“The abominable snowman is in our backyard!”
Marnie Haywood kept stirring the gravy. She had a few days to perfect her gravy-making technique before Christmas. She wasn’t going to burn the gravy this year, especially since her in-laws were coming for the holiday.
Besides, the likelihood that a live snowman was in their sunny San Diego backyard was small.
Five year-old Alex jumped up and down next to her. “Abominable! Snowman!” He made claws with both hands and dropped his voice to a monster snarl. “A-bom-in-a-ble! Snow-man!”
Maybe it’d been a mistake to allow Alex to binge-watch Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and sample the baked goods she’d made to share with their friends and neighbors. He was supercharged, bursting with enough energy to power Rudolph’s nose through a foggy all-nighter.
No fictional snowman was ruining Marnie’s gravy. She stirred as vigorously as her son jumped.
And then they both stopped, because something growled. Something in their backyard.
Alex gripped her jean-clad leg. “I told you.” He pointed to the glass slider behind her. The one leading to their condo’s backyard.
A thin sheet of glass separated them from a huge white dog. A pony-sized dog. A slobber-on-the-slider, paws-as-big-as-softballs, jaws-as-big-as-bear-traps dog.
Marnie’s insides shimmied like tinsel near a heating vent. This situation wasn’t covered in the Single Mom Handbook.
The dog gave another growly-grumble.
“No. I will not let you in,” Alex said as if he understood dog-speak.
The canine drooled and licked the slider, but mostly he panted. Now that the initial shock of him had passed, Marnie noted he had a black nose and a brown mask and ears. He was just so large, white, and Abominable Snowman-like.
“He’s thirsty.” Alex’s death grip relaxed on Marnie’s leg. “We have water, doggy.” Her little man took two steps toward the slider before Marnie dragged him back.
Panting, the dog plopped to his haunches and tilted his head to one side, trying to see in.
“Mama, you said we have to be nice to the new neighbor.”
Their condo shared a backyard and a wall with the unit next door. They’d heard someone move in yesterday. Marnie had planned on introducing herself tonight after whoever moved in had time to settle. But this…
Marnie held on to Alex’s small shoulders. “That dog is not a new neighbor. He’s a stray.” Had to be. There was a no pet policy at the condo complex. She had no problem with people sneaking in hamsters, indoor cats, or parakeets. But this…
The dog rested his humongous head on his humongous paws and made a sound that was half growl/half howl in a way that sounded as if he said, “But I’m harmless.” And then he put a paw on the glass with all the grace of a ballerina.
Her heart wanted to soften. But Marnie was a single mother. She had to be strong.
Alex broke away from Marnie’s arms and ran to the sliding door. He pressed his hand where the dog’s paw was. His small one was almost a perfect fit with the dog’s.
Marnie hurried after him. “Touch that slider latch, young man, and you’ll never watch Rudolph again.”
The beast lifted his head slowly, staring at Marnie with soulful eyes. He licked the glass near her son’s face before resuming his panting in a way that sounded like, “Hot-hot-hot-hot.”
Granted, it was warm. Ninety degrees wasn’t too warm for San Diego. But it was warm for the week before Christmas and for a big, furry dog.
“Water, Mama. Please?” Alex had big soulful eyes of his own.
“We’re not letting in a stray dog.”
An even larger figure stepped on to their small concrete patio.
Shrieking, Marnie and Alex stumbled back.
The setting sun outlined a towering, muscular frame, and kept the man’s face in shadow. He surveyed the backyard, paused, and then peered inside as the dog had done.
A second scream caught in Marnie’s throat. A man. At her backdoor. With only a flip-lock and a thin sheet of glass separating them.
He moved, and sunlight illuminated him in all his raggedy glory. A sleeveless black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and tan work boots – torn, dirty, and scuffed. None of which made her pulse slow. Her gaze met his smiling one – blue eyes as soulful as the dog’s, his teeth just as white. She wasn’t fooled by his good looks and that meant-to-be-reassuring smile. Dressed like that, her money was on vagrant serial killer. The Single Mom Handbook was clear on big strange men in tattered clothing – call the police.
Marnie ran through their small living room/dining area and into the galley kitchen, looking for her phone. Where had she left it?
“Mom?” Alex pointed to the patio.
The man had straddled the sitting dog and was pounding the beast’s barrel chest as if it was a drum. “Good boy, Snowflake.”
“Snowflake?” The name was more fitting for a small white poodle than that monstrosity.
The vagrant serial killer straightened, smiling as if he had the world at his feet. He knocked on the glass.
Did she trust those soulful blue eyes? That sun-kissed brown hair? That sigh-worthy smile?
Alex did. He unlocked and opened the slider.
“I didn’t do anything.” Her son’s standard disclaimer.
Snowflake bounded in, circling Alex and licking his face, eliciting a giggle. The dog finished with her son and galloped through the living room, past the Christmas tree, toward Marnie.
Big white teeth. Big white paws. Big white underbelly.
He tackled her, knocking the air from her lungs, banging her head to the hardwood, and wiping every trace of makeup from her face with his tongue.
“Off the nice lady, Snowy.” Using the dog’s nickname and his cop voice, Jonas Johnson took hold of the St. Bernard’s collar and pulled him off the petite woman. “Sorry. He only tackles people he bonds with.”
“But…We just met.” She wiped her face with the back of her hands. “Tell me you didn’t move in next door.”
“I did. I was crashing at a friend’s apartment, but Snowy wouldn’t have fit in that small space.”
Introductions were exchanged.
The little boy, Alex, giggled. “You smell like my friend Ursula’s Christmas tree.”
“That’s because I’m managing some Christmas tree lots for my family. We have a big Christmas tree farm. Three generations.” He took a couple of weeks off from the police department at the holidays every year to help out.
Holding Snowy back with one arm, Jonas extended his free hand to help Marnie up from her whitewashed hardwood floor. Only then did he get a good look at her – velvety brown eyes, a delicate nose, and a cascade of black, silken hair. Her small hand fit in his like a properly placed puzzle piece. When he brought her to her bare feet, she hardly came to his shoulder. But there was nothing petite about her attitude.
“No dogs allowed.” She tossed her hair and tugged at her clothing. Her hair was straight and her body was curvy, covered in blue jeans and a simple red tank top.
Something shifted in the air between them. And it wasn’t dog breath. It was a bone deep awareness that spread from Jonas’ lungs to his chest to his gut. Her words finally sunk in. “No dogs? In your house?”
“In the entire condo neighborhood!”
“Well, I…Is something burning?” He glanced at the brick fireplace. Was that what had him all tied up in knots?
“My gravy.” The spitfire hurried into the small kitchen, turned off the stove, and put the saucepan on the back burner. “Ruined again. I’ll never get past this.”
Snowy trailed after Marnie. He was tall enough to put his nose on the stove, but he didn’t. He took deep breaths and then did his doggy-mutter, the one he used to beg for food. He sat, still talking, sounding hopeful and reproachful at the same time.
“Gravy isn’t good for dogs,” she said. “Especially dogs who aren’t supposed to be here.” She leaned against the counter, brought Jonas in her sights, and crossed her arms.
“Don’t you like Snowy?” Little Alex hugged the St. Bernard. “I do.”
Snowy made a soft noise and licked the boy’s cheek.
“He talks,” Jonas said, studying her for more than just her negative reaction to a dog. “How can you not love a dog like that?”
“It doesn’t matter what skills your dog has. He has to go. Little boy. Big dog. Someone’s going to get hurt.” She touched the back of her head, wincing slightly. “The policy is clear. No pets.”
She couldn’t possibly care that much about the rules. More likely she didn’t want any more overly-loving take-downs or extra-large poop piles for Alex to step in.
“He’s not my dog,” Jonas admitted. “I’m taking care of him for a friend who just deployed. This was the only place I could find that was available on short notice and had a fenced yard.” Yeah, he’d seen the photo of a Marine in dress blues on her corner table next to the brown microfiber couch. And yeah, he wasn’t lying. Darren had been deployed with his SEAL team yesterday and was due back in two weeks.
Her gaze flew to the picture in the corner. Something flashed across her face. Pain? Guilt? Remorse? The jumbled emotions disappeared as fast as they came, triggering Jonas’ spidey-cop sense. What had begun as a friendly, neighborly distraction, threatened to plunge into private territory Jonas wanted to avoid.
Jonas flashed an expression of his own: his most charming smile – the one that settled speeders he’d pulled over to ticket and that sold Charlie Brown Christmas trees at full price on Christmas Eve. “I’m only here until Christmas Day and then I’m gone.”
“So he’s here until the holiday?”
The “he” in question grumbled softly and slid to the floor, putting his head on his paws. Alex sank next to Snowy and gave him another hug.
Marnie shook her head. “Does Snowflake always take things so personally?”
“He’s a sensitive dog.” Her white granite counter was lined with baked goods, including an open tin decorated with toy soldiers and filled with sugar cookies. “Are these homemade?” He selected a red stocking cookie as she nodded, and then handed one to Alex. The cookie was soft and sweet, worth savoring. “I miss home cooking. Your husband is a lucky man.”
“Daddy’s in Heaven.” Alex stood, dropping cookie crumbs on Snowy’s head. He bounded over to the couch. “And my grandparents live in Houston and Hackensack.”
Somebody liked alliteration.
“Michael’s parents are coming to spend the holidays with us for the first time.” Marnie’s words were tension-filled, her eyes clouded with worry. “They arrive day after tomorrow from Hackensack.”
Ah, the reason for the rules comes out.
Marnie glanced at the pot of ruined gravy and then back to Snowy. “Is there anyone else Snowflake can stay with once they arrive?”
“No.” Jonas took another cookie and admired the fridge art. If he had to guess, the rectangle with stick legs, Xs for eyes, and a red nose was Rudolph.
“Just for a few nights?” Her voice had a hand-wringing quality to it that reached inside Jonas’ chest and squeezed.
How far did she have to reach before she found his heart? Most days lately, it felt like it had gone missing. Some days, like today with an exuberant, friendly dog, it felt merely Grinch-sized.
“My former in-laws didn’t approve of me either.” Jonas admitted begrudgingly, tugging at his wrinkled, sap-stained T-shirt over the place where his heart should be beating. He was only crashing here for a few days. Why did this have to be complicated? “Hillary’s parents wanted someone with a college degree and an office job.” Anyone who wasn’t a cop.
Snowy climbed onto the couch and curled into a tight ball next to Alex, who leaned on him as if he was a pillow.
“I just…” Marnie lowered her voice, glancing at her son. “I just want us all to get along and move past…things.” Her gaze returned to the photograph of her dead husband. She seemed as reluctant to talk about her past as he was. “Things that…Well, I just want Christmas to be perfect.”
Things. Such a small word with such big emotional punch. According to his police captain, Jonas had “things” to get past before he could return to patrol. For the first time in weeks, Jonas felt he wasn’t the only person in this oversharing world that didn’t want to regurgitate the past. Maybe that wasn’t sexual attraction he’d felt when he’d helped her up earlier, but an intuitive emotional connection. Had to be. He hadn’t felt anything like it since.
“I could be convinced to take Snowy to work with me at the Christmas tree lot while they’re here, if you could see it in your heart to share some of your holiday treats.” He gestured to the apple pie and cinnamon rolls on the counter. Both looked homemade.
“Could you?” Marnie perked up. “I’ll close the curtains at night so they won’t see Snowflake. This will be perfect.”
Snowy grumbled and nuzzled Alex’s head.
Jonas bit into his cookie. It was bakery quality. Really, setting aside the burnt gravy, Marnie had skills in the kitchen. “So we have a deal?” It was the least he could do for their mutual “thingness.”
“We have a deal.” And then Marnie smiled.
He hadn’t seen her smile before, hadn’t experienced that deep hit of joy and enthusiasm.
The air deflated from his lungs quicker than an inflatable snowman with a puncture wound.
This had nothing to do with things.