These adorable service puppies
are matchmakers in the making…
When Sophie Vasquez and her sisters dreamed up Puppy Promise—their service puppy training school—it was supposed to be her chance to bring some good into the world. But how can she expect to do anything when no one will take her seriously?
Enter Harrison Parks: a rough, gruff, take-no-bull wildlife firefighter in need of a diabetic service dog. He couldn’t be a more unlikely fit for Sophie or Bubbles—the sweet Pomeranian she knows will be his perfect partner—but when Sophie insists he give them both a shot, something unexpected happens: he listens. Even better, he keeps on listening, even as Sophie and Bubbles turn his lonely, uber-masculine world upside-down.
As it turns out, they all have something to prove…and more than enough room in their hearts for a little puppy love.
Now that was a dog.
Harrison Parks stood in front of the Great Dane puppy, watching as he stumbled over his feet and struggled with the weight of his oversize head. Already, the animal’s sleek gray fur was something to behold, those beautiful eyes like the sky after a rainstorm. It was easy to see what he would someday become—majestic and muscled and massive, more like a trusty steed than a canine.
“He’s perfect. Where do I sign?”
A cough sounded at his back. “Um, that’s a Great Dane.”
Harrison turned to find the slight, well-dressed woman who’d greeted him at the door. She looked apologetic and hesitant and, well, the same way most people looked when they met him for the first time.
In other words, like this was the last place in the world she wanted to be—and he the last man she wanted there with her.
“I thought he might be.” He attempted a smile.
“What’s his name?”
Yes. Rock—durable and solid, the kind of dog a man could count on. Harrison crouched and put a hand out to the animal, his fingers closed in a fist the way the woman, Sophie Vasquez, had shown him. It seemed like overkill, this careful approach to an animal who hadn’t yet reached six months of age, but what did he know?
The closest he’d come to having a pet was the raccoon that lived under his back porch.
“I think he likes me.”
Sophie coughed again, louder this time. “Rock is great, but he’s a stability dog, I’m afraid.”
Harrison turned to look up at her, struck again by how out of place she seemed among this room of scurrying puppies. It wasn’t just her air of fragility, which made it seem as though a strong wind would topple her over.
It wasn’t her age either, although her short crop of dark brown hair and her round, sweet face made him suspect she was still in the youthful flush of her twenties.
No, it was the ruffled dress she wore, which seemed better suited for a tea party than a dog kennel.
He did his best to smile again. He was trying not to scare her away within the first ten minutes. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d done that to a woman. Or a man.
Or, if he was being honest, any living creature with a heart in its chest and eyes in its head. He wasn’t saying he was a bad-looking man—a bit rough around the edges, maybe—but he did have a tendency to come across more forcefully than he intended. His friends blamed it on what they called his “resting brick face.”
Like you’re going to throw the next man who crosses you into a brick wall, they laughed.
Which was all well and good after a long day of work, but it wasn’t the least bit helpful here.
Just smile and relax, they said. Be yourself. And for God’s sake, lower your guard an inch or two to let in some air.
Well, he’d tried. The smile—both of them—had already fallen flat, and the idea of relaxing under that woman’s wide-eyed stare was impossible. No one had warned him that the puppy trainer was going to be a delicate, fragile wisp of feminine perfection. One of those things he might have been able to handle, but all of them?
Yeah, his guard was going to stay right where it was.
It gave him someplace to hide.
“What’s a stability dog?” he managed to ask.
“Well,” she began, “some of our clients need dogs that can provide physical support.”
When he didn’t do more than nod encouragingly, she added, “As he grows up, Rock will be great at leading someone with vision issues or providing a safe landing for someone prone to seizures. You know—for stability.”
“Oh.” Harrison blinked. “I don’t need that.”
“Not really, no.”
“Well, what about that one, then? He looks like he knows his way around a back alley or two.”
He nodded toward the bulldog in the next slot over.
Like Rock the Great Dane, this one was prancing about in one of a dozen half-walled pens built in an extension off the back of Sophie’s house. Unlike other dog kennels, Puppy Promise kept none of their animals fully caged in. They had room to climb and jump and pop their heads up to say a friendly hello to their neighbors. And they did too, wet noses being pressed and kissed from one animal to another. When added to the bright-blue walls and not-unpleasant smell of organic cleaning solutions and puppy breath, the result was strangely inviting.
“Rusty?” Sophie asked as the wriggling, wrinkly puppy came bounding forward. His expression held a belligerence that appealed to Harrison on a visceral level. This dog might not be as physically intimidating as a Great Dane, but he sensed a kindred spirit. Grump and grumpier. “No, you don’t want him. He’ll be a nice emotional support dog someday, but he can’t smell worth anything.”
Harrison bit back his disappointment and allowed his gaze to skim over the other options. He immediately bypassed a tall white poodle that looked as if it had been recently permed and a tiny, yappy thing with eyes like raisins. A soft golden retriever with a mournful expression peeped up at him from the corner. “How about—”
Sophie coughed once more, cutting him short. When he turned to see what the problem was this time, he found her standing a few paces back, holding her hands out in front of her as if warding him off. His gaze was immediately drawn to those hands—so smooth and soft, her nails carefully polished to match her outfit. His own hands were like burned leather, cracked and callused all over. That was what happened when you spent half of your life battling wildfires. What the elements didn’t scorch, the flames did.
“What is it?” he asked, his heart sinking at the sight of those hands. They were nice hands, obviously, but he knew what that gesture meant. Harrison Parks has done it again. Ten minutes in this woman’s company and she’d already seen through his sorry exterior to the even sorrier contents of his soul.
“The truth is, Mr. Parks, we only have one dog right now that matches your specific needs.”
“Okay.” He swallowed. “Which one is he?”
“He’s a female, actually. And she’s really sweet.”
“Female? Sweet?” Harrison could work with that.
In fact, he quite liked both of those things, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“Oh yes. You wouldn’t believe the nose she’s got on her. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a more promising puppy. We were lucky to get our hands on her. Most of our animals come from breeders, but this one was rescued from a puppy mill. She’s fantastic, even if she is still a little skittish.”
Skittish could have applied to several people in his life right now, including the woman standing opposite him. Ever since the episode last week, everyone—from his boss at the Department of Natural Resources to his doctors to his very own father—was acting as though he, like Sophie Vasquez, was one strong wind away from toppling over.
But he was fine. It was one small coma. He’d get a dog, and it wouldn’t happen again.
“She may need some extra work because of it, but I promise she’ll be worth it in the end.” Sophie broke into a smile—her first since he’d walked in. It struck him forcibly that it was a good thing she’d been too wary to pull it out before now. A smile like that, so warm and real, was a transformative thing. It made him almost happy to be here.
“The best things in life usually are, don’t you think?”
Without waiting for an answer, she added, “Come on. I’ll introduce you. She’s been eyeing you since we walked in.
I think she knows you’re going to become good friends.”
Harrison didn’t have time to fully absorb that remark before a tiny bark assailed his ears. A very tiny bark.
One might even call it a yap.
“The great thing about this dog is that she’s highly portable. You can carry her everywhere.”
Portable? Carry her?
He stopped and tried to dig his feet into the concrete, suddenly seeing the oncoming disaster with perfect clarity. Unfortunately, there were some things he couldn’t resist, no matter how hard he tried.
One was the power of a beautiful woman’s smile.
Another was the force of a 100,000- acre forest fire devouring everything in its path. And a third, apparently, was a pair of raisin eyes lifted to his in trusting supplication.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said as the miniature ball of fluff twirled and stuck a small pink tongue out the side of her mouth.
This couldn’t be right. He was a man who spent literal weeks in the wilderness, fighting fatigue and flames.
He walked for days with an ax over one shoulder and a team of men at his back. He needed a trusted companion, a sturdy beast he could count on to keep him alive. Not…
“This is a joke, right? Someone put you up to it?”
“No joke, Mr. Parks,” Sophie said. “Please allow me to introduce you to your new diabetic service dog, Bubbles.”