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A Warm December

ROMANCE

SUSPENSE

IMAGINATION

 

 

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A Warm December

 

by Jacqueline Diamond

 

This holiday romance has it all: comedy, Santa, an orphan and lovable pets! 

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Chapter One

 Weary from a long Saturday—of which the highlight had been extracting birdshot from the rump of an over-eager cocker spaniel—Meredith McGregor, D.V.M., was shrugging off her white coat when an.angry male voice from the front office broke into her thoughts.

"What do you mean, you closed ten minutes ago? It's only five after six!"

"All right, we closed five minutes ago." Patience strained against irritation in the voice of Alida Reese, who doubled as a receptionist and animal technician.

"I was held up in traffic," he snapped, as if Alida were somehow to blame. "You'd think they could design the roads in Nashville so the traffic flowed instead of clogged once in a while. Well, I'm here, and I've come to collect my dog."

"I'll see what I can do." Tight-lipped, Alida ap­peared in the hallway of the old house that had been remodeled into a veterinary clinic long ago. "Dr. McGregor? Can you release"—she checked the dog's name on a card in her hand and pronounced it sarcasti­cally—"Champion Reeves Philton Conqueror?"

Merrie groaned inwardly. She'd been looking for­ward to kicking off her shoes and relaxing over a hot meal, the sooner the better. Still, she didn't like leaving an animal in the center over a Sunday if it wasn't essential. "Didn't Dr. Brown leave instructions? It must be his patient."  

"Oh." Alida consulted the card. "Yes. It's okay." The phone rang. "Darn! We're shorthanded—Jenny went home sick." She raced out of sight around the corner.

Champion Reeves Philton Conqueror. Merrie imme­diately pictured a clipped, high-strung poodle and an owner to match. She would let Alida handle this one.

Merrie had other things to think about. Like Christmas coming up on Friday. And a waif of a little girl jvhoneeded her help. And—

"Miss?" The masculine voice made her turn sharply. "I'm Dave Anders, and I'd like my dog, please. Your friend seems to be tied up on the phone."

The man standing in the doorway fixed her with steely gray eyes, obviously accustomed to commanding obedience. From his height and the way his tailored coat fit over broad shoulders, she guessed he would intimi­date most women. But most women weren't five feet nine and fully capable of administering antibiotics to a horse.

Without her coat, Merrie realized, he must have mis­taken her for one of the technicians. "I'm sure Alida will be finished in a minute."

"Look, I'm in a hurry. Do you mind?"

Yes, she did mind, but it would probably be easier to release Champion Reeves Philton Conqueror to his owner than to stand here arguing about it.

"All right. This way." She led him into a room lined with steel cages, mostly empty now. From nearby came the high-pitched gabbling of Britches, a spider monkey who had accidentally slashed his hand when he grabbed his mistress's cooking knife. Merrie clucked to the ani­mal as she passed, and reminded herself to check that Britches had enough food and water. Jenny, the teenager

who worked here on Saturdays, had been exercising Britches just before she went home sick, and might have forgotten something.

An excited bark came from a large cage at the end, arid Merrie saw that it was not a poodle but a doe-eyed collie, his feathery tail fluttering with excitement.

"Hey, Buster." Dave Anders dropped to one knee after a quick glance at the linoleum to make sure his crisp wool pants wouldn't be spoiled.

"Buster?" Merrie couldn't help being amused. "You call Champion Reeves Philton Conqueror just plain Buster?"

The man went right on talking to his dog as if he hadn't heard. "Did they take good care of you? Poor fellow, we were worried about that lump, weren't we? But it wasn't anything serious, after all." Finally, he noticed Merrie again. "Would you please let him out? I haven't got time to—"

The rattle of metal behind her made Merrie pivot just as the door to Britches's cage swung open. Hurrying toward it, she fumed silently at Jenny. Even illness was no excuse for not making sure a cage was latched prop­erly. Monkeys were notorious escape artists.

Fast as she was, she wasn't quick enough. The tiny, long-armed creature slipped through the opening with a triumphant shriek and shimmied across the face of the cages, the bowed bending of his arms and legs empha­sizing his resemblance to a spider.

"Alida!" Merrie could see she was going to need help with this one. Monkeys were not only hard to catch, they could make a mess if they began throwing bottles of medication, and they could inflict some nasty bites.

Dave Anders straightened up, his mouth twisting in annoyance. "I had no idea things had gotten so slipshod around here. Old Dr. Brown would never have allowed it"

This was no time to argue. "Just step out of the room." Merrie felt a twinge of pleasure when her au­thoritative tone brought a look of surprise. "Out!"

"Don't be ridiculous." To her dismay, he reached for the monkey. Visions of injuries and lawsuits danced through her brain.

"Stop it right now, Mr. Anders! I don't know what you're used to, but I'm in charge around here."

Too late. Man and monkey met, and monkey con­quered—not with a bite, but by leaping onto the shoulder of Dave Anders's expensive coat, executing a caper across his stylishly trimmed brown hair, and using his arrogant head as a launchpad from which to attack a shelf full of equipment.

"Dammit! See what you've done?" Merrie pushed past the man and snatched up a blanket from the shelf. Chittering happily, Britches was hurling supplies onto the floor as she approached. But as Merrie poised to envelop him with the blanket, the monkey leaped again and scampered straight toward the door that led to the rest of the building.

Diving after him, Merrie flung the blanket over the reddish-brown form and stamped on two sides of the cloth to halt the little creature. A pair of Italian leather shoes snapped down on the other corners, and Britches was trapped.

'Thank goodness." Only then, did Merrie realize that Dave Anders was standing almost toe-to-toe with her, his face inches from hers. The scent of his after-shave lotion tingled across her senses. "You... Thanks.. .I..."               

Without warning, his mouth closed over hers, and his strong hands caressed her shoulders. The touch was

gentle, almost playful. Dazed, Merrie took a moment before she drew back.

"Sorry." A lazy grin told her Dave wasn't sorry at all. "I guess you bring out my jungle instincts."

As if on cue, Britches hissed angrily from below and struggled against his blanket covering. "Alida!" Merrie called again, and this time the assistant came running. Donning protective gloves, Alida soon had the monkey back in the cage, and Champion Reeves- Philton Con­queror—alias Buster—out of his.

"I'm really sorry, Dr. McGregor," Alida said as she replenished the monkey's food and water and headed back to the front office. "I should have double-checked everything after Jenny left."

"Just go ahead and close up for the day," Merrie called after her. "And thanks for your help with Britches."

Dave, ruffling his collie's fur affectionately, studied Merrie with interest. "So you're a vet. I've never kissed a vet before."

Heat stung Merrie's cheeks. "I hope you enjoyed yourself, Mr. Anders."

"Oh, I did. And so did you." Teasing gray eyes stared into her hazel ones. "If I didn't have a commit­ment for tonight, I'd suggest we explore this interesting subject further."

"I think we've explored it quite far enough." She tried to regain a measure of composure. "And it so hap­pens I also have a commitment for tonight, for which you've made me late." She saw no reason to add that the commitment was to have dinner with her grand­mother, who lived next door to her.

He straightened, snapping a leash to Buster's collar. "As I see it, you owe me something."

"I beg your pardon?"

"If it weren't for me, this place would have been empty when the monkey got out. He'd have had a fine time going AWOL overnight, wouldn't you say?"

The very idea sent shudders down Merrie's spine. "I'll concede that the timing was fortunate, but I believe you've been amply rewarded."

. "I'm not trying to get out of paying my bill, you know." He looked amused at the notion. "Perhaps we could make it another night. I'm tied up through Wednesday—"

"So am I," Merrie said, although what she planned to be busy with was wrapping gifts. "And also on Thurs­day night, which happens to be Christmas Eve. So—"

"Too bad." Dave Anders clicked his tongue at Bus­ter, who panted appreciatively. "I happen to be free Christmas Eve. Sure you couldn't change things around?"

The nerve of the man! "Absolutely sure." Merrie moved decisively toward the door. "I believe Alida would like to get home, if you'd care to settle your account."

"My pleasure." Dave followed her out the door. "Merry Christmas, Dr. McGregor."

"Merry Christmas."

As she changed from her rubber-soled work shoes into a pair of low-cut boots, Merrie was embarrassed to discover that her lips were still tingling. How could she have stood there as stunned as a schoolgirl? Dave Anders might be handsome, but she wasn't impressed.

Well, all right, she was impressed, she admitted si­lently as she slipped on her fake-fur coat. And he was just the sort of man her mother would approve of: rich  and good-looking. Georgia Hixton McGregor Aston Lemoins, better known as Gigi Lemoins since her third marriage two years ago, had approved of a few too many men, in her daughter's opinion.

Locking the back door of the clinic behind her, Mer­rie set off through the crisp winter evening to her house two blocks away. There was a poignant sadness to Nashville at this time of year, the trees bare and black against the dark sky, the air smelling faintly of old leaves and fireplaces. She hoped it would snow. Steffie deserved a special Christmas.

Merrie had spent most of the previous evening buy­ing toys for the five-year-old: a giant Big Bird, a color­ing book with the largest box of crayons in existence, and a Dr. Seuss book. No need to buy clothes. If there was one thing Steffie would have, it was lots of expen­sive clothes.

The last thing Merrie had expected from her flighty sister Lizabeth, a New York model who took after their mother when it came to evaluating men, was for her to adopt a little girl. At thirty-one, two years older than Merrie, Lizabeth had never been interested in children, not even during her brief marriage.

Then recently, although she looked no older than she ever had, Lizabeth had begun talking about the biologi­cal clock. No doubt some of her friends were having babies, and suddenly Lizabeth wanted one, too. Not at the diaper stage, of course; instead, she'd adopted a five-year-old this fall.

Merrie had gone to New York for Thanksgiving— Lizabeth had the dinner catered—and fell in love with shy little Steffie. She'd been dismayed to learn that the child was spending most of her time with one hired nurse after another. And then, this past week, Lizabeth had announced she simply couldn't resist an invitation to go skiing in Switzerland over Christmas and visit their mother in the south of France.

So Steffie was coming to Nashville. One of Liza-beth's. friends was keeping the little girl for a few days and then would fly down and drop her off Thursday en route to Florida. Merrie muttered angrily to herself, at the thought of Steffie being shuffled here and there as if the child had no feelings.

It was up to Merrie, with the aid of Grandma Netta, to make sure Steffie had the best Christmas ever. She wished she could think of some way to make the holi­day really special, some surprise that Steffie would re­member happily after she went back to New York.

Anger carried Merrie rapidly home. She was due at Netta's, but first she stopped off in her own two-story brick house to feed her pets.

As always, a sense of peace flowed through her as she stepped through the front hall into the living room. She'd purposely decorated it with the softest pieces she could find—a big fluffy rug, low comfortable couches, shaggy wall hangings. By the window stood the Christmas tree Merrie had wrestled home Frieday eve­ning with the help of her partner, Bill Brown, and his wife, Sue. Hung with candy canes and tiny wooden sol­diers, the old-fashioned tree spread its branches above Merrie's collection of stuffed animals. The small perky rabbits, the inquisitive bears, and the droopy-antlered moose she'd brought back from a vacation in Canada made the room come alive.

A movement to her right caught Merrie?s attention. It was followed by a plaintive meow.

"Okay, Homebody." She went into the kitchen to open the cat food and nearly tripped over Snoozer, who was lying by the stove soaking up the warmth from the pilot light. "Where's Wanderer?"

As if on cue, a black nose poked through the cat door from the back porch, followed by the splotchy black­-and-white form of Wanderer. Merrie would have sworn that Wanderer had a Dalmatian somewhere in his back­ground, if he hadn't been a cat.

They needed no urging to gather around the food bowl and dig in. Only Snoozer hung back, reluctant to give up his prime spot. "Suit yourself." Merrie ran a hand over his thick orange fur. "I'm going to Netta's for dinner."

She'd coveted this house ever since she lived next door as a teenager, imagining herself moving in here someday with a husband and children of her own. Well, that part hadn't come true yet, but a least she'd been able to afford the mortgage payments when the house finally came up for sale four years ago, just after she and Bill took over his father's old veterinary clinic.

Inexplicably, Merrie found herself wondering what kind of house Dave Anders lived in. Probably a condo­minium, although that wouldn't leave much room for Buster to romp in.

She wished she hadn't given in to his kiss. He was right, she had enjoyed it. If only Merrie could respond that way to one of the men she dated from time to time. At least they fit in with her casual lifestyle. Somehow she couldn't picture Dave popping over to help her cook meat loaf or plant tomatoes in the spring or enjoy a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry.

After running upstairs to feed the guinea pigs, Munchkin and Grumpus, Merrie bounced over to Grandma Netta's house. She could smell the ginger­bread as she crossed the yard.

Letting herself in by the kitchen door, Merrie inhaled deeply. "Smells wonderful."

Her grandmother turned away from the stove. Salt-and-pepper hair framed a handsome high-browed face, remarkably unlined at seventy-six. Merrie could still see

traces of the beauty her grandmother had been as a young woman. "About time you got here. Emergency?"

"Not exactly." Merrie gave her a brief description of the monkey’s escape. "I did promise to check on things tomorrow, though. After all, I'm taking off early on Thursday to pick up Steffie." Fortunately, since the Nashville Pet Emergency Center was open overnight and on weekends to take urgent cases, she and Bill didn't have to worry about being called out late at night the way Bill's father had before he retired.

Without being asked, Merrie set the kitchen table and helped her grandmother serve up the beef stew and gin­gerbread. It tasted heavenly.

"Say." Netta regarded her over a spoonful of stew. "Aren't you going to that Christmas party tomorrow? The one for the kids?"

Merrie nodded. She'd promised to bring the guinea pigs to a party for a group of foster children at a recre­ational center. "I'll only have to be at the clinic for half an hour. Alida will take care of the feedings."

Her grandmother poured herself a second cup of hot tea. "I'm not sure I shouldn't cancel out for Christmas Eve. I ought to be here with you and Steffie."

Each year, Netta and a group of friends sang carols at convalescent homes. "Don't be silly. You can't let your friends down. We'll see you Christmas morning."

They talked over some ideas for surprising Steffie but failed to come up with anything exciting. Finally, a comfortable silence fell between them, an easy familiar­ity bred of years spent in each other's company. It was with Netta that fourteen-year-old Merrie had stayed when her mother married for the second time and moved away from Nashville, after years of flitting in and out of her daughters' lives while Netta held down the fort.

Lizabeth, then sixteen, had been eager to move to Manhattan with her mother, but Merrie had stayed right here until she finished high school. Then she'd joined her mother and sister for a year in New York, a year that almost resulted in a disastrous marriage.

Now, secure in her grandmother's kitchen, Merrie's traitorous thoughts returned to Dave Anders. He ob­viously didn't place much value on holiday celebra­tions, the way he'd tried to make a date with her for Christmas Eve. He ought to be home with his family, if he had one.

Grandma Netta had lived in Nashville most of her life. Maybe she knew something about him.

Hoping her grandmother wouldn't notice the catch in her voice, Merrie said, "By the way, that man who helped me with the monkey was named Dave Anders. You don't happen to know him, do you?"

Netta wasn't fooled for an instant by Merrie's pre­tended casualness. "Piqued your interest, did he?"

"Netta! It's just idle curiosity."

"Hah." Her gandmother brought out a bottle of sherry and poured them each a splash in sparkling crys­tal glasses. "Nothing about Dave Anders is idle. Or you either, my girl."

"So you do know him." Merrie sipped the rich liquid. The warmth of the large kitchen was making her sleepy.

"Know of him, more like." Netta regarded her glass thoughtfully. "And his parents. Father's dead now. Ever heard of Anders Enterprises?"

Merrie had a sinking feeling. "You mean that big building out on Thompson Lane? Don't they make computers or something?"

"They make something like just about everything," her grandmother said. "Computers, software, computer games, so I read in the paper. Rich enough to turn even your mother's head, if she'd been lucky enough to meet 'em."

Or Lizabeth's, Merrie thought with a pang. Yes, with his tailored suit and wealthy background, Dave Anders would suit Merrie's sister perfectly. Except that the dog would have to go. Lizabeth didn't like animals.

"But Georgia—I just can't call my daughter Gigi, even if she is married to a Frenchman—she's just never been in the same league as Sarah Anders," Netta went on. "Guess they might have known each other at school; they both went to Harpeth Hall. But Sarah—well, she's old Nashville, a real society lady. I wouldn't be sur­prised if she still wears white gloves and a hat whenever she goes out. I'll bet she'd like to see that son of hers married off to some debutante at the Belle Meade Coun­try Club."  

"Well, he's got a nice dog," Merrie said.

Her grandmother laughed and pushed her chair back from the table. "That's my girl! I never met a more down-to-earth child than you were, Merrie, and heaven knows how you got that way, raised from pillar to post as you were."

"I got it from you." Merrie smiled fondly. "And he does own a nice dog, even if it has a name as long as your arm." She began clearing the dishes away before Netta could rise. "You cooked; how you rest."

"Never thought I'd say it, but you could do a lot worse than Dave Anders."

The remark was so unexpected that Merrie wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. "I wasn't planning.to marry the man! I just met him, and I'll probably never see him again." The words rang hollowly through her mind. That lazy grin, that commanding presence of his...Dave Anders wasn't going to be easy to forget, even after one encounter.

"I'm not the type to push, " Netta said. "And I'm in no hurry to have a great-grandchild next door. But he's got a mind of his own, that fella, and I respect him for it. Gets his name in the paper for one cause or another all the time."

"Rich people are always making donations. For the tax write-off." Years of listening to her mother's friends had taught Merrie a certain cynicism. "Well, I'm bushed. Thanks for a fabulous dinner, as usual, Netta."

She kissed her grandmother good night and went next door. Home to her guinea pigs and her cats.

The house felt larger than usual and a little bit lonely. Waiting for Steffie, Merrie told herself firmly. And someday for a man, too, of course. But not one like Dave Anders, who lived in the glitzy, brittle world coveted by her mother and sister.

Nevertheless, she sat for a long time staring at the winking light of the Christmas tree, her heart swelling with a bittersweet mixture of nostalgia and yearning.  

 

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      Copyright 1988, 2010 Jackie Hyman

 

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