One

Come on, baby,” he murmured. “Give it up for me. You know you want to.”

Jade Bennett did her best to ignore the way the low, sexy voice made her shiver. Besides, it wasn’t aimed at her. Dr. Dell Connelly—dog whisperer, cat whisperer, horse whisperer, and known woman whisperer—was talking to a stray kitten.

The feline in question huddled miserably beneath the bench seat in Dell’s vet center waiting room, staring at him from narrowed eyes, clearly having none of the sweet talk. She was a scruffy, mangy grayish brown with sharp green eyes, and, like Jade, not swayed by sweet talkers.

“Huh,” Jade said from behind the reception counter. “Most females leap right into your arms at the slightest encouragement.”

Dell craned his neck and regarded her from eyes as dark as his secrets. “Not all.”

There was a beat of silence during which she did her best not to break eye contact. He was right. Not all females—otherwise she’d have made the leap.

You’re leaving in one month; it’s far too late now . . .

As if suddenly realizing Dell was in the room, the huge St. Bernard snoring behind Jade’s chair snorted awake and lifted her head. Seeing her beloved, Gertie lumbered up to her huge paws with a joyous bark of welcome before barreling toward Dell, skidding a little on the smooth linoleum as she scrambled around the corner of the desk and . . . launched herself into Dell’s arms.

It was a good thing the guy wasn’t a lightweight because Gertie moved with the velocity of a freight train. Dell braced himself, but all that delicious warm mocha skin of his—courtesy of his Native American mother—covered an impressive amount of tough testosterone and muscle. Still, even a six-foot-two, 180-pound veterinarian extraordinaire could be leveled by the freight-train force of a chunky St. Bernard, and at impact Dell landed on his ass. He merely laughed and gathered the dog in close, not appearing to mind either the floor or the sloppy kiss on the jaw.

He was wearing dark blue scrubs that looked annoyingly good on him, the bottoms of which had slipped low in the scuffle, revealing a inch or two of forest green knit boxers and a strip of smooth, slightly paler skin, not to mention the hint of prime male ass.

Unconcerned about the display, Dell gave Gertie a full body rub, then pushed her off of him.

The stray kitten, which looked to be three to four months old, old enough to have gathered plenty of wariness, did not approve of Gertie’s exuberance. Beneath the chair, she pressed herself closer to the wall and hissed.

“Aw, you’re fine,” Dell told her, rubbing his jaw as he studied her. He had a hint of stubble, like maybe he’d slept too long to spare the time to shave that morning.

It shouldn’t have been so damn sexy.

Neither should the way Gertie was sidling back up to him, trying to love him from not so far.

Animals always loved Dell. Little kids, too.

And women. Let’s not forget how many women loved him.

He was bending low to whisper to the kitten, using that low, undeniably authoritative but oh-so-mesmerizing voice, the one that could melt the panties off a female at five paces.

Good thing, then, that Jade was at least seven paces away.

“Gertie here’s just a big hunk of love,” he was assuring the kitten. “Emphasis on the big hunk. Sit, Gert,” he commanded with soft demand over his shoulder.

Gertie wriggled with barely contained joy but sat. Then grinned.

“There,” Dell said to the kitten. “See? We’re all harmless.”

Harmless? Please. Dangerously smooth, maybe. Effortlessly charming, yes. A walking orgasm . . . without a doubt.

But harmless? Hell no, and at just the thought, Jade snorted.

“Ignore her, too,” Dell said to the kitten. “She’s the smartest one here, but she never learned how to chill. In fact, she’s a lot like you, all tough and wary and grumpy, but I’m betting you’re both just big softies deep down inside.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Jade said.

“Way deep deep inside . . .”

Jade worked at ignoring his alluringly boyish smile—which she didn’t buy for a second because there was nothing boyish about him—and went back to loading the schedule for tomorrow’s patients.

You want him . . .

She worked at avoiding that little voice as well. Lots of things to avoid. But she was leaving, going back home to Chicago at month’s end. Plans had been made, notice had been given. It was as good as done.

The kitten went back to being pissed off at the world.

And Dell laughed softly. “So now I’ve got two women completely ignoring me. I’m going to get a complex.”

As if. Dr. Dell Connelly knew the meaning of the word. He was sure and confident, always. Steady as a rock. Never second-guessed himself.

It was really annoying.

“Come on, kitty,” Dell said. “Trust me.”

Jade could have told her not to bother resisting, that she’d cave eventually. They always did. It was because Dell was the genuine deal, and animals could see that. Animals meant everything to him. While women flocked to him like bees to honey, she’d never seen him put his personal life ahead of his work. It was really a fascinating paradox. The gorgeous man could have anyone he wanted, and yet he didn’t seem to want much more than what he had. A successful animal center, a few close friends, and speed-dial to the pizza joint.

Jade knew that she tended to shut people out and keep them at a distance. Dell did, too, but he went about it differently, making himself available to everything and everyone . . . while keeping it all shallow.

He didn’t take anything too seriously, especially women.

But the kitten continued to stare at Dell with a heartbreaking defiance that Jade recognized from every time she looked into the mirror.

Gertie whined and wagged her tail, sweeping the floor with each pass, hopeful to make a new friend.

Wasn’t going to happen.

“Okay, how about this,” Dell said. “Come out and I’ll buy you dinner.”

The kitten didn’t blink.

“Losing your touch,” Jade murmured, sorting files.

Dell flashed her a smile that said As if, and her ni**les hardened. Which meant he was right—he wasn’t losing his touch. Not even close.

Dell eyed the unhappy kitten and wished she could talk to him. He wished the same thing about his enigmatic receptionist behind him.

Jade was working her computer with her usual slightly OCD efficiency, which was in complete opposition to her eye-popping green fuzzy angora sweater that reminded him of a lollipop. A lollipop with really great breasts. Peanut the parrot was perched on the printer at her right. Both Peanut and Gertie were part of Belle Haven, and since Belle Haven was Dell’s large animal clinic, the animals and everything in the place belonged to him. Well, except Jade.

Jade belonged to no one.

“From what I can gather,” she said, eyes still on her keyboard, “the kitten was deserted at some point during the mob of the free vaccine clinic this afternoon. And,” she added in the same conversational tone, “if I figure out who did such a thing, I’m going to shoot them.”

Nothing reached Dell’s hard-shelled, softhearted receptionist faster than a neglected or abused animal.

Something they had in common.

“We’ll find her a home,” he assured her, looking the kitten in the eyes. “Promise. Now how about it, you, ready to come out yet?”

“Ready to come out!” Peanut chirped, doing her best imitation of Dell’s low-pitched voice.

Dell didn’t take his eyes from the kitten. “I know, you’ve had a majorly sucky day. Come tell me all your troubles.”

“Does that actually ever work for you?” Jade asked.

“Shh, you,” he said, and keeping his movements light and easy, he reached beneath the chair. “Come on, beautiful.”

“Mew,” said the kitten.

“Mew,” said Peanut.

“It’s all going to be okay,” Dell assured the cat. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

When the kitten just stared at him, Dell slowly slid his hand beneath her belly, which was nearly concave. Her ribs were so prominent he could have counted them, which pissed him off, but though she growled and let out one last protesting “mew,” she let him pull her from beneath the chair without slicing him raw with her claws. “Good girl,” he murmured, holding her against his chest and scratching her beneath the chin.

She watched him very carefully, but it was as if she knew that he knew. Hell, maybe abandoned souls recognized abandoned souls, he wasn’t sure, but she slowly relaxed until finally, unable to resist the gentle scratching, she even closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest.

“Yeah, there you go,” he said quietly. “Lifting his head, he flashed a grin at Jade. “If only your species were as easy.”

“We both know that for you they are.” She shook her head. “And that should be illegal.”

“What?” he asked innocently. “Sweet-talking a p—”

“If you say pussy,” she warned. “I’ll make sure that tomorrow you’ll be up to your eyeballs in vaccines and wellpuppy checkups from sunup until sundown.”

“I like puppies.”

“Scratch the puppies. Did I say puppies? I meant analgland expressing. I’ll find every large animal in Sunshine who needs it done and book them, just for you.”

Dell laughed. She did that a lot, his stalwart, snarky, razor-tongued receptionist. Made him laugh.

As well as threaten him.

He was used to it. Hell, he even liked it, which made him all kinds of sick, he knew. Maybe it was the fact that she ran the front desk of his vet clinic in those runway clothes, never so much as blinking when she got covered in dog and kitten hair. Or worse.

Maybe it was her ability to handle his patients and their owners with equal aplomb or that she never took any of his shit. Or that she had a way of uncomplicating his life for him—a miracle considering that she’d come here with virtually no references whatsoever. Dell still no had no idea what had possessed him to hire her, but he had, putting her into a position that had supposedly been only temporary while he looked for someone more qualified.

And yet he’d never looked for anyone else.

It had been eighteen months, but that ship had sailed. She was going back to her old life, whatever that was—she’d been frustratingly stingy with details—and leaving them.

Him.

He had no idea what he’d do without her sitting at the helm of his world, running it with cool, distant efficiency. Not to mention, she was a nice view. She kept her silky strawberry blond hair perfectly twisted on top of her head, except for the few errant strands that had slipped out and were brushing across her shoulders. Her eyes were green, shot through with streaks of amber, and saw everything. She had a mouth, too. Smart, cynical, and made for a man’s fantasy.

And since he should absolutely not be going down that road, thinking about that mouth with the vanilla gloss that he always wanted to lick off, he shook his head to clear it. He usually had more sense, but there was something about Jade and her whole don’t-touch attitude that made him want to rise to the challenge.

And he meant rise.

Her fingers were clicking on her keyboard, her screen revealing her beloved spreadsheet program, which he knew held her notes on anything and everything from which patient he was going to see tomorrow to what color her fingernails would be next.

His favorite was the bright fuck-me red.

“Adam’s checked in from Boise,” she said, referring to his brother. “His class went late, he’s staying over.” She stood. She was average height and average build, but there was nothing else average about her.

Ever.

She coaxed Peanut onto her arm, easily transferring the parrot from the printer to the bird’s night cage.

“Night-night?” Peanut asked her.

“Yes, Peanut go night-night,” Jade said with a sweetness that Dell never got directed at him. He watched her blow a kiss to the bird, receiving one in return, along with a soft mimicking “mew,” and with a low laugh, Jade covered the cage with a blanket.

Her black trousers had pleats, Dell noted, and were snug on the best ass he’d ever seen. All business in front, party in the back . . .

That eye-straining sweater that matched her eyes and name seemed to shimmer beneath the overhead lights. He’d once asked about her name and she’d told him it was for her grandmother, who’d ruled her family with the strength and elegance of the jade gemstone.

Clearly she took the name seriously. Dell had the feeling that when it came to the family she didn’t often talk about, she took everything seriously.

She wore tiny sparkling earrings up one earlobe, matching the myriad bracelets on her wrist, and heels that he wasn’t sure how she managed to balance on, though he enjoyed listening to them click, click, click across his floors all day. His patients enjoyed it, too, especially their owners. The male owners. How many times had he seen a guy come through here and attempt to pick her up? Exactly the same number of times he’d seen Jade politely and firmly shut them down.

There was a little part of him that enjoyed that very much. Okay, a big part, but he’d never made a move on her. Like the government, he preferred to keep his state and church separated; never the two shall meet. Not that that stopped him from wondering what secrets his sexy receptionist had that kept her celibate.

Or hell, maybe she merely left Sunshine and whooped it up on the weekends somewhere else, out of the limelight of their small Idaho ranching town.

She was moving around the room, shutting down for the night. Belle Haven was a full-service clinic. Behind this main building was also a large barn housing their horses and additional equipment, both his own and his brother’s. Adam was a local trainer, breeder and search-and-rescue specialist.

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