Chapter 1 ~ For Keeps

For Keeps cover_lo resMerry Atwater was about to do something she hadn’t done in almost a decade. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and prayed. As in, to God. She had little faith the Big Guy was listening, but she was desperate.

When she opened her eyes, the numbers on the screen hadn’t changed. Not that she expected God to alter Triangle Boxer Rescue’s account balance, but He did perform miracles from time to time, didn’t He? The truth was, the animal rescue she had poured her heart and soul into for the last six years was flat broke.

“What am I going to do?” She steepled her fingers and pressed them to her mouth.

Ralph, her six-year-old boxer, scooted closer on the couch. He plopped his head into her lap and gazed up at her with adoring brown eyes. Behind him, her foster puppies Chip and Salsa lay piled on top of each other. Collectively, they took up nearly the whole couch, but Merry didn’t mind. She enjoyed having a couch full of happy dogs, especially knowing she had saved each one from an uncertain future at the shelter, guaranteeing them a happy ending through Triangle Boxer Rescue.

She’d founded TBR as a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of nursing school, eager to do more to help the dogs she’d come to love and depend on. Since then, she’d devoted as much of her time and hard-earned money as she could spare to saving abandoned and abused boxers in and around the small town of Dogwood, North Carolina.

She’d been successful too, at least at first. Several years ago, she’d begun receiving an anonymous donation of one thousand dollars a month from an unknown benefactor. She’d tried and failed to find out who was behind the mysterious donations, but at some point, she’d come to depend on them. Then six months ago, the donations had stopped. Now the rescue’s bank account was drained, and she’d nearly maxed out her personal credit card trying to cover the difference.

She traced her fingers over the zigzag pattern on her pajama pants. It was nearly nine o’clock, and she was ready to call it a night. She had a twelve-hour shift ahead of her tomorrow and needed a good night’s sleep.

A quiet knock sounded at her front door. Ralph lifted his head and let out a sleepy bark, while Chip and Salsa tumbled onto the floor in a tangle of puppy legs.

Merry sucked in a breath. Had God heard her prayer after all? Had someone arrived to miraculously bail Triangle Boxer Rescue out of financial ruin?

Not likely, but she’d always considered herself a glass-half-full kind of girl.

“Just a minute,” she called as she herded the puppies behind the gate in the kitchen then walked to the front door with Ralph at her side. She pressed her eye to the peephole, hesitant to open the door to an unexpected guest while in her pajamas.

A woman stood outside, dressed in a pink tank top and jean shorts. Wet tendrils of brown hair stuck to the sides of her face from the rain pouring beyond the safe shelter of Merry’s porch. She looked vaguely familiar. A neighbor, maybe?

Merry pulled the door open. Ralph let out a powerful bark, eyes fixed on the bedraggled dog at the woman’s side. It appeared to be some sort of Lab mix, with soggy amber fur and the kind of glazed eyes that Merry had seen too many times.

She gave Ralph a quick hand signal to keep him from greeting the unknown dog. He sat, tail wiggling against the hardwood floor.

“Hi,” the woman said, extending a rain-drenched hand. “I’m Kelly Pointer. I live down the street.” Kelly looked to the left, toward the cul-de-sac at the other end of the road.

Right. Merry had seen her before when she was out walking her dogs. She took Kelly’s hand and shook. “Sure. Hi, Kelly. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I heard you rescue dogs.” Kelly gestured to the dog at her feet. It stood, hunched, looking pathetic and miserable, and a heavy feeling settled in Merry’s gut.

God hadn’t sent an answer to her prayers. Instead, He’d added to her burden.

“Yes,” she answered carefully. “I’m the director of Triangle Boxer Rescue.”

She glanced pointedly at Ralph, still sitting politely at her side. He cocked his chestnut head, gazing up at their visitor with warm chocolate eyes that had melted many a heart.

“Well,” Kelly said, “I found this stray. She’s been wandering the neighborhood, and I was afraid she’d get hit by a car. I was hoping you could take her.”

Merry looked at the stray. The rain-soaked Lab mix avoided her gaze, looking like she’d dart off into the watery darkness if given half a chance. “Have you called the Dogwood Shelter to see if anyone’s looking for her?”

“Uh, no, I just brought her to you. I was hoping you could take her.” Her neighbor extended a thin piece of white rope that had been fashioned into a makeshift collar and leash.

“Well, I don’t exactly—” Merry gripped the rope, looking down at the pathetic dog on her front porch. This wasn’t the first time someone had brought her a random dog, expecting her to take it because she worked in animal rescue, and it wouldn’t be the last.

She’d always felt it a bit rude and presumptuous. It wasn’t as if Kelly didn’t have a home of her own where the dog could stay, warm and dry. Merry would have been happy to help her find the stray a home. But nope, she was apparently the designated receptacle for all unwanted dogs in the area, like it or not.

“Good luck with her. She seems sweet.” Kelly tucked her hands into her pockets and turned to go.

“Thanks, but I’ll probably have to bring her to the shelter in the morning.”

Kelly’s eyes rounded. “What? I thought maybe you could keep her, or something.”

“I run a rescue, for boxers. This is not a boxer. I already have two fosters and a dog of my own. I really can’t keep her.” Merry said the words. She meant them too. Then she glanced down at the dog huddled on her front porch, and she knew she’d never follow through.

Kelly shrugged. “Well, that sucks. I hope she finds a home.”

And with that, she walked off into the rainy night.

Merry looked at the dog who, for tonight at least, was hers. “So you’re spending the night with us, huh?” The soggy Lab mix stared at the floor of Merry’s porch, tail tucked between her legs. She reeked like wet, dirty dog.

Merry tied the rope around the railing. “Just a minute. I’ll be right back, okay?”

She stepped inside and put Ralph behind the gate in the kitchen with her two nosy foster puppies. She couldn’t introduce the new dog tonight, knowing nothing about her, and besides, she wasn’t keeping her long enough for it to matter.

She’d have her scanned for a microchip, call the local shelters, and if all else failed, she’d look for another rescue to take her, because Merry couldn’t keep her. She never kept more than three.

And in case God had forgotten, Merry was broke. She’d learned a long time ago that she couldn’t save them all. It was a bitter lesson to swallow, but true, and important to remember, lest she drown in guilt over the ones who couldn’t be saved.

She returned to the porch with a towel and gently rubbed as much rainwater as she could from the soggy stray. “Ready to come inside?”

The dog planted her feet, unwilling to enter the house. Merry shrugged, unfazed. She sat on the top step, staring out into the rainy June night, still warm and muggy despite the hour.

“Life’s been pretty crappy to you lately, huh?” she said softly. “I know what that feels like. It’s going to get better though. At least you have a dry bed waiting for you tonight, right?”

She kept talking, watching the rain fall beyond the protection of her front porch. Finally, the stray took a hesitant step toward her.

Merry reached out and stroked her chest, telling her what a good girl she was, patiently earning her trust. After a while, she stood and gave the rope a gentle tug. The dog followed her into the house.

The boxers in the kitchen barked and pranced, eager to make acquaintance with their visitor. Not yet. The dog at her side was tense, defensive. Terrified.

Merry sat with her while she adjusted to being in the house. She gave her food and water and took her outside to potty. Then she led the still-frightened stray to the crate she kept in the den for new dogs just getting settled.

It would do. For tonight.

* * * *

T.J. Jameson leaned a hip against the counter and watched the pretty brunette’s frown deepen. From the looks of it, his buddy David Johnson had just declined her credit card. David owned Dogwood Animal Hospital. T.J., on his way home after checking on a colicky horse out in Creedmoor, had stopped by to see if his friend might have a recommendation to replace the dog trainer who’d just bailed on him.

The brunette tossed back a curly lock of hair and rummaged inside her purse. She was dressed for suburbia in fitted jean shorts, a purple blouse, and sparkly flip flips, with a brown dog at her feet. T.J. pictured her in Wranglers and cowboy boots, and he liked that image a whole lot better. Dressed like that, he’d really have a hard time taking his eyes off her.

She glanced over, and their eyes met. Hers were a bottomless hazel that sparkled with trouble.

She turned back to David. “Try this one,” she said, handing over a blue credit card.

David swiped it through his card reader. “You’ve been paying for a lot of foster dogs with your personal card lately.”

She shrugged. “This one’s not technically a foster. I’m just keeping her for a day or two, to see if anyone shows up to claim her.”

Behind him, the door chimed. T.J. glanced over his shoulder to see a teenager in baggy jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with “#AWESOME” enter the waiting room, busily texting on his cell phone. A brown and white dog walked at his side, some kind of mixed breed. It lunged toward the one the brunette held, barking and snarling, straining against the end of its leash.

“Knock it off,” the teenager said, pulling the dog toward the other end of the waiting room.

T.J.’s skin prickled. Clearly, that animal was not a suitable pet. It was only a matter of time before it bit someone. He ran a hand over his throat, feeling for the scars that had long faded.

He looked back at the brunette. She’d moved her dog out of sight behind the reception desk and was signing her receipt.

“Thanks, Dr. Johnson. I’ll see you next week for the puppies’ next round of vaccinations.” She started for the door with the brown dog at her heel.

The teenager’s mutt lunged again, and this time its leash pulled free. It bounded across the lobby toward the brunette and her dog.

Vicious barking shattered the air, setting T.J.’s adrenaline pumping. The brunette froze, and the dog behind her cowered against her legs. Easy bait.

His stomach soured at the thought of her at the dog’s mercy, her blood staining that pretty purple blouse as she tried to defend herself. No. No way.

“Hey!” T.J. lunged in front of the runaway dog.

It stopped and snarled at him, teeth bared. T.J. felt the hair on his arms stand on end. He raised his arms as if he were corralling a wayward calf and took a step toward the animal.

The dog pinned its ears and growled.

“Brutus, no!” The teenager grabbed the end of the leash and hauled the dog, still growling, into an open exam room.

T.J.’s heart thumped against his ribs. The scars on his neck stung, a vicious memory of the night he’d almost gotten his throat ripped out. He still heard the snarling barks, felt the teeth crushing his throat, and his own warm blood flowing over his skin.

“Holy shit.”

He turned his head to see the brunette staring at him, her hazel eyes wide. His hand was on her shoulder before he knew what he was doing. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “You are so lucky you didn’t get bit just now.”

Yeah, he knew that, knew it better than most. He pulled back, tucking his thumbs through his belt loops. “Better me than you.”

“He wasn’t really after me, he was after my dog, but I was ready for him.” She opened her right hand to reveal a small, black spray canister.

T.J.’s eyebrows lifted. “Mace?”

“Citronella spray. It’s kind of like mace for dogs, except it doesn’t hurt them.” She slid the can into her purse. “FYI, next time you might not want to wave your arms around in an aggressive dog’s face. It’s asking for trouble, but…thanks. Most people wouldn’t bother to try. You’re our hero.”

She gave him a sweet smile then strode out the front door, brown dog trotting along at her side.

T.J. stared, then snapped his mouth shut, feeling more confused than heroic. He turned to David, who still stood behind the reception desk, flipping through paperwork. “Who was that?”

David waggled his bushy eyebrows with a smile. “Merry Atwater. She’s a nurse, so at least she could have patched you up if you’d needed it.”

T.J. grunted. Good to know. “That kid with the vicious dog is a client of yours?”

“His father is, but he’s out of town. Brutus isn’t all bad, but the family refuses to have him neutered, and he gets a little territorial around other dogs.”

“Brutus? The dog’s name is Brutus? That should be a warning right there.” T.J. had never had a dog, never planned on getting one, but if he did, he’d find a reputable breeder and choose a dog with champion bloodlines and a solid temperament. He’d never understood why people took in dogs like that one, dogs of unknown heritage, with obvious behavioral problems.

He’d seen what happened when dogs like that got loose. He’d seen livestock attacked by packs of prowling dogs. Hell, he’d come within an inch of losing his own life to a couple of stray mutts. Dogs like Brutus were a serious problem.

“Brutus might need to be muzzled in the lobby area,” David said. “I’ll have a talk with them about it. So what brings you out my way?”

“Hoping you might be able to help me out.”

David headed for the back room, motioning for T.J. to follow. “Oh yeah, how’s that?”

“That dog trainer I hired for the summer camp bailed on me.” He was seriously pissed about it too. He’d spent months getting everything in place, and now, with only a week to go, he was back at square one.

“So let the kids spend more time working with the horses,” his friend said with a shrug.

“I could, but dogs are an important part of the camp, for Noah especially.” And the whole point of the camp was to help his nephew. Noah had been diagnosed a few years ago as a child with high functioning autism. He was a smart kid, bright as a hundred-watt bulb, but he struggled to communicate with his peers, which had led to problems at school.

T.J.’s sister Amy was a single mom fighting to make ends meet. She wouldn’t accept money from him, no matter how hard he tried to help. Instead, this year he’d decided to establish a summer camp on his farm to help kids like his nephew, using his horses for equine therapy and incorporating a local dog trainer who’d bring several trained therapy dogs to work with the kids.

Noah communicated with dogs on a level he struggled to achieve with members of his own species. The camp absolutely couldn’t happen without dogs.

“Well, here’s an idea.” David reached into a wire crate to check the IV port on a chocolate-colored cocker spaniel. “Merry Atwater, the lady who just left? She runs a boxer rescue, and I happen to remember one of her dogs is a certified therapy dog. Maybe she could help you out.”

“Really?” T.J. thought back on the pretty brunette. He couldn’t quite picture her getting her perfectly manicured hands dirty out on his farm.

David nodded. “She’s good people. And between you and me, her rescue’s in some financial trouble right now. If you offered her a donation in return for her help, I’m sure she’d be more than happy to be part of your camp.”

“I don’t know. She didn’t really look like the farm-type to me.” The last thing he needed was some girly-girl running around on his farm, complaining about getting her expensive shoes dirty or breaking a fingernail.

But camp started next week, and at the moment, he had no other leads.

“She’s tougher than she looks.” David led the way back to the waiting room, where he pulled a business card from a pile in a drawer behind the reception desk. “Give her a call. See what she says.”

* * * *

Merry pursed her lips and tried to ignore the dog sulking in the crate at the far end of the kitchen. She’d called every shelter in the area to report her found, but so far, no owner had come forward. From the looks of her, the mutt probably hadn’t had an owner in some time. Her fur was matted with burs and mud, her nails untrimmed, ribs protruding beneath her thick coat.

Merry couldn’t bring herself to take her to the shelter, but she couldn’t keep her either. She wasn’t a boxer, for one thing. Not to mention, her tiny house was already at capacity with Ralph, Chip, and Salsa. And she was broke.

Couldn’t forget that part.

Which led her back to the email on her screen. A woman named Tracy Jameson had emailed her, said she’d gotten Merry’s name from her vet, David Johnson. She was looking for someone to help out with canine-assisted therapy at a summer camp she was running for local kids. In exchange, she’d write a check for a thousand dollars to Triangle Boxer Rescue.

Tempting. Very tempting.

Ralph was a therapy dog. Merry took him in once a week to visit the kids on the pediatric floor of Dogwood Hospital. He’d be great for the summer camp.

In fact, he’d love it a lot more than she would. To Merry, summer camp sounded dirty, sweaty, and exhausting. And while she did have some vacation time saved up at the hospital, she’d planned to spend it fund-raising for Triangle Boxer Rescue, not wilting in the summer heat on this woman’s farm.

Still, a thousand dollars sounded pretty irresistible right now.

First things first, she had to figure out what to do with the stray dog in her kitchen. Merry approached the crate and eyed the nameless, hopeless dog. “So, I was thinking about putting up some flyers around the neighborhood. Want to come with me?”

The dog looked up, her brown eyes so sad, so empty, that Merry’s heart broke. No matter what, this dog couldn’t go to the shelter. She wouldn’t last a week.

Merry opened the crate and coaxed the frightened dog out. She reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bag of training treats, then sat on the floor and praised and rewarded her for every shy wag of her tail.

Once No-Name had received a much-needed boost to her self-esteem, Merry clipped a leash onto her collar. She grabbed the pile of flyers she’d printed earlier, along with a stapler, and she was ready to go.

“You need a name,” Merry told her. She named new fosters all the time, and yet, she couldn’t bring herself to name this one.

The dog stood patiently beside her while she stapled flyers to lampposts up and down her street and around the neighborhood. It wasn’t likely, but it was possible there was a family out there somewhere, looking for her and wanting her back.

No-Name stared straight ahead as they walked, making no eye contact with Merry, showing no emotion at all. Her tail hung limply behind her, which was a step up from tucked between her legs, but no amount of sweet talk from Merry could get it to wag again.

A high-pitched shriek was their only warning before a toddler barreled onto the sidewalk, arms outstretched. “Doggy! Doggy!”

Merry tightened her grip on No-Name’s leash and tried to put herself between the dog and the runaway child, but it was too late. The little girl flung her arms around No-Name’s neck with a squeal of glee.

“Violet!” A woman ran down the driveway after the wayward child. “Oh, my gosh.”

Merry tensed, ready to intervene if necessary, but No-Name’s tail wagged steadily. She looked calm. Happy even.

“Thank goodness your dog likes kids,” the girl’s mother said.

That was an understatement. Merry wouldn’t have intentionally introduced such a new dog to anyone’s child just yet, but now that it had happened, No-Name did indeed seem thrilled.

The little girl patted her roughly on the head then ran off toward a pink tricycle outside the garage. Her mom waved and followed her up the driveway. No-Name gazed after the toddler, tail still wagging.

Merry hustled her home. As they walked in the front door, her cell phone rang. She glanced at the display. “Hey, Liv.”

“Hi,” Olivia said. “I got your message, and no, I can’t take another dog right now. I nearly got evicted from my apartment when I was fostering those damn puppies.”

“Oh, come on, please? This one’s full grown. She’s housebroken, and I haven’t even heard her bark. She’d be easy.”

“Nope, sorry.” Olivia Bennett had never formally agreed to foster for Triangle Boxer Rescue. She was a friend of Cara Medlen, who’d moved to Massachusetts a few months ago, leaving Merry short a good foster home and a best friend, both of which roles Olivia had temporarily stepped in to fill.

“Know anyone looking for a dog? She’s some kind of Lab mix, very shy, but well behaved.”

“I’ll ask around, but offhand…no.”

“Okay, well, thanks anyway.” Merry led the dog back into her kitchen. Since she’d received a clean bill of health at the vet, Merry had allowed her to make introductions with Ralph this morning, and it had gone well. No-Name had tucked her tail and bowed her head submissively when Ralph greeted her. It was a good start, but she wasn’t ready to throw her somewhat less predictable foster puppies into the mix just yet.

Currently, they were asleep upstairs in her bedroom. If No-Name stayed much longer, she’d think about introducing them all, but hopefully she’d be passing her along before that became necessary.

She opened her laptop to see if any of the Lab or all-breed rescues had responded. They hadn’t, but the email from Tracy Jameson still waited in her inbox.

She didn’t want to get involved in a summer camp, but maybe…

Maybe she could make it work to her advantage. She sent Tracy a quick reply, asking to meet with her to discuss things further, then closed her laptop to start preparing dinner for herself and the dogs.

The next day, she worked her usual twelve-hour shift at Dogwood Hospital. Exhausted, she grabbed a Cajun filet biscuit from the Bojangles drive-through and headed for Tracy’s farm.

Like many towns in the area, Dogwood had experienced a burst of growth in the past decade due to its proximity to the Research Triangle Park, where many large pharmaceutical and other high-tech companies were located. Modern neighborhoods gradually gave way to rolling country roads that hadn’t changed in generations.

She drove down one of these country roads past the rusted-out shell of a barn, a corn field, and several miles of open farmland. Merry rolled her window down and breathed in the fresh air. She loved to drive through the country, see the horses and cows, smell the wheat and fresh earth. Actually rolling up her sleeves and getting dirty didn’t sound as appealing, but if it would help the rescue, she’d take one for the team.

Tracy’s farm was at the end of the road, a modest two-story, brick-front ranch house. Tracy had texted her a few minutes ago to say she was running late, so Merry pulled past the house and parked by the barn to finish her chicken biscuit. It melted in her mouth in buttery perfection. She washed it down with sweet tea and a sigh of contentment.

Behind the barn, two horses grazed in a lush green field, while a third lounged nearby beneath a shade tree. Merry’s knowledge of horses was pretty much confined to the pages of Black Beauty (which had earned her a childhood nickname of Merrylegs), but these were obviously well cared for and absolutely gorgeous. Their brown coats glistened in the setting sun over sleek, well-muscled haunches.

She leaned back in her seat and settled in to watch them. The larger horse, a male, swooshed his tail to and fro, fly swatting for himself and the female beside him. Equine chivalry. Aww.

A few minutes later, a black Ford F350 pickup truck pulled into the driveway with a roar of its diesel engine and parked next to Merry’s CR-V. She looked up, impressed. That was a badass truck for a chick.

Merry stepped out of her SUV, making sure she wasn’t wearing any crumbs on her scrubs, and rounded the rear bumper just as the driver’s door opened on the truck.

She saw the cowboy boots first, brown-stitched leather at least a man’s size twelve. Her gaze traveled up a pair of jeans filled out by very muscular, very masculine legs. The man wearing them swung out of the cab and tipped his cowboy hat at her.

Well, well. It was her would-be hero from Dr. Johnson’s office. What in the world was he doing here?

She’d never been a big fan of cowboys, but this guy was seriously sexy. His dark hair was mostly hidden by the hat, which shadowed his face, hiding the exact shade of the brown eyes currently locked on hers. He wore a crisp, blue t-shirt tucked into his jeans, filled to perfection by strong, muscled man.

He looked like he belonged on the cover of a magazine for western wear. Good gracious, he was gorgeous. And clearly not Tracy Jameson.

“Merry Atwater?” His voice matched his image perfectly, deep and smooth.

“That’s me. And you are?”

He extended a hand. “T.J. Jameson. Thanks for driving all the way out here. I figured you’d like to see the place before you made up your mind.”

She took his hand and shook. “Uh, where’s Tracy?”

His lips curved in amusement. “Tracy Allan Jameson III, in the flesh. My granddaddy was Tracy, Dad calls himself Trace, I go by T.J.”

She almost swallowed her tongue. “You’re Tracy.”

“Yes, ma’am, but please call me T.J.”

Merry sucked in a breath. So Tracy Jameson was a guy. And not just any guy, but a strappingly handsome cowboy oozing testosterone from every pore.

Summer camp had just gotten much hotter, in a completely new way.

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