To Kristy Lorimer. A dark, mysterious stranger,
an adorable if slightly off-center heroine and
a goofy dog named Fluffy. All for you.
MONTANA HENDRIX’S PERFECTLY good morning was thwarted by a hot dog, a four-year-old boy and a Lab and golden retriever mix named Fluffy.
Things had started out well enough. Montana had been determined to get the nearly a year old dog into a therapy-dog training program. Sure, Fluffy was exuberant and clumsy, with a habit of eating anything and simply being too happy, but she had a huge heart. If she was, in simple terms, a screwup, Montana refused to hold that against her. Montana knew what it was like to fail to meet her potential, to always feel she wasn’t good enough. She’d made a career out of it. Fluffy was not going to suffer the way she had. And even if she was projecting a little too much on to an innocent dog, well, sometimes that happened.
So there she was, on a beautiful Fool’s Gold summer morning, walking Fluffy…or, rather, being walked by Fluffy.
“Think calm,” Montana, holding firmly on to the leash, told the dog. “Therapy dogs are calm. Therapy dogs understand restraint.”
Fluffy gave her a doggie grin, then nearly knocked over a trash can with a sweep of her ever-moving tail. Restraint wasn’t in Fluffy’s vocabulary. She was barely calm in her sleep.
Later Montana would tell herself she should have seen it coming. This particular morning was the first weekend after school had let out and there was a festival to celebrate. Street vendors had been setting up for days. Although it was early, the smell of hot dogs and barbecue filled the air. The sidewalks were crowded and Fluffy kept pulling toward the children playing in the park. Her expression was clear—she wanted to be playing, too.
Up ahead, a mother paid for a hot dog. Her young son took it eagerly, but before he took a bite, he spotted Fluffy. The boy grinned at Fluffy and held out the food. At that exact moment, Montana was distracted by the latest display in Morgan’s Bookstore and accidentally loosened her grip. Fluffy lunged, the leash slipped and that was when the trouble started.
Offering a hot dog from a distance might have seemed like a good idea…until a ninety-pound dog came barreling toward the little boy. He shrieked, dropped the hot dog and ran behind his mother. The poor woman had missed the beginning of the encounter. All she saw was a crazy-looking dog headed right for her and her son. She screamed.
Montana started after Fluffy, yelling for her to stop. But it was as effective as telling the earth to slow down its rotation.
The mother scooped up her little boy and ducked behind a lemonade stand. Fluffy picked up the hot dog without breaking stride and swallowed it in one gulp, then kept on going. Apparently freedom called.
Montana hurried after her, the new summer sandals she’d bought the week before cutting into her feet. She knew she had to get Fluffy. The dog was sweet, but not very well trained. Montana’s boss, Max Thurman, had made it clear that Fluffy was not therapy-dog material. If word of today’s disaster reached him, he would insist the dog leave the program. Montana couldn’t stand for that to happen.
Fluffy was a lot faster than she was and quickly ran out of sight. Montana followed the sound of shrieks and screams, making her way through the streets of the town, dodging a peanut cart and narrowly missing a close encounter with two guys on bikes. She turned a corner just in time to see a tail disappearing through the automatic doors of a tall building.
“No,” Montana breathed, staring up at the hospital. “Not there. Anywhere but there.”
She raced forward, inwardly cringing at the thought of what Fluffy could do in a place like that. Big puppy feet on slippery floors were not a happy combination. She ran up the six steps leading to the entrance and dashed inside only to find a trail of havoc marking the way.
A supply cart was pushed against the wall. Linens spilled onto the floor. A little girl in a wheelchair grinned and pointed down the hall.
Montana got to the bank of elevators only to find several people willing to tell her that yes, a dog had gotten on. She watched the light panel to see an elevator had stopped on the fourth floor, then jumped in the next one and rode up.
The doors opened to the sound of screams. A chair lay on its side. More linens were scattered on the floor, along with a couple of charts. Up ahead double doors marked the entrance to the burn unit. Various signs explained what could and couldn’t enter that part of the hospital. A joyous bark told her Fluffy had violated every single posted rule.
Not knowing what else to do, Montana followed the sound and pushed through the doors. Up ahead several nurses were trying to corral the happy dog while Fluffy did her best to lick all of them at the same time. When Montana called her, the dog turned and raced toward her. Just as a doctor walked out of a nearby room.
Fluffy did her best to stop. Montana saw her puppy paws scramble as the dog tried to slow. But she couldn’t get traction on the floor. She started to slide, her butt went down, her front paws braced and then she was zipping along in a sitting position. She plowed directly into the doctor, sending him tumbling into Montana.
The doctor was about six inches taller and a whole lot heavier than Montana. His shoulder hit her chest, knocking the air out of her. They sailed across the floor, flying a few feet before stopping against the very hard floor, his body slamming into hers.
Montana lay there, dazed. She couldn’t breathe. All she felt was dead weight on top of her and a warm tongue licking her bare ankle.
The man got off her and knelt beside her.
“Are you hurt?” he demanded.
She shook her head, then managed to gasp in air. Fluffy moved closer and sat down, looking calm and well behaved. A trick Montana wasn’t going to fall for.
The man reached for her. He ran his large, long-fingered hands up and down her legs and arms, then felt the back of her head. His touch was impersonal, but it was the most action she’d had in months. Before she could figure out if she liked it, she looked at his face.
He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Eyes the color of green smoke, fringed by dark lashes. A perfect mouth, with a strong jaw. His cheekbone—
“She’s fine,” he said, turning to speak with someone behind him.
When he shifted his head she saw the other side of his face. Thick red scars grew from his shirt collar, along the side of his neck to his left jaw and cheek. They spiraled, creating an angry pattern that looked painful and pulled his skin.
She had a feeling her shock showed, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead he grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.
“Dizzy?” he asked curtly.
“No,” she managed, now that she could breathe again.
“Good.” He moved closer. “What the hell is wrong with you? What kind of irresponsible idiot allows something like this to happen? You should be arrested and charged with attempted murder. Do you know what kind of germs that dog has? That you have? This is a burn unit. These patients are vulnerable to infection. They are suffering with a level of pain you can’t begin to imagine.”
She took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she began.
“Do you think anyone here gives a damn about you being sorry? Your thoughtlessness is criminal.”
She could feel his rage in every word. Even more scary than what he was saying was the way he was saying it. Not with a loud voice and a lot of energy, but with a coldness that left her feeling small and stupid.
“Think,” he interrupted. “Yes, that much is clear. I doubt you think much about anything. Now, get out.”
Embarrassment gripped her. She was aware of the other staff members hovering close by, listening.
Montana knew that Fluffy’s running through the hospital was a bad thing. But it wasn’t as if she’d planned the event.
“It was an accident,” she said, raising her chin.
“That’s not an excuse.”
“I suppose you’ve never made a mistake.”
His gray-green eyes flashed with derision. “Have you ever had a burn? Touched a hot pan or the burner on a stove? Do you remember what that felt like? Imagine that over a significant part of your body. The healing process is slow and what we do here to help it along is excruciating. On this ward, an infection kills. So any mistakes I’ve made have no bearing on this discussion.”
There was no point in telling him that the work she did was important. She often came to the hospital with therapy dogs. Those therapy dogs helped patients heal, especially children. But she suspected this particular man wouldn’t care about that.
“You’re right,” she said slowly. “There’s no excuse for what happened here today. I’m sorry.”
His mouth twisted. “Get out.”
His complete dismissal stunned her. “Excuse me?”
“Are you deaf? Get out. Go away. Take your damn dog with you and don’t come back.”
Montana was willing to admit fault and take the blame, but to have her apology ignored was just plain rude. Being a screwup didn’t mean she was a bad person.
“You’re a doctor?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer to the question.
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Yes.”
“You might want to take that stick out of your ass. It’ll make it easier to pretend to be human, which will probably help your patients.”