“Daniel.” His name trilled through the trees like birdsong. “I need you.”
He’d been dreaming of Tasha all night, sexy visions of threading his fingers into her silky black hair while she whispered her secrets to him in the dark of the night. Everything he wanted to know about her, every part of her he wanted to touch.
He pulled the covers higher, trying to sink deeper into his fantasies.
“Daniel.” He felt a hand on his shoulder, one that couldn’t possibly be part of a dream.
Opening his eyes, he found Tasha standing beside his bed wearing her overalls and another baseball cap, this one proclaiming her to be a T-Rex Whisperer.
Still half asleep, he nearly reached out to tumble her into bed with him, just like his dream, and rescue her from any big, bad T-rex chasing her—or let her rescue him. Oh yeah, he liked that idea. He might have done exactly that if he hadn’t finally processed the worried expression on her face.
“I’m so sorry to barge into your house like this,” she said. “But I yelled and yelled. Then I noticed your door was unlocked. Honestly, I would never do anything like this except…” She bit her lip, looking so damn kissable. “I really need your help.”
The fear in her voice brought him fully awake. He shoved back the covers to bound out of bed, when he remembered at the last second that he not only had nothing on, but also his fantasies about Tasha meant she’d be getting a serious eyeful.
“Sorry,” she said again, her eyes huge as she took in his bare chest and hips and the happy trail that continued beneath the corner of the sheet he’d managed to keep over himself. “I wasn’t thinking. I just needed your help. But I should have thought you’d be…undressed.” She flushed a deep rose, then spun on her heel, putting her back to him. “I’ll wait downstairs.”
Sixty seconds later, he was jogging down the stairs, jeans and boots on, buttoning his flannel shirt. “What’s wrong?”
“I was hiking when I found puppies.” Of everything he’d thought she’d say, puppies was nowhere on the list. “I heard something crying, and once I figured out where it was coming from, I shone the small flashlight I always carry with me into the little cave, but there was no way I could get to them. I counted three, their little eyes blinking and open mouths wailing at me. I didn’t see the mother anywhere. If we don’t get them out…” She swallowed hard, and he could see her fears bubbling up. “We have to get them out, Daniel.”
“We will.” Without seeing the cave, he had no idea how difficult it would be, but he’d move heaven and earth to erase that scared look from Tasha’s eyes. “We’ll need a strong flashlight and a shovel,” he said, thinking out loud.
“And towels, so we can wrap them up to keep them warm. There’s still snow on the ground up there.”
After quickly grabbing everything, they headed out, with Tasha running up the mountain to the ridge behind her cabin. She didn’t pant at the pace she’d set, pushing through brambles without a thought for the scratches they left on her arms, dodging tree trunks that got in her way, leaping over fallen logs. She didn’t falter even as five minutes turned to ten of full-out, uphill sprinting.
Suddenly, she dropped to her knees before a jumble of fallen logs. “Here they are.” She tossed aside the towel and handed him the flashlight.
He heard the cries, a series of pitiful mewls emanating from a hole dug out beneath the branches. Lying on his side, he shone the light. Three sets of eyes glittered in the beam.
The creatures were quiet a moment, blinking at him, until they all opened their mouths at once in a cacophony of pathetic puppy howls. He could make out black muzzles and tan bodies.
“I’ll see if I can reach them.” Unfortunately, the moment he reached in, the poor things shrieked in terror and huddled deeper into the small cavern. He glanced back over his shoulder. “We can probably move the logs to get them out.”
“I tried.” Her hands were stained with dirt, her nails torn, her face streaked with sweat. Amazingly, she was more beautiful than ever. “We have to do something. They probably haven’t eaten. They could be starving.”
Daniel strained to move the logs, but she was right. Time and the elements had turned the mud between the logs into mortar, creating a perfect home for rabbits and other wild things.
Meanwhile, Tasha hadn’t wasted any time grabbing the shovel and climbing over the tangle of rotting wood to start digging. He recognized a spark in her that reminded him of his mother—that selflessness, that willingness to run as fast and as far as she could for some poor, trapped animals. Their cries had brought tears to her eyes.
He wanted to take the shovel from her, but Tasha’s generosity wasn’t the only thing he identified. His mother had never been afraid of hard work. She’d never categorized tasks as men’s work versus women’s work. She’d always expected everyone to pitch in, whether they were cleaning toilets, cooking dinner, or chopping wood.
Bumps. The word came at him, a word he’d been deliberately ignoring since yesterday’s conversation with his mother. Every relationship has its bumps, even if no one but the couple ever knows about them.
Daniel shook his mother’s words out of his head—he didn’t have time to start analyzing her strange comments again. Not now. The important thing was helping Tasha rescue the puppies.
He moved to the other side of the logs, taking the towels with him. “I’ll stand over here in case they hear the noise and get scared enough to run out this way.” He wanted to do the digging for her, but she was so intense, so fierce, he realized she needed to do it herself.
“Good idea,” Tasha said, slamming the spade into the earth. “I wonder if they were abandoned by their owners. Or brought up here from the city and dumped.”
“Who would do that?” Daniel asked, even though he knew full well how evil people could be. “Drop off puppies in the wilderness just because you don’t want to take them to an animal shelter?”
The look she leveled on him was pained. “People can be thoughtless and cruel.” She turned back to dig with renewed vigor, until she finally said, “I think I’ve got it!” The hole was now wide enough for her to lie on the ground and wriggle her arm and most of her torso inside. “I can see the light shining through,” she called to him. “Can you reach them?”
“They’re coming back your way.” His voice echoed between them over the puppies’ increasingly frantic mewls.
“Okay, I can just about reach one of them.” Her side of the hole darkened. “Yes, yes, I’ve got him!” Triumph sparkled through her voice.
Daniel reached for another that had been backing away from Tasha’s questing hand, locked onto its soft scruff, and pulled it out. The poor little mite cried, but didn’t squirm, as though it didn’t have enough energy to put up a fight. “I’ve got another one,” he called to her over the tangle of logs.
“They’re so skinny. And weak. And cold.” She sounded utterly heartbroken as she curled the towel around the small, shivering bundle in her arms.
“Take this one too, and I’ll try to get the last one out.”
She carefully bundled both puppies together in the towel, holding them against her chest. “It’s okay, little ones,” she crooned. “You’re going to be okay. We’ll take care of you. We won’t let anything happen to you.”
She hadn’t wanted his tools or his help to fix her house, but she was willing to beg him to save these poor little puppies. Put some helpless animals in front of her, and she threw everything aside to rescue them.
He squirmed as far into the hole as he could, but the last puppy backed in the opposite direction, terrified of the big intruder. “I can’t do it without you,” he called through the hole.
“Let me set these two little ones down. I don’t think they’re going to run away. They seem too exhausted.”
A moment later, her flashlight beamed against the dirt walls and floated across the tiny body huddled between them. It cried in terror, backing away from Tasha’s searching fingers…and right into Daniel’s waiting grip.
He dug into the scruff and pulled the little guy out. “Got it.”
“Let’s make a burrito-style wrap for them,” Tasha suggested. With the dogs safely wrapped, she cuddled them close. “Look at them. They can’t stop trembling.”
She swiped at her face, and Daniel realized it wasn’t dirt she was wiping away but tears. Her mouth wobbly, she looked at him with damp, brilliantly blue eyes.
“Thank you. I couldn’t have gotten them out on my own. They might have died in there.”
“They’re going to be fine.” He touched her cheek, drying the last streak of a tear, his heart feeling too big in his chest as he gazed down at her. “And you don’t need to thank me. We work well together.”
She nodded, then leaned into him for a brief second. “Everything’s going to be okay now,” she whispered.
He couldn’t help but wonder—was she talking to the puppies?
Or was she trying to convince herself that everything was going to be okay in her life too?
* * *
While Daniel canvassed their neighbors about the puppies’ missing mother, then took a trip into town for dog food, Tasha fashioned a crate for them out of the carton her mini-fridge had come in.
Daniel had wanted to take the puppies to his house, but she couldn’t stand the thought of letting them out of her sight until she knew they were well again. “You’ve got too much space for them to scamper around in. I’m afraid they’ll get lost.”
“You’ve got holes in your floor they could fall through,” he pointed out.
“Not anymore. I fixed them all once I had your drill bit.”
She didn’t mean to be a pain in the butt after everything he’d done to help her—but she couldn’t afford to be traipsing down to Daniel’s place to see the puppies. She would end up spending all her time down there, and that would create an impossible situation.
Especially after that spectacular view of him in his bedroom. Her face still burned with embarrassment at the memory, but her heart was also beating deliriously fast. His naked chest, all those muscles, that arrow of hair disappearing down into the sheets.
Oh yes, everything got hot remembering that.
All the more reason she simply couldn’t be flitting down to see the puppies. These little creatures were all that mattered, not her forbidden thoughts about what Daniel looked like naked under his sheet.
When she and Daniel had brought the puppies into the cabin, they hadn’t run around investigating the way normal animals would have. Half starved and still shivering, they’d barely moved at all. After drinking some water, they’d fallen asleep in the makeshift crate, wrapped up in a bed of clean shop rags and hand towels.
Tossing her ball cap, which had become filthy with all the digging and crawling, Tasha sat cross-legged on the floor, her arm draped over the side of the box. “Don’t worry, we’ve got food on the way, and you’re going to be just fine. I won’t let anything happen to you.” She stroked each head in turn, giving comfort and warmth.
“Puppy Chow,” Daniel said from the open doorway. Seeing that the puppies were sleeping, he lowered his voice to a loud whisper as he sauntered in to set a large bag of dog food on the kitchen counter. “How are they doing?” He knelt beside her.
She couldn’t have rescued the puppies without him. And he hadn’t been the slightest bit annoyed over the work time he’d lost. He’d even rushed all the way to town for food and seen whether anyone in the neighborhood knew about a pregnant dog that matched the puppies’ description.
What better knight in shining armor could a girl—or three little puppies—ask for?
“They don’t even have the energy to move or stay awake.” Her voice quavered with worry. “Are you sure we should give them regular puppy food to start? What if they can’t digest it?”
“Let’s try it once they wake up, then we can see how they do and adjust from there. I called the local vet for an appointment, but they’re completely slammed today, and unless we want to drive an hour into Carson City, the earliest they can see them is tomorrow.”
The runt of the litter whined and snorted, as if its tummy was rumbling even as it slept. Daniel reached in to soothe the little one with a stroke over its furry body.
He was good with animals. With women too, she guessed, certain he must have an amazing girlfriend, or else a string of beautiful women he could be with any time he liked.
“I’m so glad you know what you’re doing.” She was wistful. “I had a cat once when I was a kid, but I couldn’t keep it.”
“My family moved so much that it wasn’t practical to have an animal.”
That was the excuse her father always gave. Now she knew the truth—he couldn’t run as fast with an animal in tow. She was surprised he’d ever had kids. Odds were, she suddenly thought, that she and Drew had been mistakes. She couldn’t remember her mother, who’d died of a ruptured appendix when Tasha was only three. Would they have stayed in one place longer and had a real home if her mother hadn’t died? And had her mother known that her husband was crooked?
Tasha tamped down her bitter thoughts. “What about you?”
“No pets. My parents could barely afford to feed all the kids they took in.”
“Oh wow. I had no idea—” She squashed the insensitive words.
“I wasn’t born with money,” he said, answering the question she had no business asking. “Far from it.”
“Your parents sound wonderful.” While her father had been swindling money out of as many people as he could, Daniel’s parents had been busy taking in foster kids even though they didn’t have enough themselves.
He continued to stroke the puppies. “Yeah. They’re amazing.”
It was how she used to feel about her family. And how she would never feel again. At least not for her father. If only she knew how involved Drew had been. Had he been a reluctant partner? Had their father threatened him with something?
She realized Daniel was staring into space, frowning, as though amazing was only part of his mother and father’s story. She couldn’t help but wonder about the things he wasn’t telling her. Not that he owed her any explanations, of course, especially given that she wasn’t about to offer any information about herself.
“Why’d you move so much?” Daniel asked.
The question jolted her yet again. “My father’s job.”
“Was he in the military?”
“Investments.” Hating herself for leaving off the word fraudulent, she quickly changed the subject. “Did you find out anything about the puppies’ mother from the neighbors?”
Though he raised an eyebrow at her quick conversational shift, he answered, “No missing pregnant dogs and no one’s seen one wandering around. Not even a stray.”
“Something must have happened to her. A mother would never leave her babies alone and unprotected like that.” Though her father certainly hadn’t protected Tasha or her brother, had he? “We’ll just have to figure out how to feed them.” She jumped up to grab her laptop. “There’s got to be some information online that will help.”
At that moment, the fattest guy in the bunch—which wasn’t saying much since they were all clearly malnourished—woke and started to howl.
Daniel picked him up, cradling him in his muscled arms. It was enough to make her heart turn over. “Time to fill that belly of yours.” He scratched the puppy’s tummy until it quieted into soft snuffles and snorts, falling completely under his spell.
As Tasha watched them together, she realized that the puppy wasn’t the only one who had lost his heart to the gorgeous, and very sweet, billionaire.