A poodle, a black lab and a Chihuahua walk into a dog park…
All Caleb Donovan has to do to redeem his family name is take a rundown Miami Beach apartment building and turn it into luxury condos. Easy, right?
Unfortunately, that would also turn the local dog park into a parking lot and the neighbors aren't having it. Caleb is faced with outright revolt, led by smart, beautiful building manager Riley Carson and her poodle, LouLou.
For Caleb, this project should have been a slam dunk. But even more challenging than the neighborhood resistance is the mutual attraction between him and Riley. It would be so much easier just to stay enemies.
Can Riley and her canine sidekick convince Caleb that what's best for business isn't always best for the heart?
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Riley Carson’s butt buzzed. She pretended not to feel her phone’s vibration through the denim of her cutoff jean shorts and lifted her face to the morning sun, sucking in a lungful of humid air.
“Ah, nothing like late summer in South Florida.” She kept an eye on her toy poodle, LouLou, who galloped around the patchy grass of the neighborhood dog park alongside her best dog park pal, a black Labrador ten times her size. Well, it wasn’t really a dog park, more an empty lot that the good dog folk of the surrounding area had commandeered as their own. And Lady wasn’t really a Lab, more a mix of large breeds with a Lab head and soulful eyes.
“If only there were more mosquitoes.” Eliza, Lady’s owner, batted half-heartedly at a few early-afternoon pests. “And more humidity so one hundred percent of my clothing can stick to my skin instead of the usual eighty percent.”
Recently retired from her legal practice, Eliza was a dog park fixture, bringing Lady from their home across the street multiple times a day. She’d been the one to find LouLou, abandoned in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top, just outside the lot’s entrance.
Riley crinkled the ever-present plastic bag in her pocket, remembering meeting Eliza on her door-to-door search to find the poodle’s owner. “I can’t believe it’s been over a year since you brought LouLou into my life.”
“Love at first sight, wasn’t it?” Eliza dabbed at her steel-gray hairline with a tissue. White streaks at her temples defied gravity and frizzed around her face. “She was a pathetic thing, wasn’t she? So dirty and with the worms.”
“Nothing a body shave and a trip to the vet couldn’t fix.” Riley didn’t like remembering those days. LouLou had been skeletally thin, her apricot coat sparse and matted. She’d been weak, her survival touch and go, especially given her advanced age. Now, she was the picture of health, clearly finding joy in herding her giant friend around the perimeter of the chain-link-enclosed lot.
“They’re quite an unlikely pair, aren’t they?” Eliza tracked the dogs’ progress while they ran the fence. Clods of dirt flew from under Lady’s paws, and LouLou chased after them as if they were toys. The fact that the clods crumbled in her mouth didn’t stop her from chasing the next one, but it did remind Riley that she needed to bust out the dog toothbrush. Poodles had notoriously bad teeth, and Riley figured there was nothing wrong with a bit of prevention. Luckily, LouLou liked both the vanilla-mint flavored toothpaste and the extra attention.
“Opposites attract, I guess. I’m glad they’re such good friends.” That Riley was also grateful for Eliza’s friendship went unspoken. Morning, afternoon, and evening, the two met up to let the dogs run, and somehow that had turned into long hours of conversation, day after day, that left Riley hoping when she reached Eliza’s age, she’d have half as many funny stories to tell about her life as Eliza did. Right now, though, her life was the opposite of exciting—work, work, and more work.
Riley’s butt buzzed again. She winced and pulled out her phone. She texted a quick reply and added another item to her to-do list. Although she wasn’t technically always on call, in practice, it certainly seemed that way. “I’m sorry. I know the dogs both love a good run, but we have to cut it short today.”
“Butt problems?” A smile was never far from Eliza’s lips, and they stretched into a grin at Riley’s sigh. Eliza patted the tissue behind her ears and down her neck before stashing it under her bra strap, hidden by the neckline of her floral blouse. Riley had seen her pull a key and a driver’s license out of her blouse. She wondered what else Eliza stashed in there.
“Mr. Cardoza problems.” Riley thumbed through a few more messages, turning the screen so Eliza could see her to-do list of the day. “Duty calls.”
“You’re good to them, those pesky residents of yours at the Dorothy. Sure keep you on your toes, don’t they?” Eliza patted Riley’s arm and called Lady. The big dog slid to a stop a mere inch from crashing into Eliza, head lolling to the side with a doggy grin. Such a large dog for such a small woman seemed incongruous at first, but Riley had quickly learned that they shared an irreverent sense of humor and a great love of pâté.
“You know it. But after the disaster at my last job, I’m grateful for the work. See you this evening?”
LouLou came running, too, now that Lady was leaving, and Riley bent down to clip on her leash.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Eliza threaded Lady’s leash through her fingers. “Kiki and Paula got back from Italy yesterday. They’ll bring Princess Pugsley, which will be a nice treat for Lady, and I for one can’t wait to hear about every moment of their trip.”
“And see every picture, right?” Riley smiled at Eliza’s enthusiastic nod.
“You know, they met right here at the park. Kiki had that old Maltese, God rest her cranky soul, and Paula started bringing Princess Pugsley when she was a puppy. Gosh, that must be five years ago now.”
“A real doggy love match.” Riley pulled her hair back into a sloppy ponytail and secured it with a band from her wrist, following Eliza through the gap in the fence they used as the dog park entrance. Two poles, meant to hold the chain-link upright, tilted away from each other, creating a slot large enough for humans and dogs to slide through.
“But it sure wasn’t love at first sight. Those dogs hated each other. Kiki and Paula on the other hand…” Eliza winked. “Just you wait, Riley. Maybe the dog park will bring someone special your way, too.”
“Thanks to you, I have my someone special.” Riley squatted to give her poodle a good scratch behind the ears. “I don’t need anyone else. Come on, LouLou. Maybe Mr. Cardoza has some treats for you.”
“You’re skeptical,” Eliza called to Riley’s retreating back, “but I’m usually right. You’ll see. I have an excellent sense for these things.”
“No romance for me, thank you very much. Work your matchmaking wiles on some other sucker.” Riley waved but didn’t turn around. Getting into it with Eliza about her failed engagement was a topic for another day. And the name of that day was Neverday.
Riley’d shared a lot with Eliza about growing up in the area, how her mom’s job working for a cruise line had her out of the country for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, leaving Riley’s grandmother to mostly raise her. She hadn’t shared much about her love life, though—neither her disaster of an engagement nor how she sometimes fantasized about the cute UPS driver with the sexy accent who delivered Eileen Forsythe’s medications on the first Tuesday of every month. No, for now, her job, her poodle, and her Grams were enough commitments in her life. Who had time for anything more?
LouLou followed Riley along the sidewalk that led back to the Dorothy, the Art Deco apartment building where Riley spent her days—and quite a few nights—trouble-shooting maintenance problems for the residents. Another failure. Her gig at the Dorothy was a long way down from her position as an assistant manager at the luxurious Donovan Resort in downtown Miami, but when the whole chain was sold off due to a series of political and financial scandals that ended up with the CEO in prison, she got laid off, and she didn’t have a choice. It was the job at the Dorothy or no job at all.
Really, she was grateful for the strings her Grams had pulled to get her hired. It meant she was an elevator ride away from her favorite relative, the woman who’d provided the only stability in her young life, and she was certainly learning a lot of new skills. Skills she’d never thought she’d needed, but who wouldn’t want to add handywoman to their résumé?
Sure, she missed her Donovan Resort team, the inside jokes, and the after-shift drinks at the bar. She missed greeting returning guests and welcoming new ones for their first stays. She missed her not-too-shabby paycheck and how putting on the Donovan Resort’s requisite black blazer and pulling back her hair instantly made her feel like a kick-ass professional.
She did not miss being unemployed, though, and after wrestling with plumbing and electrical problems, single-handedly regrouting the lobby bathroom, and negotiating lower rates from the cable company, she didn’t need a blazer to make her feel kick-ass. Her Dorothy uniform of cutoff jeans and thrift-store T-shirts was more comfortable anyway. Oh, who was she kidding? She did miss that blazer. Who would’ve noticed if she’d never returned it? The Donovan Resort, and every one of its sister properties, would likely never open for business again.
Riley and her poodle circled around to the front of the building, and as always, Riley admired its graceful lines. Although a bit faded in places, the cheerful pink façade never failed to lift her mood. She’d loved coming to Grams’ as a child, imagining the building had been painted her favorite color just for her. When her mom popped into town, they’d lived in a series of one-bedroom apartments in neighborhoods near the port—not always the most kid-friendly places in Miami. It was a relief to be dropped off at Grams’ when Mom’s job took her away for long stretches, and Riley cried every time Mom picked her up when the cruise finished. “You’ll be back soon enough,” Grams said each time they said goodbye, and she’d been right.
Mom moved up at the cruise line, assigned to lengthier charters and adventure cruises until it wasn’t uncommon for her to be gone for six or eight weeks at a time. Grams and the other residents at the Dorothy welcomed Riley and made her feel like part of a large, loving family. Now the Dorothy was Riley’s home, too, and her job was to make sure that all those who’d helped her through her childhood and rocky teens were safe and happy. Really, she was simply returning the favor.
Inside, LouLou panted with excitement as they neared the elevator. Riley wished there was something in her life she loved as much as her poodle loved a ride on the elevator. The car shook on its slow ascent; a lesser dog might be afraid of the movement, the noise. Not LouLou. Her tail never stopped wagging. As soon as the doors rumbled open, LouLou dashed inside, tugging Riley along. The building was only a two-story, but the elevator took its job seriously, stretching out the ride so that it felt as if more than a mere one floor of distance had been covered.
At the ding, LouLou was as excited to exit the elevator as she’d been to enter it. Dogs. Riley knew she should be taking life lessons from her pooch about the importance of living in the moment, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that she should be doing something different. Something more. She just didn’t know what. Or how on Earth she’d ever make time for more, whatever that might be.
“Ah, my favorite girls are here!” Mr. Cardoza opened his door before Riley had a chance to knock. A proud “eighty-five and still alive,” as he liked to say, Mr. Cardoza cut a dapper figure in his tailored chinos and navy suspenders. His thick head of gray hair and status as a longtime widower made him the most sought-after of the silver foxes in the building. His refrigerator was always stuffed with offerings from the female residents of the Dorothy—casseroles and lasagnas, homemade pies and mango preserves. He should be thirty pounds overweight, but his strict regimen of daily walks and trips to his senior-friendly gym kept him fit.
“What can we do for you today?” Riley kissed both his cheeks with genuine affection. When she was fourteen and going to her first high school dance, he’d driven her in his old Saab and explained in excruciating and embarrassing—at least back then—detail how a young man should act around her. And exactly what she should not allow, on or off the dance floor. Thanks to his thoroughness, she’d been perfectly happy to dance with a group of her girlfriends and sit out the slow dances.
Riley cocked her head at the familiar grinding sound coming from his kitchen. “Is it that new garbage disposal? I told you to stop jamming chicken bones down there.”
“The ad said it could grind anything.” He tucked her hand into his elbow and escorted her to the kitchen, LouLou trotting behind them, her fluffy ears brushing Riley’s calves. “Anything.”
“Anything but chicken bones. As we’ve discussed. Many times.” Riley unclipped the leash, and LouLou promptly nosed around the kitchen, finding bits of who-knew-what in the hard-to-clean space between the floor and cabinet lip. “Alright, Mr. Cardoza, let’s take a look, and if it’s chicken bones again, I’m leaving you to fend for yourself. Also as we’ve discussed. Many times.”
Mr. Cardoza nodded solemnly and slipped LouLou a sliver of chicken from a plate of already precut-to-poodle-size bites. “You won’t leave before you let me make you my famous café solo?”
So it was chicken bones. Again. But pass up his hand-ground dark-roast coffee? Riley placed a hand to her chest. “Never!”
She opened the cabinet under the sink and pulled out the flashlight and pliers she’d bought especially for Mr. Cardoza’s apartment. It was both her nature and her Donovan hotel training to anticipate guests’ needs, and she’d known from the first call from Mr. Cardoza about his unauthorized garbage disposal that she’d be back again and again. Easier to keep supplies here than to haul them back and forth on the daily. She looked over to where Mr. Cardoza sat, LouLou in his lap taking bites of chicken from his fingers. The things I do for caffeine. And chicken. And Mr. Cardoza.
Riley’s butt buzzed again, and she grabbed the phone. Grams’ Google wouldn’t Google. Riley shoved the phone back in her pocket and flipped off the power to the garbage disposal. It was going to be a long day, but what else was new?
At least the long hours of her job kept her from thinking too much about her life, but sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, with antiseptic and Band-Aids freshly applied to whatever scrapes and cuts she’d acquired during the day’s maintenance challenges, she did worry. Was her blazerless status at the Dorothy her whole future? Would she be patching stucco and unclogging drains for decades to come?
When she thought of her careful plans so carelessly destroyed, she could cry. Did cry. But crying never changed anything. She firmed her chin, got hold of a semicrushed chicken bone, and yanked it out of the drain. The bone popped out with a slurp and a cheer from Mr. Cardoza. Riley turned to give him a thumbs-up before diving in for the next one. For now, it was enough to be needed.
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