Teasers > > A Day Late

A Day Late – Rough Beginnings

Procrastination has always an issue for me. It’s how I got through college. There may have been some last minute issues with A Day Late. At least it’s not late. I don’t miss deadlines, like I don’t break rules. Much like Grady and Claire… 

~ Carrie 

"Sometimes, a woman wants a man to fight for her. Makes her know just how important she is to him.”
“Sounds a little sexist.”
“And a man wants a woman to fight for him, too.”

Chapter 1

 

A-R-R-O-G-A-N-T

“Let’s go, our flight leaves in an hour.” Ryder’s exasperated tone percolated up the stairs and stabbed straight into the crunchy center of her amygdala. Typical. Now it was her fault they were running behind. She’d been ready for two hours.

“I’ll meet you in the car,” Claire hollered as she shoved her spare phone charger in her purse and flew down the stairs of the hollow townhouse.

Almost on vacation, she reminded herself. Glad she’d gripped the banister, her boots skidded on the Saltillo tile at the foot of the stairs as she hooked a sliding U, flicked off the hall light on her way by, and entered the dry heat of the garage before he could comment on her tardiness.

The last few weeks–okay, months–had barreled by while she’d been immersed in a delirium of studying and long hours of clinicals. Ryder had been more than patient while she finished grad school. And he hadn’t complained about her tendency to crash after a long day, home for a rare meal, and burning the midnight oil night after night. In an equitable exchange: she’d shown understanding while he built a name for himself at one of the west coast’s top marketing firms.

That had always been their plan. First date conversation: I’m at a critical point in my career, he’d said. That’s ok, I have another two years of veterinary training ahead, she’d responded. Careers first, then each other. Once things were settled, they’d find the house with the white picket fence, get a dog, and pop out a couple of kids.

She’d turned thirty last week. Where had her twenties gone? Baby number one was supposed to be at least a year old by now.

Ryder hoisted her suitcase off the ground and tossed it in the back of the SUV. “Why did you pack so much? Foothills may be in the middle of nowhere, but the house has everything you could possibly need.” He shot her a look with those heartbreaker baby blues he was famous for. Infamous anyway. His dark eyebrows scowled so fiercely that she felt about as small as the toy poodle she’d neutered last week.

She resisted the urge to rip her suitcase out of his grip and take care of things herself. Help wasn’t exactly appreciated when it was paired with criticism. Instead, she hopped into the passenger seat before he caught her rolling her eyes. “The forecast calls for lower-than-average temperatures and probable snow, so I had to buy enough winter clothes and boots for the trip, as I didn’t own any, and I wasn’t sure how many layers I would need. And I want to be prepared for anything. I’m not the bimbo that shows up in heels for hiking, nor the dowdy one in hiking boots at a cocktail party. I thought you liked Foothills.”

Ryder clicked the button to close the rear door and started the car as he slid into the driver’s seat. “When did I say that?”

Grrr. They rarely saw each other enough to have human conversations lately, but at least she had the decency to remember the important ones. “A few weeks ago, when we booked the trip. I thought you wanted to move back home? You mentioned commuting to Seattle like your mom, and I was going to open my own clinic.”

“Hell, no. Dr. Mallory prefers to be the bigshot fish dominating the small pond of Foothills. I suppose if you have your heart set on Washington, I could probably commute between Seattle and Phoenix. We’d see less of each other, but I’m only at the office in Phoenix one or two days a week as it is.” Flying through the yellow light as he pulled out of their cookie-cutter neighborhood, he veered around a stopped bus, revealing the Phoenix airport in the distance.

Claire clutched the door handle to avoid crashing her skull into the window as he took the next corner. Whether they were running late or ahead of schedule, he’d still drive recklessly, as rules apparently didn’t apply to handsome marketing consultants. Yet he maintained a clean driving record. Unlike her. Police seemed to take one look at her and decide she deserved every penny of the ticket. No idea why; she looked perfectly kind and innocent, or so she thought. Quirky, maybe, but she could pull off normal like the best of them. Almost.

As much as she loved his sleek Cayenne, it was a little unnecessary in arid Phoenix. They’d intended to drive it up to the mountains to go skiing, but they were well into winter and this was the first time they were leaving the city together.

“On the way home, let’s spend a day or two in Seattle and check out the area,” he suggested as he wove between cars, inches from knocking off the rear bumper of a turning sedan.

Compromise. Relationships were about give and take. Wasn’t that what her mother was always telling her? Seattle was at least better than Phoenix. Despite growing up in the desert metropolis, she had no desire to stay there indefinitely.

She could look at the rural areas outside the of Seattle for work. There weren’t many places she could treat both horses and dogs, but she couldn’t decide between them and had spent way too much extra time in school to treat animals of all shapes and sizes. Except reptiles. Her toes curled in, and her gag reflex threatened the safety of her breakfast at the prospect of examining a python.

She wouldn’t mind living in the city if she could find a clinic that appealed. Reverse commuting. It was a thing, right? Although, more drive time for her and flight time for him would add a new level of strain to the relationship. What about when they had kids?

Her suitcase crashed and rolled across the back of the SUV as he rounded the last corner into the long-term parking lot. She envisioned the gooey mess if her toiletries busted open and soaked into her clothes, or worse, into the “gown” she’d packed for the terrifying “gala.” She’d suspected his family was loaded, but that costly addition to her wardrobe had sealed it.

As soon as he shifted into park, Claire grabbed her purse and stuffed in her sweatshirt for the plane. She snatched her aforementioned-overloaded suitcase out of the back and was on the move, knowing Ryder would catch up with his long legs and impatient gait. It was a toasty seventy-two degrees now, but highs in the Cascade Foothills today looked to be in the mid-twenties.

“Think we could go ice skating?” she asked as she speed-walked to keep pace with Ryder, who passed her before they even reached the sidewalk. The pace beyond what the wobbly wheels could handle, her suitcase rocked and bounced behind her like a seabass fighting for its life. In preparation for the trip, she’d invested in the tall, lace-up Sorrel boots she’d drooled over for ages, but sadly had never had an excuse to invest in. But now her feet were roasting.

He grunted, not glancing back. “I suppose so. They usually set up a skating rink downtown this time of year. It’s not Minnesota; there aren’t many frozen lakes, so it’s a pretty pathetic rink. There are better ones closer to civilization, where Grady played hockey, but those are all indoors and don’t make good tourist stops.”

Rinky-dink rink. She snorted, sadly keeping the witty joke to herself, knowing few appreciated her infantile humor, Ryder not among them. At least she entertained herself. “Didn’t you play hockey, too?”

“I participated for the requisite season. I mean, we both got roped into more extra-curriculars than we had time for thanks to Patricia’s big dreams for her conversationally well-rounded children. But hockey was Grady’s thing. Matched his temper.” He paused mid-stride, but she wasn’t paying attention and crashed into him. Grabbing her shoulders, he steadied her against him. Easing back, his expression softened. “I’m sorry I’m so irritable today. I haven’t been home in years. My family drives me crazy. Well, Haley’s alright, but she won’t be able to make it home this time.”

Up on her tiptoes, she pressed her lips to his and pulled back. “Thanks for taking me home to meet your family. I’ve been so distracted lately; I should have seen how much this was stressing you out.”

He let out a long sigh, then took her hand and stared at their joined knuckles. “I may dread seeing my family, but I’m glad you and I will get time together.”

Past the hullabaloo of the busy airport, they walked straight to the express line. Thanks to his job, he was in the air more often than not and weaved through the airport with shocking familiarity. The security guards practically called him by name. Actually, they did call him by name. Yikes. Claire didn’t even remember the last time she’d flown anywhere.

After the easiest trip through airport security that she’d ever experienced as they cruised through the express lane, inspiring jealous looks from those left in the line like engorged cows waiting to be milked, their pace finally eased when they neared the gate. “Is anyone picking us up from SeaTac?”

Accustomed to traveling for business, he didn’t bother with cozy sweats like so many of the others they passed in the terminal. Dressed in designer jeans, button-up top and leather shoes, he would look out of place if they were to fly coach. Not that he would ever stoop so low. “No. I booked a rental so we can have our own car.”

“Oh. Ok. Are they planning anything special tonight to welcome you home?” For all his hesitation, she knew he wasn’t estranged from his family. He called his mother every Monday after work. As a renowned neurosurgeon, his mother must be interesting, and his stepfather owned a logging company which dominated half the Cascades. The conversation shouldn’t be dull at least.

Needless to say, Claire was more than a little nervous about meeting his wealthy family. They came from such different backgrounds. Different presents, really. Her parents and brothers lived in the Phoenix area and saw each other often, at least once a month, for family dinners.

“We’ll be there for their annual winter gala, but otherwise, no.”

“First-class passengers to Seattle are welcome to begin boarding at this time,” a soothing voice announced over the loudspeaker as they approached the gate. She followed Ryder down the ramp and settled into their front-row seats.

Maybe she ought to travel with him more often. This first-class thing was pretty great. Free drinks served before they even took off–although her stomach was too nervous to consider imbibing–easy access to the bathroom, and plenty of legroom. Cuddled up in the plush leather seat, she watched the flight attendants gossiping as they secured for takeoff.

As the plane taxied down the runway, Ryder linked his hand with hers. Land whizzed by outside, the engine stirring a deep rumbling in her chest as they accelerated. Looking past Ryder to watch out the window, she watched as they overcame gravity and rose above the city.

“You know, if you like the Seattle area, we could look for houses on the water. My mother would be able to find us the best private schools, for when the day comes. What do you think?” He kissed the back of her hand with their fingers still joined.

“Sure, let’s look into it.” Things were already looking up. They were overdue for a vacation. No work, no school, only quality time together, and maybe indulge in that sex thing they used to enjoy. Neither had even been interested in eons, with how hectic things had been. “Think we could find something with a large enough lot so we can have dogs, and maybe even chickens? We could board horses. I don’t need a cow.”

Ryder down the last of his whiskey with a gulp, grimacing as the large swallow worked its way down. “A cow? Chickens? Did you grow up with farm animals in Phoenix?”

Easing her hand away, Claire snagged the crossword puzzle out of the seatback pocket. “No.”

“We could get a dog. There are excellent breeders in the area.”

“Sure.” She moved her attention to the crossword. Full of oneself, eight letters, starts with A. Ha, got that one. A-R-R-O-G-A-N-T.

***

“You’re catching on.” Grady grinned at Sophie, skating backward in front of her as she slid along the ice.

When Foothills’ annual rink had been set up, tattling Pippa had let it slip that Grady had played hockey since he was old enough to put on skates. Having played regularly until moving home to Foothills two years ago, Grady spent as many winter lunch breaks as he could manage on the ice.

Sophie’s arms flailed, but Grady gently reminded her to look ahead rather than at her feet. Her fiancé was working nights as the newest member of the Foothills Police Department and hadn’t gotten around to taking her out. Thus, Sophie had strong-armed Grady into being her skating instructor. Not that he minded.

Despite his heart shattering when Sophie chose Asher over him, Grady and Sophie had become good friends. Okay, shattered was probably too strong of a word. She was gorgeous and intelligent and funny, but the spark she shared with Asher told Grady everything he needed to know.

She probably would have settled for him. Time and again, he’d been the guy women had considered settling for, but he never made that final cut.

Asher and he had been roommates until a few weeks ago and had quickly learned the joy in messing with each other. Just for fun. Grady reached for Sophie’s hand and slid to a stop. He pulled his phone from his pocket and plastered a friendly peck on her cheek, the mountains gleaming in the freezing sun behind them. Smiling for the camera, her nose scrunched at his obvious Asher-focused-taunt. He snapped the selfie and sent it to Asher, who was sleeping off last night’s shift at home.

Freya waved from the side as she removed her skates, done for the day. “Give him a break. At least skip the kiss.”

His phone buzzed with a response from Asher. A flip-off emoji. Huh, he hadn’t seen that one before. Smirking, he hollered to Freya, “You didn’t tell him you were coming with us, did you? I’m trying to make him jealous so he’ll dream about me necking with his woman.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “I don’t think he has any jealousy issues, but Freya has been trying to drag me out all winter, and he knows she wouldn’t miss my wobbly ankles and inevitable wipeouts.”

A familiar sensation fluttered in his chest as Sophie read the text that buzzed in on her phone. No doubt about who sent the text and the gist of it, based on the heat flaming over her cheeks. Asher may not have jealousy issues, but Grady did. At least, not about Sophie anymore, but… yeah, he was so far off-track from where he had envisioned himself at this point in life.

He’d accepted that Sophie wasn’t the one for him and moved on. All his friends were deliriously happily in love. And happily-ever-after hadn’t been on any of their radars. Well, Pippa had been planning to marry Lincoln since kindergarten, but Asher had been the epitome of irresponsible bachelor, until Sophie had entered his life. And Zane and Freya had been set on keeping things casual, until they accidentally eloped last summer.

Not that he wanted to avoid his friends, they were awesome. Seriously, they’d changed his life in such a good way. A year ago? He was a festering jackass. Since he’d been roped into the crew, having an almost foreign, unyielding support? Incredible. His infamous temper was almost nonexistent these days.

Dammit. He was handsome, articulate, financially stable, and, pretentious as it may sound, he was good at everything. Further supporting the egomaniac he’d been raised to be, he knew he had poetic, ocean blue eyes, untamable surfer blond hair that people paid a fortune for–that he came by naturally–and a great body, if he said so himself.

Still, it wasn’t enough. In an effort to build flawless human beings out of her offspring, his mother had enrolled her children in every extracurricular activity under the sun. Hockey, football, baseball, riding, martial arts, piano, debate. He’d hated debate, so why had he gone with lawyer?

Sophie dropped his hand and motioned to the exit. “I’m going to head out. You coming over Saturday?”

“Yeah, sounds great.” Grady blinked away the pity-party-for-one that was hammering in his thick skull. “That reminds me. My parent’s annual gala is on the twentieth. Patricia said I could invite a few guests. Apparently, now that I am thirty and a successful attorney, I’m allowed to have an opinion. I wasn’t planning to torture you guys with it, but now that it’s approaching, I really think I’d enjoy seeing Asher and Zane looking awkward in penguin suits. You guys in?” He skated to the side and told Freya and Sophie the details of the annual bore-fest, in which his mother and stepfather got dolled up in their fanciest attire and invited their snootiest friends for a fancy-ass party so she could show off her accomplishments.

Freya grinned, her eyes twinkling. “Love it. We’ll be there. Zane will hate it, but I’ll wear something slinky and he’ll give in. Asher won’t be pleased, but he’ll go. Pippa will be on board; she loves parties.”

Sophie nodded toward the exit. “Are you heading back to work?”

He glanced at his watch. “Most of my cases are wrapped up for the week, so I’m going to run a few drills and then I’ll head over to Black Op.”

They paused, expressions working on the damn pity he had to work harder and harder to prevent these days. Watching his two very taken, very committed friends walk away, he skated to the side to grab a puck and stick to burn off some of… whatever the hell was rotting his soul.

Grady dribbled a few quick plays, letting the adrenaline surge as the thrill of the game flooded him. Players skating full speed at him to take the puck, checking them as he passed. A Mallory never got into fights, unless it was in the spirit of the game, then it was not only permitted, but encouraged. Naturally, he’d taken to hockey like a salmon to the stream. Feet moving, eyes on the goal, he ran a one-man scrimmage. Skates scraping the hard surface under his feet, that crisp smell of the ice bringing him into the moment, he almost forgot where he was.

Until he saw her.

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