Authors: Dog Heart
By Barbara Samuel
Lunch Hour Love Stories
Originally published in SEAL of My Dreams
Table of Contents
About the Author
Copyright © 2013 Barbara Samuel
Images: Master and her Obedient Dog ©
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
essie spied the truck through the window—nothing ostentatious, just a solid, late-model truck that any number of men might drive. Like the man who stepped out of the cab now, his dark hair shorn close to his head. He was leaner than he had been five years ago, and as he rounded the truck to the other side, he limped noticeably. Her heart did a little flip-flop of… nervousness? Anticipation?
Marcus Stone had been the love of her life from the time they were in seventh grade until the day she finally broke it off five years before, when they were twenty-two. She had, finally, started dating other men. Once in a while.
If he had called for any other reason, she would not have agreed to see him. But as he came forward, that reason came into view. Staff Sergeant Thor.
Thor had been a combat dog, attached to a SEAL unit engaged in a top secret mission in Afghanistan that had gone wrong. One SEAL had been killed, five more badly injured. Thor was one of them.
So was Marcus. Jessie put a careful box around that knowledge, set it aside. She would not be drawn in.
Instead she focused on the dog. He was a brown and gold German shepherd, mixed with a little something else because he had long hair, which had gone a little raggedy. He was the kind of dog people always wanted to approach, to pat on the head, the long dark nose and soft-looking fur drawing on some ancient need in the human spirit.
Sgt. Thor was in no mood for the hungry pats of children. He wore a harness attached to a leash gripped tightly in Marcus’s powerful hand. The dog’s shoulders were hunched warily as they began to cross the parking lot. Thor, too, limped visibly. When coaxed, he moved forward a few steps, then halted again. Marcus didn’t yank on him, just waited patiently, standing alongside, then tried to urge the canine along a little more. Thor crept forward, his entire body apprehensive—belly close to the ground, head low.
“Poor baby,” Jessie said aloud. She grabbed a bag of chicken breast tidbits off the counter, and headed outside to meet the pair. “It’s all right,” she called, coming outside. “Don’t force it. I’ll come to him.”
Marcus nodded, raising a hand in acknowledgement. “Come easy. He can get pretty aggressive if you approach too fast.”
“Got it.” Jessie knelt to bring herself to a less intimidating height. From a few feet away, she said, “Hello, Staff Sergeant Thor. Would you like a treat?” She held out her hand, palm down and offered it to the dog. He balefully looked her, then up to his handler.
Jessie steeled herself to look at him, too. Marcus was not quite six feet tall, and lean. Always the leanest, strongest guy in school. He wore jeans and a t-shirt that revealed arms that were tattooed—and scarred. White marks riddled the tanned flesh of his left forearm in arcs. His laser-blue eyes zapped her, and against her will, she felt the same old burst of love/yearning/fury.
“Thanks for doing this, Jess,” he said.
“It wasn’t for you,” she returned, then took a breath. High emotion would do the dog no good at all.
“Yep.” She focused back on Thor, watching him, looking at his body language, his face. “It’s all right, boy,” Jessie said. “Take your time.” She stayed where she was, body relaxed. “Tell me about him, Marcus. His handler was killed?”
“Yes.” The word was gruff. “Sniper got him in the attack. I always promised Dane that I’d look after Thor if anything happened to him. Not doing the best job so far.”
Jessie eased a little closer, and Thor lifted his head slightly, nostrils quivering. She paused, turned her hand over. “Thor was also injured?”
“Both of us where. Thor took a bullet to the shoulder. We almost lost him, but I got him out in time.”
“I see.” That would account for the limp. Dog and man.
Thor abruptly settled on the ground, his body relaxing. She reached in and offered the treat. He took it gingerly. “Good boy,” she said. He sniffed her hand and wrist, and Jessie sat down next to him, keeping her body slightly angled away. “Is he afraid of everything, or certain things in particular?”
Marcus started to kneel, but a stiff leg stopped him and he straightened again. With a slight burst of shame, Jessie said, “I’m sorry—we can go inside soon, but I want to make him comfortable first.”
“That’s all right.” He rubbed his thigh, an absent gesture. “I keep forgetting. Just doesn’t bend the way it did.”
Jessie offered Thor another cube of chicken. He accepted it delicately, then moved his nose along her wrist and up her arm, snuffling, gathering information, eyes trained on her face. She saw vast intelligence there, and exhaustion. Her heart surged toward him, the same hunger she always felt toward wounded dogs—to heal them, love them, protect them. “I can help you,” she promised quietly, offering another treat. “If you let me.”
He gazed at her steadily. Warily, but with curiosity, too. Dogs usually could sense that she had their well-being in mind.
Marcus said, “He’s afraid of going inside buildings for the most part. I can get him into a house, but not a building like this. He’s afraid of crowds. And lightning. And the smell of gasoline.”
“Poor guy.” She grazed the side of his shoulder with the back of her wrist. He looked at her with all the sorrow in the world. “Let’s see if you’ll go inside, shall we?”
She stood, putting herself on a level with Marcus. His eyes were more guarded than Thor’s, but still troubled. “How is your relationship with him?”
He shrugged, looking away. His jaw and cheekbone were hard chipped, the angles sharp. Jessie wanted to ease the tension across his mouth, and suddenly remembered all too clearly how it felt to kiss those lips. “He wishes it was me who died, instead of Sean.”
“And you? How do you feel toward him?” She inclined her head. “Truth. I can’t help if I don’t know the real story.”
“Maybe I wish it had been Thor instead of Sean.”
“I guess you’re starting even, then,” she said.
His jaw tightened. “I guess we are.”
Jessie crossed her arms. “Can you love him? Can you be good to him even if you don’t?”
“Yes. I made a promise,” he said. “I will give him the home he deserves.”
“Do you blame him for Sean’s death?”
“No,” he said, and faced her clearly. “Thor’s a good soldier. An honorable soldier. He did his best.”
A beat. A flash of something across his brow. “I could have done better.”
She doubted that most earnestly—in football, in love, in raising horses on his father’s ranch, he always gave 100%. She softened toward him ever-so-slightly. “Well, let’s get started.” She gave Marcus a few treats. With anyone else, she would have explained how to reward the dog for each step, but Marcus already knew. They had been drawn together over their love of animals. All animals. “Let’s see if we can get him to come inside.”
Marcus eyed the building. “This is a bad structure, for the dog.”
“It’s all cinderblock. It’s like a building he would have entered on patrol.”
“We won’t push it, then, but I would like to see how he reacts.” Jessie also wanted to observe the relationship between man and dog. “Offer him a treat and let’s move toward the door.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marcus tugged on the leash. “Come on, buddy,” he said, offering the treat. “Let’s take a walk.”
Thor looked at his handler apprehensively, but stood up, taking the treat. They walked a few feet, and Thor stopped, panting. He sat down.
“That’s a warning,” Marcus said. “There’s danger ahead.”
“What’s the command to release him?”
Thor disagreed. He looked up at Marcus, then at the cinderblock building, and shifted slightly but kept his dark nose pointed at Trouble Ahead. His ears were up, alert. “Such a beautiful dog,” she murmured. “Needs grooming.”
“Yeah, good luck with that. He’s bitten everybody who tried.”
“Ah.” For a moment, she imagined the scenes the dog had experienced, protecting his master and the team. She knelt and touched his back. “You are a brave dog, a loyal dog,” she said, smoothing his fur. He accepted chicken from her palm. “You don’t have to do anything anymore. I promise there’s nothing in there. Would you come with me?”
He met her eyes, searching. “That’s it, baby.” Jessie stood, walking backward, a treat extended. “Come on, Thor. It’s safe.” When he moved a few feet forward, she let him have a treat. He took a few more steps, had another.
Suddenly, from the alley came a trio of skateboarders, rocking down the concrete slope, whooping, coming straight toward them. Thor leapt to snarling attack mode, barking, lunging, nearly snapping the ankle of one of the boys before Marcus subdued him with an arm around his chest. “No, Thor. All clear! All clear!”
“Dude!” one of the boys cried, “get control of your dog, why don’tcha?”
“Boys,” Jessie called, in a voice as non-threatening as she could muster, “you know it’s illegal for you to skateboard here. If you don’t want a ticket, you’d best get out of here.”
Without remorse, they skated away, jostling and shouting. Just being kids.
She turned to the dog and man, huddled on the ground. Thor shivered violently and was panting as if he’d run a hundred miles. Marcus had a bite mark on his hand that leaked blood in a steady stream. “How bad is the bite?”
“It’s fine,” he said gruffly. “I’ve had worse.”
Jessie eyed the scars on his arm. Dog bites. Savage, deep bites. She only nodded. “That was a disaster. I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
“We’ll stop for now, but I’d like to end on a high note, if you don’t mind.”
“You’re the boss.”
“I’m going to have you bring him to my house tomorrow. We’ll work in my backyard. It’s protected and maybe it won’t feel so threatening to him.”
“Sounds good.” Marcus rubbed Thor’s chest with a the uninjured hand. “You all right, bud?”
Thor licked his chin, apologetically.
“I know.” He gave the dog’s ears a rough scrub. “It’s all right.”
Enough love there
, Jessie thought.
As Marcus stood, she saw that his legs were shaking. Alarmed, she asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be all right in a minute,” he said roughly.
The dog was not the only one with PTSD, Jessie thought, and unbidden, tears welled up in her throat. To hide them, she scuffed a foot on the ground. “We need to bandage that hand.”
“No, it’s nothing serious. I’ll take care of it when I get home.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wrapped it up. The tremors in his hands were violent, and it took two tries to get the handkerchief around his wound.
Jessie reached out and took the leash. She would need more information, but for now, man and dog both needed normal. “Let’s walk,” she said. “There’s a pond over there. Almost no one ever goes there.”
Marcus was ashamed. His hand shook, his heart pounded. Sweat poured down his back. Next to him, Thor crept close to the ground, one shaky step after the next. Jessie simply walked next to them, offering a treat to Thor every few steps, murmuring encouragement.
She had always been a dog charmer.
The roar of adrenaline slowed, then stopped. He could hear some little birds hidden in a tree. A breeze swept over the water, making it ripple. He took a breath. Thor eased, too, beginning to walk naturally even if he was still hypervigilant, waiting for the snipers to come again, from somewhere.
At any moment.
“Give him a treat,” Jessie said. She was wiry and small, like a gymnast or a triathlete, with a cloud of brown hair. No beauty but her wide, clear eyes. And yet, he had never loved another woman in his life. Just looking at her now made him ache in a hundred places—aches of memory, aches of hunger, aches of regret and love. A wisp of hair blew over her neck and Marcus acutely wanted to kiss the smooth skin there.
He’d lost that right, by making the only choice possible for himself. And he’d paid the price. Big time.
“Tell him how proud of him you are,” Jessie added.
“Good boy, Thor,” Marcus said. The dog’s slick tongue slipped the treat from between his fingers.