Read an Excerpt
Good decision? Bad?
Martin Davis gripped his steering wheel as he eyed the shelter's Time For Paws neon sign glowing in the dusk. He'd never thought he would darken the doors of a dog shelter, but here he was. Now the question hung in his mind. Was it a good decision or bad one? He'd become lonely without Suzette, his Bouvier, but he hadn't been able to handle her. Sometimes he wondered what he could handle. Not dogs or women, apparently.
So if he couldn't deal with Suzette, why come here to look for another dog? He released his grip on the steering wheel, fell back against the seat, and rubbed his temples. Because he couldn't bear coming home to an empty house any longer. He'd been a failure as a husband. Cats were too aloof. Dogs? He had hopes.
Martin ran his fingers through his hair. He'd been alone for eight years since his wife walked out on him. The loneliness had faded, he thought, but since his brother, Nick, married, he had stopped popping by for visits. That was the whole of it. Being alone wasn't for Martin anymore.
He turned the thought over in his mind. He recalled Steph and Nick talking about the unconditional love a dog provided. He'd never been one to worry about love or the lack of it, but unconditional love meant someone would be excited to greet him when he came home. A dog's happy yips and wagging tail filled the bill, and a dog wouldn't care if he were preoccupied with his business or even a little edgy at times.
Unconditional love. He shook his head. He sounded like a poet or a psychiatrist. The thought rallied an uneasy grin. Martin turned off the ignition and pushed open the door. If nothing more, he could take a look.
He slipped out of his car and gazed at the gray concrete building, once his friend Brent Runyan's unoccupied factory until Molly wheedled away his building and his heart. They'd married, too. Everyone had gotten tangled in that web of "two by two." He wondered if Noah had any idea what he started when he filled that ark.
Drawing up his shoulders, he headed for the door. The bell jingled as he stepped inside, and in the distance he heard dogs making a ruckus. He glanced at his watch. Dinner time, he guessed. His own stomach gave a rumble.
No one stood behind the desk. He waited, his impatience growing each second. He tapped his foot, staring at the doorway. Maybe this was a dumb decision. It could be God's way of telling him to go home. But maybe not. It might just be bad customer service. Or his impatience. If he asked Nick, that's what his brother would tell him. He had no patience.
Frustrated, he returned to the entrance and swung the door open and closed. The small bell jingled again. With no response, he walked deeper into the room and aimed his gaze at the door standing ajar. Through the opening, he could see a young woman at the far end of a long aisle, but before he could call to her, she turned and headed his way. Her dark hair brushed against her shoulders, her arms swinging past her trim hips as if she had nothing better to do. But he did.
Finally she noticed him and picked up her stride. When she came through the door, the woman paused, a look of curiosity on her face. "Sorry, I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long."
About five minutes came to mind, but Martin didn't offer one of his biting comments. Instead he wondered why she gave him that questioning look.
She stepped closer. "What can I do for you?"
He motioned to the door. "You might change that bell to a siren." Okay, so he'd let that comment sneak out.
"Great idea. Now what can I do for you as far as our dogs are concerned."
Martin noted the sarcasm in her voice, but with it, the flicker of a grin.
The grin faded as she studied him. "I think I know you."
A frown burrowed onto his face.
"I don't really know you, but I've seen you." Her probing gaze raked across his face.
Martin's eyebrow tugged upward.
She gave a knowing nod. "At Steph's wedding. You're Martin Davis, right? Nick's brother."
That explained the look. "Yes, the infamous Martin Davis."
She didn't blink. "I'm Emily Ireland."
Martin eyed her slender hand reaching toward his. He grasped it, surprised her grip was stronger than he'd expected. He gazed into her eyes. Beautiful eyes, wide-set and the color of dark chocolate. Her straight dark brows lifted at the ends, giving her an impish look that caught him off guard. His mind snapped back, and he mumbled a nice-to-meet-you comment, although he wasn't really sure if that would prove to be true. For all her innocence, she made him feel on edge.
Emily released his grip with a new expression more confounding than the last. "Don't tell me you're looking for another dog?"
Ah-ha. She had all the dirt on him from Steph, naturally. "Is that a problem?"
Her uneasiness deepened. "No. It's…it's good."
Martin figured she was trying to make up for her earlier comment. He watched her squirm a little and rub her palms together as if trying to decide what to say or do next.
Martin shoved his hand into his pants pocket unable to understand why looking at her left him confused. Worse than confused. He wanted to give her a hug and suggest they start over, but it would ruin his apparent reputation. "I want a dog, but definitely one quieter and less work than Suzette. I'm sure you've heard about those problems."
She flashed him an uneasy look. "Yes. You gave her to your brother."
Martin's brows knitted, sensing an undertone from this impish woman. "Suzette was rambunctious." Her knowing gaze tripped his pulse.
"Dogs are until they're trained."
Her knowledge of him crept under his skin, and he itched to know more about her. She had the upper hand, and he didn't like it. Maybe he could grill Nick. But subtly. If not, Nick would be all over him to know why he was asking about a Time for Paws employee.
Her demeanor softened, and Emily motioned toward the doorway. "I think I know the perfect dog for you."
Martin arched his brow, curious why this dog was so perfect. Probably it was old and three-legged.
Emily didn't let his look slow her down. She pointed again. "Through that doorway."
He headed for the door, giving up on trying to understand the subliminal feelings charging through him.
Emily moved ahead, her hair brushing against her baggy shirt. Hidden beneath, he sensed, was a woman who was hiding something. Her look was direct, but the flicker behind her intriguing eyes made him wonder. If he asked Steph, she'd be on him like a bloodhound.
As soon as Emily opened the door, a din of woofs and whines rose to greet them. Martin strode past her, glancing inside the pens as tails wagged and noses pressed against the wire fencing of the upper door while the shorter dogs leaped to see above the Dutch door's solid bottom. Martin paused and took a good look at the inside of the pen. "The dogs have furniture. That's odd."
Her demeanor changed and took on a businesslike manner that let him know she'd been offended by his comment. "Coming here is traumatic enough for them, so we try to make the dogs as comfortable as possible."
"Apparently." He didn't let her browbeat him.
"The dog I have in mind is down here." She strutted ahead, her attitude decisive.
Martin followed her down the aisle, gazing into the dog pens. When she reached her destination, a tender look filled her face. She motioned to the little dog jigging beside the door, its tail wagging as it looked up at them. "Here you go." She swung open the Dutch door and stepped inside.
Martin joined her, feeling his stomach growl.
Emily bent and lifted the dog. "What do you think?" She extended the furry ball toward Martin.
"What is he?"
"She's a cairn terrier." Without waiting for him to accept her invitation, she pressed the dog against his chest.
He drew back before grasping the squirming fluff ball into his arms but not before her pink tongue swiped his hand. He couldn't stop the flicker of a smile. The dog wiggled until her chin rested on his chest, and she looked into his face. Martin gazed back, his heart giving a little kick.
"She's quiet and well-behaved. I think she'd be perfect for you."
What would be perfect for him? What did she know about him but hearsay?
"Nessie's been spayed and is up to date on all her shots." Emily ran her hand along the dog's fur. "She's five, by the way. A healthy cairn terrier can live to be fourteen or fifteen."
"Nessie?" He tilted his head. "That's her name?"
The dog's ear's perked, and she tried to climb higher up his jacket.
Martin adjusted his grip but not before she licked his hand again.
"Cairns originated in Scotland. You know, the Loch Ness. That's how she got her name." Emily touched his arm. "And she's purebred, too. We have the papers."
Apparently she'd heard of his preference for pure-breds. But that had changed, too. His attention shifted from his thoughts about the terrier to Emily's warm palm against his arm.
She held it there a moment before shifting her hand and taking the dog from his arms. "Would you like to look at a different small dog? We have a beagle."
"No. They howl." He gazed again at the terrier. If Emily were accurate, and clearly she knew dogs, she had made a good choice for him. Quiet and well-behaved. That he could handle. He pulled his gaze from Emily's lovely eyes and turned his attention to the dog. "What do you think, Nessie? Want to come home with me?"
Emily's jaw dropped. "You want her?"
His single nod sent her rushing toward the office as if she feared he would change his mind. He stood at the desk while she became all business again. As she explained the paperwork, Martin sensed Emily was seeing him as more than just Nick's difficult brother.
When finished, she handed him the documents. "Now if you have any questions, Mr. Davis, just ask."
He folded the paperwork and jammed it into his pocket.
"Here you go." She snapped a leash onto the terrier's collar, and Martin grasped it, waiting for the dog to tug and run. Instead she stood there, her tail wagging. But when he headed for the door, the dog's personality changed. Martin gripped the leash as Nessie jerked him outside. For a small dog, she had power to spare. He tugged her back not knowing what else to do. She might be trained, but he wasn't.
Emily grinned, watching Martin charge out the door with Nessie. She'd been honest. The dog was quiet and well-behaved in her pen, but when she found freedom, she became difficult to handle. She'd neglected to tell him about the elderly woman who'd owned the dog and kept her inside most of the time. Getting out into the world was a new experience, and Nessie wanted to live and make the most of it.
So did Emily, but it hadn't happened and probably never would. It was just the way her life always seemed to be.
Martin's parked car caught her attention. Through the window, she watched him try to move Nessie off the driver's seat so he could get inside. He finally managed it.
When she'd first seen him in the office, she had been guarded in their conversation. Martin's reputation preceded him, and she'd felt intimidated. Yet she did her best to stand up for herself, rather than let the world run over her as she usually did.
The check he'd written caught her eye. Martin Davis. She studied his signature and drew in a deep breath. He had a flourish that whipped off into a curved line. Steph and Molly talked about him often, especially when she first started working at Time for Paws. Stories of Martin seemed a form of entertainment. When she'd seen him at the wedding, wow, she'd caught her breath. He was totally handsome, so unlike the vision she'd conjured in her mind.
What was it about him? She liked his eyes. They were rich brown like the saddles she'd seen in Western movies. Brown with flecks of gold, and though she knew eyes reflected attitude, Martin's hadn't. Walking behind him along the dog pens, she had admired his frame, six feet, she guessed, and lean with broad shoulders that added to his good looks. But Martin had the tendency of lowering his eyes, and that look gave him away. He might have a sharp tongue, but inside, she suspected he was as insecure and vulnerable as she was. She'd spent her life hiding her past, but Martin confounded her. He had so much going for him. What did he have to hide?
Tonight Martin had shown a softer side despite a few barbed comments. When he held Nessie, he'd melted like a cheap candle. And she'd caught him in a brief smile. His chin had dimpled below his even white teeth. She liked that, but it had made her selfconscious and she'd dragged her tongue over her teeth, fearing the sandwich she'd grabbed for dinner had left a telltale residue. She'd never liked her teeth. One was a little crooked so she tried to cover it when she smiled.
She glanced through the window again, her curiosity growing. Martin's car was still there, and she wondered if she should go out to see if he needed help. Instead, she gripped the desk and talked herself out of it. If she softened too much, she could be in trouble. He was single, she knew, and the kind of man that could make her life wonderful. She'd watched Molly and Steph marry, and though she had always figured marriage wasn't for her, her singleness seemed empty and lonely.
Wanting to get that nonsense out of her head, she focused on the check. He'd paid for Nessie's shots and added a generous donation for the dog shelter. Somewhere inside Martin Davis beat a kind heart. Someone just needed to find it. But definitely not her.
Emily edged forward and blocked the headlights' glare on the glass to see outside. Martin sat inside the car with Nessie sitting on his lap. The sight made her laugh. As she did, she turned away from the window before he spotted her.
The door to the pens remained ajar, but the noise inside had quieted. She strode to the door and slipped it closed before the dogs got riled again. The bell tinkled behind her, and she spun around. Martin stood inside with his hand on the doorknob. She caught her breath.
If he smiled now with those white teeth and that dimple, she couldn't cope.
Maintaining a semblance of control, Emily moved closer. "Is something wrong?"