Zoe James is starting over. She's worked hard to get past the foolish mistakes that landed her in trouble four years ago. Now the young mom is back in Shelby Lake and ready to reconnect with her son. When she bumps into old friend Caleb Sullivan and his two adorable girls, she sees the possibility of a happy future. Caleb has always secretly loved Zoe, but her turbulent past brings up tough memories of his own. As they spend time together training his girls' new puppy, Zoe and Caleb will learn that if they can forgive themselves, they might have a chance at a new lifeand new lovetogether.
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What was Caleb Sullivan doing in Shelby Lake?
Although Zoe hadn't seen Sully in ten yearsnot since the day he graduated from Bartlett University and headed off to the police academyshe would have recognized his smile anywhere.
Zoe pulled her pink Canine Companions baseball cap lower on her forehead and slipped her sunglasses back on her face.
Hopefully he wouldn't recognize her.
It wasn't that she didn't want to see him. She just didn't want him to see what she'd become. She fingered the blue-and-silver butterfly pendant hanging around her neck.
Holding hands with two little girlshis daughters, maybeCaleb approached the Canine Companions booth centered in the middle of the park for Shelby Lake's annual Paws in the Park event.
Leona, her boss and owner of Canine Companions, had chosen the worst possible time to take a break from manning the booth and promoting her business while Zoe tried to stay in the background by overseeing the puppies. She hated being in the public eye, on display for everyone's personal scrutiny.
With the late-August afternoon sunshine at their backs, they stopped in front of Harper, her black-and-white border collie, who was sitting at her feet and watching the park activity. Her brother, Ian, and sister-in-law, Agnes, had given her Harper for her birthday last year.
Caleb glanced at her, then held out his hand and allowed Harper to sniff it before petting the dog's head. The older child did the same, but the younger one clung to his leg.
Zoe studied his dark hair threaded with silver, his hazel eyes and the shadow of a beard that did little to disguise his strong jaw. His navy V-neck T-shirt hugged his chest and displayed muscled biceps. Wearing faded jeans and a pair of running shoes, he bore a slight resemblance to the lanky guy she palled around with in college. The furrows above his brows and etched lines around his eyes and mouth showed this man had experienced life.
The older girl, who appeared to be about five, chattered like a hyperactive chipmunk. Dressed in an ice cream-stained yellow T-shirt, purple tutu and lime-green rain boots, with her blond hair pulled into a ponytail, she skipped over to the makeshift play yard where the puppies jumped and tumbled over one another.
Carrying the younger girl, Sully followed her and then knelt on the ground, a grimace tightening his face as he rubbed his right thigh. He wrapped his other arm around the smaller child wearing a denim skirt and multicolored flowered shirt while they watched the puppies.
The older child pulled on his arm. "Daddy, we need a dog. Avie thinks so, too. Right, Avie?"
"A dog?" He scratched his chin. "They need to be fed and played with and walked, Ella. I won't be able to do it all by myself."
"We could help you. Right, Avie?"
Ava nodded again.
Ella twirled and clapped her hands together. "Yay, Daddy. We can pick out a puppy today. Right, Avie?"
A look Zoe could only describe as fear crossed over the child's face. Her eyes ricocheted off Sully to the puppies. She buried her face in his shoulder.
He ran a finger over her cheek. "Hey, baby girl, maybe the nice lady will let you hold one of the puppies. Want me to go ask?"
She peeked out at the puppies, then at Zoe, but her older sister held no reservations. "Oh, yes, Daddy, please ask her."
Sully laughed, a rich, mellow sound that transported her back in time to a decade ago, when life held fewer complications.
His gaze locked with Zoe's. "Would it be possible for my daughters to hold one of the puppies?"
"Of course." Zoe smiled and stepped through the gate. She scooped up Riley, a caramel-colored, curly-haired cockapoo with a white patch around his left eye, and carried him outside the play yard to where Sully sat with his daughters.
Riley wriggled to be free and licked her cheek with his tongue, knocking her sunglasses at an odd angle. She laughed, trying to keep the wiggling puppy from jumping out of her arms. Her hat fell off her head but caught on her ponytail. She pulled off her hat and sunglasses and dropped them on the grass as she sat cross-legged in front of the girls.
Trying not to let Sully's penetrating stare get to her, Zoe focused on the girls and patted the grass next to her. "Want to sit by me? I'll show you how to hold Riley."
Ava glanced at Caleb. He nodded. "Go ahead, sweetie."
She clung to him for a moment, then crept over to sit next to Zoe.
"Hold your hand like this." Zoe held her hand, palm side down, in a loose fist in front of Riley's nose. He sniffed, then licked the backs of her fingers. "Riley will smell your scent and get to know you."
Ava mimicked Zoe's gesture with her tiny hand. Riley sniffed her fingers, then stroked them with his tongue. She giggled and wiped her hand on her shirt.
Zoe placed the puppy on Ava's lap and positioned her small arms around Riley so she could hold him without hurting herself or the puppy. A smile lit up Ava's face.
Ella plopped down next to her sister and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "You're doing great, Avie. You like him?"
Ava nodded, but remained quiet.
Sully pulled out his phone and snapped a picture of the girls. Then he looked at Zoe. "Is Riley available for adoption?"
"Riley is a recent addition to our shelter." She reached behind her to grab a brochure off the booth and handed it to him. "This talks about our adoption policy, Mr ?"
Of course she knew his name, but since he didn't seem to recognize her, she wasn't going to let on she knew who he was.
"Sorry." He held out a hand. "Sullivan. Caleb Sullivan." His gaze zeroed in on her butterfly necklace. "That necklace I've seen it before." Still holding her hand, his eyes searched her face as if shuffling through his memory bank for some sense of recognition. Then a slow smile spread across his face, revealing even, white teeth. "Zoe. Zoe James. It's been a long time."
Pulling her hand out of his warm, firm grip, she nodded, then focused her attention on the girls. She patted the grass beside her, feeling for her sunglasses and hat.
Did Sully know what she had become? Where she'd been? If he did, he hadn't let on. If he didn't, she was sure he'd want nothing to do with her once he learned about her past.
Apparently their friendship had meant a lot more to her than it had him. After his graduation from Bartlett University, he had packed his dinged Toyota, hugged her goodbye and never looked back. Not a single letter or email.
She'd heard through the grapevine he had married Valerie Fergus, who had graduated with him. What Caleb ever saw in that woman, Zoe would never know. From the moment Caleb started tutoring Zoe in algebra, Valerie had gone out of her way to give Zoe a hard time.
Were they still married?
She glanced at his hand. No ring, but that didn't mean anything. She'd learned long ago not to assume, given her own circumstances.
Sully moved next to her and stretched out his legs, blocking any attempt to stand and run. "How's life been treating you?"
How did she answer his polite attempt at conversation? An ache pulsed in the pit of her stomach. She fingered the butterfly pendant.
Life treated her the way she deserved.
"Fine." The trite words mocked her. She was anything but fine. "You?"
"You know " His words trailed off as he shrugged. He picked up a fallen leaf already turning colors and twirled it between his fingers.
"Are you still in law enforcement?"
"No, at least not the way I was." A vacant look hollowed out his eyes as he stared past her shoulder and rubbed his right thigh. "Took a bullet to the leg that ended my career as a beat cop."
"I'm sorry." And she meant it. Becoming a police officer had meant everything to him. She understood the pain of lost dreams.
He shrugged. "It is what it is."
"What brings you to Shelby Lake? Last I heard, you were living near Pittsburgh."
"I decided we needed a fresh start. Patrick Laughton was an old marine buddy of my dad's, so I called to see if he had any use for a washed-up cop with a bum leg. Turns out the police department had an opening for a school liaison officer. I'll be going to the schools in the district doing programs on the dangers of drugs and alcohol. What about you? Did you end up going to vet school?"
"No. Change of plans." Her gaze shifted to his daughters showering Riley with attention. "Your daughters are darling."
"Thanks. We've had a rough yearfirst my injury, then their mom took off." A flicker of pain shadowed Caleb's eyes. "I heard about Kyle. I'm sorry for your loss."
Words clogged her throat as her heart thundered against her rib cage. "I'm sorry about your wife. What did you hear about Kyle?"
"He was killed by a drunk driver. I should apologize for not coming back for his funeral." He nodded toward the daughter in the tutu. "Ella had just been born, and my wife, Val, had a hard time with postpartum depression. Between work and some family issues, I had my hands full." He scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "I'm sorry. That sounded a bit insensitive."
"No don't be." The knots in her stomach cinched tighter. She rubbed her empty ring finger.
A man and a woman holding hands walked past them. The woman also held a toddler's hand while the man controlled a golden retriever on a leash.
The epitome of family.
She wanted that almost had it once.
Now she had nothing but the pain of regret, broken promises, and fines as a reminder of what her choices had cost her.
Even though she sat in the park surrounded by open spaces, the hills to the right of her seemed to be shifting and closing in. Her breathing quickened as beads of sweat broke out on her forehead.
Sully reached for her arm. "You all right?"
She blinked several times and ran a hand over her mouth. "Yeah, I uh I'm fine. Probably too much sun."
She wasn't fine. She hadn't been fine in a long time. Not since she'd woken up in the hospital that night with a concussion and learned Kyle was dead.
The events of the past four years had destroyed everyone and everything she loved.
She reached up, grabbed her water bottle off the booth's table with shaky hands and uncapped it. As she downed the lukewarm liquid, she closed her eyes and struggled to regain her composure.
Leona wouldn't be thrilled if she freaked out in front of a potential client. And she didn't need to give this town anything more to gossip about.
No, she wouldn't be fine for a very long time if ever again.
But life had offered her a second chance, and she wasn't about to waste it on pity parties.
Now that she'd moved into her family's cabin by the lake, she was determined to get her life back on track. Watching Sully with his daughters created an intense longing in her heart and resurrected her purpose: to regain custody of her own child and prove to her familyand the town that rejected herthat she could change and be the kind of mother her son deserved.
Caleb was going to get kicked out of the neighborhood if that fur ball didn't stop barking.
He threw back the covers, pulled on yesterday's jeans and T-shirt and padded barefoot to the living room. Flicking on the lamp on the table next to the coffee-colored leather couch, he winced at the sudden brightness and shot a one-eyed glance at the clock hanging above the doorway that led into the dining room.
He groaned and stretched out on the Berber carpet in front of the dog crate, which had become his new middle-of-the-night normal since bringing the little guy home a few days ago.
Riley looked at him with large, soulful eyes and whimpered.
"Hey, little man, some of us need to sleep." He pushed his fingers through the metal and scratched the dog's muzzle. Riley licked at Caleb's hand.
What had he been thinking? He didn't have time for a dog. They needed exercise and companionship.
He could handle a walk around the block, but his hiking and running days were over. Besides, he had his hands full caring for the girls. Now he had something else to take care of.
Rubbing the heel of his hand into one eye, he released the latch on the crate. Riley bounded out, searching for freedom.
Caleb scrambled to his feet, biting down on his bottom lip as pain shot to his right hip, and scooped up the pup.
Carrying him to the back door, he switched on the outside light and let Riley down. He scurried across the patio and sniffed the grass for the best spot to do his business.
Caleb dropped onto a white plastic yard chair and waited.
Stars sparkled against the early morning sky with soft light smudging the horizon. A hint of a breeze ruffled his hair and cooled his face. The Turners' house next to his corner lot sat in darkness.
At least Riley's barking hadn't disturbed them.
Having moved to Shelby Lake less than a month ago, he'd bought the one-story ranch with a large fenced backyard on a quiet residential street.
Once things settled down, he'd get to know his neighbors Shawn and Pam Turner. Maybe invite them over for a barbecue. They had a daughter a little older than Ella. Shawn was a fellow cop with the Shelby Lake Police Department, and Pam taught third grade at Ella's new school.
But first he needed to finish unpacking and get the girls' swing set assembled. Maybe they'd even like a swing hanging from the sturdy oak shading the patio. The yard called out for summertime picnics, roasting marshmallows over an open fire and running freely without having to worry about city traffic.
Down the road, once his heart healed from his ex-wife's betrayal and desertion, he'd consider finding someone who wanted those same things, someone who realized he was enough.
Right now, he was just too exhausted to think about sharing his heart again.
But that didn't stop Zoe James's face from flashing through his mind.
If he hadn't been so focused on the girls, he would have recognized her much sooner, especially with that butterfly necklace she never took off.
Once she realized who he was, though, she retreated inside a polite shell. For a few minutes, she laughed easily with his daughters. The sound of her laughter and the joy in her smile were exactly as he remembered.
No one else had those green eyes with glints of gold that wandered into his dreams every now and then. Eyes that touched his soul. Eyes belonging to his college roommate's girlfriend and Caleb's former secret crush.
Seeing her again unleashed a memory of another time, another place a memory he didn't allow his mind to visit because the pain of that time nearly undid him.
She had gotten under his skin from the moment they met at Bartlett University during his junior year, when she had been a freshman needing a tutor in algebra. Despite the hours they shared in the library, she had fallen for his roommate when the twerp serenaded her like in some cheesy romantic movie.
Zoe's engagement to Kyle the same weekend he and Kyle had graduated had nearly ruined him, so he dropped all contact with her on purpose. Marrying Valerie on the rebound hadn't done either of them any favors. Focused on his lawenforcement career and his family, he'd lost touch with his college buddies as well.
That seemed like a lifetime ago, but seeing Zoe again stirred up a lot of memories, particularly the ones he had created with her, such as walking her back to the dorm after tutoring, celebrating her exam success with ice cream, and that night at the go-kart track after Kyle ditched her to go out with someone else behind Zoe's back.
Maybe he'd be able to get to know her all over again. As friends.
Being new in town, he could use a friend.
Riley ran to Caleb, pulling him out of the past, and stared at him with eager eyes. Caleb reached down and lifted him, rubbing his furry head. "Good boy."
They went back into the house. Caleb snapped off the light and locked the door. He reached into a bag of dog treats and tossed one to Riley, who caught it and scurried under the coffee table to devour his snack.