Navy Chief Master at Arms Jackson “Jax” Faraday is at a crossroads. He has to decide whether to reenlist or get out while he’s young enough to make a difference in the civilian world. Either choice could mean leaving behind his girl: his K-9 partner, Bella. But when she’s injured during a training session, Jax’s only concern is making sure she’s okay.
As the Navy base veterinarian, town local Risa Reynolds is right where she belongs: close to her parents in a farmhouse full of animals—with room to grow. She’s seen enough to put military men are on her “not happening” list, because they always leave.
But when a tall, hazel-eyed sailor arrives in her clinic with his dog in his arms, Risa finds herself falling hard. And all kinds of rules will get broken when Jax, a man who sticks to the straight and narrow, learns that there’s no predicting the twists and turns of the heart . . .
Praise for Gail Chianese and her West Side Romance series!
“Engaging and down-to-earth . . . features characters readers can root for.” —Library Journal
“This book will make your heart smile.” —Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author
“A series destined for the keeper shelf!” —Roxanne St. Claire, New York Times bestselling author
“The West Side Romance series is like the perfect pick-me-up latte—hot and steamy, with a layer of frothy fun on the top!” —Jessica Andersan, New York Times bestselling author
“Convincing characters, hot love scenes, and emotional depth.” —Library Journal, Starred Review
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Jackson Faraday was worried about his girl.
He should have been worried about his future. Time was running out for him to make a decision — stay in the Navy or get out — and the detailer was breathing down his neck. But the decision to throw away the past twelve years wasn't easy.
He wanted more.
If NCIS — Naval Criminal Investigative Service — would make a decision on his application, that would be great. But what if they turned him down? Did he stay in for twenty years and retire? Then what? Start over at the bottom? Go home to a one-stoplight town with a police force that spent all its time dealing with bored teens wreaking havoc or frustrated couples fighting? Work security for one of the nearby casinos? All viable options, just not what he wanted.
He wanted to make a difference.
He shoved away the nagging questions. He had more pressing concerns. Like what was wrong with Bella, which was why he was at the base training center, even though his shift was officially over.
"Come on, Bella. Give me your best for an hour, and then I've got a treat for you." He wagged the Frisbee to get her attention. Instead, Bella whined and flicked her ear.
"Hey, Jax. Heard we had a win in the courtroom today." Chief Casey Thomas drove his Jeep up next to the chain-link fence.
"Stone? Yeah, he's going away for a good couple of years for that little video stunt of his. Not that it makes up for what he put Lieutenant Riley through, but it's a start."
"Me and a couple of the guys are going to grab some grub and head out to the beach. Enjoy what's left of summer. Come join us." Casey drummed his fingers on the outside of the driver's door, giving away he had more on his mind than a night's celebration.
"What's up with you, man? You seem agitated." He and Casey went back a ways; spent some time in the sandbox together. Normally the guy was as easygoing as cool beer slipping down your throat on a summer day.
"Got my orders in today." Casey slid out of the vehicle and walked through the gate. "I'm heading to Pensacola."
"Isn't your ex-wife there?"
"Near enough." Casey squatted down and scratched Bella's ears. "Did you hear back on your application yet?"
"You know what they say: No news is good news." At least he hoped that's what it meant.
"You know what you need? To find a nice lady who can take some of your stress away and make you forget your worries."
"The only lady I need in my life is Belladonna."
"She's a little hairy and full of attitude."
"Aw, but you forget. She loves me unconditionally and always has my six."
"Not lately." Casey stood and looked out at the obstacle course. "The new handler had her out this morning, running her through basic commands, and she ignored them all. I know you two have a tight bond, especially after two tours, but you're leaving soon. She's got to get used to new people."
Bella had been more than his partner while deployed; she'd been his anchor, his pillar of strength, his confidant, and his hope when all seemed lost. She wasn't just his K-9 partner. She was his family, and the idea of leaving her was ripping him apart inside. Chances were she could sense his mood and the turmoil going on inside.
"Which is why I'm passing on your offer." Jax released the German shepherd's leash. "Thought I'd do some special one-on-one training with her and see how it goes. Find out if it's the new guy or her."
"She wouldn't be the first dog to burn out." Casey looked down at the dog, who hadn't moved. "Of course, if she's declared unfit for duty, you could adopt her. But then, what would you do with her while you're in Glynco for NCIS training?"
Jax dropped the leash and Frisbee on top of his backpack and looked into the brilliant blue sky. He'd been playing the "what if" game for two months now with no answers in sight.
"Let's deal with one problem at a time."
"If you change your mind about tonight, you know where to find us." Casey waved as he hopped back into his Jeep and drove off.
Jax squatted down and ran his hand down Bella's back. "Okay girl, let's get the work over so we can play." Truthfully, everything they did was work. The game of Frisbee honed the dog's speed, agility, and tracking ability just as much as anything else they did. She simply liked it better than the obstacle course. Not that Jax blamed her.
Jax stood up and gave the hand signal for sit.
The dog looked at him, then closed her eyes with a deep sigh.
"Bella, sit," he commanded.
She rolled over onto her side and laid her paw across her nose. Casey really nailed it with his description. The dog was full of attitude — bad attitude — and a military working dog that didn't follow orders was of no use to the service.
Jax went through the commands again and again, getting no response. The two of them had worked together for almost six years, since Bella's first assignment, and she'd transferred with him from the Middle East to the Sub base. In all that time, she'd never ignored an order from him. He bent back down and gave her a cursory inspection, but he didn't find any obvious reason for the dog to balk. Concerned, Jax sat down on the ground next to his partner.
"Bella girl, talk to me. What's going on in that brain of yours? Is it the heat? Don't you like the new guy? Tired of the same old routine? Trust me, I'd understand if that was the problem. Maybe we should call it a night, and tomorrow go see Doc and make sure you're okay."
Bella scooted closer and laid her head on Jax's lap, her tail thumping in the grass.
"You gotta be okay, girl." Absently, he scratched behind her ears as he thought of the past six years. "I don't think I could handle it if we'd come this far and something happened to you."
Jax leaned forward and picked up the Frisbee. As he talked about nothing to the dog, he tossed the toy up and caught it, making no demands on Bella. Pretty soon she was sitting, her gaze following the disc.
"Ah ha. Okay, I get it. There are times when I don't feel like working either. I'll make a deal with you. Five minutes of play and then a lap around the course. Deal?"
Bella barked in response.
Jax laughed and jumped to his feet, relieved to see her respond like her old self. He threw the Frisbee, and Bella took off at the speed of light. She caught the disc and returned it.
They repeated it again and again.
"Okay, last one and then we work." Jax threw it with all his strength.
The disc flew up. Bella chased, but instead of running straight across the lawn, she ran up the stairs of the dog walk. When she got to the top, she jumped and caught the disc in her mouth. But as she came down, she twisted.
The scene before him unfolded in slow motion. He ran, reaching for Bella. Almost there. He dove to catch her but it was too late. Bella crashed to the ground a couple of feet in front of him, letting out a yelp that made Jax's stomach cramp. He crawled to her side.
Thank God she was breathing. He ran his hands over her body. Nothing protruded and there was no blood, but she was crying.
Carefully, Jax scooped her up and ran for his truck. "Hang on, baby. Everything's going to be okay."
And he prayed like he hadn't done since his last night in the desert. Just like now, Bella had been at his side and they'd been pinned down by enemy fire. He'd prayed that night that they'd make it home alive and in one piece. He prayed now that his dog would live, because even though she technically belonged to the U.S. Navy, she was the love of his life.
Risa Reynolds took one last look around the back examination room before flipping off the light switch. It had been a long and busy day at the base veterinary clinic, and she was ready to go home to her own four-legged babies: Athena, Eir, Morpheus, Buggsy, and Lolita.
Some said she had too many animals. She'd say she didn't have enough.
She headed toward the back door just as someone pounded on the front door; or, rather, tried to kick it in. It could only mean an emergency. Risa dropped her bag and ran through the small building. Her heart stopped at the sight of the limp dog in the man's arms.
Quickly, she had them both inside and the dog on the exam table. Risa didn't bother with paperwork; her objective was to assess her patient's condition, not to worry about her human's ability to pay.
"Okay, sweetie," she cooed in response to the dog's whimper. "Everything's going to be alright. What's her name?" Risa glanced up into a pair of striking hazel eyes that were filled with concern and love.
"Bella," he croaked. "Belladonna. She's okay, right?"
Risa ignored the question. It was too soon to say. "Bella. Such a fitting name for a pretty girl." And probably deadly too, because she'd be willing to bet every last nickel in her bank account her patient was a military working dog.
"Okay, run me through how she got hurt."
The man, Jackson, introduced himself and ran through the events as Risa slowly felt each muscle, joint and bone, noting the dog's reaction — especially the yelp when she touched her hindquarters.
"That's where she hit the deck of the dog walk." Jackson put his face right in the dog's face and crooned to her. Risa thought about warning him that dogs in pain could bite unexpectedly, but the man and dog seemed to have a bond that went beyond that of a normal partnership.
"We'll need to X-ray her to see if anything is broken. Is Bella a working dog?"
He nodded, never taking his gaze off of the animal as he gently stroked her ears. "She is. We've been together through a lot."
"How old is she?" Risa felt along her spine and let out a small sigh of relief when Bella didn't cry.
Risa scratched behind the beautiful shepherd's ears and examined her eyes, checked her mouth, and looked for other signs of shock.
"The good news is she's still young and in excellent health, and she's not showing signs of shock." But she was too quiet and too still, and Risa didn't like that at all. That information wouldn't help Jackson or her patient, so she kept the worry to herself and would wait for test results. "I'll need to call in one of my techs to help me, so I can X-ray Bella."
"I can act as your assistant."
"Keep her calm. I'll be right back." Risa slipped out of the exam room and prepped the X-ray table, filled a syringe with a painkiller, and grabbed the trauma board they kept handy for patients that couldn't handle being picked up. Walking back in the room, her heart broke a little at the sight of the big man — he was well over six feet tall — with tears in his eyes. "How's she doing?"
He cleared his throat and looked down at the dog. "I think she's in a lot of pain." She tried to scoot closer and started whimpering. "She came down hard on the dog walk. You don't think she's bleeding internally, do you?"
Risa had no way of knowing at this point, but telling him wouldn't help him or Bella, and she needed a calm assistant. "No, I think she may have a broken rib or hip, and that's why she's so still. I'm going to give her a shot of pain meds, and then we'll move her into the other room. Okay?"
Risa gave her the injection. Within a few minutes, Bella settled into a deep sleep. Together, Jackson and Risa lifted the dog on to the board and carried her to the X-ray table. Jackson stuck close to Bella's side.
"Sir, you'll need to step back here behind the shield with me," Risa said.
"Please call me Jackson or Jax."
Jax. She liked the sound of that, especially the way he said it with his southern drawl.
"Where you from, Jax?" She absently asked as she took the pictures necessary to see what was going on inside of her patient.
"Promise you won't laugh?"
It was the first smile she'd seen and wow! It was a good thing she wasn't walking or operating heavy equipment. He was a good looking guy, maybe not quite in Hugh Jackman's league; then again, in her opinion, no one was. His hazel eyes were striking in that they were neither blue, nor green, nor brown, but a mix of all three colors. The hair at his temples had started to gray, yet it blended well and made him look distinguished. But it was his smile that got her. When his lips tilted upward, the result was devastating.
"Cross my heart and hope to die, or however that goes." For good measure, and to keep the smile in place, she drew a big X across her chest.
He took a deep breath and let it out on a chuckle. "Jacksonville, Georgia, ma'am."
She cringed and laughed. "Please, thirty-three is much too young to be called 'ma'am,' and I hear it way too often with all the young kids in sub school around here." She stepped out to change the film and angle of the machine. "So Jackson from Jacksonville? I like it. Guess your parents didn't want you to forget where you came from, huh?"
"Technically I was born in Stuttgart, Germany — Army brat — but I think my mom was homesick at the time." He watched her every move as he monitored Bella's sleep.
"I'm almost afraid to ask if you have siblings and, if so, what are their names?"
He moved out of her way as she slipped back behind the screen for the next set of pictures. "Just a sister — Missy Grace."
"That's ... sweet. Did you live in Mississippi when she was born?" Risa slipped back out to grab the films, stopping to rub Bella's ears before taking care of the X-rays.
Jax stroked his dog's back. "No, we were in Georgia by then."
She looked up, puzzled. "So why not —"
"I have no idea why she didn't pick Georgia, other than she might have been afraid she'd get about five or six girls come running every time she yelled for us."
Risa couldn't even imagine one other classmate with the same name, much less her extremely British mother yelling. Then again, as long as Risa had done well in school and had been home in time for dinner, neither of her parents had worried much about her or her life. She was given instructions and expected to follow them to the letter, which she'd done until college rolled around. Or so her parents thought, because in Risa's mind, if she didn't get caught, she wasn't guilty. College changed everything. The Professor and Mr. Reynolds still weren't over the fact that she'd turned down Oxford.
They just didn't understand. England was entirely too far from her animals.
"I'm guessing by the slight accent that slips through, you're not a native of Connecticut either," Jax said.
"Guilty. Born just outside of London, where we lived until I was about five. Then my American dad was transferred back to the states and, of course, his fair English bride packed up her life, said good-bye to her homeland, and dragged me here."
"Did you ever want to go back to England?" he asked.
"No. This is home now."
Risa slid the X-ray into place and turned the light on, forgetting the conversation. She scratched at the side of her neck as she studied the image.
Good. Very good. But the pictures didn't explain Bella's behavior.
Jax had moved quickly and quietly across the room until his body was within an inch of hers. He didn't touch her or push her out of the way. She wasn't sure how to explain it, other than the heat radiating off of him, along with his commanding presence, forced her to notice him.
He pointed to a section on the screen. "What's going on there?"
"She's fractured her hip, either when she hit the walk or the ground."
Every muscle in his body tensed up and he looked over his shoulder toward Bella. "Will she need surgery?"
"She shouldn't. It's a clean break and should heal on its own in a few weeks. She will need someone watching her, as she won't want to put weight on her leg. So she may need assistance getting up to eat or to take care of her business. Is that going to be a problem?"
He shook his head. "No. She'll probably consider it a vacation."
What an odd thing to say. "I've heard of some military working dogs being given an honorary rank and even awards, but I've never heard of them earning leave time."
"They don't. My girl's been a little stubborn lately, not wanting to listen to the other handlers."
That tidbit caught Risa's attention. "How does she do with you? Does she follow your commands?"
Risa moved back to the table where Bella was still sleeping, thanks to the analgesics she'd given her. She checked her vitals again.
"She went after the Frisbee. That's how we got into this mess."
"Yes, but did you give her any working commands, or was it a play date?"
"A play date?" He crossed well-developed arms over an equally well-developed chest and stared down his nose at her. "Lady, I'm a chief in the U.S. Navy, not a five-year-old. Bella's my partner. Everything we do is training or work."
Excerpted from "A Hero to Love"
Copyright © 2017 Gail Chianese.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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