos and don'ts every time."
She cut the engine, turned to the backseat of her practically new lime-green VW Bug and was rewarded with a sloppy kiss.
"Smiley!" Annabel pushed at the wet nose of her three-year-old golden retriever, her constant companion since she'd brought him home from the local shelter when he was just a pup. "You could've just nodded!"
An excited bark was her pet's answer.
"Yes, I love you, too." Releasing her seat belt, Annabel grabbed her purse and Smiley's leash and got out of her car, pausing to hold the driver's seat up to allow her dog to exit.
Kneeling, she latched the leash on to his collar then straightened the bright blue bandana around his neck, her fingers lingering over the black lettering on the material. "Just think, buddy, a dozen more sessions and we can switch this In Training bandana for one that reads Certified."
Smiley did the exact thing that earned him his name: he smiled. Many told her it was the natural curve of his mouth, a trait common in golden retrievers, but Annabel could tell when her fur baby was happy.
Which was just about all the time.
Smiley's outgoing, friendly personality, to both humans and other animals, made him a great therapy dog. The two of them had completed the required training, registration and certification over the past few months, but the American Kennel Club required fifty visits before being awarded the title of AKC Therapy Dog.
And Annabel wanted that title for Smiley, which didn't explain this particular visit.
"But this one is special, isn't it, boy?" Annabel gave Smiley a quick scratch to the ears then rose, and they walked across the hospital's parking lot.
Once inside, she stopped at the directory near the elevators. The geriatrics and children's areas were the most familiar to her and Smiley, but today they were headed for a specific doctor's office.
Smiley padded along beside her, staying right at her knee, despite the comments, grins and hellos that greeted them. Then a little boy sitting alone on a bench came into view and Annabel felt the familiar tug on the leash.
Almost by instinct, Smiley was drawn to those who were injured and hurting, but not all injuries were visible. A low whimper and the quickening of his wagging tail made the little boy look up. The beginnings of a smile crossed his face. Annabel slowed and allowed Smiley to work his magic.
After a few minutes visiting, Annabel continued on her way, energized by the boy's improved mood and excited chatter to his mother. They stopped outside the elevators and she eyed the hospital directory on the wall.
"Can I help you?"
Annabel turned and found a pretty nurse standing beside her dressed in scrubs, a short-sleeve shirt and loose cotton pants featuring a dizzying pattern of colorful flip-flops. Perfect for a warm August morning in Montana. "Yes, I'm looking for Dr. North's office."
The woman's eyebrows rose, disappearing into her perfect straight bangs. "Dr. Thomas North?"
"If he's an orthopedic surgeon, then yes, he's the one."
"Is Dr. North expecting you?" Her gaze shifted to Smiley for a moment. "Both of you?"
Living by the motto "it's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission," Annabel smiled. "We're here to visit with one of his patients."
"Oh. Well, his office suite is on the second floor, far left corner. I could show you if you'd like."
"That would be great, thanks."
The elevator dinged and seconds later the door opened. Annabel and Smiley waited for everyone to depart before they followed the nurse inside. Once on the second floor, they turned a few corners and moved into an office area. At the end of the long hallway Annabel finally spotted the nameplate for Dr. Thomas North.
"Hey, Marge. I've got a visitor for you."
The older woman sitting behind the desk was obviously Dr. North's secretary. Annabel smiled, not missing the glances between her and the nurse or the way her eyebrows rose in matching high arches, as well.
It was okay. She and Smiley were used to it.
"Can I help you, miss?" Marge asked as a beeping noise filled the air.
"Oh, shoot. I've got to go." The nurse checked her pager and smiled. "I so wanted to stick around and see this. Let me know what happens, okay?"
Marge gave her a quick wink and nodded. A bit confused, Annabel offered her thanks. The nurse waved it off and then disappeared.
Annabel turned back to the woman. "Oh, I was wondering if Forrest Traub has arrived for his appointment with Dr. North yet?"
"And you are?"
She opened her mouth to reply, but a low, measured voice came from over her shoulder.
"What are you doing here, Annabel?"
She whirled around, surprised to find the man she'd asked about had somehow snuck up on her. Not usually easy to do with Smiley close by. Annabel then noticed her dog remained sitting at her side, perfectly still, not even his tail moving as he stared intently up at Forrest.
And there was a lot to look at.
Tall, muscular, dark hair and the coolest light brown eyes. Yes, he was very nice to look at. Annabel was sure her sisters would use words like yummy and sexy. Even the two recently married ones, one of whom was the bride of Forrest's cousin, Jackson, would have to admit good looks ran strong in the Traub family tree.
Too bad the man did nothing for Annabel. No spark, no fizzle.
But that was fine with her. Annabel wanted more. She wanted true love.
The kind of love that came at you like a bolt of lightning and left you dazed, confused and tingly all over. She'd never felt that way in her life, but darn it, after a dry dating spell that had been going on for three years, she was ready for it!
"Hello?" Forrest leaned heavily on a cane with one hand while waving the other in her face. "Annabel?"
"Oh, sorry!" She blinked hard and chased away her dreams. "I. .urn, I'm here to see you."
His mouth pressed into a hard line as he looked down at Smiley. Annabel did the same, noticing how her pet returned the man's stare with a simple tilt of his head.
She wasn't sure who was sizing up whom.
"How did you know I was going to be at the hospital this morning?" he asked.
Her cheeks turned hot. "I overheard you talking to Jackson at the family barbecue yesterday."
He opened his mouth to say something, but Annabel kept talking. "I know you've been through so much since you got back from overseas. Even before then. And after all that time you spent at Walter Reed Medical Center to still need well, I thought we could help."
Forrest sighed and directed his gaze to the secretary. "Would it be okay if Iif we waited for the doctor inside his office?"
A thrill raced through Annabel. It wasn't a complete victory, but it was a start.
"I'll take full responsibility for them being here," he continued. "And I really need to sit down."
The woman's blue eyes flickered toward the chairs in the corner of the room, but then she said, "Of course, please go in. The doctor is running late, but he should be here soon."
Forrest gestured toward the open doorway with a wave of his hand. Annabel gave a quick tug on the leash and entered the office, Smiley at her side. Forrest followed, and the doctor's secretary stood to close the door behind him.
It was a large room, with a wall of windows behind tightly closed blinds. Two chairs sat in front of a large desk with a more comfortable-looking leather couch along one wall.
Annabel stayed off to the side, not wanting to get in Forrest's way as he dropped into the closest chair. He jammed the cane she didn't remember him using yesterday into the armrest and closed his eyes. His right leg stuck out straight. The bulk of the brace underneath his jeans pulled the worn denim tight around his knee.
This time Smiley tugged a bit at the leash and Annabel released the slack, allowing the dog a bit more leeway while keeping a tight grip on the looped handle. Just in case.
Smiley had been with her yesterday at the barbecue, but he and Forrest didn't interact at all. Considering her pet's reaction to the man a few minutes ago, Annabel wanted to be sure she could pull him away if needed.
Seconds later Smiley was at Forrest's side, instinctively resting his furry head on the man's uninjured leg. Then a deep sigh echoed in the dog's chest.
A full minute passed before Forrest's large hand came to rest behind Smiley's ears, his fingers digging into the dog's thick coat.
Annabel titled her head back slightly and rolled her eyes, upward, pretending a sudden interest in the tiled ceiling. She'd learned it was the fastest way to stop the sharp stinging in her eyes.
Tears, or any sign of pity, were the last thing most people wanted.
The last thing Forrest Traub wanted.
He'd made that very clear while talking to his cousin yesterday about the reason he was in Thunder Canyon for the summer.
"So, Dr. North's secretary seemed a bit hesitant about us being in here." Annabel wanted to talk to Forrest about Smiley being a part of his upcoming medical treatment, but she couldn't just jump into the topic. Not when she'd taken it upon herself to be here instead of waiting for an invitation. "Me and Smiley, that is. Don't tell me your doctor is a stodgy, old curmudgeon who considers his office his inner sanctum?"
"I'm only asking because the more senior the doctor the more they tend to think the only good medicine is the kind that comes in a pill or from the sharp end of a scalpel." She glanced around for clues, but wasn't close enough to see the graduation dates on the medical degrees hanging from the wall. "Wow, look at all those awards and certificates. Pretty impressive. Then again, this place could use some brightening, a splash of color. Everything in here is brown."
"No family photos on his desk. There's not even a plant," she pushed on, afraid if she shut up Forrest was going to kick her and her dog out. "His secretary practically has a jungle around her desk. You'd think she'd put at least one green leafy thing in her boss's office."
Forrest's soft, yet firm command included an unspoken request for her to look at him. She obeyed, while holding her breath.
"I know why you're here," he said.
She waited a moment, then air became a necessity. "You do?"
"I know all about the work you and your dog do."
"My dog's name is Smiley, and how do you know?"
"Your sister is very proud of you and Smiley." Forrest looked down at the dog, continuing to scratch him behind his floppy ears. "But I don't think he can help me."
Annabel had heard those words, many times before and from many different types of people. Young children fighting diseases they couldn't pronounce, the elderly fighting to hold on to their memories and their dignity, and those fighting for the most important thing of all, hope.
"How do you feel?" she asked. "I mean, right now?"
Forrest shook his head. "Forget it, Annabel. I'm not going there."
"I'm not trying to psychoanalyze you." She moved closer. "And I know there's nothing medically we can do"
"Good. That's my job."
Annabel whirled around at the very deep, very male voice coming from the open doorway.
She immediately cataloged a pair of men's shiny black shoes, dark slacks with a sharp crease down the center of each leg, a cobalt-blue shirt, striped tie and white lab coat.
Dr. Thomas North.