Christmas in Sweetland
Book 3.5 in the Sweetland Series
Savannah Cantrell may have been born in the small town of Sweetland, Maryland, but she’s still not sure it’s where she belongs. In the meantime, she’s housesitting for a family friend and trying to deal with the rambunctious puppy she inherited from her grandmother. As luck would have it, her handsome neighbor is a former reality television dog guru.
Luke Raveen has had enough of being in the spotlight, now he’s back in the cozy Eastern Shore town where he spent one summer of his childhood, attempting to start over and blend in. What better way to do that than to join in the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest? At least that’s what his pretty neighbor suggests. His only problem with that is he’s never done “Christmas” before, and certainly not the way the town of Sweetland does it.
Christmas in Sweetland
Why was she still in Sweetland?
Fine time to ask that question, Savannah!
Grabbing her robe and barely sticking one arm through before dashing out the back door in pursuit of a gangly ten-month old chocolate-brown Lab was not her idea of a good morning. Nor was it the optimal time to explore her latest life’s choices, or rather the evil hand fate had chosen to deal her. At barely six in the morning, the wood-planked back deck was freezing against her bare feet. She grumbled about forgetting her slippers while thumping down each step and onto the crisp December morning grass, all while trying to keep her sleep-blurred eyes on the escaping puppy.
“Micah, I’m gonna strangle you!” As he did with most of her commands and complaints, the dog happily ignored her and continued on his marathon trek across the back yard.
A yard which was too big and ungated. If there’d been a nice eight-foot privacy fence it would’ve surely stopped the holy terror from getting away. But nooooo, Ms. Ella didn’t have one installed in the years she’d lived in this fairly new development. Of course, Ms. Ella also didn’t have a dog that refused to listen to anything she said. Ms. Ella was smart and therefore didn’t have a dog at all.
Dammit! She’d forgotten the leash too. A lot of good that was gonna do her if she couldn’t even catch the crazy dog.
“Where are you going?” she yelled when she was almost certain they were no longer in Ms. Ella’s yard. She’d only been housesitting for three days so knowing the property line was out of the question. And Micah wasn’t answering her anyway.
No, this dog that her grandmother had left her a year ago, had a mind of his own. He did exactly what he wanted, when he wanted and didn’t give two hoots about whether or not his actions inconvenienced—or as of this morning, exhausted—her.
Micah was slowing down, thank goodness, but she continued her frantic jog toward the unruly creature. His tail, which he’d finally begun to grow into, wagged excitedly just as he took the steps up onto the neighbor’s deck. Gritting her teeth, she picked up speed, determined to catch him before he tried knocking on the back door the way he’d been doing at Ms. Ella’s house whenever she let him outside to do his business. Now her feet padded along more stairs, red painted toenails with cheery little snowmen on the first one, peeping up at her.
“Micah! Get over here right now!” she hush-yelled at the dog that had trampled along the extended deck and around a stack of boxes.
The sun was just breaking through purple-gray clouds in golden strips, the air still a frigid temp that was signature for winter in Sweetland. “Micah!”
She couldn’t even see the dog now but paused to push her arm through the other sleeve of the robe, pulling it close around her chest as she tipped across the neighbor’s deck. Just as she got closer Micah leapt up, dropping his forty-pound body into one of the boxes. She was just about to curse and full-out yell at the dog before grabbing him out of the box, when she heard a sound behind her. Every part of her froze as thoughts of a bear…no, this was Sweetland and it was winter, so no bears here. Deer? Would they run up on the porch behind her and Micah?
Her heart pounded at each suggestion, her exuberant dog still rumbling around in that box, just as “May I help you?” sounded in a deep irritated voice.
Rolling her eyes at the box and turning slowly to face the gorgeous grumpy guy standing a few feet away, her smile easily slipped into place. “Good morning!” Was that too chipper?
With an annoyed look toward the sky he shrugged. “Yeah, it’s morning. You haven’t answered my question.”
What was his question? The only things her mind could fully comprehend at this cruel hour was that it was cold, she needed coffee and her dog was a menace.
The dog who made more rumbling sounds in the box.
“What is that?” Grumpy Gorgeous Neighbor asked as he moved past her and went straight to the box. He didn’t ask her another question but instead reached his hand inside the box and hoisted Micah out by the scruff of his neck. Micah who had his teeth locked on a blue ball with cut-outs and another smaller yellow ball inside. “You’re trespassing and your dog is stealing.”
Hurriedly extending her arms to take Micah when he thrust the dog at her, she shook her head. “Not stealing, borrowing. He has a billion toys of his own, so he doesn’t need this one.” Why Grumpy Gorgeous Neighbor had a box of dog toys sitting on his deck she didn’t know. She hadn’t seen him with a dog before.
Truth be told she hadn’t seen this guy much, only one time the night she’d arrived with her suitcases and dog in tow to hunker down in Ms. Ella’s house for the winter. He’d been getting out of his car then and it’d been growing darker outside, so really, she’d just seen a tall man moving up the walkway to the door and into the house. Now, she noted that tall guy was also extremely handsome with his deep mocha skin tone, close-cropped black hair, and neatly shaved goatee.
“Where’s his leash? Isn’t there a rule in the HOA handbook that says all dogs should be leashed when outside?”
Savannah hadn’t read any HOA handbook because she wasn’t a homeowner, she was just the house sitter.
“This was sort of an impromptu outing.” She was still smiling but the crinkle in his brow and the tight line of his lips said he wasn’t in a smiling mood. “Look, I’m sorry we disturbed you. We’ll get out of your way now.”
Micah, of course, had a different plan. Just as she turned to leave, the dog jumped out of her arms and scurried back to that box. Before she could stop him, he was inside of it again. Determined not to look like she had zero control of her dog or be even more embarrassed about standing on this guy’s porch in her robe and bare feet, she immediately went after the pooch. Diving inside the box hadn’t been her plan, but as she leaned over to get Micah, he buried himself beneath more toys and just when she thought she’d lose all dignity and topple over into the box herself, strong arms went around her waist.
Taken off guard by the touch she instantly went into defense mode, the moves she’d learned after three weeks of self-defense classes kicked in and she began fighting back. Grumpy Gorgeous Neighbor was now warding off her swinging arms and legs and still trying to grab hold of her puppy. The guy was built, so with his weight and her flailing body, the box that wasn’t designed to hold all three of them and a host of toys, crumpled on one side. Grumpy Gorgeous Neighbor fell on top of her, toys scattered onto the porch and Micah jumped happily over them with a new squeaky item in tow.
Where had she come from and why had she ended up here, on his porch, at the crack of dawn?
Luke tried untangling himself from her and her still flailing limbs in as gentlemanly a way as possible. The thin royal blue robe she was wearing did nothing to cover her as she lay on the porch in what he was certain was below thirty-degree temperatures. When he was finally able to get to his feet, he turned and grabbed her wrists, ready to pull her up.
“I don’t need your help,” she snapped. He should’ve expected that considering her reaction to him trying to assist her in getting out of the box moments ago.
“I apologize,” he said through clenched teeth. “I shouldn’t have touched you without permission.” He’d taken way too many sexual harassment classes at the television station not to have remembered that simple rule.
“Micah, get over here right now. We’re leaving.” She pulled her robe closed and stomped to the top of the steps and waited but the dog didn’t follow.
Micah was happily chewing on the bright orange squeaky bone he’d retrieved from the box.
“Micah!” she futilely yelled once more, and Luke shook his head.
“Does he know any basic commands?” He was kneeling before she answered, ignoring the fact that all he wore was shorts, a t-shirt, and socks.
“He knows to command attention every second of the day.” And based on her tone she wasn’t pleased by that fact.
The dog, with his amber eyes and floppy ears looked over to Luke, but kept his big paws firmly planted on the toy claiming it as his own. Territorial and untrained, he could turn that around. If he were still in the dog training and owner counseling business, which, as of one month, two days and twelve hours ago, he was not.
“Yeah, well, let him keep the toy.” Turning back to one of the boxes that hadn’t been toppled over in their fall, he grabbed a Ziploc bag and took out a dog treat.
Micah was up and, on his feet, tail wagging, and mouth open before Luke could turn completely. So, he knew what a treat was, just not that he needed to do something to receive it. On a whim and with a generous about of sternness, he said, “Sit.” Micah only continued to stare at the hand holding the treat. “Sit.”
“He never listens,” she said from where she remained standing near the steps.
Luke stepped closer to Micah and with two fingers tapped his back just above his rear. “Sit.”
Micah dutifully plopped his butt down on the cold deck. Luke gave him the treat and simultaneously picked up the squeaky toy he’d dropped.
“Here,” Luke said, going over to hand the toy to the woman with the lovely hazel brown eyes. “Take this, he’ll follow you for it. And get him into some training classes, quick, before he runs you into the river chasing after him.”
He didn’t wait for a response, didn’t need one. What he needed was a cup of coffee and the newspaper.
“Thanks,” he heard her yell from behind, but he was already stepping back into the house. “Have a good day!”
He managed to grumble something that he thought sounded polite enough before closing the door behind him. Minutes later, after the delicious scent of fresh-brewed coffee began to fill the kitchen and he sat at the table with his laptop open to the online version of his favorite national newspaper, he thought he could’ve been nicer.
The woman had looked frazzled, her long brown hair a little on the wild side, and robe in a shade of blue that made her skin glow. The dog was, of course, adorable. In all his life he’d never met a dog that he hadn’t said the same about at some point. Especially not Rocky, his two-hundred-and-ten-pound bull mastiff who had liked to stretch out in Luke’s bed each night pushing Luke to the very edge. It’d been a year since his best bud had passed away.
A year since Luke had begun rethinking his life and goals for his future. Standing, he went to the counter and grabbed the coffee pot, pouring the steaming liquid into a large mug designed in the face of a rottweiler that his mother had sent as a Christmas present last year. Generous dollops of cream and sugar followed until he’d sipped and felt pleased with the taste. He turned then, but instead of going back to his seat at the table, leaned his backside against the counter and took another sip from his mug. To his right was a half wall full of windows with a view out to the large yard and line of mature trees thirty feet away. Just beyond those trees was a road and on the other side of that road was a stretch of grass that eventually turned into sand and the Jones River where, for a couple summers during his teen years, he’d swam and dreamed.
Luke could only hope now, after all this time, those dreams would finally come true.