"Dad! Dad! Wake up!"
Gunnar sat bolt upright in the bed, his mind still fuzzed with sleep even as he responded to the panic in his eight-year-old daughter's voice. "Olivia, what's wrong?"
Gunnar didn't smell smoke, so the house wasn't on fire. He rubbed his eyes. Olivia stood at the edge of his bed. Her brown curls were frizzed, sticking out in every direction. Her nose and eyes were red, and in her arms, she cradled their new kitten, Puff.
"Puff's sick," Olivia said with a sob.
Puff was, according to the shelter, a seven-week-old buff tabby kitten. “Buff” meant he was light orange-beige with slightly darker stripes. They had adopted him four days ago for Olivia's birthday. The little guy had been sneezing a little then, but he was active, chasing a feather on a string through the bars of his cage when he wasn't running after his own tail. Now, as Olivia laid him gently on the comforter, he could hardly lift his head.
Gunnar felt ill.
Since Adam's death a year ago, Olivia had been terrified of someone else she loved dying. So was Gunnar, but as the adult, and now her only living parent, he couldn't show it. He was an alpha, and he had to be strong enough to care for his family even if he had been too weak and too blind to save his husband's life.
"Puff's going to be okay," Gunnar said, praying it wasn't a lie. "Let him stay on the bed and go get the carrier. We're taking him to a vet."
Olivia nodded and dashed from the room. Gunnar looked down at Puff and ran his thumb over the kitten's head. He was tiny, and now that he wasn't moving, Gunnar felt the ridges of his skull through his fur. That couldn't be normal.
Puff sneezed again.
Gunnar swallowed. Yes, Puff was Olivia's kitten, but he was also Gunnar's. And Gunnar was the adult. He should have been paying more attention. This was his fault.
He grabbed his phone off the night table and began frantically looking for the nearest vet. It was 7:45 in the morning and the emergency clinic was twenty minutes away by car. There was also a family clinic only four blocks away. They opened at eight. Hopefully, the staff wouldn't be running behind. Gunnar made up his mind. They would try the Griffin Pet Clinic first. If Griffin's couldn't help, then he would floor it with his daughter to Vet ER.
Olivia ran back into the room with the cat carrier. She was still in her pajamas, which for her was a pair of pink pajama bottoms with yellow stars on them and a baggy t-shirt with the name of her Kung Fu studio "Feng Sui Five Animal Style" across the front. She sat down on the bed with the carrier next to her, picked up Puff, and put him on her lap.
It amazed Gunnar his daughter still had so much faith in him and so much faith in the world considering how much she had been through. He couldn't be responsible for her losing that faith. Yes, he objected to his mother's taking Olivia to the shelter to pick out a kitten for her birthday, but now that Puff was a part of their family, Gunnar couldn't let him die.
Olivia, the responsible child that she was, sat in the back, and after buckling her seatbelt, turned the carrier on the seat beside her so she could look inside the front opening. Gunnar turned the ignition on the minivan Adam had insisted they buy for starting a family, and pulled out of the driveway.
Liberty City had started as a ramshackle town built up during the gold rush as prospectors panned the mountain streams. Recently, within the past fifty years or so, sections of the city had been reworked along a more traditional, East Coast grid style, but it hadn't taken everywhere. The new house Gunnar had bought was in one of the more tangled areas. Gunnar backed up onto E. Valley St., which was neither due east nor in a valley, and followed the twisting path to the first streetlight before turning left, and left again.
The streets were narrower here. A city bus stop sat across from the brightly colored sign atop Griffin's pet clinic. The clinic was small, and from across the street looked more like the first story of a row home than a hospital, but Gunnar had committed himself. He wasn't sure Puff would make it the full twenty minutes to the emergency clinic, and if he did, who knew how much longer they would have to wait from there.
Gunnar wasn't even sure how long it took the average person walking in with a life-threatening emergency to make it through the E.R. He'd always been healthy, aside from breaking his arm and ankle once as a kid. Now, as a homicide detective, when he called for a bus, it was usually well past too late for the doctor to offer anything but an autopsy.
Gunnar pulled the car into an empty parking space two cars back from the bus stop and unlocked the doors. "Get out on the curb and cross with me," he said.
Gunnar nodded. If he was sneezing, at least that meant he was alive.
Gunnar took the carrier with one hand and Olivia's hand with his other as they crossed the street. It was 8:05, and a young guy, with blond hair and glasses bent down on the ground between the inside door and a partially opened gate as he picked up a white metal box with a red medical symbol on the side.
"Excuse me, sir, are you the vet?” Olivia asked, slipping inside the gap where the gate was partially opened. Gunnar grabbed OlivIa’s shoulder to keep her from bowling the guy over as the man looked up. His nose twitched, and his eyes widened as his gaze rested on Gunnar.
Gunnar smelled it too, the subtle sweetness of an omega mingling with his own alpha musk. Adam had been cinnamon chocolate. This man was more cream and mint, with a hint of... caramel? It was attractive, and Gunnar ruthlessly crushed the sudden desire to get closer and identify that third, underlying scent.
Olivia said, “Puff is very sick."
"Puff?" The doctor stood. Getting a better look at his face, Gunnar estimated his age upward. Late twenties, not mid, closer to Gunnar’s own age. Worse, the man was handsome, in a boyish way, his blue eyes bright and magnified a bit too large behind the lenses of his glasses as he ran a hand through his wavy blond hair. He wore a stethoscope around his neck, and thankfully his tone was warm and businesslike as he said, "I'm Dr. Chandler," looking only at Olivia.
"We adopted Puff from the shelter on Sunday," Gunnar explained, holding out the carrier over his daughter’s head so that the doctor could see.
Dr. Chandler looked into the carrier, and his lips tightened as the smile faded from his face. He held out his hand. "Come with me." He opened the inside door. "Carolyn, my tech, is running late, but if you two don't mind letting me take him into the back, Pam will get your paperwork started while I take a look at Puff."
“Whatever you have to do for him, do it,” Gunnar said.
Dr. Chandler led them through the door and through a small, homey waiting room. A clean but well-worn Oriental rug was spread over the hardwood floor. Mismatched antique chairs sat against the front and left walls, and between them was a pair of low tables covered with magazines. Opposite the chairs to the left of the front door, a large fish tank bubbled and a smattering of brightly colored tropical fish fluttered through the water.
Above the fish tank was a large window that looked in over a long, tall desk with two office chairs and three computer screens. One of the chairs had a large, black leather pocketbook on top of it. Ahead was a hallway. A door opened, and a short, middle-aged woman with her hair braided and pulled back in a ponytail stepped out. She wore bright yellow scrubs with multicolored soccer balls and flat, sensible shoes that reminded Gunnar of the beat officer.
"Kitten,” Olivia said. “His name is Puff. He's mine. He's very sick."
"Pam, if you don't mind getting a history on – –" Dr. Chandler took a breath, and Gunnar realized he hadn't even told the man his name. "On Puff’s family."
"Gunnar," he said. "And this is my daughter, Olivia."
"Olivia," Pam said. "That's a beautiful name."
"I'm named after a cop like my dad."
Gunnar's face heated. Adam was the one who told Olivia about the show when she was six. Thankfully, both Gunnar and his husband had agreed she was way too young to watch it. Still, it was embarrassing. Gunnar said, "You're named after your great-grandmother, Olive."
The doctor continued down the hall to what looked like a larger room with a third of an exam table visible through the open door.
Chimes jingled as the front door opened again, and another woman, looking to be in her mid-twenties with a smattering of freckles over her face and frizzy red hair pulled back in a ponytail, ran in. "I'm so sorry I'm late. The bus got caught behind this pileup and we were sitting for almost a half hour. Is the doctor – –"
"He's in the back with a patient, Carolyn."
“Oh!” Carolyn looked at Gunnar and Olivia and nodded. “I’ll go help Dr. Chandler. He’s the best. We’re so happy Dr. Griffin finally agreed to bring a second doctor into the practice. She’s pushing seventy and was driving in from her farm at six-thirty in the morning, six days a week."
Carolyn had a large, neon green bag over her right shoulder which she swung in front of her as she said, "Excuse me," and squished past them.
"Should I...?” Gunnar looked down the hall to the treatment room as the red-haired woman opened and then shut the door behind her.
Olivia was tall for her age, but even so, standing on her tiptoes, she still couldn't see over the desk. Pam waved her around to one of the empty chairs. "Come and sit with me, Olivia, or do you go by Liv?"
"Understood, Olivia," Pam said with a smile. She looked up at Gunnar. "Last name, Mr....?"
"Justice. Gunnar Justice."
Pam blinked and nodded.
Gunnar shook his head. "I know, and I'm a cop. Worse, my oldest brother's a lawyer in New York."
Pam’s lips twitched. "Must be a lot to live up to."
At that moment, Gunnar knew he'd made the right decision to come here. You could tell a lot about an organization from the demeanor of the staff. Pam was caring and relaxed. It was pretty clear nobody here stood on formalities.
Gunnar gave Pam his home address and the information he had about Puff. He had grabbed the papers from the shelter, and he pushed them across the desk for Pam to put into the computer.
Pam stopped typing and turned to Olivia. "Olivia, we're going to do everything we can to get Puff better. Dr. Chandler is an excellent doctor, and I can tell you and your dad love Puff very much."
Olivia nodded. Her eyes were shining. Gunnar realized he was twisting his wedding ring. If only Adam were here. He would know what to say, just like this nice receptionist seemed to know what to say. If Adam were alive, he'd have noticed something was wrong with Puff before now. Maybe even before Olivia has picked out an obviously sickly kitten.
The door to the exam room opened, and the red-haired woman, still in her jeans but now wearing a light blue scrub top, walked briskly towards them. "Excuse me, sir, Dr. Chandler has finished examining Puff, and we need your permission to – –."
"Like I said, do whatever you have to do."
Carolyn nodded, and then said, "Of course, but the doctor still would like to speak with you."
Olivia jumped to her feet. The chair rolled back behind her, tapping against a bookcase full of file folders. "Come on, Dad."
If Puff really was dying, Gunnar didn't want his daughter to see it. The one thing he had been able to spare his daughter when Adam had died was an open casket. They said it brought closure, and as a Catholic, he was supposed to believe it did, but he'd always found the open caskets to be creepy. Like looking at the shell of a person with nothing inside. He wasn't going to put his daughter through that. Or himself. Bad enough he'd had to identify the body.
Gunnar said, "Olivia, why don't you stay here with Pam for a few minutes while I speak with the doctor?"
"But Dad, Puff – –."
"Stay with Pam," Gunnar ordered. Inside, he flinched at the harshness of his tone. He barked at her like she was a beat cop fresh out of the Academy and not his daughter.
"Just for a minute. Please," Gunnar said, trying to smile. He reached out, wanting to rub her hair like he had when she was younger, back when Adam was alive and they’d all known how to talk to each other. But Olivia turned her head away. He pulled his hand back. "I'll just be a minute. I promise."
"Olivia, can you tell me what breed of kitten your Puff is for our records?" Pam asked, gently. "Your daddy's just going to talk for a little bit with the doctor about Puff’s preliminary exam. Do you know what preliminary means?"
Pam smiled. "It's a very adult word. It means first or beginning."
Olivia nodded, "Yeah, I thought so."
Gunnar started down the hall. Maybe he had made the wrong decision telling Olivia to stay behind at the desk. He didn't know where the line between protecting his daughter and overprotecting her was anymore. And because he couldn't see the line, he never knew if he was on the right side of it.
Please, let me do this right this time. Gunnar prayed, though it was more of a plea. For him, praying was mostly something repeated by rote. The one time he had begged God for a miracle, it had been too late. Still, he twisted his wedding ring around his finger as he walked, hoping this morning wouldn’t break his heart...again.