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"I can hold him, Daddy. While you get his kennel ready."
With the object of his six-year-old daughter's attention held out in front of him, rescue kennel owner Michael Edison strode through the large converted barn, to a wall of empty cages in the back.
"You know the rules." Setting the fat cat gently onto the cold metal bottom of the first cage, he withdrew his hand quicklyobtaining a scratch on the arm in the processand closed the door.
"Yes." The skinny little brown-eyed minx looked up at him, her long dark curls still tangled from her night's sleep.
"I can't touch him until Aunt Diane has a chance to examine him."
Examine. Michael enjoyed an inner grin at the sound of the very adult word coming from the baby voice with the little lisp. Shelley would be proud of him. And maybe, if people did become angels looking down from above when they died, she was. "That's right" was all he said.
Mari didn't remember her mother. But their little house in front of the kennel was filled with photos of her.
"Trouble is you said she can't come till later "
"That's right, too." His twenty-nine-year-old sister had recently graduated from veterinary school and, having just joined a practice, had to work the less-popular weekend hours.
"But can I hold him right afterward?"
Always looking on the bright side of things. Mari took after her youngest aunt, Peanut, that way. Made his life a hell of a lot easier.
"Yep. First thing."
"You want him in isolation?" Twenty-five-year-old Ashleigh, the third sister in a line of four, asked, pulling a disposable cage liner and water bottle out of a cupboard on the opposite side of the room from the cages.
"Yeah," he told her, raising his voice enough to be heard over the whining and barking coming from the canine end of the kennel.
While it didn't look as if the newcomer had fleas, until he knew for certain that the cat wasn't carrying anything the other animals in his care could catch, he couldn't move him into the dorm area.
Mari put her hand in the treat bin and pulled out some all-natural dog treats they used for training, as he poured a little milk into a cup. Just enough to calm the cat who'd been dumped on Michael's front porch that morningin a box barely large enough to fit him and secured with duct tape.
While he dealt with the new cat, Mari walked with purpose to the first door in the occupied section of the kennel. "Shh, Whitehorse. Your breakfast will be here soon," she said, tossing in a treat that quieted the white-and-gray Great Dane mix they'd rescued from an illegal dog-racing track a month ago.
The name was Mari's. The malnourished female had come to them with the name Three. She'd been housed in the third cage in the facility she'd been born to.
Ashleigh, his only full-time kennel employee and main child-care provider, prepared a more permanent kennel for the new resident in a partitioned-off room in the back corner of the barn. She took the cup of milk from Michael as he retrieved the smaller cage he'd dropped the cat in moments before.
While Mari visited each of the eleven dogs in their care, he and Ashleigh got their newest resident settled.
"His name is Gus," Mari announced, coming up behind them with a label for the kennel and the black marker Michael used to mark down the name of each rescue animal and the date when he or she came into their care.
"Gus?" Ashleigh looked from the little girl to the fat gray cat.
"Yes, Gus. He looks like Gus down the street, doesn't he?" She giggled.
Ashleigh rolled her eyes.
"I see the resemblance," Michael said with mock seriousness, moving on to start the morning's chores with Mari right beside him.
"The reds first today," Mari said, standing with him as he opened the main gate that would allow the dogs, once they were released from their individual runs, out into the three-acre mowed and fenced play park behind the barn. He watched as Mari opened the cages one by one, waiting for each dog to reach the park before releasing the next, just as she'd been taught.
The reds were on the right side of the kennel area, so designated because of the red paint Mari had chosen for the cement surrounding the kennels.
The five reds played outside as six blues got fed. And since Michael was there to help that morning, Ashleigh tended to the cats at the same time.
Which meant that if all went well, they'd be done in time to get to Peanut's yard sale at the dance studio where she worked. They were raising money for the senior girls' dance company to go to a competition.
"Don't forget Maya's medicine, Daddy," Mari said as she looked at the card on the poodle's cage and measured her food according to the color code Michael had designed to help her know what size cup to use. She'd named Maya after a dancer mentor of Peanut's. The poodle was on antibiotics.
"Thanks for the reminder, squirt," he said, taking the pill bottle out of his pocket as she bent to the feed bowl. He'd remembered. He always remembered. But didn't mind a bit that his daughter had a penchant for bossing him around.
Truth was, he was proud of her ability to take control. Her desire to give rather than take. And he loved that he was still on the list of those she cared about the most.
It would change. He knew that. At least in part. He savored every single second that he had with her.
"Can we go to the beach after we stop by to see Peanut?" Mari slid her hand into his as they headed out to whistle for the reds to come in to eat so they could let the blues out.
"We'll " His "see" didn't make it out. Michael's phone vibrated and the hopeful expression faded from his daughter's eyes as she dropped his hand and watched him while he talked.
She knew the ropes, that wise little girl of his. He was her daddy. A kennel owner. Until the phone rang and he became Michael Edison, bounty hunter.
And then, for however long it took, she had to let him go.
It wasn't often that Sara Havens had a moment to spend in the sun. Fact was, in the more than two years of living in the quiet, upscale condominium complex on California's coast, that August Saturday afternoon was the first time she'd actually been to the pool during daylight hours.
Most of her days were spent counseling women and children who were victims of domestic violence. And when she had a day off, she always managed to fill it with taking care of personal business. Shopping, mostly. For food. Shampoo. Things a woman liked to buy for herself. And cleaning.
She swam late at nightwhen the balmy Santa Raquel air permitted her to do so without freezing. And, occasionally, she would sit in the hot tub with a glass of winealso late at night.
The niggling pain pulling at the right side of the back of her neck that morning had driven her out to the pool. Working late, as she had the night before, wasn't new to her. Or unwelcome. The detour from normal had come in her inability to find peace once she'd come home.
Sara wasn't a workaholic; she'd simply answered her calling and loved what she did. And she'd found a place where she was needed.
Who didn't want to be needed?
She had a calming effect on people. An ability to assess their internal struggles and help sort them out.
Last night's domestic-abuse victim, Nicole Kramer, had been different. Her genuine desperation had drawn Sara in more than most. The woman was alive only so that she could see her son to safety. Her own life didn't seem to hold all that much value to her.
Sara valued that life. She'd brought Nicole's situation home with her. And let it keep her up most of the night.
"You have to understand," Nicole had said. "In Trevor's reality, he is a god. He has hundreds of strong, armed and angry young men who will do whatever he tells them to do."
Sara knew about victims being manipulated to the point of feeling as though their abusers were the rulers of their worlds. But she'd never come up against a victim whose abuser truly was that powerful.
Nor had she ever counseled a victim who not only had low self-esteem due to abuse, but who also valued herself less because of her cultural environment. To white supremacists, women were second-class citizens.
"He has a cop on the LA police force, a dirty cop, who supports the cause. I'm not sure, but I think there are others, too. Trevor gives them information and they protect him. Anytime I do anything that Trevor doesn't like, there's another trumped-up charge against me. The charges are always dropped, but only after I'm so beaten and hopeless I comply with Trevor's demands."
Nicole had come armed with a flash drive filled with photos that, she said, would verify everything she was telling them.
While Sara had been sitting with Nicole, Lila Mc-Daniels, managing director of the Lemonade Stand, the shelter where they worked, had called the High Risk Teama newly formed team of professionals who tried to bridge the gap of noncommunication between official reporting agencies in an effort to prevent domestic-violence deaths. Sara was the Stand's representative on the team. There were police officers, medical personnel, lawyers, child-protection workers and school guidance counselors.
Sara turned her head on the lounge chair. She had to clear her mind. To relax. Or she wasn't going to be any good to anyone.
She gave herself up to the sun's relaxing warmth. Mmm. The rays touched the bare skin of her back, sliding over her bikini-clad butt to her thighs. She focused on the heat, willing it to relax muscles that were determined to remain at strict attention. Ready for action.
She listened to the sound of the ocean, of waves gently washing to shore. The privacy wall between her and the vastness beyond the affluent complex in which she lived muted the sounds from the beach below.
Her upper back and shoulders weren't nearly hot enough yet. She'd opted for the easy-to-undo pink-and-green bikini top for one reason only. The straps, both at the neck and around her back, were easy to undo. She didn't need any more pressure on muscles already stressed beyond anything she'd ever felt.
Focus. She repeated the word. Willing her pores to open and soak in the vitamin D being offered, as best they could with the high-level SPF she'd smeared all over herself.
Accept the heat. Accept the help
Metal scraped against cement. Sara's eyes flew open. The small private pool boasted eight luxury pool loungersone of which she was lying on. The other heretofore-unoccupied seven were spread out on either side of her. The one to her far right was no longer empty.
Sara closed her eyes as quickly as she'd opened them.
Damn. She'd hoped to have the pool to herself. Though she'd known it to be unlikely on a warm Saturday afternoon. Still, it was August. Beach weather. There'd been the possibility that everyone else would opt for the private beach just a few yards and a long stone staircase away.
Sara feigned sleep.
It was no good.
The nebulous peace she'd been seeking had been invaded. She'd started to relax, to give herself up to the healing energy of the sun's heat, but every time the stranger moved, she was catapulted back to the netted fabric of her chair. When her nerves started to crawl around inside her and lying motionless was more painful than not, Sara gave up, reached behind her to fasten the straps at her back and neck, turned over and sat up.
The thirtysomething, dark-haired, bare-chested source of her irritability glanced her way. But left her alone.
He was a stranger to her, as were a good many of the owners with whom she shared common ground. She appreciated his respectful distance.
But what was he doing? Usually when someone sunbathed they didn't just sit straight up like that. And if that someone was a guy and he wasn't reading, or drinking and socializing, if he didn't have kids to watch, or women to ogle, he laid back and closed his eyes.
She knew these things. Human nature was her business.
"Have you lived here long?" The sexy tenor of his voice broke the silence.
"Two years in this complex. Three in Santa Raquel. You?" Might as well talk. It was better than sitting there thinking about Nicole. Wondering what effect she could have on a woman running from her white-supremacist husband.
Her question garnered no more than a shake of the handsome stranger's head.
"Are you a guest?" Sara didn't typically socialize with men at pools. In her current lifeworking in a secured shelter filled with damaged womenshe rarely dealt with men at all.
This whole day was turning into an aberration. She couldn't find her calm. Was lying at the pool. And encouraging a man to get to know her better.
No. He was shaking his head again.
"You're an owner, then," she ventured, coming to the only other conclusion available. There were only two ways to gain entrance to the pool. As an owner. Or as the guest of an owner.
Part of the exclusivity of Sara's community was that it didn't allow units to be rented out. Her brother, a financial guru in LA, had made certain of that stipulation before he'd reluctantly agreed to quit badgering Sara over her choice to live in a condominium complex rather than in a far too big luxury mansion like everyone else in the family did. She'd owned her place for over a year at that pointand had known without his help that property values would remain steadier if rentals weren't allowed.
The man had fallen silent. He was clearly a man of few words.
Nice. Sometimes the best companyat least for someone like her, who spent her days, and a lot of her nights, listening to other people talk about their problemswas the silent type.
Sometimes, but not that afternoon. Sara was restless.
She needed to rest.
He wasn't wearing a ring.
She didn't care. Hadn't needed to know. It was just what she didnotice all of the little things about people. They were the "tells."
His were telling her something she wasn't prepared to hear.
It didn't matter that he might be available. She wasn't looking.
Men tended to feel a bit intimidated by her jobas if they feared she'd see some sign of aggression in them, or assumed she went around assessing all men and spotting abusive tendencies. Her last date had had a problem taking a backseat to her work. But when a battered woman showed up at the shelter, you bet she was going to leave a dinner date to tend to her.
Glancing the stranger's way, Sara tried to get a read on him. What kind of man was he? Other than quiet. Respectful of her privacy. Her spacehe'd chosen the lounger farthest away from her.
He lacked nothing in the attractiveness department.
The thought made her uncomfortable, though why it should, she didn't know. She was busy. Not dead.
How long had it been since her last date?
It had been the interrupted dinner date. They'd been on the terrace of La Mange, a coastal restaurant between Santa Raquel and Santa Monica, and it had been warm outside. Definitely summer.
So that made it, what? A year ago? At least.