- Karen Frost
Paws for Love
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Jessica pulled her suitcase behind her. It was gray, made of almost indestructible plastic, and had lost one of its wheels in the last 50 yards. So for all practical purposes, she was dragging it. But it could have been a 200 pound steamer trunk and she would have hefted it just as effortlessly. Not because of her biweekly spin classes, which were okay for cardio and even better for Instagram, but because sometimes, in life or death situations, women had been known to lift cars off babies as a result of adrenaline dumps. And it was She Hulk time.
Jessica dropped her suitcase at the foot of the ticket counter with a thud and rested her arms on the countertop. Her blonde hair might have looked frazzled after her determined march across the parking lot had her hairspray not cost $75 a bottle, but Celine Dion didn’t use that same brand for nothing. It would have withstood the iceberg that took down the Titanic.
“Ma’am?” The girl at the counter looked alarmed.
“I need,” Jessica gasped, “a ticket to New York. I don’t care what airline. I don’t care what fare class. I don’t care what connection. I just. need. a ticket.”
The girl looked to her left and right as though seeking support, but she was alone. All the other counters were vacant. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. The airport is closing. There are no flights at all. Not to New York, not to anywhere.”
Jessica closed her eyes. “I hear what you’re saying, but I just need…” Her voice was filled with infinite fatigue. “I just need that ticket.”
The girl took a step back from the counter. Her smile was a little too frozen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. The quarantine will be at least a month. It’s the governor’s orders. No flights in or out.”
Jessica’s face twitched as she processed the news, but she rallied, buoyed by a burst of frenetic energy. “I can drive! I can drive there. It’s not that far, right? What, half a day?”
“Ma’am, it’s a 43 hour drive to get to New York. Do you have a car? All the car rental companies have shut down as well.”
Jessica blinked. “What… What do you mean they’ve all shut down?” Her fingers tightened, their pads clutching the countertop.
The girl took another step backward. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I guess you’re stuck here for a while. I hope you have a place to stay.”
Jessica dragged her suitcase back to the curb, She Hulk no more. It made a loud grating sound as it scraped against the concrete. As she looked up and down the single lane in front of the airport, there wasn’t a single taxi in sight. In fact, there weren’t any cars at all on the road. It was like she’d stepped into a post-apocalyptic scene. She pulled her phone out of her pocket to call an Uber. Dead battery.
She threw up her hands. “This can’t be happening. This can not be happening.” But it was. She was stuck in Happy Valley while the Met Ball was less than a month away and she still hadn’t heard back from the PR reps of most of the highest profile invitees. If she didn’t get back in the next few days, she could kiss the job she’d worked so hard for goodbye. This was a disaster.
She kept dragging her suitcase behind her as she walked in the direction of what she hoped would be the nearest gas station. There she might be able to use a phone to call…she shuddered—her parents. The last thing she wanted was to spend any more time than she had to in Happy Valley. There was a reason she’d moved to New York and never come back.
Unexpectedly, a beat up pickup truck pulled up beside her. It was an old Ford, baby blue with a dented front bumper. “Need a ride? I know it's quarantine, but you look a bit...desperate.”
Jessica bit her lip, vacillating. Living in New York had taught her not to trust anyone. You never knew who was driving and what they wanted. New York was a city of eight million strangers. But she didn’t have much of a choice. She had no idea how close a gas station might be, and her Manolo Blahnik boots were fashionable but not meant for hiking. Already, she could feel a blister forming on her foot. She accepted gratefully.
When she slid into the passenger seat, she did a double-take. The driver she had expected to be a man was actually a woman. She had short brown hair hidden under a dirty baseball cap and a surprisingly thin frame under her maroon long-sleeve t-shirt. The woman put the truck into drive and gave her a friendly smile. “Where can I take you?”
“To New York? Ha ha,” Jessica replied, a twinge of hysteria still in her voice. She took a deep breath, sighed, and ran her hand through her thick hair. “I guess to my parent’s house on the far side of town. I can’t believe they shut everything down. The next flight to New York won’t be for a month.”
The woman nodded. “It’s a difficult time. I just sent all of my volunteers home and who knows when I’ll see them again. I’m Stephanie, by the way.”
Jessica gave a wave. “Jennifer. Volunteers for what?”
“I run a dog rescue, Paws for Dogs. We have over a hundred dogs at our shelter. Now that the quarantine has started, I’m taking care of them all myself so my staff can engage in social distancing.”
Jessica played with the white silk scarf at her neck, realizing that sitting in the car with Stephanie meant they were breaking social distancing. “That sounds like a lot of work.”
Stephanie shrugged. “I don’t mind. A pandemic doesn’t just hurt humans, it hurts pets, too. When the virus first hit, people were just letting their pets out on the street. At least that stopped. In fact, adoptions have gone up over the last few weeks. Some shelters have even fostered out all their animals. People don’t want to be alone.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes, then Stephanie said casually, “So your parents live around here. Did you grow up here?”
Jessica looked out the window, watching the familiar houses go by. “Yeah.”
It was a short answer that didn’t invite follow-up, but Stephanie did anyway. “You don’t sound particularly happy to be back.”
Jessica bit her bottom lip, her face troubled. “It’s complicated.”
* * *
When Stephanie pulled up in front of the American Craftsman-style home owned by Jessica’s parents, Jessica was so anxious she was drumming her carefully manicured fingers against the armrest like the drumline in a marching band. Stephanie eased the truck from park back into gear. “Do you want to get some breakfast?”
Jessica looked at her with undisguised relief. “That would be great.”
They went to Dinah’s Diner, the only restaurant in town open for breakfast. It had been built in the 1950s and still had its original checkerboard floor and red vinyl stools and booths. To comply with quarantine rules, it was only offering carry out, so they stepped inside briefly to grab menus and order.
“Hey there, cool cats,” Dinah herself said, meeting them at the counter and pointing to the menu on the whiteboard. “What can I get you?”
“Do you have matcha tea?” Jessica asked.
Dinah frowned at her. “Matcha…tea?” She repeated the word carefully.
Jessica sighed softly. “I’ll have an egg white omelet with avocado. No toast.”
Dinah looked disconcerted. “I’m sorry, we don’t have avocados here.”
“Just the omelet then.”
“I’ll have coffee and the Dinah Special,” Stephanie said.
“Got a new friend?” Dinah asked, subtly moving her head to indicate Jessica.
“Jessica is here temporarily,” Stephanie replied. “Stranded by the quarantine.”
Dinah smiled indulgently. “Who knows. Maybe she’ll like it so much she stays forever.”
Stephanie smiled fondly in Dinah’s direction as she bustled around and shook her head. “Dinah’s like a second mother to me. After mine died, she took me under her wing. My first job was here, washing dishes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about your mother.” Jessica didn’t know what else to say. She pulled her phone out of her pocket to look, then remembered it was dead when she saw its black screen.
They walked back outside to wait for their food. Stephanie took a seat on one end of the black metal bench in front of the diner while Jessica sat on the other end. It wasn’t quite six feet apart, but it was close enough. They’d been closer in the car anyway. When the wind gusted, Jessica was glad she had her wine colored wool pea coat on. She wrapped herself in it more tightly, savoring the warmth.
Stephanie said, “So you live in New York?”
Jessica nodded, feeling her chest constrict at the thought of being stuck in Happy Valley. She needed to get back to her life and out of Happy Valley.
“I guess the Big Apple is pretty different from here,” Stephanie mused.
“It is. It feels like everything is always going a thousand miles an hour. It’s like being in a tornado.”
“Then maybe the quarantine will be a vacation. You can finally have some time for yourself.”
In a brittle voice that came off too chipper, Jessica said, “Well, no, it’s not a vacation. It’s a disaster. I need to be back there. My whole life is there. Just because I haven’t had a day off, gone to a movie, or been on a date in…” she tried to remember. She gave up after she realized it might have been a year or more “...a while doesn’t mean I don’t love it.”
Stephanie squinted into the distance. “Sounds empty. Without love, does any of the rest of it matter?”
Jessica didn’t have time to think of an answer before Dinah came out with their breakfasts in two white paper bags. Stephanie took the Styrofoam container out of her bag and opened it. Inside was corned beef hash and two eggs, sunny side up. She mixed them all together and put a forkful into her mouth. After swallowing, she said, “People in big cities are always running from one thing to the next. But if you run too fast, you won’t see all the things you’re running past. Maybe one of those things is love.”
Jessica huffed. Love? Not everyone was obsessed with finding love. Life wasn’t a Disney movie. She protested, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am. It’s not easy making it in New York. Love can wait.”
Stephanie raised her eyebrows. “Can it? Who will keep you warm at night or hold your hand when you go for a walk in the park?”
Jessica didn’t say anything, but she had to admit: Stephanie had a point. When was the last time someone had held her at night? She cast a sidelong glance at Stephanie. Was someone keeping her warm at night? Was that why she was such a romantic? It was easy for her to be philosophical about love, but she didn’t help arrange the Met Gala.
* * *
After they finished breakfast, Stephanie asked, “Do you mind if we stop off somewhere on the way back to your folks’ place?”
“Sure,” Jessica agreed. She welcomed delaying the inevitable reunion with her parents.
They drove to an apartment complex a few blocks down the street from the diner. The red brick building was small, with only ten or so apartments. Stephanie parked on the street in front of it, then hauled a small pink bike out of the truck bed. Jessica watched, confused. Stephanie hadn’t mentioned having a family, and she didn’t wear a ring. Who was the bike for?
Stephanie saw her expression and explained, “This is for my god-daughter, Sophia. Her mother and I have been friends since the day we were born. There are pictures of us in bassinets next to each other in the hospital even. Sophia is practically mine. Anyway, I promised her a new bike for her sixth birthday and that’s today.”
She went back to her truck and fished a white plastic can with a yellow lid out of the door. Lysol wipes. Taking one out, she wiped down every inch of the bike, then tucked it in the back pocket of her jeans. She walked up to the window of one of the apartments on the ground floor and tapped gently. A moment later, a little girl with black pigtails and big brown eyes pressed her nose to the glass.
Stephanie stepped back, waved, and pointed to the bike. “We’ll ride together soon, okay?” she said loudly.
Inside, the girl nodded excitedly, clapping and bouncing up and down.
“I’ll see you later, Munchkin.” Stephanie gave another wave and walked back to the truck, where Jessica was waiting.
“Why did you—?“ Jessica motioned to the bike, which Stephanie had left sitting on the lawn.
“Sophia is immunocompromised, so we’re limiting her contact with the outside world right now. Once we’re gone, she can come get the bike,” Stephanie explained. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
They made small talk as they drove. Then Stephanie said, “It’s none of my business, but may I ask why you’re so nervous about going home? You seem on edge.”
Jessica swallowed uncomfortably, looking down. “In high school and college, I had a boyfriend, Jason. Everyone thought we were the most wonderful couple in the world. The kind everyone wants to be like. My parents loved Jason and basically adopted him. Everything was going great and then…I left him at the altar.”
Stephanie’s eyebrows rose. “Why?”
Jessica closed her eyes and tilted her head back against the headrest. “I was told growing up that when I was in love, I’d have butterflies in my stomach. My heart would beat faster when I saw that person. The sun would shine brighter and birds would sing louder. But when I saw Jason standing at the altar…I didn’t feel any of that. And I ran. I ran all the way to New York. This is the first time I’ve been back since.”
“Wow, that’s quite a story.” Stephanie’s green eyes were soft and sympathetic. “I can see how it would be hard to come back here.” She frowned. “So why did you come back?”
Jessica played with the end of her scarf. “I came to visit my Nana at the nursing home. When I left, she was the only one who really understood why. I was on my way back from a trip to Sonoma. I had planned to fly in, see her, and then fly out the next day.” She barked a laugh. “Guess not.”
“And not see your parents?” Stephanie’s voice carried her surprise.
Jessica fluffed her blonde hair uncomfortably. “I love my parents. But…they’ve never given up hope that Jason and I will get back together. As soon as I walk through that door, all I’ll hear about is Jason. My mother is determined for us to be the parents of her future grandchildren.”
Stephanie gave her a supportive smile. “I see. Well, if it gets to be too much, the dogs won’t judge you. You can come always hide out at the shelter.”
Jessica smiled back shyly. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”
Was that a tiny flutter in her stomach or did she just need caffeine? She looked away. She wished there’d been matcha tea. She reached for her phone, then remembered it was dead.
* * *
“Jessie, sweetie? Is that you?” Jessica’s mother’s eyes were full of happy surprise when she opened the door.
Jessica raised her hands and shoulders a little. “It’s me.” Her voice was high and carried a forced happy tone. She was immediately enveloped in a hug that crushed the air out of her lungs. She patted her mom on the back uncomfortably. “Mom. Mom, let go.”
“Oh, sweetie, why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
Jessica plastered a smile on her face. “Surprise!”
“Let me get your bag. Is that all you brought? Frank? Frank, Jessie is home!”
They stepped into the foyer and Jessica rubbed her arms uncomfortably, remembering the last time she’d been in the house. She wondered how many other women had ridden Greyhound buses in wedding dresses.
Her father appeared around the corner. “Jess, sweetheart! What a surprise! Is it to keep us company during the quarantine?” He gave her a short hug. “Are you hungry? When did you get in?”
“No, dad, I just ate. And…” she bit her lip, “today. I got in today.” It was a lie, but it had some truth to it. She had arrived at their house today.
“You know who would be happy to see you?” Her mom asked.
Please don’t say it. Please don’t say it.
Jessica winced. “No, Mom, of course he wouldn’t. Please don’t—”
“I’m going to call him.”
“Mom, no!” Jessica tried to grab her mother’s hand, but she had already disappeared into the kitchen where the landline was. Jessica gave up.
“It’s so nice to see you, Jess,” her father said.
“It’s good to see you, too, Dad.” She meant it. She’d missed both her parents, even though they talked on the phone at least once a week.
“Why don’t you come sit down in the living room?”
Jessica pulled out her phone. “Okay, but do you have a charger? My phone died and I’m waiting for an important call.” Or ten. Or just one, telling her she was fired. It could have been any of the above. There was no telling.
Her father motioned toward the side table, where a cord was sticking out. Collapsing into his favorite armchair, he asked, “Will you be staying long?”
“As long as the quarantine lasts,” she replied, distracted. As soon as her phone powered on, she saw she had a few missed calls and several frantic texts from the office. “Sorry, Dad, I need to deal with this. Talk later?”
* * *
When Jessica came down from her room half an hour later, her worst nightmare was realized. Jason was sitting at the dining table talking with her parents. He rose as she walked into the room. He looked just like he had the last time he saw her: tall, handsome, and with a cleft in his chin that always reminded her of Eric from “The Little Mermaid.” If anything, he had only become more handsome with time. He gave her a warm smile. “Hey, Jess.”
“Jason.” Panic welled up in her chest. She had only spoken to him once since she’d last seen him. It had been a short and unhappy conversation, in which she’d barely been able to force out words between sobs. She’d tried to explain why she’d run away, but it had been hard to give an answer that she herself didn’t even fully understand.
Her parents smiled encouragingly from the table, their hopes on their sleeves. Her mother said, “Why don’t you two go for a walk? I’m sure you have a lot to talk about.”
No, no, no, no. “I don’t know—” Jessica said reluctantly.
“Just a short one,” Jason said. He winked. “And I’ll keep six feet away. Social distancing.”
Jessica gave a weak smile, feeling trapped. “Of course.”
They hadn’t made it far down the block, walking next to each other silently, when Jessica blurted out, “Look, I’m sorry. My mom shouldn’t have called you. I understand if you don’t want to see me. I wouldn’t want to see me. I’ll tell my parents something came up and you had to go.”
Jason held his hands up. “Jess, it’s fine. Relax.”
“No, it’s not fine! It’s totally normal that you would never want to see me again. You don’t have to pretend for them. They’ll still love you anyway.”
“But I do want to see you. I’m not pretending.”
Jessica stared at him, speechless. What? Why?
He ran his hand through his short black hair. “Look, the past is just that: the past. Let’s forget about it and talk about the present. Tell me about New York. What have you been up to?”
She shrugged, totally shell shocked by his apparently blasé attitude toward having been left at the altar. “Uh, well, uh, I don’t have a car. I live in a studio apartment with a plant.” She frowned. “Actually, I’m not sure the plant’s going to make it.” Poor Artie the lily. “I work all the time, and come to think of it, I don’t know any of my neighbors’ names.” She scrambled for more things to say. “My barista’s name is Jayden and one time I saw Beyonce from across the room.” She lapsed into embarrassed silence. Trying to rally, she said, “How about you?”
“Well, I opened that bakery I always said I would. Happy Valley’s Best Buns. The logo is two buns.” He demonstrated with his hands. “You should come by sometime. We were voted best cinnamon buns in all Happy Valley this year and we’re currently running a quarantine special: two buns for the price of one.” He blew out a huff of air. “Other than that, I guess everything is pretty much the same as when you left.”
Jessica bit her lip. “Look, Jason, I should explain. You deserve to know. It was never you, it was me. I—”
He held up a hand, stopping her. “Please, you don’t need to explain anything to me. Really. You had your reasons for doing what you did and now it’s all water under the bridge.”
“Okay,” Jessica said uncertainly.
“Here.” Jason pulled out his phone. “Let me show you pictures of the bakery.”
* * *
“Wait, he just…was okay about it?”
Jessica hadn’t been surprised to find her best friend from college, Kat, still lived in town. Although they’d lost touch over the years since Jessica moved to New York, meeting up now in the grocery store—six feet apart, of course—was one way to combat the boredom of home quarantine and catch up.
Jessica nodded. “He said it was ‘water under the bridge.’”
Kat squinted at the nutrition label on a box of cereal, then put it in her basket. “If it was anyone else, I’d say he’s lulling you into a false sense of security so he could get his Count of Montecristo-style revenge. But since it’s Jason…could he still have feelings for you?”
Jessica stopped and stared at her, aghast. “He couldn’t! I left him at the altar. And besides, it’s been years. I’m sure he’s moved on.”
Kat shrugged. “Love makes you do crazy things, right? Maybe even take back the person who left you at the altar.”
As they turned the corner, Jessica collided with a familiar figure. “Oh!” she exclaimed, stumbling back. “Stephanie!”
Stephanie was wearing a loose red flannel shirt and a puffy green vest. Her hair was in a ponytail but for a lock of hair that framed the side of her face, highlighting her green eyes. She smiled when she recognized Jessica. “Hi there.”
“Hi. Sorry to break your quarantine bubble,” Jessica apologized. Her hands waved in front of her, pantomiming the invisible bubble.
“I think I’ll be all right.”
Jessica turned to Kat. “Stephanie gave me a ride home from the airport when I got stuck here.”
Kat gave a cheery wave. “Hi, I’m Kat.”
Stephanie waved back, then asked Jessica, “So are you settling in all right?”
Jessica sighed. “As much as I can. It’s hard to work remotely. The internet keeps cutting in and out, so I can’t be on video conference calls. At least they haven’t fired me yet. That is, until they find out we haven’t heard back from Angie’s people.” She made a face.
Stephanie frowned, confused. “Angie?”
“Oh.” Her face indicated she didn’t know who that was.
“You know what?” Jessica exclaimed, pulling her phone out of her pocket. “I should get your number. I’ve been thinking my parents would be a lot happier with a dog around the house.”
They exchanged numbers, then Stephanie continued down the pasta aisle while Jessica and Kat headed for produce. Picking up where their conversation left off, Kat asked, “So if, hypothetically, Jason wanted to try again, would you give him a chance?”
Jessica pursed her lips. “Jason is a great guy, but we’re well and truly over.”
Kat shrugged. “Maybe you should give him my number then. Tell him I’m single and ready to mingle.” She shimmied her body jokingly.
They both laughed. As they reached the checkout lane, Jessica looked over her shoulder, but she didn’t see Stephanie anywhere. She ignored the twinge of dismay she felt. That was definitely the carbs talking. There was no hope for the keto diet in Happy Valley.
* * *
When Jessica got home, she flopped onto her stomach on her bed, feet hanging off the end like she was still a teenager. Her parents had taken down the boy band posters from the walls, but her dance trophies were lined up on a shelf, and her old jewelry box—pink, with a dancing ballerina on it—sat on the center of the desk surrounded by small stuffed animals. It felt like she’d gotten into a time machine and gone back to her teenage years. She took out her phone and stared at it for a minute, then composed a text message to Stephanie. Hey, it’s Jessica. What kind of dog would work for my parents? They need something low energy and small.
She hit send and waited, not knowing how long it would take for Stephanie to respond. She was both surprised and pleased when a text came back immediately.
You could look at a Pomeranian.
Jessica typed back, Do you have one at the shelter? There was no answer for several minutes. Jessica felt unexpectedly disappointed. Where had Stephanie gone? She began to chew her lower lip.
Her phone pinged. Yes. You’re welcome to come meet her any time.
Jessica’s heart beat a little faster. How about now?
Jessica stared at the phone, then took a deep breath. It was just to look at a dog. She wasn’t committing to anything.
* * *
When Jessica arrived, Stephanie met her with a dirty white cloth over her shoulder and a red dog collar in her hand. As she stepped out of the shadows, the sun bathed her in a warm sunbeam. She waved. “Ready to meet Goliath?”
Stephanie led Jessica down a long row of kennels full of dogs of all shapes and sizes. Three quarters of the way down, she stopped and unlocked one. “This,” she announced, stepping inside, “is Goliath. I call her Golly.” She knelt down and picked up a tiny blond fluffball no larger than a rabbit. Golly squirmed happily and tried to lick anything she could reach. “She hasn’t been here long. Purebreds like her are adopted quickly, while mutts, especially if they’re pit crosses, take longer to find homes. We can take her to the play area if you like.”
She handed the dog up to Jessica. Jessica cradled Golly to her blue quilted jacket. Golly seemed to like being close to her. She remembered what Stephanie had said about being held at night, then dismissed the memory with a blush. What a silly thing to think of.
In the play area, she set Golly down. Golly refused to leave Jessica’s side. She ran in circles, barking and yipping to get Jessica’s attention. Her little pink mouth was open, panting happily.
“I think she likes you,” Stephanie said, leaning against the wall, her arms crossed.
“I think so,” Jessica agreed.
“It would be good if you could take her. The more animals I can move out right now, the better.”
There was something about the way she said it that caught Jessica’s attention. “Because of the quarantine?”
Stephanie shifted, re-crossing her arms. “With so many people out of work right now, donations to the shelter will dry up. Even during normal times, we struggle every month to make ends meet. I don’t see how we can possibly go on now that our donors need all their money for rent and food. I guess Happy Valley Homes will finally have its way.”
Jessica cocked her head. “Happy Valley Homes?”
“It’s a big real estate developer here. They’ve been eyeing this land for years, wanting to turn it into an exclusive, gated community. I’m the last holdout.”
Jessica was shocked. “But what will you do?”
Stephanie put her hands in her jean pockets. “When the time comes, I’ll bring the dogs that haven’t been adopted yet to other, bigger shelters. They’ll be all right.”
“But what will you do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out. What matters is making sure the dogs are taken care of.”
“There has to be a way to save the shelter!” Jessica exclaimed.
Stephanie shook her head. “It is what it is. There are plenty of other places—homeless shelters and safe spaces for battered women, for example—that will be just as impacted. Times are hard.”
The conversation lapsed into brief silence. Jessica felt awful. She couldn’t imagine the shelter being demolished to make way for a small mansion. Suddenly, her inability to get through to Angelina’s people seemed much less important.
As though she could read Jessica’s thoughts, Stephanie asked, “Still desperate to get back to your matcha tea and avocados in New York?”
Jessica picked Golly up and cuddled her, kissing her soft fur. A few blond hairs fell onto her dark blue jeans. “Maybe not desperate. I have been more relaxed here. And it’s been nice to reconnect with some old friends,” she chuckled, “even if it’s from six feet away. I forgot what it’s like to be able to take a bath and not worry about if my phone is going to ring in the other room. I even saw an episode of The Bachelor.”
“And how about…Jason was it?”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Mommy matchmaker hasn’t give up yet, but she’s been…manageable for the most part.” She waited a beat, then laughed. “Okay, honestly she’s been awful. I feel like if I don’t have children right now I’m letting her down.”
Stephanie raised her thin eyebrows. “No pressure.”
“Right? The last thing I need right now is—” She looked into Stephanie’s eyes and stopped as a thrill ran through her. She shook herself and concluded, “to be distracted. I’ve got a Met Ball to help arrange.” She patted her pockets. “You know what? Now that I mention it, I’ve got some calls to make. I should go. Is there some paperwork to fill out for Golly?”
“We can do that another time if you want to bring Golly home for a test drive. I’ll send you with some dog food. Here, let me take her.”
Stephanie stepped forward and in that moment she and Jessica were nose to nose. Time slowed down and Jessica’s eyes widened. She froze. Was it her imagination, or did Stephanie freeze, too? If she did, she unfroze quickly.
Her hands reached next to Jessica’s and she gently lifted Golly away. “I’ll just go get that food for you.”
“Okay, great.” Jessica fumbled in her pocket for her phone, desperately trying to dig it out of her pocket. Her heart was beating just a little too quickly. Probably because of the excitement of bringing Golly home.
* * *
It took a week of coaxing, but Jason finally convinced Jessica to come to his bakery. They stood outside the shop, six feet apart, each holding a gooey cinnamon bun.
“This is really good,” Jessica said, wiping her mouth with a paper napkin. “How did you learn how to make these?”
“Industry secret,” Jason said.
“If you give me the recipe, I promise not to tell anyone. I’ll take it to the grave. Even if they torture me, I won’t reveal it.”
“But if I don’t give you the recipe, then you have to come back here sometimes.”
Jessica winced. Was Kat right about Jason still being in love with her? She hoped not. Before she could think any more about it, a familiar blue truck pulled up.
“Good morning! I hope you saved some buns for me,” Stephanie called brightly.
She got out and immediately waved to Jason. Jessica couldn’t help but stare. They knew each other? She was surprised to feel a flash of jealousy. What was their relationship? She shook her head, dispelling the feeling. Happy Valley was a small town. Of course they knew each other. Then she saw the back of Stephanie’s truck was loaded with crates of dogs. Her heart sank. “Are you taking the dogs to a new shelter already?”
Stephanie grinned. “Nope, we’re going to a parade.”
“Yup. Since the patients at the hospital can’t go outside, I’m going to parade the dogs past their windows. Just a little something to brighten their day.”
“That’s so sweet.” Just like with Sophia, Stephanie was looking out for others. Jessica looked into the car. “But it’s just you. How will you walk them all?”
“I’ll just have to do a few at a time. It’s not a big deal.”
“I could come with you,” Jessica offered. Given she was already missing a video conference call, it’s not like she had anything else to do. Moreover, she’d just found out the Met Gala had been put on indefinite delay by the pandemic. She was temporarily unemployed.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. It sounds like fun!”
“Let me grab your order,” Jason told Stephanie. He disappeared into the bakery.
It was a cool morning, and Stephanie was wearing a blue, quarter-zip sweater. She crossed her arms. “So that’s your Jason.” There was amusement in her voice.
Jessica flushed. “Yes. No. It’s not like that.”
Stephanie gave an enigmatic smile. “I can see that.”
“No, stop it,” Jessica said, hugging herself in her white wrap coat. The idea of someone even joking about her dating Jason was upsetting.
Stephanie changed subjects. “How are your parents liking Golly?”
“They love her. My mother has started knitting her little sweaters.”
“Hey, that’s good. Maybe that will satisfy her urge for grandchildren for now.”
Jessica snorted. “I wish.”
Jason returned carrying two large, white cardboard boxes balanced carefully in his arms. “Here we go! Where can I put them?”
“Let’s put them in the cab behind my seat,” Stephanie said, opening the door for him.
Jason set them down and waggled a finger at Jessica. “Don’t eat them all before you get there.”
“Jason!” Jessica protested, swatting at him.
He laughed. “Have fun, ladies!”
* * *
“So how did you start the rescue?” Jessica asked as they unloaded some of the dogs in front of the hospital. Stephanie had brought twelve dogs. Rather than taking them all at once, they decided to walk them in two groups.
Stephanie hooked a green, nylon leash to a pointer mix and let him jump down from the truck. She’d tied a red bandana around his neck. “Well, I’ve always loved animals. In college, I wanted to be a vet, but I realized I could do more good by running a shelter. So I became a vet tech instead and started saving up money to start Paws for Dogs. I bought the land, build the kennels, and we opened our doors three years ago.”
Jessica felt a wrench in her gut every time she thought about the shelter having to close. It was so unfair. “How much do you need each month to keep it open?”
“About $7,000. But let’s not talk about it.” Stephanie thumped the pointer’s side, making him wag his tail furiously. “We’ve got some new friends to make, right, pupper?”
They walked the dogs back and forth several times in front of the hospital windows. Some of the dogs knew tricks, which they performed in return for treats. Inside, patients of all ages cheered and pointed, thrilled by the sight of dogs in cowboy vests, bandanas, and even a tiny sombrero. Jessica almost wished she had room in her life for a dog, but if she couldn’t even keep Artie alive, how could she possibly have a dog? Besides, when she went back to New York she’d be back to working 15 hours a day, seven days a week. She really didn’t have time for a dog.
As they walked back to the truck after dropping the buns at the front door for the nurses and doctors, Stephanie asked, “Now that you’ve made your peace with Happy Valley, will you be coming back here more often?”
Jessica smiled coyly. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
Stephanie raised her eyebrows. “Not so bad after all?”
“I didn’t say it was bad!” Jessica protested.
“I seem to recall picking someone up off the side of the road who was ready to drive across the country on the spot just to escape,” Stephanie teased.
“That’s not fair!” As she spun to protest, the toe of Jessica’s boot caught against the edge of the sidewalk. She pitched into Stephanie. Their faces got so close that for a second Jessica thought they would make contact. She caught herself at the last moment, her hands on Stephanie’s shoulders. “Whoops,” she gasped, unexpectedly breathless.
Stephanie didn’t seem particularly alarmed. In fact, she hadn’t even moved to avoid it.
“Clumsy me,” Jessica said with a thin laugh.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, and Jessica couldn’t help noticing how loud the birds were. They were singing their heads off. Must be a spring thing, she thought.
* * *
Jessica spent all of the next week thinking about Paws for Dogs. In fact, it was almost all she could think about. She helped organize the Met Gala, one of the biggest fundraisers in New York. If there was one person who could solve Paws for Dogs’s problem, it was her. But how? Then inspiration struck. She was so excited she called Stephanie to meet in person. Well, six feet away.
“The Pet Gala,” she said immediately once Stephanie sat down across from her outside Happy Valley’s Best Buns.
Stephanie frowned. “What? What are we talking about?”
“Fundraising. We’ll dress up the dogs from the shelter like they’re going to the Met Gala. Then people can donate online for the dog whose outfit they like best. That’s how we’ll save Paws for Dogs!” She was beaming.
Stephanie stared at her, bewildered. “But…who’s going to make the costumes?”
Jessica dismissed the concern with a flip of her wrist. “Costumes are the easy part. I know designers in New York City who would love to help, and now that the Met Gala is postponed, they’re sitting around with nothing to do. It’s perfect! What do you say? It will be easy and people love dogs in costumes.”
Stephanie looked skeptical. “Do you really think it will raise money?”
Jessica was so excited she was almost bouncing out of her green Adirondack barn jacket. “Yes! People are sitting at home looking for things to cheer them up. This will cheer them up. I’m telling you: this is going to go viral. You are going to have so much money coming in you won’t even know what to do with it.”
“I guess we could try.” Stephanie looked at her watch. “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta run. I’m hoping to adopt out two of the pit mixes today. Text me later with whatever you need from me?”
Jessica watched Stephanie go with a self-satisfied glow. This was it. This was how they were going to save Paws for Dogs. Jason slipped into Stephanie’s chair, startling her. She had been so absorbed she hadn’t even noticed him.
He took a sip of his coffee. “Did she say yes?”
It was his turn to look confused. “Oh. I assumed you asked her out.”
Every cell in her body froze. “What are you talking about? Why would you ask that? What are you… What are you saying?” She was blinking a little too much, a little too fast.
“I just thought she’s clearly into you, too, and—”
“Jason, why do you think I…” Jessica swallowed, unable to finish the sentence. Under the table, her hands were clutching the hem of her cardigan.
He leaned forward. His face was open, sympathetic. “I’ve had a long time to think about what went wrong between us. Your love of the Indigo Girls, your “Xena: Warrior Princess” VHS collection, that time you mysteriously decided you wanted to join the softball team... I shouldn’t have been surprised when you couldn’t go through with the wedding.”
Her face went white. “I should go. It’s… I’ve got a thing… It’s a work thing… Very important. Call you later!” Jessica bolted from the chair and already had the car started before Jason could say another word. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it might explode.
* * *
Two weeks later, through some sort of unbelievable costume design magic that neither Stephanie nor Jessica could fully understand—but nevertheless both appreciated—the Pet Gala was set to launch. Stephanie had selected ten of the most photogenic dogs to participate, and costume designers had worked tirelessly to put together the most lavish, eye-popping costumes imaginable for them. From sequins to feather boas, elaborate headpieces to leopard print trains, the dogs were set to look their most fashionable for the big event.
Jessica dropped the box of costumes on Stephanie’s desk with a muffled thump. She held up a camera that was draped around her neck. “Are you ready for a fashion show?”
Stephanie smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “Isn’t the real question, ‘Are the models ready?’”
With Stephanie arranging the animals in front of a white sheet and Jessica acting as photographer, they finished the photoshoot in a matter of hours. It was fun pretending the dogs were real models. They even gave the dogs fake personalities and foibles as though they were real high fashion models. Only red M&Ms, please! Don’t look straight at me!
They laughed themselves silly, occasionally sneaking in candid shots of each other, but best of all, the pictures turned out just as well as Jessica had hoped. As she looked them over on the camera’s digital screen, she knew the Pet Gala was going to be a hit. “People are going to love these!” she squealed happily. “Just look at how cute they are!”
Stephanie leaned over her shoulder to look, forgetting to keep six feet of distance. As her body made contact with Jessica’s, Jessica froze. She swallowed and slowly lowered the camera. “I’ll go home right now and upload these.”
“You don’t want to stay for a little and celebrate?” Stephanie asked. “I got champagne.”
Jessica ran her hand through her hair and straightened her green cable-knit sweater. “I should really get this done tonight. I’ll text you when it’s all done.”
“Okay. Good night.”
Did Stephanie sound a little disappointed? Jessica didn’t wait to find out. She grabbed her leather jacket and all but ran to her car, her boots clicking against the concrete path between the kennels, then sat in it, her head on the steering wheel. She needed to get back to New York, back to her life. She missed New York…right?
* * *
When she got home, her mother was sitting at the dining table working on a puzzle. She looked up when Jessica walked in. “Oh hi, sweetie.”
Jessica joined her at the table. She put her head in her hands with a heavy sigh.
“What’s the matter, sweetie? Something wrong?”
She looked up and bit her lip. “Mom, would you hate me if Jason and I never got back together?”
Her mother looked surprised. “Of course not. Why would I mind, sweetie?”
“Because you always wanted us to get back together. All these years, that was the only thing you wanted.”
“Oh sweetie. I just want you to be happy. You seemed to be happy with him, that’s all.”
Jessica chewed her lip harder. “What if there wasn’t a Mr. Right? What if it was more like…a Mrs. Right?” She braced, waiting for the fallout as though the ceiling were going to collapse. When it didn’t, she opened her eyes.
Her mother gave her a soft look. “Mr. Right, Mrs. Right, it doesn’t matter to me. Just find someone so that I don’t have to worry about you all the time.”
“He wants the same thing for you.”
“Oh, okay.” Jessica stood up, feeling like someone had cut off Earth’s gravity and she was floating toward the moon. Could it really be that easy? She wandered up to her room and flopped onto the bed on her back. She took out her phone and looked at it. There was a message from Stephanie. She turned her phone off. She would look in the morning. Maybe.
* * *
The Pet Gala was a smashing success. As Jessica had predicted, it took off like wildfire on social media, earning thousands of views an hour and garnering mentions on several local and even national news programs. For all Stephanie’s fears the effort wouldn’t raise money, donations came pouring in. They raised the $7,000 they needed in the space of only a few hours, and went on to raise enough for the next few months, as well. Jessica carried a check with the first $7,000 in her purse to give to Stephanie, but she hadn’t seen Stephanie since the night of the gala. Twice when she went to the shelter, Stephanie was somewhere else, and she hadn’t returned any of Jessica’s texts. At last Jessica collapsed unhappily on a chair outside Happy Valley’s Best Buns, drowning her sorrows in icing. With the quarantine due to be lifted soon, she’d have to head back to New York. She had to see Stephanie before then.
“Why the glum face?” Jason asked, joining her.
She looked at him with big, sad eyes. “I’ve been trying to find Stephanie.” She opened her phone and looked at its blank screen with a sigh. “I’ve texted her, but no response.”
“Maybe she’s busy?” he suggested helpfully.
She stuck her bottom lip out. “For a few days?”
He shrugged. “Unless something happened between you two?”
She sucked in a breath. In a flashback, she saw herself running headlong out of the shelter. She winced.
He patted her on the hand. “Relax. I’m sure it will turn out all right.”
As if on cue, Stephanie’s truck rolled up in front of the bakery. Jessica looked back and forth between Jason and the truck. “Did you do something?”
He held up his hands, palm out. “Coincidence.”
Stephanie hopped out of the truck and waved. While Jessica was distracted, Jason disappeared into bakery. Jessica gaped at her. “I thought you were avoiding me. You didn’t answer any of my texts.”
Stephanie pulled her phone out of her pocket. What should have been a smooth black face was an intricate spider web of white cracks. She said, “Two days ago one of the big dogs knocked it out of my hand. With all the phone stores shut down, I haven’t been able to get a new one. Sorry. Why were you trying to reach me?”
Jessica reached into her white leather purse and pulled out the check. She waved it like a little flag. “We did it! Here’s the first check from the Pet Gala.”
“That’s great,” Stephanie said.
But she didn’t come to get it, and Jessica didn’t step forward to give it to her. They stood apart from each other like uneasy members of opposing sports teams. Stephanie shoved her hands in her pockets. “So I guess you’re headed back to New York soon then?”
Jessica felt a twist in her stomach. Her life was in New York. So why did it feel like going back was…running away? She looked down. “I guess so.”
Stephanie took a small step forward. “Maybe you’ll come visit more often now that you see Happy Valley’s not so bad.”
Jessica took a small step forward, too. “And the quarantine isn’t over yet. It could be extended. Who knows how long I might be stuck here.”
They were six feet apart, and then Stephanie stepped closer. “I could use some help at the shelter. It’s a lot of dogs for just one person to walk.”
Jessica swallowed. Her legs were shaking. They wanted to run.
Stephanie gently reached out and took the two ends of the belt around Jessica’s trench coat, holding them just tightly enough that Jessica could feel it across her lower back. Stephanie said in a low voice, “How many coats did you pack?”
Then their lips were crashing together, the tension that had separated them broken. Stephanie gathered Jessica into her arms easily and carefully. They separated breathlessly.
“So much for social distancing!” Jason yelled from the doorway of the bakery.
Jessica blushed and wiped her mouth. Stephanie laughed. Jessica took her hand. Maybe Stephanie had been right all along. It was time to stop running away from love.