Chapter One "Sit." Sylvie West desperately waved an organic uncured pepperoni training treat at her one-year-old pug-chihuahua rescue puppy. "Come on, schnookums. Sit for mama." Uttering a delighted growl, Crumpet went into a sly downward dog position, his teeth still clamped around Sylvie's favorite Christmas-themed bra. Considering it was a double D, it was a wonder the eight-pound pooch had managed to stealthily snatch it off the bed and make it all the way across the room by the time she'd turned around. As usual, Crumpet had deduced that Sylvie was getting ready to leave for work, and the puppy wasn't going to let her go without a fight. "Two treaties, then." Sylvie upped the ante in her negotiations. Seeing as how she was already behind on holiday preparations at the Christmas Café, she didn't have time for yet another power struggle with her furry toddler this morning. "Now drop it. Drop the bra." Another playful growl rumbled from Crumpet's throat, and she swore the puppy's furrowed eyebrows raised as if posing a silent question. What're you gonna do about it? Welllll... she didn't know exactly. Maintain eye contact , the trainer had told her. Make sure the dog knows you are the authority figure. Right. She was the authority figure around here. Or at least she was supposed to be. But every time she gazed into her pup's innocent, slightly bugged eyes, she turned to mush. Before she'd fallen in love with him at the shelter eight months ago, poor Crumpie had been neglected and abandoned. Left for dead in a box on the side of the highway. The first time she'd seen him in the pen, he'd cowered in a corner, resting his little chin on his paws and gazing up at her with the most forlorn expression. Coaxing him out of his shell had taken months-and a whole lot of gourmet treats. And now that he was living his best life, she didn't want to crush the dog's spirit. Even if it meant she had to sacrifice her good bras. "Yip!" Crumpet gave the bra a good shake. "You're going to rip it." Sylvie sighed and glanced around her cramped bedroom. The fluffy comforters and pillows had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now all the homey comforts she'd added gave Crumpet too many places to hide-he loved to wedge himself underneath the antique church pew under the window... or between her upholstered tufted headboard and the wall. And of course her door was open a crack, which meant she couldn't make any sudden moves or her beloved little wiggle butt would tear all through the house like a Tasmanian devil and probably chew her bra to shreds. "You want a chewy stick, then? Or a cookie?" She'd baked a new set of Christmas-tree-shaped dog confections to sell at the café over the next three weeks. "I'll give you two cookies if you drop the bra right now." At the mention of cookies, both of Crumpet's perked ears twitched. Ah yes, she and this puppy had a lot in common. They would both do pretty much anything for a cookie. "I baked them fresh last night," Sylvie taunted. "Remember? They're in the kitchen." She shuffled a step in the direction of the door, but the motion set Crumpet off. The dog bolted out of sight, her bra trailing behind him. "Great." She rushed from her room down the narrow hallway in time to see Gramps walking in from the front porch with the newspaper. "Close the-" Crumpet streaked across the room at Mach speed and sailed over her grandfather's plaid slippers on his way out the open door before she could finish the sentence. "No!" Sylvie raced to her boots and shoved her feet into them. "I'll go after him," Gramps offered, lumbering to the coatrack. "That's okay." The last thing she wanted was for her seventy-nine-year-old grandfather to take a fall out there on the ice. She frantically snatched her winter jacket off the couch. Who cared that she was wearing her Christmas flamingo pajama pants? Who cared that her red curly hair had likely tripled in size overnight? Her baby could get hit by a car! She had not rescued her little Crumpie Wumpie just to lose him like this. Sylvie tore out the door. "I'm coming, Crumpet!" A blast of frigid mountain air muted the shout. The sun had only started to peek above the snow-capped mountaintops to the east, highlighting the very farthest edges of the horizon with a soft pinkish glow. Most of the prairie-style bungalows on her street were still dark. "Crumpet!" She slogged through the fresh powder that had fallen overnight, searching the ground for footprints. "Yip!" her puppy yelped from a house three doors down. "Yip! Yip! Yip!" "I'm coming, baby!" Sylvie's boots skidded on the layer of ice under the snow as she veered to the left and blazed a path through her neighbor's yard. Honestly, if anyone in Silver Bells did happen to see her tromping around in her pajamas at dawn, they probably wouldn't be surprised. Growing up here, she'd managed to develop quite the reputation as . . . quirky. "Yip! Yip!" Crumpet's delighted barks grew louder as he pranced and bounced, tossing her bra through the snow. Just her luck she'd ended up with a dog that loved bras more than tennis balls. "This isn't a game," she called, slowly approaching. "Now sit! Stay!" Since those commands didn't even work inside the house, they likely weren't going to do much when her dog had gotten a taste for sweet freedom. "I'm not kidding, Crumpet." She'd gotten close enough now that she could almost grab him. "Easy. Let's go home." "Yip!" The dog assumed his favorite come and get me position-butt in the air, tail wagging. Oh, for the love... Sylvie lunged, but Crumpet ducked out of reach at the last second-still managing to hold on to the bra-and darted into the street. "No!" Stuck on her knees, Sylvie flailed to get up, managing to find her feet just as a car turned onto the block. "Stop! Oh, God! Please stop." Waving her arms, she sprinted into the road between Crumpet and the SUV, huffing and puffing. The car came to an abrupt stop in front of her, and the driver's door swung open. "Are you okay, miss?" a man called. "I'm-" Sylvie's jaw dropped when he climbed out of his car. The angled winter sunlight highlighted his tanned face and chestnut-colored hair, which had exactly the right amount of length and wave to make him appear both stylish and easygoing. Even from a distance she could tell his eyes were a sapphire blue... or maybe she only hoped they were because with his classic Hollywood jawline and the vintage wool coat he wore, otherworldly blue would complete the fantasy. She pried her gaze off of him and glanced down at her pajama pants. Seriously? She was out here in her PJs with her hair a red storm cloud, and the universe had decided to send a Marlon Brando look-alike to the rescue? She loved Marlon Brando. Her Grams had loved Marlon Brando too. "Do you need help?" The man stepped away from the SUV. "Are you in trouble?" "My dog," she said weakly. "He got out..." Before she could continue the explanation, her sweet, loving, butterball of a puppy trotted past her, lugging the bra along, and proceeded to jump up on the man's leg, begging for a scratch behind the ears. Crumpet also had a thing for good-looking men. Another quality the two of them had common. Except, Sylvie wasn't quite as smooth as the dog in her greeting. "I'm so sorry," she sputtered, trudging closer to him. "I was chasing my puppy all over and I thought you were going to hit him." And, oh lord, now she was getting teary because even with all the hassles Crumpet had brought into her life, he was her best buddy besides Gramps and what would she do without him? "I didn't even see the little stinker." The mystery man lifted the dog-along with the bra-into his arms and carefully untangled the undergarment's strap from Crumpet's teeth. "This must be yours?" The blue of his eyes-yes, they were actually blue-deepened with obvious amusement. "Yeah." Right about now Sylvie was wishing she'd grabbed her beanie and scarf so she could've hidden her tomato-red cheeks behind layers of wool. "Very festive." The man gave the bra an appreciative glance before holding it out. "Thanks." She took it from his hand and quickly stuffed it into her pocket. "I don't know why I bother buying him toys at the pet store when he only plays in my bra drawer." Mystery Man had a nice laugh-crooning and gravelly... sexy, Crumpet might say. And Sylvie would have to agree. "He sure is a cute little guy." He gave the dog a good scratch behind the ears while Crumpet tried to lick his chin. Sheesh. At least she exercised a little more self-control than her dog. You didn't see her trying to lick him. Yet. "Well, I'm sure you have places to be." What with his chiseled jaw and glowing smile, this man definitely had someone waiting for him somewhere. Sylvie held out her arms to take the dog back. "Actually, I'm not sure where I'm headed." He carefully nestled Crumpet into Sylvie's arms. "I'm jet-lagged so I woke up early. Thought I'd go in search of some breakfast. Do you happen to have any recommendations?" Ah, a tourist. Perfect. She relaxed a little, knowing she'd likely never see him again. Not when she planned to be attached to her oven at the café for the next two weeks. Besides, he looked like he'd be spending his holiday on the slopes nearby. "Nothing's open around here until seven." This was Silver Bells, after all. Not some big city where everything was open twenty-four seven. "But I'd highly recommend the Christmas Café. They have the best breakfast in town." It never hurt to put in a shameless plug for her employer. "The Christmas Café." A dimple winked out from behind the man's smile. "Sounds perfect. It was nice to meet you..." He lifted an eyebrow. "Sylvia. Or Sylvie. Or Syl. People tend to call me one of those three most of the time. My grandmother's name was Sylvie and the same thing happened to her..." Uh-oh. Her babbling reflex had kicked in. "What do you like being called?" Mystery Man asked, gazing at her intently like he really wanted to know. "Oh. Uh..." She'd never really thought about it. "Sylvie, I suppose." The man nodded but his gaze never left hers. "Nice to meet you, Sylvie. I hope I'll see you around town." "Oh, definitely not." Sometimes her mouth tended to work faster than her brain. "I mean, it's not that I wouldn't want to or anything, er . . . not that I really want to either, but I'm really busy around the holidays so I don't really get to see people because I'm super busy and I just don't get out much." If her social skills were any indication, she obviously didn't see many people. "Anyway. Nice to meet you." Still cradling Crumpet in her arms, she whirled and slogged through the snow to the sidewalk before any more awkwardness could come out of her mouth. "Merry Christmas, Sylvie," he called before getting back into his car and driving away. "Merry Christmas." She watched the dark SUV disappear around the corner. "You saw him too, right?" she asked her dog. How often did a good-looking, kind, and jovial Marlon Brando look-alike randomly show up in life? "Never. That never happens." Maybe she should leave the house wearing her Christmas flamingo pajamas more often. "Yip!" Crumpet licked her chin and gave his best puppy dog eyes as she carted him into the house. "You were very naughty," she told him gravely. That was about all she had in her discipline skills toolbox. "I'll give you a cookie if you promise to never steal mummy's bra again." Sylvie kicked off her boots and set the pup gently on the floor. "Yip! Yip!" Crumpet spun in circles. "Musta taken you a while to catch him." Gramps looked over the top of his newspaper from the kitchen table, which used to sit in the dining room at the house he'd shared with Grams for over five decades. Steam swirled from the extra cup of coffee he'd set out next to his. Boy, did she need coffee. "He almost got hit by a car. It was horrible." Sylvie dug Crumpet's cookie out of the plastic container she'd filled last night and then joined her grandfather at the table. "But the driver stopped and helped. He turned out to be pretty nice, actually." "I saw 'im out the window." Gramps's deep brown eyes twinkled. "Sure looked like you two were havin' a nice conversation." "He was having a nice conversation." Sylvie handed her dog the treat and then wrapped her hands around the mug to warm them. She really had to get to work, but nothing beat a cup of strong hot coffee after a spontaneous frigid morning jog. "I was being my typical self." She cringed remembering the way the man's brows had pinched when she said she would definitely not see him again. "Why can't every man be as easy to talk to as you are?" She squeezed Gramps's shoulder. "Or maybe I'm the problem." Why couldn't she be more like her older sister, who was so well-spoken? Or charming like her brother? Yes, she realized that being adopted meant she didn't share their blood, but you'd think they would've rubbed off on her over the years. "Any man would be lucky to talk to you," her grandfather insisted stubbornly. "You're a gem, Sylvie. And don't you forget that." "Thanks, Gramps, but this gem needs to get to work." She rose from the table and carted her mug to the sink, Crumpet at her heels. The kitchen at the Christmas Café gave her the perfect hiding place. There she could simply turn on her music and bake. She only had to talk to the waitstaff, the line cooks, and Abe, the goat farmer who delivered the milk, butter, and eggs she used in her confections. "I'm going to make my spiced eggnog scones today, so you'd better come by." "I'll see if I can clear my schedule," Gramps muttered, and then went back to reading his paper. A pang settled beneath her breastbone. Grams had been gone for two years, and Gramps still wasn't any better at being social than Sylvie was. "I'm sure Chuck and Dean would love to meet you at the café later this morning," she pressed, giving his white tufted hair a pat on her way past the table. "I'll set aside some scones for you." "All right, all right," she heard him mutter as she made her way down the hallway. Seeing as how her bra was still wet from Crumpet's adventure, Sylvie rifled through her drawers until she found something suitable and then got herself ready in record time. She'd made it within five feet of the front door when Crumpet started to howl. "I know, I know." She swept the puppy up into her arms and smothered him with kisses. "Maybe I'll bring you with me tomorrow, but today is just going to be too busy." She crossed the room and set him in Gramps's lap. "Be good!" Before those little howls could pull at her heartstrings, she snatched the tub of freshly-baked dog treats off the counter and rushed out the door, half walking and half ice skating to where she'd parked at the curb last night. Crap. Fresh snow blanketed the entire car, which she might've noticed earlier if she hadn't been so busy saving her dog's life. Muttering to herself, Sylvie opened the door and shoved the cookies inside before digging through five layers of discarded to-go coffee cups she'd meant to bring to the recycling bin to locate the window scraper. "I love white Christmases. I love white Christmases." She repeated the mantra to herself while she maneuvered around the car, brushing and scrapping. "I love--" Her feet slid out from under her and she couldn't catch herself before she landed on her butt in the slushy street. "Are you kidding me?" She might love white Christmases, but all this snow and ice could kiss her frozen ass. "Good morning, Sylvia." Marion, her neighbor, waved from the sidewalk. The sixty-year-old woman was geared up head-to-toe for her morning powerwalk--purple snow pants, silver puffer jacket, giant ear muffs. Marion didn't miss a morning of powerwalking--rain, snow, or shine. And Sylvie couldn't even brush off her car without taking a tumble. "Good morning, Marion." She gingerly got her legs beneath her and pulled herself up using the car for support. "Have you heard the news?" The woman effortlessly walked across the ice to get closer. "Nope. Haven't heard any news today." She had a theory about Marion's commitment to powerwalking--being the first one out and about in the morning meant she got to share all of the gossip she'd accumulated since the day before. "The Holiday Channel is filming scenes for a movie here over the holidays!" the woman blurted. "Apparently they were looking for the most festive town in all of America to shoot these scenes and they chose us!" Excerpted from The Christmas Café by Eliza Evans All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.