“Avery, I need you.” Brooke looked down at the list of animals she still needed to place for the next few days and rubbed at the ache starting in her temples.
“For what?” Avery Cahill’s tone was full of wariness.
“I think you know what.”
“Brooke, I really ca—”
“Before you say no, let me remind you it’s just temporary. Until the weather warms back up. I’ve even got the smallest dogs picked out for you.”
“It’s not a matter of size.”
“Then I can give you the laziest. You could keep Mulligan. He’s practically a cushion with legs.”
“That overweight basset hound? Good God. He’s a fart factory.”
He was, but that was beside the point.
“Avery, I need you to take a dog or two or I’ll be forced to take drastic measures.”
The line went silent with tension. “You’re calling in your favor for the Everclear incident.”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
“Is this really worth calling in that chip?”
“Two days of puking,” Brooke reminded her.
Avery swore. “Fine. Do you have any border collies or Aussie shepherds at the moment?”
“I’ve got a pair of border collie-lab mixes. But they’re still puppies. More than you probably want to deal with.”
“You know and I know that whoever I bring home, we’re going to end up keeping.”
Yeah, Brooke was banking on that.
“Dillon wants dogs. He just hasn’t let himself admit it yet. He’s got some timeline in mind. God knows why.”
“If he gets mad, blame Mother Nature and pull out the saving a life card.”
“I take these puppies, we’re even.”
“More than,” Brooke agreed. “I’ll even send you home with kibble.”
On a defeated sigh, Avery said, “I’m on my way.”
Brooke put a check next to the names of the puppies. “I love you.”
“Be careful. The weather’s horrific.”
“See you in a bit.”
Her next half dozen calls didn’t go as well. While she did manage to convince her friend Cecily Campbell that her husband Reed really did need a bookstore cat at Inglenook Books, Cecily couldn’t actually get to the shelter to pick one up. The answer was the same for everyone else she called. With more than twenty animals left, nobody was willing to brave the roads to come get them. The ache had turned to a full on pounding.
Across the room at the other battered desk, Shelli looked just as dejected. “Any more luck?”
“Just one. Short of going through the phonebook one-by-one, I think we’ve called in every favor we were owed and we’re out.”
The exterior door was yanked open, letting in a gust of frigid wind and a tall form with two fifty-pound bags of dog food balanced on broad shoulders. “Special delivery.”
“Hayden. I can’t believe you got out in this slop.” Brooke rose from her desk and tried not to notice the ease with which he shrugged the heavy bags to the ground.
“With the weather turning, it was now or way late, and I didn’t think you had enough food to cover everybody until then.”
“You would be correct. Thank you. How bad is it?”
“Bad. The weather station’s already recommending people get off the road and stay that way.”
As director—dubious distinction that it was—this was her call to make. Brooke turned to Shelli. “Okay, you’re done. Get home while you still can.”
“But what about you? What about the rest of the animals?”
“I’ll figure something out. We’re not gonna both get stuck here. Go on. Scoot.”
Shelli didn’t need to be told twice. She grabbed up her purse. “I’m sorry I can’t take any of the dogs. My landlord said after last time, if he caught me with another animal in my apartment, he’s going to evict me.”
“I know. Not your fault. I’ll figure something out,” Brooke repeated. If she said it a third time, it would come true, right?
“Good luck. Bye, Hayden.”
He lifted a hand in a wave.
As Shelli scooted out the door, Brooke grabbed a bottle of aspirin from her desk drawer and dumped three into her palm. Hayden—well-used to food delivery—hauled both bags of food into the storage room. “I’ve got a couple more in the truck.”
He flashed a grin that almost made her forget about the headache. “Somebody might have noticed you were running way low on food last time he was here and gotten careless with a box cutter when opening the last shipment.”
Big, sweet, softie of a man. “You are my hero.”
“I aim to please.” He was out the door again in another blast of cold.
She needed it. Over the past several months, as he’d made his regular deliveries and taken the time to volunteer with the animals, Brooke had been tempted more than once to break her ban on men. Hayden Garrow was handsome, sweet, and loved dogs as much as she did. Maybe she’d have lifted her moratorium if he’d actually asked her out. But he hadn’t said a word, just continued to be the human equivalent of a Labrador retriever—loyal and friendly.
The door opened again and Hayden reappeared with two more bags. “I’m gonna go ahead and tell you that your little compact car isn’t gonna work on these icy roads. Can I give you a lift home after you get the dogs settled?”
Swallowing back the aspirin with the last of a Coke, she offered Hayden a wan smile. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m waiting on one more person to come pick up some dogs, and I’m still wracking my brain trying to come up with who else owes me a favor that I can blackmail into taking some.” Her gaze sharpened on him. “Can I talk you into taking one or two of them to foster until the storm passes?”
“What about the rest of them? It’s sure as hell too cold for them to stay in the outside kennels.”
She liked that he jumped to the same conclusion she had. All too few people were thinking about homeless animals during weather like this. “I don’t know.” It was galling to admit. She was responsible for these animals and their welfare. She was supposed to know what to do. “The cats will be okay. Their play pen is inside. With a heater and some food and water out, they’ll do fine for a day or two. But I can’t very well shoehorn the dogs in there, for obvious reasons.”
The power chose that moment to flicker and die.
“Really?” Brooke asked the Universe.
A cell phone screen let off a faint glow as Hayden switched it to flashlight mode. “Got a bigger flashlight?”
“Yes, dammit.” She hunted it up and flipped it on. The brighter beam cast crazy shadows on the cinderblock walls, giving his face odd angles.
“So what’s Plan B?”
Sinking back against the desk, Brooke exhaled a defeated sigh. “It’s more like Plan J at this point, and I have no idea. I’m tapped out. With the power out, I can’t even leave the cats inside. It’s going to be too cold.”
“I’ve got a propane generator in the truck, along with a couple of thirty gallon tanks. At half load, it should be enough to heat this core building until the city gets the actual power back on.”
“Oh, thank God.” Brooke exhaled a sigh of relief. “Wait, why do you have a generator in your truck?”
“Just in case. I knew the weather was gonna get bad and that we’d sell out of them at the farm supply.”
“But don’t you need that at your own house?”
“Maybe not. And even if the power goes out, there’s a fireplace. I can make do. You need it more here.”
Generous to a fault. “Do you think of everything?”
“Just about. Do you have crates for the remaining dogs?”
“Everybody but Tiny Tim.” She nodded at her mastiff, who was gnawing on a Kong in the corner.
Hayden went brows up. “Tiny Tim? Really?”
She shrugged. “Well, when I got him as a puppy, he was tiny and had a gimpy leg. The vet figured he’d be stunted because of it but…well, you see him.” She scrubbed a hand between Tiny Tim’s ears, as much to soothe herself as the dog.
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be here, so I picked him up on my way here. I didn’t plan for us both to be stuck here overnight.”
His eyes narrowed in thought. “Okay, let me get the generator hooked up, and you start gathering up gear for the dogs. I’ve got a better idea what we can do with them.”
As he slipped back into the storm, Brooke wondered if the fountain had sent her a miracle after all.