Excerpt for Under Her Wing by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Under Her Wing

By Ronica Black

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Ronica Black

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Under Her Wing

Kassandra Haden loves working with kids, her quaint condo on the golf course, and most of all, her dog, Lula. She’s happy being alone, having convinced herself that people can’t be trusted. But when Lula gets lost, Kassandra’s thrown into a different world, one that insists she come out of her shell. As allured as she is frightened, Kassandra can’t seem to stay away from the dog shelter, and the devastatingly attractive owner seems to be the cause.

Jayden Beaumont isn’t used to taking no for an answer. Running a no kill dog shelter isn’t easy, but Jayden embraces it. She lives for her work and saves many lives in the process. But in doing so, she’s neglected her own, and it’s about to cost her big. When Kassandra walks into Jayden’s shelter, two very different personalities collide. Can either woman open and trust in order to embrace the life they could have together?

Praise for Ronica Black

“Ronica Black’s debut novel In Too Deep has everything from nonstop action and intriguing well developed characters to steamy erotic love scenes. From the opening scenes where Black plunges the reader headfirst into the story to the explosive unexpected ending, In Too Deep has what it takes to rise to the top. Black has a winner with In Too Deep, one that will keep the reader turning the pages until the very last one.”—Independent Gay Writer

“[A]n exciting, page turning read, full of mystery, sex, and suspense.”—MegaScene

“[A] challenging murder mystery—sections of this mixed-genre novel are hot, hot, hot. Black juggles the assorted elements of her first book with assured pacing and estimable panache.”—Q Syndicate

“Black’s characterization is skillful, and the sexual chemistry surrounding the three major characters is palpable and definitely hot-hot-hot…if you’re looking for a solid read with ample amounts of eroticism and a red herring or two you’re sure to find In Too Deep a satisfying read.”—L Word Literature

“Black is a master at teasing the reader with her use of domination and desire. Black’s first novel, In Too Deep, was a finalist for a 2005 Lammy…With Wild Abandon, the author continues her winning ways, writing like a seasoned pro. This is one romance I will not soon forget.”—Just About Write

“The sophomore novel [Wild Abandon] by Ronica Black is hot, hot, hot.”—Books to Watch Out For

“Sleek storytelling and terrific characters are the backbone of Ronica Black’s third and best novel, Hearts Aflame. Prepare to hop on for an emotional ride with this thrilling story of love in the outback…Wonderful storytelling and rich characterization make this a high recommendation.”—Lambda Book Report

“This sequel to Ronica Black’s debut novel, In Too Deep, is an electrifying thriller. The author’s development as a fine storyteller shines with this tightly written story.…[The mystery] keeps the story charged—never unraveling or leading us to a predictable conclusion. More than once I gasped in surprise at the dark and twisted paths this book took.”—Curve Magazine

“Ronica Black handles a traditional range of lesbian fantasies with gusto and sincerity. The reader wants to know these women as well as they come to know each other. When Black’s characters ignore their realistic fears to follow their passion, this reader admires their chutzpah and cheers them on…These stories make good bedtime reading, and could lead to sweet dreams. Read them and see.”—Erotica Revealed

“Ronica Black’s books just keep getting stronger and stronger…This is such a tightly written plot-driven novel that readers will find themselves glued to the pages and ignoring phone calls. The Seeker is a great read, with an exciting plot, great characters, and great sex.”—Just About Write

“Ronica Black’s writing is fluid, and lots of dialogue makes this a fast read. If you like steamy erotica with intense sexual situations, you’ll like Chasing Love.”—Queer Magazine Online

Under Her Wing

© 2017 By Ronica Black. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-078-8


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: November 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Tammy Seidick

By the Author

In Too Deep

Wild Abandon

Deeper

Hearts Aflame

The Seeker

Flesh and Bone

Chasing Love

Conquest

Wholehearted

The Midnight Room

Snow Angel

The Practitioner

Freedom to Love

Under Her Wing

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Bold Strokes Books and my editor, Cindy Cresap. You all continue to change my life.

And to Cait, for believing.

For the love of a rescue dog. There’s no love quite like it.

Chapter One

The double doors flew open, followed quickly by a rage.

“I hate this school. Hate everyone here. I’m so sick of this place!” A backpack propelled from the doors to the empty library tables, the owner unseen. But as Kassandra Haden rounded the checkout counter, she knew who the voice belonged to. And she wasn’t surprised.

Tony Valdez stalked inside, lifted a chair, and threw it toward the bookshelves. His young face was contorted in anger and he was nearly hyperventilating. Veins bulged in his neck and temple. He was beyond the boiling point, and the two aides that stood just inside the doors looked shocked and helpless. One finally radioed for help on her walkie-talkie. But Kassandra knew no help was coming, for one could do little with Tony. It was once again up to her.

“Tony,” she said softly. But he again tossed his backpack and grabbed his head in frustration.

“I hate it here. I fucking hate it.” He tried to kick a chair but missed.

Kassandra approached, arms down, palms out, and spoke calmly.

“Tony, it’s okay. You’re okay.” She knew the young man well; they had a rapport. He was an emotional guy, a sensitive one. And when something upset him, he had a hard time controlling himself. Once he lost his temper, he was irrational.

“No, it’s not okay, Ms. Haden. It’s not.” He flipped another chair and continued to pace.

“Tony, we don’t want to have to restrain you,” one of the aides said sternly.

Kassandra motioned for her to give her a moment. Sometimes the aides got too confrontational, too focused on control. That was understandable in a room full of kids. But the library was currently empty with T minus ten minutes to the last bell. Every last teacher on campus was no doubt counting down the seconds. And she knew the aides were probably eager to start their Friday evening as well. But confrontation wasn’t going to help Tony now. With a soft, understanding smile, Kassandra pulled out a chair and sat at the table. Tony seemed surprised by the move, doing a double take. He was used to people keeping an arm’s length, being on high alert around him. He wasn’t used to normal conversation.

“Tony? Why don’t you sit and tell me what’s going on?”

He shook his head as he walked. “I can’t. I’m mad. I’m so mad.”

“It’s okay to be mad,” Kassandra said. “You’re allowed to be mad.”

“Then why is that bitch threatening to restrain me?” He didn’t bother to look back at the aides he was referring to.

“You’re allowed to be mad, Tony,” Kassandra said. “But you can’t throw things. You could hurt someone or yourself.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care.”

“That’s not true, Tony. You do care. I know you don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Just tell them to back off. They’re always up my ass.”

“They’re backing off.”

He looked back to the two women who had moved to walk behind bookshelves in the distance. He seemed to relax a little.

“So, what’s going on? Can you sit and talk to me?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m just so angry.”

Kassandra noticed that he’d stopped pacing. His breathing had slowed a little and he was starting to take in his surroundings.

She changed the subject, trying to get his mind off his anger. “I finished another chapter in that book.”

He lifted his head and looked at her. “Really? Did he find his wife? Is she dead? I bet she’s dead.”

Kassandra laughed a little. “Sit down and I’ll tell you.” She often shared the books she read with her students, hoping to inspire them to read. Tony was a big fan, always asking about what she was reading.

He picked up the things he’d thrown and sat down across the table. His boyish face was flushed from anger all the way up into his scalp, which she could see due to his closely shaved haircut. He clenched his hands as a thin shin of sweat became visible on his brow and upper lip.

Kassandra continued, meeting his gaze with a calm, friendly one. “Well, she’s back in the picture, but the husband doesn’t know it yet.”

“She’s alive?”

“Yes, but—”

“She’s a bad guy, though, right? I knew it. I freaking knew it.”

Kassandra smiled. “Yes, she’s up to no good. In fact, the whole marriage was a front.”

“No way!”

“Oh, yes. And she has the boy.”

“Oh, my God! And he doesn’t know that his kid is okay?”

Kassandra shook her head. “Nope.”

“Ah, man. Ms. Haden, you gotta hurry and read. I gotta know what happens.”

“I will. But you know in the meantime we need to keep reading your book.” Tony struggled with reading, but she helped by reading with him. He, however, didn’t care for the books at his reading level.

“My book is so lame. Because I’m stupid. Your books are better.”

“Tony, you aren’t stupid. You just need to practice reading. We’ve been over this.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He took a deep breath and then rested his head on his arm. Fatigue was settling over him, just as it usually did after an episode. “I’m sorry I flipped out.”

“I know,” she whispered. The last time it had taken fifteen minutes for him to calm down. He’d done better this time, getting his anger under control much quicker. “Next time, I think you’ll do even better.”

“I don’t know. I’ll try.” He looked around. “It helps, coming in here. I hate the learning center.”

Kassandra patted his hand in understanding. “I know you do.” She wasn’t a big fan herself. Students who had behavior issues in class often were sent to the learning center, where they were made to do their schoolwork. Unfortunately, the process wasn’t working. The kids were too keyed up, angry, frustrated, bored. And putting them all in the same room…Kassandra had seen firsthand how it was a disaster just waiting to happen.

“I just get so mad.” He closed his eyes for a moment and then wiped them with frustration. He didn’t like to cry, but he often did when he was upset.

“Why were you mad?”

He pushed himself up and tears filled his eyes again. He avoided eye contact. “They’re making fun of my ears again.”

Kassandra’s heart sank. He was so sensitive, and this was something that got to him every single time. “Tony, there’s nothing wrong with your ears. Absolutely nothing. They’re just saying that because they know it gets to you.”

“Are you sure? They aren’t too big?”

“No.”

“You would tell me?”

“Yes.”

The two aides crossed to the table. One pointed at the clock. “We need to go.”

Tony groaned and stood. “Can you tell them I’m allowed to come in here? They always try and stop me.”

“You are welcome here anytime, Tony, as long as you’re not violent. The chair throwing—”

“I won’t do it again. I promise.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.” Kassandra rounded the counter to shut down her computer. Tony started to push through the double doors, but he paused, looking at her. “Thanks, Ms. H.”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “Have a good evening, Tony.”

She watched him go, hoping he would make it home okay. Tony was often bullied, which was bad enough, but his reactions to it only made matters worse for him. She said a silent prayer for him and got busy closing down shop. It had been a long week, and she was looking forward to going home and relaxing for the weekend.

Life in the library was usually rather quiet and, honestly, often times boring. She checked books in and out and did the reshelving, she helped kids find books, helped them on the computers, and, as in Tony’s case, she read with them and often told them about the books she was reading. But the quiet moments were sometimes interrupted with trouble. Students coming in and goofing off, students running from an aide, students wanting to ditch class. And then there were those like Tony. The ones who only settled down with her. The ones who needed one-on-one attention in order to calm down. She didn’t know why they gravitated to her, but she took the role seriously and did her best to help. For the most part she found that the kids really just needed to know someone sincerely cared. But giving one-on-one attention to every student at the public day school for troubled kids was impossible. It often troubled her and left her feeling helpless. But in the library, there was little she could do.

The bell rang and she grabbed her purse and crossed to the doors to lock up. She cut the lights and stepped out into the brightness. Noise came at her like the sunshine, nearly overwhelming, yet warming. Kids were talking and laughing, doing their best to get off campus. Teachers stood at their assigned duty posts, sunglasses on, ID badges around their necks. They were wishing the kids a good night and weekend.

“See you at happy hour, Kassandra?” Dave Landry asked as she neared him. He taught math and the kids liked him. She stopped momentarily and stammered, always uncomfortable in these situations.

“I can’t. I have plans.” She felt herself flush; she was never very good with lying. She hoped he didn’t notice.

“Bummer. Next time?”

“We’ll see.” She waved and hurried through the gates along with the mass of excited kids. She didn’t like to lie, but the truth only brought more questions. Telling Dave she had no plans and that she preferred to go home to her dog, Lula, would cause him to wonder why. So she just always said she had plans or she had an appointment. It was easier that way.

The truth was she really didn’t like socializing all that much. People asked questions, and in her case, the more they knew about her the more they asked. The last happy hour she’d gone to, a question about her singlehood led to a coworker asking her out. It had made her very uncomfortable and she’d had to say no, which made things weird with him at work. Now he no longer spoke to her.

She sighed with relief as she unlocked her car and slid inside. The air was heavy with heat and she relaxed in it, still a little chilled from the AC in the library. She started her car, left the air off to let the warmth seep in some more, and checked her reflection. She looked a little tired.

She reached to put her car in reverse, but her phone rang, causing her to hold off.

The call screen showed it was her neighbor, and her heart jumped to her throat. Lauren never called unless something was wrong.

“Hello?”

“Kassandra? It’s Lauren.”

“What’s wrong?” She tried not to panic, but they’d had a fire recently at the condominium complex, and witnessing it firsthand still left her more than a little jumpy.

“It’s Lula.”

Kassandra squeezed the phone. Her blood suddenly felt hot, and she put the car in reverse and began driving from the parking lot. Lula was her little terrier mix, her baby, her child. She hated leaving her home alone while she went to work, but up until now it had worked out okay. Lula was safe. She should be safe.

“Is she okay?” Please, God, let her be okay.

“Somebody broke into your back gate and then into your back door. I went inside to see if Lula is okay, but I can’t find her.”

Kassandra pulled onto the busy street and sped toward the freeway. “She’s gone?” Tears nipped at her throat as her heart raced. Please, God, no. She’s so little, so innocent, so timid.

“Harry just came home and said he spotted her out by the field across the road. He tried to get her, but she ran from him. He’s going to go look again. I can’t because I’m waiting for the police. I can’t tell you how much they took. It’s a mess.”

“I don’t care about that,” she said. “I’m just worried about Lula.” Lula was a rescue, and though she’d come a long way as far as overcoming her fears, she was still afraid of strangers. It was unlikely she would come to anyone, even if they were trying to help. “I’m on my way.”

She ended the call and accelerated onto the freeway. Tears ran down her face, hot, wet, frustrating. She wiped them away, trying to be strong. She had to think, had to focus. Lula needed her.

She’d adopted her three years ago from the Humane Society after her dachshund passed away. She really hadn’t thought about getting another dog so soon, but her friends encouraged her to go, just to see if any dog grabbed her heart. She’d walked up and down the aisles, dogs yipping and barking in their pens. Most had been large dogs, too big for life in a two-bedroom condo. But then, at the very last kennel, she’d seen Lula, curled in a ball, trembling with fear. Kassandra’s heart had bled for her right away, and she’d asked to see her. The volunteer had put on gloves, taken her out, and brought them into a small room. She’d handed Lula to her, and that had sealed the deal. Lula had curled up on her, lightly kissed her chin, and wagged her little tail. She hoped she’d be able to get some of those kisses again soon.

Kassandra pulled off at her exit and sped toward home. Lula was a great little dog and she wasn’t about to lose her.

Instead of turning down her street, she drove straight to the field where Harry had said he’d seen her. She parked along the curb, killed the engine, and threw open the door. Harry was nearby in the desert field and he trotted over, meeting her halfway.

“I don’t see her now,” he breathed, squinting into the sun. “Last time I saw her was there.” He pointed to the brick fencing of the homes built next to the field. “She was walking along there, headed farther in. I called her and she turned back, but she wouldn’t come to me. So I ran home, got some treats and a leash, and came back out. I thought maybe she’d still be here.”

Kassandra scanned the large desert field, looking for anything white. Her heart sank when she saw nothing but desert. Harry looked with her, and she could tell he felt bad. She placed a hand on his shoulder and thanked him for trying.

“I’m going to go search the streets,” she said, hurrying back to her vehicle. She climbed in and headed down the street next to the field. She drove slowly, eyes keen. She did the same on the next street and the next. And then she came upon the golf course. She stopped her car, her body filling with dread. If Lula was exploring the golf course, there’s no telling where she’d end up.

Her phone rang as she pulled away, feeling helpless.

“Kassandra, the police are here,” Lauren said. “Are you close to home?”

She drove home slowly, not wanting to face what lay ahead. Her home had been broken into and Lula was gone. What was she going to do? She pulled into her parking space and sat for a moment. Her body wanted to cry, but she wouldn’t let herself lose control. Not yet. There was too much to do.

She stared at the police cruiser parked next to her and said a silent prayer, not for herself or for her home, but for Lula.

Chapter Two

Jayden Beaumont loved to hear a dog bark with excitement. A good, strong bark of enthusiasm meant health and vigor, a thirst for life, an insatiable curiosity. Barks like those were music to her ears. She could hear them well before she approached the kennels, and she smiled. The August day was hot, beautiful, and alive with sunshine. Her dogs were thriving and safe and she…well, she felt damn good.

She opened the door to the air-conditioned kennels and whistled a hello to dog after dog as she walked. Each and every one was special to her, some of them rescued from the streets by her personally. She took them in, nurtured them, kept them safe, and then adopted them out to forever families. She’d saved hundreds of dogs over the years, and her mission was far from complete. There were hundreds more out there who needed a safe place. And as long as she was breathing, she’d be there for them.

She broke out in song, bellowing loudly as she often did when walking the kennels. The dogs often howled with her, loving the old Sinatra songs more than she did. She sang as she moved, spreading her arms wide, encouraging the dogs to chime in. Over her handheld radio she heard the voices start.

“Oh God, Beaumont’s singing again.”

“Make it stop!”

“I wish the howling would drown her out.”

She smiled, finished the song, took a bow, and stopped at the last kennel.

A border collie mix she called Cooper lay in his bed with his ears back.

She unlatched the door and stepped inside. “Hey, Coop, did you like the song? I sang that one just for you.”

She knelt and held out a treat. He came to her cautiously, tail wagging. A few of the dogs next to them still howled, but Cooper seemed okay. She was trying to get him used to noise and people. “Good boy,” she said as he took the treat and licked her hand. She gave him a scratch just under his ear and he kissed her face. “That’s a good boy, Coop.”

He’d come a long way in the two weeks she’d had him. She’d found him on a destroy list at another shelter. They’d said he was too fearful to rehabilitate. She’d gone to meet him and was moved right away by his beauty. He was tricolored, black, white, and brown, with one blue eye. His history had been unknown and Jayden suspected he’d been mistreated. So she’d sat in his kennel for an hour and waited him out. Eventually, he’d relaxed and lain down. She’d spoken softly to him, and every once in a while, moved a little closer. She’d pulled a liver treat from her pocket and tossed it to him. He’d eaten it right away. And over the course of another hour, she’d placed more treats in front of him, encouraging him to come closer. When he finally took a treat from her hand and then licked her fingers, she’d slipped the leash on him and eased him out of the kennel with more treats. She’d taken him home to her no kill shelter, and she’d worked with him a couple of hours every day since then.

Cooper licked her face again and she clipped on the leash. She rose carefully, encouraging him with light words. His body relaxed and he wagged his tail as she opened the door and exited. He followed on her heels closely as they headed outside.

The afternoon sun was still bright, and she knew in the August heat they wouldn’t be able to stay outside for very long. She opened the gate to one of the fenced-in grass lots and let him loose. He flew off the leash and sprinted down to the end, grabbed his favorite tennis ball, and sprinted back.

Jayden laughed, remembering how when he’d first arrived he’d been skittish outdoors, uncomfortable leaving her side. Now he was relaxing enough to play, and it warmed her heart.

“Drop it,” she said, grinning. Cooper sat and dropped the ball. Then he stuck his rear in the air and wagged his tail, anticipating.

“Ask for it. Ask for it, Cooper!” He barked and she threw the ball as hard as she could. Cooper tore off after it, clawing up grass as he ran.

“He’s come a long way.”

Jayden turned as one of her teen staff members entered the lot. Gus was seventeen and nearly six foot five. With a genuine smile and dark hair like hers that often fell over his eyes, he was a lady-killer. Like Cooper, he’d come a long way as well since she’d first met him at fourteen. He’d been in a bad car accident, one that he caused on a joyride. He’d done a stint in juvie and still had the yearning for trouble, so his PO had recommended him to Jayden.

“He reminds me of you,” Jayden said, once again tossing the ball for Cooper.

“Me?” He sank his hands in his pockets and looked sheepish.

“Yeah, you know, good-looking, lots of energy, a little afraid at first.”

“I have never been afraid.”

Jayden scoffed. “Yes, you have. Remember how timid you were your first few weeks? Scared to death of us and of returning to juvie?”

He kicked the grass with his black Chucks.

“Maybe. It was mostly about juvie.”

“Uh-huh. Tough guy.” She grinned. Gus was one of ten troubled teens on her staff. She believed in rehabilitation, having once been a teen in trouble herself.

She rubbed Cooper vigorously and threw the ball for him again. Voices came from behind, and she turned to see a blond boy, about ten or eleven years old, walking with what appeared to be his mother. Faith, another one of Jayden’s teen staff members, was showing them around.

“Mom, look!” the boy said, running up to the fence. He pointed to Cooper and bounced on his feet. “I like this one.”

Jayden crossed to him, Cooper trotting up behind her. “You like Cooper?”

“Yeah, he’s great. I like the way he looks and how fast he runs. Mom, can I have him?”

His mother offered a gentle smile. “He’s wonderful, John, but we haven’t seen any of the others yet.”

Jayden gave the same commands again to Cooper. He followed and then took off after the ball once again.

“He’s smart!” John said. “See, Mom?”

“Cooper’s not quite ready for adoption yet,” Jayden said. “He needs to be socialized more. He’s very shy.”

John didn’t falter and his eyes didn’t leave Cooper. “How long?”

“A few more weeks.”

“I can wait,” John said. “Can you hold him for us?”

“John, let’s go look at the other dogs.”

“I don’t want to. I want him.”

Jayden called Cooper and clipped on his leash. “Tell you what,” she said, looking at John. “Let’s take a walk through the kennels so you can see the other dogs. Then, if you still want Cooper, we’ll go sit down and talk about it.”

John seemed to think for a moment. He nodded. “Okay.”

Jayden smiled. “Great, follow me.” She and Cooper left the lot and led the way to the kennels. John ran to walk next to her, his eyes still trained on Cooper who walked at her heels. Faith and Gus headed for the front office to help other guests.

“Can I pet him?”

“Not yet.” The dogs began barking before they entered. “It gets kind of loud,” she said as she opened the door. “Really loud.”

John plugged his ears as they stepped inside. Cooper’s ears went back and his tail lowered. He didn’t like the kennels. Jayden called out to the dogs and turned to John and his mother. “Each one of these dogs has been vet checked, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered. All of them are friendly, loving animals just looking for a good home and wonderful new life.”

They began walking past individual kennels, looking at each dog. “Where do you get them?” John’s mother asked.

“It varies,” Jayden said. “Some are found on the street or in the desert. Others we get from animal control. We also get some from vet clinics and some are surrendered by owners. Cooper here, I got from another kennel. He was about to be put down.”

“Really?” John said.

“Why?” his mother asked.

“He’s fearful.” Jayden led them down another aisle. “He’s already come a long way. A few more weeks and he’ll be okay. If he’s not, then he stays on with me.”

“You keep some of the dogs?”

“If need be. All eventually find the right home. But some I’ve kept for years, waiting for the right family. I call them my own.”

“How many dogs do you have?” John asked.

“Seven of my own. And sometimes over fifty in the kennels.”

John turned to his mother. “Can I have seven, Mom?”

She laughed. “Um, no.”

John continued to look at the dogs as they walked up and down the aisles. He saw a couple that he commented on, but mostly he kept his eyes on Cooper.

When they reached the end, Jayden stopped at the door. He spoke before she could ask.

“I still want Cooper.”

Jayden liked his determination. The first dog she’d brought home as a kid was due to her determination. His mother, though, sighed. She looked to Jayden and then to John and then back to Jayden.

“Are you serious about letting John have him?”

Jayden walked them through another door and into the front office. The quiet was welcome, even if it was disturbed by ringing phones and busy voices.

Jayden rounded her desk, encouraged Cooper to lie on a dog bed next to her, and then motioned for mother and son to sit.

“Please,” she said as she too sat. She got right to the point. “Cooper is a special dog. He’s very intelligent, very energetic, and he’s still a little afraid. We need to work on this before I consider him okay for adoption. He should be fine in a few weeks, but if he isn’t, I’ll have to keep him here.”

“So I might not get him?” John asked.

“Right. But in the meantime, if you really want him, you can actually help.”

“I can?”

“You can help socialize him. Spend time with him, let him get to trust you, play with him, take him on walks. What do you say?”

He grinned from ear to ear. “I say yes!”

His mother still looked unconvinced. “Has this dog ever bitten anyone?”

Jayden opened a drawer and thumbed through some files. When she found Cooper’s, she handed it over. “To my knowledge, no. He was found in the desert, starved and filthy. He ran from everyone trying to help him. When he was finally caught, he didn’t growl or snap. He just cowered. The shelter I got him from said the same. He’s never snapped or shown any aggression no matter how frightened he is. And John will always be in my presence.”

She exhaled and appeared to relax a little. John smiled. “Can I pet him now?”

Jayden stood, rounded the desk, and picked up Cooper’s leash. He stood and turned.

“Stay right there but relax your hands. Let them fall to your sides.”

John did and Jayden moved closer, encouraging Cooper with soft words. She reached out and handed John a liver treat and told him to call the dog softly.

“Here, Cooper. Come here, boy.”

Jayden moved closer and knelt next to John. Cooper came slowly, lying down and crawling up to Jayden. Jayden tapped John’s hand and Cooper sniffed it. John opened his hand and Cooper took the treat.

“Good boy,” Jayden said, rewarding him with gentle strokes. “Now, offer him your hand, let him smell you again.”

John did and Cooper licked him. He inched closer. John sat very still, letting Cooper get comfortable.

“Good job, John.” She placed another treat in his hand and Cooper took it. John praised him, and again Cooper licked his hand. This time, though, he nudged him a bit and Jayden smiled.

“He wants you to pet him.”

“Really?”

“Go ahead.” She took his hand and placed it along his neck. “Very softly.”

John stroked him gently and cooed at him with kind words. He was very good with Cooper, very calm, and Jayden was impressed.

“Can you come back next week?” she asked, looking to Mom.

“Can I, Mom?”

“I suppose.”

John smiled. Jayden patted him on the back. “Okay, call me first, make sure I’m here.” She handed him her card. “See you then.”

John and his mother stood, shook her hand, and walked out. John called good-bye to Cooper from the door just before pushing out into the sun.

“Cute kid,” said Allie, her friend and colleague for over ten years. “Think he’ll be back?”

Jayden returned to her chair and Cooper to his bed. “If his mom lets him, he’ll be here.”

Allie began organizing a stack of files on her desk. For the moment, it was quiet. No families, no phone calls. Jayden knew it wouldn’t last long.

“You have four messages,” Allie said. “They’re on your desk.”

“Only four?” She usually had eight or more.

Allie gave her a grunt. “You’re lucky I take care of most it for you.”

“Love you, Allstar.” Jayden grinned at her. She called her Allstar because she was priceless around the Angel’s Wings kennel. Life would not continue without Allie.

Jayden looked over her messages. Two were from another kennel. They had two dogs for her because they were now full. One message was from one of her vets who’d just performed surgery on a dog that had been hit by a car. She wanted to know if Jayden would take her. The last message was from a woman who had recently adopted a pet. She worked for a local news station and she wanted to do a story on Angel’s Wings.

“Did you see that message from the news channel lady?” Allie asked.

“I did.” Public attention was great, but it was also strenuous. Attention brought in more people, and some of those people weren’t ready for a dog, but they just didn’t know it yet. Jayden, unfortunately, had to be the one to tell them. She saw all her dogs all the way through, and that meant interviewing and going to the home to check it out before each and every adoption. And she’d seen more than a few homes that weren’t dog appropriate.

“She’s anxious to come by,” Allie said. “Said she was really impressed with us.”

Jayden picked up the phone to return the calls. Normally, she had to return calls on the fly because she was so busy, but for the moment she had some time. They’d adopted out four dogs so far for the day, and she was allowed to let the contentment wash over her a bit. Taking time to enjoy the fulfillment of her job was often rare, but it did help her sleep at night. As she dialed the number to one of the other rescues, her cell phone, which had a dog barking ringtone, rang on her hip. She recognized the number right away. It was Mel, her best friend.

“Mel,” she said, turning to stroke Cooper. “What is it?” Mel had been out approving the last family to adopt. Jayden trusted her completely.

“I just got a call from a hysterical woman. Her home was broken into and the dog got out. Little terrier mix. She can’t find her, and apparently the dog is a rescue and still afraid of strangers.”

Jayden leaned forward, alert. “She near the desert?” She immediately thought of coyotes.

“Mainly homes and a large golf course. We haven’t had any calls about a lost white terrier, have we?”

Jayden looked up at the intake board. Only one new one brought in so far today. A German shepherd mix.

“No, we haven’t.”

“I really feel for this lady. Can you keep your ears to the ground for me?”

“Sure. Make sure she calls other rescues as well.”

Jayden ended the call and looked to Cooper. She wished she could help the woman and every dog who needed it, but she could only do so much. It pained her to acknowledge that, and she still had a hard time living by that rule. Working long into the night and going on early morning calls was her mantra. But from time to time she had to slow down and rest. Mel and the others insisted on it, sometimes hiding her car keys so she’d have to stay at home rather than go out on call after call.

“Hey, Allie. Keep your eyes open for a little white terrier mix. She’s lost and someone may call about her.”

“She microchipped?”

“I don’t know. But Mel knows the lady. I guess her home was broken into today and the dog got out.”

Allie looked crestfallen. “That’s terrible.”

Jayden nodded. “Yes, it is.” She couldn’t imagine coming home to find her dogs gone and her place ransacked. How awful.

Jayden took a moment to thank her lucky stars for all she had. She had her shelter, her rescues, her own adopted dogs, her home, which sat on the same property as her kennel, and her friends. Life was good. But as she knew from dealing with rescues, it wasn’t always good for others.

Allie’s phone rang and Jayden’s ears piqued. It was a rescue call. Her heart rate kicked up just as it always did when they got a call. She never knew what she was going to find or who was involved. Allie hung up and crossed the room to Jayden. The look on her face was stoic, and Jayden always hated that she couldn’t read her. But Allie was strong and always remained calm. It’s what helped keep the place going.

“Is it bad?” Jayden asked.

“Brad wasn’t able to go into too much detail. He just said there’s a dog stuck in a drainage pipe out near Sun City. He’s waiting on you before he calls the fire department. You better hurry.”

Jayden stood and grabbed her keys. She slid on her cell phone and grabbed two bottles of water from the mini fridge behind her desk.

“Did Brad say if the dog was hurt?”

“He can’t tell.” Brad was a good friend from the Emergency Animal Rescue. He sometimes gave Jayden the heads-up on dogs needing help. Allie handed her the paper with the address.

“Will you take Cooper?” Jayden gave her his leash. “And if the news lady calls back, tell her we’re interested. I’ll get back to her as soon as I can.”

Jayden hurried across the office to the double doors. She pushed out into the waning sun and headed for her truck.

Another dog was in trouble.

It was time to go to work.

Chapter Three

“Here, have some wine, sweetie.”

Kassandra took the wineglass from her friend Wendy with a trembling hand. She sipped it cautiously at first but then took a few good swallows. She was at Wendy and Katelynn’s house, having packed up a few of her things from her home to stay a few nights. She was a wreck, and her two dear friends were trying their best to comfort her.

“We’ll put up more flyers first thing in the morning,” Katelynn said, sliding over the hummus and veggies on the coffee table.

Kassandra eyed the food with distaste. She couldn’t eat a bite. Her mind kept going to Lula. Where was she? What was happening to her? It was torturous.

“I just can’t stop thinking about her.”

Wendy scooted closer to her on the couch and took her hand. “I know, I know. You’ve had a very traumatic day. I think you’re in a bit of shock, to be honest.” Her blue eyes shined and Katelynn joined them, hugging Wendy from behind. They were an adorable couple and Kassandra’s closest friends. The only ones who could get her out of the house.

“Someone will find her, Kassie. Someone good.”

Kassandra dabbed her eyes. “Her tag, the phone number looks worn. I bet they can’t read it.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, honey.” Wendy patted her hand. “Try to think positively.”

“I know what you need,” Katelynn said. “Some more wine and a good movie. How about your favorite?”

Kassandra couldn’t. Not even Love Actually could cheer her up tonight. “I think I’m just going to go to bed.”

Wendy looked at the clock. Kassandra knew it was early. But she just needed to lie down and breathe.

“Don’t you want to wait up to see if anyone calls?” Wendy asked.

Kassandra thumbed the screen on her phone. Nothing. Her stomach sank. She couldn’t bear to see the bare screen anymore. It was driving her mad.

She slid it over to Wendy. “Wake me if someone calls.”

“You know you’re welcome here for as long as you need,” Katelynn said softly. “So don’t worry about that.”

Kassandra nodded. She rose and crossed to the hallway. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light and she entered the bedroom in the near darkness. She sat on the bed and removed her shoes. She thought of her home and how it had looked like a hurricane had gone through it. The burglar had taken her laptop, her stereo, and some jewelry. He’d also made off with some priceless family heirlooms.

She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. She glanced back at the bed and wished that she had someone in her life. She thought of how nice it would be to curl up in someone’s arms right then and drift off to sleep. More than anything, she just needed someone to tell her it was going to be okay.

Wendy and Katelynn had that. They had a wonderful marriage. Fourteen years strong. They were always trying to get her to date, but she just didn’t want to let anyone in. People made promises they couldn’t keep. Said things they didn’t mean. She’d been through all that before with her father, and she just wasn’t strong enough to go through any more of it.

She lay back and stared at the ceiling. She didn’t need people. Not when she had Lula.

She closed her eyes as tears ran down her cheeks. She’d had such a range of emotions surge through her the past few hours that now her body was limp with fatigue and her mind cloudy with fog. She calmed her breathing and allowed her troubled mind to shut down. It didn’t take long before she was fast asleep.

* * *

“Kassie, Kassie, wake up.”

Kassandra opened her eyes to find Wendy leaning over her, hand on her shoulder. Kassandra’s eyes drifted closed again and the events of the day before seeped into her mind. She bolted upright.

“What is it? Did someone call? Is she okay?”

Wendy sat next to her on the bed. She took her hand and spoke softly. “A cop called. The one investigating your break-in. He wants you to call him back. And a shelter called. They think they have Lula.”

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” She palmed her chest and stood, so grateful she thought she might faint. Lula. She was found.

Wendy held fast to her hand. “Kassie, that’s not all.”

“What do you mean?” Just as soon as her heart had soared to the ceiling, it now plummeted to the floor with fear. “She’s okay, isn’t she?”

Wendy nodded. “She is, but she’s been through a lot.”

“What does that mean?”

“She was found in a drainage pipe. They don’t know how long she was in there. It took a while to get her out.”

“Please, just tell me she’s okay.” She wiped angrily at a tear.

“They took her to an emergency clinic where she spent the night. She’s unharmed, but she was very weak and dehydrated.”

Kassandra began searching for her clothes. “I have to go. I have to go get her.”

Wendy stood and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Kassie, they said she’s okay. A shelter took her in because they had your contact information. She’s resting comfortably there. Why don’t you at least take a shower and have some breakfast? You didn’t eat last night and—”

Kassandra lifted her suitcase onto the bed. Her heart still fluttered even though she knew Lula was okay and safe. “She must be so afraid.”

“Kassie, please listen. We’re a little worried about you.” Wendy squeezed her hand.

Kassandra looked at her and stopped pulling out clothes. She let out a long, shaky breath. “I’ll take a shower, maybe have some toast.”

Wendy smiled. “Thank you. I’ll get breakfast ready and then I’ll get ready to go with you.”

“I can go alone,” Kassandra said. Wendy and Katelynn had already done so much for her. And besides, she knew she’d probably lose it when she saw Lula. She wanted to do that alone.

“Are you sure?”

Kassandra nodded. “I am. I’m used to, you know, being alone.”

Wendy was silent for a moment. “You know, you’re not alone, Kassie. Katelynn and I, we’re here for you. We can be with you today too. Just say the word.”

“I know, and I can’t thank you enough. I just—I need to do this alone. And I need to take Lula home and get things in order.”

Wendy offered another soft smile. “Okay. But I’m at least going to make you breakfast.”

She walked through the doorway, leaving Kassandra alone to shower and get ready. Kassandra took her clothes and toiletries to the bathroom, where she quickly showered and dressed. Then she zipped up her suitcase and headed for the living room.

“I made you toast and eggs,” Wendy said, setting a plate on the table in the cozy kitchen nook. Katelynn swept into the room, satin bathrobe swaying behind her as she moved.

“Good morning, loves,” she said, giving Kassandra a gentle squeeze and Wendy a lingering kiss. “Did you get the good news, Kassie?” She smiled broadly and came to sit across from her.

“I did,” Kassandra bit into her toast.

“Thank God, right?” She reached for her hand and patted it with excitement. Her brown eyes were deep and soulful and her thick auburn hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. “I told you good people would find her.” She sipped her coffee. “So when can we go get her?”

“Actually,” Wendy said as she brought two more plates to join them, “Kassie wants to go alone.”

Katelynn looked a little surprised. “Oh, okay. But you’re bringing her back here, right?”

Kassandra finished chewing. Wendy was silently eating, but Katelynn was looking at her with concern.

“I think I should take her home, to where she’s familiar. I have to start putting things back together sometime.”

“Well, we can come help. We’ll have it done in no time. Good as new. And I’ve got that number for you, you know, the guy with the security company?”

Kassandra took a drink of her juice. She felt bad, knowing her friends just wanted to help. But she had to pull back now. Back into herself. It was the way she survived.

“Thank you, Katelynn, for offering, but I need to do it alone. Now that I know Lula is okay, I just need to go home and regroup. Get things settled.”

Katelynn lowered her eyes and then looked to Wendy. “We understand.”

“We just worry, Kassie. You won’t let anyone in—”

“I let you guys in. All the time.” She did; she loved them, trusted them.

“Only so far,” Katelynn said. “Then you pull back again. Like now.”

“You don’t have to be alone, sweetie,” Wendy said. “We mean that.”

“I know, but—”

“Why won’t you date?” Katelynn asked. “Remember that guy Brian? He’s really nice and cute and—”

“I’m just not interested.”

“Why?”

“Because—” She stopped. What was her reason? Did she have one?

Katelynn and Wendy were watching her, their hands entwined.

“Because I just don’t want to.” That should be reason enough.

“Will you at least give him a chance?” Katelynn asked. “Meet us for happy hour? It won’t be a date, just a group of friends meeting for drinks.”

“I don’t know.” She pushed away her food and wiped her mouth. “I really should get going.”

Katelynn and Wendy stood. Katelynn came around the table and hugged her. “Aw, shit, honey, I didn’t mean to scare you away. I just want so badly for you to let someone in. If not us, someone else. Someone who you’ll let love you. Because you deserve love so much.”

Wendy embraced her too, a double dose of hugging. “We love you,” Wendy said.

“I love you, too.” Kassandra pulled away and tried to smile. But on the inside she felt panic, like they were trying to trap her. She didn’t want to date Brian or anyone else. She didn’t want to let anyone in. Her reasons were her own.

She crossed to the living room, suitcase in hand. “I’ll call you,” she said. “And thank you. For yesterday.”

“You better call us,” Wendy said, handing over the information on the shelter and another name and number. “Let us know how the two of you are doing.” She wrapped an arm around Katelynn’s waist. “And don’t forget to call that policeman. Officer Paul Jensen. He needs to ask you some more questions.”

“I will.” She gave them another smile and turned to walk out the door.

Chapter Four

“I’m telling you, Beaumont, you shouldn’t have blown her off. She was really into you,” Mel said as they both carried in large bags of dog food. Jayden set hers on the storage shelves in the back of the warehouse. She wiped her brow and knelt to organize the cans of food next to the dry food.

“I didn’t blow her off. I just—”

“Did absolutely nothing.”

Jayden laughed. “Well, to be honest, I kind of forgot she was there.” Despite the AC being on next door in the kennels, the air was stifling in the warehouse. “I hate how hot it gets in here. We need circulation or something.” Cooling the kennel in the Arizona summer heat was costly, so they kept the inside kennel temp between seventy-eight and eighty degrees with floor fans added for extra circulation. People from out of town often thought it was too hot until they walked indoors from a hundred and seventeen degrees. Then eighty degrees felt nice. Really nice with the fans. But to cool the warehouse would cost a small fortune. “What about some large floor fans for in here?”

“Don’t change the subject.” Mel unloaded the last bag and pulled down the door to the truck. She pounded on the side, letting the driver know he could leave. “Besides, it always gets hot when we open the big doors.”

Mel knelt alongside her and grabbed cans to place on the shelves. “Seriously, why did you blow her off? I put weeks in trying to get this woman for you.”

“That’s just it, Mel, I don’t need you to get a woman for me. I do fine on my own.” She looked her in the eye, but she knew she wasn’t buying it.

“Yeah, you do fine all right. You can have anyone you want, yet lately there doesn’t seem to be anybody good enough.”

“Oh, ouch,” Jayden said. “Now you’re making me out to be a snob.”

“Hey, if the shoe fits.”

“I happen to want something serious this time around. Someone with substance. Someone who hasn’t slept with more than half the lesbians in town.”

“Since when?”

Jayden finished and stood, running her hands through her thick, short hair. “Since now.”

“So there’s no chance you’ll go out with her again?”

“With who? Her? No. And I don’t need you fixing me up anymore.”

Mel stood alongside her and they walked through the doors to the front office. “Uh, yeah, about that. It might be a little too late.”

Jayden turned as she entered. “What do you mean?”

Mel’s face drained of color as if she’d been caught cheating on a test.

“Jayden?” Allie called from the front counter.

“Yes?” Jayden crossed the room to stand next to her.

“Jayden, this is Kassandra Haden.”

Jayden followed Allie’s gaze, eager to see what was going on. The office was busy with more than a handful of people talking with her staff members. A blond woman stepped into her line of sight in the bright sunlight, and Jayden felt her breath catch. Their eyes locked and Jayden forgot to speak, too taken with her quiet beauty.

“Jayden?” Allie nudged her.

“Sorry?” Jayden couldn’t look away. She was being drawn into her, inescapably so.

“She’s here about—”

And suddenly Jayden knew. She tore her eyes away to look back at Mel, who had somehow disappeared.

“I think I know what this is about.” The woman was too beautiful, too perfect. Boy, Mel had really gone out of her way this time.

“I’m Kassandra,” the woman said, outstretching her hand.

Jayden gave her a crooked smile and took her hand softly. It was soft, warm. Yet the woman had a nice firm grip. Jayden studied her stylish short haircut, her lovely rose-colored lips, and her skin…so smooth and supple looking. Olive in tone with a bit of a shimmer like she’d just applied a creamy lotion.

“Why don’t you follow me?” Jayden swung open the waist-high gate. Kassandra entered and followed her across the room and back to the doors that led to the kennels, the medical room, and the warehouse. Jayden pushed through into the area that led to the medical room. She took Kassandra’s hand to walk her farther inside. When she was sure they were alone and out of sight, Jayden pulled her close.

“I’ve got to tell you I was against this, but now—I mean seeing you—you’re breathtaking, and the whole quiet, humble thing, Jesus, you’re right on. You’re single, right?”

Kassandra was searching her eyes and she seemed to hesitate. “Yes, I am, but—”

Jayden grew alarmed. “Are you sure? Because I don’t do married or taken. I’m not into that.”

“I understand, but—”

“So you’re single?”

Kassandra looked frustrated. “Yes, but I really don’t see—”

“Great. And you’re an animal lover, right?”

“Yes, but really—”

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to be moved by someone. That instant chemistry you always hear about. I was beginning to think it didn’t exist. And Mel, she really did it. How did she find you? Where did she find you? Dear God, I want to know so I can go there all the time.” She leaned in and inhaled the scent from her neck. “God, you smell good.” She felt Kassandra shudder and take in a shaky breath.

The intensity between them was palpable. Kassandra was flushed, and Jayden could see the pulse jumping in her neck. She kept trying to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Jayden was nearly speechless herself.

“Where have you been hiding?” Jayden said into her ear. She placed her hands on her hips and looked into her eyes. “Who are you, Kassandra? I want to know everything. Every last detail. I want to read the book of your life, from page one to infinity.” She wanted so badly to kiss her, but she wanted to take it slow, despite her immediate attraction. She took a deep breath and stepped back. First things first.

“Dinner,” she said. “Can you meet me for dinner? I can get free after six.”

“I—” Kassandra said. “I think there’s been some sort of mistake.”

“No, not this time. No trouble, no drama. Not with you. Please.”

“I’m pretty drama free,” she said, giving a sarcastic laugh.

“Good, great.” Jayden smiled. She took her hand. “Because I would really love to get to know you.”

Kassandra blinked quickly and gently retrieved her hand. She looked away. Jayden downshifted once again, panicked.

“What is it?”

“I’m a little—unsure what is happening,” Kassandra said.

Jayden realized the problem. “It’s me. You’re not into me.” She rubbed her forehead in embarrassment. “Damn. I’m so sorry. I came on way too strong—”

Kassandra crossed her arms over her chest and rubbed them as if she were cold. She looked equally embarrassed. “I-I’m not here for you.” She met her eyes briefly and looked away.

“Sorry?” Was she here for Mel? Allie? What was going on?

“I’m here for my dog.”

“Your dog?” Jayden couldn’t think fast enough. It was like she had missed out on the last five minutes altogether. She couldn’t put the pieces where they belonged.

“Her name is Lula. She was stuck in a drainage pipe.”

Jayden felt as if she’d been slapped. She stepped back and willed her clenched heart to beat. “Oh, no.” She covered her mouth. “Oh God. I thought—”

“Can I see her now, please?”

Jayden kept staring. She heard the words, but she didn’t seem to understand them. “Sorry?”

“My dog,” she said, her flush becoming more prominent. “I’d really like to see her.”

Jayden heated. Her mind spun and she still couldn’t quite grasp what was real and what wasn’t. “Mel didn’t send you?”

“I spoke to a Mel yesterday, but no, I’m not here for…you.”

Jayden felt about two inches tall. She wanted to run, and yet she wanted to faint dead away. Anything to get out of this moment. She swallowed hard and cleared her throat.


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