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Authors: Justine Davis

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance

Operation Reunion

BOOK: Operation Reunion
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“I THOUGHT YOU WERE THROUGH WITH ME.”

What does the dog know?
When Kayla meets Cutter, the big, brown Belgian, she’s at a crossroads. She’s certain she’s about to clear her brother of her parents’ murder. But Dane, her longtime love, is just as sure that she’s wasting her life. One man needs her. The other, apparently, doesn’t... Although it breaks her heart, the choice is made.

Only, Dane Burdette isn’t going anywhere. As loyal as that dog, he still loves the beautiful girl next door, even if her life has been derailed. And when danger comes back to their small town, he knows she—and their love—is at risk. Kayla has made her quest her life. Neither Dane nor Cutter will let it take her life, too.

Dane knew her, knew how to touch her, to kiss her, to take her exactly as she wanted to be taken.

And the next time, because now she was sure there would be one, she would return the favor, calling up everything she'd learned of him, of what he liked, to make sure he would be the one driven mad. She would show him she understood, that she knew what they'd nearly lost, how rare and special it was.

And then he was easing into her, hot and hard, slow and taunting, and rational thought fled. Her body arched in eager anticipation as he slid home bit by bit, and the low groan that broke from him, the first sign he wasn't as completely in control as he'd seemed, made her every muscle clench.

He lifted his head, looked straight into her eyes. “Don't throw this away, Kayla.”

She tightened her arms around him. “No more taking for granted,” she said.

Her words were apparently what he'd needed to hear, because he abandoned all efforts at teasing slowness and began to move with an urgency that was no less compelling. Kayla gave herself up to the driving stroke of his body, let slip all restraint and reveled in the sweet, delicious fact that he was hers again.

For now.

Cutter's Code: A secret network of operatives specializing in lost causes.

Dear Reader,

Writers are strange people. I say that with full knowledge that I fall squarely in that category. I have a motto that in various forms is espoused by many writers, I’m sure: “It’s all research.” I’m certain of this because of all the tiny bits and images that clutter my mind, making me a wiz at
Jeopardy
but not so hot at things like, oh, remembering birthdays.

Many of these little bits and images fade over time, but some do not. One day, long ago, I was picking up mail from my post office box. As I went inside, I saw a young man, jaw tight, eyes suspiciously wet, wad up a piece of paper and an envelope and throw them somewhat energetically into a trash can as he stalked out of the building. As I came back moments later, hands full of mail, there he was again. Only, now he was digging through the trash to retrieve that wadded-up letter. He took it to the nearest sort counter and tried to smooth it out, then folded the wrinkled paper and envelope neatly and put it in his pocket before leaving again.

I’ve lived with that image for all these years, wondering what the story was behind it. I’ll never know, but with a little tweaking and some role-reversal, I’ve finally unloaded that image. It’s yours now, and I hope you enjoy the story!

Happy reading,

Justine Davis

Justine Davis

Operation Reunion

Books by Justine Davis

Harlequin Romantic Suspense

Always a Hero
#1651
Enemy Waters
#1659

Operation Midnight
#1695
Colton Destiny
#1720

Operation Reunion
#1745

Silhouette Romantic Suspense


Lover Under Cover
#698

Leader of the Pack
#728

A Man to Trust
#805

Gage Butler’s Reckoning
#841

Badge of Honor
#871

Clay
Yeager’s Redemption
#926
The Return of Luke
McGuire
#1036
*
Just Another Day in
Paradise
#1141
The Prince’s Wedding
#1190
*
One of These Nights
#1201
*
In His Sights
#1318
*
Second-Chance Hero
#1351
*
Dark Reunion
#1452
*
Deadly
Temptation
#1493
*
Her Best Friend’s
Husband
#1525
Backstreet Hero
#1539
Baby’s Watch
#1544
His Personal Mission
#1573
*
The Best Revenge
#1597
*
Redstone Ever After
#1619
Deadly Valentine
#1645 “Her
Un-Valentine”

Silhouette Desire

Angel for Hire
#680
Upon the Storm
#712
Found Father
#772
Private
Reasons
#833
Errant Angel
#924
A Whole Lot of Love
#1281
*
Midnight Seduction
#1557

Silhouette Bombshell

Proof
#2
Flashback
#86

Silhouette Books

Silhouette Summer Sizzlers
1994 “The Raider”

Fortune’s Children
The
Wrangler’s Bride

†Trinity Street West

*Redstone, Incorporated

‡Cutter’s Code

Other titles by this author
available in ebook format.

JUSTINE DAVIS

Justine Davis lives on Puget Sound in Washington State,
watching big ships and the occasional submarine go by, and sharing the
neighborhood with assorted wildlife, including a pair of bald eagles, deer, a
bear or two and a tailless raccoon. In the few hours when she’s not planning,
plotting or writing her next book, her favorite things are photography, knitting
her way through a huge yarn stash and driving her restored 1967 Corvette
roadster—top down, of course.

Connect with Justine at her website,
justinedavis.com
, at
Twitter.com/Justine_D_Davis
, or on Facebook at
Facebook.com/JustineDareDavis
.

For Miz Cedar Dogge

February 25, 2001–April 24, 2012

Cedar was intelligent, inquisitive, willful, demanding, bratty,
expectant, a dragon in a golden retriever's body. She never met a stranger and
fully expected everyone she met to love—and pet!—her, and they generally did.
She was the perfect travel companion, the consummate hostess, an intuitive and
compassionate friend. She always had a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her
face. She always got the last bite of everything I ate and took her duties as
pre-wash cycle for the dishwasher very seriously. She loved when I bought a
Kindle because it gave me one more hand available to pet her with while I read.
She loved to go to the dog beach—not for the dogs, or the beach—but for the pets
she received from all the dog-friendly people there; a roll in a dead crab and
some seaweed was always a bonus. Her favorite thing in the world was a good roll
in some scratchy grass, even better if some wild creature had left something
good and stinky there first. She was a force of nature who has left very big paw
prints on our hearts and a huge hole in our lives. I miss her every day.

Sharyn Cerniglia

Cedarzmom

This is the first in a series of dedications from readers who
have shared the pain of the loss of a beloved dog. For more information visit my
website at
www.justinedavis.com
.

Chapter 1

K
ayla Tucker stared at the note in her hand. She was barely aware of the woman opening the post office box next to her, stepped out of the way of the man emptying trash, ignored the girl chattering loudly into her cell phone, all without looking up from the page obviously torn out of a spiral notebook.

The note wasn’t signed. If it had been printed, she could have pretended it was a mistake. That he hadn’t written it. But there was no mistaking the handwriting; the slightly crooked hand, falling off the lines in her brother’s typical way, was definitely Chad’s.

Of course it was, just like all the others.

The writing blurred suddenly. She blinked, once, twice, then a third time. The last line swam, then cleared.

I’m sorry. I love you, sis.

She swore inwardly. “Then why did you leave, damn it? We could have fought this!”

Furious, mostly at herself for letting this latest in the long line of notes get to her, she wadded the ragged-edged piece of paper and the envelope into a tight ball. Dane would be unhappy yet again, she thought.

No, she thought as the memory stabbed at her. Dane Burdette would not be unhappy. Because he wasn’t around anymore. He’d given up on her at last.

His image shot through her mind, vivid and painful. Tall, lean, dark, silky hair that kicked forward over his brow, golden eyes alight as he looked at her, flashing his killer smile. The smile that had grown rarer and rarer as the time passed.

Smothering the usual ache at the thought of the man she’d once expected to spend her life with, she slammed the small metal door of the post office box closed, turned the key and yanked it out. She turned on her heel and walked toward the door. She tossed the wadded up note into the trash can just outside.

“Kayla!”

The last thing she wanted to do just now was talk to someone. But she thought she recognized the voice, so she stopped, turned. And was enveloped in a huge hug.

“I’m so glad to run into you this morning. I was going to call and tell you—Leah and I actually went out to dinner last night.”

Kayla managed a smile for the older man who several weeks ago had brought his reluctant wife to the counseling group she ran. “I’m glad to hear that, John. How did it go?”

“Not perfect, but better than I expected. And she’s encouraged enough to try something else now.”

“That’s good to hear. Very good.”

She meant it. She’d started the group for victims of violent crime as a means to help herself after the brutal murder of her parents, but in the process she had found a calling. She’d even gone back to school so she could be certified. And moments like this were why. Leah Crandall had been mentally immobilized after her son had been killed by an armed robber at a convenience store, and this was the first time she’d done anything socially normal in more than a year.

Kayla hoped they would make it, she thought as John promised he and his wife would continue with the group and would see her at the next meeting. So many marriages didn’t survive the death of a child; the murder of that child only made it worse.

The overcast morning matched her mood as she headed for the parking lot. She glanced down the row of parked vehicles toward her own, the little blue coupe Dane had always kept in perfect shape for her. She spotted a familiar motorcycle parked across from it and slowed her steps. Rod Warren truly was the last person she wanted to see now. Or ever. She’d had an aversion to him ever since she’d found him trying to burn holes in the wings of a living butterfly with a magnifying glass when they were kids. She’d tried to stop him, even though he was older and bigger, and had in return been pinned against a wall and groped in a way she was too young to completely understand.

But Dane had, and when she’d told him about it, Rod had later shown up with a split lip and a black eye, and he’d kept a wide berth from then on. Still, she’d never forgotten the repugnance she’d felt. But the rider of the motorcycle with the picture of a nude female arranged in a particularly obscene way on the tank was thankfully nowhere in sight, so she kept going.

She was almost to her car when she changed her mind.

She should keep the note. The envelope with the postmark at least; this might be the one time when it helped. She turned around and began to walk quickly back. She felt the breeze of her own movement edging her tears sideways across her cheeks.

A loud clank echoed against the block wall of the post office. And the trash can she’d tossed the crumpled note into rolled into her path. She stopped, staring. There was no wind to catch the now-empty metal container, nor anyone to knock it over. The janitor had worked his way around to the other side of the building, and nobody else was even close.

No human anyway.

But there was a dog.

Sitting beside the toppled trash can was a dog, a striking animal with a thick, longish coat colored black from the tip of his nose past his upright, alert ears all the way down past his shoulders, where the color of his fur changed to a rich, reddish brown.

He was looking at her rather intently.

And he had what she would swear was her note between his front paws. It had to be, she thought. The can had just been emptied before she’d tossed it. The wadded paper and envelope lay on the cement in front of him as if carefully placed. He must think it was some sort of ball to play with.

For a moment she pondered the dangers of approaching a strange dog. He wasn’t huge, but he was far from small. Big enough to be intimidating, to make her wary.

And then he grinned at her.

She knew it was silly, but she couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. His mouth opened, revealing some formidable teeth, but it was impossible to be frightened when his tongue lolled out on one side and the corners of that mouth seemed to curl upward.

Just when she had decided it might be safe to pet him, at the same time reaching for her note, he moved. He grabbed up the note and she froze. But he was holding it in a way that seemed oddly gentle. Like Dane’s sweet Labrador, Lilah, used to hold her pups long ago, so gently there was barely a dent in the fur. The memory made her ache even more for the man who had left her.

And then the dog got up and started to go toward the parking lot.

Angry at herself for tossing the note in the first place, Kayla didn’t know what to do. She wanted it back, desperately now, but she didn’t want to provoke a strange dog into biting her.

The dog stopped. He looked over his shoulder at her. And waited.

Images from countless movies and television shows flashed through her mind. Was she supposed to follow him? Did dogs really do that? He took a couple of steps, still looking at her, the note still held almost delicately in his mouth.

She followed tentatively. He started off again. Not running, not teasing her as some dogs did, playing a canine version of keep away; he just trotted off. He headed into the half-full parking lot, past the obscene motorcycle and toward the second row of vehicles. When he looked back yet again, as if to be certain she was following, she could have sworn his dark eyes were urging her, compelling her somehow.

Kayla shook her head sharply.

“It’s a
dog,
” she muttered under her breath.

She picked up her pace, determined now to retrieve the note. She’d only thrown it away in the first place because she was so upset over Dane.

She passed her own car, then the big pickup parked next to it and the tiny electric car next to that. With her mind distracted for an instant by the absurd contrast between those two vehicles, she was late to realize the dog had come to a halt beside the driver’s door of the next car in the row, a dark blue SUV that was a few years old but looked in perfectly maintained condition and had the glass hatch in the back raised up.

Her breath caught as the driver’s door swung open and a man slid out. She stopped sharply, momentarily unable to move. He was tall, lean, hair as dark as midnight, with a forbiddingly strong jaw. But that jaw was unshaven, and his tousled hair spoke of a hurried morning rather than trendy style. Still, she took a step back instinctively.

He hadn’t seen her yet. He crouched down beside the dog, who was fairly wiggling with pleasure yet holding gently on to that ball of paper. Kayla felt her anxiety fade as the man smiled and reached out to scratch below the dog’s right ear.

“That’ll teach me to leave the back window open. What’d you find, boy?”

The man’s voice was low, steady, strong. He took the paper wad from the dog, who surrendered it easily and looked almost humanly satisfied, as if at a job well done. And then the dog looked back at her, staring in a way she’d never seen from any animal. She felt pinned in place, for a moment helpless and unable to move.

Meanwhile, the man had taken the note out of the crumpled envelope.
Her
note.

The spell broke. “That’s mine,” she said, afraid after she’d spoken that she’d sounded like a spoiled child who’d had a toy taken from her.

“I gathered,” he said, and she realized she’d been wrong; he’d known she was there all the time.

And then he straightened. And she realized just how tall he was.

Most men seemed tall to her, at five-three. But this one had to be at least six feet, and something about the way he held himself made him seem even bigger. That he was obviously fit and strong only added to the impression.

She sucked in a breath, trying not to be intimidated. Nothing would happen here, in such a public place as the post office parking lot.

Then his face changed, softened, and his icy blue eyes warmed.

“Hayley,” the man said, his voice raised just slightly.

Kayla frowned, puzzled. Then had her answer as a woman stepped past her, a post office receipt in one hand.

The dog greeted the woman effusively, on his feet, tail wagging madly. The woman reached to scratch the same spot the man had as she glanced from dog to man to Kayla. Mirth was in her voice and echoed in vivid green eyes as she spoke to the animal.

“And now what have you done, Cutter, my lad? And why are you running around loose anyway?”

The dog yipped, short and sharp.

“He jumped out the back and took off like...a dog with a mission,” the man said as he lifted one arm toward the woman. She stepped into the shelter of it so naturally that Kayla knew these two were together in a way few people were. She could feel it, coming off of them in waves, could see it in their faces—love, respect, comfort and, in the glance they exchanged, passion.

She smothered a sigh. She’d known all that once. She’d had a place like that at Dane Burdette’s side, a warm, safe, welcoming place. And she’d thrown it away. Dane was a man of near-infinite patience, he’d proven that for years, but she’d pushed and pushed until she’d finally found his limit.

The pain of losing him wasn’t just emotional; it was a harsh, physical hurt, an aching for him with heart, mind and body. Oh, yes, body, she thought with an inward moan. Sometimes at night she would curl up into a ball and weep for missing him beside her, loving her. She gave herself an inward shake; if she let herself slide back into that morass of pain and loss, she’d break down sobbing right here in public, in front of these total strangers.

Belatedly she realized she’d seen the woman inside the post office, that she’d walked past her on her way to her post office box. She’d been comparing the woman’s warm, auburn hair to her own shorter, dark-brown bob, wondering if a change would help her outlook.

Not that anything could help because Dane had walked out of her life.

“I was just about to go round him up when he came back,” the man said, gesturing with the note. “It seems he stole this.”

“Stole?” the woman named Hayley asked as she looked at the balled-up paper. “Can you steal something someone obviously didn’t want?”

Kayla tried to explain. “I...”

The man looked at her, and she hated the way her voice faded into nothing. But it was too big, too complicated to explain. Still, there was something oddly calming in this man’s eyes, as if he’d reached out a hand to steady her.

Kayla tried to get a grip; whoever these two were, they clearly weren’t a threat. Stick to the simple facts, she told herself.

“I didn’t mean to throw it away.” She sighed, corrected herself. “I mean, I did throw it away, but I shouldn’t have. I’d like it back.”

“Of course.”

He handed it back without hesitation, reassuring her further. She smoothed out the note, realizing after a moment that the paper wasn’t even damp from the dog’s mouth. She glanced at the animal, who was looking up at her intently. She’d never had a dog, and suddenly she wondered if this one would have the same effect on her if she was more familiar with them. Or if it was just this dog who could look at her in that piercing way that made her feel as if she shouldn’t move.

“He’s...a beautiful dog.”

“He is,” Hayley said. “And clever enough to be amazing and annoying by turns.”

Kayla smiled at that. She thanked the man, nodded at the woman and turned to head back to her car.

The dog stopped her.

Not aggressively—in fact, he was looking up at her with the same tongue-lolling grin she’d seen before. She tried to walk around him, but he moved to block her again.

“I’m sorry,” Hayley said quickly. “He’s a herding dog by breed, and it’s his nature.”

She reached for the dog’s collar. Before she could grasp it, the dog dodged slightly, the bright blue, boat-shaped tag Kayla had caught a glimpse of rattling. Cutter, she thought. Hayley had called the dog Cutter. As in coast guard cutter? Was that why the man looked so imposing, some military background?

The dog yipped again, now looking from her to his owners and back. He clearly wanted something, but—

He snatched the note again, right out of her hands.

Kayla let out a startled yelp that probably sounded like the dog’s yip. This time the animal didn’t run off. Instead, he turned and with a startling sort of delicacy, presented the note to the woman, who glanced at it, then up at the man beside her.

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