The Good Luck Sister
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—from “The Mixed-Up Files of Tilly’s Journal”
Tilly Adams sat in the vet’s office staring at the doctor in shock. “Say that again?”
Dr. Janet Lyons smiled. “I think Leo faked being sick. Probably so you’d stay home from work today.”
Tilly looked down at Leo. “You do know he’s a dog, right?”
All six pounds of him smiled up at her. About a month ago, she found him on a street corner hiding beneath a bus bench; wet, dirty, cold, hungry and matted. He’d been Dobby meets Gremlin meets neglected, abused Care Bear. Tilly had looked around for an adult, and then had to remind herself that at twenty-five years old, she was legal herself. So then she’d searched for an adultier adult, but she’d been the only one in sight.
So she’d scooped the little guy up and had brought him to the SPCA, who’d said he was about five weeks old, a possible Maltipoo, which meant he came by his Care Bear look naturally. He was malnourished and suffering from mange. They’d said they’d do what they could, and Tilly had turned to go. That had been when she’d seen all the eyes on her from an endless row of cages . . . and she’d realized her Care Bear would soon be sitting in one too. Then she’d heard herself offer to foster him until they found him a forever home.
They’d found him one too. Tilly had signed the adoption papers last weekend in spite of the fact that just that morning he’d escaped his crate, eaten her favorite sneakers, destroyed her favorite pillow, and then yakked up the stuffing from the pillow.
He was a destructo of the highest magnitude, and something else too. He had no idea how small he was. He went after her sister Quinn’s twenty-plus pound cat and her neighbor’s hundred pound black lab with the same fierce, fearless gusto. Turned out, the little guy had a bad case of small-man syndrome, which was how he’d earned his name.
Leo, short for Napoleon.
And now on top of Leo’s impressive chewing skills, his escape artist skills, and his ability to get up on her bed and yet still not understand why stepping in his own poop was annoying, he had a new skill.
He’d faked being sick.
Proud of himself, Leo smiled up at her. Smiled. An hour ago he’d been coughing and limping and acting all sorts of odd. Now he just kept smiling up at her while sending her meaningful glances at the open dog biscuit bin between her and the doctor.
Dr. Lyons laughed and gave him one.
“Dogs can’t fake sick,” Tilly said while Leo inhaled the biscuit whole before licking the floor to make sure he got all the crumbs. “Can they?”
Dr. Lyons scooped him up and gave him a kiss on his adorable snout. “Yours did.”
Tilly sighed. It was too early for this. She’d had a crazy late night. Not hanging at Whiskey River, the local bar and grill. Not at a club with friends. Not working on her designs for the upcoming graphic art showing.
Nope, she’d been on a serious stress bender—a marathon of Game of Thrones. She hadn’t fallen asleep until after two and her alarm had interrupted her in the middle of a really great dream starring Jon Snow.
Dr. Lyons handed Leo over. He immediately snuggled into the crook of Tilly’s neck and dammit, her cold heart melted on the spot and she hugged him close. “You’re sure he’s okay? He was coughing. And then he limped funny. And then he wouldn’t eat.”
“But he hasn’t coughed once that I’ve seen. And he’s not limping either. And you said all his food vanished while you took a quick shower.”
“Yes,” Tilly said.
Dr. Lyons waited for her to catch up.
Tilly sighed. “He really did fake me out.”
“You mentioned you’ve been working long hours in the studio, right? And also taking extra shifts at Caro’s Café. And now you’re teaching art at the community college as well. I think Leo’s lonely. Take him to work with you today and see what happens.”
“It’s my first day teaching.”
The vet smiled. “He’ll warm up your students for you.”
That, or eat their shoes. Tilly sighed and put Leo in his little carrier bag that doubled as her purse. She paid the office visit tab with her already loaded credit card, and got in her car.
Wildstone was a small California coastal and ranching town that sat in a bowl between the Pacific Coast and wine country. She’d grown up here, a wild child who favored riding her bike through the oak-covered rolling hills or hiding in the bluffs above the ocean to school work and social niceties. She’d been raised by her mom until she’d passed away when Tilly had been fifteen. Her older sister, Quinn, had come to live with her and took over parental duties.
Tilly hadn’t been exactly welcoming. In fact, she’d been a nightmare. She’d thought she’d been so original, but the truth was, she’d been a classic cliché, ignoring curfew, sneaking out, “borrowing” the car and then crashing it . . . but somehow she and Quinn had fumbled their way through.
And Tilly had gone on to become an adult, as dubious as that seemed at the moment as she raced to school with a foster fail puppy in her purse. She’d come back to Wildstone after graduating college a few years ago. She’d had a few stints at the local art fairs, but nothing had come of them and she’d gotten her teaching credential to pay the bills. Somehow in the doing of that, she realized she’d given up the big artist dream in order to have a roof over her head and food in her belly.
“You’ll be a good art teacher,” she told herself and looked over at Leo. “Right?”
Right. She’d get to impart her knowledge. She’d be content. She would.
She parked at the community college and stared at the busy place. She’d be here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, teaching three classes on each of those days. Blowing out a sigh, she texted her sister.
Tilly: How you doing?
Quinn: I’m thirty months pregnant, how do you think I’m doing? I’m peeing every two seconds and eating the house. Why aren’t you here dropping Leo off?
Tilly: Thanks for offering to pup-sit, but I’m bringing him with me.
Quinn: Are you nuts?
Tilly: Yes. And also feeling guilty. I just signed the adoption papers yesterday. It’s too early to foist him off on someone.
Quinn: Aw, look at you being a good dog mom. Just don’t look directly into his soft brown eyes. Trust me, he’ll mind meld you into doing whatever he wants. It’s a fatal flaw. Good luck. You’re going to need it.
No doubt. She got out of the car and headed to her classroom, her purse over one shoulder with Leo’s head out bouncing with her every step, his tongue lolling happily at the sights.
“Arf!” he said in an excited bark so high it was almost inaudible.
Tilly tried to catch some of his enthusiasm, and clutching her things, kept moving.
It was going to be a day of firsts. First day of the week. First day of teaching. First day of skipping breakfast thanks to the nerves of first day of teaching.
And first day of being speechless as a few minutes later, with Leo now asleep in her bag, standing in front of her students, specifically the guy sitting front and center.
At the sight of him, time stuttered to a halt. So did the breath in her lungs. She had to be seeing things. Stress induced, exhaustion induced, lack of sugar induced . . . Whatever the reason, she fumbled for her glasses in the front pocket of her portfolio and slid them on. Pushing them up her nose, she took another peek.
But nope, he was still sitting there, the unwelcome blast from her past, his dark eyes taking her in, expression hooded and unreadable.
Her heart kicked hard and she began to sweat. She pulled out her iPad and accessed her class roster, the one she hadn’t had a chance to look at since receiving it late last night. She took a look at the list and froze.
Dylan Scott was listed. He’d registered for her class.
She jerked her gaze back up. His mouth curved slightly and she lost concentration. Quickly, she mentally ran through her tricks for her public speaking anxiety. Don’t look them right in the eyes. Look just over their heads. Smile. Breathe. Repeat.
Don’t stroke out.
“Hello, everyone,” she said with more cheer than she felt. Because what she felt was the urge to run home, dive under her covers, and stay there until the semester was over. Nerves jangling in her stomach, she forced a smile. “Welcome to Graphic Design 101.”
She got a few murmurs. A very few. Still doing her best to ignore Dylan in the front row—and failing spectacularly—she tried not to be bummed at the low level of enthusiasm. It was eight a.m., she reminded herself. And a Monday. Plus, this class was an elective, which meant people took it as a filler and not because they were excited about learning graphic art.
“It’s going to be fun,” she said as cheerfully as she could while also squirming just a little bit under the dark, speculative gaze of Dylan.
Why hadn’t she taken more care with her hair? And had she even put on a lick of makeup? She couldn’t remember. “Really,” she said. “I promise.” She tried to think of her next line, but her brain was on repeat. Dylan. Dylan. Dylan . . . “I’m sorry,” she finally said and looked right at him. “But why are you here?”
Everyone risked whiplash trying to get a glimpse of who she was speaking to. There were whispers and a few nervous giggles.
Dylan didn’t look bothered in the least. He didn’t fidget. Didn’t even blink. “Wanted to learn graphic design,” he said.
Bullshit. When they’d first met, he’d been sixteen to her fifteen and he’d had not a single artistic inkling. He’d wanted to be an astronaut.
She’d wanted to be a world famous artist. Only she hadn’t gotten even close. That she had that upcoming show at the art gallery downtown was in thanks to Quinn and Mick for donating heavily. But she’d figured a pity show was better than no show at all.
As for Dylan, she knew from a few late night, alcohol fueled online searches that she wouldn’t admit to even under the threat of death that he’d gone into the marines. He’d made something of himself.
And she’d been swimming in place.
From the podium, her phone flashed a Twitter notification.
Day One, Teacher @TillyAdams is losing her shit in art class. Going to be fun . . .
Perfect. “If you’ll all excuse us a minute,” she said to the class and gestured for Dylan to meet her off to the side of the room.
With an easy, almost animalistic grace he rose from his chair and headed toward her while she did her best not to drown in memories. He was still long-legged and lanky, but filled out in all the right places, looking like the hottest thing she’d ever seen. But seriously, he had a lot of nerve showing up after all this time with zero contact after breaking her heart and crushing her soul. Good thing she was no longer a naive teenager. She had her life together. Completely. One hundred percent. Okay, sixty-five percent.
“I don’t know what game you’re playing,” she whispered. “But it isn’t funny. I think you should leave.”
“No game,” he said. “I’m signed up for this class, same as everyone else.” And with that, he went back to his seat.
She looked around, felt the awkwardness of the room. Her doing. She was an idiot. She did her best to shake it off, to completely ignore him. Pride dictated this. All the anger, hurt, confusion, and the hardest to take, betrayal, she’d shoved deep eight years ago and nothing could get to that. Nothing.
As she began to go through the curriculum with the class, she walked around the large art room, showing them the wide variety of equipment they had at their fingertips thanks to a recent grant. They had large monitors at twenty stations, but the 3D printer was her favorite, and she quickly sketched out some blocks, showing the students how they might use the printer as a part of an upcoming 3D project. She put letters on the blocks to spell B-I-T-E M-E, realized what she was doing and the scrambled the letters before hitting print.
But not in time apparently, because the blocks came out in perfect order. “Well,” she said. “It is a Monday, right?”
The class was cracking up and she took a discreet glance at Dylan.
He arched a brow.
She looked at the clock. Ten minutes had gone by. Forty more minutes to go.
When the bell finally rang and the students all began to exit the room, she turned away so she didn’t feel tempted to watch Dylan leave.
The ratfink bastard.
She busied herself putting her things back into her bag and checked on Leo. The little guy yawned so sweetly and smiled sleepily up at her, melting her heart. Scooping him up, she cuddled him to her, giving him a kiss on his snout. He smiled back and . . .
. . . Let loose with a warm stream. She felt it pool at her chest before dripping down her torso. Sucking in a breath, she pulled the pup away from her with a sigh.
He bicycled his little paws in the air, trying to get back to her, a smile on that deceptively adorable face.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m willing to concede that was entirely my fault. Let’s get you outside before this turns into a número dos situation.” She turned to go and came face to face with Dylan. “Dammit.”
He looked amused at her greeting. His gaze ran over her, caught onto the puppy, and he gave Tilly a small smile. “Cute,” he said, reaching out a hand to pet Leo.
Who bared his little teeth and gave a ferocious growl.
Okay, so it wasn’t ferocious, it was thin and wobbly, like he wasn’t quite sure how to growl, but he bared his teeth to show he meant it. Tilly was so stunned that she let out a startled laugh. Clearly she’d projected her feelings onto the pup. “Good boy,” she said. Shouldering her purse and grabbing the portfolio, she lifted her chin in the air and started to walk away.
“Not going to even say hi?” Dylan asked her back.
She had to close her eyes for a beat because of that voice. Once upon a time, that sexy, gruff voice could stop her in her tracks. She’d always known that, thanks to a tragically rough childhood, he had inner demons. But she’d always thought they’d fight them together.
He’d lied about that. He’d lied about a lot of things. “I have a different word for you,” she said. “It’s good-bye.” And with as much dignity as she could manage while dripping puppy pee down her shirt and pants legs, she did as he’d once done to her. Walked away.