Rebecca straightened the heart-shaped hat on Tori’s head and stood. The French bulldog eyed her with wary patience.
“This isn’t lame.” Rebecca took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching it crystallize like smoke in the cold air. Now that all of her friends had partners or spouses, she felt her single status more acutely, especially today, when everyone had romantic plans. Not that she needed a man in her life, but she wanted that someday. And while she waited, there were days when being alone was…annoying.
Steeling herself, she walked through the sliding doors into DogzPlay and headed toward the counter and Adriana, one of the regulars behind the desk. At least Derrick Jackson—the owner, who was so hot she turned into either a babbling dork or a mute when he was around—wouldn’t be here. Guaranteed that guy had a date for tonight.
“Hi, Tori,” Adriana crooned to the dog, coming around the counter to pet her. She’d added tiny red and pink hearts to the pile of dark hair on her head and painted her acrylic nails to match. “Happy Pawlentine’s Day!”
Rebecca had to admire the young woman’s commitment to the theme. “Do you need my invitation?” The postcard was good for free admission to the special event for VIP customers only. Damn straight she was a VIP given how much money she spent on doggie day camp. Honestly, infant daycare was probably cheaper.
“No, it’s fine.” The girl grinned and waved toward the glass-walled party room decorated with heart and cupid cutouts. A golden retriever wearing a heart-covered bandana around its neck sat inside, all alone. “You two can go on in.”
“Are we early?” Rebecca checked her watch. Seven oh-five. “Didn’t it start at seven?”
“Yeah.” Adriana shrugged. “Might be a low turnout.”
“Okay,” Rebecca muttered as she entered the room, towing Tori behind. “Maybe this is lame.”
She removed Tori’s leash and shed her heavy jacket as her little black pup waddled over to the golden. They sniffed each other with minimal interest. Probably the golden was a regular too.
“Oh, hey, Rebecca,” a deep voice said.
She looked up. Oh, no. Derrick. He looked delicious in a burgundy polo shirt that flattered his brown skin. The short sleeves left no doubt that he worked out.
“Glad you could make it.” He smiled, unleashing a devastating pair of dimples.
Dimples. She put a hand to her lips to make sure she wasn’t drooling.
His smile faltered. “Everything okay?”
She nodded, mentally kicking herself. Wake up. “Yeah. Uh, hi.”
“Happy Pawlentine’s Day,” he said, chuckling awkwardly.
Wow, they were going all in on the dog theme. “Right. You too.”
He knelt down and petted Tori for a minute, making soothing noises and scratching her belly.
Rebecca had never wanted to be a dog so badly.
“How’s it going pretty girl?” Looking up, he said, “Her costume is adorable. I can’t get Indigo to wear anything more fun than a bandana.” He gestured toward the golden.
He stood and stroked the retriever’s head. “Yep. She usually hangs out in my office, though. She’s an introvert like me.” His cheeks darkened. Was he…blushing?
“Really?” Rebecca blinked. “You always seem so outgoing, talking to all the customers.”
He lifted his broad shoulders and ducked his head. “It’s easy to talk to people as part of my business, but in the rest of my life, I’m better with dogs.”
She’d always seen him as this larger-than-life guy, handsome, charming, friendly, successful, and confident. As her mind worked to assimilate this new information, she glanced around. “I’m sorry it’s such a poor turnout.”
He bit his lip and rocked back on his heels, shoving his hands into his chino pockets. “So, um, actually, you’re the only one I invited.” Now he was definitely blushing as he studied her with clear brown eyes.
“You… Wait, what?” Was he saying…? No, that couldn’t be right. “Why…?” Her brain was so full of questions she short-circuited.
He gave a self-conscious laugh and shook his head. “Because I haven’t been able to work up the nerve to ask you out, and somehow I thought this might be clever and romantic, but now it just seems weird and maybe a little creepy.” His thick brows crashed together. “That’s why I asked Adriana to be here. I didn’t want to scare you. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. But how did you know I would come?”
“I didn’t.” He shrugged. “But it’s not like I had anything else to do anyway. Worst case, I’d get some paperwork done.”
Her brain kept fogging over like a windshield on a cold morning. He didn’t have anything else to do? “So, this was all some elaborate plan to ask me out? Like, on a date?”
He laughed again, this time at her confusion. “Yes. Is it that hard to believe?”
“Yes.” She looked around for a hidden camera or one of her so-called friends hiding in the corner to capture her humiliation for YouTube.
He shook his head and stepped closer, taking her cool hand in his big, rough warm one. “Rebecca, I should’ve done this a long time ago and not made it so weird.” The look in his eyes made her mouth go dry. He produced a red rose from his back pocket and held it out to her. “Will you let me buy you dinner?”
* * *
Spoiler alert: she said yes to dinner and eventually a life together. The following summer they were married in a beautiful, intimate, outdoor ceremony with Tori and Indigo as flower girls. Er, dogs.