After closing the shiny black door behind her, she sighed in pleasure. The Lees' front yard was a winter wonderland...rolling hills covered in white, clumps of trees and bushes arranged in artful arrangements, a lovely walkway meandering over to the side of the house, and bright-red cardinals perched on a black wrought-iron feeder. A couple of squirrels were chattering in the distance. It all looked and felt like something out of a Christmas card.
"You surely have quite a home, Snooze," she murmured.
When the little dog squirmed, she smiled. "'Jah,' I bet you are ready to do your business." Kneeling, she unclipped the leash so he could wander around the yard and sniff. She'd already learned that Snooze's bathroom breaks never took too long. Usually after less than five minutes, he would be at her side, ready to get picked up and transported back into the house. Snooze didn't seem to like getting his paws snowy.
Just as he'd done every time before, Snooze gingerly walked a few steps, sniffed the ground. Circled, sniffed a holly bush. Paused. The squirrels in the distance chattered again. He raised his head toward them.
Then, in a startling, lightning-fast move, he barked shrilly and took off running down a hill.
Before she could react, he was out of sight.
"Snooze? Snooze!" Feeling an odd combination of both shock and panic, Grace ran after him, the hem of her dark-green dress and apron brushing against the snow and soaking her stocking-covered legs.
"Snooze! Come back!" Down the hill she went, following tiny footprints like a detective. Frantically calling out his name.
But he didn't come.
Twenty yards into her run, she stopped gripping her cloak. And because she'd never fastened it, it slid off her shoulders. She left it on the ground, too afraid to look anywhere but at the paw prints in the snow. "Snooze! Snooze, come here, wouldja?"
But still there was no answer.
And then, to her dismay, there were no more tracks to be found. She could only surmise that he'd gone after one of those pesky squirrels into the woods, where the ground was covered with more mud and pine needles than snow.
Standing there in the cold, her fingertips beginning to feel like ice, her cloak lying on the ground, and her head bare except for her white 'kapp,' Grace forced herself to face the awful, awful truth.
She'd just managed to lose her only companion—and her only responsibility—for the holiday.
"Snooze!" she yelled out again. "Please, please come back!"
Tears filled her eyes as she stepped forward. She was going to have to start wandering through the woods, all while praying that some fox or other wild animal hadn't taken hold of the dog.
"Snooze!" Her feet crunched on the blanket of frozen mud and pine needles. She reached out and moved a branch out of her path, really wishing she'd put on mittens.
Squirrels scampered overhead, a hawk circled in the distance. Just as she pulled another branch out of her way, another scraped her cheek.
The snow continued to fall, large flakes sticking to the branches surrounding her, clinging to her wool dress.
And still, there was no sign of the dog.
The tears that she'd tried to quell began trickling down her face. "Snooze?
She stopped again. She was now surrounded by trees and had no idea which way to go. No idea how to tempt one disagreeable dachshund to return to her side.
Just as she was about to call his name again, she heard a loud rustling off to her left.
With a cry of relief, she turned toward the noise. Then screamed as a man broke through a tangle of branches and rushed toward her.
Just as Grace screamed again, the man raised his hands in surrender. "Hey, it's okay!" he called out, lumbering through the woods like a bulldozer. "I heard you call out. Is Snooze—'Wait,' is that you, Grace?"
Stunned that he'd spoken her name, Grace inhaled sharply, the frigid air burning her lungs. Gathering herself together, she eyed the Amish man dressed in a black stocking cap, black wool coat, and dark-blue pants. He could have been anyone...until she noticed his eyes.
The very same light-brown eyes fringed with thick eyelashes that used to haunt her dreams. "John Michael Miller?" she asked at last, hardly able to believe it. Could it really be her sister Beth's former boyfriend standing right in front of her?
"'Jah.' It's me." His voice softened as he hurried toward her.
While she stood there, half shaking from both the cold and the shock, he reached out and rubbed his gloved hands along her arms. "Grace, where is your coat? You must be freezing! And what are you doing out here in the woods?"
He looked down at her with concern, his burly, tall body practically looming over her own slight frame.