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Authors: Lauraine Snelling,Lenora Worth

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Once Upon a Christmas

BOOK: Once Upon a Christmas
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PRAISE FOR
LAURAINE SNELLING

“Ms. Snelling’s writing shines in a story sure to cause tears and smiles.”

—Romantic Times BOOKclub
on
The Healing Quilt

“Lauraine Snelling creates a lively romance spiced with conflict and complications.”

—Romantic Times BOOKclub
on
Hawaiian Sunrise

PRAISE FOR
LENORA WORTH

“Lenora Worth creates another gem—a great, easy, entertaining read for everyone, inspirational or not.”

—Romantic Times BOOKclub
on
His Brother’s Wife

“Talented…writer Lenora Worth combines heart-stealing characters and a tragic secret to make this page turner worth every reader’s while.”

—Romantic Times BOOKclub
on
The Wedding Quilt

LAURAINE SNELLING’S

novels appear regularly on the CBA bestseller list, and there are more than two million copies of her books in print. She and her husband have two grown sons and make their home in California.

LENORA WORTH

is the award-winning author of over sixteen Love Inspired romances and two novels for Steeple Hill. She lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, and is married and the mother of two.

LAURAINE SNELLING
LENORA WORTH
ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS
THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

Lauraine Snelling

 

Dedicated to the Basset Rescue Connection
and those who rescue dogs of all breeds

 

Special thanks to Chewy, Woofer and Missy—
my basset inspirations

CHAPTER ONE

“I
feel as creative as a blob of clay and tomorrow I turn the big three-oh.”

Harley looked up at her, adoration in his sad, basset eyes, his tail beating the finish off the office chair legs.

“Yeah, I know. You want to go for a walk. But Harley, Christmas is coming and I’m not anywhere near to ready. Not even begun, if truth be told. Now I know I’m never really ready for Christmas but—this time I’m beyond hope.” Blythe Stensrude glanced at the harbinger of despair again. Calendars should be banned from polite society. “Think I’ll skip Christmas this year, right along with my birthday.” Leaning down from her office chair, she cupped his furry face in her hands and looked deeply into his dark brown eyes. “Another Christmas single. I thought for sure I’d be married by now.”
I once dreamed of children but not anymore.
She slammed the door on that near-tragic memory without peeking through.

A sigh stopped further confidences for a moment,
while pictures of former suitors, or at least daters, flipped Rolodex-fashion through her mind. Thomas, college years, earring, musician. Boris, internship, Austrian, intriguing, bad breath. Henderson, first job, ladder climber, married her best friend. Sanchez, second job, wanted big family, huh-uh, not in this lifetime. Jones, real possibility, married, the jerk. And her rather unusual, but necessary requirement, no desire for fatherhood.

Harley kissed the tip of her nose with a lightning tongue.

Blythe sighed again. None. Nada. “From now on, no more blind dates, no more ‘come for dinner’ and there’s an extra man there, just for me. I’ll just tell those nosey noses, yes, I have a man in my life. His name is Harley.”

Hearing his name, Harley planted both front paws on her knees and, tail wagging, whined again, then swiped her chin with a black-spotted pink tongue.

She hugged him close and got her ear cleaned, for her trouble.

Harley whimpered again and dropped to the floor. He headed toward the door, giving her an imploring glance over his shoulder.

“Oh, all right.” Blythe snapped the blue nylon leash to the dog’s collar. “And the final thing, I’m going to learn to be content with you as the man in my life. God seems to have forgotten that dream of mine, in spite of a multitude of reminders.”

With the leash in place, Harley headed for the door. One either followed or spent hours teaching the dog manners, an exercise which Blythe had been promising herself to do.

“You have to let me get my coat, you silly thing.” She dropped the leash and stood on her end while retrieving her purple, fleece-lined jacket. The wind in Martinez, California, could carry a real bite down at the marina park where she loved to walk and Harley loved to nose for the smells, always anticipating the rabbit he might catch one day.

Key in her teeth to lock the dead bolt, she opened the front door. Harley made a dive for the outside, just as the phone rang. Answer it. No, let the machine pick it up.

The sigh came from her toes. “Get back in here, you big lug.” She hauled back on the leash, dragging the nail-scrabbling dog back in the house. The door slammed closed and she dove for the phone, getting it just as the answering machine clicked in.

“Blythe’s Graphics. Let me put pictures to your words. I’m either…”

“I’m here, don’t hang up, the message will be over in a moment.”
Why haven’t I learned how to turn off the message? Why do I let some of this stuff…?
“Hello, yes this is Blythe, how may I help you?”

“Good morning, Blythe, Brad Cummings here, wondering how the artwork for my project is coming? Are we on schedule?”

Blythe groaned inside but kept a smile on her face, having learned how important a smile is to the tone of voice on the phone, or anywhere for that matter. “Barring any natural disasters, I should be finished tomorrow night, just as we agreed.”
Now why did I say that?
But she knew why. She
loved this man’s laugh, which he did as if programmed. The deep baritone chuckle came across the wires as if he were right beside her. The only problem with this man? He was happily married with three children, all of whom sang in the youth choirs at church.

“Give me a call, then, and I’ll be by to pick up the package. I’ll stop on my way home. Save you a trip. Bye.”

Blythe set the phone back in the stand. That project would be done even if she never slept tonight.

Sometimes becoming successful led to other problems, like too much of a good thing. A good thing, meaning work of course. As a graphic artist, she was making a name for herself. But how was she to keep the quality up to her standards when she had so much to do? And such tight deadlines. She could hear her mother plain as the dog whining at her feet. “Sometimes you have to learn to say no.” Sometimes…yeah, well, she’d have to practice that—in her spare time.

“I’m coming, Harley, but this is going to have to be one quick walk.”

She locked the front door of her semirestored Victorian cottage and pulled on her turquoise gloves as Harley, russet-colored ears dragging the ground, and nose leading the way, turned left at the open gate of the picket fence. He knew the shortest way to the marina as well as she did so she only chose an alternate route if she didn’t mind an argument.

Blythe lifted her face to catch the intermittent sun rays as clouds played tag with the wind. After two days of fog and rain, which left her feeling out of sorts, the sun felt
like a gift she almost didn’t open. Not that she was a sun worshipper, but waking to sunshine in the morning always set her day on the right track.

She groaned when her dog stopped to investigate something really important, though only he could discern what creature had passed that way.

“Harley, you could at least warn me.” And you could pay,
should
pay, better attention. There was that voice, the one she frequently wanted to strangle.

His tail wagged, but his broad black nose never left the ground. When he ran out of scent, he raised his head, grinned at her and trotted out again, his snowshoe feet slapping the sidewalk.

“Top of the mornin’ to ye.” June Simmons, who lived on the next block, finished filling one of her twenty bird feeders and met them at her gate.

“And to you. New part?”

“I’m needin’ to be authentic Irish in a week.”

“Good for you, you’ll make it. Which theater?”

“The Willows. Look at ye, lass, life must be goin’ yer way. Faith and begorra, ye’ve been a yellow-headed lassie for six months an’ more.”

“Really? Humph.” Blythe pulled at the ends of the shag cut. “It’s needin’ cuttin’, that’s what it is.”

June bent down and rubbed Harley’s ears, then removed the dog biscuit from her pocket and asked, “Ye bein’ hungry, Harley, dear?”

Harley yipped but when she shook her head, gave in and barked in basso profundo, true hound fashion.

“Ah, that’s more like it.” June handed him the treat she
double baked herself. “Ye better be watchin’ for the wee folk down at the park. Heard tell there’s been sightings.”

“If they hide in rabbit holes, Harley is sure to find one.” Leaving June laughing, the two walked on down the hill, Harley now tugging on the leash.

They crossed the railroad tracks to enter the park at the west end. With the tide out, the wind blew the rank odor of mudflats their way. The freeway bridge arched over the Sacramento River from Martinez to Benicia. While most of the shipping consisted of oil tankers, pleasure boats, ships bringing grain from the upper rivers and container ships also plied the river waters. The two rivers converged upriver a few miles and flowed through the Carquinez Straits into the San Francisco Bay. Since the wind was from the west, she couldn’t smell the refineries for a change. Even the pungent mudflats were preferable to the refineries.

Harley stuck his nose in a hole dug into the low grassy bank.

This did not promise to be a fast walk at all; he was in a real investigative mood.

“Sorry, Harley, come.” She tugged on the leash. He wagged his tail. Moving a busy basset was like dragging a watersoaked log—through the mud. “Harley! I have tons of work to do, so it’s walk or go home. Take your pick.”

A rabbit darted out of the other end of the hole. From standing still to dead run in one bound, his back feet threw mud and grass as he dug for traction. Harley hit the end of the leash.

Blythe dug in her heels, but her purple boots could get no footing. “Harley!”

CHAPTER TWO

T
hane Davidson stared at the dog at his feet. If relaxed needed a picture, a sleeping basset fit. Especially Matty, his three-year-old fawn-and-white female, the only real steady female in his life at the moment. She had “relax” down to a science.

“I asked if you wanted to go for a walk. I’m going and if you get up, you’ll get to
go,
too.” He put the emphasis on the word go. “I know this is outside of your schedule but…”

She opened both eyes, wagged the white tip of her tail and with a groan and a prolonged stretch, got to her feet. Not that she could get very far up. While bassets are big-dog size in the body, in the leg department, they got woefully shortchanged.

He half smiled at the look of long suffering she sent his way. “Don’t bother, I don’t do guilt.” When he reached down and stroked her head and long ears, he marveled, as always, at how soft she was. Adoration was his for the pet
ting, so he continued. Everyone needed to be adored at one time or another.

He smoothed down her long back and scratched her favorite spot, between her front shoulder blades, then rubbed along her spine.

“That’s all. We need to hit the street before the phone rings again.” He headed for the closet for his anorak and her leash. As soon as they were both dressed, they left the house, he with his cell phone in his pocket after a brief tussle with “take it along” or “leave it home.” But since he was on call 24/7 as a troubleshooter for several computer software giants, he had learned never to be out of touch. Even though he sometimes felt like he was on a tighter leash than his dog.

He locked the condo door and, leash in hand, strolled toward the elevator. The doors on either side of his door sported holiday wreaths, one including an angel. Wasn’t it a bit early for such decorations? Thane punched the elevator button with a little more force than necessary. Health wise he should take the stairs but Matty hated stairs, especially four flights. He couldn’t say he blamed her—dragging your belly over all those ridges would aggravate anyone. He stopped just outside the entry to adjust his collar.

“Hey, Mister Davidson, you walking your own dog?”

Did the kid from 3A ever do anything but ride his bike in front of the building?

“Looks that way.”

“Where’s Josie?”

“I don’t know.”
I’m not Josie’s keeper, she just walks
my dog when I’m not home.
Which is most of the time. During the day, at least. Since his clients were located in the Bay area, he did manage to sleep at home—usually.

“She’s not sick or anything?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“You going to pay her anyway? She needs the money.” The boy stopped his bike, facing into the curb.

Thane swallowed a growl when Matty pulled on the leash, anxious to greet the boy on the bike. Had this kid no manners at all, telling him how to run his life?

“And that’s your business?”

The red-headed charmer shrugged and leaned down to scratch Matty behind the ears. He knew her favorite places, as evidenced by the wriggling joy and her happy yips.

“No, I s’pose not.” He looked up again, blue eyes serious. “But Josie needs someone to look out for her.”

Lord, save me. I cannot be the savior for all young women.
Was Josie a druggie like LynnEllen, his younger and only sister? “If Josie is doing drugs, I’ll have no part of her.”

“Nah, she don’t do drugs.” The look he sent Thane carried a trainload of disdain. He shook his head and with a jerk of the handlebars, spun his bike and pedaled away. “Josie’s real good with Matty.” The words floated back over his shoulder. “You’re lucky. Maybe you could give her a big Christmas present.”

“Put down by a kid. Matty, what’s this world coming to?” What was he coming to? He’d stayed to listen. Used up five minutes of his precious time. All over the dog
walker. Of course Josie took Matty to the vet’s when needed, the groomer on schedule and dog-sat when he was forced to be gone overnight. She seemed to have a solid clientele. Could one make a living at such a precarious business? Had she complained that he didn’t pay her enough?

“I’ll ask her if she should increase her rates.”

Matty glanced back over her shoulder, then, head and tail high, trotted toward the marina, about half a mile away. While sometimes they drove, when the weather was decent they walked. And at times even jogged.

Today Thane didn’t feel like jogging. He glanced upward. Why if the sun was shining did he feel like the heaviest of clouds surrounded him, squashing him down like a bug under someone’s heel?

What he needed was a five-mile run. But Matty couldn’t run that far, so it was down to the marina for an outing and then he’d take the car out to drive to Briones Park and a good long run. That would put him back in a normal mood.

His cell phone chimed, a businesslike ring, not one of the silly songs some users subscribed to. He punched the green bar. “Davidson.”

“Thane.” Her voice had more energy than he’d heard in it for a long time.

“Linnie.” For some reason he used the childhood name for his sister, LynnEllen. His sister who’d gotten hooked on drugs in college and thrown her life away. That was bad enough, but she now had a three-year-old daughter whose life was also in jeopardy.

“Merry Christmas, brother mine.”

“Not yet.” He slowed to a walk, the phone at his ear as they crossed Alhambra Avenue. The picket fence in front of them wore garlands of cedar and big red bows. Matching pots of red cyclamen brightened the front porch.

“Don’t go all humbug on me.” Her voice lost its forced cheer. “I’m clean and sober, thanks to you and this latest rehab, and I want us to spend Christmas as a family.”

“Linnie, I…”

“I know, I know. I’ve blown the last years, but this time is different.”

That’s what you always say and then…For one brief moment he saw the two of them, giggling outside the arch to the living room where the tree waited in all its glory, that interminable Christmas morning wait for their parents to join them. But in more recent years—drunk was bad enough, but what about stoned?
The time you passed out, taking the tree down with you. The year I bailed you out of jail, big as a house with Amie.
He felt like cramming the phone back in his pocket or dumping it in the trash receptacle he’d just passed.

“I have an apartment now and furniture even.”

Amazing what you can do with your allowance when you don’t drink or snort it. They both received monthly dividends from the trust fund left from their parents’ insurance and estate. He’d set it up so she could get only a monthly allowance, never access to the principle. His share he put in a trust fund for Amie, without LynnEllen’s knowledge.

“It’s really important that you come. Amie is old enough to know she has a real family.”

He could tell she was fighting tears.

“Please?”

“Look, you know I’m on call 24/7. If something comes up…”

“Thane, you are the
head
of your company. You can do what you want, there are others who can fill in for one day. Besides, everything closes down for Christmas anyway.” Her voice had regained its strength.

Perhaps, just maybe, please, God, this time let it work.

“I’m doing AA. And I’ve found a church that welcomes me as I am. I just want you to rejoice with me, big brother.”

Thane blew out a cheek-puffing breath, wanting to congratulate her even as he doubted a positive outcome. “All right. I’ll fly down on the morning of the twenty-fourth.”

“Amie’s preschool program is the morning of the twenty-third. I hoped you could come for that, too.”

A cloud passed over the sun.

“I’ll see.” His sister had used Amie as a pawn before. He wondered what was going on this time.

“Good. Thank you, Thane. You won’t regret this.”

I pray to God not. “Bye.” He snapped the phone shut and dropped it back in his pocket.

What had he gotten himself into now?

The soles of his shoes slammed against the concrete as he picked up the pace again. Why had he agreed? Why had he not given her more approval? She needed him, he was the only family she had left. But he’d sworn to wash his hands of her. No more enabling.

Matty yipped and when he turned he saw her tongue hanging out and her ribs pumping like the proverbial bellows. Had he been dragging her along…what, two blocks, three?

He stopped and knelt in front of her. “I’m sorry, girl. You okay?”

She collapsed at his feet, her dark eyes forgiving him while she fought to catch her breath.

What kind of a jerk are you? Not paying attention to your dog even? You ought to be turned over to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

What about cruelty to relatives?
The thought hissed its way through his mental scolding.

He clamped his teeth, eyes narrowed. Tough love, that’s what he’d been forced to resort to. He refused to be an enabler any longer. LynnEllen had to take responsibility for her own actions. That’s what the counselor had told them both.

He knew the odds of breaking crack addiction. Slim to none. He’d long since stopped hoping. He stroked Matty, something that always calmed him, the soft fur beneath his fingertips, her heart no longer slamming against her ribs.

“Perhaps we better just head on home.”

She raised her head and licked his wrist, feather soft, then pushed herself to her feet and pointed her nose toward the marina, sniffing the air as if they were already there.

“Okay, I get the point. But we’ll take it easy, all right?”

Her tail dusted the sidewalk.

A couple minutes later they crossed the new pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks by the new Amtrak passenger station and followed the trail down toward the marina. Once the area had been a landfill, and oldsters told of coming down there to shoot rats. Now Oak and other trees shaded thick grass where families gathered for picnics, Frisbee tosses, and sometimes set up volleyball nets. On the other side of the main road down to the boating launch a bocce ball court drew devoted fans, further east were softball and soccer fields and even a riding arena where horse shows drew big crowds. But the path Thane traveled wound its way down to the duck pond, and the new pier which shadowed the decaying wharf. At the pond he took the trail that ambled west through the wetlands, Matty trotting ladylike beside him. They crossed the arched bridge over a creek, stopping at the top to look out across the mudflats. A gray heron stood sentinel on the steep banks of the creek. White egrets patrolled the mudflats, along with squawking gulls and dabbling dowitchers.

A dog barked.

Matty hit the dirt trail leading off to the west with three bounds, ripping the lead from his hand.

“Matty! Stop! Stay!” He might well have been ordering the wind.

BOOK: Once Upon a Christmas
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