The Beginning and the End
She was looking for something.
Brooke Laramie had been looking for something for as long as she could remember. When she was in diapers she looked for anything she could pop in her mouth, much to her mother’s dismay. In middle school it had been the biggest tree to climb or the quickest way to get the best grade with the least work. High school found her looking for ways to improve her tennis game and thereby feeding her need for competition, this time to her parents’ pleasure as it led to a college scholarship. Now, she found herself in her third year of vet school and she was struggling to decide if this was what she had really been looking for. And if it wasn’t, then just what in the heck was? Recently the stress of school and her existing indecisiveness were driving her crazy.
It was moments like this one that enabled Brooke a brief glimpse at contentment. Her ash blonde hair was tangled by a cooler than usual central-Texas breeze, and Dart’s slick, golden Labrador coat brushed rhythmically against her left thigh. Thoughts of pharmacology and clinical pathology and vet school, in general, were a distant thought as the pair wound their way down the park path. They reached the area that was set aside for off-leash play and Brooke asked Dart to sit before unclipping his leash and releasing him to fraternize with the other canine park patrons.
While keeping a keen eye on her companion she headed to a nearby bench and sat. She noticed a new dog in the group of playmates, a graceful giant with a flowing coat of copper and black. The dog was gamboling about with her long, plumed tail flagging and ears flopping enticing Dart to join her in a game of chase. Brooke recognized the dog as a Leonberger, a breed not too common in the United States and one she was familiar with because her best friend back home raised them. Her full lips parted in a smile as she watched the dog exhibit typical Leo playfulness. Curious to see who had brought the dog, Brooke watched as the dog made a dash, with Dart in full pursuit, for a man standing at the far end of the field. He was leaning against a tree, one knee brought up with the foot resting against the bark. The shade of the tree hid his features from her gaze but she could tell that he was tall and had a head full of thick, wavy hair. His relaxed stance was quickly lost as 120 pounds of flying Leonberger came hurtling toward him and, unable to bring herself to a stop, the dog slammed into his knees. Brooke’s smile turned into a chuckle as she watched the man place his hands on the dog’s back to regain his balance.
“Oof! Jezebel, you big galoot!” Gabe Dehart muttered as he rubbed his hands briskly down the sides of his dog.
He looked up at the grinning Labrador standing a few feet away and patted his thigh in invitation. Having never found someone who wasn’t a friend, Dart came forward willingly. Gabe lowered his long frame into a crouch and, with his back against the tree, made friends with Jez’s new companion.
Instead of calling her dog back to her, Brooke decided to go over and meet the man and dog to which Dart was now busy ingratiating himself. By the time she reached the trio the Leo lay beside Gabe with her head up and eyes alert like the regal lion her breed was named for and Dart was sprawled on his back accepting belly rubs like the affectionate clown well-known to his.
Gabe looked up as the attractive blonde approached and pegged her for the Lab’s owner when the dog jumped up and trotted out to meet her. He noticed the way the woman met the dog with a loving hand laid on his head and was impressed when her soft command to heel brought the Lab around snappily to sit at her left side. His eyes lazily made their way from her loose ashen curls, down her womanly curves and back to the gray eyes staring back at him with one eyebrow arched in question at his appraisal. Gabe's response to being caught was a quick grin as he raised himself off the ground and walked forward to meet her while dusting bits of grass and dirt off his jeans.
As Gabe walked toward her, Brooke’s annoyance at the man’s insolence quickly vanished as she found she was unabashedly doing the same. She could almost hear herself giving a low moan of female appreciation at the rugged good looks the man in front of her possessed. One might say he wasn’t conventionally handsome; his features were not smooth enough to be pretty. Rather, it was a cragginess of face coupled with a square jaw and heavy brow that was offset by full lips and all that wavy brown hair that stirred a little clench in Brooke’s gut that she knew to be lust. It didn’t hurt that his frame was long, his shoulders were wide and he moved with the lazy grace usually bestowed upon a big cat.
“You must be his.” Gabe said, with a pointed look at Dart.
“I guess you could say that, I’m Brooke Laramie. This is Dart.”
At the mention of his name, the yellow lab looked up at Brooke and gave a soft “woof” of acknowledgement. Jez had stood when Gabe had and was now pressing her large head into his thigh, her body wagging in anticipation of her introduction.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Gabe and this,” he said with one hand fondling a feathered ear, “is Jezebel.”
“She’s a Leo, right?”
“Yes, she is. You’re one of the first people to ask that instead of assuming she is just a large mutt.”
Brooke leaned down on a knee and put both hands on the side of Jez’s face as the big dog moved in for the sloppy kiss fest she loved to give. While accepting the long licks and trying not to get knocked over by the dog’s exuberance, Brooke looked up at Gabe.
“I have a friend that raises Leos. They aren’t very common. When I noticed Dart playing with Jezebel my curiosity was piqued. She’s beautiful.”
“Thank you. She’s also about to knock you over. Here, let me help you up.”
His big hand engulfed Brooke’s and brought her to her feet in an easy tug. She found herself face to chest with him. She could smell the spicy, woodsy scent of him and feel the roughened calluses on his hand as he released hers. She took a step back.
“Do you come here a lot, then?”
“As often as I can. I live in a condo not far from here. I don’t have much in the way of a backyard so this is where we come to stretch our legs. And you?” Brooke said,” I haven’t seen you here before.”
“Actually, I’m just here for a week. I came to speak at the Vet School and see if I can’t recruit an intern or two."
Brooke couldn’t have been more shocked by his statement. This was Gabe Dehart?? Mr. Dehart was set to speak to her and her classmates about his efforts to help the Mexican Gray Wolf once again roam the ranges of New Mexico. He was considered by most to be an oxymoron: a rancher that favored the protection and re-release of wolves into the wild. He had even gone so far as to set aside some of his land for the acclimation of those that would eventually be released.
“Then we’ll see each other again. I’m finishing up my third year of vet school. I’ve been looking forward to your seminar. The rancher-environmentalist with a rare German bred dog. . .you’re quite the mix.”
The tanned skin at the corners of Gabe’s eyes creased and he flashed a self deprecating grin at Brooke’s last remark.
“You don’t know the half of it, Ms. Laramie,” he said.” See you next week, then.”
He snapped a leather lead on to Jez’s collar, ruffed Dart’s head in farewell and walked away.
Brooke stared after him.
The lump lodged in her throat threatened to choke her. Brooke struggled with the pain and humiliation that were pushing down on her chest like a weighted stone. How could this have happened? Three years of her life had come down to one test and one point. It was all over now. She sat in the floor of her living room, Dart’s smooth head resting on her lap, a glass of wine on the coffee table beside her, and years of dreams swirling around in her head. God, how she wanted to drink herself into oblivion, as if that would somehow change the circumstances that had led up to this point. Exactly four hours earlier she had found out that she wouldn’t be returning to vet school after Christmas break.
Now, the prospect of going home for the holidays was enough to bring an acid taste to her mouth and make her gut clinch in horror. Not only would she have to face her parents but she would also have to retell her humiliation to all the well-meaning people that would ask, with genuine interest, how vet school was going. As her mind struggled to come to grips with the thunderous taunts of failure, a small corner of her conscious whispered of relief.