Prelude to a Storm
I wrote this prequel to Storm Season and Breaker Zone as a way of introducing Ian during the Book Boyfriend Blog Hop in April 2013. I wanted to show a little bit of his pre-Bythos and Aphros life with Diana, and a real-life run in with a little dog named Norma inspired this piece.
Ian West slammed on his brakes, hoping to hell there was nobody behind him.
There wasn’t. Ahead of him, however, was a little dog just trotting along the middle of northbound Racine, happy as a clam.
He glared at the dog. Dogs weren’t allowed to run around Lincoln Park off the leash, which meant it was either an escapee or a stray. And he really didn’t want to deal with a stray dog, not tonight. He’d just finished the last of a week’s worth of 12 hour days, his head hurt like a bitch, and all he wanted to do was take a shower, eat the chicken breasts Diana promised she’d barbecue despite the chilly October weather, and crawl into bed.
He looked at the dog again. Small, maybe a terrier. It was pure luck he hadn’t hit it, and that kind of luck didn’t hold out on the streets of Chicago’s North Side at night. The dog would be road kill if he didn’t do something.
Cursing under his breath, he hit his emergency flashers and got out of the car, his breath fogging slightly in the cold air. Bending over, he started slapping his thighs and whistling. “C’mere, boy! Come on!”
The dog turned and studied him, head cocked to the side in a canine gesture that meant, Oh, hello, funny-looking ape. Are you talking to me?
“Damn dog,” he muttered. “Come on, boy! C’mere!”
Just as he thought he’d have to park the car and chase down the dog, it trotted back to him, tail wagging. Quickly, Ian scooped it up and slid back into the car, depositing his new friend on the passenger seat. His timing was perfect; as he turned off the flashers and threw the car into drive, a pair of headlights appeared in his rear view mirror.
“Sorry to interrupt your stroll, buddy, but you’re going home with me,” he said, fumbling with his seat belt. “Hope you like chicken.”
The dog barked once, tail wagging furiously.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
As it turned out, the dog wasn’t so much a Buddy as she was a Norma, according to the tag on her collar. The owner had also put their phone number on the tag, which Ian called while his wife Diana fussed over their canine guest.
The call went directly to voice mail. “Yeah, hi, my name is Ian West, and I have your dog, Norma?” he said. Next to him, Diana sat on the kitchen’s linoleum tile, busily shredding a leftover chicken breast into a bowl while Norma wiggled and danced. “She’s white with brown patches, and her ears are brown–”
“She’s a Jack Russell terrier,” Diana said.
“Uh, and my wife says she’s a Jack Russell terrier. Anyway, I found her walking down Racine tonight and took her home. If you could give me a call when you get this message, we can arrange a pickup. Thanks.”
He ended the call, watching Diana with the terrier. It wasn’t the first time either of them had brought home a stray. Luckily, they’d always managed to find the pet’s owner, or, if the animal didn’t have an owner, a good forever home. It seemed like their luck was still holding this time.
“I know she’s a cutie, babe, but don’t get too attached,” he said. “She belongs to someone.”
“Oh, I know. But she’s so gorgeous.” Diana watched fondly as Norma licked shreds of chicken from her fingers before diving into the bowl. “Do we still have any of that clothesline left? I really should walk her after this.”
He headed to the tiny laundry closet at the end of the apartment. The shelf over the washer and dryer yielded a hank of clothesline, part of Diana’s campaign to use what she whimsically called “the awesome power of nuclear fusion” instead of the dryer during the warmer months.
Bringing the line back into the kitchen, he glanced at the clock. “Are you sure you want to take her for a walk now? I mean, it won’t kill her if she has to pee in the back yard.”
Diana ran her hands over the dog, which seemed to be in seventh heaven from the attention. “No, she needs to stretch her legs a bit. I’ll stay on the main streets — we’ll be fine.”
Ian knew he should volunteer to walk Norma, but he could already feel his eyes sagging shut. “Okay. Keep your phone on you, and your keys. And if someone comes up to you, don’t be afraid to hit them with the Mace.”
She gave him her “I love you, but you’re babbling” look. “Honey, we live in Lincoln Park. The worst that’ll happen is some PETA member gives me shit for enslaving an animal.” She stood up and pulled him in for a kiss. “But thank you for going all macho and overprotective over me. It’s adorable.”
“Mmrph.” He kissed her back, enjoying the feel of her in his arms. “I’ll stay up until you get back. Don’t argue,” he said, resting his fingers on her already opening mouth. “Just take her for her walk and get back in one piece, okay?”
Diana smirked, kissing his fingers. “Okay, Mr. Worrywart. Now go eat your dinner before you fall over.”
He smirked back. “Yes, dear.”
Ian was having a wonderful dream about lazing around on a sandy beach and getting a massage from not one but two godlike masseurs when his phone went off. He reached out, slapping around on the nightstand until he found it. “H’lo?”
“Uh, hi,” a man with a gravely voice said. “Can I speak to Ian West?”
Ian rubbed his eyes. “Speaking.”
“My name is Nick Gardiner. I think you have my dog? Her name is Norma, and she should be wearing a black collar with a blue bone-shaped tag.”
Ian peered down at the foot of the bed. He’d assumed Norma would sleep in the living room on the couch, and discovered his mistake when Diana held the bedroom door open for the dog last night. Courtesy of his wife and her soft heart, Norma was now curled in a ball on the covers, nose tucked under her tail. “Yep, that’s her.”
There was a heartfelt sigh on the other end of the line. “Oh, man. Thank you so much for not taking her to the pound. I think she got out the back door yesterday when I was getting ready for work.”
“No problem, it happens.” Ian glanced at the other side of the bed. It was empty, and he could smell bacon frying in the kitchen. “Do you want me to drop her off, or–”
“I just got home and I’m still dressed. I’d be happy to come pick her up, if that’s okay with you. ”
He checked the alarm clock. 8:48 AM. So much for sleeping in. “Yeah, sure. I’m on Barry.”
“What’s your address?”
He gave the street number, and the other man laughed. “I’m on Seminary — I think you’re right around the corner from me. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll be over there to get her. Thanks again. You’re a lifesaver, literally.”
Norma had woken up by now, sniffing the air and giving Ian a hopeful doggy grin. “I live to serve,” he said, winking at her.
Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang.
“I got it.” Ian gave Norma his last bite of bacon and headed to the front door. A dark-haired man in wrinkled green surgical scrubs stood on the doorstep. From the gruff voice, Ian had expected someone like a city sanitation worker, or maybe a cop. South Sider preconceptions for the win.
In addition to scrubs, the man had a heavy five o’clock shadow with matching smudges under his eyes. “Mr. West?” The voice was definitely the same tired, gravely one from the call. “I’m Nick Gardiner. I called about–”
A small canine missile barreled through the door, dancing around the man’s legs. “Your dog,” Ian said. “Yeah, she’s definitely yours.”
“C’mere, baby girl.” Nick dropped to a crouch, accepting Norma’s enthusiastic kisses. “We should have named you Houdini, you little escape artist,” he added, picking her up and standing just as Diana came up behind Ian. “She’s gotten out before, but usually she stays in the back yard.”
Diana smiled at them both. “I think she was just bored and wanted some exercise.”
Ian slid an arm around her. “Nick, this is my wife Diana. Di, this is Nick Gardiner. He lives over on Seminary.”
She dimpled at the man. “Nice to meet you, Nick. Would you like to come in?”
Norma wriggled out of his arms and dashed back in the house. “Well, Her Highness likes the sound of that,” Nick said with a tired laugh.
“Yeah, she loves bacon.” Ian glanced over the other man’s scrubs, the security tag with the familiar NM logo still clipped to the breast pocket. “You a doctor?”
Nick nodded. “Memorial ER. Just got off a double shift.”
“Oh, I do medical transcription for Memorial,” Diana said. “I think I’ve done some of your notes — your name looks familiar. Look, would it help if I said I had the espresso machine up and running?”
Nick’s weary eyes lit up. “Ma’am, you had me at ‘espresso.'”
Over breakfast, Nick explained that he had inherited Norma from his ex-boyfriend, an architect named Marco. “He got a job in New York and couldn’t take Norma with him, so I said I’d keep her. She’s been my baby girl ever since.” He leaned over and scratched behind her ears. “When I got home this morning and she wasn’t there, I almost had a heart attack.”
“I can imagine,” Ian said sympathetically. “You said she’s done this before?”
“A couple of times, yeah,” Nick said with a tired nod. “I think she just gets lonely when I’m not there.”
“Have you thought about doggy day care?” Diana asked.
“Yeah, but they expect you to pick up the dog at closing time. If I’m in the middle of an emergency I can’t just walk out and go get her.”
Ian could literally see the idea building behind his wife’s eyes. She glanced at him, and he winked in agreement.
“You know, I work from home,” Diana said. “If you wanted, you could drop Norma off here during the day. I could take her out for walks, that sort of thing. And we could keep her here overnight, if you’re busy with patients.”
Nick froze, coffee cup halfway to his mouth. “Seriously? That would be great.” His face fell. “But I can’t ask you to do that–”
“Sure you can.” She made kissy noises and Norma circled the table, lying down next to her feet. “Ian and I both love dogs — we keep meaning to get one, but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet. We’d be happy to take care of her during the day, if that’s okay with you.”
Ian watched as the doctor turned the offer over in his head, clearly wanting to take them up on it. “Nick, I’d say yes if I were you,” he advised. “Di has a way of getting what she wants.”
She grinned at that. “I’m relentless. Ask anyone in Transcription.”
Nick studied them both, then Norma, who was now curled up around Diana’s foot and snoozing. “I can tell. Okay, you’ve got yourself a part-time dog. And thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Here’s to part-time dogs,” Ian lifted his coffee cup, and Diana clinked hers against it.
“To part-time dogs,” Nick echoed, adding his cup to the toast. “And new friends.”
Ian sat on the back porch’s glider, idly rocking back and forth. The ash tree in the back yard was bright green with spring foliage, and the rustle of the branches made a nice counterpart to the soft but ever-present noises of the city.
Norma was sitting next to him, her head on his thigh where he could scratch behind her ears, when the back door opened. “Do you ever drink anything other than Sam Adams?” Nick said, squinting at the brown bottles he carried.
“You’re welcome to bring over your own beer,” Ian said, accepting a bottle.
“Are you nuts? I save people’s lives. The least I should get is free beer.”
Norma looked up at her owner, then sighed and got off the glider, curling up on the porch deck. Nick took her seat, swigging from his bottle. “You packed?”
“Yeah. All I have to do is toss my laptop bag in the car and take off. It should be good. I haven’t been on a road trip since–” He stopped, derailed by the end of that sentence.
Since his honeymoon. The ache in his chest flared up at the thought of Diana. It never really went away, not since the day she died, killed in a car accident a year ago by a drunken motorist. “Anyway, I’m ready.”
Nick frowned at his bottle. “I still don’t get it. I mean, I could see if it you were going to Palm Beach or Tampa. Even Orlando is kinda fun these days for grownups. But why Oceanic–”
“Olympic Cove,” Ian corrected, not for the first time. “Because that’s where the cottage is. And I’m not going down there to party. I’m going down there to write a book.”
“You could do that here.”
And there was the crux of the argument, one he’d already heard from a number of his friends and his sister Angie. “I can’t. I keep … expecting Diana. It’s been over a year, now, and I keep waiting to hear her laugh, or see her in the kitchen, or wake up next to her.” He took a quick sip of his beer. “The grief counselor said I need to get away for awhile, go someplace where I’m not going to run into triggers. I have to reset my head, so to speak.”
Nick still didn’t seem convinced. “But a cottage out in the middle of nowhere? I mean, that’s something I’d expect Jane Austen to do.”
“I don’t think Jane Austen ever lived in a cottage.”
“Her characters, whatever.”
Ian turned, giving his friend a bemused look. “Remind me how you managed to get a college degree?”
“My rugged good looks and blowjobs for my Organic Chem teacher,” Nick said sourly. “And you’re changing the subject. Look, do I have to spell it out for you?”
He didn’t. Ian had already heard the same fears from Angie. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill myself. I miss Di, but … no.” He took a breath, letting the now-familiar pain roll through him like the counselor advised. “Anyway, Angie said the cottage is wired for cable and Wi-Fi. You’re welcome to Skype me anytime you want.”
Nick’s dark brows came down. “And Skype is?”
Ian sighed. “That thing I set up on your computer so that you could talk to the Irishman?”
“Oh. Him.” Nick grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”
“Hey, I told you not to date a redhead. They have no souls.”
“Yeah, they’re almost as bad as blonds.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“I already offered, remember? You said it would be like doing your younger brother.”
Once again, Ian was grateful that he’d never told Nick he was bi. The last thing he needed was the ER doctor trying to get him into bed for pity sex. “Well, it would. Besides, your hot boyfriend would get jealous.”
He expected Nick to reply with a sarcastic comment. Instead, the doctor took another sip of beer. “Yeah, he would. Never mind.”
That was odd. “Problems?”
Nick shrugged. “No. He’s just a little — clingy, I guess. Always wants to know where I am, what I’m doing. He’s thrilled you’re leaving, by the way. Means more time for him.”
“Asshole.” Ian had never met Barnard Whitfield, but nothing Nick said about the man sounded particularly good. “If he’s creeping you out, dump his ass.”
Another shrug. “He’s good in bed. I mean really good. ‘My legs are shaking and all the neighbors know his name’ good. I can put up with a little clinginess for that.”
Something in Nick’s eyes made Ian wonder if the ER doctor really believed what he was saying. “Look, if he gets on your nerves you’re welcome to come down and visit. I’ve got two guest rooms, and I’m going to get the boat out of dry dock. You could go sailing every day.”
“In beautiful Bumblefuck, Florida. Woohoo.” But Nick nodded. “I’ll see how things are in June. I need to take some vacation time anyway.”
Silence. And then: “You be careful down there, okay? Anything happens to you, I’m gonna be seriously pissed off.”
Ian nodded. Nothing was going to happen to him. “I will. You be careful up here, okay?”
They clinked beer bottles in the bright May sunshine.
Next to the glider, Norma rested her head on her paws. She liked coming here with Daddy and visiting their friend Ian, even though he always smelled sad these days. But she missed going for walks with Momma.
It’s all right, honey, a familiar voice said in her head. Daddy and Ian need to talk. I’m afraid their lives are about to get interesting.
Norma whined softly. She didn’t know what that meant.
Never mind. We’ll go for a walk soon, I promise.
Well, then. Her tail beat against the porch floor. If Momma said they’d go for a walk soon, that was all right.
Satisfied, she settled down to watch the back yard.