Hayden’s headlights swept over the faded red lettering spelling out “Garrow” on the mailbox at the end of his drive. Not that he could actually read it in the gloom of snow and dusk, but he knew it was there and relief flooded his system. The drive from town out to Maudie Bell Ramsey’s place had been nerve wracking. A dozen times he was sure Miss Delia would slide off the road again and manage to take him and their four-legged cargo with her. But by some miracle, they’d finally arrived, seeing the two women safely to the door before driving the last mile to his own house in near whiteout conditions.
“Thank Jesus,” he murmured.
“We’re here?” She’d said almost nothing since they’d pulled the Cadillac out of the ditch.
“Oh, thank God.”
Hayden parked in front of the big metal barn. It needed a new paint job, and the landscaping around the edges was all kinds of overgrown. A project he’d meant to get to in the fall but didn’t. “It’s a little rough around the edges but it’s solid.”
“It’s got walls. That’s already better than what we’re coming from. Let’s get the dogs. I’m sure they’re freezing.”
As soon as he slid out of the truck, an icy wind nipped at his skin like teeth. He hurried to the barn, hauling the door open and reaching for the lights. They flickered on, and he sent up a quick prayer of thanks that there was still power. With a quick check to make sure everything was closed up tight, he went back to the truck.
Brooke was in the trailer, Tiny Tim at her heels.
“Everybody okay?” he asked.
“Cold and cranky. Let’s move.”
Working fast, they hauled loaded crates into the barn, setting them in a row down one side of the aisle. They saved Greta for last. As soon as she was inside, Hayden dragged the door shut, blocking out the wind and cold.
“There’s still hay in the loft. I’ll climb up and toss some down if you want to root around in the tack room for saddle blankets. We can set up some makeshift beds in a few of the stalls.”
From the crates, an assortment of whimpers, howls, and barks let them know exactly how displeased their motley pack was.
“Hold whatcha got, pups.” He paused to crank on the heat, grateful it kicked in without a fuss. It was warmer in the barn than outside just because of the insulation, but the air was still frigid. It would take a while to properly warm up. Maybe he had some extra space heaters in the house.
Brooke came out of the tack room with a pile of blankets. “It’s bigger than I was expecting.”
With practiced ease, Hayden tossed down several square bales of hay. “Gramps used to raise horses. Tennessee Walkers. He had twenty at one time, but that’s been a long, long time ago. He sold off the last of the stock when he and Nanna went into assisted living last year.”
“You don’t have any interest in following in his footsteps?”
He made his way down the ladder. “I love to ride. But breeding? Nah. It takes a helluva lot of time and energy and especially money to turn a real profit there. I don’t love it enough for that. I’ve thought about opening up for boarding, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Which works out in your favor because this whole place is empty.”
Together, they made quick work of setting up a few stalls, then let the dogs loose. After a bit of roughhousing, most of them made a beeline for the makeshift beds, turning circles and ultimately flopping in a pile together to share body heat. Hayden thought they had the right idea. Not that he was about to suggest such a thing to Brooke, no matter how appealing it was to think of wrapping her in his arms.
Greta continued to pace the aisle, panting.
“Reckon we’re gonna have puppies by the time this storm is over,” he observed.
“Yeah.” Brooke looked back at the door, worry etched across her features.
“Do you want to take her into the house?”
“I’m afraid to leave everybody else alone out here. They’re behaving right now, but they aren’t usually penned up together. I don’t want them to do any damage to each other or your property.”
“How about this.” He strode down to the stall beside the tack room and opened it. “This is the vet stall. Any time we had sick or injured animals, we kept them here. There’s plenty of space, it’s in the middle and well-insulated. And I can get a radiant heater so that it warms up even quicker. We can set her up in here. There’s even room for cots if you’d rather we sleep out here.”
Her mouth opened in surprise.
“There’s no way we’re getting out of here again tonight.” He offered a rueful smile. “You’re stuck with me, I’m afraid.”
“I figured we were in for the duration. No, I just…you don’t have to stay out here with me.”
Was she saying that because she didn’t want to spend time with him or because she felt bad about sentencing him to a long, cold night when the house was twenty-five yards away?
Hayden shrugged. “Won’t be the first night I’ve spent in this barn. Let me go grab some more supplies. If you want to bring in your groceries, there’s a little fridge and a hot plate in the tack room. I’ll grab some kitchen stuff and you can get started on that thank you chili, like you promised.”
Brooke stared at him, brows knit.
Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, he rocked back on his heels. “What?”
“You were a Boy Scout, weren’t you?” Her tone held a tinge of accusation.
“Eagle Scout. Why?”
“Because you’re apparently prepared for everything.” At last, she smiled and it hit him right in the solar plexus, warming him like a shot of whiskey.
No, he hadn’t been prepared for everything. He hadn’t been prepared for her. Needing the distance to get himself under control, he said, “I’ll be back,” and stepped out into the storm.