A touching book about learning when to help friends and when to let them do things on their own. For friends big and little ages 4 and up."
Penelope Ramos has dreamed of being a K-9 search-and-rescue handler since she was a little girl. Armed with a quick mind and her German shepherd, Havoc, she rides into Maple Falls, Vermont, determined to get her certification. She isn’t expecting the gruff, unreadable park ranger assigned to evaluate her skills.
Park ranger Jay Gosling is a pro. It’s clear to him that neither Penelope nor her unpredictable canine has what it takes…although his boss feels otherwise. Whatever.
Jay will never have to work with them and he has half a mind to escort them both right out of town. But when a young boy goes missing, he doesn’t have that luxury.
Working side by side tests their tentative peace, but Jay and Penelope are together on one thing: they’ll both do whatever it takes to find the missing child—before it’s too late."
My Review: I really enjoyed the previous book I read by Paris Wynters and of course I am a sucker for a dog on the cover, so I was excited to try this one out. The story definitely started out with a bang and it had you turning the pages to find out what would be the consequences. This has some of my favorite romance elements with some enemies to lovers and forced proximity, but I like how Wynters gave the classic tropes a bit of a spin. Our hero, Jay, has a pretty heavy emotional load he is carrying around and it was kind of nice to see that put on the male character more than the female. I also really liked Penelope's character, she had a lot of spunk and was quick to own up to her mistakes. I have to say though it did get a bit frustrating when the characters kept making really rash decisions and were constantly saying not so smart things, looking at you Jay, it did get a bit old after a while. Now we need to talk about Havoc, I honestly thought he would play a bit more of a role in the story, I was hoping to see more of him in action. I did really appreciate what Search and Rescue training and work we got to see but I would have liked a bit more of it. All in all, I enjoyed the story, it had a bit for everyone, a bit of a suspense element, some emotional hurdles to overcome, some witty banter, some steamy bedroom scenes, great side characters and small town setting.
My Rating: I rather enjoyed this story, it had a lot of my favorite elements in romance and a few fun twists. I did find it got a bit bogged down with the conflicts between the main characters but overall a book that I think a lot of romance readers will really enjoy. I give it a rating of Three Paws.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Caffeinated PR, the above is my honest review and opinion.
A whiff of damp leaves filled Penelope’s nose as she inhaled and sank back, exhausted, against a thick elm trunk. The air was crisp and invigorating with the recent rain, the pale sunshine adding freshness as it reflected off the wet leaves. The weather was so perfect. Unlike her life, which was currently in a state of upheaval thanks to her ex.
Damn you, Trevor.
It was tough enough working for Tío Enrique’s construction company. People assumed she’d been promoted because she was family. But she’d put in the time and done the work because she wanted to get the promotion on merit, or else she didn’t want it at all. Only her pendejo ex-boyfriend stole the promotion right out from under her.
A muscle in her jaw ticked.
On top of everything else, having to see his smug face at work right now was too much, so Penelope decided to take a break to clear her head and do something just for herself. Which had led her to this idyllic state park in Vermont.
Penelope pushed off the elm, glanced at her Audi, and groaned. Her dog was perched in the backseat, slobbering all over the window. The usual. Havoc always had to keep an eye on her, even when sleeping. There was nothing creepier than waking up to the serious stare of a large male German shepherd mere inches from her face. And right now, she could have sworn her exuberant dog was smiling at her, his long tongue dangling out the side of his mouth.
She’d worked so hard for little perks, like being able to afford leasing this car, and had hoped that her dedication would pay off. She closed her eyes and took a long centering breath.
Focus on the positives.
At least she had leather seats. And Havoc. She rolled her shoulders, knowing she couldn’t have asked for a better partner for her search and rescue plans.
Somehow, her ex had hated Havoc. Enough so that the total annihilation of their relationship had nothing to do with jobs or sex or money. Rather, it had to do with the dog and a pair of shoes. Almighty Ferragamo shoes to be exact.
Honestly, unwanted dog behavior was almost always the human’s fault. A dog couldn’t chew what he couldn’t find. Penelope had imparted that particular bit of wisdom every time she found one of her ex’s stupid loafers in the middle of the floor. He couldn’t blame a dog for being a dog. But he had, giving her the ultimatum of him or Havoc.
She chose Havoc.
He was not only her partner, but her best friend. Okay, so Havoc actually tied for the role with her father. Even when in grade school, she’d always considered Papá her confidant. And that relationship continued through adulthood and only got stronger when her mother died.
A sharp bark from the backseat caught her attention. The Havoc-needsto-use-the-bathroom-now bark that meant if she didn’t let him out fast, those leather seats were going to require more than a slobber wipe-down.
The moment she opened the door, Havoc bounded out, racing into the field like a bullet. At two years old, he still bounced with puppy exuberance and was stubborn as hell. But he was exactly what she always wanted. A true working dog.
She pulled out her phone to check the time as Havoc burned off some energy. Another two and a half hours to kill.
When Penelope had pulled into the driveway at the duplex in town where she’d be staying, Mrs. Dubczek, the stout and rosy-cheeked housekeeper, was still in the middle of scouring already-clean floors, fitting the bed and bathroom with fresh sheets and towels, vacuuming, and generally applying her personal brand of spit and polish to the already immaculate unit. The gray-haired woman had cast her most powerful malocchio at Havoc, but the dog seemed impervious to her evil eye curse and promptly licked her face.
So, Penelope had dropped off one suitcase and escaped the bustling—and exceedingly chatty—Mrs. Dubczek to take Havoc to the state park.
And what a slice of paradise it turned out to be.
Penelope was familiar with autumn colors, but this park was beautiful. Too bad in her rush to beat traffic, she’d forgotten to pack her DSLR camera. Havoc’s sable coat against the red, yellow, and brown leaves would’ve made for some stunning pictures.
At least she had her phone. It just wasn’t the same. Lighting is a critical aspect of photography, and like most smartphones, hers had an LED flash instead of the preferred Xenon the digital camera had. The phone’s flash just wasn’t bright enough, nor could it cover large areas, which was important for when it came to taking photos of wildlife.
But she hadn’t driven to Vermont for vacation, nor was it her first choice for her Search and Rescue K-9 Air Scent handler evaluation. She wasn’t used to the landscape, but it was the only place she could find someone to evaluate her this month since she refused to wait any longer. So, she took some time off work and drove up to Maple Falls a couple of days early to get a feel for the topography without needing to rely on her GPS. Part of the evaluation would require her to explain her location on a map based on identifying at least three landmarks by sight. Etching landmarks into her mind would be vital. Just like it had been to pass her basic land searcher certification.
Only where she tested in New York was basically flat, so there wasn’t much to memorize.
She’d white-knuckled the steering wheel until the moment she’d arrived in the southern Vermont town. The place was gorgeous, full of charming local businesses with old-fashioned Victorian architecture set against a beautiful backdrop of brown, gold, orange, and red. The townspeople had already started decorating for the holidays with pumpkins, hay bales, and mums. Not to mention the vastly forested landscape. The aura of the town relaxed her instantly.
She giggled as Havoc attempted to chase a chipmunk up a tree and stretched her arms over her head, taking in more of her surroundings. In contrast to the careful landscaping of the picnic area, to her left sat a dilapidated building, barely hanging on, close to the main trail leading off into the forest. The roof shingles were worn and missing in a couple of places, and the siding appeared to suffer from some wood rot, visible in the many bare areas where the decades-old paint had peeled away. Cardboard and packing tape held one of the broken windowpanes together. Penelope inched closer to read the “closed” sign on the door, which included an opening date about a month away. Penelope shook and waved her arms. Damned cobwebs were everywhere. Hopefully, the poor sucker who had to sit in this thing would at least get some hazard pay. A strong gust of wind would bring the whole place down.
She turned away from the building. If she wanted to see urban decay, she could head back to New York where even the garden view outside her office was tainted by reflective metallic structures. Hell, it wouldn’t take much to get used to seeing only trees and colorful flowers.
Penelope walked a couple of feet toward the trail and knelt in the grass to take a photo of freshly bloomed stonecrop flowers. The tiny maroon blossoms grouped together to form clouds of sweet-smelling blooms. Breathing in their fragrance, she recalled the roof garden of an office building in New York she’d visited once during a work conference. She’d found the same flowers there.
A big-bellied thrush landed a few feet away and posed, proudly sticking out his chest. She laughed and snapped a few pictures, a rush of warmth filling her chest. She hadn’t spent much time solely on photography in more than a year, her time mostly devoted to attempting to balance work, SAR, and a relationship. Boy, did she miss it, and kicked herself harder for not bringing the professional camera.
The thrush, who now perched on a log, cocked its head, staring at her with wide jeweled eyes, then puffed its chest out again. Penelope laughed.
“Yes, I can take more pictures of you, gorgeous.”
She looked up and glanced around to find Havoc sniffing around the check station. He paced back and forth, the distance he traveled gradually shortening before his spine curled. Penelope stood and headed back toward the car to grab a poop bag. As she reached over the console, she grimaced. Sitting on the floor behind the passenger seat was the damn box of exboyfriend crap she’d forgotten to throw out in her haste to beat city traffic.
Her fingers dug into the console. Just the sight of the box made her mad. Her dog! He’d demanded that she get rid of Havoc! Like, what, she should just dump Havoc at the shelter, over a stupid shoe? To think, all of the time she’d wasted on someone like that. Her temples pounded, and her blood pressure rose. And yeah, maybe her chest ached a little too at seeing the physical reminders of her failed relationship. All of those knickknacks, snapshots, and mushy, cornball cards, from an ass who never appreciated or understood her. She glared through a watery gaze at the ratty teddy bear with the bright pink and black button eyes that he won for her on a carnival date. With an eye on Havoc, she picked up the box—pink bear and all—and carried it to a painted red picnic table close to the old building.
Havoc chased a less savvy thrush and barked when it took flight.
He stopped and turned to face her, cocking one forepaw and holding it up —the way he always did when he wasn’t sure. His dark ears twitched as he turned his head in the direction where the bird disappeared. But he looked back and slowly took a few steps toward her, paws crunching the leaves.
The fading late afternoon sunlight reflected off a piece of green plastic in the grass. The tiny object blended in so well she wouldn’t have noticed it if the shiny surface and little silver cap wouldn’t have caught the light at just the right angle.
It was a sign, one she wasn’t about to ignore.
She stood and walked over to pick up the discarded cigarette lighter. As her hand closed around it, she took a quick second to thank God no one was around to read her mind.
Some things didn’t need an audience—and cleansing herself of Trevor once and for all was one of them. She picked up the box and walked over to one of the park’s steel grills, emptying the contents of the box into it. She held the lighter, arm halfcocked with indecision. Just like Havoc. If the lighter ignites, this is the right thing. If not, she’d find a dumpster and dispose of her ex the old-fashioned way.
Moment of truth. With a single flick of her thumb, a small flame danced to life. Penelope bent down and held the flame against the corner of a playbill until it blackened and caught. A breeze rolled through, and the flame burned across the items.
“Adiós, old life.” Penelope took a step back and shoved her hands into her pockets. As she stared, she could have sworn the bear smiled as its plastic-fur face melted away.
Havoc barked, startling her. She turned in time to see him bounding toward her. She sidestepped and placed herself in the dog’s path, trying to grab his collar, but he was too quick and cut to the side. “Havoc! Down!”
He dropped to the ground, his eyes locking on the bright flames and the steadily disintegrating pink bear. “No!” Penelope latched onto his collar as he lunged, but she lost her balance and knocked into the grill.
Penelope cringed and Havoc whimpered at the split-second high-pitched grinding sound that cut through the air. Her gaze jerked to the side only to watch as the top of the grill snapped off its rusted post and fell to the ground. A strong gust of wind swirled, sending burning ticket stubs and flaming embers across the roof and front elevation of the wooden shed. Within seconds, the fire burned like a temper, as if the leaping inferno was fueled by a terrible anger toward the world—the same fury that had churned inside her.
Her fingers curled tighter around Havoc’s collar as terror swelled throughout every cell in her body. Her mouth hung open, her throat so dry she couldn’t scream. When Havoc barked, she blinked as if coming to from a trance. Her head jerked from side to side as she took in the scene. “No, no, no!”
She snatched her phone from her pocket, thumb trembling as she punched in the unlock code. One bar of service! But it was enough.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“My name is Penelope Ramos, and there’s a fire! I’m at some state park. I don’t know which one. It’s about, uh, I don’t know, maybe twenty minutes west of Maple Falls. The building here is on fire, and it’s going up so fast, I don’t know what to do!”
And I set it, but you can arrest me later.
The dispatcher asked a series of questions, probably to help keep her calm, but not being able to answer most of them only amplified her anxiety. As they continued their backward game of testing what Penelope didn’t know, she put Havoc in the car. He whimpered, doggy-smile gone, ears flattened sideways.
Penelope paced as she waited for help to come, her fingers curling and uncurling against the seams running down the outside of her jeans.
This was bad. Epically stupid, even. A fire. In a state park. With trees. And wind. She forced back tears, but her throat tightened, and she leaned against the car for support.
Minutes that felt like hours later, sirens blared in the distance. The first responders pulled up on the grass, hopped out, and started working to contain the blaze. Penelope watched in horror as the firefighters sprayed water onto the burning building, but the flames prevailed. She’d started a forest fire all because she’d wanted to burn everything her ex-boyfriend had ever given her. Penelope fell to her knees, sobs shaking her shoulders.
She was completely alone, and an arsonist. She’d never pass the search and rescue evaluation now.
Welcome to a brand new feature series here on Eastern Sunset Reads!
In the mess that was 2020, one exciting thing that came about is my discovery of Cozy Mysteries. Yes, I knew they existed before but I never had a desire to pick one up but last year I ended up reading 17 of them! Clearly they have become a regular thing for me to pick up and it is such a vast genre that I can't wait to dive into more of them. So Mystery Monday has become a thing and will be a (at least somewhat) regular thing here. So stop by on Mondays to see my reviews of new books I have picked up, new releases, chat about sub-genres and lots more.