Why in blue blazes had he ever thought he could pull this off? Gritting his teeth, Hayden edged forward on the too slick road, eyes flicking up to the rearview mirror to check out the horse trailer in back. He’d learned to drive with this same horse trailer years ago—his dad hadn’t let him actually take his driving test until he could back it properly. But there hadn’t been any snow or ice involved then. Keeping the thing on the road under these conditions was a whole other ballgame.
The roads were, as his grandfather was apt to say, slick as snot. Getting out like this probably wasn’t his smartest move ever. But he couldn’t think of a better way to transport that many animals from the shelter at once. They had one shot at this before the roads became absolutely impassable. There wasn’t time for a second trip. And, okay, maybe there was a little part of him that was hoping Brooke would get stuck with him for the night. He was banking on her not being willing to leave her charges. If that meant they finally got some uninterrupted time to get to know each other better, who was he to complain? And if she wanted to express her appreciation for his saving the day with maybe a kiss for the hero…he wouldn’t stop her. But that plan would only work if he could get to the rescue and back.
Up ahead of him, the rear end of a Suburban began to slowly slide toward the shoulder, the front taking a corresponding spin into the other lane.
“No no no no no.” With a phantom image of his grandmother in the backseat, Hayden gently tapped the brake, slowing his approach to the Chevy.
An oncoming truck braked and did its own spin, narrowly avoiding a collision with the Suburban. Both vehicles managed to straighten up, continuing on their ways. He let out a slow hiss of breath. He could do this. As long as he kept his eyes on the road, his hands on the wheel, he could do this.
His wipers beat a frantic tattoo, swishing away the mix of sleet and snow pelting against his windshield. The sky had darkened so much, it seemed like night was encroaching already, though it was a good two hours away. His fingers and shoulders ached with strain as he poured every ounce of attention into navigating the treacherous roads. By the time the animal shelter came into view, Hayden had lost a good five years off his life. But the truck and trailer were intact.
Lights still shone from the squat, cinderblock building. Brooke’s little compact sat to one side, already so coated with ice, she probably wouldn’t be able to get the doors open. She came outside as he rolled carefully to a stop. Her red coat and green scarf were bright spots against the gloom of the stormy afternoon.
“What is all this?” she demanded.
“Transport. I’ve got a barn with room for everybody. It’s nothing fancy, but there are four walls, insulation, doors that close, and I’ve got a forced air heater and hay we can use to line some stalls. It’ll be warmer than the shelter.”
She stared at him. “You’re going to take everybody?”
“That’s the plan. Did you have the last pickup?”
“Yeah, Avery left with her two new puppies about twenty minutes ago.”
“Then let’s get everybody loaded up. It’ll be a cold trip, but we’ll get them warm when we get there.”
Brooke hesitated, her face hovering somewhere between something that might have been hope and tears. “Please don’t take this the wrong way.”
She threw herself at him, hard enough to knock him back a step as her arms came around his shoulders. “I think I love you right this minute.”
Hayden grinned, reflexively returning the hug. “You can be thinking about what kind of food to thank me with on the way.”
The move brought her body flush with his, and though they were both decked out in winter gear, Hayden would’ve sworn he could feel the heat of her pressed up against him.
“I have the fixings for chili in my car.” The words were muffled against his shoulder.
His stomach gave a mighty growl, reminding him that he’d been so busy at the store, he hadn’t been able to eat lunch. “Now it’s my turn to love you.”
She lifted her head then, green eyes widening as she seemed to realize she was still holding on. Abruptly she released him. “Sorry. You’re warm.”
Sorry to let her go, Hayden bit back a whole host of suggestive remarks about creative ways he’d be happy to warm her up. Not the time or place for talking about shared body heat. Still, he lost some of the blood supply to his brain at the thought.
“Dogs, then food. That’s the plan.”
“Dogs, then food,” she repeated.
They worked in tandem, loading dogs into crates, then stacking them in the back of the truck and horse trailer. There were plenty of grumbles and howls and a few attempts at nips that Brooke shut down in a hurry. Everything was going fine until they got to the pit bull mix pacing in her kennel.
“Hey there. Hey Greta. Please tell me you are not about to have your puppies, because this is so not the time or place,” Brooke murmured.
“Been ready to pop for a couple days now.” She hunkered down, reaching out a hand to the dog.
Greta whined, nosing for pets. Brooke scrubbed her ears, then slipped on one of the leashes. “Come on sweet girl. Let’s get you somewhere warmer.”
“Put her in the backseat of the truck. She’ll be out of the wind there…in case of whatever.”
With another look of gratitude, Brooke led Greta to the truck. They made her a nest of towels and she curled up in the floorboard, still agitated.
“You can tell she’s uncomfortable. I think we’re gonna have some additions to the pack tonight,” Brooke said.
Hayden gently skimmed a hand over the dog’s soft ears. “Fingers crossed she makes it to the barn at least.”
All in all, there were fifteen dogs loaded up in the end. Tiny Tim was the last one. Hayden brought him around while Brooke hacked away at ice so she could transfer her groceries from her car to the truck. The massive dog strained against the leash, pulling Hayden off balance.
“Hold up, Tim.”
The Mastiff completely ignored the order, bypassing the ramp to the trailer and leaping neatly up onto the bench seat of the truck, plopping his ass down right in the middle.
Hayden looked at the dog and shook his head. “Well, I guess Tim’s calling shotgun. Get in. It’s time to go.”