Feliz Naughty Dog by Roxanne St. Claire

Chapter One

 

Pru stared at the text message on her phone, a ribbon of disappointment curling through her.

“Seriously, Emma?” she murmured, falling back against the Buick’s back seat as she ripped the wrapper off a mini candy cane that was about to become breakfast and comfort food all in one peppermint sugar bomb. “Way to steal my Christmas Eve joy.”

Instantly, Gala, the dachshund sitting on Gramma Finnie’s lap in the passenger seat, turned and gave her a sad look that reflected exactly how Pru felt.

“Is there a problem, lass?” Gramma Finnie asked, stroking Gala’s tan head. “Are we running late for your meeting? Traffic is heavy in Bitter Bark today.”

“Oh, no, we’re right on time for the team kickoff in Bushrod Square. It’s just…other stuff.” Vague, but easier than trying to explain to her great-grandmother why this news was such a drag.

“Donchya be worryin’, dear Prudence,” she cooed in her lilting brogue. “I find it hard to believe you’ve left a single stone unturned organizin’ the Random Acts of Christmas Kindness for Bitter Bark High. Look at that bag full of instructions and lists and other RACK goodies to help your school win.”

“Win.” Pru grinned and slurped the candy cane. “And eat.”

Gramma laughed. “General Pru’s got this.” She winked as she said the nickname their family had been calling Pru forever. “I’ve no doubt Bitter Bark High will beat the other schools in the county by RACKing up the most points.”

Pru let out a sigh and threw a look at her backpack, which was, as her great-grandmother had correctly noted, a General Prudence Kilcannon Bancroft special. Maybe if the general spent less time managing college résumé-building projects like RACK IT UP and more time flirting with guys on the basketball team, she’d have a boyfriend for her team partner today, like Emma did.

“I guess.” Pru sucked the candy to a sharp point and tunneled her free hand into the fat rolls on Pyggie’s neck, Yiayia’s other doxie, who was curled next to her in the back seat. “But it’s never fun to get ditched for boys.”

“What do you mean?” Yiayia, the Greek grandmother who’d come into their extended family a few years ago, took her gaze off town traffic long enough to eye Pru in the rearview mirror.

“Emma and Charlotte were supposed to be my RACK IT UP partners today,” Pru explained. “And I made us the absolute most amazing list of Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, too.” And maybe overdecorated it just a bit. “But Emma just texted me that they want to partner with their boyfriends today.” She rolled her eyes. “So I’m flying solo.”

“That’s a random act of Christmas unkindness, if you ask me,” Yiayia said. “Is there anything worse than picking a man over a friend on Christmas Eve?”

“Nothing,” Gramma Finnie said with a sideways look at Yiayia. “Unless it’s dragging your friend along to shop for one on Christmas Eve.

Pru frowned at the puzzling comment, but then another text came in from Emma.

You’re not mad, right? We figured since you’re running the show you can get another team. Or come with us, of course!

“Just what I want to be, a fifth wheel.” She thumbed back a quick, No problem! You guys have fun! and tossed the phone on top of her bag, pushing down her growing resentment.

“There are no other teams,” she said, more to herself than the grannies. “And now I’ll have to do my random acts alone, on foot, since Emma was going to drive. We were going to take Linda May’s raspberry croissants to the Starling Senior Living Center.” She made a face. “Now they’ll have all the fun of handing them out to the seniors and get any extra croissants.”

“Doesn’t really matter as long as your school ‘racks’ up the points, right?” Gramma Finnie asked, always seeing the silver lining in any dark cloud. “The more points, the more chance you have of Bitter Bark High winning.”

“True.” Pru grabbed her phone and checked the RACK IT UP app. “In Vestal Valley County, it’s still a three-way tie between Holly Hills, Bitter Bark, and Sweetheart Springs, which is a shock considering how little interest my whole school has in this. But they’ll all want the prize.”

Most of her friends acted like participating in Random Acts of Christmas Kindness was totally bogus and dumb, but they’d all be first in line if Bitter Bark won an all-expenses-covered Winter Formal with DJ Fearsome McQ.

“Did you say Sweetheart Springs?” Yiayia asked, her dark brows rising with surprise.

“Right? A dark horse for sure,” Pru said, thumbing through the list of participating high schools on the app. “I expected Holly Hills High would crush this, since they are the town that Christmas built, and Sweetheart Springs is full of wedding parties and honeymooners. Oh, and rich people who own second homes. The high school isn’t exactly famous for its spirit. But the judges gave some kids forty points for painting a Christmas mural on the side of a foster home overnight in freezing weather.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“That’s close to the mall where we’re going after we drop Pru off, isn’t it?” Yiayia said under her breath to Gramma Finnie.

Gramma Finnie nodded, but added a warning look.

“Where exactly are you two going after you drop me off?” Pru asked, eyeing the octogenarians, and getting a whiff of…trouble.

“Nowhere.”

“Not important, lass.”

A zing shot through her at the dismissive responses. “Is this Dogmothers business that you forgot to tell me, the honorary member of your matchmaking team? Are you working on Ella’s match?” Her voice rose with enough excitement for Pyggie to force himself up, nearly taking a lick of the dagger-sharp candy cane Pru pointed at the front seat as she demanded to know more. “Are you getting her some of that famous hot springs water that’s supposed to make you fall in love, hence the unfortunate name of the town Sweetheart Springs?”

“Settle down, Prudence,” Yiayia said quickly. “There’s no matchmaking happening.”

Gramma Finnie lifted a dubious brow, silent.

“What?” Yiayia shot back. “I have an errand to run at the mall is all, which happens to be right between Holly Hills and Sweetheart Springs.”

“You’re going to the Vestal Village Mall on Christmas Eve? With the dogs?” Pru asked.

“Oh, dogs are more than welcome,” Yiayia said. “They’re trying to cash in on Bitter Bark’s huge tourist success by letting dogs go everywhere, so Pyggie and Gala will be safe and happy.”

“But will you?” Pru asked. “That place’ll be a madhouse today what with that massive Santa’s Workshop and the indoor train and carolers everywhere. Who in their right mind would go there on Christmas Eve?” Let alone two octogenarians and their dachshunds.

Once again, an indecipherable look passed between the two women, a look that Pru ached to interpret. Few things were as fun as the grannies on a matchmaking mission.

“What are you going to get?” Pru asked.

“Caught,” Gramma Finnie whispered. “Then killed.”

Excuse me?” Pru launched forward to put her face between them. “What are you talking about?”

Yiayia gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s Christmas Eve, Prudence. There have to be some secrets.”

“From me?”

Gramma Finnie tsked. “You just concern yourself with racking up points today.”

“Racking them up alone,” she murmured, remembering her plight.

“Well, this is a Christmas thing,” Yiayia told her. “Don’t you want a surprise under the tree?”

“Yeah, and maybe he’ll be cute and ask me to the Winter Formal I’m working my butt off to win for the school.” She dropped back in her seat with a huff.

“You could partner up with someone who doesn’t have a team yet,” Gramma Finnie suggested. “And that could be your first Random Act of Christmas Kindness, lass.”

“I don’t get RACK points for that.”

Gramma looked over her bifocals at Pru. “Then perhaps you’re missing the point of Christmas kindness,” she reminded her gently.

“Sorry.” Pru held up a hand, acknowledging the admonishment. “Everyone has a partner, Gramma. I made sure of that.”

“What about him?” Yiayia pointed to a kid on the sidewalk in front of town hall. “Maybe that boy needs a partner, other than that horse he’s with.”

Pru snorted at the comment and the absurd suggestion. “That’s a greyhound, Yiayia, and that’s no boy. That’s the new kid from California. He’s not on the list today, so no worries that he’ll be looking for a partner. I doubt very much Lucas Darling is on his way to the RACK IT UP kickoff in the square.”

Not to mention that he was the very last person on earth Pru would want as a partner. Unless she longed to spend the day with a broody, moody loner who hadn’t said two words to anyone at school since he’d arrived as a transfer student a few weeks ago in the middle of the semester.

“He’s a good-looking fella,” Gramma Finnie commented as Yiayia slowed the car at the Ambrose Avenue intersection in the heart of town, a few feet from where Lucas and his dog stood. “If you like a man who’s Gregory Peck meets Tony Curtis with a little James Dean on the side.”

Pru almost choked on candy cane-flavored saliva. “Jimmy Dean? Like the sausage?”

Yiayia barked a laugh, and Gramma Finnie just shook her head. “Makes you feel old, doesn’t it, Agnes?”

“Speak for yourself, Finola,” Yiayia replied, never one to admit her age under any circumstances.

But Pru ignored the grannie banter for a moment to study Lucas and the chocolate and white greyhound who pranced next to him. She might not know who Peck or Dean or…whoever was, but she got what Gramma Finnie was saying.

The talk, dark, smoldering bad boy was universal and ageless in his appeal, a high school cliché no matter what year the class graduated. And Lucas Darling owned the part right down to the leather jacket with some just-a-little-too-long black hair over the collar. All those types looked hot in jeans and somehow carried off a jawline that could slice something. They never smiled, they never made eye contact, and when they liked a girl…well, she wasn’t the girl who organized volunteer projects so the winning school could have a dance with a professional DJ.

And the fact that he had that super cool dog? Just made him more mysterious and attractive.

Nope, a guy like that wouldn’t be caught dead in a tux at the Winter Formal.

“Rumors swirl around him like storm clouds,” Pru told them. “Some kids say he’s from a big Hollywood family who disowned him. Or that he did something so bad his only choice was Bitter Bark or juvie, so he had to move here and live with his aunt. Oh, there’s also the one that he’s the secret love child of an aging rock star. Take your pick, ladies. There’s no shortage of folklore surrounding Bitter Bark’s newest and most enigmatic arrival.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear about a person,” Yiayia said as she turned into the parking lot behind the bookstore, the lot only locals knew about. “Rumors aren’t always true.”

Gramma shrugged. “There’s a kernel of truth in every lie,” she said.

“Gramma Finnie,” Pru said on a surprised laugh. “Not like you to take the less-than-positive side.”

“I’m just sayin’, lass. Some people are fundamentally not good.”

Before Pru could respond, stunned into momentary silence by the out-of-character comment, Yiayia threw the car into park and sliced Gramma with a dark look.

“Finola Kilcannon, you just stop it now. You don’t know anything about him. You are basing this on hearsay and gossip, and I am sick of it.”

Pru inched back at the passion in her voice. “Wow, Yiayia. You really believe in that boy.” The old Greek grandmother had softened from the sarcastic fault-finder she’d been when she first moved to town, but this switch between the two best grannie friends was downright shocking.

The two ladies stared at each other, silent, while Gala lifted her little tan head and growled, sensing the tension.

“I am telling you, he’s no good,” Gramma Finnie ground out.

“I’m telling you I think he deserves a chance.”

Pru’s frown deepened. “And I’m telling you he’s in my English lit class, if you want my opinion.”

Finally, they turned. “We’re not talkin’ about your friend, lass,” Gramma said.

“But you’re a smart cookie, and you’d figure that out in a minute.”

She opted not to correct the your friend part, too fascinated by the conversation. “Then who are you fighting about?”

“We’re not fighting,” they said in perfect unison.

“Well, you’re not agreeing. Want to let me be the referee here?”

Gramma Finnie crossed her arms and looked forward, her crinkly little jaw tight as she battled whatever it was she wanted to say. Yiayia let out a sigh, her much-less-crinkled—thanks to Botox—expression looking far too serious for Christmas Eve.

“There’s a man,” Yiayia finally said. “I have been texting him ever since we met on Single ‘n’ Silver.”

Pru blinked, this news almost too much to comprehend. “You’ve been on a dating site?”

“You don’t have to sound so shocked,” Yiayia fired back. “I’m old, not dead.”

“No, but…wow.” Her fingers literally itched to grab her phone and share this news with the massive Kilcannon-Mahoney-Santorini clan, especially her mother. “So, what’s the problem with him?”

“There is no problem,” Yiayia said. “He’s a perfectly nice eighty-year-old man with grown children and grandchildren, and he happens to be playing Santa at the Vestal Village Mall today, and we’re going to…” She swallowed. “Check him out in person before I agree to have lunch with him.”

Pru drew back. “You two are going to creep on some dude dressed as Santa at the mall?” She pressed her hand to her chest, disappointment stabbing at her. “Without me?”

That made them both laugh a little and broke the tension.

“What don’t you like about him, Gramma Finnie?” Pru asked.

“He’s a mobster.”

What?”

“That’s ridiculous.” Yiayia tapped Gramma Finnie’s arm lightly. “He ran a landscaping company in Sweetheart Springs for decades, and now his sons own it, and his grandchildren work there. Does that sound like Tony Soprano to you?”

“Seamus knew him,” Gramma Finnie said, referring to her late husband. “And he heard all the talk.”

Talk.” Yiayia spat the word. “All because the man has an Italian last name. Have you ever heard anything so wrong and judgmental, Pru?”

Not from Gramma Finnie. “So, you’re interested in someone who’s not Greek, Yiayia?” This could be the most stunning news of all.

“Italy is a neighbor to Greece. We’re all Mediterranean.”

A stretch for a woman who named her dogs Pygmalion and Galatea and believed Greece was not only the birthplace of civilization, but the center of the world. “What’s his name?” she asked.

“Aldo Fiore.” Just saying it brought a smile to Yiayia’s lips. “Isn’t it poetic?”

“If you like Mafia movies,” Gramma Finnie muttered.

“Fiore means flower,” Yiayia added. “Isn’t that perfect for a man who spent his life growing gardens?”

“Unless someone finds themselves six feet under his rosebushes,” Gramma Finnie added.

“Are you jealous, Gramma Finnie?” It was the only explanation, since Pru could count on one hand the times she’d ever heard her beloved great-grandmother say anything negative about anyone on the earth. If she did, it was most likely cloaked in an Irish proverb about sinners and saints and luck and love.

“Nonsense, lass. I’m protective, is all. Agnes is a woman of some means, and I don’t want to see her…hurt.”

Agnes Santorini might not be dead broke, but she certainly wasn’t a “woman of some means.” And hurt? Pru pitied the poor guy who got sliced by that steel-edged tongue.

For her part, Yiayia just lifted a carefully filled-in brow. “You were right the first time, Pru. She’s jealous that I found a man and she didn’t. Not unlike how you feel about your friends spending the day with their boyfriends.”

“I’m not…” Pru’s voice faded. Yeah, she was jealous.

But Gramma Finnie shook her head hard enough to flutter her soft white hair. “Agnes! That’s not fair. I just don’t want you gettin’ involved with a man who could break your heart.”

“I’m too smart to have my heart broken,” Yiayia declared. “But I don’t want life to pass me by without remembering the feeling of holding a man’s hand as we step out for a date. Or his lips on mine at the end of the evening. Is that so wrong?”

When Gramma didn’t answer, Yiayia turned to Pru. “Is it?” she demanded.

“I wouldn’t mind a date and a kiss,” Pru agreed, having reached sixteen without having either one, though she was too ashamed to say that out loud. “But what I do mind is you two fighting. This is killing me.”

The two grannies looked at each other, sighing deeply.

“And you know what else I can’t take?” Pru asked. “The idea that you would go on this Christmas Eve adventure and not take me along!”

“But you have to do Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, lass,” Gramma Finnie said. “This RACK project is too important to you. You’ve worked so hard on all the details, and it’s the last day. Points are tallied tonight at midnight.”

“And we don’t know Aldo’s Santa schedule,” Yiayia added. “We were just going to pretend to be shoppers and see if we can watch him in action with the kids.”

“You can tell a lot about a man by how he interacts with children,” Gramma Finnie said.

“And if he makes them an offer they can’t refuse.” Pru poked Yiayia playfully.

But Yiayia wasn’t laughing. “I need you on my side, Prudence.”

“There aren’t sides,” Pru said, gathering up her bag. “But you do need a cool head on this mission. I can easily do my random acts all over the mall. I get to spend Christmas Eve with my favorite Dogmothers—and pups.” She gave the doxies some head rubs. “And I don’t have to see half of Bitter Bark High hooked up with the other half.”

“Are you sure?” Yiayia asked.

“We won’t kill each other, lass.”

“You might. Just let me make my speech to the kids who are in the square and make sure they understand the rules and know exactly how to send their pictures to the judges using the app or we won’t get points. If you guys run the registration table, you can check off the teams as they arrive. Oh, and give everyone a list of suggested acts, because they’re all too lame or in love to figure them out for themselves. Then we can head on over to Vestal Village Mall for some Santa stalking.”

“And that’s why they call her General Pru,” Yiayia said, lifting her knuckles for a three-way fist bump.

And just like that, Pru forgot her disappointment. Who needed a boyfriend when she had the world’s most fun grannies and a clandestine adventure on Christmas Eve?