IT'S RAINING CATS AND DOGS
When charismatic K-9 cop Alex Santiago shows up at Paradise Animal Clinic with a tiny gray kitten in his jacket, something inside Dr. Cassie Marshall shifts. The overworked single mom and veterinarian had been sure her plate was already full. Yet something about Alex's coffee-brown eyes has made her reconsider. Surely she can make room in her heart for just one more.
But two? When Cassie learns she is pregnant after a hot night with Alex, she panics. How can she handle one man, his dog, her little girl, their cat and a baby? Her sexy deputy sheriff has made no bones about wanting a simple relationship. So how can she tell her love-shy Valentine that their already full menagerie is about to be visited by the stork?
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"Grace, you just saved my life. How can I ever repay you?"
The woman behind the counter rolled her eyes. "It's just coffee, Dr. Marshall, not the fountain of youth. If you leave a few coins in the tip jar, we'll call it even."
Cassie clutched the cardboard cup like a lifeline, inhaling the rich aroma. "I had an emergency call last night, ended up performing a C-section on a schnauzer at three a.m., and then was double-booked all day. So right now your caffeinated nectar is my only hope of making it through the meeting I'm going to." She paid for her coffee and took a cautious sip of the scalding brew. "You're my hero."
"That kind of flattery will get you the last cinnamon scone, if you want it."
"Have I ever turned down a free baked good?" Cassie accepted the small white bag with the proffered pastry. "Thanks. This ought to keep me out of trouble until I can get some dinner."
"Speaking of trouble, here comes that new sheriff's deputy. I'd be willing to break a few rules if it would get him to notice me." Grace craned her neck to see more clearly out the curtained front window. "Don't you think he looks like a man who could handle my rebellious side?"
Cassie nearly spit out her coffee. If Grace Keville, sole proprietor of Sandcastle Bakery, had a rebellious side, she'd kept it well hidden. Even after a full day of baking and serving customers, she looked prim and proper in a crisp pastel blouse and tailored pants. From her lacy apron to her dainty bun, she was the epitome of order and discipline. Not to mention she was happily married and the mother of three. "You've never rebelled a day in your life."
Grace sniffed. "Maybe not, but that man makes me consider it. Hard."
Rebellion wasn't all it was cracked up to be. She'd been there, done that, and had considerably more than a T-shirt to show for it. She started to say as much, but stopped at the jingle of the door chimes behind her. Turning at the sound, she caught her breath at the sight of the intense man heading toward her with long, ground-eating strides.
No wonder Grace was infatuated. The man looked like he'd just stepped out of a Hollywood action movie rather than the quiet streets of Paradise, Florida. Thick, dark hair framed a chiseled face with just a hint of five-o'clock shadow. His eyes were the exact color of the espresso that scented the air, and reflected a focus that only men in law enforcement seemed to have. Even without the uniform she'd have known him for a cop. Sexy? Sure. But still a cop. And she'd had her fill of those.
"I'm here to pick up an order. Should be under Santiago."
Grace grabbed a large box from the top of a display case. "I've got it right herean assortment of cookies, right?"
"What, no doughnuts?" Uh-oh, did she say that out loud?
He gave Cassie a long look before quirking up one side of his mouth. "Sorry to ruin the stereotype."
Grace glared at Cassie before attempting to smooth things over. "Deputy Santiago, I'm Grace. I'm the one you spoke to earlier on the phone. And this is Dr. Cassie Marshall, our resident veterinarian."
"Nice to meet you Grace, Dr. Marshall." He nodded at each in turn. "And off duty it's Alex, please." He smiled then, a real smile, and suddenly the room was too warm, too charged, for comfort. The man's smile was as lethal as the gun strapped to his hipmore potent than any Taser. Unsettled by her instant response, Cassie headed for the door. It wasn't like her to speak without thinking; she needed to get out of there before she embarrassed herself more than she already had.
"Let me get that." He reached the door before her, balancing the large cookie box in one hand and pulling open the door with the other. After her own snide comment, his politeness poked at her conscience.
"Sorry about the doughnut remark." There, her conscience was clear.
"I've heard worse." His expression hardened for a minute. "Don't worry about it."
She wouldn't; she had way too many other concerns to keep her occupied. Including the meeting she was going to be late to, if she didn't hurry. She nodded politely, then made a beeline for her hatchback. Setting the coffee in a cup holder, she cranked the engine and popped in a CD of popular love songs. She had less than ten minutes to put aside all the worries tumbling through her mind and get herself in a Valentine's Day kind of mood.
Alex watched the silver hatchback drive away, noting she kept the small vehicle well under the speed limit. Few people were gutsy enough to speed in front of a sheriff's deputybut then again, the average person didn't spout offjokes about cops to his face, either. There had been resentment in those blue eyes. She'd disliked himor at the least the uniformon sight. He was used to gang members and drug dealers treating him that way, but a cute veterinarian? His gut said there was a story there, but he didn't need to make enemies in his new hometown. He had plenty of those back in Miami.
A loud bark snapped him out of his thoughts.
"I'm coming, boy."
At this point, he and his canine partner, Rex, were in the honeymoon period of their relationship, and the dog still got excited whenever he saw Alex return. Unlocking the car, he couldn't help but smile at the goofy expression on the German Shepherd's face. As a trained K-9, Rex was a criminal's worst nightmare, but to Alex he was the best part of his new job.
He'd never expected to live in a small-time town like Paradise, had never wanted to leave Miami. But when he testified against his partner, the department had turned against him. It didn't matter that Rick was guilty. Alex was the one they turned on.
He'd known that refusing to lie during his deposition meant saying goodbye to any chance of promotion. He could live with that. But when his name and address were leaked to a local gang he'd investigated, things changed.
Putting his own life at risk, that was just part of the job. Messing with his family, that was a different story. When his mom had come home one day to find threats spray-painted on her walls and her house trashed, he'd known they couldn't stay.
He could still see her standing in her ruined kitchen, white with fear. She'd aged ten years that humid night.
Guilt clawed at him. What kind of son was he to lead danger straight to her doorstep? He'd resigned the next day and spent his two-week notice hunting down the scum responsible.
Then he'd packed up and looked for a job, any job, where he could start fresh without a target on his back. When a position in the Palmetto County Sheriff's office became open, he'd jumped on it. Working with a K-9 unit was a dream come true; he'd often volunteered time with the unit back home. That experience, plus a stellar record, had landed him the position.
Having the dog around eased the loneliness of being in a new city and made the long night shifts required of newbies seem a little shorter.
Thankfully, his mom had been willing to move, too. She'd lived in Miami ever since she and his father emigrated from Puerto Rico. He'd worried she would fight against leaving, but she'd agreed almost immediately. Her lack of argument told him she was more rattled than she'd admitted.
And of course there was Jessica, his younger sister, to think about, too. She was away at college, but still lived at home on school holidays. His mom wouldn't want her in the line of fire, even if she wasn't afraid for herself.
Now Paradise was their home and all that was behind them.
As he drove down what passed for Main Street, he scanned the tidy storefronts, more out of habit than caution. The tiny island community couldn't be more different from fast-paced south Florida. Instead of high rises and strip malls, there were bungalows and family-owned shops. Miami had a vibrant, intoxicating culture, but working in law enforcement, he'd spent his hours in the less picturesque parts of town. Here, even the poorest neighborhoods were tidy and well kept.
Of course, nowhere was perfect, not even Paradise. Which was why he was missing valuable sleep in order to attend the Share the Love volunteer meeting. The sheriff's department was pairing with the county's department of children's services in a fundraiser, a Valentine's Day dance. The money raised would be used to start up a mentor program for at-risk kids. Some were in foster care and many had parents serving time or were in trouble themselves. When the department had posted a flier about the program, he'd been the first to volunteer. He'd been on the other side of that story; it was time to give back.
It took only a few minutes to cross the island and reach the Sandpiper Inn, the venue for tonight's organizational meeting. The largest building on the island, it often was the site of community events.
Pulling into the gravel lot, he was surprised to see most of the parking spaces were full. Either the Sandpiper had a lot of midweek guests or the meeting was going to be larger than he'd expected.
He grabbed the box on the passenger seat and left the engine running, thankful for the special environmental controls that kept things safe for his furry partner. Late January in Florida tended to be mild, but could sometimes still hit dangerous temperatures. "Sorry, buddy, but I think this is a human-only kind of thing."
Rex grumbled but settled down, his big head resting on his paws when Alex locked the car.
"Are you following me?" The voice came from behind him and sounded hauntingly familiar.
The prickly veterinarian from the bakery.
She was standing where the parking area opened onto the shaded path to the inn's entrance. Her strawberry-blond hair caught the rays of the setting sun, strands blowing in her face with the breeze. Eyes snapping, she waited for him to respond.
"I'm not stalking you, if that's what you mean." His jaw clenched at the insinuation. "I'm a law enforcement officer, not a criminal."
Her face softened slightly, and he caught a glimpse of sadness in her eyes. "Sorry, it's just that in this town, there isn't always a difference."
Well , that was embarrassing. Cassie truly did try to think before speaking, but some days she was more successful than others. What had she been thinking, accusing him of following her? It had been months since the accident; she needed to stop jumping at shadows.
"Mommy, look what Miss Jillian helped me make!" Cassie's daughter, Emma, came bounding down the stairs of the picturesque inn with the energy and volume befitting a marching band, not a four-year-old. "I made Valentine's cards!"
Behind, at a more sedate pace, came Cassie's best friend and employee, Jillian Caruso. With her mass of black curls and pale skin, she looked like a princess out of a fairy tale, despite her casual jeans and sweater. Right now she also looked a tad guilty. "Before you say anything, this wasn't my fault. I told her I would help her make some, but all the ideas were hers."
Cassie arched an eyebrow, but let it go. She was just grateful Jillian had been willing to entertain Emma. Normally her mom watched Emma after her preschool let out, but today there had been a schedule conflict. Emma was much happier playing at the inn than being stuck with Cassie at the clinic yet again. "Hi, sunshine. I missed you." She swept her up in a hug, letting go of the tension that had dogged her all day. This was why she worked so hard. This little girl was the most important thing in her world and worth all the long hours and missed sleep of the past few months. "Are you having fun?"
"She should be," Jillian broke in. "She's been here less than an hour and we've already played on the playground, looked for seashells on the beach and made brownies."
"Are you a policeman? Did my mommy do something bad?"
Cassie had almost forgotten the deputy behind her. Blushing, she set Emma back down and turned to find him a few feet away, smiling as if she hadn't just bitten his head off.
"Hello, sweetie. I'm Alex. What's your name?"
"I'm Emma. Are you going to take someone to jail?"
"Not today. Unless there are any bad guys here?" His dimples showed when he smiled. Cops should not have dimples.
"Nope, just me and Miss Jillian and Mr. Nic. And Murphy. He's their dog. And a bunch of people for the meeting. But they're going to help kids, so they can't be bad, right?" Her little brows furrowed as she thought.
"Probably not. Helping kids is a good thing. Are you going to help?"
Emma's curls bounced as she nodded. "Yup, I get to help with the decorations. Mommy said so. And I get to come to the big Valentine's Day dance. I'm going to wear a red dress."
"A red dress? Sounds like a great party." He raised his gaze to the third member of the group.
"Hi, I'm Jillian. Welcome to the Sandpiper Inn." She offered her hand to the handsome deputy.
"Nice to meet you. Alex Santiago. Thanks for offering to host the meeting here."
Jillian smiled, her face lighting up. "We're happy to do it. I grew up in foster care myselfI know how hard it can be. Even the best foster families often can't always give the kids as much attention as they need. It will be great if we can get a real mentor program started."
If Alex was surprised by Jillian's casual mention of her childhood, he didn't show it. He just nodded and held out the box he'd picked up at the bakery. "I brought cookies, if you have somewhere I can put them. I figured at least a few people might not have had a chance to grab dinner yet."
Oh, boy. Shame heated Cassie's cheeks. She'd been stereotyping him with the old cops-and-doughnuts line when he'd actually been buying refreshments to share with othersat a charity event, no less.
The sight of the uniform might set her teeth on edge, but that was no reason to be openly rude to him. The car accident that had injured her father so badly had been caused by a single out-of-control deputy, but she couldn't blame the man in front of her just because they both wore the same badge.
"Ooh, can I have a cookie?" Emma looked up at Alex, practically batting her eyelashes. "I've been very good."
He laughed, and the lines around his eyes softened. "That's up to your mom, princess."
Emma turned pleading eyes to Cassie, whose heart melted. "Since you've been good, yes, one. But just one. Jillian said you've already had a brownie, and I don't want you bouncing off the walls on a sugar high." She nodded a thank you to Alex for letting her make the decision. "Now, let's see those valentines you were telling me about." She brushed off the niggling bit of envy that she hadn't been the one making valentines with her daughter. Maybe that was why Jillian looked concerned about them?
"Cassie, maybe you should wait and read those later?" Jillian cautioned, nodding toward Alex.
Cassie darted a glance at the cop still standing on the stairs with them. He shrugged, then moved past them. "I'll just go find a place to set these down. See you inside."
Why was Jillian acting so tense over this? They were just paper hearts and glitter, not a manifesto. Taking them from Emma's slightly grubby fist, she continued up to the massive front door of the Sandpiper.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful story with a surprise or two thrown in!! Cassie Marshall has all she can handle being a single mom and being the only vet on staff while her father recuperates. The last thing she needs is to add a relationship into the mix. That is until the new Alex Santiago shows up at the clinic with a stray kitten he's rescued. She doesn't want to like him but his kind ways and gentle touch soon has her by the heart. Surely he's the last of the surprises the heavens have in store for her. Or is it??? A great book that I highly recommend.
Meyer combines comedy with emotion in a manner that not only makes the story real but also makes it impossible to forget. Her engaging characters come to life in surprising ways. The tough cop with the warm heart and the gun-shy veterinarian are topped only by the world’s cutest little girl. Together they created the perfect cast for the romance and heartfelt moments that Meyer creates, with a little bit of suspense thrown in the mix for good measure. I loved the turbulent emotions of the characters. What they want vies with what they think they should want and what they’ve conditioned themselves to want. Seeing them rediscover themselves as they come to terms with their new realities was breathtakingly fascinating. This novel is very family-centric, focusing on what is most important, and how that circle can grow. Once again Meyer has created an intimate novel that held my attention from cover to cover. Each page held a new secret that I couldn’t wait to get to. This is definitely one novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others. Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this work in exchange for an honest review.