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The dog was going to be a problem.
Carolyn Hanson stared at the dog. He stared back, tail swishing against the white tile floor in a fast semicircle. Hopeful, friendly, determined. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
“We gotta take him, Aunt Carolyn.” Her niece Emma put a protective hand on the dog’s collar. “Roscoe is my puppy and I love him.”
Puppy was being used loosely, considering the dog weighed at least fifty pounds and stood three feet off the ground. He was some kind of mutt mix, with a square boxer face and big ears: one that flopped to the right, one that stood straight up. He seemed like a nice enough dog, so far not much of a barker or jumper, but Carolyn was most definitely not a dog person.
She wasn’t a kid person, either, but that hadn’t stopped her sister from naming her as Emma’s guardian when a car accident took both Sandy and her husband Bob in one fell swoop.
Sandy. The thought of her late sister shot a hot river of searing grief through Carolyn’s chest. Almost a month ago, a drunk driver had crossed the median, slamming headfirst into Sandy and Bob’s car. They’d been out on a rare date, something Sandy had been looking forward to all week. And just like that, they were gone, and their only child, a precocious four-year-old named Emma who Carolyn had only met a handful of times, was now…
For a woman who regularly worked eighty hours a week as a sous chef at a busy restaurant in Manhattan, raising a kid and a “puppy” was going to be impossible. She lived in a tiny cramped apartment of a five-story walk-up in the meat-packing district. So she had asked her boss for a two-week leave of absence so she could pick up Emma and go back home to Montana and figure out a plan.
Plans gave her comfort, direction, structure. She knew what time she was going to get up, what time she’d get to work, which day she would do laundry, which day she’d grocery shop—everything was listed in little bullets on the running list on her refrigerator at home.
What she hadn’t planned for was a four-year-old and a dog. Why had her sister thought Carolyn would make a good guardian? She worked into the wee hours of the mornings, lived as sparsely as possible, hadn’t had a real relationship in two years, and had always vowed she’d never get married or have kids. If there was a list of the top 100 people who should be Emma’s guardian, Carolyn would be number 101.
After the accident, Bob’s parents—who lived just two towns away—had taken Emma and the dog. Then the lawyer had called Carolyn and told her she had been named guardian. Bob’s parents were in their late seventies and overwhelmed by the addition of a small child and a dog to their home, and as sad as they were to see Emma go, Carolyn could almost feel their relief. That left Carolyn in charge, the least motherly person in her family.
The dog’s tail swooped across the floor, back and forth. Sandy’s house was much like Sandy herself had been—comfortably messy and warm. Toys littered the floor, photos perched on every available surface, and the air smelled of cinnamon and sugar.
Sandy had loved being a mom, loved everything about the experience. She read the books at night, went to the Mommy & Me classes, did the long days at the playground and the afternoons under tents made out of sheets and couch cushions. Every conversation Carolyn had with her sister had been about Emma, as if everything else in Sandy’s life disappeared the minute she gave birth. It was a concept so foreign to Carolyn, it might as well have been another language.
So now she stood in the sunny yellow kitchen of Sandy’s house, missing her sister with an ache that ran deep and sharp, and wondered what the hell she was going to do.
“I love my puppy,” Emma said and wrapped her arms around Roscoe’s neck. “Please, Aunt Carolyn?”
It was the please that got her in the end. Emma had lost her family and was now having to leave the only home she’d ever known. Carolyn looked down at the little blond girl, bouncy ringlets surrounding a cherubic face and big blue eyes. Ever since Sandy had died, Emma had taken to carrying around one of Sandy’s sweaters. She held it now, clutched between her and the dog, the red knit standing out like a beacon. Emma’s eyes welled and her lower lip trembled.
Carolyn thought of the suitcases in the hall, all of Emma’s life reduced to two wheeled bags. Once Carolyn had figured out a permanent solution, she’d come back and deal with the house and the furniture, but for now, all Emma had was two suitcases, a thick sweater, and Roscoe. How could Carolyn possibly ask her to leave her dog behind, too?
How bad could it be, right? Besides, she’d be at her parents’ house in Marietta. Surely they could help with Emma and with the dog. Do whatever it was that a dog needed. She was going to have to figure out how to get a dog from Wyoming to Montana, along with her niece and all the luggage in the same car, but surely it was doable.
She bent down to Emma’s level, but stayed a little to the right of the dog. He looked like he wanted to lick Carolyn’s face or crawl into her lap. “Okay, Emma, we’ll take him with us.”
Emma’s smile spread wide and fast. She jumped forward, wrapping Carolyn in a tight hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“You’re…” Carolyn drew back a bit, awkward with this whole kid thing, a kid she barely knew, a kid who hugged everything from the dog to the sofa, “…welcome.”
“And then when Mommy comes home, I can tell her all about Roscoe going to Grandma’s house,” Emma said.
“Your mom…” Carolyn struggled to find the words. Hadn’t Bob’s parents had this talk with Emma already? How could Emma still not know, all this time later? Were they just waiting for Carolyn to have this talk? Carolyn, the last person on earth who knew how to comfort a grieving child? “Your mom…isn’t coming home, Emma.”
“Yes, she is.” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “Stop saying she’s not.”
Carolyn had talked to a friend who was a psychologist last week, when she’d found out about Emma. Carolyn had never had to deal with a kid, and needed advice on how to handle the whole transition thing. She’ll accept the truth when she’s ready, the psychologist had said. Don’t push it.
“We need to finish packing for your trip to Grandma Marilyn’s,” Carolyn said. Maybe if she distracted Emma with something to do, it would erase that sad but defiant look in her eyes. Carolyn only had a couple hours before they needed to get on the road—which meant Carolyn needed to find a way to transport that puppy to Montana.
More and more, it looked like the most likely option was putting Roscoe in the back of her SUV and driving him. Carolyn could only picture her seats shredded and gnawed. Was there some kind of state-to-state dog delivery service? “So, what do you want to take for food in the car?”
“Uh, we can’t take that in the car. It’s pretty messy.”
“Spaghetti is my favorite. Roscoe likes it too.”
Carolyn let out a breath. “How about we have something else? Like a sandwich. Do you want a sandwich?”
“Mommy makes me san-wiches,” Emma said. “I want Mommy’s san-wich.”
“She…she can’t do that right now,” Carolyn said. “Just tell me what your mommy puts in the sandwich and I’ll make the same thing.”
Emma shook her head. “I want Mommy to do it.” Then her cheeks reddened, tears filled her eyes and ran down her face in fast rivers. “I don’t want you to do it. I want Mommy to.”
Carolyn stood there, feeling helpless, wishing Emma’s grandparents were here or Sandy was here, or anyone at all, to help explain the situation to Emma. She got down to Emma’s level again. Change the subject, reroute Emma back to something else. “We’re going to Grandma Marilyn’s house today. Isn’t that going to be fun?”
Emma’s lower lip trembled. She held Carolyn’s gaze for one long second, then glanced at the floor. She clutched the sweater close to her chest. “I don’t wanna go. I wanna stay here.”
Carolyn sighed. She had no idea how to make this better, how to help Emma. Except to take her to Montana where hopefully Carolyn’s parents could handle her better than Carolyn could. She kept her eye on that destination. “We can’t do that, Emma. But we’re going to take your dog, and we’re going to see Grandma, and it’s going to be fun. I promise.”
Although Carolyn had no idea what made for fun with a four-year-old, or how all these changes in the little girl’s life could possibly be labeled as fun. It just sounded like the right thing to say.
“I don’t wanna go!” Emma turned on her heel and ran out of the room. A second later, there was the slam of a door.
Or maybe “it’s going to be fun” was the absolutely wrong thing to say. Carolyn sighed.
Just when she thought she’d escape unscathed, the dog leaned over and licked Carolyn’s face, leaving a trail of slobber from her chin to her temple. It was going to be one long trip to Montana.
Matthew West had seen three pregnant cats before lunch. Was there some kind of pregnant cat epidemic in Marietta that he had missed? Or more likely, Mrs. George’s randy tomcat had had one hell of a night on the town a few months ago. The frisky orange tiger was known for being a busy bachelor cat. Matt cradled the gray tabby in his arms, then headed out to his front office. He’d set up his veterinary practice in Marietta six years ago, after going away for college, an experience that confirmed there was nowhere else in the world he’d rather be than this quaint, warm town. His office faced the Java Café, the two of them on opposite sides of 3rd Street, which meant he always had the scent of fresh coffee and baked muffins wafting in through the windows. Between him and Emory Bishop, the large-animal vet, creatures great and small were covered in Marietta.
“And who belongs to this little girl?” he said, giving the tabby a tender rub on the head.
Brooklyn Murphy popped to her feet. She was eight years old, dressed head to toe in pink, her long brown hair held in place by a sparkly pink headband. Her mother, Meg, sat beside her on the orange vinyl chair. “Me!” Brooklyn said. “That’s my cat Milly.”
“Well,” Matt said, bending down to Brooklyn’s level, “Miss Milly here isn’t sick. She’s actually going to…” he glanced up at Meg, “…be a mom.”
Brooklyn’s eyes widened. “She’s gonna have kittens?”
Meg gasped. “Wait, she’s pregnant?”
“Yup. And in about four weeks, you’re going to have a few little ones. I counted four, but sometimes there’s one hiding back there.” He always loved this moment, the adventure and excitement of a new life. It made up for all the days when he had to deliver sad news to a pet lover, and the stressful days when it seemed he had more patients than time.
“Kittens.” Meg sighed. Matt could see her already calculating the extra chaos a bunch of kittens would bring to her house. Meg was already involved in an animal rescue program that had placed a lot of strays in town with good families. This particular stray, Milly, had stolen Brooklyn’s heart and become part of the family.
“I can take care of them,” Brooklyn said. “I’ll love them and feed them.”
“Their mom is going to do a lot of that, Brooklyn,” Matt said. “When they’re big enough, you can bring them here and your mom and I can find them some great homes.”
Brooklyn pouted. “But I don’t wanna give them away.”
“Whoever adopts one of these kittens—when they’re old enough—is going to love them as much as you do and treat them extra special. Do you remember how happy people are when they adopt from your rescue program? That’s how they’re going to feel about these kittens. Plus, I bet you’re going to be able to visit them and play with them whenever you want,” Matt said. That was the good thing about a small town. People here all knew each other, and treated each other like family.
Relief filled Meg’s features. “Sounds like a plan. Thanks, Dr. West.”
“Anytime.” He handed the cat to Brooklyn, and gave the tabby one more pat. “Take good care of her and make sure she gets plenty of rest.”
“I will! I promise!” They crossed to the counter, paid the bill, then headed out the door, Brooklyn chatting the whole way about the new kittens and what she wanted to name them. Matt chuckled. Yup, it was a good day in the office.
Matt crossed to the small window beside the receptionist’s desk. “What’s next, Sheryl?”
“Just one more for the day, and then we’re done.” She handed him a chart. Brunette and stout, Sheryl was organized, efficient and friendly, and a total pushover for anything with four paws. She’d been his receptionist since day one, and he couldn’t imagine running his office without her. “Oh, and Jane McCullough dropped this off this morning. Don’t forget the Bake-Off is next weekend.”
Matt groaned. He had forgotten about that, even though he’d signed up as one of the sponsors, and then gotten talked into signing up as one of the bachelors who had to bake on stage. A marketing ploy, Jane had assured him, to get more attention from the media and a friendly amount of bidding from the single women in town. All for a good cause, too—to benefit the drive to fund something to memorialize Harry Monroe, who’d died back in September.
Matt had known first responder Harry Monroe pretty well. The twenty-seven-year-old had been killed on Highway 89 a few months ago, after he’d stopped to help an elderly couple change a flat tire. His family, who owned the grocery store in town, were well respected, but also grieving over the loss of their son, as was the rest of the town.
The Chamber of Commerce had the idea of turning an empty house in town into a community center for kids and teens—a cause dear to Harry’s heart—and they’d come up with the Bachelor Bake-Off as a way to raise money to renovate the house. There was a time crunch, too, since an investment company was looking at buying the property. Pretty much everyone in Crawford County wanted to see Harry memorialized with a boys’ and girls’ center, hence the Bake-Off, part of a series of fundraisers.
Matt hadn’t hesitated when Jane, who worked for the Chamber of Commerce, proposed the idea. In 1914, the town had done something similar to draw attention to the reopening of the Graff Hotel. The Bake-Off was part of what Matt loved about Marietta—how the town worked like a big hug—and what had made him insanely agree to participate in a bachelor bake-off fundraiser.
Problem? He couldn’t bake. The last time he’d bought one of those ready-made tubes of cookie dough, he’d ended up with an oozing burnt glob on the bottom of his stove. Six months later, and he could still catch the scent of burned chocolate chips whenever he opened the oven to warm up a pizza.
“So, what are you going to bake?” Sheryl asked.
“Cookies from the supermarket.” He grinned. “Think I can get away with that?”
“Uh, considering it’s a live, on a stage baking contest…no.” Sheryl shook her head and smirked. “All I can say is good luck and I’m going to be in the front row, watching you crash and burn. Because I’m a good friend like that.”
“Gee, thanks. Remind me to dock your pay next week.”
Sheryl laughed. “Go ahead. Maybe you can put it toward a lucky charm for the Bake-Off.”
“I don’t need luck. I have skills.” He grinned again, then turned his attention to the chart. One more patient and his day was done. He flipped through the sheets, a quick scan of the facts about his patient, a dog—mutt, fifty pounds, with a complaint of him acting out and not eating. Matt came around the corner and entered the waiting room. “Roscoe?”
A blonde in the corner looked up from the magazine she was reading, and when her green eyes connected with his, his heart did a familiar skip-beat. He knew those eyes. Knew that blonde. Even in a thick winter coat, he could recognize her from ten miles away. Holy hell. What was she doing back in town? “Carolyn?”
The dog popped up, as did a little girl, maybe four years old, with blond ringlets and big green eyes. Carolyn’s daughter? Was she married?
And why did that thought disappoint him? He hadn’t seen her in ten years, since senior year of high school, since the day she left him in her rearview mirror. I want more than this small-town life, she’d said. I want more than…
Us. That was the word she had left unsaid. The word that had stung.
He cleared his throat. Went for cool, casual, you-didn’t-break-my-heart. “Hey, Carolyn.”
She gave him a little nod. Also going for cool and casual, but more in the we-hardly-knew-each-other way. “Hey, Matt.”
From the exchange, no one would know that he had once been wildly in love with her. That his entire world had centered around her, and her smile. And how the day of graduation, their paths had diverged and he had realized he had never really known the girl he had loved. Ancient history. Which was where his thoughts about her should stay.
The dog—a boxer mix with a friendly tail, lunged as far forward as the leash would allow, nosing into Matt’s pant leg. Carolyn let out an oomph, and stood, trying to rein the dog back in, but he was stronger than her and she skidded several steps forward, while the dog plowed into Matt’s legs.
“Sorry.” Carolyn let out a gust. “That dog is…disobedient. And stubborn.”
Matt grinned. “Sometimes the dog takes his cue from the owner.”
“I’m not his owner. Well, I am, but…” She let out another gust and brushed her bangs back. “It’s complicated.”
Complicated. What did that mean and why was he spending any mental energy trying to figure that out? Ancient history, he reminded himself again.
Matt bent down and gave the dog an ear rub. The dog’s tail went into happy frenzy mode, and he gave Matt’s hand a lick. “Hey there, buddy. What’s the problem?”
Much easier to deal with the dog than whatever history still existed between him and Carolyn.
The little girl stood next to her dog, a protective hand on his collar. “Roscoe’s sick. He doesn’t want to eat. I think he has a tummy-ache.”
“And he’s about as obedient as a two-year-old,” Carolyn muttered. She was still trying to wrangle the dog, but Roscoe pulled away, twining his leash around Matt’s legs.
Matt glanced at the little girl. Worry filled her face and furrowed her brow. “I’m sure Roscoe’s just fine, but I’m gonna take a look at him and make sure. Okay?”
“Uh-huh,” the little girl said. “My name is Emma and I’m four.”
Matt chuckled. He put out his hand. “I’m Dr. West, but you can call me Dr. Matt. Nice to meet you, Emma.” She gave him a serious little handshake. Cute kid.
He was still shocked Carolyn had a child. Matt had always wanted kids. Wendy, his ex-wife, had talked about having them, too, then a year into their marriage she’d changed her mind. The divorce was two years in the past, and although Matt was relieved the marriage had ended, he still wished he’d become a father.
Given how polite and well-mannered Emma was, Carolyn must be a good mother. He’d always thought she was more driven by her career than by family, and that she had been clear she never wanted to settle down and have kids. Maybe he hadn’t known her as well as he thought. Or maybe she just hadn’t wanted to settle down with him.
“All right, Roscoe, let’s get started.” Matt stepped deftly out of the leash loop, then opened the door that led to the exam rooms and ushered Carolyn, the dog, and Carolyn’s daughter into the hall. “Exam Room One, the first door on your right.”
Roscoe led the way, dragging Carolyn behind him. When the dog found the rear second exit of the exam room blocked by a closed door, he stood in the center of the small exam space, panting and wagging his tail. Carolyn put a hand on Emma’s shoulder and steered her into a seat. “Emma, you need to sit down and be quiet, okay? So the doctor can look at that dog.”
“But…but…I got questions. About Roscoe.”
“Questions are great, Emma,” Matt said. “They help you learn.”
“My mommy says I’m smart.” Emma beamed.
“Emma, please sit down,” Carolyn said. “Let the doctor do his job.”
Strange. He’d expected Carolyn to brag about Emma or agree that she was smart.
“Okay.” Emma sank onto the bench, and propped her chin up on her hands. Carolyn took off her winter coat, and set it on the bench beside Emma. Matt did his best not to check Carolyn out.
“All right, Emma. Let’s see how Roscoe is doing.” Matt bent down, and hoisted the dog up and onto the stainless steel table. As he did, he couldn’t help but notice Carolyn’s legs: long and lean, defined by a pair of blue jeans that still hugged all the right places. She had on short black leather boots with a little bit of a heel. Hot and sexy. Damn.
The dog scrambled a bit against the cool, slippery surface, but Matt ran a hand down his neck and whispered a few soothing words. “It’s okay, buddy, just chill.” Roscoe quieted into complacency, not entirely happy about the foreign surface below his paws, but not fighting it anymore either.
“How do you do that?” Carolyn said. “I haven’t been able to get that dog to sit still for a week.”
“You just gotta know how to handle him. How to send out the vibes that it’s okay to relax, and that you’re the boss.”
Carolyn scoffed. “Easier said than done, apparently, because he doesn’t listen to me. At all.”
Matt swung his stethoscope around and pressed it to the dog’s heart. Nice, strong heartbeat. He palpated the dog’s belly, checked his teeth and eyes. All good. As much as he wanted to ask Carolyn why she was back in town, he kept on focusing on the dog. Then he wouldn’t notice Carolyn’s deep green eyes, or the graceful curve of her neck, or the fact that his own heart was racing a bit right now.
“Whatcha doing?” Emma asked, getting to her feet.
Carolyn waved at the little girl. “Emma, sit down; you don’t want to get in the doctor’s way.”
“She’s okay. I’m checking his belly, Emma. And listening to his heart. Here, you want to try it?” He waved her over, and put the stethoscope into her ears, then pressed the other end to the dog’s chest. “Hear that? It’s Roscoe’s heartbeat.”
Emma’s eyes widened. Matt always loved seeing that little moment of discovery and joy when he got kids involved with his work. “It’s really fast,” Emma said.
“Yup. And that’s good. Dogs’ hearts beat about twice as fast as ours do. Wanna see?”
Emma nodded. Matt bent down and pressed the stethoscope to Emma’s chest. “Do you hear your heart?”
Emma nodded. “Roscoe’s is faster!”
“Pretty cool, huh?” He straightened again, then turned to Carolyn, keeping his demeanor the same as he would with any other owner. “Tell me what’s making him get sick.”
“I don’t know.” Carolyn shrugged. “I bought him dog food and all he does is throw it up.”
“Did you buy the same kind he always ate?”
“I don’t know what kind he always ate.” She shrugged again. “I forgot to bring it with me, and there was no way I was driving back to Wyoming when there was Alpo at the store.”
He kept on looking at the dog, because every time his gaze went to Carolyn, his heart did that same skip-beat. She had let her hair grow longer, and it curled around her shoulders. She still had the same elegant features he remembered. He knew if she put her hair up, that he would be able to see the long lines of her neck, the curve of her shoulders. When they’d been together, his favorite place to kiss her was in that small divot at the base of her neck. Just thinking about that sent his mind down some southern paths.
Matt cleared his throat. Focus on the dog, not on her, or why she was back in town. “Uh, sometimes a big change in food will cause a dog to get sick. The best thing you can do is mix the new food in gradually with his old food. You don’t remember the brand he ate?”
“He’s not even my dog. And I can’t ask his owners.”
“I’m sure you could text them or—”
“I can’t.” Tears welled in her eyes but she steeled herself and they disappeared. She put a protective hand on Emma’s shoulder. “So please just tell me what to do to get him to stop puking all over the house, and to listen better.”
What was that about? Why was Carolyn teary? He wanted to ask, but the days when he could do that had passed long ago. Something was off with Carolyn, something was upsetting her, but he had lost the right to ask why ten years ago.
“I, uh, can put Roscoe here on an easy-digestion diet,” Matt said. “That should help. As for the training, if you work with him, you can get him to curb his behaviors. I can give you a great book on training.”
Carolyn blew a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I am not a dog person. At all,” she said, lowering her voice and leaning closer to him. That gave him a view of the swell of her breasts beneath the V of her coral T-shirt.
And he forgot to breathe.
“I’m a chef,” she went on. “I can cook or bake anything, but I can’t train a dog. So if you could point me in the direction of the nearest professional trainer…”
Matt chuckled. “This is Marietta. You know how small this town is. It’s not like we are overrun with dog trainers.”
“He’s chewed up my shoes, dug a tunnel to China in the backyard, and when I say come, he runs the other way. I spent the better part of yesterday going up and down the streets looking for him. I need someone to give this dog a little law and order.”
A part of him felt bad for Carolyn. She was clearly stressed, and needed some help with the dog. He wondered where the dog had come from, how Carolyn had ended up with it, and why she was back in town with a four-year-old. He hadn’t seen her in ten years, but she still looked beautiful. That, and the clear need in her voice, spurred him to want to help.
Clearly, he was a glutton for punishment.
“Let me draw a little blood, rule out anything else with his tummy issues, and see where we go from there. Okay?” He turned to grab a needle out of the drawer, then swabbed a spot on Roscoe’s front leg, inserted the needle, and withdrew some blood.
“Is that gonna hurt Roscoe?” Emma asked.
“Nope. He won’t even notice it,” Matt said, then pulled the needle out, held a fresh gauze pad on the leg for a moment to stop the bleeding, and gave Roscoe another ear rub. The dog leaned into his touch, groaning. “This dog is a pushover. Maybe a little rambunctious because he’s young, but still a total marshmallow.”
Carolyn scoffed. “Pushover? Marshmallow? It’s like he’s a whole other dog with you,” she said. “Maybe he hates me.”
Emma parked her fists on her hips. “Roscoe loves everyone, Aunt Carolyn.”
Aunt Carolyn? As in maybe Sandy’s daughter, not Carolyn’s? Matt remembered Carolyn’s older sister well. She’d been a couple years ahead of them in high school, more easygoing and sociable than headstrong, driven Carolyn, but always nice to him in those days when he’d pretty much camped out on Carolyn’s doorstep.
He wasn’t surprised Sandy had children. She’d been in Girl Scouts and 4-H and had always seemed the type who would settle down with a nice banker or something and raise a family in a little white picket fence house. Of course, there was always the possibility of Emma being an in-law niece, but Matt didn’t think so. The family features were too similar.
And that thought brought him right back to Carolyn’s eyes and her smile, and all the things he was trying not to think about. Still, he found himself checking her left hand for a wedding ring—none. Didn’t mean Carolyn wasn’t married but did up the odds that she was still single.
Ancient history. Stop thinking about it.
“Let me go get that dog food for you,” Matt said. Focus on his job, not on whatever was going on in Carolyn’s life. “Blood test results will be back tomorrow, but I don’t think there’ll be anything other than a change in diet that got Roscoe a little off-kilter.”
He lowered Roscoe back onto the floor and handed the leash to Carolyn. When he did, their hands brushed, and a little electric thrill ran through him. Damn. All these years apart, and she still affected him.
Carolyn’s eyes met his. “Thanks, Matt.”
“No problem,” he mumbled, then headed out of the room. He dropped the syringe into the testing bin, then darted into the storage room, and retrieved a bag of dog food. Down the hall, two of the dogs being boarded for the week started to bark.
On the other side of Exam Room One’s back entrance door, Matt could hear Roscoe joining in on the barking with deep, throaty woofs. He opened the door, his arms full with the dog food bag, and Roscoe lunged forward, squeezing past Matt’s legs and taking a quick left down the hall. Carolyn was right behind Roscoe, a death grip on the other end of the leash. She tried to skid to a stop, but ended up slamming into Matt’s chest.
He dropped the bag to the floor, reached out and caught her around the waist, and for one brief second, they looked at each other, surprised, breathless. In the space of a heartbeat, he remembered everything from their relationship. The way she smiled. The way she used to lean into him at the end of the day. The way she made him laugh. Then Carolyn stepped back and Matt let go, and Roscoe made a break for it, charging down the hall toward the kennels.
Carolyn cursed. “That dog—”
“I got him. Don’t worry.” Matt broke into a light jog, caught up to Roscoe just as he reached the kennels. Matt grabbed the leash, gave it a slight tug. “Roscoe, no.”
The dog looked back at Matt, tail wagging, his features saying, please, please let me go see these new friends.
Instead Matt turned on his heel, patted his leg, and gave the leash another gentle tug. “Come, Roscoe.” The dog gave the kennels one last longing look, then obeyed.
Emma was peeking around the door of Exam Room One. She broke into a run when she saw Roscoe approaching, and buried her face in his neck. “Don’t run away, Roscoe. ’Kay?”
Carolyn shot Roscoe an irritated glare. “I swear, that dog is going to be the end of me. Thank you.”
“No problem. He just wanted to make some new friends.” Matt held the leash out to her but she didn’t take it. Instead, she leaned against the jamb and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I have an offer for you.”
Matt arched a brow. “Offer?”
“I saw this on the counter when you were gone.” She held up the Bake-Off flyer. “If I remember right, you can barely make a grilled cheese sandwich.”
Even his grilled cheese abilities were sketchy at best. Matt had takeout and microwave reheating mastered, though. “It was a good cause, to help honor the memory of a first responder who died recently. Do you remember Harry Monroe? He was killed in a hit and run on Highway 89 on Labor Day.”
“That’s terrible. He was such a nice guy.” Carolyn shook her head. “I’m glad the town is doing something for him.”
“All the money raised is going to renovate a house near the Chamber of Commerce to make it into a youth center. Something Harry would have loved.” Matt took off his stethoscope and put it on the counter. “Anyway, my business is sponsoring the first night of the Bake-Off, and somehow that got me roped into baking too. I was hoping I could fake it.”
Carolyn laughed. “You can’t fake baking. But what you can do is a little…quid pro quo.”
A smile twitched on his lips. Despite everything, Matt was intrigued. “Quid pro quo?”
“You train this incorrigible dog and I’ll teach you how to bake.” She flashed him a smile, a smile he knew as well as his own. Ten years later and that smile still had the power to affect him. “You have a week to learn how to create a dessert, and I have a week to figure out what I’m going to do with that dog and my job. So how about a little partnership?”
It was a crazy deal. Being around her for hours on end would be painful. Difficult. Impossible. So he said, “Sounds like a great idea.”
Apparently some old dogs didn’t learn their lessons.
End of Excerpt