Ayden, a slightly overzealous dog rescuer, chases a pit bull down an alley just in time to witness a murder. The cops side with the killer, and his sudden interest in Ayden sends her straight back into the same weird visions that kept her institutionalized for most of her childhood.
She's learned to live with them, but somehow, the dark and dangerous Maxwell Jackson is not nearly as easy to ignore. He not only has the key to saving her dog, he believes in things Ayden has spent her whole life convincing herself are absolutely impossible.
She might be able to get past the crazy, might even be able to learn to trust another human again...but Maxwell is part of a group that uses dogs to hunt and to kill, and as far as Ayden is concerned, that's a major deal breaker.
If only she could forget that he's the man of her dreams.
Frances Pauli was born and raised in Washington State. She grew up with a love of reading and storytelling, and was introduced to Science Fiction and Fantasy at an early age through the books kept and read by her father.
Though she always held aspirations to be a writer, she chose to obtain her Bachelorís degree in visual arts. The stories, however, had other plans for her. By the time she entered her thirties, they were no longer content existing solely in her head. Compelled to free them, she set aside her easel and began to write in earnest.
Her original love of Speculative fiction combined with her covert excursions into the Romance section led her into the realms of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, where she finds herself quite comfortable. Her fascination with Science Fiction and a growing passion for the NASA channel divert her happily into tales of the far future, alternate dimensions, and the wonders of space, usually with at least a touch of romance.
Frances currently resides smack in the center of Washington with her husband and two children. When not writing she dabbles in insane things like puppetry, belly dance and playing the ukulele. She collects rocks, and is a firm believer in good wine, fine chocolate and dangerous men. Her short fiction has appeared in Alternative Coordinates magazine.
Visit Frances online at http://francespauli.com
The Pit Bull lowered her head and growled. Her nose twitched, taking the scent of the chicken in Ayden's hand. She wanted it, had slunk close enough to snatch it in a single lunge, but the dog wasn't ready yet. She kept her shining eyes focused on Ayden's face and growled again, the movement of her nose the only giveaway that she noticed the treat.
Someone had dumped her there. Ayden ignored the urge to move, the itch to throttle the invisible idiot who'd abandoned the dog in an alley. Heartless enough with an ordinary stray, but a pit on its own in the city only had one destiny. Eventually, someone with more authority and less patience would discover the bitch's hideout. She'd scare someone, god-forbid bite someone, and then her story would end. Pit Bulls didn't get the benefit of the doubt. Not in the city, and not even if they didn't have a mean bone in their body.
Ayden held perfectly still and felt the dog's hot breath against her skin. Close enough, girl. You can have it. Please, take it. The dog needed more time to trust. They'd run out of it. Ayden fought with the panic and lost. Her hand trembled and the chicken danced just enough.
The pit vanished. She moved too fast, and Ayden had to hold very still if she wanted another chance tomorrow morning. She couldn't risk breaking the thin thread they'd already woven between them. Tomorrow, maybe. She watched the eyes, staring at her now from behind a stack of pallets. The dog's gray and white coat flashed between the slats. She was getting thin, even with the scraps Ayden brought.
She stood up slowly, wincing at the cramps in her legs. Sitting like a statue on cold pavement took its toll on a body. Not as much, she guessed, as living like the poor Pit Bull was. Not as much as being tossed away and forgotten. Left to live or die.
The chicken would keep the dog alive, maybe even fill her out enough that the bones didn't show. It wouldn't save her if the city discovered her here. Ayden tossed the meat toward the pallets with as gentle a movement as possible. The city would bring catch poles and tranquilizers.
"There you go, girl." She kept her voice soft and flat. "It's all yours."
Maybe they'd make a breakthrough tomorrow. The dog pressed her belly to the ground and kept her eyes on the meat now. She growled again, low and soft. More a plea than a threat.
Ayden stepped backwards. She guided her retreat with one hand against the wall of Terry's Mini-lube. Terry, it turned out, was an obese mechanic with a crew of three underneath him. None of them smoked, and she'd watched long enough to guess they took their breaks somewhere other than the alley. Still, eventually one of them might come this way, might need to toss another pallet on the stack, or sweep up the bottles and detritus from the last drunks to party in the narrow space.
The vagrants would avoid the dog without reporting her, but the mechanics wouldn't. Ayden knew the reaction a loose Pit Bull could inspire. They'd call the cops, the pound, their buddies with guns or poison.
"I'll see you tomorrow, girl." She backed farther and hoped the pit would emerge, would take the chicken in front of her instead of waiting until she'd wandered completely out of sight. The dog didn't budge. Ayden checked her watch and bit back a curse. Tomorrow, they could try again...or maybe tonight.
This morning, she was late for work.
She scooted faster, despite the fact that it made noise, that the Pit Bull hunkered lower and growled again. She'd been late yesterday, and two days before that. If she kept this up, she'd lose the best job she'd ever had.
Ayden reached her bike at two minutes till eight. She'd left the rusting ten-speed leaning against Terry's paper box. One of these days she'd find it missing and have to hoof it. One of these days, she should pick up a bike chain.
Today she scrambled onto the seat and worked the pavement cramps out of her knees by pedaling like there was no tomorrow. The chain had stretched during the bike's long life. It clattered and threatened to come off every third or fourth revolution. The brakes worked too well, and she avoided using them for fear of launching over the handlebars and into traffic.
There was little of that at this hour, however, and she soared down the short hill past the Corduroy County hospital and around the corner onto Beaumont without slowing. Janet would be there already, she'd have opened the office and started the coffee. But Janet wouldn't clean a kennel for anyone. She wouldn't wrestle the larger dogs into their runs either.
Ayden crossed diagonally at the next intersection and headed down Birch. Two more blocks and no time left. Janet would rat her out to Berrieaux if she didn't pay her off. She'd have to take the princess to lunch again, and this time, something nicer than KFC. Better spend a half hour scarfing down something expensive with her prissy co-worker than getting fired. Better, but only barely.
She'd do it for the Pit Bull. Hell, she'd do it to save her job.
Berrieaux Kennels trained and housed the most spoiled pets in the county. The owners had more money than they could possibly spend on their two grown children and had taken to showing sighthounds to keep themselves busy and financially occupied. Their success in the ring had committed the retired couple to the dog business, but they'd only opened the kennel six months ago.
Ayden had seen the advertisement in the help wanted section and nearly choked on her instant mashed potatoes. She dove on the interview like a terrier on a tennis ball and convinced Mrs. Berrieaux that she was destined to work for them. Destined to work with dogs, at least. For the most part, Ayden could have lived without the people.
She skidded to a stop in front of the building at ten minutes past her shift start. The pay, unfortunately, she couldn't live without...nor could her family. She flung the ten-speed into the rack they'd installed just for her and blew through the front doors and into a chorus of frantic, echoing barks.
The foyer rang with hungry, anxious doggy calls, and Ayden felt their demands as guilt knifing through her. She was so worried over the stray, and yet, the dogs here needed out, needed fed and cleaned. If she got up an hour earlier, maybe tomorrow.
"You're late again." Janet's voice had a high-strung edge to it that set Ayden's teeth together. She wore expensive clothes that shouldn't come within ten feet of dogs, shoes too wobbly for working in and, usually, a sneaky or disapproving expression.
"I'm sorry. I can get lunch."
"Berrieaux's already here." Janet smiled, fake and full of pretend apology. She leaned back in the office chair behind the front counter. That was low enough that Ayden could see the flash of amusement in her co-worker's eyes. "She brought Pancake in for her grooming."
Son-of-a-bitch. Pancake was Mrs. Berrieaux's companion animal. Unlike the Salukis they bred for show, Pancake had all the charisma of a rat. They'd paid a small fortune for her, but if the little terrier had any redeeming qualities, Ayden hadn't sorted them out yet. Pancake peed on a whim, whined incessantly and nipped whenever the mood struck her.
If it was grooming day, she'd already been marked late. She'd have to face Berrieaux and try to explain without mentioning the Pit Bull. At least she wouldn't have to take lunch with Janet.
"There you are." Mrs. Berrieaux appeared in the inner doorway as if summoned. She smiled, beamed as usual and gave off her aura of benevolent optimism. "Ayden, dear. You're flushed. Did you have to walk in?"
"No. I'm sorry I was late. I had to stop and pick up..." She searched for something she'd be required to get before work but not be obligated to produce as proof.
"It's fine, dear. Really. Do you think Pancake looks like she's overweight?"
"I won't be late again." Ayden stared at her boss. The woman had on a ladies' suit, crisp and apricot in color. The fabric looked very expensive. It matched the wad of halfway curly fur bundled in the crook of Berrieaux's arm. Pancake. The dog should have weighed about three pounds, but Ayden would put her around seven if she was being kind. Her owner swept past Ayden's apology and thrust the dog forward for her to inspect.
Pancake wriggled in mid-air, supported under her forelegs by two well-manicured hands and curling her top lip back just enough to show Ayden her perfectly brushed teeth.
"Dr. Mao said she's five pounds overweight! Can you imagine it? If she lost that much, there'd be nothing left of her."
Before Ayden could answer, her boss snuggled the pampered pooch back to her chest. She cooed at Pancake, and earned a nip on the nose for her trouble.
"She doesn't want to diet," Janet offered.
They pointedly ignored the fact that Ayden had shown up late to work again. They smiled. Pancake snarled at her mistress, and Ayden felt the impending termination overhead like a boulder just waiting to crash through the roof.
"I need to get the Huskies into their run," she said. It was hopeless anyway. Berrieaux's fat terrier knew it. Pancake bared her teeth and snarled at her in silent doggy language. You are so fired.
"Of course. Don't let us keep you," Mrs. Berrieaux said. "I fed the little ones already."
There it was. Don't let us keep you. The woman was furious with her, and she'd had to do Ayden's job on top of it. She'd probably find her pink slip waiting in her cubby.
"Thank you Mrs. Berrieaux. I'm really sorry."
"About what, dear?"
"I was late."
"Again," Janet said.
"Oh that." Berrieaux shrugged and Pancake grunted. "It was ten minutes, Ayden. Not to worry."
Ayden nodded, but she felt lead in her feet. She dragged them toward the door that would take her into the kennel. At least she could see them all exercised and fed, maybe play with the Huskies a bit before she had to say goodbye.
Her boss carried Pancake to the front counter and let the little dog down to romp on top of their appointment book. Janet put her feet up on the short file cabinet, and they whispered something Ayden didn't want to hear. She slunk closer to the wall where the spay and neuter posters gleamed. The barking increased into a frenzy when she reached the door. The dogs, she reminded herself, it was all about the dogs, not the idiots who owned them.
There it was. She knew it. "Yeah?"
"I'm taking Janet to lunch this afternoon. Why don't you join us?"
She had one hand on the door, had almost made it. Now Ayden could feel their attention on her. Their eyes drilled little holes in the back of her skull. What had they whispered, then? Let's wait till lunch and then can her? Get another day's work from her, perhaps? She closed her eyes and breathed in and out.
"We're going to Jeno's."
Ayden turned around with the lead feeling creeping higher, into her legs, trapping her in a moment she didn't want to face. Both of them watched her, and they wore complimentary expressions. Somehow, their pity was worse than the axe would have been.
"I brought lunch today."
"It's my treat." Mrs. Berrieaux smiled the same, placating, sympathetic smile that every foster mother, every social worker and would-be rescuer Ayden had ever met wore.
She stuffed her fists into her pockets and shook her head. "I'd rather work through today, maybe make up for being late."
"It was only ten..."
Ayden pushed her way through the kennel doors before her boss could finish. Ten minutes. Only ten minutes and look what it had cost her. She'd seen that want-to-help expression too many times to hope it would go away anytime soon. She'd fallen into the hard-up category as far as Berrieaux was concerned. She'd become a project. The beagle at the far end of the row bayed and the rest of their current guests took up the call.
They'd never fire her now, not when they could try to save her instead. Ayden stalked to her cubby and tore off her hoodie. She stuffed it into the square wooden space that was her own personal stash box at the kennel and turned to the storage bins where the kibble and scoops waited.
She couldn't afford to quit, either. She had the family at home to think of, the dogs here to look after, and the Pit Bull. They'd make that breakthrough yet. She'd just have to be more careful where her boss was concerned. She'd have to dodge a little, but then, she was an expert at dodging.
Ayden filled a scoop with kibble, smelled the tang of it wafting off the bin to mix with the scent of dog and dirty kennels. She pushed the image of Berrieaux's face to the back of her thoughts and slunk down the line of chain-link kennels, doling out breakfast and apologizing at each one for arriving late.