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“I’m gonna get your honey,” he taunted the dog in a growly voice.

Einstein wheeled around and put himself between Daniel and Kevin’s advance. The hackles rose at least six inches off the top of his shoulders, and a menacing snarl slid from between his suddenly exposed fangs. The demon dog she’d first met was back.

Kevin feinted to the right, and Einstein blocked him. He dove left toward Daniel and the dog launched himself at his master, taking him down with a solid-sounding thud. In the same second, Einstein had his jaws wrapped around Kevin’s neck. It would have been a frightening picture if it weren’t for the smile on Kevin’s face.

“Good boy! Smart boy!”

“Kill! Kill!” Alex whispered under her breath.

Einstein released and jumped back, tail wagging again. He pranced a few steps back and forward, ready to play another game.

“Okay, Khan, your turn.”

Once again, Kevin identified Daniel as the Great Dane’s honey and then made as if to attack. Einstein stayed with Khan; supervising, Alex imagined. The big dog simply shoved one massive paw against Kevin’s chest as he attacked and toppled him backward. Khan used the same paw to pin him to the ground while Einstein moved in for the jugular.

“Kill!” she said again, louder.

Kevin heard this time and shot her a look that clearly said: If I weren’t in the middle of teaching these dogs something very important, I would have them tear you to shreds.

Khan sat out the next round, while Einstein supervised again. The barrel-chested Rottweiler took Kevin down even harder than Einstein had. She heard the breath crush out of his chest; that had to hurt. She smiled.

“Do you mind if I ask what all that was about?” Daniel asked as Kevin heaved himself to his feet and started brushing the dirt off his dark jeans and black T-shirt.

“It’s a command behavior I created for personal-protection dogs. These three dogs will guard you with their lives from here on out. They’ll also probably be under your feet a lot.”

“Why honey?”

“It’s just a word. But, to be honest, I was mostly picturing it being used for women and children…”

“Thanks,” Daniel retorted.

“Oh, relax. You know I don’t mean it that way. Think of a better command and we’ll use it with the next generation.”

There was an awkward pause. Kevin looked at the car, then back to his brother.

“Look, you’re safe here. But stay close to the dogs anyway. And the poison lady. She’s tough. Just don’t eat anything she tries to feed you.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“If anything happens, give Einstein this command.” He held out a little piece of paper, about the size of a business card. Daniel took it and stuck it in his pocket without looking at it. Alex thought it was odd that Kevin wouldn’t say it out loud. Or maybe he just wrote it down because he didn’t trust Daniel’s memory.

Kevin looked now as if a hug was actually on his mind, despite what she’d imagined before, but then Daniel’s posture stiffened slightly, and Kevin turned away. He kept talking as he walked to the sedan.

“We’ll talk more when I get back. Keep the phone on you. I’ll call when things are set.”

“Be careful.”

“Wilco.”

Kevin got in the car and revved the engine. He put his right hand on the back of the passenger headrest and watched out the rear window as he maneuvered the car to face the road. He didn’t look at his brother again. Then the red taillights were fading into the distance.

A weight seemed to lift off Alex’s chest with his leaving.

Daniel watched the car for a minute, the loyal three all sitting close to his feet. Then he turned and walked thoughtfully up the porch steps. The dogs moved with him. Kevin hadn’t been kidding about them staying underfoot. Daniel was lucky Khan kept to the rear or he wouldn’t have been able to see where he was going.

He stopped next to Alex and turned to face the same way she did, both of them staring out into the featureless black night. The dogs arranged themselves around their feet. Lola got muscled out by the Rottweiler and whined once in protest. Daniel gripped the porch railing in both hands, holding tight like he was expecting a shift in gravity.

“Is it bad that I’m relieved he’s gone?” Daniel asked. “He’s just… a lot, you know? I can’t process everything with him always talking.”

His right hand relaxed its hold, then moved to rest on the small of her back in an almost automatic manner, like he hadn’t consciously decided to place it there.

The way he was always touching her reminded Alex of the experiments she and Barnaby had done years back with sensory deprivation tanks. It was an effective means of getting someone to talk without leaving any marks, but on the whole, it took too much time to be the best option.

Anyone who went into the tank, though, no matter his level of resistance, had the same reaction when he was let out: he craved physical contact like a drug fix. She thought of one memorable experience with an army corporal – a volunteer they worked with in the initial testing phase – and the very long and somewhat inappropriate hug she’d received upon his exit. They’d had to have security peel him off her.

Daniel must feel a lot like that soldier. For days he’d been completely out of touch with anything he considered to be normal life. He would need the reassurance that another warm, breathing human being was there next to him.

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