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Quinn Foxworth had never really realized just how loud a dog's bark could be. For an instant, when Cutter exploded into earsplitting noise inside the closed vehicle, a vision of distant sands and guard dogs trumpeting a warning of an enemy inside the perimeter shot through his mind.
That hadn't happened for a long time. He consciously eased his muscles, especially his hands, on the steering wheel and instinctively slowed the SUV down.
"Loud when he wants to be, isn't he?"
Quinn looked over at his fiancée, and the last of the memory vanished. He was grateful she hadn't noticed his reaction. And then her gaze locked on his and he saw in her eyes that Hayley hadn't missed a thing. But she had intentionally not prodded.
No wonder he loved her beyond measure.
"Yes," he said belatedly, having to raise his voice just as she had to be heard over the cacophony from the back of the SUV.
"He's not usually like that in the car," she said. "You know he has exquisite manners. Well, except for when that guy tried to reach in."
"Good for him. And lucky for the guy it wasn't me."
She smiled. Yeah, he loved her all right. And their wedding wasn't soon enough to suit him, even though it was less than a month away.
The barking suddenly morphed into a howl, and Cutter clawed at the back hatch of the car.
"Well, that's a new one," Hayley said, wincing at the sound.
"Easy, dog," Quinn said, but the howling continued.
He'd learned by now that ignoring Cutter was never a good idea. They were on a rather narrow lane, headed home from the indulgence of a breakfast out, but they'd passed a park a few yards back. He checked the mirrors, then put the SUV in Reverse. The moment they began to back up, the howling subsided to a mild whine that at least allowed room for thought.
He backed up until he could swing into the small parking area. The whine stopped. But Cutter was clearly still on full alert, ears and tail up, staring out toward the park.
"I suppose he wants out."
"It's raining," Hayley said, "of course he does."
With a sigh, Quinn hit the button that raised the hatch. Before he could even get his door open Cutter was out and running across the wet grass of the park.
"Well, he's thoroughly unleashed now," Quinn muttered as he walked around the back of the car to where Hayley stood, watching the dog go.
"Did that look full of intent to you?" she asked.
Hayley was focused on Cutter. Quinn stole the moment to just look at her again. He never got tired of the little jab of wonder that struck him when he realized she was his, that she would always be by his side.
"Sorry," he said, not meaning it in the least. "I was distracted by the view. As usual."
He loved that she still colored up when he said stuff like that.
"Thank you," she said simply. "But "
She gestured toward the far side of the park, where their rascal of a dog was approaching the child who sat on one of the swings. A blond boy in jeans and a sweatshirt but no jacket, with a small backpack beside him. He was staring at the ground, digging a sneakered toe into the mud.
"If you mean did all that ruckus in the car and then the beeline over there seem very specific, then yes," he said in answer to her original question. "We'd better go rein him in. Don't want the kid getting scared."
She nodded, and they started across the grass. The rain was coming down steadily, but lightly. Cutter was almost there, but the boy hadn't seemed to notice. In fact, he didn't seem to be noticing anything except the way the mud oozed around what looked to be fairly new, once white sneakers.
Cutter had come to a halt about two feet away from the boy. "Maybe he just wants to play," Hayley said. "There haven't been any kids around for him to play with lately, since Brian moved away."
The dog sat. Waited.
"Well, he's not playing," Quinn said. "And the kid doesn't look much like he wants to."
"It is raining."
"When I was that age, I couldn't have cared less if it was raining if there was playing to be done."
Hayley laughed, a light, lovely sound that never failed to expand the warmth he always felt when he was with her.
"Not every boy is a bold adventurer such as yourself," she teased.
"That's what I get for being born before kids became tethered to a video game console."
She turned her gaze back to the pair they were nearing. Cutter had reached out with his nose, and the boy had responded perfectly, holding out his hand, low and slow, for the dog to sniff. Someone had taught him, Quinn thought.
And then the dog rose and went forward, turning sideways to lean against the boy's knees. The boy moved then, reaching to pat the dog. Cutter leaned harder. The boy's fingers burrowed into thick fur. And Cutter leaned even more. They were just close enough to hear the odd sound the boy made before he leaned forward himself, wrapping his arms around the animal's neck as if he were a life preserver. Cutter twisted his head up and back, and swiped his tongue across the boy's cheek. A smile broke through, and only when he saw it did Quinn realize just how downcast the boy had seemed.
"You're right, Cutter isn't acting like he wants to play, either," Hayley finally agreed. "In fact, he looks like."
Her voice faded away. Quinn nodded. Spoke quietly.
"Yeah. He looks like he's protecting."
"Standing between that boy and the world," she said softly.
Quinn let out a compressed breath. "I knew it had been too quiet these last couple of weeks."
When the boy looked up at them, his expression wary, they stopped a few feet away. Cutter looked at them, his tail wagging in greeting. He made a quiet little whuffing sound, but never moved away from the boy.
Quinn held back slightly, letting Hayley take the lead with the child.
"Hi," she said softly. "That's Cutter, if you were wondering what his name is."
The boy clung to the dog. "Cutter?"
That earned him another swipe of the tongue that made him smile despite his wariness.
"What kind of dog is he? I like how he's black in front and brown in back."
"We're not sure, exactly. He looks like a sheepdog that comes from Europe."
"Are you here by yourself?" Hayley asked.
The boy's expression went back to wary. His gaze flicked to Quinn, then back to Hayley. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"That's a good plan." Quinn spoke for the first time, gently. "But Cutter's already introduced himself."
"My mom says sometimes bad people use dogs or cats to try and trick kids."
Hayley smiled. "Good for your mom. She's right, and I'm glad she warned you about that. So why don't you take us to her? Then we can talk to her and not be strangers anymore. And she can decide if it's okay for you to get to know Cutter."
The boy sighed. "She'll say no. She's mad again."
"At you?" Quinn asked.
"Sort of. And at my dad."
Hayley glanced at Quinn. He nodded; the boy seemed to talk more easily to her, understandably. "What did your dad do?"
"He said something bad about my father."
Uh-oh, Quinn thought. Already into a domestic situation. Divorce, stepfather, that could get ugly. Except the boy had called him his dad. Did you do that with a stepfather you didn't like? Then again, the kid was very young. Maybe he was just calling him what he was told to call him.
"Your dad and your father don't get along?" Hayley asked, using the boy's terms.
"He's really my uncle. My father's dead."
Hayley blinked again.
"Who's your uncle?" Quinn asked, starting to feel as if he'd stumbled into some kind of comedy skit. But the boy's expression wasn't the least bit amused.
Quinn wasn't much good at guessing ages on kids this young, but he put this one at somewhere in the six to eight range. Six in size, but older in the sadness in his eyes. A kid that young shouldn't be able to look like that. Younger even than the ten he had been when his parents had been killed. But at least this one still had his mother. And whoever the father figure in his life really was.
"It's my fault," the boy said in a tiny voice.
Hayley moved then, closer. He knew this woman, knew she wouldn't be able to just leave a child who sounded so miserable. He wasn't sure he could walk away himself. Hayley teased himlovinglyabout being a protector to the core. Maybe she was right.
Hayley crouched in front of the boy on the swing. She didn't say any of the things most would, like "I'm sure it's not," or "You must have misunderstood." Instead, she simply asked, "Why is it your fault?"
The boy dug the toe of one sneaker deeper into the mud beneath the swing. "It just is. If I went away, then they'd be happy."
Hayley went very still. Quinn understood. No child should feel that way, but to hear it from one this young was unsettling.
"I'm sure they would miss you terribly," Hayley said softly.
The boy stayed silent then, as if he'd suddenly remembered he was still talking to strangers. Or as if he didn't believe a word of it.
And Quinn suddenly realized Cutter was staring at him. That intense, unsettling gaze was unwavering, and by now Quinn knew all too well what it meant.
He no longer bothered rationalizing it, not even to himself. He'd simply had to accept, by virtue of an undeniable amount of empirical evidence, that the dog knew what he was doing and somehow communicated it to anyone who would pay attention. And he seemed to instinctively know who would get the message, just as he always seemed to know who was in trouble and needed his help.
The problem was Quinn's, not Cutter's. How was he going to explain to a dog that absent genuine abuse, Fox-worth never interfered in marital or parent-child situations? But family matter or not, when a boy this young talked about going away, it deserved some intervention. Just not the full force of the Foxworth organization.
On that thought, the dog let out a small sound, a soft but emphatic woof. Then he turned his attention back to the boy. Quinn felt decidedly shrugged off. Cutter had directed "Fix it," and fix it he meant.
"You know," Hayley was saying to the still silent boy, "Cutter's pretty smart. He's not a Bloodhound, but I'll bet he could find your house without you even telling him where it is."
Damn, she was good, Quinn thought. She had the boy's attention now, and she'd managed to focus it on an idea most kids his age would find irresistible. She'd be a great mom.
For an instant his stomach went into free fall. They weren't even married yet and he was thinking about kids? When not so long ago he would have sworn that would never happen, that he would never, ever bring kids into a world so screwed up by the people supposedly running it? But a baby, with Hayley? Their child?
Right, he muttered inwardly. Just dealing with this kid's got you going sideways. You'd be great with one of your own.
"Could he?" the boy asked, stroking the dog's head.
"Shall we see?"
She glanced at Quinn. He gave her a half shrug. He'd been working with the dog on commands, if you could call it working when the animal seemed to learn everything on the first try. Once he'd come to trust the dog, once they had all accepted him as part of the team, he'd realized it would be best if everybody knew and used the same commands. He'd thought about using a different language, as military and police K-9s did to insure the dog obeyed only their orders, but since Cutter tended to completely ignore anyone he didn't know and trust telling him what to do, it seemed unnecessary.
"We can try," Quinn said. "Just remember Foxworth doesn't do domestic."
Hayley flashed him the smile that never failed to send a shiver down his spine. "It's not me, it's him you have to convince," she said, nodding toward Cutter. She didn't add, "And good luck with that," but it was in her tone anyway.
"Great," he muttered. He'd never met a more stubborn creature than that dog, and that included himself and even Rafe. "Let's go, then."
The boy looked at him somewhat warily. Quinn softened his voice. "Shall we see if he can do it?"
The boy still didn't speak, but slid off the swing.
"Cutter," Quinn said in an entirely different tone, one of command. The dog's head snapped around, those intense eyes fastened on him. Quinn pointed at the boy.
"Backtrack," he ordered.
The dog glanced from Quinn to the boy, then back. And then he whirled on his hindquarters and trotted off toward the tall trees. Quinn watched the boy watch the dog, saw the child's eyes widen when Cutter stopped at the edge of the forest, beside a tall hemlock with a long branch dragging downward, and looked back over his shoulder at them.
"That's my secret path! He does know!"
He took off after the dog at a run.
Quinn and Hayley followed. At least this, Quinn thought, should be quick. Return the kid home, and then they themselves could go home. And he could get back to his thoughts of luring Hayley back to bed for a leisurely afternoon of enjoying the miracle of them together.
He tried to ignore the little voice in his head reminding him that with Cutter, nothing was ever that simple.