Next Door Knight

by

Nicole Flockton

Can a dog heal two wounded souls?

Newly single Kerry Williams is at her wit’s end. She’s juggling her injured father’s care, a new job as the manager of a hip new restaurant and her therapy dog Willow volunteering at the Veteran’s Center — all while struggling to rise above her humiliating heartbreak. When her father’s caretaker fails to show one evening, she’s terrified she’ll lose her job. And then Willow runs away. Panicked, Kerry gives chase and immediately runs smack into a tall, dark and sexy wall of muscle, palming a squirming bundle of fur. Her new hero seems like an answer to her prayers.

The last thing K-9 officer Caleb Bradshaw wants, is to babysit his neighbor’s father and her dog. He’s facing a potential career-ending injury and grieving the death of his working partner, Trigger. Sure he can handle a cranky old man, but the quiet comfort of Willow who follows him around with liquid-eyed sympathy tugs at the heart he’s trying to keep walled-off after his many painful losses.

Kerry knows Willow can ease Caleb’s grief, but he continues to push her away. Even though her life is in shambles and she too should walk, Kerry knows she can’t and won’t. Will Caleb accept her help or will he close himself off completely?

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Kerry Williams wanted slink to her bedroom, jump into bed, pull the covers over her head, and hide from the world for the next two months. Unfortunately, life didn’t work out that way, so she had to suck it up and play the cards she’d been dealt.

The only good thing? Her new house was a major step up on what she’d been living in only a few weeks ago. Of course, if she didn’t find her dog and get her ass to her new job, she’d be back to living in a one-bedroom apartment in the seedy part of San Antonio.

“Kerry, honey, I’m thirsty. Can you get me a drink, please?” Her father’s voice floated down the hallway to where she stood in the kitchen, looking at the empty backyard, where only ten minutes ago, her corgi, Willow, was running around, enjoying all the extra space she now had to play in.

Oh crap, why now? She needed to find Willow, but if she didn’t pour Dad a tall glass of orange juice, he would attempt to get it himself and probably wind up flat on his face. Ambulances weren’t cheap.

A glance at her watch and her blood pressure rose further. “Where the hell is this new caregiver? She was supposed to be here five minutes ago. Hopefully, she’s just running late,” Kerry said to the empty kitchen as she fixed her father his drink.

Dad was sitting in her favorite chair in the living room, his plaster-clad legs propped up on the cushion, the late afternoon sun highlighting the gray in his hair. His crutches leaned against the side of the chair, within easy reach for him to hobble over to the wheelchair residing in the corner of the room.

There was no way her father could’ve stayed with her in her former residence. Going up four flights of stairs to a one-bedroom apartment wasn’t an option for a man with two broken legs.

“Here you go, Dad. A nice glass of juice for you.”

“I’d prefer a cold beer,” he grumbled, but he took the glass and drank down half the contents.

“You know what the doctor said. No alcohol while you’re on painkillers and antibiotics.”

“I know. I know. But it’s hot, and there’s nothing like a good beer to take away the heat of the day.”

Kerry refrained from rolling her eyes. A shiver wracked her body as the air conditioner kicked in. Of course, Dad liked it set at sixty-eight degrees. Her ideal temperature was a balmy seventy-six. “You’re sitting in a nice cold room; I think the juice will be sufficient for you.”

Her dad chuckled and finished off his drink. “Don’t you need to be leaving for your job?”

“Yes, but I can’t leave until the caregiver arrives, and Willow’s disappeared from the backyard. She’s never done this before. I need to go find her.”

Her father waved a hand in the air. “Go. I don’t need no babysitter. I can get around just fine.”

Kerry closed her eyes and counted to ten in an attempt to not bite off her dad’s head. “You have two broken legs, Dad. You can’t get around easily.”

Thank goodness Dad had good health insurance that covered a home-care service. No way could she afford an expense like that on top of her new mortgage payment.

“It’s an unnecessary cost. I can just imagine the increase in my premium when I come to renew it.”

Kerry would love the luxury of having health insurance. But until she passed the probation period in her new job, the benefits discussed in her interview were moot. “Just be glad you have it.” She checked her watch again. “If she doesn’t come soon, I’m going to have to call in and say I can’t make it.”

Damn, that was the last thing she wanted to do. She really liked her new job as manager of a hip restaurant on the Riverwalk. Just her luck it was all going to fall in a heap and she’d be out of a job and then she’d have to go back to living in a hovel of an apartment with no yard for Willow.

Willow.

Why did she have to choose today of all days to go on an adventure?

Kerry rubbed her forehead, willing away the headache forming behind her eyes. “I need to go look for Willow, will you be okay, Dad?”

“I’ll be fine, love.” He reached out and squeezed her arm. “I appreciate you taking me in. I know it’s inconvenient having me live with you.”

She leaned down and bussed her dad on the cheek. “It’s not an inconvenience. Besides, where else would you go? You and Mom looked after me. It’s only fair I look after you.”

He cleared his throat. “You’re doing your mom proud, love.”

A lump formed in her throat and she pushed down the tears threatening to overflow. “I hope she will be. I miss her.”

“I miss her too.” His eyes misted and he cleared his throat. “Now go find your dog so you can make it to work.”

Another glance at her watch. The home nurse was now almost fifteen minutes late and Kerry had thirty-five minutes until she had to be at work. Hopefully, Willow hadn’t wandered too far.

After firing off another text to the home-care agency employee, she grabbed the dog’s leash from the hall table and stepped outside. Spring and summer in San Antonio had passed in a blink of an eye and still the sun beat down on her head, even though it was supposed to be fall. Maybe having the house temperature set like an ice block wasn’t a bad idea after all.

With her heart in her mouth, she looked at the road, praying she wouldn’t see Willow lying in the middle. Her breath whooshed out. All clear.

Which direction should Kerry go?

If I were a dog, where would I run?

Kerry still had no idea how the dog had escaped her backyard in the first place. There was a fence surrounding the whole property; access to the front yard was almost impossible. But dogs were wily creatures.

“Willow?” she called as she marched off down the street, her head turned to the side hoping to see her cute corgi’s face staring at her from across the road or see her little brown butt wiggling from side to side as she strutted down the sidewalk.

Nothing. Not a single furry face or wiggly butt to be seen.

She bent to peer through the bushes bordering the front of a house just down from hers. Again a blank yard greeted her. She stood and grabbed her hair, twirling it around her finger, a stress habit she couldn’t shake.

“Dammit, Willow where are you?” she muttered and turned around to head back home. Perhaps her dog would be sitting on the front porch when she got there. She pulled her phone from her pocket—had the agency responded to her text message?

Thunk.

She careened into something hard and soft, two contrasting sensations that meshed together well.

Stunned, it took her a few seconds to comprehend what she’d run in to. Kerry looked up and swallowed.

Standing before her was the sexiest man she’d seen in a long time, taller than her by about a foot. He had shaggy, dark brown hair that flopped over his forehead, covering one of his chocolate-brown eyes. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that hugged him in all the right places, he looked like he belonged in a magazine, not on the sidewalk of a quiet neighborhood in San Antonio. And, cradled in his big strong arms, was Willow, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth as she panted. A happy smile adorned her white doggy face, as though she’d found heaven and had no plans on leaving anytime soon.

Kerry couldn’t really blame her dog. Those arms looked like they could take the weight of the world in them.

“Are you planning to stand here all day, mute?” The gravelly voice from the stranger rippled down her spine like a feather floating on the breeze. It immediately conjured up images of him whispering sweet nothings in her ear.

Whoa, hold up, girl. We’re so not going there right now.

Yeah, yeah, the little voice in her head had tried to talk some sense into her on numerous occasions and she’d ignored it each time. But, heck, the stranger’s voice did suit him perfectly. It sounded like he never used it much and only when he had something important to say.

At that moment, Willow let out a little bark. “Do you happen to know whose dog this is?” he asked. “According to its collar, its name is Willow, but the number listed is disconnected.”

Crap, she totally meant to get that updated.

“Willow’s my dog. I was just looking for her.”

“Here.” He shoved Willow toward her, as if her dog stank like rotten trash, which Kerry knew wasn’t possible as she’d given Willow a bath yesterday. “Your dog is found.”

Kerry grabbed Willow before she crashed to the ground. What a jerk. Why rescue a lost dog when it was clear he can’t stand to be around one?

“Thanks for finding her.”

He grunted and swiveled, striding down the pavement toward the house next to hers, a limp marring his perfect stride. Willow let out a little whimper, as if she were sad to see her friend go.

Well, tough. Her fur baby had caused her enough stress, and if Kerry didn’t get her butt home soon, she’d be out of a job.

“Come on, you. I don’t know what you thought you were doing, but it’s time to go home. You can keep your granddaddy out of trouble. Oh, shit.”

The caregiver still hadn’t turned up. And her phone remained ominously quiet with no responses to her texts.

In the two months she’d been living here, she hadn’t had a chance to meet anyone that she could ask. Some of her dad’s friends were busy at their weekly bowling game, and it was tournament week, so all hands on deck were needed. John, his former business partner, had retired to Georgetown and it would take him almost two hours to get here. She couldn’t wait that long. Maybe she could ask Dad to call his new friend Eric and see if he could come over and sit with him for the evening.

If Eric could make it, her dad couldn’t be left alone until he arrived. As a former construction worker, sitting still was an anomaly to Dad.

She looked to her neighbor’s house then back at her own.

“Do you think he’d help out, Willow?”

Some people might think it crazy that she talked to her dog, but Willow was a therapy dog; over the months since she’d completed her training, she’d no doubt heard plenty of things.

Willow cocked her head and looked up, her brown eyes wide and her mouth seemed to stretch into a grin as she panted hot doggy breath in Kerry’s face.

She screwed her nose up. “Well, I guess that’s a yes.”

Clipping Willow’s leash around her sparkly pink collar, Kerry set her pet on the ground. There was no time to waste. She needed to knock on the door, ask the question, and pray to God he’d help her out and she’d be able to get to her job on time.

Taking a deep breath and pasting a smile on her face, she raised her fist and rapped her knuckles against the glass insert of the door. Only after she knocked did she think to check to see if he had a doorbell.

She spied the white circle nestled in a black rectangle on the doorframe.

Damn, there it was.

“Would it be rude if I pressed the doorbell after I just knocked on the door?” she asked her furry friend.

“Yes, it would.” His voice sent shivers tiptoeing down her spine, again. Man, he needed to come with a warning—loner with deep, husky voice guaranteed to set her insides on fire, at her service.

Kerry bit back a snort of laughter. Knocking on this man’s door was a complete mistake.

“Look, are you going to stand there and say nothing?”

She straightened her spine. “There’s no need to be rude about it.”

Yeah, now he’s really going to help me.

Shit, this day was going from bad to worse to nightmarish. Life would’ve been so much easier if her father hadn’t thought he was twenty again and could ski down a black diamond run.

End of Excerpt