Authors: Erin Sloane
In her periphery, she could see Adam walk up from the lake. The dogs abandoned her and went to greet him, leaping and pawing at him because their temporary little pack was complete again and all sorts of ancient and mysterious canine rituals had to be observed.
He shook himself in a similar way the dogs had, and droplets of water flew about. “Sorry, no towel.” He pushed his fingers through his wet hair. “That was fantastic. After a week of sitting cooped up in planes, cars and meeting rooms, I needed that swim more than anything. Thanks for bringing me out here.”
Marlo kept her study on the shoreline. “Oh, you’re welcome. I’m pleased you enjoyed it.”
“Have you lost something?”
Only my sanity. Now, please put some clothes on
“No, I’m looking for sticks.”
“There are some over here. A small pile, actually.”
Of course, the police officer finds the pile of sticks.
“Are you avoiding me because I’m stripping my wet pants off now?”
Her cheeks grew hot again. Why did he have to nail the issue like that and state it so obviously? Did he have a direct link to everything that made her uncomfortable?
“Okay, I’m doing that naked bit.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake, that’s ramming it down…no, not ramming anything anywhere.
“Dressed now. It’s safe to look.”
She glanced up in time to see him stuffing his underwear into the side pocket of his cargo shorts.
He shrugged, watching her discomfort and grinned. “Wet pants chafe, so I’m commando for the trip home.”
“Yes, I’m sure they do. Chafe, I mean.” Double-flustered now. “We should head back.”
“What about the sticks? Shall I bring them?”
“Forget the sticks. I don’t need sticks.” She tried to keep her voice light.
“Are you sure? Because a moment ago you were looking for them and you don’t seem to have any, but I have this little stack here.”
He was winding her up and if her face got any hotter, it would burst into flames. “Don’t need sticks, okay?”
His grin remained as he turned and walked ahead of her to the track that took them up to the bluff. He climbed the steep part and waited, holding out his hand to help her up.
“I’m fine,” she told him, looking around for something to grasp. The root of a bush, a handhold in the rock, anything, but in seconds she could see that his hand was the best option.
“You’re better than fine—” he gestured with his fingers for her to take hold, “—but you’re not going to lose your Girl Guide proficiency badge if you let me help you up here. Come on.”
“It’s Girl Scouts. In America we say Scouts,” she muttered, flustered as she lifted her hand to his.
He reached beyond her hand and gripped her wrist. “Up you come, Scout.” He hoisted her with ease, her feet skimming the rock face, the momentum causing her to bump into him as he helped her over the top. He kept hold of her arm, drawing it tight against his side. Leaning into her, he asked in a low voice. “Was that so bad?”
Yes, this is so bad.
She could feel the heat of him and smell him, they were that close now, trapped on the small space of rock. Her breath hitched and she shook her head. “No.”
“No,” he repeated. The corner of his mouth lifted slightly so that she thought he would laugh. But he didn’t and when he looked at her again his eyes were serious. He released his grip an instant later and continued to watch her. “That was difficult for you, yeah?” His voice was still immeasurable.
She wanted to tell him he was wrong, that whatever his instincts about her were, well, they were wrong too. Instead she turned away as her eyes start to burn. Nailed it again. Get me out of here.
“Let people help you, Marlo. You’re not alone in this.”
She’d always been alone.
Brushing past him to the path, she came to a halt when she realized he had taken hold of the hem of her shirt. Facing him, she simply shook her head and he let her free.
“Let me help you.”
Worse, that’s actually worse
“The dogs need your help, Adam.” She watched his smile fade. “You’ve got a chance to change things. I really hope you can.”
She called Shiloh to her. After reminding Adam his dog was deaf, she set a quick pace back to the Sanctuary.
t’s been days now
, and I’m still trying to rehabilitate a pancake.” They were standing outside the kennel enclosure. Justice was flattened on the grass with his back to them.
Adam leaned on the fence. “He’s pathetic.”
She looked at the dog again. Pathetic. Broken. Taking that bit longer than usual to trust me. She wasn’t unrealistically optimistic, but she knew about damage and she knew about repair. This bit of damage she was sure she could fix.
At the start, there had been outrage for each abused dog sent to her. She would play the dog’s history in her mind like a horror film on a perpetual loop, using it to drive her
She touched Adam’s arm. “If we get stuck in the negative stuff we can’t do our job properly. As a cop, you know that, huh?”
“Some use anger as motivation.”
Marlo shrugged. “Short term, that might be okay…”
His cool hand covered hers. “You’re right. I know that.” His face had softened and his fingers squeezed quickly before he released her hand. “Is he walking yet?”
“Not while I’m about. I still carry him in and out of the kennel. Lulah’s bringing her dog over and we’re going to see if Joker can make a connection with him.”
As if on cue, Lulah and the dog appeared around the corner. Joker was a white bull terrier mix who looked like a comic book dog. He had a large black splotch on one side of his body that matched the black patch over his left eye.
“We call Joker the extractor because he can pull any dog out of his shell…any person, too.” Lulah rubbed his chest. “You could charm a basket of mad snakes.” She slipped him a treat. “What’s the plan, boss?”
Marlo explained what they would do. Lulah took Joker into the fenced run alongside the one Justice was in and started to walk him up and down. Justice moved his head.
“Okay, he’s showing interest. Release Joker and leave him in the run to do his thing. He’ll ‘speak dog’ better if you’re not part of the scene.”
Lulah unclipped the leash and left the run.
“I must have blinked because I didn’t notice anything.” Adam looked from the dog back to Marlo.
“His head moved. Justice looked at Joker.” She smiled at Adam. “It’s one little thing that’s kind of a big deal.”
Lulah joined them and whispered, “Who’s praying here?”
“All of us,” Adam whispered back. “And I’m making bargains with the universe, if that helps.”
Lulah stared directly at Adam. “It helps if we all hold our breath.”
Lulah managed to stay silent for three whole seconds before bursting into laughter.
“All right, funny girl, you got the rookie.”
Marlo’s gaze fixed on the dogs as she tried not to laugh. “Mainly it helps if we relax and observe. Don’t be shy about pointing out anything you notice because sometimes we see different things.”
Joker trotted up and down the enclosure a couple of times before stopping at the fence close to Justice. His stance was side-on and non-threatening. Justice lifted his head completely from where it had rested on the ground and he made small movements with his nose as if he was nudging the air to get access to Joker’s scent.
“This is good.”
Justice began to rise to his feet and Joker turned to face him.
“Watch now,” said Marlo. “We should get lots of signals from Joker that will tell Justice everything is safe.”
Joker was turning his head to the side, his tongue flicking out of his mouth.
“If we were closer, we would probably see him making sideways glances, rapid blinking, things like that. I wish we could see what Justice is doing.”
Although slightly crouched, this was the tallest they had seen Justice stand. He held his tail curved tightly under his body, but so far he showed no sign of aggression. Then it happened, a sort of crouched-walk to the fence to check Joker. When he reached the fence Justice took a moment, then shuffled himself as close to the barrier as possible and sniffed the muzzle of the other dog. Joker wagged his tail like crazy and slowly Justice’s tail straightened and began to wag. The arc his tail travelled in was a small promise of what was to come if he completely relaxed.
The next switch fired, and suddenly Justice sat side-on to the fence, pressing himself against the wire as if trying to make contact with the dog on the other side. He lifted and replaced his forefeet on the ground, the front-end dance swaying his body like a distance runner shuffling on the race start line. He pushed his nose through the fence and started to lick Joker’s muzzle as if it would sustain life itself.
Adam grinned. “So, holding our breath was the key after all?”
“I told you,” said Lulah.
The dogs continued to keep their attention as Justice’s body language changed so that he stood tall, his tail wagging enthusiastically. When he tried to spin a circle in response to a play bow from Joker, Justice collapsed in a tangle of legs.
“Poor thing,” said Marlo, “no condition and no co-ordination. At least those things we can fix.”
Adam was looking at her as if he’d found Waldo.
“What?” Marlo asked.
“I get the feeling you can fix anything.”
“I can fix some stuff…” With one fingernail she picked at a raised flake of paint on the fence. She could smell him, all sun-warmed, and his male scent solicited a primitive sense of security. It unnerved her.
She cleared her throat. “Lulah, can you grab Joker and bring him around here? I want to see if Justice will follow once we have a person involved.”
Adam shifted slightly toward her. “Is that a habit?”
“The way you brush off a compliment by changing the subject?”
Marlo huffed a short laugh. “That wasn’t a compliment. Telling someone they have great hair is a compliment. That was—”
A smile spread across his face. “You have great hair.”
Her stomach gave a little flip. Ignore him, he’s teasing
She looked at his hair and wondered what it would be like to touch it, quite gently. Maybe curl a finger behind that little piece that sat tucked inside his collar at the back of his neck. Flick it out, because although she couldn’t fix everything, she could fix that for him.
His smile had remained as he watched her and she gave a small shiver as if someone had touched the back of
Oh, God. Caught.
She checked to see if he was still teasing but the smile had shifted to curiosity. She moved her feet a little. “Sorry, I was miles away.”
He tilted his head. “Really, because you were so…present…a moment ago.”
“That was the dogs.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She made a small noise, like the start of a laugh. Was she that easy to read?
A rush of warmth flooded her body as he pushed on with a look so filled with kindness that she could imagine she was the most special person in his world.
Leaning into her a bit more, he spoke with a voice low and textured. “Let go and enjoy that feeling.”
How could he know what she was feeling when she struggled to work that out herself? He was flirting with her. She might not have a lot of relationship experience with men but hell, she’d seen a lot of flirting.
Growing up, it had seemed her mother flirted with every man who came her way. Eventually the flirting was cobbled with an air of desperation that wore her down until finally, it had become a business transaction.
Marlo didn’t flirt. She wouldn’t become her mother and experience had shown her how easily that line was crossed. All Adam could offer was a drive-by relationship. Flying in, flying out. Temporary and hollow. She simply didn’t need it.
hroughout the week
Adam became an observer, watching how Marlo handled not only the dogs, but also the staff and the students at the Sanctuary. Dogs of all breeds and backgrounds went through training drills from socialization to personal assistance tasks, tracking, and scent work. Some were destined for government organizations, others would work with social agencies and as assistance dogs, and many would become pets. The overriding theme was that although these dogs had arrived damaged, they would leave with a meaningful future.
He thought he was pretty good at reading animals, but Marlo took that right up to another level. She gleaned a lot of information from the dogs’ minuscule facial and body movements and was just as good at communicating back to them.
There was the flip side of her. The B side that was really her A side. The Marlo who dropped her guard and laughed, searing his edges with that fiery smile. In those moments, her little touches asked for a bit more until she realized she was out playing without her guard. In an instant the door was closed, the bolt slid tight.
He knew what that meant. His police training had made him aware of it but his undercover work gave him so many opportunities to observe it. It disturbed him that someone, or something, had affected her so badly, disguising her emotions had become her default behavior.
hursday night was
barbecue night at the main Sanctuary accommodation. What had started as an occasional get-together had become a weekly occasion that had grown in importance for the staff and volunteers. The Sanctuary attracted a fair amount of ‘people with issues’ and, for some, this regular gathering was the closest they came to having a sense of family.
The idea of inviting Adam had ping-ponged in Marlo’s head for days but she couldn’t find the right words to ask him. A bar in town was sure to be more exciting than the Sanctuary for someone like him. But she’d heard he spent his evenings in town socializing with the local police, so perhaps he’d like a change.
It would be good manners to ask him.
It might put him on the spot.
She had wrestled with the invitation until it sounded exactly right. She had worked on the words so that she wouldn’t sound presumptuous, or flirty, so that he had an easy refusal that didn’t leave a gaping awkward moment. Then she canned the idea and was filled with relief, until a quiet moment brought the idea back to life.
As she approached her office, Marlo could see Adam through the window, sitting on the corner of her desk and talking on his phone. He faced away from her. For a moment she enjoyed the back of him, broad, something she could shelter behind. The guy could fill a shirt in a way that would give total job satisfaction to a clothes designer. The sleeves were rolled to just below his elbow giving her full view of the muscles that played down his forearm when his fingers flexed.
A weird flickering started up behind her knees. Jeepers, the happy hormones were back.
She moved closer to the door, worrying her bottom lip. That single twist of hair sat inside his collar again. Her finger twitched.
Why can’t he get a haircut so that I don’t have this constant need to ease that one lock over his collar? Why am I obsessing about his hair?
She pulled back a smile. This is so
He turned and reached for a pen, and noticed her gaze. His smile showed pleasure at catching her scrutiny, as if he had eavesdropped on a wonderful secret.
Immobilized now, she tried to make a meaningful connection with her knees while her face grew hot and glowed, like a punished cheek.
She was way out of her depth.
She glanced at his hand that held the pen and its strength, its elegance, continued to fuel the happy hormones with twice the ferocity because, of course, he had two hands and that doubled the trouble. Powerful…they looked like hands that would protect. And pleasure.
What the heck would she know about that? With a steadying breath, she sent a quick message to her knees, telling them to harden up and show some support for the team. One trial step determined everything was returning to order so she entered the office and hurried straight through to the kitchen. She would distract herself with washing up the day’s cups and glasses.
Adam finished his call and came over. “Let me help with those,” he said, taking the corner of the tea towel from where she’d draped it over her shoulder. The way he slid it from her was like a long, slow caress.
But it wasn’t a caress. He hadn’t even touched her. All he’d done was remove the tea towel and now she was completely flustered and about to chicken out, again, on asking him for dinner.
Have courage. She snatched a quick breath of bravery and asked, “Would you like to stay for some dinner? I mean, down at the main Sanctuary accommodation, not at my house.” Heck, she’d made it sound like she didn’t want him at her house. Fix it. Her laugh was squeaky and nervous. “On Thursdays we have a barbecue at the main Sanctuary accommodation. It’s Thursday…barbecue day.” Oh, great, now she was rambling
She looked into the sink and started scrubbing at a perfectly clean mug. The soap bubbles were vanishing as fast as her nerve.
She carried on, filling in the silence gap. “Tonight Jeff, one of the local vets, and his tech, Sally, who is a friend of mine, are coming over. I mean, well, it’s okay if you don’t want to. You’ve probably got other things to do—” Her voice was a mash-up of apology and anticipation. Awkward silence coming up.
“Great, I’d love to.”
She lifted her head, eyes widening. “Really? Are you sure?”
“You sound surprised. Do men usually turn you down? You’re not the Halo Peak Poisoner, are you?” He nudged her gently.
“Me? God, no.” Out popped the nervous laugh again. “I thought you would probably have more interesting things to do.”
“World domination can wait another day. Tonight, I’d be very pleased to have dinner with you…and the ‘family’.”
She’d done it; he was coming
Every part of her slowed.
Not rambling now.
“That’s great. If you want to come up to the house we can shower before we go.”
“Can we now?” Adam grinned. “I’ll enjoy that.”
Marlo lifted the dish brush and knocked it against the edge of the sink, knowing it would spray water at him.
“Looking to start a war, there, Miss?”
She laughed and as she raised the dish brush a second time she looked directly into his eyes, challenging him. Without breaking the gaze Adam grasped her wrist. It was a surprise move, like a snake strike. Like a cop.