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Susannah Warden is trapped in a life she doesn’t want. She quit college, put her life on hold to care for her terminally ill mother, made a deathbed promise to look after her father, took over her mother’s dress shop, and got herself engaged to an eligible bachelor. None of these actions reflect what she wants to do with her life.
Guilt drives her as she tries to fit the mold her mother created for her. When archeologist, Dr. Perry Elliston, arrives in Tassanoxie to survey a possible historical Indian site, he reminds Susannah of the future she wanted before her mother died.
Will Susannah free herself from the bonds of her deathbed promise for the chance at love?
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Cuddles wasn’t going to die.
Relief slumped Susannah’s shoulders as the door closed behind Dr. Zachary. She may not love the little poodle as much as her mother had, in fact, Susannah barely tolerated the yappy little canine, but that didn’t mean she wished the dog dead. The word dead shattered her relief. It’d been two years since her mother died and Susannah’s mind still danced around acceptance.
She scooped the trembling scrap of dog off the metal exam table, cradled it in her arms, and buried her nose in hair tinged with the sweet fruit smell of a recent trip to the groomer.
“It’s a dust allergy,” she crooned. “Dr. Z will be back with something to make you feel all better.”
Susannah felt better knowing Cuddles wasn’t at death’s door. When the dog had started coughing the previous evening, she’d visualized all kinds of dreadful canine coughing diseases.
She couldn’t lose Cuddles. Her mother would never forgive her if she killed her dog and bankrupted her dress shop. Mary Cecilia Warden might be dead, but Susannah could still feel her eyes boring into her soul. Death hadn’t offered any relief from trying to be the perfect daughter, if anything, it made Susannah try harder. Tears quivered on the edges of her eyes. She wasn’t sure if they were tears of grief over losing her mother, or if they were tears of self-pity because she’d never met her mother’s expectations.
And now never would. “
Here we go.” Dr. Z’s voice had Susannah squeezing back the potential crying jag, glad her back was to the door he used.
“This shot will help the cough for now.” He handed Susannah a vial of pills. “And starting tonight, one of these every twelve hours for a week.”
Moments later, Susannah found herself at the front desk. She clutched Cuddles in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other.
“That’ll be seventy-five dollars, Ms. Warden.”
Susannah frowned. She and Jennifer Jerkins didn’t know each other well, but Susannah had graduated from high school with her older sister. She’d been to their house, for heaven’s sake. What was with the Ms. Warden?
With a shrug, she set Cuddles on the floor to rummage through her purse. She heard another door along the hall open, but didn’t pay it any attention until a happy bark coupled with a blur of brown, white, and black attacked Cuddles.
One moment her mother’s little dog was leaning on her left leg and the next she was knocked on the ground, hidden beneath the wiggling, excited body of another dog.
Ohmigod! Susannah freaked. Had she saved Cuddles from a horrible cough to see her devoured by a crazed dog? “Stop it! Stop it! You big beast!” When the dog failed to respond, Susannah, who had never hit an animal in her life, started kicking the bigger dog, trying to save Cuddles.
“Hey! There’s no reason to kick him!”
Startled by the accusation, Susannah glanced up to see a woman about her age storming through the retail aisles. Dressed in short cutoff jeans and a well-washed, well-worn tee shirt, her purple flip-flops slapped the floor as she marched toward the yipping bundles of brown and white fur. The skimpy clothes, full lips shaped in a pout that would turn most guys to mush, and wavy raven hair that tumbled to her shoulders made her look more like an exotic dancer than someone capable of handling a vicious dog attack. Susannah went back to kicking and shrieking. “Leave her alone! Get away!”
“That so helps,” The woman grabbed the attacking dog’s collar.
“That beast attacked Cuddles!”
“He’s just licking her,” the woman snapped. “Darwin can’t help it if he likes silly little poodles with pink bows on their ears.” With a yank, she pulled the dog off Cuddles and into her arms.
Susannah grabbed Cuddles off the floor. “Did that mean dog frighten sweet little Cuddles?” She examined the poodle for injuries. No way would she leave the vet office if Cuddles was bleeding, or heaven forbid, pregnant. Susannah wasn’t knowledgeable about doggy pregnancy, but her mother had safeguarded Cuddles from mating because she couldn’t chose the perfect match. If chastity belts had come in poodle sizes, Susannah was sure her mother would have bought one and clamped it on Cuddles.
Her fears of an unwanted pregnancy spilled into life. “That, that beast may have impregnated Cuddles!”
“Not unless you believe in divine doggy conception,” said the woman. “Any imbecile knows they have to do it to make puppies.”
“I beg your pardon,” outrage vibrated through Susannah’s body. “Are you calling me an imbecile?”
The woman ignored Susannah’s question. “This beast has a name,” she said as she rubbed the dog’s sleek head. “It’s Darwin, and he was neutered three years ago. So even if he does it, he’s shooting blanks.”
Susannah couldn’t stop a small, horrified gasp.
“Every responsible pet owner who is not a professional breeder should have their pet fixed,” the woman added.
“Fix Cuddles!” Her mother would come out of the grave and strangle her for daring to desecrate Cuddles. “I’ll have you know Cuddles is the daughter of a champion. Her bloodlines are impeccable. Her children will be priceless.”
Seething with outrage, Susannah headed for the door, Cuddles clutched to her chest. She paused and turned, shocked by the grin on Jennifer’s face. “Send the bill to my father, please.”
“Yes, Ms. Warden.”
Susannah stalked to her car. With Cuddles clutched to her chest, she could feel both their hearts beating too fast. Afraid to set the toy poodle down, Susannah juggled purse and dog to fish for her car keys. Cuddles’ tongue lapped at Susannah’s cheek. She smiled down at the little dog. “Don’t worry. That awful dog can’t get you now.”
After a sleepless night punctuated by Cuddles’ coughs and her fear the dog was going to die, Susannah didn’t want to go to the store, but it wasn’t fair to leave Naomi alone at The Style Shoppe. There was always stock to be ordered, paid for, priced, shelved, reshelved, and mended. Advertisements to make, sales to have. The list was endlessly repetitive.
She strapped Cuddles into the small dog car seat her mother had found online. Comforted by the familiar surroundings, the little dog curled into a ball, a nap on her agenda. With a sigh, Susannah closed the back door and tried to forget those last few moments in the vet clinic.
It was as if a screaming, kicking banshee had possessed her body. She couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her lately. It took more than grief over her mother’s death to explain why she’d kicked a beagle, snapped at his owner, and had Dr. Z’s receptionist talking to her as if she were a stranger.
Too often in the past few months, the strands of a life she didn’t want gathered around her, tying her into a life she’d never envisioned for herself.
There was no reason to wrestle with might-have-beens.
She’d made a promise to her mother and she intended to keep it.