These adorable service puppies
are matchmakers in the making…
Lila Vasquez might not be the “fun one” at Puppy Promise—the service puppy training school she runs with her sisters—but she can always be counted on to gets things done. So when her latest client shows an interest in princess gowns over power suits, Lila puts aside her scruples, straps on the glittery heels, and gets to work.
If only the adorable six-year-old’s father wasn’t such an appealing Prince Charming.
Ford’s whole life revolves around his daughter…until he meets Lila. Smart, capable, and amazing at helping Emily gain confidence with her new service puppy at her side, Lila is everything he ever wanted—but she’s way out of his league. Good thing Emily and her new pup are up to the matchmaking task. This Christmas, it’s all hands (and paws) on deck!
Lila was going to kill her sisters for this.
“Lila! Lila Vasquez!” A voice hailed her from across the crowded ballroom floor. It was followed by the bustling of a woman in a tasteful two-piece dress suit. A pang of envy flooded through Lila for that neat, pearly-gray fabric, but it was a short-lived sentiment.
Mostly because it was immediately replaced by embarrassment. And despair. And the overwhelming urge to throw herself out the nearest window.
She changed her mind. Death was too good for her sisters. Nothing less than lifelong torment would do.
“Aren’t you so brave,” the woman cooed as she came to a halt. Her sweeping gaze took in the full glory of Lila’s billowing bubble-gum-pink ball gown. If the color wasn’t bad enough, the fact that she was followed by a trail of sparkles everywhere she went was. She’d left the ladies’ restroom looking like a glitter bomb had gone off in one of the stalls. “I wish I could wear something like that, but at our age, you know…”
Yes, Lila did know. No one over the age of twenty-one should ever leave the house in this shade of pink. Unfortunately, Sophie and Dawn had interpreted the Once Upon a Time theme literally. Instead of the costume party she’d been assured awaited her inside these doors, Lila had found herself inside a nonprofit event as upscale as it was elegant. She stuck out like a sore thumb.
A giant, pink, puffy thumb.
“It’s so nice to see you, Kathy,” she said, forcing a smile. It probably looked about as plastic as she felt, but she was determined to stay put. She’d been invited to this ball as an established and vital part of Spokane’s hearing services community. Its purpose was to raise funds for the hearing impaired, largely for the purchase of medical equipment, implants, hearing assistive tech…and service dogs.
Lila might look silly—and feel just as ridiculous—but her dogs deserved a seat at the table, metaphorically speaking. She’d give them that even if it meant she had to stand here all night, shedding glitter into fifty-dollar glasses of champagne.
“I’m excited to hear who will be getting our puppy donation,” she said in what she hoped was a casual tone. “So are my sisters. I’m supposed to text them the moment I find out. Do you know when they’ll be making the announcements?”
Kathy waved an airy hand. She was one of the ball organizers, but she had less to do with the details and more to do with squeezing large donations out of the city’s finest. “You’ll have to ask Anya. She has the full schedule. I only came by to ask where you got that gorgeous dress. My daughter’s winter formal is coming up, and they’re doing Candy Land this year. That’s exactly what we’ve been looking for.”
It was enough to send a lesser woman fleeing for the nearest hiding place. Lila had spotted several already, each one more appealing than the last. There was a huge banquet table she could crawl underneath to wait out the evening’s events, or a swan ice sculpture dripping in the entryway that might provide an adequate shield. In a pinch, even that pair of waiters with giant silver platters could help her make a quick getaway.
But Lila stood her ground. Lila always stood her ground. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor extreme social embarrassment—
“Oh God.” Catching sight of a familiar man by the entryway, she whirled around, her skirt ballooning around her legs. “This can’t be happening.”
“What can’t be happening?” Kathy asked, her brows raised. She took a sip of her champagne, a wayward piece of glitter clinging to her upper lip. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
No. Lila wasn’t sure of anything except that no number of waiters with silver platters would be able to help her now. What she needed was for the ground to open up beneath her, for the world to swallow her whole. Risking a quick peek over her shoulder, she scanned the entryway again and… Yep. It was happening. It was happening, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
She dashed a hand out and grabbed Kathy’s forearm. “Quick—what’s the easiest way out of here?”
“I think maybe you should sit down,” Kathy said, frowning at where Lila was crushing the silk of her suit. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
On the contrary, it was no ghost that had caught Lila’s eye. That flash of white coming from the opposite side of the room was blinding enough to be supernatural, but Lila had never believed in that sort of thing. Ghosts weren’t real and bogeymen were make-believe, but a smile as toothy and brilliant as her ex-boyfriend’s had caused her plenty of sleepless nights.
“The kitchen?” Lila asked, mostly to herself. “No, I’ll never make it that far. It’ll have to be the emergency exit.”
She knew she was babbling, but she could no more stop the words from leaving her mouth than she could still the sudden thumping of her heart. Patrick Yarmouth. Of all the men to saunter through the door looking as though he’d dropped in straight out of a toothpaste ad, it had to be him.
She could brazen this dress out for the sake of her company, Puppy Promise. She could smile and sparkle for as long as it took to woo the people who had the power to take that company to the next level.
But she could not, would not, dared not risk exposing herself to the man who’d accused her of perfection like it was a four-letter word. Especially since he hadn’t spotted her yet. There’s still time to make my escape.
“I’m sorry, Kathy,” she said as she lifted her skirts and headed for the bright red exit sign. “I have to leave.”
“Does this mean you aren’t going to tell me where you got the dress?” Kathy called, watching her go. “My daughter will be so disappointed.”
“I’ll email you the details tomorrow,” Lila promised as she pushed through the door to safety. Better yet, she thought as she navigated the steep flight of steps leading down, I’ll shove the dress in a box and mail it to you.
After tonight, there was nothing on earth that could induce her to wear sparkles again.
It was only cowardice if she hid behind the potted plant.
“I’m standing next to it,” Lila said to no one in particular, if only because there was no one in particular to say it to. She’d escaped the emergency stairwell to find herself on some kind of first-floor landing. It offered a fountain and a ficus and a complete absence of other people—all three of which were serving to calm her rattled nerves. “I’m taking a break, that’s all. Getting away from all those dark suits and demure gowns. I’ll be back to my usual, capable self in a few minutes, and then I’ll be able to face him.”
Her attempt at boosting her own confidence failed. In truth, it was only her inability to pull her skirts in far enough that kept her where she was. There was no way she could fit behind that plant.
A soft sniffling sound stopped Lila before she could make the mistake of continuing her one-sided conversation. It wasn’t like her to flee at the first sign of danger; even less to self-soothe with a running dialogue. She was supposed to be the unflappable Vasquez sister, the one everyone else turned to in times of emergency.
In other words, the perfect one.
The sniffle sounded again, this time accompanied by a hiccuping sob. Her own worries cast aside, Lila picked her way out from her hiding spot next to the plant and surveyed the room. As far as she could tell, it was still empty. There was a possibility that sound might carry through one of the vents, but—
A small voice sounded behind her. “Are you a princess?”
For the second time this evening, Lila found herself whirling around, startled. This time, however, her gaze landed on a small girl standing just a few feet away.
The first thing she noticed was that the girl appeared to be wearing a dress that was identical to her own. Bubble-gum pink. Sparkles. Tulle. All things that made a grown woman look like she was one magic wand away from a starring role in The Wizard of Oz, but looked perfectly at home on a six-year-old.
The second thing she noticed was that the child had a pair of twin cochlear implants, one on either side of her elaborate updo. The small, purple-colored plastic pieces behind her ears attached to even smaller nodes via looped cords. They were, in Lila’s line of work, a fairly common sight. They were also a clear sign that this girl’s parents couldn’t be too far away.
Upstairs in the ballroom, probably. Where Patrick is.
“Oh, hello,” Lila said, somewhat taken aback. Surprise rendered her voice harsher than usual—a thing she regretted as soon as the words left her lips. The poor girl was obviously lost, staring up at her with wide, blue eyes that were swimming in tears. “I didn’t know there was anyone in here with me.”
The girl didn’t respond, her breath once more catching on a sob. Lila’s experience with children wasn’t vast—she was much more of a dog person than a kid one—but even she could tell that a situation like this one called for tact.
She fell into an unladylike squat so they were level with each other. Not only was getting down the first thing a puppy trainer did when approaching a wary animal, but the girl was watching Lila’s mouth with the intensity of long practice. Lila had enough experience with hearing service dogs and their owners to recognize that the girl most likely used a combination of her cochlear implants and lip reading to communicate.
“Are you lost?” she asked.
The girl nodded, her arms wrapped protectively around her midsection.
Lila held out a hand with her palm up to show she meant no harm and held it there. That was another good puppy-training trick. Maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as she’d feared. “Then you’re in luck. I’m not lost at all.”
“You aren’t?” the girl asked, blinking at her.
“Nope. I have an excellent sense of direction.” She held a finger straight up. “You go thataway.”
The girl’s gaze followed the direction Lila was pointing, but she had yet to take Lila’s hand. “Through the ceiling?” she asked doubtfully.
“Well, no. You have to take the stairs, I’m afraid. There’s an elevator around here somewhere, but I’m not sure where to find it.”
That caused the doubt in the girl’s voice to increase. “You mean this isn’t your castle?”
The Davenport Hotel, where the event was being held, was about as fancy as Spokane architecture got, but it was hardly what Lila would call a castle. “Oh, um. No. I think it’s owned by local real-estate developers, actually.”
Apparently, that was the wrong answer. The girl’s arms clenched tighter around her stomach, a fresh bout of tears starting to take shape in her eyes. “I thought it was your castle.”
Lila had no idea how she was supposed to respond. It wasn’t in her nature to lie to small children, but she didn’t know what else to do. Her sister Sophie would have been able to comfort the girl with kind words and a smile, and Dawn would have had her laughing within minutes, but Lila had always been better with adults than children.
Then again, she’d also always been the kind of woman to dress sensibly and stand her ground when faced with an unexpected encounter with an ex-boyfriend. Clearly, today was an anomaly.
“My castle is much bigger than this one,” she said, casting her scruples aside. “And it’s located in, um, a faraway kingdom?”
It was the right thing to say. A look of relief swept over the girl’s face, the beginnings of a smile taking shape in the perfect bow of her mouth. “You are a real princess,” she said. “I knew it.”
She finally slipped her hand into Lila’s. For some strange reason, Lila had expected the girl’s hand to be sticky—children were usually sticky, weren’t they?—but the palm pressed against hers was perfectly clean. And soft. It was a nice surprise.
“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” the girl confided with a shy smile. “But a princess isn’t a stranger.”
“Oh dear,” Lila murmured. It wasn’t her place to lecture children on stranger danger, but for all she knew, the girl would take this one successful venture and run off in the future with anyone claiming to be royalty. “Actually, I am a stranger. It’s important to be wary of grown-ups no matter what they’re wearing. You know that, right? A fancy dress doesn’t automatically make someone a princess. Just like a tuxedo doesn’t automatically make someone a prince.”
In fact, now that she thought about it, there were lots of warning signs that could be worn on the outside. Take, for example, a man’s blinding smile across a crowded ballroom floor.
“It’s all too easy for a person to hide their true nature behind clothes,” she added. “Clothes and makeup and shoes and a smile you know better than to trust, if only because no man has teeth that white unless there’s something wrong with him. I don’t care what anyone says or how many times they say it. You shouldn’t be able to see your reflection in someone else’s molars.”
The girl tugged on Lila’s hand, pulling her attention down. She pointed first at her own ears and then at Lila’s lips before blinking expectantly.
“Oh,” Lila said, dismayed. “I went on a bit of a tirade there, didn’t I?”
“Emily might not have had the privilege of catching all that, but I sure did,” a male voice sounded from behind them, causing Lila to jump. Again. “And I, for one, am dying to meet this man. Does he gargle with bleach, do you think, or is it that new charcoal toothpaste everyone is going on about?”
“Daddy!” The girl—Emily—dropped Lila’s hand and ran to the man, wrapping her arms around his knees. Her words were muffled by a sob. “I got lost.”
He lifted the child into his arms and waited until her head was level with his before speaking. “Yes, I noticed that. But I see you found your time-traveling adult self and came to no harm. Strange that you never ended up buying a different dress. I thought for sure you’d outgrow pink sparkles.”
Lila stiffened. He was making fun of her. This man, this stranger clad in a socially acceptable tuxedo, was making fun of her.
“Daddy, she’s a princess.”
“Is she?” He cast a scrutinizing look Lila’s way. “I didn’t know princesses could time travel.”
“She rescued me.”
“Well, that is what princesses do.”
“I know.” Emily nodded as if that made perfect sense. “That’s why I let her help me.”
“A wise decision,” the man said. And that, it seemed, was the final word on the subject. There were no lectures about wandering off on her own, no words of warning about what could happen to a little girl who trusted any crackpot in pink tulle. He merely shifted his daughter to his hip and continued his appraisal of Lila.
It wasn’t an unappreciative appraisal, but she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do about it. There was something about the man’s glinting blue eyes and slow, spreading grin that shot like an arrow straight through her. Okay, so she wasn’t some six-foot underwear model in a well-cut tuxedo. Her jaw wasn’t a chiseled shadow that had been timed to remain steadfast at five o’clock. She didn’t have the sexy beginnings of gray starting to take over the winged sides of her well-sculpted brown hair…
“I’m sorry—did you say something?” She blinked as the man’s grin deepened.
“Yes. I asked your name, but you weren’t finished yet.” He cast a look down at himself and gave a rueful shake of his head. “Ridiculous, isn’t it? I feel like a penguin. But the invitation said black tie, so black tie it is. Emily’s a stickler for the rules. So, what is it?”
She blinked again. “The dress code?”
“Oh, um. It’s Lila. Lila Vasquez.”
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