She froze. “So you did hear.”
When he just looked at her, she sucked her lower lip between her teeth. “It was for you, you know. A favor.”
“Yeah? How do you figure?”
“I saved you from having to worry about Leanne. Hell, I saved you from messy emotional problems with any woman. You’re saved from having to deal with real love and genuine passion. You are welcome.”
He went brows up. “So I should be thanking you, then.”
“I . . .” She let out a breath. “Okay, not exactly.”
“You know that news travels fast out here. People’ll have us married with children in no time.”
Because she looked much as he imagined he’d looked earlier with Adam, he could laugh. “It wouldn’t be that bad.”
She shrugged but looked unconvinced. And he realized he really had no idea what her hopes and dreams were for herself. None. “You don’t see yourself married? A mom?”
“I try not to look that far ahead.”
“And they call me tight-lipped,” he said. “Come on, Jade. Tell me about you.”
“What do you want to know?”
“More than you get a hard-on for organizing things.”
“Like . . . why you come all photo ready to a job you’re obviously overqualified for, wearing designer clothes when you’re going to get dog and kitten hair all over you.”
She shrugged. “I know how to run a washing machine.”
“Okay, so why don’t you date? You’re sexy, smart as hell, and know your way around a good conversation. Yet whenever a guy approaches you, you use cynicism and sarcasm to scare him off.”
“Not my fault if a guy’s scared off by a little attitude.”
She was throwing off some good ’tude right now. “Tell me what scared you so bad you ran from Chicago,” he said. “Don’t you think it’s time?”
She stiffened and turned away. “What it’s time for is to get back to work.”
The next morning, Jade arrived at Belle Haven before dawn’s first light for their biweekly vaccine clinic. She sat in her car, eyeing the walk to the front door.
Another vet clinic had been hit in Coeur d’Alene the night before, and it was all over the news. Dell had upgraded the security system, adding cameras at the front and back doors and several panic buttons throughout the clinic with a direct line to emergency dispatch.
His cool, calm, almost ruthless efficiency told her that he was very serious about this. And if Dell was serious, it meant he had a good reason. Dell had a lot of really great qualities, but allowing others to see his weaknesses wasn’t one of them. This place, and the people and animals in it, were his. No sharing. The protective, possessive side of his nature should have threatened her peace of mind but at the moment she was glad for it.
Still, she had to make the walk from her car to the door. “Going to need reinforcements for this,” she told Beans and put in her iPod earphones. She hit shuffle and Eminem came on.
Eminem was an ass kicker.
Still, she kept the volume down so she could hear what was going on around her. Normally she liked to get in a half hour before anyone else to set up, but nerves jittered through her stomach as she headed across the lot.
Inside, past the alarm and behind the locked door, she started breathing again. She let Beans loose, uncovered Peanut, and began to get ready for the mob scene that always occurred on free clinic days.
Because she couldn’t deny the slight nerves still jangling, she cranked the volume on Pink and was singing along, trying to enjoy the solitude and quiet. After a few minutes she felt herself begin to relax at the regular, familiar routine of turning on the equipment, checking the supplies, organizing the files for the day. She walked past the drug cabinet, as always automatically reaching out to make sure it was locked.
It was. It was always locked, but to make sure was a comfort. She went still when the hair at the nape of her neck rose, then tore out her earphones in time to catch a whisper of sound, the soft brush of a man’s footstep. And then another, telling her that there were two of them behind her.
“Do as I say, bitch, and I won’t hurt you. Yet.”
Dark fear as he emphasized the words with the cold muzzle of the gun thrust under her jaw.
Frozen with fear, she tried to turn her head to look at him, but he ran the tip of the gun from her jaw down her throat and over her collarbone to skim her breast. “Let’s go,” came the low, rough voice. “Unless you want to spend some time out here with me first . . .”
She felt the hand on her arm and heard her own whimper.
“Jade. Jade, it’s just me—”
“Man, she’s too far gone to hear you.”
“I know. Fuck—”
Jade felt herself being picked up. She struggled automatically, panic welling, blocking her throat so that all that escaped another pathetic whimper.
“You’re okay. Jade, can you hear me?” A hand rough with calluses stroked gently down her hair. “You’re safe.”
Just a flashback. That’s all. A flashback triggered by the Halloween mask from two nights before, not to mention hours of tossing and turning, culminating in having the bad timing of being nearly scared out of her own skin in front of the drug cabinet.
Which is where she’d faced her own nightmare once before.
“Here,” Adam said to Dell, dragging a chair over. “Sit with her here, I’ll get her some water.”
Her brain didn’t seem to want to connect with reality, and she couldn’t draw air into her lungs. Embarrassed, she buried her face into the crook of Dell’s neck and tried to breathe him in instead.
“Jade. Jade, listen to me.” Dell, speaking in that quiet calm voice of his, the one that made her struggle to settle just so she could hear more of it. “You’re safe. I’ve got you.”
She nodded, hoping she looked like she was back in control of herself. But she figured she must have failed because he ran his hands slowly up and down her back, soothing her, whispering softly to her, words she couldn’t quite catch but it didn’t matter. His voice was heaven. If he kept talking, just like that, she thought maybe she could even start breathing again.
Adam came back with a glass of water. “She okay?”
“Yes.” Dell cupped her face in his big hands, his own face so close to hers. “She’s okay.”
Jade nodded, even though she had a grip on his shirt, tight enough to hurt her own fingers. But she didn’t let go as she drew in a desperate gulp of air and let it out.
“She’s hyperventilating,” Adam said quietly.
“No, she’s got this. You’ve got this, Jade,” Dell assured her and took the water from Adam to hand to her.
“Slow sips,” Adam said, hunkering down at her side, his eyes on her face.
“I’m fine,” Jade said, and gulped down the water, relieving her parched throat. Apparently freak-outs made one thirsty. Who knew?
Adam took the glass from her and that’s when she realized . . . she was in Dell’s lap.
“Careful,” Adam said when she stood up. “You don’t have your sea legs back yet.”
“I’m fine,” she said. A broken record. It didn’t escape her notice that Dell made sure to be very close to her, close enough to grab her if she started to lose it again.
But she wouldn’t. Hell no. She was overcoming.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Adam and Dell exchanged a long look and she grimaced. “Okay, so I’m working on it.”
Dell’s eyes never left hers. “What’s setting you off?”
She shook her head. Not going down that road. Luckily for her the phones were starting to ring, and that was her cue. “Nothing. It’s nothing. Got to get the phones.”
But she was already scrambling out of there for the sanctuary of her front desk.
Dell’s last few appointments of the day were worming puppies—always fun—and examining a twelve-year-old German shepherd suffering from pneumonia. The owner was Gil Roberto, the local mechanic. He and Max had been together for all twelve years. Gil was sitting on the floor with Max’s head in his lap, looking like he was about to face the firing squad. But Dell drained Max’s lungs in a quick procedure, and Gil was able to take Max home.
It was a good end to a rough day. Dell had kept his eye on Jade, but she’d played things close to the vest. Still, there was no doubt she was working hard at keeping it together, but whatever the other night had dragged back up for her, it had shaken her to the core.
Tired and dirty, Dell showered in the bathroom attached to his office. When he came out, he found Adam in his office chair, feet up, leaning back, messing around on Dell’s laptop. “You’d better not be looking at porn,” Dell said. “You crashed the entire system last time.”
Adam didn’t bother to acknowledge his brother’s presence.
“Don’t you have your own office right down the hall?”
“It’s your turn to buy dinner,” Adam said, still staring at the laptop screen. “I’m thinking pizza.”
Adam looked up and eyeballed him. “You figure out what’s up with our fearless girl?”
“She’s still not sharing?”
“Something bad happened to her,” Adam said.
“You going to ask?”
“No,” Dell said.
Dell slid his brother a long look. “Did pushing ever help you?”
A ghost of a smile crossed Adam’s mouth. “No.”
Dell shoved Adam’s feet off his desk, and that’s when he realized . . . the office was clutter-free. He had two filing cabinets—usually fully loaded with stacks of shit on top—and then a credenza, as well as a set of chairs used as crap collectors. But everything was completely cleaned off. “Holy shit.”
Ever alert, Adam looked around. “What?”
“The entire room is clean.”
“Yeah, I assumed you finally shoved the entire mess into the trash to start over.”
Dell hauled Adam out of the chair, then sank into it himself, whipped around, and opened the drawers of the credenza.
Organized and neat as a pin.
“You get some sort of extreme makeover TV crew in here when I wasn’t looking?” Adam asked.
“Jade,” Dell said.
“She did this.”
“Actually,” Jade said from the doorway. “I brought in a hazmat team to handle it.”
Adam flashed her a rare smile.
“Wow,” Jade said, smiling back. “You ought to do that more often. Oh, and line one. It’s Holly for you.”
Adam’s smile faded.
Holly was the daughter of Donald Reid, an extremely wealthy businessman who’d bought up a bunch of failing ranches and had somehow turned them around in a bad economy. His daughter Holly had recently joined him from New York. She was some big financial wizard and the bane of Adam’s existence. Donald was rich, but also a big old softie, and often fostered young search-and-rescue puppies for Adam until they were old enough to be trained and adopted. The problem was, Donald had been spending a lot of time up north helping upgrade his sister’s ranch.
This left Holly handling the entire Reid empire, puppies included. She and Adam were oil and water, which was hugely amusing because it was nice to see the infallible Adam messed with for a change.
“I’m busy,” Adam said to Jade calmly, also amusing. The calmer Adam appeared, the more rattled he was.
“Already told her you were in,” Jade said. “Sorry.”
Adam’s left eye twitched.
Jade nodded. “And yeah, you should be afraid. Very afraid. That woman is one pissed-off client.”
Dell snorted, taking care to step out of the way before Adam could smack him upside the head.
“Why is she mad?” Adam asked Jade.
“Because you’re breathing,” Dell said. “She’s always mad at you. Question is, why? What did you do to piss her off this time?”
Adam’s expression was one hundred percent impassive. A battle-ready soldier. One who was staring at the phone like it was a spitting cobra. “I dropped off her father’s new puppy yesterday,” he said.
“Donald out of town again?”
“Well, pick up the phone,” Jade said. “You can’t just leave her on hold.”
Dell leaned in and hit speaker on the phone.
Adam flipped him off, but with a resigned expression, he said, “Connelly.”
“You,” came Holly’s voice, crystal clear, and so cold icicles nearly formed in the air. “You did this to me on purpose, didn’t you? What was it, some kind of sick revenge?”
Jade looked at Dell but Dell shrugged. Hell, he had no idea. If Jade played things close to the vest, Adam was the master.
“Revenge?” Adam repeated as if discussing the weather. “For what?”
“You know damn well for what.”
“I’m in the middle of a meeting, Holly,” Adam said. “You’ll have to get to the point.”
“Okay, the point. The point is you’re an ass—”
Adam scooped up the phone, taking her off the speaker. “Calling me names isn’t going to encourage me to come rescue you. Again.” Adam paused, the picture of polite listening. “Is that even anatomically possible?” He listened some more. “Only if you ask me real nice—” He winced and set the phone back into its cradle. “She had to go.”