“Come on, Mummy!” Emmy pulled on Tess’s hand as they walked across the car park.
“I’m coming, sweetie, but what’s the rush?” Her five-year-old hadn’t even waited for her blonde hair to be pulled back in its usual pony tail before rushing out the door, the moment Tess agreed to this crazy idea.
“We have to get there before anyone else, and see if they’ve st…see if they’ve got one.”
Tess glanced around the half-full car park. “Emmy, darling, not everyone will be here to choose a puppy. The SPCA will have other animals, and probably lots of puppies. And there’ll be other reasons why people come, like…”
“But other people don’t need a puppy, the way I do.”
Tess sighed. When Em first suggested it, the idea had made sense and normally, a puppy might well be the answer, but in this family?
In this family they didn’t have pets. In this family they didn’t tolerate untidiness, because the father hated messes.
Oh! No father. How could she have forgotten? Breathing out slowly, Tess relaxed her shoulders. In the five days since Finn let out six years of frustration in one single tirade, then packed his bags and walked out, she’d apparently learnt to live without him. At least he wouldn’t be around anymore to disrupt their lives with his sudden visits, his criticisms and his unreasonable demands.
Still, replacing a father with an animal didn’t seem right. How could it work when they were poles apart? The puppy would be constantly in the apartment-under their feet even-but the father had rarely been present. A puppy would love a little girl like Em, but the father had never shown much affection. In the end, he’d announced he no longer wanted the role.
Or that of husband. Tess tightened her free hand into a fist and wished-not for the first time-for a handy punching-bag.
Sure, punching bags were more like what she needed, as substitute for the face of her deserting husband. But until this morning Tess hadn’t been able to think of anything to help Em out of the depression she’d been in since Finn dropped his bombshell.
Inside the building several people waited, kids pulling on mums’ hands, impatiently asking how long the man was going to be or complaining of hunger. Just the usual.
Posters of healthy animals advertising various products covered the walls while every other available space was filled with mountains of pet paraphernalia. Tess gazed at them in horror, her stomach tightening into a ball of anxiety. They’d need a dog basket, a collar, a lead, and what else that she hadn’t even thought of? What if they fed it the wrong food, forgot to register the animal or get it immunized?
Pulling Em past the dog poster she was trying to read, Tess stopped in front of one on kittens and cats. “Sure you wouldn’t rather have a kitten?” She crouched down to her daughter’s level. “A kitten would be at least as cute, and much easier to look after. We’d have to take a puppy for walks ’cause they need exercise.”
“That’s alright,” Em answered, sounding very grown-up. “Dogs are more intelli-gent and loving than cats.”
What a big word for a five-year-old. Tess’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Who told…”
“Can I help you?”
At the sound of a man’s soft voice Tess jerked upright, then sucked in a breath when she saw him. About thirty, so a little older than herself, Jeremy-according to his badge-stood leaning back against the counter in a relaxed pose, arms crossed over his chest.
She couldn’t drag her gaze away, only vaguely aware of the sudden quiet in the reception area. It wasn’t just the guy’s voice that appealed. It wasn’t even his smile. Nor was it Jeremy’s bronzed face, brown hair and eyes that were such a warm chocolate colour she could almost taste the sweetness.
No. It wasn’t any of those. It was the hint of pain that had flashed in his eyes the moment he saw her face. An instant later it had vanished, replaced by the warmth of welcome.
Mesmerized, Tess could only stare. What had it meant? It wasn’t as if she’d seen him before. She hadn’t, or she’d have remembered.
His eyebrows rose in question, bringing her back to the present. Why were they here? “Ah…a puppy. Have you got a puppy? A small breed I think, suitable for a young child.” Briefly, she lifted her hand, still with Emmy’s enclosed.
“A honey-coloured puppy,” Em corrected. “Have you got a honey-coloured one? It has to be honey-coloured, now that Daddy’s gone.”
What? What the blazes did the colour have to do with Finn? Tess frowned as she tried to work it out.
From his crossed arms Jeremy lifted one hand and dropped his chin onto it, as if making a show of thinking. But Tess had noted the glint in those chocolate eyes, and the flicker of a smile playing around the guy’s mouth. Then he rubbed his cheek, and frowned. “Do you want a girl or a boy?”
Cripes! Tess bit her lip and looked at her daughter. That was another thing she hadn’t even considered but Em, apparently, already knew.
“A girl. It has to be a girl. See, we’re both girls so it makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Her mother took a step back. Was this what Em had been thinking about when she’d been uncharacteristically withdrawn and quiet these last few days?
“Sure does. Come on then. I’ll show you some Labrador puppies. A bit bigger than you wanted but they’re the only ones we have just now that are honey-coloured all over. They’re from a litter of ten but the mother ignored the smallest three so they were given to the SPCA. For people like you.” He smiled down at Em who’d let go of her mother’s hand and now skipped happily beside him down a long corridor.
Moments later they stood inside a large pen housing three small honey-coloured puppies. Two, paler than the other, played at fighting. They pawed each other, biting, jumping forwards and back as they tried to stimulate the other into aggression.
At the far end of the box an even smaller, more golden puppy woke. Standing slowly, it stretched, then bounded up to Em, putting front paws on the knees of the girl as she crouched down. When the puppy licked Emmy’s face she laughed, picked up the furry ball and cuddled it against her chest, then stood and looked up at her Mum.
Tess wiped the corners of her eyes as she looked back at the happiness on her daughter’s face.
“It’s a girl, isn’t it?” Em stroked the puppy.
“Yes, it’s a girl,” Jeremy answered in a tone that suggested the puppy was the answer to Em’s dreams.
“But a Labrador will get too big!” Tess turned a pleading gaze on Jeremy but his whole attention was on Em.
“I’ll grow!” Em answered, apparently oblivious to her mother’s argument.
“And…our apartment is small,” Tess explained, her voice weaker. She was losing this battle. “Nowhere for a dog to run or exercise, especially a big dog like a Labrador.”
“We live on the outskirts of town, near the river,” Jeremy told them from just inside the door of the box. “Do you know Riverside Reserve? There’s plenty of room there for dogs to run free. We-my son and I-often take his Lab there, for a swim and a run around.”
Tess frowned. “Doesn’t it need to be on a lead?”
But Jeremy shook his head. “Not there. Council exemption.”
Still, she hesitated.
“Having a puppy helped Dylan a lot after his mother died last year.” Jeremy’s voice was soft and gentle again, as if trying to smooth over the obstacles so she’d give in and accept the puppy. “She was…ah…blonde. Like you.”
“Oh!” So that was the cause of his pain. Tess slid her gaze away, back to her daughter.
Em held the bundle of fur away from her chest and looked into the soft hazel eyes. “What do you think of that, Honey? A place to swim, and with another dog, too.”
But Tess had stopped listening. Honey? She rocked back on her feet as scenes from home crowded in on her. Finn talking to Em, calling her Honey. The only times he ever called her by name was when she made him cross. Then he always used her full name, Emily.
“It’s alright, isn’t it, Mummy? I mean, now that Daddy’s gone no-one’s going to call me Honey any more so we have to use the name somewhere else.”
Was this the reason for a puppy? Or was it just a cover-up for the real reason; the abandonment she felt at Finn’s permanent desertion? Regardless of the reason, it was obvious Em needed this pet. “I guess so.”
Amidst Em’s excited squeal and kisses on the dog’s nose Tess turned to Jeremy, her voice scathing but quiet so Em wouldn’t hear. “The reason Finn called her Honey might have been because he couldn’t remember her real name. Who knows, he might have had several other little Honeys around the district. After all, he had plenty of opportunity, being a salesman and away most of the time.” She paused as Jeremy’s gaze slid from the girl with the puppy to Tess’ left hand, where a white mark replaced her wedding ring.
“You can feel sorry for Em but don’t ever feel sorry for me,” Tess continued. “The bastard even accused me of getting pregnant on purpose, then trapping him into a marriage he never wanted and always resented. Apparently he’d been planning to leave for months, to go back to being single and carefree and go to Britain and live there, no doubt partying like the thousands of other singles in London. If that’s what he wants, we’re better off without him.”
“You want her to forget him? That’s hardly fair.”
“He wants her to forget him. And no, it’s not fair.”
Another flash of pain crossed Jeremy’s face. When it had gone he nodded slowly. “Not fair at all.” He turned his attention back to Em who still stroked the puppy, playing with its front paws as she talked softly to the animal. “Honey is a lovely name. Suits her, as well.”
“You like it?” Standing, Em lifted the puppy onto her shoulder. “Can we take her home, Mummy? Please?”
Giving in, Tess chuckled. “If she’s old enough.”
Jeremy stroked the tiny animal. “She’s small, but old enough. Have you got the necessary equipment?”
“You can buy it here.” Em grabbed her mother’s hand and tugged. “You have to, cause I can’t leave her, now I’ve seen her. Anyway, isn’t it why we came? To get a puppy?”
Turning to Jeremy, Tess tried to explain. “I didn’t realize how much equipment we’d need. We’ve never had a pet before. And the nearest I got to having one as a kid was when the neighbour’s cat called for meat scraps.”
“I can show you what you need and there are brochures on caring for a puppy.” He led the way out of the enclosure, sliding home the bolt and walking beside Tess down the corridor.
In the reception area a young boy about Em’s age looked up from playing with a kitten and smiled at them. His eyes were a soft chocolate brown, just like his father’s and Tess stopped abruptly to admire the youthful version of the face.
“You got her, Em.” He nodded at the puppy. “That’s good.”
“What’s this?” Tess frowned.
Jeremy lifted the kitten from his son’s arms. “Meet my son, Dylan. Do you know Em, Dylan?”
“Yeah. She’s in the class next to mine. I told her about the puppies. Said she should get her mum to get one for her, now her dad’s gone. Like you let me get a puppy when Mum died.”
Jeremy squeezed his son’s shoulder, turning away at the same time and not answering immediately. “And it helped, didn’t it? So we’ll hope it helps Em in the same way.”
Tess blinked. Everything seemed to be going far too fast for her today. She couldn’t keep up. “Em, how…? Did you…? Did you really…?”
“That was alright, wasn’t it, Mummy? I told Dylan about Daddy and when he told me about his mum and how he got a puppy, I knew I had to get one too. And when he said there was a honey-coloured one here, I just knew it was meant to be mine.”
With a shrug, Tess looked at Jeremy. “Sounds like the kids have set me up, if you ask me.”
Jeremy took the puppy from Em’s hold and cuddled it for a moment before slipping a collar over the small head. “Does, doesn’t it? But I’m on their side, after seeing how much Clive helped Dylan.” He selected pamphlets from stands on the counter, then handed them over. “These should tell you everything, but there’s another one on Labs that’s currently out of print. I could bring it round next week, if you like.”
If she liked! Tess couldn’t help grinning. “Great. Thanks. Give me a call when it’s ready. I’ll look forward to it.” With Emmy’s help she selected a lead and basket, and paid for the lot. But after turning towards the door she paused, looking back. “Would you like…? I mean, would Dylan like…to come home with us, while you’re busy here?”
It shouldn’t be possible for Jeremy’s eyes to look even warmer but they did, as his gaze swung to his son, saw the boy’s nod. “Great, but I don’t finish till one. Why don’t I bring lunch?”