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Authors: Stephanie Bond

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Baby, Hold On

BOOK: Baby, Hold On
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Soldier Mike Nichols has come to Sweetness, Georgia, for one reason: to get help for his troubled black Lab, a decorated rescue dog, at the town’s new military dog training facility. He doesn’t expect to be referred to dog groomer Lacey Lovejoy instead!

Straitlaced Mike and free-spirited Lacey couldn’t be more different. Yet the longer he works with Lacey, the more his attraction to her grows. They clash often, but their heated encounters also lead to a steamy night together that leaves them both reeling.

But when Lacey’s job is done and it’s time for Mike to move on, can their animal attraction turn into a permanent partnership?

A Southern Roads series novella.

Baby, Hold On

Stephanie Bond

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter One

“Does that feel good?” Lacey Lovejoy looked into Chaz’s chocolate-brown eyes and smiled as his eyes slitted in ecstasy.

He didn’t reply as she kneaded deeper into his back and shoulders, just emitted little whimpering noises of encouragement.

“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured, ending with a rolling massage over his back, just the way he liked it. The movements bunched the aching muscles in her forearms. “My turn next, okay?”

Chaz lifted his head and barked in agreement. Lacey laughed at her customer’s willingness to please.

“Why can’t I meet a man as easygoing as you?” she asked the Jack Russell terrier, roughing his newly groomed scruff. “Come on, handsome. Let’s get you over to Dr. Greenwood for that rabies S-H-O-T.”

The small spotted dog whined at the mention of Dr. Greenwood’s name, as if he knew what was coming.

“I know it’s unpleasant. I have to get a tetanus booster myself soon.” She set him on the floor and attached a leash to his collar. “But you’re a country dog now, and that means taking extra precautions. Miss Emily wants you to be safe.”

She grabbed her keys and led Chaz to the door and out onto the sidewalk, turning the back-in-5-minutes sign. There was no need to lock up. People rarely locked their doors in Sweetness, Georgia. It was one of the reasons she’d moved to this remote mountain town to open her own dog-grooming business, Here Comes the Groom.

Friends and family in Manhattan had thought she’d lost her mind and not only would be instantly bankrupt, but would come running back with
her
tail tucked between her legs. But she’d found her own little slice of heaven here, just as promised in the Undercover Feminist blog written by journalist Alicia Randall, who’d come to Sweetness herself with the intent to expose a cultlike environment where single women had been lured with the promise of lots of available strapping Southern men, and instead had wound up falling in love with the town’s unofficial forefather, Marcus Armstrong. Marcus and his two brothers, along with an army of men and women, had rebuilt the Armstrongs’ hometown that had been leveled by a tornado more than a decade earlier.

Lacey inhaled deeply to draw fresh, wildflower-scented air into her lungs, and exhaled happily, high on life. A breeze teased the ends of her unruly hair that had escaped a ribbon clasp, and cooled the perspiration on her neck. The unending gorgeous panoramic views of spring foliage from almost any vantage point in Sweetness made it difficult to believe the quaint little town and surrounding farmland had been reduced to the unrecognizable rubble depicted in the horrific aerial photographs of the damage on display at the city hall building. Not a single life had been lost, but the entire town had been wiped off the map.

But today Sweetness was as charming as a small town could be. The wide, welcoming Main Street was lined on either side with buildings that housed businesses ranging from Molly’s Diner to a general store to a hair salon, florist, bakery, professional offices—just about anything a person could need. Her sister had teased Lacey she’d be making the four-hour drive to Atlanta every couple of days for a glimpse of “civilization,” but after the frenetic pace of Manhattan, Lacey had found the slower speed of Sweetness quite to her liking.

She’d been delighted to learn the community had been established on the principle of recycling, partly out of ecological concern, partly out of necessity because the land had to be cleared of so much storm debris. Many of the structures on Main Street—including the sprawling boardinghouse that had become the hub of the town—were finished with a pleasing patchwork of reclaimed building materials. The eccentric but practical exterior spoke volumes about the kind of people who’d made Sweetness their home. Blue-collar, white-collar, laborers, engineers, medical professionals, tradesmen, ex-military—everyone blended here, and the town was becoming more diverse every day.

The burgeoning community of potters, painters and other artisans was as progressive as any group Lacey had observed in SoHo. Inspired by the creative atmosphere, she had bought a secondhand sewing machine and learned to make funky clothes that suited her style, like brightly colored long cotton skirts and wildly patterned dresses that hid a day’s worth of pet stains and activity. She even made dog toys to give to her clients. Chaz carried in his mouth a pink stuffed bone he’d chosen on an earlier visit. His owner, none other than Emily Armstrong, mother to the Armstrong brothers, said Chaz had become attached to the toy, which made Lacey’s heart brim.

Her customers all had individual personalities, like people. Chaz, for example, was the friendliest dog she’d ever met. She allowed him to sniff and wander, laughing at his exuberant curiosity. When he spotted Nigel, a dark-faced pug, a few yards away, he dropped his toy, gave a happy yap and strained against his leash.

Lacey picked up the toy, then smiled at Nigel’s owner, Rachel Hutchins, and squashed the feelings of inadequacy that pinged her when she came face-to-face with the towering, voluptuous blonde. Lacey was pretty comfortable in her own freckled skin and her own pale hair, but standing next to Rachel, she felt preadolescent and gauche with her unremarkable figure and untamable curls. And it was impossible to dislike the woman because not only were Rachel’s curves generous, but she had a big brain, too.

Two years ago she’d spearheaded the trip taken by the group of women from Broadway, Michigan, who had answered the Armstrong brothers’ ad for single females with a pioneering spirit looking for a fresh start. The women had arrived when the town was little more than a road and a boardinghouse. Sure, the Armstrong brothers were the town elders, so to speak, but many credited Rachel for driving the town’s progress forward, especially when it came to quality-of-life issues. Rightfully so, Rachel had positioned herself to become the first mayor of Sweetness, and Lacey couldn’t imagine anyone running against her.

The woman was a force of nature.

“Hi, Lacey,” Rachel said cheerfully. “How’s business?”

“Great,” Lacey said. “In fact, I’ve hired Betsy Hahn to help on weekends.” She’d been saving to buy a hydraulic grooming table, but decided the money would be better spent on an extra employee, which hopefully would allow her to book more revenue in the long run.

“That’s good news,” Rachel said, “although I’m not surprised. People are talking, you know.”

Lacey arched an eyebrow. “About?”

“About the way you have with dogs.” She nodded to Chaz, who was enthusiastically licking a less enthusiastic Nigel. “Emily says he was downright mean before she brought him to you to groom.”

Lacey gave a little laugh. “Chaz wasn’t mean—a little cranky, maybe, but that’s typical for an older dog.”

Rachel looked down and cringed. Chaz was licking her toes as if they were candy. “His disposition seems to have improved.”

“Sorry,” Lacey said, steering the terrier away from Rachel’s tasty toes. “We’re on our way to Dr. Greenwood for an S-H-O-T.”

Chaz looked up and whined.

Rachel squinted, looking back and forth between Lacey and the dog. “Good luck with that. I’ll see you tomorrow for Nigel’s spa day.”

“See you then.” Lacey held out Chaz’s toy, which he happily took in his mouth, then she urged him forward.

When she’d first visited Sweetness, she’d fallen in love with the little town, though she’d had concerns it might not be able to support a dog grooming business. But when she’d spied the sign for Dr. Greenwood’s veterinary practice, she’d seen it as a good indication the pet population was growing. Doctor Greenwood had assured her the town needed her services and his news that a military dog training facility was under construction cinched her decision. As a New Yorker who’d witnessed the aftermath of 9/11, she had immense respect for service animals, especially rescue dogs and war dogs.

Judging from the number of flowers left regularly at the grave of Silky, a war dog buried in a hilltop cemetery outside of town, so did all the residents of Sweetness.

As she and Chaz made their way down the sidewalk, she greeted familiar faces and unfamiliar faces alike—everyone was friendly…it came from living in a place of one’s choosing, she supposed. Her eye traveled to the white water tower perched on a ridge above the town. It was the only original structure, and she found its presence comforting…and romantic. The Armstrong brothers themselves had used it as a canvas to graffiti messages of love to the women they’d dedicated themselves to.

Lacey sighed, wondering how it would feel to have a man so head over heels for her that he would make a public spectacle of himself.

A group of burly men emerged from the diner and headed her way. The men touched the bills of their hats and made room to let her and Chaz pass—she was still getting accustomed to Southern men’s manners. A couple of them flitted admiring glances over her bare legs and offered flirtatious smiles.

Lacey blushed. There was no shortage of men in Sweetness, to be sure…but no shortage of women, either, now that word had gotten out that a veritable army of eligible ex-military men were laboring away in the remote town. Yet Lacey couldn’t blame her lack of male companionship entirely on the stiff competition—while she had a way with four-legged beasts, she’d never quite mastered interacting with the two-legged variety.

Dogs were simple—feed them and love them, and they stuck around. But men…well, her mother had dedicated her life to the care and feeding of her father, and it hadn’t kept him home.

In a word, men made her nervous.

She gave the workers what she hoped was a coy smile in return, then pulled in Chaz’s leash and crossed the street to the building that housed several professional offices, including Dr. Greenwood’s practice. He occupied an expansive office on the first level that extended from the front of the building to the back, with access to a loading dock and wide doors to accommodate larger animals. Farming had once again taken root outside the town limits of Sweetness, and although Dr. Greenwood made “house” calls for livestock, he’d made allowances for the occasional oversize walk-in patient.

She pushed open the door to the lobby and allowed Chaz to scamper inside in front of her. The lobby was surprisingly empty, the “people” magazines nicely stacked (if a little chewed), with wide seats and couches to accommodate pets and owners together, if necessary. In lieu of plants, landscape murals adorned the walls. Hildie, Dr. Greenwood’s vet tech, walked toward them carrying her purse.

“Hi, Lacey. I was just on my way to lunch. I know Chaz has an appointment, but Dr. Greenwood is seeing a walk-in at the moment. Can you wait?”

“Sure,” Lacey said. “We’re early anyway.”

Hildie smiled. “Okay. See you later.” She reached down to give Chaz a scratch, then left with a wave, turning the out-to-lunch sign that meant patients and their owners were welcome to come in and wait until Dr. Greenwood and Hildie returned. Or if there was an emergency, everyone knew one or both could be found at Molly’s Diner across the street.

Lacey sat on the couch and reached for a magazine that looked interesting. Chaz explored the room, dragging his leash behind him. From a room down the hallway, a bark sounded and before Lacey could grab him, Chaz had bounded off to investigate.

“Chaz, no!”

But by the time she caught up to him, he had nudged open the door left ajar and run inside. Dr. Greenwood and another man swung their heads around in surprise. She had a fleeting impression that the dark-haired stranger was attractive…
very
attractive.

BOOK: Baby, Hold On
9.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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