“What’s wrong?” he answered.
“I lost her.” Hannah’s voice was breathless, as if she’d been running.
“AnnaBelle. I lost Carson’s dog. She took off into the woods.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m looking for her.”
Unease pulled Brody to his feet. “You’re in the woods?”
“That’s where the dog went.”
Striding down the hall and into the kitchen, Brody tucked the phone between his face and his shoulder and reached for his jacket and keys. “Get back in the house and lock the door. I’ll be right there.”
“I’m not going back inside until I find this dog,” she said.
“Hannah, it isn’t safe to be running around in the woods alone in the middle of the night.”
“I assure you, I’m fine.” The sound of wind and fabric rustling came through the phone. She was out there moving through the dark. Alone. Vulnerable. Maybe vulnerable wasn’t the best word to describe Hannah. But she was alone, and that was enough to make Brody sweat.
“I’m on my way. I will help you find her. All right?”
“Yes.” Her voice hitched. Was she crying?
Hannah had taken on a thug to help a young girl, but the thought of losing her nephew’s dog undid her.
“I’ll be right there. Will you please go back into the house and wait for me?”
“How long will it take you to get here?” Her refusal to answer told him she wouldn’t.
“I’ll meet you in the backyard.” The line went dead.
Swearing, Brody shrugged into his jacket. On his way out the door, he secured his weapon in the holster at his hip. The drive out to the Barrett place seemed longer than usual, even as he pushed the car over the speed limit. Parking in the driveway, he grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment and jogged around the house. Where is she? Spotlights illuminated the rear yard. The wind blew light rain into his face, and silvery shadows played under the big oak tree. Beyond the creek at the rear of the property, the trees loomed black as tar. Brody headed for the woods.
He cupped a hand around his mouth. “Hannah.”
“I’m here.” She emerged from the darkness. Her pale face shone in the light. Rain darkened her blond hair, and drops of water raced down her temples.
Relief flooded his system with adrenaline. His boots clomped on the bridge as he closed the gap between them.
“She went this way.” Hannah turned and walked into the forest.
Brody fell into step behind her. “You shouldn’t be out here.”
“I have to find Carson’s dog. I can’t let him lose anything else.”
Hannah stopped and called for the dog. They listened for an answering bark. Nothing. Wind rustled in the trees and knocked droplets of water from the foliage overhead. Brody wiped a rivulet of rain from his forehead.
“I waited for you,” she said, continuing her path on the trail.
“I appreciate that.” Brody’s voice went dry.
“Brody, I’ve been running in the wilderness since I was born. My father was big on survival training. I can build a shelter, rig a snare for small game, find clean water, and start a fire without matches. Plus, I’m armed.” She patted her hip.
“I know all that, but I was worried about you,” he admitted.
Her sure steps faltered. She halted, her face turning toward him. “You were?”
“I was.” He couldn’t read her expression in the dark, but her body language was unsure.
The rustle of wet leaves punctuated a few seconds of silence before Hannah resumed her stride. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you’re concerned about the dog, but Carson would be much more upset if anything happened to you.” And so would I.
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
How could that be? “Well, you should have. Do you really think Carson loves his dog more than you?”
“No,” she said. “I just never thought about it at all.”
“You are important to your family. You have a responsibility to them.” He reached across the darkness and took her hand. “No more impulsive risks, all right?”
“I’ll try.” The sadness in her voice broke his heart.
“Try not. Do,” Brody said in his best Yoda voice.
With a short burst of laughter, she gave his fingers a quick squeeze. “Thank you.”
“For being here, and for giving me perspective.”
Brody tightened his hold on her hand. Did her step lighten, just a little?
“But I’m still going to find this dog.”
“I never doubted it for a second.” He sniffed. Over the smell of trees and rain, he smelled . . . meat? “What’s that smell?”
Hannah pulled a package from her pocket. Brody shone the beam of his flashlight on it.
“Ball Park Franks?”
“AnnaBelle’s crack.” She opened the top and waved the package in the air. “Retrievers are hunting dogs. Theoretically, she should be able to smell the hot dogs if she’s nearby.” She stuffed the bag into her pocket and funneled her hands around her mouth. “AnnaBelle! Here, girl.”
They paused and listened. Nothing. Hannah strode off again. She moved through the forest with more confidence than Brody. Clearly, her childhood lessons had stuck.
They plowed through a thick layer of wet, dead leaves. He looked behind them. Dark, dark, and more dark. How far had they walked? “Shouldn’t we mark the trail so we don’t get lost?”
“We’re not far from the house.” Hannah stopped at a fork in the trail. Crouching, she played her beam on the ground and examined a paw print in the dirt.
Brody leaned over her shoulder. “That doesn’t look like a dog print.”
“That’s because it’s a possum track.” She stood and pointed her light at one trail and then the other. “You want left or right?”
Oh, no. He was not letting her out of his sight. “We stay together.”
She propped a hand on her hip. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of calling you?”
“We stay together.”
“All right,” she sighed.
“You realize she’ll probably return to the house on her own.”
“Maybe. But I can’t just sit there and wait.”
No, Hannah needed to take action. They tromped around the woods for another hour, until the wet cold seeped through the sleeves of Brody’s jacket and froze his fingers.
He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. “It’s getting late. Let’s go back and check the house. She’s probably sitting on the back deck.”
Hannah turned around. Even in the dark, he could read the distress on her features. “I hope so.”
How she knew her way around in the dark boggled his mind, but twenty minutes later, they emerged from the forest to stare at Grant’s backyard. They crossed the bridge, Hannah’s pace increasing to a jog across the lawn.
She drew up at the deck steps. “She’s not here.”
Brody wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to his chest. He didn’t realize she’d been crying until he saw the tears glistening on her face. Hannah rested her forehead against his chest for a solid minute. Then she pulled away and wiped her cheeks with her fingertips.
“I don’t know what to do. I have to find that dog.” She sniffed. “I know what you’re going to say. I’m more important than any dog, but it’s not a contest. Carson shouldn’t have to lose either of us.”
He sure as hell shouldn’t, Brody thought. “You’re right. I’ll ask whoever’s on patrol tonight to keep an eye out for her. If she doesn’t come back by morning, we’ll call animal shelters and veterinarians.”
A faint bark drifted through the trees. Brody lifted a hand. “Wait. Did you hear that?”
Her head tilted. She shook her head.
Brody strained to listen. The barking grew stronger. “There’s a dog coming this way.”
“I hear it now.” Hannah’s voice brightened. “Which direction?”
He pointed toward the woods. They hurried back onto the trail. They picked up the pace, excitement fueling their legs. A squeal and a high-pitched whine echoed. Hannah broke into a run. Brody kept pace. Mud splashed under his boots. A hundred yards down the trail, they entered a clearing. AnnaBelle stood in the center, head down and whimpering. The dog swiped a paw at her face.
“Here, girl.” Hannah approached the retriever. “Oh, you poor dog.”
“What is it?” Brody directed the beam of his light on the dog’s face. Dozens of quills poked out from her muzzle. “Ugh. Looks like she tangled with a porcupine.”
Hannah fastened her collar around her neck. “Let’s get her back to the house.”
Luckily, the dog had been nearly home when she’d been quilled. They tracked mud and water through the back door into the laundry room. In the bright light of the kitchen, Brody and Hannah examined the dog’s face.
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