Erik Burke navigated the streets leading out of Boston easily, one hand on the wheel as he sang along with the upbeat Christmas song blasting from the big luxury car’s speakers. He couldn’t sing worth a damn, but he didn’t care. They’d won on the road against longtime rivals and now the Boston Marauders only had a couple of games at home and one short road trip before the Christmas break. The post-game media had stopped asking him about his sister falling for the opponent he’d dropped gloves with more times than he could count. Plus, they were in first place and he had the best left wing stats in their conference.
Throw in some holiday spirit and life was good. Sure, he was forcing the Christmas vibe a little. He was used to being alone, but this year he was even more lonely. But he wasn’t going to sit in his house and feel sorry for himself. He was going to be jolly, dammit.
A furry shadow flashed in his headlights and he jammed on the breaks, swerving to avoid hitting whatever it was. Heart hammering in his chest, he pulled over and put the car in park. He looked in his rearview mirror, hoping he hadn’t hit whatever it was. A raccoon, maybe.
It hadn’t looked like a raccoon, though. It looked like a dog. And little dogs that could be mistaken for small raccoons shouldn’t be out alone on a night like this.
“Shit.” He hit the button to turn on his four-way flashers and got out of the car. Then he whistled the way he’d heard people who had dogs whistle for them.
He stayed next to his open door, though, just in case it wasn’t a dog. But after a few seconds, he saw it coming toward him and it was definitely a dog. It was tiny and filthy and some of its fur was matted, but he was sure it was one of those breeds of dogs people usually pampered and bought fancy pillows for.
“What happened to you, little guy?” he asked as the dog got close enough for him to reach down and pick up. “Okay, so you’re not a little guy, then.”
She just whimpered as he cradled her in his arms, and licked his hand as she trembled hard enough to make the non-matted fur quiver.
He wasn’t sure what to do with her at this point, but he knew she was cold and he could at least solve that problem for her. After sliding back into his car, he pulled the door shut with his free hand before turning on the seat heater for the passenger seat.
Then he reached into the back seat and unzipped his hockey bag. After rummaging for a second, he pulled out a sweatshirt. “Okay, dog, this may not smell good, but it’s warm.”
After making a nest for her in the passenger seat, he set the little dog down. She didn’t seem to mind the smell. She pawed it at for a second and then turned around twice before nestling down in the soft fleece.
He rested his hand on her, feeling her tremble under his touch. “I think we need to have you checked out. You’re just a little peanut and it looks like you’ve been out here for a while.”
She lifted her head to lick his hand some more before burrowing into the sweatshirt and closing her eyes.
After using his phone to find the nearest animal hospital with an emergency room, he put on his seatbelt and put the car in gear. His passenger didn’t seem to mind—or even notice—when it started to move, but he kept an eye on her in case she got scared.
When he parked near the entrance of the animal hospital and shut the car off, the dog lifted her head, but didn’t look concerned. When he got out and closed his door, though, she sat up and watched him walk around the car with obvious anxiety. As he opened the passenger door, he could hear her crying, so he scooped her out of the sweatshirt and cuddled her against his chest.
The lights in the emergency clinic made him blink as he stepped up to the reception desk. There was a very young woman sitting behind it, and a woman he guessed was a vet by the white coat had her back to them, head bent as if she was reading something.
“Aw, poor baby.” The receptionist’s face softened as she looked at the dirty, shaking bundle of fur in his arms. “Somebody’s had a rough go.”
“I just finished up with a patient, so I’m available,” the doctor said, turning.
Even before he saw her face, her voice knocked him on his ass. That voice used to brighten his days, but now he only heard it in dreams that left him feeling sad and lonely.
Andrea Morgan was his one who got away and losing her was one of the very few regrets he had in his life. And by far the most painful.
“Andie,” he said, voice cracking. “You told me you were moving.”
It was a stupid thing to say but his mind seemed hung up on the fact she’d been in Boston the whole time.
“I was planning to, but then my sister told me she was pregnant and I didn’t want to be that far away from her.”
It was probably a good thing he had an armful of filthy, trembling dog because all he wanted to do was pull her into his arms, bury his hands in that mass of dark curls and kiss her until neither of them could breathe. But he’d lost the right to hold her a year ago when she asked for more from him and he couldn’t give her what she’d needed.
God, he’d missed her.
When she spoke, her voice and the coolness in her dark eyes killed any hope of a warm reunion. “What are you doing here?”
He blinked, trying to kick his brain back into gear. “I need a vet.”
“Do you know how many veterinary clinics there are in this city? What are you doing here?”
He realized she thought he’d chosen her specifically, so he shifted the dog in his arms so Andie could see her a little better. “I asked my phone for the nearest doggy emergency room and this was it.”
Her attention shifted to the dog and his stomach tightened as her face softened. She loved animals and at least he knew that no matter how much she hated him, she would take care of his scared little hitchhiker.