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Saint Jude was the patron saint of impossible causes. My foster brother took his namesake very seriously. In the eleven years since his mother had found me, half-wild and dying in a ravine, I had never once known Jude to throw in the towel when the odds were stacked against him. Jude Bennett had never met a lost cause he did not immediately embrace with the whole of his overly optimistic soul.
I was a testament to that sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating aspect of Jude's personality — and so was the fact that he was currently standing in the middle of a party at Hangman's Ridge, holding an old-school boom box over his head and blasting eighties music in the direction of a girl who literally did not know his name. As in, I had literally heard her call him Kyle.
"Boy still insisting that Kyle is a nickname for Jude?" Free came to stand beside me, leaning back against the truck. She shook her long blond hair back over her shoulder and crossed one ankle over the other as she hooked her thumbs through the belt loops on her faded jeans.
"He's moved on from nickname to term of endearment," I said, watching as Jude punched a fist into the sky. "Remind me to limit his consumption of John Hughes movies going forward."
"Won't help," Free opined, reaching up to swat at a mosquito on her arm. "Cady say anything to you about whether or not she's going to let the military have Pad?"
Free didn't believe in segues between one subject and the next.
"Not a word," I said, taking my eyes off Jude long enough to get a better look at Free. "Why? Did she say something to you? "
Pad, short for Padawan — Jude's choice of name, not mine — was a fourteen-month-old golden retriever and quicker on the uptake than any other dog we'd trained. Jude and Free were holding out hope that Cady — Jude's mother and my foster mother — would keep our star pupil, but every time I took Pad out, I could feel her energy, her determination. She needed to run, to track, to find.
She needed more than we could give her.
"I am not Cady's favorite person at the moment," Free admitted, "on account of the fact that we had a fundamental disagreement."
Free was as prone to disagreement as Jude was to optimism. She was the most stubborn person I'd ever met — and the woman who'd raised me was number two. Jude insisted that crossing horns was their way of expressing affection.
"Was this disagreement about the fact that you haven't been to school in over a week?" I asked Free.
Free shrugged. She was infamous in the Chester Falls public school system for two things: her perfect test scores and her less-than-perfect attendance. Free had a system. She aced every single test given during the semester, then skipped finals altogether, ultimately pulling home C's in every class. Free's parents, when this was first brought to their attention, had declared that they "respected their daughter's individuality and right to make her own decisions."
Cady, needless to say, did not. Our property backed up to the Morrows', and Free had spent as much time at our place growing up as she had at her own. Cady didn't treat her any differently than she treated Jude and me — and that meant that she and Free had their share of fundamental disagreements.
"You could just ask the teachers to let you take makeup tests," I pointed out. "Then you wouldn't need to ask me whether or not Cady was selling Pad to an army search and rescue unit. You could ask her yourself."
Free did not dignify that comment with a response. Instead, she nodded her head toward Jude. "It appears our boy has drawn the attention of some unsavory types."
It took me two seconds to analyze the situation. Jude was standing in the midst of three very large, very angry townies. And being Jude, he appeared to be challenging them to a dance-off.
I pushed off the truck and headed for trouble. Free followed at a lazy pace.
"I assure you, gentlemen, proving yourselves to be better dancers than me would stick it to me far worse than any act of physical violence possibly could." My foster brother offered his would-be assailants a conspiratorial smile. "I'm not saying that I'm the second coming of Fred Astaire, but I'm also not denying it."
One of the townies reached for Jude. I got there first, stepping between them. The townie — twenty-one or twenty-two, too old to be at a high school party and too stupid to know it — barely managed to stop himself from ramming his knuckles into my face. Jude was a head and a half taller than me, six foot two to my five foot nothing. He was gangly.
I was small and dangerous.
"Well, well, well," the townie said, looking back at his friends, bleary-eyed and clearly amused. "What do we have here?"
I said nothing, but I could feel a familiar emotion unwinding inside of me, an old friend come out to play. These idiot boys didn't know what it was like to fight tooth and nail for survival. They didn't know what happened when you cornered an animal in its lair.
They didn't know that the biggest dog wasn't always the one in charge.
"Man," one of the other townies said, laughing, "I'd watch out for this one, Dave. She has the crazy eyes."
I didn't move, didn't stop staring at the lot of them, didn't so much as blink. All around us, the other partygoers began to realize what was going on. If Jude's assailants had been a few years younger, they might have realized, too.
I had a bit of a reputation.
"Gentlemen," Jude said behind me, "this is what is known as a situation. I would suggest that you take a step or two back, and then I can assure you with an entirely moderate degree of accuracy that this will probably not get ugly."
The party had gone completely silent, except for the music and the distant sound of the river down below. We were maybe ten feet from the edge of the ridge, a hundred feet above the river, 9.6 miles as the crow flew away from the ravine where Cady had found me eleven years before.
"And if we don't step back?" one of the boys taunted.
My upper lip wanted to pull back. Only years of social conditioning let me push down the urge to growl.
"Seriously," one of the townies said to Jude, a note of nervousness creeping into his tone at the expression on my face. "What's wrong with her?"
"Nothing's wrong with Kira," Jude said cheerfully. "I mean, who among us doesn't have anger management issues and difficulty socializing in the human world, am I right?" He laid his hand on my shoulder, a warm and steady weight. Familiar. Home. And just like that, I was five years old again and six and seven, and Jude was the one person in this world that I trusted. Back then, I wouldn't have stared down the bullies. Back then, I would have attacked.
"Dude," one of the townies said under his breath, "is she the one who ..."
The one they found in the forest all those years ago. The one who'd forgotten how to speak. The one who'd fended for herself for who knows how long.
"And on that note," Free said, stepping forward, "let's break this little lovefest up." Even clad in Levi's and a ratty blue T-shirt, Free was the kind of girl that guys looked at and then looked at again. It wasn't the thick blond hair, falling in carefree waves past her chest. It wasn't her full lips or deep brown eyes. It wasn't even the hips beneath the jeans.
It was her confidence. It was the fact that Free Morrow walked through life knowing that she could ace any test it threw at her — and didn't much care either way.
She bent down and picked up Jude's boom box. "Who wants to dance?"CHAPTER 2
The next morning, I was up with the dawn. The party had left me restless. If I'd thought there was any chance that I could have gotten away with it, I would have spent the night outside, but Cady would have noticed, and she would have pressed Jude for answers.
Jude did not hold up well under questioning.
So I'd lain in my bed all night, trying not to feel boxed in. When the first hint of sun hit my window, springing me from my seemingly endless sentence, I was up and digging through the pile of clean laundry on my desk in seconds. As I donned a pair of running shorts and looped my hair back into a ponytail, Silver stirred on the end of my bed. She lifted her head, liquid brown eyes meeting mine.
"Go back to sleep," I told her.
Silver made a huffing sound and jumped down to the floor. She was almost thirteen — old for a German shepherd — and didn't move as easily as she had in her youth. Still, she was spry enough to block me from exiting the room. Her head butted gently — and reproachfully — against my thigh.
No matter how old I got, Silver would never see me as more than a pup.
"I'm fine," I told her, sinking down to let her see for herself as I ran my right hand over her coarse fur. "I just need to run."
Silver was Cady's dog, but I was Silver's human. She'd been the one to find me all those years ago. Since then, she'd stood guard over me through much worse than a restless night's sleep. The stubborn look on her face now made it clear that she was not getting out of my way until she was certain I was okay.
"You're impossible," I commented.
Silver rested her head on my shoulder and huffed again. For a few seconds, I let my arms curve around her. Silver's heartbeat. Silver's warmth. Long before I'd stopped shrinking back from human hands, this had been contact, safety, touch.
I gave myself another instant, then stood. After a long moment, Silver exhaled loudly and stepped aside.
Humans, I could almost hear her saying. They're so much work.
"You're telling me," I muttered as I made my way down the stairs. I was halfway out the back door before I sensed eyes on the back of my head.
Busted. I turned around. A ghost-white dog with ice-blue eyes sat three feet away, watching me with an intensity that would have set most people's hearts to thundering in their chests. On paper, Saskia was a husky, but there was something wolflike about her features that would have made most people think twice before holding out a hand.
I wasn't most people.
I snapped my fingers, and the husky sprang forward. She came to a standstill at the door's threshold, looking at me. I held up my right hand, accompanying the gesture with a verbal command. "Stay."
Saskia stayed where she was, but her blue eyes tracked me as I began walking backward. When I got ten feet away, I began bouncing on the balls of my feet. Saskia's ears flicked forward, but no matter how badly she wanted to give chase, she didn't move.
Stay. I let the command stand as I dodged back and forth and began moving backward once more. Stay. Stay. Stay ...
"Come!" I lowered my hand. Saskia bolted from the doorway, and the moment she did, I turned and ran, as hard and fast as I could. I made it to the edge of the woods before she caught me. She circled me and barked, and I bent down to play, rough-and-tumble.
Most people thought that training animals was about obedience and control. But in reality, the center of any search and rescue training program was play. For the dog, searching was a game. Animals who had a strong play drive would keep playing indefinitely — through ice and snow, over hard terrain, for hours upon hours — until the game was won.
Until they found their target.
That Saskia was playing with me now — that she would do anything to keep playing with me — was a minor miracle, given the way we'd found her. She'd mistrusted humans, and she'd had reason to.
"That's my girl." I stepped back from the game, and Saskia went eerily still, waiting for instructions. Waiting for round two.
"Feel like some exercise?" I asked her.
She let out one loud, sharp bark.
The tension that had been building inside of me since the night before began to dissolve. I gave Saskia a wolfish grin. "Let's run."
The deeper we ran into the woods, the rougher the terrain got, and the rougher the terrain, the harder we ran. My body was coated in sweat by the time we finally stopped. The burn in my muscles had gone from pleasant to verging on real pain. I bent over at the waist. My heart was racing in my chest. My skin tingled, a surefire sign that I'd come close to pushing myself too hard.
Everything in me wanted to go harder.
"Cady's already going to tear a strip off of me for skipping breakfast," I told Saskia, who wasn't even winded. "If I don't stop and rest, things could get ugly."
My canine companion eyed me for a moment and then lowered her front half toward the ground, silent and ready.
"I see how it is," I murmured. Saskia had an uncanny way of looking at people, her gaze almost human and borderline predatory all at once. Cady had been against my training her.
My girl didn't play well with others.
I signaled, and Saskia pounced. After wrestling with her for a minute or two, I lowered myself to the ground. If anyone had seen us from a distance, they might have thought I was in danger — a small, fragile teenage girl with a fifty-pound animal looming over her.
Feeling more at peace than I had in weeks, I closed my eyes, and for the first time in twenty-four hours, I slept. When I opened my eyes again, Saskia was nestled beside me, and the sun was high enough in the sky that I was fairly certain the two of us weren't the only ones out and about. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a plastic bag. Inside was a rag — one I'd swiped out of Cady's room the day before.
I let Saskia get the scent, and then I climbed to my feet. "Shall we see what the boss is up to?" I asked the dog. Saskia's whole body was taut with the effort of staying in place until I gave her the command. "Find her."CHAPTER 3
A single search and rescue dog could cover as much ground as fifty or more human searchers. It didn't take long for Saskia to find her target and come looping back to me. She gave three authoritative barks — sharp, loud, clear, just like she'd been trained to do.
Find. Recall. Re-find.
"Show me," I said. Saskia took off, slowing her pace just enough for me to follow. She led me over rocks and a small stream, straight to Cady, who greeted Saskia with a quick tussle.
Find. Play. Find. Play.
Years of training had tied these two things together in the dog's mind. I'd taught Saskia how to play — with me, with Jude, with Cady, with Free.
Her attitude toward the rest of the world was still a work in progress.
"You're up early," I greeted Cady before she could aim those same words at me. "One last training session?"
Cady had Pad on a lead, which I took to mean that my foster mother had already laid a scent path that our resident overachiever was following. Most dogs were either trained in air scenting, like Saskia, or in a method that focused more directly on retracing the target's progression. Pad could switch back and forth between air scenting to cover a large area and trailing, following a specific scent path across any and all terrain.
The army would have uses for both.
"You eat anything this morning?" Cady finished playing with Saskia and turned her eagle-eyed attention to me.
"That would be a no, then." Cady produced a PowerBar seemingly out of thin air and tossed it to me.
My hand whipped up to catch it. "Eat," I ordered in unison with Cady, mimicking her no-nonsense tone almost exactly.
The edges of Cady's lips twitched as she stifled a smile. "Is that your way of telling me I'm predictable?" I shrugged again, but I didn't bother biting back my own grin.
"I'm your mother," Cady retorted. "I'm allowed to feed you. I'm also allowed," she emphasized, "to tell you that I heard there was a party last night up on Hangman's Ridge."
Cady had a sixth sense that let her read animals with impressive accuracy. Unfortunately for Jude and me, that knack seemed to extend to her children as well.
Luckily, I had a better poker face than Jude did. "We went. We partied. We came home." I preempted Cady's next question. "We behaved ourselves, and Free left when Jude and I did. Happy?"
Cady reached out to push a piece of flyaway hair back from my face. "Ecstatic."
I leaned into her touch for a moment before pulling back, and Cady let me eat the rest of my PowerBar in peace. Some people found my capacity for silence off-putting, like the act of not chitchatting was the equivalent of spitting in another person's face. Cady never seemed to mind. She'd fought long and hard to give me back my voice, but she never acted entitled to my words.
If I'd stood there in silence for ten minutes, she would have stood there with me.
"Free was asking me if you'd decided to let the military have Pad," I said as I swallowed the rest of the power bar and let Saskia lick my fingers for crumbs.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lovely and the Lost"
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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