Romance to the RescueCover

Excerpt from BETTER THAN BEFORE by Kathryn Shay

Cover of Better Than Before

“I can’t believe you did this.” Annie held Jake’s leash outside of PetPlay, which was exactly what the name implied—a doggy play facility in a suburb of Rockland.

After the fiasco of going to her graduation, Spence had been careful the two other times they’d seen each other not to be presumptuous. Their dates had been innocuous—out to lunch and once for drinks at a place on the lake, where they’d managed to chat amiably and avoid conflict. Though he wasn’t pleased about censoring every move he made and every word he spoke, he was trying hard not to upset her. “I asked you first if bringing him to PetPlay was acceptable.”

“I know. That’s not what I meant. I appreciate how careful you’ve been since graduation not to surprise me. Or push me.”

Her hair sparkled with threads of gold in the still-shining sunlight. He longed to touch it, longed to have that right. “Let’s have fun tonight and steer away from hard topics.”

She nodded to the front of the building. “I checked this place out once. Even when I was married, I thought it was too expensive, so I never mentioned it to Keith.”

“I can afford it, Annie. Besides, I only signed up for the trial orientation. Let me do this for Jakey boy. It wasn’t that long ago you thought you’d lost him.”

As if he knew what was at stake, Jake nudged her leg and peered up at her with a soulful expression. Damn, she loved this dog. “You’re right.”

With Spence’s hand at her back, they walked through the big double doors. Joey had told Spence about the facility when the police were called here because two doggy parents got into a fight. Pet owners!

“Hello there.” A young man behind the counter greeted them. The logo on his shirt read, PetPlay. Beneath it was a slogan, “We pamper your babies.”

“I’m Spence Wickham. I have a six o’clock appointment.”

“Yes, Mr. Wickham.” He circled the counter and bent down to Jake, who backed away. “Hey, there, Jake.”

“He’s skittish,” Annie told the worker.

“Yes, Mr. Wickham informed us of his ordeal. We have pet psychologists on our staff who gave some recommendations for his play tonight.”

Annie smiled at the unheard of occupation. A woman wearing the same outfit as the receptionist came out from the back.

“This is Marsha. She’ll take you to the viewing area while we orient Jake. You can watch everything he does.”

Both she and Spence were silent as they followed Marsha inside and were seated in a cushy booth in front of a huge glassed-in arena. The woman said she’d send somebody over for a drink order.

They both turned to the glassed in arena, marked Orientation. It was filled with toys—balls, stuffed animals, long squiggly pieces of rope. Jake sniffed around. One staff member scratched his head and brought each toy up to his mouth. Another played fetch with the other animals. Jake took a second look but ultimately ignored them.

Next, they led Jake to a feeding area called Chow Time. The dog snubbed his nose at the bowls because Annie still hadn’t weaned him off the special diet the vet put him on after he got lost last winter. A nap section labeled Sweet Dreams was next to the eating area, and when Jake headed for a bed, the handler tugged him back. Also included were a playhouse of sorts, an exit for outside potty breaks and a Pet Salon for grooming.

“The extent of this is unbelievable,” Annie commented.

“Yes. But Jake might enjoy himself. He rarely gets to interact with other dogs.” He still wasn’t, but Spence didn’t point that out.

“The money could go to food pantries or soup kitchens. I read somewhere that what our country spends on grooming pets could feed a third world for a year.”

“I know the money could be put to better use, Annie.” Now, he did feel criticized. And he didn’t try to hide it. “I wanted to take the dog somewhere fun. I thought you’d enjoy it, too.”

Reaching across the table, she took his hands in hers. Electricity sparked down his arm to his groin. The flare of heat in her eyes made him wonder if she missed physical contact with him as much as he did. “I wasn’t complaining. I love that you did this for him.”

A waitress approached and asked for their orders. “We have a snack menu if you’re hungry, as well as drinks.”

Annie shifted in her seat. “No, thanks. I’ll have coffee.”

He asked for the same. When the waitress left, Annie didn’t pick up on the thread of conversation and looked back to the arena.

Unused to being ignored, Spence asked, “Will we be having dinner together tonight?”

Her gaze transferred to him. “I wasn’t planning on it.”

“What if I was?”

“I’d be sorry. Keith said I don’t compromise well, but I want to take it slow between us.”

They’d spoken briefly about Keith on their second date and she’d said only that her ex had warned her about getting involved with him.

Now she asked, “Do you know Keith well, Spence?”

“I’ve worked with his bank on occasion. Seen him at some social events. He’s on the board of a charity both his bank and our company support.”

“You give to charities? Oh, wait, or course you do, for the tax deduction.”

Again, her comment stung. “No, not completely for the write-off. This particular one is sponsored by my firm. But I have a personal stake in some of the organizations I give money to. Joey’s father died of ALS when he was seven and I was nine. I donate a solid chunk of change to their research. Our company also sponsors a big gala every other year and the proceeds go to the ALS foundation.” Not liking how defensive he sounded, Spence paused for a breath. “I’m involved in humanitarian causes, Annie, solely because they help people.”

“That’s great.” The surprise in her voice diluted some of his expectation he could change her perception of him.

Instead of continuing that conversation thread, he commented, “I didn’t connect you with Keith because of his last name.”

“Oh, wow, I never thought of that. I changed my name back as soon as we divorced.”

“I’m sorry if he was rough on you about me.”

“I can handle Keith. Besides, a situation came up with our son that precludes our fighting.”

Spence sipped his coffee. “Is Alex in trouble?”

“In a way.” She told him about the bullying. “I feel so bad I didn’t know about this before.”

“Don’t blame yourself. Kids keep that kind of thing a secret for as long as possible. Though it’s gotten a lot more serious these days.”

“The administration viewed the security tapes. They didn’t show any bullying or aggression toward him or anyone else. Alex went back to school on Tuesday.”

“Of course the tapes didn’t show anything. Bullies are smart about how and especially where to intimidate. What else is the school doing?”

She told him what actions were taken. “Since Alex went back, he says school’s been fine.”

“The staff should supervise the gym area closely. It’s ripe for bullying. Is Alex small?”

Her face had gone sad, as if somebody had turned the light off in it. “He’s more slight than small. He’s average height and weight but isn’t exactly bulked up.”

“He should be.”

She cocked her head at him. “Spence, how do you know so much about this?”

He fiddled with his cup. Odd, he remembered so clearly being stuffed into lockers, thrown in the shower at the private school his father forced him to attend. It was so long ago, but recalling it still affected him. He wondered briefly if that was one of the reasons he liked to be in control so much. “I was bullied when I was a kid.”

“I can’t fathom that about you.”

“I was slight then, too. And kind of nerdy I guess. I got picked on.”

“What happened?”

“Mom tried what you’re doing. But the biggest help was the boxing my father signed me up for.”

He could still see Bradley Wickham’s features set in stern uncompromising lines, telling him he’d not allow his son to be bullied, that Spence would take boxing lessons and learn how to fight back. He’d had no choice in the matter, no choice at all about anything his father had ordered him to do.

“It was hard for me to be in a ring at first. I was scared out of my mind about getting hit. But eventually, I got the hang of it. The exercise helped me fill out and gave me confidence that I could protect myself, which is half the battle. A bully senses fear.”

“That’s quite a story.”

“You have to help Alex get more confidence, Annie. Soon.”

She seemed taken aback.

“What did I say?”

“You don’t know Alex enough to make that statement.”

“I do know bullying, though.” He folded his arms over his chest—a distancing gesture. Goddamn it. Was no conversation safe? “But I didn’t realize talking about your kids was off-limits as well as meeting them.”

“It isn’t. Again, I apologize.” She bit her lip. “We’re walking on eggshells with each other. I hate it.”

“I do, too. We’ll try to be better. Okay?”

“Okay. And I’ll think about boxing. I’m sure your experience gives you insights others don’t have.”

They were diverted from the conversation by Jake, who was now moving faster than Spence had ever seen him move as one of the staff threw a yellow rubber bone ahead of him. They watched in awe as he let another dog nuzzle him, took a treat and even climbed up on doggy mountain. Annie’s joy when he did a trick or played a game soothed the rough edges of their conversation.

On the drive home to Annie’s, Jake snoozed in the backseat, tired from his busy night. Annie’s scent filled the car and Spence longed to take her in his arms and kiss her senseless as they’d done in her Civic on the bowling night, which seemed a lifetime ago. Though she hadn’t specified it when they got back together, he assumed physical contact was off-limits, too, because there had been no intimacy between them on their first three dates. Tonight, not being able to touch her was just about killing him. In addition to that, he’d been thinking about how sex brought two people closer, made them compromise more, work together on their relationship outside of bed. God knows they needed an edge up on that.

Spence wished like hell she’d change her mind about dinner, wished he could be with her longer tonight. Sure, he knew he’d blown his first chance with her by lying, so all this distance between them was his fault. But he didn’t have many skills to deal with somebody else calling the shots and he was frustrated.

When he pulled into her driveway, he switched off the engine. Annie smiled over at him. “Thank you so much for this, Spence.”

“You’re welcome.”

She just stared at him.

“If you want to change your mind about dinner, I’m willing.”

“Of course I want to change it! I want the relationship I thought we had back. But we have to go slow.”

“Honey, we’re going at a snail’s pace. This is our fourth date and your restrictions haven’t eased at all.”

“No, I’ve made a plan and I’m going to stick to it.”

His fingers gripped the steering wheel. This was getting really old. He wondered briefly if he’d ever break down her barriers.

“I can tell you’re unhappy, and I’m sorry. But you lied to me Spence, went to unbelievable lengths to trick me, and then you slept with me without telling me the truth. And I don’t think I’m out of line in wanting to get to know the real you slowly.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “Do you have any idea how much that hurt, that you’d be so intimate with me under false pretenses?”

He raked a hand through his hair. “Maybe I don’t. All I know is I want to be with you, Annie. More than you apparently want to be with me.”

No response.

“Don’t you feel it at all? Be honest.”

“Yes, I do. I’d rather spend more time with you. But I have to be careful.”

Restrictions be damned. He raised his hand and ran it down her hair. “Physically, too? I miss that so much.”

Her pupils dilated. “Me, too.”

Drawing back, he sighed. “I don’t know what to say.”

Silence from her. Then, “Here’s a compromise. Let’s go out sooner than we’d planned. I’m free Sunday.”

“I’m not. My mother has a barbeque every Sunday. I’ve missed it because of you once before, but I don’t like to cop out on her too much.”

“I love your devotion to your mother, Spence. We have that in common.”

He reached for her. “Enough for a kiss?”

She moved away. “I said slowly, Spence.”

“If this was a normal first date, you might kiss me.” When she didn’t answer, he drew back. “Never mind.”

“Spence…”

“Go inside Annie. Before I make another mistake.”

She waited a bit, then gave him a peck on the cheek, roused Jake and headed to the house.

Spence watched her and the dog he’d come to love, too, go inside. And the vague notion that had been haunting him all night crystallized. Annie might never be able to forgive him. She might always hold a part of herself back like this. And he’d never be able to handle that. Already he was having trouble dealing with the physical deprivation and the fence she put around her emotions.

One thing he was certain about—he knew he wasn’t the kind of man who could handle Annie’s distancing maneuvers for much longer. He needed more from her and he just hoped he could get it before he blew the whole relationship again.