Read The Sweetheart Rules Online

Authors: Shirley Jump

The Sweetheart Rules (9 page)

“You are a great mother,” he said. The kind he wished he’d had. One who got involved, found a way to connect with her child, encourage his dreams, and let him know he was heard and noticed and loved.

“I wish everyone agreed with you about that.” Her mouth drew tight, and she let out a sigh, one that said whatever subject she was avoiding was a hard one, and not one she wanted to share. “Anyway, just find out what you have in common with the girls.”

He snorted. “They like Barbies and horsies. Not exactly my kind of thing.”

“Dig a little deeper, Mike,” Diana said, her hand on his arm again, so warm and right, he swore it had left an imprint. “The connection is there if you try hard enough to find it.”

“Is it still there?” he asked, his mind on the mesmerizing woman before him, who could make the worst of his worries and stresses disappear with one simple touch. He wanted more of that—no,
it—and couldn’t let her go. Not yet. “The connection?”

“I think so. But to keep it there, you have to work hard. It’s like a line from a ship to a dock. If you don’t tend the line, it will fray and break, and you’ll be set adrift.”

He’d been adrift, it felt like, for a long, long time. And for the first time in years, Mike had no idea where he wanted to go, or how to get there. All those straight lines he lived his life by seemed to blur in his vision right now. If he could just get back to Alaska, to his job and his crew, maybe then he’d find those lines again.

But at what cost? He looked through the glass again and saw two little girls out there who needed a strong parental figure in their lives.

They needed a dad. They needed him. The problem was, he had no idea how to be what they needed, or if he was too late.

“What do you do if the line is already broken?” he asked Diana.

She cupped his cheek and gave him a small, soft smile. “You tie another one.”

“Simple as that?”

“Simple as that.” Diana let him go, then pushed through the swinging door.

Mike stood on the other side for a few stunned seconds. She made it sound so easy, so basic. Then why did the whole thing confound him so?

Diana was talking with the girls when Mike joined them in the lobby. “I was just talking to your daughters about helping me with my patients today. Ellie can draw pictures that we can hang up in the lobby to publicize the adoption event tomorrow and Jenny can help with the exams I have today.”

“Like a doctor?” Jenny asked.

“An honorary one, for today.” Diana skirted the counter, then draped her stethoscope over Jenny’s neck. “You’ll be my right-hand gal.”

“And what about me?” Ellie asked. “I’m a good doctor. See?” She yanked up Teddy and showed off the three Dora bandages she had applied that morning to a damaged right foot that was still leaking stuffing. “Daddy hurt him and I’s had to fix him.”

Diana’s amused gaze met Mike’s. “A medical emergency today?”

He put out his hands. “An unfortunate bear and lawnmower accident.”

Diana covered her mouth and bit back a laugh. “Seems someone wasn’t watching where they were mowing.”

“And someone didn’t listen about picking up their toys.” He nodded toward Ellie.

Now Diana did laugh. “Good luck with that. I’ve been trying to get Jackson to pick up after himself for fifteen years. If you find the secret to clean, neat children, share it with me.”

He’d share that and a whole lot of other secrets with her if he could. Then he reminded himself he was moving on, going back to Alaska, and all this time in Florida was a departure from reality. From the world he lived and breathed. Right now, though, looking at Diana’s dancing green eyes and the slight smile playing on her lips while she joked with his daughters and made them smile, Mike couldn’t think of another place on earth he wanted to be. “Uh, I should get to work. I’ll demo until three, then come get the girls.”

“Sounds good.” Diana straightened and Mike lost his great view of the valley of her chest.


“Come on, girls, let’s go see Mr. Spock,” Diana said. “He’s my next patient.”

“Mr. Spock?” Ellie giggled, and fell into step beside Diana. “That’s a silly name.”

“It’s from
Star Trek
, Elephant,” Jenny said. “The movie.”

Star Trek

Jenny sighed and shook her head, but followed along with Diana, holding her sister’s hand and explaining about Captain Kirk and the
as they disappeared around the corner and down the hall toward the exam rooms.

So his eldest was a
Star Trek
fan. That surprised him. Maybe there was a way to bridge the divide between Jenny and himself after all. And maybe, Mike thought, remembering Diana’s easy smile and laughter whenever his daughters were around, there was a way to bridge the divide with the sexy veterinarian, too.

Because even though Alaska was calling to him with her siren promises of the dangerous, regimented life he loved, that sound seemed to grow very, very faint whenever Diana Tuttle was around.


Greta had descended into the sixth level of hell: Harold Twohig’s front porch. That alone showed her desperation. Or her growing senility.

“Greta!” A big goofy smile spread across Harold’s face. “What a pleasant surprise. Does this mean you reconsidered my dinner and a movie invitation? They’re screening
down at the Rialto, you know.”

“Cut the crap, Harold, I’m not here for romance.” She thanked her lucky stars Harold was clothed. Not an outfit choice to write home about, and one ugly enough to earn him a ticket from the fashion police for malicious damage to people’s sensibilities, but it would do. The worst of his features were concealed by a short-sleeved button-down shirt and khaki trousers. With his black socks and pomaded hair, he could have been the poster child for old men.

“Maybe not today, but”—he raised a brow and gave her a grin—“a man can always hope.”

“You are delusional.” She shifted her weight. Lord almighty, there had to be another way. A better way. But no, she’d already worked her way down her friends and family list, and had now reached the bottom.

The very, very bottom of the gene pool.

“What brings you by?” Harold asked. “I’ve got fresh coffee cake. Patty Simons dropped it off this morning. She’s always bringing me baked goods.” He leaned in, lowered his voice, and gave Greta a wink. “I think she might be sweet on me.”

Something like indigestion churned in Greta’s stomach. “That Patty Simons is half blind and half deaf. I wouldn’t trust anything that comes out of her kitchen.”

“Why, Greta, you sound jealous.”

“The day I am jealous of Patty Simons is the day hell becomes a tourist destination.” Greta propped her fists on her hips and reminded herself some things in this life took precedence over her distaste for Harold Twohig. Not many things. Okay, just one. Luke and Olivia, and their family.
Suck it up, Greta, and get it over with. Quick. It’ll be like breaking an arm. Only more painful.
She cleared her throat. “I think you need a dog.”

He blinked. “A dog?”

“Yes. Dogs are great companionship. And you strike me as a man who needs a companion.” Oh, damn. That had come out wrong. She’d meant to say something sharp and sarcastic. That sentence sounded almost like she cared about Harold’s level of loneliness.

“Are you applying for the job?”

Greta scowled. “Have you gone deaf, too, Harold? I said you needed a
. Not a woman. And definitely not this woman.”

Harold pressed a hand to his chest. Right on top of the buttons on his pale green plaid button-down, which had the unfortunate effect of making him look like a malnourished palm tree. Someone really needed to take this man shopping somewhere other than the Garanimals department. “Why, you’re worried about me, Greta. That’s touching.”

This was getting her nowhere. She resisted the urge to give Harold a touch of her worrying—with a fist to his solar plexus. “Will you just get your car keys? We don’t have time to stand on your front porch discussing nonsense.”

“You’re just worried someone might see us talking and spread a rumor that we’re in
.” He drew out the last word with a little trill.

“Quit that. I just ate. I’d prefer to keep my lunch in my stomach. And speaking of things that make me ill, are you really going to wear that shirt?”

“Why, yes I am, Greta dear. It brings out my baby blue eyes and makes the ladies swoon.” Harold chuckled, then grabbed his keys from a dish by the door and headed out of his house. He thumbed the remote to the Mercedes parked in his driveway. Before Greta could reach the door, Harold had hurried to her side and was waiting with the door open, like Sir Galahad beside a pony.

“I could get the door myself. I’m not an invalid, you know.”

“And I’m not a jerk,” Harold said, then leaned in close as Greta slid into the seat and added, “contrary to those rumors you’ve been spreading for years.”

“I don’t spread rumors. I speak the truth.” She crossed her hands in her lap and sat there, prim and proper, almost daring him to try that little move again. Why did the man keep flirting with her? She should tell him to go call on Patty Simons. That woman would open her front door to just about anyone—and make them cookies. The tart.

Harold finally shut the door. Greta let out a breath. Why had she thought this would be a good idea? She despised Harold Twohig. His too-neat white hair made her ill. His smile made her stomach churn. Only a masochist chose, on purpose, to spend the day with a man like him. With any luck, he’d adopt the first dog he saw and this torture would be over before her shingles vaccine wore off.

“Where to?” Harold asked when he hopped into the driver’s seat.

“The Rescue Bay Animal Shelter. There’s an adoption event today.”

“And you thought of me.” He started the car, then patted her hand. She snatched it away and kept both hands in her lap. “That’s sweet, Greta.”

She couldn’t tell him the truth—that she was using him as a cover to have an excuse to talk to Diana, Olivia’s sister. If she did, Harold wouldn’t go along with her plan, and then she’d be back at square one: without Diana’s happy ending, leaving Greta with an unhappy soon-to-be-granddaughter-in-law and without a conclusion to the column. Not that she gave two figs about the Common Sense Carla column, but she did give a couple figs and more about seeing Olivia happy. And Luke would be happier, too, if his friend stayed in town; heck, maybe even bought Luke’s house and settled next door.

“You’re the only one I know who has nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to go look at some smelly dogs,” she said.

“Why don’t you adopt a dog yourself?” he asked.

“The last thing I need is another annoying, stinky, furry beast following me around and panting like a marathon runner.” She arched a brow in his direction.

Harold chuckled, then put the car in gear. The Mercedes glided down the street, pumping a steady stream of air conditioning into the caramel leather interior. “Are you cool enough?” Harold asked.

“If I wasn’t, I’d adjust the temperature myself and let you freeze.”

“Ah, I love it when you talk sweet to me, Greta.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and shot him a glare. “If you don’t stop that, I’ll—”

“Stop what? Being nice to you?”

“Yes. It’s annoying.”

He just smiled as he turned at the intersection, then pulled into the small new parking lot. Only a couple other cars sat in the lot, which was bad for the dogs hoping to be adopted, but good for Greta’s chances of getting Diana’s undivided attention.

“Now remember, you are here to adopt a dog. I don’t care if you actually get a dog, just give me enough time to talk to Diana, and for God’s sake, don’t interrupt me.” She reached for the door handle, before Mr. Helpful could come around and pull that gentleman-caller act again.

He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. The light touch made Greta freeze. Her hand stayed on the door handle, but her stomach did a weird little flippity-flop.

“What are you up to, Greta Winslow?”

“Nothing, nothing at all.”

He laughed. “I’ve known you for twenty years—”


“And there has never been a single day in those two decades that you haven’t been up to something or other. So spill the beans, or I’ll turn this car around and drive right on back to Golden Years and tell everyone we had a glorious makeout session in the backseat.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I would.” He leaned closer, close enough that she could catch the scent of his cologne. Something warm and spicy, which surprised her. She’d expected Eau de Swamp Rat. “And I’d enjoy telling everyone, too.”

Harold Twohig had her caught between a rock and a heartless-man place. She didn’t like it. Not one bit. But what choice did she have? She needed his help. Dear Lord, why had she thought this was a good idea? She needed to start thinking things through more. Maybe making a few of these big decisions before her morning sip of bourbon, too. “I am here on a mission for my grandson.”

Not quite the truth, but Harold didn’t need to know that.

“What kind of mission?”

“His friend Mike is in town. Nice guy, divorced, has a couple of kids. He really likes Diana, who’s the vet here, and the sister of Luke’s fiancée, Olivia. Diana and Mike dated for a little while but had a nasty break-up six months—”

Harold put up a hand. “Whoa, whoa. Lot of names, lot of people. Are you writing a soap opera or something?”

She huffed. “Most certainly not. If you’re just going to interrupt and criticize, I’ll forget the whole thing and walk back to Golden Years.”

“You are one stubborn woman, Greta Winslow.” He grinned. “That’s what I like about you.”

“What you like about me is that I am the only person in that retirement prison who hasn’t fallen for your charms. The grass is always greener on the other side of the barbed wire fence.”

He laughed at that, a hearty laugh that came from somewhere deep inside him. “Oh, you do test me, Greta, but in a good way.”

The man was buttering her up again. She could read that from a mile away, and through dense fog. Harold clearly couldn’t catch a hint. She was not interested, not now, not ever; not if the world ended and she was stuck on Mars with Harold and a lot of little green men. “What I need you to do is to pretend to be interested in one of the dogs that are up for adoption so I can take a few minutes to bend Diana’s ear and—”

“Convince her that love with the man she says she despises isn’t such a bad idea?”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Harold. Let’s just go inside.” She pushed open the door and climbed out of the car faster than Harold could get his eighty-five-year-old body around to do it for her. Then she marched into the building, half-hoping Harold would get kidnapped in the next five seconds.

But no, he was right beside her the whole time, so close he could be considered
her, which didn’t sit well with Greta. Not one bit. On top of that, he kept grinning like he’d won the Powerball, the damned fool. After they were done here, she was going to have to set him straight.

A slim young girl looked up when they entered and flashed an orthodontia-enhanced smile at Greta and Harold. The girl had the same hooked nose and mousy brown hair as Bonnie Miller, who had lived down the street from Greta back when she still lived in her own house and called her own shots. It took a second for Greta to pull the girl’s name out of the ether that was her memory. Laura. Yes, that was it. Laura Miller.

“Well, hello, Mrs. Winslow and Mr. Twohig,” Laura said. “Welcome to the Paws to Adopt event! Are you here to look at dogs or cats today? Or both?”

“Just the dogs,” Greta said, then turned to Harold. “Unless you’re a cat person. You kinda look like a man who’d own a bunch of cats.”

“I’m definitely in the dog camp. If I wanted something with claws, I’d move in with my surly neighbor at Golden Years.” He winked at her.

“Show him the mean, ugly dogs, Laura. They’re just like him.”

Laura laughed. “We don’t have any mean, ugly ones. Just warm, devoted sweethearts needing a forever home. Follow me and I’ll take you back to the kennels. If you see a dog you’re interested in, just let Dr. Tuttle know. She’ll set you up in one of the private rooms so you two can get to know each other.”

Harold elbowed Greta and arched a brow. “Private rooms.”

She elbowed him back harder, taking great pleasure in seeing him wince. She might be old, but she had sharp, bony appendages. “Behave yourself or I’ll put one of those leashes on you.”

“Why, Greta, I had no idea you were into that kind of thing.”

She let out a gust and marched ahead of him, coming up to flank Laura. The girl, all bubbly and sweet and intent on her job, had missed the innuendos coming from Harold. She talked the whole way down the hall about the pets they had up for adoption, the process for taking one home, and the benefits of owning a furry friend. Laura didn’t so much as take a breath until she reached the doors to the kennel area and ushered Greta and Harold inside. “Dr. Tuttle will take it from here. I hope that one of our wonderful dogs is a perfect fit for the two of you!”

“Oh, we’re not… He’s not…” Greta waved between them. “The dog is for him. I’m here for… moral support.”

Laura shrugged. “I think it’s cute that you’re dating at your age. Bye!”

Then she was gone. Harold was chuckling, clearly delighted someone thought they looked like a couple.

“That girl was never too bright,” Greta said. “It’s a wonder that high school ever let her graduate.”

“I think she’s brilliant.” Harold gave Greta his best leer.

She ignored it. “Just pick a dog. And don’t ask a lot of questions. I want to talk to Diana without her having to explain to you how to properly potty train a poodle.”

“I know how to take care of a dog, Greta. I know more than you think about the animals here.”

She wanted to ask him about that, but Diana Tuttle was already striding up to them, so Greta put on her friendly, nonthreatening face and faked a casual stance. Two girls trailed behind Diana, the little one looking like the kind of kid Greta’s daddy would have called a pistol, while the older one seemed quiet, reserved, but with a hint of a smile lingering on her lips. They were cute girls, if a little… messy—like they needed a mom to come in and wipe their chins, braid their hair and match their clothes. The little one darted over to greet a terrier mix who was nosing at the cage. Her sister stood by her, a stoic guardian. Diana gave the girls a smile, then came over to where Greta and Harold stood.

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