Our dog, Seamus, who passed away in February, was the basis for Cami’s dog Petey. Seamus was named Petey when he came to live with us. He was a big scaredy cat and a momma’s boy.
Cami’s mobile phone rang as she started up the onramp to the freeway. Even without checking the caller ID, she knew it was Paige. Something about the ring’s urgency gave her away.
“You are something else.”
“I had to go. Petey-”
“Save the excuses. Petey enjoys smelling like a cannery.”
“Yeah, but I have to live with him.”
“Anyway, what are you doing around four o’clock?”
“Why?” After Paige’s stunt on the beach, Cami wasn’t going to be ambushed again.
“I have to go by a client’s house. I thought you could come with me and then we could see a movie or have dinner or something.”
“Who’s the client? Anyone I know?”
Paige sighed. “It’s Grant.”
“Honestly, Paige. Do you think I’m stupid?” Cami glanced over her shoulder and in her rear view mirror before changing lanes. Another red station wagon, like yesterday’s, followed several car lengths behind.
“Not stupid. Just in need of a little personal assisting.”
“I’m not interested in dating.”
“You told me you were ready.”
“Anyway, it’s not a date. I have a business appointment with a former acquaintance. You can come with me while I do the initial appraisal. He’ll offer us a soda. We’ll talk for a few minutes. Then we leave and go to our movie.”
Cami drove in silence, thinking and watching that wagon still behind her.
“Come on, Cami. I’ll look at his office and we’ll be out of there. And you’ll have done something scary and lived to tell about it.”
She took a deep breath. “What’s the address?”
“He gave me directions last night.” Paige rattled off an address above the Newport Beach golf course and disconnected.
Before I can change my mind, Cami thought. Thankfully she reached her exit and watched the station wagon continue past. Her grip on the steering wheel eased as the other vehicle dropped out of sight. Then tightened again as she realized what she had agreed to do.
Ninety minutes later, Cami drove at exactly sixty-five miles per hour as she headed north on the 73 Freeway. She didn’t want to arrive any earlier than she had to. After hosing Petey off in the back yard, she’d let him shake excess water out before toweling him dry. Snoring from his basket on the back porch was all the good-bye she got.
Now she forced herself to think about the rest of the evening. She would stay for an hour, then make an excuse about having to be at church early the next morning. As she exited the freeway and continued up Jamboree, Cami resumed a conversation with God.
Why did you get me into this? If anything happens, I will never forgive you. She took her foot off the gas pedal, slowing as she approached the turn on to Ocean Vista and shook her head. She knew better than to try to dictate anything to God. As soon as you prayed for perseverance, you were in impossible situations. Or if you requested peace, turmoil erupted. She once asked for patience and the next day met Kennie.
She shrugged, forcing her thoughts to the current dilemma: how to get out of this evening. Paige’s Audi was parked in front of a nondescript house. White with blue shutters, it sure didn’t scream “Superstar Athlete.” Cami parked behind the metallic blue Audi and got out. Her hands shook as she pressed the remote control button to lock the Tahoe and set the alarm.
A cement walkway led to a porch that stretched across the front of the low-slung ranch-style house. There were a few shrubs but no annuals, no color to break up the green of the lawn meeting the gray concrete ribbon around the white house. Pausing for only a moment at the top of the three stairs, Cami pressed the doorbell.
Immediately the front door flew back on its hinges and Paige pulled her inside.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Paige stage-whispered.
“Hi, Cami.” Grant appeared around a corner. “Come on in.” He waved to a large room across the entryway. “How’s Petey?”
She stepped in and surveyed the expanse. “Snoring,” she said, looking around. Unremarkable might describe the front of the house, but not the inside. Or the view.
Glass windows filled the back wall of the great room. An incredible panorama unfolded beyond the French doors that led to a deck with stairs down to a swimming pool hovering above a steep hill that sloped down to the golf course below.
“Wow.” She never would have guessed this house boasted such an incredible vista of Newport Beach. She could see the Pacific glistening in the far-off sunset. Lights flickered around what must be the course clubhouse, below and to the south of Grant’s.
“I know.” Grant appeared at her side. “I never get tired of looking at it.”
“And you abandon it for how many weeks every year?”
“Ouch.” He clutched his chest. “You had to remind me?”
“Sorry.” She grinned, feeling the grip around her own heart loosen a bit. “I don’t know if I could leave it.”
“Stay as long as you like.” His gaze held hers and Cami had to force herself to look away. “Can I get you something to drink? Paige is itching to look at the office and give me her professional opinion of how much I need her help.”
Cami’s breath returned as she realized Paige stood beside her. “Iced tea?”
“No, black and strong.”
He moved to the kitchen that stretched along the right side of the house but was still open to the great room where she and Paige stood. “Paige?”
“I’ll have the same as Cami.”
“You hate tea,” Cami whispered.
“I know. But I want to get to work.”
Grant handed them each a frosty glass and motioned for them to follow him down the hallway to the left of the entry. “I finished the kitchen last year and now I want to get my office in shape.” He opened a door and waited for them to enter.
Cami’s heart began to pound. Paige must have felt the trepidation because she turned and gave Cami a questioning look. “Are you okay?” she mouthed.
Cami gulped and shook her head. “I don’t think-”
Paige grabbed her hand. “I’m here.”
Cami’s heart rate immediately slowed. Not quite to normal, but at least it wasn’t hammering her chest like Petey’s leg on the floor when she scratched his belly. She smiled her thanks and followed Paige into Grant’s office.
Grant caught the fleeting look between Paige and Cami. Odd. It looked like Cami was afraid to go into his office. He surveyed the room. Only about twelve feet square, there was one window along the rear wall overlooking the swimming pool. A scarred wooden desk sat under the window, its back to the door. A folding table at right angles to the desk held his printer and fax. Boxes of books and files finished the décor.
He looked at the women and gave an encouraging smile. He hoped.
Cami smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She let go of Paige’s hand and squeezed the hem of her polo shirt, bunching it up then letting it go. She finally smoothed it down as she entered the room and looked around. “Oh.” The single word held surprise.
“What?” he asked.
“I expected something more-” She seemed to search for a word. “Sports-filled, I guess.”
He didn’t think that was the word she’d been looking for but he shrugged. “I just want it to work as an office. What do you think, Paige? Is there any hope?”
“Absolutely.” Paige set her glass on the desk and prowled the room, looking into boxes and opening the desk drawers. “I know exactly what you need.”
“Already?” He hoped his skepticism didn’t show.
“You’re attached to this desk, I can tell. I’d get some dark wood shelves for your books and memorabilia. And a file cabinet and printer stand. I can set the office up easily enough. But I have a suggestion for paint.” She glanced at Cami and paused.
“What?” Grant and Cami asked simultaneously.
“A faux finish.” She motioned to the right of the door. “Leather on that wall, with brass nail heads making a seam off-center and along the corners.”
Grant cocked his head. “I like it.” He glanced at Cami, unsure what her reaction would be after her reluctance to enter the room. She stood, arms akimbo, looking the wall up and down. “Cami?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I mean it would look great. But I’m trying to finish up the coffee shop, then I have a mural to do for an insurance company. I’m not sure when I could get to it.”
“I’m not in a hurry. The season starts in a couple of weeks and I’ll be on the road a lot. So we might as well take our time.” His words had slipped so smoothly from “me” to “we” that he almost missed it. And he hoped Cami had.
Something definitely had her spooked, like a wild horse he’d once seen on a road trip with the Salt Lake Stingers. The bus ride through the Wasatch Mountains toward Colorado Springs and the Sky Sox took him through some of the most beautiful country he’d ever seen. He’d spent hours staring out the window at clouds and trees and fences and horses. They’d stopped for the driver to check on a rattle. Grant saw several horses standing together in a field. A man approached the small herd slowly, a rope loose in one hand. All of the horses except one ignored him. That one watched the man advance until he’d closed the distance to about ten feet. Grant blinked and the horse was a quarter mile away, across the pasture. The man slapped the rope against his thigh and the other horses scattered. Grant had the feeling that if he made a wrong move, approached too fast or showed her a metaphorical rope, Cami could out-run that horse and leave him slapping his own thigh in frustration.
But she seemed to take his words at face value as she continued her inspection. “If you’re not in a hurry, I could pencil you in for after the mural.”
“Deal. Now about dinner?”
“No thanks.” The denial came so fast, Grant suspected she’d been planning her getaway.
“I was about to order a pizza.” He turned to Paige. “Please. I want to hear more about what you can do with the room.” He was shameless, appealing to Paige’s business to get closer to her friend.
Paige frowned and glanced at Cami. “I’d love to, but we do have plans.”
“Have a quick bite here with me, then go on with the rest of your evening.” He kept his gaze focused on Paige.
“Cami?” Paige turned to her. “Is that okay?”
“Oh. Um.” Cami sounded unsure. “I guess it’s all right. Since it’s work.”
“Absolutely.” Grant and Paige spoke at the same time, but Grant continued. “I’ll call in an order for delivery.” He moved to the door. “Come on out when you’re done looking,” he called over his shoulder, in a hurry to get to the phone before Cami saw the rope.
Paige froze, her pizza wedge halfway to her mouth. “What is that?” She gestured with the tip.
Cami looked over her shoulder to the kitchen. Sitting in the doorway from the laundry room was the largest black and white cat she’d ever seen. Swishing its tail imperiously, it surveyed the trio at the table and obviously found them lacking in some essential character quality.
Grant rose from his chair and headed to the kitchen. “That’s my cat.”
“I thought a professional athlete would have a Great Dane, or maybe a Rottweiler,” Paige said. “Something big and mean. Or if feline, I would expect a mountain lion. Or a cougar. Something you keep in a cage and toss raw meat at.”
Grant opened a cupboard, removed a foil packet, ripped off the top, and went into the laundry room. “I know,” he called back. “Cats don’t really fit the image. But my folks are cat people and I’m used to having one around. It works better than a dog since I’m on the road so much. My cleaning lady feeds Orca while I’m gone. When I get back, he ignores me for a couple of hours until I’ve been properly punished, then I feed him some tuna and we’re fine again.”
“Orca?” Cami asked.
“He weighs eighteen pounds. Course, he wasn’t that big when I got him, but with the black and white coloring, the name seemed to fit. And he’s grown into it.” Grant returned to the kitchen, wiped his hands on a towel and rejoined Cami and Paige at the table.
“Tell me what you’ve been up to since we left Woodrow Wilson High.” Grant sprinkled some pepper flakes on his pizza and took a bite.
Paige spoke up first. “We both went to Caldwell Christian College in Pasadena.”
“I got an art degree that’s useless in the real world,” Cami said. “I’ve been back in Agua Vida four years. How about you?”
“U.C. Irvine, the minors, then the Coyotes invited me to the show. This is my second full season. Knock wood to stay healthy.” He rapped his knuckles on the table.
“I remember you had a bunch of brothers?”
Grant laughed. “Still do. Four of ‘em, all younger. Trent, my nephew at the beach today, is my brother Jonathan’s son.”
“And your folks?”
“Dad’s still in the Navy. He and Mom live in San Diego with my two youngest brothers.”
“Do you mind if I take a crust home to Petey?” Cami asked, folding a napkin around the left over edge of her pizza.
“Take him a whole slice,” Grant said.
Paige handed Cami more napkins. “At least Cami’s using her art degree in her business.”
“Is there much of a market for your kind of painting?” Grant asked.
“I guess you’re not into home decorating.” Cami looked around. “Someone else designed this place?”
“I knew what I wanted in the kitchen. I let the decorator do the rest of the house.”
“I’m normally booked two to three months out. I had a little break and I took a small job to fill in the time, but-” She paused to sip her iced tea.
“But what?” He looked genuinely interested, leaning over his plate to look in her eyes.
She swallowed. “I knew the client would be demanding, but I took the job anyway. I should have followed my first instinct and stayed out of it.”
“What kind of job?”
Cami told him about the bakery, the finishes and colors that were never up to Janis’s standards.
“Cami changed the shade three times, before trying the one she started with. Then Janis said she finally got it right.” Paige spoke with disdain.
“She sounds like a pain to work with.”
“It’s not that bad.” Cami felt a flush of disloyalty. She really did like Janis. Most of the time. Well, some of the time. “She’s a perfectionist. In all areas of her life.”
“How do you know her?”
“We go to the same church. And her son is in my art class. Oh.” She stopped as she recalled the scene at the baseball field. “You met him at the clinic yesterday. Kyle, the pitcher.”
“He’s a good kid. His parents have high expectations and he’s under a lot of pressure to excel.”
“At everything,” Paige said.
“Do you both work with kids?”
Cami shook her head. “Not really. I used to help in children’s ministry. Now I teach art enrichment classes at the AV Youth Center.”
“And I stick my nose in where it’s not wanted.” Paige stood up. “Do you mind if I go take some measurements in your office?”
“Help yourself.” She disappeared down the hall as Grant shifted in his chair, one arm draped across the back. “You still active at Agua Vida Community Church?”
“Yes,” Cami said. “Where do you go to church?”
“Well, actually…” His voice trailed off. “I’ve gotten out of the habit in the last few years. Once I was on my own, it was easier to worship at the altar of the fluffy pillow on Sunday mornings.”
Cami picked her words carefully. “I know that happens. That’s one reason I chose a Christian college.”
“Church was never that important to me. My mom made me go and there were cute girls there. Apparently, there still are.” He smiled again, making her heart skip a beat. “I’m glad it means something to you. It wasn’t a big deal for me.”
“I can’t imagine life without my faith. Years ago, I memorized Proverbs 4:23. ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’ And I try to live that.” She paused to dip her last pizza bite into some Parmesan cheese. “I needed to go to a Christian college and be in that environment to guard my heart.” She shrugged as she chewed and swallowed. “And I thought it would prepare me for life.”
“You ‘thought’ you’d be prepared,” Grant repeated. “You weren’t?”
Paige returned then, saving Cami from a reply. Engrossed in the conversation, it was easy to forget he was a relative stranger. She’d better keep her guard up.
“We should go,” Cami said to Paige. “Petey’s been alone a long time.”
“You said he was sleeping when you left,” Paige said. “And if we’d gone to a movie, we wouldn’t be out yet. What’s your hurry?”
Grant is too easy to talk with. But she couldn’t say that out loud. “I need to make snacks to take to the youth group tomorrow morning.” She’d fix a coffee cake so it wasn’t a lie.
“It is getting late.” Grant stood, gathered up the paper plates, napkins, the empty pizza box, and swept it all into the trash compactor. “I’ll take care of the dishes.”
Cami laughed. “If you insist.”
“When can you start on my office?” he asked.
“I hope to finish the bakery Monday. Tuesday at the latest. The mural will take at least a week. In about two weeks?”
“The season starts then, so I’ll be coming and going a lot.” He picked up a key ring from the counter, maneuvered one key off and handed it to her. “Come whenever it’s convenient.”
She stared at him, not sure if she should take the key. Paige solved her dilemma by grabbing it and pulling Cami’s elbow toward the door. “I got the measurements. I’ll order some shelves and let you know when they come in.”
“Thanks.” He hurried to get in front of them to hold the door open. “I’ll see you both soon.”