Sneak Peek from
THE LOVE DOG
When Mason appeared beside me, I was so startled I almost dropped my tea.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked, smiling my way. It was a boyish smile—sweet and unassuming. I suddenly felt bad for the thoughts I’d had about him weeks ago, sitting in front of my TV screen. Because he was so handsome, I’d automatically dubbed him as the kind of arrogant jerk who used women and threw them away. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he didn’t know how much the female world drooled over him. Or maybe he truly didn’t care.
Regardless, why was he sitting next to me? And why did he keep looking at me in that way that made my skin feel sunburned?
“How does it look?” he asked, watching me resettle my tea, uncross my legs, and cross them again.
“How does what look?” I asked.
“The show. The episode.” He waved at the stage. “Apollo was great, as usual.”
Was he fishing for a compliment? I looked over at him. His eyes were shining, and he was leaning toward the stage as if he couldn’t wait to see what would happen next—even though he must have seen the storyboards. He looked as if he was about to leap out of his seat in excitement.
“It’s great,” I said. “It’s going really well.”
“You’re not just saying that?” His face was serious now.
I gave a little laugh. “You don’t need me to tell you that people love this show, right?”
“Sure,” he said, nodding thoughtfully, “but that doesn’t mean it’s as good as it can be. I don’t want us to be complacent, putting out a show that’s just okay. I want The Love Dog to be great.”
We both watched the action on the set for a minute, then Mason gave a quiet snort. “Apollo’s brilliant. I don’t know how he understands what people want him to do, but he really gets it. The first time I met him, on the Race of a Lifetime set, it was like he read my mind.”
I thought back to what Valerie had told me. “That was the season finale?”
“Yeah.” Mason was grinning, chuckling to himself. “The winning team was so pissed at each other they couldn’t even talk about the amazing victory they’d just had. I’d been working with Apollo for a couple of days by then and I saw how well he responded to direction. So finally, after I’d tried everything—and I mean everything—to get these two people to warm up, I brought Apollo in. And I went around behind the winning team with a couple of cheese crackers—you know the ones that come in the little packets? I held the crackers up between them, where Apollo could see but no one else could. Then I dropped them and left. I think they landed on the people’s shoulders. Apollo was on them in about half a second. He licked the heck out of those people, and it totally saved the day. That was when I knew he could be the star of a show like this. Even without food, he’ll do anything he’s told to do. His instincts are amazing. Plus, he looks the part, doesn’t he?”
I looked up at Apollo, sitting on the set, and wondered if I should tell him I thought the dog’s talents were wasted on a scripted show like this. That he seemed capable of so much more. No, I thought. That would seem crazy. Instead, I decided to dig a little, to see just how much Mason knew about the Love Dog’s fakery. “Well, this was my first time really watching him work, but I thought he was terrific. You all did an awesome job, especially considering how Honey and Chad feel about each other.”
He glanced at me. “What do you mean? How do they feel?”
I shrugged, trying to give the impression that it was common knowledge. “Well, they were a couple back when they signed on to the show. And now they’re not. Haven’t you seen the nasty looks they give each other?”
“Nooo,” he said slowly, “I sure haven’t.”
After that he was quiet for a long while, and I kicked myself for ruining my own chance to keep him talking. We watched Apollo trot around on stage with a rose in his mouth, pretending to take it from Chad to Honey. Mason pulled a headset from his pocket and said a few cryptic things to Imogen Blakely, then sat back in his seat, his arms crossed. A minute later, Honey said she needed a bathroom break and the director told everyone to take five.
“I had a thought about Apollo,” I said. In the tiers of seats above and below us, I sensed members of the crew listening, but pretending not to. I kept my voice low and my face angled toward Mason. “It’s his room.”
That got his attention. I swallowed hard, hoping I’d be able to hold his interest.
“What about it?” He leaned closer to me, sucking half the air out of the room.
“Have you seen it?” He must not have, or he would’ve known what I was talking about. “Well, it’s pretty awful. It’s just a cinder-block room. Hardly homey. I know he spends most of his time in his kennel, but even so, that room has to have an effect on his morale.”
“What do you mean? I thought he lived at Lucas’s house.”
I gave him a quizzical look. “I think Lucas lives somewhere north of Santa Clarita. Wherever it is, it’s pretty far away. No, Apollo stays here at night. He sleeps in a kennel in that nasty little room way down deep in the bowels of the building. It’s completely industrial—all noisy pipes and bare walls. Hardly star accommodations.”
Mason looked down at his shoes. Again I had the feeling that I’d just blown a little boy’s belief in Santa Claus. “Wow, I had no idea. I thought he went home with Lucas every night. Will you show me where he stays? If it’s as bad as you say, I’m sure I can do something to make it better.”
I resisted the urge to put my hand on his sleeve, to smooth the fabric and try to unrumple him. I hadn’t meant to depress him, just distract him.
“Thanks for telling me,” Mason added, fixing me with his bright blue eyes. “It’s hard to know everything that’s going on in this place. I need people like you to let me know when things aren’t right, especially with Apollo. He spends so much time here, I want to make sure his life is as good as it can possibly be. A studio is really no place for a dog.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. And I realized, as I glanced over the handsome angles of his face and saw the way his auburn hair tumbled across his forehead, that I was developing far too much sympathy for Mason Hall. I needed to be a barracuda. Dirt, that was what I was here for, not to help Mason turn the studio into a fun zone for Apollo. I needed to pry, and pry hard. But first I just needed to get him talking.
“Did you have a dog growing up?” I asked, feeling sure that he must have.
Mason got a distant look in his eyes, as if he were remembering something cloudy and very far away. Then he nodded. “Wonderful dogs. We had three when I was growing up—all border collies. I spent hours throwing tennis balls for them in the park by our house. I wish we had room for that here—I’d love to play ball with Apollo.”
Hmm, border collies. Now we were getting somewhere. “Where did you live?”
“Madrona, in Washington state, the town where we’ll be filming the last show. You’ve probably never heard of it, have you?”
I shook my head no. Mason nodded, seeming unsurprised. “It was a great place to grow up. As a kid, I could ride my bike all over town with one of the dogs trailing behind me. The town is a lot bigger now, but it’s still pretty cool. They have this big dog festival every year called Woofinstock. People come from all over, but it’s really a festival for dogs. The people are secondary. Apollo would love it.”
“Doesn’t it rain all the time in Washington?” I knew I was supposed to be digging for dirt, but this conversation felt so easy, I didn’t have the heart to alter its course.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what everyone in here says,” he said with a grin. “But the rain keeps it green, so it’s all good. Though there is that old joke, that we only have two seasons, rain and August. We just say that, though, to keep the Californians from moving in.”
“Fair enough. And I bet people there aren’t sad to skip out on our big Los Angeles fires.”
Mason shook his head. “No, those things are brutal. Problems in the Northwest are more along the lines of slugs and mildew.”
I sat back and took a sip of my tea. I really, really sucked at this. Here I was, on a mission to dig up dirt about this guy, and all I could do was chat with him about the rain in Washington. As much as I enjoyed hearing about his family dogs, there wasn’t going to be anything there that I could print in the Telltale. No one picked up the scandal mag for news about someone’s childhood pet. I needed to find a little misery, a tiny speck at least. “So, your family . . . ?”
He shrugged. “It’s pretty Norman Rockwell, to be honest. A mom and a dad, and an annoying little brother.” He turned to look down at the stage, where Lucas was leading Apollo back and forth on his lead. Was I imagining things, or had a shadow fallen across Mason’s face? My every instinct told me to leave a sensitive subject alone, but I kept on pushing.
“Yeah, I have an annoying big sister. It’s amazing how much chaos she can stir up.”
“Mm-hmm.” His eyes were fixed on the stage, but his mind seemed to be a thousand miles away. Maybe a thousand miles north on Interstate 5.
Mason’s eyes shifted toward me in a questioning way, as if he were trying to read me, to get a sense of who I was. I tried to look as trustworthy as possible, not an easy feat when I felt like such a traitor, as if the word spy was about to break out on my forehead. In the end, I hid my face behind my paper cup and pretended to sip my tea.
He tipped his head closer to mine, his eyes downcast. “I shouldn’t have called him annoying. Annoying is more than an understatement. It’s missing the mark altogether. Zach is . . . troubled. He has problems. Drug problems.”
I froze. Or, to be more accurate, my limbs froze—and my mind along with them—but my heart pummeled against my rib cage. This was unbelievable. Had he really just dropped a plum piece of information right in my lap? Seriously, a druggie brother? My hands suddenly felt very cold in spite of my hot tea cup.
“Wow,” I breathed, unsure what to say. I still couldn’t believe my . . . what? Luck? Was it really luck when a spy uncovered secrets she never really wanted to know about? “That must have been rough. For your whole family.”
Mason nodded. “It’s worst for my parents,” he said. It might have been my imagination, but I thought he looked faintly relieved. I, on the other hand, had never felt more agitated in my life. “But it’s changed my relationship with him forever. Every conversation is loaded now. It’s impossible to talk about something simple, like even baseball, without Zach feeling like I’m making some kind of value judgment.”
He ran a hand across the back of his neck. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a move that would play well on television. As if he didn’t have enough female followers already—that one little neck rub was enough to arouse half the population. “That was how I knew Apollo was special in the first place,” he said. “When I first met him, on the Race of a Lifetime finale, I had my brother with me. During breaks and whenever we had a free moment, Apollo would go sit by Zach. He sought him out—it made Zach feel special, I could tell. They spent hours together with Zach just petting him and petting him. And during those days, I don’t know—I felt Zach change a little. Perk up. Smile a little more. Then, the day the shooting wrapped, he told me he was ready to try rehab.” Mason sighed softly. “He only stayed for five days, but still. It was the first time he’d gone voluntarily. And it was all Apollo’s doing. This might sound crazy, but I know Apollo changed him, put his mind in a better space. I’ve always been grateful for that.”
Suddenly the Earl Grey wasn’t sitting right in my stomach. I didn’t want to hear any more about Mason’s brother, or his family, or any of his secrets. I didn’t even want to hear why he was so grateful to Apollo. But he kept talking.
“The truth is, I need to visit home more. It would be better if I did.”
I squirmed in my seat. “I’m sure the show must keep you pretty busy.”
Mason shrugged. “Sure, but that’s really just an excuse. I could visit more if I tried. In fact”—he glanced up at me, his eyes bright—“that’s part of why I want the show to go on the road in Madrona. To see if we could film there, if we get picked up for another season. I’d love to move the whole show, if we can make it work with the weather. It’s almost as cheap as filming in Canada.”
I sat there, dry mouthed, while Mason moved his attention to the stage. The break was over, and Chad and Honey had resumed their seats. I could see Pilar wearing her headset, clipboard in hand, running around, ducking under the sound booms. Apollo, I knew, was waiting in the wings for his entrance. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out. Vern had texted: looking forward to ur first article. I stared at the screen, my heart thumping. Then I deleted the message and slid the phone back into my pocket, wishing I could slip away along with it.