The pinks and purples of sunset filled the car, set off in stark contrast to the darkened trees before her. She followed the winding road of the mainland until she caught sight of a tiny wooden sign. Humane Society. Must be the place. She turned off the road and pulled into the parking lot. Cutting the engine, she glanced down at the sleeping bundle next to her. Maybe that was the dog’s first night’s rest in a long time and she was about to hand Caramel over to strangers?
Ugh. Don’t name the dog. It’s not your dog. If it’s a she, she could go by Cara for short. Nope. Stop.
Scooping up the bundle into her arms, this time she rested the dog against her heart. Caramel was the present she’d asked Santa for all those years ago. Only now, she couldn’t accept the gift. Timing was everything and hers had always been off. Slowly stepping out of the car, she kicked the door shut behind her and walked into the shelter.
Her eyes adjusted to the dim, fluorescent bulbs flickering off the concrete floor and her nose started twitching immediately. Cats. She’d always had an allergy to cats. The sound of far off barking and a door swinging shut was quickly accompanied by shuffling feet coming down the hall. The bundle in her arms woke up and raised its head.
“We’re closing up,” a deep baritone with a delicious gentlemanly Southern twinge boomed. His accent was faint, but present.
Shannon cleared her throat. The man stared down at his feet. Deliberately? Was he avoiding eye contact with her? She couldn’t tell. Wearing a baseball cap, flannel shirt, light colored jeans, and work boots he could have been a country boy. No man typically avoided eye contact with her.
“I know, I’m so sorry. I just found this little dog and I was hoping that—”
“Nope, sorry. I don’t do any of the…” he reached her and raised his head and his hand to cut her off. Then his words cut out and she caught herself catching flies with a slack jaw.
If he looked like some good ole boy from a distance, up close he was pure male model caliber. A strong jaw with the hint of stubble begged her to run her fingers along the edge. Piercing blue eyes, deep and wide set, stared straight and true into hers. Like he could see into her soul. She’d always been undone by eye contact, either squirming to get away from the scrutiny or desperate for notice. Under his gaze, something inside her unclenched and she relaxed. When he dropped his eyes to the bundle on her chest, she felt the loss physically. Like someone had been hugging her and then abruptly stepped away. She’d experienced that a few times.
“Is this the dog?”
“Yeah, sorry. Hi. I’m Shaz—Shannon. I’m Shannon. Marie Smith-Thomson told me to stop by. I found this dog in an alley.”
“Little thing like this? Looks to be in rough shape.”
“I wouldn’t know. I just found it. I didn’t even bother looking if it’s a boy or girl.”
He chuckled, a deep, low rumble that sounded as rich as the chocolate cake she’d had on her last birthday. Lucky number twenty-six. Maybe next year she wouldn’t be alone to celebrate. She bit the inside of her cheek. She had to get the ridiculous thoughts to stop slipping into her every moment. Besides, finding someone to spend the night with wasn’t the problem, wanting to stick around for a good one was.
“I don’t actually work here. I’m just a volunteer. I promised the staff I’d lock up so they could get home to their families. Kind of a skeleton crew here for the next couple weeks.”
“Really? Oh shoot. Well… I don’t know what to do then.”
“I could take her, at least for the night. I’m a trainer and I have a few other dogs. She might like it okay for the night.”
His words rushed out in a low mumble. The unwavering clarity in his eyes told her his sincerity. Tall, calm, and handsome. He’s exactly what I’m looking for.
She wasn’t looking for anyone. She’d be gone in a few months. With any luck. She gave herself a little shake and Caramel shifted in her arms.
“You wouldn’t mind?” She cleared her throat.
“No, not at all.”
“Maybe Santa will put you at the top of the nice list this year.”
“I don’t think there’s any need for that.” He stared down at his feet.
Had she embarrassed him? Standing somewhere over six feet, the man exuded machismo and power. Could a little teasing about the jolly ole elf have rattled him? Interesting. Shannon untangled Caramel from her chest and handed the dog to him. Strong, rough hands brushed against her wrists sending a spark through her. The calendar might have said December but she felt as electrified as the fourth of July.