Authors: Alice Clayton
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women, #Humorous, #General
I’ve taken the liberty of sending BACK ALL OF YOUR WEDDING GIFTS, MOST OF THEM WERE OFF THE REGISTRY AT
Your father tells me that you’re staying in Monterey indefinitely, although I’m not sure whyyouDIDN’T TELL ME YOURSELF
Don’t forget that in the midst of all this soul searching you’re currently doing that you made a commitment to speak at the Miss Golden STATUATORY conference on the 30th. I’d hate to have to tell them you’re canceling because you haven’t been able to FINDYOURSELF or whatever it is you’re DOING up THERE*%
Chuckle. Eye roll.
hat I was doing was moving along at a pretty fast clip. Lou’s contractors started leveling the ground in the pasture beyond the garage, which would be the main area where the dogs would be concentrated. As I’d hoped, we were able to repurpose the old milk barn into housing for the dogs. Rows of indoor/outdoor pens would be grouped together, with a row for cases that needed more isolation. Dogs just coming out of fighting rings could be unstable at best, and keeping them away from other dogs was vital to their rehabilitation, introducing them to the rest slowly, over time.
An exercise area was quickly constructed with an obstacle course and a kiddie pool for playtime, and the contractors fenced in an extensive pasture for the dogs to run free.
An old shed was insulated and converted into an adoption area, with plenty of room for potential adoptive families to meet their new pup. Another shed was perfectly situated for storage of all the Puppy Chow, chew toys, and doggie beds we’d need, mostly donated, sometimes from stores and sometimes from peoples’ homes. When you looked around a house, there were so many unused things that could be useful to someone else. That twenty-year-old bedspread that’s taking up valuable real estate in your linen closet would feel like heaven to paws that have never known anything but concrete. That bucket of balls in the garage from when you tried to take up tennis is exactly the kind of thing dog shelters needed, and would be put to immediate use.
Dr. Campbell senior was an enormous help. He was able to get us approval from the county faster than we could have on our own, to make sure we’d be open for business as soon as we could get things ready. And with his good standing in the community, anyone who had something negative to say about pit
bulls being sheltered in their town was immediately converted after they heard him eloquently speak about these misunderstood animals.
As things began to take shape, I found that I was thinking less and less about the life I left behind in San Diego, and more and more about the life I was creating here in Monterey.
One afternoon I was whitewashing the old milking stalls when I saw a truck with Campbell Veterinary Hospital emblazoned on the side pull up in front of the house. Dr. Campbell had said he might stop by after work to drop off some donations. Wiping my painty hands on my jeans, I headed out into the driveway and saw that it was the son, not the father. I quickly ran my hands through my hair, realizing too late that I’d just striped myself like Pepé Le Pew. Ah, well.
Lucas climbed out of the truck, clad in jeans and a tucked in black button down. (Mercy.)
“Hello! I thought your dad was stopping by,” I said as he walked toward me.
“Disappointed it’s not him?” he joked.
Standing in front of me, he blocked out the sun, making a halo of his hair. I bit down on my lip to stop myself from telling him this very thing.
“Just surprised, is all,” I said, tilting my head back for another halo peek. “How’ve you been?”
“Good, good. You?”
“Busy. Which is good for me.”
“Sounds like things are really coming along up here. When my dad told me he was running some stuff up here, I offered to come so I could see . . . the place.” He grinned.
“Oh, I bet Marge loved that.” I laughed.
“She sure did,” he admitted. “So, give me the tour.”
“Yeah, I hauled eighteen bags of Dog Chow up here for you. The least you can do is show me around the place.”
“You hauled them in a truck—don’t make it sound like you lugged them up by hand,” I teased.
them by hand. Does that count?” he asked, showing me his hands. They were calloused. And looked strong.
“Those callouses from kayaking?”
“Mostly paddleboarding. How’d you know I kayak?”
“Your agent told me.” I rolled my eyes. “She even showed me pictures.”
“Crazy old woman.” He laughed with affection.
I’d stopped by the clinic twice in the last two weeks and never saw Lucas, but Marge made a point to show me more pictures of him.
I hadn’t exactly protested.
“Tour, huh?” I asked.
“As long as you don’t put a paintbrush in my hand,” he teased, reaching out to tug on a piece of my hair that was striped. My skin tingled pleasantly. “So where do we start?” he asked, looking toward the hill. “Up there?”
“Hey, buddy, this is my tour. We’ll start where
say.” I turned and headed up the hill. “We’re gonna start up the hill.”
I could hear him chuckling behind me. I put my hips into it. The chuckle turned into something a little more desperate, and I chuckled right along with him.
Showing him around the property, I pointed out what was completed and what we were still working on. Some of Lou’s volunteers were coming up in a week to help fine-tune everything, setting up the office and things like that. Since we were a satellite operation, we were essentially copying what was working in Long Beach, on a smaller scale. I’d visited Lou several times
over the last few years, and always marveled at what a tight ship he ran. I was hoping to copy that as well.
As we walked down the center of the barn, I explained how the dogs would be kept. “They’ll have a lot of time out in the yard every day, but they’ll each have their own pen to come back to, with beds and their own food and water. Shared spaces sometimes, but at the beginning, at least, they’ll each have their own space.”
“Dad’s told me all about it, but seeing it is a very different thing. What you guys have done up here already is impressive.”
“Not just us. You’ll be here too,” I said innocently.
“Sure, your dad volunteered your services evenings and weekends, free of charge. He didn’t tell you?”
“He seems to have neglected to mention that.” He leaned against one of the stalls. “But it sounds good to me.”
“Nights and weekends? Free of charge? Fantastic!” I clapped my hands. He pushed himself off the stall and moved a bit closer.
“Might as well. My nights and weekends aren’t too exciting these days.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that. A good-looking guy like you?”
“Good looking, huh?”
“Well, you kind of set me up for that one, didn’t you?” I laughed, noticing how close he’d gotten. “Besides, all the good-looking guys are going around with white stripes on their black shirts these days—it’s all the rage. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble picking up the ladies.”
“White stripes?” he asked, puzzled.
I stepped to his side and ran my hand across his back, then showed it to him.
“You could’ve warned me!” he exclaimed, spinning around quickly as if to see the back of his own shirt.
“What part of ‘I’m painting the stalls in the barn’ did you not get?” I laughed, and it felt good, easy. “Don’t worry, it’s milk paint. It’ll come right out in the wash.”
“Good. I should get those bags out of my truck and let you get back to your afternoon. Or night, I suppose now. Dusk. Whatever.”
“Yes, let me get back to my dusk, please,” I teased, and we headed back toward the truck. We walked in silence, and within a few seconds I felt the need to fill it. “My nights and weekends are pretty thin on excitement too, you know.”
Overshare. Overshare. Overshare.
“Oh, yeah?” he asked, and I could feel my cheeks begin to burn.
Why in the world had I said that? I quickly said, “Yes, I’m actually enjoying the peace and quiet. It’s a good change of pace. So, Marge said you were involved with Vets Without Borders? Tell me about that.”
We’d reached the truck, and he went around to the back and started unloading the big bags of Dog Chow as I directed him toward the shed. As he unloaded, he told me all about this wonderful program. It’s exactly like what it sounds like: they go where the vets aren’t. They identify areas that need quality veterinary care, and doctors donate their time and service to that community. Pets, strays, you name it, they care for it. And as eighteen bags of Dow Chow were unloaded, he painted a picture of a coastal village in Guatemala, and the sweet people he met there. Sleeping in barracks with other volunteers, spending evenings around beach bonfires, working long hours in the hot sun. He was heading out again for another tour in a couple of months, to Belize, and he’d be gone twelve weeks again.
“How’d you get involved with them?” I asked as he stacked the last bag. For every one bag I lugged across the yard, he fireman-carried three. He wasn’t even out of breath, and I wondered what it took to make him pant a little. I further wondered why I was already a bit sad he was leaving for twelve weeks, when I barely knew him.
“Let’s just say I needed to get out of town for a while,” he said, his eyes darkening a bit.
“I totally understand. That’s why I’m up here. I couldn’t stand being in San Diego any longer,” I said, playing with a leaf that had fallen into his truck bed as he sat on the truck gate.
Looking intrigued, he said, “Oh, you have a story too? I bet it isn’t as bad as mine.”
Well, fudge. Now
“Oh, mine’s pretty bad,” I warned, twirling the leaf.
“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours?” he asked.
“You think I’m just going to whip out my sad tale to see if it’s as big as yours?” I teased.
“Yes, that’s the general idea.” A last ray of sunshine beamed through the gathering clouds, gilding his face.
“You go first,” I said with a sigh.
As he began, his shoulders fell a bit. “Well, it’s very simple. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl date all through the end of high school and through college. Boy asks girl to marry him. Girl agrees. Boy and girl plan wedding, boy and girl move in together, boy and girl are very very happy—boy
. Then minutes before they’re to be married, boy gets left at the altar when girl decides she doesn’t want to be stuck in a small town the rest of her life. Girl leaves church, packs a bag, and moves to Los Angeles, leaving boy to explain to everyone in the church where the hell the bride has gone. Boy knows where, because girl was thoughtful enough to send a bitchy note
with an even bitchier bridesmaid. Boy hears about a spot that just opened up in Guatemala, and takes the chance to get the hell out of town and away from everyone with their sad faces. Not unlike the one you’re making right now, although the gaping mouth is a nice touch I haven’t seen before.”
I closed my mouth immediately. “Let me get this straight,” I began, shaking my head in disbelief. “Your fiancée walked out on your wedding?”
“Nothing,” I said, eyes wide. “Continue.”
“That’s about it. We’d been together for a really long time; we’d practically grown up together. I knew her better than anyone—at least I thought I did. I just . . . I still can’t believe it happened. When someone you trust can do something like that to you . . .” He trailed off, his voice dark.
“I know,” I echoed, my brain whirling.
“Anyway,” he said, life sparking back into his eyes. “I showed you my sad story. Now . . .”
“You want to see mine?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” He grinned.
I felt my heart pitter-patter. And also an icy stab—how could I tell him my story? His fiancée had ripped his heart out in front of everyone, and now he wanted me to tell him I essentially did the same to Charles?
Technically, Charles never made it to the altar. And technically, mercifully, we never had the kind of love it sounded like Lucas had with his ex. So technically, I could tell him and make him understand.
Yet this wonderfully sweet and ridiculously handsome guy was looking at me with those piercing eyes and that sexy half
grin, and dammit, I wanted to keep those eyes and that grin on me a little bit longer. So . . .
“Oh, well, it’s not that interesting a story. Just recently got out of a long-term relationship, is all. I was engaged too, until very recently, as a matter of fact.” I plowed ahead, punctuating my words with a little toss of my hair and shoulder shrug. Minimize. Minimize. Minimize! “But I’m not anymore; that’s all over. So yeah, no stranger to heartbreak here.” I sounded like a country-western song. And not even a good contemporary one, more like an old twangy one.
“You were engaged?” he asked, sympathy apparent.
“Yeah, but you know . . .” I started to shrug, when I saw his eyebrow go up at my nonchalance. “I mean, yeah,” I said, maudlin, “you know.” Sigh. Blink. Blink.
Oh, what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to pretend to be more broken up about leaving your fiancé than you really are. Hey, it was poetic inside my head.
“So your engagement fell apart, and I got left at the altar,” he said, that slow grin beginning to reappear.
“So it would seem,” I agreed.
“So we’re both pitiful,” he said, holding my gaze. For exactly three seconds.
Then we both broke into crazy laughter, mine because I’d successfully sidestepped this land mine for the moment.
We began to quiet down, the twilight settling in around us, the air fresh and beginning to fill with the sounds of the hillside. Crickets, birds heading home, a few bumblebees making one last honey run.
“Want to hear something weird?” Lucas asked, bumping my shoulder with his own.
“You look like her.”
“My fiancée. Ex-fiancée.”