A STIFF northern wind blew, sending a shiver to race down Colt Burrow’s spine. He drew his coat tighter around him, put his head down, and quickened his steps. After spending the first twenty-eight years of his life in Texas, he was sure there was no chance in hell he’d ever get used to Michigan’s bitterly cold winters. This was the third year in a row dealing with the frigid season, and it hurt his face, stole his breath, and tightened his muscles just as painfully as the first one. It might be stunning to see, especially when the sun glinted off new-fallen snow, but Colt was beginning to think he’d prefer to have a nice photo of such beauty rather than actually having to endure it. Why? Why would anyone want to live somewhere where going outside hurt his or her face? It was nuts! Yet here he was, so….
After his five-year relationship with Frank ended, Colt was reminded of his failures every time he’d run into Frank—one of the major drawbacks of living in a small town. It might not have been so bad if Frank had been as miserable as Colt was. However, within a couple of weeks after Frank had packed his bags and walked out on Colt with no explanation, Frank had moved on. Seeing him laughing and chatting with his new man had simply been too much for Colt to handle. That same night, he’d sent out his résumé, and within a month, he was Dow’s newest chemical engineer and living in Midland, Michigan.
“In bitterly cold Midland, Michigan,” he clarified.
At the corner, he looked both ways—the coast clear—and ran across the road. Salty slush soaked his shoes and splashed on his pants. Colt cursed under his breath. Everything seemed to irritate him as of late, and not just the crappy weather. All the fuss of the holiday irked him, especially all the bright lights and colorful decorations. He rolled his eyes as he passed his neighbor’s house. It was a small ranch; did they seriously need to deck the halls over every square inch? The interior was probably just as ridiculously decorated. Trudging up the snow-covered walkway to his dark house, he pulled his keys from his pocket, unlocked the deadbolt, and stepped inside. A warm blast of air hit him, and he quickly shut the door and leaned against it. He blew out a heavy breath, relieved to be hidden within his house and able to shut out the world. In his current mood, he wasn’t able to deal with people or the holiday or… the world. The real kicker was, he didn’t understand why he was so cranky. He’d always loved the holiday season. It had been a special time of year when he was growing up. His mom and dad never believed in the commercialization of it, so there was no emphasis on Santa Claus or going in debt to stack an absurd amount of gifts beneath the tree. Nor were they overly religious, but they truly believed in the giving spirit of the season and instilled it in Colt and his younger brother, Shane. Doing for others was the true joy of Christmas.
It shouldn’t matter that there were no presents under the tree; he hadn’t even put one up. Not so much as a single colorful bulb lit up his house—there were no decorations at all, in fact. He knew all too well the power of giving and should focus on that, but he just wasn’t feeling it this year. Hell, he hadn’t enjoyed the past two Christmases either. There was something painfully sad about spending the holidays alone. He knew he was being selfish, concentrating on himself rather than others, but dammit, he missed his friends, his family, the warm weather, and salt- and slush-free streets.
Pushing away from the door, Colt shrugged out of his coat and hung it on the hook. He bent and untied his shoes, wrinkling his nose at the mess on his pants and rug. As he straightened, he shook his head at himself. He’d ruined a perfectly good pair of shoes and nearly frozen his butt off for some damn cigarettes. “What an idiot.” He kicked off his shoes, then retrieved the pack from his coat pocket. He wasn’t about to waste them now, considering all the trouble he’d gone through to get them—addict’s logic.
After changing into a pair of flannel lounge pants, T-shirt, warm sweater, and dry socks, Colt set a pot of coffee to brew. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the counter to wait. He kept glancing at the carafe every couple of seconds. It seemed to be especially slow tonight. The coffee maker was mocking him. “Stupid thing, you mind hurrying it up?”
Good God, you’re scowling and cursing at a machine. He’d officially lost control. Colt snatched his cigarettes and lighter from the island. At the back door, he pulled on his yard boots and stepped out onto the covered deck. He put a cig between his lips, lit up, and took a long pull, allowing the flow of nicotine to work its magic. He took another hit and blew it out slowly, watching as the wind swept the smoke away. If only his foul mood could be taken care of so easily.
Maybe it was time to give up his foolish pride and go back home. It had been three years. He no longer cared if Frank was happily screwing every man in town. Hell, he didn’t care about Frank, period. So why should he stay away from his friends and family another Christmas? He continued his nicotine fix as he weighed the pros and cons. Yes, he missed his family and friends, but he was determined to make it here. He loved his job and really liked the people he worked with. He’d recently been promoted to project manager, and if he left now, he’d let his team down. He hated the winter weather, but Texas summers weren’t any picnic either. He also had his house to think about. Two years of blood, sweat, and tears to turn a neglected 1950s dump into a warm and cozy place. He loved his house, the neighborhood, and the town.
By the time Colt finished his smoke, he was shivering so badly he could barely stub it out and toss it in the can. Worse, he hadn’t found any answers to his questions, but hey, his nicotine level was better. He laughed at his stupidity and had turned to head back inside when movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. It had to be his neighbor’s cat; the thing was constantly escaping. The silly feline had made a bad choice running out tonight. The temperature was going to plummet well below zero with the wind chill by morning. Colt had better try to catch it.
“Blue? Is that you? C’mere, kitty, kitty.”
He moved down to the end of the deck where he’d seen the movement and got a shock. It wasn’t Blue he’d discovered but a small reddish-brown dog—possibly a Jack Russell or Rat Terrier—with big ears and a silver collar, shivering behind the grill.
Colt squatted down. “Hey, little one. Where did you come from?” The dog looked at him with big, soulful brown eyes. With the frigid night, he wasn’t sure if the pup was shaking from cold or fright. Colt didn’t make any sudden movements and kept his voice calm and soothing.
“It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” He slowly held out his hand. The dog flinched but didn’t run away. Colt carefully moved his hand closer until the dog could sniff it. “That’s it. See, I’m not a bad guy. Not like the idiot who let you out to run free on a night like this.”
The dog licked Colt’s hand as if it agreed with him. Colt petted the dog’s head, then scratched behind its ears. “How about we head inside, and you let me check out that tag on your collar. What do you say?”
The dog tilted its head like it was trying to figure out what Colt was saying.
“Yes, I talk to coffeepots and dogs. I’m weird that way.”
A shiver raced through Colt, and his teeth began to chatter. The dog wasn’t the only one shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. He carefully slid his hand down and scooped the dog up. It weighed about twenty pounds and fit perfectly in Colt’s arms. Colt wrapped the cold and snow-covered dog inside his sweater and hurried back inside the house. He retrieved two towels from the bathroom, then took them and the dog to the couch. He used the first one to dry him—yes, he checked, and the pup was a definitely a boy—then wrapped a second one around him. Apparently the little guy wasn’t afraid of people, because he didn’t try to fight Colt in any way, and the instant he was dry, he snuggled into Colt’s arms and fell asleep. Colt took the opportunity to check the dog’s tag. One side was so badly scratched he couldn’t make out the engraving. On the other side, he could clearly make out the one word, Roger.
“Seriously? What kind of person named a dog Roger?” Colt petted the little guy’s head. “Not only do you have an irresponsible owner, but they have no finesse for names.” Roger blinked at him, yawned big, then went back to sleep.
Colt set Roger down on the cushion next to him. He pulled the blanket off the back of the couch and rolled it up into a makeshift doggie bed, surrounding Roger and tucking him in. Then Colt got to his feet. He headed to the kitchen and poured a steaming mug of coffee. A chill rippled through him and he nearly dropped the carafe. He’d been so focused on getting Roger warm and dry, Colt had forgotten his shirt had gotten wet. He set the pot down and pulled off his T-shirt and sweater. He made a quick trip to the bedroom to grab some dry clothes as well as his cell phone, and on the way back he picked up his coffee. Colt then settled once again on the couch next to Roger. Roger opened his eyes briefly before burying his nose beneath his paw and going back to sleep. The poor little guy was exhausted.
“I know how you feel.” It was sad, really. Seven o’clock on a Saturday night and Colt was ready for bed. Hopefully, a little caffeine would wake him up. He took a sip and then another while he fired up his cell phone. Allowing his coffee to work its magic, he checked his emails, then decided to log on to Facebook to see if he could find anyone looking for a lost pet. He hit the icon and waited for it to load. Rather than his page, a box flashed on the screen.
You’ve been reported for inappropriate content. Your Facebook access is denied for the next twenty-four hours.
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me. Facebook jail? Seriously?”
Colt tried to recall what he could have posted that the Facebook police deemed inappropriate. He swiped the screen, and the tagged photo popped up. It was a picture of two rodeo cowboys, fully dressed, standing next to a corral, holding hands. The caption read, “Cowboys ride hard and love even harder.” There wasn’t a damn thing inappropriate about it. All Colt had wanted to do was a search for the owner of a little lost dog, but apparently, some homophobic asshole had not only blocked him from doing so but also succeeded in pissing him off. He angrily closed the app and tossed the cell on the side table.
“Sorry, Roger, I tried.”
Colt wasn’t sure what else he could do to help Roger find his owner tonight. Tomorrow he’d ask around the neighborhood and see if anyone recognized the little guy and knew where he belonged. The rest of the evening, they’d just have to snuggle in and keep warm. Colt picked up the remote from the coffee table and clicked on the TV. He spent some time channel-surfing before he finally settled on a rerun of Friends. An hour of TV and the second cup of coffee did little to combat Colt’s exhaustion. Being cranky was really quite tiring. Soon enough he was drifting off to sleep with a content Roger curled up against his side.