Take a Chance on Me

Susan Donovan

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter 1
It Only Takes a Minute
Emma gasped when she entered the exam room, though she couldn’t say which of the two creatures there alarmed her more.
Was it the tiny, shivering collection of skin and bone, skittering around the linoleum on long toenails, eyeballs bulging and urine squirting?
Or was it the six-foot-forever package of man in a power suit, pivoting his blond head, one steel-gray eye narrowed as if to take aim directly at her hormone-secreting glands?
“Good morning, gentlemen. I’m Dr. Emma Jenkins.” She pulled a portable exam table from the wall and took a steadying breath before she faced them again. “I understand we’re having a few problems?”
“That’s correct.” The man’s voice was as stiff as his posture. “Potentially serious problems, I’m afraid.”
Nodding, Emma looked from Mr. Dudley Do-Right to the dog—yes, she’d graduated first in her class and was almost certain the animal on the floor was a dog—and back again.
This had to be the most mismatched human-canine pair she’d ever seen—and she’d seem some doozies.
These two were Butch Cassidy and the St. Vitus’ Dance Kid. Hairless and Mod. Batman and Rodent.
“I’m glad you came to see me.” Emma turned to wash her hands, and felt Studly Dudley’s eyes boring holes into the back of her neck. He continued to stare as she bent down for the dog, placed him on the stainless steel table, and peered into the little, frightened face.
“So what’s happening, Hairy?”
She already had a fairly good idea. The new-patient questionnaire said “Hairy” was an adult male Chinese Crested of unknown age, six pounds, six ounces, of quivering anxiety and incontinence. His owner—a business consultant named Thomas Tobin according to the form—was referred by a Baltimore colleague to her Wit’s End Animal Behavior Clinic.
“Let’s have a look, okay, little man?” She bent closer and scratched the dog behind one fuzzy, Yoda-like ear. With a sigh, Emma removed the collar of sharp metal prongs from around the dog’s neck, and watched relief flood Hairy’s dark eyes.
And she wondered what kind of complete moron would put a pinch collar on a puny, terrified creature like this.
She straightened to her full height, bringing her eye-level with the moron’s red power tie.
“Mr. Moro—Tobin.” She let her gaze travel over the clean-shaven chin and the pale, stern mouth. She studied the slight bend in his nose that hinted of familiarity with flying fists and blood, then met his piercing silver eyes. There was a tiny scar above his right eyebrow shaped just like a semicolon.
It certainly gave her pause.
Lordy! Why had this seriously big, seriously bad boy stuffed himself into a suit? With another quick survey, Emma decided he’d be more at home in a black leather jacket and threadbare jeans. The image gave her heart palpitations.
She needed to hold her ground. So she held up the offending piece of metal.
“This pinch collar might be a bit severe for a toy breed, Mr. Tobin.” She flung it into the waste can with a resounding ka-ching! “And inflicting pain really isn’t the way to get a dog to walk alongside you—even the biggest, most aggressive animals. Besides—” She scanned Semicolon Man from his wingtips to the tips of his golden eyelashes and grinned. “You look like you might be able to handle a bruiser like Hairy without the aid of metal spikes.”
Thomas Tobin stood ramrod straight near the examination table, aware that he himself was being examined. Clearly, this pet psychiatrist chick had been giving him hell since the second she walked in here, and he didn’t much like it.
How in God’s name was he supposed to know what kind of dog collar to buy? He spent his life plotting bloody murder with adulterers and psychopaths—he didn’t exactly have time to serve as equipment manager for the Butt-Ugly Dog Club!
“Thank you for that update,” he said flatly.
Then for some odd reason, Thomas found himself seized with the need to prove to this woman that he wasn’t entirely insensitive. So he reached over to pat Hairy’s head the way he figured any pet owner would.
The dog cringed with each pummeling.
“Mr. Tobin!” Emma grabbed his wrist, which turned out to be a rock-solid twist of heat, bone, and muscle. “Could you be a little gentler, do you think?”
He stared at her.
She stared at him.
The drum of his pulse hammered against the pad of her thumb and vibrated all the way down into the pit of her belly. And as they remained linked and the seconds ticked by, everything inside her—every cell, every chromosome, every piece of mitochondria—went on alert.
Sexual alert.
“How—” She blinked. The man’s skin was on fire. She swallowed and tried again. “How long have you had this dog? Is this the first dog you’ve ever owned?”
“Ten days,” he said. “And yes. This is definitely a first for me.”
Emma decided his eyes weren’t cruel; they were solemn and powerful and seemed to pin her down and dissect her without her permission. They didn’t frighten her, exactly, but they certainly made her feel a bit off balance.
He pulled his wrist from her grasp. “Hairy is mine by chance, Dr. Jenkins.”
“That’s a difficult way to begin a relationship, Mr. Tobin.”
“You don’t say?” He tilted his head and locked his gaze on hers. “The question is what are we going to do about it?”
For an instant, Emma was not entirely sure what they were discussing. The dog, she reminded herself. We were discussing the dog.
With a sigh of relief, she moved her attention from the two-legged enigma to the four-legged one, and bundled Hairy in her arms. She brushed her fingers behind his ears and along his spindly neck.
These itty-bitty exotic hairless breeds had never been her favorite—too prone to rashes, respiratory problems, dental malformations, and any number of behavioral disorders the blame for which she’d like to place squarely in the lap of greedy breeders. And Chinese Cresteds were an acquired taste, most definitely.
But as she looked into Hairy’s big, sad bug eyes, she felt a rush of warmth for the tiny dog. He was a living creature. He was scared and anxious and cold and so boldly, unabashedly homely that he was very nearly cute.
She ran her fingers down his back, studying the baby-smooth hide of pink blobs and black spots that looked like bloated raisins floating in puddles of watered-down Pepto-Bismol.
This motif was accented with a scraggly poof of black hair at the tip of his bony tail and a troll-like shock of white fur at the peak of his skull and around his ears. His snout was pointy, like a ferret’s.
“Well, now. Have you got it goin’ on or what, you little devil?” she murmured into the side of his neck.
Emma felt the heat of Mr. Sexy’s gaze, looked up to find him studying her in bewilderment, and wondered again how the hottest man to ever set foot in her clinic had ended up with the world’s most unattractive dog.
Then she felt a hot trickle spread down her shirt.
“Piss happens.” She smiled and shrugged, reaching for the paper towel dispenser above the sink. Studly beat her to it, and suddenly, one of his big hands was roaming over her damp shirt, rubbing and squishing her breasts with a clump of brown paper towel.
Hell-o! Emma felt her nipples zap to life under his clumsy assault. She was so aroused that she feared flames could be shooting out of her underpants. She’d never been so mortified in her life.
She grabbed his hand. “I’ve got it.”
“Yes, you certainly do,” he muttered, stepping back, looking at the floor. “Sorry.”
The sound of paper towel brushing over cotton roared like an oncoming freight train in Thomas’s ears. He stared at his shoes.
Okay—he’d just felt up the veterinarian. Maybe Rollo was right—he’d gone way too long without a woman, no matter how legitimate his reasons.
Thomas watched, embarrassed, as the molestee tossed the paper towel in the trash and regained her professional composure. Then she began a physical examination of his . . .his . . . dog. After ten days of cohabiting with Hairy while trying—and failing—to find a real home for him, maybe he should just see the picture for what it was.
It was the picture of a chump and his dog.
Thomas shifted his weight, rubbed a hand over his face, and groaned internally, the only place he allowed himself to groan or shout or laugh these days, it seemed.
He watched the way the vet stroked the dog with the gentlest touch, and noticed that Hairy’s trembling eased with each moment he spent in her hands.
He could see how that might happen.
The vet was extremely pretty, in a farm-girl kind of way. The creamy skin of her face, neck, and hands looked warm and silky. Those guileless eyes were the exact shade of her blue jeans. Her smile was genuine and sweet and pushed her whole lovely face into an expression of welcome.
It was pointless, of course, but Thomas couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to grab hold of that thick braid and yank her up against him. He couldn’t help but wonder what all that gorgeous hair would feel like once he’d unraveled it—would it be straight and glossy like polished wood? Would it be wavy and fall in heavy sections in his hand?
As the woman bent over his dog, he let his eyes peruse the rest of her—subtly of course. He was highly trained in the art of covert observation, after all.
She filled out those battered jeans quite thoroughly, from where the denim stretched over her round hips and curvy thighs all the way down to where the straight legs ended in a pair of scuffed-up leather clogs. A nice, full, and hospitable package of feminine flesh she was, not all bony and pointy like some women. And under that long-sleeved T-shirt, he could make out the soft but sturdy shoulders, the ripe swell of her breasts, the inward curve of her waist.
It was painfully obvious that those weren’t buttons he’d felt poking up beneath the paper towels. This Emma Jenkins, DVM, was easy on the eyes—and the hands. Maybe the DVM stood for “Damn Voluptuous Mama.”
Then he stopped himself, as he always did, and wondered what the doctor’s dark side looked like. Sure, the woman was pretty, but he knew all too well that even pretty people had ugly sides, and they could be mighty ugly indeed.
Which one of the four great appetites had ensnared the lovely Emma Jenkins? he wondered. Guns, drugs, money, or sex?
She didn’t look like a gang-banger, but after running the Murder-For-Hire Task Force for seven years, he wasn’t surprised by anything anymore.
She didn’t look like an addict or an alcoholic, but he’d known plenty who managed their masquerades just fine—scout leaders, teachers, ministers—you name it.
No, in his experience it was usually money that motivated women to make stupid choices. Less often it was sex. So the question was which of those two evils did Emma Jenkins serve, and how low did she go?
If it was money, maybe she had a habit of bouncing checks. Maybe she shoplifted steaks from the Super Fresh butcher case. Or maybe, desperate for prestige and a comfortable lifestyle, she’d cheated on her vet school admission tests.
Or it might be more complicated for her, Thomas thought, like a combination of material greed and the desire for sexual control. Maybe the lovely Dr. Jenkins had lied to some rich loser about being pregnant, then trapped him into a marriage he didn’t want!
He nodded silently, watching the vet bend toward Hairy’s shivering body and listen with the stethoscope. That had to be it—the poor bastard! But she didn’t wear a ring, so maybe he’d discovered her deception in time to make a clean break. Good for him.
Thomas sighed, bemused by the truth of it: A man couldn’t afford to turn his back for one damn minute.
Which brought him right back to sex—perhaps the greatest weakness of all. How many men had he seen sit across a table from him babbling, crying, driven to acts of sheer idiocy simply because of a woman? Too many to count.
He’d seen sex turn brilliant businessmen into cretins. Powerful men into milquetoasts. Moral men into felons.
He’d seen it turn decent lives to shit.
Thomas checked his watch, then crossed his arms over his chest. How much longer could this possibly take? Wasn’t this where she handed him some puppy uppers, collected her outrageous fee, and sent them out the door?
But the vet was now peering into Hairy’s eyes, nose, ears, and throat. Then she closed her own eyes in concentration and felt along the dog’s ribs and into its soft belly.
Resigned to waiting a bit longer, Thomas leaned back against the cabinets and allowed himself to watch her work, watch how her slim, sure fingers moved, how she breathed quietly, how the little frown line puckered between her pretty eyebrows. Thomas felt himself go still inside.
Strangely quiet.
And he wondered how good it would feel to have her stroke his belly, maybe while he rubbed his cheek against hers, breathing in the faint flowery scent that seemed to pulse from her skin and hair.
He wondered how glorious it would be to settle in for a nap with his face buried in those stupendous breasts, so comforting, so welcoming, so female—so damn erotic . . .
“So is he eating well?”
“What?” Thomas yelped.
“Eating. Food. Does Hairy do it?”
He straightened. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. Why the hell was he fantasizing about the breasts of a lying, cheating, sirloin-stealing man-hater?
“Uh, not much eating, actually. He doesn’t seem hungry.”
“And what are you feeding him?” Emma noticed that Thomas Tobin had taken a step toward her, and that he was frowning.
Thomas could barely remember her question. “Uh, dog food?”
She winced, then continued the examination. “Could you be a little more specific, please?”
“Sure. Those hard crunchy things. The forty-pound bag.”
Emma straightened and put her hands on her hips. “Thrifty is fine, Mr. Tobin—and forty pounds ought to take care of Hairy for a good portion of his natural life—but how big are the individual pieces of food? Did you purchase kibble designed for the smallest breeds? What brand? And do you soak the food in warm water before serving it?”
He tried not to gape at how the stethoscope hung straight down from her neck, separating the two luscious, all-natural spheres straining under wet fabric. They looked like two fresh-baked cupcakes, topped with cherries, covered in a tight film of cellophane.
His blank stare was all the answer Emma needed, and she sighed. Who in God’s name would hire this guy as a consultant? He might be eye candy, but he was about as sharp as a bucket of mud.
“Have you ever tried to chew a baseball, Mr. Tobin? Have you ever, say, while drunk at a fraternity party, tried to shove a baseball in your mouth and chew on it?”
He blinked. “Not that I recall.”
“Well.” Emma pursed her lips. “Hairy needs teeny-weeny pieces of food for his teeny-weeny mouth. A lot of Cresteds aren’t even blessed with a full set of choppers. Here. Have a look-see.”
She pulled back a pink speckled lip to expose a random display of teeny-weeny teeth.
“Got it,” he said.
She sincerely doubted that.
“I could use a hand here. Please hold him—gently—while I clip his nails. How long has it been since you trimmed his nails?”
“I never have,” he said.
She reached behind her for a small set of clippers, then bent her head to the task, coming so close to Mr. Buy-in-Bulk that she caught the whiff of smooth, woodsy aftershave mellowed on warm male skin.
“I really didn’t know I had to trim them.” His voice was almost apologetic and nearly a whisper, and she felt it brush hot over the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck. She continued to clip, trying to keep her hands steady.
One paw down. Three to go.
“Some Cresteds need to have their nails trimmed each week, Mr. Tobin. The nails are fragile and can break off too close to the artery and cause bleeding. See how this—” She turned her head and found him waiting for her, his face so close, his lips slightly parted, his right eye closing lazily as if he were ready to pull the trigger.
Then he moved in even closer and he dropped his gaze to her mouth. And for the briefest, wildest, most implausible second of her life, Emma thought for sure this very strange, very sexy man was going to kiss her.
Oh, daddy!
She turned back to the clippers. “Uh . . . and you really need to bathe Hairy once a week in a medicated soap to keep his skin free of pustules. I’ll write down the name of the brand I prefer, if you like.”