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Your One True Love (The Bennett Family, #8) by Layla Hagen (1)

Chapter One

Caroline

“You missed me, huh?” I pat Bing’s head, bending on one knee, hugging him. The golden retriever licks my face, wagging his tail. “I know you’re alone all day, but Linda will be back soon. I’m gonna miss our walks.”

At the word walks, he barks, raising one paw.

“Yes, yes. We’re going out. Come on.”

I’m dog sitting for my neighbor and good friend Linda, who’s been in Hawaii for a week. Bing and I had a rocky start, but I slowly coaxed him out of his shell, one dog treat at a time. Yeah, I bribed him with goodies into loving me, but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.

I take Bing for a walk on our usual route around the block, stopping for him to bark at a squirrel, pulling him away from an overexcited pug with a shrill bark and a chronic tiny-dog syndrome.

My phone chirps in my purse, and while holding Bing’s leash firmly in one hand, I clumsily extract my phone with the other, glancing at the text message from one of my best friends.

Summer: Proud aunt. Maddox is perfectly healthy. 

She also sent me a picture, and I swear to God, my heart almost bursts. Red-faced and tiny, the newborn is absolutely adorable.

Caroline: He’s sweet. Congratulations! Thanks for the pic. How are Clara and Blake doing?

Summer: Clara is tired but happy, and my brother is a little too excited. You know Blake...

A second picture comes through. Summer is holding the baby, and next to her is another brother of hers, my ex, Daniel. I wonder if there is an expiration date on calling someone an ex. Maybe it’s time to use a more neutral label, such as acquaintance, or friend. After all, Daniel and I called it quits almost ten years ago, and I’m close to his mother and sisters.

A jolt in my arm nearly makes me lose my balance. I sway forward as Bing lurches after a stray cat.

“Bing, no! Stop. Sit. Bing!”

I break into a run to keep up with him, and by the time we’re back in Linda’s apartment, my arm feels like it’s about to fall off. Bing raises both his front paws, standing on his back legs.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, Bing.”

Bing blinks, setting down one paw and then the other, then resting his snout on them, looking up at me with wide, accusatory eyes.

Lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper, I add, “I’ll bring you beef jerky.”

Well, damn. Not even the thought of beef jerky cheers him up. I look around the neat, quiet apartment. I don’t have the heart to leave him alone here.

“You know what we’re gonna do? We’re going to break the rules tonight.” He lifts his head. “Yes, we are. How would you feel about spending the night in my apartment? Come on. Let’s take the stairs. It’s just one floor.”

When I open the door, he springs up on all fours, wiggling his tail. Tightening my grip on his leash, I lead him down the stairs. Bing is psyched when I let him inside my apartment. 

“House rules: don’t chew the furniture. Or my shoes.” He wiggles his tail some more, not a care in the world, eyeing the two pairs of flats on the floor with intent. Right, better safe than sorry. I stack the shoes in the closet next to the entrance door, then set Bing free. He runs straight to my living room, hops on the couch, and barks in excitement.

While eating dinner, I keep an eye on my canine guest, who is staring at one leg of my coffee table, possibly considering its merits as a tooth sharpener. Belly full, I chance a trip to my bedroom, changing into sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt. The outfit is my guilty pleasure, unattractive as it looks.

Another quick trip to the bathroom to brush my dark brown hair and pull it in a bun, then to remove my makeup. Not that I wear much, just some mascara and eye shadow to highlight my blue eyes, but I like my face clean when I’m home.

The legs of my coffee table are still intact upon my return, and I sit next to Bing, opening my laptop and browsing Netflix. No better way to wind down after a long day than watching one of my favorite shows. But before I decide on a show, curiosity gets the better of me. I call Summer, intending to scoop out more details about the newest addition to the Bennett family.

She answers after several rings.

“Hey, Caroline!” 

The voice doesn’t belong to Summer, but to Daniel. My stomach tightens instantly, but I hope my voice sounds casual when I ask, “Hey, is this a bad time? I just wanted to get more details on your nephew.”

From his end of the line, I can hear a mix of voices. As I imagined, his family is camping out at the hospital. The Bennett clan is tight.

“It’s a little crazy around here. Summer’s talking to Clara now.”

“Okay, I’ll just call her later, or tomorrow. I’ll let you go back to your family.”

“Wait, don’t hang up. How are you? Haven’t seen you in a while. Your toe okay?”

I laugh nervously. “It was nothing. I was good as new the next day.”

We last saw each other at Blake and Clara’s wedding two months ago. After drinking a little too much champagne and feeling far too comfortable around him, I challenged him to join me for a traditional Irish dance. My parents moved here from Ireland when I was ten, and despite having taken classes back home, I’m not much of a dancer, which I tend to forget at weddings. At this particular one, I stepped on my own toe, then could barely walk. It hurt like hell, but feeling Daniel’s steely arms around me as he steadied me on my way to the cab sure was a great bonus. That’s the problem with Daniel: I don’t trust myself around him, not even after all this time.

Tell Caroline I need those black shoes back next week,” Summer’s voice resounds somewhere in his background.

“I heard everything,” I say. “Tell her—”

I stop midsentence when I hear Summer talking in the background again. “Actually, would you be the best brother in the world and meet her to get the shoes? My schedule is insane next week.” 

Daniel and I both laugh into the phone. Oh yeah, his sisters are relentless about pushing us together every chance they get—and if an opportunity doesn’t present itself, they fabricate one. Daniel and I take this in stride, joking about it. We’re so far past awkward when it comes to his sisters’ matchmaking attempts that at this point we’d find it weird if they didn’t try anything.

“Should have seen this coming,” Daniel says. “Caroline, let’s meet up next week since my sister’s schedule is so insane.”

“And yours isn’t?” I tease.

“Oh, it is. But I know better than to tell Summer no.” 

I tap my fingers on my belly, laughing again. Summer has Daniel wrapped around her little finger. But the man also doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want, so there’s that.

“Okay. Let’s—Bing, no!” For the love of all that is holy! I sprint to the foyer to assess the damage. How did he manage to open the closet and take out a pair of shoes? And why didn’t I notice?

“What?”

“Sorry, I was talking to the dog.”

“You got a dog?”

“No, it’s my friend’s. Damn, I’ve got to go if I want to salvage my shoes. I’ll text you, okay?”

“Sure.”

I barely wrestle my shoe out of Bing’s grip. After a quick assessment, I hand it back to him. It’s damaged beyond repair anyway.

“Bing, we need to have a talk. You do not attack my possessions when I’m distracted. And talking to Daniel is a major distraction. I know it shouldn’t be, okay? We’re ancient history, but it is what it is.” I waggle my finger at him. “And I need your full cooperation.”

Bing chews happily on my shoe, and I pat him on the head with a sigh, returning to the couch. The photo of baby Maddox, Summer, and Daniel is still splashed on my screen. I sigh, taking in Daniel’s dark, almond-shaped eyes, his charming smile.

Clearly, there’s no expiration date on calling him an ex. He’s still firmly in that category, with the label dangerous on it. Charming, delicious, and dangerous.

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