A/N: My boyfriend got this idea one day as we were wandering around the neighborhood, what kind of person would steal a pet to garner the reward money? What if she was a likable girl just down on her luck?

Chapter One: Hard Times

When I woke up Monday morning, I thought that maybe, just maybe, things might be looking up.

Without even stretching, I turned on my laptop and checked my email. No responses.

I ran out of my room to the answering machine: no messages.

I was tempted to run out to the mailbox, just to be sure, when the kitchen door crashed open.

Derek Flint tumbled in through the screen door into the tiny kitchen. He brushed past me, not neglecting to drip a little sweat on my head, and swung open the fridge.

"Nice day?" I asked, taking a seat at the barstool. I brushed some papers away from the phone. You know, to increase reception.

Derek took a long gulp of Gatorade in-between pants. He leaned over, head at his knees and practically inside the fridge.

"Derek? You can't fit in the fridge you know…" I said, then went back to staring at th phone.

"Haha, Em," he said, a big smile on his face. "If I'd known you were up I would've asked you to come with me."

"Well, I'm kind of waiting for an important call."

"At seven-thirty in the morning?" Derek took a jug of milk out from the fridge, along with a carton of eggs and some bacon.

"I know, most places wouldn't call or email until nine a.m. at the earliest, but this job may be an exception." I willed the phone, a generic grey wireless model, to ring.

"The set design job, right?" Derek grabbed a pan from the cupboard.

"Yea…hey, I didn't know we had a pan."

"We do now," he said, scraping the sticker off of the bottom of the pan. "We gotta grow up sometime, Em."

The box of cereal looked so lonely, standing upright on top of the fridge. I scooted around the bar, slipped past Derek and saved the cereal from a long, slow death of disuse.

"You want some eggs and bacon instead?" Derek asked.

"No thank you. I'll stay a kid for breakfast at least." I got a bowl and sat down to begin the most important meal of the day.

I'd been rooming with Derek since my senior year of college. He still had a year to go, so I'd stayed on through the summer. If I got a job somewhere else I might move, but I was really hoping I could keep this place. Derek was a nice roommate, pretty clean, and not bad to look at. I mean, I didn't have a crush on him or anything, but…

I stopped looking at Derek's sweat-soaked shirt and concentrated on the crunchy goodness of Cheerios.

That didn't last long. Contemplating the sweat-soaked shirt made me imagine what might be underneath said shirt, and that wasn't good at all. Derek was rather athletic, unlike me, and had sandy hair that caught the morning light when he moved…

Derek cursed as something flopped to the ground. It looked like an alien decided to leave his entrails or vomit on the white tiled floor.

"Trouble with the adult life there, Derek?"

"And here I thought I was going to wow you with my cooking skills." Cooking wasn't on the top of my priority list for a boyfriend per se, but it would be nice. I couldn't date Derek anyway, he was a nice guy, but he had a few problems of his own, problems I definitely wanted to stay out of.

"Better luck tomorrow. If the phone rings while I'm in the shower, holler at me." I rushed to the bathroom before Derek could decide if he wanted the first shower.

Showered and dressed, I found things to do around the house. I cleaned up breakfast, noticing that Derek had thrown away an inordinate amount of burned eggs and bacon, and the kitchen, tidied the living room and was about to start on my bedroom when the phone rang.

I rushed over to the counter, stubbing my foot against the edge of the door and picked up the receiver, trying to breathe through the pain.

"Hello, Makai Turner here," I said, leaning against the counter and clutching the base of my big toe.

"Good morning, Ms. Turner. We have a lovely new proposition to make…"

Damn telemarketers. After politely turning the lady down, I set the phone down on it's hook and sunk to the floor.

I contemplated ending up as a telemarketer, with a tiny cubical and a little headset, trying to smile and be nice to grouchy people who didn't want to be interrupted at home. But I was too smart to take a job like that; I had a Liberal Arts Degree for goodness sakes!

Frantically pacing about my room I decided I needed to get out of the house. Shopping. No, I didn't have any money to spend, and wasn't going to be getting any more in any time soon. I couldn't even afford to gas up my jeep. That ruled out going anywhere farther than a mile from here. That left a whole bunch of suburbia for me to explore.

I guess this means I'll get to wear those cute pink sweats I bought awhile back, I thought. Exercise, here I come.

I changed, never minding the fact that I had spent an hour showering and doing my makeup this morning. I had time; I had the whole day, and maybe the next one too, waiting around to see if any of the possible employers wanted me. The span of days set before me looked pretty lonely, not to mention the fact that summer was winding down already and I had nothing to show for it.

I took my ipod, cellphone and keys, locking the front door behind me. The front yard was a small stretch of grass that Derek took pride in watering and mowing. The guy acts too old to be a college kid, I swear.

The house we rented was technically in a not-so-good neighborhood, that being the reason we could afford it, but it also bordered a really nice residential area. I chose to walk that route, where I could admire the large lawns with their colorful flower plots and BMWs and Lexuses parked in the driveway. To dream about living in one of those houses one day was tempting, I'll admit, but the truth is, I have no idea where I see myself in the future.

Most of my friends who graduated have either started their career, gone on to graduate school, or are traveling the world. My mom suggested that I go to India or something, but I hadn't even saved up any money for that, I needed a job.

My bank checking account held $32.90, not even enough for a full tank of gas, certainly not enough for a plane ticket, even a one-way one.

Who wanted to gawk at starving children and wipe yourself with only three tiny sheets of toilet paper anyway? I mean, out here, in the California sunshine, I was saving gas and the environment and all that. Even if these rich people obviously didn't care about the environment and let their sprinklers break so that water ran down the sidewalk and flooded the street.

Ick, I thought as I hopped over the puddle. Hopped right onto a furry object that yelped.

I tumbled down on top of this yapping furball, right into the gush of muddy water.

This was turning into one of my more unlucky days. Yeah, I was going to put it on the list along with the dateless prom and failing the easiest math class at my college, twice.

I looked up from my ruined sweats, now dyed yuk brown, and into the cutest pair of eyes I had ever seen.

The little ball of fluff had stopped yapping and stood there, hardly bigger than my head, with little eyes and ears that fluffed up adorably. He cocked his head to the side.

"Oh, I want you!" I cried, and took the fluff ball into my hands. He seemed a bit scared at first, I hope more from the water than from me, and soon I didn't care that I was sitting in a puddle of water. The little guy licked my fingers and snuggled into my jacket.

It was going to take a lot of hand washing to get the muddy water out, and I had better get started before it dried. I looked down at the little dog.

"Ok, fella, your home has to be around here somewhere…" I looked up at the house with the evil broken sprinkler. There was a car (Acura? One of those A-names I couldn't quite remember) in the driveway so someone had to be home. There was no one out down the whole street as far as I could see. There was no one out looking for a lost puppy.

I gathered the puppy in the crook of my arm and set out toward the impossibly long driveway. How could people need this much space? I mean, they probably didn't even have kids that played on the lawn; kids nowadays played all those videogames or Internet games instead. Gone were the times of water-balloon fights with the neighborhood kids.

I rang the doorbell and tried to sneak a glance through the clouded windowpane. A figure opened the large wooden door, but didn't bother to open the metal screen that prevented any visual on my part.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but have you lost your dog? I found a dog right outside on your lawn—"

"We don't have a dog, now get away from here, you freak," the woman snapped, and slammed the door closed. She was probably not impressed with my ensemble, I would wager.

"It's your damn sprinklers that ruined my appearance, Lady," I muttered. She was probably going to pour herself another bourbon and wallow in her rich misery.

I walked down the long driveway before the woman could come out and yell at me for loitering. I stopped at the edge of the street, however. I had no idea what to do with Mr. Fluffball.

I mean, I couldn't just leave him out here and hope his owners found him. What if a car ran over him?

There was still no one out all along the street, not even a jogger. I made my way back home, and remembered that I hadn't even gotten more than a walk for a workout. Oh well, there was no way I was going to jog with a puppy in my arms.

"Looks like you're coming home with me," I said, holding the dog tightly.

Mr. Fluffball yapped in agreement.