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Is this really worth it?
Brett Dunbar was at the stage of his morning run where he always doubted it. The stage when even the beauty of his surroundings as the trail paralleled an inlet of Puget Sound didn't help.
His new companion was no help either. He'd thought Cutter would be a distraction at least. That the dog might act as dogs do, slowing to sniff everything in sight, thus allowing him to give in to the urging of his body to slow down, enjoy the morning quiet, make this a nice leisurely stroll. But this dog was acting like a demanding trainer, pushing, prodding, running ahead and turning to wait, subtly implying that Dunbar was slacking off.
"Darned dog," he muttered.
That was what he got for somehow ending up dog-sitting while Quinn and Hayley Foxworth were on their honeymoon.
He kept going as he came out of the thick trees and saw the gleam of the water. Sunrise was coming, heralded by the lightening of the sky across the sound. He knew that he was almost past the tough part, that just about here the endorphins would kick in and he'd hit that pace that was perfect, that seemed as though he could keep going forever. But every time, he had to get through this part first, this section where his entire body screamed at him to stop.
People had told him once he hit forty it would get harder. Now, with his forty-second birthday looming, he had to admit the change wasn't in his pace or his stamina but in the increase in mental discipline it took to keep going. And yet the bottom line never changed. He did this six days a week, rain or shine, for one simple reason. He was a cop, and one day his life could depend on it.
The radiance began to grow from behind the distant ridge of the Cascade Mountains. There were enough remnants remaining from yesterday's storm to give the sun lots of clouds to light up. He watched the show as he ran. Orange, pink and bright blue streaked across the sky, clouds turning from gray to bright white as the light grew stronger. Some clouds stayed darker, appearing like black puffs against the white clouds behind, a stark counterpoint to the brilliant display of sunrise.
Cutter stopped just ahead, where the trail curved away from the water to run below a small group of houses up the hill. The dog's head was up, and if he'd been looking toward the sunrise, Brett might have thought the clever dog was enjoying the view, as silly as that seemed. He'd seen this dog at workliterallyand it wouldn't have surprised him.
But instead Cutter was looking up toward the houses. Intently, his ears as focused as his eyes, not moving at all. His nose was twitching and his ribs moving as he took in deep breaths, no doubt tangy with whatever had caught his attention.
The dog looked at him then, and novice though he was with this, even Brett could see something had changed. He slowed to a stop. The dog was no longer that taunting, teasing physical trainer. Something intense and focused had come into those amber-flecked dark eyes, and Brett suddenly remembered all the times he'd heard the Foxworth people talk about the dog willing people to do something.
As if he'd been waiting to be sure he had Brett's attention, Cutter started up the side path. Brett's brow furrowed. He took that path some days, because it led up to those houses and a sidewalk that was better to run on when the rain was coming down hard. But he'd never taken it in the four days Cutter had been with him, so where had the dog gotten the idea?
He picked up the pace as the animal opened up a lead on him. It wouldn't do for Hayley and Quinn to come home and find out he'd lost their dog.
"Should have put the leash on," he muttered as he started up the hill.
The leash was mainly for other people. While he wasn't huge, Cutter wasn't a small dog. And he tended to draw attention with his striking coloring, black head and shoulders turning to a russet brown over his back and hindquarters. But it was more than just his lookshis very intensity drew people's eyes, and the reaction ranged anywhere from fascinated to wary.
If the dog had been a cop, Brett would have called it command presence. That might be the right term anyway.
The dog never slowed his steady trot even as the path headed up the rise. Brett had to kick up the pace to keep him in sight, and his body registered the hill with quickened breathing and an uptick in heart rate.
By the time he hit the sidewalk, Cutter was already crossing the street. There were only three houses in the little cluster, two on the water-view side of the narrow paved lane, one on the inland side. Brett could see two women in front of the single house where Cutter seemed to be headed. One older, one younger. He hoped neither of them would be frightened by the sudden appearance of a strange dog.
He realized the second woman was familiar. He'd seen her before on his runs that brought him up this way. After years as a cop the cataloging had been instinctive. She was about five-six, nicely female, with light brown hair past her shoulders. Long bangs pushed to one side fell over a brow and nearly covered her right eye. He liked the careless look of it. He'd never been close enough to see her eye color, but he was betting brown. Maybe green. Today she was dressed in jeans and a pale green sweater that hugged those curves nicely.
She was also the reason he'd once caught himself thinking of taking this route on a perfectly dry day, on the chance she might be out working in the garden again, since she did it even in the rain. And that bothered him enough to make sure he never did it. That way lay folly.
Right now she had her arm comfortingly around the older woman, who appeared to need that comforting.
Cutter bounded toward them. The younger woman turned just as the sun cleared the mountains and poured down over the sound, lighting everything in its path. Including the hair he'd thought was simply light brown but now saw was an amazing combination of tan, gleaming gold and a light reddish color that seemed to spark fire to it all. He'd never seen her in sunlight before, he realized, because he usually took this route only if it was raining.
He gave himself an internal shake as Cutter slowed to a walk about ten feet away from them, as if he somehow sensed a running approach might scare them. The older woman was watching the dog warily, so he supposed the dog could have read her body language.
But the younger one was smiling at the dog.
And she had a killer smile.
Cutter had halted a couple of feet in front of the women. He sat, almost primly, ears up, head cocked as if studying them. It was probably the most unthreatening pose he could have taken.
Brett caught up and stopped beside Cutter. The younger woman still had an arm around the older, who, judging by the traces of dampness on her cheeks, had been crying.
He felt an instant stab of wariness. He quashed it. No matter what was going on, it wasn't, thankfully, his business. He wasn't on duty, and this wasn't his jurisdiction.
"Sorry," he said. "We were down on the trail and he got the idea to head up here. Weird, since I've never been up this way with him."
"I've seen you running," the older woman said, sounding relieved. "Every day, I go for my walk downtown." She was smiling now, which relieved him. "My husband likes the cream cheese cinnamon rolls from the bakery, even though they're bad for him."
Brett smiled back. "I like them, too. So I run."
He heard a laugh, a short, pleasant sound that warmed him as much as the winter sun was trying to do. He looked at the other woman then. Close up, that smile was even more potent.
And the eyes were indeed green. A light, clear green that made him think of the first leaves of the spring that wasn't far off.
"I've seen you up here, too," she said. "When it's really wet."
"Trail gets kind of slippery. I break something, my boss won't be happy."
The laugh again. He found himself wishing he were naturally funny, just to keep hearing it. And wondering why Cutter was just sitting there; usually his furry trainer would have been pushing him for a final burst of speed right about now.
"Your boss isn't an understanding sort?" she asked.
"She'd understand, but she's tough. I'd end up stuck behind a desk."
"What is it you do?" the older woman asked.
And there it was, he thought. The answer always made people react strongly. Differently, but they always reacted. Relaxed or became wary. The lines had always been pretty clear-cut: if they relaxed, they were on one side; if they were wary, the other. But the lines were getting blurrier by the day.
And he didn't want to admit to himself that if Green Eyes reacted the wrong way, he was going to be disappointed. Or worse.
Best to get it over with, he thought.
"I'm a detective with the sheriff's office."
To his surprise, it was the older woman who drew back slightly. Green Eyes merely said, "Tough work."
"Your dog take off on you often?" she asked, gesturing at Cutter.
He wondered if she was hiding a laugh at the idea a cop's dog wouldn't obey him. He quickly shook his head. "Not mine. Dogsitting."
"How nice of you," the older woman said, seeming to have recovered from whatever had made her react. Or perhaps he'd imagined it.
He didn't think this was the time to try to explain that he hadn't had much choicethe dog had decided. He wasn't sure quite how that had happened. After the wedding reception the dog, still wearing his bow tie as a member of the weddingring bearer, a role he had executed flawlesslyhad trotted over to his car and simply refused to move.
"Oops," the bride had said. "I think there's been a change of plans."
"Looks that way," Quinn had agreed, with remarkable patience given the way he was looking at his wife, whom he was about to spirit off to parts unknown for a month of newlywed bliss. Bliss Brett had no doubt would last. You could feel it rolling off them.
Next thing he knew, Foxworth's Teague Johnson, who had been going to watch the dog while they were gone, was loading up dog stuff into Brett's car, grinning widely.
They all said it had been Cutter's idea. He'd laughed that off until, after waiting politely, the dog had jumped into the car the moment he opened the door, wiggled into the backseat and settled in comfortably.
And so far, he couldn't deny he'd sort of enjoyed it.
"His owner must be a good friend," the older woman said.
"Yes," Brett said.
"I don't know," the younger woman said, watching Cutter, who was watching her in turn. "He seems quite the gentleman."
"He can be. He can also be the most stubborn critter on the planet. And that's a direct quote from his owner."
"It must be interesting, then," Green Eyes said.
He couldn't help smiling at that. "He's an interesting dog, all right." Then, not sure why, he added, "And more company than I expected."
It was nothing less than true. The dog had been a quiet but solid presence, and even he couldn't deny that the occasional nudge of the dark head or the warmth of the dog curled up beside him on the couch was comforting. He didn't like admitting that he might need comforting, but there it was.
"May I?" Green Eyes asked, reaching toward Cutter. "Is he all right with strangers touching him?"
Brett looked at the dog, whose attention had never wavered. "I'd say you've passed muster," he said. "Or he wouldn't still be sitting there."
She laughed once more, and he was glad she was focused on the dog, because he couldn't help smiling at the sound of it. It took him a moment to realize that the strange tightness in his face was the result of smiling so much in the past few minutes, something he'd grown long unused to.
"Hello there, boy," she said, petting the dark head. "What's his name?"
"Cutter. At least, that's what his tag said when he showed up."
The woman looked at the boat-shaped blue name tag that hung from the dog's collar, then up at him. "He was lost?"
He nodded. "Hayleyhis ownertried for months to find where he belonged. And by then he'd made it pretty clear he intended to stay."
Green Eyes smiled as the older woman spoke. "Your girlfriend takes in strays, does she?"
"My" He stopped short. Girlfriend was not a word he'd used in reference to himself for a very long time. "No. No, Hayley's not She's on her honeymoon. That's why I'm dogsitting."
"Well," Green Eyes said, straightening up from her attentions to the dog, "congratulations to her. And her new husband."
"They deserve it. They're good people."
"I'm Connie Day," the older woman said abruptly. "And this is my niece, Sloan Burke."
"Dunbar," he said automatically, as if he were on duty after all. "Brett Dunbar," he amended awkwardly. Should he offer to shake hands? That was always iffy with some women. And if this was how out of it he was when it came to non-work-related contact with other people, he should probably give it up altogether.
"We should be on our way," he said, letting the fact that he was still a bit sweaty decide the shaking-hands question. Not to mention that he was going to start stiffening up here if he stood around in the chilly air much longer. "It was nice meeting you."
"You, too," Green EyesSloansaid.
"Come on, Cutter. Get back to nagging me to pick up the pace."
She laughed once more, and Brett couldn't help smiling a last time. But maybe it wouldn't be the last. He'd be running this way the next time it rained hard, and this was the Pacific Northwest in winter, so that was never far off at any given time.
But when he turned to go, Cutter didn't move.
Cutter turned his head to look at him, but his furry backside never left the grass he was sitting on.
"Cutter, let's go." He took a few more steps. Nothing.
He sighed. He dug into his pocket for the leash, tugging a length out from the reel.
"Who was it who said when you get to thinking you're important, try giving orders to someone else's dog?"
Brett's gaze snapped to her face. She was smiling again, widely. And he found himself grinning back. It felt even stranger than the smiling had. He reached out to snap the leash on Cutter's collar. "He's usually pretty good about it. He must just like you."
"But we've only just met."
"He's a quick study."
He couldn't believe himself. He sounded as though he was flirting with her. Not a talent of his at the best of times. He turned back to the dog. Cutter was staring at him intently. Intensely. In a way he never had in the time he'd stayed with him.
He tried to look away. Managed only a second. The dog was still staring at him. He remembered all the jokes that abounded at Foxworth about knowing how sheep felt.
Mesmerized was the word that came to mind.
And then other words popped into his head, spoken by almost everyone at Foxworth at one time or another.
He just gives us that "Fix it!" expression, and we know we 're stuck.
It all came together in a rush, Cutter's sudden and unexpected course change, the older woman's tears, his refusal to leave and now That Look.
Uh-oh, Brett thought. Now what?