He was heart-meltingly beautiful. And her heart was responding to that plea. Too much. Someone out there must be frantic, wondering where he was.
Four hours later, when she returned from retail therapy, trying to dissipate the discomfort produced by a heavy-handed dental technician cleaning her teeth, Zac was still there, leaning against the door she’d found him at earlier. He bounded up, his tail wagging as he nudged her butt with his head.
‘You’re a naughty boy. You were meant to go home. I’m not getting any more meat out of the freezer.’
She sighed. Or maybe she was.
‘I’ll ring the council dog pound and find out if anyone’s been asking for you.’
What if they hadn’t? Could she keep him? Melt, melt, went her heart. It wouldn’t be fair. She worked twelve-hour shifts four days in a row. What would she do with him on those days? It didn’t matter. Zac might look a little malnourished, but his coat gleamed now she’d dried it and he hadn’t cowered from her once. He was well looked after. Someone out there was missing him.
‘Zac belongs to a Mrs Anderson. She hasn’t been in touch to report him missing so she might be away. We’ll be investigating. She should’ve made arrangements for the dog if that’s the case.’
The woman at the pound ranted on for interminable minutes when Steph rang the council. She also gave her over Mrs Anderson’s address.
Should the woman be telling her those details?
‘Will you phone and tell her I can drop Zac off?’ Steph asked. She was more than happy to deliver her new friend home, since he came from a street only a couple of blocks away.
‘The ranger will be round pick up the dog later this afternoon.’ Click.
Fine. Thanks. Why give her the address, then? ‘Someone’s going to take you home.’ She rubbed the silky head resting on her thigh. ‘Isn’t that great?’
There went any idea of keeping him.
There were a few text messages on her phone she hadn’t heard coming in. One from Michael.
Kelli’s dropping in to the department around two if you want to catch up.
Kelli and her fake engagement to Mac, which became real. A true love-match—even if it had taken some teasing to bring it out into the open.
The last time she’d seen those two had been at her farewell drinks in the bar over the road from Auckland Central Hospital, before she’d moved to Queenstown. All loved-up and happy beyond description.
Having texted him back, she knew there was no avoiding Michael now. His message hadn’t given her any clues as to what he was thinking about her, though if he’d wanted to avoid her he wouldn’t have sent it in the first place. He could have denied still having her number. Why did he still have it?
‘You, my boy, are going outside again.’
She wouldn’t be here when the ranger arrived to pick him up, but there was nothing she could do about that. Probably for the best anyway. It would take very little to tempt her into keeping him.
* * *
‘Steph, look at you! You haven’t changed a bit.’
Kelli’s arms wrapped around her the moment they saw each other. Hugging her back, Steph laughed. ‘Still exaggerating everything.’
‘I wouldn’t.’ Kelli pulled back and glanced around before saying, ‘Michael’s as good-looking as ever—and still single, I hear.’
‘Apparently so.’ How did she stop heat pouring into her cheeks? ‘What’ve you and Mac been up to since I last saw you?’
‘You and I need to catch up for lunch one day when you’re not working.’ Kelli grinned. ‘As for us—making babies.’
‘You’re pregnant again?’
For once the usual hollowed-out sensation didn’t hit her with its full debilitating hardness, but her stomach still dropped to her knees and her heart landed in her throat. Babies—babies everywhere. Just not for her. It still sucked, big-time, but she wouldn’t let that show—couldn’t dull Kelli’s happiness because of these selfish feelings.
Throwing her arms back around Kelli, the nurse she’d worked alongside when she was going through her own version of hell, she said, ‘That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.’
It truly is, so get out of my throat and back behind my ribs, dear heart.
‘I have to say your life’s been dull if that’s what it takes to cheer you up.’
‘I don’t need cheering up.’ Did she? No, not at all.
‘Hi, there, Stephanie—glad you got my text.’
The man with the deep and husky voice stood behind her.
Turning slowly, to give herself time to fix her features into neutral, she faced Michael. ‘Thanks for the text. I’d have hated to miss Kelli.’
‘No problem. Why aren’t you working? Something wrong?’
She cleared that concern out of his eyes with, ‘I’m on days off. I did four day shifts this round, but next I’m up for days and nights.’ She wasn’t ill, or sulking because of last night, if that was what he was thinking.
‘Six-day weeks? You don’t mind?’
She shrugged. ‘Comes with the territory.’
Later on, if she got involved with someone or took up playing netball again, she might be irked at having to work weekends, but at the moment it made no difference.
There was a gentle poke at the back of her waist. ‘Don’t go without giving me your phone number,’ murmured Kelli, before crossing to talk to someone else she knew.
Don’t leave me alone with Michael. I’m not sure what to say to him.
But Steph couldn’t help glancing at him, and instantly looked away from the dynamic gaze that seemed stuck on her. ‘What?’
‘Chantelle arrived minutes after you left.’
So if she’d gone down the hall last night, instead of walking out through the front door
, who knew what his sister would have discovered?
‘You must be glad I’d left.’
Her heart dropped. It was beginning to make sense. His life was devoted to work and to his extended family, with no room for anyone else other than grabbed moments over a meal or in bed. No room for her other than he needed to scratch an itch.
Was she his itch?
‘She wasn’t meant to be picking Aaron up until the morning. But, considering I’m never one hundred percent certain she’ll do what she says, I should’ve been more circumspect.’
Deflate me, why not?
‘Seems late for Aaron to be going home.’
She shouldn’t have said that. It sounded judgemental. It was judgemental.
‘Sorry—none of my business.’
His sister must drive him bonkers at times. Though he was far more patient than she’d ever be.
‘Now you know how it is in my house.’
Don’t you mean in your life? But, yeah, buster, the picture’s getting clearer by the minute.
If he thought he had to warn her to stay away he had nothing to worry about. After last night she had no intention of ever dropping by again. A girl could only be so stupid before she wised up.
‘I’d better go after Kelli.’
‘See you around.’
Her heart sank. Back to square one. He could kiss her senseless and wave her off without a hint of reluctance in that sexy voice. More fool her for letting it get to her.
Sit up, heart, and start clapping as if you’re grateful he’s like this. We don’t want him back in our life.
Kelli nudged her gently. ‘Smile like you’re happy. At the moment he’s going to think you’re upset with him.’
Stretching her lips she asked, ‘Better?’
‘Looks like you’ve got a mouthful of vinegar. Now, what’s your number?’
* * *
While pretending to read a patient’s notes Michael watched Steph talking with Kelli as though she didn’t give a toss that he was here—ten metres away. As if kissing him senseless had been just ho-hum.