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.
“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.”
* * *
It was a truth universally acknowledged that a large, gruff man in search of a puppy would always choose the largest, gruffest one he could find.
Sophie didn’t know how or why it happened, but every time a man entered the kennel, he was drawn inexorably toward the animal most like him in appearance. It was as though they walked up to each pen and, instead of seeing the puppy for its strengths and talents, they saw a mirror instead. Like getting dressed in the morning or buying a car, they wanted a puppy that exactly reflected the image they presented to the world.
Which was why she’d known, the second Harrison Parks walked in the door, that she was doomed.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” she said, watching the expression that crossed his face as his gaze shifted from Bubbles to the Great Dane and back again. Disappointment was a disappointingly inadequate word for it.
“No, you don’t.”
“And I know she’s probably not what you had in mind when you signed up for this, but she’s very suitable for your needs.”
“No, she’s not.”
“Small dogs require a lot of care, which means you’ll be forced to slow down a little when you’re working. That’s a good thing, right? To be reminded to take more breaks, to put your needs first?”
“No, that’s a terrible thing.”
“Plus, Pomeranians are much better suited for this type of job than you’d think. They have exceptional noses.”
That was all he offered this time—just that one syllable, that one deeply rumbling sound, a death knell meant to end any and all discussion on a project that she’d thrown her whole self into prepping for. She wasn’t sure which part of it caused her to crack, but she suspected it was that last one.
Well, either that or the fact that he looked so unfairly good while he did it. From the top of his disheveled brown locks to the tips of his heavy work boots, Harrison Parks was exactly what she’d imagined when she’d heard about his case. The man was a wildland firefighter, a hero. Every year, when flames swept across the dry lands of the Pacific Northwest’s interior, he headed out with his hose and his determination until every last spark was gone. He was tall and muscular, his expression weary with the devastation he’d seen.
A bit on the crusty side, Oscar had described him, but totally harmless.
What he hadn’t said was that Harrison was also a half-buttoned flannel shirt away from being the quintessential lumbersexual—rugged and outdoorsy and built like a tank.
In other words, he was a Great Dane. A bulldog.
And he wasn’t giving either Bubbles or her a fair shot.
“Listen, Mr. Parks.” The sharp rap of her voice startled even herself. “I appreciate that Bubbles isn’t what you had in mind, but you need to at least consider what she has to offer.”
His gaze—that hard, disappointed one—snapped in her direction, and Sophie instinctively froze. Now that she’d uttered her reproach, she wasn’t sure what came next. Her sister Lila would probably segue into an articulate and professional speech about the Pomeranian’s finer points. Her other sister, Dawn, would try a coy smile and a low purr to get her way.
Sophie didn’t have any such methods for handling recalcitrant clients. No one had let her have a recalcitrant client before.
“She’s not nearly as bad as you think,” she said, soldiering on. “In fact, I think you’ll like her. You just have to take a deep breath and give her a try.”
He held her stare, his eyes a stony gray that made her think of battlements and cavernous quarries, but at least he complied. Even breathing, he seemed to be exercising every muscle in his body, the swell of his massive chest like an ocean rising.
It worked though. Already, he looked much less like he wanted to storm out the door and report her to the authorities—or, worse, to her sisters.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m breathing. What’s next?”
Sophie blinked. Breathing had seemed like the most logical first step, but she had no idea what came after that.
Yes, she did. Cuddles. No one could resist puppy cuddles—it was almost as universally acknowledged as the fact that Harrison had chosen the Great Dane as his first pick. Maybe she wouldn’t be so bad at this after all.
“That all depends on you,” she said. “Would you rather climb into the kennel with Bubbles for your introductory session or take her outside?”
For the second time in as many minutes, his gaze sharpened as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t blink or move, just stood there staring at her as though he were looking through a ghost. People did that quite a lot actually—looked through her as though she were nothing—but not like this.
He didn’t seem dismissive of her or more interested in the greener pastures that lay beyond. He seemed, well, scared.
“You want me”—he pointed at himself—“to climb in there? Do you have any idea how far the human body can feasibly bend?”
Sophie had to tamp down a laugh. Now that he’d pointed it out, the idea of that six-foot bear of a man climbing into a pen and snuggling with a baby Pomeranian did seem a little preposterous.
“Outside it is, then,” she said. “Just scoop her on up. Don’t worry—she won’t be afraid of you. She likes to be carried.”
He didn’t, as she’d hoped, follow her orders. Instead, he glanced down at the little puppy, his brow growing heavier the longer he stood there. It was the same glower that had made him seem so fierce when he’d first walked in.
It didn’t seem nearly as intimidating when he shook his head and said, “No, thank you.”
She laughed again, unable to stop it from fully releasing this time. All of her tension seemed to be seeping out the more she realized this man was nowhere near as hard as his gruff expression indicated. All bark and no bite. “Well, at least you’re being more polite about it. I promise she won’t bite, and she won’t pee all over you. She’s a very good girl. Aren’t you, Bubbles? Aren’t you the most precious little ball o’ fluff?”
Harrison took a wide step back from the pen and clasped his hands behind his back. If Sophie didn’t know better, she’d think he was afraid of touching the puppy for fear she would infect him with her adorableness.
“No way. I’m not calling her that.”
“What? Bubbles?” Laughter welled up in her throat. He was totally afraid of her adorableness. “Or precious little ball o’ fluff?”
His only answer was a snort. Well, that and another one of those wary looks at the puppy.
“What’s wrong?” Sophie asked. “She’s just a honey-bunny banana muffin.”
“The fluffiest lady in fluffy town.”
“Now see here,” he commanded. “You might be able to force this animal on me, but you can’t make me say any of that.”
No, she couldn’t. Sophie couldn’t make anybody do anything. She couldn’t even get rid of those pushy satellite TV salesmen who still tried door-to-door tactics. The last time someone had asked her to switch cable companies, she’d ended up serving him lemonade and buying 230 sports channels that she and her sisters never watched.
None of that seemed to matter to this man. He was a good head taller than her, outweighed her by the size of the Great Dane puppy, and wore a scowl that could have stripped paint from the walls. But as she took a step closer, he only shook his head in a frantic effort to keep her at bay. It made her feel unexpectedly powerful. Unexpectedly good.
“Don’t say any more,” he warned. “I can’t be held responsible for my actions if you do.”
“It’s all right,” she said, feeding off that sense of power, feeling herself coming alive under it. “I can take it.”
And then he smiled—for real this time.
Her heart suddenly felt three sizes too big for her chest. She’d known smiles to change a man’s appearance before, but not like this. This wasn’t a charming smile or a kind smile or even a dashing smile. It was devastating, plain and simple. All those lines and creases, the well-worn care that was etched so deeply into his skin—they disappeared only to be replaced by an expression so startlingly warm and inviting that Sophie had no choice but to fall right in.
“Sweet, soft snookums,” she said somewhat breathlessly. She could have stopped there, but the urge to babble overcame her. In all honesty, it was a wonder that she was able to speak at all. “Plush princess paddywinkle. Beautiful bitty baby Bubbles.”
That last one broke him. The smile vanished, but only because it lifted into a laugh.
“Oh, hell no,” he said. His voice was no less gravelly than it had been before, that deep sound rumbling throughout the kennel, but Sophie detected something new—something alive—underscoring it. “If you think I’m going to stand here and let you make a fool out of me, you’re sorely mistaken. I’m taking that goddamn Great Dane home with me, and nothing you do or say will stop me.” It was said like a dare—almost as if he wanted her to try. Were they…flirting?
Unfortunately, there was no time to find out. Just as she was about to gamely rise to his bait, a voice spoke up from behind them.
“I beg your pardon?” Her sister Lila’s voice, normally so polished, acted like a shock of cold water over the proceedings. Sophie turned to find her standing at the top of the steps leading from the kennel to the house they shared. “Is there a problem out here?”
Sophie did her best to put on her usual bright smile, but Lila wasn’t looking at her. Her oldest sister—a tall, statuesque beauty who could command the attention of an entire room simply by walking into it—was staring at Harrison with a look that would have done their mother proud. It told Harrison that if he said one more word, goddamned or otherwise, he’d risk the full weight of her wrath.
Of course, when she spoke, her words were nothing but professional.
“I’m terribly sorry if there’s been a misunderstanding,” she said, and moved elegantly down the steps. Each click of her heels on the cement carried its own warning. “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
“Assistance?” Harrison echoed. All signs of laughter and friendliness had been wiped from his face, replaced once again by the hard wall that he had carried in here.
Lila inclined her head in slight acknowledgment. “Yes. Did I hear you correctly when you stated your preference for the Great Dane over Sophie’s selection?”
“You mean Rock?”
“Rock. Yes. Rock.” Harrison swallowed heavily, glancing back and forth between the sisters. “That’s the one I want. The one that’s too big to squish.”
Lila smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes. She tsked softly. “You have good taste, but I’m afraid he’s not available. He’s already been assigned to another case. I’m sure Sophie explained that to you already.”
“Actually, I—” Sophie caught Lila’s eye and clamped her mouth shut. Of course. It hadn’t even occurred to her to try a discreet lie. When a client wanted what they couldn’t have, you were supposed to redirect them, not antagonize them. Why didn’t I think of that? “Um, no. I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.”
“So it would seem. Mr. Parks, why don’t you come inside with me and we’ll work it out? There’s no need to upset the puppies with all this arguing.”
“He wasn’t arguing.” Sophie tried to explain but was once again quelled by a look from Lila. What else could she do? Technically, he had been arguing—and she’d been egging him on. She’d been loving it.
What is wrong with me?
“This is all my boss’s fault,” Harrison said. His words were abrupt, his movements even more so. “I didn’t even want a dog in the first place.”
“It’s a tricky business, matching people and puppies,” Lila said, trying to soothe. “Every temperament is different—even we don’t always get it right on the first try. Do we, Soph?”
Sophie knew that her sister was only trying to make up for this intrusion, including her in the conversation so she wouldn’t lose all her professional footing in front of the client, but she couldn’t help but feel miserable. What Lila really meant—and what Lila would never say—was that Sophie didn’t always get it right on the first try.
She managed a weak smile. “No, it’s not always easy.”
“There. You see?” Lila extended her hand toward Harrison. “Come inside. We’ll be more comfortable having this conversation in the kitchen.”
“No.” He jerked back as though Lila had shot a lightning bolt from her fingertips. “I mean, no thank you. I’m leaving. That puppy can’t… There’s no way I…”
He paused and took one of Sophie’s deep breaths, a thing she might have appreciated if not for the look of painful reproach he shot her as he did it.
“This was a mistake,” he said curtly.
And that was all. Turning on his heel, he made for the back door to the kennel.
Sophie wanted to say something to stop him—apologize maybe, or beg him to give her another chance—but he was already swinging through the door by the time she found her tongue.
“Well.” Lila was the first to break the silence that followed Harrison’s sudden departure. “Oscar wasn’t exaggerating about him, was he?”
When Sophie didn’t respond, her eyes still fixed on the gentle sway of the door as if waiting for Harrison to reappear, Lila softened her voice. “That was a pretty nasty scene I walked into. You okay, Soph?”
It was exactly like her sister to ask that question. Given the way things had turned out, Lila could have dumped any number of reproaches on Sophie’s head, including the fact that she hadn’t wanted Sophie to take on this case in the first place, but of course, she didn’t. She never would.
Money meant nothing when compared to Sophie’s happiness. Work was secondary to making sure Sophie was taken care of.
Which was why Sophie shook her head. She wasn’t okay, not by a long shot. She felt humiliated and ashamed and, well, small—but more than that, she felt a strong compulsion to meet Harrison Parks on neutral territory once again. At first, he’d looked at her the way everyone always did, but then, when she’d pushed back, there’d been a spark in his eyes she desperately wanted to see again.
“I’m a little rattled, to be honest,” Sophie said. “He’s not like anyone I’ve ever met before.”
“No,” Lila agreed. “Some men are just like that, I’m afraid.”
It was on the tip of Sophie’s tongue to ask what Lila meant, but she stopped herself just in time. She already knew what Lila was thinking, because it was the same thing she’d thought when Harrison Parks had first knocked on the door.
This is a man who doesn’t like to be told what to do. This is a man to be wary of.
But Lila hadn’t seen that smile. Lila hadn’t been there when he’d quaked at the mere thought of touching such a precious, golden-haired lump as Bubbles. Lila hadn’t felt the surge of exhilaration that had come from confronting him…and winning.
“And he wasn’t necessarily wrong,” Lila added. Her hand touched Sophie’s shoulder. “I did warn you that Bubbles might not make a good service dog, sweetie. Not every puppy is cut out for this kind of work.”
Sophie glanced down at the animal under consideration, a pang of mingled frustration and disappointment filling her gut. Okay, so Bubbles wasn’t the most impressive puppy to come under their care—she was small and soft and had lingering issues from the trauma of the puppy mill—but that didn’t make her useless.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lila continued softly. “There will be other cases. One unhappy customer won’t make or break us. I’ll call Oscar and get everything straightened out.”
“No, don’t.” Sophie spoke sharply, using the same tone that had snapped out when Harrison had initially refused Bubbles. At her sister’s raised brow, she hastily amended it with, “I’ll talk to him. It’s my responsibility. I’m the one who mishandled the situation.”
Lila’s brow didn’t come down, but she accepted Sophie’s decree with a nod. “Sure thing, Soph. Take the rest of the day off. Go see Oscar. He always makes you feel better.”
Sophie offered her a tight smile but didn’t say anything. Oscar did always make her feel better, but that wasn’t what she meant. She didn’t want a day off. She didn’t want someone to hug her and placate her and tell her everything would be all right.
What she wanted—no, what she needed—was to get her client back.
Glancing down at the Pomeranian, who was staring at the back door as if she too expected Harrison to come waltzing back through it at any moment, Sophie decided that was exactly what she’d do too.
Even if it was only so she could feel that sudden spark of battle coming alive inside her again