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Read by Daniel Thomas May
Read by Kristin Kalbli
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Retired Navy SEAL Alex Rojas is putting his life back together, one piece at a time. Being a single dad to his young daughter and working at Hope’s Crossing Kennels to help rehab a former guard dog, he struggles every day to control his PTSD. But when Elisa Hall shows up, on the run and way too cautious, she unleashes his every protective instinct.
Elisa’s past never stays in her rearview mirror for long, and she refuses to put anyone else in danger. But with Alex guarding her so fiercely yet looking at her so tenderly, she’s never felt safer . . . or more terrified that the secrets she keeps could put countless people in grave peril. The only way for both to fully escape their demons will take the ultimate act of courage: letting go and learning to trust each other.
You’ve got to be insane.”
Elisa Hall took a prudent step—or two—back as she observed the standoff brewing in front of her. A tall man stood between her and the emergency room reception desk, glaring at the woman in scrubs behind it. He stood at an angle to Elisa, so he could see the reception desk to his right and the entirety of the waiting area in front of him.
He clenched his fists.
Elisa retreated farther back toward the entrance, releasing her throbbing wrist and letting her hands fall to her sides. Harmless. Nothing to see here.
“I’m sorry, sir, but ambulances take precedence over walk-ins,” the nurse repeated. She was braver than Elisa would’ve been in the face of rage on a level with the man’s at the counter.
He was dressed in loose fitness shorts and a close-fitting black tee. His hands were wrapped in some cross between tape and fabric.
“Fighter” might as well have been printed across his very broad, muscular shoulders.
Actually, now that she was looking, his tee said Revolution Mixed Martial Arts Academy.
Well, then. Maybe she should just take more ibuprofen and forget about seeing a doctor for her swollen wrist after all. Getting her injury examined wasn’t worth staying anywhere near this guy.
The nurse glanced quickly at Elisa then returned her attention to the man, her expression softening with sympathy. “As soon as an examination room opens up, we’ll get you in to see the doctor. Please, wait right here and fill out these forms while I help this young lady.”
Wait, what? The man’s face, and his focus, turned toward her. Oh, great.
Usually she envied nurses their ability to sympathize with so many patients and make such a difference in their lives. Now was not one of those times.
Elisa squashed the urge to bolt. Never ended well when she tried it. Better to hold very still, wait until the anger in front of her burned itself out, and pull herself together afterward.
Instead, she fastened her gaze on the floor and tried to keep her body from tensing visibly. Silently, she sang herself an inane nursery rhyme to take her mind off the weight of the man’s intense glare. Please, please, let him walk away. They were in public, and even though the emergency room waiting area wasn’t packed, it still had a dozen people scattered around the seats.
But the expected explosion, shouting, other things…never happened. Instead, the man had quieted. All of the frustrated aggression seemed to have been stuffed away, somewhere.
She swallowed hard. Relief eased her constricted throat, and she breathed slowly for the time being. Leaving remained the best idea she had at the moment.
But he stepped away from the counter and farther to her right, motioning with a wrapped hand for her to step forward. As she forced her feet to take herself closer to the reception desk—and past him—he gave her room.
Belatedly, she realized his movement also happened to block her escape route toward the doors. He couldn’t have done it on purpose, could he? But Elisa took a step up to the reception counter and away from him anyway.
“Yes, dear?” The nurse’s gentle prompt made Elisa jump.
Damn it. Elisa’s heart beat loud in her ears.
The nurse gave her an encouraging smile. “Don’t mind him. He’s been here before. I’ve already asked another nurse to bring ice packs as fast as possible. I don’t mind if he blows off some hot air in my direction in the meantime. I would be upset, too, considering today’s situation.”
Elisa bit her lip. She could still feel the man standing behind her, his presence looming at her back. He couldn’t possibly appreciate the nurse sharing some of his private information. And he didn’t seem to need ice packs or any other medical attention. He appeared very able-bodied. “It’s none of my business.”
The nurse placed a clipboard on the counter and wrinkled her nose. “Oh, trust me, the entire waiting room knows what his concern is. Tell me what brought you here.”
This might be the most personable emergency room reception area Elisa had been to in years, not counting the extremely angry man standing behind her. They were either not very busy—not likely if all the examination rooms were full up—or extremely efficient.
Efficiency meant she could get in and out and decide what her next steps would be.
“My wrist.” Elisa held out her left arm, her wrist obviously swollen. “I thought it was just a bad sprain, but it’s been more than a few days and has only gotten worse. I can barely move it now.”
And if she could have avoided it, she definitely wouldn’t have stopped in to get it treated. An emergency room visit, even with the help of her soon-to-be nonexistent insurance, was still an expense she didn’t need. It’d been six months or so since her last significant paycheck, and she could not afford to extend her insurance much longer. Plus, it might be better not to. One less way to track her.
“Is that your dominant arm, dear?” The nurse held up a pen.
Elisa shook her head.
“Oh, good. Leave your ID and insurance card with me so I can make copies. Take a seat over there to fill out this form and bring it back to me.”
Okay, then. Elisa took the items and made her way toward the seating area, thankful the nurse hadn’t asked her to give her name and pertinent information verbally. It was always a risk to share those things out loud.
She’d learned over and over again. There was a chance a slip of information in the unlikeliest of places would find its way to exactly the person she didn’t want to have it. No matter how careful she’d been over the last several months, it hadn’t been enough yet.
But it would be. This time. She was learning, and she was free. Every day was a new chance.
Nodding to herself, Elisa looked for a seat. It might not be crowded, but just about everyone in the room had decided to sit with at least a chair or two buffer between them and the next person. The buffer seats were all that were left, and most of the other people waiting to be seen were either men, or women sitting with men.
Then she caught sight of a young girl sitting with her legs crossed in the seat next to the big planter in the corner. Slender, but long limbed, the girl had a sweet face and the gangly look of a growing kid. Elisa guessed the girl was maybe eight or nine, could even be ten. Hard to pin down age when the kid had such an innocent look to her. The seat next to her was open, and she was waiting quietly, hugging a big, blue, plush…round thing. Whatever it was.
Elisa walked quickly over, and when the girl looked up at her with big, blue eyes, Elisa gave her the friendliest smile she could dig up. “Mind if I sit next to you?”
The girl looked around, her gaze lingering on the reception area behind Elisa for a moment before saying, “Sure.”
Elisa took a seat.
After a few silent moments, the little girl stirred next to her. “Are you sick?”
Well, paperwork didn’t take much of her attention, and it’d been a while since Elisa had been outside of her own head in a lot of ways. Conversation would be a welcome change and a good distraction from the constant worry running in the back of her mind. “Not sick so much as hurt. I won’t give you the plague.”
A soft, strained laugh. “Same here.”
Elisa took a harder look at the big, plush toy. It wasn’t for comfort as Elisa’d first assumed. It was supporting the girl’s slender left arm, which was bent at an impossible angle.
“Oh my god.” Why was she sitting here alone?
“Don’t worry.” The girl gave her a quick thumbs-up with her right hand. “The doctors are really good here, and I’m in all the time.”
Such a brave face. She had to be in an insane amount of pain. And here she was encouraging Elisa.
“Is there someone you should talk to about how often you get hurt?” Elisa struggled for the right tone. It was one she’d heard more than once when people had been concerned for her. Some places had safeguards in place for…
Blue eyes widened. “Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. Trust me, people ask my dad. And it’s not like that at all. I study mixed martial arts. I get bruised and bumped all the time, and usually it’s nothing, but Dad always makes me come in to get checked.”
It was hard not to believe in the earnest tone. But monsters were everywhere.
The girl gave her a rueful smile, still amazing considering how much pain she had to be in. “This time it wasn’t just a bump.”
“Which is why they’re going to see you as soon as they can, Boom.”
Elisa hadn’t heard the man approach. He was just there. He kneeled down in front of the girl then gently tucked an ice pack around her arm while moving it as little as possible. For her part, the girl hissed in pain but otherwise held up with amazing fortitude.
Elisa would’ve been in tears. The forearm had to be broken. Both bones. It didn’t take a doctor to figure that out. No wonder the man had been mad earlier. She’d want this girl to be seen as soon as possible, too. She dropped her gaze, unable to watch.
“Here.” An ice pack appeared in her view. “Your wrist should be iced, too. Take down the swelling while you wait.”
Speechless, Elisa looked up.
The man’s words were gruff, awkward. His expression was blank. But his eyes—a softness around his eyes—and a…quiet in the way he watched her made her swallow and relax a fraction. Her heartbeat stuttered in a fluttery kind of way. A completely different reaction from what she should be experiencing if she were wise. She didn’t know this man and he was probably married. The girl had a mother somewhere. Where? Maybe on her way. This man was just being nice. Maybe.
Learn from your mistakes. You never know who a person really is.
“You should listen to Dad.” The little girl had regained her earnest tone. “He’s usually right. Even when I think he’s crazy, it turns out he’s right and I wish I’d listened to him. Besides, he gets hurt even more than I do. He says ice is his best friend.”
“So is ibuprofen.” Elisa snapped her mouth shut, not even sure why she’d let the comment pop out.
The little girl gave her a brighter smile. “Yeah. He says that, too.”
The dad in question stood, his knees creaking a bit as he rose up and took a step back.
Elisa was grateful for the space even though he probably wanted to be near his daughter. His presence was intense even if his movements were all steady and smooth. No sudden or frenetic motion. Nothing to freak her out.
“Have you ever had self-defense?” the girl continued. “Dad says every person should take at least one class or seminar. It’s what got me started in mixed martial arts. I liked it so much I started taking classes.”
Where is your mother? Elisa wanted to ask, but kept it to herself. A thoughtlessly asked question could put a person in a worse than awkward position. Better to just stay in the conversation at hand.
“I haven’t, no.” Elisa wasn’t sure if the man minded the line of chatter, but it did seem to keep her mind off her own wrist, so maybe it was a distraction for the girl, too. If it was, the least she could do was help a girl this sweet. “But it sounds like good advice. Will you be worried about mixed martial arts now?”
The girl gave a slight hake of her head, grimacing as she unintentionally shifted her arm. “I want to go back as soon as this is fixed. I’ve got a belt test at the end of the year, and I want to make black belt before I get to middle school.”
“We’ll let the doctor take a look and get some x-rays,” the man interjected, his voice low and maybe amused. “Then we’re going to follow doctor’s orders to let you heal up correctly.”
“Then I’ll go back to class.” The little girl was not to be deterred.
Elisa couldn’t help but smile. Dauntless. So much conviction in such a young package.
“Rojas?” A new nurse stood in the double doors leading from the waiting room back into the emergency room area.
The girl’s father straightened. “Here.”
The nurse nodded and motioned for a young man in scrubs pushing a wheelchair.
In moments, the girl was eased into the wheelchair, big round plushie support and all. She gave Elisa a wave as she was wheeled away to see the doctor.
Elisa waved back.
Wow. Just wow. Elisa took a deep breath. There was one heck of a personality. Someday that little girl was going to grow into a powerful, confident woman.
Someone cleared his throat near her.
For the second time in the space of a few minutes, the man had snuck right up on her. This time, he was holding out a cup of coffee and a card. “Revolution Mixed Martial Arts. It’s local, if you’re staying in the area. There’s a women’s self-defense workshop coming up in the next couple of weeks. Boom made me promise to come give this to you.”
Words stuck in her throat as she stared at the proffered card. The hand that held it was strong, the fingertips callused, and the nails trimmed back out of practicality rather than aesthetics. Even wrapped in the tape as his hands were, she took note of those details. She imagined they were a sign of honest, hard work. The hands of a good person.
If she could believe she knew how to recognize good anymore.
This man had been very gentle with his daughter and with Elisa. And here he was, being kind again. Her chest tightened, and she savored it, this small act.
It took a long minute for her to pull her wits together enough to take it from him—and the coffee, too. His hands remained steady until she had both in her own. He didn’t give any sign of impatience, didn’t try to shove either cup or card at her to make her hurry despite probably wanting to get back to his daughter.
Oh no, she shouldn’t keep him.
As she gingerly took the offerings, he didn’t extend his fingers to touch her the way some men would.
Warm brown eyes the color of dark chocolate studied her, saw straight through her and left her feeling exposed. “The workshop takes it slow and easy. It’s assumed everyone is a beginner. If you mention my name, you’ll get a discount. Rojas.”
She blinked. “Oh, but that’s not nec—”
“You distracted Boom for a while. I appreciate the help.” His tone had gone back to gruff. “And she’s right. You’d benefit from the workshop.”
He turned on his heel and headed back to the ER.
Okay, then. Elisa studied the card for a minute. She was too new to the area to recognize the address, but if she could get a hotel room with Wi-Fi, she could map it pretty easily.
Exhaustion rolled over her in a wave. If she decided to get a hotel room tonight. Everything she owned was stuffed into her car, not that there was much. Just as easy to sleep in her car if she could find a safe place to park, tucked away and secure. She could find an out-of-the-way rest stop and catch a little sleep before trying to find a job tomorrow morning. It’d be cheaper and not as easy to find her.
The thought of stretching out in a king-sized bed—hell, a queen-sized bed, even—tempted her to be reckless. She shook her head and took a cautious sip of hot coffee. This was comfort. Splurging on a hotel room was ill-advised at best.
Even trying not to think of the worst-case scenario, her heart rate kicked up and she glanced at the entryway. No one was there. Not yet. Hopefully, no one would come in looking for her.
Once upon a time, she’d had a steady salary in a corporate environment and an expense budget for travel. A king-sized bed was a given. Now, she’d be glad to get an hourly job with some sort of benefits. Even fast food restaurants had full-time positions if it came down to it. But she’d try bookstores or maybe a nearby mall first. Anything fast to get an income going while she looked for a more stable position. Practicality first, bruised pride later. Better than other bruises that took months to heal.
She’d think more on it. Later, when her thought processes weren’t skipping around between what she ought to do and what might come through the door at any minute. After she had her wrist examined. One step at a time.
As she worked through her jumbled thoughts, realization washed over her in a wave of caffeine. She’d completely misjudged the man at first. He’d done one nice thing after another, and she hadn’t thanked him. Not once.
Elisa looked around the waiting room. A few people had entered, but the room seemed emptier somehow, without the girl and her dad. Boom, he’d called her. Had to be her nickname. Elisa could picture the girl kicking butt in a martial arts class. “Boom” was probably appropriate. Imagining what her father could do was something Elisa shied away from, but the thought was tantalizing more than frightening.
Elisa shifted her position in her seat, her hamstrings and backside aching from hours of driving. This time, it’d been too close. She’d driven up Interstate 95 for as long as she’d been able to manage it before stopping. This was about as far away from where she’d started as she could get and stay on the same continent.
Her foot hit something, and she looked down to see a stray glove on the floor, almost under the chair. She bent to pick it up and found a tag on the inside wrist of the glove.
Hope’s Crossing Kennels.
Elisa rose and wondered if she could ask the nurse to return the glove to Boom and her father. After all, they’d be here a while.
But as she approached the desk, the nurse took the clipboard from her without looking at her. “Thank you, dear. They’ll be calling you any minute now to take you back. Have a seat.”
Before Elisa could say anything about the glove, the nurse had turned her attention to another person who’d just entered. Elisa jumped, then silently cursed herself. And there were two more people coming through the doors. The night was getting busier.
Heart pounding, Elisa returned to her seat and struggled to remain watchful without letting fear get the best of her. Hopefully, she’d either catch sight of Boom in the ER area or ask a nurse to find the girl and her father to return the glove.
She really wanted to manage to thank him if she saw him again.
Some mornings were just a little more challenging than others.
It was a good thing getting to work didn’t involve traffic, driving, or more than a two-minute walk. Life had its simplicities that way, and Alex Rojas reminded himself that things could always be worse.
He could have to wear a tie to work, for example.
He hurried out the front door of his home, letting it slam shut behind him as he tugged the one clean polo he had left over his head. He jogged down the porch steps and across the yard to the side entrance to the main building of Hope’s Crossing Kennels. Living on the property was another thing to appreciate.
The dogs in residence came to their feet to greet him as he passed by each of their enclosures.
“Sorry, boys. I’ll be back for you in a minute.” His pace didn’t slow, and he let his momentum carry him right into the main building. He passed the common kitchen area and snagged an apple out of the basket on the counter, thankful for Sophie’s thoughtfulness. Sophie might be a childhood friend of Forte’s, but she’d adopted Rojas and David Cruz as big brothers without hesitation. It’d been awkward when they’d first arrived a few years ago, but Sophie hadn’t been deterred by the kind of walls he and Cruz had built around themselves. She walked right through them, over them, whatever.
When Brandon Forte had established Hope’s Crossing Kennels, he’d built it as a new proving ground. It was a place for men like Rojas to start over. The support people like Forte and Sophie provided just by being themselves…it was a good feeling to be surrounded by it.
“Rojas? I’m up at the front.” Forte’s voice echoed down the hallway, and Rojas headed for the main entryway. Forte, Cruz, and Rojas usually had breakfast together before dawn, but Rojas had missed the meal after staying up most of the night watching over Boom. His daughter was currently still tucked in and he was here, catching up with the day.
The waiting area was empty, but it’d be crawling with people and dogs within the next few minutes. Rojas surveyed the reception area and grabbed a broom from its hiding place behind the front desk. The place was clean, but this was a dog training and kennels facility. There was always random fur to be swept up. “Remind me again why you decided to offer obedience classes for troublesome twos and threes.”
They already had a steady class schedule for the general public, teaching basic and advanced obedience classes. Adding these troubleshooting classes for dogs, and their owners, who’d been through obedience and still hadn’t quite worked things out, took more energy out of every trainer at the kennels.
Forte pushed away from the reception desk. “Because we want the community to feel safer with us here, not afraid of our dogs or us. The more people who have classes with us, the better. It’s beneficial all around.”
Good point. A fair amount of PR could only be helpful. Rojas had endured his share of crap experiences when he’d been fresh back from deployment, before he and Boom had moved here. Times when he’d still been in culture shock from coming home and people made things worse by reacting out of fear. He still hated going off the property into busy places like grocery stores or malls; too much going on and too many triggers for his overreactive reflexes. But now, when he did go out, people recognized him. Some even had smiles for him, though mostly they welcomed Boom. And that was more important.
If the community was afraid of them and the dogs they trained, Boom wouldn’t have those positive experiences.
“Besides,” Forte continued, “anyone can go to a local pet store for basic obedience and puppy training classes. We’ve got the skill sets to handle the older two-year-olds, give or take a few months, and make behavioral corrections. Maybe prevent a few dogs with potential from landing in shelters.”
Rojas grunted. To be honest, usually it was more about training the owner than it was about training the dog. “Retraining isn’t my favorite pastime.”
“Sometimes it’s worth it.” Forte set a pile of clipboards on the front of the reception desk. “When you’re done with sweeping, can you find some pens?”
Rojas finished up, got rid of the gathered dust and fur, and stowed the broom. Then he started going through drawers on a search mission for the damned pens. “The occasional older rescue with bad habits or a tricky history is worth the effort.”
Actually, he enjoyed working with those. It was time well spent, helping the owner willing to give such dogs another chance.
He liked to think they all deserved another chance from time to time.
“Yeah, you’ve got a soft spot for those.” The clipboards fell with a clatter. Forte cursed. “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
“We need an admin.” It wasn’t the first time Rojas had made the suggestion.
“Yeah, yeah. Cruz mentioned it.”
Rojas snorted. “And Sophie and Lyn, too. Lyn’s reputation is enough to bring more people in on top of what we’ve already got, so it’s only going to get harder to manage.”
Lyn Jones was a civilian dog trainer with a solid consulting business. She’d come in four or five months earlier on consult to work with Cruz and Atlas, a high-profile military working dog. Both Cruz and Atlas had had it bad for Miss Jones, and she’d developed a strong partnership with Cruz. With her less structured, more psychological approach to working with dogs, they were seeing more civilians come to them for dog training.
Good for the kennels. Maybe not so good for him. The more he had to deal with people, especially the ones milling around in the waiting area before a class got started, the edgier he got. All the frenetic activity, the sudden moves, and random raised voices drove him crazy. Half the time he found himself ready to head for cover, sure something was trying to kill him. The rest of the time he struggled to quell the instinct to take out the potential threats first. This wasn’t a danger zone and, theoretically, nothing was trying to kill him. Or at least he was trying to convince himself of that one day at a time. He’d been getting better, but the hard days still outnumbered the peaceful when it came down to it.
Top pick. "I'm not sure what I can read next that will compare to Ultimate Courage!"
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