Shelter Me by Catherine Mann | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Shelter Me

Shelter Me

4.1 20
by Catherine Mann
     
 

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From the USA Today bestselling Catherine Mann comes this beautiful, heartwarming novel about a returning soldier, the daughter of his fallen commander, and a very special dog with a mission.  For fans of Jill Shalvis and Susan Mallery. 

Nestled in the sunny fields of Tennessee lies the McDaniel family’s Second Chance Ranch Animal Rescue.

Overview

From the USA Today bestselling Catherine Mann comes this beautiful, heartwarming novel about a returning soldier, the daughter of his fallen commander, and a very special dog with a mission.  For fans of Jill Shalvis and Susan Mallery. 

Nestled in the sunny fields of Tennessee lies the McDaniel family’s Second Chance Ranch Animal Rescue. Two new arrivals are on their way, but only one is the four-legged kind. 
Staff Sergeant Mike Kowalski wants only one thing after he gets home from Iraq: to sleep in a king-sized bed with clean sheets. But first, he has to hand off his fallen commander’s dog, Trooper, to his family without handing off his heart to Sierra…
 
Sierra McDaniel needs a break. Her family life is crazy, and when she’s not mucking out kennels, she’s slogging through grad school. Sierra certainly doesn’t want another dog, especially one that reminds her of her father. And she definitely doesn’t want to see Mike with that charming smile of his…
 
But Trooper has a mission of his own. Before too long Mike is moving to the ranch to lend a hand—and hoping for his own second chance with Sierra.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 06/30/2014
Col. Allen McDaniel was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and his family is devastated. Sgt. Mike Kowalski brings Allen’s dog, Trooper, back to the McDaniels and the precocious pooch sets about making things right, one person at a time. Sierra McDaniel helps her mother keep the ranch running and the family functioning while carrying a full course load at school. The last thing she wants is her dead father’s dog; neither does she want to remember the passionate moments from her brief affair with Mike. But the connection between the two is still strong, and they to resume their affair. Trooper’s asides expressing his thoughts, memories, and opinions about the family are some of the funniest moments in this romance. The story isn’t just about the love between Sierra and Mike—it also covers the love between mother and daughter, grandfather and granddaughter, dog and human, neighbor and neighbor, and even the army and its troops. There is indeed plenty of love to go around, and animal fans in particular will be swept away by it. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
Praise for SHELTER ME:
"Col. Allen McDaniel was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and his family is devastated. Sgt. Mike Kowalski brings Allen’s dog, Trooper, back to the McDaniels and the precocious pooch sets about making things right, one person at a time. Sierra McDaniel helps her mother keep the ranch running and the family functioning while carrying a full course load at school. The last thing she wants is her dead father’s dog; neither does she want to remember the passionate moments from her brief affair with Mike. But the connection between the two is still strong, and they to resume their affair. Trooper’s asides expressing his thoughts, memories, and opinions about the family are some of the funniest moments in this romance. The story isn’t just about the love between Sierra and Mike—it also covers the love between mother and daughter, grandfather and granddaughter, dog and human, neighbor and neighbor, and even the army and its troops. There is indeed plenty of love to go around, and animal fans in particular will be swept away by it." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A story about the redemptive power of love told with heart.  With Shelter Me Catherine Mann delivers another unforgettable romance." -Cindy Gerard, New York Times bestselling author.

"Shelter Me is contemporary romance done right! Brimming with wonderfully real characters, hard-hitting emotions, and enough sexual tension to light my eReader on fire, I couldn’t put it down!  Give me more, Catherine Mann!  I’m addicted!' -Julie Ann Walker, New York Times bestselling author

Praise for the Novels of Catherine Mann 
“An emotional…story that leaves you wanting more.”—Sherrilyn Kenyon, #1 New York Times bestselling author 
“A world chock-full of simmering passion.”—Merline Lovelace, USA Today bestselling author 
"Catherine Mann's picture should be in the dictionary next to 'superb'" —Suzanne Brockmann, New York Times bestselling author

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425269886
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/05/2014
Series:
Second Chance Ranch Series
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
591,203
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

PART 1

Whoever invented crate training should have to spend eighteen hours in a wooden box strapped inside a cargo hold. Baby, I was born to run.

—TROOPER, OVER THE ATLANTIC

One

SIERRA MCDANIEL HAD ordered a drug test for a whacked-out Pomeranian, then milked a nanny goat to bottle-feed a litter of motherless pit bull pups. And it wasn’t even noon yet.

The Tennessee summer sun baked her hair faster than the professional highlights she couldn’t afford anyway. She checked the latches of each kennel run attached to her mom’s converted barn/animal rescue, complete with doggie doors and an air conditioner. Someone had tampered with the locks and let all the dogs out last week, torquing off their cranky neighbors even more.

But then who wanted an animal rescue next door? Even if next door was an acre away on either side.

She double-checked the detoxing Pomeranian sprawled on a puppy bed, looking loopy. The fur ball had bitten a teenager, and the cops had soon deduced the dog discovered a hidden bag of pot, started chowing down on the weed and objected when the outraged teen tried to recover his stash. Animal Control had called her mom’s rescue for the pup that Sierra now called Doobie even though his real name was Lucky.

God, what she wouldn’t give to be a regular English Lit grad student at Vanderbilt, living in a crappy apartment with flea-market furniture. Rather than going to the local college and living in her childhood bedroom of pink ruffles and faded boy-band posters. What she wouldn’t give to have her dad come home today with his unit.

But he wasn’t, and no amount of wishing could change that.

She could, however, honor his memory by doing what he would want. So she spent every spare moment between summer classes and her grad assistantship duties pitching in at her mother’s Second Chance Ranch Animal Rescue. Not that her mom would ask for help with the rescue or her own job teaching online classes year-round. Even though Sierra saw the pain and struggle in her mother’s eyes, to the rest of the world Lacey was the ultimate independent military wife, giving all for her man. Holding down the home front. Raising Sierra and Nathan to be the perfect military brats.

Oh, hey, and caring for Grandpa McDaniel while Alzheimer’s sucked him deeper into the quicksand of dementia.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mom decided to save homeless and abused animals in all her free time, starting up a nonprofit rescue organization that didn’t pay a dime. The nanny goat—freshly milked—bleated in agreement from across the yard, bell clanking around her neck before she went back to chomping grass.

Seriously, weren’t goats supposed to be gifts for third-world villages?

Huffing her sweaty bangs off her brow, Sierra yanked open the door to the mudroom on their rambling white farmhouse and quickly slammed it closed behind her, muffling the din of barking to a dull roar. Checkered curtains on the door fluttered. Through the window, Tennessee fields stretched out as far as she could see, dotted with other homesteads. Her family only owned a couple of acres total, fenced in, but even still, half the neighbors complained.

Some more vocally than others, threatening to file an injunction to shut the whole operation down at a county council meeting scheduled for next month. Another problem for another day.

She scuffed the poop off her gym shoes once, twice, then gave up and ditched her sneakers in the sink. They landed on top of the black galoshes Lacey used for kennel work, sending their old calico kitty soaring away. Sierra eyed her own purple monkey rain boots with a stab of regret that she hadn’t tugged them on this morning.

She padded into the kitchen to wash her hands and grab another cup of coffee before they had to leave for Fort Campbell. Not that an IV dose of straight caffeine would help her face what waited for them at the Army post when that planeload of returning troops landed. When Mike Kowalski landed with a living, breathing reminder of the father that hadn’t returned.

Her chest went tight and she mentally recited William Butler Yeats to soothe herself. I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made—

Footsteps thundered down the stairs, followed by the reverberation of General Gramps’s Army cadence marching across her ears seconds ahead of him entering the kitchen, overpowering her literary ramble.

“They say that in the Army the coffee’s mighty fine . . .” Her silver-haired grandfather wore a smile and his old uniform, high-stepping his way to the gurgling java maker.

He didn’t so much as shoot a look her way, but she knew the drill. Yeats was done for now. Gramps had his own “poems.” At least it was a clean one today.

She repeated his chant like a good soldier. “They say that in the Army the coffee’s mighty fine.”

They’d played this game for decades. Her life had been military issue from the cradle.

“Looks like muddy water and tastes like turpentine.” He snagged a chipped mug from a mismatched set of crockery as he continued chanting his current Jody of choice.

“Looks like muddy water and tastes like turpentine.”

“They say that in the Army the chow is mighty fine.”

“They say that in the Army the chow is mighty fine,” she echoed, childhood memories curling through her like the scent of Kona blend wafting from the pot as he poured.

He lifted his mug in toast. “A chicken jumped off the table and started marking time.”

“A chicken jumped off the table and started marking time.”

“Hoo-ah!” her grandpa grunted.

“Hoo-ah.” Happy times with Gramps were few and far between lately. Even if this moment ached as it reminded her of her dad, she could hang tough and enjoy a ritual of semi normalcy in the crazy house. “We need to leave in about fifteen minutes. I have to shower fast and change.”

Preferably into something that didn’t smell of dog poop and goat’s milk. She washed her hands, double-pumping the antibacterial soap.

Gramps opened a Tupperware container and scowled, the light mood fading fast. “Croissants? What is this? A fancy-ass French bakery or a real kitchen? I need a soldier’s breakfast.”

So much for normalcy. He’d eaten breakfast three hours ago. Eggs, bacon and pancakes, with their family Labrador snoozing on his feet. Except reminding Gramps of that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Her grandfather, Joshua McDaniel, a two-star general and veteran of three wars, remembered less and less every day.

“How about a muffin on the run, Gramps?” She patted the pan of apple nut muffins still warm from the oven. “We have to get to Fort Campbell.”

He glanced down at his open uniform jacket her mom had aired out for him. Probably at about four in the morning since her supermom insisted she never needed anything so mundane as sleep. But Sierra could see her mother fraying around the edges, the little weakness slipping through, such as lost files and forgotten errands.

And God, that thought sounded petty to nitpick, but this was a crummy day, going to pick up a dog her father had found overseas—as if there weren’t already enough animals here at her mother’s rescue. As if there weren’t already enough reminders of her dead dad. She blinked back tears. Was it so wrong to want some part of her life that wasn’t military issued and full of good-byes?

Sierra pushed aside dreams of Innisfree and patted her grandfather’s shoulder, right over the two shiny stars. “General, you are looking mighty fine today.”

“A good soldier never forgets how to polish his shoes or shine his brass.” He grimaced at the rare second’s understanding at how much of himself he’d lost.

“Mighty fine shiny shoes and brass they are, General.”

“I taught your dad, too.” He looked up at her quickly with eyes as blue as her own. “Maybe he can show you when he gets back today. It’s not too late for you to get a commission, you know. They let women in the Army now.”

“Sure, Gramps.” She didn’t even wince anymore at references to her dad coming home. Alzheimer’s had its perks for some. Like not knowing your son got blown up by a roadside bomb.

Gramps straightened the uniform tie, shirt buttons perfect even though he couldn’t zip his own jeans anymore. General Joshua McDaniel had drawers full of track suits and T-shirts he wore with his American Legion ball cap. All easy to tug on. Yet, his fingers worked the buttons of his uniform jacket now with a muscle memory of long-ago tasks, a mystery of Alzheimer’s that she’d learned not to question.

At least her mom would be happy about the uniform, and Lacey could use some happiness in her life. If getting this dog made her smile, then so be it. Sierra would suck it up and pretend seeing the mutt didn’t make her want to stand in a Tennessee cornfield and scream Emily Dickinson dirge poems at the top of her lungs.

Knowing who brought the dog made it tougher. If things had been different . . . well . . . Hell. She still wouldn’t have been here waiting for Mike Kowalski.

But she would have thought about him returning home today, would have lifted up a prayer of relief that he’d made it back safely, then moved on with her life. Instead, she could only think about her father. His funeral. The twenty-one gun salute still echoed in her ears louder than the pack of barking dogs outside.

Sierra willed away tears with a couple of lines from a bawdy Shakespearean sonnet and grabbed a muffin for herself. The family just needed her to hang on here a little while longer until she could move out in a guilt-free way only her multitasking mother could have devised.

Lacey had used some of the insurance money to renovate the barn loft into a studio apartment. Noisy. But with total solitude for Sierra. She could live there while she finished graduate school next year. She would have some independence, and Mom would still have an emergency backup for when General Gramps wandered off to get eggs, milk and Diet Cokes for his wife who’d been dead for ten years.

Or called out for a son who’d been blown up in Iraq.

Ever the soldier, General Joshua McDaniel marched one foot, then two, then started up again with his coffee on the way out of the kitchen. “They say that in the Army the training’s mighty fine . . . Last night there were ten of us, now there’s only nine . . .”

Her stomach knotted with the realization.

Gramps knew on some level that his son was gone.

She had about three seconds to grieve over that before she also realized—damn—Grandpa was tugging the car keys off the hook by the door. What had her mom been thinking leaving them there? They couldn’t do that anymore.

“Uhm, General, the motor pool is sending over a car,” she improvised.

He looked back, blue eyes confused, keys dangling.

She plucked the chain from his hand and passed him the muffin while hiding the keys in her jeans pocket. “Don’t forget to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” he grumbled, “and I don’t forget jack shit.”

“Of course not.”

“Where are my keys?”

“Haven’t seen them.” Easier to lie sometimes. Safer, too. Gramps may have muscle memory for uniforms, but not so much when it came to driving a car.

“Allen must have taken the Chevy to go out on a date with that girl Lacey. Now Millie”—he stared straight into Sierra’s eyes and called her by his dead wife’s name—“make sure that freeloading son of ours doesn’t leave the car with an empty tank.”

“Sure . . .” She patted him on his stars, something tangible left of the indomitable man she remembered.

Pivoting away, she raced up the back stairs, leaving her grandfather in the kitchen where he was stuck somewhere in the twentieth century. She wouldn’t have minded escaping back a decade or two herself. Or maybe more.

But Innisfree was clearly out of reach today.

*
• *

STAFF SERGEANT MIKE Kowalski never had anyone waiting for him when he returned from overseas deployments. And yeah, both times, he’d wondered what it would feel like to be the focus of one of those star-spangled reunions with family all around.

But not this way.

He just wanted to hand over the dog to the McDaniel family. Keep his cool around Sierra. Then dive into bed for a decent night’s sleep on clean sheets.

Well, after he dived into a six-pack of cold beers.

He hitched his hand around Trooper’s leash. Thank God, the short-haired tan and brown mutt looked enough like a Belgian Malinois that most folks assumed Trooper was a military working dog. Shit would hit the fan eventually over how he’d circumvented official channels, but he would deal with that later. He’d spent his life getting out of trouble. Even joining the Army had been a part of a plea bargain with a high school mentor.

Bluffing and bravado came easy to him. After all, he’d learned from the best growing up with a con artist grandmother who’d scammed Social Security checks in the name of three dead relatives.

A hand clapped him on the back just as his battle buddy Calvin “Pinstripe” Franklin hefted his rucksack over his shoulder. “Sergeant Major’s gonna chew your ass over bringing this dog back.”

“Won’t be the first or last time that happens.” Mike adjusted his hold on the leash and his duffel, his guitar case slung over his back. He’d come by the nickname “Tazz” honestly. Wherever he went, a whirlwind of trouble followed.

“For what it’s worth, Tazz, I think what you’re doing for the Colonel’s memory is cool.” Their boots clanged against the cargo hold’s metal floor one step at a time as they filed toward the open load ramp. A marching band played patriotic tunes with a brassy gusto. A John Philip Sousa marching song segued into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“A lecture and a write-up aren’t all that intimidating after what we’ve seen.” Most folks had flashbacks of sounds, gunfire, explosions. For him? It was the smells that sent him reeling. The acrid stench of explosives. Jet fuel. Singed hair.

Blood.

Focus on the scent of clean sheets, damn it. “Quit sweating, Pinstripe. You’ll draw attention to us.”

“You must not have been chewed out by the Sergeant Major lately, or you wouldn’t be so chill,” Calvin said, trudging ahead along the metal grating.Clang. Clang. “Just keep your head low. It’ll go a lot easier for you if you don’t make a big deal out of things now. Low-key. Walk down the ramp. Hand over the dog to his new family. Come party with us. There’s a keg with your name written on it. A babe, too, if you play it right, a military groupie ready to give a soldier a warm, lap dance welcome home.”

He winced. Hand over the dog then party as if this was no big deal? Except it was more than that. Facing the family of his fallen commander. Facing the Colonel’s daughter. Sierra.

Low-key.

Keep it low-key.

His hand slid down to scratch Trooper’s head, bristly fur clean and flea-free thanks to the under-the-table care from the veterinarian at their forward operating base—FOB. Mike flipped Trooper’s ear back in place, then patted. He wasn’t sure who it calmed more, him or the dog.

Mutt at his side, he stepped from the belly of the plane and into the blinding afternoon sunlight. U.S. of A. soil. Fort Campbell. The Army post sprawled along the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. The scent of fresh-mown hay rode the breeze, blanketing the smell of jet fuel just enough that Mike could shove thoughts of war to the back of his brain.

He’d made it home alive. Adrenaline evaporated from him like water steaming off the hot tarmac. His arms dropped to his side. His duffel slid from his fingers as he breathed in the scent of wheat and barley so thick it was damn near an intoxicating brewery of aromatherapy.

Soldiers jostled by, bumping his shoulders, but his boots stayed rooted, his body weighted by an exhaustion a year in the making. Then the world tilted. His arms jerked.

Trooper yanked free.

Crap.

His guitar strap slipped. Mike regained his footing, but too late. Trooper shot forward toward the roped off area of bystanders. Toward families. The band. Official post personnel.

Media.

Trooper’s full-grown size, powered by puppy energy and a lack of sense, turned the mutt into a speeding, barking missile. Mike jockeyed from foot to foot, gauging which way to go. Was the dog headed for the big grill puffing burger-scented smoke into the wind? Trooper’s nose definitely lifted to catch a whiff of something as he plowed forward.

The overgrown pup knocked over a tuba stand. Uniformed band members skittered to the side just as the massive brass instrument toppled and “The Star-Spangled Banner” warbled to a premature end.

Calvin jogged alongside him mumbling, “Sergeant Major’s gonna be pissed.”

Screw it. Low-key was clearly out of the question now. Mike hitched up his bag, which conveniently knocked his guitar in place again, and charged forward. He shouldered sideways past the orderly line of soldiers.

“Trooper, come,” Mike ordered.

And the dog ignored the command.

Of course.

Trooper could sniff out an intruder in the dead of night. The mutt could dodge land mines to fetch a ball. But at heart, he was still a puppy accustomed to free roam of his world.

Mike picked up speed, boots pounding as he raced toward the loping mutt. He didn’t think Trooper would hurt anyone. The dog hadn’t shown feral tendencies since those first few weeks at the camp. But one false move from this dog—already on shaky ground with his entry to the U.S.—and it would be all over. His promise to the Colonel would be broken in the worst way possible.

Where the hell was Trooper going? Mike scanned the crowd of faces. Women with babies on their hips and in strollers. Men, too. Families as well as some hoochied-up girlfriends. A sea of waving flags and signs.

Welcome Home.

Love My Soldier.

People and signs parted like the Red Sea as fifty-five pounds of dog dodged and wove. Mike could only follow until the masses veed open to reveal . . .

The very family he’d been sent to meet. The McDaniel clan. Except his eyes homed in on the one that had drawn him from the first time he’d seen her at a platoon baseball game cheering in the stands.

Sierra. The daughter of his mentor. Off-limits. Untouchable. And total Kryptonite to a man who’d spent twelve long months dreaming of her citrusy scent to escape the pungent stench of war.

Mike had all of three seconds to soak up the sight of her blond hair shining so brightly in the sun he could almost smell lemons. Three seconds before . . .

Trooper leapt into the air and knocked Sierra flat on her back.

Two

FLAT ON HER back, Sierra McDaniel squinted into the sun, grateful for her rhinestone-studded sunglasses hiding her tears from the crowd. Although she could probably write off any crying to her scraped elbows and bruised butt, thanks to the dog that had trampled over her to get to Gramps.

General McDaniel squatted down on one knee, scratching the dog behind the ears while the pup licked his chin. “Calm, Trooper. Calm.” He spoke with an authority no one could ignore. “Good boy. We’ll find a treat for you soon. Nathan, get a hot dog from that stand, pronto.”

Nathan snatched a twenty-dollar bill from his mother’s outstretched hand and pivoted away, baggy clothes rippling as he dragged his feet toward the concession stand.

As Sierra angled up to sit, she wondered if her grandfather knew which Trooper he was talking to, the new one or the one from her dad’s childhood. Probably the right one, since he’d called Nathan by name. Regardless, this Trooper seemed to accept him, settling, rather than mowing down the homecoming crowd again.

Homecoming. So damn bittersweet today.

She knew the routine after life as an Army brat. The sun baked the tarmac. Homemade signs flapped in the breeze. Kids waved flags. Wives sported fresh manicures and new outfits. Husbands gathered, too, waiting for their military spouses. Excitement crackled in the air like all those people were dancing on Bubble Wrap.

For her, a bigger bubble had burst. All the joy around her felt more like electric snaps stinging her skin. Facing so many people welcoming home loved ones only reminded her of a very different homecoming. Her dad had returned in a flag-draped coffin four months ago.

This part of her life should be over. Yet it had come back to haunt her again. Her dad’s unit was convinced her family needed this dog.

The dog?

The McDaniel family needed the man—the husband, dad, father, son. However, since that wasn’t possible, they really needed to move forward with their lives. But because her mother was canine crazy, here they were, enduring this ceremony that was one great big patriotic poke in the eye. Sierra wanted to melt right into the tarmac.

A manly, calloused hand slid into sight, a familiar hand making her realize she was still sitting sprawled out on the ground like an idiot. Her eyes traveled up along the hard muscled arm, broad shoulders and a smile that could charm the panties off a woman.

A smile that had, in fact, charmed her undies off more than once.

“Hello, Mike. Welcome home.” She clasped his palm and let him tug her to her feet. But that was all he could have. Her panties and her heart would stay firmly glued in place when she was around him from now on.

Still, her hand tingled from the contact.

Sierra regained her balance and dusted off her denim capris, wishing she could brush away the feel of him as easily. She’d given up being able to will away the physical attraction to this man. Everything about his looks drew her, from his buzzed short hair to his square jaw peppered with a five o’clock shadow that pushed to midnight. His golden brown tiger eyes held her with a bad-boy gleam he lived up to.

And therein was the reason the attraction could only be physical. She had no intention of falling for Sergeant Tall, Dark and Rowdy.

A shoulder bumped hers as a couple flung their arms around each other, reunion in full emotional swing. Reminding her what it felt like to have Mike’s mouth against her ear, singing husky soft love songs as his lips roamed over her, luring her . . .

Hold it together.

She prepared what to say to him next, some polite cluster of words. She would be poised and in control of her words. Except even poetry escaped her, leaving her with little more than “Humpty Dumpty.”

Then Mike turned away before she could talk and spoke to her mother. “Mrs. McDaniel, he wanted . . .” His voice cracked even as his hulking shoulders stayed braced, guitar slung over his back. “The Colonel wanted you to have his dog. He talked of you often, and I . . . I wish I could say something other than I am so sorry he’s gone. Everyone liked and respected him. He is missed, very much.”

Lacey smiled with that forgiving and understanding way of hers that Sierra hadn’t come close to mastering. Her mom’s tangled light brown curls were tossed in the wind as messy as this whole crazy reunion, but Lacey kept her cool. How could someone be so emotional and so poised at the same time?

“Mike, thank you. You don’t need to say anything more. Your being here is enough. Allen would be happy that Trooper is home with us.” Lacey hugged Mike once, hard, holding for a second before taking in a shaky breath. “Let’s meet this special fella.”

Kneeling, she offered her hand for the dog to sniff before stroking his head. Her eyes glazed with unshed tears, but her ease with the strange dog was unmistakable. Her mom had a Dr. Dolittle gift.

“Nathan,” Lacey called up to her son, waving him closer as he returned with a plain hot dog in hand. “Come say hello to Trooper.”

“Sure. Whatever.” Her brother dragged his feet, new deck shoes scuffing and showing bony, sockless ankles. His pants and shirt hung on his body like they’d been draped haphazardly over a coat hanger too small to hold them.

Nathan was a walking, sulking poster kid for “got bullied, went psycho.”

Cameras clicked all around them. Nathan scowled. Mike winced at each flash. But the media kept right on recording. Her mom’s smile was front page worthy with just the right amount of shimmering tears and a nostalgic smile.

The press would write their feel-good piece about a rescued Iraqi dog and a fallen veteran. Everybody would pat themselves on the back for empathizing. The story would probably go viral in some social network.

But no one would stick around to get Nathan from school early when he landed in the middle of another fight or search the neighborhood when Gramps wandered off.

“Sierra?” Her mother glanced up, wind tearing at her light brown spiral curls. “Are you okay?”

“Of course. Let’s give him his treat before he takes off someone’s hand.” She plucked the hot dog from her brother and really looked at the mutt for the first time. She’d seen photos but somehow she’d expected something . . . bigger. Scarier maybe? Or a magnificent beast.

Instead, a medium-sized tan and brown dog with short hair and a black nose soaked up more ear scratches from her grandfather. With his long, lanky puppy legs, the mutt looked like some kind of smaller version of a Lab/shepherd mix. Mostly, he just looked like . . . a regular dog.

The stab of disappointment surprised her. She didn’t see her father’s phantom presence or feel his touch on her shoulder in some other-earthly way. Until this moment she hadn’t realized how much she’d hoped to find a mystical connection to her dad.

Kneeling, she pinched off pieces of the hot dog and passed them to the dog one at a time while he stared back at her with those dark brown eyes that seemed to look right through her. Her throat squeezed tight. She just wanted to finish this and go home. Even milking the goat would be preferable to being at an Army post with her tall father’s silvery blond head and big smile nowhere in sight.

The cameras went on hyper speed and the questions rolled out, all tangled together as she fed Trooper the last bite.

“Your grandfather was a General . . .”

“How is your family holding up?”

“What’s the dog’s name?”

“General McDaniel, how do you feel about your son’s brave service to his country?”

The reporter jammed a microphone in her grandfather’s face so fast his eyes went wild with that freaked-out PTSD look. Sierra searched for an escape route, or at the very least a distraction. This would be an opportune time for the dog to go berserk again.

Please, Lord, don’t let Grandpa go Clint Eastwood on them. He did that a lot these days, compensating for confusion with a make-my-day rage. The explosive anger cost them a flat-screen TV last week.

Standing, she shot Mike a pleading look. “We should take care of the paperwork or something.”

Mike’s smile went tight. “Right. General? If you’ll lead the way, sir, I can in-process.”

“Roger that, Sergeant.” Gramps started humming, his feet picking up marching pace a second before he started bellowing. “I was born in the back woods, raised by a bear . . . Gotta double bone jaw and four coats of hair . . . Got cast iron balls and a big steel rod . . . I’m a mighty paratrooper. I’m Airborne by God.”

*
• *

BY GOD, MIKE just wanted this day to be over.

He felt the Sergeant Major’s eyes boring into his back as Mike helped walk Trooper to the dusty SUV covered in paw magnets. At least the Sergeant Major could be trusted to hold off—for now—since going ballistic in front of the press wouldn’t look good.

No question, the media was eating this up from behind the ropes, snapping photos even as Lacey tried to hustle the General into the vehicle before he shouted something else censor worthy. Mike kept Trooper reined in tighter now, close to his leg while Nathan jogged ahead to open the back hatch, exposing the crate. Head low, the teenager ducked into the vehicle without a word.

Mike picked up the pace. He would have to in-process soon—should be doing that now. But since he was already up to his ass in trouble, might as well dive the rest of the way.

A familiar place for him.

“Sierra, I emailed your mom about Trooper’s habits and stuff that should make his transition into a new home easier—”

“Oh,” Sierra interrupted with an over-wide smile, “you noticed I’m here.”

She was pissed? Interesting.

He’d been so focused on delivering the dog and trying not to drool all over her he’d missed her mood. “You expected more from me back there? Surely not a reunion kiss.”

“Don’t play games with me, not today.” She was short, but her legs ate up the ground fast. Sierra had a Tinker Bell look to her, not that she liked it much when he’d made the comparison.

“I’d hoped passing over Trooper could be more low-key for everyone’s sake.”

She glanced up sharply, concern in her sky blue eyes. “Will you get in trouble for this?”

“I’m not the first to bring back a dog from overseas. I won’t be the last.” He paused and slid his duffel from his shoulder. He unzipped it and pulled out an envelope of papers. “For Trooper. His records. They’ve been scanned and sent to your mother, but these are the originals. He has his vaccinations, although he still needs to be neutered. Everything’s in order for him to be in the country.”

She tugged the envelope from him without touching. Too precisely to be anything but deliberate avoidance. “You didn’t answer my question.”

He closed his hand over hers. “I’ve dodged trouble my whole life. I learned from the best thanks to my grandma.” He squeezed her hand and wanted more. No surprise. “I’ll weather any storm. And you? How are you holding up?”

She tugged her hand away. “I’m fine.”

Fine? Such a lame word. Sierra was smoking hot as always, but clearly exhausted, grieving. And angry at him. Nothing new there. Regardless, his part in this was done. He’d handed over the dog. His last connection to the Colonel—to Sierra—was severed.

As Mike leaned in, he caught a whiff of her citrus scent. Such an enticing air mixed with memories. Except a roar of an engine brought the memories rolling back of other scents, ones from his last moments with the Colonel.

His gut twisted. How the hell did memories have smells? Because right now the scent of explosives and dirt gave him vertigo. He needed to get out of here. Fast. Preferably on his own two feet.

He started to turn away and slammed into his friend.

Calvin high-fived him. “Tazz, party at my place after we finish up here? Sierra, are you coming, too?”

Her face closed in a snap. “I’m not in a partying mood. Thanks for the invitation all the same.”

Mike gripped the straps on his bag and guitar. “Count me out. I’m not good for anything more than crashing for the night in a queen-sized motel bed.”

Calvin backed away. “Wuss. We’ll miss your guitar. I’ll drink your share, though.” He shot them both a wave. “Later, Tazz. Lookin’ goooood as always, Sierra.”

Sierra’s hand landed on Mike’s elbow. “You said you’re going to a motel. What happened to your apartment?”

He shrugged. “I gave it up. No need to pay rent on a place I wouldn’t be living in for a year.”

“That makes sense.”

Rhinestone sunglasses tucked in her hair, she shuffled from foot to foot, toenails painted purple with glitter. “I guess this is it then. Thank you for bringing Dad’s dog home.”

“You always were adept at saying the total opposite of what your eyes are telling me. You’re not happy about Trooper. I can tell.”

Her lips went tight for a second before she burst out, “I appreciate what you’ve done and I mean that. Regardless of what you say, I know you risked getting into trouble bringing him to us.”

“Don’t worry. There’s too much good press connected to his story now for me to get into any major trouble. The media coverage is a blessing in disguise.”

“But . . .”

“I told you already.” He rested a hand on her shoulder and left it there this time. Bad move. God, she was soft and felt like home. “I’m going to be okay.”

“Liar.”

“Does it really matter to you?”

“You’ve done something special for my mom. I appreciate that.” Her eyes held his for four heavy heartbeats before they heard her mom chanting soothing comments to the General. Sierra shook her head as if clearing a haze and slid her sunglasses into place. She opened the crate and patted the bedding. “Trooper? Come on. Inside, pup.”

Trooper glanced back at Mike, dropping to sit, reluctant. The dog might not be huge, but he was stubborn. When he didn’t want to move, he could turn that doggie muscle into more like a ton of bricks.

Lacey slid from the vehicle into view. “No worries. I’ve got this.”

Sierra’s mom wrapped her arms around the dog, lifting with practiced ease and the same soothing tones she’d used on the disoriented General. She tucked Trooper into the crate and reached into a satchel for a treat, before turning all smiles again. “Easy peasy. We’re good to go. Thanks again, Mike, for everything.”

It was really done. Delivery complete. Mission over. Wide brown puppy eyes stared at him from the crate.

An ache started in Mike’s chest. Damn it, he didn’t need a dog. It wasn’t his dog. He’d done the right thing.

So why did he feel like an ass, like one of those people who abandoned their pets, even though he knew better? Still, Trooper’s eyes seemed to speak to him, which was impossible because dogs didn’t talk.

But if they did, he knew Trooper was saying, Dude, you’re screwing up again.

*
• *

LACEY FELT GUILTY about feeding the puppies while drunk. But then she deserved a glass of wine—or four—after a day like this.

Cradling the light brindle–colored pit puppy in her hand, she angled the tiny bottle of goat’s milk into just the right position until the bulldog latched on. The gentle tug assured her the orphaned pup had a good suck going. Relaxing back against the screened window, she sat cross-legged in the middle of a fat dog bed on her enclosed back porch.

Lacey took comfort from the warm puppy belly against her palm. Four other satiated two-week-old babies were lined up in the padded box, warming lamp overhead. She’d named them after fairy-tale characters in hopes that adopters would see them as loving living creatures rather than judge them by their breed.

Cinderella, Aladdin, Pinocchio, Rapunzel and the little runt in her hand, Thumbelina, all twitched in their sleep, a sign of health. Did they already dream of running through fields they couldn’t yet see? Or were they racing through the world looking for their mother?

Their orphaned status tugged at her more than ever with her own two children still struggling with the loss of their father.

She needed more wine. Now.

Balancing the baby bottle against a rolled-up towel, she freed a hand and reached for her glass. Cut crystal Waterford and the last one left of her wedding set. The others had been broken in a transfer from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. She’d railed at the moving company, the Army, her husband and anyone else who would listen. She’d cried for a month.

Such a silly rant now that she looked back with the perspective of worse things the Army could break.

She swirled the chardonnay in the glass once, taking in an oaky scent before tasting. Her mother had sent her to cotillion and etiquette classes with the richest teens in New England. Her parents had high hopes for their oldest daughter.

Lacey had once entertained hopes, too. Of toeing the line with her parents until she was free to leave for college. Except in her last year of high school, she’d fallen for a new senior in a Junior ROTC uniform, gotten knocked up that summer and finished her teaching degree later on when her two kids started school. Her parents had pretended for their friends that they were thrilled. The quickie wedding had been elaborate and pricey.

Only later had she learned her parents couldn’t afford that lavish wedding any more than they’d been able to afford their three-house lifestyle of summers in the Hamptons and winter ski chalet jaunts.

Now her folks pretended they were happily retired in a Tampa condo they’d managed to purchase after selling off Mom’s jewelry. She still wore really good fakes.

Faking it. Something Lacey had inherited from her mother even as she turned her back on their values. She stroked her bare toes along the chocolate Lab sleeping at her feet.

Life should have meaning. Allen’s had. He’d saved five soldiers by throwing himself on the roadside bomb. He’d left behind a stack of medals, a folded flag and a family hanging on by a thread. The insurance money had paid off most of their debt, and she was teaching high school chemistry online to make ends meet, still running her rescue and taking care of her father-in-law. She had fourteen animals on-site, but over fifty were in foster homes. With more money, she could expand. With more time. More help.

Less stress.

She sipped again. And again. Until the alcohol hummed along her frayed nerves, soothing her like the whir of the lawn mower firing to life outside.

Her father-in-law mowed the lawn at night, as close to driving a car as they could trust. The headlight strobed across the two-acre lot. The task gave Joshua a sense of purpose, one of the few chores he could still perform without fear of hurting himself or others. Yard work was somehow ingrained in his DNA like buttoning his uniform. Thank heavens. Last time she’d mowed the two acres, she’d cut crop circles into the yard.

Might have had something to do with the wine.

There were days she wondered if maybe she had a drinking problem. Then life kicked into high gear with another crisis and she didn’t have time to think about herself.

She glanced down at the puppy sleeping in her hand, Thumbelina’s mouth slack with sleep. Lacey tugged a wet wipe and cleaned the little one’s waste before lining her up alongside her brothers and sisters, a mix of brown, tan and brindle babies.

The mother dog had been hit by a car when her litter was three days old. The family who owned the dog had tried to care for the puppies for forty-eight hours before losing three then taking the remaining five straight to the local animal shelter. Since the shelter was overflowing, they’d called Lacey.

Five little lives.

She’d been rescuing for over ten years for other groups before starting her own. But these days, preserving life had taken on a frenetic edge. She tried and tried, yet each success left her feeling emptier. Two friends who volunteered with the rescue told her she wasn’t dealing with her grief.

Like there was a way to get over losing her husband in a war.

She only knew one way to cope. Keep moving forward so quickly she didn’t have time to think. She couldn’t afford to dwell on the past or the present, and most especially she couldn’t think overlong about that new dog asleep in a crate in the family room. Trooper was the final tie to an honorable man more committed to others than his family or even himself. If she gave in to those raging thoughts, she would surrender to the temptation to hurl the last piece of wedding crystal at the wall.

She soaked in the familiarity around her, needing something steady to hold on to in her shredded world. Trooper seemed to be settling in well—other than barking his head off at the cuckoo clock. He hadn’t even protested over being crated in the family room, growling a couple more times at the clock before settling to sleep. He seemed to take comfort in all the animals around rather than feeling overwhelmed.

A novelty.

Some said she should give up rescue work, that it was too draining. They just didn’t understand that saving these abandoned and abused animals hauled her grieving body out of bed each morning.

Her eyes were beyond gritty as she checked each little body in the line of puppies snoozing away in a milk coma. She wasn’t far behind. Exhaustion tugged at her. Her head lolled against the screened wall, and she didn’t have the energy to move from the plaid dog bed. Each breath of barley-scented air drew her deeper into the intoxicating allure of sleep. Just leaving her insane life behind for a few blissful hours. Peace, she craved it all the way to her tipsy toes. Might as well sleep here rather than in her bed with a conspicuously empty space beside her . . .

“Mom?” Her daughter’s voice pierced her sleepy fog. “Mom, wake up.”

Startled, Lacey jolted awake. Sunlight streamed through the screens onto her Lab Clementine sleeping at her feet. Morning? But she’d only closed her eyes for a minute. Or maybe not.

Her daughter stood beside her, wearing a tank top and blue running shorts. Sierra used to wear nightshirts and cute little PJs, but she slept in clothes these days, always ready to face the world.

Lacey looked fast at the puppies, and they all breathed and slept and twitched. Her neck screamed with a crick from sleeping sitting up. She rubbed the kink. “Sierra? What time is it?”

“Six, but Mom, we have a problem.”

Lacey looked out at the freshly mowed lawn, over to the lawnmower abandoned in the middle of the driveway. Panic fired hard and fast. “Has Grandpa wandered off again?”

Sierra shook her head. “Not this time. He’s asleep in his room. But Trooper’s missing.”

Three

SIERRA STIFLED A yawn and scratched her toe along the back of her leg, her brain still foggy even as her heart raced with anxiety over the missing dog. Her days of sleeping until noon were long gone. Life started early around here, Little House on the Freakin’ Manic Prairie style. Of course she might not feel like a zombie if she hadn’t spent half the night tossing and turning with dreams of Mike. Naughty, dangerous, distracting dreams . . .

She didn’t have time for this. Not now.

“Mom,” Sierra repeated, taking in her mother’s tangled hair and the empty wineglass. She would think about that later. They had more pressing problems now, like Dad’s legacy going MIA. “Trooper is missing.”

“Missing? Are you sleepwalking again?” Her mother stood, then staggered. Drunk or were her feet asleep from sitting cross-legged so long in a dog bed? Lacey reached out with steady hands and patted her daughter’s face. “Sierra, honey, wake up.”

“I’m fine.” Sierra batted away her mother’s hands as their three-legged Labrador went out through the doggie door. “Listen to me. Trooper. Is. Gone. He must have gone out through the doggie door, and then from there, who knows. But I can’t find him.”

Her mother frowned and looked past into the kitchen at the cuckoo clock they’d bought while stationed in Germany. “You must be mistaken. Trooper’s in a crate in the family room. What are you doing up at six in the morning? You hate mornings.”

A flash of irritation pierced her fear. Her mother apparently hadn’t noticed she’d been waking before eight to help with the animals for months now. But her mom didn’t need anyone sniping at her.

And they had more pressing concerns.

“I heard barking. Okay, barking’s normal, but this was worse. The crazy, pissed-off kind of barking. I was afraid the dogs had gotten loose . . . again.” It had happened too many times lately to be accidental. “When I came downstairs, I saw Trooper’s crate was open. He must have gone outside, which upset the other dogs. Except he’s nowhere inside the fence. Nowhere. And I’ve looked inside and out. Under every bed and bush. Trooper is missing.”

Lacey turned to look through the screen, palms flat on the mesh, fully alert now. “The gate outside is closed. Secured. I don’t understand how this keeps happening. Heaven knows if he’d gone next door to Valerie Hammond’s house we would have heard already.”

And not in a good way. Mrs. Hammond already had a complaint filed with the county council to shut down the rescue, and they couldn’t afford to relocate the rescue setup—her mom’s dream. Lacey had lost too much. Resolve swept away any remaining grogginess.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for SHELTER ME:
"Col. Allen McDaniel was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and his family is devastated. Sgt. Mike Kowalski brings Allen’s dog, Trooper, back to the McDaniels and the precocious pooch sets about making things right, one person at a time. Sierra McDaniel helps her mother keep the ranch running and the family functioning while carrying a full course load at school. The last thing she wants is her dead father’s dog; neither does she want to remember the passionate moments from her brief affair with Mike. But the connection between the two is still strong, and they to resume their affair. Trooper’s asides expressing his thoughts, memories, and opinions about the family are some of the funniest moments in this romance. The story isn’t just about the love between Sierra and Mike—it also covers the love between mother and daughter, grandfather and granddaughter, dog and human, neighbor and neighbor, and even the army and its troops. There is indeed plenty of love to go around, and animal fans in particular will be swept away by it." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A story about the redemptive power of love told with heart.  With Shelter Me Catherine Mann delivers another unforgettable romance." -Cindy Gerard, New York Times bestselling author.
  "Shelter Me is contemporary romance done right! Brimming with wonderfully real characters, hard-hitting emotions, and enough sexual tension to light my eReader on fire, I couldn’t put it down!  Give me more, Catherine Mann!  I’m addicted!' -Julie Ann Walker, New York Times bestselling author

Praise for the Novels of Catherine Mann 
“An emotional…story that leaves you wanting more.”—Sherrilyn Kenyon, #1 New York Times bestselling author 
“A world chock-full of simmering passion.”—Merline Lovelace, USA Today bestselling author 
"Catherine Mann's picture should be in the dictionary next to 'superb'" —Suzanne Brockmann, New York Times bestselling author

Meet the Author

RITA Award winner Catherine Mann is the USA Today bestselling author of numerous romances including the Dark Ops novels. She lives in Florida with her military flyboy husband and their four children.

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