by: Katie Ruggle
Series: Rocky Mountain K9 Unit
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Release Date: June 6, 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
He lost his mentor.
He lost his K9 partner.
He almost lost his will to live.
But when a ruthless killer targets a woman on the run, Theo and his new K9 companion will do whatever it takes to survive—and save the woman neither can live without.
Grieving the death of his partner, Theo Bosco has no room in his life for distractions. Though his instincts scream that he should avoid Juliet ‘Jules’ Jackson, he can’t seem to stay away. It doesn’t help that Theo’s new K9 companion has fallen head over paws with Jules’s rambunctious family.
Or that when he’s with her, Theo finally knows peace.
When Jules rescued her siblings, whisking them away to the safety of the beautifully rugged Colorado Rockies, she never expected to catch the eye—or the heart—of a cop. Yet as Jules struggles to fight her growing attraction to the brooding K9 officer, another threat lurks much closer to home…
And this time, there’s no escape.
The cop was back.
Jules fumbled with the sugar packets she was refilling as she tried to watch without him noticing. She had to admit that he was gorgeous. In her old life—her other life—she might have flirted with him. Now, she looked at the uniform and all she could see was the prison time it represented. She wanted to hide—almost enough to duck into the walk-in cooler in back and not come out until he was gone. Jules’s fear of the cooler, however—with its heavy, safe-like door and exterior light switch and horribly claustrophobic feel—was just slightly greater than her fear of facing the hot police officer.
“Seriously?” Megan muttered, making Jules jump and scatter sugar packets across the counter. “He’s here again? Why can’t he just keep his cranky ass at home and stop ruining everyone else’s day?”
Her laugh came out as more of a gasp, drawing a sharp look from Megan.
“You all right? Don’t you let him bother you, okay? He’s surly to everyone, so it’s nothing you did. He didn’t used to be this bad, at least not until… Well, let’s not talk about that. Want to do rock-paper-scissors to see who has to take table four?”
Jules’s laugh came easier that time. She was relieved that Megan thought Jules’s nerves were because of Theo’s crabbiness, rather than the fact that he was a cop. The last thing she needed was for Megan to be suspicious of her too. “Sure.”
Under the cover of the counter, they held their fists out and chanted quietly, “One, two, three!”
Jules sighed at her smothered rock. “Shoot. Well, thanks for the offer.”
“If I were a nice person, I’d take the pissy cop’s table anyway.” When Jules looked at her hopefully, Megan smirked. “I said ‘if.’ I’m truly not a nice person.”
Jules watched Megan walk toward one of her tables. Her shoulders lifting and dropping again in a sigh, Jules stiffened her spine. She just needed to be confident. She also needed to not let the cop’s air of authority—as well as his muscled forearms and pretty dark-brown eyes—reduce her to the babbling idiot she’d become the last time he’d been at the diner. For goodness’ sake, she’d messed up her name. Her name. If she wanted to survive in her new life, she needed to step up her game. Firming her jaw, she picked up a coffeepot and headed to Theo’s table.
He watched her, his frown deepening with each step, and she fought the urge to slow or, better yet, turn tail and run.
“Morning.” She turned the mug in front of him right side up with shaky fingers. His wary eyes—almost black and alarmingly perceptive—took in everything, including, she was sure, her obvious unease. “Did you need a menu?”
Jules caught herself before he could respond.
“Sorry.” Her flush prickled her chest and moved up to her face to warm her cheeks. “Of course you don’t need a menu. You probably know everything on there by now. Well, I’m guessing you do. I’ve only seen you here once, but Megan mentioned you’re a regular.”
Abruptly, Jules stopped talking. More of the nervous babble pressed on her lungs, wanting out. Afraid to open her mouth again in case she started talking and wasn’t able to stop until she told this man—this police officer!—everything he shouldn’t know, she forced a smile and stayed quiet. She was turning out to be a terrible felon.
“Number three,” he said after another pause just long enough to make her uncomfortable. “Scrambled.”
“Got it.” Jules scribbled down the order, relieved to have something to focus on other than his too-intense gaze. He looked at her like he could see everything about her, and there were so many things she wanted to keep hidden. When she glanced up, she kept her eyes away from his, focusing on his left earlobe instead. “That’ll be right out.”
After picking up the coffeepot again, she began to turn around, relieved. A sound behind her, something halfway between a masculine grunt and a throat clearing, made her stop reluctantly. Jules focused on his other earlobe this time, trying not to show her renewed panic. “Was there something else you needed?”
“Where are you staying?” He bit off each word, making him sound like he was angry he had to speak to her.
The mild, unfocused fear blossomed into terror. Why was he asking? Was he investigating her?
His frown deepened when she took a beat too long to answer, and she rushed out her response. “Um…in Monroe.”
Her paranoia was feeding her panic, and she gave a vague wave toward the north. “On the edge of town.”
If he narrowed his eyes any more, he’d be squinting. “The blue house off of Orchard Street?”
“No.” Her feet moved of their own volition, and she took a step toward the door. This job was too important for her to run out on her second day, but the cop’s questioning was pushing her to the point where she just wanted to escape, paycheck or no paycheck.
“The old Garmitt place, then.” It was a statement instead of a question, and the accuracy of the guess made her eyes widen despite herself. Jules knew fear and guilt must be plastered all over her face. “Heard someone had moved in there.”
“Uh…” Her mind raced as she scrambled to think of the best way to respond, to save this conversation from the quickly approaching crash and burn heading her way. “I’m not sure.” She barely caught herself before closing her eyes in exasperation. That was her clever save?
“Your address is Thirty-Two Blank Hill Lane.” Again, he said what should’ve been a question with such certainty that it came out as a statement of fact. “Did you buy it?”
“No.” Running was beginning to sound better and better. Jules was willing to do pretty much anything to get away from this man, this cop, who knew too much already.
“You rent then?” At her nod, he studied her. She stared back, determined not to say more. Every line in his body was held tightly, from the hard line of his mouth to his forearms to his erect spine. “What brings you to town?” he finally asked.
Her mouth opened, but nothing emerged as her thoughts bounced against each other in a chaotic mess. “This job?” Her voice was pitched too high, and the end of her sentence rose, turning it into a question. Jules resisted the urge to smack herself. Between her twitchy behavior and asinine answers, she knew that, even if he hadn’t been suspicious before, he would know for sure now that something wasn’t right. Her shoulders curled in as she wished for the power of invisibility. Either that or better acting skills—or any acting skills.
“What the hell, Theo?” Megan appeared out of nowhere, grasping Jules’s elbow and tugging. Although she jumped initially, Jules relaxed and allowed herself to be pulled a few steps away from the extremely awkward conversation—or interrogation? “I finally find an employee who can do basic math and doesn’t spit on people’s eggs, and she’s the one you inflict yourself on? Drink your coffee and be all broody, like you normally are. Quietly broody.”
The tiny muscle in Theo’s jaw pulsed with tension. Jules didn’t breathe as she waited for him to react. There was strained silence for several seconds before Theo spoke.
“Which one spits?”
“You missed my point.” Whatever else Megan was going to say was interrupted by the thump of the front entrance as it closed behind some new customers. “Be right with you!” Her gaze never left Theo’s face. In turn, he never looked away or flinched. The non-panicked corner of Jules’s brain was impressed with both of them.
“What’s up?” Another cop came to a stop next to the booth, reaching to gently bump Theo’s shoulder with his fist. Although the newcomer was wearing a congenial smile, there was a coiled tension to him. The way he placed his body almost, but not quite, between them and Theo said a lot. It was protective in a got-your-back kind of way, but it also showed that Theo had the lead, that the new guy wasn’t taking over the situation.
“Theo’s scaring my new waitress.” Megan’s glare shot toward the new arrival. “The one who can do math.”
“And doesn’t spit.” Theo’s deadpan delivery made Jules start, and an unbidden smile curled her mouth. Their gazes met, and the cop’s eyes seemed to soften for the shortest of moments. Even before Jules was certain she saw it, it was gone.
“Are those your only hiring qualifications? Adding, subtracting, and saliva control? T, maybe we need to look for a new place for our breakfast meetings.” There was humor in the cop’s voice, although his gaze was ready and watchful, moving from Theo to Megan to Jules.
Turning toward the kitchen while keeping a firm grip on Jules’s arm, Megan said over her shoulder, “Your food is safe, Hugh.”
His snort followed them out of the dining area.
“Sorry it took me so long to rescue you,” Megan apologized under her breath as she slammed through the kitchen door. Vicki glanced up from the grill, startled, but the cooking bacon quickly demanded her attention again. “I’d forgotten how weird everyone in this town gets with strangers. After you’ve been here a while, the newness will wear off, and things will go back to normal. And for Theo, normal is being all moody in his corner, muttering and glaring.”
Jules’s laugh sounded stilted, even to her own ears, and Megan gave her a concerned look.
“He didn’t say anything offensive to you, did he?”
“Oh no.” Waving a hand to dismiss the earlier conversation, Jules tried to force some sincerity into her reassuring smile. “He was just curious, I think. I’m just…awkward with strangers.” Especially strange police officers asking probing questions.
Megan eyed her doubtfully. “So you’re okay? You’re not going to quit and leave me?”
Now that Jules’s heart had a chance to slow down, her fear seemed a little extreme for the basic questions the cop had been asking. She reran their conversation in her mind and felt a little sheepish. There’d been nothing strange about his questions, considering she was new to town. Theo’s manner had been abrupt, but from what Megan had said, that was his standard behavior. He doesn’t know, she tried to reassure herself. He doesn’t know, or you’d already be in handcuffs in the back of his car.
“Jules?” Megan’s voice rose. “Are you staying?”
Yanking herself out of her warring paranoia and common sense, she sent her boss a smile. “No. I mean, yes, I’m staying, and no, I’m not quitting. Shouldn’t we get back to the front now?”
“Yes,” Vicki’s testy voice answered from the grill. “Get out of my kitchen before I chop up your bony asses and add you to today’s chowder.”
Megan widened her eyes at Jules in a mock-terrified way, and Jules had to smother a laugh.
“We’re going,” Megan said, shooing Jules toward the front and following close behind. “Sorry, Vicki!” There was an only slightly mollified grunt behind them.
As soon as they emerged into the dining area, Jules shot a nervous glance toward Theo’s table and swallowed a groan. Now there were three cops waiting for her. Her shoulders drooped for a second before she stiffened her spine. There were five more occupied tables in her section, and Jules needed to get to work. Giving Megan a final tiny wave, Jules headed toward the new customers, grabbing a fresh coffeepot on the way.
Deciding to get the scariest table over with first, Jules forced herself not to slow as she approached the cops. “Morning.” She busied herself pouring coffee into the two new guys’ mugs. “What can I get you?” Proud that her voice had wobbled only slightly, she topped off Theo’s cup and then dared to look at the men.
That was a mistake.
They were all staring at her. Only the one Megan had called Hugh was smiling, but all three were watching her with assessing gazes. Jules gripped the handle of the coffeepot tighter. Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run, she repeated in her head. They don’t know you. They don’t know what you’ve done. Quit acting like an idiot.
She couldn’t help it. Panic was rising, threatening to blow off the top of her head. If her fingers squeezed the handle any harder, it was going to crumble to dust in her fist. “Sorry!” she blurted, knowing she was talking too fast but unable to stop. “Let me run and see if anyone else needs coffee, and then I’ll put the pot back. I need two hands for my notebook and pen, since I’m still writing down orders. I’m sure I’ll be memorizing them soon, and I’ll know what you guys get without having to ask, but everything is new right now, since this is only my second day working here, so if you could just give me a minute…”
Sucking in a quick breath when she finally managed to pause, she took advantage of the cops’ startled reactions and darted toward her next table.
“Wait!” Hugh called after her, but she pretended not to hear as she smiled at the man sitting three booths down.
She started to raise the coffeepot to fill his mug, but she hesitated when she saw how hard her hand was shaking. As she tried to calm her wild nerves, she focused on the man at the table. The best word to describe him was “nondescript.” Jules got the feeling that she could stare at him for hours, but even then she’d only be able to give the vaguest description of his features. Average height, average weight, washed-out hair and eyes that weren’t really any color at all, even features, and bland clothes. Forgettable. A study in beige. Looking at the man was almost soothing after the dramatic smack in the face that was Theo, with his flashing dark eyes, demanding questions, and muscular form. Shaking off the urge to peek over her shoulder, she forced a smile for the bland man. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please.” He gave his mug a small nudge in her direction. The beige stranger had a voice as unremarkable as the rest of him. “I’m Norman Rounds.”
“Jules,” she replied automatically as she poured his coffee. Although she hadn’t blurted out her last name, she still mentally reprimanded herself. Julie Jackson. Julie Jackson. Julie Jackson. Juliet Young was no more, and her family’s safety depended on her remembering that.
Norman’s voice brought her out of her head. “You’re new.”
“Yes.” She felt so noticed. Maybe Dennis should’ve sent them to a bigger city, where they could’ve blended into the crowd.
“Where’re you from?”
“Arkansas.” The lie rolled off her tongue, and she resisted the urge to smile proudly. That was better. Now she just had to learn to do that when faced with a cute cop.
“Really?” Norman’s tone barely changed, but the faintest note of skepticism made Jules’s inner alarm began to chirp. Why would he question that? He leaned toward her, and his expressionless face suddenly seemed unnerving rather than bland. “You running from something?”
Barely resisting the urge to lurch back a step, Jules frantically reran their conversation in her head. There was nothing she’d said that had given her away, so why had he jumped to that conclusion unless he knew something? Even the nosy, hot cop hadn’t guessed, and she’d been a lot calmer—normal, even—with Norman Rounds. Did he know? She stared at him, as if her gaze could strip off his overly normal exterior and reveal his true intentions. Had her stepmother hired him? Was he a private investigator? He couldn’t be—right?
Norman leaned even closer, and this time, Jules couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back. She could barely keep herself from racing out of the diner, from grabbing the kids and running out of this whole town. As if sensing that Jules was about to flee, Norman froze, his unnerving gaze locked on her.
He doesn’t know. If he did, he’d be dragging me out of the diner himself, or calling for the cops a few booths away to arrest me. With a huge effort of will, Jules stood still, clutching the coffeepot, trying to calm her racing mind and think of how to answer, what to say to keep him from being even more suspicious.
Norman shifted ever so slightly, his body tensing as the mild mask slipped even more. He knows. Although she tried to tell herself she was being paranoid again, that he was just a harmless, oblivious guy—albeit a strange one—it didn’t work. Her instincts were shouting at her that she and the kids were in danger.
She opened her mouth, still unsure of the best way to reply, when a growly voice interrupted. “What’s going on here?”
Her head whipped around. Theo was standing right next to her, so close that his arm was almost touching hers. This time, however, Theo’s glare wasn’t directed at her. Instead, all of his angry attention was focused on Norman.
“Are you bothering this woman?” Theo demanded, shifting so he was ever so slightly in front of Jules, as if shielding her from harm.
A rush of relief and gratitude hit her. Theo’s take-charge manner was exponentially more attractive when he was defending her.
Norman’s bland expression had returned, which upped Jules’s suspicions even more. A normal person would at least flinch. As she knew from firsthand experience, Theo was hugely intimidating. “Of course not. Jules and I were just getting to know each other.”
With Theo’s back to her, Jules couldn’t see his expression, but there was disbelief in the tight lines of his shoulders. His very broad shoulders. Jules quickly shook the thought out of her head. Now was not the time. In fact, there was never a good time for her to be attracted to a cop.
“Why don’t you just let her do her job, Rounds?” Theo’s voice was even and calm, but there was a menace to him that would’ve left her shaking if it had been directed at her.
Instead of looking worried, Norman seemed almost amused. “Of course. Carry on, Jules. We can talk later.”
“No,” Theo snapped. “No talking later. Just eat your breakfast peacefully and then leave.”
There was a tense silence before Norman said, “Sure.”
After a long moment, Theo turned to face Jules, and she was startled by his proximity. It wasn’t nearly as scary as it had been earlier, when Megan had saved her from him. Now Theo had turned into her hero…and the oddness of that made her smile. Theo’s gaze lowered to her mouth, pausing there for a moment before he abruptly turned and headed back to his booth.
Jules watched him join the other two cops. Looking up, Hugh caught Jules’s gaze. His expression changed before she could get a bead on what he was thinking, and he widened his eyes in an exaggerated pleading expression. “Can we order now? Please? We’re so hungry it’s possible we might die if we’re not fed soon.”
Residual relief made her want to laugh. The third cop whose name she didn’t know looked amused, but Theo’s scowl had returned, even more ferocious than before.
“Be right there,” she called, her voice only slightly shaky. Turning back to Norman, she gave him a quick, insincere smile. “I’ll be back in a minute to take your order.” Before he could respond, she darted away toward the counter.
She returned the coffeepot to its warming station and pulled her notebook and pen from her pocket. As she hurried over to take the cops’ orders, she marveled that she was actually relieved to be at Theo’s table when, just five minutes earlier, she’d been anxious to leave it.
Now that she was away from Norman’s odd and too-knowing gaze, Jules began doubting her reaction. He was a strange guy, sure, but it was highly unlikely he was an investigator or that he knew anything about her except that she didn’t sound like she came from Arkansas. She had to keep her guard up, though. In this new life of hers, pretty much anyone could be a threat. She tried not to glance
at Norman three booths over as she smiled at the three cops—including her crabby, reluctant hero. “Sorry about the wait. What can I get you?”
It was all a matter of what—or who—was the biggest threat.
Purchase Run to Ground from:
The Rocky Mountain K9 Unit Series:
On the Chase releases September 5, 2017
Survive the Night releases February 1, 2018
Places to find Katie Ruggle: