Sometimes friendship got in the way of common sense. There was no other way to explain why Abigail McAllister was being pulled down the sidewalk by fifty pounds of overeager puppy.
“Slow down, Max!” she shouted, as her heels pounded against the cement.
The puppy glanced at her for a second, a quizzical expression in his liquid brown eyes, then turned back toward his goal, a grassy field where dogs of all colors and sizes frolicked in the late-morning sunlight.
He’s like a big kitten, Keri had said when she’d dropped him off yesterday. You’ll be fine.
Abby should’ve known the puppy would be trouble. She loved her new friends, but Girl’s Night with Keri and Liv was just as likely to involve a spur-of-the-moment trip to Mexico as dinner and a movie. For a homebody like her, they were a little intense.
“C’mon, Max,” Abby cooed, in the tone that never failed to sooth her cat. “Be a good boy.”
Max tugged on his leash, jerking her forward.
“Sit!” she tried. “Stay!”
Max sprinted into the street—luckily, the light was green and they made it across safely. They were half a block from the park now and Abby breathed a sigh of relief. Almost there.
A squirrel darted across the sidewalk.
Max barked with puppy joy. He took off after the squirrel, moving so fast Abby lost hold of the leash.
“Max!” She raced after the puppy, who had bypassed the relative safety of the park to chase his target toward the street.
“Stop!” Crap. She could let Keri’s new puppy get pancaked by an SUV.
But Max was running full-out, too fast for her to make up any ground. He was one excited-puppy leap from disaster, and then—
There was a flurry of motion. Max pulled to a halt at the edge of the sidewalk, a man holding his leash.
Abby slowed to a walk, trying to catch her breath. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in her brain, but there was something about this guy. It was like he was a magnet and she was an iron filing, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing herself at him.
She heard Liv’s voice in her head. And why would you want to? He’s seriously hot.
Imaginary Liv was right. With his close-cropped dark hair, warm brown eyes, and broad chest (unfortunately covered by a San Diego Fire Department T-shirt), he was all her favorite fantasies come to life.
His lips turned up in the faintest hint of a grin as he gestured to Max. “Does this belong to you?”
“Thank you so much. He pulled the leash out of my hand.”
Max turned, straining to get to her.
“Sit,” Fireman said, his voice calm but authoritative.
Max plunked his behind onto the concrete.
She couldn’t blame him. That wasn’t a voice you ignored.
“Here.” As Fireman transferred the leash to her, his hand brushed hers, his skin deliciously rough. Awareness shivered through her body.
He turned his smile up several notches. “I’m Ezra Wade.”
“Abby McAllister,” she said, proud she’d managed to remember her name in the presence of Fireman. “And this troublemaker is Max.”
Ezra’s hand closed around hers in a polite shake that shut off her brain and turned on her ovaries. The man had nice hands. Really nice hands.
Her gaze lingered there for a while before traveling up his arms. Mmm. Tanned skin stretched taut over muscle she wanted to—
An angry red welt at his elbow brought her fantasies to an abrupt halt. “You’re bleeding!”
He glanced at his arm. “Nothing to worry about. Just a little scrape.”
There was nothing little about it. And, recognizing that Max’s leash was the probable cause, guilt swamped her system. “I’ll clean it for you. I’m a nurse. And I only live a few blocks away.”
His smile widened. “Trying to get me home, huh?”
Abby gulped. So he’d noticed her ogling him. Of course he’d noticed. Could she have been any more obvious?
“You want me to make sure Speed Racer here makes it back to your place without taking any more unauthorized field trips. Is that it?”
“Yes,” she said, grateful for the excuse. “Exactly.”
“All right. And, on the way there, I’ll show you how to walk Max so he won’t give you any more trouble.” Ezra took the leash from her, winding it into a few overlapping loops so that when she took it back, there was less slack.
“You walk in front,” Ezra said. “Head up, shoulders back. Show him you’re the pack leader.”
“Okay.” Abby felt a little ridiculous. Okay, a lot ridiculous. But, either she pulled the pack-leader thing off better than she thought or Ezra’s presence nearby was enough to keep Max calm, because the puppy was on his best behavior during the walk home. As she brought out her first aid kit, Max settled onto her hot-pink rug for a nap.
“Nice rug,” Ezra said with a grin. “Very…bright.”
“That’s me. Bright.” Bright? She felt her face heat until it had to be as pink as the rug. Was it too late to take the words back? Because she really wanted to take the words back.
Not that it would matter. She was sure to say something else awkward soon. And, even if she could cure herself of foot-in-mouth disease, a homebody like her had no chance with Ezra. The man ran into burning buildings on a daily basis. She could only imagine what he did for fun. Probably jump out of planes or climb sheer rock faces. She much preferred a warm mug of hot chocolate and a game of Scrabble.
So, putting her fantasies aside, she concentrated on getting the supplies she needed from the first aid kit.
“Chasing after a hyperactive puppy must seem tame compared to your job,” she said, as she cleaned Ezra’s cut.
He shrugged. “Actually, I spend most of my time sitting around the station waiting for something to happen. Which is why I’m a Scrabble champ.”
He laughed. “What’s wrong? I don’t look like a Scrabble player?” His voice went low and intimate. “Honey, I have all kinds of hidden skills.”
She couldn’t let herself think about what that might mean or she wouldn’t stop blushing for a week. “Maybe you can beat the other firemen at Scrabble, but I’ll bet I could kick your ass.”
“Normally, I’d take you up on that challenge. But I have to get to work.”
“Oh.” She’d finished bandaging his cut, so she forced herself to let go of him. Sometimes it sucked to be good at your job. “Of course.”
“But if you’re taking Max to the park tomorrow, I could stop by to make sure he’s behaving.”
For one wild moment, Abby considered calling Keri to extend Max’s stay, but common sense won out. “I’m afraid we won’t be there. My temporary dog-sitting duty ends tomorrow morning when my friend comes back from Reno. She took her husband there for a romantic getaway. Though, why she thinks Reno is romantic is beyond me. I’m pretty sure there’s a story there.” Stop babbling, Abby. “But, anyway, I won’t have time to take Max to the park tomorrow.”
Was it her imagination, or was he disappointed? And not just because he wouldn’t see Max again.
He knelt down and scratched Max behind the ears. “I guess this is goodbye then, buddy.
She heard Liv’s voice in her head. Really? You’re going to let a hot fireman walk out the door? Take him into the bedroom and show him why he should stay.
Over the last six months, she’d learned that Liv thought most of life’s problems could be solved inside the bedroom.
Luckily, Imaginary Keri chimed in with more practical advice. At least ask him out.
“But if you’d like to get together for lunch,” she said to Ezra, “I know a place with great burgers.”
“I never say no to a burger.” He stood, coming deliciously close to her. “Until tomorrow, then.”
Giddy sparks blazed from every nerve ending in her body. She grinned. With Ezra looking at her, she couldn’t help it. “Until tomorrow.
She watched until he disappeared out the door, and then she sat down on the couch. Max hopped onto the cushion next to her.
She scratched the fur between his ears, the way Ezra had. “You found me a good one, boy.”
He curled up as close to her as he could get, one paw over her hand, and she fell in love for the second time that day.
MARRIAGE: IMPOSSIBLE: Sean didn’t mean to marry his best friend’s sister, Keri. But he’s determined to make the best of this Marriage: Impossible.
PRETTY IN INK: Liv needs a fake boyfriend whose name matches her tattoo. But can she survive a month with her childhood crush without falling in love for real?