Every heart has a forever home.
Megan Anderson loves the animals at her no-kill shelter. She’ll do anything for them—even go toe-to-toe with a handsome man who is in way over his head. She’ll help him sort out his troubles, but getting too close to an adorable puppy’s human countepart? Been there, done that, got burned.
When Craig Williams arrived at the local shelter for help, he didn’t expect a fiery young woman to blaze into his life. But the more time they spend together, the more he realizes it’s not just animals Megan is adept at saving—she could be the one to rescue his heart.
Soon, Craig and Megan find that the magic of unconditional love can do anything...even lead to their forever home.
There were a dozen reasons not to pick up Bernie’s call. He only called for one thing. And try as she might, she’d never been able to tell him no.
Today of all days, Megan didn’t have the time for him. When his call came, she was pulling into the parking lot at the High Grove Animal Shelter, ready to start a cram-packed day that would likely be cut short by the massive front of freezing rain passing overhead. Saying yes to Bernie would cost her.
She berated herself for answering, for agreeing, for jotting down his location and heading off to meet him instead of taking charge of her own day. He was a good twenty minutes away, and icy patches were beginning to form on the heavily salted roads.
This morning, Bernie was in a part of St. Louis where Megan had never been, a residential area north of downtown. Imposingly tall but narrow redbrick houses spanned several blocks. They were old homes—she was willing to bet a century, at least—and some were in better shape than others. The one Bernie’s truck was parked in front of showed obvious signs of neglect in patches of crumbling brick, broken concrete steps, and a mangled metal fence that had collapsed along one side of the house.
The street was practically empty. Megan pulled in behind the city animal control van where Bernie was holed up. She stepped out and reached into the back of her car for her coat. The rain was coming down heavier. If predictions were correct, there’d be nearly an inch of ice covering everything tomorrow.
Bernie joined her, hitching up a pair of cargo pants that sagged under the weight of his belly. “It’s those eyes that are going to melt you,” he said. “Warm, brown, and super smart. Like you’ve never seen.”
Megan shook her head, unable to suppress a smile. “I should turn on my voice recorder app,” she teased. “Then next time you call, I’ll prove you say the same thing every time.”
“I’m not denying I’ve said it before. But this guy is different. You’ll see.” He threw an arm over her shoulder and pulled her in for a hug. “How’ve you been, kid?”
“Pretty good. Money-wise, things are really tight at the shelter. There’s been one big expense after another with the heat going out and that problem with the circuit breaker. We’ve had some great adoption matchups though. Remember that Yorkie? The one the Macy’s employee found when he heard her barking in one of the purses in a mound of other purses?”
“Yeah,” Bernie said, chuckling.
“Well, she went to an awesome home. You won’t believe this, but her new owner makes her own line of designer purses. The woman saw her on Facebook and drove in from Ohio to get her. The Yorkie is going to be her company mascot. That little face is already all over the designer’s Facebook and website. It’s so cute. Oh, and remember the Rhodesian ridgeback no one had the energy for? Last Saturday, he went to a marathon runner who was looking for a running companion.”
“That’s nice. I’m guessing those’ll make your newsletter? It’s the one newsletter I always open, since I know the only stories you publish are ones with happy endings.” From the pocket of his coat, Bernie’s phone rang out. He glanced at the screen, silenced the phone, and frowned. “You aren’t going to like this, but I’m going to have to run. Not ten minutes after I called you, I got a call from my boss. Looks like his mother-in-law has a family of raccoons holing up in her chimney, probably to weather out this storm. You know I could use getting in good with him, considering how things have been lately. But you’ll be able to handle this guy, no problem. Like I said, he’s as smart as they come.”
“Where is he?” She scanned the front porch and windows. No dogs were in sight.
“Around back. Chained up. I’d have saved you the trouble of unchaining him, but I phoned in that he was already taken away by a friend of the owner. Can’t risk someone seeing me with him and then not bringing him in. You understand, don’t you, kid?”
“Yeah, I do.” Bernie worked for the city animal control department. He was old enough to retire, but a few years ago, his daughter had moved back in, along with her rambunctious triplets. He needed the salary, benefits’ package, and pension that came with his position, even if his big heart left him better suited for a job at an adoption shelter like hers whose mission was finding forever homes for four-legged friends.
“The woman’s inside.” He ran a hand, freckled with age spots, down the length of his coat zipper. “She’s terrified of dogs, and she’s, uh, not in the space to keep him. The shepherd was her son’s. He was called back for active duty. Some neighbors complained about the dog’s living conditions. The woman was served a notice ten days ago. She’s been looking for someone to take him but hasn’t had any luck.”
“How…” She started to ask how bad off the dog was, but stopped. She’d see soon enough.
“He doesn’t look mistreated,” Bernie replied, picking up on her thoughts. “She’s been feeding him. Just can’t do more than that. From what the neighbors shared, he’s got no history of aggression.”
“You have an extra leash?” she asked.
“Always.” He popped open the van’s back door. It was cluttered with cages, nets, cheap nylon leashes, and long metal poles with corded nooses at the end. There was a large, fat possum in one cage. It blinked its small eyes, unaccustomed to the light.
Megan took the leash Bernie handed her and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “She’s good with me coming onto her property, right?”
“Yeah. I told her you were taking him, and she said you were a blessed angel. She’s good with it.”
“Okay. Hey, I’d better get moving.” She stepped in for a hug, his belly pressing against her. “Be good, kid. We’ll catch up soon. I’ll swing by and take you to lunch. Shoot, I said that last time and I haven’t yet. But I’m good for it. Promise.”
He hopped into his van, and Megan headed for the side yard. The gate was so crooked it was stuck in the ground, and a thin glaze of ice was forming over it. Rather than mess with it, she walked alongside the neighboring yard to the spot where the fence had collapsed and crossed over the slippery chain link.
The backyard was long and rectangular. A tired privacy fence blocked the view of the alley behind the house. The dog, a German shepherd, was in the far corner, chained to a pole. She knew exactly how far the chain reached, because inside that distance, the grass had died off and there was only mud. Near where he was lying were four overturned bowls, and the ground was pocked with small patches of water ringed by ice.
There was a dilapidated doghouse within his reach. But it would be a snug fit for a dog his size, and Megan suspected it hadn’t kept the rain out for a long time. The most inviting thing in the area was a massive old tree that would shade the whole yard in summer.
Surveying the scene from fifty feet away, she could feel the judgment sliding in. She did her best to shake it off. The dog was dirty and wet and chained up, but he looked healthy enough. And German shepherds were bred to handle the cold. Only, looking at all that fur, could you really tell if he wasn’t being fed?
Her fingers were starting to shake, and her chest was tight. She wasn’t meant for this sort of thing. She took these cases too personally.
Plus Wes, the founder of the shelter, was always reading her the riot act over helping Bernie. But there was no use deceiving herself. She’d always take Bernie’s call. Wes never got that mad, and as rough as these experiences were, they’d also made a big difference in the animals’ lives.
The dog was awake and watching her but not barking. When she closed the distance to twenty feet, just a few feet beyond the reach of his chain, he lifted his head off the ground to stare at her intently.
She could tell from the footprints Bernie had left that he’d only made it a step or two farther. He’d made his assessment about the watchful shepherd from this distance.
Megan paused to study the dog at the outer reach of the chain. He wasn’t barking or growling or acting territorial in the slightest. He simply watched her. Bernie was right. His eyes were big and brown and intelligent. And, judging by the way his eyebrows drew up into peaks as he stared, sad looking.
“How long have you been here, buddy?”
She walked forward purposefully. Showing fear or hesitation could be a mistake around a dog that hadn’t been socialized in a while. Rather than stare, she kept her gaze locked on the ground halfway between them. The only visible footprints in the mud belonged to him. How long had it been since anyone had handled him?
She talked, keeping her voice low and steady. He rose to his feet and lowered his head when she was a body length away. “It’s all right, boy.”
She said the words over and over. Her heart was thumping, and her palms were sweating. He was a big male with powerful features. She’d put money down he wasn’t neutered.
“How’d you like to get out of here?” She fished into her jacket pocket for the treats she always had with her. Keeping her movements slow and deliberate, she offered one in his direction.
He didn’t move.
The suspense wearing on her, she made eye contact. He was watching her intently, his tail neither tucked nor erect. His lips weren’t curled back in warning, but his mouth wasn’t relaxed either.
He was waiting for something. He was watching her and waiting for something. But what? What would a chained-up, neglected dog be waiting for?
For permission, she realized, a chill rushing over her.
She made a kissing sound and sank into a squat, balancing on the balls of her feet. Obediently, he walked her way. He smelled awful—wet dog at its worst. He sniffed her face, her hair, and the fingers of her open hand. Then, with a quick lick, the treat disappeared from her palm.
Megan felt tears sting her eyes. Someone, either the soldier or someone before him, had put a great deal of care and training into this animal. Still in a squat, she reached out to touch him, attempting to keep her knees off the ground so her jeans wouldn’t get saturated in the same winter mud that was trying to soak into her shoes.
His fur was wet and partially frozen at the tips. Lower down, closer to the base, it was warm and dry. She burrowed her fingers into the mane-like mass at his neck and spoke to him. Then in the time it took her to blink, there was a flash of pointy white, and his mouth was wrapped around her wrist.
She gasped and waited for the sinking of those massive teeth into her flesh, but it didn’t come. His tongue pulsed rhythmically against the inside of her wrist. Affectionately. A wave of relief swept over her. It was the way some dogs expressed trust.
“Attaboy.” She extracted her arm and moved his collar around so she could see the chain. The clip was rusted shut. Maybe it’d be easier to unhook the opposite end at the pole and take the whole chain.
Or she could get him out of that mud-encrusted collar. She brushed away some mud, inspecting it. It was thick, weathered leather. There was writing carved into the side at sharp angles. She wiped mud away until she could read it. Sledge.
“Sledge. Is that your name?”
There was a flash of pink, and his tongue brushed her nose. She laughed, and he wagged his tail.
“Sledge. You’re such a tank that it fits you. Let’s get you out of here. The shelter’s no Hyatt hotel, but I don’t think you’ll complain.”
It took her fingertips growing numb, but she was able to unhook the cold, wet collar and drape Bernie’s nylon slipknot leash over the shepherd’s head. She broke the final treat into two pieces and gave him one when he started following her.
He was hesitant to cross over the fallen chain link, but relented after a bit of cajoling. The front door opened as they walked into view. A woman crossed the covered porch, holding out a brown-paper sack in offering. She was wearing a purple jogging suit that complemented her mocha skin. The pink scarf wrapped around her head was all it took for Megan to let go of the anger sliding up her throat. This woman had sent a son off to active duty and was battling cancer.
“You aren’t the first angel I’ve come across, but you’re an angel all the same. I’ve been praying on this something fierce. And here you are, taking him before the worst of the storm.”
Megan ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. What on earth was she supposed to say to her? “Thank you.” The only other thing racing to her mind was business. “I was wondering if your son had any of the dog’s paperwork? Any record of shots or registration?”
“I’d be surprised if he had gotten any. Antonne brought the dog home because he didn’t think he was being treated well.”
“Do you, um, know where your son got him?”
“Lord only knows. He just came home with him one morning. That was back in June, a few months after Antonne came home from his first tour.” She shook her head, eyeing Sledge like he might jump up onto the porch. “It don’t make sense, but I’m more afraid of dogs than anything.”
Megan was at a loss for words. Beside her, Sledge stood patiently, studying the world around him.
The woman leaned over the porch railing and waved the paper bag in Megan’s direction. “So hopefully you’ll forgive me for not coming down. I made muffins this morning. Banana nut. My specialty. Once you get where you’re going, why don’t you make yourself a cup of coffee and have one?”
Megan reached up for the bag, and her frozen fingers locked over the top. Her chin was starting to wobble, and she knew it was from more than the bitter temperature and soaking rain.
The best thing she could do for this woman tugging at her heartstrings was thank her and take the dog off her hands. “I’ll, uh, I’ll make sure we find him a good home.”
“I thank you, honey.” The woman reached up to adjust her head scarf. “It’ll be one less thing to pray over.”
With nothing else to say, Megan led Sledge to the car.