Authors: Alice Clayton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women, #Humorous, #General
She looked at me carefully as her eyes began to close off once more. “Love isn’t everything, Chloe, it just isn’t. You didn’t
want to marry Charles, and I accept that. But moving up here, starting this new business, it’s like . . . it’s like I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
I took a deep breath, then held it, still not sure what I was going to say. I let it out in one long sigh as I stood up and began to shake out the blanket. “I know you don’t understand it, but it’s something I need to do right now, for me. I need something for myself. Just for me.”
“And working with these . . . dogs is what you want to do?” she asked, gesturing for the other end of the blanket.
“Yeah,” I said, handing it to her. “I really think it is.”
She was quiet. We worked in silence, folding the blanket toward the foot of the bed. Then she said, “Remember the Feldings? They lived down at the bottom of the hill?”
“Sure, the ones that handed out toothpaste on Halloween?”
“That’s because the father was an orthodontist.”
“They also got egged every Halloween.”
“Be that as it may, I ran into Mrs. Felding at the market the other day. Their son Stephen is going into practice with his father. He’s back from Cornell, and single as can be. She asked about you and—”
“Mother. Seriously,” I said, staring hard at the floor.
“Chloe. Seriously. Can’t you take a joke?” When I looked up her eyes were bright, but this time with mischief.
I rolled my eyes, but allowed a grin. “I’m going to go put some water on,” I said, walking past her on the way to the kitchen. “Maybe after your bath we could have some tea?”
“If you’d like,” she said, her voice controlled but delighted.
“I’d like.” I smiled, then pointed toward the bathroom. “Don’t forget you have to jiggle the handle to get the hot to mix with the cold.”
“For goodness’ sake, I’d forgotten all about that. Do you have
any idea how many times I tried to get your father to hire a plumber? A real one, not just that caretaker.” She went on and on while she took out her bath products, and I just leaned in the doorway and listened to her.
Until she prompted me to go get the kettle on, so the teapot would have time to warm up.
The day of the Fourth of July picnic and parade was one of those picture-perfect California days. Seventy-five degrees, not a cloud in the sky, with a kicky breeze blowing in on off the coast. I spent the better part of the morning with the dogs, playing fetch with a million tennis balls and a racket. Glad my perfect backhand was finally paying off. I paid some bills, answered some emails, avoided two phone calls from my mother, and then managed to get in a quick shower.
My mother and I had spoken a few times since the grand opening party. She wasn’t quite ready to give up on the idea of me moving back to San Diego, believing I’d tire of this “gang dog” thing, but things were less tense than before. And that was a very good thing. And speaking of mothers, today I was going to get to meet Lucas’ mother. He’d called the morning after my parents left, wanting to make sure my head was still on, or if it had been blown out along with the ditty bag. Which he still didn’t quite understand.
“So explain to me once again what a ditty bag is?” he asked.
“It’s just a small bag that might hold things like paper clips
or push pins, or you might take it on a camping trip to hold your toothbrush, toothpaste, and bug spray,” I explained. “Or I might have had one that I kept backstage when I did pageants.”
“And what might have been in that bag?” he asked, curious.
“Preparation H and butt glue.”
“I can’t talk to you ever again,” he said, horrified.
“Oh shut up,” I said, laughing, and dropped a piece of bread into the toaster.
“Are you making toast?”
“Nothing wrong with your ears,” I said. “And, yes, I’m making toast.”
“Or early lunch. Didn’t really eat breakfast this morning,” I replied, gazing out at the driveway, where my parents’ car had been just a little while ago.
“How’d it go with your mom?” he asked, his voice careful.
“Not bad. Not bad at all, actually,” I admitted, spreading Nutella on my warm toast.
“That’s good, right?”
“It’s very good. I think she was still hoping I was going to show up in a gown and a veil in the driveway with Charles, shouting, ‘I do I do!’ ”
“That’s not going to happen, is it?”
“Good lord, no,” I said, biting into my toast. “I’d never get married in a driveway.”
He paused, then laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. Nothing says I love you like a little crushed gravel and an oil slick.”
“Did you have a reason for calling this morning, or did you just want to make me swoon with your redneck pillow talk?”
“How do you feel about fireworks?”
“Specifically. Like, we’re going to the carnival in town, and you’re invited.”
“Who is we?”
“Just my family. My mom and dad, and my cousin Sophia and her boyfriend, Neil, in town from San Francisco.”
“The whole family . . . hmm,” I teased, trying to tamp down the little flutter in my chest. “I suppose after the ditty bag fiasco, you owe me a little family drama.”
“At the risk of sounding like a douche bag, we’re a little more low key than your family. The only fireworks tonight will be in the sky.”
“I can’t really say no to that then, can I?” I said with a laugh.
And just like that, I had plans for a holiday outing with Lucas and his family. I smiled as I quickly braided my hair, still damp from my shower. I dressed simply for the day, white linen sundress and espadrilles, and was dabbing on a little lip gloss when I heard Lucas pulling up the drive. Dashing out front, I caught sight of a different car, not the truck from the animal hospital he was usually driving.
“What’s this? You’ve been holding out on me, Campbell,” I said, admiring the Mustang convertible, all bright red and shiny.
“It’s my dad’s; he rarely lets it out of the garage.” He hopped out and came around to my side. Dressed casually as well, he wore blue jeans, a green T-shirt, flip-flops, and a wide grin.
“How’d we get so lucky today?” I asked as he opened my door for me.
“It’s the Fourth of July, it’s a gorgeous day, and he knew as well as I do that this car needed to be driven around today.” He grinned, placing his hand on the small of my back for just a second or two as I climbed in, but it was enough. “Especially with a beautiful woman along for the ride.”
“Oh, are we picking someone else up?” I asked, making a horrible face when he shook his finger at me.
“Funny girl,” he teased, and we were off to the carnival, top down. It
the perfect day for a convertible. In town we parked and found his parents. His mother was a lovely woman, a tiny little bit of a thing. A little round, a lot sweet, and incredibly kind. She held tightly to the leash of Abigail, their golden retriever.
“I used to work with goldens a lot when I worked with the therapy dog program in San Diego,” I said, kneeling down to say hello to the beautiful dog.
“We used to have someone in town that did that, but once she passed away no one has really shown much interest in bringing the program back,” she mused. “Maybe that’s something you could do. Eventually. Lucas would love to help you with that, I’m sure.”
“What will I love to help with?” Lucas asked, turning from the discussion he was having with his father. His eyes met mine, looking at me chatting it up with his mom, and it was like he knew this was good. This felt right. I offered him a smile, one that he met with one of his own. A secretive smile, knowing, and full of something other than “let’s get a therapy dog program going.”
It took my breath away. The world faded; the noises from the carnival games became just a background blur to that sweet, sexy face.
“I was just telling your friend Chloe here how she should think about starting a therapy program here in town, maybe with some of her dogs,” his mom said, looking back and forth between us.
“Oh, so this is your friend Chloe I’ve been hearing so much about,” a new voice said from behind me.
Turning around, I saw a girl. Tall, incredibly curvy, with long
red hair. No smile. She began to circle me—literally circle me. As she did, I had no choice but to mimic her movements. It was like a scene right out of the
“Sophie, would you not be so dramatic, please?” Lucas said, laughing under his breath. I gave him “a what the fudge?” look.
“Sweet face, cool it. Don’t be so scary,” another voice said, and I found myself staring up into the face of a very large, but very friendly guy. Linebacker type. Big grin. Vaguely familiar. Dr. and Mrs. Campbell just stood there, grinning. What was going on?
“So. Chloe,” the redhead said, looking me over carefully. I wasn’t going to start circling again; I stood my ground. “Are you interested in Lucas here? Like, romantically? And of course you are, because look at him.”
“Oh, will you—” Lucas started.
Red held up her hand. “Answer the question.”
“Are you serious?” I asked, beginning to wonder if there was a hidden camera somewhere.
“All I’m saying is, the last time my cousin fell in love, that bitch broke his heart. So forgive me if I’m a little overprotective,” the redhead said, trying to stare me down.
“Cousin?” I asked as Lucas came to stand next to me, his presence warm and reassuring.
“Chloe, this is my very dramatic, very protective, very forward cousin Sophia, and her much more laid-back boyfriend, Neil. They’re in town for the Fourth.”
“Usually I have to work on the Fourth,” the now-identified redhead Sophia chimed in, looking smug. “I’m a cellist.”
“Okay,” I said.
“With the San Francisco Symphony?” she said, looking like I should give a fudge.
“Okay,” I repeated, leaning against Lucas a bit.
“I play with the orchestra. You know, fireworks go off overhead, symphony plays, patriotic and all that?” she said, making sure I, and anyone around, knew that she was special.
“And when I said okay, that wasn’t ‘okay, I don’t understand,’ but ‘okay, I heard you and that’s great and are you done talking yet?’ ” I straightened to my full height, returning her stare. “And what I’m doing with your cousin—or rather, not doing—is frankly none of your business.”
The boyfriend snorted.
“Okay, she’s cool. She can stay,” Sophia said, leaning over to kiss Lucas on the cheek.
“Gee, thanks, Sophia,” Lucas muttered, catching her into a close hug and then passing her off to his parents as he shook Neil’s hand. “Neil, this is Chloe.”
“I gathered.” Neil offered me his giant paw of a hand. “And don’t pay any attention to her. His ex really got Soph riled up—it was all I could do to stop her from trying to kick some ass. But in truth?” He leaned in, conspiratorial style. I couldn’t help it; I leaned in too. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“I would so,” she huffed. “As long as it didn’t hurt my hands.”
I nodded. “For the record, Lucas and I really are just friends.”
She looked at both of us for a second, hands on hips. “Mmhmm,” she hummed while shaking her head, clearly not believing it for a second.
“Come on, feisty, I need funnel cakes.” Neil literally picked up Sophia with one arm and began to carry her vertically down the midway towards the fried-everything stand.
Lucas’ parents left as well, leaving me standing wide-eyed next to Lucas. “Tell me again how there would be no weird family dynamic tonight? I’d love to hear that one more time,” I teased.
He looked embarrassed. “I had no idea she’d come on like
that,” he said, holding up his hands in defense. “She’s always been a bit headstrong.”
“Headstrong? Your cousin just had me for dinner, and then had funnel cakes for dessert, and you call her headstrong?”
“You did great.” He smiled, and I took the opportunity to jab him in the ribs.
“Hey! They’ve got fried Twinkies!” Neil called out, Sophia now perched lightly on his back.
“Twinkie?” Lucas asked, offering me his arm.
“I prefer chickie baby,” I replied, linking my arm through his and letting him lead me toward his family. And with the smell of ocean air and sand in the air, with a touch of hot asphalt and fried dough, it was a picture-perfect Fourth of July day.
he golden day turned into a starlit night. We’d spent the day wandering the carnival, snacking and drinking cheap beer, playing carnival games, and mostly losing. But I was now the proud owner of a cotton-candy-pink teddy bear almost half my size, courtesy of Lucas. I don’t know how much he ended up spending to win it for me. Determined, he spent at least twenty minutes throwing rigged baseballs at rigged milk cans until he finally came away a winner. Victorious, he presented me with a bear, and promptly begged me to please rub his now-sore shoulder.
I told him he should rub his own shoulder, which earned me a high-five from Neil, a wounded look from Lucas, and an appraising eyebrow raise from Sophia, who seemed to be slowly warming to me. Whether I was warming to her, I wasn’t quite sure. But Neil was great. They were down from San Francisco to see her folks. She’d grown up in Monterey, was only a year younger than Lucas, and it was apparent that the cousins became as close as siblings, just like in my family.
I also met about a million other new people. The Campbells knew almost everyone in town, and every few minutes we stopped and chatted with another group of friends. Lucas always introduced me and told people all the wonderful things Our Gang was already doing, and planned on doing for the community overall with our eventual outreach program. I’d made several good contacts, people who I thought were genuinely interested in what we were doing and really wanted to get involved. This town? Close knit, and kind.