Danger is heating up…
When Carly Reese’s beloved fashion boutique catches fire, she sees her dreams go up in smoke. The good news is that Carly was saved from the flames by a barking dog nearby. She soon discovers the heroic pooch is a trained K-9 who’s guarding his unconscious partner …a gorgeous firefighter who ends up in Carly’s arms.
Noah Glover and his K-9 are a fearless duo, and Noah has clearly met his match with the brave, beautiful Carly. Soon they team up to track down the arsonist behind the blast – a psychotic criminal who’s intent on framing Noah. Meanwhile, the sparks between Noah and and Carly could ignite a five-alarm fire. Should they smother their feelings in the name of justice…or fan the flames of passion? Find out in Explosive Forces!
“A power-packed tale of romance and suspense…Rival Forces is Ayres’ best yet.”—RT Book Reviews (Top Pick!)
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About the Author
D. D. Ayres is the author of the K-9 Rescue series which includes Primal Force and Force of Attraction. She loves men in uniforms and dogs, making the K-9 Rescue series with St. Martin's Press a dream come true. She currently lives in Texas where she's at work on her next novel.
Read an Excerpt
By D. D. Ayres
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 D. D. Ayres
All rights reserved.
"Hello? Hello? Carly?"
Carly Harrington-Reese shifted her cell phone back to her ear. "I'm here, Aunt Fredda. I thought I heard a dog barking next door. But I don't hear anything now."
"Humph." That was Aunt Fredda's famous sound that, when emitted from the judicial bench where she was a juvenile court judge, stood for unimpressed, doubtful, or dissatisfied. "Didn't I just say it's not a good idea for a young woman to be working alone late at night?"
"I'm about done anyway." Carly put her aunt on speaker before reaching for the sterling silver bell necklace on her front display table. It was the reason she'd popped back into her store tonight. She hadn't meant to leave the signature piece of her first jewelry collection behind when she locked up. "Besides, the space next door is empty."
"Now I don't like the sound of that one bit. Empty spaces are just begging for trouble to walk in."
"It won't be vacant long. The landlord has had interest in turning it into a cupcake shop. I'm thinking people who like to buy individual sweets might also want one-of-a-kind items from my boutique."
"I know that's right. Flawless is going to be a hit. How can it not, with my little supermodel niece large and in charge? I saw the grand opening banner when I drove by this morning."
"You came by?" Carly frowned and laid the necklace on the counter. Whimpering sounds again. Was it a dog? Or her imagination working overtime? "Why didn't you come in?"
"Grand-nephew Frye. He just got his driver's permit and talked me into letting him drive around. I told him if he scratches my Mercedes it's coming out of his future college tuition money. Carly? You're not listening to me, are you? Carly?"
"Now that was a dog. I'm sure of it. Right on the other side of this wall." Carly had moved in between the racks of handmade scarves loomed in Ethiopia and the raffia-weave document cases made in Madagascar to press her ear to the eco-friendly wallpaper of the wall she shared with the shop next door.
There were faint noises coming from the other side, all right. Sounds like scratching.
"What are you doing? Is that a door I hear opening? Carly?" Aunt Fredda's husky voice had climbed half an octave. "You're not going over there? Don't be crazy."
"Sorry, Aunt Fredda. I'll call you back in five." Carly pocketed her phone and hurried out her front door.
Four of the five one-floor redbrick storefronts that made up the historically restored building strip at the corner of Lipscomb and Magnolia were dark. Only the large plate glass windows of her corner shop door spilled light onto the sidewalk.
Turning her head, she glanced right and left. It was past eleven o'clock on a Thursday night in March. A couple of cars rolled leisurely down Magnolia Avenue. All the slots in the public bike rental rack on the corner were full. The trendy bars in the next block in either direction were closed. The weekend would be different. But for now only one couple walked arm-in-arm on the other side of the street. No dog in sight anywhere.
Then she was sure she heard sounds again, coming from the store on her left. It was like that faint whimper her dog Cooper used to make when he got into trouble. An enthusiastic but uncoordinated mix of curiosity and poor choices, Cooper had height issues. He would climb up without hesitation onto beds, picnic tables, even the flatbed of a truck. But anything higher than the sofa had him crying for assistance to get down.
She couldn't stand the idea of anything in trouble, especially an animal. "I should just mind my own business." But she wasn't going to.
She never minded her own business when someone or thing was in trouble. Her mother called it her "Good Samaritan Habit" formed at the age of three. That was after she found Carly in their back yard with a garden snake that had half-swallowed a frog. Holding on to both creatures, Carly was trying to pull them apart. Sadly, the frog was a goner. Carly's instinct to help the vulnerable was still very much alive.
Moving in front of one of the dark windows of the shop next door, she pressed her forehead to the cool plate glass and framed her face with her hands to block the streetlight. But there was nothing to see. The windows were covered in paper from the inside.
She moved to try the door handle. It was locked.
She knocked. "Hello! Anybody in there?"
Silence. Not even a whimper this time.
The phone rang in her pocket.
"Tell me you aren't out on the street alone."
"I'm okay, Aunt Fredda."
"Did you find the dog?"
"That's because there isn't one. No one leaves a dog in a building. It's much more likely you heard mice next door. Or, maybe a squirrel looking for a place to build a nest. You're just nervous about your opening. You want me to come down there? Because I can be there in ten minutes."
"No, no." Carly blew out a give-me-patience breath. "You're probably right. I'm just nervous and jumping at every sound. Why don't you wait and come by tomorrow for the soft opening? You'll get the first pick of everything."
"Now that's an idea I like." Her aunt sounded very pleased. "I got to go. I'm missing The Late Show. Call me when you are on your way home."
Carly pocketed her phone and stood a moment longer, straining for sounds from the store behind her. Maybe it was just her nerves turning ordinary noises into ominous sounds. Of course, she could call and report that she heard weird noises coming from a vacant store. But what if Aunt Fredda was right and it was mice, or squirrels? Or rats? No, better not bother the police about rodents.
She turned back to her shop and paused, a smile spreading across her face as she gazed at the sign above the door. FLAWLESS.
Her shop represented so much. A fresh start. A new life. Flawless wasn't just about beauty. Or bling. It was about a woman empowering other women while owning her own style.
The idea for a store had crossed her mind when she was still working as a model. Everyone lauded the designers of the beautiful, sometimes bizarre, clothing she strutted on the catwalk. But only a handful of insiders ever met the talented women who embroidered, made lace, or spent hundreds of hours sewing by hand the sequins, pearls, and crystals that made so many of the couture pieces works of art. Most worked in crowded overseas factories, or locally, from home. Paid minimum wages for their exquisite creations, they never saw a cent of the exorbitant prices their contributions ultimately demanded at the retail level. She wanted to change that. So, she'd returned home, sunk a good bit of her savings into creating a boutique where people could come and touch and examine and buy one-of-a-kind pieces.
Flawless would highlight those yet-to-be-discovered women who deserved to reach an audience. Art wasn't just for the rich or those who didn't have to scramble for a living. There were lots of ways of not being okay in this world. Art was a way to be okay.
Carly took a deep breath as she caught her reflection in the store windows. Her two-tone hairdo was new enough that she paused to study it. A riot of tight blonde-tipped ringlets cascaded over her brow from the crown. The naturally darker sides of her hair had been swept back and pinned to mimic the look of being cropped very close. It was an edgy urban look that turned heads on the streets of Fort Worth.
She fluffed her curls with her fingers and smiled. She'd always pulled herself together on her terms. Now she would be helping other women know the feeling of succeeding on their own terms.
Within minutes, the shop was locked up and she walking to her Mazda, parked in the large lot behind the block of stores.
Security lights on motion detectors brightened the alley like a runway. Arms full of work materials, she pushed her key fob to unlock the hatchback when she heard a noise. No, a bark. Absolutely a bark this time.
She looked back over her shoulder to see the backdoor to the shop next to hers was ajar.
The second bark was louder. A bit high and strained. As if the dog was hurt or in trouble.
"I should mind my own business." She talked to herself when she was nervous. A habit from childhood she'd never lost.
She shoved her armload into the back of her Mazda. "Get in the car, Carly Harrington-Reese. Lock the doors. Call the cops, and go home."
Yes. That was the plan any sensible person would follow. But the dog was whining again, a sound so pathetic she couldn't resist the urge to check out the source. Maybe it had run into the store looking for shelter and got stuck, or something.
She hesitated. The "or something" might be the reason she should just follow plan A and leave.
She pulled out her phone. One wrong sound or weird creak and she was speed-dialing 911.
When she pushed, the door to the empty store opened inward on a space so dark it seemed matt finished in charcoal dust. "Hello?"
Her tentative question was met with silence. "Hi. I'm Carly from next door. Anybody here?"
More silence. So far, she'd kept both feet on the outside of the threshold. She wasn't scared of the dark. She just didn't like being alone in unfamiliar darkness.
She switched on the flashlight of her cell phone and stepped inside.
The first thing she saw several yards into the vacant space was the reflective surface of a pair of shiny shoes. The next thing that registered were the trouser legs attached to those shoes ... and then the body of a man, lying face down on the concrete floor.
"Ooh. Ooh. Dead body." She began backpedaling toward the door. The body shivered. And then it moaned.
"Okay, so maybe not dead. Just mostly dead." Carly slapped a hand across her mouth to stop a bubble of nervous laughter. This was too serious. The man was probably a derelict, passed out from drugs or alcohol, or maybe both. He needed help.
She stabbed the emergency button on her phone.
The questions from the other end of the line came thick and fast after her statement of her problem.
"That's right. Man unconscious in an abandoned store. No, I don't know him. I have no idea. Drunk or drugs?" She made herself glance back at the form. "There's a liquor bottle by his head. And it smells funny in here. Like a gas station, maybe. No, I don't know if he's still breathing, and I'm not touching him to find out. Please send the police. Send an ambulance. Send somebody." She gave her location again.
As she punched to end the call, the arc of her flashlight leaped across the man's body to reflect a pair of eyes shining liquid in the darkness a few feet on the other side. Even as her lungs took in air to scream her brain registered the form. A dog stared at her. A big dog.
"I knew it." Carly moved carefully in a wide arc around the man's body toward the animal. An unfamiliar dog was definitely better company than an unconscious — please don't let him be dying — stranger.
She held up her light so it didn't shine directly into the animal's eyes. He was big, with a black muzzle, golden brown cheeks, and a mostly light body. Yep, definitely a German Shepherd.
That gave her pause. A dog under stress might become aggressive. But this one was whining softly, not growling, and his ears were perked up. "It's okay, big fella. You look like a nice dog."
She moved a little closer, keeping her voice low and even. "You're a shepherd, aren't you? I had a dog growing up. His name was Cooper. He was part shepherd. Part boxer. But mostly parts unknown."
As she closed the distance, the dog stuck out his muzzle to sniff her tentatively, cold nose dabbing the back of her curled hand. After a moment he ducked his head under her hand and pushed against it, suggesting she pet him.
She stroked down one tall ear a couple of times and then the dog moved his head again and tried to move closer to her body but came to an abrupt halt.
"What's the matter?" She lifted her light. He wore a collar, a thick heavy leather one by the feel of it. It was attached to a leash that had been wound several times around a support post in the unfinished space. "You're stuck. No wonder you were whimpering."
She moved closer to pet him more strongly, feeling the tension coursing through his big body just under his fur. And there with his owner doing a face plant beside them.
Carly shook her head. She knew that some homeless people kept a dog for protection and company. But this guy wasn't doing his canine companion any favors tonight. She rubbed the dog's back. "It's okay. I'll get you out of here. You can come sit with me until the police arrive."
At least she could spare the dog the trauma of the police and EMTs arrival with sirens blaring. If too many of them came in quickly, a tethered and stressed dog might accidently bite someone.
She put her phone back in her pocket so she could use both hands to free the animal. "You shouldn't have to suffer because you have a —"
She glanced at the man. Now that her eyes were becoming accustomed to the light, he looked like a large bundle of clothing on the floor. He was murmuring low but not moving. Did he think she was trying to steal his dog?
The push of nervous energy nudged her and she naturally started talking. "Listen. I don't want any part of what you were doing here. Okay? Just in case you can hear me, I'm only trying to help your dog."
As she worked to loosen the knot in the leash, she kept glancing at the man. "I don't mean to pass judgment. Your situation is not my business. All I'm saying is, if you've got time to polish your shoes, you have a minute to pull your life together. Your priorities are completely —"
It was only a soft whoosh of sound. Just like the noise her gas heater made in her former London flat when it came on. And then she understood why.
The baseboard along the far wall began to glow. She froze, her mind trying to catch up with what her eyes were seeing. Flames, little yellow licks of flickering fire. Along the wall.
That made no sense. But fire didn't have to make sense.
Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! She felt her lips moving, but no sounds emerged. A fire had broken out.
Giving up on the leash, she unlatched the dog's collar from it and gave him a shove. "Go! Go! Out!"
The dog swayed in the middle but didn't move. Heavier than she thought, he apparently wasn't going anywhere. Fine. Someone needed to save herself.
She made three steps toward the door when she looked back and saw the dog was nudging the man on the floor. That's why he remained. The shepherd would stay with his owner, despite the risk. She was sure of it.
As if cued, the video she'd had to watch about fire safety as part of her lease agreement came to mind. It said a person only had only four minutes to escape a fire once it began.
Four minutes! She needed only five more of those two hundred and forty seconds to clear the door.
She ran back, poked the man with her foot. "Hey, you! Get up! Fire. Do you hear me?" She leaned down and yelled near his ear. "Fire! Fire!"
When he didn't respond, she pushed his shoulder hard with both hands. The man beneath the shirt felt solid and warm. Alive. "Wake up! Please! You're going to die!"
She bent to peer down into a face that in the dark seemed to have no features. Not even his eyes opened. Hopeless.
She forced herself not to glance at the flames climbing the far wall. But from the corner of her vision she saw smaller flames making crazy progress across the floor. What could be burning in an empty store?
The dog was whimpering and shaking, running in and licking his owner but dancing away, evidently as aware of the flames as she was.
Giving up on rousing him, she grabbed his arm and tugged. "Oh Jesus! You weigh a ton." Frantic, she bent down, lifted one of his shoulders and shoved, trying to turn him over. His upper body twisted at an awkward angle. She pushed harder. She doubted that a back spasm would be nearly as painful as being barbecued.
When she had managed to flip him, he moaned in protest but at least he was on his back.
"Come on." She shook his legs as sweat popped out on her forehead. "You've got to help me. Move! Do you hear me?" Nothing.
She grabbed one ankle in each hand and began hauling him feet first toward the door. It was only twelve feet away. But that distance seemed like twelve miles. Thankfully, her Doc Martins helped her keep traction. Another day she might have been in stilettoes.
Excerpted from Explosive Forces by D. D. Ayres. Copyright © 2016 D. D. Ayres. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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