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On most days, Ben Rhodes enjoyed his job as a cameraman for KFOR, the Tacoma, Washington, TV station that proclaimed We 're here FOR you! But shooting the six o'clock morning news on this first Monday in December promised to be more fun than usual. They were doing a public service announcement for The Haven, a no-kill animal shelterand its extremely attractive director, Tansy Dexter. Plus she'd brought dogs.
With her mop of curly black hair, unrehearsed smile and laughing blue eyes, Tansy was a cameraman's dream. She easily outshone the stylized perfection of the KFOR news anchors. But even if she hadn't upstaged them, her canine buddies would have.
She'd walked into the studio carrying a too-cute beige-and-brown shih tzu with button eyes, a red bow on its collar and a face that would melt the hardest heart. Close behind, a little blue-haired lady in a red jogging suit held the leash of a cream-colored Irish wolfhound the size of a small pony. The wolfhound sported a larger red bow on its collar.
The dogs were a brilliant choice. By bringing two such different breeds, Tansy had demonstrated a keen understanding of visual drama.
Anchorwoman Lisa Dunbar moved out from behind the Channel 10 news desk and over to the studio set where they'd be shooting the segment. The set featured three dark green easy chairs, a five-foot artificial Christmas tree and a dark wood coffee table topped with a small red poinsettia. Lisa took the center chair.
While Tansy was being fitted with a mike, she talked soothingly to the small dog. After that she was directed to the chair on Lisa's right, and the grandmother type, who had no mike, was settled on the left. The regal wolfhound claimed a sizeable chunk of real estate on the floor. Head up, he kept a close watch on Tansy. Station manager Paul Huntington had a soft spot for The Haven because his family had adopted their beloved golden retriever, sadie, from there a year ago. He'd instructed Ben and the other two cameramen to get as many adorable doggie shots as possible to convince viewers to donate or adopt. Ben planned to follow Paul's directions, but Tansy was so expressive that she'd probably generate as much support as the dogs. In his opinion, faces like hers justified the invention of cameras.
Then again, maybe he was biased. He'd spent so many years training his lens on carefully made-up women like Lisa that Tansy was a refreshing change. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a blue sweatshirt with the shelter's logo on the front, she seemed genuine and approachable.
Lisa, blonde and elegant in a gray silk suit and a Christmas-red blouse, was the more classically beautiful of the two. But she was also addicted to the spotlight. He wondered if she'd ever competed with animals for center stage. In his experience, the animals won every time.
When everyone was seated, Lisa responded to a cue from the station's director and looked into the camera with practiced ease as she introduced Tansy. "She's brought some friends along," Lisa added. "One of her many dedicated volunteers, Rose Parker, and a dynamic doggie duo." She turned to Tansy. "I hope both these doggies are available for adoption, because I just got a signal from our director that the phones are lighting up."
"They're available, Lisa." Tansy's smile was effortless. "This little guy is Ewok. He's four years old and mostly shih tzu, but we think he might have some cocker spaniel in him, too."
Lisa beamed at the small dog. "What a perfect name. He looks just like those creatures in Star Wars. How're you doing, Ewok?"
The little dog stood on Tansy's lap and wriggled happily as he focused his dark button eyes on Lisa.
"Oh, he wants to come to me!"
Tansy laughed. "He might, at that. He loves people. But I'd better keep him over here. Your suit looks expensive."
"I'm sure it could survive a few paw prints."
"Let's wait until he's adjusted to his surroundings."
Lisa managed a tight smile. "That's fine. He's so adorable I'm sure he'll have a home before we wrap up this segment. I'm tempted, myself."
"Ewok could have been adopted a dozen times since he came in, but we're determined he won't leave the shelter without his pal over there, Wookie."
Lisa glanced at the wolfhound. "Ah, I get it. Ewok and Wookie. George Lucas would be thrilled. What's their story?"
"They grew up together and now they're inseparable," Tansy said. "To place them in different homes would really stress them out."
Now Ben understood why the dogs had been brought in together and why Wookie's attention was firmly on Tansy. She was holding his best pal.
Their story was touching, even to Ben, but he'd decided long ago that adopting a dog or cat was asking for heartache.
"Goodness, that's a challenge," Lisa said. "My little condo wouldn't hold Wookie, I'm afraid."
"He doesn't need as much indoor space as you think."
Lisa chuckled. "No more than a MINI Cooper, at any rate." She turned back to Tansy and Ewok. "I'll put a bug in Santa's ear to give Ewok and Wookie a new home for Christmas."
"Great. And while you're at it, please tell Santa we have plenty of other loving dogs and cats looking for homes."
"Absolutely! We'll be featuring pictures of your cuties right up through Christmas Eve to promote The Haven's Home for the Holidays campaign. Can you fill us in on the details?"
"You bet." Tansy quickly outlined her plan to place as many animals as possible in homes just for the holidays so they wouldn't have to spend the festive season at the shelter. "It's like giving them a Christmas break," she said.
"What a wonderful idea," Lisa said. "I'm sure the residents of Tacoma will respond, especially because it also gives them a chance to try out a pet before making that forever commitment."
"Exactly. But if people can't take an animal over the holidays, I hope they'll consider donating to our Christmas fund-raising campaign."
"Your press release said you're raising money for a special project?" Lisa said.
"We are! We recently removed sixty cats from a hoarding situation. We couldn't accommodate them in our Kitty Condo, which is our free-roaming cat facility, so they're temporarily being housed in a portable building on loan from a generous donor. So we desperately need to build a second Kitty Condo for our new furry friends." As Tansy became more animated in describing the proposed facility, Ewok put his paws on her chest and began licking her face.
Laughing, she tried to coax him back down onto her lap as she continued. "We're hoping that by Christmas Eve Ewok, now stop!"
But the little dog was determined to give her kisses, and it was great television. Directions came through Ben's earphones to keep his camera on Tansy. He was only too happy to oblige.
"We hope we'll have the money we need to Ewok, honestly!" Tansy dissolved into laughter again.
Watching her through the lens of his camera, Ben was fascinated. He'd been intrigued when she'd entered the studio, but her amused struggle with the affectionate little dog captivated him so completely that he forgot the time, forgot the studio, forgot everything but the joyful woman captured in his camera lens.
She was love personified, and a longing to have even a tiny bit directed at him stole the air from his lungs. But he'd learned the hard way to beware that telltale ache. Love was great when you had it, but when it disappeared, the pain brought you to your knees. He'd paid a high price to learn that lesson and wasn't about to forget it.
"Let me have him so you can talk." Leaving her chair, Lisa swooped in and gathered Ewok in her arms. More instructions came through Ben's earphones.
"Follow the dog."
He panned from a rather startled Tansy to a smug Lisa. An outsider might view Lisa's move as an attempt to be helpful. But after observing her since she was hired eighteen months ago, Ben recognized her bid to retake center stage. By holding Ewok, she had it.
"Such a cute little doggie!" She hugged and nuzzled him as if hoping he'd start to lick her, too. Instead Ewok squirmed, obviously wanting to escape. "Go on, Tansy," Lisa said. "I have this sweetie under control."
Ben didn't think so. He widened the shot to include Tansy as Lisa continued to maul the dog.
Tansy gave Ewok a worried glance before clearing her throat. "The bottom line is that we're asking the residents of Tacoma to open their hearts, their homes and their wallets so the animals can have a special holiday and an even better New Year. And we appreciate KFOR's support. The station's always been good to The Haven, but helping promote our holiday campaign goes above and beyond."
"And we're happy to do it." Lisa hugged the shih tzu tight. "After all, we're here FOR " She paused and her eyes grew wide. With a shriek, she tossed Ewok from her lap onto the coffee table.
"Cut! Cue the commercial!" The command came through Ben's earphones a second after he'd already stopped filming.
Tansy made a grab for Ewok, but the spooked dog dashed across the large coffee table, knocking over the poinsettia and spilling dirt everywhere. Jumping out of her chair, Lisa gestured to the dark stain on her silk skirt. "The little bastard peed on me!"
God, it was hard not to laugh, but Ben loved his job, so he controlled the impulse. Still, Lisa had deserved it. Tansy had tried to save her, but she hadn't listened.
"Ewok!" Tansy dashed after the tiny dog, darting through a maze of camera trolleys and cables.
Ben took off his headset so he could help. By pure coincidence the little bundle of fur ran past him. He made a grab and connected with a warm body. Holding Ewok against his chest, he tried to calm the frightened dog.
"Thank you." Tansy stood in front of him, her blue eyes no longer laughing. "Sometimes he gets overexcited and lets loose. I think that's the cocker spaniel in him. Wookie's usually a steadying influence, but with all the people, and the lights, and the noise "
And the idiot woman squeezing the breath out of him. But Ben was too much of a professional to say that about a colleague. "Bringing them in together was a brilliant idea, though." He handed Ewok to her. "I hope you find a home for them."
"So do I." She stroked the quivering dog with a gentle touch. He whined and reached up to lick her face again. "It's okay, Ewok. You're fine now. We'll go get Wookie and you'll feel better."
"Adopting them out as a pair is the right thing to do," Ben said. "Stick to your guns on that."
"Don't worry. I intend to." She glanced up and her gaze held his. "You're an animal lover, I can tell." She didn't voice her next thought, but it was there in her eyes. Would he take the dogs?
He pretended he hadn't understood her silent question. He did love animals from a distance. So many people took on pets with a breezy nonchalance, as if loving creatures with a short lifespan was an easy choice that had no consequences. He knew from experience that wasn't true. He wasn't about to explain all that to her, though, so he said nothing.
She blinked as if confused by his silence. "In any event, thanks for capturing Ewok. It's not good for him to race around in a panic."
"It's not good for any of us to race around in a panic." He smiled because looking at her made him want to do that. He swore she had flecks of sunshine in those blue eyes of hers. In Tacoma, where it rained a lot, sunshine in any form was a valuable commodity.
"Guess not." She continued to gaze at him intently. "Have we met before? You look so familiar."
"We haven't met. I would have remembered."
"On the air in five!" called the director.
Ben replaced his headset. "Sorry. Gotta go. Weather's next."
"Right. Thanks again." She hurried away, taking the sunshine with her.
Ben concentrated on filming the weather report and did his best to forget about Tansy Dexter. He preferred his relationships light and breezyeasy come, easy go. And his instincts told him Tansy would expect much more than that.
Judging from the passionate way she spoke up for the animals, her emotions ran deep, deeper than he cared to go. He was glad that people like Tansy existed in the world, but he couldn't follow her chosen path, and she would never understand his decision not to adopt.
She was the kind of woman who would get past his defenses, demand that he drop his guard and become vulnerable again.
There was no way he would risk that.
Tansy's Suburban had been retrofitted for hauling animals. After she and Rose loaded Wookie and Ewok into the back, they hurried around to the front of the vehicle and climbed in, their breath fogging the air. Tansy dug out the keys and coaxed the balky engine to life before switching the heater to high. The cold rain tapping on the windshield could easily turn to snow by nightfall.
Rose rubbed her hands together and held them against her wind-reddened cheeks. "That was interesting."
"It wasn't Ewok's fault." Tansy's anger resurfaced as she left the station's parking lot. "I had to be nice, especially since Paul's running promos from now until Christmas, but I could have throttled that woman."
"She almost throttled Ewok," Rose said. "Good thing she didn't pursue the idea of adopting these two."
"Yeah, that would have been awkward. You and I know she'd only have been doing it as a publicity stunt, but Paul might not have seen it that way. He's a nice guy, and I'd rather not lose his goodwill by refusing to give his publicity-crazed anchorwoman Ewok and Wookie."
"Speaking of nice guys, that cameraman was helpful."
"He was." Tansy's pulse beat a little faster thinking about his sexy brown eyes. "And gorgeous."
Tansy glanced over at Rose and grinned. "You noticed that, did you?"
"I may be old enough to be his grandmother, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate tall, dark and handsome when I see it. If I'm not mistaken, you two shared a moment."
Tansy's cheeks warmed. She hoped she hadn't looked quite as dazzled as she'd felt. "I was trying to mentally place him."
"Don't blame you. Was he on a beach towel in the sand or on a bearskin rug in front of the fire?"
"Rose!" Tansy laughed, bringing an excited bark from Ewok. "I was trying to figure out why he looks so familiar. I swear we've met before."
"Did you tell him so?"
"I did, but apparently we haven't met. He said he would have remembered." Sexual heat curled through her as she thought about the low, intimate way he'd said it.
"Whew!" Rose fanned herself. "A guy who knows how to deliver his lines. And he wasn't wearing a ring. I checked. What's his name?"
"Why on earth not?"
"Didn't think to ask."
Rose slapped her forehead. "You meet a hero type who rescues precious little Ewok, a man who says he would have remembered if you'd met before, and you neglect to get his name?"
"I'm out of practice with that kind of thing." Though now Tansy wished she had a name to attach to the first man in ages to arouse her dormant libido.
"I know you're out of practice. I've volunteered at the shelter for almost two years, and I don't think you've had so much as a date, let alone a romance. I figured you were either too busy or very picky."