I handed Bridget the end of the lead and then rubbed my hand over Sid’s ears. “Hey, kiddo,” I said. “A slave is going to feed you an oatmeal banana muffin crumb by crumb, while praising your beauty and virtue, and leaving out the stuff about devil dog and jumping out of windows. You’ll enjoy it.”
“Slave?” said Bridget.
“I’m trying to put her into a hedonistic mood,” I said.
“Just go,” said Bridget. “I take short breaks.”
I tried to saunter down the corridor from the courtyard like I hadn’t a care in the world, or a brand-new dog I was leaving behind who was laser-staring holes in my back. I knew about the laser-holes not only because of the sharp boring pains under my shoulder-blades and the smell of smoking leather, but because I made the mistake of looking back when I turned to shut the gate behind me.
I kept up the saunter till I turned the corner out of Sid’s sight and then I sprinted toward Schmitz Street, screamed around the corner on the equivalent of two wheels and stopped just before I would be visible through the front window of Homeric Homes so I could lean against the wall and gasp my breath back first. I readjusted into saunter mode and went in through the door.
I felt guilty when Hayley looked up with a smile that could launch a thousand toothpaste ads. She was even cleaner and shinier than I remembered. She was wearing the navy-blue blazer again but her blouse was pale yellow, and when she stood up to greet me she was wearing a pleated skirt. A pleated skirt. I didn’t know anybody wore pleated skirts any more. They’d probably stopped, and started again while I lived a fashion-unconscious life in Gelasio’s penthouse, a clueless Rapunzel in jeans. It fitted very nicely, Hayley’s pleated skirt. I tried not to stare. I reminded myself that she wasn’t all good, she read FLOWERHAIR. Therefore we would pass over the new pair of four-inch heels in silence.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you here for the keys?”
“Yes please,” I said, and then, because that seemed a little churlish with her standing there smiling at me, added, “I’m sorry, I’m running late because–er” I’ve adopted a dog that would give your boss falling-down spasms and if she finds out about Sid she’ll make sure I never live in this town again–”because everything takes longer than you think it will” which presumably includes unscheduled dog adoption “and they’re picking up the van at the motel at six.”
She looked serious and businesslike at once. “Is there anything I can do? The nearest car rental is in Bittern Marsh, I could run you over there tomorrow.”
I winced. “No, thanks, I’ve–er–I’ve got a–vehicle. Jan has a son with a garage.”
Hayley laughed. “You mean one of Mike’s rehab projects? I hope it’s not a hearse. He had a thing for hearses for a while.”
For the first time since I’d met Merry it occurred to me that things could be worse.
“But Mike’s cars run. And glamour is a little wasted out here.” She produced a set of keys from her top desk drawer. They probably weighed more than Sid. There was one relatively normal looking Yale type key and three fanged skeleton-type keys with shanks the size of my wrists. I thought Hayley’s arm quivered with strain as she held them out toward me.
“Thanks,” I said, and turned to go. But I made the mistake of looking back, just like I had with Sid. The expression on Hayley’s face was not wholly dissimilar. “Hey, come to dinner tomorrow,” I heard myself saying. “If you dare. If you don’t mind take-out pizza.” There was an Elysian Pizza at the mall. I had taken careful note of the fact they did take-out, although they wouldn’t deliver to Cold Valley. “If you’re unlucky I may be at the heating up a tin of soup stage by then but you’re probably safe.”
“Oh, I’d love to,” began Hayley, and then the smile dropped off her face and she glanced toward the back of the office. “But it’s probably, um, I mean, it’s very nice of you . . .”
“Don’t tell her,” I said quietly. “Just come. And wear jeans. It’ll be good for you.” I thought suddenly of Caedmon. “You have to show me how to use that solid-fuel stove. I’ll buy one of those woodstove kindling bundles at the mall.”
Her brows snapped ferociously together. “You will not,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything so overpriced. I’ll call Jack and get him to deliver–it’s late in the season, it’ll be what he’s got, but it should get you through the spring, and then you can be on his list for the fall. And he’ll stack it for you.”
“Sold,” I said. “So you’ll come?”
“I’d love to,” she said.
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