Dropped out of high school? Check. Ran away with loser boyfriend at age sixteen? Check. Fell for every line from every guy? Sadly, check. But now, Tess Paplion has started over. Juggling multiple part-time jobs while finishing her college degree, she’s not letting anything get in her way. Especially not a sexy angel investor with “one-night disaster” written all over him.
Mason Coleman just inherited a 200-pound invalid Mastiff—and an intriguing, unusual, and thoroughly infuriating dog nanny who turns his life upside down the moment she steps through his front door. No matter how she makes him feel Mason doesn’t do commitment—so what happens when he falls for her? And worse, what happens when she wants nothing to do with him?
None of the three of them remembered exactly where the nickname “Bad Angels” had come from.
Connor and Nate accused Mason of making it up to pick up women. But as a six-foot-two former quarterback who also happened to be a founding member of one of Silicon Valley’s hottest venture capital firms, Mason didn’t exactly need a nickname to get a date.
On the other hand, as Connor and Nate were quick to point out, being called a Bad Angel didn’t hurt—and Mason Coleman wasn’t the sort of guy to give up an advantage unnecessarily.
Most likely, the nickname had been the invention of an intrepid gossip reporter, looking for a creative headline for a story describing the latest San Francisco venture capital firm and its three hot founders. To be fair, Mason and his partners weren’t really angel investors, as the name was intended to suggest. Angels were usually older, more established individuals who invested their money in young, risky start-ups. Mason, along with his partners Nate Etherly and Connor Ashton, managed an investment fund made up of a combination of their and other people’s money. But if someone wanted to call you an angel, why fight it?
Mason chose to use it.
Sometimes, just before he brushed his lips against the soft, delicate skin at the base of a woman’s neck, or gently cupped the back of her head in one large palm, he’d whisper, “Which do you prefer? The bad…or the angel?” And then he would laugh, wickedly, because he knew the answer to the question was both.
Early on, Mason had been pegged the pretty boy of the trio, with Connor being the smart one, and Nate being the negotiator. He had more money than he could have ever imagined. He got to go to work with his best friends and live in San Francisco, a city that amazed him every day. Life was pretty damn good.
But then on Friday afternoon, he’d run into a small problem. Or rather, a big problem. A problem that was currently lying on his white leather couch, panting.
“Move, Wick.” He gave the dog’s massive shoulder a push as he squeezed alongside it on the couch. A ray of sunlight broke through the early afternoon clouds—a welcome sight on a damp and cold February afternoon, after two weeks of unusually heavy rain. But the beam of light did little to transform the hulking beast on the leather couch, or disguise the long strand of drool that was dangling above his pants. “Do you have to do that on the leather?”
The monstrous mastiff whined and gave a doggie version of a smile in response but made no attempt to move. Since Wick’s naturally high level of laziness was currently paired with a prolonged recovery from a knee injury, once he got on the couch, he tended to stay there.
Ditto Mason’s bed.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” Mason ran his fingers through his hair with a familiar feeling of frustration. “You’re as big as an ox, totally untrained, and Alli failed to mention that you need medication two times a day and go to the bathroom every few hours.” He pointed at the beast, whose massive tail thumped in pleasure. “That, my oversized friend, makes it very hard to entertain.”
Wick seemed to have a knack for finding exactly the wrong moment to request assistance going outside. And since his “request” came with a bark that could wake the dead and slimy kisses from his perpetually soggy face, ignoring him wasn’t an option.
Promise me you’ll keep him with you, Alli had said, tears dripping from her eyes. Just till graduation. It’s only a couple of months! You know my landlord always hated him. He’ll evict us if he sees Wick here again. What am I supposed to do?
The landlord, Mason mused, sounded entirely rational. Wick was the worst behaved dog he’d ever seen. He howled and barked when he didn’t get his way, stole food off counters, and had already put deep gouges in the soft wood floors and the front door from scratching to go outside. Once outside, he lunged at any dog he saw, or, when his knee hurt or he got tired, he just lay down and refused to move.
And then there was the bladder control. Alli swore it was the medications he was taking—some kind of steroids for a chronic skin allergy. Mason was pretty sure he’d never recover from watching the massive beast let loose with a gallon of pee when denied a trip outside at 4:00 a.m. It was like watching a Clydesdale taking care of business in a pasture.
Except on his hardwoods.
Still, Mason had never been able to deny his baby sister anything, and with his parents out of the country, he felt responsible for her. Now in her senior year—or whatever you called it when you’d been attending college half-heartedly for six years and finally teetered on the brink of graduation—she’d threatened to drop out for the third time if he didn’t promise to personally nurse Wick back to health.
Don’t even think about sending him to some kennel, Alli had warned, wagging her finger at him like she’d done as a little girl when he’d forgotten one of her instructions. Wick is a very sensitive animal. He needs to be at home, with his family.
Right. Mason snorted his disgust. Wick would call anyone with a hot dog or a large ham bone family. “You need a babysitter,” he told the dog. “Round-the-clock.”
Since the dog arrived forty-eight hours ago, Mason had been forced to cancel all his plans for the weekend, including lunch with a couple of college kids who had apparently invented some new kind of fuel cell, and a charity black-tie event that he’d paid thousands of dollars to attend, mostly because there would be several of his competitors attending and he did his best work when he could get people drunk on cheap champagne and convince them to spill all their deepest, darkest secrets.
It was one thing to clear his weekend, but tomorrow was Monday, and he had a full day of meetings and no idea what he was going to do with the giant catastrophe on his couch.
As if he could hear the path of Mason’s thoughts, Wick made a groaning noise deep in his throat and half fell, half stumbled off the couch and walked to the door. Thanks to his size and weight, Alli said it could be several more weeks before he was completely recovered from his injury. Or, she’d hinted, he might need surgery, an expensive prospect she had happily assumed Mason would finance.
Once at the door, Wick scratched an enormous paw down the wood and barked once.
Mason closed his eyes and sighed. “Really? Didn’t we go out like an hour ago?”
Wick replied by scratching again, then lowered his head and gave a good hard shake, sending jowls and drool flying. He briefly lost his balance, nails skidding on the hard wood. Mason gritted his teeth and jumped up. After two “accidents”—which really felt like the wrong word, given that they seemed quite intentional—he’d learned to jump when Wick decided it was time for a potty break.
He grabbed the worn leather leash from the table beside the door and clipped it to the dog’s collar. Wick lumbered along obediently by his side to the elevator bay and waited patiently while Mason pressed the button. A moment later, there was a quiet ping and the doors opened silently.
“Stop pretending you’re trained,” Mason grumbled to the dog. “We both know the truth.”
That became painfully clear a moment later, when the elevator reached a lower floor and the doors opened again.
As Tess Papion waited for the elevator, she sent out a silent prayer that it would arrive empty, and she wouldn’t have to encounter any of the wealthy residents of the Stella looking like she’d just rolled in from a rough night in the Tenderloin.
She pushed one long strand of hair behind her ear, wishing she had taken five minutes to fix her haphazard ponytail before she’d left her client’s apartment with three dogs in tow and a rat’s nest on top of her head. Then again, would a better ponytail really make a difference? Her white T-shirt had a coffee stain somewhere around her left boob, her army green cargo pants were covered with muddy paw prints, and her oversized bomber jacket had a suspicious odor that probably had something to do with her neighbor’s dog Fifi, who she’d been dog sitting for the past two nights.
What, exactly, Fifi had done to it, she didn’t want to know.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like clean clothes. She did. She liked them very much. It was just that when you ran your own dog-walking and pet care business while also working part-time at a vet clinic and doing landscaping on the side, and it had been the rainiest February in San Francisco history, clean clothes could be hard to come by.
And in her defense, the jacket had looked clean when she grabbed it from the couch, and the T-shirt and pants had been clean when she left the house this morning.
And her hair?
Well, she really had no excuse about the hair.
At least the sun looked like it might be trying to break through the clouds. The prospect of not walking in the rain raised her spirits considerably. Besides, today was an easy day, with only three dogs sitting near her ankles while she waited for the elevator. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she walked a whole pack of dogs from the Stella—one of San Francisco’s swankiest new high-rises just a short walk from the Financial District, and a few blocks from the Embarcadero—but on Sunday she just walked Beyoncé and Jay-Z, a pair of mutts that bore absolutely no resemblance to their namesakes but apparently inspired similar devotion in their owner, a thirty-something lawyer who rarely worked less than ten hours a day, even on the weekends.
The third dog was her own—a tiny white Maltese named Astro she’d rescued from a shelter a few years ago. Her house was around an hour drive from downtown—could be much more, depending on how backed up the Bay Bridge was—and with the hassles of traffic and expense of parking she normally took the bus. On the weekends, though, she splurged and drove, and brought Astro along for the ride.
Astro stayed quiet, but Beyoncé shifted her weight restlessly. Tess murmured her name quietly and she stilled. Beyoncé hadn’t been trained at all when Tess had started walking her, but in the three months since she’d made great improvement. Thank God. Though Tess had a lot of clients closer to home, she’d found San Francisco’s rich and busy were willing to pay double her home rate, not to mention they were much better tippers, so she’d been working extra hard to build her downtown clientele. If Beyoncé and Jay-Z became model citizens of San Francisco’s dog park scene, it could very well lead to more work for Tess.
One of her fellow dog walkers had recently hit the jackpot with a client who thought her dog was lonely and needed a companion. Translation: said dog walker was now getting paid to hang out in a swanky apartment with a sleeping Dachshund.
Sitting around in an apartment keeping a dog company for twenty dollars an hour? Tess could totally handle that.
When the doors to the elevator opened, she started to walk forward but leapt back when a blur of tan fur lunged toward her. Right behind the dog, a substantial pair of biceps lurched off the elevator and into the hall.
“Damn it, Wick!” The owner of the biceps swore viciously as he yanked back on a leather leash, fighting to regain his balance and stop his dog’s forward motion at the same time.
With reflexes honed from many visits to dog parks, Tess scooped up Astro and jumped back several feet, snapping Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s leashes to divert their attention away from the bear-sized monster straining to reach them. Through the white, silky fur she could feel Astro trembling, and the little dog began to bark in her most aggressive “I am small-but-mighty” voice.
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” The man leaned back with all his weight, struggling to keep his dog from reaching her. Beyoncé and Jay-Z joined in a chorus, and within moments the hall was filled with a cacophony loud enough to draw the attention of every resident of the Stella. Thankfully, they didn’t seem particularly inclined to fight. Probably because the beast lunging their way had each of them by at least a hundred pounds.
Tess’s adrenaline surged as she sought to control her pack, communicating calm even while her heart raced. She could not afford to have this get back to Beyoncé’s owner. He’d been insistent that the dogs stop barking—he’d had complaints from his neighbors already, which was one reason he was paying Tess to come by every day to walk them.
Once she’d secured the dogs and stopped the barking, Tess focused her attention on the idiot with the mastiff. He wouldn’t be the first person she’d met that had zero control over their dog, and even though they irritated her to no end, she had learned to be polite. After all, people with no control over their dogs were often her best clients.
And then she did a double take.
Because apparently the embarrassment gods hadn’t heard her prayer, and she’d somehow managed to end up in a hallway with an absurdly attractive man, one she’d seen in passing in the lobby of the building but never up close. A man who oozed good looks, testosterone, power, wealth, and for good measure, a seemingly clear recognition of his own charm.
“I swear I’ve got him now.” An apologetic smile firmly in place, the tawny-haired Adonis now had a two-handed grip on the beast’s collar. His muscles flexed as he wrestled the dog backward, and she was horrified to realize that she was staring with an open mouth at the sheer width of his shoulders, not to mention the contrast between those exceptional shoulders and his narrow waist. As he strained to keep the dog in check, a pair of dark jeans slipped low on his hips, and…sweet Jesus, was that his rock-hard stomach she’d just caught a flash of?
Tess forced her eyes upward, taking in his quick restoration of control over the dog with no small amount of respect. It was an impressive feat, given that the creature was at least two hundred pounds. While the man was tall, he was also lean, with that kind of ripped muscle in his arms that promised a six-pack and, God help her, those little lines of definition along the sides of his groin that she’d seen in pictures but never actually experienced in real life.
She shook her head, trying to ignore the erotic image of his jeans dropping low enough on his hips to reveal said lines. Her grandmother had been right. She really did need to get out more.
And Grandma had said that five years ago.
The man jerked back, hard, one more time, and the dog yelped and lurched from all fours to just three legs, favoring the fourth. He swayed for a moment, then sat down abruptly. The moment of exuberance passed, and the giant animal slumped onto the floor in a pool of hairy Jell-O.
Tess forced herself to look away as the man leaned over the limp creature. She definitely was not going to inspect the butt beneath those lovely, low-riding jeans. Trying to clear her mind, she whispered in Astro’s ear. “Settle down, pretty girl.”
The dog’s body vibrated with a tiny, feminine growl, but she stopped barking. Tess lightly shook the leashes to get Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s attention. She held up her left hand, and the dogs locked onto her signal, sitting quietly when she lowered her hand to her side.
When she glanced back at the man again, he was staring at his own dog with disgust. “You’re a menace, Wick. What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”
Tess relaxed slightly, though she kept her hand tightly on her own leashes. For the time being, the mastiff seemed unlikely to make any sudden moves, but she wasn’t putting anything past it. Thank goodness the dog appeared to be injured, or she wouldn’t have bet money the man would have won their tug-of-war.
“My sister’s dog.” He flashed her a brilliant smile, one that Tess was certain had previously worked to elicit state secrets, soothe charging bulls, and convince members of the opposite sex to spontaneously drop their panties. His eyes, she was alarmed to find, were hazel, somewhere between green and brown and flecked with actual gold, as if being gorgeous in a more conventional sense wasn’t enough. He had to go full on supernatural with his good looks.
“Really?” she replied, trying to think of something professional and yet intelligent to say. Something to distract him from the smell of her jacket and the state of her ponytail. “I guess he’s not used to elevators?”
Not exactly her best work.
“Elevators? I wish. Honestly, he’s not used to leashes. Or other dogs. Or obedience, as far as I can tell.” He sighed, though something in those hazel eyes continued to twinkle. “I’d probably just walk him at three in the morning to avoid crowds, but he’s taking some medication that makes him drink about five gallons of water a day, which means he needs to go outside to take care of business every few hours. I don’t have much choice.” He shrugged in an I’m exquisitely gorgeous but also adorably helpless sort of way.
She could tell he was fully expecting her to throw her panties at him and call it a day. Which wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities, although thanks to her disastrous history with men, she had a much more finely developed sense of self-preservation than most. Instead, she forced her brain back to business and a single word popped out of her mouth. “Steroids?”
He blinked. “Yes, how did you know?”
“Mastiffs are prone to skin allergies. Steroids are a common treatment, and they happen to make you thirsty, which explains why he drinks so much. You might want to try changing his diet. He could have a food sensitivity that’s causing the skin problem.”
Predictably, she was now doing her annoying wannabe-veterinarian babble. Great.
“Really? I’ll have to give that a shot.”
She couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, but she’d fallen asleep the night before watching Build Your Business in Ten Easy Steps on YouTube and was suddenly aware that this was the moment where she needed to make her pitch. Mr. Gorgeous was obviously rich. Maybe his sister—who clearly needed some help with her dog—was as well.
“You know,” she said, trying to sound innocently helpful, “there are harnesses that attach the leash at the chest. You can also get a head collar or muzzle if he’s aggressive. Has your sister done any obedience training with him?”
“Training?” Tess wanted to cringe as his gaze slowly swept her from head to foot, lingering on the stain on her chest, her large glasses, and the hair falling out of her ponytail and around her shoulders in pathetic clumps. “I doubt it,” he said, “Alli isn’t the most responsible person you’d ever meet.”
Despite the fact that he was probably thinking she hardly looked capable of taking care of herself, let alone a giant mastiff, she soldiered on. “What part of the city does she live in? I might know some people who can help her.”
“Actually, Wick’s staying with me right now.” He patted the dog’s enormous head with one large hand. “He just arrived a couple of days ago, and to be honest, I’m just in survival mode at this point.”
Tess forced herself to maintain a pleasant, confident smile at the realization she was actually now peddling for work from Adonis himself, not his sister. “What do you mean?”
“He’s, er, a bit of a challenge,” he replied, looking down at the dog with a concerned expression.
Internal alarm bells started to go off in Tess’s brain. She’d walked a lot of dogs, and on a scale from “easy” to “complete pain in the ass,” she had a bad feeling where Wick would end up. “What’s wrong with him? Is he recovering from an injury? I noticed he favored that back right leg.”
She could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. His gaze flicked to the dogs sitting quietly at her feet, and then to the vest she was wearing with the words, Trust Tess! embroidered on the pocket. She could feel the moment everything clicked in his mind, and then the preternaturally beautiful smile returned to his lips.
Warily, she took a step back.
“Trust Tess?” he murmured. His eyes lit up, and he gazed at her with a look of pure joy. “Tess, I knew you looked familiar! You’re a dog walker, right? I’ve seen you in this building before.”
She nodded. “I’m here a few days a week.”
“I’m Mason Coleman.” One of his biceps flexed as he gripped the collar more tightly in one hand, and waved with the other. “This creature is Wick.”
He exuded warmth and charm, waves of it coming off him like radiation from a nuclear power plant in meltdown. Even in the face of her significant skepticism of what was increasingly feeling like a con job, Tess could feel every one of her lady parts replying like a chorus of angels. “Yes,” they sang. “Take me! I’m yours!”
“Tess Papion,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Tess, I can’t tell you how happy I am to meet you.”
“Why?” She stepped back farther.
“You’re a dog walker,” he said softly.
“Yeess,” she replied.
“And you train them, too?” he whispered, almost reverently. “Like those dogs?” He gestured with his free hand toward Beyoncé and Jay-Z. “They sit when you tell them? And stop barking?”
She nodded again. Sid Sales, the star of Build Your Business in Ten Easy Steps would probably tell her that this was the moment to close the deal. But there were two big red flags to this sale. The first was an enormous mastiff with some sort of undisclosed behavior problems and, apparently, very little in the way of training. Tess didn’t mind a challenge, but it would have to come with compensation.
The second was the man on the other end of his leash. While she enjoyed checking out eye candy as much as the next girl, she had a bad feeling this particular piece was all kinds of dangerous.
“You’re pretty small.” He seemed to be weighing her with his eyes, and she suddenly found herself wondering if eating the entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s the night before had been a good decision. “Have you worked with big dogs?”
She snorted. “You’ll be happy to hear that, in my experience, size doesn’t matter, Mr. Coleman. It’s all about attitude.”
He smiled, and this time, it actually felt genuine. “Mason. And whoever told you that was lying.”
“Ha, ha, ha.” She rolled her eyes and shot a glance at the elevator, wishing there wasn’t a two-hundred-pound beast lying in front of it. This was painfully close to flirting. She didn’t care if he did need a dog walker. She needed to get the hell out of this hallway before she really embarrassed herself.
“Seriously,” he said, the laughter disappearing from his voice as he captured her in his golden gaze. “Tess, please. Tell me you’ll move in with me.”