* 1 *
It was Joy, as practice manager, who struggled with the staff rota every month and with Graham Murgatroyd off with flu, and Dan hovering distractedly waiting for the birth of his son and likely to be off for at least a week, and Rhodri behaving like the lovelorn chap he most decidedly was, it was proving more than usually difficult to plan June's staffing. She sat in her office in the last week in May, planning and replanning until her head spun. It was no good, she'd have to get Duncan to take a look. Joy rested her head against the back of her chair and closed her eyes. Briefly she dropped off, drained by a long, busy day. Moments later, someone clearing his throat disturbed her.
"Sorry, Joy, to disturb you but . . ."
"My fault. I've developed a splitting headache trying to plan the rota for June; it should have been done days ago." She rubbed her eyes to refresh them and saw Mungo looking down at her with sympathy. Her heart raced, though not quite as wildly as it had at times during the last twenty years. She sat upright. "What can I do for you?"
"Just to say I've finished operating for today and I'm going up to the flat. I know you're shorthanded, so Miriam and I are not taking this weekend away we'd promised ourselves, just in case."
"That's wonderful. Thanks. If things get any worse I shall be doing the operating myself!"
"You've had plenty of experience assisting me in the past. I've no doubt you'd do an excellent job."
Joy laughed. "I don't think so; things have moved on since I first helped you. New techniques, new equipment. No, no, our reputation would go straight down the drain! As they say, you're only as good as your last operation."
Mungo leaned across the desk and placed a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for all you do, and thanks for being such a good friend to Miriam. She does value your friendship."
Joy's eyes slid away from his face. "And I hers. Must press on. I'm taking this rota home to Duncan. He'll sort it for me. There's a solution somewhere, but I can't see it."
"Don't hesitate to ring if you need me. Any time, and I mean it. It's just a difficult patch, and we have to gut it out."
"I'll ring, you can bet on that." Joy allowed herself to watch him leave; to smile at him when he turned to say "Be seeing you"; to enjoy his handsome bearing, his restless energy, those splendid eyes, and the gentleness of his mouth. She swallowed hard. There I go again, she thought, just when I'd begun to think he didn't matter anymore. When he'd closed the door behind him, she clenched her fist and banged it on the desk in anger. Would she never learn he loved elsewhere? That his kiss was that of a comrade and not a lover and never would be.
Duncan. Duncan. She focused on Duncan's face as she'd seen it that morning when the alarm had gone, making no impression on him at all. He lay snugly tucked in right against her back, one arm laid carelessly across her waist. When she'd tried to get up, he'd held her down and grunted his contentment. But she'd managed to turn over so she could look at him. She was always surprised how young he looked first thing. Which he was, all of nine years younger.
Joy said, "Got to get up. Let me go."
"Five more minutes."
"Please." It was more of a command than a request. The arm across her waist had tightened and kept her there.
Joy tolerated the five minutes and then pushed off his arm and sat up on the edge of the bed. But he followed her and was kissing the back of her neck, and his arm was around her waist again, gripping her.
"Duncan. Please. I'm going to be late."
Duncan turned away from her without a word.
She'd stood up and headed for the bathroom and a shower and for an assessment of her allure in the bathroom mirror. It hadn't made good viewing. That mood had stayed with her all day and was still with her as she parked her car and went into reception the following morning and found she was five minutes late.
Ordinarily she would have apologized for being slightly late, but this morning, instead, she could find fault with absolutely everything. In reception, Stephie and Annette came in for a few broadsides; Sarah Cockroft for leaving dirty, blood-streaked operating sheets out on the laundry worktop instead of putting them immediately in the washing machine; and finally Mungo for arriving late for his first appointment. "You should know better than to leave your first client waiting."
Mungo saw the way the wind blew and escaped Joy's office as soon as he could, salving his conscience by being as charming as he possibly could to his client. "Please, forgive me. Do come this way."
"Don't worry yourself, Mr. Price, we know how busy you are."
Joy saw the owners of the dog shake his hand and smile, and she thought he could charm the devil himself, he could.
He ruffled the head of his patient and asked, "This is Teddy, is it? Hello, old chap." To the owners he said, "Now, tell me in your own words what the problem is."
Joy watched him lead them into his consulting room, and smiled grimly to herself. It really wasn't fair for one man to have so much charm and such good looks. She saw Annette putting her empty coffee mug down on the reception desk. "You know how much Mr. Price dislikes empty mugs standing about in public view. Take it away. Please."
Duncan had organized the rota to her satisfaction and after she'd pinned it up on the staff notice board and made sure everyone of the veterinary staff had a copy in their pigeon hole, she put her own copy on the noticeboard in her room and sat down to think.
But not for long. Dan Brown came in to see her.
Dan had lost weight these last few weeks and was not looking quite as stocky or well built as he used to. But the craggy face and the penetrating brown eyes were still there and so too was his in-your-face energy, which sometimes caught one on the raw, but not now, not since he'd won her over. She greeted him with warmth and affection. "Dan! You're soon back; is everything all right with Rose, you know?"
"She's fine. We got there early and they're delighted with her and we've to go back next week same time if the baby hasn't happened in the meantime. She's furious that she can't drive herself anymore."
"Have they said she shouldn't?"
Dan gave the happiest laugh he'd given since she'd known him. "No. The truth is she can't get behind the wheel and reach the pedals."
"Oh, well! Go have a coffee or something and take a rest. You've no calls for the moment."
"Right. I will."
"You do that; it may be your last quiet day for some time!"
"We can't wait for the baby, you know. Just can't wait. Rose's stepdad has arrived and is out buying every item of baby equipment he can find. We wanted to wait . . . not tempt fate, you know."
As Dan went off to take his break, Joy said quietly to herself, "I can understand that." She had just finished speaking when she heard the most terrifying sounds coming from reception. The papers on her desk flew in all directions as she squeezed out of her chair and raced to see what was happening.
Joy was appalled at the scene that met her eyes. A very large, heavily built dog of uncertain ancestry had a cat in his mouth. The cat was hanging upside down, yowling and trying to swing itself round to scratch at the dog's face, its claws unsheathed, its mouth wide open, but the dog was hanging on tightly, his fangs exposed below his drawn back dewlaps.
The waiting clients were panic stricken, clutching their pets to them, lifting their feet to avoid the whirling dog. Mrs. Parr, the owner of the cat, was screaming with terror. "Get him off! Quick! Somebody! Get him off. Oh! Oh! Oh!"
But the dog was intent on his trophy and had no intention of giving it up.
The clients were behaving like a coop full of chickens with a fox at their throats, and Annette and Stephie were hysterical and of no more use than a pair of mice.
Above the clamor Joy shouted, "Who owns this dog?"
A small, agitated man spoke up. "Bingo! Let go! Bingo! Let go!" He was sweating so much his glasses were steaming up. "He hates cats."
Mrs. Parr shouted. "Get 'im off! Oh, hell!" and promptly fainted. Another client began to beat at the dog with a magazine, which only served to infuriate Bingo even further. He altered his grip on the cat, was now holding it even more firmly, and the cat had stopped struggling. Joy grabbed his collar; and instantly, Dan, appearing apparently from nowhere, took over from her, stood astride of Bingo and deftly manhandled the dog's head to the ground, keeping a firm grip with both hands on its head and neck and his knee on its flanks. Taken by surprise, the dog released its hold on the cat and it crawled away, trembling, its fur bristling and its mouth open wide, spitting hoarsely.
Joy took charge.
"Right. Stephie! Ring for an ambulance for Mrs. Parr. Annette! Capture the cat and put it in a cage in intensive care. Dan! Get that dog in the back and tie it up. Tight! I'll get a blanket for this lady."
She came back into reception with a blanket and a pillow. A client with her own cat safe from harm in its basket, got up to give her a hand.
Mungo came out with his clients to find uproar. If Joy hadn't been so preoccupied, she would have laughed at the astonished expression on his face. "What on earth . . . ?"
Dan finally managed to drag Bingo out. Annette caught the petrified cat and carried it away to make it safe, and Stephie called out, "The ambulance is on its way."
Dan came back and faced Bingo's shivering owner. "He's yours?"
The man nodded.
"Why have you brought him in?"
"For his injections, it's time."
Realizing that he was holding a very public discussion, Dan broke off and invited Bingo's owner into an empty consulting room.
The man shuffled after him, still sweating, still shivering.
"Sit down. Please." Dan pulled the desk chair forward and waited for the man to sit, then leaned against the examination table and asked, "Yes? Mr. . . . ?"
"Tucker. Alan Tucker." He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his top lip. "She should have had the cat in a basket or something. It wasn't Bingo's fault. Not at all, no. The cat spat at him and tried to scratch him. What else is a self-respecting dog supposed to do? I ask you."
"Apparently, you haven't got him under control, or you could have stopped him."
"Under control in circumstances like that? He's an angel at home. We've two children, little ones," he gauged their height with his hand, "this big and he's like putty in their hands. They can ride on him, sit on him, cover him up with a blanket as if he's baby, anything they like and he never murmurs. It's only cats he can't stand."
Dan looked a little skeptical at this. "So you say."
Alan Tucker mopped his face with his handkerchief again. "She should never have brought her cat in without a cage . . . it was her fault."
"You have got a point there. But I can tell you this. Never once in all the years I've worked as a vet have I known of such an attack. All the animals are so overcome by the smells and the strangeness or have memories of having been here before for injections or treatment that they are usually very subdued. He was alarming."
"I still say it was the cat's fault . . ."
"Well, Mr. Tucker, quite what the owner of the cat will be thinking when she's come round I don't know. It has all been very distressing. You are a client of ours, are you?"
"First time. We've only just moved here; changed my job, you know. Dog's all upset, you know, children too. New vet, new house, new garden, different walks--it's all been too much for Bingo, and then, on top of all that, that bloody cat."
"That's understandable. Now, I must see to the cat. But be aware, Mr. Tucker, that he's nervous. Keep an eye on him when he's with the children. He's big, and could do a lot of damage. I'm serious--a special eye till he's calmed down, OK?"
Mr. Tucker stood up. "Thanks for getting him under control. I was too shocked to do anything. Never seen him like that."
Dan opened the door. "Take care, Mr. Tucker. Bring him back when he's feeling happier. I'll get him for you and then I'll see to the cat."
When Mr. Tucker came back into reception holding Bingo tightly, the ambulance had just arrived and Mrs. Parr was being taken out in a wheelchair. Mr. Tucker said to her, "I'm so sorry."
Ashen-faced, she replied, "My cat. Where's my Muffin?"
Joy said, "We'll take care of her; she'll have the best of attention. The vet's examining her now."
"Thanks. I really don't need to go to hospital. I only fainted. I think I'll just go home." She made to get out of the chair.
Joy gently pressed her back. "Believe me, it's best to have a checkup just in case. And it will make me feel easier in my mind that you've been looked at. I'll ring tomorrow and let you know about Muffin, or if you feel up to it, you ring later today. I'm so sorry this has happened."
After Mrs. Parr had gone Stephie said, "Why were you so insistent that she go to the hospital? There was really nothing wrong with her."
"You're a doctor, are you?"
"You know I'm not."
"And neither am I. Best to make sure in case of legal proceedings."
"But she's nice; we've known her for years."
"She's never had her cat attacked before, though, has she? She might feel she should be safe to bring her cat here, which is quite right, but today she wasn't . . . so . . . you never know." Joy wagged her finger at Stephie and disappeared into the back to find Dan.
He had carried the cat into a consulting room and was gently examining her. She wasn't in the best of moods for a close examination, and Dan was having to be very careful not to stress her more than necessary.
Dan glanced up at Joy as she watched his sensitive hands moving so sympathetically over the cat as he assessed her injuries. "She's been punctured here; look, one of his fangs. She's in deep shock. We'll have to set up a drip; can't do anything until she stabilizes. Nothing broken, I think."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Country Lovers by Rebecca Shaw. Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.