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Vivian Duncan stepped out of Happy Endings Bookstore onto the sidewalk in the small Kansas town of Bygones. Watching leaves and bits of paper racing down the street blown by a brisk breeze, she inhaled the crisp November air. Only a few weeks until Thanksgiving, one of her favorite times of the year.
Her mother made the best turkey and stuffing, and her older siblings who had moved away from home always made it a point to come back for the holiday.
A gaggle of laughing and shouting schoolchildren barreled past her en route to Fluff & Stuff, the pet store that had opened on Main Street in July. Vivian was on her way there as well, just two doors down the street. The colorful awnings above each of the new stores fluttered in the breeze.
She hoped the owner of Fluff & Stuff, Chase Rollins, would help her put together a special event at the bookstore to promote books about dogs.
Who better to ask for help on the topic than Chase?
As she opened the door, she faced the big green-cheeked parrot near the cash register who squawked his greeting,
"What's up? What's up?" He proudly bobbed his head and did a little dance on his perch.
"Hello, Pepper." Vivian smiled at Chase's recently acquired bird that was looking for a new home.
"Good birdie! Good birdie!" he vocalized.
"I'm sure you are." She looked around for Chase. Hearing the high-pitched voices of the youngsters she'd seen running into the shop, she headed toward the back where puppies were kept in a pen.
She eased past two boys who were running Chase's dog, Boyo, through his trick repertoire: rollover, shake, play dead. The ridiculous-looking bassetoodlea combination of a basset hound and poodleperformed brilliantly for the boys, and they all vied for a chance to show off their skills with the dog.
"It's my turn! It's my turn!" one boy insisted.
"You don't even know what to do," an older youngster complained.
"I do so!"
From a shelf high above the action, Fluff, a long-haired cat with enough hair for two, looked down on the action with disdain. Vivian gave Fluff a scratch between her ears.
"You're too smart to do their bidding, aren't you?" she whispered to the cat.
Fluff responded with a faint purr.
Chase really did love his animals. For that matter, so did Vivian.
She walked past displays of dog and cat beds, stacks of canned and dried animal food, and toys for all manner of pets and finally found him supervising the youngsters around the puppy pen. He made sure they didn't manhandle the puppies too badly but did socialize them to make for better pets.
His warm brown eyes lit up when he spotted Vivian, and he produced a delighted smile. "Hey, Viv. How's Roger doing?"
"He's doing finehealthy and active." She chuckled at the reference to the hamster she'd purchased from Chase and had named in honor of Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile. "He's so busy running on his wheel and playing with his toys. If I want to get any peace and quiet, I have to put him in the extra bedroom."
"They can be pretty active."
Still smiling, he stepped toward Vivian. When she'd first met him, she'd thought he was an attractive man. She still did. At six foot two with a muscular body, he towered over her five foot four, even when she was wearing heels. His short dark hair had a natural wave that sculpted his head. His nose was straight, his lips nicely full. If it weren't for a slight scar on his chin, he might be too handsome. But the scar gave him an air of mystery.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
"I, uh " Snapping back from her train of thought, she started over. "Allison and I at Happy Endings have realized books about dogs are particularly popular. We'd like to put on a special event and thought you could give us some guidance about where to get a dog or two for show-and-tell. I know the puppies you have are from the local shelter."
"That's right. The puppies and kittens from Happy Havens Animal Shelter attract customers and sometimes get adopted, so it's a win-win situation."
"Either way, it's a nice thing you're doing." In the short time she'd known Chase, she'd discovered he had a generous heart, particularly when it came to animals.
Chase kept one eye on the boys and the puppies as he spoke. "I like the idea of my customers rescuing a dog and giving it a good home."
"I do, too." Admiration for his principles filled her chest.
"I wonder if it would be best to show off the puppies for our event or find some older dogs."
"I'd say older dogs. For one thing, they're much harder to place in a new home, and the shelter is overflowing with them right now. Plus, most of them have at least some training. Trying to explain something when you've got a handful of puppies would be like a juggler trying to give a speech."
She chuckled at the image. "Using older dogs sounds like it would be for the best. If you have the time, we'd like you to be part of the event, talk about breeds, training, care and feeding. That sort of thing. We thought that would bring attention to both businesses."
"Sure. I'd be happy to come talk about dogs." He noticed someone at the cash register, and they both walked in that direction.
"I'm a big supporter of the local shelter," he said. "Since Randall Manufacturing closed down the factory and laid off their employees, the turnover forced a lot of people to surrender their pets. Some of those folks are moving away, and their new places don't allow animals. Or they're broke and can't afford to feed their animals."
"That's a shame." Her family had always had dogs and cats around the wheat farm. She'd hate the thought of handing any of them over to a shelter. Even a no-kill shelter. They were always a part of the family.
He stepped behind the counter to help his customer. "Hello, Mrs. Murdock. How's your arthritis doing these days?"
"Not bad for now, but if it gets cold and rainy, it'll act up. I can be sure of that."
He scanned the sack of cat food Mrs. Murdock had placed on the counter. "Anything else today? We're starting to get in some nice toys and soft beds for Christmas gifts. Your Sadie might like one of those."
She tilted her head. "I do believe you're trying to tempt me, Mr. Rollins."
"Only because I know how much you love to spoil Sadie."
Mrs. Murdock gave Chase a twenty-dollar bill. Chase made change, and Mrs. Murdock went out the door smiling.
"Come again! Come again!" the parrot squawked.
Chase ignored the bird. "The shelter is getting overcrowded, so I've started a monthly Adopt a Pet Day here at the shop. In fact I'm having one this Saturday." He handed her a flyer from the stack on the counter.
"What a nice thing for you to do." She glanced over the flyer, which featured a cute poodle with a pink bow on top of her head. "She sure is a cutie."
"Yeah, she is. The big dogs are the ones they have the most trouble placing in new homes. They need a lot of space and eat a lot of food."
She chuckled. "I'm sure they do. But if you're doing your adoption day, will you be able to leave the pet store to talk to our people?"
"I've got a friend who can fill in for me. It'll be okay."
"I'm glad." She was relieved, too, that Chase could help out.
"When you visit the shelter, you'll have to be careful not to fall in love." His eyes twinkled, and his lively grin was pure temptation.
Vivian blinked. Her cheeks flushed. Had he said fall in love? With who? And why had she zeroed in on that thought?
"Some of those dogs are pretty lovable," he continued, unaware of her reaction. "You might want to adopt one or two yourself."
She chided herself for misunderstanding what he meant.
"Uh, no, I'll have to stick with Roger and my cat, Essie, for now."
"That's all right." His eyes glinted with humor. "Chances are good I'll have another opportunity to tempt you with a puppy or two. I don't give up easily."
She nodded, thinking that was an admirable trait. "I'm sure that's true. I'll just have to do my very best to resist your persuasive ways."
His brown-eyed gaze softened as he studied her face. "I can only hope you won't try too hard to resist."
She swallowed hard. Chase Rollins was a man who knew how to flirt, and she was reacting just the way he had intended: with a nervous flutter in her stomach.
She stepped toward the door. "I'll tell Allison about the shelter, and that you'll help us out."
"Right. I'll be happy to."
Vivian pulled the door open and escaped outside just as the flame of embarrassment heated her cheeks.
Her recent forays into the dating world had been less than successful. Indeed, they'd been a flop. As soon as she had announced to the men in question that she'd never be able to give them a baby, the guys had dumped her.
She had always dreamed of having a big family. Apparently God had decided two years ago, when she had had her hysterectomy, that she wouldn't be able to give birth to her own children. But that wouldn't prevent her from having the family she wanted. She'd recently taken charge of her dream by putting in her application at several agencies to adopt a baby.
Since the guys she'd dated had been clear about wanting to have children who carried their own genes, she'd decided being a single mother was the way she would go. Even though she knew some people would not approve of her choice, she was determined to set her dream in motion.
She had faith that God understood how she had longed for children and would provide when the time came.
Chase watched Vivian until she moved out of view toward the bookstore.
"Pretty lady. Pretty lady," Pepper chanted.
"Yes, Pepper, she is pretty. Nice, too." In the few months since Chase had arrived in Bygones and had opened the pet store, he'd enjoyed her visits to the shop. He liked seeing her walk in the door with her auburn hair swinging at her shoulders. An eager smile on her face and a smattering of cute freckles across her nose. A bounce in her step.
She liked animals, too. Vivian gave Boyo a pat or Fluff a chuck under the chin as she strolled through the shop.
And she was smart. Until the town of Bygones had come on hard times, she'd been a librarian. Which meant she sure had a lot more education than he did. He hadn't dropped out of high school, but working a night shift at a warehouse in Wichita during his senior year had made his grades tank. He'd been grateful to graduate.
He'd worked at the warehouse for nearly thirteen years until he had moved to Bygones for the chance to open a business of his own.
Strolling to the back of the store, he joined the boys around the puppy pen. "Puppies need a lot of sleep, kids. Why don't you let these guys rest now? You can come back tomorrow." And bring your moms and dads along so you can talk them into adopting one of these lovable guys, he added silently. "Tell your folks we've got some cute puppies down here."
"I already have, Mr. Rollins," one little boy with a missing front tooth piped up. "My mom said she didn't want to clean up after a puppy."
Chase bent down to the boy's level and looked him in the eye. "You can tell your mom that the animal shelter has dogs who need a home and are already housebroken."
"Really?" The boy's eyes brightened.
"Come on, Becker." He tugged on a younger boy's jacket. "We gotta get home 'n tell Mom."
The twosome plus the rest of the puppy lovers raced for the door.
Chase smiled to himself. Maybe there'd be one fewer dog looking for a home at Happy Havens Animal Shelter by the weekend.
He'd like that. A lot.
And the chance to see Viv again.
When Vivian returned to the bookstore, Allison was helping Oliver Fibley, a regular customer, search on the computer for a new book about stamp collecting. Knowing he was such a devoted philatelist, Vivian imagined he already owned every book ever printed on the subject.
"Hello, Mr. Fibley." Her cheerful greeting caused him to lift his gaze from the computer screen.
In his usual sweet way, he nodded and gave her a small smile.
Vivian was anxious to tell Allison about Chase's idea to use shelter dogs for their event, but she could wait until Mr. Fibley left. For now she'd keep herself busy by reshelving the books in the Kids' Korner section, where children's books were located. Just as it had been when she had worked in the library, she found young readers often didn't return books to their proper place.
She adjusted her casual calf-length skirt so she wouldn't step on the hem and squatted down to reorder the books.
A few minutes later, after seeing Mr. Fibley out, Allison joined Vivian in the children's section. She sat down on one of the child-size chairs. Her pink T-shirt was stenciled with the slogan "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. Aesop."
"So what did Chase think of our idea for Doggie Daze?" she asked.
Crouched down in front of the lowest bookshelf, Vivian smiled at the name her boss had given their event. "He thought it was a great idea. He suggested we borrow a couple of dogs from the shelter."
"I hadn't thought about that." Surprise raised Allison's nicely arched brows. "I was just thinking that he always has puppies in his shop. The kids go crazy for them."
"True. But Chase thinks the event will go better with older dogs who have some training."
"Good point. Then that's what we'll do."
"Sounds good to me." Vivian shifted aside the books on the lowest shelf and slipped one into place.
"Viv? You're smiling."
"I smile most of the time, don't I?"
Allison eyed her curiously. "Of course you do. But it's a different kind of smile. Did something happen at the pet shop?"
"Not really." She sat on her heels. "It's just that."
"That what?" Allison pressed.
"I think Chase was flirting with me. But it was probably my imagination."
"It was not your imagination. You're a very attractive woman, and he's a very nice man. And he's single. He'd have to be blind not to notice you and be interested."
"Maybe." Vivian pushed to her feet. "He doesn't know I'm hoping to adopt a baby. When he finds out, he'll probably lose interest in me in a hurry."
Allison's jaw dropped. "Why on earth would he do that?"
"Because in the past year, two guys I had been dating dropped me like an overdue book when I told them I couldn't have children of my own." The memory still had the power to sting and made her uneasy about mentioning to anyone her inability to reproduce.
"Oh, honey." Standing, Allison rested her hand on Vivian's shoulder and gave her a squeeze. "Chase may not be like that. You can't think that all men are like the two who dumped you. If he's interested, you need to give him a chance."
"It doesn't seem right to keep something like that a secret."