“Shall we head to the dog park?” Matt Miller hooked the leash to his dog, Willie’s, collar. The dog whined. Matt sighed and patted his head. “I’ll take that as a yes. Give me a second and we’ll leave. I know you love the park.”
Matt donned his jacket, then grabbed his keys. He preferred schedules and praised his sister for giving Willie a plan for the day. Too bad she couldn’t be the dog’s mistress. He loved the dog, but wished his sister hadn’t left him and Willie. He couldn’t understand why she’d walked away from the animal. Willie was just about perfect—no messes, or chewing, very few accidents, a mellow personality and he barely shed. A dog owner couldn’t ask for a more well-behaved dog.
He walked Willie the four blocks to the dog park. Ever since he’d heard about the place from his sister, he’d forced himself to take Willie there. God knew he and Willie both needed socialization. He worked at the junior high, but Willie spent most of his time alone. He did well around other dogs and people, but still. They both had to get out more.
He kept his head high and allowed Willie to set the pace. His mind wandered though. His ex-boyfriend, Colin Dent, liked to visit the dog park. Maybe Colin wouldn’t be there today. Matt could hope. He’d never forgotten the day they’d split and the look of pity on Colin’s face when he’d left. Colin had sworn he couldn’t be with a guy who didn’t love his dog as much as him.
‘I love you, Col, but it’s just a dog,’ Matt had said. Wrong thing to say, but at the time, the words had explained his feelings.
Colin had glared at him. ‘If you can’t appreciate the dog, then you can’t appreciate me.’
Back then, Colin had been right. Matt hadn’t grown up with dogs or cats. He’d had a tank of fish. He had no concept of loving a critter so much. The fish had been like objects. Then he’d inherited Willie. Now he understood Colin’s attachment to his dog.
He could explain his change of heart, but Colin hated him.
Matt opened the gate to the park and went through ahead of Willie. Once in the fenced-in portion of the park, he unclipped Willie’s leash. He tugged the tennis ball from his pocket. “Ready?”
Willie barked and hopped at Matt’s feet.
“Okay, I’ll throw it.” He lobbed the ball. Willie darted after it. If nothing else, Willie loved the ball. The dog brought it back and Matt threw it again. This time, he bothered to look around. People were already at the park. A pair of women chatted while two golden labs sprawled out in front of them. Another guy walked a chihuahua around the oak tree. After tossing the ball for the fourth time, Matt noticed Colin at the other end of the park. Damn. He’d hoped to miss his ex. He didn’t own the dog park or have the right to say who could visit, but still. He’d rather not run into him.
Matt focused on Willie but stole glances at Colin. His ex had arrived with another dog and a guy.
Lovely. Colin embodied handsome. He’d modeled back in college and worked in promotions—at least that was what Matt thought he did. Colin flicked his blond hair off his forehead. His button-down shirt clung to his toned frame and the act of moving his hair looked sexy. Being so attractive meant Colin could have any man he desired. He’d chosen a handsome man. Colin had cut his hair a bit, but the style worked for him. Are those highlights? He could’ve sworn Colin’s tresses were brighter in spots. Colin had lost a bit of weight, but the leaner appearance added to his appeal.
Matt tossed the ball and turned away from Colin and company. He’d had enough wallowing in the past and mistakes he couldn’t take back.
He waited for Willie to return with the ball, but he didn’t. “Willie?” Where has that dog gone? He searched the park. His heart raced and fear gripped him. His nerves shredded. Willie wasn’t a purebred dog. The poor guy was just a mutt, but he was Matt’s mutt. He couldn’t be without his dog.
Finally, he spotted Willie with a white Pomeranian. A dull ache started behind Matt’s eyes. The nutsy dog. “Willie.” He rushed up to the pair of pups. “Are you sharing your ball?” Odd, since Willie hated when anyone but Matt touched the tennis ball.
Willie sprawled beside the other dog. He wagged his tail a couple of times and closed his eyes. Matt sighed. He’d have to figure out who the other dog belonged to and probably set up playdates. He’d never seen his dog so relaxed before. He noticed two pink bows in the fur on the top of the Pomeranian’s head. Funny. Colin had always decorated his dog that way.
“You can’t stay here,” Matt said. “Her owner will be worried.”
“Damn straight.” A guy strode up to Matt. “Get your dog away from mine.”
Matt knelt to retrieve the ball, but the Pomeranian growled at him. “Sorry.” He glanced back at the man beside him. “My dog wanted to share his toy.” He clicked Willie’s leash onto his collar. “We’ll come back for the ball. I’ve got another tube of them at home.”
“She’s not a ball kind of dog,” the guy said. “Leave it or take it, I don’t care, but I don’t want it.”
“Um…okay.” He grabbed the tennis ball. “Well, sorry. See you.” He started away. What a strange guy. “Come on, Willie.”
Willie didn’t budge.
Matt sighed again. “It would appear my dog likes yours.”
“Is he fixed?” the man snapped.
“Yes.” He crinkled his brow. “Since he was a year old and he’s five.”
“Then good. Still, you need to go away.” The man folded his arms but made no attempts to retrieve his dog.
Matt rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
“Wait.” Colin approached. “Just wait.”
Matt locked gazes with Colin. His heart skipped a beat and a shiver ran the length of his spine. He’d never get tired of looking at him. He wished he could take back the words that had caused the rift.
“Mason, go. I’ve got the dog. You need water and shade. Didn’t you run this afternoon? Have a seat. We’ll join you in a moment,” Colin said. He turned his attention to Matt. “We’ll be fine.”
“You’re sure?” Mason glared at Matt, then left with a flourish.
Colin held a rhinestone-encrusted leash. He said nothing and stared at Matt.
Matt wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t deny the urge to hold Matt once more, but he knew better. He also knew he couldn’t make a move with Mason close by. He didn’t know Mason, but could feel the jealousy radiating off him. “I’ll take Willie and go. He makes Mason nervous.”
“It’s not that,” Colin said.
“If you’re worried about Willie trying to mate with your dog,” Matt said. “He’s not able, so don’t get upset. Willie just likes her.”
“Oh, okay.” Colin toyed with the leash. “I’m sorry.”
Matt froze. He’d expected the first time he ran into Colin to be awkward, but not this confusing. “Don’t worry about it.” Willie caught his leash up with Judy’s.
Colin’s eyebrows rose. “Our dogs are in a tangle.”
“Yeah.” He’d noticed. The dogs being together was what had brought him over, but now the leashes were wound together.
“I’m sorry,” Colin said.
“Willie will deal. He’s a grown-up.” He’d go forward in the same way Matt had—with a broken heart.
“What?” He wasn’t sure what to say. “We’ll be fine. We’re survivors.”
“He’s a pretty dog,” Colin murmured. “A rescue?”
“Kind of. My sister got him as a pup but couldn’t handle him.” Matt shrugged. “She said he was too high-strung.”
“Him?” Colin chuckled. “He’s mellow.”
“Around her, he freaks out,” Matt said. “She threatened to give him away a lot.”
“And you took him?”
“She abandoned him.” He hated to admit that. Fuck.
“What?” Colin’s eyes widened. “How could she do that?”
“She needed to move on, so she did. He wasn’t invited.” He knelt and petted Willie. “I don’t know what her real reason was for going, but she wasn’t a dog person and never should’ve adopted him. I didn’t plan on having a dog, but I couldn’t let him go. He’s sweet, funny, loyal and pretty calm—just not around her. Anyway, they were living with me and she moved out, but Willie didn’t. I’m glad. He’s my center.”
“He seems like a cool guy.” Colin petted Willie’s head. “He’s calmed Judy right down.”
Judy? Matt folded his hands on his lap. “She’s pretty. Is she a second?”
Colin grinned and his eyes lit up. “You remembered. Yeah, she’s Judy II. I didn’t think you’d recall that.”
“How could I forget?” He forced a smile, despite his heart breaking. “She used my pillow to sleep on, chewed up my shoes and puddled on my clothes.”
“She didn’t like you much.” Colin nodded to the dog. “This Judy is just as high-strung. She hates everyone—including Mason.”
“He seems to like her.” Matt gritted his teeth. He hadn’t meant to sound snotty.
“He’s protective,” Colin said.
“As he should be.” Did that make up for his earlier statement?
“Are you jealous?” Colin tipped his head. “Matt?”
“He’s jealous of you,” Colin said. “Really jealous.”
He paused. “Why?”
“Because I knew you before I knew him.” Colin shrugged. “Makes little sense, but that’s the truth.”
“Ah.” He should’ve guessed Colin would mention him. “You told him I’m nothing to worry about, right?”
“Kind of.” Colin shrugged again.
Matt blew out a ragged breath. Time to end the agony. Seeing Colin was too painful. “Well, I need to pry my dog from yours. We need to get going.”
“Probably smart.” Colin scooped Judy into his arms. “She’s never been this calm.”
“Willie’s a soothing dog.”
“He is. You should bring him around more often,” Colin said.