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His rescue instincts are top notch. But fighting Mother Nature might be tough, even for him . . .
Dr. Tara Alvarez has spent so much time in her lab that she almost forgets how to interact with humans. But all her sacrifices will be worth it when her experiments succeed, and she's able to help save the world. Hopefully, an impending hurricane, a dangerous misunderstanding, and the heroic arrival of her childhood crush won't drag her too far off track . . .
Ex-Navy SEAL Austin Mace has executed countless missions with his K9 partner, Diesel. But nothing in his training prepared him for rescuing Tara—his best friend's little sister—or the protective, possessive feelings she stirs in him. Now all he has to do is figure out how to get her to safety before the hurricane destroys everything in its path . . . including them . . .
Is happily ever after possible in the eye of a storm?
Contains mature themes.
Release date: October 10, 2022
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Behind the book
The World of Iniquus
Ubicumque, Quoties. Quidquid
Iniquus - /iˈni/kwus/- our strength is unequaled, our tactics unfair – we stretch the law to its breaking point. We do whatever is necessary to bring the enemy down.
Tara Alvarez blinked against the velveteen darkness.
Tucked in the back corner of the house she was renting on the Caribbean Island of Dominica; her bedroom was soft. The edges of her furnishings hadn’t yet sharpened into focus.
Holding her breath, Tara stilled to absorb the shockingly silent moment of pre-dawn.
It was the elusive time when the nocturnal buzzing and clicking suddenly stopped as the night animals curled into sleep, hiding away from the dangers of the encroaching morning light.
The birds—heads tucked up under their wings with their feathers fluffed for warmth—had not yet shaken off the dew to tweet and chirp, rousing their fellow rainforest dayworkers.
A thin-lined demarcation. A sound horizon.
There and gone again in the space between an inhale and an exhale.
Like watching a humpback whale breaching the ocean in the mist, if Tara happened to be awake and aware enough to catch that moment, it was magical.
Today was going to be a good day, she told herself, in the thickness of her half-awake thoughts.
Today, something amazing was going to happen.
She felt her fingers cross as she squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to propel that idea into reality.
It was a reflexive thought and action she’d performed since childhood. And now, all grown up, this was the way that Tara transitioned from night—when anything could happen in her dreams—to day, when she had to be an adult.
The sun wasn’t awake yet, Tara told herself, and she shouldn’t be either.
Lately, sleep was harder to catch hold of. Harder to cling to. When Tara did grasp some transient ZZZs, come morning, her time in bed often left her stiff-muscled and drained.
Tara desperately needed some sleep to catch up on the exhaustion of trying to sleep.
Punching her pillow and nestling her head back against the cool cotton, Tara hoped for…ten more minutes? Fifteen, maybe?
Nope, not gonna happen.
She rose up through the layers of sleep past her childhood optimism into adulthood.
The tingle of existential dread, Tara’s every-morning snooze alarm, jangled her nerves, radiated heat out from her stomach along her limbs to buzz her fingers and toes wildly.
It sure would be nice if she could take a day off from that sensation just every now and again.
Weirdly, this morning Tara’s first thought—just before she caught the enchanted moment of stillness—was about a mountain chicken she had seen the day before.
Mountain chickens were actually an endangered frog species here in Dominica and not a bird at all.
So foul, not fowl.
Tara guessed that they were nicknamed “mountain chickens” because they had big meaty thighs. And people who ate frog thought they were delicious. Sort of like chicken wings at a tailgate party, only a terrible culinary choice for species survival.
“Delicious,” Tara whispered. She disliked the sound of that word the way some people disliked the word “moist.”
Mountain chickens were both moist and delicious, she mused through her pre-caffeinated brain fog. So, blech, people should just leave them alone.
Tara threw her sheet back and lay there in a t-shirt and grey striped cotton panties, letting the ceiling fan brush air gently over her heated system.
Tara was now remembering that in her quasi dream—the thing that roused her to catch the magic moment of silence—the frog she had seen on the trail. Though in her dream it was in car-sized frog form. It had looked her in the eye and croaked, “The chickens have come home to roost.”
It was terrifyingly Alfred Hitchcockesque.
What did that even mean: “The chickens have come home to roost”?
Something about karma…some action or inaction reflecting back.
Tara swung out of the bed to go pee, feeling her way through the room without turning on the lights.
Chickens coming home to roost could be a good thing.
After all, Tara tried to be a good person. An imperfect person, sure. Room to grow. Ways to be better. But for the most part, she lived a reasonable life with a smile on her face, a kind word on her lips, a helping hand.
Chickens roosting might be okay.
Lifting the lid, Tara slid her panties down her thighs, and plopped onto the toilet.
Tara pushed the mountain chicken out of her thoughts to replace it with, “The early bird catches the worm.” Yeah, she preferred that to chicken thoughts. Not only was the phrase proactive and inspiring—up and at ‘em! —it also made a heck of a lot more sense.
Right now, worms were what Tara did for a living.
Tara was a glorified worm hunter.
And she loved to tell people that, just to see the bemused, lost expressions that followed.
“Worm hunter. Such a glamorous existence,” she muttered.
Yup, ten years of university and the attainment of a doctorate degree to do the exact same thing she did as a five-year-old in her mother’s back yard, dig worms.
Tara dragged a length of paper from the roll and tore off the section, wondering if other people talked out loud to themselves like this.
Granted, she was the only human being around. She only saw people on her once-a-week trip down the mountain.
She liked it.
Left to her own thoughts, things could get dark.
With a flush and a hand wash, Tara headed back to her room and climbed onto her bed. Leaning over the table, she clicked on the little bedside lamp with a fifteen-watt bulb that eased her into her day.
While Tara might be alone in talking to herself out loud, she certainly wasn’t the only one in her research cohort who fought off existential dread.
Tara was part of a government-funded research program headed by Dr. Guha.
Find innovative, out-of-the-box ways to deal with climate changes. The diverse group that Dr. Guha had put together all read the same scientific journals. They all had their finger on the same data points. All knew the truth those numbers told.
Existential dread was pervasive in their group.
Afraid of the scientists’ burnout rate and having had one of her researchers commit suicide, Guha hired a therapist, Dr. Masami, to try to calm everyone’s nerves.
“Do you feel your job makes you prone to anxiety?” Masami had asked Tara.
“Pretty much, yeah.” Tara had shrugged.
The first piece of advice Masami handed out to their team was narrow their focus to a single issue. “Don’t take on all of the world’s problems. Narrow things down as much as possible.”
The problem Tara was focused on was polystyrene foam, the ubiquitous packaging used for disposable hot coffee cups and take-out menu orders.
While plastic accumulation already got a lot of attention and funding, polystyrene foam? Not so much.
It accumulated in the landfills where it would hangout for like five hundred years, an ever-growing mountain of disposed foam.
In the lab, Tara had discovered that the chemical components in the foam were the same, in large part, as the root of the doubloon plant—a plant that was only found in one place in the world. Here in Dominica.
Rare and endangered, Tara had to apply for special permission to work around the plants.
“What did this have to do with worms?” people would ask.
The doubloon root was eaten, digested, and turned to fertile soil by a unique species of worm. This worm, thankfully, could also devour other plants and was not on any endangered species list. It made collecting them for study less fraught. And since Tara was removing the worms that would kill off the endangered doubloon, Tara was, in fact, helping to save the species.
Tara had done some initial studies in the lab, feeding the worms polystyrene. On a petri dish-sized scale, there was demonstrable success.
That success was interesting enough to gain funding from the U.S. government and to get the required Dominican permits.
Tara’s thoughts about the worms? What if she could isolate the digestive process, the chemicals that could break down polystyrene foam, and she could create a synthetic?
What if the foam could be melted away? Or the biproduct could be used for something else? Something useful, like fertilizer.
The goal was to find a way to make the worms’ digestion process scalable and useful.
Yes, everyone who heard Tara say that her job was to “hunt for worms that could digest coffee cups” stilled and stared, not quite sure what to do with that information.
A bizzarro way to live one’s life? Tara got that it might sound that way.
But instead of sitting in a cubicle punching numbers into a calculator, people paid her to hang out on a Caribbean Island and play in the dirt.
Hunting worms, sure.
Worm hunting was kind of glamorous. In its own way.
And with those words, a wave of dread flooded her system. Weirdly more so than usual. Tara’s mom would say this was a premonition, and that Tara should pay close attention.
But Tara was not her mother.
She didn’t believe in premonitions.
Tara pulled her feet in to sit cross-legged with her pillows supporting her back. She dragged her journal onto her lap, the point of her pen landed on a blank sheet.
Masami, their stay-sane guru, said, “Start each day writing down—don’t just think them, it’s the writing down that makes the difference—three things that you’re grateful for. Specific things that happened in the last twenty-four hours and the ‘why’.” Masami said this trained the brain to look for good when the data being written up in the scientific journals was all bleak.
- I am grateful that when I was at the waterfall, I discovered tiny diamonds glinting in the sunlight. I was filled with awe and peace.
- I am grateful that there was a cool breeze last night that kept the bugs away, and I slept deeply until I didn’t.
Maybe I shouldn’t write that last part. Does it nibble away at the gratitude?
- I am grateful that even if my ex is now dating my best friend, Pria—and I will have to see them together tomorrow— I can truthfully say I am happy I’m out of that relationship with Neils and have forgiven myself for being blind and involved with him for so long. Best wishes to both of them.
Truthfully, this list wasn’t coming off as gratitude.
Chewing the end of her pen, Tara thought about that last entry—Neils and Pria.
Tara let herself wiggle around in the sensation.
Nope. No tenderness there. Just relief.
She looked over her gratitude list. Tara should probably be writing something about riotous colors—the lemon-yellow butterflies landing on deep purple flowers or the cotton candy clouds of last night’s sunset—but she just wasn’t feeling it today.
“This is going to have to do.”
There were two more steps to Masami’s prescribed morning ritual.
Next up, a ten-minute guided meditation where Tara was supposed to follow her breathing, releasing other thoughts, centering in the moment.
Tara tried to grab hold of that childhood cross-fingered ritual as her focal point for her meditation. But that place of optimism seemed as ephemeral as the transitory moment of silence she’d happened upon that morning.
After a few minutes, Tara gave up on meditative breathwork.
Whatever was going on with her and the nightmare warning from the mountain chicken, trying to follow the breath was making her hyperventilate.
And no one needed to start their day sucking air out of a paper bag.
Did she even own a paper bag? Tara wondered as she started the last component of her required morning ritual, meditation cards.
Masami had told the team to pick decks of cards that called to them. The purpose was to give them a different perspective of how to look at that day. Something that would encourage the scientists to consider different points of view—something new to consider so that they didn’t fall into “ruts and bad thought habits.”
Tara wasn’t really into meditation cards. She’d asked her mom what deck to get. And a mom package had arrived with three decks.
Yeah, she’d told her mom one. Whatever. That was fine. Tara would use all three assigning a specific task to each deck.
The first deck, Tara dedicated to the idea of easing her through her existential dread. Though, that wasn’t how she defined it in her personal session with Masami. Tara told Masami that this was her outward-facing deck, the one that would give her food for thought about how she, Tara, would interact with the world.
The card she pulled from that deck today was Treasure Chest. Tara grinned as she noted it in her journal: Today, I found the Treasure Chest. Yay me!
This was apt.
The doubloon plant that Tara looked for on the mountain was so nicknamed because of its round, yellow-orange leaves and brown veins that looked like the design on ancient coins. That’s why Tara nicknamed the worms she collected “Gold”. To her they were as precious as gold.
And it amused her.
Every Friday, Tara went down to the town to mail her weekly gold, in a box filled with coconut coir, back to her lab. She had a running joke with the mail guy that she was sending off her treasure chest.
Today was Friday.
Fridays were good days. While down by the shore, Tara had a restaurant meal, window shopped, and handed in her mandated paperwork to the Dominican government. She’d sit under a tree where she could pick up internet and cell reception. There, as she breathed in the salty thickness of the sea air, she caught up on her correspondence. Most importantly—according to her mother—Tara called home to let everyone know that a giant boa constrictor hadn’t wrapped her up during the night and squeezed the life out of her.
Her mother had a very vivid imagination.
Yup. Treasure Chest was a good omen for today. (Much better than the chicken thing.)
The cards were working. Her anxiety was petering out. “Brava, Dr. Masami!”
Tara picked up her second deck. This was a basic tarot deck with water-colored designs. She assigned this set of cards with the task of giving her something to reflect on for the day. Something to chew on while she was digging her worms.
She noted her card in the journal: Fool.
“Huh. That doesn’t sound good.” Tara looked up the meaning in the instruction booklet: The start of a journey, naiveté.
See? If these cards were predictive, it would have been something like Three of Cups—celebration, and the gathering of friends. Pria and the crew would be docking here in Dominica sometime today.
But sure, she could use this card as a way to see things anew.
Okay start of a journey—Tara’s friends were taking a few days here in Dominica to work on Trevor’s film project—some screenplay he said was inspired by Tara’s “treasure hunting silliness”. After they were done filming in Dominica, they’d be island hopping for fun, and to fulfill the teams’ contractually required time off, that was supposed to shield the scientists from doom and gloom.
This would be a good break from the worm tedium.
Tara might join them on the island hops. She might not. The hesitation was over Neils, her ex, being there.
She’d test the waters and see how weird that energy was once she saw him again. It had been over a year now that the relationship was in her rearview. It should be fine. But it could be weird.
Tara placed the card on the bedside table.
The last card she pulled was from her animal deck.
Tara loved the artwork in this deck. She also kinda liked the idea of inviting an animal to metaphorically walk beside her and give her counsel during the day.
Today, she pulled the monkey card.
She read the card’s description that accompanied the deck. “Playful. Curious. Mischievous.”
Yeah, Tara would focus on her own monkey qualities today. She’d try to find ways to be humorous and have fun. That seemed like a good remedy for dread.
Tara stilled. Did it work? Was this morning ritual helpful?
Yup. Better already.
The birds were singing.
Though the sun hadn’t yet shined on her face, a soft yellow glow began to paint the sky.
Tara climbed from her bed with an enthusiastic fist in the air. “The early bird catches the worm. Up and at ‘em. Proactive! Doing my part to save the world!”
And then, just because it felt right, Tara bounced around being a monkey until she was breathless. One of the joys of living alone was that she could be as silly as she wanted when she wanted.
Now that was something to add to tomorrow’s gratitude list.
Friday, St. Kitts
Austin Mace stood on the edge of the St. Kitts cliff overlooking the bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.
His K9 partner, Diesel—a giant of a German Shepherd—sat by his side, lifting his nose to scent the air, salted with dead fish and the rotten egg smell of decomposing seaweed.
It would grow worse with the heat of the day.
Mace’s teammate, Ares, clapped his hands sharply to focus the attention of the thirty-odd veterinary students. “Is everyone ready?”
It was early morning, before the first classes of the day.
The students slogged forward to create a semicircle, coffee not kicking in yet. Coming from both North and South America to study on St. Kitts, this group of twenty-somethings all looked like they’d rather still be in their beds.
Maybe today’s demonstration would wake them up a bit.
“I’m Ares, commander of Iniquus’s Cerberus Tactical Team Bravo.” He bladed his hand toward Mace. “This is my number two, Austin Mace, with K9 Diesel.”
“Good morning.” Mace squinted past the glare of the morning sun. “I want to thank you for your interest in pet rescue and pet sheltering following a natural disaster. Your work in putting together a deployable team is commendable and much needed.”
“To that end,” Ares said. “Cerberus Tactical Team Bravo is glad to work with you. Our team vet, Mongoose, as you might already know, is a graduate of St. Kitts’s veterinary program and will be working closely with you as you build your rescue skills. Mongoose will be your point of contact with Cerberus. If you have any specific questions or concerns, you can reach out to him. Your professor has that contact information for you.” He waited for the heads to swing toward Dr. Jeffers then back to him. Then Ares continued. “As an opener, Mongoose thought you might like to see a tactical K9 in action. Was he right?”
The students shifted around, their faces suddenly brightening with interest as they clapped.
“Team Bravo is made up of seven men. Mongoose makes sure the dogs are in top physical condition. The six other men are each paired with a K9 partner. While each dog has a specialty, and can deploy on solo missions, our team’s primary task is search and rescue.”
“No women on your team?” a female student asked.
“On Bravo right now, we do not,” Ares said. “We do have a female on team Alpha.”
“But why not?” she pressed.
“It’s not because women can’t do the job,” Ares said. “The main reason is that Iniquus hires veterans for mission-oriented teams, and there just aren’t a lot of women coming through the pipeline who are veteran dog handlers. We hope that’ll change.” He turned. “Mace.”
Mace took a step forward. “This is K9 Diesel, my partner. In the military, he would be ranked higher than me. On Cerberus Team Bravo, we show our dogs that level of respect. Since, Diesel is a working dog, I ask that you not pet him or try to catch his attention.”
Mace watched as the vet students’ focus shifted to Diesel and quickly back away.
“On the Bravo search and rescue team, we have three German Shepherds, including Diesel. All three shepherds are cross trained to special operations spec. They can be deployed to assist any of the Iniquus operations forces as a force multiplier when needed. Diesel has an affinity for water and fast boats.”
When Diesel heard his name, he sat up a little taller and looked just that much more regal.
Mace stopped to grin. “We get him out on water evolutions as much as possible. An evolution, as it applies here, means a training mission.”
“Did you all come to St. Kitts just to teach us or are you training here, too?” a student asked. “Will we be able to tag along and watch as you train the dogs?”
Ares gestured toward the mountain. “Team Bravo has a compound on the island that serves as a jumping off spot during hurricane season. Our teams, Alpha and Bravo, rotate in and out of the area to train the dogs for rescue in the Atlantic and Caribbean. As to watching the training, there are times when we could use your help. We like to hide people for the dogs to search out. If you’re willing to participate,” Ares caught Dr. Jeffers eye, “if you could keep a list?”
“You’re an American team,” a male student said.
“Correct,” Ares replied.
The student tipped his ear toward his shoulder. “Why, then, are you on St. Kitts and not on American territory?” he asked. “St. Croix, for example.”
“Geographical positioning. Elevation,” Ares said. “There are distinct reasons. We work closely with emergency management on the various Caribbean islands. Training with our partners keeps our skills sharp, and during natural disasters it helps us to work as a cohesive group when lives are on the line.”
“We’re first, though, right?” another man asked. “Since you’re here and all.”
Ares rested his hands on his hips. “Our first obligation is to fulfill our Iniquus contracts. Secondly, we assist where we’re most needed. The level of need is decided by our command in Washington, D.C. after gathering information from our allied emergency managers and boots on the ground.” Ares turned to look over his shoulder at the blaze-orange life raft barely visible in the water about fifty meters out, the length of an Olympic pool. Twenty yards beyond it was the barge. He turned back to the vet students. “Today, we thought we’d move through a water rescue evolution. The scenario is that after a storm, there is a person who has grabbed some debris and is floating in the water. Just beyond the subject is a barge that is unaware of the person in distress. As you can see the barge is the closest way out of the water. There is no visible shore.” He nodded toward Mace. “It will be Mace and Diesel’s task to get to the subject and get them safely up onto the barge. Other than what he carries in his tactical pack, Mace has no additional gear available. They’ll depend on their own skills.”
The students moved to the edge of the cliff and looked over.
“He’s getting himself and the dog out to that raft to save a guy?” the woman asked, her body posture said she was dubious.
Mace enjoyed their astonishment, the excitement that sparked through the air.
“That’s the task,” Ares said then pointed to the bus. “Once Mace and Diesel are in the water, we’re going to go down to the beach where a boat is waiting. We can continue out into the sea to watch from the water.”
A student leaned forward. “And lend a hand.” She gave a curt nod.
“Sure,” Ares said. “If needed.” He caught Mace’s eye. “Mace will start at the vehicle.” Ares pointed at the teacher. “Dr. Jeffers, if you can wave him in and point out the person you saw floating, we’ll have Mace assess, and take action.”
The teacher, a slender man with a ring of tightly clipped curls encircling a shiny head stepped forward. He wore crisp-pressed khakis, and a navy-blue gulf shirt buttoned all the way up like a prep-school youth.
Mace gave Jeffers a nod and jogged toward the SUV just out of sight around the other side of the boulder.
Diesel trotted along, pinned to Mace’s side, tongue lolling happily. He knew they were going to get to play.
Making this play was the key to success.
The dogs weren’t big into the nuances of a task. Mace trained with Diesel to find a person in debris caused by war or natural disaster. The find was part of the job. And no matter what state that person was in, the find was defined as a success.
Success was rewarded with joy. High pitched praise. A game of tug. A favorite chew toy.
The satisfaction the dogs got from pleasing their handler, with a job well done, was imperative to a working dogs’ ability to do the job.
And that was what Mace offered Diesel. No matter what.
Even in the worst of worse conditions, Mace had to focus his energy on being playful. He couldn’t give in to the despair that wanted to claw at his guts when he found the victims.
But too, as he well knew from his years of Iniquus-required mental health support, Mace had to cull space and time to deal with the crap. To ignore the horrors of what he’d seen and participated in throughout his work life, both on the battlefield and now with Cerberus, would give his experiences the power to become closet monsters, grabbing at his psyche, plunging him into despair and existential dread.
“You have to face the demons,” the therapist said. “Smile at your anger and say hi. It’s yours. You are your shadow side, too.”
That was all well and good for Mace, but the dogs didn’t get therapy.
The dogs got happy.
Mace opened the driver’s side door and signaled his K9 in.
Diesel was a massive German Shepherd, with thick, medium-length fur that was lush caramel and midnight-black. The ring of dark fur under Diesel’s almost diabolic shining orange eyes highlighted his intelligence and cunning. His steady gaze spoke of Diesel’s missions past, wisdom that had been hard-earned. There was a nobility about him. Not a king that sat on a throne, but a knight that would ride into battle out of loyalty.
Mace had always thought that “Diesel” was a terrible misnaming of this magnificent beast.
For sure, Mace couldn’t have asked for a better partner.
Diesel could intuit situations in ways that almost seemed other-worldly at times. They’d look each other in the eye. Agree to a plan. And execute with synchronicity.
Mace always trusted his dog. Always.
Turning the key, Mace rounded the SUV out from its hiding spot behind the boulder.
Jeffers was doing his part with a lot of enthusiasm, waving his arms over his head, jumping up and down in his boat shoes.
With a signal for Diesel to wait in the car, Mace climbed out.
Diesel listened to the command, but that didn’t mean he didn’t whine his displeasure.
Mace—six foot two, tanned skin and tightly cropped black hair—was dressed in the Cerberus tactical uniform. No matter the weather: combat boots and grey camo tactical pants. Today, he had on the uniform’s short-sleeved compression shirt with the blue Cerberus logo over his heart.
“Sir?” he asked, arriving in front of Jeffers.
“There’s a person in the water holding debris!” Jeffers ran to the cliff’s edge and pointed down. “I believe they’re hurt.”
The students huddled out of the way.
“Is there a way down to the water? A wharf? Stairs?”
The professor turned to Ares, who shook his head no. Turning back to Mace, Jeffers said, “Not for miles in either direction.”
Mace leaned over the cliff’s edge to assess. He called out to Ash on the raft, but his teammate purposefully sprawled as if unconscious.
“You must get a boat,” Jeffers insisted. “Find people to help you.”
“That’s okay, sir. We’ve got this. Thank you.” Mace stalked back to the SUV where he pushed Diesel to the passenger’s seat.
Slobber on the wheel, running down the window, dampening his seat, pretty much par for the course. At the end of the day, Mace was typically crusty with slobber and dog hair.
Life didn’t get much better than that.
Mace swiveled around as he backed the vehicle up closer to the cliff’s edge. “I’m going to get the rigging in place,” he told Diesel. “Then we go, okay?”
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