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“Hey! Is that the new guy?” Sophie slowed her approach, keeping her gaze locked on Forte’s face.
She’d been around tiny dogs all her life, but she’d spent enough time at Hope’s Crossing Kennels over the last couple of years to have learned how to meet the much bigger dogs in Forte’s care. Training working dogs was his thing. Or in Haydn’s case, retraining.
Always a work in progress.
Sophie had been here when Forte had come back from active duty, too battle weary to continue deploying. She’d helped him with the accounting when he’d established Hope’s Crossing Kennels and had generally integrated herself into the private world he’d created for himself, Rojas, and Cruz while they all rebuilt lives for themselves.
Sophie’s bright smile faded as she waited for him to answer. She always sensed when he got too caught up inside his own head.
“Yeah.” Forte came to a halt and murmured the command for Haydn to sit.
Instant obedience. Despite his injury, surgery, and current need for recovery, the dog was as sharp as he’d been on active duty. The mind was eager, ready to work. The body, not so much.
Sophie’s smile renewed, the brilliant expression stopping his heart, the way it had every time he’d seen her since they’d first met way back in high school. She came to a stop in front of them, barely within arm’s reach. “He must be doing well if you’ve got him out here for some field work.”
While they spoke, Haydn watched them both. Then he sniffed the back of Sophie’s hand, which she’d been holding conveniently within reach.
Usually, he preferred if a person asked to be introduced, but this was Sophie. If she’d approached anyone else, she’d have requested permission to say “Hi” to the dog. But between the two of them, everything was an exception.
It showed how well she’d come to know the way he worked in the last few years. He’d changed with every deployment. It happened. And she’d adjusted and accepted those changes in him without a word when he came back. She was the steadfast, forever friend.
He’d never told her why he’d left in the first place or why he’d come back. She was so good at just accepting him that she might never know. And he was a coward for not telling her.
“What’s your plan for him?” Sophie glanced down at the dog, now that he’d sniffed her hand. “Haydn, right?”
“Yeah.” Forte cleared his throat. “He’s got a couple of weeks of physical therapy first. Then we need to coordinate with the Air Force on his adoption.”
“Ah.” Understanding in one syllable. She had the kind of caring heart to fill in the gaps when something went unsaid. “His handler didn’t make it.”
Part of why Sophie was one of the only people Forte felt easy around was because she got it. Only needed to explain once. And she listened the first time. Sometimes no explanation was required at all.
“Where’s your car? We’ll walk you.”
“Right across the street.” Sophie jerked her head in the direction of the small parking lot.
They headed over, Sophie falling into step next to Forte. She didn’t try to take his hand or tuck her own around his arm. They weren’t like that. Besides, she knew he didn’t like to be all wound up with a person when walking out in the open.
As they approached her car, Sophie juggled her shopping bag to pull her keys out of her purse and triggered the trunk.
“Need help?” Forte came up alongside the car, scanning the area around the parking lot out of habit.
“No worries.” Sophie lifted the trunk door and carefully placed her shopping bag inside the deep space, leaning in to move things around to where she wanted. “I need to make sure this is arranged so stuff doesn’t shift. It's delicate!”
He was not going to admit to anyone, ever, how much he was willing to stretch his neck to catch sight of her backside while she was leaning over.
Haydn sniffed the side of the car. The big dog was very engaged, his relaxed attitude changing to a sharper set of movements. Forte tore his attention from Sophie.
Haydn had detected something out of place. Something wrong. Forte’s stomach tightened into a hard knot. Nothing wrong should be anywhere near his Sophie. It didn’t matter that they were in a sleepy town on the edge of a river in the middle of a peaceful country. It didn’t matter that there shouldn’t be any real danger here.
Haydn deliberately sat and looked up at Forte. It was a clear signal. One Haydn had been specifically trained to give as a military explosives detection dog.
“Sophie. Step away from your car.” He’d explain later. Be afraid later. Rage. Worry.
She popped up from the trunk. “Huh?”
They had to move now.
She complied, thank god. He gave Haydn a terse command, circled around to grab Sophie and get more distance. He steered her across the parking lot toward a big dumpster. It’d serve as good cover. Then he reached for his smart phone.
They got a couple of yards away, and Sophie craned her neck to look back at her car, even as she kept moving with him. She always did as he asked immediately, but she had a brain, and she insisted on explanations after she complied. “What—?”
Behind them, the trunk hatch came down with a solid thunk.
Forte let out a curse and grabbed her, pulling them down to the ground and rolling for the cover of other cars as an explosion lifted the entire driver’s side of her car.