Marissa heard the flip-click of her doggy door and smiled. "It's about time you came inside," she said toward the kitchen, expecting to see her cocker spaniel Bailey come trotting in. But instead she she heard Bailey's little soft bark that she used when she was out of water, or when she couldn't get her favorite ball out from under the sofa. "Bailey," she called out, but the only answer was another bark, so Marissa got up from her chair with a sigh. "Coming, my queen," she smiled. She walked into the kitchen and stopped short. Bailey stood there wagging happily at her, and at her side was a pretty golden retriever, wagging right along.
"Well, hello there," Marissa said with an uncertain smile. This was the first time a strange dog had come in the pet door, and she hoped this wasn't going to be a common occurrence. She was actually a little nervous around dogs. She'd only had Bailey for a year, since her best girlfriend surprised her with the wriggling little puppy after Mark had dumped her by e-mail. And the only reason she'd kept the dog was that it was nice to come home to someone who was so happy to see her. Now, of course, she couldn't imagine her life and her home without the little bundle of energy. Still, one dog was plenty.
"Who's your friend, Bailey?" Bailey barked happily and Marissa laughed when the other dog followed with a bark of his own. "Well, hello, Bark. Nice to meet you." She knelt cautiously, and both dogs came to her and nuzzled and licked her outstretched hands. "Okay, so you're a nice guy. Bailey has good taste. Now, where do you belong?" She rubbed the retriever's neck, feeling along his collar for tags. "Ah, here it is." She held the tag up to the light while the dog sniffed her cheek. "Cut that out, you flirt. Okay, no name, but you live down the road. And you've had your shots." She gave the retriever's head one last rub and stood. Bailey nudged the other dog's head and they played together, bouncing and yipping soft little yips.
Marissa stood watching them, glad to see Bailey having fun, but unhappy with her kitchen becoming the new neighborhood dog hangout. "Bailey," she said in her mom-means-business voice, and Bailey sat obediently, looking up at her with her tongue lolling as if she knew she was cute. "Take Bark outside. Outside." Bailey tilted her head and bowed, and Marissa chuckled. "You con artist. Okay, one treat for you, and one for Bark, but you eat them Out Side." She pulled two doggie-treats from the canister by the fridge and handed them out, and the retriever followed Bailey back out through the pet door.
"Well, that might have been a mistake," Marissa said softly to herself. "I'll have all the dogs in here wanting treats tomorrow." She shrugged. Too late now.
Bryan heard his dog Max scratching at the back door and he shook his head with a frown. Dumb dog still didn't always remember to come in through the pet door. He got up from the table, shutting his laptop, and pulled open the door. "Max, you know you're not supposed to – oh, well, hello there!" Max had brought along a companion, who followed him into the kitchen. The little cocker spaniel sat and held up a paw, and Bryan smiled. "Good manners. I like that in a dog. And you look safe enough. Clean, nice collar..." He sat down on the floor and took a discreet glance as he took the offered paw for a gentle shake. "Aha. A pretty girl. Max, you're a cad." Max wagged and jumped into Bryan's lap for his regular belly-rub as the spaniel sat and watched. "Okay, c'mere," Bryan smiled, and he gave the spaniel a turn.
As usual, Max didn't hold still for too long. He jumped up and hopped around in front of Bryan, then went to the cabinet where the doggie-biscuits were stored and sat in front of it with his hopeful face. "You're not only a cad, you're a beggar," Bryan smirked as he checked the spaniel's tag. "But I suppose we should be neighborly, shouldn't we?" He got up from the floor with a weary groan, then got out two biscuits and handed them out. "Now scram, you two. I've got work to do."
The next morning was the first day of Marissa's one-week vacation, and she yawned and stretched and enjoyed waking up without the alarm. She lay there for a few minutes in delicious comfort, then got up and padded to the kitchen for her wake-up-the-brain glass of juice. The first swallow was always a little taste of heaven, and she carried the glass with her as she went back down the hall to her bedroom. "Morning, Bailey-baby." She had almost crawled back into bed when she froze and looked back at Bailey's bed at the foot of hers. She blinked, then rubbed her eyes, feeling like a B-movie. "Bark? What are you doing here?"
The retriever wagged and panted up at her.
He stood and barked, then turned a circle or two and laid back down.
"Oh no you don't, mister." She called for Bailey, and when there was no answering clatter of toenails in the hallway she went looking through the house, then called out the back door. Nothing. And it didn't help her worry one bit that Bark just stood there by her side while she yelled, looking happy as a clam. Marissa did a little muttering to herself, then threw on some clothes and ran a brush through her hair. "Come on, Bark," she grumbled as she found Bailey's leash and snapped it onto his collar. "If you think you're moving in, you've got another thing coming. I'm taking you home." Bark gave a short happy bark and trotted along willingly as she pulled open the front door and stepped out onto the porch.
At least it was a nice morning, she thought as she walked down the street behind Bark, but where in the world was Bailey? Out on a morning stroll of her own? She didn't usually go out wandering until Marissa had showered, and even then she'd be back by the time Marissa sat down with her breakfast. She stopped and bent to look at Bark's tag again. 1408. She looked at the house beside her. 1412, 1410, she counted. 1408, the blue house with the Jeep in the driveway. Good, somebody was home. She headed for the blue house and, as she passed the fence in front of 1410 she saw a man sitting on the porch steps with her dog beside him. "Bailey!" she cried out happily, and Bailey came running as the man stood up.
The retriever strained at the leash and Marissa unsnapped him, bending to wrap her arms around a very excited Bailey. The next thing she knew there were feet beside her, and legs, and she looked up to see a very disgruntled neighbor.
"What were you doing with my dog?" he asked angrily.
"Bringing him home," she retorted. "What were you doing with mine?"
"Wishing her tag had an address or phone number. It does me no good to know her name's Bailey if I don't know where she belongs," he reprimanded, and Marissa stood up slowly.
"If you would've turned the tag over, you'd see her information on the back, thank you very much," she said stiffly. "And I don't suppose you know why your dog was in my bedroom this morning, sleeping in Bailey's bed as if he belonged there?"
Finally the man had the grace to look uncertain. "Uh, no... was he really?"
"He certainly was. And Bailey was nowhere to be found."
"She was on the porch when I came out for the paper. I recognized her, and I was just sitting here wondering what to do next when you came."
"Max brought her by the other day. I think they're pals."
"Who's Max?" Marissa asked, then blushed at her own stupidity as he nodded toward his dog, who was playing in the yard with Bailey.
"Excuse me? Did you just... bark at me?"
She looked up to see his confusion, and grimaced with embarrassment. "I was calling him Bark."
"Oh." He ran a hand through his messy hair. "Because I was going to say, that's the worst dog impression I've ever heard."
"Thanks," she said with a sarcastic smile, and held out her hand. "I'm Marissa. I live down the street."
"Bryan." They shook hands. "Which house, so I know where to bring Bailey if this happens again?"
"1418. It's pale green with white shutters." He nodded as she went on. "But I don't really want this becoming a habit. Can't you keep Max at home?" She cringed as she realized how bossy and superior she'd sounded, but it was too late. His scowl was back.
"Oh, I'll keep him at home. And you'll keep your little floozy at home too, right?"
"Floozy!" she gasped.
"Well, she's chasing Max around, waiting for him on the porch, what would you call it?"
Marissa felt her face reddening with anger, and she called Bailey to her side with a tight voice and snapped her leash on. "Have a nice day," she said crisply and turned on her heel and started for home.
Bryan watched her flounce out of the yard, then turned and whistled for Max, stomping into the house and letting the door bang behind him. Women! Always so sensitive about every little word. So floozy maybe wasn't the best choice. But it was a dog, for pete's sake! It's not like he'd called her a floozy. He paused in mid-sit at the table. Did he? He tried to think back over his exact words, suddenly nervous that he'd done just that. No. He didn't. He knew he didn't. He sank down onto the chair. He'd been lousy at talking to women lately, but even he wasn't that dumb. He looked down at Max, curling up by his feet.
"Listen up, Maxwell." The dog's head lifted and his big brown eyes looked up innocently into Bryan's. "No more trespassing. No more strange female dogs in the house. And no going into strange women's bedrooms." He propped his elbow on the table and leaned his chin on his hand, looking down at his best friend. "Did you really just waltz into her bedroom?" Max wagged. "And?" Max barked his happy bark, and Bryan grinned. "Yeah, I'll bet."
It was a typical busy Monday at the office, and he dragged himself in the door after work and dropped his keys on the end table, then sank onto the sofa rubbing his hands over his face. Almost six months at this new job, in this new town, and he still wondered if he'd ever feel at home. He looked around him. He'd found a nice house, cozy and efficient, but he was certainly no decorator. No pictures on the walls, no warm touches like his old house. Of course, Shannon had done the decorating then. He sighed as he remembered. High school sweethearts, destined to be together forever. Or so he'd thought, until one day she announced she'd outgrown him and she was moving to New York. That was almost three years ago and after she left, he went nowhere. Didn't change the artwork she'd hung, didn't toss the shirts she'd bought him, didn't find anyone new. Until this job offer had come along. It seemed perfect: A new town, away from his mother and her worries about him, a step down in salary but a nice fresh start in a picturesque small town. And what had he done with the opportunity? Not much. Bought a house, adopted a dog from the shelter, and tried a few dates set up by new friends at work. But here he sat, alone in his quiet house again, not even the dog to keep him company.
He frowned. "Max?" He looked around him, then stood and went into the kitchen. "Maxey?" No dog. Max was always here waiting when he got home. Bryan groaned to himself. The floozy. What was her name? Bailey, that was it. He might have to re-think this pet-door idea if Max was going to keep running off with every pretty cocker spaniel that wagged her tail his way. Well, he'd come back eventually, Bryan decided, and opened up the refrigerator to search for some dinner.
But as the sun began to set, Max hadn't returned. And the last thing Bryan needed was another confrontation with the girl down the street tomorrow morning. He pulled on his running shoes and grabbed Max's leash and left the house. He turned right at the end of the driveway and started off in a slow jog. He watched for Max as he ran along, hoping he'd find him sniffing someone's flowerbeds before he got to the green house with the white shutters. But no such luck. He ran past, peeking up at the lit windows behind the half-open blinds, then ran to the end of the block before turning around. Should he knock? If Max wasn't there he'd feel like a fool, proving that he had no control over his own dog. Too soon he was in front of her house, Marissa's house, and he stopped and whistled softly. His heart sank as he heard barking inside, and before he could figure out his next move the front door opened and Max came barreling out as Marissa stepped up to the porch rail and stood watching them.
"Max, bad boy!" he scolded softly as he bent and snapped the leash to Max's collar. "What are you doing, trying to get me in trouble?" He straightened and raised a hand in an awkward greeting. "'Evening."
"Good evening, Bryan."
He felt a strange pleasure that she'd remembered his name, and he wanted to show her he wasn't a complete idiot, so he stepped forward. "I'm sorry if he barged in again, Marissa. He's never done anything like this before." He was relieved to see her smile, just a little one, but a smile.
"I think Bailey's got to share the blame a little," she admitted. "I saw her coaxing him to come inside, and she's never done that before either. They must really like each other." She ducked her head. "I guess you were right. My dog's a floozy."
Even though he knew she was teasing, Bryan winced. "I didn't mean that. It just kind of... came out out of my mouth before my brain could stop it. Can I take it back?"
"I think Bailey forgives you." She motioned toward the door, where Bailed stood up on her hind paws with her front feet on the glass storm door whimpering to come out.
"I'm glad," he said with a grin. "Well... maybe I'll see you around?"
Four more times that week they met to unscramble their dogs, and each time their neighborly chats got a little longer. By the end of the week they weren't talking about the dogs any more. They were asking each other about their day, or sharing stories. Bryan didn't realize how much he looked forward to seeing her until the day the dogs stopped their visits. All of a sudden Max just wanted to hang around the house, and Bailey didn't drop by once. By the third day both man and dog seemed restless. Bryan tried to interest Max in a run, but the retriever just lay on the floor and looked up at him without lifting his head from the floor. "Go see Bailey," he tried next, but Max still didn't get up. Bryan sank down beside him and tousled his buddy's silky ears. "What's wrong, boy? Are you sick, or just lonely?" Max let out a big sigh and rolled over for a belly-rub, and Bryan sighed along. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
The next morning when he woke up, Max was nowhere to be found, and he felt a glimmer of hope. He jumped out of bed and hurried through his shower, and had just stepped out of the bathroom when he heard a knock on the front door. He took a peek around the corner and saw Marisa through the window by the door, and he smiled. But then his eyes widened as he looked down at the towel wrapped around his otherwise-naked waist, and he called out a desperate "Don't go away!" as he rushed into his room for pants. He was in such a hurry to get them on that they ended up tangling around his leg and he toppled over with a groan and a thud. By the time he pulled a t-shirt over his head and headed for the door, Max came trotting in from the kitchen as the pet door flapped behind him. Bryan pulled open the front door only to see Marissa walking away, already halfway home, and he sighed in frustration.
Marissa was back at work, wishing she hadn't spent those last three days of her vacation at her mother's. All she'd heard all weekend was how she should move back home, get her old job back, and find a nice husband. She was stressed out all over again, and finding Max in her living room that morning didn't help. Well, it might have, if Bryan hadn't yelled at her to go away when she took him back home. The least he could have done was open the door, take the dog, maybe say thank you. Was that too much to ask? She felt stupid for thinking of him over the weekend, feeling like she might actually be missing him. Well, no more of that. Tonight when she got home she would put the cover on the pet door, and leave it there. The only problem was, when she got home, Max was snoring on her sofa.
Bryan got home at twilight that night, which was earlier than usual for him lately. Max usually greeted him at the door when he came in, but this time he opened the door to find Bailey, who looked up hopefully at him and held up a paw. "Good girl," he grinned.
He changed into jeans and a t-shirt and grabbed the leash, and Bailey nearly dragged him down the street. He was stepping onto the top step of Marissa's porch when her front door opened and she came out with Max. She stopped in surprise when she saw him there, then smiled stiffly. "I was just on my way to take Max home. I meant to have him back before you got home... sorry."
Bryan's heart sank as he unsnapped Bailey and Marissa let her into the house, then she bent down and snapped Max on. "You mean you didn't want to run into me."
"I... uh... didn't want to bother you." She stood up slowly.
"When have I ever said you bothered me?" he asked defensively.
"This morning," she said calmly.
His brows raised. "I didn't even get to talk to you this morning! You took off!"
"That's what I usually do when somebody tells me to go away."
"I didn't," Bryan protested, taking a step toward her. "I said don't go away."
"You did?" she asked, her voice doubtful.
"Yes! I was just getting out of the shower when you came, and I was trying to get dressed, and I..." He felt himself blushing and hoped she couldn't tell. "Never mind."
"Oh," she said, sounding embarrassed herself now. "I really thought you said to go away. I thought you were sick of this whole dog thing. I mean, it is kind of ridiculous how they keep trading places like that, instead of just running around together. I wonder why they do that." She stopped self-consciously, feeling like she was blabbering.
"I don't know, but I think it's kind of cute," Bryan replied. "And so are you." It wasn't until he saw her look of surprise that he realized he'd said that out loud. "Well, good night," he said abruptly, embarrassed, and he turned and started down the porch steps. But in his hurry and with the light dimming more every second he missed the last step and fell, landing on the ground on his butt and feeling like a fool.
"Are you okay?" he heard her ask as she hurried down the steps to him, and he looked up at her sheepishly.
"Other than being terribly humiliated? I'm fine."
She giggled, a very cute giggle he thought, and held out her hand to help him up. He took it and got to his feet, and held it just a second longer than he'd expected to. "Marissa... do you have a boyfriend?"
She took a cautious step back. "Why?"
"Because I don't want to ask you out if you're already taken. I've already embarrassed myself enough."
He couldn't see her face clearly but he heard the surprise in her answer. "Anyway," he said, backing up a step or two. "Maybe I should just get my foot out of my mouth so I can run on home."
"It's a little dark for running," she pointed out. "Maybe you'd better stick to a slow walk."
"Maybe." He took another step back. "So are you gonna answer my question?"
"The boyfriend one."
"Oh. No, no boyfriend. Not at the moment, anyway, but you never know about tomorrow."
He heard a teasing tone to her voice and he smiled in the dark as he backed away. "Good to know."
"Watch out for the -"
Her last word was drowned out by his surprised cry as he toppled backward off the sidewalk and flat onto his back in the street. Before he could gather his wits she was there kneeling beside him, worriedly asking if he was hurt..
"Let me guess. Watch out for the... curb?" he asked.
"Yep. That's the one." She giggled, covering her smile with her hand. "Are you always this klutzy?"
"No," he replied, propping himself up on his elbows. "But if you like klutzy guys, I can probably keep this up all night."
"No, don't. You'll kill yourself."
"Then how about dinner? Or a movie?" He was surprising himself. He was never this bold.
"If I say yes, will you get up off the road before a car comes and flattens you?"
"That seems fair."
He got to his feet and they stepped back onto the sidewalk. "Great," he smiled down at her. "Friday? Around six?"
"Okay." He looked around. "Now where's Max gotten to this time?"
"Where do you think?" she said,
and he looked up to see Max sitting patiently at Marissa's front door
while Bailey sat on the other side of the glass.
"You know," he said as he took her elbow lightly and walked her to her porch, "I almost get the feeling they've been trying to tell us something."
"I think you might be right," she agreed, and now he could see her again in the light from the house. She was smiling, and her eyes sparkled in the light. "Would you like to come in?"
"I'd love to."