.“It’s not even my dog.” Kyle Bradley raked a hand through his flawless haircut and glanced warily at the yellow Labrador sitting near my feet. The dog wagged its tail, happily oblivious to how unwelcome he was.
“Oh, well, he seems to like you.” It wasn’t surprising Bradley didn’t own the dog since he didn’t give off even a hint of an animal-person vibe.
“I’ve kind of inherited…it…temporarily.” He brushed at his pant legs and continued to stare at the dog as if it was a boa constrictor that had somehow slithered its way into his home. “He’s much hairier than I remembered.”
“Labs are a double-coated breed.” And they shed a hell of a lot. I kept that last part to myself because Kyle didn’t look like he would appreciate that information.
“Great. That’s just what I wanted to hear.”
He was dressed in a posh silk suit and tie that probably cost more than two house payments on my one-story Craftsman. Guys like him rarely had pets. Everything in his LA apartment was high-end perfection. Cowrie shell bookends and cherry blossom ginger jar accents let me in on the fact that this man was in an income bracket very different from mine. In fact, everything was so sterile it almost felt like a museum.
“My sister’s sick, and I’m trying to help her out.” He looked a little lost.
“I’m sorry to hear it, Mr. Bradley.”
His jaw tightened. “Thanks. You can call me Kyle, by the way.” He cleared his throat. “But anyway, I have zero time to walk the thing—creature—dog. That’s where you come in, Drew.”
“I’m happy to help.”
“I’ve heard great things about you.” He twisted his lips. “I’ve also heard you’re very expensive.”
For some reason my cheeks warmed. I’m not sure why. This was my livelihood, and I deserved to make a profit just like anyone else. “I think you’ll find I’m in line with the other companies on pricing. Maybe you’d prefer to shop around.”
A line appeared between his dark brows. “I don’t have time for that.”
I shrugged. “Well, my business is booming because I care about my clients’ dogs, and I put a lot of time and effort into my work. But I don’t walk dogs for free. I may love dogs, but I also enjoy eating and paying my mortgage.”
He laughed, which caught me off guard. It was nice too. His deep dimples made my pulse pick up. “Point taken.”
I patted the dog’s head to distract myself from the unexpected butterflies that had taken flight in my gut. “How many days a week do you need me?”
Scanning the brochure I’d handed him when I arrived, he sighed. “My guess is six.”
“Hmmm. That won’t be cheap. You’ll definitely be on the higher end of the scale.” Not that I thought that should be a problem for him. But sometimes people with money were the stingiest.
“I don’t see any pricing in this pamphlet. What exactly do you charge?”
I rubbed my stubbly chin. “It’s based on how long and how often you need me to walk the dog. Thirty minutes is the minimum, and it’s twenty-five dollars for a half hour walk.”
He whistled. “Wow. Maybe I should quit my job and become a professional dog walker.”
I smiled to hide my irritation that he kept mentioning the price of my services. I glanced at the original oil paintings hanging on the walls. “I think your tastes are a little expensive to make it work.”
“Yeah, that and I can’t stand dogs.”
I widened my eyes in mock horror. “Never trust a man who doesn’t like dogs.”
His lips twitched. “If I hire you, I’ll need you to walk it twice a day. Is that something you can do?”
“Of course.” I laughed inwardly at his use of the word it every time he talked about the pooch. “I try to be accommodating.”
Studying me with his piercing azure eyes he asked, “How many dogs do you walk a day?”
I wasn’t sure why he cared, but I answered. “I try to fit in ten. Most people only need me once a day though. I’ve found if I walk them any more than that, the owners start worrying the dogs like me more than them.”
“Yeah, well, that won’t be an issue here.” The look he sent the lab gave me the impression he wouldn’t mind if I kidnapped the dog and sold him on eBay.
“Will this be long-term or just a short stint?”
His gaze darkened with worry, and it was the first real glimpse of emotion I’d seen. “I’m not sure yet. Janie was just diagnosed with Lupus, and she’s trying to dial in her treatment. She doesn’t have the energy to deal with a dog right now.”
“It was kind of you to take—I’m sorry, what’s the dog’s name?”
“It was kind of you to take Rascal off her hands for a while. That way she can focus on herself.” I tickled Rascal’s ear, and he gazed up adoringly, his pink tongue hanging from the side of his mouth.
“Well, she also has to focus on Benjamin. That’s her son. He’s five.”
“Oh, God.” I hadn’t intended to give such a gut reaction. But I knew that going through Lupus and having a small child too must be a huge challenge.
“Yeah.” He sucked in a big breath and lifted his chin. “But anyway, I’ll need you twice a day, Monday through Saturday. I have Sundays off so I guess I’ll take the mutt for a walk myself that day.”
I winced at his unfeeling tone. “When do you want me to start?”
“Right now would be awesome. The creature hasn’t been out since last night.”
“What?” I flinched and looked at my cell. “It’s noon.” I slid my gaze to the serene animal sitting beside me. “He must have a bladder of steel.”
“He did leave a puddle by the front door about an hour ago.”
I laughed. “You’re lucky that’s all he left you.”
“I know.” He shot the dog a scowl. “I’ve had a ton of stuff to deal with since I woke up, and I kind of forgot about him.”
My intention had merely been to drop by and give Kyle a quote. But for the dog’s sake, I decided to help out. “I’ll take him for a walk right now, and we can fill out the paperwork when I get back.” I slipped the leash over the dog’s head and moved to the door.
“Sounds good.” His tone was distracted, and he was staring at his phone, so I let myself out.
It was a beautiful, clear day, and I headed for the park. I was intrigued by my new client. He seemed like he wouldn’t be particularly warm and fuzzy, and yet when he’d mentioned his sister I’d seen a different side to him. Even though he hid it well, he apparently did have a heart.
Staying on one of the tamer paths, I kept Rascal on leash because I didn’t know yet how he would behave when called. He seemed like a pretty well-mannered dog, and hopefully wouldn’t be too much of a burden to Kyle. But he was still a dog, and my guess was Kyle wouldn’t appreciate the animal unless it fed and curbed itself.
We encountered a few western grey squirrels and acorn woodpeckers on our jaunt. Occasionally Rascal pulled on the leash, hoping to chase after the wildlife, but when I told him to relax, he obeyed. On gorgeous days like this it was hard not to love my job. There was nothing like being able to spend my time outdoors instead of cooped up in an office. I inhaled deeply and picked up the pace a little. I wanted Rascal good and tired; that way, he’d be less bother for Kyle.
I walked Rascal for forty-five minutes even though I only planned on charging Kyle for the half hour. Something told me Kyle wouldn’t be pining for the dog’s homecoming. When we returned to the high-rise apartment, I rang the bell a few times before Kyle answered the door. He looked confused for a split second, almost as if he’d forgotten we’d ever met.
“Oh, you’re back.” He had the phone pressed to his ear, and he then said to the person on the line, “Not you. I’m talking to the dog sitter.” He turned his back on me and headed to a desk in the corner of his living room, all the while talking into the mouthpiece.
I let the dog off the leash and tried to catch Kyle’s eye so I could ask him if the dog had a bowl of water. But he was engrossed in his phone conversation. I felt a little odd looking through his house without his permission; however, the dog needed water. I poked my head around a few corners and first stumbled across his bedroom. It was as sterile as the rest of the apartment, with a king-sized bed and bright modern art hung on the walls. It smelled like him too, musky and expensive. My stomach fluttered when I looked at the big bed, and I attributed that to the fact that Kyle was an attractive man. Not very friendly, but definitely sexy.
Eventually I found the large kitchen. There were granite counters and top-of-the-line stainless-steel appliances that gleamed as if they’d never been used. Kyle didn’t exactly strike me as someone who would love cooking. Preparing food took patience and time, and he didn’t seem like he would have either of those. I found a bowl with some kibble in it, but the bowl next to it was dry. I refilled it, and Rascal lapped up the water, slobbering across the spotless floor. I grimaced and grabbed some paper towels to clean up.
I was on my hands and knees when Kyle came into the kitchen.
He frowned and leaned against the counter. “What are you doing?”
Laughing nervously and feeling like an idiot, I looked up at him. “I always pray after I walk the dogs.”
He narrowed his gaze.
“I’m…I’m kidding. The dog drooled. I was mopping it up.” I stood and tossed the paper towels into the trash. I tugged at the bottom of my T-shirt, feeling rattled and breathless from crawling around on the ground.
His lips twitched. “You’re a man of many talents.”
“The dog needs water.” My cheeks felt hot. “You’ll need to keep an eye on that.” Because I was embarrassed I sounded bossier than I’d intended.
He didn’t seem to notice my lecturing tone. “How did Rascal do on his walk?”
“Great. He’s a good dog.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Labs are pretty mellow. Just be glad your sister doesn’t own a Jack Russell terrier.”
He studied me in silence as I fidgeted. Rascal started drinking again, and Kyle winced when the dog slobbered more water on the floor. “For the love of God, doesn’t it keep any of the water inside its body?”
I laughed and grabbed some more paper towels. “I’ll bring you a mat to put under the bowls. Not that it will help if he walks across the floor, though.”
Kyle shuddered. “Disgusting.”
“Hopefully you’ll enjoy the companionship. It’s a trade-off.”
“What is the point of having a dog? I really don’t get it. You have to feed them, clean up after them, and in return they allow you to pet their heads? It makes literally no sense to me.”
I shrugged. “Dogs love you unconditionally.”
He still looked confused. “So what?”
My laugh was awkwardly loud. “Oh, well, there are health benefits to having a pet. Studies show pet owners have lower blood pressure and suffer less from depression.” I sounded like an infomercial.
“How is that possible with all the extra work they create?” His brows were pulled together, and he truly did look perplexed.
“Um…they force you to exercise.”
“I already go to the gym regularly.” He pointed toward Rascal. “If anything, he’s going to interfere with that.”
He made some good points, but I knew how amazing it was to be around animals. The issues that came with being a pet owner were nothing compared to the benefits in the form of loyalty and affection. But Kyle didn’t look like someone who valued those types of things. He seemed self-sufficient and kind of closed off emotionally. Probably the last thing he thought he needed was a sappy dog staring at him lovingly.
“Well, it’s only temporary.”
“Yes. Thank God.” He huffed. “Besides, my blood pressure is perfect, and I’m never depressed. I have a feeling that creature is going to propel me toward ill health.”
I laughed and earned a stern look. “Sorry. I couldn’t live without dogs, so your hatred seems amusing.”
“I don’t hate the dog.” A line appeared between his brows. “I just like my life the way it is: everything in its place.”
I had no doubt he meant what he said. It was obvious he’d arranged a perfect little cocoon where everything was as he wanted it. The dog was definitely going to shake things up a bit. But judging by Kyle’s tight jaw and rigid posture, that could only be a good thing.
“Do you have time to fill out the paperwork?” I asked. “I’ll also need a key to let myself in when you aren’t here, unless you want me to put on a lockbox?”
“I have a spare key.” He pulled his gaze from the dog sitting beside me. The tip of Rascal’s tail flopped whenever Kyle spoke, which surprised me. Maybe Rascal sensed something in Kyle that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. Kyle led the way back to the living room. “Do you want me to pay you up front?” He took in my jeans and red hoodie with a blank expression.
“The end of the month is fine.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind paying sooner if things are a little tight.”
I ran my hand over my jacket. “Oh, don’t let my clothes fool you. I don’t wear my best duds to work. It’s not that kind of job.”
He arched one smooth brow. “You should dress for the job you want. Not the one you have.”
That snobby comment annoyed me. “I have the job I want.”
He laughed, and I bristled even more.
“I’m serious. I didn’t accidentally fall into this business. I chose this profession. I make my own hours, and I love being outside with the dogs.” I leaned toward him and said pointedly, “And as you will find out when you pay me at the end of the month, I make excellent money.”
“So you’re actually saying you prefer spending your days with smelly animals?”
Crossing my arms, I was mystified as to why he was asking me all these questions. He must have had more important things to do. “I’m simply saying I enjoy my job.” I’ll admit I sounded a bit defensive.
“Seems a little antisocial if you ask me.” He narrowed his gaze. “Are you hiding?”
I flushed. “Excuse me?”
“Are you hiding from society or something?”
“Why would you ask that?” I’d never had a client try to psychoanalyze me before.
“I’m not sure. You give off a sort of loner vibe.”
Scowling, I said, “I do not.”
“Antisocial behavior is in the eye of the beholder.” He smirked.
I took a deep breath and grabbed the forms I’d set on a side table earlier. I didn’t care for how opinioned he was, considering I hadn’t asked for his observations. “Why don’t you go ahead and fill these out? I’ll pick them up later today when I walk Rascal again.” I tried not to show my irritation, although I wanted out of his prying presence as soon as possible.
He nodded but didn’t speak. He held out a key, and the intensity of his gaze made me uncomfortable as I took it. I patted Rascal on the head and moved toward the door. As I clipped his key to my ring I glanced over my shoulder and found Kyle staring after me thoughtfully.
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