Three Dog Night (known affectionately as 3dog) was the original first book in the Sheltered Hearts series, but after I had the idea for Second Chances, I decided to slate it as “officially” #2 even though Second Chances is a holiday novella/prequel of sorts.
Anyhow–this book tried to kill me. I started it in January 2017…got 50k, got stuck, got angry–and then rage-quit. I ended up spending the entire year picking at it, re-outlining, re-working things…and finally, in January 2018 I was like OK I NEED TO FINISH IT ONCE AND FOR ALL. And one long month later, 3dog was DONE.
This is my next upcoming release (shooting for sometime in early June depending on edits) and is 90k. It seemed to me like I put my boys through the ringer, but I hope it was worth it 😉 So I figured I’d leave you guys an excerpt — the entire Chapter 1 (unedited, so apologies in advance for typos/etc) 🙂 Enjoy!
Runner shrieked, her maw opened wide in an ear-piercing sound that wasn’t quite bark but not quite howl either. She weaved around Kit Greyson’s sleep-numbed legs as he stumbled down the hall at half-past five in the morning. Kit groaned and rubbed grit from his eyes while trying to keep from tripping over the overly-excited Siberian husky in her mad dash to go outside.
She was like a kid on Christmas morning when it came to going out in the cold. Her fluffy tail wagged so fast it was just a blur of white behind her. Her claws skittered over the worn hardwood floorboards.
“I’m coming, hold your damn horses,” Kit uttered as he bent down and reached for her. Two fingers looped under her thick leather collar to hold her back while she strained and scratched at the door frame.
He flipped the deadbolt and swung the door wide, nearly clipping Runner in the muzzle in the process. She didn’t seem to notice. She let loose a sound only a joyful husky could make and bolted out into the damp and icy landscape that was his front yard.
Kit made a face. Sleet. Great. Just what they needed. He didn’t mind snow; hell, he enjoyed it. Snow meant he could harness the dogs up and go for a much-needed run out on the trails. Snow meant chucking snowballs and watching as the dogs went crazy to find the ball. Snow meant skijoring every afternoon when the temperatures rose.
Sleet on the other hand? Sleet was an icy, wet ball of bullshit—and before Thanksgiving? No thanks.
Outside in the kennels, his other six dogs howled and bayed, carrying on like background singers in a terrible chorus. Runner sprinted up and down the fence line, barking in that same sharp tone. They knew breakfast was coming. Kit wished it didn’t have to be before the ass crack of dawn, but he’d been woken up far too many times by their mournful cries whenever he attempted to sleep in. Now it was routine.
As routine as it would get for five-thirty AM, anyway.
He shut the door to seal out the cold and turned back down the hall. He frowned. “Surrey? Kibbles!” Surrey was his old man. The dog that started his rampant sled-dog obsession seven years ago. He hadn’t really been in the market for a dog, being nineteen and living in a tiny apartment with his then-girlfriend at the time, but when Gran rang him up, desperate for his help, he couldn’t say no.
The Owen Family farm, though it was more of a mini-farm anymore, now that Theo had passed, was the place where people dumped their unwanted pets. Dogs and cats alike showed up on the farm, even a potbellied pig or two. Gran—which was what most people who’d lived in Sundog Park for any decent amount of time called sweet old Ellie Owen—was well-loved in the community.
Unfortunately, everyone who knew her knew that the stubborn old woman had a heart of gold and wouldn’t turn away an animal in need. It was like her barn had a blazing, hot pink neon sign that lit up the town like a banner that said “All strays welcome!” She tried to find them good homes, but most of the time she ended up keeping them.
Surrey was the exception. A large, broad-chested mutt of unknown origin, though his coloration and the ice-blue of his eyes told of his husky heritage, he was way too much dog for a little old lady to handle. When Kit had gone to meet him, it’d taken a pocket full of sliced hot dogs to get the wary dog to come near enough to touch. Gran had confessed that he’d killed several of her cats and that no chain could hold him. He was a wild child with too much energy and no interest in human contact. The type of dog a guy like Kit didn’t need.
Except, Surrey had turned out to be exactly what he didn’t know he needed. His beacon of light on some of his darkest days.
Things were better now. He’d gotten through rough waters and deep depression with Surrey at his side. His old pup was gray around the muzzle and walked with a stiffness to his hindquarters that he’d never shown before. Kit dreaded the day he’d have to make the choice to let Surrey go. That was part of the reason he’d decided to breed his lead dog Pandora last spring and keep a pup. To carry on Surrey’s legacy, if only in spirit.
Nails clicked across the hardwood as Surrey made his way carefully across the slick flooring, like he was afraid he might slip and hurt himself. It was only a few months ago that he was giving Runner a run for her money in energy, but looking at him now, it kind of hurt.
“All right there, buddy?” Kit reached out a hand. Surrey whuffed hot breath into his palm before licking it. He ruffled the dog’s ears. “Come on, let’s go serve breakfast.”
The two of them marched down the icy porch steps and across the hardened earth. Runner came sprinting up and made a flying leap at Kit’s face, bouncing straight up in the air before racing away again. She kicked up slush in her wake. Surrey grumbled and shook out his wet fur.
Huskies were runners by nature, high spirited and sweet but a bit dumb at times. When it came to running, they were directional idiots and if left to roam, they’d end up two towns over and have no clue how they got there, or how to get home. Thankfully, Runner and Surrey both did well with the in-ground electric fence Kit had installed when Runner was nothing more than a tiny white ball of fluff.
The rest of the gang, however, he kept kenneled or leashed when they weren’t working. He’d learned his lesson after Jericho got out and ended up twenty miles south of Sundog Park. The only reason he’d gotten him back was because he’d been struck by a car and taken to the local vet, who’d called the number on Jericho’s tags. Seven hundred dollars later, he made sure his dogs were well contained.
The pack of dogs started yipping with excitement when they saw Kit coming their way. He greeted them at the chain-link fencing, sliding his fingers through the grates when he passed the runs. They held two dogs each and they were separated by who got along with who.
He pushed through the door to the connected outbuilding, which was split down the middle. One side belonged to the dogs and their equipment, their sleds and carts lined up and their harnesses hanging on the wall. The other side was heated. His workshop. The place where he often escaped to, to turn up some tunes and make magic with saws and electric sanders.
Runner ran laps around Surrey, nudging him with her pointy muzzle and barking sharply in his ear. Kit chuckled to himself. She was like a little kid, begging for attention from a grumpy sibling and by the look on Surrey’s face, grumpy was an understatement.
“Runner. Knock it off, girlfriend,” he warned, swatting her away. She leapt to the side and shimmied out of his reach. Catch me if you can. Still one hundred percent oversized puppy.
He opened the large plastic tub that housed their dog food and scooped out heaping piles of kibble for each metal dish. He went from cage to cage, cuddling his pups before setting their food bowls down and they ate up the attention, just like always.
One minute he was bent down, greeting his two swing dogs as they smothered his face in doggy breath kisses and the next, all he could hear was the snarls and snapping shrieks of a dog fight. He jerked upright and instinctively spun towards Pandora’s run. He loved her to death, but she was a domineering bitch. But today, she wasn’t the culprit.
When he turned, his stomach plummeted.
“Surrey!” His voice boomed through the outbuilding and echoed off metal beams. Surrey had Runner pinned, his large jaws clamped around her throat while she thrashed beneath him, kicking up her hind legs into his belly. “Hey!” He slammed the kennel gate shut, rattling it with a clank as the latch dropped, and ran over to the fighting dogs.
Surrey’s lips were peeled back away from his teeth, yellowed from age. He swung cold blue eyes on Kit when he approached, releasing Runner only to snap at the hand that fed him. Kit’s breath clogged in his throat, but he grabbed a handful of scruff and yanked the bigger dog off of his pup. Runner scurried out of the way with a whimper, her tail tucked tight between her legs.
Surrey twisted around, fast as lightning, and before Kit could gather his wits enough to react, sharp teeth sank into the meat of his hand. He hissed and hauled all eighty pounds of sled dog off the ground, twisting his arm so that Surrey could only bite at the air. His wide jaws clicked over nothing. “No.”
Kit shook him lightly, then eased him to the ground. It only took two blinks for Surrey’s hard eyes to go soft and confused. He stumbled back away from Kit, shaking his head. Runner whined and pressed herself against the back of Kit’s legs, her triangular ears folded back and her body pressed low to the ground.
Surrey licked his lips, then looked at him with an almost guilty expression on his face. That’s when Kit noticed the droplets of blood staining the cement floor at the big dog’s feet. He checked his hand, but his jacket had soaked up the blood there, which meant it was one of the dogs.
“Damn it. Come here, Runner.” He went to her first to look her over, but there was no red staining her pure white coat. He grabbed hold of her collar and penned her up in the extra run, then went back to Surrey. The dog was favoring a front paw.
“What’s wrong with you, old boy?” he murmured, feeling him over. His hand came away sticky and he found a deep gash on his chest, the fur and skin peeled away in a small flap. His rusty black coat hid the wound, but it was deep enough to need stitches. Damn it.
By the look of his own hand, he needed them too and he really couldn’t afford another emergency room visit. He was still paying off the last one. He grabbed a slip leash off the hook near the pens and looped it around Surrey’s neck. He gave Runner her bowl of kibble and closed the gate.
“I’ll be back,” he promised. Wrapping his hand best he could with a clean rag, he took Surrey back up to the house.
Kit’s heart ached fiercer than the throbbing of his new wound when Surrey limped all the way back, stumbling and slipping on the last icy step of the porch with a low whine. He went back to his bedroom and grabbed his cell phone off the charger to flip through his contacts. Finding his cousin’s name on his favorites list, he tapped the green call button and waited.
Luckily for him, Jory was a workaholic and he answered on the second ring, sounding far too cheery for not quite six AM. “Hey there, Kit. You’re up early. Don’t tell me Pandora nailed another one. She’s running out of possible kennel partners. Before too long, you’re gonna have to keep her by herself.”
Kit groaned. “Not Pandora this time. Shocking, I know.” This wasn’t the first time he’d called his cousin in an emergency. “Runner and Surrey got into it. I don’t know if it was over some spilled kibble or if she pushed him too far, but he’s gonna need stitches.” He sucked in a breath and his voice dropped low, almost afraid that Surrey might overhear him. “Damn, I really don’t want to have to think about putting him down…”
“I’m sorry, cuz.” Jory’s voice was tinged with sincerity. He knew Kit better than anyone else, even his own parents. He got it, that connection with his dogs. It was why Jory had worked his ass off in high school, taking honors classes and getting top marks so he could get in to one of the best veterinarian schools in the states.
“I’m at the office, if you wanna bring Surrey by. I can patch him up and give him a general look-over while I’m at it. It might just be a touch of arthritis making him cranky. You know how Gran always complains of her old bones aching when the weather gets crappy like this. I’ll leave the back door unlocked, so just walk on in.”
“Thanks, Jor. You’re a life saver.”
He could practically hear the grin in his cousin’s voice. “Anytime. You know I love that grumpy old mutt of yours.”
Kit chuckled. “Me too. Be there in a bit.”
Snatching his wallet and keys off the kitchen counter, he took Surrey out the front door and led him out to his truck. He steadied the old dog with one hand and looped an arm around his barrel, hoisting him up into his arms as gently as he could. Surrey whined when Kit placed him in the front seat and shut the door.
Going around to the driver’s side, he buckled in and twisted the key in the ignition. Surrey wagged his tail in a steady thump-thump against the upholstered seat. “Just gonna go on a little drive, big guy,” he promised. He cranked his windshield wipers up, the sky still drizzling. “Get you all patched up.”
For some reason, Surrey didn’t look convinced.
Sundog Park Veterinary Hospital had started off as a quaint but homey white house with blue shutters that Doc Jones had bought years ago. He later converted it into a vet’s office when his practice took off, deciding to invest in a bigger place to call home when his family began to grow.
Since then, the place had expanded and the sweet but stern Doc Jones had retired last year, leaving the business in Jory’s capable hands. He and his wife became official snowbirds, living large in sunny Florida for the coldest months of the year, and they couldn’t be happier.
Jory was the go-to vet for routine checks and emergencies, both for small animals and livestock, and he made sure his prices were fair. Fair prices meant plenty of business, which meant the man was rarely bored. Jory was like a husky in that regard; if he didn’t have something to occupy his time, he ended up poking his nose into everyone else’s business.
Kit loved his cousin, but Jory was entirely too worried about Kit’s love life—or lack thereof.
With a squeal of wet brakes, Kit pulled into the lot and parked in one of the handicapped spots closest to the ramp. His boots splashed through slush as he went around to help Surrey to the ground. He felt his brow pucker with a frown when his dog limped carefully up the walkway and into the cheery yellow interior of the office.
That right there was a tipoff. Surrey usually hated vet visits, but today he seemed all too eager to get inside and out of the wet. It was like he knew that Jory could help him and Kit’s heart broke a little more. His poor baby…
“Gooooood morning!” his cousin called from behind the front desk. Kit grunted at his overly peppy tone, even as he tried to fend off a yawn. It was too early for this bullshit.
With his trademark grin in place, Jory gave a little wave, though his brown eyes gleamed with sympathy. The goofy blue paw print scrubs he wore didn’t really match the dark tribal ink that wound up his left arm in an intricate sleeve, or the way his jet black hair was spiked meticulously with gel.
The moment he saw them, he snagged a pair of purple examination gloves off the counter and pulled them on. He came around to the front to bend down and greet Surrey, checking him over with careful fingers. “Ouch. Looks like it hurts.” He inspected the flap of skin on his chest, then peered up at Kit. “Runner did this?”
“Yeah. I had my back turned, feeding Chip and Chester. I didn’t see what happened, only heard the screaming and ran to break it up. He’s limping too, but he was really stiff this morning, even before the fight. He struggled going down the steps today. My old man’s showing his age.”
Jory stroked his fingers over the sleek fur on Surrey’s face. The husky plopped his rump on the tile floor and leaned into the touch, his eyes half closed. He let out a soft sigh. Outside of Kit, Jory was his favorite person. Everyone else could pretty much go fuck themselves, according to Surrey.
The first time Kit had brought him in, he’d had to be muzzled for the vet to take a look at him. Jory guessed that he’d not been properly socialized as a pup, probably just chained outside the moment he got big enough to do some damage to some guy’s couch with those powerful jaws and his endless energy.
Dogs got destructive when they were bored. Even wiener dogs needed proper exercise and an outlet of some sort, even if that meant playing tug of war until your arms ached. For Surrey, the magic key was teaching him to pull a wheeled cart in the summer. They’d ran for miles every day.
He’d slowed down considerably in the past six months and Kit knew Jory could see it. “He’s getting up there in age,” the older man said, touching the gray hairs on Surrey’s wide muzzle. “He’s probably sore. Who knows how much pain he’s in. Dogs keep that hidden; it’s a sign of weakness to the rest of the pack, and you know how prideful this guy is.” He ruffled his ears and Surrey leaned into it. Jory stood up. “I’ll take him to the back and stitch him up real quick.”
Kit reached to hand the leash over. Jory caught his elbow and gently twisted his arm. He peeled the bloody rag away to get a look at the deep punctures in the meat of his outer palm, below his thumb. Kit grimaced.
“Looks like you need a bit of work, too. Go clean it in the bathroom with soap and water and sit down. I’ll be back out in a minute with my kit,” he said. Surrey stood and hobbled after Jory and the two disappeared down the hall, through the swinging door to the back.
Kit sighed and looked at the bite, dabbing at the tender flesh gently with the unstained corner of the cloth. He couldn’t count the number of times Pandora had nailed him, but Surrey? Even in his younger days, he was all talk. He growled and bared his teeth plenty while he was still growing accustomed to being a pet, but he’d never once bitten the hand that fed him. It had only taken a couple of weeks for Surrey to actually seek out attention. After that, they were best friends.
Twenty minutes later, both Kit and his dog were patched up and Kit’s hand was bandaged. Jory offered him a little blue bottle of pills. “For Surrey, not for you. You can take Tylenol,” he teased, rattling the contents of the bottle. Kit snorted and shook his head, snatching it from his hand to tuck it into the pocket of his jacket.
“Just a low dose of pain medication. Might help his arthritis, too. Let me know if he shows some improvement and I’ll make sure to refill the script.” He looped an arm around Kit’s shoulder, giving him an almost brotherly hug. “Take care of yourself, cuz. You worry me, living all alone out there.”
Jesus, not this again. Kit made a face. Jory was worse than his mom when it came to being a mother hen. “I’m fine. Seriously. And I’m not alone. I have Surrey and Runner and the pack. They keep me company.” He shrugged it off like it was no big deal.
Yeah, sure, sometimes he got lonely for a bit of companionship, but it wasn’t something that hanging out with his brother or Jory for an evening couldn’t fix. He liked his quiet time. Hell, in all actuality, he needed it. Being around too much noise drove him insane; he couldn’t tune it out. It was literally impossible for him to sift through the chaos.
Even so much as holding a conversation with music playing loudly in the background made his head ache and his frustration levels rapidly rise. His therapist, back when he’d gone through anger management, had said it was likely he had a sensory processing issue.
He could believe it. Public school was hell for him, even when he was a kid. His parents always nagged him that he needed to be more like his older brother. To actually apply himself and focus. Jaren was their straight-A student. The golden boy of the family. Mr. Track-and-Field.
What they never seemed to understand was that Kit tried. He honestly did, but he just didn’t coin in and after flunking out of two core classes his junior year, he’d dropped out. His parents were less than thrilled about that. Meanwhile Jaren went off to business school and that’s all they ever talked about.
Kit had moved out shortly after, unable to handle the disappointment. He needed his freedom. In ways, he was just like his dogs—high-strung and in desperate need of an outlet. Luckily for him, Theo Owen had seen the potential and had offered him an apprenticeship in his carpentry shop.
Working hands on, pouring his heart and soul into something creative, something had clicked and Kit had never looked back. When Theo had passed two summers ago, he’d left the family business to Kit. Luckily, his brother was brilliant with numbers and was more than willing to make a deal. It would be a joint effort. Jaren would take up the financial side of the business while Kit did all the creating and crafting in the safety and silence of his workshop.
“I’m fine.” Kit shook his head and reached for his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
The man scoffed, annoyed with him for even asking. “You know I don’t charge family.”
“Jory. Come on. You’ve got bills to pay, too.”
“I’m doing just fine, cuz, but if you’re so damn adamant, how about you buy me lunch at Sundance later today. Mags’s Wednesday special is my jam.” Jory chuckled. “Besides, you eat alone far too often. Might as well give you a bit of company.”
Kit grunted and shoved into him with his shoulder, but he had to admit that Mags’s cooking sounded positively amazing right now. “Dude, seriously. I’m perfectly happy by myself!”
Jory raised his brows high, like he didn’t quite believe it, but he dropped the subject. “I take my lunch break at twelve-thirty. Meet me there?”
“Sounds like a plan. Thanks again.” He offered his closed fist. Jory grinned and bumped his knuckles. “See ya later.”
Kit grabbed Surrey and went back out into the cold to pile into the truck. Soon, he on his way home, his mind preoccupied with the thoughts of a heavenly feast at the local diner. He hadn’t had the chance to eat breakfast and now his stomach was waking up, growling loud enough for Surrey to glance over, tilting his head to one side.
He was on the outskirts of town when he passed the bus stop. His eyes were drawn to the slim figure huddled against the sign post, trying to get out of the weather by standing under the overlap, but the sleet was coming down at an angle.
Kit frowned and pressed down on the brakes. The guy wore no coat, only a thin sweatshirt and jeans, and his shoulders were hunched up to ward off the cold wind that blustered past. His shaggy blond hair was plastered wetly against his face. He was probably soaked through to the bone and Kit couldn’t just leave him out there. He eased up to the curb and let his truck idle, rolling down the window.
“Hey. Bus doesn’t come for another twenty minutes, if you’re lucky. Need a ride?”
The young man swung his head up, startled. His gaze darted between Kit and Surrey, who was grumbling his dissent in the passenger seat. He looked confused so Kit repeated himself. “You want a ride? I can take you. Where you headed?”
Realization washed over the stranger’s pale face. He nodded after a moment of hesitation, as if he was trying to convince himself, and then came up to the side of the truck. “Hold on.” Kit grabbed a hold of Surrey’s collar and guided him into the back seat. When he nodded, the guy clambered up into the truck.
He was shivering, his teeth chattering together while his hands hovered over the air vents. Kit cranked the heat up. “T-Thank you.” Up close, the young man was handsome in a sort of hopeless, lost-boy way, but it was his eyes—ice blue and as striking as a husky’s—that caught Kit off guard.
Deep and wary, they were filled with pain and sorrow. Like the guy had no hope left in this world, and that scared him. It was the same look that Jaimie had given him the day before she died. The guy curled in the front seat, trembling, both arms wrapped around himself.
“You okay?” Kit asked softly.
The stranger slowly nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be fine. J-Just cold.”
“Where’s your coat?”
The guy blew out a breath through his nose, but didn’t respond. His hands twisted together nervously for a moment, then he stuck his thumb in his mouth to bite at his fingernail. Or what was left of it. His fingers were torn up and bloodied, the nails chewed past the quick. It had to hurt.
Kit shrugged. “Where are you headed?”
“Um. The motel on Bluewater,” he mumbled.
It was Kit’s turn to frown. That place was more than a little bit seedy. The type of stay that cost twenty bucks a week, but you had to fight off the cockroaches in your bathroom just to take a lukewarm shower. He nodded but didn’t say anything more and the guy quickly looked away, ducking his head.
Shame tinted his too-hollow face in shades of pink and he picked at a thread on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He probably didn’t have much going for him if he was staying there of all places. For some odd reason, that made Kit sad.
As they neared their destination, Kit stole little glances at the stranger. He looked young, maybe nineteen or twenty, but the lines on his face made him seem older. Worn down and tired. He looked like he needed a hot bath, a hearty meal and a big hug. Kit almost laughed at himself. Since when did he hug random guys off the street? Maybe Mags would be up for the task of mothering the lost boy for a day or two.
“You in town for awhile?”
The guy’s gaze flicked back over. “For a little while.”
They lapsed back into silence until Kit pulled into the small motel lot. When the young man turned to go, Kit caught his elbow. “Hey. Here.” He dug a twenty out of his wallet and pressed it into the man’s hand, then reached into the back seat and grabbed his extra jacket. It was just a flannel lined windbreaker, but it would keep him dry better than the threadbare hoodie he wore.
The guy’s expression shifted into a semblance of shock, but he set his jaw. Stubbornness glinted in his eyes, even though he could see the softness there too. The emotion in their summer sky depths told him that no one had really cared to help him before. “I can’t take this…” His protest was weak, though. They both knew he needed it.
Kit shook his head. “You can and you will. Please. Don’t argue with me or else I’ll double it.” He offered a smile as he looked at the man, whose thin lips finally made a timid grin.
His fingers curled around the slick material of the jacket, pulling it closer to him. “Thank you,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper, and for some strange reason, Kit’s heart skipped a beat and squeezed in his chest. He looked so damn broken, like the world might cave in at any second and he had no hope left for survival.
Or maybe, just like Jaimie, he was giving up.
Kit touched his shoulder. “Take care of yourself, okay? Get out of those wet clothes and warm up and get something to eat. If you call the Sundance Diner and tell them Kit sent you, Mags’ll send someone out with a hot meal—and if you give her those puppy dog eyes, she probably won’t even charge you.” He grinned and winked.
The guy laughed then, his face turning red. He reached for the handle of the door, ready to make his escape, but he paused at the last second and turned back to Kit.
“Hey. Thank you. I wish…” He trailed off and shook his head. “The world needs more people like you,” he finished with a hint of a smile. He crinkled the twenty dollar bill up in his hand and looped the jacket over one arm. He pushed the door open with the other. The door ajar bell chimed relentlessly and the guy slid out of the truck to land with a wet splash on the pavement below.
Kit met his eyes and the man nodded, gave a little wave, and shut the cab behind him. He watched him fumble with the keys in his pocket and waited until the stranger got safely inside his motel room before putting his truck in drive once more.
It was strange, the way his own pulse sped along, hammering loud and fast inside of his skull as he drove the rest of the way home. Almost numb.
Over lunch and two heaping plates of turkey Manhattan, Jory tapped his fork on the table, jolting Kit out of his thoughts and back into reality. “You okay?” he asked, piling food on his fork before taking a bite.
“I’m fine,” was Kit’s swift reply while he picked at his own meal. He set his fork down and took a sip of his Coke. “Just…thinking, is all.” It was true. Because even hours later, he couldn’t get the haunted blue eyes of the stranger out of his mind and he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like he’d ever see him again. So what did it matter?
Yet, somehow? It did.