Her hand wrapped around his, her head on his shoulder. Everything he wanted, right here. He cleared his throat, hoping the words would come. “You were going to introduce me to your pets.”
“Oh right.” She got up but kept her firm grip on his hand as she led him across the hall to the other bedroom. “I put them in here earlier so they wouldn’t rush you when you came in.” Janey opened the door to a room outfitted for pets. Each one had a bed with his or her name embroidered on the cover, and the beds circled the small room. Right away he noticed they were all special needs animals. One had no ears, and another was missing a tail. A third sat stoically, watching Joe with an intimidating intensity. The dog’s wise eyes zeroed in on the firm hold Janey had on Joe’s hand, and right away, Joe understood that he needed to win over the German shepherd if he had any hope of a future with her.
“This is Sam.” Janey released Joe’s hand so she could pick up and cuddle a white ball of fluff. “She’s blind, but you’d never know it. She gets herself around using all her other senses.” Janey lowered herself to the floor, and the others rushed in to vie for a spot on her lap. Except the German shepherd. He continued to stare at Joe. “We found Dexter,” she said of the cocker spaniel, “missing his ears. I don’t even like to think about how he lost them.”
Joe sat down next to her. “Why didn’t they bark when they heard me come in?”
“Since they’ve all been abused, they tend to keep quiet so as not to attract any attention until they know the visitor is friendly.”
Sam, the white fur ball, left Janey’s lap to take up residence in Joe’s, giving him a thorough sniff and a friendly lick.
“I’ll never understand how anyone could harm a helpless animal,” Joe said.
“Neither will I. We see far too much of it, even out here on the island where you wouldn’t think people would be capable. The summer folks have been known to leave their dogs behind when they go home. I found Muttley starving and malnourished by the side of the road up at the Northeast Light about a year ago. His tail was all bloody and infected.” Shuddering at the memory, she stroked the brown and black mongrel.
Joe noticed how the dog shied away from her first tentative stroke before settling into the caress.
“He still thinks he’s going to be hit. He prepares himself for the blow and seems surprised when it doesn’t happen.”
“Poor baby.” Joe reached out to pat him, but the dog turned away from him.
“He might take awhile to warm up to you, so don’t be hurt by that.”
Joe smiled. Could she be any more adorable? “I won’t. What’s the story with the general over there?”
“Oh, that’s Riley. He’s large and in charge.”
“No kidding.” Joe was quite certain the dog hadn’t blinked once since they came into the room. “He looks like he wants to rip my heart out.”
Janey laughed. “He’s probably a little jealous. He never did care for David.”
“I like him already.”
She smiled at him, warming him all the way to his bones. “Riley, come say hi to Joe.”
As the dog dragged himself forward using only his front legs, Joe realized he didn’t have any back legs. “Oh, God, what happened to him?”
“He was hit by a car and left for dead. Doc Potter was able to save him, but no one wanted a two-legged dog.”
“So of course you brought him home.”
“I had cared for him for weeks by then. He was already mine.”
“How can you afford them all?”
“Well, Doc squares me on vet care and meds, so it’s really just food. I worry about what I’ll do when Doc retires and a new vet comes to town. They need a lot of care, especially Pixie.” The Jack Russell terrier licked her hand and plopped down in her lap, bumping Muttley onto the floor. “She has a persistent skin infection that makes her itchy and miserable, but it doesn’t stop her from acting like she’s queen of the roost.”
Joe reached for Muttley and was honored when the dog gave him his belly to scratch. “You could always go to vet school and then you wouldn’t have to worry about affording their care when a new vet comes to town.”
“I told you,” she said, “that ship has sailed.”
“No, it hasn’t. And don’t tell me you’re too old. You’re only twenty-eight. Give me a break.”
Riley edged closer to Joe and sniffed his leg. “You won’t know if you don’t apply.”
“How would I ever afford it?”
The question proved she’d at least considered the possibility. “Didn’t your parents offer to give you the money? I believe David convinced you that the two of you shouldn’t be so in debt to them, which was flat-out ridiculous, if you ask me.”
A black cat with one eye wandered into the room and rubbed against Janey, vying for some attention, which of course Janey gave her. “None of you like him, do you?” she asked in the small voice that rattled him. It was so not her, and it pained him to see her questioning herself in the wake of the David disaster.
“We often didn’t like the way he treated you.”
“Why did it take seeing him with another woman to open my eyes?”
“You loved him, Janey. You don’t have to apologize for that. Not to me, anyway.”
“Was he always bad? Deep inside where it matters most, do you think he’s always been a bad person, and I never knew?”
“Aww, honey, I can’t answer that. All I can say is if I’d been fortunate enough to spend years with you, I would’ve considered myself the luckiest guy in the world.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“How did I not see that you felt that way about me? It’s like I’ve been walking around with blinders on all these years, and when they were finally ripped off this week, I found out that David’s a scumbag and you’re. . .”
“What? What am I?”
Her clear blue eyes shifted to meet his. “I’m not sure yet, but I want to find out.”
Joe reached over to tip up her chin to receive his kiss.
Riley growled a low warning.
Janey laughed and patted the dog. “Easy boy. It’s okay. He’s one of the good guys.”
Joe decided that was, without a doubt, the best compliment he’d ever received.