She was spending the night with Hayden Garrow.
Okay, so it was in a barn with fifteen dogs, but still. Brooke couldn’t read him. Couldn’t tell if this was just his usual friendliness or something else. She was starting to really wish for the something else.
She made quick work of bringing in the groceries and stowing them in the…well, the facilities in the tack room weren’t even big enough to merit the designation of kitchenette. But she did find the hot plate and a few other kitchen basics, including a sizable crock pot. It wasn’t much, but she could probably manage chili with all that. Plugging in the slow cooker, she flipped it on high to start warming and turned to browning the first batch of meat on the hot plate. The scent of chorizo began to waft out of the tack room and on into the barn, drawing several of the dogs like the pied piper’s song, including her own gentle giant.
“Not for you. Shoo.” She waved them out of the tack room and shut the door.
A few minutes later, she caught the murmur of Hayden’s voice, presumably talking to the dogs. Then he was gone again to get another load of stuff. Once she got the chili in the crock pot, she’d go help with whatever was left.
The tack room door opened as she scraped the last of the meat into the crock.
“Something smells amazing.” Hayden peered over her shoulder into the crock pot. “Is that bacon?”
He wasn’t touching her, but Brooke could feel the heat of him along her back. Which was ridiculous. It wasn’t as if he was a human furnace. Still, awareness raised the hair on her arms as she answered. “Beef, chorizo, and bacon, yeah. It’s the basis for my three meat chili.”
He tugged off his knit cap and clutched it over his heart. “Marry me. You are clearly the perfect woman.”
Okay, maybe he wasn’t just being friendly. Brooke could work with that. She pivoted where she stood and shot him a flirty smile. “Well, you did save all my dogs.”
“Least I could do.” He didn’t step back, didn’t move any closer. He just stood there, inside her personal space bubble, searching her face.
Brooke cleared her throat. “I just need to get the tomatoes, sauce, spices, and beer in. I couldn’t find a—”
He produced a can opener from a pocket.
“Boy Scout,” she said again. Her fingers brushed his as she took it and another frisson of awareness zapped up her arm.
“Chili lover,” he corrected.
Brooke’s fingers clenched around the can opener, as if it might ground her. “Can I help you carry anything else from the house?”
“Got it all already. Finish up here, I’ll get everything sorted.” He left her to it.
As soon as he’d shut the tack room door behind him, she let out a slow exhale and turned back to the crock pot.
Seriously, how had they been working together off and on for months at the shelter and she never noticed this attraction before? She’d thought he was cute and definitely she’d started noticing his muscles. But they’d just been friends. Not even hang out friends, just…we-work-together-at-the-shelter-and-he’s-a-regular-volunteer kind of friends. He’d had a sort of…maybe not hands-off vibe, but she’d never sensed any kind of a want from him before. Or maybe it was that she didn’t consider herself available before, so she hadn’t been tuned in to that. Or maybe she was crazy to think that there might be a little prospective snow-bound romance happening here.
By the time she came out of the tack room, he’d set up two cots in the vet stall, complete with thermal sleeping bags and pillows. Another heater had been plugged in and was already warming the space. Greta was finally settled on a nest of towels in the corner. And in the aisle, he’d laid out a pile of quilts, several deep over the concrete floor. A basket anchored one corner, next to a massive urn of what she was optimistic enough to hope was coffee. And in his hands was a pack of Oreos he was trying to keep out of the maw of Tiny Tim. The other dogs had apparently been shut into their stalls.
“Are we having a picnic?” she asked.
“I mean, if we’re gonna be out here anyway…” The tips of Hayden’s ears pinked. He lifted the Oreos. “I figured dinner would be a while and you might be hungry.”
The gesture was sweet and thoughtful, just the latest in a long line of sweet and thoughtful. Stuff she’d chalked up to him just being a nice guy. But maybe there was more to it than that. God knew, she could really use a nice guy.
“Thank you. I’m starved.”
They each grabbed a saddle from the tack room to use as a backrest and settled in on opposite sides of the package of cookies. He’d brought half and half and sugar in the basket, along with an assortment of other snacks he’d clearly foraged from his own kitchen. Chips and salsa, cheese and crackers. Between all that and the chili, they certainly wouldn’t starve.
“So tell me, how did you get into the rescue business?”
Settling back against her saddle, clutching the deliciously warm mug between her palms, Brook admitted, “I’m a vet school drop out.”
“Really? That surprises me.”
“Yeah, I went to Mississippi State. I made it through the second year but I just…couldn’t handle it. I love animals, and I couldn’t cope with having to deal with their pain every day. The idea of having to put an animal down, even as a mercy, just killed me. So I quit. I ended up switching over to get a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology so that I had something while I figured out what to do with my life.”
As she told her story, Tiny Tim gave an insulted grumble and flopped down on the blanket, ass end toward her to let her know what he thought of her failure to share the cookies. Well knowing her role here, she scratched at the base of his tail. “I kind of fell into the job here when my predecessor broke her leg. Massive spiral fracture. She ended up with a rod and everything. I’d been volunteering here all through college, over breaks and during the summers, so I knew the ropes and the structure. It made sense at the time, and it was just supposed to be a temporary takeover while she recovered. That was three years ago.”
“You run the whole thing by yourself?”
“Well, there’s me as the only full-time employee. Shelli’s my part-time assistant, and there are, as you know, scads of volunteers.”
He blew on his coffee. “Even with volunteers, that’s a lot of work for one and a half people. There are always more animals that need help and never enough money. That’s the story of rescues and shelters everywhere, right?”
“I keep the whole thing afloat with donations and grants and a lot of hair pulling and sleepless nights. My parents keep waiting for me to get a real job, but they don’t understand this is a real job. It’s just not the job they wanted for me.” They’d expected something normal, in an office. The kind of soul-crushing job they’d both worked their whole adult lives. “There’s absolutely nothing better than seeing an animal find a new forever home. Sure as heck beats corporate culture.”
“You love it.”
“Yeah, yeah I do. There’s stress, of course. I’ve been wracking my brain for months trying to figure out how to raise enough money for a new facility or even some kind of renovation to enclose the outdoor kennels. They were calling for a stiff winter months ago. I just…didn’t come up with anything. If you hadn’t come along, I don’t know what I’d have done.” She swiped up another Oreo and dunked it in her coffee. “What about you? You said you moved away from Wishful in junior high. Obviously you came back. Why was that?”
“When I finished college, I was at loose ends, not quite sure what I wanted to do. My grandparents were starting to slow down and needed some help, so I came at first to help them out with the farm and do all the stuff my granddad was getting too arthritic to do. When it came time for them to move into assisted living, the only reason Gramps agreed was because I said I’d stay on at the farm. So, here I am.”
What a sweetheart.
Brooke didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until Hayden’s cheeks flushed to match his ears.
“It’s what you do for family. Besides, Wishful was always home. Plus, it’s not exactly a hardship these days to be given a place to live that’s free and clear.”
Thinking of the money she spent every month in rent, she angled her head in concession of the point. “You are not wrong.”
The temperature had climbed into a more comfortable range, still chilly, but not the frigid bite of outside. The coffee had helped tremendously, thawing her from the inside out. The savory, spicy scent of chili filled the space, and with the sound of snoring dogs, she could almost pretend they were on some kind of indoor camp out. It was cozy and surprisingly comfortable. Far more than she’d been expecting.
Hayden rolled to his feet, offering a hand. “C’mon. Let’s see what the damage is.”
He tugged her up, his hand lingering on hers for a moment before he stepped off the blanket and moved toward one of the windows in the front. Almost cheek to cheek, they peered out. Beyond the glass, the snow had slowed down to less blizzard-like conditions, but there were clearly several inches of accumulation already.
“We haven’t had snow like this in my lifetime,” Brooke murmured.
“I’m sorry you got stuck.”
She turned her head to look at him and decided to take the leap. “I’m not.”