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Chapter 1

"Roscoe! Roscoe, let's go!" I was standing by the front door of my apartment, my hand on the door knob, my foot tapping in exasperation.

"Last chance!" I teased. "I'm leaving for the park. It's now or never!"

That did it. All twenty-two pounds of my best friend came bounding out from the bedroom, chew toy still in his mouth. His stubby tail wagged excitedly when he saw that I was holding his leash in my hand.

"That's what I thought. You never want to miss ‘park time,' do you, baby?" I leaned down, attached the red leash to his matching collar, and ruffled the fur on his head.

Roscoe was a 7-month-old West Highland Terrier - or Westie, for short - and he truly was my best friend. Well, the best listener when I had a cruddy day, anyway. And he was always encouraging me to get exercise with our daily walks in the park across from my apartment building. Best friends did those kinds of things, right?

I was pathetic.  

I'd moved to Charleston three months ago on a whim and a job offer I couldn't refuse. It didn't matter that I'd left family, friends, and my comfort zone seventeen hundred miles away. My life had been stagnant, filled with a day-to-day monotony that was driving me insane. I had no love life either and no prospects to speak of. So? I answered an ad on an online job hunting site and found this consultant's position that seemed right up my alley. The pay was about fifteen grand more a year than what I'd been making and they offered to pick up my moving expenses. How could I turn away from such temptation?

Soon I learned that the excitement of living completely on my own in a new city wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The job was good but I worked independently; my ‘co-workers' were online at a corporate office in Houston. The first two weeks of the job had been spent there in training. I met a number of my colleagues and supervisors, but I knew that once I returned to Charleston, my work with them would be done solely via email. I'd also met a lot of nice people through my presentations to various businesses, but no actual friendships had formed. And while the apartment I'd moved into was wonderful - a fifth-floor loft space overlooking a tree-lined park, my neighbors were either too shy to socialize or too weird for me to want to get to know them.

That's when I found Roscoe. My sister Liz kept telling me that I needed a companion, and I had always loved her Westie, so she put me in touch with her breeder and, a month later, Roscoe arrived by airplane from Kentucky to live with me. A few ‘accidents' and a ruined pair of very expensive boots aside, he was the perfect roommate for me.

I'd never been much for exercise but having Roscoe now dictated a change in my habits. Every day around 4:30 in the afternoon, he and I would go through the same routine: a brisk mile-long walk around the perimeter of the park followed by play time with his chew toy. Roscoe had learned well in his obedience class so I was able to let him off his leash as I'd toss his toy a short distance and he'd fetch it. We had a bench we'd tagged as ‘ours' that was directly across the street from my apartment and the full-sun exposure of it always helped to drain away the stress of work and loneliness.

"Can I pet your dog?"

I hadn't realized that I was nearly dozing as I sat on the bench while Roscoe played in front of me. A little girl of about four was standing beside me, her fingers clasped together nervously in front of her.

"Sure, sure." I snapped myself back into consciousness. "His name's Roscoe and he loves to kiss new faces."

I called him over and lifted him onto my lap. The little girl scooted her bottom onto the bench beside me and hesitantly reached her hand forward, palm upward. Roscoe immediately began slapping his tongue across her tiny fingers and the girl erupted into delightful giggles.

"He likes you!" I couldn't help but smile. Roscoe stretched his head forward and began licking her face, chin to nose, causing another wave of laughter from both of us.

"Would you like to toss his toy? He'll bring it back to you."

The girl nodded enthusiastically and I put Roscoe on the ground. I reached for his toy and handed it to the girl. She flailed it ahead of her about five feet and, sure enough, Roscoe bounded over to it, nabbed it in his teeth like it was a fresh kill, and trotted happily back to us. I watched the girl, long golden locks held back in a high ponytail, a few wisps framing her freckled face. Her pink Dora the Explorer shirt and matching pants showed me she was definitely a girl out for adventure.

"What's your name?" I asked as she threw the toy a little farther this time.

"Sophie," she answered shyly. "What's yours?"

"I'm Ava." I took a quick glance around. Sophie was definitely too young to be in the park alone and I worried that she was lost - or worse, that her parent would think I was a pedophile, luring her with my dog. "Where are your parents, Sophie?"

"Mommy's over there." Her eyes never left Roscoe as she pointed absently to my right. I scanned the area and found a few women sitting on benches like mine but none seemed to be looking our way.

"Sophie?" I stopped her play for a moment and looked her straight in the eye. "How about the two of us and Roscoe go find your mom so she knows where you are?"

"But she's right there!" and again, the girl waved a finger toward the other benches nearby. "Do you wanna hear the poem I just made up?"

I looked once again to where she kept pointing and saw a few women glancing my way. Perhaps Sophie was right and her mother was keeping an eye on her. If nothing else, I wouldn't let Sophie wander off from me - I'd be sure to deliver her back to her mother safely.

"I'd love to hear the poem you just made up."

Sophie didn't make eye contact with me; she continued to play with Roscoe as she began:

"Daddy misses Mommy,

Daddy misses me.

Daddy's really lonely

Since he lost his family."

Um. What?

I'd been expecting something about puppies or butterflies or some nursery rhyme she'd learned. I simply stared at the little girl, the words of her poem gnawing at me. Was this about her family? Was she a child of divorce? Where could a 4-year-old have picked up this poem from - or did she really just make it up herself?

"Sophie..." a gentle voice called from beside me. A tall woman with curly blond hair approached our bench and Sophie looked up and smiled.

"Mommy! This is Roscoe. Isn't he nice?" Sophie dropped to the ground, cross-legged, and Roscoe bounded into her lap, ready to inundate her face with more kisses.

The woman lowered herself onto the bench beside me, beaming at the delightful sight in front of her.

"I hope my daughter hasn't been bothering you," she said softly as she turned toward me. Her blue eyes matched Sophie's, so light they were almost gray in color.

"No, not at all. Roscoe loves to play and he's having as much fun with Sophie as she is with him."

"I'm Kate." The woman extended her hand and I shook it. Her skin was delicate, soft, almost translucent. Clearly, she was not a regular visitor to any beaches.

"Hi. I'm Ava," I introduced myself.

"What kind of dog is he?" Kate leaned back against the bench and crossed one leg over the other, her hands genteelly on her lap.

"He's a Westie. It's a breed of dog I've always loved because no matter how old he gets, he'll always have that ‘puppy look' to him."

"He's adorable," she smiled. "Thanks for letting Sophie play with him. She's bugged my husband and me for a dog since she could speak, but I honestly didn't want to have to deal with all that goes with dog ownership. Maybe if Sophie were older..." she trailed off.

I nodded in agreement. "Yeah. My favorite pair of boots became Roscoe's first chew toy but he's redeemed himself in being such a good companion."

"Is it just the two of you, then?" Kate asked.

"Uh-huh. I moved here a few months ago and found my apartment was a pretty lonely place to return to each night. The house plants weren't much for conversation so... I got Roscoe."

Kate laughed and we both returned our gaze to Sophie who was talking endlessly to Roscoe, unaware of anything or anyone around her.

"So what brought you to Charleston?"

"I needed a change," I sighed. "My job in Santa Fe was OK but... I don't know. I just wasn't satisfied. My social life was nil and I found every day to be more and more of a chore when my focus was totally work-related."

This was the first time I'd really put into words why I'd really felt the need to move away. It was therapeutic, actually, to finally tell someone how fenced in and isolated I'd been feeling in New Mexico. It wasn't that I didn't have friends - I was just restless. Why not seek adventure while I was still young and single? Something - something unknown - had told me to look at Charleston. There was no logical reason for this city to win out over any other. I mean, if I were really seeking adventure, why hadn't LA or New York City or Chicago even entered my mind?

Then I remembered. I'd had a dream that I was living in a city that I knew I'd never been to. The dream was so vivid - buildings and landscapes so clear - that when I woke the next morning, I began a feverish search to discover where I'd been in my thoughts the night before. It took me a few days but I finally came across photos of Charleston. And it was creepy; I'd never been there and yet the visions in my dream matched the pictures I'd found. I concluded that I must have seen these photos in a magazine or in a movie and had simply forgotten about it.

"Hello?" Kate brought me out of my reverie.

"I'm sorry. What?" She had asked me something and I'd missed it completely.

"I was wondering what you do for a living," Kate responded shyly.

"Well... it's kind of a consulting job. I help companies become more web-efficient with their advertising and sales. It's kind of twisted but when I do my job right, I become unemployed again," I told her with a smirk.

"But a company can keep you on if they want to, can't they?"

"Yes... I guess they could just have me scale down my presence as I monitor their self-progress. I did something similar in Santa Fe and worked for some companies for nearly five years, if for no other reason than the technology kept changing just enough to justify keeping me on their payroll."

"And you like your job?"

"For the most part, yeah, I guess. I just secured a big contract with that real estate firm Trask and Drummond a few days ago so at least I know my rent's paid for the next year and Roscoe will get fed daily. The downside is that I'm kind of the step-child of any staff; no Christmas parties to attend, no hearing the latest gossip by the water cooler, no friendships..."

"Oh." Kate dropped her eyes to her lap. "I see what you mean."

We sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the sunshine and warm breeze soothe us both.

"How about you, Kate?" I finally asked. "Are you an at-home mom?"

"Yes," she smiled at Sophie with pure love. "I'm lucky that way. Sevy - my husband - and I decided when we got married that we both wanted me to be able to stay at home when we had children. At least until I felt I wanted to return to the workforce, anyway."

"Do you have any other children?"

"No, just Sophie. And she's a delight. Sevy just loves the whole ‘daddy' role. At night, he never tires of sitting down for tea with her stuffed animals and he always insists on reading her to sleep. We're really blessed, you know?"

I glanced at Kate but didn't linger when I saw Kate's eyes were holding tears back. I'd just met this woman but it made me wonder what part of their seemingly perfect family would cause her to cry.

"I hope to have that kind of life someday too," I offered. Then I sighed in frustration and leaned forward, leaning my chin on my hands, "But... Mr. Right hasn't shown up yet so it's still just Roscoe and me."

We smiled at each other, Kate's tears now gone and her eyes alight again.

"Any prospects since moving to Charleston?"

"None. Well... I take that back. A guy on the first floor of my apartment building seems to always check his mailbox right when I head out with Roscoe and he smiles way too big for my comfort."

"And?"

"And he's creepy and makes me feel like he's possibly a stalker. Let's just leave it at that," I smirked and Kate gave me a knowing nod.

"So... double locks on your doors?"

"Oh, yeah, the second day I encountered him."

The two of us again fell silent as we spent the next twenty minutes watching Roscoe play with his new best human friend. Sophie's giggles were infectious and it was hard not to laugh along with her as Roscoe took every opportunity he could to plant as many puppy kisses as possible on her hands and face.

"Well, Ava," Kate straightened on the bench, "I think it's time for me to get Sophie home. It'll soon be ‘daddy time' and I wouldn't want to deprive either of them that."

Sophie sulked a little, squatting once more to pull Roscoe into a hug, but then went to her mother's side and clasped her hand.

"Mommy, can we play with Roscoe again tomorrow?" Sophie's little face craned upward toward her mother's.

Kate looked to me, eyebrows raised.

"I'm here every day from 4:30 to 5:30!"

Sophie flashed me a bright smile and then ran over to Roscoe to pat his head. "Bye, Roscoe! You play with me tomorrow, OK?"

The Westie's stubby tail wagged enthusiastically and he pounced upward to give Sophie one last kiss on her cheek.

Kate reached for Sophie's hand once more and faced me. "Thanks," she sighed. "Today was a nice change of pace for us. We both look forward to seeing you tomorrow."

I gave her a genuine smile. In just this short time, I'd met someone I really felt a connection with, someone I could see myself being friends with. And Sophie was so well-behaved and, well, the type of child I could only hope to be blessed with someday.

"Tomorrow it is," I called as they turned to walk away. I attached Roscoe's leash to his collar. "Is that OK with you, boy? I think we've met some nice people, eh? Now let's head home for some frozen dinners and kibble!"

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