Puppy Love and Christmas Cookies
When Lesley Ackerman meets Alex Randall, she’s smarting from the recent breakup with her longtime boyfriend. She isn’t interested in a rebound romance, but his sweet kids steal her heart.
Alex is Hallburg’s new high school basketball coach, and he hopes moving to this town will help him get over his wife’s death. He’s not interested in the standoffish young woman their mutual friends keep pushing at him. But he’s desperate to find someone to watch his kids while he’s away at a basketball tournament. She fits the bill, but she comes with a confession that shakes them both.
Can Christmas cookies, a cute puppy, and two matchmaking children help Lesley and Alex overcome hurts from the past and find love?
“Dumped just like that. Without warning.” Lesley Ackerman chopped one hand against the palm of her other hand. She looked at her good friend Amelia Graham while they stood in the living room of Lesley’s small one-bedroom apartment. “I can’t believe this!”
Amelia gave Lesley a sympathetic look. “Did he say why?”
Lesley blinked back tears and pressed her lips together as she stifled a sob. She took a deep breath. “He says he’s in love with someone else.”
“I can’t believe it either.” Amelia shook her head. “You guys have been together for as long as I’ve lived in Hallburg, over six years.”
“Longer than that. We’ve dated since we were sophomores in high school.” Lesley squared her shoulders. She would not let two-timing Tony make her cry again. She’d already cried enough—enough to make her eyes red and puffy.
“So where did this mysterious someone come from?”
“Out-of-town business meeting.”
“So he’s been seeing this woman when he’s been going out of town for business?”
Lesley nodded. “I guess he finally felt guilty enough to come clean when I mentioned shopping for a dress for the Winter Cotillion. We’ve gone together every year since I was a college freshman.”
“So nice of him to be honest.” Amelia let out a disgusted groan.
“Ten years, and he didn’t even have the decency to break up with me in person. He did it on the phone.” Lesley gritted her teeth, anger keeping her from crying. “Ten years thinking he really loved me. Ten years believing he was my forever. Ten years wasted.”
“That’s cruel for sure.” Amelia hugged Lesley. “But those years weren’t wasted. We learn something from all our experiences.”
Lesley stepped back and crossed her arms over her torso. “Yeah. I’ve learned that men can’t be trusted.”
“You’ll get over this in time.”
Lesley narrowed her gaze. “Easy for you to say. You have a loving husband. You’re married to a handsome and kind man.”
“True, but I guarantee you’ll feel better by the time the cotillion rolls around. You should still go shopping for that dress. We’ll find you another date.”
“I don’t want another date.”
“But don’t you want to show Tony you’re not mourning his loss when you show up with someone else?”
“Do you think he’ll bring his new love to the dance?” Lesley didn’t want to think of that possibility. How could she face him?
“I don’t know, but the best medicine for a lost love is a new one.”
“I don’t want a rebound romance.” Lesley shook her head. “Besides, where would I find a new love?”
“You have friends.”
Lesley let out a halfhearted laugh. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“You know you love having me for a friend.”
Lesley chuckled as her shoulders sagged. “I do. And you are a good friend.”
“Good. Then we’ll go shopping for that dress.”
“Do I have to?” Lesley moaned.
“Yes. Now get your coat. We’re going to the mall.” Amelia opened the coat closet. “And after our trip to the mall, you can come over for pizza. Scott invited Cody, Sedona, and Mason to join us. He also mentioned that another army buddy of his and his family will be joining us.”
“Sounds like a party.” Lesley shrugged into her coat. “I’m not sure I’m party material today.”
Amelia patted Lesley on the shoulder. “It’s just what you need—something to take your mind off Tony. It’s better than sitting around this apartment moping.”
Sighing, Lesley shrugged. “I wish I were as confident as you that pizza and company will make things better.”
Amelia grinned. “You can’t let Tony win. He’s going to be sorry he let you go.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” Lesley picked up her purse. “Maybe something sparkly and red will improve my mood.”
“I don’t know about the color, but definitely sparkly. Let’s go.”
Lesley locked the door and followed Amelia to her car. “Thanks for being my friend as well as the best boss ever.”
“It’s easy being your boss because you’re such a good worker.”
As Amelia maneuvered her car onto the road to the mall, Lesley took in Amelia’s praise. It made Lesley feel good for the moment. She had to quit thinking about Tony, but how did she forget the man she’d been with for so long? When would that ache in her chest subside? When would the feeling of rejection fade? When would she not let that man make her cry?
She couldn’t answer any of those questions, but she had to look forward and not back. Tony was out of her life. A new life full of better things awaited her. She had to believe that.
“Daddy, you promised we could have a puppy.” Owen Randall narrowed his eyes as he stared at his father.
Alex Randall returned his eight-year-old son’s gaze with a stern look. “And that promise hinged on your good behavior, which I haven’t seen.”
Owen hung his head as he kicked at a spot on the hardwood floor. “That other kid started it.”
“And what have I told you?”
“Turn the other cheek.”
Alex sighed. “Yes. Retaliation only gets you into trouble.”
“That’s not fair for me. Just because Owen gets in trouble shouldn’t keep me from having a puppy.” Ten-year-old Madelyn Randall stuck out her lower lip as she pinned her father with her soulful brown eyes.
“Life isn’t always fair, Maddie.” Alex thought about the unfairness of his own life. Maddie’s eyes, so like her mother’s, made Alex’s heart ache. The loss of his young wife under horrific circumstances sat at the top of his unfairness list.
“That’s what you always say, Dad.” Maddie frowned as she crossed her arms over her torso.
“That’s because it’s true.” Alex let out a long sigh. “Listen, kids, my friend Scott has invited us over to his house tonight for pizza. You’ll get to meet his daughter, Lily. She has a dog you can play with.”
“But that’s not the same as having our own.” Maddie shook her head as her frown deepened. “It’ll just make me want a puppy more.”
“Then you’ll work to show me you deserve one.”
“But I didn’t get in trouble at school like Owen.”
“True, but you also didn’t make your bed this morning.”
Maddie didn’t meet Alex’s gaze. “I didn’t have time before school.”
“In the future, you’ll have to make time.”
A determined look replaced Maddie’s frown. “I’m going to show you just how good I can be.”
“That sounds like a plan.” Alex nodded, not sure where his head had been when he’d told his kids they could have a dog. A promise was a promise, but they still had to improve their behavior. “Now you have to do your homework.”
Maddie shook her head. “No homework for me.”
“Me neither.” Owen grinned.
“Twenty minutes reading time.”
Owen opened his mouth, then shut it just as quickly and headed for his room. Maddie followed her brother up the stairs.
“I’ll be checking on your progress in a little while,” Alex called after them.
With a heavy sigh, he gazed out the sidelight next to the front door at the darkening sky. Daylight ended too soon this time of year. Thanksgiving was less than a week away, and sometimes he wondered what he had to be thankful for. He should count his blessings. Two great kids, a new job, and friends in this new town.
Still, he wondered whether uprooting his kids in the middle of the school year had been the right thing to do. Owen wasn’t adjusting well, as the fight with his classmate showed. Maddie seemed to be doing better, but then she’d always been the kid who never knew a stranger. She made friends with ease, while Owen struggled.
Owen had floundered after the loss of his mother, and sometimes Alex blamed himself because he had similar feelings. He’d failed to understand why God had taken such a wonderful woman when evil people survived and prospered. Maddie appeared to have adjusted better, but Alex even wondered whether she hid her grief behind a smile.
Besides that, she was growing up so fast. How would he explain girl stuff when the time came? Maybe he could get Scott’s wife to help with that kind of thing. Alex definitely needed help.
With those troubling thoughts circling through his mind, he went to his study and plopped onto the chair behind his desk. Papers to grade. Film to watch. Plays to prepare. Being a high school basketball coach and math teacher meant lots of work outside the classroom, but he wouldn’t let that rob him of time with his kids.
Twenty minutes later, Alex poked his head around the corner of the door to Maddie’s room. “So what did you read?”
She looked up from her book. “Dad, go talk to Owen. I’m reading the good part.”
“Okay. Be back in a few minutes.” Smiling to himself, Alex moseyed down the hallway to Owen’s room. Would he find his son as enthralled with his book as his sister was with hers? He guessed not, but he probably shouldn’t make that judgment yet.
Alex stopped in the doorway and observed Owen, who sat on his bed. He stared into space, the open book in his lap. Had he been reading or looking at the walls this whole time? Alex had to admit he hadn’t been much of a reader when he’d been Owen’s age, so maybe when Owen was grown he’d learn to love to read, as Alex had. He also had to admit he hadn’t done much reading lately either. Maybe he should set an example and read with his kids.
“How’s the book?”
Startled, Owen looked Alex’s way, then shrugged. “Okay. It’s about a boy who gets a dog. I think I should get a dog like him.”
Alex raised his eyebrows as he eyed Owen. “You know what I’ve already said about that.”
“Well, the boy in the story didn’t always do stuff right. He got a dog, and it made him a better kid. I could do that.”
Alex stifled a smile. “I haven’t changed my mind on that subject.”
“I think you should.”
Alex had to hand it to his kid. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. “That’s fair, but I still stand by what I said earlier. Now it’s time to get ready.”
Owen hopped off his bed and stuffed his feet into his shoes. “I suppose you’ll make me play with the girls.”
“Someday you’ll be glad to play with the girls.”
Owen made a face. “Like you and Mommy?”
“Yeah, like me and your mom.” Alex swallowed a lump in his throat.
Owen hardly ever talked about his mother. Alex wasn’t sure what the boy thought about losing his mother at such a young age. Alex had sent the kids to a child psychologist after Ciara’s death. He’d counseled with the pastor from the church they’d attended before they moved. It had been three years, and Alex wasn’t sure any of them had fully worked through that grief. Did one ever?
Alex paused in the hallway. “Don’t forget to turn off the light and tie your shoes. Meet you downstairs when you’re ready.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go.”
“It won’t be as bad as you think.”
Owen didn’t say anything as Alex strode to Maddie’s room.
“Maddie, time to go.”
“I’m ready.” She presented herself in the doorway as Alex approached.
“Did you finish your book?”
She shook her head. “But I finished the exciting part.”
“And what was that?” Alex motioned for Maddie to lead the way to the stairs.
“The girls were competing in the spelling bee, and there were just two left until one spelled the word wrong and the other spelled it correctly.”
“What was the word?”
“Did you know how to spell it?”
Maddie shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it on the page, so I’m not sure.”
“Have you had a spelling bee at school?”
“Not this year.” Maddie frowned. “I won my class spelling bee last year at my old school, but I didn’t win the school spelling bee.”
“Maybe the fifth grade here will have a spelling bee sometime this year, and you can compete.”
Alex motioned for Maddie to go ahead of him. She bounded down the stairs, seemingly not a care in the world. He wasn’t sure he was doing the right things for his kids. He missed Ciara and the sounding board she had provided when it came to the kids. But he had to quit questioning himself and forge ahead the best he could.
When he and Maddie reached the bottom of the stairs, Owen was already slipping into his coat. Alex grabbed his coat and handed Maddie hers. They walked silently to their bronze-colored SUV. Thankfully, no protests about their upcoming visit occurred during the ride to Scott’s house.
After Alex parked in front of the row house where Scott and Amelia lived, he turned to the backseat. “Remember to be on your best behavior. Please and thank you.”
“If we’re really good, can we get a puppy?” Owen unbuckled his seat belt.
Alex laughed. “One evening of good behavior isn’t enough. Your good behavior has to be ongoing. That means every day.”
Owen made a face. “You mean I can’t make one mistake?”
Alex slid out of the SUV, his loud sigh making a cloud in the cold air. “Just work on your good behavior.”
“That’s enough out of you, Maddie. You mind your business, and Owen will mind his. You aren’t the parent here.” Alex impaled Maddie with a no-nonsense look.
Alex stood on the top step of the three that led to the front door of the old row house and rang the bell. He heard the sound inside, and a second later Scott opened the door.
“Hey, Scott. Thanks for inviting us over.”
“Come on in and get out of the cold.” Scott stepped aside as he ushered Alex and his kids into the homey room.
“A dog.” Owen’s voice showed his excitement as the little black dog squirmed, his tail tapping on the wide oak plank floor. The dog sat near the fireplace, a part of the redbrick wall that ran along the left side of the room.
“Hang on, Owen. Before you get too excited about the dog, let’s meet our hosts.” Alex smiled as two women walked into the living room, one a brunette and the other a young woman whose light-brown hair brushed her shoulders.
The brunette scooped the dog from the floor and walked toward Owen. “Hi, Owen. I’m Amelia, Scott’s wife, and this is Jet. Let him smell your hand, then you can pet him.”
Before Owen could pet the dog, a young girl with long dark braids raced across the room and looked at Owen. “Hi, I’m Lily. Jet’s excited to see you. I could tell ’cause he was having a hard time holding still.”
Owen looked first at Alex, then the little girl. “Is he your dog?”
Lily nodded. “Would you like for me to show you how he plays tug-of-war?”
Scott held up his hands. “Before we do anything else, let’s make the introductions. Amelia, I want you to meet Alex Randall. These are his kids, Owen and Maddie.”
Amelia pushed her dark-brown hair, which hung past her shoulders, behind one ear as she surveyed the group. “So glad you could join us for pizza. I want you to meet my friend Lesley Akerman. We work together.”
Alex nodded, wondering about the young woman with the gray eyes and light-brown hair—almost blond but not quite—pulled back from her face with a clip. Scott hadn’t mentioned her in his invitation. Alex hoped his buddy wasn’t trying to play matchmaker.
“Nice to meet you. Thanks for inviting us.”
“You’re welcome. And you know Lily, right?” Amelia tapped Lily on the top of her head.
Alex smiled. “She’s grown quite a bit since the last time I saw her.”
“Kids do grow up fast.” Scott motioned toward Owen and Maddie. “Yours have grown a lot since the last time I saw them, too.”
“How long has it been?” Alex narrowed his gaze.
Scott appeared to search his memory. “Probably four years. Can’t remember for sure.”
“Too long in any case.” Alex thought about the way he had mistakenly pushed people away in his grief.
The doorbell rang. Jet barked, and Alex turned toward the front door. Scott hurried to answer it. “Hey, guys, come on in. Now everyone’s here.”
“Cody?” Alex couldn’t believe his eyes as his former army buddy stepped into the room along with a petite brunette whose hair curled around her shoulders and a boy about the same age as Owen. “What are you doing here?”
“Alex.” Cody Dunn’s gaze darted from Alex to Scott. “Scott, you didn’t tell me Alex would be here.”
“I wanted to surprise you both. A reunion.”
Alex shook hands with Cody, then glanced at his companions. “And who do you have with you?”
Cody put his arm around the woman and tapped the boy on one shoulder. “This is Sedona, my wife, and Mason, our son.”
“You’re married?” That was a surprise, but the boy was even a bigger surprise. “The last I remember, you were a confirmed bachelor. That must’ve changed immediately after you got out of the service.”
Cody laughed. “Not till I met Sedona a little over a year ago.”
Cody’s statement made Alex wonder about the boy even more. Maybe the child was hers from a previous marriage. Alex certainly wasn’t going to ask and make things awkward. “Nice to meet you, Sedona and Mason. I hope you’re keeping this guy in line.”
“We are.” Sedona nodded.
“Mason, how old are you?” Alex hoped Owen might find a friend in Mason.
Alex smiled. “You’ve got to meet my son, Owen. He’s your age.”
Scott stepped forward. “Mason, Lily, and Owen are playing with Jet in the basement if you want to go down there.”
Mason immediately took off. Alex hoped that boded well for Owen. He needed a friend. Then Alex’s gaze found Maddie standing in the corner. She looked lost until the young woman ushered Maddie toward the kitchen at the back of the house.
Lesley? Was that her name? He hoped so. He didn’t want to admit he wasn’t sure of her name. He should’ve paid better attention during the introductions, instead of worrying about whether Scott was trying to fix them up. He’d enjoy the time with his good buddies rather than concern himself with imagined matchmaking. But the thought of a new relationship curdled his insides. He wasn’t ready. Maybe he’d never be ready.
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