The girl finally poked her head around the corner, phone in hand, screen lit.
“Holy crap,” Rory said, eyes wide. “Literally.”
Willa looked down at herself. Yep, her apron and clothes were splattered with suds and water and a few other questionable stains that might or might not be related to the horse poo. She’d lay money down on the fact that her layered strawberry blonde hair had rioted, resembling an explosion in a down-pillow factory. Good thing she’d forgone makeup at the early emergency call so at least she didn’t have mascara running down her face. “Help.”
Rory cheerfully dug right in, not shying from getting wet or dirty. Dividing and conquering, they got all the pups out of the tub, dried, and back in their baby pen in twenty minutes. One through Five fell into the instant slumber that only babies and the very drunk could achieve, but Six remained stubbornly awake, climbing over his siblings determined to get back into Willa’s arms.
Laughing, she scooped the little guy up. His legs bicycled in the air, tail wagging faster than the speed of light, taking his entire hind end with it.
“Not sleepy, huh?” Willa asked.
He strained toward her, clearly wanting to lick her face.
“Oh no you don’t. I know where that tongue’s been.” Tucking him under her arm, she carted him out front to the retail portion of her shop, setting him into another baby pen with some puppy toys, one that was visible to street traffic. “Now sit there and look pretty and bring in some customers, would you?”
Panting with happiness, the puppy pounced on a toy and got busy playing as Willa went through her opening routine, flipping on the lights throughout the retail area. The shop came to life, mostly thanks to the insane amount of holiday decorations she’d put up the week before, including the seven-foot tree in the front corner—lit to within an inch of its life.
“It’s only the first of December and it looks like Christmas threw up in here,” Rory said from the doorway.
Willa looked around at her dream-come-true shop, the one finally operating in the black. Well, most of the time. “But in a classy way, right?”
Rory eyed the one hundred miles of strung lights and more boughs of holly than even the North Pole should have. “Um . . . right.”
Willa ignored the doubtful sarcasm. One, Rory hadn’t grown up in a stable home. And two, neither had she. For the both of them Christmas had always been a luxury that, like three squares and a roof, had been out of their reach more than not. They’d each dealt with that differently. Rory didn’t need the pomp and circumstance of the holidays.
Willa did, desperately. So yeah, she was twenty-seven years old and still went overboard for the holidays.
“Ohmigod,” Rory said, staring at their newest cash register display. “Is that a rack of penis headbands?”
“No!” Willa laughed. “It’s reindeer-antler headbands for dogs.”
Rory stared at her.
Willa grimaced. “Okay, so maybe I went a little crazy—”
“Ha-ha,” Willa said, picking up a reindeer-antler headband. It didn’t look like a penis to her, but then again it’d been a while since she’d seen one up close and personal. “These are going to sell like hotcakes, mark my words.”
“Ohmigod—don’t put it on!” Rory said in sheer horror as Willa did just that.
“It’s called marketing.” Willa rolled her eyes upward to take in the antlers jutting up above her head. “Shit.”
Rory grinned and pointed to the swear jar that Willa had set up to keep them all in line. Mostly her, actually. They used the gained cash for their muffins and coffee fix.
Willa slapped a dollar into it. “I guess the antlers do look a little like penises,” she admitted. “Or is it peni? What’s the plural of penis?”
“Pene?” Rory asked and they both cracked up.
Willa got a hold of herself. “Clearly I’m in need of Tina’s caffeine, bad.”
“I’ll go,” Rory said. “I caught sight of her coming through the courtyard at the crack of dawn wearing six-inch wedge sneakers, her hair teased to the North Pole, making her look, like, eight feet tall.”
Tina used to be Tim and everyone in the five-story, offbeat historical Pacific Pier Building had enjoyed Tim—but they loved Tina. Tina rocked.
“What’s your order?” Rory asked.
Tina’s coffees came in themes and Willa knew just what she needed for the day ahead. “One of her It’s Way Too Early for Life’s Nonsense.” She pulled some more cash from her pocket and this time a handful of puppy treats came out too, bouncing all over the floor.
“And to think, you can’t get a date,” Rory said dryly.
“Not can’t get a date,” Willa corrected. “Don’t want a date. I pick the wrong men, something I’m not alone in . . .”
Rory blew out a sigh at the truth of that statement and then went brows up when Willa’s stomach growled like a roll of thunder.
“Okay, so grab me a muffin as well.” Tina made the best muffins on the planet. “Make it two. Or better yet, three. No, wait.” Her jeans had been hard to button that morning. “Crap, three muffins would be my entire day’s calories. One,” she said firmly. “One muffin for me and make it a blueberry so it counts as a serving of fruit.”
“Got it,” Rory said. “A coffee, a blueberry muffin, and a straitjacket on the side.”
“Ha-ha. Now get out of here before I change my order again.”
South Bark had two doors, one that opened to the street, the other to the building’s courtyard with its beautiful cobblestones and the historical old fountain that Willa could never resist tossing a coin into and wishing for true love as she passed.
Rory headed out the courtyard door.
“Hey,” Willa said. “If there’s any change, throw a coin into the fountain for me?”
“So you’re on a self-imposed man embargo but you still want to wish on true love?”
Rory shook her head. “It’s your dime.” She didn’t believe in wishes or wasting even a quarter, but she obediently headed out.
When she was gone, Willa’s smile faded. Each of her three part-time employees was young and they all had one thing in common.