Today, I’m super excited to introduce ex-US Marine Sergeant Aaron Jamison of The Marine’s Mission, available in just a few days! Shannon Moore Redmon made me this lovely book trailer. Then I’m sharing the first scene. Enjoy!
“You should probably know I don’t want to be here.”
Those were the first words United States Marine Corps Sergeant Aaron Jamison blurted out to the ginger-haired woman who’d just approached him, welcoming him with a pretty smile and an enormous, dorky-looking black standard poodle standing at her side, both with curious gazes. As far as Aaron was concerned, her choice in froufrou dogs obviously said a lot about her, kind of like the movie stars who carried tiny pups around in their purses to show off to everyone.
This was the breed of dog she’d chosen to own, and she was supposed to be an expert? She was going to be his service-dog trainer, put him through the program, and his first impression was she was probably as fluff brained as her dog, not someone he wanted to be in charge of him. He’d been told to meet up with Ruby Winslow, his new contact at A New Leash on Love, and since she was standing out here in front of the building, waiting for him, he assumed this was she.
In general, he didn’t say much, and yet this time the moment he had stepped out of his truck, he’d put his foot in his mouth.
Two feet, even.
He’d blabbed exactly what had crossed his mind, and it wasn’t the greatest beginning for either of them.
Neither did it bode well for him when she immediately stopped in her tracks fast enough to make the dust cloud around her cowboy boots, sparks snapping in her light blue eyes as her gaze narrowed on him and her smile wavered. The black poodle stopped with her and stared up at her, curious as to her sudden halt.
He’d rented a truck from Denver International Airport to drive into the Rocky Mountains up to the small town of Whispering Pines, where Winslow’s Woodlands and the military service-dog program were located. The whole time he’d been thinking about how much he was going to hate the next four weeks and how he would rather be anywhere but here.
Every second was bound to be painful, both physically and mentally.
But in hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have said as much aloud, at least not until after they’d been formally introduced.
Ruby looked as if she were about to reply to his rude comment, but then she pinched her lips together, took a deep breath and apparently thought better of it.
“I just thought you should know,” Aaron continued, attempting to wind his way out of the knot he’d just firmly tied around his neck, “that although I have been given orders to show up and complete this program, I’m not exactly a willing participant here.”
He was a straight shooter, both literally as a sniper in Afghanistan and figuratively in the way he lived his life in and out of the marine corps. He didn’t say much, but when he did, he meant whatever words crossed his lips.
That said, he didn’t want to start a war with Ruby this early on in his new mission, even if what he spoke was the truth. He wasn’t here because he wanted to be. He didn’t even really want a service dog, although he wasn’t completely opposed to a tough-looking canine companion—a German shepherd, maybe, or a Belgian Malinois.
Not that what he wanted had ever once played into the situation. It didn’t. Not from the beginning. But that didn’t stop him from feeling angry and frustrated just thinking about having to endure the Veterans Administration’s direct orders. Of all the veterans they could have selected for the program…
Under duress was a mild way of putting what he was feeling right now. The VA was offering him up like a chimp in a laboratory just because of the specific injuries he’d endured while fighting for his country.
Troubled, painful breathing from the IED explosion sometimes caused him great pain and loss of balance. A traumatic brain injury often left him confused. His left leg had the tendency to drag with every single step if he wasn’t always on top of it and was consciously paying attention to exactly how he was walking.
The IED hadn’t even been the worst of his problems. External pain, he could deal with. It was coming back to a civilian life where no one understood what he’d been through that really got him. He’d never felt so alone.
Only his brothers- and sisters-in-arms and other veterans understood his struggles.
And he wasn’t into sharing.
He met the woman’s eyes again and maintained his stiff parade rest posture, his hands locked behind him, not quite willing to take back his words even though he knew he probably should.
“I see,” Ruby said, her voice calm and her tone low, though it didn’t match the expression on her face at all. Her cheeks had turned as red as her hair, and he suspected steam was about ready to pour out of her ears. She’d no doubt screech like a boiling teapot if she didn’t take a breath soon. “Why did the VA send you, then, Aaron, if I may ask? Didn’t you agree to the specifications in our contract? I was quite detailed in what I asked for, and I thought the VA had agreed to my terms.”
He shrugged and nearly groaned with the excruciating twinge the movement caused him. Pain had doggedly followed him around ever since he’d returned stateside, and he refused to take the pain medicine the doctor offered. His mind was cloudy enough without adding to the problem. Usually, he ignored whatever discomfort he endured, but with the extra stress today’s situation was causing him, his agony came through loud and clear on his internal radio.
When a marine under his command had stepped on a mine while on patrol, he’d thrown himself on top of the man, saving the marine’s life but putting a bitter end to Aaron’s military career. Doctors had managed to remove most of the shrapnel from his body but couldn’t do anything about the pain that haunted him. His lungs burned with every breath, often leaving him lightheaded and throwing off his balance.
And that, he knew, was why the VA had thought he was the perfect guinea pig for their pet project, pun unfortunately very much intended. Apparently, a service dog was supposed to help him with those things, although he couldn’t really see how. The only dogs with whom he was familiar were the biting and bomb-sniffing kinds.
Instead of answering Ruby’s question out loud, he turned and walked about five feet, purposefully dragging his left leg, and then returned to her side, his breath coming in ragged gasps and his jaw so tight it was giving him a headache.
Ruby frowned, but not at him. He could see the wheels in her mind turning as she brushed her bangs out of her eyes with the back of her hand.
“And I understand your breathing and balance were also affected?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but if they already told you all this before I arrived, why are you asking me?”
Frustration, an all too familiar emotion, mounted again. He didn’t like anyone focusing their attention too closely upon him, especially not a pretty woman, and he really hated talking about his injuries when he clearly didn’t need to, since Ruby had been given a full report regarding his condition. His injuries were what they were. The IED had quite literally blown up his career in the Marine Corps. What was the point in talking about it?
“I would rather hear it from you. And don’t call me ma’am.”
He jerked his chin in agreement, although why this would be an issue with her was beyond him. He was just trying to be polite.
“I’d like to get your take on how you view your injuries and how exactly you believe a service dog might assist you. Before we get started, I need to find out what it is you’d like to accomplish from this program.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t understand how a service dog is going to help me at all. It seems rather pointless to me. But if you want to know what I really want, ma’am, it’s to get my dog and get out of here,” he suggested with a wry twist of his lips.
“Okay. Well, we agree on that, although it’s a little more complicated than a grab and go. Four solid weeks of training and a final test is involved before you and your dog will truly be a team. Why don’t you follow me to my office so we can discuss the basics?”
Basic training. Great.
All the years he’d spent in the marines, serving his country and making career-killing sacrifices, and he was back to basic training. He wanted to turn around right now, get back in his rental dual-cab pickup truck and drive as far and fast away from here as he could. But as much as he wanted to, he didn’t balk. Instead, he gritted his teeth and followed behind Ruby Winslow and her froufrou dog.
She led him past an outdoor training area containing a number of jumps, seesaws, tunnels and more—everything he imagined would go into training his service dog. He’d watched military dogs run through agility courses before. That part he was excited about. He could easily picture himself and his muscular German shepherd or intense Belgian Malinois running the course at lightning speed—well, at least the dog would be fast.
Him, not so much. The very thought of running made his lungs sting as if he were breathing daggers.
In another large fenced-off pen, at least a dozen dogs of various sizes and breeds were running around playing on a huge grassy area, wrestling with each other or nipping at each other’s heels. Others were stretched out, comfortably resting under the shade of well-placed evergreens and aspen trees.
Ruby led Aaron into a rectangular building nearly the size of a football field. It was so large their footsteps echoed. As he entered, he was surprised to find it was a single concrete-floored room. Various leashes and other training paraphernalia hung on walls or were neatly organized on multiple shelving units.
In the far corner of the room was a single wooden desk and a half-sized filing cabinet with a printer on top of it. Again, everything appeared well structured. A large computer monitor took up most of the desk area, along with two filing baskets containing folders and a few loose papers.
Ruby sat down behind the desk, her dog flopping down beside her chair as she gestured to the seat across from her.
“I’ll bet you say that a lot around here,” he said as he gritted his teeth against his pain and sank into the black leather office chair, which was surprisingly comfortable. He leaned back and crossed his arms.
She looked up from the folder she’d been perusing, looking thoroughly stunned for a moment before his words finally hit their mark.
“What? Oh—right. Sit. Yeah, we do that a lot here.” When she laughed, it was high, throaty and genuine, and suddenly Aaron realized it might be to both their benefits to try to make a new and better start with her. After all, it wasn’t her fault he was here. As far as he knew, she hadn’t specifically been the one to select him for the program.
That would be the military. His military.
“Back there,” he started, taking a deep breath that shot pins and needles through his body and—ironically enough—helped him think more clearly, “when I first stepped out of my vehicle. That wasn’t exactly an introduction, was it?”
“No.” She met his gaze head-on, curiosity twinkling from her light blue eyes. “No, it wasn’t.”
He searched for antagonism in her eyes but found none.
She put down the folder she’d been studying and turned her full attention on him, leaning her forearms on the desk to bring them a little closer.
“I’m Ruby Winslow, the full-time dog trainer here at A New Leash on Love. Please call me Ruby. I’ll be your point person and trainer while working with you and your new service dog, and then at the end of our four weeks together, we will be reporting our results back to the VA.
“If all goes as well as I hope, A New Leash on Love will win a military contract that will both bolster our program here and hopefully help many more of your brothers- and sisters-in-arms to receive service dogs to benefit their lives.
“My three sisters also help with service-dog training from time to time, and you’ll often see one or the other of us—sometimes all of us at once—about town with our dogs, getting them used to different locations and distractions.”
Aaron remained silent as she spouted out all this information. She’d suddenly opened up like a fountain, and he didn’t want to immediately shut her down as he had earlier.
That, and there were just oh so many words.
He wasn’t sure if and when she wanted him to respond.
It took him a moment to realize she’d stopped talking and was staring at him, her eyebrows raised and her chin lightly tilted.
Had she asked him a question?
“What do you prefer I call you?” she asked in her soft, sweet tone. She was clearly repeating herself.
Yep. He’d missed a question, all right.
“United States Marine Corps Sergeant Aaron Jamison is a bit of a mouthful,” she continued when he didn’t answer.
He frowned. For almost his entire adult life, he’d been Sergeant to the people who mattered most to him. He’d never even considered what he was supposed to be called to those he’d meet now and in the future.
“Just call me Aaron,” he finally said, cringing inwardly. His name sounded so—barren. Pathetic. Useless. It didn’t say anything about him at all.
But it would be equally unworkable for her to use any other name. His marine corps career was behind him, and it was about time he faced the wretched future in front of him.
“Okay, Aaron. Are you ready to meet your new service dog?”
Aaron grinned. He’d always preferred action over speaking or paperwork, and he was anxious to see the dog with whom Ruby had paired him. “Now you’re talking.”
“Great,” Ruby said, walking around the desk and leading the poodle at her side toward him.
“Aaron, meet Oscar, your new best friend.”