’Twas the season of Christmas, and all through South Cove, California, Santa is working overtime to deliver a special gift . . .
Jill Gardner has volunteered her Coffee, Books, and More to host a Christmas adopt-a-pet party. Among the potential forever friends is a male terrier named Baby, whose owner died of a heart attack. With few clues to go on, even finding the name of Baby’s human is a daunting task. But there’s no challenge too big for Jill this holiday season.
Playing Santa’s Little Helper, Jill is determined to find out what happened —and to fulfill a long-time coming Christmas wish . . .
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Home. It's somewhere we can lay our heads at night. Where we can store our belongings and cook our food. Home is where we live with the people we love, raise our children, and cuddle with our pets. Some people live in houses. Some people live in homes. And a few, more than I'd like to admit, live in shelters and on the street, whether they be man or beast. I couldn't do much regarding the human issue of homelessness today, but I'd had a brainstorm about the beast part.
Today, several of my friends and I were going to the Humane Society. With the window open, I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks as Greg King, my boyfriend and South Cove's primary police detective, drove his pickup truck up the Pacific Coast Highway to Bakerstown.
Greg's blond hair was just a little long, and the rushing wind was making him look like one of those models in the slow-motion ads. I'll totally admit it. My boyfriend is a hottie. But his best attribute is a huge heart. He reached over and squeezed my hand. "This is an exciting project. Just think how many pets will be adopted after next Saturday's party."
"What if they're not? It's not fair that they have to be in those cages in the first place. They didn't do anything wrong." My resolve was wavering. Maybe I could bring home at least one small dog. Emma, my golden retriever, wouldn't mind having a new friend.
"Jill, you know you can't save the world. We're going to make those dogs so irresistible that no one will be able to say no." He turned up the volume on the stereo and started humming along with a Christmas carol.
I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Jill Gardner, and I run the only bookstore slash coffeehouse in South Cove. Well, I own the place. My aunt Jackie is the manager and she runs the store — and me, most days. Of all the places I've ever lived, South Cove feels like home. The town is the perfect little tourist spot right off Highway 1. We have one restaurant and a ton of art studios and galleries and a few specialty shops, so if you're looking for coffee and a treat, it's either my place — Coffee, Books, and More — or Diamond Lille's. We have a pretty good hold on the food business. The closest grocery store is in Bakerstown. A fact I'd bemoaned more than once.
"Hey, when we're done at the shelter, can we stop by the store? I need to pick up some things for the house, and I doubt that I'll be this way again before the Christmas party."
Greg nodded reluctantly, which was his usual response when I asked him to go shopping with me. The guy didn't mind cooking dinner, but he hated stepping into the store. I knew I wouldn't have much time once we stopped, so I took out my phone and started making a quick list of what I needed. I'd told Amy I'd be part of her Christmas cookie exchange, so I needed to bake eight dozen cookies before the party on Wednesday. What had I been thinking? And what was I going to do with seven dozen cookies once I got home?
"How many cookies can I bring down to the station on Thursday?" The people who worked for Greg were always looking for free food.
He looked at me, not smiling, but I could see the humor in his eyes even through his sunglasses. "You know Amy will be bringing in her extras. And Sasha's going. She'll bring in some even though Toby's dating Elisa now." Greg sighed. "That guy needs to settle down. I'm tired of the string of women flowing through the station. But that's not my business. Anyway, cookie-wise, you're going to have to be more creative than just dumping them at the station."
"See, this is the problem with being friends with the people you work with. They all have the same oversupply of cookies." I leaned my head back and let my hand hang out the window, playing with the wind currents. "I should have told Amy I was busy that night. Or sick. I could be sick and then I wouldn't have to go. No one wants cookies from a sick woman."
"I'll help you make cookies Tuesday night. It will be fun. We can turn on Christmas movies and drink eggnog while we bake." He paused, glancing at me. "Unless you want to ask your aunt to come bake with you. It would be a fun time."
"I don't think Aunt Jackie wants to help. Besides, she works the late shift on Wednesday." Which was a perfectly good excuse for why she'd said no to Amy's invitation. I sighed and checked my phone. No messages. "And she won't let me take her shift."
"She's a mean one, your aunt," Greg deadpanned.
"Not funny. You know she and Harrold are coming to the shelter today to help bathe the dogs. I don't know what she's even thinking. These dogs aren't all teacup poodle–size."
"Your aunt will be fine. She'll handle whatever comes her way. And if the dog she's given is too big, I'll switch her out." Greg turned the car onto the road that would take us to the shelter parking lot. "You're kind of grumpy today. It's a good thing we're going to go work with puppies. Maybe that will cheer you up."
"I'm not grumpy." But even as I said it, I knew it was a lie. I was out of sorts. Maybe it was because of the upcoming holiday. Maybe it was because of the cookies. Whatever it was, I was South Cove's version of a scrooge. I took a deep breath and sent the bad juju out of my body with my breath. The positive-mantra trick was one of Amy's suggestions. She was way into the California New Age lifestyle, as long as it didn't affect her surfing obsession. I believed that a bad mood happened and it never hurt anyone. Being sunny and happy all the time just wasn't a natural state of the human condition.
Amy and her boyfriend, Justin, would be joining us at the shelter. I guess I needed to blow off my bad mood before I got there, or she'd be talking to me about figuring out what I've been doing that has messed up my chi, or whatever it was that she thought caused bad moods. Sometimes I wondered why we were best friends. On some levels, we were so different. But maybe those differences were what brought us together.
"Are you going to be able to get off on Saturday to attend the party?" I stretched out on the seat, knowing we were just a few minutes away from our destination. My Jeep was roomy, but Greg's truck cab was crazy comfortable.
"I should be there, unless something goes crazy at the station. You know how things can pop up." He pulled off the highway and onto the road that would take us directly to the shelter on the edge of town.
"We haven't had a dead body pop up in South Cove for a while."
Greg shook his head. "You know I deal with more than just murder in my job, right?"
As we drove through town, I watched out the window as we passed by the streets. A few blocks in, a Santa stood on the street corner. Dressed in the traditional suit with padding, he looked the part. He had to be sweating buckets. But as we passed by, he waved at the truck. "Funny, he wasn't near a store."
"Who wasn't near a store?" Greg glanced toward my side of the street.
I turned around and looked behind us; now I didn't see him at all. Could he have gotten into a car that quickly? "Don't tell me you didn't see the guy dressed as Santa back there."
Greg reached up and adjusted his rearview mirror. "I don't see him now, either."
"I know. That's kind of weird, right?"
"Or maybe you just have too much Christmas stress on your brain. Loosen up and let's have fun this afternoon. No visions of Santa until the actual day." He parked the truck in the front parking lot at the brightly painted building. "I'd love to be able to cheer you up, but we don't even have any open cases for you to stick your nose into this week."
I grinned and unclicked my seat belt. "I know, but I like solving mysteries more when it's not just someone egging old Mr. Williams's house."
"I'll have you know I solved that in record time." He met me on the sidewalk. "Mostly because the kids' parents brought them in and made them apologize after overhearing them bragging."
"See. Murders are much more interesting. Especially the ones around here. Maybe I should start an investigative club and we could go around solving cold cases."
"I think I'd have to shoot you." He smiled as he said it so I knew he was kidding, somewhat. I guess I was pushing some buttons with him too. He knew I'd never set up a club. That would take time away from my favorite pastime, reading.
Before we got further along the path our conversation was going down and possibly into an actual argument, Harrold pulled his electric car into the parking lot. The shelter had a charging station, and as he got out, he plugged the car into the port. "Good morning, children. Are you ready to take on a pack of angry beasts?"
"Now, Harrold, just because they are at a shelter doesn't mean the animals are angry." My aunt pulled on a jacket and tucked her purse into the trunk. She glanced at Greg's truck. "Do you want to put your purse in Harrold's trunk? It would be out of sight."
"No, I'm fine." I didn't want to tell her that I hadn't brought my purse. I had my house keys, my phone, and my debit card. My aunt would freak if she knew I didn't have a makeup case, a brush, an emergency sewing kit, and a stash of medications handy everywhere I went. I figured if I needed something, I could stop at one of the pharmacies that seemed to be on every corner.
Aunt Jackie frowned and glanced toward the truck, but Harrold saved me. "Come on, Jackie, leave the girl alone. If she says she's good, she's good." He took her arm and led her to the sidewalk, locking the car with his remote. He reached out and shook Greg's hand. "Are you still keeping the streets of South Cove safe for the tourist horde?"
"Yes sir. You go on in, we'll follow." Greg squeezed my arm. He liked the idea of Harrold and Aunt Jackie as a couple. He leaned down and kissed my cheek. "I really enjoy your family."
And the really strange thing was he wasn't just saying that. Greg liked Aunt Jackie. Even when she was over-the-top with her sarcasm or pushing her nose into business that she shouldn't be in, he loved me, so he loved — or at least liked — my family. It was a good feeling.
A young woman in a bright pink polo with Bakerstown Shelter embroidered on the pocket was at the front desk. Her ponytail bounced as she stood and greeted us with a cheery, "Good morning and welcome. Are you here for your forever friend?"
"Actually, we're with South Cove's Coffee, Books, and More? We're here to help get the dogs ready for the party on Saturday?" I stepped forward, ready to sign in or whatever they wanted us to do.
"Ellen told me you were coming. In fact, she's back with another couple from your group who just arrived." The woman reached down and keyed something in, then spoke into the headset she wore. "Hey, the volunteers are here. Can I just send them back?"
We waited as the answer came back. She nodded, listening, then took off her headset and walked around the counter. Opening a side door, she pointed to another door at the end of the hallway. "Just go through there and Ellen will meet you at the end of the cages."
We walked down a long white hallway that felt more like a hospital than an animal shelter, but as soon as we opened the next set of doors, we heard the clamor.
Dogs barked and cats meowed, and there were some other noises I didn't recognize. We walked past a row of adult cats who watched us with bored eyes. Cats were that way. Take me or don't, I serve no human seemed to be the standard nonverbal message from the felines.
When we walked along a row of adult dogs, the attitude changed. Dogs had a different approach to getting new homes. It was more of a frantic plea of get me out of here, I'll do anything you want. I appreciated the desperation in their ploy.
"There you guys are!" Amy waved us over to where she stood with Justin and an older lady. "I was just telling Ellen that you are never late. Especially Jackie."
Aunt Jackie glanced at her watch. "Technically, I'm still five minutes early."
Harrold chuckled. "I'm sure it wasn't a criticism, dear."
I decided to ignore them and held out my hand to Ellen. "I'm Jill Gardner. I'm so happy you agreed to be part of our Christmas celebration this year."
Ellen beamed and squeezed my hand. "Oh, no, you don't understand. We're the ones who are grateful that you chose us to help this year. I know there are so many charities out there, but the shelter kind of gets lost in the bustle of the season. And honestly, we tend to frown on people giving puppies and kittens as gifts. Adding a new member to your family requires time for you to prepare. You don't just get a baby human — you have nine months to get used to the idea."
"That's a good analogy. So, do you want to do adoptions on Saturday?" Now I was confused. Maybe we were rushing things.
"Oh, yes. So many of our older residents are hoping to be rehomed soon. I swear, so many people don't know how to deal with senior dogs and cats. They think just because they need a little more care, it's time to turn them in and get a new animal. It makes me sad." She shook off the emotion. "I didn't mean to make a big deal out of our adoption process, but we want the best for all our residents. We are a no-kill shelter, so we're always full or almost full. Your event might just be able to match up some families with the dog or cat they've been waiting for."
I felt totally confused now, but since we were still on, I'd let Ellen deal with the adoption process.
"Let's get started getting these guys all pretty and smelling good." Greg must have felt my hesitation.
"Sounds like a plan." Justin looked around. "Where do we start?"
Ellen moved the group into the grooming salon, as she called it. As we passed more cages, a small terrier reached out his paw to me.
"Hey, buddy. Are you going to get a bath today and a new home on Saturday? You look like you'd be a great pet." I reached my fingers into the cage and rubbed behind his ears. He leaned into me, then licked my hand. My heart broke. I wanted him. I wanted all of them and I was going to feel this way, over and over, for the next week.
"You're going to be giving someone a very happy Christmas." A man spoke behind me and I turned my head, not wanting to break contact with the dog. An older man with bright white hair and a white beard stood behind me, holding a cocker spaniel.
"You know about our event?" As the words came out of my mouth, I felt stupid. Of course he did. He must work here with Ellen.
"I know about a lot of things." He smiled and rubbed the dog behind its ears. "But that one is special. She has waited a long time for this gift."
I turned toward the dog, who had stopped licking my hand and was now watching the man. "I thought this one was a male dog. Guess I was wrong."
When no one answered, I turned to find the hallway empty. I looked at the card on the cage. Baby was a ten-year-old male terrier. Glancing back at the dog, I cocked my head. "You saw him, right?"
A short bark answered me.
I glanced back down the hallway. Where had he disappeared to so quickly? I was about to go find out when I saw Greg waving at me from the doorway.
"Are you helping or not?" He stepped toward the cage. "This is Baby. He's first on our list. Do you want him? I have a tiny poodle for your aunt."
I nodded as Greg opened the door and Baby jumped into my arms.
"I guess he likes you." Greg smiled and turned to the next cage. "Let me get one more and we can get started on the bathing process."
I looked down at Baby, who was now giving me kisses on my chin. "You know I can't keep you, right?"
I swear the dog grinned and I saw the answer in his eyes. He knew I'd have a hard time putting him back in the cage.
The problem was, the dog was right.CHAPTER 2
I walked over to a table where I'd first brush the dog to get the knots out of his hair, then dump him in the tub. Baby had a short coat, but it was caked in mud. Ellen stood beside me and gave the dog a rub under his chin.
"Baby's new to the shelter. His owner was found dead on the beach last week. It was really sad. The dog never left his side." Ellen sighed as Baby licked the side of her hand. "You miss your guy, don't you?"
I glanced over at Greg. "I'm surprised you didn't know about the death."
"I knew about it. He was found closer to South Cove than Bakerstown." Greg stroked the fur on what appeared to be a husky-poodle mix. "I was called in, but Doc Ames ruled it an unattended death. The guy had a heart attack."
I rubbed Baby's head. "It wasn't unattended, was it, Baby? You were there for your master, weren't you?"
The dog let out a small bark and a wiggle. He acted like he knew exactly what I was saying.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Santa Puppy"
Copyright © 2018 Lynn Cahoon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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