Baby Blue Christmas
By Kristy Tate
The wind rattled the door as if asking to be let in. Sophie glanced at the dark night through the frosty windows and watched the trees shake their barren branches. Clouds shrouded the moon, but they were wispy rather than stormy, and for that she was grateful. It had taken an hour to calm and lull Jamison to sleep and she didn’t need a thunder clap to wake him.
Sofia settled into her favorite chair beside the fireplace, propped her feet on the ottoman, and pulled a quilt around her legs before reaching for her novel. She’d been living in her sister’s house for a little more than six months now and she still felt like the babysitter. Lauren told her that any major move requires an adjustment period of a year, but on dark nights such as this, Sofia wondered if she would ever feel at home in her sister’s house, filling in her sister’s life. Maybe this place, like her sister’s shoes, would always rattle around on her. A little too big. Not quite right.
The moaning changed in tone and the door shook again. Sofia put down her book and stared into the flames dancing in the fireplace. Lauren had suggested she replace her sister’s furniture with her own, but her sleek contemporary style didn’t suit the old farmhouse, and so her belongings were stored in the basement in a holding pattern. She wasn’t ready to let them go.
That was not the wind.
Bark! The door shook again.
Sophie kicked off the quilt and padded to the front window, but saw nothing but wind tossed trees and dancing leaves. After undoing the latch, she opened the door. The cold wind circled the room and the flames in the hearth jumped and flickered. A bundle of fur quivered on the front step and pleaded at her with giant brown eyes.
Sophie dropped to her knees and rested her hand on the puppy’s head, trying to ease his trembling. He whined and tried to lick her hand.
“Who are you?” she muttered, avoiding his tongue while searching for a collar or tag.
He whimpered in response.
She picked him up and nestled him against her chest, horrified by his bony rib cage and splotchy fur. “You can’t stay here,” she told him. “I’m still learning how to take care of a baby. I can’t add a puppy to my chaos, especially not a sick one.” She glanced at the dark woods surrounding her house. Lights from the Jespersen’s farm told her that they were awake, but she couldn’t see either of the aging couple traipsing through the forest that separated their properties to deliver a puppy to her doorstep.
After bringing the dog inside, she snagged the quilt off her chair, wrapped the shivering puppy in it, and headed for the kitchen. “But I can’t leave you outside. Not on a night like this. Are you hungry?”
What did puppies eat? Other than puppy chow? She couldn’t drag Jamison from his crib and into the cold to pick up dog food at the store. The closest store was the Millie’s Mini-mart, and it was seven miles away. Besides, it didn’t make sense to buy a whole package of chow for a one night stay.
Sophie smiled at the thought. While most people her age were partying and having one night stands, she was babysitting her sister’s child and rescuing puppies. She blew out a sigh, sat down in front of her computer, cradled the dog in her lap, and Googled how to make homemade puppy food.
The Internet had been her lifesaver since her sister’s death. It staved off loneliness by keeping her connected with her city friends and introducing her to Mommy blogs where millions of moms could answer any and all baby questions while she struggled to find her own parenting legs. Briefly she wondered if there were puppy blogs.
But, no. She didn’t need to connect to online puppy owners since this creature was leaving first thing in the morning. He couldn’t be a permanent fixture in her life. The puppy nestled against her, and as she surfed the web searching for chow recipes, the tiny creature fell asleep, reminding her that she also needed to sleep. Jamison kept early-bird hours.
Luke sat the corner of Main and Olympic not quite sure where to turn. It was an odd sensation, one that he hadn’t felt since…actually, he couldn’t remember a time when his life hadn’t been planned out in an air-tight schedule. Was it his brother’s death that brought him back to his hometown in a herculean effort to create a do-over?
That had something to do with it. He glanced down Main. During the spring, summer, and even into the late fall, the streets would be teeming with surfers and beach-goers, but on this gray November day, Main Street matched his bleak mood.
His thoughts strayed to Matt, as they often did. In the force he didn’t deal with violence, as most of his work had been the cyber-sort, but he’d witnessed plenty of deaths. But none of them had shaken him like Matt’s.
Luke shook himself, glanced in his rear view mirror, and waved a half-hearted apology to the car behind him before rolling through the intersection and pulling to a stop in front of the hardware store. But as soon as he climbed from his SUV, the delicious smell of Betty’s Bakery hit like a blow to his hungry gut and lured him in like a fish on a line.
Seconds later, he emerged with a cup of coffee and a chocolate éclair. In the few minutes he’d been in the bakery, the morning sun had burned off the marine layer, and Hamilton didn’t look so bleak.
Luke pushed himself against a clothing rack as a tiny bundle of fur streaked past. A woman pushing a stroller barreled after the dog.
Could it be Sophia?
She looked…good. Really good.
And the baby…that had to be Jamie.
His heart twisted.
Jamie had only been a few months old when his parents had died. Now, he would be six or seven months old, getting teeth, sitting up, and maybe even crawling.
And Sophia…He had last seen her at the funeral. She’d been livid with him, of course. Dimly, he’d been aware that she’d lost a lot of weight since high school. She’d worn a black suit worthy of Madam Hillary, and she’d thrown a lot of accusations at him.
“Atticus! Come here!” Sophia tried to sound commanding.
She hadn’t known about his position, of course, so he’d automatically forgiven her. He only hoped that now that he’d returned and hoped to settle down that she’d forgive him. He followed her into Tina’s Timeless Treasures and found her very attractive backside sticking out of a circular clothing rack. The clothes jostled as she moved. He tried not to stare.
Squatting beside the baby, Luke smiled at his nephew, searching for signs of Matt. Jamie waved a chubby fist at him. He was blond, blue-eyed, and pink-cheeked like his mom…and his aunt. Other than the curls, Jamison looked nothing like his angular, strong-jawed father.
“I heard you were back in town.”
Luke tore his gaze away from his nephew to smile up at Tina Moon, the owner of the Timeless Treasure shop. She’d been old when Luke was in high school, but like her collection of what-haves and what-evers, she hadn’t seemed to age at all in the past fifteen years.
“Bought the Jacoby’s farm, have you?”
“Just the barn,” Luke told her.
Sophia scooted out of the clothes, clutching a puppy with a red ribbon tied around his neck to her chest. She had a smear of dust across her cheek and her hair was mussed. She probably had no idea how adorable she looked.
“Luke.” She made his name sound like a cuss word.
“Hey, Sophia. How are you?”
She climbed to her feet, hugged the puppy with one hand, and pushed her hair out of her face with another. He’d heard that she’d been practicing law at a prestigious firm in San Francisco before the accident. Her baby-doll appearance had undoubtedly thrown her opponents a curve ball as soon as she opened her mouth and filleted them with her wit.
“I see you’re reacquainting yourself with Jamison.”
“Yes,” he said softly. “It’s about time,” he said before she could.
She pursed her lips, but he didn’t know how to read that or the look in her eye.
“I want to talk.” He pressed on, despite the scowl forming between her eyebrows. Straightening, he gave her his best smile. “Can I take you to lunch?”
“Now?” She shook her head. “I’ve got to pass out these fliers and after that it’ll be time for Jamison’s lunch and nap.” She appraised him before lifting her chin. “He’s on a schedule and so am I.” And there’s no wiggle room for you, her tone told him.
Luke grinned. He liked a challenge. “Well, I can help you pass out the fliers. What are you advertising?”
She handed him one. Below the words FOUND DOG was a picture of the puppy followed by her phone number and address.
“You can’t pass these out!”
She grabbed the flier from him. “Why not?”
“It has your number on it!” He swallowed. “And your address!”
“Are you still living at Matt and Chloe’s place?”
“Yes, she is,” Tina said, her voice thick with disapproval.
Luke, so wrapped up in Sophia, had nearly forgotten about Tina. Sophia’s wide eyes told him that she had also. Luke took Sophia’s wrist with one hand, and picked up the folder of fliers and placed it behind his back with the other. “Let me take you to lunch.”
“No. I told you I have to—”
“You are not passing out your name and number.” He rubbed her inner wrist with his thumb.
“You can’t stop me!” She jerked her hand away and folded her arms across her chest.
“Come on, Sophia,” he said.
“That’s Sofa to you!” she spat out.
“Oh, that’s low. Seriously, you’re going to drag out junior high stuff?”
She put the puppy in the back of the stroller, and turned to flounce away. He followed, knowing she couldn’t go very fast while pushing Jamie.
“I want to help with Jamie,” he told her backside as they walked down Main at a brisk pace. “I know you gave up your job in the city…I admire that.”
Sophia acted as if she hadn’t heard him. She paused at a lamp post, pulled a roll of tape from her jacket pocket, and reached into the stroller for the folder of fliers. Straightening, her gaze flicked between the folder in his arms and his face. “Give them back!”
He shook his head. “Be reasonable. You’re living alone on nine acres and you’re going to invite everyone who passes by this street post to come and claim the dog? I don’t think so. Not while my nephew is living with you.”
She stared at him for a moment. Her eyes narrowed. Seconds later, she shoved the puppy into his arms.
“Fine. Now he’s your problem!”
The dog, a bundle of curly fur with big brown eyes, smelled of lavender soap. But no matter how adorable it was, Luke couldn’t keep it. “Sophia! Come on, I can’t take care of a dog.”
“Yes, you made that perfectly clear six months ago.”
Luke glanced around at the nearly deserted street, hoping no one was listening. An elderly gentleman was washing the windows at the Pizza Palace. A woman browsed through the potted plants at the Finicky Florist Shop. He lowered his voice. “I couldn’t be here then, but I’m here now.”
“Thank you very much for taking care of Atticus.” Her voice caught and she stroked the puppy between the ears. “He’s just a puppy. He likes chow made with carrots. I know it sounds weird, but according to the dog-bloggers, it’s the best. If you’ll come by, I’ll give you his things and the recipe for the chow.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “His things?”
“Well, yes. He has a quilt and some toys. Actually, the toys had been Jamison’s…”
“You weren’t going to keep this dog, right?”
“Well, no, but…” she paused, then shook her head. “This isn’t going to work. Give him back.”
Luke edged away from her. “Are you going to pass out fliers with your name and phone number on them?”
“No. I’m going to keep him.” She motioned for him to hand over the dog.
“I’ll give him back on one condition.”
“If you decide you can’t keep Atticus, I get first dibs.”
“It’s a deal.”
“And you’ll meet me for dinner tonight.”
“Because I want to be a part of Jamie’s life and for that to happen, I need your cooperation.”
Sophia sucked in a deep breath. “Okay.”
Luke gently placed the dog back in her arms.