Annie, a successful romance author, has a deadline to keep. Jilted in love, she decides to train an unsuspecting and adorable beau to be her perfect mate, utilizing standard doggy training techniques. What Annie doesn’t expect is the growing attraction she feels for Paxton, a retired Navy SEAL.
With the help of a professional trainer, Annie works to certify her own puppy, an undisciplined Yorkshire Terrier, to become a therapy dog. With the knowledge she gleans from his training, she hopes to succeed in training the perfect husband.
Chapter 1: The Harvest
The spotlights mounted to the tractor shone across the vineyard, lighting their run in the wee hours of the night. “You still with me there, boy?” Paxton Terrence said to his dutiful companion, Charlie, as he sprinted through the aromatic vineyard.
“Pax,” Zee wheezed out from behind him. “You talking to me, man, or Charlie, your dog? Because I’m feeling like your dog right about now.”
Paxton threw his head back and laughed. “I thought you were a surfer. Aren’t surfers supposed to be tough?”
“That’s right. I’m a surfer, not a Navy SEAL like you.”
Paxton had been a Navy SEAL. Runs like these in the cool early morning helped remind him what his body could do. “True. So, I should call you a little sissy, then?”
Zee grumbled. Dang, it was too fun teasing his cousin—or brother. Since their dads were identical twins, he and Zee shared half the same DNA, making them as close, genetically speaking, as brothers.
“Sissy?” asked Zee. “We’ve been running for seven miles without a water break. Why did I let you talk me into coming out here at four in the morning to run, again?”
Paxton slowed as he turned from the dark path along the vineyard’s edge into a row that was lit as bright as midday with artificial light. “To see this.”
Zee whistled. “Talk about workhorses,” he said, motioning to the men and women picking the ripened grapes in front of them.
“It’s harvest season,” said Paxton. “I thought you might want to talk to a few of the workers and see if it might be something you want to do a documentary on. I got the okay from the owner of the vineyard the other day.”
Zee still lived in LA but had recently left the pretentious world and money of Hollywood and reality television for more philanthropic, humanitarian endeavors. This seemed right up his alley.
“Pax,” said Zee with a snap of his fingers, “you’re the man. I don’t care what the pretty lifeguard at the pool says about you; you’re all right in my book.” Zee chuckled under his breath at their inside joke and immediately reached his hand out to meet his first friend of the day.
After two hours of impromptu interviews, while harvesting the aromatic grapes alongside their new friends, Zee and Paxton left the vineyard with the other workers at the conclusion of the shift.
“Breakfast burrito?” asked Paxton, stretching his back.
Zee scratched his neck. “I was thinking more along the lines of breakfast in bed.”
“And who’s going to make you breakfast in bed? Meri?” asked Paxton.
They both laughed. Zee’s sister Meri was a tough businesswoman/hotel owner who was in town for the week from Costa Rica to visit her brothers and research a few local hotels. She was kind in her own right, but there was no way she’d be waiting on them.
When they reached the street, Paxton pulled his truck key from his pocket and unlocked his doors with a click.
Zee gave him an incredulous look. “Your car was here this entire time?”
“What?” Paxton said with a mocking grin. “We ran in a circle.”
Twenty minutes later, they sat in Paxton’s truck, staring at the patio of the corner bakery off Healdsburg’s main plaza.
Zee tapped his thigh to the beat of the country song on the radio, looked at Paxton, to the bakery, then back at Paxton. “Pax, is there a reason we’re waiting here in your truck and not sitting on that patio, eating breakfast? Is this the torture they put you through in BUDS training—made you stare at food you couldn’t eat as they wafted the scent of freshly baked bread in the air?” He threw his hands up. “Because I’m starting to sweat from hunger over here.”
Paxton pointed at the bakery’s patio. “You see that pretty lady sitting at one of those two tables with her little dog?”
Zee furrowed his brows. “I know it’s been a long time for you, man,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “but this isn’t healthy. Do you want me to go talk to her for you?”
“Five years,” said Paxton as the familiar pain constricted his heart. “I guess you could say it’s been a long time. But it was supposed to be forever. She was stolen from me.”
“I know you lost your universe that day,” said Zee. “We all did, especially my dad. He would have taken his place if he could have. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” said Paxton. “I know. I just don’t know how to do this again,” he said, pointing at the woman on the patio.
Zee lifted his chin and smiled. “You got this, bro. You’ll know when the time is right to act.” He patted Paxton’s chest. “All you have to do is show her those pecs and wicked abs, and she won’t be able to resist you, man.”
Paxton smacked Zee’s hand away. “What are you doing touching my chest, dude?”
Zee laughed. “I’m coming from Hollywood. It’s second nature.”
“And I’m coming from the military. If you weren’t my cousin, you’d be eating that cement right now,” said Paxton, pointing to the street.
“What’s so special about this girl?” asked Zee.
Paxton knew more about her than most people knew about their spouses after a year of marriage. On paper, she was everything he’d ever wanted, but that sounded creepy, so he’d go with the superficial. “At first glance, she’s perfect.”
“Perfect,” Zee said with a raised brow. “I can’t let you pass this girl by, then.” He rubbed his palms together and smiled his signature devious smile from when he’d been up to no good as a kid. “I’ll make you a deal. I’m leaving in two weeks. If you haven’t asked her out by then, I’ll tell Kai to make his move.”
Paxton expelled a breath. He may have been a tough Navy SEAL, but Kai was the rich one, and no matter what Paxton said, Zee would be as good as his word and introduce Kai to Annie. In two weeks’ time, life would get interesting.
* * *
Two Weeks Later
Annie closed her eyes. She not only imagined what life would have been like sitting on the antique metal bench one hundred years ago; the horseman’s whistle to his horses rang in her ears as if he were standing a few feet from her.
The children skip to the beat of the horseman’s whistle. Their long pastel dresses cover their fluffy white pantaloons as their caramel braids bounce in rhythm to their seraphim steps, she typed with her eyes closed.
She wiggled against the thin cool iron strands of the park bench that suspended her back and bottom.
Should she set the steamy plot at the turn of the century? Healdsburg was once a Pomo Indian village named Kale. Native Americans would have lived here closer to two hundred years ago, before they had succumbed to foreign diseases.
One hundred fifty years past? This square would have been under construction. It had been designed like many other town squares, but it had never been called a square. It had always been known as the plaza.
She thought of the nineteenth-century American author Albert Richardson’s description: “In the afternoon we reached Healdsburg, an agreeable village, shaded with live-oaks and madronas…here the live-oak attains perfection…the boughs of all trees are richly festooned with great bunches of mistletoe.”
Although mistletoe evoked romantic sentiments, Annie didn’t want her story to be set that far back in the past.
A girl and boy meet one Saturday night at the weekly live band concert. They fall instantly in love.
Annie opened her eyes for a moment, just long enough to cast a glance at the focal point of the park—a desolate concrete pad in the center of the plaza. She closed her eyes again, and the pad transformed in her mind into a colorful bandstand set high on the stone stilts of an old bell tower, where, one hundred years past, magical sounds enchanted the pheromones circulating in the air. Amore.
The girl and boy dance. But would this be the end of their courtship? If a group of local prudish women get their way, the evil bandstand, which brings wine, offensive music, and lascivious behavior, will be demolished. A potable water fountain will replace it, representing their pure, wholesome society.
Heavy footsteps pounded the pavement. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
Annie opened her eyes, annoyed at the intrusion but intrigued by her visitor’s deep, sultry voice. “Not at all,” she said to the sharp-looking man in his pin-striped business suit. She closed her laptop and returned it to her shoulder bag, smiling intently at the handsome stranger.
Mr. Famous, now stirred from the excitement, emerged from his burrow under the bench.
“What a tiny little thing,” the intruder said. “I’m Kai,” he said, introducing himself to them.
Mr. Famous’s lips curled back, and a low growl emanated from his gut.
“Oh, no. Sorry,” Annie apologized. “Yorkies can be precocious and yappy.”
“I don’t have a dog, but that’s what dogs do, right? They bark. Unless you’re my cousin’s dog. He’s the best-trained…”
Annie shot him a disapproving look, stopping him mid-sentence. That was strike one, insinuating that Mr. Famous was poorly trained.
The man motioned to Mr. Famous. “Have you tried obedience training for her? A good friend of mine runs a—”
“Thanks,” she said, cutting him off. Strike two. How could he mistake Mr. Famous for a girl, with that stylish silk bow tie around his neck? “I took him to training last week. It didn’t work out. I’m just going to see what I can do with him on my own.”
Annie took a closer look at the intruder. What did he say his name was? She didn’t want to be rude and ask his name again. It didn’t matter; she’d choose the perfect name for him. She puckered her lips as she examined his jawline and the crease of his eyebrows. He had the makings of a hero. His physique was a little on the doughy side, but his face would make any girl take a second look and swoon. The irises of his eyes were a smoky gray, lined with the color of green moss.
An open-mouthed grin spread across his face, and he chuckled softly. She’d been caught staring, again. Next time, she’d need to be more discreet.
“What business are you in?” he asked, looking down at her computer bag.
“Um, I’m self-employed.” She’d be honest but hold back on giving him the full story. She could use an intrigued hero. “And I do some writing…for a local paper.”
“Cool. I work from home for a tech company based in Oakland, but I do websites on the side. If you need help, we could get together.”
She smiled inside. He was adorable, but her heart was somewhere else. “Thanks, but I—” She stopped suddenly as a signature ringtone blasted from her phone on her lap. “Oh, that’s probably my boyfriend,” she said, grabbing the leash and rising to her feet. “I’m scheduled to meet him in a few minutes. It was good chatting with you.”
“Here,” he said, handing her his white business card. “Just in case.”
She grabbed the card with a wave of her hand and a half smile, pressing the phone to her ear as she quickly walked away from the handsome hero who would own at least a few chapters in one of her books. She looked down at the card with a phone number under a unique symbol where a name would be. He’d have to continue to be known as Dreamy Eyes—not the worst name for a fictitious romance hero.
She answered the call with a cheery “Hi, Dad.”
“Hey, pumpkin. How did doggie training go?” He still called her pumpkin. She was in her mid-twenties, but he insisted that she was still his little girl.
“It was awful. They put this horrid leash high around the dogs’ necks and pull hard when the dogs perform an incorrect behavior. My poor little baby. That’s another thing. They said that ‘dogs aren’t people, so stop treating them like they are.’”
Her dad’s audible sigh echoed through her phone. “I thought they were monks. Are you sure you’re not being a little hard on the trainers?”
Annie found herself walking faster, her anger fueling her feet. “Monks? More like monsters. Who would do that to a dog?”
“I’m sure it doesn’t hurt the dogs.”
“It hurt me just watching it.”
“Annalise, your mother is adamant that Mr. Famous be trained prior to you coming home for Christmas. He did a number on our house and yard when he was here last. Maybe you could find a kennel for him that week?”
“Prison? You want me to send him to prison, Dad?”
“Think about it. I’ll look into a few local kennels. Is Kenneth coming with you?”
Her dad rarely mentioned Kenneth. “I didn’t think you liked Kenneth.”
“It’s not that we don’t like him.” Her father paused. “If he’s good to you, that’s all we care about.”
Annie slowed her speed and took in a breath. Perhaps her parents were warming up to Kenneth. “I’ll ask him if he’s coming. I can’t talk to him now, because he’s driving. His plan was to drive up to Healdsburg from the city this morning, but it looks like he won’t be here for a few more hours. Traffic’s horrendous.”
“I have no idea how you deal with that mess on the roads there. How’s your latest love-making novel?”
She cringed. “Not love-making. Romance. And need I remind you that thanks to my writing, I’m completely self-sufficient?”
“Okay, darling. Just take another look at The Old Man.”
“I do. I kiss his picture every night before bed,” she teased.
“Very funny. Love you, pumpkin.”
“Love you too, Daddy.”
Suddenly, Annie didn’t feel like going home. She had told Kenneth she would relax at home until he got there, maybe take a hot bath, then dive into her next manuscript, but now that she’d found her hero—the man in the park—and established her setting, verse would flow. She could enjoy her evening with one of her favorite activities of strolling the streets of Healdsburg without the stress of work.
She adjusted the sling around her chest and back before she leaned over and picked up Mr. Famous. The moment he was in her arms, he went limp. She laughed. The poor little guy tired quickly. “You ready for a break?” She wrapped him gently into her chest as a mother would cradle her infant. “Life doesn’t get much better than this.” She was grateful to have a listening ear in Mr. Famous. Growing up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, she had often preferred animals to humans. “Sunny, friendly, happy California. Why do my parents insist on living in Wisconsin when they could live here? What keeps them there? I don’t get it.”
The sweet berry scent of autumn crush swirled in the air. There was nothing like the scent of crush in the air to brighten Annie’s day. It was wine country’s busy season. Harvesting season had just ended, the anticipated time of year when the grapes fully ripen and become ready for processing, came late this year—but fast. The harvest, which normally took up to a month to complete, was finished in an unprecedented ten days. Now was the best part—the most anticipated time of the year in Sonoma Valley—crush.
Crush, the pressing or stomping of the wine grapes, had followed hard on the heels of harvesting season, bringing in tourists from all over the world. Everyone wanted the I Love Lucy experience to stomp, stomp, stomp, but crush was so much more than mere stomping. In fact, not much stomping went into it. Mechanical pressing was the preferred extraction method, but first, everything rode on a good harvest—which, thankfully, they had this year, causing the entire county to celebrate.
The sidewalks through the plaza bustled with locals and a flurry of out-of-town tourists. The boutique shops that lined the plaza capitalized on the seasonally high foot traffic with their October decorations, which gave merriment to the store windows surrounding the plaza. White jack-o’-lanterns and spooky morsels invited welcomed patrons, including Annie, who always seemed to take the bait.
“You want a treat?” Annie smoothed down Mr. Famous’s long, silky hair as they entered the corner toy store. He purred like a cat, his signature sound when she ran her fingers through his gray locks.
Over the past year, his hair had changed from a golden brown to a mature gray. He wouldn’t be a puppy much longer. His hair had grown at a surprisingly fast rate to nearly reach the floor.
Annie envisioned Mr. Famous as a show dog, with salt-and-pepper fibrils flowing down his straight back to the ground— his honey corn-silk face, tail, and feet brightening the cool gray to give him a soft, warm appearance.
He looked at her with his deep brown eyes just long enough to solicit her affection before he nuzzled his wet nose into her wrist, then released a coarse brush of his tongue against her bare forearm. She placed him on the floor of the toy store.
Mr. Famous immediately ran to the counter, begging for a treat with his adorable whimper. The young attendant reached under her counter and retrieved a mini Milk-Bone that Mr. Famous ate up in three crunches.
Watching Mr. Famous enjoy his treat caused Annie’s stomach to grumble. “Sushi?” she asked him. The lap of his tongue on her ankle was the only answer she needed. “Sushi it is.”
Annie turned off the main street and proceeded toward Unagi, her favorite little local sushi spot. The master sushi chef, who she lovingly nicknamed Itamae, always saved her a place at the sushi bar. Although he’d never mentioned it, he must have known she routinely smuggled Mr. Famous into the restaurant in her sling. When Mr. Famous started to wiggle and whine, she would calm him with a piece of tuna, then inconspicuously leave the restaurant.
Grasping Unagi’s custom-etched antique brass door handle transported Annie to a terraced rice field in Japan. She mused at the thought. Her life of daydreaming had finally paid off, literally. Even Albert Einstein agreed when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Was Albert not the champion of daydreaming? Wasn’t his theory of relativity built on the fantasy of a young boy riding his bicycle next to a soaring bolt of electricity?
“Annie! Good to see you. Come, have a seat,” Itamae called to her from behind the sushi counter. His long white hair, woven with silver streaks, was pulled back into a neat man-bun. “How is the most beautiful girl in Healdsburg today?”
“Oh, stop, Itamae.” She waved a hand at him. “You’re making me blush.”
“You’re the only one to call me Itamae.” He lifted his chin to the photo of a quiet Japanese village. “You need to visit there. Like I told you before.”
Annie studied the painting for the hundredth time. The enchanting watercolor of the ocean at sunset washed over her mind with its daring hues of red. Forbidden love between a property owner’s daughter and a local fisherman. She had never been to Japan, but that watercolor and the probable inspiration she’d gain from the trip solidified her travel plans.
Soft music emanated from the patio dining area. Annie shifted her weight on her stool to gain more visibility of the patio with its soft candlelight and expertly manicured bonsai garden, trellised in sweeping ivy.
A couple sat at small table, highly engaged with their phones, while a lone businessman sat a few tables over, facing away from Annie’s view. The restaurant’s most gregarious waitress leaned over the table of the lone man, caressing his arm with the tips of her fingers. Annie tilted her head to the side and stared. His movements looked familiar.
“Is that—?” Annie said with a gasp as the man grabbed the waitress’s behind. He cocked his head to the side, revealing Kenneth’s profile.
Anger pulsed through her veins as she jumped off her stool and stomped out the patio door. “Traffic?” she seethed out through clenched teeth.
Kenneth’s hand sharply retracted from the waitress’s bottom, and his eyes went wide with fear. “Annie, slow down. I just stopped by to pick up some sushi and then surprise you.”
Annie sat in the chair across the table from him and folded her arms in anger. She had an evil desire to pull his thick black hair but decided against it. He would howl, and then she’d have to leave, missing her opportunity to tell him off.
She spoke in a low, deliberate voice, clenching her fists to prevent herself from crying. “Consider me surprised. Why, Kenneth?”
Kenneth’s eyes fell to the floor and his chin dipped into his chest. “I’m sorry, Annie, but I need more.”
“More what, exactly?” Annie tucked her shaking hands under Mr. Famous’s sling. Mr. Famous’s heat warmed her body, quieting her shivers. She wished her shakes were merely from the increasing chill in the air. “Is this because I’m old-fashioned?”
“Try archaic. Annie, you write these hypnotizing, sensual novels, and then I’m completely disregarded. No physical intimacy. It’s like I’m this little toy of yours. You’re the most beautiful thing in this town, and you strut around like you’re a blasted peacock, like no one’s good enough to touch you.”
Annie cleared her throat. “Some would call what you said to me rude and crass, but at least I can always count on you to be raw with me. Personally, I don’t care for deceit and lies, which I thought you were above. I guess I was wrong,” she said, glancing over at the waitress. “Bye, Kenneth.” She rose from her seat and walked toward the door.
“It’s all fantasy,” he called behind her.
She turned around, allowing him to continue.
“I’ve read every one of your novels, and it’s not romance you and your author friends write. It’s fantasy. No man is that calm, nice, independently rich, prude, patient, or as compassionate as your main characters. You’re ruining it for every guy out there, every relationship. I’m not the liar here. No normal man can compete with those lies.”
His words sliced her down her center. She turned on the balls of her feet to leave, but stopped suddenly when the waitress passed by Annie on her way to Kenneth.
“Are you serious?” said Annie.
“Yes,” Kenneth responded, wrinkling his forehead. “You’re messing it up for all of us guys.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said, staring down at her favorite sushi rolls. “You ordered a sunshine roll with the little lemons on top.” She rubbed her hands together with excitement. “My fave. And a playboy roll? Fitting, considering your actions.”
Kenneth had caused the wound in her heart to reopen slightly, but she wouldn’t allow him the satisfaction of knowing he’d cut her. She sat back down at his table and prepared her soy sauce, mixing it heavily with wasabi.
He scrunched his eyebrows in apparent disappointment and surprise. “I thought you were upset. Aren’t you going to stomp out and cry yourself to sleep?”
She picked up a piece of the sunshine roll with her chopsticks and slowly chewed the delicate creation. She released an amused snort. “Like I haven’t heard all those things before. I’ve been writing and selling romance novels successfully for over three years now.” She waved her chopsticks in the air. “Sometimes people don’t get it, and that’s okay. For the women who love my stuff, intimacy with their husbands flourishes. Their men aren’t complaining.” Annie paused to savor another piece of sushi. The light crunch of the tempura shrimp, coupled with the sweet eel sauce and the zesty tang of the lemon, caused her to release a happy moan. “Oh, that’s so good.”
Kenneth wiggled his finger at her. “And another thing: you carry that little mutt around like he’s your baby. You have him registered as a service dog. What service does he do, exactly? He flies for free at your feet. You take him into every store and restaurant. Dogs shouldn’t be in restaurants.”
“You do realize where we are, right? We aren’t in the city. Not to knock San Francisco—it’s divine—but here, we have dog ordinances to protect the rights of the dogs. Pets are part of the family; they’re not simply allowed in almost every store—they’re invited. And Mr. Famous is more than welcome out here on the patio. In fact, if I asked the waitress, she’d bring me a water bowl and a treat for him.”
Annie opened her mouth wide, using her left hand to cup under her chin in the likely event of an overflow. Some of the sushi rolls were almost larger than her bite, almost. As she bit down into the second sushi roll, the flavors and textures combined into a delicate explosion of perfection. From the creamy nutty velvet of the ripe avocado to the pop of the roe, she was in heaven. “Itamae is a genius!”
Kenneth scratched his head and wrinkled his nose in confusion. “Wait. You aren’t upset with me, or hurt?”
“Well, I was for a second, yes. But why be upset when you can eat well-crafted sushi? I guess you never really did it for me. Sorry, Kenneth. You’ll find the girl that you’re meant to be with.” Annie finished up the last piece of sushi and sat back in her chair with a sigh.
Kenneth’s confusion converted into a scowl. “How do you do it?”
“I just offended you in every way I know how, and you sit there completely content.”
“Well, you also bought me a delicious, expensive meal, and now you have to find another girlfriend before the holidays.” Annie rose to her feet, kissed the confused man on the forehead, and walked away.
When she reached the street—the sweet aroma of crush no longer swept through the air, at least that’s not what she smelled after her terrible Kenneth ordeal. The Russian River wafted up the repugnant odor of unsuccessful river trolling with the decaying of bait fish as they slapped against the muddy shoreline.
Annie congratulated herself for playing off her hurt so well. She’d known better than to fall for a hot guy—again. As she trudged home that evening down the quiet streets of Healdsburg, she promised herself something. She’d never be taken in by another philanderer. At least this time she hadn’t gotten too emotionally invested. She knew she’d feel the loss of Kenneth for a few weeks, but at least it wasn’t another broken engagement.
That one failed engagement nearly destroyed her faith in love.
She’d never be hoodwinked by a pretty face and an amazing body again. Not ever.