“Jack!” Annie called. She stood up. “Can you come here?”

Jack ambled over, wiping his hands on a towel.

“We have a situation, Jack,” Annie said. “Dr. Jensen can’t take the puppies and get them through this rough patch. He offered to drop them off at a shelter, but really, that’s not a great idea.” A couple of people had wandered over to listen in to the conversation, eavesdropping and making no bones about it. “I’ve volunteered at some of those shelters and they’re awesome, but they’re really, really busy at Christmastime. A lot of animals get adopted for presents, especially the really young, cute ones like these. You have no idea how many people think they want a fluffy pet for little Susie or Billie—until the first time the dog thinks the carpet is grass.”

“Yeah?” Jack said, confused. A couple more people had wandered over from the bar to listen in to the conference.

Annie took a breath. “It’s bad enough animals get returned. The worst case is they’re not taken care of properly, get neglected or abused or get sick and aren’t taken to the vet because the vet costs money. Sometimes people are embarrassed to return them and admit it was a mistake. Then they just take them to animal control, where they’re on death row for three days before…..” She stopped. “It can be a bad situation.”

“Well, what are you gonna do?” Jack said. “Better odds than freezing to death under a Christmas tree.”

“We could take care of them here, Jack,” she said.

“We?” he mimicked, lifting a brow. “I see you about four times a year, Annie.”

“I’ll drive up after work every day. They’re kind of labor-intensive right now, but I’ll tell you exactly what to do and you can get—”

“Whoa, Annie, whoa. I can’t keep dogs in the bar!”

An old woman put a hand on Jack’s arm. “We already named ’em, Jack,” she said. “After Santa’s reindeer. At least the ones we could remember. Little Christopher already asked Preacher if he could have Comet. ’Course no one knows who Comet is yet, but—”

“There’s no mother to clean up after them,” Nate pointed out. “That means puppy excrement. Times eight.”

“Aw, that’s just great,” Jack said.

“Don’t panic,” Annie said. “Here’s what you do. Get a nice, big wooden box or big plastic laundry basket. You could even put a wooden border around a plastic pad from an old playpen, then toss an old blanket or a couple of towels over it. Pull the blanket back to feed ’em the formula and cereal every few hours. Or feed a couple or three at a time outside the box so you can wipe up the floor. Trade the dirty towels for clean ones, wash one set while you use the other, and vice versa. Oh, and at least two of these little guys need a lot of encouragement to eat—the eyedropper gets ’em going. I could take the littlest, weakest ones to a vet but, Jack, they’re better off with their litter mates.”

“Aw, f’chrissake, Annie,” Jack moaned.

“You can just grab someone at the bar and ask them to take a couple of minutes to coax some food into a sick puppy,” she said hopefully.

“Sure,” the old woman said as she pushed her glasses up on her nose. “I’ll commit to a puppy or two a day.”

“Annie, I can’t wash towels with puppy shit on ’em in the same washer we use for napkins for the bar.”

“Well, we did at the farm. My mom sterilized a lot,” she said. “Bet you washed shitty baby clothes in the same…..Never mind. If you just get the towels, bag ’em up in a big plastic bag, I’ll do it. I’ll come out after work and spell you a little, take home your dirty laundry, bring back fresh every day.”

“I don’t know, Annie,” he said, shaking his head.

“Are you kidding?” Annie returned. “People will love it, keeping an eye on ’em, watching ’em plump up. By Christmas, all of them will be spoken for, and by people who know what to do with animals. These little guys will probably turn into some outstanding herders around here.”

“Nathaniel, did you put her up to this?” Jack asked.

Nate put up his hands and shook his head. He didn’t say so, but she did have a point. Adopted by a town, these puppies would get looked after.

“I can’t say yes or no without Preacher,” Jack said, going off to the kitchen.

Annie smiled crookedly as she listened to the people who had followed Jack to the hearth, muttering to each other that, sure, this plan could work. They wouldn’t mind holding a puppy every now and then, maybe donating a blanket, getting a puppy to eat, wiping up the floor here and there.

When Preacher trailed Jack back to the box of puppies, his six-year-old son was close on his heels. Jack tried to speak very softly about what all this would entail, but Christopher didn’t miss a syllable. He tugged at Preacher’s sleeve and in a very small voice he said, “Please, Dad, please. I’ll help every day. I’ll feed and hold and clean up and I won’t miss anything.”

Preacher pulled his heavy black brows together in a fierce scowl. Then, letting out an exasperated sigh, he crouched to get to eye level with the boy. “Chris, there can never be a dog in the kitchen. You hear me, son? And we have to start looking for homes right away, because some may be ready to leave the litter sooner than others. This has to be real temporary. We prepare food here.”

“Okay,” Chris said. “Except Comet. Comet’s going to stay.”

“I’m still thinking about that. And I’ll have to look up on the computer how you take care of a bunch of orphaned pups like these guys,” Preacher added.

Annie let a small laugh escape as she plucked the smallest, weakest puppy from under her sweater and put him back in the box. “Well, my work here is done,” she said with humor in her voice. “I’ll try to cut my day as short as I can at the shop, Jack. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Annie, they’re not your responsibility,” Jack said. “You’ve already been a huge help. I don’t really expect you to—”

“I’m not going to turn my back on them now,” she said. “You might panic and take them to the pound.” She grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”



The puppies were found on Monday and Nate managed to stay away from the bar on Tuesday, but by Wednesday he was back there right about dinnertime. He told himself he had a vested interest—they might be about a hundredth the size of his usual patients, but he had more or less treated them. At least he’d looked at them and judged the care Annie recommended to be acceptable. In which case he didn’t really need to check on them. But Jack’s was a decent place to get a beer at the end of the day, and that fire was nice and cozy after a long day of tromping around farms and ranches, rendering treatment for horses, cows, goats, sheep, bulls and whatever other livestock was ailing.

But then there was Annie.

She was no longer a skinny, flat-chested, fuzzy-haired metal-mouth. Something he’d been reminding himself of for more than twenty-four hours. The jury was still out on whether she was a pain in the butt. He suspected she was.

She was tall for a woman—at least five-ten in her stocking feet—with very long legs. That carrot top was no longer bright orange—maybe the miracle of Miss Clairol had done the trick. In any case, her hair was a dark auburn she wore in a simple but elegant cut that framed her face. It was sleek and silky and swayed when her head moved. Her eyes were almost exotic—dark brown irises framed by black lashes and slanting shapely brows. And there was a smattering of youthful freckles sprinkled over her nose and cheeks, just enough to make her cute. But that mouth, that full, pink, soft mouth—that was gonna kill him. He hadn’t seen a mouth like that on a woman in a long time. It was spectacular.

She was a little bossy, but he liked that in a woman. He wondered if he should seek therapy for that. But no—he thrived on the challenge of it. Growing up with three older sisters, he’d been fighting for his life against determined females his entire life. Meek and docile women had never appealed to him and he blamed Patricia, Susan and Christina for that.

The very first thing Nate noticed when he walked into the bar on Wednesday was that Annie was not there. He smiled with superiority. Hah! He should have known. She talked Jack and Preacher into keeping eight tiny puppies—a labor-intensive job—promising to help, and was a no-show. He went over to the box and counted them. Seven. Then he went up to the bar.

“Hey, Jack,” he said. “Lose one?”

“Huh?” Jack said, giving the counter a wipe. “Oh, no.” He laughed and shook his head. “Annie took one back to Preacher’s laundry room for a little fluff and buff. He mussed his diaper, if you get my drift. It’s the littlest, weakest one.”

“Oh,” Nate responded, almost embarrassed by his assumption. “He hanging in there?”

“Oh, yeah. And wouldn’t you know—Christopher has decided that that one is his. Comet. Annie tried to talk him into falling in love with a stronger, heartier pup, but the boy’s drawn to the one most likely not to make it.”

Nate just laughed. “It was that way for me,” he said. “I was older, though. We had the most beautiful Australian Kelpie—chocolate brown, silky coat, sweet face, ran herd on everything. My dad had her bred and promised me a pup. Out of her litter of six, I picked the runt and practically had to hand-feed him for weeks. The other pups kept pushing him off the tit. I was fifteen and, probably not coincidentally, also small for my age. I named him Dingo. He was big and tough by the time I was through with him, and he lived a long life for a hardworking Kelpie. We lost him just a few years ago. He lived to be fifteen. ’Course, he spent his last four years lying by the fire.”

“You’d think a boy would pick the strongest in the pack.”

“Nah.” Nate snorted. “We don’t feel that strong, so we empathize. Can I trouble you for a beer?”

“Sorry, Nate—I wasn’t thinking. Fact is, I’ve been sitting on our nest on and off all day. I have a whole new appreciation for what you do.”

“Have they been a lot of trouble?”

“Well, not really, just time-consuming,” Jack said. “They eat every three hours or so, then their bedding has to be changed, then they nap, then they eat. And so on. Kind of like regular babies. Except there are eight of them and half of them need encouragement to eat. Plus, every so often, you have to check that they’re not too warm or too cold. I don’t want to freeze ’em or cook ’em. And the bar’s getting lots more company during the day—visitors to the litter. Since they’re here, they decide to eat and drink—more serving, cooking and cleanup than usual. Other than that, piece of cake. And if I ever find the SOB that left ’em under the tree, I’m going to string him up by his—”