Coming Home for Christmas
Book 5.5 in the Whidbey Island Series
An anthology from Harlequin™ featuring Geri’s story Navy Joy, a Whidbey Island Novella, featured alongside stories by Lindsay McKenna and Delores Fossen.
Navy Joy by Geri Krotow
Chief Petty Officer Ian Cairne arrives stateside for Christmas with a four-legged friend: his late buddy’s military service dog. Fortunately, the beautiful town vet Wendi Cooper is willing to take this odd couple into her home and her heart.
Christmas Angel by Lindsay McKenna
When Navy SEAL Kyle Anderson gets a call saying Anna Campbell needs him, he doesn’t think twice. On the Montana ranch where they grew up, holiday magic permeates every acre, kindling long-awaited love. But will duty trump desire?
Unexpected Gift by Delores Fossen
Tailed by a camera crew, Air Force Captain Gabe Brenner returns to Texas to deliver a Christmas message to his best friend’s sister Kelly Coburn. But she’s had her own delivery: beautiful baby Noelâ: Gabe’s daughter.
Heat Level: Smooth Sailing
Coming Home for Christmas
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Coming Home for Christmas
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Angelville, Whidbey Island, December 1
“C’mon, Integrity. We’re home. I hope.” Chief Petty Officer Ian Cairn coaxed the powerful Belgian Malinois out of the backseat of his Jeep Wrangler. At least he still had his car, unlike his home, which had been made uninhabitable by a burst pipe.
The sable-colored dog leaped down to the gravel driveway in her usual graceful manner. Ever since he’d met her, when his best friend Gary had introduced them, Integrity’s inherent adroitness had impressed him.
When Gary’s death at the hands of a sniper landed Integrity in Ian’s care, Ian didn’t hesitate. Gary had willed Integrity to him for reasons beyond Ian’s understanding, since he’d never had a dog before, but he was determined to honor a sailor’s dying wish.
Ian didn’t consider himself a dog person. After only two weeks with Integrity,, he didn’t feel completely comfortable with her and wondered if he ever would. Not only that, their short time back on American soil had been fraught with the immediate need to find suitable housing. The responsibility to take the very best care of her stressed him more than he’d expected.
He looked at his phone to verify that he had the correct address from the selection of furnished rentals accepting pets, which he’d found on Craigslist and the Island News’s online real-estate listings. 3 Farm Lane, Angelville, Whidbey Island. Tucked along the cliffs a few miles from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the tiny hamlet of Angelville was quaint and the perfect place to live while he got through his post-deployment blues.
And mourned the loss of his closest friend of over a dozen years.
“Put on your best manners, Integrity. It says they allow pets.” He’d thought about leaving the dog in his truck, but he didn’t feel right about abandoning her, even briefly. She’d arrived on island the same time he did—eight hours ago. Since then, he’d discovered that his home had significant water damage from a burst pipe, which had occurred after the woman who was supposed to be housesitting for him had moved out. She’d been a friend of a friend, and he’d received a blunt email from her a month before deployment ended, saying she was transferring off-island.
A prolonged freeze two weeks later led to his home’s being uninhabitable. Ian’s neighbor had discovered it only after the water had flowed from the upstairs bathroom, down the main stairs, through his foyer and down into his basement. The same basement he’d spent three months finishing before he left on deployment. His neighbor had emailed him, but with Gary’s death and Integrity’s appearance in his life, he’d hoped they’d be able to at least rough it in the house until the repairs were made.
But then he’d walked into the freezing house with its stench of mildew….
In a blink his dreams of a simple Christmas shooting pool and setting up the beer-brewing kit his brother had given him last Christmas were gone. At least for the next couple of months.
His house was unlivable, and he needed a place to stay ASAP The base was off-limits unless he put Integrity in a kennel, and some instinct, some visceral emotion, had screamed to keep Integrity with him, no matter what.
His resolve was tested as he read no pets over and over again in the online rental ads. The last place he’d tried, a newer apartment complex, hadn’t had the edict in print, so Ian had been hopeful until the gal at the leasing office had said “No pets, no exceptions.” Ian didn’t bother to tell her that, like him, his dog was a war vet and had just lost her handler. Ian wanted to find the right place for him and Integrity. A place where they could unwind and work on bonding with each other, without worrying about whether the dog was really welcome. Trying to locate a pet-friendly rental for them had turned his first day back home into a nightmare.
Integrity was in mourning for Chief Petty Officer Gary Barnes, who’d been Ian’s best friend since Navy A School. They were fresh out of high school when they’d met, too eager to serve their country and get on with their lives to bother with college. Stationed together for two of the following three tours, they were more than friends—they were shipmates. They’d gotten each other through the highs and lows of Navy life and during that third tour downrange, had even found themselves in the same geographical area a few times.
When he’d headed downrange for his fifth wartime deployment, Ian’s spirits had lifted as soon as he learned that Gary was in Afghanistan, too, with his East Coast squadron. They’d run into each other several times over the last seven months, the final time in a mess hall in Kabul, one week before a sniper’s bullet took Gary out.
And left Integrity a canine orphan.
The farmhouse was lit from within, and Ian groaned at all the Christmas decorations that hung from the door and draped the porch railing, entwined with twinkling lights. Holiday reminders weren’t high on his priority list, which had a shower and twelve hours of undisturbed sleep at numbers one and two.
He raised his hand to knock on the door’s threshold, because a huge wreath with big red ornaments blocked the place where a doorknocker would normally be. After he’d rapped the second time, the door flew open.
He was immediately aware of bright light, glittering Christmas bulbs on a large green shape in the depths of the house, warmth and the smell of sour milk. He took a step backward, careful not to tumble off the narrow porch.
A woman almost as tall as he was met his gaze. She had brilliant blue eyes and a small smile, accentuated by a full lower lip. Her multicolored holiday sweater did nothing to hide her generous curves, and Ian’s thoughts went right to his crotch as he took in her sexy cleavage. He looked closer. Was that glitter?
The kid on her hip extinguished his arousal as effectively as a kick in the groin. She was married? Ian didn’t do complicated relationships, certainly not with married women. And why did he care what her availability was? She was going to be his landlord—he hoped. Period.
“Hey!” The kid smiled at him, her face covered in something sticky and white. Cereal with milk, maybe? Whatever it was, it smelled. He couldn’t miss the big blue eyes on the little girl, however. The exact same shade as his potential landlord’s.
“Hey yourself.” He gave the kid a smile before he turned back to the woman. “Yes, I’m Ian.” He lowered the hand he’d raised to knock and held it out, forcing his focus onto the woman’s face and not allowing his glance to wander back over her body.
Seven months in the desert, seven months without the comfort of a woman’s arms—it was making him feel like a rookie when it came to the opposite sex. Though this particular lady could ignite just about any man’s fire.
“Hi, there,” she said, clearly speaking to the dog. “I’m Wendi,” she went on. “Why don’t you step inside for a minute while I grab our coats and the keys. Then I’ll walk you out to the guesthouse.”
“How far is it? I didn’t bring her leash.” He’d left it in the backseat. Integrity stayed close at all times. “Or do you want me to put her in the car?”
Her eyes widened. “No! I meant both of you, of course. My pets are part of my family, and I assume she’s part of yours. I’ve got more than one leash around here.” She looked at Integrity. “At least she has a collar. That’s good. Can I pet her?”
“Yes, she’s friendly. Her name’s Integrity. You said you have animals?” Wendi treated him as if he didn’t know anything about dogs. She wasn’t wrong; in truth, he knew very little—but he knew Integrity was trustworthy. The rush of protectiveness toward the dog surprised him. Maybe they were starting to bond.
“Yes, you and Integrity can meet them in a minute. They’re being good right now. They’re not always this quiet, believe me.”
“Hi, sweetie.” Wendi petted Integrity on the head only after she’d allowed the dog to sniff her hands. Once she’d ascertained that Integrity wasn’t a threat to her or her child, she crouched in front of the dog as if she’d been doing it all her life. Her hair was like a flame with deep reds and golds that twisted around every curl. And there was her sparkling cleavage again. Did she do that on purpose?
“Careful, Emma. Pet the doggie nicely, just like Ranger and Lemon.”
Damn homecoming libido. Even the fact that this gal wasn’t his type, that she seemed bossy, and was obviously married with a kid, didn’t stop her from affecting him.
“Look at her fur, Emma. She’s a nice doggie, isn’t she? You can pet her because I said it’s okay. We only pet dogs we’ve been introduced to, and only after we ask, right?”
Ian thought Wendi’s explanation was overkill, but since he knew even less about kids than he did about dogs, he remained silent.
The little girl, Emma, patted the top of Integrity’s nose before she screwed up her courage and shoved her entire hand into the thick fur around the dog’s neck.
“She’s a good dog,” he said. “I haven’t had her long.…”
“Did you get her before you left on deployment?”
Wendi stood and hoisted Emma back up onto her hip. A very nice hip, over which her dark jeans stretched perfectly.
“No, I got her two weeks ago.”
“But you were deployed. Did you rescue her in Afghanistan?”
“Something like that.”
Cool as the ocean, her eyes reflected doubt as she assessed him.
“It’s a big responsibility, such an intelligent breed.”
“Oh?” He wasn’t going to explain that Integrity wasn’t a German shepherd as most people assumed, but a Belgian Malinois.
“Belgian Malinois are loyal to a fault. They need you, and they need to be mentally challenged or they get depressed.”
“What are you, a vet?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Come on in.”
He stepped over the threshold, Integrity at his side.
She smiled and waved her arm expansively. “Welcome to my menagerie.”
He followed her gesture and took in the old farmhouse’s living area. At some point it had been updated, since it boasted modern appliances in the kitchen, which he saw from across the room. A large birdcage sat on the other side of a long kitchen counter, with an indigo-blue parrot perched on top of it. That beak looked like it could give a man stitch-worthy bites.
To the side was a woodstove that glowed with warmth from the fire within. Curled up on the bricks that surrounded the stove was a big orange cat. Sprawled on the floor between the kitchen and living area were two dogs—one of an indeterminate breed and one yellow Lab. Both dogs were alert, staring at Ian or, more accurately, Integrity.
“Your dogs didn’t even bark.” He shook his head. “No wonder I didn’t notice them before.”
“Oh, yes, they barked. They let me know you were coming up the driveway. Then I put them in a stay. They’re behaving, but trust me, they’re dying to meet Integrity.” She looked at Integrity, and her expression grew thoughtful. “You’re a very good dog, Integrity. Who trained you so well?” She spoke as if to the dog, but Ian was compelled to answer.
“The Navy and then her handler. Integrity’s a military working dog. Or was. Her owner was killed, and she has the option to retire from active duty. It’s up to her. If she isn’t happy as my companion, I’ll take her to the K-9 and see if she still has the drive for active duty.”
“Do you think she misses it?”
“She misses her owner, that much I know. She’s woken me up at night for no reason other than to make sure I’m there. I also kind of figure she’s checking to see if it’s still me or if Gary’s come back.” He paused. “As far as the war goes, or her duties there, I think she’s happy doing any task she’s assigned. She still enjoys playing fetch.” Not that he’d had much time to play with her.
“It would be hard to give her up, I imagine.” Wendi’s comment was simple, honest.
His immediate agreement gave him pause. He didn’t want to think about another loss, not while still dealing with Gary’s death.
What was it with those eyes of hers? And how did she manage to elicit feelings before he even knew he had them?
Wendi had expected a younger sailor after Ian Cairn’s brief phone call and a few texts as he requested information about her rental.
She certainly hadn’t expected such a sexy sailor. From his flight boots up to his blond crew cut, Ian was an all-American Navy guy. And he was at least her age, if not a bit older. She placed him at thirty-five or so, two years older than she was herself. Wendi wanted to giggle as she realized it was the first time in three months that she’d stopped to think about, much less admire, a man.
“I’ve got to get Emma bundled up before we head out.”
Her hands shook a bit as she zipped up two-year-old Emma’s Little Red Riding Hood jacket and hood, and put on her mittens.
“Wen-Wen, I don’t liiiike mittens!”
“I know, sweetheart, but if you want to go see the cottage, you have to be dressed for the cold.”
Emma screwed up her face in a pout but fortunately, the tears and screams didn’t start.
Emma had screamed a lot over the past several weeks. Why shouldn’t she? She’d lost both parents in a horrific car crash and had been adopted by her aunt Wendi as per their will.
It had been rough on both of them.
“Okay, little miss. Let’s go.” Wendi stood up and pulled on her fuchsia wool peacoat, jamming her matching hand-knit hat over her messy hair. Ian Cairn must think she was crazy with all these animals and a little kid.
“As I said, I’m a veterinarian. If you have any problems with Integrity or any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“That’s why you knew her breed.” Ian spoke quietly, his tired voice reminding Wendi of her own grief and the emotional exhaustion that came with the whole process. He’d been through a hard time, too, she’d bet.
“Yes.” Turning to the dogs, she slapped her thigh. “Come on, girls, let’s go for a walk.”
Ranger and Lemon jumped up and bounded through the door. Integrity looked up at Ian.
Ian looked at Wendi. “Will they be safe?”
“Yes, I’m sure they will. I have a lot of land, and my dogs know to stay nearby. They’ll all check each other out and then, hopefully, play until they’re exhausted.” She needed all her babes, animals and Emma, to sleep well.
“Go, girl.” Integrity streaked off after her new canine buds.
“By the way, the yellow Lab is Lemon and the mixed terrier is Ranger.”
Ian smiled. “Cool names.”
Wendi held her gloved hand out to Emma. “Walk or carry?”
“Then hold my hand, Emma.”
Emma slipped her little hand in Wendi’s, and Wendi grinned. It was a sad time as they both grieved. But Emma kept things lively.
“Why does she call you Wen-Wen?”
The emotional pain was sharper than the arctic wind against her face when she opened the front door.
“Shall we go?” To where the sun was quickly setting and the shadows would cover her face, which she knew reflected her broken heart.
They clambered down the steps onto the gravel path. Once they’d fallen into an easy cadence she spoke, her breath puffing out in front of her.
“I’m Emma’s aunt, not her mother.”
“Oh, so you’re babysitting?”
“No, yes, I mean no. Sometimes it feels like babysitting because it’s only been a little more than six months. But no, it’s not a temporary gig. I’m her legal guardian. Her mother was my sister, Daisy, my twin. She and Emma’s father died over Memorial Day weekend. In a car crash. I was babysitting Emma, so she was safe with me. I’m still in shock—we both are.”
Two words. Polite, expected. But his tone—it was as though Ian conveyed his compassion and total understanding in this simple expression of condolence.
As if he knew.
“As a matter of fact, we were at the attorney’s earlier. I signed Emma’s adoption papers. As of today Emma is legally my daughter.”
She wondered if he heard the catch in her voice, sensed the bittersweet joy that had overwhelmed her when she signed the papers.
“She’s a sweet little girl, and I’ve always loved her as if she were mine. And now she is.”
“Did your sister live here in Angelville, too?”
“No, they lived in Anacortes. They left me their home, but I love Whidbey Island, and my practice is only a ten-minute drive from here. With Emma, time is everything—I don’t want to be making a long commute if I don’t have to.”
“Wouldn’t the house have been a comfort to her?”
Guilt hit her sideways. All too familiar. .
“Yes, to a point. I stayed there with her for the first couple of weeks. My staff took care of my pets at the clinic. But it didn’t work out. Emma was too upset, missed her parents too much. We both needed a new start. This is our home.”
Why was she explaining this to him? She didn’t want to sound defensive but really, did this dude think he could show up on her property with a dog he obviously didn’t know how to handle, and tell her where she should be living?
“I didn’t mean to imply it isn’t.”
“Doggie!” Emma tugged free of her hand and ran after Integrity, who’d loped back to Ian after running with Ranger and Lemon.
Wendi laughed. “Do you see how tired the pooches are? And we’ve only been out for a few minutes.”
She was rewarded with a slight chuckle.
They were almost at the cottage. She’d always planned on renting it out, ever since she’d bought the property three years ago, but hadn’t gotten around to renovating the small guest lodge until this past summer. Right before Daisy and Matt died.
“It’s chillier than I remember it being this time of year.” Ian had obviously mistaken her discomfort for cold.
“It’s not too bad, and you’ll be comfortable in the cottage. I had radiant heat installed. The floor tiles throughout feel great on bare feet after a long run or hike.”
“I’ll bet Integrity will love them.”
“She should, although you know her heavy coat will make her want to stay a little cooler than we do.”
He nodded. “Keeping her comfortable and hydrated is a challenge. I was worried that she’d run out of water on the flight home.”
“She seems to have done just fine.”
They were at the clearing in front of the cottage.
“Look, Wen-Wen!” Emma sat next to Integrity, who lay on the ground near the front door. She put her face against Integrity’s neck and hugged the dog with all the love an almost-three-year-old had to give.
“Careful, she’s still getting to know you, honey.”
“Integrity’s a good dog. She wouldn’t hurt a fly unless she was told to.” Ian’s assessment was quick. Direct. Wendi smiled at his protectiveness. Maybe he was bonding with his new charge, after all.
Wendi walked up to the two of them while Lemon and Ranger sat down on the path, tongues lolling and tails wagging.
“She’s a beautiful dog, isn’t she, Emma?”
“I love her.” Emma pronounced “love” as “wuv.”
Wendi felt the sting of tears as she smiled at her darling niece. Emma’s eyes were huge under her red, pointed hood, her expression earnest.
Wendi crouched beside her. “That’s fine, honey, but remember, she’s visiting us. Your dogs are Ranger and Lemon. Look. See how much they miss you?” Wendi nodded toward her dogs, who were lying down, gazing off into the woods.
“I want her.”
“Okay, but she’s Mr. Ian’s dog, Emma.”
When Emma shook her head stubbornly, Wendi stood up. “I’m sorry—she’s never shown such interest in another dog before.”
“Integrity hasn’t been overly affectionate with anyone since I got her, either.”
They stared at each other.
Leave it to a child and a dog to instinctively know they had something important in common.
They were both orphans.