A Christmas Break

After a fateful accident just before Christmas, Em needed someone to take the mischievous Monty for regular walks…

Em struggled to stand up. When would she get the hang of these crutches?

“Don’t stare like that, Monty. I can’t help it.”

That wasn’t strictly true, as her way-too-wise golden Labrador knew. It was her own fault that she’d broken her leg, although if anyone asked – and of course everyone did ask – she told them she’d fallen rescuing a cat from a tree.

But the truth – of which Monty was sworn to secrecy – was that she’d injured herself taking a selfie on the stairs.

“I know it was stupid, Monty,” she said, hopping over to her dining table where she’d set up a mirror. “But those stairs have the best light and I need all the help I can get to find a date for the office Christmas party.”

Even joining the new dating app – Mingles 4 Singles – hadn’t resulted in any interest.

“The trouble is, Monty, everyone’s chasing the same hot blokes,” she’d moaned as she opened her make up bag and now, she couldn’t “chase” anyone with her leg in plaster.

Em sighed. She hadn’t had a date for weeks and it had been six months since she’d split from Terry. She shuddered, remembering their bitter break-up.

She checked her phone. It was almost ten. She’d have to act fast if she was going to glam up. No way was she going to be making yesterday’s mistake.

She cringed…

When she’d broken her leg, one pressing problem, living alone, was how to walk Monty. He was a boisterous two-year old and plodding along on crutches just didn’t work for him.

At first her brother Chris had taken him out but last week, he’d said, “Sorry Em, I’ve a big project at work. I can’t spare the time driving here to walk Monty. Shall I take him home with me until you’re out of plaster?”

It was typically kind of her brother but one glance at her dog with his big brown eyes and she knew she couldn’t be parted from him.

There was only one solution – she would have to find a dog walker.

So she’d advertised on the local neighbourhood app and had two replies – one from a woman who wanted a huge fee for the job, and another from a guy called Henry who’d recently lost his own pet and missed having an excuse to explore the Downs.

An older man would have the authority to cope with Monty’s exuberance, so she sent him a message saying Yes, please and arranged for him to meet Monty. If they got on, he’d then take him for a first walk.

However, when she woke that morning, she felt dreadful. Shooting pains in her leg had disturbed her sleep. Still in her pyjamas, she was wondering how to shower and keep her plaster dry when the doorbell rang.

“Surely that’s not him already?” she muttered to Monty. She wasn’t expecting Henry for another half an hour. “If it is him, you be good, mister. Don’t go dragging this poor old chap down the lane.”

Monty put his head to one side as much as to say, “Who me?” and she’d laughed. Passing her reflection in the hallway mirror, she wondered if a limping haystack had invaded her home overnight!

Opening the door, a cold wind blew in.

But her shiver had less to do with the December chill and more with the sight of the tall dark-haired man with the gorgeous brown eyes who was standing on her doorstep.

He had a close-cropped beard and was wearing a black padded jacket with a Manchester City scarf around his neck – only her favourite team.

Who was this? she thought.

Hearing the door open, Monty bounded out of the kitchen, nearly knocking her off her crutches.

“Hey, steady,” the man grinned, reaching out to hold her upright.

Was she still dreaming? Why was this perfect man here? Even if he was just pushing some religion, she would stand and listen.

“Can I help you?” she asked, wishing she’d at least dressed or slapped on her make-up or straightened her long dark hair or had a facial… or even just brushed her teeth.

He grinned then, rubbing Monty’s chin. Monty was enjoying the attention so much he’d have purred if he’d been feline rather than canine.

“It’s more what I can do for you.”

When she’d frowned in obvious puzzlement, he added, “I’m Henry. Here to walk this young man.”

For a minute her sleep-deprived brain couldn’t compute that this fabulous creature was the aged dog walker she’d been expecting. Realising an open mouth wasn’t a great look, she quickly snapped her jaws shut.

“Oh, you’re Henry.”

“Well, my mates call me H.”

“I’m sorry, I was… I was expecting a much older man.”

He grinned and she almost purred, too.

“I get that all the time. It’s a family name. Generations of first-born Maxwells have been called Henry. I like it – it’s different, although not in our family – but the nickname H has kind of stuck since school.”

She could have listened to him all day but conscious her leg was aching – not her broken one but the one she was using to bear her weight – she suggested fetching Monty’s L-E-A-D.

“Don’t worry, I’ll look after him. I’ve had dogs all my life, although I want a break from owning one for a while.” For a moment, his brown eyes clouded. “I’ve only just lost Cooper.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s really hard to lose a pet.”

“It is…” he said quietly, then Monty barked, and he smiled. “Shall I take him out? Put him through his paces.”

“Oh, yes, but he’s quite a handful…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll manage.”

She watched them trot down the frosty path before she hobbled, as quick as she could, into the kitchen for a bin bag to tie around her leg. She was showering before they returned if it killed her – which it very nearly did, as trying to keep her balance and her plaster dry was a hard skill to master.

Then she blow-dried her hair, dressed into her best jumper and skirt and slapped on so much make up she looked like she was off to Jupiter, her favourite nightclub.

She’d just finished applying her lippy when the doorbell rang again.

“Oh, hi H, was Monty good?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

Staring, no doubt amazed at her physical transformation, he said, “Not really, I’m afraid.”

Now she thought about it, he did look somewhat bedraggled.

“He shot through the hedge by the fields, dragging me with him.”

“Oh, sorry, my fault! I should have warned you that he loves chasing rabbits. It’s best to take him on the route past the church to the Downs rather than by the farm.”

He brushed dirt from his sleeve.

“No harm done. I’ll remember that next time. Is tomorrow OK? Around this time?”

She was so pleased he hadn’t been put off that she said, “Absolutely yes! I mean, great… Thank you… See you tomorrow, then.”

Now tomorrow was here and she was determined to look her best. It had taken a real effort to hobble around her bedroom to collect her clothes, make-up and jewellery, but she was almost ready when the bell sounded.

Quickly she combed her hair as Monty barked, as pleased to see H as she was.

She’d have loved to chat to him, but Monty was anxious to get rabbit chasing – or rather walking – and pulled H off down the path.

Did H look sad to go? No, she was probably imagining it.

He was well out of her league.

While Em waited, she must have checked a dozen times for their return as she sat on the sofa, watching the street view from the bay window.

The wind was strong. No doubt it was very cold. Maybe H would like hot chocolate when he got back? Any excuse to chat to him again.

She flicked through a magazine, feeling at a loose end. She’d planned to go shopping this weekend to buy a killer dress for the office party but that was before she’d broken her leg. Now all she could do was surf the internet.

Would she even bother with the office do now? She couldn’t dance and she still didn’t have a date.

Opening her tablet, she searched some websites but her enthusiasm for all things Christmas had evaporated. What bad timing to break her leg in December!

She checked the clock. How much longer before H and Monty returned?

He was the most gorgeous man she’d seen in months, and already they’d a lot in common with their love of dogs. Terry had never really “got” Monty.

But H was bound to have a girlfriend and even if he didn’t, she wouldn’t stand a chance, more’s the pity.

Fancy a… oh my God! What happened?” Em was shocked.

H stood on the doorstep, dripping wet. His clothes were covered in mud and there was a leaf stuck to his beard.

Tentatively, she picked it off him.

“Is this to do with you?” she sternly asked Monty who, by comparison, looked as if he’d just sauntered out of Pets Parlour.

“I confess it wasn’t entirely Monty’s fault…” H said.

“Come in and get warm.” She beckoned him into the hall. “Look – pop up and have a shower. Throw down your clothes and I’ll put them through a quick wash. While you wait for them to dry, I’ll make some hot chocolate.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly…”

“No really, I insist, you can’t go home like that.”

So H did as she suggested and disappeared upstairs for a shower. She was just loading his washed clothes into the tumble dryer when he emerged swathed in towels.

“What happened?” she asked, throwing a mock scowl at Monty, who’d the good grace to slink off to the kitchen to lay, head resting on his paws.

“I remembered not to take Monty past the farm on the way to the Downs but we’d had such a great walk, I forgot on the way back. It’s Cooper’s favourite route.” For a moment he looked sad as he towel-dried his dark tangle of hair.

“Your old dog?”

“Well, not so old. She’s only three.”

Em was puzzled. “Sorry, when you said you’d lost…?”

“I have lost her… but not that way, thankfully. I shared Cooper with Molly – my ex. When we split she assumed full custody. It was for the best. Molly’s moved back to Sheffield. It’s too far for us to share Cooper.”

“That’s terrible,” she said, thinking how sorry she felt for H. At least with Terry there’d been no question she’d keep Monty. “Coping with a break-up is hard enough without losing your dog, too. At least with Terry – my ex – there was no question he’d take Monty. He hardly even noticed he existed.”

A shadow crossed H’s face. Was he about to say something?

Then he bent to stroke Monty and whispered, “It’s hard to believe anyone wouldn’t notice you, old fella.”

Em laughed and the moment passed.

“He is a bit in your face, isn’t he?”

H nodded as she handed him a mug of hot chocolate.

“Thanks. I’ll drink this and get off. I expect you’ve lots to do this weekend.”

She told him then about her quest to find the best dress for next Saturday’s office party.

“To be honest I’m not sure
I want to go now. It won’t be the same, sitting at the table watching everyone else have a great time.”

“Well, if you don’t go, why not do something different? Host your own party at home?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Who would I invite? Everyone I know will be at the do.

“Unless… you’d like to come over?”

Em could have swallowed her tongue. Why had she blurted out such a ridiculous invitation…?

“Yeah… OK. Thanks.”

“I mean, sorry, I’m sure you don’t actually want to come here. I shouldn’t have asked…”

“Em – I said, yes.”

“Did you? Sorr … I mean, that’s great… OK. Come round. We’ll have a takeaway and watch a movie or some football or listen to music or whatever.”

The days couldn’t go by fast enough for Em. Every time H walked Monty she thought he’d cancel their “party” – but he didn’t.

When Saturday arrived, she wasn’t sure what to wear – casual or dressy? It would be awful if H turned up in a black tie and she was in jeans.

In the end she settled for something smart but not over the top. Black trousers to cover her plaster and a pretty grey chiffon shirt beaded with tiny sparkly butterflies. She even twirled some tinsel around her crutches.

“Wow! You look lovely!” H enthused when he arrived on Saturday.

“You look pretty good yourself!”

H was wearing a navy jacket over an open-necked white shirt and a pair of slim-fit beige chinos.

“Thank you,” he smiled, offering her a bottle of Pinot Grigio. “I might even stay like this if I don’t walk Monty today.”

Hearing his name, the dog barked as if to argue and they both laughed.

Sitting with H, watching the rom-com The Holiday as they ate Thai curry, she didn’t miss the works party at all. H had even remembered Monty, bringing him a selection of doggie treats which Em was trying, but failing, to ration.

“Monty, you’re the worst,” she smiled but when he looked crestfallen, she added, “Well, you’re naughty but the most adorable dog ever.”

Later as Em waved off H, she thought it had been the best evening ever. Only one thing was missing. They hadn’t even shared as much as a Christmas kiss under her strategically placed mistletoe.

Maybe H had already relegated Em to the friend zone?

If so, that would be a real shame. The more she saw H, the more she liked him. She could easily fall for him, but if he viewed her as a pal, that would be the worst…

Christmas with family meant Em saw little of H over the holidays, although they sent frequent texts with silly GIFs and memes. As Chris was also staying at Mum’s for Christmas, he walked Monty.

As good as her family break was, she missed H and couldn’t wait to see him again when she returned home. He’d agreed to resume Monty duties when she got back.

After six weeks, Em’s plaster was finally removed.

“I don’t fancy walking Monty alone yet,” she told H. “He’s so bouncy!”

“Let’s walk him together then. I’ll be in charge of Sir, while you find your feet – literally.” He grinned.

Wrapping up against the cold January weather, they set off down the lane with Monty happily sniffing almost every blade of grass they passed.

“I don’t want you falling over again,” he smiled, insisting Em took his arm.

As soon as she slipped her arm through his, it was as if an electrical charge had coursed through her. She glanced at H, shocked by his expression. Had he felt it too?

In comfortable silence, they ambled down the twisting lane, the hedgerows iced with frost.

“You know, I’ve loved spending time with Monty… and you.” He caught and held her gaze.

“Thanks, H, for all the help you’ve given us.” She smiled, and feeling the time was finally right, she gently kissed his cheek. Before she knew it, they were kissing properly.

“Well, that was some thank you!” he smiled. “Even better than the daily hot chocolate and they’re pretty special.”

“I suppose,” she snuggled into him, “your dog walking days will soon be over, now my leg’s better…”

“Perhaps,” he frowned. “Or maybe we could still walk Monty together?”

“I’d really like that,” Em smiled. “As long as there are some more kisses along the way.”

“I think,” he said, pulling her to him for another long and amazing kiss. “I can guarantee that.”

And Monty barked then, almost as if to say he approved!

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