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FEBRUARY 11, 2020

October 22, 2019

Meant to be Yours

Happily Inc, Book No. 5

In Happily Inc, love means never having to say “I do”…

Wedding coordinator Renee Grothen isn’t meant for marriage. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, plan. But she never could have planned on gorgeous, talented thriller writer Jasper Dembenski proposing—a fling, that is. Fun without a future. And the attraction between them is too strong for Renee to resist. Now she can have her no-wedding cake…and eat it, too.

After years in the military, Jasper is convinced he’s too damaged for relationships. So a flirtation—and more—with fiery, determined Renee is way too good to pass up…until his flame becomes his muse.

Renee is an expert at averting every crisis. But is she finally ready to leap into the one thing that can never be controlled: love?

Chapter One

JASPER DEMBENSKI COULD accept an idiosyncratic GPS, the blown tire and the five hailstorms he’d driven through yesterday. It was the lack of coffee that was going to do him in.

He shook the empty coffee can, as if the action would magically produce results. Not shockingly, no coffee appeared. He was going to have to head to the grocery store, which was easier said than done, given that he was driving a thirty-six-foot RV. Or maybe there was coffee up at the main office. If he could grab some there, he could put off having to shop until later in the day.

Jasper was on the last leg of a three-month book tour for his latest suspense novel. Rather than trying to convince him to deal with dozens of flights, rental cars and hotels on the multicity tour, his publisher had enticed him with the idea of traveling via RV. Jasper didn’t mind driving long distances, he enjoyed the solitude and time to think, and the RV parks were actually pretty decent.

He was about eleven hundred miles from home. Once he joined up with Interstate 10, it was a straight shot back to Happily Inc. All he needed was a large cup of coffee. He would find a Walmart or Target close to the interstate and get enough food to see him through the next two days.

He walked out into the warm September morning and started for the main office. Along the way, he nodded at people who waved or called out greetings. RV parks were friendly places. As he wasn’t one for unnecessary chats, he’d learned to keep moving while offering a brief wave. Otherwise, he might get trapped in a lengthy and tedious conversation about the viability of a certain back road or a discussion about the best kind of bait for catfish.

“You git, you hear me? Go on out of here or I’ll get my shotgun.”

The angry words came from his left. Jasper instinctively went on alert, his body tensing as he spun in that direction. Using the RV he’d just passed for cover, he backtracked so he could come around from behind and see what was happening.

“You heard me,” the man yelled. “Get out of here.”

Jasper stayed close to the RV as he circled around and then stepped into view, prepared to get between some jerk and whoever he was threatening. Only the short, round, old man wasn’t taking on his kid or his woman, instead he was raising his hand to a dog. An old dog with ribs showing through dirty fur. A dog who flinched and backed away.

“Problem?” Jasper asked, using his tell me your story before I kick your ass voice, the one he’d perfected during his time with the military police.

The old man glared at him, as if wanting to take him on, then seemed to think better of it. “It’s nothing. Just that dog who’s been hanging out here for a few weeks. Somebody dumped him. If you don’t want a dog, just shoot him. That’s what I say.”

The kindness of strangers, Jasper thought grimly. Or lack thereof. He knew there were more good people than bad, but every now and then he was forced to question his faith in humanity.

The dog—some kind of Lab, shepherd mix—looked at him with sad, knowing eyes, as if he didn’t really expect better of life. He stayed out of reach and, despite the heat, shivered a little. He was obviously starving and might be sick. Who would just dump a dog at an RV park?

“He begs for food,” the old man added, his tone defensive. “I don’t have time to deal with him.”

Jasper thought about the coffee he hadn’t had yet and the eleven hundred miles between him and home. He thought about the book he was trying to write and how slowly it was going. He thought about the nightmares he often had and that there were still enough bad days to keep him humble. The absolute last thing he needed in his life was some old dog.

“If you were him, you’d beg for food, too,” Jasper said. “Don’t shoot him.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Jasper sighed before squaring his shoulders and staring down at the old man who was maybe five-five to Jasper’s six-foot-three.

“Seriously?” he asked. “You’re going to go there with me?”

The old man shook his head. “I’m just saying…”

“I know what you’re saying. Don’t shoot the dog.”

Jasper walked to the office. Sure enough they had a huge carafe of coffee that he used to fill his travel mug. While he drank down the dark, hot liquid, he asked about the dog and confirmed it was indeed a stray. A few attempts had been made to catch it, but no one had been successful.

Jasper headed to his RV. He would spend no more than fifteen minutes looking for the dog. If he found it, he would lure it back to his RV with food. Once it was inside, he would take it to a local vet and have it checked for a chip. If there wasn’t one, he would drop it off at a shelter and be on his way. It would take him two hours, tops.

Or less, he thought as he approached his RV and saw the dog sitting outside the side door.

“Good morning,” Jasper said, opening the door.

The dog jumped inside and made his way to the small refrigerator, where he sat again.

“Somebody’s messing with me,” Jasper grumbled.

He pulled out lunch meat he was going to use for a sandwich and gave that to the dog who gulped it down. Jasper quickly scrambled a couple of eggs. Less than ten minutes later, the dog was stretched out on the sofa, completely relaxed and nearly asleep.

Jasper looked up the closest vet’s office and called to explain the situation. The perky receptionist told him they’d just had a cancellation and could see him right away.

“Of course you can,” he muttered.

The drive was easy, there was parking for his RV and damn if the dog didn’t follow him inside the vet’s office with no problem.

Jasper explained the situation to the smiling older woman with a name tag that read Sally. When he got to the part about him giving the dog to a shelter, her smile faded.

“You don’t want to keep him yourself?” she asked.

“Ah, no. I’m not really a pet person.”

Both she and the dog stared at him. Jasper shifted uncomfortably. He wanted to explain that he wasn’t being cruel—rather his reluctance was realistic. He’d been in a really bad place when he’d gotten out of the army. After tons of therapy, medication and stumbling onto the one thing that could get him halfway back to being able to exist in polite society, he was healed enough to pass for normal. But he knew the truth—he would never fully get there. More than one therapist had warned him he was broken beyond repair.

They hadn’t used those exact words—they were too professional for that. But the truth had been clear enough all the same.

But the woman in front of him wouldn’t want to hear that and he certainly didn’t want to tell her.

“I’d like him checked for a chip and maybe given an exam to see if he’s all right,” Jasper said.

“Sure. Let me take you to one of the rooms.”

He and the dog followed her. She paused by a floor scale and motioned for the dog to step on it.

“Come on, boy. Right here.”

The dog obliged. He was forty-eight pounds. Sally winced.

“He should be closer to seventy-five pounds,” she said. “He’s really skinny. Poor guy.”

Jasper and the dog went into an exam room.

“I’ll get one of the techs to come in and scan him. If there’s a chip, we’ll take it from there. If there isn’t, we can talk about whether you want to pay for an exam when you’re just going to take him to the shelter.”

Her tone was pleasant enough but Jasper heard the judgment, all the same. Instead of speaking, he nodded. The woman left and he was alone with the dog.

They both sat and stared at each other. Jasper looked away first.

“You can’t stay on your own,” he said, shifting uneasily in his chair. “Look at you. You need someone to take care of you. A shelter would mean three squares and a bunk, right? And you’d find a family of your own.”

Without wanting to, he recalled reading somewhere that older dogs had trouble getting adopted. Which wasn’t his problem.

“I’ve never had a pet,” he added, glancing at the dog who still regarded him steadily. “I don’t know how to take care of you.”

He supposed there were books on the subject. Plus, the old guy wasn’t a puppy. He would know how to deal with humans. Between the two of them, they might be able to get it right.

“I’m not a good bet,” he added in a low voice. “I was in the army for eight years and I saw things. Sometimes I have flashbacks and I just… I’m better off alone.”

The dog’s head dropped as if he realized what Jasper was trying to say. As if he’d given up hoping and had accepted he was going to be abandoned—again.

Jasper stood up and glared at the dog, who still didn’t look at him.

“I didn’t want any of this. It’s not my fault. I’m not the bad guy.”

The dog didn’t move—he sat there all hunched, as if the weight of the world was just too much for him.

Jasper thought longingly of his quiet house, the sameness of his life when he was home. He had friends, but on his terms. He had relationships with women. Sort of. He just wasn’t like everyone else and wanting him to be different didn’t change the truth.

The dog raised his head and looked at him. In that moment when their eyes met, Jasper would swear he saw down-to-the-bone sadness and despair. It was so real, so visceral, that he felt the anguish as actual pain.

The door to the exam room opened and a petite, pretty, gray-haired woman in a white coat entered.

“I’m Dr. Anthony,” she said with a smile. “For once all my techs are busy and I’m free.” She crouched down and gently patted the dog’s back. “Hey, old guy. How are you? Where’d you find him?”

“At an RV park a few miles from here. They told me he was abandoned a few weeks ago. Apparently he’s been avoiding people, except to beg for food, but he came right into my vehicle.”

Dr. Anthony petted him a little more, before running her hands up and down his legs and along his back as if gently checking for wounds or injuries.

“People can be cruel,” she said as she stood. She pulled a handheld device out of her coat pocket and turned it on. “All right, let’s see if you have a chip.”

Jasper found himself tensing, not sure if he wanted the dog to have one or not. Dr. Anthony ran the reader back and forth a couple of times, checking him closely, then straightening and shaking her head.

“No dice,” she said. “I didn’t think so. Someone who cares enough to get a microchip doesn’t walk away from their pet. Sally said you were going to take him to a shelter?”

Jasper hesitated.

Dr. Anthony gave him a sympathetic glance. “Look, it’s better for him to be there than on the streets. We have a good one nearby. They’ll take care of him. He’s not your responsibility. You did the decent thing, bringing him in. That can be enough.”

Which sounded like permission to do what he knew made sense. Great. He would take the dog there and be on his way.

He opened his mouth to ask for the address, but what he said instead was, “What if I wanted to keep him?”

“You sure?”

Jasper looked at the dog, who stared back at him. He thought about his house up in the mountains and how every now and then, the quiet got to him. He thought about the loneliness he’d seen in the dog’s eyes.

“No, but I think giving him a good home is the least I should do.”

Dr. Anthony smiled. “Okay, then. Are you from around here?”

“California. I’m heading home today.”

“Then I would suggest a brief exam to make sure he’s relatively healthy. I can give you a collar and leash and food that will be easy for him to digest. When you get to your place, find a vet and get him a more thorough exam. You and your vet can discuss what to do as far as vaccinations. He’ll need a few chew toys, maybe a ball and a bed of some kind. He’s an old guy, so he’s going to want to take things easy. Still interested?”

“I am.”

“Good. Now why don’t you put him on the exam table there and we’ll get started.”

*

“IT MIGHT JUST be okay,” wedding coordinator Renee Grothen murmured softly to herself as she surveyed the wedding reception. She wouldn’t risk admitting everything had turned out as planned until the last guest had left, but four and a half hours in, things were going really well.

Jim and Monica Martinez were a sweet couple with a fun firefighter theme for their big day. There was a long tradition of firefighters on both sides of the family and plenty of cute touches in the wedding and reception.

Monica’s dress laced up the back and instead of white ribbon to cinch her gown, she’d used bright red. The centerpieces were ceramic boot vases painted to look like firefighter boots, filled with red, orange and yellow flowers. There was even a walk-through fountain at one end of the reception area, created with fire hoses, a pump and a lot of engineering.

Renee walked around the perimeter of the indoor reception space, looking for problems. So far, so good, she thought with cautious optimism. The cake had been cut, the bar service was about to end and the tone of the party had faded from raucous to comfortably tired—exactly as it should. With a little luck, things would wrap up on time and without a crisis. This was Monica and Jim’s day—Renee wanted it to be as perfect as possible. While she always took care of her clients, she tended to unleash her mother bear instincts for her special couples and Monica and Jim certainly qualified.

She spotted Pallas Mitchell, her boss, walking toward her. It was nearly ten on a Saturday night and Pallas, a pretty brunette only recently returned from maternity leave, yawned widely. When she spotted Renee she held up her hands, palm up.

“What can I say? I’ve been home with an infant. These wild late night hours are going to take some getting used to.”

“No one’s judging,” Renee told her. “As I said at seven, at eight and again at nine, go home. I can handle this. You’re barely back and you need to give yourself time to adjust to the schedule.”

“You’ve been running things for nearly six months. You need a break.”

In truth, Renee was a little ragged around the edges, but she’d loved handling Weddings Out of the Box while Pallas had been gone. She’d enjoyed the challenges each unique wedding presented and watching all the details fall into place on the big day.

“I had lots of help,” Renee pointed out. “Hiring college students on summer break was a good idea.” And what they’d lacked in experience, they’d made up for in energy and enthusiasm.

“Now that I’m back, things can return to normal,” Pallas said, covering another yawn.

“Go home,” Renee urged. “Please. I can handle things here. I promise.”

“Okay. I will. Thanks. Don’t you dare come in tomorrow.” Pallas’s voice was firm. “For once, we don’t have a Sunday wedding. Enjoy the break.”

“I will.” Renee would probably pop in to do a little paperwork, but she wouldn’t stay long. “Are you coming to The Boardroom on Monday night?”

In a wedding destination town, the rhythms of the residents were determined by weekend weddings. Happily Inc’s workweek started on Wednesdays as the businesses geared up for the dozens of nuptials that occurred in multiple venues. Which meant the town’s Friday night was actually on Monday.

The Boardroom, a local bar, hosted game nights on Mondays. Board games ruled and tournaments were heated and fun as friends crushed each other at everything from Candy Land to Risk.

Pallas shook her head. “I’ll admit to being a bit of a worrier. When we went a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ryan. He’s only five months old. It’s too soon to leave him at night.”

Renee held in a smile. “Sure. I get that.”

“I know you don’t, but thank you for pretending. Have fun for me, too. Oh, Jasper’s back, so tell him hi, if you think of it.”

Jasper was back? Renee hadn’t heard. She liked knowing he’d returned from his big book tour. Not for any reason in particular, she amended hastily. Sure, he was nice, but there were a lot of nice guys in the world. There was just something about Jasper. Maybe it was because in addition to being good-looking and just a little dangerous, he wasn’t a forever kind of guy.

“I saw that!” Pallas grinned. “I totally saw that. You did the predatory smile thing I was never good at. You want to use him for sex! Did I know this?” She stomped her foot. “Did this happen while I was on maternity leave? What else went on while I was off having a baby?”

Renee laughed. “You’re reading way too much into my smile. I’m happy he’s home from his book tour. That’s all.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Jasper and I are not involved. I doubt we’ve had more than a three-sentence conversation.”

Not that it took many sentences to ask Your place or mine? And while the description of predatory was nice, it gave her too much credit. Would she stalk him and pounce? Not even on her best day. Would she say yes if the man asked? She smiled again. Oh, yeah, she would. Definitely. Okay, probably. If she was feeling brave. Because while she worked her butt off to give her couples their perfect happily-ever-after day, she knew it was never going to happen for her. Those who could—did. Those who couldn’t became wedding planners.

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