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"Now look, sweetheart. I totally understand why you don't want a stranger washing your balls. But we're not strangers, now, are we? I love you. You love me."
Georgina Loretta Thompson -- Poppy -- tried to breathe, but it was difficult with a hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight lying on her chest. Something dripped on her nose. She was pretty sure it was drool. Drool was the most logical assumption, when the big black oaf sprawled on her in a snoozing heap was a Newfoundland.
"I don't want to have to get tough about this," she crooned affectionately. "I know you're tired and you've been good forever. More than any human has a right to expect. But honestly, love bug, you're wet and heavy and we have to finish up. Your owner's going to be here in another hour."
Beast seemed to realize she was unhappy with him. He reached down with a tongue longer than Poppy's whole face and, eyes closed, slathered a slow, wet kiss down her cheek.
"I love you, too. Really. But remember how we talked about this? I'm the alpha dog in the pack. That means you're supposed to obey me. In fact, you're supposed to cower in my presence. You don't just get to flop down on top of me whenever you want your own way."
"That's it, Poppy, you tell that dog who's boss."
Poppy winced. Naturally she recognized the gruff, humored voice in the doorway. She was too old to be humiliated this way. Or so she'd been telling herself ever since she'd taken the job with Webster O'Brien four years ago.
"I suppose you think I can't get this dog off me," she said darkly.
"It wouldn't be the first dog who had you buffaloed."
"Beast does not have me buffaloed. I'm letting him take a little break.He's been good as an angel for hours. You saw him when he came in. He was a mess. Naturally he got tired of being groomed and cut and shampooed and fussed with all day."
"Uh-huh. So he lay on top of you to take a nap. And to drool on your face. But that's totally your choice, right?"
"There was a reason I permanently gave up men and took up dogs," she told Beast. And then to her boss she said,
"Did you come in here just to pour grief on my head or did you have another purpose?"
"I did. A serious purpose, actually. And I promise I'll tell you in a minute, but honest to Pete, I have to do this first." Her vision was blocked by Beast's big, heavy head, but she heard the click-click-click of a camera. "There now. That should be blackmail power for at least three months -- "
"Did I mention recently that I think you're low-down pond scum?"
"I don't think it came up since yesterday anyway." He snapped his fingers. "Now I remember why I first came in. You had a phone call."
Poppy normally had more patience than Job, but Beast's heavy, damp weight was starting to get a wee bit claustrophobic. She tried a tactful shove. It had the same effect as dust moving a mountain. "Since when would you interrupt your day to tell me I had a phone call?"
"Well, Tommy had homework, so I told him he could go home, and Lola Mae left a half hour ago. And King Tut's owner finally came in to pick him up, so I was getting ready to leave myself when the phone rang. I knew you were tied up with Beast here, but your caller didn't want to leave a voice mail. He was real urgent about wanting you to call him back, still today or tonight if you can."
"Yeah, that's how it sounded. And it was a lawyer, besides."
"The only lawyer I know has a pit bull," she started to say, and Web obviously couldn't let that go.
"The only lawyer I know is a pit bull." He laughed at his own joke and then peered over her head with that big, shaggy St. Bernard head of his. "Would you like some help?"
"Have you ever seen me need help with an animal? I'm completely in control of the situation." Damn it. She was forty-two years old. Her clothes were soaked. Her hair and skin were damp and smelled like dog. Her back hurt. Her knees hurt. She'd never given a hoot about her appear-ance -- what was the point when she was homelier than a coyote? But right now she'd be downright embarrassed to be seen in public -- even if the only public around was Web. "I could get him off you," the vet said mildly.
"I'll get him off when I'm good and ready. Exactly what did this lawyer say he wanted?"
"Just for you to call him back. It was Cal Asher. You know, next to the newspaper office?"
"Sure." Everyone knew Cal. He looked like a reincarnated version of Mark Twain because of the white hair and moustache. And because Cal was an institution in Righteous, people tolerated his little problem with alcohol. He was a bright man. A good guy. People just knew to make an appointment with him before noon -- and to get off the road if they saw his car. "That was the whole message? For me to call him? I can't imagine what he'd want from me."
"Beats me," Web said peaceably. "Anyone suing you?"
"Not that I know of."
"You suing anyone?"
"Not that I know of."
"You smack any men around lately?"
"No one who didn't deserve it."
Web threw up his hands. "Guess you'll have to call him back yourself to figure it out, then. I'm going home. So this is your last chance to beg for help."
"I don't need help." She added quickly, "You're coming in early tomorrow to check on Lucky and Devil's Spawn, aren't you?"
"Yeah. So the longest you could be trapped here is until seven in the morning." But then Web, just because he had an evil sense of humor, suddenly whistled.
Beast immediately lifted his huge black head and bounded to his feet. Everybody loved the vet. Canine, feline, human, didn't make any difference. Poppy loved him, too -- the damn man was the best vet she'd ever known -- but sometimes he was so aggravating she could smack him.
It hadn't been her best day. Beast had come in with a tangled mess of swamp spurs. Her two younger brothers had called to insist on her participation at a family party. Her laptop was sick. Her favorite jeans had blown out a knee.
The call from the lawyer was a bright spot, though. Why a lawyer, any lawyer, could conceivably want to get in touch with her was unguessable.
But Poppy had always loved a mystery.
Bren Price was polishing the altar candlesticks when the church door opened, letting in a sudden burst of late-September sunshine. Late Thursday afternoons, she often cleaned the altar, because invariably no one was using the church at that time. Right off, though, Bren guessed the reason for the interruption. A miserably distraught Martha Almond spotted her and all but ran up the aisle.
Bren met her at the base of the pews, her arms already opened wide. "So it's bad, is it?" she asked softly.
Bren already knew the story. Martha's sixteen-year-old son had been in a car accident. It looked as if he was going to lose his leg. On top of that, the teenager was to blame for the accident because he'd been drinking and partying with a group of friends.
"Everyone's blaming me," Martha wailed. "Thing is, I'm blaming me, too. I just don't know how I could have stopped him. No matter what I ever said or did, he was just determined "
Bren let her pour. It was the typical mom-of-a-teenager list of complaints, but the typical teenager usually managed to slip around fate. Martha's son hadn't. In time, things would get better, but right now Martha couldn't see a ray of sunshine anywhere. She was exhausted and scared and shaken.
Bren came through with tissues, a listening ear, the warmth of someone holding her. Martha wasn't the best mom or the worst. Like everybody, she tried her best, and yet sometimes her best wasn't good enough. Finally Martha's tears eased up and she sank limply against Bren's shoulder, as if just needing to gather up some strength before letting go.
At least, until the door to the chancellery opened and Charles shot through the doorway with an impatient scowl. "Bren, I've been looking all over for you -- " His expression changed from night to day. He turned back into the pastor his parishioners loved, his eyes kind and his voice a gentle, easy baritone. "Why, Martha, I didn't realize you were here."
Two hours later, Bren was just putting a bubbling crock of Brunswick stew on the table when Charles walked in. One look at his face and she could feel a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Lately that sick feeling seemed to be there more often than not.
"Don't you think it's a little hot for a heavy meal like this?" he demanded.
"Yes, actually," she admitted wryly. "But I knew I had a full afternoon, so I was trying to put something on that we could just come in and eat whenever we were both free."
He said nothing then, just sat down and snapped his napkin open. She served iced tea, then took the salad from the refrigerator and sat down across from him. He neither looked at her nor acted as if she were in the same room. The yellow overhead revealed the sharp lines on his normally handsome face. His posture was unrelentingly stiff, his mouth forbidding.
"Now, Charles, I can see you're annoyed with me," she said carefully. "But honestly I have no idea why if you don't tell me."
"You know perfectly well what's wrong, so don't try that game."
Okay. So it wasn't going to be one of those times when she could coax him into a better humor. "Tell me anyway, all right?"
He slammed down his iced tea glass, making the liquid splash and spatter. "I've told you before. When a parishioner comes in with a problem, you're to call me. I'm the minister, not you, Bren. I'm the one they're here to see. Not you."
She felt slapped but tried not to show it. "You're angry because I was talking to Martha Almond?" she said, confused. "Charles, she was crying. I just offered another woman's shoulder -- "
"You drew attention to yourself, that's what you did. You make yourself important." The chair clattered back when he stood up, his face turning pale as ice. "You've always got an excuse. I'm tired of excuses. You know what we're dealing with. The Baptists have no end of funds. The Methodist church just added a wing. We're struggling to survive, and here when I need you on my side, I find you doing things to sabotage me. You've let me down, Bren. Again."
He stalked off in the direction of his study, with Bren still sitting at the table. The steam from the Brunswick stew gradually disappeared. Both his plate and hers stayed untouched. The dusk outside slowly turned pitchy black, somehow making the old, worn kitchen look shabbier.
Finally Bren stood and started carting dishes. The enamel sink was chipped, the counter scarred from decades of different pastors' families over the years. The olive-green color would never have been her choice, nor the mismatched giveaway dishes, but as Charles always said, they shouldn't be focusing on material goods. Whatever they had should be given to those with real needs.
Bren agreed completely. The hunger for nice things shamed her, made her feel selfish and small.