Sam West, the hero in my contemporary romance, Once and Always, is a small Minnesota town cop who lives in a lake cabin with his dog, Otter the Dog. When Maisa, the heroine of Once and Always first meets Otter, it’s not exactly love at first sight:

Sam mounted the steps and juggled the suitcase, switching hands as he inserted his keys in the bright red front door.

There was a scrabbling and something coughed behind the door.

Maisa froze, eyeing it with alarm.

Sam opened the door and glanced at her. His eyes sparked with amusement at her stiff form. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t bite. Usually.”

She narrowed her eyes, but followed him inside. 

Immediately a short little furball hurtled at Sam’s legs, barking wildly. He squatted to catch the thing as her glasses fogged, blinding her. Maisa set down her case and took the glasses off to wipe them with a tissue as she glanced around.

She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this. The front door opened into a large, vaulted room, bright even with the overcast sky outside. With the sun out, it’d be blazing. The floor was dark wood, refinished to a high gloss and left bare. The walls were painted white and mostly bare as well, save for sports equipment hung here and there: fishing rods, a fishing net, what looked like an old rifle, and crossed wooden snowshoes. To the left, an enormous fieldstone fireplace took up most of the wall. Straight ahead was an open kitchen, stainless-steel appliances, a light gray granite counter, and dark wood cabinets. In the middle stood a butcher-block island with two stools. Behind the kitchen an entire wall of glass overlooked the lake. A couple of mission style wooden chairs with leather cushions faced the lake. And to the right, up high, was a wide, open, railed loft, obviously Sam’s bedroom, although she couldn’t see the bed from where she stood.

The whole place, taken together, was stark but calm. Beautiful, in fact.

Maisa glanced at Sam and saw that he’d been watching her examine his home. She blinked, feeling her cheeks heat.

Then she took a good look at the animal at his feet.

“That’s the weirdest-looking dog I’ve ever seen,” Maisa blurted in wonder.

The shaggy gray dog was on its back, legs in the air as Sam went back to rubbing its belly. It was maybe average length for a medium-small dog, but its legs were too short. Add to that, wiry, shaggy fur, an overlarge head, and drooping ears, and the whole was just ugly.

“Yeah, I know,” Sam said with affection, pulling gently at the hanging ears. The dog’s big eyes gazed up in adoration and its tongue lolled to the side. 

“What is it?”

Sam shrugged, still squatting easily, still rubbing the stupid dog with his stupid long fingers. “Some kind of pedigreed terrier breed.”

Maisa glanced irritably at him. “How do you know that, but don’t know the breed?”

He finally looked at her, his eyes hardening. “Because Otter the Dog is a hand-me-down from an ex-girlfriend. When Rachel moved to her new apartment, they didn’t allow pets.”


Now the dog was looking at her, too, and his expression was no longer adoring. Wonderful. Sam’s dog hated her. Sam’s ex-girlfriend’s dog. Not that it mattered that he’d had a girlfriend—or that they’d been close enough that he’d adopted her dog.

A sudden thought hit her: how long had Rachel been an ex-girlfriend? Because Sam had been pulling her over for speeding for at least two years. “How long have you had Otter?”

“Otter the Dog.” For some reason her question made his eyes soften. He straightened, suddenly too close to her. “Two and a half years.”

“Oh.” Great. The damn dog had reduced her to monosyllables.