The last thing Nina Askew needed was Fred.
"I want a puppy," she said to the brown-uniformed woman behind the scarred metal counter at Riverbend Animal Control. "Something perky."
"Perky." The woman sighed. "Sure. We got perky." She jerked her head toward the gray metal door at the end of the counter. "Through there, one step down."
"Right." Nina shoved her short dark curls behind her ears, grabbed her purse and walked through the door, determined to pick herself out the perkiest birthday present on four paws. So what if yesterday had been her fortieth birthday? Forty was a good age for a woman. It meant freedom. Especially freedom from her overambitious ex-husband and their overpriced suburban castle which had finally sold after a year of open-house hell. There was something good: she was out of that damn house.
And now she was forty. Well, she was delighted to be forty. After all, that was the reason she was getting a dog of her own.
The attendant joined her and said, "This way," and Nina followed her toward yet another heavy metal door. She was going to get a puppy. She'd always wanted a dog, but Guy hadn't understood. "Dogs shed," he'd said when she'd suggested they get one as a wedding present to each other. She should have known that was A Sign. But no, she'd married him anyway and moved into that designer mausoleum of a house. And then she'd spent fifteen years following her husband's career around, without a dog, in a house she'd grown to hate. Sixteen years in the house, if she counted this last year in divorced-woman limbo, waiting for it to sell. But now she had freedom and an apartment of her own and a great, if precarious, job. The only thing she needed was a warm, cheerful body to come home to.
The attendant opened the door, and the faint barking Nina had heard before became frantic and shrill. Nina stepped into the concrete cell block and stopped, blown out of her self-absorption by the row of gray metal cages where dogs barked to get her attention. She let her breath out, horrified. "Oh, God, this is awful."
"Spay your pets."The attendant stopped in front of the next to last cage. "Here you go." She jerked her head again. "Perky."
Nina went to join the woman and peered into the cage. The pups were darling—some sort of tiny, bright-eyed, spotted mixed breed—climbing over one another and tumbling and whining and barking. Perky as hell. Now all she had to do was choose one...
She moved closer and glanced in the last cage almost by accident. Then she froze.
There was only one dog in the cage, and it was midsize and depressed, too big for her apartment and too melancholy for her state of mind. Nina tried to turn back to the puppies, but somehow, she couldn't. The dog had huge bags under his dark eyes, and hunched shoulders, and a white coat blotched with what looked like giant liver spots. He sat on the damp concrete like a bulked-up vulture and stared at her, not barking, not moving. He looked like her great-uncle Fred had before he'd died when she was six. She'd liked her uncle Fred, and then one day his heart had gone, as her mother had put it, and that had been it.
"Hello," she said, and the dog lifted his head a little, so she stooped down and reached through the cage doors to scratch him behind the ears. He looked at her and then closed his eyes in appreciation for the scratch.
"What's wrong with him?" Nina asked the attendant.
"Nothing," the attendant said. "He's part basset, part beagle." She checked the card on his cage.
"Or he might be psychic. This is his last day."
Nina's eyes opened wide. "You mean..."
"Yep." The attendant sliced her hand across her throat.
Nina looked back at the dog. The dog looked back at Nina, death in his eyes.
She stood and shoved her hair behind her ears, trying to look efficient and practical in an effort to be efficient and practical. She did not need this dog. She needed a happy, perky puppy, and on his best day, this dog would look like a professional mourner. And he wasn't even a puppy.
Any dog but this one.
She looked down at the dog one last time, and her hair fell forward, a curly black frame for his depression. He bowed his head a little as if it had grown too heavy for him, and his ears sagged with the bow.
She could not take this dog. He was too depressed. He was too big. He was too old. She took a step back, and he sighed and lay down, not expecting anything at all, resigned to the cold hard floor and no one to love him and the certainty of death in the morning.
Nina turned to the attendant, and said, "I'll take him."
The attendant raised an eyebrow. "That's your idea of perky?"
Nina gestured to the puppies. "They'll all be adopted, right?"
Nina took one long last glance at the tumbling, chubby puppies. Prozac with four legs and a tail. Then she looked at the other dog, depressed, alone, too old to be cute anymore if he ever had been. "I have a lot in common with this dog," she told the attendant. "And besides, I'd never sleep again knowing I could have saved him and didn't."
The attendant shook her head. "You can't save them all."
"Well, I can save this one." Nina crouched to the dog's level. "It's okay, Fred. I just rescued your butt."
The dog rolled his eyes up to stare at her. "No, don't thank me. Glad to do it for you." Nina stood up and followed the attendant down the hall. At the end, she turned, and Fred moved forward, pressing his nose through the bars. "Hey, it's okay," Nina called to him. "I'm coming right back as soon as I get you sprung from this joint."
Fred moaned and stumbled back into the depths of the cage.
"Oh, yeah, you're going to cheer me up," Nina said and went to sign the papers and pay the fee.
He didn't get much happier when the attendant opened the cage and he waddled out into Nina's arms, fragrant beyond belief. "You stink, Fred," she told him, and then she picked him up and held him to her, telling herself that her silk suit was drycleanable, and that at least it was brown and so was a lot of Fred so the dog hair wouldn't show. He looked up at her and she added, "And you weigh a ton." He was like dead weight in her arms, round and bulky, and most of his weight seemed to be centered in his rear end, which gave him a definite droop as she balanced his hip on hers. Still, as much as he reeked, it felt good to have her arms wrapped around him. "I saved you, Fred," she whispered into his ear, and he twitched as her breath tickled him, patient but not by any means enthused about the new turn of events.
He perked up a little when she carried him out into the May sunlight, but he seemed annoyed when she tried to balance all of his weight on one hip while she maneuvered open the door to her white Civic.
"I was planning...on getting...a puppy," she told him, breathing hard as she used her other hip to push the car door farther open. "I wasn't plan-ning...on getting a...part basset...part beagle... part lead-ass." She managed to heave him into the seat and close the door, and then she leaned against the car to get her breath back. Fred rocked back and forth as he situated himself on the blue upholstery, and then he turned and smeared his nose on the window. "Good." Nina sighed. "Make yourself at home."
She got in the Civic and stuck the key in the ignition. Fred put his paws on the window ledge and smeared his nose higher. Nina thought longingly of the puppies. "You're making me ill." She leaned across him and began to roll down the window halfway. "Don't jump out. Things just got better for you."
Fred turned at the sound of her voice, and as she stretched over him still cranking the window, he looked deep into her eyes. Nina stopped rolling and stared back into the warm brown depths. He really was a sweet dog. Of course he wasn't being peppy. In his situation, she'd be cautious, too. He didn't know anything about her. She didn't know anything about where he'd been. Maybe his previous people had been mean to him. It didn't matter. What mattered was that he needed love. Everybody needed love. Even she needed love. And now she had Fred.