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"Talk about unconventional." U.S. Air Force pararescue jumper Chance Garrison shoved the gauzy curtain away from the glass pane cooled by the overworked air conditioner. He blinked to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him as he stared at what was coming up the yard he'd just mown.
He pivoted to face his teammate and best bud, Brock, who approached where he stood near the window.
"What?" Brock joined him and tracked his gaze.
"Maybe that's not her." Chance pulled his sweat-dampened shirt away from his chest and leaned in. Yep. The woman—and the hairy thing dragging her—were definitely headed up the long driveway of the house Chance had rented for himself and his dad, who was recovering from a stroke he suffered following the death of Chance's mom. "What kinda person brings her pet to work?"
Brock pressed his face against the window. "A cute one." He shouldered himself closer and elbowed Chance out of the way, presumably to get a better look. "Very cute."
Chance had noticed that too. But the fact that the pretty, young occupational therapist was lugging toward them the biggest, blackest Labrador retriever he'd ever seen was taking his attention away from how cute she was.
For the moment.
"Surely she's not thinking of bringing that animal in here." Brock tracked the odd pair's approach.
"She c-can't. If Dad sees that th-thing in the house, his blood pressure w-w-will hit the roof." Chance scowled at the stutter and eyed the bedroom door where Dad had retreated to watch midday game shows.
The TV blared through the thick walls, which meant Dad probably didn't have his hearing aid in.
When the woman stepped onto the landing with dogzilla rather than secure him to the lamppost, Chance's faith that Dad would comply with his new therapist and his regimen of home therapy drained, as if someone pulled the plug on the only hope left somewhere inside him, like a bathtub quickly draining.
But his teammates' wives trusted this woman, and he trusted his teammates' wives. If they crooned that this unconventional therapist could make a difference with Dad, he'd give it a shot. But what was the deal with the dog?
Regardless, he'd see to it that the animal stayed outside.
Chance opened the door and was greeted with the satisfying smell of fresh-cut grass and a smile on the therapist's face that was so radiant his concentration fled. So did his resolve to order the dog to stay outside. The sudden pounding in his chest when this woman held his gaze and flashed her brilliant smile wasn't something he'd been remotely prepared for.
Nor was he prepared for the luxurious sheen of her brown-gold hair or the vibrance of her eyes. The green of them matched the glistening beads in her diamond-shaped earrings, dangling beside beautifully sloped cheeks. As he looked closer, he realized that the little circles in the earrings were tiny onyx paws.
Before he knew what he was doing, Chance's hand inched toward them. Then Brock bumped his arm, and Chance realized he was staring. He dropped his hand quickly and dipped his chin to find blades of grass clinging to his rather ripe T-shirt. At least his deodorant was pulling double duty. Hopefully.
Chance raised his gaze back to her.
The woman's grin extended, and her generous lips parted to reveal shiny, silver braces. Her easy gaze slid to Brock for the slightest moment, then returned readily to Chance. And stayed.
Shyness swooped in like a stealth bomber, even as ripples of delight over the prolonged eye contact tried to intercept it.
"Hi," Chance managed. He concentrated on not stumbling over Brock's jump boots as he stepped back to let her in.
Smiling, Brock nodded a greeting to the therapist, then moved toward the bedroom. "I'll help your dad into his transfer chair."
"Hi," the therapist replied to Chance and stepped fully inside the door. With dogzilla. She extended her hand. "You must be Chance. I'm Chloe."
"Miss C-C-Callett." Chance engulfed her petite hand in his and gave it a polite shake. Quiet confidence returning, he directed a not-so-polite nod to the dog. "Uh, not sure how to s-say this, but Dad doesn't particularly care for animals in the house."
Chloe knelt, patting the beast. "That's all right. He's not really an animal. This is Midnight, my assistant."
Assistant? An unintended laugh tumbled from Chance's mouth. "A dog is your assistant?"
She rose, braced smile stiffening. "Yes. My specialty is that I use rescued animals to help rehabilitate humans."
Instant remorse hit Chance with a thud. "Look, I didn't m-mean to offend…." He stepped closer to Chloe and her mutt, who actually was kind of cute. Though not as cute as the girl.
Chance cleared his throat and was trying to formulate a more articulate apology when Chloe graced him with another stunning smile, this one as genuine as the first. "It's okay, really. I get that reaction a lot."
She gave the dog a command and he stood. "I know this is a shock if you're not used to it, but please, for your father's sake, trust us?"
"Us." She placed an affectionate, protective palm on Midnight's massive head. The deep compassion he detected in her voice when she spoke of his dad helped Chance nod without hesitation. The sincerity in her expression and tone enveloped him in familiar warmth.
"Your eyes remind me of my late mother's hugs."
Yikes! No idea what made him blurt that. Stress maybe.
Chloe paused, blinked. "Thanks." She passed Chance and smiled again. Her very essence enchanted him. The perfume, vivid makeup, neon-green nail polish, shiny lime patent-leather sandals and colorful geometric sundress didn't hurt.
If he could sum up Miss Callett in one word, it would be alive. Full of life and loving it.
He hoped some of that would rub off on his dad.
"M-may I offer you something to d-d-drink, Miss Callett?"
"Nope. I'm good." She grinned. "And it's Chloe."
He smiled. Mostly because he'd run out of anything to say. Chloe eyed the living room, which made Chance wish he'd cleaned up evidence of all the fast food and takeout he'd been ordering lately.
"With moving and work and taking care of Dad plus getting a house ready to sell, I don't have time to cook." Chance felt like he needed to explain.
He wrestled a pile of foam containers from the coffee table and dumped them in a trash bag. "Life at this point consists of convenience, which means less h-h-home-cooked and lots of takeout."
"Understandable. Does Ivan like home-cooked meals?"
"Yeah, but I'm not that great of a cook and he's picky." Thankfully, his dad's appetite was still healthy, unlike Chance's, which had atrophied a lot, like his father's now-unused hands.
A thoughtful look entered her captivating eyes. "I noticed from Ivan's medical history that he doesn't have dietary restrictions other than sodium. Do you?"
"What does he like to eat?"
Where was she going with this? "Old-fashioned meat and potatoes."
"That suits me too." They both liked lots of red meat, even though it supposedly clogged the pipes. Chance hadn't been eating or sleeping well for months, and it was definitely starting to take its toll.
"That's good. Protein to feed your muscles for all that bodybuilding I can tell you do." She winked, causing his cheeks to flush. He brought his hand up to feel the scorch.
"Do you compete?" She pulled items from her bag.
"No, ma'am. I have to stay in this kind of shape for my job." That elicited her attention, and the respect he saw in her gaze suddenly added an extra benefit to all the daily pain and strain he put in at his team leader Joel's gym. Chance instantly felt ten feet taller and two tons of stress lighter.
"I see." Chloe pivoted in a graceful circle and eyed the room. "Are either of you allergic to flowers?"
What did flowers have to do with anything? he wondered, but just said, "No."
Lifting her pixie chin, Chloe appeared quite pleased with herself; her grin looked to harbor a well-planned secret. Her eyes veered toward his stack of Bible study books. Curiosity flitted across her features until her vision snagged on one book… then soured.
He eyed the title, Becoming an Effective Youth Pastor. He returned his gaze to her.
Professional mask back in place, she folded petite hands in front of her trim middle. "Shall we get started?"
Chance nodded concession to her as she stepped boldly toward the ruckus forming at his dad's bedroom door.
"I don't need anyone coming in here and telling me what to do!" Ivan could be heard loud and clear.
Chance cringed. Dad's mood was already festering, and he was about to see a dinosaur of a dog. In the house.
"And what in tarnation is that?" Ivan now squinted at his first glimpse of the massive black dog. He yanked his glasses from his chest pocket, squinted even more, and jabbed his good finger at Midnight. "Who let that heap-a-hair in here?" he bellowed and scowled at Chance.
Before Chance could offer an explanation, Chloe stepped forward. "Hi, Mister Garrison. I'm Chloe Callett. This is Midnight. We're here to assess your need for in-home OT, better known as occupational therapy."
"We? What's that doggone mutt got to do with it?" Ivan glowered at Chloe to the point that drool fell from the weak side of his sullen mouth.
Brock dabbed it with a red, bandit-style kerchief hanging loosely around Ivan's neck. Ivan let him but grunted. Brock pretended not to notice. He tried to finish discreetly until Ivan skewered him with a glare.
"On that note, I'll let myself out. Good luck," he said to Chloe and Chance and chuckled his way out the door.
Chloe didn't cringe at Brock's rapid departure or cower under Ivan's escalating disapproval and hollers, even though his pinched face shaded redder by the second.
Ivan's bulging eyes wrinkled at the corners and his nose squished up as he went nose to nose with Chloe. "What have you got stuck in your teeth there?"
"Aren't you too old for that?"
She shrugged and bit back a grin. "Maybe."
Ivan scowled. "Ask me, it's a waste of good money. My boy there's got crooked teeth and he's not bothered by it."
True. He wasn't.
Until Chloe's gaze fell on his mouth. His face heated again. "Au contraire, Dad. I h-have one tooth that doesn't s-sit right. One." Chance chuckled and held up a pointer finger.
He also placed a clandestine hand on Ivan's shoulder and prepared to squeeze if his manners bounced any further out of bounds. The stroke had definitely adversely affected his father's cognitive and social judgment. Chance didn't mind his dad taking pokes at him, but Ivan was picking on Chloe. Chance would intervene. "Dad, we have a lady present."
As Chance increased pressure of his hand, Ivan stared Chance down, then swerved his head back toward Chloe. "Say, how old are you anyway? You married? 'Cause my son here is not, and it's about time he took the plunge."
Chance clamped his mouth shut and his hand tighter and tried not to laugh at the shocked look on Chloe's face. He cast an apologetic glance her way while his dad prattled on.
Undaunted other than a slight flush to her cheeks, Chloe calmly pulled a clipboard out and knelt in front of Ivan's chair. She made a couple of adjustments on the footrest then reached for Ivan's hand. "Squeeze for me?"
Ivan scowled but squished her hand with his good one. Hard. Harder than Chance thought necessary.
Chloe grimaced but her eyes grinned. "Nice grip. You've got the hands of a hardworking man."
A sliver of a smile creased the unaffected side of Ivan's mouth. The scowl eased from his face and a twinkle dared to dance in his eyes.
Until Chloe reached for his affected hand. "Now let's try the other one."
Back came the scowl. "Don't you read anything in that chart? My stroke made it so I can't do the other one."
She smiled sweetly. "Try." She held his listless hand.
A grunt. More intent scowling. But no response from his hand.
"I know you don't like dogs in your house. So go ahead. Squeeze and pretend you're knocking me upside the noggin for bringing Midnight in here." She winked.
Ivan blinked as though surprised by her candor, then bit back what might have been either the beginnings of a smile or a taunt, Chance couldn't be certain which one.
Ivan's wrist strained in effort, but his fingers didn't move and his hand didn't clench. His countenance fell. "Told ya! It's no use. I'm a useless man." He looked away.
Pain streaked through Chance. He wanted to drop to his knees and beg: Dad, don't give up. Please don't give up.
Compassion filled Chloe's expression. "Try again, Ivan. Please."
"Why? Got nothing other'n Chance left to live for. And he'd do fine without me."
"I'm sure he doesn't want to have to do without you. So come on. Try." She held her hand out closer to Ivan. They stared at each other in a state of silent stalemate.
Then fury flashed over Ivan's face. He glared at Chloe's outstretched hand and growled. Then he called her names that would have sent a weaker woman sobbing from the house. Jaw clenched, Chance pinched Ivan's shoulder to get the message across to be respectful to the lady. "Dad, that's quite enough." Chance felt mortified.
But Chloe, serene, didn't budge. After a moment, she knelt closer and whispered, "I think your late wife would want you to try. I know Chance does." Chloe winked. "Think of all the beautiful grandbabies you have to look forward to in the future. They'd want you to try."
At first, Ivan scowled again. But as her words finally seeped in, he blinked several times. Met Chance's gaze, which had been reduced to pleading. Ivan's face softened. With a quaky motion, Ivan brought his hand to hers. A clumsy tremor proved his attempt to squeeze with all his might.
"Not bad." Chloe made notes on her paper, then stood.
"So, what do you think?" Fear streaked through Chance that Chloe would turn them away as clients.
Then reassurance sparkled like the gold in Chloe's eyes as she met his gaze briefly before grinning at Ivan. "I think by the time Midnight and I get through with Ivan, he'll be strong enough to pick us both up and toss us in the yard. With his affected arm."
Relief rushed Chance at the confidence in her words.
Ivan sat straighter. "You saying the sooner I do my exercises, the sooner you and that oversize mutt'll go away and not bother me anymore?"
"That's what I'm saying." Chloe repositioned Ivan's hand on a small towel from her bag. She rolled it, then secured it with tape and rested it on the table beside Ivan. "Curl your fingers around this. Squeeze whenever you think about it."
"Only if I can think of pinching the nose off that mongrel pup so everybody'll quit controlling my life."
"Fair enough." Chloe said a command to the dog, who'd been sitting obediently, stoic and watching.