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Authors: Stephanie Bond

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BOOK: Baby, Hold On
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At the moment, his dog seemed like the smartest male in the room.

“This tastes so good,” she repeated.

“You’re easy to please,” he said, then bit his tongue. It seemed as if everything he’d said since they’d returned from their walk came out sounding like a double entendre.

“Actually, I’ve become very picky about corn bread since I moved here, and this is the best I’ve eaten.” She took another wedge from the pan.

“Every soldier can make corn bread…and pancakes.”

Her eyes lit up. “I love pancakes.”

“I appreciate a woman with an appetite,” he said, then bit his tongue again.

She laughed, then pushed away her empty plate and patted her mouth daintily with a napkin. “So, educate me—what is Sheridan’s specialty?”

“He’s a tracker.”

“Aren’t all SAR dogs trackers?”

“Generally speaking. But ‘tracker’ is a specific term in the field. Area dogs track a scent over a large zone. Trailing dogs work in a group—they usually pick up where the area dogs leave off. And trackers follow a scent footstep by footstep.”

“It sounds like the hardest job.”

“I wouldn’t say the hardest, but definitely the most meticulous. Good trackers are rare.”

She nodded. “Is Sheridan trained to detect certain scents?”

“No. To a tracker, a scent is a scent. Give him a sample, and if it’s in the vicinity, he’ll find it. He’s received several commendations for service,” Mike said. He pulled out his cell phone, punched buttons to bring up a photo slideshow and handed it across the table. “These are some of the missions we’ve been on the past couple of years.” She pored over the pictures and asked him questions about each one. He proudly relayed Sheridan’s accomplishments.

She held up the phone to show the picture of a woman who’d been trapped in a collapsed building for three days before being removed from the rubble. “I saw this on TV—this was you and Sheridan?”

“Mostly Sheridan,” he assured her. “He’s in high demand. It’s only pure luck he hasn’t been called up lately. I dread that day if he isn’t better.” The knot in his stomach tightened at the mere thought.

“How did you find Sheridan in the first place?”

Mike smiled at the memory. “In the pound. Handlers go to animal shelters sometimes looking for good SAR candidates. Some of the traits that make a dog a high-maintenance pet are the same traits that make it a good SAR dog.”

“Such as?”

“Too much energy—the need for constant attention and play. To an SAR dog, finding something or someone is really just a game—they work for the reward at the end, which is praise and a treat.”

She held up the phone again. “Is this a video?”

He nodded. “That’s footage from our last assignment in Missouri.”

“May I watch?”

“Of course.” He scooted his chair next to hers and leaned forward to hit the play button. Her sweet citrusy scent enveloped him, making him fumble. The hem of her dress had inched up, revealing a section of lean thigh. With the memory of her curves pressed against him to draw upon, his body reacted predictably. Mike shifted in his chair and focused on narrating the ninety-second clip. He watched the footage with a bittersweet pang—he hoped it wasn’t Sheridan’s last mission. On the video, Sheridan was alert and energized, eager to be given a job to do. That dog was a far cry from the lethargic animal lying at their feet.

“I can see what you mean by his changed behavior,” Lacey said, her voice low.

“But you can fix him,” Mike insisted.

Lacey waited until the video had finished playing before responding. Her green eyes were wistful. “Mike, my theory that Sheridan was struck by an electrical jolt is just that—a theory. And even if it happened, that might not be the only problem.”

He nodded, fighting the panic growing in his chest—this woman was his last hope. If she wasn’t convinced Sheridan could be helped, where did it leave him?

“But we’ll get started first thing tomorrow morning,” Lacey added with a smile that left him inexplicably giddy.

She insisted on helping him clean up the kitchen, and although he wasn’t accustomed to having anyone else to maneuver around, she slipped around him in the small space like a dancer. Upon learning she also preferred music to television, he found a vintage-rock station on the radio sitting on the bookshelf, conceding the bass sound wasn’t half-bad. They talked and shared stories about their backgrounds. Lacey’s urban experience had been so different from his, yet she seemed as devoted to her family as he was to his own.

He asked her about her decision to relocate to Sweetness, and was impressed with her spirit to pick up and move to an unfamiliar place to start a business of her own. Her face glowed when she talked about how much she loved working with the dogs and getting to know their owners.

She asked about his military career and listened, her green eyes wide and luminous, as he recounted a few of his favorite memories. She made him feel like a hero…and he could no longer deny she made him feel like a man.

With a jolt, he admitted something even more profound—he liked Lacey Lovejoy’s company. So when the last dish was put away and she smothered a yawn behind her small, shapely hand, he was disappointed to see the evening end.

“Where’s Sheridan?” she asked suddenly, looking around.

They found him cowering underneath a low bench, his head burrowed between his paws.

“It’s the music,” Lacey said. “Maybe the loud bass noise reminds him of the storm.”

Mike turned off the music and watched as Lacey got down on her stomach and crawled under the bench to “whisper” to his dog. Eventually, she coaxed him out and Sheridan retreated to his bed against the wall.

Mike helped Lacey to her feet, and when their gazes locked, he had the sudden urge to kiss her pink mouth. Tension vibrated between them like a live wire. He inched his mouth closer to hers, but at the last minute she ducked away.

“We should get some rest,” she said with a nervous little laugh. “We all have a big day tomorrow.”

He nodded, feeling like a naughty schoolboy trying to steal a kiss. He’d hired Lacey to help Sheridan and, as she’d so rightly reminded him, that’s where their focus belonged. Meanwhile, he’d have to keep a lid on his libido, no matter how much she tested his restraint. She turned to walk toward her bedroom. The fact that he didn’t want to part company with her alarmed him.

“By the way,” he called, “how many animals do
you
have?” He imagined her room in the boardinghouse to be a menagerie, with dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and who knew what else cohabitating happily.

She gave him a little smile. “None.”

Mike’s mouth fell open. The self-proclaimed animal lover and alleged dog whisperer had no pets of her own? “Do you mind if I ask why?”

She shrugged. “I guess deep down, I’m a loner. Good night.”

Mike stared at her closed bedroom door, then pulled on his chin. The pretty woman was a riddle, for sure. Then his gaze bounced to Sheridan.

But right now he had other problems to solve.

* * *

Lacey started awake, disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings and the disturbing noise that rent the air. Predawn light slanted through the window onto the colorful quilt on her bed. She sat up and remembered she was in Mike’s cabin just as she realized the loud sound penetrating the door was howling. Sheridan was in distress.

She hurried out of bed and opened the door leading to the main room. Opposite her, Mike opened his bedroom door. She had a few seconds to register the fact that he looked oh-so-sexy bare chested and in zipped but unbuttoned jeans before her attention zeroed in on Sheridan, who was sniffing along the floor of the great room, stopping every few feet to howl.

Lacey walked out into the room, wishing she’d brought a robe to wear over her pale blue cotton shortie set. “What’s he looking for?”

Mike also walked forward, seemingly unfazed by his—or her—state of undress. His dark hair stuck up at haphazard angles, and a frown pulled at his mouth. “Probably that toy you gave him.” His voice was shaded with accusation.

Lacey frowned back. “Chaz gave it to him. Where is it?”

“It fell out of his mouth when he went to sleep,” Mike said, “so I took it.”

Sheridan was frantic now, pacing back and forth with his nose to the ground.

“I think you need to give it back to him,” Lacey said.

“Not after I finally got it away from him,” Mike said. “He’ll forget about it in a few minutes.” He clapped his hands once. “Sheridan, quiet.”

But if the dog understood, he didn’t obey, continuing to howl and presumably search for the missing toy. Minutes ticked by, and the dog’s distress—and decibels—intensified.

Lacey crossed her arms and gave Mike a pointed look. “Your tough love isn’t working,” she shouted over the noise. “You promised to do what I asked.”

His mouth tightened, but he threw up his hands and went back into his bedroom, then emerged with the toy. Sheridan ran over to him and clamped down on the stuffed bone so fiercely, Lacey heard his teeth snap together. Silence was restored, but the dog continued pacing around the perimeter of the room, occasionally bumping into things.

“Sheridan, stop,” Mike said.

But the dog continued circling the room.

Lacey crouched down and when Sheridan went by, she crooned to him. On the next trip past her, he slowed and nudged the hand she offered, then stopped. She put her arms around his neck, then massaged his shoulders and back while humming in his ear. He whimpered, but didn’t pull away. She talked to him in soothing tones, using the universal “release command” word to signal the dog the task was over, he could relax. “Okay…okay…okay. Okay, Sheridan, okay…okay.”

The dog finally quieted, and his heartbeat slowed under her hand.

Mike walked closer and she could practically feel the frustration rolling off him. She tried not to notice his broad, bare chest and the flat planes of his stomach. But she could feel her own body reacting to his nearness. She struggled to keep her breathing even.

“He can’t track with an object in his mouth,” Mike said, his voice brusque. “We have to wean him from that thing.”

Lacey didn’t say anything, partly because no response was required—he was right, of course. But she also remained silent because she was starting to realize how much Mike was expecting of her, and in such a short time. She’d told herself she’d taken the job for the money—and to help Sheridan. But after lying awake until the wee hours of the morning thinking about Mike Nichols’s near kiss, she was starting to wonder about her own motivations.

And if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

Chapter Nine

The next few days were physically and emotionally grueling on all three of them, Lacey acknowledged every night when she fell into bed. Mike started each day with an attempt to put Sheridan through a series of exercises, but quickly became frustrated with the dog’s lack of focus. He’d bark orders at Sheridan, only to be ignored, which exasperated him more.

At Lacey’s urging, they often broke from the exercises to take long walks, over increasing difficult terrain. She used longer and longer leashes to allow Sheridan his head. At first, he would scurry back to them at the slightest movement or sound, but eventually he would simply look back to make sure they were still there, then keep moving forward. Finally, she unhooked his leash and he ventured ahead to explore on his own without the umbilical cord.

During the long walks, she and Mike passed the time by talking about everything under the sun, but mostly about Sheridan. He obviously cared about his animal a great deal.

In the evenings, they devised ways to expose Sheridan to increasing louder noises—Mike would initiate the noise, from loud music to dropping items onto the floor, to sounding various alarms to running power tools, all while Lacey held the dog and forced him to focus on her instead of the distracting sound.

The dog still couldn’t endure being wet.

Yet his progress was noticeable. By the end of the first week, Sheridan was responding to Mike’s commands and going through simple exercises. And although he was still skittish, he stopped cowering from loud noises. She and Mike bonded over every little accomplishment—at least
she
felt it. Every night she lay on her bed, her limbs exhausted, but her mind replaying their meandering talks and the way they moved around each other in the small cabin. Their shared glances over Sheridan’s successes made her heart soar and their accidental touches set her body on fire. He hadn’t tried to kiss her again, though, so she suspected that moment had been a fleeting attraction.

A man like Mike Nichols had to have a girlfriend…or three.

She’d never been around anyone who made her feel so many things at once—happy, irritated, challenged....turned on. The tension between them was titillating, but it kept her on edge. As Sheridan progressed, she observed Mike becoming more dominant in the way he handled the dog. Her patience with the big man was waning.

One sticking point in Sheridan’s recovery that divided them was the fact the dog wouldn’t part with the stuffed pink bone—although not for lack of Mike trying. Every time he succeeded in swiping the toy from Sheridan during mealtime or nap time, the dog would become so distressed, Mike would eventually give it back. And Lacey would feel as if they’d suffered a setback as she worked to calm the dog. By the morning of the eighth day, she’d reached the end of her rope—with the owner, not the dog.

“Don’t take it from him again,” she said, keeping her voice low as she comforted Sheridan.

Mike crossed his thick arms and grunted. “He can’t show up at the training facility next week with a pink toy in his mouth.”

She frowned. “Will the other dogs tease him?”

“Very funny. He can’t track with something in his mouth.”

“I’m starting to wonder what bothers you the most—the fact that he’s attached to a toy, or the fact that it’s pink?”

His mouth tightened. “Both.”

Lacey took in the man’s immovable posture and was shot through with frustration. She stood. “I need to run a couple of errands and check in with my employee. Why don’t I take Sheridan with me today.”

BOOK: Baby, Hold On
9.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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