Authors: Erin Sloane
© 2016 by Erin Sloane
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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I'm not here to be saved. Especially not by him.
Marlo Croft's life is exactly how she wants it. Organized and independent, she focuses all of her energy on rehabilitating the rescued dogs that so desperately need her help. Her past is her own business, and she isn't going to share her dark secrets with anyone.
Especially not a police officer.
Adam Guildford is here for one job only: to research dogfighting crime rings and eradicate them. But when he ends up on Marlo's doorstep, holding the leash of the last surviving dog at the center of an ongoing investigation, he's drawn into her world. Her tenderness and love for the broken animal makes him want to reach out to her to find his own healing.
The attraction between them kindles into something deeper and more intense than either of them expected. But Adam and Marlo have both built walls around their hearts, and their looming pasts threaten to destroy any chance of a future together.
They were brought together to rescue a dog. But could they ever rescue each other?
arlo Croft had never failed
to connect with a rescued dog that arrived in her care, no matter how damaged it was.
The sight of the battle-scarred red-and-white pit bull male, huddling at the back of the kennel, tied a knot of dismay in her stomach. The new arrival was attempting to be as small and inconspicuous as possible, and damn, she knew what that felt like. Don’t make a fuss; don’t get yourself noticed. Duck the blows. It’s much easier to survive by remaining in the shadows.
Her thigh muscles burned, but Marlo forced herself to remain in a crouch, side on to him, unthreatening. Not that it mattered. If he had at least shown he sensed a threat, she would have something to work with. This little guy felt nothing. His body language said he simply wanted to be left in his own private world.
Not a good sign from a pack animal.
“Your luck has changed, little pup.” She kept her voice gentle. “We’re going to make it all better for you.”
She stood and edged from the enclosure before stretching to release the bunched-up muscles in her back and shoulders. As she moved away, her focus remained on the rescue until she could no longer see him.
This was Dog Haven Sanctuary’s isolation area for strict quarantine. It was also the ideal housing situation for hiding the seized dogs who—because of a criminal investigation—were under a federal gag order. In high-profile cases, theft was always a risk, so the dogs existed as myths until that order was lifted.
“Are you getting any response?”
Marlo jumped, her heart firing a techno-beat in her chest. She'd lost herself inside the small world of the rescued pup in the cage, trying to make that connection, but now she realized the transport people were waiting outside the enclosure. She took a better look at the guy who had spoken and,
oh, hell, who have they hired this time?
“No, no response at all. He’s a bit shut down. It’s probably the stress of the trip along with everything else he’s been through in the past few weeks.”
The stranger took a step closer. “It seems ‘shut down’ is his permanent state since he was rescued from the dog fighting syndicate.”
His unfamiliar accent was puzzling and she couldn’t catch the origin. Men with foreign accents—okay, handsome men with foreign accents—were a distraction. The only distractions she allowed into her life were ones like the unresponsive little pup in the quarantine area.
“He is breathing. That gives me something to work with.” She forced a smile to suppress the twinge of self-doubt that had arisen over the past half hour. Walking away from the new pup without making a connection went against her every instinct, but she had to reassess. Her usual processes clearly weren’t going to work in this case.
The smile he returned was empathetic, as if he recognized her feeling of failure and wanted her to know that he cared. Perhaps that was why she found herself braced by his strength as he took another step towards her. One more step would bring him into her space. That’s far enough, big guy.
He introduced himself as Adam—except the way he pronounced his name, it sounded like Eh-dum. She reached for his extended hand, and hers was enveloped in a handshake that was confident, modified for a woman without being patronizing.
He appeared road-weary and his strong hands had clearly pushed through that dark, slightly too-long hair a few times recently. His rumpled state indicated hours spent cramped in a vehicle. But those eyes, such a deep gunmetal-blue, were alert, and he watched her the same way she had watched the dog a few minutes earlier. Questioning, as though looking for clues.
“I was told people call you the Gladiator because of your willingness to step into a cage with any dog,” Adam said, his voice less of a question than a bold statement, raw and husky.
His height, his physical strength that suggested not an ounce of flesh or muscle were wasted on his tall frame, made
look like the gladiator, ready to take his sword and face any opponent.
Despite his obvious fatigue his looks made him hard to turn away from. Somehow he was fresh, like a new season arriving right at the moment you’d had enough of the old. He was alien in the sense that no man had held her interest, made her curious enough to take a moment to study him.
When he smiled his open mouth revealed perfect teeth, his eyes deepening in colour, little lines at the corners suggesting he smiled often.
Marlo wondered for a moment what it would be like to have someone like Adam on your side, to protect you, to fight your battles and slay your demons. It was fanciful, and she shook her head.
The way he described her made her sound brave when it had nothing to do with courage on her part and more to do with her being good at reading dogs. It was simply a language skill. Other people could speak French. Gladiator…what a laugh.
“Calling me that suggests all the dogs we get through here are dangerous. Mostly they’re filled with fear and trying to survive.” It was important to her that he understood, which was odd because usually all that mattered were the dogs. “I don’t put myself in danger.” She gestured to the kennel. “That little guy has no intention of hurting anyone.”
“Which is odd, don’t you think, for a dog classified as extremely dangerous?”
Before she could answer, the sound of an engine turning over distracted her. She waited for the Canine Rescue and Rehabilitation driver to maneuver the CRAR transport van out of the transfer area. The driver lowered his window and called out, “Good luck with the new boarder, Marlo.”
“Thanks, Mike,” she replied and then turned to Adam. “That’s your ride.”
Adam lifted his hand and dismissed the driver with a quick wave. “I’ve got a rental car. I met Mike at the Richmond shelter, and we drove up in convoy. He’s going on to Seattle tonight, so I came under my own steam.”
“I’ll wait while you finish up here. Then maybe we can go indoors, and I’ll explain what’s going on. Do you have an office?”
They locked eyes; his gaze was flawless and held her in place until heat rippled between them like the hungry lick of a flame. It swirled, then flared up to her chest, coloring the skin across her neck and over her face. “An office, yes.” She broke eye contact and looked at the ground, unnerved by her desire to engage with this handsome man.
Marlo double-checked the gate’s lock and alarm and grabbed some composure before she gestured for Adam to follow her. The entire walk to her office, he kept slightly behind her, as if she was under escort.
Another day of sun had left enough warmth to heat the evening. Along the barely lit path, crickets chattered, falling silent as they passed. Marlo moved with confidence. This was her territory—her own refuge— and she could walk this blindfolded.
“Mind the step,” she warned, barely wiping the smile from her lips when she heard Adam stumble on the uneven flagstones outside the office door. Stellar night vision was obviously not one of his super-powers.
She switched on the light and stepped into her office. Along one wall was a well-worn sofa which was often occupied by a dog or two, as were the two armchairs facing it. In the corner, an area was penned off and held a couple of dog beds, a useful space for any rescues needing extra people-time. A row of hooks held coats, hats, spare leashes, and collars. Out the back were the storeroom, bathroom and kitchen.
She placed her phone and paperwork on her desk as she passed by it, heading to the kitchen. “Take a seat.” She gestured to the armchairs. “I need tea. Will you have a cup?”
“I’d love some, thank you. I thought you Americans only drank coffee.” The smile he flashed crinkled the corners of his eyes.
Ignoring his attempt at charm, she continued through to the kitchen and grabbed two mugs. “You’d be surprised,” she called back. “We’re quite sophisticated in Halo Peak.”
“It’s not the first thing that surprised me about this place.”
Marlo jumped. He was right behind her. When had he moved from the office? One of the mugs slipped from her hand to the floor, breaking into thick chunks.
“Easy there. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
That’s twice now.
She crouched to the floor to clear up the pieces. “I’m not usually clumsy.” Adam had followed her move to the floor, and his nearness did something really weird to her nerves.
“Here, you missed this.” He held out a small shard, and when she reached for it, he met her with a clear smile. She froze, just for a short moment as she waited for the smile to fade, but he stood and she found herself watching him turn and walk back through to the office. Her jangling nerves settled and that little heart-stutter steadied as she rose and continued making the tea.
t had taken
Adam fourteen hours since meeting up with the CRAR driver to travel from Utah to the Dog Haven Sanctuary in Washington State. Mix jet lag in with the intense concentration needed to drive on the wrong side of the road, and he was exhausted. All he wanted was food, a hot shower, and his bed. He took a mouthful of tea, wincing at the bitter taste before swallowing. Not the floral blend he’d been expecting, this tea was straight green, brisk and without embellishment. He placed the mug on the desk.
“I guess you’d like to know why I’m here.”
“I’m researching illegal dog fighting for a South Pacific-based group. It’s a broad brief, including intelligence gathering and investigation of the bust, forensics, prosecution, and—the main reason I’m in your office—what happens to the dogs once an operation is taken down.”
He removed a file from his bag and, using his lean thighs as a temporary desktop, opened it, scanned the contents, and summarized as he read aloud to her. “Obviously you’ve met Assassin. He is one of thirty-two pit bull terriers, collectively named the Richmond Thirty-Two, seized from a dog fighting syndicate in Richmond County, Virginia. Unfortunately, Assassin failed to pass a single evaluation test for rehab potential, nor does his temperament qualify him for permanent sanctuary. They’ve written a list of issues that combine to pin him with the classification of extremely dangerous.”
Marlo’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding me. That dog out there is doing pancake impressions and someone’s labeled him extremely dangerous?”
He fanned through the file notes. “So it would seem.” As he focused back on the pages, the words became a meaningless jumble on the paper. His eyes were gritty, and he would happily grab an hour’s sleep if he could slide a little deeper into the chair. He drew a breath of concentration and read on. “A highlighted section states Assassin was so shut down that the testing couldn’t be completed.”
“Hell, poor dog.”
“He was scheduled for euthanasia, but something went wrong with communications and—this is bizarre and tragic—the thirty-one other dogs from the seizure in Richmond were euthanized, with Assassin being spared. It leaves a situation where it is absolutely vital no harm comes to Assassin—”
“Justice,” Marlo repeated. “In recognition of the other dogs rescued with him. His new name should be Justice.”
There was calm appeal in her amber eyes, and he was sucked right in as he wondered how often that look got her what she wanted. “Details of the case, the dog, and anything in connection with them are strictly embargoed. No media, no journalists, no photos or videos, and definitely no social network sharing.”
She was nodding. “I get it. I’ve done this before.”
“Of course.” Adam returned to the notes. “I’ve got the results of the evaluation testing they were able to complete, which will be useful to you if I can locate them.”
“I doubt that.”
“You doubt what?” Adam continued to rummage through the file, spilling some of the papers onto the floor. He bent to pick them up. Now she had him rattled.
“I doubt that his test results will be of any value to me.”
“And why is that?” He raised an eyebrow and felt one corner of his mouth lift with it. Damn, she was nice to watch. Her hair was mid-brown accented with gold when the light caught it. The same color was matched by a few freckles sprinkled over her nose and across her cheeks.
He’d noticed her smooth economy of movement when she’d been around Justice, nothing jerky or quick that would startle the dog. But here in the office she was all tight and wiry with the sort of contained energy that made her look as though she could achieve vertical take-off at will. “And why is that?”
“It’s a handicap for the dog to be defined by his past. I prefer to start with a blank slate and work with what presents itself on the day. My techniques can be different than those used by shelter employees, and the situation here at the Sanctuary is different from the county shelters. Less stressful, I hope. We can all run similar tests and achieve entirely different results. I don’t want to sound rude, but maybe now that there’s only the one dog left from the dog fighting syndicate, this won’t make a very useful study. I can talk to CRAR…they can probably find a more appropriate group for you to work with.”
Was it him in particular she objected to or simply the nuisance of having an observer forced upon her? She’d have to get used to it. He wouldn’t be around for long. Observe, report, fly home. Simple. “We have to work together and help each other out. Whether you believe it or not, this could be very good for dogs all over the world.”
She frowned, and her shoulders dropped as a little of the fight left her. “I don’t need any help.” The phrase sounded worn.
“I do.” He smiled.
“I’ll be honest with you, Adam. I’m usually left to work alone, and I’m not sure about this interference. It’s distracting.”
A soft laugh fell with his next breath. “They warned me you were a maverick.” He gathered his papers and stood to leave. “Thanks for the tea. I’ll be back here in the morning.” He turned and walked from the office into a moonless country night.