If she’d had to lay down money on which of her motley crew would cause the most trouble, Grace Travis would not have picked the Chihuahua. As she waited for Tequila, one of the two bullmastiffs, to finish sniffing an apparently odorous swatch of sidewalk, she looked toward the water. She loved it here.
She took a deep breath of her own, inhaling the scent of salt water and sun. Harlow Beach was probably her favorite place on earth. The little pang of longing in her chest warred with the guilt of making the leap. The little house she’d inherited had sat empty for months now. Glancing in that direction, she swore to herself it wouldn’t be much longer. She honestly didn’t think she could stand many more nights of sleeping under a roof that wasn’t hers when there was one right off the beach holding little pieces of her past.
She gave Tequila and his brother, Lime, the second of the mastiffs, a tug. “Let’s go, guys. One of us has things to do,” she said.
The five dogs got on board, rushing forward at varying speeds despite the limits of their leashes. They made an oddly adorable mosh pit of fur and ears. Technically, she could get by, thanks to student loans, with just her coffee shop job, but walking these dogs brought her exactly where she wanted to be. Even if you can’t be here for real. Yet. Plus, it built exercise into her overscheduled days, with the added benefit of pocket money. Plus, plus, she’d grown attached. As a kid, she’d always wanted a dog.
Brutus, the nine-pound Chihuahua, led the pack. They descended the cobbled steps onto the sand to get out of the way of the few passing runners and cyclists that made it out this early. The salty air filled her lungs as she scanned the beach.
No jury of peers would blame Grace for the way her mind blanked at the sight in front of her. With the steady, gentle waves lapping onto the beach, the sun rising like a slow yawn, and the hot dude in the bright swim trunks emerging from the surf, droplets of water trickling down his chiseled chest, anyone’s hand would have slackened on the bundle of leashes.
In those next few seconds, time spun out. Brutus’s bark was followed by a determined yank that freed his leash from Grace’s fingers. He shot off toward the dark-haired surfer dude, whose face registered surprise at the yappy little guy coming in hot. Brutus went straight for the paddle in the guy’s hand, jumping with a stupid amount of determination given his size.
The other dogs had their buddy’s back, pulling Grace along without consent until they surrounded the man. She thanked every deity she could conjure in those seconds as the dogs frolicked around him that none of them had a vicious bone in their furry bodies. They weren’t after him. Nope, they just thought his paddle was an oversize toy they deserved to play with. Good lord, do not follow through on thoughts about his paddle. Her feet slipped in the sand, the dogs pulling her farther off balance as Poppers and Pepper, the miniature poodles, joined Brutus’s enthusiastic barking and jumping. Pepper connected with the paddle. Grace winced even as she reached to stop the pup from playing with it like a stick. Which was her downfall, really.
Tequila and Lime cushioned Grace’s fall. Somewhat. Really, Lime assisted her tumble by collapsing at her feet and knocking her the rest of the way down onto the sand. Her groan morphed into a nearly giddy, completely embarrassing laugh, which gave gorgeous surfer guy the green light to laugh his sexy face off as he stretched a hand out to Grace. Tequila wanted in on the action, jumping to lick right up one side of the guy’s cheek.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, her head swimming with that unreal sensation of something that couldn’t be happening but was. Her heart galloped in her chest like a runaway racehorse.
She took advantage of surfer, or more accurately, paddleboard guy’s momentary shock at being loved on by a mastiff and stumbled to her feet without his help. The dogs bounced and pulled between them, overcome with the pure joy only dogs can feel over absolutely nothing. At the moment, Grace wished she had the canine gift of not feeling any shame. Her cheeks were hotter than the afternoon sun promised to be.
“Are you okay?” He wiped his cheek with his palm as he spoke.
Brutus continued to bark at him but at least Grace got a firm hold on the leash. All the leashes. She tugged, sliding her feet backward. Of course, he had to have a sexy, rough voice to go with the live-action Baywatch thing he had going on.
“I’m good.” She laughed loud enough to startle a couple of pigeons. “So good. I am fantastic. Sorry about that. Brutus must have thought you looked familiar.” What? What the actual hell are you saying? More important, why are you saying it out loud?
Her phone buzzed again but she just kept backing up.
“Brutus, huh? Funny name.”
“The funniest.” Stop making it worse.
She was going to strangle herself with the leashes. Just keep backing up. Say nothing else. “Sorry about the dog breath.” Disappear. Keep moving until he can’t see you anymore. “Tequila’s not mine.”
Hot guy chuckled. No. No chuckling. She wasn’t trying to be funny.
“That’s his name.” She pointed to the dog, who whined about leaving.
“Nice to meet you, Tequila and Brutus. You could stick around, introduce me to the others.”
He took a step forward. Her heart lurched with his movement, surprising a gasp from her lungs. Until this moment, moonwalking through the sand, with five dogs making her unsteady, she hadn’t known such a thing actually happened. The organ in her chest jumped.
It was supposed to be a turn of phrase. One of those clichés that brought her endless happiness in the novels she hoarded. Her phone buzzed one more time, finally pulling her out of her stupor. She shifted the leashes into one hand, pulled her phone out of her pocket with the other, glancing at the screen.
Morty. She stifled the next groan. If he was calling for her to pick up ice cream this early, while he knew she was working, she was going to throttle him. He’s been through a lot. Don’t be so harsh. In fact, he’s giving you the perfect excuse. Be grateful. Grace waved her phone in the air.
“No time, sorry.” There was never any time. Not for the things she hoped and dreamed about. Not for stopping to talk with a good-looking guy on the beach when she had to be at the coffee shop in less than an hour. No time to swing by the little bungalow and gaze at it from the street, wondering when she’d get the nerve to tell Morty she needed to move out of his home and, finally, into her own.
He lifted his hand in a goodbye salute as Grace swiped her thumb on her phone and made herself return to real life. The one with a lot of dogs and no men. Well, no others she wanted to see shirtless, anyway.
By the time she put her phone to her ear, the line was dead. Damn. What if he was hurt? He’s a grown man who doesn’t need mothering. He probably wants you to pick him up a burger because he refuses to believe there’s nowhere close by to get a burger at seven A.M.
Guilt at her flustered irritation lodged in her side. Dropping the dogs off at their respective homes, she reminded herself Morty gave her a job and a roof over her head when she’d needed both. She couldn’t just abandon him because she was ready to claim a part of her life she’d never even known.
Originally, she’d walked Brutus as a favor to Morty’s neighbor, but he’d insisted on paying her, then referred her to a friend. Things tended to snowball around Grace. At least, in this instance, it was good money.
She knocked on the door only three down from where she lived. Brutus clawed at the wood, excited to be home. John Dade opened the door in a robe, leaning heavily on his cane. “Hey. Come on in. Coffee is on,” the elderly gentleman said. His pompadour hair that never seemed to move reminded her of Jay Leno.
Grace let the leash drop and was backing down the steps before she answered. Brutus darted inside. “Not today. Thanks anyway.”
“You stop by your house?” John stepped onto the small stoop.
Didn’t she just say no time? “I couldn’t. Not today.”
“Well, when you’re ready to get in there, my son is happy to help you with any of the renos.”
She nodded, her throat going thick. “Morty’s moving around better every day. Hopefully soon.”
Copyright © 2021 by Jody Holford