In fact, come to think of it, Grace had never had so much as a goldfish, but really, how hard could it be? Put the thing on a leash and walk, right? “I’m a little new at the dog walking thing,” she admitted.
“A little new?” he asked. “Or a lot new?”
There was a pause, as if he was considering hanging up. Grace rushed to fill the silence. “But I’m very diligent!” she said quickly. “I never leave a job unfinished.” Unless she was asked how she felt about giving blow jobs during lunch breaks… “And I’m completely reliable.”
“The dog is actually a puppy,” he said. “And new to our household. Not yet fully trained.”
“No problem,” she said, and crossed her fingers, hoping that was true. She loved puppies. Or at least she loved the idea of puppies.
“I left for work early this morning and won’t be home until late tonight. I’d need you to walk the dog by lunchtime.”
Yeah, he really had a hell of a voice. Low and authoritative, it made her want to snap to attention and salute him, but it was also…sexy. Wondering if the rest of him matched his voice, she made arrangements to go to his house in a couple of hours, where there’d be someone waiting to let her inside. Her payment of forty bucks cash would be left on the dining room table.
Forty bucks cash for walking a puppy…
Grace didn’t ask why the person opening the door for her couldn’t walk the puppy. She didn’t want to talk her new employer out of hiring her because, hello, forty bucks. She could eat all week off that if she was careful.
At the appropriate time, she pulled up to the address she’d been given and sucked in a big breath. She hadn’t caught the man’s name, but he lived in a very expensive area, on the northernmost part of town where the rocky beach stretched for endless miles like a gorgeous postcard for the Pacific Northwest. The dark green bluffs and rock formations were piled like gifts from heaven for as far as the eye could see. Well, as far as her eye could see, which wasn’t all that far since she needed glasses.
She was waiting on a great job with benefits to come along first.
The house sat across the street from the beach. Built in sprawling stone and glass, it was beautiful, though she found it odd that it was all one level, when the surrounding homes were two and three stories high. Even more curious, next to the front steps was a ramp. A wheelchair ramp. Grace knocked on the door, then caught sight of the Post-it note stuck on the glass panel.
I’ve left door unlocked for you. Please let yourself in. Oh, and if you could throw away this note and not let my brother know I left his house unlocked, that’d be great, thanks. Also, don’t steal anything.
Grace stood there chewing her bottom lip in rare indecision. She hadn’t given this enough thought. Hell, let’s be honest. She’d given it no thought at all past Easy Job. She reminded herself that she was smart in a crisis and could get through anything.
But walking into a perfect stranger’s home seemed problematic, if not downright dangerous. What if a curious neighbor saw her and called the cops? She looked herself over. Enjoying her current freedom from business wear, she was in a sundress with her cute Payless-special ankle boots and lace socks. Not looking much like a banking specialist, and hopefully not looking like a B&E expert either…
Regardless, what if this was a setup? What if a bad guy lived here, one who lured hungry, slightly desperate, act-now-think-later women inside to do heinous things to them?
Okay, so maybe she’d been watching too many late-night marathons of Criminal Minds, but it could totally happen.
Then, from inside the depths of the house came a happy, high-pitched bark. And then another, which seemed to say, “Hurry up, lady. I have to pee!”
Ah, hell. In for a penny…Grace opened the front door and peered inside.
The living room was as stunning as the outside of the house. Wide-open spaces, done in dark masculine wood and neutral colors. The furniture was oversized and sparse on the beautiful, scarred hardwood floors. An entire wall of windows faced the late summer sky and Pacific Ocean.
As Grace stepped inside, the barking increased in volume, intermingled now with hopeful whining. She followed the sounds to a huge, state-of-the-art kitchen that made her wish she knew how to cook beyond the basics of soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Just past the kitchen was a laundry room, the doorway blocked by a toddler gate.
On the other side of the gate was a baby pig.
A baby pig that barked.
Okay, not a pig at all, but one of those dogs whose faces looked smashed in. The tiny body was mostly tan, the face black with crazy bugged-out eyes and a tongue that lolled out the side of its mouth. It looked like an animated cartoon as it twirled in excited circles, dancing for her, trying to impress and charm its way out of lockup.
“Hi,” she said to him. Her? Hard to tell since its parts were so low as to scrape the ground along with its belly.
The thing snorted and huffed in joyous delirium, rolling over and over like a hotdog, then jumping up and down like a Mexican jelly bean.
“Oh, there’s no need for all that,” Grace said, and opened the gate.
Mistake number one.
The dog/pig/alien streaked past her with astounding speed and promptly raced out of the kitchen and out of sight.
“Hey,” she called. “Slow down.”
But it didn’t, and wow, those stumpy legs could really move. It snorted with sheer delight as it made its mad getaway, and Grace was forced to rethink the pig theory. Also, the sex mystery was solved. From behind, she’d caught a glimpse of dangly bits.
It—he—ran circles around the couch, barking with merry enthusiasm. She gave chase, wondering how it was that she had multiple advanced degrees, and yet she hadn’t thought to ask the name of the damn dog. “Hey,” she said. “Hey you. We’re going outside to walk.”
The puppy dashed past her like lightning.
Dammit. Breathless, she changed direction and followed him back into the kitchen where he was chasing some imaginary threat around the gorgeous dark wood kitchen table that indeed had two twenty-dollar bills lying on the smooth surface.
She was beginning to see why the job paid so much.
She retraced her steps to the laundry room and found a leash and collar hanging on the doorknob above the gate. Perfect. The collar was a manly blue and the tag said TANK.
Grace laughed out loud, then searched for Tank. Turned out, Tank had worn off the excess energy and was up against the front door, panting.
“Good boy,” Grace cooed, and came at him with his collar. “What a good boy.”
He smiled at her.
Aw. See? she told herself. Compared to account analysis and posing nude, this job is going to be a piece of cake. She was still mentally patting herself on the back for accepting this job when right there on the foyer floor, Tank squatted, hunched, and—
“No!” she cried. “Oh no, not inside!” She fumbled with the front door, which scared Tank into stopping mid-poo. He ran a few feet away from the front door and hunched again. He was quicker this time. Grace was still standing there, mouth open in shock and horror as little Tank took a dainty step away from his second masterpiece, pawed his short back legs on the wood like a matador, and then, with his oversized head held up high, trotted right out the front door like royalty.
Grace staggered after him, eyes watering from the unholy smell. “Tank! Tank, wait!”
Tank didn’t wait. Apparently feeling ten pounds lighter, he raced across the front yard and the street. He hit the beach, his little legs pumping with the speed of a gazelle as he practically flew across the sand, heading straight for the water.
“Oh, God,” she cried. “No, Tank, no!”
But Tank dived into the first wave and vanished.
Grace dropped the purse off her shoulder and let it fall to the sand. “Tank!”
She dashed closer to the water. A wave hit her at hip level, knocking her back a step as she frantically searched for a bobbing head.
Nothing. The little guy had completely vanished, having committed suicide right before her eyes.
The next wave hit her at chest height. Again she staggered back, gasping at the shock of the water as she searched frantically for a little black head.
Wave number three washed right over the top of her. She came up sputtering, shook her head to clear it, then dived beneath the surface, desperate to find the puppy.
Finally, she was forced to crawl out of the water and admit defeat. She pulled her phone from her purse and swore because it’d turned itself off. Probably because she kept dropping it.
Or tossing it to the rocky beach to look for drowning puppies.
She powered the phone on, gnawed on her lower lip, then called the man who’d trusted her to “be on time, be responsible, and not be a flake.” Heart pounding, throat tight, she waited until he picked up.
“Dr. Scott,” came the low, deep male voice.
Dr. Scott. Dr. Scott?
“Hello?” he said. “Anyone there?”
Oh, God. This was bad. Very bad. Because she knew him.
Well, okay, not really. She’d seen him around because he was good friends with Mallory’s and Amy’s boyfriends. Dr. Joshua Scott was thirty-four—which she knew because Mallory had given him thirty-four chocolate cupcakes on his birthday last month, a joke because he was a health nut. He was a big guy, built for football more than the ER, but he’d chosen the latter. Even in his wrinkled scrubs after a long day at work, his dark hair tousled and his darker eyes lined with exhaustion, he was drop-dead sexy. The few times that their gazes had locked, the air had snapped, crackled, and popped with a tension she hadn’t felt with a man in far too long.
And she’d just killed his puppy.
“Um, hi,” she said. “This is Grace Brooks. Your…dog walker.” She choked down a horrified sob and forced herself to continue, to give him the rest. “I might have just lost your puppy.”
There was a single beat of stunned silence.