Keeping Kyle Excerpt 1

Chapter 1


I slipped out of the backroom of the pet supply store and slinked down the cat food aisle to get eyes on my target. I moved slowly and quietly, obscuring my presence.

This was not the way I typically spent my Sunday afternoons. Okay, it wasn’t the way I’d ever spent any time before. But if things were as dire as my summer intern Ally claimed, I didn’t have a choice.

Across the store, Ally stepped out from behind the counter. She was a tall, blonde, twenty-one-year-old college senior, which didn’t hurt when it came to distracting the man we’d lured here today. He’d first come to the store a couple of weeks ago with his ill-looking dog. She’d encouraged him to bring the animal to my clinic, but he’d never brought the sick pup to me or to any nearby vets, and I’d called them all. When he’d returned yesterday with the dog looking worse, we’d devised a plan. A possibly very stupid plan.

Yes, I was having second thoughts. I was the adult in this situation, which was beginning to feel more like a hare-brained scheme—with apologies to rabbits—than a justifiable dog rescue.

To her credit, Ally held steady as she discussed the supplies the man wanted to buy, items she’d said were sold out yesterday but that would arrive in the Sunday morning deliveries. All a ruse to get him back here today. The man was about her height, with longish light brown hair that curled at the top of his grimy T-shirt. Luckily, his back was to me so he didn’t see my approach and I didn’t have to see his face, which I was sure would be utterly punchable. I’m not normally—or ever—a violent person. But I reserve the right to change my entire core character to deal with someone who abuses animals.

I’d suggested we bring Mike, Ally’s boyfriend who was one of our vet techs at the clinic, in on our plan. He wasn’t very tall, but he was broad and muscular, and in the right light and circumstances, could look intimidating as hell. Ally had refused, wanting to keep this between the two of us. I suspected she was worried Mike would have tried to talk her out of it. Which is what I should have done, but the way she’d described this poor pup… I couldn’t unsee the image that had painted in my mind. Something had to be done, and I was the only one who could do it.

I glanced down at my phone and frowned when I spotted the new text on my screen. I had been smart enough to put the next step in place by calling an animal rescue group in a nearby town. The man who would take possession of the liberated dog was tall and had dark hair. I didn’t know his name, which was the policy of the group because they worked on the line between legal and illegal means of rescuing animals. But they’d promised me he was a pro in these types of stealth operations. Now that pro, the only one in this operation who knew what he was doing, was running late.

I slid the phone into my pocket, thinking about this new wrinkle. Ally and I were amateurs, and now we were off-plan. I crept to the end of the aisle and laid eyes on the puppy at the center of our mission.

Oh, hell no.

She was a mess. Sickly and skinny, with a distended belly. Her panting was too rapid for a dog who was lying flat on the floor. She needed immediate care. She might not have another day to wait. I would have to ask my contact at the rescue organization if they had a vet on call who could take care of her tonight. If not, I would have to do it. Either way, I was not leaving her in the care of a monster one more minute. The mission was a go.

The man had looped the dog’s leash over an end cap, as Ally had reported he’d done on previous visits. The abuser was still too close for me to make my move, so I crouched down on my haunches to observe my patient and start a triage assessment as best I could from a distance.

She was an English Staffordshire with a black and brown brindle coat and a white patch on her chest, which wasn’t easy to see as she sprawled on the floor. Her nails were too long. Her distended abdomen and the presentation of her nipples suggested she’d whelped recently, which she was far too young to have done safely. Goop was collected in the corners of her eyes. Eyes that looked dull and hopeless.

God, the things I wanted to do to the creep who was keeping this poor girl in this terrible state.

Instead, I focused on the important task at hand. The second Ally started leading the man away from the dog, I reached into the side pocket of my backpack and pulled out a bag of liver treats. I stayed low as I approached the pup and held out my hand for her to smell. She barely responded. As I suspected, her nose was warm, too warm, suggesting a fever. When I spread out the treats in front of her, her tail thumped slowly and only twice, but she hoovered up the offering like she hadn’t been fed in ages. And maybe she hadn’t.

While she was distracted by food, I slipped on the leashed collar I had with me, and slipped off the one she’d been wearing. I quickly and quietly re-hooked the collar I’d removed from her, hoping it would look like she’d slipped out of it. Then I scooped her into my arms, anticipating a yelp or protest of some sort. Instead, she collapsed against me, giving in or giving up, or maybe hoping salvation had come at last.

She was light, too light, and I turned and pivoted in one movement. Without a backward glance, I beelined for the front door of the shop and pushed through it. I stepped onto the sidewalk and was hit by the glaring August sun and Mid-Atlantic humidity. Within seconds, I broke out in a sweat. I gently hugged the dog closer so I wouldn’t lose my grip on her. She didn’t struggle against me. She had absolutely no fight left in her small, sick body.

There were no shouts behind me, so I assumed the monster had yet to discover his victim had gone missing, but I couldn’t count on that much longer. I moved fast, adrenaline pumping through my veins, propelling my legs to put space between us and the store.

My phone vibrated in my pocket, indicating that a text message had come in. Probably my contact. Hopefully saying he had arrived. With my arms full of listless dog, I couldn’t check, but I desperately scanned the nearly empty sidewalks for someone who might be looking for a woman and a dog. He’d better turn up soon because I was losing speed and might soon lose my breakfast. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I desperately needed someone more experienced to help me get the dog to safety.

Then I spotted him. Tall and dark-haired was the only description the rescue organization had given me, but now I added broad-shouldered and muscular in his fitted green T-shirt and khaki shorts to the assessment. Kind, dark brown eyes. He glanced away from the pet supply store a block behind us and caught my eye. He smiled, showing deep dimples under weekend scruff. The man was hot.

Not that the last thing mattered one bit, but the adrenaline was messing with my heart rate and my head, so my thoughts were a jumbled and inappropriate mess.

“Thank God you’re here!” I said when we were just a few feet away from each other.

He stopped abruptly and furrowed his brow. He was probably as shocked and upset by the dog’s appearance as I’d been. “Oh?” he said. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he was confused.

“Come on,” I whispered as I stepped past him. “We could be made any minute.”

“Shit,” he muttered. He fell into step beside me.

“Did you park in the lot on Fourth Street?” I asked. I hoped he’d stuck to the plan because I turned the corner before he could reply.

“Yes. It’s the closest one.”

“I’m really glad you made it,” I said as my adrenaline dropped a few notches now that we were out of the direct sightline of the pet supply store. “I don’t know how I could have done this alone.”

“Oh,” he said again. His furrowed brow smoothed and something in his face changed. The confusion was gone, replaced by sharp-eyed observation as his eyes darted around to take in our surroundings. He’d entered full-on mission mode.

It’s true I had zero experience with this sort of thing, but the competence practically vibrated off him. If I had to depict a real-life hero, I would describe the man who had just come to my rescue. And for the first time since Ally and I had set this long-shot mission in motion, I believed it was really going to work. We were actually going to save this poor, abused pup. And I might even avoid jail time.

“It’s okay,” my hero said as he stepped an inch closer to me, making me aware of how tall and broad he was, and allowing me to catch the light, fresh scent of him.

Everything about him made me feel safe. Ahead of us, the lights blinked on a double-cabbed black pick-up truck with building supplies in the bed.

“We’re almost there,” he said. “I’ve got you. Everything’s going to be fine.”

I was committing a crime, clutching a near-death dog to my chest, and following a complete stranger to his vehicle. But when he said everything would be fine, I believed him.