Can a feisty four-legged matchmaker help four best friends find the romance of their dreams?
The last thing Mia wants is a relationshipyet the headstrong florist cant keep her hands off her sexy-as-sin ex-boyfriend. Will she open her heart before he leaves town for good?
About the Author
Jackie Braun is the author of more than 30 contemporary romance novels. She is a three-time RITA Award finalist, a four-time National Readers' Choice Award finalist and was nominated for Series Storyteller of the Year by RT Book Club in 2008. She lives in Michigan with her husband, their two sons and a former shelter dog named Pip.
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Mia Andale wasn't quick to smile, but she was grinning broadly as she opened the door to Marney Fields O'Neil, who stood on the cottage's tiny porch with a squirming Jack Russell terrier clutched in her arms.
"Hello, Charlie," Mia said.
"It figures you would greet the dog first."
"You know I'm always happy to see you."
Mia stepped back to allow them both inside. As soon as Marney released the dog, he took off like a shot, bouncing maniacally around the cottage's small living room.
"His only speed is fast," Marney mused wryly, giving her brown hair a toss. Then she handed Mia the large canvas tote bag that had been slung over her shoulder. "Here's his leash, bowl, and some food. I tucked T-R-E-A-T-S in there, too."
"Shh!" Marney clapped a hand over Mia's mouth. "You think he's hyper now? You haven't seen anything yet."
Charlie finished inspecting the room and came back to sit at the women's feet. He gazed up at them, the picture of innocence, and cocked his head to one side. Mia's heart melted.
"Don't let his cuteness fool you," Marney warned on a laugh. "He can be a handful."
"Yes, but if not for him, you and Dell might not have kept getting together, and look where that led."
Marney's smile bloomed in full. "You make an excellent point."
Her friend had just married the sheriff after a whirlwind courtship and record-short engagement and was now leaving on her honeymoon, which was why Mia had volunteered to take over dog-sitting duty. This made the third stop for the infamous Mr. Bonaparte's equally infamous pooch. So far during Mr. B's extended trip overseas, Charlie also had stayed with their friend Gabrielle Wilson. Gabby too had wound up falling in love and was now Gabby Shepherd, wife of handsome software designer T.J. Shepherd.
Marney leaned down and patted Charlie's head. "Bye, boy. Don't let her do anything I wouldn't do." He let out a soft yip, almost as if he understood.
Mia, however, wasn't sure she did. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Be good." Marney pointed a finger at the dog.
"Charlie's going to be on his best behavior for me. Aren't you?" Mia said.
Was it her imagination or did the little dog wink?
"You just keep telling yourself that. Well, I'd love to stay and chat, but I have to run." Marney was halfway out the open front door when she called over her shoulder, "Oh, by the way, Charlie has a checkup with the vet at five-thirty today. Don't be late."
The door closed on Mia's shocked expression. By the time she made it to the porch, Marney was already in her car driving away. Tires actually squealed. Mia scowled. The only veterinarian in Chandler's Cove was Gideon Roth, hence Marney's speedy getaway.
Gideon was a prime specimen of a man with a muscular build, thick sandy hair, rich brown eyes that could undress a woman with a glance, and a mouth that could turn her most wanton fantasies into reality. Mia knew all of this firsthand.
Gideon Roth was her ex-boyfriend.
She'd broken up with him six months earlier. Marney and Gabby, as well as Jenny Travolini — the other woman who formed their close quartet of friends — had been surprised. And no wonder. Gideon was a prize. Not only gorgeous and gainfully employed, but smart, funny, and abundantly decent.
Mia's reason for dumping him? He'd said, "I love you."
Three little words that most women longed to hear. Not Mia. Especially when Gid had gotten down on one knee on Christmas Day and backed them up with a diamond engagement ring large enough to have its own ZIP code.
Panic had bubbled up, burning her like lava. God help her, for one foolish moment, hope had as well — a geyser's worth of it had shot up and then rained down on the old, painful memories. But nothing could wash away the past, which was why Mia had come to her senses.
Why did Gid have to go and ruin a really good thing with a declaration of love and a proposal of marriage?
Mia trusted neither.
She didn't trust people in general. With the exception of her three girlfriends, everyone who ever had mattered in her life had pulled a disappearing act. That included her mom and dad, six sets of foster parents, and even the social worker who'd promised she would find Mia a permanent home. Six placements and a decade later, Mia had finally aged out of the system — eighteen years old and completely alone. Now approaching thirty, she was still largely alone. Only this time, it was her choice.
She closed the door and blew out a breath. At her feet, Charlie whined as if sensing her change in mood.
"It's going to be okay," Mia said, feeling anything but.
Forty minutes later, she pulled her car into the veterinary clinic's parking lot. Charlie was riding shotgun, his hind feet on the passenger seat, front paws positioned on the dash just above the glove box. He yipped twice, as if to draw her gaze to the for sale sign that was rooted in the small patch of lawn that ran between the street and the lot. The dog needn't have bothered. Although the sign was an innocuous white with san serif navy and red lettering, it might as well have been blinking in neon. It had her attention all right.
Gideon was selling? When had that happened? Why? Unfortunately, she thought she knew the answer to at least one of those questions.
Even with the heads-up his receptionist had given him, Gideon felt caught off guard when Mia walked into the examination room with a leashed Charlie in tow. It had been awhile since he'd seen her. He figured she was avoiding him. Given his gut-punched reaction to seeing her now, he decided that was probably a good thing.
She'd always been petite, slim. She looked even thinner now in a plain white T-shirt and a pair of jeans that used to fit far more snuggly over her hips. Fragile. God, she would hate that description, as apt as it might be. According to her friends, since the breakup Mia had been putting in a lot of overtime at the flower shop that he knew she secretly hoped to own one day. He hadn't asked Gabby, Jenny or Marney about her, but they always volunteered information whenever he ran into them in town. Then they would stand around in awkward silence — sort of like how he and Mia were now as they faced one another in the sterile, white-tiled room.
Charlie was the first to "speak." At his sharp bark, Gideon crouched to give the dog's head a pat, scratching behind his ears for good measure. Glancing up at Mia, he nodded a greeting.
"Hello, Gid," she said.
Her voice was as soft and sexy as ever. Those wide-set blue eyes every bit as distrustful as they'd been during his last encounter with her, which meant that chip on her shoulder, the one he'd tried so desperately to dislodge, remained firmly in place.
If only ...
He let the thought ripple away like rings from a stone skipping over water. The time for if onlys was past.
He undid the leash and straightened. "Come on up here, Charlie. Let's have a look at you."
He patted the exam table, but Charlie didn't budge. In fact, the dog plunked down his rear end on the floor and whined pitifully.
"No shots today, pal," Gid promised and patted the table again. This time, Charlie leaped onto it. Gideon turned to Mia. "He's all caught up on his vaccinations, but there is the small matter of ..." He cleared his throat.
Mia raised her brows and leaned in expectantly, bringing the well-remembered scent of lavender with her. Whether it was from the hours she put in at the flower shop or soap, he'd never been sure.
When Gideon made a snipping motion with his fingers, Charlie let out of an indignant woof! and shook his head. Gid couldn't help chuckling. "I swear he knows exactly what I'm saying."
"So, he needs to be F-I-X-E-D?" Mia's tone turned hushed while she spelled. "Marney didn't mention it."
Gideon shrugged. "Probably because it's Bonaparte's call. I've been after him for awhile, ever since he adopted Charlie. In fact, the deed really should have been done before the shelter handed over the dog. That's the standard protocol. But ..."
"Mr. B's not one to follow protocol," Mia inserted wryly. And wasn't that the truth?
No one in town knew much about the mysterious Mr. Bonaparte, other than that he lived in the largest mansion in the area, traveled extensively for business, and was rarely seen in public. Mia thought it odd that he had adopted a high-energy pet since he spent months at a time out of the country. Indeed, he wasn't scheduled to return from his latest trip for awhile. But she could see the terrier's appeal. All of her friends were smitten with the feisty dog.
"Yeah, well given Charlie's penchant for getting out and visiting the ladies, it's irresponsible to, um, leave the family jewels intact. Dogs aren't like us. They don't bother to use protection."
He'd been speaking in general terms when he'd said us, but color flooded Mia's face. She hadn't been shy when it came to sex, so her blush made Gid wonder if she was remembering how good it had been between them. God help him, he was. He cleared his throat.
"If you talk to Bonaparte, you might mention it."
"That's not likely, but sure."
She took a seat on a wheeled stool while Gid finished the checkup. Fifteen minutes later, Charlie was off the table and at the door whining, clearly eager to put the clinic behind him.
Mia stood to go, but Gideon wasn't quite done.
"He's healthy, but I see from his chart that he's gained a few pounds since his last visit." Tapping the clipboard, he added, "You might want to lay off the treats."
At the mention of the T-word, the pooch turned into a canine hurricane, twirling in ever-widening circles as he yipped excitedly. He knocked over the stainless steel trashcan, sent the wheeled stool Mia had been sitting on flying across the room, and was up and over the examining table three times before they were able to corral him.
Gideon lifted the dog and placed him in Mia's arms. One of his hands brushed her breast in the process, the touch so light and brief it shouldn't have mattered. They all went still, even Charlie.
I miss you. He almost said it out loud. He almost leaned in, kissed those full lips of hers that knew how to drive him insane whenever they left his mouth.
"Why?" Mia whispered softly. Her eyes were clouded with confusion. At Gideon's frown, she blinked and he recognized the walls being erected once more. Her tone was no longer quite so reedy when she asked, "Why is there a for sale sign out front?" Irritated, he replied, "Because I'm selling."
She frowned at the obvious and a line of impatience formed between her brows. There had been a time when Gideon would have been quick to smooth it away with the tip of one finger before moving on to the other tense parts of her body. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his white lab coat now and allowed them to curl into fists.
"You're selling the clinic?"
"My house, too."
"Why?" she asked again. Her tone was bewildered now. Hurt? He wanted to think so. Hell, his ego demanded it.
"We talked about this before Christmas," he reminded her. "The job offer out west." No small suburban clinic like this one but a big state-of-the-art facility tied to a prestigious university where he not only would have access to the latest research and advances in veterinary medicine, but be an adjunct professor. He'd been willing to pass it up before. Willing — hell, happy — to stay in Chandler's Cove. But now ...
His tone was hollow when he added, "There's nothing to keep me here, Mia. You made sure of that."
The spray of freesia refused to cooperate. Instead of simply plucking it out, Mia scuttled the entire arrangement and started from scratch. It was the third time she'd done so in the past hour.
"You do realize those flowers are slated for the afternoon delivery," Loretta Faust said from the doorway. At nearly sixty, the owner of the Posy Peddler remained active and healthy, but she no longer wanted to work the long hours the business required. She left those to Mia, who was only too happy to oblige, since she wanted to call the shop her own one day.
And since she no longer had Gid to spend her evenings with.
"I just want it to be perfect."
"It was fine the way it was."
"Yes, but it wasn't perfect," Mia replied.
Loretta sent her gaze skyward. They'd had this argument before. "Just make sure it gets on the truck, okay?"
On the floor at Mia's feet, Charlie snorted softly before settling his head on his front paws.
"Not you, too," she told the dog. "There's nothing wrong with wanting things to be just right."
Half an hour later, she was placing the last sprig of greenery when she heard the floor boards creak.
"All done," she announced with a grin, pleased with her handiwork. When she looked up, however, it wasn't Loretta or the deliveryman who stood in the doorway. It was Gideon.
Her smile faded, and just for a moment she regretted that she wasn't wearing any makeup. She dipped her head, allowing her hair to fall forward, partially obscuring her face from view. From behind the long fringe of the bangs she was growing out, she said, "I wasn't expecting you."
Indeed, after their exchange at the veterinarian clinic the previous week, she figured he would go as far out of his way to avoid seeing her as she had to avoid seeing him.
"Yeah, I got that when you frowned." Charlie was on his feet, his wiry, white tail wagging madly as he trotted over to Gid to have his ears scratched. To the dog he said, "At least someone is happy to see me."
"So, what brings you here?" she asked.
Charlie had flopped down on his back, and Gid was down on one knee, giving the dog's belly a thorough rub. Without looking up, he said, "My mom's birthday is next week."
"What? No big family dinner?" she asked before she could think better of it.
Gid's family made the Waltons look dysfunctional. And even as she'd yearned to be part of such a loving, tight-knit clan, every time Mia had been in their company she'd been all the more aware of her own family's shortcomings.
"Actually, Sue is having everyone over," he replied, referring to his older sister. "But I've got to fly to San Diego to finalize some details at the new facility, so I won't make it. I'm taking Mom out for dinner when I get back, but I wanted to send a bouquet to the house."
The new facility. His dream job. The reminder of what awaited him on the West Coast caused her tone to be sharper than she intended when she said, "You could have ordered flowers over the phone."
"I could have." He did look up now. His tone was full of challenge when he asked, "Do you have a problem seeing me, Mia?"
"No. Why would I have a problem seeing you?" Okay, that came out defensive.
He straightened and stepped closer, leaving only the stainless steel prep table to separate them. Even with flowers perfuming the air, she caught a hint of the aftershave she'd given him for his birthday the previous fall. He was dressed in wrinkled cargo shorts and a faded T-shirt that sported the name of his college alma mater. It was just her bad luck that her mind decided to replay a scene from the previous summer when she'd helped him out of that very shirt.
They'd gotten caught in a downpour, after which they'd stumbled into her house, laughing and drenched. Gid had taken one look at the thin fabric plastered against her body and sobered. He'd traced a circle around one breast, causing its already erect nipple to tighten further through her sports bra. That was all it had taken to have Mia yanking off his sodden tee in desperation. They hadn't made it to the bedroom — or even to the couch half a dozen steps away in her living room. In his urgency, Gid had made love to her against the wall in the tiny foyer.
"I can't get enough of you," he'd told her afterward as the breath sawed from his lungs. "Even when we're old and gray, Mia, I won't have had my fill."
They were words that should have made her happy but instead had left her unnerved. Too many people in her life had made promises they could not keep. In a way, such words often had signaled the beginning of the end.
Mia crossed her arms as she shifted her weight to one hip. She couldn't bear to open herself up to the kind of pain she knew firsthand abandonment caused. It hadn't been wise to become so involved with Gid. She'd let things with him grow too serious and go on for too long. Ultimately, however, she deemed it wiser to reject than to wait around to be rejected.
Excerpted from "Love Unleashed"
Copyright © 2013 Jackie Braun Fridline.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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