Chapter One Saturday morning
Would you hang on to that thing?” Robert complained as he steered into the turn lane for the Maple View Shopping Center. “Because if your crazy beast pees in my new car, I’m totally going Cruella De Vil on him.”
“Muckle is not a thing.” I grabbed my sheltie puppy in mid-leap. He was supposed to be sitting on my lap, but he’d spent most of the ten-minute drive clambering around trying to look out every window in the car at once. “And in case you haven’t noticed,” I added, “this car hasn’t been new since the days of the horse and buggy.”
Robert let out a snort and flipped back the lock of dark hair he’d been wearing gelled down over one eye lately. Retro goth? Who knew. Robert tended to create his own styles. “So not the point,” he muttered.
I could tell by his wounded tone that my snarky comment had hit a sore spot. That was the thing about my best friend, the one and only Robert James Chase. I’d never have told him so, but he dished it out a lot better than he took it. He totally thought of himself as a superconfident future celebrity, tossing off witty one-liners and just generally being fabulous. In reality? He was a lot less ready for prime time than he thought he was. It was so easy to get under his skin it wasn’t even funny. For instance, all you had to do was call him Robby or Bob instead of Robert, and he’d sulk for the rest of the day.
Anyway, he’d been expecting automotive luxury for his sixteenth birthday a couple of months earlier, which hadn’t seemed like such a long shot. His parents had more money than they knew what to do with, and they drove top-of-the-line sports cars themselves. So imagine his surprise when the big day arrived and they presented him with a sturdy, practical Volvo station wagon older than he was.
As Robert pulled said Volvo land boat into the parking lot, Muckle was wiggling in my arms like only a three-and-a-half-month-old Shetland sheepdog puppy can wiggle. Or so I assumed. I’d only been a dog owner for a little over six weeks, so I was still getting the hang of it.
“Anyway, it’s probably illegal to drive with him jumping around like that,” Robert added sullenly. “I mean, they don’t even let you text and drive, and having some weirdo puppy boinging off your face is way more distracting.”
“Whatever.” I was tired of his whining. After yanking a chunk of my wavy blah-brown hair out of Muckle’s slobbery little mouth, I reached over and cranked up the music. My favorite CD was playing—the latest by the amazing Scottish band Skerrabra. Their lead singer, Corc, was just about the hottest guy I’d ever seen. Possibly the hottest guy who’d ever lived.
Hearing his incredible voice even made Robert look happier. His crush on Corc was only slightly less epic than mine.
“Here we go—you’ve reached your destination, me bonny hen,” Robert announced in a pretty fair imitation of Corc’s sexy Scottish brogue. He pulled to the curb in front of the local PetzBiz superstore, leaving the Volvo idling loudly. “I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour.”
“Wait, what?” I blinked at him in surprise. “Aren’t you coming in with us?”
Robert sighed, smoothing down the lapels of his vintage Hawaiian shirt. Did I mention that Robert has an interesting sense of style? “Things to do. Places to be. People to see. You know how it is.”
“But—” I wasn’t sure what to say. This was going to be a whole new thing for me, and I didn’t do that well with new things. I wasn’t shy, exactly. Just not quite the opposite of shy either. Being with Robert usually helped, though. He was so opposite of shy that it wasn’t funny, and some of that usually rubbed off on me when we were together.
“Go get ’em, kid.” Robert checked his watch. “You don’t want to be late.”
“But I thought you were coming too,” I said. “You know—for moral support.”
“What do you need me for? You’re the dog girl.” He grinned and winked. “Later, chica.”
“Fine.” I frowned at him. “You’re right, we’ll be great. Come on, Muckle—let’s go.”
Muckle barked and wiggled at the sound of his name. I clipped on his new leather leash and opened the door, bracing myself as he went flying out with his usual heedless enthusiasm. For a ten-pound puppy, he could exert a lot of force.
“Okay then.” I hesitated another moment, wondering if Robert would change his mind. But he was humming along with Corc, not even looking at me. “See you in an hour.”
I was tempted to fall on my knees right there on the curb and beg him to come in with me after all. There was nothing Robert loved more than a dramatic scene—it would probably work.
Then again, I could get back in the car and tell him to forget it. Suggest we go shopping or something instead, maybe hit the thrift shops in search of new looks for the Disguise Game . . . (More on that later.)
But no. When I looked at Muckle sniffing eagerly at the sidewalk, with his silky reddish-brown-and-white fur, his constantly wagging tail, and his adorably perky expression, I knew I couldn’t blow this off. There was too much at stake.
Besides, I could do this. Even without Robert by my side, I could do it. I am Lauren, hear me roar.
“Okay, see you,” I told Robert, slamming the car door with a little more force than absolutely necessary.
As the Volvo pulled away in a cloud of noxious exhaust, I squinted up at PetzBiz, which did its best to live up to its status as a big box store by being the biggest, boxiest store in the strip mall. Muckle zipped around me, trying to smell everything at once, then suddenly leaped into the air and started barking like a maniac. Another dog barked back, its yips almost as high-pitched and excited as the Muckster’s. Which was really saying something, since my mother claimed Muckle’s bark could shatter glass. And possibly human eardrums as well.
When I glanced over my shoulder, I saw another puppy around Muckle’s size running toward us. He looked like some kind of terrier crossed with who-knew-what, with cute floppy ears, gangly legs that looked too long for his stout body, and an alert, foxy face.
On the other end of the leash, letting himself be dragged by the dog, was a guy around my age. I couldn’t help noticing that he was even cuter than his puppy, even though he wasn’t anywhere near my usual type. I tended to go for artsy, exotic guys—long hair, cool accents, brooding expressions. Well, at least in theory. I’d never actually had a boyfriend, so this was all mostly daydreams and unrequited crushes.
In any case, this guy wasn’t like my imaginary boyfriends at all. He was more like an all-American jock, with broad shoulders, smooth dark skin without a zit to be seen, and a nice smile. He
was even dressed in the typical jock uniform: jeans, sneakers, and a preppy rugby shirt.
“Hi,” the guy said breathlessly as his dog dragged him up to me. Or more specifically, up to Muckle. “Are you here for the puppy kindergarten?”
“Yeah.” I glanced down as the two pups started sniffing each other’s rear ends. “You too?”
“Uh-huh.” The guy grinned. “I probably should’ve signed up for the remedial class, though. Let’s just say that obedience isn’t Ozzy’s strong point.”
I smiled back. He really was awfully cute. And no, I wasn’t looking at the dog. “Sounds like Muckle.”
“Muckle?” The guy glanced at my sheltie. “Is that your puppy’s name?”
“It’s short for Muckle Roe. That’s the name of one of the Shetland Islands in Scotland—they’re these little islands up between the Atlantic and the North Sea.” I didn’t know why I was bothering with the lengthy explanations—most people sort of glazed over when I started geeking out about one of my little research projects. The thing was, this guy was even better-looking up close, and that always made me nervous. And being nervous made me babble. “He’s a sheltie—you know, Shetland sheepdog. Like from the Shetland Islands, you know?” Duh, Lauren. “So I just figured his name should be—”
I never got to finish my explanation. At that moment Muckle decided the terrier mix looked threatening, or maybe he just got
bored with the butt sniffing. In any case, he leaped at Ozzy with one of the wild, silly growls he made whenever he got worked up. The other puppy dodged just in time, bowing down on his front legs to invite Muckle to play. Muckle seemed to take that as an insult; he spun in a circle, barking loudly with his ears pinned back.
“Muckle, chill!” I cried, barely hanging on to the leash as he lunged toward the other puppy again. I leaned forward to grab him, but just then Ozzy seemed to realize that Muckle looked kind of scary. He zigged just as I zagged, and my foot caught on his leash. Suddenly I felt myself going airborne.
“Yaargh!” I yelled.
“Careful!” Ozzy’s owner exclaimed.
He jumped forward, placing himself between me and the sidewalk. I let out a very ladylike “Oof!” as I plowed into him. He grabbed me by the upper arms and hauled me back onto my feet.
“You okay?” he asked.
I was very aware of his hands—his big, strong hands—still encircling my arms. My eyes were inches from his biceps, which I couldn’t help noticing were nicely flexed as he steadied me. For a second I was extremely distracted by the nice smell coming from him—a clean smell, like soap and shampoo and laundry detergent, with maybe the slightest hint of eau de wet dog. . . .
“Are you okay?” he asked again.
I blinked, coming back to my senses. Sort of.
“Um, yeah.” I carefully took half a step back. He let go of my arms and stepped back as well.
Miraculously, I still had Muckle’s leash clutched tightly in my hand. Muckle chose that moment to leap away in pursuit of a leaf blowing past. I staggered slightly, but managed to stay on my own two feet this time.
The cute guy was still staring at me. His dog was sitting behind him, peering around his owner’s legs at Muckle.
“I’m fine,” I said a little too loudly. “Thanks. Um, I’d better get inside.”
Spinning around, I hurried into the store, wondering exactly what was wrong with me. I also realized it was a good thing Robert wasn’t there. He would have been rolling on the sidewalk laughing at my dorkiness. I could hear his voice in my head: Smooth move, Lauren. But you’re supposed to make the guys fall all over themselves for you, not the other way around. . . .
Yeah. Imaginary Robert was so right. This was exactly why I’d never had a real boyfriend. I was mostly fine talking to people—teachers, other girls, Robert, non-cute guys, adults, little kids, miscellaneous random strangers. But put a cute guy in front of me and I turned into a blithering idiot.
I’d pretty much proved that a few too many times at parties and school dances and other places where cute guys tended to congregate. By this time I’d pretty much given up, decided to stick to my daydreams about Corc and forget trying to interact with real, live guys.
Pathetic? Yes. But it seemed safer that way. It just wasn’t worth the humiliation to keep trying. This latest encounter only proved it.