Sixteen Steps to Fall in Love (Three Rivers Ranch Romance Book 13)
Boone Carver yawned and stretched from his perch on the edge of his bed. From the other room, dog collars jingled and jangled as his bulldog and his yellow lab heard him and came running.
“Hey, guys.” Amidst slobber from Lord Vader’s jowls and tail whipping from Princess Leia’s overactive rump, Boone scrubbed down the dogs. “You ready to run this morning?”
Of course they were. His dogs loved running almost as much as Boone did. The annual Amarillo Marathon was only eight short months away, and he was determined to be ready this year. His muscles ached a bit from his long run yesterday, coupled with the late shift at the animal clinic where he worked. They stayed open until eight on Thursdays, and while that didn’t normally faze Boone, the five a.m. alarm to put in ten miles before breakfast certainly did.
He reminded himself that it was almost the weekend and he didn’t have to work this one. He would be on call, but most people didn’t call into the animal hospital unless there was a real emergency.
Dressed, stretched, and properly hydrated, Boone set out with Vader and Leia leashed beside him. Leia always tried to bolt out of the gate, and he had to hold her back, save some of his energy for mile six, when the fatigue would really hit him.
Boone lived on the northeast edge of Three Rivers, one of the last houses before the road stretched and went out to Three Rivers Ranch, where he worked also part-time.
He timed his breathing, measured his steps, and enjoyed the early summer morning air. It smelled like apples and pollen, and Boone relished in this town, this place he’d come to find sanctuary at a time he’d had none.
He passed an older gentleman walking a Boston terrier, and Boone lifted his hand in greeting. He’d seen that dog in the clinic a few months ago. Cracked paw pads. Looked like the dog had fully healed, and Boone’s spirits soared. With his mind on work, he ran through the late-night paperwork he’d completed.
He’d gone over it three times, determined not to give any more ammunition to the office administrator who’d been in his face since the day he’d arrived at the clinic. If his handwriting wasn’t “atrocious” and “illegible” then he’d forgotten to check some microscopic box on the sixteenth line on page three of a form. If not that, then he’d misspelled something so important Nicole Hymas had to tell the entire staff of his incompetence.
He’d laughed it off all while shooting her his most lasered looks. Over the past several months, though, he’d decided to make more of an effort to hide his dyslexic tendencies. Last night, he’d even erased an entire paragraph and rewritten it so she’d be able to read it more easily.
He wasn’t sure why Nicole disliked him so much. Messy handwriting came with the territory of a doctor, right?
Yes, definitely, he told himself as he hit the Six-Mile Wall. Thankfully, he spent part of his time out at Three Rivers, so he didn’t have to deal with Nicole and her surliness on Mondays or Wednesdays.
He approached the end of his run: a huge park, with public restrooms, statues, a fountain everyone threw coins in to make wishes, and a bark park—a fenced area just for the pooches. He unzipped his small backpack and pulled out the pop up bowl for his dogs and filled it with water. Lord Vader and Princess Leia drank greedily while Boone stretched and worked out the lactic acid in his muscles.
His running route on ten-mile days took him around Three Rivers and always ended at this park. When the dogs had finished lapping at several bowls of water, he walked them over to the bark park, scanning the area now that the sun had painted the surroundings in golden rays of light.
Only a handful of people came to the park this early, and Boone knew almost all of them. He nodded and waved and smiled before opening the gate and unleashing his dogs. They’d just run for a while, but Boone liked this cooling down period at the pet park. Enjoyed talking to the people who shared his love of animals. Had even met his hiking partner and Friday night, game-watching best friend, Dylan Walker, at this park.
Almost everyone in town knew he what he did for a living, and he often answered questions while he rubbed out his calves and rehydrated for the day.
Today, no one approached him, and he ripped open a protein bar from his pack. Leia scampered around with a little pug he’d never seen before, and he glanced around for the dog’s owner.
It had to be the blonde-haired woman with her back to him. He wondered if her almost white-blonde hair came from a bottle, but it still reminded him a bit of his aunt’s. This woman was bent over another dog, her hair loose and flowing in a curtain that hid her face.
She picked up the tiny dog she’d been ministering to and straightened, scanning the park for the little pug. She wore a pair of tight yoga pants over her petite frame, along with an oversized sweatshirt in the exact shade of purple that reminded him of the grapes that grew on his family’s ranch down in Hill Country.
His heart pounded out the promise that she’d be his next date. He hadn’t been out with a woman in a couple of months, having decided not to burn through all the available females in the town in under a year.
He’d been in Three Rivers now for twelve months and five days, and he thought he’d like to get to know this woman a little better. Maybe a lot better.
“Taz,” she called, turning toward him.
Boone startled, and promptly told his pulse to settle back into its proper place. Now.
Because the owner of the pug was none other than Nicole Hymas, the office administrator at the animal clinic where he worked three days a week.
He sucked in a breath when her eyes landed on him. She froze too, her surprise quickly melting into the usual sour expression she wore whenever she looked at Boone.
“He’s over there.” He indicated where the fawn-colored pug played with Leia.
Nicole frowned as she followed his hand gesture. She carried a tiny apricot-colored poodle that quivered in her arms as she stepped closer and closer to where Boone stood, his bulldog panting at his feet.
“Is this your dog?” She indicated Lord Vader.
“And that one playing with yours. Taz, is it?” Boone had never interacted with Nicole in such a civil way. He didn’t even know the woman came in packaging labeled “nice.” She’d been nasty to him since day one, and he’d never known why. But now, he smelled something like mint and lemons, and she didn’t have any tension in her face, and her eyes didn’t look like they were about to scald him.
“Yes.” She beamed down at the little dog in her arms. “And this is Valcor.”
Boone laughed, the sound flying free up toward the clouds. “That doesn’t seem to fit.”
Nicole scowled, effectively silencing Boone’s clumsy laugh. “Thanks.” She strode back to where she’d been standing and retrieved a small pack, which she buckled around her waist. Boone tried not to notice how trim she was—how had he missed it before? He tried not to stare at the way her hair nearly reached the pack—how had he never known she possessed yards of such beautiful hair?
She tossed him a disgruntled look he was very familiar with before leashing the pug and leaving the bark park. Boone watched her go, dateless and wondering if he could ever do anything right in the woman’s eyes.
* * *
Boone arrived at Puppy Pawz Animal Clinic a few minutes before nine, already tired and hoping Nicole had called in sick.
No such luck. The woman sat in her office, which bore a large window that overlooked the lobby area, where a receptionist greeted customers when they arrived.
“Good morning, Boone,” Joanne chirped, drawing Nicole’s attention. She rolled her eyes and Boone wished he possessed a superpower that could melt glass.
“Morning,” he said, moving past the reception desk and through the door where he’d bring dogs to be treated. He had an office too, thank you very much. No window facing the facilities, so he entered and closed the door behind him, giving himself the privacy he wanted. Browning grass stretched beyond the window facing the outdoors, and Boone wished he were out there instead of in here.
He sighed, recalling the fantasy. He loved his job. He just didn’t love working with Nicole. Heck, he’d appreciate it if he even liked working with Nicole. And now his blunder at the bark park had added fuel to an already simmering fire.
“But Valcor is a really silly name for a five-pound poodle,” he muttered to himself as he put his lunch in the mini-fridge in the corner. He’d see all the dogs and cats that came in today, and he always checked the animals in the shelter on Fridays as well.
He turned away from the window at the faint sound of a woman singing. Nicole. She walked around the clinic with lyrics under her breath or a hum in the back of her throat. Boone had never minded—until today. Now, the sound of her voice sent his nerves across a cheese grater.
Be nice, he coached himself as he shrugged into his lab coat and exited his office to take the sixteen steps out to the reception area to get the chart for his first pet—and where he’d see Nicole. He said sixteen times, once with every slow step, be nice, be nice, be nice….