IT WAS hard to explain what it was that woke him. Even trying later to put the experience into words, Jude found it impossible. One minute he was lost in a dream, the very next he was wide awake, panting, sitting up in bed in a cold sweat. What in the world? He felt like he was drowning and squeezed in a vise all at the same time. When he tried to go back to sleep that proved futile. The overwhelming feeling of dread would not budge; he needed to get up or something horrible would happen. So even though it made no sense, he rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom. Looking into his own dark brown eyes in the mirror, he realized that maybe it was just his own life that had him awake at three in the morning. Lately it seemed like a pit had opened up and he couldn’t pull free. Nothing was going right, and with no end in sight, it made sense that panic would leap from his subconscious, where he kept it pinned down all day, and grab hold of him while he was sleeping. But even as he told himself that the fear was logical, he still couldn’t shake it. Maybe if he took a walk he’d feel better; his one-bedroom apartment felt small suddenly and claustrophobic. He had to get out.
After pulling on jeans, a heavy wool sweater, and hiking boots, twenty-six-year-old Jude Shea made his way from his brownstone toward the park. It was slow going, colder than he thought it would be, but being outside worked to clear his head. He felt calmer, steadier, grounded… until he heard the growling. Turning the corner he realized that he had made a left instead of a right. He had meant to take the path over the footbridge but had ended up going under it instead and now found himself at the mouth of a small tunnel. From where he was he could see the moon-washed path on the other side, could see the barren trees and even the wrought-iron fence, but between him and that was the total darkness of the creepy, smelly tunnel. And something close by was growling.
It took only a second to decide to reverse his course and go back, but in that heartbeat of time, he felt something resonate inside him. It was the pulse again, the same throb, a pressure that pushed against him like a sonic wave, like something or someone was calling to him. Jude had never felt anything like it and found it hard to process, to categorize. There was no pain, just the feeling of falling, like the first drop on a rollercoaster. He shivered hard, deciding quickly that nothing would keep him from moving forward. The pull was too strong to ignore. He had to find whatever it was he was outside in the cold looking for, because maybe if he found it, the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach would go away. He could only hope.
As Jude strode into the dark tunnel, he felt stupid for even hesitating. The growling had obviously been just the howl of the wind. He was not a woman who had to worry about being attacked, and at five-eleven and covered in lean muscle, there were not a lot of men who could hurt him without a weapon of some kind. Really, the only thing he had to worry about at all was finding a job. Having been looking for one for the last two weeks, he was exhausted. He had no business being out of bed at three in the morning looking for what… something that had drawn him with its siren call? It was crazy, and yet he plowed on through the pitch black of the tunnel to the other side.
When he emerged, the second he came around the corner, he saw them. There were four dogs in all, three on their feet and one on the ground. The three that were hovering were taking turns biting and clawing at the prone figure. The snarling was loud, the attack was vicious, and the dog that could no longer fight back would be dead soon. A feeling of relief washed over him, and he knew, beyond anything remotely logical, that he was there to save the dog. He yelled, and there was instant silence but for the moan of the wind. It had rained earlier, and between the wet chill in the air, the black shapes outlined against a dark charcoal sky, and the way the leaves blew across the path, there was an eerie feel to the night. When the dogs turned on him and charged, heads lowered, he felt as though he were facing some primordial foe instead of feral dogs in the park. Even for someone as rational as Jude, there was a second of horror before he heard the laughter.
Turning, he saw the group of people emerge from the tunnel. Four men, three women—and the first guy on the end reached under his jacket as he called out “Hey, man, you all right?”
The guy had a gun, and normally a man with a gun outside of law enforcement would be a concern, but right then the only thing Jude could be was thankful. He took a breath so his heart could start again.
“What the fuck’s goin’ on?” another of the men asked.
Turning back to face the dogs, Jude realized instantly that they were gone. “Where did they go?”
“That way,” one of the guys said as the group reached him, pointing into the trees to the left. “Man, you are all kinds of crazy.”
Jude didn’t waste another second of time. Charging up the slight incline, he fell to his knees beside the injured animal. It was enormous, not as big as the others—their size had been freakish—but still the biggest dog Jude had ever seen.
“Oh shit,” someone said behind him.
The dog lifted its head just barely and looked at its savior before the snarl tore from his throat. The sound made everyone except Jude shudder.
“Ohmygod, don’t touch him!” a woman exclaimed.
“Get back! He’ll rip your arm off!” a man warned.
Jude was too close to the wounded animal. If the dog wanted to, it could tear out his throat or maul the hand reaching toward him. There could be no protection from an attack in the slight distance between them.
Nothing mattered to Jude but the fact that the dog was hurt and needed him. Every other concern paled in comparison. The second he felt the wet heavy breath on his skin, Jude knew it would be all right. He smoothed his hand over the dog’s nose, and its tongue darted out to lick his fingers. Scooting forward, cradling the dog’s head in his hands, Jude gently, tenderly, put the heavy skull down on his bent knees. The dog’s whimper was almost painful to hear as it pushed forward, trying to get its body closer to the man. Jude knew the animal had to be freezing, it was shaking with pain and fatigue, but its innate need for human contact still had overcome its instinct for self-preservation. The dog wanted to be in the man’s lap.
“It’s okay, baby, I got you,” Jude promised the dog as its eyes started to droop closed.
There was a chorus of oh from the women, assorted groans, and finally the command from the first guy to help the fuckin’ guy with his goddamn dog. Jude looked up at the man with a leather trench coat over his black Versace suit and thanked him.
“You are one lucky sonofabitch.” The man smiled down at Jude, the diamond in his front tooth catching the light. “What the hell were you thinkin’, walkin’ up on a wounded animal?”
“He needed me,” Jude said helplessly.
“Yeah, well, I suggest maybe you use your brain next time.”
There was always a first time.
WHO woke up in the middle of the night and ended up saving a dog? The story was crazy, but even more amazing was the fact that no one cared. The nice lady at the intake window at the county animal shelter, the vet tech who took the dog from him, as well as the vet herself, none of them were interested in what had led him to the dog, only with the fact that he had saved it. He was a hero, plain and simple, and they all took turns telling him that.
Hours later, as he sat in the waiting area filling out forms, he found himself stuck on Name of Animal and couldn’t get any further. There was no way he could be responsible for a dog when his entire life was up in the air. How could he promise to feed and shelter another life when he didn’t even have a job? Sitting there, staring down at the linoleum floor, it was hard not to sink into self-pity.
A month ago, the small, financially sound public relations firm where Jude had worked for the past three years had been acquired by Sheridan Grant, a behemoth in the industry with offices all across country. The impact was that there had been many layoffs and only very few jobs had been spared. Jude had been one of the lucky ones—his reputation and client list kept the wolves from his door—but job security ended up being the least of his problems. A new managing director had been chosen for their office and Colton Bale showed up fresh from San Francisco with big ideas for change. Jude had no idea at the time what that meant for him personally.
“Excuse me, uh, Mr. Shea?”
Yanked from his reverie, Jude looked up into the face of the vet tech. She was a very pretty girl with a cute ponytail, and her nametag identified her as Amy. He found her adorable but completely missed his effect on her.
With his big dark brown eyes, impossibly long lashes, chiseled features, and flawless skin, the man was as close to perfection as she would ever see. She swallowed her gum.
“Um, can you come with me?”
“Sure,” he replied, standing. “But don’t call me ‘sir,’ call me Jude.”
“Jude,” she repeated, her eyes looking him over from head to toe. Yummy. The man was definitely edible with his curly brown hair that fell just past his shoulders, full, kissable lips, and lean frame. The jeans were tight and hugged long legs, and when she let him walk in front of her for a moment, she saw a firm, round ass. He was pretty, and she liked her men that way.
Jude checked over his shoulder, not sure which way to go once they hit the hall and confused as to why he was leading when he had no idea where he was going. Amy pointed to his right and then did a quick step and was back in front of him. Walking into a room three doors down, Jude was again faced with Dr. Rosalie Powers, the on-site veterinarian. He decided that she was the kind of woman that men—straight men—would watch walk by on the street: striking, with her waves of chestnut hair and blue eyes. Since he was gay, he noted her allure, but it was lost on him.
“Mr. Shea, I––” the vet started.
“Jude,” he cut her off, yawning. “It’s too late, or early, I guess, for Mr. Shea.”
Dr. Powers’s smile was warm. “Well, Jude, let’s talk about your dog.”
He was told that his pet––the horse masquerading as a dog––was most likely a Newfoundland/husky or malamute mix. He had been viciously cut up and bitten, and it also looked like he had been struck hard by something. Dr. Powers thought perhaps he had been hit by a car, and then some other dogs had seen him, judged him incapacitated, and attacked him. Whatever the situation, he was lucky to be alive, and he was also a marvel of healing. The X-rays had yielded no broken bones, but his ribs were badly bruised. That he was already able to stand was amazing. He had drunk some water but was refusing to eat. She wanted to keep him overnight, but the problem was she didn’t think she could.
“How’dya mean?” Jude asked.
It was like Dr. Powers was almost embarrassed. “I don’t think even the big kennel will hold him. He’s just too big. I need to keep him in the wolf enclosure at the zoo or something.”
Wolf enclosure? How big was the dog really?
“So maybe you should just take him home, and I’ll give you the name of a vet, and Monday morning you can take him in just to have him looked at.”
Jude was surprised. “Are you serious?”
To show him that she was in no way kidding, the vet tech, Amy, cheerfully presented Jude with a bill for three hundred and twenty-two dollars and seventy-four cents. They were so not kidding.
“Wait!” He put up my hands. “I can’t have a dog. I have a one-bedroom apartment that’s like seven hundred square feet.”
“Lucky it’s a one-bedroom.” Amy smiled at him.
“Yes,” Dr. Powers agreed, “because that guy’s a monster.”
Dr. Powers grinned at him, nodding. “Congratulations, Mr. Shea. It’s a boy.”
“Wait,” he told her. “I seriously can’t have a dog.”
“Not a lot of people could accommodate a dog that big.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“No pets allowed in your building?” Dr. Powers asked.
“No, I just––”
Dr. Powers chuckled deeply. “Jude, I suggest you put an ad in the paper and try to find his owner. He’s in much too good shape to be a stray, and let’s face it, as big as he is, somebody’s missing him. A dog like that doesn’t just fall from the sky.”
Jude sighed deeply as an overwhelming sense of resignation came over him.
“Someone will come claim him, Jude, I promise you.”
But his luck didn’t work like that.
“Think about it this way. You’ll never have to worry about being robbed again. Who in their right mind would even try?” Dr. Powers reasoned.
He shot her a look.
Her laughter bubbled up out of her; the smile was huge. “I mean really, who in their right mind would rob a man who has a wolf?”
“He’s not a wolf,” he mumbled.
“No, he’s probably a cross between a Newfoundland or a Great Pyrenees and something else. Except for the shape of his ears and his muzzle, he looks like one of those to me. But his nose and the shape of his head suggest a sled dog. It might even seriously be wolf in there; I have no way of knowing. But he’s a huge dog. He weighs just over a hundred and twenty pounds, and it’s all muscle. There’s not an ounce of fat on him.”
“I have no space for a dog that big at this facility,” Dr. Powers said apologetically.
“I don’t either,” Jude assured her.
“Then I suggest you find his owner.”
“What if he tries to bite me?”
“If he tries to bite you, I wouldn’t worry about it.” Dr. Powers sighed deeply.
“Because Mr. Shea, if he goes after you, you’re going to die.”
Jude wondered vaguely if she was allowed to say those kinds of things to him. Wasn’t she supposed to be encouraging?
When Dr. Powers smacked him on the shoulder, he got that she understood that she could. Most people were quickly at ease with Jude, and the nice lady vet was proving to be no exception. Jude’s father always told him it was a gift, the warmth he radiated that drew people like bees to honey. Jude had never been fully convinced.
The dog had been resting in another room, but as they walked Jude toward the end of the hall, he saw that a crowd had gathered outside the door. The entire group was milling around, all trying to look through the small window into the room. Loud sounds of things crashing were coming from inside.
“What’s going on?” Dr. Powers yelled.
“That dog wants out,” one of the women called back.
Jude knew he had to get him out of there before he owed them redecoration expenses as well as just the bill for veterinary services.
He was allowed to the front of the crowd, and when he looked into the window found his “wolf” pacing back and forth in the tiny room. He looked formidable as he charged the door and banged it. Had it been other than metal, it would have come down already under his weight and the power he was exerting over it. On his feet with his teeth bared, lips pulled back, head down, ears flattened against the top of his head, he looked like he belonged in a nightmare or a horror movie. If his eyes glowed red, he would look just like a werewolf. The thought was not comforting. Jude turned sideways to look at the doctor.
Dr. Powers frowned deeply. “Okay, so in all seriousness, if he comes at you, we’re probably going to have to put him down. He’s much too big and dangerous for us to let you walk out of here with him if he can’t be controlled.”
“So you were kidding before.”
“I wasn’t kidding about him killing you if he decides he wants to, but I was kidding about letting you just take him home. I won’t actually allow you to put yourself in danger because you feel some compulsion to save his life. If he won’t respond to you, we’re going to euthanize him.” Looking back in the window at him and then across the room to the other door, Jude saw men on the other side waiting to enter. He heard a walkie-talkie chirp behind him as Dr. Powers told the men to wait to go in until Jude did.
“Okay, Jude.” She sighed, and he felt her hand on his shoulder. “Go in and see if your friend there realizes that you’re his guardian angel. My guys will go in at the exact same time. If he charges you, we’re going to tranquilize him.”
It was like a safari instead of the back of the animal shelter, Jude thought. “I bet you had no idea tonight when you came into work that the graveyard shift was going to be so eventful.”
She shrugged. “It’s always something here, but yeah, this has been memorable for sure.”
Jude coughed. “Just go in, huh?”
“You’re stalling.” Dr. Powers chuckled. “Now ready on three––in you go.”
Gulping in air, he opened the door. It took only a second for the dog to recognize him. His head lifted, the snarling stopped, and the aggressive stance relaxed. He even tipped his head sideways as he looked at Jude the way dogs did.
“Hey buddy.” Jude smiled at him, dropping down to one knee. “You remember me? I smell like someone you know?” Jude noticed that the dog’s eyes had no white on the edges; they were just black. It was a little weird. “You wanna come home with me?”
In response the animal moved fast. Had he wanted to hurt him, no dart from a gun would have saved Jude’s life. One moment the dog was across the room, the next second he was right in front of the man, inches from his face, easily able tear his throat out if that had been his desire. Jude remained frozen as the dog looked him over and then laughed when he ran his wet nose up under his chin, bumped his head up with his muzzle, and licked the base of his throat. Jude grabbed him, buried his hands in his coat, and stroked the silky fur. He was rough with his petting, and the whimper he got in response made him smile.
“Oh yeah,” Dr. Powers said, and when Jude looked up at her from the floor, he found her smiling. “He definitely remembers you.”
Jude buried his face in the dog’s neck, unable not to, and was pleased to find that his fur smelled like pine and freshly cut wood. “He smells great. Whatever you guys washed him with smells really good.”
“We didn’t bathe him.” She chuckled. “But I noticed that too. He smells wonderful, and that’s why I’m telling you: he belongs to someone. Don’t fall so in love with him that you don’t put an ad in the paper. Somebody’s missing him right now.”
He stood up, his hand still on his dog, stroking his silky head. “Not a chance. I will find this guy’s owner, believe me.” The dog lifted his nose into Jude’s hand and licked him before rubbing his ears against Jude’s palm.
“Aww,” Amy cooed as she stepped in beside the vet. “Look… he’s just crazy about you. He must know you saved him.”
Jude doubted that. “No, he’s just checking to see if I taste like chicken or beef.”
She giggled, and Jude pulled out his wallet and passed her his Visa.
“Ring him up.”