I've talked before about my wounded warrior series, former SEALs who come to their retired CO's ranch in the Hill Country of Texas. Eagle Ridge Ranch provides a serene place away from the hurried life and loud noises of the fast paced world to heal emotionally from the effects of war. There are physical wounds, of course, but the PTS elements play a larger role. The series is called "Black Eagle Ops."
One of the characters is Nance, the team's service dog. She's introduced in chapter one. Mail call has just happened and Dustin, the hero, has received a box from Eagle Ridge Ranch. One he's in no mood to open. Remember, these are hardened war veterans. Their language is salty with no filter, so I'll space out the worst words.
A muted “Set Fire to the Rain” drifted from the box. What the hell? That was the team’s theme song they sang as they drove away from a fight. What was his old Commander from SEAL Team Five up to now? Dustin ripped open the box only to find a cell phone and a note. “If you don’t call me ten minutes after receiving my awesome, one-of-a-kind gift, I’m calling you, you candy-as$ed ba$tard. And I’ll keep calling until you answer. ZQ”
The music stopped, and Dustin sighed. Thank God. When he arrived here eight months ago, ZQ was waiting and sat with him for the first three days. He talked to Dustin when he wanted to be left alone and read him poetry by Walt Whitman, which he liked but was too stubborn to admit. ZQ’s actions only reinforced what Dustin had always known; he cared for his men.
The song started again. Ah hell, ZQ. Give me a f---in’ break here. He swiped his index finger across the phone’s screen only to find a picture of Nance, her tongue lolling crooked from her mouth. Her one ear missing after being shot off. The day it happened as they fought their way through Al Hasakah in Eastern Syria, her handler JJ—Jerryl Jacoby—had nearly lost his mind. Hell, they all had.
They’d grown somewhat accustomed to the screams and moans of wounded men, but to hear their furry girl’s yelps ripped at what goodness remained intact within their souls.
On the cell’s photo, a sign hung around Nance’s neck that read, “Call me! Press 2.”
“Damn you, Zane Quinlan.” Dustin muttered as he shook the phone in frustration. The Commander always did know his men’s weak spots and played them to his advantage. He claimed Dustin’s was his curiosity, which it wasn’t. Still, just how had ZQ gotten ahold of Nance?
Dustin pressed two and, after a couple rings, Nance barked a response. He talked to her a minute, teasing her like he always had. “Dance for me Nance! Dance.” Evidently recognizing his voice, she whined and howled. There was some slurping, and Dustin smiled for the first time since forever. The damn, sweet dog was licking the phone to get to him…and he lost it.
Neither realizing the explosion had taken his leg from the middle of his calf down, nor seeing his mother’s tears when he initially reached Walter Reed Hospital or finding out he’d missed his dad’s funeral… not even his wife’s—hell, ex-wife, now—revulsion when she saw his damaged body tore at him so deeply as this dog’s reaction. Why the hell was that?
JJ’s firm voice in the background calmed her, while Dustin wiped his damp face.
Then ZQ took over the conversation.
“Hey, Dust, I knew if anyone could get to you, it would be Nance. Took you long enough to call me.” His team leader sounded like he’d just finished gargling with razor blades. Shit, Dustin wouldn’t be surprised if he had. The old man was hardcore. Not that he was really ancient, but any officer who’d survived fifteen years or more in an official capacity in special forces was respectfully labeled as “Old Man,” just not to his face.
“Is she at the ranch or are you visiting JJ?”
“Hell, they’re here at Eagle Ridge with me. Have been for over two months. JJ adopted her when his enlistment was up. The dog still had some time to serve but, having lost an ear, the big wigs gave her an early retirement.”
“I figured he would do his best to keep her, as tight as those two were. Nance trusted JJ with her life.”
“Still does. I was coming from the stables when this god awful racket echoed on my dirt lane. A man rode a vintage Harley with a sidecar, of all things. The dude wore a black leather vest a few shades darker than him and a black brain bucket for a helmet. And who was sitting in the sidecar, strapped in and wearing a matching black brain bucket with “War Vet” and a Trident decal on the front? Ol’ Nance. Pretty as you please.”
Ice cubes rattled in a glass, and the sound of his sipping and swallowing filtered over the phone. ZQ was probably into his treasured double-malt Scotch. He hacked a laugh. “Soon as our pup saw me, she damn near went berserk. JJ stopped the bike and unhooked her. She cleared the side and ran like hell for my outstretched arms. I ain’t ashamed to admit I was already on my knees, crying like a damn fool baby. There was always something extra special about our Nance.”
Once Dustin is released from the hospital, he moves to Eagle Ridge Ranch near Wounded Warrior Falls. His first meal prepared by Junebug, ZQ's mother, is a real experience.
“I love hearing about my son’s SEAL life.” June, referred to by most everyone as Junebug, carried over a bowl of mashed potatoes. Then she placed two clean chrome dog’s dishes—one full of dry food and the other full of water and ice cubes—at the empty chair at the foot of the table. JJ nodded and Nance quietly jumped onto the chair. Junebug stood behind the dog and tied a bib around her furry neck. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. A damn bib on a SEAL service dog.
Junebug sat and looked at Dustin. “In this house, we say grace before we eat and hold hands while the head of the family prays.” She reached over and ZQ took his mom’s hand and, when she extended her other hand toward Nance, the dog placed his paw on top of hers, as if the canine knew what all was happening. Nance did the same for JJ’s hand and he whispered what a good girl she was. She licked his thumb and looked at him with adoring eyes.
If that dog mutters “amen,” I will crap myself laughing.
Vonnie Davis welcomes readers to Wounded Warrior Falls! In this sizzling contemporary series, broken heroes meet women worth fighting for—and discover the healing power of love.
Navy SEAL Dustin Franks can handle physical pain; it’s his soul that needs mending. After losing part of his leg in an explosion, the panic triggered by his PTSD nearly drives him over the edge. So Dustin retreats to the Eagle Ridge Ranch, a charming hideaway tucked into the Hill Country of Texas. There he finds solace in the arms of a shy beauty who reawakens desires he thought he’d lost forever—and who makes him want to lose control, just when he needs it most.
Kelcee Todd sees beyond Dustin’s scars to the real man beneath: fiercely protective, strong yet tender. She wants nothing more than to feel his battle-hardened hands on her body. However, Kelcee is not the ordinary small-town girl she appears to be. Her brother is a killer with ties to the Russian mob, and after her testimony put him in prison, he’s out and eager for revenge. Now Dustin is her best defense, even if it could cost him everything. Kelcee could never ask him to make that sacrifice . . . but she can’t stop him, either.
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