Rob Nichols shouldered his way through the front door of the Lake Park Canine Veterinary Hospital, his malamute shivering in his arms. The bells above the door jangled violently, but in the busy waiting room, no one looked up.
At this hour, the two vet techs staffing the front desk were busy helping other customers: a thin, bright-eyed young woman with a bullmastiff sitting placidly at her feet; a harried-looking middle-aged man whose chocolate lab limped disconsolately around him; a heavily made-up professional woman holding a dachshund wrapped in a colorful afghan. From the next room, the practice resounded with a chorus of barks, whines, and growls.
The malamute whined, head dropping onto Rob's shoulder. He rubbed her fur anxiously. “Hey! Hey! I need some help here! My dog's been poisoned! What are you guys standing around for?”
All conversation ceased. A ginger-haired vet tech glanced up from where she was cashing out the dachshund. “If you'll just have a seat, sir, someone will be with you in a minute.”
Rob crossed the linoleum floor in three powerful strides, elbowing his way to the counter. “No! She ate some rat poison! She's dying! Fucking get someone out here now! This can't wait a minute!”
“Sir, I assure you, we're very busy here. As soon as someone can--”
“Now! She'll die unless you get someone out here right now!” He locked eyes with the vet tech. In his arms, the dog raised her head, whining nervously.
“Sir, I'm afraid--”
“Now! She's dying!”
A tall, well-built blond man in a white lab coat appeared from one of the examining rooms, shutting the door behind him. “What's going on out here? Come on, you guys. Let's keep this profess--”
Rob interrupted. “Are you a vet? Help me! My dog's eaten rat poison! She's dying!”
The blond held up a hand. “I'm Dr. Jamie Bretton. What happened? What makes you think she ate rat poison?” He came out from behind the desk and crossed quickly to the pair, then pulled a penlight from his coat pocket and shined it in the dog's eyes as she whipped her head around.
“I was on a job. She got out of the van somehow and ate poisoned bait. She swallowed it before I could stop her. Please. I know it's late. Please.” The malamute snarled, and the vet took an involuntary step back. The dog leaned over Rob's arm and threw up. “Baby, I'm sorry,” Rob crooned. He looked at Dr. Bretton. “I know you're busy, man, but she's all I have. Please.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Please.”
Jamie snapped his fingers at the ginger-haired girl. “Tessa, let's go. Clear exam room B. We're going to need to start lavage immediately. Full charcoal flush. Start an IV. Let's go.” He reached out and took the malamute from Rob's arms. Their hands brushed as he did so, and a current of electricity ripped through Rob. The vet moved quickly for the exam room, and Rob stared after him, heart pounding in his chest. Pausing in the doorway, Jamie turned and called back, “Hey! What's her name?”
Scrubbing a hand over his unshaven jaw, Rob replied, “Bella. Her name's Bella.”
Nodding briskly, Jamie disappeared through the doorway, Bella in his arms.
. Rob had had her since she was little more than a pup, a gangly adolescent dog, no longer cute enough, probably, for whoever had left her by the side of the highway. It took him twenty minutes and one of Riverview Joe's finest hot dogs to get near her. He'd crouched by the side of I-64, halfway to the airport, cars whizzing by, honking and yelling. Rob had ignored them all. Ignored Bella too, just sat down and watched the sun sink lower in the sky, while he took small bites from the sausage and shivered in the evening chill. Bella had shivered harder, nosing at his calves and knees before finally taking the food he offered. Scrawny, ribs clearly visible through her skin, she'd watched him the whole time, nostrils flared, tail at half-mast, until finally he'd stood up and headed back to the van. When he'd opened the door, she'd jumped in without hesitation.
Now she rode with him on his courier route every day. Sat in the passenger seat, waiting while he dropped off each package.
They spent every day together. She was his constant companion, his best friend. His only friend. Rob fought back a sob. He should be tougher than this. Smarter. He knew the rules. Knew he'd taken a chance getting attached to her. But he'd thought he was safe now. Despite the nightmares and the scars, he'd thought it would be okay. Bella kept his secrets. She understood.
And now this.
Rob had known as soon as he'd returned to the van and found her happily chomping away on something. He'd fought to get the remains of it from her mouth, smelling the poison in it right away.
As her nerves started to fray, the toxins taking over, Bella's innocent enthusiasm at her found treat turned to terror. She hadn't known that food could be a trap.
Around him, the practice was closing, the flow of clients all dried up for the night. Rob was alone in the waiting room, staring at torn and stained year-old dog-breeder magazines, trying to ignore the chorus of yelps and barks around him. Trying not to tune in to Bella's struggle to survive as he sat there, helpless. Rob wiped at the corners of his eyes. His dog. Just when he'd thought the universe was done kicking him around for a while.
He leaned back against the cracked tan Naugahyde chair. Closing his eyes, Rob shut out all the noises and smells around him in the practice, breathing deeply, trying to calm down.
A hand dropped heavily on his shoulder, and Rob jumped. He'd been so far under, he hadn't even sensed the vet's approach.
“Nichols. Rob Nichols.” He sprang to his feet, extending a hand. The vet shook it as if he barely remembered how, dark shadows and bags under his eyes speaking volumes about his day.
“We've done everything we can for Bella. I'm glad you brought her in when you did. It looks like we managed to pump her stomach clean before the poison got into her system.” One corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “She's a fighter, Mr. Nichols--”
“Call me Rob. I don't know any Mr. Nichols.”
The tall blond looked taken aback, and Rob realized belatedly how he sounded. “I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry. It's just--”
The vet put his hand back on Rob's shoulder. “It's okay. Take it easy; this is always hard.”
Rob looked at his new companion, smelling the antiseptic soap on his hands, the spicy aftershave, and underneath--
He came to his senses in a rush, eyes widening. “Is Bella gonna be all right, Doc?”
The vet smiled. “Tonight will make all the difference. We'll know in the morning. Warfarin's an awful thing, but it looks like you got her here before it had a chance to act. And like I said, she's obviously a fighter. And please, call me Jamie.”
Rob looked into his deep blue eyes. “She is a fighter, yeah. You have no idea.”
The vet seemed puzzled. “I guess not. Look, Rob, I'm gonna keep her overnight, and we're gonna know a lot more in the morning, okay?”
Rob's heart dropped, and on cue, a bloodcurdling howl arose from the back room. Jamie stared around wildly, and Rob winced. He tried to send Bella reassuring thoughts, tried to overcome her panic by calming himself, hoping she'd take the hint.
Jamie sank into the chair next to the one Rob had just vacated. Exhaustion was written all over his face. “We don't see a lot of these cases, and I have to tell you, I'm glad. They're always touch and go, to some extent.” He looked down at his hands, then at Rob.
“Touch and go,” Rob said slowly, his voice breaking. He sat down next to the vet. “Jamie, you don't understand. Bella...if she...” Tears shone in his eyes, and he held them back with an effort.
Jamie put his hand gently on Rob's shoulder. “Hey,” he said softly. “Hey, you've done everything you can. You did the right thing. She's young and strong, and--” He broke off as Rob rubbed the tears from his eyes, giving up any attempt at pretense.
“She's all I've got,” Rob whispered.
The unearthly howl from the back room was repeated, and Jamie jumped. “Look, Rob, I'm gonna be here for a while yet. You're welcome to stay with me...in case she needs you, okay?”
Rob nodded, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Thanks, Jamie. I'm gonna--”
Bella's howl came a third time, and Jamie shot a worried glance toward the back room. Rob froze.
That howl was different, and he knew what it meant.
“I'm gonna just go check on her, okay? You stay here. I'll be right back.” Jamie gave Rob's shoulder a squeeze and headed toward the back, covering the distance with just a few long strides.
Rob was torn. Sick as she was, Bella was still looking out for him. He'd heard her message, loud and clear: the moon would be up in less than an hour. The full moon.
He'd been so caught up in saving her that he'd ignored the warning signs, and now he was caught unawares, out in the open. Putting a hand to the back of his neck, Rob felt the heat there and in his shoulders and elbows, hips and knees. The change was starting. He had to get out of there, had to get home behind a locked door, away from anyone he could hurt once the transformation was complete.
What was it Colonel Derrick used to say? Rob shivered, memories washing over him.
“Once it comes on you, boy, the only way you ain't gonna kill someone is if they're able to get away. Or you are
Rob fought the bile rising in his throat. The Center had given him a lot over the years--torture, nightmares, surgery after painful surgery, and their ultimate gift, the killer instinct--but until now he'd never thought they'd given him something he could use. Gotta get away.
Away from Bella and the handsome blond vet trying to save her.
With a last, rueful look toward the back room, Rob pushed open the door and ran, headed for his van. The door to the vet hospital swung shut with a gentle shush
, the bells hanging from the crossbar the only alarm that sounded the coming danger.