Just Right

Chapter 1

Maybe if she hadn’t been bitten by the neighbor’s pug when she was eight.

Maybe if it hadn’t taken twelve stitches.

Maybe if she hadn’t spent three nights in the hospital after it got infected… Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Avery Williams had to quit blaming everything on her childhood. Especially since she was almost thirty and currently hanging from the light pole in front of Greg’s Hardware Store on Main Street in Love, Pennsylvania. The giant red-and-white candy cane strapped to the pole had blocked her from shimmying to the top. There was not enough money in her bank account to pay for any damages to the town’s Christmas décor. Even if they had enough of said décor to tastefully decorate a town four times the size of Love.

Currently, considering the events that had necessitated her precipitous climb, she was very thankful that her best friend for the past five months just happened to be a former circus performer who had tried, with minimal success, to teach Avery a few “tricks.”

The next time she saw Jillian, she’d have to report that she’d mastered the pole-climbing part of the contortionist-hanging-by-her-hair routine. Necessity was the mother of survival, or however that old saying went.

Pursing her lips, she looked at the dogs sniffing the bottom of her temporary residence. Black, long-eared, long-haired, and quite loud. Their teeth were rather large, too, thank you very much.

Her eyes drifted a little farther to the scuffed hiking boots of the man who had spoken to her less than a minute ago. In what had to be only the second or possibly third time in her life, she’d not been able to gather her wits to answer back. Yet. She’d have to get down from the light pole before she could comfortably read him his pedigree. There was just something gauche about her current position that negated the authority she hoped to convey.

“I said they’re harmless. I promise.”

His deep voice reached her, reminding her of the tympani part in Nielsen’s 4thsymphony.

“I was bitten when I was younger.” She tightened her grip, thankful she hadn’t put her gloves on. She probably wouldn’t have gotten up the pole while wearing them.

He gave a low command, a word she couldn’t hear, and the dogs trotted the few steps to his side. Once they had stopped barking and his voice could be heard, they seemed to listen fairly well.

Avery put her forehead against the cold pole. Flakes of snow drifted past her nose. She could pretend to be comfortable and want to stay in her current position, which would be ridiculous and an obvious lie, of course, although hardly shocking to anyone in town. She could get down and give the guy the tongue-lashing he deserved, but that would mean getting close to the despicable dogs. Or she could slide down and stride away, ignoring the very large man and his ugly dogs.

Avery slid awkwardly down the pole. It was high time she faced her fear of dogs.

Her feet landed with a plop and a scrape as her right foot slipped on a soft patch of ice. Her legs shot out from under her and she flailed with both arms and feet, trying to regain her balance before she landed with a thump on her bottom, one leg stretched out on either side of the pole.

Her butt stung, but her pride stung more.

She could make this look like she did it on purpose. It would be a stretch, but she could bluff her way through. She had to get up first.

A single car ambled down Main Street. The horn honked. Avery threw up a hand without looking at the driver. Better to assume they were laughing with her and not at her. Although, the close-knit folks in Love had already pegged her as crazy. Sometimes, it was just better to play along.

With one hand on the pole, she scrambled to her feet. Unfortunately, because she was being careful to avoid the ice patch, she leaned too far to the left, lost her balance, stumbled, and smacked her head with a hollow bong against the green metal of the pole.

Pain pulsed in her head and radiated down her arms to the tips of her fingers, which throbbed. A small shower of red and silver confetti rained around her from the candy cane at the top of the pole. Any second now, it would cut loose, dropping down and smacking her on the head. That seemed to be the direction her life always went.

She might have been able to pretend she landed on her butt on purpose, but there was no way she could pretend she meant to smack herself in the head with the pole.

At least she was on her feet.

She glanced up, only to meet the beady red eyes and glistening white teeth of a ferocious hunting dog. Saliva dripped to the ground as the dog licked its chops, no doubt thinking her Armani wool, cashmere-lined jacket looked an awful lot like a hot dog bun, and thinking she, of course, would taste an awful lot like a hot dog.

“Please call off your dog.” She meant to say it with authority to the man now in front of her, but it came out on a scratchy whisper. What kind of man allowed his dogs to stand over a helpless woman, salivating and dreaming of banquets and hotdogs? A total jerk, obviously.

His hand fell back to his side. Probably, he had extended it to help her up, but she hadn’t noticed and it was too late now.

“Gladys, sit,” the man said with a suspicious hitch in his voice.

Her jaw clenched. He was laughing at her. Usually she didn’t have a problem laughing at herself. After all, this kind of thing happened to her all the time. Allthe time. But to have this arrogant stranger and his snarling, starved dogs…

Wait. “Gladys?” What kind of person named their dog Gladys?

“Yeah. I guess I should have called her Bruiser or Fang or Eats Ladies for Leisure…” There was that deep, tympanic vibration again. The vibration struck her right under her diaphragm and caused an unfamiliar heat to expand under her heart. She sucked in her stomach to stop the odd sensation.

“You can stop laughing at me anytime. Don’t you have somewhere to go?”

“Wanted to make sure you were okay. That was quite a hit you took.” He jerked his head up, pointing with his chin. “Thought the candy cane might get loose and make it a two-for-one.”

“Wouldn’t have surprised me,” Avery mumbled, for some reason finding it hard to let go of her irritation. Maybe because both dogs were now looking at her like she was lunch. At least the throbbing had slowed to a dull thump focused solely in her head.

The man bent and picked up the bags she’d dropped. He held them out to her, his fingers long and calloused. Brown. The thumb nail was black, like it’d been smashed by a hammer.

The man nodded at the pole. “I’m sorry about that. They know they’re going hunting tonight and they’re excited.”

The vibrations hit her diaphragm again. Taking a deep breath to shove the unfamiliar sensation aside, she snatched the bags filled with Christmas decorations and lights out of the man’s hand.

Avery looked up. Way up. Man, sometimes it sucked to be short. She was going to drown in snowflakes if she looked this guy in the eye while she talked to him.

“Whether or not they’re going hunting, there are still leash laws in this town.” It was never easy to sound condescending to someone who was almost a foot taller than she. “In the future, you could avoid this whole, unpleasant scenario if you simply remember to keep your animals leashed while within the town limits.”

“Yeah, lady, I could.” One side of the man’s mouth hitched up, revealing a fascinating dimple at the edge of his lip. “But I don’t know why I’d want to. It was pretty impressive watching you shimmy up that pole. I sure hope you’re registered for the lumberjack contest at Love’s Christmas celebration later this month.”

Avery planned to march in the parade, playing her tuba. Nothing more. Hopefully, shortly after that she’d know if she had been accepted to the Washington D.C. Eveningtide Orchestra. “I’ve never been mistaken for a lumberjack,” she said, unable to soften her words with even the hint of a smile.  

His lip hitched up a little more and the dimple deepened. “It wasn’t a mistake.”

“Of course, it was a mistake. I’m barely five feet tall. Your wrists are bigger than my biceps, which you’ll have to take my word on, since I’m not taking my coat and sweater off in this cold. Not to mention, if I took off my outerwear, your dogs might decide that’s a dinner invitation.”

“Yeah, I suppose that little old lady they had for breakfast didn’t stick to their ribs very well.”

Avery couldn’t keep her mouth from dropping and her eyes from widening in the second before she realized that he was kidding. Probably.

She eyed the dogs and inched backward. Just in case. Her back hit the pole and she stopped.

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” grew loud, then soft again as a young teen opened the hardware store door and walked out. He nodded at them before he turned and shuffled down the otherwise deserted sidewalks. Unfortunately, the dogs didn’t take their eyes off Avery.

Something that looked like regret or possibly pity flitted across the man’s face. “I’m sorry my dogs scared you.”

“You’re not acting sorry, and they’re still here.”

“They’ll leave when I do.” A muscle ticked in his strong jaw. “When I was training them, I never thought to include a command for them to go sit in a corner while I helped an otherwise elegant woman down from a light pole. I’m shortsighted that way.”

Avery’s lips twitched. She buttoned them down. After all, she would have walked away from this conversation five minutes ago if she weren’t terrified to turn her back on those ferocious animals. “Where I come from, dogs do not go off their leashes. For any reason.”

“I was born in this town. And these dogs were born and bred to be off-leash.”

“Not in town.”

“They haven’t touched you.”

“They don’t need to touch me to make it clear as day they want to eat me.”

Something close to a growl came from the man. The vibration in her diaphragm did double time. But she was a classically trained musician who had never been the slightest bit interested in the tough, outdoorsy type of male. Plus, in her experience men didn’t stick around any longer than it took them to catch the eye of something prettier and younger, so they weren’t worth her bother. Double that if said man came with boots and dogs.

Whatever those vibrations were, Avery knew what they weren’t—not interest and not attraction. Not for the tough, boot-wearing, dog-owning mountain of a man in front of her.

A muscle in the man’s cheek worked back and forth. He knelt slowly, placing a hand on each dog’s collar. “I’ll hold them until you leave.”

Avery tilted her head and smiled the smile she used after a wretched performance that the audience clapped for anyway. “Fine. Now I can walk away, unworried about whether or not I’ll get eaten before I make it to my car.”

She turned. Before she’d taken three steps, she heard whining behind her. From a dog, she thought. Tempted to ignore it and continue onafter all, she had holiday cheer to spreadshe shifted the heavy bags and glanced over her shoulder.

The man had stood up and started to turn, no longer having his hands on the dogs’ collars. He, too, was glancing back over his shoulder at the animals.

One of the savage beasts had Avery’s leather glove in its large jaw. It whined again.

Avery froze. Fear, like a cold hand, gripped her neck. It was like the dog was doing to her glove what it wanted to do to her.

“Hey, Gladys,” the man said softly. “The Fancy Lady dropped her glove and you want to give it back?”

He turned completely around. Avery felt his gaze on her, but she couldn’t lift her terrified eyes from the beast that held her captured glove.

“How about I do it for you?” he said as he bent and plucked the glove from the Jaws of Death. “Stay,” he commanded before he strode to her. In unison, the dogs sat, watching Avery with evil eyes and polished fangs.

“This is yours?” the man asked when he stopped in front of her, holding up the glove.

She tore her eyes from the beasts of prey and licked her lips. “Yes.” Her voice was barely a squeak. “It is,” she said more forcefully.

He cleared his throat.

She imagined he was trying hard not to laugh at her.

“Do you want to take it?” he asked slowly, waving it as he spoke.

The bags of decorations meant to cheer Mrs. Franks made her arms ache. Transferring them to one hand, she snatched her glove. “Thank you,” she said through her teeth.

“I’ll pass that on to Gladys,” the man said, failing to hide his smirk.

Avery’s eyes lingered for a fraction of a second on the dark stubble of his angled jaw.

No interest. Not on his part, since he could barely contain his derision for her. And most certainly not on hers.

“Tell her she’ll have to find her supper somewhere else.” Avery craned her neck to meet his dark eyes before she turned and strode away.

***

Gator Franks opened the back door of his mother’s house slowly. It creaked. He didn’t want to wake her if she were sleeping, as she often was before supper.

He’d finally shaken the unsettled feeling from the unfortunate confrontation in town with the fancy woman and the light pole. The whole thing really wasn’t his fault, since little Braydon Carper, all of nine years old, had opened Gator’s pickup door to pet his dogs, accidentally letting them out. But he hadn’t been able to explain that to the woman, because it would have been too much like admitting she was right, and his experiences with his ex had taught him it was a huge mistake to admit weakness to a woman. Give them your throat and they’ll go for the jugular, rip it out, tear it to shreds, then go after your heart. Every time. 

It really didn’t matter that the woman had been as opposite from Kristen as could be. Except for the money angle. They were the exact same there.

His toe stubbed something in the dark and he grabbed the hall table to keep from falling. His fingers bumped into something cold, which wobbled. He grabbed for it in the dark, but only succeeded in knocking it over. It hit the edge of the table before tumbling to the floor and shattering. Something glass, obviously. He hesitated, not remembering anything either on the floor or on the table early this morning when he’d left the house.

“Gator?” his mother called from the living room where he’d probably awakened her from her nap. The treatments made her tired.

“Yeah. It’s me. I don’t remember seeing anything here earlier when I left.”

“Avery was here. She helped me decorate for Christmas.”

Gator filed through his memory, but came up with a blank on anyone named Avery. He’d been living out west for ten years, but the town hadn’t changed that much. “Avery?”

The couch squeaked as his mother moved.

“Don’t get up, Mom. I was trying to be quiet and not wake you.”

More squeaking indicated that his mother ignored him. “Avery Williams. She’s related to Fink or Ellie Finkenbinder somehow, and she came out from Philly or near there this summer to help with the farm. I thought she had a teaching job there, but she never went back this fall, so I guess she didn’t.” A light flipped on. So much for his mother’s nap. “She offered to decorate, and since I know that you hate the knick-knacks and what-nots and wouldn’t want to mess with them for me, I took her up on it.”

His mother was right when she said he hated knick-knacks. And this was a big part of why. He was big and they always made him feel like an elephant in an antiques shop.

Gator flipped the hall light on and grabbed the broom and dust pan. He knelt to sweep up the pieces of— “It looks like I killed one of the wise men.”

“We’ll pretend Herod found that one and ordered his head chopped off.” She gave the pieces a sad look. He guessed they were expensive, but her tired eyes crinkled as she smiled at him.

He shrugged. “Looks more like he planted dynamite under the camel’s saddle.”

“If you toss the pieces in the can, it’ll get rid of the evidence and the cause of death will be whatever we make it.”

“I’m sorry. I was trying to sneak in and not wake you. I didn’t know you’d decorated.” As he stood holding the pieces in the dustpan, he realized that he’d tripped on the most grotesque snowman he’d ever seen. “Is that thing made out of burlap?” Lights wrapped around the dumpy brown body, sort of like a droopy hangman’s nose, and a shiny orange plastic carrot stuck out from its face. It brought to mind an ugly Christmas sweater, only in 3D and sitting in his house.

“I bought that at the elementary school’s annual holiday sale. The lady I bought it from said her third-grader made it herself.”

“I believe it,” Gator said. If it’d been him, he’d never had admitted his child made something that hideous. “Are you sure it was meant to be a Christmas decoration?” The lights might have been sort of an indication, but if he’d had to guess, he would have said it was some new-fangled way to scare mice and rats. Or possibly some type of anti-theft device. His lips twitched as he thought of the fancy lady going up the light pole. If his elderly hunting dogs had scared her that badly, that hideous looking burlap creature would have her high-stepping it to the nearest jail cell and locking herself inside.

His mother tugged her bathrobe tie tighter around her waist and gave the burlap snowman a warm glance. “There was something about the snowman that made me feel like I’d met a kindred spirit.”

Guilt tightened Gator’s throat. He didn’t love his mother less because she’d lost a breast and all of her hair, and she’d not complained. Not to him, anyway. But he could see, now that she’d mentioned it, how she might feel like she had something in common with the ugly snowman.

He couldn’t give her back her breast, or her hair, and his heart hurt for the pain she couldn’t talk to him about.

He set the dustpan on the table and bent over, wrapping his arms around his mother, feeling the unfamiliar frailness, swallowing against the fear that the disease would continue to eat at her until there was nothing left.

“I think you’re beautiful, Mom.” He managed to get it out without choking. Hopefully, she couldn’t tell that her thirty-two-year-old son was trying not to burrow into her arms and sob. “And I think your snowman is beautiful too. On the inside.”

His mother laughed, as he’d hoped she would.

She patted his back. “Come on. Avery left us some tofu salad.”

He didn’t groan. Honest.

With a sigh his mother said, “I hate the stuff, but it’s supposed to be good for me.”

Because of that, he could shove it down his throat too. And try to be thankful for Avery, who decorated with the knick-knacks his mother loved and made her tofu salad because it was good for her. “I’ll pretend it’s steak.”

How hard could it be?