Authors: Sydell Voeller
FREE TO LOVE
(Electronic Book Publishers)
192 Lakeside Greens Drive
Chestermere, Alberta, TIX 1C2
Copyright 2012 by Sydell Voeller
Cover Art Copyright 2012 by Michelle Lee
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
“Oh no,” Joanna Sullivan exclaimed under her breath. “If I don’t get help, you’re going to die.” She peered anxiously at the brownish-black sea lion. Cutting into its neck was a blue nylon net.
What should she do?
This was an injured wild animal, not a household pet. Even though
been a state park ranger for over two years, that didn’t qualify her to handle this alone.
The late September rain smarted against her face as she sprinted back up the empty beach, her mind racing. Normally this stretch was packed with tourists and weekenders, but now it appeared there was no one to help her.
Unexpectedly, an idea struck. Just that morning, on her way down the coast highway to the title company,
noticed a wildlife rehabilitation center--Anchorhold, the sign had read. Her only hope was to hurry back to her duplex and phone them.
Sidestepping a pile of driftwood, she hurried on until she came to the winding trail that led up from the beach. How long had the sea lion been trapped like this, she wondered anxiously. How many others were at risk?
At the top of the trail, she crossed a narrow strip of wild beach grass that led to her duplex. Its weathered gray shingles seemed to meld into the mist and the fog.
“Jo! Is that you?”
She looked up, stopping abruptly. She could barely detect the outline of a tall, broad-framed man who was waving to get her attention. Whoever it was, his voice sounded familiar.
he’d arrived in the forest-green Jeep she saw parked behind her car in the driveway.
She approached cautiously, closing the distance between them. The man was wearing a navy-blue windbreaker, faded jeans, and a blue and white baseball cap.
Sudden recognition spiraled with confusion. “Austin!” she gasped. She caught her breath, a sharp stinging draft of air. For a paralyzing second she could have sworn it was Kyle her husband. But no, she reminded herself with a new rush of pain. Kyle was dead.
never see him again
“Joanna Sullivan! What are you doing out here in this downpour?” he said gruffly, though his teasing grin grew wider with each passing second. “You’ll catch your death of pneumonia!”
“I... I was out for an afternoon run.” She pointed frantically back to the beach.
a sea lion... not far from the bottom of the trail.
got a fishing net caught around its throat. We’ve got to do something!”
His face registered alarm, instantly wiping away his grin. “Hold on! I’ll go get the fishnet in my Jeep.”
She heaved a sigh as she watched him hurry back to his Jeep. What was Austin, her former brother-in-law, doing here? How had he found her? Was this a spur-of-the-moment visit, perhaps? Or was he the bearer of
bad news? Hopefully it
one of his parents, she thought her stomach churning. After Kyle had died, Ralph and Linetta Sullivan had set out for Africa to volunteer with the Peace Corps—the best way they knew to handle their grief.
Soon Austin returned with leather gauntlets and a wadded-up net about the size of a bedspread. “Let’s try this,” he said.
A few minutes
they were back on the beach, several yards away from the sea lion.
“Wait here,” Austin whispered as he crept forward. In one swift motion, he crouched, threw the net snugly over the animal and dropped to his knees.
Joanna drew closer, hunching down too. “Hmm, pretty good size,” she mused out loud.
“A stellar sea lion, about fifty or sixty pounds.”
A raindrop trickled down her cheek and she backhanded it away. Narrowing her gaze in concentration, she watched Austin whittle through the outer net with his Swiss army knife.
“Yeah, fifty or sixty pounds that would love to take a nip out of my hand,” he said dryly. “Good thing I had this net. If I remember correctly, the closest tackle shop is almost an hour away.” The knife pierced through the corded nylon. “Any wildlife clinics around here?” he asked.
I was hurrying back to the house to call them when I saw you.”
“Good. This fella needs antibiotics and observation.” With deft movements, Austin carefully eased away the net that was piercing the sea lion’s flesh.
While Austin worked, Joanna’s gaze drifted to his hands.
Large, masculine hands, tanned and strong.
Hands so competent and agile.
If anyone could handle this emergency, it would undoubtedly be Austin Sullivan. Judging from Kyle’s boasting about him, Austin was one of the best veterinarians the San Francisco Zoo had ever known. But what was he doing here in Oregon?
Just what I was afraid of,” he observed. “That wound is deep and there’s purulent drainage.”
“Most likely the work of a careless fisherman,” Joanna said, indignation fringing her words. She straightened, propping her hands on her hips.
Shall I still call Anchorhold to come and get him, or should we try it ourselves?”
“I think we can do it. The less time we waste, the better.
roll up both ends of the fishnet like a hammock. Good thing the trail’s not too steep.”
In no time
hefted the sea lion in the back of the Jeep and were on their way to the wildlife center. As one mile gave way to the next, they talked companionably. He told her how
taken leave of absence from his job at the zoo. She told him how
accepted a position as a field guide at the Southport Aquarium about five miles down the coast highway. Her new assignment was in marked contrast to her former job as a state park ranger in the high desert of central Oregon. “Tomorrow will be my first day,” she added.
“Mostly conducting public tours to coastal wetlands and estuaries. Two Capes State Park is right next to the aquarium, so the majority of the visitors come from the campgrounds. At the aquarium itself, I’ll be narrating the nature shows.”
They fell silent as they neared town. Through the rain-streaked windshield, she spied a kite shop on the right with a colorful array of wind socks and kites flapping in the wind.
“So you missed living on the coast these past few years,” Austin said at last. His words were clearly a declaration, not a question.
She could hear the sea lion making thumping sounds in the bed of the pickup and reassured herself the drive to the wildlife center would soon be over. “When I was a little girl growing up almost fifty miles south of here, I spent lots of time, summers and winters both, beachcombing and exploring the tide pools.” She smiled wanly. Funny how coming of age and the reality of loss had cast a shadowy pall on all that had once been special.
His voice was honey smooth. “Kyle used to tell me how you were always carting home injured seabirds, too.”
Sudden recollection made her smile. “Uh-huh.
I can understand now how I must’ve driven her crazy.”
He kept his eyes fixed on the highway ahead. “Kyle would be happy for you. He always wanted to take you back here some day. Some day after he’d become a more experienced fire fighter and could better pick and choose where he’d settle down.”
Remembering, too, she swallowed the lump in her throat and stared out her side window. Groves of red-barked Madonna tress, intermingled with towering maples, whizzed by. “Yes, we did talk about that,” she said softly. “We talked about that a lot. We planned to raise our kids in a small beach town a lot like Southport, a place where I could put my degree in environmental studies to good use. And at least
I have one relative close by, Aunt Marcella. We’ve stayed in close touch through e-mails and phone calls.”
“Nice that you can have some family in town.”
“Yes. When my sister, Stacey, and I were little girls, she and Uncle Ben used to visit often, always bringing us boxes of Cracker Jack or home-baked goodies.” Joanna wanted to add more, to explain how it was her grief that had really fueled her move, not mere longing, nor convenience. But she knew she
. It was much too soon to share such confidences even if he might still consider himself her brother-in-law.
The sign to Anchorhold loomed up ahead.
Minutes later, Dr. Ted Ashelman, the veterinarian on staff, greeted them warmly while three interns carted the sea lion onto an examination table.
“Can we help?” Austin asked after
introduced first Joanna, then himself. He handed the vet his business card.
The portly, white-haired veterinarian smiled his appreciation. “Yes, thanks. Just call me Ted. You might stand by while I administer a sedative, irrigate the wound, and give this critter an antibiotic.”
“Glad to,” Austin replied. He wrinkled his nose against the foul odor that mingled with the clinical smells of medicine and disinfectant. The sea lion, still mummied inside the fishing net, struggled beneath his restraining grasp. “Staph infection, I bet,” he added.
Dr. Ashelman nodded as he opened a package of sterile gloves. “I’m afraid so. Less than an hour ago,” he continued, “another couple brought in two injured seabirds with a fishhook embedded in its side and a sandpiper caught in a strapping band.”
Joanna bit her lip as new concern washed over her.
Concern for the innocent wildlife.
Concern for all God’s creatures.
Yes, something stirred deep inside of her again.
Something long forgotten in the wake of her grief.
Fleetingly, her eyes met Austin’s for some confirmation that he might be feeling the same way too.
His expression remained closed.
Yet how could he understand? She reasoned. He was a zoo vet—not a wildlife rehabilitator.
“Do you take in primarily birds?” Joanna asked, while the older veterinarian drew up the medication in a plastic syringe and gave the injection.
“Yes, though we see other animals too. Many have been hit by
shot, ripped by barbed wire—you name it. Some can be treated and released immediately. But many others, like our friend right here, require a longer stay.
Still others, the young and orphaned, need careful nurturing.
To us, no animal is too small or insignificant. They all receive the same diligent care.”
“But it’s got to be tough,” Austin interjected. “Tough to know exactly how to treat a wild animal when there’s limited, if any established standards.”
Dr. Ashelman adjusted the exam light above the table to get a better look at the now sedated sea lion.
Wildlife rehab is still such a fledgling science. Most of my colleagues, especially those from veterinary school, have gone into domestic animal practice. The need for research and research workers is growing by leaps and bounds.” With his gloved hands and squares of sterile gauze, he expressed the drainage,
began flushing out the wound.
Half an hour later, after the sea lion had been transported to the recovery unit, Dr. Ashelman agreed to Joanna’s request for a quick tour of the rehab clinic.