-a Henderson’s Ranch Big Sky romance-
Petty Officer Jodie Jaffe brought her war dog home after they were both blown up on a SEAL patrol. But her dreams of a normal life are shattered by her dog’s PTSD nightmares.
SEAL Team 6 dog-handler Stan Corman left his war dog’s ashes and a part of himself overseas. For three years he’s been training new dogs under Montana’s Big Sky. Knowing he’ll never be whole again, he hopes his dogs can save lives even if he no longer can.
But when Jodie brings her damaged dog to the ranch, Stan faces far more than he counted on...or knows how to handle.
“This wasn’t one of my better ideas.”
Nikita’s laugh over the phone drove Jodie even deeper under the covers.
“Fine for you. You’re still on the inside, Nikita.” And Jodie so wasn’t. She considered switching her phone to her other ear so that she couldn’t hear Nikita’s laugh. Holding her phone in her left hand still felt wrong—but the blast that had taken both her and her dog out of action with the SEAL teams had left her right ear completely deaf.
“What made you think that moving back in with your parents made any kind of sense?”
“I like my parents.”
“And you don’t think that makes you weird?”
“Not being helpful, Nikita.” Jodie pulled the covers over her face so that she couldn’t see her room. She’d left home at eighteen to go into the Navy. She was back at thirty when twelve years of service was cut off as suddenly as a New York taxi cutting through a crosswalk. Her parents had left her room unchanged over the years so that she’d have somewhere to go when she was on leave.
Everything was familiar, known, safe. Eerily so after a decade in the war zones. Like some part of time had been frozen in this room. The posters on the walls still reflected every band she’d seen at Madison Square Garden as a teen. The shelf above her small desk held every dog book she’d found at used bookstores over the years, starting with Go, Dog. Go! and going to Cesar Millan’s Be the Pack Leader that she’d bought new but never read because she’d joined the Navy a week later. The bed had the blanket that she’d gotten when she was twelve and Nanny had helped her redecorate from a small girl’s room to a “grown-up” teen’s. They’d gone a little mad at Macy’s and she had a carpet the color of a tropical sea, a sunset bedspread, and walls painted in the palest blue of a beachy summer sky.
And here Nikita was, telling her that rather than being embraced by the room she was being entombed here—as if that was helpful information.
What better way to ease back into civilian life than sitting at the breakfast table as Mom and Dad prepared for their morning ride into the city? Mom would take the A or C train from Brooklyn to the New York Downtown Hospital where she’d been a nurse since college. Rather than taking the more convenient F train, Dad would ride with her, then stay on up into Midtown. He’d stroll along 42nd, buying a second cup of coffee before reaching his job as a librarian for NY Public Library. For all Jodie knew, that had been their invariable routine since the day they were married and first moved back into Pop Julius’ brownstone.
About the time she went to high school, Pop Julius and Nanny had retired to Florida. Mom and Dad hadn’t even moved into the big bedroom on the main floor, saving it as the guest bedroom. She, Mom, and Dad still lived on the second floor. The only thing that had changed was that her little brother, instead of living alone on the third floor, now had his wife and two kids up there with him.
“So, what’s the problem, Jodie? You know reentry sucks. Everyone says so. Especially for long-timers like us.”
Everyone says so. The insider’s statement wasn’t helping.
Being back in her childhood home might sound weird, but it didn’t suck. She’d lost thirty pounds the day she got mustered out—twenty of body armor; five of sidearm, extra ammo, and other survival crap; and the last five to unhunching her shoulders wondering if she’d die today. That last part felt pretty good. Though she still carried a combat knife in her small knapsack, she didn’t feel the need for a concealed sidearm. Brooklyn wasn’t a bit like Libya or Syria or…
“The problem…” Jodie hated it, because there was no way to fix it here. “The problem is Brandy.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
What wasn’t wrong with her was the real question. Jodie could feel the heat against her leg of the pure black Belgian Malinois lying on top of the covers. Brandy was all nerves wrapped up in a bit of dog. Every sound made her twitch. The throaty diesel of a metro bus two blocks over on Smith Street sent a ripple along Brandy’s haunches where they pressed against Jodie’s calf. A horn honking at the corner of President and Smith was a flinch of shoulders against her thigh. A siren down their quiet residential street—s**t! The first one of those had given her war dog a full-blown panic attack.
During their years overseas together, Jodie had heard her dog make any number of sounds. A whimper could be anything from thirst to worry to knowing it would get her some extra attention. There’d been cries of pain—as Jodie pulled glass shards from the dog’s footpads or held her while a medic stitched up a bad laceration from tangling with a feral dog and a length of razor wire. Sharp barks of warning, or excitement during play.
Not until Jodie had brought her to New York had Brandy ever made a cry of pure terror. It was the eeriest sound. High pitched. Like an incoming mortar round whistling down on your head that kept building until it was a pure howl. The sound made sense. It was a mortar that had almost taken both their lives, which made the accuracy of Brandy’s imitation creepy as hell. Jodie had finally pinned the frantic dog to the carpet, lying on top of her until Brandy had finally calmed.
That she’d woken the entire family, who’d all tried to storm into her bedroom to see what was happening, hadn’t helped matters. Brandy, who’d always loved hanging out with her SEAL squad and all the attention it got her, could no longer deal with any kind of crowd.
Jodie wanted to go get a bagel with cream cheese and lox at Shelsky’s. She wanted to bop over to Carroll Park, buy a Nutty Buddy ice cream cone from the cart vendor, and sit on a bench in the May sunshine watching the kids play on the swings. She wanted to take her dog for a run down the length of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Hell, she’d even thought about going back to synagogue to see if there were any answers for the devastation and cruelty she’d witnessed overseas.
Instead, they’d spent her first week home cowering in her ten-by-ten bedroom that would soon be stuffy with June’s heat. It was already getting that way because of the need to keep the window closed to muffle any street noise. Even her two nieces didn’t dare come into the room anymore after Brandy had snapped at them. Twice a day, Jodie forced Brandy outside; but she had to put on a full harness and muzzle, only daring to lead her out when kids were at school or so late at night that no one else was out walking their dog.
Nikita listened with sympathy. As one of the few other women to work with the SEALs, there was some understanding. Even though Nikita had gone all SEAL Team 6 while Jodie stayed with the Navy teams, they’d somehow stayed connected. Loosely, but connected. Out of desperation—this evening had been another bad one for Brandy and she was shaking now in her sleep—Jodie had called her. The two women were SEALs, about all that they had in common.
But PTSD happened to other people, not to people still on the inside, still serving. It was like an infectious disease, rarely discussed, “instant isolation ward” treatment from both active and veteran personnel as if it was a highly contagious plague—worse than being a dweeb.
It wasn’t herself. Jodie felt fine. She really enjoyed just being home—the few times she dared leave Brandy alone and venture downstairs to be with the rest of the family. Davy Golding had even come by to pay a visit. They’d been hot and heavy for all of senior year of high school. He’d married and divorced, “Standard practice for us lawyers,” he’d joked with a good laugh. He’d also matured a lot and she wouldn’t have minded checking out the possibilities. But there were only so many times she could invite him to her bedroom—that probably smelled a bit too much of dog—to sit in the creaky desk chair and watch her hold Brandy, who cowered at his presence.
Brandy had always been the fun dog: quick to find explosives, glad to pal around with rest of the squad, tolerant of other war dogs, and a total goofball for a Frisbee or her KONG toy. They’d FAST-roped out of Black Hawk helos together, parachuted out of C-130s at thirty thousand feet while both on oxygen, and patrolled through more hellhole towns than she could count.
Not so much fun after the explosion that had given Brandy half of her scars in a split second and had taken out Jodie’s right eardrum just for the hell of it.
“You know,” Nikita’s voice slowed, “Luke mentioned this place once. Somewhere out west. Hang on.”
Jodie listened as her friend moved about. She could hear her, leaving the apartment she shared with her SEAL husband Drake, wandering down the barracks hall, and thumping on someone’s door. Some whispered conversation of which Jodie could only catch a few words: dog, out west, and that ultimate curse, PTSD.
“This is Commander Luke Altman. Who am I talking to?” His voice was deep and solid as a subway tunnel.
“This is Petty Officer First Class Jodie Jaffe, formerly with SEAL Team—” and her voice choked off.
Luke Altman? Like Mr. Legend SEAL Team 6 Altman? What the hell had Nikita just done to her?
Jodie bolted upright in her bed, heaving the comforter over Brandy. On her feet at full attention, she tried to think of what to say. One didn’t talk to such highly decorated officers about such trivia as “my dog is unhappy.” Especially not while wearing a Yankee’s t-shirt that had been worn thin back in high school, white cotton panties, and not a scrap else.
Brandy shook off the comforter enough to look nervously over at her, but Jodie couldn’t make herself move to reassure her.
“What seems to be the problem, petty officer?”
Jodie was going to kill Nikita. But that would have to happen later because it was never good to keep an officer waiting.
“I’m sorry to disturb your evening, sir. I was discussing my dog with Nikita Hayward just now and suddenly I’m on the phone with you. I’m not sure why, sir.” Could she sound any stupider?
“Tell me about him.”
“Her, sir.” Yes, stupider was possible, but she wasn’t going down that path to nowhere. So she told him. She’d been twelve years in, the last six with Brandy inside the SEAL teams—he’d know what a rare honor that was for a woman and just what it said about her and Brandy’s competency. Hundreds, maybe thousands of lives saved. Service in the Dust Bowl of Afghanistan as well as Somalia, Yemen, and the unusual list of unmentionables.
“Deep in Syrian battlespace, we caught a bad hit—a mortar, so it wasn’t her fault. After a lot of surgery and physical therapy, the vets gave her a clean medical and I did all the paperwork to get her home. But she’s suffering badly, sir. Skittish as hell, which isn’t like her. She was always rock steady under fire. I’m unsure how to help her.”
There was a long silence. She’d spilled it all out in a single rush, the way officers liked their information. Everything relevant, nothing extra around the edges.
The silence stretched long enough that she checked the phone to make sure she still had it against her good ear. She did.
“Hard question first, Jaffe. You up for it?”
“Former SEAL, sir.” An enlisted’s way of telling an officer they’d asked a dumb-ass question.
“Would putting her down be a kindness?”
“Sir, no sir!” That was the kind of advice Nikita had found for her? Like discarding an old weapon? Might as well condone ethnic cleansing while they were at it.
“You willing to do whatever it takes to help her?” Altman moved on before she could say something nasty.
“Sir, yes sir!” She’d already spent two months overseas after her discharge, making sure they didn’t put Brandy down before she was pronounced fit for release.
“Got a pen and paper?”
Jodie grabbed the first thing that came to hand, flipped it open, and grabbed a marker pen. “Ready, sir.”
He gave her an address. Without realizing, she’d scribbled it across Davy Golding’s photo in their old yearbook. Of course it had naturally opened to that page. He’d filled every bit of white space on the page with one of the hottest love letters imaginable—which she might have read more than a few times, so naturally the old yearbook flopped open there. She’d just obliterated whole sections of it with her Sharpie. Jodie wasn’t going to read anything into that.
Then she looked at what she’d written across Davy’s face and mash note.
“Montana?” She had trouble getting Brandy across the street. Getting her across the country sounded as unlikely as getting the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.
“Just write it down, Jaffe. If anyone can help you, it’ll be Stan Corman.”
“What’re you doing out here on such a fine spring day, Stan?”
“Pissing myself. Go away.” He really didn’t need Patrick’s questions at the moment.
“Sure thing,” and Patrick slid down off his horse to come stand beside him. “What are you looking at?”
“At where I pissed myself.” At the goddamn limitless Montana prairie where an unknown load of suckitude was apparently inbound.
Patrick actually leaned forward to look down at the front of Stan’s jeans.
Stan swung his left arm into Patrick’s gut hard enough to make him grunt—and mostly double over.
Odd. Stan didn’t often forget that his left arm was made of metal from the biceps down. “Sorry, buddy. Been a bad start to my day.”
“Expecting someone?” Patrick shrugged it off. From this bluff southeast of the ranch house and barns, he could see the first dozen of the thirty miles of dirt road to Choteau—the nearest town.
“Your wife and your mother. We’re gonna have a three-way.” The Larson cattle ranch spread for eighty thousand acres across the low roll of the Montana plains in a carpet of brilliant spring green. In another month it would be cooked-down brown. That land was a sharp contrast to this spread. Henderson’s Ranch started at the dirt-road boundary with Larson’s and straddled the more rugged foothills of the Front Range from this bluff, going ten miles back to the sudden upshot of the Rocky Mountains and the Flathead Wilderness.
“She’s not my wife—not for two weeks yet. Besides, you try to tangle with Lauren, good luck to you.” Patrick leaned back against his horse like it was a barn wall.
“Next you’re gonna be plucking a piece of grass to chew so that you and your horse look even more alike.”
Patrick did just that and grinned at him. He was wearing that goofy-guy smile. So besotted you couldn’t even tease him none.
Stan turned back to watch the horizon. Pa had once said that women were a bottomless pit that men fell into and never recovered. As he hadn’t remarried and had barely dated since Ma had run off with some insurance man when Stan was three, meant he probably knew what he was on about.
But Patrick sure looked to be enjoying the fall.
He was just as bad as his brother, the ranch’s chef, who’d married the ranch’s head cowgirl last fall. Six months and they still looked and acted like the honeymoon would never end. There was enough happy couple s**t on this ranch to gag a guy. Just give Stan his training dogs and he was fine.
He and Patrick had shared a bunkroom for three years and all of a sudden Patrick was all Mister Luv. Stan had gotten to like living with Patrick—a naively optimistic goofball who’d also become a better-than-decent cowboy and trail guide. Stan missed him now that he’d moved into one of the cabins with Lauren. Of course she was hot as hell and a former war dog handler, so he cut her some slack for that. Just like him, she’d also lost her dog in combat, which cut her a lifetime’s worth of slack. She’d been lucky enough to make it out in one piece herself, but he knew that didn’t make the loss any easier. Survivor’s guilt probably made it harder in some ways, not that he’d ever ask. The memory of his dog was etched on his skin. And his metal arm.
But what was coming down the road today, he had no fuckin’ idea.
His CO—or he had been back when Stan still had two hands to scratch himself with—had sent him a text just as chatty as ever.
Sending you a dog. Needs help.
He didn’t like this s**t at all. He raised and trained young dogs for Special Operations units. That was it. He could field-stitch a wounded dog, but he wasn’t some veterinarian.
But you couldn’t just say no to a man like Commander Altman.
That itch between his shoulder blades had only failed him once. Actually, it had been there—and he’d ignored it. And it was itching now. Last time he’d lost an arm, this time…
So, he had texted it anyway.
Altman had replied, There within the hour. Then he’d gone silent.
Asshole. Sometimes the truth just needed to be pointed out.
Still no response. If ST6 commanders used emojis, Stan could feel the smiley slapping into his forehead.
Then, weirdly enough, a smiley did appear. That new wife of Altman’s, Zoe something, was definitely a bad influence. Stan had never expected Altman to fall, but he had. If Stan had Patrick’s sense of humor, he’d probably be humming “Another One Bites the Dust.” He wasn’t Patrick. Thank God for small favors.
Altman had invited him to the wedding, but last thing Stan wanted was to hang with his old teammates who would stare at his metal arm like he was a f*****g cripple. He already knew that s**t and didn’t need them to tell him.
That itch had made him to walk up here onto the bluff to watch east for an incoming transport. The only military base in Montana, other than a couple of National Guard units and a whole lot of missile silos, was Malmstrom Air Force Base over in Great Falls, a hundred miles east. So far the only black specs he’d spotted in the sky were a pair of high-circling turkey vultures.
Ain’t dead yet, he thought at them. Come to pick my carcass, you’re gonna bust your beak on these steel bones. Actually his arm was mostly aluminum and titanium, still didn’t make him roadkill.
Patrick was talking about the upcoming wedding. Patrick’s brother had gotten married last October during the winter’s first big storm. Lauren was going to be a June bride. With Montana weather, who knew; there still might be a storm, but not too likely.
“Why’d you wait so long?” He asked to keep Patrick talking, as if Stan didn’t already know the story. But he needed the distraction.
“Well, you know that Mom and Dad are professors at Stonybrook University in New York, right? They could only stay for a couple days for Nathan’s wedding, but they really liked it out here. I figured if we waited until the semester was over and the weather was nice, they could stay a while and really enjoy themselves. You know that Mom still wants to talk about your arm?”
“Uh-huh.” Yeah, like that was gonna happen. She might be some hotshot head of the nation’s first-and-foremost biomed engineering school. Didn’t mean that he wanted to be some sad-sack guinea pig. “Like my arm just fine the way it is.”
“Drop it, Patrick.”
“Stan, seriously. I think—”
“One thing is damn clear, boy.”
“You were never military.”
“Why this time?”
“What part of ‘drop it’ don’t you understand?”
“All the parts,” Patrick tipped back his cowboy hat to scratch at his forehead in confusion. “Don’t you want—”
That finally stopped him.
“Well, it looks like whatever you’re waiting for is just about here.”
“What? Where?” Stan checked the sky again.
Patrick pointed down at the dirt road winding around the base of the bluff. A black Dodge Ram truck with a dog-sized cage in the back rolled along, raising a long trail of slow-settling dust.
That meant that Altman hadn’t texted him until he was turning off Highway 287 onto the road out to the ranch.
“Let’s go down and meet him,” Patrick gathered up his horse’s reins and turned to lead the way.
“Altman’s an asshole.” What kind of a SEAL commander let his wife corrupt him into using emojis?
But Stan was out of options. After the pickup swung out of sight around the base of the bluff and toward the long ranch drive, he turned and followed Patrick leading his horse down to the ranch compound. Place always looked like a picture postcard from up here.
The sprawling log-cabin main house commanded the central yard from its place at the base of the next rise of land. Two long horse barns and the mother of all machinery garages lay across the broad parking area. The ranch manager’s smaller house—the main house in miniature—nestled out beyond the barns. His dog kennel and training grounds lay in the low meadow around to the northeast past the bunkhouses for the hands. He’d had to argue with Mac, the ranch owner, so that they were way out of the action. The less he had to do with nosy ranch guests, the happier he was.
The guest cabins climbed the west face of the bluff on the opposite side of the main house, offering a clear view east and south, and well-protected from the chill northerlies that blew down off the Canadian Plains.
Beyond the cabins rolled the hills of the Montana Front Range. In the ten miles that belonged to Henderson’s Ranch, the land changed from prairie to the abrupt edge of the Rocky Mountains that etched a rugged line into the Big Sky. He’d fought all over the world and even after three years here, it was still one of the most breathtaking places he’d ever been.
And then the black pickup rolled into the central compound and ground to a halt.
Time to go give Altman a piece of his mind. Though he wouldn’t mind meeting that wife of his—had to be some serious kind of lady to match up right.
Patrick’s horse trailed them as they approached the pickup.