A Wedding Worth Waiting For

Engaging The Officer

As an officer devoted to protecting animals, Samantha Finley saves the innocent. Her weak spot? Opening herself up to people in her hometown of Paradise. Enter Dylan Turner, director of a local animal rescue. Something about him makes her trust in happily-ever-afters, but Sam knows there's no sense in trusting a guy who looks, walks and talks like a heartbreaker…

Dylan agrees eagerly when Sam proposes to a relationship of convenience so she can reenter Paradise society. But the more he falls for her, the more Dylan
knows
he must tame the wild woman he's come to adore—for good! If he has his way, their next date will be at the altar…

“Now you tell me. Where were you a minute ago?”

“Fantasizing about you in nothing but a pair of glasses” probably wasn't the right answer, so he just shrugged and bit into the now cooler appetizer. The slightly sweet and chewy conch contrasted perfectly with the spice of peppers and crisp batter. “Do you know there are people who have never had a conch fritter?”

She shook her head in mock sadness. “It's a tragedy, really.”

“It is. I guess they don't know what they're missing. But still, life can't quite be complete if you don't have good seafood.”

A wistful look shadowed her face. “There's a lot to be thankful about in Paradise.”

Dylan wanted to punch himself. She'd lived most of her life away from this, and it was obvious she'd missed out on a lot more than seafood while she was gone. He couldn't give her that time back or fix everything that had gone wrong for her, but he could at least try to make her return as welcome as possible. And the more he got to know her, the more determined he was to do just that.

Proposals in Paradise: True love on bended knee!

Dear Reader,

Welcome back to Paradise! I'm excited to introduce you to
some new faces in this new Paradise series, and to bring back some of the
characters you met in the Paradise Animal Clinic series. Dylan Turner first
showed up in
Do You Take This Daddy?
, and the sexy
hard worker is back with a story of his own.

Giving Dylan a run for his money is Samantha “Sam” Finley, a
fish and wildlife officer who is trying to start a new life in her old hometown.
Sam, I have to say, is a character close to my heart. A “late bloomer,” as my
mom might say, she's spent a good portion of her life with her nose in a book
and is finding that navigating social relationships is a lot harder than acing a
test or tracking a wild animal in her beloved woods. As an introvert myself, I
really connected with her on many levels, and I have a feeling some of my
readers will, too. Plus, who doesn't love the idea of reinventing themselves? I
think that's something we all do, over and over, in life, and it's part of what
makes living—and writing—so much fun.

If you would like to chat about your own reinvention—or about
any of the characters or books I've written—you can find me on Facebook at
Facebook.com/katiemeyerbooks
, follow me on Twitter at
@ktgrok
, or email me at
[email protected]
. To keep up with
my latest book releases and find out about contests and giveaways, sign up for
my newsletter on my website:
k
atiemeyerbooks.com
.

Happy Reading!

Katie Meyer

A Wedding Worth Waiting For

Katie Meyer

Katie Meyer
is a Florida native with a firm belief in happy endings. A former
veterinary technician and dog trainer, she now spends her days homeschooling her
children, writing and snuggling with her pets. Her guilty pleasures include good
chocolate,
Downton Abbey
and cheap champagne.
Preferably all at once. She looks to her parents' whirlwind romance and her own
happy marriage for her romantic inspiration.

Books by Katie Meyer

Harlequin Special
Edition

Paradise Animal Clinic

Do You Take This
Daddy?

A Valentine for the
Veterinarian

The Puppy
Proposal

Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin
ebook!
Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards
http://www.harlequin.com/myrewards.html?mt=loyalty&cmpid=EBOOBPBPA201602010002

My friends, who try to keep me sane, and my family who love me even when I'm not.

The Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, a very special place doing great work.

And Tara, Luke, Stripes and “Tiny Cat”…my animal inspirations.

And most of all, to coffee.

Chapter One

U
sually, the small island town of Paradise lived up to its heavenly name. Today was not one of those days.

Dylan Turner had spent most of the day patching a leaking roof during one of Florida's notorious summer storms, only to have the skies clear the minute he climbed back down onto solid ground. Soaked to the skin and covered in globs of roofing compound that stuck more to his skin than it did to the shingles, he'd done something completely unprecedented in his time as director of the Paradise Wildlife Rehabilitation Center—leave work early.

Now he was headed home smelling like tar, trying to navigate the water-filled ruts in the gravel road ahead of him. Wrenching the wheel hard to the right, he let the four-wheel drive take him up onto the soft shoulder and around a particularly washed-out section. Damn, he might have been better off staying at work after all. In a few hours, the water would have gone down, and there was always more work to do. More than he'd ever imagined when he'd taken the job over a year ago.

Fresh off an MBA from Harvard and ready to return to his home state, he'd thought the job would be a cakewalk, something politically correct to put on his résumé while leaving him plenty of time to surf and hike. Instead he'd found himself working eighty hours a week, often doing things conveniently left off the job description. Things like scooping panther spoor or chopping hundreds of pounds of vegetables. Or roofing repair. Luckily, he'd grown up on a ranch and wasn't afraid of getting his hands dirty.

But the crazy workload wasn't the biggest surprise. No, what had shocked him to the core was how darned much he'd come to love the job—the challenge and the responsibility. He could have worked at a big firm somewhere, but here what he did made a difference. Every dollar he raised, every penny he wrangled for the budget, meant food or shelter for an animal in need, and that was something he could feel good about at the end of the day.

Most days, anyway.

Scratching at a patch of tar behind his ear, he slowed for another puddle, the dirty gray water splashing his windshield and blinding him. He flipped on the wipers and grabbed a swig of the bottled water in the console. Soon he'd be at the turnoff for his cabin, a small two-bedroom right on the edge of the Paradise National Wildlife Refuge. Just a few minutes more and he could have a cold beer and a hot shower.

The ring of his phone cut into his thoughts. Grabbing it out of his pocket, he clicked on the speaker mode and set it on the dash. He needed both hands on the wheel in these driving conditions. Darting a glance at the screen, he saw the name of one of the rehab center's volunteers. Probably calling in sick, although they were supposed to use the office line for that kind of stuff.

“What's up, Jason?”

“I just saw something, something bad, and you were the only person I could think of to call.” The teen's voice sounded rushed, as if he was trying to catch his breath.

“Okay.” Dylan paused, switching his concentration back to the road as he eased around a fallen branch. “Just tell me what you saw, and I'll see what I can do.” Jason was levelheaded to a fault; if he was panicking, there was sure to be a reason.

“Right.” There was an audible breath as the kid took a drag on the cigarettes he always had on him. Dylan had been meaning to talk to him about that. “The thing is, it's not hunting season, right?”

“No, not for any of the game animals.” The deer and turkey season didn't start until August, and even then there were a lot of rules and regulations as to when, where and how an animal could be taken. Wild boar were always legal, though, and as an introduced species they were a general menace.

“Well, I just saw some guy shoot a deer right out of his truck. I don't think he saw me, I was parked pretty far back under some oaks... Miranda and I wanted some privacy, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I know.” Teenagers had been making out in the woods for as long as there had been woods. He'd steamed up a few windows himself back in the day.

“Well, anyway, I heard the truck, but didn't think anything of it, figured it was slowing down just because of all the water on the road. But then I heard it—a gunshot.”

“You sure it wasn't just a backfire or something?”

“Nah, man. This was a brand-new truck, all tricked out, not the kind you'd expect backfire from. Besides, I saw them load the deer in the bed before they took off.”

Hunting out of season was illegal, and so was taking potshots out of your truck like that. “Sounds like poachers. You were right not to interfere. Some of them can be pretty dangerous. But you need to report what you saw to Fish and Wildlife. If you need the number, I can get it for you once I get back to the house.”

“Yeah, I know. But here's the thing.” Another long drag. “After they left, I saw another deer run into the bushes. Looked just like freaking Bambi, man.”

Dylan felt his gut tense. “What do you mean, Bambi?”

“I mean, it was a baby. Dude, I think they shot its mom!”

* * *

Dylan bit back a stream of expletives, his jaw so tense his teeth ached. A baby left on its own wouldn't last long. That's why deer season wasn't for another few months, in order to give the fawns enough time to mature. “Are you sure that's what you saw? It wasn't a fox or something?”

“No. It was definitely a baby deer. Can you help it?”

“I'll try.” If he could find it. “Listen, where are you, exactly?”

“Right before the turnoff to the wilderness area, on that road behind the canoe rental place.”

Dylan knew the spot. It was a natural clearing surrounded by thick old oak trees, and one of the party spots for Paradise Isle's younger crowd. If he took the back road, he could be there in a few minutes. “Listen, Jason, stay put, okay? I'll be right there.”

Trying to find a fawn in the scrub and pine forest would normally be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But maybe he'd get lucky. A full day of rain would have left the ground soft enough for tracks, giving him half a chance. He had to at least try. They'd taken in several deer lately, all orphaned by car accidents on the main highway. Tragic, but certainly not purposeful. But this...this was a whole different level of awful.

Passing the turn for his own street, he took the next right, following that around until the gas station Jason had mentioned was in his sights. He parked in the gravel lot behind it, grabbing his daypack from behind the passenger seat before climbing down. He had no intention of staying out long, but he'd had enough backpacking experience to know you never went into the woods without emergency supplies.

Jason was waiting for him, pacing in front of a beat-up car, his girlfriend perched on the hood, eyes glued to her cell phone. “I already called Fish and Wildlife. They're sending an officer out.”

Dylan nodded. “Good, they'll want a statement from you. Poaching isn't something they take lightly.” He shaded his eyes against the setting sun. There should be another hour of two of daylight, but with the cloud cover it might get dark sooner. Time was running out. “Which way did the fawn go?”

“Um, that way, away from the road.”

That made sense. “Can you show me exactly where you saw it?”

“I think so. But, uh, Dylan...”

“What?” Impatient to start, he started in the direction Jason had indicated, forcing the younger man to keep up.

“The Fish and Wildlife people—they said not to do anything until they got here. Something about preserving evidence, and jurisdiction or whatever.”

Dylan rolled his shoulders, hiking his pack up more securely. “If I want to find that deer, I need to look now, before it gets any farther away. So you can tell that officer, if they give you any crap, to hurry and catch up. Hell, they can arrest me if they want, but not until after I find that fawn.”

* * *

Samantha Finley eased her department-issued F-150 truck to a stop underneath a sprawling oak. She'd been the closest officer when the call came in, but it had still taken her nearly an hour. Budget cuts had left the department spread thin and Sam's assigned area stretched from the coast to the outskirts of Orlando, where she'd been responding to a nuisance alligator report. Only the reptile had turned out to be a partially sunken log, and the reporting homeowner had been so drunk she'd felt tipsy just standing next to him.

Hopefully this wasn't another false alarm. As the newest and youngest officer working in the region, she had a reputation to build, and getting stuck on another wild-goose chase wasn't the way to do it. But then again, better a waste of time than a truly orphaned fawn.

Stepping down from the four-wheel-drive truck, she waved at a T-shirt and jeans-clad teen—Jason Cunningham, according to her notes. He looked nervous, but nodded in response. In her experience, boys his age were never very comfortable around law enforcement, especially if the one packing a gun was a woman.

“Hey, Jason, right?” She extended a hand, and after a second's hesitation he shook it.

“Yeah, that's me.”

“I'm Officer Finley. I want to thank you for taking the time to call this in. A lot of people wouldn't have bothered to get involved.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I was just worried about the baby deer.”

“I bet. You work over at the wildlife center, right?”

“I volunteer there, yeah. I'm hoping for a scholarship and you have to have a certain number of community service hours. I figure it beats picking up trash.”

“I bet. So, can you tell me exactly what you saw?”

She listened carefully, taking down the description of the men and the vehicle. Then she had the girlfriend get out of the car and give her version of events before having Jason walk her to where he'd seen the deer. There were two distinct sets of boot marks, which was consistent with what he'd described. And a long, smooth furrow in the mud where they'd dragged the deer before lifting it up into the truck. Streaks of blood and tufts of tawny fur told the rest of the story. This was the real deal, her first poaching case. She took several photos from different angles, documenting the scene.

“And where was the fawn?”

He pivoted, pointing toward a dense thicket of pines and brush. “It was right there, and then when the truck started it ran back into the woods. I'm really worried about it.”

So was she, but she wasn't going tell the kid that. “Hopefully it didn't get far. Either way, thanks for calling it in. I'll contact you if we need anything else from you.”

For a minute she thought he was going to say something else, but then he just nodded and loped back to his car. A minute later he was gone, leaving her alone in the clearing. There were two vehicles parked by the gas station, but no one had gone in or come out since she'd arrived, and the only sound was the hum of cicadas in the trees overhead.

It was hard to believe that this patch of wilderness was only a few miles from Paradise's picturesque downtown. But almost half of the island was a dedicated wildlife reserve, a safe haven for an assortment of native wildlife. At least, that was the idea. Today, the reality had been far different. And although logically she couldn't have prevented this, the weight of responsibility was heavy on her shoulders as she made her way to where the boy had last seen the frightened fawn.

Her boots sank in the soft, waterlogged ground, squishing as she pulled them from the mud. Not exactly the best circumstances for a search attempt. There wasn't much daylight left, and the damp dusk buzzed with bloodthirsty mosquitoes. She should have stopped to apply a fresh coat of repellent, but time was running out if she wanted to have any chance of tracking the orphaned deer. So she swatted and swore under her breath as she followed the V-shaped tracks of the fawn.

Weaving her way through between the trees, she kept to the higher and dryer ground on the side of the trail to avoid covering the deer tracks with her own footprints. Twenty minutes in, she'd gone in what her GPS said was nearly a full circle, and was edging up to a gravel access road. There the trail stopped, the ground too rough for tracks.

Would the fawn have crossed it, braving the relative open?

Or stuck closer to the trees and run parallel to the road?

Taking a drink from her water bottle, she made her way east, checking the soft shoulder for any tracks. Nothing. Retracing her steps, she then went the other way, but there was no sign of the deer. Later tonight, there would be possum and raccoon tracks, but they were just waking up and the dirt was unmarred, washed clean by the earlier rain. Which meant the deer must have crossed the road. Plucky little thing.

Crossing, she scanned the ground on the far side, spotting the tiny tracks heading into a tangle of kudzu vines and trees. “The Vine That Ate the South” was what they called the invasive plant, growing fast and thick across anything that didn't move. A bitch to hike through, but the perfect place for a tired and frightened fawn to hide.

She was halfway to the thicket when she spotted the other tracks. Man tracks. Had the poachers returned?

That didn't make any sense. What would they want with a fawn? Besides, she hadn't seen any other tracks before now. Of course, someone could have kept to the sides of the trail, as she herself had done. The ground was rougher and dryer there, and if she was honest, she hadn't been looking for prints. Her attention had been on the deer tracks.

Resting a hand on her sidearm, a Glock 17, she eased forward more cautiously than before. A second-generation wildlife officer, she'd grown up in these woods and knew how to tread quietly. No need to advertise her presence—not until she knew who she was dealing with.

She ducked under the green canopy of leaves, pushing through the outer layer of vines. Ahead, a narrow game path snaked through the press of branches before opening into a clearing a few yards up. Impressions in the ground marked the progress of both deer and man. For a moment, she wondered if the teen who'd called it in could have come back here while waiting for her, but the prints were too large and deep.

Other books

Indefensible by Lee Goodman
Prying Eyes by Jade, Imari
Good-bye and Amen by Beth Gutcheon
Beyond Betrayal by Christine Michels
Dangerous Secrets by Katie Reus
Manna From Heaven by Karen Robards
A Taste for Love by Marita Conlon-McKenna