Kate Pearce

Three Cowboys and a Puppy
Book 2
Heat Level: 3
Three Cowboys and a Puppy

In this sweet and sexy friends-to-lovers romance from the New York Times bestselling author, it takes an adorable little rescue dog to show a hard-headed cowboy how to win over the woman he loves . . .

With a thriving cattle ranch and good friends all around, there’s not much Luke Nilsen would change about his life. But when his buddy Noah’s sister comes to visit, Luke begins to wonder if it’s time to change himself–and become the kind of man a sophisticated city woman like her would want. Maybe his female bestie, Bernie Cooper, who runs the local coffee shop, can use her womanly expertise and give him a man makeover . . .

Bernie thinks Luke is just fine the way he is–more than fine, even–aside from being blind to the fact that Bernie is perfect for him. But what’s a BFF to do? Perhaps it’s time for her to finally get over Luke and move on. Yet as Luke helps organize their small town’s Adopt a Shelter Dog auction event, one sweet little puppy seems to be on a mission to help Luke realize that the right woman has been right by his side all along . . .

Released on October 24, 2023
paperback: 978-1420-154-96-2
Nilsen Ranch near Quincy, California
Bailey Harding was something all right…. Luke looked across the dinner table at the laughing face of his best friend’s sister. Smart, funny, beautiful, and with a great sense of humor . . .
Max elbowed him in the ribs. “You keep staring at Noah’s sister like that and he’s going to be all up in your face,” he murmured.
“He’s too busy smiling at Jen to notice what I’m doing,” Luke replied.
“Nah, your tongue’s hanging out of your mouth. Even your mom’s noticed.”
Luke instinctively glanced over at his mom, who winked at him.
“Dammit.” Luke returned his attention to his food.
“Let’s be honest here, boss. You can smile at Bailey all you like, but you’re not in her league, and you never will be.” Max never knew when to shut up. “She’s recently come out of a long-term relationship and she’s not going to want to jump back into dating any time soon.”
That was unfortunately true. Luke had noticed times when Bailey’s smile disappeared and that stricken look in her brown eyes returned. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to punch the guy who’d made her feel that way or shake his hand. Bailey had been staying at the ranch for three weeks and showed no signs of returning to San Diego anytime soon. Apparently, most of her work as a paralegal and her studies for law school could be handled remotely.
Which, if she chose to stay on the ranch permanently—with him—would make life very easy. Luke drank his water. The problem was that Max was right. What did he have to offer a successful, independent woman who lived and worked in a thriving city by the ocean? He glanced around the kitchen. An old house that needed a lot of work, a ranch that required all his attention, and a man who’d been to war and never really gotten over it.
Jen, Noah’s girlfriend, and soon-to-be on call midwife at his mom’s medical practice, waved at him.
“I’m going into town after lunch. Didn’t you say you had to meet up with Bernie?”
“Yeah, something about the charity puppy auction, I think she said, but you never know with Bernie. It could be anything.”
“She’s a busy woman,” Jen agreed. “What with the coffee shop, the online baking thing, and the humane society, I don’t know when she sleeps. We can go together if you like and save some gas.”
“Sure.” Luke nodded.
“Would it be okay if I came with you?” Bailey asked. “I have to mail something from the post office.” Bailey glanced between Luke and Jen. “If I won’t be intruding?”
“Not at all,” Luke replied promptly. “The more the merrier.”
“Bernie has the best coffee and pastries in the valley,” Jen said. “And I really like her. She was the first person I met when I came up to the ranch.” She grinned at Noah. “She gave me directions to here, a flask of hot coffee, and made me promise to let her know I arrived safely.”
Luke smiled. “Sounds like Bernie. She was always the mothering type, even in kindergarten.”
Bailey looked over at Luke. “I guess you and your family know everyone around here, right?”
“Well, Mom does. Being a doctor means she’s in everyone’s business.” Luke smiled at his mom. “But I went to school with a whole bunch of kids who’ve never left the area.”
“Whereas San Diego is a much more transient place—what with the military and people chasing their Californian dream,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to get to know people. I’m glad I had my sisters around while Noah was overseas.”
Max picked up his plate. “I don’t have time to go to town. There’s work to do in the barn.”
“I’ll bring you back one of Bernie’s doughnuts!” Jen called out to him as he put his glass in the dishwasher.
“Talk to me when you bring back a dozen.” Max said, and departed.
Noah set down his fork with a sigh. “I guess I should be getting out there, too.” He kissed the top of Jen’s head. “I’ll keep an ear out for Sky and get him up from his nap if you’re not back.”
“Thank you.” Jen smiled blissfully after Noah as he went out. “He really is the best guy.”
“You got a good one there,” Luke agreed.
Bailey nodded. “My brother’s amazing.” She pointed at Jen. “But you’re good for him. I’ve never seen him smile this much in his life.”
“Yeah, it’s quite unnerving, isn’t it?” Luke agreed, which made Bailey laugh.
She did like him, Luke thought, but whether she saw him as anything other than her brother’s best friend was debatable and probably unlikely, seeing as he had no idea how to change her opinion of him. What he needed was a new strategy….
He pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. “Give me fifteen minutes to get the kitchen cleaned up, and I’ll be ready to go.”
* * *
Bernie handed over the chai latte to the stressed-looking woman with the crying toddler and smiled down at the little girl.
“Do you want some milk, sweetheart?”
“I want CAKE!” the tiny tyrant said forcefully. “NOW.”
Bernie looked at the woman. “I can give her a cake pop for free if it gives you time to enjoy your latte.”
“That would be so kind of you,” the woman said. “We’ve got another seventy miles to drive before we get to our next stop, and I’m not sure I’ll make it without some caffeine.” She yawned and then slapped the hand that wasn’t holding on to her daughter over her mouth. “Sorry.”
“Are you sure you should be driving?” Bernie couldn’t help but ask. “There is a hotel right across the street if you need to take an earlier break. The roads out of the forests aren’t the easiest to drive on, even at this time of year.”
“Really?” The woman glanced wistfully out of the plate-glass window at the well-lit Victorian house opposite. “Is it a nice place?”
“The best. But I am biased because my cousin Lucy runs it.” Bernie smiled. “I can call her and see if she has space for you. Maybe even just for a nap before you get going again?”
The toddler glared up at her. “Cake, Momma!”
Bernie crouched in front of the little girl. “You can have your cake if you sit right here.” She patted the seat of the nearest empty booth. “What’s your favorite kind?”
“I have just the thing.” Bernie hoisted the kid onto the seat. “Sit tight and I’ll get it for you.”
The mom slid in next to her daughter, effectively blocking her in as Bernie quickly found the cake pop and brought it and the mom’s drink over to the booth.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks.” The woman yawned again. “Do you think you could ask your cousin whether she has a room for us? I’d rather make it back in one piece than risk driving on unfamiliar roads with a screaming toddler in the back. I can call my husband and let him know so he doesn’t worry.”
“I’ll text her right now,” Bernie assured her.
Fifteen minutes later the toddler and her mother were on their way across the street to Lucy’s place and Bernie was wiping cake crumbs and frosting off every single surface of the booth. The bell jangled, and she looked up to see Jen and Luke coming into the coffee shop.
“Hey, you.” Luke smiled, and her heart did its usual jumpy thing. “Jen wanted coffee, and I guess we need to talk about the humane society fundraiser?”
“And cake.” Jen grinned at her. “And doughnuts to take back, of course.”
“It’s been a slow day, so I still have a little of everything left,” Bernie said. “I’ve already sent out the online orders.”
“What time are they picked up?” Jen asked as they followed her up to the counter.
Luke chuckled. “In the morning? You hate mornings.”
“I used to. Now, I get up at four and start baking,” Bernie said. “I’ve been doing it for over a year.”
She was slightly hurt Luke hadn’t inquired about her new business venture before Jen brought it up, but he did have a lot on his plate.
Luke pulled a face. “Gah, I’m sorry, Ber. I did know that. I’m not sure where my head is this afternoon.” He punched her gently on the arm. “You’re killing it with your sixteen-hour days.”
Bernie made the coffee for Jen and Luke, an herbal tea for herself. If she kept sucking down caffeine all day she couldn’t sleep, and according to everyone, she wasn’t doing enough of that already.
“I’ll keep an eye on things if you want to talk to Luke,” Jen offered.
“I’d appreciate that,” Bernie said. “Mary’s due in an hour, after she’s finished her online classes, but until then it’s all me.”
Bernie took Jen’s and Luke’s drinks and sat in the booth closest to the counter. He looked his usual self—fair hair cut military short, tight beard, eyes blue as the California sky, and a warm smile to match. Outwardly, he hadn’t changed much since she’d first been paired up with him as her buddy for a field trip in kindergarten, when they’d discovered a mutual admiration for frogs.
But there was a wariness behind the easy smile, a tension that his years in the military had activated and now he was never without. He was a lot less jumpy and drawn than he’d been when he’d first come home, but she had a sense that the old Luke, the one she’d given her heart to at the age of ten, no longer existed. He kept things from her with a smile and a joke, and she didn’t know how to break through his reserve.
“So, what’s the plan?” he asked.
“Well, I thought we’d stick with the original auction idea for the prequalified dog owners, but that we should also try something new.”
“Which would be what?”
“We take photos of locals with their pets, and people can bid on having a coffee date with them here at the shop.”
“Who would want to do that?” Luke looked slightly bemused.
“Lots of people. It’s a way to make new friends with fellow pet lovers and might even lead to some hookups.” Bernie beamed at him. “Come on, Luke, it’s a great idea! Can’t you just see Max with Blinky and you with Winky?”
Luke sat back. “Hell, I’m not doing that.”
“Why not? There are lots of women who’d love to have coffee with you.”
“Then why don’t they just ask me? I mean, aren’t we all supposed to be equal these days?”
“Hi Bernie!” Bernie looked up to see Bailey Harding coming through the door. She looked fantastic as usual, her dark hair held back from her face with a blue scarf and her makeup perfectly applied to her already stunning face. “What’s Luke fussing about now?”
Luke scooched over to make room for Bailey in the booth.
“I’m trying to persuade him to be in the dog auction with Winky,” Bernie said.
“As someone people can bid on to have a coffee with their pet,” Luke hastily added. “Not to adopt.”
“I’d adopt you.” Bailey winked at him. “You’re cute.”
Luke smiled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’m still not sure I want to do it.”
“But it sounds like a great idea!” Bailey returned her attention to Bernie. “Like a low-key singles site but with pets, coffee, and no pressure.”
“Exactly.” Bernie nodded. “Luke doesn’t think anyone would be interested.”
Bailey raised her eyebrows. “Has he seen the volunteer fire department out here washing their fire trucks? And those awesome women who run the trail rides about a mile down the road? They are all super-hot. I’d bid on any of them.”
“We don’t know if they have pets,” Luke countered.
“Maybe they could borrow a pet for the shoot from the humane society?” Bailey looked at Bernie. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to adopt a dog or a puppy being lovingly cradled in a half-naked firefighter’s arms?”
Luke held up his hands. “Fine, I’m obviously outnumbered, but I’m not taking my shirt off for anyone.”
“Why not?” Bailey poked him in the ribs. “I’ve seen you coming out of the bathroom with just a towel wrapped around your waist, and you look damn fine to me.” She rose to her feet. “I’m going to get some coffee and make sure Jen isn’t eating all the doughnuts. Anyone want a refill?”
Bernie nodded, her attention on Luke, who was blushing like a rose. He wasn’t even looking at her, he was staring after Bailey. A sense of disquiet niggled at her.
“Everything okay?” she asked as he continued to look past her with a dopey smile on his face.
“Yeah! Sure.” He took a sip of coffee. “Bailey’s great, isn’t she?”
“She is.” Bernie paused. “I guess she’ll be heading back to San Diego soon, right?”
“She hasn’t said anything about leaving yet.” Luke set his mug back down. “I get the impression that she’s taking some time to work out what she wants to do next.”
“She just split up with her long-term boyfriend so she’s probably dealing with that fallout,” Bernie said as Luke’s gaze went past her again and focused on Bailey. “That must be tough.”
“Yeah,” Luke said. “I guess.”
Bernie cleared her throat, and Luke’s gaze snapped back to her.
“Sorry.” He half smiled.
“Is there something wrong?” Bernie asked cautiously. “You seem distracted.”
“I’m just wishing I could be more, you know?”
“More what?”
He shrugged. “Interesting, I guess.”
“I think you’re very interesting.”
“You have to say that because we’re BFFs.” He reached over and lightly punched her on the shoulder. “But we both know I’m kind of dull.”
It was Bernie’s turn to sit back. “Why would you think that?”
His gaze slid away from her again. “I guess it’s when you see yourself through someone else’s eyes.”
“Are you talking about Bailey, here?” Bernie asked slowly.
Luke stood up and grabbed her hand. “Come outside a minute.”
Bernie followed him out onto the covered porch that wrapped around the building. It was warm enough not to need a coat, but hardly sunny. There was very little traffic on Main Street, making it unfortunately easy to hear what Luke wanted to say. She folded her arms over her chest as he paced the porch and then came back to her, his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.
“I really like her.”
Luke nodded. “She’s incredibly talented, great looking, and has purpose in her life.”
“And she’ll be going back to San Diego soon.” Bernie tried to speak evenly as her heart sank to her boots.
“She doesn’t seem keen to do that right now,” Luke countered. “And, if she wanted to stay here, we could make it work.”
“And that’s what you want?”
“Yeah, and that’s where you come in.” Luke held her gaze.
“Like how, exactly?” Bernie didn’t dare look away.
“You know me better than anyone—faults and all, right?”
Bernie nodded as a sensation of dread overcame her.
“Then I want you to help me become a better version of me—someone Bailey will admire and want to be with.”
Bernie opened and closed her mouth like a fish on a hook until Luke frowned.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She took a steadying breath. “The thing is, Luke. I like you just the way you are, so why would I want to change you?”
Apparently oblivious to the faint wobble in her voice, Luke carried on talking.
“Because you’re my best friend? I don’t have anyone else I can ask, Ber, and I trust you.” He grinned. “I’ll even take my shirt off for that damn auction if it’ll seal the deal.”
Bernie just stared at him until he nodded.
“Okay, I get that it’s a lot to ask and that you need to think about it. Shall we go back in?”
He gave her a friendly hug, turned on his heel, and went back into the coffee shop, leaving Bernie frozen in shock.
“Oblivious, stupid ass,” she muttered as she kicked the doorframe. “You want me to do what, Luke Nilsen? Change you into the kind of man another woman gets to take home and live happily ever after with forever?”
The door opened again, and she hastily stepped out of the way as Bailey emerged with Luke behind her.
“Hey, thanks so much for the coffee.” Bailey held up her drink. “I got it to go. Luke’s going to show me where the post office is.” Her smile faltered. “I decided to mail the jewelry Will gave me back, and it needs to be signed for.”
“It’s always good to see you, Bailey,” Bernie said, deliberately not looking at Luke. “Come back if you need a refill for the journey up to the ranch.”
Luke winked at her as he followed Bailey down the steps and pointed out the post office, which was clearly visible from the coffee shop. Bernie went inside, where the familiar scent of coffee, vanilla, and cinnamon for once failed to comfort her.
Jen was packing up her doughnut haul and setting the boxes on the counter.
“I’ve got at least two dozen. I’ve already paid for them, and—” she paused. “What’s up? You look like someone kicked your favorite puppy.”
“Nothing. . . .” Bernie automatically smiled as she came behind the counter to stand next to Jen. “Did you sell anything while I was out talking to Luke?”
“Bernie . . .” Jen said softly. “We’re friends, right? You can tell me anything.”
Bernie wiped down the already immaculate countertop and considered what to say. “Luke’s being . . . weird.”
“Totally.” Jen chuckled. “He’s got the hots for Bailey.”
“You knew?” Bernie blinked at Jen.
“Hard to miss when he’s literally hanging on her every word like a teenager. Noah’s not happy about it. He loves Luke like a brother, but that doesn’t mean he thinks anyone is good enough for his sister.” Jen regarded Bernie carefully. “You’re fond of Luke, aren’t you?”
“Yes, well, we’ve been best friends since I was five and he was my fourth-grade buddy.” Bernie tried to sound casual but wasn’t sure she succeeded.
“But it’s more than that, isn’t it?”
“Obviously not for Luke.” Bernie pulled a face. “I guess I’m the stupid one, thinking he’d eventually notice I was the best thing in his life.” She rinsed out the cloth in the sink. “And now he wants me to help change him into the kind of man Bailey might want.”
“Like, Luke seriously said that?” Jen asked. “To you?”
“I’m his best friend,” Bernie said miserably. “He trusts me.”
Jen frowned. “He’s also an idiot. Bailey’s last boyfriend was a city-born lawyer.”
“But as that didn’t work out, Luke obviously thinks she wants something different,” Bernie pointed out, trying to be fair. “Maybe someone like him. He’s college educated, was an officer in the marines, and he runs his own ranch.”
“Nothing wrong with any of that, but I just can’t see Bailey . . .” Jen trailed off, her gaze settling somewhere in the middle distance. “Can I get back to you on this?”
“Sure! I mean it’s definitely not your problem, so don’t feel like you have to do anything,” Bernie assured her. “I’m fairly certain that when Bailey goes back to San Diego, Luke will change his mind.”
“If she goes back.”
Bernie considered that nightmare scenario.
“But even if she leaves, that doesn’t solve the problem,” Jen said thoughtfully. “He needs to step up regardless.”
“I don’t follow.”
“For you. Maybe while Luke’s busy thinking you’re turning him into the man for Bailey, you’re really making him into the man you deserve.”
“I can’t do that,” Bernie objected. “I like him just how he is.”
“Maybe that’s part of the problem and why he takes you for granted,” Jen said slowly. “So while you’re busy with Luke, I’ll help you.”
“Do what exactly?” Bernie asked, confused.
Jen smiled. “Work out whether Luke really is the guy for you or if you’re the one who needs to shake things up a bit and find someone new!”
“Is that you, love?” Bernie’s mom, Linda, called out as she came down the stairs. “I’ve left your dinner warming in the oven.”
“Thanks, Mom!” Bernie said as she took off her work shoes and put on her fluffy slippers. Her feet always ached from standing behind the counter all day. She went into the large, cozy kitchen attached to the family room and looked around. “Where is everyone?”
“I finally cracked and murdered them all,” said her mom, who had the same red hair as Bernie. “They’re all upstairs watching the sports ball on the big TV in my bedroom.”
A roar came wafting down the stairs and Bernie smiled. “Sounds like we’re winning whatever it is.”
She sat at the tiled kitchen counter, moving a pile of schoolbooks and random magazines to one side to make a space for her mom to set her dinner in front of her.
“Thanks so much for keeping this for me.”
“It wasn’t easy. Bill ate enough for three and still complained he was hungry.”
“Teenagers,” Bernie said as she gulped down the spaghetti in cheese sauce. “I think they have hollow legs.”
“Mike’s nearly as bad, and he’s my age.” Linda set a glass of water beside Bernie’s plate. “But working a ranch does use up a lot of calories, and there’s not an inch of fat on the man.”
Bernie’s stepdad Mike had ranching in his blood just like Luke Nilsen’s family. He was a big man who didn’t say much but showed his love for his wife and family in many less-obvious ways. He’d married Linda when Bernie was three and had always treated her like his own. She loved him and her two half brothers and sister dearly.
Linda leaned back against the countertop opposite Bernie and drank her coffee.
“We’re worried about you, love.”
“Why’s that?” Bernie managed to ask between forkfuls of pasta and drinking half her glass of water. “I’m fine.”
“You’re doing too much,” her mom said. “You hardly have time to sleep, and now with the animal shelter auction coming up, things will get even worse.”
“I’ve got lots of help for that. In fact, I was just talking to Luke about it earlier.”
“Luke’s probably got enough to do up on that ranch to have much time to spare for you,” Linda said as she refilled Bernie’s glass of water. “If you’re going to continue to do so much, you need permanent, paid help.”
“I have Mary,” Bernie pointed out. Her half sister was currently watching the café, while Bernie took her dinner break.
“Who is still in school and can only work part time right now.”
“I also have Casey and Pen who help out, too,” Bernie said. “I like everything I’m doing right now, Mom, and I don’t want to stop.”
Linda sighed. “Sometimes you remind me so much of your father. He never knew when to stop, either.”
“I will try and find more help,” Bernie said. “It’s just hard to find it around here. Lucy struggles to get staff at the B&B as well.”
“I know. The twins love it when they can go to town and earn some money.” Linda chuckled. “Lucy says they make great bussers and wood choppers.”
“Hopefully, not at the same time.” Bernie finished the pasta and put down her fork. “Thanks for the food.”
“You’re welcome, love.” Linda started making a fresh pot of coffee as Bernie rinsed her bowl and put it in the dishwasher. “I got MJ to feed the pets, so you don’t have to go out and do that.”
Bernie walked over to her mom and hugged her. “You are so good to me.”
“I know.” Linda hugged her back. “MJ said that he thought Pandora was close to having her puppies.”
“She’s certainly due,” Bernie said. “I wonder what they’ll look like.”
Pandora, the poodle, had come to them from a kill shelter in northern California, already pregnant and probably kicked out by her owner for that reason. She was a pretty but timid dog who hated loud noises and wasn’t very keen on men. Luckily, every animal on the planet took to MJ, so he had gained her trust quite easily.
“Who knows?” Linda handed Bernie her coffee. “But it will be nice to have more puppies for the auction. As soon as they’re ready I’ll get their pictures up on the website for you. What did Luke think of your other idea?”
“He hated it.” Bernie sighed. “But luckily Bailey, who’s staying up at the ranch, persuaded him to change his mind.”
“Noah’s sister?” Her mom knew everything that went on in the valley. “The one who’s studying to be a lawyer?”
“That’s the one. She’s really nice.” Bernie sipped her coffee. “Luke likes her a lot.”
“Does he now.” Linda met Bernie’s gaze. “And does she like him back?”
“I have no idea.” Bernie smiled. “Nothing to do with me.”
“Bernie, love . . . you’ve had your eye on Luke Nilsen since you were five.”
She tried not to wince at the sympathy in her mom’s voice. “That doesn’t mean he feels the same way about me, and he obviously doesn’t, because he wants me to help him get it on with Bailey.”
“No.” Her mom’s face looked exactly like Jen’s had. “What a complete knucklehead. Men can be so . . . dim sometimes. I mean look at your father—he gave up a wife and child just to chase some foolish obsession with coding software.”
“His loss, Mom.” Bernie had never met her father and had no real interest in learning anything about him.
“He . . . contacted me recently.”
Bernie set her mug down on the countertop. “Who did?”
“Brian. Your father.”
“I hope you told him to take a flying leap.”
“Almost my exact words.” Linda smiled at her. “I blocked his email after that.”
“Well done.” Bernie checked the time. “I’ve got about twenty minutes before I need to get back, close up shop, and drive Mary and myself home.” She rinsed out her mug. “Plenty of time to visit Pandora and see how she’s doing.”
“Or you could just put your feet up,” her mom suggested.
“I can do that when I’m a millionaire running twenty-five bakeries, Mom.” Bernie went back toward the mudroom to put on her boots.
She didn’t wait to hear her mom’s reply, knowing she wouldn’t like it—and what was there to say anyway? She wanted to be successful, and she was prepared to work hard to get there.
The walk down to the second barn, which housed the humane society pets and a few of Bernie’s own rescues, wasn’t far, but it gave her plenty of time to think. Had she crammed her life full of work to avoid the fact that Luke was never going to love her the way she loved him?
Even worse, had she created all her businesses at home to avoid having to leave, and centered them around her certainty that Luke would want her to stay and work alongside him? She suspected at some level she had, but that was too embarrassing to admit to herself, let alone anyone else.
She was a mass of contradictions, and it wasn’t surprising that someone like Luke, who planned everything out in minute detail, wasn’t interested in her…. Sure, he liked her being his friend because they were so different, but as a life partner? Maybe not so much. He was calm and measured with his approach to new things, whereas she jumped in headfirst and started swimming. He was good at people managing while she tended to go by instinct and was sometimes too honest for her own good.
As she approached the barn a chorus of yelps and excited barks rose to greet her, and she had to smile. Two of the feral barn cats strolled out to stare at her. One of them even deigned to wrap himself around her legs and purr. She checked water bowls and food containers, but MJ had done his usual excellent job and put everything back in its right place as well. He wanted to be a vet, and Bernie thought he’d be awesome at it.
She walked past the spacious pens where various animals were either recuperating, resting, or waiting to be adopted, and unlatched the last one.
“Hey Pandora!” Bernie called out. “How’s it going?”
There was no sign of the small white poodle until Bernie crouched on the straw-covered floor and checked the bedding under the shelf at the back of the pen. From what she could see, Pandora was too busy having her pups to worry about chatting with Bernie. Bernie watched for a few minutes to make sure everything seemed to be proceeding normally and then sent a text to her mom and to Janice, the local vet, to let them know what was going on.
Five minutes later, there was a tap on the door and her brother MJ, who was five minutes younger than his identical twin, Billy, appeared.
“Mom sent me to keep an eye on Pandora while you go and lock up.”
“Awesome.” Bernie stood and dusted herself off. “She’s doing great. I see three puppies right now.” She checked that MJ had his phone. “You know what to do if she has any problems, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, call Dad and Janice.” MJ settled down with his back against the wall and started tapping away on his cell. “But I think she’s going to be fine.”
Bernie didn’t doubt his quiet confidence. He had a sixth sense for animals, and they’d all grown to rely on his insights.
She ruffled his thick, red hair as she went past, and he reacted like she’d poisoned him.
“Ew. Keep away from me, woman.”
“My pleasure.”
Bernie checked that she had the keys to her truck, washed her hands, and went back out into the cooling breeze coming off the forests that surrounded the ranch. There had been some huge fires over the past few years, but so far nothing had come close, and they were all truly thankful. Bernie had an emergency plan in case the worst happened and she had to evacuate the pets and people on the ranch, but she hoped she never had to put it into practice.
Her cell buzzed as she got into her truck and displayed a text from Luke. For the first time in years, Bernie didn’t rush to open it and reply. Luke could wait while she attended to her own business. If he truly wanted her help, perhaps it was time he realized there were plenty of other calls on her. In fact, she was expecting one from Jen about her plans to make Bernie a new woman.
Not that she was sure that would work . . . but she had to try something.
* * *
Luke glanced down at his phone and frowned. It wasn’t like Bernie not to respond to his texts straight away. Had he overstepped, asking her to help him out with Bailey? Maybe she didn’t know how to tell him he was chasing an impossible dream.
“What’s up?” Max rarely missed a thing. “Bailey ignoring you?”
“You’re not funny.” Luke put his cell away and returned to his task of mucking out the stalls. “I was texting Bernie.”
“She’s a busy woman these days,” Max said as he hefted another load of sodden straw into the wheelbarrow. “She makes the best damn doughnuts in the county.”
“I’m supposed to be helping her with the pet auction.”
“She’s doing that as well?” Max raised his eyebrows. “She probably sleeps even less than I do.”
“As you said, she’s busy.” Luke shut the stall door. “But she’s always had a soft spot for animals, and nothing either of us could say would make her give that up.”
“I don’t know about that,” Max spoke over his shoulder as he took the wheelbarrow out. “She listens to you.”
Luke went on to the next stall and filled up the water bucket. It was warm enough to turn the horses out during the day, and there was grass for them to graze on, which meant they were spending less on hay. There was always the danger of a late frost, but having grown up on the ranch, Luke had a fair idea of the weather patterns and had family records going back three generations, to when his Scandinavian ancestors had first come to California.
He checked his phone again, but Bernie still hadn’t replied. He tapped her number, and it went straight to voicemail.
“Hey, it’s Luke. Give me a call when you get a chance, okay?”
He finished his tasks and went to help Max. “Did I mention that Bernie wants you to pose half naked with Winky or Blinky for her new auction idea?”
“Yeah?” Max looked up and flexed his biceps. “I’d be down for that.”
Considering Max’s pitch-black hair, intense blue eyes, and super-fit physique, Luke wasn’t surprised he was on board with the idea.
“She’s got this weird idea that people would want to bid on a local coffee date with a pet and its owner kind of thing.”
“It’s a good way to meet someone.” Max closed the feedstore door. “In a nonthreatening way.”
“So I’m the only one who thinks it’s odd, then?” Luke asked as they walked back to the house together.
“Why don’t you like the idea? You’re the most social of the three of us and a big hit with the ladies.”
“Maybe that’s why.” Luke grimaced.
“If Bailey’s still around it might make her see you with new eyes—as a good catch rather than her brother’s best friend.”
Luke considered that option. “I guess.”
“See?” Max rolled his eyes. “Now you’re all for it.”
“Bailey already told me she thought it was a great idea, and Bernie’s going ahead with it anyway.”
“Good for her.” Max opened the door into the mudroom and let Luke go by him. “I’m all about helping the pets.” He paused. “And meeting some new women. You should try it sometime.”
Luke toed off his work boots. “I guess.”
“You’ve given up chasing Bailey?” Max undid his jacket. “Great.”
“I didn’t say that.” Luke lowered his voice in case there was anyone in the kitchen. “The trouble is that I’ve known everyone here my whole life. Bailey offers a new perspective on everything.”
“You’re planning on living in San Diego then?”
“Maybe.” Luke shrugged.
“And leave this place to run itself?” Max’s tone was skeptical.
“It’s still Mom’s ranch, Max. You and Noah can handle it for her perfectly well.” Luke went through to the kitchen. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because I can’t imagine you anywhere but here, and if you don’t mind me saying so, you’ve barely traveled five miles down the road since we got back.”
“I’ve got time,” Luke said. “I’m only turning thirty-five this year.”
“You’re getting old, bro, and you’ve already been out in the world,” Max reminded Luke as he followed through into the kitchen.
“Only the violent parts.” Luke poured them both some coffee. “I’d like to view it in a different, more peaceful way now.”
Max leaned back against the countertop and sipped from his mug. “You don’t need a woman to make that happen. You’ve got the time and the funds to go off by yourself.”
Luke snorted. “Hardly.”
“We’d cope.”
“I know you would, but money is really tight right now.”
Luke was not going to tell Max why the thought of leaving the safety of the ranch sometimes gave him nightmares. He was supposed to be the sane, level-headed, officer-class one, not the screwup. That was usually Max’s job. If he could persuade Bailey to stay here, he’d at least have a chance to find out if she was the woman for him. . . .
“You’re thinking too hard.” Max tapped his skull. “That’s my department. Why don’t you just ask Bailey out on a date and take it from there?”
“Because Noah would kill me?”
Max frowned. “It’s nothing to do with him. He’s not her keeper.”
“I’ll think about it.” Luke took out his phone. There was still no response from Bernie, and he could really do with some advice right now. “Where’s Jen?”
“She’s out. Noah’s on Sky duty until your mom gets back in half an hour. We’re supposed to be getting dinner on.”
Luke glanced at the clock. He didn’t have time to chase Bernie down. “You might have mentioned that earlier. It’s already past six.”
“I was thinking a mountain of pasta, pesto from the refrigerator, and salad, but if you want something more elaborate . . .” Max walked into the pantry, his voice fading.
“Sounds great to me.” Luke grabbed a pan. “I’ll put the water on to boil.”
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