The last thing Nina Askew needed was Fred.
“I want a puppy,” she said to the dumpy brown-uniformed woman behind the scarred metal counter at Riverbend Animal Control. “Something perky.”
“Perky.” The woman sighed. “Sure. We got perky.” She jerked her head toward the gray metal door at the end of the counter. “Through there, one step down.”
“Right.” Nina shoved her short dark curls behind her ears, grabbed her purse, and walked through the door, determined to pick herself out the perkiest birthday present on four paws. So what if yesterday had been her fortieth birthday? Forty was a good age for a woman. It meant freedom. Especially freedom from her over-ambitious ex-husband and their overpriced suburban castle which had finally sold after a year of open house hell. There was something good: she was out of that damn house.
And now she was forty. Well, she was delighted to be forty. After all, that was the reason she was getting a dog of her own.
The attendant joined her and said, “This way,” and Nina followed her toward yet another heavy metal door. She was going to get a puppy. She’d always wanted a dog, but Guy hadn’t understood. “Dogs shed,” he’d said when she’d suggested they get one as a wedding present to each other. She should have known that was A Sign. But no, she’d married him anyway and moved into that designer mausoleum of a house. And then she’d spent fifteen years following her husband’s career around without a dog, in a house she’d grown to hate. Sixteen years in the house, if she counted this last year in divorced-woman-limbo, waiting for it to sell. But now she had freedom and an apartment of her own and a great if precarious job. The only thing she needed was a warm, cheerful body to come home to.
The attendant opened the door, and the faint barking Nina had heard before became frantic and shrill. Nina stepped into the concrete cell block and stopped, blown out of her self-absorption by the row of gray metal cages where dogs barked to get her attention. She let her breath out, horrified. “Oh, God, this is awful.”
The attendant stopped in front of the next to the last cage. “Spay your pets. Here you go.” She jerked her head again. “Perky.”
Nina went to join her and peered into the cage the attendant had shown her. The pups were darling–some sort of tiny, bright-eyed, spotted mixed breed–climbing over each other and tumbling and whining and barking. Perky as hell. Now all she had to do was choose one . . .
She moved closer and glanced in the last cage almost by accident. Then she froze.
There was only one dog in the cage, and it was mid-sized and depressed, too big for her apartment and too melancholy for her state of mind. Nina tried to turn back to the puppies, but somehow, she couldn’t. The dog had huge bags under his dark eyes, and hunched shoulders, and a white coat blotched with what looked like giant liver spots. He sat on the damp concrete like a bulked-up vulture and stared at her, not barking, not moving. He looked like her great uncle Fred had before he’d died when she was six. She’d liked her uncle Fred, and then one day his heart had gone, as her mother had said, and that had been it.
“Hello,” she said, and the dog lifted his head a little, so she stooped down and reached through the cage doors to scratch him behind the ears. He looked at her and then closed his eyes in appreciation for the scratch.
“What’s wrong with him?” Nina asked the attendant.
“Nothing,” the attendant said. “He’s part basset, part beagle.” She checked the card on his cage. “Or he might be psychic. This is his last day.”
Nina’s eyes opened wide. “You mean . . .”
The attendant nodded. “Yep.” She sliced her hand across her throat.
Nina looked back at the dog. The dog looked back at Nina, death in his eyes.
She stood and shoved her hair behind her ears, trying to look efficient and practical in an effort to be efficient and practical. She did not need this dog. She needed a happy, perky puppy, and on his best day, this dog would look like a professional mourner. And he wasn’t even a puppy.
Any dog but this one.
She looked down at the dog one last time, and her hair fell forward, a curly black frame for his depression. He bowed his head a little as if it had grown too heavy for him, and his ears sagged with the bow.
She could not take this dog. He was too depressed. He was too big. He was too old. She took a step back, and he sighed and lay down, not expecting anything at all, resigned to the cold hard floor and no one to love him and the certainty of death in the morning.
At least, that was what Nina was sure he was resigned to. She couldn’t stand it. She turned to the attendant, and said, “I’ll take him.”
The attendant raised an eyebrow. “That’s your idea of perky?”
Nina gestured to the puppies. “They’ll all be adopted, right?”
The attendant shrugged. “Sure.”
Nina took one long last glance at the tumbling, chubby puppies. Prozac with four legs and a tail. Then she looked at the other dog, depressed, alone, too old to be cute anymore if it ever had been. “I have a lot in common with this dog,” she told the attendant. “And besides, I’d never sleep again knowing I could have saved him and didn’t.”
The attendant shook her head. “You can’t save them all.”
“Well, I can save this one.” Nina crouched down to the dog’s level. “It’s okay, Fred. I just rescued your butt.”
The dog rolled his eyes up to stare at her.
“No, don’t thank me. Glad to do it for you.” Nina stood up and followed the attendant down the hall. At the end, she turned, and Fred moved forward, pressing his nose through the bars. “Hey, it’s okay,” Nina called to him. “I’m coming right back as soon as I get you sprung from this joint.”
Fred moaned and stumbled back into the depths of the cage.
“Oh, yeah, you’re going to cheer me up,” Nina said and went to sign the papers and pay the fee.
He didn’t get much happier when the attendant opened the cage and he waddled out into Nina’s arms, fragrant beyond belief. “You stink, Fred,” she told him, and then she picked him up and held him to her, telling herself that her silk suit was dry-cleanable, and that at least it was brown and so was most of Fred so the dog hair wouldn’t show. He looked up at her and she added, “And you weigh a ton.” He was like dead weight in her arms, round and bulky, and most of his weight seemed to be centered in his rear end which gave him a definite droop as she balanced his hip on hers. Still, as much as he reeked, it felt good to have her arms wrapped around him. “I saved you, Fred,” she whispered into his ear, and he twitched as her breath tickled him, patient but not by any means enthused about the new turn of events.
He perked up a little when she carried him out into the May sunlight, but he seemed annoyed when she tried to balance all of his weight on one hip while she maneuvered open the door to her little white Civic.
“I was planning . . . on getting . . . a puppy,” she told him, breathing hard as she used her other hip to push the car door farther open. “I wasn’t planning . . . on getting a. . . part-basset . . . part beagle . . . part lead-ass.” She managed to heave him into the seat and close the door, and then she leaned against the car to get her breath back. Fred rocked back and forth a little as he situated himself on the blue upholstery, and then he turned and smeared his nose on the window. “Good.” Nina sighed. “Make yourself at home.”
She got in the Civic and put the key in the ignition. Fred put his paws on the window ledge and smeared his nose higher. Nina thought longingly of the puppies, and then she turned to Fred. “You’re making me ill.” She leaned across him and began to roll the window halfway down. “Don’t jump out. Things just got better for you.”
Fred turned at the sound of her voice, and as she stretched over him still cranking the window, he looked deep into her eyes. Nina stopped rolling and stared back into the warm brown depths. He really was a sweet dog. Of course he wasn’t being peppy. In his situation, she’d be cautious, too. He didn’t know anything about her. She didn’t know anything about where he’d been. Maybe his previous owners had been mean to him. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he needed love. Everybody needed love. Even she needed love. And now she had Fred.
Nina closed her eyes. Terrific. She had Fred. Even her best friend was going to think she was nuts. “You bought a what?” Charity was going to say, and then when she saw Fred, middle-aged, broken-down, and tired, she was going to–
Nina looked into Fred’s patient brown eyes again and felt ashamed. “It’s okay, Fred.” She stroked the top of his head. “You’re my dog now. It’s okay.”
Fred met her eyes, made his decision, squared his shoulders, and lunged at her, licking her from chin to forehead with one sweeping slurp.
“Oh, Fred.” Nina burst into tears and wrapped her arms around him. His body was fat and warm and wriggly, and Nina hugged him tighter, so glad to have someone alive in her life again and so relieved to finally be able to cry out the frustration and loneliness that she didn’t even care the someone had four legs and smelled like rank canine. “We’re going to be so happy together, Fred,” she told him, sobbing. “We really are. We’re going to be wonderful together.”
Fred sighed and began to lick the tears from her face which made Nina cry even harder. It was the best she’d felt in weeks.
She gave one final sniff and let go of Fred to put the car in gear so she could show him his new home and call his Aunt Charity to come meet him.
“You have family now, Fred,” she told him. “You’re going home.”
Alex Moore was stretched out on a bed in an empty examining room in the Riverbend General ER, trying to forget his family and get some sleep before another emergency erupted, when his older brother came in and dropped a brown paper bag with a six-pack of beer in it on his stomach.
“Hey!” Alex curled to absorb the blow and then saw it was Max and stretched back out again. Pain in conjunction with his family was nothing new. “I’m sleeping. Go away. And take that damn beer with you before somebody sees it.”
Max pulled the beer out of the sack and peeled off a can. He popped the tab and left the five remaining beers on Alex’s stomach as he collapsed into an orange plastic chair. The chair scraped and screeched on the floor, and Max’s purple silk shirt clashed against the the green wall. Alex winced and closed his eyes, hoping Max would take the hint and leave.
Max didn’t. “You know, if you didn’t spend your nights chasing women, you wouldn’t get this tired during your shifts,” he said and sipped his beer.
Alex didn’t bother to open his eyes. “I did not spend my night chasing a woman. I took Debbie to dinner. She started talking about kids. I took her home. Story of my love life.”
“It’s because you’ve got that blond good guy look,” Max told him. “You’ve got nice guy written all over you. Now me, I look like a rat.”
“Yeah, you do. Go away, rat.”
“Of course, it’s too late to pretend you’re a rat around here since everybody knows you. You should have just changed the subject. ‘Speaking of kids, Debbie, how about some sex?’ You’ve got to learn to be faster on your feet.”
Alex thought about snarling at him to go away and decided against it. He liked Max a lot, and given his family, a relative he was usually happy to see was a rarity. “I don’t want to be faster on my feet. I just want to spend some nice quiet evenings with a woman who wants me more than she wants kids or a wedding ring. All the women I know have biological clocks and a burning need to commit. I want a woman who has a burning need to be with me and watch old movies and laugh. But right now, all I want is to sleep which is why you’re leaving.”
Max swallowed some more beer. “It’s because you’re a doctor. Women always want to marry doctors.”
Alex opened one eye, trying to ignore the purple shirt against the green wall. “You’re a doctor. How come it doesn’t happen to you?”
“I try not to date anybody more than twice,” Max said. “It keeps the subject from coming up.”
“That’s real mature of you, Max.” Alex closed his eye again. “Now go away. For once there are no disasters out there, and I need some sleep.”
Max sipped his beer again. “This is your last day as a twenty-something, kid. How does it feel to be old?”
“You tell me,” Alex said. “You’re the one pushing forty.”
“Thirty-six is not forty,” Max said with dignity. “And you’re going to lose your hair before I do. It’s already creeping back from your forehead. I can see it from here. It’s because you’re blond. Dark-haired guys like me never lose it.” He tipped the beer into his mouth this time and sucked up the last half of the can.
“Tell me you’re not still doing rounds.”
“Finished an hour ago.” Max pitched the can into a nearby wastebasket and slumped as much as he could in the plastic chair. “You off soon?”
“Three more hours. Go away.”
“So you ready for tomorrow?”
“It’s my birthday,” Alex said with his eyes shut. “It’s not something I have to get ready for. Other people have to get ready for it. You, for example. Go buy me something expensive. You make the big bucks.”
“Exactly,” Max said. “And you know why.”
Alex groaned and rolled away from his brother who lunged to get the five-pack of beer as it tipped toward the floor.
“Hey!” Max said. “Avoid reality if you have to, but don’t spill the beer.”
Alex kept his back to him. “I’m not avoiding reality. I’m avoiding you. Go away.”
“I am reality, buddy,” Max said, and Alex heard the scrape of the plastic chair as he sat down again and the clank as he put the cans on the floor. “I ran into Dad just now. He was looking for you.”
Alex groaned again.
Max’s voice was sympathetic. “Yeah, I know. He wants to have dinner with you tomorrow.”
“No,” Alex said.
“I told him you would. Hell, it’s not like you could get out of it. He said to meet him at The Levee at seven. For drinks first.”
Alex rolled onto his back and stared at the stained acoustic ceiling. “You could have told him I was sick. You could have told him that you’d diagnosed me with something ugly and catching”
“I’m a gynecologist,” Max said. “What was I supposed to tell him? You got a yeast infection so you can’t do dinner?”
“Would he have noticed?”
“Yeah,” Max said. “He was working, so he was sober.”
“Great. Just what I wanted on my birthday, to pour the old man into a cab at midnight.”
“I took care of that,” Max said. “I told him we had plans at nine. He understood.”
“So I get to pour him into a cab at nine. Thank you.”
“It gets worse.” Max beamed at him, cheerful as always. “He said your mother’s coming to town tomorrow.”
Alex sat up. “My mother’s flying in for my birthday?”
“No,” Max said. “She’s flying in for a one-day seminar on the new laser technology. It just worked out that it’s your birthday.”
“Thank God.” Alex flopped back down on the pillow. “For one awful minute, I thought she was going maternal on me.”
“She told Dad she wants to have lunch with you,” Max said. “Noon at the Hilton. Be on time, she’s speaking at one.” He picked up another beer from the floor and cracked it. “It’s a shame you’re still on duty. You could have one of these.”
“My mother,” Alex said to the ceiling. “An hour with my mother.”
“You’ve got an hour with my mother, too,” Max said, after he’d taken another swig. “She wants to have a drink with you at four. She has surgery at one, so she figures she’ll be free by then.”
“I can stand an hour with your mother,” Alex said. “I think.”
“And I imagine Stella will be calling,” Max began.
“She already did.” Alex rubbed his hand over his eyes. “Breakfast tomorrow before she makes her rounds.”
Max winced. “Do you suppose she does everything in the morning because she’s the oldest?”
“No, she does everything in the morning because she’s a pain in the ass,” Alex said. “Even if she is my favorite relative.”
“Hey!” Max straightened in his chair. “What about me? I kept you from having to spend the entire evening with the old man justifying your lack of career. You owe me.”
“I have a career,” Alex said for the millionth time. “I’m a doctor.”
“Yeah, but you picked the wrong specialty,” Max said. “You have to pick upscale, not ER. They made me, now they’re going to make you. Cardiologist, oncologist, gynecologist . . .”
“No,” Alex said. “I like what I’m doing. Go away. I’m trying to sleep.”
A dark-haired little nurse poked her head in the door. “Hey, Alex, we need you. Accident coming in. Let’s go.” She disappeared again before he sat up.
Alex swung his feet around to the side of the bed and glared at Max. “If it hadn’t been for you, I could have had a whole fifteen minutes of unconsciousness.”
“That’s another thing,” Max said. “If you weren’t an ER specialist, she’d have called you Dr. Moore.”
The nurse poked her head back in. “Alex, let’s go. Oh, hi, Max. Didn’t see you there.” She frowned at him. “Get that beer out of here now.”
“Hi, Zandy.” Max lifted his beer to her. “You’re looking good.”
She was gone before he finished his sentence.
“The respect she has for you is awesome,” Alex said. “Must be because you’re not an ER specialist.”
“I dated her once,” Max said.
“That explains it.” Alex stood up and headed for the door. “Go away. I have to work.”
“Don’t forget tomorrow,” Max called after him. “Family day. The whole Farkle family.”
“Right,” Alex muttered under his breath as he strode down the green-tiled hall. “Dr. Farkle, and Dr. Farkle, and Dr. Farkle, and Dr. Farkle, and Dr. Farkle.”
“What?” Zandy asked him as she tried to catch up with him.
“Don’t ever go into the family business, Zan,” Alex said. “It’s hell being low man on the dynasty.”
“They trying to talk you out of the ER?” Zandy skipped a couple of times to keep up with him, her legs a good six inches shorter than his, so he slowed down for her.
“Yep,” Alex said.
“Don’t do it.”
Alex looked down at her, surprised. “No?”
“No,” Zandy said. “You need this place. And it needs you. Ignore them. They’re all suits.”
Alex grinned at her. “Even Max?”
“Max is an ape,” Zandy said. “But you’re the good guy. Stay with us.”
“Well, I’m planning on it,” Alex began and then he heard the sirens and moved toward the doors, forgetting Zandy and Max and the whole Farkle family as he went to do what he loved best, saving lives on the run.
“You got a what?” Charity stood in the middle of Nina’s high-ceilinged apartment and stared at Fred, amazed.
“Charity, this is not just any dog.” Nina tensed, still doubtful herself about the wisdom of buying an animal for comfort. Charity wouldn’t buy a dog for comfort. She’d buy a purple leather mini-skirt at the boutique she managed, yank her long kinky red hair up on top of her head and tie it in a knot with a black stocking, and go out and find a new man. At least, that’s what she’d done the last time one of her relationships had pancaked on her, before she’d found Sean, her One True Love. Sean was actually her Twelfth True Love, but as Charity said, who was counting?
Since Nina’s chances of wearing a leather mini-skirt were slim to none, she sighed and turned her attention back to Fred, sitting like a lump in the middle of her hardwood floor, looking up at her with bemused adoration. Fred was better than a leather mini skirt. He might not get her a new man, but he’d give her unconditional love. Fred was definitely better.
Charity didn’t see it that way. “You move out of that mansion on Lehigh Terrace and into this apartment in this Victorian hovel, on the third floor of this Victorian hovel and there’s not even an elevator–”
“If you wouldn’t wear four inch heels, two flights of stairs would not be a problem,” Nina murmured.
“–but that’s not bad enough, you’ve got to get a dog.” Charity blinked down at Fred. “That is a dog, isn’t it?”
Fred stood up, turned his back on her and walked away across the hardwood floor, his butt swaying majestically.
“Charity, I need Fred,” Nina said. “I feel better already. He has personality.”
Charity nodded. “That’s what I smell. His personality.”
“I didn’t want to give him a bath right away.” Nina watched Fred as he explored the living room, stopping to investigate her fig tree. “Don’t even think about it, Fred,” she warned him and then turned back to Charity. “I wanted him to feel at home first. He’s only been here an hour, but I had to call you. I knew you’d want to meet him.”
“If he’s been here an hour, he’s seen home.” Charity surveyed the apartment with disgust. “How you could move from your place to this–”
“I didn’t move from my place, I moved from Guy’s place.” Nina followed Charity’s eyes around the room, caressing the oak wainscoting and the tiny beige print wallpaper, the veneer fireplace and the fat ruby-upholstered couch and lopsided chair. “This is my place, the first place I’ve ever had that’s all mine. I loved it the first time I saw it. I’ve been here a month now, and I feel more at home here than I did after sixteen years in that mausoleum of Guy’s.” The thought of Guy made her shake her head. “We should never have gotten married. We didn’t want any of the same things. I never wanted that house on Lehigh Terrace. He never wanted a dog.” Fred began to move again, and Nina felt the tension ease out of her shoulders as she watched the miscellaneous collection of independent canine parts that was Fred move past her on his way to the couch. “I always wanted a dog. And now I have Fred.”
Fred sniffed the couch again. He’d sniffed it several times since he’d arrived, but now he made a decision. His haunches quivered and tensed as he crouched, and then with a mighty leap he flung himself onto the over-stuffed cushions, hanging there for a long moment, a triumph of hope over biology, only to slide slowly back to the floor and land with a soft thud as his butt failed to achieve lift-off.
He took it pretty well, considering.
Charity looked at her as if she were demented. “And you’re going to run up and down the stairs twenty-six times a night to water this animal, right? And what about during the day? You work, for God’s sake. I can just see Jessica’s face if you bring Fred into the office.” She shook her head, and her red ringlets bounced as they swung back and forth. “You’re nuts. I love you, but you’re nuts. Your divorce was just final, you’ve only been an editor for six months so there’s that stress, and you’re settling into a new place. Why bring another headache into your life?”
Nina sighed and sat down. “Speaking of headaches, Jessica gave me a new book to work on. It’s worse than the last one.”
Charity looked disgusted. “Is she trying to bankrupt that press? She needs to publish something with some oomph in it.”
“No, she’s doing what her daddy did before her.” Nina watched Fred waddle over to them, the couch humiliation evidently forgotten. “She’s trying to keep the tradition going.”
Charity nodded. “Right into the toilet. She might as well call it the Boring Press.”
Nina closed her eyes. “I know it. The whole place is going to fold, and I’ll be out of work, and Jessica will kill herself because she’s brought the family institution to ruin. And I don’t know how to save it, so that depresses me. And I love this place but it was lonely, and I was coming home so down about work and Jessica, and I just needed something warm to cheer me up.” She took a deep breath. “And that’s Fred. He’s already cheered me up. Just having him around cheers me up.”
Charity watched Fred as his chin sank closer to the floor. “I can see how he’d do that. Peppy little fellow.”
Nina ignored her. “And I have a plan for watering him. Come here.” She walked to the big window next to her couch and shoved up the heavy old windowpane. “See?”
Charity followed her, and Nina gestured to the black metal fire escape outside.
“The fire escape is only about a foot down from the window.” Nina stuck her head out. “This is the third floor, and the back is all fenced in, and the gate is always closed except on trash day. So I’m going to train Fred to use the fire escape.” She pulled her head back in. “Isn’t that great?”
Charity nodded, and then patted her arm. “That’s great, Neen. It really is.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me.” Nina folded her arms across her stomach. “I’ve got everything I wanted. I was the one who left Guy, remember? I was the one who got fed up with the high life and living for his career. And it was the right thing to do. I love this apartment, and I love my job. It’s just . . . I get lonely.”
“I know.” Charity nodded. “It’s okay. I know.”
“I’m forty,” Nina said. “I know this is the prime of my life, I know this is when life begins, I’ve read all the articles, but I’m forty and I’m alone and–”
“I know.” Charity put her arms around her and held her tight. “I know. You’re going to be okay.”
Nina nodded against her shoulder. “I just wanted somebody to talk to at night and cuddle and watch old movies with. You know? So I got Fred.”
Fred waddled back toward them.
“Well, it’s a start.” Charity let go of Nina and looked at Fred. “What kind of dog is Fred?”
“Part basset, part beagle, part manic depressive.” Nina frowned down at him. “Fred, could you cheer up, please? Look at what a great place you’ve landed in.”
“Yeah and the best is yet to come,” Charity told him. “Wait till you see the fire escape she has for you.”
Fred sighed and lumbered on, and they watched him cross the room, his toenails clicking on the hardwood, before Nina turned back to Charity. “I just need one little favor.”
Charity nodded. “Sure.”
“Could you baby-sit Fred for me while I go out and buy a leash and food? I’d take Fred, but he sticks his head out the car window, and the wind blows up his nose and makes him sneeze, and the dog snot flies back in the car.” Nina looked at Fred with love. “It’s pretty disgusting.”
“I can imagine.” Charity picked up her purple suede bomber jacket. “No, I will not baby-sit this mutt for you. He looks like he’s going to end it all at any minute, and I don’t want to be responsible if he throws himself off the fire escape.” She looked down at Fred with resignation. “Make a list. I’ll go get him what he needs. Do they make uppers for dogs?”
“He’s not really depressed,” Nina told her as she went to find a pad of paper to make the list. “He’s just deep. He has deep thoughts.”
“Right. Deep thoughts.” Charity shook her head again. “Make that list. And while you’re at it, add Amaretto and ice cream to it.”
Nina stopped her search for paper and turned back. Amaretto milkshakes could only mean one thing: a My-Life-Is-In-Trauma party. And with Charity, who ran her life as efficiently as she ran the boutique, trauma could only mean one thing. “Not Sean, too?”
Charity nodded. “Sean, too. How do I do it? How can I live in a city full of men and always pick the rats?”
Nina searched for something comforting to say. “Well, they’re not always rats.”
“Oh, yeah?” Charity folded her arms. “Name the one who wasn’t.”
“Well . . .” Nina searched her memory. “Of course, I didn’t know you for all of them–”
“Twelve of them,” Charity said. “Twelve guys since I was sixteen, twelve significant guys since I was sixteen, twelve guys in twenty-two years, and I can’t come up with a winner.”
“You’re sure it’s over?” Nina tried to find a bright side. “Maybe he’s just having second thoughts because you’re both getting so serious. Maybe–”
“I caught him in bed with his secretary,” Charity said. “I don’t think she was taking dictation. Not with what she had in her hand, anyway.”
“Oh.” Nina wrote Amaretto and ice cream down on the list. Amaretto milkshakes might not be the healthiest way to get over a life trauma, but it was Charity’s way. Come to think of it, she could use one herself. “Get chocolate syrup, too,” she told Charity. “Let’s go for the whole enchilada.”
While Charity went shopping, Nina and Fred practiced on the fire escape.
“Come on, you can do this,” Nina coaxed him, and together they climbed in and out over the low polished wood windowsill.
Fred was not crazy about the metal staircase, so Nina spread out a rag rug so he’d land on something soft.
On the other hand, he loved the leap from the window.
“Try not to overshoot,” Nina warned him, but the fire escape was wide, and Fred was not aerodynamic, so after an hour, Nina was content that Fred would not be plummeting to his death from over-exuberance.
She was also sure it was time for Fred to see some grass. “It’s a shame you’re not a cat. I could just get a litter box,” she told him as she coaxed him down the two flights of fire escape with a piece of ham.
Fred whined a little as he eased himself down to the second floor.
“Shhhh.” Nina glanced in the closed window of the second floor apartment. “I don’t know this guy yet. He keeps strange hours. Be very, very quiet here, Fred. We want the neighbors to love you.”
Fred shut up and eased himself down another step.
“I love you, Fred,” Nina whispered as she backed down the metal stairs. “You’re the best.”
By the time Charity came back, Fred had done the fire escape twice and was philosophical about it. “We’ll take walks, too,” Nina promised him. “But this is going to work.”
“He can do it?” Charity walked back into the room after putting the ice cream in the freezer and shook her head, amazed. “I wasn’t gone that long.”
“Fred is very intelligent,” Nina told her. “Watch.” She opened the window. “Here you go, Fred. Born free.”
Fred scrambled onto the box Nina had put by the window to aid his exit. He turned to look once over his shoulder, and Nina nodded.
Then he hurled himself through the window.
“Oh, my God!” Charity ran to the window, Nina close behind.
Fred sat on his rug on the fire escape, looking smug.
“Part basset, part beagle, part kamikaze,” Nina said. “We have to work on his take-off, but he’s pretty good, don’t you think?”
Charity stepped back from the window. “I think he’s great.” She smiled at Nina. “I really do. He smells, but he’s great.”
“Well, that’s what I thought, too.” Nina watched Fred sway down the escape to the back yard.
“Here’s the rest of your stuff.” Charity handed over the paper bag she’d been clutching. “Your change is at the bottom.”
“Thanks, Char.” Nina dumped everything out onto her round oak dining table and pawed through it delighted, stopping only when she found a small jeweler’s box tied with a silver ribbon in the middle of the pile.
“That’s a baby present,” Charity told her. “I’ll give you a shower later.”
Nina opened the box and took out an oval sterling silver name tag engraved with Nina’s address under a lovely script “Fred Askew.”
“Oh, Charity,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Fred’s going to love it.”
“It’s just in case he gets lost.” Charity watched as Fred’s top half appeared in the window, wobbling back and forth as his toenails scrabbled on the brick outside. “Or stolen.”
“I think I’d better put a box outside, too.” Nina put the tag down and went to haul him in. “He seems to have a rear-end suspension problem.”
“Among other things,” Charity said. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”
Nina put Fred on the floor and straightened. “What about the Amaretto?”
Charity bit her lip. “Can we do it tomorrow night? We both have to work tomorrow morning, and I’m going to need you a lot more tomorrow night since it’s a Friday and . . . you know.”
Nina nodded. “I know. Fridays are the worst. Sure. That’ll be better. You can spend the night.”
Charity looked down. “That all right with you, Fred?”
Fred sighed and waddled off.
“He’s delighted,” Nina said.
“Yeah, I could tell he perked right up,” Charity said. “See you tomorrow.”
The phone was ringing when Alex let himself into his stuffy second floor apartment. He answered it, cradling the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he struggled to put the window up and let a little air into the place.
Great. Debbie. “Yep, it’s me.” Alex stuck his head out the window, trying for some fresh night air. The hell with it. He climbed out the window and sat on the fire escape and took off his shoes and socks, throwing them back in through the window as he talked. “What’s up?”
Debbie’s voice was relentlessly cheery. “I thought we might do something tomorrow since it’s your birthday. And my sister’s kids want to go to the movies, so I thought we could–”
“Sorry,” Alex lied.
“Alex, if you’d just try–”
“No, really, I’m booked the whole day with my family. One after another the whole damn day.”
“Why?” Debbie sounded frustrated. “Why can’t they see you all at once?”
“Because they’re all trying to talk me into specializing in their areas.” Alex flexed his toes in the breeze and felt better. Maybe if he gave up wearing shoes . . .
“Well, I think they’re right,” Debbie said. “If you specialized in something else, you’d make more money.”
“I have all the money I need.” Alex stripped off his white T-shirt while she was talking, so he missed what she said next. “Give me that again?”
“I said, you have loans to pay off. Being in debt isn’t bad for a bachelor, but what about when you want to get married and have kids?”
Alex sighed and threw his shirt through the window. “Debbie, we’ve had this discussion. I don’t want kids.”
“Well, not right now, but someday you’ll want a family and then–”
“I have a family,” Alex said. “They drive me nuts. Why would I want another one?”
“A family of your own,” Debbie said.
“Debbie, you’re not paying attention. I don’t want kids. Ever.”
There was a long silence on the end of the phone, and Alex realized that she’d heard him for the first time.
“I do,” she said.
“I know,” Alex said. “That’s why I’ve been trying to warn you. I like you a lot. I have a good time with you. But I don’t want kids. I don’t even want to get married. I’ve had family up to here. I don’t want any more.”
“Well.” Debbie cleared her throat. “Well, all right. I guess there’s not much point in us seeing each other any more then, is there?”
“Not unless you just want to kick back and have a good time.” Alex knew he was supposed to be panicking at her ultimatum, but all he could dredge up was a mild willingness to try again. “We could see some movies. Talk. Just be us together for awhile. Get to know each other.”
“Alex.” Debbie’s voice was tight with controlled anger. “We’ve been dating for six weeks. We know each other. We have seen enough dumb movies and done enough talking. I want a future. I want it all.”
“Well, I hope you get it,” Alex said cheerfully. “Good luck.”
Debbie hung up on him.
Alex put the phone on the window sill and leaned back against the fire escape again, trying to decide if he was depressed that Debbie was gone. He wasn’t. In fact, the only depressing part was that he wasn’t depressed. He should be depressed. Debbie was a very nice woman, but he didn’t care at all that she was out of his life.
He was a slime. Worse, he was turning into Max.
Still, he’d stuck it out with Debbie for six weeks. That was pretty good. Maybe next time, he’d find a woman who was happy just to be with him, cruising through life and the video store, without a need to produce more family obligations that would make him crazier than he already was.
There was Tricia, for example, the little blonde in the business office. She’d asked him to dinner once, but he’d turned her down gently because of Debbie. She seemed nice. Maybe Tricia would be more interested in food and Casablanca than in planning car pools and country club memberships. Maybe he’d call her if he lived through his birthday tomorrow without being sent to prison for strangling a family member.
The fire escape was cutting into the muscles in his back so he sat up and stretched and crawled back through the window. The couch was close enough to catch a little of the breeze. All he needed was sleep. With any luck, he’d sleep through his birthday and not have to see any of his nearest and dearest before he went back to work on Saturday.
Later that night, Nina stretched out on her overstuffed couch with Fred heavy and warm beside her, now redolent of both the dog shampoo she’d washed him with and the Duende perfume she’d spritzed him down with on a whim. He’d been annoyed, but she’d bribed him with gourmet dog biscuits, and he was happy now, sighing in his sleep while she watched Mel Gibson blow up something on TV.
She had the sound off so she could watch Mel without having to listen to him, and the traffic rumbled faintly outside in the May night, punctuated now and then by the sirens of the ambulances heading for Riverbend General two blocks away, reminding her that humanity was close at hand. Best of all, Fred was warm beside her, and for the first time that day, she felt secure enough to turn her full attention to her problems. With Fred around, they didn’t seem so bad.
One problem was her job. She’d started as a secretary to Jessica Howard of Howard Press, a woman whose beige-suited exterior hid a warm heart and an appreciative spirit, and within six months Jessica had promoted her to editor. That was good. Unfortunately, she was editing memoirs of upper class stiffs who’d never had an original thought and collections of essays by academics on topics so obscure that even if they were original nobody cared. “Did you ever think about branching out?” she’d asked Jessica. “Into fiction? Something popular like romance novels? I hear they do very well.”
Jessica had looked at her like she’d suggested prostitution. “Popular fiction? Not in my lifetime. I’ll pass Howard Press on to the next generation as honorably as it was passed to me.”
Nina had repressed the impulse to point out that the press might not survive Jessica’s lifetime. In fact, if the figures she’d seen while she’d been Jessica’s secretary were accurate, Howard Press might not survive lunch. And it was such a shame. Jessica was a good person who loved books; she should have a successful press. Unfortunately, Jessica wouldn’t have known a bestseller if it bit her.
Nina cuddled Fred closer. “Want to write a book, Fred? That dog in the White House made a mint, and she didn’t have near your class.”
Fred snored and twitched.
Nina kissed the top of his sweet-smelling head. “I’ll take that as a no.”
Her other problem was the loneliness. It had been bad this last week, being in a new place and being so lonely. She’d been lonely before in the big house, but she was used to being lonely there. Her marriage had been a series of important parties and important charities and important career moves for her husband, but after the first couple of years, not much warmth and not much fun. She and Guy had laughed together at first, but then his future had gotten in their way, and the fun had stopped. That’s the way it was with professional men: they thought they were their careers and they forgot how to have fun while they built empires. And she’d been Mrs. Empire, feeling emptier and emptier until she’d finally gotten the courage up to leave Guy, to file for divorce and go looking for a life of her own, hoping for warmth and good times.
He’d been stunned when she’d told him she was leaving. “Why?” he’d said. “I never cheated on you.” And Nina, annoyed that he’d missed how empty their lives had become, had said, “Good, I never cheated on you, either.” And Guy had said, “Of course not. You’re not the type. And now you’re going to live the rest of your life alone? You’re almost forty, Nina. You’re not going to find anyone else at your age. Why don’t you go get a facial? That always makes you feel better.”
She’d thought he was wrong, thought it would be better once she had a place of her own, but she’d only been in the apartment a week when she’d realized what Guy had been talking about: lonely was lonely, no matter where you lived. He just hadn’t realized that it had been lonelier living with him than without him. She gathered Fred to her and put her cheek on his furry little head, grateful to have him with her.
Guy hadn’t been the only one who’d pointed out that she was likelier to meet a terrorist than a good man. Her mother had been even blunter. “You’re leaving Guy just as your body’s going,” her mother had warned her. “You’ve put on weight, you’ve got crow’s feet, and I’m sure you’re sagging in more places than just your jaw line. This is a mistake. Tell Guy you’ve changed your mind.” And when Nina had said, “No,” her mother had washed her hands of her. “Fine. Leave the money and society to be some drab, middle-aged divorcee. It’s your life. But don’t come crying to me when you realize what you’ve done.”
Even Charity had put her two cents in. “Your mother’s an ice cube and always has been. Forget her. But I’ve got to tell you, Neen, it’s a jungle out there. Guerilla dating. Brace yourself.”
Well, she wasn’t going to brace herself, because she was not going looking for another man. From now on, she was building her own life and staying as far away from men as she could. She had her career, her apartment, and now she had Fred, too.
Fred stirred again, and Nina held him close. Now she had Fred to come home to, and he was all she was ever going to need. Fred would always love her and would never leave her. “We’re going to be together forever,” she told him. Then she fell asleep with her arms around him, his snores echoing in her ears.
Debbie was licking wet, sloppy kisses on his face. “No,” Alex mumbled. “No, I don’t want kids.” He tried to push her nose away until somewhere in the recesses of his sleep-fogged mind he remembered that Debbie’s nose hadn’t been long and furry. Then he opened his eyes and screamed.
There was an animal on the couch next to him.
Alex sat up and the animal rolled off and landed on the floor with a thud.
“What the hell?” Alex turned on the lamp, and the soft light flooded the room and showed him the thing at his feet.
It was a basset hound with all four legs in the air, looking like inflated road kill.
Alex bent down. “Hello?”
The dog rolled over slowly, blinking at him in reproach. This dog was very good at reproach. In fact, this dog could make Hannibal Lecter feel guilty.
“I’m sorry,” Alex told him. “You scared me.” He scratched the dog behind the ears, and the dog’s eyes closed as he gave a little doggy moan. “Where you from, buddy? Better yet, how’d you get in here?”
He looked over at the apartment door: closed shut. That pretty well meant the window. He looked at the dog in disbelief. “You came in the window? What are you, Superdog?”
He walked over and stuck his head out the window. The back gate was shut tight. “You must live here in the apartments.”
The dog turned his back and waddled to the door, but Alex caught a glint of metal on his collar before he turned.
“Wait a minute.” Alex followed him to the door and bent down to read the tag. Fred Askew it said. 2455 River Dr. Apt. 3. “You’re one floor up, Fred, old buddy,” he told the dog as he picked up his shirt. “Let’s go see if anybody’s home.”