Anyone But You

By: Jennifer Crusie

Chapter One




The last thing Nina Askew needed was Fred.

“I want a puppy,” she said to the brown-uniformed woman behind the scarred metal counter at Riverbend Animal Control. “Something perky.”

“Perky.” The woman sighed. “Sure. We got perky.” She jerked her head toward the gray metal door at the end of the counter. “Through there, one step down.”

“Right.” Nina shoved her short dark curls behind her ears, grabbed her purse and walked through the door, determined to pick herself out the perkiest birthday present on four paws. So what if yesterday had been her fortieth birthday? Forty was a good age for a woman. It meant freedom. Especially freedom from her overambitious ex-husband and their overpriced suburban castle which had finally sold after a year of open-house hell. There was something good: she was out of that damn house.

And now she was forty. Well, she was delighted to be forty. After all, that was the reason she was getting a dog of her own.

The attendant joined her and said, “This way,” and Nina followed her toward yet another heavy metal door. She was going to get a puppy. She’d always wanted a dog, but Guy hadn’t understood. “Dogs shed,” he’d said when she’d suggested they get one as a wedding present to each other. She should have known that was A Sign. But no, she’d married him anyway and moved into that designer mausoleum of a house. And then she’d spent fifteen years following her husband’s career around, without a dog, in a house she’d grown to hate. Sixteen years in the house, if she counted this last year in divorced-woman limbo, waiting for it to sell. But now she had freedom and an apartment of her own and a great, if precarious, job. The only thing she needed was a warm, cheerful body to come home to.

The attendant opened the door, and the faint barking Nina had heard before became frantic and shrill. Nina stepped into the concrete cell block and stopped, blown out of her self-absorption by the row of gray metal cages where dogs barked to get her attention. She let her breath out, horrified. “Oh, God, this is awful.”

“Spay your pets.” The attendant stopped in front of the next to last cage. “Here you go.” She jerked her head again. “Perky.”

Nina went to join the woman and peered into the cage. The pups were darling—some sort of tiny, bright-eyed, spotted mixed breed—climbing over one another and tumbling and whining and barking. Perky as hell. Now all she had to do was choose one…

She moved closer and glanced in the last cage almost by accident. Then she froze.

There was only one dog in the cage, and it was midsize and depressed, too big for her apartment and too melancholy for her state of mind. Nina tried to turn back to the puppies, but somehow, she couldn’t. The dog had huge bags under his dark eyes, and hunched shoulders, and a white coat blotched with what looked like giant liver spots. He sat on the damp concrete like a bulked-up vulture and stared at her, not barking, not moving. He looked like her great-uncle Fred had before he’d died when she was six. She’d liked her uncle Fred, and then one day his heart had gone, as her mother had put it, and that had been it.

“Hello,” she said, and the dog lifted his head a little, so she stooped down and reached through the cage doors to scratch him behind the ears. He looked at her and then closed his eyes in appreciation for the scratch.

“What’s wrong with him?” Nina asked the attendant.

“Nothing,” the attendant said. “He’s part basset, part beagle.” She checked the card on his cage. “Or he might be psychic. This is his last day.”

Nina’s eyes opened wide. “You mean…”

“Yep.” The attendant sliced her hand across her throat.

Nina looked back at the dog. The dog looked back at Nina, death in his eyes.

Oh, God.

She stood and shoved her hair behind her ears, trying to look efficient and practical in an effort to be efficient and practical. She did not need this dog. She needed a happy, perky puppy, and on his best day, this dog would look like a professional mourner. And he wasn’t even a puppy.

Any dog but this one.

She looked down at the dog one last time, and her hair fell forward, a curly black frame for his depression. He bowed his head a little as if it had grown too heavy for him, and his ears sagged with the bow.

She could not take this dog. He was too depressed. He was too big. He was too old. She took a step back, and he sighed and lay down, not expecting anything at all, resigned to the cold hard floor and no one to love him and the certainty of death in the morning.

Nina turned to the attendant, and said, “I’ll take him.”

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