“Well, hey, Doc Jensen,” a female voice sang out.
Nate turned to see Annie come out the back of the bar, Christopher trailing so closely that if she stopped suddenly, he’d have crashed into her. She carried a furry ball of black and white that fit perfectly into her palm. Looking at her, he realized he hadn’t remembered her quite accurately. Or rather, quite enough. Tall, curvaceous, high cheekbones, soft dark auburn hair swinging along her jaw, long delicate fingers…..She was beautiful. And her figure in a pair of snug jeans and turquoise hoodie with a deep V-neck just knocked him out. Where the heck had this girl been hiding?
And why was he, a man who could appreciate cleavage and tiny bikinis, suddenly seeing the merits in jeans, boots and hoodies?
Then he remembered she’d been hiding in a little hair salon in Fortuna, under a pink smock.
He picked up his beer and wandered over to the hearth. Christopher and Annie sat on opposite sides of the box, which left no place for him, so he stood there in the middle.
Annie passed Chris the puppy. “Hold him for just a minute, then snuggle him back in with his brothers and sisters,” she said. “It’s good for him to be part of his family. They give him more comfort than we can right now.”
“A little maintenance?” Nate asked.
Annie looked up at him and smiled. “This is the part that gets to be a bother—without a mother dog to change their diapers and keep them clean, by the end of the day they’re looking a little worse for wear. Some of them actually needed washing up. My dad always used to say a little poop never hurt a puppy, but you let that go long enough and it will. Gets them all ugly and matted and sick.”
“You bathed him?”
“Four of them, without dunking them,” she said. “Can’t let them get cold. Preacher’s wife loaned her blow-dryer to the cause. Okay, Chris, he’s been away from home long enough now.” She reached into the box and pushed some puppies aside to make room, and Chris gently put his puppy into the pile. “They’ll be ready to eat again in about an hour. Why don’t you get back to your homework, or dinner, or chores, or whatever your folks have in mind.”
“Okay, Annie,” he said.
And Nate fought a smile as Chris vacated his place on the hearth. But before he sat down he asked Annie, “Can I buy you a beer? Or something else?”
She tilted her head and smiled at him. “I wouldn’t mind a beer, thanks.” He was back with a cold one for her in just moments and sat down opposite her. “I think they’re doing okay here,” she said to him.
He wasn’t a hardhearted guy, but he only pretended interest in the pups, picking one up and then another, looking at their little faces. He’d rather be looking at her, but didn’t want to seem obvious. “Were you here yesterday?” he asked, studying a puppy, rather than her.
“Uh-huh,” she said, sipping her beer. “Ah, that’s very nice. Thanks.”
“You planning to come every day?” he asked.
“If I can swing it,” she said. “I kind of made a deal—if they wouldn’t hand them over to some shelter, I’d do my part. These little guys are just too cute and vulnerable. They could turn into impetuous Christmas presents, no matter how carefully the shelter volunteers screen the potential owners. And look at their markings—I’d say Australian-shepherd-and-border-collie mix. Outstanding herders. They should find good homes around here, and they’ll be glad to work for a living.”
Nate lifted his eyebrows. “Good guess,” he said. “You get off work before five?” he found himself asking.
“Not usually. I have a small shop in Fortuna—six chairs. It’s a franchise—my franchise. So I’m responsible, plus I have a large client list and it’s Christmastime. But I’m moving appointments around the best I can—a few of my clients will take another stylist in a pinch. And I’ve been training an assistant manager, so she’s getting thrown into the deep end of the pool because of these puppies. And I’m doing my puppy laundry and paperwork at midnight.”
“What kind of paperwork?” he asked.
“The kind you have with a small business—receipts, receivables, bills, payroll. Jack and Preacher are managing real well during the day when it’s sort of quiet around here, but when it gets busy at the dinner hour, they need a hand. And you heard Jack—he’s not washing puppy sheets with his napkins.” She smiled and sipped her beer. “We should all take comfort in that, I guess.”
“I guess.” He smiled. “How’d you end up with a beauty shop?”
“Oh, that’s not interesting. I’d rather hear about what you do. I grew up around animals and being a vet is my fantasy life. You’re living my dream.”
“Then why didn’t you pursue it?” he asked.
“Well, for starters, I had exactly two years of college and my GPA was above average, but we both know it takes way more than that to get into veterinary college. Isn’t it harder to get into veterinary college than medical school?”
“So I hear,” he said. “So, after two years of college…..?”
She laughed and sipped her beer. “One of my part-time jobs was grooming dogs. I loved it. Loved it. The only thing I didn’t love was going home a grimy, filthy mess and not exactly getting rich. But I saw the potential and needed to make a living. I couldn’t focus on a course of study in college, so I went to beauty school, worked a few years, hit my folks up for a loan to buy a little shop, and there you have it. I do hair on two-legged clients now. And it’s working just fine.”
“And your love of animals?”
“I stop by this little bar every evening and babysit a bunch of orphaned puppies for a few hours,” she said with a laugh. “I still have a couple of horses at the farm. My dad got rid of the livestock years ago except for Erasmus, a very old, very lazy, very ill-tempered bull who my dad says will outlive us all. They’re down to two dogs, my mom keeps some chickens and their summer garden is just amazing. But it was once a thriving dairy farm, plus he grew alfalfa and silage for feed.”