Renee Richardson’s list of Christmas wishes includes: a few more clients at her hair salon, a few less unsuitable dates set up by her father, and some new friends for her troubled young son, Kieran. Little does she know that Kieran has already made a pal in their new town . . . a scrappy little dog named Max, who he found in the woods.
When Max gets caught in a snare, Kieran and his grandfather rescue the pup, and the whole family begins to bond with their four-legged guest. The holidays draw closer and more chaotic and Renee has her hands full, especially when Max’s owner turns up to claim him. Travis Diehl is the first man to intrigue her since her divorce—though she’s facing stiff competition in a local bombshell who also happens to be Renee’s most important client. But as a white Christmas becomes a bona fide blizzard, Kieran, Renee, and Max may all gain the gift they’ve been longing for—loyal companionship and a lifetime of love . . .
A Rave For Sue Pethick’s Pet Friendly
“Quirky and endearing . . . especially when factoring in the hilarious antics of a certain four-legged character. The brewing romance tempers the humor with heart. The plot . . . delights. This is a light, heartwarming read perfect for a wintry afternoon at home or a sunny beach vacation.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
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"One, two, three, four ..."
Kieran gasped as he ran, his words coming out in a harsh whisper.
"Five, six, seven, eight ..."
He'd already counted to a hundred four times, and Cody was still chasing him.
"Come back here, freak!"
"Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen ..."
He stole a glance over this shoulder; Cody was getting closer. Kieran closed his eyes and forced his spindly legs to pump harder.
"Twenty-one, twenty-two ..."
Why hadn't he run for the school bus instead of hiding in the bathroom? Even if Cody had caught him, the worst he'd have gotten would have been a wedgie or a sock on the arm. Now, with the safety of the school grounds behind them, there was no telling what Cody Daniels would do to him. All Kieran could do was keep running and hope the older boy lost interest and gave up.
There was a crack in the sidewalk up ahead. Kieran swerved to avoid it and landed badly, crying out as pain, then terror, shot through him. He'd lost count! What number was he on? His lower lip began to tremble and hot tears pricked his eyes. It felt as if the world were crashing down around him.
"It's okay, bud. Just start over again. You can do it."
Kieran swallowed hard, feeling his grandfather's words pour over him like a soothing balm. Yes, he could start over. The numbers were always there, always neat and orderly. Numbers could be relied upon when everything else — parents, home, friends — failed him. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he ran on.
"One, two, three," he muttered. "Four, five, six ..."
"I'm gonna get you, you weirdo. You won't get away this time!" The sidewalk ended, and Kieran plunged ahead, dodging tree roots and gopher holes, struggling to keep his balance as a car went by. What if Cody never gave up? What if he pursued Kieran forever?
"Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight ..."
Running blindly, driven by fear, Kieran didn't notice when they passed the last house. The neat brick homes — decked out in Christmas finery — had given way to dense tracts of hickory and pine that lined the street on both sides. The boy shuddered, remembering his mother's warning about the woods, its pathless understory a tangled mass that grabbed the ankles of wayward boys, making them easy prey for the critters who lived there.
Behind him, Cody was crashing through the dry grass like a mad bull. Kieran glanced at the forbidden territory and shuddered. No one in his right mind would plunge headlong into that maze of hidden dangers, he thought. A boy would have to be truly desperate to take that chance.
He pivoted, felt himself start to skid, and saw Cody's arm reach for him. As Kieran shied from the grasping fingers, he felt his sneakers regain traction and made a desperate leap into the weald. He tripped and almost fell, his skinny arms windmilling for balance, then took off again. From the safety of the roadside, Cody flung his final, breathless taunt:
"You're in trouble now, freak. No kid's ever come out of there alive!"
Deeper into the woods Kieran ran until his legs gave out and he tumbled to the ground. Muscles quivering, his hands stinging from the brambles that raked them as he'd passed, he closed his eyes and gasped for breath. His desperate plan had worked. Now all he had to do was find his way home.
Kieran stood up and looked around. In the headlong rush to escape, he hadn't noticed where he was going, and it didn't take long for him to realize that he was lost. Worse, there were strange noises in the woods; even a Cub Scout with a Webelos badge could get spooked. As he made his way deeper into the dimly lit copse, trying to find a way out, his senses were on high alert.
A crow cawed a warning and flew off as he passed. Something skittered through the leaves and disappeared into the shadows. He swallowed hard, feeling the urge to count again begin to build inside him. Kieran shook his head and pushed the compulsion away. Counting out loud was one of the things that had gotten him in trouble with Cody, something that made other kids shy away or giggle nervously. Sometimes Kieran thought it would be better if all the kids treated him like Cody did. At least that way, he'd know if they were just pretending to be his friends while whispering behind his back.
A protracted growl from his stomach reminded him that he should have been home by now, sitting down to his afternoon snack. His mother would be home late, and Dylan and McKenna would be glad of his absence, if they noticed it at all, but Grandpa Wendell would worry if he got home and Kieran wasn't there. The boy stifled a sob. He hadn't just outfoxed Cody, he thought, he'd outfoxed himself.
Something moved in the leaves behind him. Kieran whipped around and peered into the deepening shadows, feeling his heart pound as he remembered Cody's parting words.
"No kid's ever come out of there alive!"
He'd thought Cody was just trying to scare him, but what if it was true? What if there really was something bad, like an evil force, that might keep him there forever? The thought turned his bowels to water.
He heard it again: a tentative footfall, closer this time, then a narrow shaft of sunlight revealed a pair of yellow eyes staring at him from the shadows. Kieran felt his throat tighten as he stood rooted to the spot, unable to make a sound. Memories of his family flooded his mind, and as he thought about the people who loved him and would miss him in spite of everything, Kieran began to cry. Salty tears spilled down his face, and he collapsed on the ground, regretting the foolish act that had delivered him from Cody's simple beating into the jaws of a monster.
The sound of dried leaves being crushed underfoot grew louder as the thing in the shadows closed in. Kieran tried to count again — just to calm himself — but when the numbers failed him, the impulse to wince overcame him. Once, twice, three times he screwed up his face, an eruption of tics he was helpless to stop. Shame burned his cheeks. At least no one would know how weak he'd been at the end.
Then suddenly, Kieran felt a gust of moist, musty air on his face, and something rough and wet began scrubbing away his tears. Startled, he drew back and opened his eyes.
It was a dog, with fur that was every shade of grey. It had a long snout and a large black nose and whiskers that covered its mouth and chin like an old man's. Shaggy ears stuck out on either side of its head like bats' wings, and its close-set eyes had a look of perpetual anxiety. It looked so funny that Kieran burst out laughing.
The boy's reaction seemed to please the dog, who set a front paw gently on his arm, an unmistakable gesture of reassurance. Kieran reached out a shaky hand, giving the animal a tentative pat, and the dog lowered its head, quietly demonstrating where and how it wished to be stroked. By the time his near-hysterical laughter had stopped, so too had the boy's facial tics.
Then the long grey snout gave him a shove, urging him onto his feet. The boy stood, brushing away the fragments of leaf and vine that clung to his clothes, and looked around.
"Can you get us out of here?"
The dog cocked its head as if listening for something and turned back the way it had come, then paused and looked back as if waiting for the boy to follow. Kieran bit his lower lip. Even if the dog could only lead him to its own home, at least he'd be out of the woods, but it wasn't wearing a collar, so it might be a stray. In which case, he thought, the only direction it would lead him was farther into the wild.
Nevertheless, he'd had no luck trying to escape on his own, and staying put was no longer an option. December dusk came early in the South Carolina piedmont and temperatures fell precipitously once the sun set; Kieran's coat wasn't warm or waterproof enough to keep him safe if it dropped below freezing. Under the circumstances, he figured his best bet was to follow the dog and hope for the best.
"Okay," he said. "Guess I'll just have to trust you."
At that, the dog took off, with Kieran close behind. Noting how the animal avoided the obstacles in its path, veering around fallen logs and giving a wide berth to the red-orange poison ivy, Kieran wondered if the dog had been living in the woods. If so, he thought, maybe it'd prefer a nice, warm home — one in which a nine-year-old boy lived.
Kieran heard a car and realized they must be near a road. In his excitement, he didn't watch where he was going and stumbled into a broken branch that caught him under the arm, tearing a hole in his coat. He stopped and smoothed the frayed edges of the material, hoping his mother wouldn't notice the damage before he'd had a chance to stitch it up.
The sounds of traffic were unmistakable now, and Kieran was surprised at how busy the road ahead seemed to be. How far had he wandered? Was he still in Bolingbroke, or had he crossed into the next town? But as he stepped out of the trees, the boy saw that he was only a few dozen yards from where he'd entered the woods. For all his Boy Scout training, he'd still made a rookie mistake: walking around in circles.
He turned back and beckoned to the dog.
"Hey, boy, we're almost home. Come on."
The dog took a step back, unwilling to emerge from the cover of the woods.
"It's okay," Kieran said. "The cars won't hurt you."
But the dog refused to be coaxed. Kieran stepped forward and held out his hand, but instead of coming closer, the dog turned and went crashing away. In seconds, it was gone.
Kieran waited for several minutes, hoping the dog would return, but with time running out and his stomach now painfully empty, he reluctantly decided to go. Then something caught his eye: a tuft of grey fur that had caught on a bramble when the dog ran off. He plucked it from the branch, tucking it into his pocket, then stepped out of the woods and ran for home.
Wendell was fixing dinner when he heard the front door slam. As Kieran ran into the kitchen, he glanced at his watch. The boy was late, but he seemed cheerier than usual, and Wendell decided not to ask for an explanation. Boys Kieran's age were fond of dawdling on their way home. If his grandson had gotten distracted chasing bugs or looking for crawfish, it was no concern of his.
The boy took a seat at the table, and Wendell poured him a glass of sweet tea, setting it out with a box of Ritz crackers.
"How was school?" he said, taking a cracker for himself.
Kieran guzzled the entire glass of tea before answering.
"Fine." He stuck a cracker in his mouth and reached for another. "May I be excused?"
Wendell frowned. First the late arrival and now the hurry to run off. If it wasn't for his grandson's lighthearted mood, he'd have sworn something was wrong.
"What's the rush? No time for an old man?"
Kieran gave him an impatient look.
"I'll be right back. I need to check something in my room."
"Okay then, go on," Wendell said. "But if there's a problem, you know you can tell me about it, right?"
"Of course," Kieran said, hopping down from his chair. "Why wouldn't I?"
As the boy ran off, Wendell told himself to be patient. If something was going on, Kieran knew his grandfather would lend a sympathetic ear. He grabbed another cracker and checked on the lasagna. The sauce was bubbling and cheese was just starting to brown. Another twenty minutes and he'd take it out to rest awhile before serving. There were some things in life you just couldn't rush, he thought, no matter how badly you wanted to.
Kieran came tearing back down the hall, almost losing his balance when he reached the slick linoleum floor.
Wendell cringed. "What?"
"What's the difference between hair and fur?"
"How the hell should I know? Does it matter?" Kieran scowled. "Of course it matters."
"Well then, stop bothering me and go look it up."
"Wikipedia!" the boy cried and ran off again.
Wendell was emptying the dishwasher when Kieran returned a few minutes later, a shoebox in his hands. He took a seat at the table, opened the box, and carefully lined the lid up along the table's edge before proceeding.
"Hair and fur are the same thing," he said matter-of-factly. "Both are made from strands of a protein called keratin, the same thing that makes claws, hooves, and Rhino horns."
"Is that so?"
"Yes," the boy said. "And that's why the fur I found this afternoon can go into my hair collection."
He took a plastic bag from the box and deposited a small clump of grey fur inside.
Wendell walked over to take a look.
"Fur, huh? Where'd you find that?"
Kieran took his time zipping the baggie shut and filing it away with the others. Then he lifted the top and set it carefully back on the box.
"In the woods."
"The woods? You were in the woods?"
Kieran made a face that Wendell had seen his older sister make dozens of times.
"Take a chill pill, Grandpa. It's no big deal."
The old man felt his temper flare.
"Don't be a sass mouth; I take enough damn pills. Now, when were you in the woods?"
Kieran's face fell.
"T-today. On the way home." A muscle in his face began to twitch. "I missed the bus."
Wendell ran a hand through his sparse hair, trying to stay calm. How many times had he told this kid to stay out of the woods? He might as well have been talking to a wall.
"Look here," he said, fighting to keep his voice even. "There are things in the woods that you don't want to mess with: snakes, raccoons, coyotes —"
"I know," the boy said, placing a hand on the spot where his cheek continued to jump. "Mom told me."
"Did she tell you about the traps? 'Cause there are folks who don't like those critters and they put traps in the woods to catch them."
Kieran blanched. "I-I didn't know that."
"Well, now you do. And that's why you should never go into the woods by yourself."
The boy looked crestfallen, his small body sagging under the weight of his grandfather's disapproval. Wendell sighed. How much danger was out there, really, he wondered, and how much was his imagination?
"Tell you what," he said. "The next time you feel like poking around in the woods, you tell me and the two of us'll go together. Fair enough?"
Kieran nodded, still cradling his cheek.
"Now, go put away your hair collection and wash up. Dylan and McKenna will be home soon, and you need to set the table."
As the boy slunk off, Wendell shook his head. That right there was the reason he kept pushing Renee to find a husband. The boy needed someone who'd take him outdoors — to hunt or fish or just to explore the natural world. An old man with creaky joints and a bad back was no substitute for a father who could give Kieran the confidence he needed to overcome whatever struggles he was going through. If Wendell could see that plainly, why couldn't his daughter?
He walked back to the dishwasher, feeling a surge of anger toward his ex–son-in-law. When things had gotten tough, Greg had just sauntered off without a thought or care about how his younger son would fare. Kieran might have his problems, but he was a good kid. He didn't deserve to have a mother who was never home and siblings who thought it was his fault their father had left them.
He noted the time and suffered a moment of unease — Renee should be arriving at the restaurant. This was the third blind date that Wendell had arranged for her, and he hoped it would go well. After two unsuccessful tries, his daughter's willingness to accept his matchmaking assistance was beginning to wane. For all their sakes, he hoped the third time would be a charm.
Renee Richardson sat in the parking lot outside Bubba Pig, waiting for a single man to show up and go inside the restaurant before she did. She'd read about it in a dating book once: Showing up early made you look desperate. Of course, any woman whose father set her up on blind dates pretty much had to be desperate, but there was no sense advertising the fact.
A Chevy truck pulled into the parking lot, and a couple in matching shirts and Lee jeans got out, their breath leaving trails in the dark as they ran for the front door. Renee restarted her car's engine and blasted the heater, trying to keep her feet from freezing.
When Butch suggested they eat at Bubba Pig, she'd assumed the name was ironic, picturing a hip, local riff on Southern cuisine, but Bubba's looked like the real deal. Not that she minded; sampling regional specialties was one of the best things about moving to a new area. But if she'd known the place was so casual, she'd never have worn a skirt and strappy high heels. Good lord, it was cold!
Renee turned the engine off and looked at the time; she'd been sitting there for ten minutes and hadn't seen even one single man arrive. If she didn't go in soon, her teeth would be chattering so hard she'd bite her tongue off as soon as she said hello. Might as well go in, she told herself. Even pathetic was better than frozen. Besides, what if Butch had somehow gotten in there without her noticing? She checked her reflection in the mirror, locked the car, and headed inside.
Excerpted from "The Dog Who Came for Christmas"
Copyright © 2017 Sue Pethick.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved this book. Great read for christmas time!
A very enjoyable, easy reading story about a dog and little boy who saved each other. Kept my interest throughout. Some tense and sad moments but overall, very heartwarming. I plan to read more by this author. Highly recommend this one. Well edited.
A good feeling Christmas story that deals with real problems, human misunderstandings and family... And a dog ?
Wonderful story of the kind of help a therapy dog can give. Such beautiful love and understanding a loving animal can give a distressed young boy!
This was a great Christmas read, and I really enjoyed it. Who could look at that adorable dog on the cover and not want to read this book? I will be looking for more books by this author.