Warrior's Instinct: Cerberus Tactical K9 Team Bravo
Heath “Ares” Sterling thought he’d never see Hailey again. But now that fate—and Iniquus Logistics—has brought them together again, he’ll do whatever it takes to earn a second chance with the one who got away. If only they were meeting under less deadly circumstances…
Hailey Stapleton hates the idea of being a damsel in distress. But when her latest humanitarian efforts land her in a warzone, she needs help fast. It shouldn’t surprise her that Ares races to her rescue—or that she’s as attracted to him as ever. Too bad their timing couldn’t be worse…
Can Ares—and his K9 partner Judge—get Hailey to safety and convince her to take one more shot at happily ever after? His instincts say yes.
Racing against time, Ares’ job is keeping Hailey alive as they struggle together for survival and a chance at forever love.
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Release date: June 15, 2022
Print pages: 294
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Warrior's Instinct: Cerberus Tactical K9 Team Bravo
Three years ago, Hatari, East Africa
Hailey wasn’t sleeping. There wasn’t enough time for that. But it felt good to close her eyes and rest there in Ares’s arms.
Her cheek was pillowed on his expansive chest; her naked thigh tossed casually over his hips.
Ares combed lazy fingers through Hailey’s long blonde hair, catching on a tangle and slowly working it free.
Tipping her head to plant a kiss, Hailey breathed in the scent of Ares’s post-coital sweat and the fresh herbal scent of his soap.
“I love you.” She tucked back in. “With you in my life, I have a new lens to focus through,” she whispered.
“Rose? Mmmm, no. Does peace have a color? Does happiness? ‘Butterflies dancing on a sun-brightened flower’ colored lenses. How’s that?”
“Nice.” He reached for her hand and pressed it to his heart. “Happiness? Yes.” His other hand painted along her back and cupped the swell of her bottom. “Very happy.” His sleepy voice wrapped her in a moment of contentment.
The sheets tangled around their feet.
A warm breeze lifted the white gossamer curtains that tented over the queen-sized bed, keeping the deadly mosquitos at bay.
Ares twisted and lifted his head from the pillow.
She knew he was checking the clock readout on the side table there in her little hut on the outskirts of Hatari, a remote village in Eastern Africa.
He dropped his head back down. “Five minutes.” There was so much disappointment packed into those three syllables that Hailey smiled and answered with another kiss pressed into his warm skin.
Straightening her leg, Hailey pulled her hand free and walked her fingers down his goody trail. “Five minutes?” she asked flirtatiously. “Five minutes could still be fun.”
He pressed her shoulder, so she’d roll onto her back, her hair fanning over the pillow.
She could just make out Ares’s expression in the first light of a new day. His face wasn’t soft with sleep anymore.
There was an edge to it.
“Five minutes. That’s not enough time for this. But I wanted to talk to you about us.” His gaze searched over her face. Ares’s voice had an uncharacteristic stickiness to it. A growling kind of intensity that she’d never heard before. The timbre of his voice alarmed her.
“I’m happy that you’ve been part of my life,” he said.
Shit was the word that bubbled up for Hailey and was left unspoken. She waited for a “but.” She’d heard this conversation with past boyfriends. “You make me happy when you’re here, but your job—your always being gone is too hard.” Or “You make me happy, but my career takes precedence. You understand, don’t you?”
Hailey tried to imagine what Ares’s “but” would be. She landed on: But my Green Beret unit has been deployed here for fourteen months, training our counterparts. We’re about to be sent home. Nice knowing you. See you around.
“Shhh shhh shhh.” He brushed his finger over her temple and down her jawline. “Don’t look so stricken. It’s nothing bad.” He dropped a quick kiss onto her lips that she didn’t return. “I don’t think so anyway.” When Hailey shifted her gaze up to catch his, Ares said, “I want to get your take on things, is all. If you think this happiness might be something that—” He stopped to clear his throat.
Judge—Ares’s three-year-old military K9, an amazing Malinois—stuck his nose over the mattress and fixed his gaze on her. He must have sensed her stress.
Judge was hyper-protective of Hailey.
“Lay down, Judge, Hailey’s okay.”
Ares waited until Judge plunked back down on the cool cement floor.
“You were asking if there might be something?” Hailey reminded him.
“If you thought you’d be happy with me in the long term.”
“Long…” She let the word draw out, hoping he’d give her some context.
“I didn’t plan this for today. I’ve been thinking about it for—almost since the moment I laid eyes on you, sprawled out there in the earthquake rubble, your arms in the hole being someone’s lifeline.” He swallowed loudly. “Okay, here it is. Hailey, I love you. You bring color and good things to my life—that butterfly on a flower thing. I’m a selfish enough man—especially given the limits to what I can offer you—”
She shook her head. What he offered her was amazing. They were amazing together.
“I’m selfish enough to want you in my life always. I want to marry you. Would you consider that? Being my wife?”
Hailey’s eyes flashed wide.
“It’s sudden. I get that.” He paused.
Hailey should say something, but this was such a one-eighty from where she thought this conversation was going that she was scrambling to get her thoughts and emotions lined up.
“Hailey, you’re everything to me. Marriage would be challenging given our jobs, but you are the queen of organization. And I’m willing to go to any lengths.”
With the first threat of heartbreak, Hailey had shut down. She hated the process of ending a relationship whether it was she who made the decision or her past boyfriends. She’d learned to throw a kind of blackout curtain over her emotions until she could get herself to a private space.
Now she was trying to claw that curtain down, trying to focus on what Ares had said. “Marry?”
“My heart is yours if you’ll have me.”
And she laughed. The laughter bubbled up from the tips of her toes, up the length of her legs, into her hips, and belly, then burst, all glittery and shiny, from her system, to fill the room.
Ares pulled a hand down his face. Then rested back on his elbows. “You’re killing me here.”
Just as suddenly as the effervescent bubbles tickled through her, they stopped, and she sobered. “No! No. This is joy. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just filled with unexpected...I had no idea it would feel this way. Yes. Absolutely. Without reservations. I will marry you.”
His kiss, warm and soft, brushed her mouth. “Yes?”
“Yes,” she said with her lips still pressed to Ares’s.
“Yes?” he asked again as he reached under her, pulling her even tighter against him, claiming Hailey as his.
“Yes!” She grinned.
Judge put his head back over the bed and gave a high-pitched bark.
“She said yes to us,” Ares told him as Hailey lifted her head for another kiss.
With that kiss, Hailey gave Ares a piece of her heart and filled that now empty space with the commitment he was offering in return.
That kiss was a bond, and she sank into the intensity of it.
When her old-timey windup clock jangled its brassy intrusion, Hailey moaned, “I will always hate that sound, now,” she whispered as Ares reached out to tap it quiet. “Killjoy,” she grumped.
“I’ll ask you, again,” Ares promised. “I plan to do it right. The ring. A romantic setting.”
“This was romantic! Surprising! Wonderful. You don’t have to do it again.” She laced her fingers together and stuck her hands under her chin as if she would burst apart with happiness if she didn’t hold herself tight.
“Okay. ‘Officially’ then.” He sat with his back against the headboard. “When I put the ring on your finger, I want to make that special.”
“If you want to. But for me? I don’t need anything. I am,” she closed her eyes and inhaled as her lips bowed up in contentment, “bliss.”
“You are indeed,” he said with a chuckle. “Miss Bliss. You’re also about to be late for work. Me, too.”
She swung her leg over the bed and pushed herself to standing. “Mr. and Mrs. Heath Sterling. Heath and Hailey Sterling. Hailey Sterling. Whew! It’s not far off from Stapleton, but it will take some getting used to.”
“Only if you want to. Your name is your decision.”
“Oh, I want to take your name.” She stretched and let him take in the length of her naked form. “I don’t want to confuse our children.”
“Children, huh?” He put his hands behind his head, elbows wide, muscles bulging, watching her with a smile curling his lips. So damned sexy. “How many?”
“Ten?” She shrugged. “Fifteen?”
He threw himself toward her, grabbing her up and kissing Hailey in what he called her ‘sweet spot’, just behind her ear. It always made her giggle and squirm.
The alarm sounded again. He must have hit the snooze.
“Work.” She stuck out her lower lip in a pout.
“I know. I feel the same. Go on and get in the shower first. Should I get breakfast?”
“Uhm, no.” She lifted the mosquito netting and ducked under, turning to slide her feet into her shower flip-flops. After tugging on her robe, Hailey reached for the towel hanging from a hook by the door. “I’m eating with Kibbi this morning, staff meeting. We have a new doctor coming in to run the clinic. She’ll be here this afternoon, and we want to go over some reports before she gets in.” Hailey moved toward the hall door.
Judge padded after her.
“Judge, stay with me.” Ares reached for the pair of tactical pants that were in a pile by the bed, tugging them on, commando. Slung low on his hips, showing off the drool-worthy V, Ares was looking painfully yummy.
She sighed; her libido would have to be patient for tonight.
Judge stomped the ground.
“Sorry, you can’t go in the shower with Hailey.” Ares looked up to find Hailey’s gaze fixed on him.
“They call you Ares, and I think they did you a disservice with that name.” She turned and swayed her hips as she pulled the door open.
She flung, “Adonis is probably a better fit,” over her shoulder and caught the grin on his face as she headed through the door.
Hailey danced her way through her morning routine. She floated over to her all-terrain vehicle, climbed in, and buckled up. The next twenty minutes of her teeth-rattling drive over the rutted dirt roads to the WorldCares NGO station where she worked as a humanitarian aid manager were punctuated by her singing good morning songs to the fields, and clouds, and any birds she happened to see.
This was an astonishing day. Hailey was about to embark on a new trajectory.
Arriving at the station, she parked under the shade of a neem tree. As she dragged the stick shift into neutral and tugged the emergency brake into place, Hailey stopped to inhale the earthy splendor.
This morning was glorious.
Hailey couldn’t wait to tell Kibbi her news.
Pulling a box filled with treats that Ares had brought in from his post along with her as she jumped down from the cab, she spotted a new face.
“Doctor Oni?” Hailey raised her voice over the children’s call and response game. Hailey hadn’t thought that the new doctor was arriving until late afternoon.
Tall, with a brightly colored headscarf wrapping her hair and bright blue scrubs draping her wiry body, the woman turned.
Hailey tucked the box under one arm with her other hand lifted in a greeting and made her way over to the older woman.
“Miss Stapleton?” Tattoos made lacey designs on the doctor’s face. She stepped forward with a wide grin that flashed gleaming white.
“Hailey, please.” They shook hands. “I’m sorry we haven’t prepared our welcome yet. We anticipated your arriving—” Hailey adjusted the box on her hip and pointed toward the community center. “Has someone greeted you?”
The heat of the day was just starting to shimmer on the horizon.
Hailey always tried to get her high exertion chores done in the mornings when the atmosphere was less dense with heat and dust. She hoped Dr. Oni would understand. Hailey decided to orient the new doctor, then let her explore on her own.
“Yes. Kibbi showed me to my room last night.” Dr. Orni fell in step with Hailey.
“I came in last evening as I had an opportunity to travel with some friends.”
“That’s nicer, isn’t it? Have you had a tour?” Hailey looked around. “Do you know where Kibbi is?”
“Of the tour, no, it was dark when I arrived. Of Kibbi, she went to check on a new mother.”
“Okay, good.” Hailey would have to hold off sharing her exciting news until later. “I’ll walk you around. I need to set this box down first. It’s art supplies for the children.”
They moved toward the front door of the main building. “Let me start here. This is our community center. It’s an all-purpose building. We eat and meet here. We have computers available for the village. We have battery charging stations over on that wall.”
“What is this?” Dr. Oni stepped toward the neat shelves filled with black boxes plugged into the line of wall sockets.
“WorldCares NGO provided each family in the area with a UPS—uninterrupted power supply unit.” She pointed to the ceiling. “We have solar panels on the roof. It works out pretty well. The women bring the UPS units here in the morning to charge. If they have school-aged children, they leave the kids to play in the yard until the school bell rings.” Hailey pointed toward the window. “The women fill their buckets with water from our well. It saves them the two-mile walk to the river and back. It’s safer.”
“It’s heavy to carry water that far each day.”
“I don’t know how they do it.” Hailey shook her head. “I couldn’t. So, in the evening, the women come pick up the batteries.” She pointed back to the wall of black boxes. “That way they can get more water, pick up their children and have lights after dark, charge their cell phones, what have you. It still amazes me that there’s better cell reception out here in the wilds than we had back in rural Kansas.” She focused on Dr. Orni. “Kansas is the state I come from in America. It’s not quite in the middle of our country, but close.”
Dr. Orni gave a polite nod.
Hailey gestured toward the door and started out. “The women will have come and gone already today. I’ll come earlier tomorrow and introduce you if you’d like.”
They rounded out of the building. “Behind this is the clinic and your apartment where you must have stayed last night?”
“Yes. I walked through the facility this morning. Impressive. I can do a lot of good in that clinic.”
Hailey gestured toward the structure to the right. “That’s the schoolhouse. We educate local children and children sent to live in the orphanage. The dorms are behind the school.” Hailey turned and nodded to the left. “There, we have food storage along with building and farming equipment that we lend out to the villagers.”
Dr. Orni fell in step beside Hailey as they walked toward the children. “Have you been here long?” she asked.
“A year.” Hailey smiled. “A lot has happened in that time. I feel we’ve made good progress. WorldCares NGO originally came in to support the people following an earthquake that wiped out their village. We hoped to support area families who survived.” Hailey stopped, focusing on the children at play. “Many of our students were orphaned in the event,” she said quietly so only Dr. Orni would hear. “We supplied medical care and food. As we got to know the area and figured out the long-term needs, we began to set up this social net. Now, their local council is strong. Kibbi and I will only be here for another month. Then, the council will take over.”
“Is the village stable enough for your organization to pull out? The military is in the area. I drove past them last night. There was a checkpoint.”
“There have been warring factions forever, people vying for power. And violence always seems to be just over the horizon. I haven’t experienced any. The government requested that America send in a Green Beret group to teach and advise. The checkpoint you encountered was probably set up as a training evolution. I know a few of the men on that team, my fiancé is with them.” That was the first time she’d publicly called Ares that. It felt good. “They seem pleased with how well their counterparts are performing. It’s not a perfectly stable situation, mind you. There’s a lot of unrest as I’m sure you were warned about before you took this position.” Hailey thrust her hands into the pockets of her khaki shorts. “Outside of an occasional patient that comes to the clinic for treatment from the bush, I haven’t seen anything that looks violent.”
“That’s good to hear. I’m leaving an area that isn’t so blessed.”
Hailey caught her eye. “I’m so sorry. Well, I hope that this is a good assignment for you.” She stepped forward. “Shall I show you the school before classes start?”
The women strolled toward the building.
The sun, though still low on the horizon, glared at them with intensity. Hailey was glad that most of her to-do list that day was comprised of reports that she could compile under the relief of her office ceiling fan.
Just outside the schoolhouse door, the children’s singing came to an abrupt stop.
Hailey swung her attention to the group.
They stood there, hands on their heads, bodies rigid, and absolutely silent.
Hailey turned to the west, to see what they were seeing. Sometimes there were issues with the wild animals scrounging for food.
Kibbi, with her traditionally patterned skirt hiked up to her hips, ran full tilt toward them. Her eyes were held wide and white. Her mouth hung open. Her lips peeled back showing her teeth. Her face was a mask of sheer terror.
Over the horizon thundered a militia on horseback.
The leader with his tan turban and olive fatigues, stained with sweat, and draped in weaponry, pointed at Hailey. He yelled out. The others whipped their horses to make them fly over the slim space, overtaking Kibbi who disappeared behind the cloud of dirt churned up by the hooves.
And what happened next, Hailey couldn’t understand as anything other than flailing limbs and desperate screams.
The men smelled of rot, like corpses left bloated in the sun.
Hailey vaguely understood someone was tearing at her clothing.
She was fighting.
Falling and being dragged by her ankles.
She thought maybe she tried to protect. To escape. But she couldn’t be sure.
The slaughter went on and on.
A face, glistening sweat with flaring nostrils, pressed closer. His broad tongue licked over her lips. A machete blade flattened under her nose, dripping with blood. Her blood?
Violently, there was fur, black and tan.
Judge’s white fangs chomped into the man’s arm that held Hailey down.
Shrieks rose from the man as Judge’s jaw clamped down tighter.
The machete’s edge slit across Judge’s side instead of Hailey’s.
The crack of gunfire made her ears echo and ring.
Death rattled the man’s chest as his shirt bloomed red.
So much blood all around her. Everywhere, red.
Hailey was forced to lie down in a basket. She was lifted through the sky, as the helicopter downwash spun her wildly.
The next thing she knew, Hailey was pushing through the grogginess, coming to after surgery. Ares was holding her hand. Judge had survived surgery, he said.
But the others did not.
She alone left WorldCares NGO Station #642.
And she only survived because Judge and Ares were hard focused on saving her.
She got airlifted to an American military hospital because of her passport.
Ares and his brother Green Berets along with the group they’d been training saw the militia riders heading toward the village from a drone image and had raced to the fight, destroying every last member of the attacking militia.
But not fast enough.
The children died.
Dr. Oni on her very first day at the clinic died.
WorldCares NGO didn’t need to close up shop. It had all burned to the ground.
And Hailey? She was simply flown home to her family in Kansas to recover.
As if that could ever happen.
Tuesday, Present Day Northern Virginia
The shocks on the Iniquus Security SUV struggled to keep up with the challenge of the unpaved road. With every bump, drop, and hill, the vehicle bucked and shimmied beneath Ares.
Mid-forties in January, the ground was saturated with the melt off from the recent snowstorm that had dumped eight inches in the D.C. area over the last few days. It left the backroads oozing slime, making today’s task that much more challenging.
Briefly, Ares’s gaze caught Judge’s in his rearview mirror. Tongue out, panting in anticipation, the Malinois braced on the back seat in his safety harness, not bothering to lie down, where the violent jolts wouldn’t tax his energy as much.
Judge was primed for the adventure.
Judge’s job was to be a nose and a bite. That meant he was trained to find specific scents and if there was a bad guy around, he’d gladly do the chomp down.
He could go from kitten-loving, belly-rolled-toward-the-sun manic goofball to fur missile in the blink of an eye.
His go-switch was greased and ready.
Working with Judge, Ares had learned that his K9 was intelligent enough to understand the situation, sometimes better than Ares did himself.
Ares always trusted his dog.
That Judge kept swinging his attention between Ares and the back window told Ares that he needed to power forward to stay ahead of the team that was chasing them down.
Already, Ares’s boot pressed the gas pedal nearly flat to the floorboard, sending a muddy spray in their wake.
It was hardly a clandestine way to make it up the hill.
The back tires fishtailed through the slippery red clay of rural Virginia as Ares powered up the steep incline. He figured, there was no way to get through the mud and not leave a trail, might as well chomp up the terrain in the off chance it slowed the vehicle that Judge was telling Ares was closer than comfortable.
The SUV tipped hard as Ares plowed through a deeper than expected puddle. His windows were suddenly opaque from the shower of mud he’d sent flying.
Without a second thought or stall in forward momentum, Ares toggled on the washer fluid. The wipers scratched a hole for him to peer through.
There to his left, almost with his sixth sense, Ares found the trailhead.
Dragging the steering wheel around, they came to an aggressive stop under the pines. After throwing the gear into park, one hand rounded over the seat to press the quick release clasp on Judge’s harness.
Without taking the time to turn off the engine, Ares released his own belt, wrapped a hand into his pack, and threw the door wide.
“Let’s go,” he called to Judge.
Behind him, Judge leaped to the front seat and scrambled out of the open door. Within seconds, he was beside Ares as they sprinted alongside the trail. Ares hoped to mask their footprints by staying off the path proper and leaping from rock to fallen trunk.
This was a scent training, not a visual tracking evolution.
Footprints would wipe away any challenge, making this exercise both a gritty mess and irrelevant.
The croon of the bloodhound pair, Whiskey and Chaser, rode the wind from the trailhead.
Reaper would be at Ares’s SUV letting his trackers sniff the driver’s seat to capture Ares’s scent. Reaper, the new Cerberus trainer, had signed an Iniquus Security contract about a year ago. After finishing up his observational stint with Strike Force, he was now training K9s full time with Cerberus, Iniquus’s tactical and rescue K9 unit. Reaper was definitely proving his capacity in honing working dog skills.
While Whiskey was a permanent member of the Iniquus kennel, her littermate, Chaser, was being trained for Virginia State Police to track the bad guys when they abandoned their vehicles and plowed into the night.
With their prized hotdogs zipped into a plastic bag in Reaper’s pocket, Ares knew the two bloodhounds were motivated for the find and the ensuing reward.
Ares pushed hard, keeping an eye on Judge. Where Judge covered the terrain with graceful ease, Ares—though, he hated to admit it—felt like he was slogging through quicksand as he sprinted through the leaves. Yeah, there was the hazard that his foot would slide into a covered hole, and he could jack his whole body up, but when the enemy was tracking you, it wasn’t time for a leisurely stroll. Even if the word “enemy” was in quotation marks.
In real-world scenarios, a person performs the way they train.
Train hard was the only way Ares knew to do it.
And Judge? That was a no-brainer, Judge thrived on this stuff.
“I wish you could talk,” Ares told Judge. “I’d like to know how hard to push, how far back they are. The wind is whipping their noise back down the mountain.” He grinned at Judge. “They’ve got those little legs, though. I think we can make it to our designated hiding spot before they get to us.”
Ares’s radio crackled. “TOC to Arz.” Someone from the Tactical Control Center. Ares didn’t recognize the guy’s voice.
“TOC to Arz.”
“Reaper to TOC what’s an Arz?”
“TOC. Alpha Romeo Echo Sierra,” he spelled out.
“Reaper. TOC that’s pronounced Air-ease. God of war. We don’t have any pirates on our team. Man, who’s training you?”
“TOC,” the guy stammered. “Sorry. I…I’m…eh-eh-hem. TOC for Ares.”
“Ares,” he said, laughing. “New guy, you owe me a case. None of that microbrew crap. I want it cold, and I want it by my locker when I get back from mud mountain.”
“TOC. Yes, sir, excuse me, sir. I was…I’m not old enough to buy beer, sir.” His voice cracked.
“All right. TOC go for Ares.”
“Yes, sir. Uhm, Mr. Ortega is conferencing with Iniquus Command and asked me to tell you to have your uhm training team to uhm stand down.”
Juan Ortega was chief of Cerberus Team Bravo’s tactical command center.
New guy cleared his throat. “My apologies, sir. Mr. Ortega says he needs you for a briefing. I’m quoting, ‘Here. Now, if not sooner.’ Sorry again, sir.”
“Wilco. Standing down. Returning to base. And tone down the apologies, they take up too much airtime. Reaper?”
“Reaper. What’s the plan?”
“There’s a rock outcropping just ahead of me. I’m going to crouch behind it to give Whiskey and Chaser the win, then I’ll head back.”
“That’s going to be a no-go.” Ares rounded the boulder and gave a soft whistle for Judge to come hide with him. “My orders are ‘now.’ I’m not running down mud-splash mountain with my hands behind my back. Over.”
“Reaper. I just pulled your red dot up on my GPS, Ares. We’re about five minutes south-southwest. We’ll let Whiskey and Chaser do a sniff and howl. I’ll give them their hot dogs, and you can head down to see what’s cooking.”
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