Tiny Tim loomed on the front seat of the truck, completely blocking her view of Hayden. Brooke was okay with that. Her massive dog might help hide her mortification.
She’d quite literally thrown herself at the man. Which, okay, might be forgivable under the circumstances because gratitude. But then she’d held on like some kind of moron because his body felt kind of amazing against hers. It had been so long, she’d practically forgotten what it was like to be held. And what was that whole, Sorry. You’re warm thing about?
But seriously, Hayden Garrow was the answer to her wish. The miracle to save her dogs. Who else would willingly invite fifteen dogs onto their property for the foreseeable future? The very idea of it made her heart go gooey. When was the last time she’d gone gooey for a guy? Third grade, when Tommy Trenton gave her his last Milky Way on Halloween because he knew they were her favorite.
Maybe she was being too hard on herself with this man diet. She’d started it in the first place because of a string of exceptionally terrible dating decisions. Experience had proven she couldn’t be trusted to make smart choices on that front. But Hayden was a good guy by everyone’s metric. Kind, funny, loved animals, was a volunteer firefighter, highly involved in the community. And he loved chili.
Maybe she should break the moratorium and ask him out. After all this was over, of course. It would be awful if she asked and he shot her down, and then they were stuck together for the duration of the storm. Which, in all probability, they would be. She was under no delusion that she’d be going home tonight. Even if the road conditions hadn’t been hellish, she’d have planned to stay in the barn to keep an eye on Greta.
The weather had shifted yet again, sleet giving way entirely to snow. Big, fat, fluffy flakes that would’ve been gorgeous to watch from inside a warm house with a fire at her back, but which made for poor visibility on the road. They proceeded at a crawl as white swirled around them.
“It’s gonna be fine.” Hayden’s voice was calm, reassuring. “I lived up north for a while, so I know how to handle this.”
“Yeah? Where about?”
“Charlotte, North Carolina. Not that it’s north, exactly, but we had snow. It was a switch from Wishful.”
“Wishful?” That distracted her from the agonizingly slow pace. “You lived in Wishful before?”
He chuckled. “I thought you might not remember me. I was a year ahead of you in school.”
Brooke tried to remember back but couldn’t seem to picture him. “How old were you when you moved?”
“Junior high. Eighth grade. My dad got a new job and off we went.”
She frowned. “How do I not remember you?”
“I looked a lot different then. Short, skinny as a rail, floppy hair, glasses, braces, predictably terrible teenage skin. Believe me, I’m completely okay with the fact you can’t remember that.”
Brooke tried to envision him like that and failed. “But you remembered me?”
He hesitated just a beat too long before answering. “Yeah, I remember you.”
What exactly did he remember? Before she could pursue that line of questioning, red taillights appeared out of the swirl of white.
“Shit!” Hayden’s shout had her bracing.
Tiny Tim careened into Brooke as Hayden struggled to slow the truck without slamming on the brakes. Ahead of them, the car fishtailed, sliding neatly off the edge of the road and into the ditch. By the grace of God and Hayden’s skill behind the wheel, they narrowly avoided joining it.
The truck shuddered to a halt. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She gasped it out as Tiny Tim planted a paw into her thigh in an effort to regain his own footing. “Off me, you big oaf.”
From the backseat, Greta whined.
“It’s okay girl. We’re okay,” Brooke intoned.
“I’m gonna go check on the other car.” Hayden was unbuckled and out the door before she got the mastiff out of her lap.
“Stay. Stay!” Brooke ordered, pointing a finger at Tiny Tim, who grumbled a protest as she slipped out into the cold.
Snow swirled around her, the cold nipping at her bare cheeks, flakes sticking to her eyelashes as she stopped to check on the dogs. They were all restless and unhappy about the cold, but otherwise fine. Satisfied they were no worse for wear, she made her way toward the car.
Hayden crouched down, arms braced on the roof as he spoke to the driver. “—don’t think anything’s damaged. I’ve got a winch on the front of the truck. I think I can pull you back on the road.”
Of course he did. Because this guy was prepared for everything.
“Oh, thank you, Hayden!”
He glanced up and waved Brooke over. “I’m gonna just get you to scoot on over and let Brooke in the driver’s seat for this, okay?”
Her? She slipped and slid the rest of the way over to the car, finally recognizing the big Cadillac and understanding. Delia Watson, one third of the trio known around town as the Casserole Patrol, wasn’t known for her excellent driving skills.
Brooke hunched down and waved at Miss Delia and Miss Betty Monroe, her usual partner in crime. “Ladies. Where are y’all off to this very messy afternoon?”
“Oh, Brooke! Hello!” Miss Betty, also a regular volunteer dog walker at the rescue, waved back with enthusiasm. “We’re headed out to Maudie Belle’s place to ride out the storm.”
That was a good three miles from here. Brooke exchanged a look with Hayden. Would they even make it that far if he got them back on the road?
“Let’s see about getting you out of this ditch first,” he said. “I’m gonna put some of these evergreen boughs in the ruts for traction.”
He paused to murmur further instructions to Brooke before taking out a wicked-looking knife and hacking off a few branches from the cedar trees lining the road. Once he’d settled those to his liking, he made his way back up the incline to the road and began unhooking the trailer.
“Such a nice boy,” Miss Betty cooed.
“Got a nice backside, too,” Miss Delia observed.
Brooke choked back a laugh but couldn’t disagree with her. “Scoot on over.”
The elderly woman unbuckled and made room for Brooke. The car felt like a tank. They all three watched as Hayden readjusted the truck. Brooke really hoped he’d be able to get the trailer hooked back when this was done. A few minutes later, he disappeared behind the car, hooking the winch cable to something.
“So you’re spending the storm with Hayden?” Miss Delia asked.
Brooke knew better than to look her in the eye. The Casserole Patrol loved nothing more than romantic gossip. They’d make more of this than it was. “He’s volunteering to house the animals I couldn’t find fosters for in his barn until the temperatures go up. We’ve got fifteen dogs split between the truck and the horse trailer.”
“My word. Why, they must be freezing back there!” Miss Betty exclaimed.
“We’ve got them insulated as best as we can, and we’ll get them all warmed up once we get to the farm.”
“Generous of him,” Miss Delia said.
“Hayden loves animals.” It was the most noncommittal thing Brooke could manage.
He slapped the back of the car, then trudged back to the truck. A minute later the car lurched as the winch began to do its job. Very gently, Brooke gave the car a little gas, carefully watching Hayden and the truck as they slowly inched toward the road.
“C’mon. C’mon.” With a bump and a lurch, all four tires settled back on pavement.
The ladies cheered.
Hayden took care of unhooking the winch, and Brooke ceded the driver’s seat.
“You ladies wait just a minute and we’ll escort you to Maudie Bell’s.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary, young man,” Miss Delia said.
“Please, ma’am. It’s no trouble. That’s right near my grandparents’ old place, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t make sure you got there okay.”
“Well, all right then. If you insist,” Miss Delia conceded.
Looks out for old ladies. Check! This guy gets better by the minute.
Then Hayden met her eyes, a spark of humor lighting his, and Brooke knew she was in deep, deep trouble.