Authors: Erin Sloane
through her pre-bed routine. Tonight she didn’t feel a trace of tiredness. She released Fala into the yard for her evening pee knowing she’d need to go out again in a few hours, thanks to the calling card of aged, failing kidneys.
She was honestly surprised how much she’d enjoyed the evening. There had been so many worries and a constant urge to cancel, yet not a single thing she feared had manifested. Even when a couple of quirks surfaced, like when she’d jerked away from the touch of his hand, Adam hadn’t seemed troubled. Concerned, maybe, but not rattled. Perhaps he would give her time, teach her how to face and conquer her fears so that they wouldn’t maintain such control over her life.
Who was she kidding? Why would he want to be bothered? Anyway, he would be gone soon.
If her past attempts at dating were anything to go by, she would have him running for the exit well before he was due to leave. It would be best to stay friends. That way everyone remained unscathed.
he next morning
, Marlo put an hour aside to prepare for a magazine interview she’d been asked to give. This was a part of the job she wasn’t comfortable with, but CRAR was always in need of publicity to assist with their fundraising efforts and right now, dog rescue appeared to be a hot topic. Normally these interviews were for pet-based magazines and blogs, but this particular story was for a lifestyle magazine with a very large circulation. She still couldn’t get her head around how rescuing dogs was going to be a good editorial fit, but that wasn’t her concern.
Keeping her private life, well, private was paramount. She found it easy to gloss over any difficult questions with a mundane sort of bio. Being the person who rescued her, Mae knew the truth about her upbringing and teenage years, and Marlo suspected some of the hierarchy in CRAR also knew. A reason she was so well-respected with CRAR was her knack for discretion, particularly for cases like Justice’s. The CRAR board, she knew, reciprocated accordingly.
There was that pull of a smile. She’d had dinner with a policeman. Wow. That was a large demon she’d beat down. He hadn’t tried to manipulate her or coerce her. Her seventeen-year-old self had allowed that to happen and no policeman, no other man would do that to her again. So now she had to think of Adam as a person, not a policeman.
Illogical as it seemed, the deep-set fear caged within her was the basis of her life’s motivation, the thing upon which all her decisions were made. Mostly she kept it smothered beneath a dense pillow of hard work. That was the problem with damaged people. They survived by being emotional liars because it was impossible to build an honest façade. That was why she understood how to break and cure a damaged dog. One day, someone might break and cure her.
Wouldn’t that make Mae happy?
With Fala at her side she headed down to the kennels to check on the new interns. The old dog didn’t always come down to the office, preferring these days to spend her retirement in the yard, where she could shift from sunbathing to shade without being bothered by the noise and chaos at the kennels and barn.
“You know a journalist is coming today, don’t you? Little supermodel wannabe! One last magazine spread, is that what you’re after?”
Fala wagged her tail and broke into a run to prove she was still as spritely as the rest of them. She pulled up when they approached the kennels and went to lie in the dappled light beneath a large white oak.
Marlo found Lulah in the food preparation kitchen, addressing the interns. “Initially you’re going to spend so much time cleaning out kennels you’ll think you are on some sort of prison detail.”
“But we have fun, too. I hope you can all ride a bike…” She waited. “Can you all ride a bike? Hello? Did the mothership only drop off bodies today, or did they come with personalities, because I’m not hearing anything…”
Low murmurs seemed to indicate they were familiar with bikes.
“That’s better. Hope I don’t have to coax every response out of you because that could become a little bit tiresome. As I was saying, we have fun here, too, and most summer days around mid-afternoon we all grab a bike and head off with a bunch of dogs to the lake. If you want to bring your swim things, you’re most welcome to join the dogs.”
Marlo waited as the group disbanded to their duties. One of the guys held back then approached Lulah. When he’d finished, Lulah gave the guy a quick appraisal, a visual body sweep before saying something and turning away. The tightness of the guy’s shoulders suggested he was annoyed.
As Lulah joined her, Marlo asked, “Is someone not getting his own way?”
Lulah gave her a quick nudge on the arm. “Aw, you’re good, boss. Got it in one. That’s Jarrod. He’s an unusual character. Anyway, he says he doesn’t want to ride a bike so I told him he could jog to the dam instead.”
Marlo nearly choked. “Lulah, you’ve seen the shape of him. If you make him jog to the dam in this heat you’ll probably kill him.”
“The exercise will do him good.”
“It’s not boot camp.”
“Okay, he can walk. Quickly. It’s just…there’s something odd about him.”
“Odd? Like what?”
“I can’t quite put my finger on it yet. He’s inquisitive, asks lots of questions, but it’s weird. It’s more like he’s nosy rather than trying to learn. And he’s odd with the dogs. I almost get the feeling he doesn’t like them.” She shrugged and smiled. “It’s probably me.”
“Keep an eye on him.”
“Yes, boss!” Lulah saluted and clicked her heels.
Marlo laughed and watched Lulah set off to wrangle the interns. “Lulah?”
“Remember, it’s not boot camp.”
Marlo walked away, smiling at what she imagined the interns would be thinking about a casual bike ride down to the dam. Lulah tended to ignore the simple track, choosing to take the less-groomed route that allowed her to practice her mountain biking skills. Perhaps Jarrod merely had well-honed clairvoyance when he said he didn’t want to use a bike.
She made a note to remind Lulah that she must show them the option of the easier bike track. One broken arm or concussion and they would be eating lawsuit-on-toast for breakfast. The problem with Lulah was that she was completely fearless.
As Marlo approached the office, she saw the journalist had arrived early and was poking about. Not only that, she’d brought a photographer with her, something which was usually pre-arranged. CRAR had its own contracted photographer for a very good reason. The usual form was to provide stock images for the re-hash stories or find out from a particular editorial department what their image requirements were and provide that for them.
She startled the journalist when she approached and saw the photographer was rummaging in his bag on the floor by the filing cabinet. “Oh, hello, you’re early.”
The journalist gave a small laugh, stepping towards her with an extended hand. “Janine Stockton, pleased to meet you.”
Marlo took hold of the woman’s dry hand. Nerves had already dampened her own. “Marlo Croft,” she replied.
Releasing her grip, Janine continued, “If you’re not ready for us, Clarke here can get a few more photos, some background shots.”
“More photos?” Her stomach flipped. If they had come across Justice she was in big trouble. She turned to the photographer. “Can you show me what you’ve got, please?”
His glance flicked to the journalist before he flashed an easy grin at Marlo. “Sure, sweetie.”
The dislike was instant. With a skittering gaze that took in an inventory of the office he shuffled in close. Leaning against her shoulder he lifted the camera to let her view the images. Marlo could smell his stale breath and inclined her head away. He scrolled through the shots with rapid flicks and she was relieved to see that he did not appear to have captured anything controversial.
“If you’ve got something to hide, I haven’t found it.” His laugh was as insincere as his words.
Marlo ignored the comment. Give them the interview and get them off the property. From the filing cabinet, she drew out a spiral-bound book that gave a background on CRAR and her particular setup. “You’ll get all the background you want from this. Let me know if you need any photos and I’ll have them sent on.”
“That’s okay, I’ll take care of any photography,” Clarke butted in.
The journalist flicked the book pages, scarcely looking at it before placing it on Marlo’s desk. She fixed her with a determined look. “I know most of this stuff, so why don’t we get on with some questions?”
Marlo held her gaze. “Fire away.”
Instantly Marlo got a feel for the angle the story would take. It wasn’t about CRAR or the Sanctuary; this was a pit bull/dog fight story. Now she had to gauge the line it would follow; pro- or anti-pit bull. Rehabilitate or destroy.
Then the journalist asked about the Richmond Thirty-Two. “Don’t you think it’s strange that those thirty-two dogs seem to have vanished from the face of the earth? If CRAR had them, surely their poster girl, Marlo Croft, would have got her hands on a few?”
Marlo straightened. “That’s not how it works.” Her voice was steady but her poker face had vanished with the last pack shuffle. They’d played cat-and-mouse for nearly an hour. She had to finish the interview without raising suspicion.
“So why don’t you tell me how it works.”
“Because, Janine, I’m an animal behaviorist. I can share as much information about dog behavior and rehabilitation as you’d like to know. But that’s about it.”
“Strange. It doesn’t matter who I ask. Nobody can come up with the thirty-two dogs.”
Marlo pushed back. “So, do you have any questions about rehabilitating dogs?”
Janice stood. “I think we are done. You’ve been most helpful.”
Christ, I hope not,
Marlo thought as she watched them leave the office. She waited at the office door to make sure the trail of dust that followed their car continued out to the road. She didn’t trust them not to return to the property and take the photos they really wanted.
ack ’em up
Adam passed his pool cue over to Butch. “I’ll sit this one out. You have a go, mate.” He went back to the table and took a slug of beer. He’d returned to Halo Peak late that afternoon and gone straight to the police station to organize his notes. Now he was playing pool with a bunch of guys from the station when what he really wanted to do was drive out and visit Marlo.
He’d put a handbrake on his emotions. That attraction between him and Marlo was something he hadn’t experienced in years, but Marlo was too vulnerable to mess about with. He hadn’t phoned her. Not that he didn’t want to. Hell, he’d spent the entire day with his hands mentally cuffed to stop from doing that.
The days in Richmond had been harrowing. Several deep pits in a wooded area each held the bodies of up to fifteen dogs in various stages of decomposition. Some had been bound with wire, others had horrendous wounds. The bodies had been taken away for necropsies but clearly, old age had not taken these dogs.
He still carried the scent of death and decomposition on him, which was overwhelming his senses, and he wanted to be free from that before he saw Marlo again. Her focus had to be on the positive side of rehabilitation.
The property had similarities to what he’d seen in New Zealand, but on a much grander scale—if that’s how you wanted to describe the ability to house more dogs and create more pain and chaos.
On arrival in Richmond, he had taken a moment to envision how it had been for Justice. He could picture him chained to a car axle, pacing in a short weary arc. The boredom would only be relieved by random jolts of anxiety as he smelled the fear in the other dogs and heard the petrifying sounds of abuse. He would always be on edge because whenever a human appeared it could mean food, fresh water, a beating, or it might be his turn to fight.
Justice had every reason to be angry. That he chose to withdraw until he was safe and well enough to tune back into life was true testament of the courage in the breed and the stoic temperament of the dog himself.
On the second night in Richmond, Adam had battled the urge to phone Marlo, and finally called Mae instead. If he couldn’t talk to Marlo, he could still talk
her. From Mae he was hoping for the merest hint of encouragement that would give him permission to go to Marlo. Instead he struck Mae’s maternal desire to shelter Marlo and all he’d managed to get out of her was that Marlo’s upbringing had been forty-grit rough. Through Marlo’s late teens, Mae had been her guardian.
“That’s public record,” Mae had said to remind him that she didn’t intend to be indiscreet. Adam was no wiser for the conversation, but right before they finished Mae added one more nugget: “For a number of valid reasons, Marlo’s leery of cops. I thought you should know.”
So much for his shit-hot interrogation techniques. Oh, and thanks for the encouragement.
He rubbed at the day-old growth on his chin. Sleep hadn’t stuck with him much the previous night and the beer in front of him now wasn’t doing a lot of good to his dry mouth. He stood, drained his glass, and turned to leave.
“Grab me another if you’re going to the bar, Kiwi?” Butch called out, holding up an almost empty beer.
“I’m going to turn in.” Adam gave a nod to the small gathering of cops as he headed for the door.
“You smooth bastard. Who is she?”
Raucous laughter ushered him from the bar.
gave a small flip as Adam walked toward the office. She hadn’t seen him for a few days and during that time she’d deconstructed their dinner together, tried to recall every conversation, each nuance and gesture. She had so little dating practice she couldn’t tell if he was being nice, or if he was feeling that same chaotic fascination that she did.
At the door, they had shared that kiss. More of that would have been nice. In fact, she didn’t have to think too much to recall that it had been better than nice. Not a steaming hot, open-mouth, thrusting-tongue kiss, like the ones in books, but careful, gentle, unthreatening. Maybe that’s what a polite, fatherly kiss was. Having never had one, she had nothing to judge by.
But it had been on the lips.
The office door opened. Oh, crap, here he is. She kept her eyes on the computer screen as he entered the office, pretending she was deep into the article she was reading. “Hey,” she threw out, all casual.
“Hey there. Any coffee going?”
When he brushed her arm as he passed it singed like a branding iron and she jumped. That overactive startle reflex still needed some work. She stayed focused on the computer monitor. Using the mouse to scroll down the screen she found her hands were dancing independently like a hyperactive kid.
“Sure, yeah.” God, what had happened to her? She’d turned into an idiot. She pushed her chair back and stood. “I’ll fix it.”
“Are you sure? You’re not going to go breaking any crockery again, are you?”
Had he noticed her shaking hands? Probably. Cops noticed everything. She sat back down. “Okay, you do it. Mine is black, no sugar.” He could make the coffee, and she could take a moment to whip her hormones back into line.
Once settled with their coffees, Marlo asked about Richmond. Adam scratched at a small spot of dirt on his jeans and when satisfied he looked up. “There were a lot of dead dogs out there. It makes me more concerned about Justice because after what he’s been through, I’m surprised he doesn’t want to rip each one of us to shreds. Do you think he’s safe? I mean, how does an animal come through that and not harbor some sort of grudge?”
Marlo touched his arm. The spontaneity of the move surprised her. Touch was a large part of working with the dogs, yet she couldn’t recall a time she’d made the same gesture to a person. That signal of consolation could easily be misread. “I think revenge is more a human emotion. The dogs live for the day.”
“Those dogs went through hell.”
“And you’ve seen it.” As he moved, the muscle of his arm rippled beneath her palm. She snatched her hand away. What was she doing? “Sorry.”
He frowned slightly. “Don’t be sorry.”
“No, I mean sorry you had to see that…in Richmond.”
“Ah. Unfortunately, I’m used to sights like that.” He replaced his empty coffee mug on the desk. “Before we become too maudlin, tell me about the videoing you want me to do.”
Saved by a clear plan and a job to do. “I’m still trying to get Justice to take food from me. We’re so close but not there yet, so there has to be something he’s trying to tell me that I’m not seeing. If you can video what’s going on I can study it and see what cues I’m missing. Basically, I’ll be the food dispenser and you can be the cameraman.”
Adam picked up the camera and sighted her through the viewfinder. “Hitchcock at your service.”
They hadn’t been working for long before they had to finish. Justice tired quickly. He was still a long way off building any mental or physical stamina. The mental work they were asking of him burned him out way quicker than a session with a ball or a tug-toy. They returned to the office to watch the footage on the computer. In the large enclosure Marlo lay on the ground, completely still with her arms outstretched. She held pieces of cooked chicken in her hand. Although she was careful not to make any eye contact or movement if Justice looked like approaching, he would creep up only to scatter when he got within a few feet of her. At one time he was merely inches from her hand, then her shirt flapped in the breeze and Justice turned tail and hurried to the far corner of the yard.
Marlo stopped the video. “Even when I impersonate a corpse he’s spooked.”
“And such a good-looking corpse, too,” Adam joked. “Do you think there might be some clues in some of the other Justice videos you have? What I’m thinking is that we might see a situation where you’ve had a breakthrough. If we understand why something works we can repeat it.”
“Let me get the discs.”
Marlo put the first DVD into her computer. “This is unedited, I’m afraid, but I should be able to whiz through the irrelevant stuff.” On the screen Justice lay flattened on the ground. “Oh, well, at least he doesn’t behave like a pancake so much now?”
Adam agreed. “Even though you feel a bit stuck at the moment, I think you’re going to be surprised by the progress you’ve made.”
They kept working their way through the DVDs. “I’m not seeing much here. The only thing I’m getting is sympathy for the people who are landed with the task of viewing all those hours of security footage after a crime. My vision’s starting to blur; shall we continue this another time?”
Adam shook his head. “Wait. I think I’m starting to see something. Put in the next disc.”
Marlo inserted the next disc into the computer. It must have been a hot day because in the video, she wore a short pair of cut-offs and a bikini top. Grabbing the mouse, she paused the video. “Whoa-ho, not this one.”
Just as quickly, Adam leaned across her and hit enter on the computer keyboard to restart the video. “Not so fast, young lady.”
Marlo knocked his arm aside and once again got to the pause button. “No, stop.”
“Why? Marlo, you’re blushing.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “There’s a wardrobe malfunction a couple of minutes in. I asked Lulah to cut it, but it doesn’t look as though she has.”
. “It sounds like my sort of video,” he teased. He hit the enter key and in one swift move trapped Marlo’s wrists to stop her from pausing the video again. In doing so, he saw her eyes spark with fear. His stomach knotted. Oh, shit. This isn’t some game, she’s actually scared.
He released her and immediately stepped away as she stopped the video. He noticed her hand shake as she removed the disc. Placing it inside the case, she gathered up the rest of the discs and returned them to the cabinet. “I think we’ve seen enough.” Her voice was brittle. At the sink she poured herself a glass of water, took a sip then placed it on the bench.
Adam gave her a moment to settle before he went to her. When he gently placed his hands on her shoulders she stiffened beneath his grasp. “Marlo, I’m so sorry. I was kidding around and I’ve frightened you.”
“I’m okay.” She tried to shrug from his grasp.
“You’re not. Your hands are shaking, and you’re so tense you could shatter. You have no idea how sorry I am. I would never intentionally do anything to hurt you or frighten you.” He started to rub her shoulders gently. “Relax,” he whispered into her hair. Her back was to him and as his fingers clasped her he worked his thumbs in small, firm circles until some of the tension gave way. He maneuvered her to a chair. “Sit there. I’ll fetch your water.”
He handed it to her, and Marlo studied the inside of the glass.
“Look at me.”
She glanced up. Her eyes were red, her cheeks faintly wet.
“Come on, tell me what happened there.”
“It’s me. I’m sorry, I’m okay now.”
“Can we talk about it?”
“A reaction like that and you want me to believe
happened.” If she’d been angry or annoyed at his disrespect he would apologize and drop it. But he had seen her fear.
Marlo went back to staring into her glass of water.
“Have you got a fish in there?” he asked gently and felt a small pulse of relief as she tried to stop the smile. “Come on, let me help you.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I behaved like an ass.”
“And helping me will make you feel better about that?”
That’s what he wanted to see.
There was strength in her defiance. It pleased him she was able to come back and fight for herself after appearing so scared. “No, not at all. No matter what, I still behaved badly. But I want to know what frightened you.”
“You restrained me and you think I should be okay with that?”
Such an intense response. Had there been a bad experience being restrained in her past? It’s unlikely that right now she’d feel she could trust him enough to confide. His training made him want to pursue this and help her but perhaps he should drop it. “Marlo, I apologize. I was messing around and I overstepped the mark.”
She was biting her bottom lip as if considering something. Finally, she released it with a deep sigh and her shoulders cast off inches of tension. “You overwhelmed me. I was frightened…it still scares me now to admit it.”
“Well, I’m really sorry. I was way out of line and it won’t happen again.”
t wouldn’t happen again
. That should have been a relief so the gnawing disappointment she felt bothered her.
When his hands had so effortlessly trapped her wrists there had been a fleeting thrill before panic swamped her. She couldn’t explain to him what the panic was about. She scarcely understood it herself.
“Forget it.” She flashed her own apologetic smile because now she was feeling as if she’d completely overreacted. Let’s get back to safe ground. “Adam, you hinted you might be getting some sort of clue about Justice.”
“Oh, yeah, I saw something. Obviously I’m no expert, but it seemed to me that when Justice had another dog around, he would sort of mirror what that dog did in its interactions with you. He watched first, then he would copy. Maybe if you bring another dog in to hand-feed, Justice might take a cue from that and feel comfortable about taking food from you.”
She couldn’t believe it. Adam might have found the key to access Justice’s locked up psyche. It seemed that he had watched the video with as much intent as she had, which surprised her. Most people couldn’t stick with many minutes of unedited footage of dogs who are often doing not very much at all.
She suppressed the shiver of discomfort at the thought of the episode with the final video. “Nice work, Sherlock.” She grinned. “I like what you’re thinking. It could be that Justice has had so little socialization with people that he doesn’t know how to interact properly. He knows he’s a dog so even though he’s had little socialization with dogs, he’s okay with aligning himself with them. Following the lead of another dog might be what works for him. Not only that, once it comes to food we have the additional help of a dog’s instinctive resource-guarding behavior. If you have one piece of food and two dogs, both are going to be keen to get it.”
Adam gave her a quick wink. “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
“Come on, let’s test your theory.” She checked her watch as she started to clear her desk. “It’s nearly six. We can take Justice up to the house and work with him and Fala. She’ll be good because she’s very calm and focused, plus Justice gets along well with her. After that, I can…” What was she saying? He wasn’t staff and he probably had things to do tonight. Her cheeks heated as she glanced at him. His dark eyes were fixed on her and she saw the muscles beneath them tense before he smiled in a most disarming manner.
She returned to stacking the papers on her desk. “I’m sorry, you’re probably busy.”
“No, really, I’d love to help. It’s the least I can do.”
She imagined this desire to help was because he was feeling guilty. Well, she’d take the offer for the possibility of a breakthrough with Justice. “That’s kind, thank you. I can fix you some dinner afterwards if you like?”
“That’s even better. Let’s go.”