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The Happy Ever After Playlist

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Two years after losing her fiancé, Sloan Monroe still can't seem to get her life back on track. But one trouble-making pup with a 'take me home' look in his eyes is about to change everything. With her new pet by her side, Sloan finally starts to feel more like herself. Then, after weeks of unanswered texts, Tucker's owner reaches out. He's a musician on tour in Australia. And bottom line: he wants Tucker back.

Well, Sloan's not about to give up her dog without a fight. But what if this Jason guy really loves Tucker? As their flirty texts turn into long calls, Sloan can't deny a connection. Jason is hot and nice and funny. There's no telling what could happen when they meet in person. The question is: with his music career on the rise, how long will Jason really stick around? And is it possible for Sloan to survive another heartbreak?

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2020 by Abby Jimenez

Cover design by Elizabeth Turner Stokes

Cover illustration by Jenny Carrow

Cover copyright © 2020 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

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First Edition: April 2020

Forever is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Forever name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Jimenez, Abby, author.

Title: The happy ever after playlist / Abby Jimenez.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019026595 | ISBN 9781538715642 (trade paperback) | ISBN 9781538715635 (ebook)

Subjects: GSAFD: Love stories.

Classification: LCC PS3610.I47 H37 2020 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019026595

ISBN: 978-1-5387-1564-2 (trade paperback), 978-1-5387-1563-5 (ebook)

E3020200227-DA-NF-ORI





Table of Contents


Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Also by Abby Jimenez

Dedication

Chapter 1: Sloan

Chapter 2: Slo; an

Chapter 3: Jason

Chapter 4: Sloan

Chapter 5: Jason

Chapter 6: Sloan

Chapter 7: Jason

Chapter 8: Sloan

Chapter 9: Sloan

Chapter 10: Jason

Chapter 11: Sloan

Chapter 12: Jason

Chapter 13: Jason

Chapter 14: Sloan

Chapter 15: Jason

Chapter 16: Sloan

Chapter 17: Jason

Chapter 18: Sloan

Chapter 19: Jason

Chapter 20: Jason

Chapter 21: Sloan

Chapter 22: Jason

Chapter 23: Sloan

Chapter 24: Jason

Chapter 25: Sloan

Chapter 26: Jason

Chapter 27: Jason

Chapter 28: Sloan

Chapter 29: Jason

Chapter 30: Sloan

Chapter 31: Jason

Chapter 32: Sloan

Chapter 33: Jason

Chapter 34: Sloan

Chapter 35: Sloan

Chapter 36: Jason

Chapter 37: Sloan

Chapter 38: Jason

Chapter 39: Sloan

Chapter 40: Jason

Chapter 41: Sloan

Chapter 42: Sloan

Chapter 43: Jason

Chapter 44: Jason

Chapter 45: Sloan

Epilogue: Sloan

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

♫THE HAPPY EVER AFTER PLAYLIST

Acknowledgments

Discover More Abby Jimenez

ACCLAIM FOR ABBY JIMENEZ AND THE FRIEND ZONE

About the Author





Also by Abby Jimenez




The Friend Zone





This book is dedicated to my husband and kids.

Thank you for being my happy ever after.





Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.

Tap here to learn more.





Chapter 1





Sloan





Playlist: ♪ In the Mourning | Paramore


Do you want me to meet you at the cemetery, Sloan?”

Kristen was worried about me.

I shook my head at my car’s center console, where my phone sat on speaker. “I’m fine. I’m going to the farmers’ market afterward,” I said, hoping that would placate her.

My car idled at the red light next to a sidewalk lined with worn-out businesses and thirsty, drought-resistant oaks that looked like the lack of rain had finally broken their spirit. I baked in the blazing sun. My open sunroof had broken over Easter weekend a few weeks ago and I’d never fixed it, part of my time-honored tradition of not repairing things in my crappy car.

“The farmers’ market? Are you going to cook?” Kristen’s voice lit up with hope.

“No. A salad maybe,” I said as the light turned green. I didn’t cook anymore. Everyone knew that.

I didn’t do a lot of things anymore.

“Oh. Well, do you want me to come over later?” she asked. “I’ll bring cookie dough and liquor.”

“No. I’ll be— Oh my God!” A furry, copper-colored blur darted into the road, and I slammed on the brakes. My phone became a projectile into the dash and my purse dumped over the passenger seat, spilling tampons and single-serve flavored creamers.

“Sloan! What happened?”

I clutched the wheel, my heart pounding. “Kristen, I gotta go. I…I think I just killed a dog.” I hit the End Call button and unbuckled myself, threw the car in park, and put a trembling hand on the door to wait for a break in traffic to get out.

Please let it have been quick and painless. Please.

This would destroy me. This was just what it would take. The limp body of somebody’s poor pet under the tires of my shitty car on this particular cursed day, and what little joy I had left would just pop out and float off.

I hate my life.

My throat tightened. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry today. I promised…

Barking.

A floppy-eared dog head popped up over my bumper, sniffing the air. I barely had time to process that this animal was still alive before it leapt up onto the hood. He yapped at me through the glass and then grabbed my windshield wiper and started tugging on it.

“What the…” I tilted my head, actually laughing a little. The muscles involved felt weak from disuse, and for a heartbeat, just a flicker of a moment, I forgot what today was.

I forgot I was on my way to visit a grave.

My cell phone pinged with a quick succession of texts. Probably Kristen, losing her shit.

This was why I never got up this early. Nothing but mayhem. Was this what went on in Canoga Park at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday? Dogs running all willy-nilly in the streets?

A horn blared and a middle finger shot up from a passing convertible. My car sat parked in the road with a dog on the hood.

I leapt into action to stage a mid-street rescue. I didn’t want him to bolt and get hit in the road. I waited again for a pause in the cars while the dog crouched on his haunches and barked at me through the glass. I was shaking my head at him when he backed up, gave me one more smiling head cock, scaled my windshield, and dove through my sunroof.

He landed on top of me in a wallop of flying fur and legs. The air was pushed from my lungs in an oomph as a foot slid right down my tank top into my cleavage, sticking the landing and scratching me from collarbone to belly button. Then he was on me, paws on my shoulders, licking my face and whining like we’d grown up together and I’d just gotten home from college.

I screamed like I was being eaten alive.

I wrestled him off me into the passenger seat, gasping and disheveled, dog drool on my face, and when my cell phone rang I grabbed for it reflexively.

“Sloan, are you okay?” Kristen asked before I even got the phone to my ear.

“A dog just jumped through my sunroof!”

“What?”

“Yeah.” I wiped my cheek with the bottom of my tank top. “It’s…it’s in my front seat.”

The dog smiled at me. He actually grinned as his tail whacked back and forth. Then he lowered his head and made a single cacking noise. I watched in horror as he hacked up a slimy ball of grass right into my drink holder over my untouched latte.

Aaaaand police lights fired up in my rearview.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I breathed, looking back and forth between the barf, the dog, and the lights in my mirror.

I started to giggle. It was my stress response. That and a twitching eyelid. Both of which made me look insane.

This cop was in for a show.

“Kristen, I need to call you back. I’m getting pulled over.” I laughed.

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah. I know. I’m parked in the middle of the street and now the cops are here.”

I hung up and the police car made an impatient siren whoop behind me. I crawled along until I could pull into a mini mall. I looked down, fixing my tank top and shaking my head, alternating between grumbling to myself about irresponsible dog owners and giggling like a lunatic.

I considered whether I looked cute enough to get out of a ticket.

All evidence pointed to no.

There was a time, in another universe, when this face had won beauty pageants. Now I looked like I’d been in a fight with a raccoon over a pizza crust—and lost.

Scratches streaked my arms from the dog’s nails, and I was covered in enough orange fur to make a puppy. My blond hair was pulled up in a messy bun that had been half yanked loose in the melee, and my yoga pants and paint-stained tank top weren’t doing me any favors. My bare face looked pale and tired.

I’d looked tired for two years.

“We’ll have to ride this one out on personality alone,” I mumbled to the dog. He smiled with that lolled-out tongue, and I gave him a reproachful look. “Your parents have a lot of explaining to do.”

I rolled my window down and handed over my license and registration to the cop before he asked for it.

“That was quite the scene back there, Miss”—the officer glanced down at my information—“Sloan Monroe. It’s illegal to obstruct traffic,” he said, his tone bored.

“Officer, this wasn’t my fault. This dog bolted into the street and then he just jumped through my sunroof.”

I could see my reflection in his aviator sunglasses. My eyelid twitched and I squeezed it shut, squinting up at him with one eye. God, I looked nuts.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, young lady. Find something that doesn’t require you to block traffic for your next YouTube video and just be glad you’re only getting an obstruction ticket and not one for letting an unleashed animal run around.”

“Wait. You think he’s mine?” I plucked a long piece of fur from my mouth. “I get that nothing says dog ownership more than one diving through the top of your car, but I’ve never seen this guy before in my life.” Then I looked down and started to giggle. The dog had his head on my lap doing an Oscar-worthy performance of being-my-dog. He looked up at me with “Hi, Mommy” eyes.

I snorted and descended into manic laughter again, putting a finger to my twitching eyelid.

Today. Of all days, this happens today.

The cop stared at me for a solid half a minute, soaking in all my crazy. I’m sure the dog barf in the cup holder didn’t help. Not that it did much to take away from the original ambiance of my dilapidated car. I hadn’t washed it in two years. Still, he must have seen something he believed on my face because he entertained my story for a moment.

“Okay. Well, I’ll just put a call in to animal control.” He leaned toward the radio mic on his shoulder. “Get this dangerous stray off your hands.”

I sobered in a second, dropping my finger from my eye. “No! You can’t send him to the shelter!”

His hand froze on the mic, and he arched an eyebrow. “Because this is your dog?”

“No, because he’d be terrified. Haven’t you seen those ASPCA commercials? With the sad dogs in cages? And the Sarah McLachlan song?”

The cop laughed the whole way back to his squad car to write me a ticket.

When the dog and I got home, I stuck my ticket to the fridge with the flip-flop magnet Brandon and I had picked up in Maui. Both the ticket and the magnet made the lump rise in my throat, but the dog pushed his head under my hand and I somehow muscled down the urge to sob. It was 10:00 a.m. on The Day, and I’d so far kept my vow not to ugly-cry.

Yay me.

I called Kristen, who was probably freaking out and gathering a search party since I hadn’t answered her last five calls. She picked up on the first ring. “What the hell happened? Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay. I have the dog. He’s at my house. I got a ticket for stopping in the middle of the street.”

“Are you fucking serious?”

“Unfortunately, I am,” I said tiredly.

She made a tsking noise. “You didn’t push your boobs up, did you? Next time use your boobs.”

I pulled my tank top out and rolled my eyes at the scratches between my breasts. “I think I’d rather have the ticket and what’s left of my dignity, thank you very much.”

I grabbed a blue plastic bowl from the cabinet, filled it from the tap, and watched as the dog drank like he hadn’t had water in days. He pushed the bowl across the tile of my dated kitchen, sloshing as he went, and I pinched my temples.

Ugh, today sucks.

This was way too much excitement for me. Most days I didn’t even leave the house. This was why I didn’t leave the house. Too many people and things. I wanted to hiss at the sun and go back to sleep.

“I’m gonna call the number on his collar. Let me call you back.”

I hung up and looked at his tag. Weird area code. Tucker, A Good Boy.

“A good boy, huh? That’s debatable. Well, Tucker, let’s see what excuse your people have for letting you run around in traffic,” I muttered as I punched the number into my cell phone.

The call went right to voicemail and a deep male voice said, “Jason. Leave a message.”

I left my contact information, hung up, and shook my head at the dog sloshing water all over my kitchen floor. “You’re probably hungry too. Well, I don’t have any dog food, so we need to go to PetSmart.”

I might have a half-eaten Starbucks lemon loaf in the car, but it was probably petrified.

I didn’t have a leash, so I made one from the belt of my black Victoria’s Secret robe, the one Brandon had given me the Christmas before his accident. Tucker immediately began to gnaw through it.

Just perfect.

When we got to PetSmart, I took him to the store vet to see if he was microchipped. He was, but the number on file was the same as the one on his tag. No address.

This was seriously so inconvenient. I kept checking my cell phone to make sure the volume was up.

No calls or texts.

I was contemplating my limited options when, like the cherry on top of the sundae, Tucker peed on the floor of the vet’s office.

The vet looked unfazed. She pulled paper towels from a dispenser without looking up from her chart and handed them to me. Tucker retreated under a chair and looked on with sorry puppy dog eyes.

“He was eating grass too.” I crouched and dropped towels on the mess. “I think he has a stomachache.”

“He might have a bladder infection. We should test the urine.”

I whirled on her from my pee puddle. “Wait, me? You want me to pay for this test? Seriously? This isn’t even my dog.”

She shrugged over her clipboard. “Well, just be aware that if he has an infection he won’t be able to hold his urine. Tomorrow’s the weekend, so it’ll cost more to bring him in then if he doesn’t get picked up. Plus he’s likely in pain. If you can’t afford it, you could always take him to the Humane Society. They might treat him there.”

The shelter was out. And the pain thing bugged me. With my luck I would end up with him until tomorrow and I’d be back here paying double, begging them to make the peeing stop. I put a finger to my twitching eyelid. “Fine. Test him. Maybe the owner will pay me back?”

God, I was already tired tomorrow, just from today.

My cell phone pinged, and I looked at it wearily.

Kristen: Did the cop have that porn-stache they always have?



Ping.

Kristen: You should have cried. Machine gun sobbing always gets me out of tickets. Just sayin’.



I snorted. She was trying to make me smile. She and her husband, Josh, were on Sloan watch today. High alert, code red. Keeping an eye on me in case I flipped out or broke down.

It was probably a good idea.

Two hundred dollars and one expensive bladder infection later, we left with our dog antibiotics. On top of Tucker’s vet bill, I bought a leash and a small bag of dog food. I needed enough supplies to at least get me through tomorrow in case this ended up being a sleepover. I also grabbed a chew bone and a ball to keep him busy. I didn’t need this Tasmanian devil destroying my house.

I wasn’t familiar with his breed. I forgot to ask the vet. He looked sort of like a small golden retriever. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turned out to be half honey badger. He was a little wild. What dog jumps through a sunroof?

Whatever he was, he was not what I was supposed to be doing today.

Today I was supposed to be with Brandon.

Setting a bottle of Woodford Reserve against his headstone. Sitting on a blanket on the grass next to where we laid him to rest, telling him how much I missed him, how the world was worse for him not being in it, how hollow I was and it wasn’t getting better with time like they said it would.

April eighth was the two-year anniversary of his accident. Not the date of his death—he lived a month before he succumbed to his injuries—but the date of the crash. That was really the day his life was over. My life was over. He never woke up. So today could never just be some day.

The year held a lot of days like that for me. The day in December when he’d proposed. His birthday. My birthday. Holidays, the date of the wedding that never happened. In fact, most of the calendar was a minefield of hard days. One would crest, I’d live through it, and then another one would roll toward me in the constant ebb and swell that was the year.

Another year without him.

So I had planned to distract myself today. Have my visit to the cemetery and then be productive. Get some paintings done. Eat something healthy. I’d committed to not sleeping through the day like last year. I’d promised myself I would ignore that the month of April smelled like a hospital to me now and reminded me of fixed pupils and beeping machines with tempos that never changed.

I glanced at my phone again.

Nothing.





Chapter 2





Sloan





♪ affection | Between Friends


Ten days. I’d had Tucker for ten wonderful, fur-on-my-bedspread, wet-kisses-in-the-morning, tail-wagging days.

I knocked on the door of Kristen’s house, grinning from ear to ear. When she opened it, she stared. “You fucking did it.”

“I told you I would.” I beamed, edging past her into the house, not waiting to be invited in. Tucker and her little dog, Stuntman Mike, circled each other, tails wagging, noses to butts.

She closed the front door behind me. “You walked here? That’s like seven miles, you crazy bitch.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. My reemergence into daylight had been shocking friends and family alike lately. “I have to use your bathroom. Is Oliver awake?”

“No, he’s down for his nap.” She followed me down the hall. “God, you’re really loving this dog thing, huh? Oh, which reminds me,” she said, “I made him something.” She disappeared and came back a second later holding up a dog tee that read I JUMPED ON SLOAN THROUGH A SUNROOF AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS T-SHIRT.

I snorted. Kristen ran an online business from her house that sold merchandise for dogs.

I went into the bathroom, and she tucked the shirt under her arm and leaned on the door frame. Josh wasn’t home, so we fell immediately back into our old roommate habit of never closing doors between us.

“He’s incredible. I’ve never seen an animal so well trained,” I said. “Somebody must have really spent time working with him.” I washed my hands and looked at my flushed face in the mirror, tucking some flyaway hairs behind my ear.

“Still no callback from that Jason guy?”

I hadn’t heard a word from Tucker’s owner. Tucker had spent the first two days peeing in my house despite his expensive antibiotics, and I’d spent two days taking him outside as much as humanly possible to save my carpets.

It was miraculous how motivating a puddle of dog pee on your floors could be. Seriously. Better than a personal trainer. My Fitbit had never seen so much action.

I, of course, got no painting done at all while I was walking him. But this body had a tan for the first time in longer than I could remember, and I had to admit that the exercise felt good. So even after his infection was gone, we kept up the walks.

Today I felt particularly ambitious, so I decided to walk to Kristen’s house to see her and the baby. I figured if I got tired, we could just call an Uber. But we made it, and the victory was glorious.

“Not a peep from Jason,” I said.

I’d put up posters with Tucker’s picture at the intersection where I found him, and I’d listed him on a few missing-pet websites. I’d even registered him as a found dog at the Humane Society. And every day I left a message for Jason. I was beginning to think Tucker had been officially abandoned.

“Soooo, I saved your dog from certain death and he thanked me by jumping on me through my sunroof like a grenade. Give me a call to arrange for a pickup. I have so many questions.”

“Hi, Jason. Sloan again. Your dog is peeing all over my house from the bladder infection he got from not being let out. It would be great if you came to get him so he can pee all over your house instead. Thanks.”

“Sloan and Tucker here. While Tucker’s love of expensive food basically makes him my twin separated at birth, I can’t afford to keep feeding him. Think you might be able to call me back?”



I followed Kristen into the kitchen and gave Tucker a bowl of water with ice cubes in it. Then I sat at the granite counter, and she slid a glass of iced tea over to me. “Can I just say how happy I am that you’re getting out?”

My mood deflated in an instant, and her steady brown eyes studied me.

“Kristen? Do you think it’s weird Tucker showed up on the anniversary of the accident? I mean, it is, right?”

She waited for me to continue, stirring her ice around her glass.

“Tucker literally fell into my lap. And do you know what kind of dog he is? A Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.” I ticked the long name off with a five-finger tap on the countertop. “A hunting dog, Kristen. Ducks.”

Kristen knew better than anyone the significance of that. Duck hunting had been Brandon’s favorite sport. He’d fly out to South Dakota every year for it with Josh.

“What if Brandon sent him to me?” I said, a lump bolting into my throat.

She gave me a sympathetic smile. “Well, I do think Brandon wouldn’t have wanted you to be this unhappy,” she said gently. “Two years is a long fucking time to be this sad, Sloan.”

I nodded and wiped my face with the top of my shirt. I stared bleary eyed at the high chair pushed up against the kitchen table. Kristen’s life was a painful reminder of what mine should have been. If Brandon had lived and we’d been married like we planned, I’d probably have a baby of my own, taking him on playdates with Kristen and Josh’s one-year-old son.

Kristen had been my best friend since sixth grade. Our worlds had been on the same trajectory since junior high. We’d done everything together. Our lives’ milestones had always lined up accordingly.

Brandon and Josh had been best friends too. I’d pictured couples trips and having babies together. Buying houses next door to each other. And now Kristen had continued without me. Her life had kept its pace, and mine had crashed and burned when Brandon’s motorcycle did the same. I was stuck in some sort of arrested development, trapped in a continuous loop I couldn’t pull myself out of.

Until now.

Something had shifted in me. Maybe it was the routine that Tucker made me stick to, or the walks, or the sun. Maybe it was the thought that this dog was somehow a gift from the man I’d lost, a sign to try. I’d always believed in signs. It just seemed too unlikely to be a random thing. Of all the cars in all the world, Tucker ran in front of mine. It was like he chose me.

I pulled out my cell phone. “That reminds me, it’s time for my call to Jason.”

His steady voice had become a part of my daily routine. But this time when voicemail picked up, a robotic female informed me that the mailbox was full.

A sign?

I looked at Kristen, who watched me wordlessly.

That was it. My mind was made up. I thumbed through my phone and found a picture of Tucker and me that I’d taken a few days earlier. I attached it to a message to Jason and sent it off.

“You’re right. Brandon would want me to be happy. And that Jason guy, if he ever shows up? He can go to hell.”





Chapter 3





Jason





♪ Middle of Nowhere | Hot Hot Heat


The plane taxied toward our gate to the clink of seat belts coming undone. The air stopped coming through the tiny vents above us, and I got instantly hot. I peeled off my sweatshirt and plucked at the front of my black T-shirt.

Kathy leaned in and bounced her eyebrows. “You smell nice,” she said in her thick Australian accent. Then she felt up my arm. “Ooh! Linea, cop a feel of his arm on your side, he’s so muscly.”

Linea reached across me to hit her friend with a rolled-up magazine. “The man gives up his first-class seat for that military bloke and to thank him you put your mitts all over him. You should be— Oh! He is muscly!”

I chuckled. I’d been the meat in a Kathy-and-Linea sandwich for the last four hours on my flight from New Zealand to Australia. Being jammed into a center seat had been well worth the sacrifice. These two strangers were fucking hilarious. I’d been highly entertained the whole trip. Better than a complimentary bourbon and a warm washcloth.

When we began to deplane, I stood in the aisle to pull down the ladies’ carry-ons.

“Jason,” Kathy said, in front of me, waiting for her bag. “I have a daughter who’s single. She’s a nurse. She’d love those blue eyes. Ya interested?”

“If she’s half as gorgeous as you, she’s out of my league.” I extended the handle on her luggage and handed it to her with a wink.

She grinned up at me. “Cheeky bastard. Good luck with everything.” She turned and started walking. “Thanks for the autograph. I’m gettin’ on Twitter to keep tabs on you,” she said over her shoulder, following Linea out of the plane.

I smiled after her as I grabbed my backpack from the overhead and stepped back into my empty row to dig out my phone. It had been dead when I boarded. I disconnected it from its portable charger and powered it on for the first time in two weeks. It burst into a vibrating symphony of chimes and pings.

Back to the real world.

Fifteen days of backpacking. I dreaded the crap I’d have to sift through after being out of contact for so long. I’d probably have a hundred messages from my agent, Ernie, alone.

I punched in my pin and started with my voicemails as I shouldered my bag. My mailbox was full. I was four messages in and waiting for a break in the line in the aisle to get off the plane when an unfamiliar female voice came through the phone.

“Uh, hi. I’ve got Tucker here? He was running around loose in the middle of the street on Topanga Canyon Boulevard? My name’s Sloan. My number is 818-555-7629. Let me know when you want to come get him.”



Shit.

I swung my backpack in front of me to dig for a pen. I wrote the number down on my hand and dialed it, doing the math quickly in my head. It was 11:00 a.m. in Melbourne. Six p.m. in Los Angeles.

Come on, come on, come on.

“Hello?” a woman said after three rings.

“Hi, is this Sloan? My name’s Jason. I think you have my dog. Did someone come get him?”

There was silence on the other end for a moment, and I thought maybe I’d lost the call. I shuffled out of my row into the aisle and pressed for the exit in the crush of other passengers, hoping I’d get a better signal outside the plane. “Hello?” I said again.

“Yeah, I heard you.” Her voice sounded edgy. “I still have him.”

I flexed my jaw. Goddamn it. Fucking Monique.

I stopped in the stuffy Jetway and moved to the wall, holding the phone with my shoulder. I hovered the pen over my hand. “Give me your address. I’ll send someone to pick him up.”

“No.”

Huh? “What?”

“No,” she said again.

“What do you mean, no? No, you won’t let me pick him up?”

“You know, you have a lot of nerve. It’s been almost two weeks, and now you decide you want your dog?”

Two weeks? Tucker had been lost for two fucking weeks?

“I’ve been out of town. I didn’t have cell service. I had no idea he was missing. I have no problem paying for a reward. Please, just give me your address and I’ll—”

“No. He’s not your dog anymore. If he’d been at the shelter, his hold would be up and he’d either have been adopted or euthanized. I put up signs, ran his microchip, put him online, I left you a dozen voicemails. I did my due diligence. You abandoned him. So as far as I’m concerned, he’s my dog now.”

She hung up on me.

I stared at my phone in shock. I hit Send on the number again and it went straight to voicemail.

Cursing, I called Monique.

“You lost Tucker?” I growled, not bothering to lower my voice for the passengers still deplaning.

“Well, hello to you too, Jason.”

The click of her heels came through the line. I could almost see her, holding her fucking skinny latte with those huge sunglasses she always wore, shopping bags on her arms while she wasn’t looking for my dog.

“Tucker’s been lost for two weeks? Why didn’t you look for him? Or put through an emergency call to me? What the fuck, Monique? You’re supposed to be taking care of him!”

“I work, Jason. And I did look. Sort of.”

Then I heard a whoosh that sounded like a subway car. “Wait.” Disbelief coursed through my veins. “Where are you?”

A pregnant pause.

“New York,” she said quietly.

“How long have you been in New York?”

Silence again.

“Two weeks.”

I clutched the phone with white knuckles. “We are done. Fucking done,” I hissed.

“Jason, when Givenchy calls, you don’t tell them that you can’t be in their Vogue shoot because you have to look for your fuck buddy’s dog. I’m sorry, okay? Don’t—”

I hung up. I’d heard enough. She might as well have lost my child and then run off to do a damn photo shoot. It was that unforgivable.

I tried Sloan’s number again. Voicemail.

At a loss for what else to do, I stood by the gate going through the rest of my messages as rain pounded on the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac.

This Sloan woman hadn’t been kidding. She really had tried to reach me. Every day for over a week she’d left me a voicemail about Tucker. I got more and more pissed off as the messages detailed Monique’s complete and utter disregard for my dog.

He’d been in the middle of the street.

He’d had a bladder infection from not being let out.

This lady had posted all over, places Monique could have easily seen the signs had she bothered to stick around to look.

He’d dived into this woman’s sunroof. What the hell was that about?

I rubbed my temples. Tucker hated kennels. Monique had been good enough with him, at least in front of me, and I hadn’t had any reservations about it at the time. She told me she’d take him on her runs.

Stupid, stupid.

I should have flown him to Minnesota and left him with my family. I fucked up. It would have been a two-thousand-mile side trip, but at least Tucker would have been safe.

I raked my hand down my face and scratched my beard, tiredly. Fuck, now what was I going to do? This lady stole my damn dog.

When I finished my voicemails, I thumbed through my text messages and saw one from the 818 number I’d written down on my hand. I clicked it and a picture of Tucker popped up. It was great not knowing you.

The photo showed a woman with her arm wrapped around Tucker’s chest. I couldn’t see her face. The top of Tucker’s head covered her mouth. She wore black sunglasses and her hair was tucked under a hat. Her arm was covered in tattoos from shoulder to elbow. I tilted my head and studied them, zooming in on my phone. I made out the name Brandon on her arm. Then the screen shifted to an incoming call notification. The 818 number. I scrambled to answer it. “Hello?”

“If you love your dog, prove it.”

“What?”

“I’m not feeling the greatest about keeping your dog if you really do love him. So if you do, prove it.”

I blinked. “Okay. And how would you suggest I do that?”

“He’s your dog, isn’t he? Proof that you love him should be readily available.”

My mind raced.

“All right, hold on,” I said, getting an idea. I scrolled through the photos on my phone and selected several: Tucker and me at the beach, Tucker and me on a bike ride. Then I took a screenshot of my wallpaper, Tucker, sitting behind all my icons. I sent the photos through. “There. Check your messages.”

Her phone made a shuffling noise. She went quiet for what I knew was longer than it took to see them all.

“Look,” I said into the silence, hoping she could hear me, “he’s my best friend. He came with me when I moved to LA from Minnesota. I left him with someone I thought I could trust. I love my dog. I want my dog back. Please.”

She was quiet for so long that again I thought the call had been dropped.

“Okay,” she whispered.

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Great—thank you. And I’ll reimburse you for your time and the vet bills—”

“And my ticket.”

“Your ticket?”

“I got a ticket for parking in the middle of Topanga Canyon Boulevard when I stopped to get him into the car.”

I moved the phone away from my mouth and breathed a sigh of frustration. Not at Sloan, at Monique and her ineptitude.

“Okay, yeah, no problem. Look, I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done for him. If you can just give me a few hours to find a kennel to take him I’ll—”

“A kennel? Why?”

“I’m in Australia for two more weeks for work.”

“Well, who was watching him while you were gone?”

“Somebody who will never watch him again,” I said dryly. I collected my backpack and went to follow the signs toward customs.

“Well, I can keep him until you come back. I work from home. It’s no problem.”

I thought about her offer for a moment. My mind went to the picture she’d sent of her and Tucker and the voicemails about trips to the vet and walks he was going on. She seemed to really care about him. I mean, shit, she’d been ready to keep him. And she’d already had him for two weeks. He knew her. It would be better than a kennel. And there really was no one else. Besides Monique and Ernie, who wasn’t a dog person, I didn’t know anyone else in LA well enough to ask.

“You wouldn’t mind?” I asked, stepping onto a moving walkway.

“No. I love him.”

Something sad in her voice made me smile into the phone. Not that I was reveling in her unhappiness—I wasn’t insensitive to the fact that just a half an hour earlier she’d thought Tucker was hers, and now she had to give him up. But it was nice to hear that the person watching him actually gave a shit about him.

“That would be great. I hate the idea of putting him in a kennel.”

“He’d be miserable,” she agreed, sounding a little miserable herself.

“Hey, can I call you back?” I’d been on a plane for four hours. I needed to find a restroom.

When I called Sloan back on my way toward baggage claim, we both seemed to have benefited from the break. Her voice sounded almost shy now. I thought for a second maybe she recognized me from my photos. Or maybe she just felt bad for being so pissed at me. Either way I was glad. If she was going to watch Tucker for me, we should at least be friendly.

We talked dog-sitting fees for a few minutes. Then I moved on to other logistics.

“Text me your address so I can send you a crate,” I said.

“A crate? Why?”

“He sleeps in his crate at night. If he doesn’t have it, he tends to destroy the house, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“He hasn’t destroyed anything except for the belt of my robe on the first day. And he sleeps with me, in my bed.”

I laughed. “I find it highly unlikely that he’s not chewing your furniture to a pulp. It’s his favorite pastime.”

Chair legs, the armrest of my couch, doorjambs—Tucker demolished all.

I found baggage claim and waited with the crowd from my flight as the carousel started going around, empty.

“He hasn’t chewed a single thing since the belt,” she said. “He’s a perfect angel.”

“Really?” I said incredulously.

She snorted. “I wouldn’t try and keep a dog who was destroying my house.”

“Good point. Well, I’m glad he’s being a gentleman,” I said, checking the time and watching as the first luggage came down the ramp. I had rehearsal in two hours.

“I still have scratches from him jumping on me through the sunroof. Did you teach him that, by the way?”

“Uh, no. Did he really do that?”

“You think I’d make that up? Hold on.” There was a pause. “Okay, go look. I just sent you my ticket.”

A picture message came through my phone. It was a ticket from the LAPD with a flip-flop magnet over the recipient’s information. The officer had detailed the entire event, sunroof and all.

I shook my head. “Unbelievable. He’s never done anything like that before.” He must have been out of his damn mind. “He’s a little high energy.”

“He just needs exercise.”

He’d probably gone stir-crazy with Monique. “Are you sure you don’t want the crate?”

“I definitely don’t want it. He sleeps with me while he’s here. That’s a hard rule for me. And I’m not giving you my address either. You could be a creeper.”

I snorted. “I’m not a creeper.”

“Yeah, well, that’s exactly what a creeper would say.”

There was a smile in there.

“How old are you?” I asked, suddenly curious.

She scoffed. “Well, that’s unnecessary.”

“What? Me asking your age? It’s the first thing I’d ask a dog-sitter in an interview,” I reasoned, though that wasn’t really what drove my interest. I liked her messages. They’d been kind of funny.

“Well, that would be illegal. You can’t ask someone their age on a job interview.”

I smiled. “What can I ask?”

“Let’s see, you can ask what my background is.”

“Are you in HR? You seem awfully knowledgeable about properly conducted interviews.”

“See, that’s a question you could ask.”

Witty.

“And I thought I already had the job,” she pointed out.

“You do. What? I can’t know a little about who my best friend is sleeping with?”

I heard her snort and I grinned.

“Your best friend is sleeping with a young lady smart enough to know better than to tell a stranger where she lives and how old she is. Are you going to ask me if I’m home alone next?”

“Are you?”

“Wow. You’re definitely a creeper.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“I’ll bet,” she said. A pause. “I live alone.”

“Okay. Any other pets?”

“Nope. Such a thorough interview. I have a feeling these questions weren’t asked the last time you selected a dog-sitter,” she said wryly.

I grinned. “I’m trying to learn from my many mistakes.”

“I don’t have any other pets. But I grew up with German shepherds. You have to exercise working dogs. They become destructive if you don’t make them tired. Tucker’s a birding dog. He’s bred for high activity.”

I knew this, of course, but it impressed me that she did. “And so you’re keeping him busy?”

The sound of running water and the clink of dishes came through the phone. Then I heard her talking to Tucker quietly in the background and my smile broadened. She asked him if he was a good boy and if he wanted a puppy snack. He barked.

“Walking him five miles a day,” she said. “My tan looks great.”

“I’d love to see that. Send me a picture.”

It was a joke—kind of. I did want to see what she looked like. I was curious.

“And now you’ve got a lawsuit on your hands. Sexually harassing an employee.” She tsked. “You must be a nightmare for your human resources department.”

“Nah, I’m only a pain in my own ass.”

“Oh yeah? What do you do?”

So she didn’t recognize me. That wasn’t unusual—it was also something I was working very hard to change. My luggage came around the carousel. My guitar case sat a few bags behind it. “I’m a musician.”

“Oh, one of those Hollywood types. In the biz, on tour or away filming a soundtrack for an indie movie overseas.”

She wasn’t far off. Jesus, was I really that cliché?

“Something like that. I am touring with a group. And there is a movie involved. But it’s not an indie film.”

The movie was kind of a big one, actually, but I didn’t like to throw that around. Even though that seemed to be the LA thing to do, name-dropping made me feel like an asshole.

I lifted my luggage and guitar off the moving belt. Now both hands were occupied, and I had to hold my phone to my ear with my shoulder. I needed to get through customs and catch an Uber to my hotel, which meant I should probably hang up. But instead I wandered over to the bench just inside the entrance to baggage claim and sat down, setting my guitar case on the seat next to me.

“Hmm…” she said, sounding bored now. “Everyone’s in the business here.”

She didn’t press me for more about the movie. She seemed uninterested. I was a little surprised. All Monique had cared about when I first met her was who I was and who I knew. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that ever really changed. It was refreshing to talk to someone who didn’t give a shit what I could do for their career. Frankly, I was a little sick of talking about it.

I switched the subject. “And what do you do?”

“Nothing interesting,” she said vaguely.

“How do you know I won’t think it’s interesting? You work from home and you have the time to walk five miles a day and rescue stray dogs. I’d like to know what gives you such a flexible schedule. You know, to gauge whether or not your lifestyle is conducive to dog-sitting.”

She made a noise that I imagined went with an eye roll. “I’m an artist.”

“And how is that uninteresting?”

“It just is. What I paint is uninteresting.”

“Then why paint it? Can’t you paint what you want?” I put my ankle over my knee and leaned back on the bench.

The running water shut off in the background, and she went quiet for a moment.

“What’s your website?” I asked, feeling pretty sure she wasn’t going to give it to me, but figuring I should give it a shot.

“I don’t have a website. And if I did, I wouldn’t give it to you.”

I smiled. “You’re consistent. I like that in a dog-sitter.” Then I looked at my watch. “I need to get going here.”

“Okay. Well, have a good trip, I guess.”

“Sloan? Thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you rescued Tucker and took such good care of him. And I really appreciate you watching him until I get back.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Thank you for saying thank you,” she said finally.

My lips twisted into a sideways smile. “We’ll be in touch.”





Chapter 4





Sloan





♪ ocean eyes | Billie Eilish


I looked at the pictures of Tucker with Jason.

Again.

I’d been ogling them since he’d sent them to me yesterday. For all the crap I gave Jason, it turned out I was the creeper.

Jason was hot. No, he was beyond hot. He was bearded, thick brown hair, sexy smile, blue eyes hot. Six-pack abs on the beach hot.

I watched a lot of crime shows, and I’d gone full forensic psychologist on the screenshot of his cell phone home page.

The time on his phone was Australia’s, so he was there, like he’d said he was.

The musician thing seemed true enough. He had a disproportionate amount of music apps. No Tinder or other hookup sites. There were Uber, Twitter, and YouTube. All the standard social media. Tons of notifications, but then he’d just landed, and he’d said he had been out of contact for a few weeks, so that made sense and actually gave his story credibility.

Overall, no glaring red flags that screamed pathological liar or mass murderer. And it was pretty adorable that Tucker was his wallpaper image.

I put a hand between Tucker’s ears and tousled his fur. “Why didn’t you tell me your dad was so handsome?” He leaned into me and let me kiss his head.

To say I was sad about losing Tucker in two weeks was the understatement of the year.

Tucker changed me. I felt good. Better than I’d felt in ages, actually. And I realized that somewhere along the line, the tiredness that comes with grief had turned into the kind that comes from inactivity and a crappy diet of caffeine and sugar.

Tucker got me moving. He gave my days purpose. And now he would be leaving me in a few weeks, and I felt panic at the thought of being alone again, like I wouldn’t know how to keep doing this new and improved me if I didn’t have him.

I had been so close to just keeping him. But after I’d hung up on Jason, I’d thought about what he’d said, that he’d been out of town and he hadn’t known Tucker was missing. I wasn’t a dog thief. If I had suspected for one second he was going back to a neglectful home, I’d have kept him and never looked back. But I couldn’t take him from someone who truly loved him.

Josh wandered in from the direction of the garage, wiping his hands on a rag. “All done. Water heater’s in.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks.”

“You should have let us buy it for you,” he said, giving me a look.

Josh was like my big brother. Brandon would have been happy to know that his best friend took care of me like he did. But I didn’t like to take advantage of it. It was enough that Josh fixed half the things that broke around here for free—he didn’t need to buy the things too. I’d bought and had the water heater delivered before I even told Josh the old one had broken. Otherwise he would have just picked it up for me.

“It’s okay. I have the money,” I lied. “Took some extra commissions this week.”

He studied me for a long moment, but I didn’t break character.

“Okay.” He glanced at his phone. “Well, I’m gonna head home and tap out the sitter. Kristen’s already on her way over with dinner.”

They liked to feed me. I think they thought if they didn’t, I’d starve to death. Six months ago I’d put my foot down and only allowed dinner once a week now. They used to be here every day, but it had started to get ridiculous. They had a baby and their own lives, and I didn’t want to feel like their responsibility. Kristen would never say it, but I think it was a relief. Either because she thought I was getting better or because she was glad she didn’t have to schlep over here every day. I’d filled my freezer with Lean Cuisines and shocked them both when I didn’t die from malnourishment.

“See you later.” Josh gave me a hug, ruffled Tucker’s ears, flashed me a dimpled smile, and left.

The dog laid his head back on my lap, and I peered down at him. I took my cell phone and hit the camera icon and snapped a shot. “I bet Jason would like to see some of your vacation pictures,” I said, thumbing a text into the phone and shooting the photo off.

Sloan: All worn out after a six-mile hike!



I set my phone down and lolled my head back on the sofa. Then my cell pinged.

Jason: I bet he loved it.



Another ping.

Jason: No picture of you?



I rolled my eyes. Sexy or not, he was a stranger. I wasn’t going to send him pictures of me.

Sloan: Do you think how I look is going to have any bearing on my ability to watch your dog?



The three little dots started jumping, letting me know he was typing a response. I smiled. I’d kind of liked talking to him yesterday. I sat up and tucked my feet under me as I waited for the reply. “Your dad’s a flirt,” I said to Tucker. He looked up at me with those soft copper eyes and then put his chin back in my lap.

Jason: You’ve seen pictures of me. I don’t think it’s that weird to want to put a face to a name. You’re watching my favorite person in the world and I don’t even know you.



I twisted my lips. He had a bit of a point. But still.

Sloan: You’re a stranger. You could be a pirate.



The dots began jumping again.

Jason: Aye, that be true.



I laughed.

Jason: Do you like games?



Where was this going?

Sloan: It depends.

Jason: On?

Sloan: On whether someone ends up drunk or naked at the end of it. I don’t like those games. I always end up the sober one, driving all the drunk, naked people home.

Jason: Not that kind of game.

Sloan: I’m listening.

Jason: Every day I can ask you one question to get to know you better. And if you don’t want to answer it, you have to send me a picture.



I shook my head while I typed.

Sloan: What kind of questions are we talking about? The yes-or-no, check-a-box kind?

Jason: Lol! No, too elementary school. Real questions. I can ask anything I want, and you have to answer it truthfully.

Sloan: Do I get to ask you a question every day?

Jason: Of course.

Sloan: And if you don’t want to answer it?

Jason: I’ll answer it.

Sloan: How about if you don’t want to answer it, you have to let me keep Tucker an extra day.



There was a pause between texts. The ceiling fan made a steady clicking noise above me while I waited.

Jason: Deal.

Sloan: Deal.



His questions were going to be perverted. I was almost certain. He wanted a picture, so he’d probably ask me things he thought I’d never answer. But the game was too alluring. And I liked the idea of asking this good-looking mystery man about himself. It was kind of fun.

Jason: Ready for my first question?

Sloan: Ready.

Jason: Why don’t you paint what you want to paint?



I stared at the text. I hadn’t been expecting that.

Had he asked it to throw me off? Had my weirdness over my art shone through in our brief conversation yesterday? I let out a deep breath. Now I kind of wished there were just yes and no boxes to check.

I decided to deflect him.

Sloan: Really? This question? Seems like a waste. You get a do-over.

Jason: Don’t want a do-over.



And then,

Jason: Wouldn’t mind a picture though.



My lips pursed. “Fine,” I muttered to myself.

Sloan: I haven’t painted my own works since my fiancé died two years ago.



The dots started to jump. Then they stopped. Then they started again.

Jason: I’m sorry to hear that.



There was a pause between texts while he typed again.

Jason: Sometimes the hardest place to live is the one in-between.



I blinked at the message.

“Yes…” I whispered.

The dots started bouncing again.

Jason: Your turn. What’s your question?



I was glad he was changing the subject. I didn’t want to talk about this. I thought about my question and decided I’d have a little fun with it.

Sloan: How would you survive a zombie apocalypse?



The dots jumped for several minutes. Then a text pinged, but just three words came through.

Jason: I’m calling you.



The phone rang.

“Well?” I said, answering without saying hello.

“My answer is too long to text.”

“You’ve given the zombie apocalypse that much thought, huh?”

“Haven’t you? It’s a serious situation,” he said sternly.

“Only a matter of time, really.”

I could tell he was smiling when he continued speaking. “Survival is all about going where there’s the least threat of other humans and zombies. We’d have to get to somewhere remote.”

“We?”

“You and me.”

“How do you know that I’m qualified to be on your zombie apocalypse survival team?”

“Are you?”

I scoffed. “Of course. But you didn’t know that. Do you always give out important jobs to people without checking their qualifications? It seems to be a thing with you.” I pulled a blanket over Tucker and me and grabbed my iced coffee, snuggling deeper into the sofa.

“You’re right. Totally right. Admission into my survival compound is contingent upon a satisfactory comprehensive interview, illustration of survival skills, and a thorough physical. I’ll be conducting the physical personally.”

I laughed, hard.

“Okay, so provided I’ve passed all of your tests, we’d be holed up in a rural—what? Cabin?” I asked, putting the straw to my lips, still smiling.

“Yes, on my property in northern Minnesota where we could live off the land until things blow over.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Live off the land? Do you know how?”

“Did you think Tucker was just a pretty face?”

“You hunt? With Tucker?” I looked down at him. Brandon would have loved a hunting dog.

The phone shuffled, and Jason was quiet for a moment. “Check your phone.”

A picture came through of Tucker wearing a life jacket at the bow of a small fishing boat on a choppy-looking lake. A shotgun rested against the boat bench, and a gray, cloudy sky loomed behind him.

Jason wasn’t in the picture, and I felt a pang of disappointment. Then I felt disappointment in myself. I had become some sort of voyeur over this beautiful man.

It felt strange to be attracted to someone and even weirder to be attracted to someone I’d never met before. I hadn’t really noticed another man since Brandon died. It kind of felt like cheating.

“And do you cook this meat that you kill?” I asked.

“The meat is eaten,” he said, sounding somewhat evasive.

“You give it to your mom,” I deadpanned.

He laughed. “She’s an excellent cook. There’s no shame in giving it to my mom.”

“So you hunt. You’re familiar with firearms. You’ve got a bunker in the woods. You do seem like a good candidate for zompoc survival,” I allowed. “I might join your team. Not sure how I’d feel about holing up in northern Minnesota in the winter, though.”

“You’d be surprised at how warm the cabin gets once the fire gets going. And we could always share body heat.”

I arched my eyebrows. “You are awfully flirty for a man who’s never seen me before. What if I’m hideous?”

“So you object to me flirting with you based solely on your personality?”

He had me there. “And what if I have a boyfriend?”

“Do you?”

I smirked. “That sounds like a question for tomorrow’s round of truth or picture.”

“Come on, you’re not going to give me one freebie? It’s a simple yes or no. Shouldn’t I know if Tucker is spending time with another man?”

I snorted. “Really? You’re going to make this about Tucker?”

“I just think we should discuss it if my dog is going to be around an unfamiliar male influence. I don’t want to confuse him,” he said in a mock-serious tone.

I rolled my eyes and laughed. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“All right. See? How hard was that? I’m single too. Now we can move on. So what makes you qualified to be on my zombie survival team?”

“Where are you?” I asked. “Don’t you have a job? Aren’t I keeping you from something important?”

“Are you avoiding the question? Is it possible that you’ve oversold your ability to survive a zombie apocalypse? It feels like you’re sidestepping. Answer the interview question, please.”

God, he was fun.

“Oh, I’m qualified, believe me. I just wondered how you have so much time for phone calls during your fancy filming-on-location work trip.”

“It’s only eight a.m. here. I have something later, but not until noon. I’ve got time to hear all about how you’d make a good addition to my end-of-days squad. Stop changing the subject.”

“How about this,” I said, switching the phone to my other ear. “I’ll send you a link that’ll explain exactly why I’d make a good survivalist. But if I do, you have to give me an extra day with Tucker.”

He sucked in air. “I don’t know. I miss him pretty badly. Waiting an extra day to see him when I get back is a tall order.”

“I think you’ll really appreciate my skill set,” I said, in my best salesperson’s voice. “And there’s a photo of me. It’s old and grainy, but if you zoom in, you might get a rough, pixelated idea of what I generally look like.”

“Pixelated, huh? Sounds sexy. Here’s an idea, how about we share him on your extra day? Take him somewhere together.”

Together? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. “Like where?”

“On a hike somewhere. You pick. You’re the local. I don’t really know anyone in LA, and I love the outdoors. It would be nice to have someone show me some good hikes.”

I considered this. I wanted the extra day with Tucker. But the thought of going somewhere with Jason was a little daunting. It felt too much like a date. And I liked him, I realized. I liked talking to him. And that made going somewhere with him feel like a betrayal of Brandon. That was stupid and irrational, but it did. But I guessed I could always opt out if I decided against it when it rolled around. After all, it was my extra day.

“Okay. You have a deal. Give me a second to get to the page. Hold on.”

I found the blog and sent him the link just as Kristen knocked on my screen. Tucker bolted up and ran to the door, barking.

“Hey, I sent you the link, but I have to go,” I said quickly. “A friend just came over. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”





Chapter 5





Jason





♪ Give Me a Try | The Wombats


Room service showed up with my breakfast right as I hung up with Sloan.

I poured myself a black coffee and sat on the bed with my plate on my lap and tapped the link she’d sent me. When the blog came up on my phone, I stared at it, my fork halfway to my mouth.

No. Fucking. WAY.

My thumbs couldn’t move fast enough over my phone.

Jason: Are you trying to tell me you’re The Huntsman’s Wife?



I waited. The dots didn’t appear, and I went back to the blog with my mouth open.

The Huntsman’s Wife was a well-known website containing recipes for wild game. In hunting circles, it was the go-to for good wild meat dishes. Mom used it religiously when Dad, my brother David, and I brought home our hauls. Hell, everyone who hunted used it.

Tucker had scored The Huntsman’s Wife as his dog-sitter? Un-fucking-believable.

I went right for the About tab and scoured the contents. It was brief.

If you’re here, you’re probably looking at some ridiculous amount of wild something or other in your freezer, wondering, “What the hell do I do with this?”



I laughed, hearing Sloan’s voice as I read.

I’m here to help. My man is an avid hunter and I am an enthusiastic chef. Enjoy.



At the bottom of the About page, as promised, was a small picture of a smiling man in camo posing with a crossbow. A blond woman with tattoos down her arm stood on her toes, kissing him on the cheek. She wore light-gray capris and a white tank top with her braided waist-length hair in a pink bandana.

I tried zooming in and the photo distorted severely. I couldn’t really make out her face. All I got from the picture was long hair and a nice figure.

I looked back at the man in the photo.

Mom had said, rather disappointedly, that The Huntsman’s Wife hadn’t been updated with any new recipes in years. Was it because the hunter in Sloan’s life had died?

The site contained no other information to give me a clue as to who she was. She signed off on every post as “The Huntsman’s Wife.” No last name to google or search on Instagram.

It didn’t escape me that I wanted to shamelessly google her, just like the creeper she accused me of being, but my curiosity about her had just gone from moderate to extreme. I was impressed. Really impressed.

I scrolled through the blog, looking at it with a new appreciation. I could taste some of the familiar dishes in my memory. Some of these were my family’s favorites. The slow cooker Dr Pepper boar pot roast, the venison Bolognese, rosemary smothered pheasant. It was incredible to think I’d eaten Sloan’s food without ever having met her in person, that she’d already been in my life in this way for years. It was like I already knew her.

Mom was going to flip. Shit, everyone back home was gonna flip. And I’d just weaseled my way into a date with her. I should play the lottery with my luck.

My phone pinged.

Sloan: So did I make the team?



I smiled.

Jason: Oh, yes. You’re definitely on the team. Looking forward to the apocalypse.





Chapter 6





Sloan





♪ Future | Paramore


I must have looked guilty when I hung up with Jason so quickly because Kristen eyed me suspiciously as she let herself into my house.

“Who was that?” She dropped a bag from In-N-Out on my coffee table, flopped onto the sofa beside me, and ruffled Tucker’s fur.

I debated lying to her. I don’t know why. Maybe because Jason was a man and he wasn’t Brandon and that made me feel guilty? But she’d see it on my face if I lied. She always saw through me.

“That was Jason, Tucker’s owner.”

Her eyebrows went up.

I shrugged. “It’s nothing. He’s taking Tucker back.”

Her gaze softened. “He is? I’m sorry, Sloan. I know you really got attached to him.” She dipped her head a bit to look me in the eye. “Now quit fucking with me and tell me what’s really going on.”

My eyes narrowed. “I don’t know why I bother trying to keep things from you.”

“I don’t know why you bother either.”

I let out a breath through my nose. “We’ve kind of been talking.”

“Talking?” She grinned.

“Yes. Texting and on the phone.” Then I scoffed. “And wait until you see this.”

I grabbed my phone and went to the pictures Jason had sent me of him and Tucker. I handed it over to her and waited as she looked at them.

Her eyes flew wide. “This is Jason?”

“That is Jason. And he’s nice. And funny. And really, really flirty.”

“And he has a great dog,” she said.

“Yes, and he has a great dog.”

“Is he single?”

“Yes.”

“Is he asking you things like whether or not you’re single?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She beamed, handing my phone back. “Have you met him?” Then she looked over at Tucker. “Why is his dog still here?”

“He’s in Australia for work for a few more weeks. I’m keeping Tucker for him until he gets back.”

My phone pinged and I glanced at it. It was Jason. My eyes shot up to Kristen, and she arched an eyebrow.

“Is that him?” she asked, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “Is it a dick pic? Is it amazing?”

“No, it is not a dick pic. Ewww.” If he ever sent me one of those, this little back-and-forth would come to an abrupt end. “He wants to know if The Huntsman’s Wife is my blog.”

Her eyes lit up. “Are you posting again?”

“No, it’s a long story, how that came up.” I pursed my lips. “Why do I feel guilty about this?”

“Because you haven’t dated since Brandon. Because you’re like a hermit. You remind me of those veiled Italian widows from the Old World, wearing black and lighting Virgin Mary candles, shuffling around with their rosaries and—”

I hit her with a throw pillow and she laughed.

“Seriously, Sloan. You’re a hot bombshell. You’re beautiful and talented, and you deserve to be happy again. This recluse stuff is bullshit.”

“Wow, tell me how you really feel.”

“No, I mean it, Sloan. Josh and I talked about this a few days ago. We’re staging an intervention. We decided that once the two-year mark hit, we weren’t going to let you continue to make your life a shrine to Brandon. Enough is enough.”

I looked at her tiredly. “I don’t choose to feel like this, Kristen.”

“Like hell you don’t. You used to be one of the most driven people I know. You had galleries fighting over your work.” She looked around the living room, and when her eyes fell on my most recent commissioned artwork, she turned to me accusatorily. “This is the shit I’m talking about. What is that? A fucking astronaut cat?”

I had the sense to look abashed.

“You’re a crazy-talented artist. Look at the crap you’re painting. You choose this.”

I sighed. She was right. She was right about all of it.

“Do shit that makes you happy. Why don’t you paint something you like? Paint Tucker.” She shook her head at me. “And that guy? You should climb him like a tree. Or at the very least shake his branches. See what kind of nuts fall out.”

I laughed. Then I bit my lip. “Okay. You’re right. I will try.”

“You need to get laid. Find a guy who’ll fuck you like he just got out of prison. Oh! Let’s get you a Brazilian wax!” she said suddenly. “Let’s vagazzle you! We’ll make your vagina shiny and new!”

I recoiled in horror and her eyes danced mischievously.

“Oh my God, no.”

“Yes. My treat. I want the cobwebs yanked off that thing.”

My eyelid twinged. “You are awful.”

“I pushed a small human out of this body. My vagina is destroyed. I have to live vicariously through your vagina.”

We both giggled.

“If I agree, will you stop saying ‘vagina’?”

* * *



Kristen stayed until almost 11:00 p.m. I’d sent Jason a quick text asking him if I’d made his zombie survival team. He’d said I had. That was the last of our back-and-forth for the day.

The next morning, Tucker woke me up at 7:30. That was another good thing about Tucker, he got me out of bed. He always wanted to be let out before 8:00 and he made sure I knew it. After I took him out, I couldn’t ever get back to sleep, so I stayed up and started my day. I used to sleep until noon, sometimes later. I liked the earlier routine. It gave me more sunlight hours, and the sun perked me up.

To my surprise my phone vibrated at exactly 9:00 a.m. It was Jason.

I wondered if he’d waited until 9:00 on purpose, so he wouldn’t text me too early. It made me smile to think he’d sat there watching the time, waiting for the exact moment it would be acceptable to text.

Jason: You up?

Sloan: I am. Your dog doesn’t sleep in. What time is it there?

Jason: 2:00 a.m., Thursday. Just got back to the hotel. Wednesday there, right?

Sloan: Yup. Late night for you.

Jason: Rehearsing. So who came over?



He was fishing. I smiled.

Sloan: My best friend, Kristen.

Jason: Did you talk about me?



I blanched. Then I panicked. How was I supposed to respond to that? Yes, we talked about you? My best friend advised me to climb you like a tree in search of your nuts? And then we talked about my vagina? Of course I was going to lie. But I was too guilty to think up a believable one on the fly. I was weighing my responses when another text came through.

Jason: You totally talked about me.



My thumbs jumped into action.

Sloan: I did not.

Jason: Liar. If you didn’t talk about me, what did you talk about?

Sloan: I may have mentioned you in a casual, very platonic way. Briefly.

Jason: Did you tell her about our date?

Sloan: It’s not a date.



It wasn’t. Right?

Jason: What would you call it?



I put my palm up in exasperation.

Sloan: An appointment.

Jason: Huh. How do I get it switched to a date?

Sloan: You don’t.



I chewed on my thumbnail. The dots jumped, and I waited to see what he had to say in response to my rebuff.

Jason: When I tell my friends about it, I’m calling it a date. You can’t stop me. There’s literally nothing you can do about it.



I laughed. This guy. He did not lack confidence, that was for sure.

I decided, in the spirit of keeping my promise to Kristen, to give him something small.



Sloan: I’m 26.

Jason: Another freebie! I’m 29. What high school did you graduate from?



I smirked. He was sneaky.

Sloan: Nice try. Then you’ll Google my yearbook and figure out my last name.

Jason: I’ll tell you my last name if you tell me yours.

Sloan: Nope.

Jason: It’s a really great last name.

Sloan: I’m sure it is. Not gonna happen, though.

Jason: Truth or dare?

Sloan: No.

Jason: Spin the bottle?

Sloan: No!



I was giggling now.

Jason: Monopoly???

Sloan: Yes, I will play Monopoly with you someday.

Jason: Now things are getting exciting.



He wasn’t wrong.





Chapter 7





Jason





♪ Talk Too Much | COIN


The massive time difference between Melbourne and California was fucking with me. I wish I could say I was jet-lagged, but the real issue was that I had to put off texting Sloan so I didn’t wake her up in the middle of the night. Poking her had become my new favorite pastime.

We’d chatted and texted on and off all day Thursday, my time, but I got slammed the whole day Friday with rehearsals and sound checks. She’d sent me a picture of Tucker and I’d shot her a one-word reply. After that I didn’t get a second to breathe until after dinner. At 7:00 p.m. Australia time, it was 1:00 a.m. for Sloan.

When I woke up Saturday morning I felt for my phone on the nightstand. I typed in my message, barely awake.

Jason: It’s a new day and I get a new question.



The jumping dots didn’t appear, and when the phone rang in my hand, it was Ernie.

“Good morning, Down Under. I’m guessing by your context clues that you haven’t checked your email today?” I could tell by the wind coming through the phone that he was in his coupé with the top down. “I’m going to need you to not lose your shit. It’s a fifteen-hour flight to Australia and I can’t be there to chokehold you off a ledge.”

Fuck. I sat up in bed and put him on speaker. I opened the email and took one look at the attachment and shook my head. “No. I write my own lyrics. I sing my own lyrics, Ernie.”

“I know. I know you do and this is a giant load of steaming horseshit, but we talked about this.”

“We talked about someone else writing my music?” I squinted at the screen. “What the hell is this? It looks like a pop song. They rhymed sweetie with teeny. I’m not singing this crap.”

A horn blared through the phone, and he told someone to go fuck themselves. Ernie drove like a madman. “Look, you need a strong crossover hit. I like indie rock. It’s nice to listen to while I smoke a joint when I’m hiding from the wife, but that stuff doesn’t go platinum. If you wanna get Don Henley famous like you said you wanted to, crossover hits for mass market is how you do that.”

“Yeah, I get that,” I said. “But I was supposed to write the music.”

“Well, we tried it your way. You haven’t written anything in six months and your label’s getting itchy. They wanna know they’re gonna get a return on their investment. You’re in bed with these people now, it’s time to tickle their balls a little. Lie to them. Tell them what they want to hear, that you’ll roll over and sing what they ask you to, then write something that’ll blow their fucking socks off and bait and switch them when you have it. Done.”

I dragged a hand down my face. “Fuck,” I mumbled. “And if I can’t write something that’ll blow their fucking socks off? Then what?”

“Then it’s two songs on an album of ten and you do whatever the hell you want with the rest of it. Look, you and your label have the same objectives. To sell records. If you can’t come up with the material to do that, they’re gonna come up with the material for you. It’s a partnership. I know you’re an artist and this is your medium and the very suggestion that you sing something that you didn’t write feels like picking which STD you want, but you went with the big boys and now this is big-boy time. It’s time to put on your big-boy pants.” Two swift honks. “You grin and bear it, and you know why? Because you are a goddamn professional.” Another long, blaring horn.

I stared at my reflection in the black TV on the dresser at the end of my bed. I couldn’t write. I was having some sort of lyrical performance anxiety. I’d never had to compose on demand before, and knowing they were waiting for it felt like an energy suck. I’d cranked out the soundtrack, but just barely, and the best stuff on the album was the three songs I’d written with Lola Simone—and that was mostly her. I’d taken those two weeks hiking in New Zealand hoping the solitude would kick-start my creativity again, but not even that had done it for me.

I wasn’t opposed to collaborating. I wasn’t even entirely opposed to singing something I didn’t write—but the song had to be great. It had to sound like me, and it had to be amazing. And that’s not what this was.

I pinched my temples. “I hate this.”

“Yeah, well, let the money and fame console you.”

I glanced again at the lyrics and cringed. I didn’t even like the idea of saying I’d sing this. But what choice did I have? I didn’t want to look uncooperative, and it wasn’t like I had anything else to give them.

“Fine.” I spit it out like the word tasted bad in my mouth.

“That a boy. Also, they’re adding pyrotechnics and fog to your concerts.”

“What?”

“I hope you like confetti. I’ll let them know you’re on board and you’re thrilled. Hey! Pick a fucking lane—”

The call ended.

I let out a long breath. I sang on stage with nothing but a spotlight, a stool, and a microphone. I didn’t do props and theatrics, and I sure as hell didn’t sing some pop shit I didn’t write.

Ernie had warned me about this. I’d known when I signed my record deal that this day might come, and I’d find myself compromising my vision for my work. But now it felt like more than that. It felt like I was selling my damn soul.

I tossed my phone on the bed and got up and took a shower. Then I made black coffee in the little coffee maker and went out to the balcony to drink it.

My room overlooked Marvel Stadium, where I’d play tomorrow. People walked around below like ants in the light drizzle, nothing but glass and wet concrete as far as the eye could see. No trees. Just the smell of damp asphalt.

This hotel was a nice one. All the amenities. Not that I was picky about where I stayed. I could sleep on a couch with my arm over my face. It was just a nice change—and one that came with having a big record label that had assigned me a personal tour manager. Per diems for room service, top-of-the-line recording studios, hefty advances, first-class flights—that I usually gave away, but it was a frill nonetheless.

I blew a resigned breath through my nose. Ernie was right. It was a give-and-take. I’d been an independent musician for so long, I just wasn’t used to being told what to do and how.

I’d have to get used to it.

Sloan still hadn’t texted.

I leaned on the railing and checked my phone again, wondering if it had chirped and I’d missed it. I double-checked that my last text had gone through. It was marked read.

She’d never taken this long to respond before.

When a text came through from Lola with a picture of her licking her nipple, I was doubly annoyed. She had a new number. Again. I’d already blocked the last two. I was probably going to have to change my number since blocking hers wasn’t making any fucking difference.

I deleted the picture, irritated, and decided to go to the gym.

I didn’t have anything on my schedule. I’d actually been looking forward to today, when I’d be free to bother Sloan as I saw fit. It hadn’t occurred to me she’d maybe not be available for that—or interested in it.

Between this, the Lola text, and the call with Ernie, my morning was a wash. I hadn’t realized how much I looked forward to sparring with Sloan every day until it looked like she might stop accepting my challenges. She was funny. I enjoyed talking to her. I also liked hearing what Tucker was doing, though it occurred to me I’d be checking in on him a hell of a lot less if he were still with Monique.

I was tying my running shoes when my cell phone pinged. I tipped the screen toward me and smiled.

Sloan: Don’t think you’re getting two questions just because you missed yesterday.



I kicked off my shoes and got back onto the bed, sitting up against the headboard with a grin.

Jason: Do you have time for a phone call?



The dots started to bounce. Damn, I loved those dots.

Sloan: Sure.



I hit the phone icon and pressed my cell to my ear. “So you’re going to rob me of a question because I was a gentleman and didn’t call you at one in the morning to ask it?” I teased when she picked up.

“Seems to me that a gentleman who really wanted to get to know me better would have found time for a text with his question during reasonable hours.”

“I was very busy yesterday.”

“Sounds like you just weren’t properly motivated yesterday. A text only takes a second. Now I have no choice but to penalize you.”

Her tone was playful, but she wasn’t going to cut me any slack. And was she maybe, just possibly, a little mad at me for not being more attentive yesterday? The thought made me smile to myself. “What can I do to make it up to you? Give me your address and I’ll send you flowers. What’s your favorite kind?”

“Sunflowers. And not a chance.”

“I guessed you might say that.”

“You knew I would say that. So what’s your question?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “What did you tell your friend Kristen about me?”

She groaned. “I think I’d prefer to send you a picture.”

“That bad, huh?”

“If I give you back your forfeited question, will you change this one?”

“Definitely not.”

She let out a sigh and I snickered. Then I threw her a lifeline. “I’ll tell you what, if you agree that our hike with Tucker is going to be a date, I’ll ask you something else. Or you could keep calling it an appointment, and then you can tell me all about what you two ladies talked about yesterday. Or you could send me a picture. It’s all a win for me. I can’t actually decide which option I like best, they’re all so great.”

She laughed. “You are not going to give this up, are you?”

“Nope.”

“You know what? I think I will tell you what I said. Because I said very little, actually. I showed her your picture. I said we’d been texting and talking. And I said you were taking Tucker back. That’s it. You asked the wrong question. You should have asked what Kristen said in response to what I said. That was the juicy stuff.”

“You showed her my picture?” I asked, grinning.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“She’s my best friend and we were talking about you,” she said.

“So you agree that having a picture of someone is helpful?”

“I see where you’re taking this, and it won’t work.”

“I have a best friend too, you know. Cooper, the bartender downstairs, would also like to see a picture to accompany my stories about you.”

“Well, Cooper is going to have to help you to think up much better questions, then, isn’t he?”

I put my arm behind my head and grinned. “Make my picture your wallpaper.”

“What? No!”

“Do it, I dare you.”

“No. Tucker is my wallpaper. I like having Tucker as my wallpaper. Unlike his dad, Tucker is well behaved.”

“Well, in all fairness, Tucker’s got a date and not an appointment.”

She laughed.

Housekeeping knocked, and I slid off the mattress to open the door and wave them off, slipping the Do not disturb sign onto the knob. I grabbed a bottled water from the minibar and climbed back onto the bed.

“So what did you do yesterday that had you so busy that you missed your daily question?” she asked.

“I had sound check and rehearsal. Then I had dinner with the group,” I said, taking the cap off my water.

“Oh, you’re in a group?”

“No, I’m a lone wolf. I had dinner with the group that I’m working with tomorrow night.”

“And who’s that?”

I was opening for The Black Keys on Sunday, but for Sloan that was embargoed information. I had officially decided not to tell her who I was or what I really did for a living. I didn’t want it to distract her from getting to know me as a person. I’d learned a few lessons from my time with Monique. I wasn’t going to lie, per se, I just wasn’t going to volunteer things whenever possible.

“You’ve probably never heard of them,” I said. Then I changed the subject. “So my mom’s pretty excited I know The Huntsman’s Wife.”

“Really? Does she use my website?”

“Yes, religiously. I’ve eaten a lot of your food. Where did you learn how to cook?”

“My mom has a catering company. She has a food truck on the Warner Bros. lot. I grew up helping her.”

“And does she serve a lot of wild game?”

I could almost imagine the smirk I heard on her lips. Almost. I really did wish I had a picture.

“No, but once you know how the meat tastes, it’s not hard to work with it,” she said.

I shook my head. “Yes, it is. That’s why your page is so popular.”

“Is it?”

“You’re kidding, right? Everyone I know uses it. Why don’t you update it anymore?”

She paused for a moment. “I cooked the meat that Brandon, my fiancé, used to bring home. He died in a motorcycle accident two years ago. Hit by a drunk driver. So I stopped blogging.”

I could hear the tightness at the edges of her voice, and something protective in me twitched—which was weird. I barely knew her. But I didn’t like that she’d gone through this. Why do all the bad things always seem to happen to good people?

“Do you still cook other things?” I asked, getting us off the topic.

“Not really. It kind of lost its allure for me.”

“So if you don’t cook, what have you eaten today?”

“Hmmm. Well, I’m still blowing through the gift cards I got for Christmas, so I went to Starbucks and got my coffee,” she said. “Then I went to Kristen’s house to go swimming. She has a toddler. We had watermelon and macaroni and cheese for lunch. Kristen made it, so the mac and cheese was very soggy.”

“And where was Tucker? Did you leave him alone at home, heartbroken in a small closet?”

“Oh, you mean did I leave him in a crate?”

I smirked at the jab.

“No, he came with me and he went swimming too. And he got a puppuccino at Starbucks.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “A what?”

“A puppuccino. A cup of whipped cream for dogs.”

“That’s a thing?”

“It is. There’s all kinds of things you can get for dogs at restaurants. You can get ice cream at most places as long as it doesn’t have vanilla beans in it. And there’s a cupcake shop called Nadia Cakes that I take him to that has doggy cupcakes they make from scratch.”

I arched my eyebrows. “Wow, he really is on vacation.”

“There’s a reason why you’re paying me the big bucks for my dog-sitting services.”

“I’d have paid more.”

“I’d have done it for less.”

I smiled and jammed another pillow behind my back.

“I’m going to put you on speaker. Hold on,” she said. “I have to get some work done and I need my hands.”

I heard shuffling.

“What are you painting?”

“Want to see it?” she asked, sounding slightly farther away than before.

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Hold on, I’ll send you a picture. It’s really lame. You’re gonna laugh. There.”

I put my cell phone on speaker and clicked on the picture message she sent. “Is that…an astronaut cat?”

“I told you it was lame.”

I zoomed in. “It’s well done. It’s just…a cat’s head on an astronaut’s body?”

“Yeah. I do freelance work for a company that takes your pet’s face and photoshops it onto different templates. Then they send it out to an artist to paint it. They’re not all cat astronauts. Sometimes they’re dogs playing poker.” She laughed.

I tilted my head to study the picture. “It’s pretty impressive that you can paint that, though. I’d love to see what you did on your own. You’re obviously talented.” I wasn’t bullshitting her. It really was good.

“It got easier to paint something I was given than to find inspiration. I have an Etsy store too. It’s all kind of mindless.”

“You should paint Tucker. Paint him duck hunting in the boat,” I suggested, grabbing the room service menu from the nightstand and starting to look over the breakfast options.

“Kristen said the same thing. You have an accent, you know that?”

I looked up. “I do?”

“Yeah, I can hear it when you say ‘boat.’ It’s kind of nice. I like it.”

She’d never said anything complimentary to me before. I’d lay on my Minnesota accent extra thick from now on.

“So what do you do while you paint? Do you listen to music?” I asked.

“I watch the ID channel. Real-life crime shows.”

“Ahhhh, that’s why you’re so convinced I’m a murderer.”

“How many acres of hunting land did you say you have?”

“My family owns two hundred acres in northern Minnesota,” I said. “Why?”

“There you go. The perfect place to hide a body. I bet you have a hunting lodge that locks from the outside and everything.”

I chuckled and crossed my legs at the ankle. “Do I look like a psychopath to you?”

“Ted Bundy was a good-looking guy. Charismatic too.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment since it sounds like you’re saying I’m good-looking and charismatic. But aren’t most psycho killers cruel to animals? I think Tucker would tell you that I’ve never raised my hand to him in anger.”

“Hmmm,” she hummed. “Well, that does go against the typical serial killer profile. Unless you use Tucker to lure your victims.”

I smiled. “He is kind of a chick magnet, isn’t he?”

“I bet the two of you make a killing.”

“No, so far he’s only brought home one girl, and he’s been keeping her to himself.”

There had to be an eye roll in the ensuing pause.

“Are you ready for my question of the day?” she asked, a smile in her voice.

“Shoot.”

“What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever done for a stranger?”

She had good questions, and this one was easy. “I donated my bone marrow.”

“Wow. You did? That’s a pretty big deal. How did that happen?”

Tucker walked around in the background, making a familiar clicking sound on the floor with his nails.

“I can hear Tucker,” I said.

“Oh yeah, his nails are pretty long. I’m going to take him into PetSmart tomorrow and have them cut, actually. He’s almost out of food too.”

“Save your receipts so I can reimburse you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “So bone marrow, tell me.”

“Right. I grew up in a really small town in northern Minnesota. Population three thousand. So everyone knows everybody else. There was a little girl in the town who got leukemia, so a lot of the townsfolk—”

“‘Townsfolk’?” She sounded amused.

“Yes, ‘townsfolk,’ we actually talk like that there.”

She laughed at this. I liked her laugh. It was musical.

“A lot of the townsfolk registered on Be The Match because she needed a bone marrow transplant. She ended up getting one. Nobody she knew. But I was in the registry after that, and I ended up being the match for a guy with lymphoma. So I donated.”

“Did they live?” she asked.

I nodded. “They did. I’m friends with the guy on Facebook. He’s been in remission for four years now. And Emily too. She just graduated high school.”

“Wow. That’s…that’s really generous.”

I shrugged. “I just couldn’t imagine being that sick and not having any options, you know? And maybe one day someone will do it for me. Or someone I love.”

There was a little pause, and she was smiling when she started talking again. “So in this tiny town of three thousand, what kind of things did you do for fun?”

I ticked off on my fingers. “Ice fishing, dogsledding in the winter. Canoeing. I worked as a guide for trips into the Boundary Waters for ten years. My dad owns an outfitting company.”

“And your mom? What does she do?”

“She stayed home. Worked at the outfitters in the summer when it was busy.”

She laughed a little. “You really are a northerner, aren’t you? Have you seen any moose?”

“I’ve seen moose, wolves, the northern lights—”

“Oh, I would love to see the northern lights. It’s on my bucket list.”

“Yeah? What else is on your list?”

She made a humming noise. “I want to eat soft-shell crabs. Oh, and I want to visit Ireland. That’s my biggest one. What’s on your list?”

If anyone had asked me the same thing yesterday, I’d have answered, “Play the Hollywood Bowl.” But today? “I want to take you on a date.”





Chapter 8





Sloan





♪ This Charming Man | The Smiths


Tucker loved PetSmart. He started crying to be let out as soon as we got to the parking lot. He jumped from the car and pulled me into the store, choking himself in the process. His enthusiasm made me laugh, but that wasn’t the only thing making me smile today. Jason had me in a good mood.

We’d talked all day yesterday. All day. When Fight Club came on the TV in his hotel room, I found it on Netflix and we watched it together, talking through it. I drained my cell phone battery three times and finally ended up lying in bed hooked up to my charger until we hung up a little after midnight.

It was official. I had a major crush on him.

He’d grown up stomping around in the woods, and I’d gone to a high school that had a student body the size of his town. He’d worked summers taking tourists on canoeing trips into the wilderness while I did beauty pageants until I was eighteen and worked at the mall. But somehow we clicked. We got along so well, it was crazy.

And it was scary.

Now I hated that he didn’t know what I looked like. What if he didn’t think I was pretty? What if he was like, “Oh” when he finally saw me for the first time? I wanted to just bite the bullet and send him a picture, but now I was too freaked out about it. And all through yesterday’s phone call he’d kept asking me for a date.

It was 1:00 and I hadn’t heard from him yet today, but it was still early in Melbourne. I’d spent the morning stressing about my appearance. I had a newfound urgency to undo two years of neglect.

Jason would be back in California in a week. That gave me seven short days to prepare. I hadn’t cared about my appearance in so long I wasn’t sure where to even begin. I always threw my hair into a bun, my toes went without polish, my skin got nothing except a splash of soap and water twice a day. And now this man was practically extorting me for a picture of myself, and I was in no way prepared to be examined.

“You’re being dramatic,” Kristen had said this morning when I called her in a half panic. “Your hair has never looked better. It hasn’t been heat-styled in years. You’re tan, and you’ve always had a perfect figure. Relax, you’re a knockout. Believe me, I’d tell you if you were a hot mess.”

This did make me feel a little better. She would tell me. She had literally no filter.

This morning I’d plucked my eyebrows and made an appointment to have my hair trimmed. I did a teeth-whitening strip and a mud mask, and afterward I felt slightly less despondent. But I was still so nervous. I hadn’t cared about what a man thought of me since Brandon, and suddenly I was obsessed. I felt like I was shaking out a dusty party dress I’d left balled on the floor of my closet for two years, hoping it still fit and the moths hadn’t destroyed it.

I walked Tucker to the grooming department at the back of the store and stood waiting to check him in at the counter, thinking of Jason and chewing on my lip.

A woman in a dark-blue PetSmart shirt greeted me. “Checking in?”

“Yes, he just needs a nail trim.”

She leaned over and looked at Tucker. “No problem. And who do we have here?”

“Tucker.”

Something flashed across her face. The groomer behind her jerked her head up to stare at me, and the two shared a look.

“Are you Sloan?” the first woman asked.

“Yeeeees,” I said, looking back and forth between them, unsure what was happening.

“One moment.” She grinned, putting up a finger. “Just wait here.” Then she darted into a side door. When it opened again, a giant vase of sunflowers floated out.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “He didn’t.”

The woman heaved the vase onto the countertop. “These are for you,” she said, beaming.

I stared at the arrangement in shock. “How?”

“Your boyfriend called us this morning and said he wanted to surprise you when you came in. We’ve been waiting for you all day. It’s so sweet!”

My stomach flipped at the word “boyfriend.” He wasn’t, of course, but my stomach didn’t care.

The flowers were stunning. Red roses were mixed in with the huge yellow blossoms, and flowering branches gave it extra height. It was easily the largest arrangement I’d ever gotten. It must have cost a fortune.

“There’s a card,” the woman said, turning the vase to the little white envelope.

I plucked it free and slid a shaking finger under the seal.

There were two square boxes drawn on the small paper, with the words “yes” and “no” written above them.

Sloan, do you like me? Check one. —Jason



I laughed out loud and had to slap a hand over my mouth.

I handed Tucker over for his nail trim and called Jason. He answered groggily, but I could hear the smile in his voice. “Good afternoon, Sloan.”

“You are too much. How did you know where to send these?”

He sounded like he was stretching. “You said you were going to PetSmart. I know generally where you live. I googled it.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“I was accused of not being properly motivated once, so I stepped up my game.”

“You really did,” I said, looking the flowers up and down. “But you shouldn’t have done it.”

“Did you read the card?”

I blushed. “Yes.”

“Did you check a box?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to tell me which one?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then that’s my question for the day,” he said, the smile in his voice coming through the phone.

I sighed. “I checked yes.”

“Good,” he said. “I like you too.”





Chapter 9





Sloan





♪ A Beautiful Mess | Jason Mraz


There was a small wet spot on my kitchen tile. “I think I’ve got a leaky pipe,” I told Jason over the phone. I started pulling out all the cleaning products from under my sink and dabbed at the damp surface with my finger. “Ugh, it’s definitely wet under here.”

“I can have a look at it for you when I get back,” he offered, a hopeful edge to his voice.

Jason was coming home tomorrow. He was packing his hotel room up as we spoke and heading to catch a flight in just a few hours. My stomach flipped again. It had been roiling for days in anticipation of meeting him in person. I was a mess. My eyelid twitched mercilessly from the stress.

“No, you’re not coming over here,” I said again. “I’ll meet you like we planned.”

“Come on, at least let me meet you at a restaurant. What kind of date is Starbucks?”

“It’s not a date,” I reminded him, sliding a bowl under the slow drip.

“Oh, that’s right. It’s an appointment.”

We’d known each other for two weeks, and for the last week of that, we’d spoken daily, for hours a day. We texted nonstop when we weren’t talking. I liked him so much it was ridiculous. I think I knew him better in a week than I’d known Brandon in six months—Jason was a lot less shy. But I couldn’t bring myself to agree to a real date. Not until we met in person.

“I just don’t want things to be weird,” I said, turning and sliding down to the floor with my back against the dishwasher. I closed my eyes and put a finger on my spasming eyelid.

“Why would they be weird?”

Because you’ve never seen me before? Because we’ve talked constantly for the last week and you’ve never even been in the same room with me?

I didn’t answer.

The long sound of a zipper closing on luggage came through the line. “Put Tucker on the phone,” he said.

“What?”

“Tucker, put him on the phone.”

“Like, put the phone up to his ear?”

“Yes.”

I got up and found Tucker sleeping on the sofa. “Should I leave you two alone for this?”

“Yeah, this is just between us guys.”

“Okay, here goes.” I held the phone to Tucker’s ear. He immediately perked up at the sound of Jason’s voice. He cocked his head and listened and then bolted off the sofa and tore around the living room, barking.

I put the phone back to my ear, laughing. “What did you say to him?”

“I asked him to show you how excited I am to meet you. Actually, I told him there’s a squirrel outside, but I think he still illustrated my point.”

I smiled into the receiver. Then I moved the phone away from my mouth and swallowed. “I made you something.”

“You did? What is it?”

“Just something. I’m going to send it to you now. I hope you like it.”

I attached a link to a text and held my finger over the little arrow that would put it into the universe. I took a nervous breath and sent it through.

No getting it back now. It was done.

“I’m going to go to bed early,” I said. “Have a safe flight, okay? I guess I’ll see you tomorrow…”





Chapter 10





Jason





♪ Soul Meets Body | Death Cab for Cutie


Sloan sent me a link to a YouTube video. I sat on the edge of my bed and watched it, maximizing the screen.

Someone held up a piece of paper in front of the camera that read, My vacation with Sloan. Then it began to show clips of Tucker. Tucker on hikes, Tucker swimming in a swimming pool. Tucker at Starbucks licking whipped cream out of a paper cup, and him at PetSmart with a blue plush doll in his mouth. Then he was in a bathtub getting a bath with his hair spiked into a Mohawk. Tucker chasing a green tennis ball on the grass and playing with other dogs at a dog park.

If I hadn’t already liked Sloan, this would have done it. Tucker was my currency. It might as well have been me she was spoiling, it had the same effect.

I smiled down at my screen as I watched a clip of Tucker on his back, getting a belly rub. Then the frame changed, and he sat on a couch next to a woman. I bolted to attention and pulled the phone closer.

The woman smiled at him, and he licked her face. I could see the tattoos on her arm. She looked directly at the camera and reached up off-screen, and the video ended.

My heart thudded against my rib cage. This was Sloan. This was the woman I’d been talking to.

And she was fucking beautiful.

I played the video back. Then I played it back again. I paused it and took screenshots of her so I could look at them. I zoomed in and studied her. She had one of those broad smiles that radiated. Full lips, large brown doe eyes, long golden-blond hair. Jesus, she was gorgeous.

I was still watching the video when I got into my Uber. I called her.

Voicemail.

* * *



I texted Sloan last night, telling her how beautiful I thought she was, but all I got was a smiley face and didn’t know how to interpret that. I think the stress of our meeting each other was getting to her.

It was getting to me too.

Even before I’d seen what she looked like, I’d liked her more than anyone else I’d met in a very long time. I went to sleep and woke up thinking about her. I fucking dreamed about her. I hadn’t even looked at another woman sideways pretty much since the moment we started talking. And all that for a woman I hadn’t even laid eyes on yet.

Now I worried that I would somehow not measure up—which was crazy. She’d seen enough pictures of me to know what to expect, and I was not an unconfident person by any stretch of the imagination. It was just that meeting her felt too important.

My flight had been smooth, and I’d gotten as much sleep as I could so I’d be fresh for our “appointment.”

After I dropped off my luggage at home, I took a shower, threw on a T-shirt and jeans, and took longer than I care to admit trimming my beard and messing with my hair. Then I made my way to the Starbucks on Topanga Canyon.

I waited on the patio, bouncing my knee, opening and closing my hand the way I always did right before I played in front of a big crowd. I’d gotten there half an hour early and I sat there scanning the parking lot and sidewalks, completely nervous and laughing to myself because I never got like this—for anything or anyone.

I didn’t know what it meant that I felt like this already. All I knew was that I did.

She was eight minutes late when she called.

“Hey,” I said, picking up on the first ring. “You said Topanga Canyon, ri—”

“Jason, I can’t come, my kitchen is flooded!”

Chaos came through the line. Tucker barked in the background, and I could hear the sound of spraying water. “The pipe under your sink?”

“Yes! Oh my God, it’s a disaster!”

I was already running to my truck. “Give me your address.”

There was a pause.

“I…but…”

I had to laugh. Still? Even now? “Sloan, your kitchen.”

She moaned. “Fine.”

She rattled off her address and told me not to knock.

Google Maps said she was just two blocks away, and I got there within three minutes and ran into the house.

I glanced around the living room, registering only momentarily that I was in Sloan’s personal space. It smelled like vanilla. It was clean. The flowers I’d sent her sat by an easel with a half-painted canvas of a pug dressed like Napoleon on it. I darted toward the sound of distress and burst into the kitchen to madness.

Sloan was by the sink, soaking wet and panting, standing in an inch of water.

Our gazes met, and she hit me like a ton of bricks. My body’s reaction to her was instantaneous. I could almost feel my pupils dilate as I took her in.

She was a woman who would have frozen me dead in my tracks anywhere. Absolutely showstopping.

I allowed myself two heartbeats to stare at her before I tore my eyes away to look around. She hadn’t been kidding, this really was bad.

Towels and what must have been the contents of the cabinet were strewn all over the floor. The doors under the sink were open and water sprayed out. Tucker barked and scratched from behind a door off the kitchen.

I quickly rummaged through the open toolbox on the counter, hyperaware that Sloan watched me. Then I dove to my knees to look under the sink, kneeling in a pond of cold water and taking the spray right in the face.

Sloan had amazing water pressure. I was impressed.

The cutoff valve on the water inlet line was jammed. It took a few hard yanks, but I got it shut off. By the time I stopped the flow, I was completely drenched.

I shimmied out and stood, soaking wet, water dripping off the tips of my fingers. I turned to her, raking a hand through my damp hair. She looked at me, her eyes wide, and we stared at each other.

Wow. This is her.

“Hi,” she breathed.

“Hello.”

The short video clip and the tiny picture of her on The Huntsman’s Wife had in no way prepared me for Sloan in person. She was like a 1950s pinup girl. All tattoos and curves. Long hair, loose around her shoulders, wet at the ends.

Smart, funny, and now this. I’d won the fucking lottery. Why she hadn’t been throwing pictures at me right and left was beyond me. Maybe she didn’t want me to know how good-looking she was for the same reason I downplayed what I did for a living? I didn’t know, but this was a welcome surprise for sure.

Her wide, brown eyes moved down my chest and back to my face. The only sounds were the water still trickling out from under the sink and the thrumming of my heart in my ears.

The corner of her mouth twitched. Then she started to laugh, and I mentally assigned the image to every smiling moment I’d imagined on the phone.

Beautiful.

“I’m glad you didn’t make things weird for our first appointment,” I said. “Just a run-of-the-mill, no-stress, first-meeting flood.”

She looked down at the water in her kitchen. “This is so messed up,” she said, still giggling.

“Do you have a shop vac?”

“I don’t know.” She put a hand to her forehead. “Brandon might have had one.”

“Where’s your garage?”

She pointed to a door. I went into the garage and immediately noted the man cave–like interior. Professional tools and an impressive workbench. A few neon beer signs on the walls. A dusty man’s jacket hung on a hook by the door and an empty open beer sat on the counter.

An old Corolla sat in the middle of the two parking spaces, with a duct-taped side mirror and a door that didn’t match the rest of the car.

After poking around, I found a shop vac. When I got back into the kitchen, Sloan was sweeping water out the back door with a broom.

The next half hour was spent sucking water off the floor while Sloan wrung out towels and set up fans in the doorway. We worked without talking. The vacuum was too loud. But we kept stealing glances at each other.

I helped her carry a huge armload of wet towels to the washing machine. When the door to the laundry room opened, Tucker spilled out, and I dropped my towels and crouched on the floor, laughing and letting him lick my face. God, I’d missed him. He made crying noises at the sight of me and all I could think was, This guy’s getting a major finder’s fee later.

Sloan watched us with a smile and started the load. When she closed the lid and turned to me, I leaned in the doorway with my arms crossed. Tucker stood between us and looked back and forth with the same proud face he always made when he’d retrieved a duck for me and dropped it at my feet.

“Thanks for all your help.” She looked up at me through her long lashes. “This house is a mess. It’s really old. Things