Julie Miller
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Protectors at K-9 Ranch #1
Copyright ©2024 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Enterprises

Jessie Bennington lost everything in a brutal attack. Now she rescues and trains dogs to help victims cope with the nightmares that haunt them. When danger threatens her new life, she turns to Deputy Garrett Caldwell for help. At this stage in their lives, can friendship turn into something more?

Shadow growled.

Tensing, Jessica Bennington looked over at her German shepherd mix with the graying muzzle, who had just risen from his sunny spot in the grass and gone on alert.

Now what? The dogs at her K-9 Ranch rescue and training center had raised a ruckus late last night, too. They had all been locked up in their kennels, the barn, or the house, so she hadn’t been worried about one of them getting into trouble.

 She’d thrown a jacket on over her pajamas and slipped into a pair of sneakers, grabbed a flashlight and Shadow, and gone out to investigate. But by the time she’d checked each and every one of them, the hubbub had died down. One must have seen a fox or a raccoon and barked, then the others would have joined in because no self-respecting dog wanted to be left out of sounding the alarm. Other than a few extroverts who seized the opportunity to get some petting, they’d immediately settled for the night. But since her own K-9 partner hadn’t alerted to anything unusual, Jessica had dismissed any threat, walked back to the house, and had fallen into bed.

But Shadow was alerting this morning. His ears flicked toward the sound that only a dog could hear, his dark eyes riveted to movement in the distance that only a dog could see.

She hated that growl. It was the sound of danger. A threat. Sometimes, even death. It was the sound of salvation and sacrifice.

It was the sound of the nightmare she’d lived with for twelve long years.

She instinctively splayed her fingers over her belly and the scars beneath her jeans. There was nothing to protect there anymore. There never would be.

Barely aware of the younger dog she’d been working with taking his cue from Shadow and turning toward the perceived threat, Jessica felt her blood pressure spike. Both dogs faced the pines and pin oaks that formed a windbreak and offered some much-needed privacy around the small acreage outside of Kansas City, Missouri. She couldn’t afford to be paralyzed by the memories that assailed her. She had to push them aside. She had to let Shadow do what she’d trained him to do. She could overcome. She could survive this moment, just like she had so many others.

Jessica forced out a calming breath and stepped up beside the rescue dog that had been her protector, emotional support, and most loyal companion these past ten years. “What is it, boy?”

She sensed the tension vibrating through Shadow but knew he wouldn’t charge off to investigate unless she gave him the command to do so. Shadow’s black-and-tan coat was longer than a pure-blooded shepherd, thanks to the indefinite parentage of running with a pack until he’d been taken to a shelter in Kansas City and Jessica had picked him to be her first rescue. But that shaggy coat had been a comfort on more than one occasion in the ten years she’d had him. It would be now, too. She slid her fingers from her stomach into the thick fur atop his head, absorbing his heat, finding strength in knowing he was as devoted to her as she was to him.

She would never again be alone and helpless and unable to save the ones she loved.

Not with Shadow by her side.

Jessica finally heard the deep bark of one of her patrol dogs in the distance and relaxed a fraction. Her dogs were doing their jobs. That loud woof was Rex, a big, furry galoot of laziness and curiosity. He was more noise than fight—just the way she’d trained the gentle giant to behave. He wasn’t much of a people dog, but he did enjoy roaming the six acres of her Shadow Protectors Ranch. A natural herder and caretaker, the Anatolian had adopted her three goats, a barn cat, and an abandoned litter of possums over the years. Had he found some other critter he wanted to take home to his stall in the barn? While Rex had yet to choose a person he liked well enough to bond with, he made a great deterrent to trespassers who wandered onto her land.

That’s when she heard Toby’s excited bark joining the chorus. Toby was the opposite of Rex in terms of personality. The black Lab wanted to be friends with everyone, hence he was no kind of guard dog at all. But he was a great noisemaker and loved to be in on the action. Toby and Rex had definitely discovered something near her property line to the west.

Mollie Crane, the client she’d been working with, sidled up beside Jessica, tucking her short dark-brown hair behind her ears. “Is something wrong?”

The younger woman she was helping was one breath away from a panic attack. The man she’d said she needed protection from had really done a number on her. Her fingers brushed against Jessica’s elbow instead of reaching for Magnus, the dark faced Belgian Malinois who was training to be her service dog. “Is someone out there? Is it that grumpy old man who works for you? Or his grandson who cleans out the kennels? I’m not sure I like him. He’s too friendly. Can someone be too friendly? I like his grandfather better. He’s not very chatty, but at least he doesn’t force me into a conversation or try to flirt with me.”

Jessica squeezed her hand over Mollie’s fingers to calm her. “Easy, Mollie. Take a breath.” She breathed deeply, once, twice, with the woman, who was twenty years her junior. It was easier to control her own fears when she had her dogs or someone else to worry about. “Shadow’s on alert because he hears and smells something atypical in his world. The dogs all know Mr. Hauck and his grandson, Soren. This is something different.”

“An intruder? Could someone have followed me out here from the city? Wouldn’t we have heard them pulling up the driveway?” She was one thought away from hyperventilating. Mollie’s fingers were still clenched around Jessica’s elbow as she looked down at her dog. “Why isn’t Magnus barking? Is it because he’s deaf in one ear? Does he not hear the threat? He’s not going to be able to protect me, is he?”

Jessica glanced down at the Belgian Malinois who’d washed out of the Army’s K-9 Corps because of chronic ear infections and hearing loss. “He’s aware. Believe me, he sees more with those eyes than you or I ever will. But he’s still in training. We’ll get him where you need him to be. Don’t worry. For now, let him be a comfort to you—something to focus on besides your fear.” She tried to pull away. “I really need to go. If they’ve trapped a skunk, or there is someone—”

“Okay, um, Magnus?” Mollie picked up the Malinois’s leash off the dry grass that hadn’t had enough spring rain yet to turn green.

“Not like that.” Jessica spared a moment to help her client. “You’re the boss. He wants to please you. If you’re not the boss, he’s going to please himself.” Jessica demonstrated. “Shadow, sit.” She raised her hand. “Down.” The shepherd’s black nose stayed in the air, even as he eased his creaky joints to the ground. “Stay,” she added, although he’d already obeyed her visual cues. She nodded to Mollie. “Now, you tell Magnus.”

Mollie dutifully raised her hand. “Magnus. Sit.” The young, muscular dog tipped his nose up to her and plopped his haunches on the ground. “He did it!” Mollie’s success transformed her wary expression into a shy smile. “Good boy.” She scratched the dog around his limp ear. “Now what?”

Although Jessica had spent a fortune to fence in the entire acreage to keep her dogs off the gravel roads and nearby state highway, she knew that a human being could either climb the fence or cut through it if they were agile enough and determined to trespass. “Mollie, I need to go.” She needed to check out the hullabaloo as much as Shadow wanted to. “Take Magnus back to the barn and do some bonding with him. You’ve both had a good training session this morning and need a break.”

Mollie’s hands fisted around the leash. “By myself?”

“Sweetie, he chose you that first day you came to the ranch. Remember? He came right up to you and sat on your foot? He wants you to give him a chance to be the dog you need.” Jessica shrugged, anxious to get to her dogs to make sure they were safe, but equally worried about jeopardizing Mollie’s training. Although she earned good money training dogs for several paying clients, she had an affinity for women like Mollie, who needed a companion to help her feel safe. Mollie lived on a small budget, working as a waitress at a diner in Kansas City. But because of Jessica’s own background with violence, she charged Mollie only a fraction of her regular fee. She would have given the young woman the dog and trained them for free, but she’d discovered she was as much a therapist as a trainer. Jessica understood that Mollie needed to make her own way in the world. She needed to build the confidence that had been stripped away from her by her past, and Jessica would do whatever was necessary to help. “Play a game with Magnus,” she advised. “Get on the ground with him and pet him. There are treats and toys in the last cabinet out in the barn.” She reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out her ring of work keys. She held up a small padlock key. “Here. This will unlock the cabinet.”

“Okay. I can do this, right?” Mollie fisted her hand around the keys.

Jessica softened her tone and squeezed the other woman’s fist. “Yes, you can. Love Magnus. Earn his trust. Provide his food, leadership, entertainment and comfort, and he will be your best friend—the most loyal friend you will ever have. Answering the specific commands you need will come later.” She gave the other woman’s shoulder one more squeeze before pulling away. “Please. I need to see what’s going on. I need to make sure none of my protectors are getting themselves into trouble.”

Mollie nodded, accepting the mission Jessica had given her. Using a hand signal to get the tan dog’s attention focused on her, she spoke in a surprisingly firm voice. “Magnus, heel.” Then she tugged on the leash and the dog fell into step beside her.

“Just like that. Good job. You’ll be safe in the barn.”

Shadow remained at her feet, but his nose and ears indicated he was anxious to check out the disturbance, too. Could the ex-husband Mollie was so afraid of have found her here, eight miles outside the KC city limits? Jessica released her dog from his stay command. “Shadow, seek.”

Needing no more encouragement, he took off at a loping run, and Jessica jogged to keep pace with him. She slowed as they reached the trees. Although the oaks were just beginning to bud and posed no obstacle, the evergreens had full, heavy branches she had to push her way through. She worried when Shadow dashed beyond her sight. “Shadow?” The barking tripled as the dog joined Rex and Toby.

Jessica pushed aside the last branch, stopped in her tracks and cursed on a deep sigh. “This isn’t good.”

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