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Read by Daniel Thomas May
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An ex-military man returns to his hometown and reunites with his first love in this suspenseful romance—but he's made some powerful enemies that are after them both . . .
Love is the greatest risk of all.
After multiple tours of duty, Brandon Forte returns to his hometown on a personal mission: to open a facility for military service dogs like Haydn, a German shepherd who's seen his share of combat and loss. It also brings him back to Sophie Kim, a beacon of light in his life . . . and the one woman he can't have. But Forte's success means he's made enemies in high places. Enemies who are now after Sophie . . .
When Forte enlisted and left without saying goodbye, Sophie did her best to move on. But with her first love back in town, looking sexier than ever, she's constantly reminded of what they could have had. Then after he risks himself for her, Sophie realizes she'll have to put her life in the hands of the man who broke her heart, knowing the danger—and the sparks between them—could consume them both.
It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon in New Hope. Few people were out and about on the main street when it was this cold out, which was perfect for Brandon Forte. The jet-black German Shepherd Dog walking just ahead of him needed space for this excursion, a couple of things to look at but not too much to excite him. A few people to see was good for them both, too, so long as they weren’t going to be overwhelmed with requests to pet or take pictures.
Besides, the bake shop all the way down on this end of town tended to have day-old baked goods at a discount, and the shop owner occasionally gave Forte a cupcake or cookie on the house along with special home-baked dog treats for whichever dog was with Forte. It gave the dogs and him something to look forward to on the walk.
Today, it was Haydn. Haydn was a seasoned veteran and one of the dogs Forte had trained on active duty for the Air Force. Now, Haydn had come to Hope’s Crossing Kennels for a new kind of training. The black GSD had a lot of physical therapy ahead of him. He’d been fitted with a prosthetic to replace his front left leg prior to arriving, but it was up to Forte to help Haydn figure out how to use it. The big dog had walked the kennel grounds fine but was obviously getting bored. It happened with intelligent animals, the same way it could with people. Both of them were more than ready for a change of scenery and terrain.
Thus, the outing and the very slow walking.
Besides, it took skill to stuff a chocolate cupcake with cookie dough frosting dusted with sugar in one bite. A man needed to practice once in a while to make sure he could still manage it.
And it was a necessary skill, as far as Forte was concerned. Sophie tended to bring her own cooking and baked treats to Hope’s Crossing Kennels every weekend. She was a close friend to everyone at the kennels, an integral part of what made the place home to each of them, and she was…more to him. If she caught him partaking of other sweets, she’d never let him hear the end of it.
Now if it was about dating, she never had a word to say about any of the women he saw or the one-night stands he indulged in now and then. He’d bumped into her once in a while in Philly on the weekends. They both dated, and it couldn’t matter less to her who he chose to spend his time with, as far as he could tell. But take a taste of someone else’s baking, and he was in for a world of hurt. Thus, the one-bite-and-inhale technique. Because she had a knack for popping up out of nowhere.
Which made it more fun when he took the risk and did it anyway.
Of course, he had a long history of crossing paths with Murphy’s Law, and apparently, this was his day for it because who would be walking down the street but the very person he was thinking about?
Sophie Kim was five feet, two inches of nonstop energy, usually. Today, though, her shoulders were slumped and her steps lacked the brisk cadence he’d always associated with her. She was heading out of a small art gallery with a large paper shopping bag, and despite the difference in her body language, she was still alert. The woman had expansive peripheral vision and excellent spacial awareness.
Which meant she spotted him and changed course to head in his direction immediately.
Forte swallowed hard.
She must’ve come directly from work because under her very sleek black trench coat, she wore a matching pencil skirt. Three-inch red heels popped in contrast to the severe black of the rest of her outfit. Which did all sorts of things to him. Naughty things.
The kind of things that were so good, they were really bad. Especially when a woman was off limits.
“Hey! Is that the new guy?” Sophie slowed her approach, keeping her gaze locked on Forte’s face.
She’d been around tiny dogs all her life, but she’d spent enough time at Hope’s Crossing Kennels over the past couple of years to have learned how to meet the much bigger dogs in Forte’s care. Training working dogs was his thing. Or in Haydn’s case, retraining.
Always a work in progress.
Sophie had been there when he’d come back from active duty, too battle weary to continue deploying. She’d helped him with the accounting when he’d established Hope’s Crossing Kennels and had generally integrated herself into the private world he’d created for himself, Rojas, and Cruz while they all rebuilt lives for themselves.
Some people might’ve assumed he’d spent a lot of years running from New Hope between high school and now. He’d been away a long time, explored a lot of different places around the world. But there’d been no question about where he’d end up between deployments. He always came right back. And her friendship, her smile, had always been waiting for him.
Sophie’s bright smile faded as she waited for him to answer. She always sensed when he got too caught up inside his own head.
“Yeah.” Forte came to a halt and murmured the command for Haydn to sit.
Instant obedience. Despite his injury, surgery, and current need for recovery, the dog was as sharp as he’d been on active duty. The mind was eager, ready to work. The body, not so much.
Sophie’s smile renewed, the brilliant expression stopping his heart, the way it had every time he’d seen her since they’d first met way back in high school. She came to a stop in front of them, barely within arm’s reach. “He must be doing well if you’ve got him out here for some fieldwork.”
Haydn remained at ease, unconcerned with her proximity, as Forte and Sophie stood there. Curious, even, if Forte was any judge of body language. And he was. For dogs, at least.
He shrugged. “Easy going with Haydn. He needs a lot of light walking, over different kinds of surfaces, to get a feel for his prosthetic. We’re not out for too long. I don’t want to tire him out or put too much strain on his legs.”
Sophie nodded in understanding. “Glad to meet him, though. I thought I was going to have to wait until I stopped by this weekend.”
While they spoke, Haydn watched them both. Then he stretched his neck and sniffed the back of Sophie’s hand, which she’d been holding conveniently within reach.
Introductions were simple with dogs. Stay relaxed, let the dog know the approaching person wasn’t a threat via body language, and give the dog time to investigate on his own. Sophie’s body language was naturally open and non-threatening. She had learned from Forte not to look his dogs in the eyes. The dogs he trained tended to be dominant and aggressive, and they required a more careful approach than the average pet on the street.
Usually, he preferred if a person asked to be introduced, but this was Sophie. If she’d approached anyone else, she’d have requested permission to say hi to the dog. But this was him and her. Between the two of them, everything was an exception. She spoke to him and took it on faith that he’d tell her if she needed to keep her distance. But then again, he also wouldn’t bring a dog out in public that wasn’t ready to be socialized.
It showed how well she’d come to know the way he worked in the past few years. He’d changed with every deployment. It happened. And she’d adjusted and accepted those changes in him without a word when he came back. She was the steadfast forever friend.
He’d never told her why he’d left in the first place or why he’d come back. She was so good at just accepting him that she might never know. And he was a coward for not telling her.
“What’s your plan for him?” Sophie glanced down at the dog, now that he’d sniffed her hand. “Haydn, right?”
Forte gave her a slight nod, and she ruffled the fur around Haydn’s ears. The big dog’s eyes rolled up, and he leaned his head into her hand for more enthusiastic scratches.
Definitely no problems socializing. Then again, in Sophie’s hands, most males turned to Silly Putty.
Or…he needed to stop thinking about what could happen to him in Sophie’s hands.
“Yeah.” Forte cleared his throat. “He’s got a couple of weeks of physical therapy first. Then we need to coordinate with the Air Force on his adoption.”
“Ah.” Understanding in one syllable. She had the kind of caring heart to fill in the gaps when something went unsaid. “His handler didn’t make it?”
Part of why Sophie was one of the only people Forte felt easy around was because she got it. Only needed to explain once. And she listened the first time. Sometimes no explanation was required at all.
Forte shook his head. “Same IED that injured Haydn took out his handler. The deceased’s family has been contacted, and they’ll have first choice to adopt. We haven’t heard back yet on their decision, but those kinds of things can take some time coming through the communication channels.”
Sophie nodded and looked down at Haydn. “We’ll give you time to figure things out while all the paperwork goes through, huh? It’s nice to meet you, Haydn.”
The black GSD leaned into her, his tongue lolling out in response to the attention and the use of his name. Haydn knew when someone was talking to him and, apparently, he liked Sophie’s voice.
Every bond between working dog and handler was unique. Haydn was dealing with the loss of his handler in his own way, mostly by being generally friendly with the trainers and those to whom he was introduced. But there was friendly and there was truly affectionate. A deeper level of affection was something Haydn seemed to be holding in reserve. This physical training period would give the dog the time he needed to be ready to bond with someone again, too.
If he decided to. It was always the dog’s choice.
“Where’s your car?” Forte was not going to stand around long enough to be jealous of a dog. Not at all. “We’ll walk you.”
“Right across the street.” Sophie jerked her head in the direction of a small parking lot.
They headed over, Sophie falling into step next to Forte. She didn’t try to take his hand or tuck her own around his arm. They weren’t like that. Besides, she knew he didn’t like to be all wound up with a person when walking out in the open. It was another way her understanding of him manifested. It was a regular reassurance. A comfort.
Better than free cupcakes.
“Has Haydn met Atlas?” Sophie asked casually.
The first rehabilitation case at Hope’s Crossing Kennels had been Atlas, a dog suffering from PTSD after his handler had died. One of Forte’s trainers and close friends, David Cruz, had worked with Atlas and still did now that the dog had become a permanent part of the kennels. But Atlas’s challenges had been psychological. With the help of Lyn Jones’s approach to working with dogs, Cruz had successfully brought Atlas back up to speed.
“Briefly.” He glanced at Sophie and caught her making a face. “The dogs don’t need group therapy sessions.”
The psychology aspect of the rehabilitation was something Forte was willing to entertain only so far. Lyn got results with her work, yes, but he was not going to go all the way into the deep end with the dog whisperer approach.
He made a stupid face right back at Sophie. “You do not need to come over and sit Atlas and Haydn down to compare notes on what they’ve been through. Souze doesn’t need counseling, either.”
Souze was Rojas’s partner, a former guard dog turned service dog helping Rojas face the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life.
Sophie was silent a moment, a sure sign his guess at her thought process was on target. “Well, they do need to play with each other sometimes, right?”
“Dogs are social creatures, and, yeah, some playtime is good if they can socialize with other dogs that way.” He’d give her that. Forte made sure the dogs trained at Hope’s Crossing Kennels could socialize well with both human handlers and other working dogs. “Haydn’s the second military working dog to come to us for help after active duty, but his challenges are mostly physical. We have to watch him carefully with the prosthetic on until we all know what he can do with it, including him. But, yeah, he’s gone out with Atlas and Souze on a couple of group walks without the prosthetic.”
Honestly, Haydn was pretty spry even without the prosthetic. The dog just had better mobility with it.
“Okay.” Sophie let it go. “I just think you and your working dogs could use a little more playtime in your lives. Like a doggie field day or something.”
Sophie’s car was a sensible sedan, the sort to blend into a lot of other normal, everyday cars. What made it easy to spot was the pile of cute stuffed animals across the back. Not just any stuffed animals—a gathering of cute Japanese and Korean plush characters from her favorite Asian cartoons.
As they approached, Sophie juggled her shopping bag to pull her keys out of her purse and triggered the trunk.
“Need help?” Forte came up alongside the car, scanning the area around the parking lot out of habit.
“No worries.” Sophie lifted the trunk door and carefully placed her shopping bag inside the deep space, leaning in to move things around to where she wanted. “I need to make sure this is arranged so stuff doesn’t shift. It’s delicate!”
He was not going to admit to anyone, ever, how much he was willing to stretch his neck to catch sight of her backside while she was leaning over.
Haydn sniffed the side of the car. The big dog was very engaged, his relaxed attitude changing over to a sharper set of movements. Forte tore his attention from Sophie. Actually, the black dog was very interested in the car.
Forte tuned into the dog’s body language, changing his own to match. He leaned forward a fraction, his balance over the balls of his feet. He kept his limbs loose, ready to respond to the unexpected. It didn’t matter that they were in a sleepy town on the edge of a river in the middle of a peaceful country. It didn’t matter that there shouldn’t be any real danger there.
Haydn had detected something out of place. Something wrong. Forte’s stomach tightened into a hard knot. Nothing wrong should be anywhere near his Sophie.
His attention centered on the sniffing dog. Whatever Haydn did next, Forte would act accordingly.
Haydn deliberately sat and looked up at Forte. It was a clear signal. One Haydn had been specifically trained to give as a military explosives-detection dog.
“Sophie. Step away from your car.” He’d explain later. Be afraid later. Rage. Worry.
She popped up from the trunk. “Huh?”
They had to move now.
Sophie always listened to him, Rojas, or Cruz when they were urgent. She complied, thank god. He gave Haydn a terse command and circled around to grab Sophie and get more distance. He steered her across the parking lot toward a big Dumpster. It’d serve as good cover. Then he reached for his smartphone.
They got a couple of yards away, and Sophie craned her neck to look back at her car, even as she kept moving with him. She always did as he asked immediately, but she had a brain, and she insisted on explanations after she complied. “What—?”
Behind them, the trunk hatch came down with a solid thunk.
Forte let out a curse and grabbed her, pulling them down to the ground and rolling for the cover of other cars as an explosion lifted the entire driver’s side of her car.
* * *
Sophie screamed. Maybe. She was pretty sure she did, but wrapped in Brandon’s arms and smooshed up against his chest, she wasn’t sure if she’d gotten it out or if it’d only been in her head.
The explosion was crazy loud. The concussive force of it slammed into her and Brandon despite the shelter of the cars and the Dumpster he’d pulled them behind.
He covered most of her, one of his hands tucking her head protectively into his chest. His other arm was around her waist. They were horizontal.
Not the way she’d daydreamed this would happen.
After a long moment, all she could hear was the ringing in her ears. Her heart thundered in her chest. And she thought, maybe, Brandon’s lips were pressed against her temple.
Or was it her imagination?
His weight lifted off her, and his hands started to roam over her, gentle but with purpose. Looking for injuries.
His voice started to penetrate the roaring sound filling her head. The words slowly started to make sense. “Are you hurt?”
“Haydn?” She sounded funny in her own mind, but Brandon met her gaze for a moment and jerked his chin to one side.
“Don’t turn to look until I check to see if you hurt your neck or head.” His admonishment came through sharp. It was the way he talked when he was worried. People thought it was meanness, but it wasn’t. He was frightened. For her. “Haydn’s right here. He’s fine; a little shaken up by the blast, but his training will help him keep his shit together. He’s fine.”
As Brandon continued, a cold nose touched her cheek. Big ears came into view, and warm, not-so-sweet breath huffed across her face.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispered. It was for both Brandon and the dog.
A brief whine answered her. Then a large, furry body lay down next to her, just barely touching her shoulder and side. A fine tremor passed through the big dog and then he pressed closer to her.
“He’s going to stay here with you.” Brandon rose. “Can you lay here until the ambulance comes, Sophie? Please? He’ll be calmer if he has you to watch over.”
Then she realized things hurt. Her right shoulder, her hip. Pain shot from her right ankle. Maybe the only thing that didn’t hurt was her head. Brandon wasn’t just worried about Haydn.
“Is it bad?” She stared up at Brandon as he lifted his smartphone to his ear. Sirens were already approaching.
Brandon held out his hand. “Give us space, please. Stay off the blacktop!”
People must have been gathering. He was stepping out to take command of the situation. He was walking away from her. Again.
“Don’t leave me,” she whispered. She always said it quietly. Because she didn’t want him to actually hear her.
A soft woof answered her instead. Careful not to turn her head, because Brandon had asked her not to, she looked as far to her side as she could. There was Haydn lying next to her. His eyes were dark, almost as black as his fur. And his gaze was steady on hers. Calming. He wasn’t going to leave her.
“Okay, Haydn,” she whispered to her new friend. “We’ll wait right here for him.”
It was what she’d always done. And this time, she had company.
Forte leaned against the wall, keeping an eye on all approaches in the hospital corridors. From his vantage point, he could monitor the elevators to his right and the nurse reception area for the floor. To his left, the hallway stretched all the way down to the one emergency stairwell. If anyone odd showed up, he’d see them right away.
Haydn lay with his big head on his paw at Forte’s feet, keeping him company. The dog appeared to be resting, but his ears were up and alert. They’d both been there for hours since Sophie had been brought in, assessed in the emergency room, and admitted for further observation. Haydn had accepted a bowl of water from the friendly nurses, but Forte hadn’t taken them up on offers of food from the cafeteria or drink. His stomach was a tight knot of cold anger, pent up and controlled, waiting to hear more on Sophie’s status.
Those hours had been long and filled with tension, but they had allowed both Haydn and Forte to assimilate the “normal” sounds on this particular hospital floor. Any time an unusual clang, ping, or voice broke that learned soundtrack, Haydn’s ears twitched and Forte searched for the source to assess the potential threat.
It might be overkill. Maybe. Forte was reasonably certain it wasn’t. He’d wait until he could check in with Rojas and Cruz to be sure.
Officer Kymani Graves was in Sophie’s room now, asking her about the explosion. In the absence of Sophie’s direct family, Ky had arranged with the hospital to allow Forte to remain nearby. Which was good because nothing would’ve kept Forte from being as close to Sophie as possible. He’d almost lost her today, and his heart stopped every time he thought about it.
Forte had to respect the hospital staff, though. They’d been understanding and had given him space. Apparently, they’d gotten used to the vigilance of the Hope’s Crossing Kennels trainers when one of their own was under medical care.
Back then, it’d been Alex Rojas keeping watch. Elisa had become the kennel’s administrative assistant and an integral part of Rojas’s happiness. When she’d been attacked by her stalker, Rojas and his dog, Souze, had intervened in the kidnapping. It’d been too close a thing for any of their peace of mind. But Elisa had only needed a few hours under observation to be sure she hadn’t suffered any major injury from the harrowing ordeal.
Forte hadn’t envied Rojas the worry, but he’d understood. Or thought he had. Now, when it was Sophie here, Forte wasn’t sure how to keep the seething combination of rage and anxiety in his chest under control.
Sophie—his Sophie—had been hurt. There’d been a bomb in her car.
Until they all knew exactly how and why it’d happened, there was no way he was leaving Sophie’s safety to question. She wasn’t just a childhood friend; she was his reason for breathing.
And he’d never said it to her out loud.
Haydn lifted his head, issued an almost inaudible whine, and came to his feet. Forte murmured quiet praise and reassurance, straightening away from the wall to stand and be ready for what might come next. The GSD wasn’t his, specifically, but Haydn had been right there with him through the hours without a single complaint. This was work, and Haydn was a working dog at heart. It allowed the big dog to focus on the task at hand and get past the aftershock of having been near another explosion.
Ky emerged from Sophie’s room, closing the door behind him quietly. The officer glanced down to the end of the hallway, then turned to find Forte and smiled. Relief flooded through Forte at the sight of Ky’s brilliant white teeth contrasted against the backdrop of his dark skin. The man had a grin that could disarm an entire crowd.
“She’s fallen asleep.” Ky reached Forte in a few long strides, his uniquely resonant voice pitched low so it didn’t travel too far down the corridors. “I asked her a few questions, but she wasn’t able to answer in much detail. I’ll be back in a few hours to question her again once the initial sedation has worn off. The doctor tells me she’ll be more lucid after she’s had a chance to rest and recover from the shock.”
The doctor had grudgingly given Forte a more detailed catalog of Sophie’s injuries. Superficial cuts and scrapes from the asphalt of the parking lot were the least of the worries, though the most visible at the moment. Mild tinnitus would mess with their hearing for a while longer but was likely temporary. The cars around them and the Dumpster had saved them from the shock wave of the explosion, thankfully. But contusions incurred from falling to the ground would start surfacing in a couple of days, and Sophie would be aching, sore, and in some pain from those. The biggest concern at the moment was her right ankle. She’d twisted it severely as they had gone down and they’d need X-rays to determine whether it was broken.
It could’ve been worse. Unspeakably worse.
Still, Forte considered every one of those injuries his fault. If he’d recognized Haydn’s signal sooner, gotten her away from the car more quickly, she might not have been hurt as badly. He had his fair share of scrapes and bruises, too, especially across the outsides of his forearms, but he’d learned a long time ago how to fall and get to his feet ready to take action. Sophie had learned to land on mats at Revolution MMA in the women’s self-defense workshops, not on hard asphalt with things blowing up around her. She’d stiffened up as they went to the ground and hadn’t quite rolled with him as he’d tried to distribute their momentum. It’d been enough for her to come out the worse for wear between the two of them despite his attempt to protect her from flying shrapnel.
“I’ll stay with her.” Forte didn’t expand on how long. It wasn’t even a question. He’d watch over her while she needed him.
“Her family’s out of town, from what I gathered?” Ky didn’t pull out his notebook. The police officer had an excellent memory. Forte guessed he took notes only for the benefit of the people he interviewed.
“Yearly visit to South Korea.” Forte considered the date. “They should be back just before Christmas, in about a month and a half.”
- "4 Stars! With an action-filled plot riddled with suspense and tension, Drake's latest in her True Heroes series is the best one yet. Steady pacing, engaging storytelling and genuine, vulnerable characters (coupled with the endearing heroic dogs that protect and love them) make this romance shine."—RT Book Reviews
"Drake's sharp storytelling shines with an engaging plot that's thick with tension..."
—RT Book Reviews on Extreme Honor
- On Sale
- Dec 20, 2016
- Hachette Audio