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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
September 2011

Chapter One

Only Yours, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

Montana Hendrix's perfectly good morning was thwarted by a hotdog, a four-year-old boy and a Lab and Golden Retriever mix named Fluffy.

Things had started out well enough with Montana determined to get the nearly year-old dog into a therapy dog training program. Sure Fluffy was exuberant and clumsy, with a habit of eating anything and simply being too happy, but she had a huge heart. If she was, in simple terms, a screw-up, Montana refused to hold that against her. Montana knew what it was like to fail to meet her potential, to always feel she wasn't good enough. She'd made a career out of it. Fluffy was not going to suffer the way she had. And even if she was projecting a little to much onto an innocent dog, well, sometimes that happened.

So there she was, on a beautiful Fool's Gold summer morning, walking Fluffy...or possibly being walked by Fluffy.

"Think calm," Montana told the dog, holding firmly onto the leash. "Therapy dogs are calm. Therapy dogs understand restraint."

Fluffy gave her a doggie grin, then nearly knocked over a trash can with a sweep of her ever-moving tail. Restraint wasn't in Fluffy's vocabulary. She was barely calm in her sleep.

Later Montana would tell herself she should have seen it coming. This particular morning was the first weekend after school had let out and there was a festival to celebrate. Street vendors had been setting up for days. Although it was early, the smell of hot dogs and barbecue filled the air. The sidewalks were crowded and Fluffy kept pulling toward the children playing in the park. Her expression was clear—she wanted to be playing, too.

Up ahead, a mother paid for a hot dog. Her young son took it eagerly, but spotted Fluffy before he took a bite. He grinned at Fluffy and held out the food. At that exact moment, Montana was distracted by the latest display in Morgan's Bookstore and accidentally loosened her grip. Fluffy lunged, the leash slipped and that was where the trouble started.

Offering a hot dog from a distance might have seemed like a good idea...until a ninety-pound dog came barreling toward him. The little boy shrieked, dropped the hot dog and ran behind his mother. The poor woman had missed the beginning of the encounter. All she saw was a crazy looking dog headed right for her and her son. She screamed.

Montana started after Fluffy, yelling for her to stop. But it was as effective as telling the earth to slow down its rotation. Nothing much happened.

The mother scooped up her little boy and ducked behind the lemonade stand. Fluffy picked up the hot dog without breaking stride and swallowed it in one gulp, then kept on going. Apparently freedom called.

Montana hurried after her, the new summer sandals she'd bought last week cutting into her feet. She knew she had to get Fluffy. The dog was sweet, but not very well trained. Montana's boss, Max Thurman, has made it clear that Fluffy was not therapy dog material. If word of today's disaster reached him, he would insist the dog leave the program. Montana couldn't stand for that to happen.

Fluffy was a lot faster than her and quickly ran out of sight. Montana followed the sound of shrieks and screams, making her way through the streets of town, dodging a peanut cart and narrowly missing a close encounter with two guys on bikes. She turned a corner just in time to see a tail disappearing into a tall building with automatic doors.

"No," Montana breathed, staring up at the hospital. "Not there. Anywhere but there."

She raced forward, inwardly cringing at the thought of what Fluffy could do in a place like that. Big puppy feet on slippery floors were not a happy thought. She ran up the six steps leading to the entrance and dashed inside only to find a trail of havoc marking the way.

A supply cart was pushed against the wall. Linens spilled onto a floor. A little girl in a wheelchair grinned and pointed down the hall. Montana heard someone yell by the elevators and prayed Fluffy wouldn't slip onto one.

She got to the bank of elevators only to find several people willing to tell her that yes, a dog did get on. She watched the light panel to see the elevator had stopped on the fourth floor, then jumped in the next one and rode up.

The doors opened to the sound of screams. A chair lay on its side. More linens were scattered on the floor, along with a couple of charts. Up ahead double doors marked the entrance to the burn unit. Various signs explained about what could and couldn't go into that part of the hospital. A joyous bark told her Fluffy had violated every single posted rule.

Not knowing what else to do, she followed the sound and pushed through the doors. Up ahead several nurses were trying to corral the happy dog while Fluffy did her best to lick all of them at the same time. When Montana called her, the dog actually turned and raced toward her. A doctor walked out of a room just ahead of the dog.

Fluffy did her best to stop. Montana saw her puppy paws scramble as the dog tried to slow. But she couldn't get traction on the floor. She started to slide, her butt went down, her front paws braced and then she was zipping along in a sitting position. She plowed directly into the doctor, sending him tumbling into Montana.

The doctor was about six inches taller and a whole lot heavier. His shoulder hit her chest, knocking the air out of her. They sailed across the floor, flying a few feet before stopping against the very hard floor, his body slamming into hers.

Montana lay there, dazed. She couldn't breathe. All she felt was dead weight on top of her and a warm tongue licking her bare ankle.

The man got off of her and knelt beside her.

"Are you hurt?" he demanded.

She shook her head, then managed to gasp in air. Fluffy moved closer and sat down, looking calm and well-behaved. A trick Montana wasn't going to fall for.

The man reached for her. He ran his large, long-fingered hands up and down her legs and arms, then felt the back of her head. His touch was impersonal, but it was the most action she'd had in months. Before she could figure out if she liked it, she looked at his face.

He was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. Eyes the color of green smoke, fringed by dark lashes. A perfect mouth, with a strong jaw. His cheekbone—

"She's fine," he said, turning to speak with someone behind him.

When he shifted his head she saw the other side of his face. Thick red scars grew from his shirt collar, along the side of his neck to his left jaw and cheek. They spiraled, creating an angry pattern that looked painful and pulled his skin.

She had a feeling her shock showed, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead he grabbed her hand and pulled to her to feet.

"Dizzy?" he asked curtly.

"No," she managed, now that she could breathe again.

"Good." He moved closer. "What the hell is wrong with you? What kind of irresponsible idiot allows something like this to happen? You should be arrested and charged with attempted murder. Do you know what kind of germs that dog has? That you have? This is burn unit. These patients are vulnerable to infection. They are suffering with a level of pain you can't begin to imagine. Because of you, they might suffer more. If that happens, you will be responsible."

She took a step back. "I'm sorry," she began.

"Do you think anyone here gives a damn about you being sorry? Your thoughtless and incompetence are criminal."

She could feel his rage in every word. Even more scary than what he was saying was the way he was saying it. Not with a loud voice and a lot of energy, but with a coldness that left her feeling small and stupid. He stared at her as if she were little more than a bug.

"I didn't—"

"Think," he interrupted. "Yes, that much is clear. I doubt you think much about anything. Now get out."

Embarrassment gripped her. She was aware of the other staff members hovering close by, listening.

Montana knew that having Fluffy run through the hospital was a bad thing. But it wasn't like she'd planned the event.

"It was an accident," she said, raising her chin.

"That's not an excuse."

"I suppose you've never made a mistake."

His gray-green eyes flashed with derision. "Have you ever had a burn? Touched a hot pan or the burner on a stove? Do you remember what that felt like? Imagine that over a significant part of your body. The pain never goes away. The healing process is slow and what we do here to help it along is excruciating. On this ward, an infection kills. So any mistakes I've made have no bearing on this discussion."

There was no point in telling him that the work she did was important. She often came to the hospital with therapy dogs. Those therapy dogs helped patients heal, especially children. But she suspected this particular man wouldn't care about that.

"You're right," she said slowly. "There's no excuse for what happened here today. I'm sorry."

His mouth twisted. "Get out."

His complete dismissal stunned her. "Excuse me?"

"Are you deaf? Get out. Go away. Take your damn dog with you and don't come back."

Montana was willing to admit fault and take the blame, but to have her apology ignored was just plain rude. Being a screw-up didn't mean she was a bad person.

"You're a doctor?" she asked, even though she already knew the answer to the question.

The man's eyes narrowed. "Yes."

"You might want to take that stick out of your ass. It'll make it easier to pretend to be human, which will probably help your patients."

With that she grabbed Fluffy's leash, ignored the fact that the dog was licking the doctor's hand and walked out of the burn unit, her head held high.

On her way back to the kennel, she kept a firm grip on Fluffy, but no amount of holding could erase the fact that they'd both messed up big time. Montana loved her job. It had taken her a long time to find out what she was supposed to do with her life. She loved training the dogs, working with kids at the hospital and the older folks at the nursing home. She'd started a reading program at all five of the local elementary schools.

She could lose everything because of what had happened today. If the administrator called Max and insisted Montana not be allowed back in the hospital, her boss would fire her. A fair amount of the therapy work took place there. If she couldn't go to the hospital, she wasn't much use to him. And then what?

She knew she only had herself to blame. Max had made it clear Fluffy wasn't going to be successful in the program, but Montana had wanted to give the dog another chance.

All her life Montana had been different. On her good days, she told herself she was a little flakey. On her bad days, well, the words were a lot worse than that.

Regardless of the label, it appeared that nothing had changed. That she was still incapable of getting anything right. This time it was going to cost her.

#

Order was restored on the burn ward in a matter of minutes. Simon Bradley dismissed the intruder from his mind and continued his rounds. His last patient of the morning was the most worrisome. Nine year-old Kalinda Riley had been brought in two days before when the family's gas barbecue had exploded. Kalinda had been the only one hurt.

She'd been burned over forty percent of her body. He'd performed surgery yesterday. If she survived, it would be the first operation of many. For the rest of her life, her existence would be defined by her burns. He should know.

Her parents were devastated and frightened. They wanted answers and he had none to give them. The next few weeks would decide if the little girl lived or died. He didn't like to guess or assume, but he also couldn't escape the heaviness in his chest.

"Doctor Bradley."

He smiled at Kalinda's mother. Mrs. Riley was not yet thirty and probably pretty when she wasn't pale with worry and fear. Kalinda was their only child.

"She's been quiet," her mother continued.

"We're keeping her sedated as she heals."

"There was a dog here before."

Simon tensed. "It won't happen again."

Mrs. Riley touched his arm. "She opened her eyes when she heard the commotion. She asked to see the puppy."

Simon turned toward Kalinda's room. The child shouldn't be that lucid. He would examine her, then look over her medications.

"Did she say if she was in pain?" he asked.

Later they would teach her ways to manage her discomfort. That's what they called it. Discomfort. Not agony or torture or suffering. All the things a serious burn could be. Later she would learn about breathing and meditation and visualization. For now, drugs would get her through.

"She said she wanted to hold the puppy."

He drew in a breath. "It was an eighty pound mutt that doesn't belong in a hospital."

"Oh." Mrs. Riley's eyes filled with tears. "We had a dog. A small Yorkie. She died a few months ago. I know Kalinda misses her terribly. I remember reading something about hospitals using therapy dogs. Do you think that would help?"

Because she was a mother who loved her child and would do anything to help her. To keep her from suffering. Simon had seen it hundreds of time. The greatness of a parent's love never ceased to amaze him. Perhaps because he hadn't experienced it himself.

Simon would rather eat glass than have a filthy animal in his burn unit, but he also understood that the healing powers of the human body could be triggered by unexpected sources. If Kalinda was to survive, she would need something close to a miracle.

"I'll see what I can find out," he said, and turned toward his patient's room.

"Thank you," Mrs. Riley said, smiling bravely through her tears. "You've been amazing."

He'd done very little. Surgery was a learned skill. The gift he brought to those skills came at a price, but one he was willing to pay. He lived for his patients, to heal them as much as humanly possible and then move on. To the next tragedy. The next child whose life changed in a single flash and the lick of a flame.

 

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