The Puppy Present by Kelsey Browning cover

Chapter 1

Once of the opinion that Joss Wynter had the voice of a banshee, Shep Kingston now knew the woman he loved was an angel. He stood ten feet from the edge of the crowd listening to her Steele Ridge holiday concert, and a boulder of emotion was lodged smack-center of his chest as she crooned “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It still amazed him how such a big sound could come from a woman the size of a pixie.

His cousin Britt had built a small stage at the end of Main Street especially for the event, and, of course, Shep himself had inspected the quality of the construction. Britt hadn’t even been pissed. He’d understood Shep’s need to ensure that Joss was safe.

After all, they’d once taken a fall from a zipline tower that could’ve killed them both and the memory always made Shep’s stomach ache. So he didn’t leave any type of preparation or equipment to chance. Never had, but sure as hell not now.

Not when he had so much to lose.

He tried to remember Joss wasn’t in danger now and he had no reason to feel the dread that was invading his body, but somehow, she knew. She and his service dog Puck always knew when Shep’s nervous system was heading toward overload. From her place in the stage’s spotlight, Joss looked at him and sang the words “I just want you for my very own, more than you could ever know” directly to him. At the same time, Puck leaned against Shep’s right leg, providing constant love and support wrapped up in a yellow furry package.

Shep’s left leg felt a little naked since Joss had taken Charley, the service puppy they were raising, backstage for the concert. She’d explained that the music and lights would be a good socialization experience for the pup, and although Shep knew she was right, he still missed the feel of Charley beside him.

“She’s incredible. You know that, right?”

Shep looked over to find Zeke Blackwell standing an arm’s length away. He wasn’t directly related to the Blackwells, but his Steele cousins were, and the Steele family didn’t think too highly of them. Apparently, they were, as Reid said once, “shady as shit.”

Which made Shep wonder if Zeke was being an asshole and saying that someone as incredible as Joss shouldn’t be with someone like Shep. “Are you being a sarcastic asshole?”

Zeke’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”

“Are you saying that a talented rock star like Joss Wynter has no business being involved with me?”

That made Zeke’s mouth tighten, which Shep had learned through the years meant someone was angry or would be getting there quickly. But Zeke took a breath and said, “You’re a pretty to the point guy, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Shep said, “I say what I mean and I wish everyone else did, too.” That would make life for a man with Asperger’s infinitely easier, but he didn’t see it happening any time soon.

“Well, I’m not known for being a bullshitter either.” Zeke shook his head, making his dark hair glint under the holiday lights that had been hung all over town. “I said she’s incredible and that’s exactly what I meant. If she loves you and you love her, more power to you both.”

Well, that made things so much easier all the way around. Shep wouldn’t have to parse out subtext tonight nor would he have to beat up Zeke for being a dick. Which meant Zeke had just been added to his people-he-might-be-able-to-understand list.

“Do you think we could be friends?” Shep asked him.

“Dude, I thought we were already friends.”

“Not really. The Steeles don’t like you very much, and I love the Steeles. I don’t really know all the rules about how that should work.”

Zeke snorted and held out his hand. “Kingston, I’d be honored to be your friend, regardless of what our cousins might think.”

“As my friend, you would know I do not like to touch many people.”

“That’s right,” Zeke said in an easy tone as he dropped his arm back to his side, sending a trickle of relief through Shep. “You don’t go in for all that social BS. I can get that and respect it.” He turned his attention back to the stage. “I was a Scarlet Glitterati fan, but, man, her solo work is even better.”

“Please don’t ever say that around Joss. It took her a long time to put aside her guilt after her band died.”


“But thank you for recognizing that she’s special.”

Watching the stage, Zeke nodded slowly as the notes from Joss’s guitar faded into the cold mountain air and she thanked the crowd for coming out tonight. The clapping and hollering made it hard to hear, but Zeke pitched his voice over the noise. “Makes you feel a little more special too, huh?”

“In a good way instead of my usual weird way.”

Zeke smiled at that, and Shep returned the expression. Yeah, he could be friends with this Blackwell. And besides, Puck was looking up at Zeke with interest, which meant the man was good people.

“Puck would like you to pay attention to him.”

Shoving his hands in his jacket pockets, Zeke glanced over at Shep. “Is that okay? I mean, he’s a working dog, isn’t he?”

“It’s okay when I tell him it’s okay. Release, Puck.”

His dog didn’t dash over to Zeke, but did shift in that direction so Zeke could pull a hand from his jacket and scratch Puck’s silky blond ears. “Hey there, Puck.” Zeke said to Shep, “He’s a beautiful dog.”

“He and Joss are my best friends.”

“I figure that makes you a damn lucky man.”

And as Joss took a final bow in front of the crowd that was yelling for more of her beautiful music, Shep gave Zeke a single nod. He was a damn lucky man.

That luck was even more obvious when Zeke silently melded back into the crowd and Shep edged around to the back left corner of the stage near the stairs. Joss was running toward him across the wooden dais, her pink, green, and blue-dyed hair flowing from under a reindeer stocking cap his aunt Joan had knitted. Joss adored the way the antlers bobbed around her head.

Tonight, his Jojo was surrounded by a detail of sheriff’s deputies that Shep’s sister Maggie had assigned to her. After the threats Shep and Joss had faced while filming the reality show Do or Die, his cousin Reid had designed some low-key security for Shep’s cabin. So he and Joss no longer had much trouble with overzealous fans trying to approach their home, but people sometimes still tried to get close to her when she was in public. After all, she was a number one Billboard rock star turned laidback solo artist.

But Grif, another of Shep’s many cousins, had insisted they promote Joss’s concert. How could Shep argue when the proceeds from tonight’s celebration were benefiting Jonah and Tessa’s Sarah’s Smile Foundation? That didn’t mean he liked how vulnerable Joss was out here in front of what had to be a couple thousand people.

Joss was freight-training toward him and took one flying leap from the side of the stage. Thankfully, Shep caught her solidly against his chest. “You were really gr—”

“She’s gone. Oh God, Shep, she’s gone!”

“Who is gone?”


Although a torrent of cold ran through Shep’s body at their pup’s name, he forced himself to breathe. He grabbed Joss by the backs of her thighs, hitched her up, and wrapped her legs around his waist so they were eye to eye. Joss immediately framed his face in her palms and locked her gaze on his.

He didn’t look away. He didn’t need to with Joss. Would never need to. She got him—super quirks and all—and never made him feel insecure about being on the spectrum. “Tell me.”

“I gave her a ‘bed’ command before I took the stage and she trotted over and lay down, pretty as you please.”

“That is good, but she should not have moved.” Charley knew to hold a command until she was released from it.

“She’s still a baby. Maybe the music was too loud for her. Maybe she got scared and ran—”

“Who was supposed to watch her?”


The officer Reid referred to as Deputy Do-Right. Well, something had gone seriously wrong tonight. Shep turned so he could stare down the deputy standing at attention in his khaki uniform. “What happened?”

To his credit, the man stepped forward rather than back from what Shep knew was his stony face. “I screwed up,” the deputy said.


“I was right there, standing by Charley’s bed. I glanced up to watch a second or two of Joss’s set and… Damn it!”

Shep could almost forgive the man. It was impossible not to become entranced when Joss was singing. “Did you look for Charley?” he asked the deputy.

“She disappeared during Joss’s final song. I saw her right before and didn’t realize she was gone until Joss left the stage. So there’s been no time to look yet.”

“Have you called Maggie?” Shep demanded. Maggie would help. She was always there for Shep. “We need to get people on this.”

Do-Right hitched a thumb in his partner’s, Leia Lou’s, direction. “Calling now.”

The other deputy looked up and slid her phone into her pocket. “The sheriff is in the middle of another issue. Apparently, a little girl is missing as well, so we’ve got to jump on that case.”

“Joss and I will look for Charley ourselves.” Charley could be anywhere and was probably scared. With each thought about the pup being out in the cold dark night alone, another of Shep’s muscles turned into a block of ice.

“Shep.” With light pressure on his face, Joss turned his attention back to her. She held him firmly, knowing it was one way to calm him. “Getting upset won’t help us find Charley. You can do this. We can do this.”

They could. They’d gone through much worse together, carrying Puck for miles when he was seriously injured and doing it with a killer on their heels.

“Maybe she just got spooked by something and is hiding out somewhere,” Joss said softly.

Joss was probably trying to be optimistic, but Charley could be hiding among all the people who were still every-the-hell-where in downtown Steele Ridge. To find her, they would have to wade into that mass of bodies and all that excitement and chatter. That would mean he’d have to touch people. There was no way to get through the crowd otherwise.

Breathe, Kingston.

Joss’s brow wrinkled as she watched him. She knew what he was thinking. Feeling. “Maybe I can—”

“No.” Just no. He would not let her do this alone.

“The two of you might want to split up,” Do-Right said. “Cover more area.”

Shep gave Do-Right the look that had made more than one wilderness adventure group ask for a refund rather than have Shep guide for them. With Joss still hanging on to him like a brightly colored spider monkey, he advanced on the deputy and loomed over him. “Joss and I are not splitting up. This is my family and no one but me takes care of them.”

But he hadn’t taken care, had he? He’d left Joss and Charley alone on that stage because he hated being surrounded by people and loud noises. He’d let them both down because he was, at his core, defective.

“Don’t do that,” Joss whispered close to his ear. “This isn’t your fault. You can’t be with me every minute. You know that.”

Rationally, yes. But emotionally, he often wanted to open up his chest, his very soul, and pull Joss inside. Not to control her. But to reassure himself. She was the only person outside his family who’d ever truly understood and accepted him. She was everything to him and sometimes it still scared him to feel this way about a woman.

Joss pushed out of his hold and jumped to the ground. Hands on her hips, she turned to Do-Right. “You can go now. I know you need to look for the girl. Shep and I will search for Charley.”

Return to Book