Excerpt from Love Gone to the Dogs by Margaret Daley:
When Leah Taylor heard the pounding on her front door at seven o’clock in the morning, she jumped, nearly sloshing her coffee all over her hand. Did burglars now announce themselves before stealing a person blind? No one else in his right mind would be out visiting at this time. Carefully, so as not to spill the hot brew, she placed the mug on the kitchen counter and made her way toward the insistent pounding that she was sure was waking up the whole neighborhood.
She peered out a narrow slit in her mini blind and saw an enraged, huge man standing on her front porch with a shredded newspaper in one hand. The other was clenched at his side. He wore practically nothing except a pair of jean shorts. He stepped back and glanced around, clearly not happy that no one had answered his summons.
Backing away from the window next to her door, Leah nervously chewed the end of one of her acrylic nails. The man looked familiar. She was sure she had seen him in the yard across the street. He had to be a neighbor. But why was he welcoming her to the neighborhood at such an early hour, and with an angry expression on his face? She had been here only a few days, and her family hadn’t done anything yet to upset the delicate balance of this small town. Or had they? She thought back over the past few days of almost nonstop unpacking. She had been too tired to even venture from the house much, and the same went for the rest of her family—she hoped.
When the pounding started again, she was so surprised by the sound that she bit through the end of her new acrylic nail. Well, now he was making her mad. Without thinking, she yanked open the front door and prepared to confront the man who had the nerve to pay her a call at seven o’clock in the morning.
“Look what you made me do!” Leah held up her hand. “I’ve tried everything to grow my own nails long, and nothing’s worked. I finally decide to get fake ones—that I might, by the way, tell you cost me forty dollars—and look what your pounding has done. They haven’t even lasted one week.” She blew out a deep breath, then brushed her bangs away from her face in frustration.
His dark eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. He started to say something, but decided instead to allow his gaze to trek downward slowly—way too slowly for Leah’s peace of mind. A blush leaped into her cheeks as she remembered her skimpy attire. She controlled the strong urge to try to stretch her large, white T-shirt until it covered more than the tops of her thighs. When his survey stopped at her bare feet, her toes wiggled as if they had a will of their own.
She felt practically naked under his intense look. While he was staring at her, she began at his bare feet, which were braced apart in a stance that conveyed his anger, not one toe wiggling. Her gaze traveled upward over long legs that probably belonged to a runner, to narrow hips that the jean material hugged nicely. She paused ever so slightly at the washboard ripples in his flat stomach and came to the decision that the man worked out religiously, something she religiously tried to avoid. Her impression of his being an exercise freak was confirmed when her gaze skimmed over a broad chest, wide shoulders, and arms with taut muscles bulging as he held them rigid at his sides. Bod of steel, she thought, realizing her impulsive inspection had done nothing to cool the heat in her cheeks.
That realization was utmost in her mind until her gaze came to rest on his face—not poster boy handsome, but rugged and very masculine. Then she noticed his eyes, dark as chocolate, growing rounder as he took in her features. Oh, no! All traces of the heat from her blush left her cheeks. Why hadn’t she remembered that she had forgotten to remove yesterday’s makeup, when she had fallen exhausted into bed, and that her short hair lay at odd angles all over her head as it did every morning? Realizing she looked like Rocky the Raccoon having a bad hair day, Leah stepped behind the front door, gripped its edge, and peered around it to carry on the rest of the conversation, trying to hide as much as possible from view. Too bad she didn’t have a sack to put over her head.
Her actions snapped the stunned expression from the man’s face. He held up the newspaper, which appeared to have gone through a shredder. “This is what your dog did to my paper—for the third morning in a row, I might add. Makes it a little hard to read.”
His tightly clipped words blasted her. Who still read an actual newspaper? Her grasp on the door strengthened. “That’s not possible. He’s in the backyard—which is fenced, I might add.”
The man’s scowl deepened. “Your dog’s a beagle, right? I saw him this morning. Medium size, brown, black, and white.”
“Must have been someone else’s beagle. Arnold is as secure as a baby in a playpen.” Then, without really thinking again, Leah swung her shield wide open, leaving her visible to his full view once more, and motioned her less-than-friendly neighbor inside. “I’ll show you you’re wrong about Arnold.”
“Lady, I’m not wrong,” he said, as he stomped into her house, his large presence in her small entryway dwarfing everything, including her.
“Leah Taylor.” She held out her hand for him to shake. After all, they were going to be neighbors, and he would realize his mistake when he saw Arnold in the backyard. She believed in making a good first impression—which in this case had been blown. At least she could shoot for a good second impression.
“Shane O’Grady.” He nodded his head slightly, but didn’t take her hand in his. He still clenched the newspaper with torn bits hanging like black and white streamers.
Her blush came back to haunt her cheeks. Leah gritted her teeth and proceeded to the kitchen, intending to show the man her dog and then, with a relish, the door. Forget that second impression. “One of the reasons I rented this house was the chain-link fence. It’s four feet, and Arnold isn’t even two feet tall. I don’t think he’s learned to pole vault yet, even though he did enjoy watching it on the Olympics telecast.”
Shane O’Grady shot her a skeptical look. “I know I saw him. He was running back toward your yard.”
Leah waved her hand toward the window that afforded them a view of the yard behind her house. There lay Arnold by his doghouse, sprawled on his back with his legs stuck in the air as if he were dead. She pointed to the closed gate. “Did you see him open the gate and run back into the yard?” It was hard to keep the smug tone out of her voice. In fact, she didn’t succeed.
“It was him, lady.”
“Are you the type of man who doesn’t like to admit he’s wrong, Mr. O’Grady?”
The flint in his eyes could have set her on fire. “Ms. Taylor, if you don’t take care of the problem, I will.”
“What do you mean?” Her voice rose with panic.
“We have leash laws in Shady Oaks.”
The threat hung suspended between them. The only sounds in the kitchen were the clock ticking over the stove and Leah’s increased breathing.
“I’m not without some pull, since I am, the mayor.” He stalked toward the door, turned back to rake her with a sharp look, and added, “Keep that hound in your yard. We’ve had problems with wild dogs biting people.”
“You must be a dog hater,” she shouted at his retreating back as she followed him to her front door.
Shane halted on the bottom step. “Far from it. I have two dogs of my own, but you won’t see them running wild in the neighborhood. I keep them where they belong.”
She came out onto her porch. “Yeah, well, Arnold is innocent. In America even a dog is innocent until proven guilty. Where’s your proof, Mr. Mayor?”
He said nothing to that last remark, probably because he was jogging across the street and up the flight of steps in front of his house. But several people had heard her words—the woman next door, who was coming out to get her newspaper, and two men power walking. They all stopped what they were doing and stared at Leah as if she were an alien who had just landed in the middle of their peaceful town.
Leah did the only thing she could think of. Smiling, she waved to each one. “Just exercising my voice. It’s such a beautiful day to exercise, don’t you think?”
One man shook his head as though he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and the other laughed. They resumed their power walk while the woman grabbed her paper and rushed back inside, probably heading straight for the telephone to tell everyone that the newcomer was obviously crazy.
“Welcome to Shady Oaks,” Leah muttered to herself as she made her way back inside her house.
When she caught sight of herself in the mirror in the entrance hallway, she groaned. She looked worse than she had thought She had dark mascara circles under her blue eyes and her orange lipstick was smeared across her right cheek. And her hair was just awful—a brash, coppery shade of red that shone in the sunlight. Well, she couldn’t help it if her home tinting had gone awry. Red was normal—usually.
Shrugging away her less than desirable reflection, Leah headed straight for the back door. “Arnold. Breakfast,” she called out, and watched her beagle roll his head into a position to see her. He stared at her for a good minute before getting up and slowly walking toward her as if he hadn’t had twenty hours of sleep, and barely had enough energy to make it to the door.
“For being falsely accused you get an extra portion this morning,” she murmured, and bent to pat Arnold. Her hand stopped on the fur by his neck. She spied a strip of newspaper tangled in his collar, and closed her eyes.
When she opened them a second later, Arnold was butting her hand to get her to scratch him behind the ears. Instead, she took the scrap of newspaper off the collar and saw the evidence against her dog mount—the piece of paper had the day’s date written across it in bold, black letters.
“Oh, no, Arnold, you couldn’t do this to us. We’ve just moved here. This was supposed to be a fresh start. Now look what’s happened. I’ve antagonized the town mayor.” Leah balled the shredded piece up in her hand and marched to the trashcan. No one was going to know about this.
Looking out the window at the securely shut gate, she wondered how Arnold had gotten out. He couldn’t open it, then close it, could he? Well, however he had gotten out, she would make sure that Arnold didn’t escape again, even if she had to chain him outside the next morning.
She had wanted to make a good first impression. She plopped down on a stool at the kitchen counter and buried her face in her hands. She knew how important that was in a small town, where everyone knew everyone. She wanted her family to belong, to finally have a place they could call home. She had researched Shady Oaks, and the town had everything she wanted, especially an excellent school system.
The sound of feet running upstairs drew her attention. Her exchange with Shane O’Grady awakened the neighbors, and her family as well. She turned her accusatory glare on her dog that sat at her feet wagging his tail while he patiently waited for his breakfast. “I should give you half rations, you Benedict Arnold.”