Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
There is a scene of dog rescue in this chapter that might be unsettling to some people, but I promise the dogs have a happy ending!
The place was swarming with law enforcement when we pulled up to the isolated house hidden deep in the trees. Red and blue lights flashed, and a couple of spotlights had been set up. A sheriff’s deputy stopped us. When we told her we were with the animal rescue group, she waved us through, but told us to park in front of the house and check in with the officer there. And she warned us to stay away from the two large barns.
Jay and I exchanged a look and both understood that to mean that’s where the pot grow was. And in barns that size, holy crap, that was a lot of product.
Now that marijuana was legal in Colorado, illegal pot grows were popping up all over, and some were huge operations. I’d heard rumors that funding for some of them was coming in from Mexican and South American drug cartels, and it made sense. It was hard to believe Joe Local Dude would have the kind of money to front an operation this big.
When we got out of the truck, even though the barns were a couple hundred yards away, the sickly skunky scent of pot plants hung in the air. For a big grow, they clearly hadn’t done a great job on their ventilation system to hide the odor. No wonder they got raided.
“God damn, I hate that smell,” Jay said, grimacing. “Brings back too many memories of Russell.”
“Really? Did he use it or grow it? Or both?”
“Both. Grew it the basement, way before it was ever legal, and sold it. Everything in our house reeked of it. Why do you think I never invited you over there? We always hung out at your house or Grandpa’s for a reason. No one but Russell’s friends were allowed in the house, not even Grandpa, to keep Russell from getting caught.”
“I always wondered why we never went there. I just figured you liked your grandpa’s house or my house better.”
“Well, I did.”
“Did your grandpa know?”
“About the pot grow? I’m not sure. He was a smart man, though, so he probably had suspicions if he didn’t know outright. And pot wasn’t the only illegal thing Russell had in the house. But to me, as a kid who had to live there, the pot was the worst. That fucking smell seeped into everything, and it still makes me sick.”
“You going to be okay?” I was serious. If this flashed him back to bad memories of the man who’d abused him, then I didn’t want him hurt any further.
“I’ll be all right,” he mumbled.
I wasn’t sure I fully believed him, but I didn’t push even though I couldn’t help but worry about him.
“There’s your mom,” Jay said, by way of changing the subject.
She’d arrived a couple of minutes before we had and was talking to one of the law enforcement officers. Less than a minute later, she approached us.
Mom’s friend and fellow rescuer Cherry Novotany, and her husband, who was the veterinarian at my mom’s rescue shelter, had arrived at that point as well. After telling them hi and introducing them to Jay, Mom said, “The dogs are all either in the house or possibly behind it. When law enforcement raided the house, some of the dogs escaped out the back door. They believe they got them all back in, but aren’t sure.”
“Any idea what kind of dogs we’re dealing with here?” Cherry asked.
“Potentially several pitties or pit-mixes, along with some other medium to large breeds. They think maybe ten or twelve in all. They don’t believe anyone’s been living in the house since there are sleeping quarters in the grow barns, so it’s just been the dogs. There’s no heat in the house, and from what I understand, conditions are pretty bad. Only one dog was openly aggressive, and they have him isolated. The rest, they said, appeared to be too malnourished and sickly to care much about who was coming and going. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t become agitated in a hurry. So approach with caution and don’t make any threatening moves.”
I knew she was mostly saying this for mine and Jay’s benefit, since Cherry and her husband did rescues like this all time with Mom. It had been years since I’d helped, though, so I appreciated the reminder.
“We’re going to enter one room at a time, and work our way to the back. Let’s go.”
Law enforcement were still working in the house even as we entered, but they nodded and let us pass to do our thing.
If Jay and I had thought the pot smell outside was awful, it was nothing compared to the stench of pure filth in the house. It smelled like spoiled food, urine, and feces, and nearly made me gag. I pulled my scarf up over my face, and saw the others had done similarly.
As my mom had directed, we worked our way through one room at a time, and what we found make me sick inside. All the dogs were so skinny you could see their ribcages and tailbones. Several were too sickly to even get up. Dr. Novotany checked each one, and slowly but surely we got the dogs moved that could be easily moved. A couple were in such bad shape they required extra care. As I’d predicted, another rescue group my mom called had sent out a couple of people and the extra hands definitely helped.
Best Mom, Cherry, the vet, and the other seasoned rescuers could guess, it looked like the dogs had had a couple of bags of dog food thrown into the house for them from time to time, but certainly not on a regular basis. The most recent bags had been chewed apart by the dogs, but were also covered in filth, and, based on that, Mom said it had to have been at least a week ago, maybe more. And two smallish bags of food for that many animals, especially for medium to large dogs, wasn’t enough to feed them for more than a day or two under the best of circumstances. For water, it looked like they’d been mostly dependent on snow melt that leaked through several places in the ceiling.
A few hours later, we thought we’d found all the animals, but then my mom discovered an emaciated Rottweiler in the detached garage. As she and one of the other volunteers worked with him, she sent Jay and me out to look for any others that might be wandering the yard or closed-up in one of the other small outbuildings.
“I can’t bear the thought of missing a single animal and leaving it in this place,” I said, as Jay and I searched the outbuildings behind the house with flashlights.
“I can’t either. Who does shit like this? I mean, what kind of sick fuck get animals and then doesn’t take care of them? They’re innocent creatures. They don’t deserve this.”
I could hear the pain in his voice. This situation had been hard on him, both because of the condition of the dogs, which was heartbreaking, but I could tell he’d also still been fighting bad memories as well.
“I know,” I said. “It makes you realize how many assholes there are in the world, doesn’t it? According to Mom, drug dealers often keep dogs for protection, both to make noise and warn them if the police are coming, and also to protect their products from thieves. But this…having so many and not taking care of them at all? I don’t even know what to think.”
“People who hurt defenseless animals deserve a special place in hell.”
“They do,” I agreed. Then I put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “Hang on. I think I hear something.”
We stood, silently, listening.
Then Jay said, “I heard that. Did you?”
“Yep. Sounds like it’s coming from this direction.”
We picked our way around a pile of old auto parts and other junk, and as we did, heard another noise that definitely sounded like an animal.
A quiet whimper came from under a heavy pile of rubble that looked like a shed that had collapsed. It had begun to snow, so whatever was under there already had to be half frozen, and now it was going to be wet.
“God, this is a mess,” Jay said, as we shone our lights over the remains of the collapsed building. “Do you see anything?”
We moved around, shining our lights into the cracks and crevices, looking for movement.
Another soft whimper came out from somewhere under the center of the rubble.
“It’s okay, don’t be scared. We’ll get you out of there,” I called softly as we searched.
“Wait, I think I see something.” Jay crouched down and sent the beam of his flashlight into a dark opening that was maybe the size of a basketball. “Do you see that?”
I crouched next to him with my own light, moving it slowly in the same opening.
“Wait, there!” Jay said.
I held my light steady, and peered into the space. It looked completely dark to me. And then, “Holy crap!” The glow of eyes staring back at us startled me because one second they hadn’t been there, and then they were.
“Do you see that?” I asked.
“I do. Now they’re gone again.”
The animal must have closed its eyes. Probably our flashlights were blinding it. “Aim the flash away a little, so it’s not in its eyes.”
We both did, and then tried to figure out what the eyes belonged to. Because it still looked dark as pitch in the hole.
“I can’t tell for sure what it is,” I said.
“Or how in hell we’re going to get to it.”
“Here, keep an eye on it, and I’ll try to get a better look at what’s structurally going on with the rubble.”
If we had to move some of it to get to the animal—honestly, at this point there was no way to be sure it was a dog, it could just as easily be a raccoon or possibly even a coyote—we had to be certain we weren’t going make things worse and have it all collapse in on top of the poor creature.
I rose and walked around the perimeter of what had definitely been some kind of shed in the past. The original structure had probably been roughly twelve feet by twelve feet. Not huge, but big enough it wasn’t going to be easy to get in under it. The roof and two of the sides had caved in completely. The back and one side wall were still mostly standing, though what was left of them looked rickety as hell and were mostly only staying upright because they were leaning on the rubble from the rest. It was tough to tell what pieces of the debris were load bearing in the dark, with snow falling harder, and only a flashlight to see. Damn it. It was going to be like a really messy intricate game of Jenga.
“Okay,” I said, “returning to Jay, “I don’t see any easy way to do this. Best I can tell, we can’t jiggle anything around too much or we risk the whole damn thing falling in and squashing whatever’s in there.”
“I think the reason we can’t see it well is because it’s a dark color. I’ve never seen a completely dark-colored coyote or other animal around here except a bear—but they’d be hibernating this time of year—so it almost has to be another dog.”
“What in hell is it doing out here in this rubble?”
“I wonder if it got in there when it ran out of the house, and now it’s trapped and can’t get free.”
“Maybe. All right, let’s see what we can do here. We’re going to have to go slowly, one piece of wood at a time.
It was tedious work. And as we did it, painstakingly removing the rubble, bit by bit, we were always aware of the faint whimpers we continued to hear.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said as we started to move a large beam. “Put it down, gently. This one can’t go anywhere or it’s going to dislodge everything else.
“Damn it. If we don’t get this one out of the way, though, there’s no way to get in. This is the biggest one blocking access.”
I crouched down, shining the beam of my light into the rubble again, looking for a different approach. The animal whined, and each time I heard it, I grew a little more scared for it. We’d tried coaxing it out, talking sweetly. Jay even found a half-eaten package of peanut butter crackers in the pocket of his coat, and he’d tried to lure the dog out with one of those, but nothing. Which either meant the dog was too scared of us to take it, or too sick or injured to move. Either way, it made our job tougher. We had to be able to physically reach it.
“Okay, let’s try this one,” I said, pointing at a different cross-wise beam.
It was a heavy mother-effer, too, and I grunted as I lifted my side.
“Easy,” Jay said. “I can hear stuff falling under there.”
“We’ve almost got it. Just a little farther.”
I grimaced as I heard rubble shifting within the pile, and heard another whimper. “Okay, it’s out.” We tossed the beam aside, then Jay scrambled to his knees and peered under the wood.
“What do you see? Can you still see it? We didn’t make things worse, did we?”
“Hey there, you all right?” he murmured to the dog in a low tone. “Please be all right.” Then… “It just looked at me.”
“Oh thank God.”
“But it doesn’t sound good, Hunt. It’s breathing is kinda wheezy.”
“Shit. Okay, let’s get this one…see this piece here? If we can move it, then one of us might be able to shimmy in there and reach it. It’ll be tight, but maybe.”
“Let’s do it.”
So we inched the next piece free, and I mean inched…little by little, because if it bumped against anything else, it would be bad.
“It’s like playing fucking Jenga,” Jay grunted, echoing what I’d already thought. “And I hate that damn game.”
“Me too. All right, let’s see if that’s enough.”
“I’ll try it. Keep your light shining back there so I can see,” he said.
I dropped to my knees and aimed the beam where he’d asked, while he got down on his belly in the icy, snowy mud where we’d been trampling around and crept into the opening.
I heard whining.
“It’s okay, darlin’,” I heard him say to the animal. “It’s okay.”
“Can you reach it?” I asked.
“Almost…I just need to get in a little…farther.”
He scooted closer.
“Careful. Your shoulders are bumping into the rubble. If you move too much…”
As I said it, the wood pile groaned, and that one damned beam we’d stopped moving earlier, shifted.
Shit! I lunged to hold it up, knowing it could cause all kinds of problems if it moved much more.
“Hurry,” I called to Jay. “I’m holding up this beam, but if it gets jostled at all, things are going to get bad real fast.” I rearranged my stance to better balance the weight, but with Jay’s legs sprawled at my feet, sticking out of the opening, I had to be careful where I stepped, and I couldn’t get a good angle.
“Almost there…almost… Hey, there’,” I heard him croon. “I can see it and I’m touching it now. Definitely a dog.”
I heard a low growl.
“Be careful. It might feel threatened.”
“It’s okay, shhhh, it’s okay. We’re going to help you,” came his muffled voice. “Are you stuck, baby?”
I heard Jay grunting now, and the rubble shifted again as he moved.
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. My arms were burning, and my heart was racing. I didn’t want the animal to get smashed, but I was worried about Jay, too. Most of his body was in the dark hole now, with probably a thousand pounds of rubble precariously stacked over him. And I was holding the one damn piece of wood that was keeping it all from crashing down.
“It’s okay. Shhhh,” I heard.
More whimpering and whining, along with more movement from Jay.
“Its leg is trapped.”
I could see the flash of his light moving around under there.
The dog growled, weakly, but there was no mistaking it this time.
“What the hell?” Jay muttered.
“What is it?”
“Else?” The rubble groaned and shifted again. “Whatever it is, you’ve got to figure it out now. I’m not going to be able to hold this up much longer. This whole damn thing’s about to go.”
“Okay…” I heard him grunt. “I’ve gotta…” Another grunt. And another growl from the dog. Then a pained whine.
He bumped against something in there that made the whole pile groan again.
The structure started to sway to one side. I struggled with the beam I held, trying to use it to force things back the other way, but it wasn’t working.
“Jay, I’m not kidding. You’ve gotta get out of there now.”
“Okay, starting back.” He sounded stressed and short of breath.
Everything swayed farther to the side. “Hurry!”
He was slowly scooting backward, but his upper body and, presumably, the dog were still fully under the debris.
I’d dropped my flashlight when I lunged for the wood beam, and its light pointed off into the trees, useless now. So I could barely see Jay, except for the flicker of his light through the rubble, but it was all over the place, probably because he had his hands full.
Everything creaked and groaned again. My arms were aching, my back was, too, as I leaned into it and put everything I had into keeping that damn beam from falling. But it was being pulled to the side more and more and I was fighting a losing battle to gravity.
“Jay, now! Now, now, now!” I shouted, my heart in my throat, my fear for him making my chest ache. “I’m losing control of this thing. Please!”
I could see him beneath me, moving, moving…. And, then, finally…
“Okay, we’re out,” he gasped.
“Back. Get farther back.”
I saw and felt him shimmy farther away, but even as he did, the beam lurched out of my hands, and no force on earth could have helped me keep control of it. A second later, the entire crumbling, remaining structure crashed to the ground so hard the ground beneath me shook.
I stumbled backward just in time before the outward edge of it could catch me, and then I lost my footing and slid in the icy mud, falling. “Shit!” My flashlight was buried in the rubble, so I couldn’t see a damn thing, but my concern wasn’t for me. “Jay? God, are you okay?” I had no idea if he or the dog had gotten far enough way to not get hurt.
The beam of Jay’s light arced toward me. “I think so. Are you?” His voice was rough with worry.
“Yeah, I’m all right.”
I scrambled toward him, half slipping, half crawling, until I reached him.
He lay in an awkward position—sort of half on his side, his body curled into almost a fetal position, which scared me. I reached for him, to reassure myself he wasn’t hurt.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I was only trying to shield them from the falling crap. Better it hit me.”
He rolled back and shone the light so I could see what he’d been sheltering with his body.
A black dog stared up at me. It’s face looked like a pit bull, but it seemed smaller than most. Maybe it was young still or a mixed breed. It looked emaciated like the other dogs, but it wasn’t whimpering or crying, which I hoped was a good sign.
A wave of relief flowed through me that both Jay and the dog had escaped the falling crap. “God, I’m so glad you’re both okay.”
“She’s such a brave girl,” Jay murmured, stroking her side. “Yes you are.”
“Hunter! Jay! Are you all right?” My mom came running toward us through the snow, her big flashlight bobbing with her steps. “We heard the racket and I was afraid.”
“We’re okay,” I assured her as she reached us. “The old shed was half collapsed already, and we pretty much finished it off.”
“Oh dear God. What happened?”
“We found a dog trapped inside it.”
“Dogs,” Jay said. “I think.”
“What?” Mom and I said at the same time, staring at him.
“My sweet, brave girl here was protecting this…” He sat up and I noticed for the first time he’d been holding something else against his chest, something small and mud covered. “I think…is it a puppy?” he asked, handing the cold, wet, muddy creature to me. It was so small it almost fit into my outstretched gloved hands.
“It kind of…” It was hard to tell in the dark, and the poor little thing was a shivering mess. “It kind of looks like a rabbit.”
I unzipped the top of my dad’s heavy down jacket I wore and put the little creature against my chest for warmth before wrapping the coat over it.
“No,” my mom said, kneeling next to us and looking at it. She stroked its little head. “I can’t see enough to say for sure, but good lord…I think I might be a Yorkie.”
“Out here?” My heart broke even more at the thought of such a tiny dog trapped in this frozen hell. “Oh, sweetie,” I murmured. “It’s okay…it’s going to be okay.”
“Keep it warm, Hunter, honey, and Darby will check it over at the house.” She turned her attention to Jay. “Jay, what do you have, hon? Let’s see.” She moved closer to the black dog, which Jay was still stroking and crooning softly to. He’d pulled off his coat and covered the dog with it.
“She was caught and couldn’t get her leg free,” he told my mom. “It definitely was hurting her when I got her loose, but then she still wouldn’t leave and growled at me when I tried to move her. That’s when I discovered she was protecting the little one. Once I picked up the little dog and it was obvious I was helping it, too, she stopped arguing with me.
“Aww, what a good girl,” my mom said, lifting Jay’s coat so she could see the dog better, running her hands over it. I knew she was checking for injuries. “I don’t feel anything obvious on her leg. Still, we want to treat her gently. We need to get both of these dogs someplace warmer, and then we’ll check them over.”
“I can carry her,” Jay said.
She whimpered a little when he picked her up, but then settled into his arms like she belonged here. And I thought it was a good sign her leg didn’t seem to pain her so much she was uncomfortable in his arms.
I kept the tiny one snuggled against me beneath my coat, stroking it and murmuring to it softly as we went back to the house. Thankfully we didn’t have to go back into the stench and filth, as my mom led us around the side of the house to the driveway where our vehicles were parked.
“The two guys from the other rescue group had a large van, so we were able to load the dogs needing the most urgent care into it and they’ve already left for the veterinary hospital in Granby,” Mom said. “All but the Rottie. There just wasn’t room for him, too, so he’s coming with us. Cherry and Darby are putting the rest into our vans.” She waved to Darby to have him come over.
When he did, she told him, “Hunter and Jay found two more,” she told him.
“Ahhh, hello, love,” Dr. Novotany said, petting the black dog’s head. “No, you’re fine,” he told Jay. “If you don’t mind holding her for another minute, I can do a cursory check here in your arms. She’s going to be warmer right where she is.”
“Hunter, how’s the little one?” Mom asked.
“Quiet, but I can feel its breath against my hand and its little heart pounding.”
“Little one?” Dr. Novotany asked, looking at me.
“Tiny,” I said. “Jay’s girl was protecting it.”
“Looks like some kind of toy terrier,” my mom said.
The vet nodded, then continued his quick exam of Jay’s dog, listening to her heart and lungs with his stethoscope.
She’s malnourished like the others, and her breathing’s a bit labored.”
“One of her legs was trapped under some wood,” Jay said.
“Yeah, back left is tender, but I don’t think there’s a fracture. We won’t know for certain what’s up, though, until we get some x-rays. Right now, keeping her warm is critical. Is this your truck, Jay?”
“All right, let’s get it unlocked and the heat running, then get this girl stretched out on your back seat if that’s okay. The vans are full, and we need to get this little lady warm.
“Yeah, it’s fine. Hunter, can you get my keys? Front right pocket.”
Using my teeth, I pulled the glove off my free hand and slid my fingers into Jay’s front jeans pocket. It was intimate, and I was more than a little aware of just how so, but with my mom and the vet watching, I managed to make it look strictly utilitarian. I handed the keys to my mom, who unlocked the truck, got behind the wheel, started the engine and the heater.
Then she spread a blanket she’d been holding over the rear seat.
While Jay was getting the black dog settled, Dr. Novotany, came to me. “Okay, let’s see how the little bit is doing.”
I hated to unwrap the little thing and expose it to the cold, but the vet took off his own coat and held it out for me to put the tiny dog into it.
I did, but had to admit I was reluctant to let it go, and the spot where I’d been holding it against my chest suddenly felt cold.
“This one’s a boy,” the doc said. “Here, you want to hold him again while I check him over?”
It maybe sounded silly, but I was happy to take him back. I sat in the passenger seat of the truck and held him on my lap while the vet did his thing.
“He’s not a puppy. Based on his teeth I’d say he’s three or four years old. He’s in pretty good shape for such a tiny thing. That sweet Staffy really was looking out for him, and probably is the only thing that kept him from freezing to death. We’ll need to do a more thorough exam, but he seems surprisingly healthy all things considered. For now, keep him warm,” he told me.
Then to all of us—Jay, Mom, and me—he said, “Let’s get back to shelter so I can do proper exams and treat these two plus the ones we have in the vans.”
“I’ve already called ahead,” my mom said, “and asked for a couple of extra techs to come in to help you.”
“Excellent. We’ll meet you there.”
“I’m leaving now. Boys, you going to be okay?” she asked me and Jay.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” I told her. “We’ll see you there.”
She pecked my cheek, because that was the way my mom rolled. But I smiled when she leaned up and kissed Jay’s cheek, too. “Drive safe, guys.”
“One of you will need to ride in back with the female,” the doc said. “Since she’s not in a crate, we need to be sure she doesn’t try to move around or isn’t jostled too much.”
I looked at Jay and knew instantly he didn’t want to leave the black dog, not even to drive. His expression said it all to me. I smiled at him. “I’ll drive. You stay with your girl.”
He gave me a grateful smile in return. “Here, why don’t you give me the little guy, too.”
Once again I hated to give him up, but I couldn’t drive and hold him. So I handed over the coat-wrapped bundle after giving him one more stroke and telling him softly, “It’s okay, Jay’s going to take care of you while I drive. There’s no one I trust more.”
Jay’s expression grew soft, as did his smile.
We got back to Lodgepole without incident, and took the dogs into one of Dr. Novotany’s exam rooms in the back of Mom’s shelter. A vet tech met us, and got the black dog onto a warming pad and under a blanket. I was loath to put the little guy down, though—he just seemed so tiny and vulnerable—so instead of insisting, the vet tech smiled and brought me a regular fleece blanket from a warming box to wrap around him. I handed him off to Jay for a few minutes while I went to help Mom, Cherry, and the vet techs unload the rest of the dogs they’d brought, but took him back as soon as I’d returned.
Then we waited while the doc saw the Rottie first, since he was by far and away in the worst condition. My mom was worried he might be too far gone to save, and her sorrow bled over onto me. Ultimately, Dr. Novotany said we’d just have to wait and see. If the Rottweiler made it through the next twenty-four hours, then he might pull through.
The doc stopped in to quickly check on our dogs to be sure they were doing okay and their conditions hadn’t deteriorated since we’d arrived. Since they were both stable, he said he wanted to examine a couple of the other dogs with more urgent needs first.
I knew Jay was anxious, but we both understood that, just like in a human emergency room, docs and nurses triaged patients and helped the ones in the most distress and whose illnesses might be life threatening first.
Jay hadn’t left the black dog’s side. He stroked her head and spoke to her in a low, soothing voice, telling her what a good girl she was. She licked his hand periodically, and seemed completely content with him.
The sight and sound of him comforting her touched something deep down inside me. I knew I shouldn’t, but once again I found myself comparing Shane to him. Shane, who’d hated the “stench” of the shelter, and then after giving me a half-assed apology when he realized his comment had offended me, had, in some twisted way, thought it’d make everything better to tell me he’d never understood the point of having pets, as if they were nothing but a burden.
And then there was Jay, who’d crawled on his belly in the mud and snow, under a collapsing building, to save a dog’s life—two dogs’ lives, as it had turned out. And who sat here now, in the dead of night, cold and covered in mud, in order to be sure those dogs didn’t feel abandoned.
When he looked up at me and caught me watching him, he gave me a tired half smile that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
I knew in that moment that I was completely, with all my heart, in love with him. I probably always had been, but now it was different. Deeper. And I couldn’t imagine ever being away from him again. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, or how we’d figure it out. I only knew I’d make it happen because I’d been blind and foolish for a long time, but my eyes were wide open now. I knew what I wanted, and I was pretty damn sure it’s what he wanted, too. I wasn’t going to mess around and lose him.
“What?” he asked softly. “You’re looking at me so intently.”
“You’re a good man, Jay Marshall.”
His cheeks flushed. “So are you.”
I noticed he was shivering. That wasn’t good, especially since it was actually fairly warm in the room.
I’d taken off my dad’s coat earlier. Now, I picked it up off the bench where I’d thrown it, and took it over to him. “Here. Your teeth are practically chattering.” I held the coat while Jay slid his arms into it.
“Thanks. I don’t think I realized how cold I was until just a couple of minutes ago.”
He’d used his coat to cover the dog, but his sweater was muddy and wet from holding her, and his jeans were even worse, soaked through from the snow and mud. His hat had been just as bad, from crawling under the rubble, but he’d at least taken that off in the truck. God, no wonder he was shivering.
“I’m going to go find you a blanket. I’ll be right back.” I leaned down and kissed the top of his head before I left.
I was carrying the little ball of fluff with me, still wrapped up in a bundle, and I kept him hugged against my chest as I walked. I wondered, briefly, if this is what it felt like to be a parent with an infant. The thought made me smile. I guess Jay wasn’t the only one who’d bonded with a dog tonight.
I knew where my mom kept the clean blankets and comforters they used for the dogs, so I found a large, warm one and took it back to Jay. I wrapped it around him, then stood next to him, stroking the little dog I held with one hand, and Jay’s damp hair with the other.
He glanced up at me, radiating exhaustion, then turned his head and pressed a kiss against my palm.
The action only made me love him all the more.
“I’m sure the doc’ll be in soon,” I said.
He gently scuffed a hand along the black dog’s side under the blanket. “He called her a Staffy earlier. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know my breeds as well as Mom does, but I think it’s short for Staffordshire Terrier, or maybe it’s Staffordshire Bull Terrier, though, come to think of it, those might be two similar but separate breeds. In any case, I think they’re related to or considered to be pit bulls. Mom could tell you more.”
“How’s the little guy?”
“I think he’s doing okay. Sleeping mostly, though every now and then he licks my fingers. And he feels toasty warm now.
“You look pretty adorable holding him.”
“You mean he looks adorable.”
“No, I mean you look adorable. The whole package…you, all muddy and bearded and rugged holding a tiny furball in a pink fuzzy blanket like it’s the most precious thing in the world.”
I snorted softly, but felt heat creeping up my face. “Oh please,” I whispered.
I was spared further embarrassment when Dr. Novotany came into the room. But Jay’s lingering smile stayed with me.