Dani Capelli has never truly belonged anywhere. And from her earliest days as a foster child in Queens, she would have been lost if it weren’t for her love of animals. Until high school, when she fell hard for the wrong boy, and found herself pregnant—and married—by graduation. Two daughters later, Dani realized her mistake and filed for divorce, and with the help of scholarships and loans—and a lot of macaroni and cheese dinners—she enrolled in vet school. Things were finally looking up…until her ex-husband became her late husband, in the most notorious way possible.
Now Dani and her daughters need an out-of-town pass more than ever. So when the retiring Haven Point veterinarian offers her a chance to settle in the small Idaho town and take over his practice, she jumps at it. But adjusting to the charming mountain community isn’t easy; thirteen-year-old Silver begins acting out while six-year-old Mia is growing too attached to Haven Point and everything in it, especially their next-door-neighbor, Deputy Sheriff Ruben Morales. And Dani can’t blame her. Ruben is everything she’s secretly wanted—and everything she can’t bear to risk loving…and losing.
As the holidays draw near, their shared concern for Dani’s daughters brings them closer together, giving Ruben the chance to show this big-city woman just how magical Christmas in Haven Point can be...and that the promise of a home at last is very real in the most wondrous season of the year…
Don’t miss the latest Haven Point Christmas romance, Coming Home for Christmas, available now!
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"This is totally lame. Why do we have to stay here and wait for you? We can walk home in, like, ten minutes."
Daniela Capelli drew in a deep breath and prayed for patience, something she seemed to be doing with increasing frequency these days when it came to her thirteen-year-old daughter. "It's starting to snow and already almost dark."
Silver rolled her eyes, something she did with increasing frequency these days. "So what? A little snow won't kill us. I would hardly even call that snow. We had way bigger storms than this back in Boston. Remember that big blizzard a few years ago, when school was closed for like a week?"
"I remember," her younger daughter Mia looked up from her coloring book at Dani's desk at the Haven Point Veterinary Clinic. "I stayed home from preschool and I watched Anna and Elsa a thousand times, until you said your eardrums would explode if I played it one more time[CG1]."
Dani could hear a bark from the front office that likely signaled the arrival of her next client and knew she didn't have time to stand here arguing with an obstinate teenager.
"Mia can't walk as fast as you can. You'll end up frustrated with her and you'll both be freezing before you make it home," she pointed out.
"So she can stay here and wait for you while I walk home. I just told Chelsea we could FaceTime about the new dress she bought for the Christmas dance there and she can only do it for another hour before her dad comes to pick her up for his visitation."
"Why can't you FaceTime here? I only have two more patients to see. I'll be done in less than an hour, then we can all go home together. You can hang out in the waiting room with Mia, where the WIFI signal is better."
Silver gave a huge, put-upon sigh but picked up her backpack and stalked out of Dani's office toward the waiting room.
"Can I turn on the TV out there?" Mia asked as she gathered her papers and crayons. "I like the dog shows."
The veterinary clinic showed calming clips of animals on a big flatscreen TV set low to the ground for their clientele.
"After Silver's done with her phone call, okay?"
"She'll take forever," Mia predicted with a gloomy look. "She always does when she's talking to Chelsea."
Dani fought to hide a smile. "Thanks for your patience, sweetie, with her and with me. Finish your math worksheet while you're here, then when we get home, you can watch what you want."
Both the Haven Point elementary and middle schools were within walking distance of the clinic and it had become a habit for Silver to walk to the elementary school and then walk with Mia here to the clinic to spend a few hours until they could all go home together.
Of late, Silver had started to complain that she didn't want to pick her sister up at the elementary school every day, that she would rather they both just took their respective school buses home, where Silver could watch her sister without having to hang out at the boring veterinary clinic.
But then, Silver complained about nearly everything these days.
It was probably a good idea, but Dani wasn't quite ready to pull the trigger on having the girls alone every day after school. Maybe they would try it out after Christmas vacation.
This working professional/single mother gig was hard, she thought as she ushered Mia to the waiting room. Then again, in most ways it was much easier than the veterinary student/single mother gig had been.
When they entered the comfortable waiting room — with its bright colors, pet-friendly benches and big fish tank — Mia faltered for a moment, then sidestepped behind Dani's back.
She saw instantly what had caused her daughter's nervous reaction. Funny. Dani felt the same way. She wanted to hide behind somebody, too.
The receptionist had given her the files with the dogs' names that were coming in for a checkup but hadn't mentioned their human was Ruben Morales. Her gorgeous next-door neighbor.
Dani's palms instantly itched and her stomach felt as she'd accidentally swallowed a flock of butterflies.
"Deputy Morales," she said, then swallowed, hating the slightly breathless note in her voice.
What was it about the man that always made her so freaking nervous?
He was big, yes, at least six feet tall, with wide shoulders, tough muscles and a firm, don't-mess-with-me jaw line.
It wasn't just that. Even without his uniform, the man exuded authority and power, which instantly raised her hackles and left her uneasy, something she found both frustrating and annoying about herself.
No matter how far she had come, how hard she had worked to make a life for her and her girls, she still sometimes felt like the troublesome foster kid from Queens, always on the defensive.
She had done her best to avoid him in the months they had been in Haven Point, but that was next to impossible when they lived so close to each other — and when she was the intern in his father's veterinary practice, with the hope that she might be able to purchase it at the end of the year.
"Hey Doc," he said, flashing her an easy smile she didn't trust for a moment. It never quite reached his dark, long-lashed eyes, at least where she was concerned.
While she might be uncomfortable around Ruben Morales, his dogs were another story.
He held the leashes of both of them, a big, muscular Belgian shepherd and an incongruously paired little chi-poo and she reached down to pet both of them. They sniffed her and wagged happily, the big dog's tail nearly knocking over his small friend[CG2].
That was the thing she loved most about dogs. They were uncomplicated and generous with their affection, for the most part. They never looked at people with that subtle hint of suspicion, as if trying to uncover all their secrets.
"I wasn't expecting you," she admitted.
"Oh? I made an appointment. The boys both need check-ups. Yukon needs his regular hip and eye check and Ollie is due for his shots."
She gave the dogs one more pat before she straightened and faced him, hoping his sharp cop eyes couldn't notice her accelerated pulse.
"Your father is still here every Monday and Friday afternoons. Maybe you should reschedule with him," she suggested. It was a faint hope, but a girl had to try.
"Why would I do that?"
"Maybe because he's your father and knows your dogs?"
"Dad is an excellent veterinarian. Agreed. But he's also semi-retired and wants to be fully retired this time next year. As long as you plan to stick around in Haven Point, we will have to switch vets and start seeing you eventually. I figured we might as well start now."
He was checking her out. Not her her, but her skills as a veterinarian[CG3].
The implication was clear. She had been here three months and it had become obvious during that time in their few interactions that Ruben Morales was extremely protective of his family. He had been polite enough when they had met previously, but always with a certain guardedness, as if he was afraid she planned to take the good name his hardworking father had built up over the years for the Haven Point Veterinary Clinic and drag it through the sludge at the bottom of Lake Haven.
Dani pushed away her instinctive prickly defensiveness, bred out of all those years in foster care when she felt as if she had no one else to count on — compounded by the difficult years after she had Silver and married Tommy and really had no one else in her corner.
She couldn't afford to offend Ruben. She didn't need his protective wariness to turn into full-on suspicion. With a little digging, Ruben could uncover things about her and her past that would ruin everything for her and her girls here.
She forced a professional smile. "It doesn't matter. Let's go back to a room and take a look at these guys. Girls, I'll be done shortly. Silver, keep an eye on your sister."
Her oldest nodded without looking up from her phone and with an inward sigh, Dani led the way to the largest of the exam rooms.
She stood at the door as he entered the room with the two dogs, then joined him inside and closed it behind her.
The large room seemed to shrink unnaturally and she paused inside for a moment, flustered and wishing she could escape. Dani gave herself a mental shake. She was a doctor of veterinary medicine, not a teenage girl. She could handle being in the same room with the one man in Haven Point who left her breathless and unsteady.
All she had to do was focus on the reason he was here in the first place. His dogs.
She knelt to their level. "Hey there, guys. Who wants to go first?" The Malinois — often confused for a German shepherd but smaller and with a shorter coat — wagged his tail again while his smaller counterpoint sniffed around her shoes, probably picking up the scents of all the other dogs she had seen that day.
"Ollie, I guess you're the winner today."
He yipped, his big ears that stuck straight out from his face quivering with excitement.
He was the funniest looking dog, quirky and unique, with wisps of fur in odd places, spindly legs and a narrow Chihuahua face. She found him unbearably cute. With that face, she wouldn't ever be able to say no to him if he were hers.
"Can I give him a treat?" She always tried to ask permission first from her client's humans.
"Only if you want him to be your best friend for life," Ruben said.
Despite her nerves, his deadpan voice sparked a smile, which widened when she gave the little dog one of the treats she always carried in the pocket of her lab coat and he slurped it up in one bite, then sat with a resigned sort of patience during the examination.
She was aware of Ruben watching her as she carefully examined the dog, but Dani did her best not to let his scrutiny fluster her.
She knew what she was doing, she reminded herself. She had worked so hard to be here, sacrificing all her time, energy and resources of the last decade to nothing else but her girls and her studies.
"Everything looks good," she said after checking out the dog and finding nothing unusual. "He seems like a healthy little guy. It says here he's about six or seven. So you haven't had him from birth?"
"No. Only about two years. He was a stray I picked up off the side of the road between here and Shelter Springs when I was on patrol one day. He was in a bad way, half-starved, fur matted. I think he'd been on his own for a while. As small as he is, it's a wonder he wasn't picked off by a coyote or even one of the bigger hawks. He just needed a little TLC."
"You couldn't find his owner?"
"We ran ads and Dad checked with all his contacts at shelters and veterinary clinics from here to Boise, with no luck. I had been fostering him while we looked, and to be honest, I kind of lost my heart to the little guy and by then Yukon adored him so we decided to keep him."
She was such a sucker for animal lovers, especially those who rescued the vulnerable and lost ones.
And, no. She didn't need counseling to point out the parallels to her own life.
Regardless, she couldn't let herself be drawn to Ruben and risk doing something foolish. She had too much to lose here in Haven Point.
"What about Yukon here?" She knelt down to examine the bigger dog. Though he wasn't huge and Ruben could probably lift him easily to the table, she decided it was easier to kneel to his level. In her experience, sometimes bigger dogs didn't like to be lifted and she wasn't sure if the beautiful Malinois fell into that category.
Ruben shrugged as he scooped Ollie onto his lap to keep the little chi-poo from swooping in and stealing the treat she held out for the bigger dog. "You could say he was a rescue too."
"He was a K-9 officer down in Mountain Home. After his handler was killed in the line of duty, I guess he kind of went into a canine version of depression and wouldn't work with anyone else. I know that probably sounds crazy."
She scratched the dog's ears, touched by the bond that could build between handler and dog. "Not at all," she said briskly. "I've seen many dogs go to decline their owner dies. It's not uncommon."
"For a year or so, they tried to match him up with other officers, but things never quite gelled, for one reason or another, then his eyes started going. His previous handler who died was a good buddy of mine from the Academy and I couldn't let him go just anywhere."
"Retired police dogs don't always do well in civilian life. They can be aggressive with other dogs and sometimes people. Have you any problems with that?"
"Not with Yukon. He's friendly. Aren't you, buddy? You're a good boy."
Dani could swear the dog grinned at his owner, his tongue lolling out.
Yukon was patient while she looked him over, especially as she maintained a steady supply of treats.
When she finished, she gave the dog a pat and stood. "Can I take a look at Ollie's ears one more time?"
"Sure. Help yourself."
He held the dog out and she reached for Ollie. As she did, the dog wriggled a little and Dani's hands ended up brushing Ruben's chest. She froze at the accidental contact, a shiver rippling down her spine. She pinned her reaction on the undeniable fact that it had been entirely too long since she had touched a man, even accidentally.
She had to cut out this fascination or whatever it was immediately. Clean-cut, muscular cops were not her type, and the sooner she remembered that the better.
She focused on checking the ears of the little dog, gave him one more scratch and handed him back to Ruben. "That should do it. A clean bill of health. They seem to be two happy, well-adjusted dogs. You obviously take good care of them."
He patted both dogs with an affectionate smile that did nothing to ease her nerves.
"My dad taught me well. I spent most of my youth helping out here at the clinic — cleaning cages, brushing coats, walking the occasional overnight boarder. Whatever grunt work he needed. He made all of us help."
"I can think of worse ways to earn a dime," she said. The chance to work with animals would have been a dream opportunity for her, back when she had few bright spots in her world. Besides that, she considered his father was one of the sweetest people she had ever met.
"So can I. I always loved animals."
She had to wonder why he didn't follow in his father's footsteps and become a vet. None of his three siblings had made that choice either. If any of them had, she probably wouldn't be here right now, as Frank Morales probably would have handed down his thriving practice to his own progeny.
Not that it was any of her business. Ruben certainly could follow any career path he wanted — as long as that path took him far away from her. "Give me a moment to grab those medications and I'll be right back."
Out in the hall, she closed the door behind her and drew in a deep breath.
Get a grip, she chided herself. He's just a hot-looking dude. Heaven knows, you've had more than enough experience with those to last a lifetime.
She went to the well-stocked medication dispensary, found what she needed, and returned to the exam room.
Outside the door, she paused for only a moment to gather her composure before pushing it open. "Here are the pills for Ollie's nerves and a refill for Yukon's eyedrops," she said briskly. "Let me know if you have any questions — though if you do, you can certainly ask your father."
"Thanks." As he took them from her, his hands brushed hers again and sent a little spark of awareness shivering through her.
Oh come on. This was ridiculous.
She was probably imagining the way his gaze sharpened, as if he had felt something odd too.
"I can show you out. We're shorthanded today since the veterinary tech and the receptionist both needed to leave early for a Christmas concert at the school."
"No problem. That's what I get for scheduling the last appointment of the day — though, again, I spent most of my youth here. I think we can find our way."
"It's fine. I'll show you out." She stood outside the door while he gathered the dog's leashes, then led the way toward the front office.
* * *
After three months, Ruben still couldn't get a bead on Dr. Daniela Capelli.
His next-door neighbor still seemed a complete enigma to him. By all reports from his father, she was a dedicated, earnest new veterinarian with a knack for solving difficult medical mysteries and a willingness to work hard. She seemed like a dedicated and loving mother, at least from the few times he had seen her interactions with her two girls, the uniquely named teenager Silver — who had, paradoxically, purple hair — and the sweet-as-Christmas-toffee Mia, who was probably about six.
Excerpted from "Season of Wonder"
Copyright © 2018 RaeAnne Thayne.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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