THE RELUCTANT GUARDIAN
The Protectors Collection
by Alexis Morgan
Publisher: Love Inspired
April 25, 2023
An abandoned child…
He’ll guard at all costs
When screams next door wake Deputy Conner Dunne and his retired police dog, Mutt, he suspects domestic abuse. What he finds is Jody Kruse comforting her new foster child—a traumatized little girl who won’t speak. Conner is determined to remain professional with his pretty neighbor. But when a break-in points to an attempted kidnapping, protecting this family may cost him his heart—and his life.
"Stop whining, dog. Go back to bed."
Hoping Mutt would do as he was told, Conner closed his eyes and tried to drift back to sleep. The dog wasn't having it, though. He hit Conner with a blast of doggy breath and then licked his face. When that didn't work, Mutt followed it up with a soft nip on Conner's arm.
That had Conner jerking upright in the bed, knowing neither of them would get any more sleep until he figured out what his furry roommate was trying to tell him. Mutt might have reached the end of his K-9 career, but there nothing wrong with his instincts. Something wasn't right.
"Okay, I'm awake, boy."
The dog backed away and restlessly paced the floor as Conner yanked on his jeans and then shoved his feet into his shoes without bothering with socks. Not knowing what the situation was, he also grabbed the uniform shirt he'd only taken off two hours ago. The only question was if he should take his service weapon. Erring on the side of caution, he retrieved it from the lockbox in the nightstand drawer and followed Mutt into the living room.
By that point the dog was practically vibrating as he stood by the door. "Okay, Mutt, show me."
They slipped out into the darkness without turning on the porch light. Mutt bolted past Conner and headed straight for the house next door. He had no idea what had set the dog off, but they both knew better than to go charging blindly into danger. He snapped an order, using one of the German commands Mutt had been trained to obey without question. "Fuss!"
Mutt immediately circled back to park himself next to Conner's left foot, content to let his human partner assess the situation. For several seconds, the normal night sounds settled around them: the rustle of leaves in the breeze, the frogs raising their usual racket in a nearby creek, the distant sound of late-night traffic out on the highway. Nothing that triggered any kind of alarm.
Then Conner finally heard what Mutt's superior hearing had picked up from inside the house—a child's scream coming from the house next door. Conner charged forward with Mutt loping along at his side. He'd only moved into his house a couple of weeks back and didn't know his neighbors at all other than to nod on the few occasions when they crossed paths. As far as he knew, the woman next door lived alone. At least he'd never seen anything that indicated there was a man or child in residence.
Not that it mattered who actually lived there—not when it sounded as if a kid was being terrorized. He circled around the low hedge that separated the two houses. At the same time, he called dispatch to alert them to the situation. No cop liked responding to a possible domestic dispute without backup. In Conner's prior job, help would've been only minutes away. In this rural county in eastern Washington, the deputies on duty might be fifty miles or more from where he stood. Even if close by, they could be caught up in their own situation, so there was no telling how soon they would head his way.
The bottom line was Conner and Mutt were on their own. The time it would take for help to arrive could be an eternity of fear and pain for a child. As if to prove his point, another scream rang out and then another. He gave the dispatcher a bare-bones description of the situation and took off running.
"Come on, Mutt. Let's go."
The dog was a silent shadow as they approached the house. Once they reached the porch, Conner edged closer to the front window, hoping to get a glimpse inside before pounding on the door. There was a light on in the hall that led out of the living room to the right. He had to guess that the floor plan of the house was the flip of his own, a small rambler with no basement. If so, that hall led to the two smaller bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a second hall to the left that led to the master bedroom, which had its own full bath. The kitchen and dining area were right behind the living room.
When another scream rang out, he banged on the front door and shouted, "Police! Open the door."
It took every ounce of strength Jody had to hold on to Mia as she strove to comfort the distraught little girl. Thank goodness the old rocker was oversize, providing ample space for the two of them. Jody guessed Mia was around three to four years old and big enough to be quite a handful when she flailed around in her distress. As a result, Jody's arms ached and her heart hurt as she continued to rock slowly back and forth, hoping Mia would find comfort in the steady rhythm and the soft murmurs of reassurance Jody offered her. The screams were getting farther apart, but that didn't matter much. Based on past experience, the little girl might be regrouping before starting up again.
Neither of them had gotten much sleep since Mia had been placed with Jody, and the stress was taking a definite toll on both of them. As she continued rocking, Jody offered up a silent prayer for strength, guidance and patience. "Honey, I know you're upset and scared, but I'm here for you."
She brushed her fingers across Mia's cheek, which was flushed red and almost fever hot from exertion. The little girl's breath came in gulps and gasps, her thin body going rigid before she started wailing again.
This time the pitiful noise ended as quickly as it started. The silence was a welcome respite. Jody drew a deep breath and let it out, doing her best to relax in case that would help calm Mia.
"I'm here for you, honey. Let's see if we can get you back to bed. I'll stay close until I know you're all right."
She muscled them both up out of the rocker. But before she could lay Mia down, someone started pounding on the front door. That set off a new round of tears from the little girl and a surge of anger from Jody. Who on earth came knocking on doors at three in the morning?
No one she was expecting, that was for sure. She crept out of the room and down the short hall to the living room, still cradling Mia in her arms.
"Police! Open the door or we're coming in!"
The police? What was going on that had brought them to her house? Then she glanced down at her small companion and knew. Someone must have heard Mia's screaming and called the authorities. Her stomach lurched. Would they revoke the placement and send the little girl to stay with some other foster family? That was the last thing Mia needed. She'd been through enough already, and another major change might be more than she could handle.
The pounding started again, leaving Jody no choice but to respond. She turned on the porch light and then retreated to an arm's length from the door. That put an end to the pounding, but not the demand. "Open up."
"Let me see your badge first."
It only took a few seconds before a badge appeared in the narrow window by the door. It was attached to a blue shirt worn by a man. Should she call 9-1-1 to verify the police were responding to a complaint at her address or simply open the door?
The badge was replaced by a man's face, one that looked vaguely familiar. Maybe if she wasn't scared half out of her wits and exhausted, she might have even recognized him before he announced, "I'm Deputy Dunne. I live next door."
Okay, that made sense. He'd only recently moved in, but she'd seen him a couple of times since the day the moving truck had come and gone. His SUV was in the driveway most mornings and gone in the evening. With everything going on in her own life, she hadn't had the time or energy to wonder if he worked nights or even what he did for a living.
"I recognize you from when you moved in."
"Are you alone, ma'am?"
She nodded. "It's just me and Mia."
His gaze flicked down toward Mia and back up. "Are you both all right?"
"Yes, we're fine." Not really, but she suspected he was concerned that one or both of them had been injured.
"I heard screaming. I need to see for myself that the little girl is okay."
She glanced down at Mia's tearstained face and wondered what the deputy would think when he saw her. Only one way to find out. "I'm going to unlock the door now."
She undid the dead bolt and quickly retreated to the other side of the room before calling out, "Come in."
The door opened slowly, giving the deputy a chance to scope out the room. His eyes went first to her and then to Mia, who stared back at him with her thumb in her mouth. He pushed the door open farther. "We're coming in. My dog is a trained police dog, and we'll be searching the house to verify you're not in any danger."
With that, an enormous German shepherd stalked into the room. The deputy quickly scanned the living room and the kitchen beyond and then patted the dog on the head as he said, "Voran."
She didn't know what the word meant, but the dog sure did. He immediately disappeared down the hall that led to Mia's room and the spare bedroom Jody used for an office. She could hear him sniffing his way from one room to the next. He reappeared in no time and made the same kind of excursion into Jody's bedroom and en suite bathroom. When he returned, the dog sat down next to Deputy Dunne as if awaiting new orders. If it weren't the middle of an already stressful night, Jody would've found the entire process fascinating.
"Mutt heard the girl screaming all the way from next door."
It wasn't quite an accusation, but it came pretty darn close. With her emotions feeling so raw, Jody fought for a bit of calm before responding. She couldn't afford for this cop to report back to CPS that she wasn't providing adequate care for Mia.
"She does that at night, but we're trying to work through it."
How much should she tell him? Probably more than she wanted to, but this might not be the only time Mia's distress might disturb the dog's sleep in the middle of the night. "Look, would you like a cup of tea or something? I promise I'll explain."
Without waiting for a response, she carried Mia into the kitchen and set her down at the table. "I'll get you some juice, sweetie."
Once she'd taken care of her charge, she put the kettle onto boil. By that point, the deputy was on the phone talking to someone named Sofie. After disconnecting the call, he took a seat at the kitchen table across from where Mia sat sipping her juice. Her eyes were huge as she stared first at him and then at the dog who'd taken a seat next to his owner.
When Mia smiled at the shepherd, Jody's heart did a stutter step. In the few days since Mia had come to stay with her, she hadn't smiled once. Nor had she spoken a single word. Jody might not be comfortable around big dogs, but it was clear that Mia felt differently.
"Don't take this wrong, but is he friendly? Your dog, I mean."
The deputy glanced down at his companion. "Mutt recently retired from the K-9 patrol and came to live with me. As far as I know, the only time he's spent around kids was when he used to do community events. He was always patient with them."
As if sensing they were talking about him, Mutt looked Jody straight in the eye. It was strange to feel as if she were being judged by the huge dog, but she really hoped that she passed inspection. When she offered him a tenuous smile, he left his owner to join Mia at the other end of the table, laying his huge head in her lap. That brought another smile to the little girl's face as she patted Mutt on the head and softly stroked his fur.
The deputy seemed more interested in Jody's response to the interaction than how Mia and Mutt were getting along. "What's wrong?"
Jody set a mug of tea down in front of him before taking a seat at the table. "It's the first time I've seen her smile."
He shot her a look of complete disbelief. "How is it possible you've never seen your daughter smile?"
Before she could answer, Mia scrambled down from her chair and took off down the hall to her bedroom with Mutt hot on her heels. Jody was immediately on her feet and following, with Deputy Dunne right behind her. The two adults stopped in the doorway and watched in astonishment as the little girl climbed back into bed and under the covers. Mutt turned in a circle twice and then curled up on the floor by the bed.
Jody didn't know what to do next. It was doubtful the deputy would lend her his dog, but it couldn't hurt to ask. Keeping her voice at a whisper, she leaned closer to him. "Could he maybe stay until she falls asleep?"
After a brief hesitation, he slowly nodded. "For a little while. I still need to know what's going on here."
"Thank you." She spoke louder when she looked across at Mia. "Mutt will hang out until you fall asleep. Then he has to go home and sleep in his own bed. Do you understand?"
Mia leaned over the edge of the bed to pat the dog again and then nodded.
"I'll leave the lamp on for you."
Jody was all too aware of the police officer following in her footsteps as she led the way back to the kitchen. She figured him to be a shade under six feet, about half a foot taller than she was. He also had a slight case of bed head, the blond waves flattened more on one side than the other. She felt a small surge of guilt to know he'd been jarred out of a sound sleep when Mia's screams had drawn the dog's attention. By that point, their tea was nearly cold, but he didn't seem all that interested in drinking it anyway. He'd pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket and then patted his pocket as if looking for a pen. She fetched one from the counter and then sat back down.
"Okay, what do you need to know?"
"Start off with the basics—names, etc., for both you and the girl."
"I'm Jody Kruse."
She spelled her name and then rattled off her address and phone number. While he finished writing, she drew a slow breath. "We're calling her Mia. She came to stay with me three days ago. I'm her foster mother."
His expression turned grim. "What's her family situation?"
"I wish I could tell you, but we don't know." Jody took a sip of her tepid tea and grimaced. At least it soothed her parched throat. "She was found abandoned outside County Hospital in the middle of the night. All she had with her was a small backpack that held a few clothes and a stuffed toy. She was sitting alone on a bench near the emergency entrance."
Deputy Dunne was frowning big-time by that point. "No one saw anything?"
She shrugged. "The last I heard the police hadn't found any witnesses, but they're still looking. Evidently she was dropped off after the night crew came on shift. That helped narrow down the time frame, but that's all. From what the hospital told CPS, there's normally a steady stream of people going in and out of the place, but it turned out to be one of those rare quiet nights. If an orderly from the evening shift hadn't come back for something he'd forgotten, there's no telling how long Mia would've been out there on that bench."
How scared must she have been sitting there alone in the chilly darkness? Jody had her own experience with guardian angels protecting the innocent, and she could only be grateful that one must have been watching over Mia that night.
"I'm guessing there weren't any security cameras in the area."
"Not in that particular area, or at least that's what I was told."
"What does Mia have to say about what happened?"
Dunne set his pen down, the disbelief in his icy blue eyes all too clear. "I'm not great at guessing how old a kid is, but even I know she's old enough to talk. What does she say when you ask about her parents?"
Jody found herself praying for patience for a second time that night. "Our best guess is that she's somewhere between three and four years old. So, yes, she is plenty old enough to talk. She just won't. The doctors say there's no obvious physical reason they can find for her silence, so we're pretty sure it's trauma related."
She offered him a rueful smile. "You know firsthand that her vocal cords work, but sadly the only sound she makes is when she wakes up screaming at night. The social worker and I have tried other things. If we ask her to write her name, she only scribbles. When we ask her where her family is, she draws a car. If we ask about her mother, she shakes her head. We don't know what that means. It could be she doesn't have one or that she doesn't know where she is. She gets more upset when we ask about her father."
"Any signs of abuse?"
"Not any obvious ones. No bruises, scars or anything like that. The doctor who examined her in the ER described her as well nourished, if that means anything."
"Any fingerprints on the stuff she had with her?"
"If they've learned something useful, I haven't heard about it. Maybe the tests were inconclusive."
"Anything else I should know?"
Jody shook her head. "Only that I'm sorry she woke you up, Deputy Dunne. I'm hoping the screaming will stop once she realizes she's safe with me."
"Might as well call me Conner."
The offer was said a bit grudgingly, but she took it as a sign she had gone from being a suspect to…well, she wasn't sure what exactly. Regardless, somewhere in the last few minutes, his demeanor had changed. He seemed less confrontational and more concerned.
"If you'll call me Jody." She offered him a small smile. "I appreciate that you and Mutt came running when you thought a child was in danger."
"It's my job."
That was true, but she doubted that his job description included letting his dog stand guard so a scared little girl could go back to sleep. Rather than point that out, Jody stood up. "I'll go check on Mia. Hopefully she's settled in for the night so you and Mutt can get some sleep."
Once again, he followed after her, explaining the dog might not leave unless Conner ordered him to stand down. To Jody's relief, Mia was sound asleep, her face peaceful and relaxed. When she started toward the bed, Conner put his hand on her shoulder to stop her.
When he stepped around her, Mutt opened his eyes and focused all his attention on his owner. Conner softly whispered a word that sounded like "hoose." She wasn't sure what it meant, but the dog lurched to his feet and silently followed his owner out of the room and down the hall to the living room.
Before Conner opened the door, he scribbled something on a piece of paper from his notebook and held it out. "I mostly work evenings, but I can get called out anytime they need me. Here's my direct phone number. Don't hesitate to use it. You know, just in case."
She was still trying to figure out in case of what when he and Mutt disappeared into the darkness outside, pausing only to issue one last command. "Lock the door."
Jody was too tired to object to being ordered around. Instead, she did as he said before heading back to check on Mia one last time before seeking out her own bed.