Excerpt from Chapter 24 - Ivan Runs Free

Whatever had been keeping her from falling into that hole let go. She didn’t flail or cry or scream, she just froze and dropped like a stone. As she dropped, she felt a sudden warmth brush across the top of her head and thought this must be the way it was meant to be, she was supposed to give in to the inevitable and drop into nothing.
    Then, suddenly, something grabbed hold of one of her feet and she lifted her head. Ivan’s giant warm muzzle was right there, inches from her face.
    He moved in closer as she looked at him. The hold on her foot grew tighter. She glanced down. He had inadvertently planted one of his front paws squarely on top of her boot. His whiskers tickled across her face as he sniffed her eyes, ears, nose, cheeks and chin, all the while warm air pumped rhythmically in and out of his nostrils. She tried to look into his amber eyes, but they were so close they were a blur. She waited.
    When he was done, he slowly turned around and planted his hefty rear on top of both boots. He waited.
    Without thinking, Annie reached out and stroked his massive back and the sides of his belly. When she stopped, he turned and looked at her as if to say, “Don’t stop.” She began stroking him again in earnest and he faced forward again, satisfied. She then leaned in, resting her chest against his back, her cheek against his neck, and reached her arms fully around him. She remembered Bobby’s words, “Hell, this boy will roll on his back like a damn baby and let me rub his belly.”
    She stroked his chest then moved her hands to his belly and scratched, gently. He took a deep breath and his entire body vibrated as a contented sigh rolled out into the room. She followed suit and drew in her first deep breath in what seemed like days, years, perhaps since she was a little girl—and as she released it, she realized what Bobby had told her was the truth. It was not the truth she had desperately sought in the middle of the previous night, not a truth she had anticipated, but it was the truth nonetheless, and it was as immense as Ivan and as cold and hard as he was warm and gentle. She shuddered quietly.
    The other dogs had grown restless once again. When they’d lost sight of Annie, they’d lost interest in anything but their own driving desire to be out in the fields where they belonged at this late hour.
    When their barking and the clanging of empty bowls reached yet another ear shattering pitch, Annie responded dutifully. She pulled her feet out from under Ivan who was surprisingly unaffected by all the commotion. He simply lifted his rear as she reclaimed her feet and sauntered over to his bed, which was beside the door to his outside run. She turned and looked at him as he lay down. His eyebrows rose and fell.  He was always the last to be let out and would simply wait his turn.