A considerable part of my job is mediating chaos. From the teeny-tiny vulnerable kittens to the older malnourished cats, I’d seen it all at The Fancy Paws Society & Rescue. But the phone call I’d just had with Everleigh Bennet made my stomach turn. A malicious abuse case was coming in, and Dr. Piper McCallister was pacing in front of my desk, waiting for our high-risk team and the potential patient.
“Can you try to keep the new volunteers away from the surgical room?” Piper asked, biting the end of her thumbnail. “I don’t want to freak them out on their first day. Especially if there are potential fosters in the group.”
“Roger that.” I nodded, shuffling around the paperwork I needed the new volunteers to fill out before they could officially work with our rescue. “How bad do you think this cat is?”
She blew out a breath, raking a hand through her brunette hair. “Not good. If Leigh said amputation is the most likely option, then it’s probably bad.”
My heart sank at the fluffy feline’s potential outcome. “I really hope this little guy or gal makes it.”
“Me too.” Piper nodded, checking out the front door for the hundredth time. “I think a few of the volunteers are here.”
I stood, my rolling desk chair pushing backward, and pasted a smile on my face. This was where I shined the best—in the midst of chaos. “You focus on the incoming patient, and I’ll make sure we’re in the rescue section when Leigh gets here with Roxanne.”
“You’re a lifesaver.” Piper shot me a thankful glance, stepping off to the side with her arms crossed. She wouldn’t rest until the animal was in her care and on the other side of surgery.
Three people, two women and one man, entered through the front door, laughing and chatting amongst themselves. I gathered up the paperwork to keep them busy while I helped Piper mediate the impending emergency.
“Hi, welcome to The Fancy Paws Society & Rescue. I’m Ivy Holden, head manager and co-founder.” I shook their hands one by one. “I take it you’re here for the volunteer entry course?”
“Yes, we’re from SMU.” A young blonde spoke for her peers. “We were offered this chance through our program, and we couldn’t pass it up.”
“Fantastic.” My grin widened. College and high school volunteers were our most passionate demographic and usually became patrons or adopters later in life. “I just need you to fill these forms out. Once the other three get here, we’ll start the official tour.”
Each student grabbed a clipboard and took a seat in the waiting room to answer the questionnaire. The bell over the front door tinkled, but it was light, so I knew it wasn’t Leigh. Emergency or not, Leigh always came in like a hurricane.
“Excuse me, I’m here for the volunteer course.” A deep, gravelly voice with a slight Texas twang rumbled behind me. Goose bumps ran up and down my spine at the bass, and I glanced over my shoulder. Without meaning to, my gaze widened on the hulk looming over me.
He had to be well over six feet with thighs as wide as tree trunks and a broad, solid chest. I’d never seen a specimen of a man like him before. Trailing my gaze higher, I took in a light dusting of a five o’clock shadow highlighting a square jaw. His nose had a crook in it as though he’d broken it previously, and two piercing, hazel eyes bore into mine. One of his dark brows arched, and curls of brown hair peeked out from around the edges of his Dallas Cowboys baseball hat.
I licked my lips. Damn, he was yummy.
“Hi, nice to meet you.” Holding out my right hand, I introduced myself while clutching the remaining clipboards in my left. “I’m Ivy Holden, manager and co-founder. You are?”
“Jacob, Jacob Westbrook.” He took my hand in his—calloused, warm, and large—and I swallowed hard at his masculine size. At five feet six inches, I wasn’t used to being intimidated by taller men. But this guy? He was a freaking titan. A delicious-looking, muscular titan who did crazy things to my lady parts.
“Nice to meet you.” I managed to find my voice. Instead of allowing myself to ogle him anymore, I handed him a clipboard with a pen attached. “If you can just fill this out, you’ll be all set.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His light gaze sparkled with a reserved mischief. The hint of a sideways smirk played on the left side of his very full lips. I wondered if he was used to women reacting to him the way I had. And why the hell was a guy like him here to volunteer at a cat rescue? Dog rescue or even a horse rescue, I could understand, but cats?
My mind didn’t have time to process any and all reasons Jacob Westbrook wanted to volunteer here. The sound of the front door crashed open, and Leigh charged in, holding a bundle close to her chest. Roxanne followed closely, holding a bag of IV fluids. If they needed to use fluids out in the field, this case was not a promising one.
Wincing, I glanced at Piper, who shook her head in a not-to-worry gesture. The light blue towel appeared to have stains of reddish-brown on it, and I didn’t have to guess what the substance was. Leigh didn’t say a word as she practically jogged toward the surgical suite. Piper followed close behind.
“Are they going to be okay?” one of the college girls asked, concern lacing her tone.
I forced a smile, turning my attention back on the task at hand. “We’re hoping so. Our retrieval and rescue team found an abuse case. Dr. McCallister will do everything she can to make the patient comfortable.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jacob staring after the small group of three women. His face was taut with an unexplainable fierceness I’d never seen before. When he snapped back to the present, his eyes flickered back to me, catching me off guard. I swallowed hard.
He’s so intense.
Harsh, storm-gray eyes studied me before he turned back to fill out his paperwork. A slow exhale escaped through my nose as two more volunteers entered through the front door.
Focus, Ivy. He’s just a guy.
Once my entire group filled out their paperwork, I began the tour. Staying busy and focused on the task made it easier to ignore the huge, hot cowboy who seemed to linger just a short distance from me.
“Dr. McCallister, Everleigh Bennet, and I founded The Fancy Paws Society & Rescue four and a half years ago,” I began, pointing at our sign behind the main receptionist’s desk. “It started as a dream back in college after we rescued a litter of four kittens, which we foster failed.” A few in the group chuckled, knowing what a foster fail was. “They’ve been the best little companions we could ever ask for, and we wanted to help others like them.”
We moved through the waiting area to the rescue section in the back. “Watch your feet.” I chuckled as a variety of fluffy bodies began to greet us. “We let those who have been quarantined, vaccinated, and tested FeLV negative roam around. People who come here looking to adopt are advised to let the cats come to them. More often than not, they’ll pick their person instead of the other way around.”
A black-and-white-spotted cat with a blue collar around his neck rubbed against my legs. “We have them collared by sex. The ones with the lime-green tags are over ten years old and our seniors.”
“Are these ones FeLV positive?” The young man who’d come with the SMU group pointed at a closed door but with large windows the cats inside could see out of.
I nodded. “Yes, they all have purple tags on their collars.”
It took about an hour to take the group through the entire building—from the quarantine room, which held a brand new litter of kittens, to the supply room we used for food, litter, and cleaning supplies.
“Down this hallway…” I pointed toward where Leigh and Piper had gone with the emergency case. “Is the mini clinic. We don’t see many person clients here, as Dr. McCallister has her own practice a few miles away, but we do have a few exam rooms for new intakes or to check out newly adopted patients if they require any treatment before they go to their forever homes.”
“Is there a surgery area for things like spaying and neutering?” a voice chimed up from the back.
“Yes, we are fully equipped here to handle a variety of surgeries. Since we are also a rescue, we have to be prepared for anything.” I glanced over at the door that led into surgery. The windows were always blacked out, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the new rescue was doing.
“That cat they brought in…” Jacob’s deep tones reverberated in the hall. “He going to be okay?”
“I’m honestly not sure.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “He was an abuse case with a possible amputation, so we’ll see if he can pull through.”
Jacob visibly flinched when I’d rattled off the feline’s fate. Another faraway expression crossed his handsome features, and he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He broke eye contact, turning his attention to the tiled floor.
“Does anyone have any questions?” I asked, trying to return to a sense of levity. The group followed me to the main reception area for a debriefing. A few had questions, while others simply listened.
Once I promised to send out an email with open volunteer slots, they started to filter out one by one. The last person standing before me was Jacob. He seemed to want to ask a question but not in front of the others.
“Are you okay?” I kept my voice gentle.
His shoulders tensed, but he offered a tight smile. “I am. If that cat makes it, the one that needs to lose a limb, would I be able to foster him?”
The question surprised me.
“You probably want to know why I’m not at a dog rescue instead, right?” He chuckled at my reaction.
“No offense, but yeah.” I nervously joined in his laughter.
He tapped his nose. “Allergic. So much so even the little hypoallergenic ones bother me. Cats are not a problem, though.”
“Ah, that makes a lot of sense.” I set the clipboards down on my desk. “And once I know if he makes it through surgery, I will definitely put in your request to Dr. McCallister. He’ll fall under special needs until he recovers, and it’s always harder to foster those ones over kittens.”
“Great, I’ll be by tomorrow.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the surgical suite. “Hopefully, I can meet him then.”
Despite his brute size, his gentle soul touched my own. “I’m sure we can arrange that.”
“Right.” His gaze swept over me once more from head to toe. “See you tomorrow, Miss Ivy.”
“Bye,” I choked out, watching his backside as he sauntered out of the rescue. He had a slight hitch in his step, but I chalked it up to him being a cowboy.
Finally able to breathe, I flopped down in my chair and tilted my head back to stare at the ceiling. It’d been a long time since a man made me feel anything that instantaneous. Or at all, for that matter.
Jacob Westbrook. The first man in years to make me wonder what it would be like to try again.