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Authors: Stephanie Bond

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BOOK: Baby, Hold On
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Chaz made a happy beeline for the large black Labrador retriever sitting on the floor. Lacey’s heart blipped with fear, afraid the little dog had picked the wrong playmate—even animals that were normally good-natured could bite or attack when they were ill.

But instead of pouncing, the unleashed black Lab scrambled backward, eyes rolling, and cowered in a corner. Chaz dropped his pink stuffed bone and climbed on the bigger dog, licking its face ardently even as the larger dog howled in protest.

Lacey dived for his leash. “I’m sorry, Dr. Greenwood—”

“It’s okay, Lacey—”


Get
your dog away from mine,” the other man cut in, his face stony.

Lacey flinched at his sharp tone, then scooped up Chaz and beat a hasty exit, smarting. The friendly little terrier had posed no danger to his much larger breed.

She retreated to a chair in the lobby, maintaining a firm grip on Chaz’s leash. Her heart went out to the cowering black Labrador who obviously had an overbearing master.

She lifted her chin. Maybe the stranger wasn’t so attractive after all.

Chapter Two

Mike Nichols opened his mouth to apologize to the young woman, but she was already gone. He sighed, massaging the bridge of his nose.

“Sorry about that,” he said to Dr. Greenwood. “I didn’t mean to snap at the lady.”

“It’s my fault for leaving the door open,” Dr. Greenwood said, closing it. “Lacey is the local groomer. She brings her customers by sometimes if they’re due for a checkup. She meant no harm.”

Not his proudest moment, Mike acknowledged with a grunt.

In fact,” the doctor continued, “folks around here say she’s a bit of a dog whisperer.”

Mike gave a derisive laugh. “A dog whisperer? What the heck is that?”

The doctor shrugged. “She just has a way with canines. Calms them down.”

Mike frowned and nodded to his black Labrador. “Sheridan doesn’t need to be calmed down. Three months ago he was the best search and rescue dog I’d ever worked with. Now look at him. He has zero energy and acts as if he’s afraid of his own shadow.” Frustration ballooned in his chest as he watched the once-fierce dog hunker down on the floor, trembling.

Dr. Greenwood made a thoughtful noise as he glanced over Sheridan’s chart. “He seems to be healthy, but I’ll run a full battery of blood tests and review the scans, see if anything shows up. It might take a few days, though.”

“Sheridan and I will be in town for a few weeks. I’m putting him through a refresher course at the military dog training facility.”

The doctor frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, at least until we know if there’s a physical problem.”

“I won’t overwork him. But he hasn’t been in the field in a while, and I think the discipline will be good for him. For now I’ll just put him through familiar exercises until he can take an advanced class.”

“You know your dog better than anyone,” Dr. Greenwood conceded. “How can I get in touch with you when the results of the tests come back?”

“I’m staying in one of the cabins on Clover Ridge. My cell number is on Sheridan’s paperwork.”

The doctor nodded, and the men shook hands.

“Sheridan, come,” Mike said.

At his dog’s hesitation, he bit the inside of his cheek.

“Sheridan,
come
.”

The dog pushed to his feet, slowly. Then he dipped his black head to pick up the pink stuffed bone the other dog had left behind and walked forward to allow Mike to hook a leash to his collar.

Mike’s mouth tightened at the sight of the toy. “Sheridan, drop it.”

But the dog only whined.

“It’s okay,” Dr. Greenwood offered. “Lacey makes them for her customers. He can keep it.”

Except Sheridan was an alpha dog—no pink toys allowed. “Sheridan,
drop it
.”

More whining, no dropping.

Mike blinked. He’d seen Sheridan balk at a command, perhaps be momentarily confused in the heat of the moment, but the dog hadn’t disobeyed a command outright since his early days as a training pup.

“Er, perhaps he’s confused after the examination I gave him,” the doctor offered, opening the door and extending his arm toward the hallway.

Mike acquiesced—the man had other patients. “Thank you for seeing us on such short notice.” He led Sheridan out into the hallway, squashing the alarm that niggled at him.

When they entered the lobby, the woman whose dog had barged into the exam room sat in a chair with a firm grip on the terrier’s leash. She made eye contact and gave him a little smile. She was cute in a gypsy sort of way, petite and earthy. With her brightly colored clothes and wild blond hair, he could see why people might attribute her success with dogs to mystical qualities. He didn’t believe in that stuff, but he did feel contrite for barking at her like a dog himself.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “I overreacted.”

“No need to apologize,” she said. “It was my fault.”

“Lacey Lovejoy, meet Mike Nichols,” Dr. Greenwood said.

She stood and extended a slender hand. He shook it, startled by the strength he felt there. But then again, hadn’t the doctor said she was a groomer?

From the floor, her dog yapped a greeting, straining at the leash she’d reined in.

“Sit,” she said, and the terrier obeyed.

And so did Sheridan.

Mike clenched his jaw, but saw his opportunity to get rid of the pink plaything. “Here’s your dog’s toy. Sheridan, drop it.”

Again, only whining. Exasperated, Mike reached down to take hold of the stuffed toy. “Sheridan, release.”

He wouldn’t. When Mike pulled, Sheridan pulled back until they were in a tug-of-war—which Sheridan won when Mike lost his grip. He was incredulous at his dog’s behavior.

“He can keep it,” Lacey said.

“That’s not the point,” he said evenly. “When I tell him to do something, he’s supposed to do it.”

“He’s a search and rescue dog?”

He nodded, surprised.

“I recognized the decal on his collar,” she said, gesturing. “Is he training at the local academy?”

“Yes…I mean, he will be. As soon as he’s well.”

The woman crouched until she was face-to-face with his dog.

Mike shifted uncomfortably.

She angled her head. “He’s not sick. He’s…afraid.”

Unable to contain his skepticism, he scoffed, “Oh? You’re a dog psychic?”

She pushed to her feet, a little wrinkle marring her brow. “No. I’m a dog groomer.”

“Well, when Sheridan needs a haircut, I’ll bring him to see you,” Mike said pointedly. “Otherwise, I think I’ll let the real doctor figure out what’s wrong.”

Her face blanched. “Of course. I didn’t mean to interfere.” She turned to Dr. Greenwood. “Which exam room should I take Chaz to for his rabies booster?”

“Room one is fine,” Dr. Greenwood said.

“Goodbye, Mr. Nichols,” she said cheerfully. “And good luck.”

He watched her and her friendly little dog go, as if she couldn’t wait to leave the room he was in. Disappointment warred with irritation as she swished away—he hadn’t asked for the kooky woman’s input, so he had no reason to feel guilty about refusing her so-called help.

His dog didn’t need a damn shrink.

Dr. Greenwood coughed politely. “Let me know if you notice any changes in Sheridan—good or bad. Otherwise, I’ll call you when I know more.”

Mike nodded and led Sheridan to the door, frowning down at the pink stuffed bone clamped in his dog’s jaws. Yet another step backward.

He was starting to regret coming to this place called Sweetness.

Chapter Three

“The doc will figure out what’s wrong with him,” Barry Ballantine said.

Mike wiped sweat from his brow. Even with a prosthetic lower leg, his former military buddy was setting a brisk pace for their morning run across Clover Ridge. Barry was an ex—Navy SEAL who ran the newly built dog training facility. Next to them ran Sealy, Barry’s German shepherd mix, and Sheridan, who showed no signs of fatigue…and still held the stuffed pink bone clamped in his mouth.

“What’s with the girlie toy?” Barry asked with a grin.

Mike frowned. “Some eccentric lady and her dog were at the vet’s office, and her dog gave it to Sheridan. Now he’ll only put it down to eat, and then he guards it like a damn treasure.”

“Eccentric? Curly blond hair, pretty?”

Mike shrugged. “She’s cute, I guess. Fluffy name.”

“Lacey Lovejoy.”

“Yeah, that’s her—lady’s got a screw loose.”

Barry laughed. “People around here think she can communicate with animals.”

“I know,” Mike said with a scoff. “She tried to psychoanalyze my dog.”

“What’d she say?”

Mike stopped running and massaged a stitch in his side.

Barry stopped, too, then threw a mock punch. “You’re getting soft, man.”

Mike gave a little laugh. “Shut up, man. I feel like crap. I got no sleep last night—Sheridan woke me up every couple of hours, howling.”

“Bad dreams?”

“Pain, more likely. I’m afraid it’s something serious, but I’m trying not to worry until Dr. Greenwood gets back to me with the test results.”

Barry nodded. “So what did Lacey have to say about Sheridan?”

Mike frowned. “She said he was
scared
.”

“Of what?”

“She didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. What a crock.”

“Maybe,” Barry agreed. “But she comes to the training center to groom the dogs, and she’s good with them—even the bad-tempered ones.”

“Sheridan isn’t bad-tempered.”

“You know what I mean—the difficult trainees, the ones that are hyper or antisocial. Lacey has a way with them.”

Mike lifted his water bottle for a drink, then poured a few splashes over Sheridan’s head, since he couldn’t seem to put down the toy long enough to pant and cool himself down naturally. The dog skittered sideways, which only irritated Mike more. “This is why you asked me to bring Sheridan here, to see this Dr. Dolittle lady?”

“Of course not. Like you, I thought Sheridan was just getting lazy, being rebellious.” Barry nodded to the black Lab. “But it’s evident something’s wrong—he’s a different dog than I remember.”

Mike chewed on his tongue. “Like you said, Dr. Greenwood will figure it out.”

Barry clapped him on the back. “Probably. Let’s head back.”

They jogged back across the ridge at a slower rate. Far below them were the buildings that made up the town of Sweetness. Straight ahead in the distance lay another mountainous ridge.

“The town is sitting in a bowl,” Mike observed.

Barry nodded. “That’s why the first tornado did so much damage when it touched down. The mountain ridges contained it and the longer it spun, the more powerful it became.”

“You saw it?”

“I saw it coming,” Barry said, his expression tight, “after the warning alarm was sounded from the water tower.” He shook his head, obviously still moved by his memories. “The size and the force of that monster is still indescribable. It’s something I hope I never see again.”

“How did you ride it out?”

“I ran to Moon’s Grocery and Mr. Moon herded everyone into the basement. When the storm was over, though, we were trapped, buried alive.”

Mike’s step faltered. “Seriously? How’d you get out?”

“Emory Maxwell and Porter Armstrong were home on leave from the Army. They dug us out with little more than their bare hands. And there were stories like that all over town. I still can’t believe no one died that day. The town looked like a pile of matchsticks.”

“I saw the pictures—they’re brutal.”

“When my family left town to move to Atlanta, I didn’t think Sweetness would ever be habitable again, but the Armstrongs have done an amazing job.”

“Wait a minute—you said the
first
tornado. There were others?”

“I wasn’t here, but last year another twister set down, not quite as powerful as the previous storm, but by all rights, it should’ve done some serious damage.”

“It didn’t?”

“Only minor stuff—a testament to how structurally sound the new buildings are. The training facility is as solid as a bunker.” His voice resonated with pride.

“You’re happy here, I can tell,” Mike offered.

Barry didn’t bother hiding his grin. “I am. If I hadn’t come back after my injury, I wouldn’t have met Lora again, or become reacquainted with the Armstrong brothers. They donated the land to build the dog training center on the condition that I would run the place. I feel like I hit the jackpot.”

“You’ve worked for everything you’ve got, and sacrificed more than a man should have to. You deserve a good life.”

“Thanks,” Barry said. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Anyone special back in Columbus?”

Columbus, Georgia, was where Mike was stationed at Fort Benning. “No. You know how it is—too busy, and the travel is erratic.” And now he was too worried about Sheridan to even consider a serious relationship. He was afraid if he took his eye off his dog for even a few minutes, Sheridan would slide further away.

“All I know is that one of these days, a woman is going to bring you to your knees.”

“Hey, just because Lora has you in a bind doesn’t mean you have to wish it on me.”

“Lora has me exactly where I want to be,” Barry said with a goofy grin. “You should be so lucky. Aren’t you up for reenlistment soon?”

“Six months,” Mike confirmed.

“I hear they’re offering nice bonuses.”

“Yep.”

“What do you think you’ll do?”

Mike took another drink of water. “I might reclass.”

Barry’s eyes widened. “Change your specialty? Give up dog handling?”

Mike shrugged. “Maybe it’s time for a change.”

“You’re letting this situation with Sheridan get to you. If he doesn’t return to service, it has nothing to do with your ability as a handler.”

Mike worked his mouth back and forth. “Maybe it’s a sign.”

Barry gave a little laugh. “Now who sounds eccentric? You and Lacey Lovejoy might have more in common than you think. Come on, old man, pick up the pace!”

Dismayed by his buddy’s comment, Mike dug in, glad to suddenly be running too fast to necessitate a reply.

BOOK: Baby, Hold On
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