A delightful holiday romance about a small-town single dad and an animal rescue owner as they try to find forever homes for a dozen lovable pups before Christmas.
Pine Hollow has everything Ally Gilmore could wish for in a holiday break: gently falling snow in a charming small town and time with her family. Then she learns some Grinch has pulled the funding for her family’s rescue shelter, and now she has only four weeks to find new homes for a dozen dogs! But when she confronts her Scroogey councilman nemesis, Ally finds he’s far more reasonable — and handsome — than she ever expected.
As the guardian of his dog-obsessed ten-year-old niece, Ben West doesn’t have time to build a cuddly reputation. But he does feel guilty about the shelter closing. So he proposes a truce with Ally, agreeing to help her adopt out the pups. As the two spend more time together, the town’s gossip is spreading faster than Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. And soon Ben is hoping he can convince Ally that Pine Hollow is her home for the holidays. . . and the whole year through.
The residents of Pine Hollow, Vermont, liked to think of it as the Mary Poppins of towns. Practically perfect in every way. Which was cute and all—as long as you weren’t one of the town council members responsible for making sure everything stayed perfect. After two solid years of listening to every little complaint, Ben West figured he’d now sufficiently paid for any crimes committed in a past life.
And Christmas…Christmas was the worst.
The town went nuts for the holiday every year—and Ben’s phone exploded with demands from overly enthusiastic citizens. More lights for the tree lighting. New garland for the library. More padding for the Santa costume since their regular jolly elf impersonator had started running marathons over the summer and lost fifty pounds.
It all had to come out of the town budget—which meant it all went through the town council. And Ben had the dubious distinction of being the swing vote on that council.
He was lucky if he could walk from the house to Astrid’s school to work without being stopped half a dozen times with a cheerful, “Oh, Ben! I was hoping I would run into you!” And his phone never seemed to stop vibrating.
Right on cue, a snippet of the Jaws theme music duh-duhed from his pocket, alerting him to a new email in his council account. He ignored the sound as he crossed the kitchen, making a beeline for the Keurig. Town business before caffeine was never a good idea. Though maybe this time it wouldn’t be anything he needed to deal with. Maybe it would be a Christmas miracle, and someone would be offering a solution rather than heaping another problem onto his plate.
The ominous Jaws music came again as he popped in the K-Cup and pushed the button, waiting for the machine to groan to life and dribble salvation into his cup. But nothing happened. He bent closer, studying the face of the machine. It was lit up, just like it was supposed to be. Everything looked fine, but when he pushed the button again—nothing.
The Keurig sat there, silently taunting him, and Ben found himself confronted by the horrible catch-22 of needing caffeine to figure out what was wrong with the machine that was supposed to give him caffeine.
“Morning, Uncle Ben!”
He grunted something vaguely g’morning-ish as his niece bounded into the kitchen.
Astrid, apparently unaware of the imminent caffeine crisis, pulled open a cabinet. “What do you think? Cupcakes, brownies, or gingerbread?”
Ben turned his head just enough to study her as she pulled cereal out of a cupboard. Astrid was that terrifying creation—a morning person—but she didn’t usually ask him for sweets over breakfast. “None of the above? Too early for sugar.”
“For the bake sale?” Astrid reminded him as she dropped a box of cornflakes on the island. “The Christmas fair? Everyone has to sign up to bring something.”
“Right. The fair.” Ben turned his attention back to the Keurig. It was plugged in. It had water. What if he turned it off and turned it back on again like rebooting a router? That should work, right? “That’s soon?” he asked absently.
“A week from Sunday.” Astrid gathered milk and blueberries from the fridge, taking her entire haul to the island. “We have to turn in the forms today, and we can’t do cookies because Merritt Miller said she’s doing cookies this year and her aunt runs the bakery so hers are going to be, like, the best cookies ever in the history of cookies and anyone else who does them is going to look pathetic.” She poured flakes and milk and blueberries into her bowl, pausing with her spoon poised. “Have you seen the cookies they sell? They’re like, amazing. So we have to do cupcakes or brownies or gingerbread or something, and I don’t know what to put.”
Ben opened his mouth, but no answer came out, his noncaffeinated brain completely empty of inspiration. Brownies, cupcakes, or gingerbread? “Uh…”
If someone had told him two years ago that someday the question of Christmas fair baked goods would be more complicated than the riddle of the Sphinx, he would have laughed them into next week—but a lot of things had changed in the last two years. His obnoxiously perfect overachiever sister and her most-reliable-man-on-the-planet husband were gone. Astrid was his responsibility. And he was now on a Facebook group for parents in Astrid’s class, which seemed to double as a master class in passive-aggressive mommy shaming—or uncle shaming, in his case.
Brownies, cupcakes, or gingerbread—whichever he chose, he needed to be prepared to defend that choice with the latest child nutrition studies, or he’d be shredded on the group. Were they gluten-free? Were they prepared on a surface a nut had touched in the last two decades? How many grams of sugar? How many carbs? Were the eggs from organic, cage-free, happy chickens with a quality of life that would rival his own? Had an ancestor of the dairy cow that produced the milk once been given antibiotics?
He wanted to be a responsible guardian. He wanted Astrid to be healthy and happy, which meant worrying about all the things that he was supposed to worry about. But sometimes it seemed like there was no winning except for the oh-so-helpful people who wanted to tell him he was doing something wrong—because he was always doing something wrong.
Brownies, cupcakes, or gingerbread?
He needed coffee for this decision.
Every choice had become an important one the second he’d become Astrid’s guardian, but this felt like he was being set up to fail. Why were they constantly doing bake sales if half the parents thought sugar and flour were poison? Sometimes he just wanted to wear a T-shirt to drop-off with I SURVIVED HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP on the front in block letters, but he wasn’t sure he’d live to tell the tale. This parenting stuff wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“We can just do brownies.” Astrid spoke to his back as he faced the useless coffee maker. She didn’t sound upset, but the just dug into his chest.
Katie never would have done just anything. She was Supermom, Queen of Bake Sales, but she’d also had a wicked sense of humor and never taken herself too seriously. She was the kind of mom every kid wanted to grow up with. She was the mom Astrid should have grown up with, but now his niece was stuck with him and his less-than-stellar baking skills. And he refused to let her down.
“Nah, let’s do something fun,” he insisted, forcing cheer into his tone, as if his entire neural network wasn’t begging for coffee. “How about gingerbread?”
He’d never made gingerbread a day in his life.
Please let gingerbread be easy.
The note of disbelief in Astrid’s voice had him doubling down. “Yeah. How hard can it be?”
His niece grimaced. “Maybe we should do the brownies.”
“Are you implying I can’t do gingerbread?” I might not be able to do gingerbread.
Ben huffed out a laugh at her honesty. “We’re doing it. Gingerbread.” His phone duh-duhed another Jaws warning, and he resisted the urge to fish it out of his pocket, catching sight of the clock on the microwave. Crap. “You gonna be ready soon? We’re running late.” Again.
Astrid was already dressed in her school clothes, but he was going to have to hurry to find a clean-enough work shirt if he was going to get her to school on time. The washer had been on the fritz for the last two weeks, and he was running out of clean options. With the Thanksgiving holiday messing with schedules, the only time the repairman had been able to come out had conflicted with Astrid’s parent-teacher conferences, so they were making do with sink laundry until he could reschedule.
Just another of the many things he wasn’t quite keeping up with. And now he had to add fixing the Keurig to the list.
How novel it must be to actually have enough hours in the day. He vaguely remembered what that felt like, though the memory was distant.
Astrid slid off her stool, taking her bowl to the sink. “Brownies are cool, too…”
“Have a little faith in your elders.”
“I have faith. I just also remember last year.”
Ben opened his mouth to refute her—somewhat warranted—concerns, but his cell phone rang, cutting off his defense. The words Boss Lady flashed on the screen. Saved by the bell. He plucked the phone off the counter, connecting the call. “Hey, Delia. I can’t talk long. I’ve got to get Astrid to school.”
“Did you get my emails?” The mayor’s voice reverberated against his eardrums. Delia Winter had one volume: bullhorn. And one mode—impatient. Her question explained the Jaws warnings. She’d probably been sending a new email every five seconds—she never could wait to get a reply. But she loved the town, and no one had done more for Pine Hollow than she had. Delia charged on before he had a chance to answer. “I think I have a solution for the budget shortfall.”
“It’s the dog shelter,” Delia boomed.
Ben flinched, but thankfully, Astrid didn’t seem to have overheard anything from the other side of the island, where she was packing her lunch. His niece had been hinting at wanting a dog for months. Ever since her tenth birthday. And he’d been shutting her down every time. Now it had gotten to the point that even the mere mention of the infamous D-O-G word was enough to restart the argument that never seemed to end.
“Just a second, Delia,” he said. He mouthed, “Five minutes,” at Astrid and rushed out of the kitchen like he was being chased, stubbing his toe on the loose trim on the second stair and swearing under his breath at the reminder of yet another thing that he hadn’t gotten around to fixing in the creaky old house.
Delia waited her obligatory one second and forged on. “The funding for the animal shelter was always part of the mayor’s discretionary budget. So we just reallocate it. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”
“Won’t that hurt the shelter?” he asked, keeping his voice down so it wouldn’t carry to Astrid. He’d never gone to the shelter himself, but he had a vague image of a nice older couple on a piece of land at the edge of town.
“We’ll fund them until the end of the year to give them time to find homes for the dogs. Rita and Hal are getting up there, and their granddaughter had to come up from the city to help out, but I’m sure she’d like to get back to her own life—and rumor has it Hal and Rita were looking to move out to the Estates but couldn’t because of the dogs. Everybody wins.”
Ben found a shirt that passed the sniff test and pulled it on. It felt like there was a catch about this perfect solution he wasn’t seeing, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“We have to find the money to fix the rec center roof somewhere, and this is the thing that impacts the town as a whole the least,” Delia boomed. “It’s not like we can cut schools or the firehouse. And the last time we tried to cut the budget for the Christmas tree lighting, I thought we were going to have a riot. This is the obvious choice.”
“Right…” His socks weren’t going to match today, but did people really look at socks?
“So I have your vote? We can pass the budget this afternoon, notify the shelter, and recess for the holidays if you’re onboard.”
He hadn’t known what he was getting into when he’d volunteered to take over the rest of his brother-in-law’s four-year term on the city council. He’d only been thinking that Paul’s and Katie’s responsibilities were his responsibilities now and that the consistency would be good for Astrid. But two years of budgets and zoning disputes had shown him the error of his ways. “Recess for the holidays” was the most tantalizing phrase he’d heard in a long time.
He loved Pine Hollow, but one less thing on his list sounded like heaven.
“Sure.” He shoved his feet into his shoes and grabbed his laptop bag. “It makes sense.” He charged down the stairs, dodging the loose step this time.
“I’ve gotta go, Delia.”
“I’ll see you later. Thanks, Ben!”
Astrid was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, already wearing her puffy down coat and her backpack—and making him feel like even more of a screw-up as the so-called parental figure.
“You all set?” he asked, even though she obviously was. He grabbed his coat off the hook by the door, checking the time on the grandfather clock in the hall. If they hurried they would make it—and then he could grab a coffee at the Cup before he had to be at work. He pulled open the door, holding it for Astrid to pass through and feeling like he’d dodged a bullet—or an entire firing squad—until he fell into step beside his niece on the front walk and she tipped her head at him innocuously.
“What’s going on with the dog shelter?”
* * *
The six blocks from Katie and Paul’s house to the school cut through the heart of Pine Hollow—and were usually punctuated by Astrid’s familiar complaint that there was no reason the sixth graders should be allowed to walk themselves to school while the fifth graders who were barely any younger at all should have to be escorted to drop-off like babies. She probably had a future in debate—and a very valid point, at least according to the parenting podcasts Ben had been listening to lately about encouraging independence and autonomy—but that didn’t change the school policy.
Today, however, Ben was treated to Astrid’s other favorite refrain—All of the Many Reasons Astrid K. Williams Was Responsible Enough to Have a Dog. Luckily, she didn’t seem to have overheard that the funding for the shelter was being cut, or she’d probably have added that to her treatise.
Ben’s caffeine headache started halfway between the Bluebell Inn and Magda’s Bakery. By the time they crossed the last crosswalk onto Pine Hollow Elementary grounds, he was praying for patience and counting the steps to the Cup so he could get an espresso before work.
“What if I could prove I’m responsible enough to take care of a dog?” Astrid wheedled, undeterred by his multiple attempts to end the conversation.
Ben considered telling her he would only adopt dogs who were trained to bring him coffee, but he was afraid she’d take it as encouragement. “Astrid, I appreciate the perseverance, but we’ve talked about this. We don’t have a yard.”
When he’d moved into Katie and Paul’s fixer-upper after the accident, he’d had the best intentions of fulfilling their two-year plan, finishing all their projects and selling the house to move into a bigger place with plenty of land. He just hadn’t expected that his fiancée would leave him to do it alone. Or that taking over Paul’s town council seat and Katie’s position on the PTA board would suck up every spare second of his life. Now, every time Astrid asked him for a dog, he was reminded that she should have been living in a big house with a yard by now.
“I’d walk him,” she insisted. “And feed him. You wouldn’t have to do anything. Please? We could get a small one. You’d barely notice him.”
“Except when it barks. And when I have to pay the vet bills.”
“I’d teach it not to bark. And I’d pay for all the shots and stuff. I’ve been saving my allowance.”
Since he paid her allowance, he knew exactly how much she’d been saving, but he had to admire her determination. “We aren’t getting a dog,” he repeated for the seven millionth time in the last four months.
Never one to give up, she smiled angelically. “Learning to take care of a dog would be beneficial to my education—”
“Being on time to class would be even more beneficial to your education.” He slung his arm around her shoulders, giving her a side hug and a nudge toward the school. “Go. Shoo. Have fun. Learn lots.”
Astrid rolled her eyes but spotted her best friend, Kimber, and took off running, her backpack thumping rhythmically.
“Walk, Astrid!” Elinor, the school librarian overseeing drop-off today, didn’t need to raise her voice to be instantly obeyed.
“Sorry, Aunt E!” Astrid rapidly downshifted to power-walk toward Kimber.
Elinor Rodriguez had been Katie’s best friend and like a member of their family. “Ben!” She lifted a hand to flag him down before he could escape toward the promise of the Cup. “Don’t run off. I need to talk to you for a second.”
He resisted the urge to pretend he hadn’t heard her. Elinor was probably the smartest person he’d ever met, but he’d always found being the object of her laser-beam focus a little terrifying and her unusual non sequiturs made him feel like he never knew what was coming. He needed caffeine in his system to keep up.
She poked her glasses up her nose as she closed the distance between them.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I need your volunteer schedule for the Christmas fair.” She spoke to him, but her attention flicked back the kids filing past her into the school. “Put down the snowball, Jeremiah!”
“I thought the kids were working the booths now that they’re responsible fifth graders.” He’d apparently entered some caffeine-free dystopia where nothing made sense. He may have been checking his email during the last PTA meeting, but he distinctly remembered hearing the kids were in charge.
“They are, but we have to have adults overseeing operations so they actually give correct change and don’t eat all the goodies when no one’s looking.”
Ben nearly groaned aloud. He should have known. The kids’ responsibilities were always the parents’ responsibilities. Just one more thing to pile on.
“You just need to sign up for one three-hour block so Astrid can participate in the fair—”
Plus however much time it took them to make gingerbread and tie it up into cute little packages. Shopping for ingredients and taking Astrid to and from…no one talked about that stuff when they said, “Let’s do a Christmas fair for charity. It’ll be fun.”
“I can fill in for you as a chaperone if you want,” Elinor offered, but he jerked his head in an automatic rejection of the offer.
“No, I’ve got it.” He wouldn’t let anyone say he was shirking his responsibilities. “Where do I sign up?”
Elinor whipped a tablet out of one voluminous coat pocket and passed it over. “Just fill in any of the empty slots.”
Ben skimmed through the available hours, trying to find something he could make work on a Sunday in December. The town went nuts for the holidays, and there were always a million things to do—and he felt like he needed to do them all for Astrid.
He’d managed to get the Christmas decorations up over Thanksgiving weekend—because Katie always decorated early, and he refused to let Astrid down—but he still had all the Christmas shopping to do. And wrapping. And stocking stuffing. Plus now gingerbread and the freaking washer and the Keurig, and at some point he was going to have to clear out the guest room before his parents arrived for Christmas in three weeks and noticed he still hadn’t finished any of the half-finished projects around the house.
He needed a clone.
“Just curious. Are you trying to scare the children?”
“What?” He looked up from the tablet, belatedly realizing he was glowering when Elinor mimicked his expression. “Cute.”
“As your friend, I feel I should warn you. You’re getting a reputation around town.” She wrinkled her nose, her glasses slipping downward. “The name Ebenezer may have been mentioned.”
“I’m not a Scrooge,” he snapped, a little more defensively than he’d planned. “I’m just stressed. There’s a lot to do.” And there was no coffee.
“Stress is bad for your brain,” Elinor commented conversationally. “I was just reading this study about how it puts you into a reactive mode and cuts you off from the creative and problem-solving portions of your brain. Did you know saturating your brain in stress hormones for long periods of time can rework your brain chemistry and cause depression? Isn’t that fascinating?”
Great. Now he had that to look forward to. “Yes, fascinating. Very helpful. Thank you.”
Elinor shrugged. “I’m just saying. You need to find a way to destress.”
“I’ll get right on that. After Christmas.” He tapped his name into one of the slots at random and handed the tablet back to her. He’d just have to make it work. Like he always did.
The bell had already rung, and the kids were all inside the school. Elinor accepted the tablet. “Kaye Berry’s always thought you were hot, and she’s divorced now—”
“No,” he interrupted before she could get any ideas. “I’m not dating one of the moms from Astrid’s class. I need to get a handle on what I’ve already committed to before I commit to anything—or anyone—else.”
He couldn’t deal with one more thing. No dogs. No dating. No crazy complications to a Christmas season he just needed to get through. Astrid was his top priority, and until he figured out how to give her the life she should have had—complete with a big yard and a dog—he couldn’t think about anything else. He owed that to Katie and Paul. Now he just had to figure out how to do it.