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In this second chance at love romance, Kirk Fontaine can’t bear to talk to anyone, let alone enjoy Christmas. Away from home, in a small harbor city in Canada, broken-hearted, Kirk’s lost and alone until one small dog refuses to give up on him.
Vibrant widow Miranda Bailey is ready to move into the next phase of her life, except this Christmas is shaping up to be the worst since her husband’s death. But instead of hiding, she takes charge, and drags Kirk into her Christmas miracle.
How to pronounce Nanaimo? (everyone asks :)) Na-Nigh-Mo
December – Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, Canada
7:40 a.m. and dawn was still too far away to imagine. Not that Kirk Fontaine believed in mornings anymore. The idea of a light sky and sunshine felt foreign and old and impossible, especially above the forty-ninth parallel in mid-December.
Out of the gloom came the tip-tip-tap of running paws along the wooden pier. The woman’s dog must have slipped away from its owner again. The dog with a stalker mentality. No matter where he was on the Nanaimo waterfront, the scruffy little mutt made straight for him. It wasn’t that he didn’t like dogs, it was just that this one came with a woman Kirk could barely take his eyes off of.
A woman like the statuesque blonde had to have a man at home. But in the three months Kirk had been holed up here, the husband hadn’t made an appearance. Not once. Still, being an absentee husband didn’t mean the man didn’t exist. He likely worked long hours the way Kirk used to.
She must be married to a man like Kirk who could ignore his woman because she was where she always was: at home, waiting. She was being a good wife, not making demands on his time, not forcing him to choose between her and the work. A good wife who watched the long days tick away, life slipping by until there was no life left.
The dog was too short to jump onto his boat deck. Instead of trying she danced on her hind legs, pawing the air with her forelegs, begging for a kind word and waiting for acknowledgement.
Today, instead of heading below like he usually did, Kirk clicked his tongue at the dog and swung onto the dock to pat her head. Soft hair, warm, brown eyes, and a licking tongue summed her up. Such a simple thing, to give a dog a pat. Such a crazy doggy reaction.
Some days he’d seen the dog’s owner with a girlfriend, but never a man. Most men were given a brief nod as she strode past. He’d rarely seen her stop to pass a few words with anyone. For the most part, the blonde kept to herself. If only she could keep the dog to herself too, Kirk wouldn’t have to ignore it.
But today, he engaged. Couldn’t say why. He was just worn down by the mutt’s constant need for attention.
“I think she might swoon dead away,” he said half under his breath as the dog nearly wriggled off the dock in ecstasy. Two boots appeared in his line of vision beside the dog. The owner, come to claim her pet. He rose to his feet.
Don’t chat me up was written all over her face. Thus far, Kirk had managed not to say more than a couple of words to her, but a man could only take so much stalking from a pooch.
The mutt–and it was a mutt, not some four-way combination of purebred that people loved to brag about–flopped over to offer her belly for a rub. He complied.
Today the blonde’s hair was in a thick, lustrous braid, her ears covered by fuzzy earmuffs in green, white, and Christmas-red stripes.
The woman had candy canes on her ears. How could he not smile at that?
Funny that something like candy canes could bring up the first smile he’d felt in a year.
“I’m sorry. Again,” she said. “I don’t know what gets into her.” The dog skipped away from her mistress so that she had to turn away from him to try to catch the thing. “Come here and behave like a lady.”
The shapely blonde had no idea how good she looked from this angle. Long legs encased in over-the-knee leather boots. Her denim-covered butt peeked out from under a leather jacket. He felt his second smile in a year split his face.
A smile he quickly hid when she grasped the little beggar by the collar and turned back to face him. She pulled the dog up into her arms and raised her wide blue eyes to his. “I think she likes you and wants to be near you for some bizarre reason of her own.”
“Bizarre? Am I such an ogre?”
She flushed like a teenager. Beautifully. “Of course not. She doesn’t even know you. But she’s usually more nervous around men than women.”
“Maybe she just likes what she sees? I’ve tried ignoring her, but she doesn’t take a hint very well.”
The woman’s grin gave him a kick to his gut and Kirk stepped back. He shouldn’t feel a kick. He shouldn’t feel anything. He had no right.
She shivered and clutched the dog closer. “I’d best get back. This is the coldest morning this week and I’m not wearing my down coat.”
He nodded and watched her and her very fine butt stalk up the ramp that led to the seawall walkway that snaked along the waterfront. The woman never strolled, or sauntered, or moseyed. She walked fast and with purpose.
Before she got sick his wife had wanted to visit Nanaimo and when he’d found himself in Canadian waters he’d allowed his cabin cruiser, the Comfort & Joy, to end his weeks-long drift here. He could see why boaters from as far away as San Diego would drop anchor in the snug harbor for some R & R. Joanie would have loved this place.
He told himself she’d be glad he finally got here, but the truth was Kirk couldn’t gather the energy to leave again, so he stayed, clinging to the place like a barnacle.
~ ~ ~ ~
Miranda Bailey walked up the ramp away from the pier and toward the café with the notion that the man that Bella liked so much was watching her. She refused to turn to see if her feeling was right. Let him look. She tended to walk quickly, wanting to keep her blood pumping, her arms and legs moving. Miranda liked how walking briskly made her feel: alive and vital.
When she walked fast she could pretend she had somewhere to be, things to do, people to care for.
The walking had started eighteen months ago. That was six months after Miranda’s husband died. Her daughter, Jordyn, told her to “get moving, Mom” and one day she stepped out her front door and took the first step. Along the seawall, past the fish boats, the sea plane terminal, the quaint coffee house and gift stores, the ice cream parlor, and even past the wall of bricks with contributors’ names stamped into them. She walked in the afternoon at first, but once she went to the shelter and found Bella, she stepped things up to twice a day.
Miranda barely noticed anything at first, but now she craved the movement and the sights every morning. Her routine rarely changed.
At precisely 7:30, she headed downstairs to the front door of her waterfront condo. By 7:35 she was picking her way down the ramp to the dock that wound through the fish boats. She trooped along the dock, and then turned back at the far end. Once she came up the ramp again, she’d stop for coffee and breakfast at Bert’s Café.
She always hooked Bella’s leash over the back of her chair at an outside table and then went inside to order and wait for her food.
She sat. She sipped. She watched the water and the boats and the people. Some days she ate a breakfast muffin, other days a yogurt parfait.
Bella was the one who had taken a liking to the man on the cabin cruiser. Miranda couldn’t see why, because he was taciturn and dark. This morning’s encounter was the first time he’d actually spoken in sentences.
He’d even cracked the first smile Miranda had seen from him. His smile had warmed his eyes and taken years off his face. He was younger than she’d first thought. His pepper-dark hair was showing more salt now that it had grown out to curl around his collar.
Stupid to notice his hair and his smile or the crinkles at his eyes. He was a forbidding man and she preferred men with a sense of humor.
She claimed her seat at the café and waved to Bert, a friend she’d had for nearly all her married life, to turn on the outside lights. He’d already turned on the propane heater over her table for her.
She stepped inside and flashed her need coffee smile at him. Friends who stuck as long as Bert had were gold. “Thanks for the heat. You saw me coming?”
He nodded. “I’ve already started your cappuccino, Miranda. Want a breakfast bagel today?”
“No thanks. I’ll take a cran-bran muffin. Warm with butter.” She should forego the butter but it was her only treat of the day and she was past her stress-eating stage. She’d realized she’d regained control when the twenty pounds she’d put on after Greg died had melted away.
One day last December, her loose, comfy jogging pants fell down when she put them on right out of the dryer. She’d pulled her too-tight jeans out of the back of her closet and they fit.
Those jeans fitting again had been her very own Christmas miracle last year.
Hm. Maybe it was the walking. And now she’d doubled her trips along the seawall because of Bella. She’d thank Jordyn for telling her to get moving again. She’d also have to thank her best friend, Karyn, for suggesting she look at the local pet shelter to find a companion for her walks.
The milk steamer squealed in its high-pitched way as Bert worked his magic with her cappuccino. He slid her cup and saucer to the top of the counter, followed by her warmed muffin. “Somebody’s messing with Bella out there. You need to be careful. I’ve heard about dogs being stolen for ransom over in Vancouver.”
“Not mutts, Bert. Purebreds. Bella’s no one’s idea of purebred.” She turned to see who was outside with Bella and pursed her lips.
The man. It was the first time he’d approached the dog. Up until this, their interaction was always because of Bella’s infatuation. The dog’s eyes drooped in sensory overload as he stroked her knobby little head and caressed her ears. She tilted her head into his fingers and Miranda could read the dog’s mind clear as a blue sky. Bella was thinking, Deeper, harder, more, more…
“Looks like she’s in no danger,” Bert said and took her payment.
“More like she’s in heaven,” Miranda muttered on the way outside. She balanced her cup, saucer, and plate as she backed out the door, pushing it open with her hip. The man grabbed the handle and held the door open.
“Thanks,” she said and took her seat without looking at him. If she looked she might smile and she didn’t want to invite conversation. He was too intimidating and gruff for small talk. And what else could strangers say to each other on a cold morning with a chill ocean breeze ruffling their hair?
The man entered Bert’s place and came out a couple of minutes later with a bag and a take-out large coffee. Bella went bonkers with glee. She whined, cajoled, flipped onto her back, and generally made a fool of herself.
Miranda slipped her hand to Bella’s belly and rubbed it. She wriggled right side up again and danced on her hind legs, pawing at the man’s knee. “What’s her name?” he asked with a voice smooth as velvet on river rock.
Finally, Miranda turned her face up to his. He wasn’t smiling exactly, but his lips were set in less of a grimace than usual. Still forbidding, and his size was somewhere north of six feet. She had to look way up to gauge the expression in his eyes. Guarded, that’s what they were. He had guarded eyes, as if he couldn’t share his real thoughts.
But she understood guarded. She was careful with people now, too. “Her name’s Bella.”
He repeated it with a slight nod. His paper bag rustled as he clenched the top tighter. “He talked me into a bagel,” he said with a curt nod toward Bert who stood watching from behind his counter.
“They smell great.”
She sipped her cappuccino and picked at the top of her muffin. He’d move along any minute now.
But he didn’t. He seemed to shuffle without moving his feet and then his chest sort of sagged as if he was taking an action he didn’t want to take. “Mind if I sit?”
His question wasn’t exactly friendly. Since she couldn’t tell what he really wanted, she decided to make sitting with her less appealing. “If you sit, be warned. Everyone along the seawall will know. Whatever news there is gets around. And you sitting with me would be news.” She shook her head. “Even Bella’s ridiculous behavior with you has been commented on. Sitting with me would only invite questions and I have a feeling you’re not much into giving answers.”
He frowned and nodded. “I wouldn’t want to invite unfair gossip or rumor. Your husband wouldn’t like it.”
“No, he wouldn’t like it. He was always concerned about his image in the community.” Greg wouldn’t even have taken Bella in. He’d have wanted a purebred.
The man nodded. “I’ll take another table.”
She let him, all the while wondering why he’d ordered his breakfast to go if he wasn’t taking it anywhere. He took the seat at the next table that backed hers. He then gave surreptitious bits of bagel to Bella. Five minutes in and Miranda spoke without turning. “Don’t think I don’t know that you’re bribing my dog.”
A long moment later he replied. “I don’t have to bribe your dog, she already loves me.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Her laugh lit up the air around the café tables like sparklers. Kirk only wished he’d been facing her so he could see her eyes when she laughed. He’d bet anything they glowed like sapphires in the sun.
A cell phone chimed and he heard her answer. “Hi! Oh, no, it’s not too early. Never too early for you.”
Silence while she listened. “Okay, this is wonderful news. It’s everything we’ve worked for. Don’t panic now.”
With her laughter still in her voice, she sounded young and happy, the way a woman should. He didn’t want to listen but with his back next to hers it was impossible not to overhear and what the hell, she was hot. What man could resist a laughing, happy, sexy woman? Besides, she wasn’t whispering or making any attempt to keep the conversation private.
She chuckled in delight and Kirk had to wonder what had made her so happy. Likely her husband calling with good news about something she’d wanted to happen for a long time.
His bagel turned to lead as it traveled south to his stomach. He and Joanie had been this happy, too.
“You’ll be great,” she assured her caller. “We’ll talk before your appointment and I’ll coach you.” More listening and then, “Don’t worry about calling me. That’s what a mentor is for. I’m here for you. And Shayla, working with you has been very good for me. Don’t ever think you haven’t helped me, too.”
Not her husband; a protégé of some kind, or maybe a student. The call ended with another bit of small talk.
He sipped his coffee to wash down the last of his bagel. Before he finished swallowing, her phone chimed again. Busy woman for this time of the morning.
“Hi, sweetie. You’re calling early. What’s up?” Her voice was still full of happy and he imagined her smile lit her face. He petted the dog, who kept up a steady dance at his knee.
“Really?” Disappointment crept into her voice and the obvious joy she’d felt slipped away like a seal diving off a rock into the ocean. Her joy left without a ripple and the catch he heard in her voice felt like a barb. He’d just heard her laugh and now…
“I’ll miss you. Maybe I can come—no?—I see. Of course I don’t mind. I understand.”
But she didn’t understand, he realized. Anyone could hear the heartbreak in her voice. Anyone but the person causing the pain. Must be family, he decided. Nobody but family could railroad over someone else’s heart this way and be oblivious.
Which reminded him that he was due to call home. Tomorrow. He’d call tomorrow.
She murmured some words he couldn’t quite catch, but he stopped trying. He knew all he needed to know. She’d been hurt. The urge to turn around to face her swept over him, but he focused on draining his coffee cup instead. He crushed the paper cup and folded the empty take-out bag. He stood and tossed the paper into the recycle bin outside the café door. As he turned back he made the mistake of looking at her face.
She was dabbing at her eyes, and trying to pin a smile on her lips. Damn it. He shouldn’t ask but he lost to the same urge that had caused him to ask to join her a few minutes ago. “Trouble?”
The woman was hiding tears. Of course there was trouble. He put up his hands in surrender. “I should move on,” he said and stood there like a dope. “Unless there’s anything I can say?”
Her lips firmed but her eyes softened. “Not really. I’m disappointed. My daughter can’t come home for Christmas.”
“Christmas?” Oh God, he’d lost most of a year. No wonder her earmuffs looked like candy canes.
She clapped her hand over her mouth and her eyes danced as she fought a smile.
“Glad I could make you smile again.”
“It comes every December. Have you forgotten? Wow, I thought I was lacking in Christmas spirit.”
He shook his head. “I’ve, uh, kind of lost track of things.”
She sobered. “You haven’t noticed the decorations? Or the lights?”
He took a moment to look around. “I see them now.” He felt sheepish and let another smile squeak past his lips. “I should have twigged when I noticed your candy cane earmuffs.”
She covered them with her hands and adjusted the one she’d moved to hear her phone call. “I forgot I had them on.” She blushed again the way she had earlier and he felt the same kick as before.
“I don’t want to keep you,” he said, needing to escape her flushed prettiness. His collar grew tight and he needed to move, to get away, to run back to his boat and hole up. “Sorry your daughter can’t come home.”
“Me, too. But it’s her only chance to meet her boyfriend’s parents and she can’t get out of it.” She turned her lips down and mugged a put-upon face, trying to make light of her earlier tears.
“Too bad,” he said. He didn’t want to know any more about this woman or her family. “I guess this guy’s important. Meeting the family, especially at Christmas, is a big deal.”
“They’ve only been dating a couple of months, but with the way relationships go these days, two months is forever.”
He nodded. “It’s different now with all the social media and hooking up as they call it.”
She made a face. “An ugly term. But I don’t want to start a back-in-our-day rant.” Her slight grimace turned into a shy smile. “We’re both too young for that.”
“We are.” So, okay, he didn’t want company, but a few minutes of conversation would do him good. He cast about for something more to say. “So…it’s not that she can’t come home,” he said and knew the moment the words hit the air he should have bitten his tongue. He wanted to fall off the seawall and hit bottom.
She did a long, slow blink. “It could be considered rude to point out the obvious in a situation like mine.” She stood and grabbed the dog’s leash in a tight fist. “Yes, my daughter prefers to spend Christmas with virtual strangers than come home to me. Have a nice day,” she snapped and strode off.