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Once Upon a Puppy
By Lizzie Shane
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In retrospect, a 140-pound Irish wolfhound mix might not have been his best impulse purchase, Connor Wyeth acknowledged when he stepped out of his home office and saw the wreckage of his six-thousand-dollar couch.
Not that he made many impulse purchases. Or any, for that matter.
Connor was a planner. Even Maximus—the canine culprit responsible for dragging the massive couch halfway across the living room and shredding the cushions until the entire room was littered in white fuzz—had been part of a plan.
Just not a particularly well-thought-out one.
Max’s booming bark echoed off the high ceilings as the big dope galumphed gleefully between the front door and the living room crime scene. Spotting Connor, he slid to a stop on the polished hardwood floors and raced back to the entry. Maximus barked again through the glass that flanked the dark polished-wood door at whoever was on the other side, before looking over his shaggy shoulder at Connor, with his jaws gaping and his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth in that patented come-on-you’re-missing-all-the-fun canine grin.
And Connor realized again how completely out of his depth he was as a dog owner.
Since he’d ostensibly gotten Maximus as a guard dog and early warning system to deter his friends from just waltzing into his house whenever they pleased, the trainer had told him he should praise Max when he barked at intruders. Connor was also supposed to scold Max when he did things like dismember the furniture, but scolding him now wouldn’t do any good—not that it ever seemed to do any good—so Connor resigned himself to the loss of his couch and went to open the door.
He hooked a finger around Max’s collar to remind him of the we-do-not-put-our-paws-on-guests’-shoulders-and-lick-their-faces rule and pulled the door open.
“No solicitors,” Connor growled at one of his three oldest friends, standing on his doorstep with his arms bowing around a bulging bag and a collection of lawn signs. They were sideways, but the block print on them was clearly legible: BENJAMIN WEST FOR MAYOR. THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR PINE HOLLOW.
The signs made a good prop, but they both knew Ben wasn’t here about the upcoming election. Not today.
Connor glowered—and Ben shoved past him, undeterred. “I brought lunch.”
“And lawn signs.”
Connor closed the door before releasing the hound. Max immediately lunged toward Ben, eagerly snuffling at the bag in his arms. It started to slip toward his eager jaws, and Connor swiftly rescued the food so Ben could kick off his shoes and prop the lawn signs against the window.
“I’m not putting those up,” Connor warned. “I haven’t decided who I’m voting for yet.”
Ben ignored the blatant lie, reclaiming the lunch bag and starting toward the kitchen. “Tandy Watts put a banner on her porch. You can see it from space.”
Normally Connor would give Ben a hard time—what else were friends for?—but there was a note of anxiety in his friend’s voice that had him reassuring him instead. “No one is voting for Tandy Watts. She’s only running because she wants to overturn the zoning decision you guys made against her last year, and the entire town knows it. You have experience on the council, and you’re Delia’s pick. Relax.”
“I don’t know why I wanted to run for mayor,” Ben grumbled as he reached the kitchen and drew up short, staring past the island toward the fuzz explosion in the living room. “Redecorating?”
Connor put his body between Ben and the view, wishing, not for the first time since he’d bought the sprawling, open-concept house, that it was a little less sprawling and open concept. “Max was playing on the couch while I worked. I haven’t had a chance to clean it up.”
The dog chose that moment to race past, running the length of the house to leap onto the couch, sending it sliding across the polished hardwood floors, careening toward the—very breakable—glass coffee table. Luckily, the coffee table slid as well, rather than tipping and shattering—and Maximus gleefully flipped a pillow into the air.
“Max!” He tried to mimic the tone the trainer had used—the one that seemed to make all the dogs in the class sit up a little straighter. Maximus perked up, whipping toward the sound of Connor’s voice. He sprang to his feet on the couch, his ears pricked forward, his jaws gaping in that dopey canine grin.
“Off!” Connor demanded.
The dog looked at him, cocking his head in confusion.
“Off!” Connor repeated, moving to drag Maximus off the couch—easier said than done when the dog in question weighed almost as much as an adult human and was eagerly licking every inch of Connor’s face he could reach.
He finally ended up scooping the dog up in his arms and depositing him on the floor with a last firm “Off.”
While Max licked him happily.
“Have you considered actually training him?” Ben asked, having set their lunch in the kitchen and wandered over to watch the show.
“I am training him,” Connor snapped—his voice sharp enough that Max paused in mid-lick, his ears twitching.
“Uh-huh.” Ben folded his arms. “You know you might have to attend the training classes you paid for in order for them to take effect. Though I’m sure Ally’s happy to have your money either way.”
Ben’s girlfriend, Ally, ran the shelter in town, which offered training classes with a special discount for anyone who’d adopted their dogs from Furry Friends. The same classes Connor had had the best intention of attending every Monday. Before work had gotten busy, like it always did.
“I forgot to put them on my calendar.”
Ben snorted. “You never forget anything.”
“Fine.” It was so annoying when his friends knew him too well. “I got busy.”
“You’re always busy. But I’ve recently discovered that being busy doesn’t have to preclude you from having a life. It’s a fascinating revelation. You should consider it.”
“Having a revelation?” he drawled sarcastically.
“Getting a life.”
“My life is fine,” he growled—looking at Maximus instead of Ben, since neither of them would be able to let the falsehood stand if Connor met his eyes.
His life wasn’t fine. Especially not today. But he didn’t want to talk about it.
Not with Levi, who’d dropped by this morning claiming to be “in the area.” Not with his mother, who’d called him three times already today with made-up things she absolutely needed his input on. Not with Mac, who was sure to appear as soon as the Cup hit the afternoon lull.
And certainly not with Ben.
Ben was in that obnoxious smugly-in-love phase where he fixated on all the wonderful parts of being with someone and developed strategic amnesia when it came to the ripping-the-rug-out-from-under-you shit that happened when it all fell apart.
When you came home expecting to find a fiancée and found a Post-it note instead.
Maximus snapped at a piece of fuzz floating in the air, and Connor focused on the dog and the welcome distraction from his thoughts. “This is your fault,” he growled at Ben, straightening to head back toward the kitchen and the promise of lunch. “You’re the one who kept insisting I needed a dog.”
“You did need a dog.”
It was galling to admit, but Ben was right. Connor had isolated himself too much—starting exactly one year ago today—locking himself in his own head and dedicating himself to his work with what might have been a slightly unhealthy obsession.
Maximus had been the antidote to that.
Connor couldn’t lose himself in work until one in the morning every day if he had a dog to feed and walk—though walking Max was usually an exercise in being dragged around the neighborhood. The wolfhound mutt had never been trained as a puppy, and now he was a full-grown wrecking ball of love.
Connor wouldn’t trade him for anything.
Ben unpacked the to-go containers from the Cup—and Connor tried not to wonder if he’d been the primary topic of conversation while Mac was packing up the order. The restaurant was a well-known gossip hub in Pine Hollow. It was probably too much to hope that the entire town didn’t know what day it was. February first.
It would have been nice if Connor could have avoided the anniversary of his public humiliation without comment, but that wasn’t how life in a small town worked.
He knew they supported him, but the pity felt like acid on his skin.
“You really should come to the training classes,” Ben commented as he slid Connor’s usual across the island toward him, and they both dug in. “Even Partridge is making progress, and he’s not exactly a fast learner.”
Ben and the niece he was raising had adopted the drooly bulldog around the same time Connor had adopted Maximus.
“Partridge has Astrid.” Connor pointed out the unfair comparison. “Who would spend every waking second working on his training with him if she could.”
“True. And I fully support her obsession. At least if she’s working with Partridge she’s not dropping not-so-subtle hints about me proposing to Ally.”
Connor jerked at the words, startled. “Already?”
They’d been dating less than two months. Talking about marriage now was insane. But then he’d dated Monica for three years and been engaged for another two before she’d decided, thirteen days before the wedding, that she couldn’t spend her life with him after all.
Maybe going fast was the way to do it. Commit before you had time to second-guess.
Ben swore softly under his breath, studying Connor’s face. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be talking about that today. I wasn’t thinking.”
And there it was. Today. The Anniversary. Ben wasn’t usually that direct. Over the last year they’d steered well clear of She Who Must Not Be Named.
Connor took a firm left turn away from the subject. “You putting up lawn signs all over town, or are you expecting me to put all three of those in my front yard?”
Ben eyed him for a moment before accepting the shift in topic. “You do have a big front yard.”
“Yeah, but three seems a little excessive, don’t you think? I’m not sure I support you that much. There are limits to three decades of friendship.”
“One sign for each decade. That seems fair.” An alarm went off on Ben’s phone and he silenced it, rising from the barstools at the island. “I’ve gotta get back to work. Will I actually see you tonight at Furry Friends?”
“Yeah, of course. I haven’t been skipping the classes on purpose.” Not entirely. “Things are just really busy.”
Ben headed toward the front door, and Connor fell into step at his side while Maximus’s snores echoed in the living room.
“How’s the partner stuff going?” Ben asked, bending to grab his shoes.
“Too early to tell.”
“Good luck.” Ben hesitated after putting on his shoes—and Connor resisted the urge to physically shove him out the door before he could start talking about the Anniversary.
Thankfully, Ben left without any more concerned looks, and Connor shut the door behind him, wondering if he could somehow head off Mac’s inevitable visit. Mac was the most likely to come right out and ask him how he was feeling.
His friends and family were all checking on him, but he was fine. Or at least on his way toward it.
He had a Plan now.
The Plan was the reason he had Max. It was the reason he was going to make partner. And it was going to get him back on track for the life he should already be living. Perfect job. Perfect house. Perfect family.
He had the house. The job was all but guaranteed after the last twelve months of obsessively putting in more hours than any of the other associates at his law firm. And the family would follow, just as soon as he had a little more time to dedicate to finding the One. A woman who appreciated everything he had to offer—stability, loyalty, dependability. A woman who wouldn’t just say she wanted those things and then run off to India two weeks before they were supposed to exchange vows. A woman who would stay.
Connor hadn’t meant to avoid relationships for so long. He’d had a steady stream of steady girlfriends since he started dating. His high school girlfriend—whom he’d broken up with amicably to go to Yale. His college girlfriend—who had broken up with him amicably when they got into law schools across the country from one another. His law school girlfriend—with whom he had amicably parted ways when she wanted to stay in DC to clerk for an appeals court judge and he wanted to move back to Vermont to focus on corporate law and have a family.
And then Monica.
It was hard to describe his fiancée dumping him via Post-it two weeks prior to their wedding as anything resembling amicable.
So, yes, maybe he had been a little bitter, a little angry. Maybe he had thrown himself into work a little too hard and cursed the entire female half of the species with a little more enthusiasm than they probably deserved. Maybe he had avoided women except for the occasional Tinder hookup when he was down in New York for business—always casual, no expectations. But that was all behind him. He was starting fresh this year. Thanks to the Plan.
Impatient to get back to work, but knowing the mess would distract him until he took care of it, Connor went to clean up the fluff minefield that had once been his living room. He’d just shoved the couch back into position when Maximus snorted awake. He trotted over to “help,” putting his front paws on the couch, his jaws hanging open in a happy canine smile.
“You pleased with yourself?” He took the dog’s giant head between his hands, ruffling his ears. The dog groaned, leaning into Connor’s hands, his soulful black eyes gazing adoringly into Connor’s as Connor said the same thing he’d said at least five hundred times in the five weeks since he’d become a dog owner. “You aren’t allowed on the furniture.”
Or the counter. Or the roof of my car.
But how did he teach Max that when he couldn’t physically wrestle him down?
“We’re going back to obedience class tonight,” he informed Max. “Even if everyone is going to be giving me pity looks.”
Nudging Maximus’s bulk out of the way, he brushed the fuzz off the couch. On closer inspection it looked like the couch had mostly survived whatever game Maximus had been playing. Only one of the throw pillows had exploded and rained its innards across his hardwood floors.
Considering that pillow had been one of Monica’s additions, maybe Max had done him a favor.
His cell phone rang as Connor ruffled Max on the head. “Good dog. Never do that again.”
He caught Max’s collar, guiding him into the office and shutting the door so he could keep an eye on him as he worked. He started every day that way, but Connor had a tendency to get so engrossed in what he was concentrating on that when Max scratched at the door to be let out, he would automatically open the door for him without realizing he’d done it until he heard a crash in the kitchen. Or the living room. Or the bathroom.
Seeing his mentor’s name on the caller ID, Connor quickly tapped to connect the call through his Bluetooth before it could go to voice mail. “Davis, how are you?”
The partner who had taken Connor under his wing at Sterling, Tavish & Karlson cleared his throat roughly, an affectation Connor had come to associate with bad news. He braced a hand on his desk—and Max looked up from his dog bed, concern in his liquid black eyes.
“Connor. I just had a chance to look at that Johnson contract, and I wanted to tell you how pleased the whole firm is with your work.”
Connor frowned. Davis Aquino never called him just to give him an attaboy. No one had time for that. “You aren’t calling to tell me ‘good job.’”
The throat clearing came again, followed by a heavy sigh. “Look, Connor. You’re our workhorse. Everyone knows how much you do for this firm, and I know you’d been hoping to make partner this year…”
Shit. Shit shit shit. “But?”
“We don’t want to lose you. You’re an incredibly valuable associate, but at the moment the senior partners are leaning in another direction.”
“Is this a joke?” His unfiltered reaction burst out of his mouth—because this was Davis and not one of the other partners. “Who do they think does more for the firm than I do?”
“No one works as hard as you, but for some of the partners that’s actually one of their concerns, that you’ll burn yourself out. That you don’t have work-life balance or any kind of a stress-release valve, and you’ll be running on empty by the time you’re thirty-five.”
“I don’t need a release valve,” Connor said, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice. “I’m good.”
“Good,” Davis replied. “That’s good. But there are other concerns.”
Connor forced himself to breathe. He’d carefully picked this firm. A place he knew he could rise. He’d been the perfect employee for years and there were concerns? “Such as?”
“Being a partner isn’t just about being a workhorse. It’s about representing us. Being a leader within the firm and the community. There’s a social aspect, and with you working mostly from home—”
“We agreed that made the most sense. Less time wasted on an unnecessary commute when I can easily work remotely.” The firm was based in Burlington, though so many of their clients also did business in New York that Connor was licensed in both states. He so rarely met clients in the office that Davis had encouraged him to work from home.
“That’s true, but there’s something to be said for being visible.”
“I’ll start working from the office.” He would have to find someone to look after Max. Maybe Ally knew someone.
“It’s not about being in the office more. It’s also our events. You know STK prides itself on our engagement in the community, our charitable work—and you’ve been skipping most of our charity events for the last year or so.”
Ever since he’d stopped being the golden boy. Stopped having the perfect woman on his arm and become the one everyone looked at with pity and asked how he was holding up. The events had gone from being chummy to excruciating. “I realize I haven’t been as active, but I’m turning over a new leaf.”
“Look, Connor, I love you. You’d be my pick every day of the week, but it isn’t my call, and Brent and Lila especially are looking for something else. I figured you deserved a heads-up. I don’t want you to feel blindsided. You’re still incredibly valuable to STK.”
Acid burned in his throat. “That’s it then? It’s a done deal?”
“Not yet,” Davis assured him. “They still haven’t made the final decision, but it would be an uphill battle for you, and maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if you take a different path. We want to keep you happy. You can do very well as an associate. Not everyone needs to be partner.”
But that was The Plan.
It was all he’d been working toward for the last year. For his entire life, really, but it had only been an all-consuming obsession since Monica left—and apparently took his best chance of making partner with her.
If she’d stuck around, he’d still be going to the charity events, with his wife on his arm. She’d probably be pregnant with their first kid by now—concrete evidence of work-life balance. He’d be commiserating with coworkers about married life and impending fatherhood. He would have gotten to know more of the new associates, demonstrated his leadership abilities. His life would still be right where it was supposed to be instead of…
He looked around the office. All work and no play. Max rose from his dog bed and padded over, draping his massive head on Connor’s desk next to his hand. Connor absently stroked his shaggy head, smoothing his thumb between his ears.
“Connor?” Davis’s voice crackled through the earpiece.
“Yeah. Thanks for the warning. A lot to think about.”
“You’re really valued,” Davis said—and Connor could almost hear his management training courses in the words.
Make employees feel that their talents and contributions are valued and appreciated.
And he did feel that way. But he wanted more. He wanted a stake. He wanted partnership. The security of knowing that he wasn’t just an employee. That he owned his piece of the firm. He’d wanted that since he was nine freaking years old.
And he wasn’t giving up now.
He said goodbye to Davis after a few minutes discussing the work he was doing for another client—a conversation he barely remembered, his thoughts were so thoroughly consumed by the partnership bombshell.
He knew it had never been a lock. There were always more associates vying for partner than there were slots available—but he’d put in more hours than any of them. He’d earned this. And he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers because the rest of his life had gone a little off track last year.
Making partner had been part of The Plan. Get a dog. Make partner. Find the One. Get married. Have kids. Five simple steps. But maybe it was time to shake up the order. Maybe he needed to start dating again right away. Find a nice girl to bring with him to a few of the firm’s charity events to show the senior partners that he had balance, that he was a team player.
When he’d initially made The Plan, he’d intended to start dating right away—but then he’d gotten busy and his best intentions had fallen to the side. But now…now dating was a responsibility, and Connor Wyeth never shirked his responsibilities.
Max sat down, leaning his bulk against Connor’s chair, so Connor had to brace his feet to keep it from rolling sideways.
He pulled up the app store on his phone, scrolling through and downloading several dating apps. He had work to do.
Then he’d take Max to obedience class tonight and figure out how to keep the dog from destroying his house.
It felt good to have a plan.
Deenie Mitchell was at her best when she improvised.
It was part of what made her so successful at hosting princess parties for children—she never got too glued to a plan, always ready to adapt on the fly.
So when she walked into the farmhouse forty-five minutes before the Furry Friends Monday training session was supposed to start to find Ally in a panic because the trainer from Burlington had come down with food poisoning and wasn’t going to make it, Deenie did exactly what she always did. She rolled with the punches.
“I have to cancel,” Ally groaned, still gripping her cell phone and staring at the ominous food-poisoning text.
“No, you don’t.” Deenie took Ally’s phone and flipped open the Magda’s Bakery pastry box she’d brought home after visiting her aunt, shoving a piece of flaky raspberry–cream cheese decadence into Ally’s hand instead. “Eat this. Magda’s pastries solve all problems.”
“I don’t see how,” Ally argued. “I have six paying customers arriving in less than an hour and no expert trainer to offer them. We promised them a certified professional every week.” She took a bite of the pastry and groaned—though it was unclear whether it was with bliss at Magda’s sinful skills or dread at having to cancel one of the classes in the pilot program designed to revitalize the Furry Friends Animal Shelter and turn it into a full-service pet mecca.
- “The endearing characters will capture readers’ hearts from the first page… It’s hard not to fall in love with this spirited tale.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Could not put it down . . . Beautifully written.”—Harlequin Junkie
- On Sale
- May 25, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages