from a long Saturday—of which the
highlight had been extracting birdshot from the rump of an over-eager
cocker spaniel—Meredith McGregor, D.V.M., was shrugging off her white
coat when an.angry male voice from the front office broke into her
do you mean, you closed ten minutes ago? It's only five after six!"
right, we closed five minutes
ago." Patience strained against irritation in the voice of Alida
Reese, who doubled as a receptionist and animal technician.
was held up in traffic," he snapped, as if Alida were somehow to
blame. "You'd think they could design the roads in Nashville so the
traffic flowed instead of clogged once in a while. Well, I'm here, and
I've come to collect my dog."
see what I can do." Tight-lipped, Alida appeared in the hallway
of the old house that had been remodeled into a veterinary clinic long
ago. "Dr. McGregor? Can you release"—she checked the dog's
name on a card in her hand and pronounced it sarcastically—"Champion
Reeves Philton Conqueror?"
groaned inwardly. She'd been looking forward to kicking off her shoes
and relaxing over a hot meal, the sooner the better. Still, she didn't
like leaving an animal in the center over a Sunday if it wasn't
"Didn't Dr. Brown leave instructions? It must be his patient."
Alida consulted the card. "Yes. It's okay." The phone rang.
"Darn! We're shorthanded—Jenny went home sick." She raced out
of sight around the corner.
Reeves Philton Conqueror. Merrie immediately pictured a clipped,
high-strung poodle and an owner to match. She would let Alida handle this
had other things to think about. Like Christmas coming up on Friday. And a
waif of a little girl jvhoneeded her help. And—
The masculine voice made her turn sharply. "I'm Dave Anders, and I'd
like my dog, please. Your friend seems to be tied up on the phone."
man standing in the doorway fixed her with steely gray eyes, obviously
accustomed to commanding obedience. From his height and the way his
tailored coat fit over broad shoulders, she guessed he would intimidate
most women. But most women weren't five feet nine and fully capable of
administering antibiotics to a horse.
her coat, Merrie realized, he must have mistaken her for one of the
technicians. "I'm sure Alida will be finished in a minute."
I'm in a hurry. Do you mind?"
she did mind, but it would probably be easier to release Champion Reeves
Philton Conqueror to his owner than to stand here arguing about it.
right. This way." She led him into a room lined with steel cages,
mostly empty now. From nearby came the high-pitched gabbling of Britches,
a spider monkey who had accidentally slashed his hand when he grabbed his
mistress's cooking knife. Merrie clucked to the animal as she passed,
and reminded herself to check that Britches had enough food and water.
Jenny, the teenager
worked here on Saturdays, had been exercising Britches just before she
went home sick, and might have forgotten something.
excited bark came from a large cage at the end, arid Merrie saw that it
was not a poodle but a doe-eyed collie, his feathery tail fluttering with
Buster." Dave Anders dropped to one knee after a quick glance at the
linoleum to make sure his crisp wool pants wouldn't be spoiled.
Merrie couldn't help being amused. "You call Champion Reeves Philton
Conqueror just plain Buster?"
man went right on talking to his dog as if he hadn't heard. "Did they
take good care of you? Poor fellow, we were worried about that lump,
weren't we? But it wasn't anything serious, after all." Finally, he
noticed Merrie again. "Would you please let him out? I haven't got
rattle of metal behind her made Merrie pivot just as the door to
Britches's cage swung open. Hurrying toward it, she fumed silently at
Jenny. Even illness was no excuse for not making sure a cage was latched
properly. Monkeys were notorious escape artists.
as she was, she wasn't quick enough. The tiny, long-armed creature slipped
through the opening with a triumphant shriek and shimmied across the face
of the cages, the bowed bending of his arms and legs emphasizing his
resemblance to a spider.
Merrie could see she was going to need help with this one. Monkeys were
not only hard to catch, they could make a mess if they began throwing
bottles of medication, and they could inflict some nasty bites.
Anders straightened up, his mouth twisting in annoyance. "I had no
idea things had gotten so slipshod around here. Old Dr. Brown would never
have allowed it"
was no time to argue. "Just step out of the room." Merrie felt a
twinge of pleasure when her authoritative tone brought a look of
be ridiculous." To her dismay, he reached for the monkey. Visions of
injuries and lawsuits danced through her brain.
it right now, Mr. Anders! I don't know what you're used to, but I'm in
charge around here."
late. Man and monkey met, and monkey conquered—not with a bite, but by
leaping onto the shoulder of Dave Anders's expensive coat, executing a
caper across his stylishly trimmed brown hair, and using his arrogant head
as a launchpad from which to attack a shelf full of equipment.
See what you've done?" Merrie pushed past the man and snatched up a
blanket from the shelf. Chittering happily, Britches was hurling supplies
onto the floor as she approached. But as Merrie poised to envelop him with
the blanket, the monkey leaped again and scampered straight toward the
door that led to the rest of the building.
after him, Merrie flung the blanket over the reddish-brown form and
stamped on two sides of the cloth to halt the little creature. A pair of
Italian leather shoes snapped down on the other corners, and Britches was
goodness." Only then, did Merrie realize that Dave Anders was
standing almost toe-to-toe with her, his face inches from hers. The scent
of his after-shave lotion tingled across her senses. "You... Thanks.. .I..."
warning, his mouth closed over hers, and his strong hands caressed her
shoulders. The touch was
almost playful. Dazed, Merrie took a moment before she drew back.
A lazy grin told her Dave wasn't sorry at all. "I guess you bring out
my jungle instincts."
if on cue, Britches hissed angrily from below and struggled against his
blanket covering. "Alida!" Merrie called again, and this time
the assistant came running. Donning protective gloves, Alida soon had the
monkey back in the cage, and Champion Reeves- Philton Conqueror—alias
Buster—out of his.
really sorry, Dr. McGregor," Alida said as she replenished the
monkey's food and water and headed back to the front office. "I
should have double-checked everything after Jenny left."
go ahead and close up for the day," Merrie called after her.
"And thanks for your help with Britches."
ruffling his collie's fur affectionately, studied Merrie with interest.
"So you're a vet. I've never kissed a vet before."
stung Merrie's cheeks. "I hope you enjoyed yourself, Mr.
I did. And so did you." Teasing gray eyes stared into her hazel ones.
"If I didn't have a commitment for tonight, I'd suggest we explore
this interesting subject further."
think we've explored it quite far enough." She tried to regain a
measure of composure. "And it so happens I also have a commitment
for tonight, for which you've made me late." She saw no reason to add
that the commitment was to have dinner with her grandmother, who lived
next door to her.
straightened, snapping a leash to Buster's collar. "As I see it, you
owe me something."
beg your pardon?"
it weren't for me, this place would have been empty when the monkey got
out. He'd have had a fine time going AWOL overnight, wouldn't you
very idea sent shudders down Merrie's spine. "I'll concede that the
timing was fortunate, but I believe you've been amply rewarded."
"I'm not trying to get out of paying my bill, you know." He
looked amused at the notion. "Perhaps we could make it another night.
I'm tied up through Wednesday—"
am I," Merrie said, although what she planned to be busy with was
wrapping gifts. "And also on Thursday night, which happens to be
Christmas Eve. So—"
bad." Dave Anders clicked his tongue at Buster, who panted
appreciatively. "I happen to be free Christmas Eve. Sure you couldn't
change things around?"
nerve of the man! "Absolutely sure." Merrie moved decisively
toward the door. "I believe Alida would like to get home, if you'd
care to settle your account."
pleasure." Dave followed her out the door. "Merry Christmas, Dr.
she changed from her rubber-soled work shoes into a pair of low-cut boots,
Merrie was embarrassed to discover that her lips were still tingling. How
could she have stood there as stunned as a schoolgirl? Dave Anders might
be handsome, but she wasn't impressed.
all right, she was impressed,
she admitted silently as she slipped on her fake-fur coat. And he was
just the sort of man her mother would approve of: rich
and good-looking. Georgia Hixton McGregor Aston Lemoins, better
known as Gigi Lemoins since her third marriage two years ago, had approved
of a few too many men, in her daughter's opinion.
the back door of the clinic behind her, Merrie set off through the crisp
winter evening to her house two blocks away. There was a poignant sadness
to Nashville at this time of year, the trees bare and black against the
dark sky, the air smelling faintly of old leaves and fireplaces. She hoped
it would snow. Steffie deserved a special Christmas.
had spent most of the previous evening buying toys for the
five-year-old: a giant Big Bird, a coloring book with the largest box of
crayons in existence, and a Dr. Seuss book. No need to buy clothes. If
there was one thing Steffie would have, it was lots of expensive
last thing Merrie had expected from her flighty sister Lizabeth, a New
York model who took after their mother when it came to evaluating men, was
for her to adopt a little girl. At thirty-one, two years older than Merrie,
Lizabeth had never been interested in children, not even during her brief
recently, although she looked no older than she ever had, Lizabeth had
begun talking about the biological clock. No doubt some of her friends
were having babies, and suddenly Lizabeth wanted one, too. Not at the
diaper stage, of course; instead, she'd adopted a five-year-old this fall.
had gone to New York for Thanksgiving— Lizabeth had the dinner
catered—and fell in love with shy little Steffie. She'd been dismayed to
learn that the child was spending most of her time with one hired nurse
after another. And then, this past week, Lizabeth had announced she simply
couldn't resist an invitation to go skiing in Switzerland over Christmas
and visit their mother in the south of France.
Steffie was coming to Nashville. One of Liza-beth's. friends was keeping
the little girl for a few days and then would fly down and drop her off
Thursday en route to Florida. Merrie muttered angrily to herself, at the
thought of Steffie being shuffled here and there as if the child had no
was up to Merrie, with the aid of Grandma Netta, to make sure Steffie had
the best Christmas ever. She wished she could think of some way to make
the holiday really special, some surprise that Steffie would remember
happily after she went back to New York.
carried Merrie rapidly home. She was due at Netta's, but first she stopped
off in her own two-story brick house to feed her pets.
always, a sense of peace flowed through her as she stepped through the
front hall into the living room. She'd purposely decorated it with the
softest pieces she could find—a big fluffy rug, low comfortable couches,
shaggy wall hangings. By the window stood the Christmas tree Merrie had
wrestled home Frieday evening with the help of her partner, Bill Brown,
and his wife, Sue. Hung with candy canes and tiny wooden soldiers, the
old-fashioned tree spread its branches above Merrie's collection of
stuffed animals. The small perky rabbits, the inquisitive bears, and the
droopy-antlered moose she'd brought back from a vacation in Canada made
the room come alive.
movement to her right caught Merrie?s attention. It was
followed by a plaintive meow.
Homebody." She went into the kitchen to open the cat food and nearly
tripped over Snoozer, who was lying by the stove soaking up the warmth
from the pilot light. "Where's Wanderer?"
if on cue, a black nose poked through the cat door from the back porch,
followed by the splotchy black-and-white form of Wanderer. Merrie would
have sworn that Wanderer had a Dalmatian somewhere in his background, if
he hadn't been a cat.
needed no urging to gather around the food bowl and dig in.
Only Snoozer hung back, reluctant to give
up his prime spot. "Suit yourself." Merrie ran a hand over his
thick orange fur. "I'm going to Netta's for dinner."
coveted this house ever since she lived next door as a teenager, imagining
herself moving in here someday with a husband and children of her own.
Well, that part hadn't come true yet, but a least she'd been able to
afford the mortgage payments when the house finally came up for sale four
years ago, just after she and Bill took over his father's old veterinary
Merrie found herself wondering what kind of house Dave Anders lived in.
Probably a condominium, although that wouldn't leave much room for
Buster to romp in.
wished she hadn't given in to his kiss. He was right, she had
enjoyed it. If only Merrie could respond
that way to one of the men she dated from time to time. At least they fit
in with her casual lifestyle. Somehow she couldn't picture Dave popping
over to help her cook meat loaf or plant tomatoes in the spring or enjoy a
Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry.
running upstairs to feed the guinea pigs, Munchkin and Grumpus, Merrie
bounced over to Grandma Netta's house. She could smell the gingerbread
as she crossed the yard.
herself in by the kitchen door, Merrie inhaled deeply. "Smells
grandmother turned away from the stove. Salt-and-pepper hair framed a
handsome high-browed face, remarkably unlined at seventy-six. Merrie could
of the beauty her grandmother had been as a young woman. "About time
you got here. Emergency?"
exactly." Merrie gave her a brief description of the monkey’s
escape. "I did promise to check on things tomorrow, though. After
all, I'm taking off early on Thursday to pick up Steffie."
Fortunately, since the Nashville Pet Emergency Center was open overnight
and on weekends to take urgent cases, she and Bill didn't have to worry
about being called out late at night the way Bill's father had before he
being asked, Merrie set the kitchen table and helped her grandmother serve
up the beef stew and gingerbread. It tasted heavenly.
Netta regarded her over a spoonful of stew. "Aren't you going to that
Christmas party tomorrow? The one for the kids?"
nodded. She'd promised to bring the guinea pigs to a party for a group of
foster children at a recreational center. "I'll only have to be at
the clinic for half an hour. Alida will take care of the feedings."
grandmother poured herself a second cup of hot tea. "I'm not sure I
shouldn't cancel out for Christmas Eve. I ought to be here with you and
year, Netta and a group of friends sang carols at convalescent homes.
"Don't be silly. You can't let your friends down. We'll see you
talked over some ideas for surprising Steffie but failed to come up with
anything exciting. Finally, a comfortable silence fell between them, an
easy familiarity bred of years spent in each other's company. It was
with Netta that fourteen-year-old Merrie had stayed when her mother
married for the second time and moved away from Nashville, after years of
flitting in and out of her daughters' lives while Netta held down the
then sixteen, had been eager to move to Manhattan with her mother, but
Merrie had stayed right here until she finished high school. Then she'd
joined her mother and sister for a year in New York, a year that almost
resulted in a disastrous marriage.
secure in her grandmother's kitchen, Merrie's traitorous thoughts returned
to Dave Anders. He obviously didn't place much value on holiday celebrations,
the way he'd tried to make a date with her for Christmas Eve. He ought to
be home with his family, if he had one.
Netta had lived in Nashville most of her life. Maybe she knew something
her grandmother wouldn't notice the catch in her voice, Merrie said,
"By the way, that man who helped me with the monkey was named Dave
Anders. You don't happen to know him, do you?"
wasn't fooled for an instant by Merrie's pretended casualness.
"Piqued your interest, did he?"
It's just idle curiosity."
Her gandmother brought out a bottle of sherry and poured them each a
splash in sparkling crystal glasses. "Nothing about Dave Anders is
idle. Or you either, my girl."
you do know him." Merrie sipped the rich liquid. The warmth of the
large kitchen was making her sleepy.
more like." Netta regarded her glass thoughtfully. "And his
parents. Father's dead now. Ever heard of Anders Enterprises?"
had a sinking feeling. "You mean that big building out on Thompson
Lane? Don't they make computers or something?"
make something like just about everything," her grandmother said.
"Computers, software, computer games, so I read in the paper. Rich
enough to turn even your mother's head, if she'd been lucky enough to meet
Lizabeth's, Merrie thought with a pang. Yes, with his tailored suit and
wealthy background, Dave Anders would suit Merrie's sister perfectly.
Except that the dog would have to go. Lizabeth didn't like animals.
Georgia—I just can't call my daughter Gigi, even if she is
married to a Frenchman—she's just never
been in the same league as Sarah Anders," Netta went on. "Guess
they might have known each other at school; they both went to Harpeth
Hall. But Sarah—well, she's old Nashville, a real society lady. I
wouldn't be surprised if she still wears white gloves and a hat whenever
she goes out. I'll bet she'd like to see that son of hers married off to
some debutante at the Belle Meade Country Club."
he's got a nice dog," Merrie said.
grandmother laughed and pushed her chair back from the table. "That's
my girl! I never met a more down-to-earth child than you were, Merrie, and
heaven knows how you got that way, raised from pillar to post as you
got it from you." Merrie smiled fondly. "And he does
own a nice dog, even if it has a name as
long as your arm." She began clearing the dishes away before Netta
could rise. "You cooked; how you rest."
thought I'd say it, but you could do a lot worse than Dave Anders."
remark was so unexpected that Merrie wasn't sure she'd heard correctly.
"I wasn't planning.to marry the man! I just met him, and I'll
probably never see him again." The words rang hollowly through her
mind. That lazy grin, that commanding presence of his...Dave
Anders wasn't going to be easy to forget, even after one encounter.
not the type to push, " Netta said. "And I'm in no hurry to have
a great-grandchild next door. But he's got a mind of his own, that fella,
and I respect him for it. Gets his name in the paper for one cause or
another all the time."
people are always making donations. For the tax write-off." Years of
listening to her mother's friends had taught Merrie a certain cynicism.
"Well, I'm bushed. Thanks for a fabulous dinner, as usual, Netta."
kissed her grandmother good night and went next door. Home to her guinea
pigs and her cats.
house felt larger than usual and a little bit lonely. Waiting for Steffie,
Merrie told herself firmly. And someday for a man, too, of course. But not
one like Dave Anders, who lived in the glitzy, brittle world coveted by
her mother and sister.
she sat for a long time staring at the winking light of the Christmas
tree, her heart swelling with a bittersweet mixture of nostalgia and
This website property of Jackie Diamond Hyman.