Liv drove past the VW and parked around the corner. Nervous in these strange surroundings, she stepped out of the car. First one foot cautiously touched the pavement, then the other.
Litter dotted the sidewalk, and she sidled around a huge wad of pink chewing gum that glistened on the cement to her right, practically pulsating in the sunshine. The wooden fence beside her was covered in graffiti, mostly silly scrawls of people's names and the objects of their affections.
With a glance over her shoulder at the beat-up sedan, she gave thanks she wasn't driving the Miata after all. This neighborhood made her terribly uneasy, and her sweet car probably wouldn't last an hour parked on this street.
She hurried up the sidewalk to the corner, grateful for the first time she was wearing sneakers instead of her usual pumps, and peered around to make sure Daisy wasn't looking. Of course, she probably wouldn't recognize Liv, but it was still good to be careful.
She trailed Daisy until the redhead turned up the walk toward the complex and moved behind some thick evergreen bushes. Liv broke into a trot, not wanting to lose her.
As Liv turned the corner, she nearly ran Daisy over. The woman had stopped to check her mail at the wall of mailboxes just outside the complex.
Liv leaped back and slipped between two parked cars, squatting down to hide for a moment until she realized she couldn't see anything. She duck-walked up a few cars until she could lean down to peek underneath and watch Daisy's feet to note when she moved on.
Utterly focused on the sight before her, she had no warning before the driver's door beside her swung open, clipping her sharply on the head. She flew backward, sprawling into the street and thumping her skull on the pavement. Tires squealed nearby as a moving car whipped around her flattened body.
"What the--?" From a million miles away, a man shouted in surprise. She heard the thump of footsteps but couldn't seem to open her eyes. "Hey, lady." A huge, heavy hand shook her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Something warm and wet swiped her face, both reviving and disgusting her. She kept her eyes closed and limply swatted at it. Her hand hit fur. "Ugh."
"Spike, back off."
Spike? What was going on? She gave a low moan and tried again to force her eyelids to obey her will, finally succeeding after a Herculean effort. A tanned face covered in five o'clock shadow and smears of black grease swam in front of her. Next to him, its neck surrounded by a studded black leather collar, sat the biggest brown dog she'd ever seen. The creature had drool suspended from its mouth and it looked as if it had swallowed a sneaker with the laces hanging out. Dear heavens, was that what had licked her?
The voice spoke again, and this time she saw the man's lips move, though they seemed oddly out of sync with his words. The last time that had happened was when she'd seen Shoot the Piano Player in French with English subtitles.
"You don't look so good. Maybe I should call for an ambulance or something. I whacked you pretty hard." He touched her forehead and she tried to move away from those greasy hands. Did she have a smear on her skin?
"No, don't call an ambulance." Liv was dismayed at how feeble she sounded, but the last thing she needed was to draw more attention to herself. How would she explain that to Geoff or her father? "I'll be okay. Just help me up."
"If you're sure." Strong, firm hands slipped under her arms and pulled her easily to her feet. The dog leaned against her and shoved its head under her hand. She flinched at the feel of its bony, fur-covered skull even though she appreciated the support. It wasn't enough, though, and her legs wobbled beneath her.
"Whoa there, Nelly." The man tightened his hold and steadied her. "Maybe you should come inside and sit down for a couple of minutes. I could give you an ice pack for your head."
Liv drew herself up to her full height, all five feet, two inches of it--damn, now she missed her three-inch heels--and declared, "I would no more go into a strange man's house than...than..." She hated that the man only grinned and watched her sputter. She lost the little bit of strength she'd summoned and sank down onto the sidewalk. "I'll sit on the curb. Just get your ugly dog away from me."
"Spike? C'mon, he's gorgeous." He gave the monster a vigorous scratch all up and down its body. "And he's not my dog, but don't worry, he's a marshmallow."
"I don't like dogs." She dropped her aching head into her hands and peeked through her fingers to watch as the man dragged the dog a few feet away. Spike stared at Liv with droopy brown eyes for a couple moments before he turned and trotted into the apartment complex. Thank heavens.
"Look, you can't sit out here by yourself. What if you have a concussion and pass out?" The man squatted beside her. "Do you live nearby? I could take you home."
"I don't live anywhere around here." Heaven forbid. Liv waved off his offer with a flip of her hand. "I just need a few minutes to gather my wits."
"I don't feel right just leaving you here. Maybe you could go to my neighbor's? Daisy is a pretty harmless woman--at least if you're not a man--and from where I'm sitting, it's obvious you're no man."
"Daisy?" That was impossible. What were the odds?
"Yeah." He grasped her elbow and helped her stand again. Despite the grease and calluses, his hand was oddly gentle and comforting. "I bet you're seeing double, and you can't drive in that condition."
Annoyed he was right, and interested in checking out where the competition lived, she reluctantly agreed. They walked side-by-side into the complex, each step making her head throb more.
"I'm Mike, by the way. Mike Peck."
She looked up at him, really seeing him for the first time. He was unbelievably tall, well over six feet, and wore some kind of gray coverall that had his name embroidered on the patch affixed to the front.
She squinted at the smaller lettering above his name. Doug's Import Auto Shop. Saved by a grease monkey. How exactly right for her day.