The routine continued much the same during the next few weeks – Hank and Kiona working side by side grooming and walking dogs. Kiona met the part time staff employed at Penny's Plush Pooch – Mrs. Anderson who did the billing and other front end administrative work and the next generation of high school kids who came in to help walk dogs, clean the kennels and assist Hank with grooming responsibilities – there was Jessie, Jenny, Ray, George, Kristin, and Ashley, all of whom worked various shifts and assorted days. Hank told his crew that Kiona was an "Alumni Staff" and the group accepted her warmly and with an interest in hearing some of the stories from the old days.
Hank came down with what he thought was a summer cold when a cough started but his symptoms became increasing worse as the days went by – fever, headaches, sore muscles, chills, shaking, vomiting, no appetite, stomach pains, and gastrological issues. He assumed he had a summer cold, fever and food poisoning all at the same time! Kionia knew he was seriously ill when Hank had her cover some of his responsibilities and one morning she stopped by the house to check on how he was doing. She found him collapsed on the couch, seemingly semi-conscious.
"Jesus, you look like shit," a startled Kiona said. "I don't think this is just some summer flu thing."
"Give it another day or two," Hank mumbled. "I'm sure it will pass."
Kiona felt his forehead for fever. His skin was clammy and hot and Hank seemed to be fairly out of it mentally as well as physically.
"I would have followed you to the ends of the Earth," he said, his eyes droopy and red. "I would have come after you and saved you the fires from hell."
"I know, Hank," Kiona replied, partly amused but mostly worried because he really did look awful and now was talking gibberish. "Do you want to try to eat something?"
"When's the last time you ate?" She frowned.
"I don't know or care," he sighed. "Will you go out to dinner with me?"
"How 'bout some chicken soup?" She suggested.
"I'll just barf it up," he groaned.
"You kind of smell like puke," she realized. "Maybe we should wash you up."
"I thought I was dreaming when you first came back," Hank said, sounding dippy again.
"No, I'm really here," she said. "I'm going to run a bath for you, okay?"
"It was like seeing an angel," he smiled. "It was like my dream came true."
"You're really out of it, aren't you?"
"I was out of it without you," he replied. "God, I love you."
Kiona was startled by his revelation. "You do?"
"I hoped you loved me," he sighed. "Like the dogs," he mumbled as he fell against the back of the couch, looking delirious as though he was hallucinating
She started to say something then realized there was no point in his present condition. "Can you get up?" She asked. "We need to get you the bathtub and then maybe to the hospital."
"If I croak, all this is yours," Hank told her. "You're better at this then I am anyway."
"No I'm not,' she insisted.
"I used to pretend we ran this place together back when we were kids," Hank told her. "That was always my fantasy. You, me and the dogs. Then he started to sing 'Me and You And A Dog Named Boo', the old song by Lobo but his voice trailed off and his eyes teared up. "But you left," he whimpered.
Kiona sat on the couch next to him and she stared at him, brushing her hand through his matted sweaty hair.
"When you kissed me down by the river, I wanted to grab you and jump in the water with you."
"So we would be baptized together," he said, struggling to keep his eyes open. "We'd take our clothes off and swim in the river and be one with each other."
Kiona stared at him for a long moment. "Sounds like fun," she whispered.
Hank had closed his eyes, perhaps even fainted and all of a sudden Kiona understood the real reason why she had come back to Greenville. She left the couch and went into the bathroom, running a hot bath. Then she returned to the living room and jostled Hank awake.
"Come on Hank, bath time," she ordered.
"Are you going to groom me?" the delirious Hank asked as she half pulled him to his feet, staggered by his body odor.
She half walked-half dragged him to the bathroom and he collapsed onto the toilet. She pulled his smelly soiled tee shirt off over his head and tugged his stained gym shorts and underwear down his legs as Hank swayed like a tree in the wind.
"Don't fall off the toilet," Kiona said sternly. Then she noticed a mark on his inner thigh. "What's that?" She asked.
Hank glanced down and saw that she was peering at his leg and exposed penis. "You don't know?" He asked with surprise. "Didn't you and that bastard Robinson do it? That's why you left, right? You'd sleep with him but not with me. I'm the one who loved you, not him. You picked the wrong guy leaving with him. My heart is still broken."
Kiona gawked at him with disbelief. "You never said anything."
"I didn't know I had too," he sighed. "How was I supposed to go after you when you never told me you felt the way that would have caused me to go after you?"
"There's some sort of rash or mark on the inside of your leg," she said, ignoring his semi-delirious questions.
"You're not supposed to look," he said. "Those are my balls. We're not having sex, remember? It's jock itch," Hank muttered.
"That's not jock itch."
She moved his penis away with her hand and looked closer at the mark on his inner thigh.
"Inappropriate touching," Hank mumbled. "Boundary violation. Don't ask don't tell. Don't tell my mother. Oh God, Kiona," he almost whimpered and she was surprised to see that he was becoming excited even in his exhausted, fatigued and weakened condition.
"You really do like me," she realized with wonderment. "There's some sort of bite mark in all that red," she said. "No wonder you're sick."
"I'm poisoned?" He asked. "Am I going to die?"
"We need to get you to the hospital," Kiona determined. "Here, get in the tub and soap up and clean off."
She helped him to his feet and directed him into the tub. Hank half sat-half fell into the water and Kiona grabbed a bar of soap and a washcloth and quickly cleaned off the body odor and stink that had been permeating from his pores. She pulled the plug on the drain and let the water seep out and then helped Hank to his feet, using a long towel to dry him off before escorting him to his bedroom to put on some clothes. When he was ready, she walked him to her car and drove him to the hospital, calling ahead and asking her doctor father to meet them in the ER to offer his assistance with the diagnosis and remedy.
It turned out that Hank was suffering from Anaplasmosis, a tick-borne illness. He was admitted into the hospital for a few days to be pumped with antibiotics and IV fluids as he was dehydrated and weak. It was only when he was settled in his room and peacefully sleeping that the concerned Kiona went home. She spent the next few days making sure Penny's Plush Pooch met all its obligations and commitments and she cleaned Hanks's house when she wasn't visiting him at the hospital. He had regained his senses and claimed he didn't remember much of the last few days which took some of the embarrassment away from Kiona although she was pretty sure Hank was madly in love with her.
Hank was discharged home two days later with orders for plenty of rest and nourishment. Kiona gladly acted as his unofficial nurse and caretaker, insisting that he not leave the house and was comfortable, making him stay in his bed which she piled high with pillows and that his medications were conveniently close by. Hank was impressed – and moved by- her bedside manner and he appreciated her loving care, compassion, concern and involvement. He wondered what would have happened to him had Kiona still been in Texas when he got sick. He had vague strange memories of being naked and Kiona being close by but his comprehension of what was reality and what was his delusional dreams was confusing. He had never been that out of it before while ill.
Hank repeatedly questioned Kiona about the state of affairs with the business – hoping no grooming appointments were missed and that the dogs in the kennel were okay.
"Everything's fine, Hank," she assured him with a grin, fluffing his pillows as he lay in his bed, forbidden to leave under her orders. "Isn't it nice to know doggie life goes on without you!?"
"I'm just glad you're here," Hank said with sincerity. "Thanks for keeping things going and for taking care of me."
"You're welcome," she smiled.
Hank felt the sparks of electricity that always rushed through his body whenever she was nearby, something he identified as lust and want long ago. Kiona must have sensed it because she took a seat on the bed next to him, catching Hank by surprise.
"You should have told me how you felt," Kiona said bluntly.
Hank blushed and swallowed hard. "Did I say something when I was out of it?" He worried.
She dropped her head against his chest. "What makes you ask that?" She giggled.
Hank dared to slide his hand underneath her Penny Plush Pooch tee shirt (how many did she have!?) to feel the bare skin of her stomach.
"I think I've figured out what I'm supposed to do with my life," Kiona let him know.
"Oh?" Hank asked nervously.
She lifted her head off of his chest, sat straight up, looked directly into his eyes, cupped his cheeks (which were covered by a two week growth of beard) in her palms and then leaned in and touch his lips lightly with hers. "Yes," she whispered.
Hank gladly held the kiss, letting his beard growth rub against her face as he pressed his mouth against her lips before moving elsewhere on her face and neck.
"I should have told you how I really felt," Kiona sighed as she returned his kisses with a full press of her own.
"Why didn't you?" Hank quizzed.
"I guess I needed that escape clause," she sighed. "I was wrong."
"Every time I kiss you from now on I'm going to pretend it's the first time," Hank vowed.
"Why don't I stay here tonight?" Kiona suggested.
"Overnight nurse?" Hank grinned.
She smiled knowingly before leaving the bed and going into the kitchen to make some supper. She returned with the meal on a tray, enough for two and she sat next to him on the bed while they both ate. Then she left to check on the dogs in the kennel and made sure everything was set for the night before returning to Hank's bedroom, pulling her Penny's Plush Pooch tee shirt off over her head to reveal her small round breasts and she discarded her shorts and lay on the bed on her stomach, naked, giving him a long smiling look. Hank looked at her as if she was a museum art piece.
"I love you, Kiona," Hank whispered.
She glanced up and smiled at him. "I love you, too, Hank, my plush pooch."