Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
It turned out that after Jay had declined the job of playing Santa at the Lodgepole Winter Festival, the committee had managed to wrangle up a new guy for the job.
And watching him get ready for it was more than a little entertaining.
“Nancy, these damned pants are not going to fit me!”
“Yes they are,” my mom called from the kitchen. “Just put ’em on. Hunter, will you help him, please?”
“I’m right here,” I called to her. “If he needs me, he’ll tell me.”
To my dad, who was red-faced with annoyance, I said, “Let me know if you need my help.”
“Santa Claus my ass,” he grumbled. “Yes, I need your help. You’re a lawyer. Can’t you find me an escape clause?”
I snickered. “They actually made a movie about that, ya know?”
He looked up at me, his brows raised in a comical expression. “Say what?”
I bit back another laugh. “Never mind. Just…get the pants on, and then I’ll help you with your suspenders.”
“Suspenders,” he groused. “I haven’t warn suspenders since I was a kid.”
“Well, you’ll be grateful for them now, since they’ll help to hold up those ginormous pants.”
He shot me a dirty look that made me laugh out loud.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but you have to admit, those are some big mother-effin’ pants.”
Dad tried really hard to keep a straight face, but couldn’t, and a second later we were both guffawing.
Mom came into the living room then and stood staring at us with her hands on her hips. “What on earth is going on in here? Jake, we have to leave in five minutes. Five. Minutes. Get the damn suit on!”
For some reason that only made us laugh harder.
“Honestly. You’re grown men, but you’re acting like kids.”
“Well, it is Christmas,” my dad said in our defense.
She rolled her eyes. But then the hint of a smile tugged at her mouth. “Fine. But, Hunter”—she shook her finger at me—“you get him dressed or I’m grounding you and you’ll get coal in your stocking this year.”
Then she turned on her heel and flounced back into the kitchen, where she was boxing up…you guessed it…cookies. She was taking them to sell at the baked-goods table.
“Don’t worry,” Dad said companionably, yanking the five-sizes-too-big red pants up over the top of his long johns. “If you manage to help me get into this monstrosity of a costume, I’m Santa, and I’ll make sure you get something really damn good for Christmas.”
I wiped my eyes, still fighting laughter. “Well then, we better get busy before Mrs. Claus comes in here again with fire in her eyes.”
“Hehe. I sure have missed having you home,” Dad said, grinning.
“Yeah, well, I’ve missed being here.”
I decided, on the spot, I was damn sure not going to miss any more Christmases with my family.
By the time my parents were safely in the truck and on their way to the festival, Dad had been appropriately Santa-tized. Was that a word? If not, it should be.
I was driving separately to the festival because between Dad’s massive, red-suited, fake-padded belly, and all the boxes of cookies, Mom was lucky to squeeze into a seat.
I hadn’t seen Jay all day, though we’d texted a few times. I’d helped my mom bake in the morning, then had been with Kevin much of the afternoon. So, I had to admit, as I drove into town, I was more than a little eager to spend the evening with Jay. Yeah, there’d be people everywhere all night, and he’d be busy taking photos. But, honestly, I’d be happy just being able to watch him and know he was nearby.
When I got to the town hall, where the festival was held each year, parking was already a bear and the festival hadn’t even officially started yet. Craft vendors were unloading and carrying things inside to set up their tables, the kids in the high school chorus and jazz band were trickling in, and I saw “Santa” carrying an armload of boxes, with my mom right behind him.
And then I saw Jay, and my heart instantly beat a little faster.
I tromped through the snow toward him, where he stood at his truck, unloading equipment. The moment he caught sight of me, he smiled, and a warm, fluttery sensation raced through me. He wore a red cable-knit sweater with jeans and hiking boots tonight, and a red and green striped knit slouchy beanie. Now he was the one vibing hipster, but, damn…he wore the look well. For a second I could barely breathe as I checked him out, he was so gorgeous.
“Hey,” he said in that low, sexy rumble when I walked up.
God, I wanted to kiss him. So much. But we were surrounded by people, which held me back. Despite the brief hand holding he’d initiated across the table at the restaurant that day, which could have been chalked up to one old friend comforting another if anyone had noticed, I had no idea if Jay was even out here in Lodgepole. If he wasn’t, I would never, ever do anything without his permission that might out him.
Plus, I kind of liked that the change in our relationship wasn’t public knowledge and we were the only ones who knew. A tiny part of me wondered if maybe it was because I felt a little guilty that it had only been a week since I’d walked away from Shane, and now I couldn’t even look at Jay without melting into a puddle. Like…maybe it was too soon to feel this way about someone else. But this was Jay, not some random stranger I’d only just met. Jay had been in my heart for two decades. Which is why I decided the opposite was probably true. I liked having us a secret not because it was too soon, but because it had taken so long for us to figure it out that it was nice to savor it. There was something decidedly intimate about having it be our secret for now.
Jay seemed to be on the same wavelength because the look he gave me was pure heat, but he didn’t reach for me directly. Instead, his fingers casually brushed against mine, sending a ripple of longing through me. “I missed you today,” he said, his voice low so no one but me could possibly hear. “And if we weren’t standing in such a public place, I’d show you just how damned much.”
“Believe me, the feeling’s mutual.”
“Promise me we can spend some time alone together after this is over tonight?”
“I would love that.”
He smiled again. “Why do I suddenly feel like this is going to be a long damn evening?”
“Probably. But I’m going to make the most of it and just enjoy the view,” I said, giving him a slow once over.
“Funny, as you were walking over here, I was thinking the same thing about you.” He leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “The long wool coat and scarf are sexy as hell. You look like a movie star.”
I snorted. “Oh please.”
“I’m serious. Like a cross between Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Gosling. Except even better. You know why?”
I was pretty sure my cheeks weren’t just stinging from the cold. “Why?”
“Because unlike those guys, at the end of the night I get to take you home and show my appreciation.”
My stomach clenched with desire. Holy crap. “Well, you’re right about one thing.” I could barely get the words out.
“It’s going to be a long damn evening.”
“Yes it is,” he said, his eyes twinkling with promise.
I helped him carry in his photography equipment and photo printer, and we got everything set up at the “North Pole,” aka, the corner of the lobby inside the town hall where Santa would be holding court all evening.
The festival was a combination of indoor and outdoor events. On the main floor, in the lobby, was the North Pole for Santa and photos, the concession stand next to the baked goods table, and carnival-like games for kids. One of those games was the annual holiday scavenger hunt—the very same one Kevin and I had infamously cheated at so long ago. I found it a little ironic to see Kevin was the person running it this year. I half expected him to ignore me when he saw me, but was pleased he nodded and acknowledged me. Not that he looked thrilled, but he also didn’t shoot daggers at me with a poisoned gaze either, so hopefully that meant progress had been made this afternoon.
The high school chorus and jazz band also alternated singing and playing Christmas carols in the opposite corner of the lobby from Santa.
The open mezzanine above hosted nearly forty local vendors who made holiday crafts and gift items. I knew from past festivals you could find everything from wood carvings, to knit sweaters and scarves, to homemade candles, to wreaths, to handmade jewelry.
Outside, in the enclosed courtyard, they held a team snowman building contest every year. And out in front of town hall, they offered horse-drawn carriage rides.
The festival was a popular event in Lodgepole and the surrounding mountain area, and brought in even more people than the annual Fourth of July celebration did, which was saying something. So when I’d told Jay it would be way too peopley, it truly was.
But the people hadn’t arrived yet, though they would soon.
Once Jay had his camera and tripod and lights set up, he did some test shots of a laughing, melodramatically posing Maddy, who sat in Santa’s enormous armchair and made faces, while Jay adjusted his lighting and snapped photos.
I printed out the last, best one that Jay was happy with it and handed it across to Maddy, who took it with a grin.
“Not bad,” I said to her. “Hollywood’ll be calling any day to make you a star. Although”—I shook my head—“I’m just gonna say it. That is the ugliest Christmas sweater I’ve ever seen in my life.”
I didn’t even know how to describe the horror she had on, covered in red and green sequins and pink plaid bows.
“I know, right? Isn’t it awesome?” Her eyes sparkled. “Kevin almost didn’t want to leave the house with me tonight. But, damn it, I’m determined to win the ugly Christmas sweater contest tonight. I’ve been trying for four years and Nora Shipley always beats me.”
Jay, who’d been adjusting a couple of lights, had been listening. He looked up and said with a grin, “In that nightmare, I’m pretty sure you’ve got this one in the bag.”
“From your lips to the ugly sweater gods’ ears! Right now, though, I’m going to go show this picture to Kevin and tell him you guys both raved over my sweater and told me how much you loved it. And you’re going to keep your mouths shut and pretend you said exactly that, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I told her.
“Consider us your faithful, adoring, silent minions,” Jay added.
“Good. Very good. I like that…adoring minions.” With another smile, she was off.
“Only ten minutes until they open the doors. Do you have everything you need?” Jay asked.
“Actually, is there another package of photo paper because I don’t think this is going to be enough.”
“Oh, crap. Yeah, there is. I have a box filled with extra packages. It’s out in my truck. I’ll run get it.”
“Okay. While you’re gone I’m going to grab some coffee before this thing starts. Want some?”
“Yes, please. Like, the biggest one they have.”
“Not planning to sleep tonight?” I asked with a laugh.
“I don’t know. You tell me.” He gave me a cheeky grin before he turned and left.
After that look and comment, I couldn’t quite stop smiling. And I was still doing it as I waited at the concession stand while they poured the two coffees, one of them extra large.
“You look happier than I’ve seen since you’ve been home,” my mom said, coming up next to me and hooking her arm through mine. “Especially for someone who was initially cranky about having to go to any of the town’s holiday functions.”
I smiled at her. “I am happy. And the holiday stuff isn’t so bad after all. I think I’d just kind of forgotten how nice it is to be with the people I care about most.” I squeezed her arm with mine.
“Well, the people who care about you are happy you’re here, too, honey. I haven’t heard your dad laugh that hard in ages, like he was with you earlier tonight. And I think there’s someone else who’s real happy you’re back in town.” She nodded to our right.
I looked where she indicated and saw Jay coming back through the glass front doors carrying a box. He saw me looking and smiled at me.
“You’re blushing,” she whispered, grinning.
“Am not. It’s warm in here, that’s all.”
“Mm-hmm. It surely is.”
What the hell? Did my mom suspect something? As far as she knew, Jay was straight. Right? Or had she, like Maddy, seen something over the years I hadn’t?
Now wasn’t the time to ask, though, as much as I was dying to. Instead, I managed to keep a straight face and asked, “You want some coffee, too?”
“Sure.” She wasn’t looking at me, but she still had a knowing smile on her face.
“One more,” I told the girl behind the counter.
“Do you want the regular size or another big one?”
“Definitely regular,” Mom said, “or I won’t sleep all night.”
Okay, now I could feel heat sliding up my face as I remembered Jay’s comment a few minutes ago…
Not planning to sleep tonight?
I don’t know. You tell me.
Holy crap. Yeah, okay, there was no way that wasn’t going to make me hot, and he’d damn well known it.
“Yep, definitely blushing,” my mom said, as she took her coffee and winked at me. She returned to the baked goods table, which she was running tonight, and left me staring after her.
By the time I’d paid for the coffees and gotten back to Jay I was shaking my head.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Let’s just say my mom’s being a bit of an enigma tonight.”
“I’m not sure exactly, hence the enigma. But I’ll keep you posted if I figure it out.”
“Okay,” he said with a laugh. “Mysterious, but okay.”
My dad, who’d been making the rounds visiting with some of the committee members, but who’d recently been waylaid by the mayor, came over then, ready to take up his official post in Santa’s chair. I was certain he’d been happy to have an excuse to get away from Chuck.
The handful of high schoolers who were being elves tonight wandered over as well. I enlisted one of them to help me, while Jay went to his camera.
“Santa,” he said to my dad, “let me get a couple of quick test shots of you alone before the kids show up.”
About two minutes later, people began streaming into the town hall, and five minutes after that, we already had a line ten families deep, waiting to see Santa.
I spent the next hour taking money and printing out photos, while my dad smiled and “Ho-ho-ho-ed” and gave out the presents we’d wrapped several nights ago that had been donated by the community. I was so busy I honestly didn’t have time to ogle Jay like I’d teased him I would. But when I did get a chance to glance at him, no matter what he was doing, he always had that patient smile on his face that put people at ease.
When Santa took his scheduled break for a few minutes, it gave the rest of us a chance to take a breather, too. My helper elf, a bubbly drama student named Leland, left to get a drink and hang with his friends for a bit, so Jay came over and sat next to me.
I handed him a bottle of water one of the committee members had brought around, and he took it with a grateful expression.
“Wow, that was crazy,” he said, after he’d drunk half the bottle.
“No kidding. And there are still people pouring into the building.” The festival was supposed to run from 5:00 – 9:00 p.m. and we were only an hour into it. “I bet the Santa visits will taper off later, though, since most of the people with little kids will probably do it early so they can get their kiddos home to bed.”
“That’d be my guess. Your dad seems to be holding up well. He’s doing an amazing job as Santa. I’m so glad I turned it down and they asked him. He’s perfect. And he looks great.”
Yeah, he really did, in spite of all his grumbling earlier. While Kevin had brown hair and hazel eyes like my mom, I’d gotten my fair hair and blue eyes from Dad. In fact, Mom had told me just this morning that with my beard growing in, I looked like a younger version of him, and I was pretty okay with that. At almost sixty, my dad was still a good-looking man. His hair and beard were graying now, though, which had really worked well for the whole Santa thing since he didn’t have to wear a fake beard. In the suit and the red Santa hat, and his contagious laughter, he’d been a good choice to replace Grandpa Fred.
Although I was pretty sure Grandpa Fred had never bellyached and complained about getting dressed like my dad had earlier. The memory made me chuckle.
“What’s funny?” Jay asked, giving me a sidelong smile.
“Trying to get Dad into that Santa suit earlier… Oh my God. It was like trying to wrestle a stubborn bull into a ball gown.”
Jay snickered. “That I would like to have seen.”
“Well, look at this. Hunter Breckman and Dakota Marshall,” a woman’s voice said nearby.
Jay and I looked up, and I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open.
“Mrs. Camp?” I said, standing.
Jay, damn him for abandoning me, had apparently been shocked into silence.
An old woman dressed in a smart red wool pants suit, black boots, her gray hair falling in a wild tangle of curls over her shoulders, with black glasses perched on the end of her nose, approached us, her cane thumping on the tile floor.
“You look…amazing,” I said to the high school librarian. Damn, back in high school I’d never seen her without her hair being pulled into a tight bun on the back of her head. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about the breezy, carefree curls. Or the smile she was wearing. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever actually seen her smile back in the day.
She had to be close to eighty now. This woman had given half the kids in school nightmares with her strict, unbreakable rules, not just in the library, but anywhere she found you in the school. You’d hear her coming down the hall, her cane thunk, thunk, thunking, and even if you weren’t doing anything wrong at all, you’d still make yourself scarce just in case. How weird that Jay, Maddy, and I had just been talking about her the other night.
“Well, I ought to look amazing,” she said. “I’m ornery enough.”
My eyebrows shot up. Had she just made a joke? No, couldn’t be.
“I hear you went to law school, Mr. Breckman.”
“And you to art school, Mr. Marshall.”
Jay finally seemed to have found his tongue. And his legs. He stood and said, “Yes ma’am.”
“Well, I just want you to know,” she said, leaning in like we were in cahoots with her over something. She lowered her voice. “You two were always some of my very favorite students.”
“We were?” Jay asked. It was almost comical how shocked he sounded, and I couldn’t blame him. Both of us had gotten in trouble with Mrs. Camp as much as anyone else.
“Well of course. Out of all the students in your grade, you two were always such good boys. Not enough young people with decent manners and kindness anymore, but you two, I always saw your depth. You understand, though, that I had to treat you the same as everyone else when I was vexed. Which means when you broke the rules, I had to call you out on it just like I did with the other students. But the difference was, it actually pained me when I had to punish you two.”
Was that an actual twinkle I saw in her eyes? Holy crap.
“Oh… Well…” Jay tripped over the words, and I knew how he felt. How in hell were you supposed to respond to something like that?
Maybe it was my years in court that bailed me out because they’d given me lots of practice at thinking fast on my feet. “Are you still the librarian at the high school?” I asked.
“I retired just last spring. Had a hankering to catch up on my reading and maybe do a little traveling.”
A librarian who needed to catch up on her reading? That made me smile. “That sounds nice. Have you taken any interesting trips?”
“My sister and I went to London last summer. It was lovely. Damp, but lovely. Have you ever been?”
“I have,” I answered.
“So have I,” Jay said, surprising me. “I loved it.”
“I would think so, you being an artist. So many excellent museums. I’ve seen some of your paintings at the Aspen Grove Gallery, by the way. You have a real talent for color, young man.”
“Thank you,” he murmured.
“Well, I’m sure you two probably have things to do, but I just wanted you to know how pleased I was to see you both.”
“It was nice to see you, too,” Jay said, sounding completely sincere.
“It really was,” I echoed. “And I hope you have some more excellent adventures in your future, Mrs. Camp.”
“I plan to,” she said in a feisty tone. With another surprisingly mischievous smile, she turned and thunk-thunked away.
“Jesus,” Jay muttered. “That was…”
“Surreal?” I finished.
“Was it just me or did she seem significantly cooler than I ever remembered her being?”
“It wasn’t just you.”
“She was kinda giving me a—”
“Helen Mirren vibe?” Jay said, finishing my sentence this time.
“Holy shit, yes!”
We looked at each other and grinned.
“Do you suppose she tells all her former students they were her favorites?” Jay mused.
“No,” Maddy said from behind us. “She never even gives me the time of day, the old biddy.”
“Ouch. So catty,” I said. “Why so grouchy?”
“Because Nora Shipley fricking beat me again in the sweater contest. Have you seen her sweater? It’s not ugly at all, just pretentious and gaudy, like she is. She’s like Martha May Whovier in the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. Oh-so perfect and Christmasy,” she said in a high-pitched sing-song voice. “Grrr.”
“Oooh, the kitty has claws,” I commented, then grinned when she shot me an evil glare.
Jay put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay,” he soothed. “Your minions adore you and totally believe you should have won. After all, yours is by far and away the ugliest of the ugly sweaters.”
That brought a giggle bubbling up from Maddy.
“Okay, minions, you have sufficiently cheered me up…well, Jay has anyway. You,” she said looking at me, “just taunted me with your kitty commentary. So you’re on probation. But you,” she looked up at Jay with a fakey-sweet smile and batted her eyelashes, “you’re my hero.”
“Hey!” Jay said. “I’m her hero. You’re just jealous.”
“Dream on, Dakota.”
“Oh, you’re so in trouble for that.”
Maddy giggled again. “Now that I’ve sufficiently stirred the poop, I’m outta here. Thanks, boys. Love you both!” She smiled sweetly and blew us kisses.
We laughed as she walked away.
“What?” Jay said when I looked at him. “She’s your sister-in-law.”
* * *
By the end of the night I was seriously peopled out. Yeah, it had been a good night, and Mrs. Camp wasn’t the only person I’d seen and chatted with from my past, which had been kind of nice. Still, up until about the last half hour, it had been, as Jay had said earlier, crazy. Non-stop kids wanting to sit on Santa’s lap and parents wanting the perfect photo of the occasion. I had to admit, some had been pretty adorable, especially the little babies celebrating their first Christmas, and my dad holding them and cooing at them. It made me realize that by this time next year, my parents would be grandparents, and I could tell already Mad and Kevin’s kid was going to be one spoiled baby.
But in spite of everything, I was definitely looking forward to getting out of here and having the promised alone-time with Jay. Aside from the few brief conversations we’d had during Santa’s breaks, we hadn’t had any other time together. I mean, we’d only been ten feet apart all night, which had definitely been nice. But there’d been virtually no opportunity for private conversation and certainly not for any kind of affection. So, yeah, having Jay to myself was sounding better and better.
He looked over at me right then, like he’d been reading my mind, and gave me one of those smiles that filled me with heat. The look on his face seemed to say, “I’m counting the minutes…” Of course, I was counting the minutes, so it could have just been me projecting that onto him.
If someone had told me a week ago that I’d be in Colorado right now, caught up in the holiday season with my family and my best friend I hadn’t seen in forever, and that I couldn’t wait to get that best friend alone so I could feel the heat of his body against mine and get drunk on his kisses…I would have thought that someone had lost their mind. My life in New York felt like forever ago, which was weird, since I hadn’t even been here a week yet, and especially since I had to go back there after the holidays. What was even weirder, though, was that I’d truly thought I loved my life before the shit with Shane went down. And yet, looking at it in retrospect, I’m not sure I ever had. I mean, a lot of it had been good, some parts of it amazing. But when I thought about how I felt right now, tonight, watching my dad kiss babies and my mom chatting with other townsfolk, hearing Maddy’s laughter and Kevin’s voice somewhere nearby, and looking at Jay, smiling as he convinced a stubborn six-year-old to look at the camera and watching him win the kid over, my heart turned to mush.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way. Maybe I hadn’t ever. The pleasure I’d felt in my adult life, especially since Shane and I had been together personally and professionally, had been different, more…distant. Like I was watching someone else’s life on a movie screen and occasionally I’d experienced joy in seeing what they were up to. I guess I’d just assumed that was what adulthood felt like. Except here at home, I didn’t experience that distance. It was all me, feeling everything, even the hard stuff like Kevin and Maddy’s grief over their miscarriages, or Jay’s over losing his grandpa. But that hard stuff didn’t scare me off. Instead, it made me appreciate and want to treasure the good emotions even more. Here, every note resonated in me, through me, making me feel more alive than I had in a very long time.
“And that’s a wrap,” my dad said, standing at nine o’clock. I saw him grimace and rub his back, which reminded me what Kevin had told me earlier today about him hurting his back. I wish I’d known. I would have been more vigilant about shoveling snow and helping him out at home since I’d been back. At this point, all I could do was be sure I helped more from here on out. That is, if he even let me. My dad could be a stubborn cuss sometimes.
“You were deep in thought there for a few minutes,” Jay said, as we packed away his equipment. “You okay?”
“I am.” I smiled then and dropped my voice so only he could hear me. “Mostly I’m looking forward to getting the hell out of here. Is that bad of me?”
Jay’s chuckle made me tingle all over, especially when he followed it with, “Guess it depends on what you want to do when we get out of here.” He raised an eyebrow. “Did you have something in particular in mind?”
“Probably several somethings, but if you’re going to tease me about it, then maybe I won’t share.”
“Ooooh, playing dirty.”
“Not yet. But maybe later, if you’re lucky.”
Whoa, had I just said that? Yes. Yes I had.
Jay sucked in a breath, but didn’t get a chance to respond before someone from the clean-up crew came to take down the table and fold the chairs. Instead, he gave me a pointed look that promised we’d revisit this conversation later.
I’d kind of forgotten how fun it was to flirt.
Shane and I had never had that kind of relationship. Jay and I, on the other hand, had always teased each other. So the undercurrent of heat that now pervaded that teasing felt exactly right and more than a little intoxicating.
Thirty minutes later, Jay, Dad, and I were were just finishing the last of the take-down of the North Pole. There were still some vendors tearing down their tables upstairs, and several people still wandering the main floor, but the end was in sight. Kevin and Maddy had already gone home, but I was happy Kevin had actually come talk to me before they left. Nothing major, just chitchat as he helped us for a few minutes, but it reaffirmed for me that our lunch had done some good.
As I looked up from closing a box, I noticed my mom, talking on her cell phone, coming toward us, a troubled frown on her face.
I nudged Dad, who’d been working next to me, and he and I both stepped toward her instinctively, because when she was upset, it upset us.
When she reached us, she was telling the person on the other end of the conversation, “I’ll be there as quickly as I can,” and then she disconnected.
“What’s up, honey?” Dad asked.
“That was the Granby Police. They and several other law enforcement agencies just did a search and seizure of an illegal marijuana grow out near Lake Granby tonight. When they got into the compound, they discovered a bunch of dogs there in what the sergeant I talked to called ‘unbearable living conditions.’
“God, I hate the thought of what that means, when a cop says it’s unbearable,” I said.
My mom looked sick. “I know. It doesn’t bode well. They want my rescue team to come help get them out. Problem is, half my team’s gone for the holidays, so I’m shorthanded right now.”
“I’ll go with you,” I told her.
“So will I,” Jay said, having heard the whole conversation.
“We’re just finished here, so let’s all go,” Dad said.
“Jake,” my mom said, resting a hand on Dad’s arm. “I know your back injury is healed enough to do your regular daily routine, but from what I’ve been told, these are mostly bigger dogs. You know how physical a rescue like this can be. I don’t think you should risk re-injuring yourself so soon.”
“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath. “I hate not being there to help you.”
“With Hunter and Jay, it’ll be fine. And Cherry’s coming with Darby.”
He scuffed a hand over his beard. “Okay. Drop me off at the house, then you can pick up your van.”
“All right. Hunter, I’ll text you the address where we’re going.”
“It’ll just take us a few minutes to finish up here, then we’ll be right behind you, Mom.”
“Okay, thank you, guys.”
Jay and I took the rest of his photography equipment outside.
“Do you want to put all of this in my rental where it’ll be protected from the weather, then drop it off at my parents and ride together?” I would hate to have any of Jay’s bigger equipment get ruined sitting in the back of his open pick-up if it should happen to start snowing.
“Yeah, good idea. As long as you don’t think we’ll need both the vehicles?”
“You mean to help carry dogs? No, Mom’s taking her van, and Cherry and Dr. Novotany have a van as well. Also, I know from experience, Mom will probably already have calls out to other rescue groups, and any of them that come will likely bring they own vans or trailers.”
“Okay, get your Jeep and we’ll load it up.”
I pulled my rental up next to Jay’s truck and we transferred everything over into it. When we’d finished, I glanced around and saw no one nearby, so I leaned in and gave him a quick kiss.
“What was that for?” he asked with a surprised smile.
“To thank you. Are you sure you want to do this, Jay? I’ve been with my mom to these kinds of situations before and they can be pretty unsettling.”
“I’m sure,” he said in all seriousness. “If you’re going, so am I. And your mom needs help. Go on. I’ll be right behind you.”
So I drove to my parents house and left the Jeep parked in the driveway. I ran inside long enough to shed my long wool coat, grab one of my dad’s more practical heavy work coats and a hat, along with my work gloves I’d bought the other day. Then I slid into the cab of Jay’s truck, where the heater was blowing warm air, country music played through the speakers, and my best friend who was so much more waited for me.