Happiness in Hallburg #1
November 22, 2017
Available in: e-Book
Puppy Love and Mistletoe
Puppy Love and Mistletoe is a sweet novella.
When Hallburg city employee Amelia Dunford returns a missing dog to his owner, handsome consultant Scott Graham, she is drawn to him and his love for the little girl for whom he is a guardian. But Amelia’s bad childhood experience makes her afraid of dogs, and Scott has joined the mayor’s task force in charge of trimming the town’s budget—two red flags that warn her away.
Amelia’s warm nature captivates Scott, but he believes his PTSD makes him too flawed for a relationship. Besides, they are on opposite sides of the town’s budget battle, and mixing business with a relationship could spell disaster.
Can a little girl and a fluffy black dog bring Amelia and Scott together in a Christmas miracle?
The crunch of snow beneath her boots and her own heavy breathing were the only things Amelia Dunford heard as she ran along the snow-covered sidewalk in her little Maryland town. She had forgotten to charge the battery on her phone, and now she was paying the price. She would have to complete the rest of her early-evening run without music.
She had hoped the music would take her mind off the unsettling news that the community recreation center where she worked was in the red and funding for the future might lay on the chopping block of the city budget. She didn’t want to lose her job or see any of her coworkers lose theirs, especially not right before Christmas.
Without the music to soothe her mind, the troublesome thoughts would take over. What else could go wrong?
She turned the corner and found out.
Her heart jumped into her throat as she spied the fluffy black dog rambling along the sidewalk on the other side of the road. She hoped he would stay there. He might be cute, but he was still a dog—a dog who could bark or bite or both. She slowed her pace in hopes that she wouldn’t attract his attention.
Why was a dog roaming about without an owner on a cold, snowy evening? Amelia had never encountered a dog on the loose during any of her runs in the two years she’d been taking this same route between her apartment and the nearest park, where she ran around the lake three times before heading back home. Dogs were always on leashes. Dogs belonged on leashes. Dogs without leashes made her pulse race.
The pup looked her way. Did he sense her fear? Panic paralyzed her thoughts. She stopped. If only she could make herself invisible. What was she going to do about that animal? If she ran, would he chase her? If she stayed still, would he charge toward her, teeth bared? Would it help to scream?
The pooch stared at her as she slowly put one foot in front of the other. He didn’t move. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she picked up her pace. When the black ball of fur trotted across the street toward her, she swallowed hard. She wanted to run in the worst way, but that wasn’t the answer. A steady pace was the best solution.
Why did this silly fear from her childhood still haunt her? People of all kinds had dogs—dogs they loved. But the ragged scar on her right arm reminded her that dogs could be dangerous no matter how sweet they looked.
Glancing around, she searched for someone who might come to her rescue if the hound decided to attack. An empty street greeted her. Smart people were cuddled up inside their homes at this bitter-cold time just before sunset, not out in the elements. She couldn’t let fear win. She would make it home.
As she crossed the street at an intersection, she glanced behind her. Her furry foe had veered down the cross street. Was she in the clear? Could she dash ahead and lose him forever? She sprinted forward, afraid to look behind her.
When she came to an intersection with a red traffic light, she considered crossing against the light. The dog had turned, so she should be safe if she stopped. With that in mind, she halted and punched the button for the crosswalk signal, then jogged in place to keep the cold from seeping in. The orange hand on the signal flashed as the seconds ticked down. The light changed to green, and she dashed across the street.
Just as she reached the other side, the dog, a streak of black against the white snow, raced toward her, his ears flopping. Should she run up on someone’s porch? When she pounded on their door in a panic, would they look at her as if she were crazy?
Taking a deep breath, she forged ahead at a brisk pace and prayed the dog would find something besides her to attract his attention. She didn’t hear barking or the sound of anything approaching from behind. Did she dare look? Before she turned, a black flash dashed by her. She stopped in her tracks, her heart pounding. Now in front of her, the dog spun. Was he circling in for the kill?
Amelia closed her eyes and stood statue-like, her arms tight against her sides. Holding her breath, she peeked through her eyelashes, as if she were watching a horror movie. No sign of the dog. She fully opened her eyes and let out a harsh breath that created a cloud in the air. She scanned the area. No dog.
Until she looked down.
The dog sat at her feet and stared up at her with big brown eyes. She forced herself not to scream.
Her pulse pounded in her head as her stomach roiled. She closed her eyes again and took a deep, calming breath. She wasn’t a kid anymore. She could deal with this dog in a logical and grown-up manner. She let her eyelids flutter open. The unwanted canine was still there.
The tips of her toes and fingers grew cold. She couldn’t stand here in this frigid weather much longer. With deliberate slowness, she took a step. The dog didn’t move. She hoped that was a good sign. She took another step and continued slowly down the block. No dog. She focused on the sidewalk as she put one foot in front of the other. With every step, she was that much closer to home. Only a few more blocks to go.
She rejoiced when she spied the century-old row house where she lived in the first-floor apartment. She had no idea whether the pup still followed, but she wasn’t going to turn around to find out. As she closed in on her front stoop, she resisted the urge to run. She pulled her keys from her pocket and had them ready when she reached the door. She slipped the key into the lock. As she opened the door, a burst of black charged by her.
Her heart nearly stopped as she stared into the upturned face of that crazy pooch as he sat in the middle of her living room floor. Too stunned to scream, she grabbed hold of the door in order to keep her knees from buckling. This had to be a bad dream. She would wake up and find herself standing alone in her living room, not confronted with a stray canine.
She shook her head and blinked, but the unwelcome animal still sat in the middle of her floor. Maybe she should call 911. No. They would think she was a lunatic for calling about this nonemergency. She could handle this, but she could use some help.
Amelia retrieved her phone from her jacket pocket, then remembered it had no charge. She spied the charging cord still plugged into the outlet. She prayed she could reach it without this dog attacking her. Her friend Jenna, who worked for a veterinarian, would come to the rescue.
“Daddy, Daddy. Jet’s gone.”
Scott Graham turned at the sound of the little girl’s voice. “What do you mean he’s gone?”
“Come outside and see.” Lily pointed to the back door.
Scott traipsed through the kitchen and into the mudroom as he followed his charge. Every time she called him Daddy, his heart crumbled with guilt. Her real daddy should be here, but he wasn’t. Scott promised himself every day that he would do his best to take care of Lily, but he feared he wasn’t cut out for the job. Dwelling on that negative thought wasn’t going to help now or in the future. He had a missing dog to deal with.
He pushed opened the back door. The long black leash and an empty collar lay against the snow-covered ground. Paw prints led to the gate that stood open just enough for a dog to slip through. Scott released a harsh breath as he looked at Lily, who was on the verge of tears. “I guess we won’t be leaving Jet outside alone anymore.”
“Daddy, can we look for him?” Lily looked up at him with her big dark-brown eyes filled with tears. She blinked, and they trickled down her light-brown cheeks.
Scott’s heart twisted. She reminded him of her mother. Her parents had been his best friends before they’d been killed in a car accident four years ago. Since that time, he had been Lily Jackson’s guardian. Scott had taken in the two-year-old with a lot of trepidation, but her smiles and giggles kept him sane on days when he’d like to shut himself off from the world. For four years she’d made his life worth living even on the worst of days, but was he doing her any favors as she lived in his troubled bachelor world?
“Please, Daddy,” Lily said while Scott remained lost in his thoughts.
He patted her on the top of her head. “It’s cold out there, and it’s getting dark. Since you have your homework done, we can take a quick trip around the block and see if we can find him.”
Lily raced to the coat closet and pulled her coat from the hanger and dug her hat and gloves out of the sleeve. She practically bounced into the mudroom, where she tugged on her boots. Scott joined her as he shrugged into his coat and pulled his stocking cap on. As he opened the door, a cold blast of air almost took his breath away.
Undaunted, Lily charged into the cold, then turned to him as he closed and locked the door. “Can we be detectives and follow his paw prints?”
“Good idea.” Scott fell into step behind Lily as she pointed out the paw prints that led into the alley behind the house. They followed them until they came to the nearby street, where the prints disappeared. The sidewalk cleared of snow left no clues. “Looks like we’ve lost the trail. What do we do now, Ms. Detective?”
“Daddy, don’t call me that.”
“Oh, I thought you said we were playing detective.”
“Not playing. Being.”
“Okay. Being. You lead the way.” Scott was pretty sure Jet would return home when he got hungry in a little while, but Lily’s concern was something Scott should take seriously. She loved that dog.
“Jet. Where are you, Jet?” Lily’s high-pitched voice rang out through the quiet evening. The full moon made its appearance as the sun slipped behind the row houses on the other side of the street.
Lily repeated her mantra while they made their way around the block. Lights sprang up in the nearby windows along the street, as if Lily’s voice flipped a switch. When they turned the last corner and Jet was nowhere to be seen, she grabbed Scott’s hand. The simple trusting gesture reminded him that this little girl depended on him for everything. He had to do right by her, and that included finding her beloved pet.
Putting one arm around her shoulders, Scott pulled her close. “Should we jump in the car and drive a little farther to see if we can find Jet?”
Lily bobbed her head. “That would be good.”
“Then we can grab a burger before we head home.” Scott didn’t feel like cooking, although he did most nights.
When they got back to the house, Scott grabbed his car keys. In minutes he was driving up and down the nearby street while Lily called Jet’s name out the open window in the backseat. But they saw no sign of the little black pup.
After they ate their burgers from Lily’s favorite fast-food restaurant, they headed home. As Scott maneuvered his car into the parking spot at the back of the house, he hoped he would find a contrite canine waiting for them on the back porch.
Scott’s heart sank when Jet wasn’t there to greet them. What could he say to Lily to reassure her that Jet would return, when he wasn’t sure that would happen? As he unlocked the door, moonlight beamed around them. He glanced into the starry sky. A clear, cold night lay ahead—not a good thing for an animal on the loose.
Lily sat on the mudroom floor and tugged off her boots. “Daddy, will Jet get cold if he doesn’t come home?”
“If he doesn’t make it home, I’m sure he’ll find someplace warm. He’s a smart dog.” Scott rationalized that he wasn’t telling a complete lie. The dog was smart. He’d figured out how to open the gate. Would he find a warm spot where he could survive the cold night? Scott could only hope.
After Scott hung their coats in the closet, he looked at Lily, who sat on the couch, her head in her hands. He wished he could say something to cheer her up, but this week had brought a lot of changes into her young life. His new job, which would start on Monday, had brought them to Hallburg, a small town northwest of Baltimore. Lily was just adjusting to a new school and a new teacher. She didn’t need the loss of her pet to complicate her life further. He only wished to keep her days as routine as possible.
He had taken this job in order to move to this quiet little town away from the chaos of the city. Living in a small town would mean a more peaceful life for Lily. He wanted the best for her so he could fulfill the promise to his best buddy, who wasn’t here to see his daughter grow up.
Scott tapped Lily on the shoulder. “It’s a school night, so you’d better get ready for bed.”
Scott nodded. “We spent a lot of time looking for Jet.”
“But we didn’t find him.” Lily’s voice came out in a miserable whine.
Scott had no comforting response. For all he knew, the dog could be trying to make his way back to their previous residence in the city. He hoped that wasn’t the case, but it was a possibility. “I know, but we’ll find him tomorrow if he doesn’t make his way home tonight.”
Lily traipsed up the narrow staircase and trudged to her room as Scott followed close behind, hoping his statement was true. Every time he said something positive about the dog’s circumstances, he feared he was giving her false hope. Helplessness inundated him as he supervised her bedtime routine. Bedtime prayers included a request for Jet’s safe return.
As Scott tucked Lily into bed with a hug and kiss, she clung to him and whispered in his ear. “Daddy, you say an extra prayer for Jet.”
“I will, sweetie.” He tucked the blanket under her chin.
Back downstairs, Scott went to the back door and turned on the porch light. He didn’t see a sign of their furry friend. He stepped onto the porch, his arms crossed against the cold. He walked to the alley and looked one way, then the other. Still no Jet.
His shoulders sagging, he plodded back into the house. He stood in the middle of the living room and looked around. Lily wasn’t the only one who missed that dog. What was he going to do if Jet didn’t return? He didn’t know how he could explain that to the little girl who depended on him for everything.
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