Jade shook her head. “It’s really such a surprise that you’re not married.”

When she was gone, Adam looked at Dell. “Pizza.”

“If you tell me what Holly said.”

“She said that if she ever got ahold of me, she was going to do to me what the puppy did to her Prada pumps.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah. And she was pretty specific about where she planned on shoving the shoe remains.”

Dell winced. “So maybe we should go get the puppy and rescue Holly before we eat?”

“Hell, no. I’m going to bring her two more puppies later on tonight.”

Dell stared at him. “You’re insane.”

Unconcerned, Adam shrugged.

“She’s going to kill you.”

“She can try.”

Adam wasn’t playful much these days; in fact, he hadn’t been since he’d left the National Guard after a rescue had gone bad a few years back where half his team had been killed. In the time since, he’d been dancing around a boatload of guilt and a dash of PTSD for good measure.

But he was definitely showing signs of playfulness now. Or so Dell hoped. “Or you could stop baiting her and try something else.”

“Like?”

“Like sleeping with her.”

Adam slid him a look.

Now it was Dell who shrugged. “Or hey, go on living like a monk, driving the rest of us out of our f**king minds. Your choice, man.”

“Not all of us feel the need to sleep with anything in a skirt.”

“You used to,” Dell pointed out.

“Things change.”

Dell shook his head and left his office. Jade was standing at her desk pulling on a long, fuzzy angora sweater that Dell happened to know would cling to her every curve.

“Adam and I are getting dinner,” he said. “Come with us.”

She slapped a couple of disks into his hand.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Your backups.”

“I like my clean office,” Dell said.

“You mean you like having furniture that’s furniture instead of crap collectors?”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“No, it was worse.”

Adam was grinning as he joined them. “Aw. Your first fight as an engaged couple.”

Jade ignored this. “I’ve laid out the payables that need attention and brought up all the outstanding receivables that I could find, though it’d be more accurate if you finished entering your accounting for this month.”

They’d all been running like crazy for most of the day. How had she managed to do all this as well?

“And with another few hours I could probably get your checking account reconciled.” She gave him a look of reproach. “You’re three months behind.”

“I’m getting to it.”

“If you do it in the first week of the new month, you can close that month out and your accounting system takes you all the way to the financial statements. Assuming you finish entering your receivables.”

Dell blinked. “For eighteen months you’ve been answering my phones and setting up my schedule and bringing my patients back to me like you were born to be a receptionist. You never once mentioned all these other talents.”

She grabbed Beans’s carrier and her purse and headed for the door. “My talents are on a need-to-know basis.”

Adam raised a brow.

Yeah. She was definitely feeling better. But then he saw it, her slight hesitation at the door.

She didn’t want to go to the parking lot.

“Adam,” Dell said. “I’ll meet you at Risolli’s.”

Adam never took his eyes off Jade, frozen in clear agonizing indecision. Nodding, he shifted around her, gently squeezing her arm before slipping out the door.

Jade mentally put on her big-girl panties and strode out the door the same way Adam had. Of course it was much easier to face her demons with one hundred and eighty pounds of solid muscle at her back, and Dell was at her back. He followed her to her car, waiting silently while she set Beans in the back and buckled her in. A breeze blew across the lot, and a branch cracked. She stiffened, but Dell’s hand slid to her lower back, warm and sure. Steadying. She closed her eyes. “I’m just thinking about where I want to go for dinner,” she whispered.

“Risolli’s. Risolli’s is where you want to go for dinner.”

“Risolli’s is a heart attack in the making,” she said automatically.

“They have salads. Just think about it. And while you’re thinking . . .” He wrapped his arms around her, all the way around her from behind. “Think about this,” he said.

The hold was almost an exact replication of how she’d been grabbed that night and she froze.

“Where are your keys to the meds lockup, bitch?”

“I don’t have keys,” she said.

“Wrong answer.”

She heard the pathetic little ragtag whimper drag up from her throat. “Dell.”

“I know,” Dell murmured very softly. “It’s an aggressive move, and your heart’s pounding and you’re probably hardly able to hear me over the roar of the blood in your ears but listen to me, Jade. It’s just me, and you have nothing to be afraid of with me. Break free.”

“I can’t.”

“Goddess Jade doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Fight, Jade. Do whatever you have to do to get loose. You don’t have to be a victim.”

A moment ago she’d been happy to have him at her back but now that he was using it on her it was a different story entirely. She could feel the strength in his arms, the heat of him behind her and could hardly breathe.

He didn’t rush her, just gave her that same, steady patience he gave his animals. But she wasn’t an animal, and she couldn’t turn off her brain. This wasn’t going to work. “Dell,” she said hoarsely, the panic choking her. “Please—”

“First rule of self-defense. Stay calm and think as the situation develops.”

Calm was out of the question. Not with flashbacks making her vision blurry. Or maybe that was the lack of air since she was holding her breath.

“Second rule, show no fear or hesitation.”

Right. She’d get right on that.

“Breathe, Jade.” He brushed his jaw to hers. “Come on, tough girl,” he murmured softly, in direct opposition to the tight, unforgiving hold he had on her. “You can do this. There are many ways, but we’ll take it one at a time. I’m a bad guy. How do you get away from me?”

“I don’t know!” she cried, her hands coming up to grip his arm around her waist. But all that did was remind her of just how strong he was.

“The human skull is a powerful weapon all on its own,” he said. “Don’t waste your time trying to step on my toes or elbowing me in the ribs. None of those moves will do anything but piss someone off. Bash my face with the back of your head.”

“What?”

“Connect once, maybe twice with your attacker’s face or collarbone and you’ll deliver some serious damage, trust me. Do it.”

“Do it, give me your keys. Now.”

She shook her head, and another guy in a mask moved into her line of sight, roughly pushing someone.

Karen, a floor nurse.

Jade gasped when the second masked guy casually set the muzzle of his gun to Karen’s temple. “Bet you can find the keys now,” he said.

He was right. Jade pulled the keys out and threw them at him. He snagged them out of midair and, with a smile that still haunted her dreams, dragged her along with him to the drug storage.

“Jade.” Dell was saying her name, quietly but firmly, in a voice that demanded she pay attention. “Jade, you can do this. As soon as the adrenaline kicks in, everything will seem to happen in slow motion. If you stay calm, your mind will process thoughts so rapidly that it will even seem like you’ve got hours to make a decision on how to react.”

She closed her eyes and tried to fall into her adrenaline instead of fighting it. She didn’t manage until he tightened his grip. Then she drew in a breath and snapped her head back.

Dell dodged to the side, but she still managed to hit him on the cheekbone, and he immediately dropped his hold on her.

Spinning around, she stared at him, horrified.

But when he straightened, he was smiling. “Nice.” He lifted his hand to touch his cheekbone, already reddened.

“Oh my God. I hurt you.”

“That’s the point,” he reassured her, looking proud. “It works, Jade. Every time. I was only able to dodge it because I knew you were going to do it. With the element of surprise, you’ll break anyone’s hold on you.”

“Anyone’s?”

“You have to be confident. You have to picture it. You have to believe it. But yeah. Anyone’s. Now can we get some pizza? Adam’s a f**king diva when he’s hungry.”

She let out a breath, marveling over what she’d just done, more than a little desperate to believe. It’d been a long time since she hadn’t worried about the shadows and the boogeyman. She thought she was good at hiding it but apparently not. She’d seen the look Adam and Dell had exchanged. It wasn’t a new look, she saw it every time they dealt with a hurt or abused animal. It was their protect-theinnocent-animal look.

She hated that she was the hurt animal. Hated.

At least they hadn’t pressed her to talk about it, hadn’t called her out on her undeniably odd and peculiar behavior—at least not really—and for that, she’d been eternally grateful.

But she was pretty sure her pass was over.

“There are more moves, Jade,” Dell said. “I can show you how to break the hold if you’re grabbed from the front, too, and lots of other self-defense tactics.”

The power of that surged through her and overcame her embarrassment and shame. “Really?”

“Sure. After a couple of months of practice, you’ll be in lean, mean fighting-machine shape.”

A couple of months . . . “Dell. I’ve told you, I’m leaving at the end of the month.”

His expression didn’t change. “You’ve said that before and not gone back.”

Oh God. Is that what he believed? That she wasn’t leaving? “This time I am. I have to.”

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Fine. You still have a month.” His face was still calm. Controlled. “We’ll make it work.”

Nine

Once again Dell rolled out of bed before dawn. He showered and headed out. Way out, passing through Sunshine, past Belle Haven and into the hills.

She was leaving. By the time the first snow hit, Jade would be gone. He felt more for her than he wanted, way more, so it was just as well that she was leaving.

Shaking his head at that ridiculous logic, he kept driving. Forty-five minutes later and light-years away from anything remotely resembling a town, he pulled to a stop. He got out of his truck, waving some of the dust away from his face. The road out here was always a dust storm, every single time. Grabbing his bag, he headed toward the double-wide.

The trailer had been here for as long as he could remember, sitting square on thirty acres of absolutely nothing.

He came every week. Nila didn’t ask him to. She wouldn’t.

But he came, anyway.

He couldn’t explain why. Adam thought he was crazy, but he never said a word about it.

He didn’t have to. Dell already knew it was stupid and pathetic.

But still he came. As he reached out to knock on the door, it opened and she stood there in ragged jeans, an old sweatshirt, and no shoes. Her long black hair was streaked with gray now and plaited in a single braid down her back. Her eyes were black and gave little away.

Dell got his eyes from her.

She didn’t smile, she never did, but he could tell she was relieved to see him as she stepped aside to make room for him.

Waiting there, lined up on the narrow orange and brown trailer couch, were others: two women, an old man, a teenager, and two younger children—all with an animal at their feet or in their laps.

Dr. Doolittle time.

Nila handed Dell a cup of coffee, not meeting his eyes. She never did. He accepted the coffee and moved to the small Formica table, opening his bag, pulling out his laptop. This was an unofficial visit, it always was, but he still kept records as well as he could. “Who’s first?”

The youngest, a girl who couldn’t be more than five, stood up, a tiny kitten clutched in her hands as bedraggled as the little girl.

And Dell’s day began.

Two nights later, Jade walked up to the front door of Dell’s house, not quite sure if she was excited or nervous.

Both, she decided.

Definitely both.

The other evening, when he’d grabbed her from behind . . . she’d thought she’d expire on the spot from fear and panic. But then he’d shown her how to break free of the hold.

She went to the occasional yoga and Pilates classes, but that was about it for her. She’d never done martial arts or self-defense, but Dell was a big guy and she’d broken free from him.

Crazy as it seemed, it had given her hope. And she’d followed the scent of that hope all the way here.

She’d been to Dell’s house before. They all played poker every few weeks, usually in his dining room. But she’d never come alone, and she might not have now either but he’d been asking for two days and . . .

And she was curious. And afraid. And . . . and he opened the door wearing black workout shorts and a T-shirt that was wet and clinging to his torso.

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