Decker “Gumby” Kincade pulled into the veterinarian’s office and couldn’t help but smile as the woman who’d been following him as closely as she’d dared pulled into the space next to him. Her beat-up old Honda Accord had seen better days, but she didn’t seem to notice or care that it was making a weird clanking noise.
By the time he had his truck door open, she was there.
“How’d she do? Is she okay? Was she crying?” The woman barked the questions at him, not giving Gumby time to answer the first before asking the second.
Sidney Hale was quite the contradiction. Her long black hair was in disarray from the fist fight he’d interrupted. She had a black eye forming, which just seemed to bring out the blue in her eyes even more. Her lip was swollen and still bleeding a little. The T-shirt she wore was torn and she had dirt on her jeans and hands.
But she obviously didn’t care one whit about her own health; she had eyes only for the pathetic and hurt dog on the passenger-side seat of his truck.
Gumby shut the door and walked around the truck, Sidney right on his heels. “She did fine. Didn’t hear a peep from her the entire way.”
“Man, that’s amazing. She’s got to be hurting!” Sidney exclaimed. “I can’t believe that asshole abused her like that. Are you sure this is a good vet? Maybe we should take her to the one I usually use.”
Gumby ignored her as he opened the door and leaned in to gently pick up the bleeding and abused dog he’d named Hannah. Once again, the pit bull didn’t try to bite him or otherwise show any aggression whatsoever. She was shaking though. “Easy, girl,” Gumby murmured as he used his hip to shut the door of the truck.
As he walked toward the door, he looked at Sidney. “The vets here are great. Relax, Sidney.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, but because they were at the doors, she rushed ahead to open them for him. He opened his mouth to tell the receptionist that he had an emergency, but Sidney beat him to it.
“We’ve got an injured dog here. We need to see a doctor immediately!”
The receptionist stood and gestured for them to follow her. Gumby was surprised when he felt Sidney’s hand land on the small of his back, and she practically glued herself to his side as they entered the small treatment room.
“A technician will be here momentarily to get your information and triage your pet.”
“Oh, but she’s—”
“Thank you,” Gumby said, interrupting Sidney.
When the lady had left, Sidney turned to him and frowned. “Why’d you cut me off?”
“The last thing I want is for them to think Hannah is a stray, or unwanted, because she’s not.”
Sidney opened her mouth to say something else, but a technician burst into the room before she could say a word.
“I heard we have an emergency. What’s— Oh my!”
Gumby very gently placed Hannah on the raised table in the room and kept his hand on her head. “Yeah. It’s bad.”
“What happened?” the vet tech breathed.
“She was taken out of my yard,” Gumby lied. “And we think the guy who took her was training her to be a bait dog or something for illegal dogfighting. He poured something caustic on her back, and it looks like she was dragged behind a car. Maybe he was trying to condition her and get her to run, but she couldn’t keep up.”
“Poor baby,” the tech crooned, leaning over to pet Hannah.
The hackles on the back of the dog’s neck rose and she growled low in her throat.
“Hannah,” Gumby said in a low, hard tone. The dog immediately stopped and whimpered instead. “Sorry about that,” he told the technician. “She’s usually very docile, but we don’t know what was done to her between when she was taken and when we got her back just now.”
“Of course,” the woman said. “It’ll take her some time to trust again.” She handed over a couple sheets of paper to Sidney. “I’ll need you to fill those out and the doctor should be in here in a few minutes.” She turned to Hannah. “Hang on, girl. We’ll have you fixed up in a jiffy.”
The second the woman left the room, Sidney turned to Gumby and whisper-yelled, “Why’d you tell them she was stolen out of your yard? That was stupid.”
Gumby ran his hand over Hannah’s head and didn’t miss the way the dog sighed in contentment and tried to crawl closer to him.
“What should I have said? That I just met the dog thirty minutes ago when you were in a fistfight with the asshole who had abused her? That you stole her from him? You think that would’ve gotten her treated any faster?” He went on before she could answer his rhetorical questions. “No. They would’ve wanted to know more details, and when we admitted that we know nothing about Hannah’s history, they might’ve been reluctant to treat her at all. This way, she’ll get the medical care she needs as soon as possible. Besides, I’m keeping her.”
Gumby had been thinking about getting a dog for a while now. Ever since he’d almost died in Bahrain on his last mission. He’d always regretted not having one, and Hannah seemed to have been dropped in his lap. It was a sign—and Gumby was a big believer in them.
“We should go through the coordinator at the local rescue group I work with. I was going to bring her there. They get medical attention for the dogs that need it, and they do extensive background checks on potential adopters,” Sidney told him.
“You do this a lot?” he asked.
“Track down people you think are up to no good on social media? Then spy on them and, when they cross the line, take on men twice your size in order to rescue the animals they’re abusing?”
Without blinking, Sidney said, “Yes.”
It was Gumby’s turn to be surprised. “Seriously?”
She nodded. “The animals are innocent. They didn’t ask to be thrown into a pit to fight another dog. Or to be starved. Or to be chained up in a backyard for their entire lives. I’ll take on whoever I have to in order to save a helpless, innocent animal.”
“You ever gotten in trouble because of it?”
She grinned. “You mean do the low-life, abusive bastards turn me in? No. They’re all too busy trying to protect themselves and stay under the radar of the cops to file complaints against me.”
Gumby thought she looked a little too pleased with herself. But there was something in her eyes as she explained how she championed animals—guilt. And now he wanted to know why. Wanted to know her story.
His attention was diverted when the veterinarian entered the room. She was all business, and the next ten minutes were taken up with her examining poor Hannah and getting as much information as she could from Gumby…which wasn’t much. He told her to do a full blood panel on Hannah, as he wasn’t sure what had been done to her since she’d been taken. He wasn’t proud of his lies, but if they helped get Hannah the care she needed and deserved, so be it.
The vet agreed that it looked like some sort of acid had been poured onto her back and that she’d been dragged. The dog had no toenails left and the pads of her feet had been worn off. It was the vet’s opinion that her back looked worse than it probably was. She didn’t think the hair would grow back, but she thought the wound should heal up pretty well.
When they went to take Hannah to the back to treat her, however, the mild-mannered dog disappeared, and she began growling at the vet and her assistant.
Stepping back, the vet said, “Maybe you should come back with us. Just until we manage to get her sedated.”
“Sedated?” Gumby asked.
“Yeah. Cleaning these wounds is gonna hurt, and I’d rather not harm her any more than I have to.”
Gumby immediately nodded. “Right. Okay, we can come with you.”
“I think just you,” the vet said, giving her assistant a look Gumby couldn’t interpret. “Your…friend can stay and fill out the paperwork.”
“That okay, Sid?” Gumby asked, the nickname just coming out naturally.
Sidney nodded. “Of course.”
“You think she’ll let you pick her up again?” the vet asked.
“Only one way to see.” Gumby leaned down and whispered to Hannah, “What do ya say? These nice people are gonna get you all fixed up. Let’s not growl at them, okay?”
In response, Hannah lifted her head and licked Gumby’s face with a loud slurp.
“Guess that means she’s okay with it.” And with that, Gumby once again picked up the large dog and followed the vet into the back area of the animal hospital.
Thirty minutes later, he went back out to the lobby and made a beeline for Sidney. Gumby was somewhat surprised she was still there. A part of him figured she’d bolt the second she was reassured the dog would be taken care of.
He couldn’t help but feel a pang of…something…when he saw her waiting for him. It had been a long time since he’d had anyone at his side when he’d had to deal with an emergency. Granted, he wouldn’t even be dealing with this particular emergency if he hadn’t found her fighting on the side of the road, but still.
“Hey,” he said softly as he came up beside her and took a seat.
“Hey,” she returned, and immediately handed over the clipboard with a piece of paper affixed to it. “I don’t know your information.”
Gumby stared down at the paper. She’d filled in the information she knew about Hannah, but the top part, where his address and phone number should go, was blank. He couldn’t help but notice that her handwriting was beautiful. Neat and precise, nothing like his own.
As he turned his attention to completing the form, she said, “The vet tech asked if I was okay the second you were out of the room.”
He looked at her. “What?”
“She wanted to know if I was safe, if I felt uneasy or threatened.”
Gumby’s fingers tightened on the pen he was holding. “She thought I hurt you?”
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said with a small laugh. “My lip is bleeding, my shirt is torn, and you’re one hell of a big guy.”
“I would never hurt you,” Gumby said in a low, intense voice. He looked her in the eye. “I don’t hurt women, children, or animals.”
The smile left her face and she stared back at him just as intently. “But you do hurt men?”
He shrugged. “If they deserve it. Yes.”
Surprised that she didn’t ask for an in-depth explanation of what he meant, she only nodded and said, “I told her that we had to chase the guy who took Hannah. That I fell when I was running and busted my lip, and my shirt tore when we had to climb a fence. I don’t think she bought it, but there wasn’t much she could do if I said I was fine and that you hadn’t hurt me.”
Gumby brought his hand up to her face and gently ran his thumb over her bottom lip, where it had split in her earlier fight. “Are you really okay?”
“I’m okay,” she whispered.
“Decker Kincade?” a loud voice asked from behind them, startling both Gumby and Sidney.
“Here,” he said, turning to look at the receptionist who’d called his name.
“Just making sure you hadn’t left,” the woman said with a sheepish smile. “Take your time with those forms.”
Gumby nodded and turned back to Sidney. “I’m about done here. I appreciate your help today.”
“That’s my line,” she returned.
“You gonna give me your phone number so I can keep you updated on Hannah’s recovery?” he asked.
She blinked, then retorted, “I think you have it backward. I think you should give me your number so I can keep you updated on her recovery.”
“If you wanted my number, all you had to do was ask, Sid,” Gumby teased.
She didn’t smile. “I’m serious, Decker.”
The grin slid off his face. “Hannah is mine,” he told her quietly.
“That makes no sense,” Sidney argued. “You can’t tell me you had any intention of getting a dog before you found me. You can’t make a decision like this at the drop of a hat.”
“Come on,” he said, standing, grabbing hold of her hand with one of his and pulling her to her feet.
“Decker! What are you—”
“Here are the forms,” Gumby told the receptionist as he handed her the clipboard. “I still need to fill out my personal info, but I’ll be right back to complete them.” And with that, he towed Sidney out the doors and toward his truck.
Somewhat surprised when she didn’t fight him, he stopped next to his truck. After he let go of her hand, Sidney crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. Except, since she was only around five-two, it wasn’t very effective if she was trying to intimidate him.
“I had every intention of getting a dog,” he informed her, easily picking up where their conversation had stopped in the waiting area. “I own my own house, so I don’t have to worry about any bullshit restrictions when it comes to what kind of dog I can have. I have a good job and I make plenty of money, so I can afford to feed her and make sure she stays healthy. I’m a good guy, Sidney. Why are you so opposed to me adopting her?”
He watched as the bravado slipped away and she sighed. Her arms dropped and her shoulders slumped. “I don’t know you. I just met you a little bit ago. This isn’t how adoptions work.”
“Look at me.” When her eyes met his, he said, “I’m gonna take good care of Hannah. She’s gonna be spoiled rotten. I’ll make a donation to the rescue group if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“It’s not the money,” she protested. “We do background checks. Make sure adopters are the right fit for a pit bull.”
“So do your background check,” Gumby told her, confident she wouldn’t find anything that would make her or anyone else at the rescue group feel like he wouldn’t be a good dog parent.
“Really?” she asked.
She gave him a skeptical look. “Most people don’t like it when we tell them about the background check.”
“I’m not most people,” Gumby said, leaning toward Sidney as he said it.
Neither moved. Their faces were very close, and all he’d have to do is lean down a little bit more and he could take her lips with his own.
The thought was startling. He hadn’t been interested in a woman in months. No, at least a year and a half…
Had it really been that long? Gumby tried to remember the last woman he’d gone out with…and couldn’t.
But this battered, prickly, and confusing woman made him yearn for something he wasn’t sure he could handle. With his job, he hadn’t had the best luck when it came to women. His teammate, Rocco, might’ve found a woman who could deal with the fact he was a Navy SEAL, but it wasn’t an easy thing. He was gone a lot, his job was dangerous, and he couldn’t exactly tell a girlfriend or wife where he was going or even when he’d be back.
It would be hard enough to have a dog. A woman would complicate his life way more than a pet.
So why couldn’t he stop thinking about how Sidney Hale would taste? How easy it would be to lean down and cover her lips with his own? How she would look sitting in a chair on his back deck, watching the sunset over the ocean as they drank a glass of wine and watched Hannah frolicking in the sand nearby?
It was crazy.
But one thing Gumby had learned from being on the team was that he had to be flexible and go with the flow. Hell, it was one of the reasons he’d gotten his nickname. He’d always been that way. Never got ruffled with the curve balls life threw his way.
The team had also started calling him Gumby because one day, when they were in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, he’d been the only one of the six who’d been able to contort his limbs in order to break loose from his bindings.
“Now, will you please give me your number?” he asked.
“So you can let me know how Hannah’s doing?” she asked.
Her brow lifted.
“And so I can call you and ask you out.”
She blinked. “Well, that’s forward.”
“Let me guess, women never turn you down and fall at your feet,” she said, sounding exasperated.
“Actually,” Gumby told her, stepping back, giving her space, “I haven’t asked a woman out in longer than I can remember. I haven’t been interested in anyone…until now.”
The second the question was out there, Gumby could tell Sidney wanted to take it back.
“Why you?” Gumby asked. “Because it’s been a long time since a woman has impressed the hell out of me. I thought I was saving you from a beating, when in reality, you were doing just fine without me. The last thing I expected was for the fight to be over a dog. I’m fascinated by you. I want to know more.”
She didn’t say anything else, and Gumby frowned. Shit, she wasn’t interested. He’d made a fool out of himself.
“Sorry,” he said softly. “It’s obviously been so long since I’ve done this that I’m losing my touch. I wasn’t kidding about letting you do that background check though. I’m happy to do whatever adopters usually do so I can officially make Hannah mine.”
Sidney put her hand on his forearm, and the skin-on-skin contact was oddly electrifying. She removed her hand almost as soon as she’d touched him, as if she felt the arc of connection between them just as he did. “I wouldn’t mind if you called me,” she said, then bit her lip. “I just…I’m not sure we’re in the same league.”
Gumby frowned again. “I don’t think I want to know what you mean by that.”
“I mean that you have your own house. That’s impressive in California because real estate isn’t cheap. And I live in a trailer that’s seen better days. I don’t have a college degree, and I only work for the trailer park on a part-time basis. You look like the kind of guy who has a perfect family, a perfect house, a kick-ass job, and you were probably voted most likely to succeed in your senior year of high school.”
“Most likely to turn up dead before his twenty-first birthday, actually,” Gumby told her.
It was Sidney’s turn to frown.
“I don’t give a shit where you live or that you haven’t been to college. I know a lot of assholes who have a university degree who didn’t learn a damn thing while they were there. I have never judged anyone by where they live, what job they do, or anything other than the kind of person they are. And from what I’ve seen in the time I’ve known you, I have nothing to fear from that quarter. If you just don’t want to get to know me, fine, I’m not going to freak out or turn into some obsessed, scorned suiter. Just tell me. Don’t make excuses.”
Sidney stared at him a long moment before reaching behind her and taking out her phone. “Number?” she asked quietly.
Inwardly sighing in relief, Gumby gave it to her. He felt his phone vibrate in his own pocket, but didn’t bother to take it out. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll call you as soon as I hear from the vet later on today. She told me that Hannah would probably need to stay here for a bit, until the worst of her wounds heal. Then I can take her home.”
“And, even though it might hurt my chances with you and your rescue organization, I have to admit that I don’t know a hell of a lot about dogs. Will you help me?”
“You’re really serious about keeping her?”
“Then I’ll help you.”
“Thank you.” He turned to look back at the building before returning his gaze to hers. “Now I have to go in there and convince them I’m not beating you and that I’m perfectly harmless.”
Sidney smiled. “I did see one or two employees peek out the window, probably making sure you weren’t smacking me around out here.”
Gumby’s lips didn’t even twitch. “Not funny.”
Sidney rolled her eyes. “I need to get home and clean up anyway. I’m sure my boss has a list a mile long of things I need to work on this afternoon.”
Gumby nodded and reached up toward her face. She didn’t flinch away, not that she could go far with her back up against his truck. He gently brushed his thumb against the black mark forming under her eye. “Get some ice on that to try to stop some of the bruising.”
Forcing himself to step away from her, Gumby backed toward the building. “Drive safe.”
Then he turned and quickly strode for the doors to the veterinarian’s office once more. With one hand on the door handle, he turned and watched as Sidney pulled out of the parking lot and merged into traffic.
Feeling as if his life had just made a one-eighty, Gumby couldn’t stop himself from smiling as he made his way back inside to arrange payment and to make sure his information was on file for later.
Sidney might not think they were in the same league, and she’d be right. Gumby had a feeling she was so far above him it wasn’t even funny. But he wasn’t going to let her get away without a fight. It had been so long since he’d felt even the smallest desire to get to know a woman the way he wanted to know Sidney. She’d surprised and impressed him, and that was damn hard to do.
Just wait until he told his teammates that he’d gone from the quintessential bachelor to being a doggy dad—and maybe even being officially off the market—over his lunch break.
For Sidney Hale, rescuing dogs is more than a hobby. It’s a calling. A deep-seated need. An unstoppable compulsion. For reasons so unsettling, she shares them with no one…until she meets Decker. After coming to her rescue while Sidney battled to save a dog—literally—the gorgeous SEAL proves he can be trusted with her secrets, her safety…maybe even her heart.
Saving an abused pit bull from a suspected dog fighter brings Decker “Gumby” Kincade not only the dog he’s always wanted, but the first woman in ages to catch his interest. Sidney’s reason for rescuing Hannah, and animals like her, is shocking…but it makes Gumby want her even more. Her harrowing past has made her the strong, brave, compassionate woman she is today. She could be The One…if Gumby can help curb her habit of putting herself squarely in danger’s path.
But he may be too late. Hannah’s previous owner is enraged over her loss…and looking for revenge.
** Securing Sidney is the 2nd book in the SEAL of Protection: Legacy Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
** This story examines the stark reality of dogfighting and other animal abuse, and includes brief descriptions that may be unpleasant for some readers.
New York Times Bestselling Author
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