When Love Matters Most: A Clean Romance

When Love Matters Most: A Clean Romance

by Kate James

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Keeping her safe at all costs 

Could their backgrounds be any more different? Rick Vasquez, a K-9 unit sergeant with the San Diego Police Department, fled drug-related violence in Mexico as a boy. Madison Long, who recently became primary veterinarian to the SDPD's canines, is the privileged daughter of a judge. Rick has dedicated his life to curtailing cross-border drug trafficking and preventing other young boys from being drawn into the dark world of the cartels. But everything Rick and Madison value, and the growing love between them, is threatened by the dangers of Rick's job, and the risks he's determined to take…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781488008887
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Series: San Diego K-9 Unit , #2
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 621,152
File size: 367 KB

About the Author

Kate spent much of her childhood abroad before attending university in Canada. She built a successful business career, but her passion has always been literature. As a result Kate turned her energy to her love of the written word. Kate's goal is to entertain her readers with engaging stories featuring strong, likable characters. Kate has been honored with numerous awards for her writing. She and her husband, Ken, enjoy traveling and the outdoors with their beloved Labrador Retrievers.

Read an Excerpt

Enrique flinched at the burst of gunfire. That slight motion nearly made him lose his balance. He'd been hiding in the corner of his closet for a while, as high up as possible, bracing himself with his back against one wall and his feet against the facing wall. It wasn't the first time he'd hidden there, trying to avoid discovery, but at twelve he was almost too big to fit. His muscles spasmed from the exertion. He rubbed his thigh, trying to get the blood circulating.

The next round of gunfire sounded as if it came from the hall. Despite the stifling heat in the dark, cramped space, he felt icy perspiration on his brow. The door to his room banged open, accompanied by a rapid exchange in Spanish and the clatter of booted feet rushing in. He bit down on his lower lip to keep from crying out. He heard a swooshing sound, which he guessed was the cover being torn off his bed; under it, he'd stuffed a couple of pillows to resemble a body. He'd prayed they'd take their shot and not bother to check if he was there.

He wasn't that lucky.

A loud crash—likely a piece of furniture toppling—startled him. Movement halted as the cartel enforcer yelled again to someone outside the room.

Then he heard heavy footsteps approaching. His closet door was yanked open and light flooded in. Looking sideways, he saw the barrel of a machine gun slide in and ruffle the hanging clothes that were concealing him.

The barrel paused a mere six inches from his hip. He knew he was as good as dead if they found him. Petrified, the boy held his breath…

And waking from his nightmare, the man bolted up in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air.

Rick Vasquez raked back the damp hair from his forehead with both hands and glanced at the glowing red numerals of his bedside clock. Still shy of five in the morning. He'd barely had three hours' sleep, but getting any more was out of the question. This was not how he'd hoped to start his day.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed. With his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, he gave himself a moment to let the vestiges of the nightmare fade and his heart rate level out.

Sniff, his narcotics-detection canine partner, scurried to his side and nuzzled him.

Rick straightened and stroked the yellow Labrador retriever's head. He felt Sniff's tension subside. He and Sniff had been working together since the day he'd joined the San Diego Police Department's K-9 Unit six years ago. They were as connected as it was possible for any man and dog to be. The contact steadied him as much as the dog.

Sniff slid down and stretched out across Rick's bare feet, head nestled between his paws.

Rick exhaled heavily. It had been a while since he'd had the nightmare. He recalled the fourteen-year-old kid he'd caught the night before, crossing the San Ysidro border from Tijuana into San Diego with a kilo of marijuana, and he should've expected that the nightmare would revisit him.

He gently nudged Sniff off his feet and stood. Placing his hands on the small of his back, he stretched and yawned. He wasn't due at work until the evening shift, but he'd go in and have a strenuous workout to clear his mind. He had plenty of time before he and Sniff were scheduled to be at La Valencia High School for their drug-abuse awareness session. His yawn turned into a smile. He and Sniff loved the work they did counseling inner-city youth about the dangers of drug use. If, through their efforts, they managed to keep just one kid from using or selling drugs, that made it worthwhile. But he hoped their influence was much wider-reaching than one kid.

Rick tugged on a pair of gym shorts and a San Diego Police Department T-shirt that had seen better days before letting Sniff out in the backyard. He winced at the dog's awkward little hop as he navigated the final step of the deck. He'd make a point of taking him to the veterinarian again, although there wasn't much that could be done for the dog's morning stiffness.

It was all part of the aging process, he acknowledged philosophically but with regret. He had to face it: Sniff was no longer a young dog. Police dogs tended to be retired early because they had a dangerous and demanding job. Sniff was exceptional at what he did and enjoyed doing it. That was the main reason Rick hadn't already initiated the process to retire him, but well aware of Sniff's physical limitations, Rick was careful not to overexert him.

Maybe it was time. Sniff had more than earned the right to retire, Rick thought as he stuffed street clothes into his duffel.

After Sniff had his breakfast, Rick helped him into the back of his police-issue Ford Explorer. On the way to the division, he pulled into a Starbucks to grab a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. Before he had a chance to indulge in his meal, his radio signaled.

"We have a situation," the dispatcher announced.

Rick took a sip of his coffee and cursed as the hot liquid burned his tongue. In sharp contrast, apprehension chilled his skin.

"What kind of situation?"

"We have an officer down."

The chill slithered up his spine. Rick knew it would be one of his team if they were contacting him. "Who?" he inquired.

The voice on the other end was barely audible. "It's Jeff."

"What happened?" Jeff Bradford was one of his best officers and specialized in narcotics, just as he did. Rick prayed the injury wasn't serious.

"We received a tip at oh-four-hundred this morning about a drug shipment coming in. We got the route, the vehicle description and the estimated time of travel. Jeff and a couple of guys from the Narcotics Task Force took the call. Jeff was shot."

A million questions crowded Rick's mind, but he asked the one that mattered most.

"What's Jeff's condition?"

"It doesn't sound good, Rick," the dispatcher responded. "Jeff took a bullet in the neck above his body armor. He was unconscious and was transported by ambulance to Ocean Crest Hospital."

"How did it happen?"

"The captain is certain it was a setup."

"Is Jagger in?" Rick asked about K-9 Unit captain Logan O'Connor by his alias. He needed the details.

"No. He's at the hospital. Jeff's family has been notified, and they're being taken there by a couple of uniforms."

Rick thought of Jeff's young wife and their two-year-old son, and grief and anger warred within him. He placed the coffee cup in the center console holder, tossed the unopened sandwich on the passenger seat and switched on his lights. "I'm on my way to the hospital."

"No. Wait! The captain and half the unit are already at the hospital or headed there. Jeff'll be in surgery for a couple of hours at least. Logan asked me to contact you," she said. "He wants you at the scene. He wants you to find Zeke." Zeke was Jeff's narcotics-detection dog.

"What do you mean, find him? He's trained in handler protection. Even if he wasn't, he would've stayed with Jeff until the ambulance took him away. Why didn't someone from the division get Zeke? There must've been others on the scene by then."

He heard a drawn-out sigh. "From what I understand, Zeke was injured trying to protect Jeff. Also a gunshot wound, we suspect. No one's seen him since Jeff was loaded into the ambulance for transport. Logan figures that Zeke stayed with Jeff as long as he could, but his injury must be serious. In all the confusion, he must've gone off…"

She couldn't finish the thought. None of them wanted to think about losing an officer or one of their dogs. Rick assumed Logan was correct. Injured animals tended to find a quiet place to be on their own. If Zeke hadn't been hurt, there was no way he would've left like that.

There wasn't anything Rick could do for Jeff right now, except pray, but maybe he could help the dog. "I'm on it," he said in a flat voice as he drove out of the parking lot.

If Rick hadn't taken all that extra time to do what he had for that Mexican kid coming across the border the night before, detaining him well beyond the end of his shift, he was sure he would've been the one called in to respond to the tip instead of Jeff. Would that have made a difference? Would he have done anything different? Would he have seen something because of his intimate knowledge of the cartels that Jeff or the others had missed?

As Rick sped along I-5, he spoke to the detectives conducting the investigation so he could gather as much information about the incident as possible. From what he was told, Jeff had done everything right. They'd found the cube van parked at the side of the road, apparently abandoned. Jeff and Zeke had been doing the perimeter check for narcotics to establish probable cause to search the inside of the van. When they'd approached the back, the doors had swung open and the shooting started. One of the Narcotics cops had been at the side of the van, out of the line of fire. He'd taken down the shooter, but it had been too late for Jeff.

There'd been no drugs in the van. Just the shooter. It had to have been a setup, as Logan thought. Their unit had been making a huge dent in the activities of a number of the cartels. This must have been payback from one of them. The guilt burned through Rick and settled in his gut, a hard, uncompromising knot. It should've been him, if anyone. Not one of his men. Not a cop with a young family.

His assumption about his own absence was confirmed when he spoke to Logan. They'd decided not to call him for the reason he'd surmised. If he hadn't helped that kid the night before, it would've been him at the back of that cube van when the scum with the rifle had taken his shot. If he'd been there instead, Jeff wouldn't have taken the bullet and wouldn't be in the hospital with critical injuries.

It was hard enough when one of their own got hit, but to make matters worse for Rick, the burden of guilt weighed heavily on him.

As for Jeff, they were hopeful he was going to make it through the operation. After that…the doctors couldn't say. The guilt surged up again and Rick tasted bile in his throat.

Rick had to take comfort in the fact that Jeff was receiving the best possible care. Right now his concern was Zeke. He knew Zeke well. He'd helped train him when he'd come to the K-9 Unit from the Czech Republic as a cute, floppy-eared shepherd puppy. Rick wanted to stay positive, but if Zeke had gone off on his own, it wasn't a good sign. Rick rubbed his eyes when the road blurred in front of him. He stopped by a cordoned-off area, a cube van at its center. Leaving the air-conditioning on in the back of his SUV for Sniff, he jumped out.

By the time he got to the crime scene, there were cops everywhere. He greeted the ones he knew and headed to where the detectives were gathered. It was obvious where Jeff had been shot from the pool of blood on the pavement, but Rick could see a second, smaller pool, too…and the trail of drops that led away from it.

He followed the trail at a fast jog to a residential yard, where it ended by a wooden step at the base of a deck.

Rick crouched down and peered into the dark, confined space. Relief flooded through him when he heard the panting. Even before he dropped to his belly and shone his light in, he started to murmur to Zeke in a calm, reassuring tone. He wanted to reduce the chances of the injured animal—out of pain or self-defense—lashing out at him.

He needn't have worried. Large chocolate-brown eyes stared up at him and a warm, dry tongue brushed the back of his hand when he reached in. Zeke was lying on his left side. From what Rick could see, he must have taken a bullet on his right side. Judging by the dark crimson stain on the packed dirt, he'd lost a considerable amount of blood.

But Zeke was alive and conscious. Rick needed to get him to a vet. And fast.

Resting his flashlight on the grass, Rick elbowed into the tight space and maneuvered the big dog gently out from under the deck. He could tell from the whimpers that he was hurting Zeke, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. The dog remained stoic, seeming to trust him implicitly.

"I've got you, pal," he murmured. "You're going to be okay."

Rick carried Zeke to his truck as fast as he dared. He didn't want to jostle him too much, didn't want to cause him more pain, or aggravate his injuries and blood loss. At his vehicle, he looked around quickly. Not wanting to set Zeke down only to have to lift him again, he needed help. He saw another cop from his division and called out, "Give me a hand, would you, Steve?"

The cop glanced at Zeke. His brows drew together and his mouth formed a hard, straight line. "It's terrible what happened to Jeff. Is his dog going to be okay?"

"If I have anything to do with it, yeah. There's a blanket on the floor just behind the passenger seat. Get it for me, and help me wrap it around Zeke. I want to stem the flow of blood, and keep him warm and still, if possible."

"Sure." The cop did as he was asked.

"Now recline that seat all the way."

"Why don't you put him in the back? Wouldn't it be more comfortable for him?"

"My dog's in there, and there isn't room for both of them." Almost as if on cue, a short bark and a whine came from the back compartment of the SUV. Sniff must have sensed Zeke's presence and his distress.

"Besides, I want Zeke up front with me so I can keep an eye on him," Rick added.

"All right," Steve said, and complied with Rick's directions.

They slid Zeke carefully onto the near-horizontal seat.

"Thanks, man. I owe you one," Rick said, slapping the other cop on the back. Then he skirted his truck at a run.

He buckled himself in, put a reassuring hand briefly on Zeke's head and turned on his lights. He needed to get Zeke to the Mission Bay Veterinary Clinic as swiftly and smoothly as possible. He called ahead to make sure they could see Zeke right away.

Despite the short interval, by the time Rick drove into the clinic's parking lot, Zeke's breathing had become shallow and labored. His eyes had drifted closed.

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When Love Matters Most 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
JV More than 1 year ago
Yes, I loved it!!! Just look at that cute dog on the cover! How could you not love a book with such a cute dog in it?!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first book was good. This one was ridiculous. The ostensible bust of an entire Mexican drug cartel was glossed over totalky.
tracinaz More than 1 year ago
This book isn't what I expected. I thought it would be a typical "cop tries to protect the beautiful woman from the bad guys chasing him." But it's not. The emotions go much deeper. Sure, there are bad guys out to get Rick and he fears for her safety, but the true conflict of the book is their own values and emotions that pit them against each other. I couldn't put the book down and the ending left me wanting more. All of Kate James K9 books are going on my must read list!
MeezCarrie More than 1 year ago
I love the characters in Kate’s K-9 Trilogy! (And oh please tell me that Logan’s story is next!) When Love Matters Most focuses on Sergeant Rick “PitBull” Vasquez and veterinarian Madison Long, both of whom we met in the first K-9 book When The Right One Comes Along (which, incidentally, made my list of Best Books of 2015!). Rick is fierce and tough-guy sweet. Madison adds a little southern sass and class. The two of them together produce a chemistry that sizzles with electricity and heart. Their relationship is not without some pretty serious pitfalls though, and the issues raised between them are far more worthwhile than the typical conflicts that derail blossoming love in romance novels. No jealous exes or miscommunication here. Instead, with grace and grit, Kate James forces her protagonists to debate border security, illegal immigrants, and drug cartels. Topics so timely, and I very much appreciated how Ms. James directed the discussion toward a balance of law and compassion. But I did say this was a K-9 trilogy, didn’t I? Which means dogs. So I brought my blog mascot Zuzu along as a consultant. She and I were a bit nervous when we started reading When Love Matters Most – as we always are when dogs could potentially be in danger. There were a couple of times where we thought we would have to put the book in the freezer (obscure Friends reference for any fans out there) but Kate was kind to us and to the dogs that trot across her pages. Zuzu decided her favorite character was Sniff – though she was quite happy to see Scout (from book 1) making some appearances from time to time as well. She thought that Kate James did an excellent job giving all the dogs their own personalities, including Owen and Nitro, and she found the therapy and research that Madison employed to be quite fascinating, as did I. Bottom Line: A sweet romance with a dash of suspense, When Love Matters Most gives another fascinating peek inside the world of police dogs and their handlers. While it starts out a bit heavy on narrative, the dialogue eventually evens out and the pace flows smoothly from there. Kate James has obviously done her research, and readers will appreciate K-9 officers on a whole new level after reading When Love Matters Most. (I received a copy of this book in exchange for only my honest review.)
LynnB888 More than 1 year ago
Another great one that wrenches at your heartstrings! The 2nd book in The K-9 Trilogy did not disappoint. I loved meeting Rick and Madison and it was great to see Cal & Jessica again from the first book in the series. Sergeant Rick Vasquez meets Veterinarian Madison Long under non-ideal circumstances. He's brusque and a bit condescending because he doesn't know if she's qualified to be the primary vet of the San Diego Police Department's K-9 unit. On her second meeting of Rick, Madison learns the circumstances that made him be so tightly wound on their first meeting, and appreciates that he is there apologizing for his rudeness. She likes the man she meets. They are like oil and water. Rick fled drug-related violence in Mexico as a boy and has made it his life's work to end cross-border drug running and helping other young boys like him from being drug into cartels. Madison is the privileged only daughter of a well-respected judge. She sees the law as black or white and doesn't understand Rick's view on aiding a criminal that has come into the country illegally. Will the attraction they feel for each other be enough to surpass their differences or will they only be fooling themselves in thinking they can have a relationship? ** Received free in exchange for an honest review **
lilacqueen75 More than 1 year ago
I missed out on reading the first book of this series, but this book stands alone. I love San Diego and could easily picture the locations of the events of this story. The setting is great and I especially loved the characters and the way they have such strong connections to the setting. Rick grew up in a drug house in Mexico and fled as a young teen. Due to a wonderful foster-turned-adoptive family, his life is very dedicated to fighting drugs, drug cartels, drug runners, etc. He has an amazing impact on students and others as he strives to rid the world of some of these issues. He's very handsome and likable and I love how he's more of a "spirit of the law" kind of person, not always following things to a T, but to do what's best in each individual situation. Madison is a new vet in town and is assigned to work with the K-9 division. I love the first meeting between Madison and Rick, as well as the second. She comes from a very different upbringing and struggles with doing what's legally right versus what's ethically right. I love the tender way she has with animals, especially dogs, and her determination to find ways to better help and treat them. Growing up, dogs scared me a little, but I sure do love them now! I loved all of the interactions both characters had with their dogs and the matter-of-fact way they had in training and handling them. I especially enjoyed the various elements to this story. There's a mystery/suspense angle that plays well into the romantic angle, which is complicated. I enjoyed the family relationships, the new friendships, and the loyalty to each. This is definitely a series I plan on continuing to read! Content: mild language; mild violence (drugs, drug runners, dog attacks, fights, but all is non-graphic); mild romance (kissing). I would considered it clean, especially for an adult. *I received a copy in exchange for an honest review*
HumorMyWay More than 1 year ago
I was pulled in from the first page and had trouble put this book down. As you open the book and start to read the first few pages will have you almost in tears as your heart goes out for the police officer and his dog. This is another win for Ms. James with her K-9 series. I thought she would never top her first book in this series but I was wrong. Ms. James gives a compelling story of right and wrong when wrong might be the right thing to do. The law is suppose to be black or white but sometimes there maybe a little gray that you maybe could bend the law. Falling in love should be easy with some of us it is not as you will find out with Rick and Madison. Both have law backgrounds each serve and protect in their own way. These two have a heated beginning, as they get to know each other they find they really enjoy their time together. As Rick works to take down the cartel he gets deeper into his job which causes major problem in his relationship with Madison. Being the daughter of a Judge she just doesn't see the gray color of the law. Rick believes in the law but there are times when maybe the law isn't enough as he bends and twist it to help young boys. Rick vows that no boy will go through what he did if he can help it. I really loved Rick he was a hero to so many for the time he put in from helping schools teach the children to just say no to drug to his helping young boys find a better way of life. Rick had a hard beginning he uses his past to help those young children who are being used to carry drugs across the border. There is nothing I didn't like about this character as he does his best to do his job. He is faithful, loving, caring and compassionate. He does what he believes is right not only in his job but his personal life. Madison was raised by the law in believing there is only one thing you do above all else you follow the law. She is torn between her father and his beliefs and Rick and his beliefs. She sees both sides each have good points but the law is the law. It takes her friends and her father to put her on the right track but it might be to late she might have already lost her one true love. The book starts out with a drug bust that goes wrong with one man and his dog down neither not expecting to make it. Rick takes Zeke to the clinic to get him the help he needs. He temper is high and his worries are strong as he meets Madison he doesn't show his best side. This first meeting doesn't go well, the next times they meet things take a turn for the better. As things are looking up for them the cartel gets in the way causing trouble for the K-9 unit along with their love life. The author gives you a wonderful heartwarming clean read with some touchy subject matter. These are characters you can relate to as your heart goes out to both of them you are torn as your heart breaks over the many issues that come into play. There was a time or two that I would have like to bang their heads but I understood where they were coming from. The author has done her research to bring you a wonderful plot with many twist and turns. There are times your heart beats fast as well as times when your jaw will drop. The author writes in a way that you feel their pain and sorrow. You will walk away with tons of respect for the K-9 unit and all they deal with. The author will make you laugh as she brings tears to your eyes with some very touching scenes.