Christmas on the Coast - Lee Tobin McClain


AMBER ROWE WOKE up to the sound of a child crying and pushed herself to a seated position on the couch. “Hannah?”

Heart pounding, she looked around the living room of her little beach cottage and then checked her phone. Just 11:15 p.m.

Outside, a dog barked, and something, maybe a cat, yowled over the rattling November wind. Amber shoved her fingers through her hair, reflexively pressed at the scars on her abdomen and sucked in a deep breath, let it out. She’d been sleeping so heavily, dreaming.

It hadn’t been her daughter crying. Hannah wasn’t a small child anymore, but a thriving college freshman two states away.

She heard the dog bark again, closer, and the same howling sound. It couldn’t be a child, could it? Had to be a cat, or... She cocked her head, listening.

Was that a cat or a child?

Shoving her blanket and travel books aside, she crossed the living room, flipped on the porch light and opened the door. “Hello?”

Silence for a moment, and then one deep, baying bark, shockingly close, made her jump. She peered into the darkness just beyond the porch light’s circle and saw a big, dark dog.

Then the wail of a child pierced her heart, and she rushed onto the porch. She made out a small form hugging the dog’s neck.

“Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?” She kept her voice warm and soft, knelt to make herself smaller and less frightening. “Do you want to come in?” She held out a hand, too concerned about the child to be afraid of the large dog.

The child—a little boy in superhero pajamas—buried his face in the dog’s neck and continued sobbing, flinching as a gust of cold wind ruffled his hair.

This wouldn’t do. “I have hot chocolate,” she said, leaning forward enough to touch the child’s arm.

The dog growled.

She pulled her hand back. “Don’t worry, big boy, I have a biscuit for you, too.” She kept a canister of them for Ziggy, her sister’s goofy goldendoodle, and King, her brother-in-law’s German shepherd.

“His name’s Sarge,” the boy mumbled, turning his head sideways on the dog’s neck to look at her.

That rang a bell, but she couldn’t stop to think about why. “Come inside and we’ll find your parents.” She held the door open and gestured, and the boy came in slowly, the dog beside him. Both of them had muddy feet. The boy, who looked to be four or five, politely wiped his Spider-Man slippers on the mat before following her across the room.

They reached the kitchen and she was glad to note that his sobs were slowing down. “You have a seat and I’ll start some hot chocolate. And we’ll get Sarge a biscuit.” She filled a cup with water and stuck it in the microwave, then shook her tin of dog treats.

Sarge, who appeared to be a bloodhound, lifted his head and sniffed the air, but didn’t leave the boy’s side.

She extracted a large dog biscuit and held it out to the dog, and he took it delicately despite the strings of drool hanging from his saggy jowls. He flopped down on the floor and started to crunch. Apparently, he’d decided she wasn’t a danger to his charge.

“I’m Miss Amber,” she said, smiling at the child. “What’s your name?”

“Davey.” He studied her with big teary eyes. “I’m cold.”

“Of course you are.” She stepped into the living room, grabbed an afghan off the couch and wrapped it around his shoulders. Then she fumbled in the cupboard and found instant hot chocolate and some stale marshmallows, and pulled almond milk from the fridge. The microwave dinged and she fixed a steaming, chocolaty mug for the boy, cooling it down with the milk.

She sat down catty-corner from him, the dog between them, and slid the mug close. She’d made it too full—it had been a while since she’d had a little one—but he knew to lean forward and slurp rather than picking the mug up. He’d stopped crying, though his face was still wet with tears.

“Where are Mom and Dad?” she asked.

He pointed to the sky.

Oh, no. “In heaven?”

“Mommy is,” he said, and slurped again.

“Where’s Daddy?”

His lower lip trembled. “Daddy was scary.”

Her hands tightened into fists. “Did Daddy hurt you?”

He shook his head vigorously.

Amber blew out a breath and tried to think. Even if the child’s father hadn’t hurt him, a father being scary was cause for concern. And the boy was obviously lost. Calling 911 made the most sense, unless a junior officer who liked to use lights and sirens