When the frigid stranger entered my inn, the thump of snow-dusted paws swallowed our greetings. The patchy tan and white coat barreling toward me could belong to only one canine: my precious Dublin.
“Burns, come’ere,” the man shouted from the door, but I was transfixed. I dropped to my knees, accepting enthusiastic tongue slaps on my face.
Those familiar snorts took me out of the hearth-warmed great room and hurtled me back two years ago. The last time I saw Dublin, he was running for his life…
“Sorry, ma’am,” the man said, pulling “his” dog and my memories away from me. “He doesn’t normally bombard people. Burns, you stinker, that’s no way to treat a lady.” He ruffled the dog’s neck fluff and patted between his perky ears.
Though I shook, I rose and smiled at the tall customer in his powder-coated gear. I couldn’t speak through the joy of seeing Dublin again. Screams and gunshots had marked the day I lost him, but here he was, dancing the moisture off his front paws.
The man pulled off his hat, revealing dark brown hair. He unzipped his jacket and cocked his head. “Are you alright? He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“N-no. I mean, yes, I’m fine. He just…looks like I dog I had.” I wiped at a corner of my eye, passing it off as brushing away a strand of auburn.
Dublin sat beside the man, panting while his tail swiped melting snow on the hardwoods. Not only was he alive and well, but I was also relieved he was there. It was both awkward and risky for a petite woman to operate an inn alone. Since I often shared the place with men, I kept one loaded firearm. I couldn’t bring myself to carry it during open hours.
The man set down his backpack and placed his outerwear on the bear-shaped peg by the front door. “Burns is pretty unique with that speckled coat. Maybe a Husky Aussie cross?”
“Maybe.” When I picked Dublin from the shelter, all I cared about was the faithful gleam in his eyes—loyalty I didn’t have to fear losing through a minor offense. For three blissful years, he was a stark contrast to my abysmal partner choices. “Have you, ah, had him long?”
The man hummed, his fingers brushing his pronounced jawline. “Must be around two years now. Found the poor guy wandering the woods, half-starved and injured…”
Wandering the woods. The rest of his words faded. It was definitely my beloved companion sitting before me, tongue lolled as if he knew the conversation was all about him. I wanted nothing more than to tell this stranger he found my dog, but Dublin stuck to the man’s side the same he had for me: as if a strong need tethered him there.
With the flecks of white whizzing past the windows and wind whistling through the shutters, the pair was going nowhere at least until tomorrow. I stared into Dublin’s mismatched eyes, sending him a silent apology. It was my fault I lost him.
“I’m rambling, aren’t I?” the man asked with a lopsided grin. “Do you even have a vacancy tonight?”
I rubbed my arm. “Yes. Take your pick of the two rooms upstairs. Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Tea would be great, thanks.”
When he turned and made his way up the stairs, my eyes followed the hitch in his gait. He favored his right leg until he turned out of sight, Dublin on his heels. I shook my head and went to the wet bar beside the hall. As I set the water to boil, I scanned the decor lining the walls and shelves of the great room, hand-picked from friendly local mountain markets.
Pine bark picture frames, deer sculptures, mason jar candles: this was my life now. I abandoned the fragile me—traded her in for a bolder version adapted to life in solitude. When the customers came, I provided shelter from the mountain storms, a hot meal, and they went on their way. Never close enough to do any physical or mental damage.
My eyes paused on my favorite picture, hanging between two snowy landscapes: me and Dublin on a riverbank. An old ache filled my chest.
I could tell the man, reclaim the friend I lost. Two years without my dog was punishment enough for my poor choices, wasn’t it? I was wiser. Never again would I be with a man who frightened me, even if it meant a solitary life in the mountains. Dublin would be happy here, just the two of us—
Heavy footfalls overhead startled me. They approached the top of the steps. I bit my lip. The squeaky landing prompted me to snatch the picture off the wall and lay it facedown on the side table. I returned to the steaming cup just as Dublin and the man moved toward me.
I smiled and held out the cup. “I have three different types of tea and some snacks if you want. We can get you checked in after you warm up. Breakfast is at seven.”
“Oh, wonderful,” he said, eyeing the cup as if it held tangible joy. “And I’m Colin, by the way.”
“I appreciate it, Lacey. You and your inn.”
I admired the way he paused before he selected his tea then unwrapped it like a delicate gift. Such gentle motion with those large hands. Dublin stayed on Colin’s right side, ping-ponging his gaze between us. I reached under the cabinet for my doggie treat stash.
“Here—” I stopped myself before I said “Dublin” and reached the brown bone toward an eager sniffer. “You said his name is Burns?”
The man cradled his cup, inhaling the steam through his nose. “Yep, and those are his favorite treats.”
I knew that, but I just smiled.
“Never had a more loyal dog, and I’ve had several. He came right when I needed him.”
A story hung behind Colin’s softened expression, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. “They can be a huge blessing.”
Dublin chomped his bone, chasing the crumbs before eating the bigger pieces as he always had. The sight squeezed my heart. I turned away.
“Did you, uh,” the man said, pausing. “Did you lose your pup recently?”
“No, it’s been a couple of years now. My boy, Dublin, was a lifesaver, too.”
“Dublin? Great name. What was he like?”
Talking about dogs melted the awkward like snowflakes touching water. I stuck to lighthearted tales of Dublin’s previous behavior, acting surprised when Colin echoed similar stories. We laughed by the fireplace while snow coated the mountain in glittering white.
I think I was dreaming about Dublin when I woke at two. Strong gusts blew a cedar branch against my window, the sound like a dog clawing to get in. I reached under my pillow where I kept my pistol. The tiny weapon conformed to my palm, but I vowed to use kindness instead of force unless my life was threatened.
Perhaps if I had my own gun back then, I could have protected Dublin and myself.
I left it in its place and turned over, facing the shadows leading to my door. Dublin had a new name, a new owner, and a new purpose. Colin’s posture—the way his tone lightened when he spoke to him—made me wistful and happy. They would both be asleep above me, comfortable in each other’s company. As much as I longed for similar companionship, I couldn’t bring myself to get another dog or put my heart at risk again.
I sighed and twisted out of my quilt. Once I found my slippers and robe, I headed toward the great room. From the blue hue reflecting in the windows, I guessed at least two feet of snow covered the outdoors. The wind knocked nearby trees together, the inn creaked, and…someone was humming.
I tilted my head, pausing at the end of the hall. Colin sat at the leather sofa, edge-lit by the few embers remaining in the fireplace. His head was tilted back. From the angle, I could just trace the shape of Dublin’s ears sticking up from his lap. They were both so content, my heart reached for them. Moving closer was risky, but I couldn’t get to a calming cup of tea without being seen. The soft tune Colin hummed took the tightness out of my shoulders. I knew the song, one from Sunday school nearly thirty years back.
A rhythmic whapping came from the sofa. Dublin’s tail. I should have known I couldn’t hide from a loyal old friend.
Colin turned his head to me. “Sorry, did I wake you?”
I shook my head, pulling my plush robe tighter. His placid tone beckoned me closer.
I said, “I don’t sleep well, so I sometimes get a cup of tea—”
He held up a cup and inclined his head. “Join me, fellow insomniac?”
Once I made my own herbal cup, I sat in the chair opposite the sofa. “Did the wind keep you up? I need to get the shutters outside that room tightened.”
“No, nothing like that. Storms, they, ah…” His hand went to rub his right leg. Dublin whined.
I bobbed my teabag in my cup. “It’s okay. Irrational anxiety is my normal.”
“Not that.” He took a long sip. “You must have seen me hobbling up the steps like a battle-worn ogre.”
It was a feat of willpower not to give a robotic chuckle at his attempted humor. I knew what it was like to play off serious situations with a lame joke. Until he continued, I stared at Dublin.
“A few months after I found Burns, I was in a climbing accident. Lost my foothold. The impact crushed my phone and my right leg.” He patted Dublin’s head, eyes turned away. “Had to have surgery and plates put in.”
“That sounds frightening.”
Silence claimed the room until Colin nodded. “But Burns, he saved me that day. Barked and howled until help arrived.”
My eyes misted, hidden by the dim wee hours. Dublin was a true savior, and not just to me. If I hadn’t lost him—
“If I never found this boy,” Colin said, “I could have died out there. It froze hard that night, and I would have been stuck.”
“You were very lucky to have him.”
My voice wavered, but Colin didn’t say anything. We let the whistling wind take over while we sipped our calming chamomile. I couldn’t claim Dublin now that I knew the bond they shared. Colin hadn’t made a stupid choice that put him in danger as I had.
Colin sighed hard. “It was my own dumb fault. A buddy tried to talk me out of climbing solo, but I thought I could do it. Pride made me part android.” He knocked on his leg.
My eyes snapped to the humor his. “You can joke about it?”
“Well, sure. Being depressed won’t fix my leg. May as well laugh about what an idiot I was for climbing alone.”
“But you weren’t alone.”
He laughed, patting Dublin’s back. “Guess that’s true. Something told me to take him along with me, and not just because he loves sniffing every shrub on the trail. Some hard lesson, eh?”
The tightness in my chest built to painful pressure. I blamed myself for losing Dublin, but I hadn’t moved past my mistake. Joking about it was no option. I never told anyone the full story of what happened that day. Maybe it was Colin’s calm aura or Dublin’s reassuring gaze, but it all tumbled out.
“My Dublin was like that. We were camping with my boyfriend at the time, and…at some point, an argument broke out. He got angry, raised his fist, but Dublin mangled his arm first. I was so scared—my God—I thought my ex shot him. He had his rifle, started chasing him into the trees, yelling. I screamed at Dublin to run—”
I hiccupped and let out a slow breath. Dublin hopped off the couch and trotted to me. I leaned over him, settling my face into his soft fur. Even if I couldn’t have him with me anymore, knowing he was alive and safe stitched the tear in my heart.
Just above a whisper, Colin said, “He did shoot him. In his back leg.”
I froze. Colin’s words from yesterday echoed back through my mind. “…half-starved and injured…”
Colin said, “You weren’t going to tell me, were you?”
He pointed at the wall behind my head. I gasped and turned. Colin had hung the picture of me and Dublin back in place as if he knew it belonged there.
I released Dublin and let a tear make its way down my cheek. “How could I have? He’s yours now, and you gave him a much better home than I did.”
Colin leaned over his knees. “Can’t blame yourself for someone else’s bad behavior. No man is justified to hurt a woman or an animal.”
“But I chose that man.” I wiped the tear away with the back of my hand. “I stayed with him when he scared me. Dublin never liked him, and I should have known—”
“Just like I should have known better than to climb alone. Punishing ourselves keeps us from writing a better future. Besides, you losing your dog indirectly saved my life.”
I nodded but said nothing.
“Burns—well, Dublin—was there for me while I healed. I turned reclusive until he reminded me he didn’t let his injury define him.”
I closed my eyes. For days after I lost him, I called and searched for Dublin. My poor boy had endured for days out in the wilderness with a bullet wound in his leg. Colin was every bit as much of a savior, and I wanted to repay him.
After a sip, Colin said, “I learned to climb again, but the weather and overexertion take their toll on the inner hardware. And now, your inn saved me from another dumb decision.”
My eyes had cleared enough to make out that lopsided grin. He believed every word he said and had no trouble admitting his flaws. His humility flowed over my uncertainty like the warm tea down my throat.
I said, “Let me guess, you went hiking despite the blizzard warning?”
He shrugged. “The peaceful mountains were calling. Good thing I have my furry little savior. Led me straight here.”
Dublin gave a small yip and turned in a circle, but my eyes were on Colin. I forced my attention back to my cup. “What do we do about our mutual friend and guardian?”
Colin placed his cup on the coffee table and stretched his arms overhead. “Well, looks like we may have a couple of days to figure that out.”
I smiled and nodded. “Maybe more than that.”
“Good thing I found this cozy inn with its kindly host. I hope you don’t mind us crashing here.”
Dublin rushed to Colin’s open arms. Colin scratched his ears, grinning wide. He mentioned nothing about missing a job or partner, and he wasn’t angry about the storm or frustrated about his decisions. Everything he needed, he had with him. Could I learn to emulate that brand of contentment—find the joy in my past pain—in fifty or so hours?
I smiled at the pair while willing the snow to continue. “Stay as long as you like.”