Evan Conner opened the front door and frowned.
An elf stood on the doorstep.
But not just any elf.
This elf was a petite redhead wearing a full-fledged red and green costume fitted with a pointed hat, pointed-toe shoes, and jingle bells. Lots and lots of jingle bells. A sprinkle of freckles crossed her pert nose, a wide grin plucked up the corners of her mouth and her deep green eyes sparkled like diamonds.
Yes sir, a really, really cute elf.
Huh? What was she doing here? Puzzled, he peered over her shoulder to see if Santa and a few reindeer might be lurking around, but she was alone.
“May I help you?” he asked, bracing for the answer. Nothing about this weird business trip was turning out the way he’d expected.
“Hi! I’m Dr. Chole Anderson, the vet,” the elf said. She extended her hand to the jangle of the jingle bell bracelet at her wrist. “You called about a dog?”
Evan introduced himself and shook her hand, relieved to know who she was, but still perplexed by her wardrobe choice. “Thanks for coming. Um, nice outfit…”
She laughed. “Sorry about the elf costume. It’s photos with Santa day at my veterinarian clinic, and I didn’t have time to change. Our pet parents love to have some holiday fun, so we all dress up and pose with the dogs and cats for Christmas pics.”
Evan grinned. Chloe Anderson chattered a mile a minute. The whole time she was talking, her hands moved, and her eyes danced, and her smile lit her face. “Sounds like a great way to turn a tidy little profit.”
Her smile vanished, and she frowned at him like a disappointed fifth-grade teacher.
“Excuse me, but we don’t make a profit from the photos. We don’t charge anything to the pet parents.”
“Why not?” he asked, fascinated.
“We do it in the spirit of Christmas. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?” Her voice turned a tad tart on that last part.
He held up both palms. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
“It’s okay.” Her smile was back. “But I can tell you’re not from Kringle.”
What did that mean? Feeling slightly offended, Evan pushed the front door open. “C’mon in.”
She jingled over the threshold and he couldn’t suppress his smile. She sounded like a one-woman parade.
“I am sorry about my comment,” he apologized again. “I’m a corporate lawyer, and if you don’t mind a little friendly business advice, a small vet practice such as yours should maximize all opportunities for a profit. You could make quite a lot off those pet photographs if you have a big turnout.”
The look Chloe gave him could melt paint off a car. “I could never do that. I do suggest that our pet parents donate to the local animal shelter, but I would never try to profit from it.”
Her attitude toward profit made him want to shake his head, but as she continued staring at him, he realized what she did or didn’t do wasn’t his concern. He was only in Kringle, Texas, for two weeks, and then it was back to his life in Dallas.
“Whatever works for you.” He shut the door.
She looked a little embarrassed that she’d overreacted. “That’s okay. I shouldn’t have gotten so upset. I just don’t want you to think that I’m all about money.”
All sorts of retorts occurred to Evan, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. Instead, he nodded, which she must have taken as agreement.
“Mind if I leave a few things here while I look at the dog?” She moved into the large foyer and stopped at a side table. “I don’t want to scare her with all the jingling.”
“Of course,” he said, curious as to what exactly she intended.
She set down the small medical bag, took off her hat and slid the felt elf covers off her shoes. She also took off armbands festooned with jingle bells. When she was done, she still looked like an elf, just less noisy.
Chloe glanced around. “I didn’t know someone rented the Madison place. Last I heard, Kitty and Dwayne were still living in Dallas. It’s a nice…um…house.”
Evan didn’t blame her for hesitating. The word “house” hardly described the place. ‘Sprawling mansion” was the phrase that came to mind, and the estate fit into the small town of Kringle like a giant wart on a puppy’s face.
“My boss rented it,” he said, not wanting her to think he wasted money on lavish housing.
When his boss, Peter Thomas, had brought up this trip and “volun-told” Evan he was coming, too, Peter said his goal was to make amends to his hometown. A heart attack last month Peter reconsidering his life as a corporate lawyer, and now he wanted to show the people he’d hurt in the past that he’d changed.
“It’s a Christmas Carol without the ghosts,” he’d told Evan.
But so far, Peter acted more like the original Scrooge than the reformed version. For instance, renting the biggest, most ostentatious house in town was hardly the right way to show the townsfolk he wasn’t greedy.
“Ready?” Chloe asked.
“This way.” Evan led her to the home office. “When I got up this morning I heard some yipping and whimpering and discovered this…”
He shoved opened the French doors so that Chloe could see the small light brown dog in the corner of the room. The dog had made herself a little bed out of what had once been a fine oriental rug and a couple of expensive throw pillows. Inside the makeshift bed lay the dog and three small puppies.
“She must have come in through the doggie door. Whoever is in charge of this house should have secured it.”
“True.” Chloe approached the dog, knelt in front of her.
The little dog thumped her tail against the floor and looked up at the vet with moony eyes.
“Look at you, Vixen, you went and had babies,” Chloe cooed.
“Vixen? You know this dog?”
Chole nodded. “She belonged to a wonderful woman who used to live in Kringle, Vivian Kuhlmeier. Vivian passed away a few months ago at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. Everyone in town looks after Vixen, but then she suddenly disappeared. We thought she’d left the area, but I’m glad to see she’s okay. Better than okay. She’s a mama now.”
Evan stayed by the doorway while Chloe examined Vixen and her puppies. He was in over his head. Animals just weren’t his thing. He hadn’t grown up around them and his parents drummed it into his head that pets were a waste of money.
When he’d told Peter about the dog, his boss had said, “Eeew, just get them out of the house.”
As usual, his employer expected him to do all the dirty work. When he’d agreed to come along on this trip with Peter, he’d thought his boss would say “hi” to a few old friends, apologize for his misdeed, and then they’d head back to Dallas.
From what he’d seen so far, Kringle was a cute town but a small one. It shouldn’t take too long for Peter to accomplish his mission and Evan felt a bit impatient that his boss had already strung things out for three days.
He hadn’t planned on spending a lot of time in this one-pony town, even though not much happened the corporate world during the month of December, he still wouldn’t mind getting back to the office. There was always work that needed doing.
Chloe clicked her tongue. “I told Vivian repeatedly that she should get Vixen spayed, but she wouldn’t do it. She had some misguided notion that spaying messed with a dog’s temperament.”
“Too bad you can’t wave a magic wand and make people do what you want,” Evan mumbled, thinking of Peter.
“I wouldn’t want to be the one wielding the magic wand.” Chloe sank her hands on her slim hips.
“As nice as it might seem to control the world, I do believe in free will. You’ve got to let people be who they are, no matter how inconvenient it might be for you.”
“That’s a philosophical attitude.”
“I find life works better when I don’t try to impose my values onto others. But…” Chloe sighed. “Now not only does Vixen needs a new home, but so do her puppies. Thankfully, at least the birth seems to have gone smoothly.”
“I’m glad for that.” And Evan was beyond glad to shift the new mother out of the house. Dealing with his boss was difficult enough. He knew nothing about taking care of animals, especially a litter of puppies. “So, you’ll take her with you?”
“No, she should stay here.”
Evan was so certain she was going to say yes that it took a minute for her answer to sink in. He was already planning how he was going to move the dog into the vet’s car.
He blinked. “Stay h-here?”
“Vixen and the puppies will be fine,” she said as if the animals’ health was his top concern. “Just keep the room warm and make sure she has food and water. Right now, she needs bonding time with her puppies.”
“W-What?” he asked, hoping he’d heard wrong and he felt like a dolt. “She has to stay here? Are you sure?”
He looked at the little dog. Sure, she was cute with her big brown eyes and little black nose, but she worried him. What if something went wrong?
Chloe had been patting the dog, but now she turned to look at him. “Yes. She should stay here for a few more days. There’s no reason to move her.”
Evan frowned. Vixen did look content, and her puppies were happily snuggled next to their mom. What the vet said made sense, but the truth was, the new mom and her puppies intimidated him. He’d faced tough juries that didn’t unsettle him as much as one little mama dog and her puppies.
“Um . . .” He glanced at Chloe, not at all happy with how this was turning out. “I guess I can handle it.”
She laughed. “It’s not as hard as it seems. The doggie door is right behind her, so she can go outside when she needs to. I’ll help you set up food and water.”
Knowing this was the best he could hope for at the moment, Evan resigned himself to his fate. “Ok.”
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