The following day, before heading to the gym, Cole dropped Savannah off at her therapy appointment that had been pre-scheduled by the facility coordinator. After a vigorous workout and a quick shower, Cole was dressed and back in his SUV, headed to pick up Savannah.
He entered the doctor’s office, took a seat in the reception area, and began flipping through a magazine. A few minutes later, the office door opened and Savannah emerged with swollen eyes. Cole sprung to his feet.
The doctor stepped around Savannah towards Cole. “Is this him?”
Savannah nodded, her eyes locked on Cole’s.
Christ, this wasn’t good. He could get in trouble with the Bureau for even being here with her. The doctor, mid-forties with graying hair at his temples, strode toward Cole and extended his hand. “I’m Doctor White, but call me Malcolm. Do you mind if we have a word, Cole?”
Cole nodded. It was the only thing he could do, though he was confused and on edge. What had Savannah told her therapist about him?
As soon as they were seated in his large office, Malcolm cut to the chase. “She told me who you were. But don’t worry—doctor / patient confidentially and all that. Plus I don’t care who you work for. I get the sense that you want to help Savannah, so I wanted to offer some guidance.”
Cole leaned forward, his hands on his knees, ready to listen to whatever the doctor had to say. It seemed that they were on the same page. This was about Savannah.
“These sessions will help, but they’re only once a week. Savannah needs to get into a regular routine. She needs some semblance of normal in her life.”
Cole nodded in agreement. No shit, doc. That’s the brilliant advice he probably charges three-hundred dollars an hour to deliver?
“She seems to have a caring, nurturing spirit.”
Cole recognized as much; she loved to cook and seemed content to feed him and stay at home. But he waited, wondering where this conversation was heading.
“She needs someone or something to care for. Do you have pets, plants, anything?”
“Ah, no.” Cole scrubbed a hand over his scruff.
“So it seems at the moment what she’s putting her caring energy into is you. That concerns me.” Malcolm frowned. “Savannah could grow quite attached at this vulnerable point in her life. You’ll need to be careful.”
If the doc felt it necessary, he’d buy her a plant, but he didn’t see how watering a cactus once a week would help. Not to mention he was enjoying Savannah funneling her nurturing energy into taking care of him. “Got any advice for me?” Cole asked, shifting in the stiff leather chair. He didn’t like admitting that he had no clue what he was doing, but he needed the advice, and since Savannah had already told the doctor about him, there was no use pretending he wasn’t involved.
Dr. Malcolm White laced his fingers in front of his round stomach. “Watch for withdrawn or self-destructive behaviors. She didn’t have the normal teenage experience, and even though she’s wise beyond her years, it’s possible she could go through a late rebellious stage — wanting to experience the typical teenage things she missed out on.”
“Okay…” Cole wasn’t sure what he meant, but he thought of his own rebellious years… sneaking out to go to parties, drinking too much, getting in fights and fooling around with girls he had no intention of dating. He couldn’t see Savannah behaving like that. She seemed too sweet, too innocent.
“And there’s one other thing…” The doctor swallowed and met his eyes. “She’s not ready for any type of romantic relationship, physical or otherwise. I don’t know what your interests in her are, but…”
Cole held up a hand, stopping him there. “I have zero interest in starting a relationship with her. And as far as anything physical…she’s just a kid.”
The doctor frowned. “I wouldn’t say that. She’ll be twenty in a couple of months, more than old enough for a relationship; I just don’t think she’s ready yet. She’s got a lot of healing to do first.”
Cole nodded. “Listen, like I said, I’m not interested in that with her.”
“She’s an attractive girl. I had to bring it up.”
Cole didn’t respond. He couldn’t. His voice, along with his self-assuredness had disappeared. The truth was he had no idea what he was doing with Savannah. Not a clue. But he knew one thing; he felt a compelling need to keep her safe. He’d just have to shut off any attraction he felt for her.
He accepted a stack of self-help books from Dr. White, unsure if they were for Savannah or him, and stalked from the office.
“Do you mind if we turn on the TV?” Savannah asked. “It’s just so quiet in here, and I’m used to more background noise.”
“Sure.” Cole handed her the remote, and she stared down at it curiously like it was some strange foreign object. “Here.” He hit the power button, bringing the flat screen to life.
It was turned to one of the premium channels, which thankfully kept the programming clean during the day. He rarely watched TV, but when he did, it was typically when he couldn’t sleep and it was either watch the soft-core smut on this channel, or infomercials. And a man only needed so many Shark Vacuums and Ab Rollers.
Savannah studied the TV for a moment, wincing at the string of curse words that ripped from the foul-mouthed character on screen. Cole quickly changed the station. The Weather Channel. That was a safe enough option.
Savannah smiled at him in appreciation and headed back into the kitchen.
A short while later, she hesitated at the threshold of the living room, a casserole dish in her hands. “I made beef wellington, would you like some?”
She couldn’t have known that was his favorite and his mother used to make it for him on special occasions. “You made wellington?”
She nodded. “It’s my favorite.”
All that week Savannah had made elaborate meals for Cole. Eggs benedict for breakfast, panini sandwiches for lunch, that afternoon she’d baked and decorated six dozen sugar cookies, and now it was beef wellington. She didn’t know how to make the right portions for just two of them either, so leftovers were stacked in both the fridge and freezer. He’d have meals for the next year at this rate.
Malcolm’s words rang in his head…Savannah’s the nurturing type…she needs to get in a healthy routine… He wasn’t sure all this cooking counted as a healthy routine. She rarely left the kitchen, and when she did, she didn’t know what to do with herself.
Cole was still full from lunch, but he forced down a few bites of the delicious meal, praising Savannah for her efforts. He noticed that she barely ate any of the food she cooked, like she was doing it solely for his benefit. He decided it was time to act.
Cole returned an hour later, wondering if he had made the right decision. The puppy wiggled in his arms, anxious to get down and play. Crap. What if Savannah didn’t even like dogs, or what if she was allergic? Deciding it was too late to turn back now, Cole unlocked the door and went inside.
Not seeing Savannah, he carried the Maltese-Poodle puppy toward her bedroom and knocked at the door. “Savannah?”
He heard her sniffle. “Just a second.”
The puppy let out a whimper and reached out a paw toward the door scratching to get in, like it somehow knew it’s mother was inside. Savannah slowly opened the door. A smile lighting up her tear-streaked face. “Cole?” She blinked, an unspoken question forming on her lips.
“She’s for you. She’s fourteen weeks old. A family bought her from a pet store, and then changed their mind and dropped her off at the shelter down the road. She’s yours. If you want her.”
“Oh, Cole.” Savannah lifted up on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you. She’s so cute.”
Cole handed the squirming thing over to Savannah, who promptly kissed the top of its head and cradled it on her hip like a baby. She captured his attention and held it. Cole’s lips turned up in satisfaction as he watched the touching sight.
There was no denying the dog was cute. She was a whopping six pounds of fluffy cream and tan fur, with a tail that wagged non-stop. Cole wanted to adopt a German Shepherd, or some other manly dog, but when he saw this little thing that looked more like a gremlin than a dog, he knew it was the one Savannah would want. And if the way Savannah buried her face in the puppy’s fur and murmured unintelligible baby talk to it was any indication, he’d done the right thing. His heart squeezed in his chest — the feeling unfamiliar and startling. But he reminded himself he’d only done this to get her doctor off his back. Animal therapy or some shit it was called.
“What are you going to name her?” he asked.
Savannah’s lips curved into a smile. God she was beautiful when she smiled. “I get to name her?”
He nodded and watched her eyes light up.
“I’ll have to think about it.” She smiled, holding the puppy out at arm’s length to get a good look at her.
Cole left again with the excuse of needing to pick up a collar, leash and dog food. But mostly, he needed to escape the overwhelming feelings brought on by Savannah’s sweet murmurings to the puppy.
“Come here, Cuddles.” Savannah scooped the fluff ball up from the floor and balanced the dog on her hip. “That’s a good girl. No biting Cole.”
The damn dog had turned out to be an ankle biter — often nipping at Cole’s heels as he walked across the apartment.
“Dammit, that hurt you little beast.” Cole absently rubbed his tender Achilles tendon.
Savannah didn’t scold the dog, just picked it up and lovingly stroked its back. No wonder the thing was so naughty. She let it get away with murder. Of course, it was only naughty towards Cole. Cuddles treated Savannah as though she walked on water. Probably because she was the one who fed and walked it. Cole usually looked at it with suspicion and distrust.
Now that Savannah had Cuddles and was starting to adjust, Cole decided his forced vacation was over. He was going back to work. Norm would just have to deal with the fact that it was two days early. Savannah had settled in better than he could have expected, and the dog had helped a lot.
Cole had shown her the grassy fenced in area where tenants could exercise their dogs. He showed her the little bags for cleaning up after Cuddles, and gave her an extra key to his condo, telling her to make sure she kept the door locked. She didn’t seem too upset by the thought of him going to work, which was good. She asked if she could take a bubble bath in the sunken tub in his master bath, and said she wanted to read some of the books Dr. White had given her too.
When he arrived at the office the next morning, Norm grumbled something unintelligible and several of the guys groaned, and then began swapping money. What the-?
Instead of ordering him back on vacation, like he suspected would happen, Norm patted him on the back. “Good work. You stayed away longer than I thought you would.”
He looked around at the grinning faces of his co-workers. “You guys took bets on me?”
“Most had you coming back on Tuesday. I had today, which means you just won me fifty bucks.” Norm grinned. “Now everyone back to work.” He shoved a file of printouts at Cole. “Here’s a new case for you.”
Regardless of their jabs, Cole knew being back at work was a good thing. It would help give him some much needed perspective and occupy his brain, hopefully forcing thoughts of Savannah aside, if only for eight hours at a time.
When he got home from work, he found Savannah sitting on the living room floor clutching Cuddles to her chest, tears freely streaming down her cheeks.
He dropped his bag in the entryway and stormed across the living room, falling to his knees in front of her. “Savannah, what is it? What happened?” He cradled her jaw in his hands, meeting her teary eyes.
She looked at him and then back at the TV. “Oh Cole, it’s just so sad.”
He looked at the screen to see what she’d been watching. It was one of those damn talk shows that featured a cast of low lives — this episode appeared to be a girl who didn’t know who the father of their baby was. A tattooed guy strutted across the stage, shouting obscenities at the audience after learning he was not the father. The mother was not to be outdone, was wildly gesturing and shouting, nearly every word bleeped out.
Cole turned it off. “You shouldn’t be watching that trash.”
“She didn’t know who the father of her child was, and he was just so mean…” She sniffed, drawing a deep breath. “And the poor baby…”
Cole pulled her to his chest. “Shh, it’s not real. It’s just TV.” He didn’t know if that was entirely true, but Savannah didn’t need to know that. She was just too vulnerable, too impressionable, having not grown up in the real world. If he could protect her from even some of its harsh realities, he would.
After holding her for a few minutes until her tears subsided, Cole rubbed gentle circles on her back. She pulled away and met his eyes. Still red and puffy, but no fresh tears. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, unwilling to take her eyes from his. “Thanks for…everything. For taking care of me.”
Her lips were only a few inches from his. The desire to kiss her was an overwhelming need, sucking the air from his lungs. His breathing became shallow and he nodded, still meeting her eyes.
She smiled softly and rose to her feet, leaving Cole sitting on his living room rug alone. After shaking away the crazy thoughts in his head, everything from a fierce surge of protectiveness to attraction, he got up and joined Savannah in the kitchen.
He sat perched on a stool while she began dinner. As she cooked, Savannah asked about his day at work. He told her about his new case, investigating a man who was believed to be working with a known terrorist. She listened in rapt interest as she sautéed chicken and vegetables for stir fry. He couldn’t help but notice how comfortable it felt to come home to Savannah at night, rather than his empty apartment. And a hot meal too? He knew he could get used to this — and that was bad, very bad.