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Off the Leash

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-White House Protection Force Romance #1-

The White House Protection Force Saves the Day! Come meet the behind-the-scenes specialists who keep our White House safe—even while they lose their hearts.

White House Chocolatier Clive Andrews takes pride in the subliminal messages hidden in his State Dinner showstoppers. But there’s more than sensual sweets at risk when his heart begins to melt.

Sergeant Linda Hamlin left the Army after a decade of service. As the newest member of the U.S. Secret Service K-9 Team she expected flak. She didn’t expect to be paired with a misfit mutt named Thor. Together they face down bombers, master spies, and a teenage genius.

All of which might be manageable, if not for the handsome chocolatier who teaches her that a little indulgence can be a very good thing.

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Chapter 1-1
Chapter One “You’re joking.” “Nope. That’s his name. And he’s yours now.” Sergeant Linda Hamlin wondered quite what it would take to wipe that smile off Lieutenant Jurgen’s face. A 120mm round from an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank came to mind. The kennel master of the US Secret Service’s Canine Team was clearly a misogynistic jerk from the top of his polished head to the bottoms of his equally polished boots. She wondered if the shoelaces were polished as well. Then she looked over at the poor dog sitting hopefully on the concrete kennel floor. His stall had a dog bed three times his size and a water bowl deep enough for him to bathe in. No toys, because toys always came from the handler as a reward. He offered her a sad sigh and a liquid doggy gaze. The kennel even smelled wrong, more of sanitizer than dog. The walls seemed to echo with each bark down the long line of kennels housing the candidate hopefuls for the next addition to the Secret Service’s team. Thor—really?—was a brindle-colored mutt, part who-knew and part no-one-cared. He looked like a cross between an oversized, long-haired schnauzer and a dust mop that someone had spilled dark gray paint on. After mixing in streaks of tawny brown, they’d left one white paw just to make him all the more laughable. And of course Lieutenant Jerk Jurgen would assign Thor to the first woman on the USSS K-9 team. Unable to resist, she leaned over far enough to scruff the dog’s ears. He was the physical opposite of the sleek and powerful Malinois MWDs—military war dogs—that she’d been handling for the 75th Rangers for the last five years. They twitched with eagerness and nerves. A good MWD was seventy pounds of pure drive—every damn second of the day. If the mild-mannered Thor weighed thirty pounds, she’d be surprised. And he looked like a little girl’s best friend who should have a pink bow on his collar. Jurgen was clearly ex-Marine and would have no respect for the Army. Of course, having been in the Army’s Special Operations Forces, she knew better than to respect a Marine. “We won’t let any old swabbie bother us, will we?” Jurgen snarled—definitely Marine Corps. Swabbie was slang for a Navy sailor and a Marine always took offense at being lumped in with them no matter how much they belonged. Of course the swabbies took offense at having the Marines lumped with them. Too bad there weren’t any Navy around so that she could get two for the price of one. Jurgen wouldn’t be her boss, so appeasing him wasn’t high on her to-do list. At least she wouldn’t need any of the protective bite gear working with Thor. With his stature, he was an explosives detection dog without also being an attack one. “Where was he trained?” She stood back up to face the beast. “Private outfit in Montana—some place called Henderson’s Ranch. Didn’t make their MWD program,” his scoff said exactly what he thought the likelihood of any dog outfit in Montana being worthwhile. “They wanted us to try the little runt out.” She’d never heard of a training program in Montana. MWDs all came out of Lackland Air Force Base training. The Secret Service mostly trained their own and they all came from Vohne Liche Kennels in Indiana. Unless… Special Operations Forces dogs were trained by private contractors. She’d worked beside a Delta Force dog for a single month—he’d been incredible. “Is he trained in English or German?” Most American MWDs were trained in German so that there was no confusion in case a command word happened to be part of a spoken sentence. It also made it harder for any random person on the battlefield to shout something that would confuse the dog. “German according to his paperwork, but he won’t listen to me much in either language.” Might as well give the diminutive Thor a few basic tests. A snap of her fingers and a slap on her thigh had the dog dropping into a smart “heel” position. No need to call out Fuss—by my foot. “Pass auf!” Guard! She made a pistol with her thumb and forefinger and aimed it at Jurgen as she grabbed her forearm with her other hand—the military hand sign for enemy. The little dog snarled at Jurgen sharply enough to have him backing out of the kennel. “Goddamn it!” “Ruhig.” Quiet. Thor maintained his fierce posture but dropped the snarl. “Gute Hund.” Good dog, Linda countered the command. Thor looked up at her and wagged his tail happily. She tossed him a doggie treat, which he caught midair and crunched happily. She didn’t bother looking up at Jurgen as she knelt once more to check over the little dog. His scruffy fur was so soft that it tickled. Good strength in the jaw, enough to show he’d had bite training despite his size—perfect if she ever needed to take down a three-foot-tall terrorist. Legs said he was a jumper. “Take your time, Hamlin. I’ve got nothing else to do with the rest of my goddamn day except babysit you and this mutt.” “Is the course set?” “Sure. Take him out,” Jurgen’s snarl sounded almost as nasty as Thor’s before he stalked off. She stood and slapped a hand on her opposite shoulder. Thor sprang aloft as if he was attached to springs and she caught him easily. He’d cleared well over double his own height. Definitely trained…and far easier to catch than seventy pounds of hyperactive Malinois. She plopped him back down on the ground. On lead or off? She’d give him the benefit of the doubt and try off first to see what happened. Linda zipped up her brand-new USSS jacket against the cold and led the way out of the kennel into the hard sunlight of the January morning. Snow had brushed the higher hills around the USSS James J. Rowley Training Center—which this close to Washington, DC, wasn’t saying much—but was melting quickly. Scents wouldn’t carry as well on the cool air, making it more of a challenge for Thor to locate the explosives. She didn’t know where they were either. The course was a test for handler as well as dog. Jurgen would be up in the observer turret looking for any excuse to mark down his newest team. Perhaps teasing him about being just a Marine hadn’t been her best tactical choice. She sighed. At least she was consistent—she’d always been good at finding ways to piss people off before she could stop herself and consider the wisdom of doing so. This test was the culmination of a crazy three months, so she’d forgive herself this time—something she also wasn’t very good at. In October she’d been out of the Army and unsure what to do next. Tucked in the packet with her DD 214 honorable discharge form had been a flyer on career opportunities with the US Secret Service dog team: Be all your dog can be! No one else being released from Fort Benning that day had received any kind of a job flyer at all that she’d seen, so she kept quiet about it. She had to pass through DC on her way back to Vermont—her parent’s place. Burlington would work for, honestly, not very long at all, but she lacked anywhere else to go after a decade of service. So, she’d stopped off in DC to see what was up with that job flyer. Five interviews and three months to complete a standard six-month training course later—which was mostly a cakewalk after fighting with the US Rangers—she was on-board and this chill January day was her first chance with a dog. First chance to prove that she still had it. First chance to prove that she hadn’t made a mistake in deciding that she’d seen enough bloodshed and war zones for one lifetime and leaving the Army. The Start Here sign made it obvious where to begin, but she didn’t dare hesitate to take in her surroundings past a quick glimpse. Jurgen’s score would count a great deal toward where she and Thor were assigned in the future. Mostly likely on some field prep team, clearing the way for presidential visits. As usual, hindsight informed her that harassing the lieutenant hadn’t been an optimal strategy. A hindsight that had served her equally poorly with regular Army commanders before she’d finally hooked up with the Rangers—kowtowing to officers had never been one of her strengths. Thankfully, the Special Operations Forces hadn’t given a damn about anything except performance and that she could always deliver, since the day she’d been named the team captain for both soccer and volleyball. She was never popular, but both teams had made all-state her last two years in school. The canine training course at James J. Rowley was a two-acre lot. A hard-packed path of tramped-down dirt led through the brown grass. It followed a predictable pattern from the gate to a junker car, over to tool shed, then a truck, and so on into a compressed version of an intersection in a small town. Beyond it ran an urban street of gray clapboard two- and three-story buildings and an eight-story office tower, all without windows. Clearly a playground for Secret Service training teams. Her target was the town, so she blocked the city street out of her mind. Focus on the problem: two roads, twenty storefronts, six houses, vehicles, pedestrians. It might look normal…normalish with its missing windows and no movement. It would be anything but. Stocked with fake IEDs, a bombmaker’s stash, suicide cars, weapons caches, and dozens of other traps, all waiting for her and Thor to find. He had to be sensitive to hundreds of scents and it was her job to guide him so that he didn’t miss the opportunity to find and evaluate each one. There would be easy scents, from fertilizer and diesel fuel used so destructively in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to almost as obvious TNT to the very difficult to detect C-4 plastic explosive. Mannequins on the street carried grocery bags and briefcases. Some held fresh meat, a powerful smell demanding any dog’s attention, but would count as a false lead if they went for it. On the job, an explosives detection dog wasn’t supposed to care about anything except explosives. Other mannequins were wrapped in suicide vests loaded with Semtex or wearing knapsacks filled with package bombs made from Russian PVV-5A. She spotted Jurgen stepping into a glassed-in observer turret atop the corner drugstore. Someone else was already there and watching. She looked down once more at the ridiculous little dog and could only hope for the best. “Thor?” He looked up at her. She pointed to the left, away from the beaten path. “Such!” Find. Thor sniffed left, then right. Then he headed forward quickly in the direction she pointed. Clive Andrews sat in the second-story window at the corner of Main and First, the only two streets in town. Downstairs was a drugstore all rigged to explode, except there were no triggers and there was barely enough explosive to blow up a candy box. Not that he’d know, but that’s what Lieutenant Jurgen had promised him. It didn’t really matter if it was rigged to blow for real, because when Miss Watson—never Ms. or Mrs.—asked for a “favor,” you did it. At least he did. Actually, he had yet to meet anyone else who knew her. Not that he’d asked around. She wasn’t the sort of person one talked about with strangers, or even close friends. He’d bet even if they did, it would be in whispers. That’s just what she was like. So he’d traveled across town from the White House and into Maryland on a cold winter’s morning, barely past a sunrise that did nothing to warm the day. Now he sat in an unheated glass icebox and watched a new officer run a test course he didn’t begin to understand. Lieutenant Jurgen settled in beside him at a console with feeds from a dozen cameras and banks of switches. While waiting, Clive had been fooling around with a sketch on a small pad of paper. The next State Dinner was in seven days. President Zachary Taylor had invited the leaders of Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines to the White House for discussions about some Chinese islands. Or something like that, Clive hadn’t really been paying attention to the details past the attendee list. Instead, he was contemplating the dessert for such a dinner that would surprise, perhaps delight, as well as being an icebreaker for future discussions. Being the chocolatier for the White House was the most exciting job he’d ever had. Every challenge was fresh and new, like the first strawberry of each year.

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