The Parent Trap

By: Lee McKenzie

CHAPTER ONE

SPYING ON THE new neighbor was not a good use of her time, but Sarah Stewart had spent most of the morning peeking past the curtain in her office window anyway. At the sound of footsteps pounding up the front porch, she let the curtain fall and hastily took a seat at her desk, giving the mouse a jiggle and bringing a spreadsheet to life.

The screen door banged shut. “Mom? You still home?”

“I’m upstairs, Casey.” Upstairs and appalled at the still-empty columns in her file.

Her daughter thundered up the stairs and burst into her office, eyes bright and blond ponytail swinging. Sarah accepted a hug, holding her sweet girl’s slender, too-tall-for-her-age frame until she squirmed out of the embrace. Her hair was scented with equal parts animal shelter and summer sunshine.

“They gave me six dogs to walk today. Can you believe it? Six!” Casey’s level of excitement would rival any lottery winner.

“That’s wonderful, hon. Everyone at the animal shelter must be very impressed with you.” As they should be, Sarah thought with a mother’s pride. Casey was a great kid, and she was one incredibly lucky mom. “Did they give you any trouble?”

“The people at the shelter?”

Sarah laughed. “No, silly. The dogs.”

“Not a bit. Remember I told you about Petey? The little shih tzu-Maltese cross? It’s so cute to see him walking with the bigger dogs.” Casey perched on the corner of Sarah’s desk, one foot swinging. “Petey’s little legs are going like a mile a minute but he totally keeps up with them, then when we get back to the shelter he has a drink of water, curls up in his kennel and goes right to sleep.”

“I’m sure he’s adorable.”

“Yeah. He is.”

Sarah recognized the wistful tone, having heard it many times, but Casey didn’t need to be reminded that they simply couldn’t have a dog. Letting her volunteer as a dog walker at the Serenity Bay animal shelter had seemed like a good idea. Now Sarah wondered if that had been a mistake because being around all those dogs only made Casey want one even more. Between school starting next week, homework, soccer practice and all the other activities Casey took on, plus all the hours Sarah spent at the store to keep her business running smoothly and profitably, a dog would be left home alone for hours at a stretch. That wouldn’t be fair to a dog, and it got Sarah off the hook.

Besides, Casey had an ever-expanding menagerie in her bedroom, which at last count included two mice in a cage, a lizard in a terrarium, a half dozen fish in a small aquarium and a praying mantis in an enormous glass jar. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, except for the mice, but they didn’t need to be walked and groomed and taught to stay off the furniture.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Casey said. “There’s a moving van next door.”

“Yes, I heard them pull up.” Sarah hoped she appeared nonchalant as she squinted at the numbers on her monitor.

Midmorning, a man and his daughter had pulled their charcoal-gray SUV into the shared driveway that separated Sarah’s house from theirs. Since then she’d lurked at the window of her second-floor home office, distracted by the clang and thump of a furniture dolly as two men clad in navy blue overalls rolled furniture and stacks of boxes down the ramp and onto the front porch of the house, which had sat silent and empty for the past month and a half.

Not that she would ever admit her mild neuroses to another living soul, but she had worried about this day ever since the empty-nesters who had lived there retired, set out to fulfill their lifelong dream of traveling the world and found a tenant willing to sign a one-year lease on their home. Bill and Marjorie hadn’t just been good neighbors; they were good friends. Six years ago they’d been there for her and her daughter after her husband died in a car accident and she had struggled to fit the jagged pieces of her life back together.

If Sarah could, she would push the pause button on her current life and keep everything exactly as it was—happy, stable, secure—because if she disliked anything more than change, it was not knowing what that change had in store for her.