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Book 3.5 in the Alaska Matchmakers Romances

Her Christmas season is well planned. A dog and a matchmaker ignore that plan.

Molly’s holiday season will be drama free. Nothing except working at her busy bakery in Homer, Alaska, so she can save money. Because she’s failed at romance in the past, love isn’t on her schedule. Neither is the dog she adopts—and has no idea how to take care of.

Joe just moved to this small town to set up a veterinary practice. His soft spot for animals—and pretty bakers—brings his path and Molly’s together. He may be interested in a future with her, but she keeps pushing him away.

A matchmaker has ideas of her own to make sure these two have a happily ever after.

Chapter One

Christmas music blasted through the room.

“Aimee, I know you love that song, but please turn it down!” Molly shouted over the din. Seconds later, the quiet melody of the song filled Cinnamon Bakery.

Even so, the sound of it ramped up Molly’s stress another notch.

Her friend brought over a stack of napkins and began refilling the dispenser near the cash register. “This year, you’re a Scrooge.”

“You don’t need to help me here. You have your own business to run.” Molly straightened a tray of decorated sugar cookies and slid them into the glass display case. Had her change of subject distracted her friend?

Aimee shrugged. “Now that I’m moving out of my store, I have more time to do things I enjoy.”

“And you enjoy helping here?”

Aimee stared at her. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that you changed the subject, Molly Becker. You used to love Christmas music.”

Molly turned away and went to get more cookies so Aimee couldn’t see her expression. To say this song and every Christmas song stressed her out was an understatement. Everything about Christmas stressed her out. “I always enjoyed this song,” she whispered. “What happened?”

“I heard what you said.” Her friend crossed her arms. “You said enjoyed, not enjoy. Past tense.”

Molly returned with a tray of cinnamon sugar cookies. With it safely on the display shelf in the case, she swallowed hard and turned to her friend, not ready for the coming discussion. “You’re right.”

“I’m right? That’s your answer? I know I’m right. My question is: why are you acting this way?”

Molly straightened. “Do you remember Silas?”

Aimee shrugged. “Sure, he’s the man you dated . . . last Christmas. Is that it? A Christmas breakup?”

“Sort of. Every time I saw him or talked to him, he complained about my business intruding on ‘us’ time. By the time it was Christmas Eve—”

“You’d had enough. You broke up with him that day, didn’t you?”

Molly sighed. “I did, but I should have done it earlier. I refuse to go through that again. Even Christmas music reminds me of it. The good news is that if I focus on my bakery, I should have enough for a down payment on a house by January.”

“Congratulations! Jack and I hope to buy a house next year too.”

“As to having time for romance, look around you.” She gestured at the row of glass cases. “My display cases are loaded with sweets that I’ve been baking since early this morning. As soon as I open the doors, the shelves will start emptying out, and I’ll have to make more.”

Aimee put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me what happens every day, Scrooge.”

“But it’s almost time for the tree lighting and other holiday activities that bring visitors to our small town. Those put everyone in even more of a holiday food mood. And I ship baked goods on top of that. I’m too busy for romance.”

At least that was what Silas had told her.

Aimee frowned. “Having steady business is good. I don’t understand.”

“Steady, yes. Barely being able to keep up . . . not as much fun.”

“That I do understand. It’s why I closed my storefront. But you’re the one who decided to ship treats around the state. You could stop that.”

“Joy to the World” started playing and brought her into the moment. A smile began, and scents of gingerbread mingled with cinnamon rolls wafted past her nose. Maybe she could relax a bit. Then the kitchen timer sounded because she needed to check on both of those treats. On the way, she realized that if she didn’t start another batch of each, she’d fall behind.

Molly spoke loudly from her baking area. “Nope. It all goes to my down payment. Besides, I’ve set up my life so I can manage all of this. I even cooked and froze meals. I can go home and heat them up. Everything I earn will go into savings.” And then she wouldn’t have time to think about dating and mistletoe and all things romance.

Aimee raised an eyebrow. “I hope your life will go smoothly over the next month.”

“You can count on it.” Molly gave a single nod. She wouldn’t allow anything to mess up her plans. “Now, I need to get to work making the next batch. And I still have to pack up the cookies to ship.”

Aimee frowned.

“What?”

“I’m worried about you being so busy that you can’t even enjoy the holidays. Or anything, for that matter. Maybe hire some help. I know you’ve done that every once in a while. I’m sure some college students will be home on break soon.”

“I’m considering that.” And she was. She did want to see, though, if she could do it herself, along with her mom’s part-time help waiting tables, and save that amount toward her house. “But I always have my business-first policy. Putting it first has gotten me through a couple years of owning Cinnamon. This Christmas could push me over.”

“Push you over into exhaustion, and maybe even a life you don’t want to live.”

“It’s a happy life.”

“What about a kiss under the mistletoe? Wouldn’t you like to have someone special to spend the holidays with?”

Laughter bubbled up inside Molly at Aimee’s dreamy expression. “Spoken like someone in love.” Though it was still early in the morning, a couple walked by her bakery. Holding hands, they also looked happy. “No, I’ve had my heart broken too many times. I went on so many first and second and third dates. There have been a couple that lasted somewhat longer than that—like Silas. Every single time, my heart was broken.”

Sympathy shone in her friend’s eyes. “I never realized that was how you felt. Sure, I knew that you always pointed out the handsome man in the room, and you often got the date with him. I didn’t realize you’d been hurt because you always bounced back.”

Molly waved the thought away. “I’m fine. I learned my lesson from watching you and Jack. You didn’t have to chase him. My chasing days are over.”

Aimee checked her watch. “Sorry to cut this short, but I have to get to my jewelry store.” Aimee walked toward the door.

Molly put a muffin in a bag and followed her over. She unlocked the door so her friend could leave.

But Aimee hadn’t finished. “People meet the loves of their lives in a lot of different ways, and sometimes it’s the way you did it in the past. Maybe the next customer to come through there”—Aimee tapped on the bakery’s door—”is the right one for you.”

Molly could see movement outside and recognized a favorite customer. “I predict that the next person to come to the door is female and old enough to be my grandparent.” They stepped aside as the door pushed open, and a woman with fashionably styled gray hair entered. Cinnamon wasn’t officially open, but Molly would serve her anyway.

Molly said, “Choose any table you’d like, Mrs. Jacobsen. I’ll be right over.” She turned toward her friend. “I’m fine. I just hope that someday I meet someone who makes me get the same goofy grin on my face that you do every time I mention the word ‘Jack.’”

Aimee put her hands on her cheeks and turned a vivid shade of red. “I didn’t realize I did that, but as soon as you said his name I could feel what happened to my face. That is so embarrassing!”

Molly handed the bag to Aimee. “I’d be worried about you if you didn’t get that look. Do me a favor and taste this muffin. It’s a new one I’m trying for the holidays, a spin on my cranberry-orange muffin because the muffin itself is chocolate. Tell me what you think.”

Aimee took the bag. “I will be happy to be your taste tester once again. I only have a few more months in my Homer Gems storefront. Then I’ll be working from my home studio, and I can stop by more often.”

At Molly’s unintended pained expression, she added, “And I promise not to push you into dating. Much.”

Laughing, Molly said, “I’m always happy to have you here. I may be interested in dating. Definitely not this Christmas, though.” A second later, Molly asked, “You gave notice for the end of the year? I hadn’t realized it was a firm date.”

“I told my landlord that I was ready to move out any time. I seriously doubt he will find anyone to take that space before the first of the year, so I’ll be there through Christmas. Maybe I’ll bring in some extra money for the wedding.”

#

Molly hurried over to her customer’s table as soon as Aimee left. “Mrs. Jacobsen, it’s always great to see you.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Molly realized that something was wrong with her frequent patron. The elderly woman had an air of defeat Molly had never seen before.

“This is my last time coming here for a while. Maybe forever.”

Molly pulled out a chair at the table and sat next to the elderly woman. “Oh, no! Are you having health problems?” As soon as she spoke, she realized she’d crossed a line. “Never mind. It’s none of my business.”

Mrs. Jacobsen patted Molly’s hand. “No, dear. You’ve always been kind, so I don’t mind the question. I’m happy to share that I’m perfectly healthy. My problem is that I turned eighty, and my daughter and grandchildren decided they would like to have me nearer to them in Anchorage.”

Molly leaned back in her chair. This woman might be of a certain age, but nothing about her said feeble. Right now, she wore jeans, a rhinestone-studded T-shirt, and a jean jacket, and had a faux fur coat laying over the back of the chair. She’d complained a couple of years ago when she’d had to stop wearing high heels and go for more comfortable shoes. Even then, they’d been stylish.

She always had a spring in her step, and Molly knew she could often be seen walking Homer’s beaches for exercise. When Molly didn’t say anything, the woman continued.

“I must admit that I don’t enjoy the four-and-a-half hour drive to Anchorage as much as I did in the past. Now that I’m getting great-grandchildren, it would be nice to see them more often.” The older woman wiped a tear from her eye.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Molly wasn’t, but what else could she say?

“Oh, I’ll adapt. I’ll adjust. My daughter even remodeled a section of her house so I can have my own private space. It even has a kitchen.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“She’s a lovely woman.” Then Mrs. Jacobsen frowned. “I’m not sure how I bore a child like this, but she does not like dogs.” The woman raised sad eyes toward Molly. “I have to give up my Noelle.”

“Have you had her long?”

“She’s five years old. I got her when she was an adorable puppy. I’m going to drop her off at the shelter because no one I know is able to take another pet.” She wiped her eyes again. “People always seem to want puppies, so the fate of a little older dog in a shelter may not be good.” Now, tears streamed down the woman’s face.

Molly raced over and grabbed a box of tissues from behind the counter.

“Thank you, my dear.” Mrs. Jacobsen took one and dabbed her cheeks with it. “This isn’t your problem. I stopped here to get a dozen of your cinnamon rolls to take with me. I want to share a bit of Homer with my family when I arrive.”

Molly rubbed the woman’s shoulder as she stood, then packaged up her treats. She thought about the dog as she brought the box over. Growing up, she’d wanted a dog. Any dog. Her mom was very much like Mrs. Jacobsen’s daughter. She was a lovely woman, kind and friendly, but she’d never allowed them to have any pets. No matter how many times Molly had begged for a dog when she was growing up, her mother had always said, “We just don’t have time,” or some other excuse.

“I’ve always wanted a dog.” Molly heard a wistful note in her voice.

Mrs. Jacobsen jumped to her feet. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Molly watched her leave, wondering what on earth she’d done that was so amazing. Then she realized the other woman had forgotten her cinnamon rolls. As Molly picked them up and took a step toward the door, Mrs. Jacobsen returned with a big leashed dog, a bulging plastic trash bag, and what appeared to be a dog bed.

“You’ve always been so kind to me when I’ve been in here. I know you’ll take great care of Noelle.” She set the bag on the floor and handed Molly the end of the leash. Rubbing the dog’s head, she said, “You be a good girl for Molly.” Then she pulled out a key ring and put it on the table. “This is to my house on East End Road.”

When she rattled off an address, Molly pulled out her phone and entered it there.

“I told my family I would move, but I’m not selling, so I can still spend time here in my own place. You’re welcome to go out there. It might even help Noelle with the transition if she’s in her familiar place. She’s an Alaskan malamute, and they like to run.” The older woman took the cinnamon rolls from Molly’s hands. “What do I owe you for these?”

Molly shook her head. “They’re my going-away present for you.”

The woman brightened at that. Then she reached down and gently rubbed the dog behind her ears. “Malamutes are furry dogs, so please remember to brush her every few days.”

She waved and hurried out to her car, leaving Molly completely shell-shocked.

Molly held the leash of the large Alaskan malamute that she now seemed to own. “Noelle, what just happened?”

She had a dog. She had no idea how to take care of a dog.

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