T. J. Kline’s Healing Harts series continues as a soldier suffering from PTSD and a therapy dog trainer find that some scars can only be healed by love.
Julia Hart knows how much good she does training therapy dogs—it’s what helped her overcome her own trials after a relationship turned unexpectedly violent. But moving beyond her mistakes meant trusting only her family with her heart.
Dylan, a former soldier, has run out of hope for recovery. Plagued by nightmares and flashbacks, he doubts anything will help him overcome his PTSD. When his brother convinces him to try one last time, he agrees to get a therapy dog.
He didn’t expect to find Julia or a chance for a “normal” future again. But when Julia’s attacker is released from prison, Dylan and Julia will have to face the past together.
“What are we doing at a hospital?”
Dylan gave the electric doors in front of him a wary glance as Julia slipped a vest over Roscoe and another over Tango. His stomach clenched at the thought of going inside. He’d spent more than enough time in a cold, sterile hospital bed than he cared to ever remember. Months receiving treatments for his burns and recuperating from his head wound had left him with a new appreciation for medical professionals and a newfound aversion to hospitals.
“We’re taking the dogs to the children’s ward.” She looked up at him as she connected the clasp and pushed her bangs back. “Remember you asked me once how I got started doing this? This is one of the reasons why I continue doing it.”
He took a deep breath and looked back at the doors. “You realize this is one of the last places I want to be, right?”
Julia cocked her head to one side. “Sometimes the last place we want to be is exactly where we need to be. You didn’t want to come to my place either,” she pointed out. “And you didn’t want Roscoe.”
Dylan snuck his arm out and wound it around her waist, pulling her toward him. Julia’s hand still held the dogs’ leashes but her fingers clenched against the hard wall of his chest. He felt the uncontrollable longing to be near this woman replace the dread that was trying to wind around his heart at the thought of entering a facility that he knew housed pain and fear.
“And see how well that has turned out?” She slid one hand to his neck, cupping his jaw and meeting his gaze with tenderness. “I promise we will leave if it’s too much for you but it’s good for the dogs and these guys work miracles for the kids. Please, trust me?”
Dylan bent forward, letting his mouth find hers, losing himself in the sweetness of her kiss. He didn’t want to go inside, didn’t want to face the icy fear trying to steal the breath from his lungs, but he wanted to prove himself to Julia and that was enough of a reason for him to agree. He wanted to be the man she believed he could be, the man he used to be. Sheer self-control would have to keep the anxiety at bay. It wouldn’t make it disappear, so far only the medication had been able to make him forget it completely, but his determination to earn Julia’s respect gave him a reason to focus his willpower to get through the visit.
She melted against him, her breasts crushed against his chest. The unyielding wall of his chest cradled her soft curves as his hand slid up her waist to the middle of her back and held her close. His tongue met hers, sweeping against it in an erotic caress and she moaned slightly into his mouth. Dylan felt his body harden in response and withdrew slightly.
“We better head inside before Tango realizes I’m kissing you and wants to slobber on me again.”
She pressed her lips against his in one last, quick kiss, smiling against his mouth. “He only does that because he likes you.”
Julia handed him Roscoe’s leash as Dylan rolled his eyes. “Great. I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me so much.”
Following behind Julia, the electric doors opened with a soft woosh and fans hit them from overhead. Frigid air swept around him and he wondered why every hospital seemed to think they needed to run air conditioners year-round. An elderly woman was seated behind the information desk and smiled broadly when she saw Julia approach, her face beaming with pleasure.
“It’s about time you get back in here. Come give me a hug,” she ordered as she hurried from behind her desk. Her eyes slid to Dylan, sweeping from the top of his shaved head to the worn boots on his feet.
“And who is this tall drink of water?”
Dylan instantly felt the heat rise to his cheeks. The woman laughed heartily and wound a thin arm around his hips in an awkward hug since the top of her permed grey head barely hit his ribcage. “And he’s shy to boot. This one’s a keeper, Jules,” she said, jerking a thumb his direction.
“Dylan, meet Betty. She knows everything that goes on in this place so if you need to know anything, she’s the one to talk to.”
Dylan didn’t even get the chance to introduce himself before Betty jumped in again. “That’s right. And that man over there is Jerome.” She pointed at a middle-aged security guard who nodded their direction with a smile. It was obvious Betty’s display didn’t faze him in the slightest. “How is Mr. Tango doing? And who is this big guy?”
“This is Roscoe. He’s going to be Dylan’s dog but we thought we’d bring him in with Tango to see the kids today.”
Betty moved back to her seat behind the information desk and scribbled on a sheet of paper before producing two badges for Julia from under the desktop. “Here you go. Just bring ‘em back when you finish up. It was nice to meet you,” she shouted to Dylan as he walked with Julia to the elevators.
“Is she always like that?” he whispered as the doors opened and they stepped inside.
Julia laughed and his chest swelled with joy at the sound. He loved that he had the power to make her laugh and that joy seemed to always be waiting just below the surface of her smile. It was a heady feeling and it made him want to do it even more.
“She’s been volunteering here as long as I can remember and she knows everyone.” Julia gave the woman a final wave as the elevator doors closed. “She was the first person to send flowers when I was in here.”
Dylan frowned as his chest constricted and realization struck him like lightning. This was the hospital where Julia had stayed after her attack. This was where she’d spent so many weeks reliving the nightmare, trying to recover from the trauma that had almost killed her. Why in the world would she want to come back? Why would she want to face that nightmare again and again when she could simply avoid it altogether?
“Julia?” He turned to ask her the questions running through his mind when the doors opened. He realized it would have to wait until later.
Dylan felt the difference in the air the moment they stepped out of the elevator. Artwork and murals might decorate the walls, but the bright colors couldn’t cover the stale antiseptic stench that permeated the air in the corridor leading to the nurse’s station. Roscoe seemed to notice it as well and lifted his nose toward the ceiling but continue to walk beside Dylan as if nothing was amiss. A sense of melancholy desperation seemed to hang over floor, like a dark cloud, in spite of the cheerfully painted walls.
“Jules!” A nurse beamed from behind the desk and jumped up, waving several others closer. “Jules is here.”
Dylan saw several orderlies poke their heads from inside doorways to wave to Julia. She was well-loved but he understood the attraction. She had a smile that could light up a dark room and an energy that was infectious. She was captivating. As nurses surrounded the two of them, several bending to greet the dogs, he began to feel like a third wheel. Or, in this case, a fourth wheel, since the dogs garnered more attention than he did. It was an odd feeling since most people were prone to stare at his scars, or pretend not to. He self-consciously ran a hand over the marred flesh.
Then again, his scars wouldn’t be the worst this staff had seen.
“Are the kids in the common room?”
Julia looked his way and gave him a reassuring smile, nodding as if reminding him that she believed he could get through this. At least one of them had some confidence in his abilities.
A woman who appeared to be one of the head nurses chuckled. “They’ve been gathering in there ever since they found out you planned on coming today.”
Julia’s brows dropped forward in a slight frown as she brushed her bangs back, looking around at a few doors still closed. “Who is still in their room?”
“Destiny and Mikayla are too sick today to go.” The nurse took a deep breath and Dylan could see she was fighting to control her emotions. “Jordan isn’t able to go either.”
He saw the flicker of despair in Julia’s eyes before she took a deep breath. Dylan was confused by the sudden change in her but knew she’d explain soon enough. “Tell all three of them we’ll come see them before we leave, okay?” She gave him a sad smile. “Come on, it’s this way.”
He followed her down another short corridor. The sounds of laughter and what sounded like off-key singing came from behind the double doors ahead. “Ready?”
Dylan inhaled deeply and nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
She pushed open the doors and Dylan saw her face light up as she looked around the room. As soon as she walked inside, kids ranging from toddlers to teens rushed them both, most in an attempt to get to the dogs. He was surprised to see Tango sit at Julia’s feet, letting his mouth drop open and his tongue loll out happily, appearing to be smiling as several of the younger kids hugged his legs and neck. Dylan looked at down at Roscoe and gave him the cue to sit. He followed the command flawlessly, allowing the kids to surround him as well, not even flinching when a young boy tripped and stepped on his tail.
Dylan watched as the more hesitant kids made their way closer, some with parents but all with some sort of debilitation. More than a few pushed wheeled I.V. poles as they moved closer.
“Can I pet your dog?”
Dylan turned as a little girl approached. She was short for her age but he wasn’t sure if he was just bad at guessing kids’ ages or if the task was difficult because of the burn scars that covered her from the middle of her scalp down one side of her face and neck before disappearing into the neckline of the hospital gown she wore. He could tell from the puckered skin that she had already had several skin grafts and he remembered the pain of the procedure clearly. He knew first-hand how much it would hurt to move with the burns and scars she had and fought back the tears that stung his eyes and squatted down to her level. In that moment, as she looked up at him with her pretty green eyes shimmering with delight, Dylan thought she was the bravest person he’d ever met.
“Of course you can. This is Roscoe.”
“Roscoe,” she tested the name on her misshapen lips. “He’s pretty.”
“He’s smart too.” Dylan ran a hand over the dogs head.
“Mom said that after my next surgery, Julia can help me find a dog so I can take it school with me. Did she find Roscoe for you?”
Dylan nodded and looked up at the girl’s mother, standing just behind her daughter. “I think that would be a great idea. I’m Dylan.” He held out a hand to the girl, feeling strange to introduce himself to her the way he would an adult but unsure of a better way. Dealing with kids might take more than one visit to master.
“I’m Lisa.” She grasped his hand with her much smaller one. “Did you get him because of your burns?” She pointed at the scars on his neck that stretched behind his ear.
“Lisa,” her mother scolded from behind her. Leave it to a kid to point them out.
Dylan met the woman’s gaze and could see her embarrassment. He shook his head letting her know he didn’t take offense. The wounded look on Lisa’s face made it clear she hadn’t meant any disrespect. It was more likely that she was excited to find someone who understood what she was going through, even if her burns were far more extensive than Dylan’s were.
“It’s okay.” He looked back at Lisa. “No, I was in the military and saw a lot of things that I don’t like to remember. Sometimes they give me nightmares, even while I’m awake.”
“Oh.” The child nodded sympathetically. “Sometimes I have bad dreams about the fire and it’s hard to tell if I’m awake or asleep. It hurts again,” she said, touching her cheek. “Even though the doctors say there’s no feeling left there.”
“It’s sort of like that. Roscoe helps me to remember where I am.”
He laid his hand on Roscoe’s smooth back, realizing that was exactly what the dog had been doing for him. He was keeping Dylan focused on his present reality, living in his now instead of the pain in his past.
He turned and saw Julia watching him, a gentle smile on her lips. She’d been right to bring him here. As difficult as it was, as much as he was fighting to stay present and focused when there were so many triggers vying to drag him into his memories and the pain he’d suffered, she and Roscoe were tethering him to a reality he longed to live in. His fingers tightened around Roscoe’s leash. Maybe this time, if he held on tight enough, he could have a future worth living in spite of his past.
Julia wanted to talk to Dylan about their time at the hospital, wanted to know how he was doing or if it had triggered any memories but was having a difficult time holding her sorrow at bay. Her chest ached from the pressure of holding her tears in and she bit her lower lip to keep from allowing the pain to escape.
Usually when she left the hospital, she took Roscoe into the woods and they walked, letting the miles soothe the emotions the kids stirred in her. It wrenched her heart to see them, most with terrible and debilitating illness and disabilities, but when she spent time with kids like Jordan, suffering from a terminal illness, it broke her. She’d become close to the boy after visiting him over the past four years, watching the leukemia stealing first his childhood, and now his last days. His days were no longer marked by good moments but aching breaths that brought more pain.
Julia had fought back the sobs as Tango gently climbed onto the edge of the bed and laid his head over the boy’s stomach. Even when Jordan’s mother gave in to her own tears, Julia held back, comforting the woman she’d grown to admire as a smile spread over Jordan’s lips and he mumbled a greeting to Tango, trying to raise a weak arm to pet the dog. She had never been more pleased with her dog than when he slid his head under Jordan’s hand, gently, to allow the boy one final moment with him. The silence in the room, broken only by the quiet beep or whoosh from the medical equipment, was deafening. It revealed a truth no one wanted to verbally acknowledge. This would be the last time she would see Jordan alive.
A single tear escaped the corner of her eye as she tried to blink it back and she wiped it away with her finger, hoping Dylan didn’t see. She should have known better. It didn’t surprise her when he reached over Roscoe on the seat between them and laid his hand on her thigh.
“Are you okay?” His voice was quiet, somber, as if he knew Jordan was on her mind.
Julia knew she shouldn’t stop the car, shouldn’t talk about this with him now. She needed to decompress, to get away from everyone, to hide somewhere so she could release the pent up fury at the injustice. But Dylan’s voice was a key that unlocked the vault where she kept her heart hidden. His one question released the flood of emotions she’d been trying to hold back and the dam on her tears fractured into a million painful shards.
Her breath rushed from her lungs and the choking sobs threatened to blind her as she pulled to the shoulder of the road. The cab of the truck was suffocating and she couldn’t draw in a breath as her chest burned from trying to control the sorrow ripping through her. She dropped the truck into Park and climbed out as quickly as she could, running toward the tailgate but having no idea where to go, where she could hide from this agony. Julia doubled over at the back of the truck as a car flew past. She covered her head with her arms, squatting low, unable to move and feeling the grief tearing at her soul. Tango’s sharp bark from his crate in the bed of the truck broke through the keening wail she hadn’t realized was coming from her lips but it was Dylan’s arms around her, lifting her, cradling her against his broad chest that coaxed her back to the reality of the moment.
She felt herself moving as he took her back to the passenger side of the truck and settled her into the seat but she wrapped her arms around his waist, unwilling to release him or the security she felt in his arms.
“Julia, shh, it’s okay. Let go.” His voice quietly reassured her, allowing her to release the pain pulsating throughout her body making her tremble against him. Her tears soaked through his shirt as she pressed her face against the heated wall of his chest, letting Dylan’s strength surround her. His fingers trailed over her spine, soothing her as her sobs slowed making her breath hitch.
When he took a step back, his hand slid to cup her jaw and look down into her face. Julia lifted her eyes to see his brimming with tears. Just knowing that he understood the pain she felt made her heart swell with love for this man. They didn’t simply share a past trauma, even their present emotions were connected, intertwined in a complexly beautiful tapestry, woven together in ways she couldn’t begin to explain. He filled a void in her that no one else had ever come close to even knowing existed. As much as her family loved and supported her, they couldn’t understand the brokenness inside. But Dylan did.
Apart, they were two beaten and broken people, but together, they pieced together the fragments into a priceless mosaic. Julia reached her hand toward his face and he turned, pressing a kiss against her palm, the rasp of his jaw rough but it felt good to feel something, even pain.
“Why do you go?” he whispered against her hand. “If this is what it does to you, why do you put yourself through this?”
“Because they need the dogs, the same way you and I do. They need something to make them remember that there is still something good in spite of the pain they face every day.” She gave him a sad smile as she thought about him talking to Lisa. “I hate seeing what those poor kids go through, the pain and sickness they face every day. But I imaging them facing that without the dogs and that seems even more unfair.”
“I’ve never met anyone like you, Julia. Never known anyone with a heart like yours.”
He didn’t let her say any more, didn’t let her explain how she’d seen doctors stumped by how much the time with the dogs helped kids heal, or how focusing on helping them had given her a purpose when she’d wanted to sink into the dark pit of guilt and doubt after Evan’s attack. His lips found hers in a tender kiss. She could taste the salty wetness on their lips but she wasn’t sure which of them the tears belonged to, nor did it matter. They had become one and, for the only time since Evan’s attack, she felt whole. And, in spite of each imperfection and flaw they each possessed, it felt like perfection.
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