Dmitri pulled the SUV to the shoulder, what there was of it, got out and hacked at the wiper blades with his scraper to dislodge the inch of ice that had accumulated. It was the third time he'd had to pull over since leaving the veterinary clinic, and even for a guy like him who liked winter weather, this was getting old.
Apparently reading his mind, Apollo mrowled when he climbed back into the driver's seat.
"I know, buddy. The weather is looking a bit iffy for my plan. What do you think? Should I still give it a go?"
It was a simple plan. Get home as quickly as he could, settle Apollo with a bowl of kibble, clean up the cat's mess--quickly--then head back into the storm with a bottle of Chianti and a package of gourmet cheese and crackers his sister had sent him. He'd stick in the box of Belgian chocolates he'd picked up at the warehouse store, just because he liked Belgian chocolate. And because Layla looked like a woman who would enjoy good chocolate.
He hadn't even shocked himself at how quickly it had taken him to jump from ‘Dr. Spencer’ to simply ‘Layla.” Sometimes things just felt...right.
As if his body agreed, a shot of energy sizzled all the way to his fingertips.
“Son, you’ve got it bad,” he mumbled to himself. No way he was going to let a foot of snow get in his way of getting to know Dr. Layla Spencer.
He eased the SUV to a faster pace and was nearing his neighborhood when his radio squawked to life.
“All units, BOLO for missing teen. Fifteen years old, six feet, 140 pounds, wearing hunting pants and jacket.”
The dispatcher added the teen’s name and address. The parents had come home early from a day trip to find him and his dog gone and couldn’t reach him on his cell phone. They’d been out searching several hours.
He thumbed the radio on to acknowledge, then gave the cat carrier a grimace. “Looks like I have to delay my plans, and your bowl of kibble. There’s a kid out in the snow somewhere, and I have no intention of spending Christmas Day telling a couple parents their son is still missing. Or worse.”
After swinging the vehicle in a U-turn, he headed away from civilization. He engaged the flood light and pointed it toward the shoulder of the rural highway, looking for anyone walking or signs that someone had passed—a near impossible task considering the gusting winds and drifting mounds of snow.
He’d driven no more than a quarter mile, creeping along, when Apollo started wailing.
“Not now,” he told the cat. “I’m busy. Be grateful you’re warm inside a heated vehicle, not stuck out there like that poor kid probably is. And his dog.”
In response, Apollo ratcheted up the volume and started clawing at the mesh covering on the side of the carrier.
“Seriously, buddy. I get it. You want out. I can’t deal with you right now.”
The cat kept it up until he was using both paws. Dmitri slowed the car and turned to give his cat a stern look. Apollo’s claws clung to the meshing, and spots of blood dotted the material.
“For crying out loud!” Dmitri flipped open the carrier’s locks and opened the top. “There. You happy now?”
But Apollo wasn’t happy. He stood on his hind legs, front paws on the passenger’s door, and stared fiercely out the window into the dark, his head making tiny jerks from side to side. And he was crying, a pitiful, mournful sound.
Shaking his head and muttering about crazy cats, Dmitri put the vehicle in gear and started forward again. He’d just passed a small access road locals used to get up to the hunting trails when the cat started going berserk, clawing at the faux leather padding like it was the enemy.
Apollo had stopped picking but was looking straight ahead and mrowling again, like he was calling for someone.
Wondering if he was as deranged as the cat, Dmitri backed up and hung a right onto the access road, pointing the floodlight forward. He’d traveled about a hundred yards uphill when the beam picked up a dark shape in the field of white. He eased the SUV forward until he could make out a vehicle turned sideways and plastered against a large snow bank. Blinking red taillights glowed through the storm like Rudolph’s nose.
Dmitri pulled the SUV as close as he could, then radioed an update and his position to dispatch. “Send a wrecker and a bus,” he added. “It looks nasty. Could be injuries.”
With a pat on Apollo’s head and a caution to the cat to be good, he levered himself from the SUV and jogged to the ditched vehicle, a small, older sedan pitched down at a 20-degree angle. It appeared stable but had come to rest on a sideways tilt, blocking the driver’s side doors. Someone—or something—inside was emitting a high-pitched whining. Whining like a dog.
Dmitri shined his flashlight into the interior. The airbag hadn't deployed, and the driver was moving sluggishly, trying to unbuckle the seat belt. In the back, two figures seemed melded together.
“Hell.” Dmitri slogged around the car, slid and caught himself on the side panel. There was an I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS sticker on the rear bumper. Another read: DON’T ARGUE WITH YOUR VET. SHE KNOWS HOW TO NEUTER.
A snorting laugh caught abruptly in his throat as the beautiful vet’s image flashed through his brain. Layla? What the hell would she be doing out in this storm? With passengers. And a dog?
His heart thundering, his brain testing the theory that he'd actually located the missing teen, he assessed how to extricate them all. He scrambled to the passenger side and tugged on the door. It didn’t budge. He stripped off a glove to rap on the window.
“Hey, Doc! I’m going to get you out. Hang in there!” He pointed to the handle, hoping she understood to unlock the door.
Nodding, she scooted to the right. After another eternity a click signaled the locks unlatching.
It took a few minutes for Layla and her passenger to climb from the sedan. Thankfully, and miraculously, they appeared shaken up but not injured.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, throwing her arms around him for a quick hug...too quick. "I was sure we were destined to become human Popsicles. But we need to hurry," she said. "I have a patient in the back seat who needs attention." She jerked her thumb toward the boy who had hunkered down by the open door. "And we need to call his parents."
After a few quick questions, Dmitri confirmed the boy's identity, and relief flooded him as he made his first happy transmission of the night.
It was another ten minutes to get Apollo back in his carrier, then transfer the dog into the SUV. By that time the EMTs had arrived and bundled the boy onto a stretcher to get checked out at the hospital where his parents would meet him. Layla climbed into the back of his SUV to take care of her patient.
"How is he?" Dmitri stood at the open door, watching as she gently worked her hands along his ribs, back and legs. After a few minutes she looked up, hope in her eyes.
"He needs a thorough exam, but all things considered, he's in amazingly good shape."
Taking a deep breath for the first time in what felt like hours, Dmitri smiled as she finished up with the dog who had thankfully decided to take a nap. Finally, thirty minutes later, her car was packed up and hauled off.
Layla stared after the wrecker’s tail lights, then sighed. “Looks like I’ll need a new car.”
“Maybe try to get one that has more than a three-inch clearance from the ground? You know so you can drive in this white stuff? We tend to get a lot of it around here.”
She squinted at him and wrinkled her nose. “Ha ha. I’m from southern Texas. What do I know about cars for snow?”
“Yeah?” He ushered her into the front of the SUV, then rushed to take his seat behind the wheel. As he navigated them back onto the main roadway, he said, “You know, I could help you shop. For a new vehicle.”
“You could?” There was a smile in her voice that made him want to grab her and spin her around.
“Absolutely. Consider it a public service, so we don’t have to dig you out of any more snow drifts.”
She jabbed at his arm with her mittened fist. “Again, ha ha ha. Very funny.” After a moment of quiet she said, “Seriously, thank you for rescuing us. I was really worried. But I kept praying. Thank God you found us.”
“Um….” He nearly didn’t tell her, but if anyone would understand, a vet would. “I can’t take all the credit. Apollo somehow sensed you, or maybe the dog, and sort of signaled your position. I figured, what the heck…” He glanced to see if she thought he’d gone insane, but she was nodding.
“You hear those stories every once in a while. It’s a mystery how they do it.”
They pulled into the lot at the clinic a few minutes later and crawled from the SUV.
“Look.” Layla pointed upward. “The snow stopped.”
Dmitri tilted his head and gazed into a field of stars glimmering against a velvety black sky. “I’ll be damned. No snow. Like it had never happened.”
They got the dog inside and settled, and Dmitri was about to say goodbye, ready to put his wine and cheese aside, along with his budding romantic intentions, when she stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“It’s midnight. Officially Christmas. I have to check Baxter out, but would you and Apollo care to keep me company for a bit? You can let him out of the carrier. I’ll get him some treats and put a blanket down for him to cuddle in and rest his tail while you and I have some eggnog and cookies?”
She gave him a hopeful smile, and his heart zinged again.
“There’s nothing I’d like more. Let me get my cat.”
He retrieved the carrier from the SUV and turned it so he could see Apollo's face. “Looks like we’re going to get our date with the beautiful vet after all. Merry Christmas to us, buddy. Merry Christmas.”
I hope you enjoyed meeting Dmitri and Layla (and Apollo and Baxter). And I hope this story gave you a bit of a break in your busy holiday preparations. (Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.)
Please check back tomorrow for the beginning Alicia Dean's story, "Once Upon a Brave Christmas." (I know it will be great!)
Happy holidays from my family (including Hercules) to yours!
Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil, and the power of love. Learn
more at her website, or visit her Facebook page where she occasionally posts about writing, her life, her son's cat and more.