Kelsey struggles with a severe anxiety disorder. Afraid to interact with people, she has instead dedicated herself to her rescued basset hound, Beauregard. One of his daily walks leads to a chance encounter with a young man named Chase, and though Kelsey tries to deny it, the attraction is instant.
However, tragedy strikes just weeks before Christmas, leaving Kelsey alone with her grief—or is she? Chase understands her better than she realizes, and he’s determined to show her how the season of giving can heal a broken heart.
Kelsey fitted Beauregard into his harness, attached the leash, and with a gentle tug urged him out the door. He was thirteen, already having surpassed the average lifespan for his breed, and the cold didn’t agree with his joints or his disposition despite his adorable plaid doggie coat. Only the promise of the holiday season’s festive smells—pine, cinnamon, wood stove smoke—lured the poster boy for basset stubbornness outside.
“Look at all the pretty colors,” Kelsey cooed.
Beau gazed at her with droopy, bloodshot eyes and disinterest before returning to his snuffling of the sidewalk, his long ears dragging alongside him, sweeping the most important aromas into his enormous black nose.
“Or not.” She admired them on her own as she and Beau strolled down a narrow street behind their house. The season’s first snow dusted the asphalt and sparkled in tree branches strung with lights. Another holiday alone, which had seemed like a good idea in June and the worst ever by Thanksgiving. She baked too many cookies she ate with too much hot chocolate over too many hours spent under a blanket, watching terrible holiday movies. Gaining ten pounds by spring. No presents to open—her divorced parents sent obligatory cards, and gift cards, but they’d stopped inviting her to holiday dinners years ago. Whichever one she chose inevitably pissed off the other, and it wasn’t worth reliving past emotional trauma—hers or theirs—or having to eat her anti-anxiety meds just to get through the day. The gift cards came in handy when the self-pity shopping kicked in.
“A basset hound!”
Kelsey snapped her head up. A guy with rosy cheeks and a knit cap pulled over his ears was climbing out of a black pick-up. She typically associated trucks with rednecks or meatheads, neither of which she was interested in meeting. Not that meeting people ever appealed to her.
“He totally reminds me of that basset in The Secret Life of Pets…what was his name?”
“Uh…” Kelsey said, though she knew. She’d watched that movie a dozen times just for Pop. But she didn’t answer questions if she could help it.
“Pop! That’s it. Can I pet him?” The man’s smile was sincere, toothy, and attached to a charming face whose five o’clock shadow seemed more an effort to look older than fashionable. A mere smile hadn’t made her heart stutter in many months, though she tried not to spend more than half a second looking at anyone directly. Relationships not being Kelsey’s forte, she had committed herself instead to Beauregard when she adopted him six years ago. He was a better—and cuter—excuse than the old cliché of being married to her job. Given how little work was coming in lately, that relationship was on the rocks, too. “Sure.”
The guy crouched. Beau approached with practiced indifference and, only after a good sniffing, deemed the young man worthy of petting him by nudging his hand.
“He’s so cute. What’s his name?”
The man chuckled. “That’s a great name. I grew up with a basset.” He pulled out his phone and flicked through photos. “There she is. Jellyroll.”
Kelsey pressed a gloved hand over her mouth to hold in a snicker. A lemon-colored hound stared soulfully at the camera, one side of her hanging upper lip caught in her teeth to give her a dopey sneer. “Adorable.”
“So I guess you live around here?”
“Yeah, on the next street.” Her face flushed, and she offered her patented nervous, wobbly-lipped smile.
“I’m visiting friends.” He pointed to a house across the street lit with multi-colored racing lights around the windows. “My name is Chase, by the way.”
“Kelsey.” Not that it matters. She shook his outstretched hand, glad for the barriers of their gloves. Her palms were sweaty, and their hands remained joined longer than she expected.
“Maybe I’ll see you around.” Chase knelt to give Beau another petting. “See you later, Beauregard.” His gaze met Kelsey’s again. Warm and brown. Kind.
She forced herself to hold it when instinct begged her to look away. “Have a good holiday.”
Awkward silence dropped between them like a stage curtain. Kelsey waggled her fingers at the guy in a final farewell. “Come on, Beau. Let’s get home. It’s cold.”
Her cheeks, however, were still hot when she unlocked her front door and freed Beau from his coat and harness. He lumbered over to his bed near the fireplace, farted, and grumbled as he settled his seventy pounds down for the night. Kelsey bent to scratch the back of his head on her way to the kitchen. Beau, one of the few bassets in the neighborhood, attracted attention no matter where he went. He had become her link to other people, a furry little therapist in his own right. Kelsey, thinking about a man she would likely never see again, wished—just this once—he hadn’t.