TYLER BEST DIDN’T believe in fate.
Fate was an excuse people who’d experienced really bad shit or really astounding luck used in order to explain how their lives tended to twist and turn. Fate was a fantasy.
Tyler was a realist. He didn’t rely on some imaginary force to direct him. He’d taken chances and gotten knocked on his ass a few times, but he kept going because that’s what life was. You didn’t give up when it got hard.
Even in the face of devastating loss.
Tyler stared at the picture of Rex, his military dog, and the ache in his heart was raw, even eight months later. Rex had been his for three years before getting killed in combat. While Tyler was overseas, away from his family and friends, the dog had been his best friend, bringing him great comfort. When he’d lost Rex, he’d almost quit working with dogs. It had been difficult to be around them.
Yet, here he was, waiting to be led back to the “last day” dogs at the Paws and Causes Shelter. It was his first time here, as it was relatively new. Most of the time he visited Front Street Animal Shelter or the one off of Bradshaw, but new rescues and shelters were being added to the program every day. Ever since he’d become the head trainer for the Alpha Dog Training Program, a nonprofit created to help strengthen the connection between military personnel and their community, he’d become the last hope for a lot of dogs. If they passed their temperament test, they’d join the program. Not all of them did, and on those days it was hard to remember all the lives the program saved. It was hard to walk away from a dog’s big soulful eyes when Tyler knew the only outcome was a needle filled with pink liquid death, but he couldn’t save them all.
Just like he couldn’t save Rex.
“Sergeant Best?” a woman called from behind the reception desk.
Tyler stood up and slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You can go on through. Our tech, Dani, is waiting in the back to show you around. Just straight back; you’ll see the double doors.”
“Thank you.” Tyler opened the door, assaulted by high-pitched barks of excitement and fear. As he passed by the kennels, he looked through, studying the dogs of all shapes and sizes. He wasn’t sure why he was so melancholy today, but it had been coming on strong.
He pushed through the double doors and immediately realized the man and woman inside were arguing. Loudly.
“No, he has more time. I talked to Dr. Lynch, and he promised to give him until the end of the day in case his owners claim him.” This was shouted by the woman with her back to him, her blonde ponytail swinging with every hand gesture.
“Don’t be naïve. You’ve been here long enough to know that he won’t be claimed.” This was said by the thin, balding man in the lab coat, who was pushing sixty and had the cold, cynical look of someone who’d been doing his job too long. Tyler had seen it on the faces of veterans who had found a way to steel themselves against the horrors that haunted them. But once you shut that part off, it was hard to find it again. “Even if they come looking, they’ll just tell you to put him down anyway. If they had the money to pay for his care, then they could afford a proper fence. All you’re doing is putting off the inevitable and wasting valuable pain meds.”
He tried to sidestep the blonde, who was a good head shorter, but she planted herself right in his path. When she spoke, her voice was a low, deadly whisper. “If you make one more move toward that cage, I will body check you so hard you’ll forget your own name.”
Tyler’s eyebrows shot up, and he crossed his arms, hoping like hell the guy tested her. He really wanted to see her Hulk out.
“I will have you fired and sue you for everything you have if you touch me, you disrespectful little bitch.”
Tyler opened his mouth to defend her, but Blondie beat him to it by laughing. “Good luck with that. Of course, I could always say that you were being an über-perv, like with Mandy in reception. I’m guessing that if you have another complaint filed against you, you’ll be the one they ask to leave.”
The older man paled, and his lips compressed into an angry white line.
“Yeah, I thought that would get your attention,” she said, sounding rather smug. “Now, I suggest you leave this room, because even if I have to camp here until five o’clock, I am not leaving. And if you try to put Fugly down again before his time is up, I’ll have a camera phone and a news story with your name right in the headline.”
Fugly? She was protecting an animal named Fugly?
The man made a sound of disgust and headed toward another door away from Tyler. Once he was gone, Tyler stood there for a moment, waiting for her to notice him.
She ran her hands over her face and released a shaky sigh before she turned around.
And froze when she spotted him.
Tyler took in her heart-shaped face and pointed chin, the green of her darkly lashed eyes, and her rosebud mouth wrapped into an O of surprise. She had a sweet girl-next-door look to her, and suddenly, his day brightened a bit.
“Don’t you know it’s rude to eavesdrop?” she asked.
Damn, that was a boatload of hostility in one pint-sized bundle.
“I didn’t mean to, ma’am. I was told to come on back. Wasn’t expecting to almost break up a brawl.” He gave her his best smile, the one his friends said would disarm even the angriest woman alive.
All she did was blink at him several times before she groaned. “You’re the guy from Alpha Dog?”
Tyler held out his hand to her. “Sergeant Tyler Best.”
She took his hand, and he was surprised by the firm grip. “Danielle Hill, but everyone calls me Dani.”
“You can call me Tyler or Best, whatever you prefer.”
All she did was nod, so either she missed the flirtatious edge in his tone or she just wasn’t interested. Either way, Tyler was a little disappointed by her reaction.
Dani pointed to the far wall of cages, oblivious to his disgruntlement. “Those are all the dogs whose time here expires. Feel free to take them out into the holding room”—she indicated a whi
te door that had a sign reading HOLDING ROOM— “and do whatever you gotta do.”
Turning her back on him, she squatted down in front of a large cage and opened it. Tyler bent down to see a massive gray dog with black spots and stripes. The dog lifted his head slightly, his floppy ears pricking as she cooed.
“Hey, Fugly, how you doing, bud?” Dani’s hand glided over the dog’s head and neck, and he relaxed back on his side with a whimper.
“What happened to him?” Tyler asked.
“Someone hit him with their car. A yard crew behind them stopped and picked him up, brought him here, but there’s only so much I can do. The X-rays show he needs leg surgery, but my regular doctor is off today, and the prick subbing for him won’t do a damn thing to help.”
Tyler came closer, squatting behind her. The dog lifted his head and met Tyler’s gaze with soft green-gray eyes. Rex’s eyes had been a dark brown, nearly black, but the expression in this dog’s eyes was still the same—filled with trust. This dog wasn’t afraid of humans; he expected them to help him, to ease his pain.
Tyler’s chest clenched. Although he’d trained several dogs since Rex, he hadn’t experienced this pull, this kinship. This big, gray dog was calling to him, and he couldn’t ignore it, no matter how crazy it seemed.
“Release him to me.”
Dani spun his way so fast, she nearly knocked him back. “What?”