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What’s wrong with this circus?
Jason Fox blinked at the sight in front of him as he slowly got out of his old silver Suburban. The standard white TV-crew van was there with the station’s blue logo and the big satellite dish on top. A few other vehicles dotted the petting zoo farmyard—parked haphazardly on the muddy ground—with deep ridges from the tire tracks carved into the lawn.
The dozen or so people buzzing about with long mics, lights, shades, and blocks, and two cameramen, all toting the heavy equipment about, were a blur. However, nearby and the center of attention—a young female reporter—had two assistants as she fussed with them over getting her makeup and hair perfect.
Several things converged at the same time. This wasn’t normal for his weekly Wednesday veterinarian segment with the popular station. The usual older jovial host was nowhere in sight. The rookie afternoon anchor—on the job for three weeks—wore an electric-blue dress and matching heels of all things.
Totally unprepared for the farm terrain and leftover remnants of the heavy rain yesterday.
No other reporter he’d seen had their own hair and face people on location, either, not even at the station. She’d come with her entourage there and here, both women attending to her long, dark hair now.
Jason groaned, recalling her flirty ways and fierce determination to have drinks with him.
I guess no isn’t in her vocabulary.
He wasn’t that kind of guy—drink or won over easily.
Also, she did not like animals. At least that was what Jason gathered over the few weeks when she made a wide berth around the ones he’d brought with him.
Yeah, the ew gave it away. The scrunched-up face added more evidence to that fact.
His gray Great Dane, Brodie, nudged Jason’s arm, having commandeered the driver’s seat.
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea to head into that mess, buddy.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out it would be a challenge at the very least.
People were not Jason’s forte.
Animals, yes. Humans, no.
Growing up, his stutter had added to his awkward attempts at peopling, as his bestie would say. It had taken years to overcome his speech impediment, but the social interactions had never quite caught up.
Other than his family, his hometown neighbors back in Cupid’s Corner where he grew up, and his best friend, Becca, he stayed away from the fray. And he liked it.
However, he’d made a promise.
Dread lodged in his gut.
Going to the back of his vehicle, he lifted the back hatch and found the dogs in their crates. The two rambunctious ones pressed against the caged fronts, eager to be set free.
“How you doing, guys? Did you have a good ride out here?”
They barked as if answering his questions.
Jason quickly got them out and on leashes. They yanked and tugged, but Jason held firm. “Brodie, stay with them, bud.” His dog blocked the two, his big presence calming instead of intimidating. “Good, boy.”
Turning to the last one, Jason eased the too thin, skittish, nearly six-month-old golden retriever, Sadie, from the back of the container. His chest squeezed at the shaking dog as he coaxed her out with a few handy treats. “Easy, girl! I got you.” He cradled her to his right side, trying to soothe the easily frightened pup.
Going against his new boss’s stern instructions, Jason had brought Sadie along, hoping to find a viewer to foster her.
The longing to get a foster care program for dogs stayed paramount in Jason’s priorities.
He’d been on track—solid and building internal support—only to discover his mentor and top vet at his clinic was leaving to move closer to his fiancée hundreds of miles away.
All additional programs were on hold. The no-nonsense, stern older guy who’d taken over didn’t see the necessity of the foster program due to the local shelter’s cat and dog adoptions.
But Jason knew differently. The healing process from wounded to recovered took time, patience, and love.
So he’d defied orders.
Now with a shivering Sadie in his arms he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Exposing her to a totally new environment wasn’t helping thus far.
Slowly, Jason traipsed to the makeshift staged area where the anchor stood near Mrs. Grayson, the owner of the petting zoo and farm.
“Ready in ten, Doctor Doolittle!” The harried TV producer of the morning show whooshed by yelling out commands, startlingly the animals—the pen of goats nearby baahed abruptly and the four dogs ranging from the pup and up—barked and yelped at the harsh, sudden sound.
Maybe filming on location after last night’s autumn thunderstorm—soggy terrain everywhere and the animals jumpy from the lashing rain and big booms—wasn’t the best idea after all.
But you can’t tell others how to run their own business, now can you?
His usual vet tech assistant was down with a virus, so Jason was on his own for his weekly segment today. He didn’t have the heart to cancel, because these two on leashes were in need of permanent families and Sadie needed gentle foster care and this was the best way to get the word out.
In the past eight months, since he’d taken over the TV gig from his mentor, Jason had gotten all the dogs adopted within days, sometimes hours of his appearance with them. However, there were dozens more—in various stages of ages and care—at the local shelter he couldn’t get in front of the viewers.
Jason longed to create a big, wide foster system in the region and beyond for the injured animals that came to the clinic he worked at, too. One of his biggest deciders in taking over the TV position—and against his overwhelming fear of speaking in front of a large audience and his stutter returning in full force—was to bring awareness to people to aid in the healing and recovery process and ask for donations for all the animals’ needs.
Only things hadn’t gone according to plan.
“I got you.” He patted Sadie gingerly, bringing her closer. She snuggled into his chest and it melted him. If only he had the time to foster her and the home—his house rental agreement only allowed one animal. Thankfully, the landlords had made a reluctant exception to the height and weight requirements for Brodie since he was so tame and obedient.
The noises of the mobile studio at the farm—the nearby, news anchor getting instructions and asking dozens of questions about her cue cards and lighting in the sunlight, the makeup people fussing, and the whirl of the equipment—made the rescues jittery and the penned petting zoo ones skittish.
Thankfully, Jason had brought Brodie along. Who would have thought a Great Dane would be the gentlest of creatures and the best nurturer for the littler ones?
Brodie nudged the others with his nose and then put his big head against Sadie’s side, attempting to calm her.
“Good boy, Brodie.” Jason soothed the puppy, too. She nestled in his arm. “Stage fright, little one? We’ll show you first.”
His cell phone rang, startling the pup. “Easy.” When it didn’t stop—the ringing or the shaking—Jason looked at the screen. Stacy.
Gingerly maneuvering the scared dog, Jason picked up, feeling the sharp tug of the leashes and ending the annoying ring. “Hey, sis. What’s up?” She didn’t usually call this early.
“Break time. I pulled a late shift at the hospital and this is my one chance to get my smoothie in.”
He grinned at his hardworking sister who went into NICU nursing, landing a great position too far away.
“Hey, Jason. I’m Heather Banks, remember? At the studio. Great news. I’m now the permanent replacement host for your segments.” The young woman stood back, eyeing the dogs and held out her hand. Clearly, she picked the worst time to introduce herself.
Taking over? Inwardly, he groaned. “Hello.” He nodded to his hands being full what with the phone and him holding two leashes and Sadie.
“Oh.” Her smile dropped. “Later. We’ll talk.” She plastered on a smile, cocked her head, retrieved her hand. When she spotted Brodie, she retreated back a step and then another and kept going.
“Who’s that?” Stacy’s question sucked him away from the anchor’s sour expression.
“On location for the shoot. Newbie.” He didn’t want to elaborate too much. “Suffice it to say a dress and high heels aren’t ideal for a goat farm slash petting zoo.”
Stacy chuckled. “That must be a sight.”
“I’ve got less than five…”
“Don’t say no. Think about it. I’m headed your way next weekend, so that gives you about ten days to say yes.”
“To what exactly?”
“Me picking you up on my way to Mom and Dad’s. It’s been forever since you’ve been back to Cupid’s Corner. We’ll make it a weekend, lend a hand on the farm, and hang out. It’ll be fun.”
Something inside Jason tugged, warm and sharp. It did sound great. He wished he could. He missed home, his family, and Becca, but there was always something with his work that kept him from going back lately. “I’m neck deep, Stace.” He blew out a breath. “You know the guy who took over running the clinic is—”
“Cold. Brisk. Kind of a bummer. Remember, I met him. Once is more than enough. I know, it’s like he demands more of you than the others. Holds you to higher standards, too.” She sighed. “Just try, okay?”
He couldn’t see dropping everything; there were just too many things—the veterinary work he did, the volunteering at the shelter, and the foster care program he longed to launch sooner rather than never.
Stacy groaned. “You’re such a fur person.”
“And you’re such a people one.” He grinned at her chuckle.
“I’m not giving up. I’ll get Becca to help me convince you.”
“She’s got better things to do, I’m sure.” A nugget of guilt weighed in his gut at not keeping in touch with his best friend lately. “Warning taken.” He glanced up to see the live interview with Mrs. Grayson going on already. Nearly everything was in place except him and the dogs. “Gotta go.”
“Love you, little brother.”
“You, too.” Hanging up, he stuffed his phone back in his top pocket and sensed someone staring. Looking up, he found the hostess glaring at him. She ignored Mrs. Grayson’s lively chatter.
Loosely, but with a firm grip, Jason held the leashes of the remaining two dogs—a mix of everything in one and a mutt with features of a shepherd in the other. These two would be great farm dogs. Filming in the rural area might get them adopted sooner. He’d hoped Mrs. Grayson would want one. She’d been keen on dogs since Jason had met her last year. He gathered the frightened Sadie to him. Brodie stuck close to Jason.
Within moments, on the producer’s cue, Jason stood beside Heather—who thanked the farmer’s wife for allowing them to be there and giving them the earlier tour of the children’s petting zoo. In a jerky, whirling motion, she turned and shoved the mic at Jason. “And here we have Dr. Doolittle. Is that really what they call you?”
The unexpected gesture startled him and Sadie, who yelped. He cradled the pup closer, trying to ease her trembling. “It seems to have come with the job, I guess. Call me Dr. Jason like my patients’ families do.”
She eyed him, frowning slightly. “You seem awful young for a veterinarian and one so esteemed from what the crew says.”
“It’s something I felt born to do.” He shrugged, the personal things never rolled out of him. “Growing up in a town about an hour and a half from here called Cupid’s Corner, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and rescued a newborn litter of puppies from a burning house. It sealed my destiny. I haven’t stopped since.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jason noted the producer pointing to his watch and making the hand sign for the host to hurry. However, she seemed oblivious.
“But we’re not here for me, are we?” Jason smiled as he turned Sadie to the camera. For the next minute, he pointed out her virtues, recommending a loving older person or couple to create a calm environment. Either being abandoned or at a volatile place Sadie had come from caused her anxious nature. Next, he brought everyone’s attention to Samuel the mix and Rex the part shepherd.
The two dogs on their leashes came forward as if on cue, trying to jump up. Jason held firm.
Heather gasped and stepped back, her heels sucked into the clinging mud. She tried harder, bumping into the farmer’s wife who had remained for the segment. Now, the older woman hurried out of the shot and stood aside, grimacing.
“Get them away from me! Their beady eyes, dirty paws. And they’re breathing heavy. Do not slobber on my new dress!” Heather’s voice rose.
“No need to get upset—yourself and then the animals—” The sharp tug of the restraining leashes halted Jason in mid-warning.
The barking started and the goats grew louder, frantically jumping around.
“Do something! They’re going to attack me!” The host ripped her heels out of the clinging mud and rushed backward, her arms flailing. “Someone do something!”
Her panic went from zero to a hundred.
“Cut to commercial!” Someone, most likely the director, shouted out several orders.
Sadie whimpered and squirmed in Jason’s arms. Samuel and Rex barked insistently and leapt forward. Brodie growled—his way to take command.
Jason held tight, wrapping his arm around the leashes, but he was jerked and dragged. He landed hard and awkward on his left arm. Pop! He felt and heard the snap of the break. Pain radiated through him.
He closed his eyes and grit his teeth. “Keep them safe. Ease their anxiety. Drive them back to the clinic. Then go to the ER. I can do that.”
No matter what, the dogs would always come first—their safety, their shelter. He had a forty-five minute drive ahead of him to see to them and then he’d get his arm checked…
Most of it remained a blur to Jason. With some of the faithful crew coming to his aid, they’d gotten Sadie snug in her crate, Samuel and Rex in theirs in his Suburban, and Brodie beside him. With the makeshift sling out of cloth Mrs. Grayson provided, along with packs of ice she put in baggies, Jason made it back. His devoted staff took over from there, even keeping Brodie for him.
Now, Jason listened to the ER doctor, Dr. Ryan, give him the bad news as he pointed out the clean simple fracture to his ulnar bone—but broken it was—on the X-ray.
“Six weeks should do it. However, if you overdo it, it could increase. Physical therapy to look forward to after.”
“I can still work, can’t I?” The animals needed him. The foster program needed him to begin it finally.
“Come on, Doctor Doolittle.” The tall, young doctor in pale blue scrubs smiled knowingly. “My wife loves to watch you. She tapes it every week. As I was saying, further injury would only make it worse and then you would require surgery.”
“But I’ve got so much to do…” Jason shook his head.
“Trying to deal with unpredictable people and your rescues got you in this mess. One mishap here or there, you or the dogs… If you won’t consider yourself then consider them. Don’t put them in that situation. Think of what you’d advise your patients’ families in the same situation. Permanent damage could occur.”
The enormity of how serious it was sank in. “You’re not going to give me a medical note so I can return to work and do the light stuff, are you?” Dread settled in Jason down to his bones. Emptiness followed.
“Six weeks of downtime isn’t going to ruin your life, Doc.”
That’s what you say.
Jason’s chest squeezed. There was little else that concerned him for ages—as a kid, volunteering with his local large animal vet, through college and vet school, and now a couple of years of practice. He didn’t know what a vacation was and didn’t care to know, either.
“Why if it isn’t Doolittle!” The angry voice of his new boss sliced the air.
Jerking his head up, Jason met the man’s steely gray eyes behind his silver-framed glasses, pinning him as he sat up on the ER gurney. They let anyone in here, I guess. “Dr. Clemons.”
Fuming would be more accurate by the pinched look and the crimson color high on his cheeks. It actually added some much-needed color to his gray hair, bushy brows, and mustache.
“Six weeks should be sufficient time for me to calm down enough to decide with a clear head whether or not I will allow you back in my clinic. And you can kiss that TV spot goodbye. You disobeyed my orders. You took Sadie—in her delicate state—against my strict instructions. I should fire you now.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Lucky for you, my sister, half owner, forbade me to jump down your throat and can you.”
Jason groaned inwardly. When it came to people, he did that a lot. Half a dozen weeks didn’t seem likely this guy was going to get over this major blunder. Okay, disaster.
“In the meantime, you’re not to come on the premises, understand? And since you’re so keen on fostering, you can take on Sadie. That’s not a suggestion.” He stormed out of the cubicle.
No clinic. No helping. And possibly no future.
All Jason had ever wanted was to help rescues, patch up furry companions for his clients, and create a foster program, the biggest and best of its kind, in the county and beyond, even to state level. The abandoned and injured dogs and cats needed homes and a permanent family to love them.
He’d have to put that aside.
How do I do that when that’s all that matters to me? What am I going to do without them or a purpose for six long weeks or longer, if Clemons has his way?
End of Excerpt