The obsession, p.15
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       The Obsession, p.15
 

           Nora Roberts

  Xander, obviously not delicate about the dirt or smell, lifted the dog out. The dog stood this time, looked a little wobbly, while Xander hauled an already-open fifty-pound bag of dog food out of the truck.

  “Think you got enough food?”

  Xander only grunted and poured some into a big plastic blue bowl.

  “Hey.”

  She caught the red bowl he tossed.

  “For water.”

  Naomi went around the side, where she had a hose to water the so-far-imaginary garden.

  When she came back, the dog had wolfed down every morsel and appeared capable of doing it again.

  His tail swung back and forth with more energy.

  “Water first, big guy.” Xander took the bowl, set it down. The dog drank like a camel.

  “I don’t care if you think I’m heartless, but that dog’s not coming in the house unless we can deal with that smell.”

  “Yeah, yeah, can’t blame you. Somewhere along the line he rolled in something dead. They just love doing that. So we give him a bath. Probably a couple of them. Hose around there?”

  “Yeah. I’ve got dish soap inside.”

  “Don’t need it.” He went back to the truck and came back with a black dog collar and a bottle of dog shampoo.

  “You did get supplies.”

  “You’re going to have to hold him. I’ll soak him down, suds him up, rinse him off, but he’s not going to like it.”

  “If he bites me, I’m going to hurt you.”

  “He’s not a biter. There’s no mean in those eyes. You hold on to him, Slim.”

  “I’ve got him.”

  The dog was stronger than he looked—but then so was she. When Xander ran the water over him, he balked, strained, barked, pulled.

  But he didn’t snap, snarl, or bite.

  Xander pulled a massive dog biscuit out of his back pocket, and the dog settled down to eye it greedily.

  “Yeah, you want this. Hold the hose,” he told Naomi, then broke the biscuit in half. “Half now, half when we’re done. Got it?”

  He gave the dog the half biscuit, and poured green liquid from the bottle in his hands. Obviously the dog enjoyed the rubbing and soaping, and stood quietly while Xander scrubbed at him.

  He didn’t care for the rinsing off, but the second round of soaping had his eyes half closing in bliss. By the end of it, he sat quietly—maybe, Naomi thought, as delighted as she was that he didn’t smell like dead skunk.

  “Better stand back when I let him go.”

  “Let him go? What if he runs?”

  “He’s not going anywhere. Stand back, or you’ll get wetter than you already are.”

  She released the collar, then danced back and out of range of the energetic shaking and storm of water.

  “He isn’t as ugly as I thought.”

  “Get some meat back on his bones, he’ll be a good-looking dog. Might have some Lab in him—shape of the head. Probably got a lot in him. Mutts make the best dogs.”

  “Now that he’s clean, doesn’t look like he’s going to collapse, and you’ve got the truck, you can take him with you.”

  “Can’t do it.”

  “You know the vet by name. And—”

  “I can’t. Look . . .” He turned, went back to his truck for a rag of a towel, and began to rub the wet dog. “I had to put my dog down last month. Had him nearly half my life. I just can’t take this one. I’m not ready.”

  The open bag of kibble, the shampoo, the bowls, the collar. She should’ve put it together. “Okay. I know how it feels. We had a dog—my brother’s dog, really. The uncles gave it to him for Christmas when he was ten. He was so sweet, so considerate, we didn’t have to put him down. He just slipped away in his sleep when he was fourteen. The four of us cried like babies.”

  The dog sniffed at Xander’s pocket.

  “This one’s not stupid.” Xander took the second half of the biscuit, offered it. This offering was taken politely.

  “He’s a good dog. It shows.”

  “Maybe.”

  “You get him to Alice tomorrow. I’ll split the vet bill with you. I’ll get the word out.”

  “All right.”

  “I’ve got a leash and a dog bed—it’s a little worn, but he won’t care. A couple of rawhide bones. I’ll bring it in.”

  Naomi looked at the dog, at Xander, at the enormous bag of dog food. “Want a beer? I’d say you’ve earned it.”

  “Hang on.” He pulled out his phone, punched in a number. “Hey. Yeah, yeah, I texted I would be. Now I’m going to be later.”

  “Oh, if you’ve got a date, don’t—”

  Xander shifted his gaze—a deeper, bolder blue than the no-name dog’s. “Kevin and Jenny. Sunday dinner. Naomi found this dog, I’m just helping her get it cleaned up. Don’t know. At least a couple years old, golden brown now that six inches of filth are washed off. Mixed breed.”

  “I took pictures. I’ll send them a picture, in case they recognize him.”

  “Your boss here’s going to send you a picture of the mutt. No, go ahead. Yeah, later.” He put the phone away, hefted the bag of dog food over his shoulder. “I could use that beer.”

  They started toward the house, the dog between them. “He’s still limping.”

  “He’s been on the road awhile, I’d say. The pads of his paws are scraped up and sore.”

  After unlocking the door, holding it open, she watched the dog limp inside, begin to explore.

  “You don’t think we’re going to find his owners.”

  “I’d lay money against it. You want this back in the kitchen?”

  “Yeah.” She’d keep him overnight, even for a few days while they tried to locate his owners or found someone who wanted a dog. She got out a beer, a bottle of wine, handed Xander the beer, poured wine into a plastic cup.

  “Thanks.” As he drank, Xander wandered around the kitchen. “Looks good. Real good. I didn’t see how he’d turn this one around, but he always does.”

  “I love it. Nowhere to sit yet—I have to find stools. And a table and chairs, and according to my uncles, a divan or love seat for that space over there, fronted by a burl-wood table for tension.”

  “Who are these mysterious uncles who take you to see Springsteen, buy you dogs, and advise you to buy divans—and why do they call it a divan instead of a couch?”

  “I think it’s size or shape, or maybe geography—on the divan/couch part. My mother’s younger brother and his husband. They more or less raised me and my brother.”

  “You were raised by your gay uncles?”

  “Yes, is that a problem?”

  “No. It’s interesting. It’s New York, right?” He leaned back against the counter, as apparently at home as the dog who now stretched out on the floor and slept the sleep of the clean, content, and completely trusting.

  “Yes, it’s New York.”

  “Never been there. What do they do? The uncles.”

  “They own a restaurant. Harry’s a chef. Seth is the man of numbers and business. So it works. My brother’s with the FBI.”

  “No shit?”

  “He’s got degrees in psychiatry, psychology, and criminology. He wants the Behavioral Analysis Unit.”

  “Profiling?”

  “Yes. He’s brilliant.”

  “You four sound tight. But you’re three thousand miles away.”

  “I didn’t expect to be. But . . .” She shrugged. “Do you have family here?”

  “My parents moved to Sedona a few years ago. I’ve got a sister in Seattle, and a brother in L.A. Not so tight, but we get along all right when we have to.”

  “You grew up here—with Kevin.”

  “Womb to tomb.”

  “And own a garage, body shop place, own half interest in a bar—Jenny mentioned it—and run a band.”

  “I don’t run the band. But half interest in the bar means we get to play there.” He set down the bottle. “I’ll get the dog bed. Down here or upstairs?”

>   She looked at the dog again, sighed. “I guess up in the bedroom. I hope to Christ he’s housebroken.”

  “Most likely.”

  He hauled the brown corduroy dog bed up the stairs, set it in front of the fireplace, tossed a yellow tennis ball in it.

  “Color works,” he said.

  “I really think so.”

  “So . . . I wouldn’t feed him any more tonight. Maybe one of the Milk-Bones, and maybe give him the rawhide to chew on.”

  “It better be all he chews on.” She glanced over as the dog had followed them out, then back in, then up the stairs, and now had the yellow tennis ball in his mouth.

  “I’d better get going or Jenny won’t feed me. Uncle’s a chef?”

  “A terrific chef.”

  “You cook?”

  “I was taught by a master.”

  “It’s a good skill.”

  He stepped up. She should’ve seen it coming. She was always, always aware of moods and moves. But he stepped up, pulled her in before she’d read the warning sign.

  He didn’t go slow; he didn’t ease in. It was one bright, hot explosion followed by shuddering dark. His mouth covered, conquered, while his hands ran straight up her body as if they had every right, then down again.

  She could have stopped it. He was bigger, certainly stronger, but she knew how to defend herself. She didn’t want to stop—not yet, not quite yet. She didn’t want to defend.

  She gripped the sides of his waist, fingers digging in. And let herself burn.

  It was he who eased back until she stared into those dangerous blue eyes. “Just like you look.”

  “What?”

  “Potent,” he said. “You pack a punch.”

  She saw the move this time, laid a hand firmly on his chest. “So do you, but I’m not up for a bout right now.”

  “That’s a damn shame.”

  “You know, right at the moment, I couldn’t agree more. But.”

  “But.” He nodded, stepped back. “I’ll be in touch. About the dog.”

  “About the dog.”

  When he went out, the dog looked after him, looked at Naomi. Whined.

  “You’re with me for now.” She sat on the foot of the bed—such as it was—because her legs felt shaky. “He’s completely the wrong choice. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

  The dog came over, laid his paw on her knee. “And don’t think you’re going to charm me. I’m not getting tangled up with Xander, and I’m not keeping you. It’s all temporary.”

  A night or two for the dog, she promised herself. And absolutely not with Xander Keaton.

  Nine

  The dog didn’t like the leash. The minute Naomi snapped it on, he pulled, tugged, tried to turn around and bite it. She ended up dragging him out of the house, using a Milk-Bone as a bribe.

  He also didn’t like the vet’s office. The minute she got him into the waiting room, he quivered, shook, strained to get back out the door. A grizzled old man sat in one of the plastic chairs with a grizzled old mutt sprawled at his feet. The old mutt’s lips curled as if in disdain. A cat in a carrier stared out with feral green eyes.

  It was hard to blame the dog for dropping down on the floor, refusing to budge. He trembled the whole time Naomi filled out the paperwork, even when the old man took the dog, who walked obediently even if he cast a look back—disdain again—as they went into the back.

  While they waited, and Naomi had to be grateful they’d squeezed her in, a woman came in with a red-gold ball of fur and fluff. The fluffball stopped dead when it spotted Naomi’s stray, then went into a wild series of high-pitched yips punctuated by throaty little growls.

  The dog did his best to crawl into Naomi’s lap.

  “Sorry! Consuela’s very high-strung.” The woman plucked up Consuela and tried to quiet and soothe her while Naomi struggled to keep the dog’s nose out of her crotch.

  When they called her name, the relief was so huge she didn’t mind being forced to half drag, half carry her charge into the exam room.

  He quivered in there, too, and looked at her with such abject terror that she crouched down to hug him.

  “Come on now, pull yourself together.”

  He whined, licked, then laid his head on her shoulder.

  “Somebody’s in love. Alice Patton.”

  The vet, maybe five-two with a sturdy, compact build, had her gray-streaked brown hair pulled back in a short ponytail and black, square-framed glasses over eyes of soft, quiet brown. She came in briskly, wearing a short white lab coat over T-shirt and jeans, and crouched down.

  “Naomi Carson.”

  “It’s nice to meet you. And this is the handsome guy you picked up on the side of the road.”

  “I made up some flyers to help find his owner. Your receptionist took a few.”

  “We’ll put them out, but I haven’t seen this boy before. Let’s get him on the scale first, then we’ll see what’s what.”

  He didn’t much care for the idea, but they weighed him in at seventy-one pounds.

  “He could use another ten. Definitely undernourished. Clean, though.”

  “He wasn’t. We bathed him. Twice.”

  “Xander helped you out with him, right?” And to Naomi’s astonishment, Alice hefted seventy-one pounds of trembling dog onto the exam table.

  “Yes, he came along a couple minutes after I found the dog.”

  “Put Milo’s collar on him, I see.”

  “Milo? Was that his dog?”

  “Mmm-hmmm.” Like her eyes, her voice was soft and calm as she ran her hands over the dog. “Great dog, Milo. Cancer came on fast and hard. We did everything we could, but . . . He had fifteen good, happy years, and that’s what counts. This one here, he’s about two, and he’s been on the road awhile from the looks of his paws.”

  She got out her light, slipped him a small treat before examining his ears. “I’m going to give you some drops for his ears.”

  “Drops?”

  “He’s got an infection brewing in the left one. And I’ve got some meds you’ll need to give him for worms.”

  “Worms?”

  “Stool sample you brought in. He’s got worms, but the meds should clear that up quick enough. I’m going to give him a test for heartworm, and I’d like to do a titer to gauge if he needs shots. Seeing as he’s a stray, I’m going to discount all this for you.”

 
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