Chapter One

 

“SON OF a goddamn bitch.”

Austin Lloyd was having a hell of a day… to say the least. He glanced around to make sure no customers were there to hear him swear or to see a slippery, soaped-up Jack Russell named Annabelle wriggle her way out of Austin’s hands and shoot off through the small shop toward freedom at superhero speed. Devil’s spawn. Austin loved dogs. Really, he did. Most days he wandered around his pet salon and smiled at how sweet and wonderful his clients’ little fur babies were.

Yeah. It wasn’t most days, okay?

Annabelle yipped happily, pleased with her game, and did a quick lap of Austin’s salon, making sure to stop once or twice and shake wet, dog-smell, soapy water everywhere.

I’ve got you, you little….

Austin should’ve known better. The next time Annabelle stopped to shake, he lunged for her only to be eluded yet again. He could’ve sworn the damn dog was laughing at him. She was way too smart for her own good. He should’ve known she’d run when she cocked one gingery puff of an eyebrow at him as soon as he put her into the washing tub. He’d melted at her cute expression, like a total amateur. She was adorable but devious as hell.

“You all right, Boss?”

Jessica was a saint. A literal, actual saint. Austin could’ve sworn he saw a halo balancing above her perky dark ponytail. Only her sweaty face and the splotches of water and pet shampoo on her sky blue Pawsitively Purrfect Pet Salon uniform polo showed her for what she really was—an employee who’d put in way more than her fair share of time that day. Austin tried to smile. It wasn’t her fault they’d been short a groomer and therefore overbooked all day. Wasn’t his either, but he still had to deal with it. The joys of owning a business—never a dull moment.

“Yeah. Annabelle’s a slippery little shit. She got away from me,” he said ruefully. Annabelle’s ears perked at her name, and she wagged her tail and yipped happily. Of course, she was having fun. Human torture was probably number two on her list of favorite activities—apparently only falling behind digging in the yard in the rain and getting covered in mud hours before her owner’s birthday party.

Jessica gasped. “Swear words in front of the customers?” she teased.

Austin gave her an eye roll and surveyed the near-empty room, occupied only by Jessica and Austin, Annabelle the magnificent, and their other two final grooming clients of the day. One tiny little pug puppy and a condescendingly curious longhaired white cat could stand to hear a curse word or two. They probably wouldn’t even tattle to their owners. In the meantime, he had a lubed-up terrier with an escape fetish to catch.

Annabelle was currently hovering underneath one of the big, deep washing sinks—just like the one she’d managed to Houdini herself out of minutes before. She looked angelic with her sopping wet white fur, smattering of spots, and bright ginger eye patch, but Austin had fallen for the cute face already. He wasn’t making that mistake again.

I’m going to get you, you little sucker.

Austin knew it was a bad idea to lunge, again, for a reluctant dog, especially a feisty terrier—he did know—but he was tired and not thinking to the best of his pet-whisperer abilities. So Austin made a run for it. He dove forward on the black and white checkered vinyl flooring of his shop and reached for Annabelle the terror—er, terrier, who nipped at his hand, slipped easily out of his grasp, and headed, like she had some sort of magical homing device, for the front door and freedom on a busy main street.

No, no, no. That can’t happen.

The door wasn’t open, but it wasn’t heavy either. Austin’s own dog had learned how to push it open ages ago, and Austin knew how smart Jack Russells typically were.

Jessica,” Austin called out. “Grab her!”

Jessica skidded to a stop, blocking the door, and held a powder blue towel in front of her like some sort of matador. The towel dropped onto Annabelle, confusing the dog for one crucial moment, and Jessica leaned over and scooped up a wriggling mass of hyperactivity and sopping wet wiry fur into her arms. Annabelle wriggled some more and then seemed to give up. Only moments later, she gave Jessica’s cheek a placid lick like nothing had happened at all. Jessica made a face.

“I’ve got her. Here.” She handed a still calm Annabelle to Austin. “Let’s try not to let her out of the bath again, okay?”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Easier said than done when the little dog seemed to be planning her next move and biding her time.

She nudged him. “Hey, if it makes you feel better, she’s gotten away from me before too. Annabelle’s a crafty one.”

It did make Austin feel slightly better. At least he hadn’t lost his touch altogether.

“If you can get her finished, I’ll take care of Dexter and Louis here.” Jessica gestured to the other two.

“That would be amazing. Thank you so much for today.”

“Not your fault, Boss.” Jessica gave him a wide smile. He considered paying her double for the day. He decided she’d get a nice bonus at the very least come payday.

 

 

AUSTIN TOOK Annabelle back to his bath area, clipped her in because he’d learned the hard way not to trust her sweet face, and went to work, grateful his client had seemed to lose her lust for the outside world after she’d been captured.

“Good girl,” Austin crooned. “Let’s just get this shampoo and trim over with, and then you can go home with your mom.” Annabelle’s owner had been bringing her dog to his salon since he opened over two years before. Austin didn’t want to lose one of his regulars because he couldn’t manage to keep the dog where she belonged. He leashed Annabelle to a metal pole on the clipping table, which was common practice. He’d never liked doing it—rubbed him the wrong way for some reason—and oddly enough rarely needed to. Dogs seemed to want to behave for him, a useful trait in his business. But it didn’t look good to abandon shop policies in front of his employee.

He worked quickly and efficiently, glad that he hadn’t lost all of his skills. Austin rarely did much grooming himself any longer. He hadn’t in over a year, but he’d had a no-show employee for the second time in as many weeks, and he wasn’t going to leave Jessica out in the main room all by herself while he did paperwork and played catch with Maggie, his sweet-natured adolescent golden retriever. Maggie would never ever try to escape onto Sixth Avenue in the middle of rush-hour traffic, even if she could. At least Austin liked to hope she wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, busywork gave him time to think. And thinking about what to do with a challenging employee was never fun.

I’m probably going to have to fire Russ.

Firing people was the absolute worst part of owning a small business like his. He didn’t have that many employees, so he got to know them well over time. Firing Russ was going to be as painful as firing a friend. Russ was his friend. He was just a friend who didn’t like showing up for work the mornings after he’d gotten blazed with his dumb, overgrown, ex-high school buddies. Austin didn’t appreciate that part of the relationship.

 

 

BY THE time Annabelle was clipped and cleaned and on the way home with her grateful owner, Austin felt like he was going to pass out right on the floor of the shop.

“Long day, huh Boss?” Jessica asked. She’d done her own version of collapsing, right into a padded desk chair where they booked appointments and called clients.

“No kidding.” He didn’t want to badmouth Russ in front of her, friendly relationship or no, but he was seething. He still had a good three hours of paperwork to do before he could go home and eat his dinner and take poor, patient Maggie out for a jog. “Wanna lock up?”

The clock had struck the magical hour of six, so it was time to shut the blinds and lock the front door. The last thing either he or Jessica needed was a final moment walk-in, somebody who was desperate and for some ungodly reason couldn’t wash their cat or dog themselves. Austin supposed he was grateful for those people in general, since they kept him in business and very busy, but they always seemed to materialize at the last minute. Customer service was so important to him that he sometimes got suckered into doing things he didn’t want to do to make people happy. Like staying open later.

“Uh, we can’t lock up yet.” Jessica gestured to the crate where the little pug sat, waiting patiently. The dog looked like an absolute sweetheart with his big dark eyes and squishy nose. He whimpered quietly from his crate but otherwise didn’t move.

Sometimes Austin hated his clients.

He walked over to the crate and opened the gate.

“Hi, little guy.” Austin reached into the crate and lifted the small pug into his arms. “Dexter, is it?” The puppy made a contended grunting noise and settled into Austin’s cuddle. He’d been right. Sweetest dog ever. “You’re just a baby, aren’t you?”

His coat was newly washed and conditioned, but it still had that puppy sheen and was soft, slipping under Austin’s fingers like silk. “Where’s your owner, baby boy?”

“You want me to call?” Jessica asked him.

“Yes, please. The little ones can get so nervous when they’re separated from their humans.”

Austin wouldn’t have gotten into the pet grooming business if he didn’t genuinely love animals—he adored them all. But dogs were his weakness. He’d had one nearly continuously as a kid. It had seemed natural to want to work with them. He mumbled at Dexter and scratched his belly while he waited for Jessica to call.

“The guy’s not answering his phone,” she said less than a minute later.

“You can’t be serious.” Austin was tired, he had a headache from being hungry, and his eye was doing that twitchy thing that usually meant he was about a half second away from getting really pissed off. If there was one thing in the world he couldn’t stand, it was people who were neglectful of their pets. Especially when he was tired, hungry, and desperately wanted to go home.

“No. I’m sorry, I have two numbers for him, and he’s not answering either one.” Jessica sighed and made a worried face. She loved the animals just as much as he did. “They just go straight to voice mail.”

Austin couldn’t keep Jessica waiting. He supposed she might not mind the extra time, but she’d done more than her fair share that day, thanks to Russ and his love for magic brownies.

“Why don’t you take off. I’ll wait with Dex here and then close up shop after his owner gets here.” Austin gave Dexter another comforting scratch on his belly. Dexter, to his credit, didn’t seem to be all that worried. He yawned in Austin’s arms and closed his eyes. Austin nearly melted at the sight. Like most people, he was completely hopeless when it came to puppies.

Jessica gave him a knowing look. “You’re falling for that pug, aren’t you?”

It usually didn’t take long for him to fall in love with most dogs, and he and Jessica both knew it. If Austin had had the money for more property, he and Maggie would have a much bigger family.

“No.” He was, obviously. Jessica only grinned at him. “Can you let Maggie out here before you go?”

Poor Maggie hadn’t had a very fun day. She’d spent most of it napping on her pillow in Austin’s office. She was a good girl, though, and Austin’s periodic visits to take her out back had to be better than her being cooped up in his apartment all day. He vowed again to take her on a long walk—and to the dog park on Sunday when Pawsitively Purrfect was closed.

“Yeah, I’ll let her out.”

 

 

SIX… SIX fifteen… six thirty. Austin’s belly rumbled with protests about missing lunch and a lot of wrangling dogs and cats around. He’d tried the phone numbers on Dexter’s file two more times with no luck. He was about to call it an evening himself, paperwork or no, and just take the little pug home with him for the night—since his owner was obviously a brain-dead bastard for leaving a puppy in his shop for so long—when the door to his shop burst open. A man, dark-haired and gorgeous with neatly pressed khakis and a button-down that didn’t match his damp, red face, came barreling in.

“I’m sorry I’m late.” He gave Austin a charming smile. “It’s been quite the day.”

Austin made a face. “I certainly hope so, because we closed a half an hour ago.”

The guy’s face went from contrite to horrified. “Oh-oh. I thought you were open until seven. I’m so sorry. I got here as fast as I could.”

“You should be.” Austin didn’t know what was wrong with him, other than his own long day and a temper that rarely showed its ugly face other than in the most inappropriate moments. “You should also feel very lucky that I was the last one here instead of one of my employees who wouldn’t know what to do with a puppy whose owner abandoned him.”

“I’m really very sorry that I’m late.”

“Do you know that young dogs need to bond with their owners?” Austin continued. The twitch in his eye had grown to a full-blown hunger-induced rage. “They need to feel secure that someone is going to be there to take care of them. Neglect in early months can lead to all kinds of emotional issues down the line.”

Austin knew nothing of the sort, but it sounded good, right? Mister Model Hair probably spent more time on his pretty outfits and pretty hair and pretty face than he did on his new puppy, who needed love and affection.

“I don’t neglect Dex.” Charming and contrite turned to, well, to a little pissed. Austin decided it was time to shut his big mouth if he didn’t want an awful review online. Evan Partridge, according to Dexter’s file, reached over and scooped up his dog from where he rested sleepily in Austin’s arms. Austin felt a momentary shiver at the contact, which, no. Absolutely not. But then he noticed that Dexter wriggled his tail happily at Evan, the neglectful asshole, and licked his chin. Austin wanted to take Dexter away from him and make sure he was loved. Evan returned Dexter’s nuzzle and scratched his belly before he looked back up at Austin.

“What do I owe you?” His voice was clipped.

Austin rattled off his price for a bath and nail trim. He was tempted to charge a fee for sticking around an extra half hour, but he didn’t want to have to calculate it while Evan Partridge, model-gorgeous but seriously pissed-off pug owner, waited, practically drumming his fingernails on the register.

Evan pulled a wallet from his back pocket, where a small leather leash was also hanging. He dropped a stack of bills far more than the asking price on the counter. “I don’t need any change,” he grumbled. “C’mon boy. Let’s go home. I think we both need some dinner and a treat.”

Evan clipped the leash onto Dexter’s newly refastened collar and placed him gently on the floor. Austin watched as Evan stalked out of the shop with baby Dexter trotting happily behind him on the way home to his dinner. A sinking pit of regret hit Austin in the chest. He’d never been so out of line with a customer—especially one whose dog seemed to adore him.

Shit.

“You’re not the only one who needs dinner and a treat, Evan Partridge,” Austin muttered. Maggie looked up from where she’d been curled peacefully on the floor.

“I bet you’re sick of being cooped up, huh, pretty girl?” Austin said to Maggie. He decided then and there that he’d come in early the next morning to clean up.

He’d had more than enough. Paperwork or not, it was time to go home.

 

EVEN THOUGH the drive was only a few minutes, it seemed like a hundred years before Austin was parked, in his building, and flopped down on the couch with Maggie’s head in his lap. He couldn’t believe how long a day it had been. Overbooked schedule, dog chasing, walk-ins, and Evan Partridge. Austin flinched. What had he been thinking?

He couldn’t afford to piss off customers. None of them. He’d been doing so well lately. After more than a year of barely scraping by with just enough clients to stay open, he’d finally built up a big enough client base that he’d been able to do some work on the shop—put in a new floor, paint everything a happy bright yellow, and get new window blinds and a bigger exterior sign.

Plus, he’d just moved into his new apartment a few months before—same building, much better place. He had two bedrooms now, beautifully restored hardwoods, an antique built-in glass-paneled hutch in the dining area, where he’d keep all his china, of course. If he had any. The kitchen was spacious instead of the width of his refrigerator door, and it actually had a dishwasher, which was a life changer as far as Austin was concerned. Austin liked the taller ceilings and the big airy bedrooms. He also liked that the living room was big enough for all his furniture, and even an extra loveseat. He doubted that one pissed-off customer had the power to take everything away from him, but it wasn’t a mistake he wanted to make ever again.

Austin pushed down the panic—panic that was never very far from the surface in the first few years of owning a business—and scratched Maggie between the ears, which she loved. He was going to be fine. His business wasn’t going under, and it had been months since he’d woken up in the middle of the night sweating, with his heart racing. He was fine. Exhausted but fine.

“You want to go for a walk, Mags?” It was sunny and gorgeous still for another hour or so. Austin hated to miss out on the last of the light, even if he was dead on his feet.

Maggie jumped off the couch and trotted over to the hook near the door where her leash hung.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Austin said. Maggie rarely said no to a walk. He dragged his tired butt off of the couch, walked back to his room to change his work polo and khakis for a T-shirt and a pair of plaid shorts, slipped on his converse, and stuck his phone back in his pocket. He went back out, clipped Maggie’s leash on, and chuckled when she surged forward.

“Patience, girl.”

Austin felt better already. Looked like both of them could use the walk.

 

 

EVAN PARTRIDGE, dog neglector and apparent all-around asshole, flopped down onto his perfectly vacuumed suede couch the first second he could. He dropped his bag full of papers to grade, an insulated lunch box, and a thermos that was hopefully empty onto the floor and closed his eyes.

What a day.

It already annoyed him that his bag and lunch box weren’t put away. It wasn’t like him at all, but he didn’t want to move, even though his stomach was grumbling, begging him for dinner… which was still at the store. Evan hadn’t been grocery shopping all week—also unlike him. He liked to have his fridge stocked with neat piles of perfect organic produce and cooking supplies, organized by color and purpose, of course. He’d just been so busy and tired.

Evan groaned. At the groan, he heard a little scrabbling noise, and then his lap filled with warm, wiggly dog. Dexter wasn’t technically supposed to be up on the sofa, and they both knew it, but Evan wasn’t in the mood to scold him—he needed the comfort of the small, furry body on his lap, and he was still feeling guilty from the dog groomer’s bitchy tirade.

“I don’t neglect you, do I, baby boy?” He scratched at Dex’s head. “You love me, right?”

Evan opened his eyes to find Dexter staring up at him trustingly. His heart melted, like it did every time he looked at his puppy. Peggy, his neighbor, had been right when she’d told him he needed to get a dog for company. He’d protested—busy life, neat house, and all that—but ended up caving when he’d seen Dexter yipping happily with his littermates and running around the breeder’s yard that Evan had visited on impulse. Probably the best, and maybe only, impulsive decision he had made in his life. Well, except for taking his Mercedes out for the day. And look how that had turned out.

“Let’s get you a treat, and then we’re going to go to the store for dinner supplies, okay?”

Dexter’s ears perked up at the word “treat.” He leaped off Evan’s lap and ran for the kitchen, still trailing his leash behind him. Evan chuckled and hauled himself off the couch to unclip Dexter’s leash and get him a treat, maybe two since he’d had to wait at the groomer for so long.

Evan really had felt awful about the whole situation. His whole day, to be honest. He’d dropped his phone that morning and shattered the thing to bits. He’d had to rush out at lunch to drop Dexter off at the groomers. Then his staff meeting had run long, and as the newest member of the University of Puget Sound’s humanities department, he still wasn’t in the position to take off early, even after nearly a whole year of teaching. It had taken him nearly fifteen minutes to extricate himself from after-meeting chit-chat, which he hated, and he’d run out to his car to get his dog and get home for a quiet evening.

Of course his vintage convertible Mercedes had refused to start in the staff lot. Evan wanted to curse the sunny day for making him want to take the old thing out for a spin. So he’d put the top on it, jogged home for his more sensible and far more reliable Explorer, which had chosen that day to become unreliable, and then jogged to the groomers to pick up Dexter. The crown jewel on his long day of absolute shit, of course, was being thoroughly dressed down by the self-righteous dog groomer. The dog groomer. Evan couldn’t believe he’d let himself be told off by a dog groomer.

Evan got online and googled a local towing company, then explained his situation. They promised to send a truck to the location as soon as possible. He only hoped he’d get his Mercedes safely home and back into his garage before Washington showed its true colors and started to pour. He also hoped the sunshine lasted another few days. It looked like he was taking his bike to work until he had time to figure out what was wrong with both of his damn cars.

 

 

EVAN HADN’T been in Washington long, Tacoma to be exact. He hadn’t known much about Washington other than rain, trees, and coffee. But when the job offer came that meant a huge raise and a one-way ticket out of New Mexico and the family drama that two degrees and a position twenty miles away hadn’t given him enough distance from, he’d jumped at the chance. So far he wasn’t sorry he’d taken it.

The winter had been wet and dark, true to form, which kind of sucked to someone used to the sun, but he loved his tiny 1920s bungalow, his neighbors, who’d somehow forced a friendship on him that he hadn’t even known he’d desperately wanted, and the job teaching cultural anthropology that he still barely believed he had.

“Dex, you want some dinner?”

Another good part of his move. Probably the best part. Evan didn’t know what had made him take Peggy seriously and look at the ad for pug puppies a couple of weeks ago, and he had even less of a clue what had prompted him to bring one home, but he’d never been so much in love as he was with a small, squirmy, tawny-colored ball of fur and squish face.

Dexter made an excited whining noise. “You do want dinner. Papa does too.” Evan stood. “At least one of us is going to be happy.” He had to wait until the tow truck came with his Mercedes before he walked his carless butt to the grocery store for some dinner essentials.

Once Evan had Dexter settled with his face completely submerged in his bowl, chomping away happily, he plopped down on the couch to wait.

Neglectful my ass.

 

 

TWO HOURS and one chilly walk to the grocery store later, Evan was just about to dive into his much-awaited dinner when his house line went off.

“Shit.” He set his hot plate carefully on the pristine white tile kitchen counter and sprinted for his living room. He checked the caller ID on the phone. Della. His sister. The move to Washington had stopped every day visits, obviously, but he still got near daily calls on the phone—and then woke up in a nervous sweat in the middle of the night if she happened not to call, because that wasn’t usually a good sign either.

“Hold on, okay?” he said. Evan dropped his phone on the couch and jogged back to the kitchen to put his food into the oven and set it to “warm.” Phone calls with his sister were rarely short.

“Hey, Dells. I’m back. What’s up?”

“Evan?” Della’s voice was shaky. More than usual even. “Are you there? You didn’t answer your cell phone, and I was worried.”

“It’s me, sweetheart. My cell broke earlier, and I haven’t had a chance to get it replaced.” He knew better than to ask her how she was doing. The answer usually wasn’t good. Besides, she’d tell him anyway. “I just had to cover my dinner up.”

“Oh, you’re eating? I should let you go.”

Evan knew she wasn’t going to actually hang up. She never did.

“I’m not having a good night, Ev,” she said.

Evan settled down for a long talk. Della’s bad nights were getting more regular lately. “Tell me what’s going on, babe.” There weren’t many themes, and Evan knew them all—her job, her string of deadbeat boyfriends, their parents, the town. Still, he listened. She didn’t have anyone else, and he already felt bad enough for moving away from her.

“I’m old. No guy’s going to want me anymore,” she grumbled into the phone.

His sister had just turned thirty. Her problems with that age had become a regular theme in their discussions. “Sweetie, you’re not old. And there’s more to life than if some guy wants you.”

“What? I hate my job. I don’t want to go. My apartment’s shitty. I fucking hate this town. There’s nothing here.”

She wasn’t wrong about that last one. But it was a litany Evan was tired of listening to. Except he didn’t know what to do but listen. It wasn’t like he could fly to Podunk, New Mexico, and force her to get therapy. She didn’t like therapy any more than she liked most things, and him standing there wasn’t going to change her mind. It hadn’t for twenty-nine years. Their parents sure as hell weren’t going to help either. They hadn’t seen their dad since they were kids, and their mom spent most of her time glued to a slot machine.

“Why don’t you like your job? I thought you’d gotten a decent lineup of regulars.” In one of her better time periods, Della had made her way through beauty school and gotten a job at a local midlevel salon. It was the best thing she had going for her.

“I’m tired of it.”

“I don’t always want to get up and teach every day either. Sometimes that’s part of having a job.” Well, that sounded preachy. Evan tried really hard not to snap, but his sister wore him out. It wasn’t easy to stay upbeat around her.

“Fuck off, Evan. I’m going out.”

“Del—” He realized he was talking to a dead line. Of course. If he tried to call her back, she wouldn’t answer. He’d been down that road as well. Evan didn’t know what to do to help her. Especially when she refused to listen.

He wished he had someone back home to call. But he didn’t. And even if he had, he didn’t want to talk to any of them anyway.

“Fan-fucking-tastic.”