Adam had sold the couple their first Labrador several years ago now and had helped them through their first breeding cycle. He scooped up a black pup attempting to eat his shoelace.
“I’m nervous,” Donna admitted, hand to her chest. “This is our first batch of babies.”
“No worries.” Adam slid Dell a look. “There’s a lot of firsts going around here today.”
Dell ignored him and bent over the puppies. There were four brown, two black, and two white Labs, all in various stages of mewling and climbing over each other, tails wagging, tongues out.
“It’s just that we’ve been so frazzled with our daughter’s engagement,” Donna said, stopping the biggest pup from climbing on top of his siblings like a circus performer.
“A lot of that going around,” Adam said.
Dell gave Adam a look that said quite clearly Shut up or die. But Donna smiled at Adam. “Someone you know just get engaged?”
“As a matter of fact,” Adam said. “Dr. Connelly here—”
Dell stepped on Adam’s foot and ground into it a little bit.
Adam drew a careful breath and stopped talking.
But it was too late. Donna had caught the scent of a possible engagement. “Doctor?” she asked Dell. “Are you engaged?”
“He is,” Joe said.
Everyone looked at him in shock. Joe shrugged. “One of your clients in the waiting room was talking about it as she left.”
Adam started to laugh, but Dell put more weight on his foot, and Adam turned it into a cough.
“Oh, this is so lovely!” Donna said, clapping her hands, then leaning in conspiratorially. “You probably don’t know this, Dr. Connelly, but just about all the single women in the country have their hearts set on you. You’re going to break them all with this news.”
Adam coughed again, and Dell took his weight off Adam’s foot because he felt a little woozy. And he was sweating. Christ, this was ridiculous. “The puppies,” he said. “Let’s concentrate on the puppies.”
Adam smirked. Dell ignored him and picked up the runt, a girl. The tiny brown Lab had eyes bigger than her nose and mouth and her head bobbed as she stared at him solemnly. He smiled at her and she licked his chin.
“So when’s the big day?” Donna asked.
Try never, as it would be difficult to be married to a woman who lived seventeen hundred miles away. “The reports of my”—Christ—“engagement are overexaggerated.”
Dell checked the puppy’s teeth to make sure they were properly aligned, then inspected her eyes, examined her skin, and palpated her hips.
“Is she okay?”
Dell set her on the scale, having to keep a hand on her because her legs were scrambling for purchase. She had places to go, things to explore. “She’s slightly underweight, but she’s looking strong.”
Both Donna and Joe looked relieved. “That’s the one my daughter wants to keep,” Joe said.
“We’re going to wrap her up in a white silky bow on the day of the wedding,” Donna said. Her voice went sly. “Maybe you’d like us to save you one for your wedding?”
Adam grinned and looked at him. “How sweet.”
Dell resisted the urge to punch him and busied himself checking for defects the Mooreland’s might not have recognized, like heart murmurs. He found nothing ominous, and after the longest ten minutes of his life he managed to escape. He strode toward his office, taking a quick glance out front.
Jade sat at the front desk, talking on the phone while simultaneously working on the computer, checking someone in, and checking two people out. She sat there, an oasis in the middle of a circus. As if she sensed him, she glanced up. And if he wasn’t mistaken, she grimaced slightly.
He raised a brow.
She bit her lower lip but didn’t look away.
Adam, hot on his heels, leaned in and whispered, “Think we should tell your fiancée that you’re allergic to commitment? That you have abandonment issues? And, oh yeah, that you’re never going to let your guard down enough to actually marry anyone?”
“You’re an asshole.”
“So are you.”
Dell sighed. “Yeah,” he said as Adam walked away. “But knowing it is half the battle.”
By noon Jade had checked in and out a dizzying number of patients while managing to avoid being alone with Dell. He’d seen a bulldog with an ingrown tail, a duck with a mysterious throat infection that turned out to be a swallowed quarter, and a kitten with acne. He’d performed four surgeries.
Jade had grabbed the sandwich from her bagged lunch and walked outside, needing a moment of sunshine.
A soft nicker from the horse pen caught her attention.
Reno. He was close to the fencing and flirting with her. She reached out to touch him and he snapped at her fingers. It was so unexpected that she jumped back and fell to the dirt. She scrambled back to her feet as a big hand settled on the nape of her neck.
She screamed and whirled around and would have fallen again if Dell hadn’t caught her. “Just me,” he said calmly. “You okay?”
They both knew she wasn’t but she nodded. “Reno tried to bite me.”
Dell didn’t say anything for a moment, just slid an arm around her, making her realize she was backing away from both the horses and the man. “What do you know about horses?” he asked quietly, his delicious warmth seeping into her.
“I know that the porcelain horse collection I had as a child wasn’t made to be played with,” she said, trying to lighten the tension. “But I did it, anyway, and kept breaking off their legs. My grandmother got fed up and stopped buying them.”
“The grandmother you were named after?”
“Yes.” She closed her eyes, concentrating on the feel of his hand on the small of her back. Comforting but something else, too. Her heart rate should have slowed by now from her fright, but it was still racing—for another reason entirely now. “They wanted me to be strong and tough like her.”
“It worked. You’re the strongest, toughest woman I know.”
She managed to choke back her startled laugh at that.
“It’s true.” He paused. “Do you know anything about real horses?”
“I know Reno used to like me.”
“He still likes you.” He stroked his hand up her back, letting it settle at the nape of her neck again. “It’s important with any animal, especially a spooked one, to be calm, assertive. Dominant.”
“A horse’s emotions depend on its surroundings and also on the emotions of its human counterparts.”
She went still. “Are you saying that my emotions caused Reno to try to bite me?”
His silence said he was going to let her wrestle with that one. “Relax your arms,” he said, making her realize she was hugging herself tight. She dropped them to her sides with effort.
“And breathe,” he said.
He was right, she wasn’t breathing. She sucked in some air.
“Better,” he said, and leaned past her to rub Reno’s neck the way he was rubbing hers.
Reno gave a snort of pleasure and shifted closer.
“It’s calming,” Dell said.
Yes. It was calming as hell. If he kept it up, she’d do as Reno just had and make sounds of pleasure and shift even closer, too. “You have a bond with him,” she said, managing to sound like she still had bones in her legs.
“Yes, and so do you. You just have to find it, and use your touch and voice to assure the animal that you’re not going to let anything harm him.”
His hand was slowly moving up and down her back now. And she got the message.
He wasn’t going to let anything harm her, either.
She closed her eyes. “I still don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Ever.”
The sun was warm on her face, telling her that even though it was fall, summer hadn’t quite given up the fight yet. She could almost pretend that they weren’t having a conversation she didn’t want to have.
“Ever is a long time,” Dell said.
“I mean it.”
“I know.” He nodded. “I felt the same.”
She shook her head. This didn’t compute. “What are you talking about?”
“I know what it’s like to suffer a trauma. What it’s like to struggle to get past it.”
Deny, deny, deny. “I’m not struggling.”
He just looked at her, and she blew out a breath. “Okay, so sometimes I struggle, but don’t change the subject! You’re six foot two and outweigh me by at least sixty pounds. How were you ever a . . .”
“Victim?” His smile was grim. “I wasn’t always thirty-two and built like a linebacker, you know. Actually, I started off more like a pipe cleaner with eyes.”
That surprised a laugh out of her and she sidled him a glance. No one in their right mind would confuse that well defined, tough, rugged body with a pipe cleaner. “Come on.”
“Jade, trust me when I tell you that in my freshman year I was five foot three and weighed a buck twenty soaking wet. I got my ass kicked every which way, every single day.”
An ache built in her chest for the boy he’d been. “Why?”
“Because I couldn’t keep my mouth closed to save my life. I was a punk-ass kid whose mother had walked away and whose dad had died. I had a chip on top of the chip on my shoulder.”
His mother had been Native American. According to Lilah, when the woman had been a teenager, she’d fallen for a white kid—a big offense in her family. She’d run off with him, but after having her second baby—Dell—she’d run off again, back to the reservation. When the boys’ father had died several years later, she hadn’t wanted her sons back.
Jade and her own mother had some issues, basically control issues, but Jade had never once doubted that she’d been wanted, cherished and fully, one hundred percent loved.
A luxury Dell nor Adam had been given. It made her hurt for him, for Adam, too. For the men that they’d become, not that they’d thank her for the sympathy. They were both far too proud for that. But in spite of what had happened to them, they’d become good men. For both of them, trust had to be earned, and Dell certainly didn’t give it away easily. He shielded his emotions behind his intellect and his job, though he completely surrendered himself to every single patient.
“I’d been dumped into yet another foster home and was pissed off at the world,” Dell said casually, letting her know it could no longer hurt him.
But she didn’t believe that. He had Adam and Brady now, and Lilah. And that was about it, other than a bunch of four-legged creatures.
He wasn’t all that much better than she at letting people in. The thought brought the crazy urge to . . .
The thought was ridiculous and almost made her laugh. Dell was the strongest, most self-reliant person she knew. Comfort wasn’t anywhere on his list of needs. “What happened?”
“My first day at the new school, I picked a fight with the biggest kid there.”
“Hell, I don’t even remember. Because I was stupid.”
“What did he do to you?”
“For starters, he had the entire football team drag me to the park after school for retaliation. They stripped me na**d and told me if I begged real nice, they’d let me go. They lied.”
Her heart was in her throat. “Oh, Dell.”
“Yeah, it sucked.”
“Who saved you?”
“They just stood there?” she asked, pissed and horrified for him.
“No. They beat the shit out of me, swearing that if I ever told anyone, it’d be worse next time.” He shook his head. “Later, at the hospital, I tried to tell the nurses I’d walked into a door.”
She gasped. “You didn’t tell the truth?”
“I still had to go to that school,” he said. “And I wanted to live.” He rubbed his jaw ruefully, as if soothing an old ache.
“Who was in charge of you?” she asked.
“We went back into the system. Then we were taken in by a guy named Sol Anders.” He said the name with fondness. “It was the last foster home I ever had. He kept us, Adam and me. Brady was already there when we arrived and he quickly became our older brother. After I healed up from the attack, Brady and Sol took turns teaching me self-defense. Luckily that summer I grew six inches, and then another five the year after. And I hit the weights.”
It had done a body good . . .
“It wasn’t about vanity,” he said, reading her mind with his usual ease. It was about survival. I did what I had to in order to survive, and so have you. But you already know that . . .”
Reno bumped his big head to Dell’s chest.
Dell made a soft clicking sound with his mouth and the huge horse bumped him again, knocking him back a step, making him laugh softly.
Reno snickered in response, almost as if he was trying to imitate Dell’s laugh.
Dell ruffled the horse’s ears and gave him a smacking kiss right between the eyes, then turned to Jade, eyes serious. “You’re only as strong as your biggest weakness.”
“Is that right? What’s your biggest weakness?”
“Back then, it was trying to be something I wasn’t.”
“And now?” she asked.
His mouth quirked. “Apparently, it’s my fiancée.”