Virgin River Book #8
June 15, 2012
That Holiday Feeling
Celebrate Christmas with three stories from your favorite authors.
Under the Christmas Tree by Robyn Carr
When the folks of Virgin River discover a box of adorable puppies under the town’s Christmas tree they call on local vet Nathaniel Jensen for help. But it’s his budding romance with Annie McCarty that really has tongues—and tails—wagging!
The Perfect Holiday by Sherryl Woods
Will bachelor Trace Franklin become a groom-to-be by Christmastime? He sure will…if Savannah Holiday’s aunt Mae has anything to do with it.
Silver Bells by Debbie Macomber
In this classic story, Debbie brings those Manning men and Manning sisters home for a mistletoe marriage when a single dad finally says “I do.”
Originally published October 2009 in mass market paperback.
During the Christmas holidays a side trip through Virgin River was a must; the town had recently begun a tradition of erecting a thirty foot tree in the center of town, decorated it in red, white, blue and gold with a great big, powerful star on top. It dominated the little town and word had gotten out; people came from miles to see it. The patriotic theme of the decorations set it apart from all other trees. Jack joked that he was expecting the three wise men any minute, that star was so bright.
Annie McKenzie didn’t pass through Virgin River often. It was out of her way when driving from Fortuna, where she lived, to her parents’ farm near Alder Point. It was a cute little town and she liked it there, especially the little bar and grill owned by Jack Sheridan. People there met you once, maybe twice, and from that point on, treated you like an old friend.
She hoped they’d at least gotten started on the tree since it was the week after Thanksgiving. It was a calm and sunny afternoon, but so cold. When she pulled into town she saw the tree was up and decorated. Jack was up on an A-frame ladder straightening out some trimmings. Standing at the foot of the ladder, looking up, was Jack’s cook, Preacher’s, son, Christopher.
Annie got out of her truck and walked over. “Hey, Jack,” she yelled up. “Looking good!”
“Annie! Haven’t seen you in a while. How are your folks?”
“They’re great. And your family?”
“Good.” He looked around. “Oh-oh. David?” he called. Then he looked at the boy as he climbed down the ladder. “Chris, you were going to help keep an eye on him. David?” he called again.
Then Chris called. “David! David!”
They were both walking around the tree, behind it, to the bar porch, the backyard, calling his name. Annie was just standing there, not sure whether to help or just stay out of their way, when the lowest bows of the great tree moved and a little tyke about three years old crawled out.
“David?” she asked. He was holding something furry in his mittened hands and she got down on her knees. “Whatcha got there, buddy?” she asked. And then she yelled, “Found him, Jack!”
The child was holding a baby animal of some kind, and it looked awful young and listless. It’s fur was black and white, it’s eyes closed, and it hung limply in little David’s hands. She just hoped the little boy hadn’t squeezed the life out of it; little boys were not known for gentleness. “Let me have a look, honey,” she said, taking the creature out of his hands. She held it up and it’s little head lolled. Unmistakably a puppy. A brand new puppy.
Jack came running around the tree. “Where was he?”
“Under the tree. And he came out with this,” she said, showing him the animal very briefly before stuffing it under her sweater between her tee-shirt and the wool, up against the warmth of her body. Then she pulled her down vest around herself to hold him in place. “It might be frozen, or almost frozen.”
“Aw David, where’d you find that?”
David just pointed at Annie. “My boppie!” he said.
“Yeah, he’s right,” Annie said. “It’s a boppie… er, puppy. But it’s not very old. Not old enough to have gotten out of a house or yard. This little guy should’ve been in the litter box with his mom.”
“David, hold Chris’s hand,” Jack ordered.
And David said something in his language that could be translated into, I want my puppy! But Jack was on his belly on the cold ground, crawling under the tree. And from under there Annie heard a muffled, aw crap! And then he backed out, pulling a box, low enough to fit under that tree without being seen from the street. And it was full of black and white puppies that weren’t wiggling around much.
Annie and Jack just stared at each other for a moment. Then Annie said, “Better get ‘em inside, by the fire. Puppies this young can die in the cold real fast. This could turn out badly.”
Jack hefted the box. “Yeah, it’s gonna turn out badly! I’m gonna find out who would do something like this and take him apart! What an awful thing to do!” He carried the box to the bar porch and Annie rushed past him to hold the door open. “I mean, there are animal shelters, for God’s sake!”
The fire was ablaze in the hearth and there were a couple of guys dressed like hunters at the bar, sharing a pitcher of beer and playing cribbage. She patted the place by the hearth and he put down the box. Annie immediately started touching the puppies with her ungloved hand. “I’m gonna need a little help here, Jack. Can you warm up some towels in the clothes dryer? I could use a couple more warm hands. Not enough moving around in this box to give me peace of mind.” Then she wiggled in sudden shock and smiled. “Mine’s coming around,” she said, patting the lump under her sweater.
When Jack was sure David was inside with Chris, he went to the kitchen.
Annie kneeled before the box. She took the wiggling puppy out from under her sweater, put him in the box and picked up a cold one. At least there was a blanket under them and they had their shared warmth, she thought. She put another one under her sweater.
“Whatcha got there?” someone asked.
She looked over her shoulder. The hunters from the bar had wandered over to the hearth, peering into the box. “Someone left a box of newborn puppies under the Christmas tree. They’re half frozen.” She picked up two, made sure they were moving, if slightly. “Here, put these two inside your shirt, warm ‘em up, see if they come around.” She picked up two more, checked them and handed them to the other man. “These two are moving, but too cold.” The men did exactly as she told them, and she stuffed one more under her sweater.
Then she picked a puppy that went limp in her palm. “Uh-oh,” she muttered. She jostled him a little, but he didn’t move. She covered his tiny mouth and nose with her mouth and pushed a gentle breath into him. She massaged his little chest gently. Rubbed his extremities, breathed into him again and he curled up in her palm. “Better,” she muttered, stuffing him under her shirt.
“Did you just resuscitate that puppy?” one of the hunters asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “I did that to an orphaned kitten once and it worked, so what the heck, huh? Man, there are eight,” she said. “Big litter. At least they have fur, but these guys are young. Couple of weeks, I bet. And puppies are so vulnerable to the cold; they have to be kept warm.”
“Boppie!” David cried, trying to get his little hands into the box.
“Yup, you found a box full of boppies, David,” Annie said. She picked up the last puppy — the first one she’d warmed. She held it up to the hunters. “Can anyone fit one more in a warm place?”
One of them men took the puppy and put it under his arm. “You a vet or something?”
She laughed. “I’m a farm girl. I grew up not too far from here. Every once in a while we’d have a litter or foal or calf the mother couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of. Rare, but it happened. Usually you better not get between a mother and her babies, but sometimes… Well, the first thing is body temperature, and at least these guys have some good fur. And the next thing is food.” She stuck her hand into the box and felt the blanket they’d been snuggled on. “Hm, it’s dry. No urine or scat — not so good. Besides being really cold, they’re probably starving by now. Maybe getting dehydrated. Puppies nurse a lot and they were obviously taken from the mother’s whelp box.”
Jack reappeared, Preacher close on his heels. Preacher was tall enough that he was looking over Jack’s shoulder into an empty box. “What’s up?” Preacher asked.
“Dad! David found a box full of puppies under the tree! They’re freezing cold! They could be dying!” Christopher informed him desperately.
“We’re warming ‘em up,” Annie said, indicating hers and the hunter’s lumpy shirts. “About half of them are wiggling and we’ll know about the other half in a little bit. Meanwhile, we need to get some fluids and nourishment in them. They shouldn’t be off the tit this young. Formula and infant cereal would be ideal, but we can make due with some warm milk and watered down oatmeal.”
“Formula?” Jack asked. “I bet I can manage that. You remember my wife, Mel. She’s the midwife. She’d have some infant formula on hand.”
“That’s perfect. And if she has a little rice cereal or baby oatmeal, better still.”
“Do we need bottles?” he asked.
“Nah,” Annie said. “A couple of shallow bowls will work. They’re young, but I bet they’re awful hungry. They’ll catch on real quick.”
“Whoa,” one of the hunters said. “Got me a wiggler!”
“Me, too!” the other one said.
“Keep ‘em next to your body for a while,” Annie ordered. “At least until we get those warm towels in the box.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nothing can take over the focus of personal plans like a box full of half-frozen, starving, barely wiggling puppies. Annie had all but forgotten the reason she’d ended up in Virgin River. It was three weeks till Christmas and her three older brothers, three sisters-in-law, seven nieces and nephews would all descend on the farm for the holiday. Annie was the youngest and only unmarried of the siblings, and also the only one who lived nearby, thus tasked with the job of looking in on Mom and Dad. This was one of her two days a week off from the beauty shop. Yesterday, Sunday, she’d baked with her mom all day and today she’d gotten up early to make a couple of big casseroles her mom could freeze for the holiday company, some help in feeding the gathering McKenzie clan. She’d planned to put her pans of lasagna in her mother’s freezer, maybe take one of her two horses out for a ride and say hello to Erasmus, her blue ribbon bull. Erasmus was very old now and every hello could be the last. Then she’d stay for dinner, which she did at least once a week.
But here she was, hearth side, managing a box full of newborn puppies, making sure they were neither too hot or too cold. Jack rustled up the formula and cereal and a couple of warm towels from the dryer. Preacher provided the shallow bowls and mixed up the formula for her. She and young Chris fed a couple of puppies at a time outside of the box and she requisitioned an eye dropper from Jack’s wife’s clinic across the street for the pups who couldn’t catch on to lapping up dinner. Her casseroles were kept refrigerated in her car outside.
Jack put a call in to a fellow he knew who was a veterinarian and it turned out Annie knew him too. Old Doc Jensen had put in regular appearances out at the farm since before she was born. Back in her dad’s younger days, he kept a thriving but small dairy farm. Lots of cows, a few horses, dogs and cats, goats, one ornery old bull. Jensen was a large animal vet, but he’d be able to at least check out these puppies. Annie asked Jack to give her mom a call and explain what was holding her up.
Annie’s mom would laugh, knowing Annie so well. Nothing would pry her away from a box of newborn puppies who needed her.
As the dinner hour approached, she couldn’t help but draw a crowd. People stopped by her place at the hearth, asked for the story, reached into the box to ruffle the soft fur or even pick up a puppy. Annie wasn’t sure so much handling was a good idea, but as long as she could keep the little kids, particularly little David, from mishandling them, she felt she’d at least won the battle if not the war.
“This bar has needed mascots for a long time,” someone said.
“Eight of ‘em. Donner, Prancer, Comet, Vixen, and whoever…”
“Which one is Comet?” Christopher asked. “Dad? Can I have Comet?”
“No. We operate an eating and drinking establishment,” Preacher said.
“Awwww. Dad! Dad, come on. Please, Dad. I’ll do everything. I’ll sleep with him. I’ll make sure he’s nice. Please.”
“Please. Please? I never asked for anything before.”
“You ask for everything, as a matter of fact,” Preacher corrected. “And get most of it.”
“Boy shouldn’t grow up without a dog,” someone said.
“Teaches responsibility and discipline,” was another comment.
“It’s not like he’d be in the kitchen all the time.”
“I run a ranch. Little hair in the potatoes never put me off.” Laughter sounded all around.
Four of the eight pups were doing real well; they were wiggling around with renewed strength and had lapped up some of the formula thickened with cereal. Two were trying to recover from what was certainly hunger and hypothermia; Annie managed to get a little food in with an eyedropper. Two were breathing, their hearts beating, but not only were they small, but weak and listless. She alternately dripped a little food into their tiny mouths and tucked them under her shirt to keep them close to a warm body, hoping they might mistake her for their mother for now, and wondered if old Doc Jensen would ever show.
When yet another gust of wind blew in the opened front door, Annie nearly forgot her mission. She looked over her shoulder at some of the best male eye candy she’d chanced upon in a long while. He looked vaguely familiar, too. She wondered if maybe she’d seen him in a movie or on TV or something. He walked right up to the bar and Jack greeted him enthusiastically.
“Hey, Nate! How’s it going? You get those plane tickets yet?”
“I took care of that a long time ago,” he laughed. “I’ve been looking forward to this forever. Before too long I’m going to be laying on a Nassau beach in the middle of a hundred string bikinis. I dream about it.”
“One of those Club Med things?” Jack asked.
“Nah,” he laughed. “A few people from school. I haven’t seen most of them in years. We hardly keep in touch, but one of them put this together and since I was available, sounds like an excellent idea. The guy who made the arrangements in the Bahamas got one of those all-inclusive hotel deals — food, drinks, everything included except the activities like deep sea fishing or scuba diving. For when I’m not just laying on the sand, looking up at beautiful women in very tiny bathing suits.”
“Good for you,” Jack laughed. “Beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. And then, like the answer to a prayer she didn’t even know she had uttered, he carried his beer right over to where she sat with her box of puppies. “Hello,” he said.
She swallowed, looking up. It was hard to tell how tall he was from her sitting position, but surely over six feet. Annie noticed things like that because she was tall. His hair was dark brown; his eyes were even darker brown and surrounded with loads of thick, black lashes. Her mother called eyes like that ‘bedroom eyes.’ He lifted his brows as he looked down at her. Then he smiled at her and revealed a dimple in one cheek.
“I said hello,” he repeated.
She coughed out of her stupor. “Hi.”
He frowned slightly. “Hey, I think you cut my hair once.”
“Possible. That’s what I do for a living.”
“Yeah, you did,” he said. “I remember now.”
“What was the problem with the haircut?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Don’t know that there was a problem,” he said.
“Then why’d I only cut your hair once?”
He laughed silently. “Okay, we argued about the stuff you wanted to put in it. I didn’t want it, you told me I did. You won and I went out of there looking all spiky. When I touched my head, it was like it had meringue in my hair.”
“Product,” she explained. “We call it product. It’s in style.”
“Yeah? I’m not, I guess,” he said, sitting down on the raised hearth on the other side of the litter box. He reached in and picked up a puppy. “I don’t like product in my hair.”
“Your hands clean?” she asked him.
He gave her a startled look. Then his eyes slowly wandered from her face to her chest and he smiled slightly. “Um, I think you’re moving,” he said. “Or maybe you’re just very excited to meet me.” And then he grinned playfully.
“Oh, you’re funny,” she replied, reaching under her sweater to pull out a little squirming animal. “You make up that line all by your little self?”
He tilted his head and took the puppy out of her hands. “I’d say at least part border collie. Looks like mostly border collie, but they can take on other characteristics as they get older. Cute,” he observed. “Plenty of pastoral breeds around here.”
“Those two are the weakest of the bunch, so please be careful. I’m waiting for the vet.”
He balanced two little puppies in one big hand and pulled a pair of glasses out of the pocket of his suede jacket. “I’m the vet.” He slipped on the glasses and, holding both pups upside down, looked at their eyes, mouth, ears, pushed on their bellies with a finger.
She was speechless for a minute. “You’re not old Doc Jensen.”
“Nathaniel junior,” he said. “Nate. You know my father?” he asked, still concentrating on the puppies. He put them in the box and picked up two more, repeating the process.
“He… ah… my folks have a farm down by Alder Point. Hey! I grew up there! Not all that far from the Doc’s clinic and stable. Shouldn’t I know you?”
He looked over the tops of his glasses. “I don’t know. How old are you?”
“Well there you go. I’m thirty-two. Got a few years on you. Where’d you go to school?”
“Valley.” He laughed. “I guess you can call me old Doc Jensen now.” And there was that grin again. No way he could have grown up within fifty miles of her farm without her knowing him. He was too delicious looking.
“I have older brothers,” she said. “Beau, Brad and Jim McKenzie. All older than you.”
He was at first startled, then he broke into a wide smile. Then a short laugh. “Are you that skinny, fuzzy-haired, freckle-faced, tin-mouthed pain in the neck who always followed Beau and Brad around?”
Her eyes narrowed and she glared at him.
“No,” he said, laughing. “That must have been someone else. Your hair isn’t pumpkin orange. And you’re not all that…” He stopped for a second. Then he decided on, “Got your braces off, I see.” By her frown, he realized he hadn’t scored with that one.
“Where is your father? I want a second opinion!”
“Okay, you’re not so skinny anymore either.” He smiled, proud of himself.
“Very, very old joke, sparky,” she said.
“Well you’re out of luck, cupcake. My mom and dad finally realized a dream come true and moved to Arizona where they could have horses and be warm and pay lower taxes. One of my older sisters lives there with her family. Another one in Southern California and another one in Southern Nevada. I’m the new old Doc Jensen.”
Now it was coming back to her — Doc Jensen had kids, all older than her. Too much older for her to have known them in school. But she did vaguely remember the son that came with him to the farm on that rare occasion. One corner of her mouth quirked up in a half-grin. “Are you that little, pimply, tin-mouthed runt with the squeaky voice who came out to the farm with the old doc sometimes?”
He frowned and made a sound. A groan or growl. “I was a late bloomer,” he said.
“I’ll say,” she laughed.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.