Having successfully established themselves as a destination for weddings, the town of Ido is ready to kick it up another notch. Zina Baxter has stood on the sidelines during most of the matrimonial mayhem. But when a disaster at the pit bull rescue has her relocating the pups to share space with a winter wonderland scene, she finds herself smack dab in the middle of planning the craziest wedding yet.
Alex Sanders ran as far and fast as he could from his hometown—all the way to Antarctica. But a job opportunity as the penguin handler for an over-the-top wedding entices him back. Being home means he can finally help his overwhelmed sister wrangle their unruly grandpa—at least until the next opportunity comes around and he can hit the road running again. The last thing he expects to find in Texas is a shot at love…
Once Alex crashes into Zina’s life—literally—there’s no denying their chemistry. But are their feelings for each other enough to keep Alex in Texas for good, or will he follow the march of the penguins back to the South Pole?
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"Why me?" Alex Sanders crossed his arms over his chest as he eyed the older man behind the desk. He hadn't known what to think when he'd been summoned from the cozy lounge to trek across the ice and snow of the South Pole for a meeting with his boss. A lead on a job back on the mainland was the last thing he'd expected.
"I suggested you because of your experience. You worked with penguins at that marine theme park, and your file is full of glowing recommendations from the scientists here." The chair creaked as his boss leaned back. "You mentioned you aren't interested in staying over the winter, so I thought you might be in need of gainful employment. Didn't you say you're from Texas?"
Alex nodded. He'd been working at the remote research station on the coast of Antarctica for the past six months, but with the summer season drawing to a close, he planned on hopping one of the remaining February flights and getting the hell out of there. One summer at the South Pole had been enough for a homegrown Texas boy who hadn't even owned a winter coat before setting foot on the frozen continent. His only hesitation had been not knowing where to go next.
"We've enjoyed having you as part of the team. If you want to take a season off and help my colleague out, we'll hold a spot for you, and you can come back next spring." His boss leaned forward and scribbled something down on a piece of paper. "Here's the number. Give him a call if you're interested, but I'd do it fast. He wants to get this lined up as soon as possible, and if you want to get out of here before they stop running flights, you'll need to make a decision soon."
Alex took the slip of paper, recognizing the Houston area code. "Thanks. I'll think about it."
"Think fast. I'd make the call today." He checked his watch. "You've got about a half hour left of satellite time before you'll have to wait until tomorrow."
Alex shook his boss's hand as he got up to leave. He'd lucked into this gig last year when he met a fellow rock climber in Australia. The guy had taken some time off to travel before heading back to his post at a station in Antarctica. His team was short a research assistant for their study on penguin breeding, and Alex was always up for another adventure, so he'd signed on for a six-month stint. He'd never spent that much time in one place and as the shortened days turned into long periods of darkness, he told himself he'd get out the first chance he got.
The job offer might be his lucky break. But could he really go back to the one place on earth he never wanted to see again? His sister Charlene had been begging him to come home for months. Gramps was having trouble settling into the new assisted living facility she'd found for him, and with four girls at home and a husband who was deployed, she'd reached her wit's end trying to hold it all together.
Alex wished his parents were still around to help out. But the duty had skipped an entire generation when his dad passed, and his mom didn't feel any sense of obligation to the family she'd never wanted to be part of. What the hell. He didn't have anything to lose. May as well make the call and see what might be in it for him.
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled the phone away from his ear and gave it a quick glance. The man on the other end was making such a ridiculous offer that for a moment Alex figured he might be getting pranked.
"I assure you, Mr. Sanders, this is a legitimate proposal. Our needs require someone with a specialized skill set, and my client is willing to pay generously for the assistance."
"Penguins." Alex rolled the word around on his tongue. "In Texas. For a wedding." Yeah, still sounded just as ridiculous as the first time the attorney on the other end of the phone said it out loud.
"My client realizes the unique nature of his request, but we're talking about his only daughter. He's willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she gets the wedding of her dreams."
Alex wondered what it would be like to afford to have his every wish granted. Even something so absolutely asinine as a winter wonderland wedding in southeast Texas. With penguins.
"And all I have to do is take care of the penguins for a couple months?" Alex confirmed.
"You'll be solely in charge of their welfare and training. Mr. Munyon is donating a generous amount to the Houston Marine Life Aquarium. Their current permanent penguin habitat is in need of repair. While the penguins are off display we'll have a subset of the herd-"
"It's a waddle," Alex interrupted.
"A waddle or a colony. Unless they're out on the water. Then a group of penguins is called a raft."
"How interesting. As I was saying, we'll have most of the waddle stay on-site at the aquarium. But we'll separate a few and put them in your care. By the time the wedding is over, they'll all be reunited in the new penguin habitat."
"I see." But Alex didn't see at all. "And where will the penguins I'll be in charge of be living during this time?"
"That's a loose end we need to tie up. Are you interested in the position? Mr. Munyon would like to move on it right away."
"If I take this on, I need to be near Swynton. That's where my family lives."
"That's fine. Mr. Munyon's stipulations require an address within a one-hundred-mile radius of Houston. If you find somewhere acceptable near your hometown where they can have the wedding and house the penguins, it would be a win-win. Can you let me know your answer within the next day or two?"
Alex drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. "Let me think about it. Send over the details and I'll take a look."
"Fantastic. I'll have my assistant e-mail over the particulars. Mr. Munyon is a generous man. If you do a good job, he might be able to offer you something more permanent."
"I'll be in touch." Alex disconnected the call and spun his chair around to look out the window. A blanket of white covered the flat terrain. He'd been working in the cold long enough. If all went well he could give Charlene a hand with Gramps, cash in on the too-good-to-be-true offer he'd just received, then move onto something more lucrative. With a little bit of time left while the satellite was still hooked up for outgoing calls, he punched in his sister's number.
She answered after the first ring. "You'd better not be calling unless you're telling me what time to pick you up from the airport."
"Always good to talk to you too, Sis."
"I'm serious. Did you see my e-mail? Gramps has really done it this time. The nursing home threatened to kick
Alex scoffed. "He's been kicked out of other places at least a half dozen times before. Just deliver a batch of your killer cookies to the office and they'll find a way to forget about it."
"Not this time. I even put in a call to the state director and he said Gramps has taken things too far. He's got one more strike, and then they'll ban him for good."
"What did he do?" Alex had seen a series of e-mails come through from Char last night, but after spending eight hours working outside in subzero temps, all he'd wanted to do was sit in the lounge with a tumbler of whiskey.
"You didn't read my e-mails, did you?" Her frustration trickled through the phone line and wrapped tight around his chest.
"I'm sorry. It was a long day, and-"
"They're all long days for you. And how is that? You've got no one but yourself to worry about down there. Meanwhile I'm trying to manage two jobs, an absent husband, four kids, and a man who refuses to grow up."
Alex raked a hand through his hair. "Isn't there another home nearby? Maybe somewhere we haven't tried yet?"
"Not that I know of. Either he's been kicked out or they've heard about him and won't take him." She groaned. "What are we going to do?"
That was the million-dollar question. Their grandfather had outlived his wife and kids. With no one left to look after him but Alex and his sister, Gramps was wreaking havoc all over the county. It wasn't fair for Char to have to deal with him on her own, not on top of everything else she had going on.
"I'll see what I can do, okay?"
"That's what you always say. I know you'd rather cut off an arm than come home, and I don't blame you, but . . ."
His heart cracked at the pain in her voice.
"I need you."
"I know." He let out a sigh. "I've got a lead on something that might put me in Texas for a while. Give me a day or two to look into it, okay?"
"I'll manage for the next few days. I can't do this on my own though. You're going to have to help. Either we hire a live-in aide and let him go back to the ranch or-"
"I'll figure something out."
"Thanks." Relief vibrated through that one word, fortifying Alex's resolve to figure out a way to pitch in. It was time he stepped up, and the crazy proposition from the richest man in Texas would give him the opportunity he needed. Assuming the numbers looked good, there was
no way he could say no. Not when Char needed him like she did.
His gaze traveled over the blinding white landscape. It would be nice to have a change of scenery. Even if he had promised himself he'd never have to go home again.
Zina Baxter kicked the covers off and let her foot drop to the ground. Her toes squished around in something unmistakably dog related. Something unmistakably foul. She groaned. It had to be dog poop. She thought she'd housebroken the rescue pup she'd brought home from the shelter with her last night, but it looked like they still had a way to go.
Typically the sun would have risen by now but with the slew of thunderstorms that had settled over Ido, Texas, for the past several days, Zina couldn't make out more than a few hazy outlines in the early light of dawn.
"Come on, Herbie. I thought we talked about this."
The pup hopped off the bed, the tags on his collar jangling, and appeared at her side. With a quick swipe of his tongue, all of her anger dissipated. It wasn't his fault he wasn't housebroken yet. She'd been running the For Pitties' Sake pit bull rescue for a few years now. Even the most loving pups came with a ton of baggage. The thunder and lightning during last night's storm probably set him off.
She ran a hand over the back of his head. "It's okay, bud." Then she shifted her weight to her heels and waddled to the bathroom to wipe off her foot. By the time she'd showered, cleaned up Herbie's mess, and driven the short distance to the dog rescue shelter, the sky had lightened a few shades.
Staff would be in later, but she'd taken the morning shift today. That meant it was up to her to get the dogs fed and out for a potty break. Herbie trotted alongside her as she unlocked the front door and let herself in to the crumbling building For Pitties' Sake had called home for the last ten years. A puddle of liquid greeted her.
At first she thought one of the dozens of dogs at the rescue had broken out of its kennel and had an accident. But when she flipped on the light and looked toward the ceiling, she immediately spotted the source of the leak. Her stomach twisted. Several tiles of the drop-down ceiling sagged. A line of rainwater dripped in a constant plop-plop, splatting onto her feet as she stood in shock.
Herbie plunged through the puddle, licking up the water and taking the opportunity to splash around.
"This isn't here to play with." Zina let out a sigh. She'd been working on an idea for a special event to increase awareness about the shelter. Now she'd have to shift all of her energy into raising enough funds to clean up this mess and make repairs. For a moment she wished she'd never taken on this project. Maybe she should have stayed in the military and never come back to Ido.
A chorus of barks and yips sounded from the back of the building. The dogs. That's why she'd taken over. And that's why she'd stayed. As she made her way toward the back where the kennels were set up, her phone rang.
"Good morning, sunshine," her best friend, Lacey, practically sang into the phone.
"What are you so happy about?"
"Gee, who crapped in your cereal this morning?"
"It wasn't my cereal. It was my bedroom floor and I put my foot in it."
"Oh, hon. Which lucky male did you take home with you last night?"
"And that's the way he treated you?"
"Hey, I'm used to getting dumped on by members of the opposite sex. Just look at my last attempt at a relationship." She should have known the last guy she tried dating was cheating on her. All the signs were there, she'd just been too busy to notice.
"We still on for lunch?"
"I've gotta cancel," Zina said. "There's a leak at the shelter, and I've got to get it patched up before the rain starts again."
"Oh no. Are all of the dogs okay?" Lacey asked.
"Yeah, they seem to be. But I've got a few inches of water to sop up."
"My offer still stands, you know."
Zina shook her head. "I'm not going to pimp out my pups so you can bring in more crazy brides." Lacey had been after her to come up with some sort of puppy wedding package. Ever since she'd been elected mayor and revamped the tiny town of Idont, Texas, into Ido, she'd started billing it as the best place in Texas to tie the knot. Over the past year Lacey had come up with all kinds of crackpot ideas.
"Just think about it, you bring over a couple of the dogs to take part in a few weddings and you'll earn enough to get the roof replaced in no time at all."