Baby, Hold On - By Stephanie Bond

Chapter One

“Does that feel good?” Lacey Lovejoy looked into Chaz’s chocolate-brown eyes and smiled as his eyes slitted in ecstasy.

He didn’t reply as she kneaded deeper into his back and shoulders, just emitted little whimpering noises of encouragement.

“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured, ending with a rolling massage over his back, just the way he liked it. The movements bunched the aching muscles in her forearms. “My turn next, okay?”

Chaz lifted his head and barked in agreement. Lacey laughed at her customer’s willingness to please.

“Why can’t I meet a man as easygoing as you?” she asked the Jack Russell terrier, roughing his newly groomed scruff. “Come on, handsome. Let’s get you over to Dr. Greenwood for that rabies S-H-O-T.”

The small spotted dog whined at the mention of Dr. Greenwood’s name, as if he knew what was coming.

“I know it’s unpleasant. I have to get a tetanus booster myself soon.” She set him on the floor and attached a leash to his collar. “But you’re a country dog now, and that means taking extra precautions. Miss Emily wants you to be safe.”

She grabbed her keys and led Chaz to the door and out onto the sidewalk, turning the back-in-5-minutes sign. There was no need to lock up. People rarely locked their doors in Sweetness, Georgia. It was one of the reasons she’d moved to this remote mountain town to open her own dog-grooming business, Here Comes the Groom.

Friends and family in Manhattan had thought she’d lost her mind and not only would be instantly bankrupt, but would come running back with her tail tucked between her legs. But she’d found her own little slice of heaven here, just as promised in the Undercover Feminist blog written by journalist Alicia Randall, who’d come to Sweetness herself with the intent to expose a cultlike environment where single women had been lured with the promise of lots of available strapping Southern men, and instead had wound up falling in love with the town’s unofficial forefather, Marcus Armstrong. Marcus and his two brothers, along with an army of men and women, had rebuilt the Armstrongs’ hometown that had been leveled by a tornado more than a decade earlier.

Lacey inhaled deeply to draw fresh, wildflower-scented air into her lungs, and exhaled happily, high on life. A breeze teased the ends of her unruly hair that had escaped a ribbon clasp, and cooled the perspiration on her neck. The unending gorgeous panoramic views of spring foliage from almost any vantage point in Sweetness made it difficult to believe the quaint little town and surrounding farmland had been reduced to the unrecognizable rubble depicted in the horrific aerial photographs of the damage on display at the city hall building. Not a single life had been lost, but the entire town had been wiped off the map.

But today Sweetness was as charming as a small town could be. The wide, welcoming Main Street was lined on either side with buildings that housed businesses ranging from Molly’s Diner to a general store to a hair salon, florist, bakery, professional offices—just about anything a person could need. Her sister had teased Lacey she’d be making the four-hour drive to Atlanta every couple of days for a glimpse of “civilization,” but after the frenetic pace of Manhattan, Lacey had found the slower speed of Sweetness quite to her liking.

She’d been delighted to learn the community had been established on the principle of recycling, partly out of ecological concern, partly out of necessity because the land had to be cleared of so much storm debris. Many of the structures on Main Street—including the sprawling boardinghouse that had become the hub of the town—were finished with a pleasing patchwork of reclaimed building materials. The eccentric but practical exterior spoke volumes about the kind of people who’d made Sweetness their home. Blue-collar, white-collar, laborers, engineers, medical professionals, tradesmen, ex-military—everyone blended here, and the town was becoming more diverse every day.

The burgeoning community of potters, painters and other artisans was as progressive as any group Lacey had observed in SoHo. Inspired by the creative atmosphere, she had bought a secondhand sewing machine and learned to make funky clothes that suited her style, like brightly colored long cotton skirts and wildly patterned dresses that hid a day’s worth of pet stains and activity. She even made dog toys to give to her clients. Chaz carried in his mouth a pink stuffed bone he’d chosen on an earlier visit. His owner, none other than Emily Armstrong, mother to the Armstrong brothers, said