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“That’s a lot of quills, and some are in her mouth.” Hannah stroked the dog’s head. “She needs a vet.”

Brody whipped his cell phone from his jacket pocket. “I’ll call mine.”

“I doubt they’ll be open.” Hannah glanced at the clock. “It’s two in the morning. Is there a twenty-four-hour veterinary clinic nearby?”

“Dr. Albert will pick up,” Brody said. The vet’s groggy voice answered the call on the third ring. Brody explained the situation and disconnected in less than a minute. “He’ll open his office for us. Let’s get her in the car.”

They wrapped the dog in a beach towel and put her in the backseat of Brody’s vehicle. Hannah sat with the dog to keep her from pawing at the quills. “I know it hurts. It’ll be OK.”

Brody drove into town. Rain glittered on the blacktop. He kept one eye on the rearview mirror and listened to Hannah croon to the dog. The tough hotshot lawyer turned into a marshmallow when kids and animals were in need.

Ten minutes later, Brody turned into the parking area. The vet’s office was in a small building next to his house. Light glowed in the clinic windows.

Dr. Albert opened the door. He’d pulled his lab coat on over flannel pajamas and boots. His white hair tufted out from the sides of his head. “Bring her in here.” He gestured toward a lighted exam room. A tray of instruments, including a set of pliers, was laid out on the counter.

Brody introduced Hannah to the old vet as he picked up the big dog and hefted her onto the stainless steel table.

The vet set a pair of black-rimmed glasses on his nose and frowned. “I’m going to give her some anesthesia.” He patted the dog on the side, shaved a patch of fur on one foreleg, and set up a butterfly catheter. With a syringe, he pushed some medication into the line. The dog’s breathing eased, and her body went quiet on the table. For the next thirty minutes, the vet pulled quills out of the dog’s muzzle with pliers.

“Does anyone see any more?” He moved the overhead light and lifted AnnaBelle’s lips to inspect her mouth.

“I don’t,” Brody said.

Hannah shook her head.

“Then I’m going to give her a shot of antibiotics.” He filled a syringe and injected the retriever’s flank.

The dog stirred. Minutes later, her eyes opened, and she gave them a feeble wag.

“You can take her home. She’ll probably be tired tomorrow, and you might need to give her soft food for a day or two, but she should be fine. Don’t worry. She’s not my first patient who thought chasing a porcupine looked like fun.”

“Thank you.” Hannah reached into the slim purse that hung from her shoulder.

The vet waved her off. “I’ll send you a bill.”

Brody carried the dog back outside. The rain had picked up, falling from the sky in a curtain.

“Good night.” With a wave, the vet jogged across the gravel parking area and disappeared into his one-story house.

Rain hit Brody’s head, and the cold was a slap to his still-damp body. He shuddered hard, a wave of exhaustion sliding over him. Hannah opened the SUV door so he could put the dog inside. Rubbing her biceps, she huddled on the leather seat.

“You know your vet well enough to call him in the middle of the night?” Her voice quivered. A shiver shook her body.

Brody cranked up the heat in the car and directed the vents at Hannah. “My cat is a hundred years old.”

She raised a brow and tilted her head. “You’re a cat person? I thought men preferred dogs.”

“The cat came with the house. I’m not home enough to have a dog, but I like them both.” Brody turned the car toward Grant’s house. “You’re pretty good in the woods at night for a lawyer.”

“I told you. My childhood wasn’t typical.”

“Because your father was disabled?”

“That was part of it.” Hannah glanced in the back. Seemingly satisfied that the dog was fine, she settled down and raised her hands to the heat vents. “Even after he became a colonel, my father was an army ranger in his heart. After the explosion, he decided that if he couldn’t be a ranger anymore, it was his job to pass along all his skills to his sons.”

“Just his sons?”

“I had to beg to go along on all the survival training weekends.” Her face turned toward the passenger window.

“Survival training?” Brody prodded. “That sounds serious.”

“The Colonel didn’t do anything halfway. I remember one particularly bad trip when we lost Lee.”

Chapter Sixteen

Hannah dropped her backpack in the foyer. “I’m ready.”

The Colonel gave her a quizzical look. “Are you sure you want to come?”

“Yes.” Hannah dropped to one knee to lace her hiking boot.

Her father spun his wheelchair to face her. “This is not going to be a leisurely camping trip.”

She wasn’t slouching, but the Colonel’s scrutiny made her feel as if she were.

“I know.” She stretched her head toward the ceiling. In school, she didn’t advertise her height. At twelve, being taller than most of the boys in your class wasn’t an asset, but the Colonel valued size, strength, and intelligence.

“Wouldn’t you rather stay home and bake with your mother?” the Colonel asked. “She really enjoys doing that with you.”

Hannah flinched. “No.”

The Colonel didn’t understand why his daughter would want to traipse around the woods with the boys. The Colonel didn’t understand her.

“The boys aren’t going to slow down for you,” he said, maneuvering to inspect her pack. “And the weather isn’t on your side. It’s going to be cold and rainy.”

“Yes, sir.” Hannah lifted her chin.

“Women don’t belong in the field.” The Colonel had never been shy about voicing his opinion on women in combat. “You know I don’t believe in all that politically correct bullshit.”

“I do,” Hannah said. And so did everyone else. She had to fight for inclusion. Every. Single. Time.

He sighed and shook his head. “You can go.”

Why did he not see that she consistently kept pace with his sons, and in some areas, outperformed them? Because he didn’t want to admit his beliefs were outdated and maybe even wrong. The Colonel was old-school military.

Even though Grant was physically superior in every way, Hannah was the marksman. Mac never got lost. He had a wolf’s sense of direction. Sometimes she swore he smelled his way through the forest. Lee was the one the other three would have to carry for the next forty-eight hours, and they all knew it. They didn’t mind, though. It wasn’t his fault.

“Hannah won’t hold us up.” The oldest of the Barrett siblings, Grant, stepped up next to her. Six-three, well-muscled, and still growing, he shifted until he was shoulder to shoulder with Hannah. His sheer bulk filled her with confidence and simultaneously intimidated her. On one hand, she knew Grant would see them safely through the weekend. He always did. On the other, how could she ever compete with the likes of him? He was perfect in the Colonel’s eyes. Top of his class at the military academy and athletic, he was the boy his classmates turned to for leadership. Even at the age of seventeen, Grant was clearly senior officer material. But then, he’d been raised to continue the Colonel’s military tradition.

The Colonel turned away from her. “Grant, I’m counting on you to ensure nothing happens to my girl.”

“Yes, sir,” Grant said. No one argued with the Colonel, but the four Barrett siblings all knew it wouldn’t be Hannah who needed help.

With a shrug, the Colonel addressed his second son. “Lee, are you ready?”

“Yes, sir.” Lee pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. At fifteen, he was still waiting on a growth spurt, but it was already evident he wouldn’t attain Grant’s size or strength. Lee would rather hole up with a book than spend the weekend training in outdoor survival drills.

“Lee, I know you don’t enjoy these weekends, but every man needs to know how to protect himself and his family,” the Colonel said. “Someday you’ll thank me.”

“Yes, sir,” Lee answered automatically, but he didn’t sound convinced.

“Do you mind if your sister goes along?”

“No, sir,” Lee said. “She’s better in the woods than I am.”

The Colonel ignored Lee’s statement, but Hannah’s heart warmed at her brother’s praise. Grant spent most of the year away at boarding school, and Mac favored the forest over human companionship. Lee and Hannah shared a love for learning. Secretly, Hannah preferred books over hiking and camping, too, but she’d never admit that. Not to the Colonel. Today, with light rain beading on the windows, staying home for the weekend sounded tempting. But bowing out might get her labeled a fair-weather soldier. She could be excluded from future weekends. Most of the time the Colonel spent with his children was focused on survival training, shooting, and self-defense, as he sought to pass along all the skills he’d accumulated as an army ranger. It was as if, after that roadside bomb in Operation Desert Storm robbed him of the use of his legs, he was living through his sons, particularly Grant.

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