Even poodles didn’t have an endless enthusiasm for dog parks. Now on their fifth stop of the day, Caleb and Riley sank onto a dog bone shaped bench in Hollywood, Florida’s recently renovated Hollywoof park and surveyed the weaving poles, the separate sections for large and small dogs, and the mushroom like platforms at different heights for what Caleb could only guess was for doggy step classes. LouLou didn’t stray too far from them, exhausted from a frenzy of running at Snyder Park when she’d spotted turtles in the lake. She hadn’t gone in after them, but she’d run the shore in anxious back-and-forths until Riley’d finally scooped her up and hosed her off. He’d watched as Riley added hoses to her dog park wish list. He noticed that she didn’t add lake or turtles. She’d been awfully worried that LouLou would catch a turtle, even though the poodle was never closer to one than ten feet.
“What would you even do with a turtle, LouLou?” she’d asked while hosing mud out of her curly coat. LouLou’s response had been enthusiastic tail whumping and a roll in the soft grass as soon as Riley loosened her hold on the dog.
Now, LouLou inspected the base of a tree with some half-hearted sniffing and then with a huff, flopped onto her side and watched them with one eye.
“I can’t tell if that means she likes it here or if she wants to go to sleep so she can dream about catching turtles.” Caleb didn’t even try to cover up the giant yawn that overtook him.
“She’s exhausted, poor thing.” Riley hid her own yawn with a hand. “This is more action than she typically gets in a day.”
Getting some action was not on the agenda today. Sadly. Down boy. Focus on business. “What’re your feelings about the big dog-small dog separation fences we’ve seen? Some parks seem to have them, some don’t. Do you think it matters?”
“My guess is it depends on the dogs.” Riley’s head fall back, and she contemplated the clear sky. “If someone brings an obnoxious dog in, it’s probably nice to have a separate area to take your dog to instead of being forced to go home.”
“You don’t seem to have that problem at your park.” Caleb couldn’t believe he’d called the empty lot her dog park. Well, that’s what he was offering her–or rather the neighborhood–wasn’t it? A compromise. And it was working. With each dog park, Riley relaxed a little more with him. If he’d longed to reach for her, to pull her into his arms a hundred times today, he tried to ignore it. She’d kept a careful distance between them, and he respected that. Last time he’d seen her, she’d been so vulnerable—after the meeting and then dumping her ex’s stuff. She’d been raw, and it had made him raw, too. What Riley really needed was some fun. He draped his arm along the back of the bench and asked her if there’d ever been a fight at her dog park.
“Not recently, but there have been some incidents. I’m going to vote yes on having two separate areas.” Riley got out her phone and added it to the list. Then she groaned.
“What?” Caleb didn’t realize he was massaging the back of her neck until she leaned into his fingers with a sigh. So much for keeping his distance. But a massage was fine. Relaxing. He dug into a knot where her neck flowed into the shoulder, and she sighed again.
“Marco and Kent.” She tilted her head forward to give him better access to her tense muscles. “Another plumbing problem. These pipes are going to be the death of me.”
“The original pipes.” Riley rolled her head, vertebrae cracking. “The plumber says we need to redo the whole building. We can’t. I do what I can and call the plumber when it gets real bad.”
“You’ve got plumbing skills? You’re such a Renaissance woman.” Caleb kept his hand on her neck, kneading, while she rolled her head again.
Riley smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “That’s me, only instead of a paint brush, give me a wrench. I’m holding that whole place together with a lick and a prayer.”
“It shouldn’t be that way. What about the reserves? Your maintenance fees?”
Riley flicked her wrist, fingers swishing like she was batting away a fly. “Gone with the wind, as Grams likes to say. Every penny seems already spoken for. Insurance, utilities. I paid for a hallway lightbulb out of my own pocket last month.”
“It’s that tight?”
“It’s that tight.”
It didn’t make sense to Caleb, how the building could be running on such a shoestring of a budget. Management companies were supposed to make things easier on the owners and residents, not create the kind of stress he was feeling stored in Riley’s body. He gentled his touch. “The Dorothy needs a change. You see that, right? You can’t go on like you are.”
“It’ll get better. When we get some new renters. It has to.” Riley’s back stiffened. “I better head back. My wrench is calling me.” Her attempt at humor made him smile, but he was still troubled by how much her job demanded of her.
“Five more minutes.” Caleb trailed his fingers up to put pressure on the base of her skull. It was a dirty trick, meant to entice her into staying, and it worked. “You and LouLou could both use a bit more rest.”
“No kidding.” Riley closed her eyes and rolled her head from side to side, slouching on the bench. “That feels good. Amazingly good.”
“I’m glad.” He increased the pressure, enjoying how her muscles melted at his touch.
“But I’m worried you’ll get the wrong idea.”
He eased up on a knot, kneading it lightly with his knuckles. “What kind of wrong idea?”
“I’m not going to kiss you again.” Her neck cracked, and she sighed. “It was a bad idea before.”
“Which time?” He felt her muscles quiver at the memory. He soothed them with long strokes.
She leaned into his touch. “All the times.”
“So you remember them?” He certainly did. Every damn day for two weeks.
She hummed an agreement. “Bad idea. Ideas.”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“Then you have a bad memory.” She sat up, and her ponytail whipped to the side when she turned her head his way. “It could never work. We’re on opposite sides of the development issue. Plus we’re practically cousins.”
“What?” He dropped his hands from her neck. “We are definitely not cousins. Why would you say that?”
“Your grandpa? My Grams? Face it, there’s some parallel universe in which we are cousins.”
“I don’t believe in parallel universes.”
“Then you need to read more sci-fi.”
“I don’t read any.”
“That’s my point.”
Caleb’s head reeled. “You’re saying this whole conversation has been about my reading habits?”
She slapped his upper arm. “No, you goofball. About our incompatibility, professionally and familially. You get it, right?”
“We are definitely not incompatible.” He cupped the back of her neck and drew her toward him. “And I definitely know it because you definitely want me to kiss you right now.”
She opened her mouth to protest but sighed again instead. “You’re right. I do.”
His blood surged in celebration. He knew it!
“But,” she put a finger to his mouth, “we can’t always have what we want. We have to do what’s best.”
“This is definitely best.” He pressed his mouth to hers.
She placed her hand on his cheek, pulling away half an inch. “One last dog park kiss, and then we put it behind us. Deal?”
“Absolutely,” he said, closing the distance. Right before their lips met again, he whispered, “Not.”
(C) Mara Wells, Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2020
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Fur Haven Dog Park #1
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?
Romance Contemporary [Sourcebooks, On Sale: January 28, 2020, Mass Market Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492698586 / eISBN: 9781492698593]
About Mara Wells
Mara Wells loves stories, but especially stories with kissing. She lives in Hollywood, Florida with her family and two rescue dogs–a poodle-mix named Houdini Beauregarde, and Sheba Reba Rita Peanut, a chihuahua-mix.