"Here," my uncle snapped, shoving a burlap sack with a small weight at the bottom into my arms. "Find somewhere for it."
It? I folded back a corner of the rough material, looking inside. A pair of round, whiskey-colored eyes peered back at me.
"Reminds me of you, little half-breed boy," my uncle said, a cruel edge to his tone, a mocking laugh erupting from his barrel-shaped chest.
"Half-wit," my cousin sneered as he walked past, purposely stirring up dust in his wake. Anger and shame raced through me. I wanted to pound my cousin's pudgy face into the dirt. But I knew what would happen if I did. My uncle would pound me twice as hard and twice as long. Sometimes it was worth it, but today . . . today my hands were full.
I adjusted the sack in my arms and the burlap fell open, revealing a small puppy. Half his face was brown and half white, a clear line dividing the two sides. Little half-breed boy. I regarded him curiously and he stared back with liquid eyes.
Squatting, I placed the sack on the ground and the puppy scampered out, his little tail wagging so hard and fast, it was causing his whole backside to shake from side to side. A smile tugged at my mouth.
The kick came swift and hard, the puppy letting out a yelp of pain as his body flew backward, landing against the side of the toolshed with a soft thump. My stomach dropped but I held my ground instead of taking the instinctive step toward the dog that I'd almost taken.
"Gonna have to toughen him up," my uncle said, scratching the place where the hem of his shirt rose, revealing a roll of stomach fat, before turning and walking away.
I moved toward the puppy who was now cowering against the dilapidated structure. He lifted his eyes slowly, his head still hung. He peeked at me cautiously for a moment before his tiny nubbin tail began thumping against the wood of the shed once more, head rising. I hesitated, looking back in the direction my uncle and cousin had gone before scooping the puppy back into my arms. He wiggled against me, licking the underside of my jaw.
"He's right, you know," I whispered. "You're gonna have to toughen up. Fight or die, that's how it works around here."
The puppy's tail thumped faster against my chest, his warm, fat body squirming in delight as I held him close.
"Stop that," I instructed in my sternest voice, looking him in the eye and baring my teeth, letting out a low growl meant to scare him.
His tail thumped harder, faster, and he barked, a tiny, high-pitched sound of puppy joy. I sighed, screwing up my face as he licked my mouth, my cheek. I considered what to do with him, finally taking him into the shed with me where I lay down on the musty cot in the corner. "Don't get used to this," I muttered, but the puppy's tail only wagged harder.
Apparently tired from all the rigorous tail wagging, his warm body snuggled against me and he let out a huge yawn. As I watched his eyes fall closed, I frowned, a strange feeling tightening my chest, something that felt warm and unfamiliar, something that felt both good and . . . dangerous.
I didn't think I'd ever felt as out of place in my life. My knee bounced as I took a quick sip of my beer, attempting to appear relaxed, attempting to blend. Yeah right. Because I was nervous, twitchy, the beer sloshed as I drank, dribbling down my chin. Nice. I swiped my finger upward, bringing the drips to my mouth and running my tongue over my lip. God, I don’t even like beer. But I resisted a grimace in reaction to the watery bitterness, stealing a glance around at the ale-swilling clientele. One quick look told me I'd only call more attention to myself by ordering the glass of sauvignon blanc I really wanted.
He'd told me to wear blue, and I'd chosen a cerulean silk. I'd assumed he had specified the color in order to pick me out of the crowd. But what I should have considered was the fact that this particular shade of blue would make me stick out like a sore thumb in certain locations such as this dive bar where the color of choice seemed to be black and the preferred material, leather. Too late now.
The glass felt cool in my grip as I wrapped my fingers around it, anchoring myself in some small way. I perused the crowd quickly once more, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to me. Wear a blue shirt, he'd said. Check. And wait at the bar. Check. So where was he? I smoothed my skirt, crossing my legs. How long should I wait before I officially considered myself stood up?
God, the story of my life. Stood up, jilted, thrown away, left behind. I forced my spine straight, disliking the self-piteous direction of my thoughts.
The sound of pool balls being broken in the back caught my attention, and as I watched, a man bent over the table and made a shot. When I turned forward again, someone was sitting at the previously empty bar stool next to me wearing a black baseball cap, his face mostly in darkness.
"Olivia Barton." My heart quickened. I recognized the deep, slightly gravelly voice from the phone call earlier that day.
"Yes. Are you—?"
"Yup." He signaled the bartender, who lifted his chin in acknowledgment and began moving our way. The man in the cap reached into the bowl of peanuts on the bar and threw back a handful, chewing slowly.
I pressed my lips together, annoyed by this stranger's casual—almost bored—demeanor when I was practically coming out of my skin. "I've been waiting. You're late," I accused.
The bartender approached, and the man ordered a beer and then turned to me, nodding at my glass. "Why don't you order what you really want," he said, completely ignoring my statement about his tardiness.
I blinked down at my half-full glass and then back at him. "Uh—"
"White wine?" he guessed.
One eyebrow gave the barest hint of a lift. "A glass of your best white wine," he said to the bartender who nodded and turned away. What the heck?
"Find it okay?"
"The bar? Yes, I followed my GPS. Is all the cloak and dagger really necessary?" I used my arm to do a small wave around the darkened bar. "The job I'm hiring you for is perfectly legitimate."
I swore I saw the barest lift of his lips, and I tilted my head, attempting to see him better. The details of his face were lost in the low lighting and the shadows cast by his cap, so I only gained the impression of hard angles and masculine lines. His beer was slid in front of him, a glass of wine placed before me, and the man nodded to the bartender, tossing a twenty on the bar. He took a drink of his beer, his throat moving as he swallowed, and I took a quick sip of my wine. This bar's "best" white wine was cheap and overly sweet, but better than the beer I'd been drinking previously, and I took another appreciative sip.