Monday, November 7, 2022

A Puppies for Christmas Excerpt ~ Jean C. Gordon


Who had a good time at the Sweet Romance Reads Cafe Holiday Party last Thursday? I sure did. To continue the holiday theme, I have an excerpt from my Puppies story, Can't Say No to Puppies.

Chapter 1

Happy holidays to me. Shelby Newcomb rolled her eyes as she rummaged through the closet in the spare bedroom. Spare since her roommate surprised her by eloping to Las Vegas last month. Like Shelby couldn’t have used a little notice. At Boston rents, she could barely afford the place on her own. She leaned back on her heels. Change that to couldn’t afford the apartment period, now that her supposedly permanent position as a personal trainer at a local gym had turned temporary as of today. The trainer who’d been on maternity leave with no intention of returning had suddenly decided to come back after all.

“Erg.” Shelby reached to the far back of the closet for the cardboard cat carrier her former roommate had brought her cat home from the shelter in. “Got it.” It was just the right size, and she didn’t need it. Cats weren’t her thing. She’d take a dog over a kitten any day. And her ex-fiancé Tim was allergic to cats. Although the box hadn’t been used in a couple of months, some cat allergens might linger. Shelby stood. She could only hope.

A short time later, Shelby dropped his baseball cap into the box on top of the jacket and sunglasses, along with the last of Tim’s belongings she’d found in her apartment. After a moment’s hesitation, she crammed in the large chocolate lab stuffed animal Tim had won her at the festival they’d gone to in Vermont this summer. The one that looked just like her childhood pet Ms. Buttons. She stared at the box thinking, you know, I miss Ms. Buttons more than I miss Tim. Sadly, after a month, she’d realized Tim breaking their engagement had hurt her pride more than it had her heart. Shelby picked up the mailing label she’d made out to an address in Florida a mutual friend had given her. What engaged man goes to a friend’s wedding and takes off permanently with one of the bridesmaids for the Florida Keys? From another friend, she’d heard Tim hadn’t even come back from the Berkshire Mountains wedding venue to pack up his apartment. He’d had his brother do it and ship him the stuff. This was a man she’d known for five years and thought she knew well enough to love and marry? 

Shelby folded one of the box flaps closed and stopped. She pulled out the stuffed animal. Tim had won it for her. It was hers, not his. She folded the rest of the flaps and taped the box shut, pasting the address label on with a slap. Maybe she should just drop it in the trash bin instead of at the Post Office.

FaceTime interrupted her decision. Shelby picked up her phone and her great uncle Andy panned back so she could see him with his arm around an attractive woman of a similar age. He grinned at her.

“Surprise,” Uncle Andy said before Shelby could even say “hi.”

And it sure was a surprise. Last Shelby knew, her uncle still had a flip phone. Now he was FaceTiming. “What’s up?” she asked.

Her uncle and the woman with him kept grinning.

Shelby wasn’t sure she wanted her question answered. Uncle Andy had all his faculties, and he wasn’t prone to wide foolish grins that formed an oval with his droopy mustache.

“Diane and I got married,” her uncle shouted.

That explained the white pillbox hat with the tufts of netting Diane wore. Shelby couldn’t stop the O her mouth formed before she remembered they could see her, too. “Congratulations!” she recovered.

“And we’re in Boston for our flight to our honeymoon in the Caribbean. Diane and I left Williamstown in time for us to see you before we leave.” He hugged Diane.

Shelby’s heart pricked with wistfulness. He and the mysterious Diane certainly looked happy. “Where are you?” She glanced around her messy living room.

“We went right to Logan. I figured we could meet at a coffee shop or something here.”

“There’s a Starbucks. It’ll take me about 15 minutes to get there.” She could mail her package on her way back. “What time is your flight?”

“2:30,” Diane answered.

It was 10:30 now. They certainly had left themselves plenty of time to get together with her. “See you in 15, then. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person, Diane.” And finding out more about this seemingly out-of-the-blue marriage. Whether her matchmaking grandmother on the other side of the family had had anything to do with it.

“We’ll look for the Starbucks and get us a table,” Uncle Andy said. “See you when you get here,”

Uncle Andy and Diane were waiting outside the coffee shop when Shelby got there. She glanced through the window. “Hey,” she greeted them. “Is there a problem?”

“Not at all,” her uncle said. “On our way here, we passed what looked like a family-style restaurant, and since we have the time if you do, we thought lunch together would be better.”

“Why not?” What else did she have to do except mail Tim-the-traitor’s stuff to him? “Lead on.”

“Wait,” her uncle said, “I need to introduce you two. Shelby, this is Diane Newcomb nee Bradley, my wife of almost 24 hours.”

“Nice to meet you.” By reflex, Shelby lifted her arm to shake hands. 

Dianne stepped forward and pulled her into a hug. “Andy has told me so much about you.”

As soon as was polite, Shelby pulled away with a pasted-on smile. Uncle Andy hadn’t told her nor her parents, she was sure, anything about Diane. Her uncle took Diane’s hand.

“Have you known each other long?” Shelby bit her tongue. She sounded like a suspicious parent.

Uncle Andy looked at Diane, assuming a sheepish expression.

Tell me it isn’t as bad as I thought.

“I’d say about 67 years.” Uncle Andy checked with Diane for confirmation.

“That’s about right. We went all through school together.” Diane burst out laughing as if she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“Okay, you two, I’ll lay off,” Shelby said.

“But first, I’d better answer the other question you’re thinking. Yes, your grandmother and Blake got us back together.”

Hmm, back together. They must have been a thing in high school, or something. How cute.

Uncle Andy walked them into the restaurant. “They helped us plan our six-week honeymoon, too, through their Honeymoon Travel Agency.”

“Six weeks?”

“Yep. Let’s get a table and we’ll explain. I have a couple of favors to ask of you while we’re gone.

* * *

Kristopher Carmichael heard a vehicle pulling up the private road-driveway to Andy Newcomb’s house. It had to be the house sitter his friend and sometimes mentor had asked him to be here for this morning. Why Andy hadn’t taken him up on his offer to keep an eye on the place while he and Diane were honeymooning was beyond him. He would have done it for free.

A glance out the window answered his question and tied his stomach in knots. Andy’s great-niece, Shelby, his brother’s former fiancé.  A woman Kris had carried a torch for since their first meeting, although he’d had no right at that time. A woman who as far as he could tell had taken an immediate dislike to him. He’d never understand the stupidity of his brother dumping Shelby, nor forgive the way he’d done it. Kris strode to the door. He’d had no idea she was his friend’s house sitter. Just hand her the key and the list of stuff Andy left he told himself and go to your appointment at the lawyer’s office to sign the agreement to serve on the board of Puppy Pals, Andy’s new pet charity.

He swung the front door open to Shelby stepping onto the porch and the knot in his stomach tightened. Andy was up to something, and the only thing Kris could think of was matchmaking. What did his friend want? Last week, he’d signed up for What the Heart Wants, the online dating service that Andy and Diane and Shelby’s grandparents Ellie and Blake couldn’t endorse enough. Granted, only after he found out that Shelby’s cousin Libby had reconnected with her college sweetheart, now husband, through the service. And after he found it wasn’t only for senior citizens.

Shelby came to an abrupt stop and eyed him. Not in a good way. “What are you doing here?”

“Good morning to you, too.” Shelby’s expression told Kris she’d taken his greeting in the sarcastic way he’d meant it.  “I’m waiting for you so I can give you the key to Andy’s place and get to an appointment.” He checked his phone. “An appointment that I’m now running late for. Andy’s instructions, if you don’t already have them, are on the table.” Kris dropped the key in her hand as he brushed by her on the porch steps.

With each step, he gave himself a harder mental kick for his rudeness and the Neanderthal persona that took over whenever he was in Shelby’s presence. The door to the house clicked open and shut without a word from her. Maybe she was so used to his behavior that she accepted it.

He didn’t. 

In another Neanderthal reaction, Kris gunned the engine of his pickup and tore up the private gravel road. 

It wasn’t as if he was going to be able to simply avoid Shelby while she was here, even with his best effort. While he might be able to avoid running into her in town, he was renting the apartment above the old carriage house that Andy had renovated into a dog kennel. The carriage house was only a few paces from the main residence. And he was lucky to have it. Williamstown was a college town, so housing was always at a premium. Ten minutes later, he pulled into a parking space in front of the law office. “Sorry, I’m a little late. I have a 10 am appointment.”

The receptionist nodded. “Mr. Carmichael?”

He nodded.

“You can go right in. Ms. Newcomb isn’t here yet.”

“Thanks.” He swallowed. He wasn’t even going to speculate why Shelby was going to be here. Kris stopped outside Steve’s door and texted his office. He’d cleared his schedule this morning until 10:30. Now, it looked like he might run late for his 10:30 appointment. Shelby could have made the two-and-a-half-hour drive yesterday afternoon and been here in plenty of time for the appointment and so he could have given her the key last evening and not had to use work time. It was irrelevant that he hadn’t had any pet appointments before the 10:30 one. He raked his fingers through his hair. Unfair. He’d bet that she hadn’t known he’d be at Andy’s any more than he’d known she was Andy’s house-sitter.

Kris opened the door to the lawyer’s office. 

“Kris,” Matt Finke, a high school classmate that Kris had then felt lived up to his name, motioned him in. The guy was so by the book he couldn’t take even a minor prank and had seemed ever ready to report anything Kris had done. Not that some of the stuff hadn’t deserved reporting.

“Come in. Sit down. Dr. Newcomb’s niece texted me she’s running late. As soon as she’s here, we can get started,” Matt said with what appeared to be a sincerely welcoming smile. 

Kris did as directed. “I, uh . . .”

“You were expecting my father.”

Kris swallowed and nodded.

“I recently joined the firm, and we haven’t gotten around to having our signage changed to Finke & Finke.

Kris shoved his foot under the desk, so he could silently tap it.

“So how does it feel to be another prodigal returned to Williamstown, considering how in high school neither of us could wait to make our escape.”

Kris straightened in his seat. He’d made no bones about expressing his teen desire to get out of Williamstown as soon as he could. Matt saying he’d felt the same was all new to him.

“Surprised?” Matt asked. “I wanted nothing more than to get out from under my father’s thumb, not become a lawyer and join his firm, and shed my junior high fink reputation.”

“High school, too,” Kris injected with a wry smile.

“I almost changed my name,” Matt said with a chuckle. “But Dad’s mellowed a lot, and I’ve grown up. I feel comfortable here now.”

“I do, too,” Kris admitted. Andy gave me a real opportunity when he contacted me about wanting to sell his practice and retire. And the nonprofit. . .”

A familiar laugh penetrated the office door and ran through him. “I think Shelby has arrived,” he said as much to himself as to Matt.

“You know Ms. Newcomb, then.”

“You could say that. Long story short, she was engaged to my brother.” He’d had enough bro-bonding small talk.

Shelby whisked into the office all professional in a red suit that flattered every asset of her figure and a warm smile that did the same for her facial features. His heart thudded as every ounce of oxygen left the room before she shut the door. 

“Shelby. Great,” Matt said. “We can get started.”

And finished and out of here, Kris mumbled to himself. Matt and Shelby looked at him. Or he thought he had mumbled to himself. “Yes, let’s get started. I have a 10:30 pet appointment. “Where do I sign?”

Shelby sat in the chair next to him. Inches away. Intensifying his desire to finish and leave. His long-practiced counter to his attraction to her kicked in.

“Not quite that simple,” Matt said. “First, I have to make sure you understand your fiduciary and day-to-day responsibilities of being assistant directors to Mr. Newcomb’s directorship of the organization.

Kris and Shelby looked at each other and said, “Assistant directors?” then “no” in unison.

“Ladies first,” Kris said, expecting Shelby would jump in first anyway.

“Uncle Andy didn’t say anything about me being a co-director. He said he needed someone here to oversee Berkshire Dog Pals’ first Christmas dog giveaway so it would be all set for his return.”

“My understanding was that Andy asked me to serve on the organization’s board. To advise him and supply veterinary services. Nothing about being a director, and I don’t know anything about a dog giveaway..” Kris jumped in. He glanced sidewise to see Shelby biting her lip as if to restrain herself from interrupting. “If I had, I would have discouraged it. The holidays aren’t the best time to be randomly giving pets to people.”

“It’s not randomly,” Shelby said.

“Okay,” Matt took back control of the meeting. “Looks like I’d better start from the top.”

Kris checked his phone. 10:15. No way was he going to make his appointment. “I need to text the office and reschedule my 10:30 first.” And hope the pet owner was amenable. He was free at 11. “Done.” He looked up.

Matt explained what would be needed from them as co-directors and gave Kris and Shelby some time to consider, saying that if they needed more time, he could reschedule the meeting. 

Within a minute Shelby said, “I agree. I can handle it.”

Of course she could. She couldn’t have too many other responsibilities if she was able to take six weeks to housesit for Andy. He had his new vet practice to get going and keep running, and the loan agreement for buying it from Andy to back that up. Kris’s phone buzzed with a message that the pet owner had said she’d call back to reschedule. Not a good sign.

He did some quick mental gymnastics. If the assistant directorship turned out to be something that could boost his standing in the community and his practice, he might be agreeable to the scheme. “I need the details of this dog giveaway thing to help make my decision.” 

Matt’s phone rang. “Excuse me.” He took the call. “My next client is here. Why don’t you get together with Shelby. She has all the giveaway details, sleep on it, and reschedule for tomorrow. The agreement signing will be as quick as you apparently thought today’s meeting would be.”

“Good with me,” Shelby said in a voice that held only slightly less enthusiasm than her words. “Stop by Uncle Andy’s after work. I’ll feed you and tell you all about the program. Uncle Andy is hoping to make it an annual event.”

That shouldn’t be difficult since he lived on Andy’s property. Kris snuck a sideways glance. Shelby offering to cook for him. The two of them alone, having supper. Could she be less indifferent to him than he’d always thought? Nah. Wishful thinking on his part.

“I’m excited about the Christmas giveaway and am sure I can convince you, too, once you hear what Uncle Andy has in mind,” she continued.

His stomach churned with what could only be fear. Little did Shelby Newcomb know,  she could probably convince him to do almost anything.

“Sure. Sounds great,” he answered.

Have I Hooked You?

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