Veterinarian Shelley Morgan has always preferred animals to humans, and not simply because she can communicate with them psychically. Unlike most people she’s known, animals have never broken her heart. But after six months in her new town, some of her favorite four-legged companions begin disappearing from the local zoo. Determined to track down the animals and their thief, the telepathic vet decides to investigate, unknowingly delving into a deadly mystery…
He’s ready to make her heart go wild…
Although his bear-like physique has been an advantage in the Tidewater Police Department, Dev Jones’s size often intimidates people. Only Shelley has seen past his massive build to the intelligent man inside, but that was years ago. So when she contacts him requesting his help to solve a series of animal kidnappings, he’s eager to reconnect with her. But the thefts escalate to murder and all the evidence points to Shelley as the killer, and Dev faces a devastating choice: forsake his career or risk losing the woman he’s grown to love…
About the Author
Daily, she can be found in her office. With her Pomeranian at her feet and her hands on the keyboard, she spends her time plotting new ways to torture her characters before they find their happily ever afters.
Read an Excerpt
“SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH Mr. Fuzzbutt.” Beau’s angelic voice rang out seconds before the backside of his long-haired black guinea pig bounced before Dr. Shelley Morgan’s eyes. At almost the same moment, a cry went up from the back room of the small veterinary clinic.
“Shelley, I need you!” Feet pounded quickly down the short hall before Jacob, the veterinary clinic’s too-excitable intern, burst into the room yelling, “Lucy is trying to turn Hercules into her Thanksgiving dinner. And this time I think she might just chew his balls off.”
“Language! And Thanksgiving’s four weeks away. At most, she wants a light snack,” Shelley said, pushing to her feet and sweeping the fur ball known as Mr. Fuzzbutt into her hands.
But Jacob hadn’t heard her attempt to lighten the moment. The intern/groomer/assistant had already spun around and disappeared into the back room. His cries of, “Stop that, Lucy. Get up, Herc,” were nearly drowned out by the cacophony of dogs barking.
Ah, it was a Wednesday. Most people hated Mondays because they believed the first day of the workweek was full of insanity, but Shelley knew otherwise. In her twenty-four years of life, every major catastrophe occurred on the day most folks referred to as “hump day.” Today was shaping up to be as invariably crazy as every other weekday that started with the letter W.
“Doc, can you help him?” Beau’s voice, still high-pitched from youth, wobbled as he spoke.
She turned to the worried ten-year-old who was small for his age. His large luminous brown eyes were framed by thick black glasses. His clothes, although threadbare and clearly hand-me-downs, were clean as were his faded blue sneakers.
“Don’t worry, Beau. I’m sure he’ll be fine. Just have a seat in the waiting area and I’ll be back shortly. I’ll bring Mr. . . .” she couldn’t bring herself to say the word Fuzzbutt to the child, and settled with “your little buddy back after I’ve examined him.”
“Okay, Doc. I trust you.” Beau nodded. His words so mature for one so young. “But I can’t just sit and wait. How about I bring in the bags of dog food from outside?”
“That would be a big help, Beau. You remember where the storeroom is? Just stack the ones you can carry in there. And don’t try to lift the big ones.”
Not that the little guy would be able to do much. The last time the clinic received donations, the dog food had come in fifty-pound bags. Beau likely didn’t weigh more than sixty-five pounds himself. Plus, it had rained late last night and the town handyman she’d hired hadn’t had a chance to fix the hole in the shed’s roof. So chances were good several of the bags were sodden and useless.
Still, he beamed as if she’d just handed him a hundred-dollar bill. “You know it! I’ll have the bags all put away before you can bring Mr. Fuzzbutt back. Just you wait and see.”
Then Beau was out the front door. The length of bells hanging from the handle jangled and banged against the glass as he took off around the corner to the storage shed.
Gotta love small towns. Shelley couldn’t suppress the grin, even as good ole Mr. F made a soft whoop, whoop noise in her hands. She glanced into his little black eyes and asked, “So are you really sick?”
The eye contact formed an instant telepathic connection. Shelley’s world swirled to gray. Still vaguely aware of her surroundings, she focused her attention inward on the movielike scenes sent from the little boar in her hands.
An image of Beau’s anxious face peering between the bars of the cage, filling and refilling the bowl with pellets sprang into her mind. At first she thought the guinea pig was repeating the same image over and over, but quickly she realized what was happening.
“Oh, so you’ve been eating,” she said. “But Beau doesn’t realize it because he’s been topping off the food bowl.”
Mr. F. whooped again.
She chuckled. “Well, you’re a pretty wise pig not to eat everything you’ve been given. Many others wouldn’t have such restraint. I’m not sure I would. You sure you don’t feel sick?”
The little pig winged an image of Beau snuggling him close and occasionally kissing him on the head as they watched Scooby-Doo. The image was so sweet she let herself get lost in the moment and almost forgot she was at the clinic.
“Shell-ley,” Jacob wailed.
She jumped and turned in time to see Jacob burst through the swinging door separating the back hallway from the reception area of the clinic. “Jeez! Jacob. You’ll freak out the animals.”
“Come on. I can’t stop her and he’s just lying there!” Jacob gestured wildly with both hands.
Right. Lucy attacking Hercules. Although Lucy was all of three pounds and a ferret, to Hercules, a ninety-pound dog. How much damage could she do?
“It’s Wednesday,” Shelley said on a sigh. “Although, at least if it started out like this, it can’t get any crazier.”
Mr. Fuzzbutt whooped again. I swear, the little pig’s laughing at me.
“Jacob, take Mr. F and put him in examination room one.” She hurried through the swinging white door, which led to the back, stopping briefly to hand Beau’s pet to her intern. “There’s a small cage in the cabinet under the sink. Pull it out and put him in it, then meet me in the doggie spa.”
Without waiting for a response, she hustled to the back room. She usually avoided this area. She’d spent a weekend painting murals of fields, dog bones, blue skies, and fire hydrants on the walls to give dogs and their owners the impression of luxury accommodations. According to Jacob and their boss, Dr. Kessler, her hard work paid off. Unless she was in the room with the canines.
Today, six dogs were there for the Thanksgiving Special, a deluxe grooming, complete with a complimentary toy turkey. Metal cages lined one wall, each with a plush foam bed. The occupants waited in doggy paradise for their turn at the day’s scheduled deluxe treatment by Jacob. Soft strains of Bach filtered through the air, barely audible over the ruckus of barks, yips, and howls as the canines commented on the show in the middle of the floor.
That was, until one of them caught her scent. Mrs. Hoffstedder’s beagle noticed her first. He let out a single high-pitched yowl, then lowered his head and covered his eyes with his paws. One by one, the other five dogs did the same.
Shelley didn’t bother to wonder why they feared her. She’d given up asking that question years ago. It’s not as if she’d ever beaten an animal. Jeez, she didn’t even raise her voice. But almost every dog she’d come into contact with for the past seven years either hid from her or tried to attack her.
Thank God, Jacob had remembered to lock their cages before he called for her, or it would have been dog-maggedon as the pooches ran for freedom.
She had to be the world’s weirdest vet. Telepathic, she could talk to any animal alive, including snakes, hedgehogs, and naked mole rats. Any animal, that is, except for the canine variety. She hadn’t spoken to a single dog since Barty, her Bay retriever, died in the car crash with her parents all those years ago. Just the thought of them made her chest tight. She shoved away the memories and focused on the clinic’s current crisis.
Dr. Kessler’s extremely valuable St. Bernard, Hercules, lay stretched out in the middle of the floor. The six-month-old puppy remained still. No small feat, considering Lucy, her beautiful cinnamon-colored sable ferret, was steadily chewing on his upper thigh, incredibly close to his testicles.
“You okay, Hercules?” she asked, gingerly kneeling down beside the pair and making eye contact with the dog.
Lifting only his head, he looked at her.
The telepathic connection zapped into place. An image of her prying her ferret off his body followed by him licking his dangly bits in relief flashed through her mind. She had to put her hand to her mouth to stifle a chuckle. Herc let out a loud sigh and dropped his head back to the floor.
Unlike every other dog in the world, Hercules neither feared nor loathed her. He didn’t love her either. Usually he ignored her completely. But today he seemed to recognize if anyone could save his balls—literally—it was her.
“Lucy,” she asked, focusing on her pet. “Why are you doing that?”
The ferret managed to glare briefly at Shelley and continue her assault at the same time.
In that momentary bit of eye contact, another collage of images soared into Shelley’s head. It took a moment for Shelley to assemble them into an order she could understand.
“Ah, Hercules, the gaseous, accidentally sat on you, again, after eating his breakfast. Now you want to put ‘that upstart pup’ in his place?” Shelley sighed. “All right, you had your revenge. It’s not like he wants to be gassy. Next time, try to avoid him after he eats. Let’s go.” The ferret didn’t budge. Shelley prayed for patience and for no blood to be drawn. “Lucy, let go right now. You can’t gnaw off his leg. And if you could, he’d be three-legged, wobbly, and end up squashing you anyway. Then you’d be trapped and forced to breathe his stench all day.”
Hercules let out a rumbling woof of assent and shifted his weight, as if threatening to fulfill Shelley’s prediction.
Lucy leapt away from Hercules with a shriek. She raced up Shelley’s arm and wrapped herself around Shelley’s neck for comfort. “You’re all right, girl. Why don’t you snuggle with me for a bit, hmmm?”
She patted the ferret on the head and rose to her feet. Hercules immediately began intimately examining his body, reassuring himself that he was still fully intact.
“Wow, how do you do that?” Jacob appeared behind her. She turned to find his brown eyes rounded and his mouth agape. “Ferrets are more like cats than dogs. But yours actually seems to understand you. Oh! They could make a reality show out of you. It could be called ‘The Ferret Whisperer’.”
Shelley swallowed a chuckle; no sense encouraging him. Instead, she spoke directly to the brown-and-white puppy behemoth still at her feet. “You’re okay now, Hercules. It’s safe to move again. Thanks for not eating her.”
Hercules sprang to his paws and raced out of the room without so much as a backward glance.
And we’re back to ignoring me. World order has returned.
She chuckled and didn’t try to disguise it this time.
“Don’t laugh. I’m serious,” Jacob said. “We could make some real money if Hollywood ever heard about you.” He stood, arms akimbo, in the doorway. His shaggy black hair hung in his face. He jerked his head to the right, throwing the sideways bangs out of his eyes. “I swear, I went near her and that rat tried to munch on my fingers. But you . . . you walked in and talked to her like Dr. Freaking Dolittle. And don’t think I haven’t seen you do it before. Mr. Fuzzbutt, for example. Yep, your parents misnamed you. You should have been called John Dolittle.”
“I’m a woman.”
She shook her head at him. Little did Jacob know, she was more like the fictional character than Hugh Lofting had ever dreamed possible. Except she didn’t speak to animals in their own languages. Shelley simply communicated with them telepathically. All creatures were connected. Well, mostly.
Humans were an entirely different story. She often felt like an outsider. And she was a member of the species.
“Lucy’s a ferret, not a rat. If you’re going to be a vet, you should know that. And as for what happened in the spa, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. Look, she’s a good ferret who normally gets along with everyone, animals and people alike. I figured she must have been upset with Hercules. You saw him sit on her last week. And let’s face it; he hasn’t adjusted to the new dog food well. It didn’t take much of a mental leap to figure something like that might have happened again,” Shelley said, leaving the back room and heading toward her office.
“Yeah, I suppose so.” Jacob sounded disappointed, but he rallied. Hurrying down the hall, he reiterated his previous comment. “Still, I’ve seen you do that with other animals too. It’s like you know what they’re thinking. Is that how you skipped ahead in vet school? You read the minds of the animal patients. Hey, would that be cheating? Can I learn how to do it?”
“What are you talking about?” Shelley stopped and faced him. His dizzying barrage of questions too much to absorb. She instead focused on the first one. “You can’t skip ahead in veterinary school. I graduated last year.”
“You’re not old enough to have gone all the way through.” Jacob waved at her. “Hello, you’re my age, and I’m just getting started. Next semester anyway.”
“First, you’re barely old enough to be carded, but I’m twenty-four. Second, I graduated from high school with my associate’s degree.”
“Seriously? You took college classes in high school?”
Something about the tone of his voice set her teeth on edge, but still she kept her voice light. “Yes, and you could have done it too. I went from there to the university, where I finished up my bachelor’s in twenty-four months because I didn’t take summers off. Then I enrolled in veterinary school. I didn’t skipanything.”
Jacob frowned at her, then gave her a very obvious once-over. “You’re . . . you’re a nerd? But you’re . . . hot. For a vet who dresses like my grandmother.”
Shelley glanced at her four-inch heels. “Did you just compare me to your grandmother? Does she walk around in ankle-breaking high heels too?”
Jacob just grinned.
Shelley’s eyes were going to pop out of her head if she listened to this guy another second. Without responding, she spun on her heel and closed the distance to her office door. Once inside the tiny space, she propped up the wooden and plastic-mesh baby gate across her doorway, designed to keep Hercules from wandering in while she was out. Setting Lucy on the floor, Shelley gave her pet a stern frown, then added aloud for good measure, “Behave. I mean it.”
Lucy shook her head, sneezed indignantly, and pranced beneath Shelley’s desk where her small travel cage rested. After climbing inside, she curled up into a tight ball and did what ferrets do best. She went to sleep.
“What do you want me to do with the guinea pig?” Jacob asked. All questions about her age, her clothing, and her career seemingly forgotten. He leaned over the mesh gate rather than crossing into her sanctuary. Not that she could take refuge in it. The computer work she had to file needed to be done on the main computer out front. Her desktop had been crashing all week, and the repairman hadn’t come yet.
“Leave him in the examination room until Beau’s ready to take him home. I’ve already examined him. He’s fine,” she said, gathering her supplies and carefully stepping over the gate. “Look, I’ve got plenty of paperwork to finish before Dr. Kessler returns. So if you want to get started on Mrs. Hoffstedder’s beagle, that’d be great.”
“No problem,” Jacob said and disappeared into the back.
The smell of cinnamon and pinecones permeated the receptionist area. The scent was an instant soother for her nerves. Now that the dogs in the spa had calmed down, all was quiet. Peaceful.
Settling into the chair, she pulled up the afternoon schedule on the computer. The muscles in her shoulders eased. At barely noon, she had an hour before the next animal . . . er, guest, was set to arrive. Fifty guaranteed, crazy-free minutes.
She exhaled a relieved sigh. A little more tension slipped away.
Breathe, relax. This Wednesday isn’t that bad.
“Uh, excuse me . . . Dr. Morgan?” Jacob’s voice sounded a little too tentative. A little too respectful.
She glanced up to find the young intern standing before her. His gaze bounced around the room. He looked everywhere but at her.
An icy sensation slithered into her stomach, making it shrink. “What did you do?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said, quickly. “I didn’t realize you’d left the front door open. I certainly wouldn’t have let Hercules wander through the clinic unattended if you’d told me that the place was open for business. Or that you had some kid carrying bags of food inside from the shed. I would have locked him up.”
“Him, who?” The words were out of her mouth nanoseconds before the answer slammed into her.
Hercules. The dog. The dog.
“Are you telling me that Hercules, Dr. Kessler’s prized St. Bernard . . .” Her voice pitched higher with each word. “The one he calls his only true baby ismissing?”
“Not my fault.” Jacob held up his hands.
From behind him came a sound of someone sniffing back tears. “I’m so sorry, Doc. I didn’t see him by the door until after I’d opened it. I tried to stop him. I had him real good for about a minute.”
Beau stepped out from behind Jacob. His blue shirt was torn from the shoulder to the wrist down one sleeve. Worse, he had an ugly patch of road rash on his upper left arm that disappeared up the ripped shirt. His glasses were askew and hanging by an arm.
She raced around Jacob and checked Beau’s injuries. Pointing at the intern, she ordered, “You, chase after him.”
“Yeah, see I can’t run. Remember, I tore my ACL doing that Mud Run with the Barbie Twins back in September?” He gestured to the brace on his knee. He wasn’t on crutches anymore, but that didn’t mean he was cleared to go chasing a dog all over town.
“Shoot, shack, shipwreck!” she cursed, kicking off her ridiculous heels. What she wouldn’t give for a pair of sneakers and some jeans right now. “Jacob, help Beau get cleaned up. There’s a sewing kit in my desk, get it out and we’ll repair his shirt. See if you can fix his glasses. Make sure the rest of the dogs are locked up tight. Do not answer the phone for anyone. Let it go to voice mail. And for the love of that St. Bernard, if Dr. Kessler returns before I come back, do not tell him you let his dog escape.”
“What do I say?”
“I don’t know. Tell him I took Herc for a walk or something.”
“Right, like he’ll believe that one,” Jacob scoffed. “Dogs hate you, remember? So maybe you aren’t like Dr. Dolittle after all, huh?”
“Jacob! Focus.” Shelley headed for the door, calling over her shoulder, “Let’s hope Dr. Kessler doesn’t beat me back here.”
Shelley shoved open the door. Sunlight poured in, along with a blast of unseasonably warm November air, belying the sodden state of the area after last night’s downpour of sleet and rain. At least she wasn’t running in her stockings in the rain or snow. This time. Yeah, like that single bit of good news made up for the fact that it was a Wednesday, and she was about to run outside shoeless on the still wet and most likely muddy ground.
Hercules, come back before anyone in town sees you doing your Born Free impression.
That would just put the stale dog treat on top of her already rancid dog-food bowl of a day.
* * *
TIDEWATER POLICE DETECTIVE Devon Jones pulled his black Lexus into the parking lot of Elkridge Veterinary Clinic. He cut the engine, imagining what he’d say when he saw Shelley again.
Her e-mail to him last week had been like a gift from God. He’d been searching for her for weeks. Even going so far as to track down her fiancé—his former roommate—and that was all kinds of a suckfest because Camden Figurelle, that rat bastard, was in Africa. In the Peace Corps. There was no way to get in touch with him, if it wasn’t an absolute emergency.
What the hell was Cam doing in the Peace Corps anyway? They were supposed to be married by now.
Shells. Shelley Amanda Morgan.
He’d spent the past few weeks searching for Figurelle because the wedding should have happened last summer. Cam’s family had listed the engagement in the society section of the Baltimore Sun. Dev read it, marked the date, and noted with some disappointment, he hadn’t received an invitation. Not that he’d have gone. As much as he wanted Shells to be happy, he hadn’t wanted to watch her marry the wrong man.
But she hadn’t married Cam. Maybe Shelley had come to her senses and seen the prick for what he was and given him the old heave-ho. The thought brought a smile to Dev’s face.
Still, wrong man or not, at least Cam had been a link to Shells. Without the connection, Dev had been stumped in the search for her. But then two days ago, she contacted him through an old e-mail address he’d kept from his college days. And damn if that wasn’t some good luck.
Dev pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket and clicked to her saved e-mail. He read it again, although he had it memorized.
It’s me, Shelley Morgan. I know it’s been a long time but I could use your help. I heard you’re a police officer now but what I need is to use your puzzle-solving skills. Speaking of the police, I remember you wanted to be a detective. Did that ever happen?
Anyway, I was wondering if I could convince you to leave Tidewater for a few days and come to Elkridge. It’s a little town on the border of Suffolk and Tidewater. Great place. Friendly people. Quiet community. Low crime. Sounds like heaven, right?
Well, something strange is going on. I think. See, there’s this private zoo. Since I moved here last June there have been a number of unexplained disappearances of animals. I’ve tried contacting the USDA, but they’re no help. It’s hard to explain in an email but I just know something is wrong. I’ve tried investigating this on my own, but I can’t piece it together. Plus, I have to be careful how much noise I make. People in small towns talk, you know.
If you could come and take a look around, I’ve got some papers, animal records, and old newspaper clippings. Maybe I’m paranoid and there’s nothing really wrong here. But if I’m not, then your time could save the life of an animal. Or ten.
Email me back and I’ll give you directions to the veterinary clinic where I work.
Hope to hear from you soon,
He darkened the screen and returned the phone to his pocket. Maybe he should have replied to her e-mail or called first instead of just driving over. But what could he say?
“Hi, Shells, long time no see. Can you believe it’s been three years since graduation? Time sure flies and all that. While I want to know about this mystery you’ve unearthed, I’m more interested in the fact that you and Cam aren’t together anymore. I’ve been crazy about you since the first time you smiled at me. Had you not been Camden’s girl in school, I would have moved heaven and earth to get you into my bed. I also have a big surprise for you. I’ve found something of yours. If you’ll just come back to Tidewater with me, I’ll show you.”
Yeah, that would go over really well. He sounded like a stalker or like he was just hoping for a quick-and-dirty one-night stand. And a one-night stand was absolutely not what he wanted. Although, he’d settle for it if that’s all he could have.
Dev gave himself a mental shake. He’d come to give her news she’d once told him she never thought she’d hear. Her older sister, Jules, was alive, well, happy, living in Tidewater, still seeing ghosts, and searching for Shelley.
The news of her long-lost sibling should be enough for Shelley to forgive his disappearance after graduation. But really, he hadn’t known what to say. And Camden had made it pretty damned clear that Dev was not welcome in their lives. Plus, it wasn’t like Shelley had called him, even once, in all that time.
Okay, so she’d been busy getting her veterinary license and building a happy life with Cam-the-sack. At least Dev had thought she’d been happy, until a few days ago. Although he couldn’t quite ignore the pinch to his ego that she hadn’t called him sooner. After all, they had been friends.
Christ, he was starting to sound like a freaking girl. First brooding over feelings and worrying about why she hadn’t contacted him sooner. Next he’d want to start a knitting circle.
Okay, so his motives for coming here weren’t completely altruistic. He was man enough to admit to himself that if a hint of the spark he’d felt for her back in college still ignited when he saw her again, he’d do it. He’d ask her out . . . This time, no one would stop him.
He’d use the next few days to let her really get to know him. Help her with her little zoo problem and take her to see her sister Jules. Maybe then, he’d have finally earned the right to spend time with the sexiest, most caring woman he’d ever met.
Dev shoved open the car door and stepped onto the damp cobblestone. His Ferragamos crunched over the wet, gritty street. He glanced around the nearly deserted road of the picturesque little town. Despite Elkridge’s location on the scenic James River—with no elks or ridges in sight—the place lacked one key element Tidewater was known for.
This afternoon, the scent on the warm November wind was rife with apples and cinnamon from the local shops. Refreshing and sweet.
Just like Shelley. Assuming she was as perfect as he remembered. Right. Like she could be anything other than the sweet, shy girl he’d crushed on so long ago. She’d probably be so grateful he had come to help her solve her mystery and had found Jules on top of it that she’d ask him out.
Dream on, man!
While he and his partner had wrapped up the biggest case Tidewater had seen all year, there were others that still needed his attention. A few days were all he could afford to spend away from the office. He’d really only taken the five days because he’d foolishly hoped he’d what . . . see Shelley and she’d finally fall in love with him? They’d run off to Vegas and get married?
Right and we’ll have a unicorn and Elvis stand up for us at the ceremony.
Exhaling hard, he started to make his way toward a whitewashed brick building with the Elkridge Animal Clinic sign hanging over the front door.
A huge, blurry mass appeared so quickly in front of him, it seemed to pop into existence from nowhere.
It flew at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Dev’s head smacked the pavement. Tiny stars burst to vibrant multicolored life in front of his eyes.
The something was large and furry and pinning him. Still he managed to get a hand free. He reached for his sidearm, which . . . shit! . . . he’d left locked in the trunk of his car.
The damned beast burrowed its muzzle against his cheek and rumbled a deep, throaty growl.
Cold fear slid down his neck. Or that might have been the animal’s bloodthirsty drool. He might be a city boy, but he’d heard all about bear attacks in small towns like this one. He held perfectly still, eyes closed, playing dead as he tried to get a sense of the animal’s size. If it were a bear, it wasn’t fully grown. A cub, maybe? But a big one.
Relief at the thought evaporated at the next.
Where there’s a cub, there’s a mama bear somewhere. Dev couldn’t just lie there; he needed to protect his vital organs before the animal figured out he was still warm enough to chew on. He rolled onto his side and into a ball, protecting his head, face, arms, and torso.
The bear seemed to tighten its hold on him. Its breath coming hot and nose hair curling against Dev’s ear.
He was going to be eaten by a bear in the middle of this damned street while everyone in Elkridge was out to lunch. Trying to curl more tightly, he elbowed the beast in a front leg. It yelped.
Wait. Bears don’t yelp. Plus, it wasn’t trying to bite him. No, it was pawing at his arms, not painfully. Playfully?
A long, wet tongue slid across his hair, his ear, his cheek. And that growl he heard was followed by a deep woof. A dog, he was pinned by a dog. A great bear of a dog, but definitely the canine species as opposed to the Ursus americanus.
Dev slowly turned onto his back then drew his arms away from his face only to throw them up again when a slobbery tongue swiped from one cheek across his nose to the other. “Ugh. Serious dog breath. You need a breath mint, Fido.”
Shifting onto his side, he attempted to scoot out from beneath the beast, but the dog took it as a game and began licking him in earnest down the neck of his suit. If he hadn’t needed a shower before the dog knocked him down, between rolling on the cobblestone and the sloppy dog kisses, he certainly needed one now.
Hoping not to hurt the animal that was clearly looking for a playmate, Dev pushed at the beast’s midsection in an effort to make a break for it. He’d barely touched the dog when someone yelled, “Stop it, you big bear! You’ll hurt him.”
Okay, that wasn’t the first time in his life he’d been called a bear. Still, the words stung his pride. The average person might consider him to be bearlike, due to his large size, but he wasn’t an animal. He was a police detective. A cop. A friggin’ hero.
Although, at the moment he was in the least heroic position. Ever.
“Hercules, stop before you hurt him. You bad puppy,” the voice said, closer now. “I’m really sorry about Hercules. Are you okay down there? Give me a minute. I’ve almost got his leash on him.”
Ah, Hercules was the dog’s name. She was calling the dog a big bear.
The relief coursing through him at that knowledge was quickly overshadowed by a sickening realization. He knew that voice.
There was a distinctive clink of metal on metal and the dog was off him.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, then she laughed. The sound more exhalation of air than joy. “I’m really, really sorry. He doesn’t normally do this. But I guess all creatures crave freedom, right? Are you . . . are you hurt?”
His gut shrank at her melodic voice. Now? She had to show up and see him covered in dog drool and muck, lying on the ground, pinned there by a playful bear-dog.
Maybe if I’m lucky, she won’t recognize me beneath the slobber?
“Dev?” Her voice was closer now. He could feel her breath against his chin as she leaned down to look at him. “Is that you?”
“Uh . . . yeah.” Dev lay there for a moment. His arm still firmly over his eyes and his head throbbing. His luck was good for buckets of suck.
“Why, bless your heart. Devon Jones, it is you.” She sounded positively gleeful. “What are you doing down there?”
“Playing possum with Fido.” He tugged his arm away and blinked open his eyes. The starbursts were gone, but he’d have a nice knot on the back of his skull later. It was already coming up.
And there she was. Leaning over him, her hair a cloud of red curls around her face. Concern and confusion crowded into her sapphire-blue eyes. Her pink lips twitched. “Thank God, it was you Hercules tackled. How do you do it? You always manage to show up just when I need saving.”
If only that were true.
“HI, SHELLS, LONG time no see,” Dev said, then inwardly winced.
Long time no see? He was an idiot. Couldn’t he come up with something better than some lame-ass cliché?
Rubbing his doggie-licked face with his sleeve, he sat up but made no move to stand. Shelley Morgan was right here, in front of him. Even more beautiful than he’d remembered. Better. Unlike Jules, who was a little skinny for his taste, Shelley was full-figured. The kind of woman a man could take into his arms and not worry about snapping her like a twig. Her slim beige skirt hugged her hips like a groping lover. She bent closer to him, the buttons on her white shirt straining to contain her voluptuous breasts.
And suddenly, the cartoon wolves with their tongues rolling out at the sight of a beautiful woman made sense to him. He tightened his jaw to keep his own tongue in check. Three years of absence had done nothing to dim his attraction to his former college English tutor.
“Dev?” Shelley frowned, leaning closer to his face. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” But the word came out as little more than a growl.
“Oh-kay.” The dog tugged and she tightened her grip on the leash, then said in a rush, “Sorry about Hercules. He’s really a good dog.”
He glanced at her face, expecting to see the same nervous smile or blatant panic most people got when he growled at them. Instead, she beamed at him. Joy suffused her features, making her more beautiful.
“Thank you so much for catching him.” The dog tugged for freedom again. She clicked her tongue at him and shortened the leash, looping it around her hand twice. “Your timing’s impeccable, as usual.”
“Happy to help.” Rolling onto his hands and knees, he caught sight of the run in her stocking starting at her big toe and disappearing beneath her skirt. “Shelley, where are your shoes?”
She didn’t respond to him, clearly too busy trying to convince the great bear-dog to stay.
Dev cleared his throat and straightened to his full height until he towered over her, but he couldn’t stop staring at her toes. Her toenails were Christmas green and decorated with little white snowmen. He couldn’t quite hide his grin.
Somewhere nearby a bell jangled and someone with a remarkably young voice shouted, “Doc, did you catch him?”
She glanced around the street, clearly nervous. She held up a finger as if asking Dev to wait, then called back over her shoulder, “I’ve got him, Beau. Everything’s okay now. We’ll be in in a minute. Go back inside and wait for me, please.”
“Yes’m,” the voice called again, followed by the bang of a door closing.
Then she stood there, staring at him. His mind completely blanked at the look of delight in her blue-blue eyes. Suddenly, his years on the force meant nothing, and he felt as awkward as he had in his first tutoring session. So he said the first thing that popped into his head, “I came to town to find you.”
“I hope so. I sent you that e-mail asking you to come.” She laughed, her shoulders relaxed, and her eyes sparkled. A wide grin spread across her lips. When serious, she was beautiful, but when she smiled like that . . . full-on blind-side knockout.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’re here.” She squealed and threw her arms around his waist. His arms went around her lush body as if they’d been designed for that express purpose.
Oh, sweet God.
She fit against him perfectly. He buried his nose in her hair. She smelled so good. Vanilla and sugar.
As spectacular as it felt holding Shelley close, the moment was definitely waning. Especially when the leash she still had looped around her wrist inadvertently tugged the massive dog tight against Dev’s leg.
Yes, that was drool soaking into his slacks and plastering the material to his thigh.
If it was on his clothes and he was hugging her, then . . . “Oh damn, Shelley. I’m getting you filthy.”
Shelley, still grinning, released him and bit her lip as she watched him fruitlessly try to de-slobber. He stepped back and tried to pull the Armani pant leg away from his body. What had he been thinking wearing them here? He should have worn his jeans, not just packed them. He knew this was a small town that had more farmers than bankers. Suits were fine for Tidewater, but here they just made him look pretentious . . . or stupid, since he was covered in muck.
“You’re really here?” she asked, joy still making her voice lilt. “How long are you in town? Do we have enough time to visit before you help me, or do you need to get back right away? Why didn’t you tell me when you were coming? Not that I’m sorry you’re here, but I would have been more prepared, you know? Look at me getting ahead of myself. I should have asked if you did it. Did you make detective before your twenty-fifth birthday? Although . . .” She frowned. “I wanted to ask you in person, but Cam said your girlfriend didn’t like us. So it would be best to give you two some space. I hope I didn’t cause you any problems by breaking the silence.”
Cam, you rotten sonofa . . .
Tension coiled in Dev’s shoulders and he rotated them to relax it away. That bastard had lied to her. Again. But standing in the middle of the street was not the place to have that discussion. Dev needed to move them to some place with a little more privacy.
“It’s great to see you too Shells. I’m in town for a few days. Why don’t we go someplace we can talk?”
She smiled and nodded, then repeated one of her questions. “Did you make detective?”
Dev couldn’t suppress the grin. “Yeah, I did. Last summer.”
She squealed and threw her arms around his waist again. Shorter this time, and she’d already withdrawn when she said, “I knew it! I knew you’d do it. Where are you working?”
“I’m on the Tidewater Police Force in the burglary/robbery division. My partner and I just wrapped up a pretty important case. A real career-maker.”
“I have no doubt you’re going to be the best.” The look in her eyes was pure hero worship. And a little unnerving. He’d seen that look from the police groupies he’d met over the past few years but had never expected to see it in Shelley’s eyes. As if sensing his discomfort, she added, “I bet your partner considers himself lucky to have you. You were always so smart and careful and—”
The big dog decided he wasn’t quite ready to give up his bid for freedom and gave a mighty yank. Shelley stumbled on the slick cobblestone. She might have hit the ground if Dev hadn’t caught her and held her close.
Her back pressed against his chest, her elbows in his hands. Crap. He had really covered her front to back in muck now. But she didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe she didn’t mind.
“There you go rescuing me again.” She tilted her head up and to the side to look at him over her shoulder. A mischievous glint in her eyes. “Should I swoon now too? You know, go for the complete damsel-being-rescued-by-the-knight act?”
A surprised laugh burst from him. “Thanks, no.”
“That’s good. I suck at playing the helpless female anyway,” she said, chuckling. She pulled away, then turned to face him.
“Oh dear, you are covered. I’m really sorry.”
Dev glanced at his mud-encrusted suit and forced a grin. “It could be worse. I just need a shower.” Dev checked his watch. “Except, damn, I can’t check into my hotel until three.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can shower with me.”
Ah, yeah. Now there’s a welcome any man could appreciate. His thoughts must have shown on his face because Shelley turned apple red.
“No! Oh God. I didn’t mean with me. I meant at my place.” Shelley blushed from her forehead to the collar of her tight top. “Oh my God. I can’t believe I said that. Ha! Freudian slip, much? No really, I uh, meant you can come over to my place and use my shower after I’m done. Or before. You can use it before me. Either way is fine.”
And that was one Freudian slip he could seriously get into.
Given the way she was blushing and rambling, Dev accepted with no small amount of regret that it probably was just a slip of the tongue.
“That would be great, Shells. I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to de-funk.”
Her lips curled into a grin. “You know, no one has called me that in years. Shells.”
“Really? You signed your e-mail that way.”
“Yeah. I suppose I could call you Dr. Shells, but that just sounds too formal.” He winked at her, relieved that some of his earlier awkwardness had disappeared. “I could call you Shelley, if you—”
“Shells is great,” she said quickly. “Really great. You’re uh, great. To . . . to come to Elkridge and help me with my problem. Mystery! The missing animals.”
Despite the smudge of dirt on her cheek and the sludge on their clothes, a sexual awareness zinged through the air. Riveting and echoing. Time suspended until a strong wind whipped through the street, chilling Dev’s legs.
“Like Hercules here?”
“What?” She blinked twice, then shook her head. “No, he’s not missing. He’s just trying to go on a walkabout.” And the dog gave a mighty pull on his leash that damn near toppled Shelley again.
“Mind if I take the dog?” He slid his hand down her arm to take the leash from her. The touch sent another sizzle of awareness, this time straight to his groin.
“Sure.” She stared at him another moment, her eyes hazy as if she too couldn’t deny that pulse of heat beating between them. She blinked and her expression shifted to something distant but still friendly. Shelley gestured toward the beast. “Hercules is a great dog for most people. Loving and gentle. But puppies like Herc crave a bit of freedom from time to time.”
“I’m glad to see your issue with man’s best friend has been resolved.” Dev slipped the leash off her arm. Immediately the animal sat down, his big tail thumping the cobblestone street. “Your gift of communicating with animals now extends to dogs? Or do you still call your gift a ‘crift’?”
“My cursed gift.” Her cheeks pinkened. “No, I don’t call it a crift anymore. God, I can’t believe you remember all that.”
“Kind of hard to forget your Dolittle gift, especially after I watched you talk your roommate’s cat out of that tree.” Dev rubbed the top of the dog’s head. “But then you couldn’t go into Cam’s house if his dog was there. I seem to recall Troian chasing you back into the car after a party our junior year.”
“Yeah, not my fondest memory.” She shook her head but grinned. “Nothing’s really changed in the animal kingdom. Except for Herc here, every canine I’ve met since I turned seventeen freaks out on me.” She glanced at the big puppy and shrugged. “I’m not sure why Hercules is different. Maybe because I helped deliver him by cesarean when he was born? I was the first human to touch him. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful he’s mostly immune to my weirdness.”
“We have an understanding. I rescue him from vicious attacking ferrets,” she turned and spoke directly to Hercules, “and he doesn’t run away and cost me my job.”
“Hercules belongs to my boss, Dr. Kessler.” She glanced around anxiously, as if suddenly realizing where they were. “I really shouldn’t be standing out here. I need to get him back inside the clinic before someone sees that his pet escaped. The number one commerce in this town is gossip.”
At the other end of the street, the door to the diner opened again. Two women stepped out onto the street. They could have been twins, given their matching lace-collar tops, tan pants, and navy coats. Except the woman on the right was short, skinny, had blond hair and pale-white skin, and the one on the left was statuesque, had ebony skin and a short gray bob.
“Oh dear, the Elizabeths,” Shelley muttered, stepping backward, as if to avoid being seen. “They see me out here shoeless, covered in mud, and talking to a stranger, and it’ll be all over town in fifteen minutes.”
“Gossip, right. Understood. Why don’t you lead the way?” He gestured with his free hand, while he held firmly to the leash with the other. Shelley half-hopped, half-ran across the uneven stone street toward the clinic door.
Clicking his tongue at the dog the way he’d seen Shelley do a few minutes earlier, Dev signaled for Hercules to move. The dog responded immediately, trotting happily behind Shelley, but not too close.
The bells jangled as Dev, Shelley, and Hercules crossed the threshold. The door shut with a snap, and Shelley leaned against it. A wide, relieved smile on her face, she exhaled an exaggerated sigh. “Now that you’re here, I’ll show you around.”
Shelley scrubbed her hand down her face, smudging the streak of dirt on her cheek. It made her look adorable.
“Great,” Dev said, finding his voice.
But they didn’t move. They stood there. Shelley shoeless, propped against the front door. Dev covered in muck and filth, and that spark he’d felt all those years ago turned into a brilliant shining flame of molten attraction.
Hercules woofed, breaking the moment. Shelley laughed and shifted slightly to rub her left foot. “I’ve got so much to tell you, Dev.”
“Yeah, me too. But maybe you can start by explaining what happened to your shoes.”
* * *
HER SHOES. FIGURES that he’d notice she wasn’t wearing them. Not that it wasn’t a hundred-and-eighty-percent obvious since she was rubbing her aching arch. But yikes. Could she look any more like a dork? Not that Dev had ever treated her like one.
“Just a sec,” Shelley said, putting the Out to Lunch sign in the window. “To make sure we’re not disturbed.”
Dev bent down to stroke Hercules behind the ears. She used the opportunity to let herself really look at her old friend.
He was still huge. At six foot four, he was all powerful muscle and still heart-stoppingly sexy. His expensively tailored—and thanks to Hercules, now ruined—suit draped over his form in the most delicious way.
Most men as muscular as Dev would look beefy in a suit, but he didn’t. No, where most guys worked out in a gym to get that pumped, Dev said a lot of his build came from genetics. She wasn’t sure how true that was, because he also used to say he was the runt of the litter. The man definitely exercised regularly to stay fit. And if that hug he gave her earlier was any indication, he still kept himself in tip-top shape.
His sand-colored hair was slightly long in the front but cut short on the sides and in the back. And those eyes. God, she’d always loved his eyes. So pale blue-gray they were more like the color of storm clouds over the ocean. But from her vantage point, with him bent over, it wasn’t his eyes she ogled. No, it was his model-worthy butt. Those slacks, grimy though they may be, hugged his backside and advertised that God really did dole out perfect bodies to a lucky few.
Dev straightened, then cleared his throat. When she met his gaze, the lazy half grin on his face said he knew what she’d been doing.
Busted! Heat scorched her cheeks.
“My-my shoes, right . . .” she stammered, desperate to discuss anything other than his yummy-looking butt. Because really, I’ve had this fantasy of banging the headboard with you since freshman year just didn’t seem appropriate since he’d come to town as a favor for her. Plus, he’d been best friends with both Cam and Shelley. All through college he’d had an insanely jealous girlfriend. And really, what were the odds of him being single today? Given her luck, somewhere in the vicinity of nada.
Although, no ring.
“It’s actually quite logical why I’m not wearing them,” she said, forcing her mind back on topic. She reached beside the door and picked up her discarded shoes. Sliding her foot into one, she held up the other as evidence. “I kicked them off when I realized I needed to run after Hercules. They’re four inches high. There’s no way I could run in those crazy things. Not outside on the cobblestones anyway. And I certainly didn’t think I’d catch him as quickly as I did. Thank you for that.”
Before Dev could respond, both Beau and Jacob burst through the swinging door. Jacob was laughing about something, but the little boy appeared worried. Tiny lines appeared between his narrowed brows, the scrape on his arm, now nearly hidden by the repaired shirt. “I really am sorry, Doc.”
“It’s really fine, Beau. Are you all right?” Shelley jammed her foot into the other shoe, then hurried down the length of the counter to give the boy a hug, but stopped when Beau’s eyes widened.
He pointed to her shirt. “What happened to you, Doc?”
“It’s nothing.” Not wanting to get the child dirty, she ruffled his hair. “Don’t worry about me. Just a little dirt. And don’t worry about Hercules either. My friend here caught him for us. I’d still be chasing Herc down the street, if not for his willingness to throw himself into the line of fire.”
Dev shook his head, smiling. “I don’t know that I intentionally did anything other than act as the human version of a bearskin rug for the big dog. But I’m glad I could help.”
Shelley didn’t miss the way Dev rubbed the back of his neck and didn’t quite meet her gaze when he spoke.
She bit down hard to keep from smiling. At least that hadn’t changed. Dev was as noble and shy as he’d been in college. Amazing, considering he came from money, wore a suit that would have cost her a month’s salary, and was a police detective. If ever there was someone who might be expected to live like the entitled rich, it was he. Yet here he stood, embarrassed from a simple compliment.
Her pulse raced because . . . wow. There was nothing more scintillating than a shy man who looked like a sex god. Even when dirty.
Beau moved closer to her. His big brown eyes luminous behind his now-repaired glasses. “You got railroad tracks in your hose. Mama Margaret says that means pantyhose are ruined when that happens and money’s been lost. Did you mess them up because I let Hercules escape?”
His bottom lip quivered and Shelley wondered, not for the first time, why someone like Mama Margaret would be allowed to remain a foster parent.
Shelley had already reported Mama Margaret on suspicions of abuse once. CPS was alerted to her. Not that it helped little Beau right now. Schooling her features to show only support and confidence, she squatted in front of him.
“No, it’s fine. I have a spare pair in my desk. But how about you? How’s your arm, little man?” Shelley asked, examining Beau’s injury. Satisfied the boy would be okay, she suggested, “Why don’t you leave Mr. . . . uh, your friend here and I’ll drop you at school. You can come by to get him after school gets out.”
“Doc, it’s a teacher workday. No school.” Beau’s eyebrows drew together to form one long, wavy brown line.
“I forgot about that. Well, then why don’t I go get your friend for you, and you can take him home?”
“Definitely. He’s completely healthy. Let him finish what’s in his bowl before you refill it and you’ll see he’s eating.” When he didn’t do more than nod, she asked, “Don’t you want to take him home right now?”
And there it was, that light in his eyes that made Beau look ages older than ten. “Nah, he likes it here. I’ll work off the time. Besides, isn’t it the same price if he’s here for a few minutes or all day? I’m not finished bringing in the donations. And Jacob said I could help him in the doggie spa.”
“Beau, that’s very generous of you, but I’ve got to be out of the clinic this afternoon. Plus, you know how crazy Wednesdays are—” she said, but he cut her off.
“You know, Wednesdays aren’t all bad, Doc. I met you on a Wednesday. That was definitely a good day.”
“You’re absolutely right.” A lump formed in Shelley’s throat at the sincerity in Beau’s voice. It would be so easy for her to love this little boy, if he were hers. But that could never happen. She wasn’t ever going to be anyone’s mother.
“Dude!” Jacob called out and Shelley welcomed the interruption. She glanced at her intern who said with badly suppressed laughter, “You’re a total mess. Did Herc do that to you?”
Shelley turned to see Dev futilely brushing at the grit on his suit with his fingers. He only succeeded in coating his hands in the fine black silt.
Wow. Would that come out with dry cleaning? And how would she pay for it? Between paying for health insurance, car insurance, and student loans, she was barely making rent.
“It’s fine,” Dev said to Jacob. “Doctor . . . ?”
“Sorry. Where are my manners? Dev, meet Jacob Durand and Beau Connors. Beau is our youngest volunteer, and Jacob is our very capable intern who’s going to be a vet before long.”
“Wow, thanks, Dr. Morgan.” Jacob stood a little straighter, his chest puffed with pride.
“You’re welcome, Jacob.” She returned his grin. “Now, I think we’ve made use of the detective as a dogsitter for far too long. Can you please take Hercules to the back?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Spirited
“Great! A real page-turner. Once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down until you’re done!”—Lynsay Sands, New York Times bestselling author of The Switch
“[A] sweet, funny, sexy debut!”—Lena Diaz, author of the Nursery Rhyme series
“No magic crystal ball is needed to foresee this writer is bursting with talent! I can’t wait for more from her!”—Shelby Reed, author of The Fifth Favor