A Summer Reunion
“There’s been some kind of mistake.”
The delivery man checked his clipboard. “You’re Laurie Sutcliffe?”
“Yes, but -”
“And this is 29 Walker Street, Vineland?”
“Yes. But I didn’t buy a dog.” Laurie glanced at the pet carrier resting beside the delivery man’s feet. “I mean puppy. I didn’t buy a puppy.”
The carrier shook as the puppy stood and began to wag his tail. Big brown eyes peered up at her beseechingly. Despite the fact that she was running late with a long drive and an even longer day ahead of her, Laurie’s mouth curved into a smile. Whoever had chosen this dog had chosen well - he was adorable, with features vaguely reminiscent of both a labrador and a beagle. In fact, if she was any guess she’d say he was a mix of the two breeds, with his floppy, silky-looking ears and neat muzzle and -
“It says here that the goods were despatched by Guy Sutcliffe.”
Laurie’s focus snapped back to the man with the clipboard.
“That’s what it says here.”
Laurie frowned. Why on earth would her ex-husband send her a puppy? Especially when she and the kids had campaigned for one on and off throughout their seventeen year marriage and he’d never once softened his anti-pet stance. Was this some bizarre form of apology from him? Some acknowledgement of the pain he’d inflicted when he’d walked out on their marriage?
Her lips thinned as another thought occurred. Guy never did anything without a reason. And there was only one reason Laurie could think of for him to give her such an emotionally loaded gift: things had gone wrong with The Strumpet and he wanted to come home.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept it. I mean, him.”
The delivery man sighed. “You’re sure? Because the little fella’s already been in the van for a couple of hours, and it’s gonna be another half day before I get back to the depot.”
Laurie looked at the carrier again. A small, shiny nose pressed through the gap between the bars. Brown eyes pleaded with her.
Her ex husband was a manipulative weasel. Pure and simple.
“Give me a second,” she said.
She’d been literally on her way out the door when the delivery man knocked and her purse was sitting on the table in the entry hall. She grabbed her phone and dialed. She tapped her foot impatiently as the phone rang.
She was going to let Guy know in no uncertain terms that his gift was not welcome, and neither was he. She would not be manipulated like this. He’d opted out of her life the moment he started having an affair with their neighbor. Giving her a puppy didn’t even come close to gaining him admission again.
The call connected and she launched into speech.
“Congratulations on reaching a new low, Guy. If you think that dangling a puppy in front of me is going to make up for everything, you’ve been drinking way too much red wine. If you have something to say to me, at least have the courage to pick up a phone and say it yourself, instead of sending a furry envoy to try and soften me up.”
She paused for breath and realized Guy had been speaking at the same time.
“...and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” a familiar, cultured voice said in her ear.
A beep sounded.
She’d wasted her ire on Guy’s message service.
Aware of the delivery man’s interested gaze, she tried to regain momentum as she left a message.
“Guy. This is not good. Not good at all. I don’t know what you were thinking, but you need to call me. Urgently. Please.”
Not quite the same as her original blistering reprimand, but it was hard to recapture the same outrage on the second take - especially with an audience.
The delivery guy checked his watch, clearly impatient to be gone.
“So, what am I doing, lady? Is he going or staying?”
Surely it was obvious? No way could she accept something as personal and significant as a puppy from her ex-husband. She opened her mouth to say as much then made the mistake of glancing at the pet carrier again.
The puppy had given up on gaining her attention and had dropped to his belly. His head rested on his paws, his expression doleful as he gazed off into space.
Was it just her, or was he the saddest, most dejected looking puppy in all the world?
The words of rejection died in her throat. She closed her eyes for a long beat.
Then she opened her eyes and held out her hand. “Where do I sign?” she asked resignedly.
Fifteen minutes later she was in the car on the way to her mother’s house on the New Jersey coast, the pet carrier strapped into the back seat. Every few minutes she glanced in the rear view mirror and frowned. Guy was in for the tongue-lashing of a lifetime when he returned her call.
He knew how busy she was right now, with her mother’s sixtieth-birthday-party-cum-family-reunion just ten days away. Definitely he knew that her company, Laurie Cooks, was catering the event - she’d asked him to take Josh and Amy for the week so she would be free to stay at her mother’s place during the lead up. And yet none of those considerations had stopped him from pursuing his own agenda and saddling her with a living, breathing millstone.
Yep, Guy was in big trouble. As for his secret agenda, whatever that may be... Their marriage was over. No matter what he said or did, no matter how charming he could be when he wanted something.
She was running a full forty minutes late when she drove up the long, curving drive to her mother’s house and parked in front of the three car garage two hours later. Laurie had called from the road to let her mother know she’d been delayed, but she could see her mother peering out the window of her second story office, alerted to Laurie’s arrival by the sound of the car engine. Laurie gave her a wave as she exited the car, then tapped her watch and pointed to the side lawn to indicate she had things to do outside and wouldn’t be coming straight into the house. Her mother gave her an “okay” signal, and Laurie turned to get the puppy out of the car.
She could feel her mother’s interested gaze as she released the puppy from his carrier, and, right on cue, she heard the sound of a window opening.
“When did you get a puppy?” her mother called down.
“Guy sent him to me via courier this morning.”
“Why would he do something like that?” her mother asked.
Laurie gave her a speaking look.
“You think something has happened with The Strumpet?” her mother asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know. But he wants something.”
Her mother looked worried. “Well, I’m here if you need to talk. Or stick pins in a voodoo doll.”
“I know, Mom.” Laurie gestured toward the side lawn. “I’ve got the tent guy coming any minute and I need to go pace out the tent site. We can talk about how big a rat Guy is later, okay?”
Her mother waved her on her way. “Go. Do what you have to do. I’ll be here. As always.”
Frustration was rich in her mother’s voice. Laurie gave her a sympathetic smile before grabbing her purse and herding the puppy onto the lawn. Her mother had been confined to a wheelchair for six weeks since breaking her ankle slipping on the marble floor in the foyer, an injury that was complicated by the fact that her mother suffered from chronic kidney disease. While Laurie was aware that the constraint of the wheelchair, and, more recently, a walking frame, was driving her mother nuts, privately she was grateful that the injury had forced her mother to slow down a little. Despite requiring home dialysis three times a week, her mother refused to make allowance for her condition, claiming life was about quality, not quantity. While Laurie agreed with her mother philosophically, she was nowhere near ready to say goodbye to her parent yet. The enforced rest required by the accident, in Laurie’s opinion, had been a godsend.
A cool sea breeze lifted her hair off her forehead as she rounded the house and she squinted as she walked into full sun. The puppy gamboled about her feet, his tongue hanging out, his bright eyes inviting her to stop and play with him.
She glanced down at him. There was no getting around it - he was utterly adorable. Almost irresistible - as Guy had intended.
“It’s not going to work, you know,” she told the puppy as they crossed the lawn to the place she’d decided to site the tent. “It’s not personal - I’m sure you’re a lovely dog. It’s a principle thing.”
Gratified to be the focus of her attention, the puppy leapt onto his hind legs and put his paws on the cuffs of her navy capri pants, his tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur. A smile crept onto Laurie’s mouth.
The moment she registered it, she pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed Guy again.
Only to get voice mail once more. She left a second message, then stuffed her phone back into her purse. She glanced back toward the driveway. The tent guy was late. Just what she needed. If things started to go wrong at this end of the day, she could only imagine how the afternoon was going to look.
She had an appointment with a seafood supplier in town in an hour, and another with the local baker. She also needed to liaise with the florist and the company she was hiring linen, crockery and flatware from. She didn’t have time for other people’s slip-ups.
She killed a few minutes by pacing out the site and stopped the puppy from digging up one of her mother’s prize roses bushes. She made a few phone calls, then checked her watch again.
Okay. Tent guy was officially twenty minutes late. And he hadn’t bothered to call to let her know what was going on, either. A big no-no in Laurie’s book.
Another five minutes crawled by. Her stress level kicked up a notch as she stopped the puppy from digging up the roses for the third time. She didn’t have time for people who didn’t honor their commitments. She didn’t have time for an untrained, unexpected dog and tradespeople who couldn’t keep their word.
There had been more than one occasion over the past three years when Laurie had doubted her mother would make it to sixty and Laurie wanted this party to be perfect, in every way. She wanted to create a warm, memorable celebration of her mother’s life, to give something back to the mother who had always been there for her. If this was the last birthday her mother had -
She pushed the thought away. No. She refused to go there. Her mother was a fighter. Always had been, always would be.
She was scrolling through the calendar on her phone in search of a contact number for the tent company when she glanced up and saw a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man striding toward her across the grass.
A hot surge of anger washed over her, tightening her throat. How dare he waste her time like this? Who did he think he was? She had a good mind to tell him where he could stick his tent, even if it would effectively leave her high and dry.
Shaken by the intensity of her reaction, she ducked her head, using the excuse of fiddling with her phone to give herself a chance to pull herself together. Rationally, she knew that her anger was way out of proportion with the tent man’s crimes. It was Guy she wanted to rip shreds off - along with fate for saddling her mother with an incurable disease.
She could see the tent man drawing closer in her peripheral vision. She took a deep breath, determined to deal with him firmly but fairly. She lifted her head.
“Listen - “ The rest of her speech evaporated as she found herself staring into a pair of rich caramel brown eyes set in a rugged, tanned, very masculine face.
The oddest feeling came over her, a feeling of familiarity and recognition. But she knew that was impossible - she’d never met this man before. She was sure of it.
She blinked. Swallowed. Tried to remember what she’d been about to say.
“Listen. I - I appreciate that life’s full of the, um, unexpected, but a simple phone call...”
She shook her head, unable to remember the rest of her speech.
“Do I know you?” she heard herself ask instead. She sounded as bewildered as she felt.
“I don’t think so.”
He had an accent. English, maybe. One of the regional ones she wasn’t familiar with.
“Right.” She glanced down at the phone in her hand. Its shiny plastic surface helped ground her, reminding her of where she was and what she was doing. “Well, you’re late. I was about to give up on you.”
She didn’t give him an opportunity to respond, gesturing toward the swathe of lawn in front of them in a vain attempt to cover how flustered and off-kilter she felt.
“I want the main tent sited here, facing the water. I think an exit point closest to the house would be smart, in terms of people having access to the facilities. And I was thinking the catering tent should be back a little, to the left. Unobtrusive but practical.”
She was aware of her focus being split the whole time she spoke, part of her brain concentrating on the business at hand, the other half cataloguing how tall he was and the fact that he needed a shave and that his worn denim jeans fitted him very nicely, thank you very much.
There was a short beat of silence before he spoke.
“I think we might have our wires crossed. I’m Adam Hunter. I’m here for the party.”
For a moment she still didn’t understand. Then the penny dropped and a rush of embarrassed heat warmed her face.
“Adam. From Australia,” she said stupidly.
The man her mother had invited to her party in lieu of the recently deceased brother she’d been separated from in childhood. The man her mother was counting on to give her some insight into the brother she would never now have a chance to know.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m guessing you’re Peggy’s daughter?”
“That’s right. Laurie. Laurie Sutcliffe.”
She offered him her hand automatically. He took it in his, his palm rough and warm against hers.
“You’re early,” she said, her sluggish brain finally catching up. “More than a week early. The party’s not until next Saturday.”
She sounded rude. The heat in her face intensified.
He shrugged. “I wanted to get in a little sight seeing.”
Behind him, she saw that the puppy had started in on her mother’s roses again.
“One second,” she said.
She ducked past him and bent to pull the puppy away from the garden bed.
“Not the roses, okay? Anything but the roses,” she told the puppy before she let him go again.
Adam was watching her when she turned around and she realized that she’d offered him an untrammeled view of her backside when she bent over.
Very ladylike. As first impressions went, this was a doozy