|Cover Art by Meredith Russell|
For over a year, widowed Cameron Jackson has tried to juggle his business with childcare for his two year old daughter …all while living with Deefur, a Great Dane who believes he rules the house.
Nannies last a day, some don't even make it through the front door if the self-proclaimed ruler doesn't approve. Something has to give.
Enter Jason Everson, nanny, teacher in training, apparent dog whisperer, and the only man who seems to make it past the initial scrutiny of the king.
Can Jason help Cam put his house in order and help to heal his heart?
“….Deefur Dog by RJ Scott is an emotion filled romance that will make you laugh and cry. It is a feel-good read that will have you cheering as they fall in love and sighing when they finally make love. And it will leave you a little wistful when you have to say goodbye to this delightful family. Definitely a book for the keeper shelf….”
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Hearts On Fire Reviews – 5/5 – “…True to her romantic style of writing, RJ winds a tale of lost love and love found again. Don’t look for a lot of hot sex in this book because you won’t find it. Pick this book up if you’re looking for a feel good romantic story and you will not be disappointed in the least….”
Top 2 Bottom Reviews – 5/5 – “….Deefur Dog is a touching and heartwarming family story filled with warmth, humor, and the belief in the power of love. Finding one soul mate in a lifetime is a gift; finding two is a miracle, and that wonder is wrapped up in a story revolving around truly wonderful characters….”
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Dark Diva Reviews – 5/5 – “….Deefur Dog is wonderful. There were times I wanted to cry but most of the time I was smiling and falling in love with characters. In Deefur Dog, Ms. Scott finds love in the unlikeliest of places and carries us along for the breathtaking journey. I could not put this one down….”
BlackRavens Reviews – 4.5/5 – “….Deefur Dog by RJ Scott is an emotion filled romance that will make you laugh and cry. It is a feel-good read that will have you cheering as they fall in love and sighing when they finally make love. And it will leave you a little wistful when you have to say goodbye to this delightful family. Definitely a book for the keeper shelf….”
Rainbow Book Reviews – “….This is a wonderful love story which portrays that a nontraditional family has the same joys, sorrow, problems, angst, and love as any other family and does it extraordinarily well. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a wonderful, emotional love story with a happy ending….”
“That's an impossible deadline,” Cameron Jackson snapped, aware of the frustration and exhaustion running through his voice. So much for staying calm he thought. He shifted the phone to his other ear, balancing his fractious daughter on one hip and pushing his Great Dane away with his other. He tried to concentrate on what his brother and business partner said but found it damn near impossible above the noise of barking dog and over-tired sobbing daughter.
“Dadda, wan' chocca,” Emma whined, tears in her eyes, her small hands twisted in his hair, pulling just this side of painful. He wished one more time she would give in and have her nap. He needed an hour—only an hour—to make some decisions, to actually get some vital work done.
“Shhh, baby, Daddy's on the phone,” he muttered, trying to jiggle his hip without losing hold of the phone clamped between his shoulder and ear.
“Not you, sorry—I have Emma here—”
“I thought your new nanny—Elsa or something—y'know, the one with the mauve hair, was working well?” Cameron winced at the evidence of a mix of surprise and disappointment in Neal's words
And therein lay the problem. Yet again, for another one of those highly reasonable reasons his nannies gave, he and his daughter had been left in the lurch. Elsa “Purple Rinse” Saunders, highly recommended by the agency as being able to manage the most fractured and difficult of households, had lasted exactly three days.
“It was fine until Emma realized her mauve hair was actually a wig and pulled it off.” The mousy brown curls thus revealed had looked okay to Cameron, but Elsa had pitched a fit. “Em gave it to Deefur who buried the damn thing in the garden.” And Elsa had pitched another fit. He sighed, wishing he could see the humor even as Neal snorted down the phone. “She left yesterday.”
“Jeez, Cam, I can't believe you let Deefur anywhere near her. I thought we talked about this?”
“I didn't let him. He got out of the boot room somehow.”
“What? He can open locked doors now?”
“No, Neal,” Cam had to rein his natural instinct for sarcasm, “he cannot open locked doors, I think the dog walker must have—I haven't got time for this. All you need to know is she said it ‘was an impossible working environment' or some excuse—said she loved Emma but she couldn't…” his throat tightened with emotion, “and then she just left.” The need to absolve himself of responsibility for her leaving asserted the urge for a fight. He needed to take his frustration out on someone, why not his baby brother? God knows since everything had hit the fan his brother had borne the brunt of his bad temper, on the job and off. Neal was used to it by now.
“Could you not have—” God, Neal is insistent.
“I didn't ask Emma to pull the wig off, or for Deefur to bury it.”
“Okay. Okay… devil's advocate here bro—is you being pissed at the world in general the reason why you think we can't meet this new deadline?”
“No, it isn't the freaking reason!” Cameron swore. Immediate guilt filtered through him at cussing in front of his daughter, disappearing as soon as Deefur tried to push past him. He leaned harder against the dog to get him to stop rooting through the newly delivered groceries still sitting in piles by the door. A cabbage rolled tantalizingly around the floor just out of Deefur's reach. The sable haired Great Dane, easily the size of a small pony, pushed back, whining low in his throat, clearly wanting the damn cabbage. “Look, this is Adamson playing us off against the others. Neither of the rival bids they say they have, are gonna hit the target any more than we can. Certainly not without further off-plan changes, so whatever they threaten, they would be stupid to take the project elsewhere. We're two months into this. Why go out of state for a local job? It's not as if asking for bids from Seattle will be any better than what they get here in homegrown Tacoma.”
Cam winced at the analogy although not an exceptionally good one. Tacoma was not a small town with one set of traffic signals, but a freaking urban Washington city. The third largest in the state in fact; a port hub and located right on the Puget Sound, and an area teeming with local color and history. Cam and Neal both believed strongly when customers wanted new builds, they wanted people who lived in Tacoma and had a feel for the work that needed doing. Someone who could design and build sympathetically, not some fly-by-night construction company without heart.
“Still, the threat is there, Cam, and to be fair…” Neal's voice tailed off. The brothers had been having this conversation on and off for months now and Cameron braced himself for the continued hurt. “I want to make this easier for you. Bro, I don't think your eye is on the ball here. Maybe we should re-evaluate things?”
“Re-evaluate what? This is our company; you shouldn't have to shoulder all the responsibility.”
“Listen C, I said I wouldn't blame you if you needed a break from all this. You're grieving and you're going to make yourself ill.” Neal's brutal honesty was delivered in the way only a family member could do. Cam appreciated how his brother had his back. Neal would, and could, run their thriving construction company on his own if push came to shove.
“No. Just—no.” The company grounded him, and he refused to give up the only thing appearing to be working right. Besides, Neal warranted more from Cameron on a personal level and certainly more in the business as co-owners. He deserved someone who pulled his weight, whatever the stresses and strains in his life.
“Dadda…” Emma had a particular whine in her voice only a tired toddler could pull off to perfection. The right amount of cute mixed in with a teaspoon of impatience and a pint of attention-seeking monster. He shushed and jiggled her gently, allowing Deefur to move, because his leg alone could not hold back one hundred and forty pounds of dog intent on some great cabbage-eating adventure in the hallway. Half closing his eyes and shaking his head, he watched Deefur pounce on the cabbage with all the agility of a ten-week-old puppy, wide jaws closing around the vegetable with ease. Bang goes vegetables for dinner. Cam sighed. Neal continued talking, only now he had moved on to super-sympathetic-brother speak which Cam hated.
“It's not been long—”
Cameron reacted instantly. “Nearly two years, Neal, I'm fine.” He wanted to stop this train of conversation at the source, not prepared, yet again, to go through all the whys and wherefores of his being a widower.
“You need a nanny, Cam. You can't keep letting them slip through your fingers.”
“I didn't let her,” he huffed irritated. Was Neal not listening here? “She hated Deefur, she refused to feed Emma fruit yogurt, and didn't approve of my lifestyle,” he listed her faults quickly, shushing Emma when his raised voice started her whimpering into his neck.
“How the hell did she find out about your lifestyle? Did you tell her?” Neal used the same old argument, allowing sadness to overwhelm the rising temper. Neal counted himself as Cam's greatest supporter, but sometimes he could be so obtuse.
“There's pictures of us all over the damn house, what do you want me to do? Put away all the images of me and Mark? Of Mark with Emma? I'm not concealing who I am, and I am not hiding the man I loved from view.”
“Anyway, she turned out to be worse than useless. Deefur never liked her, wouldn't let her within five feet of him from day one.”
“Deefur? Shit, Cam. He's a freaking dog. His opinion—”
“The dog you shouldn't even still have.”
“He's Mark's dog.” A simple statement, filled with all the emotion for what this meant. Quickly he realized what he had said. “Was Mark's—he's my dog—our dog. Emma's dog…” He tripped over his words and his voice tailed off in a hopeless way, the result of not really knowing how to defend what he had started to say. Yes, Mark had brought Deefur home as a puppy. Yes, Mark had the idea to have a dog, but Deefur was the family pet, Cam's and Emma's.
“He's an extra in your house you don't need.” Neal had said this before and would undoubtedly say it again. “We talked about this. You need to get him re-homed. Make your life easier and put him up for adoption—”
“You want me to put Emma up for adoption as well?” The irrational response spilled from his lips before he could gather his thoughts. What did Neal want him to say? It seemed that the nannies would use any excuse they wanted, be it about him being gay, or Emma having an unconventional surrogacy birth, or having to deal with Deefur. All reasons why not one nanny lasted more than a few days.
“I never said you should put Emma up for adoption.” Neal sounded way past hurt and Cameron grimaced. He had been way out of line. No one could question Neal's love for Emma, and Cameron didn't know why he had said what he had.
“I know. I'm sorry.” Cameron let out another noisy exhalation and continued louder over the sound of crunching cabbage and snuffly woofing. “The Agency said they were sending someone else over. She should be here soon.” Even as he said the words, the sound of the doorbell startled him, and he stumble-tripped over a family size box of Tide, righting himself with a shoulder against the wall and exclaiming down the phone, “She's here!” A flood of relief nearly overwhelmed him.
Deefur did his infamous imitation of what Mark had always called his ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles imitation'; hurling himself at the door and baying like a lunatic. The whole door frame shook as the huge dog repeatedly tried to reach the person on the other side, pieces of cabbage being flung from his open jaws. The sudden barking started Emma off again with pitiful and very wet sobs into his neck, while she choked out “Daddy” and “chocca” over and over and over and—
“I'll call you back,” he shouted down the phone to Neal, ignoring the faint, what the hell? before he disconnected the call.
Cameron lunged for the door, trying to pull back Deefur and at the same time not squeeze Emma to death in the current forty-five degree hold he had on her. He reached the handle past the confusing mess of panting, barking, swirling, jumping fur, and opened the door.
Only to see a small Toyota screeching away from the sidewalk in front of his house. He couldn't believe his eyes, looking up and down the deserted street to check again. Surely the woman leaving in the car couldn't be the last nanny on the agency books, leaving as soon as she'd arrived? His heart sank when the truth of what had happened hit home, and sudden, furious, self-pitying thoughts squirmed into his head. Damn it. Another prospective nanny bites the dust. This time Deefur was well and truly to blame; damned nanny didn't even get past the threshold.
“Chocca Dadda pwease?” Emma continued to squeeze out more tears as Deefur shouldered past them both to stand at the tall fence in the front yard, barking heroically at the retreating car. Thank God the escaping woman had shut the gate; otherwise, there would have been another trip to rescue Deefur from the pound after he chased the car clear across Tacoma.
“Chocca,” he said helplessly to his clinging daughter, ignoring the disapproving looks from Mr Perkins at number fifteen, and shouting over the barking to get Deefur back indoors. Deefur showed no sign of stopping the deep and frantic baying. From Deefur's point of view, the perceived intruder needed to be well and truly told off.
Deefur snorted and let out a few extra oofing barks, almost under his breath, getting in the last word. Clearly satisfied his work was done, Deefur turned round and trotted back inside, finally as obedient as you like, to take his place in the pool of morning sunlight filling the kitchen, the remains of the cabbage between his huge paws. Cameron waited at the still-open door, in a daze. There went his last chance, the last suitable nanny on the Agency's list, a list that wasn't that long to start with. Emma buried her tears in his shoulder, her murmured “chocca” getting quieter and less there, to his intense relief. He closed the front door behind them, effectively closing them off from the world outside. He leaned against the door and slid down to sit, legs stretched in front of him and cradling his whimpering daughter in his arms.
Deefur remained quiet. The big, largely friendly giant took up most of Cam's tiled kitchen floor, and not for the first time in the past few months Cam's knifing resentment rose at the chaos in his house. He didn't mean to. He loved Deefur, he really did, and he didn't want to resent Mark's dog, but it was getting so damn hard not to. Mark. He had been the one to decide they needed to be a family, declaring a dog a good start. As much as Cameron tried, he couldn't forget the day they brought him home.
“Deefur dog,” Mark had declared.
“Look at the size of his paws. He's gonna be huge. What about Hercules, or—I don't know—something for a big dog, like, we could be ironic, call the puppy Tiny or something?”
“Nope. Deefur is so much cooler,” Mark responded cheerfully to what Cam knew was a blank expression, “D-for-Dog, get it?”
Cameron was in love enough to go with the flow. For both the mixed breed dog with the uncertain parentage—Great Dane and who knew what else—and the huge paws and the equally stupid name. In no time at all the puppy with the sticky-up ears, the melting chocolate eyes, and the irrepressible doggy grin had become an adult dog.
Still, with the eyes, he could worm his way out of many a bad situation with a single doleful look. Cameron loved dogs—he considered himself a dog person—but with his company growing so fast…
They were a victim of their own success, clients demanding more for less, and then the whole surrogacy thing had happened so damn quickly; sometimes everything had been too much. They had muddled through though, Mark and Cameron, as they did with everything; with a lot of laughter, a few arguments, and one hell of a large amount of dog poo bags. Deefur became Mark's dog, and the damned idiot fur-frenzy absolutely adored the older man, following him everywhere, earning the nickname Shadow. Mark's shadow. Mark's dog.
“Maybe you should think about loaning Deefur out somewhere for a while?” his mom had suggested on her last visit. She had been picking cans, boxes, and other recycling items from the hedge where Deefur stored them for some weird purpose. “Just maybe until Emma goes to preschool?” Cam agreed at the time. She made one hell of a lot of sense. Yes, handling work and Emma would be easier if he didn't have to deal with Deefur too. But who the hell did you lend dogs to?
Deefur had literally become the one part of his life Cameron couldn't reconcile. Mark had been gone a long time now. Taken on a frigid January morning when black ice, soft snow and an oncoming semi meant Mark never made it home from an overnight trip. Eighteen long months—a year and a half—with Emma doubling in size and passing her second birthday, her long brown hair and blue eyes so much like Cameron's. There would never be one hint of Mark's wheat-blond hair or his beautiful, hazel green eyes. Eyes which constantly sparked with emotion and enthusiasm for life. Nope, she was only ever going to get Cameron's dark hair, his blue eyes, or maybe lighter brown hair like the birth mother, because Cameron's genes had been used in this surrogacy. The plan had been for Mark's turn to be next. Whatever obstacles they had to overcome, they were determined to have at least two children if they could. Mark worked from home, an accountant, the least boring accountant Cameron had ever met. He was there for the baby, for Emma… most of all he dealt with Deefur on a day to day basis, walked him, groomed him, trained him. His death left all three of them at a loss.
Cameron believed it was only luck that got him through each day so he could take care of Emma and meet her needs. Grief kept a bubble of isolation around them, but the biggest loser always would be Deefur. Cameron gave into everything he wanted and paid the dog enough attention for Deefur to remain healthy. Walked. Fed. Brushed. But when it came to discipline? Well, that became non-existent. Cameron had neither the time nor the inclination to worry. So now Deefur ruled the damn house, and Cameron had no control in the slightest over the one-hundred and forty pound Great Dane cross. Walks involved Cameron being dragged down the street, pulled like a small kid on the leash. Peace in the house involved locking Deefur out in the yard, or in various rooms to keep him out of Emma's and his stuff. He was exuberant, playful, a big, overgrown, hairy puppy who single-handedly cleared a room with his over-excitement.
No, today had been the final straw. He couldn't deal with Deefur's behavior, and the dog reminded him too much of the man Cameron had married, the man he wanted to raise children with. He couldn't handle it. He couldn't. Not anymore. He struggled enough with the breath-consuming grief on his own, looking after a two-year-old daughter and a business partner who relied on him. Deefur needed a family with acres of land, people who had time, a family who was more than just scraping by on a day to day basis. When he weighed up the pros and cons in his head, the con column was about a foot long and no other choices remained. He wasn't capable of giving the high-spirited dog a good home anymore.
Deefur had to go.
“I'm sorry, Mr Everson. We are fully aware of your skill set, but we don't have any matches.”
Jason sat and listened, refusing to let the news get him down as he sat in the administration office of the Agency. Sitting here at the best of times with no hope of possible employment was hard enough. Added to this, he had to listen to his shortcomings being listed by the officious official who officially told him he was completely unemployable.
“I've said this before, young man. I'm sorry, but people don't always want male nannies. Especially young male nannies with little or no actual experience.” Add the unspoken ‘gay nanny', and there remained no job or even the slightest prospect of a job. The fact he had helped his momma raise his five younger brothers and sisters, plus his qualifications, criminal checks, and references didn't appear to matter one little bit.
“Anyway, Mr—erm,” she checked her paperwork and he winced. Jeez, not even important enough to have his freaking surname recalled. “Everson. Surely it can't be long until you graduate?” The helpful Agency owner had an enormous amount of optimism and expectation on her face. He imagined the forced smile was used to hide the relief the unemployable would be leaving their books soon.
“Another year. I only need something for the year. There must be—something?”
“Have you thought of advertising as a babysitter in the papers?”
“A babysitter?” Jason flinched inwardly, horrified at the word. His qualifications and experience put him way past odd nights here and there as a babysitter. Okay, so much of his experience leaned towards the informal, but he had been a nanny for the Mitchener's kids for four months and they loved him. Unfortunately, they had emigrated to Canada and had taken his position with them.
“I'm sorry. We have your details, and as soon as there is a suitable match…” Her voice trailed off and she glanced towards the door expectantly. Clearly his cue to leave, and with a singular disappointment knifing through him, he thanked her for her time and left.
Glass half full was how he looked at the world. A positive kind of person normally, the world around him consisted mostly of a sunny, happy, positive place, and generally he saw the good in everything. Today though, leaving the Agency office, two days before his twenty-fifth birthday, there was no good to see in an eviction notice, an empty bank account, and no job. The words of the Agency's dismissal ringed in his ears. Moodily he scuffed at the grass underfoot as he walked, realizing he had reached his shabby, barely-holding-it-together truck without even remembering the walk to get there. This was stupid. He needed to get a grip. After all, if everything went seriously wrong, if he had really run out of options, then he could always go home, back to his parents' house. The door remained open to him, always.
Other twenty-five-year-olds got help from their parents; he wouldn't be the first. His mom would jump at the chance to have her eldest child back at home, and for a moment, the prospect made his breath catch. Back to his family, his siblings, well, the ones still at home anyway, made a pang of self-pity curl in him. This is silly. I'm not giving up now. So close to passing the requisite teaching exams, so damn close; three terms remained, and there must be something he could do. A part-time job at Joe's Pizza Parlor filled most of his spare time with minimum wage pay and pathetic tips. He had to find something paying well enough so he could leave the pizza job and concentrate on the final three terms. Otherwise, he may as well kiss his career hopes goodbye.
Always a late starter—Jason took a long time to decide what to do with his life and now, at the last hurdle, everything was going wrong. There were so many different paths he had tried to take; baseball-guy, advertising agency trainee-guy, writer-guy, all the time being pulled back to what instinct told him he would be good at: teaching kids. Not teenagers, but younger kids with their eyes full of wonder, little sponges thirsty for knowledge. His second brother Nathan had often said Jason appeared little more than a kid himself, anyway, which was why the kindergarten kids loved him so much. Said comment had caused the usual Everson pile-up with Nathan victorious—again—damn his extra weight and sneaky poking-in-the-eye maneuvers.
Thinking of his family left Jason feeling decidedly blue as he peeled out of the parking lot and found himself heading to Billy's on automatic pilot. Right then he couldn't think of anywhere else he wanted to be, and eventually he turned his old truck into the pot-holed staff parking and left it there. Then, not fit for human company, he bypassed the office and went straight to the dogs. There would be coffee and sympathy from Billy if he wanted, but at this point in time, he wanted to wallow in the unfairness of life. Always ready with coffee, Billy had a wealth of understanding and a wise word for any situation. Jason wasn't ready for someone being nice to him, not until he calmed down, allowing the total adoration and love of the rescued dogs to work their magic on him.
He found rare peace in his volunteering at the animal shelter and wished he had more time to offer his canine friends. Pulling down leashes, he started the daily cycle of dog walking. He scrambled and ran; enjoying the quiet acceptance of the rescued dogs. From Lacy the King Charles, to Bear the Husky, he walked them in the fields behind the sanctuary, while uncomfortable thoughts raced through his head. He anticipated the eviction notice on his rooms. The landlord had plans to remodel and sell up. Jason's money to live on had run low. He didn't earn enough for a deposit or monthly rental, and he had to keep some back for his college courses. He already juggled a part-time job with his studies and still had nowhere near enough money to cover everything.
Billy had said he could stay overnight in the office if he got desperate, but he couldn't employ Jason. He didn't have the money. Jason wasn't stupid—the dog rescue didn't have excess funds to support any staff and relied on volunteers like him and donations of food and money. He had thanked Billy for the offer of the pull-out couch in the office as a last resort, his pride dictating he would rather end up sleeping in his ancient truck.
With a degree in child psychology and a teaching qualification as near as damn it in the bag, finding a position looking after kids should be easy. Maybe slightly easier if he hadn't been so honest about his sexuality during the informal first interview. Shit, why the hell he should hide? Being gay didn't make him some kind of sexual deviant. Frustrated by his thoughts, he slumped down next to the nursing pen. The Retriever dumped at Billy's last week lay on her side, panting with exhaustion and heat. She had been discarded pregnant and close to birthing. Now there were ten puppies crawling around her, searching for milk.
Instinctively Jason leaned over to help. He smiled down at the tiny blind creatures, guiding them to the source, lifting one tiny pup where two could fit in his palm, and he wished he could take one of them—two of them—all of them, to a home. His home. His own home. There was a peace in having a dog, a natural love you could only get from a dog, and he missed owning one.
Here with the animals, Jason didn't feel so helpless, or out of control. After allowing himself the ten minutes of self-pity he needed, he pulled off his t-shirt, wiping at the sweat on his face and neck, and moved back out into the sunshine to walk the next group of dogs. His mood lingered, but had lightened considerably, and for the perspective, he was grateful.
Neal flew to Cameron's rescue, taking Emma for the day and carrying her off to the site with him. Their fledgling business teetered on the edge of being big and couldn't handle at least one of them not being on site. Neal rationalized it all for Cameron—made what Cam had to do easier.
“If Deefur has a new home, a big house, maybe with more space, owners at home all day, and then, without Deefur, you know it will probably be much easier to find help with Emma.”
Cameron and Mark had split their time equally. Childcare had been an important thing for them, they both wanted to be hands-on parents. Now with it being Cameron on his own—it was damn hard. He had tried several local agencies by recommendation, nannies with impeccable references. All of them had bravely sat through the interviews, until the whole Deefur thing had been introduced, or his lifestyle came into the discussion, or his opinion on Emma's upbringing had been mentioned. Not one of them stayed longer than a week, and the last one, well, that one quite clearly hadn't even made it through the door. Neal's advice made sense.
Which was why, on this hot Saturday, under a clear blue sky, Cameron sat in his truck with Deefur panting and drooling in the front seat next to him. He willed himself to get out of the cab and to actually go into the place his mom recommended.
Billy's Dog Rescue.
“The best place, Cam,” Neal had agreed softly. “It has a good reputation, and they don't put the dogs down. It's this huge ranch-type place, and they re-home. They spend time finding the right families, the right owners—”
Cameron looked at Deefur, who stared back at him, his mouth wide in a doggy grin. His brown eyes were sparkling and excited by the journey in the truck, said journeys generally ending up in a walk of some description. In his mind's eye, Cameron saw Mark standing at the door, a bundle of sable fur in his arms and a huge bashful smile on his face. Full of ideas for walks and eager to buy puppy food, bedding and a crate. The same crate Deefur grew out of in three months, the same crate that still sat in the garage complete with bite marks and missing hinges; the result of the great Deefur escape attempt of Christmas Eve.
“Don't look at me like that,” Cameron said softly, burying his face in Deefur's soft fur, the smell of freshly shampooed dog in and around him, and the nuzzle of a cold, wet nose against his skin. He wanted a way to explain; to make this huge dog with a heart of gold understand why he needed him to go to a new home, why his very presence made Cameron's and Emma's lives so damn difficult. “I'm sorry,” he murmured into the fur. Then he clipped the leash to the collar and opened the door, encouraging Deefur out and across the grass, which Deefur promptly scent-marked, and then spent time exploring on the long lead as Cameron locked up the truck.
Cameron stopped under the ranch-style sign and tugged on the leash. Deefur happily jumped ahead, his joy in the summer day in every sniff and whine as he discovered the grass and the dusty path. Finally Cameron stood at the door to the cabin-like office, with the words “Welcome Dogs and People” carved into old wood. With a determined straightening of his shoulders, he pushed open the door making an old-fashioned bell jingle. He hesitated only for a moment, the words, the reasons, and the excuses suddenly tumbling out of his mouth in a heated rush to the white haired man sitting behind the desk.
“I need you to take this dog his name is Deefur he is four, my daughter is two I have my own company he is too big, too big for us I can't handle him and I can't find a nanny to help with my daughter when he is there. He was my partner's dog but see he's—my partner— he passed away, and I'll pay his board until you find a home for him, a good home, but I need you to take him, so—please.” Cameron hadn't even stopped to breathe or to even look at the person who stood patiently staring over the desk at Deefur.
“You wanna take a seat?” he asked and Cameron sat, quickly and suddenly. Every ounce of energy had left him. “Coffee?” asked the same gruff voice, and Cameron found himself saying yes; found himself looking out of the window at the kennels and dog runs behind the office, found himself drinking hot, almost-black coffee as the other man sat back down and listened. Finally finding himself telling this man, this nodding, understanding man, the whole problem from start to finish. The reasons why he sat here, even as he sat desperately holding onto Deefur's lead with his right hand, absently stroking the huge shaggy head with his left, coffee abandoned, his knuckles white with the grip on the lead.
* * * *
Billy Pearson looked carefully at this man who sat clinging desperately to the long leather leash, this Cameron Jackson. He focused on the other man's left hand buried deep into his dog's fur, took in the dog's wet nose, the brushed coat, the clear eyes. Through narrowed eyes he read the body language, at the man's own eyes, suspiciously bright, and he made the decision there and then. With no hesitation on his part, Billy stood and opened the back door, the one marked Staff and shouted two words out into the dust beyond.
“Stretch, office!” He tapped his fingers, watched the man and refilled his coffee, offered a biscuit to Deefur, and glanced repeatedly out the window until finally he saw Jason jogging this way.
He wondered how much to tell Jason. Should he mention Cameron had a male ex-partner, or would he be seen as being some kind of matchmaker? He decided it might be better coming from this Cameron Jackson himself. He smiled as the office door flew open; Jason never did anything quietly. The young man's worn jeans were covered in mud, his t-shirt off and tucked in his belt, his chest bare to the sun, and his hair damp and plastered back on his head. He looked impossibly young and fresh from exercising the boarders, jumping up the final steps and banging in through the door. Billy smiled at his entrance.
“Wassup?” Jason smiled, dropping to fuss at the dog sitting in the middle of the office, crooning a hello, and then standing up to look at Billy and Cameron expectantly.
* * * *
Cameron sat dumbstruck, startled at the entry and at the young man who stood in the open doorway. The young half-naked man, the young half-naked, impossibly gorgeous, sweaty man with the muscles. Really tall, probably five or so inches taller than him and clearly not a stranger to the gym. Short, dark, sweat-damp hair clung flat on his head and his gaze skittered from dog to him, and then back to Billy. He pulled his t-shirt from his jeans to wipe his face, and in the time it took him to do that, Cameron lost the power of rational speech.
“Jason, we got us a reject. This here's Deefur,” Billy said firmly, crossing and taking the lead from Cameron and handing control over to the tall newcomer. Who switched from affable youth to pissed-off man in an instant.
“A reject? What is it?” Jason drawled, talking directly to the dog, scruffing the fur around Deefur's huge floppy ears. “Did he get tired of you now you're not a puppy?”
“I'm not—” Cameron started to splutter. That wasn't fair, but the new guy dismissed excuses.
“Whatever. It's nothing we can't handle,” Jason snapped, guiding Deefur towards the exit door.
“Don't I get to—” say goodbye? Cameron wanted to say. He wanted to stop them, to grab back the lead. Deefur wasn't their dog yet, and as the owner he had rights—surely—
Jason turned back, waiting expectantly for Cameron to finish the sentence. When Cameron could think of nothing to say and the pause grew too long, Jason shrugged. With disappointment and anger carving his face, he opened the door and started to leave the office, Deefur following calmly.
“Wait—no—” Cameron said, standing and taking a single step towards his dog, “I didn't reject him—I can't—it isn't as simple as it seems—please—”
Jason, tall guy, stopped, a simple softening in his expression, as he waited, looking again between Billy and Cameron, clearly waiting for guidance.
“Jason,” Billy began, “can you stay for a bit?”
* * * *
Cameron stood uneasily outside the office, his head still spinning. This sounded like a set up. Or too good to be true. To find someone who loved dogs and in a position to nanny, even temporarily for a year, added up to something way beyond his expectations.
“So, you're like a nearly qualified teacher? For real?” Cameron realized he probably sounded like he didn't believe him, “and you just happen to be in your last year at college, you like dogs, and you volunteer here?”
“Yes.” Jason nodded, his own face marked with caution. Cameron knew it was too good to be true and actually anticipated a punch line of some sort.
“And you are looking for work?”
“I need something to help me finance my thesis, allowing me to study from home, and I'm looking for somewhere to live.”
“Where are you living now?” Cameron didn't mean to sound so damn suspicious but hell, either luck had landed finally on his side or he'd become the target in one hell of a practical joke.
“My landlord is relocating and developing the place I rent to sell.” Far too late Jason attempted to look like he didn't care. Cameron had already heard the disappointment in the other man's voice.
“You sure you could handle a two year old and a dog? A big dog, a Great Dane.” Cameron emphasized the big dog part, his instantaneous reaction, and his immediate worry. Deefur had become such a handful. Then he felt guilty almost straight away. Emma. Could this half-naked guy actually be the right person to look after Emma? Shit. Half-naked. Cut. Clearly worked out, looked after himself. Emma… Focus on Emma… Emma…
Jason laughed, dropping to his knees next to Deefur, who instantly rolled on his back showing his belly for a rub. “Yeah, no worries, man.”
“I would need references—for Emma—” Cameron said a little desperately.
“I have them.” Jason answered simply. “I have all my police checks, and I am actually registered in town with the Adams Nanny Agency.”
The Adams Agency? The same agency he had tasked to find him a nanny? Cameron wondered why the agency hadn't sent Jason out on an appointment for the position, but swiftly put the thought to the back of his head. Maybe the guy had a homophobic streak and the agency knew this? Perhaps he had specified he wouldn't work with a family once comprised of two dads. Should Cameron tell the prospective nanny about Mark now rather than later? No, he should leave it until he had more of a handle on this whole thing. He didn't have to offer this Jason a job today. He could check references, ask around, and make sure this six-three, tight-bodied man fit the job.
Cameron pressed fingers against the ache forming in his temple, wondering what the hell he could be thinking, trying not to look at delineated muscle-tone and sun kissed skin, or focus on spiky, dark brown hair and the hint of dimples in a wide smile. He tried desperately to imagine how life could be easier if only he could find a nanny, and how this solution, this Jason guy, would mean he could hang on to the only link he had left to Mark.