“No—I can’t take any more kittens!” Bella Chatham pointed to the closed sign posted prominently in the door of the Chance Creek Pet Clinic and Shelter. It was past seven o’clock in the evening and she’d already done a full day of appointments and surgeries. Now that she’d finished her errands, she looked forward to polishing off the fast food she’d picked up before she switched her attention to the animals waiting for their fair share of love and attention in the shelter out back. After a few hours of caring for her long-term guests, she’d make her way to the small airstream trailer she lived in at the far back of the property, take a shower and collapse into bed.
Dick Schneider stood on the other side of the door, however, holding a box emitting the all-too-familiar sound of kittens meowing. Their plaintive cries barely carried through the glass separating her from the cool October evening air. Dick owned a large spread about ten miles outside of town, and when the feral cat population became out of control out there, he caught all the kittens he could and delivered them to her.
“You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” she tried again.
She couldn’t take in any more kittens. Her shelter cages were filled with kittens. Despite her best efforts at promoting a spay and release program for feral cats, Chance Creek, Montana was still full of them. And their offspring all ended up here at her combination clinic and pound. Feeding them ate all her income and more. Last month she’d had to pay part of her receptionist’s earnings with the change from the big jug of coins she’d been adding to since she was a teenager.
She wasn’t sure how she’d pay Hannah this month.
Dick shrugged. “I’ll just take care of them myself,” he called through the door and turned around.
For one brief second, Bella thought he meant he’d keep the kittens after all, but she quickly realized his true intentions. She yanked the door open. “Don’t you dare kill those cats!”
Dick spun around on his heel and she caught his smile before he suppressed it. Darn it—this was her problem in a nutshell; everyone in Chance Creek knew she wouldn’t turn away strays. She might deal with disease and death on a daily basis in her clinic, and she administered lethal doses to animals who needed their way smoothed as they died, but she could not bear to euthanize animals just because they’d had the misfortune to be born.
So she didn’t.
And since most people hated the idea just as much as she did, they brought their unwanted kittens and puppies to Bella, knowing that even though they’d turned an animal in to the pound it would survive and their consciences could remain clean.
Bella propped the door open with her hip and accepted the box. “I don’t suppose you’d consider a contribution to the clinic to help offset their care?”
Dick sighed heavily and pulled out his wallet. He carefully selected a ten dollar bill and handed it over.
“Ten dollars?” Bella bit back a curse at the piddly amount; she couldn’t afford to alienate Dick, even if she knew darn well he could afford ten times what he’d given her. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” He climbed back in his truck and pulled away.
Bella retreated into the clinic, placed the box on the floor, and sat down beside it. Now that she was stuck with them, she might as well see what she had. Pushing the cares of the day out of her head for just a moment, she opened the lid with the same sense of anticipation she’d opened her gifts on Christmas morning as a child. She loved all animals. Well, all except horses, she thought, with the habitual frown she reserved for the four-legged monsters that were all too common in ranch country. Horses were dangerous, careless, overwrought beasts that had no business living among humans. She might sport cowboy boots and a hat just like all her neighbors, but she was terrified of them.
Five calico kittens stared back up at her. At least they were old enough to be weaned and she wouldn’t be up all night with an eyedropper like she sometimes was. They mewed piteously and she picked them up one by one, rubbing their tiny faces with her cheek. Kitten cuddles were one of the best perks of this ridiculous job.
A ridiculous job she wouldn’t hold onto much longer, at this rate.
* * * * *
“Another month and this will all be mine,” Nate said as he barged into Evan Mortimer’s ultramodern office and plunked a framed five-by-seven photograph of himself, his wife, Brenda, and his four-year-old daughter, Katy, on the gunmetal-gray desk.
Evan eyed the photograph with narrowed lids. “A month is plenty of time for me to get married, so don’t start moving in your things just yet.”
“Come on, if you were going to marry you’d have done it by now. You’re incapable of dating a woman for longer than twenty-four hours, let alone getting engaged. Time to admit defeat and hand Mortimer Innovations over to me.”
Evan would rot in hell before he did that, or he’d marry the 72-year-old cleaning lady, for that matter. “What’s got you so excited? You found some more farmland you want to destroy?”
“It’s called fracking, and it’s the next big thing,” Nate said. “We’re already late to the party. We should have invested years ago. Why aren’t we in North Dakota right now, buying up those farms, blasting that bedrock and getting rich on oil?”
“Because we’re already rich, and we’re in San Jose, trying to promote technologies that will free us from our oil habit once and for all,” Evan said. They’d been over this a million times.
“Hand your shares over, buddy, and let me get this company into the twenty-first century,” Nate said.
Evan stood up, and was frustrated to find himself eye-to-eye with his younger brother. It had been so much easier when he stood a foot above Nate. “Sorry, man, but I’m not going anywhere. If I don’t find a fiancée the old-fashioned way soon, I’ve got a backup plan.”
Nate snorted. “What kind of backup plan? Are you going to marry a mannequin? I don’t think that counts, buddy.” Giving his family photograph a final pat, he left the office as abruptly as he came.
Evan couldn’t believe he needed to marry at all. But the strictures around who got to run Mortimer Innovations were ironclad. He needed a wife.
Nate was right; time for plan B.
He reached for his phone and tapped the link for his secretary. “Amanda, get me on that show.
* * * * *
When Bella charged through the door the following morning, late and disheveled, still twisting her unruly blonde hair into a ponytail, her cowboy hat—a tan affair she’d had since she was twelve—tucked under her arm instead of on her head, she noticed Morgan Matheson stood behind the reception counter with her sole employee, Hannah Ashton. Morgan’s husband, Rob, sat on one of the waiting room chairs, his hands laced behind his head.
The two women looked guilty, like Bella had caught them dipping into the petty cash, and she felt the usual pang she did when she saw them together. Hannah was twenty-five and she had worked for Bella for four years. Bella counted her as her closest friend.
However, when Rob Matheson brought his fiancée in to pick out some kittens last month, Hannah and Morgan instantly took to each other. As soon as Morgan returned from her honeymoon, she began to stop by the shelter several times a week. She spent a lot of time with the animals, and even more time with Hannah—often inviting her out to lunch when she came by. It wasn’t that the other two women excluded her exactly—Bella always worked through lunch, as Hannah knew all too well—but she still felt left out. Bella knew she’d neglected her friendship with Hannah; while they saw each other at work every day, they didn’t hang out after hours, or go out to eat, or shop, or anything else women did together for fun. She simply didn’t have time. She worked all day at the clinic, all night at the shelter, fell into bed as soon as she got home, and woke up and did it all over again.
Not to mention it was getting harder and harder to look Hannah in the eye when they both knew Bella would have to let her go soon. The one time she brought it up Hannah told her not to talk crazy, but the woman needed the money as badly as she did. She couldn’t work for free.
She had to fix things, but she didn’t know how. Her only option was to institute the same euthanization program all the other shelters had for their unwanted pets. She wasn’t ready to do that.
“Bella! Great, you’re here. I’ve figured it out!” Hannah said, breaking into her thoughts.
“Hi, Morgan, Rob.” She nodded to the Mathesons and turned to Hannah. “What did you figure out?” She gratefully accepted the cup of coffee her receptionist offered her. Hannah lived a few miles out of town and passed the Bagel Bookshop—Chance Creek’s best source of java—on her way in to the clinic. As much as it shamed her that her receptionist was buying her coffee these days, she hadn’t been able to make Hannah stop, and she did love her coffee.
“How to get all the money we need!” Beside her Morgan nodded like she knew all about it, her thick, dark hair swinging. Bella suppressed another pang at the thought the two had discussed her situation behind her back. Judging by the grin on Rob’s face, he was in on it, too. A tall, blond cowboy with wide shoulders, and an easy-going personality that had gotten more serious in the time he knew Morgan, he was one of four brothers who’d grown up on a ranch not far from town. Now Morgan and Rob were busy starting a winery and lived with two other couples on the Cruz ranch, next door to the spread where Rob lived as a child.