Love’s Ultimate Balm
Note: Intimately sweet, relationship-based, mainstream romance.
Now that Dr. ZeLisa Tobias has survived an IED attack and a stint of homelessness, nothing will prevent her from achieving her goals (her “Three B’s”). Then, the veterinarian makes a house call on Halloween night. Face to face with a man from her past, she must deal with his feelings of betrayal and, later, a series of rash misfortune that threatens her newfound stability.
Firefighter Hank Streeter knows his call to the animal hospital is a mistake the instant he answers the door. The doctor has arrived. And—heartbreak is her name.
Will deception, doubt, and a run of bad luck curse their accidental reunion? Or will Hank convince ZeLisa that a marriage of convenience is love’s ultimate balm?
©2017 Mickie SherwoodAll Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are coincidental, and if not coincidental, are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. No part of this ebook may be reproduced or shared by any electronic or mechanical means, including but not limited to printing, file sharing, and email, without prior written permission from Mickie Sherwood.
Another scorcher brought whipping winds and biting sand. The temperature in the Humvee soared to BAKE. Stagnant air roasted the human cargo jammed inside. Heavy breathing smothered any conversation that would have taken place, under normal circumstances. But, circumstances weren’t normal. Real? Yes. Normal? No. The occupants jostled to the vehicle’s movements, hurtling along the cratered streets at breakneck speed. Occasionally, the driver blew a “get out of the way or get run over” horn warning.
In the vicinity, a horn blasted Dr. ZeLisa Tobias through a time warp and back to the present. “Damn.” She raised the shaky cigarette to her lips, noting the faint scars on the back of her left hand. Her attitude smoldered because of the day’s events.
On her last break of the evening shift, she hung out in the back door of the animal shelter. It had been a horrendous Halloween day. Earlier, she’d spent the majority of her time giving aid to rescued dogs. Animal control had dropped them off after a puppy mill raid. Unfortunately, all were in critical condition and had to be put down.
ZeLisa’s hand trembled.
Another drag and she tasted the heated smoke before streams spiraled through her nose. “If I don’t stop, these things are going to kill me.” She flicked her cigarette to the concrete. The red glow disappeared, crushed by the toe of her supple, leather boot. Pain shot through her hip, nearly buckling her knees.
Bracing at attention just behind the door, she flattened her hands to the wall. Slowly, with her eyes closed, she inhaled a massive breath. Past events hounded her. Cloaked in her darkest memory, she lay in rubble sandwiched between warm, unmovable bodies.
An exaggerated blow helped lessen her discomfort and cleansed her mind. What she needed was another cigarette. But duty called.
Eyes wide open now, she stared at the nearly empty parking lot. October’s wintry air, deep in Louisiana’s bayou country, chilled her all over. Yet, the icy tendrils pricked and rejuvenated her.
Stooping, she picked up the cigarette butt. The ankle-high bootie on her foot brought to mind a boot of another kind. ZeLisa had proudly served her country in heavy-duty desert boots. Now, the choice of which shoes to wear was hers. She swore never to wear manly footwear ever again.
ZeLisa traipsed her not-so-narrow behind off to flush the cigarette down the toilet. On the way, she swiped a section of newspaper from a desk to wave it furiously in the air, removing some of the smoke stench. “One warning about lighting up within the non-smoking boundary is enough.” She rarely broke the rules. Lately, though, she needed to calm her nerves, so she rebelled. Checking for ashes along the way, she went back to the door.
“At it again, I smell.”
The retort caused the paper she fanned to hang in mid-air. “God, Harley.” She gave Harley, the veterinarian assistant, the evil eye. “Must you always sneak up on me?” Their distaste for each other was the only thing they had in common. “Go on. Report me, again.” ZeLisa lowered her arm, switched the folded paper to the other hand, and then grasped the doorknob.
“What good will it do?” Harley complained. “You can talk your way out of anything.”
ZeLisa felt her expression transform into a smirk. “Better remember that, Sha.” With that, she reached behind to slam and lock the door. Harley grimaced. Her eyes strayed to ZeLisa’s scars. Every look in the mirror reminded ZeLisa of the slight, unnatural, upward slant of that eye. Today’s morbid event pushed her buttons and she snapped. “What is it about me you find so objectionable?”
They stared at one another.
“You mean, besides your arrogance?”
She crossed her arms over her flat stomach. “I...am...not arrogant.” A foot-tapping cadence informed she had taken insult.
“You are too. Always giving orders.”
“That’s my job, ladybug.” ZeLisa looked at Harley, tilted her head, and laughed. “Old habits are hard to break, I guess.” The tap of her foot stopped. “I gather you don’t like taking orders from a woman. That makes you just as intolerant as some of my male counterparts in the military.”
Harley looked appalled. “I am not intolerant.”
“I think you’re due for some real soul-searching, Harley.” Harley’s expression of disbelief reddened her features.”But,” ZeLisa said, softening, “I like that you’re not afraid to speak your mind.”
“That’s why you’re so pushy.” Harley scanned her papers. “The military trained you well. You’re infuriating sometimes.”
“Well, ladybug, you’d better be glad I don’t hold grudges.” ZeLisa went into the inner office, bypassing her. The casters squealed when she dragged the chair to the desk. Looking around the cramped space, she felt confined by its drab gray walls and clinical metal furniture.
With each breath, she battled to maintain her focus. She hunkered down to get the job done, happy her tour was almost over so she could get the hell out of there. Soon, she would rest her frazzled nerves in her newly purchased condominium. A sigh escaped. Suddenly, she remembered it was Halloween. Perhaps answering the door a thousand times would lift her spirits. “Who am I kidding?”
“Did you say something?” Harley asked from the hallway.
“Mumbling to myself.”
Harley entered, carrying the paperwork from the receiving desk, and squeezed by to drop into a chair. “Want to join me at a party?”
“You’re inviting me out?” ZeLisa swiveled, looked at her, and raised her perfectly arched eyebrows in surprise. “You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“It’s only a Halloween party,” Harley defended. “I’m not asking you to become my best pal or confidant.”
“Where I come from grownups don’t dress out for a kid’s party.” ZeLisa remembered her trick-or-treat days. Fun. Fun. Fun. When she was a kid. Her eyes lost focus for a moment, blurring the computer screen. Thirty-two and single was a long ways from childhood. “No thanks, Harley. But it was kind of you to offer.” She noticed Harley fidgeting as she glanced at the clock. “What time does your party start?”
“At eight. I have to go home and get costumed.”
“Costumed, huh?” Grinning, ZeLisa couldn’t help but meddle. “Going as a witch?”
“There’s only one witch here.” Harley giggled.”And I’m looking at her.”
“You know what, Vet Med Assistant?” ZeLisa resumed her typing. “I’m beginning to change my opinion of you. You can take it like you dish it.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Why don’t you go on?” Sincerity laced ZeLisa’s voice. “I’ll finish up here.”
“Uh-huh. No way,” Harley refused. “I won’t let you set me up.”
With her fingers poised on the keys, ZeLisa stopped typing to look at her. “I’m serious. I’ve got your back.”
Harley began work at her station. Every now and then, she stole a look at ZeLisa. ZeLisa caught her gaze on one of those snatches. Harley asked, “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I kid you not. Go—”
The ringing telephone cut into the conversation. Harley glared at the clock. She jerked the receiver from the base with an exasperated sigh. “Bayou Animal Hospital.”
ZeLisa continued her input while deciphering the one-sided conversation. She glanced Harley’s way.
“I’m sorry, we close in fifteen minutes. I can give you the number of the nearest all-night pet clinic.” ZeLisa saw the face Harley made. Harley mouthed, “This man won’t take no for an answer.”
ZeLisa paused. “What’s his problem?”
Harley covered the mouthpiece. “Puppy struggling to breathe.” In another breath, she acknowledged the person on the phone. “Sir, you’re wasting precious time arguing.”
“How far away is he?”
“Where are you located, sir?” Listening, Harley repeated, “Glenpoint.”
“That’s on my way home,” ZeLisa informed. “Glenpoint is near the university I pass every day. Get the address.”
Harley frowned. “Standby a moment, please.” She slapped the caller on hold without receiving the okay. “Are you crazy? A house call?”
ZeLisa laughed. “That wasn’t so uncommon way back when.”
“Way back when people respected one another, maybe.”
“Just get the address, Harley.”
“Thank you for holding.” Harley chimed, her expression contradicting her words. “Dr. Tobias is leaving the office and will drop by your place, if you give me your name and address.”
ZeLisa watched her jot down the information, make a couple of bold strokes underneath, and shove the paper in her direction. She took the note and read it to get an idea of the exact location. For the life of her, the street didn’t ring any bells. “Thank goodness for GPS.”
“Hank Streeter,” Harley mimicked the Southern accent of the locals, “wants to know if this will cost extra.” Covering the mouthpiece, she fussed, “How concerned—”
“Consider it a Halloween special,” ZeLisa cut her off.
“Consider it a Halloween special.” Harley repeated verbatim, seemingly miffed. “You’re welcome,” she said, ending the call. “Are you sure about this?”
“I’ll be careful,” ZeLisa promised. “Hey. Don’t let a little courtesy between us make you sheath your claws, ladybug.”
“Don’t go disappearing.” Harley brushed over what ZeLisa insinuated. “With you gone, who would I report for smoking?”
“Now, that’s the kiss-ass tech I’m acquainted with.”
They spent the remainder of the time finishing the administrative work before shutting down their stations for the night shift’s tour. After parting at the door, ZeLisa strolled over to her pre-owned BMW and beeped the car open. With her destination typed into the system, she was off, on her way to rescue a canine, and its panicked family member.
She wheeled down the lighted boulevard, admiring the decorated storefronts. Trick-or-treaters hustled from one participating store to the next, reminding her to be attentive. The last thing she wanted was to have a sugar-hyped child race into her path to get to the other side of the street. Along the way, her mind continuously wandered to the upcoming opening of her new veterinary clinic. She expected to occupy the rehabbed building in the new year. A trickle of a smile teased her lips. Since leaving the military, a rash of bad luck had been her norm. Now, sugarcoated success replaced the taste of adversity on her tongue.
ZeLisa checked her speed and slowed down even more.
Talking directions instructed her to turn at the next light. In no time at all, she read the numbers on the Craftsman home on a tree-lined residential street. She swerved into the only available spot, blocking the crowded driveway. ZeLisa intended to be in and out before anyone had to leave. Peering through the windshield, all she saw were ghouls and goblins on the block. Their house-to-house chase drew a wistful smile.
ZeLisa exited her car, black bag in hand. Children crammed the sidewalk. “Do they give good candy here?” she asked in jest, weaving through the maze.
“He never gives the candy.” A squeaky voice under a mask yelled before scurrying on. “You take what you want.”
She thought that was odd until landing at the door.
A barrel stocked full of every kind of candy you ever thought you could want set for the taking. “Wow.” She rang the bell. Just looking at the stash gave her a toothache. The next thing she knew, her bag hit the stoop, and her hands mined for gold all the way up to her elbows.
“A little old for door-to-door, aren’t you?” Until that dry, lispy, baritone intonation, there was no warning the door had opened.
ZeLisa started to raise her head. Only, her eyes latched onto monstrous black platform shoes planked across the threshold. She skimmed up the body to see a squared-shouldered, flat-headed, green Frankenstein. Herman the Munster caught her red-handed. He stared down from the shadowy heights, his face twisting into Herman’s cynical smile. “That from a man playing dress up.”
“I only meant it’s not every day I get a runway model at my door.”
ZeLisa hid her embarrassment, and withdrew her hands from the barrel. Clenched in them was dark chocolate, individually wrapped in gold foil that glittered in the porch light.
“No children in sight. If you’re looking for a party you’ve come to the right place.”
Opening her purse, she released her jackpot, right under his nose. Then, she stepped into the light. Peering directly into his amber eyes, she witnessed the vanishing of his Herman the Munster smile. “I’m looking for…” She pulled the note from her purse. “…Mr. Streeter.”
He appeared to struggle with his expressions. She gazed around him into the interior. As far as she could see, wall-to-wall vampires, extraterrestrials, and other ungodly creatures invaded the home.
More kids showed up to scrounge the barrel. Their voices, excited and shrill, forced the thought of his stony visage out of her mind—and her out of the way. Although they left with loads of candy, that didn’t put a dent in the barrel’s contents.
Free to move back now, ZeLisa focused on his tall body, awaiting his answer. He thumbed his fake top teeth before he spoke.
“You’re looking at him. I’m Hank Streeter.”
Precisely then, consecutive booms burst in the air. They exploded the children’s noises to smithereens, and launched ZeLisa into defensive mode. She snatched the front of his shirt on her way to a crouch, dragging him down with her. Surprise pulsed in his eyes. He studied her from his stooped position in the doorway.
Their stares instantly fused.
It took only seconds for her to realize her error; someone’s car had backfired. Shamefaced, she loosened her grip, stood, and manipulated her left hip. “I’m Dr. Tobias. You called about a sick puppy.”
For some unknown reason, he remained squatted. Gazing into the orangey-brown hue in his eyes was like basking in a late-evening sunset, despite the shock still in them. Without a doubt, he deciphered the scary emotions she knew were written all over her face.
ZeLisa leaned to retrieve her bag. His expression still revealed astonishment when he stood. She brushed hair closer to her eye. “What? You act like you’ve never seen a woman doctor before.” Where did that come from? ZeLisa knew all too well where. Harley had shown her how easily the topic could shift from routine to personal. Plus, she spoiled for a fight to cover her moment of fright.
“What I’ve never seen is a woman doctor as beautiful as you.”
His frank statement startled her. Turning to leave, she blurted, “Maybe my assistant was right. This house call was a mistake.”
“Please…wait. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“Too late for that.” She sashayed down a step, hindered by her slight limp.
“Dr. Tobias, this is serious.”
ZeLisa stopped mid-stride, swiveling to look at him.
“I’m puppy-sitting, sort of. I think it’s dying.”
He stepped outside, putting his wiry body in full view. The big brass buttons on his oversized jacket caught the yellow light. Hank Streeter waited on her to say something. She returned to the stoop and issued an order. “Bring the puppy out here, Mr. Streeter.”
His swift movements had him back inside and out of sight through the throng of people. I guess you can be scrawny-looking yet energized at the same time, she thought.
The congestion on the porch moved her over. She hung out close to the edge, and kept watch. Guardians hovered on the sidewalk. Obviously, the kids appreciated the free rein of this stop. Shifted again by the candy grabbers, she ended up crushed beside the door. ZeLisa peered through the screen. Soon, she saw him wade through the packed living room. He appeared in front of her, pushing the screen door open. The puppy cuddled in his arms wheezed.
“Can you help her?”
Those puppy dog eyes looked at her. Immediately, ZeLisa remembered why she became a veterinarian. In them, she saw the ability to give unconditional love. The only expectation in return was care for its basic needs. Every so often, the dog snorted, as if it gasped its last breath. Her heart melted. “Give her to me.”
“I’ve killed her, haven’t I?” The cartoonish character kept a clandestine vigil over his shoulders. With his deep burgundy lips pursed, he delivered the dog to her care.
She stared at him in astonishment. “You really seem affected by this.” It was her turn to cuddle the soft, miniature poodle, with fur as black as coal. “No. You haven’t killed her. What’s her name?”
“That’s cute.” ZeLisa sat on the stoop, talking in a soft, calming voice. “Hey, sweetie.” She stroked under the puppy’s throat. After that, she ran a finger down its nose to squeeze the nostrils briefly.
“Is that safe?” Concern marred his tone.
ZeLisa ignored his question. Then, she listened for any change in Orbit’s breathing. The dog settled down as she tended to her. ZeLisa pulled a tongue depressor from her bag, pried open its mouth, and tickled the back of the throat. She did all of that as Herman the Munster stood guard.
Her last maneuver stopped the puppy’s breathing attack.
Cupping her hands around the dog’s snout, she blew. A regular gulp of refreshing air, and it breathed normally again. Discarding the tongue depressor, she snapped her bag closed and stood. All of her attention went to easing the puppy’s discomfort. Only now did she realize the audience she’d attracted—inside and out—as she turned for the handoff.
“That was amazing.” He gently accepted his bundle. “Thank you.”
A commotion ensued as children rushed forward. With a smile, ZeLisa’s only response was to clear the way to the candy barrel.
“How much do I owe you, Dr. Tobias?”
“It’s on the house, Mr. Streeter.” A couple of steps down the walk and she faced him. “You probably want to have her examined by her regular vet. I believe it’s just allergies, though.” With a backward move, she looked up. “And fireplace smoke.” Repetitious horn blasts drifted in the air as ZeLisa wrapped up the visit.
“Dog allergies? Unbelievable.” He stroked Orbit. “Goodnight.”
She heard him shout over the murmurings of parents hustling their children in her direction. The mob stampeded by her. Tires squealed in the night. “Goodnight, Mr. Streeter.”
By the time ZeLisa reached her vehicle, two tunnels of bluish lights bathed her body. She faltered at the sight of the skidding dually pickup truck. People scattered. There was no way to escape the collision. She just wasn’t fast enough. However, she thought on her feet. ZeLisa unlocked her door, diving headfirst into the front seat, narrowly missing the direct impact.