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Mikayla Shroeder stood outside the front door of her three-bedroom stucco bungalow in the South Beach neighborhood. She hesitated to put her key in the lock and open the door for fear of what awaited her on the other side.
She'd been gone from her home for a record seven days now, and despite the help she'd hired to deal with her problem, she held little hope much had changed in her absence. Still, she was near exhaustion and the thought of sleeping in her own bed tonight held too much appeal to resist. It was time to face the unavoidable.
On a deep sigh she placed the key in the lock, turned and steeled herself for what would come next. She pushed on the heavy oak door as it opened.
She waited. Nothing happened.
She pushed it even farther open until she could see the entryway leading to the sunken living room. She entered the house, confused by the silence.
At first glance everything appeared to be normal. The small cherrywood table that decorated the foyer was once again lying on its side. The small glass vase that usually sat on the table was smashed, with bits of glass scattered across the light oak wood floor, interspersed with the wilted flowers that once occupied the vase.
"Hello?" Stepping over the glass, she closed the door behind her and moved farther into the house, walking toward the living room. The recently purchased orange pillows that were supposed to line the bright red, box-styled sofas were thrown about the room. The round glass coffee table was still centered between the sofas, but the stacks of her favorite travel books were falling over on themselves and spilling off the table.
Despite the disarray, which was expected, the stillness of the place bothered her the most.
"Kim?" Mikayla frowned to herself as her confusion grew and along with it, her concern. "Angel? Where's my sweet girl?"
Her calls were met with dead silence.
She walked along the short, cream, carpeted pathway that led around the sunken living room and rounded the corner into the kitchen.
The sink was full of dishes, except for the ones that had been pulled out of a bottom cabinet and tossed around the room. The dish towel was sprawled on the floor next to where both wood counter stools lay on their sides. The box of dog treats that usually sat in one corner of the counter was turned on its side and completely emptied.
Mikayla was crossing the room to pick up one of the stools when she heard the first sounds of life.
"Drop it!" A forceful, female voice came from the back of the bungalow. "I said drop it!"
Mikayla hurried toward the voice, passing through the elegant dining room and vaguely noticing the table and chairs were upright and properly positioned.
"Give it back! Bad!" The female voice was growing angrier. "Bad Angel!"
Mikayla rushed through the glass sliding doors that led to the backyard and pool patio, and stopped in her tracks.
"Bad Angel! Bad!" Kim Shapiro, her nineteen-year-old neighbor and dog sitter was standing, dripping wet beside the pool in a royal blue bikini bottom and nothing else. Her small hands were balled in fists at her side; her pretty face was twisted in an angry expression as she glared across the pool. "Drop it, Angel! I mean it!"
Mikayla followed the direction of Kim's death stare and knew what she'd find before her eyes landed on the large, scruffy, tan-colored dog standing on the other side of the pool. The dog's wet tail was wagging in excitement, her soaked fur dripping on the patio as a wet bikini top hung from her mouth.
"Oh, no," Mikayla groaned, knowing she'd just lost yet another dog sitter.
The small noise was enough to startle the teenager, and she covered her bare breasts with her arms. "Ms. Shroeder—I didn't hear you come in."
"It's okay. I can see you're busy." Mikayla started along the poolside toward Angel, who'd already dropped the bikini top and was charging in her direction.
Mikayla braced herself for the huge paws that landed on her shoulders a moment later, and positioned her feet to keep her balance. It had taken her months to learn that trick; Angel use to knock her down with little effort.
Kim seized the opportunity to rush around the pool and grab her top. "Aren't you back a little early?" She cast one last glare at Angel before turning her back to the pair and tying the halter top back on.
Mikayla looked at the dog's face now inches from her own, and found bright blue eyes blinking back at her and a pink tongue lolling to the side. Hot breath that smelled like day-old milk bones blew across her face.
Despite the scene she'd entered on, and Angel's penchant for trouble, Mikayla was satisfied that her pet had not been mistreated in her absence.
Rubbing the top of the shaggy head of her ill-behaved beast, she asked Kim, "How was everything this week?"
Kim turned with a false smile in place. "Great! Just great. Me and Angel had a great time. Didn't we, girl?"
"Down, Angel," Mikayla said, but Angel was too busy licking her face to hear her name being said. "Down, Angel!" Mikayla said again, with little reaction from the dog.
She took the large paws and forcefully removed them from her shoulders.
Not the slightest bit put off by the rebuke, Angel shuffled away to her favorite end of the pool and dived in.
"What happened?" Mikayla asked, taking in the water-splattered patio, and various pool toys scattered around the area.
"We were in the pool—" Kim began to explain.
"She loves the pool," Mikayla interjected apolo get-ically as she began to understand what had occurred.
"Yeah, I know." Kim gave the dog a long-suffering look. "Anyway, everything was fine and then I dived too hard, I guess, and my top slipped up—"
Mikayla stopped where she was bent over picking up a floaty. "Oh, dear." She muttered. "Angel grabbed it."
"It happened so fast!" Kim's blue eyes widened in renewed surprise. "Before I even realized what had happened she had it and was out of the pool." She sighed. "That's where you came in."
"I'm sorry about that. Angel feels that anything loose in the pool is, well…up for grabs." Mikayla bent and picked up a chew toy, but just then Angel came loping up, leaving a trail of water in her wake, and snatched the toy from Mikayla's hand. "I guess it's my fault. I've let her get away with it for so long."
"For the most part, she's a real sweetheart." Kim leaned forward and rubbed the dog's wet head. "Just…a little rambunctious."
"That's an understatement," Mikayla muttered. She glanced at the girl who, despite the bikini top incident, looked none the worse after a week with Angel, and decided now was as good a time as any to bring up her next trip. "Listen, Kim, I have another conference in a few weeks and—"
"I can't!" Kim blurted. "I have plans for that week."
I haven't even said which week.
A brief glimpse of what looked like embarrassment crossed the girl's face. "I mean, I'm going to be heading back to school soon. Spring break's almost over. I doubt if I'd be able to do it."
"I understand." Mikayla forced a smile. Another one bites the dust. She was running out of neighbors. Soon Angel's name and picture would be posted on the community board in front of the local library under the heading BEWARE. Then what was she supposed to do for dog sitters?
After all, Kim had been an unexpected prize. Mikayla and Angel had moved in a little over a year ago and with Kim being away at college most of the year, she'd somehow been spared the worst of the rumors about the new neighborhood nuisance, as Mikayla had heard her next-door neighbor refer to Angel.
When they'd run into Kim during one of their afternoon walks, Kim and Angel had taken to each other, and that was an excellent omen, considering how rare it was that Angel took to anyone.
Over the next few weeks, Mikayla had set out on a calculated campaign to win the girl over and it hadn't taken much since she already loved animals, and when Kim was around Angel was on her best behavior.
So, when she offered to pay Kim to stay at her house for a few days to take care of the dog, and Kim, like most college students, needed money, it had seemed like a match made in heaven.
But still, during the entire five-day trip, Mikayla could not get rid of the nagging feeling that she'd set Kim up to be a victim. During her motivation lectures to the gathering of aspiring writers, Mikayla's mind had wandered away on several occasions. And even during the book signing, she'd autographed a copy of her book "To Angel."
And when she'd arrived home today, she'd expected to find the same scene she'd found after returning from her last two trips. Turned-over tables and chairs, torn pillows and damp carpets. The fact the house still looked like a house was a testament to Kim's unique relationship with her pet. But that emphatic response had been enough to let her know they'd lost the last, best hope.
"Well, now that you're back, I'm gonna head home." Kim headed toward the glass doors leading into the house.
Mikayla looked down at her scruffy companion who was staring back at her with adoring eyes and a wagging tail, wanting to play.
"What am I gonna do with you?" Mikayla asked.
Angel's response was the accelerated wagging of the tail and a loud bark. Play was all she had on her mind.
At the glass doors, Kim paused. "Um…Ms. Shroeder?"
"Have you ever thought of sending Angel to an obedience school?"
"It's crossed my mind," Mikayla said, finding no need to mention that she'd tried it with three different schools, all of which had returned both her money and her dog and declared the task impossible. But Kim didn't need to know all that. She was already enough of a lost cause as it was.
"Just thought I'd ask. I'll just go grab my bag out of the guest room," Kim said and headed toward the bedrooms. Angel glanced at the girl and then back at Mikayla, torn as to which to follow.
Mikayla watched the dog make her decision as she plopped down on her wide bottom. "What am I going to do with you, huh?"
Angel looked up at her owner with big, innocent eyes. A few minutes later Mikayla was in the kitchen, standing with the fridge door open, looking for something to eat when Kim entered, carrying the overnight tote she'd collected from the guest room.
"Here you go." Mikayla turned and handed the girl an envelope. "I gave you a little more than we agreed on." She nodded down at Angel who was sitting on her foot. "I know she can be a handful."
"You didn't have to do that—but thank you."
Kim accepted the envelope and looked down at the dog with gentle eyes. "She's certainly high-strung, but she is a sweetheart. Just mischievous."
The young woman's compassionate response made Mikayla regret losing her even more.
"See you later, Ms. Shroeder." Kim paused again. "You know, I've heard about this dog trainer in Davies. Dr. Dusty Warren. He's supposed to be some kind of dog whisperer, you know—gifted with animals."
Despite her failure with trainers, Mikayla's interest was sparked nonetheless. "Really?"
"Yeah, my aunt had an aggressive mastiff and from what she said this guy worked wonders."
"Dusty Warren, you said?" Mikayla dug out some leftover sandwich meats, cheese slices and mayonnaise from the fridge.
"Yeah, he's a really renowned vet, and from what my aunt said he has this huge sprawling ranch down in Davies with a full-size hospital and everything. I mean, if you ever consider getting her some training that would be a place to start. Anyway, just thought I'd mention it." The girl headed to the door, holding up the envelope. "Thanks for the money."
"Thank you for taking care of Angel!" Mikayla called out.
Angel barely acknowledged the girl's departure. Her full attention was centered on the sandwich being stacked on the marble island counter top. Her fluffy tail wagged as Mikayla began to cut it in half.
"Dr. Dusty Warren, huh?" she muttered to herself. "A dog whisperer." Hearing a slight whimper, she looked to see Angel wagging her tail and glancing back between the sandwich and Mikayla.
Mikayla raised an eyebrow. "And exactly why do you think you deserve this after your behavior this morning?"
Angel glanced at her expectantly and returned her attention to the sandwich.
"I wonder if this Dr. Warren is really any different from the others."
As if sensing her chances of getting some of the sandwich were slimming, Angel made another whimpering sound.
"Oh, all right." Mikayla dropped half the sandwich into Angel's food bowl. "Although you really don't deserve it."
Angel rushed to the bowl and began gobbling down the sandwich.
Picking up the remaining half of the sandwich, Mikayla collected her computer carry case from where she'd left it near the front door and headed to her study. Before she got her hopes up again, she wanted to do a little research on this Dr. Dusty Warren.