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David Cruz is good at two things: war and training dogs. The ex-soldier’s toughest case is Atlas, a Belgian Malinois whose handler died in combat. Nobody at Hope’s Crossing kennel can break through the animal’s grief. That is, until dog whisperer Evelyn Jones walks into the facility . . . and into Atlas’s heart. David hates to admit that the curvy blonde’s mesmerizing effect isn’t limited to canines. But when Lyn’s work with Atlas puts her in danger, David will do anything to protect her.
Lyn realizes that David’s own battle scars make him uniquely qualified for his job as a trainer. Tough as nails yet gentle when it counts, he’s gotten closer to Atlas than anyone else-and he’s willing to put his hard-wired suspicion aside to let her do the same. But someone desperate enough to kill doesn’t want Lyn working with Atlas. Now only teamwork, trust, and courage can save two troubled hearts and the dog who loves them both…
To Courtney Miller-Callihan: Thank you for your confidence in me and your never-ending patience.
To Lauren and Dana: Thank you for working with me to polish this story and make it even better.
David Cruz studied the woman standing in the front waiting area with equal parts irritation and interest. The room had an open design to accommodate dozens of owners and their dogs comfortably—enough space to prevent tussles the humans might not be able to break up without a trainer’s help. Of course, the area was empty of other people and dogs at the moment and this little bit of trouble filled the room just fine on her own. Her neat dress suit had to have been tailored to a fit so exact, it might as well have been a military dress uniform. And she wore it as if she was ready for inspection, her posture perfect with her shoulders straight, her chin up, and her hands easy at her sides. If her thumbs lined up with the side seams on her skirt, he’d have wondered if a cadet had gotten lost from the nearby military academy.
The severe gray fabric didn’t leach color from her face, though; instead the contrast set off her peaches and cream complexion. Made him think of a dish of ice cream on a hot day. And even standing still, she radiated energy. Charisma. Like she could burst into motion at a moment’s notice and heaven help the man who got in her way. He had an urge to step right up and see if she could run him over.
Not likely, but it’d be fun to let her give it a try.
“Jones. Evelyn Jones.” Her sharp tone cut across his attempt to address the current issue with any semblance of calm. “Any and all documentation you might need is right there in the folder I handed you. If you’ll verify it instead of wasting both of our time trying to send me away, I’ll be able to get to what I’ve been sent here to do instead of standing around engaging in a pissing contest.”
Well, she’d come in ready for a fight.
Head held high and standing as tall as she could, her hackles would’ve been raised if she’d been a dog. The mental image was entertaining, to be honest, especially since her blond hair was pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail combined with the stylish poofed-up effect. No idea why women did that but hell, she looked good.
And he did take a minute to appreciate her as she was: compact, curvy, and hot enough to catch the attention of every male on two legs walking the property. But her impact on the four-legged variety remained to be seen.
He could do without her glaring attempt at intimidation, though, and he wondered whether he shouldn’t send her sweet ass right on back out the door. If she crossed her arms over her admittedly impressive chest or otherwise altered her body language to increase her aggressive stance, he would. If her attitude was enough to scratch his temper, the dog she was here to see would rip her to shreds.
“Your credentials aren’t in question, Miss Jones.” He raised his hand to forestall another interruption. He’d had plenty of experience with her kind of sprint-out-the-gate, establish–credibility-immediately personality. It didn’t intimidate him one bit but he also wouldn’t be rushed. “As I was about to say, you could wait here and be run over by the incoming class of two-year-olds or you can come on in to the office area and have a cup of coffee while I make a few calls.”
She blinked and her cheeks flushed. “I…of course. A cup of coffee would be appreciated.”
Somehow, he doubted that considering the sour tone of her voice. It took some effort not to grin at her discomfort. “Glad you decided to come along. The two-year-olds aren’t a bad batch but their handlers are in some serious need of training. Go figure.”
The corner of her very kissable mouth quirked. “Isn’t it always the human side of the pair in need of the real training?”
Now, they had some common ground after all. At least when it came to civilians.
But if he wanted to be fair—and hell, who did?—Military dog handlers needed heavy training at the beginning, too. Especially if they wanted to reach the level of excellence required of a special forces working team.
He led her past the receiving desk and down a short hallway to a smaller area with chairs arranged for easy conversation. They had one of those little one-cup coffee makers and she seemed fine fixing up her own mug. He preferred his coffee brewed in a real pot and none of those handy automated gadgets managed a strong enough brew.
The whole host-and-good-manners thing dispensed, he headed for his office. “If you’ll just wait here…”
“It would save time if you showed me Atlas. I could introduce myself to him while you’re making your call.”
He halted; his temper simmered back up to the surface. “With all due respect, Miss Jones, you’re not meeting Atlas until I’ve straightened out exactly what is going on here.”
“It’s fairly straightforward. I’ve been brought in at the request of the Pentagon to work with the dog you refuse to introduce me to.” At the edge of his peripheral vision, her movement caught his attention. A slight raise of the chin. “It would save you time if you would take my suggestion before I make a call of my own.”
He studied her for the few seconds it took for his irritation to cool enough for polite conversation again. All bravado and possibly some real bite behind her threat. It depended on exactly who at the Pentagon had contracted her.
“You could save us even more time and leave now.” He turned to face her, calling her bluff. Lesser men backed down immediately under his glare. Took her a full five seconds to drop her eyes. “As far as the United States Air Force is concerned, Atlas was placed under the care of Hope’s Crossing Kennels with me as his official trainer. Currently, I’m willing to go through due diligence and consider a joint effort if your consulting credentials are confirmed. But if you truly did your homework on Atlas and this facility, you would know you either work with us or you are escorted off the property. This is not a general kennel where consultants are allowed to stroll in and work independently.”
After all, Hope’s Crossing Kennels wasn’t just a training facility for domestic pets. And the trainers who lived here weren’t civilians.
He strode into his office and resisted the urge to slam the door behind him. Bad enough she’d goaded him into a pissing contest. Instead, he managed a creditable quiet close without shooting her a dirty look as he did so. He stepped around his desk, fired up his computer. Logging in always took longer than he’d like. Then again, there wasn’t a computer system fast enough to keep up with the advancing demands of security and surveillance needs and the equipment he had installed throughout the interior—and exterior—of the kennels gave him constant streaming feed whenever he needed eyes on a particular part of the property.
At the moment, Miss Jones remained seated and sipping her coffee. Good. Even better if her very attractive behind stayed put. It’d be a damn shame if she took her bluff further and did something stupid, like wander off.
Gaze trained on the video feed, he reached for his Bluetooth earpiece and made sure his smartphone was connected. “Call Beckhorn.”
A few rings. “Beckhorn here.”
Beckhorn always recognized Cruz’s number so it wasn’t a surprise when the man answered right away. Cruz was glad his longtime friend had been free enough to take a call at all.
“Please tell me you didn’t send her.” Not likely, since Beckhorn was at Lackland Air Force Base down in Texas. But hell, influence didn’t always have to do with geographic location.
A pause. “Unless I forgot I sent you a stripper for your birthday, I got no idea what you are talking about here. And I’m sure as hell I don’t know when your birthday is off the top of my head.”
Shouldn’t. But he did. Visuals of Miss Jones doing a sensual striptease superimposed the real woman still sitting on the edge of a chair just outside his office. A lot of potential there, but he’d best file the fun thoughts for some later time tonight.
“A Miss Evelyn Jones arrived today with a very official statement of work to provide consultation for Atlas.” And didn’t that just chafe his butt. He was the best military dog trainer on the East Coast. He didn’t need a…dog whisperer.
“Huh.” Beckhorn had a few other choice utterances. Man hadn’t lost his touch with the creative expletives. But then, men like him and Cruz tended to not lose the survival skills they’d accumulated over multiple deployments. “Send me scans of the documentation. I’ll need to track it down but I’m gonna say up front I’m not surprised.”
“There’s a reason you flew me down there to meet Atlas.” Cruz probably didn’t need to remind Beckhorn but it could always be said for the benefit of the lady who’d left her seat and was now standing with her ear pressed against the door. Maybe he’d raise his voice a notch or two for her benefit. “The dog comes first. I won’t waste time playing nice with any handpicked consultants if it compromises the dog’s progress. If she’s a help, she stays. If she’s a pain in the ass, she’s out.”
Especially when some of the work he needed to do with Atlas went beyond the dog’s recovery and more into what had happened to his handler. He didn’t need some consultant tangling things up.
“Agreed. No worries from this angle.” Beckhorn sighed. “Let me follow the audit trail and figure out what officer brought her in. Atlas is a high profile dog. Between the news spot and the articles published about him, the military is going to spare no expense to do right by him. But it also means others are going to want to make doubly sure Atlas has the best care out there. I’m surprised you don’t have half a dozen consultants from various military offices and a few choice senators pounding at your door.”
“This isn’t about news coverage.” Cruz tried to keep the growl out of his voice. “It’s about giving Atlas what he needs to recover from where he’s been.”
And what he’s lost.
Some people might not give a dog credit for emotions, but Cruz had seen dogs exhibit unfailing loyalty and selfless courage in the face of danger for the sake of their handlers. They experienced emotions. They loved. Deeply.
Atlas had seen awful things. Hell, so had they all. But Atlas had lost his handler—his partner—a man the dog had given his everything to. The dog deserved some sort of peace for the rest of his days if Cruz could help him. And Atlas’s handler deserved to have the truth behind his death exposed, if anyone could find it.
“Based on your twenty-four-hour report, Atlas hasn’t improved much.” Beckhorn cleared his throat. “Not expecting you to work miracles, but one of those would help your case in working with the dog solo.”
“I’m not going to rush the dog.” Cruz stood up and began to pace, irritated. Oh, not with Beckhorn, but with higher ups always convinced throwing more resources at a problem would lead to faster results. “He’ll come around in his own time. I’m letting him get to know me and the facilities here. Not as structured as a military base, not as chaotic as a normal home.”
“What are you going to do with the consultant?” Beckhorn tended to choke on the last word, but then, he had a thing about private contractors. Miss Jones might be different, but then again, she might not.
“I’ll give it some thought.” And he wasn’t committing to anything. High-ranking sponsors from DC or no, if Atlas didn’t like her, Miss Jones was out the door.
And it was about time to address the way she was lurking on the other side of his.
* * *
The door opened so fast under Lyn’s hands, she pitched forward before she could catch her balance. She came up against a hard, very well-muscled chest.
Smooth, poised, graceful even. All things she wished she’d managed but definitely was not.
He wrapped big hands around her upper arms and set her back on her own feet. Cheeks burning, she forced herself to look up into his face. His brows were drawn close over his steel-blue eyes in the most intimidating scowl she’d ever encountered. No sense in fumbling for excuses. “I figured giving in to my curiosity about whatever you were doing was better than succumbing to the urge to go meet Atlas.”
A noncommittal grunt was his only reply.
Good. Because she was fresh out of ideas for how to recover the professional manner she’d strapped on this morning as armor. She fussed with her suit, straightening the fabric and brushing away imaginary dust, as if setting her clothes to rights would bring back her confidence.
“For what it’s worth, the doors around here are surprisingly soundproof.” It would be the closest she’d admit to having pressed right up against the door trying to hear something, anything to give her a clue as to whether this man would cooperate today or if she’d have to escalate back up to her sponsor, the man who’d signed her contract, her employer. Thinking of the man in those terms made her grit her teeth.
And she wanted to talk to him like she needed a hole in the head.
David Cruz quirked his very sexy mouth in a half-smile. “Good to know. Maybe I’ll cancel the order on the white noise generators for the offices.”
Lyn blinked. “Overkill for a kennel, isn’t it?”
His dark eyes fixed her in a somber stare. “We’ve all learned here to be prepared for every conceivable situation. It’s kept the people, and some of the older dogs, alive when others didn’t make it. We like to keep up the practice.”
Oh man. Mental note to do some more research on Hope’s Crossing Kennels. All her employer had given her was a newspaper article on Atlas, the hero dog returned from overseas, and the address for the kennel he’d been transferred to. She’d walked in ready to deal with the usual blustering egos. Strong personalities were a given with trainers working with dominant dogs all the time. But taking in the man that was David Cruz, really looking at him…
Lean and wiry, Cruz didn’t seem to have an ounce of extra flesh on him. Everything about him was sharp, from the way he responded to every sound around them to the way his musculature showed through his snug tee. Cut wasn’t the word for it. She thought she’d seen some fitness guys on the Internet call it shredded? Oh yes. His bronze skin and dark hair, combined with his brooding expression, stole her mental filter, leaving her with no sensible words from the start.
She was messing up this entire project and what she really wanted was to do the only thing she was good at: helping dogs. She’d turned down two private training contracts to clear her schedule for this. Her services were in high demand. And damn it, she could help Atlas.
But she’d made a mistake trying to bulldoze her way through Cruz. She shouldn’t have tried to get around him or walk over him. Her employer would’ve sneered at her and cited a serious tactical error. But she wasn’t military and she didn’t have to maneuver her way to steady footing again the way others might. She could give a little, compromise, adjust to the situation and change her approach. And she could open her mind and learn before trying to shower everyone with her expertise.
“Has the status with Atlas changed?” She kept her tone soft, trying not to make it sound antagonizing.
Cruz’s brows drew together and if it was possible, his expression darkened further. “How do you mean?”
She treaded carefully. “Newspaper article said he was pining away for his handler who died overseas.”
A long pause. “He’s eating.”
Her heart skipped and then sank. It was a good sign if Atlas was eating. Bad news was they might not need her after all.
“To be fair,” Cruz continued, “he’s only eating on command. He won’t eat if someone’s not watching to make sure he does.”
Lyn struggled to keep a politely positive expression. No gloating. No anything that might shut Cruz down again. “I appreciate your honesty.”
“Yeah well, I try not to lie unless absolutely necessary.”
But he hadn’t had to share the whole truth either. Was he giving her a chance?
Whatever she said next might mean the difference between seeing Atlas and seeing her way out the front door. Her employer wouldn’t be happy and she wouldn’t be either.
Atlas’s story had struck a chord with her. He’d gone to hell and back on the commands of someone he trusted, with unwavering faith he was doing the right thing. And that person was suddenly gone. Her father had always guided her to do the right thing. When he died, her world had been filled with a lot of people telling her what to do and every one of them had their own selfish motives in mind. It’d stopped being about the right thing and warped into presenting the right illusion.
Be real. Every dog recognizes a fake. And good men can see through it too.
“I’d really like to help.” Honest. Simple. All the other reasons paled in comparison to this.
Cruz pressed his lips together in a hard line. She thought for a moment he’d say no. Fighting the urge to let loose an avalanche of reasons why she could and reiterate every point on her résumé supporting her expertise, she forced herself to stay put and wait. Five years rehabilitating abused animals in New York City and four years working as a private trainer to some of the most difficult human personalities on the West Coast had taught her patience.
“You’ve worked with dogs suffering from PTSD before.” He made the statement a question.
“Yes.” Quite a few in fact, but with a man like Cruz, she was getting the sense that less was more, at least when it came to credentials. He could and would check out her résumé later. He’d see her years of work, her awards and appearances at training conferences, in the paperwork.
No more bragging at this point and no more blustering.
She didn’t have a chance to thank him, only hurried to keep up as he took long strides down another hallway and through a solid built door. They came out in the hallway to a set of kennels built directly against the main building.
Every one of the dogs came to alertness.
Cruz came to a stop at one. “We’re not going to do the usual introduction and sniffing. I’m going to open up the kennel and bring Atlas out. I’m going to hand him off to you and I want you to do exactly as I did for him. Then you’re going to give him back to me.”
Lyn nodded. This was new to her. It didn’t matter because she was up to handling anything this man might ask her to do. What mattered was Atlas.
Cruz gave a quiet command and opened up the kennel. A moment later he was leading a beautiful, muscled dog out into the corridor. The dog stood squarely on all fours and had the elegant lines characteristic of the Belgian Malinois breed. His proud head was chiseled and in good proportion to his body. There wasn’t an ounce of extra flesh on him and in fact, he looked slightly gaunt.
Still, even among the working dogs she’d met, she wasn’t sure she’d ever encountered a dog with this air of…fitness.
But there was something missing. Atlas was aware and responsive, but he didn’t have the indefinable energy the other dogs around her were projecting. He wasn’t engaged, vibrating with eagerness. Intelligence was unmistakable in his expression but there was no air of inquisitiveness. As if he didn’t care.
Another murmured command and then the man bent down. Picking up Atlas, he wrapped his arms around the dog’s chest and hindquarters in a secure hold. He then lifted what had to be around 70 to 75 pounds of solid dog and turned to her.
Lyn swallowed hard.
She held out her arms, watchful for Atlas’s reaction. He remained calm in Cruz’s arms and didn’t even look at her. As the trainer stepped forward, she copied his hold on the dog, ignoring the accidental brush of Cruz’s arms against her breasts. Once Atlas was securely in her hold, Cruz stepped away.
Atlas’s fur was surprisingly silken and soft under her hands. She resisted the urge to bury her face in his shoulder. God, he was a magnificent animal. Gorgeous, and so very sad. Her heart ached…and so did her arms.
How long was he going to have her hold Atlas? She leaned back slightly to try to take more of the weight in her back and legs as her arms strained.
She would not drop this dog.
“Okay.” Cruz stepped forward and took Atlas from her.
As the dog left her arms, Atlas turned his head and touched her cheek with a cool nose and sniffed. Once.
“Huh,” Cruz grunted. He stepped back and set Atlas on his feet. Then he returned the dog to his kennel with quiet praise.
Lyn waited, trembling a little. She should probably add some weights to her daily fitness routine. If Cruz had noticed how hard it had been for her, he might not…
“We start tomorrow.”
“Excuse me, what?” She’d heard him. Only, it wasn’t what she’d expected.
“That’s the first sign of personal response I’ve seen out of him.” There was a wry note in his words. “I’ll take help where I can get it. You’re staying at a nearby hotel?”
“Yes.” Excitement zinged through her.
“Good. Give me the address and leave the attitude you came here with back at the hotel room.” Cruz scowled at her. “This, right here, the you I see right now with the dogs is the person I want to see at oh-five-hundred tomorrow morning.”
She wasn’t going to argue, not when she basically agreed with him. It was going to be such a relief not to have to walk around with attitude for armor. Any soldier her sponsor had ever introduced her to had been a world-class asshole. The attitude had protected her, given her a way to stand up and not be treated as a doormat…and it was exhausting. But it seemed as if David Cruz was a different kind of military man and for the first time, she looked forward to working side by side with one.
But she was not going to say “yes, sir.”
“You got it.”
A grin spread across his face, lighting up his whole expression and doing evil things to her libido. “Well, you might be one of the better things that’s happened all day after all.”
Seriously? You’ve been here for days and it’s a woman who gets your attention?” Cruz stood in Atlas’s kennel, leaning against the doorframe.
The dog in question lay in the far corner, probably enjoying the cool cement beneath his belly. Not that he didn’t have the option of a cushy bed over in the other corner.
Right now, Atlas wouldn’t even look at Cruz and the dog seriously appeared to have no shits to give on the current topic of conversation. He’d been that way since Cruz had returned from seeing the very pretty Miss Jones out to her car and hadn’t moved in the several hours while Cruz was out working the other dogs under his care.
’Course, Atlas rarely moved, based on Cruz’s experience both in having observed the dog back at Lackland Air Force Base and in the days here at Hope’s Crossing. The dog might as well be a statue unless given a direct command. Then he’d obey, but it was like giving a robot orders.
When Cruz had seen Atlas respond to Jones, there’d been a spark. A ghost of the young dog Cruz had trained years ago.
And he would latch on to any incentive to get the dog to respond.
“Well, we’ll see how you do with Miss Jones tomorrow morning.” Not even a perked ear. Then again, Atlas didn’t know the pretty stranger’s name yet and it occurred to Cruz that he wasn’t on a first-name basis either.
Been too long surrounded by just men and dogs.
Oh, he’d dated on and off since he’d arrived in Pennsylvania. A couple evenings here and there in Philly. He’d had a few hot women but nothing had lasted more than a few sweaty nights, and he had no plans to change the trend.
“I bet the club scene isn’t your style either.” Cruz preferred to spend some time every day hanging out in Atlas’s kennel, talking. Gave the dog a chance to get to know him again, become used to his presence as a companion and not just as a temporary handler or his once-upon-a-time trainer.
"Drake's sharp storytelling shines with an engaging plot that's thick with tension..."
- On Sale
- Jan 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages