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Wingman: Just a Guy and His Dog by Oliver, Tess (1)

Chapter Two

Ella

"Did you see it?" Patty asked excitedly as she stepped into the market. She stopped to rearrange three bottles of aspirin on the shelf that didn't need rearranging, but in Patty's mind, life as we knew it would have ended if she'd left the bottles in their original places. And if she hadn't stopped to perform the meaningless task, it would have bothered her for the rest of the day.

After assuring that the aspirin was in perfect order, she strode through the main aisle and stopped to assess the pyramid of boxes I had spent the last fifteen minutes arranging on the display table.

She squinted at my tower of Twinkies. Her chin did the side to side slide it did whenever she saw something that wasn't quite right. She reached for a bottom corner box and moved it the slightest bit. "There. Perfect," she said in a self-congratulatory tone.

I didn't roll my eyes. I never rolled them when it came to her obsessive compulsive disorder. It was something she couldn't help, something that had started because of her sister Sheila. Butterfield Angel #8. A national paper had called them the Twelve Butterfield Angels, and they'd numbered each one. I had memorized every detail of that news article. It helped me remember them all. Not that I'd ever forget.

Angel #8 Sheila Harrold. Twelve years old. Daughter to Carl and Cynthia Harrold. Sister to Patricia. Sheila, known to her dad as Nutterbutter, loved Disney princess movies, sewing dresses for the family cats, and dunking her cookies into milk. Those were the details listed in the paper, but in my head, I amended each entry with my own details. Sheila had a laugh that reminded me of sleigh bells. In first grade, Sheila wore a purple and blue butterfly costume to the Halloween parade. She fluttered around all day in her pretty wings while I was stuck wearing the ugly scarecrow costume my mom had picked for me. The straw itched my neck all morning. By the time we got to recess, I was beyond grumpy and I told Sheila that her costume was stupid. She cried and I felt terrible for being a mean, jealous scarecrow. We made up that night while we were trick or treating, but I never forgot the horrid feeling of making my friend cry. So that was Sheila, Angel #8. She was the reason why I never rolled my eyes when Patty moved boxes and bottles.

"What did you see?" I asked, deciding to pull Patty's scrutiny away from the display before she rebuilt the whole thing.

"Oh, right." She reached up and smoothed down the flyway hairs on her head, a ritual she performed a thousand times a day, to the point that her blonde hair always looked greasy. I couldn't really blame her. She had the type of baby fine hair that always looked as if someone had rubbed a balloon over it. "You mean you didn't see it on your bike ride into town?"

"See what?"

She grunted in disbelief. "Lucky Thirteen or not, Ella, you should be far more aware of your surroundings when you're riding on a bicycle. It's like you pedal through town with blinders on. You could get hit by a car or worse," she added with dramatic flair and then lowered her voice as if the walls had ears. "There was a strange van parked just around the corner from Graham's Hardware store. You might have ridden right past a serial killer who is in town looking for his next victim."

This time an eye roll was not only appropriate but unavoidable. "First of all, Patty, you know how much I hate to be referred to as Lucky Thirteen. Secondly, I would have to work very hard to get hit by a car in a town where three cars on Main Street is a traffic jam. And lastly, not every stranger who rolls into town is a serial killer. In fact, I'll bet with the few strangers we get driving through Butterfield, that none of them are serial killers."

"I'm sure you're right. My gosh, I'm sounding more and more like my mom. I need to find a man and blow out of this town for good before I lose my mind."

"You're not losing your mind, and you'll find someone soon." I worked hard to sound confident, but the truth was, Patty's OCD kept her from any real social life. That and the fact that we lived in a town with only eight hundred people. Boyfriend prospects were severely limited.

Patty shuffled on her sandals to the backroom to put away her purse. She'd been thrust rather unexpectedly into the role of store manager when her dad injured his back trying to dig up a tree stump in his yard. I'd been working for the Harrolds for three years, after deciding that I would stay in Butterfield. It wasn't much of a job but then exciting career choices didn't really abound for someone who barely graduated high school and who lived in a small town where the closest thing to big business was the hardware store that took up not one but two whole blocks on the corner of Jackson Road. My teachers had all insisted that my art talent would make me famous one day, but my mom was always quick to remind me that only a few people earned a living 'making pretty pictures'.

I stepped back to view my newest masterpiece, my Twinkie tower, when the cowbell hanging on the front door clanged. I circled around the display.

It was hard to pinpoint what struck me the most, the almost unearthly amber eyes, the extra wide, intimidating shoulder span, the mosaic of black ink running up and down his arms and legs, or the fact that he was wearing a charming smile that was in complete contrast to all the aforementioned details. Or maybe it was because he seemed to have the same profound reaction to me.

"Can I help you?" As I asked the question a movement behind him brought my attention to the glass door. A fawn colored dog, complete with rolls of chub and a smashed in nose, sat in front of the shop, his tail spinning in anticipation.

The guy pointed back over his shoulder. "That's Boone. I promised him a treat if he sat out there nicely and didn't bark."

"Then you'll want aisle eight, pet food. We've got a few boxes of bones there, but I'd avoid the rawhide ones. I think they've been there long enough to be classified as fossils." A smidgen of sound from the backroom assured me Patty was watching our exchange from a safe distance. Not because the stranger seemed the slightest bit serial killerish, especially with a chubby, happy dog waiting for him at the door, but because Patty was, for lack of a better phrase, boy crazy. And this was a crazy cute boy. Although, aside from a mischievous glint in his eyes, he was much more man than boy. I knew Patty well enough to know she was ogling our new customer from the backroom and at the same time kicking herself for being too shy to come out and talk to him.

The guy nodded approvingly at my display. "Guess the people in this town really like Twinkies."

"An apple can be too sour or a banana too mushy but you can always count on a Twinkie being just right."

His laugh was short, but I heard enough to like the sound of it. "Never thought of it like that. Aisle eight?" I nodded as he pointed toward aisle eight, exposing the treacherous looking sword drawn on the underside of his forearm. Maybe the cute pudgy dog was just a front, I thought wryly. But somehow I was sure a creepy ax murderer wouldn't have a disarming smile or a likeable laugh.

I walked to the counter while the new customer picked out a treat for his dog. I could see just a flutter of movement at the rear of the store. Patty was peeking around the backroom door, watching the man in the mirrors her dad had set up in each corner, his idea of high tech security.

I straightened up the candy bars at the front counter while the customer picked a ready-made sandwich out of the refrigerator. "Chicken salad?" he called across the store.

"Nope. Tuna salad is better unless you don't like tuna, then I'd go for the roast beef."

"Roast beef it is," he proclaimed triumphantly. He walked up to the counter with the sandwich, a bottle of soda and a bag of dried chicken jerky for his dog. He smiled at me as he pulled out his wallet.

I rang up his items. "Where are you headed?"

"Headed?" He dropped a twenty onto the counter. The unusual amber color of his eyes darkened to deep gold topaz in the sunlight coming through the window.

"Yes, I mean once you get back in your vehicle and head out of town. Are you going on a vacation?"

"Something like that. But I haven't decided on a destination." He gazed at me almost like he knew me. "All I know is that after seeing those blue eyes of yours, all of the world's wonders are going to be disappointing."

I pushed down a smile as I took his change from the drawer.

"I guess you've heard that before." He held out his large hand for the change. Inadvertently, my fingertips grazed the skin on his palm. It was a casual touch, something that happened almost any time I put change in someone's hand, only this time it felt different. It was just because he was a stranger, and we rarely had new people in the store, I told myself.

Even though the transaction was over, he lingered at the counter. He was a big guy, who looked as if his version of fun always included danger, a guy who would certainly make some of the more suspicious and less welcoming Butterfield citizens nervous.

After a long moment of watching me with his unusual amber eyes, he lifted his bag in the air. "Thanks."

His dog spun in circles and barked as he walked out the door. Patty scurried out of her hiding spot and joined me at the front window. We watched with curious interest as the guy and his dog crossed the street to the rundown park in the center of town. His t-shirt hugged his impressive shoulders. Black scrolls of ink seemed to cover every inch of his skin. The dog trotted along beside him, looking a little too cute and fuzzy for the rather wild looking man walking next to him. It was hard not to smile about the unlikely pair.

He sat down on the bottom step of the pavilion, an ornate wood and iron structure that was once the pride of the town but that now looked like some ancient ruin from a former civilization. His dog sat next to him and immediately rested a round paw on his forearm to ask for a treat.

"I wonder how long he'll be here," Patty said with a dreamy hush in her tone.

"I imagine for as long as it takes to eat a roast beef sandwich."

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