Her mother smiled. "Good then, you’ll fit right in here at the McTierney Zoo."
Titus got up and went to Fury to lick his fingers. Fury patted the dog’s head while Vane looked around the cozy house, which was decorated in a country style.
The tan couches were stuffed and piled high with cushions.
An empty bird perch stood in one corner and a giant freshwater fish tank was built into the far wall. Vane heard more dogs out in the yard and something that sounded like an entire collection of birds singing from upstairs.
"The men are out back," Joyce said as she led them toward the back of the house, past three aquariums that held one large boa constrictor, a lizard of some sort, and two gerbils. "Your father has a new stray that came in a few days ago that no one can manage. Poor thing won’t eat and it tries to mangle anyone who comes near him."
"What’s wrong with him?" Bride asked.
"I don’t know. Animal control pulled him out of a ditch where they think someone must have dumped him. He’s been badly beaten and had worms real bad."
Vane cringed in sympathy.
They entered the kitchen where a slender, tall blond woman was standing over a mixing bowl. "Mom, how much salt" Her words ended in a shriek as she turned and saw Bride. "Hey, little girl," she said before she seized her into a tight hug.
Bride hugged her close, then stepped back to introduce them. "Deirdre, this Vane and his brother Fury."
Vane tensed as he fell under the scrutiny of Bride’s older sister. She didn’t like him. The animal in him sensed it immediately.
Even so, she reached her hand out. "Hi," she said with a fake smile.
"Hi," he said, shaking her hand.
She moved on to Fury, who did likewise.
"I couldn’t find those diet cakes for you, Bride," her mother said as she went to the oven to check the turkey. "I’m sorry."
"It’s okay, Mom," Bride said. "I’d rather eat your pie anyway."
Her mother looked a bit surprised, but didn’t say anything. As she stepped back, two cats came running through the kitchen, chasing each other.
"Professor! Marianne!" her mother called, handing her dishtowel to Bride.
"Oh, good grief, I better get them before they run into Bart and he eats them." Her mother ran off outside.
"Bart?" Fury asked Bride.
"The gator who lives in the backyard. Dad fixed him up last year after a poacher almost killed him in a trap, and he keeps getting out of his pen."
Fury scratched his cheek. "Man, I wish I’d known your dad when I got caught in a trap, I’m still" Fury’s voice trailed off as he realized Deirdre had turned toward him with an arch look. "Never mind."
Vane stiffened as an extremely large, muscular man came barreling through the back door to pick Bride up and squeeze her hard.
Bride laughed. "Put me down, Patrick!"
He growled at her as he did so. "Don’t get feisty on me, woman. I’ll hold you down and frog your arm."
Bride scoffed at that as Vane saw red.
"You better not touch her."
Bride looked up at the growling sincerity she heard in Vane’s tone. By the expression on his face, she actually feared for her brother’s safety. "It’s okay, Vane," she hastened to assure him. "He’s just teasing. He hasn’t really hurt me since we were kids and even then it was an accident."
"That’s the story I’m sticking to anyway," Patrick said as he offered his hand to Vane. "I’m glad to see my sister’s in good hands. Patrick McTierney."
"Nice to meet you, Vane. Don’t worry. I’d cut my arm off before I ever hurt one of my sisters."
Vane noticeably relaxed.
"You must be the brother," Patrick said. "Fury?"
"Hi," Fury said, shaking hands. "I know, the names suck."
Patrick laughed. "You guys want a beer?"
Fury looked to Vane for the answer.
"That’d be great," Vane said.
Patrick ducked into the fridge and pulled out two longnecks, then handed them off.
While they opened them, Patrick stuck his finger into the potato salad.
"Get out of that!" Deirdre snapped, popping his hand with a spoon.
"Ow!" he said, jerking his hand back and then sucking his fingers.
"Get out of here, Pat, or I swear I’ll feed your portion to the dogs."
"Fine, you cranky PMS avenger." He motioned to Fury and Vane. "Be wise and join me outside where it’s safe."
"Call me if you need me to rescue you from Patrick and my father," Bride said before she lifted herself up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
Vane caught an angry look from Deirdre before he followed Fury and Patrick out into the yard, where Bride’s mother was wrestling the cats back toward the house. Vane handed his beer to Fury before he scooped the female cat up. She tensed for an instant, then relaxed. "You want her in the house?"
Joyce nodded gratefully as she cuddled the male.
Vane opened the door and set the cat back inside. "Don’t do that again, Marianne," he said. She nuzzled his hand, then darted off.
"Thanks for the help," Joyce said as she walked past him.
Vane went back to rejoin Fury and Patrick.
"So, Vane, what do you do for a living?" Patrick asked.
Fury gave him an amused look as he passed his beer back to him.
"I live off the interest from my investments."
"Really?" Patrick asked. "Investments pay enough that you can afford a hundred-thousand-dollar Jag?"
Vane could smell the hostility from Patrick. "No," he said sarcastically, "my drug dealing does that. And I make a tidy profit from my pimps down on Bourbon Street."
The look on Bride’s brother’s face was priceless. "Look, I’m going to be honest with you. You mess with my"
Vane looked past Bride’s brother to see a man who appeared to be in his mid-fifties. Fit and trim, he had neatly styled gray hair and a mustache.
"You’re not giving Vane the ‘Mess with my baby sister and I’ll break your neck’ speech, are you?"
"I was trying to."
The man laughed. "Don’t mind him. I’m Dr. McTierney," he said, extending his hand to Vane. "You can call me Paul."
"Nice meeting you, Paul."
Paul turned to Fury. "You must be the brother."
"I hope so, I’m wearing his pants."
"So, you’re the evil neuter king," Fury said. "I wondered what you looked like."
"Fury," Vane said in warning.
Again Paul laughed. "You know anything about dogs, Vane?"
"Yeah. A little."
"Good. I have one I want you to meet."
"Oh jeez, not Cujo, Dad. That’s worse than my speech you interrupted."
Paul ignored his son as he headed toward a fenced-in area in the back where Vane could see a number of doghouses.
As Vane and Fury walked past, the dogs, sensing their animal part, came out to either bark or play.
Paul led them to a cage at the end of the row where an angry Lab mix was kept. The dog was filled with rage and hatred.
"We can’t do anything with him," Paul said. "My partner thinks we ought to put him down, but I hate to do that. It seems a damn shame to kill an animal who’s been hurt."
Fury set his beer down and went to the door. The dog ran out of his house, barking and snarling.
"Shh," Fury said, holding his hand out to the dog so that he could sniff him.
"I wouldn’t do that if I were you," Patrick said. "He damn near tore the hand off the animal control officer who captured him."
"Yeah, someone needs to put them in a cage and poke them for a while,"
Fury said, curling his lip.
The dog continued to attack.
"Stand back," Vane said as he reached for the latch on the door.
Fury stood up and moved while Vane opened it. The dog lunged, then darted back. Vane shut the door and crouched down. "Come here, boy," he said soothingly, holding his hand out.
The dog ran into his house and barked even louder.
Vane crawled toward the house and slowly reached his hand inside. "Don’t be afraid," he said, letting the dog catch his scent.
He could feel it starting to calm. It knew he wasn’t entirely human and it was starting to trust the animal that it smelled.
After a few seconds of waiting, the dog licked Vane’s fingertips.
"That’s it," Vane said, stroking his fur.
He looked back over his shoulder. "Fury? Could you get me something for him to eat?"
"I’ll get a bowl," Paul said.
Once Paul returned, he gave the bowl to Fury who brought it inside. Fury crouched outside the house beside Vane and carefully put the food down in front of the dog.
"Man, they screwed you up bad, huh?" Fury said to the dog.
Vane picked up a handful of food and held it out to the dog. It nosed around until it finally trusted him enough and took a bite.
"There you go," he said quietly as he picked up more food and hand-fed the dog. "Damn, Dad," Patrick said from the other side of the fence. "I’ve never seen anything like that."
After a few minutes, Vane had the dog fed. He crawled into Vane’s lap and lay there, needing comfort. Fury stroked his back while Vane massaged his ears. Vane felt someone watching him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Bride beside her father.
"Did you get him to eat?" she asked him.
She smiled at that. The sight of her there made his heart ache. How could something so simple as a mere smile wreak such havoc with his body?
"I came to tell everyone that dinner was ready. But if you need more time"
Vane stood up. "He’ll be okay for a bit."
Fury patted the dog, then rose slowly to his feet.
The two of them left the cage and shut it. The dog came running up to them, howling.
"It’s okay," Vane told him. "We’ll be back."
"Yeah," Fury added, "with a nice treat for you."
Vane draped his arm over Bride’s shoulders as they followed her brother and father into the house. "Is this where you grew up?" he asked Bride.
"No. My parents moved here a few years ago after they sold their small farm."
"I miss the old place," Paul said as he held the door open for them. "There are too many ordinances here. I had to get a special license just so I could keep my patients in the back, and I routinely have to pay fines."
"Why did you move?" Fury asked.
Paul shrugged. "Her mother wanted to be closer to town. What’s a man to do when his wife has her heart set on something?"
They entered the dining room where a huge feast waited along with Deirdre, who still looked like she’d rather they leave.
"Come over here and sit by me, Vane," Joyce said, indicating the chair on her right. "And Fury, you can sit on the other side of Bride."
The instant Fury sat down, Titus came running up and tried to climb into his lap. "Oh, good grief!" Joyce snapped. "Paul, get the dog down."
"It’s okay," Fury said, laughing.
Then when Vane sat down, Titus ran for him and licked his face. "Hey boy, watch the dewclaws."
"What has gotten into my dog?" Joyce asked, pulling at Titus’s collar. "He’s normally standoffish with people."
"Dogs know good people when they see them," Paul said, pulling a piece of stuffing out of the turkey.
"Titus," he said, holding it down for the dog.
Titus ran to get it.
Bride sat down beside Vane. "So Patrick, where’s Maggie?"
"Over at her parents’. I’m going over there after I eat here. Since we’re sleeping here, she wanted to make sure her mother didn’t get jealous."
"Maggie is Patrick’s wife," Joyce explained to Vane. "She’s going to make me a grandmother in the springtime."
"Congratulations," Vane said to Patrick.
"Yeah, we’ll see. I’m scared as hell. Personally, I don’t think I’m ready to be someone’s parent."
"Yeah," Bride said with a laugh. "You might have to share your toys."
Patrick grimaced at her before he launched a pea over the table at her head.
Vane caught it before it made contact, then zipped it right back at Patrick. It hit him straight between the eyes. Bride howled with laughter.
"Children!" Joyce snapped. "You behave or I’ll make you eat in the corner."
"Nice reflexes, bud," Patrick said, wiping his brow good-naturedly. "I think we should recruit you for the team."
"I don’t think so, Pat," Bride said. "I somehow think Vane would balk at wearing a shirt that says ‘Snip It and Clip It If You Love It’ on his back. He’s kind of sensitive about dog neutering."
Vane arched a brow at that, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Her father laughed hard. "I can appreciate his point of view. Not many men want to play for the Castrators. But we have a lot of female vets who strangely do."
"Ah, we’ll work on him," Patrick said. "With those reflexes, we could definitely use him."