Forever And A Day
Tired, edgy, and scared that she was never going to get her life on the happy track, Grace Brooks dropped into the back booth of the diner and sagged against the red vinyl seat. “I could really use a drink.”
Mallory, in wrinkled scrubs, just coming off an all-night shift at the ER, snorted as she crawled into the booth as well. “It’s eight in the morning.”
“Hey, it’s happy hour somewhere.” This from their third musketeer, Amy, who was wearing a black tee, a black denim skirt with lots of zippers, and kickass boots. The toughgirl ensemble was softened by the bright pink Eat Me apron she was forced to wear while waitressing. “Pick your poison.”
“Actually, I was thinking hot chocolate,” Grace said, fighting a yawn. She’d slept poorly, worrying about money. And paying bills. And keeping a roof over her head…
“Hot chocolate works too,” Amy said. “Be right back.”
Good as her word, she soon reappeared with a tray of steaming hot chocolate and big, fluffy chocolate pancakes. “Chocoholics unite.”
Four months ago, Grace had come west from New York for a Seattle banking job, until she’d discovered that putting out for the boss was part of the deal. Leaving the offer on the table, she’d gotten into her car and driven as far as the tank of gas could take her, ending up in the little Washington State beach town of Lucky Harbor. That same night, she’d gotten stuck in this very diner during a freak snowstorm with two strangers.
Mallory and Amy.
With no electricity and a downed tree blocking their escape, the three of them had spent a few scary hours soothing their nerves by eating their way through a very large chocolate cake. Since then, meeting over chocolate cake had become habit—until they’d accidentally destroyed the inside of the diner in a certain candle incident that wasn’t to be discussed. Jan, the owner of Eat Me, had refused to let them meet over cake anymore, so the Chocoholics had switched to brownies. Grace was thinking of making a motion for chocolate cupcakes next. It was important to have the right food for those meetings, as dissecting their lives—specifically their lack of love lives—was hard work. Except these days, Amy and Mallory actually hadlove lives.
Grace did not.
Amy disappeared again and came back with butter and syrup. She untied and tossed aside her apron and sat, pushing the syrup toward Grace.
“I love you,” Grace said with great feeling as she took her first bite of delicious goodness.
Not one to waste her break, Amy toasted her with a pancake-loaded fork dripping with syrup and dug in.
Mallory was still carefully spreading butter on her pancakes. “You going to tell us what’s wrong, Grace?”
Grace stilled for a beat, surprised that Mallory had been able to read her. “I didn’t say anything was wrong.”
“You’re mainlining a stack of six pancakes like your life depends on it.”
“Because they’re amazing.” And nothing was wrong exactly. Except…everything.
All her life she’d worked her ass off, running on the hamster wheel, heading towards her elusive future. Being adopted at birth by a rocket scientist and a well-respected research biologist had set the standards, and she knew her role. Achieve, and achieve high. “I’ve applied at every bank, investment company, and accounting firm between Seattle and San Francisco. There’s not much out there.”
“No nibbles?” Mallory asked sympathetically, reaching for the syrup, her engagement ring catching the light.
Amy shielded her eyes. “Jeez, Mallory, stop waving that thing around, you’re going to blind us. Couldn’t Ty have found one smaller than a third world country? Or less sparkly?”
Mallory beamed at the rock on her finger but otherwise ignored Amy’s comment, unwilling to be deterred. “Back to the nibbles,” she said to Grace.
“Nothing to write home about. Just a couple of possible interviews for next week, one in Seattle, one in Portland.” Neither job was exactly what Grace wanted, but available jobs at her level in banking had become nearly extinct. So here she was, two thousand miles from home, drowning beneath the debt load of her education and CPA because her parents had always been of the “build character and pave your own road” variety. She was still mad at herself for following that job offer to Seattle, but she’d wanted a good, solid position in the firm—just not one that she could find in the Kama Sutra.
Now late spring had turned to late summer, and she was still in Lucky Harbor, living off temp jobs. She was down to her last couple of hundred bucks, and her parents thought she’d taken that job in Seattle counting other people’s money for a living. Grace had strived to live up to the standards of being a Brooks, but there was no doubt she fell short. In her heart, she knew she belonged, but her brain—the part of her that got that she was only a Brooks on paper—knew she’d never really pulled it off.
“I don’t want you to leave Lucky Harbor,” Mallory said. “But one of these interviews will work out for you, I know it.”
Grace didn’t necessarily want to leave Lucky Harbor either. She’d found the small, quirky town to be more welcoming than anywhere else she’d ever been, but staying wasn’t really an option. She was never going to build her big career here. “I hope so.” She stabbed another pancake from the tray and dropped it on her plate. “I hate fibbing to my parents so they won’t worry. And I’m whittling away at my meager savings. Plus, being in limbo sucks.”
“Yeah, none of those things are your real problem,” Amy said.
“No?” Grace asked. “What’s my real problem?”
“You’re not getting any.”
Grace sagged at the pathetic truthfulness of this statement, a situation made all the worse by the fact that both Amy and Mallory were getting some.
“Remember the storm?” Mallory asked. “When we almost died in this very place?”
“Right,” Amy said dryly, “from overdosing on chocolate cake, maybe.”
Mallory ignored this and pointed her fork at Grace. “We made a pinky promise. I said I’d learn to be a little bad for a change. And Amy here was going to live her life instead of letting it live her. And you, Miss Grace, you were going to find more than a new job, remember? You were going to stop chasing your own tail and go after some happy and some fun. It’s time, babe.”
“I am having fun here.” At least, more than she’d ever let herself have before. “And what it’s time for right now is work.” With a longing look at the last stack of pancakes, Grace stood up and brushed the crumbs off her sundress.
“What’s today’s job?” Amy asked.
When Grace had first realized she needed to get a temporary job or stop eating, she’d purposely gone for something new. Something that didn’t require wearing stuffy pencil skirts or closed- toe heels, or sitting in front of a computer for fifteen hours a day. Because if she had to be off-track and a little lost, then she was going to have fun while she was at it, dammit. “I’m delivering birthday flowers to Mrs. Buerluand for her eightieth birthday. Then modeling at Lucille’s art gallery for a drawing class.”
“Modeling for an art class?” Mallory asked. “Like…nude?”
“Today they’re drawing hands.” Nude was tomorrow’s class, and Grace was really hoping something happened before then, like maybe she’d win the lottery. Or get beamed to another planet.
“If I had your body,” Amy said. “I’d totally model nude. And charge a lot for it.”
“Sounds like you’re talking about something different than modeling,” Mallory said dryly.
Grace rolled her eyes at the both of them and stood. She dropped the last of her pocket money onto the table, and left to make the floral deliveries. When she’d worked at the bank, she’d gotten up before the crack of dawn, rode a train for two hours, put in twelve more at her desk, then got home in time to crawl into bed.
Things were majorly different here.
For one thing, she saw daylight.
So maybe she could no longer afford Starbucks, but at least she wasn’t still having the recurring nightmare where she was suffocating under a sea of pennies that she’d been trying to count one by one.
Two hours later, Grace was just finishing the last of the deliveries when her cell phone buzzed. She didn’t recognize the incoming number, so she played mental roulette and answered. “Grace Brooks,” she said in her most professional tone, as if she were still sitting on top of her world. Sure, she’d given up designer wear, but she hadn’t lost her pride. Not yet anyway.
“I’m calling about your flyer,” a man said. “I need a dog walker. Someone who’s on time, responsible, and not a flake.”
Her flyer? “A dog walker?” she repeated.
“Yes, and I’d need you to start today.”
“Today…as in today?” she asked.
The man, whoever he was, had a hell of a voice, low and a little raspy, with a hint of impatience. Clearly he’d misdialed. And just as clearly, there was someone else in Lucky Harbor trying to drum up work for themselves.
Grace considered herself a good person. She sponsored a child in Africa, and she dropped her spare change into the charity jars at the supermarket. Someone in town had put up flyers looking to get work, and that someone deserved this phone call. But dog walking…Grace could totally do dog walking. Offering a silent apology for stealing the job, she said, “I could start today.”
“Your flyer lists your qualifications, but not how long you’ve been doing this.”
That was too bad because she’d sure like to know that herself. She’d never actually had a dog. Turns out, rocket scientists and renowned biologists don’t have a lot of time in their lives for incidentals such as dogs.
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 lunch-time.”
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 northern-most 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 wheel chair 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 set-up? 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 lock up.
“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 advance 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 dove 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 dove 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.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
She dropped to her wobbly knees in the sand and shoved her wet hair out of her face with shaking fingers. “Dr. Scott? Did you hear me?”
She waited for the rest of his response, desperately gripping the phone.
“You might have lost Tank,” he repeated.
“Yes,” she said softly, hating herself.
Grace looked around the beach. The empty beach. “Yes.”
“Well, then, I owe you a big, fat kiss.”
Grace pulled her phone from her ear and stared at it, then brought it back. “No,” she said, shaking her head as if he could see her. “I don’t think you understand, I lost Tank. In the water.”
He muttered something that she’d have sworn sounded like “I should be so lucky.”
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m two minutes away. I got a break in the ER and was coming home to make sure you showed.”
“Well, of course I showed—”
But he’d disconnected.
“Why wouldn’t I show?” she asked no one. She dropped her phone back into her purse and got up. Two minutes. She had two minutes to find Tank.