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"Stop that dog!"
The words were barely out of Grant Roderick's mouth before he realized they were futile. Nothing was going to stop the streak of white fluff running down the Christmas-bedecked boardwalk of Main Street in Moonlight Cove, Washington.
Crazy mutt. Fast, too. Fast, and sneaky enough to have bolted by him when he'd opened the front door of his aunt's house to get the mail.
Grant followed Jade, his aunt's white standard poodlethe one he was supposed to be taking care ofrunning like a madman trying to keep up with the runaway dog. Thankfully, the dog looked smart enough to keep out of the street and away from cars. If anything happened to Jade, he'd never forgive himself.
Grant dodged a holiday shopper coming out of one of the many quaint stores lining the street. "'Scuse me," he said, straining his neck to keep an eye on Jade. If he lost sight of the dog, he'd never get a hold of her. How could he have let the crazy canine get the better of him one measly day into his house/dog-sitting duty?
All of a sudden, Jade stopped so fast she almost left paw skid marks. Yes! A block behind, Grant kept running, hoping she stayed put so he could grab her. He had work to do, work that didn't involve chasing naughty dogs all over town.
He drew closer, and Jade put her large, furry paws onto the Christmas-light-festooned window of a store and let out a hearty woof. Then she dropped to all fours again. Grant kept moving, closing the distance between them, pretty much expecting her to take off when he got within grabbing distance. She was clever, he'd give her that. She'd outsmarted him. For a while.
But she stayed by the store, her white pom-pom tail wagging up a storm. Just as she reared up on her hind legs again and pawed the air with her front paws, he was in striking distance.
I've got you now!
He lunged for her collar and saw the store door open to his left. As quick as a catfor a large dogJade jumped forward and through the open door. She looked like she was smiling as she dodged past him.
He fell forward, unable to stop his momentum, and crashed to the thankfully dry boardwalk with a bone-jarring thud. The air whooshed out of him instantly, and he couldn't draw a breath to save his life.
He rolled onto his back, cringing, wondering if anything was broken. He lay there for a moment, flopped out like a dead fish.
Just as he managed to choke some air in, a feminine voice exclaimed, "Oh, my goodness, are you all right?"
He looked up and saw a very pretty woman with a mass of long curly red hair and cute freckles staring down at him, her eyebrows drawn together over a set of gorgeous green eyes.
His cheeks burned. Great. He'd fallen down in front of the most attractive woman he'd seen in a long time. All he could do was groan, his pain mingling with complete embarrassment.
Not exactly a stellar way to start his time in Moonlight Cove, was it?
Molly Kent looked down at the blond man lying on the sidewalk in front of her store, Bow Wow Boutique, concern rippling through her. He'd hit the deck pretty hard.
Given that he was chasing Jade, Molly surmised this guy had to be her friend Rose Latham's nephew, Grant Roderick, whom Rose had enlisted to pet-sit Jade while she went on a Hawaiian honeymoon with her new husband and former neighbor, Benny Fulton.
"I'm fine," the man said from between clenched teeth. With a grimace that told Molly he wasn't all that fine, he got his feet underneath him and stood.
Peter and Parker, her two schnauzers, barked from within the store, clearly excited by Jade's arrival, as well as, Molly supposed, the commotion outside. Their bell-trimmed Christmas collars jingled with every yip.
"Are you sure?" She reached out a hand but stopped short of touching him when she got a look at him dead-on. Her breath snagged. Never in her wildest imaginings had she expected Rose's nephew, whom the older woman had described as a socially backward computer jockey with a serious need to get out more, to be so attractive. He was tall, had nicely chiseled features and a strong, shadowed jaw. Cute. Very cute.
He nodded, his face slightly red, giving her a crooked smile, then spread his well-muscled arms wide. "Luckily, I'm pretty tough." The short-sleeved navy blue polo shirt he wore emphasized that he was in serious shapeand that he hadn't left the house prepared for the chilly December weather.
"You must be Grant," she said, feeling her face heat a teensy bit. If she didn't know better, she'd think he made his living in front of a camera rather than behind a computer.
"Right," he said. "I suppose chasing Jade gave me away."
"I saw you through the window." She held out a hand. "I'm Molly Kent."
He shook her hand, his grasp strong. And undeniably warm. "Nice to meet you, Molly Kent."
He looked right at her, and she couldn't help but notice his eyes were a really compelling blue. She tried not to stare.
Feeling a bit off-kilter from his killer good looks, she fell back on manners and familiar territory. "Now that Jade is contained, would you like something to drink? I have a fridge in the back." Molly had promised Rose she would look after Grant and Jade while Rose was gone, and Molly never reneged on a promise. Besides, being needed felt good.
"Sorry," he said. "I have work to do."
Molly raised a brow and looked at Jade as she panted in between drinks from the water bowl Molly kept out for Peter and Parker, and any other dogs who visited. "Jade needs a rest," she said pointedly. "And you look like maybe you do, too."
"Yeah, I guess maybe I do," he admitted. "Even though it's cold out, I ran all the way here and really got my blood flowing." He glanced at Jade, who, Molly noted, was now chasing Peter and Parker around one of the pet food displays, having turned their attention from Grant and Molly to each other. All three dogs barked in delight as they ran in a wide circle, around and around and around.
He shook his head. "She's clever and fast. I'm a runner, and even I couldn't keep up with her."
She chuckled, then gestured him in, her eyes on the rambunctious canine trio. "Especially when she's motivated to find her way here for lots of doggy fun. As you can see, they all love to play."
"And pull off successful escapes." Grant grimaced as he followed her in, closing the door behind him. "I'm pretty sure she was waiting for me to open the door so she could take off."
Molly laughed as she navigated her way around the Christmas squeaky-toy display. "You're probably right. Jade is a handful. Even Rose and Benny have a hard time curbing her wandering tendencies."
Grant trailed behind her. "I guess I don't feel so bad then, for letting my guard down long enough for her to escape."
Molly reached the back room. "No, you shouldn't. Jade is kind of high maintenance, especially if she misses playtime." She opened the mini-refrigerator on the right, pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to him. She jumped a bit when their fingers touched. Whoa.
She cleared her throat. "Just a hint, but a played-out dog is a contented dog, and will want to be your constant companion." She paused for effect. "Did you remember playtime?"
He furrowed his brow as he twisted open the water bottle's top. "Oh, yeah playtime." He shook his head, then drank some water. "I forgot."
She'd thought so. "Well, again, don't worry. If she escapes again, Jade always comes to visit me and my two dogs, so I can just bring her back."
"Okay," he replied, rubbing his eyes. "I've never owned a dog. This is all new to me." He turned and looked at the mangled bright yellow remnant of what had to be a tennis ball Jade dropped on the floor behind him. "Do they all have such disgusting toys?"
Molly smiled. So, he was clueless about dogs, something she found surprisingly endearing. Good thing she was the resident dog expert around Moonlight Cove. She had a lot to teach him. "Pretty much. My two schnauzers each have four or five tennis balls rolling around, and they're all pretty slobbery."
"And smelly," he replied, making a face. "Maybe I should buy her a new, clean one."
Molly appreciated his suggestion. He caught on fast. "Well, you could, but it'll be gross, too, pretty quickly, won't it?"
He smiled. "I guess so. Maybe I need an endless supply."
Molly's heart rate kicked up a notch at his gorgeous smileincluding dimplesand the way his eyes crinkled at the corners.
She forced her thoughts back to the conversation at hand, wishing her heart rate would slow down a teensy bit. "The Sports Shack sells them. I'd give you one, but Jade likes the ones fresh out of the can." She remembered something. "Hey, I'm guessing you can get a family discount since Kim is married to the Sports Shack's owner, Seth."
Seth and Grant's cousin, Kim, had met five months ago when she and her seven-year-old son had come to Moonlight Cove to live with her and Grant's aunt Rose. Seth had saved Kim from drowning in a riptide off Moonlight Cove Beach, and Kim had ended up working in his store. Soon after, they fell in love, and the rest was history.
"Good point. I met Seth when he, Kim and Dylan came to visit me in August."
A thought occurred to Molly. "You weren't at their wedding, though, were you?" The happy bride and groom had been married this past September in a lovely ceremony at Moonlight Cove Community Church, followed by a reception on the beach where they'd met.
Grant shook his head. "No, I couldn't make it."
"For your cousin's wedding?" Kind of an important event to miss..
His jaw tightened, and he seemed to be squirming. "I was out of the country for work."
Molly nodded. Seemed as if Grant was a workaholic. Remembered pain shot through Molly. Her father had missed her high school graduation because of work, too. Never again.
Shoving aside past hurts, she said, "Well, since you missed the nuptials, I'm happy to report that Seth and Kim are very happy, and completely devoted to each other and Dylan." Truth be told, Molly kind of envied the love they shared and the family they'd built, though she knew that kind of love wasn't in the cards for her. From now on, she would only let God into her heartshe could depend on Him to never let her down.
"Good to know," Grant said evenly.
"My friend Phoebe told me they went to Seattle."
"Yeah. Seth had some kind of Mariners function for former players."
Seth had played for the Seattle Mariners for three years before coming back home to Moonlight Cove to take over running the Sports Shack from his father.
"Did they kennel Cleo?" Molly asked. "I hope not. I would have been glad to keep her."
Jade had had a litter of pups in June, and Rose and Benny had given Cleo, one of Jade's puppies, to Dylan soon after Kim and Seth got engaged.
Grant shook his head. "Nah, they took her with them. Rose told me Dylan just about had a hissy fit when they talked about leaving her here."
"Not surprising. Dylan and Cleo come in here all the time to play with Peter and Parker and to pick out toys. He's pretty attached to her." She made a face. "But I'm not sure I'd want to take her on vacation."
"She's even wilder than Jade," Molly said, quirking a brow.
He looked horrified. "Is that possible?" he asked, glancing sideways at Jade. She was still madly chasing the jingling Peter and Parker in circles around the predominantly green and red displays, their toenails clickety-clacking on the dog-practical linoleum floor. "She seems pretty wild to me."
"You think this is wild?" she asked, gesturing with her head toward Jade. "Wait till you meet Cleo."
He took a swig of water, then returned her smile, his eyes sparkling. "I'm not sure I want to," he said, clearly joking.
She stared at him for a moment, really liking his sense of humor. Then she caught herself and dragged her gaze away. "Listen," she said, moving around him and out into the middle of the store, next to the leash display, where there was more space. "If you want me to pick up some tennis balls for Jade after work, I'd be happy to drop them off later."
He raised his blond brows. "No, that's fine. I don't want to put you out."
"Oh, you wouldn't be putting me out. I need to pick up some fishing lures for my elderly neighbor from the
Sports Shack, anyway. Floyd broke his leg and still wants to go on a fishing trip, wheelchair and all, with one of his buddies. I promised when I checked on him last night to deliver some lures later today."
"Well that'd be great." Grant glanced quickly at his sporty-looking watch, then frowned slightly. "Oh, wow. Look at the time. Tick-tock. I really should get back to work."
"Extremely tight," he replied, rubbing his jaw. "I have to have this job done by January 1 for initial system testing, and then the rest completed by the middle of January, which is an insane deadline for this kind of a product. So that means I have days and days of nothing but work ahead of me."
She had visions of him working day and night, alone and isolated, his job his only focus.
Sounded sadly familiar. Would Grant someday be like her dad, all alone, because he chose work over everything else? She hoped not. Her dad had ended up pretty unhappy, with no one. Molly couldn't think of anything worse.
Thankfully, she had her large group of friends to keep her company. And God, of course.