Man's Best Friend (The Dogmothers #5) - Roxanne St. Claire

Chapter One

Twenty Years Ago

“To Declan Mahoney,” Evie said as she raised a paper cup of pilfered Jameson’s, “my friend who is like a banana.”

Declan snorted and rolled his eyes. “Ah, boy. Here it comes.”

“’Cause he’s so…” She leaned closer to whisper, “A-peeling.”

He groaned, but a smile lifted his lips as he raised his glass. “To Evie Hewitt, the punniest person I know.”

They put the cups to their lips, but Evie didn’t take a sip. Instead, she gazed right into dark eyes so familiar and comforting, she couldn’t bear to look away.

“Drink it up, buttercup.”

She shook her head. “No, I want to do a better birthday toast. No jokes this time.” She lifted the paper cup again. “Here’s to my best friend since, wow, life began?”

“Since you got bumped up to third grade from second because you’re so smart.”

“On our birthday!”

Declan shook his head but couldn’t help smiling. “You waltzed into Mrs. Burley’s classroom and announced it was your birthday. On my birthday.”

She threw her head back with a hearty laugh. “And my mom used glitter frosting to add your name to my pink Care Bears cake because that’s all she had.”

“Totally wrecked my playground cred for the rest of the year.” His eyes sparked with humor.

She leaned back to look at him, wanting to drag out the toast as long as possible. For the whole night, actually. Because there was no better way to spend their shared birthday than alone in the mountains at midnight, a teeny bit tipsy, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Here we go,” she said. “The real toast. To my best friend.”

“You sure about that now?”

“Well, except for the time he unfairly beat me—some might say he actually cheated me—out of a win in the seventh-grade Bitter Bark spelling bee—”

“Come on, E,” he said on a laugh. “You missed duffel, fair and square.”

“I did not miss it.” She reached over and brushed a lock of his dark hair off his forehead, something she didn’t normally do with her friends, but tonight…everything was different. Even the view over the lake where they always camped was different, but that was because Declan had driven to the opposite side to a far more secluded and private section than the one they’d always gone to.

And she knew why. Tonight, they were so ready to step outside the comfort of their friendship and find…a different kind of comfort. The kind that required seclusion.

“Where was I?” she asked, a little lost.

“Griping about the spelling bee when you flubbed duffel.”

“Because the second spelling in the dictionary is D-U-F-F-L-E,” she informed him. “And the only reason they gave it to you was because half the people in the auditorium were named Mahoney or Kilcannon.” She added a jab to his shoulder, loving how hard firefighter training had made his muscles. “How could I fight the Irish Mafia of Bitter Bark?”

“Says the last remaining direct descendant of Thaddeus Ambrose Bushrod. The girl who literally waves from the lead convertible in the Founder’s Day parade every stinking year.”

She looked skyward. “Oh God, please let me have a midterm on October 22 this year so I can avoid the parade.”

“What? Big Bad Thad would roll over in his grave if you don’t represent the first family of Bitter Bark.” He inched a fraction closer, giving her the faintest whiff of his indescribably masculine scent, as intoxicating as the Blue Ridge Mountains air and the golden liquid in their paper cups. “Plus, I get a secret thrill when that car goes by.”

And she got a secret thrill when his voice got low and sexy like that.

“Did you know…” He brushed some hair back from her face now, hooking it over her ear, holding her gaze one heartbeat past what a friend would do. “I always get there early so I can get a Prime Evie Viewing Spot on the top stair of town hall.”

“Then you’re crazier than I thought.”

“Yup.” He shrugged. “Are you finished toasting? Or are you going to dredge up the time I backed into your dad’s brand-new Mercedes while trying to navigate the Gloriana House driveway in reverse?”

“Just smashed right into it. Oof. He was mad.” She chuckled at the memory, then inhaled that scent again, still lost. “So, where was I?”

“Setting the record for the longest birthday toast in history.”

She slipped her lower lip under her teeth and sat up a little straighter. “Okay, fine.”

“Bring it home now, E.”

On one more sigh, she lifted the cup again. “To the boy who shares my birthday, the kid