Authors: Margaret Daley
Shelter of Hope
I should be angry. At the very least wallowing in self-pity.
But I’m not.
With the top down on her Mustang, Susan Fayard relished the wind tossing her hair about. She’d been in New Orleans to celebrate her ex-boyfriend’s engagement to a friend she’d introduced him to. It was for the best. She wouldn’t have been the right wife for Garrett. He didn’t need her.
No, Garrett wasn’t for me. Sarah will make him a good wife.
Susan exited Interstate 10 and headed toward Hope, Mississippi. She would focus on work at Davidson Construction Company. It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough of it to do since the hurricane had hit Hope last year. The town was still rebuilding, and her boss, Zane, was in the thick of that reconstruction. She liked being there as the people of Hope, and the people all along the Gulf Coast, put their lives back together. They needed her help.
With her resolve firm in her mind, she’d decided to come back early from New Orleans, taking Zane and his wife, Kim, up on their invitation to spend Labor Day with them on their boat. She’d celebrate her new direction with them—giving more to Hope. The thought cheered her.
Until she saw a black-and-white dog dart out in front of a car and get hit.
The person driving the beat-up vehicle kept going, leaving the animal in the middle of the road. Susan’s mouth dropped open as she slowed; she watched the car speed away, but the license tag was too dirty to read its numbers. She couldn’t believe the driver hadn’t stopped.
What kind of person would leave—
The injured animal tried to get up. Failed and lay back down on the road. She pulled over to the side of the highway and gripped the steering wheel so tight her hands ached. Her heart cracked at the sight of the medium-size dog lying on the pavement, his chest rising and falling.
Scrambling from her Mustang, Susan tried to think where Kim’s cousin, the vet, lived. His farm was on a road off this one about a mile closer to Hope, she thought. As she hurried out onto the highway, she prayed that no one would hit her or the dog.
Kneeling next to the dog, she murmured, “You’re gonna be all right. Help is close by.”
The dog turned its head toward Susan and whimpered, the sound sending a shiver down Susan’s length. She kept whispering reassurances while she slid her arms under the animal that was at least part border collie, then lifted it gently and struggled to her feet.
A car sped by, going in the opposite direction, as Susan laid the dog on the backseat of her Mustang. In the driver’s seat again, she pulled out onto the highway. Now to find Nathan Grayson’s farm.
Please, Lord, he’s got to be home.
Nathan Grayson pounded the last nail into the fence of the new pen and then stepped away. Sweat dripped off his forehead. He mopped the back of his hand across it, then downed the rest of his now warm bottled water.
Giggles floated to him. Carly’s laughter always brought a smile to him, especially now. For months his daughter had hardly smiled, let alone laughed. Her mother’s death last year during the hurricane had robbed them both of joy. His wife shouldn’t have died. If only he hadn’t insisted they move back to Hope, Caroline would be alive today. He had to live with that.
Another bout of laughter sprinkled the air, coming from the barn behind him. Nathan put his hammer in his toolbox and strode inside to see what his young daughter was doing that was so much fun. He had been working for hours. He could use a break.
In the dim interior of the barn he spied Carly rolling around on the dirt floor with the new litter of four puppies crawling all over her, licking her face, rubbing up against her, gnawing on her hand.
“Your mama will be here soon to feed ya,” Carly said to the puppies, giggling as she tried to pull her finger out of one puppy’s mouth. “I am not her.”
“Carly, come away from the puppies. I know a young lady who’s going to have to take a bath before we go to see Kim and Zane tonight.”
Carly sat straight up, cupping one wiggly puppy against her chest. “I don’t want to give any of them away.”
“What did I tell you about becoming too attached to the animals we take in?” He’d had to learn that the hard way. Becoming too attached hurt.
“Not to… But, Daddy, that’s hard.”
He knelt next to her and cradled one of the mixed-breed puppies in his hands. “I know, pumpkin. I have a hard time with it, too, but we only have so much room here. I have to find homes for them so if another dog needs our help, we’ll have a place for it. It’s easier to convince someone to take a puppy.” He held the brown-and-white puppy against his cheek, wishing he had the money and space to take all the animals in. So many had been displaced by the hurricane.
“Can’t I keep one?”
“No, pumpkin. Whining will get you nowhere.” He forced a stern tone into his voice because this always happened when there was a new litter. If she had her way, it would be wall-to-wall animals at the farm.
Carly looked each one over, a frown descending. “But I love them all.”
A car coming down the dirt road to their house filled the sudden silence that fell between Carly and him.
She hopped up, saying, “Someone’s here,” and raced out of the barn.
He put each puppy back in a small pen, then followed his daughter outside to a Mustang. A woman with short, spiky black hair and huge, glistening blue eyes climbed from the car. A tear ran down her cheek, then another. He hurried forward.
“I’m Susan Fayard, Zane Davidson’s secretary. Kim told me about how you take in hurt animals and care for them.” She moved to the Mustang’s back door and opened it. “Someone hit her. Please help.”
As the woman stepped back, Nathan leaned in and examined the dog. “I’ll try, but it doesn’t look good.”
Biting on her thumbnail, Susan paced outside the small building next to the barn where Nathan cared for the animals when they needed medical help. She checked her watch for probably the twentieth time in the past hour. Still no word if the dog would make it or not.
Lord, she’s in Your hands. Please heal her.
That was all she could do, because she was too chicken to go in and look for herself. She was thankful Nathan had insisted she stay in the waiting room while he did what he could to fix the dog. She’d readily agreed because she couldn’t stand seeing an animal hurting. The dog’s whimpers from the backseat on the way to the farm had produced so many tears that she’d nearly missed the turn into the place.
“Daddy is the best. He’ll take care of her.” The girl who’d introduced herself as Carly, the vet’s daughter, sat on a bale of hay stacked against the barn, holding a white cat and stroking it.
“Her hind leg was messed up bad.” Susan glanced down at her shirt and slacks, stained with the dog’s blood.
“That happened with another dog we had, but Daddy fixed her right up. He can heal anything.”
The door opened, and Nathan stepped outside. Nothing in his expression gave away the prognosis of the animal until his dark-chocolate eyes connected with hers. A softening in them eased the tension in Susan, and she came to a stop a few feet from him.
“She’ll be okay?” Susan asked, unable to look away from the kindness in his gaze. It lit his whole face, especially when his eyes fell on his daughter.
“I think so. I’ll know more after twenty-four hours. I’ve set her leg. Now we wait.”
“I’m not very good at waiting.”
“I’m not, either.” Carly hopped off the hay bale and placed the cat on the ground. “Can I see her now?”
“Sure, pumpkin. I’ve given her something, so she’s sleeping.” As his daughter hurried inside, he swung his attention to Susan. “You can see her, too. It won’t be as hard on you now. She’s been cleaned up.”
In that second, a connection that surprised her formed between them; he understood how she felt about being around hurting animals. “I don’t know how you do your job.”
“There have been times it’s gotten to me, but someone needs to help them when they’re in pain.” He quirked a smile. “I decided to be one of those someones. Taking in strays has been a great way to use the family farm, since I couldn’t see me being a farmer. I can’t keep a house plant alive.”
“Now, that I can do. My apartment is like stepping into a greenhouse.” Susan studied Nathan, sensing a sadness about him, as if he’d forgotten how to enjoy life. Maybe it was time to talk to Kim. Find out a little about her cousin.
He backed up and opened the door. “I promise she isn’t hurting right now. Do you have a pet?”
“I did. A cat. He went missing in the hurricane. I never found him. I tried…” Susan’s throat closed. Memories of searching for Harley—short for Harlequin, because he was black and white—inundated her.
“And you haven’t gotten a new pet yet? I’m always looking for new owners.”
She shook her head, and suddenly she couldn’t keep the tears back.
When he saw her tears, Nathan covered the space between them. Wanting to comfort but not sure how. “I understand. Loss takes something from you. There have been a lot of losses this past year for the people of Hope.”
Would his life ever feel normal? He wasn’t the only person asking that question in town, but if it hadn’t been for his daughter, he wasn’t sure what he would have done after his wife died. Though taking in all the stray animals had helped appease some of the guilt.
“How can someone hit an animal and not even stop to check how badly it’s hurt?”
“You saw it happen?”
She nodded, wiping her eyes. “Really, I don’t cry much.”
“If I’d seen the person drive away, I’d have probably gone after him. Your way was better, though, because the dog got help immediately.” He was trying to remember what he knew about Zane’s secretary. He’d been at a few gatherings that she’d attended, but he usually didn’t stay long at those things. He had his hands full being a single dad and taking care of so many animals—his own zoo. This past year there had been little time for anything social. Which was exactly the way he liked it. If he kept himself busy, he didn’t have time to think about the past.
“I couldn’t even get a license-plate number. It was covered with mud. Very convenient, if you ask me.”
When he heard Carly’s shout, he whirled around and rushed inside. “What’s wrong?”
“She moved. I think she’s waking up.” Carly pointed at the black-and-white dog, perfectly still. “Really, she did.”
“Probably a nervous twitch.” Nathan clasped his daughter’s shoulder. “She isn’t going to wake up for a while. In fact, if I remember correctly, a little girl about six years old has a room that needs to be cleaned up.”
“I’m not little no more. I’m gonna be seven real soon.”
“Big girls clean up their rooms, too.” His daughter’s idea of cleaning up was sticking everything under the bed or into the closet.
Carly’s mouth twisted in a pensive expression, and she cocked her head to the side. “Do you have to clean up your room, Miss Fayard?”
“If I didn’t, I would never find anything I needed.”
His daughter tapped her chin with her forefinger. “Mmm. You know, I’ve been looking for my stuffed monkey. I wonder…” She didn’t finish her statement but flew out of the building and raced toward the house.