There’s nothing cuter than a dog all decked out for Halloween. To celebrate the release of The Billionaire’s Matchmaker–and the ever-present Charlie (the adorable Jack Russell Terrier in each of the anthology’s novellas)–Shirley Jump, Susan Meier, Jackie Braun, and Barbara Wallace want you to post pictures of your dog in his or her Halloween costume. Post them on the Event Wall and enter via the Rafflecopter link !
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Can a feisty four-legged matchmaker help four best friends find the romance of their dreams?
When a handsome man from Gabby’s past agrees to a cross-country road trip, her master plan to re-launch her art career quickly morphs into an unexpected, romantic reunion.
Marney’s 9-1-1 emergency help arrives in the form of a rugged, blue-eyed cop. Now she has the perfect bodyguard to keep her safe during those dark, steamy nights…
The last thing Mia wants is a relationship…yet the headstrong florist can’t keep her hands off her sexy-as-sin ex-boyfriend. Will she open her heart before he leaves town for good?
Jenny is a woman on a mission – she’ll even resort to dognapping to make her point! But can she teach a reclusive, emotionally-wounded tycoon that love heals all things?
© 2013 Shirley Jump
Gabby Wilson had perfected the art of covering up the things she wanted to forget with a few brushstrokes of burnt sienna and emerald green. In a painting or a photograph, she could frame a whole other version of who she was, and she had been doing exactly that for damned near eight years. She didn’t want the people in Chandler’s Cove to remember the impetuous, rebellious girl she used to be, the one who had made the pages of the Chandler’s Cove Gazette twice—not for scoring a last-minute goal or writing an award-winning essay but because she’d been the youngest resident to get a free ride to jail, courtesy of the sheriff’s department. One more time, the sheriff had joked, and she’d get her own plaque on the wall.
She wasn’t that Gabby anymore. Now she was an artist with an affinity for mixed digital media, blending her love of photography with her penchant for quirky expression. A respectable, tax-paying citizen who stayed out of trouble.
Still, a part of her missed the old days. Maybe just the thrill of them, the unexpectedness that each day brought.
Unexpectedness—yes, that was what it was. Maybe that explained why she was striding up to her reclusive neighbor’s massive stucco monolith on a brisk winter afternoon in Chandler’s Cove. Earlier today, she’d received a mysterious message from Mr. Bonaparte’s butler, asking her to come by.
She had just about reached the granite steps when a familiar six-foot-two figure emerged from the house. A piece of her past, here, of all places.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Gabby Wilson,” he said.
“T.J.?” she said.
T.J. Shepherd took off his sunglasses and grinned. Something went hot and dark in Gabby’s gut. “Hi, Gabby.”
She hadn’t seen T.J. in almost a decade—not since high school. They’d grown up in the same area, gone to the same schools, but it wasn’t until they’d been paired up in a chemistry lab freshman year that she got to know him. The T.J. she’d remembered had been nice, funny even, but way too into computers and technology. He could drone on and on for hours about megabytes and RAM and stuff that bored her to tears.
That T.J. had been a bookish, quiet guy who rarely loosened the leash on his life. His reticence and caution had intrigued her in those days. But the man standing before her now had done a complete one-eighty. He had a dangerous sexiness in the way he stood, the smile playing on his lips.
“What, uh…What are you doing here?” Gabby said, the syllables a little harsher than she intended. T.J. Shepherd’s appearance on the doorstep of the Bonaparte mansion was about as incongruous as a hippo in a ballet.
Not that he looked anything like a hippo or anything that would belong in a ballet. Heck, if it hadn’t been for his eyes, those ocean-colored green-blue eyes of his, she wouldn’t have believed it was really him. He didn’t look one bit like the nerdy guy she remembered from high school.
She shook her head, and found her wits again. For Pete’s sake, this was T.J. She’d known him practically from birth.
“I had an appointment with Mr. Bonaparte,” he said, interrupting her wayward thoughts. He thumbed toward the door.
“But…I thought you lived in Boston or something.”
The boy she had known and the man she saw now were two different people. The one who had left Chandler’s Cove for college had been a scrawny guy with glasses and an affinity for buttoned-up polos. In a weird way, she’d liked that buttoned-up side of him. It seemed to dare her to figure out what it would take to get T.J. to unbutton.
The man standing before her now was as far from buttoned-up as he was from the moon. Taller, broader, and more defined, as if Channing Tatum had morphed into T.J.’s body. He still had the same eyes and sharp, lean features she remembered, only now they danced with hidden secrets and a sexy tease. And when he’d smiled at her—
Well, she wasn’t here to think about that. Not at all.
“I’m sort of between residences,” T.J. said, and once again she reined in her runaway thoughts. “I’m meeting with Mr. Bonaparte about a…potential job. I’ve been here for a few days, visiting my grandma at the same time, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to call on Mr. Bonaparte. Since he travels so much he’s pretty hard to catch.”
T.J.’s explanation made sense but a part of Gabby thought there was a piece missing to the story. He’d been gone a long time and his return felt, well, sudden. Maybe because seeing him had hit her with a hot, fast rush of something that sure as heck wasn’t nostalgia.
“What about you? What are you doing here?” he asked.
Oh yeah, back to the reason she was here. Which had nothing to do with ghosts from the past. Ghosts who had cut off all communication, at a time when she was hurt and vulnerable.
“I had a message that Mr. Bonaparte wanted me to come up and see him. Even though he’s lived here for years, I’ve never met him. I’m hoping he wants to commission me for some artwork or something. I don’t know. The message wasn’t really specific. Anyway, I’m…here.” God, she was rambling. What was wrong with her? She never rambled.
It had to be her nerves. A lot rode on this appointment. Sure, she had that gallery in Chicago that wanted to take a look at her work, but that was far from a done deal. Especially with Gabby’s reputation hanging in the balance after that stunt she’d pulled last year. She’d grown up a lot since then and had a whisper of a second chance. She couldn’t let anyone or anything distract her, or she’d be forced to go back to that job working in her mother’s lingerie store. Helping a woman in her eighties wrangle her way into a set of Spanx wasn’t quite how Gabby envisioned using her creative skills.
T.J. took a step closer. She swallowed hard. Reminded herself to breathe.
Maybe she was just hormonal, because she’d never reacted to him quite like that before, or maybe it was just that he had filled out, in a lot of ways and in all the right places. Or maybe it was because he had this confidence, a demeanor that said he owned this little space of the world, and that was intoxicating as hell.
“We should get some dinner, get caught up,” he said.
His proposal sent a trickle of temptation through her veins. “I…I can’t. I’m leaving for California tomorrow. A cross-country art journey kind of thing.” Journey was an understatement. This road trip was a chance at an art show that could take her career to the next level.
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. Maybe next time.”
“Our timing was never right, was it?” he said.
She shrugged. “We were two different people then.”
“Sometimes opposites attract—”
“And sometimes they repel. That I remember from chemistry class.” And from past history with T.J. He might be sexy as hell now, but she would bet dollars to gigabytes that he was still as technology focused as ever—even more so since it was his livelihood.
She was no longer the girl who’d talked him into skinny dipping in Geraldine Martin’s pool. Or the one who had convinced him to make them fake IDs so they could go bar hopping during junior year.
She was finally on the right track, rather than getting derailed by bad decisions. And she had no plans to entangle her world with T.J.’s, not after the way he had let her down years ago.
“Is that all you remember from chemistry class?” he asked.
No, she also remembered his patience in explaining the complex theories. The way he’d answered her every question, never making her feel stupid for not understanding chemistry. The hours he’d spent after school helping her study. How she’d begun to notice him and wonder about him, and want more time with him. But then when he had finally asked her to go out with him, she’d panicked and told him it would be better if they just stayed friends. Was that why he had let her down years later?
“That was all a long time ago,” she said finally. “Anyway, I need to get to my meeting with Mr. Bonaparte.”
She started to brush past him, but he put a hand on her arm. Just a whisper of a touch, but it jolted her. “Are you going by yourself to California?”
“I put up an ad, looking for a co-pilot. You know, someone to split the driving and the cost.” Babbling again. For Pete’s sake, what was wrong with her? Since when did a touch on her arm turn her into a chattering fool? She nodded toward the door. “Anyway, I better get to my appointment with Mr. Bonaparte.”
T.J.’s gaze held hers for a long time, as if he wanted to say something else. Then he slipped on his sunglasses again and gave her a nod. “Maybe another time.”
She almost agreed—a polite, auto response—then she stopped herself. Years ago, T.J. used to be her good friend, the person who had helped her survive puberty and high school and her mother’s constant chaos. But after T.J. left for college and Gabby stayed behind in Chandler’s Cove, they had lost contact and their friendship. She’d sent him a couple of emails, left him a voicemail when she’d needed him more than ever, and there’d been…nothing in return.
He completely ignored her efforts at staying in touch.
That had hurt. T.J. had been the one person she’d truly, completely trusted, the only one who knew the real Gabby. And when her life had crumbled and she’d needed him most—
No response. Nothing.
“No, T.J. I don’t think so,” she said. “You’ve never been much for staying in touch, and I’m not about to chase you for a return phone call.”
“Gabby, I need to explain about—“
She put up a hand. “It’s over, in the past. And so are we.”
A taxi pulled into the drive and honked. T.J. waved at the car then turned back to her. “I have to go, but I will be in touch. I promise.”
She just nodded and turned away. She waited until she heard the crunch of the taxi’s tires on the drive before she let out a long breath and refocused on the door of the mansion and her most important goal right now.
Her career. Mr. Bonaparte’s message, sent via his butler, could be her big break, and she intended to nail it down before she left town. This could be her chance to finally break into the competitive high-ticket art world. With Mr. Bonaparte’s connections, she could be designing pieces for corporations, other billionaires, maybe even city planners. She’d be taken seriously finally, rather than seen as a flighty, flaky artist who had made a mockery out of her career.
The criticism the art critic had written in the Tribune last year still burned in her mind. Even now, she kept the article in her wallet, a daily reminder to try harder, reach further. Not to let people down. She’d ruined that Chandler’s Cove mural, thumbed her nose at the people who had hired her to beautify the town, and that giant mistake haunted her still.
She climbed the smooth granite stairs of the Bonaparte mansion and rang the doorbell. A muffled gong boomed a low bass melody inside the house. A moment later, the door opened, and Cyrus, the elderly butler, peered down his pointy nose at her. The white-haired man wore the sour, exhausted look of overworked mortician. “Ah, Miss Wilson.”
A bundle of brown and white fur wriggled past the butler’s black pants and barreled into Gabby’s arms. She laughed at the warm and furry greeting. “Hey, Charlie,” she said, giving the terrier a friendly hug. “You getting into trouble again?”
The Jack Russell looked up at Gabby, wagged his tail, and raised his pert snout to let out a happy yip.
“That dog makes trouble a full-time occupation.” A pained expression formed across the butler’s tight face.
“Oh, he’s not so bad. Are you, Charlie?” She gave the dog a pat, then lifted her gaze. “I got your email, Cyrus. Is Mr. B…Mr. Bonaparte here?”
“Mr. Bonaparte is busy, preparing for his extended trip to Europe. He asked me to talk to you in his stead. The job he is offering requires the ultimate in attentiveness and care.”
Yet not so much that Mr. B would take a meeting? How had T.J. managed to secure a face-to-face when she couldn’t? “It’s usually helpful if I talk to the client directly,” she said. “It’s best to get his input on the type of art he’s commissioning.”
Something that could have been a smile flickered on the butler’s face. “Art piece? Mr. Bonaparte didn’t ask me to call you here about artwork. He has a different offer for you.” The pseudo smile blinked on the butler’s lips again. “He would like you to watch his dog while he’s in Europe for the next several months.”
The words hung in the cold January air. Gabby shook her head, sure she had misheard. “Watch Charlie? For months? This isn’t some kind of a practical joke?”
The butler across from her, who had the tottering frame and slow movements of a hundred-year-old man, just nodded. If the cold bothered him, he didn’t display so much as a shiver. “Mr. Bonaparte is not a man given to humorous pranks. He is serious about his job offer.”
She reached in her pocket and tugged out the email that Cyrus had sent. Read it again. A short message, sent via the contact link on her webpage, something Cyrus used from time to time when he wanted to thank her for returning Charlie. No specifics, merely a mysterious missive to come to the house about an important job. The email was as much of a puzzle as Mr. B himself. Not that she had ever met her reclusive neighbor, but it was the impression he gave. A wealthy enigma, that was Mr. Bonaparte, dubbed Mr. B by Gabby and her friends. Hiring her to—
Watch his dog.
She’d known Charlie ever since Mr. B moved into the mansion some time ago. The dog had a habit of escaping the mansion’s grounds and traveling into town. She’d heard that Mr. B made a hefty donation to the local animal shelter, and that made the animal control officer turn a blind eye to the determined Houdini of a dog who often slipped his leash and yard. Thankfully, Charlie steered clear of the traffic heavy areas of town, and nine times out of ten, he ended up at Gabby’s studio, preferring to take his afternoon nap in the sun-dappled renovated warehouse space she shared with a pizza parlor and a dry cleaner. At the end of the day, Gabby would walk Charlie back to Mr. B’s house and hand him back to the butler, something that had become a bit of a ritual.
Charlie dashed away and started rooting in the shrubs beside them. His paws flew in furious intent, shoveling away snow, then bare dirt. “St. Clair Charles Osgood Bonaparte!” The butler waved his hands to no avail. “Stop that this instant!”
Charlie jerked his head up, a tennis ball in his mouth and a who, me? look on his face. His tail wagged once, then he charged back into the house, past the butler, leaving a muddy trail of footprints on the front stoop, the white marble entryway—and the elegant cardinal red Aubusson rug.
“Not the Aubusson!” The butler paled. Behind him, the maid dove for Charlie, but the dog barked and outran her in furious fast circles on the rug. Gabby could swear Charlie was smiling.
The maid cursed like a truck driver, reaching for and missing the wily puppy. The butler dabbed a folded handkerchief against his temples and ashen cheeks, looking like he might stroke out in the well-appointed hall. “Oh God, oh God, the Aubusson.”
“Hey, Charlie, come here, buddy,” Gabby said. She patted her thigh and made a kissing sound.
The dog stopped circling and trotted over to Gabby, his whip-thin tail beating a furious pace behind him. He plopped down on the stoop, as innocent-looking as a red-handed burglar.
The butler glared at the brown and white terrier, then reached into the breast pocket of his black suit and exchanged the handkerchief for a slim piece of paper. “Mr. Bonaparte trusts you will find this amount adequate recompense for watching St. Clair Charles Osgood.”
Gabby’s brain stalled, trying to process the zeroes on the end of the check. She was the typical starving artist, living in a third-floor walk-up in a renovated Victorian a couple blocks from downtown Chandler’s Cove, renting a drafty studio because her one-bedroom apartment was too small for anything more than a double bed and a fridge. She drove a Toyota nearly as old as she was, had forgotten what the word vacation meant, and maintained a savings account bordering on anemic. “This is a lot of money. Just to watch a dog?”
“Mr. Bonaparte wanted his dog in the hands of someone he trusts while he travels to Europe. And…” Cyrus lowered his voice, “that dog is a…spoiled handful. If he was left here, I rather suspect the staff might do something that might…well, let’s just say annoy those PETA people.”
Gabby bit back a laugh. True, the little dog did have a penchant for getting into trouble, while Mr. B. seemed to be an indulgent owner who didn’t mind his dog’s wild antics. Charlie was like a two-year-old on a perpetual sugar high. But when he calmed down and laid his slim body at Gabby’s feet, he could be positively lovable. Plus, she had to admit she kinda liked his company.
Not to mention the check would mean she wouldn’t have to drive a complete stranger across the country. Soon as she left Mr. B.’s, she was taking that ad down. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m going out of town for a couple weeks but I can take Charlie with me if that’s okay with Mr. Bonaparte.”
“I’m sure whatever is convenient for you will be fine with Mr. Bonaparte. Let me just say, on behalf of the entire staff, that we appreciate you accepting this job.” Relief loosened the butler’s stiff features. “Thank you again, Miss Wilson.” Then he shooed the dog out of the house and shut the door.
“Wait! Is there any special—”
The door opened again and the butler plopped a crystal studded leash, several outfits, a porcelain dish and a bag of dog food into her arms. “Enjoy your time with that dog.” The last two words sounded like a curse. Then he shut the door again. Fast.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, kid,” Gabby said. Charlie barked in agreement then fell into place beside her, eager, happy and ready for whatever path they chose. About the same way Gabby felt right now, with the check in her pocket and a second chance at her career lying just down the road.
But in the back of her mind, the mysterious reappearance of T.J. lingered, like taffy stuck on the roof her mouth, daring her to take a taste.