Morning came with a warm woman in his arms, her face pressed into the bared skin of his throat, their legs tangled beneath the heavy sleeping bag. Hayden decided it was a pretty amazing way to start the day, even if they were both wearing multiple layers apiece. Then the barking started. A yip here. A whine there. Within moments there was a cacophony of canine demands.
Brooke groaned and snuggled closer. “Time s’it?”
“Not sure. Daylight. Breakfast according to the starving masses.”
She stretched on another moan, her body rubbing enticingly against his and the blood drained out of Hayden’s head. Under the guise of stretching himself, he eased his hips back.
Blissfully unaware of his state, Brooke sat up, wrapping her arms around her middle. “God, it’s so cold.”
Her hair stood on end in charming disarray, and her cheeks were flushed and rosy with sleep. Utterly gorgeous.
Unable to resist the urge, Hayden hooked a hand around her nape and drew her mouth to his. She jolted once before melting into him, her hands fisting in his shirt. Knowing they had work to do, he kept the kiss light and easy, just enough to appease the craving for closeness.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
Brooke blinked at him, green eyes hazy with sleep and desire. “That’s a helluva good morning.”
Hayden grinned. “I’ll do you one better. Go check on the puppies. I’ll start the potty routine and once we’re done, I’ll make pancakes.”
“Throw in fresh coffee and you will have my undying gratitude.”
“I thought I already had your undying gratitude,” he teased.
“Fine. I’ll give you my chili recipe.”
“Deal.” As the dogs hadn’t slowed down their complaining, he hollered, “I’m coming! I’m coming.” He shoved his feet into boots and shrugged on his coat.
He and the first three dogs came out of the barn into a winter wonderland. The snow had continued through most of the night, filling in a lot of the tracks from their snowball fight. There was certainly enough to complete the abandoned snowman this morning. While the dogs sniffed and did their business, he checked his phone, reading the backlog of texts that had come in since last night.
Brooke joined him as he brought in the second group of dogs. “Puppies are doing just fine. All six came through the night and mama’s doing well.”
“Good to hear. Looks like we ended up with about six inches, all told. The roads aren’t clear yet, but the Department of Public Works has already started clearing in town.”
“How do you know all that?”
“Fire Department group text. We’ve been doing running updates since the storm started yesterday. Thankfully there weren’t any major emergencies while the roads were shut down.”
“Thank God for small miracles.”
As soon as the dogs were settled again, they retreated to the house. Belatedly, he wondered if he should’ve made an effort to clean up. But Brooke didn’t comment on the evidence of his bachelorhood scattered around the living room and kitchen.
“Oh my God, heat! This feels glorious!”
“If you want to throw your clothes into the dryer to warm them up before you change again, you’re welcome to. I’m gonna get started on breakfast.”
While she was in the laundry room, he made a quick pass through the house to make sure he hadn’t left underwear or anything else mortifying lying around. He scooped up empty glasses and the takeout containers piled on the coffee table. That would have to do.
Brooke had started the coffee herself. He liked that she was comfortable enough to make herself at home and wondered if that was just how she was or if it had something to do with the fact that she was still wearing his clothes. It was a curious sort of intimacy, along with a host of others they’d crossed since yesterday because of their snowbound state. Would she backpedal once things got back to normal? He didn’t want that. He wanted this to be the start of something real, and he had some ideas on how to make that so.
“Did your magic group text happen to say what the weather report was?”
“The cold is here for a couple more days, though the snow is finished. We should be able to get out to go check on the cats by this afternoon.”
Her shoulders relaxed a little at that. “I guess you’re stuck with us for a little while longer.”
“I’ve got no problems with that. While we’re out, we’ll swing by your place to pick up some more clothes. Not that I have a problem seeing you in mine.”
Her answering smile came with a blush. “I really can’t thank you enough for all your help with this. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t rescued us.”
Hayden saluted. “I live to serve.” Turning away, he began to mix up the pancake batter. “Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do about the rest of winter? We probably won’t get snow again, but this isn’t likely to be the last of the cold.”
“You’re right. It’s not. And I really don’t know. I’ve got some grants submitted for funding that I’m waiting to hear on. But that likely won’t come through until spring. If we weren’t already at capacity, I could probably jury rig something that would get us through, but we’re busting at the seams. With six new mouths to feed as of last night.”
“I had an idea about that, actually.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I think you should move the shelter out here.”
Brooke paused, the coffee halfway to her lips. “I’m sorry?”
“The barn is much bigger than the facility you’ve got and could be adapted to house kennels and such. It’s not being used for livestock and isn’t going to be.” He added a cheeky grin. “Plus, it means I’d have an excuse to see you more often.”
Her expression softened and she pushed up from the chair, padding across the room in sock feet to slip her arms around him. “Did you need an excuse?”
He tucked her closer. “You tell me.”
“Heroes are always welcome.” She rose to her toes and brushed her lips over his in a quiet kiss, full of affection and gratitude. “I appreciate the thought and your willingness to just offer up your space, but I don’t think that’s the answer. At least, not on any kind of permanent basis.”
“You said yourself you’d been thinking about opening up the barn for boarding. You might need that income. Beyond that, it would put the rescue very much in your space. There’s the noise from the animals, not to mention, serious implications for the future salability of the property.”
“We’re not selling the farm.”
“Maybe you won’t. But if it came up, that would be a problem. Plus, it’s a fair bit out from town and there’s a lot of legal implications with permits and stuff.” She softened her refusal with a wry smile. “Besides, what happens if you get sick of me?”
Hayden didn’t see that happening, but he wasn’t going to force the issue. “Fine. But at least consider it as a temporary solution this season.”
“Now that I will absolutely do. Thank you.”
“You can thank me by pouring me a cup of that coffee while I finish these pancakes.”
“You got it.”
As she turned away, rummaging in the cabinet for a mug, Hayden shot off a quick text. Let it not be said that he didn’t think on his feet.