Home > North of Love (Xtreme Ops #7)

North of Love (Xtreme Ops #7)
Author: Em Petrova

 

NORTH OF LOVE

 

by

 

Em Petrova

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

The first thing Hunt Cason laid eyes on when he walked into the firehall were two dogs wearing reindeer antlers.

The K-9s on the Alaska Search and Rescue team sat pretty with doggy smiles on their faces to greet all the guests arriving at the Christmas party.

Hunt made sure his own German Shepherd, Aries, cleared the door before closing it behind him. His teammates turned to look at him.

He spread out his arms. “Now this is a party.”

Laughter greeted his announcement, and one of the guys pointed to the bar set up along one wall. “Grab yourself a drink and then we can call it a party.”

Hunt grinned and bent to release Aries from his leash. He’d stick close to his side most of the time, but the dog would also socialize with his K-9 friends. He patted the dog’s flank.

Aries looked at him, gauging his mood far better than any of the humans in this hall. Last year they’d missed the Christmas party because they were called out to search for a missing couple. Hunt and his crew of five, plus dogs, had discovered that the car slid off the icy Alaskan road.

Unfortunately, that had been a sad ending, and just days before the holiday too. Which was why this year, Hunt wasn’t taking the chance of being on call—he’d saved up his vacation days and was taking them all at once over the holidays. Three weeks of not being awakened in the night by the dispatcher. Three weeks of sleeping in and kicking back to drink beer and watch football.

He needed this downtime, and the only way to get it was to escape to a mountain cabin the way top surgeons left the country to gain a much-needed vacation.

“Here ya go, man.” His teammate, Shane, held out a whiskey shot in a plastic cup. “You deserve it after all the hours you’ve put in this month.”

“Month?” Hunt accepted the shot and knocked it back. The whiskey scorched all the way to his stomach. “Hell, this year.”

Another teammate joined them, then another, until he stood in a cluster of four guys. Their civilian clothing jarred him a little. He was used to seeing them in the red ski jackets with the S&R logo on the chest. Today, most wore jeans and T-shirts or polo shirts, but Roger was wearing an eccentric ugly Christmas sweater sporting Rudolph with a nose that actually lit up.

“Nice sweater, Rog.” He raised his empty plastic cup in tribute to the man’s choice.

The forty-something guy grinned and twitched his head toward the dogs in antlers that were being fawned over by the women. “I can’t let the dogs get all the ladies.”

Hunt nodded. “I see what you mean.” A woman who was on S&R Team Alpha squatted down before the dog, talking to him.

“Damn, I wish I was that dog. He can probably see down Rachelle’s blouse.” Roger’s quiet comment had them all chuckling.

“Just grab a cup of cheap wine and take it over there to her,” Hunt encouraged his friend. At his side, Aries sat close enough to brush his pant leg. Automatically, Hunt reached down to rest a hand on his head.

“Yeah, go get her, Rog. You’ve been dancing around that woman for years,” Shane put in.

Roger was one of the men who glued their group together. He rallied them when they were flagging after long hours on a mission. He regaled them with stories that buoyed their spirits. He deserved some happiness.

Hunt sent a look at his sweater. “No one can resist Rudolph.”

“You’re right, Hunt. Shane, hold my beer.” Roger thrust his cup into Shane’s hands before squaring his shoulders.

They all laughed as the man broke away from their group and crossed the room to Rachelle. She looked up, saw his sweater and laughed. Before long, they were talking and drifted over to the bar for that cheap wine.

Hunt was deep in conversation with Shane, but attuned to his dog as always, he noted a shift in Aries. The dog stood, a tremor running through his body that could only signal he recognized his best dog-buddy Zack.

Which meant Zack’s handler had also entered the firehall.

Hunt swung his head toward the door. Vivian Valentine had been one of his best friends for years. At one time, he felt a spark of more-than-friendship for her, but now she was married to a member of the Xtreme Ops team. It had been a letdown to Hunt, though he knew it was for the best. Working with your love interest usually didn’t end well, and he valued their friendship far more.

Hunt looked down at Aries. “Go on. Go see Zack.”

The dog shot off as soon as Hunt voiced the command. He and Zack didn’t bother with sniffing each other in greeting—they went straight to wrestling right there in the middle of the room.

“Excuse me,” Hunt said to Shane and the others. With a grin on his face at the dogs’ happy reunion, he crossed the room to where Vivian stood with her husband Alix Broshears.

“Broshears.” Hunt offered a nod of hello.

“Cason.”

At one point, they disliked each other immensely, but Hunt got over it pretty quick once he saw how happy the man made Vivian.

“Hunt.” She hugged him, and he gave her a squeeze that was strictly brotherly. She stepped back. “What, no ugly Christmas sweater tonight?”

“You’ll have to see Roger if you want a laugh.”

She went on tiptoe to scope out the room. “Ooh, I see he’s finally gotten up the gumption to talk to Rachelle!”

“That’s the power of a light-up Rudolph nose for ya.”

The dogs were going at it, sprawled out on the floor because they didn’t give a damn about the party, play-growling and biting gently at each other.

“They missed each other,” Hunt commented.

“You didn’t bring Freedom too?” she asked.

The other dog that Hunt worked with alongside Aries had been nursing some arthritis in his hips. He’d left him with a K-9 caregiver who would baby him with special meals and a warm fire while he and Aries were on their mountain retreat.

He shook his head. “Not this time.”

Someone called his name, and he pivoted to see a guy holding up a couple shot glasses.

“You’re being summoned, Cason,” Broshears said in his rough, growly tone.

“Looks like it. Catch you two later.” He started to move away, and Aries rolled to all fours, waiting for direction from Hunt. He gave the dog a hand gesture, and Aries went back to playing with Zack.

Hunt was stopped by two more people wanting to shoot the breeze, mostly about how a storm was coming and they couldn’t wait to get out their snowblowers. By the time he reached the friend at the bar, he needed that shot. But drinking it meant he wouldn’t be fit to drive, and he required all his faculties to get safely to that cabin and start his vacation.

“I’ll have a beer this time instead,” he told his friend. A couple more people joined them, and soon they were chatting loudly.

Hunt’s temples throbbed. By nature, he enjoyed his solitude. While working with a team was his daily life, he found he craved more downtime than most. He needed to unwind and center himself in reality after spending hours—usually days—on a frigid mountain searching for signs of missing persons.

That shit took a toll on anyone, and he was eager to leave it all behind for three whole weeks. The most time he’d ever taken off in over a decade.

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