Authors: Laurinda Wallace
The drifts were piled high by morning. Gracie called Marian and Cheryl to tell them to stay home until the afternoon. It would take the better part of the morning for the county to get Simmons Road passable. Jim called minutes later to say he was getting himself plowed out and then his parents, who were just a mile from his house. He was hoping the plows would be out cutting back the high snow banks so he could make it to Milky Way by ten or so. Gracie bundled up and trudged out to the kennel. There were several messages on the kennel’s voicemail from dog owners letting her know they’d be late picking up dogs, and some asked if she could board them for another day. After returning the calls, she began dishing up breakfast. Haley kept her nose in the kibble bin, snatching pieces when she thought Gracie wasn’t looking.
“Quit stealing, Haley. You’ve had your breakfast.” Gracie stood with her hands on her hips, chastising the black Lab with the innocent brown eyes. A piece of dog food dropped to the concrete floor from her wet jowl.
“See, I was right. No more food.”
Haley lay down by the large bin, trying to look nonchalant. The bell on the front door jingled. Haley jumped up and ran to the reception area, while the kennel erupted with barking and whining.
“It’s me, Gracie. Can I help with the dogs?”
Terry appeared, wearing one of Gracie’s old parkas and a pair of thick red woolen mittens that Theresa had knitted for Gracie last year. She patted Haley’s broad head as the dog escorted her to the main hallway.
“Sure thing. You can help me finish feeding them.”
The sound of kibble hitting metal bowls had all the residents excited. Energetic barking echoed in the hallways.
“You’ve got a lot of dogs here,” Terry observed as she put the last dish of food on the bracket in a run housing a wiry-haired terrier of uncertain heritage.
“The owners are escaping for warmer weather, but it’s great business for us.” Gracie snapped the lid on the bin. “Next it’s fresh water for everyone.”
It took another 45 minutes to finish changing and filling water bowls. Gracie was just getting the disinfectant out to clean runs, when she heard the sound of Jim’s Explorer, shoving its way into the driveway. She checked her watch. It was 9:30. Jim was making good time with his plowing. Tom’s red Ford pickup was right behind Jim. In his usual style, Tom gunned the engine and made it through the drifts to the snow-clogged parking area.
“Thought you could use some help this morning.” Tom jumped out of the truck to greet Gracie. He waved when he saw Terry standing behind Gracie in the doorway.
“Yes, we can use all the help we can get today. I told Marian and Cheryl to stay home until after lunch. I’ve still got runs to clean and meds to give.” Gracie turned back toward the reception area. “Aren’t you working today?”
“No. County offices are closed because of the weather, so I await your commands. I assume you want me to start cleaning runs?”
“You assume correctly.” Gracie was quick to hand her brother the hose. “And I’ve got to get to the bank this morning to make two days’ worth of deposits.”
“I can take them for you if you don’t want to drive in this stuff,” Tom offered. He peeled off the heavy overalls. He was dressed in jeans, a red turtleneck, and a thick navy crewneck sweater.
“I can go. I need to stop at Midge’s for some sweet rolls.” Gracie was also getting a little bit of cabin fever and needed some distraction. Being inside all the time got to her quickly. The bitter cold of February had kept her in more often than usual.
“Can I hitch a ride, then?” Terry asked tentatively. “My car should be ready this morning, or so the garage says. I can drive myself back here. I’d really like to get started at the library if you don’t mind.” Tice’s Garage had given her vehicle a thorough safety inspection yesterday just as a precaution.
“Sure. Is Simmons plowed all the way to Route 39 yet?” Gracie asked her brother.
“Sort of. It still has some drifts, so take it easy. Use four-wheel drive, so you don’t get stuck.”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” Gracie gave her brother a snappy salute.
“Drive how you want, but don’t call me if you end up in a ditch.” Tom warned.
“I know how to drive in this, so don’t worry. Let me give the meds out and get the deposits ready. Then we can go.” Gracie unlocked the meds cabinet in the grooming room and grabbed three brown prescription bottles.
The drive to Deer Creek took twice as long as usual. Drifts were quickly swallowing the plowed roads. Driving would be treacherous until the wind really died down. Gracie expertly maneuvered her red RAV4 into a parking space by the bank. The snow was already piling up on Main Street, and the sidewalk plow was busy in front of Midge’s Restaurant across the street, pushing snow into ever growing banks between the sidewalk and street.
“I’ll wait here while you do your banking,” Terry offered.
“You’d better come in with me. You’ll freeze out here if I have to wait in line.”
“No, I’m warm enough. Go ahead, it’s no problem.”
“All right. I’ll leave the engine running then.” Gracie pulled her hood up around her head, grabbed the bank bag, and left the toasty interior of the vehicle. She decided her guest was probably as stubborn as she was.
There were only a few brave souls working in the bank. It still seemed odd not to see her cousin’s husband, Tim, seated behind the heavy cherry desk in the back. The desk still sat empty, a reminder of last summer. The teller’s cheery greeting snapped Gracie back to the present.
“Good morning, Gracie. You’re brave to come out today.” Gladys Randall peered over her reading glasses, gold chains draped on either side of her cherubic, flushed face. She was very short and stood on a stool behind the counter. Gladys had worked at the bank forever. Gracie supposed Gladys probably knew everyone’s account balances and spending habits.
“Good morning, Gladys. I’m not brave, but I may be crazy. The roads are terrible.”
“You’d better be careful going home. I heard another storm is supposed to come in today.”
“Great. We could use more snow.” Gladys smiled broadly at Gracie’s sarcasm, while her fingers flew over the calculator keys. “I’m just taking care of the money and getting some sweet rolls. I think home is the smart place to be. Are you closing early?”
“No, there are a couple of us who can walk home, so we’ll stay open until 3:00. The weather report may be wrong, or at least I hope so.” Gladys peered at the total on Gracie’s tape and compared it to her own.
“I hope so too. I’ve had enough of winter. I’m ready for spring.”
“I agree. Sam and I are going to Florida next week, if we can get out of the airport.”
“Good luck with that. Michael and I tried to go to Florida one year and ended up vacationing at the Rochester Airport Marriott. We were stuck there for three days and decided to forget winter vacations. It wasn’t worth it.”
Gladys frowned, checking the two receipts before handing them to Gracie.
“That’s what Sam says. He thinks we’re going to get stuck somewhere on the way or end up sitting in the airport. I won’t share your winter vacation story; it’ll only confirm his pessimistic outlook.”
“I’m sure you’ll get out. We’re due for a thaw soon.”
“I hope so. I’m anxious to enjoy some sun and visit with my sister down there. I hear you’ve got a visitor at your house right now.” Gladys arched a well-penciled eyebrow, which starkly contrasted against her short, curly white hair, and waited for Gracie’s reply. Then she looked down and continued totaling the stack of checks.
“You’re right. Terry Castor, the new librarian.”
“It’s just awful that she lost everything in that fire. How’s she doing?”
“Pretty well. I’m on my way to drop her off at the library.”
“Really? She’s going to work?”
“Work can be a good thing. Helps keep your mind off the bad stuff.” Gracie glanced at her watch and pulled her gloves on.
be therapeutic. She’s not from around here, is she?” Gladys was now getting to heart of the matter.
“No, she’s from New York City.” Gracie could guess what the next reaction would be.
“Oh.” Gladys said in thoughtful voice. She wrinkled her nose ever so slightly. “I heard she was a city girl.” The emphasis on “city” was one of suspicion and wariness. “How’d she end up here?”
“It wasn’t our weather, but I’ve got to run. I don’t want to miss out on the sweet rolls.” Gracie smiled brightly, turning toward the entrance.
“Drive careful, Gracie.” Gladys called over the counter. She had already stepped down from her stool and was busily organizing her calculator tapes.
“I will.” The wind caught the heavy glass door, tearing it from Gracie’s hand, and she scrambled to catch it.
Terry was listening to the local Warsaw radio station when Gracie climbed back into the SUV. The newscaster was reporting on recent car accidents caused by poor roads and blizzard conditions.
“Guess I’m old news today.” Terry seemed pleased. “I hope the whole thing is over soon.”
“With all the car accidents and more bad weather, it won’t come up again. Do you want to get a sweet roll before I take you to the library?”
“No thanks. I’d really like to get to the library, if you don’t mind. I’m a little nervous about the computer system. It’s different than the one I’m familiar with. Plus, I need to get better acquainted with the clerks, Sybil and Patti. I’m sure I wasn’t their first choice.”
Gracie laughed. “They know the library inside out. Both of them have worked there forever. I’m surprised they didn’t apply for the librarian position.”
“They did, or at least Sybil did …” Terry’s voice trailed off.
“Really,” Gracie said slowly with understanding. “You probably have your work cut out for you then. It might be a little awkward for awhile.”
“Awkward. That’s a good word. They weren’t exactly all that friendly, and I need them on my side. This library has so much potential, and I have a lot of ideas.” Terry’s eyes were bright and her voice confident.
“Well, I’m sure that’s true, but a word to the wise. Go slow. They’re really good ladies, but the library is their personal domain.”
Gracie had a library flashback as a junior high student. She was talking out loud and having way too much fun doing research for a local history paper with a group of friends. Sybil Greene, who was the brand new library clerk at the time, had almost thrown them out. She had also threatened to tell their respective mothers, which would have been worse. Her stomach still flopped over, thinking about being tossed from the library.
“I know. I’ll have a lot of people work to do before we make any changes.”
“Patti Hurd is probably a little easier going than Sybil. You do know that they’re cousins, right?”
“Cousins?” Terry’s face fell.
“Yeah. Their fathers are brothers. Sybil has been the acting librarian a couple of times over the years. I guess she’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride for that position.”
“Thanks for the information. It may be harder than I thought. The board didn’t give me the inside track on that.” Terry’s brow was furrowed, her lips drawn in a determined thin line.
Gracie turned into the library parking lot that was in real need of a snowplow. The snow crunched under the tires, and she threw the four-wheel drive on. The massive blue spruce trees in the front were weighted down with the last snowfall. A fiery red cardinal skimmed through the snowy branches.
“Thanks for the ride, Gracie. I’ll pick up my car later this afternoon, so I shouldn’t need a ride back to your place.” Terry slid from the black leather seat and landed in almost knee-deep snow. She shut the door quickly and slogged her way through the snow to the broad concrete steps that led into the Deer Creek Library.
The library was an imposing building for the small village. It had started out as a humble clapboard building in the late 1800s, but a fire had burned it to the ground in 1920. The residents decided that a more fireproof structure was necessary, and today it was a two-story river stone building with large arched windows. Each one had leaded glass all the way around. It had a gothic look to it, which made it more unusual for a small country village. The library boasted a massive oak curved counter, hand-carved with scenes of readers of all ages and books in a wide border at the top. Gracie watched Terry square her shoulders as she looked at her new workplace. Maybe Patti and Sybil would get over their hurt feelings quickly. After all, their new boss was basically homeless. Things had to start looking up for Terry. The lights flickered on inside and cut gloominess of the darkened windows. “Go get ‘em Terry,” she said.
Marc Stevens’ blue Chevy pickup was in Gracie’s driveway when she finally made it back to Milky Way. She wondered if he had any updates on the fire. At least he was off duty. He’d been on for eight days straight because of a nasty stomach flu that had ravaged the ranks of the Wyoming County Sheriff’s Department. Two deputies had ended up in the hospital. She hurried through the crunchy snow to the kennel.
The snow had finally stopped. The wind gusted every few minutes, but had ceased its assault on the drifts that were now piled five feet and higher along the state highway and the back roads. She saw that both Cheryl’s and Marian’s vehicles were also there. It was a good thing she’d been able to buy two dozen sweet rolls. They’d be gone in no time. Working in the cold always developed enthusiastic appetites. Besides, Midge’s cinnamon rolls were to die for.
The spicy, beefy aroma of chili greeted Gracie when she opened the door to the reception area. No doubt Marian had brought her slow-cooker along to feed the hungry troops.
“Hi, Gracie. Glad you made it back. There’s some chili left if you want. It’s in your office.” Cheryl was sitting at the desk, checking the computer monitor. She was bundled up in a heavy gray-colored turtleneck sweater. Haley trotted in and rubbed her head against Gracie’s leg, her tail thumping against the desk. She patted the dog’s head and scratched the wagging backside.
“Thanks. It smells really good. I’ve got sweet rolls to keep everyone going this afternoon.” She stomped the snow from her fleece-lined brown leather boots and put the box of rolls on the desk.
“Mmm, thanks.” Cheryl lifted the pink bakery box top and sniffed appreciatively. “Jim and Marc are working on a frozen water line in Corridor B.”
“Did it burst?” Gracie’s stomach sank as she imagined icy cold water running into runs and soaking beds.
“No. Jim found it in time. I think they got it thawed out, and now they’re putting a heat tape on to keep it that way. They’re checking the other lines too.” Cheryl put her hands around a steaming mug of coffee and shivered. “I don’t remember it ever being this cold for so long. I just can’t stay warm.”
“I feel your pain. Is Marian doing OK with the grooming appointments?”
“She’s fine. We’ve had a couple of cancellations for late in the day, but everyone else has made it in. We also have some extended stays. The Stroud’s Cocker and Sheltie need to stay a couple of more days. Polly and Howard are stuck in Pittsburgh on their way back from Florida. I guess the storm moved south.”
“I’ll bet Polly is having a fit about that.” Gracie could see her laid-back, pudgy insurance agent, Howard trying to calm his highly organized and in-control wife. “They’ll have a couple of stories to tell when they get back.” The stories probably wouldn’t be pretty.
“Hey there, Chief!” Jim strode through the doorway and pushed back a Yankees ball cap, scratching his head.
“Hey, yourself. Is the water problem fixed?”
“We think so. Marc went to the hardware for a couple more heat tapes just to make sure. What a day! You missed all the excitement, though.”
“What excitement?” Gracie wasn’t sure that excitement was something she really wanted or needed to know about. She was also disappointed that Marc had left without even saying hello.
“So far we pushed out three customers from the parking lot today because they managed to get stuck. Then Tom and I rescued Alice Harris from the ditch. The Walkers called down here that a car was off the road, so we went up there to see what we could do. She was on her way to see Terry… paperwork or something, and somehow lost control. She got herself good and stuck in the ditch.”
“Was she hurt?”
“No. Her temper was bent though.” Jim made a sour face and shook his head. “That good deed should get me some real points with the Man Upstairs, because she was madder than a wet hen.” Jim pulled his cap on his head, grimacing.
“Mad at you?”
“Mad at everything and everybody. We had to shovel out the snow from the driver’s door, so we could get her out. Of course, the snow was over her boots, so her feet were cold and wet. Then we might have dinged her bumper a little when we pulled the car out. Then it took us too long because she had other things to do. And then …”
“All right, I get the idea. Sounds like she’s a difficult woman.”
“Difficult? Not exactly the word I had in mind. She’s also pretty hefty. It was no easy deal getting her out of the car. Anyway, we did get her out, and there’s some papers she wants Terry to sign. I left them on your desk in the office.” He sighed. “I need more coffee,” he grumbled, starting toward the office.
“Why don’t you have one of Midge’s sweet rolls to go with it?” Gracie pulled a gooey roll from the box and handed it to Jim.
“Thanks. I needed that,” he grinned. “Things are looking up.”
“Anything else going on?”
“Nothing I can think of. Marc and I’ll just finish up the water stuff.” Gracie was sure he was whistling “Witchy Woman” as he helped himself to another cup of coffee. She shrugged and Cheryl motioned for her to lean over the desk.
“I think there’s something going on between Laney and him. He made a comment about her traveling a lot with her job and didn’t look very happy when he was talking to your brother this morning.”
“Oh.” Gracie said indifferently.
“I think he really misses her.” Cheryl half-whispered.
“Probably, but they’re adults. They’ll work it out, if it’s a problem.” Gracie had thought Jim and Laney were headed toward matrimony last fall, but when she had changed jobs to move up the corporate ladder, Jim had started backing away from the relationship in his usual style. Laney’s family was well-heeled and from Rochester, about an hour away from Deer Creek. They spent summers at the lake near the kennel, but Laney still loved the activity of the city. She split her time between the family’s house at the lake and an apartment in Rochester.
“Adults don’t always work it out,” Cheryl said with a frown. “My husband was more interested in younger and prettier than working anything out.” Spots of color appeared in her cheeks. She was still smarting from a divorce a year ago.
“Has everyone had their exercise time today?” Gracie hastily turned the focus back to business.
“Almost. I have about a dozen more that need some playtime.”
“Let’s get them finished then. I’ll check on Marian and answer the phone.”
“Sure thing.” Cheryl clipped a walkie-talkie to her jeans and glanced at a list on the clipboard hanging on the pegboard to see who needed exercising. She grabbed a couple of leashes and went to round up her charges.
They were using the storage barn as a play area during the cold snap. Gracie longed for the training building that was planned for the spring. It would help with exercising during winter weather and provide a place for obedience and agility training year around. There were a couple of local dog clubs that were already interested in holding classes in the new building. The storage barn wasn’t big enough for exercising dogs by any stretch of the imagination. Dog food and equipment were stored there, but the barn would have to do until the fenced play area wasn’t buried under four feet of snow. It was way too cold for some of the smaller dogs to enjoy much time outside. Jim had used sections of white plastic dog show fencing to mark out an exercise area. There were plenty of rope toys, a tunnel, and a ramp that completed the makeshift canine playground.
Gracie had just started to update the day’s receipts and the kennel’s database when Marc came through the front door with the extra heat tapes in an Evans Hardware bag.
“Hey, Gracie.” His face and ears were bright red from the cold.
“Hi, there. I guess you and Jim have had a busy day.” She felt her face redden like a teenage girl with a crush.
“Pretty much. After I finish up with these, how about heading to Midge’s for dinner?”
“It’s a great offer, but I have Terry staying here. I’m not sure I should leave her on her own right now.”
“How about if I bring back some takeout for everybody?”
Gracie was glad of his persistence. She still had a lot of doubts about dating since Michael’s death, but there was something about Marc that felt right. They had agreed to take it slow. So far, so good.
“Sure. The special should be lasagna tonight. You could get that.”
“Sounds fine to me. Three lasagnas it is.”
Gracie and Marc were enjoying slabs of rich lasagna when Terry drove in. The snow had started again, and a light wind freckled the tile with white when she opened the kitchen door.
Terry looked tired, but close to happy. Max and Sable greeted their mistress with enthusiasm. Haley joined the crowd and Terry finally shooed them all away.
“Hi, everyone.” Terry’s voice was bright.
Marc and Gracie were sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in front of the river stone fireplace. The fire was blazing, throwing its warmth to the whole room.
“Hi, Terry. Supper is on the counter. Midge’s lasagna is the best.” Gracie wiped her chin with her white paper napkin, catching a drip of sauce and strings of cheese on her chin. Haley pushed her muzzle under Gracie’s arm; her gaze fixed on the plate.
“Hey, lie down, Haley. Don’t be rude.”
The dog mournfully flopped between Gracie and Marc, eyes watchful of every bite.
“You need to learn better manners, like your guests.” Gracie was annoyed.
The shepherds were already lying down, a polite distance from their mistress, who joined the group on floor.
“Haley is very well behaved. She’s just …”
“She’s just a mooch.” Gracie finished Terry’s sentence.
“Just an indication of your owner’s skill. Right, Haley?” Marc laughed and reached to pat Haley’s shiny, broad head.
“All right. She’s spoiled, but she has won a few times in the obedience ring.” Gracie gave Marc a half-hearted frown.
“That’s great, Gracie. Do you compete often?” Terry’s voice was interested.
“Not that much. I really don’t have the time with the kennel, but maybe we’ll do a little more this year.” Gracie relented and stroked Haley’s head, which had found its way once again toward the plate of food. “So how was the library?”
“It was good to go to work today. We didn’t have a lot of patrons, but it gave me some solid time to start learning the software and check out the stacks.”
“What about Sybil and Patti?” Gracie was eager to know their reaction to the new boss.
“Well, it went fine,” Terry said slowly. “Patti was scheduled to work today. Sybil isn’t scheduled until tomorrow evening. Patti was friendly enough. I think it’ll just take a little while for this transition. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” Terry dug into her generous square of lasagna.
“You’ll have them eating out of your hand in no time,” Gracie assured her.
“I hope so.”
“I’m sure you will too.” Marc stood and took Gracie’s plate and his own to the kitchen.
Gracie stood and followed him. Haley was close behind. She wasn’t disappointed. Marc scraped the last bits of Gracie’s lasagna into the big ceramic dog dish.
“How about a pot of coffee?” Gracie grabbed the carafe from the coffeemaker. She’d make a pot even if no one else was game.
“Count me in.” Marc put the dishes in the dishwasher.
“None for me. I’ll be awake all night.”
“I’ll make decaf then. I don’t need an extra buzz either.” Gracie began filling the carafe with water from the kitchen faucet.
“Fine by me,” Marc said and returned to the living room. He settled onto the sofa, watching Terry eat the last of lasagna. “Did you hear anything more about the fire?”
Terry put her fork down and quickly finished chewing the last mouthful.
“The fire chief. What’s his name again?”
“Dan,” Gracie supplied.
“That’s right. Dan stopped in at the library to give me an update. The wiring and heater were definitely faulty , so except for the insurance claims, the case is closed.
“You’re a very lucky lady. I hope the owner had good coverage.” Marc stretched his long legs onto the coffee table.
“I know I am, and so are my dogs. I don’t know what possessed them to run back into the house. Your brother, Tom, is a real hero for going after them. I’ll always be grateful.” She stroked Sable’s tawny head. The dog stirred and went back to sleep.
“He’s a good guy, most of the time.” Gracie grinned, giving Marc’s legs a push with her foot so she could set three steaming mugs on the coffee table. “You know, I’m really curious how you got out. That fire spread pretty quickly.”
Terry leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes.
“The smoke alarm went off in my bedroom. There was a lot of smoke in the stairway when I started down with the dogs. I thought I could maybe get out through a window and jump down, but the bedroom windows wouldn’t open. I grabbed my cell phone and called 9-1-1. They said it had already been called in and to get out of the house. We made it down the stairs, and I could see the flames in the living room at the front of the house. The smoke was so thick by then that I crawled to the back door in the kitchen. I should have grabbed my boots and coat, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly. The dogs were acting so strangely. I had to keep pulling on their collars to make them follow me. I finally opened the back door, dragging them with me. It was so cold I couldn’t catch my breath, and I was freezing. Max suddenly went crazy and ran in circles around me and Sable. Sable got up, shook herself, and they both ran back into the house. The firemen were there by then.” Terry took one of the thick white mugs from the coffee table and sipped the hot, dark decaf.