West Coast Happily-Ever-After – Book 7
You may not know this about me, but I speak dog. Or, to be more precise, I think dog.
Not too often, fortunately – my life is complicated enough – but every once in a while, a story comes to me that has a very strong canine character. Such is the case of Forever and Ever, By George.
George is a Harlequin Great Dane. Below is the working photo I used when I was channeling—er, writing his story.
George and I can’t wait to share this West Coast Happily-Ever-After Story with you.
George knew what he was doing was bad, but he simply had no choice. The woman wasn’t coming back. He’d been patient. He’d hoped for the best, but the truth was plain to see. His easy, orderly life was over. Bad things had happened, and nobody seemed to care about him any more.
George liked the man who was his master. He used to bring George wonderful treats late at night. They’d sit together on the patio and the man would talk as he passed out bits of steak. But that hadn’t happened for a long, long time.
The boy had changed, too. He never petted George anymore or came out to throw the ball or take him for a run behind his bike. Right now, the boy was in the house but wouldn’t come out no matter how loudly George whined and barked.
Something had to be done. George needed a woman in his life. Things had been good when the woman lived here, and if the man wouldn’t get one, then George would have to do it himself.
And he knew just the woman he wanted.
Kara. The lady with the big tub filled with sweet-smelling bubbles. She had kind eyes and gentle hands and she talked to George as if he were the smartest, most wonderful dog in the world.
George loved her, and he would find a way to bring her home, even if it meant digging under the fence. The man would be mad, but this was for his own good, too. He’d see.
* * *
“Oh, George, what have you done? Are you trying to get me arrested for dognapping?”
The six-year-old Harlequin Great Dane dropped to a crouch, his gaze not meeting hers. Kara Williams’s heart just about broke in half. She loved animals, and this big galoot was one of her favorite clients at The Paws Spa, her Pine Harbor, Oregon, pet-grooming business. He’d been one of her regulars until his owners, Brad and Lynette Ralston, split up. Now, Brad, who had custody of George and the couple’s teenage son, routinely missed George’s standing appointment.
Kara poked her head out the door to check the parking lot. Nope. No Brad. But she’d already figured that out after hearing George’s loud woof and no sound of a car pulling in. Apparently George had decided to keep the appointment himself. Even if this was the wrong time and the wrong day.
Glancing at his big muddy paws, she guessed that his escape from the Ralstons’ backyard had included some kind of digging. Sticks and weeds had attached themselves to his smooth black and white coat, and there was a bit of blood on his right ear. “Poor guy. This wasn’t easy for you, was it?”
She went down on one knee and hugged the silly beast. She’d witnessed the aftermath of divorce—in dog terms—too many times. And it was never pleasant. Some animals would worry an open wound to the point where they had to wear a protective collar. Certain cats she’d met had suddenly turned into domestic demons that shredded curtains and left stinky deposits in their owners’ shoes.
“Maybe I should be thankful Fly took off before he had a chance to put a ring on my finger,” she murmured, gently stroking the big dog’s powerful neck.
Fly had been her youthful folly. Her walk on the wild side. A walk that had resulted in twins.
“Come on in, boy,” she said, opening the door of what had formerly been a 1960s era Laundromat. When she returned home halfway through her sophomore year of college to help care for her uncle Kurt, who’d been like a father to her, she’d found a job as a part-time dog groomer—and had fallen in love with the business. When the owner decided to retire and move out of the area, Kurt had encouraged Kara to open her own place—one she could put her unique stamp on.
The Paws Spa had just celebrated its seventh anniversary, and so much had happened in her life since that initial ribbon cutting. Meeting Fly (whose real name was Phil), getting pregnant, becoming a single mom to twins, losing Uncle Kurt. Her life had changed in so many ways, but the one constant was her commitment to her clients—and her dream.
“Watch your tail,” she warned as George stepped through the doorway.
The sounds and smells that were so familiar to her enveloped them both as she followed George into the entry. The building was a rectangular block-walled edifice with four skylights and four plate-glass windows that faced the parking lot. When she and Uncle Kurt had first looked at it, it had been gutted, except for two rows of pipes sticking up where the washing machines had been. He’d been in remission at the time, and had provided the financial backing and the expertise to help her remodel.
It wasn’t ideal but it served her needs. Half of the area was devoted to grooming stations and holding pens. The entry was spacious enough to provide owners a chance to peruse current animal magazines or shop for special extras for their pets. In the far corner was her tiny office.
“Who have you got there?” her friend and assistant Wilma Donning asked. “Why, George Ralston, does your father know you’re here?”
George dipped his head in a way that made him look so guilt-ridden, both women burst out laughing. Kara and Wilma had a tendency to talk to all the pets in their care as if the animals understood every word. A select few responded with gestures and mannerisms that made Kara think they were reacting to her words, not her tone. George was one of those expressive types. Maybe it was his eyes—one blue, one brown. There was humor, intelligence, compassion and trust in those eyes.
“Let’s not worry about how he got here,” Kara said, grabbing a lead from the hook by the door. “He’s pretty stinky, and since Mrs. Fox canceled we have an opening. I’ll call Mr. Ralston and let him know George is safe.”
“As if he cares,” Wilma grumbled. “Darned people who let their crazy love lives affect their animals’ welfare.”
Wilma was eighty-something. The exact number seemed to depend upon whom she was trying to impress or what point she was trying to make. But she was as feisty and energetic as some people half her age. She didn’t have to work—Wilma and her husband had owned one of the biggest organic farming operations in the Pine Harbor area for as long as Kara could remember, and she’d sold it for a healthy sum after he passed away. Now she worked for Kara because, as Wilma often said, “Animals have humans beat, paws down.”
Kara once asked why Wilma hadn’t chosen to volunteer at the SPCA since she loved animals so much. “Don’t care for the bureaucracy,” Wilma had returned.
So the SPCA’s loss was Kara’s gain. Wilma could come off a bit gruff and abrupt with people, but the animals loved her. And Wilma also kept Kara grounded where her dreams were concerned.
Kara planned to turn The Paws Spa into a nationally franchised operation—like the Starbucks of pet grooming. High end. Catering to pet owners who wanted the very best for their animals—specialty grooming for show dogs, organic snacks, massage, yoga classes and group play dates.
The Pine Harbor Paws Spa was her prototype, but already her books were running in the black. Kara recorded every success and failure in a log that she hoped to use as a blueprint for future franchises.
Wilma was as dedicated an employee as Kara could ever have wished for. She came in early and stayed late. She even picked up or delivered animals for clients who were behind schedule. Kara longed for the day when she could pay Wilma what she was worth—even though the older woman insisted she was happy with the way things were.
“More business means more owners to deal with,” she’d complain whenever Kara waxed enthusiastic about some new idea to increase her business.
But just as the animals in Wilma’s care sensed how much the older woman loved them, Kara knew that deep down Wilma wanted her to succeed. She watched the tiny woman walk the huge dog to the bathing area that had been set up for large animals. George could have knocked Wilma over with his tail, but he was extremely courteous and careful around her.
Kara’s heart did a familiar flip-flop and tears welled up in her eyes. Sometimes she thought her sappy emotions were the source of all her problems. “You’re an old softy,” her uncle used to say. “Just like your dad.”
Kara didn’t remember much about her father, who’d died when she was eight. His twin brother, Kurt, had been a substitute dad for most of her life. But he was gone now, too. And she still missed him. His parting gift to her had been the deed to this building, and Kara was determined to make him proud of her.
Returning her focus to the present, she walked to her desk for her phone. She quickly checked her client list, found the number for Willowby’s, the upscale restaurant that Brad Ralston owned, and then turned to the large box that had been delivered that morning. An expert multitasker—as any mother of twins needed to be—she slipped her earpiece into one ear, pocketed the phone and started unpacking the new line of specialty collars and leashes she’d ordered.
As an avid student of millionaire entrepreneurs-cum-authors such as Robert Kiyosaki, Kara knew she needed to be focused, more business-minded and fearless in the face of risk if she wanted to make her dream a reality. Successful franchises didn’t just appear. They took work, dedication and determination.
“You’ve reached Willowby’s,” came the smooth, throaty tone of a woman’s voice that Kara remembered all too well. Brad hasn’t changed his ex-wife’s message on his answering machine?
“Funny,” she mumbled.
“To make a reservation—” Kara clicked her earpiece to hang up.
She hadn’t eaten at the place in years. Not since Kurt had taken her and her mother to brunch there when she was pregnant with the twins. Prior to that, the last time had been when she was a waitress. Staff had been allowed to eat at a discounted price, but often Brad would give leftovers to his servers after the kitchen had closed for the night.
Brad Ralston had been a decent guy to work for, Kara remembered. She’d never had the same fondness for his wife, who had served as hostess and oversaw the hiring and firing of employees. Since Kara had been too young to drink, she’d rarely crossed paths with Reggie something or other, Brad’s partner who used to run Willowby’s bar.
“He’s not picking up at the restaurant,” she told Wilma, who was scrubbing George with such vigor the dog looked ready to melt into a puddle of bliss. “I’ll try his house. I don’t think we have his cell number.” She returned to her desk and consulted the client card. “Nope. Just Lynette’s.” But there’s a line through it.
She didn’t remember doing that, but she probably had. Everyone in town had heard about Lynette’s running off with Reggie.
She punched in the home number. Another answering machine. Brad’s voice this time. She’d always liked his voice. As she waited for the beep, she wondered how true the rumors and scandal surrounding the Ralstons’ divorce had been. Some said the two lovers had embezzled from the business before leaving town.
“Um, hi, um, Brad…er, Mr. Ralston. This is Kara Williams calling from The Paws Spa. I just wanted to let you know that George showed up today. By himself. I don’t know exactly how or why, but since he…um…you…um…missed his last appointment, I’m going to go ahead and bathe him and trim his nails. He’ll be fine here until you show up to get him. Thanks.” She almost hung up then remembered she needed to leave her number. She felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. That was the silliest, most unprofessional message she’d ever left.
“What is wrong with me?”
She knew the answer, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it. “I do not still have a crush on Brad Ralston. I was a dumb kid back then and he was a married man. I wanted something I couldn’t have. I’m soooo over that kind of adolescent thrill-seeking behavior,” she said with verve.
“Are you talking to yourself again?” Wilma called over the sound of water spraying.
“No. Just leaving a message. He didn’t answer at either number.”
“Probably had to go to the school to pick up his kid,” Wilma said.
“Why do you say that?” Kara asked as she walked to the comfortably appointed wire kennels where two dogs in separate holding pens were having a discussion of their own. She gave each animal a treat from her pocket. “Good boy, Hunter. Your mom will be here soon.” A mixed breed with beagle ears and an excitable personality, Hunter took her offering and paced around, no doubt looking for a spot to bury it.
“Here you go, Pansy. Chew your bone like a good girl.” Pansy, a cocker spaniel, was twelve, overweight and highly pampered.
Kara turned her attention back to Wilma. “What were you saying about Brad’s son?”
“Margaret Mieda is in my bridge group. Her daughter drives a school bus. She says Brad’s boy has got a real attitude problem.”
Kara removed her earbud and dropped it with her phone on her desk after pausing to pet Whitey and Tiger, her two resident “guard” cats. The neutered males usually ducked out of sight when large dogs appeared, but they’d never seemed intimidated by George, and with Pansy and Hunter safely behind bars, they obviously felt brave enough to nap on her keyboard.
“That’s too bad. Maybe that explains why George has missed so many appointments.”
Wilma’s bridge group met every Tuesday morning, and she always returned to work with an earful of gossip. “It’s not surprising that the boy has problems. Dogs aren’t the only ones that take it to heart when a family falls apart.”
Kara agreed. That was partly why she planned not to get involved seriously with any man until after her children were through school. Maybe even college. Why take the risk? Her mother’s impulsive marriage to a man who promised to take care of her and her little girl but wound up doing just the opposite had shaped Kara’s opinion of matrimony for the worse. And her own experience with Fly had confirmed that love was like stepping off the edge of the world. The free fall might be exciting, but the landing hurt like hell.
* * *
Brad tightened his hands around the padded steering wheel cover. Third time this month! But who’s counting, right?
Certainly not Justin, who apparently didn’t seem to give a damn that the staff of Pine Harbor Junior High had his father on speed dial.
First, Justin had been caught smoking in the locker room, which had resulted in him getting kicked off the soccer team. Next, he’d been accused of instigating a food fight in the cafeteria. So now Brad packed his lunch the night before. This morning, it seemed some younger schoolmates overheard Justin using bad language on the bus.
Nothing so dire that his son faced expulsion, but every little annoying incident meant Brad had to leave the restaurant, which was on the coast, about five miles from central Pine Harbor, drive back into town and deal with the serious, disapproving looks that seemed quick to judge his parenting skills—or lack of them.
Brad had tried to explain that Justin was fourteen—and going through a rough time, but that excuse was growing thin. He was every bit as frustrated as Justin’s teachers and bus driver must be, but what was he supposed to do? An initial show of patience, later followed by grounding and lectures hadn’t done the trick. Nothing he said seemed to faze Justin in the least.
Which, if he thought about it, wasn’t surprising. With Justin’s mother gone, the only functional line of communication between father and son had disappeared. Brad blamed himself—and Lynette. She could have done more to foster a relationship between father and son over the years, but that would have undermined her role—that of indispensable, all-controlling wife, mother, businesswoman.
At the school, Brad and Justin met with Mrs. La Rue, the principal, for about twenty minutes, and then she sent Justin to the bus building to pick up a formal warning and notice of two weeks’ suspension from the bus. The passenger door of the Tahoe opened and Justin got in. The loud slam echoed in the huge SUV, reminding Brad that he’d planned to sell the gas hog. With Lynette gone, there was no need for such a big vehicle. No sports meant no more car pooling. And Brad’s schedule didn’t allow for driving and dropping off neighbors’ kids and friends every morning and afternoon, which meant Justin had to ride the bus. At least that had been the case until today.
“Did you get the letter?”
Justin grunted and reached for the radio controls.
Brad blocked his hand. “Not yet. We need to talk. If you can’t ride the bus, then you’re going to have to get up half an hour earlier to walk to school.”
“Walk?” Justin shouted. “Are you out of your freakin’ mind? Only losers walk.”
“Losers and people who are kicked off the bus. What did you think would happen? That everybody would give you a break because you think you have a right to that chip on your shoulder?”
Justin’s green eyes—identical to his mother’s—narrowed to a look designed to show exactly how much he hated everyone, especially Brad. “Whatever.”
Brad stifled a sigh. He hated that word. It made him want to punch something. But never someone. He wasn’t the violent type.
“Hit me, man. Get it over with and just do it. We both know I deserve it,” his best friend and partner, Reggie Crenshaw, had begged him a little over a year ago. Right after the audit, but before Brad had found out about the affair.
“Just tell me why?” Brad had asked, too numb with shock to fully comprehend the extent of the betrayal. “And how?” he’d added, mind-boggled by the numbers the auditor had been tossing around.
The answers were linked, of course. Both questions led to Lynette. Her frequent trips to church retreats, women’s empowerment groups and business seminars had turned out to be romantic trysts, usually at a casino since gambling was Reggie’s admitted vice, completely paid for by Willowby’s.
Only now did Brad regret not beating the crap out of his friend when he’d had the chance. His left hand gripped the steering wheel as he put the truck in gear. Violence wasn’t the answer. Work was.
“I’m taking you to the restaurant. You can do your homework in my office then do dishes.”
“No way. I wanna go home.”
“Tough. I’m running late with setup because of this.”
“What about George?”
“What about him?”
“I thought I was supposed to walk him after school.”
Damn. George was Brad’s other problem child. Only, he was a four-legged one. “A boy needs a dog,” Lynette had claimed. “You’re so busy with work Justin is lonely,” she’d added, twisting the guilt knife a little deeper in his ribs.
So she’d searched online until she found a breeder who sold them a registered Harlequin Great Dane puppy. White with black spots, Brad’s first thought had been they’d gotten a Dalmatian by mistake—until he saw the size of George’s paws.
“Fine. We’ll pick him up and you can walk him on the beach before you do your homework.”
Justin let out a groan and slumped in his seat. His little iPod earphones went into his ears and some disparate beat that Brad refused to call music resonated softly in the car.
Premature deafness? Great. One more thing to worry about. But it was one of so many he really couldn’t give it much attention. His mind was already racing ahead to what kind of drama the night would bring. He thought of his restaurant as a kind of theater, where every evening he was the director, bringing together high art, delicious food and understated elegance on center stage, with madness and mayhem just behind the curtain.
He was still debating about whether to make a garlic chipotle sauce or something lighter to serve with the fresh tilapia that had been delivered that morning when they pulled into the driveway of the 1980s one-story ranch house he and Lynette bought as newlyweds. His father’s unexpected death and generous bequeathal had provided enough extra cash to purchase the empty two-point-five acre lot next to them a few years later. That lot was presently standing in the way of the closure of their property settlement.
“Go get George. And don’t forget his leash,” Brad said, nudging his son’s elbow.
“Don’t push me,” Justin cried, pulling back.
Brad groaned softly. He honestly didn’t know what to do anymore. The little kid who once loved to work by his side in the kitchen now couldn’t stand to be in the same room—the same house—with him. Most of the time, Justin hid out in the addition Lynette had had built six or so years earlier.
“My family needs a place to stay when they come. It will add to our home’s value and someday when we’re old and gray, Justin and his wife can have the main house and they’ll take care of us in the addition,” she’d argued.
“Right,” Brad muttered now, glancing at his watch.
He was just starting to open the door when Justin returned, carrying George’s leash. There was no dog in sight—and a dog of George’s size was hard to miss. In his left hand was the portable phone.
Brad rolled down the window. “Where’s George?”
“Here,” his son said, handing him the phone.
Brad pushed a button to replay the message. He didn’t recognize the voice at first, but it only took a few seconds to put a face to the name the speaker gave. Kara Williams. Lithesome blond beauty who once worked for him at the restaurant but was now the owner of a dog-grooming service Lynette had insisted they bring George to.
“Damn,” he swore. “You were supposed to make sure George was in his pen before you went to school.”
Justin’s anger was unmistakable. “I knew you’d blame me. You blame me for everything that goes wrong around here. Screw it. I’m not going with you and you can’t make me.”
He stormed off into the house, slamming the door behind him.
Brad turned off the phone. He got out of the truck and walked around the side of the garage to the chain-link fence of the dog run. A large, sturdy doghouse made with the same wood siding as the house was set in one corner, under the overhang. Dog toys and a child’s plastic swimming pool gave the place a cheerful look. A fresh mound of dirt surrounding a natural indentation where water drained away from the house told him what had happened. His giant dog had turned into a giant gopher.
He leaned his head against the six-foot fence. The metal was cool and soothing, but the chill wasn’t enough to block the pain throbbing in his skull. His life was turning into a big black hole and his dog was digging it deeper. He couldn’t get rid of his restaurant or his house or his son, but he could do something about George. He’d ask Kara. She worked with pets and pet owners every day. Maybe she knew of someone who might just have a home for a Great Dane.
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