A couple’s best friend?
Stylist Jessica Champlin knows it takes more than a darling goldendoodle to save a marriage. She and her ex-husband, investigative journalist Sebastian Hess, had too many irreconcilable differences for even their beloved dog, Baxter, to heal. So they’ve agreed to joint custody, and life has settled into a prickly normalcy.
But when Baxter heroically rescues a child and the video footage goes viral, Jess and Sebastian are thrown together again, and her life takes some very unexpected twists. The line of dogwear she creates becomes wildly successful, and suddenly she’s in the spotlight with everyone watching — the press, the new guy she’s seeing, Sebastian and the past she never imagined she would face again. Soon there’s only one person by her side — and it’s the person she least expected. She’s willing to open up to a new normal — just as long as Baxter approves.
“Jess, enough with this, okay?” Sebastian said in a weary-trending-toward-cranky tone. He held out a small bag that read Neiman Marcus. My divorced mind ruffled through a few statements and questions — What is it? He never used to shop at Neiman Marcus. Judging by the size of the bag it would have to be an accessory. Jewelry? For me?
But the tone of my ex-husband’s voice had pretty much eliminated the possibility that it was a gift. Also, Sebastian hadn’t bought me jewelry in a long while, and except for my engagement ring, Sebastian never bought jewelry in the United States. Always it was when he was overseas, on a story. Like the beaded chandelier earrings from a country in Africa I’d never heard of and the vintage Iraqi headdress that I wear as a necklace.
Baxter — our blond, fluffy dog — was in my arms. I kissed him on the head. “I missed you, Baxy,” I said. “I missed you so much.”
He licked my chin, and his butt squirmed as he wagged his tail. Baxy’s fifteen pounds of dog against my chest was the most comforting weight in the world to me. When I finally put him down, he tore into my bedroom where he had toys stashed under a chaise lounge, which he hadn’t seen in a week while Sebastian had him.
As Baxter rounded the corner, I looked in the bag. I laughed.
“It’s not that funny,” Sebastian said.
“Oh, c’mon.” I lifted from the bag Baxter’s blue collar and leash that I had sewn gold stars onto — stars that had come from an old Halloween costume of Sebastian’s.
The party had been Harry Potter-themed, and as much as Sebastian would normally have dismissed it as ridiculous, it had been hosted by a journalist he had always emulated. And so Sebastian had been a wizard, dressed in a purple robe with stars and a pointed hat. It’s not that he hadn’t pulled it off, I just liked to needle him when I could. I also liked the idea of a guys’ guy like Sebastian having to walk around with a dog in bedazzled gear. Or maybe I hoped the goofy collar could lessen the pain of our weekly exchange — Here’s the dog back. It’s your turn to take care of this thing we both love like a kid, the dog we got when we were trying to keep our marriage intact.
“I mean, why would you even spend your time doing something like that?” Sebastian asked.
“You know that’s what I do, right?” I said. “I’m a stylist. I style.”
Sebastian said nothing.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” I said. “It’s not like you ever took my job seriously.”
“Jesus, Jess, that’s not true. Why do you say that?”
“I’m a stylist. You’re a journalist. You’re the legit one.”
“You’re saying that. Not me. I never said that.” Sebastian scoffed and shook his head.
Here we were again — in the ruts of a much-treaded argument.
He pointed at the bag. “That stuff is not what you do with your styling business anyway. You dress people.”
“Do you even know what that means?”
Why did I do this? What made me want to bug him, to try and draw him into this crap?
Because it’s all you have left.
That was the thought that answered me, and it rang like a bell, a few loud chimes. Then the sound died into the distance, drifting away, just like we had done.
The strong muscles of Sebastian’s jaw tensed, clenched. He ran a hand over his curly brown hair that was cut extra short for the summer. “Of course I know what that means. To an extent.”
In total, Sebastian and I had known each other for seven years — five of them married, the last of them divorced — and yet we still didn’t have a handle on what the other did for a living. Sebastian deliberately withheld, and so I guess I did it, too, in retribution.
“Look, Jess—” Sebastian fake-smiled “—we’re talking about the collar, right?”
I looked in the bag. “The collar and the leash.” I picked them up and jangled them together for effect.
“First of all, look at those.” Another shake of his head. “Baxter is a boy. Hell, he’s three years old. Bax is a man now.”
At the sound of his name, Baxter tore into the kitchen and dropped a white rubber ball at our feet, his tail thumping. Throw it for me, I could hear him thinking. C’mon, throw it for me.
Like a true child of divorce, Baxter always seemed to know when to deflect the situation.
I picked up the ball and threw it down the hall. He scampered after it, sliding a little on the hardwood floors.
“He’s a man who likes this collar and leash,” I said, lifting the bag a little.
“How do you know he likes it?”
“He prances around.”
“Baxy does not prance,” Sebastian said.
“You know he does.”
I both hated and loved the familiar feel of the conversation, the verbal poking at one another.
“He’s a fifteen-pound prancing machine,” I added, another jab.
“He only prances,” Sebastian pointed out, “when he’s really happy.”
“Exactly. And he prances when he’s wearing that collar. Point made.”
Sebastian just looked at me.
“Anyway…” I said, then let my words die.
“Anyway,” he repeated.
A beat went by. Baxter ran into the kitchen again, dropped the ball. He was a mini goldendoodle — a mix of golden retriever and poodle — and the golden part must have had strong genes because the dog would retrieve all day if we let him.
Sebastian lifted the ball, tossed it again.
“Baxter brought something else back,” he said, pointing at the bag.
I looked inside again. A white plastic bag was folded over and lay at the bottom. I picked it up and lifted a cellophane bag from inside. “Rawhide,” I read from the package. “Huh.” I looked at it — half-eaten. I looked back up at Sebastian. “Did you feed him this while he was with you?”
Sebastian raised his eyebrows, gave a slight smile.
That mouth, with its fuller bottom lip. It still got me sometimes. There was the rest of Sebastian, too — the strong body, wide shoulders and long arms that felt so good wrapped around me. But it was that lip most of all that used to get me. I ignored it, looked instead somewhere in the area of his forehead.
“You know that’s like giving your kid a bowl of taffy?” I said. “It’s completely unhealthy.”
“He’s got to eat more than raw chicken and raw eggs,” Sebastian said.
“That was one week that I did that!” I said. “One week.”
I’d been led by our dog trainer to give Baxter a raw diet, lured by the promises of a glossy coat and exceptional health. But when you have your dog every other week, raw foods are hard to keep around all the time. (And kind of unpleasant to serve.)
Sebastian sighed a little and searched my eyes with his. But then he opened his mouth. “I’m on my way to the airport.”
Wounds, no longer old, felt jabbed, hurt again. Sebastian was a war correspondent, one of the most well respected. His job had long been our sticking point — his need to go overseas, and his agreeing to not tell anyone, including his spouse, where he was headed. I knew military spouses had to deal with that, but I hadn’t married military, and I hadn’t realized the extent of his investigative writing — the embedding with the troops, the being in the middle of the action.
So he was off once more. I knew better than to ask where he was going.
But apparently he felt some kind of duty to try and make nice. “It’s a small conflict.”
A “small conflict” could mean a bloody, ruthless battle in a small Middle Eastern territory. But “small conflict” did not mean small casualties. Sebastian himself had returned from a “small conflict” with a gash across his collarbone that looked a lot like someone had tried to cut his throat. He still hadn’t told me what had happened.
I still didn’t know where he’d been because the newspaper never published his piece for whatever reason.
Baxter ran back into the foyer, a blue earthworm toy hanging from his mouth.
“C’mere, Dogger,” Sebastian said. His own nickname for Baxter. He picked him up. “I suppose you’re going to the dog park now?” he asked me. I thought I heard another small sigh.
“You know that you can still go to the dog park, right? I didn’t get that in the divorce.” I paused, made my voice kinder. “I don’t know why you don’t go when he’s with you.”
Sebastian shrugged, petted Baxter. “I thought I would find a park by my neighborhood. But they’re not the same. He doesn’t have his buddies.”
I stayed silent. Even when we were together, I was the one, more than Sebastian, who took Bax to the park. And even when Sebastian did, he didn’t often talk to the owners of Baxter’s dog buddies, like I did. Sebastian was intent on quality time with the dog, throwing Baxy’s ball over and over, then having him sit and stay for minutes on end before he could retrieve it. He taught Baxter tricks that his father had taught their family golden retrievers over the years. We got the dog shortly after his dad died.
So it seemed obvious to me that Sebastian could continue to do those things in another park. I hadn’t expected him to miss the park that we went to, as he apparently did. But I guess change is tough for everyone, even a tough guy like Sebastian.
He stood. “I should go.”
I knew better than to ask when he’d return, because I knew the answer. When I have the story. That’s what he always said.
I used to think, Why aren’t we your story? I want to be your story.
We had made a plan — move from New York, where we were living at the time, to Chicago (his hometown) where he would work as a regular journalist. It “worked” for a little while. A year or so. But ultimately Sebastian couldn’t stop. He couldn’t explain why, but he had to be the correspondent who crossed enemy lines in the middle of the night. I encouraged him to let me in. Keep the job, I’d said. I’d get used to worrying about him, I’d told him. That was okay. But bring me into the fold, tell me what you do, what you feel when you’re there, how I can support you when you’re here.
He decided that it would be breaking confidences and so he couldn’t tell me — not about the stories he was covering, where he was covering them or who he was covering them with. I could read the pieces in the paper, usually a day or two ahead of everyone else. So I would know then, for example, that he’d been in Afghanistan, embedded with a Navy SEAL team that took out a top-level terrorist. I would also read the byline and see that he sometimes had cowriters. But he couldn’t fill in any blanks. He couldn’t answer questions. And if the story had been killed and never published, he couldn’t give me any clues. Or he wouldn’t. Same thing.
His inability showed me the gaps in our relationship. I had to decide if I could live with the not knowing, the having to make a leap of faith to trust him, when the fact was I knew little about how my husband spent his professional life. And, therefore, much of his life.
I decided I couldn’t do that. Or maybe I just couldn’t live with the disappointment of not having the kind of love I wanted. I’d thought that with Sebastian I’d had the kind of love my parents had, the kind I’d felt once before. But neither turned out to be true. And eventually, with Sebastian, the ball I’d been pushing uphill for so long started to roll back over me.
Now I looked at Sebastian, said nothing, just stared into his eyes, and some bigger strength kicked in. I was past that, I told myself. I was way past it, and I was past him.
I’d started my life over once before. And under much, much, much worse circumstances. I knew I could do it again. I could survive.
Neither of us said anything. But I felt a joint sense of tiredness. We’re done.
“Okay,” I said, just to say something.
When Sebastian didn’t reply, the moment of pause gave me time to make a decision. I decided then I wasn’t just going to survive. I was going to thrive. I was going to come alive.
Right now. Those words intoned through me.
And suddenly it seemed clear what I had to do right then, how I had to conduct myself going forward. There would be no more seeing life as an endurance exercise. No more considering dates just because a software program told me I should. I wouldn’t just react to Sebastian or the lack of him. I would stop seeing everything as a reminder of the lives past. I would open my eyes and see things differently.
I would be different.
“Have a good trip,” I said, and I opened the door.
Shafer, the inspiration for Baxter, is on Tumblr and Twitter.
thedogshafer | @thedogshafer
Baxter the Superdog!
“Caldwell’s latest is one hilariously sweet read. With a lovable goldendoodle at the center of this story, readers will be drawn in quickly. Her fresh storytelling, quirky characters and snappy banter are particular highlights. Sprinkles throughout with tender moments between Sebastian and Jess, this tale is sure to delight.”
- RT BookReviews (4 stars)
“Laura Caldwell brings out the pleasures and heartaches of owning a dog, yet shows how much love and devotion they bring to a family. Ms. Caldwell also blends several social issues, as well as the influence of social media, into a beautiful romantic tale to make THE DOG PARK a unique, yet delightful, story.”
– Fresh Fiction
“The characters tug at your heart, and it’s hard to remember that these are fictional characters and not people you know. If you enjoy second chance stories, this is definitely one to consider.”
– Romance at Random
“A terrific beach read that should not be missed.”
– The Romance Reader’s Connection (4.5 stars)