Man’s Best Friend
Part of the Fighter Series
Man’s Best Friend is featured in the anthology Tails of Love and is not available on its own.
Man’s Best Friend
This story is only available as part of an anthology and does not have a cover of its own.
Part of the Fighter Series
Gary Rutledge is an SBC fighter in hot pursuit of his “very good friend” Erin Schuler.
Tails of Love is one of Lori’s benefit books. A portion of the proceeds goes to the local, no-kill animal shelter, the Animal Adoption Foundation.
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Man’s Best Friend
is Part of the Fighter Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 1: Causing Havoc
- Book 2: Simon Says
- Book 3: Hard to Handle
- Book 4: My Man, Michael
- Book 5: Back in Black
- Man’s Best Friend
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Man’s Best Friend
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Her heart lurched as she stared at the small creature with large, glistening eyes. Shaking from cold and unease, she immediately went to her knees on the gravel and pulled a small flashlight from her bag. Shining it at the critter, she found herself face to face with a sodden puppy of indiscriminate breed.
“Oh, baby.” Erin held out a hand. “There, there, it’s okay. I’m sorry if I hurt you,” she whispered. “I didn’t see you hunkered down there.”
The ball of wet, matted brown fur watched her from worried dark eyes. Whimpering, hopeful but afraid, it inched a little closer.
Very slowly, Erin got off her knees and went into a crouch. “It’s all right, baby. You look as cold and miserable as I feel. Come here, now. We’ll get warmed up together.”
The dog’s fur was filled with mud and possibly unspeakable things, like ticks and fleas. But what the hell, she wasn’t in much better shape herself now that the rain had soaked through to her skin and she’d fallen on the gravel lot. She pulled the little bundle up close and cradled it in her arms.
The puppy couldn’t weigh more than three pounds and had the distinct look of neglect about it. In the three years she’d been working with the park, Erin had seen and rescued plenty of wild animals. But never before had she encountered a pup.
Not being a dummy, she wondered if someone had left the animal there, and if the creep was still around.
The little dog shivered in her arms and laid back its ears in a beseeching way. Holding it close to her chest, Erin unlocked her car and slid inside, then closed and locked the door. Relieved for that much security, she decided to take the dog to her apartment and see what she could do about making it comfortable.
She put the key in the ignition, turned, and…
“Crap.” Her battery had died? Truly nervous now, she dug out her cell phone. “It’s okay, sweetie. We’ll be fine, I promise.”
But when she opened her phone and the light came on, she said, “Crap times two.” The battery was all but dead. For only a second, Erin flopped her head back against the seat and groaned. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She had to hurry and call someone, or she’d be stranded here alone for the night.
The dog licked her chin in encouragement, and after a pat meant to reassure, she tried calling her brother.
No answer. Jerk.
He was probably out having a great time somewhere. Not that he could have known she’d need him, but still…
Though it was summer, the freezing rain and cooler night temps sent shivers racing over her. Who to call?
One look out the window and she knew she couldn’t bother her folks. Not only would they have been in bed for hours, but she didn’t particularly want either of them to be out driving in this horrible storm.
As to friends… well, she didn’t have any super good friends who wouldn’t mind venturing out late on a rainy night to save her socially dysfunctional butt.
That left her with only one choice: Gary Rutledge.
Never mind that Gary was probably asleep, or with a woman, or that she’d been avoiding him for a few months now. Erin thought of the last time he’d called, how frustrated he’d been that she claimed to be too busy to see him.
They both knew it was a lie. Only she knew why she lied.
But damn it, what she wanted and what he wanted were worlds apart. His life was already too full to add a serious romantic relationship, and she cared too much about him for anything less. She had enough problems in her life without fostering a deliberate heartache.
But even if he wanted what she wanted, he had big plans ahead and she didn’t want to get in the way of those. And, when she was totally honest, his newfound popularity and social standing intimidated the hell out of her.
Lightning crashed across the sky, followed by a deep belch of car-jarring thunder. The pup yelped pitifully. Erin jumped. “Wow,” she said as she stroked the animal to calm it. It whined and tried to burrow under her arm. “Yeah, yeah,” she told the dog. “I know. It’s time to suck it up and make the call. I’ll do it right now.”
She’d ask Gary for help, but keep things cool and detached. Somehow.
Cooing to the dog, she dialed his number.
On the third ring, Gary gave a low, sleepy “Hello?”
Well hell. She’d sort of hoped against hope that he wouldn’t be in bed already, but it was obvious that she’d awakened him.
Erin cleared her throat and without meaning to, asked, “You alone, Rutledge?” If he was with another woman, she’d damn well crawl home in the storm before admitting she needed his help.
“Erin?” New awareness chased away the slumber in his tone. Voice now firm and demanding, he said, “What’s wrong?”
Her phone gave a series of near-silent beeps, indicating an impending disconnect from dead battery. Jostling the pup to keep it still in her lap, panicked at the idea that her phone would die any second, she rushed into speech. “I need you, Gary. I’m at the park, in the north lot, and everyone else is gone. Bring some towels. Maybe a blanket and –”
The phone blinked off.
Erin stared at it in horror, then let out a long breath.
Had she said enough?
Had he heard her location?
If so, surely he’d play white knight. Surely he’d understand the seriousness of what she asked.
Surely he’d come alone, and not force her to ride back with whoever his current bed-warmer might be.
Rain lashed her window and lightning again lit the area, stretching ominous shadows and amplifying just how alone she was. If Gary didn’t show up, she supposed she would have to start walking. That’d take at least an hour just to get to the main thoroughfares, and the park roads were dark and narrow and… well, scary. But she’d do it if she had to.
Hugging the dog, Erin wondered how she always got herself into these fixes.
She needed to get a handle on her work schedule.
She needed a new car.
Hell, she needed a new life.
Cracking the window to hear any sounds that might be unfamiliar to the surrounding woods, Erin waited. The pup whined in confusion and discomfort. She felt like joining in.
After ten minutes that felt like an hour, headlights shot into the parking lot and a sleek, sporty car crept in. Hope mingled with nervousness, but she’d just have to trust that it was Gary. If not, she might have a bigger problem than she wanted to contemplate.
Silhouetted by his own headlights, the driver got out. Moving toward her in the darkness, he looked big and powerful. His car idled in the silent lot.
He wore a long windbreaker with the loose hood pulled up, hiding his features so it wasn’t until he’d strode right up to her car and his gorgeous face was there against the window, frowning in concern, that she knew it was Gary.
Her knees turned to Jello.
He looked relieved to see her, but also a little pissed. Brown eyes narrowed, rain dripping off his nose, he said, “Open up, Erin, and start explaining.”
Seeing Erin, sodden but safe and sound, helped a little, but Gary’s heart still thumped in residual fear. Getting a “save me” late night phone call from her was not his idea of fun.
He’d called her right back, but she hadn’t answered, and he’d thought the worst.
Now, knowing she was okay, he felt like yanking her petite ass out of the car and shaking her. She’d taken him from a sound sleep to a panic in a nanosecond. For too long now she’d been dodging him, making him nuts, and then to hear her on the phone, so late at night, with not much more than an “I need you” demand… Well, she’d better have a good explanation.
He waited, getting more soaked by the second while she appeared to gather some things in the seat beside her. Without a word she put up her window, opened her door and stepped out to shove a squirming, frightened pup into his arms.
Brows lifted, Gary asked, “What’s this?”
He was in no mood for her unique brand of sarcasm. “I can see that, smart ass.” Gary automatically opened his windbreaker and held the dog to his warm chest. Muddy paws and a muddier belly scuttled in close, no doubt ruining his shirt. Poor little thing. “Where’d it come from?”
Erin kept her head down and closed her car door. “I found it when I got off work.”
“Which was when?”
“Should’ve been hours ago, but…” She shrugged. “Since I lock up the place, I stayed longer to get some stuff done.”
She still wasn’t looking at him, and Gary didn’t like that. “Why didn’t you answer me when I called back?”
“Dead phone. I guess I forgot to charge it.” Then, defensively, she said, “I’m lucky I got through to you before it went entirely kaput, or I’d have been walking home.”
When lightning splintered the black sky, following by several cracks of thunder, Gary took her arm and steered her toward his car. “Not real smart, Erin. You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Her short dark hair was plastered to her head, and rain water dripped over her face. As they walked back to his idling car, she hoisted a bag over her shoulder. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but –”
“Forget about it.”
She started to say more when she saw the Audi and froze. “No, you didn’t.”
“Didn’t what?” Gary hauled her the rest of the way to the car and opened the passenger door for her.
She didn’t want to get in. “You drove your new Audi.”
Now she hated his car, too? “So?”
She put her hands to her head and stood there in the pouring rain. “So it’s a fifty thousand dollar car and I’m wetter and muddier than the dog.”
He smiled. “I can see that.”
Finally she looked at him – but it was with wide-eyed horror. “I can’t ride in there!” She pointed at the front seat of his Audi TT interior. “I’ll ruin your leather seats.”
Icy rain made its way down the back of his neck. “The leather’s treated. It’ll be fine. Now get in.”
“But… I’m muddy.”
Impatience had him nudging her along. “The car can be cleaned.” As she gingerly seated herself, Gary stared down at the top of her head and, feeling provoked, said, “You can help me with that on your next day off. Okay?”
Her gaze clashed with his, but only for an instant. “Uh, sure.”
So much enthusiasm. He shook his head and put the pup in her lap. “The towels are there in the seat if you want to wrap him up.”
Gary helped her to get settled. “He’s definitely a boy dog. You didn’t notice?”
She made an incredulous sound. “I was a little preoccupied imagining some whack-job who might have left the puppy there as a way to booby-trap me in the dark and deserted woods.”
Smiling, Gary reached in and pushed wet bangs out of her face. She looked… adorable. Like a cute drowned rat. “Not too farfetched, really.”
When she gave him a doe-caught-in-the-headlights look, he shut the door and ran around to the driver’s side. Once inside, he stripped off the soaked jacket and stuffed it behind his seat. “You have to be more careful, you know.”
“I know.” She kept looking around the car with awe.
“It’s just a car, Erin.”
“A car that costs more than some houses.”
“Hardly.” He smoothed his hands over the wheel. “It was an indulgent buy. Don’t make me regret it, okay?”
Carefully removing her soaked sneakers and putting them on a towel on the floor, she asked,
“How could I make you regret it?”
“I’ll explain later.” She looked cold so he adjusted the heater. “How’s the pooch?”
“Sleepy, I think.” As dry as Erin could get him, the pup curled up, propped his little furry chin on her thigh, and dozed off.
Gary propped his hands loosely on the steering wheel and watched her care for the dog. He liked the profile of her slender nose, her stubborn chin, the way her short dark hair curled when wet. He liked her gentleness as she comforted the dog. Hell, he more than liked everything about her, and had for some time now.