Read an Excerpt
"I feel as creative as a blob of clay and tomorrow I turn the big three-oh."
Harley looked up at her, adoration in his sad, basset eyes, his tail beating the finish off the office chair legs.
"Yeah, I know. You want to go for a walk. But Harley, Christmas is coming and I'm not anywhere near to ready. Not even begun, if truth be told. Now I know I'm never really ready for Christmas but—this time I'm beyond hope." Blythe Stensrude glanced at the harbinger of despair again. Calendars should be banned from polite society. "Think I'll skip Christmas this year, right along with my birthday." Leaning down from her office chair, she cupped his furry face in her hands and looked deeply into his dark brown eyes. "Another Christmas single. I thought for sure I'd be married by now." I once dreamed of children but not anymore. She slammed the door on that near-tragic memory without peeking through.
A sigh stopped further confidences for a moment, while pictures of former suitors, or at least daters, flipped Rolodex-fashion through her mind. Thomas, college years, earring, musician. Boris, internship, Austrian, intriguing, bad breath. Henderson, first job, ladder climber, married her best friend. Sanchez, second job, wanted big family, huh-uh, not in this lifetime. Jones, real possibility, married, the jerk. And her rather unusual, but necessary requirement, no desire for fatherhood.
Harley kissed the tip of her nose with a lightning tongue.
Blythe sighed again. None. Nada. "From now on, no more blind dates, no more 'come for dinner' and there's an extra man there, just for me. I'll just tell those nosey noses, yes, I have a man in my life. His name is Harley."
Hearing his name, Harley planted both front paws on her knees and, tail wagging, whined again, then swiped her chin with a black-spotted pink tongue.
She hugged him close and got her ear cleaned, for her trouble.
Harley whimpered again and dropped to the floor. He headed toward the door, giving her an imploring glance over his shoulder.
"Oh, all right." Blythe snapped the blue nylon leash to the dog's collar. "And the final thing, I'm going to learn to be content with you as the man in my life. God seems to have forgotten that dream of mine, in spite of a multitude of reminders."
With the leash in place, Harley headed for the door. One either followed or spent hours teaching the dog manners, an exercise which Blythe had been promising herself to do. "You have to let me get my coat, you silly thing." She dropped the leash and stood on her end while retrieving her purple, fleece-lined jacket. The wind in Martinez, California, could carry a real bite down at the marina park where she loved to walk and Harley loved to nose for the smells, always anticipating the rabbit he might catch one day.
Key in her teeth to lock the dead bolt, she opened the front door. Harley made a dive for the outside, just as the phone rang. Answer it. No, let the machine pick it up.
The sigh came from her toes. "Get back in here, you big lug." She hauled back on the leash, dragging the nail-scrabbling dog back in the house. The door slammed closed and she dove for the phone, getting it just as the answering machine clicked in.
"Blythe's Graphics. Let me put pictures to your words. I'm either..."
"I'm here, don't hang up, the message will be over in a moment." Why haven't I learned how to turn off the message? Why do I let some of this stuff...? "Hello, yes this is Blythe, how may I help you?"
"Good morning, Blythe, Brad Cummings here, wondering how the artwork for my project is coming? Are we on schedule?"
Blythe groaned inside but kept a smile on her face, having learned how important a smile is to the tone of voice on the phone, or anywhere for that matter. "Barring any natural disasters, I should be finished tomorrow night, just as we agreed." Now why did I say that? But she knew why. She loved this man's laugh, which he did as if programmed. The deep baritone chuckle came across the wires as if he were right beside her. The only problem with this man? He was happily married with three children, all of whom sang in the youth choirs at church.
"Give me a call, then, and I'll be by to pick up the package. I'll stop on my way home. Save you a trip. Bye."
Blythe set the phone back in the stand. That project would be done even if she never slept tonight.
Sometimes becoming successful led to other problems, like too much of a good thing. A good thing, meaning work of course. As a graphic artist, she was making a name for herself. But how was she to keep the quality up to her standards when she had so much to do? And such tight deadlines. She could hear her mother plain as the dog whining at her feet. "Sometimes you have to learn to say no." Sometimes...yeah, well, she'd have to practice that—in her spare time.
"I'm coming, Harley, but this is going to have to be one quick walk."
She locked the front door of her semirestored Victorian cottage and pulled on her turquoise gloves as Harley, russet-colored ears dragging the ground, and nose leading the way, turned left at the open gate of the picket fence. He knew the shortest way to the marina as well as she did so she only chose an alternate route if she didn't mind an argument.
Blythe lifted her face to catch the intermittent sun rays as clouds played tag with the wind. After two days of fog and rain, which left her feeling out of sorts, the sun felt like a gift she almost didn't open. Not that she was a sun worshipper, but waking to sunshine in the morning always set her day on the right track.
She groaned when her dog stopped to investigate something really important, though only he could discern what creature had passed that way.
"Harley, you could at least warn me." And you could pay, should pay, better attention. There was that voice, the one she frequently wanted to strangle.
His tail wagged, but his broad black nose never left the ground. When he ran out of scent, he raised his head, grinned at her and trotted out again, his snowshoe feet slapping the sidewalk.
"Top of the mornin' to ye." June Simmons, who lived on the next block, finished filling one of her twenty bird feeders and met them at her gate.
"And to you. New part?"
"I'm needin' to be authentic Irish in a week."
"Good for you, you'll make it. Which theater?"
"The Willows. Look at ye, lass, life must be goin' yer way. Faith and begorra, ye've been a yellow-headed lassie for six months an' more."
"Really? Humph." Blythe pulled at the ends of the shag cut. "It's needin' cuttin', that's what it is."
June bent down and rubbed Harley's ears, then removed the dog biscuit from her pocket and asked, "Ye bein' hungry, Harley, dear?"
Harley yipped but when she shook her head, gave in and barked in basso profundo, true hound fashion.
"Ah, that's more like it." June handed him the treat she double baked herself. "Ye better be watchin' for the wee folk down at the park. Heard tell there's been sightings."
"If they hide in rabbit holes, Harley is sure to find one." Leaving June laughing, the two walked on down the hill, Harley now tugging on the leash.
They crossed the railroad tracks to enter the park at the west end. With the tide out, the wind blew the rank odor of mudflats their way. The freeway bridge arched over the Sacramento River from Martinez to Benicia. While most of the shipping consisted of oil tankers, pleasure boats, ships bringing grain from the upper rivers and container ships also plied the river waters. The two rivers converged upriver a few miles and flowed through the Carquinez Straits into the San Francisco Bay. Since the wind was from the west, she couldn't smell the refineries for a change. Even the pungent mudflats were preferable to the refineries.
Harley stuck his nose in a hole dug into the low grassy bank.
This did not promise to be a fast walk at all; he was in a real investigative mood.
"Sorry, Harley, come." She tugged on the leash. He wagged his tail. Moving a busy basset was like dragging a watersoaked log—through the mud. "Harley! I have tons of work to do, so it's walk or go home. Take your pick."
A rabbit darted out of the other end of the hole. From standing still to dead run in one bound, his back feet threw mud and grass as he dug for traction. Harley hit the end of the leash.
Blythe dug in her heels, but her purple boots could get no footing. "Harley!"
Thane Davidson stared at the dog at his feet. If relaxed needed a picture, a sleeping basset fit. Especially Matty, his three-year-old fawn-and-white female, the only real steady female in his life at the moment. She had "relax" down to a science.
"I asked if you wanted to go for a walk. I'm going and if you get up, you'll get to go, too." He put the emphasis on the word go. "I know this is outside of your schedule but..."
She opened both eyes, wagged the white tip of her tail and with a groan and a prolonged stretch, got to her feet. Not that she could get very far up. While bassets are bigdog size in the body, in the leg department, they got woefully shortchanged.
He half smiled at the look of long suffering she sent his way. "Don't bother, I don't do guilt." When he reached down and stroked her head and long ears, he marveled, as always, at how soft she was. Adoration was his for the petting, so he continued. Everyone needed to be adored at one time or another.
He smoothed down her long back and scratched her favorite spot, between her front shoulder blades, then rubbed along her spine.
"That's all. We need to hit the street before the phone rings again." He headed for the closet for his anorak and her leash. As soon as they were both dressed, they left the house, he with his cell phone in his pocket after a brief tussle with "take it along" or "leave it home." But since he was on call 24/7 as a troubleshooter for several computer software giants, he had learned never to be out of touch. Even though he sometimes felt like he was on a tighter leash than his dog.
He locked the condo door and, leash in hand, strolled toward the elevator. The doors on either side of his door sported holiday wreaths, one including an angel. Wasn't it a bit early for such decorations? Thane punched the elevator button with a little more force than necessary. Health wise he should take the stairs but Matty hated stairs, especially four flights. He couldn't say he blamed her—dragging your belly over all those ridges would aggravate anyone. He stopped just outside the entry to adjust his collar.
"Hey, Mister Davidson, you walking your own dog?" Did the kid from 3A ever do anything but ride his bike in front of the building?
"Looks that way."
"I don't know." I'm not Josie's keeper, she just walks my dog when I'm not home. Which is most of the time. During the day, at least. Since his clients were located in the Bay area, he did manage to sleep at home—usually.
"She's not sick or anything?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"You going to pay her anyway? She needs the money." The boy stopped his bike, facing into the curb.
Thane swallowed a growl when Matty pulled on the leash, anxious to greet the boy on the bike. Had this kid no manners at all, telling him how to run his life?
"And that's your business?"
The red-headed charmer shrugged and leaned down to scratch Matty behind the ears. He knew her favorite places, as evidenced by the wriggling joy and her happy yips.
"No, I s'pose not." He looked up again, blue eyes serious. "But Josie needs someone to look out for her."
Lord, save me. I cannot be the savior for all young women. Was Josie a druggie like LynnEllen, his younger and only sister? "If Josie is doing drugs, I'll have no part of her."
"Nah, she don't do drugs." The look he sent Thane carried a trainload of disdain. He shook his head and with a jerk of the handlebars, spun his bike and pedaled away.
"Josie's real good with Matty." The words floated back over his shoulder. "You're lucky. Maybe you could give her a big Christmas present."
"Put down by a kid. Matty, what's this world coming to?" What was he coming to? He'd stayed to listen. Used up five minutes of his precious time. All over the dog walker. Of course Josie took Matty to the vet's when needed, the groomer on schedule and dog-sat when he was forced to be gone overnight. She seemed to have a solid clientele. Could one make a living at such a precarious business? Had she complained that he didn't pay her enough?