Playing For Keeps
Sadie Lane walked through the day spa, closing up for the night, alone as usual. Her coworkers had left, but even if they hadn’t, they’d just be milling around with their ridiculously expensive teas, complaining about how hard this job was.
They had no idea how ridiculous that was to her, but as the lowest person on the ladder, she’d managed to keep her opinions to herself. She was sure it’d only be a matter of time before her mouth overtook her good sense.
Moving around shutting down the computers and dimming the lights, she fantasized about going home and stripping out of her daytime yoga pants and replacing them with her nighttime yoga pants. Unfortunately, even after eight hours on her feet, that wasn’t in the cards for her.
Her phone buzzed an incoming call and a glance at the screen gave her an eye twitch. “Hey, Mom.”
“You always forget to call me back. I’ve been trying to discuss your sister’s wedding details with you for weeks now, and . . .”
Sadie listened with half her brain, the other half wandering off. Did she have time to grab an order of sliders and crispy fries from O’Riley’s, the pub across the courtyard, before heading to her other job? Lunch had been eons ago . . .
“Mercedes Alyssa Lane, are you even listening to me?” her mom asked.
Being full-named always got her back up. It wasn’t that she had anything against her name—okay, so she sort of did because who named a kid after the car where that kid had been conceived?—but more than anything, she had a whole lot against her mother’s tone. “Of course I’m listening.”
She wasn’t. She was thinking about dessert after the sliders. Maybe cookies, maybe a brownie. Maybe both.
“Honey,” her mom said, her voice going tentative. “You’re not feeling . . . sad again, are you?” She whispered sad as if was a bad word.
And to be fair, for most of Sadie’s teenage years it had been a bad word, along with angry, misunderstood, sullen, and unhappy. To say that she and her mom had a complicated relationship was pretty much the understatement of the year.
“Nope,” Sadie said. “I’m fine.” This was an automated response because she didn’t want to deal with the all you have to do to get over the blues is think positively speech again, well-meaning as it was. But her mom was winding up for the big finish, so Sadie braced herself because in three, two, one—
“Remember what Dr. Evans always told you. To get over the blues, all you have to do is think positively.”
Resisting the urge to smack her phone into her own forehead, Sadie drew a deep breath and sank into the cushy chair in her station, where her clients sat while she applied permanent makeup. This was her bread-and-butter job, seeing as the love-of-her-heart job—working as a tattoo artist in the Canvas Shop right next door—didn’t pay enough yet. And call it silly and frivolous, but she’d grown fond of eating.
The problem was, all the time on her feet working way too many hours a day left her exhausted. And maybe the teeniest bit cranky. But not, it should be noted, sad. At least not at the moment. “Mom, you know it’s not that easy, right?”
“To think positively? Of course it is. You just do it. Take your sister, for instance . . .”
Sadie closed her eyes and caught a few z’s while her mom went on about Clara, whom Sadie loved and adored even if she was annoyingly perfect—
“Sadie? Yes or no?”
“Hmm?” She sat upright, opening her eyes. She’d missed a question, but pretending she knew what was going on at all times was her MO. If she couldn’t blow her family away with her brilliance, plan B was always to baffle them with her bullshit. “Sure,” she said. “Whatever you guys decide.”
“Well, that’s very . . . sweet of you,” her mom said, sounding surprised. “And very unlike you.”
Hoping she hadn’t just agreed to wear a frothy Little Bo-Peep bridesmaid dress, Sadie let her gaze shift to the window. Over a hundred years ago, the Pacific Pier Building had been built around a beautiful cobblestoned courtyard that each of the ground floor shops and businesses opened onto, making it convenient for people watching.
One of Sadie’s favorite pastimes.
Seeing as it was February in San Francisco, specifically the Cow Hollow District, a thick icy fog had descended over the dark evening with the promise of rain. She loved a good storm, the darker the better, and figured that love came from her own dark, stormy heart.
The lights had all come on, strung from potted tree to potted tree and along the wrought-iron benches around the water fountain. The area was usually a hub of activity. But tonight only the faint glow of the lights was visible behind the wall of fog, and there was no one in sight. Except . . . wait a minute. A form appeared out of the fog. A tall, leanly muscled form, his overcoat billowing out behind him like he was some sort of superhero.
Sadie called him Suits.
He had a real name, she knew. Caleb Parker. But she’d never said it out loud, preferring her nickname for him, since with the exception of the few times she’d run into him at a gym on the other side of Cow Hollow near the marina, she’d never seen him in anything but a suit. And though she herself wasn’t a suit kind of girl, she could admit there was something about watching him move in gorgeous clothes that had probably cost more than her entire year’s rent.
“Mercedes?” her mother said in her ear. “You still there?”
“Yep.” She searched her brain for the conversation she’d just missed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be on time for Clara’s wedding dress fitting appointment.”
“Did you get a date for the wedding yet?”
“It’s a wedding,” her mom said firmly. “You’ll need a date. And anyway, you’re past due to find your Prince Charming. Way past due.”
“Mom, I don’t need a Prince Charming. Forest animals who clean, yes, but it’s a hard pass for me on Prince Charming.”
“Everyone needs romance,” her mom said. “My book club just read the Fifty Shades trilogy and—”
“Those books aren’t romance, they’re erotica.”
“Actually, they were very romantic. Christian Grey’s a bazillionaire who falls in love with a regular girl. It’s like a Cinderella story.”
Sadie sighed. “Fifty Shades of Grey is only romantic because the guy’s a billionaire. If he was living in a trailer, it’d be a Criminal Minds episode.”
Her mom sighed. “I just don’t know what you have against love.”
“I don’t have anything against it.” Sadie hoped her nose wasn’t growing at the lie. “I just don’t need it right now.” Or ever.”
“But you haven’t dated anyone since Wes, and that was three years ago. He was a good man.”
An attorney, Wes had been sure of himself. Sexy, with an edge. Sadie was long past being hurt over what had happened between them, but she still wasn’t feeling the need to let someone new in, mostly because she simply hadn’t been attracted to anyone.
What about Suits? a voice inside her head whispered as she made her way from one window to the next in order to keep him in her sights. It was misting now and his dark hair shimmered with droplets every time he passed beneath a lamppost. Like Wes had been, he too was sure of himself. Sexy, with an edge . . .
He was everything she no longer let herself want.
Suddenly, he abruptly stopped between the day spa and the Canvas Shop. Crouching low in the now pouring rain, he stared at something she couldn’t see. “I’ve gotta go, Mom. I’ll call you back.”
“You always say that, but you’re fibbing. You’re not supposed to fib to family.”
“Uh-huh,” Sadie said dryly. “Tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter bunny . . .” And at her mother’s gasp, she gently disconnected, squelching a wince because she’d most definitely pay for that later. Her mom had a lot of talents, and one of them was being able to hold a grudge for a hundred years.
Sadie had a few talents herself, such as not sleeping at night and enjoying chocolate just a little too much. And okay, so she also was talented at drinking tequila, preferably in the form of a frosty lime margarita.
Slipping her phone into her back pocket, she went back to window-gazing to see what Suits was up to. He was still balanced on the balls of his feet, the wind and now rain pummeling his back, seemingly unnoticed.
What the actual hell?
She knew a few things about him. Such as the fact that he had lean muscles everywhere you might want a man to have lean muscles, and that women tended to fall over themselves when he smiled. His eyes were a beautiful caramel, with flecks of gold that sparkled when he laughed. He was some sort of tech genius and used to work at a government think tank. He’d invented a bunch of stuff including a series of apps that he and his business partner had sold to Google. More recently the two of them had created a way of getting meds and medical care into remote developing nations via unmanned drones. He was innovative and inventive on a large scale, smart, charismatic . . .
Oh, and there was one more thing—he and Sadie rubbed each other the wrong way by just breathing. She wasn’t even sure how it’d started, but there was an energy between the two of them she didn’t understand. At best it made her squirm. At worst, it sometimes kept her up at night.
Sadie’s best friend, Ivy, who ran The Taco Truck parked outside the building, had decided that she and Caleb Parker shared an unrequited animalistic lust and nothing could convince her she was wrong.
But it wasn’t lust, because Sadie no longer gave in to lust, animalistic or otherwise. Yes, he was fun, flirty, and charming, but she was highly suspicious of all those things. Her idea of fun, flirty, and charming meant being as sarcastic as possible. It’d done the trick too, scaring men off for years. But oddly, Suits seemed to be able to handle her sarcasm without so much as blinking an eye.
She had no idea what to make of that.
And what was he doing still all hunkered down like that in the rain? Was he hurt?
Driven by curiosity and the inability she had of letting anything go, she unlocked and opened the front door of the day spa and stuck her head out. “Hey.”
Staring at the brick wall, he didn’t turn her way or even glance over. He didn’t do anything except to say “shh.”
Oh, no. No, he did not, and she stepped outside to tell him what she thought of him and his “shh” and where he could put it. Sideways.
But with his gaze still on whatever was in front of him, he held up a hand, silently ordering her to stop where she was.
It was like he wanted her to lose her temper.
But then he was reaching out to the wall, and she realized over the noise of the storm that he was talking quietly to something.
Something that was growling at him fiercely.
“Don’t be scared,” he said softly. “I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”
The growling got a little louder, but Suits didn’t back away, he just held eye contact with what sounded like a huge dog that Sadie still couldn’t see in the dark shadows.
“Okay,” Suits said. “Come here. Slowly.”
Sadie realized with a start that he was talking to her. “What? No way. What is it?”
“Come closer and you’ll see.”
Damn him. And damn her insatiable curiosity because she stepped out from beneath the spa’s overhang and immediately got wind and rain in her face for her efforts. Pulling out her cell phone, she accessed her flashlight app and aimed it at the wall.
“Don’t,” he said, wrapping his hand around her wrist, bringing the phone down to her side. “You’ll scare it.”
“Better that than getting eaten.” She shrugged off his warm hand but went still when the growling upped a notch.
“I think it’s hurt,” Suits said. “Come here, baby,” he coaxed gently. “Let me see.”
Sadie bet that voice worked for him in the bedroom, but no way would it work here. And yet . . . the matted, drenched shadow scooted away from the wall, not nearly as large as she’d thought. Not a young puppy but not a grown dog either.Its tan-colored body was way too skinny, and black eyes stared out from a black face. “Aw, looks like a young oversize pug,” she murmured.
Suits shook his head. “Too big for a pug. It’s probably got some bullmastiff in it though.”
A skin-and-bones bullmastiff with only three legs, Sadie realized as it shifted closer, and her entire heart melted. “Oh my God.” Moving toward it now without hesitation, she got only a few steps before the dog scrambled to escape her approach like a cat on linoleum, heading right at Suits.
With a surprised grunt, he fell to his ass on the wet cobblestones. “Okay,” he said, hands up, backing up on those fine butt cheeks as if suddenly terrified of the dog trying to get into his lap. “Okay, see? You’re safe now, right? Stay. Stay and sit.”
The dog didn’t stay. Or sit, for that matter. Instead, it leaned on Suits’s bent legs, leaving dirty beige fur sticking to his pants.
He sucked in a breath and seemed to hold it. “I’d really like to be your person, but I can’t.”
“Arf!” Translation: Too late, buddy, you’re totally my person.
“No, you don’t understand,” Suits said. “I literally can’t.”
Undeterred by this news, the dog continued to huddle close to his new human, even as that human shifted back, trying to avoid further contact.
Finally, Suits lifted his head and looked at Sadie. “Help.”
Fascinated by this unexpected show of weakness in the man who’d always come off as invincible, she shook her head. “I think it thinks you’re its mama.”
He glanced around the courtyard as if to see who the dog might belong to, but there was no one.
“Arf!” the dog repeated and sat on Suits’s foot
“Oh, I hear you, and we’re going to help you, I promise.”
“I know you must mean you and the mouse in your pocket because we”—Sadie gestured with a finger between him and herself—“are most definitely not a we.”
Ignoring that, he got to his feet, lifting his hands at the dog, giving the universal gesture for stay. But the minute Suits raised his hands, the dog squeaked in terror and leapt back as if he’d been shoved. Off-balance with only three legs, it fell to its back, exposing its underbelly and the fact that it was a she.
Sadie didn’t easily attach. To anything. But right then and there, she fell in love with her. Not partially, but all the way in love, because neglected and mistreated meant they were soul mates. “I’m going to kill her owner.”
“Not if I get to them first.” Suits’s eyes flashed absolute fury, though his voice remained calm as he once again squatted low, trying to get his six-foot-plus frame as nonthreateningly small as he could. “It’s okay, baby,” he crooned softly. “We’re together now, for better or worse, even if you’re going to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” Sadie asked. “She wouldn’t hurt a damn fly, much less kill you.”
Proving that, the dog slowly once again scooted toward Suits, head down, her hind end a little wiggly as she crawled close, trying to get into his lap.
The sweet hope of it had Sadie’s heart pretty much exploding in her chest.
With a sigh, Suits wrapped his arms around the dog and hugged her close. In response, the cutie-pie set her oversize head on his broad chest.
“Yeah, that’s some killer,” Sadie said, shoving her wet hair from her face.
Suits said this so nonchalantly that she blinked. “Is that some sort of a euphemism for ‘I hate dogs’?”
“No,” he said. “Reach into my front left pocket.”
She snorted. “You’re kidding me, right? Does anyone actually fall for that?”
“If I pass out, you’ll need my keys to play Nurse Nightingale.”
She paused, staring at his face. She saw no sign that he was teasing—very unusual for the charming, easygoing guy she knew him to be.
“I’m trusting you to not let me die,” he said as if he was discussing the weather.
“This isn’t funny.”
He met her gaze, his own more serious than she’d ever seen him. “If I don’t make it, promise me you’ll at least make up something really good for my funeral, okay? Like, I died heroically saving your sexy ass, and not because a sweet dog like this one hugged me.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, “I’m starting to think you’re really not joking.”
“I never joke about dying.”