On work-from-home days, Halley spent her lunch breaks in the park. Unless it was raining or otherwise evil weather – then she’d go to a café.
It got her away from the computer, away from her flatmates’ work vents, away from the ‘could you justs’ and ‘if you have a moments’. It was her time to breathe, to relax, and watch the rather gorgeous dog walker and his adorable charges make the world a better place, one fetched tennis ball at a time.
He wasn’t like some of the other walkers, surrounded by heaving masses of fur and panting tongues, too many to count as they twisted leads around the walker and each other. He only had four dogs and she’d come to know each of them from her bench near the wide field they’d run in.
Her favourite was Asteroid, a serenely dignified golden retriever, who somehow managed to leave the park in the same pristine condition she entered it, regardless of the state of the ground. Then there was Bacchus, a portly black Labrador with a frosted muzzle and no interest in tennis balls. Rosie was a tri-coloured hound of uncertain heritage who chased with great enthusiasm but had yet to master the art of bringing the ball back. And then there was Ada, a tall black poodle who stepped fastidiously beside the rest of the group until her ball appeared, when she would transform into a bouncing dynamo, whiffling and prancing until it was her turn to race across the grass.
They were as good as a floor show, although Halley’s highlight was the ringmaster. His t-shirt covered a broad chest and shoulders, tapering to lean hips and long legs, well able to keep up with his charges. She could recite the name, website and phone number of the company he worked for – Everything is Pawesome – after watching it stretch and soften across the back of his t-shirt (or wind-proof jacket on late autumn days like this one). Both t-shirt and jacket were a khaki brown, accentuating his golden tan and the russet highlights in his short, tousled curls.
Halley settled on the bench, a little out of breath, her cheeks warm with exertion. She’d been caught by a colleague needing a quick favour just as she was leaving and had had to rush to get to her bench before he walked through the gate, dogs neatly arrayed by his side. There was a fifth today, a smaller one.
Digging out her book, she pretended to be engrossed, it would be too embarrassing if he noticed her watching him. It was a good book, and quickly drew her in, so the shout brought her back with a jerk.
She looked over just in time to watch a white-blonde golden retriever puppy dart away from the dog walker’s side. Shining like a fluffy shooting star in the weak autumn sun, it hurtled across the grass, straight for Halley.
Or rather – she realised too late – straight for the huge, muddy puddle right beside Halley’s seat.
Under her horrified stare the puppy leaped high, then splashed down in the middle of the puddle, showering Halley in mud and water.
Halley jumped up and away from the bench, spilling her coffee and dropping both book and sandwich.
The yell came again. “Meteor, get back here!”
Halley turned her head to see the horrified expression of the walker, as he tried to tow the other dogs towards her. Since Bacchus couldn’t go any faster than a ponderous trot, he wasn’t making much progress.
As she watched, his eyes widened and he dropped the Labrador’s lead, then sprinted towards her, Asteroid, Rosie, and Ada loping at his heels.
Looking down, Halley found Meteor snuffling at the remains of her sandwich. She was awfully pretty, even stealing her lunch, and covered in mud. The puppy gave her a panting smile, braced her legs, then shook, spraying yet more brown water and dirt in all directions.
Halley made a grab for the puppy. “Here, um, Meteor, good dog.”
She went to seize the collar, but her hands slipped straight down, catching on nothing, as the puppy, clearly delighted with this game, danced just out of reach, barked once, then took off again.
The dog walker ran past her, shooting an agonised glance her way. “I am SO sorry. Her collar broke. Stay there, I’ll be back.”
Halley flopped back onto the bench. Why did he want her to wait? She wasn’t about to call up his bosses and complain, anyone could see it was an accident.
He finally managed to catch the exuberant dog thanks to the help of a passing jogger with a sky-high ponytail, and skin tight activewear. They chatted for a moment, and she pulled out her phone, smiling flirtatiously.
Halley’s heart dropped to her stomach. She jumped when a warm weight rested on her knee, then smiled down at Bacchus, who was resting his muzzle on her leg, with her book in his mouth, looking up at her apologetically. She stroked a hand over his broad head as she retrieved the soggy paperback.
“I don’t know what you think you have to be sorry for, you’re a perfect gentleman.”
Bacchus shuffled a little closer, tilting his head for ear rubs.
Footsteps sounded on her other side and the old Labrador greeted his custodian with a gently reproving woof.
The dog walker was muddy and flushed, Meteor cradled to his chest looking far too pleased with herself. Rosie snuffled around the bench, pointedly ignoring all of them, while Ada picked her way over to Halley and sat by her side, looking back at the man and the two golden retrievers like a disapproving aunt before nudging Halley’s Bacchus-free knee in a prompt for pats.
Asteroid barked and the man scolded her. “She’s your puppy, you’re supposed to be teaching her manners.”
He turned to Halley and winced. She looked down at herself, then touched her face, yep, mud everywhere, fabulous.
This close, she could finally see, his eyes were hazel – caramel brown with flecks of green, and embarrassed. Like he was uncomfortable even looking at her.
“I don’t even know where to start apologising. Meteor’s my dog and I should have trained her better before bringing her out in public. She knows she’s supposed to behave nicely with strangers.”
“It’s fine, these things happen.” She sounded so trite but the ‘stranger’ comment cut, she’d spent so many lunchtimes watching them, had he never even noticed?
Before she could find something intelligent to say, a cold drop hit her cheek, then another, and the skies opened. Their eyes met, mutual exasperation, before she raced for home, and he ran in the opposite direction.
It was still raining the next day, and even though it eased a little before lunch, Halley opted for a café instead of the park. It wasn’t like he’d come over and chat after yesterday, he’d be more likely to avoid her completely.
She sat at a table by the window, watching people rush past, heads down, umbrellas up. A familiar khaki windbreaker appeared outside, Everything is Pawesome across it, on his way back from the park. He only had Bacchus with him today, and was juggling the dog’s lead, his umbrella, and a large bunch of flowers.
She half rose from the table, went to wave, then stopped. He’d paused to talk with a tall, attractive woman in some sort of designer trench coat with matching hot pink umbrella. It was the jogger from yesterday. She might not be in her tight running gear, but that was the same, sky-high ponytail and coy smile.
Halley sank into her seat as they spoke, and he handed her the bouquet then set off again, Bacchus trotting ahead. The woman sauntered down the street, smug confidence radiating. Halley pushed back her chair. The quiche was normally good here, but it was strangely tasteless today and she wasn’t really hungry anyhow.
There was still a good half an hour left of her lunch break and she didn’t want to face the computer screen, or her flatmates. She wrapped her raincoat more tightly around her, put up her umbrella, and walked.
Of course she ended up in the park, at her bench. Her brain was clearly intent on making her properly miserable. She sat, wondering if she would see them together the next time she came here, jogging with the dogs and laughing together. She needed to find a new lunch spot.
“You’re here.” He sounded as surprised as she was.
Halley shrugged, as if it was completely normal to sit alone on a park bench in the rain. “It’s a good place for fresh air and thinking.”
He’d swapped Bacchus for Asteroid, who trotted forward, looking hopeful, before stopping at a stern command to stay.
Bending to rub the dog’s ears, he said. “I got you some flowers to say sorry, but you weren’t here earlier. Your friend said she’d give them to you.”
“The runner from yesterday, she said she was meeting you for coffee.”
The bare-faced cheek of the woman! Halley stared at him. “I’ve no idea who she is.”
His dismay was adorable. “She was lying?”
“I guess she likes flowers.”
He gestured to the bench. “May I?”
His jeans would be soaked, but if he was okay with that… “Of course.”
Asteroid used the movement to shuffle close enough to Halley to nudge, then look up hopefully. It was impossible not to smile, and even more impossible to ignore the plea for pats.
She kept her eyes on the dog as she asked. “Is Asteroid yours as well?”
“No, but she’s my first client, and when her owner offered me one of her puppies, I couldn’t resist.”
“So that’s why they have sort of the same name.”
He chuckled. “A meteor is a small chunk of asteroid that hits our atmosphere and turns into a shooting star. So it’s sort of a child of the asteroid.”
She realised she was staring at him when he blushed. “I studied astronomy, Asteroid belongs to one of my research supervisors.”
“You’re an astronomer?”
“I’m a dog walker. I started the company while I was studying, for a bit of extra cash, and turns out it pays better, and I like it more. There’s very little looking at the stars in astronomy these days; it’s all computer programming and mathematical models.”
He leaned a little closer. “This is crazy, I’m telling you my life story, my dog ruined your clothes and your lunch yesterday, and I don’t even know your name.”
She laughed, it was crazy, in a fizzy, happy way. She held out her hand. “I’m Halley, as in the comet. My Dad is an amateur astronomer.”
He took her hand in his. “I’m Ed.”
His smile was making her breathless.
Asteroid pushed her head into his leg, and wuffed. He let go of Halleys’ hand to tug gently on the dog’s ears. Halley tried not to feel jealous.
“So, does the daughter of an amateur astronomer have any interest in the stars herself?”
Where was this going? She replied. “I like trying to spot Venus on a clear night.”
He kept his head down. “There’s a meteor shower forecast for Friday night, and the weather’s supposed to clear. Would you be interested in seeing it?”
“As in shooting stars, not a puppy in a mud puddle?”
He groaned and laughed. “No dogs at all I swear.”
Her grin was so wide it nearly hurt. “I’d love to.”