Head vet at the Forever Friends animal rescue shelter, Gabriel Moretti is known as the Dog Whisperer because of his gift for soothing rambunctious patients. But it's the two-legged species that has him, and his libido, working overtime. Marla Popov single-handedly saved the shelter from financial ruin. But the bossy trust funder is even more irritating than her snooty Standard Poodle. You'd think keeping his attraction on a short leash would be a no-brainer for Gabe. Unfortunately, Marla is also smart, beautiful, and intriguing . . .
Most of her life, people have been eager to tell Marla just what she wants to hear. So now that she's nearing forty, she doesn't expect to be refused-especially by a sexy younger man like Gabe. She also doesn't expect it to sting so much. But when she discovers a scheme involving illegal dog fights, she gets a chance to show what she's truly made of. And as she and Gabe team up to fight it, they discover a surprising respect for each other-and passion that might just grow into love. . .
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Some days just sucked from the start and went downhill from there. Gabe Moretti knew this was one of those days. Tapping his fingers on his steering wheel, he dug deep for the restraint not to blare his horn at the old man at the pump in front of him. The Gas & Stuff had two islands with two gas pumps on each one. Two of those pumps were blocked off by a tanker truck, refueling the station's supply. A dented Ford Fiesta sat at the front pump of the other island, filling up, and behind that car was the old man's Oldsmobile.
The geezer had finished pumping gas a minute ago, but now was washing every window with streak-free accuracy. The man tugged a handkerchief from his back pocket and lovingly buffed the frame of the driver's door.
Gabe dropped his head onto the car's seatback. He had an eleven o'clock appointment with a favorite patient of his and hated to make the girl wait. Most animals instinctively had a fear of veterinarian offices, and Shelley, a sweet-tempered cocker spaniel, was no exception. The less time she had to spend shivering in the waiting room, the better.
Snowflake had been another favorite. Gabe swallowed, the back of his throat thick. By now, his body should have been picked up from the office by the crematory service. It had been Snowflake's time — Gabe knew it — but that never made putting a dog down any easier.
The pump hog bent over at the waist and unscrewed the cap from the valve stem of his front tire. He pulled a small metal check valve from another pocket.
"Oh, come on." Turning his ignition off, Gabe put a hand on his door, prepared to tell the man to move his car to the side for all this bullshit. Gabe didn't care how ancient he was. Rude was just rude, and a person didn't block a spot to check the air in his tires.
The owner of the Oldsmobile replaced the nozzle and climbed behind the wheel of her car. She pulled out, leaving the front pump empty.
Finally. Turning the ignition, Gabe put his Chevelle in reverse, backed up two feet, and shifted into drive. He rolled an inch before slamming on his brakes, barely avoiding the Jaguar XK convertible that flew past him and squealed into the empty spot.
He turned his car back off, gritting his teeth, and threw his door open. He recognized that car. More, he recognized the woman angling her body out of the convertible and strutting to the pump.
His anger faltered for a moment when her long, bare legs came into view. Those legs were the first thing he'd noticed about her when they'd met. She was a tall woman, and her toned and tanned legs seemed to stretch forever. She was wearing some kind of straw-covered platform sandals, adding another couple of inches to her already impressive height, and a pair of red shorts that should have been illegal for the amount of skin they exposed.
Her sense of entitlement had been the second thing he'd noticed, and its appearance now brought his anger flaring back to life. He strode toward her. "What the hell do you think you're doing? There's a line here."
Marla Popov turned, nozzle in her hand and a surprised 'O' rounding her red lips. His stomach tightened. Jesus, everything about her was cherry. Her shorts, her car, her lipstick. Even her toenails were painted that deep, luscious red. The tempting splashes of color made him want to lean in and take a bite. Physically, this woman did it for him. Her selfish attitude, however, was another story. That spoiled his appetite right quick.
She tugged at the silk scarf that was knotted under her chin like she was Jackie O, and it slipped off her head and landed on her shoulders. The golden highlights in her strawberry blond hair caught the morning sun. The strands shimmered from blond to apricot to peach, a silky sunrise. She probably spent more money getting that color than most people did on food in a month.
Shooting him a bright smile, she stuck the gas nozzle into her Jag. "Hi, Gabe. I didn't see you there. I'll be super quick."
"You'll be super gone." He crossed his arms over his chest. "There was a line. That is my spot. Move."
She shook her head, as if he'd said something cute, and a hole burned into his gut. Her black standard poodle, who sat in the passenger seat wearing a matching and equally ridiculous scarf on its head, apparently didn't find Gabe as amusing. She growled and stuck one paw on the creamy leather armrest between the driver's and passenger's seats, looking ready to launch herself at Gabe. For once, the feeling was mutual. There weren't many animals Gabe didn't like, but Marla Popov's sissied-up poodle was one of them. The fur on her body was shaved close, except for little poofs that covered her lower legs, like fluffy leg warmers. A bubble of dark fur peeked out underneath the scarf. The red leather collar she wore dripped with crystal.
It wasn't the dog's fault. She was Marla's, and dogs frequently took on the traits of their owners. As Marla was an annoying prima donna, it was only to be expected that the animal would have personality issues, too.
Gabe still didn't like the poodle.
Cocking a hip against her convertible, Marla crossed one sandaled foot over the other, causing the hem of her shorts to rise an inch on her right leg.
Without his brain's permission, Gabe's gaze flicked down and his throat went dry. He forced his eyes back to hers. That view wasn't any better for his peace of mind. Marla's face was more striking than pretty, with its sharp angles and wide-set eyes that didn't quite match. One was a soft blue, the other a mossy green, and both could look as grey as thunderclouds when she got riled up.
"You've only had one cup of coffee today, haven't you?" Marla bit her lip, fighting her smile. "I can track your moods through your caffeine intake. First thing in the morning, no coffee, I've learned to give you a wide berth. One cup, and you're merely uncommunicative and surly. Anything after that and you become delightfully grumpy. That's why I try not to come by the shelter until after noon."
He'd had half a cup of coffee that morning before rushing to see to his patients. He didn't know whether it was that loss of half a cup of caffeine, the morning's duty of having to put down someone's beloved friend, or the fact that Marla Popov seemed to find his bad temper amusing, but his mood was at the level where she should have steered clear.
"Had I known it was that easy to keep you out of Forever Friends, I would have stopped drinking coffee altogether on the days I work there." He ignored the split-second tightening around her eyes, the way her body flinched. Unlike the privileged princess, he had a job he needed to get to. "Now, for the last damn time, get out of my spot."
The poodle jumped into the tiny backseat of the convertible, stuck her front paws on the trunk, and bared her teeth.
Marla ran a soothing hand down the dog's back. "It's okay, Maddie. He doesn't mean to be rude. It's just how he is."
Rude? She sashayed in, jumping the line and stealing his spot like she was queen of the castle, and he was the jerk? The back of his neck burned, and he dug his fingers into his hips. He had to keep them occupied or else he'd throttle the woman. She had a lot of damn nerve. Ever since she'd donated facility space to Forever Friends, she'd been sticking her nose into every aspect of the dog shelter. From the paint color, to the furniture, to the layout of his exam room, she acted like she called the shots just because she held the checkbook.
He'd mostly managed to avoid Marla outside of the shelter, but the town they both lived in wasn't large. Clarion Township was one of three towns in Crook County, Michigan, and the combined population of the tri-city area didn't top 50,000. He'd caught glimpses of her coming out of the nail salon. Ran into her at the grocery store where she'd tried to convince him to buy a different brand of soup because the sodium content of his was too high. Seen her out to dinner on more than one occasion with some jackass in a three-piece suit.
Gabe had never noticed the woman before he'd met her a couple of months ago, and now she was everywhere he turned. He needed it to end.
Keeping her gaze on her dog, Marla said, "I thought you were supposed to be some great dog whisperer. That even the most bad-tempered animals quieted under your touch." She readjusted the blue scarf on the poodle's head. "But Maddie sure doesn't take to you." Straightening, Marla cocked a hip against her car. She tossed him a smile like it was a consolation prize. "But don't feel too bad. She doesn't like most people."
Probably because the poodle had to deal with her annoying owner twenty- four/seven. That would put any animal in a bad mood. He knew his mood sure tanked when she was around. Gabe checked his watch. Ten minutes until his next appointment. Mr. Ford Fiesta was under his hood, ass wiggling as he checked the oil level, not looking like he planned on leaving anytime soon.
Which left Marla. Gabe cracked his neck. She was a much more appealing target anyway. She was used to flashing her smile, showing her sexy legs, and getting whatever she wanted. Well, that didn't work on Gabe. He flicked another glance at those legs, and an itch gathered between his shoulder blades. Nope, didn't work in the least.
He crossed his arms over his chest and inhaled sharply. "For the last time, mov —"
"Oh, I forgot to tell you. I found a new supplier for those suture kits that you were complaining about." Marla slid her hands into the rear pockets of her shorts. Her shoulders went back and her chest arched up, her breasts straining against the thin fabric of her shirt. Gabe's mind fuzzed around the edges, and he almost missed her next words. "I've ordered a month's supply of the new stock."
He shook his head clear and took a step forward, ignoring the fluff ball's growl. "You did what?"
"I found you a new supplier." She shrugged. "I heard you talking to Brad about —"
"No." His voice came out in a growl that matched her dog's. He took another step. "For the last time, do not stick your nose into my business. Do not order any of my supplies. If you want to paint the shelter purple or open a juice bar for the dogs in the lobby, I don't care." He slashed his hand through the air. "That's Brad's problem. But as the vet for Forever Friends, I will manage my own affairs."
How his friend could put up with this woman was beyond Gabe. Brad had opened Forever Friends a couple years ago and hired Gabe to work at the shelter part time. The rest of the days Gabe spent at his own veterinarian practice. Brad was a good guy, genuinely caring for the well-being of his dogs. And he had the patience of Buddha, smiling politely whenever this harridan came strutting into their new shelter, tripping over himself to thank Marla for donating the new facility after they'd been kicked out of their last space.
Maybe Forever Friends would have closed without Marla Popov donating one of her properties for their use. The shelter had been in some financial trouble before she came poking around. And even on the days when Gabe wanted nothing more than to strangle the woman, he had to admit that the space she'd given them was perfect for a dog shelter. A lot of land for the dogs to run, and a converted mill that could house up to seventy animals in need.
But money always came with strings. Brad and Gabe would have been better off coming up with another solution for saving the shelter. A solution that didn't rely on Marla and her money, putting them in her debt.
Marla rolled her eyes. A sane person would have cringed at his gruff voice. Even taken a wary step back from the six-foot four-inches of pissed off man. Marla leaned forward and patted his chest. "I only ordered a month's supply. If you don't like them, we can look for another source."
Gabe's blood pressure ratcheted up to dangerous levels and he felt a vein throb in his forehead. This woman just didn't get it. "There is no we." How many times did he have to repeat himself? He ran his vet clinic, both at his own office and at the shelter, his own way. She wasn't his employee, wasn't a partner. Hell, she wasn't even a volunteer. She was a bored socialite who interfered with other people's lives instead of making one of her own. "There is no —"
The gas pump clicked, and Marla turned her back on him. "I'm done," she chirruped. She replaced the nozzle and closed her gas lid. "The spot's all yours." And without giving him a backward glance, she slid behind the wheel, tugged her scarf back over her hair, and squealed out of the gas station. When she hit the road, she threw a jaunty wave over her shoulder.
Hands on his hips, Gabe stared after her, taking deep, cleansing breaths through his nose. They didn't calm him down. That woman was like a wool sweater on a hot day, making him itchy and hot. Most people were selfish and annoying. Gabe knew this, and Marla was no exception. But most people were also smart enough to keep their distance once they found themselves on Gabe's bad side. Marla had the sense of an earthworm.
He shifted his jaw from side to side, loosening the tight muscles. She was gone, for now. He could relax. And his spot was finally free. He turned to his car and quickstepped back to avoid the Jeep Grand Cherokee that angled into the space Marla had left.
"Son of a bitch."
A twenty-something man stepped out of the Jeep and gave Gabe a friendly smile, one that Gabe didn't return. He saw the black suit and white collar and bit his tongue. No matter how bad a day he was having, even Gabe had his limits. With a terse nod to the pastor, he joined the old man under the hood of the Ford Fiesta.
Gabe heaved a sigh. He was going to be late but maybe he could minimize the damage. "What else needs looking at?" he asked and started checking fluid levels.CHAPTER 2
"Thirty-five! Ha! You're losing your touch, sweet thang." Ric wrote his score down on the notepad next to him and started flipping over his dominoes.
Maddie raised her head from her spot on the carpet by Marla's feet, saw nothing exciting had happened, and dropped it back down. A woman with a walker stopped by Marla's side and cooed at the poodle. Luckily for Maddie, she couldn't bend down to pet her, and kept on shuffling. Everyone at Golden Acres loved seeing the dog. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn't reciprocated.
Marla's grandfather pushed his tiles back into the center of the table and slid his reading glasses up to his bald crown. "I don't know how many times I've told you not to call my granddaughter sweet thing."
"Thang, not thing." Ric scratched his head with the tip of his pencil, the yellow tip disappearing into his greased-back silver hair. "And you've only told me twice."
Marla flipped over her tiles, fighting her grin. Her deda and his best friend never failed to lift her spirits. They bickered like an old married couple, and it wasn't surprising. Their friendship had lasted longer than most marriages.
Her grandfather sighed and shot her an apologetic smile. "That's because before this morning you called her sweetheart, sweetie pie, and sweetness."
"Don't forget sweet cheeks," Marla threw in, knowing it would drive her deda nuts. She mixed the tiles around, the ceramic clacking.
"Don't remind me of that one." He glared at his friend as he drew new tiles. Her grandfather's long fingers were curled with arthritis, and he carefully set up a long row.
"Oh, lighten up, old man." Ric laid out the double sixes. "Our girl doesn't ... doesn't ..." His face twisted and his eyes screwed shut as he sneezed. "Aaa-shit!" Pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket, he wiped under his nose.
"Bless you." Marla nudged her grandfather's glass out of his arm reach. It had taken a direct hit from that sneeze. "Did you both get your flu shots this year?" She looked around the room at the dozen or so senior citizens reading or playing games and rubbed her chest. The community room of the assisted living facility was tastefully decorated in warm golds and greens, with large windows that looked out onto a small garden. Everything was tidy and well- maintained ... and boring. Her deda said he liked living at Golden Acres, but that didn't stop her from worrying. About his health and about his happiness.
Her granddad's phone buzzed, and it vibrated off the table, landing next to Maddie's tail. Mad jumped to her feet, quivering, and huddled next to Marla's legs.
"It's okay, girl." Stroking Mad's back, Marla swallowed down the helplessness that threatened to overwhelm her whenever her girl took fright. And the rage when she remembered the cause. "It was just Deda's phone." She picked it up and handed it to her grandfather, then urged Mad to lay back down.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forever Found"
Copyright © 2018 Allyson Charles.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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