She looked up at me with embarrassment, pulling back her hand. “Oh. Sorry!”

“He’s a service dog,” I told her. “He shouldn’t be distracted.”

The woman nodded quickly and with a wobbly smile escaped behind a wall of pottery.

I sighed and wanted to leave, but Miller was busily looking at more pottery across the store. When he looked up, he waved me over excitedly. Walking through the narrow aisles, all I could think about was Thor’s mighty tail sweeping off the contents of a lower shelf with one swish.

“I think Mama will like this,” Miller said, showing me a small hand-painted dish meant to hold a spoon on the stove. His eyes sought my approval.

I basked in his gaze and took his quest seriously. I checked the price and it was appropriately low, something he could afford. “It’s perfect.” I looked at the array of matching pottery dishes in the set. They were cream colored, trimmed in red, shellfish themes, notably crabs and shrimp. “I’ll get the matching casserole dish.”

“That’s great!” Miller was thrilled that we were giving something together.

When I saw the doggy bow ties in Christmas motifs, I bought one for Thor while Miller hooted. We gathered our items and checked out. The now overly friendly shopgirl offered to wrap the presents, which we were both grateful for. I had two left thumbs when it came to wrapping presents and I was out of practice. She used gold paper printed with holly berries and tied it with glittery gold ribbon. Thanking her profusely, we moved on.

Outside the store, Miller and I looked at each other and laughed. It was a great release.

“I thought for sure I’d be buying a bag full of broken glass and pottery,” I said.

“Yeah.” Miller laughed. “Thor barely made it through the aisles.”

We passed a few women’s clothing shops with beautiful sweaters and scarves in holiday colors. I gazed at a creamy cashmere sweater in red and thought my mother would look beautiful in it with her dark hair. But alas, I’d already purchased the casserole dish and moved on.

I thought I could handle one more shop. We went next to the Arts Council, where historic and handcrafted items were for sale. Peeking in the window, I could see no one else was inside. I don’t know if word had spread or with its being a public building they were educated in the laws concerning service dogs, but we didn’t have any trouble entering. Relieved, I left Miller in the shop and sauntered over to the adjoining gallery, where paintings by local artists were on exhibit. I’d always enjoyed art and thought someday I’d try my hand at it. I wasn’t a van Gogh or anything, but I’d done some art therapy in the hospital and enjoyed it. I wasn’t too bad at it, either. A lot of talent was on the walls, I thought as I strolled past. Thor was at ease in the large, empty room, keeping his gait even with mine. I stopped before one painting, an oil on canvas that depicted a few shrimp trawlers at dock. The sky was a vivid blue with white cumulus clouds, and great green nets hung from the rigging like folded butterfly wings. The artwork was masterful, but what struck me was the name on one of the boats. The Miss Jenny. I felt a sudden stab of wanting. I glanced at the small white card to the lower right of the painting. I didn’t know the artist and the price was reasonable for an oil, but still out of my means. Yet I continued to study the small painting for some time.

“I found something for Dad,” Miller called from the entrance to the gallery. He had a book in his hand.

I dragged my attention away from the painting. Thor and I walked out of the gallery back to the shop to inspect. It was a history book about McClellanville, complete with photographs.

“Dad likes history,” Miller said.

The salesman overheard us. “That’s a new one. Just came out this year. And you can return it if he already has it or doesn’t like it.”

“He’ll like it,” I assured Miller, and knew our father would never return Miller’s gift even if he did have a copy.

I was getting weary and ready to head back. It was the longest I’d stayed out for weeks. I browsed through the store looking for something for my father. I didn’t have much time left to shop. There were photographs of old McClellanville he might like, a few woolen scarves that he would never wear, jewelry he’d put in a drawer. The painting was niggling my thoughts, calling me back. I guided Thor back into the gallery and went directly to the painting of the shrimp boats. Damn, but I liked it better now than before. It spoke to me and I knew my father would not just like it—he would love it. I could visualize it hanging over his desk in his office.

“Wow,” Miller exclaimed at my side. “It’s the Miss Jenny! You’ve got to get it! How much is it?”

“A lot. At that price, it’s an investment.” Then deciding, I reached out to lift the painting from the wall. It was heavy with the driftwood frame, a nice heft to go with the price. “But worth every penny.”

As I carried it to the counter, I felt enveloped in the spirit of Christmas.

“Oh, that’s a nice one,” the salesman commented. “A lot of people have had their eye on it. To the swift goes the race, eh?” He winked.

I watched with confidence in my purchase rising as the salesman wrapped the painting in thick brown paper. The old saying It’s better to give than to receive never rang more true than it did now.

“Dad’s going to flip out when he sees that,” Miller said. I knew he felt a sense of ownership by virtue of taking part in the decision to buy it. “It kinda goes with my present, too,” he added with authority.

“Yep.” I bought some wrapping paper, ribbon, and cards. Miller picked out a few craft ornaments that would appeal to our mother. With that, we were done. Or almost.

“I still have to get you something,” I said.

“You got me something already. Thor!” Miller reached out to stroke the dog’s head.

Thor took the moment to lie on the floor by our feet. He was so big and took up so much floor space, I thought it was a good thing no one else was in the shop.

“I can’t wrap him up with a bow on Christmas morning. What else do you want?”

Miller shrugged and looked away. “Nothing.”

I saw the swift shift in emotion and knew that he was thinking of his puppy, Sandy. There was nothing I could say so we remained quiet, waiting for our packages to be tallied and bagged. I pulled my wallet from my pants pocket and paid the bill.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance