The sun had barely come up and Willa Davis was already elbow deep in puppies and poo—a typical day for her. As owner of the South Bark Mutt Shop, she spent much of her time scrubbing, cajoling, primping, hoisting—and more cajoling. She wasn’t above bribing either.
Which meant she kept pet treats in her pockets, making her irresistible to any and all four-legged creatures within scent range. A shame though that a treat hadn’t yet been invented to make her irresistible to two-legged male creatures as well. Now that would’ve been handy.
But then again, she’d put herself on a Man-Time-Out so she didn’t need such a thing.
This from one of the pups she was bathing. The little guy wobbled in close and licked her chin.
“That’s not going to butter me up,” she said, but it totally did and unable to resist that face she returned the kiss on the top of his cute little nose.
One of Willa’s regular grooming clients had brought in her eight-week-old heathens—er, golden retriever puppies.
Six of them.
It was over an hour before the shop would open at nine a.m. but her client had called in a panic because the pups had rolled in horse poo. God knew where they’d found horse poo in the Cow Hollow district of San Francisco—maybe a policeman’s horse had left an undignified pile in the street—but they were a mess.
And now so was Willa.
Two puppies, even three, were manageable, but handling six by herself bordered on insanity. “Okay, listen up,” she said to the squirming, happily panting puppies in the large tub in her grooming room. “Everyone sit.”
One and Two sat. Three climbed up on top of the both of them and shook his tubby little body, drenching Willa in the process.
Meanwhile, Four, Five, and Six made a break for it, paws pumping, ears flopping over their eyes, tails wagging wildly as they scrabbled, climbing over each other like circus tumblers to get out of the tub.
“Rory?” Willa called out. “Could use another set of hands back here.” Or three . . .
No answer. Either her twenty-three-year-old employee had her headphones cranked up to make-me-deaf-please or she was on Instagram and didn’t want to lose her place. “Rory!”
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.”