Ellie was a soggy, soapy mess of bubbles and puppy fur. By some miracle, a few strands of her hair had survived the battle to bathe Chewie, one of the litter of four she’d found at the front door of her clinic, dirty, scrawny and huddled together in a cardboard box.
It wasn’t the first time since she’d opened her vet clinic four years ago that animals had been abandoned at the door. Once, she’d even found a lovebird waiting for her. One lovebird. Everyone knew lovebirds were a pair. Ellie couldn’t stand to see animals abandoned or put down, not if there was the slimmest chance someone could love them and give them a home.
Fortunately, these four babies would be adopted soon. Puppies always were. They were part Lab and part a whole bunch of mutt. Chewie was chocolate brown, like his namesake, and his hair was velvety and curly, more retriever-like. His shimmery brown baby eyes filled with longing every time he gazed at her. I might have to keep this one. As she poured water over him, he launched himself into her arms trying to cling to the large rubber apron she wore. Before she could disentangle him and put his butt back in the water, the bell over the front door rang. Damn! She’d meant to lock it. She kept Chewie attached to her chest with one hand, grabbed a towel to wrap around him with her other and headed out front.
Holy cow! “Can I…ah, help you?” The man stood by the front window, silhouetted by the fading evening light. Huge and gorgeous with rugged tan skin, black hair curling over his collar and the coolest blue-green eyes she’d ever seen. Ellie almost sighed, but that flash of beauty disappeared in an instant. Anger radiated from him.
“What the hell is going on, Ken?” he said into his phone, but he pierced her with his gaze.
His anger vibrated over them. Chewie started shaking in her arms and buried his head in the towel. “I’m sorry, sir, but can I help you? This is my—”
“What do I mean?” he ignored her to yell into his phone. “I’m standing here on my property that still has tenants in it. Explain!”
Sheesh. She leaned back with the force of his words. “It’s okay, baby,” she cooed to the shivering puppy in her arms. “Sir,” she called louder this time, “we’re closed right now and you’re scaring the animals. If you wouldn’t mind taking your phone call outside, I—”
He sliced his hand up to silence her.
Excuse me? She was not about to let this foul-mouthed jerk boss her around, but before she could say anything else, he hung up. “If you were closed, why was your door unlocked?”
“What?” It wasn’t merely his size or harsh tone that had her brain malfunctioning. She couldn’t keep up with his line of questioning.
“Your door,” he said, his tone singeing her. “Why would a woman like you leave her door unlocked while she’s here by herself?”
‘A woman like you?’ Ellie flinched. She didn’t even want to know what he meant by that comment. She’d spent eighteen years of her life with people putting her down. No way in hell she was going to listen to more of it, not after she’d clawed her way out of that filth so long ago. She chose to focus on only part of what he said.
“I’m not alone.” She scrubbed the soft puppy.
“Jesus.” He closed his eyes.
She certainly didn’t know what that meant. His swearing said a lot, but at the same time it didn’t really say anything.
“Would you mind not swearing?”
“I said, would you—”
“I heard you.”
Okay, now she was getting angry. “Listen. I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but, like I said, we’re closed for the evening and I need to get home. You can make an appointment or come back in the morning when we open.” God, she hoped he didn’t come back.
“You should have been closed for good a week ago. Closed and vacated.”
“What? What do you mean? This is my clinic. I signed a lease through the end of the year. That’s seven months away.”
“I know when the end of the year is.”
The man had a degree in condescending behavior. His tone, his attitude, his entire demeanor said power and money, and the tailored gray suit, black dress shirt and shoes all bragged of wealth. The way he tried to silence her with his hand in the air. She couldn’t stand people thinking they were better than everyone else. It got her hackles up. That and the way he studied her, assessing.
“I was stating the terms so you could realize your mistake and apologize for barging in here with your atrocious behavior and yelling at me.”
He stared at her again. His features transformed from a pissed-off beast to a quiet, controlled predator. As if he carefully leashed his temper, and instead saw her as a problem to be solved. His eyes were calculating. It sent a nervous tingle up her spine.
“Well?” she prompted, trying to act braver than she felt. Chewie’s heartbeat raced against hers. He wiggled to get loose from her tight hold.
“Terms have changed.” He raised an eyebrow. Those eyes of his were a mysterious blue-green, like a deep pristine lake surrounded by mountains. And when he wasn’t yelling, his voice soothed. He took a step toward her which jarred her out of her observations. She leaned back.
“What terms? Who are you?” She had to look up now. Jesus, he was well over six feet tall.
“Jackson Kincaid. I’m the new owner of this block. I’m tearing the entire thing down. Everyone was supposed to be vacated last week at the latest,” he finished, delivering the blow to her gut just when the wriggling mass in her arms threw himself onto the floor and shook his sudsy, wet puppy body all over the man. Unable to find traction on the slippery floor, the pup flopped over on his back and clung to Jackson’s pants with his tiny claws.
“Christ!” He reached down and plucked the pup up into the air, holding him away from his body.
“The new owner? Of the whole block? And you’re tearing it all down?” She was surprised she could even find her voice at the shock. “You can’t.”
“I can,” he said, glaring at her with that raised-eyebrow thing he did that made her feel ten instead of twenty-seven.
“Can’t.” She’d found her voice again, getting pissed.
“Can,” he said, leaning in.
“You’re a bully!” Anger heated her blood. “You don’t even know me or the Heelys, or Carl and his daughter. I know your kind. And I won’t let you come in here and intimidate me.”
“You won’t?” He looked at her questioningly. Or was he teasing her? She’d been so busy yelling, it almost sounded now as if he were fighting back laughter.
“No, I won’t.”
“And how do you plan to stop me?”
But she didn’t get a chance to speak because Chewie let loose and peed all over Mr. Bully, drenching his perfect-fitting suit and his expensive leather dress shoes.
Ellie watched, frozen in place while he blinked. Oh, shit! “I…I am so sorry. He’s just a, well—”
“Puppy. Got it,” he clipped.
“Someone left a litter at the door and I had to get them clean. He’s not trained.”
“Yeah. I got that too.”
“Here,” she said quietly, trading him a towel for Chewie.
“Fuck! This day keeps getting better. Slime of the earth in my office earlier. Get over here to check out my buildings, find the tenants still here, an ignorant blonde and now I have puppy piss all over me.” He wiped at his wet shirt and jacket with the towel.
She soothed Chewie and bristled at the ignorant blonde comment.
“Look, I’m sorry about what happened, but there’s no need to be rude. You don’t know me, which means you don’t get to call me ignorant. What I know from your behavior is that you’re an arrogant jerk who needs lessons in manners.”
His eyes met hers, and the heat in them made her suck in her breath. Okay, maybe she’d gotten carried away and should really learn when to stay quiet. He acted like a jerk, but it wasn’t like she had to point it out to him. Belatedly she realized it was kind of like teasing a hungry lion.
“Not ignorant?” His voice had turned low. Yup, definitely poking a lion. “You’re here alone. It’s dark. Every store along this street is closed. It’s a sketchy neighborhood at best, and you leave your door unlocked?”
“Why do you care?” Ellie was confused by this entire conversation.
“Why?” He prowled closer. Okay, she should definitely be more careful about locking her door. “You. Here. Alone. Any cracked-up junkie could come right in and take what he wanted.” He waved his hand up and down her body to indicate what that might mean.
“Now you’re freaking me out and being rude.” Her voice wasn’t above a whisper, but he heard it.
“Yeah, maybe you’ll be freaked out enough next time to lock your fucking door.”
Okay, she was exhausted, and hurt by his words, although she didn’t understand why, since he was nothing to her. She wasn’t good in situations like this—no matter how many years and miles away she was from her childhood, nasty people still affected her ability to be strong. It was painful to realize she hadn’t gotten better at handling it at all. “Right. I understand,” she began without any of the anger or passion lacing her words. “And I, ah, appreciate your concern, even if it’s delivered in a yelling, jerky way, but you don’t need to worry about me.”
He braced back as if she’d slapped him. “You’re kidding me?”
“No. Anyway, my night vet tech should be here any minute. Plus, I have Buffy. She’s a great judge of character.”
Ellie pointed toward the corner where her ten-year-old, one-hundred-pound Rottweiler slept on her dog bed, snoring away.
“Right, I can see how Buffy, who hasn’t moved a muscle except to snore since I got here, is a perfect guard dog.”
Ellie brushed back the curls that had slipped out of her ponytail. “If we continue this conversation tonight, you’re going to throw your stuck-up disbelief and insults in my face, and as pleasant as it seems to be for you, it’s not for me.
“I’ve been here since six, on my feet all day, which normally I don’t mind because I love my job, but I had a horrible surgery on a dog. My assistant left at noon. I still have to get this little guy and his siblings settled for the night, which means fed, taken out to pee, shots and crates. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Dinner is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before I face-plant into bed. You come in and threaten my clinic, no correction, my dream, which I worked my butt off to open. Maybe you could come back tomorrow, or we could meet for coffee and you can tell me, if you really are the new owner, what I have to do to convince you not to tear this block of buildings down. Then we can both go our separate ways and never see each other again.”
It almost hurt her to say those words, because even though he was a total jerk, he was beautiful to look at. But horrors could hide behind beautiful appearances, something she was all too aware of. After all, her mother was a gorgeous model, but underneath she was crazy mean, and Ellie was the one who had taken the brunt of it.
He studied her while she spoke, silent and assessing again. Then he reached by her to grab one of her business cards from the counter. “Dr. Ellie Blevins, you think you can convince me not to tear this bag of bones down and build up a new condo development that will make billions?”
Billions? Did every battle she fought in this life have to be so outrageously difficult? This block was special. It wasn’t only her clinic. It was the bakery, the hardware store that Carl and his daughter ran, her friend Ruby’s spa, Lachlan’s pub. This neighborhood burst with potential. And the park at the end of the block right along the river was lovely. The bonds she’d formed here, the true friendships, would make her fight back, even if she didn’t feel brave enough for herself.
“It’s not a bag of bones. It’s a block of old, historic buildings that need love and care,” she began. But standing there, taking in his polished rich-man strength, it was futile to convince him of anything. “You know what? Deal me the death blow now. I’d like to review the lease I signed before I throw in the towel and start looking for a new space and a new home, because I can tell there’s no way you and I will ever be on the same page.”
“What?” she said.
“You said, ‘a new space and a new home’?”
“I live in the apartment above the French Connection Bakery. Mr. and Mrs. Heely have owned it for twenty-five years.” There she was, exhausted-sharing again. And there he stood intense-staring. She closed her eyes at the craziest, weirdest conversation she’d ever had, and realized Chewie was asleep on her chest with his tiny head nuzzled in her neck. Oh, soft love, she thought, if only people were more like dogs, so trusting, kind, and loving.
“One month,” he said.
“One month to be out of—”
“I’ll give you one month to try to convince me.”
“You spend time with me for the next month. We get to know each other, and you can state your case.”
“Spend time with you?” Is he insane?
“You said you wanted to try to convince me to change my mind.”
“Oh,” she whispered, confused again.
“You open tomorrow?”
“Yes,” she said quickly, thinking maybe they’d tested each other’s patience enough for one evening.
“Right, then. Tomorrow. Lock your door.” Then he was gone, leaving her more confused than ever.
“Lock your door!” he yelled from outside, startling her out of her spot.
She went to the door, locked it, drew the blinds down and blew out a breath. “What in the heck just happened? I feel like a tornado blew through here and tossed us sideways into outer space. And what does ‘tomorrow’ mean? Is he coming back? Am I supposed to appear before him like a magician?”
She looked at Chewie and spoke into the empty waiting area with Buffy chasing squirrels in her dreams. Holy cow! Holy freaking cow! This place is everything to me, more than my hopes and dreams—it’s my safe place. One single month to convince an angry lion not to eat her up? She might be an awesome veterinarian, but there were absolutely no instructions for how to communicate with a beast like Jackson Kincaid.