But probably ordinary, sensible-shoes farm girls didn’t do anything special for a man like Nate.

Annie’s thoughts were broken when her father walked into the kitchen and refilled his coffee cup. He put a hand on the small of his back and stretched, leaning back, rolling his shoulders.

“Are you limping, Dad?”

“Nah,” he said. “Got a little hitch in my giddy-up is all.”

“As soon as I’m through with this puppy project, I’ll make it a point to get out here more often to help.”

“The doctor says the best thing is for him to keep moving,” Rose said. “You do enough to help already.”

“You don’t remember that fancy Hollywood woman?” Hank asked, going back to the conversation he had overheard. Without waiting for an answer, he added, “Breeze woulda blown her away. Skinny thing. Could see her bones. Not at all right for Nathaniel.” He took a sip of coffee and lifted his bushy brows, looking at her over the rim of his mug. “You’da been more his speed, I think. Yeah, better Nathaniel than that son of a so-and-so you got yourself mixed up with.”

“I didn’t even know Nate Jensen was here until a few days ago, remember?” Annie pointed out. “And before that, I was with the so-and-so, and Nate was taken.”

“Yeah, you’da had to kill that skinny thing, but she looked near death, anyhow.” Then he grinned at her and left the kitchen.

“Will Nathaniel have his family for Christmas?” Rose asked.

“Actually, he said his parents, sisters and their families are going on a cruise. I gathered, from the way he said it, he’d throw himself off the boat if he were along. He said something sarcastic, like it would be hell to give up all that shuffleboard, but he’d manage.”

“Oh, you must invite him to join us for the holiday dinners, Annie. As I recall, he was friendly with one of your brothers when they were kids.”

“Mom, he’s not hanging around. He’s going on some highfalutin Caribbean vacation, meeting up with some old classmates from veterinary college, hoping to get lost in a sea of very tiny bikinis on the beach. Apparently his taste in women hasn’t changed much.”

“Really?” Rose asked. “Now to me, that sounds dull.”

“Not if you’re a single guy in your thirties, Mom.”

“Oh. Well, then take him some of these cookies.”

“I’m sure he couldn’t care less about home-baked cookies.” Not if what he prefers is some fancy, skinny, rich girl, she thought.

“Nonsense. I don’t know the man who doesn’t like home-baked cookies. Reminds them of their mothers.”

“Just the image I’d most like to aspire to,” Annie said.



Rose McKenzie insisted that Annie take a plate of Christmas cookies to Dr. Jensen, but it made Annie feel silly, farm girlish, so she left them in the car when she went into Jack’s bar later that afternoon.

She gasped in pleasure when she walked in—the place had been decorated for Christmas. A tree stood in the corner opposite the hearth, garlands were strung along the bar and walls, small evergreen centerpieces sat on the tables, and the buck over the door wore a wreath on his antlers. It was festive and homey, and the fresh pine scent mingled with wood smoke and good cooking from the kitchen to complete the holiday mood.

It took her less than two seconds to see that Nate wasn’t there, which made her doubly glad she hadn’t trotted in her plate of baked goods. Maybe this was the day he wasn’t going to show. It wasn’t as though he had any obligation here. In fact, besides giving the puppies a cursory look and asking Annie if there was anything wrong with any of them, he didn’t do anything at all.

She gave Jack a wave and went directly to the puppies, which, in the past week, had gotten surprisingly big. Boy, if those weren’t all border collies, she was no judge of canines. Out of the eight, two were solid black with maybe a little silver or gray or perhaps a mere touch of white—the only indication another breed might’ve been involved. But they had grown so much! And they were doing so beautifully—plump and fluffy and adorable. Just like everyone else who passed by that box, she couldn’t resist immediately picking a puppy up and cuddling it against her chin.

Jack came over to the hearth and she grinned at him. “The bar looks wonderful, Jack. All ready for Santa.”

“Yeah, the women got it ready for their hen party. Cookie exchange tomorrow at noon—you should come.”

“Nuts, I’ll be at work. But tell them the decorations are beautiful.”

“Sure,” he said. “Annie, we’ve got a situation. We’re going to have to come up with another plan here.”

Instinctively she picked up Comet to judge his size and strength; he wriggled nicely. “Why’s that, Jack?” she asked.

He was shaking his head. “This isn’t going to work much longer. I can go another day, two at the most, while you figure something out, but the puppies have to find a new home. They’re getting bigger, more energetic, and giving off the kind of odor reminiscent of a box full of puppy shit. This is an eating-and-drinking establishment, Annie.”

“Are people complaining?” she asked.

“Just the opposite,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re drawing a nice crowd on account of the big tree and the cute little puppies. But you know puppies, Annie. They’re wetting on a lot of laps while they’re being held and snuggled. This is going to go from cute and fun to a big problem real soon.”

“Oh,” she said, helpless. “Oh.” Well, it wasn’t as though she had trouble understanding. It was different when the litter was in your downstairs bathroom or under the laundry sink in a home, or when there was a mother dog around tending the nursery. You just didn’t realize how hard that mother dog worked unless you had to care for the puppies yourself. Even when there were eight of them, as long as they were nursing, good old Mom licked them from head to toe, keeping them clean and dry. The second you started giving them solid food, Mom stopped cleaning up after them and it took no time at all for them to get a little stinky and messy. But under normal circumstances, that came at about six weeks, right about the time they were ready to leave the nursery anyway.

In this case, there’d been no mom, and the formula and cereal that went in one end came out the other. Their bedding couldn’t be changed fast enough or their cute little bottoms washed often enough to avoid a smell.

“What am I going to do?” she asked herself.

“We’ve got homes for some of them figured out,” Jack said. “I’m not sure any of them are ready to be out of the box yet, but we’ve got a few adoptions worked out. There’s Christopher, of course. He’s not letting Comet get away.”

“Comet’s not ready to be the responsibility of a six-year-old. He needs a couple more weeks. And good as Chris is with him, he’ll have to be supervised,” Annie said.

“I know. And I’m sunk,” Jack said. “David keeps babbling about his ‘boppie.’ I’ve been thinking about getting a dog, anyway, something to clean up the spills around my place. But…..”

“And, Jack, you can’t turn a puppy this size over to a three-year-old boy any more than you can put him in charge of eggs and ripe tomatoes.”

“Yeah, yeah, when it’s time, we’ll be careful. And Buck Anderson, sheep rancher, says it’s about time to get a couple of new herders ready. He’s got a little child of his own and seven grandchildren. He can speak for two—his sons can help get ’em grown before they turn them over to the other dogs and the sheep. He’d like them to be Christmas dogs, though. Now, I know you don’t trust people looking for puppies as Christmas gifts, but you can count on Buck. He knows the score.” Jack took a breath. “I don’t like their chances if they won’t herd sheep, however.”

“Okay, that’s four taken care of,” she said.

“Couple of other people have been thinking about it, but that’s the progress so far. Did you realize everyone in town has named them after the reindeer?”

“Yeah, cute, huh? Jack, I don’t have a place for them. I guess I could take them to my house and run home between haircuts to make sure they’re fed and watered, but to tell the truth, I don’t have that kind of time. At Christmastime, everyone wants to be beautiful. And I try to spend as much time at the farm as I can—the whole family’s coming.”

“Maybe we need to rethink that shelter idea. Couldn’t they just look after them for a couple of weeks? Then we’ll take at least a few off their hands…...”

Just then Nathaniel blew in with a gust of wind. He pulled off his gloves and slapped them in his palm. He looked around the recently decorated bar and whistled approvingly. “Hey,” he said to Annie and Jack. “How’s everything?” Silence answered him. “Something wrong?”

Annie stepped toward him. “Jack can’t keep the puppies here anymore, Nate. They’re starting to smell like dogs. It is a restaurant, after all.”

Nate laughed. “I think you’ve hung in there pretty well, Jack. Lasted longer than I predicted.”

“Sorry, Nate. If Annie hadn’t been so convincing, these guys would have gone to a shelter right off the bat. Or someplace way worse. At least we’ve figured out homes for a few—when they’re old enough and strong enough to leave the litter.”

“Yeah, I understand,” Nate said good-naturedly. “Well, if Annie promises not to bail on me, I’ll take ’em home. I’m pretty busy most days, but I have a vet tech at the clinic to help. And they don’t need quite as much hands-on care as they did a week ago—at least they can all lap up their meals without an eyedropper now. I can put ’em in the laundry room and close the door so they don’t keep me up all night.”

“Will they be warm enough?” Annie asked. “Are they strong enough?”

“They’ll be fine, Annie. Jack—what’s for dinner?”

“Chili. Corn bread. Really? You’ll take them out of here?”

Nate laughed. “Can we mooch one more meal before we cart them away? I’m a bachelor—there’s hardly ever any food in the house.” He draped an arm around Annie’s shoulders. “This one is spoiled now—she’s used to getting fed for her efforts. And two beers.”

“Yeah,” Jack said, lifting a curious eyebrow. “Coming right up.”

“After we eat, you can follow me home,” he said to Annie, as if the matter was settled.

Annie knew approximately where the Jensen clinic, stable and house were, but she couldn’t remember ever going there. You might take your poodle or spaniel to the small-animal vet, but the large-animal vet came to you, unless you had a big animal in need of surgery or with some condition that required long-term and frequent care. His stable also provided occasional short-term boarding for horses. And he had breeding facilities, but that also was most often done at the farm or ranch by the farmers and ranchers. Some owners of very valuable horses preferred to leave their prefoaling mares with the vet.