A hero barely holding on…
Harrison Conrad returned to Scarlet Springs from Nepal, the sole survivor of a freak accident on Mt. Everest. Shattered and grieving for his friends, he vows never to climb again and retreats into a bottle of whiskey—until Kenzie Morgan shows up at his door with a tiny puppy asking for his help. He’s the last person in the world she should ask to foster this little furball. He’s barely capable of managing his own life right now, let alone caring for a helpless, adorable, fluffy puppy. But Conrad has always had a thing for Kenzie with her bright smile and sweet curves.One look into her pleading blue eyes, and he can’t say no.
The woman who won’t let him fall…
Kenzie Morgan’s life went to the dogs years ago. A successful search dog trainer and kennel owner, she gets her fill of adventure volunteering for the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team. The only thing missing from her busy life is love. It’s not easy finding Mr. Right in a small mountain town, especially when she’s unwilling to date climbers. She long ago swore never again to fall for a guy who might one day leave her for a rock. When Conrad returns from a climbing trip haunted by the catastrophe that killed his best friend, Kenzie can see he’s hurting and wants to help. She just might have the perfect way to bring him back to the world of the living. But friendship quickly turns into something more—and now she’s risking her heart to heal his.
Read an excerpt below...
Conrad was asleep when the knock came at his door. Who the hell would bother him so early in the morning? He raised his head, looked at the clock.
It was almost noon. “Shit.”
He shoved the blankets aside, stepped into the pair of jeans that lay on the floor, and strode out to the living room to open the door. “Kenzie.”
“Hey.” She stood on his porch looking beautiful in a peach V-neck T-shirt and jeans that made the most of her curves, her long hair drawn back in a ponytail. In her arms was a tiny, squirming puppy. “I hope I’m not bothering you.”
“Not at all. I was just … uh… ” He ran a hand through the tangled mess of hair on his head, wondering when he’d last had a shower and hoping he didn’t stink. “I was just about to jump in the shower. Come in.”
He glanced around at the mess—pizza boxes, beer bottles, piles of unopened mail from his PO box. “Sorry. I need to clean this place up.”
She stepped inside, set the puppy on the floor. It bounded over to a pizza box and sniffed. “I came to ask you a really big favor.”
It was then Conrad noticed the worry on her face. He gestured toward the sofa. “Have a seat. What’s wrong?”
Kenzie sat on the sofa. “It’s the puppy. Her name is Gabby.”
Conrad glanced down at the little thing. “Hey, Gabby.”
The puppy pawed at the pizza box, her little tail wagging.
“Gizmo is six now—that’s about forty-two in golden retriever years. He’s still healthy, but it takes a while to train a dog for SAR work. So I got little Gabby here. She’s ten weeks old—the perfect age to start training—but Gizmo doesn’t want her around. She’s got so much energy. She’s always hopping on him and trying to play with him. She gets on his nerves.”
Gizmo had always seemed like a friendly dog to Conrad, one that got along well with dogs and people. But what did Conrad know?
Kenzie went on. “I think he’ll have an easier time dealing with her when she’s a little older. I was really hoping you could foster her for me—just for a month or so. It’s essential that she begin her training now if she’s going to get certified, but the situation with Gizmo is making that hard for me. He’s jealous.”
Conrad must have misunderstood. “You want me to foster the puppy?”
“Yes, please. Just for a little while. I’ll tell you everything you need to know. She’s a really good little girl.”
“Isn’t there someone else?” The last thing Conrad needed in his life right now was some little creature depending on him.
Hadn’t he vowed never to take responsibility for another life again?
Kenzie shook her head. “Most of the people I know work all day or have new babies or dogs. There really isn’t anyone else I would trust with her.”
“I don’t know how my landlord would feel about my having a pet. She might pee on the carpet or something. He’s trying to sell the place.”
Kenzie glanced down at the worn green shag carpeting. “Anyone who buys this house is going to want to replace this carpet before they move in anyway.”
Yeah, that was probably true.
Conrad was running out of excuses.
“Besides,” Kenzie added, “there are ways to prevent accidents. Puppies aren’t rocket science.”
“I’m not really in a great space now.” He hated having to admit that.
“Neither is Gabby.”
The puppy had wandered over to Conrad’s feet. She sniffed, looked up at him through big, brown eyes, a creamy ball of complete innocence.
He was screwed.
He bent down, picked up the furball, and held her. She was small enough that he could hold her in one hand.
She licked his face, her little tail wagging.
Kenzie smiled. “I think she likes you.”
“She probably likes everyone.” Conrad reluctantly set her down again. “I’d like to help, but I have to find a job.”
“How’s the job search going?”
What could he say? It wasn’t going. He hadn’t filled out a single application.
“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do.”
Kenzie nodded as if this made sense. “How about this? If you have a job interview, you can always drop her by the kennel.”
He supposed that would work. “What about training her? I don’t want her to be an SAR dropout because of me.”
Kenzie laughed. “Training a puppy this age isn’t very involved, and Gabby is super smart. I’ll help.”
Conrad watched the puppy bound around his living room, stumbling over a pile of mail and sending letters scattering around the floor.
“Please, Conrad. It would be such a huge help to me.”
Conrad met Kenzie’s gaze, about to tell her that he wasn’t the man for this job, but the pleading look in those blue eyes stopped him. “Okay, but don’t hold it against me if she flunks out of rescue school.”
Kenzie jumped up, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed his cheek. “Thanks so much, Harrison! You’re a life-saver.”
No. No, he wasn’t. But he could at least help Kenzie with this.
“Can you help me carry her stuff inside?”
“Yeah, okay.” How much stuff could a little puppy have?
Kenzie hated lying to Harrison. Not that this was a bad lie. She was trying to help him. Still, what she’d told him wasn’t true.
She carried a box of puppy toys and the bag of puppy food inside and set them down in the kitchen. Then she went out to grab the bag of groceries she’d bought for him and put the salad veggies, meat, seafood, cheese, milk, and eggs in the prehistoric mint-green fridge. “Does this thing even work?”
Harrison saw what she was doing. He glanced into the bag from Food Mart, a frown on his face. “What’s all this?”
“It’s called ‘food.’ Most people keep it around.”
“You didn’t need to do that.”
“I can’t have you eating Gabby’s kibble.”
“Funny.” Harrison glanced around, the sight of him without a shirt almost enough to make Kenzie drool. “I had no idea a puppy needed so many things.”
Those hairless pecs. That six-pack. His shoulders and biceps. Silky, tanned skin.
She swallowed. “You think that’s a lot?”
There wasn’t that much—just Gabby’s crate, her car carrier, her training harnesses and leads, her grooming supplies, her food and water bowls, her toys, her treats, her puppy food, her favorite blanket.
He grinned. “You don’t?”
It was the first real smile she’d gotten from him since he’d come back, and it put a flutter in her belly. “I guess I’m used to it.”
She’d written down instructions for Gabby’s care—everything from feeding and crate training to basic obedience and SAR training. She pulled the pages out of the bag of puppy food and was about to go over them with Harrison when he decided it was time to gather up the pizza boxes and take them out to his recycling bin. He disappeared outside, a stack of pizza boxes in his arms, returning a minute later.
“That’s better.” He scooped Gabby up and sat at the table with her on his lap. “Okay, go ahead.”
But Kenzie was in the middle of a hormonal meltdown, the sight of little Gabby against Harrison’s bare chest making her ovaries squeal.
How was she supposed to get through this?
She forced her gaze onto the page and read the sections about feeding and crate training first, fighting to stay focused. “Give her a treat every time she goes into the crate. She’ll sleep there at night. She might cry a bit, but she’s okay. Don’t take her out and put her in your bed. That will only make the problem worse.”
“When you let her out of her crate, always take her straight outside to go potty. That way, she’ll come to associate leaving the crate with going outside to do her thing.”
“Won’t she just go potty in the crate?”
Kenzie shook her head. “She’ll try very hard not to. That’s why you have to pay attention. Little puppies can’t hold it very long. I’ve been taking her out right before I go to bed at night and then putting her in her crate with a treat and her toy afterward. She usually wakes me up at about four in the morning, needing to go out again, and then she lets me sleep until about six or seven.”
“Six or seven? So she’s your alarm clock.”
Kenzie laughed. “A furry clock that doesn’t come with a snooze button.”
Harrison gave a slight frown, clearly not certain how to feel about the fact that he’d be getting up early for the foreseeable future.
“It’s important never to use the crate to punish her. Also, no hitting or kicking her or… ” She stopped at the horrified look on Harrison’s face. “You would never do that anyway, I know.”
“Never.” He kissed the top of Gabby’s head.
This time it was Kenzie’s heart that squealed. She had a soft spot for men who loved animals. “Do you want to learn how to train her to follow?”
“Sure.” Harrison set the puppy down.
Kenzie took hold of Gabby’s leash and grabbed a few treats. “I hold her leash in one hand, and I hold a treat in the other and bend down like this so that I’m keeping the treat at her face-level next to my leg while I walk. She wants the treat, so she goes right where I want her. Use the command ‘Follow.’ It’s a little awkward to walk like this, but they learn quickly.” Kenzie took a few steps. “Gabby, follow.”
Gabby trotted along at her heel, taking the treat from her fingers.
“Then you praise her.” Kenzie knelt. “You’re a good girl, Gabby. Yes, you’re just so smart.”
“How often do you want me to do that?”
“I’d say a few times a day. She already knows how to sit.” Kenzie grabbed another treat. “Gabby, sit.”
Gabby looked up at her, then plopped her little bottom onto the floor.
Kenzie gave her the treat. “Make sure to praise her. Good puppy! What a good puppy you are!”
“I thought dog trainers use those clicker things.”
“I’ve taught clicker training in classes, but I don’t any longer. Whether you use a clicker or not, it’s all about rewarding desired behavior. If I’m consistent, my pups will learn to be consistent.”
“So be consistent. Got it.”
He looked so serious that Kenzie had to smile. “Exactly. I wrote it all down in case you forget something.”
She glanced at her watch, saw that it was just before noon. “The last thing I should show you is puppy runaways. That’s the first step in training her for SAR work.”
“Puppy runaways? You want her to run away?”
“No, I want you to run away.”
“Me?” A dark eyebrow arched.
Kenzie knew she was taking a chance here, but things had already gone far better than she’d imagined. She gave Gabby credit for that. Harrison had always been fond of Gizmo, and it was clear that he’d fallen in love with the puppy at first sight. Kenzie couldn’t blame him. So had she. “Why don’t we put her in her car carrier and drive to that new park near the library?”
“Scarlet Springs has a library?”
Oh, God. He didn’t know.
“Joe Moffat built a library and donated Silas Moffat’s journals and a bunch of historic photographs. The town had a big book drive. Now we have our own library. They built it on the site of the old schoolhouse. The school became part of the library, and the playground became a pocket park.”
“Cool. Okay.” He glanced down at his bare chest. “I guess I’d better get dressed.”
Well, all good things must come to an end.