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Dr. Craig Macklin saw nothing but the massive creature before him, a huge, white and hairy Maremma guard dog beleaguered by a face full of porcupine quills. The obvious suffering in the dog's dark eyes implored Craig to help.
Craig squatted to examine the embedded bristles. The animal's curiosity had pushed him beyond caution. The face full of quills—a nasty lesson learned. Porcupines were best left alone.
Murmuring to the shaggy white canine, Craig positioned the adjustable light and peered into the Maremma's face. The dog's whimper made Craig's decision easy. "I'll have to put him under for a few minutes. The depth and quantity make it tough to handle without a tranquilizer. I'd be causing him a lot of pain otherwise. What's his name?" Turning, Craig looked at the owner for the first time.
Well. That explained Julie's initial hesitance, the concern he'd heard when his assistant summoned him. But his veterinary partner had left for the day and Craig was here. That left no choice but to treat Sarah's dog.
Her face washed pale under rich tones. Eyes as dark and deep as the dog's stayed trained on the beast's muzzle. She didn't make eye contact with Craig. "Gino. From Sofia's last litter." She emitted a half sigh, half shudder as the dog whined. She stepped forward, crooning, her melodic tone soothing the animal much as a mother would a small child.
Julie watched as if expecting him to do—what? Scream? Shout? Berate the woman before him for her genealogy and refuse to treat her dog?
He wouldn't do that. But his medical duties didn't mean he had to go out of his way to be nice, either.
There was a reason he avoided Slocums. A real good one. The thought of the criminal history between their families tightened Craig's jaw. Sarah's older brother had pioneered a Ponzi scheme, bilking a fair share of locals out of their hard-earned money, including his grandparents. Grams and Gramps Macklin had invested everything in Tom Slocum's guaranteed-returns package, and lost it all when Tom's misappropriation was discovered. Gramps had passed on over a year ago, but Grams was living out her later years dependent on others' kindness, with nothing but small Social Security checks to call her own. A tough old bird, Gramps used to call her, and he was right, but strong people have a hard time accepting handouts. Charity. Grams was no exception.
A true craven, Tom spared New York State the cost of a trial by taking his own life, leaving a wife and three young kids to sweep up the remnants of his actions.
Sarah had established a farm nearby. Goats? Sheep? Something wool-bearing, cleft-footed and ridiculously stupid. In Craig's estimation, the description applied unilaterally. Al though he treated a wide range in a country animal practice, he'd developed favorites. Cattle. Horses. Dogs. Cats. Even pigs were a step up from sheep. At least pigs were intelligent. Sheep? Other end of the spectrum, entirely. No one in their right mind ate mutton, did they?
Hank Townsend, the senior veterinary partner, generally handled Sarah's veterinary needs, allowing Craig a wide berth. But he wasn't there, and Craig couldn't ignore the besieged dog. He glanced at Sarah. "You squeamish?" The question came out harsher than intended. A lot of people handled their own pain better than that of a loved one, including pets.
Julie stepped forward. "I can stay, Craig. I'll just call Glenn. He'll understand." Julie had a date tonight. Craig knew that because she'd chattered about it nonstop. Ralph, the other vet tech, had left over an hour before. And Maremmas…
Craig kept his gaze on Sarah, noting her lowered eyes. The dark sweep of lashes against honey-toned cheeks. High cheeks, at that, smooth and unblemished, not a freckle or mole in sight. "I know you'd stay, but Maremmas are singular creatures. They're bred to identify with their owner. They don't shift allegiance readily."
Sarah's lack of inflection offered nothing. He eyed her, appraising, noting the air of capability belying her small size, then jerked his head toward the door. "Head out, Julie. We'll be fine."
"You're sure?" At his nod, Julie moved back. "Thanks, Craig. I owe you."
"No problem." Craig prepared the anesthetic as he spoke, studying the animal scale. "Ninety-six," he observed, glancing up.
Sarah nodded, jaw set.
Julie turned, then swung back. "Bagels in the morning?"
"With garden vegetables cream cheese."
"Can do." She shifted an uneasy glance from Craig to Sarah, then left, her footsteps soft against the tiled floor.
Turning full attention to the suffering dog, Craig bent. "Sorry, fella. I'll be quick."
As Craig administered the medication, Sarah eased small, capable hands down the dog's ruff, her tawny skin a contrast to the dog's white coat. She whispered to the dog, occasionally dropping her face to the thick fur, nuzzling. She seemed oblivious to Craig, which was probably best. Small talk options were limited.
Not if he wanted to be anything construed as sociable. The finer points of sheep were lost on Craig, and lamb wasn't a dish his Irish mother offered except at Easter.
That left the weather. Or…
"Beautiful dog." Craig eyed the Maremma with a hint of envy, remembering his Lab's youth. Rocket was nearing fifteen now, slow to rise, and mostly deaf. Old age didn't go easy on big dogs, and his barrel-chested chocolate Lab with a graying muzzle was no exception.
She wasn't giving him much to work with, but maybe a quiet surgical intervention was better than empty words. Head bent, Craig snipped the quill ends with surgical scissors. Seeing her look of question, he explained, "Cutting the ends releases air pressure, making removal easier. Less painful."
"But he's under."
Her stoic tone caricatured Native Americans, her deep voice calm and unemotional. Craig nodded. "He wouldn't feel it now, but withdrawing the quills with the pressure would make the punctures more painful during recovery. The holes have to get larger to withdraw the spines if I don't cut them."
Silence stretched again, the passing seconds marking time from the old analog wall clock. Tick. Tick. Tick. "How old is Gino?"
Sarah's long, dark braid fell across her cheek as she soothed the dog. Her mother had been a Native American mix, Craig remembered, though he'd never met her. She'd died, when? Twelve years back, give or take. Long enough to have her self-absorbed stepsons grown and gone, while Sarah would have been a teenager.
At least Peg Slocum hadn't lived to feel the shame of Tom Jr.'s crimes. Craig thinned his lips, concentrating on the sensitive mouth of the Italian guard dog. The uncomfortable recovery could enervate the young dog, but he should be fine in the long run.
"Ten months. Nearly eleven."
Her answer took so long, Craig nearly forgot the question. "Did you rebreed his mother?"
"Must make it interesting during heat cycles." Craig eyed the dense mass of Gino and envisioned his sire. Substantial, like the son, and probably difficult to discourage when a nearby female was in heat.
"Neighbors take him."
His cell phone vibrated. He glanced at the numerical page and bit back a twinge of guilt when Maggie James' number flashed in the small display.
He'd dated the local nurse several times over the winter, making her what? The third nurse he'd dated? Fourth, he realized. Amy, Kayla, Brianna and Maggie. Hadn't his buddy Marc joked that the hospital installed a new warning system designed to alert the female staff when he was on site?
He'd ended the short-lived relationship after the Maple Fest. What should have been a fun late-winter day had been relegated to shopping indoor craft booths because Maggie hadn't dressed warmly enough for the outdoor festival, more concerned with her outfit than the event.
Craig liked people. He embraced country life, the rigors of treating animals in all kinds of conditions. He felt equally at home in office or barn.
But not sheep barns.
Employing gentle twists and flicks, he withdrew the last barbs from the dog's muzzle, then stepped away to gather ointment and antibiotics. After glancing at his watch, he wrote instructions on a small prescription pad.
"You know how to administer pills to a dog?"
He handed Sarah the vial and the salve. "Apply the salve twice a day. The pills are an antibiotic to prevent infection. Some of those quills went deep. You've got enough for ten days. If you see signs of infection or need a follow-up, give Hank a call."
They both understood the meaning of his words. Nodding, she sank her hand into the dog's ruff. "Come on, fella. Let's go."
"He'll be woozy. Might want to wait a few minutes, let him shake off the effects of the anesthetic." Regardless of the human awkwardness, the dog should have a few minutes of quiet, rejoin-the-world time. Walking the thick-set dog through the door, Sarah nodded, her chin tucked.
"We'll wait outside so you can close up." The weight of the dog listed her step. At the second entry she turned. "You stayed late," she said, her deep tone a blend of smooth gold and rough, gravel roads. A different sound, unique to her. A voice that suited her caramel skin, the long, thick braid, the high cheekbones that hinted at her Native American ancestry. She looked anywhere but at him. "Thank you."
He had no pleasantries to exchange with her. Nothing that wouldn't sound trite and manufactured. He huffed a breath as he shut and locked the door.
Minutes later he cruised out of the lot. Slowing his SUV to negotiate the turn, he noted the woman and dog in the cold front yard of the veterinary clinic.
Straight and still, she perched on the verdigris-armed bench outside the main entrance. The dog, equally quiet, sat upright, his chin angled with pride, mimicking her stance.
Maremmas. Great guard dogs, good bonders when housed with a flock at an early age. Smart. Independent. Faithful, not easily cowed. Willing to go their own way, awaiting no man's guidance.
As he observed the dignified profiles of dog and woman, Craig couldn't help but see how well they suited one another.
Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression? Sarah finished the words of the forty-fourth Psalm mentally, kneading Gino's ruff as he sloughed off his grogginess.
The poignant words touched her with their talk of sheep and oppression. Enemies. The poem was an aged song of lament and pathos. It helped smooth the dent to her self-worth, gouged deeper by Craig Macklin's disdain. How she wished…
Nope. She wouldn't go there. Refused to go there. Craig Macklin was entitled to his opinion, no matter how unreasonable it might be. Craig's reticence toward sheep was no secret among the local herders. The vets worked things out between them, leaving Hank the man to consult for sheep and goat problems.
By default, being a shepherd and a Slocum gave the younger veterinarian a two-fold reason to avoid Sarah, a task he did well. Knowing his grandmother's circumstance, Sarah understood why, but wished she didn't bear responsibility for her half brother's actions.
But she'd get nowhere feeling sorry for herself. No way, no how. She led Gino to the scarred pickup. The old Ford wasn't snazzy like Craig's polished 4X4, but it had a certain dignity in its aged finish, a little rough around the edges. Like me, she noted, shifting to allow Gino access.
The thought made her smile.
The memory of Craig's face erased it. The tall, handsome, sandy-haired vet usually steered clear of Sarah. At community functions he looked around her, avoiding eye contact. His animosity toward Slocums was unspoken but obvious.
She had never sought his help in a farm crisis. Today was an aberration.
Craig Macklin knew his stuff, though. In her years of farming, she'd never heard a complaint against him, and North Country farmers were not easily appeased. His thick, sturdy hands had been firm but gentle as he treated Gino.
She stopped by the local grocery before heading to her sister-in-law's home in Potsdam. Leaving Gino sleeping in the cab, she approached the front door.
No one answered her knock. She leaned on the bell with more force than should be necessary, if it were working.
Unlocked, the door swung inward with ease. She stepped in, her nose telling her the whole place could use a thorough cleaning. Her eyes took time to adjust to the darkness Rita called home.
"Rita? It's Sarah. I've brought things."
Sarah shifted the sacks and pushed through the antique swinging door between the rooms, its warm russet grain a comfort.
The kitchen was empty of people, but littered with debris.
Sarah grimaced, shifted piles of mail and old newspapers, then set the groceries on the table before she headed upstairs, calling Rita's name. A glance out the landing window showed Gino still asleep on the bench seat of the F-250. The driver's-side window was cracked open, but she didn't dare leave him long untended. A good dog, but young. He could get into mischief without direction.
Calling Rita's name once more, Sarah crossed the upstairs hall and twisted the knob on her sister-in-law's room. "Reet? You sleeping? "
A slight movement revealed her sister-in-law's presence on the bed. Sarah stepped in, reached for the light, then rethought her choices. "I brought a few things. Where are the kids?"
"Movies. Liv took them."
"Nice. What did they go to see?"
Rita shifted, then rolled, a pillow clutched to her chest. "Some animated thing."
Sarah blinked. There was no animated movie playing in town. Did Liv take the car? Drive to Canton? She was two years shy of her license but she'd pulled some interesting deals recently. Sarah scanned the driveway through the nearby window. "Is the car in the garage?"
Rita's old-fashioned garage was behind the home, not visible from this angle.
"In the drive."
Sarah bit back words of recrimination. Obviously Liv had taken off with the car and the kids, with Rita clueless as to their whereabouts. Dear Lord, she prayed, trying to ignore the dank smell of despair. The room reeked of hopelessness. Loss of faith. A keen smell, the mix of body salts, sweat and sour breath.
"Come downstairs, Reet. I'll make us a quick supper." Then I'll tackle my niece, she promised silently, her anger rising. Couldn't Liv see her mother's desperation, the depression that seized her?
Of course she could. In her own adolescent way, Liv was trying to fill the shoes her parents vacated. The same thing that pushed Sarah to buy a farm on Waterman Hill instead of south of Albany like she'd planned. Rita and the kids needed sensible family around, and that was a scarce commodity in the North Country.
Sarah grasped Rita's hand. "Come on, Reet. Come down and talk to me; I'll straighten up the kitchen while we chat."
"Go away, Sarah."
The response brought Sarah's chin higher. "Won't work, not with me. That's the one part of Slocum that bred true. I'm stubborn as an ox and you need to eat. Embrace the sunshine. It's almost spring, Rita. Let's go down together. Please?"
Rita clutched the pillow tighter. "I can't. I need to rest."