This bit of silliness was written for mostlyalurker's service dog fundraiser compilation. The project was a terrific success, and you can follow Mal and Leo's future adventures together at Mal's blog: mostlyalurker [dot] blogspot [dot] com.

In keeping with the theme of the fundraiser, this is…well, furry.

Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, but a devastatingly handsome, inappropriately protective Australian shepherd called Owen owns me. (Also, your veterinary science mileage may vary.)

The first pale hint of morning steals across the floor and wraps around the bedposts, warming silhouettes into shadowy still lifes under my watchful eye.

This is, without a doubt, the best time of day. The beginning. When my world is cozy and peaceful and just starting to glow with the promise of whatever today's brilliant adventure might be.

Outside the window a bird chirrups excitedly.

I sink into my pillow and consider my good fortune, who it so happens is still asleep next to me, her breathing deep and steady.

Bella's not what you'd call a morning person. Once, after a few margaritas, she told me that sunrises are mere illusions of beginnings created by the Earth's rotation. And that the invention of ready artificial light sources should have freed humanity from the primitive shackles of farmers' hours by now. The upshot, twenty minutes later, was that because of Thomas Edison, she shouldn't have to show up anywhere before noon.

Not her finest hour, logically speaking. That bottle of tequila is still in hiding.

She stirs and burrows into my chest, winding one arm around my neck to thread her fingers through my hair. She murmurs something about anthills, or anvils. I love her wacky dream narrations.

I love everything about her. In fact, love's too insufficient a word for how I feel about Bella. She's the center of my universe. My own personal sun, if you'll allow the extended metaphor. And this is no illusion: the sooner she rises, the longer I can adore her each day. My life's work for the last year has been orbiting, protecting, entertaining, and loving Bella.

It's a great gig.

The alarm clock won't intrude on our quiet for another twenty minutes or so, but I'm eager to see her shining face and, drunken proclamations aside, she has to be at work by eight o'clock. No time like the present. I dig into the blankets with my toes and start to inch them down.

"Noooo…too…tired." She clings tighter to me.

Hehe. She loves this game.

I crane my neck to peer at her upturned face, nestled against my body. Her eyes are clenched shut, which means she can feel my breath on her forehead.

I start with butterfly kisses. Wake up, wake up, sunshine.

No response. She was up late reading again; this morning is going to call for drastic action.

Ever so deliberately, I drag my tongue across the soft skin of her cheek. She tastes like happiness.

"Grooooss, Jake." She swats blindly at the air and tries with a groan to pull the covers up again.

That won't do. I blanket her with me instead, climbing over her so that we're nose to nose and she's pinned by my legs on either side of her body. I'm careful not to rest too much of my weight on her.

She's got fifteen seconds to open those beautiful eyes before I execute the Wet Willy, Jake Edition.

Her face is still screwed up tight, her nose crinkling bunny-like with each tickly brush of my whiskers. "Jaaaake."

She's so cute when she whines. The other cheek gets the same treatment, a little more enthusiastic this time.

"Argh…it's not even dawn, you big lug."

It is most definitely dawn, which she would know if she'd only open her eyes. I count down silently.

Well. She asked for it. One sloppy ear invasion, coming up.

"Okay, okay!" She giggles and flails, shaking her head wildly, but I know I've got her now. When I pull back, her eyelids peel apart and she squints up at me.

I grin, triumphant.

"You win…I'm up." She struggles to her elbows.

One last kiss on the forehead for good measure and I slide off the bed. Today's going to be a fantastic day.

Bella plucks her glasses off the nightstand and shuffles into her slippers. On the zombie-walk downstairs I follow in front of her, turning every few seconds to make sure she stays upright.

Sometime she trips over things. Which isn't a character flaw or anything, obviously. Not everyone is blessed with perfect depth perception.

When we reach the kitchen she yawns a face-swallowing yawn and fetches the coffee from the pantry. I watch quietly near the island while she fills the kettle and scoops grounds into the coffee press. Her aim would be better if she were wearing her contacts.

She drums her fingernails on the countertop while the water heats.

While I'm ecstatic she's up and about, her caffeine fix isn't the only reason we're down here. I cross to her side and lean my body against hers as a gentle reminder. She blinks at me and a sleepy smile lights up her face. The saliva-covered wake-up call is already forgiven.

"Morning, tiger." She cups my jaw and kisses me on the nose. "You have a good rest? I had crazy dreams, about Scotland, I think. There was mist and a castle, and…a wedding, maybe? A lot of tartan."

And anvils. Or anthills.

"I think you were dreaming about running again," she continues, yawning. "You kept kicking me in the shins. Good thing you're so handsome or I'd make you stay on your side of the bed."

She runs her fingers through my hair, massaging my neck. I all but purr. The kettle whistles.

She straightens and sets the coffee to steep. "So. Park tonight? I should be home by five-thirty."

Of course. It's Tuesday. Always a park night. I'd love to chitchat about our plans but I really have some business to attend to first.

She turns back to me and I flick my head meaningfully towards the window.

"Oh, right! What am I thinking? Sorry, darling." She hurries to the back door and I follow, soft-shoeing slightly.

The kitchen door unbolted, I make a beeline for my favorite oak tree.

Squirrels scatter in fear, abandoning their nutty spoils for the safety of the neighbors' yards. I'd never actually hurt one of them, but I bare my sharp canines and growl a little anyway.

That's right. All your acorns are belong to me, you bushy-tailed chickens.

I lift a leg and sprinkle an extended morning greeting on the tree trunk. I wish I could talk Bella into one of those nifty doggie doors. I might let her sleep in occasionally.

Well, no, probably not.

I shake out my thick fur, canvass the perimeter of the yard once, and strut back to the house to oversee the rest of Bella's getting-ready-for-work routine.

The car door slams and I launch myself like a rocket across the parking lot. I pace at the gate while Bella opens and closes the trunk.

"Jake! You forgot your ball!" She jogs towards me, hands full of keys and water bottles and her bag. My favorite tennis ball is tucked under her chin.

She might not want to hold it like that. That's the one I dunk in toilet water when the flavor wears off.

My loyal subjects are already lined up on the other side of the fence. They should know by now they get bupkis from me until Bella is situated comfortably and no longer requires my services, but still they wait, tails wagging furiously.

I escort Bella to her usual bench under the shade of an enormous old elm. She contorts herself into some kind of half-lotus across the wooden slats and opens her Kindle.

She leans close and strokes my chin. "I'm fine here, sweet boy. Go. Frolic. Do dog things."

For the record, I have never once frolicked. Frolicking is for frou-frou dogs like poodles and papillons. Nothing against poodles or papillons. That just isn't how I roll.

Officially, my adoption papers say "German shepherd mix." Keine Chance, says Bella. The scuttlebutt around the shelter was that I'm some sort of overgrown wolf/dog hybrid, which is a speculation I encourage because the wolf thing just feels right, deep down. And who doesn't enjoy having an air of mystery about them?

Also, the possibility that I'm not entirely domesticated gets me major street cred with the other dogs here. Hey, don't rile Jake, you might make him angry.

I'm the Incredible Hulk of Hillside Dog Park. Grrr.

The gang piles up around me at the agility jumps. Some of these guys hang out every night; a few show up only occasionally, when their people feel guilty for skimping on walks. I'm an every-other-dayer myself. Bella and I alternate park trips with runs on the hilly nearby trails. I have to say, we're both in kickass shape.

"'Sup, Jake." Sammy, a heavyset, prosaically-named samoyed, nods in my direction. He used to be top dog here until I walked in one night like I owned the place.

Now I own the place. I nod back. He lopes off towards the stand of trees where all the good chewing sticks are.

I observe the social niceties, make small talk about my weekend. I don't know that I'm really in the mood to entertain a crowd tonight, though, so I allow everyone a few more seconds of polite tail sniffing and then take off up the hill. Much better vantage from up there. I can run or relax and still keep an eye on Bella.

Halfway up, I gain an extra shadow. "Hi, Seth."

"Hey, Jake," wheezes a short-haired chihuahua in a jangly collar. "How they hangin'?"

Thanks to Bella's support of the Humane Society's Spay and Neuter initiative, they aren't. I keep climbing.

"Shut up, Seth."

"You got it, Jake, sir." He trots double-time to keep up.

When the ground levels off I drop to my belly to roll and stretch in a thick patch of grass. The late afternoon sun feels glorious, finally not too hot for those of us wearing permanent double coats.

Seth mimics me, which is comical considering he's all of six inches tall at the withers and I'm closing in on three feet. He scratches his back against the ground, toothpick legs splayed in the air.

"So, Jake, you see her yet, huh? Huh? All the guys were talking about her down there. She's a fancy one. Real fancy. Never seen anything like her around here before, have you? You check her out yet, Jake?"

Seth always talks like there's a prize for most words expelled per minute.


"New bitch. Super pretty. Over there, showing off on the equipment. Isn't she something, Jake? I think I love her. You believe in love at first sight, Jake? I've never even seen her before and now I'm in love. Just look at her go. Wow."

I follow his bulgy gaze to the clearing. A high-contrast blur races up the incline of the A-frame and down the other side, turning on a dime at the bottom in a cloud of shimmering dust.

Border collie. Nice-looking, but I hear those herders can be high maintenance.

This Alaskan malamute called Quil says he had a fling with one at Sandy Paws Pet Resort last year. Although everything he says is suspect since he claimed his cousins went moose hunting with Sarah Palin over the summer. Everybody knows she only shoots those things from helicopters.

The object of Seth's true and instant affection circles the A-frame and runs it again. There's a crowd gathering around her. She sure can move, I'll give her that.

"She's something, all right."

Seth hops to his feet. He's practically vibrating. "Isn't she, though? I'm gonna go talk to her. Yeah, definitely gonna talk to her. Give her the ol' Hillside welcome. You're a suave guy, Jake. You think I've got a shot? With her? Whaddya say, Jake, huh? Do I?"

"With the Border? No idea."

He rubs his tiny paws frantically into the grass. "I got some killer cat jokes. I'm gonna tell her some jokes. Bitches love jokes."

"Uh-huh. Go for it, man."

He bounds down the slope, jingling all the way. "Wooo! Look out, new girl! The Seth Machine is on the move!"

I don't know whom to feel more sorry for.

A four-foot-long branch drops a few inches from my front paws. I look up to see Paul, a young rough-haired collie and one of my best pals, silhouetted against the sinking sun.

"Hiya, Jake. What's going on?"

Embry and Leah are with him. Embry is a whip-smart, if slightly neurotic, Aussie and Leah, a perpetually cheerful rottie mix with a chewing fetish. The two of them live a couple of streets over from Bella and me.

Sometimes we all get together for neighborhood cookouts and such. We exchange hellos.

I brace the stick and peel a strip of bark away with my teeth. Such a nice gesture. Paul's always so considerate. "Nothing much. About to watch Seth crash and burn with a new dog."

Paul snickers. "This oughta be good. Remember when he hit on that Newfoundland? I thought his people were going to have to have his tail reattached."

The three of them take spots near me to wait for the inevitable Seth Machine wreckage. Embry tucks himself protectively around Leah. I don't pretend to understand how that relationship works, but somehow it does.

Leah gnaws the other end of the stick thoughtfully.

"Jake, who's that chatting up your woman?"

Seth's tiny legs have almost carried him to the horde at the practice ring.

I snort. "Hey, it's no business of mine. She's not my wom-"

"I don't mean Miss Fancypants on the A-frame. There's a guy over there. On the bench with Bella. I've never seen him before."


Shit. Neither have I. Which makes this an automatic DEFCON 3 situation.

I scramble to my feet. Don't panic, keep it cool. "Um, thanks for the stick, Paul. See you around, guys."

Who the hell is that?

I'm down the hill in seconds, barreling through obstacles both two- and four-legged. I barely avoid toppling two ladies near the weave poles and run flat out for Bella's bench, skidding to a stop in front of her.

My eyes travel quickly between Bella and this stranger, who is sitting way too close for my comfort.

"Hi, sweetie." Bella ruffles the fur between my ears. "Where are you going in such a hurry? I saw Embry and Leah's family a little while ago. Have you found them yet?"

I pant roughly, searching her face for signs of distress. I'm here. Are you alright? Is he bothering you?

There's nervous energy rolling off her, but it isn't scared, exactly.

"Oh, is this one yours? Wow, he's stunning."

I swivel and plant my butt in the dirt, facing the stranger. He's turned sideways on the bench, in almost a mirror image of Bella's posture. I'd put him at about my age, between three and four dog years. He's clearly tall, but on the skinny side, and he's wearing those heavy-rimmed glasses that are either supposed to be cool or ironically cool, I can't remember which.

And apparently, I'm not the only one who rode here with his head out the car window. I can think of no other explanation for that hairstyle.

"Yep, this is Jake. Jake, say hello to Edward. He's just moved here."

"Hey there, Jake. Very nice to meet you." He smiles broadly and extends a hand, palm up, towards us. He makes no move to touch me. Maybe I'm not the one he'd rather pet.

A rumble of warning reverberates deep in my chest cavity at the mere suggestion. I curl my lip back and let my teeth do the talking.

If you lay a finger on her, Edwin, I will go Hong Kong Phooey on your weedy ass.

"Jake! Be nice," Bella whispers in my ear. She drapes an arm around my neck. "I'm sorry; he's not usually like this. I don't know what's come over him."

"Don't worry about it. He's just doing his job." Ironic Eyewear picks up a tennis ball lying at his feet and starts tossing it from one hand to the other, like the world's worst juggler.

"Do you like to play fetch, Jake?" Look at the grin on this guy. I'm throwing him overt hostility right now. He's either incredibly confident or a real idiot.

"He loves fetch. He thinks I throw like a girl, though."

He looks from me to Bella, contemplating. "First of all, you say that like it's a bad thing. My sister played softball in college and she could out-throw every man on campus."

He holds the ball out to me. My nostrils flare. I ignore it.

"And secondly, I guarantee that dog has never entertained a negative thought about you."

Did he just wink at me?

Without warning he stands and chucks the ball high into the air, clear across the field.

You asshole, that's my favorite tennis ba-

From the very edge of my peripheral vision flies a lightning-quick flash of dark and light. It's the Border. She leaps like she's spring-loaded, plucks the ball out of the sky, and pirouettes effortlessly back to earth.

Edmund whistles loudly.

She pivots and trots in our direction. When she reaches the bench she gently releases the ball into his open hand and sits at attention.

He scratches her head affectionately and pulls a treat from his pocket. "Good girl. Bella, Jake…Maggie."

Maggie's eyes flit briefly to Bella and then to me, fixing me with a curious, intense stare. I've heard of the famous border collie "eye" but never been on the receiving end before. It's more than a little unsettling. No wonder livestock does whatever they say.

At Edgar's request Maggie shakes hands, and high-fives, and plays dead, and all but dances the fucking macarena for Bella's amusement.

Bella is enchanted.

I pass the next thirty minutes in an acrimonious haze of catch and conversation. My tennis ball makes at least two dozen more round trips across the park without me. Maggie can have the damned thing. No way I'm leaving Bella's side.

And Elwood has to be putting Bella on with his agreeable chin-wagging. She said he was new in town. I'll bet he's one of those con artists who sets up pretty women with his showy canine assistant and then steals their hearts and their money.

There's no way two people could have so much in common. Yes, Sondre Lerche's latest album is really good. No, neither of them can wait to read the new Haruki Murakami. Absolutely, the FDA should label all genetically modified organisms on food packaging. For real, the asymmetrical laces on the new Asics running shoes are just the best.

I can't listen to any more. The daylight is nearly gone. I just want to take her home so we can curl up on the sofa together. If we don't go soon we're going to miss Glee.

Finally, over my strong protestations, phones and schedules are exchanged. We're out of here. I make a note to erase that number later.

I hear a familiar jingle while Bella unlatches the gate. I am in no mood.

"Hey Jake, what kind of cat has a thousand legs? You know that one, huh?"

"Not now, Seth." I don't turn around.

"A caterpillar! It's a caterpillar, Jake!"

We're both in downward-facing dog on the living room rug after a long run. I've tried to explain to Bella that I have a unique understanding of this asana, and that she'd feel a much deeper stretch if she would open her shoulder blades more.

She moves into child's pose and turns her head to me.

"You don't like him. Edward, I mean."

Is it so obvious? We have met the enemy, and he is a glasses-wearing, NPR-listening vegan. I can't trust a man who doesn't enjoy bacon, and neither should she.

She sighs. "I wish you'd give him a chance, J. He's so smart and funny. And so flippin' hot," she adds, under her breath.

Sorry, I don't see it. Maybe it's the glasses? She gets these odd celebrity nerd crushes. Maybe if I knocked them off his stupid face she'd realize he's not actually Ira Glass or Jemaine Clement and we could go back to business as usual.

She flips onto her back and pulls one knee to her chest, rolling her ankle. "And he thinks you're great. He told me so."

I don't know why. I might have accidently on purpose mistaken Edward's pants leg for a tree trunk at the park last night.

What can I say? It's getting dark earlier.

He was infuriatingly good-natured about it, too. Just brushed it off like it was an everyday occurrence, no big deal.

Dude. I just pissed on you. Quit smiling at me.

It's been three weeks. Three weeks of ruined park outings because he keeps showing up with Magnolia Masen, Wonder Dog.

I can't even have fun with my friends these days. Whenever Edward's there, I've had to forgo my usual sniff-and-socialize routine to keep Bella distracted with sticks, tennis balls, frisbees, anything to keep her moving and out of conversation range. I even picked a fight with a yappy terrier - really, there was never any danger - just so she'd have to come break it up.

Maggie tracked me down in between Bella distraction rounds after the pants leg thing. I'd been sort of avoiding her since our weird stare-off that first night. I couldn't get a read on her. Even from across the park she made me feel off-kilter, like facing backwards in a moving car. But not in a bad way, necessarily.

Paul was in the middle of a story about Quil's latest alleged romantic escapade.

"Man, that is just poor form." Embry's lip curled in distaste. "Claire's what, six months old?"

"He swears they're 'just friends.' For now, anyway."

"Quil is such a perv," said Leah. "If I had a bone for every time he tried to dry hump me, I'd have-"

"A big fucking pile of bones," finished Embry. "Running interference on Quil is like a full-time job. It's exhausting."

"Hey, everybody."

All heads turned to where Maggie stood scratching absently at the grass a few feet from us. The others might as well have been invisible, though; she appeared to have eyes for only me.

Paul cleared his throat. "Maggie, hello. Nice to see you." Always the gentleman, Paul.

"Thanks, Paul, you too." She acknowledged him without redirecting her gaze. "Do you have a sec, Jake?"

It occurred to me I'd not heard her voice before: it was warm and unassuming, with a hint of honeyed twang. Not at all what I expected, given her over-the-top park performances.

"Yeah, sure." I stood and followed her for several paces. Up close her coat was lovely, with long, glossy black-and-white feathers that floated from her legs and tail when she moved. She must come from conformation lines. You don't get fur like that without dedicated breeding.

She exhaled heavily. "Look, Jake. I honestly didn't want this to be our first conversation, but since there's no genteel way to put this I'll just say it: I don't know exactly what's going on between you and Edward, but tonight was uncalled for. So back off, okay?"

Soft-spoken or no, I bristled at the directness of the order.

"I will if he will."

"If he'll what? Is this about Bella? Because as far as I can tell, she's a grown woman who seems to be perfectly capable at choosing the company she keeps." She looked me up and down and then turned her face away hastily.

I couldn't work out whether that was meant to be an indictment or a compliment. Or both. "It's my job to protect her."

"Protect her from what, Jake? Herself?" A flash of something like bemusement crossed her face. "We're talking about a single, well-adjusted man who wants to take her out for lattes, not a lunatic who's breaking into your house in the middle of the night.

"I get it, you know," she added. "I've squatted over more than one pair of stilettos in the past couple of years. But…he's a great guy and I want him to be happy."

"That's all I want for Bella, too."

"Yeah? How much time do you spend obsessing over what you want for Bella? Have you ever considered getting a hobby or something, developing some outside interests? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression your whole life revolves around her."

I shifted uncomfortably. Evidently the border collie "eye" was not only unnerving, it was all-seeing. "I won't apologize for loyalty."

"No one's asking you to. But loyalty to Bella doesn't mean there can't be room in your life for anything else."

Bella caught my attention from the agility course where she was chatting with Paul's person. Her face split into a huge grin and she blew me a kiss.

I turned back to Maggie. "Yeah…thanks, but no thanks. I like my life exactly the way it is."

Seth's collar heralded his arrival before we could see him. He flew over the hillcrest and tumbled tail over teakettle into Maggie's paws.

He righted himself and with zero regard for her personal space or his own ridiculousness launched into his usual schtick.

"Maggie, Maggie, my beautiful magnolia blossom. How are you this fine evening?"

She began to back away carefully, still watching me.

Seth, oblivious, chattered on. "So tell me if you've heard this one, Miss Maggie. What do you call a cat that throws things over the wall of a castle? You know that one? It's tricky because it's a play on words, see, and-"

"Whatever you say, Jake," said Maggie, ignoring the interruption. She gave a wry smile as she moved farther from me. "I'm sure sitting at home with your Dog Fancy pinups and your Jack London fanfiction, pining for Bella, is very fulfilling."

She spun and broke into a jog, Seth trailing behind, squeaking about catapults.

I called after her. "I do not have a subscription to Dog Fancy."

As if. Modern Dog has better pictorials.

I'm trying to remember if I still have the back issue with the border collie featurette when Bella's voice brings me back to the canine version of corpse pose. To the untrained eye it looks a lot like napping, but I assure you it is highly technical.

"Unfortunately, we're going to have to skip the park Saturday, my love. I have a ton of errands to run and then I'm meeting Edward at the symphony. It's an all Bartók program. You know how much I love Bartók."

She slides into one-legged pigeon, her right leg angled on the floor in front of her and the other straight behind. That's one I can't do.

She folds forward over her bent leg. "And he's Edward's favorite composer, too. Can you believe it?"

Nope, can't. What a coincidence.

I've been fretting for days. Sure, I've done my unobtrusive best to keep Bella and Edward from logging much park bench time lately. But this is different. This is a date. Unsupervised by me.

In spite of Maggie's reassurances of Edward's greatness, I find this situation unacceptable.

By the time Bella comes home late Saturday afternoon, I have a plan.

She rushes upstairs to our bedroom like she's on fire and peels off her jeans and t-shirt. I shadow her into the bathroom, practicing my limp. Better go with the back left side, I think.

She pulls two dresses out of the closet and holds them in front of her. "What do you think, Jake? Blue or green?"

They both look gray to me. I like whichever one she's least likely to leave the house in.

"Right. I like the green, too." She yanks it over her head and slips into a pair of shoes I've never seen her wear before. I had no idea she owned any heels.

She hurries to the vanity and runs a brush through her long hair. "Traffic was terrible. I'm running so late. Edward was going straight from work so he's probably there already, wondering where the hell I am."

There's a flurry of makeup application and perfume spritzing, which always makes me sneeze. I don't know why she wants to smell like powdered violets. Regular Bella scent is intoxicating.

On second thought, spritz away. I'll help.

She turns around with a flourish. "How do I look?"

Like the most beautiful creature in the universe. Please don't leave me.

She sweeps into the bedroom and picks up her discarded clothes. "I won't be too late, but don't feel like you have to wait up. I'll leave the TV on if you want, and-"

It's now or never. I take a lungful of air, hold it for a beat, and howl piteously.

She stops in her tracks. "Jake? What is it?"

I limp convincingly for a couple of steps, then crumple onto the carpet. She rushes to my side.

"Baby, what happened? Are you hurt?"

I whimper softly and she holds me, stroking my fur and kissing my muzzle. This is awful. I'm being so awful to her. But I can wallow in an ocean of guilt later. It's worth it if she stays home tonight. If she chooses me.

"Can you stand up?"

She watches me hobble around on three legs and I let her assist me down the stairs, which proves difficult because I outweigh her by a good twenty pounds. We make it as far as the fireplace hearth, where I collapse dramatically.

Eat your heart out, Rin Tin Tin.

She cradles my face. "Hang on, sweet boy. I'm not going anywhere, I'm just going to make a call."

She picks up her phone and disappears into the kitchen. My furry heart explodes with happiness. This is the part where she cancels on Edward Squarepants, and then I am miraculously cured and we snuggle and eat popcorn and watch old Howard Hawks movies until we fall asleep on the sofa.

I am a genius.

A short while later, the doorbell rings. Ooh, maybe we're getting takeout from that Indian place. That would be awesome.

Ordinarily, I'd bark and rush the door like a maniac but seeing as I am purportedly indisposed I settle for just the barking. Bella passes by me on the way to answer it.

"Hi. Thanks for coming."

From this angle I don't have a clear view, but it sure looks like she's just…kissed the deliveryman on the cheek? Um, I like palak paneer as much as the next guy, but that is Not Okay. I whine and snap at the air, frustrated that this ruse is screwing up my protection detail. If he's not gone in five seconds I'm blowing my cover and showing him out myself.

She shuts the door and ushers the deliveryman through the entryway. "I'm so sorry about ruining our date."

It's not Indian food. It's Edward. In a tie and sweater vest.

Wait. Hold the phone. Why is he here?

He rubs her shoulder reassuringly. "We'll do it some other time. This is important. You look amazing, by the way."

"Thanks. So do you." She looks down at her shoes. She seems flustered. "He's, uh, in the living room. I'm really worried; he won't put any weight on that leg at all."

"Okay, let's take a look. Did he do a lot of strenuous activity today? Any out of the ordinary running or jumping?"

She shakes her head. "Not that I know of. I was out all afternoon and he was alone in the house."

Edward crouches next to me. "Hey, buddy. I'm just going to check you out for a second, okay?"

My ears flatten against my head. We are not buddies.

He feels his way around my foot, running his fingers over and between my toe pads. Why the hell is he touching me? I growl with as much volume as I think I can get away with under the circumstances.

Bella hovers nearby. She looks positively stricken.

"I don't feel any splinters or cuts, but do you have a flashlight? I'd like to get a closer look."

She nods. "Yeah, of course, in the garage somewhere. I'll be right back."

Edward and I are alone.

He lifts my supposedly hurt leg and moves it in a variety of uncomfortable directions, frowning to himself.

I whimper, for real this time, because this is not remotely how I envisioned my evening going at this point. Edward reaches into his pocket and produces one of those peanut butter treats Maggie gets all the time. He offers it to me.

I eye him skeptically.

"Go ahead, take it." He smiles. "They're good. I've even tried them."

Okay, they're mighty tasty.

Edward scratches my ribs while we wait for Bella. I'll bet he thinks we're having a moment.

He keeps scratching, which feels pretty great. Too great, actually. He's dangerously close to the spot that…oh shit.

My leg, the one that's supposed to be incapacitated at present, starts thumping wildly, reflexively. Please stop. This is embarrassing.

Edward's eyebrows shoot skyward and he looks quizzically from my leg to my face. One corner of his mouth twists up, and his fingers pause in my fur.

When Bella returns with the flashlight Edward pokes at my toes for a minute. "Nope. I don't see anything a good pedicure wouldn't fix." He grins and stands up, handing the flashlight back to her.

"I can't be sure without an X-ray to rule out any hairline breaks, but he seems perfectly fine. If he had ligament damage I should find some laxness in the knee joint when I palpate it."

What a nerd. Who says "palpate?"

"So it's just a sprain, probably? What should I do for him?"

Edward adjusts his glasses. "Well, I'd say feed him all the treats he can hold and have him stay off of it for tonight. If you don't see any improvement in a day or so you could have some films done, but…."

He does that smirky thing at me again. "Something makes me think he's going to feel much better in the morning."

He definitely winked at me this time.

Bella exhales and takes Edward's hand. "Edward, I can't thank you enough for coming over. Jake…he means the world to me."

He adds his other hand and squeezes. "I think it's mutual. And this was my pleasure. If you must know I'd take any excuse to see you. The Bartók was just a bonus."

Bella grins from ear to ear and they stare at each other dumbly. Oh, good grief. I break up their mutual admiration party with a sharp bark. Bella startles and reclaims her hand to fiddle with the flashlight.

"Have you eaten?" she asks in a rush. "I feel terrible that the concert's a bust, but we could get some dinner, maybe."

It's Edward's turn to examine his shoes. "That's alright. You should stay with Jake. I think he'd appreciate the company, considering."

"Then will you stay, too? Let me feed you, at least. There's a great Indian place I order from all the time."

When he looks up he's wearing the same giddy expression Leah does when she has a brand-new cow knuckle. "I'd love to."

"Great! I'll go get the menu."

Edward kneels at my side. "You know, Jake," he whispers, "if you wanted me to come over, you could've just asked." He pats my haunch lightly. Weird.

When the food arrives, Edward takes my spot on the sofa. The hearth tiles feel extra hard and cold under my butt.

Bella hands him a napkin and picks up the TV remote. "So, how do you feel about Howard Hawks?"

"I love Howard Hawks. His Girl Friday? Nobody does banter better. Better banter. Say that three times fast, why don't you."

They laugh and Bella clicks on the TV.

Not even Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell can banter me out of this funk. I chew my naan and sulk.

On Tuesday, Maggie sidles past me at the dog park, smirking.

As luck would have it, my leg did feel remarkably better by Sunday morning. Bella was thrilled at my speedy recovery. I was thrilled at her extra attention over the next couple of days, especially after the train wreck that was Saturday. Edward stayed for two entire movies.

The park is nearly deserted. It rained earlier and everything is fantastically muddy, including me.

"Greetings, faker."

There's a suspicious helping of amusement in that sweet voice. My just-unearthed rubber chicken suddenly tastes a whole lot less delicious. "What did you call me?"

"You heard me," she says. "I know about the stunt you pulled Saturday night."

I leave the squeaky toy to catch up to her. "I don't know what you're talking about," I say under my breath.

She stops and turns to face me. Her entire body is shaking with the effort of not laughing. "He's a vet, you idiot. Orthopedic surgeon."

He's a…vet…? Oh. No.

Her muzzle drops and she covers her nose with a paw, now succumbing gleefully to the onslaught of giggles. "Did you really not know?"

The look on my face tells her that I did not.

"Oh, that's just priceless," she gasps. I can barely understand her, she's laughing so hard. "Of all the ways you could have sabotaged them…you choose the one thing guaranteed to get him delivered straight to your door."

"I thought it was takeout," I mumble.

"And the best part? He thinks you're playing matchmaker. That you wanted him to come over so you could monitor their courtship, or something."

"He thinks I want to…what?"

"I know! God, you're both delusional." She flops over in the wet grass, still tittering.

I sink to the ground next to her.

"He won't say anything," she says. "Bella would be hurt if she knew you were fibbing."

"Fuck. Fuckityfuckfuck." I sigh and squeeze my eyes shut. "I just wanted things to stay the same. My universe. The two of us."

She nods. "You've been together what, a year? And she's never dated anyone?"

"When I met her, she'd just broken off a long engagement. She was in pretty bad shape."

"Yikes," she whispers. "That hurts." She sounds genuinely sympathetic.

"Not half as much as I'd hurt the jerk who two-timed her if I ever got my paws on him. She tried to be upbeat for my sake, but Bella and I ate a lot of ice cream and watched a lot of Lifetime movies those first few months."

Lesson learned: breakups are terrible. Except for the ice cream. That was aces.

"There hasn't been anybody since?"

"Nope. She went out to happy hour a couple of times with some schmuck from her office."

When no other details seem to be forthcoming, Maggie gestures for me to elaborate. "And…?"

"And I don't know why they call it 'happy' hour if it makes you cry."

She scoots closer and puts a paw over mine. Her tail swishes rhythmically against my side.

"You can't protect her from everything, Jake. I doubt she'd want you to, anyway."

She smiles at me, and I don't know if it's an effect of the dampness or what, but I never noticed how good she smells before. Like peaches and earth and sunshine.

I can't help smiling a little myself. "So. Tell me about these hobbies of yours? Because honestly, I've been moping around the house, reblogging sad animal photos on my Tumblr for weeks now."

She giggles. "Well, there's doggie day care, and I dabble in agility, you've seen that, and my new flyball team meets on Wednesday evenings. Oh! And Edward was looking into a therapy dog program at the hospital here, where you visit sick people and cheer them up. You'd be great at that. Assuming you practiced looking not terrifying first."

"Doggie day care? What were you, whelped yesterday?"

"Hey, look at you, Mister Funnybritches. No, I chewed through a bunch of drywall while Edward was at work a long time ago. I, um, get a little stir crazy. Best to keep busy."

I glance across the field at Bella's bench and tense when I see her deep in conversation with Edward. They're holding hands.

Maggie presses down on my paw, the claws of which are digging into the mud in front of me. "Breathe, Jake."

I make a conscious effort to relax. "Right. Breathing."

"Would it make you feel better if I checked on them?"

"Would it make me crazy if I said 'yes?'"

"A little." She stands and shakes water droplets out of her fur.

"Thanks. And watch out for the Seth Machine. I heard him jangling a while ago."

"Jake, you know I'm titled in flyball, agility, and herding, right? I can stop an eight-hundred-pound heifer in her tracks with a single look. I think I can handle one fast-talking chihuahua with a Napoleon complex."

No need for her to know that look works every bit as well on hundred-and-forty-pound wolf-dogs.

I watch her stride gracefully down the hill, too preoccupied to notice Seth's approach.

"So you must really like her, huh Jake? You guys are like a thing now? She's so pretty, isn't she, Jake? All those pretty feathers. I like how her tail swooshes when she walks. Man, I'm so jealous. She was into me, though, I know she was. Those cat jokes work every-"

"Shut up, Seth."

After my heart-to-heart with Maggie, I resolved to be less of an ass where Edward is concerned. I mean, she's cool, and she wouldn't stay with him if he were a complete creep, would she?

Out of habit I still keep a close eye on Bella at the park when he's around. Maggie had to talk me off the ledge one night when I spied them kissing under the elm tree. I was all set to charge in there and knock Edward on his bony backside until she stopped me and pointed out that Bella had been the instigator.

Bella's energy is different lately, almost as if she's an amplified version of herself. Sometimes it's hard to get her attention because she's lost in her thoughts. But she's always smiling. I can tell she's happy.

Fortunately or not, the Injury Incident opened the door to more invitations for Edward to come over and hang out. I suppose that's preferable to Bella going to his place because I still get to spend time with her, too. I wonder what Maggie does to pass the time when he's at our house.

Occasionally Bella cooks for him, and by extension, me, although the downside to Edward's "love animals, don't eat them" philosophy has been a regrettable dearth of steaks and hamburgers in my diet recently. He tried to get me to eat marinated tempeh the other night.

Never gonna happen.

We even compromised about the sofa: Edward on one end and me on the other, with Bella tucked in the middle. It works okay, as long as she holds the popcorn bowl and he keeps his appendages to himself.

I don't love the new arrangement. But I'm trying to be open-minded, for Bella.

Sometimes they do go out on the weekends, to dinner or plays or whatnot. I forget where they went tonight. A reception for a gallery or museum downtown, I think. Whatever it was, Bella changed outfits four times before she left. I chalked it up as a minor victory when I got the private fashion show and Edward got stuck at the kitchen table with a pale ale.

I've been amusing myself by turning off all the lights and glaring at the backyard squirrels out the living room windows. Bella put one of those plug-in nightlights in the wall directly below the sills and it makes my eyeballs glow in the dark. Scares the bejeezus out of them. Every single time.

Before that I took a nap and rifled through the trash and caught up on some Internet miscellany. Next time I see Maggie I have to remember to ask her if she has a Twitter handle.

I finally cave and power the TV back on. Bella left it tuned to the National Geographic channel, which is usually my favorite, but I cannot abide that Dog Whisperer guy so I turned it off. Pack leader, my ass.

I settle on an old Western and doze off imagining Maggie as my deputy sheriff, the two of us ridding the countryside of thieving, bespectacled bad guys with unfortunate hair. It's after midnight when I wake to the rattle of keys in the front door lock.

I hop off the sofa and round the corner to the foyer, my tail twitching excitedly. No matter where she goes or how long she's away, I'm always relieved to have Bella back home safe.

Plus, I really have to pee.

The door bursts open and a disheveled Bella tumbles in, followed closely by an equally disheveled Edward. It's difficult to make them out in only the faint glow from the television. I forgot to turn the lights back on when I was done tormenting the squirrels.

No sooner is the door shut and locked than Edward spins Bella around, pressing her against it with a thud and kissing her ferociously.

Okay. This is different. Bella's never invited him into the house at the end of a date before.

I can barely see her behind him. He's panting and slobbering and pawing her all over.

She sounds winded, little gasps interspersed with his groans. Can she not breathe properly?

I crouch in the darkness, preparing to intervene, until Maggie's voice echoes in my head. If she were here she'd tell me I'm being ridiculous. They're only kissing. Bella is obviously into it, or else she wouldn't be grabbing his ass like that. I'm sure they're about to say good night.

"Bella…oh God, I want you so much." He's pushed her dress off one shoulder and is gnawing on her neck.

She tugs his shirttails from his pants and tears at the buttons. "Upstairs…please," she pants.

Still glued together at the lips, she pushes away from the door and angles Edward towards the stairs. They kick off their shoes on the way. One of Edward's wingtips skids to within inches of me.

I don't like where this is going.

He wriggles out of his shirt and tosses it aside. They turn and he starts to back her up the stairs. She falters on the second or third step and reaches behind her to brace herself. He half-crawls over her and it's the door all over again, only now they're on a diagonal.

I pace behind them. Blood pounds madly in my ears and in spite of all the Edward progress I've made, every instinct I have is telling me to get him the fuck out of here.

Breathe, Jake.

Alright. I will simply remind him whose house this is, and that he is not allowed in my bedroom so he might as well go home. I have an unobstructed shot at the hem of his pants. A tug or two should do it. Very civilized.

Just as I'm about to take a run at his ankle, he pushes up and hoists Bella to her feet. She wraps her arms and legs around him and he lumbers up the stairs, kissing her all the while.

You've got to be kidding me. That is completely dangerous. Has he no regard for her safety?

I follow, agitation escalating to anger. I swear to God, if he drops her I will end him.

As he passes into the bedroom, he kicks at the door behind him. I jab my paw into the door frame to stop it from closing.

I hover, watching from the crack in the doorway, as he sets her in the middle of the bed and climbs on top of her. Sheets rustle, zippers unzip, and I hear breathing, lots of breathing, in the darkened room.

I'm not unaware of what usually happens next in these situations. I sowed a few wild oats in my day, before Bella and I met.

The name for the emotion swirling like a tempest in my gut eludes me. It's not jealousy, exactly, at least not in the literal sense of the word. Bella's my mate but not my mate, if you catch my drift.

I can't say it's something I never considered. There was only the one time, when we were still getting acquainted and I was mourning the very recent loss of my hypothetical stud career to outpatient surgery. She let me know via cow-kick to the solar plexus before I even had a firm grip on her thigh that, balls or no balls, we didn't have that kind of relationship.

We never spoke of it again.

I can see from the underthings littering the carpet that they're both naked. Bella is mewling and writhing under him, her hands gripping at the headboard.

Dear God. He's doing unspeakable things to her, things I've only seen hinted at in movies. Even on premium cable.

I'm going to be sick. I breathe and breathe but no air reaches my lungs. I lie down and bury my face in my paws.

It could be minutes or hours that I stay outside the door, listening to their sounds grow louder and more desperate until something equally desperate inside me snaps, unleashed like the three-headed hellhound of Hades.

That feeling I couldn't pinpoint before? It's rage. Searing, illogical, overwhelming, undomesticated, wolfy rage.

I am no dog in wolf's clothing. I'm one-hundred-percent Wild Fucking Animal and we are at DEFCON Fucking 1, my friends.

I slam the door open and charge the bed. Moonlight gleams off of Edward's bare ass as he ruts furiously into my love, my beautiful Bella. This isn't the latte guy. This is the lunatic breaking into my house in the middle of the night. He's out of here. Right the fuck now.

Bella cries out. "Oh, Edward, yes!"


I coil and strike, sinking my teeth into Edward's fleshy buttcheek mid-thrust with a wild snarl.

"Ow! Fuck!" Edward rolls onto his side, clutching his ass.

I fly to the window, point my snout moonward, and howl at the top of my lungs.

"Edward?" Bella's voice is panicked. "You…what happened? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine…." He pants unevenly. "He bit me. Jake bit me."

"Jake what?" She sits upright and casts her eyes around the room. "Jake?"

Oh shit. What have I done?

She climbs off the bed and crosses to within inches of where I sit, less defiant by the second. "Jake, did you bite him?"

Her voice rises angrily. "Did you?"

I lower my head. The wolf is gone as quickly as he appeared. Christ, I'm so ashamed.

She shoos me away from the window. "Out. Get out. Now."

She herds me out the door and shuts it in my face.

A strip of lamplight spills across my feet and I hear soft murmuring. Water runs briefly in the bathroom. I fall to the floor in a heap of exhausted tension. Surely this cannot be happening.

Some time later I'm awakened by the same unmistakable rhythms that bought me a one-way ticket to Hallwayville. This time, though, there are no interruptions from fur-covered psychos.

When Bella calls out his name I pad downstairs and empty my overfull bladder into Edward's shiny dress shoe.

Might as well do the thing thoroughly.

The next morning I'm lying across the threshold when Bella opens the bedroom door. She steps over me into the hallway and gently pulls the door closed, but not before I spy the Edward-shaped lump on my side of the bed.

She kneels and runs her fingers along my side. "Jake?" she whispers.

She smells all wrong.

I want to cover her with kisses. I want to apologize, beg her forgiveness. I don't ever want her to look at me again the way she looked at me last night.

Instead I take off down the stairs to the kitchen and wait to be let out.

The squirrels taunt me from the branches of the oak tree because now I'm the chicken. Piss off, squirrels.

I flee to the corner of the yard, where Bella jury-rigged a little shelter between the privacy fence and a small tree by means of a tarp and some old rock climbing gear. I'm way too much dog for regular doghouses.

Maybe they'll make me sleep out here now. I'll be relegated to yard dog status, barking through the fence at the UPS guy and staring longingly in the kitchen window during holiday dinners.

I don't know how much time has passed when I hear leaves crunching underfoot. Edward peers under the tarp. He's barefoot and in his underwear. His hair is a crime against nature. Also, gravity.

"Mind if I join you?"

Why he would want to be within fifty yards of me is beyond my comprehension. When I don't react, Edward crawls in and lies on his back next to me in the dirt. He folds his arms behind his head and stares up at the vinyl ceiling.

"So, last night. That was something."

I really don't need a play-by-play. I heard it quite well the first time. You won. There's no need to gloat.

"Bella's pretty upset about what happened."

Ah, he's talking about the ass bite heard 'round the world. Super.

"Here's the thing, Jake." He turns and levels me with a look I've never seen from him before. Serious. Determined. No trace of his usual levity.

"I. Love. Her. Too."

He swallows hard. "I love her. I think I've been in love with her from the moment I saw her curled into a pretzel on that park bench."

I recall the first time I saw Bella, the day she wandered into the Humane Society. She'd walked through all the kennels and had seen me going through processing out back. I'd been picked up in an abandoned lot the night before and was being subjected to the shelter version of a Silkwood shower. I was tired and hungry and plenty miserable.

She walked right up to me and asked the volunteer for an introduction. And I knew. The first time we looked at each other, some unknown cosmic forces realigned, and even though I'd never had one before, I knew that she was my person. She picked up a towel, whispered "You look like a Jake to me, how does that sound?", and started rubbing me down like she'd done it a thousand times.

Two hours later the paperwork was signed and we were official.

I know exactly how Edward feels, and I recognize the expression on his face now. It's the same one I wear whenever I imagine something separating me from Bella.

"You can pitch all the fits you want, but you're only hurting Bella by behaving like an asshole. Nothing you do is going to chase me away. I'm not going anywhere."

I can tell he means business, and not just because it's forty-five degrees and he's in his skivvies. I believe him.

"She came back upstairs in tears when you ran out here. I've just spent the last half hour reassuring her that she hasn't misjudged you and that you aren't some violent, scary wolf-beast intent on ripping her heart or her boyfriend to shreds. You clipped her, by the way. She's got a four-inch claw mark on her thigh from your little outburst."

Goddamnit. Just when I thought this morning couldn't be more depressing.

"I told her last night was nothing more than an unfortunate misunderstanding between you and me and you needed some time to sort yourself out, lick some metaphorical wounds, before you two kiss and make up."

Edward rolls to face me.

"Bella adores you. She thinks you're the greatest companion in the history of companions, canine or otherwise. I can't compete with that. I shouldn't have to."

He props himself up on one elbow and scrubs a hand across his mop-head. Is it possible he makes it look like that on purpose? The mind boggles.

"She loves us both, Jake. This isn't an either-or proposition. She can love us both. But you and I need to reach an understanding here."

I pick my head off my paws for the first time since he came outside.

"I'll never hurt her. I'll only stay as long as she wants me to. Forever, hopefully, but at least fifty or sixty years because in all seriousness, I've already secretly picked out vacation spots for our golden jubilee. She's it for me, Jake. Oh, and I won't tell her what you did to my shoe."

Fifty or sixty years with Bella: now I'm jealous. I don't have any misapprehensions about the life expectancies of hulks like me. Best case scenario I get seven, eight more years with her. If I'm lucky. And if I know a good vet. Which, apparently, I do.

It would ease my mind tremendously to know there'll always be someone to love her, even if that someone can't be me. Bella could do a lot worse than Edward. He certainly seems to think Bella is the best thing since organic dog kibble. Which he recently introduced us to, to my great delight.

In the meantime, I suppose we could share protection duties. After this morning, I can totally see Edward taking a chomp out of any fool who looked twice at Bella. Maybe we're not so different, after all. We do both have impeccable taste in life partners.

"So that's my promise." Edward picks up my oversized paw and gives it a shake. "But don't bite me again, okay? That shit hurt. Your teeth are fucking huge."

Yeah, I do feel terrible about that. I shuffle over and rest my chin on his shoulder. He rubs the back of my head and plants a kiss near my ear.

I think we're having a moment.

He glances around the makeshift tent. "You know what, this is a sweet setup you have back here. You need a dog door so you can come outside anytime you want, when Bella's out or at work. Maggie loves hers."

Huh. Something else we agree on.

"You want to come in and help me make sandwiches? Bella's in the shower. We were thinking we'd go pick up Maggie and then all head out for a hike and a picnic. How does that sound?"

It sounds like an adventure, actually. Maybe a brilliant one.

Edward climbs onto all fours and goes out the way he came in. He stands and wipes his hands on his briefs. He's not phased by much, this Edward. Definitely doesn't mind a little dirt or dog pee between friends. Maybe that cancels out the no-bacon-eating thing.

I better still get bacon on my birthday. And not that soy crap, either.

Edward motions to me, grinning. "Come on, Scarlett. Tomorrow is another day and all that."

I'm going to do my best to salvage this one first. Before you can say fiddle-dee-dee I race past him through the open kitchen door and dash upstairs to find Bella.

My eyes snap open at the ebullient twittering of birds outside the bedroom window. I stretch luxuriously and lift my head from the pillow. I'm not the first one awake.

"Mornin', tiger."

I smile and snuggle in close. "Morning yourself, beautiful," I whisper.

"Hey, I've got one for you. What kind of cat is a giant disaster?"

"Umm…a catastrophe?"

"Very good. I would also have accepted 'cataclysm.'"

"Good old Seth," I sigh. "Someday he'll find a woman with a very, very forgiving sense of humor and settle down."

"Just like you did?"

I nip playfully at a silky soft ear. "Shut up. I've got killer jokes. Bitches love my jokes."

She's so cute when she giggles. "Speaking of catastrophes…you up for one this fine morning?"

I consider. We could let ourselves out. Edward installed the new doggie door weeks ago. With surgical precision, I might add.

But where's the fun in that?


We tiptoe across the room to opposite sides of the bed. Divide and conquer. "On three? One…two…."

It's a full-on, two-pronged aerial assault. Targets do not stand a chance.

Bella's half-giggle, half-shriek bursts from the blankets in the semidarkness. "Mags, stop, that tickles!" Maggie gamely takes a perfunctory pillow to the muzzle, which doesn't slow her licking campaign in the slightest.

"For pity's sake, you two!" Bella's gasping for breath. "It's Saturday. Don't you ever sleep in?"

No. No, we don't. Trees to water, squirrels to terrorize.

I sprawl, legs akimbo, across the new king-sized bed. We had to upgrade now that there are four of us in here every night. Although I'm partial to the super cushy new doughnut bed that Maggie and I share. Out of deference to Edward it's only faux suede, but still…it's perfect for spooning. Who knew Maggie'd turn out to be such an enthusiastic cuddler.

Or that universes, by their very nature, never stop expanding.

Edward's voice is muffled behind me. "Jake…please get your hairy ass off of my face."

Yep. Still the best part of the day.

A/N: Neverending love to Anais Mark for being the hottest, funniest Internet trophy wife a girl could ask for, and for interrupting kitchen table sexytimes to red-pen this puppy. (Go read her Metaphysics and you, too, can enjoy dreams of misty Scottish castle weddings!)

Special thanks also to Gothic Temptress for giving this a gander when I was doubting my commitment to Sparkle Motion. xoxo

To Mal and Leo: Congratulations! I hope your partnership is one for the ages.

Thanks for reading.